Occupy, Anarchism and the Black Bloc: That Window at
That Window at Starbucks Bhaskar Sunkara -
February 10, 2012 1:00 pm
Chris Hedges has the internet's attention. In an article
for Truthdig, he identifies Black Bloc anarchists as
"the cancer of the Occupy movement." Their
confrontational ways, he argues, fly in the face of
nonviolent principles, only further alienate the
mainstream, and serve as justification for state
Insurrectionists were angrier than usual. Other radicals
joined in too. They accused Hedges of capitulating to
the most timid elements in the movement. There were
semi-literate blog posts, angry comment threads, and
hateful tweets-the web at its finest. But there were
also some considered replies. Most significantly, David
Graeber responded in an open letter to Hedges.
I will spare readers a significant overview of the
debate and keep myself to a short intervention. An
intervention I only make because I feel that the
debate's crystallization around these two figures is
unfortunate. As articulate as Graeber is, the Black Bloc
tactic deserves little defense. It offers no way forward
for the democratic Left. Neither does Hedges's well-
intentioned but inchoate liberalism.
Some background: The son of a Presbyterian minister,
after receiving a Master of Divinity from Harvard,
Hedges soon found himself in the New York Times's
hallowed pages. He didn't play the mainstream journalism
game very well. He condemned the Israeli occupation and
earned rebuke from his employer for publicly damning the
And here Christopher Hedges stands now. His former peers
are jet-setting around the world, talking to cab drivers
with Thomas Friedman, taking Pilates classes with Ross
Douthat, and enjoying the dying days of print on David
Brooks's expense account. Meanwhile, our protagonist is
thanklessly filing away weekly copy for Truthdig and
sleeping in tents.
Hedges's contributions have been valuable and his
radicalization has been inspiring to watch. By 2008 he
was even calling himself a "socialist." But there's a
conservative hue to his politics that is impossible to
ignore. It's more anti-corporate than anti-capitalist.
It's more a yearning for the secure and small than the
abundance of the future.
This isn't to denigrate Hedges's transformation. His
goal, sustaining a vibrant movement for social justice,
is the same as mine. And I share his opposition to the
Black Bloc. But it's clear he didn't do his homework,
preferring to fight a straw man of his own creation than
the actual beast. Hedges presents the Black Bloc as far
more organized and ideologically cohesive than it
actually is. The Black Bloc "is a tactic, not a group,"
as David Graeber writes. And while its members strike a
paramilitary posture, they aren't really that
malevolent. When they decide to engage in petty
vandalism, they look more like petty vandals than
serious political actors.
Beyond personal acting out, it's not clear what the
tactic has actually done. That goes for political
accomplishments as well as for violence. The cops are
winning on that count. Protesters have been the repeated
victims of police assaults. This has nothing to do with
the Black Bloc and everything to do with the police.
If you're of the opinion that breaking things
constitutes violence, the "nihilists" are not very good
at that either. If they were better at smashing windows,
capitalists who manufacture glass would be making a
killing. I would probably become one. With foes like
these my property rights wouldn't be in any real danger.
But I don't blame Hedges for his misreading. It's not
surprising that he couldn't figure out who our masked
comrades are or what they're struggling for. It is not
that easy to confidently articulate your politics behind
a mask. Luckily, leftists in all sorts of dangerous
situations, under conditions of illegality,
surveillance, and war, have managed to do without them
for well over a century. Masks, after all, aren't good
for talking to people. They're good for robbing banks
and running around drunkenly on Halloween terrifying
small children. But why would you need to waste time
talking to people when there is action to be taken? It's
as if the old socialist appeal to "educate, organize,
agitate" has morphed in a drone-like call for just the
latter. Shit is fucked up and bullshit.
It's smoke without fire, tactics without strategy, and
all the more frustrating because of the alternatives
available to us. Take the J28 demonstration in Oakland.
More than a 1,000 protesters failed to occupy a building
to serve as a new protest hub and community center. For
security purposes, the target, the Kaiser Convention
Center, was not known to anyone but a tiny cadre of
organizers. The group, far too small to succeed, was
cornered and fell victim to a savage, police-provoked
One thousand people doing anything isn't much of a
movement, especially if they're failing (and tactical
failures are all the more depressing when all you
believe in are tactics). The broader layers of the
population inspired by Occupy are the movement, and as
encampment after encampment is dismantled, reaching new
constituents and getting more people actively involved
will be more important than ever.
A long-term political strategy will be more important as
well. It's on this count that part of Hedges's message
resonates. But we don't need to excise people from
Occupy, we just need to grow it. And I remain
unconvinced that anarchists are in any significant way
preventing this growth, though they are a convenient
scapegoat for more fundamental failings.
It is this tendency to scapegoat that makes some paint
segments of Occupy as having undergone some sort of
sudden ultra-leftist infiltration. I would have loved it
if the protests were sparked by a coalition of
Trotskyist sects, social democrats, and left-wing
unions. They weren't. The initial spark behind the
movement and much of its form and character are owed to
its anarchist roots. There can be no denying this fact.
The anarchists have been very successful-when they have
organized clad in vibrant colors. We have a more
confident Left to thank them for.
But the potential of Occupy Wall Street went far beyond
those active in it day-to-day, much less the minuscule
core that laid its foundation. It lay in the millions of
Americans who saw in it their discontent with austerity
regimes, wage cuts, unemployment, and financial abuse.
If it's acknowledged that the movement could be more
successful at engaging these people at present, the
question then becomes, "What kind of change will be
These questions will need to be resolved democratically,
but they can't be if socialists refuse to be confident
partners in the discussion. The tendency thus far has
been for socialists to table intra-movement conflicts
and uncritically accept notions concerning the
"diversity of tactics" and consensus, as opposed to
majoritarian-based, decision making. The willingness to
at least discuss the relevance of more traditional forms
of left-wing organization has also been lost behind the
glossy allure of "spontaneity."
Yet the response among anarchists who felt "betrayed" by
Hedges shows a similar softness. (Did Hedges ever
pretend to be anything but a "statist" who wanted a
reformed capitalism?) Yes, the "cancer" rhetoric was in
poor taste and had disturbing implications. But
political conflict, the airing of differences, and open
debate over the future of the movement are all good for
it and especially beneficial for those who have a clear
vision of a better society. If different people within
the movement have different notions of what "victory"
would look like and how to get there, it naturally means
that political alliances are shifting and contingent.
While we're in this unstable marriage, conflict is bound
to arise. This conflict is more than therapeutic. It's a
battle for the Left.
You can't stop people from wearing black. (And even if
it were possible, I'd have no part in it-it's slimming.)
But we can have a broader and more inclusive movement,
one that would inevitably make anarchist elements less
prominent. The path we're on right now is not a
promising one. More than ever, democratic socialists
cannot afford to shy away from confidently articulating
political strategies that can make Occupy bigger and
more effective. We'll have more than the internet's
attention. We'll have the future.
Portside aims to provide material of interest to people
on the left that will help them to interpret the world
and to change it.
Submit via email: [log in to unmask]
Submit via the Web: http://portside.org/submittous3
Frequently asked questions: http://portside.org/faq
Search Portside archives: http://portside.org/archive
Contribute to Portside: https://portside.org/donate