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 a founding editor of Viewpoint and a postdoctoral fellow in History at Bowdoin College.