On March 26, a movement that has existed for several decades but has largely been absent from UK politics, known as “Black Bloc”, emerged from the shadows and scared the living daylights out of Middle England. They blitzed central London, smashing the windows of the Ritz and the high street facades of corporate giants, threw paint and smoke bombs, and ran rings around the police.
The media quickly vilified Black Bloc’s activities, and “anarchist” became a by-word for hooligan. The blogosphere held more nuanced debates about the role of Black Bloc in the March 26 protests. Across the board, however, there was little consensus as to whether it was an effective form of protest against the cuts.
A few groups are calling for Black Bloc to take part on the trade union demo on June 30. Here I want to argue that the presence of Black Bloc on J30 would be a mistake. I am not making the claim that Black Bloc has no place ever; but I will suggest that the way it is currently being practiced in the UK, more generally, is misguided.
Engaging with Black Bloc
Black Bloc came to prominence in the Seattle protests against the WTO in 1999. As David Graeber pointed out in the New Left Review, after Seattle, anarchists became the driving force of leftist activism (if not theory). He suggested this was predicated by a growing anarchist movement in the Global South to fight neoliberalism, starting with the Zapatistas. It’s time, Graeber argued, that anarchists were engaged with politically and intellectually.
Anarchists are rapidly becoming influential in the UK. Many of those who took part in the student protests of 2010 have been inspired by the anarchist-influenced process of consensus decision-making. They also realized when they lost the vote on the Brown Report that the state acts in the interests of capital, not the people.
I respect the radicalization of youth and the anarchist position, and this article is not intended to refute it. Instead, my main claim is that the presence of Black Bloc on June 30 would be misguided, for the three reasons laid out below.
Black Bloc is a tactic not an organization (although this is contested). Anyone can join, it has no hierarchy, no membership structures, and few rules; although it does have a uniform – black clothes and a black mask.
Aesthetics are very important to Black Bloc’ers. As Jonathan Moses writes, the uniform represents the two pillars of Black Bloc thought – collective anonymity and mutual aid. Wearing all black symbolizes one’s respect for others’ anonymity and a shared understanding that you will help each other if needed. The sight of a mass of black-clad bodies moving in tandem also represents “a visual manifestation of social negation”; a challenge to the capitalist orthodoxy that excludes alternative viewpoints.
While Black Bloc is certainly visually arresting, the conflation of dressing in black and masking-up with progressive challenges to the status quo is untenable. We only have to look at the UVF riots in Belfast last week to see that donning a mask is not always a sign of progressive politics; it can represent regressive, sectarian, thuggish, reactionary politics. There is nothing necessarily progressive about it. For a general public who are used to seeing balaclava-clad men portrayed as terrorists, and who are unfamiliar with the history of Black Bloc, it’s easy to mistake the latter for the former. To an outsider, Black Bloc looks scary.
To insiders, the Black Bloc uniform is inclusive and a symbol of solidarity; to outsiders it is intimidating and frightening. A swarm of masked men is not something you want to see if you’re on a demo with a buggy. The presence of Black Bloc might put-off people who would otherwise attend a protest. Maybe this won’t happen on J30, where people will want to get out and support their union; but if the bloc show up again, it might make them think twice in future.
As I’ve pointed out before, the aesthetics of the group also create the conditions for their downfall. Anyone can dress in black, mask-up and join in – people who want to smash stuff up for fun, or… the police. We know that the police infiltrated Black Bloc on March 26. A YouTube video that mysteriously disappeared, showed an undercover policeman in Black Bloc uniform, displaying his ID to get through the police lines.
The desire to protect one’s anonymity while protesting, however, is understandable. Protestors are regularly filmed and photographed by the police, and arbitrarily arrested, as anyone involved in the students demos or UKuncut will know. But protecting your anonymity doesn’t require dressing all in black. Covering your face can be creative, which leads me to my next point.
In a highly influential article discussing the role of Black Bloc in the Seattle protests, “On the Phenomenology of Giant Puppets”, Graeber explains some of the theory behind the aesthetics of the movement. He writes,
“Consumer capitalism renders us isolated passive spectators, our only relation to one another our shared fascination with an endless play of images that are, ultimately, representations of the very sense of wholeness and community we have thus lost. Property destruction, then, is an attempt to “break the spell”, to divert and redefine. It is a direct assault on the Spectacle.”
The smashing of windows breaks us out of the magical hold that capitalism has over us, which makes us forget that there are alternative ways of living. However, property destruction is only one side of the coin. The other is giant puppets.
The Seattle protests saw a proliferation of giant puppets paraded through the streets. Graeber argues that the police actually hated the puppets more than Black Bloc and destroyed them whenever they got the chance. Why?
The puppets showed the ability of activists to turn ephemeral concepts and substances – “ideas, paper, wire mesh” – into real, tangible challenges to authority. The puppets represented the possibility of new forms of power, of creativity, of new ways of seeing and thinking. This was much more of a threat to the police (a status quo institution) than the property damage of Black Bloc, which they knew how to deal with.
The puppeteers also served a more practical purpose. When violence looked imminent they stepped in to diffuse the situation, creating a playful, carnival atmosphere to counter the aggression of the bloc and riot police.
The puppets were the creative yin to the bloc’s destructive yang. As we know, all destructive yang is not going to achieve much; certainly not the desired effect of Black Bloc’ers– real change, direct democracy. In fact, it does the opposite.
It allows the police to clamp down on dissent, and for the authorities and media to dismiss anarchists as violent crazies with no real ideas or morals. It gives them license to portray anarchists as an entirely destructive, regressive force in direct conflict with the “public interest”. All of the positive elements of anarchism – direct democracy, distributed power, the rejection of social hierarchy – are lost in this narrative; and that’s because Black Bloc on its own doesn’t demonstrate any of them.
Art Against Cuts did provide some of that spectacle on March 26, most notably a giant Trojan horse that occupied Oxford Circus. But there was much less expression of anarchist creativity than at Seattle and far too little to counter the force of the bloc.
You can’t expect Joe Bloggs on the street to be familiar with Kropotkin, the intricacies of anarcho-syndicalism or the consensus decision-making process. All that Black Bloc is showing them is (what is interpreted as) violent destruction. Black Bloc needs the creative, constructive protest of new possibilities to balance out its destructive potential, and also to fulfill the practical purpose of diffusing potentially violent situations. The bloc is only one part of the anarchist aesthetic.
In another influential analysis of the Seattle protests, Elizabeth Martinez’s “Where was the color in Seattle?”, it was pointed out that the vast majority of Seattle protesters were white, even though people of color are most affected by the WTO’s policies. We know of the Black Bloc protests on March 26 in London, that they were majority white, male and middle class. As this blog post points out, however, it’s one thing to highlight this, and another to explain why it is a problem. I want to suggest that it is a problem, a very big problem indeed.
If we know that Black Bloc are majority (not all) middle class, white men, what does that look like to outsiders who don’t know about anarchism? What it looks like is a bunch of white, middle class men being aggressive and destructive - the oppressors being violent yet again. Who wants that? Why would the disadvantaged, marginalized groups Black Bloc claims to represent, or at least to be fighting for, want to join in? It just looks like the same old story – privileged men venting their aggression. And who cleans up the mess? Most probably immigrant women of color - some of the most marginalized people in late capitalist society.
Identity politics, while it mushroomed in the 90s, is still highly influential and important to people. The identity of Black Bloc’ers is deeply off-putting. If Black Bloc are really fighting for the global proletariat, they need to engage with the proletariat and get them on board. Otherwise all they are representing is their own frustrated aggression.
I would conjecture that it will be hard to get many people of color involved. In the article “Challenging Imperial Feminism”, Valerie Amos and Pratibha Parmar studied Greenham Common. They argued the protest was populated almost entirely by white women, with a few black women doing the catering. To the white, middle-class women, the police brutality they faced was a revelation. For women of color, however, it was a reality they faced on a regular basis, which is why they didn’t get involved.
If a black man or woman got picked up from Black Bloc they would be in court, then jail faster than you can say “commune”. This is a harsh reality that most white people don’t have to face. Also, the more privileged of those involved will likely have some sort of access to a lawyer (a friend, family friend) to get them out of trouble. Most people in BME communities don’t have that option. Institutionalized racism makes it more difficult for people of color to get involved in Black Bloc. This is why race is an important element in the debate, and it shouldn’t be ignored.
In terms of gender, there were definitely many women involved in Black Bloc on March 26, and I would imagine in other Black Bloc protests. But it would be hard to deny that the bloc presents a hyper -“masculine” image of aggression, destruction, and rage. It doesn’t portray itself as representing an alternative for caregivers; people (majority women) who look after children and other dependents. Not only can you not bring dependents along, but if you participate and get hurt, you can’t look after the people who need you. Black Bloc is only really an option for independent men and privileged women, not for those who have responsibilities to others.
Moses uses the unfortunate terminology that Black Bloc is a reaction to the “violent emasculation” by the state of its citizens. In other words, Black Bloc is a lot of men waving their genitals around to prove their masculinity in the face of the all-powerful government and police – “we have balls too.” While I’m sure those in Black Bloc aren’t really thinking that, it does lend itself to this kind of interpretation.
I don’t want to go down the reductive route of saying the bloc is the masculine component which is balanced by the feminine carnival. We should be asking, however, why more men get involved in Black Bloc than women, and recognize that aesthetically muscle-flexing has exclusionary macho connotations, and practically that it is difficult for caregivers to get involved.
In term of disability, the bloc is also exclusionary. Physical disabilities, including being paralyzed, deaf or blind, would preclude participation in the bloc. Mental disability could also be a barrier.
However, anyone and everyone can take part in the carnival counterpart to the bloc. It is inclusive where Black Bloc is exclusive. This is another reason why the bloc needs its yin; all masculine, white, destructive yang is again not demonstrating the inclusivity and possibilities of anarchism, where everyone, no matter what color, gender, age or level of able-bodiedness can represent themselves.
My final point is that the ideology of anarchism sits uncomfortably with the June 30 protests. These strikes and protests are about public sector workers fighting to maintain their pensions provided by the state. They are struggling for the state to remain a powerful force in this country, for the maintenance of its current level of involvement and even for its expansion. Surely this is in direct contradiction to the aims of anarchism to smash the state?
There is a fine line between libertarianism (the ideology of some Tories) and anarchism. Libertarianism and anarchism both advocate the rolling back of the state. In both philosophies, the state is an oppressive force, which has too much power; because power is always corrupting and nefarious, we must dismantle the state so it is distributed rather than centralized.
Where the philosophies differ is that libertarians are pro-private property and anarchists are against it. Left-wing anarchists can claim to support the welfare state therefore, because it protects those with no access to private property until such times as all property is shared in common. There does seem to be a discord, however, between the anarchists’ ultimate vision of society (autonomous, self-organizing communities) and the trade unions’ vision of a strong state creating lots of jobs and supporting all of the population. June 30 is not about anarchism; it’s about preserving the state.
Because of this, I would suggest, a trade union-organized demo is not the place for expressing the anarchist vision of society. Anarchists might want to express solidarity. However, having a black bloc on the demo will be easily spun as hijacking it.
The media disseminates information about what happened to everybody not present on a demo. If Black Bloc are there, all we will see on the front pages are pictures of black-clad bodies smashing windows and throwing smoke bombs. We won’t see the pictures of rank and file trade unionists, standing up for their rights, using their preferred method of protest - striking and marching. This is a march for public sector workers. Let them have their say. If the bloc takes part, their voices will be drowned out. Across the country, people who get their information from mainstream media sources will be led to believe that “evil, violent anarchists” destroyed the protests yet again; that J30 was a failure. Black Bloc participation would do the unions a disservice.
In conclusion, then, Black Bloc is a misguided tactic for J30. In terms of the internal logic of anarchism, the way Black Bloc is currently being practiced it is not representative - until anarchists get more organized (or have more self-organized networks than they currently have in this country) and can represent the creative as well as the destructive side of anarchism, the bloc will be counter-productive; anarchists also need to address issues of diversity.. In terms of J30 specifically, the ultimate aims of the bloc are different to those of the unions. This is a public sector, trade union demo. The presence of the bloc could scare away other protestors, it will drown out their voices in the media and it contradicts their demands. Ultimately, The presence of Black Bloc on June 30 would be a hindrance not a help.
1. Note from New Left Project: we have already tried to commission a reply to this piece and would welcome submissions in defence of Black Bloc. Contact us at email@example.com
Maeve Mckeown is a Political Theory PhD Student at University College London and a New Left Project contributing editor.