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Raise the social cost: an important strategic concept

“No justice, No peace”

In the late 1960s, McGeorge Bundy, who had been the national security adviser to Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, in a debate at MIT, said he had turned against the Vietnam War. Bundy said he now favored US withdrawal from Vietnam not because the US war was immoral or wrong or not in US “interests,” but because college students, including at elite schools, were becoming radicalized.

Rather than becoming government officials and administrators or corporate managers, students were rejecting these future possibilities. Instead they were becoming revolutionaries who wanted to overthrow and transform the US economic and social system. McGeorge Bundy, a faithful servant of the ruling class, was in essence admitting that the social costs of pursuing the Vietnam War had become too high—it was weakening the stability and reproduction of the US empire and domestic rule.

Raising the social cost is an important aspect of a strategy of building power from below and winning demands.

Bundy’s fear was that the war was causing the growth of a radical and activist left in the United States. This group’s commitment to ending the Vietnam War, to ending racism and capitalism by any means necessary, posed a social cost greater than continuing the war.

This is the essence of the concept of raising the social cost and the belief by many from the 1960s to the present of the value of militant actions that go beyond what is legal and peaceful. The politics of “No business as usual” or interrupting the normal day-to-day functioning of capitalism is consistent with this idea of raising the social cost.

Today in the Black Lives Matter-led movement, there are examples of various militant tactics. These include but are not limited to: fighting back against police and right-wing militias, painting graffiti, taking down or destroying racist monuments, constructing barricades and occupying public spaces including streets and freeways. Breaking windows of financial institutions and major corporations and stores such as Starbucks and Amazon have also been frequent. The reasonable belief is that this will raise the social cost by increasingly legitimizing these actions, grow the number of participants involved and lead to the spread of these actions throughout the US and beyond.

The hope is that others previously uninvolved will support and get involved in social movements and actions that go beyond asking for very limited reforms; that the boldness and commitment demonstrated will appeal to growing numbers, especially young people. Individuals and movements that have broken with the ideology that “there is no alternative to neoliberalism” (TINA) are acting on the belief that there is a liberatory alternative to racial capitalism and raising social cost is central to that belief.

I’ve observed that the concept of raising the social cost has motivated, sometimes consciously and more often, less explicitly, acts of resistance from the Occupy Wall Street Movement of 2011 to the Black Lives Matter Movement today. This is often expressed by the slogan, “No Justice, No Peace”.

Raising the social cost is an important aspect of a strategy of building power from below and winning demands. One danger is that partly as a result of more militant actions, there can be increased government infiltration and public support for “law and order” and repression. An example of ongoing federal government response is the Trump Administration’s recent dispatch of Homeland Security and other paramilitary type forces to Portland, OR, without any identification.

They violently attacked demonstrators with tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper spray, causing a few serious injuries. They snatched demonstrators off the streets and forced them into unmarked vans. So far this police-state tactic has backfired as thousands of all ages have joined nightly protests in solidarity with those being attacked. Rather than being intimidated, people are taking a strong stand in the streets against Trump’s overtly authoritarian behavior. Gaining support from less militant people and those concerned about civil liberties provides some protection and also raises the social cost to the government of repression and infiltration.

Direct action that goes beyond what is legal is only one part of a strategy in this period to win key demands. These range from demilitarizing, disarming and defunding the police to single payer health care for all, including undocumented immigrants, abolishing ICE, a Green New Deal, reparations and releasing prisoners, etc.

Popular education, rallies, demonstrations, building organizations and institutions, and ongoing campaigns are central to a many-pronged strategy. We definitely need more political-economic analysis, more organization with wide-spread and ongoing campaigns around these demands.

Actions that go beyond what is legal will always alienate those who are opposed to significant and positive changes in the system of racial capitalism, but also some allies. This cannot be avoided. However, if our actions are not clearly understandable to those who sincerely want major reforms and our targets are not seen to be complicit in major ways with ongoing police violence, we do not raise the social cost and well-intentioned actions can even be counterproductive.

We should aim to minimize disruption in the lives of people we are trying to win over and focus on disrupting major institutions that uphold a racist capitalist society. There is more public support for occupation of public space or blocking entry to a police station or a major corporation or doing political art on business and government property, or direct action such as wildcat strikes by essential workers than there is for damaging property—breaking windows in banks, corporations or city hall.

In downtown Olympia, WA, the city closed and fenced off the Artesian Well park, a place where street people and the houseless gathered, as part of a plan for gentrification. Since the murder of George Floyd, people participating in daily actions in Olympia cut the chains and fences to temporarily reopen the park. Many non-protestors supported this action and considered it legitimate, even though city property was damaged.

When rocks are thrown through the windows of a police station, city hall or major bank, it has often evoked a similar reaction. Relevant graffiti is usually supported by our potential base. So are loud demonstrations at jails or immigrant detention centers, often called noise demonstrations, even if protesters are trespassing.

On the other hand, breaking the windows of small businesses, even if they indirectly contribute to gentrification, legitimizes the police to many and does not help grow the movement to defund or abolish the police. Such actions do not raise the social cost to those in power. Social cost is sometimes understood as the economic cost—the dollars and cents cost of replacing windows, but this is a mistake.

At same time, although I disagree with breaking windows of businesses, especially small and local businesses, I oppose condemning protesters who break a few windows. Many are young and angry, multiracial and of many genders, poor and working class. They are rebelling against racist police violence and an economic and social system where they see no future for themselves and their friends because of climate change and the limited possibility of decent jobs.

We should reach out and listen before we criticize some of their actions. These direct-action resistors have the potential to become—or they already are—an important part of social movements and organizations that demand a better world.

Peter Bohmer has been an activist for economic, racial and global justice since the late 1960s. He is a member of the community educational group, Economics for Everyone, and taught Political Economy at TESC since 1987.

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