Yesterday Chris Hedges wrote an attack on the black bloc on Truthdig.com that has gone “viral” in the sense that the Internet is all abuzz about it. Resonating with the sickness metaphor, the appropriately titled article “The Cancer in Occupy” begins:
The Black Bloc anarchists, who have been active on the streets in Oakland and other cities, are the cancer of the Occupy movement. The presence of Black Bloc anarchists—so named because they dress in black, obscure their faces, move as a unified mass, seek physical confrontations with police and destroy property—is a gift from heaven to the security and surveillance state.
As most people realize, the people that Hedges is writing about are not really interested in defending themselves politically. From its inception back in the European autonomist movements of the 1980s, the black-clad activists refuse to answer anybody outside of their ranks. Within the “affinity group”, everything is cool. Outside of it, who gives a shit? Ironically, this kind of elitism is not that different from the “vanguard party” posture which puts the needs of the sect above that of the mass movement.
The European black bloc “autonomy” literally meant that they were not accountable to the rest of the left, particularly the traditional socialist parties and the trade unions that were viewed as the enemy in pretty much the same fashion as “third period” Stalinism. Just a brief history lesson on this. Stalin characterized the period of the late 1920s as the “third period” of capitalism in which communism would be triumphant against both capitalism and a sell-out left that collaborated with it. This led the German CP—infamously—to back a Nazi-initiated referendum to remove a Socialist Party elected official in Saxony.
I would say that trying to persuade a black bloc activist that they are harming the left would be as much of an exercise in futility as persuading a German Stalinist to unite with the SP in the 1920s.
It has been pretty much left up to people outside the “affinity group” to defend its antics against Hedges, who is seen as a liberal sell-out. The defense of the black bloc is mounted in total disregard of whether the tactic is effective and frequently in the most hysterical manner as this comment to my blog:
I identify with the Black Bloc because nuclear power killed my father and made me and my sister sick. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t want to smash something that would stop the madness.
That prompted me to respond:
I would tend to think that mass demonstrations against nuclear power plants would be more effective than spray-painting “Fuck the nuclear energy” on the walls of a Con Edison building. But then again, I am a Marxist and tend to believe in the power of the masses rather than adolescents in black levi jeans acting out.
Some of Hedges’s article is weak. For example, he tries to make the black bloc into some kind of hard-core enemy of the EZLN based on some selective citations, whereas in fact a lot of the black bloc posturing seems to be an idiotic attempt to emulate the Zapatistas, especially the donning of masks. In the 1960s, some of the student left fashioned itself after the Red Guards. Something of the same sort is going on here, I’m afraid.
Perhaps the best part of Hedges’s article is the words of Derrick Jensen, who told him:
Their thinking is not only nonstrategic, but actively opposed to strategy. They are unwilling to think critically about whether one is acting appropriately in the moment. I have no problem with someone violating boundaries [when] that violation is the smart, appropriate thing to do. I have a huge problem with people violating boundaries for the sake of violating boundaries. It is a lot easier to pick up a rock and throw it through the nearest window than it is to organize, or at least figure out which window you should throw a rock through if you are going to throw a rock. A lot of it is laziness.
I wouldn’t change a word of this. I would also concur with Chris Hedges’s take on the psychological dimensions of the black bloc:
The Black Bloc movement is infected with a deeply disturbing hypermasculinity. This hypermasculinity, I expect, is its primary appeal. It taps into the lust that lurks within us to destroy, not only things but human beings. It offers the godlike power that comes with mob violence. Marching as a uniformed mass, all dressed in black to become part of an anonymous bloc, faces covered, temporarily overcomes alienation, feelings of inadequacy, powerlessness and loneliness. It imparts to those in the mob a sense of comradeship.
Some of the angry comments underneath Hedges’s article make the cases that there are plenty of gays and women in the black bloc. One supposes that you have to take them at their word, whether or not that makes the women or gays acting out any less hypermasculine. But more to the point, who knows who is behind the black mask? It is not as if someone put up a Youtube video about the day in the life of a black bloc participant. Can you imagine the intro? “Meet Kenny Goldstein, a web developer by day and a brick thrower by night. Kenny, can you tell us why you got involved with the black bloc?” “Sure, I just came to the conclusion that a spray-painted Whole Foods window is just the thing that can bring capitalism to its knees.”
I also agree with Hedges when he writes:
The Black Bloc’s thought-terminating cliché of “diversity of tactics” in the end opens the way for hundreds or thousands of peaceful marchers to be discredited by a handful of hooligans. The state could not be happier. It is a safe bet that among Black Bloc groups in cities such as Oakland are agents provocateurs spurring them on to more mayhem. But with or without police infiltration the Black Bloc is serving the interests of the 1 percent. These anarchists represent no one but themselves.
My only quibble is whether the black bloc is responsible for the “diversity of tactics” mantra as much as the people who are out in the open as coalition-builders. I am afraid that their sense of “diversity” is drawn from the nonprofit world they inhabit in which weekend retreats in Aspen are devoted to examining how some university or foundation can be more “inclusive”. Horsefeathers, I say.
One of the reasons there has been such a reaction against Hedges from the fellow-travelers of the vandalistas is that he is a highly respected figure. Here is somebody who could have been making millions of dollars a year as a top NY Times reporter or editor and he gave it up because of principle. As someone willing to get arrested for the movement and a good friend of the Occupy movement, he is not easily dismissed. Getting called a cancer by him is something you would prefer to avoid even if you and your posse brag that nobody outside your ranks really matters.
It is becoming increasingly obvious that the left has grown terminally weary of these people, whoever they are.
It is also important to understand that other voices, while not as well known as Hedges, have also come down fairly hard against the black bloc.
Whatever problems people have with Counterpunch, the last thing that can be said about it is that it is “liberal” or that it has a fetish over nonviolence. With that in mind, it was of some significance that they chose to publish an article by Osha Neumann, a Berkeley lawyer who is an advocate for the homeless, titled “It’s Okay to Take Off Your Gas Mask — Occupy Oakland: Are We Being Childish?” Neumann is the son of Frankfurt School luminary Franz Neumann, whose study of Nazism titled “Behemoth” is peerless. In the 1960s, he got involved with a small affinity group called the Motherfuckers that had a certain affinity with the Weathermen. In other words, he knows the ultraleft territory fairly well. This is what he has to say:
How could it have been different? The goal of taking over the Kaiser Center for community use was admirable, even brilliant, but in the end the point of what was billed as “Move-in day” got lost in meaningless rumbles with the police and the trashing of City Hall. (A note of caution here: Since no was arrested in the City Hall trashing, we cannot rule out that it was the work of agents provocateurs. Be that as it may, the failure to obtain our objective and to control the meaning of our actions cannot be blamed on infiltrators.) What if, instead of a group within Occupy picking a target and then calling for a day of action, we had initiated a campaign to make that building available for community use? We could have gone out into the neighborhoods, held meetings, where we would discuss whether people liked the idea of occupying the building and what they would like to see happen in the space. With our numbers swelled and diversified by those we had organized, we could make demands to the mayor and the city council in the name of the people.
Neumann is describing the patient hard work that a genuine revolutionary gets involved with. Going out into the street and spray-painting a Whole Food window does not require any special talents or training unless of course you need to be able to identify the business end of a spray can correctly. After all, no self-respecting black bloc militant wants to ruin a perfectly good mask with red paint.
Now it is entirely possible that Osha Neumann is as fatally compromised as Chris Hedges. I have no way of knowing how the black bloc arrives at its enemy list since they have so little interest in justifying themselves (rather like the police, one might say.)
That is why I found Asad Haider’s article “Building the Red Army: The Death and Forbidden Rebirth of the Oakland Commune” in Viewpoint so compelling in light of the fact that only two months ago he complained:
All over the internet liberals are warning of agents provocateurs who are trying to discredit the movement, or condemning the dangerous anarchist element that seeks confrontation with police. Such positions could be debated if they had any bearing on reality.
From the sounds of that, you’d think he’d be having the black bloc’s back. Not so fast actually. He writes:
It’s understandable that a clash with police has a marked effect on the adrenal glands. But there was nothing resembling a victory in this. The stated goal had not been achieved, and the police are familiar with the aggressiveness of activists in Oakland. They expect it. In fact, the Oakland Police Department is on the verge of federal receivership, an unprecedented move, because the OPD really likes violence, and seeks it out as part of a policy of state-sponsored gang warfare. And the insistence on “Fuck the Police” marches in Oakland leading up to yesterday could only shift the emphasis from the occupation itself to the clash.
He also has a very good assessment of how the black bloc and Moveon.org complement each other (even though he does not refer to the black bloc by name.)
A century later, insurrectionary anarchists and reformists like MoveOn vie for hegemony over the movement, each advancing street-fighting and voting not as tactics, but as the ultimate goals. And we have to be clear that it is an alliance between social democrats and ultra-leftists that has driven this movement, in spite of their public scorn for each other.
Like a lot of the problems on the left, ultra-leftism has been around for a very long time. Lenin’s brother was a Narodnik who chose the “propaganda of the deed” so he had a personal as well as a political stake in convincing idealistic young people in Czarist Russia to choose mass action.
In 1970, when I was 25 years old, my party had its hands full with the same sort of problem. Peter Camejo, who I regard as my greatest mentor, gave a talk titled “Liberalism, ultraleftism or mass action” that had a big impact on our own ranks as well as antiwar activists who had grown wary of SDS type adventures. It is very much worth reading in its entirety but I want to conclude with Peter’s observations about ultraleftism:
There’s another point of view, and that is ultraleftism. This represents a small section of the student movement, but a much larger proportion of those who call themselves radicals or socialists.
Now basically an ultraleft is a liberal that has gone through an evolution. What happens is this. They start out as liberals, and suddenly the war in Vietnam comes along. Now, what does a liberal believe? He believes that the ruling class is basically responsive to his needs. So he demonstrates.
You know, in the beginning when the antiwar movement first started there were very few ultraleftists. Most of the ultraleftist leaders of today were people who were organizing legal, peaceful demonstrations back around 1965.
But after they called a few demonstrations against the war, they noticed something was wrong. The ruling class was not being responsive. Not only that, they understood for the first time that the US was literally massacring the Vietnamese people. This frightened them. It was as if you all of a sudden found out that your father was really the Boston Strangler. That’s what it was like for these people. They were liberals, who believed that Johnson was better than Goldwater, who had worked and voted for him only to find out that he was the Boston Strangler.