Around the time of the 1999 World Trade Organization protests, commonly known here in the U.S. as the “Battle in Seattle”, I began delving into online independent media in more concerted way. Expanding beyond Democracy Now on my local Pacifica radio affiliate, I started poking around and discovered indymedia.org, Counterpunch and other sites. Within a couple of years of traversing this landscape, I came across the political writings and investigative journalism of Stan Goff.
Stan, a former Army Ranger, West Point instructor and Special Operations tactician, had served as an Airborne infantryman in Vietnam and, later, took part in military operations in South America, Central America and the Caribbean. This was an interesting background for a left-leaning journalist and peace activist. I was intrigued. For the first decade of the 2000s, I followed his work closely and read several of the books he began publishing. His 2004 book, Full Spectrum Disorder was especially engrossing, as he explored his work as a military tactician and how those experiences impacted his approach to politics.
A couple of years later, he embarked on a working relationship with the family of former NFL star Pat Tillman, who was killed in a confusing incident while serving in the army in Afghanistan. His multi-part investigative series into both Tillman’s death and the government’s ensuing cover-up broke the story wide-open and caused great embarrassment to the U.S. Army. It can be found in abbreviated form in the Counterpunch archives and the complete series on Tillman has been collected where it originally appeared, in one of the best-kept secrets of the early blogosphere, From the Wilderness. It continues to stand up as great journalism.
As we hit the 2010s, I lost touch with Stan’s writings. That is, until he popped up with a regular column on Medium this past year. I became intrigued all over again. I reached Stan at his home in rural Michigan to discuss political strategy, organizing, the pitfalls of the left, and how the Bernie Sanders 2020 presidential campaign fits in.
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Stan, one of the things that’s always fascinated me about your work is the way you approach political strategy. I was looking at your April 11 piece on Medium, “A Few Thoughts on ISO” (International Socialist Organization) and you wrote something that really knocked me back. I believe it was “strategies only work for the strongest”. You essentially expressed that, when those in the anti-imperialist left play at strategy, they’re playing by the rules of the strong. And because the left is currently weak, they will have their collective ass handed to them again and again. Left forces will be more effective through tactical agility. This is something you’ve explored in your books. For instance in Full Spectrum Disorder, you explained how you were able to win war game exercises against stronger opponents by making tactics primary, by being agile and adaptable in the moment. Could you talk a bit about this idea of the tactical over the strategic?
Okay, so it requires a redefinition of strategy and tactics. Here’s an example. Most people have seen the film, Saving Private Ryan (not that I’m endorsing this militaristic film), but as a way of getting a handle on what I’ve observed about strategies and tactics. You remember from the film when the main characters went into this French town. Two captains get together and one of them says, “We have to take Saint-Lo”. And the other says “From Saint-Lo, then Cherbourg.” The other responds, “Cherbourg to Paris,” then back again, he says, “Paris to Berlin.”
So what they were talking about there was a strategy, a plan oriented toward some overarching national objective. A subset of strategy is a campaign. So this talk about Saint-Lo and these other cities, these are intermediate campaign objectives. Each is a campaign, which is a key piece of the strategy leading to taking the enemy capital.
So you have a strategic realm, but you also have a campaign realm, and in more detail, you have the guys who are trying to take machine gun bunkers on the beach, and what they do to make that happen is employ fire and movement and so forth. This is the tactical realm. Tactics are the battle drills and specific techniques designed to win individual battles. So you have the tactical level; you have the campaign level, which is about achieving intermediate objectives for the strategy; and then you have the strategy, which is the overall plan you want to accomplish. That’s the conventional idea of what strategy and tactics are, different levels in a singular enterprise. In my conversations about this stuff 15 years ago, I used those same terms.
But I’ve had an education since then, because after failing as an organizer, and watching others fail pretending they were an army, or believing they might become one, I discovered practice theory—something hinted at in Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach. In particular, I discovered a Jesuit intellectual named Michel de Certeau.
He wrote about everyday life and what everyday people do. And he explored how everyday people are constrained, but also how they adapt within society’s variously enclosed spaces, because those enclosures are full of holes and cracks. To make their way through modern enclosure successfully, everyday people have a variety of little tricks and cheats and hacks they use to get by in daily life in what he called the tactical realm. This is not merely a subset of strategy as understood conventionally. In De Certeau’s conception, it’s strategy’s opposite. Tactics are the tricks people use to “get by.” Everyday people are tacticians without realizing it. For him, this is almost like anthropology.
The success of these tactics requires a certain amount of agility. In De Certeau’s view, strategy doesn’t. Strategy is what he called a self-isolating calculus. When you’re pursuing a strategy, the first thing you have to do is isolate the command. Because strategy automatically means there must be a central brain. This strategic command cell, whoever that is, a military, a corporation, the Vatican, a political party, doesn’t matter, these groups are all strategic beings because what they’re trying to do is impose their will on an environment that they have separated from themselves by objectifying it. The world outside the strategic command cell is the object of their manipulations. It’s Cartesian. Strategists are self-isolated for the purpose of planning their strategy in which they position themselves as the subjects, the ones who act. Everything else in the environment that they want to control, those are the objects to be acted upon.
There are advantages and disadvantages to self-isolation. It gives you the advantage of secrecy. It gives you the advantage of command unity. But it also insulates you from the kind of real-time information you would get from the environment, the always changing object you’ve separated yourself from. You’re divorced from information that might tell you your strategy is about to go wrong. And strategies always go wrong, because social life, while it has stabilizing elements to it, is unpredictable.
How would you translate these ideas about strategy and tactics to U.S. politics?
Well, as an example, let’s look at the Hilary Clinton’s 2016 campaign against Trump for president. Clinton had a long-term strategic plan operated from her isolated command cell in Brooklyn. Through all of their data analysis, they made certain strategic assumptions about voting patterns in the Midwest and things like that. But, here’s the thing. If any of the assumptions the strategy is built on are actually wrong, then the whole architecture of the strategy starts to fall apart. The on-the-ground reality in those states didn’t correspond to the Clinton team’s strategic assumptions. The typical response of the powerful when all these obstacles inevitably appear is to simply bull their way through it—with money, mass, whatever they have that a weaker opponent doesn’t have. Mostly shit piles of money.
Eventually this sheer imposition of will hits a limit, as everyday people continue to get by on their hacks and whatnot that the centralized strategy hasn’t anticipated and can’t adjust to. Essentially, the Trump campaign took advantage of the Clinton campaign’s self-isolation. Trump’s handlers staged an accidental tactical victory by throwing daily curveballs at the Clinton campaign through the Trump campaign’s refusal to play by the old rules of liberal politics. The environment was made even more unpredictable, and Clinton lost the initiative.
Another good example is the war in Afghanistan. The U.S. went in there with the strategies they had, but found the situation totally inexplicable. The mountainous terrain meant they couldn’t find their ass with radar. It turned into an expensive, horrific, bloodthirsty nightmare that’s lasted, what, 18 years now? Three-and-a-half times longer than WWII? One of the reasons they haven’t succeeded in a place like Afghanistan is because the country has dozens of little local formations that make and break alliances at will. These formations have better real-time intelligence. They have far greater agility and they run circles around somebody that’s just sitting there trying to impose a centralized strategy.
Tactical agility is the ability to respond flexibly without a strategy, to respond only with a strategic orientation. The strategic orientation is to run the foreigners out, but there is no detailed overall plan or strategy per se.
Tell me more about what a tactical approach looks like in practice and then let’s get into how all of this applies to political organizing.
Okay, so there was this mad genius back in the days after WWII named John Boyd who was in the Air Force. People called him “40-second John” because he claimed he could defeat any comer in a simulated air combat in less than 40 seconds. And he did. The reason he was able to do it was because he had dived into the inner workings of tactical agility to create an anti-strategic decision cycle, something he called the “OODA loop,” which stood for “observe, orient, decide, act”.
You look at something in terms of what’s happening in the moment. You make a decision about what to do and you take that action. But, for Boyd, that wasn’t the end of it. As soon as you take an action, then you revert back to observe and orient. Because Boyd recognized that when you take an action, you have control over the action, but not what your adversary will do in response to that action. So what Boyd did was make a series of moves to get inside his opponent’s decision cycle. He’d kick this off by flying straight into the sun and blinding the other flyer, then execute a series of maneuvers, liked a boxer’s combinations. Based on his subsequent observation, he’d then rip off two to three new actions and quickly put them down. Basically, you take an action and cause your opponent to become reactive to your proactive actions and lose track of their strategy. That’s the initiative.
Uh-huh, that makes sense. There’s an old saying about strategy in boxing that goes something like: “Every boxer has a plan until they get punched in the nose”.
Boxing is actually a pretty good analogy. But Boyd’s concept of tactical agility is also about relative power and scale. At certain scales, tactical agility is going to beat strategy. Boyd was testing his hypotheses in single combat, not against say three opponents at once. At other scales, strategy combined with great power over the environment can overwhelm tactical agility. What people who are involved in tactical processes have to figure out is a kind of golden zone, a balance where you know how much you can get away with before you have to break off the engagement. Where is the threshold of my greatest tactical advantage, and where is the next threshold where I’ve bitten off more than I can chew?
So, for a weaker opponent, in political organizing, say, a group like Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which you’re involved with, how can tactical agility play out over strategy?
First, observe the overall conditions, the larger context. This could be a much longer explanation, but basically I believe we’re in deep trouble right now in the U.S. and the world. It’s increasingly likely that we’ll devolve into a long period of generalized strife, human misery, and ecological catastrophe—kind of a Haiti writ large. I don’t see too many ways out of this impasse, other than civil war, which would make things infinitely worse—war always makes things worse, no exceptions—OR some sort of social democratic interregnum that ramps up into a deeper politics of thoroughgoing transformation. A social democratic interregnum is essentially what DSA is oriented towards, so I work with them. The have the momentum right now.
Thinking tactically, one of the things I advocate for is that we don’t try to form a party. Because the minute you do that, you get a centralized infrastructure that focuses on purely political objectives. You become a strategic entity. First, this new form drops work in progress and tries to tighten ideological control. Then it begins stifling members’ initiative. That’s what centralized institutions do. They crush initiative for the sake of keeping everyone on the same page. This is one of the reasons left organizations fail over and over again. They are all on about strategy this and strategy that. They talk like generals, but they don’t have an actual army. You see what I’m saying? It’s absurd. And while DSA is a remarkable phenomenon right now, we’re not an army. We can’t delude ourselves into thinking we are, or even that we’ll become one. Imagining the future that way is magical thinking. Observe, decide, and act, then you observe again, not project your fantasies into an unformed future. That’s the mismatch between perception and reality that ensures serial failure.
Something that comes to mind: If you watch any speech by Chris Hedges, he routinely talks about Woodrow Wilson and how his administration was able to clean out and get rid of all these leftist organizations that were powerful at the time of the first big labor movement. And this has led to overall weakness on the left ever since, albeit with some brief reconstitutions in the 30s and the 60s. But the idea that you could sit down as a member of DSA or any leftist organization and admit to being in a weak position, it strikes me as very difficult for some people to accept.
Tough shit. It is what it is. Here’s another reality, though. Many on the left definitely understand there’s a class war going on and it’s been prosecuted from above. And so we tend to respond with a war mindset. We’re a very militaristic culture and even people who claim to be opposed to that have still absorbed a war episteme by osmosis. It becomes easy to view politics as pure conflict, and then read conflict as an analog to war. And we’ve been raised on stories of David and Goliath, and so forth, that fuels the fantasies of the weak. That whole mindset is one of the things that undermined the counterculture of the 60s, this idea that confrontation is necessary. Sometimes it is, but it can’t be the end-all, be-all, especially when you’re in the weaker position. Effective action is based on sound intelligence, and sound intelligence is based in part on a dispassionate analysis of your strengths and weaknesses.
So talk to me more about a social democratic interregnum, what that means to you, and how the issue of tactical agility plays into it.
Now it sounds like I’m the one projecting a fantasy. If it is, it’s a dystopian one, in the best of circumstances. I’m a Gramscian about this, you know, pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will. Like I said before, I think we’re seeing the beginning of an awful long emergency. In many ways, it’s already in progress. That’s not just the repeated collapse of the financialized economy. It’s climate destabilization. It’s all the other ecological disasters going on. These factors will create mass displacement. Displacement generates conflict and scarcity, and scarcity amplifies conflict. It’s a total social tailspin. If we don’t start making some changes now, we’re in huge trouble. But some people want to wait for the political solution, and centralized politics as currently constituted, and in the most optimistic reality-based projections, is insufficient to the task. So prioritizing the political work ahead of practical, local, transformative work is putting the cart before the horse.
Right, one of the things you’ve been saying is that the unpredictability of events on the ground is going to increase—which is going to make highly organized, centralized strategies even less effective.
That’s right. “The center cannot hold.” So what are the things we’re going to have to start doing? We can’t rely on just a political solution. In actuality, the politics are drawn in behind local resiliency and re-localization efforts. But the political piece I do see, the political gamble is—if possible—to elect a social democratic government within four more years. Then pass some helpful legislation within 10 years—social democratic measures like guaranteed minimum income, single payer health care, public works jobs, and so forth.
The most ambitious goal, but the most necessary one, is to redefine property, which means a new constituent assembly and, if we get that far, we might be able to stop a complete social collapse. But barring that, within 12-15 years, we’re going to cross a point of no return with the environment and it’s going to turn into a Hobbesian nightmare. Now, do I believe a social democratic interregnum will happen? Let’s say I believe it’s the least damaging of many likely scenarios that are still within practical reach. So whether it’s a strategic outline (not a strategy) or whether it’s an overly detailed fantasy, at the very least it tells us how to apply some brakes to capitalism. All that being said, I honestly see a long period of loss, misery, and conflict ahead of us. All of which would be made substantially worse by civil war, so you won’t hear me preaching armed struggle or any of that crap. Aside from the fact that war of any kind is a bigger shit show than what preceded it and a moral catastrophe for all participants, in any armed conflict the left would get hurt very, very badly, and they’d lose.
So, in your conception, the social democratic government is about breathing room?
Yes. Breathing room to begin reducing people’s dependence on money to survive, which is the basis of capitalist power.
That re-localization work I’m talking about has to be is in some way agro-ecological. Social systems are embodied in in an already built environment, so they can’t be simply transformed by fiat—only by redesigning the built environment itself. The foundation around which all other systems must converge, if a social system is to be stable and flourish, is food. Food inevitably includes land and water.
Moreover, given what I said about reducing dependency on general-purpose money, the assurance of enough high-quality food for any society is the basis of money independence. So if we commit 90% of our resources to political action and only 10% of our resources to on-the-ground redesign work, which is both political and practical, we’re sunk. The policies have to follow the practices, which are granular and local. And we haven’t sufficiently developed those redesigned practices. That’s why every revolutionary should be studying agronomy, because that is going to be the true central practice, not policy-making.
Tactical agility actually relates to these local resilience projects, because tactical agility also includes the ability to change your codes and change your visibility to stay ahead of developments. Look closely at the people doing local autonomy work, and you’ll see they all include an agro-ecological component. Cooperation Jackson is a very good example. Their tactical philosophy is about staying on your own turf, where you have the tactical advantage of deep knowledge, and you start rebuilding right now.
You can bring the policy pieces along when it seems appropriate to support that development, but practical work comes first, because until you try shit out, you can’t yet know what the best practices are and what kinds of policies will help promote those practices. This practice-centric re-localization of organizing is a strategic priority for the left, and note I did not say strategy, per se, but strategic priority, or strategic direction. A basketball player knows where the hoop is, but they have to suss out what’s happening on the court to determine what combinations of actions are going to get them to the hoop. You have a strategic orientation or priority, but not a strategy. You’re agile, ready to change up in an instant.
That’s interesting. I put out a piece a week or two ago, looking at electoral politics versus movement politics in the context of the Sanders 2020 campaign. One of the things I think has been knocked out of our minds is how to do things together—just, really simply how to act collectively. And I think that for a lot of people who consider themselves to be on the left, if you told them today, “Hey, quit worrying about electoral politics as much as you are and get into movement building and local organizing”. I think that most people would look at you and say, “I don’t know what to do”. And that’s one of the reasons I want to talk about this. On the ground, what would that re-localization look like?
Yeah, I’d say it has to be about both. The Sanders phenomenon is something that’s different. It’s electoral, yes, but it’s not electoral politics as usual. What happened with the Sanders thing that surprised me is how it grew from when Sanders had his first press conference on a lawn with a dozen people. At the time, I said, this is nonsense. And I was proven wrong. What happened was, because none of us can see what’s really going on out there at scale, I didn’t realize the level to which the public’s grinding disappointment and anxiety was creating new political terrain. And so, it sort of burst out in the open with these two long-shot candidates from the right and the left. And the center, what they used to call the center, is now only about 7% of voters.
In a sense, this is an unexpected strategic breakthrough. The 2016 elections gave expression—in this instance electoral expression—to a sense of generalized discontent that was otherwise not nearly as visible. And the momentum from that breakthrough is still there. This isn’t about some universal political principle, but a strategic/tactical one, that is, you don’t stop when you are still gaining ground, which this electoral movement is. That’s why Sanders hasn’t really stopped running for office, even after 2016. There will come a time when the focus and actions will shift, but people are still gaining ground against the whole establishment as well as against the neoliberal bosses in the Democratic Party. Now is not the time to let up. If we were getting our asses kicked, I’d say yeah, let’s displace. But that’s not the case. Quite the contrary.
So this new thing, I believe it has to be supported. But we also have to consolidate and expand local work on the political side. We just had four DSA folks over in Chicago suddenly elected to the city council. They were declared socialists and everybody was like, oh my God, how did that happen?
Well, I got hold of them on the DSA discussion board and I asked what they’d done. They said, “We’ve been organizing on the ground for 10 years. That’s how we did it.” So the Sanders thing nationally and our thing locally are both part of the same dynamic. The Sanders campaign has grown to a sufficient size to play at certain kinds of strategy, but they still can’t overplay that. Its real force is coming from below, and that accounts for its survival and expansion. If there’s a breakdown, it will come from the top, from “dog-waggery” as a friend once named it. This is the danger lurking inside every institution that relates directly to scale.
There’s an anthropologist named Robin Dunbar whose work I discovered about 15 or 20 years ago. What he said was that human beings don’t have the social or cognitive capacity to maintain more than about 150 close relationships. Now you may have 5,000 friends on Facebook, but that’s not the same thing as “I care about you”. And caring about me in relation to 150 is about the limit in terms of how much time you have to devote to those kinds of relationships.
What happens when you exceed that 150-person number? You just don’t have people united by a common purpose and intimacy, who solve their problems practically and idiosyncratically. They will begin to have more irresolvable conflicts. You have to develop a new layer of administration and management to deal with conflict resolution and getting everybody on the same page. And the bigger the organization, the more of those layers there are, and they begin to act more on their own behalves and less on the common good.
The managerial tail begins to wag the community dog. And that managerial layer has become not merely managerial but dominant over and above those they manage. This is the process of institutionalization, and it gets worse with greater scale, the dog-waggery being exacerbated by power plays and cliques, and by institutional blindness. This is the same strategic disadvantage of isolation we discussed earlier, that decisions are being made by people who have little to no appreciation of the realities on the ground. So rather than tailor management to support the people in all their local diversity, the institution tailors the rules that apply to the people to facilitate conformity. Tail wags dog.
Right now, this is biting the Democratic Party in the ass. There’s a complete contradiction between their perception and those granular localized realities, and they’ve become terminally obtuse. They double down on dumb again and again, and they blame their failures on others in such a way that their stupidity has become a self-reinforcing dynamic.
Okay, so that’s tactical agility applied to the electoral, social democratic interregnum part. How about we dive back into the less political, localized organizing in more detail?
Okay, I’m going to talk about Adrian, where I live here in Michigan and the first thing we’ll talk about is water. If you look through my Medium articles, I’ve got something in there about water politics, but water truly impacts everything. It’s a flashpoint. We have real water problems here in Adrian. So we start talking to people about water, then we start talking about concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). We’ve got powerful dairy operations upstream that are dumping all their shit into the watershed and then it’s coming down and filling up the reservoir where the town gets its drinking water. Now we have cyanobacteria and water that tastes like, well, shit.
The other thing that we want to do is begin growing food. We’ll start growing food because we want to teach ourselves how to grow food. We want to give away the food and we want to use growing the food as a way to get more people involved with some of the practical activities we’re doing, but it also begins a process of reskilling because, ultimately, and this is what my book Mammon’s Ecology is about, as long as we’re in a thoroughly monetized economy, we’re not going to be able to solve our problems. Dependency on general purpose money is always going to return us to a capitalist default, that is, accumulation and growth cycles, which are the source of the problem in the first place.
The first thing we have to do is not just re-localization. That just means gaining control over the things that impact on your life, but what about reducing people’s dependency on money? Because, to understand a highly specialized society, you have to go back to works like Labor and Monopoly Capital by Harry Braverman that talk about deskilling as a process, where detailed division of labor dictates that each person do one little repetitious task over and over again.
It’s impossible for people to be more independent or to have a view of the big picture in that type of economy. Also, deskilling has increased our dependence on general-purpose money. And so we want to start re-generalizing people and reskilling people. We don’t need more specialization. We need greater generalization. For those who care about leftist political and economic theory, Lenin’s worst error was embracing Taylorism, because efficiency is the heartbeat of the capitalist episteme and that efficiency is part of what’s driving us over the cliff.
If you’re talking about reducing dependency on money, which reduces your dependency on the capitalist class, we’re back to talking about food and water. The left was often hostile to ecology up until about the mid-1970/early 1980s, just as it was hostile to feminism, which was part of the same problem, but I’ll leave that digression for now. Re-localization means practical efforts that increase our own capacities.
Cooperation Jackson is a lodestar for me right now, though I worry they haven’t sufficiently theorized money as ecologic al phenomenon yet; but that’s my hobbyhorse for the whole left, not just Jackson. I’m familiar with Jackson and I had friends down there. My own family is from Arkansas, so I know the cultural terrain pretty well. I used to organize for an outfit called Democracy South. We had 12 states in our coalition. I know what they’re dealing with and they’re accomplishing remarkable things in an intensely hostile political environment. One of the things that they just started doing is fundraising to buy up old funky properties and turn them into things, workshops, community centers and so on. And in the process, some of these procurements actually created a dam against a growing wave of gentrification. Boom!
Speaking of tactical agility as we’ve been, the way Cooperation Jackson’s executive director Kali Akuno explains their organizing is an apt description of how tactical agility and local resilience work come together. They do water, land and food, for independence, yes, but also because resilience work is under the radar more than political work. It’s one of de Certeau’s everyday hacks and tricks. Akuno said that political work puts you in your adversary’s face. You have high visibility. Your head is above ground where it can be cut off. But when you’re making gardens and clinics and community centers—tactically agile stuff—not so much. Your head is down, and it’s far more politically risky for your adversaries to attack you and be able to justify it.
All these ideas are gaining currency. The eco-socialist committee of DSA is talking about agro-ecology right now. They’re talking about re-localization. The DSA in Ann Arbor is growing food, so they’re learning how to do it. We’re about to explore a permaculture project in partnership with the Adrian Dominican sisters here in my small town. So I mean, it’s a step at a time and we’re very embryonic, but this is the non-electoral stuff that’s necessary to create lasting change. And land is tangible, a real thing to defend instead of an idea. That’s something working class people can get behind.
We have a little germinal group of DSA here, and another place we’re going to start is with water and then we’ll see what obstacles we encounter. Then we’ll sit down and do stuff like power mapping. Observe and orient, essentially. And then, based on our power mapping and real-time intelligence, we’ll start deciding on tactical initiatives that we want to pursue. But there’s not a way to template this and turn it into a one size fits all because the situations are always so incredibly different.
One of the things that people don’t take into account in a lot of their social theorizing is that, when you get down to the granular local level, there’s histories down there, there’s families that have been feuding for years. Old alliances, old resentments and old betrayals. There are deep interrelationships. I mean, my wife grew up in a town 15 miles from here. Her graduating class in high school was 45 people. Nine of them were cousins. So you see if you’re not local and don’t understand the dynamic, you can’t effectively navigate around it. And a bunch of fast-talking ideologues can’t bullshit their way through this specificity with some kind of program that was dreamed up in college or a think tank.
“Think globally, act locally” has turned into a cute truism, but there is real wisdom in it, as long as we remember to think locally, too.
I think this is a great place to wrap it up for today. This was a fascinating look at how power can operate for people without all the power. Stan, thanks so much for taking the time and I’m sure we’ll be speaking again.
Absolutely, thanks again.
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