Review: “The Past and Future of Militant Anti-Capitalist Street Protest in North America” Discussion at Mess Hall.
Platypus Review 2 | February 2008
There was a gathering of about fifteen people on the evening of December the 13th at Mess Hall, a small artist-run storefront in Rogers Park dedicated to community education and organizing. Sponsored by the 49th St. Underground and the Industrial Workers of the World, the topic of the event was described as “anti-capitalist street protest,” but the presenter made it clear from the beginning that he was going to talk about the Seattle anti-WTO summit protests of 1999 and their aftermath. He said that he was associated with a Black Bloc, but emphasized that he was not a representative. According to him, less than an organization, a Black Bloc is a strategy, a kind of network of small affinity groups who, by using their own brand of “direct action,” have been attempting to undermine events such as the one in Seattle, or, in another well-publicized example, the G8 summit at Genoa in 2001.
Like the talk given by the presenter, the pamphlet distributed at the meeting, “How to Fight a War?” had at its center the assumption that the “Battle of Seattle” of 1999 had been an unqualified victory for “radical politics” (a term that was used by the presenter and most of the attendees as something with unquestionable value and self-evident meaning.) The Black Bloc strategy had gained currency during these protests, since they provided the most public exposure to their tactic of confrontational, open protest—a tactic of property destruction and rioting. A great amount of nostalgia surrounded the events in Seattle, and the question that the discussion at Mess Hall was meant to address was that of the diminishing impact of “radical politics” in the years since these protests. According to this account, despite the satisfactory results of mobilizations such as the one in Genoa, the “summit hopping” model of anti-globalization protesting had become exhausted. The anti-war movement that followed, in turn, had been taken over by what the presenter described as “Marxists and other authoritarian types.” Since the high point of Seattle, things had thus gone downhill, and a new wave of radicalization was now in order.
The two-hour long open discussion that followed the presentation thus focused primarily on tactics. There were many questions: Is property destruction a good idea? Should this kind of anarchist direct action be allied with trade unions? Should there be a centralized organization for this kind of protest or should it continue be based on affinity groups? The issue that seemed to be present in everyone’s minds but somehow necessarily ignored was the issue of purpose¬––of determining a goal to these activities. The answer for many in the room, especially those associated with the Black Bloc, was something along the lines that life should be lived as class struggle; that the end-goal of being a “radical” was to cause enough damage so that the “spells cast by corporate hegemony” could be destroyed. It is important to mention that, despite using the verbiage of class struggle—this terminology was not used in the Marxian sense. While for Marx class struggle was the expression of a contradiction in society to be overcome by producing real historical change, for those associated with the Black Bloc, class struggle consisted of a kind of lifestyle. That is, it consisted of a way of living somehow “outside capitalism”—a way of life that constantly gives the finger to those in power in solidarity with those who are oppressed.
Underlying the perspectives on tactics and strategy in this meeting—which was populated by self-avowed anarchists—was the conviction that in spite of the necessity to fundamentally change society, to even think of taking power was out of the question. Throughout the discussion a palpable and irrational fear that any kind of empowerment for an organized movement on the Left could produce horrible “hierarchies” was coupled with a belief that real change in society is ultimately impossible. The stasis to which those associated with the Black Bloc conceded seemed to be the inheritance of a long series of defeats on the Left throughout the 20th century. And this is no wonder: from Russia in ’17 to China in ’49 to France in ’68, the most substantial attempts of the Left to overcome capitalism have produced little but more of the same horror and waste. What the undercurrents of the discussion summed up to was a sense of desperation—a sense of desperation that made the central question in the minds of those in the meeting not “why should we fight this fight?” but instead “how much damage can we make?”
The darkest manifestation of this kind of attitude was that from time to time those involved in a black bloc would bring up the question of whether hurting people would be right or wrong in their struggle. This kind of preparedness for violence was deeply unsettling. It was as if, having run out of options, all that anti-capitalism had before it was not only property destruction but also, possibly, terrorism. |P