The Black Bloc – a dead end (response to Jonathan Moses)

The Black Bloc ‘tactic’ used at the March 26th anti-cuts demonstration is an entirely counterproductive dead-end.
Owen Jones
6 April 2011

I agree with fellow UCL occupier Jonathan Moses that there needs to be a tactical, rather than a moral debate. But it is genuinely beyond me how the Black Bloc ‘tactic’ is anything other than an entirely counterproductive dead-end.

I was active in the ‘anti-globalisation’ movement of the early 2000s. I was kettled on May Day 2001 in Manchester as a 16-year-old, which is where I first encountered Black Bloc-style tactics. It is interesting how the anti-globalisation movement is barely mentioned even on the left today. That is because – as a directionless, amorphous movement – it lost momentum pretty quickly and made no real lasting political impact.

Black Bloc tactics strike me as a militant twist on consumer boycotts: the same underlying idea (inflict economic damage), but posing absolutely no threat whatsoever to the capitalist system, however good it might make the participants feel.

Firstly, it provides a pretext for the state to crack down on basic civil liberties. For some, this is desirable: it’s long been a tactic among certain types of anarchist to encourage disproportionate actions on the part of the state in order to expose it. But in practice it just leads to repression that undermines the ability of movements to organise.

Secondly, the tactic alienates the vast majority, including most people who would otherwise be sympathetic to our aims. To me the ‘Black Bloc’ tactic strikes me as an example of what happens when activists are confined to a ghettoised radical milieu, without relating what they are doing to non-politicised people. While a poll has shown 73% in support of peaceful civil disobedience, only 3% support actions like smashing windows. To me, this is probably the least surprising finding possible. I don’t understand the rationale of a tactic that has no popular support.

I think the fact that the overwhelming majority of arrests were UKUncut activists – and barely any of those causing property damage – reveals who the state thought was the real threat. Disruptive but peaceful actions enjoy popular support and challenge the wealthy elite, in a way that tokenistic actions that alienate people – like smashing a window – do not.

I know many protesters – especially those with children – who find the sight of an army of black-clad protesters intent on smashing stuff up extremely intimidating. There is, I think, something rather macho and even militaristic about it.

I also found “Brighton Uncut”‘s post describing the response of Vodafone workers in a shop whose windows are being smashed as “collateral distress” pretty abhorrent. To me, that showed an underlying contempt towards working people.

Thirdly, the tactic purges protests of ‘ordinary’ people. Most people do not want to be in situations where they are associated with – or in the vicinity of – vandalism or violence, or face the prospect of arrest. If people feel they will end up in such a situation by going to a protest, they will simply stop going.

Fourthly, it substitutes for the collective power of the working-class. As far as I’m concerned, only the labour movement – the largest democratic force in the country, representing 7 million working people – can challenge this Government and capitalism as a whole. But Black Bloc tactics seem to be about a self-selecting elite (i.e. those with the stomach for causing property damage) taking the initiative in their place. They have no way of relating to this organised power of working people, and in my experience, some even have contempt for it.

Fifthly, Black Bloc tactics are easily infiltrated. Anyone can get involved – you just need to mask up and wear black. Video footage has already emerged of police agents working behind the lines.

Sixthly, it poses zero threat to capitalism. Insurance covers all the damage, and some low-paid workers clear up the debris. But other than providing the pretext for further repression, providing copy for the right-wing media, dividing and alienating many of our supporters, and making those involved feel better, I just don’t get what purpose Black Bloc tactics serve. It lets capitalism off the hook: in place of building a genuine mass movement, people can feel they’re challenging the ruling class by throwing a brick at a window.

One of the arguments put in favour of the Black Bloc is that ‘the violence of capitalism is worse’. Well yeah, obviously – but that doesn’t vindicate it as a useful tactic.

There are those who put up a false dichotomy – it’s either actions like this, or A to B marches. But there should be a range of actions that are open to all, not simply a vanguard of the most radicalised elements: protests, strikes, and peaceful civil disobedience.

Of course I understand that the labour movement has a responsibility to organise a coherent, democratic movement, otherwise more young people may end up being attracted to Black Bloc-style tactics. But if that happens, it is a sign of failure, not of success.

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