Black Bloc: aesthetics won't beat the cuts

Luke Cooper responds to Jonathan Moses' article on the Black Bloc. He argues that the group's "aesthetic wars" can only be reactionary in nature, not liberating.
Luke Cooper
17 April 2011

Jonathan Moses’ recent defence of the Black Bloc is a provocative contribution to the debate in our movement. I’ve got a lot of respect for the way a very ‘difficult’ argument is broached intelligently. He argues that Black Bloc are not “mindless thugs”, which is clearly true, and that its “aesthetic” of action creates a collective space for opposition to global capitalism.


I want to argue two things: First, that as Walter Benjamin famously put it, “All efforts to make politics aesthetic culminate in one thing, war” - his warning was such “aesthetic wars” would be reactionary not liberating; and, second, that far from being politically collective, the Black Bloc is profoundly individualistic.

These two objections come on top of the straightforward reasons set out by Owen Jones and others like Maeve McKeown as to why such actions are politically counterproductive: they alienate ordinary people; they substitute propaganda of the deed for the collective power of the labour movement and the people; they are easily infiltrated by the state; and, most devastatingly of all, they pose “zero risk to capitalism”.

I write as part of the movement. Many of us are well versed in defending fellow activists from media scares and repression. We’re all united in our trenchant opposition to police violence, our willingness to use all possible effective means to defeat the cuts, our refusal to join the TUC and Labour Party leaders in the chorus of condemnation directed at brothers and sisters in the movement, and our insistence that, as one activist recently put it, “the real troublemakers are in parliament”.

These lines in the sand – drawn in the days of the mass student revolt – have now been so sharply etched onto our collective psyche they have become second nature to even the greenest of activists. But it’s quite possible to hold to these principles and still be frank in our criticism of the Black Bloc action on the 26 March.

As Beth Tichborne writes it was no Millbank – it didn’t organically form part of the protest movement. Its direct action was not an amplification of the message of those marching on the day (who were very angry about the cuts and the Coalition). This time “it actually was a minority, they were separate from the march”, as described on the blog The Top Soil.

On November 10 the direct action at Millbank and occupation of the building housing the Tory Party headquarters led to an increase in opposition to the government. Many shared the anger, felt a lifting of fear, and were inspired to resist because they witnessed a shared protest by thousands outside Millbank.

This didn’t happen on March 26th. On the contrary, the Black Bloc actions were perceived, rightly or wrongly, as the actions of masked vandals and thus lost us support.

While the distorting lenses of the mass media enhanced the protest in November, this time it obscured the commitment of working people who organised to show their opposition, putting at risk in a way that was predictable the support of the huge numbers of ordinary people who are essential to our victory.

What Moses offers instead of an engagement with these issues is a defence of Black Bloc-style tactics couched in terms of the aesthetics of protest, the ethics of vandalism and the autonomy of the affinity network. While his piece certainly challenges ‘mindless thugs’ stereotypes about the Black Bloc, his arguments still don’t add up.

Individual or collective?

Like many forms of horizontal methods of organising the autonomous affinity groups is key to the Black Block perspective. Each is organised autonomously with “its own perspective on what can and cannot be justified” – the principle holding them together is that of “anonymity and mutual aid”. And so Moses argues that the Bloc is “inherently defensive. Individuals within the bloc act, but it is the collective who assume the burden of defence”.

To give such emphasis to the defensive however is disingenuous. For even if not every affinity group intends to carry out property damage, such actions are theorised by Black Bloc-ers as a legitimate form of political escalation, what one anarchist FAQ among numerous describes as “a method for ratcheting up a protest so that it goes beyond mere reformism”.

Anonymity and mutual aid are certainly features of Black Bloc forms of protest for those involved in them, there’s no doubt about that. Yet together they expose the problems with their tactics, not their strengths.

If the actions of the individual or the affinity group are autonomous then they are also unaccountable to the collective. Yet, at the same time, it is the collective who “assume the burden of defence”, whatever the actions the individual takes. Consequently, such actions are intrinsically elitist – as the actions of individual egos lie outside the bounds of any kind of collective and democratic decision-making. It also means that individuals can compel the wider group into a logic of escalation with the state, whether or not it’s rational to do so.

Once these ingredients are mixed in with the anonymity principle then it’s clear why Black Bloc-style actions are infamous for the opportunity they provide for infiltration by state provocateurs – the dark underside of the symbiotic relationship to state violence.

Dealing with these objections by arguing the principles are ‘reified aesthetically’ – that they are formed into a common, a concrete identity related to a political practice – just doesn’t address the substance of the problem. The basic principles are too vague, subject to too much possible contestation when it comes to specific actions, that they still confront the basic problem that the Black Bloc offers no collective mechanism by which it can collectively decide on a course of action. It is therefore inherently individualistic.

The contrast with the principles of collective action that predominate in the labour movement could not be greater. Yes, these institutions suffer from bureaucracy, passivity and inertia and these are negative realities which we must find the means to tackle at the grassroots, but retreating to the fringes of the movement and collapsing into individualism isn’t the answer.  

The TUC doesn’t have a “monopoly on resistance”, but like it or not it represents millions of ordinary people, who are, moreover, the crucial collective agency if we are to achieve any radical change in our lives.  The awakening of wider social layers into action through mass demonstrations is not a “polite spectacle”, but part of a nascent process of mass radicalisation to which we must relate. 

All of the 20th century’s great social movements used the tactic of the mass demonstration to rally their forces, express their strength and create the feeling of collective consciousness that Jean Paul Sartre once evoked in his concept of the ‘group-in-fusion’ – the moment at which we transcend our social subjectivity and realise our collective strength.

If we want to push this emerging movement in a more radical direction we have to engage with is as it is, not how we would like it to be.

Aesthetics or politics?

Finally, we all make intellectual choices about life, our worldview and the forms of political action we choose to take – and no doubt they all come with varying ‘aesthetics’. But treating them as aesthetics first and foremost is enormously problematic.

The way Moses talks about the lifeworld of the anarchist as one which is most likely to encounter “state violence in its purest form”, is not just to romanticise a certain form of living, but also to lose sight of reality. In the days of ASBOs and Stop and Search, no one can seriously argue anarchists have a tendential monopoly on experiencing state violence.

Anarchism doesn’t arise inevitably as a form of “desperate survival”, it is precisely, or at least predominately, what Moses calls an “assertive politics”.

I am an old-fashioned modernist when it comes to all these questions. Political actions should be judged rationally, in their social and historical context, according to their utility in achieving our collective aims and goals – not according to their aesthetics.   

Indeed it is the fetish of the ‘aesthetic’ – the focus on the look and feel of our identities in the formulation of our collective actions – that it is perhaps most difficult for me personally to come to terms with in Moses’ argument. After all, those who emphasised it over ‘the political’ in the 20th century were on the other side of the barricades.

Benjamin’s stark warning surely holds. Sometimes war may indeed be right and rational. But we’d only know if we study the goals, the social context and the balance of forces.  By choosing war at the level of the spectacle large numbers of experienced students escaped being kettled by the police as they raced through the West End of London. But they remained confined to their own ‘shocking’ fashion statement.

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