Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Reading The Coming Insurrection, I

The reading group started today with a discussion of The Coming Insurrection, by the Invisible Committee. This text was written by an (anonymous) collective of radical thinkers and political agents. The group's base of operations is in a "non-place" in Tarnac, France, in one of the poorest and least developed regions of the country. Here, people associated with this group live on farms, living without a concept of private property, living, working and writing together.

The Coming Insurrection is a manifesto, or possibly a program, consisting of seven chapters of social analysis followed by four chapters of activist prescription. In many respects, the ideas and practice of the Invisible Committee can be compared to that of the Occupy movement, but in crucial aspects, fundamental differences appear.

Thus, both Occupy and the I.C. analyse the contemporary political situation as a crisis of representation. The existing political, and social, institutions (such as parties, lobby groups, unions etcetera) are rejected as vehicles for true, activist politics; both criticize the existing regime of representative politics as out of touch with living reality, and both claim that their activities are closer to a real form of politics, that actually addresses the problems of today. The form this critique takes with the I.C. feels very much like an update of Situationism, with the complete social order being rejected as a falsification of true experience; Occupy seems to address mostly the failures of the system of representational democracy to deal with the radical injustices of contemporary capitalism and its excesses, and to formulate alterative agendas.

However, the nature of what might constitute real political activity differs greatly. The I.C. seems to want to hold a radical outsider position, whereas Occupy is working from within the system. Rural Tarnac versus central town squares, for example. A strongly romantic strain in the I.C. leads it to fetishize an absolute underdog position or radical Verelendung, expecting the new utopia to arise from the insurrection by those who are absolutely without hope in the present system. Hence, a positive valorisation of violence, an interest in the "unprogrammatic" uprisings in the banlieus in '05. Seemingly, the I.C. hopes that acts of aggression against conventionality would somehow liberate an authentic existence from the burdens of capitalist logic, the duty to be an "individual", to be defined by your job, etcetera. It also lends itself best to organization in very small, anarchic groups that act as nuclei of liberated existences, seemingly at war with a very large, abstract, outside "them".

Such elements are completely absent in the Occupy movement, which refuses violence, and seeks to address and include a variety of people that is as large as possible. Though Occupy is attempting to formulate a rejection of capitalist logic as the only valid form of political thinking, its practice does not actively exclude having a position within capitalist society at the same time. For example, the General Assemblies that are held daily are accessible to anybody - one does not need to camp on the terrain to participate - and are held at a time that is convenient, too, for people who hold nine to five jobs: a major contrast with a movement that holds its base in a quite remote, difficult to access, region of the country. Thus, Occupy allows people to exist simultaneously inside and outside the system, and builds towards its own political ideals by defining its own arena alongside that of society.

Finally, the reading group had a discussion of the concept of "work" itself, which is analyzed by the I.C. in the "third circle" of the book. The I.C. holds a rather negative view of work, interpreting it mostly as a social institution of repression: people have the tendency to define themselves as their job, and thus exploit themselves. Possibly, though, the I.C. concept of work is somewhat outmoded. In stressing the categories of "exploitation" and "participation", they seem to work mostly from an old-fashioned model of "work", that is still quite Fordist; their idea of work seems quite blunt in comparison to contemporary Marxist critiques of work in the post-Fordist condition, where the work you do is not merely something that constricts your identity, but where production is itself a form of authentic life. Such more positive notions of what "work" might be seem quite absent from the I.C. text. Instead, the necessity to sometimes do things is acknowledged, as no more than a bare necessity for survival.

Yet to live an alternative life, and giving form to its mode of operation, means working - albeit outside the logic of a "job". This is probably true for the people living in Tarnac, and certainly for those who live in the Occupy camps, as they erect, within public space, their own "non-place" out of thin air.

This is a summary of the discussion held by the Reading At Occupy Amsterdam group this morning, eight people attending. A second session will be devoted to the book tomorrow.

1 comment:

  1. "Though Occupy is attempting to formulate a rejection of capitalist logic as the only valid form of political thinking, its practice does not actively exclude having a position within capitalist society at the same time."

    I think this ambivalence is unnecessary, and things can be examined more clearly when it's recognised that there are (at least) two distinct concepts that are being conflated in what's being called 'capitalism' here.

    On the one hand you have the idea of an economic order based on private property and free association (including free trade).

    On the other hand you have the fact of coercive state intervention in markets with the effect of artificially protecting the powerful and politically connected (for instance bank executives).

    Some call the latter capitalism, which I think is a shame because there's a much more precise word for it: corporatism. This has also been called 'crony-capitalism'. Another reason that it's a shame to use capitalism to refer to corporate privelige is that this use means there's no longer a term left to refer to 'the private ownership of the means of production', so this move seems to impoverish language.

    Corporatism has no necessary connection to capitalism in the first sense, as any anarcho-capitalist will agree.

    It's even arguable that corporatism is the antithesis of capitalism, since the extent to which corporatism exists is the extent to which markets are made un-free, and distorted with tragic effects for the '99%' at the bottom of the political pyramid (eg. the boom and bust business cycle, economic collapses).