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Reclaiming Violence

Matt Wasserman Nov 17

Black Bloc, White Riot: Anti-Globalization and the Genealogy of Dissent
AK Thompson
AK Press, 2010

Black Bloc, White Riot is a postmortem of the anti-globalization movement without apologies. Drawing on his experience as a participant, Thompson attempts to understand the (unrealized) potential of this movement. In the process, he takes on the assumed wisdom on the left.

Much of the energy of the North American anti-globalization movement was spent running away from the privileges of its participants. Whether asking where the people of color were in Seattle or chucking the elitist strategy of hopping from one trade summit to another in favor of engaging in local organizing with the “oppressed,” self-criticism abounded. Thompson does not ignore the privileges of the participants in this struggle, but he suggests that our analysis should not end there. Instead of bemoaning the largely white middle-class nature of the movement or arguing that the real action was in the global South, Thompson attempts to take white middle-class activists seriously as political actors.

While the title of Black Bloc, White Riot is a riff on Marxist psychoanalyst’s Frantz Fanon’s Black Skins, White Masks as much as a reference to The Clash, the content owes more to Fanon’s seminal book on the Algerian War of Independence, The Wretched of the Earth. Thompson attempts to recuperate the category of violence, arguing that violence is foundational to politics. Much as Fanon argued that colonized peoples have to take up arms in order to constitute themselves as political actors, Thompson posits that activists have to engage in violence — defined broadly — to break free of the realm of representation into the real. In his view, activities such as culture-jamming or symbolic protest remain within the confines of the society of the spectacle; it is only direct action that has the potential to fundamentally transform both society and the (largely white middle class) activists that participate in it. Or, in other words, you have to break the windows of a few Starbucks to make a movement.

For Thompson, the riot operates as both a central concept and the limit of the anti-globalization movement. It is in the “open-ended field” of the riot that participants can experiment with different ways of organizing society. He argues that, “the riot yields political subjects that are able to change the world, subjects that — through the process of transformation the riot entails — are forced to confront the unwritten future within them.”

Taking the riot for the horizon reveals the poverty of ambition of both Thompson’s text and the anti-globalization movement. If the goal is fundamentally reorganizing society, not simply creating a “temporary autonomous zone,” riots can be at most a beginning, not an ending. As Thompson himself admits, his focus on riots shows how far social movements have to go.

Although provocative and often insightful, Black Bloc, White Riot falls short as a work of analysis. Moreover, for an author who valorizes action, Thompson’s prose can be rather abstruse. Nonetheless, it is an intriguing exploration of the legacy and potential of the anti-globalization movement.