To demonize state authoritarianism while ignoring identical albeit contract-consecrated subservient arrangements in the large-scale corporations which control the world economy is fetishism at its worst ... Your foreman or supervisor gives you more or-else orders in a week than the police do in a decade.— Bob Black, The Libertarian As Conservative, 1984
Black graduated from the University of Michigan and Georgetown Law School. He later took M.A. degrees in jurisprudence and social policy from the University of California (Berkeley), Criminal justice from the State University of New York (SUNY) at Albany, and an LL.M in Criminal law from the SUNY Buffalo School of Law. During his college days (1969–1973) he became disillusioned with the New Left of the 1970s and undertook extensive readings in anarchism, utopian socialism, council communism, and other left tendencies critical of both Marxism–Leninism and social democracy. He found some of these sources at the Labadie Collection at the University of Michigan, a major collection of radical, labor, socialist, and anarchist materials which is now the repository for Black's papers and correspondence. He was soon drawn to Situationist thought, egoist communism, and the anti-authoritarian analyses of John Zerzan and the Detroit magazine Fifth Estate. He produced a series of ironic political posters signed "The Last International", first in Ann Arbor, Michigan, then in San Francisco where he moved in 1978. In the Bay Area he became involved with the publishing and cultural underground, writing reviews and critiques of what he called the "marginals milieu." Since 1988 he has lived in upstate New York.
Some of his work from the early 1980s includes (anthologized in The Abolition of Work and Other Essays) highlights his critiques of the nuclear freeze movement ("Anti-Nuclear Terror"), the editors of Processed World ("Circle A Deceit: A Review of Processed World"), radical feminists ("Feminism as Fascism"), and right wing libertarians ("The Libertarian As Conservative"). Some of these essays previously appeared in "San Francisco's Appeal to Reason" (1981–1984), a leftist and counter-cultural tabloid newspaper for which Black wrote a column.
Black is best known for a 1985 essay, "The Abolition of Work," which has been widely reprinted and translated into at least thirteen languages (most recently, Urdu). In it he argued that work is a fundamental source of domination, comparable to capitalism and the state, which should be transformed into voluntary "productive play." Black acknowledged among his inspirations the French utopian socialist Charles Fourier, the British utopian socialist william Morris, the Russian anarcho-communist Peter Kropotkin, and the Situationists. The Abolition of Work and Other Essays, published by Loompanics in 1986, included, along with the title essay, some of his short Last International texts, and some essays and reviews reprinted from his column in "San Francisco's Appeal to Reason," a leftist and counter-cultural tabloid published from 1980 to 1984.
The Abolition of Work and Other Essays (1986), draws upon some ideas of the Situationist International, the utopian socialists Charles Fourier and william Morris, anarchists such as Paul Goodman, and anthropologists such as Richard Borshay Lee and Marshall Sahlins. Black criticizes work for its compulsion, and, in industrial society, for taking the form of "jobs"—the restriction of the worker to a single limited task, usually one which involves no creativity and often no skill. Black's alternative is the elimination of what william Morris called "useless toil" and the transformation of useful work into "productive play," with opportunities to participate in a variety of useful yet intrinsically enjoyable activities, as proposed by Charles Fourier. Beneath the Underground (1992) is a collection of texts relating to what Black calls the "marginals milieu"—the do-it-yourself zine subculture which flourished in the 80s and early 90s. Friendly Fire (1992) is, like Black's first book, an eclectic collection touching on many topics including the Art Strike, Nietzsche, the first Gulf War and the Dial-a-Rumor telephone project he conducted with Zack Replica (1981–1983).
Defacing the Currency: Selected Writings, 1992–2012 was published by Little Black Cart Press in 2013. It includes a lengthy (113 pages), previously unpublished critique of Noam Chomsky, "Chomsky on the Nod." A similar collection has been published, in Russian translation, by Hylaea Books in Moscow. Black's most recent book, also from LBC Books, is Instead of Work, which collects "The Abolition of Work" and seven other previously published texts, with a lengthy new update, "Afterthoughts on the Abolition of Work." The introduction is by science fiction Writer Bruce Sterling.
Since 2000, Black has focused on topics reflecting his education and reading in the sociology and the ethnography of law, resulting in writings often published in Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed. His recent interests have included the anarchist implications of dispute resolution institutions in stateless primitive societies (arguing that mediation, arbitration, etc., cannot feasibly be annexed to the U.S. Criminal justice system, because they presuppose anarchism and a relative social equality not found in state/class societies). At the 2011 annual B.A.S.T.A.R.D. anarchist conference in Berkeley, California, Black presented a workshop where he argued that, in society as it is, crime can be an anarchist method of social control, especially for people systematically neglected by the legal system. An article based on this presentation appeared in Anarchy magazine and in his 2013 book, Defacing the Currency: Selected Writings, 1992–2012.
Black has expressed an interest, which grew out of his polemics with Bookchin, in the relation of democracy to anarchism. For Bookchin, democracy—the "direct democracy" of face-to-face assemblies of citizens—is anarchism. Some contemporary anarchists agree, including the academics Cindy Milstein, David Graeber, and Peter Staudenmeier. Black, however, has always rejected the idea that democracy (direct or representative) is anarchist. He made this argument at a presentation at the Long Haul Bookshop (in Berkeley) in 2008. In 2011, C.A.L. Press published as a pamphlet Debunking Democracy, elaborating on the speech and providing citation support. This too is reprinted in Defacing the Currency.