The Politics of the Mask

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A Socialist Project e-bulletin ... No. 2129 ... June 22, 2020
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The Politics of the Mask

AK Thompson and Clare O'Connor

The years since Donald Trump’s election have been marked by a resurgence of violent street-level political confrontations. Fascists and their opponents have squared off in numerous cities, while recent protests against racist police violence have grown into a powerful movement. Cities across the country are now in open rebellion.

This new political instability coincides with the tenth anniversary of the publication of critical theorist AK Thompson’s Black Bloc, White Riot: Anti-Globalization and the Genealogy of Dissent (2010), which advanced a provocative thesis regarding the intimate bond between political violence and the white middle class. In Thompson’s account, the black bloc -- a demonstration tactic in which masks and sartorial uniformity are used to facilitate participation in confrontational skirmishes -- was both seductive and disquieting to white middle-class audiences because it forced them to confront the limits of their own political efficacy. Today, as activists confront the question of violence once again -- and COVID-19 universally necessitates the wearing of masks in public -- the... polarizing debates that inspired the book have reignited, and Thompson’s analysis has implications that reach far beyond the case study that prompted it.

In this interview, I push Thompson to clarify his positions and extend his analysis to consider the forms of street-level political violence we confront today.

— Clare O’Connor

Clare O’Connor (CO): Masks have long figured in the wardrobes of political dissidents. How does the political significance of masks change when they have become part of daily life?

AK Thompson (AKT): From the Boston Tea Party to the current pandemic, public mask-wearing in the United States has tended to coincide with moments of political rupture. The emergence of the black bloc during protests against corporate globalization at the turn of the century, and the rise of Anonymous during the Occupy movement, should also be conceived of in these terms. When considered from the standpoint of their participants’ political aims, each of these episodes seems quite different. What connects them is the fact that, in each case, masks appear at the very moment when people begin struggling to transform their relationship to the state.

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