Voyou Désœuvré

Given the amount of time spent discussing the handful of bank windows smashed during Wednesday’s Oakland general strike, you might imagine that many people care about property damage; and yet, if you look for such people, who are they? Liberals complain about property damage during the various marches and actions, but they’re quick to add that it is not they themselves who are disturbed or offended; rather, they are concerned about the effect this property damage will have on others, particularly the cops who will react violently and the media who will focus on images of destruction to the exclusion of whatever else the demonstration achieved. The liberal’s position here is perverse in the Lacanian sense: it expresses itself not as an actual desire, but as a desire to be the instrument of the desire of some fantasized other. Part of what supports this disavowed desire is that the objection to property damage can present itself as neutral, even expert, strategic advice. It’s bad strategic advice, though, and I think in a revealing way.

The supposed strategic advice is based on the idea that, if we act in certain ways, the media and police will react in particular ways. But the media has a bunch of structures around which they build stories, and they will slot the actual events into these structures as they see fit; so, whatever the the most militant or photogenic action of the day happens to be gets wedged into the “outrage” slot, if the script calls for an outrage, and whether that particular outrage is property damage or something else is basically irrelevant. As reclaimuc put it on Twitter, “the media will always be terrible, no matter what we do.” This is even more true of the idea that property damage “provokes” the police, which really badly misunderstands the way in which public order policing works. Police responses are not, in general, decided by individual police witnessing specific events, but by senior police and political leaders deciding how to deal with the protest as a whole. If the police attack protestors, it’s because they’ve decided to attack protestors, not because of anything the protestors did (this is also why worrying about police infiltrators is usually pointless; police may use provocateurs to stage-manage their intervention, but the form of their intervention is decided in advance and is independent of what either protestors or provocateurs do).

In both cases, the liberal position is based around a belief that we can control how we are perceived, and how the state (and its ideological apparatuses like the media) will respond to us. Or actually this could be put more strongly: the criticism reveals the liberal’s desperate need to be in control. The fact that protestors have very limited ability to prevent state crackdowns, and certainly individual protestors can do almost nothing, is scary, and it conflicts with deeply held liberal beliefs about how the state works, and how protesting can change it.


  1. voyou (Voyou Désœuvré), 8:31 am, November 4, 2011

    No-one cares about property damage: http://t.co/hUhHm15C #occupyoakland #ows #psychoanalyzeliberalism

  2. Nov 2nd Day of Action Links « zunguzungu, 11:00 am, November 4, 2011

    […] No-​one cares about prop­erty damage by Voyou […]

  3. Steven, 11:25 am, November 4, 2011

    A few counter arguments:

    1. Vandalism extended to more than just a “handful of bank windows”. The Rite-Aid is covered in graffiti. The new clothing/coffee spot (locally owned) on Broadway had a window broken.

    2. People’s anger has nothing to do with Lacan. Downtown Oakland is in the midst of redevelopment process that could bring thousands of jobs to Oakland (that’s what people want, right?). Every time a business is the victim of destruction, it’s like a direct hit on the efforts bring businesses and tax dollars into Oakland. We need those things to get better schools and roads.

    3. Destroying public property wastes money. People who don’t like to see their city trashed often would prefer that money be spent on fixing our parks, schools, roads, and other infrastructure.

  4. Louis Proyect, 1:07 pm, November 4, 2011

    Great. Just what the world has been waiting for. Lacanian drivel on behalf of agent provocateurs.

  5. footwords (danny marcus), 4:48 pm, November 4, 2011

    “If the police attack protestors, it’s because they’ve decided to attack protestors”

  6. ParisHasLazyEye (irrelevant ), 5:03 pm, November 4, 2011

    “@voyou: No-one cares about property damage: http://t.co/kKpnO2xX #occupyoakland #ows #psychoanalyzeliberalism” well put

  7. allblood (JB), 5:08 pm, November 4, 2011

    #occupyoakland http://t.co/o8W3ps4r

  8. allblood (JB), 5:10 pm, November 4, 2011

    @Audaces_Iuvat please read this http://t.co/o8W3ps4r

  9. spukkin, 5:12 pm, November 4, 2011

    i care about property damage.

    at least one small business was badly damaged in downtown oakland, Tully’s coffee which had been supportive of the occupation. And $20,000 worth of windows on public buildings were destroyed. whoever broke those was basically pissing on the poor and middle class workers that pay taxes in Oakland. without their support, this movement is dead in the water. and those little jerks in black uniforms will have to go find somewhere else to play.

    these pseudo-intellectual justifications for smashing windows sure are getting boring.

  10. shane_danger (shane danger), 5:29 pm, November 4, 2011

    No-​one cares about prop­erty damage http://t.co/ZLTNDHgR #anarchy

  11. WilbotOsterman (Wilbot Osterman), 5:35 pm, November 4, 2011

    @civicresistance But this piece is a quick, interesting response to yr arguments about ‘making the movement look bad’: http://t.co/7jUMRcha

  12. voyou, 5:57 pm, November 4, 2011

    But spukkin, you’re doing precisely what I talk about in the post, complaining on behalf of somebody else: Tully’s Coffee (which isn’t a small business, BTW, although I don’t think that’s particularly relevant), and “poor and middle class workers that pay taxes in Oakland.” Have the people who work at Tully’s stopped supporting Occupy Oakland? Have working class people in Oakland stopped supporting Occupy Oakland? I don’t see any evidence that they have.

  13. Ray du Monde, 6:52 pm, November 4, 2011

    I agree with spukkin’s comment. You aren’t accomplishing anything with this pseudo-intellectual babble; you’re just making selfish excuses for idiotic behavior that does actual harm to other people.

    One of the windshields that was broken was a car that belonged to one of the women who clean the building at 300 Frank Ogawa Plaza. A cleaning woman’s car! Are these the people you want to go after? She said it would cost her a week’s pay to get it fixed, and it’s not worth claiming on her insurance. I suppose in the anarchists’ utopia she wouldn’t be working for the Man and she’d have a better life, but the idiots who broke her windshield weren’t making anyone’s life better. Several people who work in the building were locked inside, terrified, and couldn’t go home to their families.

    The author, voyou, asks, “Have the people who work at Tully’s stopped supporting Occupy Oakland? Have working class people in Oakland stopped supporting Occupy Oakland? I don’t see any evidence that they have.” These questions don’t mean anything. What did it accomplish? I don’t see any evidence here to suggest you’re interested in supporting the Occupy Oakland protesters. I just hear you advocating for people to break windows.

  14. reclaimuc (reclaim UC), 9:47 pm, November 4, 2011

    @maigesheng what is “the public”? you should check out @voyou‘s piece: http://t.co/sl2pGsYJ

  15. KEBABTRAUME (asad), 12:52 am, November 5, 2011

    http://t.co/IYVhSUDc by @voyou // perhaps people-who-don’t-care think that people-who-care are irrelevant, but clearly some people do care.

  16. shag, 5:21 am, November 5, 2011

    I think the speaking for bizzo is not irrelevant, but i think more to the point is that people who are saying this are almost always worrying about what to say to their neighbors, friends, family, co-workers. “Oh man, it’s hard enough defending my views at work and now those punks go and do this. Jeez!”

    But there is another issue that should probably be explored.

    That the costs born by businesses by the shut down are almost certainly higher than the cost of a broken window.

    There are certainly plenty of ways to explain why it’s OK to force businesses to take a haircut on profits for a couple of days – it’s our damn lives with which they’ve lined their fat wallets! — but somehow raising a fist to smash a window and put a slight dent in profits is objectionable.

    It’s not that there’s hypocrisy here, only that the contradiction points at what goes unexplored. For liberals and progressives, it’s because they really aren’t interested in ending capitalism. For radicals, though, I haven’t been able to figure out a way to explain it. Possibly, it has to do with having to explain what’s going on to friends, etc and having to defend Occupations against disingenuous whines where someone says, “sure, i’d be on their side if they just wouoldn’t break windows.” Which is usually not true.

    For others, maybe, it’s about building a movement in which, while you acknowledge there is a time and place for violence – for how do we every take over a state or end capitalism without it? — it’s important not to ruin things now. I mean, if the naive babes marching with us were to find out what we have in store for them – revolution! – they’d never sign on now.

    “shhhhhh. Once we’ve got ’em on board, they’ll eventually come to see the light. Just don’t say anything now.”

    No idea, but it would be an interesting conversation. I mean, is to bring up the whole idea of “strike” to shut down business and make them suffer just something people don’t want to talk about right now coz it’s too early in the game?

    It’s an interesting issue, too, in so far as there’s rage against people something with property that you shouldn’t do. wanton destruction of it, not putting it to good use, is a big taboo in our (and many other societies). Preventing an entity from acquiring more property once they have plenty isn’t a problem.

  17. Owen Hatherley, 5:29 am, November 5, 2011

    Seriously, people, learn to read. This is not a piece of writing advocating smashing windows, it’s a piece advocating that liberals stop assuming that the media or the police’s actions are determined by the smashing of windows, and stop speaking on behalf of others who are supposed to care (which a fair few commenters have done already, nice work).

    There’s good reasons to oppose window-smashing – as pointless, macho acting-out, for one – but the likely reaction of the media or the police is not one of them, for reasons outlined here with great clarity. Or when someone writes the word ‘Lacanian’, do fairly straightforward sentences suddenly become ‘psuedo-intellectual babble’?

  18. StrawManLiberal, 5:34 am, November 5, 2011

    I don’t particularly care about the bank windows, although the people who smashed the laundromat windows, or that realty nearby, are pretty silly. I’m certain that the system is quaking in its boots now!

    More to the point, it obviously *is* possible to have an influence on how the media portrays the movement. Before the Wednesday evening events (the flaming barricades, the building occupation, etc) the media story was all about the port action. It was a story of a very successful and perhaps even historic mass action, because that was the story we gave them. I know this because I read the coverage before I went to bed. When I woke, up the story had dramatically changed. Not because “the media” got back to its nefarious ways like the homogeneous predictable monster that it is, but because new events had occurred which gave them a different story they could focus on. And for good or for ill, it was people’s actions in the streets that did that.

    What worries me most about this line of argument — and makes me mistrust the people who find it persuasive — is that while your account of “the liberal” is desperate to be in power, virtually the opposite seems to be true of you: you want to disavow any power or agency at all. Which is immediately attractive because it makes everything very simple and uncomplicated. There are liberals who do actually think the way you describe — even if you’re still using that patronizing diagnosis as a mode of othering — there are at least as many radicals whose refusal to accept the consequences of their actions forces them to imagine that their actions have no consequences. Yourself, for example, or so this post certainly seems to suggest. Since the media will do what the media will do, tactical considerations like how the actions of a few hundred people on Wednesday overshadowed the actions of tens of thousands — the way a couple hundred grabbed hold of the media narrative and reshaped to their own ends — doesn’t have to emerge as the thorny problem it really is. We’ve already written off the media as a thing that we need to worry about, and thus emerge blissfully worry-free into the field of action, where everything we do is righteous and good.

    In the same way, the belief that protester actions have nothing to do with how the police act is also a nice way of making things easy on yourself. Of course we can do without the “provoked the police” narrative, which treats the police as neutral and blames the victim of violence for that violence, but the idea that how protesters behave has *nothing* to do with how the police respond is utterly simpleminded. Police commanders make decisions about what to do based on how they perceive events, and while we have no control over the kinds of warped perceptions they have, we actually have a lot of control over the “events” they’re perceiving; do you really think police commanders just wake up one day and decided to attack protesters in the abstract? Obviously they decide how much violence to use based on their calculus of the political cost and benefit, a cost and benefit that has the media at its center. But you’d rather disavow that power — rather not bother with using the media as a shield — because figuring out how to use it would involve discipline and organization and planning and work. And pretending you don’t have any power allows everything that was done to be blameless and without consequence, even something as pointless as building flaming barricades in the middle of broadway. That was a mistake; it may have been an understandable mistake — and it is human to make mistakes — but it fucked things up in multiple ways, and refusing to think about that (refusing to reconsider your tactics because you refuse to admit you have any power you need be responsible for) is juvenile and disappointing. Like smashing the windows of a laundromat, setting fires in the street served no purpose but to help people get jazzed on their own power in the moment, and it had the very concrete effect of overshadowing and dumping all over the incredible media narrative that tens of thousands of people in the port had created.

  19. Rue, 6:26 pm, November 5, 2011

    I believe in smashing windows. If the protesters had torn the bank to pieces and burnt all the money inside, I would have believed in that, too. If an entire system is destructive, then that system needs to be destroyed. Not just in theory, but in practice. Which might mean that along with the parasitic, “capitalist” oligarchic system, a few windows get shattered.

    Who cares what people say around the watercooler? What watercooler? What people? Everyone is a 1099er at best, looking over their shoulder as they count out their nickels at the 7-Eleven, feeling guilty because they can’t *really* afford those Funyuns.

    The media? You mean Nancy Grace, busy badgering whoever she can about dead babies? Anderson Cooper, doing impressions of a 17-year-old celebrity bride?

    No, I don’t care about property damage. I say we should damage much more.

    And we should stop hoping everyone will love us/approve despite our (unsightly, quirky) dissatisfaction. They won’t. It’s not in their interest to. Who cares?

  20. skip, 8:17 pm, November 5, 2011

    “More to the point, it obviously *is* possible to have an influence on how the media portrays the movement.”

    But who cares how the media portrays it? Not me–I won’t have my opinion swayed by bad coverage on CNN–and not you, I’m assuming. So we’re back to the imaginary third party, who would have been part of the Occupation if only we’d purged the Black Bloc, but who now can’t see past the bad coverage. Who are these people? Where do they live? What kind of a person is both a potential participant AND someone who writes off entire social movements if they look scary on TV?

  21. Why do we riot? An open letter to my friends in the black bloc. « Oakland Love, 8:23 pm, November 5, 2011

    […] finally, it seems so obvious it shouldn’t even require mentioning (although apparently it does require mentioning) that the people who run small businesses in areas where demonstrations take […]

  22. Felix, 8:43 pm, November 5, 2011

    This is a thought provoking piece and it’s worth discussing this issue. But having thought about it a bit, I think it’s wrong.

    I in fact genuinely care about property damage. For my own safety and the safety of my kid, I do not feel I can come to demonstrations where I believe property damage will be a major component (and when it exists, it is automatically a major component), and I feel personally harmed by the smashing of City of Oakland property given the cuts the city is imposing which personally impact me and my family (and which I believe could in some cases be avoided with different priorities but to some degree are inevitable given the very small pot of money the city has at the moment due to federal and larger capitalist policies out of the hands of local administrators). I also feel concern for other people, particularly small shop owners (or franchise managers who function as small shop owners) but I guess empathy for others doesn’t count as “caring” in this rubric.

  23. Peat, 11:37 pm, November 5, 2011

    If you don’t care about media coverage, and you don’t care what others think about you or what you’re trying to do, then why should anyone care about you? What then is the point of anything? Why smash windows or damage property? What exactly are you trying to accomplish? Do people think they are going to create an anarchist society consisting of themselves and their two pals who are the only ones who agree with and understand each other? Why the solipsistic attitude?

    Whenever I ask this to members of the Black Bloc, they can never give me a coherent answer. Smashing windows seems to be nothing more than a cathartic spasm for them. They seem incapable of linking it to any real life accomplishment towards their professed ideals and goals.

  24. StrawManLiberal, 4:51 am, November 6, 2011

    “What kind of a person is both a potential participant AND someone who writes off entire social movements if they look scary on TV?”

    To name only one example, the entire camp runs on donated food, much of it from a few churches. Now, you may not consider churches to be participants if all they do is feed people, but what if they decide that the movement are a bunch of assholes and they don’t want to support them anymore? What if the people in the church who are never going to be active supporters but who weren’t active un-supporters decide to actively object because of what they see on TV? That would be bad for the movement.

    More to the point, the problem with the media coverage is the extent to which it’s *true.* It may be an unrepresentative sample, but if you’re on parole or undocumented, you now know that even the apparently non-violent parts of Occupy Oakland protests are not places where you’re necessarily safe. The line between confrontation and non-confrontational protest is nonexistent *by* *choice*. Participants with children will not come out. If people didn’t want to run the risk of being arrested, they knew the march on the port was a thing not to go to, as it was a well advertised direct action; such people now know that even the general strike is a place where such things happen.

    As Oakland Love put it in the link above:

    “it took my having my own child to recognize that black bloc tactics make the environment totally inaccessible to families with small children. This is not “concern trolling” or liberal handwringing over the theoretical idea of alienating potential allies. This is my real concern as a parent: I don’t feel safe bringing my child to scary, liminal, highly volatile angry spaces where things are being hurled through windows. I think most parents feel the same way. Fucking shit up mid-day during a massive rally that includes a wide-range of people drives away families and I hardly need elaborate the problem with intentionally excluding families from your movement. (And in the case of the Oakland Strike, even the children’s marches felt quite forceful, taking to the street immediately, so cannot be accused of following the arbitrary rules of the status quo.)”

    Set against these sorts of concerns the benefits of issuing a blanket apology for all sorts of property damage: none that I can think of, for the movement. Often smashing windows is completely pointless, counterproductive, and stupid. Pretending that anyone who points that out is some kind of brainwashed “liberal” is just a way of making difficult problems seem simple.

  25. garrett, 1:01 am, November 7, 2011

    There are ways for families to be part of the movement without going to every demonstration. You might start by not taking kids to the center of town for explicitly illegal things like general strikes. But again, you only seem to have privileged middle-class families in mind. Workers in this country in the first half of the 20th century (and workers today in other parts of the world) took their children to far more dangerous demonstrations.

    In the late 1960s, entire black families participated in riots. In the early 60s Martin Luther King encouraged children to march into firehoses and police dogs. Maybe you just don’t think the stakes are as high as they were in the days of segregation. After a few more years of budget cuts, and after someone you know is killed or crippled by the state, I don’t think you’ll feel that way.

  26. Felix, 9:06 am, November 7, 2011

    Hey Garrett, I was responding to the assertion on this blog that no one cares about property damage by stating that I do, in fact, care about property damage and that it is pretty clear that the people having their property damaged also care about it. (And plenty of people who had their property damaged are not people in particular positions of power.) I wasn’t even arguing that anyone else should care about property damage, only pointing out that real people do care and that it really does dissuade real people from participating.

    Re: your other point I think it’s pretty silly to assert that given certain economic or political conditions everyone will inevitably agree with your personal position. You can look to liberation struggles all over the world including here during the particular historical movements you refer to to see that there are always controversies about property damage, armed struggle, non-violence, etc and that people across the spectrum of race and class hold a wide variety of positions on these issues.

    Re: your suggestion that families should have just avoided the general strike, it was billed by the General Assembly as being an event welcoming to families. Hundreds of children were there and in my view that was one of the most wonderful and exciting aspects of the event. We claim to want to create an alternate, better world. In my view, that world should be one where children are welcome. Were we in the midst of an armed struggle against the state, I suppose you could make an argument that some spaces just cannot be “kid friendly” but look around, we’re not in the midst of that armed struggle.

    I happen to know that “anti-capitalist march” is code for “black bloc will be throwing shit through windows” so I knew to avoid that particular march with my kid, but unlike at civil rights marches where participants understood what they were choosing to walk into, not everyone knows what “anti-capitalist” is code for, so people show up not knowing what they’re in for. When you watch video of that march you can see there was plenty of conflict and controversy within the participants re: tactics, and alleging that only privileged people would oppose the black bloc is just silly and can be easily disproved in this case by watching the video of a black man and white woman at Whole Foods trying to stop a mostly white and [I think it’s reasonable to assume primarily male] crowd of black blocers from throwing chairs.

  27. Felix, 9:44 am, November 7, 2011

    (And just to be clear, and I apologize for belaboring and will stop filling up the comments section after this, I felt I could not go to the anti-capitalist march even though I am anti-capitalist and did not go to the Port shutdown because I was afraid/put off by the property damage crowd, have also avoided other demonstrations in the past for the same reason, and have not fully engaged with OO for the same reason, so there are my concrete examples of how property damage and the folks who do it are keeping someone real away from more engagement with the movement.)

  28. Ian Holmes, 6:05 pm, November 7, 2011

    So, it’s not legitimate to “complain on behalf of someone else”, the media will hate on us whatever we do, and therefore any concern about the perception of property damage is misplaced? Including, presumably, the original Occupy organizers, who have been quite specific about avoiding property damage; that’s some Lacanian fantasizing right there, huh? Bunch of idiotic liberals. If only they had organized a theoretical protest instead, using the latest postmodern theory.

    I think your ridiculous position has already been fairly precisely dismantled by other commenters, but probably the most damning comments in this thread come from your (few) supporters. In particular “garrett”, who suggested that parents concerned about bringing kids to these demos were too privileged and insufficiently class-conscious, and should instead aspire to march their children into firehoses and police dogs, because that’s what MLK did. Good grief. I almost wonder if “garrett” is a police provocateur sent over to your blog to reveal the complete incoherence of your argument, but I actually don’t think provocateurs are needed in this case. Your argument is foolish enough as it is.

  29. Ian Holmes, 6:23 pm, November 7, 2011

    For the record: I think property damage concerns can be overblown, but your distortion of this point (into a claim that ANYONE criticizing black bloc tactics, or discussing the reaction of others to said tactics, is a liberal control-freak) is the sort of pseudo-revolutionary waffle that’s so far from common sense or empirical experience that (yes I’ll say it) it could ONLY be justified by a quote from Lacan.

  30. garrett, 6:56 pm, November 7, 2011

    Right, “felix” there’s disagreement about violence, just like there was in the civil rights movement. Malcolm X, until the end of his life, thought nonviolence was idiotic. A lot of black people agreed with him, in fact some in Harlem actually threw eggs at Dr. King in 1963 because they didn’t like the tactics in Birmingham. Ultimately, the two sides agreed to stay out of each others faces. But when ‘nonviolence’ people put their hands on militants and denounce them to the press, they’re reviving this old struggle for control of the movement – a powerplay which threatens to tear it apart.

  31. ianholmes (Ian Holmes), 2:17 am, November 8, 2011

    @bat020 (re Lacanian concern trolls) He takes the liberal strawman a bit far though, doesn’t he? The black bloc is real http://t.co/ukzPmcHk

  32. Louis Proyect, 12:24 pm, November 10, 2011

    The liberal’s position here is perverse in the Lacanian sense: it expresses itself not as an actual desire, but as a desire to be the instrument of the desire of some fantasized other.

    Lacan… Perfect…

    French psychodrivel on behalf of ultraleftist stupidity. You can’t make this stuff up.

  33. bat020 (bat020), 4:36 pm, November 10, 2011

    @How_Upsetting see this on a similar tip from a few days ago http://t.co/1rdPTkLH

  34. twothreemany (David Judd), 1:07 pm, November 13, 2011

    #OWS reading, tactical debates edition http://t.co/WnYWmQyU http://t.co/2t9fefPy http://t.co/kUf0aU4X http://t.co/EVUD1lvv

  35. STazzyman (Dr. Sam Tazzyman), 2:02 pm, December 14, 2011

    @PatrickOsgood This is the sort of horsedung that I predict will amuse & aggravate you: http://t.co/cGFf7Vju – for revolution, quote Lacan!

  36. aleke, 10:47 am, February 17, 2012

    Hahaha look at all the Lacan hate here, what a sad state of affairs for some on the left, jettisoning things of which they have no understanding.

  37. Snrub, 11:29 am, February 17, 2012

    Yeah, aleke, if someone so much as mentions the name Lacan and then goes on to lucidly explain their argument it should immediately be rejected as psychobabble.

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