Raise the Social Cost: an Important Strategic Concept

In the late 1960’s, 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 U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam not because the U.S. war was immoral or wrong or not in U.S. “interests”, but rather because college students, including at elite schools were becoming radicalized. Rather than becoming government officials and administrators or corporate managers, they were rejecting these future possibilities and becoming revolutionaries who wanted to overthrow and transform the U.S. 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 because it was weakening the stability and reproduction of the U.S. empire and domestic rule.

Bundy’s fear was the Vietnam War was causing the growth of a radical and activist left in the United States whose commitment to ending the Vietnam War, to ending racism and capitalism by any means necessary was too high a social cost, greater than continuing the Vietnam War. This is the essence of the concept of raising the social cost and the belief by many from the 1960’s to the present of the value of militant actions, ones 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 various examples of militant tactics. These include but are not limited to: fighting back against the police and right-wing militias, painting graffiti, taking down or destroying racist monuments, constructing barricades and occupying public spaces and streets, including freeways. Breaking windows of financial institutions and of 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, and increase the numbers of participants involved and lead to the growth of these actions throughout the U.S. 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 but not limited to young people. Growing numbers of individuals and growing social movements that have broken with the ideology that there is no alternative to neoliberalism (TINA) and acting on the belief that there is a liberatory alternative to racial capitalism is central to raising the social cost.

Based on personal observation, this concept of raising the social cost has motivated, sometimes consciously and more often, less explicitly, some of the actions of the 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 these more militant actions, increased government infiltration, and public support for “law and order” and for repression results. An example of the ongoing federal government response is the recent sending by the Trump administration to Portland, Oregon of Homeland Security and other para-military federal forces without name tags or identification of who they are. They have violently attacked and continue to attack Portland demonstrators with tear gas and rubber and pepper bullets causing a few serious injuries and they have snatched demonstrators off the streets and forced them into unmarked vans. So far this police state tactic has backfired as thousands of people of all ages have now joined these nightly protests in solidarity with those being attacked. Rather than being intimidated, people are taking a strong stand in the streets against this overtly authoritarian behavior of Trump. Gaining support from those less militant and those deeply 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 one but only one important part of a strategy in this period to win key demands such as demilitarizing, disarming and defunding the police, single payer health care for all, including undocumented immigrants, abolishing ICE, a Green New Deal, reparations, releasing prisoners, affordable housing, free childcare, etc. Direct action is only part of a strategy. Popular education, rallies, demonstrations, building organizations, institutions, and ongoing campaigns are central to a many pronged strategy. We need more political economic analysis, more organization and major wide-spread and ongoing campaigns around these demands.

Actions that go beyond what is legal will always alienate some allies and even more those who are opposed to significant and positive changes in this system of racial capitalism. This cannot be avoided. However, if our actions are not clearly understandable to those who sincerely want major reforms and our targets do not seem to be complicit in major ways with the ongoing police violence, we do not raise the social cost and our well-intentioned actions can even be counterproductive. We should aim to minimize the disruption of the lives of people we are trying to win over and focus on disrupting the major institutions that uphold a racist capitalist society. There is more public support for occupations of public space or blocking entry to a police station or a major corporation, doing political art on businesses and public property, or wildcat strikes of essential workers than there is for damaging property such as by breaking windows of a bank or other corporations or city hall.

In downtown, Olympia, WA, the city closed and fenced off the Artesian Well park, a place for the gathering of street people and the houseless, as part of a plan for gentrification. During a few of the recent actions that have been occurring daily in Olympia since the murder of George Floyd, people have cut these chains and fences, temporarily opening the Artesian Well. This action has been supported by many non-protestors and considered legitimate even though city property was damaged. Similarly rocks thrown through the police station or city hall or major banks have often had similar reactions. Relevant graffiti is usually supported by the 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. These actions do not raise the social cost to those in power. Social cost is not the economic cost of replacing store windows, sometimes it is mistakenly understood as the dollar and cents cost.

Although I disagree with the breaking of windows of most businesses at this moment, especially small and local businesses, I oppose condemning protesters who are breaking 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 possibilities of decent jobs. We should reach out and listen before we criticize some of their actions. These direct-action resisters have the potential or already are an important part of social movements and organizations that demand a better world.

Peter Bohmer is a faculty member in Political Economy at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA. He has been an activist since 1967 in movements for fundamental social change.