The “Occupy Wall Street” movement, inspired by the Arab Spring revolutions, has rapidly and creatively established its own organizational style for the protests, relying on town meeting, rough consensus, democratic decision making and nonviolence. Their tactics and objectives have grown more aggressive, especially in Oakland, with a general strike and closure of the port. However, in Oakland there was extensive property damage by people in black masks, described as anarchists. This “black bloc” was disavowed by many who are associated with the Occupy movement or support it, and it is clear that they were an “autonomous” group separate from the Oakland General Assembly.
First, anarchists. Anarchists are people who reject both government and capitalism. The anarchist position is that all relations of domination and submission must be eliminated. They argue that capitalism, with its absentee property, corporations and legal enforcement of contracts, cannot exist without a very strong government. Thus, they see themselves as the real libertarians, and they see pro-capitalist free market “libertarians” as utopian at best. (For what it is worth, I agree with them on that point. In any case, left-wing anarchists have called themselves “libertarians” since the 1850s, while the right wing only began to use that word in the 1960s.)
In the 19th century, anarchists attempted and carried out assassinations as a political tactic, but in the 20th century, they mostly rejected that tactic. For example, Alexander Berkman attempted to assassinate Henry Clay Frick but later rejected violence. He explained the turn away from violence in his book, “What is Communist Anarchism?” But anarchists also reject majority rule as the domination of minorities by the majority, and this makes it difficult to say anything very general about anarchist ideas on violence. Some are extreme pacifists. Nevertheless, many modern anarchists are comfortable with property damage as a tactic against capitalism because “property is theft.”
Now, the black bloc. Anarchists often carry black flags, presumably because black is the color of nothingness. For some decades, demonstrations against corporations and globalization have often included groups in black clothing and masks who attack property with fast movement from one target to another. These are black blocs. According to sympathetic sources, a black bloc is not a group but a tactic that may include non-anarchists. The masks are intended to prevent the police from singling out individuals as guilty of property damage. The objective of black bloc tactics is to escalate conflict and radicalize demonstrations by provoking police retaliation.
Anarchists among the black bloc do not feel bound by positions of the general assembly in the various cities, just as they would not feel bound by any governmental process. But this illustrates a key problem for the Occupy movement. Nonviolent direct action requires a high level of discipline. Successful nonviolent movements have often relied on a charismatic leader, such as Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. This seems contrary to the emerging ethos of the Occupy movement. Like anarchists, it seems, the Occupy movement rejects leadership on principle. What is clear, though, is that in the United States (as in Libya and Syria) the structures of domination are more complex and resilient than they were in Tunisia and Egypt. In the face of this sophisticated power structure, the Occupy movement will continue to change. Time will show us how.
Roger McCain is a professor of economics. He can be reached at email@example.com.