Shut down the system – permanently!

“Shut shit down!” is one of the rallying cries of the new wave of black radicalism sweeping across the USA in the wake of events in Ferguson in 2014.

Whether it’s occupying a police HQ or blocking the highway for a few hours, the emphasis is on putting a spanner in the works of the system – and on how easy it is to do so, even with relatively small numbers.

There is an obvious parallel here with the call by the Invisible Committee for rebels to focus their resistance on the infrastructure of capitalism.

The capitalist industrial system can often seem too big and powerful for us to take on. On a physical level it can literally deploy armies against any uprising and on a psychological level it has a powerful hold on the minds of the public.

Looking for some kind of interface with this vast, multi-faceted entity – some real context in which we can physically oppose it – has often proved difficult.

Choosing a particular field on which to engage in battle can be seen as narrow or merely symbolic. Workplace struggles, for instance, do take place at a real point of contact between the system and the population, but are limited in their perspective and risk becoming reformist, of obscuring the more fundamental nature of our revolt.

Fifteen years or so ago, the anti-capitalist movement discovered international summits as a tangible target for resistance to that intangible thing called neo-liberalism. But this approach was dismissed by some (wrongly, in my view) as focusing attention too much on the symbolic level of the event rather than on the broader reality of what it represents.

There is nothing new about targeting the infrastructure of the system, as the ZAD protesters at Notre-Dame-Des-Landes near Nantes, the No-TAV campaigners of northern Italy and so many others across the world are currently doing. Indeed, in the UK the late-1990s anti-capitalist movement was largely inspired by Reclaim the Streets and the anti-roads battles of Twyford Down, Wanstead and Newbury.

Newbury
Newbury

The strength of that approach, as the Invisible Committee and the Black Lives Matter movement have appreciated, is that it is a real physical attack on a real physical manifestation of capitalism.

On one level, industrial capitalism is indeed a concept rather than a physical thing. But on another level it also has a real physical presence, in the material world in which we operate, and can be challenged on that level.

Ideally, the physical resistance to capitalism would be informed by (more than that, in fact – permeated by, animated by, inspired by!) a profound understanding of what capitalism is and how deep it has sunk its claws into human life.

Ideally, this physical resistance would be the incarnation of a complete refusal of the industrial capitalist system, together with all the layers of lies and assumptions with which it tries to stifle our freedom, our desire to fight for freedom, our realisation that we can fight for freedom, and even our understanding that we are not free.

This refusal would consciously reject the biggest illusion of all – that the world can only be the way it is now. It would step free from the mind-prison of accepting that there have to be jobs, bosses, wars, money, corporations, governments, CCTV cameras, supermarkets, motorways, TV stations, factories, pesticides, drones, airports, chemicals, plastics, tourism, police, courts, land ownership, consumerism, insurance policies, borders, fear, obedience and conformity.

motorway

It would cast aside the absurd and unquestioning faith in the literally impossible myth of never-ending “development”, “growth” and “progress” and see the process for what it is – a cancer destroying our planet.

It would break through the mental barriers of regarding humanity as a collection of individuals, or groups, or peoples and see that it is one entity, whose physical existence is marked by the multiplicity of its forms.

It would shatter the concept of the “environment” as being something outside of ourselves and understand that humanity is a part of the living world, that nature is not something we observe or catalogue but something we incarnate.

And with the strength of this holistic understanding, this spirit of complete refusal would throw itself into attacking capitalism on a physical level, with a greater dream as its inspiration.

Behind the shutting down of motorways, city centres, police stations, airports, fracking sites, capitalist summits or arms fairs would lie the overarching desire – the need, even – to shut down the industrial capitalist system itself. Everywhere. Permanently.

And then we could all start to live.

The living force of insurrection

In 2007 a group of radicals in France, calling themselves le comité invisible (The Invisible Committee) brought out a book called L’Insurrection qui vient or, in English, The Coming Insurrection.

A lot has happened since then. For a start, the waves created by their writing led to a group of people, who became known as the Tarnac Nine, being arrested on dubious charges of sabotaging high-speed rail lines, with the French state claiming they were also the authors of the pamphlet.

The wider picture of what has become of the struggle against neoliberalism, and where it might go from here, is what is addressed in their follow-up book A nos amis, recently published by La fabrique éditions.*

“Insurrections finally came,” they tell us with a nod back to the title of the previous book, although they obviously have to admit: “Insurrections came, but not the revolution”.

They refer throughout to the whole gamut of uprisings we have witnessed over the last seven years – from Cairo to Rio, Athens to London, Istanbul to Madrid and beyond. The problem, from an anti-capitalist point of view is that despite all of that resistance the system is still standing – everywhere. Revolutions never seem to develop any further than rioting, as they concede.

Rioting in England, 2011
But, on the positive side, there is an increasing feeling of something happening, the commonly-shared intuition that “an insurrection can break out at any moment, for whatever reason, in any country and lead anywhere”.
This, insist The Invisible Committee, is not just wishful thinking on the part of the world’s dissidents – there really is a pattern emerging: “What has been happening in the world since 2008 isn’t an incoherent  series of random eruptions in sealed national spaces, but one big historical sequence”.
They suggest they it is wrong to lament the demise of the specific anti-globalisation movement that seemed such an unstoppable force at Genoa, Seattle, or the City of London in the years leading up to 9/11.
Instead, they suggest, it has become absorbed into the Zeitgeist. “It has disappeared, precisely because it has been fulfilled. Everything that made up its basic vocabulary has entered into the public domain: is there anyone today who questions the existence of ‘the dictatorship of finance’, of the political aims behind IMF-imposed reforms, of the ‘destruction of the environment’ by capitalist greed, of the insane arrogance of the nuclear lobby, of the barefaced lies of power, of the open corruption of the ruling class? You have to remind yourself that over the course of ten years, views once held only by radicals have now become the very stuff of common sense”. 
More people have absorbed the fact that neoliberal capitalism is not just a theoretical entity but something that exists on a real everyday level. Stripping away the mystique of power, we see the criminality behind the facade: “The state is the mafia which has beaten off all the other mafia”.
We also see that capitalism is, basically, the infrastructure of life in modern industrial society: “Power is now immanent in life as it is organised…” “Power has now become the very order of things, with the police in charge of defending it”. 
While outright brutality is of course constantly deployed to defend capitalism, the Committee suggest that a more significant aspect of repression is “a war of influence – subtle, psychological and indirect”. 
The so-called “crisis” is a prime example of this, they say, distorting the way that opponents are able to even think about capitalism. “We are not experiencing a crisis of  capitalism, but the triumph of crisis capitalism”. “There isn’t a ‘crisis’ we have to get out of, there is a war we have to win.”
If the key to understanding capitalism is to appreciate the diffuse nature of its existence in the very infrastructure of its world, it is also important to understand our own role, insist the Committee.
The counter-insurgency strategies of the status quo always assume the existence of an “enemy” which is competing with it for the loyalties of the “population” – and thus it will always try to create divisions between the two, whether by propaganda or subterfuge of various kinds (such as false flag “terrorism”).

But we should know that we are ourselves part of the population: “We are the ‘hearts and minds’ that they want to win over. We are the crowds that they want to ‘control’. We are the underworld in which government agents operate and which they hope to subdue, and not a rival entity in the pursuit of power. We don’t fight from within the population ‘like a fish in the water’ for we are the water in which our enemies are wading – soluble fish. We are that matter which grows from the inside, organises itself and develops. There lies the real asymmetry and our real position of strength”.

Anti-capitalists therefore need sometimes to “disappear” back inside the population of which they are part so they can never be isolated from it.

Already in The Coming Insurrection, The Invisible Committee displayed similarities to the thinking of the oft-neglected  German-Jewish anarchist Gustav Landauer when they wrote that “revolutionary movements do not spread by contamination but by resonance”.
In his most important text, For Socialism, Landauer wrote: “There is no need to fear a lack of revolutionaries: they actually arise by a sort of spontaneous generation – namely when the revolution comes…” 
In A nos amis, the Committee quote Landauer at one stage and are making the very same point as he did above, when they declare: “It’s not ‘the people’ which creates the uprising, but the uprising which creates its people”.

A protest in Athens
In order to start this process moving, they stress that we need to organise ourselves. Without that, our numbers count for nothing – the 99% per cent will remain disempowered by the 1%. “There is a world of difference,” they point out, “between a mass of poor people and a mass of poor people determined to act together”.
But worry not – this does not mean they want us all to rally under their flag and set up local franchises of The Invisible Committee in our own home towns: “Getting organised doesn’t mean  joining the same organisation. Getting organised is about acting according to a common perception, whatever level that might be on.” 
With a view to building that shared perception, they propose an emphasis on the idea of the revolutionary Commune – what might also be termed the building-up of a culture of resistance.
From struggling together we can discover “a quality of connection  and a way of being in the world”.
Our personal experiences of being involved in occupied spaces of various kinds, the Communes they have in mind, show us “that we can organise ourselves and that this power is fundamentally joyful”. The power that comes from resisting is therefore in itself a kind of victory.
Importantly, they understand that a revolutionary urge is not something that can be artificially constructed or easily controlled or quantified, but is instead a “living force”.
We have to be able to “see a world populated not by things, but by forces, not by subjects but by powers, not by bodies but by connections”.
The big question facing us, they say, is “How can we build a force which isn’t an organisation?” It is here that the depth of their conception of the Commune comes in. They refer back to the “medieval” sense of the idea, which they say had been long lost before being rediscovered by the federalist faction of the Paris Commune in 1871, and which has kept on resurfacing every since.
This is the same “force without name” that was understood by the proto-anarchist heretics of the Brothers of the Free Spirit.
The activation of this nameless force will be crucial in turning insurrection into revolution, in turning opposition to the industrial capitalism world into a positive longing for something different.
At the moment, this positive longing is only expressing itself in negative terms, as a deep rejection of all that it is not, all that is preventing its vision from being fulfilled.
“Incurable disgust, pure negativity and total rejection are the only political forces in evidence at the moment,” note the Committee.

Insurrection in Egypt
The real driving force behind the Occupy movement was not the specific grievances that it voiced but a much broader “disgust for the world we are made to live in”. 
This disgust, however, is itself proof of a contrasting conception of how things should be, how we should be living. The disgust arises from an ethical awareness, something that has been largely abandoned by anti-capitalists and has thus been able to be appropriated, in a distorted form, by Islamicists and fascists.
“The importance of the theme of prevailing corruption in nearly all today’s revolts shows the extent to which they are primarily ethical rather than political,” say the Committee.
For them, there are such things as “ethical truths”, but they are aware that this is not so for everyone: “These are two words which, when placed together, sound to the modern spirit like an oxymoron”.
They go on to define these ethical foundations for our resistance: “These are truths which connect us, to ourselves, to that which surrounds us, and each to the other. They take us to a world which is suddenly held in common,  to a non-separated existence free of the illusory walls of our egos”.
It is not entirely clear to me to what extent the authors see these ethical truths as being embedded in human nature, as I would argue they are. On the one hand they reject the notion that political order is needed in order to constrain a basically selfish human nature, that we are all separate and competing individuals who have to be held together by some kind of artifice. They comment: “As Marshall Sahlins showed, this idea of a human nature which it is up to ‘culture’ to hold down is a Western illusion”. 
On the other hand, they go on to dismiss mutual aid and a belief in the innate goodness of humanity as “fundamentally Christian” ideas, apparently unaware of the notion of original sin and the necessity, for Christians, of finding salvation from this innate state of sin through redemption in Christ. A belief in the innate goodness of humanity – of an innate tendency to co-operation and solidarity – is as alien to orthodox Christian thinking as it is essential to the alternative panenhenist (“all-in-one-ist”) view of our connection to the universe to which the Committee’s views elsewhere come so close.
It is the loss of our understanding that we, as individuals form a living part of a much bigger organic entity (or series of entities – humankind, the planet, the cosmos…) that has left us stranded with little understanding of the forces around us.
When one is simply part of a bigger being (in the way that our various organs and limbs are part of our body), ideas of mutual aid and working for the common good are not even matters of choice, but of necessity. The “goodness” involved is therefore not altruistic in some abstract or religious way, but a natural result of our organic belonging to the wider Whole.
The Committee seem aware of this when they write that “the real catastrophe is existential and metaphysical” and when they add: “To be free and to be connected (lié) is one and the same thing. I am free because I am connected, because I am part of a reality much bigger than me”.
They comment on the existence of “a universal thirst for rediscovering ourselves that can only be explained by universal separation” and stress the importance of a spiritual aspect to our struggle “whether that takes the form of theory, literature, art or metaphysics”.
The idea of the individual as part of an organic humanity and of humanity as, in turn, part of an organic planet leads inevitably to an environmental basis for our culture of resistance and this is indeed embraced by the Committee. 
They explicitly reject the leftist slogan of putting humanity at the centre of our thinking: “We other revolutionaries, with our atavistic humanism, would do well to take a look at the constant uprisings of indigenous peoples in central and south America over the last 20 years. Their slogan could be: ‘Put the Earth at the centre’”.
The authors are clearly inspired by the Zapatista movement and indigenous Indian thinkers are quoted in support of the importance of interconnections between people and land, which the Committee also pinpoints as a crucial motivation behind uprisings elsewhere in the world.
Zapatistas
 Threats to our environment – whether it be the felling of hundreds of trees in an Istanbul park, the construction of high-speed rail line through the Italian Alps or the building of a new airport at Nantes – are prompting many of the most significant outbreaks of resistance against capitalism.
Moreover, this resistance is targeting the very infrastructure which in fact now constitutes the essential reality of capitalism. Blocking infrastructure is becoming the most effective way of fighting power.
“More and more revolutionaries are coming to throw themselves as greedily into what they call ‘local struggles’ as they yesterday did into ‘social struggles’”, note the authors. “What connects them are the gestures of resistance that flow from them – blocking, occupying, rioting and sabotaging as direct attacks on the production of value by the circulation of information and goods…”
As I noted recently, this phenomenon has been particularly apparent in France, where the controversy surrounding the police murder of environmental protester Rémi Fraisse has revealed to the public the extent of the resistance to grands projets designed to expand capitalist domination at the expense of the natural world and human communities.
Rémi Fraisse
The way in which these struggles often combine different types and levels of resistance – from traditional “local” campaigning to direct action approaches – fits well with the Committee’s vision of the way forward for anti-capitalists.
They emphasise that a fully-functioning resistance must retain all its aspects, which they break down into three main elements – spiritual, combative (whether orientated towards attack or self-defence) and possessing material means and spaces.
“Each time that one of these dimensions loses contact with the others and becomes independent of them, the movement degenerates – into armed avant-gardes, cults of theorists or alternative businesses”.
The principal activities in which we should be involved can therefore be summed up as thinking, attacking and building. 
Writing theoretical texts such as these is evidently only one aspect of the revolutionary work being carried out by the authors and they conclude the book on a positive message to the amis across the world who increasingly understand that they are fighting the same struggle, not just against the capitalist system but for another way of being.
“We will do what has to be done,” they promise. “This text is the start of a plan”.
* I have been working from the French edition, so all quotes are my own translations rather than excerpts from the English-language version.

Against this world of concrete and profit

A good read for anyone who understands French is Lèse Beton, a bulletin from the ZAD occupation against a new airport near Nantes.

It’s subtitled “against the airport and the world that goes with it” and it’s this sense of perspective that appeals to me.

One particular article in the summer 2013 edition explains that Nantes has been named “green capital” of the year – and is reminding its residents of the fact through endless billboards.

It asks how this title was ever bestowed on a town “with ambitions to expand as far as Saint-Nazaire, which is widening its roads and is so eager to push through its airport project”.

The answer, it seems, lies in its glossy presentation skills and a marketing angle presenting Nantes as a hub for the “Grand Ouest”, a centre of good living that appeals to the “creative classes”, by which they mean executives, professionals, people with loads of money to spend.

All the big cities, metropolises and regions are now in competition with each other to draw in wealth, the article notes. “The principal objective of a town becomes the same as that of a business – competivitity”.

It adds that the modern metropolis also includes a space around it for agriculture, a green belt featuring the odd park or nature reserve. “Because they need little bits of green somewhere for them to concrete around.”

Behind all this is “a global logic in which the only criterion for judging a project is economic profit”, says the article.

It continues: “Anything which isn’t actually within the metropolis is considered to be there to serve the metropolis. Since, according to the Journal de Nantes Métropole,  ‘the attractiveness of a town is measured by the number of its connections it establishes with the rest of the world’, the countryside gets gobbled up by the transport infrastructure linking urban nodes: coastal motorways, high-voltage power lines, pipelines, and of course, here in Nantes, a grandiose international airport.

“The priority is increasing the flow of energy and information, accelerating the movement of goods and members of the ruling classes. With rationalisation comes the suffocation, isolation and destruction of the smallest pockets of autonomy. Space is arranged to exclude anything beyond the officially-defined purpose and laced with CCTV, cops and consultants.

“Unexpected encounters, street life and makeshift areas have no place there. Life in the metropolis is about travelling from one designated space to another: from the place of work to the place of consumption; passing through a district on your way home to a dormitory zone in the town or surrounding village.

“Life in a metropolis is to be forever on the move in functional zones. The construction of this metropolis always involves tearing people away from their spaces, their soil, their neighbourhood, their connections.

“We don’t want our space organised in a way that revolves around financial returns, where the bosses decide whether to pull down or put up according to their idea of how things should be arranged.

“We don’t want isolated lives in sleek, compartmentalized spaces. We want to live in our neighbourhoods or countryside. We want to co-operate with the people we share our space with. We want to choose together what we do there, and how we do it, according to our own needs. We want friendships, we want to meet people. We want to have control over our own lives.”