Reviewed in this article: Black Bloc, White Riot: Anti-Globalization and the Genealogy of Dissent by AK Thompson, originally published in Rabble, June, 2011
Reading AK Thompson's book Black Bloc, White Riot kept bringing to mind one particular memory from the Summit of the Americas protests in Quebec City a decade ago.
On April 20, the first day of the demonstrations, we marched in our thousands towards the fence, behind which 34 heads of state had gathered to hammer out a hemispheric trade deal. Under a hail of catapult-launched teddy bears, activists dressed in black quickly removed the fence's supports with bolt cutters and pulled it down with grapples as onlookers cheered them on. For a brief moment, nothing stood between us and the convention centre. We scrambled atop the toppled fence, but for the most part we went no further, as if our intention all along had been simply to replace the state's chain-link and concrete barrier with a human one of our own making.
The next move was ours, and we just stood there, waiting for something to happen, like good conscientious objectors awaiting our punishment after our purely symbolic point had been made. We had no plan. The wall in our own minds, it seemed, would be much harder to overcome than the one that lay broken beneath our feet.
The riot police assembled and drove us back with tear gas and rubber bullets, and the opening was lost. Within a matter of months, Carlo Giuliani would be shot dead at a protest in Genoa and the war on terror would have cast its shadow across radical social movements the world over. Before we knew it, anti-globalization's moment had passed to its constituent parts: anti-war and environmental activism, anti-poverty and migrant rights struggles, food sovereignty and so on.
And now, ten years later (as a different Thompson would have said), you can walk down Boulevard René-Lévesque in Quebec City and look east, and with the right kind of eyes, you can almost see the high-water mark -- that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
The condition of the white middle class
This uncrossed threshold is precisely the focus of Thompson's book, which theorizes the prospects for radical change in North America through an examination of the "incomplete experiment whose promise has yet to be realized" that was the anti-globalization movement. Drawing on Thompson's experience as an anti-globalization activist, and on a commitment to the pedagogical value of confrontation inherited from Paulo Freire, the book is timely indeed, with recent events in Tunis, Cairo, Sana'a, Athens and elsewhere amply demonstrating the urgency of understanding the possibilities and limitations of street protests as a crucible of revolutionary transformation.
Black Bloc, White Riot addresses all of the anti-globalization movement's defining debates -- diversity of tactics vs. non-violence, summit hopping vs. local organizing, direct vs. mass action. But rather than weighing in directly, Thompson approaches these questions somewhat obliquely: "my objective is to consider how the framing of these debates can tell us a great deal about the activists that engaged in them."
Indeed, his approach is largely diagnostic, even ethnographic, focusing on the anti-globalization movement as a manifestation of the latent revolutionary potential of the "social group that became most activated by the struggle against corporate globalization in Canada and the US": the white middle class. More specifically, white middle class becomes for Thompson a sort of shorthand for dissident white youth and students, whose "middle class" credentials are never really investigated (class identity is simply subsumed within racial identity) and who are somewhat tenuously assumed to represent the radical potentialities of the class as a whole.
Nowhere does Thompson suggest that anti-globalization was solely a white phenomenon; he simply takes at face value the eponymous question of Elizabeth Martinez's Colorlines article, "Where was the color in Seattle?," positing that it was the white middle class that "gave shape to the movement" in North America, and that to it "we can attribute both the movement's successes and its ultimate failure." Though the political moment he examines has passed, his project is forward-looking, seeking to understand "how the middle class's dissident energies can be turned over to the project of radical social change."
With conscious nods in the book's title to Franz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks and the Clash's "White Riot," Thompson sets out to dissect "the ontological conflicts of the white middle class" that complicate its search for genuine political engagement in an age when politics is entirely circumscribed by the sphere of representation. "I am interested," Thompson writes, "in documenting the precise means by which the category ‘white middle class political being' is experienced in the first instance as a contradiction in terms."
Thompson's book joins the writings of anti-racist theorists such as Richard Dyer and Tim Wise, as well as hipster-humorist Christian Lander's blog and book Stuff White People Like, in the project of exposing whiteness as a category for progressive scrutiny, analysis, and in Lander's case, ridicule. Such efforts to "denaturalize" whiteness seek to make visible what had previously stood as the assumed background against which "otherness" is measured. It is only through an understanding of their own racial identity, Thompson suggests, that white activists can engage in meaningful solidarity with others. (Here, unfortunately, Thompson's obscuring of class identity within the catch-all term middle class serves to preclude the possibility of class solidarity bridging the racial divide.)
Thompson documents how the maturing movement's efforts to ground itself led it to a shift from "summit hopping" to a commitment to "local struggles." As he observes, however, these efforts were often hobbled by a tendency among white activists to equate the local solely with the communities and struggles of the oppressed Other: "Instead of descending upon the sites of visible oppression in order to ‘help' the Other," Thompson suggests, "white activists must learn to take responsibility for ‘the local' in which they find themselves and uncover the possibilities of resistance contained therein." He argues that it is only from such a grounded understanding of power and resistance that white activists can make common cause with other local struggles.
The violence of everyday life
The most heated and divisive debates within the anti-globalization movement were always those surrounding questions of violence, property destruction, and the confrontational tactics of the Black Bloc, the group that for Thompson represents "the limit situation for the white middle class." Black Bloc tactics, Thompson suggests, opened the possibility for participants to transform themselves from political spectators to producers of society, forcing upon the growing movement important questions of commitment, solidarity, and confrontation with state power.
Both Black Bloc tactics and the often acrimonious debates surrounding them have outlived the anti-globalization movement, as was readily apparent during the anti-Olympics protests in Vancouver and the G20 riots in Toronto last year. The broader theoretical perspective Thompson brings, then, is welcome, particularly if it can allow us to come at such questions in new ways.
As the debates around diversity-of-tactics first heated up, some activists narrowed their definition of violence to refer only to actions that cause harm to people, a definition that excluded breaking windows and other acts of property destruction while decrying the police for their often brutal crackdowns on protesters. Thompson, however, takes the opposite tack, arguing for a definition of violence so expansive as to include everything from blockading a street, to smashing a window, to writing an email, to breastfeeding.
Violence, according to Thompson's definition, has two attributes: first, it is "the name of the general principle by which objects are transformed through their relationship to other objects," and second, violence is "both the precondition to politics and the premise upon which it rests." In sum, "violence is the name of the process by which objects are transformed so that they no longer correspond to the concepts to which they had previously been tied."
In ontological terms, then, violence is an act of transformation that also transforms the transformer, instigating the formation of autonomous political subjects: "violence turns ontology into politics. It is the catalyst that intensifies being and transposes it into the register of becoming. Refusing, or failing to acquire, the means to be violent amounts to an agreement to remain as we are."
Thompson himself observes that his ontological definition of violence is "virtually indistinguishable" from Marx's definition of labour: both labour and violence, Thompson writes, "are coordinated acts of becoming that simultaneously transform the producer and the world; both confirm the producer to the extent that the world is made her object." To its credit, this definition serves usefully to expose the violence inherent in every sphere of human activity, thus productively complicating moralistic violence/non-violence dichotomies.
It is unclear, however, if much is gained by naming this broadly transformative force violence rather than, say, labour. Whether in the conventional sense of causing harm or in Thompson's much broader conception, violence per se strikes me as a dubious vehicle for moving us beyond the realm of mere representation into the realm of production -- Thompson's stated aim.
Furthermore, by deliberately conflating two very different conceptions of violence (on the one hand, as politically productive activity, broadly conceived, and on the other, as the use of force), Thompson's semantic maneuver serves, in practice, to aggrandize "violent" actions as politically productive, while debasing "non-violent" actions as politically inconsequential. Surely a movement's energies would be better spent debating the productivity of its actions, rather than their violence, even if, in Thompson's lexicon, these amount to the same thing. Sometimes violence is effective, and sometimes it isn't, but making that tactical determination can only happen with reference to an articulated strategy-something the left seems to be entirely lacking.
To put it another way, I agree with Thompson that social change requires us to act upon the world in ways that transform our tools, our social relations and ourselves -- which sometimes necessitates violence, however defined. But calling every transformative act violence serves only to obscure both the productive nature of the necessary transformations, and the ethical, tactical and strategic considerations that our particular interventions must entail if our actions are to produce what we intend them to produce. It is here where we begin to glimpse the solipsism inherent in Thompson's approach.
Ontology and the lash
For Thompson, participation in the Black Bloc represented "the point at which some of us began to pass through violence and show signs of a new kind of political being" (21, emphasis added). That passage contains the germ of Thompson's entire argument: the phrase passing through violence recurs repeatedly in the book, while Thompson's search for a new kind of political being consistently privileges individual acts of self-transformation achieved through riotous confrontation with the state.
Thompson's line of argument here draws directly on Fanon's theorization of the decolonization process in The Wretched of the Earth. Something important is lost, though, in transposing Fanon's thought from the Algerian independence struggle to the milieu of white middle class North America: Fanon made the case for the black man, transfixed by the white man's gaze, to reclaim political subjectivity by violently overthrowing the white man; while Thompson argues that the white middle class, "annexed from the political field" in "late capitalism's endless present," must engage in violent confrontation with the state in order to reclaim its own lost political subjectivity.
Leaving aside questions of the extent of the white middle class's political dispossession, such an approach has serious limitations as political praxis. Thompson explicitly sidesteps questions of tactical efficacy and movement-building strategy that might seek to discriminate between more or less productive actions, emphasizing only "the role that violence has played in the creation of new people" and asserting that the "experiments with violence" that anti-globalization activists carried out represented "an important moment of becoming through which white middle class dissidents glimpsed the possibility of reconnecting with the political sphere."
Thompson goes on to assert, "it makes little sense to engage with violence as an ethical problem. Since ethics can only be convincingly elaborated in relation to choice, and since -- from the standpoint of what-already-is -- non-violence amounts to a choosing-not-to-choose, both ethics and violence are left to find their true reference point in the production process." I agree with Thompson's final point, as far as it goes. (The Buddhists would call this principle karma.) The missing corollary, however, is that such a stance makes it incumbent upon the agent of change to consider the results of the production process in which she is engaged in order to determine what, exactly, her "violence" produces.
Violence produces new subjects is as far as Thompson's answer goes, which is not far enough. Different political interventions, at different moments in time, given a different balance of forces, will invariably produce better or worse outcomes-not only for those who carry out the act, but also for the institutions they target, the movements out of which they emerge, and the multitude they hope to win over, without whose participation these individual or small-group acts of self-transformation will amount to little.
In a time of political paralysis, fiscal austerity and ecological crisis, a politics of confrontation and escalation is urgently needed-but, to put it bluntly, not all forms of "violence" are equally productive. As activists fighting to win at a time when we're losing ground on so many fronts, it is incumbent upon us to think strategically about the consequences of our actions. To focus solely on the production of resistant subjectivities among a narrow subset of the white middle class, while ignoring vital question of movement strategy and the broader resonance of our actions, amounts to a retreat into solipsism.
I agree with Thompson that breaking out of the society of the spectacle requires that we concern ourselves more with what our acts produce than what they mean or how they are represented in the media, but we need a broader register in that effort than our own subjective ontology. In spite of its flaws, Black Bloc, White Riot asks important questions and provides some much-needed historical context and theoretical groundwork with which to enter the fray. Engaging critically with the questions Thompson raises should leave readers better equipped to build a movement sufficiently cohesive, large and politicized so that next time, we might actually step over the broken fence the Black Bloc has pulled down, and march directly upon the centers of power.