Two Aspects of Power: Consciousness and Physical Force

Left: A Freedmen’s school, a place of learning established by New Afrikans who had escaped the slave-system in the south of the united states. Right: a mob of euro-americans burns a Freedmen’s school to the ground.

It is necessary, first, to overcome the opposition between a physicalist vision of the social world that conceives of social relations as relations of physical force and a “cybernetic” or semiological vision which portrays them as relations of symbolic force, as relations of meaning or relations of communication. The most brutal relations of force are always simultaneously symbolic relations. And acts of submission and obedience are cognitive acts which as such involve cognitive structures, forms and categories of perception, principles of vision and division. Social agents construct the social world through cognitive structures that may be applied to all things of the world and in particular to social structures… (Pierre Bourdieu, Rethinking the State: Genesis and Structure of the Bureaucratic Field)

War in its literal meaning is fighting, for fighting alone is the efficient principle in the manifold activity which in a wide sense is called War. But fighting is a trial of strength of the moral and physical forces by means of the latter. That the moral cannot be omitted is evident of itself, for the condition of the mind has always the most decisive influence on the forces employed in War. (Clausewitz, On War)

… colonialism is a comprehensive system, operating on all social levels (economic, political, cultural), and is not a mere expression of military aggression, i.e., “violence” in physical forms.
In most cases, colonial violence in armed/physical forms is preceded by unarmed and nonphysical forms of aggression, in the guise of traders, academics, missionaries—who seek not only to lay hold of the land and labor of the peoples, but also to lay hold of their minds, their customs, and their languages. These violent actions suppress, distort, injure, frustrate, infringe, profane and unduly alter the targeted peoples and their social orders, and cripple the people’s ability to resist and to regain their independence! (James Yaki Sayles, Meditations on Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth: New Afrikan Revolutionary Writings, p. 199)

The above passages are all getting at the dual nature of power and counterpower. Despite the differences between the authors — a 20th century French Marxist philosopher, a 19th century German military theorist, and a leading member of the Black Liberation Army-Coordinating Committee who passed away in 2008 after spending most of his life in prison — they are all really touching on the same thing. The fact that liberation and oppression each exist physically and on the level of consciousness.

Ignoring this duality dooms us to failure.

The above passages also parallel the distinction between a “war of position” and a “war of maneuver” made by the Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci, who was persecuted by fascists under Mussolini. The war of position being about winning over people and accumulating forces, the war of maneuver about actually attacking the enemy and seizing power.

Gramsci’s ideas are often interpreted in a very conservative way, to argue that the time is not right for physical confrontation – be in in the form of a Black Bloc, a blockade, or armed attacks – because the war of position has not yet been won, i.e. because radicals do not yet enjoy enough popular support. According to this argument, the war for consciousness and social power must precede the latter physical conflict, a proposition that i am not sure is in line with Gramsci’s actual thought on the matter.

But even if one holds that the “war of maneuver” should only commence once radicals enjoy popular support, this conservative interpretation ignores the fact that physical activity, including violence, constitutes a necessary part of the “war of position”. Just as power exists and can coerce through both physical force and the force of people’s consciousness, the process of negating oppression must proceed both on the level of physical force and on the level of consciousness.

Indeed, according to many practitioners of armed struggle, the goal of physical attacks is not to be found in the material damage done, but in the changes in consciousness that they can occasion. For instance, as the Red Army Faction put it:

The propaganda target of anti-imperialist action is the dialectical relationship between being and consciousness, because the masses’ loyalty to the system is based on their accepting its pretty exterior, its promises, and its lies. Their loyalty to the system is based on its capacity to discourage all spontaneity in its quest to completely assimilate the masses into the “the silent bondage of the relationship” (Marx), which it forces the masses to accept as if it were only natural. Anti-imperialist action rips apart the system’s facade and manipulation, along with the loyalty of the masses, and forces it to admit the truth, about which the masses say, as always, “This is not what we wanted.” (RAF, The Black September Action in Munich: Regarding the struggle for Anti-Imperialist Struggle)

Although perhaps overly optimistic, this is clearly a strategy of intervening on the level of consciousness.

The dual material/symbolic nature of power is also one reason why political insurgencies can only ever be defeated politically. A military defeat will constitute a political challenge, and one that the insurgency may not be capable of overcoming, but in and of itself it cannot put an end to an insurgency. Likewise, a successful military operation will constitute a political opportunity, but one that can be bungled – bad political content or lack of follow-up can transform any military victory into a critical defeat.

Keeping in mind the dual nature of power, of oppression and liberation, is essential to our ability to decide what course of action is called for, and how best to respond to the circumstances around us.


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