Review: The Coming Insurrection

Posted: September 6, 2010 in Reviews
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Review:  The Coming Insurrection
by the Invisible Committee, France 2008 (2009 English Online edition)

AutonomousResistance, September 2010

Used as evidence against a group accused of carrying out sabotage attacks on train lines in France (the Tarnac 9, arrested  in 2008, members of which are also accused of writing this book), banned by the French government as a ‘manual for terrorism,’ and  spotlighted on a popular right-wing ‘news’ show on Fox TV in the US, The Coming Insurrection has become widely read among radicals throughout Europe and North America.  Published in English by Semiotexte, the book now lines the shelves of Chapters bookstores and is also widely available on-line.

What to make of such a controversial book, so demonized by the ‘authorities’?  Read it, of course!  I must admit I’ve had my 2009 English translation laying around for many months now.  It’s an internet printing, nicely formatted and distributed at a local infoshop by a comrade.  I’ve picked it up now and again, but found it difficult to “Get Going” (as one of the chapter titles suggests).

The first seven chapters are numbered circles, like “Circle One,” etc., and are critiques of various aspects of (mostly) French society, but familiar to those living in an any ‘advanced’ industrial state.  These are: 1) Individualism, 2) Immigrants, School, Family (‘social forms’), 3) Work, 4) City, 5) The Economy, 6) Ecology/Environment, 7) Civilization/Empire.

The basic message: all of society is fake, including social movements, individual identities, relationships, families, etc., and the system is doomed.  There isn’t really anything new here, as much of this type of critique was developed in the 1960s and ’70s (i.e., the Situationists, New Left, etc.).  This book does provide an updated and modernized version of these themes, however, undoubtedly introducing them to a new generation (and perhaps in a more relevant and urgent way than texts from two decades ago).

The book has an overall nihilistic perspective; everything must be destroyed in order to build a new society.  While largely correct in principle, the overly cynical and despairing tone used throughout the text gets a little tedious.  Everyday activities, like going to a cafe or updating your website, having a girl/boy friend, family dinners, all are scrutinized and found to be empty, meaningless gestures that only perpetuate the routine and alienation of society.  You almost get the impression that picking your nose is part of the ‘reproduction of daily life’ that must be ruthlessly criticized and attacked.

Although the book itself is written in a fairly straight-forward manner, it’s in the more philosophical and abstract concepts that it gets a little dense.  The ‘circle’ chapters seemed disconnected, perhaps written by different persons, and this was one reason I had a hard time to ‘Get Going.’  The vague subtitles (some of which turned out be advertising slogans) didn’t help.

The numbered circles lead to the final chapters.  Thankfully, these aren’t ‘circles’ but more straight forward concepts: “Get Going,” “Find Each Other,” “Get Organized,” and “Insurrection.”  The basic message: the communes are the key to struggle and survival that will usher in a new era of communism (“Everywhere, a new idea of communism is to be elaborated” p. 8).  Everything else is fake.  To be sure, the authors advocate a genuine communism of collectivity, community, and mutual aid, and not that of party dictatorship or authoritarian control.

It’s these final chapters, less than half the book, that start to read a little more like a manual.  Here we find forceful advice on organizing, action, and strategy: “Organize Self-Defence,” “Form communes,” develop survival skills, build illegal networks, carry out sabotage, get guns (so we don’t have to use them, the authors assert).

The reader is also repeatedly warned to stay clear of organized groups and even social milieus:
“Expect nothing from organizations.  Beware of all existing social milieus, and above all, don’t become one…  Far more dreadful are social milieus, with their supple texture, their gossip, and their informal hierarchies… All milieus are counter-revolutionary because they are only concerned with the preservation of their sad comfort” (pp. 66-67, emphasis in original).

By milieu, I take it to mean any ‘scene’ or movement (although it literally means one’s environment or surroundings.  Perhaps this is another result of translation; one comrade suggested that ‘clique’ might have been more intended, but this doesn’t seem to be the case).  Even the anarchist ‘milieu’ is a danger.  This is the same criticism the authors have of organizations: their only purpose is to perpetuate themselves as organizations.  While there is certainly truth in this, and most clearly perhaps with the bureaucratic ones, it seems the same could be said of communes.

For example, in one of many paragraphs promoting the commune (part of an overall ‘strategy of the commune’), we are told:
“Every commune seeks to be its own base. It seeks to dissolve the question of needs.  It seeks to break all economic dependency and all political subjugation” (p. 68).

Like many autonomous groups, then, the commune seeks to maintain its own existence as an independent entity.  This is like many groups that form for survival, security, and/or self-sufficiency.  Group members each gain something through their self-organization as a group.  It might be food, shelter, safety,  income, etc.  Such groups, which are spread throughout society in many different milieus (i.e., criminal, ethnic, family, neighborhood, etc.), cannot simply be dismissed categorically as “counter-revolutionaries” because they are concerned primarily with preserving their ‘sad comfort.’  This implies that such groups/milieus are privileged, when in fact many such groups form for basic survival needs.  There is nothing inherently ‘counter-revolutionary’ in this.

As for the suggested alternative, we’re never really given a clear definition of the commune (aside from poetic rhetoric that reveals a profound need for group identity):
“Communes come into being when people find each other, get on with each other, and decide on a common path… It’s the joy of an encounter that survives its expected end…
“A commune forms every time a few people… decide to rely on themselves and measure their strength against reality” (pp. 67-68).

Then the authors paint an array of groups as positive examples of communes:
“Every wildcat strike is a commune; every building occupied collectively and on a clear basis is a commune; the action committees of 1968 were communes; as were slave maroons in the US; or Radio Alice in Bologna in 1977” (p. 68).

Another example:
“The difference between a band of brothers and sisters ‘bound for life’ and the gathering of many groups, committees and gangs for organizing the supply and self-defense of a  neighborhood or even a region in revolt, is only a difference of scale, they are all communes” (p. 78).

Here we have a number of different examples, not all of which identified as communes (if any), but all of which were essentially autonomous and decentralized.  Painting them all as communes not only nullifies their cultural diversity, it also obscures the essential points about how they were organized.  And despite all this fetishization, we still don’t know what a commune is.

It’s clear that the commune is more than an affinity group to the authors, and it can be assumed that they actually mean a 24-hour live-together/fight-together type of organization (as indeed the Tarnac 9 were—living communally in a rural farming village).  While the commune undoubtedly has special significance in France (due to the 1871 Paris Commune), here in N. America when you start talking about communes it conjures up images of hippies, cults, Charles Manson, and Waco.

The Invisible Committee also express a somewhat parasitic approach to ‘commune-ization’:
“[T]he high school student’s struggle of 2005 and the struggle against the CPE-law reminded us of the ability of large movements to cause trouble and carry out diffuse offensives.  In all the affinity groups they spawned and left in their wake, we glimpsed the conditions that allow social movements to become a locus for the emergence of new communes” (p. 80).

Aren’t these huge mobilizations organized by milieus, organizations, assemblies, the very types of groups we are to avoid?  To expect “nothing” from?  Again, I can’t but help think of the methods of cults—cutting off individuals from all family, friends, and social networks in order to impose a specific doctrine.

I am also wary of the finality of statements  such as “All milieus are counter-revolutionary…”, which seems to assume a lot about groups outside of one’s own ‘milieu.’  It also infers that the only real and effective organization is the commune.  This kind of certainty seems arrogant and contrary to the spirit of autonomous organizing.

Perhaps the part I have the greatest difficulty with is the recommendation to withdraw into anonymity and the poorly defined ‘communes’:
“Flee visibility.  Turn anonymity into an offensive position…
“When leftists everywhere continually make their cause more ‘visible’–whether that of the homeless, of women, or of undocumented immigrants—in hopes that it will get dealt with, they’re doing exactly the contrary of what must be done.  Not making ourselves visible, but instead turning the anonymity to which we’ve been relegated to our advantage, and through conspiracy, nocturnal or faceless actions, creating an invulnerable position of attack” (p. 75).
In a way, we are already largely ‘anonymous’ which also means unknown, and which can also be described as marginalized and even isolated.  If our goal is to influence and impact society with radical ideas and methods, it seems counter-intuitive to follow a completely anti-social strategy.

Compare this to an approach ascribed to Autonomists in Germany:
“Within broad campaigns, the role of the Autonomen has often been to extend the critique enunciated by single-issue initiatives.  In its 1989 annual report, the German federal police recognized this crucial role within movements against nuclear power and genetic engineering: ‘As soon as protest movements develop, above all Autonomen and other ‘New Leftists’ press for ‘direct resistance’ against ‘the system.’”
(The Subversion of Politics, p. 195)

Or that advocated by the Italian insurrectionary anarchist Alfredo M. Bonanno:
“… the insurrectionary method can only be applied by informal anarchist organizations.  These must be capable of establishing, and participating in the functioning of, base structures [mass organisms] whose clear aim is to attack and destroy the objectives set by power, by applying the principles of self-managment, permanent struggle and direct action.”
(From Riot to Insurrection)

The only groups that require anonymity are those engaged in clandestine attacks and illegal actions.   From the concept of a diversity of tactics, we already know that both legal public organizing and clandestine actions are necessary.  Why do the authors now decide that only one method is effective, as if it is a matter of either/or?

Perhaps the Invisible Committee’s writing is intended specifically for like-minded revolutionaries who have become cynical towards social movements, mobilizations, campaigns of struggle, etc.   If this was their intent they could have been a little more focused.  Instead, they set out to convince everyone of the uselessness of movements and all those that participate in them, even while they lurk around hoping to make gains of some kind (off the work of others).
Ironically, while a main theme of the book is that of the isolating and alienating nature of industrial society, it exploits these experiences by promoting an idealistic communal life as the solution.  In the commune, we are told, there is no hard work nor sad comfort, no manipulating individuals and egos, no hierarchies, etc.  But a lot of this is just wishful thinking; the commune is no more immune from these aspects of human society than any other form of social organization.

Indeed, we already have a long history of many failed attempts to establish communes from the ’68 generation.  Along with the Manson family, thousands of hippie communes were established throughout the US and Canada.   The Weather Underground guerrilla organized itself as communal groups and widely promoted this form of living.  None of these appear very appealing and  many self-imploded in a haze of drugs and orgies, or became middle-class enclaves.
One exception to this was the Black Panthers, which followed a Marxist-Leninist doctrine.  Although they organized as communes in collective houses, they were also communist cadre and paramilitary units, most of which collapsed under lethal state repression and accompanying schisms within the national leadership.

Ultimately, as the system experiences greater decline (or even collapse), more people will shift their primary group loyalties from the nation-state to family, community, political or criminal groups, etc.  These groups build up their own infrastructure to meet their needs, and often assume the nature of a ‘dual power’ even to the point of military defense of autonomous territory  This is referred to as the ‘hollowing out’ of the state and a main factor that sends governments into the ‘failed state’ category.  Recent examples include Somalia and Afghanistan.
Under such conditions, ‘communes’ as envisioned by the Invisible Committee would become far more prevalent as a matter of necessity.  Until we reach such a point, it seems counter-productive to attempt to establish such groups while abandoning social struggles and movements.  The only outcome would be greater isolation of militant resistance and the intensification of dysfunctional social relationships in a closed group (i.e., the commune).

Some might claim I have focused too much on this one aspect of The Coming Insurrection, that the ‘commune-ization’ strategy is just one part of the book.  But it’s a main one, in fact the primary strategy being advocated.  And it is based on withdrawing from social struggles and movements, the same ones that gave birth to members of the Invisible Committee and a primary means by which resistance is manifested (although certainly not the only way).

To be clear, I agree with the sentiment that collectivety is vital.  It is essential to break the social isolation, alienation, and individualism that weakens and divides us as a population.  But there are many ways to self-organize as autonomous collectives besides communes, i.e., affinity groups, infoshops, social centres, squats, cells, publications, farms, etc.  Each one is unique because they serve different purposes.  They also form and dissolve as necessary.  This diversity and fluidity are strengths for autonomous and decentralized resistance movements.

Overall, while the book is definitely subversive and fuel for thought, I find it disturbing that it has gained such a widespread audience.  Perhaps the writing and analysis should be viewed as far more particular to France than we might first assume.  The November 2005 riots in the banlieues (suburban ghettos populated largely by immigrants) for example, were powerful ruptures that had profound effects on French society.  Much of the Left in France seemed dumbfounded if not outright reactionary in responding to these riots.  They are referenced frequently in the text, and would no doubt serve as examples of autonomous ‘commune’ revolts that occurred outside of all political parties, unions, organizations and social movements.

In promoting their concept of anonymity, for example, the authors refer to these riots as models:
“The fires of November 2005 offer a model for this.  No leader, no demands, no organization, but words, gestures, complicities” (p. 75).

Yet, the 2005 riots occurred outside the radical Left movements by a population that has its own internal organization (family, community, criminal, etc.), territories where they are established (the banlieues), and, against the police and state, a clearly defined common enemy.  These conditions are very different from those found in the larger society, where anonymity only leads to the isolation of radical ideas and actions.  In the case of the banlieues, there is less of a need to popularize militant resistance because of the shared experiences of oppression and greater overall cohesion within these communities (and the same could be said of the Panther communes in the urban ghettos during the 1960s).
But not every country has large populations of rebellious banlieues, or a Paris Commune of 1871. For those not living in France, the ‘coming insurrection’ may be of a very different nature (just as past ones were).

Even the Invisible Committee, in its introduction to the 2009 English edition, states:
“…does the Greek chaos [of December 2008] resonate in the French situation?  An uprising here cannot be the simple transposition of what happened over there.  Global civil war still has its local specificities” (p. 5).

The same question could be applied to the 2005 revolts in France itself, and a similiar conclusion reached: an insurrection in France cannot be the simple transposition of what happened in the banlieues.  Perhaps international editions of The Coming Insurrection could provide more context regarding conditions in France, in particular the 2005 revolts and the impact this has had on the anarchist/autonomist movement, etc.

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Comments
  1. d. says:

    Hey, great rant, very thoughtful and actually extends the struggle of the text, as opposed to the blind praises and vengeful reaction that has accompanied it since its English translation.

    Again, speaking to the transposition of ruptures, it is important to keep the analysis of ‘commune’ open. As you pointed out the form of communes are diametrically opposed in the examples of the French commune in 1871 and the Manson commune in the 60’s. It is clear here that it is the content and not the form that serves as the irreconcilable divide.

    To situate the form of commune, ‘that which elaborates civil war in every relation’, in a more local context, we could view it as a revolutionary accumulation and defense of territory (others call this Red Base of federation of Soviets). The various indigenous blockades, uprisings, reclamations, hunting/fishing and defense of tradition provide an example of such defense/accumulation that functions more as an assemblage rather then a set form.

    The commune is the base that supports the rebels and so long as it’s able to expand it elaborates the positions and relationships taken in civil war. The forms-of-life created in living and struggling represent the commune, or rather the Common; that which is equally redistributed (both materialistically and subjectively the reproduction of egalitarianism).

    Then we see the concept of commune not as a fixed formulation, nor one that necessitates a specific content, but rather an infinite assemblage of war machines that organize not in a linear trajectory of expansion but as a swarming of power.

    As for organization I believe you are correct in underlining the direction of the Invisible Committees (I.C) critique against the larger NGO’s and labor aristocracy. The fact that the text celebrates various forms of resistance (all which themselves elaborated upon the concept of ‘commune’) discounts, I believe, your allegation of nihilism. To seek out a revolutionary tradition and elaborate upon it and to devote struggle towards overcoming its historical failures, points to a very real love for humanity. That the Society of Spectacle must be abolished is not anti-social, rather it seeks to return our selves to relations which are not mediated by the Biopolitical police; ‘fucking it all up’ (the general call of nihilism) may, perhaps ‘serve as the last collective seduction’. A seduction that although is destructive, is much more agreeable then the seduction of reform as perpetuated by activism/unionism.

    Toronto’s G20 Chaos, was able to articulate the position shared by the I.C. How many who engaged in struggle where brought there as an individual appendage to an organized institution? We saw on the street that the relationships created threw friendship and comradely where the ones able to engage the police, whilst those organized milieus themselves served as a police action.

    (There is a defined difference between friendship and milieu and most anarchists are correctly hard-pressed to describe themselves as a milieu; and I would be weary of any who do, as the recent evolution of SOAR is proving out)

    That a theory try’s to push forward the positivity of the movement is nothing new for theory, though it does seem we have gone some time with out a fresh gust. Rearranging the methods of urban combat necessarily takes a vanguardist position; whilst trying to elaborate on the commonalities of the ‘multitude’ and there locate a generalized potentiality of revolt- at the same time must have been a real fuckin challenge for the collective writers! The importance of the text and its popularity is to push it forward. For to break it down would be to simply drop it back into the quagmire of activism it is trying to transcend. In my opinion your questioning of the text is vital in transporting it into our contemporary context. That this is no doubt happening throughout the International movement, that we are again redefining the war upon our terms, combating our regional-specific sites of command across the global civil war, reiterates the proclamation Marx made regarding the 1871 rupture, ‘The Commune is the antithesis of Empire!’

  2. this is great says:

    we need more of this! thank you.

  3. Anyone notice this? says:

    Good review!

    Some of your criticism feels like when I read back issues of Fire to the Prisons.

    Damned anarchists always railing against the total alienation of modern society and two paragraphs later, advocating alienation from most other politically engaged people and their work …

    It’s hilarious and depressing at the same time.

    I try to weed out the smug sanctimonious bullshit and stick to the good analysis.

    ie. patiently explaining the contradictions of reformism instead of refusing to talk to people with good intentions who do years of good work just because they’re part of a “scene” or middle-class moderates, or whatever. If you’re going to mix explosives in a shack in the woods with 2 or 3 friends, fine. That’s not practical for most folks.

    Anyone who actually gives a fuck and does something about it is already on their way.
    The rest is details.

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