Anselm Jappe, value form critic and biographer of Guy Debord, looks at the issue of violence in contemporary Europe.
What is the visible face of violence in France? For someone who regularly travels all over Europe the first image of violence one sees on arriving at a station or an airport is the police. I have never seen so many police in France as there are presently, especially in Paris; even in Turkey during the military dictatorship. You might think that a coup d’état is taking place or that you were in an occupied country. Neither in Italy nor in Germany is there anything like it at the moment. And what policemen! They have a brutality and arrogance that defies all comparison. From the instant that you raise the least objection, unheard of – to having your papers checked, for example, or your bag searched before boarding a train –, you feel that you risk being arrested, bludgeoned and finally accused of ‘resisting arrest’. It is difficult to imagine what it must be like if you have darker skin or if you can’t produce the right papers.
One shakes with indignation on reading of policemen entering schools, under the pretext of looking for drugs, where they terrorise children with dogs and reproach teachers for protecting their students. Or when one hears about the brutal arrest of journalists accused simply of ‘offensive opinions’ (délit d’opinion). Not to mention the conditions in which ‘undocumented immigrants’ (sans-papiers) are expelled. And the fact that the minister has decided in advance on the number of tragedies to create, destinies to crush, in the manner of figures of production and arrests established by the decree of the Soviet Union in the good old days (for the police). [In 2009 Amnesty International published a report entitled: ‘France: Police above the law’ that confirms all these impressions.]
What is really on the rise is the intention to humiliate, implemented with an almost scientific precision. Journalists have demonstrated many times that airport controls are pointless by entering an aeroplane with a knife or the components for a bomb without a problem. But in the airports we continue to frisk babies and make parents drink their feeding bottles. And we make everyone take off his or her belt. Every time this happens I can’t help thinking of the trial of Prussian generals who tried to kill Hitler on the 20th of July 1944. To humiliate these old aristocrats as much as possible in front of the audience, the Nazis gave them clothes that were too large, without belts, and delighted in watching them all have to hold their trousers to keep them from falling the entire time.
No need to read scathing revolutionary diatribes to learn about the misdeeds of the police and the justice system, Le Monde suffices. Anxiety has spread even among the liberal bourgeoisie. Why is there so little initiative in defence of ‘civil liberties’? We take part in large protests for ‘purchasing power’ or against cutting teaching jobs, but never against video surveillance, and even less against biometric passports or the ‘Navigo’ in the Parisian metro that allows us to be tracked like animals.
This omnipotence of the police and the justice system at the service of government is a universal tendency. It suffices to recall that Great Britian, the birthplace of bourgeois democracy, has practically abolished Habeas corpus which prescribes that a person has to be brought before a judge within three days of their arrest. Its introduction, in 1679, is widely considered as the beginning of the modern State, with its rights and liberties of the individual set in contrast with the arbitrariness of States of old. Its abolition sounds like the symbolic conclusion of a long phase in history. The movement towards a police State seems even more developed in France than in any other ‘old democracy’. We have pushed the frontiers in terrorism, collective violence, sabotage and illegality. This criminalisation of all forms of contestation which are not strictly ‘legal’ is a major event of ours times. Recently we have seen tagging and delaying trains described as ‘terrorism’. Teachers have found themselves in court for having protested on a plane, verbally, against a brutal ‘repatriation’ (reconduite à la frontière). The facts are too well known for me to repeat them here. ‘Democracy’ is more than ever purely formal and limited to periodically choosing between representatives of the different nuances of the same management (and even this choice is rigged). All opposition to the politics of elected authority that goes beyond a petition or a letter to a local representative is defined as ‘anti-democratic’. In other words, anything that might be the least bit effective is banned, even what was permitted not long ago. Also, in Italy Berlusconi’s government just heavily restricted the right to strike in the public services and introduced huge fines for sit-ins on transport roots; students who continue to protest have been described by one minister as ‘guerrillas’.
In this conception of public life every initiative, without exception, returns to the State, to institutions and authorities. What’s more, this state monopoly on all forms of conflict is found even in everyday life. Henceforth, for any insult, for any dispute, we go to the justice system. The struggle against ‘harassment’ has contributed to taking away the ability of people to react in person against unhappiness caused by others and in this respect always pushes them toward total dependence on institutions. We no longer respond to an insult with another insult, or, at the most, with a slap, but by filling in a form at the police station. In this way we claim, especially on the Left, to be defending the weakest, especially women; in truth, we make them weaker and more dependant than ever. We dispossess ourselves of the most elementary forms of personal reaction. [Of course, the demonization of violence in everyday relationships only displaces it elsewhere. The sociologist Götz Eisenberg, who has analysed the massacres in German schools, stresses that their authors do not come from ‘difficult areas’ or working class or underclass backgrounds, where a certain amount of violence is a fact of life, but from the middle class, families ‘without a history’, where all expression of tension in the form of violence is taboo. Video games flourish here and can turn into a desire to make them a reality. The public dimly senses that these killings, termed insane [amok], reveal a hidden truth to us and that these butchers – who generally kill themselves at the end of their ‘mission’ – express this death drive which haunts, in one way or another, all commodity subjects [G. Eisenberg, Amok – Kinder der Kälte. Über die Wurzeln von Wut und Hass (Amok – Children of the cold. The roots of rage and hatred), Reinbek, Rowoht 2000, and … damit mich kein Mensche mehr vergisst ! Warum Amok und Gewalt kein Zufall sind (… so, no one will ever forget me! Why amok and violence are not due to chance), München, Pattlotch, 2010.]
At the same time, we know that in Iraq the Americans leave the dirty work for private companies – contractors – made up of mercenaries from all over the world. The number of private ‘security agents’ is increasing everywhere. In Italy, Berlusconi’s government, which bases its consensus largely on racism towards immigrants, identified in toto with criminality, has authorised by decree the formation of ‘patrols’ of ‘citizens’ in order to control the territory. He has even permitted them to be finance privately, something that could lead, eventually, to ‘death squads’ as in Latin America, paid by local businessmen to ‘clean up’ their neighbourhood.
The strengthening of the State’s monopoly on violence and its extension to private companies are not, however, in contradiction. Violence is the core of the State and it always has been. In times of crisis the State transforms itself into what it has historically been since its beginning: an armed gang. In many regions of the world the militias become ‘regular’ police and the police become militias and armed gangs. Behind all of the rhetoric on the State and on its civilizing role there is always, in the final analysis, someone smashing in the skull of another human being or who at least has the power to do so. The functions and functioning of the State have varied enormously throughout history but the exercise of violence is its common denominator. The State can take care of the well being of its citizens, or not; it can provide education, or not; it can create and maintain infrastructure, or not; it can regulate economic life, or not; it can serve a small group, or a single individual, or, on the contrary, claim to serve the public good. None of this is essential to it. But a State without armed men who defend it from external threats and who keep ‘order’ internally would not be a State. Hobbes and Carl Schmitt were right on this point: the ability to administer death remains the linchpin of any state structure.
In the course of the last centuries the State has claimed to be much more. It does not only want to be feared. It desires to be loved. It has come to occupy, on an ever-growing historical scale, a multitude of things that previously were the domain of other actors. But from the moment that the crisis of the valorisation of capital began to cut off the State’s means of subsistence, it turned back and abandoned intervening in an ever-increasing number of sectors. When there will be no more nurses or teachers in the public services, there will always be more policemen. [Or better equipped policemen because the replacement of man by technology touches even the forces of order. We shall never lack, however, for representatives on the ‘Left’ who demand that the state invest in ‘community policing’ rather than in high-tech policing, or who welcome policemen that express scepticism towards the government’s ‘security drive’ (dérive sécuritaire) by complaining that they are not given the means to be effective.] In times of crisis, the state has nothing to offer its citizens other than ‘protection’, and it therefore has every reason to perpetuate the insecurity that demands this protection. It can rid itself of all its functions but not the maintenance of order. This was already the opinion of the prophet of neoliberalism Milton Friedman: The State must leave everything to private initiative, except for security (it is true that his son David also wanted to add the idea of privatizing the justice system. But that was too much, even for hardcore liberals).
So the State throws off the faded finery in which it has dressed itself for more than a century. But this is not a return to the past. The historical situation is new. The State is establishing itself as the only master of the game (maître du jeu). In the last thee years it has forged an arsenal of surveillance and repression that exceeds anything we have ever seen before, even in the epoch of so-called ‘totalitarian’ States. Can you imagine what would have happened if the Nazis and their allies had been able to use the same instruments of surveillance and repression as today’s democracies? Between video surveillance and electronic bracelets, DNA samples and control over all written and verbal communication, no Jew or gypsy would have escaped, no resistance could have been born, and everyone who managed to escape from a concentration camp would have been taken immediately. Today’s democratic State is better equipped than the totalitarian States of yesteryear to do evil and to track and eliminate anything that could oppose it. Apparently, it as yet has no desire to do as its predecessors, but tomorrow? A fatal logic pushes States to do what can been done, even more so given that they are the managers of a technological system which obeys the same logic. And we see it everyday in the use of the means of repression: DNA sampling, originally used only in the most sever cases, such as the murder of children, is now used widely for scooter theft or anti-GM activists (les faucheurs volontaires), and, in the end, for any offence except for financial ones (the good souls of the Left will limit their protestations to demanding its extension to this category also in order fight against ‘privileges’). For the first time in history governments can reign absolute by wiping out any possibility of developing a future different from that foreseen by its leaders. And if they aren’t as clairvoyant as all that?
The very existence of an historical dialectic presupposes that the current State cannot be all-powerful, but that other forces must be able to emerge. Today, everything is done to prevent any possibility of a change in direction. And yet, looking at the names of streets in all of the cities of France, one find the names of Auguste Blanqui and François-Vincent Raspail, Armand Barbès and Louise Michel, Édouard Vaillant and Jules Vallès … all persecuted in their time, thrown in prison, deported, condemned to death. Today they are recognised by even the State itself (though reluctantly) as having had reason to be against the State of their own time. The French State is based, by its own definition of itself, on two or three revolutions and on the Resistance – but if its predecessors had had the same weapons as the State of today, today’s State would never have existed. If the State holds to its own logic, it has to give its adversaries a chance … Of course, we are not going to ask the State to respect its own rhetoric. But if it wants to take away the least capacity to act and react from its real or imagined enemies, if it puts itself forward as more perfect than all its predecessors, if it settles into the ‘end of history’, the consequences could prove to be catastrophic. It has done everything to make open barbarity the only ‘alternative’ to its reign. It truly prefers to be judged by its enemies rather than on its nonexistent successes, just as Debord has already said in his Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle in 1988. All ‘anti-terrorist’ politics follows this precept and the leaders of Algeria have applied it better then perhaps any other government.
So, the State declares that change is no longer possible, take it or leave it. It does this in an historical moment – at the begging of the real economic, ecologic and energy crisis into which we are currently sinking. Yet, there is no point in condemning the spread of practices indentified as ‘illegal’ and the recourse to what the State defines as ‘violence’. We can simple predict one thing: it will be difficult enough for acts of contestation, which will increase in coming times, to respect the parameters of ‘legality’ conceived precisely in the goal of condemning them to ineffectualness. [The question of legitimacy, more than legality, will be asked in a new way. Perhaps once again we will see defendants who, instead of continuing to proclaim their innocence before the law, will defend what they have done with pride and accept the consequences. René Riesel gave such an example in the trial that followed his participation in the destruction of parcels of land used for genetically modified crops, and while incarcerated. (See R. Rieseln Aveux complets des véritables mobiles du crime commis au CIRAD le 5 juin 1999 suivis de divers documents relatifs au procès de Montpelier, Paris, Éditions de l’Encyclopédie des Nuisances, 2001). The great majority of revolutionaries in history went in and out of prison doing exactly the same.] In its ascendant phase the workers’ movement essentially placed itself – and was placed by its adversaries – outside the laws of bourgeois society. It knew very well that laws were not neutral but promulgated by its enemies. The rise of the ‘legalists’ within the workers’ movement, above all at the end of the 19th century, was considered to be treason by many other members. It was only after the Second World War that the State succeeded in making itself accepted nearly everywhere as a regulatory authority above the mêlée. At the same time as social struggles stopped aiming for the inauguration of a completely new society and limited themselves to being a negotiation over the distribution of value, ‘respect for the rules’ had become customary on the Left and marked the divide with ‘extremist’ minorities.
But these illusions seem to be in the processes of disappearing. There is no more margin for manoeuvre. At the same time as the State no longer has anything to redistribute, the exhortation to stay in the bounds of what is legal looses its effectiveness. It lacks the compensation; it misses the slice of cake given in exchange for our leniency. We can already foresee – and even observe – a large rise in the number of ‘illegal’ acts such as occupations, the detention of corporate managers, disassembly, acts of destruction and the blocking of transport roots … [Politicians like Olivier Besancenot, who, after the arrests of the ‘Tarnac 11’ for the alleged sabotage of a TGV line, rushed to declare that the militants of his party would never do anything of this sort, risk to find themselves quickly overwhelmed by their ‘base’. Such is the historical destiny of sub-Leninists.]
In short, acts of sabotage. One gets the impression that this is what the authorities fear above all. An example of its effectiveness: if the cultivation of genetically modified plants (GM) has been partially suspended in France, and if a good part of public opinion is against them, it is thanks to these ‘faucheurs volontaires’ [activists who destroy parcels of land growing GM crops] rather than to petitions. It is significant that the Minister of the Interior has made the persecution of these ‘faucheurs’ a top priority for the forces of order. Mass disobedience, continuous sabotage, perpetual resistance – even without physical violence – would be the worst case scenario for the reigning defenders of order. They prefer open violence and terrorism: that is their terrain. I myself have said in Lignes 25 (spring 2008) that sabotage is a possible form of political action, citing the nocturnal destruction of GM crops and the impairment of biometric equipment. I could not have imagined that I, literally, ran the risk of finding myself some months later in prison under the accusation of being an instigator of terrorism.
I make allusion, of course, to the ‘Tarnac affair’, that is to say the arrest of eleven young people in November 2008, accused of having sabotaged railway lines. Julien Coupat, who the police considered to be the ‘leader’, was put in prison for six months, despite the obvious lack of evidence. Moreover, the police presented them as the authors of the pamphlet The Coming Insurrection, published in 2007 by an ‘Invisible Committee’ (that, diverging from the perspective of the police, has not been denied by their supporters). Our indignation towards the State, which has left them to rot in prison to ‘make an example’, should not stop us from being surprised at the naiveté of the authors of The Coming Insurrection. Paradoxically, they must have a lot of confidence in democracy to believe that they could, in an historical moment such as our own, call for acts of sabotage to the SNCF without eventually suffering the consequences. Where do they think live? In England during the 19th century? Their tragedy is to have come up against policemen and judges sufficiently cynical to take their fantasies of violence literally, to pretend to take them to be as dangerous as they dream to be and to punish them for what they must have wanted to do … A little like what happened to Antonio Negri in Italy in 1979. And the glorification promoted by their advocates sometimes goes too far. Why be surprised that the investigating officer should try to cast Julien Coupat as a kind of Charles Manson, if in Tiqqun, the review that he edits, one can read: ‘In Germany it was the movement of June 2nd, the Red Army Faction (RAF) and the Rote Zellen, and in the United States, the Black Panthers, the Weathermen, the Digger and the Manson Family, emblems of a prodigious internal desertion. [‘Parti imaginaire et mouvement ouvrier’ Tiqqun, n°2 (2001), p. 241.] Or will he say that he was only clowning around? It is unlikely that Coupat is Charles Manson, but it is clear that his capacity for historical analysis is no better than what one sees in a television debate.
Apparently the State has failed to pull off its coup and everything suggests that the accused will be washed clean off all suspicion. [It is particularly worth noting the historical and political acumen of the current Minister of the Interior, Michèle Alliot-Marie, who observed, forty years after 1968, that the PCF no longer attracts angry young men, thereby confirming the role that the party had in the Grenelle agreements in containing social contestation.] Moreover, they have gotten themselves spoken about almost everywhere and have received a great deal of support, from small farmers to members of parliament and the editors of Le Monde. But the State succeeded if it meant to loudly proclaim ‘zero tolerance’ on all forms of resistance – low strength acts of war – that could give birth to social movements in the process of forming. A real ‘terrorist’ is not frightened by a few months in prison; the average frustrated citizen, tempted at one time or another to act, thinking ‘It’s not a big deal, I am not going to kill anyone’ might not be able to do it if he risks spending months in prison. And if humiliation and anger push someone once again towards armed struggle, the State will rejoice to be in the company of its most beloved enemy.
On the other hand, it fears movements without leaders and that break the mould. In late 2008 the Minister of Education apparently abandoned his project to reform high school education because of the growing and, above all, uncontrollable (by students organisations and leaders) violence of high school protestors and also thanks to the example provided by the youth revolt in Greece, that seems to have made a strong impression on the French government. [‘The back peddling that Xavier Darcos has just done on high school reform is very probably due to the ‘Greek syndrome’. After ‘consultation’ and ‘agreement’ with the Head of State, the Minister of National Education decided to defer the reforms for a year, achieving a volte-face that was as spectacular as it was unexpected. (…) This is why we can speak of a ‘Greek syndrome’. In other circumstances, that is to say without the economic crisis, which seriously threatens the integration of young people, without the tense situation in the suburbs, which threatens to explode into violence at the least intervention by police, without the example of Greece, the least spark of which risks a revolt of young people, it is likely that the Minister of National Education would not have given in so quickly. A debate took place on this score between the government and the Élysée. The most prudent won, judging the situation to be sufficiently tense for it to be necessary to calm things down. It was not so much the size of the high school movement begun fifteen days ago that was worrying but the fact that it was largely spontaneous, badly contained and sometimes violent.’ F. Fressoz, ‘High school reform: A symbolic back peddle’, Le Monde, 16 Dec. 2008.]
But let’s hope that ‘violence’ will not take the form spoken of by the authors of The Coming Insurrection. They propagate, as did their predecessors in the radical-chic review Tiqqun, the limited notion that it is possible to redirect growing barbarity into a force of emancipation. They are fascinated by the chaos taking place and want to push this barbarity further. [‘When times are normal the regular functioning of the world disguises our truly catastrophic state of dispossession. What people call ‘catastrophe’ is only the forced suspension of this state, one of the rare moments when we regain some presence in the world. Let us use up all of our oil reserves sooner than predicted, so that it interrupt the international flow that maintains the tempo of the metropolis, let us be at the forefront of social breakdown, so that the ‘decent into savagery’ (ensauvagement des populations), the ‘threat to the planet’, the ‘end of civilization’ come to pass!’ ‘It doesn’t matter [!] loss of control is better than all of the plans to manage the crisis’. (The Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurrection, Paris, La Fabrique, 2007, p.66)], instead of placing their bets on human qualities which might represent the only way out. Contrary to a received idea, there is nothing ‘anarcho-communist’ or Marxist about The Coming Insurrection. Rather, it contains far more Heidegger and Schmitt: the ‘decision’, [‘It is a fact, it is necessary to make a decision. Decide to kill civilization, seize hold of how it happens: only the decision will relieve us of its corpse.’ (The Coming Insurrection, op.cit.,p.79-80)] the will without content that is equally at the heart of State politics. They simply want to oppose their will against that of the state, to be the strongest, to slam their fist on the table most noisily. Their judicial misadventure risks transforming them into a myth among protestors. But even on a literary level their apology for gratuitous crime lacks a little freshness, André Breton having reconsidered his ideas on the ‘most simple surrealist act’ sixty years ago. [In an interview in 1948, reproduced in Entretiens in 1952 (Gallimard)]
Faced with sabotage and other forms of ‘violence’, the question is always: who exercises it and towards what goal? The radical Left has often confused it with ‘radicality’ and even employed it for goals that are absolutely immanent to the logic of the commodity such as demands for increases in salary. Sabotage can also be conflated with the violent affirmation of particular interests and provoke equally violent reactions from the other side. Thus, farmers who cultivate GM crops vandalised by ‘faucheurs’, not feeling themselves protected by the State could turn to private security agencies. The emancipatory character of a movement of opposition, even if it starts on a good basis, is never guaranteed in the long run – it can always fall into a populism that ‘overcomes the Left-Right divide’. The transformation of certain movements of resistance to the State into mafias (such as the FARC in Columbia) is highly significant. And once the ‘communes’ spoken of in The Coming Insurrection (the conception of which somewhat recalls the north-American survivalists who are currently preparing themselves for the apocalypse) realises that the rest of the population is not moving in the same direction, they will only fight for themselves. It would not be the first case in recent history.
Already at this very moment instead of a critique of the functioning of capitalism – and therefore of value, money, work, capital and competition –, we are rather engaged in a ‘manager witch-hunt’ (chasse aux managers), in attacks on their villas, illegal detention [which are actually quite common but that the media do not report in order to avoid the effect of imitation, where workers sometimes throw their bosses from the second floor or cover them in petrol.] and attacks on luxury restaurants. It is not necessarily ‘proletarians’ who are most inclined towards violence but usually petit and middling bourgeois: swindled savers, owners whose homes have been repossessed. From the moment that we satisfy them they will again be making allegiance with the dominant order, and they will patrol their houses with guns to defend them against other ‘predators’. It is a lot less likely to see a popular revolt against a ‘development project’ that will cut up a forest than against a trader who has stolen perhaps one euro from every citizen. And if it was jealousy which created this hatred? If we simply want to be one of them? We could have massacres of leaders and their henchmen as The Coming Insurrection wishes and in so doing create a new beginning for the same system after a bloodbath. A different hunt over fraud and its political accomplices in 1934 led to an assault on Parliament by the extreme Right.
‘One finds among those charged [for acts of revolt in the suburbs] all sorts of profiles that have hardly anything in common other than hatred for existing society; not class, not race nor neighbourhood’, The Coming Insurrection tells us. [The Coming Insurrection, op. cit., p.8] Very well. Meanwhile, the fact of detesting society as it currently exists, still means nothing, it is necessary to see whether it is for good or bad reasons. The islamist is also driven by hatred of this society and fascist supporters cry ‘All cops are bastards’ in stadiums. Followers of Antonio Negri also claim to see an alliance – perfectly imaginary – between all the enemies of this world, from Palestinian suicide bombers to teachers on strike, from the Parisian suburbs to Bolivian miners – on the condition that it is explosive … The feeling of rejection engendered by today’s world is often much closer to ‘abstract hatred’ (haine désincarnée) (Baudrillard). Without any other object than traditional violence they can only enter into any ‘political’ strategy, whatever it may be, with difficulty. If civil war – real civil war – breaks out, it is not difficult to imagine who will be the first to find themselves woken up in the middle of the night and unceremoniously shoved up against the wall, while women are raped and children shot …
One can hate what exists in the name of something even worse. One can hate Sarkozy and prefer Mao or Pol Pot. The feeling of humiliation, the impression of having to submit with no power to react, can lead to intelligent subversion just as much as it can to massacres in schools or in municipal councils. What comes through in the majority of actual protestations is above all the fear of finding oneself excluded from society and therefore the desire to be a part of it. What we have to escape from today, in general, is no longer ‘adaptation’ to a situation judged untenable, as in 1968 and after, but marginalisation in a society which is reducing itself to almost nothing.
Admiring violence and hatred for their own sake will help the capitalist system direct the fury of its victims onto scapegoats. Many things have turned sour, violence and illegality among them. It is very likely that the armour of ‘legality’ will soon fall apart and there is no reason to be distressed about this. But all reasoning that calls for violence is not always good reasoning. Perhaps violence should only be wielded by people without hatred and resentment. But is this possible?
Translation by 'Isidore Malva' (September 2011)
Originally 'Violence, mais pour quoi faire?' in Crédit à Mort by Anselm Jappe pp. 69-91