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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.

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