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«Cross, Jamie J. Anthropology and the Anarchists: Culture, Power, and Practice in Militant Anti-Capitalist Protests Theomai, núm. 7, primer semestre, ...»

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ISSN: 1666-2830


Red Internacional de Estudios sobre Sociedad,

Naturaleza y Desarrollo


Cross, Jamie J.

Anthropology and the Anarchists: Culture, Power, and Practice in Militant Anti-Capitalist Protests

Theomai, núm. 7, primer semestre, 2003, p. 0

Red Internacional de Estudios sobre Sociedad, Naturaleza y Desarrollo

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Available in: http://www.redalyc.org/articulo.oa?id=12400708

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Anthropology and the Anarchists:

Culture, Power, and Practice in Militant Anti-Capitalist Protests Jamie J. Cross * * University of Sussex, United Kingdom. E-mail: jamiejcross@hotmail.com "Tens of thousands of anti-globalisation activists are travelling to Barcelona for the meeting of European Union heads of state and government. The summit, on 15-16 March, will be the first such meeting since the summit in Genoa, which saw the worst rioting in western Europe for decades…Spanish police are determined to prevent any breakdown in law and order and have focused on anarchist groups…Since Genoa, anarchist protests have been labelled potentially terrorist activities in the EU... at least 1,000 protesters from ‘Black block’ groups will be attending the protests…Unlike the vast majority of peaceful protesters, Black block activists use violence to achieve their ends." ("British Protesters Flock to Summit" in The Observer, March 10th 2002) In the early evening of Saturday March 16th, six days after this article was published in a British Sunday newspaper, somewhere between 300 and 600 thousand people gathered in Place de Catalunya, in the commercial centre of Barcelona. This was the culmination of a week of meetings, film showings, debates and demonstrations in the city, called by the Campanya Contra L Europa del Capital e Guerre (Campaign Against Europe of Capital and War). The events had drawn individuals and groups from across Europe whose heterogeneous political priorities and economic visions continue to be amalgamated, sanitised and popularised by mainstream media outlets as ‘anti-globalisation’. A communiqué from the Campaign, however, described this final gathering as "the biggest demonstration of the social movements in favour of another type of globalisation" (IMCb 2002).

On the corner of Ronda Universitat and Passeig de Gracia a massed crowd waited for more than an hour to move forwards. In this, one of six sections to the demonstration, banners, flags, and sashes identified people as Spanish trade unionists, Catalyan nationalists, anti-war or environmental campaigners. On one section of the pavement demonstrators dressed in an array of black clothes began to converge. Many had covered or now began to cover their faces in scarves or hoods. Several black rectangular flags appeared, held low above heads in this portion of the crowd. A number of placards displayed an circled A, an anarchist symbol. This was the ‘Black block’, comprising people who advocate a militant anti-capitalist politics. At around 7:00pm the mass of people began to walk, slowly at first, towards Placa Urquinaona.

A variety of activists and academics have recently drawn attention to the characteristics of militant activists within what is popularly, but problematically, described as the ‘antiglobalisation movement’. They claim a contemporary resurgence, in motivations and actions, of ‘anarchism’ as a potent political force. With reference to this eclectic material, my intentions are threefold. Firstly, to engage with the cultural processes that are embedded within the political statements and actions of militant activists; secondly, to use these activists as a lens through which to view the interplay of knowledge and power in political practices; and thirdly, to reconcile this discussion with an ongoing interest in social movements as the bearers of progressive, counter-hegemonic, alternatives to ‘development’. The events in Barcelona provide a point of entry and a frame of reference for this paper.



My role in Barcelona was more than that of demonstrator, which loosely defines anyone who takes part in a demonstration, but less than that of an activist, one who has a policy of vigourous action in a cause. My participation must register me as a protestor, in that my very presence and contribution was that of one who makes a statement of dissent or disapproval.

Yet, there was some duplexity to my positioning (1). I also approached this role as an anthropologist. An ethnographic engagement with militant activists requires a deliberate distancing; stepping back from their criminalisation and pathological representation, as well as from their glorification and valorization. This paper is also intended as a tentative step in this uneasy and hesitant task, and I suggest dimensions of enquiry that can add to a ‘deeper’ understanding of collective political practice.

Globalising Protest

Protests directed at multilateral economic institutions and supra-national governance structures are animated by the human and environmental costs that have accompanied a structural transformation of the global economy; specifically the expansion of deregulating and liberalizing market reforms across three geopolitical worlds (third, second and first). The protests address specific institutions, their structure, decision-making procedures, and the "content of their policies," (O’Brian et al. 2000: p2). In recent history, the metropolitan meetings of the World Trade Organisation, the Group of Eight Industrialised Countries, and the European Union have acted as points of convergence for people of a similar disposition: ‘movement’ activists They recognise a definite commonality of interest among disparate protest groups; a commonality that they insist must in some way be seen as a collective contestation of the form (gestalt) in which ‘globalisation’ has manifested itself; for them, this is a tangible ‘movement’. While some people countenance the anti-globalisation epithet, for its communicability, others employ alternatives. Tadzio Mueller (2002), for example, names it the ‘globalisation critical movement’.

For many social analysts the character of this contemporary mobilisation can be distinguished as a ‘trans-national movement’ (cf. Ratner 1997), in recognition of the commonalities and connections between territorially located groups or organizations that were previously seen as separate (2). However, Michael Hardt has recently put grandiloquent claims of international solidarity in their place, recognising that the networks comprising this ‘movement’ are largely confined to the north Atlantic. He describes the 2002 World Social Forum in Porto-Alegre which took place as the World Economic Forum met in Washington, for example, as a "predominantly white event": "There were relatively few participants from Africa and Asia and the racial differences of the Americas were dramatically underrepresented," (p122).

Actions attributed to a Black block of demonstrators during protests in Prague during the 55th annual meeting of the World Bank Group and the board of Governors of the International Monetary Fund, September 2000; in Gothenburg during the EU summit, June 2001; and in Genoa during the meeting of the G8, July 2001 have drawn particularly wide media attention.

During these events the destruction of property did much to agitate politicians, generate popular stereotypes among non-participants about the opponents of globalisation, and spark debate amongst ‘movement activists (3).

The emphasis that an individuals’ protest takes is clearly contingent upon their political positioning. Michael Hardt has classified two dominant stances within the ‘movement’. The first takes neo-liberalism as the primary analytical category; with unrestricted capitalist activity and weak nation state controls as the enemy (Hardt 2002: p114). The second posits Capital itself as both principal analytical catagory and nemesis. This position rejects reforms at the level of the nation state and pursues a democratic globalisation (ibid). Here the implications of capitalist penetration are construed as more than modernity’s failed promises (Bauman 1995). In this inverted teleology, the power of capital is exercised on subjects in ever more innovative ways.

Thereby necessitating contests that Hardt and Negri have characterised as "bio-political struggles, struggles over the form of life," (Hardt and Negri 2001a: p56).



The claims, demands and actions of activists attracted to the Black block may be incontrovertibly placed within this frame.

"I went to Genoa because I am against capitalism – let’s name the beast: capitalism. I went to Genoa because I believe that capitalism hasn’t and can’t meet our needs and is a social system that condemns the vast majority of people to stunted and unfulfilled lives despite our best efforts…" (Jazz 2001: p80) These Activists are also predominantly white; a demographic attested too in ironic statements by militant activists themselves: "The anti-capitalist fight has certainly steeped up a notch (concerning Western activist summit hopping)," (S. 2001: p17). And the more militant among them are deemed to come from European countries with a pronounced history of militant Leftwing activity, Germany, Italy and Spain. "The Black Block is primarily a European situation, we don’t have one in this country [the UK] for which I am personally glad…[but] I knew that I wanted to physically confront the state and I believed the Black Block was the best tool for that purpose" (Jazz 2001: p87).

Thus, the Black block has different connotations for different groups of people. For external observers and demonstrators, it is a convenient noun that identifies a militant group of people within the broad based ‘anti-globalisation movement’. For ‘movement’ activists, it connotes not an association or organisation but a tactic: an uncoordinated but collective means of confrontational or direct action against property and police, understood respectively as symbols of capital and the state. For individuals who engage in such actions it is also a means of identification, a noun that can be substituted for the collective pronoun ‘we’.

Anarchism, Anarchists, and Academics

The narrative histories of people who identify themselves with the Black block trace its emergence to protests that accompanied the meeting of the World Trade Organisation in Seattle, November 1999. Here, people who engaged in direct action against property dressed in black to make their identification by police more difficult. However, the Black block is considered more than an epiphenomenon. It is not simply the by-product of mass gatherings between likeminded protestors but the practice of a historically rooted politics: that of Anarchism. Anarchism can be best understood not as a doctrine but as a practice. The total rejection of hierarchical social organisation, of leadership and of government, as a means of practicing and thus constructing human relationships based on equality and liberty (4).

Activists who identify themselves with the Black block also identify themselves overtly as Anarchists. This identification can be recognised in the semiotic domain of knowledge (in rhetorical statements that are spoken or written; in the black flags or circled As that communicate their position to others) and the embodied (in the practical refusal of hierarchies, and the physical assertion of the freedom of the individual) (5). As one activist, writing after

Genoa, has put it:

"What the NGOs and Marxist Leninist / Maoist Groups don’t understand is that we want freedom from all forms of domination and oppression, including organisations that want to think and act on our behalf," (Starhawk 2001: p128) Two recent papers are helpful in outlining this contemporary manifestation of Anarchism, and understanding how its analysis fits within a wider academic debate on ‘social movements’(6).

In an enquiry into the ‘anti-globalisation movement’ Barbara Epstein (2001) has described the political emphases prevalent among militant activists. "The intellectual/philosophical perspective that holds sway in these circles might be better described as an anarchist sensibility rather than anarchism per se," (Epstein 2001: p8). This is not, she is at pains to explain, an ideological UNIVERSIDAD NACIONAL DE QUILMES / BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA / ISSN 1515-6443


commitment to classical Anarchism as a blueprint for change. Rather, this is a resurgence of principles that emerge from a particular tradition and are orientated towards certain goals.

Epstein identifies core four components: an insistence on equality and democracy; an insistence that radical politics need not be dreary; an insistence on principle rather than political expediency; and the practical implementation of these values in group creation and organization (ibid).

The anthropologist David Graeber (2002) has begun to document the practical implementation of these values by Anarchist activists. In terms of organisational characteristics and

confrontational tactics he is clear that contemporary practices have a distinct political heritage:

"It is about creating and enacting horizontal networks instead of top-down structures like states, parties, or corporations, networks based on principles of decentralised, non-hierarchical consensus democracy," (Graeber 2002: p70).

"The very notion of direct action, with its rejection of politics which appeals to government to modify their behaviour, in favour of physical intervention against state power in a form that itself prefigures an alternative - all this emerges directly from the libertarian tradition," (ibid: p62).

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