The Black Bloc and the Cargo Cult
Critics of Chris Hedges’ recent attack on the Black Bloc and its role in the Occupy movement excoriated him, among other things, for mistaking a set of tactics for a specific, ideologically coherent group. Fair enough. But a closer look at what are called “Black Bloc tactics” shows that they are not tactics at all. Rather, they bear a closer resemblance to a cargo cult.
What’s a cargo cult, you ask? While the term originated out of some obscure mid-century anthropological research, it has since acquired a broader meaning. It refers to any group holding a steadfast belief that ritually re-enacting certain behaviors will lead to a desired outcome, ignoring other contextual elements that could contribute to the outcome. So, for example, modern companies might adopt the dress code policies of more successful competitors in the belief that this will make them more successful.
Cargo cults can be a problem in social movements too. Of course, no movement is completely original, and all borrow organizing practices from other movements. This can be a good thing, as we saw with the “general assembly” meeting model that first gained widespread visibility out of the global justice movement of the late 1990s, and re-emerged last year as a key feature of the Occupy movement. But transposing movement practices into different contexts without considering the specific historical and political circumstances in which those practices emerged can have negative consequences. In some cases, the belief can take hold that re-enacting certain practices will reproduce certain outcomes. From there, the cargo cult isn’t too far behind.
Black Bloc tactics are the latest movement cargo cult, although they are far from the only one. With their trademark black outfits, their standoffs with riot police, and their willingness to engage in property destruction, practitioners of Black Bloc tactics invoke the legacy of the German and Italian Autonomen of the 1970s and 80s (whether the current-day practitioners recognize this lineage is irrelevant, as the key here is to trace the origins of the form, not the intellectual trajectories of its advocates).
Amidst the social and political ferment of the 1970s, these groups built autonomous squatter communities, complete with community centers, housing services, canteens, and other resources. The original Black Blocs emerged to defend against violent police repression of the Autonomen communities. Horrified by the levels of police brutality, which hadn’t been seen since the days of the Third Reich, many Germans sympathized with the Autonomen. The attacks put the legitimacy of the state into question, so the militant and violent defense against the attacks seemed justified. But as the battles wore on, support began to wane. As the communities crumbled under the weight of state repression, the Black Blocs took on a life of their own, detached from the now non-existent communities they were set up to defend.
Divorced from their social context, Black Blocs persisted as a form, or a “tactic” as it is often referred to. But it was a tactic disconnected from any broader strategic goal. And as any organizer worth their salt will tell you, you can’t have tactics without strategy. Strategy is the big-picture plan for achieving a broader goal, and tactics are particular techniques or tools used to achieve that strategic goal. Tactics are contextually specific and have measurable outcomes. If they are not effective in achieving the strategic goal, they are abandoned.
So what happens when you get tactics without strategy? You get a cargo cult. Without a strategy to guide you, all that is left is a blind faith that faithfully repeating a set of tactics that worked in the past will reproduce the movements of the past.
Today, as many are inspired by the vibrancy of the movement, outraged at police repression of the movement, yet frustrated by a lack of strategic options, it makes sense that some would take refuge in faithfully reproducing the tactics of the past, in the hope that it will lead to some kind of breakthrough.
But of course, the political and historical context of Black Bloc tactics in Germany and Italy in the early 1970s is dramatically different than the context surrounding Black Bloc tactics in the U.S., circa 2010s. First, notwithstanding the real accomplishments of Occupy over the past several months, progressive social movements in the U.S. today are nowhere near as strong as those in the Europe of the early 70s. This is particularly the case for the U.S. labor movement, which has often formed the backbone for progressive social movements, but is currently struggling. Granted, we know from recent months that things can change rapidly, but that kind of social movement strength is not something that can be willed into being by a small group, however determined and well color coordinated, engaging in isolated bursts of militant activity.
Second, and crucially related to this last point, the U.S. state circa 2012 is not experiencing the same crisis of legitimacy as the German and Italian governments of the 1970s. While many people are outraged, frustrated, and disgusted with one or both political parties, as well as various state and local legislatures, only a tiny minority at this point have gone so far as to challenge the very legitimacy of government at the federal, state, or local level. Even efforts to remove elected officials, as we are currently seeing in Wisconsin and Oakland, are being pursued through established, legal channels. Whatever one’s opinion of the matter, it is pretty clear that “smashing the state” is not yet very high on most people’s list of demands.
In such a context, it is safe to assume that the police, i.e. the state’s legitimate guarantors of order, will get the benefit of the public’s doubt. Absent the most egregious brutality against unarmed, clearly peaceful protesters, the kind visited upon Iraq veteran Scott Olsen in Oakland, or the students who were pepper-sprayed at UC Davis, most people will see police actions as legitimate. The fact that most people are getting news of police actions from incomplete and/or misinformed media reports does not help matters. But isolated bursts of militant Black Bloc tactical maneuvering will not change this fact, nor will they challenge the commonly held presumption that police actions are legitimate.
So, given the current context and strategic goals of the Occupy movement, how do Black Bloc tactics stack up as actual tactics? If we can assume for the sake of argument that a basic strategic goal of the Occupy movement is to build an inclusive and growing community in opposition to the greed and destructiveness of the 1%, can Black Bloc tactics help to achieve that strategic goal? It seems doubtful.
Practitioners of Black Bloc tactics present themselves as the protectors of the community. But a look at the record shows that Black Bloc tactics don’t protect anyone. Granted, there have been a few daring “un-arrest” operations during protests, but these must be weighed against the many other times when Black Bloc tactical maneuvering has needlessly put movement participants in danger. We saw this most recently in Oakland on the “Move-in Day” of January 28, when shield-wielding protesters aggravated a standoff with riot police, leading to the arrest of hundreds of fellow activists. In this, Black Bloc tactics failed in their most basic ostensible function of protecting protesters from the police.
While some may object to the implication that Black Bloc tactics are at least partly responsible for the police’s brutal response, this ignores the situational dynamic that Black Bloc tactics create. There’s a saying in the Occupy movement about the riot police: “when you’re in riot gear, everything looks like a riot.” The same can be said for when you’re in Black Bloc gear. Implicit in the tactic is the inevitable standoff with the cops. Moreover, in creating a unified, organized, menacing opponent, it’s a tactic that creates terms of engagement that are very familiar to police, and easy for them to understand on their terms. With their masked faces and all-black outfits, Black Bloc practitioners offer themselves up as the camera-ready villains against whom the police can all-too-easily position themselves as the heroes taking “necessary” action.
At the same time that Black Bloc tactics fail to protect movement participants, they create impediments to building an inclusive and growing movement community. Let’s be honest: there’s nothing terribly inviting about a group of black-clad, masked individuals, who bear a closer resemblance to the riot police than to their fellow activists. At best, such tactics require other movement participants to spend valuable time explaining to others that Black Bloc tactics are a peripheral part of the movement. At worst, they alienate potential supporters and make the police the central political issue, shifting attention away from the real perpetrators of social inequality, i.e. the 1%.
Black Bloc tactics show little ability to advance the strategic goals of the Occupy movement, while creating barriers to movement building. Their persistence has more to do with cargo cult thinking than with strategic effectiveness. So it’s time for a rethink. Real tactical maneuvering doesn’t involve ritualized repetition of past practices. Rather, it involves linking tactics to strategic thinking about movement building. There are plenty of people active in the Occupy movement who are engaging in this kind of strategic thinking, and developing innovative tactics to pursue a collective, strategic vision. That’s where the focus of the Occupy movement should be now.