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September 9, 2010

Toronto and the G20: Politics of Protest

SS Editorial

G20: Toronto

In the last year - at the Vancouver Winter Olympics, in the firebombing of an Ottawa bank branch, and at the Toronto anti-G20 protests - activists have been confronted by the direct action tactics of anarchist Black Bloc members that have legitimized state violence (from surveillance to rubber bullets and mass arrests) against anti-capitalist resistance movements.

What do we make of a political current that is anti-system but embodies the contradictory effects of exposing the exploitative and oppressive character of class society by dramatic acts with potentially mass demobilizing effects?

Post-Leftist Anarchism Today

Anarchism historically developed as a response by small producers, of peasants and artisans, to the ruinous effects of early capitalism. In the name of individual self-determination, and against all forms of authority, anarchism attempted to develop paths back to an idealized autonomous past, whether in the name of class (anarcho-syndicalism) or community.

That dual tradition, however, collapsed in the 1930s in the face of global economic crisis and war. The great test was the revolutionary crisis in Spain. Spanish anarchists either abstained, as in Catalonia, or adapted, as the national movement did in joining the Madrid bourgeois Republican government. But the Republican government crushed autonomous anarchist worker and peasants collectives in a vain effort to stave off counter-revolution. Avoiding the question of state power, whether in the name of creating counter-communities or trade unions, was a disaster.

Today’s anarchism, in the name of revolutionary individual self determination on the basis of fighting the many forms of oppression such as class, gender, nation, etc., expresses a new social reality, the alienation of youth from a suburban culture in an increasingly insecure economy where the balance of class forces has shifted towards employers - and against working class organization and struggle. In this context, of a growing awareness about global injustice, but without significant working class resistance, remaking one’s self - in image and symbolic action - are powerful attractive forces to the anarchist label.

But what lies behind the label? In Canadian terms, there are essentially two tendencies: anarchism by deed and post-leftism; and a problematic context: social movement liberalism.

Anarchism by deed, or Black bloc actions, is the most visible face of the anarchist tendency. Vandalizing property, from smashing store windows, to burning police cars, to firebombing banks are dramatic statements meant to expose the hypocrisy, self interest, and violent nature of elites like the G20 meeting to stabilize global capitalism. And, less visible, prefigurative alternative lifestyles like squats complement these actions as the revolutionary future.

Post-Leftism, of which the attack on the left emagazine and Judy Rebick, a longstanding feminist leader, is an illustration, attempts to theorize this politics. It describes anarchism as the politics of the 21st century - with socialism an historically obsolete tradition - by analyzing the world as a collection of individuated oppressed groups who will liberate themselves alongside capitalist power relations by opening up new spaces through these dramatic actions.

What facilitates this new expression of communitarian anarchism is the dominant liberal milieu in today’s social movements. In the name of equality, all tendencies have a right to express themselves, however much many may even disagree with the philosophy and actions of post-leftist, black bloc anarchists.

Building Mass Movements not Parallel Spaces

However, there can be no abstract equality of tactics in the struggle against exploitation and oppression if one begins to understand the unequal class nature of the market, with employers over workers, and the power of the capitalist state that enforces exploitation at the point of production and promotes oppressive inequality throughout society.

If this is our understanding of the social reality we are confronting, that it is one unified and alienated space for the vast majority, then building the largest number of people to maximize exposure and pressure on market elites is critical.

Building social movements in the name of an abstract equality - but against concrete social forces - allows post-left anarchists to hijack mass mobilizing efforts as a platform for minority actions inviting state repression - and demobilizing mass protest.

There are times when direct action, whether defensive or offensive (such as Vancouver’s homeless tent city), is required to build and carry forward a mass movement. But this is a tactical, not philosophical, question in forcing concessions and educating large numbers of people that struggle for a better future is possible.

Criticizing Canada’s post-left anarchist tendency today is not the last word on anarchism. In far more difficult circumstances, in Latin America and South Africa, there are anarchists who build workers’ organization and activity in extremely difficult circumstances. Understandably, in political conditions where authoritarian Stalinism has dominated socialist practice, resistance activists are drawn to what appears to be a liberationist alternative. But there is still the question of state power.

In Canada, though, we have to come to grips with the basic question of class power.