Black Bloc, White Riot
Just received two cartons of AK Thompson’s new treatise Black Bloc, White Riot: Anti-Globalization and the Genealogy of Dissent here in Baltimore, and it looks phenomenal. With a cover designed by the ever-innovative Josh MacPhee, and printed on a rougher cover stock than one normally finds on AK Press books, I think this is one of the more design-conscious books we’ve released in recent seasons. Hooray for branching out a bit design-wise. Just wait til you see what’s coming up later this year.
It’s also great to see this book finally in print, because it’s a timely intervention into the public discourse around anti-globalization / counter-capitalist organizing that’s been especially prevalent this summer in Canada, where the demonstrations against the G-20 left activists literally in cages, and resulted in mass public outrage over the treatment of protesters. Thompson, who lives and works in Toronto, ON, as a matter of fact, is, shall we say, a child of the anti-globalization generation, someone who, like me, came of age politically in the years leading up to the new millennium, who took part in the heady pre-9/11 days of riot and rebellion, of collective development and counter-summit organizing that defined the height of the anti-globalization movement. And, for Thompson, the story starts in 1998 in Toronto at the Active Resistance conference … interesting when things come full circle, no?
Below, you’ll find an excerpt from the book’s introduction, entitled “Our Riot, Ourselves.” Read on, enjoy, and order a copy of the book today on the AK Press website. (If you’re in Baltimore, run on down to Red Emma’s, which already has the book in stock.) Copies will ship from the Oakland warehouse soon! And, if you’re interested in bringing AK Thompson to speak at your infoshop or university, please get in contact (publicity -at- akpress.org). If we get enough requests, he’ll make the journey down from Canada to do a US tour, I suspect!
Black Bloc, White Riot: Excerpt from “Our Riot, Ourselves”
Finding a place to begin can be difficult. Let me jump quickly, then, to the hot summer of 1998 where, in Toronto, the sun made the pavement blister and desperation made the squeegee punks take off their t-shirts to show tattoos to passing traffic. It was in this cauldron of boiling tar and road rage that activists from across Canada and the US gathered for Active Resistance, an anarchist counter-convention. The event, which was raided by cops when it was held in Chicago two years prior, generated considerable hype. It is in this light that writer Jim Munroe, who spent a great deal of time capturing the political spirit of the gathering, did not limit his gaze to the scheduled workshops.
Interviewing an activist named M for a report to be published in This Magazine, Munroe allowed his gaze to linger conspicuously on a poignant moment. “From nowhere,” he wrote, “a small punk guy with glasses comes up to M and melts into his big arms. The small punk has a gas station name-patch with BUMBOY stitched on it and M is tenderly caressing his shaved head.” Like all things sublime, however, the scene doesn’t last forever: “M and BUMBOY part, sharing a glance as brief as the hug was lingering…” (1998: 28).
In an article devoted to the anger and strategic vision of the new anarchist politics, M and BUMBOY’s flirtatious interaction seems like a strange thing to notice. Granted, a gentle caress does make a nice counterpoint to the tabulation of extremist tendencies. And the ability to “humanize” a story has long been considered a journalistic virtue. But there’s more to it than that. Munroe’s story is about the activists as much as it is about the issues they seek to address. Throughout the article, invocations of dirt and disorder abound. In the first four paragraphs alone, conference participants are called “dirty kids” (not once but twice), “crusty punks,” and “disease.” For Munroe, there is a definite connection between this cultivated state of degeneracy and the political project at hand. “It must be admitted,” he says, “the dirty kids are angry.”
Their tastes more often run to a stiff Molotov cocktail than the milk of human kindness. Injustice is everywhere. The governmental control that infuriated anarchists in the past pales in comparison with how corporations profit off of anxiety and banality and even death. It’s no wonder the kids want to raze it all and start building at the grassroots. (28)
I am BUMBOY. I participated in Active Resistance and have participated in the activist and “anti-globalization” struggles that flourished and floundered over the last decade. It is not hyperbole to say that these struggles, which increased in frequency and militancy after Seattle only to fall into disarray in the years following September 11, managed (for a brief moment and in a small but significant way) to transform the world. Though the issues that activists highlighted in Seattle may not have been new, there is no doubt that resistance itself had adopted a new form (or, maybe it reconnected with something that had always been there, something lying in wait for the moment of its actualization). And though it was not on the Active Resistance schedule, Munroe captured the precursor to this “new” form in his description of the dirty kids.
The connection between radical politics and the people who express them is, in some ways, obvious. Since at least the time of the New Left, activists in Canada and the US have made considerable efforts to distance themselves from the loathsome mainstream. Describing the scene at Berkeley in the aftermath of the Free Speech Movement of 1964, Jerry Rubin recounted how the university—the “credential factory”—became “a fortress surrounded by our foreign culture, longhaired, dopesmoking, barefooted freeks who were using state owned property as a playground” (1970: 26). In his estimation, the university administration’s fears were prompted not only by the activist’s political efforts but also by their utterly foreign disposition. As Abbie Hoffman put it, when the cops confronted the hippies, they did not see peace and love and flowers. Instead, they saw “commie-drug-addict-sex-crazy-dirty-homosexual-nigger-draft-card-burner-runaway-spoiled-brats” (1969: 20).
However, if one looks just beneath the surface of these most overt skirmishes, it becomes evident that the distance between activists (or freaks, or dirty kids) and the straight world has much deeper roots. Indeed, it seems hardwired into the very concepts we use to talk about change. The etymology of the word “dissent,” for instance, reveals the extent to which it is distance and distinction—rather than identity and unity—that lie at the heart of both the activist project and activism itself. On first glance, the most noticeable part of “dissent” is the prefix “dis,” which implies a separation or a break. However, despite having obvious implications for radical politics, the “dis” is nevertheless not of principle importance.
Instead, things get interesting upon consideration of the suffix “sent,” which comes from the French verb “sentire” and means “to feel.” Sentire strongly implies embodiment. It is frequently used to describe states of wellbeing (or sickness or disease). It also has strong psychic or mental connotations, as can be judged by its appearance in words like “sentiment.” Read in this way, the concept of “dissent” denotes a state of being set apart from others by a sense that something feels wrong. This separation is unsettling. It requires action, intervention. Most importantly, it suggests that dissent, although ordinarily perceived as a political category, is first and foremost an ontological one.
The word “dissident” reveals a similar connection between radicalism and modes of conduct in the physical world. Once again, the prefix “dis” implies a break. However, in the case of the “dissident,” the suffix is derived from the Latin verb “sedere” and means “to sit.” At its most basic, the dissident is the one who refuses to sit with the others. Here, political disagreement comes of necessity to take the form of a cultivated distance. In fact, without this physical and psychic separation, the dissident would be an impossible category. A complication thus arises: in order to exist as such, the dissident must set herself apart from the people but, in order for her dissent to amount to anything, she must simultaneously be with them as well.
Beyond governmental repression and corporate profiting from death, it is this ontological contradiction that defines the scope of the dirty kids’ political universe; it is this contradiction that lies at the heart of radical political experience for the white middle class; and it is this social group that became most activated by the struggle against corporate globalization in Canada and the US. It is a double bind. Caught not only between the poles of capitalist social relations (where labor continues to be exploited and bosses continue their vampire extractions of surplus value) but also between those of petit-bourgeois consciousness (where heart and mind coexist in a never-ending fratricidal feud), the white middle class dissident incorporates schizoid dynamics into her very being. And the question of how to be with people for whom one feels no strong identification in the end becomes a question of how to feel anything at all. What for Antonio Gramsci was a melancholic reflection has become for the white middle class dissident a permanent state of despair.
Why? In order to answer this question, it’s necessary to move beyond the phenomenal register in order to treat the white middle class as a socio-historical phenomenon. Such an approach is all the more necessary given that the middle class itself is now mostly incapable of tracing its origins and has, as a matter of psychic necessity, for the most part forgotten them.
In his Reflections on Violence, Georges Sorel argued that the emergence of a stable middle class during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had the effect of papering over capitalism’s contradictions. Since, according to Sorel, the middle class was no longer able to connect the content of its intellectual life to its own material interests (and often could not produce an account of what these were), it tended to succumb to decadence and inertia. In this way, it came to value peace—a life free of conflict—above all. This “peace” found its precondition not in the resolution of historic contradictions but rather in their avoidance. Neither ruthless in its pursuit of profit, as were the bourgeois captains of industry, nor outraged by the false gravity of circumspect policy-makers, as were the revolutionary syndicalists, Sorel’s middle class was a force of historic entropy, a decadent mass that served as ballast for a social system caught in a storm of unsettling contradictions. And while ballast kept the ship from being torn apart at sea, it also kept it from reaching port on the distant shore called freedom.
Accordingly, Sorel proposed that revolutionary violence could force the entropic mass to assume its historic responsibilities in the class war. In the absence of violence, Sorel intoned, the decadent middle class would continue along the course of utopian delusion. Even worse, it might seduce the proletariat with ubiquitarian visions of a better world. Class war—the only means by which the proletariat could traverse the gulf between the capitalist present and the socialist future—could not come about “if the middle class and the proletariat do not oppose each other implacably, with all the forces at their disposal.” Consequently, “the more ardently capitalist the middle class is, the more the proletariat is full of a warlike spirit and confident of its revolutionary strength, the more certain will be the success of the proletarian movement” (2004: 88–89).
Despite the stakes, Sorel found the middle class in France at the turn of the twentieth century ill-prepared for the challenges the class war entailed. Unlike the middle class in the United States, which seemed to still possess some of its fighting spirit, the middle class Sorel confronted seemed both enfeebled by decadence and politically neutralized by its incapacity to draw meaningful correspondences between means and ends. As far as Sorel was concerned, this situation amounted to deadly historical arrest.
If … the middle class, led astray by the chatter of the preachers of ethics and sociology, return to an ideal of conservative mediocrity, seek to correct the abuses of economics, and wish to break with the barbarism of their predecessors, then one part of the forces which were to further the development of capitalism is employed in hindering it, an arbitrary and irrational element is introduced, and the future of the world becomes completely indeterminate. (2004: 89–90)
Unlike other thinkers working in the socialist tradition, Sorel glossed over the fact that the contradictory disposition of the middle class arose from a contradiction in the historic constitution of the middle class itself. Although the middle class is undoubtedly “one part of the forces which were to further the development of capitalism,” it is shortsighted to suggest that this is its only defining feature. The “chatter” of the middle class is not a distortion of its character; it is instead constitutive of it. In the middle class, the “is” of bourgeois empiricism is forever plagued by the “ought” of bourgeois idealism. The contradiction is raw and on the surface (or else it is repressed, coiled tightly and bound by parentheses, awaiting the moment of its inevitable and catastrophic return).
Sorel’s account therefore needs to be revised slightly so that we might consider how the middle class’s dissident energies can be turned over to the project of radical social change. Nevertheless, by highlighting the interconnection between psychic dispositions and historical dynamics, Sorel provides an important starting point for developing an understanding of the situation in Canada and the United States today. Indeed, the pervasive myth that holds the middle class to be an existential norm (not to mention the significant growth of a stratum concerned primarily with the economic and representational circulation—rather than production—of commodities) makes Sorel more relevant than ever.
Because of the entrenchment of pseudo-managerial “work” in the Canadian and US economy, people now encounter their productive activity with a diminishing sense of its practical outcome. To measure the distance between the alienation of the 1844 Manuscripts and our own depthless present, we need only to consider the application of psychoactive drugs to the social organization of work. In their clinical reference material, GlaxoSmithKline report that their drug Paxil can help to manage panic disorder, which they say is characterized by “recurrent unexpected panic attacks, i.e., a discrete period of intense fear or discomfort.” Possible symptoms of this discomfort include accelerated heart rate, sweating, trembling or shaking, shortness of breath, nausea, feeling faint, feeling that things aren’t real, feeling detached from one’s self, and fear of losing control. Less acute than panic disorder, Paxil is also recommended for the treatment of social anxiety disorder (SAD), a “persistent fear of one or more social or performance situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or to possible scrutiny by others.”
What’s so striking about these criteria is how they transform the regular anxieties of contemporary pseudo-managerial work—where “possible scrutiny by others” has become massive in scope—into problems that can be managed at the level of the individual. In fact, many of the problems for which Paxil is indicated—feeling that things aren’t real, feeling detached from one’s self, and fear of losing control—are nothing but the normative substratum of late capitalism’s postmodern epistemology; and though they’re experienced individually, they remain social problems throughout. The problem of Paxil’s individuation becomes explicit when GlaxoSmithKline’s promotional literature is read alongside great social histories of labor like Engels’ Condition of the Working Class in England and Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier.
Remarkable for their accounts of working class tenacity in the face of industrialism, these books remain exemplary for their ability to deduce psychic states from social organization (and vice versa); because of this, they are also highly suggestive when it comes to considering the means by which the terms of the social might themselves be changed. But while the transformation of fundamental social patterns is a dream that resonates like never before, the middle class has for the most part acquiesced to the managerial demand to change the body/mind instead. And while GlaxoSmithKline acknowledges that “lesser degrees of performance anxiety or shyness generally do not require psychopharmacological treatment,” the profit motive underlying diagnosis and prescription has led to what many experts now acknowledge to be a dangerous crisis of overmedication.
But objections based on market dynamics tell only part of the story. Psychoactive drugs are more than snake oil. They are more than means in the war against newer and more unbearable forms of alienation. Like caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol, they are part of an optimizing strategy aimed at bringing the body/mind into productive conformity with the logic of late capitalism. This logic finds its perfect object in the white middle class, a group for whom all ontological connections to the political realm have been severed.
Instead of politics, the contemporary middle class is constituted through government—the internalization and optimization of the capacity for productive self-control. Described famously by Foucault as pertaining to “the conduct of conduct,” governmentality finds its greatest point of traction amongst the contemporary middle class. Whereas the lower classes and those resisting racial subordination continue to know the meaning of politics and war, the white middle class’s assimilation of governmentality’s technologies of self-management has turned it into a people that is no longer “a people” from the standpoint of conventional definitions of politics.
In this way, the indeterminate future feared by Sorel becomes forebodingly concrete in late capitalism’s endless present. Harvesting deracinated fragments in the ominous shadows of the postmodern sublime, the white middle class searches in vain for a consolation prize. But a life without politics (a life without enemies) erodes the critical faculty that would allow even this minor discernment. Even in the face of a global ecological catastrophe, the white middle class remains unable to tremble before the indeterminacy of Nature, since Nature itself lost its status as ultimate Other the moment that late capitalism turned Heidegger’s “house of being” into condominiums (Jameson 1991: 35). And though knowledge of the material world has not yet eroded completely, struggling with the shadows cast by its representational transposition seems for many to be the only game in town.
From Aristotle onward, being human has both entailed and mandated an engagement with politics. For Augusto Boal, politics was the highest art, the synthetic moment in which the disparate fragments of human activity get filled with consolidating meaning (1979: 11). If we accept these formulations, we must concede that their inverse must also be true: being disconnected from politics means being disconnected from one’s humanity. Since this disconnection is now widely felt by the white middle class; since access to the political field (rather than its representational proxy) has been curtailed by the internalized mediations of the society of control, it’s not surprising that white middle class radicalism has often taken the form (whether explicitly or not) of a struggle for redemption.
Redemption is a long way off. Deprived of genuine access to the political and supplicated by social proxies and mediations, white middle class dissidents have often been taken in by “political” gestures that are principally representational in character. Action at the level of the signified becomes impossible for those who inhabit a world in which the signifier appears to have become all. But despite the extent to which the world has endured cannibalization at the hands of its representational proxy, the contradictions underlying current forms of dissent have compelled many activists to search for what lies beneath.
In a cogent piece of auto-criticism published in the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, activist Sarah Kanouse argued that the representational field with which most Canadian and US activists are familiar by virtue of their class location can’t be taken to be all of (or the most important piece of) the political sphere. Reflecting on the popularity of culture jamming and similar practices, Kanouse pointed out how “the attention of prankster activism to the superstructure, to use an old fashioned term, underscores the upper-middle-classness of its politics.”
The arena of consumption, the terrain engaged by pranksters, is where most middle-class people develop their identities, form their allegiances and live their politics. It’s a key site for engagement, and pranks can be seen as contemporary popular education for those who already have a voice in consumer society… What gets lost in the shuffle is the fact that radical social change is not merely the adoption of a different set of consumer habits and the reality that attaining global economic and environmental justice will entail a high degree of sacrifice for those of us in the world’s top income brackets. (2005: 28)
Despite covering familiar terrain, Kanouse’s comments nevertheless manage to cut to the heart of the matter. How else are we to understand the fact that her critique of representational action leads directly into a discussion of “sacrifice”—a religious, ontological, and (genuinely) political category of the first order? Hidden in the grammatically passive voice and conditional tense of her account of “attaining global economic and environmental justice” lies the recognition that—whether it’s elected or imposed—the advent of a post-representational political moment will be heralded by violence.
Today’s dissidents exist in an indeterminate space between signified and signifier, between politics and its representational proxies. It’s an untenable position marked by psychic instability. It is therefore not surprising to find that white middle class activists tend over time to be reabsorbed into the representational sphere or (on rare occasions) to be seduced by the violence of genuine political—and, hence, human—being. Here, the point where the infinitude of abstract possibility is supplanted by the unforgiving specificity of the thing selected, the dissident enters the realm of genuine politics. It is a moment of clarity available only to those who can make concrete what had previously been unthinkable. Guarding the door between the thinkable and the unthinkable, between the political and its proxy, stands violence.
If this is true, then the anxious subterranean meaning of the claim that the anti-globalization movement was a coalition formed around “one no and many yeses” becomes instantly clear. Ordinarily, activists read this slogan as suggesting that our rejection of capitalist globalization (that thing that binds us together) does not in and of itself curtail possible visions of freedom (the many yeses to which we aspire). However, in light of our current discussion, we must at least contemplate the possibility that our “one no” applies not to the rejection of capitalist globalization but rather to our nearly univocal refusal of the moment of decision demanded by politics. Correspondingly, the slogan’s “many yeses” are our proxies, our prankster politics, the myriad ways we distract ourselves while deferring the inevitable.
On first blush, the claim that the anti-globalization movement in Canada and the US was white and middle class appears susceptible to both easy agreement (in which case the claim itself becomes banal) and to easy refutation (since it is equally evident that resistance to globalization was more than just a white thing). But whatever the ultimate truth of these superficial observations, many activists and social commentators were quick to highlight the whiteness of the movement and, on occasion, its middle class character too. In response, other commentators endeavored to highlight the movement’s putative diversity. Still others aimed to shield the white middle class from critique by recasting it as a legitimate claimant to the mantle of resistance.
This last process can be seen in the work of movement participant and theorist-chronicler Amory Starr. In the Introduction to her Global Revolt, Starr lists and then responds to thirteen “myths” about globalization and the resistance against it. Last in this list of myths is the claim that the “opponents of globalization are romantic Luddites, alienated punk rock kids hopping from summit to summit on ‘protest tours.’” In response, Starr argues that “these distorted images trivialize the suffering and rage of the working classes and youth of the North, where resistance movements are still marginal, but growing.” However, in conclusion (and as a seeming non sequitur to all that came before), she reminds us that “the Global south is the real point of impact” (2005: 9).
At least two distinct maneuvers are at work here. First, those protesting in the global north are depicted as belonging to a class of people whose revolt is both legitimate and intelligible (or, at least more so than if they were middle class, as critics had suggested). However, since the only evidence that Starr provides for her characterization of the movement’s class composition is its “suffering and rage,” it’s hard to imagine the concrete basis upon which she sets those she champions apart from the “alienated punk rock kids” of the myth she sets out to debunk.
Next, movement resistance is further legitimated by being spot welded to the struggles of the global south (where the real action is said to be taking place). But here too, a logical problem thus ensues: either the movement was really taking place in the global south (in which case the activists championed by Starr get more attention than they deserve) or it was not (in which case she must contemplate how alienated punk rock kids might be conceived as viable political claim-makers). To be sure, the opposition to neo-liberal globalization was more than one thing. And the protests in Seattle were by no means the first expression of resistance to the reorganization of the planet. Nevertheless, what developed on the streets of Seattle amounted to a “structure of feeling”—to use Raymond Williams’s apt phrase (1977: 128–135)—that forged a link between movement activity and the anxieties and aspirations of the white middle class. In Canada and the United States, this white middle class gave shape to the movement. To it, we can attribute both the movement’s successes and its ultimate failure.
To be clear, the racial and spatial delimitation of my investigation should not be taken to suggest that other figures and forces were not active participants in the fight against neo-liberalism’s new global enclosures. Indeed, many people legitimately trace the origins of such movements to the Zapatista uprising in the Lacandon Jungle. Similarly, although they did not orient themselves to the anti-globalization movement itself, many working class and people of color-led social movements active in Canada and the US around the time of Seattle struggled against aspects of the neo-liberal project. The movement for prison abolition and the Justice for Janitors campaign are but two obvious examples of struggles that addressed neo-liberal issues while operating outside of the anti-globalization milieu.
The differences between these forces and the anti-globalization movement are not merely idiosyncratic. Movements are shaped by their participants. Because of this, the anti-globalization movement became a vector for the expression of white middle class sensibilities and conceptions of struggle. For many radicals who remained on the movement’s periphery, these sensibilities oscillated between annoying and incomprehensible. My goal here is to make these peculiar features intelligible in order to determine whether there’s anything to be salvaged. It’s important to note, however, that this isn’t exotic anthropology. Although the movement was particular and peculiar, many of its sensibilities were drawn from sources that enjoyed broader resonance. These sensibilities were easily transposed into the register of the movement’s white and middle class relevancies; in fact, they often seemed to speak directly to a pervasive form of turn-of-the-century middle class anomie.
For instance, Peoples’ Global Action made clear in their Hallmarks that, alongside their rejection of capitalism, their emphasis on tactical decentralization, and their commitment to a confrontational attitude, they strove to “embrace the full dignity of all human beings.” Although the general tenor of the PGA Hallmarks instructs us to read this proclamation with the oppressed in mind, the open-endedness of both its “full” and its “all” left room for white middle class radicals to consider how their own experience was an unbearable symptom of a world gone mad. Similarly, in their Fourth Declaration from the Lacandon Jungle, the Zapatistas made clear that they were fighting for a world in which “everyone fits” and “where all steps may walk, where all may have laughter, were all may live the dawn.” For white middle class activists (who found themselves reflected in everything but held by nothing), the promise of a world in which everyone fits could not help but compel an interrogation of the price exacted by privilege.
As the movement developed, activist critiques of progress and privilege began to draw inspiration from the cultural patterns of indigenous peoples. Although the details of these “traditions” were often mythologized beyond recognition, they nevertheless enabled white middle class radicals to locate an extrinsic referent that could help to guide them beyond the horizon of neo-liberalism. This process has been rightly condemned for its habit of appropriating and rendering exotic the quotidian stuff of other people’s lives; however, it’s important to note (as Hal Foster did in a different but parallel context) how “partial identification with the primitive, however imagined problematically as dark, feminine, and perverse, remained a partial disassociation from white, patriarchal, bourgeois society, and this disassociation should not be dismissed as insignificant” (2004: 8).
Commenting on the extensive interest in indigenous ways of life that she noted within the movement, Starr reports how these “advanced traditions, developed in societies in which the market (to the extent it existed) was subordinated to social criteria, are now posed as ‘alternatives’ by movements which dare to redefine progress as something other than surrendering history, culture and life to business.”
Survivors of postmodern capitalism are embracing these traditions as methods of achieving their most sophisticated aspirations for sustainable, accountable, diverse and engaged social life. (2004: 51)
Although they are not the stated subjects of her investigation, Starr’s account reveals the extent to which the movement’s structure of feeling was shaped by white middle class preoccupations. For these “survivors of postmodern capitalism,” identification with a mythically valorized “outside” at odds with their own experience helped to give shape to their struggle. It gave it its reference points and its themes. In this way, the movement’s structure of feeling came to express symptomatic preoccupations that were not restricted to legitimate concern for the plight of those in the global south. Camille de Toledo recounts how, for those in the global north who came of age during neo-liberalism’s ascent, “the new spirit of revolt isn’t economic. It’s respiratory … a claustrophobic reaction to the idea that the world is a finished piece of work” (2008: 9). The goal of Black Bloc, White Riot is to take this respiratory distress seriously.
Ten years have elapsed since Seattle. During this time, N30 has come to mark a new way of thinking about politics, globalization, and resistance. And though it has begun to lose its luster, it’s a dream that won’t die. The decline of the movement’s first phase in Canada and the United States allows us to measure how much we won and lost. But while much has been written on the subject of neo-liberalism and the injustices it inspires, and while there has been no shortage of ink devoted to the movement as an organizational novelty, relatively little attention has been paid to the new dissidents themselves. Those accounts that do exist have tended to view the movement’s overwhelmingly white composition as a problem to be solved rather than as a thing to be explained. This tendency first emerged with (and still owes much to) the publication of Elizabeth Martinez’s “Where Was the Color in Seattle?”
Cited as a matter of course whenever activists are in the mood for self-criticism, Martinez’s article provided a functional template upon which writers could build when evaluating subsequent actions. So extensive was the piece’s influence that it even became the basis for organizing efforts. San Francisco-based Anti-Racism for Global Justice (ARGJ) formed in 2000 with the specific intention of operationalizing Martinez’s insights. In their promotional material, the group describes how—as members of a younger generation of white anti-racist organizers—they “came out of the movements for global justice that rocked the WTO in Seattle and are [now] actively involved in the growing anti-war movement.” Their debt to Martinez is explicit: “We were inspired by Elizabeth ‘Betita’ Martinez’s highly influential essay ‘Where was the Color in Seattle?’ which highlighted the need for white activists to examine racism and how it affects our organizing.”
Self-criticism is an important skill, especially when the critics have the wherewithal to operationalize the critique. However, while the profusion of articles and organizing efforts owing a debt to Martinez have all highlighted the extent to which American anti-globalization protests were often overwhelmingly white affairs, they have not tended to engage this fact from the standpoint of whiteness itself. And while self-reflection has yielded important insights, little attention has been given to the fact that the explicative category itself needs explaining. Consequently, indictments of the movement premised on its whiteness have often left activists with little more than a self-evident (and occasionally moralistic) injunction to make organizing efforts more inclusive.
This is not to say that inclusion is unimportant. However, since it focuses almost entirely on a “solution,” the rush to inclusion has often overshadowed the need to look at the specificity of the problem itself. There is no doubt that the movement in Canada and the US was disproportionately white. And many radicals agree that this representational distortion made it more difficult for people of color to engage. What remains to be addressed is why it was that so many white kids got caught up in the struggle in the first place.
How is it that a militant movement seemed to emerge spontaneously from white middle class spaces like the campus and the suburb—spaces where “oppression” can often seem like an abstract category? How did the “dirty kids” get angry—and why did they feel so ill at ease in their world of plenty despite the undeniable privilege their circumstance afforded? Why did they seem to become their politics and pronounce them as ontological truths? Why, finally, did they seek to mark themselves apart from the world from which they came—as though, through distance (both conceptual and physical), they might purify themselves once and for all? Important in their own right, these questions also help us to plot the points of a constellation that connects these recent experiences of struggle to a longstanding tradition of dissident ambivalence.
It’s difficult, for instance, to overlook the remarkable similarities between the anti-globalization movement’s structure of feeling and the one that pervaded New Left struggles. One compelling way to understand this historical relay is to highlight the unresolved contradictions underlying the experience of the political dissident. Practically speaking, this means paying attention to the manner in which both New Left struggles and our own more recent upheavals placed special emphasis on the question of becoming. More generally, it means following the thread running through the heart of struggle and training our ear on its reverberations.
John Sanbonmatsu has concerned himself with precisely these reverberations. In The Postmodern Prince, Sanbonmatsu points out how the New Left shared in the Protestant Reformation’s structure of feeling. “To those caught up in it,” he explains, “the movement, which provided a new existential and spiritual model of self and other, seemed at times to prefigure a New Jerusalem” (2004: 31). Similarly, in The Voice and the Eye, Alain Touraine suggests that the new social movement call for “self-management” during the 1960s acted “as a conveyor of the dream of community independence.” In this way, it revived “the peasant dream of a generalized middle class which would be both productive and managerial” (1978: 22).
From our present vantage, it’s easy to see how important aspects of the New Left’s structure of feeling—identified by both Sanbonmatsu and Touraine as drawing upon (mythical versions of) the utopian anti-capitalist peasant consciousness of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—also found expression in the anti-globalization movement in Canada and the US. The celebrations of productive-managerial autonomy and the dreams of “community independence” marking those years are hard to ignore. Because of this, I propose to reorient the terms of investigation so that—rather than focusing on “inclusion” as a self-evident good—we make white middle class socio-psychic indeterminacy the motive force in a genealogy of dissent. This indeterminacy can be located in time and space and considered in relation to the social contradictions that produce it. In contrast, the activist rush to inclusion has often made it difficult to consider the specificity of the white middle class as a social problem.
Although it betrays activist commonsense, I propose that it’s worthwhile to investigate the anti-globalization movement that emerged in Canada and the US as a white middle class phenomenon. Although the movement was self-evidently more than one thing, its role as a laboratory in which white middle class activists sought to exorcize their constitutive contradictions and regain the capacity for political being should not be overlooked. It’s just as important, however, to avoid reading this struggle in the laboratory solely in accordance with the conventions of the personal redemption story. Middle class anguish has historically found resolution just as regularly in the mytho-poetics of the far right as it has in the process of genuine liberation. And so, while I can empathize with readers who feel no personal interest in poor little rich girl stories (for readers who cringe at the thought of another book about white people), the political stakes of the drama cannot be responsibly ignored.
In advancing this proposition, I am not arguing that the movement was entirely white or, for that matter, entirely middle class. I am certainly not arguing that people of color should not get involved and participate as they see fit, or that white activists should not try to make our organizing efforts more relevant and open. What I am saying, however, is that there is a danger of mistaking specificity for exclusion. By not looking at the specificity of the movement (by not grappling with the interesting and sometimes difficult contradictions that arise when people with considerable social privilege adopt radical postures), we lose sight of the material shape of our struggle. Anti-racist theorists have for a long time noted that whiteness tends to get expressed as an abstract universal; as a standpoint that isn’t a standpoint; as something that goes without saying. And while activists have made considerable strides in our attempts to denaturalize whiteness, the race to inclusion often ends by occluding the specificities of whiteness in favor of what are perceived to be the greater, more grounded, and real specificities of the included other.
If the white middle class is going to struggle (and it has its own reasons for doing so quite apart from playing the role of ally to the most oppressed), it is necessary that it begin to do so on the basis of a concrete understanding of its own conditions of possibility. And so, while the exemplary resistance of militants in the global south inspires me, and while the courage of those fighting occupation in North America’s internal colonies demands huge respect, this book is not about them. To be sure, it’s important that these struggles are not sidelined or forgotten. Just as important, though, is reckoning with the specific character of white middle class dissent. Concretized in moralistic slogans (reminding us that resistance “didn’t start in Seattle”), the movement’s rush to inclusion uncovered one truth only to bury another.
Whiteness is a specific experience. It arises from specific social locations and allows for the cultivation of specific capacities. One manner in which these specificities have been expressed historically is through the perceived connection between whiteness and death. For Richard Dyer, this connection is made possible by (and finds its first expression in) the Christian notion of spirit—that thing which is in but not of the body. By imposing a constitutive tension in being, the spiritual conceits of white ontology produce tremendous capacities for self-realization. They also produce a systemic anxiety that cannot be resolved within the terms available to whiteness itself. For Dyer, the counterpoint to white people’s self-aggrandizing spiritual transcendence is the fear that they are not here at all. Is it any wonder, then, that Paxil has found such a devoted following by promising to deal with the feeling that things aren’t real?
The productive schizophrenia of the white middle class (the pathological state in which people strive to simultaneously be of and more than this world while never reckoning with its concrete and unforgiving specificity) finds perverse expression in the pantheon of undead creatures that populate horror films. Consequently, these films may be treated as therapeutic exercises, staged reenactments, or even as so many returns to the site of trauma. For analysts of whiteness, they offer an unexpected opportunity to read through the manifest content of everyday life in order to uncover the latent traces of something that can’t be expressed directly. According to Dyer, zombie movies exploit the simultaneity of white people’s fear of and fascination with death. Describing the final act of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Dyer recounts “an aerial shot of some white figures moving across a field in a shaggy line, with slow, terrible deliberation.”
We assume they are zombies, since this is always how they have been shown in the film; yet, when the film cuts to a ground level shot of these figures, we realize that they are the vigilantes (all of whom are white) come to destroy the zombies. There is no difference between whites, living or dead; all whites bring death and, by implication, all whites are dead (in terms of human feeling). (1997: 211)
This thesis becomes all the more compelling when one considers how, in Night of the Living Dead, the death impulse that overtakes the white characters finds its counterpoint in the figure of Ben, the resourceful Black man who keeps his shit together while his allies lose it by going catatonic or succumbing to the urge to devour one another. Citing liberally from the visual history of lynching, the last scene of the film sees Ben shot dead by the vigilantes. According to Dyer, Night of the Living Dead yields both horror and catharsis for white viewers who must confront their own ambivalent proximity to death. The political implications of Dyer’s analysis become explicit when one remembers the tremendous debt Romero’s film owes to the political climate—Black Power and civil rights—of the period in which it was made.
Lest this foray into the overgrown (and over-fertilized) fields of psychoanalysis and cultural studies be dismissed as fanciful or idiosyncratic, it’s useful to remember the many antecedents to Dyer’s analysis. Among these antecedents, one of the most striking (“striking” because of its unresolved and contradictory character) is to be found in the work of Antonin Artaud. In 1938, Artaud suggested that Europe’s lack of culture could be explained on account of its inability to connect with magic. Experienced for the most part as a gnawing but undecipherable anxiety, the problem of white lack becomes explicit at the point of the colonial encounter. White death marks the moment. “If we think Negroes smell bad,” begins Artaud, “we are ignorant of the fact that anywhere but in Europe it is we whites who ‘smell bad.’”
And I would even say that we give off an odor as white as the gathering of pus in an infected wound. As iron can be heated until it turns white, so it can be said that everything excessive is white; for Asiatics white has become the mark of extreme decomposition. (1958: 9)
Although Artaud’s account (like Joseph Conrad’s “horror” story before it) transposes concrete historical details into the more malleable register of metaphor, the persistence of the fascination he taps into cannot be ignored. Like a neurotic repetition compulsion, the white anxiety with death finds its contemporary expression in the nervous injunctions regularly issued by the army of white middle class dissidents striving to really live. And, since the historical contradictions from which it arose have yet to be resolved, it’s hardly surprising to find that the themes, modes, aesthetics, and anesthetics of the movement in Canada and the US all reflected this anxiety.
Because it arises from a specific ontological incongruity, the white experience of constitutive lack is far from universal. It is thus a grave problem that white activists sometimes talked about anti-globalization struggles as though they were the movement, the inevitable and correct response to neo-liberal barbarity. This problem found its counterpart in the inverse proposition occasionally advanced by radicals who asserted that—because the movement was primarily a white phenomenon—it was either unimportant or dangerous from the standpoint of revolutionary social transformation.
In opposition to both of these positions, it’s necessary to advance the more modest (but also more politically demanding) proposition that the movement was a response—one that allowed white activists to begin confronting their expulsion from the political field while engaging in concrete solidarity with activists struggling around other issues, under different conditions, and by other means. In order to actualize the promise of this moment, it is necessary to deal with the specificity of white experience and reckon honestly with the knowledge it yields. It is the minimum precondition to having more than good will to bring to the coalition table.
If it was not already clear beforehand, the decade since Seattle has made clear that the knowledge arising from white dissident experience is as contradictory as white dissent. Almost from the outset, the anti-globalization movement in Canada and the US was gripped by a series of confusing tensions. At first, these tensions were expressed abstractly through antithetical pairs like “violence” and “non-violence,” “summit hopping” and “local organizing,” and “direct” and “mass” action. Although the discussions were not always clear, there was no shortage of debate about either these terms or their implications. For the most part, however, the issues were left unresolved. But rather than weigh in on these debates as they were originally conceived, my objective is to consider how the framing of these debates can tell us a great deal about the activists that engaged in them.
Each chapter in Black Bloc, White Riot deals with one of the debates arising from these abstract antithetical pairs. By considering how activists sought to make sense of the world, and by following debates as they unfolded over time, I aim to make visible the contradictions underlying the dissident experience of white radicals. Since I’m one of those radicals, this project has been both illuminating and unsettling. However, it’s not my intention to leave this work at the level of diagnosis. After all, we hardly need a book to tell us we’re fucked up. Nor would I find it satisfying to restrict my efforts to phenomenological description, as if—by revisiting the site of trauma—white activists might exorcise the spectres of embodiment and specificity once and for all.
What does seem worthwhile is tracing the concrete means by which engagement in struggle changes people by bringing them closer to the decision that inaugurates political being. Despite our ultimate failure, many of the activists that participated in the movement are demonstrably different for having engaged in conflict. And activists (who have often pointed out how struggle brings them to a clearer sense of themselves) seem to know this intuitively. In the closing six panels of his squatting opus War in the Neighborhood, New York-based comix artist Seth Tobocman makes the connection between struggle and ontological transformation explicit:
If we can look at an abandoned building and imagine it full of people if we can look at a vacant lot and imagine a garden, / then why can’t we look at each other and imagine what we can become with time and work? / It is a good thing to take up the struggle against oppression / it is also a good thing to make mistakes in that struggle and grow wise. / How else would we come to know ourselves? (1999: 328)
Recognizing activism’s tendency to transform people is not new. However, what remains to be determined is how this transformation occurs. In each of the following chapters, I contend that it was the excessive character of the movement—its riotous exuberance—that enabled activists to reach beyond the ontological constraints of the white middle class. As practical experiments with violence, these moments of excess provided functional (if incomplete) conduits into the realm of political being. In turn, this new and unknown universe provided activists with a novel point from which to consider and participate in movement debates. And while violent exuberance did not always lead to clear answers (and while it may not have always appeared to be tactically efficacious), it nevertheless enabled us to ask the old abstract questions in new concrete ways. By passing through violence, activists began to move away from the representational coordinates of the society of control and toward the uncharted territory of a post-representational politics.
Despite its profound tactical limitations and incomplete realization, the movement’s experiments with riotous excess threw us before decision. It deposited us at a fork in the road and asked us to consider whether we were ready to cease being critics of society and start being conscious producers of it instead. Were we ready to become political? For a brief moment, the excess of our riot seemed to demand a decision we could never take back.
We betrayed our moment. The silence in the streets over the last few years bitterly confirmed that turning back remained more than possible for most of us. Most anti-globalization-era activists did not follow the trajectory upon which they had begun plotting their course to its logical conclusion. Like the canary in the coalmine and the sacrificial lamb, those that sought to complete their actions found that they had ventured where the movement as a whole dared not tread. Cut off from mass mobilizations and acting in isolation, these figures quickly became targets for state agencies. It’s easy to condemn them; from the standpoint of tactics, their actions seem both ill advised and adventurist. Nevertheless, it remains necessary to acknowledge the basic truth of their actions when considered from the standpoint of politics. It’s a truth made manifest in the language of an ontological transposition. It is a decision that will be hard to undo.
In calling this book Black Bloc, White Riot, I hope to highlight the remarkable similarity between the ontological conflicts of the white middle class and those analyzed by Frantz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks. As with Fanon, who found the “black man” to be a logical impossibility, I am interested in documenting the precise means by which the category “white middle class political being” is experienced in the first instance as a contradiction in terms. Although beginning from opposite ends of a world cut in two, Black Bloc, White Riot and Black Skin, White Masks both argue that ontological impossibilities can only be resolved by changing the world (that they are not representational problems but practical ones). And “changing the world” is a task that can only be carried out by political actors. These actors do not magically appear. They must demonstrate the truth of their being through decisive action. They do so by passing through violence.
A second (and perhaps more obvious) inspiration for Black Bloc, White Riot is “white riot”—The Clash manifesto penned in the age of No Future. In it, Joe Strummer addresses the envy and frustration he felt upon witnessing violent Black responses to police repression during the 1976 Notting Hill carnival. Although British whites of the same period were confronting diminishing standards of living with the onset of neo-liberalism, Strummer felt that the twin evils of school and fear of jail—the ideological and repressive state apparatuses considered by Althusser—kept them from producing an adequate response. Seduced by their nominal inclusion in the society of control, whites were unable to assume the responsibilities of political being as Blacks had. In Strummer’s lyrical universe, there were only two choices: “are you taking over / or are you taking orders?” Violence either writes a new law or preserves the one that exists. For those that feel the weight of the unbearable present, there is only one acceptable decision.
As for the Black Bloc of my title, I must concede that some of my readers will be disappointed. This is not a confession or a memoir. Indeed, I’ve tried to keep the salacious gossip to a minimum. Although the Black Bloc has a history, although it can be investigated journalistically, and although it has all the attributes of a concrete sociological phenomenon, I have chosen to approach it in a different fashion. In what follows, the Black Bloc is considered primarily in its role as limit situation for the white middle class. I argue that it marks the point at which some of us began to pass through violence and show signs of a new kind of political being. To be sure, this transformation was personal. Nevertheless, it had practical pedagogical implications for anyone that cared to take note. And while it’s difficult to get a clear sense of the extent to which this transposition took hold, hints can be gleaned from the fact that the questions that plagued the movement in earlier periods could later be posed in new, different, and often better ways.
What follows is a particular account. Though they all stand in relation to the movement, I do not pretend that the events discussed in these pages represent—or could represent—the whole picture. Indeed, while some of the demonstrations, events, zines, and websites I consider will be familiar to most activists, some will undoubtedly seem curious and esoteric. However, since my goal is to look at each instance with an eye to what lies beneath (since what is at stake are the procedures that go into the making of a moment), readers are encouraged to trace out implications for other settings. Black Bloc, White Riot is less a general overview of the movement than it is a way of demystifying movement events.
Central to this approach is a concern with how class location simultaneously shapes experience while, at the same time, making the conditions that enable that experience difficult to perceive. Rather than presupposing an extrinsic point from which these dynamics might be observed objectively, I’ve chosen instead to trace their expression in forms of everyday talk and action. “The discursive” and “the material” are thus considered in their full interpenetration. And so, while forms of talk are not caused by the economic in any simple sense, they nevertheless give expression to its features and, as such, provide a ground upon which to conduct analysis. How does the manner in which these debates were first conceived express the enabling and constraining features of the social base from which they arose? More importantly, how are we to make sense of the fact that, through the course of struggle, the manner in which these debates were conceived and carried out began to undergo a dramatic transformation?
As I will argue throughout this book, central to this transformation was the fact that—at certain threshold moments—movement politics began to lean away from the field of representation and toward that of production. In each of the following chapters, I highlight some of the moments in which this transformation began to take place in order to consider the means by which it became possible.
Starting from the standpoint of ontology, my concern is primarily with the means by which the political field itself is constituted. And though my central claim—that the movement from representational distortion to politics proper passes through violence—seems to have been intuitively grasped more easily by the anarchist wing of the movement than by its social democratic counterpart, there is nothing within anarchism itself that prevents it from getting ensnared in the representational domain. After all, even DIY ethics must come to terms with the fact that—at present—it primarily represents people’s intention to become direct producers. In truth, most of what actually gets “produced” remains representational in character. Zines, records, and bicycle tube bondage gear are all fun. But given the enormity of the world and of our responsibility to one another, we should not become seduced by the idea that these representational endeavors correspond in any sense with the demands of the political.
With this in mind, the organization of the following chapters roughly follows the arc along which the movement traveled as it passed from a state shaped primarily by representational “politics” toward one marked by political decision and proximity to violence. In order to understand this progression (and because the term tends to elicit strong reactions), it’s necessary to clarify what is intended here by “violence.” Keeping with the ontological thrust of my argument, the conception of violence upon which this work is based presumes two fundamental and correlative attributes. First, violence is the name of the general principle by which objects are transformed through their relationship to other objects. Second (and as a result of the first), violence is both the precondition to politics and the premise upon which it rests.
Why? In the representational field, “identity” is the name given to the absolute correspondence between an object and the concept by which it is denoted. In contrast, violence is the name of the process by which objects are transformed so that they no longer correspond to the concepts to which they had previously been tied (as when “architecture” is magically rematerialized as “property” the minute you set it on fire). Or, in another variation, violence marks the moment when an object maintains its conceptual integrity—its self-sameness, its identity—at the expense of another object seeking to do the same. By reducing violence to its basic ontological premise, it becomes clear that neither being nor becoming is possible without it. The pressing question, therefore, is not whether or not to engage in violence. Instead, it is to decide what we ought to become.
An inevitable danger associated with reducing violence to its basic ontological premise is that, by creating a conceptual space in which anything (from breastfeeding to writing an email) can be considered “violent,” the term itself can appear to lose all meaning. But rather than exempting these apparently benign forms, it’s more honest to recognize the violence implicit in mundane and everyday acts. For instance, the meaning of a mother’s declarations of subjective autonomy is radically unsettled at the very moment her child takes her for food. The conceptual link between the mother and the idea of autonomy is severed; she must struggle to reconstitute it on new grounds. However, precisely because such violence is ordinary (precisely because it corresponds to an ascribed logic of production wholly commensurate with the established order), it is rarely recognized as such.
It thus becomes clear that—as a political question—violence is always subject to a threshold of recognizability. The violence of the movement (which, for the most part, was limited to sporadic property destruction and fleeting confrontations with police) was much closer to this threshold that is the nursing mother considered above. This movement toward recognizability arose in part from the tremendous energy that activists committed to their efforts; however, the significance of the threshold arises not from the intensity of the effort but from the fact that the effort itself implied a production at odds with constituted power.
In other words, the threshold of recognizability corresponds to the point at which the productive dimension of violence begins to cross over into politics. These dynamics are normally perceived as though through a camera obscura where, if it’s not “political,” it’s not recognized as violence. From the millions of animals that meet their end in factory farms to the persistence of the nuclear family and its need to traumatize children in order for them to turn out “well adjusted,” the presumption that politics precedes (and, hence, mitigates) violence has become a central tenet of the society of control. Nevertheless, a closer investigation reveals the extent to which the sequential order of the terms under consideration is exactly the opposite of what it at first appears to be. Furthermore, the fact that oppositional violence comes into view as a result of its proximity to the threshold of recognizability should not cause us to lose sight of the fact that both order and challenges to order abide by the same productive—which is to say violent—premise.
Considered in this way, it becomes clear that violence shares many attibutes with the conception of labor elaborated by Marx in Chapter VII of Capital. However, unlike labor, which requires that the producer hold a vision of the final object in her mind before production begins, violence in our current moment and for the white middle class arises from a space in which the forethought required by a self-conscious labor process seems increasingly impossible. I will concede that defining violence in this way may seem to give too much to those who would dismiss the desire to produce outside of the established order as irrational. But sometimes there are good—even rational—reasons for pursuing what might at first appear to be irrational courses. For the white middle class (a group for whom imagining consequential action has become increasingly difficult), the “irrational” violence of the first instance is also the point at which it becomes possible to realize that they are capable of meaningful and self-conscious productions.
On this basis, it becomes possible to outline a number of propositions concerning the transformative function of violence. First, because violence is harbinger, it is also precondition. By making genuinely transformative political action thinkable, it allows us to begin treating our psychic addiction to representational proxies. Second, in a unified field, no politics is possible. The supreme ambition of today’s society of control has been to render itself homogenous and bereft of tangible exteriorities. Under conditions such as these, violence is required to open up the space for politics. Third, through the force of their assertion and through their confrontation with ruling regimes, activists during the period of anti-globalization struggles began to rediscover the outside.
This “outside” could not be convincingly envisioned in either geographic or spiritual terms. The outside was here. And now. It was waiting to be actualized through production. At its best, the declaration that “another world is possible” was less a form of utopian wish fulfillment than a methodological program for the revitalization of politics in an age when politics itself had been eclipsed by the homogenous continuity of the society of control.
One of the goals of Black Bloc, White Riot is to elaborate the concrete process by which these propositions came to be realized.
Throughout the course of this investigation, I’ve made general use of the term “riot” to denote those open-ended spaces where active experiments with violence became possible. Although many of these encounters would not qualify either legally or by many sociological designations as riots, they nevertheless enabled activists to operate within a fluid and dynamic field in which the connection between production and politics became more explicit. In this sense, they existed on the threshold of a new post-representational moment. Cognizant of the fact that it remains an unconventional usage, I can’t envision a better term than “riot” to designate this open-ended field.
And so, while movement actions themselves only occasionally became riots according to conventional definitions, when considered from the standpoint of the ambivalent struggles of the white middle class, it’s possible to see how nearly all of these actions had the riot (as I’ve identified it) as their horizon. This does not mean that all riots (in the legal or sociological sense) are automatically oriented to the post-representational. Indeed, investigations of the history of rioting tend to reveal strange collusions between extra-parliamentary (and extra-legal) measures and the preservation of the representational status quo. Which is to say: historically, the riot has been harnessed to the juggernaut of representational politics just as regularly as it has been unleashed in the interest of producing something new.
Along with this recuperative dynamic, we must also remember that the riot—even in those moments when it exists on the threshold of the post-representational—in and of itself marks only the beginning of unmediated production. This beginning is analytically important; however, it does not exhaust (nor does it even begin to encapsulate) the possibilities denoted by the idea of a revolutionary production. To be sure, riots remain both exhilarating and frightening. However, the very fact that our investigations must continue to attend to them reveals how far we have to go.
In Chapter 1, I investigate activist identity as a problem of representation. Media and state efforts to define the contested term “activist” provide a framework in which to learn about how activists envision themselves. A genealogy of the media’s “activist” uncovers a highly contradictory identity with deep roots in liberal philosophy and representational politics. Drawing on Dorothy Smith’s institutional ethnography, the chapter concludes with an exploration of how the Black Bloc emphasis on “doing” over “meaning” provides a potentially fruitful means of extricating actors from representational constraints.
In Chapter 2, I consider the relationship between direct action and the movement’s nascent understanding of the relationship between violence, production, and politics. Anti-globalization activists used direct action to disrupt the status quo. However, while direct action could be used to foster a materialist epistemology concerned with doing, the movement’s engagement with direct action often disclosed a residual commitment to idealist thought. Characteristic of this kind of thinking was the tendency to measure an action’s success not on the basis of what it concretely produced but on the basis of what it was thought to mean. Drawing on Paulo Freire’s discussion of the pedagogical importance of the limit situation and George Smith’s writing on political activist ethnography, the chapter concludes with an assessment of the Green Mountain Anarchist Collective’s “Communiqué on Tactics and Organization.”
In Chapter 3, I explore the difficulties that anti-globalization activists encountered when trying to envision the space of politics. These difficulties were crystallized in the tension between the terms “summit hopping” and “local organizing.” Although white middle class activists often opposed summit hopping and advocated local organizing, many found it difficult to envision how they themselves occupied the space of “the local.” This difficulty can be attributed to the persistence of the universalizing and transcendental conceits of whiteness and to a corresponding belief in the gross particularity of the Other. Interrogating both the binary opposition between “global” and “local” and the fetishistic elevation of “community” to the position of privileged ground of struggle, I propose that meaningful solidarity between white activists and the communities they designated as “local” demands that white activists become both willing and able to map the specificities of their own situated experiences of globalization. Chapter 3 concludes with a consideration of the Claustrophobia Collective’s analysis of the 2001 Cincinnati riots.
In Chapter 4, I explore the gender of violence. Although it was often held to be a site of irredeemable gender exclusion, I demonstrate how the contemporary Black Bloc riot marks the possibility of a post-representational politics pointing beyond “inclusion” and toward the more radical possibility of gender abolition. By reading Black Bloc activity into the history of women’s political violence from the middle of the eighteenth century onward, it’s possible to see how the anti-globalization riot signaled a break from the representational “politics” that dominated the twentieth century. Drawing on the work of Judith Butler, Laura Riding Jackson, and others, and considering the personal narratives of women who participated in the Black Bloc, I conclude by showing how the modes of post-representational engagement encouraged by Black Bloc rioting might help to inaugurate a mode of politics rooted explicitly in production.
In Chapter 5, I suggest how rioting—despite being an essentially reactive form of activity—allows its participants to concretely prefigure the society they want to create. This is so because the riot yields political subjects that are able to produce the world, subjects that—through the process of transformation the riot entails—are forced to confront the unwritten future within them. From European peasant rebellions to the racial upheavals of nineteenth century America, a genealogy of the riot demonstrates how rioting—whether or not it is carried out in the name of a “progressive” cause—has worked historically to radically transform those who participate. This transformation can be measured by the extent to which participants have been inducted into the field of politics. Although the anti-globalization movement was in many respects a failure, its lasting lesson is this: in late capitalism’s endless present, genuine transformation demands that those who have been annexed from the political field find the means of reconnecting with the world lying in wait beyond its representational proxy.
As a coda to the text as a whole, I include an investigation of the relationship between activism and terrorism. Here, I show how, if there is one, the decisive feature of any identity between these two forms of action arises not from their “common” use of violence but rather from their common imbrication in the representational logic of the bourgeois public sphere. From this starting point, I show how, if activists wish to distinguish themselves from terrorists, they must do so by breaking with the spectacular dimensions of contemporary expressive politics. This does not entail a repudiation of violence. On the contrary, it demands that violence be actualized by renewing its bond to production and by emancipating it from the representational domain to which it has been relegated by the spectacle.
The anti-globalization movement revealed how, through struggle and violent upheaval, white middle class dissidents could be radically transformed. It also revealed that being true to one’s desire is not an easy process. No single act can guarantee it. However, the psychic impossibility of the present has produced a volatile situation. The dirty kids may not have known exactly why they were angry. But this did not prevent them from sensing the danger of not doing anything about it. The issues that compel people to resist globalization—dispossession, the new enclosure, and the militarization of capital—are by now clear. What is often less clear is how these fights also mark an attempt to recover the human soul from the impoverishment it endured the moment it was expelled from the field of politics. For the kids who have everything but feel nothing, there is only one struggle. It is the fight of our lives.