Black Bloc, White Riot: Anti-Globalization and the Genealogy of Dissent AK Thomson, 2010, published by AK Press
Do we need more books about the anti-globalization movement? It’s hard to go into a radical booksellers without being confronted by a host of dramatically titles book which combine journalistic intrigue with a celebratory tone and describe, in great detail, the ‘colour’, ‘vibrancy’ and ‘freshness’ of the experience. Despite this considerable backlog, AK Thompsons thinks there is more to be said. Given the analysis here, he just might be right.
The book engages with the ‘black bloc’ phenomenon (for readers who don’t know, this is the tactic whereby protesters mask up and adopt a similar all-black dress code) being primarily white and middle class. It’s not a rebuttal of these charges, but rather an attempt to look at what we can say about the movement as white and middle class, rather than hastily asserting the (self-evident) point that a movement including a larger demographic would be better. As the author writes:
“Although it betrays activist commonsense, I propose that it’s worthwhile to investigate the anti-globalization movement that emerged in Canada and the Us as a white middle class phenomenon. Although the movement was self-evidently more than one thing, its role as a laboratory in which white middle class activists sought to exorcize their constitutive contradictions and regain the capacity for political being should not be overlooked.” (15)
This is an interesting pitch, no doubt, but it doesn’t change the fact that the book is a frustrating read, primarily because there is some real content in amongst the overwrought, overwritten and at times unnecessarily obscure text. It’s not an impossible book, but at times the obscurity works against both easy comprehension and, as such I’m concerned it’s not going to have the impact on general readers that it quite possibly deserves.
Still, it definitely benefits from a creative approach to a well-worn topic, and the conclusions are genuinely interesting. At the same time, the book suffers from the lack of a clear structure and an obvious narrative arc. In the first two chapters we are treated to a long and in places unnecessary detour covering everything from the attempts to define activists in the media, to the learning potential of direct action (by engaging with oppression we gain tactical knowledge about oppression) and more than a few unnecessary anecdotes about the various protests that the author has attended. It isn’t until chapter 3 that the book starts to hit it’s stride. There is also a frustrating tendency to bring in too many theorists, not summarise findings, and often leave a number of threads dangling at any one time. The result is powerful book that is unfortunately a little diluted.
So what are we learning here? The book’s main argument is that, in the context of an ‘eternal present’ of late capitalism, for white, middle class people to move beyond their empty identities and engage with politics, a passage of violence is needed. Thus, we should look upon the riots not in terms of their exclusivity or indeed their tactical purchase, but as a chance to ‘produce’ something, both in the world and in ourselves, and hopefully transform it.
I’m going to work through this notion in two parts. Firstly, white, middle class identity is an empty, abstract one. Second, violence opens up the possibility both of transforming ourselves through engagement with the world and, moreover, transforming the world.
1. On being nowhere.
The very fact of being the dominant ethnic group in the west means that most white people their position as a universal standpoint, as opposed to a local, particular viewpoint, and as such the sense of emptiness connected with being white doesn’t get enough attention This is dealt with by the author in two ways.
First, he gives it a theoretical grounding, which happens in the introduction. “Whiteness”, the author writes, “is a specific experience.” This state is described jargonistically as “productive schizophrenia…in which people strive to simultaneously be of and more than this world while never reckoning with its concrete and unforgiving specificity.” (16). This insecurity, which I understand as the experience of both being a ever-present but also therefore somehow absent within and from reality, is taken as a grounding.
Second, he makes the insightful critique on the white middle class obsession with localism. Here, in a part I found particularly amusing, he writes:
“Readers familiar with the struggles of the 1960s will recognize how this situation bears a strong resemblance to the one recounted by Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton in Black Power. In that text, Carmichael and Hamilton lament how many white radicals, “like some sort of Pepsi generation, have wanted to ‘come alive’ through black communities and black groups. They have wanted to be where the action is – and the action has been in those places.” pp. 83
“…many seemed to champion a version of “the local” that had more to do with valorizing the experiences of people occupying particular social spaces than with investigating the situated expressions of trans-local processes. This “local” did not correspond to the place in which the activist was located; it didn’t denote a particular point of engagement or a particular perspective. Instead, for many white activists, “the local” became a kind of code word for something like the real site of struggle or where it’s really happening.” pp. 85
This, naturally, ties into the idea that white, middle class people feel they are not really there.
2. The shift “from ontology to politics.”
Here, the basic idea is that, in the “endless present of late capitalism” everything has turned into representation. What this means is that, as capitalism has intensified its position, it has become increasingly difficult to act in a way that doesn’t simply reaffirm the system itself. In this context, the author sees the ethical engagement with violence as a problem:
“… it makes little sense to engage with violence as an ethical problem. Since ethics can only be convincingly elaborated in relation to choice, and since – from the standpoint of what already is – non violence amounts to a choosing-not-to-choose…” (133).
While this seems a little incomprehensible at first, it ties into the authors main point, which is that violence can be seen as a ‘productive’ force, primarily one which can transform “ontology into politics” (132). Basically, this means that it can turn a person from someone only armed with a viewpoint into an agent who is actively trying to change their situation and engage with meaningful decisions about their lives. As Thompson writes, with reference to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth:
“Through violence, Fanon’s colonized undergo a dramatic transformation in which they cease to be objects at the mercy of historical circumstance and become history’s privileged actors. At the moment of this transformation, the colonized come to embody historical contradictions within their own person and make decisions based on these contradictions within their own person and make decisions based on these contradictions. Here, the measure of the human soul is its capacity to decide, to take risks in pursuit of that which is more than itself, and to stand unflinchingly before these actions as their final arbiters.” (136-7)
This is because, in the author’s view, violence is similar to labour, in the sense that it involve transformation of the world and transformation of the subject at the same time. Applied here, this means that not only does it reshape the world but also turns the actor into someone grounded in a locality, engaged in the contradictions in a way that involves taking them, as well as the actor’s humanity, seriously.
This is the basis of the books earlier chapters (which would really benefit from getting this analysis first, rather than after) about the black bloc’s representation and the learning potential of direct action.
For those of you think that this emphasis on violence precludes the inclusion of women, the author devotes a whole chapter to this question, which makes two points. Firstly, the notion that there is something that precludes women from violent engagement is historically inaccurate, given the role of women (notably the suffragettes) in violent struggle in the past. The second point is surprising, as the author brings in Judith Butler and argues that engagement within the black bloc is an opening for ‘gender trouble’, or rather stepping away from the notion of ‘women’ that is produced in our society:
“…the anti-globalization riot uncovered a space where women might cause the kind of gender trouble esteemed by Butler. By helping to de-stabilize gender categories, rioting women prefigure a world in which the political-representational matrix of gender (where identity is the precondition for both subjectivity and regulation) begins to lose its salience….Rather than seeking to include women, activists might use the riot to abolish “women” as a significant social category. In the process, the category “man” – a category made intelligible only through its binary opposition “women” – is also desecrated.” (124).
So that’s a wrap. As I said before, there is a lot in this book that is very valuable, particularly because it takes a very novel look at a contemporary problem, and indeed manages to do so in a way which goes beyond the historical and ethical engagements provided by people like Ward Churchill and Richard Gelderloos. However, it suffers from a lack of clear structure, an obvious progression, and exhibits an obscure, academic vocabulary that makes it hard to get a clear reading of easily. These are not technical problems so much as serious constraints if a book aims, as this one does, to influence and engage a very living social movement.