Platypus Review 27 | September 2010
One of the results of these recent movements is the understanding that henceforth a real demonstration has to be “wild,” not declared in advance to the police. Having the choice of terrain, we can, like the Black Bloc of Genoa in 2001, bypass the red zones and avoid direct confrontation. By choosing our own trajectory, we can lead the cops, including unionist and pacifist ones, rather than being herded by them. In Genoa we saw a thousand determined people push back entire buses full of Caribinieri, then set their vehicles on fire. The important thing is not to be better armed but to take the initiative. Courage is nothing, confidence in your own courage is everything.
—The Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurrection1
THESE FEW SENTENCES PRESCRIBE the Invisible Committee’s advice for today’s budding radical. Concurrently serving as agitator and guidance counselor, their pamphlet’s understanding of the path towards overcoming capitalism is woven through with the demand to abandon the fear and inhibition taming one’s revolutionary, insurrectionary potential. As a theoretical justification for tactics of subversion, violence, and destruction in the name of anti-capitalism, The Coming Insurrection was without a doubt in the minds, hearts, and backpacks of the black-clad protesters who converged on, collided with, and combusted cop cars in protest of the Toronto G20 Summit in June. Perhaps less apparent is the manner in which the emphasis on the propaganda of the deed, à la the insurrectionists and those participating in Black Bloc actions, is hardly restricted to the usual, sable-appareled suspects. Rather, this lust for radical change rooted in “real struggle” represents the culture of the contemporary anti-capitalist Left en masse, and is reflective of a politics whose fervent affirmation of action expresses a non-critical, reified understanding of society.
Despite seemingly great differences between “mainstream” protest and “extremist” tactics, Black Bloc methods and the theory of the insurrectionists are in reality only more acute expressions of a political outlook shared by the contemporary activist Left as a whole: a naïve, ahistorical asseveration of action, despite the Left’s continued downward descent into the abyss of meaninglessness. Marx once described the predicament of emancipation being fettered by a gulf between thought and action, famously concluding that “philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” The mantra of the 21st century left seems to have amended this evaluation, posing that the point is to resist it. This fixation on resistance, contrary to popular imagination, does not reveal the Left’s strength, but rather its consensual degradation into pure symbolism. The actions, antics, and aftermath of the G20 protests underscore the current crisis of the Left: not a rain of rubber bullets aimed at it, but the perverse, perennial celebration of its own comatose state.
Global gatherings of the G20 have been celebrated for bringing together all flavors of left activism: religious social justice types pleading for peace, eco-warriors distraught over the destruction of Mother Earth, dozens of infinitesimal sectarian groups ironically endorsing the power of the masses, Fosteresque entryist union organizers championing any cause that gives their local more street cred, anarchists equipped with tear-gas-ready bandanas, hoards of protestors decked out in “Fuck the G20” shirts and marching to chants of equal chutzpah, and enough Tibetan flags to make one think he or she is jamming at a Beastie Boys concert circa 1994. The uncomfortable, odd couple dynamic of this conglomeration is a decades-long tradition, for these unlikely comrades share the streets time and time again, as they did in 1999 while battling in Seattle and in the host of protests against corporate criminals, global hegemony, and world capital that populate the landscape of the Left, post-collapse. Protest, it has been decided, is the least common denominator amongst what constitutes itself as the Left today, the arena in which divides are bridged in the name of unity against the enemy of all.
While constantly conceptualized as unprecedented, this form of politics is in reality formulaic, and the storyline of the G20 in Toronto has only reproduced the equation. Thousands gather for state-sanctioned, peaceful demonstrations seeking to inform those in power what democracy looks and sounds like—apparently, like hundreds of people mechanically shouting in unison. As the demonstration unfurls, a small militant population destroys property as a gesture of their “autonomy” and fearlessness to resist the intimidating batons and tear gas of police officers outfitted in riot gear. This is followed by intense retaliation from the police officers, chiefly against persons who committed no crime. Indeed, the G20 resulted in the largest mass arrest in Canadian history. To the embarrassment of police officers and the city of Toronto, nearly all these arrests and detainments, whether the result of the frenzy of the moment or an intentional abuse of power, were without merit.
What is lost in this narrative, a conceit of the Left by now, is why it is so often repeated. While there are undoubtedly authoritarian brutes in the ranks of the riot police, itching to swing those batons into the dreadlocked head of some protester, the urge to point this out, though nearly instinctual on the Left, is an insufficient response. In the name of a solidarity whose political achievements have not materialized, the predominant gesture uniting global protest is summarized in the words and sentiments of one Ice Cube: “Fuck tha police.” While N.W.A. features prominently on my iPod, this sentiment, when conceived of as a politics unto itself, demands further consideration. As stated in countless articles appearing in both the mainstream press and various alternative publications, most observers walked away from the G20 with a disdain for the police (and perhaps the remnants of a lachrymatory agent in their lungs), and little more. While the actions of the police in Toronto, including the use of highly developed facial recognition software to identify vandals, were truly disturbing, fixating on police brutality and corruption can and often does come at the expense of insight into the purpose and effectiveness of these protests. Masked behind what appears to be unrestrained, oppressive police brutality lie buried choices made by the Left, the product of a history of intellectual and political resignations.
The “concrete” expression of antagonism against the police as a mode of politics is far less simple than it might appear. Marching alongside thousands of others with the synchronicity demanded by protest, under the stern gaze of riot police, sends adrenaline rushing through one’s veins, whether from fear, delight, or the kinky mix of the two that is characteristic of riot porn and its soft-core and hard-core stars. As we look to the police and insist at the top of our lungs, in shared euphoria, that “this is what a police state looks like!” we must, but rarely do, ask ourselves what this pleasure we take in our resistance reveals. On the one hand, it affirms our belief in actionism, that the insurrection is in fact on the horizon. On the other, it suggests an unconscious understanding of our contemporary impotence. The cynicism of ultra-Leftism, though it drastically simplifies the forces of capitalism it seeks to overthrow, is not entirely unwarranted. The possibility of effective political organizing around a shared goal of universal human emancipation may indeed be a hopelessly utopian vision from a past that has eclipsed us. While it is indeed terrifying to admit, the high we feel in confronting the police may be all that is left to experience of the dream of freedom. Despite feverish assertions that action alone propels the Left forward, in reality it may only serve as the formaldehyde embalming the corpse of the project of social emancipation.
However, this recognition is repressed in the protest culture of the Left. Instead, in the name of a lukewarm affinity towards Black Bloc antics, rationalized as defending a “diversity of tactics,” the Left in all its variations adopts a politics of mere resistance that, despite its stridency and apparent radicalism, only affirms its complacency. This form of politics, which measures success by the number of bodies marching or windows smashed, differs only in degree rather than kind from one activist group to another. In all cases it diverts from addressing the overwhelming dilemma at hand, which is not a question of resisting the police, or the fat cats, or the leaders of the world pontificating from convention centers. Rather, it is a question of whether the Left can come to terms with the current crisis of its own state of being, lest the difficulties it faces in changing the world become incorrigible.
Instead of facing this challenge, the Left makes believe that by shattering shop windows and burning police cars, its most violent members are somehow undermining the very foundations of capitalist society. The Left assumes that the actions of protest are, by default, consequential, radicalizing, and moving us closer to an emancipated society. This delusion acts as anesthesia for the pain of living in a world where all that leftists are able to do is symbolically indicate dissatisfaction with inequality, exploitation, and political regression, a world in which the question of what is to be done has become entirely unclear. Rather than taking up the task of clarification of its goals, the Left neurotically demands more action as a solution to its problems. But this is a cop out, a hallucination brought on by hopelessness. Despite a swan-dive in participation—consider the conservative estimates that the 1999 WTO protests had at least 40,000 participants compared to the 10,000 in Toronto—despite the acceleration in global poverty, despite increasing political, social, and economic repression, despite further dismantlement of organized labor accompanied by worldwide unemployment spikes, and despite innumerable other indications that the purported “victories” of protests are illusory, actionism continues on as the default politics of the Left today.
Actionism also characterized the scene when I was first politicized, entering the social milieu of ideologically ambiguous leftism championed by contemporary protest culture. I once shared the sentiments of many of my G20 comrades, that in our protest we were taking the first steps towards a revolutionary situation. However, repetition without results began to make me lose my faith. Critical questions posed from a perspective cognizant of the history and defeats of the Left led me to a place of deep agnosticism about the future of emancipatory politics. This agnosticism, however, is not a surrender. Rather it expresses, as Nietzsche put it, a “pessimism of the strong”—it seeks to distinguish itself from the hyperbolically confident façade of radical politics today, a pretense disguising what is essentially a profound sense of defeat. For, while the Black Bloc’s politics of provocation and the unreflective, undirected, and underachieving activism of the mainstream Left appear meaningfully differentiated, both actually exist as potent symptoms of the same putrid political imagination, distinguished by symbolism as a veneer for futility and a cold, conservative, and dystopic imagination of the future to counteract what is perceived of as the failings of the overly ambitious, naïvely utopian project of human emancipation. Slogans on T-shirts replace the struggle to come to terms with the haunting failures of the Left historically, while giving the finger to the police replaces the attempt to understand the complications and contradictions of capitalism. The juvenile antics of the Black Bloc, the basis of the infantile theoretical perspective of insurrectionists, and the cowardly anti-intellectual predilection of the Left as a whole, all share a refusal to reflect on their impotence in overcoming capitalism.
This refusal is obfuscated by the seemingly concrete claims made by the activist Left today, in its urgent cries to resist the system, divest from exploiters, and rally on behalf of immigrants, the working class, the environment, and gay rights. However, when one begins to move beyond protest placards and starts questioning all the shallow theoretical evaluations the Left has embraced as sacred—all of the presuppositions about how we might build a world capable of less injustice, exploitation, and unfreedom—the problem is rendered acute. If one believes that the primary problem in the world is that of authority, that we indeed “live under an occupation, under police occupation,” as stated in The Coming Insurrection, one cannot help but to focus solely on resisting one’s “occupiers.”2 The Invisible Committee suggests we “flee visibility” and “turn anonymity into an offensive position,”3 that we “sabotage every representative authority,”4 that we “hold them at a distance, redirect attention, exercise psychological pressure or force passage and gain ground by surprise.”5 No matter how much Deleuze and Guattari one reads to reaffirm these prescriptions, this stance cannot amount to much more than a manic fantasy, a misrecognition of the complexities of the task at hand, symptomatic of a broader politics imprisoned in the concrete and immediate. Costuming and all, modern protests feel increasingly like a less sophisticated version of live action role playing, thriving off a spectacular but imaginary conception of one’s political context, walking and talking and Molotov-cocktail throwing like a revolutionary.
The crisis the Left currently faces is a theoretical one, whether it acknowledges it or not. Do we continue to allow the Left to emaciate itself in its mealy-mouthed insistence that we protestors are righteous victims, or do we abandon this caricature, and strive to understand what would be necessary to come to terms with the failures of the past while persisting with a desire to understand and change the world? Do we continue to look at a vandalized Tim Horton’s and call it revolutionary, or do we concede this is only an indulgence to a juvenile glee in destruction? Do we continue to see subversion in shattered glass, do we take in good faith the opening claim of the Invisible Committee that “everyone agrees, it’s about to explode,”6 or do we begin to ask ourselves if the consciousness of the working class is even remotely altered by our actions? The Coming Insurrection suggests, “the impasse of the present, everywhere in evidence, is everywhere denied.”7 For the Left’s protesting to become more than mere posturing, perhaps it should not project that critique onto the gullible masses, but pose it to itself, given the Left’s own tendency to ignore the mounting evidence that its strength is a figment of its own imagination. While a world beyond capitalism may indeed be possible, protest, of the calm or the combustible sort, does not lead us there on its own. | P
1. The Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurrection (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009). Available here:
2. Ibid, 76.
3. Ibid, 75.
4. Ibid, 80.
5. Ibid, 77.
6. Ibid, 4.
7. Ibid, 16.