Why Strategy? What’s the deal with this study group?

The word “strategy” conjures up images of board game, military campaigns, and important leaders. We hear about Napoleon, or Sun Tzu, or Clausewitz, and we envision a framework in which one or a few thinkers execute plans using the bodies of thousands of soldiers. Or we think of business strategy—again, where a single leader or a small committee charts out a plan using the resources and bodies of workers, shipping lines, and assistants. Or we think of revolutionary strategy, which too often mimics the former examples: a cunning strategist like Lenin develops ideas and responds to situations, instructing revolutionary subjects how to act and implementing revolutionary discipline that sacrifices people in the present for an imagined victory over the horizon. We hear would-be leaders and movement managers using “strategy” as an excuse for passivity, telling the angry ones in the streets to be strategic–which usually means following orders from a self-appointed leader. It’s no surprise that strategy has a bad rap among radicals and anarchists. It evokes hierarchy and centralization, a satellite’s-eye view of the world that conceives of humans as chess pieces, and it depend on a Western ontological framework that separates thought from action.

But without a common language to discuss how to engage with our enemies and our situation, we tend to throw ourselves headlong into struggle. We remain reactive, ceding initiative to our adversaries. Certainly our enemies have strategies; if we cannot understand how they think, what their strategies are, and how to disrupt them, we are condemned to being predictable, and therefore to losing. Strategy doesn’t have to be hierarchical or centralized; it can also be an orientation to the world, an understanding of existence as a shifting array of forces, capacities, intentions. Strategy can be molecular as much as it can be grand; and molecular strategy can perhaps be more resilient, less predictable, more adaptable, than a grand unified strategy. The military has learned this lesson; capitalists have learned this lesson. But we radicals, as much as we talk about decentralization, swarms, rhizomes, and lines of flight, tend to have difficulty translating those ideas into strategy, or into actions. We don’t really know how to speak to one another; we lack the language.

I’d like to build collective capacity for strategic thinking. This is different and distinct from proposing a collective strategy—which are often neither collective nor strategic. I am less interested in discussing “what is to be done” in the abstract than I am in building the capacity to have that discussion in the future, when concrete situations demand collective, situated action. A friend pointed out when I raised this topic that there is a distinction between critical thinking and strategic thinking. Radicals are steeped in critical thinking. We observe the world, we see how terrible things are, and we read and discuss and try to understand the contours of this hell-world. It is important work. Critical thinking allows for nuanced conversations, and it keeps us from getting enthusiastically swept along by politics or movements that might actually be our enemies. But critical thinking also tends towards purity, towards excoriating ourselves and one other if we don’t say the right things or haven’t read the right things or don’t have a good enough analysis. We mistake “having the right opinion” or “saying the right thing” for acting in and affecting the world. 

Strategic thinking, by contrast, is embedded in specific situations; it is amoral—though morality can certainly be deployed strategically. Strategy is unconcerned with who is right or wrong, but with evaluating the distribution of power in a certain situation: who has the ability to act, and what are their limits to their action? How do we evaluate a terrain—physical, or ideological, or metaphysical—and understand where there are openings for intervention? How do we accurately assess our own capacity, and how can we act to increase that capacity?

This is not a study group on anarchist or communist strategy. We will certainly read texts from those traditions, but this is a study group on strategy, broadly, and on whether we can build certain skills or shared understandings that might feel useful for us. One of the books we’ll be reading is titled
The Master’s Tools, and that could easily be the title of this study group as well: can we add more tools to our toolbox or revolt and rebellion? Can we build a reflex for strategic thinking that allows us to act on our politics and ethics more effectively? We will be reading our enemies in this group, and the inquiry is concerned less with whether all of the authors have “good politics” (spoiler: they don’t) and more with whether we can learn practical or conceptual skills from them.

All levels of participation are welcome, but the more other people bring to the table, the more interesting this study group will be. If you can’t do the readings–come anyway! If you’re really excited about one of the texts, volunteer to teach it and guide the conversation around it. If you have an idea for an activity that can help us apply one of the texts to a contemporary situation, bring it! I hope for this to be a collaborative process, and for us to develop skills to learn & think together. 

Reading List & Schedule

This is the rough reading schedule and syllabus for an 8 week study group on strategy, power, and resistance. Reading the main texts prior to each session is highly encouraged, though of course anyone is welcome to sit in at any point. There are also supplemental texts for some weeks; we likely won’t discuss these in depth (or at all) but they might serve as interesting correctives or add nuance or perspective to the main texts we’re engaging.

October 23: Introductions, outline, goals

October 30: Spinoza, Power, Affect

November 6: Machiavelli, Power, States

November 13: Policing, Insurgency, Tactics

November 20: Distance, Movement, Cunning

November 27: Patterns, Speed, Decisions

December 4: 21st Century Conflict, Networks, Social Media

December 11: Infrastructure, Disposition, Topology