Originally published in May 2011.
So that was it. We had ‘our’ moment, ‘our’ J18. March 26th was the day that the emerging anti-austerity movement had been waiting for, and there were certainly parallels (both political and aesthetic) to the heydays of the ‘movement of movements’, as little as 10 years ago, when black-clad anarchists turned their backs on the marches of global justice coalitions to smash the windows of McDonald’s, Starbucks and luxury hotels.
After Millbank, nobody knew what was going to come next, but could it have been predicted that we’d return to the aesthetics of the black bloc? After Millbank, despite the escalated forms of action that took place, the distinctions of good protester/bad protester, anarchist/liberal, student/worker were hard to uphold. But what did the smashing of the Ritz, on March 26th, amongst other ‘symbols’ of capitalism/wealth, signify?
Smashing up Oxford Street and the militant forms of ‘action’ that took place on the day no doubt felt exciting, a break from several things - passive marching, respect for private property, obedience to the law etc. And in this way they can certainly be experienced as transgressive - revolutionary even - a ’step up’ from the traditional lobby, march, go home format. This was the first time that you could seriously talk of a black bloc in the UK. Spontaneous and presumably unplanned, this did not hamper the unravelling of events once people got to the West End/Soho: surrounded by the symbols of wealth and capital, energy high, the city became an outlet for the frustration of the workers, students and unemployed who took part. However, although there were elements which felt like markers of progress on the day - the levels of militancy, the amounts of students still active since the education protests and the unquestionable antagonism toward the current political/economic system - there were also familiar flaws and potentials which weren’t taken advantage of.
While the black bloc was vanguard in its form of action (we mean this both in a negative and a positive sense: negative in its separatism and scorn towards public sector workers on the demo; positive in its move to create a discursive space outside of the sanctioned and sanitised world of Barber, Miliband & Co), its content was a shameless and at times embarrassing political patchwork borrowed from the much more articulate UK Uncut and from social democratic populism dressed up as ‘class war’. Black bloc tactics are an important strategy to protect ourselves and to maintain the same anonymity that the authorities use to protect corporations, the police, etc. But a strategic focus on tactics should come hand-in-hand with a political strategy and analysis. At a time when the discourse of the anti-globalisation left makes sense, with the political/economic system blown open and exposed for what it really is, how do these forms of action make use of this opportunity and resonate with those outside of the militant activist ‘ghetto’?
But then again, the UK Uncut message, however media friendly and attractive it may seem is also deeply flawed. By focusing on tax evasion we run the risk of supporting the legitimacy of the state and hiding the inherent inequality of capitalism beneath calls for fairness (‘we pay our taxes, why don’t you’). Attempts at trying to match up this ‘lost money’ with the budget cuts also serves to mask the political element of the cuts behind simple, technocratic solutions.
For many anarchists and anti-capitalists there was a strong ‘get rid of the rich’ message. Whilst this might be a first step toward a class analysis we must be careful with anti-rich politics. Millionaires are not the same as the bourgeoisie. From many anarchists there was a peculiar combination of ’smash the state’ but also calls to ‘tax the rich’ (presumably a call to increase income tax, inheritance tax, taxation of financial transactions, and similar). While no-one was arguing for austerity, no-one really seemed to be making the case for ‘luxury for all’ either. Arguments that placed capitalism at blame, structurally, for blocking universal prosperity, were lacking. The ‘anarchist’ alternative seemed to rely almost entirely on the redistribution of wealth, rather than on the argument that there is no distribution without production, and that it is this sphere of work that we have to address to really provide a class struggle alternative and an alternative to the attacks on our quality of life.
Whether we were smashing windows, occupying Fortnum and Mason’s or marching on the main demonstration, there is clearly a concern here that we are separating ourselves off, giving ourselves a very distinct identity from each other, from ‘ordinary people’. Contrary to Millbank and Dec 9th, where even Cameron admitted that a majority of people were making trouble, March 26th saw the dusting off of the traditional protest narratives of the violent minority. So if there’s a group of maybe a few thousand annoying the cops in Piccadilly/Trafalgar Sq. while 300,000 are listening to speeches by the Labour leader, there’s clearly the question of how we relate to wider struggle against cuts, especially those of the public sector workers present. This will be a key task in the coming months - one which is, unfortunately, much harder than breaking a plate glass window.