In the past few months, Seattle has seen an upsurge of organizing against police terror in the wake of the murder of the late Native woodcarver J.T. Williams. Black Orchid Collective members have been active in this upsurge and we are currently working on a theoretical piece reflecting on it, imagining how we can advance the struggle beyond its current limitations. It will be up shortly.
One of the key debates on the Seattle Left right now is over the role of the Black Block in these anti-police brutality actions. The Black Block is a tactic where protestors dress all in black and wear black bandanas over their faces so that the police cannot as easily tell them apart. That way if someone in the Block engages in property destruction or other illegal tactics it will harder for the cops to pick that person off. It is a way for a wider group of protestors to express their solidarity with those who do not believe in confining movement strategy and tactics to the limits of legality under the capitalist system. The Black Block is often associated with anarchism, but really it is a tactic, not a politics; there are a variety of anarchists and non-anarchists who engage in it, and there are also anarchists who do not engage in it.
The Black Block presence at several recent demonstrations against police terror has sparked debate on the Seattle Left. This debate is over the following questions: Are people ready for illegal tactics like smashing cop car windows? Do engaging in such tactics put oppressed people at risk of police retaliation? Will engaging in such tactics help grow and deepen the participation of oppressed people or will it cut the Left off from the rest of our communities? Is it undemocratic for a militant minority within a crowd to escalate tactics, even if other political tendencies present disagree? Did the Black Block undemocratically “hijack” protests?
Many of these questions had come up earlier during the 1999 rebellion against the meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle, where the Black Block played a prominent role (the famous sound of Starbucks and Niketown windows smashing in the downtown shopping district). Don Hamerquist wrote and circulated an essay around that time engaging in these post WTO debates. Hamerquist is a long-time Marxist revolutionary and working class intellectual whose work has had a major influence in our political tendency’s attempts to build rank-and-file direct-action oriented labor struggle. His focus on deepening the self-activity and participation of working people, and breaking through the constraints of more bureaucratic modes of Left organization comes through in his analysis of the WTO uprising here in Seattle. In that sense, his essay is more than simply a polemic defending the Black Block; it is an articulation of the need for developing methods of struggle that recognize and expand revolutionary ruptures, helping to develop new revolutionary militants. As far as we know his essay has not been published online. We are posting it here because we think it is just as relevant to the Seattle Left today as it was 10 years ago. Of course the issues raised both then and today in Seattle touch on more universal questions facing oppressed people everywhere. We are looking forward to hearing your thoughts and comments.
We do not endorse everything Hamerquist writes here; we present it to spur discussion.
On the Black Block in Seattle
Everyone in the “movement” agrees the WTO action in Seattle was important–perhaps even historic. But ask why, and the “agreement” dissolves into a complex and contradictory mix of different interests, motives, strategies and perceptions. I think that what made Seattle important is exactly what made it difficult for capital. Some of these difficulties are objective problems facing global capitalism. These will be touched on later. However, in terms of the action itself, the starting point is the Black Bloc. Without the Black Bloc, the Judas embrace of the Clintons on the one hand and the Buchanans on the other would have ripped the political heart out of the Seattle action, and the police would have had an easy time containing it.
(For most of this discussion, the Black Bloc actions are considered to go beyond the property destruction by roving anarchist affinity groups to include features of the main activity, in particular some of the responses to police attacks on the blockades. Also included is the spontaneous redistribution of property by local residents; and the popular resistance to the police attempts to impose a curfew on the Capital Hill district. Of course, this does not mean that all of these elements were organizationally linked or even that they shared a common politics, only that in total they provided something important and new.)
Not surprisingly, the features of the action I identify as Black Bloc have provoked a shitstorm of criticism. They are called violent, irresponsible, provocative, nihilistic, undemocratic, naïve, illegitimate and worse. The movement’s general response to Seattle pictures the Black Bloc as a subtraction from the overall action and a dangerous diversion. This attack requires a strong and careful response by the Black Bloc and those who align themselves with it; or the political momentum we have gained in Seattle will evaporate into nostalgia, and genuine radicals will remain a marginalized fringe of a tame movement.
At certain moments the question is, which side are you on? This paper is on the side of the Black Bloc. Any criticisms or differences with one or another feature of the action, or with one or another of the explanations of it and arguments for it, are meant to be read in this context. There have been fence-straddling statements on Seattle that try to mediate the differences, picturing them as disputes over tactics between people who are on the same strategic path. This is not helpful at best, and at worst deliberately obstructs the needed discussion. One’s strategic path is demonstrated at moments of political crisis and pressure. Black Bloc critics who essentially come down on the side of order in Seattle are raising differences that go beyond tactical issues. Without some compelling evidence to the contrary, I find their professions of radicalism and anti-capitalism equivalent to those of Blair, Mitterand, and Schroeder. Their positions should be dealt with, but not with big expectations of finding some common ground.
Determining which side you’re on is only a first step. It may raise some questions, but it provides no useful answers. We must not wrap ourselves in a self-congratulatory and self-righteous cocoon to deflect criticism and discussion originating outside of our ranks. This is all too common. In addition to weakening our ability to win over people who disagree with us, or who think that they do, this stance also pretty much guarantees that there won’t be a healthy internal debate. The radical position is a minority position, a small minority, and will continue to be for some time. It must be developed, demonstrated and tested in both action and argument to convince a significant number of people that it is valid and workable. Luckily for us, people and their positions do change, sometimes, in response to events like Seattle, rapidly and dramatically.
Just at the point of capital’s apparent universal triumph, there is an outbreak of conflicting interests and tendencies within it, and the emergence of new insurgent potentials against it. This paradox, a happy one for radicals, was the basic context for the Seattle WTO meeting. These issues are not the topic of this paper so I will only make a few brief points that I think are relevant to what happened in Seattle.
Capital is increasingly international. Profit is maximized through supranational institutions and processes that are relatively independent of specific national interests and are not necessarily advanced through the policies of particular national states. However, capitalist political and military power is still organized on the basis of nation states, and in many cases, globalization has been at the expense of sectors of capital that have historically been dominant in particular countries and that have the ability to resist their eclipse politically and, potentially, militarily, despite being superceded economically. Thus the political requirements for stability and hegemony and, thereby, military power in a nation, for example, this nation, don’t always dovetail with global profit maximization. The supranational institutions such as the WTO that might implement a new equilibrium for capital are still in the developmental stages, and it is urgent for capital’s stability that they be developed quickly.
Underlying this situation, reinforcing its contradictions and preventing easy capitalist solutions, global capital is reaching limits on its ability to revolutionize the productive forces, in particular the fundamental productive force, human labor. The exploitation of direct labor is becoming less important than the accumulated productivity of historical labor. As a consequence we have the situation, an absurdity in human terms, where living labor is becoming redundant, not because it could not be employed productively, but because dead labor is “too productive.” Meanwhile some two thirds of the world is on the edge of famine and plague. Capital is treating direct labor as if it was raw material to be consumed in the production process and discarded. It uses up one pool of cheap labor at immense human cost and then moves on to another one, attempting to avoid the development of countervailing organization which might force it to assume some of the costs of social reproduction. Beyond this, having transcended its relationship to specific territories and cultures, capital is, if possible, even less concerned than it has been historically with the environmental and social consequences of profit maximization. Entire populations have been devastated and, to some extent, activated, through the operation of impersonal market forces that are completely beyond their political reach.
. Think of what this means. There is this bewildering array of grievances and responses. Outmoded sectors of capital would like to go back to the good old days in ways that superficially parallel the projects of some popular forces. There are pressing grievances among newly proletarianized populations while historically privileged working classes now face the issues of marginalization. The cumulative consequences of capitalist development have given urgency and momentum to demands for a different quality of life. Neo-colonial political structures evolved to divert national liberation movements from a revolutionary anti-capitalist trajectory are undermined by economic processes denying them the ability to deliver the goods to their constituencies. These all contribute to potentials for insurgency. The decisive and leading sectors of capital must deal with all of this when they can’t rely on stable political hegemony within their own class, much less in any national state. This, in my opinion, is what underlay Seattle.
These are issues here that need a lot of sorting out, but three things are clear enough. First, structural reform/ necessary stage approaches make no strategic sense. What are the overarching demands that might constitute essential goals short of anticapitalist revolution? Certainly they cannot be interest group demands that could and would be satisfied at the expense of some other constituency in a sort of a zero sum game. Second, an implication of my first point is that sectoral demands and minimum agreement alliances to achieve them have to be carefully scrutinized. They can mask incompatible interests in ways that help capital adapt to changed circumstances more than they help any sector of the people. Finally, in this country, as well as throughout the world, there is a lot of chaos churning underneath the apolitical surface normalcy. Large groups of people are likely to make major changes in what they think and are willing to do without going through a gradual incremental process of “learning.” We can certainly be thankful for this, given the quality of most of those who would appoint themselves as the teachers.
An interesting discussion is developing about the Seattle action. It’s important it continue and that it involve more questions and a wider range of participants. This is not a time to be afraid of having differences. We will have differences, big ones. My point of departure, to repeat, is solidarity with the Black Bloc. This was where the Seattle action broke out of the suffocating orbit of capitalist power and one of its hegemonic adaptive mechanisms– the “legitimate” official protest movement. The Black Bloc was the core of the party of disorder. It was the grouping whose project consciously tried to be anti-capitalist. It contributed heavily to the actions and attitudes that are difficult for capital to repress and/or contain. To make the same point differently, the Black Bloc marked the path to the differentiating a revolutionary component in the struggle and took a few steps along it.
One main document putting forth the position of the Black Bloc (perhaps one of the positions within the Bloc would be more accurate) is the Acme Collective communiqué. There is a lot to like and agree with in this document. It is refreshingly militant and even funny. Its description of the actual behavior of the Black Bloc makes an instructive contrast with the officially sanctioned ‘tactics’ that have been boring us to tears for decades. Its points about the ‘peace police’ are also right on target. But the Acme communiqué raises issues where I disagree. Hopefully my criticisms will help develop a clear and coherent response to the attacks the Acme document has generated, and will also clarify some conditions and terms for future activities.
Two straightforward points: First, let’s try a little Aesopian language. A group that argues we are already “living in a police state” (more about this later) should not lay out a blueprint for felony interstate conspiracy charges. The state is a party to our debates, sometimes silent, sometimes not so silent. Second, at times, and Seattle may be one of them, the state develops a certain tactical paralysis when it is confronted with harder choices than those to which it has become accustomed and when it has sharp internal differences over how to respond. This can result in both incredible lapses in control and almost vigilante violence from the police. We shouldn’t expect this paralysis to become chronic and should temper any euphoria over the success of Black Bloc tactics. It will not always be possible to find unprotected symbolic targets; to ‘get away’; or to hide behind masks which also are markers. It’s unlikely to be this easy next time. The state will learn from this experience. Certainly it will learn at least enough so it will be prepared for the next case. It’s important that we learn also, and learn better. One thing to learn is the situation in Seattle cannot be mechanically reproduced elsewhere. Efforts to do this will be largely futile and can become a self-parody. Rather than trying to replicate a unique set of conditions, we should find the ways to incorporate the spirit of insurgency and intransigence demonstrated in Seattle into tactics that fit a wide range of different situations.
I have a bigger problem with Acme’s treatment of the issues of violence and non-violence. It is not in our interests to try to finesse these questions, but I think that is what Acme does. The communiqué makes some comments on the violent essence of capitalism that many of its critics could accept, and then, as I read it, argues that property destruction is an essentially non-violent form of struggle. This is a dismayingly glib evasion that will open up a fruitless debate with pacifists. They will point out that when property is trashed, someone is inevitably hurt, caused “pain,” even if no one intends it. In fact, unless the property damage is purely symbolic, they are right.
We have an enemy, but it is not tangible property. It is not technology. It is a system of domination by a class, enforced, in the last instance, which is often the first place, by force and violence. Class rule is not going to disintegrate in the face of non-violent persuasion; certainly not when the persuasion originates with people who are not intransigently hostile to capital but only to some of its features and policies. (Equally important but totally outside the scope of this paper, it’s impossible to develop a revolutionary response to fascism without abandoning pacifism.)
Radicals can’t afford to be pacifists in either the short or the long term. We can’t afford to take responsibility for our actions through religious submission to the legitimacy of the very authority we challenge. The use of violence must not be romanticized, but it does have to be planned and organized. No significant popular advance is possible, certainly nothing that approaches a revolution, without using force and popular violence against the inevitable and omnipresent violence of the system. This is a requirement for our own defense, and it is a requirement for victory.
Nothing that has been said to this point excludes agreement on nonviolent tactics in certain circumstances, but this agreement should not involve tacit acceptance of the moral and philosophical stance of pacifism. The elitist underpinning of pacifism should be confronted and rejected as a matter of strategic principle. It takes a stance of unwarranted moral superiority, both to the vast majority who are unwilling to cede a monopoly of force and violence to the state and to those of us who draw a qualitative distinction between the violence of an oppressor and the violent response of the oppressed. This is a false superiority that rests ultimately on being able to opt out of the struggle if it doesn’t develop along the lines you advocate.
Perhaps it’s unfair to think the Acme Collective deliberately ducks the issues around violence just because of what they do and don’t say in this short document. However, even if this isn’t a fair criticism of them, it certainly applies to much of the rest of the movement.
The issues around force and violence involve much more than the acceptance or rejection of pacifism. As mass insurgencies develop in this country, the movement will go beyond pacifism. This is already the case in most of the rest of the world and it has been true at times in the past in this country. Inevitably, however, evading the discussion of force and violence around pacifism leads to evading it or distorting it on more important points. The failure to work out the issues of force and violence contributes to a left that flops all over the place; embracing pacifism casually and uncritically, then rejecting it in favor of a romanticized violence, even to the point of rationalizing its legitimacy inside the movement. Commonly, this is followed by a paroxysm of penitence and yet another reversal which rediscovers social work or parliamentary liberalism or some other capitalist crap. We should all be aware this has happened before in this country. In fact, it is happening here and around the world right now. Hopefully this generation can break the cycle.
Radicals must take political responsibility for their tactics, violent and non-violent alike, carefully thinking out the consequences and implications for overall strategy. Violence, even when it is clearly targeted against capital, must be measured and limited so that an increasingly credible moral distinction between capitalism and anti-capitalism emerges. A great weakness in the international radical tradition and culture, and a heavy legacy of “actually existing socialism”, is that this moral distinction, which at one time was self-evident, has been eroded to the point where it is virtually invisible.
There are two other points in the Acme document that deserve more extended treatment: First, “…let us remind you–we are living in a police state”(Acme, p. 3); second, “private property–and capitalism, by extension–is intrinsically violent and repressive and cannot be reformed or mitigated” (Acme, p. 4). These statements are understandable and have elements of validity, but as stated they are wrong and can lead to dangerous illusions and a flawed optimism. Rather than make these criticisms here, I will put them in the context of my differences with the main critiques of the Acme statement and the Black Bloc activities with which I’m familiar: Michael Albert’s “Response to the Acme Collective” and Brian Dominick’s “Anarchy, Non-violence and the Seattle Actions.” There is really no reason to spend time on various criticisms and observations that come from the so-called communist left. Basically, Seattle provides a pretext for restatements of their too well known positions. There is little else to them besides invective and imagination. I don’t agree with Albert and Dominick but they at least present positions that can be discussed and debated.
(Albert has put out a later argument that takes a substantially different and less objectionable tack than “Response.” He also has an abridged version of ‘Response’ that omits the direct criticism of the Acme Collective position. When politics improve it is certainly welcome. Unfortunately, Albert doesn’t indicate he has changed any of his positions in “Response” even though some of them appear to be the ones he criticizes in his later piece; specifically the concepts that certain folks have property rights in the movement and that majority tactical decisions should be binding on all participants in movement actions. So, if we are lucky, Albert may be better than he seemed. However, even if he does not stand by all of his initial positions, they are certainly held by others and can still be usefully criticized. It also has to be noted that his change in tone and in some specifics does not affect fundamental elements of the strategy his initial argument advances.)
The Albert criticism purports to deal with the Acme statement on a “point by point” basis. The basic presentation patronizes its readers with a tone of weary olympian detachment. Albert believes he has seen it all, and seen others do it all before. He aims to corral the wild kids before they do real damage while smoothing the ruffled feathers of the movement apparatchniks they have offended. But from time to time his own indignation at the Black Bloc actions does come through and he gets strident.
Dominick is much more confused and conflicted. He goes on at length about what he knows, what he thinks, what he has been arguing, what he could be convinced of and what he sees some value in. When he is done, we are left only with petulant conclusions such as the Black Bloc should limit its activity to times and places removed from “the actually valuable work done by those who used mass action to disrupt the WTO…There is a time and a place for everything, and there’s no reason to risk spoiling one group’s event for what then amounts to the shenanigans of another” (Dominick, Anarchy, p. 4).
This is not a “point by point” refutation of Albert or Dominick. That could be instructive, if tedious, but it is more than is called for. Let’s assume for the moment, as both Albert and Dominick appear to, that they and the Acme people share a similar objective–call it anti-capitalist revolution, communalism, basic institutional change, or whatever. Is there also a strategy to achieve this objective they share with the Black Bloc – a strategy that provides a basis for criticizing and, indeed an obligation to criticize, the Black Bloc tactics? I don’t think so, and if there is no such a shared strategy, it clearly calls into question whether they actually do agree on ultimate objectives.
It’s hard to tell anything definite from the impressionistic equivocations in the Dominick piece, but Albert’s conception of a strategy is evident. A few excerpts illustrate it:
“Movement building, winning short term demands and laying a basis for winning longer term aims…assessing tactics means noting whether they enlarge or diminish immediate chances to win some goal!”… “ Thus the evaluative issue remains what it was at the outset, what behavior builds a movement and what behavior will worry elites into succumbing to pressure”… “More, changing society isn’t a matter of breaking windows, it is a process of developing consciousness and vehicles of organization and movement, and of then applying these to win gains that benefit deserving constituencies and create conditions for still further victories, leading to permanent institutional change” (Albert, Response, p.1, p.4, p.6).
These passages simply restate reformism, whether of the Bernstein (socialist) or, more likely, the Alinsky (populist) variants. It’s a little odd for someone who presents himself as a reasonable and experienced radical to put out this position without indicating it has been tried and rejected by a multitude of other reasonable and experienced radicals–not only by those who have “lathered themselves into a well-motivated but utterly out of touch turmoil of hope, rage, desire, paranoia, anticipation, and abstract rationalization that (is) so divorced from reality as to render them…virtually useless…” (Albert, Response, p.8). Time will tell who is “utterly out of touch” and “divorced from reality.” In any case, it is absolutely clear the Acme collective rejects all variants of reformism’
They say, “Private property–and capitalism by extension–is intrinsically violent and repressive and cannot be reformed or mitigated…we aim to destroy the thin veneer of legitimacy that surrounds private property rights.” (Acme, p. 6).
There are certainly problems with this Acme position; e.g. the “veneer of legitimacy” is not at all thin, and capitalism has demonstrated an ability not only to be reformed, but to be almost transformed in response to mass movements. Beyond this, at least in this document, the Acme people leave a lot of unanswered questions about how they would relate to mass movements and popular grievances. However, these limitations are trivial stacked against the flaws in Albert’s alternative. All of our collective experience with structural reforms, popular fronts, qualitative demands, even national liberation governments, provides no reason to regard any of them as steps towards anti-capitalism, much less as necessary stages through which an anticapitalist movement must travel. Why should we think Albert’s unspecified ‘winnings’ are any different? Presuming, of course, that this is what he believes.
In fact, we shouldn’t. Where the movement has achieved the victories, the ‘winning’ that is Albert’s sine qua non, one result, however unintended, is that they allow capital to draw political support from what previously was an area of instability and potential insurgency. This is accomplished through the co-optation and incorporation of the movement or sectors of it. While capital always holds the option of police repression and, on a selective basis, regularly employs it, the co-optation and incorporation of protest movements, and not general repression, has been and still is, the normal form taken by capitalist rule in the so-called advanced areas. So long as it is possible to rule, while hiding the reality of exploitation and class domination behind purportedly neutral, objective and ‘just’ institutions and processes, the decisive sector of the ruling class regards this as the preferred strategy to maintain power. It’s always desirable to have the oppressed and exploited acquiescence in their essential subordination. It’s even better to have them participate in it. Capital will pay a price to achieve and maintain this position. The hegemonic reasons for this should be obvious.
Even historically significant “winnings” like the franchise, civil rights, the right to union organization, and formal political independence for oppressed peoples, have had this dual character. On the one side a popular advance; on the other side a revitalized legitimacy for capital that in many cases comes to outweigh the advance. This said, it must be noted that Albert is not asking that radicals defer to historically significant demands – at least he doesn’t indicate what they might be. Rather remarkably he appears to regard the attainment of demands, any demands, as more crucial than their content or the nature of the struggle for them. He would subordinate the Black Bloc’s actions to whatever demands the movement of the moment happens to throw up. In his view, any sort of victories, and the coalitions to obtain them are necessary first steps, notwithstanding the fact that such steps have been taken and retaken over the entire history of capitalism without ever leading to anything but another repetition of the same sad process. When reduced to its essential argument, Albert’s real criticism of the Acme statement is nothing other than they disagree with this moth-eaten strategy. They are right to disagree.
When the core of a strategy is building coalitions aimed at winning immediate demands that will, in theory, lead incrementally to qualitative institutional change, any actions that alienate potential participants will be viewed as disruptions. When the core of a strategy is to develop a direct challenge to capitalist order in all of its modalities, no reform demands can be fetishized and many popular notions about what is needed, what is possible, and what is right, must be challenged. A debate over tactics that doesn’t clarify and take account of such huge underlying strategic differences will not be productive.
There are many historical situations where something similar has happened. I want to mention a couple of these, and then spend more time on an example that should be more familiar. Finally, I want to construct a hypothetical example based on an argument Dominick makes about Seattle.
The hot and confused debate about “sabotage” between Wobblies and the Socialist Party leadership in the 1910’s was part of the differences that split the international socialist movement during WWI and went far beyond tactics to fundamental issues of stance. The French C.P. grew quite apoplectic when confronted with radical slogans like ‘‘Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible’’ in the 1968 French General Strike. But this was not based on tactical differences with the “enragés,” although there were many, but on a fundamental inability to comprehend politics outside the limits of their popular front anti-monopoly coalition government strategy. At historical junctures such as these, radical tactics are routinely pictured in just the way that its critics viewed those of the Black Bloc; irresponsible, self defeating, nihilistic, almost irrational, and quite possibly, police-inspired. On the left the most common method of dealing with an emerging strategic alternative is to attack a caricatured version of its tactics.
When the Black Power movement suddenly (or so it appeared to outsiders) emerged from the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, it also was beyond the comprehension of much of the mainstream movement, not to mention groups like the CPUSA. Why raise a new demand which by its nature could not be conceded (power can’t be bestowed) and why do this just at the moment when major victories were being attained? Why alienate long time allies and jeopardize realistic expectations of majority support by attacking the system and allying with its enemies around the world? Why, particularly, when just yesterday the struggle had aimed at integration into the exact same system?
With the benefit of hindsight neither the tactics nor the strategy of Black Power seem at all irrational. The class base of the Black movement was transformed by it and the politics of the entire 60’s movement was as well. I don’t mean to argue that Black Power was necessarily a viable strategy, or that any strategy is correct just because it is a radical departure from what is in vogue. These things must be proven in action over time. In fact, Black Power was expeditiously defanged into a cultural style and attenuated into interest group politics, leaving us with Farrakhan and Jackson Sr. (Certainly there are lessons here for current day irreconcilables, Black Bloc included, but they are a part of a different argument.) My point, again, is that competing strategies cannot be adequately evaluated on the level of tactics, and they will not generally be implemented through unitary tactics
Dominick apparently disagrees with this. For him “bad” tactics by the Black Bloc were the problem and “good” tactics would be the solution. Black Bloc arrogance was the essential issue in Seattle. He believes the Black Bloc imposed its tactics on someone else’s activity when the responsible and democratic course would have been to implement them at a distance in time and/or space. Dominick argues that with some organizational adjustments and a reasonable approach to tactics, the Black Bloc could easily have been a productive part of the overall movement. I’m referring back to the earlier citation from Dominick, “…there’s a time and a place for everything…” (Dominick, Anarchy, p.4). Let’s look at his position in a little more detail and construct a plausible hypothetical case around it to see whether or not he could be right.
“Why didn’t those who hold that property destruction furthers the cause against neoliberal globalization simply engage in such acts on another day, or in a place far removed from putting thousands of law-abiding others at risk?”(Dominick, Anarchy, p.4).
Referring to the non-Black Bloc sector of the Seattle action as, “thousands of law-abiding others”, is too ridiculous to be called slanderous, but let’s put this aside. Suppose the Black Bloc had decided to do some major damage to the Boeing facilities in Renton or Everett, and to act against Nike, Disney, et al, in the University district or other neighborhoods away from downtown. Unless this action was purely symbolic (in other words, an essential failure), it would have been a big problem for the police–forcing them to divide their forces, complicating their command and control and consequently weakening their ability to deal with the main action’s blockade. It also could easily have expanded to involve residents in impromptu commodity redistribution, further diverting the police.
Would everything have been harmonious in Seattle with this more felicitous division of labor? Hardly. Let’s list common criticisms of the Black Bloc: it alienated potential supporters and allies; it broke majority “guidelines” for the action; it diverted attention from the real message; it legitimated repression. Isn’t it clear this hypothetical behavior would have evoked exactly the same basic criticisms even though it appears to be what Dominick would have advocated, or at least sanctioned. In fact, only tactics that had no impact would have been tolerated by the Black Bloc critics. And then these tactics would have been ridiculed for being ineffectual. The important differences between the Black Bloc and its critics are about strategy and fundamental goals. Where Dominick stands on these differences is an open question
If this were just an academic debate, it would be sufficient to demonstrate that Albert, and possibly Dominick as well, are operating within a flawed strategy and that they both fail to confront a developing strategic alternative. But it’s not an academic debate. Their positions have real references in popular attitudes in this country. Illusions about the attainability and significance of one or another reform are almost as widespread as acquiescence to the established order. People must be convinced a revolutionary alternative is possible. Then they must be convinced that it is really needed because they know that fighting for it will entail real risks and costs and has no guarantee of ultimate success. In fact, they understand this point better than does the movement that chants “the people united will never be defeated.”
Changes in popular perspectives will be accomplished mainly through the logic and momentum of action, but they will also require debate and discussion. Radicals must be able to convince a critical mass within the movement and among the people generally, not only that Albert et.al. are mistaken, but what the mistakes are. People must also be convinced that radical alternatives aren’t equally mistaken, even if for different reasons.
What Albert liked about Seattle was the number and the diversity of the constituencies that were “united”; the extent to which there was an understanding of a common target; the potential demonstrated to win tangible and significant victories; and the popular power that was manifested. What he disliked about the Black Bloc was that it attempted to question the unity, the conception of the target, the relevance of the demands, and the meaning of “winning” them. Albert sees this as an anti-democratic, anti majority position on the part of the Black Bloc (more about “democracy” later), but the issue really is that the Black Bloc whether or not they intended it, disrupted a reformist problematic that has nothing to do with democracy.
There are reformist perspectives in which the immediate struggle for short term gains is everything; just as there are activists who can’t see anything beyond their “own” issue. These pose simple problems for capital. The movements for them can be absorbed through selective concessions and diverted through selective repression. The demands can be played off against other, equally real and “legitimate”, demands. Both Albert and Dominick, I assume, are quite aware of the problems with simplistic reformism. But Albert, at least, bases his entire criticism of the Black Bloc on a different variant of reformism.
His scenario begins with constituencies becoming active around their immediate needs and grievances; learning their potential strength through winning some tangible victories; joining with other constituencies that have the same target; and building on the accumulated experiences and victories to launch a successful movement for basic social change. History says things will not be so simple, but it is more than just our accumulated experience that calls such perspectives into question. When and how does the movement for “short term demands” become a movement for “permanent institutional change”(Albert, Response, p.1, p.6)? How does the movement become aware that this is “its” objective and not one chosen for it by some condescending saviors?
A basic problem with most reform strategies, and certainly with Albert’s, is that the bulk of the participants in the movement are seen as the objects of organizing, not the subjects of history. They don’t need to have a vision of ultimate objectives until the final stages of the struggle. They will “learn” these piecemeal along the way through a set of structured experiences controlled as much as possible by an essentially self-selected leadership, e.g. “…those who tirelessly and effectively organized it (the Seattle action)” (Albert, Response, p.2). Any genuinely popular participation in strategic decision making will only come at the end of a long process which has pre-digested the issues and simplified the options.
This is social engineering, not radical politics. It is not only not what a radical movement should do, it is the exact opposite of what it should do. The responsibility of the left is to organize itself, not to place itself as the thinking head of a passive body. Priority should be put on the conscious and autonomous activity of participants in the struggle, the aspects that prefigure strategic objectives, not on feeding the rank and file a sugarcoated picture in order to maintain morale. The very first issue in developing this kind of participation is to make sure that everyone has access to relevant facts about the issues and the obstacles and can make their own judgements about the alternatives.
The left has difficulty accepting autonomous activity as more than a utopian illusion. This grows out of its propensity to accept an essentially capitalist simplification of popular political attitudes into vulgar quantitative sociology. On the surface, most people are apolitical, nonpolitical, and antipolitical. They are preoccupied with private concerns. They are atomized, and the system can and does consider them as statistical aggregates. However, underneath the surface is a complex of contradictions; contradictions within what is popularly thought; contradictions between what is thought and what is done; contradictions between what is done normally and what is done under exceptional circumstances. Albert’s tendency and that of much of the movement is to accept this reduction of people, and these are “the people,” to a set of objective statistics. The “people opposed” the Black Bloc actions, meaning presumably that if some pollster called and asked them if they were for violence and property destruction an overwhelming majority would say no. If they were asked if they supported breaking the law and fighting the police, they would say no; etc. ad infinitum.
Such sentiments are only evidence that capital rules and that, when they are approached as isolated individuals enmeshed in the routine of daily life, people have difficulty seeing beyond it. This is certainly part of reality and cannot be ignored or wished away, but it is only a part. Radical politics have to challenge this pervasive passive acceptance of essential subordination or they are not radical. We cannot capitulate to it just because it is one part of daily life.
Radicals must break meaningful groups away from passivity into self-conscious activity. This potential is also part of daily life. These breakaway groups will be minorities, usually small minorities, and they will be susceptible to fragmentation and co-optation. But they are the key element in radical change. Radical tactics must be developed with respect to, and evaluated in terms of, this process. It can be said with absolute certainty that gradualist, legalist tactics contribute to passivity and atomization rather than challenge it. This is no guarantee of the efficacy of any specific radical alternatives, but at least they have a chance. Reformist tactics, which usually approach people through “their” leaderships and “their” organizations, do not. They cannot because these leaderships and organizations are based in, and premised on, the essential passivity of the base–the membership–the rank and file under “normal” conditions. This passivity is what capital counts and what it counts on. People who are self-consciously active can no longer be counted or counted on.
Social engineering can come from the left as well as the right. There are “leftists” whose approach rests on the peculiar notion people and movements will be convinced of the necessity and possibility of revolution by their failure to achieve anything else. One common feature of this approach involves leading movements into confrontations where issues and risks are not clear, with the assumption that the experience will be a radicalizing one. Albert has no apparent problems when manipulation comes from reformists. The essential content of the “self definition”, the “guidelines”, and the “aspirations” that he superimposes on the Seattle action are just that, manipulation and control. However, he is very worried about it coming from the left. This is the general sense of his Readers Digest overview of the movements and debates of the 60’s. Both he and Dominick hint ominously that the Black Bloc was providing a “pretext for police repression” (Albert, Response, p.5), “endangering others” (Albert, Response, p.2), or that the Black Bloc actions, “predictably inflamed” (Dominick, Anarchy, p.4) the police against the nonviolent sector of the demonstrations. Albert and Dominick don’t think this is only stupidity and carelessness on the part of the Black Bloc. It’s clear they see it as a planned consequence of Black Bloc actions, “(they)…are taking advantage … for their own tactic.” (Dominick, Anarchy, p.3)
It is certainly true that in addition to strengthening the action, militance by any element in any action, also raises the ante, upsets the police and increases the risks for all participants. Albert and Dominick charge the Black Bloc with tactics that deliberately put others at risk to advance their political agenda, but there is no evidence the Black Bloc intended get other people hurt. The Black Bloc was organized to minimize its own risks. Additionally, the Acme Statement authors clearly believe mobile tactics and a different approach to the police would have reduced everyone’s risks in Seattle.
This said, there is no denying that there is a problem with the Acme Statement here. If they actually begin functioning as if we are living in a police state without any potential for reform, they will inevitably be tempted to maneuver people into confrontations where they too can “learn” this lesson. Unfortunately the most lasting lesson from such situations is that manipulation creates resentment. Also unfortunately, the Black Bloc can easily follow this analysis down a road which will create a mini-police state for itself and a handful of supporters. Albert is right, this has happened before.
Albert and Dominick regularly refer to the “massive,” and the “hugely huge” nature of the Seattle actions. But it wasn’t the massive character of the Seattle action that made it important and refreshingly unique. Comparably sized movement activities are quite common. The distinctive factor was the fact that in Seattle, massive didn’t also mean passive. Seattle wasn’t another of the “immobilizations and demoralizations” that Abbie Hoffman used to talk about.
Normally, participants come to an event that is scripted and choreographed by movement organizers and the relevant authorities. Tactics have been determined and limited to the level supposedly required to get favorable coverage from capital’s media, and to involve a largely hypothetical, usually mythical, conservative constituency that supposedly doesn’t know “this” and isn’t ready for “that.” (This position is apparent in Albert’s article.) Any break with legality is symbolic and pre-arranged with the legal authority, an Orwellian conception if there has ever been one. The role of the participants, unless they rebel, is to provide an attentive audience for the “important people.” These “opinion makers” are selected to speak despite the fact they neither represent those they’re speaking for nor have anything relevant to say to those they are speaking to. In part because of, but also and more importantly, in spite of its organizers, Seattle broke with this pattern.
People join movement actions wanting to do something meaningful, something that makes a difference. There is nothing positive when a handful of self-selected movement organizers make all the decisions about how this will be accomplished under circumstances where only a few easily discounted radicals even know how and where to disagree. I suppose it’s possible for these decisions to be good ones, but based on the record, it’s unlikely. Can anyone think people choose to expend substantial money and effort just to walk docilely up some street, chant some simplistic stuff, obey the police and their little movement helpers, and, to cap the experience, be bored by speeches? No. People have opted out of the ‘movement’ or chosen not to get involved in it by the thousands in substantial part because they find this part of the experience ineffective and even embarrassing. It’s way too similar to voting. Perhaps this is not entirely coincidental.
(It would be interesting to make an assessment of how many have been turned off by this experience and it’s one of the better parts of the movement experience, compared to how many have opted out because of the “shenanigans” of the anarchists. I’d put it in the area of thousands to one).
“Breaking windows was not a demonstration agenda item. The stated and understood goal of the thousands upon thousands of people from all over the U.S and the world who attended the event was to build movements to challenge the WTO using marches, rallies, and civil disobedience. To take advantage of the opportunity of the assembly by violating those aspirations undermines any sense of democracy” (Albert, Response, p.6).
Besides being factually inaccurate–through what sort of democratic process did these thousands come to these decisions and who let in the guy from France who drove his tractor through a McDonalds?–Albert’s conclusion is completely wrong. The Black Bloc, broadly conceived, performed a democratic function by giving participants and spectators in the Seattle action some real choices about what to do and how to conceptualize the issues. I doubt that these choices could have been considered in the official action planning. There were too many cops listening in for any but the foolhardy to raise them, and the “movement leaders” would have ruled them out of order if they had.
Of course, many participants in the action opposed the Black Bloc tactics. Certainly a lot of non-participants, in Seattle and around the world, did as well. (And let’s not forget that every faction of capital, its entire public relations apparatus, and all the arbiters of morality and legitimacy, were all opposed to the Black Bloc tactics.) This raises questions about how to view such differences. Albert and Dominick are pretty clear. The Black Bloc screwed up the action and should have gotten lost. Amazingly, positions like this can be put out right next to attacks on the Black Bloc for dismissing their critics as the liberals and reformists most of them are. There is no suggestion from the Black Bloc that the range of tactics they opposed or thought were ineffectual should be read out of the “movement.” There has been a lot of this from their opponents. In fact, some even call on the state to help their political sanitizing. No one ever likes their critics, but the real problems of tactical rigidity and intolerance rests with the opponents of the Black Bloc.
The Black Bloc should never give people who are politically hostile a veto power over their activities, but it is just as important that it respects others’ tactics. This isn’t liberalism. People have to be won to a categorically radical and militant position through their experiences and through debate and discussion. This is not an easy process. There are good reasons why most people are not yet ready to break with reformism and legalism. Indeed, these reasons illuminate again the potential consequences of the Acme Statement position that this is already a police state and there is no reforming of capitalism. If this were literally true, then those who didn’t opt for revolution would simply be taking the side of capitalism or capitulating to it, whether or not they understood it. If, as I believe is the case, this Acme position is not literally true, the burden is on the radicals to undertake a protracted struggle to win people away from gradualist reformist strategies by showing that no partial steps come close to meeting the human needs they address, and that a myopic focus on winning small victories wastes the possibilities created in mass struggle.
Things seldom work out smoothly. The possibility exists that radical tactics will not only provide real popular options, but might also inadvertently cause injuries to people who are not involved and/or who don’t approve. This “collateral damage” view is part of Albert’s and Dominick’s Black Bloc critique, bit there is no evidence it was a real problem in Seattle – at least not from that source. In fact, it is hard to find many similar situations in this country where it has been, Albert’s overheated memories of the sixties notwithstanding. However it is conceivable. To illustrate what this might involve, consider the WWII assassination of the Nazi, Heydrich, by the Czech resistance prodded by British Intelligence. The Nazis responded by killing tens of thousands, including the entire civilian population of the town of Liddice, the overwhelming majority of whom had nothing to do with the partisans or their actions and certainly nothing to do with the aims and policies of British Intelligence. Though this is a long way from the Seattle situation, it illustrates in an exaggerated way that radicals can ignore the danger of collateral damage only by forgetting that we have a real and quite ruthless set of enemies.
These potential problems shouldn’t obscure the actual collateral damage resulting from the tactics of some of the most vociferous of the Black Bloc critics. This is the damage caused by the failure to recognize the enemy at all. A common feature of movement organizing is cooperation with authority. Serious discussion of whether any element in the power structure, and particularly the police, are our friends or, at least, can be treated as neutrals is usually conspicuous by its absence. Whether or not the discussion occurs the rightwing of the movement always has a pseudo realpolitik justification for doing what it pleases. Cooperation with authority is responsible for real and growing collateral damage, and we are paying for it. I don’t doubt that Albert and Dominick have qualms in this area, but this damage does not loom large for the admirers of the “massive” and the “hugely huge.” For reasons that have been touched on earlier in this argument, it’s neither necessary nor possible to exclude this approach from the movement. But it can be criticized, isolated and politically defeated. Until this is done, full discussion and democratic decision making will be illusory.
(Albert and Dominick are even reluctant to criticize approaches that do deliberate, not collateral, damage to the movement. Consider those who appoint themselves as peace police and physically confront other protesters; those who point out ‘troublemakers’ to the police; those who advocate arrest and prosecution of the Black Bloc members. This is behavior that shouldn’t be tolerated.)
“Another question that’s arising is the actual value of confronting police. It’s been pointed out regularly and responsibly with regard to the Seattle events, that police are not supposed to be the adversary of the day. In actions against neoliberal globalization (and most other issues, too) our real target is elites, not working class cops. Unfortunately, the police tend to form the elites second line of defense, (the first being the mass media outlets)”(Dominick, Anarchy, p.2).
I can’t even think of dealing with Dominick’s position on the police before asking what the hell is “neoliberal globalization?” Is it that thing Buchanan attacks? Is it the Clinton policy? Are we advancing “liberal” globalization as our preferred option? Whatever. I’m going to assume that “neoliberal globalization” must be a policy of capital, possibly the dominant policy. I, and probably Dominick as well, oppose the policy and oppose the system that advances it. So what about the police?
The police are there to defend capitalist property and maintain capitalist order. This is the case whether the policy du jour is neoliberal globalization or cryptoconservative autarky. Our intent is, or should be, to attack the legitimacy of capitalist property and disrupt and undermine capitalist order. That makes us adversaries of the police on each and every day we decide to do something about our positions. (“Working class cops”…give me a break. If there is any place where the use of the term “working class” is a red herring this is it.) Saying that the police are always adversaries does not mean that they also should always be confronted. We are seriously outgunned and confrontation is often stupidity. But that is a far cry from saying that our only remaining alternatives are cooperation or passive non-cooperation with the police. Our job is to make their job as difficult as possible while keeping our exposure to a minimum, not to win them over.
The importance of having masses of people break with capitalist legality by learning ways to undermine, evade and demoralize the police can’t be overestimated. We also can’t overestimate the importance of publicly exposing their social role and both the techniques they routinely employ and the ones they will resort to in a crisis. There are certainly risks here, but some of them must be taken.
Attempts to slide around dealing with the police are symptomatic of a larger problem. Many movement people, particularly those who define themselves as organizers, develop a stake in becoming the loyal opposition and are reluctant to close off their personal and political options by adopting an intransigent, anti-capitalist stance. But the system can’t be overthrown by working within its framework of legitimacy and that’s where all loyal oppositions work. Any genuine insurgency will break out of this framework. This worries many movement organizers who are almost as afraid of the movement getting out of control, meaning out of their control, as they are opposed to capital.
We should have learned the problems with self-described vanguards or semi-professional organizers imposing their version of order and discipline on the movement. Not to sound too much like an anarchist, but there will be no orderly line of march towards revolution. Everything we do should make it harder for capital to rule and should create episodes and islands of ungovernability which will not and should not be subject to any external discipline. Radicals should take advantage of every point where capital is vulnerable and counter every capitalist policy option, not pressure for the relatively better or the less bad. This means that not only the police, but authority in general, is always the “adversary of the day”.
The following three points probably should have been worked into the body of my argument, but I am running out of energy. I hope that the relevance of the second point to Seattle is not just in my head.
Number 1: There are “radicals” who have spent their entire political lives attempting to involve some section of the trade union structure in the movement, ignoring the evidence that this would be a disaster for radical politics. So while it is significant there was a trade union presence in Seattle, it is far from an unalloyed good thing as the Turtles will discover. As more is learned about the role of the union leaders who were in Seattle, I’m confident there will be evidence that one of their major concerns was to channel and control the actions of their memberships. Everyone who has been in a strike situation knows a major function of the union structure is to check the militance of its own members. The obvious parallel with Seattle, again, is the 1968 French General Strike where the main role of most of the French trade union structure was to stop the politics and tactics of the student movement from “infecting” the rank and file workers.
. When union officials feel compelled to criticize capitalism, as happened in a much-noted incident in Seattle, we should remember that the real issue isn’t “naming” the system, but acting against it. Elsewhere in the world, trade unions and their leaders routinely and officially proclaim themselves as anti-capitalist and socialist. Such proclamations mean next to nothing about their actual social function. It is noteworthy that in the Seattle case the official in question has also firmly hitched his wagon to the “anti-capitalists” Bill and Hillary Clinton and Al Gore. One of the projects that capital is experimenting with in this period is the so-called “third way.” As watchers of CNN know, this is part of the “Clinton legacy.” It’s also what much of the revival of so- called labor progressivism is about. Anyone who thinks the “third way” is anti-capitalist will find out to the contrary sooner rather than later.
Number 2: The objective relationship between radical insurgency and reforms should be evident, but most discussions either fail to take it into account or deny it altogether. When a movement poses a real threat, capital’s response is dual: repress the most dangerous elements and use political and economic concessions to absorb the actual and potential constituency and the more docile and conciliatory sectors of the leadership. There is a strange illusion that the movement is better able to force bigger and better concessions once the left holds positions of leadership in mass reform movements. This is the classical C.P. position of leading by capturing control of structures and making alliances at the top. Obviously, however, if genuine radicals lead reform movements, the incentive for capital to make concessions is reduced. It will be reluctant to strengthen its enemies. Just as obviously, taking on this role undermines the radicals’ willingness to be radical. When these positions of formal leadership are captured, and from time to time they will be, trouble will shortly follow. A good example is the collapse of the “left” unions in the CIO. A handful of radicals lost their jobs. A much larger group of radicals kept their jobs by becoming ex-radicals in unions that were no longer “left.”
Reformists are just wrong to argue that militance damages the chances of “winning” concessions. Frequently, the opposite is the case. However, they are frequently compelled to oppose militance anyway or they risk being left out when concessions are made. Whenever possible, capital’s trade-off for concessions is “responsible” leadership that is willing and able to discipline the unruly. If you doubt this, read any labor contract.
Revolutionaries, on the other hand, are well advised to avoid getting into a “worse is better” stance. Reform struggles and reforms are an essential part of our political landscape. To the extent that they materially benefit one constituency without harming other ones, they should be supported. The support will always have to be critical, however, because every reform tends to become an obstacle to further struggle.
Number 3: There is a lot of ridiculing of Black Bloc tactics as “trashing”, and the even more trivializing, “breaking windows.” This is then contrasted with the really significant actions which “shut down the WTO,” and the really significant alliances (potential alliances) between Teamsters and Turtles, Lesbian Avengers and Steelworkers. Time will tell what significance these “alliances” warrant. My money goes on the not much side. Time will also show that the WTO, or a functional equivalent, will find ways to strengthen itself in response to being “shut down” by incorporating some NGO’s and greasing some squeaky wheels with economic and political concessions.
It is possible to ridicule and trivialize everyone’s tactics at this stage of the struggle and I plead guilty to doing it above. But there are some important distinctions. There are tactics that break with the framework of legitimacy and there are tactics that confine themselves within this framework, and whose proponents normally demand that others do as well. The element of break is what is significant about some of the tactics employed in Seattle, not whether or not they were a significant economic cost to capital and not their contribution or lack of same towards physically shutting down the WTO meeting.
It is strange that Albert and Dominick write as if the chaos and confusion, the undoubted risks and dangers, the sharpness of the differences with the system and among the participants, were problems that weakened the Seattle action and that should be avoided in the future. To the contrary, these are the very reasons why those who were in Seattle will never forget it no matter where they fit in the political spectrum. There are too many actions that are totally forgettable. This is one that was not. There are thousands of people who are kicking themselves for missing Seattle, because it had the taste of revolution. There is an essential spirit from Seattle that is a vital part of an insurgent culture. It was what radical politics should be, but too seldom is.