This is the complete version that was included our most recent Black Flag Newsletter.
Mask of a Multitude: Staging Anarchy in the City
In a society of discipline and control, is it possible to perform acts of resistance and defiance that challenge the status quo? How is it that any group poor in resources, though perhaps rich in spirit, can grapple for power? In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau discusses the relationship between power and resistance by introducing his concepts of strategy and tactics. For de Certeau, institutions assert power strategically by relying on the physical presence and occupation of space. Institutional strategy therefore regulates the practices of subjects by controlling those structures within which we interact. Strategy is the exercise of power of the dominant. The weak, he contends however, must utilize tactics to express constituent power. Where strategy relies on space to control time, tactics focus on opportune moments in time to momentarily control space. While tactical power is ephemeral, it is afforded mobility and flexibility that strategic power lacks. de Certeau writes “The space of the tactic is the space of the other…What it wins it can not keep” (37). But what if the tactic does not set out to win or keep anything?
Among anarchist collectives the tactic of Black Bloc has become a staple. A quick and dirty definition of Black Bloc would be a grouping of individuals masked in black, often carrying shields though sometimes batons also, who march at the external margins of a larger marching population in order to insulate and protect the march through self-defense. By manning the front line, Black Blocrs confront police units who obstruct and control public space to suppress the mobility of the march, in order to stage a demonstration of State violence. This is an important distinction to make clear. A black bloc does not set out to deploy violence but rather stage a performance of violence. As a performance, the Black Bloc tactic meets the State within the spectacle that Debord argues “presents itself as a vast inaccessible reality that can never be questioned. Its sole message is: “What appears is good; what is good appears.” The passive acceptance it demands is already effectively imposed by its monopoly of appearances, its manner of appearing without allowing any reply” (2). 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.
So why Black Bloc? I have introduced the tactic of Black Bloc as a way to discuss some of the larger aspirations and limitations of the politics of anarchisms. First, the tactic represents a confrontational ethic necessary to any challenge of authority, this afterall is the goal tied to the etymology of anarchist politics, to be without rulers. However, the bloc in my opinion, is symptomatic of a tactical inertia that limits the political/symbolic traction infecting some anarchist collectives. After reflecting on/reading through the significance of blocing, I will suggest an alternative means of staging defiance in this way.
To begin our inquiry into the Bloc and by extension anarchisms we should consider the origin of their otherness. Taking Hegel’s Master/Slave dialectic as a guide, otherness is manifest in the confrontation between anarchists and the State or more specifically, the Black Bloc and the Police. During this confrontation the reaction of the police, hostile suppression, demonstrates the arbitrariness present in any contract between the State and those it represents by acting on behalf of the People against a people no longer recognized as such. In other words, the Bloc is excluded, no longer identified as the acceptable makeup of the body politic, they are free radicals.
In this initial contact we witness major critiques on the liberal tradition insofar as it limits itself to a delineation between The State and The People on whose behalf the state operates. In contrast to the State, the Bloc as a divided remainder of the People, is a manifestation of a multitude. The clash between the police and the Bloc can be read as the differentiation between The People and The multitude. Where the people indicates a represented unity forged by the State, a multitude by Hardt and Negri’s estimate is a multiplicity of singularities uninterested in coalescence with the State (259). Or as Virno’s reading of Hobbes states, the multitude exists prior to the unification of a state. However, once the state unifies, the multitude comprises a remainder that can never fully be summed into the people. To quote Virno from the Grammar of the Multitude, “it (the multitude) is the debris which sometimes jams the big machine”(24). Here we see a point of unity between anarchisms and a theory of the multitude which deploys tactics in order to achieve what David Graeber argues for as goals of “exposing, de-legitimizing, and dismantling mechanisms of rule” (2).
Furthermore, the Bloc symbolizes a breach in the state boundary as a multitude permeates through the midst of a city reappropriating space in its own way. The bloc becomes a pervasive borderland challenging the coherence of state space, a temporary autonomous zone opened at the eye of a storm. By wearing black they are a physical representation of political antagonism. If white is symbolic of peace and surrender as in a white flag. Black indicates continued defiance. If white symbolizes a reflection of the desire of the Law, than black is the denial of any such reflection. It is an absorption of the gaze. The collective black mask represents a refusal to signify, to make oneself knowable. This collective opacity refuses to play by the traditional liberal rules valuing political transparency and exposure in public. An exposure which leaves the dissident in handcuffs. At least this would be the political/symbolic/theoretical motivation for anarchisms to become post-hegemonic, that is, to reject any reconciliation with a unified State or People.
However, I find the Black Bloc as commonly practiced limiting due to its interaction with the State. Assuming that Foucault is correct in arguing that Power/Resistance always exist in tandem than the only tactics which challenge power are those that confuse it temporarily. By this estimate, an annual Black Bloc every May Day is reduced to an expectation at best, but more likely it is just a concession made within the hegemonic game. By chanting as they march or yelling at the police, I argue, the Bloc has failed to move beyond the politics of hegemony. To vocalize their grievances they have fallen into the trap of a politics of recognition by stating “Grant us this and we will surrender.” A politics of recognition reproduces the logic of hegemony by providing a concession that if granted will facilitate consent. Why wear black? Why maintain opacity if one wants to be granted recognition. Herein lies the paradox of the black bloc tactic: It renounces recognition while forgetting that it is a performance that requires an audience to recognize it. If they deny visibility, how could they deny vocality afterall? What choice do they have?
In the Fragile Absolute, Slavoj Zizek maintains that “when confronted by a situation of forced choice, the subject makes the crazy choice, striking at himself, at what is most precious to himself… By cutting himself loose from the precious object through whose possession the enemy kept him in check, the subject gains the space of free action.”
With this in mind, in order to maintain the power potentialized in a multitude engaged in Black Bloc tactics, I will advance the suggestion of a silent march. As a multiplicity of singularities marching against State unity, there is nothing to be requested. Silence is a rejection of any simple negotiation of rights. Silence stages an unsettling confusion. Silence provokes questions. Who are they? What do they want? Why are they doing this? Questions posed to which no reply is given. The anarchist propaganda collective know as Crimethinc. asserts that it is the project of anarchism to pose questions. “If the hallmark of ideology is that it begins from an answer…then one way to resist ideology is to start from questions rather than answers. That is to say—when we intervene in social conflicts, doing so in order to assert questions rather than conclusions…The term anarchy is itself useful not because it is an answer, but because it is a question” (Crimethinc 4) Marching as a multitude of potentiality, a collective embodiment of power rather than strength, a Black Bloc can stage defiance by reframing the spectacle of State authority. Rather than challenging the State monopoly on violence, a tactic which poses no real threat to the strategic superiority of the state, the silent bloc challenges a state monopoly on inscrutability.
To return to the Master/Slave parable, when the people meet the multitude on the road, who will defer to who? If deference means recognition at the expense of enslavement the multitude must pass in silence for their existence precedes authority. In this way the bloc becomes the debris that can irritate the state.
Certeau, Michel De. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California, 1984. Print.
Crimethinc. “Against Ideology?” (CrimethInc.). N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Dec. 2012.
Day, Richard J. F. Gramsci Is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements. London: Pluto, 2005. Print.
Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Web.
Foucault, Michel, and Sylvère Lotringer. Foucault Live: (interviews, 1961-1984). New York, NY: Semiotext(e), 1996. Print.
Goldman, Emma. “The Individual, Society and the State.” (Emma Goldman). N.p., n.d. j Web. 17 Dec. 2012.
Graebner, David. “Anarchism, Or The Revolutionary Movement Of The Twenty-first Century.” (Andrej Grubacic & David Graeber). N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Dec. 2012.
Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Commonwealth. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 2009. Print.
Negri, Antonio, and Antonio Negri. Time for Revolution. New York: Continuum, 2003. Print.
Virno, Paolo. A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life. Cambridge, Mass: Semiotext (e), 2003. Print.
Žižek, Slavoj. The Fragile Absolute, Or, Why Is the Christian Legacy worth Fighting For? London: Verso, 2000. Print.