- Autonomy, Refusal, and the Black Bloc: Positioning Class Analysis in Critical and Radical Theory by Robert F. Carley
Since its emergence in the 1980s, the Black Bloc has been a controversial practice within left anticapitalist social movements worldwide. When radicals collectively obscure their identities and take to the streets in black clothing in militant unison, welcoming all manner of confrontation with state and commercial institutions, they draw criticism from across the political spectrum. Liberals and conservatives denounce the tactic as inherently violent. Some leftists see it as misguided. In the United States, it is commonly associated with the antiglobalization movement and antifascist organizing. Some scholars, often those allied with the leftist currents associated with the Black Bloc, have sought to defend the practice. Robert F. Carley's Autonomy, Refusal, and the Black Bloc: Positioning Class Analysis in Critical and Radical Theory steps into this conversation. Via close readings in the history of critical and radical theory, mostly the work of Herbert Marcuse and Antonio Negri, he identifies the Black Bloc as an expression of contemporary class struggle, demonstrating the necessity of class analysis in the study of social movements and theoretically legitimizing the Black Bloc tactic. It is a valuable scholarly contribution and a generative political intervention for academics and activists alike.
Most of Carley's work focuses on developing a theoretical framework for understanding the Black Bloc. He opens with the question of class's analytical potential. His theoretical point of departure is what Marcuse termed the "Great Refusal" underpinning the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, none of which were organized around the industrial proletariat. Such movements expressed a radical break from the contemporary order by those excluded from industrial production, such as racial minorities and the unemployed. [End Page 167] For various currents of post-Marxism, the Refusal's ascendance and the world's changing political-economic terrain signaled the anachronism of class analyses. Carley argues otherwise in this first chapter, suggesting that Marcuse's and Negri's works clarify how the protest tradition the "Great Refusal" inaugurated was a form of class politics insofar as it and its form of political organization emerged out of new class relations, meaning it was less of a break than conventionally thought. Carley's second and third chapters explicate the theoretical "through line" between mass actions of the past and the irruption of Black Bloc activity today. He details how creative and self-generated organizing by subaltern groups can function within political organizations as vehicles of democratic practice. Next, he considers how Marcuse's later writings prefigured social movements against neoliberal hegemony in their attention to culture, protest, and changing class dynamics.
Carley's fourth chapter uses the theoretical apparatus developed in the previous three to engage with the publications of groups that made use of the Black Bloc tactic between 1999 and 2001. He demonstrates how the Black Bloc tactic is theorized by participants in terms of political ideology, strategy, and organization, marking an autonomous mode of action and critique responding to the exigencies of class struggle in the age of neoliberal austerity. Emerging from the ground up, it expresses a model of collective action rooted in contemporary class relations conducive to novel forms of political consciousness. Herein lies its value: for Carley, the Black Bloc renders concrete the possibilities of radical transformation appropriate to the current era in terms consonant with traditions of radical and critical theory.
Autonomy, Refusal, and the Black Bloc is significant in two respects. First, it is an intervention in debates about the Black Bloc's value and function, productively building upon books like A. K. Thompson's Black Bloc, White Riot: Antiglobalization and the Genealogy of Dissent (2010).1 Second, it adds to ongoing debates about class. It sits comfortably alongside Joshua Clover's Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings (2016) and Tithi Bhattacharya's edited collection, Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression (2017).2 Such works grapple with the current...