Friday, September 25, 2009

literary anarchism

L’insurrection qui vient, with authorial credit given to the ‘comité invisible,’ was published in 2007 in France, and was rapidly translated into English and put online. It was officially published in English, I believe late in the summer through MIT press under the title, The Coming Insurrection. The French version, of course, is online—I think you’re obliged to pay for the ‘professional’ English translation. I remember picking up a copy of this in a bookstore last year in Paris. I’d not heard of it, and decided, after a little while, not to buy the thing. I wish that I could remember what pointed me toward the thing more recently—possibly news about the trial associated with it in France. My knowledge of activist pamphlets like this isn’t enormous, but still it seems to me that this is recognizably of the same genre as, say, Paul Lafargue’s Le droit à la paresse [1883]. I’m sure this has been written about other places already, summarized and critiqued, no doubt with a more sophisticated eye than my own. Still, here is my account.

First of all, how does the text work? It first diagnoses the blockages and dilemmas of the contemporary situation, and then presents us with a sort of program of auto-organization and sufficient practical advice to put the aspiring insurrectionist on the right track. The first 80 pages are devoted to the diagnosis, which proceeds chapter by chapter starting with the booby-traps of the contemporary search for and failure to achieve stable selfhood, moving ‘up’ through an analysis of interpersonal relations, work, contemporary geographies, economics as science, the ideology of ecology, and finally at the highest level of abstraction, western/capitalist civilization and its decadent relativism. The great weight of the critique is directed, finally, at our inauthentic and alienated situation. These are not at all the words the authors use, but in the end it is what they mean. The disaffection of modern life, its various schizophrenias, are really the driving, bitter, force behind their prose. I am extremely suspicious of such foundations, especially when they are matched with this kind of language:

Le Français est plus tout autre le dépossédé, le misérable. Sa haine de l’étranger se fond avec sa haine de soi comme étranger. Sa jalousie mêlée d’effroi pour les ‘citées’ ne dit que son ressentiment pour tout ce qu’il a perdu. Il ne peut s’empêcher d’envier ces quartier dits de ‘relégation’ où persistent encore un peu dune vie commune, quelques liens entre les êtres, quelques solidarités non étatiques... (20)

There is a reality to the “jalousie mêlée d’effroi” described here, but I’m not convinced that it is any different from a similar emotion expressed often enough in the European past for the racial other. Proximity changes things, but this the comité invisible doesn’t enter into. I am in general extremely hesitant—for reasons that might, again, be traced to a certain 19th century history—to accept arguments that hinge on an acceptance of the idea that ‘their lives are better,’ that those fully committed to the socio-economic system should somehow envy those who, for one reason or another, usually historical racism, are forced to its edges. I am curious to see how Hardt and Negri negotiate this over the course of Commonwealth, since I can see already how much importance they give to the function of ‘the poors’ in the generation of new subjectivities, which are themselves integral to production in a system of biopower, and are perhaps biopolitically useful. Similarly, I’m hesitant to take Zizek’s embrace of the favella as anything other than a desperate grab for an outside. I prefer Hardt and Negri’s approach in that regard. I hope to find time soon to read Jacques Rancière’s Le philosophe et ses pauvres, which I imagine will be useful in thinking about this. At any rate, I’m not impressed by what seems to me to be more or less a romanticized vision of this particular kind of ‘outside.’

One might ask, who are you to judge what is true and what is not true of the cités under discussion? It’s a good question that also has the virtue of raising my next point about L’insurrection qui vient. It is very much about France. It is not just that the example above invokes “le Français.” There is a significant criticism of French universalism, and then, again, an odd recapitulation of it. Because of France’s position at the origin of the nation-state, especially the revolutionary nation-state, it is especially hard, we are told, for French people to understand that it must be given up. The special situation created by the massive and intrusive French state is recognized as several points and on several levels. At many places, comparisons are made to the US, examples drawn from the US—so we might read this as one more example of the French understanding themselves in a US mirror—but there is relatively little consideration of the potentially global nature of the problems on which the bulk of the text focuses. Perhaps this is because their solution is radically local. Despite the specificity, there’s a sufficiency of pleasing ideological analysis here. I especially liked the “Troisième circle,” which analyzes the political function of work (I prefer that word to ‘labor’ in this context). Also, the “Septième cercle,” on ecology, was good. They say, “tant qu’il y aura l’Homme et l’Environnement, il y aura la police entre eux” (65). I can only agree that environmental problems cannot be thought about constructively while the fiction of ‘the Environment’ as something with a real and somehow natural existence separate from humans is so powerful. There is no natural environment. There is no a-historical environment. Conservationism would be better off, or at least on more intellectually secure footing, without a mystical, essentially fundamentalism, conception of ecology.

Simply put, the path for revolutionary action recommended by this book is to organize small, self-sufficient, affectively bound groups through which actions, of all kinds, can take place. These groups are called communes. At first, the communes are to build up their capacity for autonomy, and to increasingly refuse to participate in the broader socio-economic-political system. At the beginning, this means petty fraud, dumpster-diving, and the like. Squats of the sort that thrived for a time in post-89 Berlin are, I imagine, the model here. Of course you cannot live off the fat of the land for ever. Learn basic mechanical and electrical engineering, learn first aid. Learn to grow your own food—it is considered crazy that such a small percentage of the world’s population is in charge of food production, this will certainly change. This autonomy, which is an ongoing project, is to begin immediately. The passage is a basic statement of the worldview presented in the book:

Ne plus attendre, c’est d’une manière ou d’une autre entrer dans la logique insurrectionnelle. C’est entendre à nouveau, dans la voix de nos gouvernants, le léger tremblement de terreur qui ne les quitte jamais. Car gouverner n’a jamais été autre chose que repousser par mille subterfuges le moment où la foule vous pendra, et tout acte de gouvernement rien qu’une façon de ne pas perdre le contrôle de la population. (83)

Again, though, the basis of this mobilization is essentially psychological. By the end of the ‘destructive’ part of the book, we are to understand that it is the deep relativism of capitalist civilization which marks it above all for destruction. It cannot sustain truth. So, naturally, the place to begin revolutionary action is truth. Well, what does this mean? “S’attacher à ce que l’on éprouve comme vrai.” Events generate truth. We are told that even “le sentiment de vivre dans le mensonge est encore une vérité,” and therefore enough to begin to build upon (85). This is indeed, I think, a theory of the event, of truth, and then of a militant truth-procedure. So, yes, we are back again to Badiou.

I am not sure, in the end, how to evaluate this pamphlet. It has many virtues. Of course it is not a treatise. It is a piece of propaganda, intended to mobilize a particular sector of the social hierarchy. The theory of social change it presents is catastrophist. The system is at an impasse, and all we can do is refuse until the whole thing crumbles. Things will be better after it crumbles because then at least we will have soil and our friends. In the 1890s, a distinction was made between literary anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism. If such a distinction were operative today, I would put this tract in the former category because in the end it is concerned not with the structures of society, but with crafting a certain kind of subjectivity.

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