‘Black Bloc’, the Radical Left (and the ghost of violence) in the Lopez Obrador Era

A man demonstrates in the capital’s Zócalo during the anniversary of the ´Halconazo´ march, in 2013.

Carlos Illades and Rafael Mondragón publish ‘Radical Lefts in Mexico: Anarchisms and Postmodern Nihilisms’, an essay that attempts to x-ray, understand and demystify the most rebellious social movements

Public Enemy Number One has a covered face, wears black clothing, and carries a backpack in which, as everyone knows, carries glass bottles, gasoline, and wicks ready to set fire to the night. He appears at any protest or march and usually moves in a group with other youths of the same description. He is an agitator, an agent provocateur who seeks to wreak havoc and blow up society as we know it. A shadow that hides between the cracks of the system and waits for the moment to burn everything. Or that is, at least, the diagnosis of the majority press, the political class and public opinion every time a dark constellation of people emerges at a demonstration: Black Bloc, or, as Carlos Illades and Rafael Mondragon prefer to call them, the “hooded ones”.

The latest book of the two academics, ‘Radical Lefts in Mexico: Anarchisms and Postmodern Nihilisms’ (Debate, 2023), tries to shed light on this abstract entity, this threat built from viewpoint of the hegemonic discourse and, instead, tries to understand it. Who shapes politics to the left of the left? What are their demands? Where do they come from? What is their project? The essay is an approach to the most rebellious social movements with hardly any precedents in Mexico. Also a debate, of course, about their practices and forms of action, where the use or rejection of violence is constantly present, that old ghost that has haunted the global left since its genesis.

“The main point,” Mondragón (40) begins one morning in May at the Rosario Castellanos bookstore in Mexico City, “was to situate this set of radical political options more clearly in the context of a country that has spent many years in an informal war, which is also the heir to a dirty war”. A social reality in which, as Illades (63) puts it ironically, “a firecracker doesn´t scare anymore.” The normalization of daily violence —massacres, disappearances, kidnappings, shootings, drug trafficking, militarization— also reaches the spheres of social movements. “There is much less rejection of violence than there was in previous generations,” adds the academic, an expert in the dynamics of the Mexican left and the Dirty War.

‘Obradorism’ vs The Left

The questions that the book tries to raise take on a different aspect in the Mexican context. The president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, seeks to establish himself as a sort of moral beacon for the Latin American left, despite the fact that, for example, his economic policies are inherited from the Europe of Angela Merkel’s austericide or that his migration strategy is based on militarization and containment, measures which are far from the traditional approaches of the left.

MORENA, his party, and the insurrectionary street movements share a social base, the authors explain: the “educated lower and middle classes”, the inhabitants of the outskirts of the cities. However, “Obradorism vindicates the people, but in the form of tutelage, it does not encourage their organization in autonomous terms, while the idea of self-management and autonomy, even if in a more or less diluted form, is very present in the programs of the different anarchisms”, Mondragón qualifies.

“The projects are irreconcilable, but they enter the same field, some through social programs and different aspects of anarchism from different political proposals,” says Illades. “Somehow, MORENA or Obradorism attracted a good part of the left. He literally left everyone else on the sidelines. López Obrador came to power in part because of the social movements. He jumped on a group of movements that went back years. What happened is that when he took power, he split from them. That happens to many on the left, if not all: when they come to power there is a distancing from the movements. The lefts in power do not conceive of the existence of other lefts”, the expert expands.

Establishing the real influence of anarchism at the time of the Fourth Transformation, the name that the leader has given to his political project, is difficult to measure. This in part is due to the decentralized and anonymous character that is part of the movement’s DNA. “By placing them on the margin it gives them presence. It takes space from them, but also gives them a place. Maybe even bigger than the actual strength of the groups. You see what they put out in the media, particularly on television, in any demonstration, and it seems that they are more numerous, more powerful, more uncontrollable,” reflects Illades.

“These groups, and in this they are similar to the President, grow through polarization. In a sense, they do not seek to be integrated, but rather confronted. Every time López Obrador points them out, he reinforces them. It is about capitalizing on discontent rather than building consensus. The vitality that these new anarchisms have in Mexico also responds to a set of contemporary problems that the older Obradorist left has not been able to enter: environmental sensitivity, attention to daily life, the idea that to transform the social world social is to transform your life, feminism, plurality…”, agrees Mondragón.

Action and Reaction

Mexico is a paradox. On the one hand, explains Illades, it is a country without a State. “A series of services and basic conditions are missing,” he explains. On the other, it is an authoritarian state, whose presence in its most humble areas is often through the security forces. And, as with Newton’s laws, basic principles of classical mechanics, explain, every action has a reaction. Mondragón gives an example:

“Around the same time that the bases for the industrialization of Mexico were being built, the doctrine of ´Mexicanisms´ was created, a violent and exclusive nationalism that implied the cult of the family, of parents. At the same time, the grandparents and great-grandparents of these hooded youths were confined to the factories. They were not the object of state discourse, they had to be disciplined to work massively and brutally. They created the political culture of which the hooded youths are heirs: the gangs, a culture of resistance against this disciplinary action that also had as its counterpart the image of the dangerous young man who later appeared in the movies, a whole popular culture made for the criminalization of young people that articulated the action of the police in the first suburbs, which was very brutal.”

Young people began to rebel against the realities of inequality, against life on the margins to which they had been banished. They developed their own political culture, their forms of association and coexistence. Also their ways of defending themselves from external aggressions. The punk movements that gained strength in Mexico in the 1980s were the cause of much of this openness, the academics point out. Many of them were descendants of rural migrants, often indigenous, who came to the cities fleeing the misery of the countryside. They were the first generations of their families to go to college. “They managed to break with the symbolic confinement in the neighborhoods and claim the right to the world, to cosmopolitanism. With this bohemian practice of living in the city, of walking, the night, these moving encounters that also imply an attempt at intellectual training and a symbolic exit from the ghetto, to appropriate the world that the right and the elites had for themselves”.

Violence became another way of attacking the symbols of the same power that had condemned them to poverty. When television broadcasts a confrontation between the police and protesters in the Zócalo, Illades explains, what we are seeing, to a certain extent, is a reaction against the daily dynamics that they suffer in their neighborhoods, transferred to a more media space: “Their relationship with the police is on the periphery, it is with the patrol, with extortion, that the agents do not come to help or help people”. “These other groups feel that conflict and violence are the same and that it is about building a conflict that helps to break the perpetuation of the social machinery. But along the way, that idea is lost and any violent act ends up being justified due to its presumed liberating nature”, adds Mondragón.

The strategy of the Black Blocs, of those hooded youths in black who opt for direct action and violence against the symbols of capitalist economic and political power, was born at the end of the 70s in Germany. It spread throughout Europe and at the end of the 90s it became global, paradoxically, in the massive protests against globalization that took to the streets of Seattle, Genoa, Los Angeles or Mexico City itself. The criminalization grew, sponsored by the press, and was strengthened under the paradigm of security policies in recent years. “Historically, the left has been seen as a danger,” says Mondragón.

And Illades summarizes the leitmotif of the book, the key question that functions as a subtext for his x-ray of Mexican anarchism: “Is it necessary to give preference to these violent forms? Or return to other ways of convoking, of creating community, of creating groups that have more to do with dialogue, agreement and, of course, reflection? The tension between the old discussions of the left: conscience and action, conscience and anger”. Violence, politics, resistance, organization, marginalization, inequality, poverty. The old unresolved debates.

Original article by Alejandro Santos Cid at https://elpais.com/mexico/2023-05-21/el-black-bloc-la-izquierda-radical-y-el-fantasma-de-la-violencia-en-tiempos-de-lopez-obrador.html

Translated by Schools for Chiapas.

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