The new French resistance

Something very important is happening in France at the moment.

The immediate catalyst for this historical turning-point has been the murder, by gendarmes, of a young environmental protester, Rémi Fraisse, near Albi on October 26.

The 21 year old, studying at nearby Toulouse, was supporting a campaign to stop a dam being built in a local valley. This dam, at Sivens near Le Testet, was only ever designed to help local agri-business and had been pushed through by local representatives of the ruling Socialist Party.

Unsurprisingly, the pros and cons of the scheme were suddenly exposed to the full spotlight of national publicity once the news eventually got out that Rémi was dead and that he had indeed been killed by a sound-grenade fired into his back at point blank range by the military-run police.

Some of the massive media attention has been diverted on to the usual party-political level of internal criticism and a deepening gulf between different groupings on the Left.

But it has also forced into the French public consciousness in a big way the fact that there is serious resistance being mounted against industrial capitalism. This has long been apparent with the Notre Dame des Landes ZAD (zone à défendre) against the proposed new airport for Nantes, but with Brittany in a general state of rebellion this was perhaps dismissed as an exception.

Now attention has been drawn to the fact that these kinds of battles are being fought all over the country, many of them going unreported in the corporate national media.

These protests are reminiscent of the wave of anti-roads protests in the UK in the 1990s. Traditional local opposition has successfully merged with a more radical approach, to the extent that a diversity of tactics does not prevent a unity of purpose.

Much was made by right-wing media of the fact that Rémi was killed during or after a full-on night-time attack on the dam building site by mostly masked-up comrades, in which molotovs were apparently thrown at the cops – this had followed a 7,000-strong protest march that afternoon.

But the manner in which he was killed has exposed the far greater violence deployed by the authorities in their policing – campaigners have reported weeks of constant physical intimidation by gendarmes, long before protesters finally tried to fight back.

And, of course, the violence of the police is just an echo of the violence against nature of the dam project itself, of the violence inherent in the entire ecocidal industrial system.

The astonishing thing is that people saying this, and calling for increased resistance, have actually been given a voice in the mainstream media, on the wave of public shock at Rémi’s death. 

No doubt this will only be a temporary blip and the usual propaganda will be restored as soon as possible, but in many ways that will be too late. The can of worms has been opened. The public now knows that there are thousands of people – many of them very young – across France who consider themselves at war with the industrial machine,  all its political parties, its hired uniformed thugs, its lies and assumptions.

If France is ahead of the UK in this respect it is perhaps because there is a lot more countryside here – France has about the same population as the UK, but is twice the size. People dropping out of the rat race tend to flood into cheaper remote rural areas in a way that is not possible in England, where land prices ensure the countryside is often the preserve of the rich. 

Many of those fleeing to the countryside are aiming to escape modern industrial life rather than combat it. But once they get there, they inevitably come across the latest local tentacle of the global greed-monster destroying our planet. And they stand and fight. When, as ever, the capitalist system treats them like criminals for daring to dissent, they are radicalised. And they increase their resistance, deepen their solidarity with others.

It is significant that it is the so-called Left that is in power, both locally and nationally. Because what is happening has very little to do with outdated notions of Right versus Left, in which all are agreed on the need for “economic growth”, for “progress” and for “jobs”.

The opponents of the dam are in favour of  “décroissance” (“de-growth”), of “anti-productivisme” – a philosophy which flows easily into the decentralism and anti-capitalism of specifically anarchist currents.

This is the war which is already being fought all over the world, but can only become clearer and more intense as time goes on. It’s humanity against the machine, nature against profit, the life-force against the industrial death-sentence.

The murder of one of our comrades by henchmen of the capitalist system (in France this time, but it happens everywhere) confirms again in a sickening way that this war is real and their intentions are ruthlessly lethal. 

We must take this knowledge on board, gain a clear and uncluttered overview of what is happening and communicate this understanding to others, so that we can mobilise all that is good and strong in humanity to ensure that the foul forces of darkness do not prevail. The stakes could hardly be higher.

Imprisoned by assumptions

Assumptions are the highest walls of the prison in which the human spirit is currently confined.

The most pernicious assumption of all is that industrial capitalism is the only possible form that human society can take: the path of history could only have ever taken us to this point and the path of the future can only ever take us further still in the same direction.

To suggest that things could have been any different is regarded as absurd. The very fact that our society is how it is today is taken as irrevocable proof that it could never have turned out any other way. This is nonsense, of course – a ridiculous, circular, self-justifying argument.

Just because I missed my bus this morning, does not mean that I could only ever have missed my bus. It does not mean that if I had set my alarm clock properly I couldn’t have caught it. It doesn’t stop me from saying that I wish I had managed to catch the bus or from deciding to take precautions to ensure that I don’t miss it again tomorrow.

Bound up with this assumption of the “inevitability” of industrial civilization comes the assumption of its “inevitable” continuation. This is even more obviously ill-founded. The future can be whatever we, collectively, want it to be.

So where do these assumptions come from? Although propaganda is all-pervasive in contemporary society, assumptions function on a deeper, almost invisible level. They are built into the structure of our thinking as much as into the specific contents.

As such, they are not necessarily propagated in a consciously deliberate manner. It is quite likely that most of those who maintain them in the public mind are unaware of what they are doing, are themselves held in the same mental trap.

These delusions – for this is what they are – are an aspect of the system itself. Without them it would not exist. They are part of the process by which it has come into being and remained in being. The delusions, the assumptions, create the system as much as the other way round.

They are very hard to counter, containing as they do a sort of in-built defence mechanism against any challenge to their validity.

The same assumption that says that history is just something that inevitably happened – in a retrospectively pre-determined way! – also prevents us from seeing that this is an assumption. It presents itself as an undeniable truth. You can’t challenge an undeniable truth. You don’t even consider whether or not it is an “undeniable truth” – you just accept its message as undeniably true, without even seeing that there is a message there, without registering that there is any subjectivity at all in what it is proposing. I suppose that’s what an assumption is: it’s something that never even gets thought about, it just sits there as the basis of something’s thinking. It is the canvas on which people’s opinions are painted.

So how do you reach down far enough to be able to challenge an assumption? How can you even show people that there is an assumption there, when their closed mindset is working on the assumption that there is no assumption – just historical reality that is absolutely undeniable?

You can hammer away at the outer shell of all these layers of delusion for as long as you like, without making a dent. You can shout at people until you’re blue in the face but if what you’re saying makes no sense to them, because it does not relate to what they have come to believe is reality, they will just assume you are mad.

We dissidents need to find creative ways of worming past people’s defences, bypassing the mental barriers erected against anything that challenges the framework on which they have built their understanding of the world.

Subverting, undermining and then demolishing these prison-walls of assumption is perhaps the most crucial and urgent task that lies before us if we are to pull our species back from the brink of self-destruction.

A Dreadful Disharmony

The other day I read an inspiring interview with environmental philosopher Pierre Rabhi in the French newspaper Libération.

Although he’s known for his life’s work in agroécologie, Rabhi stresses that simply eating organic food isn’t going to be enough by itself to save the world. He has a much broader vision of the social changes that will be necessary, but warns that the way ahead is blocked by ignorant people defending the current system: “Unfortunately, these people have the power to set the course of history. It’s a tragedy: our destiny has been left in the hands of unintelligent people.”

That evening, I happened to be rewatching The Sacrifice, the superb 1986 film by the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky – the last he made before dying of cancer at the age of 54. This includes an important monologue about civilisation, delivered by the central character Alexander (played by Erland Josephson), amidst the sighing of the wind through a beautiful little Swedish wood overlooking the sea.

It immediately struck me that there was a correlation between the words of Rabhi and Alexander. They complemented each other, fitted together perfectly as harmonies of one and the same prophetic chorus of alarm that is warning humankind of an unimaginably dire future ahead, unless we are somehow able to dramatically change the course of our history.

In the newspaper interview (with Coralie Schaub) Rabhi describes the quality of his simple life in rural Ardèche: “I look out on magnificent countryside, I enjoy the sound of birdsong, the sky, the stars, these are the great gifts that life brings us. What is all the other stuff about? Earning money to be able to go and do winter sports, or get a tan? What do you want life to be? Are we just here on earth to make our personal contribution to a rise in the GNP, then disappear? … We’re living in a society which has transformed the human being into a kind of salaried slave. Some are lucky enough to do a job they love. But many are forced to waste away their life because they need a wage. And once they’re no longer needed, they’re thrown on the scrap heap. What sort of society is that? That’s what my revolt is all about.”

Alexander, in The Sacrifice, laments that man has constantly violated nature: “The result is a civilization built on force, power, fear, dependence. All our ‘technical progress’ has only provided us with comfort, a sort of standard. And instruments of violence to keep power. We are like savages! We use the microscope like a cudgel! No, that’s wrong… Savages are more spiritual than us! As soon as we make a scientific breakthrough we put it to use in the service of evil.”

Says Rabhi: “I’m not an angry sort of person, but there are moments when my indignation pushes me to that point, because the stakes are so very high. This is all about future generations. What we are we going to feed them on when the seeds have disappeared and the land has been destroyed? Humanity has got to understand that it can’t go on destroying life. Do humans need nature? Yes. Does nature need humans? No. If you’ve understood that, you’ve understood everything. Either we carry on tangling ourselves up in wrong-doing and destruction and we end up wiping ourselves out, or we understand that we have to collaborate with life, with this extraordinary mystery which made us and from which we get our food.”

Tarkovsky’s Alexander concludes: “Some wise man once said that sin is that which is unnecessary. If that is so, then our entire civilisation is built on sin, from beginning to end. We have acquired a dreadful disharmony, an imbalance if you will, between our material and our spiritual development. Our culture is defective, I mean our civilisation… If only someone could stop talking and do something instead.”

Civilization is another word for capitalism

“Apart from the desire to produce beautiful things, the leading passion of my life has been and is hatred of modern civilization”.

These were the words of William Morris, written in 1894, two years before he died at the age of 62.

It is worth nothing that they were expressed within an article entitled “How I Became a Socialist”. Where today are the socialists who speak of their “hatred of modern civilization” – a civilization which is now considerably more modern and more deserving of our hatred than that which Morris knew?

Where indeed are the anarchists who would say the same thing?

It is a source of constant puzzlement to me that the idea of being against modern civilization has become separated from the notion of being an anarchist and regarded by many as a kind of cultish fringe point of view, to be sneered at with the same misplaced sense of superiority as that displayed by those who dismiss anarchism itself from the viewpoint of social conventionality.

After all, the civilization we live in is an entirely capitalist civilization. How can one be anti-capitalist and yet somehow draw the line at opposing the civilization that has been shaped in its image?

Obviously there are degrees of badness in a society and I understand how one can prefer one specific form of civilized society over another. For instance, as an opponent of capitalist exploitation, I would probably prefer a factory to be part of a nationalised industry than a corporate one. As an anti-statist, I would rather it was run by a workers’ co-operative. Ultimately, however, I would rather it didn’t exist at all.

Why do factories come into being in the first place? Because they are somehow an improvement on small-scale craft production? Because they are the most efficient means of producing large numbers of goods badly needed by our society?

No, of course not. They are all about maximising profit and about manufacturing products that can be sold to people, rather than those which are needed by people.

Why would an anarchist (or indeed socialist) society feel the need to have factories? Why would anyone want to go and work in one? The only reason people currently do so is to keep themselves and their families alive and maybe, in more fortunate parts of the world, in some sort of basic state of comfort.

In a future socialist or anarchist society, where wealth was held in common and wage-slavery abolished, this need would no longer exist, so who would volunteer to work even one short shift a week in a factory producing items not actually needed by the community and which were only ever churned out in the first place to make someone rich?

I’m not even going to start talking about environmental issues here, even though they’re of the utmost importance, because the argument stands without them. If you are not a capitalist, our civilization is simply not a good thing. Everything it introduced, it introduced to make money.

Railway lines weren’t built to allow people to visit their friends or take nice day trips into the countryside, but to facilitate the exploitation of the land, to bring raw resources and food to the factories and cities, to transport workers to their place of exploitation and so on.

Washing machines weren’t invented to make life easier, but to make money and, at the same time, to help deliver up to the capitalist work/slavery system a section of the population it had previously been unable to directly exploit.

For me, an instinctive hatred of this civilization – of capitalism in a real, tangible and indeed inescapable form – has always fuelled and directed my political rebellion.

I’m sure William Morris would have questioned with me the authenticity of a so-called anti-capitalism which can see nothing fundamentally wrong with capitalism.