Thursday, October 24, 2019

Review: Guerrillas of Desire

[Kevin Van Meter. Guerrillas of Desire: Notes on Everyday Resistance and Organizing to Make a Revolution Possible. Chico CA: AK Press, 2017.]

A book with some useful and important ideas, but one I was not as able to like as I'd hoped. It sets out to demonstrate that everyday resistance has been historically pervasive and crucial to successful struggle, and to argue that movements in North America today need to do more to understand how everyday resistance is happening now and to nurture, support, and centre that resistance rather than prioritizing abstracted notions of 'correct' politics. It draws primarily from anarchist and especially autonomist marxist resources to do this.

The book is organized into a couple of chapters of theory at the start laying out its main concepts, three chapters tracing the broad trajectories of histories of slave, peasant, and worker struggles respectively (with an emphasis on keeping the everyday level visible), and then a final couple of chapters applying this theory and history to movement debates today.

I think the task this book takes up is an important one, and I broadly agree with the stance of starting from resistance that is already happening. I agree that autonomism offers some quite useful tools in this respect, and that it is largely underappreciated by folks active in movements on this continent today. And I have great respect for efforts to produce movement-grounded theory outside of the academy. Unfortunately, I think this book is kind of uneven and could have been executed more effectively.

For instance, I think the theory chapters are quite uneven. Some of what they present is quite useful. Another subset I found a bit tedious, but mostly because I was already familiar with the ideas, and I think presenting them works in terms of what the book is trying to do. But some of it was clearly presenting ideas that mattered a lot to the author but in ways that did not fully convince me of that significance. And a few bits were just weird – I'm thinking most obviously of the section with a bizarre genealogy of the concept of "white privilege", but there were others. Those bits aside, I wonder if putting more emphasis on finding a way to make it all flow a bit more organically would have helped.

The history chapters covered useful ground, but I didn't find them all that engaging – and I am someone who really enjoys reading history, especially movement history, when I have the opportunity, even when it is about an era or a struggle that I'm already familiar with. I think my relative disengagement was related to the degree of abstraction required to cover so much ground in just a few short chapters, and to the fact that this was history being deployed primarily to support an argument, which is understandable but which doesn't always make for the most compelling way of relating to the past.

And I felt like the engagement with contemporary questions at the end of the book was, well, similar to the earlier parts of the book: Some useful stuff, certainly, and I definitely support the overall conclusion that movements in North America need to be way better at starting from the ways in which ordinary people are already engaged in struggle of various sorts and at various scales. But a lot of what led up to that felt like it was rehashing ground that is already well-trodden on the left and so wasn't all that interesting, and/or felt like interventions in longstanding and contentious debates that were just too brief and too abstracted from actual movement practices to shed new light or to reframe them in productive ways. In a way, I think it needed more attention to grounded examples. I really appreciate the strong insistence in the book that the kind of engagement with what people are already doing can't come in the form of an easily applied recipe, but rather must involve getting out there and doing a lot of listening, a lot of respectful dialogue, and a lot of hard thinking. But I think given that's the case, it would be a more rhetorically engaging and more politically convincing to make the case for movements built via the nurturing and amplification of already-existing everyday resistance if it went through in rich detail and with lively storytelling some contemporary examples where people are actually doing that.

Anyway. I'm glad I read it because it is useful for something I'm working on, and I do recognize that some of the book's choices were made with a somewhat different reader in mind so it's possible I'm being too critical. It is certainly a useful contribution in a direction that I support, and I hope it sparks a lot of discussions. I just maybe wish some different choices had been made in how it was written.

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