On the Black Bloc

The “internecine ultra-left argument of the moment,” says the Wall Street Journal, is the debate over the “black bloc.” And if this debate has led the WSJ to talk about “ultra-leftism,” it’s clearly a debate we have to address.

In a report called “Activists and Anarchists Speak for Themselves at Occupy Oakland,” Susie Cagle reminds us that the recent major instances of street-fighting, which have been cited by liberals critical of the black bloc, force us to abandon the stereotype of ski-masked vandals breaking windows. She writes:

The buildings Occupy Oakland marched toward were not targeted for destruction, but for squatting, for organization and for political and community building. And the protesters who came armed with plastic, wood and metal shields, who both moved on and defended others from the police, were not a bloc, were not dressed in black and did not move as one unit.

“Black bloc is not a lifestyle choice, but a tactical one,” Cagle argues. She points out that the only recent manifestation of the black bloc was during the November 2nd “general strike,” when bank windows were smashed, “STRIKE” was spray-painted on a Whole Foods, and the Travelers Aid Building was briefly occupied, all by a group clad in black.

But somehow, even though all sides acknowledge that the real issue is street-fighting as such, the black bloc has become the representative figure of the debate, summing up the tension between “nonviolence” and “diversity of tactics,” property destruction and legal marches, anarchism and liberalism.

This is no accident. The history of the black bloc reveals a great deal about our current moment – it can even help us to understand the nature of squatting. But before tracing this history, we should deal with definitions.

Strategy and Tactics

Since much of the contemporary debate over the black bloc has revolved around the meaning of a “diversity of tactics,” a concept which actually emerged nearly a decade ago, let’s take a moment to define “tactics.” This means defining “strategy” as well, since the two terms have no meaning outside their relationship with each other.

A tactic, it is often said, is a specific set of maneuvers used to win a localized engagement. A strategy, on the other hand, is the way these discrete engagements are coherently strung together to realize a broader objective. The two therefore form a reciprocal relationship in practice as well as in theory. Without a strategy, tactics only produce isolated skirmishes; without tactics, a strategy is only an unfulfilled dream.

Militant confrontation through street-fighting, which has been personified by the black bloc today, is a tactic, since it represents a specific way to win a specific encounter. It can stand alone or be complemented by a number of other tactics, such as peaceful marches, boycotts, or even voting, to name just a few. Calling for a “diversity of tactics” just means that all such tactics should be left open for future engagements. But this innocuous and seemingly obvious position, which, in theory, could refer to every imaginable tactic, has now come to adopt a highly specific meaning. The phrase no longer refers to the need to pursue a plurality of positions, but rather to the question of the continued viability of a single tactic: street-fighting, especially within the black bloc paradigm.

The obsession over the black bloc in the past few months is a distorted reflection of the very real predominance of this tactic in contemporary struggles. This is somewhat odd, because in our current cycle of struggle, the black bloc has genuinely appeared in only a few areas, mainly the Northwest United States. But while the tactic’s geographic reach is somewhat localized, its presence in the movement’s collective imagination has grown to immense proportions. It seems like the black bloc is everywhere, a palpable reality, something everyone has to take a side on – even, and perhaps especially, those who haven’t actually seen it in action firsthand.

But it’s precisely the continued obsession with this single tactic that prevents us from seriously interrogating the necessary other term in this relationship: strategy. The discussions over the so-called “diversity of tactics” indicate the problem: by focusing all our energies on disputing the merits of a tactic, we end up neglecting strategy altogether. A “diversity of tactics” has little to do with strategy; in fact, it seems to replace strategy with liberal pluralism. The question isn’t whether to pursue a “diversity of tactics,” but rather: what kind of strategy allows us to effectively incorporate a diverse range of tactics?

It soon becomes clear that the hypertrophy of this tactic is actually a direct result of the atrophy of any corresponding strategy. As Alberto Toscano has recently written, “if something marks out the contemporary resurgence of theoretical interest in communism, across its various species, it is the almost total neglect of the question of strategy.” We might also add that since strategy and tactics can only exist in a reciprocal relationship, the deformation – or perhaps even absence – of former can only lead to a destabilization of the latter.

The symptom of this destabilization is the compulsion to repeat. The tactic of street-fighting is now being repeated obsessively, overcompensating for the shortage of strategy. At its crudest, this just means repeating the same thing over and over again in the hopes of forcing some kind of breakthrough; some claim that the repetition of a tactic will in itself generate a strategy.

Others suggest that a tactical defeat might produce a strategic victory. On the one hand, this position implies the conceptual collapse of two distinct categories into one; on the other, it seems to represent the very essence of teleological thinking. Though they’re related, strategies don’t organically emerge out of tactics. Suggesting that the repetition of a single tactic will naturally and spontaneously give birth to a strategy does not do justice to the complexity of their relationship.

We have a militant tactic without a correspondingly militant strategy, locked into compulsively repeating the bloated tactic in order to miraculously produce the absent strategy. And since this whole impasse is being represented by the dramatic image of the black bloc, we should trace the history that led us here.

A Genealogy of the Black Bloc

The roots of today’s black bloc reach back to the experiences of the European “autonomist” movements of the late 1970s and early 1980s. At that time, capitalists in a number of states were consciously undermining the militancy of the mass worker by shifting to a new regime of accumulation. This restructuring was characterized by systematic decentralization, flexibilization, and territorial disarticulation of the production process. This shift, which has somewhat simplistically been regarded as a move away from industrial factories towards the more dispersed production of services, information, and knowledge, involved a transformation of the terrain of the city. On the one hand, public spaces once used by the proletariat – such as youth centers, parks, and meeting places – were destroyed. On the other hand, spaces once used by the great industrial companies – such as warehouses, factories, sheds – were being abandoned as capitalists reoriented their business practices. In Italy, for example, Pierpaolo Mudu notes that by the late 1990s, “industrial property across a total area of 7 million sq m had been vacated in Milan alone.”

The Italian working class responded to this restructuring by launching another cycle of struggle in which these abandoned buildings were seized all over the North, once the heartland of Italian heavy industry, and antagonistically transformed into bases of autonomous proletarian power. In fact, the first of these bases, or what would later be called “social centers,” arose in the vacant spaces of Milan in 1975. Though the social centers, which began to cohere into a kind archipelago of liberated spaces, or what would later be defined as “Autonomia,” engaged in a broad number of activities – facilitating political debates, offering legal advice, organizing solidarity actions for marginalized groups, establishing libraries, holding concerts, reaching out to surrounding neighborhoods, and so on – their significance for the Italian communists was in their role as “modern-day soviets,” or centers of autonomous power developed in direct opposition to the state.

The revolutions of the twentieth century were sparked by the challenge of syndicalism, which advanced the idea of self-management in workers’ councils – in Russia called soviets. Paolo Virno, who participated in Autonomia, has tried to theorize the general logic of the soviet form, no doubt strongly inspired by the social centers of his own time. Virno describes soviets as “the organs of nonrepresentative democracy,” the space in which the cooperation and creativity that capital increasingly relies upon for production can take on an independent public existence. Their goal is to “emancipate virtuosic cooperation from its present connection with waged labor.” In this regard the social centers are recasted as historical attempts to reanimate the soviet form for a context marked by “post-Fordism,” and the visible importance of knowledge and communication in the rapidly expanding service sector.

Soviets have historically been the foundation for revolutionary explosions; Virno writes that they “interfere conflictually with the State’s administrative apparatuses, with a view to eating away at its prerogatives and absorbing its functions.” This does not mean reproducing the state – for Virno, the soviets break totally with the the “normativity of comand,” the bureaucratic ideals of “representation and delegation”:

Whether it is a question of the distribution of wealth or the organization of schools, the functioning of the media or the workings of the inner city, the Soviets elaborate actions that are paradigmatic and capable of blossoming into new combinations of knowledge, ethical propensities, technologies, and desires.

The social center form of soviet power, though made famous early on by the Italians, was by no means limited to them – a very similar phenomenon took place in Germany. Though there was a “German Autumn” of militancy in 1977, the movement only really picked up a few years later, when the squatters first began to consolidate. Soon after 1980, the squatters movement took the initiative, retaking hundreds of homes throughout West Germany, and the “Autonomen” brought the soviets home. They began to form their own councils, organize national congresses of squatters, and, as in Italy, used their social centers to eat away at the state.

It became clear, however, that these militant spaces could never escape state repression. From the very beginning, in fact, the Autonomen were on alert, knowing themselves to be under attack, prime targets for the police. After the “Free Republic of Wendland” – a liberated space in Gorleben – was violently dispersed in 1980 by the largest deployment of police in Germany since Hitler, and after a wave of systematic attacks on squatters in West Berlin in December of that year, it became obvious that if they were to survive, the Autonomen would have to protect themselves in more militant ways. Groups of armed Autonomen, whose power was rooted in the social centers, quickly emerged to defend these spaces. A necessary task, no doubt, but one which would eventually consume all the energies of the movement, polarizing the Autonomen and weakening their solidarity.

“As their militant actions became attacked even by their allies,” notes historian George Katsiaficas, “radicals became increasingly autonomous – some would say isolated – from mainstream protesters and came to constitute their own source of collective identity.” These militant groups, who now engaged in offensive strikes as well strictly defensive maneuvers, began to forge a collective identity through the monopolization of a single tactic: militant confrontation through street-fighting. By the mid-1980s, as repression continued to escalate, these militant groupings solidified their cultural identity, sometimes in opposition to the rest of the movement. “The black leather jackets worn by many people at demonstrations and the black flags carried by others signalled less an ideological anarchism than a style of dress and behavior,” Katsiaficas writes. Black clothes, black flags, ski masks, helmets, and punk became “symbols of a way of life.” It is here that the modern black bloc was born.

But it was precisely at this point, when the black bloc began to fuse itself into a distinct entity, that the autonomous movements that originated it actually began to decline. This was the historical reality underlying the ideology of the black bloc. The tactic, in fact, emerged in large part as a way to stop this internal disintegration. Many activists believed that their instability was purely the result of state repression, and they assumed that the organized defense of the social centers would actually reverse this process of decomposition.

In truth, the autonomous movements, in both Germany and Italy, were on the verge of collapse. As they developed a strongly internal and oppositional identity, they found themselves increasingly incapable of reaching beyond the hegemony of a single proletarian figure. They failed to link with different layers of the working class, and were unable to form a coalition with the broader masses. Earlier in the century, when soviets were first born, this had meant linking the proletariat to the peasantry. In the late 1970s and 1980s, it meant linking the “advanced” sector of the proletariat, in this case the “social worker” – or less contentiously, a kind of amalgam of students, youth, and precarious workers that drifted through a disintegrating welfare system – to the rest of the working class. Unable, or perhaps unwilling to link the different segments of the class together, the black bloc became nothing but the rudiments of a defensive military force.

The eventual disappearance of the social centers, however, did not necessarily entail the disappearance of those militant groupings that were originally created to protect those besieged spaces. In fact, they lived on, but their function grew more and more ambiguous. In the mid-1990s, for example, some activists in Italy decided to form Tute Bianche, or the “White Overalls,” as a direct response to the disintegration of the surviving social centers. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri describe the grouping:

The youths in the social centers began to recognize the new paradigm of work that characterized their experiences: the mobile, flexible, precarious work typical of Post-Fordism… Rather than the traditional blue overalls of the old factory worker, white overalls represented this new proletariat… They claimed they were the ‘invisible’ workers, since they had no fixed contacts, no security, no basis for identification. The whiteness of their overalls was meant to represent this invisibility. And this invisibility that characterized their work would also prove to be the strength of their movement.

The White Overalls represented a final attempt to revitalize the social centers in light of changed historical conditions. When it became clear, after 2001, that the effort had failed, that their social basis could not be resuscitated, and that their particular form of struggle had reached its historical limits, the White Overalls decided to disappear.

The fate of the black bloc would be different. The tactic was reborn, and in fact truly came into its own, only after being transplanted to the United States – specifically Seattle in 1999 – where a movement comparable to the German Autonomen had never existed. This geographical distance powerfully represented the historical distance between the reborn black bloc and its constituting organs in the earlier cycle of struggle. The American black bloc, unlike the White Overalls, was not born in the social centers.

It was really with the eruption of the anti-globalization movement, stretching from around 1999 to 2003, that the black bloc tactic, now totally disconnected from the very idea of the social centers, began to survive independently by refashioning itself into something other than just a tactic. The vast majority of those who formed the ranks of the black bloc in Seattle had no direct memory of the German Autonomen of the early 1980s, separated by a sharp generational divide, and so had little choice but to reconstruct a new identity for themselves. The rebirth of the black bloc came at a price: the insurmountable contradiction between its existence as a tactic and its existence as an identity. Though the defeat of the anti-war movement, the onset of the Bush years, and the decline of an organized Left, forced the black bloc to more or less disappear as a material tactic, it paradoxically consolidated its identity, granting it a mystical afterlife that is being resurrected and fetishized today.

A Floating Tactic

After decades of capitalist restructuring, there are no longer squatters to defend. With the definitive dismantling of the welfare state that once provided the conditions in which autonomous movements could emerge, and the violent repression of the social centers that remained, the squatters who once formed the social basis for the black bloc have disappeared.

Separated from these foundations, the black bloc has continued to live on as a kind of floating tactic. Now in its afterlife, the idea of the black bloc explicitly reproduces a single tactic in the hopes of rediscovering the strategy it emerged from. At a superficial level, it was a street-fighting tactic that used black clothes and masks to anonymously confront the state, and occasionally destroy property. But after its death and rebirth, the black bloc has become a particular ideology of street-fighting: the use of confrontation with police to displace contradictions internal to the movement. And the movement is left to oscillate between two supplementary ideologies, two unconscious strategies, in the name of the “diversity of tactics.”

The first involves deliberately planning police confrontations in the hopes of spectacularizing the movement for liberal consumption. More of a formula than a strategy, it is applied indiscriminately, with little concern for the specific context, and paradoxically makes the survival of the movement dependent on getting the state to listen.

The second involves trying to force the social centers, once the base of the black bloc, back into existence. Cut adrift, without the social centers that first called them into being, the black bloc ideology now tries to institute them by force. The extraordinarily hostile legal situation, and the overwhelming military power of the state, turn the taking of the building into a framework for street-fighting. And to a certain extent, it’s difficult to think past the performative gesture of reconstituting a social space, which seems to be the goal in itself, rather than the actual construction of the center. We have no reason to believe that a social center can be constructed in the context of street-fighting. The armed Autonomen never created the squatters’ centers; it was the archipelago of autonomous spaces that created the armed Autonomen. And recent experience indicates that in the context of an advanced neoliberalism, social centers probably won’t be the form that organized proletarian self-activity will take today.

In the first case, then, we have a liberal ideology of the present; in the second, a communist ideology of the past. One has led some of the most militant, energetic, and dedicated elements of the movement into unintentional reformism; the other has led these elements into fulfilling the directives handed down from a past that no longer exists.

Neither a liberalism of the present nor a communism of the past is adequate today. The only thing we’re after is a communist strategy for the present. Our task is to attempt to lay the foundations for an organization of proletarian self-activity, in a form that is historically appropriate. It means reinventing the “soviets” for our time, as the autonomists did for theirs; discovering, through a process of collective experimentation, a form of struggle that will resonate with the composition of our class, linking together the various layers of that class, and recomposing this disparate body into an antagonistic subject. Only then will we be able to determine the place in our struggle for the tactic of militant confrontation through street-fighting. Without that, without a coherent communist strategy, all we have is a zombie chasing its own shadow.

Author of the article

is an editor of Viewpoint.