Monday, July 5, 2010

A Critique of the "Black Bloc"

From Louis Proyect's blog, here's an excerpt:
It should be clear that the actions of the black bloc reflect their politics. The actions in Toronto mirror those tactics used elsewhere. The tactics and politics regardless of their intent are inherently elitist and counter-productive. In fact they mirror the critique of reformism many on the left have. The NDP says vote for us and we’ll do it for you, the black bloc says in essence the same thing – we will make the revolution for you.

At best the tactics of the black bloc are based on a mistaken idea that the attacks on property and the police will create a spark to encourage others to resist capitalism, at worst they are based on a rampant individualistic sense of rage and entitlement to express that rage regardless of the consequences to others. The anti-authoritarian politic they follow is imposed on others. Very rarely will you see a black bloc call its own rally, instead the tactic is to play hide and seek with the police under the cover of larger mobilizations.

Further as has been noted in many cases, the tactics and politics of the black bloc and some anarchists and some others on the left, leave them prone to being manipulated by the state. In almost every summit protest, police and others (in Genoa it was also fascists), infiltrate or form their own blocs to engage in provocations. The politics of secrecy and unannounced plans and a quasi-military (amateur at best) approach to demonstrations leave the door open to this.

The tactics also open the door for the justification of further police repression. This has been debated before, with some arguing that the state doesn’t need justification for repression. The idea that the state doesn’t need justification for further repression exposes the total lack of understanding of both the state and the consciousness of ordinary people.

Read the rest here.

I think this basically sums it up. Their politics are undialectical: they pretend as though the same tactics (smashing windows, etc.) are to be employed in every circumstance no matter the conditions or the consequences. This is fetishism of tactics, pure and simple, which cannot but be a mistake: tactics are always means to ends, not ends in themselves. The only way to know anything about tactics is to learn from history and experience and to assess the consequences and the conditions involved in a particular situation. None of this seems to figure into the provocations of the BB'ers.

Now I'm not convinced they've thought this far ahead, but if their view is that smashing windows and burning cars is the most effective way to win other people over to anti-capitalist politics, this just seems false.

Evidently, there are sophisticated defenses (I concede that these are secondhand- a thorough examination of the BB'ers would take a look at their own arguments) of Black Bloc-ism out there, e.g. that the BB makes clear what everyone else fails to see: that the state has a monopoly of violence with potent enforcement mechanisms. Then there's the argument that the BB exposes the implication of peaceful protesters with power by demonstrating how the former consent to co-exist with the latter. Both of the arguments fall flat. For starters, every school child knows that the state has a monopoly on violence. So the BB'ers are hardly showing anyone anything that they didn't already know. And what follows from realizing that the state has a monopoly on violence (it wouldn't be one if it didn't)? Does this help us to better understand power in contemporary capitalist societies? Not really. And since when was the point of recent protest efforts in the US supposed to be to challenge the state's monopoly on violence? Since when was this the goal of social movements on the ground? As far as I can tell, outside of genuine revolutionary situations, this is never the point of a protest. Were the massive 2006 MayDay mega-marches against xenophobia in the US directed toward breaking the state's monopoly of force? Were such protests therefore implicated in sustaining the legitimacy of the existing order of things?

The recent events at the G20 remind me of a similar situation at Hunter College in Manhattan a couple of months ago. Those jerks actually attacked other Left protesters fighting the budget cuts and they destroyed public property at CUNY!

I myself am not plugged into anarchist circles, but I would be curious to know what many of them, particularly the theoretically sophisticated and reasonably organized groups, think about the BB stuff. My sense is that it goes without saying that the diverse anarchist movement in the US alone is not necessarily on board with the provocateur tactics of the BB.

Finally, doesn't this whole Black Bloc thing reek of jock-strap machismo? I don't have anything else interesting to say about this, but it does seem to me that there's some testosterone-heavy stuff going on with the BB confrontations with Cops. There's certainly a gendered element to their uncompromising endorsement of violent provocations and the way in which they seem to like the "combat" with police for its own sake.


dnw said...

I agree that it's stupid and juvenile. I was talking to a right-wing libertarian the other day, who made the funny statement that the Tea Party isn't a "radical" group, because it comprises reasonable, ordinary people who don't smash windows or throw rocks at police; conversely, it's the leftists who have historically been radicals through protests or even violent mobilizations. The argument can be unpacked as:
1)radicalism is violent; 2)the only radicals are leftists; therefore, leftist radicals are violent.
Incidentally, I AGREE whole-heartedly with the 2nd premise. The whole argument, in fact, might be right (for the wrong reasons), based on the meaning of "violence,"
which seems to be the issue here.

Zizek sparked controversy over his claim that Ghandi was more violent than Hitler. But the point is correct. Hitler's fascist politics created a whole lot of violence so that nothing, precisely, would change (at the economic level). The state of affairs remains the same insofar as it changes, would be the mantra of a fascist/destructive politics. Ghandi, conversely, was the truly violent radical who de-stabilized the coordinates of the oppressive regime through subtraction. To turn the other cheek can be more violent than hitting back (also the revolutionary political position of Christ).

Does this rule out "ordinary" violence? Certainly not. Look at the Maoist movement in India, where brutal violence is necessary because the Indian state has launched military operations against so-called "Maoist strongholds," and where the starving tribal people are fighting for their very survival (see the atrocious NY Times coverage if you want to get pissed off).

So yes, these black blocers are hardly different from cheap terrorists who blow things up in the name of radicalism and revolution and merely reinforce the existing relations of power. They will be crushed, and the Left's reputation will be further tarnished. This is no longer an appropriate form of revolutionary politics, and it doesn't deserve the name.

T said...

I agree with most of your analysis. Any and all tactical questions must be decided on the basis of a concrete analysis of a concrete situation. Categorical statements about tactics must, insofar as they're categorical, be false. Here Hegel's critique of Kant's ethics is apt.

Also- I know what Zizek means by the "violence" thing, and I've actually defended him on a couple occasions on that point... but I myself think the Hitler comment is in poor taste to say the least. I know what he's up to, and I understand the basically Marxist point (which I endorse) that fascism arose as a powerful, reactionary way of staving off revolutionary challenges from the Left in Europe (and Capital was happy to play along in order to stomp out the Left).

But the Ghandi comment is crass. I obviously think we need to have a more expansive conception of violence (e.g. one which includes, say, structural violence) just as I think we need a more expansive conception of power than the typical liberal one which only captures one agent physically coercing another against their will. Nonetheless, Zizek's play on meaning of violence is, it seems to me, not an effective intervention. I endorse the thinking behind the move, but I don't think the move is effective.

I don't think the most horrific episode in human history is something that should be invoked lightly. The industrial destruction of human life is not something we should invoke in order to shock people out of their political slumber.

T said...

Also- the BB thing reminds me of things that pissed me off about the Critical Mass folks.

Now, I share most of their goals: abolition of petroleum-centered transportation, abolition of personal cars, taking back the urban environment from the rich and powerful, sustainability, etc. etc.

But again, too many of the Critical Mass types fetishize tactics and life-style choices.

With ANY political tactic, there is ALWAYS an open question whether or not it is effective. But many of the CM folks don't grasp this obvious point: they fetishize certain tactics in a stubborn and selfish way. In their quest for individualized purity, they abscond from social struggle.

Socialists, on the other hand, aren't interested in individualized purity at all. Socialist want to address the basic structure of society; they want a new social system that benefits the vast majority, that is sustainable, etc. That is, they aren't looking to merely create enclaves of purity on the fringes and margins: they want to change the big picture.

And unfortunately for some of the CM folks, who otherwise do lots of good work, this means that we must engage with ordinary people who aren't already decked out in black bandannas and tall-bikes.

dnw said...

It’s interesting that you criticize Zizek’s point about Hitler/Ghandi for being in “poor taste,” which seems to risk a PC position of prohibiting reflection on certain topics because they are “untouchable” or “uncouth,” but I would argue that he does not intend it lightly at all, but rather even more seriously than the people who are offended interpret it! If anything, I would accuse him not of crassness, but imprecision. I agree completely that we need a more expansive conception of violence, and I also believe Zizek’s materialism can address the complexity of violence in both it’s structural and Real dimensions; the problem here is that he conflates violence with subtraction, subtraction being the truly radical but structural dimension. We should all be sympathetic to the fear of a Habermasian consensus in which violence as such is eliminated on principle, but we should also fear an act of pure subtraction stripped of any destructive potential. The point we can all agree on is that blowing shit up is purely destructive and not a properly radical subtractive violence. I would argue that we absolutely need this structural definition of violence if we want to be revolutionaries. Yes, revolution is necessarily violent; to radiacally de-stabilize the existing hegemonic order is violent, and we must not hedge on that point; however, the destructive revolutionism of the past is over; Mao’s “no construction without destruction” can be laid to rest.

Along these lines, to refuse to fight and turn your cheek can indeed be more violent than fighting back, as it rejects the entire field of the coordinates of the fight. Zizek uses Les Miserables as an example, in which the truly traumatic (violent) experience is kindness, where Valjean forgives his nemesis Javert and saves him. This is the worst sort of torture, and Javert kills himself.

So I think the current Left needs Zizek’s point more than ever, and that the move is, if anything, all too effective. We must give up objectifying the State as an evil entity and attacking it with guns and tear gas, and achieve the truly violent act of de-stabilizing it from within, of re-configuring it’s forms of organization and configuration from an internal point of symptomal torsion. So yes, I agree that to use Hitler’s name flippantly is crass, but here he uses it quite seriously (even more seriously than people understand), and I also think correctly.

Richard said...

does anyone actually take the time to read what anarchists and Black Bloc participants say?

apparently not, because there is nothing in this post, nor in Proyect's, to suggest otherwise

I have a great deal of ambivalence about Black Bloc tactics, primarily because of the risk to which they subject others as well as the extent to which they seem to be centered around masculine notions of violent behaviour(although, there are Black Bloc women, contrary to the stereotypes purveyed by people like Proyect), but there is an ideological basis for them, one that other socialists seem unwilling to engage

first, they believe that you overturn the existing capitalist system by attacking the institutions that exemplify it, financial institutions in particular, because, only by showing people that it can be done will they eventually proceed to do it, so the attacks have both a motivational and educational purpose

it is not an absurd argument by any stretch, given the failure of liberals and Marxist-Leninists to demonstrate the effectiveness of alternative strategies such as mass protests and participation in the electoral process

furthermore, in Greece, it has been generationally effective, resulting in a growing anti-authoritarian opposition to the state and capitalism

anarchists and the Black Bloc also direct their attacks against the police and institutions involved in police and surveillance activity and research, and, here, they are far ahead of the non-anarchist left, who, while recognizing the threat, have not emphasized the peril presented by the emerging global police state surveillance society to the same degree, possibly, because, unlike anarchists, they want to preserve the state, while anarchists see such measures as an inevitable consequence of the state's preservation

(for a compelling examination of the militarization of life along the lines discussed here, please see the recently published "Cities Under Siege", written by Stephen Graham and published by Verso)

hence, Black Bloc and anarchists supportive of property destruction attack such institutions, again for educative and motivational reasons, and, in some instances, to impair their ability to arrest, detain and incarcerate

there is, of course, a broader, long term purpose to them, in regard to demystifying the allure of private property

of course, one can contest all these ideological motivations, but they do exist, and they are, in fact, quite sophisticated in terms of trying to adapt to the changing conditions of capitalist life

finally, I find it quite remarkable that no one seems to understand what Proyect is really up to in his criticisms of the Block and anarchism generally, he is a Marxist-Leninist, a vanguardist, and his real target is the anarchist belief in the ability of people to draw their own conclusions independent of such a vanguard and take liberatory action

Ujamaa said...

I'll grant you that there's more to think about here than meets the eye at first glance, but I stand by the criticism that the Black Bloc seems to fail to grasp that there is always an open question whether some tactic or other is effective. Moreover, fetishism of tactics seems to be a serious problem that afflicts their politics.

It doesn't seem to me at all obvious that smashing windows shows people (who?) that the allure of private property is an illusion. Perhaps in some circumstances it does- but, again, it should be an open question whether this is true (not an a priori posit). And taking this seriously means admitting that purportedly "radical" actions could very well have the opposite effect in certain conjunctures. The only way to know is to concretely analyze a concrete situation. That the BB takes itself to be demystifying private property is not tantamount to their tactics really accomplishing that goal.

I myself happen to think that smashing windows at the G20 did nothing in the way of accomplishing that, and it did more harm in cleanly playing into the existing narratives about mindless violence emanating from the "passions" of restless youth.

Re: the BB and the anarchist Left writ large, I say in the post that I'm not sure what other anarchists think (I'm curious to know). But I don't think a critique of the BB is a critique of anarchism as such. I would guess that IWW-type anarchists that emphasize class struggle and working-class organization might not be quick to endorse the BB.

Finally, the presence of women in the BB doesn't exonerate it of its testosterone-pumped problems. I'm not saying that physical violence is intrinsically gendered as male- my point is rather that the BB "style" and obstinate emphasis on certain tactics does reek of a conventionally (not inevitably) masculine approach to confrontation.

Richard said...

Ujamaa: certainly, it is entirely legitimate to critique Black Bloc strategy and tactics in relation to the ideological values of the left, and the points of contention between the Bloc, other anarchists and non-anarchist leftists

but to say that the Bloc is composed of people who are more juvenile, and engage in property destruction in order to obtain some sort of self-centered personal gratification, as this post does, and as Proyect does, does nothing to facilitate this important discussion

instead, it is designed to promote an illusory binary opposition between a relatively insightful, perfected Marxist-Leninist vanguardist approach to left politics, and the out of control, juvenile Black Bloc one

as if the non-Black Bloc left is composed of brilliant, reasoned, masterful organizers who usually get things right, while the Black Bloc is full of dangerous, violent buffoons

as we all know, there is always a wide range of personality types and abilities in any social movement

such a characterization of the Bloc, especially Proyect's, is designed to erase them, their social experience and their ideological perspective, which is, in fact, contrary to this post and Proyect's, a rich one from which we can all learn, from our discourse

along these lines, it is critical to recognize that the Bloc, and its insistence upon violent confrontation with the financial and police instrumentalities of capitalist society, is partially a consequence of the failure of previous, mass based Marxist-Leninist and Social Democrat approaches

but, of course, this post doesn't touch that issue, and neither does Proyect, but it is necessary to do so if the left, as a coalition, wants to move forward, instead of fingerpoint

finally, your feminist critique of the Bloc does have merit, but I would caution against invoking a feminism that associates non-violence with women, and violence with men, a liberal stereotype, rather, I would emphasize the perils of what Chris Ealham has described as "militant anarchism" in relation to marginalization the social experiences of women when it comes to activism

dnw said...

Richard, it’s interesting that you claim the attacks have a “motivational and educational purpose” and then accuse us of not taking the time to read what the participants actually have to say, which would indicate a problem: either the black blogers’ “educational” purpose is so sophisticated that even the so-called brilliant, insightful vanguardists can’t access it, or they just aren’t aren’t very good educators. What does it even mean to “overturn the capitalist system by attacking the institutions that exemplify it”? A police state is not necessarily coextensive with capitalism. How does attacking police actually undermine the structural functioning of SAs?

More importantly, I don’t understand how the Bloc’s insistence upon violent confrontation follows from the failure of previous Marxist efforts. If anything, the Blocers should gave Lenin more thought, as they are oblivious to the structural problematic that Lenin articulated in The State and Revolution with regard to the utopian-anarchist fantasy that we can ever destroy the State. This anarchism is blind to it’s own authoritarian mode of functioning, or the empty locus of power that takes the place of an arbitrary master signifier like King, and it fails to see that the line that separates an authentic democratic outburst of revolutionary terror from that of totalitarian party-state process is indistinguishable. How can the Blocers even call themselves Leftists? Either you critically engage the failure of Mao regarding the problematic of Insurrection vs. State, or you ignore it and become in essence a reactionary repeating history in the wrong way, not repeating Mao so that you can fail again, and fail better (which I by all means support), but simply so that you can fail in the same way. We musn’t ignore Badiou at this critical impasse: insurrectional politics is untenable, and it must no longer be destructive or militarized, but rather a negation that cannot be identified with the properly destructive part of negation. Destroying power cannot be a goal in itself. That “solution” is undialectical and, quite simply, juvenile, out-of-control, and buffoonish. If I wanted to “destroy the State,” why wouldn’t I just join Al-Qaeda? According to your logic, why isn’t 9/11 a great achievement? (Any good leftist would agree that death and violence, in themselves, should not stop us from pursuing the Idea to the end).

I would add that the binary you present between buffoonish anarchists and “perfected” Marxists doesn’t make sense, insofar the “critical”(whatever-you-want-to-call-them) Marxists are precisely the ones who recognize the imperfection of the insurrectionist problematic and look for a way to fail better. It’s the anarchists who presuppose the neutral backdrop of capitalist hegemony as a playground for breaking shit and blowing things up. I’m sorry if I don’t see how they are engaging with changing conditions of capitalism in a “sophisticated” way.