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The Coming Insurrection
by The Invisible Committee
As an anonymous 130-page tract, part social criticism and part exit strategy from contemporary capitalism, originally published in France in 2007, The Coming Insurrection was an unlikely book to start making waves on both sides of the Atlantic. But with the arrest of its purported author in 2008 for supposed acts of sabotage (there is, in fact, little evidence against the person in question to support either allegation), the book has caught the attention of those beyond today’s relatively small circles of the radical left.
The book is largely a critique of life in contemporary capitalism, from the world of flexibilised work to ‘the metropolis’. It decries society’s atomisation, symbolised by the fetishisation of the individual in the Reebok advertising slogan, ‘I am what I am’.
One way it moves beyond many similar, previous critiques is in taking on the attempts to ‘green’ capitalism. ‘The situation is like this: they hired our parents to destroy this world, and now they’d like to put us back to work rebuilding it, and – to add insult to injury – for a profit.’ The environment, the book predicts, will become the pivot of the political economy of the 21st century, with new industries from eco-friendly consumer durables to green consultancy, the revival of the nuclear industry, regressive environmental taxation, and the policing of access to water.
The book resembles 1960s Situationist texts, such as those by Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem, particularly in terms of the disdain it expresses for much of the left. Its alternative positive point of reference is the unmediated struggles that erupted in the French banlieues in November 2005 and the riots across Greece in December 2008.
As a basis for launching an ‘insurrectionary’ effort, it advocates the proliferation of communes. By this, the authors do not just mean spaces for collective living and working, but something that is formed ‘every time a few people, freed from their individual straitjackets, decide to rely on themselves and measure their strength against reality’.
There is no shortage today of proposals for a radical transformation of society in light of crises economic and ecological. Just take a look at the list of current amazon.com politics bestsellers and count the proposals for revolutions that are out there. The vast majority, however, come from the conservative right. There is almost nothing to the left of Thomas Friedman’s call for an American ‘green revolution’ – a gap that The Coming Insurrection is clearly intended to fill.
There are a number of serious shortcomings in the authors’ analysis, however. First, while they describe the conditions in which people live and work today, they shy away from the question of class. They are aware that the industrial factory worker is no longer the paradigmatic figure of capitalist production he once was. But they do not know who has replaced him.
At times, one thinks they are going to follow authors such as André Gorz and bid farewell to the category of working class altogether. But they never quite go that far. Capitalism is a social system oriented towards production for profit. If you want to change this orientation, it is important to try to find out who does this producing. Only then can some sort of meaningful discussion about, and experimentation with, alternatives begin. This is a step the book skips.
Second, The Coming Insurrection offers a very one-dimensional reading of history, which derives directly from that of the Situationists. For The Invisible Committee, history is the history of defeat. Or rather, what Debord would call ‘recuperation’, turning systemic opposition or criticism into something not only controllable, but profitable. Think of the trajectory taken by punk: from a riotous youth movement to the shelves of H&M, via Vivienne Westwood diamond-studded safety pins. This narrative is not incorrect as such, but it is incomplete.
The book fails to recognise, for instance, that the precarious, flexible and mobile reality of work today, which it so vividly describes, is in part a result of the earlier rejection of the monotony of the assembly line. This does not mean we should just be happy with our lot. But failing to recognise the role that previous generations’ struggles played in shaping the world runs the risk of underestimating the range of possibilities to bring about further changes.
It is on the basis of these shortcomings that The Coming Insurrection proposes its strategy for change: an attempt to deploy forms of struggle that cannot be recuperated (as if they existed!), de-linked from the rest of the left, and relatively disinterested in some of the most pressing questions. Such as: where and by whom is social wealth produced today? Or: how can we go about democratically deciding how we want to produce and live in the future?
In the current political and economic climate, proposals for a radical remaking of society are an urgent necessity. But in skipping vital questions the book ends up providing a strategy unlikely to bear fruit.
Interested? This book can be purchased here.