Against Representation

Alex Khasnabish

Reviewed in this article

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

Today, hardly anyone wants to talk about a “diversity of tactics.” Given the debate’s frequently abstract, ideological, and circular nature, that’s probably a good thing. At the height of the alter-globalization movement (AGM) in the early days of this new millennium, the principle of a “diversity of tactics” appeared as a key hallmark of a new wave of radicalism. The slogan “Teamsters and turtles together” emerged from the euphoria of the November 1999 anti-WTO protests in Seattle, where a mass convergence of diverse groups opposed to the agenda of corporate globalization shut down the ministerial meeting. Heralded as a “movement of movements” made up of “one no” (to neoliberal capitalist globalization) and “many yeses” (made up of multiple alternatives envisioned to the status quo), the AGM was often characterized as the embodiment of a new kind of social struggle on a transnational scale, one that posed a powerful if amorphous challenge to the dictates of globalized capitalism and hinted at the possibilities of a new networked form of struggle that was – in principle – anti-capitalist and directly democratic in nature. If only it had been so simple.

In practice, the AGM was riddled with conflict and contradiction from the moment of its appearance. In the Global North, a late guest to a party already well underway in other parts of the world, spectacular mass convergences met the spectacle of capitalist elites gathering to rework the new world order; however, while some of these convergences successfully managed to disrupt the appearance of capitalist business-as-usual, the drama of these events quickly wore thin and was replaced by what seemed to be a scripted enactment of dissent and state repression. On top of this, lines of fracture within the AGM appeared almost immediately – particularly with regard to the “diversity of tactics” principle and the North American emergence of the Black Bloc tactic. After 9/11, such fissures became more pronounced as many activists sought to distance themselves from the label “terrorist.” Fast-forward to the summer of 2010 where, following the mass arrest and abuse of protesters who had gathered to oppose the G20 meetings in Toronto, dissident public figures like Naomi Klein and Judy Rebick exhorted the cops to “do their jobs” and charged that they’d failed to “keep the peace” by letting “the handful of people using Black Bloc tactics run wild.” So much for a diversity of tactics.

Of course, lines of fracture and fragmentation within the AGM have multiple sources and cannot be restricted to the issue of violence. The lack of serious discussion concerning what a radical alternative to the status quo might actually look like and how, concretely, we want to go about getting there has been striking – especially in this current crisis-ridden moment. Into this vacuum, sloganeering for or against “violence” as an abstract principle has proliferated. For their part, the World Social Forum has dealt with the issue by expelling it – thus their exclusion of insurgent struggles. Of course, neither sublimation nor repression have succeeded in revitalizing a movement in decline; nor have they offered anything tangible to activists and organizers confronting austerity, a significantly augmented and emboldened security state, and spiraling eco-social crises.

AK Thompson’s Black Bloc, White Riot: Anti-Globalization and the Genealogy of Dissent (AK Press, 2010) is an important intervention in this political field. Drawing on personal experience as a participant in radical resistance movements in the Global North and insights drawn from critical, post-colonial, and post-structural theory, Thompson does what too few have been willing to do: to undertake a serious consideration of the relationship between violence and the transformation of political subjectivity. Given the abundance of ink that has been spilled over the last decade on the AGM, it is surprising to encounter a work that offers something genuinely new. In large part, the strength of Thompson’s contribution owes to his framing, which bears quoting at length.

“Today’s dissidents exist in an indeterminate space between signified and signifier, between politics and its representational proxies. It’s an untenable position marked by psychic instability. It is therefore not surprising to find that white middle class activists tend over time to be reabsorbed into the representational sphere or (on rare occasions) to be seduced by the violence of genuine political – and, hence, human – being. Here, the point where the infinitude of abstract possibility is supplanted by the unforgiving specificity of the thing selected, the dissident enters the realm of genuine politics. It is a moment of clarity available only to those who can make concrete what had previously been unthinkable. Guarding the door between the thinkable and the unthinkable, between the political and its proxy, stands violence (9).”

Thompson’s analysis of the possibility of reclaiming the political hinges on his critique of dissident acts limited to the terrain of the representational – acts that he argues essentially constitute attempts at claim-making and refutation in an epistemic field already delimited by the powerful. Against a politics of representation, Thompson advocates a politics of production. In so doing, he takes on several other key challenges that contribute to both the originality and significance of his work. First, rather than condemning, excusing, or explaining away the white and middle class character of the AGM as it manifested itself in Canada and the US, Thompson takes it up explicitly as a point of analysis and exploration. He contends – rightly, I think – that the experiments with violence conducted by white middle class activists engaged in the AGM constituted an attempt, albeit a truncated one, to reclaim real political being in the context of a geopolitical order marked by white supremacy and capitalist patriarchy. One of the strengths of this work is its willingness to take up a politics of the act and to ask not simply what a given act means or represents but what it actually does. Commenting on the racialized, classed, and gendered dynamics of the AGM in Canada and the US, Thompson productively notes how “the white and middle class character of the anti-globalization movement may have been annoying, but this doesn’t mean that it wasn’t in the middle of an important process of transformation at the moment it was prematurely cut short.”

And so, while the movement’s experiments with violence were strategically inconclusive (to sat the least), they nevertheless marked an important moment of becoming through which white middle class dissidents glimpsed the possibility of reconnecting with the political sphere. And it’s only after reconnecting with politics that these dissidents would have been able to forge meaningful coalitions with those facing the blunt force of neoliberal capital accumulation (132).

The importance of this analysis shouldn’t be understated. Because the world is awash in white supremacy, experiments in the political transformation of white, middle class subjects are vitally important. Not only has ridiculing, dismissing, or denouncing the white middle class for being the white middle class left behind fertile fields for populist fascisms to take root, it has also set up a facile binary in which “real” resistance always happens “elsewhere” since, presumably, white folks couldn’t possibly have legitimate grievances or want to see the existing system radically transformed. These positions have yielded inertia and defeat despite the fact that present conditions ought to be ideal for radical organizing.

At a moment when so many struggles have been reduced to protecting the right to dissent (e.g. the right to strike and collectively bargain), Thompson also advances an important analysis of the futility of struggles focused on representation which seek to refute the claims of the dominant order rather seeking responses to it. He explores how activist strategies to refute official pronunciations are always limited to the terrain established by power and, as such, are already fundamentally constrained in terms of what they might achieve. Using examples drawn from mainstream media and from statements made by functionaries of the state security apparatus, Thompson demonstrates the impossibility of victory when battles are fought exclusively within the epistemic frame set by one’s opponents.

Issues of radicalized knowledge production, experimentation, and political transformation – at the level of both the subject and the social – echo throughout Black Bloc, White Riot. In a sense, the work can be understood as an attempt to radicalize sociological practice. While this is explicitly addressed in the second chapter, “Direct Action, Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” the entire work can be read as an effort at materializing the production of critical knowledge through concrete experiences of conflict. In this vein, and with an eye toward subverting idealist thinking, Thompson debunks a number of concepts that have become dangerously fetishized in radical discourse. In the third chapter, “Bringing the War Home,” Thompson advances a critique of concepts like “the local” and “the community” which, when abstracted from the material conditions of struggle, actually serve to mystify rather than reveal social realities.

So often absent in dominant discourses about globalization and alternatives to global neoliberal capitalism, the critique Thompson advances insists that we confront the abstract tropes that have colonized and debilitated radical analysis and organizing. This is particularly important for white middle class activists in the wake of the AGM, who, Thompson emphasizes, need to “take our own location – in all of its boring specificity – more seriously” (103).

Issues of subjectivity and liberation from structural violence occupy much of Thompson’s work. Later, he extends his argument about violence and political transformation to an analysis of gender as well. Drawing on a cursory survey of women’s historic involvement in riotous activity, Thompson contends that women’s participation in the Black Bloc constituted not a demand for inclusion but an attempt at the abolition of gender differentiation itself. In the concluding chapters, he elaborates on the possibilities of political transformation that violence allows more broadly. The book ends with the following provocation:

What kind of unbearable energy might accumulate if we did not reply on the cathartic resolution of representational action? If, instead of blowing of steam, violence was presented as an analytic device, as a means of breaking the posited identity between a concept and the thing it represents (if violence was mobilized not in the interest of a physical but rather an intellectual confrontation with the bourgeois world), then it’s possible that those of us engaged in activist struggles could – in some indeterminate future – envision forms of engagement that could transform activism from a mode of representation into a mode of production.

In this way, activists could transform themselves as well. We will know the decisive moment has come when we cease to be followers of causes and become producers of effects instead (169).

This is a snapshot of Thompson’s work at its best – provocative, unflinching, and compelling in its insistence that we consider a politics of the act that is fraught with risk and alive with possibility. At a moment when the resurgent right has seized upon “austerity” as the fulcrum both for a new round of accumulation by dispossession and an ambitious agenda of neoconservative social transformation, Black Bloc, White Riot asks important questions about what we are willing to do to transform ourselves and our social realities.

But while Black Bloc, White Riot is an important work, it is not without its weaknesses. At times, the work relies too much on Thompson’s considerable rhetorical flare. So while the focus is on the materiality of the politics of the act versus the signification of the politics of representation, Thompson’s engagement with the material and the lived is actually rather sparse. This has the effect of making Black Bloc, White Riot more akin to a manifesto than critical analysis. Moreover, by operationalizing violence as “the name of the general principle by which objects are transformed through their relationship to other objects,” Thompson internalizes a problematic and contradictory abstracting principle at the very core of his work (23). This kind of conceptual expansiveness allows Thompson to use acts like breastfeeding and email writing as examples of violence, thus immediately muddying the waters in terms of the substantive area of the work’s analytical scope. Thompson acknowledges the danger of “reducing violence to its basic ontological premise” but contends that it is important to “recognize the violence implicit in mundane and everyday acts” (23). While this is certainly true, one is left to wonder what kind of action could not fall within this rubric. Further, Thompson never really answers why violence is the threshold onto the politically possible – except in the broadest sense of understanding it as the willingness to transform objects and relationships around us – and how it can necessarily move us beyond the representational. Although the line of argumentation is compelling, Thompson’s conceptualization of violence remains abstracted and vague, especially when counter-posed to Black Bloc, White Riot’s overall insistence on the importance of material social realities.

In the end, the issue of the liberatory transformation of subjects through violence is not as easily settled as Thompson seems to contend. First, while the invocation of Fanon and The Wretched of the Earth is rhetorically powerful, the equivalence between anti-colonial struggles and those configured primarily against contemporary dynamics of alienation and exploitation is never convincingly made. And since Fanon’s own work is unapologetically psychoanalytic and evocative rather than rigorously analytical and empirical in nature, the effect at times is one in which one rhetorical move seems to rely on another. Similarly, Thompson casts the Black Bloc and other experiments with violence by the AGM as laboratories for gender abolition without compellingly demonstrating how this might be so. Thompson draws on the history of women’s involvement in a variety of social justice struggles to demonstrate their capacity for confrontational, socially transformative action; however, while these examples point toward something important, they can’t quite bear the weight necessary to support Thompson’s claims in a wholly convincing way. For example, the proximity to violence facilitated by women’s inclusion in state armies has not abolished gender or produced freedom. Nor have even explicitly revolutionary attempts at abolishing conservative gender norms been unequivocal in their achievements. Without descending into essentialism, it’s too easy to see how, in practice, the Black Bloc tended to reinscribe a macho, “manarchist” subjectivity rather than subverting it in favour of something better. This is not to say that it doesn’t offer opportunities for experiments in being otherwise; nevertheless, while it is not cut-and-dried, patriarchal and sexist behaviour remains a clear tendency within avowedly radical spaces. These realities and consequences simply do not merit enough time and attention in Thompson’s work.

Despite these shortcomings, Thompson’s study is a valuable contribution to radical politics today. Black Bloc, White Riot is ultimately a compelling and timely book; it insists that we think not only about critiquing what is, but that we formulate a response that considers what could be. Most important, it asks us what we are willing to do to get there.