The Symptom of a Crisis

The Symptom of a Crisis

R. Zwarg: Symptom of a Crisis

The Coming Insurrection
By The Invisible Committee
Semiotext(e), 2009

POLITICAL PAMPHLETS have become rare. They were the intellectual weapon of choice when times demanded an immediate political intervention, and when literacy was on the rise. Rather than a carefully crafted theoretical treatise, the pamphlet was short, poignant, and comprehensible to all. Today, a Thomas Paine or an Émile Zola is scarcely to be found. One could look to blogs as a contemporary surrogate, but the sheer amount of writing floating around in cyberspace and the increasingly diminished attention span of readers renders them less politically potent than pamphlets past.

The Coming Insurrection aims to take up the pamphlet tradition. The original was authored by an anonymous “Invisible Committee” and published in France in 2008. Both the original and the 2009 English translation have received considerable attention from the media and within the radical Left. Much of this attention was due to the ninety-page book’s political context: it became a piece of evidence in a trial against nine French activists. Today, just over a year after the publication of the English version, we can better ask what the content, style, and success of The Coming Insurrection says about the state of the post-Marxist Western Left, in theory and in practice.

Between Apocalypse and Organization
The Coming Insurrection begins with an apocalyptic vision of the global state of affairs. The chapters of the first part are a number of “circles” reminiscent of the circles in Dante’s Inferno, which the authors find to be an appropriate analogue for the capitalist status quo. The tone set throughout these pages is prophetic: “Everyone agrees. It’s about to explode.” The Committee points to a number of recent events to justify this crisis narrative: the massive demonstrations in Greece, the French banlieue riots, the federal mismanagement of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath on the Gulf Coast, and the economic crisis beginning in 2007. None of these events is truly analyzed; they are rather placed in a broad narrative as indicators that something is going on. The Coming Insurrection makes no argument about the role crises play in modern society, or how they can form an essential part of the supposed “normal” course of things, as Marx did when analyzing the cleansing and restabilizing effects of economic crisis. The book operates on the assumption that everything is connected to everything else, yet never explains how the above phenomena are interdependent. Instead, we hear of “resonance” between events, a term that, along with so much else in the book, suggests little will to go beyond intuition.

The book is frontloaded with the epiphenomena of crisis. We learn that classical political representation has come to an end. We find a theory of alienation, badly disguised in postmodern vocabulary, and an account of the decomposition of social forms (the family, the couple) as we know them. The reader is told about the transition from the welfare to the workfare state and about the paradoxical character of work and production in a world that could easily reduce the length of the necessary workday. We hear about mounting unrest in global cities and a supposed battle for space between the people and state authorities. We receive an interpretation of urban riots as the reclamation of territory. We learn that the contemporary individual is forced to internalize the rules of the market: “Become economical!” The environment, we’re told, is nothing but a new field in which to employ economic mechanisms, as in the “Green New Deal.” We learn how crucial the notion of “security” is in contemporary politics. And finally, the Invisible Committee announces that the new imperialism is still based solely on interests, now without the concealing convictions about civilization: “Today Western imperialism is the imperialism of relativism…it’s the eye-rolling or the wounded indignation at anyone who’s stupid, primitive, or presumptuous enough to still believe in something, to affirm anything at all.”

The Committee is fascinated with those who “still believe in something,” no matter how fundamentally that something is believed, and no matter what is believed. Disgusted by the shallowness of society, the authors look for true, authentic political practice—particularly practice surrounded by an aura of militancy. Along with vague allusions to political events, The Coming Insurrection employs military metaphors to shape its milleniaristic vision—the idea that out of peril and chaos a global transformation is about to come. “It is no longer a matter of foretelling the collapse or depicting the possibilities of joy. Whether it comes sooner or later, the point is to prepare for it.” The military vocabulary infects the Invisible Committee’s very descriptions of society: “We live under an occupation, under police occupation.” Thus, the resistance to the Empire necessarily has to take violence into consideration, albeit with a final vision of “authentic pacifism”: “There is no such thing as a peaceful insurrection….An authentic pacifism cannot mean refusing weapons, but only refusing to use them. Pacifism without being able to fire a shot is nothing but the theoretical formulation of impotence.”

The last passage of the first section translates this militancy into political necessity: “It’s a fact, and it must be translated into a decision. Facts can be conjured away, but decision is political. To decide on the death of civilization, then to work out how it will happen: only decision will rid us of the corpse.” The second part of The Coming Insurrection gives some positive shape to this “decision,” through the concept of the “commune,” an organizational approach reminiscent of anarchism. The commune is the molecular cell of insurrection and begins at the most individual level, “when people find each other, get on with each other, and decide on a common path.” Again, the direction of that common path remains sketchy, except in the negative: the commune must oppose both work and the state. Their examples of communal planning include the resident-driven reorganization of New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina, the “ingenuity found in slums,” and the cleverness of Islamic parties that gather strength where the state is weak. Everything outside established social forms, beyond production and consumption, acquires the dignity of an emancipatory practice (“Plunder, cultivate, fabricate”), a more authentic way of living made possible by the crises they describe:

What is called “catastrophe” is no more than the forced suspension of this state, one of those rare moments when we regain some sort of presence in the world. Let the petroleum reserves run out earlier than expected; let the international flows that regulate the tempo of the metropolis be interrupted, let us suffer some great social disruption and some great “return to savagery of the population,” a “planetary threat,” the “end of civilization!” Either way, any loss of control would be preferable to all the crisis management scenarios they envision.

However inadequate crisis management is, and however much it strives to reconstitute the maybe less-than-decent status quo ante, celebrating catastrophe as the ultimate revolutionary situation is callous and irresponsible. It would be hard to find a single text that better embodies this logic of “the worse, the better.” Thus, The Coming Insurrection places itself in a tragic tradition in the history of the Left. One wonders whether the Invisible Committee smiles in triumph or shudders in horror at crisis-ridden Pakistan. It is precisely the kind of situation that the Invisible Collective imagines to be potentially revolutionary, with millions of people displaced and in need of food, water, and shelter. But the only “explosion” discernible so far is an ongoing wave of terrorist attacks; the last one, on September 9, killed a dozen people.

Thorough skepticism toward this narrative of crisis would require not only a different analysis of the present, but also an awareness of the past. Yet other than an allusion to the Paris Commune of 1871, The Coming Insurrection is largely ahistorical, firmly focused on the present and the supposed coming rupture. One can roughly deduce that the Second World War constitutes the zero hour for the historical consciousness of the Committee’s writers, yet there is almost no explicit mention of concrete events before the turn of the twenty-first century. While the text puts itself in a communist tradition, it doesn’t deem it necessary to take the history, and failures, of the Left into account. Both its lack of history and its style—few theoretical references that mention names, the rejection of a single author, the oscillation between essayistic and academic prose—suggest that we’re dealing with a truly postmodern pamphlet. But the style disguises politics that are both post-Marxist and anarchist. We find no Marxist historiography, no focus on the working class (or any other privileged social group) as an agent of change, but the fundamental mode of analysis remains economic.

The Book as a Weapon
The commune described in The Coming Insurrection is not merely a theoretical device. On November 11, 2008, nine leftist activists were arrested in Tarnac, France. The activists (among them the alleged author of the book, Julien Coupat) had lived there in an actual commune, planting their own food, running a coop and the local store, organizing themselves and helping the village community. This anti-consumerist, frugal lifestyle seems a concrete expression of the practice that The Coming Insurrection suggests, but these communards weren’t arrested for living outside the mainstream. The Tarnac Nine (as they came to be known) were accused of “criminal association for the purposes of terrorist activity,” specifically participating in the sabotage of overhead electrical lines on Frances’ national railways. The Tarnac Nine soon became the object of a hyperbolic political trial that resonated beyond French borders.

The Coming Insurrection became a piece of evidence in that trial. Criminologist Alain Bauer had stumbled upon it in a bookstore in 2007. He bought forty copies and distributed them to members of the Ministry of the Interior, warning them of the looming danger of “ultra left” activists. It seems to have been either a sheer overestimation of the influence of the book or a blatant lack of evidence that made the French officials render The Coming Insurrection, which they termed a “manual for terrorism,” a central piece of evidence in the trial of the Tarnac Nine (considering that other evidence was rather meager). However, it’s likely that the last pages of the text, where the Committee specifically discusses violence, and other passages explicitly encouraging sabotage as a political act, caught the attention of the officials.

When the book became a piece of evidence in the trial, Eric Hazan, publisher of The Coming Insurrection and friend of Coupat’s, refused to give up information as to who was behind the author collective. There was also widespread support by intellectuals like Giorgio Agamben and Luc Boltanski, as well as a petition signed by Badiou, Judith Butler, Jacques Rancière and Slavoj Žižek. Their defense was in the end unnecessary. In a dubious trial involving mysterious witnesses, illegally obtained information, and related investigations in Germany, the book was not very helpful. Julian Coupat was the last of the accused to be released, in May 2009. The trial, based on thin evidence, bespoke the exaggerated reaction of a nervous French state.

The Politics of Postmodern Times
The New York Times ran an article about an unscheduled reading of the book at a Barnes & Nobles, where it became clear that The Coming Insurrection was an event in itself. The piece ended with the words of a customer at Starbucks, where the reading-cum-demonstration eventually ended up: “I have no idea what’s going on. But I like the excitement.” To have no idea what’s going on—or at least a very limited idea—seems to describe the Invisible Committee as well.

However enjoyable life in the commune in Tarnac was, it’s questionable whether it proves, as Adbusters writer Micah White claims, that “an anti-capitalist lifestyle is both possible and desirable”; neither is it likely (or desirable) that this “tiny book…could change the world,” as one blogger writes. The most striking thing about the book is how far it actually is from where leftist politics have gone in recent years–a crisis in itself. What of the slow but steady turn to the far right that has occurred across Europe recently, as with the victory of the fascist Jobbik party in Hungary? Europe is facing a wave of re-ethnification which seems to be directed against the idea of an internal transnationalism and multiculturalism. (That the EU administers a more rigorous immigration policy on its outer borders is another story.) Right-wing parties, like the Italian Lega Nord, the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid, and the Finnish Perussuomalaiset, launch verbal attacks on Jews, Sinti, Roma, and other people diverging from the ethnic ideal, yet they are missing from the Committee’s analysis. In general, the contemporary Left–disappointing as it so often is–has failed to stake an adequate and clear position on these issues.

What does seem clear, however, is that the status quo is far from “exploding” in the way the Invisible Collective wants. Usually, dissatisfaction does not go deep enough to take people to the streets, and even when it does, demands do not go beyond an abstract appeal to the state. In the face of the very real economic crisis that has occurred since the publication of The Coming Insurrection, most Europeans have acquiesced to calls to “tighten their belts.” The diversity of responses to the crisis, from violent protests in Greece to ignorance and eventual optimism in Germany, should have been puzzling to every Marxist. The idea that a crisis leads to an emancipatory uprising seems to no longer hold.

At the same time, it went almost unnoticed, at least by the Left, that during the riots in Greece three people burned to death in a bank, after three rioters threw Molotov cocktails inside. An event like this shows the irresponsibility of a call for militancy, made from the safe haven of rural France. Despite this, the Invisible Committee could have used the event to demonstrate that the current system does permit violence: the bank had obtained fire permits illegally, and the employees there were forced to remain working while almost every other institution in the city had sent their people home. As one employee of the bank wrote, “You [the management of the bank] are responsible for what happened today, and in any rightful state (like the ones you like to use from time to time as leading examples on your TV shows) you would have already been arrested.” But no interpretation of that sad event can be found in The Coming Insurrection.

The militancy of The Coming Insurrection is not only foolish and shortsighted but also indicates a void in leftist political ideas. While the book may claim otherwise, its politics lack a subject with stated interests and try to make a virtue out of necessity. Who is fighting, and for what? The act of sabotage rarely refers to an actual interest, but rather attacks an institution, in hopes that from the damage something entirely different will emerge. Incidences of sabotage have indeed been more frequent in the last years. Over 500 cars have been torched by activists in Berlin since 2007. But to what effect? This form of politics seems to be completely devoid of content–aside from hatred of luxury and “the rich” (not surprisingly, the majority of cars torched are Mercedes). It is politics reduced to empty gestures of militancy.

In the absence of traditional leftist organizing, the Invisible Committee is searching for an authentic and militant politics. But lacking in historical consciousness and empathy, it seems strangely distant from the actually existing political world. While it is highly debatable whether a return to traditional organizing would solve the problems we face, or even whether such a return is possible, to acknowledge these problems would be a good first step. But The Coming Insurrection is just a symptom of this crisis, rather than its remedy. It’s a crisis in which theory fragments of French provenience now count as the political avant-garde—in which moving to a farm and sabotaging railways are said to be radical politics.

Robert Zwarg is a former intern at Dissent. His last article for the magazine was “The German Left and Israel.”

Homepage image: A car burning in Strasbourg during the banlieue riots of 2005 (Francois Schnell/Wikimedia Commons/2005)