In defence of Black Bloc

The state, with its monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, can afford to be idiotic in its analysis of the black bloc, denouncing their actions on March 26th as "mindless violence". But the clamouring within the anti-cuts movement to disown this element violates the basic principles of solidarity.

In his 2006 Malinowski lecture at the LSE, David Graeber observed that any relationship underwritten by violence is analytically unequal. That is to say that it is always the weakest and most vulnerable in a partnership that has to do the hard work understanding the other person: ‘interpretative labour’, as Graeber calls it, is really a one way street. Those with control of the means of violence have the rare luxury of stupidity.

Our relationship with the state is underwritten by violence. Max Weber defined it in exactly those terms: as that which has a “monopoly on the legitimate use of violence”. So it is little wonder that the British government could afford to be idiotic in its analysis of black bloc, the “mindless thugs” who, on March 26th, broke the windows of banks, the Ritz, a Porsche dealership and Ann Summers. To Wes Streeting’s horror, they even threw paint at Topshop.

There is a worthwhile internal debate to be had about the efficacy of vandalism, the limits and acceptability of ‘political violence’. But claims that this was the act of “idiots… Basic idiots… Advanced level Über-Idiots… thugs”, who did the anti-cuts campaign “huge damage” are absurd. The rapid clamouring of everyone – with the honourable exception of UK Uncut – to disown this element of the movement should be called what it is: a violation of the basic principles of solidarity, and a regurgitation of the semantic idiocy of the powerful.

Black bloc is not an organisation; it is a tactic which arose concurrently with increasingly draconian methods of modern policing. It has its own history, its own shared understanding. It is not homogenous – neither in its politics nor its advocacy of any one form of action over another. In so much as it has an order; it consists of numerous small affinity groups, each with their own perspective of what can and cannot be justified, and each with their own willingness to act in any given way. It functions solely on two key principles: collective anonymity and mutual aid.

Networks are formed around such basic values, which are then reified aesthetically. People who choose to mask up and wear black on a demonstration are not declaring their desire to attack property; rather that they respect the autonomous agency of others – and are willing to defend them as necessary. The rationale of black bloc then, far from the clichés of aggression, is inherently defensive. Individuals within the bloc act, but it is the collective who assume the burden of defence.

The aesthetics of black bloc, of any network, define the parameters of the actions which take place within it – which is why the division between people, rather than praxis, is flawed. UK Uncut for instance maintain a ‘civil’ form of disobedience – consequently their aesthetics are open, everyday, civilian. It is this aesthetic distinction which ensures the “trust and confidence that one's fellow participants in a UK Uncut protest share a commitment to non-violence” which Stuart White worries they lose by not condemning black bloc. But Stuart’s formulation is incorrect: rather, it is the forum of UK Uncut that guarantees non-violence, not the philosophy of any and all individuals – how could a network self-police such an assurance? How can he be sure black bloc and UK Uncut weren’t fluid, interchangeable networks? This is why, as Aaron Peters points out, UK Uncut cannot, and need not, condemn anyone. 

The argument follows that Saturday’s demonstrations was about the TUC, that anarchists “hijacked” the protest to get some cheap publicity. This seems an odd accusation when followed with what is normally the next objection ‘500 000 people marched, and yet the headlines the next day where all about the vandalism of black bloc!’ Did half a million people really march on March 26th in order to get some banal headlines (some “cheap publicity”) in the few papers that could be bothered to report it? Is the form of our protest now so intertwined with polite spectacle that we would rather self-sanitise than resist? No one has a monopoly on dissent. Not the TUC, nor any other organisation.

The thoughtless responses to black bloc in part indicate the extent to which the political education of the anti-cuts movement is still extremely uneven. For a student on their fourth major demonstration since November – now familiar with police Forward Intelligence Teams, the arbitrary brutality of the TSG – covering one’s face and operating collectively makes perfect sense. For others however it will seem intimidating and unnecessary, excluding those around it in participation. This is certainly a problem, but the answer is not to act as if participants are not part of the same society, aren't a product of it, don't have a critique of it, and are simply 'other'.

It is not just our education which is uneven, but our battles. Whilst the anti-cuts movement all have cause in common, for some it is livelihood, for some it is their lifestyle. For anarchists, their relationship to the state (and by extension the government) is de-facto antagonistic; its revolutionary objectives born as much from desperate survival as much as an assertive politics. So as the spaces more or less independent from the logics of state-sponsored capitalism come under increasing threat – public forums, universities, and squatting communities – the sense of besiegement is palpable. The unequivocal law of nature stands: cornered animals act out.

This is important because those involved in black bloc are also those most likely to have encountered state violence in its purest form. Whether a bailiff kicking through a squat door, a police baton to the body; or the inchoate despair of unaddressed destitution. The bloc arises as a sort of collective counterpoint to this violent emasculation – a visual manifestation of social negation. So whilst its aims are primarily tactical, its aesthetics are nonetheless politically inscribed. Dick Hebdige notes in his book Subculture how style can constitute a form of everyday resistance: black bloc takes this further, its style at use in both practicable and metaphorical dissent.

A word on violence. By which we seem to mean, as far as I can discern, not violence but vandalism. And not arbitrary vandalism either. The targets accumulatively read like a sort of summarial revenge against the worst excesses foisted upon us by capitalist society: the banking sector (financial nihilism), Ann Summers (commodified sexuality), the Ritz and a Porsche dealership (egregious wealth). All of them strong enough, rich enough, to render property damage immaterial. Rather than a single high profile occupation like Fortnum and Masons, their action was the sum of its parts; a revolution targeted not at the government, at a singular major corporation, but where we feel it most: everyday life. So perhaps its political point – of the stolen everyday – was best articulated that evening as Trafalgar square was violently cleansed: by morning, even our riots will vanish from this earth.

Contrary to Milibandian revisionism, these forms of direct action have a long history. The Suffragettes broke more windows on Oxford Street than black bloc would have dared. They ripped up paintings in the national gallery. They planted a bomb at Lloyd George’s Surrey villa. The Civil Rights movement, another example of Ed’s “peaceful but powerful protest” has been mysteriously excised of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. By contrast, the action of black bloc was decidedly non-violent. Yet we refuse to accord economic rights the same legitimacy as the right not to be discriminated by race and gender, we deny that struggle the same right to resist.

Whilst the Labour movement floundered in the 1980s, this historical myopia also conveniently forgets the alter-globalisation movement which sprung up later that decade, when black bloc first came to media prominence. With links that spread all the way from the Zapatistas of the Chiapas to the streets of Prague, London, Genoa, Seattle and Berlin; “anarchists” and their methods were at the forefront of the struggle against neoliberalism. Yet in the press, anarchists are said to have “hijacked” the TUC protest (even before it had begun), whilst police chief Bob Broadhurst “wouldn’t even call them protesters.” The way anarchists are denied (by left and right alike) their political agency, their political history, rings of an intuitive complicity with late-capitalist ideology: a factory belt for false nostalgia and forgetting. 

In Milan Kundera’s essay Testaments Betrayed he looks uneasily about him at those who, having supported Communism in one era, became its sternest denouncers in the next. History had moved on, but the people within it remained static, faithfully assimilated to the dominant dogma of the time.

“This change is neither their own creation nor their own invention, not caprice or surprise or thought or madness; it has no poetry; it is nothing but a very prosaic adjustment to the changing spirit of History. That is why they don’t even notice it; in the final right, always thinking what, in their milieu, a person is supposed to think; they change not in order to draw closer to some essential self but in order to merge with everyone else; changing lets them stay unchanged.”

Nobody will denounce the Suffragettes today, or the civil rights movement. Not Ed Miliband and the Labour Party. Not Brendan Barber and the TUC. Let us not fall into the same trap of condemning those who fight in the present because it is ‘respectable’. We may just find ourselves changing to stay unchanged, whilst History changes spirit,  finding redemption in posterity.

About the author

Jonathan Moses is a political activist and teacher of English Literature, History and Sociology in Kent. He is starting an MA in Architectural History next year at UCL (Bartlett School of Architecture).