The Black Bloc Which Was Not: Comments in the lead up to the Hamburg G20

propbdeedMembers of the ‘black bloc’ or fictional characters in a film?

In the 1 July copy of the German newspaper Taz one finds the statements of two leftist organizations – Campact and Interventionistische Linke  – each of which expresses their desire to be distanced from anything seen as ‘criminal’, and especially anything that can be associated with the black block. In the words of one Interventionistische Linke representative: ‘We want a colorful event. [But] Black is too colourful.’ A scene such as this seems to be something of a tradition within the German (reformist) left and rehearses a similar situation when, during the 1988 convention of the World Bank and IMF in Berlin, the Greens sought out discussions with world leaders while the Autonomen rejected any type of cooperation/reformism.

Unlike today, one opens the September 1988 issue of Der Spiegel with a different tone being expressed regarding the arrival of world financial leaders to the capital: “While the Greens met to discuss alternatives to the existing world financial system…the Autonomen declined to cooperate with reformists vis-à-vis the IMF. Der Spiegel quoted one radical as saying: “A death machine can only be combated.” Just as it was the case for this ‘radical’ in 1988 so too is it the case for those of us in Hamburg. In light of all the media attention leading up to the G20 summit, all one can really gather from these reports is the anticipation of any agreement between the Merkel-Macron alliance and Trump, and the arrival of the ‘black block’ and their riots. However it must be said: against the temptation of treating riots as something that detracts from the legitimate form of peaceful protest, or as something doomed from the start due to a perceived limitation inherent to the riot-form, Hamburg should receive the G20 and its affiliates in nothing but riotous fashion. As Joshua Clover has helpfully shown in his study on the historical relation between the riot and the strike, riots are a mode of struggle that simultaneously address themselves to police, the state, and capital. That is to say, riots are not simply ephemeral and spontaneous expressions of discontent but are ‘a mode of survival that seeks to resolve the crisis of the reproduction of labor within the spheres of circulation and consumption.’ To détourn Stuart Hall’s formulation: riots are a mode through which class struggle is lived.

Additionally, riots respond to the reality of the function of policing understood as ensuring the security of an economic system that was born from, and needs to maintain, the subjugation of people of color, the poor, queers, women, migrants, and refugees. That is, the job of the police isn’t to ‘protect and serve,’ or to help any citizen whatsoever when they are in danger, but rather to secure, defend, and maintain lucrative economic conditions at the national level for value production, as well as enforcing the illegality of subsistence outside the legally acceptable market of waged-labour. Again, it is this defense of capital and criminalization of those who resist becoming part of surplus populations that is being encountered once more in Hamburg. And as if to corroborate this claim of the police’s inherent role in the protection of capital, Timo Zell, a spokesman for the Hamburg police helpfully puts to rest any remaining doubts: this year’s G20 will be “the biggest operation in the history of Hamburg’s police.” It is because riots are a form of struggle that is equally anti-state, anti-police, and anti-capitalist, that the particular combination of police and capital at this week’s G20 summit should be nothing short of a riotous affair.

So if riots should break out, don’t be fooled into thinking that these are the problematic ‘far left elements’ of this week of protests; don’t believe that there has ever been such a thing as a ‘good’, as opposed to a ‘bad,’ demonstrator. It is the State that divides the masses between the good-citizen and bad-criminal, especially since it is with these so-called ‘bad’ and ‘criminal’ elements that anti-police and anti-state struggles are most effective. And, in fact, there has never been such a thing as a good protester as opposed to a bad one, just as there has never been such a thing as a good cop as opposed to a bad cop: in the confrontation with 20 world leaders there are only those who are for and against the G20’s raison d’état (securing the existence and relative stability of global capital); there are only those who aim to preserve this system and those who want nothing short of bringing about its swift end.

With respect to the G20’s raison d’état, it is important to highlight that its mandate of securing the global economy is not something people voted for. Rather, the political project inaugurated by the G20 is marked by its two ‘birthdays:’ the 1999 and 2008 financial crises, the latter of which has served as the justification for the composition and program of the G20 as it exists today. In other words, the absurd display of diplomatic tug-o-war that has been playing out in the media between global superpowers just so they can lay claim to the title of ‘leader of the free world’ overshadows the G20’s inseparability from previous and future ‘crises.’ That is, the G20 uses economic crises not only to justify its economic existence but also to maintain a monopoly of political control that has come to define the Western world and at least as far back as the fall of the Berlin wall. For us, the G20’s very existence is proof of what the Invisible Committee outlined as the contemporary mode of global governance:

If some commentators made fools of themselves by hastily proclaiming the “death of neoliberalism” with the explosion of the subprime swindle, it’s because they failed to understand that the “crisis” was not an economic phenomenon but a political technique of government. We’re not experiencing a crisis of capitalism but rather the triumph of crisis capitalism. “Crisis” means: government is growing. Crisis has become the ultima ratio of the powers that be…The present crisis, permanent and omnilateral, is no longer the classic crisis, the decisive moment. On the contrary, it’s an endless end, a lasting apocalypse, an indefinite suspension, an effective postponement of the actual collapse, and for that reason a permanent state of exception. The current crisis no longer promises anything; on the contrary, it tends to free whoever governs from every constraint as to the means deployed. (Invisible Committee, To Our Friends, 25-6)

If ‘crisis’ is the definitive mode of governance of groups like the G20, then the State’s response to the demonstrators who were in Hamburg should be of no surprise since ‘they [the G20] speak of “crisis” in regard to what they intend to restructure, just as they [State/police] label “terrorist” those they are preparing to strike down.’[6] Now, even though it was the Invisible Committee who recognized the emerging consensus among various leftist currents regarding slogans such as ACAB or tactics such as riots (“It seems that the epoch has even begun to secrete its own platitudes, like that All Cops Are Bastards (ACAB) which a strange internationale emblazons on the rough walls of cities, from Cairo to Istanbul, and Rome to Paris or Rio, with every thrust of revolt”[7]) it was the Parisian youth who, during last summer’s anti-labor law demonstrations and riots, would respond to the Committee’s insight with their own statements of intent tagged across the streets of Paris. And it is one particular slogan that interests us: tout le monde déteste la police. While such an assertion in English would read ‘everyone hates the police’, we find that a more literal translation is appropriate: the whole world hates the police.

The whole world hates the police because the police are the ones who, anywhere and everywhere, ensure the ‘stability of the global economy’, who call for ‘peaceful and reasonable protest,’ and who even claim that hosting the G20 in a big city shows the world Germany’s celebration of liberal rights despite the fact that the police have built detention centers and prisons specifically for those arrested during the protests and at the camps. If police officers can prepare spaces of confinement for those who exercise their state sanctioned ‘rights’ (the right to voice dissent through public assembly being the most relevant liberty in question vis-à-vis Hamburg) it is only because the kind of society afforded by Capital and its nation-states is one where the State claims to act as the guarantor of a set of universal rights while simultaneously arresting its citizens when the exercise of these rights conflict with the interests of the State. Thus, what should be obvious by now is the fact that everyone on the streets of Hamburg are all potential criminals from the point of view of the police, the state, and of capital. For this reason we should not be duped by a discourse on the ‘good’ as opposed to ‘bad’ elements of the demonstration, since everyone is potentially already one of the ‘bad ones.’

And what of the reports predicting the biggest black bloc in history? Surely those individuals who are only recognizable by their all black, masked up, attire would qualify as the rogue elements of civilized protest? For us, however, it would be better to ask the following: is there really such a thing as this so-called ‘black bloc’ that we hear of so often and have allegedly witnessed on our computer screens? We ask this for the simple reason that, to this day, we are not certain if we have ever seen a black bloc.

THE ‘BLACK BLOC’ WILL NEVER HAVE BEEN IN HAMBURG

black bloc vending machines (Marais)While not in Hamburg, the ‘black bloc’ can be found inside the Palais de Tokyo in Paris

Already in 2007, the ready-made artist Claire Fontaine identified why we feel the need to inquire into the existence or non-existence of this thing called black bloc. As Fontaine writes, ‘the black bloc is you, when you stop believing in it.’ And what led Fontaine to draw such a conclusion about this thing we hear so often about are the very reasons that allow us to say, in good faith, that we haven’t seen a black bloc. For us as well as Fontaine, the black bloc is defined as ‘that which exists only insofar as everyone stops believing in its existence’ because, today, it seems one can encounter the black bloc everywhere one goes. This includes everything from the evening news (“4 February 1007, on the 8 o’clock news I see what appears to be a male figure…throwing stones in a night lit by flames. He is wearing a very elegant Dolce & Gabbana bomber-jacket with a big silver D&G on the back and an immaculate white ski-mask”) to mundane yet unexpected places such as one boutique brand name (as pictured above) in the Palais de Tokyo (“While my eyes follow the footsteps of customers going to the Black Bloc boutique at the entrance to the Palais de Tokyo…Agamben’s words about the souls in Limbo automatically pops into my head: ‘like letters without addressees…they remained without destiny”). In other words, the black bloc exists insofar as we understand that it is a word without image, a word that can be tied to any number of images and regardless of whether the images we associate with this term contradict the very things it comes to signify. Thus, if it is to be anything, the black bloc is that term that exists without an image:

…giving a place like that a name that evokes transgression or even the destruction of merchandise, while here we are selling our merchandise at high prices and we’re loving it. Or maybe the black bloc sounded a bit like the opposite of the white cube, or the idea of a block bloc is suggestive, martial, what do I know?…It’s not just appearances one shouldn’t trust, one shouldn’t trust words either. Or more specifically, the link we imagine exists between words and images…For example, we believe we’ve found the illustration of this concept in photographs of marching people dressed in black, black bloc is a word with an image. The term black bloc alludes to a manifestation of desire for collective opacity, a will not to appear and to materialise affects that are increasingly hard to take. The black bloc is not a visual object, it’s an object of desire. (‘Black bloc’, 18)

Thus it is not a question of what black bloc really means and rather a question of subjective utterance: who is it that speaks about a so-called black bloc, and by doing so conjures up a correlating image to give meaning to their discourse? And for Fontaine, it is the State, more often than not, that has a vested interest in constructing the political significance of this term by relating word to image:

Instead let’s ask what ‘this is the black bloc’ means? Who says that? Wouldn’t that be a definition like an imaged filmed from a window, like the one from the 8 o’clock news…a definition shot from above, taken from the viewpoint of a watchtower, from some panopticon? What we are describing is always a block of ant-men, cockroach-men, a black block, which is black like the earth because it is seen from afar. But the carabinieri, they are also a black bloc. Baudelaire said that his contemporaries dressed in dark clothes that no painter enjoyed depicting, were an army of undertakers, that they were all celebrating some funeral. Enamoured undertakers, revolutionary undertakers. (‘Black bloc’, 20)

Just as we shouldn’t be fooled by the State’s discourse on ‘riots’ and its participants from the ‘hardcore fringe of the left’, we shouldn’t be duped into the State’s paranoia surrounding the arrival of the black bloc as well; especially since it is the State that has constructed what this term has come to be known as in the popular imagination. That is, the ‘black bloc’ that we have come to know through news reports and media outlets are the images of window smashers characterized as rogue individuals acting opportunistically in the midst of the majority of good, peaceful, law abiding citizens. And, according to the State, it is these individuals that come to stand in for what it once meant to dress in all black.

If this is so, then what it means to dress in all black, to wear masks, to de-arrest friends and fight to ensure their safety, what it means to engage in our mutual defense and a collective attack against the various ways this world does violence to us, means that these modes of composition are not the black bloc. It means that this thing we do with each other in the night where all demonstrators look alike isn’t and never was the black blocToday, then, it would be better to say that the one’s who arrive in Hamburg dressed in all black and take to the streets to protect their friends and comrades, that they too are not the black bloc. And if these actions and images are not the black bloc, then, we would do well to recognize the fact that, perhaps, the black bloc will never have been in Hamburg at all. So, when you read some article about the black bloc at this weeks G20 summit, or when you overhear strangers talking about masked up hooligans destroying the city, or when you see images taken by helicopter of far away bodies shown to be causing chaos in the streets, remember that you are hearing about something other than what dressing in all black actually meant; and particularly what it meant not for the ‘black bloc’ but for what, at one time, went by another name:

On the other hand, schwarze Block means something, it roots us in a history of resistance bound with the two 20th century Germany’s […] I could tell you that schwarze Block was a tactical form, that it was a means of preventing the police from identifying and isolation who committed what gesture during a riot. I could tell you that dressing in black meant: we are all comrades, we are all in solidarity, we are all alike, and this equality liberates us from the responsibility of accepting a fault we do not deserve; the fault of being poor in a capitalist country, the fault of being anti-fascist in the fatherland of Nazism, the fault of being libertarian in a repressive country. That it meant: nobody deserves to be punished for these reasons, and since you are attacking us we are forced to protect ourselves from violence when we march in the streets. Because war, capitalism, labour regulations, prisons, psychiatric hospitals, those things are not violent, however you see those of us who want to freely live our homosexuality, the refusal to found a family, collective life and abolition of property as the violent ones. So, if you want to arrest me instead of my comrade just because we are wearing the same clothing, go ahead, I accept that, I don’t deserve to be punished because he doesn’t deserve it either… I could go on like this, and even provide you with more specifics, by supplementing it with the history of demonstrations, of victories, with dates to back it all up and everything, like the time a band was playing around the rioters in the deserted streets, or the time when the police took off running… I could go on for pages and pages, but that’s not the issue here. All this isn’t the black bloc. (‘Black Bloc’, 19-20, my emphasis)

 

black bloc barricade hamburg…the black bloc is you, when you stop believing in it.

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The Human Strike and The Politics of Escape

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Transcript of a short talk I gave @ b-books for the German book launch of Dark Deleuze in Berlin. 

Introductory Remarks

The terms of escape, opacity, and indiscernibility are perhaps three of the most essential concepts that constitute the lexicon of Dark Deleuze; a lexicon that seeks to refute and replace the consensus of Deleuze as a thinker of affirmation, of joyous affects, and lover of rhizomes. If this is so, readers may find the text’s development of these terms merely suggestive, especially since the notion of escape is given its most interesting treatment in the final passages of the text’s concluding chapter. However, as I hope to show, these concepts of escape, opacity, and indiscernibility, gain in significance insofar as we understand them in relation to the interlocutors Andrew brings together in his reading of Deleuze; and particularly the work of the Paris based art collective Claire Fontaine (and to a lesser extent Tiqqun) whose names appear at key moments in the development of this politics of escape.

1. Escape, Opacity, Indiscernibility


To begin, we can ask the following question: how are we to understand a politics of escape in light of Dark Deleuze’s argument that Deleuze, has always been, a partisan of the anti-state communist tradition? At the outset we can say that escape is not to be confused with some generalized notion of deterritorialization or even with Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of lines of flight. To escape requires lines of flight, but the two are not one and the same. For Andrew, escape is given a decidedly political inflection where lines of flight pertain to the objective tendencies of the world that, if taken to their logical conclusions, force a qualitative change of the situation:

Escape is never more exciting than when it spills out into the streets, where trust in appearances, trust in words, trust in each other, and trust in this world all disintegrate in a mobile zone of indiscernibility (Fontaine, ‘Black Bloc’). It is these moments of opacity…and breakdown that darkness most threatens the ties that bind us to this world. (Dark Deleuze, 70)

Regarding this passage it is worth noting the reference to Claire Fontaine and her writing on the black bloc, which suggests to the reader that between Fontaine and this Dark Deleuze there is something in common. What both Fontaine and Dark Deleuze hold in common is their antipathy toward those who envision the task of Thinking being one of adequate description, or the verification of conceptual representations. In contrast to these positions that equate thinking with representing/describing the world, Fontaine and Deleuze assert that before all else Thinking is a response to a problem whose nature is political. Or as Deleuze and Guattari write in the 8th chapter of A Thousand Plateaus, ‘…politics precedes Being’ (ATP, 203). Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, the reason for the reference to Fontaine’s work is because it is Fontaine who develops a key distinction that is implied in Dark Deleuze’s conclusion and one that will allow us to understand how the three terms of escape, opacity, and indiscernibility relate to one another. In her essay ‘This is not the black bloc’ Fontaine distinguishes between what is ontologically indiscernible and that which is politically indiscernible. As she writes:

A distinctive feature of one who finds themselves in what we call a black bloc is to demand nothing for themselves or for others, to cut across public space without being subjected to it for once, to disappear in a mass or factory exists and public transportation at rush hour…In this night where all demonstrators look alike there is no point in posing Manichean questions. Especially since we know that the distinction between guilty and innocent no longer matters, all that counts is the one between winners and losers. (Claire Fontaine, ‘This is not the black bloc’)

A world of difference, then, keeps apart the fabled ‘night in which all cows are black’ from the night of insurrection ‘where all demonstrators look alike’. Regarding the former, we find ourselves disabled in the face of pure immediacy. In this situation, there is nothing about the world that allows us to distinguish something from anything else; a cause from its effect; a principle from its consequences. However, in the night where all demonstrators look alike, we find ourselves enabled in our confrontation with capital’s imposed daily rhythm and its state apparatuses of capture. For example, while one may ordinarily be subjected to ‘random’ stops by the police or even the violence that always arrives at demonstrations, the indiscernibility of the black bloc affords this mass of individuals more opportunities for attack and resisting arrest than if they were to assume the transparency model of peaceful protest and orderly conduct. Fontaine continues:

Continue reading “The Human Strike and The Politics of Escape”

HOSTIS: A Short Introduction to the Politics of Cruelty

Circles & Grids - Eva Hesse

[This is a brief excerpt from the introduction to Hostis Issue 1. A PDF of the full issue can be found here.]

THE PROBLEM with the social is not that it fails at its intended goals. There is no use in disputing the advances in education, science, or medicine brought by scientific planning of the social – they work. We instead take issue with the means through which the social brings social peace. As French historian Michel Foucault points out, the social was invented simultaneously with the science of the police and publicity, or as they are known today, Biopower and The Spectacle. The former ensuring that everything is found and kept in its proper place, and the latter making certain that everything which is good appears and everything which appears is good. The historical effects is that within the span of a few decades, the governmentalized techniques of the social were integrated into contemporary life and began passively making other means of existence either unlivable or invisible.

Today, the social is nothing but a de-centered category that holds the population to blame for the faults of government. Prefiguration fails to question the social. This is because prefigurative politics is: the act of reinventing the social. Socialist radicals come in a number of flavors. There are dual-power anarchists, who believe in building parallel social institutions that somehow run ‘better’ (though they rarely do, or only for a select few). There are humanist anarchists, who believe that when most styles of governance are decentralized, they then bring out human nature’s inherent goodness. There are even pre-figurative socialists (“democratic socialists” or “reformists”) who believe that many equally-allocated public resources can be administered by the capitalist state. Ultimately, the social functions for prefigurative politics just as it did for utopian socialists and now the capitalist present – the social is the means to an ideal state of social peace.

Let us be clear, we are not calling for social war. Everywhere, the social is pacification. Even social war thinks of itself as (good) society against the (bad) state. This is just as true of an ‘anti-politics’ that pits the social against politics. Look to John Holloway or Raúl Zibechi, who focus on indigenous resistance to the imperialism of capital and the state. Both argue that the threat is always ‘the outside,’ which comes in the form of either an external actor or a logic that attempts to ‘abstract’ the power of the social. Holloway argues that when the state is an objective fetish that robs the social of its dynamic power (Change the World, 15-9, 59, 94), while Zibechi says that indigenous self-management provides “social machinery that prevents the concentration of power or, similarly, prevents the emergence of a separate power from that of the community gathered in assembly” (Dispersing Power, 16). Such a perspective is deeply conservative in nature, and they lack a revolutionary horizon – they reject whatever are dangers imposed from without only by intensifying the internal consistency of a (family-based) community from within, thickening into a social shell that prevents relations of externality. Without going into much detail, this is the largest drawback to already existing utopian socialist experiments – the same autonomy that allows a group to detach from imperialistic domination also becomes cloistered, stuck in place and lacking the renewal provided by increased circulation.

CIVIL WAR IS THE ALTERNATIVE TO THE SOCIAL. Against the social and socialism, we pit the common and communism. Our ‘alternative institutions’ are war machines and not organs of a new society. The goal cannot be to form a clique or to build the milieu. Insurrectionary communism intensifies truly common conditions for revolt – it extends what is already being expropriated, amplifies frustrations shared by everyone, and communicates in a form recognized by all. We fight for sleep, for every minute in bed is a moment wrested from capital. We deepen the hostility, for anger is what keeps people burning hot with fury during the cold protracted war waged by our faceless enemies. We spread images of insubordination, for such scenes remind everyone of the persistence of defiance in these cynical times. If we build infrastructure at all, it is conflict infrastructure. Most of the time, we take our cues from pirates, who would never strike out alone like Thoreau to invent something from scratch. They commandeer full-formed tools of society and refashion them into weapons. The other thing we have learned from pirates is that duration is a liability; abandon anything that becomes too costly to maintain – a project, a struggle, an identity – there are a million other places to intensify the conflict. But even in our life behind enemy lines, we agree with Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, who insist that war is only a secondary byproduct of the war machine; producing new connections is its primary function (A Thousand Plateaus, 416-23). We like how Tiqqun elaborates on this difficulty. If one focuses too much of living, they descend into the insulated narcissism of the milieu. If one focuses too much on struggling, they harden into an army, which only leads down the path of annihilation. The politics of civil war, then, is how exactly one builds the coincidence between living and struggling. Though most know it by its reworking, Call: to live communism and spread anarchy.