Black bloc, democracy, and the one

I didn’t really pay attention to the G8/G20 summit protests in Toronto, either the events themselves or the preparations for them, but I have been reading a lot of the postgame commentary. The reason for the former is that at this date I don’t find summit-protest politics all that compelling; if the first wave of actions attempted to both disrupt the summits’ proceedings and create new political assemblages, the habitual impulse to protest since then seems to have accomplished very little of that. Some of the actions, in fact, seem to be no more than the pro forma registering of dissent and of faux outrage at politicians’ ignoring of demands and the police’s controlling of movement, as if anyone’s truly shocked when police repress. This isn’t to say that there’s anything inherently useless about summit protests, but only that the politics that have created them recently seem to me to be lacking in imagination and urgency.

But I have been investigating ex post facto the Toronto protests, which interest me more because they saw an unprecedented level of security preparation ($1 billion), juridical detainments (over 1,000 arrests), and black bloc disruption. This last is most decisive, not because the actions they carried out were novel or even perhaps that effective, but because their tactics, both their provocations of the police and the subsequent laying bare of differences among the protesting factions, were explosive and revealing. I’m less interested in critiquing block bloc tactics — though there is certainly lots of room for that — than I am at looking at them as an unhinging events, events that interrupt the studied antagonism between the police and civil society groups, which in turn engenders protests that are a repetition without difference. But black bloc suspends, even if only momentarily, this truce and gives the protest “space” a dangerousness and an opening that the other tactics can’t create.

It should be stressed, however, that this opening doesn’t exist just for black bloc participants: it’s a suspension of the whole proceedings. In this regard, most of the responses to black bloc, from state leaders to NGO representatives, have been as revealing as they’ve been predictable. For them, openings are the exact thing they don’t want, and so denunciations take a moral form but are just as concerned with the strategic dangers of black bloc. Slightly less surprising are other, unaffiliated radicals, who are attached to the structure of opposition and hold fantasies of pure mass movement, have been eager to lodge their moral complaints against black bloc and throw snits that it is a parasite on the movement.

More surprising to me have been the some anarchists’ criticisms, and not just the fact of criticisms but the tone and aim of them. This article, for instance, the comments to which rebut most of it very nicely. But I was also struck by the writer’s references to democracy. Especially:

Democracy requires discussing tactics in a format that ensures accountability to others organizing the demonstrations. Instead, the code words “diversity of tactics” are often used to cloak a range of actions that inevitably impact all activists involved in protests.

In these sorts of usages, democracy is either an empty signifier or denotes something roughly equivalent to consensus. But this writer’s use of it is perhaps more apropos than he realizes, because what he’s describing and advocating here is very much like nation-state democracy: the exorcising of multiplicities that don’t submit themselves to the rule of the one. The writer even wants other anarchists to take on the task of driving out black bloc:

[A] more cohesive critique of the impact of black bloc tactics from within the more serious currents of anarchism will only aid in diminishing the phenomenon.

I suppose it’s nice that the writer wants to use argument instead of police for the job, but the result is the same: a purging of the body politic of everything that disrupts unity. Especially odd to me is the lament that black bloc tactics “impact all activists.” Well, yes, that would seem to be the inevitable result of any movement that isn’t dictated from party headquarters: the noncontrolled intermingling of bodies to form a protest assemblage. No agreement is necessary to create such an assemblage. The writer of this article, however, wants some groups’ actions to be screened by other groups, though I suppose as a “serious” anarchist he would say that it should be decided by consensus rather than by a central committee. But that’s not movement. That’s democracy, in which the desires of multiplicities are given free reign until the ultimate, decisive moment, when they must be sacrificed to the whole.

7 thoughts on “Black bloc, democracy, and the one

  1. one of the most striking things for me was the left-progressive response that argued that the black bloc actions had to have been a result of agent provocateurs.

    are they really so dumb as to think that people are satisfied with dumb mass marches in the face of the most undemocratic institutions on earth? are they really too myopic to understand people’s desire to break shit?

    and re democracy — traditional left activism still thinks in terms of centered-consistencies (or in Deleuzian terms, ‘plan(e)s of consistency’).. they can’t even imagine working with truly autonomous entities, often resulting in calls for ‘accountability’ in an attempt to bring them back under the control of their command structure.

    this is why rancierian democracy is so preferable. only statist democracies erect formal principles to police politics and hold people ‘ac-count-able’. and everything we want can’t be counted. attempts to bring it all together under any governance model — consensus or otherwise — mistakes order for the intensity and potential of the event of politics.

  2. AwC, yeah, the agent provocateur charges were a sign of real desperation. Either they were totally disingenuous, or they really are so enchanted by the ritual of protests that they can’t imagine anyone trying to blow it apart. Either way, yuk.

    Your point about autonomous actions and factions is something I could have made clearer probably, and now it’s too late and my brain’s not working. But I agree with you. It goes even beyond control, the revulsion to the black bloc. “A movement of movements” it’s not. It’s the movement, or it’s nothing.

    I still haven’t read Ranciere, but again I like what you say.

  3. AZ, the intimation that black bloc is wrong because fascists (supposedly) admire it is especially disgusting. There’s a nice video here addressing some of the worst arguments, argued against with lots of swearing.

  4. hi Eric,

    I have the same impulses that you do about summit protests. On the other hand, I have two quibbles with this —
    “if the first wave of actions attempted to both disrupt the summits’ proceedings and create new political assemblages, the habitual impulse to protest since then seems to have accomplished very little of that. Some of the actions, in fact, seem to be no more than the pro forma registering of dissent and of faux outrage at politicians’ ignoring of demands and the police’s controlling of movement, as if anyone’s truly shocked when police repress.”

    It seems to me that some of this very subjective. Not the disruption, but the creation of new political assemblages and the habitual impulse/pro forma registering. I would bet that if we went looking for those less-than-inspiring elements in the summit protest cycle about ten years ago give or take, we’d probly find a bunch of them. Likewise I would be that if we went looking for the creative impulses you mentioned, I’d guess especially if looking among the newer and younger set than us, we’d probly find that too. I think a lot of this is generational, in the sense of political/movement generations, which seem to be about 3-6 years long.

    On the black bloc I think we’re pretty close too. I don’t find it particularly inspiring or interesting but that says as much about me as anything else. I think it will be nice when we manage to supercede the black bloc — I’m thinking here again of your comments at the start of your post, criticisms of the summit protest format, and the implication of a need to get past that — but I also think, like you, that the criticisism in that article were questionable and poorly voiced.

    On the provacateur thing particularly, though – I think here a lot hinges on whether or not Naomi Klein and others are right when they say that the police deliberately stood down in order to allow maximum property damage for spectacular/legitimizing purposes. There are people I respect who agree with and who strongly reject those claims. I think it’s clearly possible that that might happen, which I think is something worth reflecting on for tactical purposes, but I think a great deal hangs on whether or not that actually *did happen*. (None of which would support the smear about fascists etc.)

    Last thought, about democracy – there’s a decent essay by Don Hamerquist online someplace about Lenin. I have a kneejerk reaction against his effort to recover Lenin but the piece has good a good discussion about democratic practices within movements and mass organizations. Definitely worth a look if you have time.

    take care,

  5. Hey Nate. Good to hear from you. Re. your first point, on the subjective nature of what I wrote, I do agree that there might be forms of organization that I don’t see. I’m writing about the summit protests as a relative outsider, though a pretty well informed one I think. There may be political creations I don’t see, however. For instance, it seems like “reformist” (can’t think of a better word right now) elements that want to represent the unrepresented and negotiate with the summiteers are more prominent now than they used to be, and that many of the groups that maybe previously had been “between” NGOs and black bloc — speaking of both as a tactic — have taken the former route. And yes, even in “Seattle,” there were those who cleaned up Starbucks to differentiate themselves from black block, but the middle space seems smaller to me now. But as you say, I’m likely not in tune enough with the unseen elements of the protests.

    On the black bloc, abstracted from mass protests, I also don’t know what use it would have. But within the protests, I think they are essential, for the unhinging element I mentioned above. I like that black bloc, in this situation, interrupts the ritual of protest. That to me is its value.

    Speaking of, one of the irritating things about that article, one that was less obvious to me at first, was the distinction between organization and insurrection. Maybe it’s because I’m sympathetic with both “sides”, but I think the opposition between them is a false opposition, and the writer’s assumption that only one is possible (not to mention superior) is completely fallacious, which is to say politically damaging. It reads to me like another form of sorting actions into good and bad, without really having a discussion about what those things might mean.

    Re. the provocateur thing. I agree with you that tactically speaking it’s worth thinking about what the police standing down means, but I don’t agree with you that “a great deal hangs on whether that actually did happen.” Besides the impossibility of every actually finding that out, I think it’s a distinction without a difference: in the end, it’s another strategy that must be predicted and adjusted to, but I don’t believe it says anything about the politics of the event.

  6. hi Eric,

    The organization and/or insurrection thing has been on my mind lately. I want to think more about that. It seems to me that unless one is a major gradualist, like a sort of evolutionary socialism, at some point there has to be a big rupture that is analogous to an insurrection. I think the heart of the issue in the short term is about short term priorities and tactics. I’ve been trying to read more in insurrectionary anarchist circles and to do so with an open mind. I haven’t gotten to much more to say than that.

    I’m not sure about the ‘what really happened’ part. If we found out that there was major infiltration going on or police start regularly standing down during certain militant activities while the cameras role and then busting heads, I think that’d be an important change. In that case, tactics ought to change to. I’m thinking in part about the tute bianche stuff in Italy during the summit protest cycle that we were/are both more excited about. I think a lot of what you say about the black bloc could apply to that stuff as well, its destabilizing power etc, as well as the transformative power it could have (seeing the black bloc in Washington DC in 2000 at the world bank/IMF protests had a huge effect on me personally). But after awhile people in those networks decided that the tactic had passed its expiration date. We could quibble about whether or not that was right but I think the basic logic, that tactics might change their efficacy in different circumstances, makes a lot of sense.
    take care,

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