Anarchy, the Black Bloc, and Gandhian “Non-Violence”

Let me start with a correction. Anarchy isn’t really as interesting as you think it is. In fact, Anarchy is Boring:

Figuring out how to run a sustainable anarchist household (that values time spent washing the dishes and time spent making money as a computer programmer equally) isn’t as headline-grabbing as a downtown smashup. But Seattle has dozens of functional anarchist organizations—or anarchish organizations. Some of them operate in an anarchist way (consensus decision making, a focus on mutual aid instead of competition) but don’t call themselves anarchistic. And even the ones that do are constantly debating how to strive for anarchist ideals within the current economic and political system. (Give me two anarchists, and I will give you a debate on what “real” anarchism means.)

The beauty of that post (read the whole thing!) is that it emphasizes the banal public work that anarchists are constantly engaged in, building civic capacities and consensual organizations and common-pool resources. Shorn of all the rhetoric and utopianism, anarchists are just ordinary people who think that authority requires certain kinds of participation in order to be legitimate. But that’s an old idea.

The problem with the utopian anarchism in the article is Graeber’s speculative optimism: “gradually figuring out new ways of organizing everyday life which will, eventually, make currently existing forms of power seem stupid and beside the point.”

New forms of organizing our lives are not a priori impossible, and in fact that’s the goal we should all be working towards, but it hasn’t happened yet, right? And experiments often (usually, even) fail; that’s why they’re experiments. So in the meantime what do we do about the institutions that are illegitimate but for which there is not yet an alternative? Comply pragmatically? Attack? Disobey in order to demonstrate the violence in the system? Anarchists face a tremendous challenge in the existence and general acceptance of the forms of power they oppose. Not all of them opt to deal with that primarily through novel forms of household budgeting.

Robert Paul Wolff captures the “pragmatic compliance” attitude best in his classic In Defense of Anarchism:

In a sense, we might characterize the anarchist as a man without a country, for despite the ties which bind him to the land of his childhood, he stands in precisely the same moral relationship to “his” government as he does to the government of any other country in which he might happen to be staying for a time. When I take a vacation in Great Britain, I obey its laws, both because of prudential self-interest and because of the obvious moral considerations concerning the value of order, the general good consequences of preserving a system of property, and so forth. On my return to the United States, I have a sense of reentering my country, and if I think about the matter at all, I imagine myself to stand in a different and more intimate relation to American laws. They have been promulgated by my government, and I therefore have a special obligation to obey them. But the anarchist tells me that my feeling is purely sentimental and has no objective moral basis. All authority is equally illegitimate, although of course not therefore equally worthy or unworthy of support, and my obedience to American laws, if I am to be morally autonomous, must proceed from the same considerations which determine me abroad.

But there are other versions. Occupy is one. I’m personally a big fan of Elinor Ostrom’s work on common-pool resource management. But it’s not clear that any of the extant forms of anarchist organization scale beyond relatively small communities of mutual recognition, and it’s not clear that the kinds of social norms that actually work to enforce anarchist forms of organization are any more compatible with autonomy than the ones that ground state and market coercions. I look to Arendt’s account of wards and soviets for one such scaling model, but I’m not particularly enthusiastic about it given the history.

If Wolff is right, then the basic anarchist insight that legitimate authority requires participatory self-governance to be akin to the basic democratic insight and the basic liberal insight, which is why he is ultimately a democratic socialist in his politics and only a philosophical anarchist. (I do think there are adequate responses to Wolff’s specific issues with legitimate political obligations, though.)

I’m quite fond of the anarchists I know in person: we agree on a lot and we work on projects together as needed. I just call myself something different and have less interest in the kind of anti-capitalist end-state speculations that motivate some anarchist folks. Even liberals see value in non-state-centric engagement and institutional experimentation, or they ought to.

But it is striking how many folks (including me) are turned off by what we perceive as Black Bloc-style “propaganda of the deed” but keep coming back to anarchist practices and theorists under other names: civic engagement, small-r republicanism, temporary autonomous zones, etc.

Chris Hedges gave voice to that frustration here:

The Black Bloc movement is infected with a deeply disturbing hypermasculinity. This hypermasculinity, I expect, is its primary appeal. It taps into the lust that lurks within us to destroy, not only things but human beings. It offers the godlike power that comes with mob violence. Marching as a uniformed mass, all dressed in black to become part of an anonymous bloc, faces covered, temporarily overcomes alienation, feelings of inadequacy, powerlessness and loneliness. It imparts to those in the mob a sense of comradeship. It permits an inchoate rage to be unleashed on any target. Pity, compassion and tenderness are banished for the intoxication of power. It is the same sickness that fuels the swarms of police who pepper-spray and beat peaceful demonstrators. It is the sickness of soldiers in war. It turns human beings into beasts.

And David Graeber responded here. He is characteristically loquacious, but makes three major points.

First, that the Black Bloc is not ideologically unitary:

Black Bloc is a tactic, not a group. It is a tactic where activists don masks and black clothing (originally leather jackets in Germany, later, hoodies in America), as a gesture of anonymity, solidarity, and to indicate to others that they are prepared, if the situation calls for it, for militant action. The very nature of the tactic belies the accusation that they are trying to hijack a movement and endanger others. One of the ideas of having a Black Bloc is that everyone who comes to a protest should know where the people likely to engage in militant action are, and thus easily be able to avoid it if that’s what they wish to do.

Second, that the rhetoric of cancer that Hedges uses promotes police-on-activist and activist-on-activist violence:

this is precisely the sort of language and argument that, historically, has been invoked by those encouraging one group of people to physically attack, ethnically cleanse, or exterminate another—in fact, the sort of language and argument that is almost never invoked in any other circumstance. After all, if a group is made up exclusively of violent fanatics who cannot be reasoned with, intent on our destruction, what else can we really do? This is the language of violence in its purest form. Far more than “fuck the police.” To see this kind of language employed by someone who claims to be speaking in the name of non-violence is genuinely extraordinary. I recognize that you’ve managed to find certain peculiar fringe elements in anarchism saying some pretty extreme things, it’s not hard to do, especially since such people are much easier to find on the internet than in real life, but it would be difficult to come up with any “Black Bloc anarchist” making a statement as extreme as this.

Even if you did not intend this statement as a call to violence, which I suspect you did not, how can you honestly believe that many will not read it as such?

And third, that Gandhian non-violence is frequently used ahistorically as a purity test, but that Gandhi’s actual rhetoric and tactics were much less perfectly non-violent than people now pretend:

Over the course of the next 40 years, Gandhi and his movement were regularly denounced in the media, just as non-violent anarchists are also always denounced in the media, as a mere front for more violent, terroristic elements, with whom he was said to be secretly collaborating. He was regularly challenged to prove his non-violent credentials by assisting the authorities in suppressing such elements. Here Gandhi remained resolute. It is always morally superior, he insisted, to oppose injustice through non-violent means than through violent means. However, to oppose injustice through violent means is still morally superior to not doing anything to oppose injustice at all.

And Gandhi was talking about people who were blowing up trains, or assassinating government officials. Not damaging windows or spray-painting rude things about the police.

Certainly he’s right about this: in many ways, the canonization of Gandhi and Martin Luther King have served to create an artificial standard of non-violence that no social movement can ever really achieve and that neither the Civil Rights movement nor the Indian independence movement actually achieved. Plus, if violent repression by the police goes unmentioned in the media but activist violence becomes a regular topic of debate, then it will appear that the only violence is coming from the activists. So long as the Black Bloc seeks anonymity, we cannot know how long they pursued pacifism nor what justifications they might have for changing their minds.

On the one hand, if Occupy is to achieve its goals, it must work today to create the myth that now plagues Gandhi’s and King’s hagiographies. On the other hand, Hedges’ piece could mean that it has already failed or that it will take much more than a single “Spring” to achieve its goals, at least in the US. (On the other other hand, Montreal’s student movements look to have achieved success using similar tactics alongside more traditional solidarities between students and labor organizations.)

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