In this short clip cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek speaks directly to those on the revolutionary path. With characteristic zeal, he describes the state of the Left following 2009′s global economic decline and shares his outlook on the road ahead for advocates of progressive and radical sociopolitical ideologies. Arguing that the political response to the socioeconomic tragedy more firmly entrenched the ruling capitalist ideology and subverted it into an ‘organic corporate socialism’, he suggests that “capitalism as we knew it cannot survive”. He then expresses concern for what he sees as a ‘decay into soft authoritarianism’ and calls upon the Left to mobilize. Stressing historical precedent, Žižek argues that if things continue the way they are, we will soon find ourselves in a global apartheid. Society will be predicated on artificial divisions and beset by ecological catastrophes. Consequently, “Now is the time to act” – and in big ways. Rather than falling into lock-step and adopting socially-approved forms of dissidence, History calls upon us to push harder.

One organized instance of “pushing harder” that’s making a stir up here in British Columbia is the Blac Bloc. They were recently at the heart of the most violent anti-Olympic protests:

The Vancouver protests raise questions about the possibilities and strengths of an emergent new anti-capitalist radical left, as well as about potential problems and limitations.

The large majority of movement actions against the Olympics were highly, moderately or partially successful. However, there was also intense controversy. This centred around the February 13 snake march in which some members of the Black Bloc broke windows of the Hudson’s Bay Company building (a historic symbol of the colonial oppression of indigenous people). – (New Socialist)

As I read this defense, I can’t discern an explicit strategic justification for the actions taken by the black bloc on Saturday morning, much less of how such action is likely to be represented and recuperated within the dominant (media) discourse. There is merely a tacit appeal to an arguably fetishized “autonomous direct action.” Part of the argumentative appeal in this communique is to the “courage” of heroic (if anonymous) individuals, who come together in solidarity (at significant physical and legal/juridical risk to themselves) to take the all-important “direct action.”

What is strange, however, is that in terms of direct harm to the corporations, smashing (insured) windows and knocking over newspaper boxes is of absolutely no consequence whatsoever. If there is any value in such “direct action” it as at the level of the symbolic, of the images and contexts in which representations of the actions circulate, not in their immediate material effects. – (Vancouver Media Coop)

The media are now busy denouncing the political violence of property destruction, such as the smashing of a Hudson’s Bay Company window, as though it were the only act of violence happening in this city. They forget that economic violence goes on daily in Vancouver. People are suffering and dying from preventable causes because welfare doesn’t give enough to afford rent, food or medicine, and because authorities routinely ignore the medical emergencies of poor or houseless individuals. This economic violence has gotten worse as we lose housing and social services because of the Olympic Games. In response to this assault, thousands took to the streets, hundreds joining what is known as a black bloc.

The black bloc is not a formal organization; it has no leadership, membership, or headquarters. Instead, the black bloc is a tactic: it is something people *do* in order to accomplish a specific purpose. By wearing black clothing and masking our faces, the black bloc allows for greater protection to those who choose active self-defense. The majority of people involved in the black bloc do not participate in property destruction. However, in masking up they express their solidarity with those who choose to take autonomous direct action against the corporations, authorities and politicians who wage war on our communities.

Participation in the black bloc is an act of courage. – (Vancouver Media Coop)

The first time I ran into people who believed that breaking windows was a revolutionary act was in 1972. We had just had 21 people arrested for occupying the campus at University of Toronto to set up a tent city for transient youth. We called it Wachea, a place where everyone was welcome, or so we thought. A radical new left group called Red Morning tried to convince the assembled masses that going back to the University and “trashing it,” in the parlance of the day, was the best way to protest the arrests. It was the moment I stepped into leadership, debating them for hours, saying that more violence was counter productive and would give more strength to the arguments against us. Instead we should protest on the grounds of Queen’s Park and demand that the government give us land for our transient community. In those days we didn’t have the notion of “diversity of tactics.” We believed in the group who was organizing the demonstration deciding democratically what to do. Red Morning withdrew their proposal since they couldn’t convince us.

I was in the my early twenties then, named in an injunction against the occupation, and risking prison, but still unwilling to see how deliberate vandalism furthers a cause. It’s almost forty years later, and protesting the Olympics is a much more important issue than setting up a tent city for transient youth, but breaking windows still risks derailing the important Indigenous rights, anti-poverty and anti-corporate messages of the thousands of protesters on the streets of Vancouver. – (Transforming Power)

The main focus of controversy has been a protest action billed as a Heart Attack (‘to clog the arteries of capitalism’), which marched through Vancouver’s downtown core on Saturday, February 13. In a crowd of 200 or 300, a number of people engaged in property destruction. The windows of TD Bank and the Hudson’s Bay Company were smashed, newspaper boxes were overturned, private vehicles vandalized – confrontations with the police and angry members of the general public ensued. Such incidents are frequently the work of unwanted intruders. But in this case, many supporters of the action affirmed that the destruction was planned by participants in a ‘Black Bloc’ contingent.

The Olympic Resistance Network and some other activists declared this action a success, while many others of us questioned its effectiveness. – (Socialist Voice)

Turning back to the situation at hand, the black bloc “Heart Attack” has been condemned as an excessive display of “anarchist violence”, and yet, as already stated, there was primarily violence directed against property by those engaged in protest actions. The violence against people was done at the hands of police, and it was only in acts of self-defense that protestors engaged with the police directly. Were the police not to intervene in the form that they did, person-to-person violence may have been avoided. But I am not here to speculate at what could have been. The fact is that protestors have been condemned for their use of violence and the police, for all intensive purposes, have not. Violence against persons was in the hands of the police. (There are some reports otherwise, but in general they seem to have been situations of mutual violence or have been thus far unsubstantiated.)

So what then of “violence” against property as directed against HBC and TD Bank? As should perhaps be first noted HBC is a primary instigator of colonialism, and thus, genocide against Indigenous peoples within “Canada.” HBC is also a sponsor of the 2010 Olympics, which are bound up in the ecological destruction, cultural appropriation, police state tactics and massive overspending to name but a few Olympic realities (see or for more info). HBC, therefore, is responsible for, and a party to, historical and continuing systemic violence affecting thousands, if not millions, of people. TD Bank is, first of all, a bank, bound up within the current catastrophe of capitalism which has made the poor poorer and the rich richer. Investment in the industries of oppression, whether they be military, government, or resource extractive, is directly connected to systems of violence affecting millions. – (Peace Culture)

But here’s the thing: we need a mass movement, and contrary to what certain popular primitivist authors like to say, a few thousand dedicated people are not going to accomplish much of anything, let alone revolutionary change, without the support of a mass movement. That is, whatever tactics you’re using to organize resistance groups of any kind, the tactics need to be ones that don’t completely alienate the general public (very much including the “liberals”). And the general public tends to be freaked out by groups of people committing acts of violence (or forms of property destruction that seem violent to them). In recent decades lots of people in lots of places have embraced all kinds of militant and often effective tactics – strikes, bus boycotts, sit-ins, building take-overs, nonviolent civil disobedience of all kinds. Those of any political persuasion who would say that tactics like these are universally ineffective are simply ignorant.

Equally, there have been some pretty darn effective movements that have employed violence around the world over the past few decades and centuries, and you’d have to be an extremely ideological pacifist not to recognize that. But these movements that have employed violent means have used a lot more than rocks. It takes a pretty desperate situation (say, Cuba in 1959) for movements like that to garner popular support, and there’s not a serious guerrilla movement anywhere that wouldn’t admit that the fish need the sea in which to swim, or they quickly die.

In the context of most modern, relatively well-off countries, it seems quite evident that rioting – even if it’s not much of a riot – only impedes anyone’s efforts at building a movement. – (Mostly Water)

See also Anarchist News for a “critical review of denouncements of the Blac Bloc”.

The only unifying factor I see is a call for mobilization. But I’m hesitant to think we necessarily need a movement with popular support. After all, the public has been duped into propping up this festering corpse for decades. They’ve been victimized by pan-generational attempts to hamper creativity, depress empathy, and disengage critical thinking. Deeply in debt and hypnotized by classist propaganda, how can we expect a majority of the public to mobilize when they’re too scared to rock the boat? No, I don’t think the Left needs to aim for a popular movement. It would entail too much compromise and, as Žižek reminds us, the time for compromise has passed.

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  • Frawley

    I love how people are so disoriented that throwing rocks in the streets is read as an example of ‘mobilization’. It doesn’t mean getting into the streets without having any clue what you ACTUALLY want and plan to achieve. Let’s just say the police were like, “Oh?? You want these streets?? All yours, enjoy!” We’d have no clue what to do. We’d have a big party in the parliament buildings and wake up hung over the next day like, “Ohh, people have jobs? What are we to do with them….” We need to THINK. If you really don’t want capitalism, it’s time to think rationally and seriously about replacing it and how we’ll get there. It’s not all about party and ‘creativity’. People have to eat.

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