“Soutien aux inculpés du 11 Novembre”

30 Jun

Much of L’insurrection’s tableau of modern European (more specifically French, and even more specifically bourgeois Parisian) misery is compelling, especially when it heeds the situationist injunction that to ‘understand what sociology never understands, one need only envisage in terms of aggressivity what for sociology is neutral’.[23] Like the Debord of In girum, it can even strike notes of dark comedy: ‘Europe is a penniless continent which secretly shops at Lidl and flies low cost so it can keep on travelling’.[24] At its core lies something like a social-psychological portrait of the micro-managed and multi-tasking subject of contemporary work, the function of which is regarded as fundamentally political: that of ‘biopolitically’ governing the entirety of social life and perpetuating a regime of exploitation that is increasingly superfluous. Though the insight is hardly novel, the Comité Invisible does succeed in pungently capturing the horror and imbecility of the current proliferation of disciplinary devices such as ‘personal development’, ‘human resources’, ‘social capital’ and other managerial monstrosities. L’insurrection encapsulates this under the aegis of what it calls the ‘ethics of mobilisation’, the colonisation, through work, of the very domain of possibility: ‘Mobilisation is this slight detachment with regard to oneself … on the basis of which the Self [le Moi] can be taken as an object of work, on the basis of which it becomes possible to sell oneself, and not one’s labour-power, to be paid not for what one has done but for what one is. … This is the new norm of socialisation’.[25] But what lies beyond this salutary vituperation of the modern ideology of work – an ideology which is all the stronger to the extent that it replaces the heroisms and anxieties of the Sartrean project with the soft schizophrenia of a thousand ‘projects’?

It is here that what one may maliciously term the Epicurean tendency in situationism (present for instance, in Debord’s laments for the disappearance of good wine in Panegyric) gets the better of L’insurrection. ‘Mobilisation’ is not only linked to the capitalist uses of a parallel-processed self, but to a discourse about the metropolis as a space of deadening indifference and mortifying abstraction, and to the idea that the modern city and its masters have perpetrated a kind of assassination of experience: ‘We have been expropriated from our language by teaching, from our songs by variety shows, from our flesh by pornography, from our city by the police, from our friends by the wage system’.[26] Despite the aptness of L’insurrection’s denigration of cities turned into posthumous museums and the excoriation of the uses of mobility and isolation for purposes of control – not to mention its call for the marginalisation and ruination of Paris, that ‘frightening concretion of power'[27] – the hankering for revolutionary authenticity is unpersuasive, and ultimately myopic. Just as the short thrift given to the notion of labour-power leads to a Manichean opposition between a malevolent economy and emancipated ‘forms-of-life’, so there is not much attention paid to the transformative uses of abstraction and alienation. There is more of a hint of Jane Jacobs in the scorn against ‘indifferent’ modern housing and the idea that ‘the multiplication of means of displacement and communication continuously wrenches us away from the here and now, by the temptation of being everywhere’.[28] What’s more, the notion that the interruption of mobilisation will give rise to practical solidarity as the ‘façade’ of the ‘hyper-vulnerable’ city of flows crumbles, is too romantic to bear scrutiny. Blackouts and blockages can intimate communism but also be the occasion for even more insidious forms of violence and hierarchy (Michael Haneke’s film Time of the Wolf is an evocative study in this regard). Likewise, despite the welcome corrective to the idea of the banlieue uprisings of 2005 as an instance of criminal mob rule, it is doubtful that actions with ‘no leader, no claim, no organisation, but words, gestures, conspiracies'[29] may be taken as a model for organised emancipatory politics.

Though one wishes that the anti-urbanism of the Comité Invisible were more dialectical, some of their reflections on the ‘commune’ are worthy of consideration. Not only is renewed debate on the collective experimentation of everyday life to be welcomed, especially by contrast with nebulous figures of messianic transfiguration; L’insurrection also raises some important questions for a radical left which conceives of capitalism as an unacceptably destructive system and views crisis-management as an unappetising and doomed vocation. Rather than an ephemeral image of a glorious tomorrow or a utopian enclave, the commune is envisaged simultaneously as a collective experimentation of politics and as an instrument for a political action which is not merely instrumental but existential, or ethical. Among other things, the emphasis put on the density of real relations – as against the issues of identity and representation that allegedly bedevil parties, groups, collectives and milieus – gives a concrete political meaning to friendship, over against the obsession, whether prudish or prurient, with the commune as the site of sexual exchange.[30] Another classic motif, that of self-reliance, is given a contemporary twist: the commune is presented as a way of gaining and practicing the kind of know-how (medical, agricultural, technical) that can allow one to no longer depend on the metropolis and its forms of ‘security’. In other words, to ready oneself for real crisis, as communistic survivalism prepares for capitalist apocalypse.

One cannot gainsay the force and interest of concrete utopias, however minimal or marginal, nor deny the all too familiar truth – once again laid bare by this case – that the modern capitalist nation-state does not suffer alternatives gladly. The young activists and intellectuals at Tarnac, in this regard echoing if not necessarily following L’insurrection qui vient, have certainly showed that even very simple experiments with egalitarianism and emancipation can sow real political relations and solidarities. But, especially at a moment when the political question of the public is so crucial – whether we are speaking of universities, hospitals, banks, or indeed trains – the alternative between the commune and the metropolis is a false one, as is, to borrow another dichotomy from L’insurrection, the one between hegemony and horizontality. To appropriate authenticity is not enough. Any truly transformative politics must surely appropriate distraction, mobility and indeed, alienation and indifference too. Trains, like sewage systems, dams, airports and hospitals, are not to be repudiated, interrupted or merely abandoned to the whims of the capitalist state. Perhaps one day, rather than shuttling us from human resources conferences to personal development seminars, they may be put to more creative and revolutionary uses, like the Russian Kino trains of the 1920s.

Alberto Toscano


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