Tuesday, August 25, 2015
It feels increasingly difficult to tell the difference between—on one hand—being old, sick, and defeated, and—on the other hand—living in a time-&-place that is itself senile, tired, and defeated. Sometimes I think it’s just me—but then I find that some younger, healthier people seem to be undergoing similar sensations of ennui, despair, and impotent anger. Maybe it’s not just me.
A friend of mine attributed the turn to disillusion with “everything”, including old-fashioned radical/activist positions, to disappointment over the present political regime in the US, which was somehow expected to usher in a turn away from the reactionary decades since the 1980s, or even a “progress” toward some sort of democratic socialism. Although I myself didn’t share this optimism (I always assume that anyone who even wants to be President of the US must be a psychopathic murderer) I can see that “youth” suffered a powerful disillusionment at the utter failure of Liberalism to turn the tide against Capitalism Triumphalism. The disillusion gave rise to OCCUPY and the failure of OCCUPY led to a move toward sheer negation.
However I think this merely political analysis of the “new nothing” may be too two-dimensional to do justice to the extent to which all hope of “change” has died under Kognitive Kapital and the technopathocracy. Despite my remnant hippy flower- power sentiments I too feel this “terminal” condition (as Nietzsche called it), which I express by saying, only half- jokingly, that we have at last reached the Future, and that the truly horrible truth of the End of the World is that it doesn’t end.
One big J.G. Ballard/Philip K. Dick shopping mall from now till eternity, basically.
This IS the future—how do you like it so far? Life in the Ruins: not so bad for the bourgeoisie, the loyal servants of the One Percent. Air-conditioned ruins! No Ragnarok, no Rapture, no dramatic closure: just an endless re-run of reality TV cop shows. 2012 has come and gone, and we’re still in debt to some faceless bank, still chained to our screens.
Most people—in order to live at all—seem to need around themselves a penumbra of “illusion” (to quote Nietzsche again):— that the world is just rolling along as usual, some good days some bad, but in essence no different now than in 10000 BC or 1492 AD or next year. Some even need to believe in Progress, that the Future will solve all our problems, and even that life is much better for us now than for (say) people in the 5th century AD. We live longer thanx to Modern Science—of course our extra years are largely spent as “medical objects”—sick and worn out but kept ticking by Machines & Pills that spin huge profits for a few megacorporations & insurance companies. Nation of Struldbugs.
True, we’re suffocating in the mire generated by our rule of sick machines under the Numisphere of Money. At least ten times as much money now exists than it would take to buy the whole world—and yet species are vanishing space itself is vanishing, icecaps melting, air and water grown toxic, culture grown toxic, landscape sacrificed to fracking and megamalls, noise-fascism, etc, etc. But Science will cure all that ills that Science has created—in the Future (in the “long run”, when we’re all dead, as Lord Keynes put it); so meanwhile we’ll carry on consuming the world and shitting it out as waste—because it’s convenient & efficient & profitable to do so, and because we like it.
Well, this is all a bunch of whiney left-liberal cliches, no? Heard it before a million times. Yawn. How boring, how infantile, how useless. Even if it were all true... what can we do about it? If our Anointed Leaders can’t or won’t stop it, who will? God? Satan? The “People”?”
All the fashionable “solutions” to the “crisis”, from electronic democracy to revolutionary violence, from locavorism to solar- powered dingbats, from financial market regulation to the General Strike—all of them, however ridiculous or sublime, depend on one preliminary radical change—a seismic shift in human consciousness. Without such a change all the hope of reform is futile. And if such a change were somehow to occur, no “reform” would be necessary. The world would simply change. The whales would be saved. War no more. And so on.
What force could (even in theory) bring about such a shift? Religion? In 6,000 years of organized religion matters have only gotten worse. Psychedelic drugs in the reservoirs? The Mayan calendar? Nostalgia? Terror?
If catastrophic disaster is now inevitable, perhaps the “Survival- ist” scenario will ensue, and a few brave millions will create a green utopia in the smoking waste. But won’t Capitalism find a way to profit even from the End of the World? Some would claim that it’s doing so already. The true catastrophe may be the final apotheosis of commodity fetishism.
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that this paradise of power tools and back-up alarms is all we’ve got & all we’re going to get. Capitalism can deal with global warming—it can sell water- wings and disaster insurance. So it’s all over, let’s say—but we’ve still got television & Twitter. Childhood’s End—i.e. the child as ultimate consumer, eager for the brand. Terrorism or home shopping network—take yr pick (democracy means choice).
Since the death of the Historical Movement of the Social in 1989 (last gasp of the hideous “short” XXth century that started in 1914) the only “alternative” to Capitalist Neo-Liberal totalitarianism that seems to have emerged is religious neo-fascism. I understand why someone would want to be a violent fundamentalist bigot—I even sympathize—but just because I feel sorry for lepers doesn’t mean I want to be one.
When I attempt to retain some shreds of my former antipessimism I fantasize that History may not be over, that some sort ofPopulist Green Social Democracy might yet emerge to challenge the obscene smugness of“Money Interests”—something along the lines of 1970s Scandinavian monarcho-socialism—which in retrospect now looks the most humane form of the State ever to have emerged from the putrid suck-hole of Civilization. (Think of Amsterdam in its hey-day.) Of course as an anarchist I’d still have to oppose it—but at least I’d have the luxury of believing that, in such a situation, anarchy might actually stand some chance of success. Even if such a movement were to emerge, however, we can rest damn-well assured it won’t happen in the USA. Or anywhere in the ghost-realm of dead Marxism, either. Maybe Scotland!
It would seem quite pointless to wait around for such a rebirth of the Social. Years ago many radicals gave up all hope of The Revolution, and the few who still adhere to it remind me of religious fanatics. It might be soothing to lapse into such doctrinaire revolutionism, just as it might be soothing to sink into mystical religion—but for me at least both options have lost their savor. Again, I sympathize with those true believers (although not so much when they lapse into authoritarian leftism or fascism)— nevertheless, frankly, I’m too depressed to embrace their Illusions.
If the End-Time scenario sketched above be considered actually true, what alternatives might exist besides suicidal despair? After much thought I’ve come up with three basic strategies.
1) Passive Escapism. Keep your head down, don’t make waves. Capitalism permits all sorts of “life-styles” (I hate that word)—just pick one & try to enjoy it. You’re even allowed to live as a dirt farmer without electricity & infernal combustion, like a sort of secular Amish refusnik. Well, maybe not. But at least you could flirt with such a life. “Smoke Pot, Eat Chicken, Drink Tea,” as we used to say in the 60s in the Moorish Church of America, our psychedelic cult. Hope they don’t catch you. Fit yourself into some Permitted Category such as Neo-Hippy or even Anabaptist.
2) Active Escapism. In this scenario you attempt to create the optimal conditions for the emergence of Autonomous Zones, whether temprorary, periodic or even (semi)permanent. In 1984 when I first coined the term Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ)
I envisioned it as a complent to The Revolution—although I was already, to be truthful, tired of waiting for a moment that seemed to have failed in 1968. The TAZ would give a taste or premonition of real liberties: in effect you would attempt to live as if the Revolution had already occurred, so as not to die without ever having experienced “free freedom” (as Rimbaud called it, liberte libre). Create your own pirate utopia.
Of course the TAZ can be as brief & simple as a really good dinner party, but the true autonomist will want to maximize the potential for longer & deeper experiences of authentic lived life. Almost inevitably this will involve crime, so it’s necessary to think like a criminal, not a victim. A “Johnson” as Burroughs used to say—not a “mark”. How else can one live (and live well) without Work. Work, the curse of the thinking class. Wage slavery. If you’re lucky enough to be a successful artist, you can perhaps achieve relative autonomy without breaking any obvious laws (except the laws of good taste, perhaps). Or you could inherit a million. (More than a million would be a curse.) Forget revolutionary morality—the question is, can you afford your taste of freedom? For most of us, crime will be not only a pleasure but a necessity. The old anarcho-Illegalists showed the way: individual expropriation. Getting caught of course spoils the whole thing—but risk is an aspect of self-authenticity.
One scenario I’ve imagined for active Escapism would be to move to a remote rural area along with several hundred other libertarian social- ists—enough to take over the local government (municipal or even county) and elect or control the sheriffs & judges, the parent/teacher association, volunteer fire department and even the water authority. Fund the venture with cultivation of illegal phantastice and carry on a discreet trade. Organize as a “Union of Egoists” for mutual benefit & ecstatic plea- sures—perhaps under the guise of “communes” or even monasteries, who cares. Enjoy it as long as it lasts.
I know for a fact that this plan is being worked on in several places in America—but of course I’m not going to say where.
Another possible model for individual escapists might be the nomadic adventurer. Given that the whole world seems to be turning into a giant parking lot or social network, I don’t know if this option remains open, but I suspect that it might. The trick would be to travel in places where tourists don’t—if such places still exist—and to involve oneself in fascinating and dangerous situations. For example if I were young and healthy I’d’ve gone to France to take part in the TAZ that grew around resistance to the new airport—or to Greece—or Mexico—wherever the perverse spirit of rebellion crops up. The problem here is of course funding. (Sending back statues stuffed with hash is no longer a good idea.) How to pay for yr life of adventure? Love will find a way. It doesn’t matter so much if one agrees with the ideals of Tahrir Square or Zucotti Park—the point is just to be there.
3. Revenge. I call it Zarathustra’s Revenge because as Nietzsche said, revenge may be second rate but it’s not nothing. One might enjoy the satisfaction of terrifying the bastards for at least a few moments. Formerly I advocated “Poetic Terrorism” rather than actual violence, the idea being that art could be wielded as a weapon. Now I’ve rather come to doubt it. But perhaps weapons might be wielded as art. From the sledgehammer of the Luddites to the black bomb of the attentat, destruction could serve as a form of creativity, for its own sake, or for purely aesthetic reasons, without any illusions about revolution. Oscar Wilde meets the acte gratuit: a dandyism of despair.
What troubles me about this idea is that it seems impossible to distinguish here between the action of post-leftist anarcho-nihil- ists and the action of post-rightist neo-traditionalist reactionaries. For that matter, a bomb may as well be detonated by fundamentalist fanatics—what difference would it make to the victims or the “innocent bystanders”? Blowing up a nanotechnology lab—why shouldn’t this be the act of a desperate monarchist as easily as that of a Nietzschean anarchist?
In a recent book by Tiqqun (Theory of Bloom), it was fascinating to come suddenly across the constellation of Nietzsche, Rene Guenon, Julius Evola, et al. as examples of a sharp and just critique of the Bloom syndrome—i.e., of progress-as-illusion. Of course the “beyond left and right” position has two sides—one approaching from the left, the other from the right. The European New Right (Alain de Benoist & his gang) are big admirers of Guy Debord, for a similar reason (his critique, not his proposals).
The post-left can now appreciate Traditionalism as a reaction against modernity just as the neo-traditionalists can appreciate Situationism. But this doesn’t mean that post-anarchist anarchists are identical with post-fascism fascists!
I’m reminded of the situation in fin-de-siecle France that gave rise to the strange alliance between anarchists and monarchists; for example the Cerce Proudhon. This surreal conjunction came about for two reasons: a) both factions hated liberal democracy, and b) the monarchists had money. The marriage gave birth to weird progeny, such as Georges Sorel. And Mussolini famously began his career as an Individualist anarchist!
Another link between left & right could be analyzed as a kind of existentialism; once again Nietzsche is the founding parent here, I think. On the left there were thinkers like Gide or Camus. On the right, that illuminated villain Baron Julius Evola used to tell his little ultra-right groupus- cules in Rome to attack the Modern World—even though the restoraton of tradition was a hopeless dream—if only as an act of magical self-creation. Being trumps essence. One must cherish no attachment to mere results. Surely Tiqqun’s advocacy of the “perfect Surrealist act” (firing a revolver at random into a crowd of “innocent by-standers”) partakes of this form of action- as-despair. (Incidentally I have to confess that this is the sort of thing that has always—to my regret—prevented my embraing Surrealism: it’s just too cruel. I don’t admire de Sade, either.)
Of course, as we know, the problem with the Traditionalists is that they were never traditional enough. They looked back at a lost civilization as their “goal” (religion, mysticism, monarchism, arts-&-crafts, etc.) whereas they should have realized that the real tradition is the “primordial anarchy” of the Stone Age, tribalism, hunting/gathering, animism—what I call the Neanderthal Liberation Front. Paul Goodman used the term “Neolithic Conservatism” to describe his brand of anarchism—but “Paleolithic Reaction” might be more appropriate!
The other major problem with the Traditionalist Right is that the entire emotional tone of the movement is rooted in self-repression. Here a rough Reichean analysis suffices to demonstrate that the authoritarian body reflects a damaged soul, and that only anarchy is compatible with real self-realization.
The European New Right that arose in the 90s still carries on its propaganda—and these chaps are not just vulgar nationalist chauvenist anti-semitic homophobic thugs—they’re intellectuals & artists. I think they’re evil, but that doesn’t mean I find them boring. Or even wrong on certain points. They also hate the nanotechnologists!
Although I attempted to set off a few bombs back in the 1960s (against the war in Vietnam) I’m glad, on the whole, that they failed to detonate (technology was never my metier). It saves me from wondering if I would’ve experienced “moral qualms”. Instead I chose the path of the propagandist and remained an activist in anarchist media from 1984 to about 2004. I collaborated with the Autonomedia publishing collective, the IWW, the John Henry Mack- ay Society (Left Stirnerites) and the old NYC Libertarian Book Club (founded by comrades of Emma Goldman, some of whom I knew, & who are now all dead). I had a radio show on WBAI (Pacifica) for 18 years. I lectured all over Europe and East Europe in the 90s. I had a very nice time, thank you. But anarchism seems even farther off now than it looked in 1984, or indeed in 1958, when I first became an anarchist by reading George Harriman’s Krazy Kat. Well, being an existentialist means you never have to say you’re sorry.
In the last few years in anarchist circles there’s appeared a trend “back” to Stirner/Nietzsche Individualism—because after all, who can take revolutionary anarcho- communism or syndicalism seriously anymore? Since I’ve adhered to this Individualist position for decades (although tempered by admiration for Charles Fourier and certain “spiritual anarchists” like Gustave Landauer) I naturally find this trend agreeable.
“Green anarchists” & AntiCivilization Neo-primitivists seem (some of them) to be moving toward a new pole of attraction, nihilism. Perhaps neo-nihilism would serve as a better label, since this tendency is not simply replicating the nihilism of the Russian narodniks or the French attentatists of circa 1890 to 1912, however much the new nihilists look to the old ones as precursors. I share their critique—in fact I think I’ve been mirroring it to a large extent in this essay: creative despair, let’s call it. What I do not understand however is their proposal—if any. “What is to be done?” was originally a nihilist slogan, after all, before Lenin appropriated it. I presume that my option #1, passive escape, would not suit the agenda. As for Active Escapism, to use the suffix “ism” implies some form not only of ideology but also some action. What is the logical outcome of this train of thought?
As an animist I experience the world (outside Civilization) as essentially sentient. The death of God means the rebirth of the gods, as Nietzsche implied in his last “mad” letters from Turin— the resurrection of the great god PAN—chaos, Eros, Gaia, & Old Night, as Hesiod put it—Ontological anarchy, Desire, Life itself, & the Darkness of revolt & negation—all seem to me as real as they need to be.
I still adhere to a certain kind of spiritual anarchism—but only as heresy and paganism, not as orthodoxy and monotheism. I have great respect for Dorothy Day—her writing influenced me in the 60s—and Ivan Illich, whom I knew personally—but in the end I cannot deal with the cognitive dissonance between anarchism and the Pope! Nevertheless I can believe in the re-paganaziation of monotheism. I hold to this pagan tradition because I sense the universe as alive, not as “dead matter.” As a life-long psychedelicist I have always thought that matter & spirit are identical, and that this fact alone legitimizes what Theory calls “desire”.
From this p.o.v. the phrase “revolution of everyday life” still seems to have some validity—if only in terms of the second proposal, Active Escapism or the TAZ. As for the third possibility— Zarathustra’s Revenge—this seems like a possible path for the new nihilism, at least from a philosophical perspective. But since I am unable personally to advocate it, I leave the question open.
But here—I think—is the point at which I both meet with & diverge from the new nihilism. I too seem to believe that Predatory Capitalism has won and that no revolution is possible in the classical sense of that term. But somehow I can’t bring myself to be “against everything.” Within the Temporary Autonomous Zone there still seems to persist the possiblity of “authentic life,” if only for a moment— and if this position amounts to mere Escapism, then let us become Houdini. The new surge of interest in Individualism is obviously a response to the Death of the Social. But does the new nihilism imply the death even of the individual and the “union of egoists” or Nietzschean free spirits? On my good days, I like to think not.
No matter which of the three paths one takes (or others I can’t yet imagine) it seems to me that the essential thing is not to collapse into mere apathy. Depression we may have to accept, impotent rage we may have to accept, revolutionary pessimism we may have to accept. But as e.e. cummings (anarchist poet) said, there is some shit we will not take, lest we simply become the enemy by default. Can’t go on, must go on. Cultivate rosebuds, even selfish pleasures, as long as a few birds & flowers still remain. Even love may not be impossible...
SOURCE: The Anvil Review http://theanvilreview.org/
for further inquiry follow the comments here: http://anarchistnews.org/content/new-nihilism and here: http://www.anarchistnews.org/content/new-nihilism-forum-topic-comment-section
a comment at the essay by Emile:
THE FOURTH OPTION NOT MENTIONED BY WILSON
i kind of like this author's [peter lamborn wilson’s] writing style with its nuance of coolness and humour, and have the feeling that it's been on anarchistnews.org before (it was evidently written in july, 2014).
meanwhile, my gut reaction is rejection of this boring and repeated insistence that change in the world is something we are going to see. 'here it comes, folks, ... things are starting to move in the right direction, ... we're on our way now, ... put your shoulder behind it and we'll take it the full hundred yards down to touchdown.
surely this impression that we have to see change happening is our ego talking. how about "life is what happens to us while we're busy making other plans" [john lennon]. what about that sort of change? ... where we're blind-sided by it?
are we not too much the puppet of our own intention? "i want this to happen and it is not happening,... here' comes my childhood-tantrum".
there are quite a few references to nietzsche here, but none to ‘amor fati’, love of fate;
“My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it…but love it. -- Nietzsche, 'Ecce Homo'
it is only a cheap form of anti-authorianism that rejects all imposition of authority except one’s own. “this revolution or transition has to start happening now, damn it, or i am going to have to give up on this world”.
in true anarchist style, nietzsche sees the world in terms of a ceaseless, goal-less Becoming, as in the ‘transforming relational activity continuum of modern physics’;
“And do you know what “the world” is to me? Shall I show it to you in my mirror? This world: a monster of energy, without beginning, without end; a firm, iron magnitude of force that does not grow bigger or smaller, that does not expend itself but only transforms itself; as a whole, of unalterable size, a household without expenses or losses, but likewise without increase or income …” –Nietzsche, ‘The Will to Power’, 1067
Such a world is not in the state of ‘becoming’ in the sense of working its way towards a goal outside of it, in which case, it’s current state would be deficient relative to that goal, kind of like a sinful world that is in the process of being redeemed.
no doubt, most of us are not keen on even ‘trying on’ this amor fati because we don’t want to ‘get comfortable’ with ‘not caring’ whether anything changes in the way we want to see it change. we don’t want to lose our Atman individuality and dissolve into pure Brahman holeness.
But, maybe its possible to be ‘both at the same time’ so it could be interesting to follow along with Nietzsche and see what he’s up to with the Amor fati thing, per this guided tour by ulfers and cohen;
“Amor fati is the embrace of the world that is as it is—eternally Becoming—not as it “should” be, for there is no “should,” no imperative that it be, or be transformed into, something other than it is. Put differently, Amor fati is the embrace of a world that is an implicate order of freedom and necessity: of freedom in that it is free from any “should” that would judge it to be deficient, and from any goal that “should” be attained, and of necessity because the lack of a goal to be achieved allows the world its “must,” its having to be what it is, not what it is made by an authority beyond the perimeters of the world.
... In other words, fate, as Nietzsche interprets it, is the emblem of his insight that there is nothing—nihil—outside the transitoriness of the world of eternal Becoming. Fate, then, is the name for a totally immanent, perpetually transitory world that is not subject to the finality of a goal outside of it, the achievement of which would redeem the “guiltiness” of Becoming. Amor fati is the embrace of the world that is as it is—eternally Becoming—not as it “should” be, for there is no “should,” no imperative that it be, or be transformed into, something other than it is. Put differently, Amor fati is the embrace of a world that is an implicate order of freedom and necessity: of freedom in that it is free from any “should” that would judge it to be deficient, and from any goal that “should” be attained, and of necessity because the lack of a goal to be achieved allows the world its “must,” its having to be what it is, not what it is made by an authority beyond the perimeters of the world.
In particular, it can be said that Nietzsche’s appeal to love of fate is the consequence of his thesis of the “death of God,” love of a supreme center of the value of Being that guaranteed meaning to a meaningless world of Becoming—the authority beyond the limits of the world. The fate of Amor fati “frees” us, then, to a world of radical immanence, a world beyond the dualism of immanence and transcendence. Nietzsche characterizes this world as whole in the sense of an interconnectedness or web-like structure Nietzsche describes as Verhängnis (literally a “hanging together”), a word that also means “fate.” Given that the world of interconnectedness (Verhängnis) is its own fate (Verhängnis), it is beyond any outside determinism because there is no outside to the whole. Given a radically holistic world, there is no outside to its Verhängnis, and thus we must be what we are: Verhängnis. As Nietzsche puts it succinctly: “One is necessary, one is a piece of fatefulness [Verhängnis], one belongs to the whole, one is the whole.” -- Friedrich Ulfers and Mark Daniel Cohen. Nietzsche's Amor Fati – The Embracing of an Undecided Fate. Poiesis – A Journal of the Arts and Communication. 2002. (English)
whether or not we can ‘get into it’, there is this suggestion here that everything finds its meaning and value in everything else in a relational web-structure. this is a shift from where we are when we are impatient for change to start rolling out in the direction we want it to. because that has to be coming from our ego, and our confidence that we know what’s good for the world and we want to help ‘bring it on’. but in a ‘web-of-life’ situation, we are the pushing and pulling we are situationally included in. we are the evolving world. we are the agents of transformation.
meanwhile, we tend to think of ourselves as little ants who can’t make a mark on world change unless we can band together and have a whole lot of ants pulling or pushing together in the same direction. and if that’s no happening then we feel like giving up on changing the world, and when that happens, its like the world is drifting along without us and is impervious to our attempts to change it.
this is the nihilism that nietzsche warns about. it comes from ‘the death of God’ in a simple sense of leaving the world and life ‘meaningless’ since there is nothing above it all to give it meaning. however, the death of a source of meaning that lies beyond the world of becoming could mean that the ‘meaning’ or ‘value’ is inside the world in the evolutionary web-of-life itself. in this case, whatever is unfolding is unfolding the way it must.
so, ... we go [in our understanding of ourselves] from being an ant amongst ants who need to band together to construct a future state of the world that we know is a ‘good’ state, ... to abandoning the notion that the world needs to go to some state that is improved over where it is and understanding ourselves as being co-evolver of the world, ... then we are never ‘out of the game’ and never rendered ‘useless’. instead of seeing ourselves as ‘doers of deeds’ that must somehow make a mark on the world, we see ourselves ‘as the world’, as agent of transformation flow features in the fluid world.
nietzsche was on the same wavelength as emerson on this;
“Whilst a necessity so great caused the man to exist, his health and erectness consist in the fidelity with which he transmits influences from the vast and universal to the point on which his genius can act. The ends are momentary: they are vents for the current of inward life which increases as it is spent. A man’s wisdom is to know that all ends are momentary, that the best end must be superseded by a better. But there is a mischievous tendency in him to transfer his thought from the life to the ends, to quit his agency and rest in his acts: the tools run away with the workman, the human with the divine.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘The Method of Nature’
dealing with the frustration of our ego in this way, is not amongst the options given by wilson, but it clearly seems to be one that was actually exercised by nietzsche, who felt that the sort of change he was looking for; i.e. the tranvaluation of all values, ... was a couple of centuries away which would be punctuated by a bad bout of nihilism before we had cultivated the amor fati antidote.
it’s not that this transition isn’t possible. indigenous anarchist infants are brought up with this web-of-life worldview foundation. but the challenge in getting back into it after being raised a Western civilized kid, is enormous. while it is more difficult than the three options that wilson mentioned, it is not impossible and it is therefore worth mentioning it as a fourth (and preferred) option.
Thursday, July 9, 2015
This is a response of the Revolutionary Union for Internationalist Solidarity (from greece) and the International Freedom Battalion's full statement upon the announcement of it's creation.
R.U.I.S.' solidarity response:
The Revolutionary Union for Internationalist Solidarity is a formation for struggle with the aim to practice solidarity in the international field of armed conflicts on the the side of the classes of the oppressed who fight towards social liberation from the domination of states and of capital.
Solidarity in practice should bear characteristics of a common struggle at every critical point, a struggle which creates the world of revolution and which through its radical character, breaks the boundaries of tyranny, of oppression and of exploitation.
Specially, in responding to the call-out of MLKP for international solidarity we decided to take part with commitment to the necessities of the social struggle in Kurdistan.
We are there to offer our services to the struggle and to learn from the multi-faceted and resourceful living revolutionary process.
We recognise in this struggle:
-Its fundamental class character
-Its anti-fascist and anti-imperialist character
-Its social liberation character
Along with the multiform reinforcement of the revolutionary forces in Syria, Iraq, Turkey and the wider Middle East, the Revolutionary Union for Internationalist Solidarity aims to open up a path of solidarity from Greece, which will not only attempt to realise the vision of Internationalist Revolutionary Solidarity, but will also pursue the coordination and collaboration beyond the local boundaries.
Even though we have formulated our own political programme towards libertarian communism, we recognise the fundamental value of a broad collectivisation based on a broad range of conditions while at the same time each participant maintains their autonomy.
FOR THE SOCIAL REVOLUTION
R.U.I.S. April 2015
The International Freedom Battalion's full statement upon the announcement of it's creation:
“The Middle East has been a bloodbath because of imperialist vampires and exploiters. These same forces brought together the ISIS so that people in the region would bow down to occupation and oppression. The ISIS gangs massacre Christian, Êzîdî, Assyrian, and Muslim peoples. Gangs sell women and children in slave markets and organise massive executions in ways that resemble the centuries-long strategies of their imperialist masters.
The organised peoples’ resistance against these forces’ desire to destroy their languages, faiths, lives, and identities has been led by the People's and Women's Protection Units (YPG-YPJ) and was successful in places such as Kobanê, Şengal, Til-Hemis, and Serekaniyê.
The Rojava revolution came to the fore of global politics and the YPG-YPJ resistance is admired and supported by impoverished masses. With international fighters, Rojava became today’s Bekaa and Palestine. The Rojava Revolution is the Paris Commune under German siege, Madrid during the Spanish civil war, and Stalingrad during the 2nd Imperitalist War (WW2).
The Rojava revolution has upset the balance of power in neighboring countries, especially Turkey, and has become the heart of world revolution and the beacon of resistance for oppressed peoples.
As a women’s revolution, Rojava has strengthened women’s will and become the symbol of struggle against patriarchy and global bigotry.
Revolutionaries across the world have turned their attention to Rojava and never hesitated to fight and die for victory here in order to expand the revolution.
Revolutionary forces in Turkey and different parts of the globe have come to Rojava in order to strengthen the revolution and expand the war to the lands they came from.
We fight in Rojava, die as martyrs and carry the banner of resistance…
We fight at the frontline against imperialism and bigots in the region…
We confront the ISIS gangs’ brutal attacks on the revolution…
We live the revolution and feel it in our veins and cells…
We are the people in Kurdistan who made the Rojava revolution, the workers, oppressed people, women and internationalist revolutionaries who fight under the banner of the YPG-YPJ…
We are Spanish, German, Greek, Turkish, Arab, Armenian, Laz, Circassian, and Albanian…
We are the revolutionary forces and organisations that have come together from different parts of the world to form the INTERNATIONALIST FREEDOM BRIGADE.
All oppressed people, workers, laborers, women, youth, religious groups, ecologists, anti-imperialists, anti-fascists, anti-capitalists, democrats and revolutionaries of the world; we call on you to fight under the banner of the INTERNATIONALIST FREEDOM BRIGADE in order to defend the Rojava revolution and expand it to establish people’s fraternity in the Middle East and rest of the world…”
Tuesday, May 5, 2015
In two previous essay, I discussed the role of the Left in protecting the police through cautious reformism, and the effectiveness of a pacified, falsified—in a word disarmed—history of the Civil Rights movement to prevent us from learning from previous struggles and achieving a meaningful change in society.
The police are a racist, authoritarian institution that exists to protect the powerful in an unequal system. Past and present efforts to reform them have demonstrated that reformism can’t solve the problem, though it does serve to squander popular protests and advance the careers of professional activists. Faced with this situation, in which Left and Right unwittingly collude to prolong the problem, the extralegal path of rioting, seizing space, and fighting back against the police makes perfect sense. In fact, this phenomenon, denounced as “violence” by the media, the police, and many activists in unison, was not only the most significant feature of the Ferguson (and Baltimore) rebellion and the solidarity protests organized in hundreds of other cities, it was also the vital element that made everything else possible, that distinguished the killing of Michael Brown from a hundred other police murders. What’s more, self-defense against state violence (whether excercized by police or by tolerated paramilitaries like the Klan) is not an exceptional occurrence in a long historical perspective, but a tried and true form of resistance, and one of the only that has brought results, in the Civil Rights movement and earlier.
What remains is to speak about possibilities that are radically external to the self-regulating cycle of tragedy and reform. What remains is to speak loudly and clearly about a world without police.
We don’t want better police. We don’t want to fix the police. On the contrary, we understand that the police work quite well; they simply do not work for us and they never have. We want to get rid of the police entirely, and we want to live in a world where police are not necessary.
Far from being a naïve position, I believe it is the only one that can withstand serious scrutiny, whether in the form of a comprehensive historical analysis of the role and evolution of police and the effectiveness of reform movements, or of an examination of the breadth of possibility that human societies have already demonstrated.
No one can effectively argue that the police are necessary in an absolute sense. They are a relatively recent invention, as far as institutions go. The only question is what kind of society needs police, and whether that kind of society makes the systematic murders, torture, beatings, and surveillance worth it.
Dennis Sullivan and Larry Tifft have compiled a great deal of information on societies that use various forms of conflict resolution in which an organization such as the police has no place. From the Diné (Navajo) to the Semai, there are dozens of societies—all of them impacted to varying degrees by Western colonialism—that have practiced restorative or transformative justice, dealing with cases of conflict or social harm without ever having to be so brutal as to lock people up in cages or create an elite body designed to surveille people or mobilize organized violence against those who transgress set laws. They compare neighboring societies that face similar socio-economic conditions but use different strategies for dealing with harm, as well as Western societies that make minimal usage of policing and judicial apparatuses.
A pattern that becomes immediately evident is that police and prisons are only necessary in societies that are based on exploitation and inequality. The police are not an instrument fit to protect a society; on the contrary they are an instrument fit to protect an elite, parasitical class from society. Any society with a minimal practice of cooperation and solidarity can protect itself from individuals who would harm others. A hierarchical, militarized force such as the police, or an institution like the prison designed to remove conflict and transgression from the social sphere, only makes sense where there is a parasitical social class that exists in antagonism with the rest of society, and needs to manage social norms of right and wrong and monopolize violent force in order to preserve its power. Such a class also needs a justice mechanism, such as courts and a legislative body, to formalize its conception of right and wrong, and a propaganda mechanism, whether a state religion or mass media, to ensure that the exploited majority identify with their masters and reproduce the norms of the elite. When a normal person speaks out against throwing rocks at the police or destroying businesses, they are expressing values that originate at the top of the social pyramid.
Of course it gets more complicated when you realize that interests are always subjective, and people often get more out of identifying with a larger community, no matter how fictitious, than they do out of having food to eat or a roof over their heads. In the end, everyone from the CEO to the news anchor to the taxi driver or homebum with conventional ideas all participate in reproducing the same system, and they probably all sincerely believe in the positions they espouse, but some clearly have more influence than others, and can be identified as originators of certain aspects of the present system.
Therefore, we are not speaking for the masses when we assert that the police and the prisons exist to control them, but we should also not shy away from espousing a radical position just because it will be unpopular. We need to have faith that a great many people might eventually come to support radical positions regarding the police. Many people already support parts of these positions intuitively or implicitly, and the reason that more people don’t, at least not expressly, is that so few people currently dare to declare the police an intractable enemy of freedom or to openly advocate a world without police. At this juncture, the last thing that we need is for more people to espouse tepid, inane suggestions for reform that are completely untenable and unrealistic. But as long as proposals for meager reform are taken seriously, that’s what we’ll get.
We can’t get rid of police brutality without getting rid of the police, and we can’t get rid of the police without getting rid of an entire system based on exploitation, oppression, and hierarchy. There is no easy, band-aid solution to this problem, and bandying them about only perpetuates the problem. Foregrounding difficult, far-reaching changes does not mean, however, fixating an abstract gaze on a pre-designed future and blinding ourselves to immediate problems. On the contrary, we need to focus on how we fight now for a better world, and part of that means avoiding forms of action that make real changes even more improbable.
As I argued in Part II, most of what was achieved in the Civil Rights movement in terms of short-term changes was achieved when people armed themselves, took over their streets, and fought back without worrying about ruling class taboos against lower class violence. If we fight for total social transformation without proposing naïve reforms, those in power will trip over themselves trying to buy us off with quick fixes and opportunities to participate in the system.
This in fact is how most social movements in history have gone down. Whatever improvements have been won were actually won by those who fought for radical positions, using uncompromising methods and aggressive tactics, though the victories were claimed by the reformers, who tend to be a combination of dissident members of the ruling structures, opportunists who wish to climb the social ladder, and sincere people who have been duped by a discourse of pragmatism. Their own methods are too sedate to shake things up and force a change, in fact their timidity demonstrates to authority that they are ultimately a loyal opposition undeserving of repression. They must ride the coattails of the radicals in order to be in position when the rulers realize that some change is necessary in order to avoid an actual revolution. The reason that these movements always stop after an incomplete reform, and that the most ineffective sectors of these movements tend to get the credit, is because the reformers have a tendency to throw the radicals under the bus, helping the State eliminate them in exchange for access to power in its newly reformed configuration. After all, who better to discern what reform will best fool the people on bottom than someone who has recently come up from the bottom?
I previously mentioned that a police apparatus cannot exist without a hierarchical society, a prison system, a justice system, and some kind of culture industry, whether religious or mediatic. All of these institutions defend a ruling structure against the conflicts generated by its antagonistic position towards society. Modern democracies go a step further, however; if conflict with society is inevitable, why not manage it rather than trying to suppress it?
In Ferguson, the managers of social conflict were in large part those activists who preached nonviolence and denounced the rioters, as I mentioned in Part I. But there is an important kind of management I neglected to mention.
Those of us who are critical of the mass media may have a hard time explaining the sympathetic position that Time Magazine or Rolling Stone occasionally took with the rioters. Of course, a couple articles hardly make up for thousands of syndicated columns objectively refering to rioters as some kind of pathological parasite, radio hosts calling looters “idiots” and worse, TV spots spreading fear about savage hordes of demons and outside agitators, days long NPR marathons urging peaceful protest, and so on. Nonetheless, the phenomenon is curious as well as significant. In the case of Rolling Stone, we could suppose that this old establishment rag is afraid of all the ground it has lost in the risqué news niche to dynamic newcomers like Vice; however the explanation would be insufficient.
The seemingly subversive behavior of a few outliers is hardly unprecedented. In the recent insurrection in Greece, a large part of the media expressed sympathy with the rioters, albeit in a very formulaic way. In the media lens, young students were justifiably protesting in the streets after the police murder of 15-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos, anarchists were hijacking the event to burn police stations, and immigrants were taking advantage of the situation to loot stores. None of these characterizations are based on fact. Millions of young people and old, Greeks and immigrants, participated in the uprising, in a variety of ways. Many students looted, many immigrants walked along with protests. A frequently expressed sentiment was that participation in the insurrection blurred all of these pre-established identities, in which case the media operation clearly intended to reassert them. With all three subjects, the media caricature refers to a prefabricated figure that the entire population was already familiar with—the socially concerned student, the pyromaniac anarchist, the criminal immigrant—that only ever existed on the glowing screen, because it was the media themselves that created it. That’s the brilliance of the media: they rarely have to verify their claims, because they operate within a virtual universe that they themselves have created.
In the Greek example, it is obvious why the media would sympathize with student rioting: to discourage non-students from participating or identifying with the uprising; and to establish a limit of acceptable tactics, implicitly criminalizing the looting and the attacks on police stations. After all, the intensity of street fighting over three uninterrupted weeks was forcing the government to consider calling in the military. They were willing to tolerate burning barricades and illegal protests if things didn’t go further.
Likewise, when people start to bring guns to protests as in Ferguson, there will be those among the forces of law and order who begin to see the wisdom in tolerating the smashing of banks. It’s noteworthy that the media only begin to stomach property destruction when talk of shooting back begins to resonate throughout society. And though within the confines of American dialogue, it feels like a breath of fresh air that Time Magazine would sympathize with rioters, it is a more or less calculated move that functions to limit the growth of resistance. Even if the editors of a magazine are not scheming consciously and explicitly about how to maintain social control, they are still individuals with a vested interest in the current system. People fighting fiercely for their freedom, unlike those who compulsively walk in circles or stage die-ins, often force a recognition of their humanity and win a limited sympathy from their enemies. They also make the existence of a social conflict undeniable. In such a case, people in power may come to accept tactics that they had previously condemned, to acknowledge errors they had previously denied, but their condemnation of forms of rebellion that are irreversibly destabilizing will only crystalize. People can be permitted to blow off steam, even in illegal ways, but they cannot be permitted to blunt or sabotage the instruments of the State. And when the police confront an armed population, they are suddenly much less effective.
Another way that exceptional dissent might manifest is in the realm of discourse and research. I am by no means the first person to express the idea that the police should be abolished, nor is this idea entirely strange in acceptable discourse among people who are much better dressed than I am. However the elaboration of these discourses must be couched in certain ways to signal their usefulness to the State, and their separation from communities in struggle.
If we assert that it is not permitted to speak of a world without police, this is only true if we understand the police as one function in an interlocking system of domination, and the abolition of the police means the abolition of that entire system. Otherwise, there is a great deal of research and debate that maps out the possibilities of prison abolition or an end to policing as we know it. But what is the actual meaning and effect of this discourse?
I would start by arguing that the vast majority of those who conduct this theoretical labor have good intentions. But we also know what they say about good intentions, and the paving stones on the road to hell are not nearly as substantial as the ones being thrown at cops in Ferguson and elsewhere. With this facile figure of speech, I actually mean to suggest a different criterion for evaluating our actions.
I gladly admit that the information produced by academics or activists who theorize about prison abolition or a world without police is thought-provoking and useful. I have cited a few examples of it in this essay. But just as we must ask why Time Magazine would sympathize with rioters, we should ask why there exist paid positions for people to study prison abolition. Either capitalism isn’t a totality, or the prisons and the police are not an integral part of power, or power benefits somehow by studying its own abolition.
I believe the answer lies between the second and the third possibilities. Even though the abolition of prisons is not a likely future, from the present vantage, democratic capitalism increases its chances for survival by exploring contingency plans for extreme cases, and by giving opponents employment opportunities. The advantage is increased if “prisons” or “police” can be discursively transformed from an integral element of a whole system into a particular appendage that can be discarded or modified. And there are few methods of discourse more suited to carrying out this transformation than the academic—which favors specificity and an analysis of parts over wholes—and the activist—which tends towards single-issue messaging that favors the myopic over the radical.
Someone in the academy or in the world of professional activism can study the police for all the right reasons, personally holding a global analysis of the integral role of police within a greater whole, but the institutional formulae of applying for grants, publishing articles, and claiming concrete improvements all modulate those individuals’ activity to favor a piecemeal worldview and to direct discourse at other power-holders.
It may sound like a platitude but I believe experience in struggle bears it out: you cannot abolish that with which you dialogue. State authority above all thrives on being present in every social conversation. A conversation with employers, legislators, grant-writers, or experts about the abolition of the police necessarily assumes the replacement of one form of policing with another.
The modern prison was born out of the abolition of the scaffold. Community policing was a survival mechanism after the defeats and the unpopularity of the police caused by the struggles of the ’60s. The danger is real.
Even without a far-reaching reform that allows the powerful to regenerate their methods for accumulating power, radical discourses in professional channels present other problems. One I have already hinted at can be thought of as misdirection.
Let’s imagine an organization that focuses on prison abolition. Their employees are sincere, dedicated activists, some of them proven veterans of past struggles. Nearly all of them are college graduates, and some might be academics; otherwise they stay in close contact with the experts who produce facts that make it easier to argue for prison abolition in polite circles. They produce many valuable materials that can be useful for supporting prisoners or changing people’s opinions about the prison system, and they may even have a pilot project on a couple blocks in a specific neighborhood, designed to decrease reliance on the prison industrial complex.
Taken individually, all of these things are great. We need more people who are talking about a world without prisons. But the ideas that this hypothetical organization spreads, how do they direct people’s attentions, particularly in a moment of social rebellion?
When such an organization, with paid staff, non-profit status, cred, but also rules to play by and bills to pay, proclaims that “We need to abolish the police and the prisons,” what is the practical implication? “Therefore this organization should receive more grants and this law should not be passed,” or “therefore these people who took up arms against the police deserve our support”? Clearly, it’s not the latter.
A professional approach to tackling the social problems underscored by Ferguson rarely returns people’s energies and attentions to the streets, where real change is created. True, most of the time, we don’t have something like Ferguson going on, so a patient, gradualist method seems to make sense. However, the conservatism of the professional approach often leads activists to play a pacifying role when a moment of intense struggle arises, as we abundantly witnessed this August and again in November. All across the country, even where they refrained from denouncing rioters, activist organizations called for vigils and speak-outs, when it was clear that the time for mere words had passed. Directly or indirectly, these mobilizations allowed a middle-class constituency to monopolize the social response and prevent rioting, at a time when an unprecedented number of people were ready to fight back.
What’s more, the assumptions are all wrong. Ferguson is only exceptional in its extension, not in its spirit. Not a month goes by when someone does not shoot back at the police in America. Most of the time, however, they are a lone shooter, they often kill themselves or die in the act, and the media always publish unsavory details about their personal lives, true or invented. They also portray the cops as heroes, no matter what kind of people they actually were, and they never entertain the possibility that the shooters were justified, as they always do when it’s cops doing the murdering (actually, this is too charitable a description; many media outlets assert from the beginning that the killing was justified, not even allowing a debate). The recent shooting of the two cops in NYC fits the pattern perfectly, but earlier cases like that of Christopher Monfort in Seattle, Eric Frein in Pennsylvania, or Christopher Dorner in LA also apply. None of this should be surprising. There is a certain schizophrenia in a society that glorifies the police and suppresses or distorts any honest conversation about what people actually experience at the hands of police and what sort of countermeasures are adequate or justified. If large numbers of alienated people feel entirely alone in their brutalization and dehumanization by police, collective resistance becomes impossible. The only people to express an active negation of the police will be individuals who reach a certain limit and then snap. By the very nature of the problem they are not going to be the stable ones, especially if mental health is defined as an infinite capacity to accomodate misery.
In Ferguson, rioters spraypainted the QT with the phrase, “free Kevin Johnson”, referring to a black man from an aggressively gentrifying St. Louis suburb who is on death row since 2008. Johnson shot to death an infamous bully of a cop who refused to help his kid brother as he lay dying from a heart condition. There is a direct connection between what are portrayed as isolated outbursts of senseless violence, and the massive rebellions that force society to at least stop and pay attention. I don’t, however, see the professionals making this connection. Typically they are either silent or help pathologize the lone wolves. The tragedy is, such incidents are only isolated as long as people in power AND people in social movements continue to actively isolate them.
Recognizing the basic legitimacy of these acts isn’t to glorify the shooters as heroes. There is something sad in any death, no matter who the victim is, and we’re in dire straits when the only available means of resistance that people think they have are directly suicidal. The point is, there is a direct connection between the systematic brutality of police and the appearance of people who shoot back. Denying it only maintains the schizophrenic condition that forces us to pathologize a sensible human response to systematic abuse, preserves our psychological loyalty to a system that treats us like fodder, and prevents the development of collective measures.
There have been attempts in the US to develop and spread methods of resistance to police that are collective, that brook no compromise, and that are less dangerous, less suicidal, than the method of the lone gunmen. The best known is probably the “black bloc.” And though it is clearly an imperfect tool, the bloc typically faces blanket denunciations by people who make no attempts to propose alternatives. In NGO-land, the trope that has been circulated is that the black bloc is the domain of young white men. Never mind that there are many testimonials by women, queer, and trans people attempting to counter this lie (and at great personal risk, since it requires speaking about personal involvement in an illegal activity); never mind that American anarchists have learned about the tactic not only in Europe but also in Latin America, where it is widely popular. The denunciations cannot be taken seriously as criticisms because they do not rely on realistic portrayals of the black bloc, they are formulated to silence rather than to engage, and they do not propose any alternatives for seizing space or collectively fighting back against police.
The extent to which this trope has been circulated by the corporate media reveals just how liberatory the thinking behind it truly is.
But the black bloc is just one possibility among many, and while it helps demonstrators protect themselves in rowdy street confrontations, it does not suggest to most people the vision of another world. Talking about a world without police in the here and now, without paving the way for our own co-optation is a big order to fill. Fortunately, the conversation is already ongoing.
We have the examples of societies that thrived without police, which I mentioned towards the beginning of the essay. Those stories belong to other cultures. I don’t think Westerners should use them as models or as ideological capital, but I think we should recognize their existence, to break the stranglehold that Western civilization has over definitions of human nature and human possibility, and we should also recognize that those other forms of being were violently interrupted by processes of colonization that are still ongoing. They are not marginal, idyllic stories of “primitive” societies with no bearing on modern reality, they are histories of peoples who are still struggling for survival. If, in the worlds we dream of, there is no room for them to reassert themselves independent of our designs, then whatever we create will only be a continuation of the thing we are fighting against.
More appropriate as inspiration for our own action are a number of stories of struggle in Western or westernized countries in which people created police-free zones on the ground. After all, a holistic critique of the police means that by the very nature of the problem, we cannot ask government to institute the needed changes. Real steps towards a world without police can be found in the riots in Ferguson and other cities around the country where people surpassed their self-appointed leaders and actually fought back, rather than just manufacturing yet another spectacle of symbolic dissent. The riots in Ferguson were not only important in an instrumental way, forcing all of society to consider the problem; they also suggested the beginnings of a solution as neighbors came together in solidarity, building new relations amongst themselves, and forcefully ejecting police from the neighborhoods they patrol.
Christiania is an autonomous neighborhood of Copenhagen that has been squatted since 1971. The area, with nearly a thousand inhabitants, organizes itself in assemblies, maintains its own economy and infrastructure, cleans up its trash, produces bicycles and other items in collective workshops, and runs a number of communal spaces. They also resolve their own conflicts, and with the exception of some aggressive incursions and raids, Christiania has been a police-free zone for most of its existence. Initially, the Danish government opted for a soft strategy, hoping that Christiania would eventually fall apart on its own. In the same era, the autonomous movement in the Netherlands and Germany was fighting major battles to defend their squatted spaces, sometimes defeating the police in the streets or burning down shopping malls in retribution for evictions. In context, the Danish approach made sense. However, Christiania thrived. Some suspect that the government was behind the crisis that threatened the autonomous neighborhood’s existence in 1984 when a motorcycle gang moved into the police-free zone to begin selling hard drugs (soft drugs have always been widely used in Christinia, while addictive drugs are vehemently discouraged).
Earlier in Christiania’s history, there had been a fierce debate about how to deal with the problem of drugs. Over intense opposition, a part of the neighborhood decided to request police assistance, but they soon found that the cops were arresting the users of non-addictive drugs and ignoring or even protecting the proliferation of hard drugs. After that, Christiania decided to keep the police out, and their autonomy was well established by the time the motorcycle gang moved in. The gangsters thought they had picked an easy target: a neighborhood of hippies who not only disavowed making use of the police, they actively kept the police out. These drug-pushers, however, had fallen for capitalist mythology, which presents us all as isolated individuals, vulnerable to organized delinquents, and therefore in need of the greatest protection racket of them all, the State. Christiania residents banded together, exercising the same principle of solidarity that was at work in all the other aspects of their lives, fought back, and kicked the motorcycle gang out, using a combination of sabotage, public meetings, pressure, and direct confrontation.
It is no coincidence that the same tools and capacities that allow us to fight back and free ourselves from policing are also the ones we need to protect ourselves from the forms of harm that capitalist democracies prosecute under the rubric of “crime”. Crime and police are two sides of the same coin. They perpetuate each other, and they each rely on a vulnerable, atomized society. A healthy society would have no need for police, no more than it would lock people in cages and hide its problems out of sight rather than deal with the conflicts and deficiencies that led to an act of harm being committed in the first place.
The mutual relationship between police and crime was exquisitely revealed during the popular uprising in Oaxaca in 2006. In June of that year, police viciously attacked the massive encampment staged annually by striking teachers. But the teach ers fought back tooth and nail, quickly joined by many neighbors. They pushed police out of Oaxaca City, which remained autonomous for five months along with large parts of the countryside. People built barricades, which became an important space for socialization as well as self-defense, and they organized topiles, an indigenous tradition that provided volunteers to fight back against police and paramilitaries as well as to look out for fires, acts of robbery, or assault.
The defenders of Oaxaca soon learned that the police were releasing people from their prisons on the condition that they go into the city to commit crimes. In protecting their neighborhoods against these acts, the topiles did not function like Western police forces. They patrolled unarmed, they were volunteers, and they did not have a prerogative to arrest people or impose their will, the way cops do. Upon coming across a robbery, arson, or assault, their function was not only that of first responders, but also to call on the neighbors so everyone could respond collectively. With such a structure, it would be impossible to enforce a legal code against an activity with popular participation. In other words, the topiles could stop a stranger who was robbing the store of a local, working class person (as were many of the neighborhood stores in Oaxaca), but they couldn’t have stopped the neighbors themselves from looting a store they already had an antagonistic, classist relationship with, as was the case in Ferguson.
People in Oaxaca also had to defend themselves from police and paramilitaries, and they did so for five months. The topiles and many others were unarmed. They had to fight back with rocks, fireworks, and molotov cocktails, many of them getting shot in the process. Their bravery allowed hundreds of thousands of people to live in freedom for five months, in a police-free, government-free zone, experimenting with the self-organization of their lives on social, economic, and cultural levels. All the beautiful aspects of the Oaxaca commune are inseperable from their violent struggle against police, involving barricades, slingshots, molotov cocktails, and thousands of people who faced down armed opponents, over a dozen of them giving their lives in the process. In the end, the Mexican state had to send in the military as the only way to crush this flourishing pocket of autonomy.
If we learn from examples like Christiania, Oaxaca, and Ferguson itself, we can fight for a world without police and everything they represent, beginning here and now by creating blocks, neighborhoods, or even entire cities that are at least temporarily police-free zones. Within these spaces we can finally experiment and practice with solutions to all the other interrelated forms of oppression that plague us.
There is something beautiful about people finding the courage to fight back against a more powerful enemy, and people also flourish in surprising ways when they liberate space and take the power to organize their own lives. Neither of these things can be overemphasized. But neither should we romanticize. In the streets of Ferguson and other liberated spaces, much of the ugliness that infuses our society rears its head. But dealing with what had previously been invisible or normalized is an inevitable part of any healing process, and our society is nothing if not sick. Calamities like uprisings and riots can be important catalysts in processes of social healing, and liberated spaces, by forcefully casting aside the previous regime’s norms and relationships, that only functioned to reproduce and invisibilize all the ongoing forms of harm, can give us the opportunity to create new, healthier patterns, and engage in conversations that previously had been impossible. Empowering ourselves to fight back against those who have traumatized us, like the police, can be an important step in upsetting oppressive relations, healing from trauma, and restoring healthy social relations.
This is, however, a dangerous proposition. Fighting back against the police, especially shooting back at them, as was happening in Ferguson, is not a safe activity. Change is never safe. And if we can successfully overcome the police to create a liberated zone, the State will eventually send in the military. Are the soldiers still loyal enough, after these last wars, to open fire on us? Has enough been done to encourage dissension in the ranks, or is the government firmly in control? There is only one way to find out.
It is understandable that many people would not want to face the extreme risks involved with uprooting the oppressions that grip our society. There is nothing wrong with being afraid, so long as you have the courage to admit it. Some people, however, do a great disservice by muddying the waters with myopic proposals that have no hope of making an actual difference.
In the streets, we need to learn how to seize space, to make sure that those who fight back are never isolated, to make collective responses possible so no one has to react in an individual, suicidal way again, and to build a struggle that has room for young and old, for the peaceful and the bellicose, for those who know how to fight and those who know how to heal. It will be a long process, and in the meantime, there is a great need to speak loud and clear about a world without police, so everyone will know there is another way, beyond the false alternatives of obedience or ineffectual reform.
Peter Gelderloos has participated in various initiatives to support prisoners and push the police out of our neighborhoods. He is the author of several books, including Anarchy Works and The Failure of Nonviolence.
He is a comrade and friend of Void Network from 2007 until today
Sunday, April 26, 2015
Morning Star: Surrealism, Marxism, Anarchism, Situation-ism, Utopia.
Introduction by Donald LaCoss (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009).
When members of the surviving old guard of surrealism declared the movement over in October 1969 in Le Monde, there were many dissenters. International adherents to the idea that surrealism is a state of mind rather than a historical movement affirmed their continued loyalty to its revolutionary principles. Lowy locates these at the intersection of Marxism and anarchism, a mix that aims to pose a counterweight to capitalist rationalism and disenchantment (Max Weber) by re-enchanting the world. Myth, poetry, art created in a spirit of revolt by the unleashing of the forces of dream and the unconscious – these have been liberatory gestures and practices that are common to the subjects of Lowy’s engaging essays, from Benjamin to Debord, from Pierre Naville to Vincent Bouonore and Claude Cahun.
It is well known that Andre´ Breton, the founder and leader of the surrealist movement, embraced revolutionary Marxism in the “Second Manifesto of Surrealism” in 1930; at the same time, the founder of the surrealist movement, who insisted that “language has been given to man so that he may make surrealist use of it” was unlikely, from the start, to adhere to any party line. Lowy characterizes Breton’s Marxism as “libertarian,” a mix of the revolt against Western civilization and bourgeois norms of morality and normality, combined with the explosive force of poetry (Lautre´amont, Rimbaud) and the English gothic novel. When Breton visited Trotsky in Mexico in 1938, the important text they co-authored was the call “For an Independent Revolutionary Art,” which asserts the anarchist ideal of absolute freedom for artists. Breton conceived of this freedom as dialectical in the sense that artists were called to break away from the confining circles of rationality, decorum, and the “beautiful.” Breton was a Hegelian as much as a Marxist. In place of the old hegemonic myths (surrealists excoriated their civilization which had put in place the “myth of money”), they proposed the “morning star” that they linked to the mythical rebellion of Lucifer. Myth without religion – surrealist texts and exhibitions were well-known for proposing a new pantheon, many of its notables drawn from the figures of alchemy and the tarot which Carl Jung had already exposed as allegories of self-transcendence.
The ideal of freedom, which Lowy links to surrealism’s revolutionary romanticism, is the common thread that runs through all the essays. When allied with real political activism, surrealism is a force to be reckoned with, as the chapters on Claire Cahun and Guy Debord show. Cahun had joined the surrealist movement in 1932; two years later she penned the defense of revolutionary poetry, Les paris sont ouverts (“The bets are on”) in which she advocated the use of poetry for “indirect action,” leaving the reader open to draw his/her own conclusions. Literature will be most effective, she argued, if it is subversive and not propagandistic.
The next chapter in Cahun’s life – which many readers will discover for the first time in these pages – is a source of astonishment for all those who hear of it. When the German forces occupied the Channel Islands in 1940, Cahun and her life-companion Suzanne Malherbe put theory into action. Under the cover of appearing as harmless older women they circulated subversive anti-Nazi texts to the occupying soldiers, signing their names as the “Nameless Soldier.” In some cases they even produced anti-fascist photomontages whose source material was the Nazi magazine Signal. Their texts – hidden inside newspapers and magazines, deposited in Nazi mailboxes, left on parked cars or attached to fences – called on soldiers to desert or kill their officers. Remarkably, the two women operated for four whole years before they were eventually denounced by an informer. Only the end of the war saved them from the death sentence that had been meted out to them.
Guy Debord is another artist who put the arsenal of language and art in the service of revolution. Today, as Lowy acknowledges, the father of “situationism” is often dismissed as a superficial critic of mass media, or as a mere litterateur. Just as Cahun’s work is now being rediscovered, Lowy urges us to take another look at Debord, whose concept of the “society of the spectacle” was nothing less than a critique of “the whole economic, social, and political system of modern capitalism.” Situationism, he argues, lies at the base of the most audacious dreams and aspirations of ‘68. Debord’s nostalgic turn away from modernity was intended as an explosive and subversive force that had much in common with surrealism. Once again, the strategies are textual – Debord’s lengthy screenplay In Girum Imus Nocte et Consumimur Igni (a palindrome that roughly translates as “we wander in darkness and are consumed by fire”) cannibalizes existing texts and films and infuses them with new meaning.
The dark side of romantic rebellion that Lowy identifies in all his subjects is also linked with revolutionary pessimism, which is the core subject of the book’s longest and most central chapter on Pierre Naville, whose landmark essay “Revolution and the Intellectuals,” written in 1925–26 and read by the surrealists even before its publication in 1928, gave the impetus for the alliance between surrealism and Marxism. Lowy recounts that it was Naville’s infiuence that led Breton and other surrealists to join the Communist party in 1927. “Revolutionary pessimism” in Naville’s formulation meant an active, revolutionary engagement, a spirit akin to Goethe’s Mephistopheles (who describes himself as “the spirit that always negates”). In this chapter Lowy charts a clear course through the internal debates between different factions of the surrealists as they interfaced with different factions of the Communist Left in France and the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Along the way, Naville, who had embraced the Trotskyist Left Opposition, fell out of favor with Breton, who actually excoriated him in the dramatic turn toward Marxism that runs through the Second Manifesto of Surrealism in 1930. A reconciliation finally took place in 1938 when Naville facilitated the meeting between Trotsky and Breton.
Naville’s concept of organized, revolutionary pessimism impressed Walter Benjamin, who published the epochal essay “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of European Intelligence” in February 1929. Benjamin correctly estimated the vast infiuence that surrealism would come to exert; in the opening lines of his essay, he compares himself to the observer of the vast energy generated downstream from what had appeared, in France, as a mere trickle. In a continuation of that metaphor, Benjamin writes that surrealism “harnessed the forces of intoxication for the revolution,” although he criticizes its “undialectical conception of the nature of intoxication” and the neglect of “the methodical and disciplinary preparation for revolution” (Selected Writings, Vol. II, Harvard University Press, 1999: 217). Thinking is for him a narcotic of the first order, and its “profane illumination” should make it possible for the “revolutionary intelligentsia to overthrow the intellectual predominance of the bourgeoisie and to make contact with the proletarian masses” (217). (Unfortunately the editor, has left out the more detailed chapter on Benjamin that appeared in the original French edition, so that the discussion of his important writings on surrealism is limited to some remarks in the Naville chapter.)
For those already interested in surrealism and its infiuence, many of these chapters provide welcome information on the fate of the surrealists, and Surrealism, after WWII. A final chapter on “the surrealist international since 1969” gives a historical account of the more recent surrealist publications, among them the Bulletin de liaison surre´aliste and Surre´alisme (Vincent Buonore, who with several French and Czech Surrealist friends put together La Civilisation surre´aliste in 1976, gets a chapter to himself). Today there are surrealist groups in Paris, Prague, Stockholm Madrid, Chicago, and Sa˜o Paulo, along with half a dozen new journals devoted to surrealism.
An appealing feature of this volume is the presence of art work by many of Lowy’s international surrealist friends, as well as some of his own drawings. Several of these amplify the themes of the book – Guy Girard’s “Rosa Luxemburg in front of the Tour St. Jacques” from 1993 imagines her in the context of Breton’s peregrinations in Paris with their multiple references to alchemy and the marvelous (Nadja) while Jean-Pierre Guillon’s “Couronne´e de Commune” from 1980 works as an illustration of Benjamin’s statement about revolution and intoxication.
The art work also comprises many contributions by women surrealists – the Prague surrealist Eva Svankmajerova and the Canadian Marie S. (alias “Ingatta”) whose “illuminated envelopes” are beguiling contributions to mail art. By themselves, these point to a salient aspect of present-day surrealism – the presence of impressive women artists and writers. A whole chapter is dedicated to the surrealist artist Ody Saban, a welcome supplement to the French edition.
Unlike the usual art “movements” destined to replace one another, Lowy argues, surrealism is a transhistorical cultural innovation like Romanticism. Its marginality is also its force, since its aims are necessarily subversive. The dominant metaphor continues to be that of the “starred mole,” a mythical creature who burrows underground, creating passageways and connections that eventually lead to the collapse of the superficial and visible world above. Lowy’s engaging book invites us to the positive labor of “re-enchantment,” providing models for active engagement and stimulus for further reading.
2010 Inez Hedges
Surrealism, Marxism, Anarchism, Situation-ism, Utopia. by Michael Lowy
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