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Putting Hardcore Activism to Work for You

Henrique C. de Olivera / Flickr

In the wake of the Charlottesville rally, where DSA and IWW organizer Heather Heyer was killed in a hit-and-run by a white nationalist, people are asking themselves how exactly America got to streetfighting and vehicular homicide. The answer involves one of the most important ideas I’ve come across in my reading of lefty organization manuals: the concept of a hardcore.

In his excellent book Hegemony How-To, radical lefty organizer Jonathan Smucker cites some illuminating examples. He had his own hardcore experience with religious peaceniks in the Plowshares movement, where disruptive protest was cool, and getting arrested was even cooler. The coolest thing you could ever possibly do was to break into a military base and take a hammer to an F-16. Obviously, this created a perverse incentive for plowsharers: to be among the coolest and most respected people in their movement — to be hardcore — you had to go out and earn yourself some serious federal time.

Smucker realized that was pretty dumb.

So why would people do it? Well, it isn’t an aspect of politics that’s often talked about, but for a number of people being hardcore is a substantial draw. Polite participation in politics isn’t enough for everybody. Many people want a more intense experience. They want to feel hardcore, they want to be hardcore, and if they can’t do that in your movement, they’ll go somewhere else in search of it.

If you’re organizing a political movement, you have two tasks:

  • You have to provide an option for a hardcore experience.
  • You have to define hardcore carefully. Don’t let hardcore equal stupid.

This took me some time to wrap my brain around. As a boring person, I’ve never been particularly interested in being hardcore. But once I started thinking about it, I began to realize that the mainstream right’s deficiency in hardcore opportunities is a failure. My fellow mainstream righties will immediately object that violence is bad, stupid, and countereffective, and that’s true — but that’s not what hardcore is. Fringe righties make the same mistake in terms of equating hardcore with violence: as the radical libertarian writer Claire Wolfe famously put it, “America is at that awkward stage. It’s too late to work within the system, but too early to shoot the bastards.” Wolfe’s line is actually a terrific summation of the right-wing attitude, for mainstreamers and radicals alike. Righties view direct action as a binary, like it’s a light switch. Either they’re sitting around at home or they’re bringing down the gubmint. Anything in the middle is uncomfortable and awkward.

Lefties live in the awkward.

For the left, direct action isn’t an on-off light switch; it’s a dimmer, sometimes low, sometimes bright. As a result, lefties get more practice with direct action, and have more options. Their organizing insights are meaningful, and important, particularly on the topic of hardcore.

One of the big principles of lefty organizing I keep encountering from different authors is that you have to remember the people you’re attempting to organize are different people. They have different attitudes and different capabilities for performing actions, enduring hardship, and — importantly — for being hardcore. Sometimes this is about resources (e.g., a radical rich kid can do a month in jail with no problem, a radical single mom with a job and three kids can’t) but it’s also about personality. Not everybody is like you. Not everybody has to be.

Lefties address this by providing different levels of opportunity and activity, many of which, including the hardcore, are accessible to normal people. I don’t know what lefties call this, but I call it “mainstream hardcore.” And it’s essential. The lefties certainly seem to think so: they’re incorporating more and more of it these days.

What does mainstream hardcore look like? Jonathan Smucker provides an excellent example when he contrasts the radical actions of Weatherman, aka the Weather Underground, with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “snick”). Weatherman ran a terrorist bombing campaign. SNCC ran a civil rights campaign. Both provided a hardcore experience for their people. But they were very different organizations, and not only from a moral perspective.

To build Weatherman, its leaders took over the nationwide leftist student organization Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and basically set it on fire until the only people left were the absolute fanatics. Not really a welcoming situation for joiners. But SNCC went the other way. One of the things SNCC is most famous for is the coalition behind “Freedom Summer.” In 1964, SNCC oversaw a campaign in the South to register poor black voters, and SNCC weren’t just open to white kids at Northern colleges supporting them. They bused a ton of them down to help. Bear in mind: this is at a time when segregation is legal, southerners are hostile, cops are famously brutal, and movement organizers are getting straight-up murdered. That’s hardcore!

What Smucker leaves out, I think, is the crucial bit: the hardcore SNCC provided is hardcore that normal people are willing to do.

The distinction between Weatherman’s hardcore and SNCC’s isn’t just smart vs. stupid. It’s radical vs. mainstream. Mainstream people aren’t willing to go out and set terrorist bombs like Weatherman, not just because they don’t want to hurt anybody, but because that’s not the sort of thing normal people do. The opportunity for hardcore that SNCC provided, while disruptive, unconventional, and against the status quo, was also something that mainstream people were willing and able to participate in without compromising their own concept of their identity.

If you think about hardcore in that light, you suddenly realize that lefties have ridiculously broad options for mainstream hardcore. Lefties can go camp out in South Dakota to block a pipeline, join a mob occupying government buildings, get on a kayak and join a fleet blocking an oil tanker from offloading, go for a mass bike ride that hopelessly snarls traffic. Or, you know, just stand up and shout down a Righty speaker. By contrast, what do mainstream righties who want a hardcore experience do? Join the military; that’s hardcore. If you’re a Mormon, going on mission is hardcore.  But for a righty who wants to do something hardcore that affects domestic politics?

Crickets.

If you’re wondering, that’s why there’s an opening for Based Stickman.

Existing righty groups networking college students could have organized those students to peacefully disrupt lefty speakers to counter lefties’ unanswered disruptions of righty speakers. They didn’t. Of course they didn’t: for righty organizations, college students aren’t partners. They’re a resource to be exploited — free labor for campaigns, interns for projects, a path to speaking fees if you’re lucky. Why waste time doing anything that would make a material improvement in those college students’ lives?

The answer: because if you don’t, that leaves a vacuum, and the nature of vacuums is to be filled.

The failure of the mainstream right to offer a hardcore option means that other people have the opportunity to show value, by providing a hardcore option that is mainstream-friendly and offers a meaningful experience for the participants. There are three kinds of people who have the opportunity to cash in on this: the young and hungry, the radicals, and the grifters. To date, only the radicals and grifters have shown up.

The grifters aren’t particularly interesting — they tend to be mainly concerned with keeping the racket going, so they’ll eventually be bought out. That means that the people who face real challenges at this point are the mainstreamers and the radicals. And at this point, the radicals are farther along the path. That’s bad news for the mainstream, and requires action to correct.

The reason the mainstream is behind is that the mainstream still has to overcome its aversion to providing a hardcore option. Radicals don’t have a problem with this part — radicals like being hardcore; that’s why they’re radicals — so they’re facing the next challenge: channeling their people into productive hardcore. Defining hardcore carefully, not letting it equal stupid. But radicals are not, by nature, inclined to be careful at this. Productive hardcore requires discipline, training, and above all careful management of people. These are all things that the radical right vocally admires but has never actually been any good at. The left takes care to know their people: who’s capable, who’s acceptable, and who’s garbage. They keep a watchful eye on people who randomly show up. There’s no magic to this, but it requires organization and hard work.

The mainstream will face the same challenge with productive hardcore, too. But for radicals it’s harder. It only takes one person to fall to stupid hardcore. And stupid hardcore is seductive. It hurts real people, damages radical movements, harms mainstream movements, and makes mainstreamers keep their distance from radicals. But radicals are still drawn to it, to the point that multiple Plowshares activists willingly sacrificed their freedom in exchange for the pleasure of a few minutes of taking a hammer to an F-16.

Such a trade may seem bizarre, but the process should be familiar to anyone who’s spent much time observing politics. Escalating hardcore is the physical manifestation of a purity spiral, an ideological winnowing that leads the most extreme version of the shared ideology to become the only acceptable one. Purity spirals happen to groups espousing all sorts of ideologies; neither they, nor hardcore spirals, lead anywhere productive.

Jonathan Smucker blames such spirals on what he calls “the political identity paradox”: the stronger a group’s internal identity is, the more that group becomes alienated from society and even from ostensible allies. Often, this alienation leads to group members prioritizing their group’s internal life over its external accomplishments, to the point that they’ll take (possibly dumb) external actions to produce a pleasing internal effect. They may even do intentionally off-putting things as social grooming in order to keep normies out, taking solace in their righteousness as acceptable compensation for failing to produce meaningful change in the real world. They glorify the consequences of pointless or harmful actions as “sacrifice for the cause,” but skip over the unpleasant consideration of whether or not the sacrifice actually accomplishes anything. As Smucker stresses: sacrifice for a cause is a cost incurred to achieve a benefit. Without the benefit, sacrifice is stupid.

These are the kinds of things righties, radical and mainstream alike, need to think about. As the left has learned from hard experience, stupid hardcore doesn’t have to be widespread to do incredible damage to its host movement and to society at large.

One technique lefty groups use to counter the political identity paradox and keep the focus on producing effective change is called “spectrum of allies analysis.” Written up admirably by Joshua Kahn Russell as one of his contributions to the edited volume Beautiful Trouble, spectrum of allies analysis goes back to at least the civil rights movement, where it was used to plan SNCC’s Freedom Summer.

The basic idea behind spectrum of allies analysis is that you write down a list of all the groups and factions relevant to whatever it is you’re doing, and then classify them. There are five classifications: active ally, passive ally, neutral, passive opponent, and active opponent. Active allies are on your side, and fight alongside you.  Passive allies are on your side, but don’t fight alongside you. Neutrals don’t fight for or against you, and may not even know you exist. Passive opponents are not on your side, but don’t fight against you. Active opponents are not on your side and are fighting against you.

Once you’ve figured out who stands where in relation to you in the spectrum of allies, your goal is to nudge people one position closer to your side, and away from your active opponents. You want to make passive allies into active allies, make neutrals into passive allies, and so forth. To do so, engage your active allies, motivate your passive ones, and educate your neutrals without alienating them. For passive opponents, the idea is to make them worry that their position of opposition will provide a material cost, and that a neutral stance would more profitable — but if you use the wrong tactics, you may push them not to neutrality but toward active opposition. The same applies to active opponents; there the principal is, if you can’t render them passive, isolate them.

The flip side of this, and it’s crucial: you want to avoid pushing people away from you. Be aware of what would alienate passive allies, neutrals, and passive opponents: you don’t want them to move away from you and toward your enemy’s camp. What you want is for your enemy to alienate their passive allies and neutrals, and motivate their passive opponents into action. That, not pummelling your enemies in the street, is what damages their movement.

The persistence of a hardcore is an important element of human group dynamics. But people have to be careful about how they use it. Purity spirals involving ideology are pathetic; spirals involving action are dangerous. Hardcore isn’t about Grand Guignol. It’s not about internal grooming, and it’s not about not caring what other people think. Hardcore is a means of affecting what other people think. It can be smart or stupid. Write it off if you want, but that’s lazy thinking — as lazy as hoping that, if you only denounce its use, the people using it will stop.