The black bloc, the spectacle and the therapy of violence

Black bloc barricade during clashes with police in Rio


A mass of black clad bodies move through a thick haze, smoke or tear-gas coagulating the air. Incendiary flashes in the dark; sparks illuminating nothing of the masked faces. Tongues of fire paint the smoke a warm glow while a red flag is held aloft, burning against the black of the night. The police in retreat but with riot shields raised. The black mass pushes the cops back; lines of photographers run alongside. Missiles fly over a quickly constructed barricade. The Black Bloc hits Rio as it has hit other cities in other times: Egypt, Geneva, Seattle, Berlin-Kruezberg. Except that it didn’t- strictly speaking there is no such thing as the Black Bloc. Despite it being the name of an ongoing debate within anarchism and radical politics in general there is no such group, organisation or structure known as the “Black Bloc” (BB). An ongoing and often boring debate. Brain Leiter has brought this to a philosophical audience in his report on the exchange between Chris Hedges and David Graeber centring on the BB’s role in the Occupy movement. So what is really at stake in debates around the BB, and why is it a “debate” that refuses to go away?

As every article written on the BB states it is a tactic rather than a group. Depending on who you talk to it is either a tactic of defence deployed against police violence  or it is the anything but “tactical” use and celebration of violence itself. The former case presents the BB as a safety measure for people at demonstrations and other mass actions who might be victims of police brutality. In this instance the BB is defending people who are either ideologically nonviolent, ill prepared or in no position to physically defend themselves , or who simply don’t believe that the police can or would become violent against them. The BBers use there own bodies and whatever defensive weapons they have on their person to protect these other groups. Meanwhile, the latter position has it that the BBers are caught in an idiotic adolescence that centres on mindless violence and pointless property destruction that only damages the movements, groups, demands, and so on, that are present at such demonstrations. Before moving on to a broader optic, I want to focus in on the particulars in the Hedges-Graeber exchange.

The Cancer and the Chemotherapy 

In February 2012, Chris Hedges published the article ‘The Cancer in Occupy’ that took aim at ‘Black Bloc anarchists’  or the ‘Black Bloc movement’ that ‘do not believe in organisation’ and want nothing more than to engage in ‘”feral” or “spontaneous acts of insurection”‘. For Hedges, the BB mirrors and justifies the violence of ‘the 1 percent’ and is unable to understand that the police are people too, people with ‘conscience’ whose ‘hearts and minds’ anarchists and Occupiers have to win over. He describes the BB as an ‘absolutist sect’ that corrodes Occupy’s ‘moral authority’ and simply invites and justifies police repression. Hedges presents the BB as precisely what it is not: a group with a coherent membership and theory. He also seems to have insight into what BBers do or don’t believe- a claim that is either based on telepathy or the most reductive kind of political behaviourism possible.

In the latter case, this lack of belief would be read off of the actions of BBs in a way that would deprive them of context or potential meaning in exactly the same way that the bourgeois media presents all protest or political action of which it disapproves. Hedges might have gone away to do some reading on the BB for his article but that seems unlikely given that he references ‘Venomous Butterfly” as a person when it is in fact a now defunct insurrectionist journal. David Graeber’s reply makes a similar point about Hedges linking of the BB to primitivist John Zerzan. As Graeber puts it, today ‘the preferred approach is to pretend “the Black Bloc” is made up of nihilistic insurrectionary followers of The Invisible Committee’ rather than Zerzan and the primitivists. Graeber’s point is that the accusation of the BB being a nihilistic, violence-loving, anti-organisation sect is stupid whether you link it to Zerzan or insurrectionism. Graber mockingly adds that Hedges is out of date with the Zerzan stuff anyway. The only problem with this differentiation is that many people who were followers of Zerzan are also readers of The Invisible Committee, and many insurrectionists are a rizla-paper away from being primitivists. Graeber’s joke is at risk of being on him.

Graeber’s response begins by eschewing some of Hedge’s more obvious problems, so I won’t dwell on that. Instead, let’s move on to the meat of Graber’s reply. He is completely correct in stating that Hedges’s claim that BB anarchists are a ‘cancer’ in the body of Occupy is

is precisely the sort of language and argument that, historically, has been invoked by those encouraging one group of people to physically attack, ethnically cleanse, or exterminate another—in fact, the sort of language and argument that is almost never invoked in any other circumstance. After all, if a group is made up exclusively of violent fanatics who cannot be reasoned with, intent on our destruction, what else can we really do? This is the language of violence in its purest form.

What else can you do with a cancer except treat it? And how do you treat cancer? You kill it and then you cut it out. And when you kill cancer you poison the body as a whole. How can this language be anything but violent? Firstly it takes a group of people and deprives them of their humanity; then it locates them as legitimate targets of violence. Graeber is completely right to see this as the same logic as ethnic cleansing and genocides. If possible Hedges pushes this even further by making people involved in the fight against capitalism, people who might well be his allies (let’s remember the BB is anonymous- identification of friend/enemy breaks down) into his enemy. At the exact same time he also compels us to view the police as holders of conscience who we must win over to our side. So, a sub-set of people demonstrating against capital are bad because they are violent but those people who are part of the state’s “legitimate” integrated systems of structural and quotidian violence are to be considered good guys.

Hedges position seems to be that police violence has to be put up with and that nonviolence will magically show them that they are on our side, while people who defend themselves against police brutality are simply tumours in the body of Occupy. Police brutality and repression are completely ignored by this position, if they aren’t tacitly accepted and even welcomed insofar as they give Hedges and his ilk the chance to demonstrate their moral superiority over the police and violent protesters alike.  At root, the enemies of protest and the agents of state violence are seen as latent allies while fellow protesters and potential victims of brutality are condemned and dehumanised. This is a complete inversion of values in which the police and the state are the good guys. As Graber’s reply goes on to discuss, anti-BBers internalise and take on the police role, performing it on the police’s behalf, by informing on BBers, manhandling people dressed in the BBs uniform of black, and, according to Graeber, going so far as to beat suspected BBers.

In the end, Chris Hedge’s critique of the BB is a reproduction of bourgeois critiques of the black bloc and a defence of the police at the expense of the policed. His argument that the BB invites police brutality is also a kind of echo of the police, who will claim that there was criminal activity at protests to justify their own outrageous use of physical violence and their own criminality regardless of whether BBs or other forms of violent protest have taken place. To think that the police require provocation to act violently is to completely misunderstand what the police is and how it operates on a day to day basis. What provocation do the police require for stop-and-search harassment? What provocation justified the assault of Alfie Meadows? What provocation was there for the shooting of Mark Duggan? What provocation for the violence that sparked the Watts riots, or any number of other historical examples? As was cogently argued on NovaraMedia recently, the police are engaged in a campaign of sexual assault against minors in the UK (40,000 strip searches p/a, with statistically 0 arrests)- what provocation there? At any anti-war rally some years back I was hit by a police officer for attempting to leave a protest, and a couple years ago I was chased down a street, dragged back to a London underground station and searched because I had tutted at the police presence while walking past. Regardless of any number of examples, it seems like the Hedges is a cop in favour of cops and against criminal activists.


You could argue that it is unfair of me to jump from Hedge’s American situation discussing Occupy to UK examples that have nothing to do with Occupy. Sticking with the actual events that prompted Hedges’s denunciation of the BB doesn’t help his cause. According to Jason Wright those events- the invasion of Oakland City Hall by protesters who also engaged in minor property destruction when there- were triggered by police action. The police had been firing tear-gas, smoke and gas bombs into the peaceful protesters whilst kettling them. Although it is somewhat confusing, Wright’s article suggests that the kettle had prevented protesters from complying with a dispersal order and that when the protesters had tried to break through the kettle, the police responded with the tear-gas. This resulted in some property damage as the protesters tore down a fence in order to escape the vicinity. Crucially, none of these people were involved in a BB but were exercising a completely legitimate right to self-defence.

According to Mark Bray [1], Oakland was the site of the harshest police repression brought down upon the Occupy movement’. As Bray reports, the bodies of the Occupiers at Oakland were ‘routinely’ treated to ‘rubber bullet, tear-gas and bean bag rounds’ (p.212). Oakland also saw the high profile incident of a police missile hitting a war veteran in the head and the medics who attempted to treat him being attacked by the police with a flash-bang grenade! Bray is also among those to point out that Hedges had not long before praised the Greek anarchists for taking to the streets against austerity and fascism. Of course those Greek anarchists were using BB methods and rioting against police and fascist violence. When asked about this apparent contradiction in an interview shortly after the Cancer article, Hedges responded that

You would have to insinuate that I supported rioting, but I don’t know how you can in the long history of everything that I’ve written. The point that I was trying to make in that article was that the Greeks had gotten out on the street and risen up. I didn’t agree with everything they’d done out on the street, but I was confounded by the passivity on the part of the American public that was being fleeced and abused in a manner not dissimilar to what was happening in Greece. I never in that article approve rioting. 

And yet that article, ‘The Greeks Get It‘, opens with a ringing endorsement of what he sees as cancerous in his own context:

Here’s to the Greeks. They know what to do when corporations pillage and loot their country. They know what to do when Goldman Sachs and international bankers collude with their power elite to falsify economic data and then make billions betting that the Greek economy will collapse. They know what to do when they are told their pensions, benefits and jobs have to be cut to pay corporate banks, which screwed them in the first place. Call a general strike. Riot. Shut down the city centers. Toss the bastards out. Do not be afraid of the language of class warfare—the rich versus the poor, the oligarchs versus the citizens, the capitalists versus the proletariat. The Greeks, unlike most of us, get it.

If that isn’t a statement in support of rioting, I don’t know what is.  Although in the above interview Hedges is also forced to concede that he considers these same Greeks- people fighting massive repression, massive austerity, and the presence of fascist street-gangs- to be cancerous as well. So he is against the cancer in the US but for it in Greece, even if he attempts to evade his own support for it. Hedges could claim that it was a statement in support of rioting in the Greek context and that it would be wrong to implement rioting or BB tactics in the American context. He’d have to justify this with at least some analysis on the similarities and differences between these two contexts- he would need to trace out the onto-specific ecological cartography of what situation 1 and situation 2 were and then argue about why the same tactics couldn’t be applied to each. It is incredibly likely that doing so would be fruitful. I certainly think that the Greek and the American situation are markedly different and I don’t think BB tactics and rioting are always going to be deployed successfully in the US (or UK) situation. But this is based on taking tactics as tactics and analysing them tactically. Hedge’s “moral superiority”, his liberal displacement of the political by the moral, means that he can’t see the problem in terms of specificities and tactical analyse.

There is a name for Hedge’s blindness to context, to the position of praising foreign others for their radical revolutionary capacity whilst condemning people “at home” for the same actions on moral grounds: orientalism. The oriental other is praised for its purity, its ability to act, but the civilised Westerner is criticised. Indeed, as well as calling it ‘cancerous’, the Hedges article on the BB also claims that it reduces people to ‘beasts’. So what reduces Americans to beasts is praised in Greeks. Speculating, one could almost suppose that Hedges was holding Americans and Greeks to different moral and political standards because he was applying a different ontological frame to each- the American is human, but the Greek is already a kind of noble beast so her violence can’t be a sign of degeneration.

Whether or not the BB had a role to play in the OWS movement and at Occupy Oakland seems irrelevant in this particular debate because it simply wasn’t there at that point. As Bray and Graeber both attest in their writing on Occupy there was no BB formed in OWS and the movement took on a Gandhian approach to violence. What Hedges saw as the cancerous and the beastial nature of the protesters at Oakland, I would contend that most of us would see as largely a matter of self-defence. That this self-defence did later take the form of a BB in response to police violence is a separate concern.

If I belabour the point about Hedges it is because he is symptomatic of so much of debate on the BB and what lurks beneath it: the unresolved debate on the status of violence in revolutionary politics. This is a debate that has tended to fetishise the BB, to reify it into some substantial “thing” in just the same way that the bourgeois media does. Hedges and positions like his are symptomatic of thinking about politics through such reifications of processes that bodies perform and tactics that bodies engage in into ontological units to be judged on a moral basis. This obliterates the questions of the appropriateness of tactics to context, to who and how and when tactics like the BB can and can’t be successfully deployed, and whether or not all violences are identical. For all the calls for local analyses that are theoretical reflections on praxis within the context of capitalism’s attempted totality, we are too often left with idealist moral condemnations like those of Chris Hedges. This has led Hedges to conflate BBs with any self-defence against the police, anyone smashing windows, anti-civilisation/primitivist pseudo-anarchists and to dismiss accounts of the BBs defending other protesters or de-arresting people on demonstrations as trying to ‘paint them as boyscouts’.

The idealist and moralist position on the BB is really an idealist and moralist position on violence in revolutionary politics that would have everyone always turn the other cheek. Not even Gandhi believed this. As he put it, it is ‘better to be violent when there’s violence in our hearts than to put on the cloak of non-violence to cover impotence’ [2]. The kind of pacisficism put forward by people like Hedges- a pacifism of principles, in Hedges’s case based on his Christianity- is exactly the kind of adaptionist response to a world of structural violence that is almost indistinguishable a police philosophy.

Spectacle and Theatre

Some people criticise the BB for being theatre or spectacle. These kinds of criticisms generally focus on the way that BB violence, and violence in general, is reported in the bourgeois media as so many “shocking” images to be consumed. Every time there is a confrontation between anti-capitalists and the state you can be damned sure the media will want video, photos and quotes of people smashing windows, setting fire to bins, throwing missiles at the police, and so on. What do people remember of mass mobilisations? Do they remember specific slogans or demands or rational arguments? No. They remember the black-clad body kicking down a bank’s window panes. They are the compelling images- the images that jump straight out of movies, and straight out the popular idea of the anarchist as a black-clad bomb thrower. People can sit at home and consume the image of rebellion, getting both a vicarious kick from it and being fed the official line that the BB is about ‘mindless violence’. The image circulates and is consumed but eventually goes nowhere. The spectacle of violence alienates more people from getting involved in radical politics than it pulls in. The spectacle of violence allows the bourgeois media to blacken the name of all dissent and to paint “the movement” as if it were a bunch of young bored white kids who just want to fuck shit up.

These criticisms of the BB are much more nuanced than those of the idealist variety seen above insofar as they are attendant to the actuality of the spectacular representation of specific instances of violence and its effect on people watching at home. However, it still neglects certain key elements of the spectacle. Firstly, the spectacle is a fully integrated system; secondly, the spectacle can no longer be avoided but must be seen as a site of contestation and weaponisation; third, the spectacle promotes specific narratives.

Guy Debord’s theory of the spectacle took the Marxian critique of commodity fetishism and mapped it onto the ecology of sociality itself [3]. Every social relation had become a relation between an image over a lived reality, an exchange-value over a use-value, the abstract over the concrete. In Giogio Agamben’s reading of Debord, what is at stake in the spectacle is the fact of

‘the becoming-image of capital [which] is nothing more than the commodity’s last metamorphosis, in which exchange value has completely eclipsed use value and can now achieve the status of absolute and irresponsible sovereignty over life in its entirely, having falsified the entire social production’ [4]

That is to say that capital has made itself into an image of itself, a representation of itself, that is composed only of the non-sensuous and the disembodied. Capital’s sovereignty- that is, its potency to decide the value and the purpose of everything– is absolute because all representations get their sense from being part of a differential system in which capital itself is the master signifier; and it is irresponsible because capital has no fixed centre and constantly metabolises the individual bourgeois capitalists and state leaders that only appear to make the decisions, but who ultimately make the decisions on capital’s behalf. All of life gets swept into the increasingly organically imagined capital and the material reality of capital’s ontogenesis, it’s being contigent and being derived from the material action of bodies, including and especially the bodies of workers, is made impossible to see. This ‘integrated spectacle’, as Debord called it, was characterised by five key features that go to make up the falsification of social production, the production of the social:

the integrated spectacle is characterised by the combined effect of five principal features: incessant technological renewal; integration of state and economy; generalised secrecy; unanswerable lies; an eternal present [5].

I don’t think we need to stretch ourselves to see all five of these features as active in the situation we live today, so I won’t waste time here elucidating them. However, it is necessary to point out that Agamben’s reading of the integrated spectacle is precisely the kind of totalitarian fantasy that capital projects onto those people who would challenge it; the becoming-image of capital is the ‘eclipse’ of use-values, in other words of bodies, rather than the real departure from them. The totalitarianism of capitalism or the integrated spectacle is thus a dream-fragment that is designed to render thinking the end of capital into an impossibility and which forces us into the cul-de-sac of emphasising immaterial production at the cost of the materiality of that immaterialism, and of the rest of life under capital as well. The concept of the integrated spectacle thus roughly accords with what Mark Fisher has called capitalist realism. The consolidation of spectacular capitalism into a completely integrated organic body is always only ever capital’s fantasy of itself, it’s powers of mystification- the engine of “false consciousness”- always being more limited than Agamben seems to suggest. So why turn to Agamben in discussing the spectacle of violence?

Agamben understands that there is a particular relationship between the spectacle and meaning that he sums up when he writes that we live in ‘the age of the spectacle, or the state of fully realized nihilism’ [6]. For Agamben the linguistic being  or ‘communicative essence’ of humanity is what is perverted by the spectacle insofar as human language becomes increasingly autonomous of human-use and is increasingly used to articulate nothing. For Agamben this nihilistic situation is also

‘the final stage in the evolution of the state-form…[which] embodies a tendency towards the constitution of a supranational police state’ [7].

The sovereignty of this integrated spectacle may not be absolute but it is nonetheless totalitarian, and it learned its best tricks in ‘the modern totalitarian states’, those of ‘the electoral machine of the majority vote and media control over public opinion’ [8]. Indeed, it is these latter two machineries that we typically talk about when we talk about the spectacle at all.

Whatever appears, and especially if what appears does so in order to challenge the state, must do so within the frame of the spectacle. That “there is no outside” doesn’t mean that everything is always already within the spectacle as the spectacle but it does mean that in order to be visible and communicable beyond the closed-circuit of the bodies that are already present to each other in the face-to-face, political action must appear within the spectacle. There is no option on this score. Unless you embrace an the utterly idealist politics of withdrawal/exodus then you have to accept you too are integrated into the spectacle.

Bodies on the street can do a lot just by being on the street, but they can’t build a counter-power or organise ways of attacking an increasingly integrated system of violence. If no one is looking, or the state thinks that no one is looking, it doesn’t hesitate to use extreme violence against those bodies. Thus it is because the spectacle is an integrated system that is must become a site of contestation, and we must look for ways to weaponise the spectacle because it is already a weapon. This kind of weaponisation of the spectacle shouldn’t be understood as simply celebrating actions as spectacle or planning them because they will be spectacular. Instead it is to take the very strategies and tactics, tools and techniques of the spectacle against it in the way that NovaraMedia’s has done with internet radio and television broadcast (with the very promising NovaraTV), and that The Occupied Times is doing with the press. Such post-spectacle strategies are essential to organising politically today. Just as essential is that we follow the ‘imperative that these organs are not fed by the same nervous system as the spectacle’ [9]. Integration is never fully accomplished.

That the spectacle is a weapon isn’t just a piece of rhetoric or metaphor. If integrated spectacle is Debord’s term for global capital after 1968 then the spectacle is a weapon precisely insofar as it engenders ecological and financial catastrophes, insofar as it is waging a conscious and not at all mystified class war against workers, insofar as it continues to reproduce patriarchal violence, insofar as it remains entrenched in its colonial history of utilising slave labour, insofar as it continues to reproduce racist social relations, insofar as it continues to tolerate only hetero-normativity and cis-normativity at the expense of LGBTQ populations…..does the list need to go on.

More directly, forms of this integrated spectacle are also directly weaponised physiological interventions that attack the body without the need for a policeman to be present. I have written elsewhere on how the media landscape can actively induce states of anxiety and panic and how over a long term this can produce depression. We could also add to this the fact that the poor diets associated with poverty, being over-worked and/or under-active all lead towards mental and physical health problems, up to and including death. The left- anarchist, autonomist or otherwise- cannot afford to leave this weapon in the hands of those who would use it against vulnerable groups.

Of course these violences are presented by the spectacle as either natural, unimportant, or otherwise nothing much to worry about. The violence of the BB- smashing the window of a coffee shop- however, is organised into a narrative of “mindless violence” and “adolescent machismo” that does indeed paint movements as all violent, as the critics suggest. However, rather than critiquing the bourgeois media’s narratives or challenging it’s domination of the spectacular landscape of media representation critics seem to critique BBers and violence exclusively in such a way that, as we saw above, they tend to collude with the capitalist narrative that seeks to de-legitimise protest.

This isn’t to say that BB tactics can’t be counter-productive in given times and places. To return to an example above, had they been present it would have been ludicrous for BBers  to compare the Greek situation with Occupy Oakland because there is a clear qualitative difference between thousands of people on the streets and just a few hundred people. What Hedges article had right was that protest spaces need to feel safe in order for families, kids and people who aren’t physically able to defend themselves to able to take part in political actions. If BBers had descended on Oakland en masse and turned it into a scene from the Greek streets, that wouldn’t have played well on TV and in the papers to the rest of the working class. That this isn’t what happened in that instance doesn’t matter as my point here is once again that uses of the BB must be analysed on their own specific tactical horizon rather than as a priori “bad press”. I’m also not suggesting that movements shouldn’t have rules- anarchism doesn’t mean no rules, it means no leaders- and that an attitude of “hey whatever” should go when it comes to violent action.

The point is that critiquing BBs as bad because they are a “spectacular” or “theatre” misses the point that everything is or can be made to be spectacular. Rather than abandon the terrain of the spectacle to capital’s agents we ought to be contesting them for it’s capacities. The spectacle is a massive affective and communicative means of connecting with other bodies and building a culture of resistance and a movement. We have to find a way to make the spectacle work for us. Sometimes this might mean defending BB and violent actions- developing our own media outlets and tools that can produce a counter-narrative that doesn’t decontextualise BB tactics and collude with police definitions of violence.

If we want to critique the BB for being poor theatre then I think we’d on better grounds. After all, the Black Panther Party may have dressed in all black and carried guns but they had an understanding that theatre and spectacle don’t mean you need to enact violence. For the Panthers the gun was a rhetorical weapon as much as a weapon of combat, and armed self-defence was about the performance that one was ready to defend oneself against police brutality. Placing the BB in relation to the BP opens us up to the possibility of analysing the former in the terms of the latter: that is, are today’s activists in a position that resembles that of black people in the 1960s? These questions might lead us to an analysis of violence that didn’t just circulate around banal questions of whether smashing a Starbucks window is anything other than smashing a window.  After all, as Jean Genet said of the Panthers

Wherever they went the Americans were the masters, so the Panthers should do their best to terrorize the masters by the only means available to them: Spectacle. And the spectacle would work because it was the product of despair. … But the spectacle is only spectacle, and it may lead to mere figment, to no more than a colourful carnival; and this is the risk that the Panthers ran. Did they have any choice? [10].

A question for the use of the spectacle of violence then must be whether or not spectacle isn’t just a possible weapon but whether or not the BBs also whether we have any choice in whether we use it. The risk that Genet is talking about above is the one in which violence becomes the gesture of violence, the empty movement of a violence that is already rendered meaningless when it appears within the spectacle: hence “mindless violence” becomes not just an accusation against the BBers but a mournful testimony that once violence could mean something. As such, the nihilism of the spectacle also keeps us shackled to a “perpetual present” by refusing to allow the work of mourning ever to come to an end- when violence appears it must always be mindless, unless it is legitimate state violence in which case it is mindful. The past that has passed is always made to actualise itself in the present because we can’t let the pre-spectacular age go: If we have moved into the age of meaningless violence then mourning for meaningful violence can only be a way to remain captivated by the spectacle.

Another more interesting question would be what it is that the BB’s theatre of violence is supposed to do. After all, the BB is usually thought of as a kind of self-defence tactic and BBers tend to identify it as such. Yet it is also possible to find people supporting the BB on the grounds that

To question the State, the Bloc seeks to stage violence by wagering on the assumption that when the State is confronted by dissent, it will use force and intimidation to restore order. In other words, the State temporarily suspends rights to public space, rights to association and speech in order to enforce its authority. An authority that is instituted, maintained, and demonstrated through sanctioned acts of violence.

Thus the theatrical performance of the BB is intended to illicit from the state the violent response that every anarchist and autonomist knows are its core. This would suggest that the intended audience of the BB’s theatrical performance are nonmilitant activists that are present and people watching at home (and not the state, as the author of that quote contends in the rest of his article). Meanwhile while discussing the eventual use of BBs at Oakland, the CrimethInc Ex-Workers Collective located the point of the BB as trying to actively bring these groups into militant action by acting out

the dream of continuous escalation, in which a proactive offensive of black-clad rioters would usher in a new phase of increasingly widespread militant rebellion, culminating in a full-on uprising [11].

If this is the purpose of the BB then a more accurate critique would be to suggest that the BB is unnecessary: as discussed above, the state needs no provocation to unleash violence, and it is uncertain that one can manipulate people into taking part in insurrection simply by performing it on a small scale. Furthermore, whenever there is a performance we have to ask after the intended audience. If the BB is performing for the people at home then it has failed to understand that at this point in time in the West the mass of working people are unlikely to be receptive to their performance except as titillation and/or moral outrage. If they are performing for activists who are present then this could be construed as the BB forming a part of the machinery of violence brought down on those activists. Thus, the BB is bad theatre, good TV.

Black bloc marching in Oakland, 2012.


According to Jeff Shanz accusations that the BB is attempting to communicate to media viewers is just as ridiculous as the idea that they are attempting to negotiate with the state:

In actuality the black bloc tactic is more clearly presented as a lesson for other activists or observers who are already politicized to some extent.  When the black bloc speaks its key messages of self-defence against police aggression, the limitations of liberal democracy and the illegitimacy of corporate property it is speaking primarily to fellow protesters to convince them of the necessity and the possibility of struggles that disrupt, rather than negotiate with, power holders [12].

Under this reading the BB is about the refusal of the politics of demand that naturally segues into the hysterical “infinite demands” (END WAR NOW) and the finite concrete demands that mark a liberal processes of negotiating with the state. Returning to an example like Occupy- a movement that might well have an anarchist core but which is nontheless composed of a liberal majority- the performance of the BB is a performative pedagogy. Rather than trying to show less militant activists or home viewers that the state is violent the BB is a tactic of direct action that shows people that it is possible to act against the police and the state in such a way that they do not have to do “politics” in the way that the state and the spectacle determines. That the BB uses anonymity to evade detection also allows that anonymity to downplay questions of identity in the moment of demonstration. In otherwords, the BB’s pedagogical theatre also consists in a subtractive physicality that suspends difference in order to emphasise commonality.

There is another version of the spectacle criticism. It is much simpler. It states that the ‘Black Bloc tactics are solely for the fleeting entertainment of the people who take part in them‘. I don’t have access to the psychology of people who engage in BBs- and I don’t know how the author of such a claim would either- so I’m tempted not to take this seriously. There again, it could well be true. Violence can be fun. But this would only be a shocking revelation to people who think that violence is always bad, and who further think that nothing bad could ever be fun. This critique is a serious one if it’s true, I just don’t know how we’d ever establish its truth. In the meantime, it reveals the reductive simplicity that anti-violence arguments can take. It also manages to reveal something about the psychology and politics of its author: any tactics that are for entertaining are bad. I hope that the author would extend this to those who advocate the carnivalesque or the theatre of groups like “Billionaires Against Bush” as the only legitimate means of challenging capitalism: forms of entertainment that are no less ready packaged for spectacular consumption and that also seem mostly predicated on their entertainment value.

From considering the intended audience of the BB as theatrical performance we can also see that there are competing narratives about the function, role and goals of the BB among those in favour of it. This makes simplistic denunciations and uncritical affirmations of the BB equally vapid, especially as reality doesn’t correspond with interpretation cleanly. A number of these interpretations may well be true of any given assemblage of bodies that is enacting a BB.

Self-defence, adolescence and the sexed body

In the considerations of the BB and of violence thus far we haven’t seen much that has been in support of the tactic. Brazil’s Rio has been engulfed in protests since June. Although those protests have become smaller and less generalised they continue apace. From the outset they had and continue to have a large anarchists contingent that has avowedly utilised the tactics of the BB. Most recently the BB has been used to assist teachers striking over working conditions that have been subjected to police violence. Here, the BB seems to have been deployed as a tactic of self-defence first, and theatre/spectacle second. Yet for once this hasn’t been discerned through the self-identification of a BBer but via the teachers who have been defended themselves. The co-ordinator of the teacher’s union (Sepe) Alex Sepe Trentino has stated that ‘the Black Blocs are always welcome‘, while many teachers are reported to be expressing admiration and support for their actions.  The teachers and their union have both expressed support for the people defending them and for the tactic they are deploying to do so.

This leads us to an immediately much more important question regarding the BB and violence in general. People like Hedges are quick to state that the BBers haven’t been asked to defend anyone but that they have nominated themselves. I’d agree that this places those using the BB tactic as imposing their support for violent self-defence on those who have rejected such violence. But what happens when the people being defended aren’t pacifists? What happens when the people the BB is used to defend welcome that defence and encourage it? Does popular support make the BB more acceptable? I personally tend to think so. I think in Rio we have seen a use of the BB that is justified by the fact that it is actually protecting people who require protection. (On the related question of protecting people who refuse that protection things would seem more complex; except that we routinely prevent people from starving themselves to death or taking overdoses…so why should self-harm or death by cop be any different?).

Rio also gives us a case in point regarding the spectacular narrative on violence and the mysterious BB. Take this article on the website of British state reporter, the BBC. Despite the teachers and the union being in support of BB tactics the BBC headline reads: Black Blocs hijack Brazil teacher protests. The BBC’s story goes on to describe an ‘orgy of violence’ whilst downplaying the violence of the police; it manages to turn groups protesting in solidarity with the teachers into ‘a plethora of organisations with an axe to grind’, and thereby paint solidarity as a kind of atomised snide resentment; the reporter puts forward that

on previous occasions I have witnessed first-hand and seen powerful video evidence to support allegations that the security forces themselves have orchestrated or agitated violence in the crowd to justify their own, subsequent, actions but that did not seem to be the case in Rio, at least, last night

as if different nights of the same ongoing action, itself part of an ongoing movement, itself part of an ongoing struggle, were somehow not related. Tonight is a different thing than last night, and so it manages to break up the temporality of politics into manageable units that resemble working-days or electoral debates, discrete and sequential phenomena that start and end on a polite and pre-defined schedule; the article also questions who the BBers are by reaching for the typical consumable identities in asking if they are ‘Anarchists? Frustrated youth? Ideologically driven anti-capitalists’; this is both an attempt and the product of previous attempts to view these identities as somehow other than teacher, mother, son, etc. The temporal sequentialisation is thus mirrored by a subjective fractalisation in which it is impossible to imagine that BBer aren’t always anarchists, and even more impossible that anarchists could be angry adult women.


Female black blocers do not exist.


The idea that the BB is all about violence for its own sake is often accompanied by exactly this kind of normative description of the BBer’s body. It is young and it is male. Violence is thus codified via the BB as a male or masculine phenomena- as it often has been, for instance by the fascists involved in Futurism. The implication is that as the BBers are bored or frustrated male adolescents who get off on violence and so the idea that violence could be enjoyable, or existentially or politically useful, to any group that isn’t exclusively young, male or frustrated becomes magically unthinkable. The binary treatment of nonviolence as good and violence as bad is thus transcoded with the binary that female is good and male is bad. However, as the two binaries transcode each other this logic also means that a violent women is always bad, while a nonviolent man is always good. This isn’t just philosophically distressing, it’s also fucking dangerous in to real people. It excludes violence as a possible strategy for women to defend themselves with and- because these debate usually defined “violence” in the reductive terms of exclusively meaning causing bodily harm- it also means that male violence against women that isn’t physical violence can’t be challenged or even seen as such. In either case the potential is that the argument that rely on a sexed body of the BBer play into a logic that is itself violent and that hides or even legitimises violence. Such patriarchal thinking is pretty far from any genuinely nonviolent way of doing politics.

Again, the idea that the BBers are adolescents is also insulting. It is insulting to adolescents who are lumbered with increasingly huge amounts of debt and can look forward to a growing up into a world where survival, never mind the commodities they’ve been promised, can’t be afforded. It’s insulting to a generation of young people who have been born into a world that comes to know itself as in a state of realised nihilism: police violence being most often targeted against their bodies; families struggling to cope; university becoming a distant dream; jobs nowhere on the horizon; a planet that races ever closer to ecological disaster. Why shouldn’t these people be angry? And set against those prospects, is it so difficult to understand why they might want to get revenge on the police?

Mind you I’m sure the 36 year old BBer interviewed in The Rio Times and David Graeber will both be happy to hear they are still in their adolescence. Except of course that the point of linking the BB to “frustrated” male adolescence is to link it to a time of massive hormonal confusion wherein rational thought becomes very difficult and the desire to get laid dominates. The idea is thus that the BB is pathological, and here we are back in proximity with metaphors of cancer. While cancer talk is directly linked to violence, talk of sexually frustrated young men leads to ideas of discipline. Oh, those anarchists…if only they could become more genital, less infantile, they would mature into activists who would know how to fuck instead of just masturbate: they’d join the Party. Or, in the bourgeois media’s version, they’d vote for a party. Either way, we’re limited to the electoral machine.

Thus far I’ve identified four main narratives of the BB : 1) as a cancer, 2) as spectacle and theatre, 3) as self-defence, 3) as adolescent and sexed body. Many features have been common across these narratives, such as notions of normativity and pathology, as have certain analytic failings, such as the inability to read the BB tactic tactically. Across all of these narratives we’ve seen that there is a consistent conflation of the bodies of those performing the BB with the existence of the BB as a body, and how critiques of the BB that are based primarily on the morality of violence tend to resemble those of the spectacle and the police. Furthermore, in almost all cases we have been emphasising that we are talking about vulnerable bodies coming into conflict with the militarised bodies of the police. The moralistic and idealist stances on violence tend to forget the materiality of having a rubber bullet hit you in the face; and they also conflate the BB with self-defence and violence as such. Here I want to propose a slightly different way of thinking about the BB than most discourses do: the BB as the embodied psychological response to the trauma of violence and impotence.


Before going on I should probably say why I’m theorising the BB at all. After all, I’ve been consistent in stating no a priori judgements should be made, that manifestations of BBs need to be treated tactically and in their specificity, and that I’ve identified Rio as a use of the BB I support. Here we can introduce a cleavage between analyses of instances in which the BB is deployed and the analysis of the BB as a symptom of politics within the spectacle. In writing about the BB as a symptom I am not attempting to produce another master-narrative or final interpretation that would be capable of deciding on the BB for all time. This section will briefly suggest the possibility that the BB might also be a kind of “pathological” response to violence.

What is common to ideas of self-defence, to the spectacle of violence, to a theatre of violence, to an embodied rhetoric of the refusal of the state’s power, and to the desire or hope for a militant radicalisation of activists is the militant use of bodily potency and the activation of bodily capacities that had previously been denied. Before they are anything else occupations, demonstrations, pickets, and other forms of political action in the street are about bodies disrupting, transforming or relating differently to one another, to spaces, and to time in way that they are told are off limits. Occupy itself is about cultivating a form of urban visibility and about the visibility of the nature of space and the identification of real live people and institutions in space-time-matter. That much is obvious from the fact that Occupy is not simply the occupation of anywhere but of named places; Occupy Wall Street, Occupy London, Occupy Sussex, and so on.

What was Occupy the history of occupations prior to that if they aren’t a conflict of regimes of time-space? Bodies organised in space, tied to it, holding it, producing it as a public and political space, and thereby returning an embodied gaze on the disembodied gaze of the financial infosphere, the panopticon of surveillance, whatever.  The tactic of occupation remains open and might well be accelerated. It has obvious links to the urban struggle, the struggle in, with, and for the city. It is what was at stake in the demos of Greece, and it is what is at stake again in a renewal of the language of class struggle and communism. Quite against a certain thought, a thought that the militarisation of urban space is anything new, we should recall that the city has its history in military thought. That is to say, we have always been, in a shifting manner and under different contexts and for different reasons, been sunk in a military space. Class war is not simply rhetoric. Today it is more visible than it has been for a long time. It demands that we stop singing hymns to the power of powerlessness, to parody, to irony, to hysteria, that we rediscover the potency of the organisation of bodies and the articulation of demands.

Part of that class war is the police brutality that the BB is an attempt to deal with. People who enact BBs tend to be those who already know, expect, are willing to confront and return that violence. It is reasonable to assume that they are thus people have experienced that violence before. People engaged in BBs are thus people who have been subjected to arbitrary police violence who are prepared to confront that same violence by choice. This is a curious phenomena that has led me to speculate on whether the BB is also the theatre of trauma, and the spectacle of masochism. The masochism of BBers seems to exceed that of run-of-the-mill activists insofar as they wilful place themselves in the line of danger. From this perspective it would seem as though the BBers are performing their own powerlessness by demonstrating the impotence of their own violence against the massive state machinery of repression. The BB would thus be less about counter-power or pedagogy or self-defence than it was about the compulsion to repeat the primal scene of the trauma. Such speculation has been explored in more depth by Salar Mohandesi in an article that explores the severing of the BB from the historical conditions of its emergence. For Mohandesi

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 [12].

Putting aside the accusations of a lack of a strategy, the problem with Mohandesi’s conceptualisation is that it can only think trauma in Freudian pathological terms. In Freud’s work the compulsion to repeat is unconscious. That is, the traumatised individual doesn’t know that they are repeating the trauma. Yet the BBer must know what she is doing. She is getting dressed all in black, choosing clothes that are pragmatic for running and carrying objects, covering her face and making and carrying shields or weapons. If the BBer is doing all of this unconsciously then they would properly speaking be psychotic. That the trauma is unconscious isn’t the product of a forgetting or a historical de-suturing of a present tactic from its historical origins but from the operation of psychic repression.

In this theory the trauma is repressed because it is to hard for the individual to bear consciously. Repeating the repressed trauma thus allows the individual to explore the source of traumatisation at a safe distance, without having to directly re-experience it. In later theorisations Freud would link the urge to repeat to the death-drive. Here Freud is concerned with showing how ‘the attributes of life’ that came into being in inanimate matter created a ‘tension’ (or lived contradiction) in that now animate matter so that ‘the first instinct came into being: the instinct to return to the inanimate state’ [13]In terms of the animate matter of the BBer this can only mean placing her body in the line of police violence in order to be exposed to the possibility of dying. The BBer is acting on the death drive that wants the organism of her body to return to its original state as being inanimate. Metaphysically this is fascinating because it implies that death precedes life (death as return), and it means that the violent action of the BBer, a very extreme manifestation of her being alive, is driven by death. As Freud puts it ‘”The goal of all life is death”, and, casting back, ‘The inanimate was there before the animate”‘ [14].

All very interesting when considering the BBers but what about the BB? Considered as a tactic or as a collection of bodies there is no way to simply apply Freud’s individualist metaphysico-psychological categories to a body that is composed of multiple bodies. This is especially so when we consider that the death drive primarily refers to animate matter and particularly to organic life. Whether we think of the BB as a tactic or as an assemblage composed of organic bodies it is itself not an example of organic life. Strictly, the concept of the compulsion to repeat can’t be applied to it, and so the pathologisation must fail. It fails because the compulsion to repeat isn’t evidence of the lack of a strategy but the mode of manifestation of the death-drive; a drive that is, paradoxically, precisely what pushes life on. If the meaning of the death drive is that goal of life is death then any and all particular goals that living beings pursue are also recuperated or disavowed forms of pursuing that ultimate end. If the BBer repeating, then the non-BBer is certainly repeating some trauma as well.

The nature of affects means that they are not restricted to individuals in the way that Freud’s psychoanalysis configured them. Affects are shared in the sense that they cut across and into different bodies in a literal materialist sense. We “share in” affects as if they were containers that also manage to be partially and incompletely contained by us. In this way, affects are rather like radiation; they are huge, invisible, operate on time scales we can’t see, and are non-localised. Trauma determines all kinds of affects, including the absence of any affect at all. One doesn’t have to posit the BB as a response to a traumatic police violence or as a weird acting-out of the forgetting of strategy in order to think of it as a response to trauma. Trauma is part of the very air that we breath, an effect of the systemic inequalities, violences, and injustices of everyday life under capitalism. Capitalism itself is the source of all kinds of traumas- and I don’t mean this is any kind of metaphorical sense. What is proletarianisation, the production of subjectless subjects, if it is not a kind of transindividual traumatisation occurring at the level of our common ontological vulnerability. If there is an accompanying death-drive to this then it can’t be located in one group or another, and nor can such a social pathology of capitalism be reduced to the bodies that manifest it. To do so is to use the language of pathology as a covert form of moralism. Moreover, it partakes of a moralism that treats the collective self-exploration of common traumatisation as itself immoral. Indeed, it confuses trauma with pathology in such a way that the two are identified: the attempt to explore the trauma is seen as a traumatic symptom.

If we think about the BB as a response to trauma in the way I am suggesting then it becomes apparent that it can also be thought of as a kind of political therapeutic intervention. This is the unfamilar way of thinking about the BB- and perhaps about violence on the left in general that I am proposing [15]. The BB is a violent response to violence. At the most basic level this means that it refuses the position of being impotent and helpless, no matter how impotent and helpless it might be. It is a liberation of rage against the capitalist state stoicism of the cognitive-behavioural psychopolitics of self-control and psychopharmacological dampening. It is the expansion of the potency and the activation of certain capacities of the body that have been refused or regulated via biopolitical techiques of control. And, as I have begun to argue, it might also be a safe way to explore and so to begin to heal the trauma enacted upon our bodies by capitalism, even as it might result in more of the same. The left and the class have been held in the grips of a learned helplessness for a long time. The BB is a highly visible and highly affectively charged way of beginning to throw off that helplessness, especially in the present absence of the possibility seizing control of the means of production. At once expansive and explosive the BB is a catharsis.

And yet this is not a new way of looking at phenomena like the BB. Consider the words of radical psychoanalyst Emilio Modena:


Feelings of depression are going to be acted out in individual and collective actions but also verbalized in small and large groups and worked through. Sexual and aggressive reactions are going to be less repressed; instinctual blockages and sublimation are possible but not yet very pronounced…If it is true, that late capitalist industrial society, through the increased dissolution of family structures, value systems and positive models, destabilizes the narcissistic balance of its subjects, then the youthful subculture and in particular the movements that have emerged from it should be understood as collective self-healing processes [16].


If it seems strange to suggest that BBs and militant activism are healing processes, consider the fact that the treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder includes exactly the kind of conscious re-experiencing of trauma. This includes re-telling the narrative of the event of the trauma, learning to process the affects the trauma engenders in a new way and attempt to situate the body in a different perspective to it. Perhaps it is precisely by re-living the trauma in a safe way that the BB tactic allows activists to work through their own learned helplessness and realise themselves as active agents in a world that condemns them to being passive.



The traditional ways of looking at the BB have tended towards analyses that emphasise simplistic denunciations or celebratory affirmations. The BB has been pathologised as a cancer, a permenant adolescence, and a kind of neurotic disorder. The problem with these characterisations is that they tend to be based on a fetishistic rejection of violence on principle. Such rejections are unable to see how they end up enacting subtle and inviting other to enact not-so-subtle forms of violence that they claim to oppose. Furthermore, such analyses fail to take the BB as a tactic and instead hypostatise it in the bodies of militant activists that put it to use. This means that they are blind to the need for understanding each particular deployment of the BB in the context of its own onto-specificity. As a consequence of this it also means that these analyses are unable to recognise a BB when it isn’t dressed in black, such as in the much lauded student movements in Quebec, and in calls for a new antifascist network in the UK. The tactic is instead taken as a spectacular image in such a way that fails to understand the complexity of the contemporary spectacle, and critiques the BB-as-Image in a way fully consistent with the spectacle. Many of these critiques of the street tactic also reject the BB without any reference to those involved or those being defended by the BB. Taken together these problems all point towards the existence of a discourse on militant tactics that is not always particularly nuanced, and that can often reproduce the very violence that is critiques that BB for using.

It is my contention that the BB can only be critiqued as tactic if it is treated tactically, and if it is understood as a response to the many traumas and the learned helplessness that living the antagonisms of capital produces in subjectivity. Whilst some would argue that the BB and militant violence are pathological I would contend that they are understandable as self-defence both of one’s own body and the bodies of fellow activists. Looking to Rio we can also see cases where this kind of community self-defence forms part of a culture of resistance and solidarity. Furthermore, far from being pathological the BB and some uses of violence, always to be considered contextually, can be situated within a political therapeutics that reactivates the individual and the social body. This reactivation allows for traumas to be worked through in an embodied therapeutics that generate the sense of these bodies as active forces exploring what it is they are capable of doing. In other words, despite contemporary nihilism these militant bodies can be a source of healing and revolutionary optimism.




[1] Bray, M. 2013.Translating anarchy:the anarchism of Occupy Wall Street. London: Zero Books. p. 211.

[2] Gandhi quoted in: Merton, T. Ed. 2007. Gandhi on nonviolence. New York: New Directions.

[3] Debord, G. Society of the spectacle. 

[4] Agamben, G. Means without end: notes on politics. p.76.

[5] Debord, G. Commentaries on the society of the spectacle.  

[6] Agamben, Means. p.84-85.

[7] Ibid. p.86.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Richmond, M., and Dean, J. 2013. Media, activism, and society of the spectacle. Online.

[10] Genet, J. 2003. Prisoner of love. New York: New York Review Books. p.99.

[11] CrimethInc Ex-Workers Collective. 2013. After the crest, pt.II: The rise and fall of the Oakland Commune.

[12] Mohandesi, S. 2012. On the black bloc. Online.

[13] Freud, S. Beyond the pleasure principle. Online.

[14] Ibid.


[16] Modena, E. quoted in Katsiaficas. 2006. The subversion of politics: European autonomous social movements and the decolonization of everyday life. Edinburgh and Oakland: AK Press. p.231.

2 responses to “The black bloc, the spectacle and the therapy of violence

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