Formaldehyde embalming the corpse: Looking back at The Coming Insurrection

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Right now the insurrectionary ultraleft is abuzz at the release of a new document by the so-called “Invisible Committee,” entitled A Nous Amis [To Our Friends]. For now it’s only available in French, but a translation is expected to appear under the Semiotext(e) brand as early as January 2015. I’ll probably read it once it comes out. Apropos its publication, however, I thought I’d take a look back at some of the enthusiasm and criticism generated by the group’s 2009 title, The Coming Insurrection.

Let’s start with the enthusiasm. John Cunningham wrote an appreciative piece over at Mute that explains the history and context behind the Invisible Committee’s weirdly anti-social politics — their various perversions and inversions. Cunningham situates them within the emerging “communization” milieu (an appellation that seems to have stuck, given their inclusion in Benjamin Noys’ collection Communization and Its Discontents). Predictably, Geoff Bailey of the International Socialist Review, a Cliffite theory rag, took a much more negative stance in his article “Searching for the New, Resurrecting the Old.”  Bailey sees The Coming Insurrection as tragically out of touch with the return of familiar patterns, conditions conducive to normal soft-Trot recruitment drives: “[T]he authors have overlooked some of the very real changes — the globalization of production, the expansion of access to communication technology, and the onset of new a systemic crisis — that open up new possibilities for rebuilding a revolutionary movement, even as they present new challenges.”

The following article by my friend Ashley Weger takes a different path. Weger, unlike Bailey, readily acknowledges the deep discontinuity of the present with the revolutionary movements of the past. Unlike Cunningham, however, she does not find the Invisible Committee’s reworking of traditional problematics all that promising. Some might dismiss Weger’s simply because it first ran in the Platypus Review, but such prejudices are silly. (I’m not even sure whether Platypus is still publishing; their last issue was the combined August-September issue, appeared late, and only had one mammoth panel transcript. October has no new issue yet, unsurprising considering the pitiful turnout at their inaugural European convention and ongoing boycott of their events).

A couple of Weger’s allusions to pop culture are a bit too clever or cute for my taste, but other lines are devastating. Regardless, this is a great piece.

coming-insurrection

The coming insurrection? A reflection on resistance at the Toronto G20

Ashley Weger
Platypus Review 27
September 1, 2010

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One of the results of these recent movements is the understanding that henceforth a real demonstration has to be “wild,” not declared in advance to the police. Having the choice of terrain, we can, like the Black Bloc of Genoa in 2001, bypass the red zones and avoid direct confrontation. By choosing our own trajectory, we can lead the cops, including unionist and pacifist ones, rather than being herded by them. In Genoa we saw a thousand determined people push back entire buses full of Caribinieri, then set their vehicles on fire. The important thing is not to be better armed but to take the initiative. Courage is nothing, confidence in your own courage is everything.[1]

— The Invisible Committee,
The Coming Insurrection

These few sentences prescribe the Invisible Committee’s advice for today’s budding radical. Concurrently serving as agitator and guidance counselor, their pamphlet’s understanding of the path towards overcoming capitalism is woven through with the demand to abandon the fear and inhibition taming one’s revolutionary, insurrectionary potential. As a theoretical justification for tactics of subversion, violence, and destruction in the name of anti-capitalism, The Coming Insurrection was without a doubt in the minds, hearts, and backpacks of the black-clad protesters who converged on, collided with, and combusted cop cars in protest of the Toronto G20 Summit in June [2010]. Perhaps less apparent is the manner in which the emphasis on the propaganda of the deed, à la the insurrectionists and those participating in Black Bloc actions, is hardly restricted to the usual, sable-appareled suspects. Rather, this lust for radical change rooted in “real struggle” represents the culture of the contemporary anti-capitalist Left en masse, and is reflective of a politics whose fervent affirmation of action expresses a non-critical, reified understanding of society.

Despite seemingly great differences between “mainstream” protest and “extremist” tactics, Black Bloc methods and the theory of the insurrectionists are in reality only more acute expressions of a political outlook shared by the contemporary activist Left as a whole: a naïve, ahistorical asseveration of action, despite the Left’s continued downward descent into the abyss of meaninglessness. Marx once described the predicament of emancipation being fettered by a gulf between thought and action, famously concluding that “philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” The mantra of the 21st century left seems to have amended this evaluation, posing that the point is to resist it. This fixation on resistance, contrary to popular imagination, does not reveal the Left’s strength, but rather its consensual degradation into pure symbolism. The actions, antics, and aftermath of the G20 protests underscore the current crisis of the Left: not a rain of rubber bullets aimed at it, but the perverse, perennial celebration of its own comatose state.

Global gatherings of the G20 have been celebrated for bringing together all flavors of left activism: religious social justice types pleading for peace, eco-warriors distraught over the destruction of Mother Earth, dozens of infinitesimal sectarian groups ironically endorsing the power of the masses, Fosteresque entryist union organizers championing any cause that gives their local more street cred, anarchists equipped with tear-gas-ready bandanas, hoards of protestors decked out in “Fuck the G20” shirts and marching to chants of equal chutzpah, and enough Tibetan flags to make one think he or she is jamming at a Beastie Boys concert circa 1994. The uncomfortable, odd couple dynamic of this conglomeration is a decades-long tradition, for these unlikely comrades share the streets time and time again, as they did in 1999 while battling in Seattle and in the host of protests against corporate criminals, global hegemony, and world capital that populate the landscape of the Left, post-collapse. Protest, it has been decided, is the least common denominator amongst what constitutes itself as the Left today, the arena in which divides are bridged in the name of unity against the enemy of all.

While constantly conceptualized as unprecedented, this form of politics is in reality formulaic, and the storyline of the G20 in Toronto has only reproduced the equation. Thousands gather for state-sanctioned, peaceful demonstrations seeking to inform those in power what democracy looks and sounds like — apparently, like hundreds of people mechanically shouting in unison. As the demonstration unfurls, a small militant population destroys property as a gesture of their “autonomy” and fearlessness to resist the intimidating batons and tear gas of police officers outfitted in riot gear. This is followed by intense retaliation from the police officers, chiefly against persons who committed no crime. Indeed, the G20 resulted in the largest mass arrest in Canadian history. To the embarrassment of police officers and the city of Toronto, nearly all these arrests and detainments, whether the result of the frenzy of the moment or an intentional abuse of power, were without merit. Continue reading

Regressive activism at the recent Toronto G-20 conference

An excellent piece by Ashley Weger of Platypus provides a desperately-needed critical reexamination of the latest round of anti-globalization protests, which took place at the G-20 Conference in Toronto a couple months ago.  Unsurprisingly, the same predictable scenario of spectacular, ineffectual “resistance” played itself out there yet again.  In some ways, it’s a continuation of conventions established by ’60s and ’70s radicalism.  The newer element, noted by Weger in her article, is the peculiar hodgepodge of unrelated and even contradictory tendencies within the Left that have shown up at these events ever since they were first held back in 1999.  Any notion of a common goal toward which these disparate groups are working, under which they are united, is, however, completely lost on the protesters.  Their “courageous” acts of defiance and non-conformity all too often amount to nothing more than empty displays of a vague, generalized discontent with the status quo, however inadequately they understand it.

Whether or not the riots were provoked by undercover police agents posing as Black Bloc members is irrelevant to an investigation of the fundamental premises of the G-20 marches.  This is so no matter what the excesses committed by the police might have been, since these are matters of purely legal and ethical consideration.  Though many of the accusations of police brutality against innocent protestors might be well-founded, this does not in any way retroactively justify their tactics, goals, and antics.

The characteristics exhibited by the demonstrations in Toronto in late June are nearly all symptomatic of what Theodor Adorno termed “actionism” in his “Marginalia to Theory and Praxis” and in his final published essay, “Resignation” (1968).  His evaluation of this phenomenon was as follows:

Actionism is regressive.  Under the spell of the positivity that long ago became part of the armature of ego-weakness, it refuses to reflect upon its own impotence.

Adorno was here responding to the new wave of mass social activism that was first beginning to emerge in the 1960s, culminating in the widespread protests, demonstrations, and university takeovers of 1968.  When he expressed his misgivings about these protests, Adorno was accused of turning his back on the students’ revolutionary struggle.  To this he responded:

We older representatives of that for which the name Frankfurt School has established itself have recently had the reproach of resignation leveled against us. We had, it is stated, developed elements of a critical theory of society, but we were not prepared to draw the practical consequences from this theory. The objection raised against us be states approximately in these words: a person who in the present hour doubts the possibility of radical change in society and who for that reason neither takes part in nor recommends spectacular, violent action is guilty of resignation. Thinking activists [claim]: among the things to be changed is that very separation of theory and praxis. The trouble with this view is that it results in the prohibition of thinking. The often-evoked unity of theory and praxis has a tendency to give way to the predominance of praxis. Today…one clings to action because of the impossibility of action.

At the present point no higher form of society is concretely visible: for that reason, anything that seems in reach is regressive. The Utopian impulse in thinking is all the stronger, the less it objectifies itself as Utopia whereby it sabotages its own realization.

Repressive intolerance toward a thought not immediately accompanied by instructions for action is founded in fear. Thought, enlightenment conscious of itself, threatens to disenchant pseudo-reality within which activism moves. This activism is tolerated only because it is viewed as pseudo-activity. Only thinking could offer an escape. It is the responsibility of thought not to accept the situation as finite. If there is any chance of changing the situation, it is only through undiminished insight.

Adorno witnessed the anti-intellectualism of popular protest movements firsthand.  This character of unthinking has been more recently addressed by Liza Featherstone, Doug Henwood, and Christian Parenti, in their 2003 article “Action Will be Taken”, written in the context of the (now largely forgotten) antiwar movement.  Activists and protesters, they observed, would rather not “get bogged down in analysis.”  Featherstone, Henwood, and Parenti thus asked: “So over all is the activist left just an inchoate, ‘post-ideological’ mass of do-gooders, pragmatists, and puppeteers?” To which they promptly answered:

No.  The young troublemakers of today do have an ideology and it is as deeply felt and intellectually totalizing as any of the great belief systems of yore.  The cadres who populate those endless meetings, who bang the drum, who lead the “trainings” and paint the puppets, do indeed have a creed.  They are Activismists.

That’s right, Activismists.  This brave new ideology combines the political illiteracy of hyper-mediated American culture with all the moral zeal of a nineteenth century temperance crusade.  In this worldview, all roads lead to more activism and more activists.  And the one who acts is righteous.

Those who participate in events such as the recent G-20 protests often leave with the sense of smug self-satisfaction that comes from knowing that they have “done their part” in order to somehow “make a difference” in the world.  The danger for the Left is not police repression, but rather its own thoughtlessness.  Or, as Weger puts it, in a magnificent line: “[the current crisis for the Left is] not a rain of rubber bullets aimed at it, but the perverse, perennial celebration of its own comatose state.”