The Coming Insurrection or the Arrival of Suicidal Nonsense?
"The book you hold in your hands has become the principle piece of evidence in an
anti-terrorism case in
on November 11 2008, mostly in the
‘criminal association for the purposes of terrorist activity' on the grounds that they
were to have participated in the sabotage of overhead electrical lines on
national railways. Although only scanty circumstantial evidence has been presented
against the nine, the French Interior Minister has publicly associated them with
the emergent threat of an ‘ultra-left' movement, taking care to single out this
book, described as a ‘manual for terrorism,' which they are accused of authoring.
-The Coming Insurrection
The Coming Insurrection, authored by the anonymous "Invisible Committee," has been the subject of much controversy lately. Originally published in 2007 under the French title, L'insurrection qui vient (La Fabrique), the book has become focus of the "anti-terrorism" trials quoted in the above paragraph. The book is being published in English but its influence has already crossed the
Celebrating the English translation at an "unauthorized" Barnes & Nobel event in
By reading the text yourself, I assume I won't be alone in not finding much of positive substance while in fact finding much that is counter-productive. What follows is a review of the English translation from the perspective of someone who desires the revolutionary transformation of society by self-organized sectors and involving long-term organizing and movement building, culminating in re-defining society's institutions bearing on race, class, gender and decision-making to attain a classless and self-managed participatory society. Why do the review? It is not just that there are many things wrong with the book making it an easy target. It has unfortunately gotten attention in mainstream media and among activists -- both having a negative impact on our Left movements.
Visibility Vs. Invisibility
Aside from the title of the text, one of the first odd features that one notices is its anonymous authoring. Presumably the folks who comprise the "Invisible Committee" prefer to be taken seriously so why not take responsibility for their ideas? One finds their reasoning to remain anonymous on pg. 75 of the PDF. They argue that "To be visible is to be exposed, that is to say above all, vulnerable" and when "leftists everywhere continually make their cause more ‘visible' -- whether that of the homeless, of women, or of undocumented immigrants -- in hopes that it will get dealt with, they're doing exactly the contrary of what must be done."
The authors seem to -- wrongly -- think that not shedding light on issues of racism or sexism is what must be done. In fact, the exact opposite side of their argument is more valid: for women, queers, immigrants, and others who care about injustice to hide themselves and hide issues of racism and sexism from exposure is to relegate themselves to precariousness and vulnerability. To argue that oppressed sectors of society, and those that work in solidarity with them, should not organize and make their cause visible is to argue for those groups to not address their oppressions.
Serious Leftists, which obviously includes women, workers, immigrants, etc., understand that vulnerable and precarious people should not be placed in more risk and since the authors do not quote anyone or provide any examples that could qualify their generalization, it is not clear who they are speaking of. Even if the authors are themselves in precarious social and material circumstances -- and not themselves students, workers, or from a privileged race, gender or class -- there is no single example that I can think of that can prove their basic reasoning to apply to all, and assuming there was one, it alone certainly could not justify the argument they present to remain anonymous. In fact quite the opposite is often true where people of all kinds have voluntarily stood up publicly and heroically in face of grave dangers and defiant odds on behalf of important causes. Of course it is not necessary to do so if one is facing danger or risk, say of deportation, nor does requiring anonymity lesson heroism. But it is wrong to be judgmental either way.
Still, they offer more rationale for their decision, "Not making ourselves visible, but instead turning the anonymity to which we've been relegated to our advantage, and through conspiracy, nocturnal or faceless actions, creating an invulnerable position of attack." (Pg. 75) The authors don't seem to understand that even from their own perspective their anonymity can work against them. For example, let's say that the authors needed some form of solidarity because they were in legal trouble. Assuming anyone would be willing enough to look beyond their posturing to offer them solidarity, how could anyone help without knowing who to help? And more, without having any responsibility for their own identity it would be easy for any others to act maliciously in their name against them or others but obviously damaging them. It seems they have equally positioned themselves to be vulnerable.
However, overlooking the problem of their own vulnerability, they argue, "To be socially nothing is not a humiliating condition, the source of some tragic lack of recognition -- from whom do we seek recognition? -- but is on the contrary the condition for maximum freedom of action." (Pg. 75)
There is no way to know if the authors really believe what they write or not. However, certainly their argument avoids a whole set of problems implicit in their position (dealt with below) while proposing that they are concerned with "maximum freedom of action." Beneath their hyperbole the core of the problem is that it is thinly veiled vanguardism, that not only assumes that the Invisible Committee knows what is best for all others by way of strategy and tactics, but that also removes the option of freedom and autonomy from others. Let's look at two examples bearing directly on the text.
First, let's assume the "Tarnac 9," who were said to be of "criminal association for the purposes of terrorist activity," are innocent and were wrongly accused (all have in-fact been released). This book is being used as evidence against them, that they are said to have authored by authorities. If the authors are not among the accused and they are innocent of writing the text then their spending time in jail and being wrapped up in related past, present, and future legal proceedings, as well as tying up the time, effort, and resources of others offering solidarity, is a basic example of how the actual authors have negatively affected the freedom of others.
Second, beyond the Tarnac 9, what about an act of sabotage that provides pretext for the state to further exercise its repressive mechanisms by using "anti-terrorism" machinations negatively affecting the greater population? The Invisible Committee write, "let's adopt the following principle from sabotage: a minimum of risk in taking the action, a minimum of time, and maximum damage." Aside from proposing workplace sabotage they also write:
"the principles of sabotage can be applied to both production and circulation. The technical infrastructure of the metropolis is vulnerable. Its flows amount to more than the transportation of people and commodities. Information and energy circulates via wire networks, fibers and channels, and these can be attacked. Nowadays sabotaging the social machine with any real effect involves reappropriating and reinventing the ways of interrupting its networks. How can a TGV line or an electrical network be rendered useless? How does one find the weak points in computer networks, or scramble radio waves and fill screens with white noise?" (Pg. 74, one of the incriminating paragraphs in the anti-terrorism trials.)
Leaving aside the senselessness of certain forms of sabotage as a means of building activist movements and the fact that what is proposed is as likely or more likely to hurt everyday workers as owners, let's consider the Greek uprising in December 2008 -- popular among insurrectionists and which the Invisible Committee reference in their introduction. Standing outside the Polytechnic University in Exarhia last month, anti-authoritarian comrades explained to us the negative effects of the shooting of a police officer by an armed revolutionary group just a few blocks away at the Cultural Ministry. It was the second shooting targeting police at the tail-end of the uprising. Our friends explained the problem, "the whole society was against the cops. We resisted the police with our bare hands and nobody said a word while people even came out to support us and participate. As soon as someone shot the cop society saw us negatively, and the police portrayed themselves as the victims and, by a single bullet, the tables were suddenly turned in their favor." Thus the unilateral acts of a few had negative consequences for the many.
What is gained at so great a price for others? The book doesn't tell us. If the acts hurt the poor and weak and weaken the movements of the poor and weak, why exactly are they suggested or undertaken?
Do the authors value the freedom of others too, or only their own choices regardless of impact on others and under the cloak of "invisibility?" Again, if they are from a vulnerable race, class, or gendered position then anonymity can be understood and respected. If that were genuinely the case then the authors used bad judgment and poor reasoning to protect their own choice while dismissing others who choose to work openly and genuinely against racism, patriarchy, and capitalism. However, if that is not the case, and they are from an elite background, it would be an understatement to say that their reasoning is similarly misguided. Either case has negative consequences for those outside their group organizing against injustice.
But more, building the new society requires new social relations and community where solidarity and mutual aid is felt and practiced. This requires openness and visibility not individualism and "invisibility."
Callousness & Platitudes
The entire text has an irreverent character attacking what is mostly important, not just for those who dominate society as you would expect, but also for serious Leftists, such as institution and movement building by activists who are working to transform the world. They write for example, ‘"the democratic character of
decision-making' is only a problem for the fanatics of process." (Pg. 81) Are they part of the Left, part of an effort to win a better world? If so, their hostility to others with that intent is very hard to comprehend.
Even beyond dismissiveness toward other activists, there is a blatant callousness toward working people. The introduction declares, "To tell the truth, the disastrous unemployment figures no longer provoke any feeling in us." (Pg. 7) So the authors should not be surprised if the mass of unemployed have no feelings for them or remain indifferent to, or even become hostile to, the authors' ideas.
The above tone of indifference, perhaps employed for shock value and attention seeking, is continued throughout the text. For example, the authors write:
"The normal functioning of the world usually serves to hide our state of truly catastrophic dispossession. 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!'" (Pg. 54)
As satire of what a foolish callous soul might intone, this is pretty spot on. But as the actual utterances of people trying to communicate their desires, it is incredibly sad -- and destructive.
The rest of the book repeats various arguments for isolating themselves, and others who share their ideas, from collective action and organization. For example their declaration that, "Organizations are obstacles to organizing ourselves." (Pg. 7) Once again, as satire, maybe -- but there is no other justification for such absurdity as is evidenced by their own rationale for this statement premised on such nonsense as, "In truth, there is no gap between what we are, what we do, and what we are becoming. Organizations -- political or labor, fascist or anarchist -- always begin by separating, practically, these aspects of existence." (Pg. 7) Of course there is no gap between "what we are, what we do, and what we are becoming" but organizations "always begin by separating, practically..."? It's as if their making it up as they go along.
Rather than abolish organizations we should self-consciously redefine them for classless, anti-sexist, anti-racist, and self-managing objectives. But instead of this kind of self-conscious organization they propose "a new idea of communism" that is to be found in "the shadows of bar rooms, in print shops, squats, farms, occupied gymnasiums" and equally astonishingly propose that this is where "the truly revolutionary potentiality of the present" can be found. (Pg. 8) An occupied gymnasium? Are they serious?
The message they deliver, even if they don't believe what they are saying, translates to "go where most people are not, don't bother to interact or organize, lower your standards for revolution away from society-wide classlessness and participatory self-management. Isolate yourselves, don't make demands, don't have program or strategy, don't try to build the seeds of the future society in the present, don't talk about racism or sexism, etc. Remain disorganized and fragmented." Not only is it a strategy for defeat, it is a rhetoric that whether intended or not, makes Leftists look both uncaring and stupid.
Gibberish & Non Sequiturs
The authors declare that "there's no longer any language for common experience" (Pg. 15) and it is hard to comprehend what this could mean. If they take it literally, then what would be the point of translating their text, or even writing it in the first place, if there was no shared language? Why would the authors even bother trying to communicate in any way and not just crawl under a rock?
Citing the French Revolution and the welfare state they argue that these events were preceded by years of struggle. They write that struggle creates a language, by which I, perhaps too generously, assume they mean a shared understanding, in which a new social order can express itself. They rationalize their own orientation against organization stating that "there is nothing like that [struggle] today." (Pg. 15) Of course this is nonsense and dismisses gains of the woman's, gay, and civil rights movements, not to mention struggles even of recent years such as those in Argentina, Greece, Bolivia, and Venezuela -- among other places -- that have generations of political struggle, consciousness, tradition, organizing, and movement and institutions building behind them, and which the Invisible Committee seems to completely disregard.
It is one thing for the authors themselves to have their own reasons, however misguided, to avoid long-term movement and institution building to counter the structures that now dominate society, or to avoid creating new structures organized on gender equity and cultural diversity, classlessness, self-management, and participatory empowerment. However, it is an insult to overlook those efforts in other movements or to imply that organizing against oppressions like war and occupation, among others, is wrong.
Strategy to Disrupt
So what does all this imply for their strategic suggestions? They write that it is "useless to get involved in this or that citizens' group, in this or that dead-end of the far Left, or in the latest ‘community effort.'" (Pg. 63, original emphasis) What could possibly be the logic for this call to retreat from the Left?
They say, "Every organization that claims to contest the present order mimics the form, mores and language of miniature states. Thus far, every impulse to ‘do politics differently' has only contributed to the indefinite spread of the state's tentacles." (Pg. 63) But such blanket condemnation fails to see differences between hierarchical organizations and classless, non-sexist, non-racist, participatory ones that should seek to embody the future in the present. Instead the text argues a "holier-than-thou" stance from their position of anonymity. Of course, it is much easier to dismiss the serious work of many who really care about changing the world than it is to take criticism for senseless and even harmful ideas.
Yet they continue with their warning, "expect nothing from organizations":
"Organizations are attractive due to their apparent consistency -- they have a history, a head office, a name, resources, a leader, a strategy and a discourse. They are nonetheless empty structures, which, in spite of their grand origins, can never be filled. In all their affairs, at every level, these organizations are concerned above all with their own survival as organizations, and little else. Their repeated betrayals have often alienated the commitment of their own rank and file. And this is why you can, on occasion, run into worthy beings within them. But the promise of the encounter can only be realized outside the organization and, unavoidably, at odds with it." (Pg. 66)
If such flavorless comments were aimed only at hierarchical institutions and social structures I would still disagree -- such institutions are NOT attractive and if the authors think so they are mistaken. Even worse their comments continue to make no distinction between hierarchical and non-hierarchical organizations and institutions -- simply rejecting all organization -- which is tantamount, if you think about it for a minute, to proposing a future that lacks workplaces, religious centers, families, any kind of assemblies, and so on -- a future in which lone individuals or small groups fend for themselves (a vision seemingly not too far from what they propose). They are deliberate in this rejection -- however badly misguided it is. To reject classless, anti-racist, and anti-sexist movements and organizations is to embrace class rule, racism and sexism. And even though the authors would probably deny it -- the denial would have no basis.
The crude analysis above where "organizations mimic miniature states," is extended into "assemblies suffering from the bad example of bourgeois parliaments," about which they propose as legitimate activity for leftists to:
Sabotage every representative authority.
Spread the talk.
Abolish general assemblies. (Pg. 80)
This is arguably precisely the agenda of the police regarding the Left -- to sabotage efforts at Left organization and decision-making, to spread their views and listen to nothing, and to disrupt or if possible abolish the vehicles of popular participation.
First, if a group of people are having an assembly and anyone comes in to disrupt with the intention of "abolishing the general assembly," not only is that a dictatorial act by the one person or small group of individuals high-jacking the gathering in their own interest over the collective objectives of the rest, worse than rule by fiat -- but it would be entirely in order for the assembly to kick them out of the meeting and deliver a clear message that they are not welcome back without acknowledging their wrong-doing and a genuine interest in participation. Not engaging in such disruptive behavior where people are trying to build solidarity and participation is so basic a lesson that it is beneath contempt and should not be tolerated. And more, to write such things, and be taken seriously, would be odd, except, of course, if it is mainstream media and the Right-Wing that is appreciating and giving visibility to the words, and readers are only amused by the flashy writing or belligerent behavior.
The Invisible Committee writes that:
"It's not a matter of critiquing assemblies or abandoning them [they write this while critiquing], but of liberating the speech, gestures, and interplay of beings that take place within them. We just have to see that each person comes to an assembly not only with a point of view or a motion, but with desires, attachments, capacities, forces, sadnesses and a certain disposition toward others, an openness." (Pg. 81)
Yes, okay, and of course this includes them. But what does it imply? Disrupting an organization engaged in positive movement building efforts is not the way to deal with this. Additionally, I'm not sure what "liberating speech, gestures, and interplay of beings" mean but the rest is so true that it becomes a benign observation. It is to overstate the obvious. Of course people carry with them, wherever they are and not just to assemblies, pre-determined dispositions for many things in their everyday lives. And not only that, people also shape and are shaped by the institutions they participate in. Therefore, it is incumbent on us to offer specific forms of institutional organization that are designed to consciously facilitate classlessness, solidarity, cultural diversity, gender equity, and self-management instead of speaking vaguely of "sadness and openness."
Assemblies should not simply be vehicles for resisting the oppressive society that we know today and under times of crisis. They should eventually expand into forms of self-managed control over neighborhood and community decision-making in a revolutionary society. Not where consensus, one person-one vote, or majority rule automatically dominate, but where people decide themselves what is the best method of decision-making for arriving at classless outcomes that affect them in proportional ways. Such assemblies can act as bodies for self-governing law-making and adjudication (two things the Invisible Committee would probably wrongly reject). And they should serve alongside decentralized worker and consumer councils for participatory economic decision-making allocating the material means of life throughout society, with accompanying emancipatory changes in other spheres of life too.
So what social forms do the anonymous authors offer? The Commune... Their definition is not one that includes new self-managing relations of production and consumption where people have decision-making input in proportion to how they are affected. Their vision of the commune is not carved out by classless divisions of labor and remuneration. Their vision is not defined by workers' and consumers' councils negotiating a decentralized participatory plan. Their communes, instead, "come into being when people find each other, get on with each other, and decide on a common path. The commune is perhaps what gets decided at the very moment when we would normally part ways. It's the joy of an encounter that survives its expected end. It's what makes us say ‘we,' and makes that an event." (Pg. 67)
Is this kind of verbal emptiness really something readers appreciate? Their commune is not an organizational structure that can carry our collective aspirations into the future and deliver solidarity, classlessness, diversity and self-management. Their commune "would not define themselves -- as collectives tend to do - by what's inside and what's outside them, but by the density of the ties at their core." (Pg. 68) -- Whatever that means. And their commune:
"seeks to dissolve the question of needs. It seeks to break all economic dependency and all political subjugation; it degenerates into a milieu the moment it loses contact with the truths on which it is founded. There are all kinds of communes that wait neither for the numbers nor the means to get organized, and even less for the ‘right moment" -- which never arrives.'" (Pg. 67)
Their vision of a commune offers very little guarantee of its own basic existence. There are no proposed methods for deciding what will be produced or consumed nor how much of each or its distribution in a socially responsible way. There is no organizational structure to ensure classlessness between and within communes or self-management. And indeed, the authors would likely reject these criticisms even though to do so is to throw caution to the wind on a whole host of important questions that should be dealt with consciously and collectively. Perhaps this is what leads them to write suicidal words like, "The important thing is to cultivate and spread [a] necessary disposition towards fraud" (Pg. 69). As well as nonsense about labor time like, "There will be no more time to fill, but a liberation of energy that no "time" contains; lines that take shape, that accentuate each other, that we can follow at our leisure, to their ends, until we see them cross with others." (Pg. 69)
And this reader, and I hope others too, has to wonder if the authors are delusional when they write:
"It's a question of knowing how to fight, to pick locks, to set broken bones and treat sicknesses; how to build a pirate radio transmitter; how to set up street kitchens; how to aim straight; how to gather together scattered knowledge and set up wartime agronomics; understand plankton biology; soil composition; study the way plants interact; get to know possible uses for and connections with our immediate environment as well as the limits we can't go beyond without exhausting it. We must start today, in preparation for the days when we'll need more than just a symbolic portion of our nourishment and care." (Pg. 71)
If those are the steps they see as central to winning a better world -- fine. They should go and do those things. Take karate. Work for a locksmith. Get medical training. Study electrical engineering. Set up street kitchens -- for the unemployed they are unmoved by. Practice shooting, and so on. But please, go do it somewhere truly anonymous rather than parading the suicidal rhetoric publicly while maintaining personal anonymity and disrupting the efforts of Leftists either overtly or by attacking their organizing or indirectly giving police an excuse and avenues by which to attack.
So what are the authors for if they are against organizing, movement and institution building, and working to provide the ground work for the new society? Their answer is "Insurrection." They write, "Take up arms. Do everything possible to make their use unnecessary. Against the army, the only victory is political." (Pg. 84, original italics)
Is writing in ways that can mean anything and nothing at the same time supposed to be productive?
Yet they continue, "There is no such thing as a peaceful insurrection. Weapons are necessary: it's a question of doing everything possible to make using them unnecessary." And that "An insurrection is more about taking up arms and maintaining an ‘armed presence' than it is about armed struggle." That, "We need to distinguish clearly between being armed and the use of arms. Weapons are a constant in revolutionary situations, but their use is infrequent and rarely decisive at key turning points..." (Pg. 84)
A little knowledge apparently goes only a little ways. In truth, of course, carrying around weapons is an invitation to centers of violence to attack, with impunity. And with or without arms, as long as institutional and movement building capacities are not patiently and collectively developed -- through trial and error -- when workers are prepared to take-over factories and people are prepared to take over their communities -- then the type of insurrection they speak of, if the needed moment comes -- will be useless and more than likely backfire horribly wiping away many gains made by people struggling for years.
But even if one oddly believed in some kind of armed uprising, why focus only on insurrection rather than all the detailed work that must go into creating the society we need? The authors propose an urgency that most would agree with but also an argument for sectarianism that most would not:
"It's useless to wait—for a breakthrough, for the revolution, the nuclear apocalypse or a social movement. To go on waiting is madness. The catastrophe is not coming, it is here. We are already situated within the collapse of a civilization. It is within this reality that we must choose sides." (Pg. 63, original Emphasis)
Indeed, there is vast and incredibly debilitating injustice -- though things could most certainly get much worse, as well as much better. But in the face of urgency the solution is not to act in ways that worsen conditions or alienate potential allies by saying "we must choose sides" where the sides are between choosing waiting without organizing or choosing insurrection. No one should wait without organizing. Everyone should organize. So the solution is to get to work with others, develop shared ideas about not only what we are against, for example, capitalism, racism, patriarchy and authoritarianism -- but what we are for. Once we know where it is we want to go, we can then act with the urgency needed to organize and build institutions and movements able to win change and create the necessary foundations for a future society.
Although it bears very little on the review above, I would also like to point out a few problems with associating the "Invisible Committee" as within the tradition of the Situationist International (S.I.) (1957-1972), which is not so easy, but is instructive. Some reviewers have explored the connection, for example Alberto Toscano in his essay "The War Against Preterrorism" mentioned in the opening of this review. Toscano compares the differences and similarities, "Though the agenda of L'insurrection is still dictated by a situationist-inspired total critique of contemporary society, the lengthy analyses of the ills of everyday metropolitan life in the age of flexitime and the new economy are more in keeping with the recent concerns of critical French sociology than with prophecies about homo sacer." It is also well known that Julien Coupat, one of the accused Tarnac 9 and founder of the journal Tiqqun (1999-2001), wrote his dissertation on S.I. theorist and founder Guy Debord (1931-1994). Certainly their may be S.I. influence. But how important is the comparison for its own sake? Not very... The Situationists had many theoretical and organizational problems, not least their sectarianism (something for others to write about). Any comparison should not downplay problems in either group or exaggerate their importance. In their 15 year history the S.I. held many conflicting ideas and positions but they were always an organization and an international -- something the Invisible Committee rejects and which informs key sections of their text. And it has long been well known who most of the S.I.'s members were since they never hid behind "invisibility."
Likewise, another difference between the two groups is that for most of the 60s the S.I. advocated the concept of self-managed workers' councils ala the Greek/French theorist Cornelius Castoriadis (1922-1997) and the legendary revolutionary journal Socialism or Barbarism. Castoriadis' thinking not only influenced Guy Debord and others in the S.I., but also impacted widely upon many in the organizing and agitation leading up to the 1968 Paris Uprising (See "Greek Uprising, Echoes of Castoriadis," Chris Spannos, ZNet, December 31, 2008).
Comparing The Coming Insurrection with Situationist literature one does find commonalities, such as a writing style, however they each are different, and even assessing likeness in content such as how they each arrive at their "total critique of contemporary society," as well as their different conclusions, would entail a longer examination which would probably find core differences (although frankly this reader doubts such a comparison would yield much of substance). The one similarity though is the use of language and writing that is the complete opposite of everyday language that regular people use -- language that is either too dense or can mean anything and nothing at once. If we are truly trying to build movements that everybody can understand and participate in, rather than be dominated by elite, then no matter how well meaning we may be, our language needs to be user friendly so that everyone can help shape our vision and strategy.