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Archive for Paul Z. Simons

Pure Black: An Emerging Consensus Among Some Comrades?

Paul Z. Simons

 

The term “black” anarchist has been thrown around recently in a number of international milieux and journals. Indeed during the last few years of my travels throughout North and South America and Europe I have noted repeated attempts to define, through action and theory, the ideas associated with black anarchy. Following is a brief, incomplete outline of some of the more common aspects of what black anarchists think and do. These tendencies are numbered for convenience, and not to show priority or importance.

Red Excursus: I will not discuss “red” anarchy as it seems well defined by the collectivist, syndicalist, communist variants of anarchist ideas that were developed more than a hundred years ago and still enjoy a great deal of popularity and adherents. I emphasize that I don’t see the two various strains as being mutually exclusive, opposed, or even necessarily very different at the macro level. The old sectarianism and exclusion, a gnawing symptom of Marxism and the Social Democracy, plays no role in this essay. I am attempting to describe and provide some topography to a growing, relatively new agreement among a particular group of my comrades, in doing so I support and encourage those who follow different anarchist ideas and paths. No one is wrong, no one is right. The best we can hope for is clarity, not hegemony.

1) Violence

In this context violence is defined as a tactic, whether applied to insurrection, riot, attentat, or simple refusal. There is an almost overwhelming consensus among the black anarchists that the use of violence is necessary, indeed desirable, perhaps essential. The international growth of the various FA(I)-IRF cells, the example of the Greek CCF and Revolutionary Struggle, the concomitant growth of the non-anarchist but equally engaging actions of the eco-extremists in Mexico, Chile and Brazil, and the myriad anonymous burnings, ATM destruction, and attacks that populate the current global anarchist media echo this resonance. Whether it is the Molotov arching gracefully through the night air, the flaming barricade, or the flagpole—turned truncheon—crashing into fascist bone, the black anarchist greets all with approval.

 

2) Individualist

There is a strong individualist strain in black anarchism, mostly as a function of activity and less due to long nights breathlessly reading Stirner. In essence when engaged in actions it’s easier to work in small groups, and sometimes alone rather than attempt to build large or even medium sized organizations. These small groups which I’ll call teams, a word taken from our Athenian comrades, bring into clear relief the importance of individual initiative, they decentralize decision and action, they emphasize clearly that while there is no I in team, there is an “m” and an “e.”

 

3) Nihilist

In this instance, nihilism I’ll interpret as the realpolitik of anarchism in 2017—all the various ideas, concepts and conceits of an anarchist victory via revolution or insurrection in the current context are nothing more than political heroin. Once this simple, obvious fact is accepted there are two courses, resignation and lassitude or savage attack without any real hope of success. The black anarchist chooses the latter, always.

 

4) Illegalist

A part of the black anarchist consensus is the desire to completely reject any compromise or cooperation with nation-state, Capital, and markets. Leading many in the milieu to undertake consciously political illegal activity. This varies from place to place but includes the positive activities of squatting, occupations, shoplifting, out-right store robbery, burglary and more. In terms of negative activities this new variant of illegalism includes refusal of all taxes, tolls, welfare, NGO handouts, and state-run free clinics.

 

5) Informal Organization

There is a real and healthy fear among the black anarchists of formal organization. The anti-organizational tendency is not new in the historical anarchist milieu, nor in the various anarchisms that saw first light since the 1970s in the USA, Canada, and parts of Western Europe. The open espousal of informal, temporary structures and limited adherence to organizational tenets is, however, very new. This loosening of the organizational form, the inclusionary laissez-faire stance adopted by black anarchists and their organizations may be one of the tendencies most lasting contributions. In most historical cases anarchists have constructed organizations that virtually ooze the ideas and characteristics of the dominant society. In a few short years the black anarchists have done a great deal of theoretical violence to such organizational nonsense, in the future I hope they do more.

 

This outline of black anarchism is brief, incomplete, and a piece of journalism, not conjecture. This is what I saw, what I experienced in the past several years visiting and working with anarchists on three continents. It is both memoriam and prospectus.

Dispatches from Greece Three: Notes from two months in Exarcheia

athens-graffiti El Errante

“Come and get food, Motherfuckers!”

The call, in a slight accent, echoes down the marble steps of the squat—the daily common meal is ready. In many ways this call for food encapsulates the nature of squatting in Greece. There is a complex relationship between squatters, a familiarity born of a shared life and a shared enemy. There is also a challenge, and slight but perceptible pressure to maintain relentless social contestation, always working, pushing towards the Idea. The results can take multiple forms, actions, demos, art, theater. A number of the squatters use art as a weapon. They paint, they build installations, they alter and manipulate the urban environment—joyfully. They plot, they plan actions, they look for openings in the armor of the Social Enemy to strike and cause harm. They speak of love and hatred, with no embarrassment. There is camaraderie, days spent talking, laughing, shadow-boxing, spray-painting or wheat-pasting on the walls of the squat. One of my most profound memories is hearing laughter ringing through the building as the younger squatters horse around late at night. Finally there is a fierce and abiding loyalty—made of living, working, fighting together. I knew, once accepted into the squat, that whatever happened no one there would ever deliberately let harm come to me, and my Comrades knew that I was committed to them in the same manner. This, of all things, proves the worth of living in common, in Commune. Physical, emotional, spiritual safety in the world is a joke perpetrated directly by the Social Enemy—how much better do anarchists do it! Face to face, the commitment becomes real—a material thing, not some nightmare uniformed asshole threatening prison, parole and degradation. I’ll take the threat of several black clad figures in the middle of night acting on conscience to help a Comrade over a cop loaded with laws and punishments. Some of the squatters are guests, visiting from almost every point on Earth, though during my time—primarily Europe, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, and the USA. Others are long-term, mostly Greek, and the occasional American.

Almost everyone takes turns prepping food, and sitting an early morning defense shift, the only two real “chores” at the squat. Everything else is pretty much left to chance, cleaning the toilets, sweeping and mopping common areas, emptying ashtrays, occasionally standing outside on the street when things in Exarcheia get tense, and making tea or sweets for the Assembly. This arrangement overburdens some folks, and it underburdens others, which is the nature of non-coercive social relations. Something to be accepted, not denied, nor decried. It’s the way things are.

The squat I found myself in is considered one of the “blackest,” meaning that most of the explicitly political squatters are either anarchist individualists or nihilists. Other squats tend to be less black, more red—meaning anarcho-communist, syndicalist or some stripe of collectivist. Some of the finer points of theory are abandoned in favor of the nature of the relationships that the different squats and squatters have developed over the years. Perhaps an overstatement, but a balance of animosity and agreement reigns between the squats. Sometimes forming alliances, occasionally coming to blows. Which is one reason that the December 6th 2016 riot was so significant—where personal and political grudges were shelved in favor of an all-out coordinated effort at defending the community from police incursion. Even the authorities registered surprise in the main stream media after the night of rioting, going so far as to authorize a few patrols near Exarcheia Square by cops in armored jeeps. This presence was quickly curtailed, the authorities realizing that the provocation was hardly worth the potential backlash. In fact only one squat bowed out from the defense of Exarcheia—and it came under criticism for what was seen as a real inability to play well with others.

“Motherfuckers! I said food!”

The reminder, this time registered with some anger by the cook, is greeted with muted derision and groaning by the residents. It’s early by squatter’s time—1pm—and those left in the building are sleeping. I drag myself out of bed, force down a coffee and make a plate of food. It’s good—potatoes, rice, salad and some kind of fried meat. Could be seafood—eel maybe.

I talked to the cook later that day and asked about the meat, she said, “Sheep cheeks and tongue…good right?”
I smiled and said, “Really good, thanks.”

Like the meal, living in commune is like that. The more you try new stuff, the better it gets.

Dispatches from Greece Two: The Exarcheia Commune Rises and Defends Itself, a Review of the Battle

greece1
El Errante

 

“Ons Danse le Lachrymo…”
Graffiti, France, July 2016 (transl. “We Dance the Teargas”)
“Comrade, will you watch these while I throw one?” He is tall, masked from head to toe in black, and is known to me. As he speaks he motions to a milk crate stuffed with Molotovs.

“Sure…go ahead,” I say as I light a cigarette and settle in to guard the precious weapons stash while he tosses the thing at the Social Enemy. Ten minutes later he returns and in spite of the dark night, his black clothing, and the shadow we stand in, he glows with happiness—like the Molotov he just launched, he is alight.

Strategy

The strategy was simple, and for the anarchists new, defend the beating anarchist heart of Athens, of Greece, perhaps the world. Block, stop and turn back any and all attempts by the Athens Police to get to Exarcheia Square. And do so in a coordinated fashion between all the various groups, teams and squats. Each entity taking responsibility for one or two streets—ensuring they are effectively blocked. This in contrast to previous years when the rioting was scattered, unfocussed and usually developed into clashes around the Polytechnic, the University complex set off several blocks from the Square. This year, the Polytechnic and its environs played no role whatsoever, but Exarcheia Square sure as hell did. Finally, in crystalline form, the strategy was to take and keep liberated territory, to free a community—if only for a few hours.exarcheia

The strategic plan included blocking all the approaches to the Square and by establishing a secondary system of barricades to neutralize the unfortunately offset side streets that link the main avenues. The side streets were one of the real dangers of the plan, because should the Police actually have the ability to turn a barricade they would then have flanking access to at least one, perhaps several, adjacent streets and barricades. The barricade that my team was tasked with defending was located such that the side street would have given the cops the advantage of flanking us effectively from the side and rear. Not good. In order to counter this threat a series of smaller side barricades were set up on these side streets, effectively slowing any belligerent force from going on a free ride from one street to the next, one point of defense to the next. Two small pedestrian streets also lead into the Square and these were barricaded as well. Finally there was a hope that at one or two points the anarchists could push hard enough to move the fighting up the street effectively expanding their territory and maybe even be able to sever a police line of reinforcement, or even better, retreat.

The one huge downside to the system of barricades was simple—if one or several were turned it would have given to the police the ability to flank every remaining barricade from the rear. A rock and a hard place scenario. Everyone seemed aware of this, and as fighting was heard in other streets I saw more than one rioter glance nervously over their shoulder in anticipation of a police charge from the rear. Fortunately this never happened.

Tactics

The primary tactical component on the anarchist side was the barricade—construction, defense, and use as a weapon. The Exarcheia barricade varied from street to street. Usually low, sometimes waist high, on occasion higher, but never above eye-level so that the fighters could see over and anticipate police charges. Most included tires, wood taken from construction sites, large planters from the sidewalks, anything that could be ripped out of the ground, torn off a wall, or broken was used to raise the barricade just one inch taller. In one case two steel police barricades had been used to block a side street. In many instances barricades caught fire, either deliberately set or by accident. Once alight, the fires were allowed burn unchecked. The actual battle tactic was to taunt, harass and generally disrespect the forces of authority in a vocal and physical fashion. This included standing in front of the barricade throwing stones at the cops in the hopes of pushing them off their adjacent corner. Occasional chants could be heard rising up from various barricades, the only one I recognized being a chant calling cops murderers. The cops would charge and be driven off by Molotov and stone barrages. In one case the barricade I was at was turned by the cops, but only for a moment. A swift counter charge by anarchists pushed them off the barricade and back down the street. It’s fun to watch a cop retreat, especially as the ground around them sputters and roars in flame and smoke.

The actual battle tactic was to taunt, harass and generally disrespect the forces of authority in a vocal and physical fashion. This included standing in front of the barricade throwing stones at the cops in the hopes of pushing them off their adjacent corner. Occasional chants could be heard rising up from various barricades, the only one I recognized being a chant calling cops murderers. The cops would charge and be driven off by Molotov and stone barrages.

In terms of cop tactics they are hard to guess. But it seemed a pattern of varied harassment and probing. They seemed to move personnel from one barricade to another over the course of the night. The barricade I was at was very active with three or four charges an hour, usually beginning with a barrage of flash bang grenades followed by teargas, loads of teargas; then a charge, and a retreat. I saw this tactic deployed over and over, on almost every street. Some streets, hotly contested early in the evening, were virtually empty an hour or two later. Other streets, like mine, felt the brunt of the fighting. There was one barricade situated on a downhill street, in other words allowing some tactical advantage to the cops on a charge, which while contested, it was not a main point of fighting. I kept thinking that the reason must be that the retreat was hampered by the sloped street. Finally, the weather helped the insurgents– it was a humid, rainy cool night. The two pedestrian walkways, swathed in tiles that get slick as shit when wet, went effectively uncontested. The cops realizing that short of wearing shoes with soles slathered in krazy glue there was no way to safely run and retreat on a surface that was, in effect, as treacherous as ice. Almost all insurgent forces like inclement weather to fight in especially against regular troops, once Special Forces guys told me that rain and 45-55 degrees Fahrenheit is sufficiently gloomy for regular soldiers to begin to lose heart. In his words, “It tears the morale out of you.” Athens on the evening of December 6, 2016 was misty/slight drizzle, with a temperature hovering at 50 degrees. Perfect.

Weapons

The Exarcheia Molotov is a brilliant technical innovation of the weapon, and worth taking note of.

The Exarcheia Molotov is a brilliant technical innovation of the weapon, and worth taking note of. In general they use 500 ml beer bottles, filled half way or a bit less with a flammable liquid, usually gas. They then take a length of gauze bandage and extend a portion into the gas and tape the remainder at the opening of the bottle for a fuse. The traditional dangling fuse being a relic of the past. This accomplishes two things, first as the bottle is only filled half way, the gauze wicks gas and inundates the remaining air in the bottle with gas fumes. Turning the Exarcheia Molotov from a simple device that delivers fire into—a bomb. The damn things actually explode in massive purplish red flame as the remaining liquid gas erupts and spreads fire to anything it touches. Next the taping of the wick at the opening of the bottle, again inundated with liquid gas makes a perfect “fuse” it can be easily lit and thrown without the danger of self-immolation by a flopping, flaming piece of cloth. I would very much like to meet and congratulate the folks who developed this thing. It’s brilliant, it’s easy, and the Athens Police hate them like the plague—with good reason. The Exarcheia Molotov is a fearsome and effective weapon. Some comrades have further advanced this innovation with an attached canister, which explodes on impact. I have no idea what’s in this canister and asked one of the guys who was throwing these infernal devices what made them work, but as he spoke no English, and as I speak no Greek it remains a mystery. The explosion is loud, like a flash bang, with the attendant dispersal of flaming gasoline to the surrounding area. More information later, perhaps.

Hand thrown chunks of whatever. The most desperate thing I saw in Exarcheia that night was insurgents scrambling to get their hands on stuff to throw. One scene that I’ll always remember was of a bunch of young people kicking a pylon cemented in the sidewalk to loosen it. They eventually succeeded and it had the added benefit of producing further hunks of concrete when it was finally hauled out. Tiles torn out of walls, empty bottles, anything not actually nailed down was loosened, ripped out and thrown at the police.

In addition I saw slingshots, and an actual, honest-to-God, David-slays-Goliath sling being used. The projectiles used included ball-bearings, marbles, stone or concrete chunks. These were clearly weapons of harassment, used during lulls to further infuriate and demoralize the police.

Finally, though linked to a cop weapon, the anarchists have found the use of gas masks absolutely essential. There was little breeze on the night of December 6th and even small amounts of teargas were devastating as it settled into corners, doorways and hung in the damp, unmoving air.

On the cop side little was new, the usual suspects. Flash bang grenades, though in Athens these don’t use launchers, they are hand thrown. What is devastating in their repertoire is teargas, Brazilian teargas. Having been gassed recently in France, I’m beginning to be something of a lachrymator connoisseur, and I can tell you that Greek gas is dense, acrid and acidic—far more so than the Gallic variant. In terms of first aid there is Riopan. A kind of Maalox, but in handy single serving foil packets. The ground around the various barricades was littered with these white foil packs. And the faces of many insurgents looked clown-like as they poured the white liquid liberally into eyes, onto the mucous membranes, and finally taking a swallow to clear the acidic, noxious gas residue out of the throat.

Order of Battle

Anarchists: 800-1,000. Organized as teams of between 5 and 10 fighters. Those from Exarcheia were assigned to various barricades and maintained themselves within their area. Those from outside Exarcheia roamed, the sound of flash bang grenades drawing them to specific streets, militants would frantically move from barricade to barricade as cop charges changed location and intensity. In a lull most hung out in Exarcheia, drank beer, talked, and scrounged for more stuff to throw. The number dwindled over the night to perhaps two hundred when the militants finally dumped arms and hostilities ceased, about 11:00 pm.

Cops: 200-300 (a guess). Based on my observations of the number per charge (20 cops maximum) and the number of barricades being simultaneously probed and harassed—upwards of five, and the number of police needed to provide logistics, support, command, reserves, and to steer traffic well out of the area.

Snapshots

As I sit and write this on the Isle of Lesvos a short 24 hours after the battle a number of scenes come to mind. Sitting in a room discussing preparations for the night, many of the militants standing, pacing, nervous with energy to get started. As I guarded the Molotovs having some Italian comrades wander by. They asked for a Molotov, which I provided and we all agreed that the Greeks had done something very right. Helping a young woman overcome by gas, who, when the Riopan got into her eyes and nose immediately recovered. Like a stoned person suddenly sober—she straightened, said, “Thank you Comrade,” turned and headed back to the barricade she was attending to. The sight of burning barricades, great arcs of Molotovs fuses sputtering as they flew and struck home in the ranks of the police. The shouting, chanting, laughing, talking–the feeling of really finally being alive. One’s hair standing on end as the flash bangs explode and teargas projectiles clatter on the ground and cloud the street. Finally on my way back to the apartment I was staying at, I noticed a small store open, with several people playing cards at a table in the back. I knocked on the door—needed smokes and something to drink. They motioned me in, and asked where I was from, a few questions and finally one of the older men asked, “So tonight did you see the riots?”

“Yes,” I answered not wanting to give too much away.

“And who are you with, the young people or the cops?”

Hesitantly I said, “The young people, always.”

He smiled broadly and answered, “So are we.”

Dispatches from Greece One: Vox, and Crossing the Rubicon

El Errante

(All material in this dispatch was approved for release by the relevant parties)

“We were in an Assembly at the Polytechnic discussing solidarity with political prisoners, and many were interested in helping with money and support. No one had any money so we squatted Vox and made it into a café to make money.”

I am sitting in the Vox cafe with Tharasis, an anarchist associated with the space and the action group Rubicon. The space is huge by my standards, airy—massive windows open out onto Exarcheai Square, multiple tables and chairs, a small bar with an espresso machine, and a fridge stuffed with beer stands to one side. A small library is also present. Tharasis continues, “So far we have made 160,000 euro to help the prisoners.”

“That’s a lot…” I mutter.

“Not really, we pay no rent, no electricity, nothing. It helps, though, prisoners in Greece get nothing. They have to buy everything, toilet paper, toothpaste, everything,” he says as he lights another cigarette.

“Who do you help, what kinds of prisoners?”exarcheia

“Mostly anarchists, nihilists, some others, we make sure that the activities they were imprisoned for were political, and that in prison they have shown solidarity. That’s it. We don’t have a test to see if they meet our standards.”

Vox also houses a small medical and dental clinic in the basement, an initiative that came from outside the Vox collective but was considered important enough to support. The space also hosts other assemblies and groups.

“And then Rubicon…” I ask.

“Well Rubicon is different, out of the people who squatted Vox and whose primary concern was solidarity with political prisoners, a new concern arose. Many of us saw the movement begin to lose motion, to freeze.”

“Like how? What gave you that impression?”

“Fewer people at demos and assemblies, less interest.”

“Okay so you formed Rubicon….”

“Yes, Rubicon. A smaller group for direct action. We formed it to keep the light on, to show the state and our comrades that anarchy still lives.”

“And the targets of your actions….”

greece1“All planned, we look for targets that will affect people, that are socially relevant. Like Le Pen’s party renting a space in Athens, or the agency responsible for privatization. And we let people know who we are, what we want, and how to contact us.” It should also be noted that Rubicon, in an action at the Greek parliament protesting prison conditions, found themselves in the uncomfortable position of finding a door into the building open and unguarded. A quick consensus was reached that maybe it wasn’t the best day to seize and destroy the state.

We also watched the video of the Le Pen offices being ransacked and he commented, laughing, “Did you see? The comrade with the hammer is using the wrong side of the head! It’s terrible.”

“What about security?”

“The people who participate are masked, and without identity the state can do little. I was arrested but the charges were dropped—the video shows masked people—not us.”

“And how many people usually participate?”

“That all depends on the action. Some require only one or two. Others, dozens. When we attacked the state agency for privatization it took many people. It’s a big building and we needed time to destroy all the office computers. Others, like the parliament action, maybe 10 or 15.”

“And,” I ask, “what of now…?”

“What’s happening now is critical, what we do as Rubicon seeks to reignite the anarchist movement.”

 

 

Lessons from Rojava: Democracy and Commune; This and That

P1000335
El Errante

Democracy—”a system of government in which all the people of a state or polity … are involved in making decisions about its affairs, typically by voting to elect representatives to a parliament or similar assembly,” (a:) “government by the people; especially: rule of the majority” (b:) “a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.”—Oxford English Dictionary

 

I hate democracy. And I hate organizations, especially communes. Yet, I favor the organization of democratic communes.

THIS: Democracy is always about mediation. Whether it separates the subject from decision-making, functions as an excuse for graft and fraud, or whether it separates the subject from him or herself. Democracy stands in the way of the individual, blocks unmediated communication by imposing the requirement of structure—an outcome, a decision. And when a decision is reached, it is usually arrived at by the most banal and ruthless method ever devised: the vote—the tyranny of the majority.

Anarchism has had a mixed history of criticism regarding democracy. Étienne de La Boétie in his Discours lays out a first line of inquiry by wondering why it is that people allow themselves to be governed at all—and as he explores the problem he points out that it seems not to matter whether a tyrant is chosen by force of arms, by inheritance, or by the vote. He states,

“For although the means of coming into power differ, still the method of ruling is practically the same; those who are elected act as if they were breaking in bullocks; those who are conquerors make the people their prey; those who are heirs plan to treat them as if they were their natural slaves.” (1)

And it might be added that the subject population submits to such abuse without question or contestation. La Boétie’s treatise is truly prescient; written in (roughly) 1553—a full 250 years before the emergence of the modern nation-state—and yet it contemplates exactly the type of unbridled war, oppression, and terror that democratically elected governments were to unleash on subject populations, and each other.

Power cannot exist in a vacuum, as the monarchs of Europe learned during the upheavals of 1848 while they watched their respective regimes disintegrate, one after the other. With democracy came the calculation of exchange, one iota of power given to a citizen via the vote, produces a vast quantity of power ensconced in legislature, executive, and judiciary. It’s unsurprising that political systems began to apply equations of power and exchange at the same time that in the economic realm Capital was introducing similar equations in order to usurp labor-time in trade for survival. Further such an exchange ties the population all that much closer to the rulers. Vanegeim illustrates the mechanism thus,

“Slaves are not willing slaves for long if they are not compensated for their submission by a shred of power: all subjection entails the right to a measure of power, and there is no such thing as power that does not embody a degree of submission.” (2)

It is Proudhon who will have the most varied interaction with IMG_0424democracy, both theoretically and practically. His career includes writing and publishing tomes of critical analysis denouncing democracy, running for elected office, serving in the National Assembly during the 1848 Revolution, and finally returning to his original rejection of voting and representation. He will also urge his followers to alternately abstain from voting, then to vote, then to abstain from voting (again), and finally to cast blank ballots to protest voting.

Proudhon unleashed a number of critiques on democracy. The critical prisms he used vary greatly, from the purely psychological to the empirical. And the targets of his barbs span the entire menagerie of democratic platitudes from the myth of “The People” to sovereignty to the realpolitik of how legislatures operate. Of interest is his critical analysis of the democratic decision-making process itself. He scrutinizes the mechanism of the vote and its outcome; specifically majority rule. He reasons in this manner,

“Democracy is nothing but the tyranny of majorities, the most execrable tyranny of all, for it is not based on the authority of a religion, nor on a nobility of blood, nor on the prerogatives of fortune: it has number as its base, and for a mask the name of the People…”

But Proudhon doesn’t finish there; he goes on to protest that those left in the minority are forced by circumstance to follow the will of the majority. A situation he finds untenable, not only for the explicit coercion but also because those in the minority are forced to abjure their ideas and beliefs in favor of those who oppose them. This, he notes wryly, makes sense only when political views are so loosely held nantesopera3by individuals as to hardly be worthy of the name. William Godwin, in analyzing the same scenario provides the terminal statement, “nothing can more directly contribute to the deprivation of the human understanding and character” than to require people to act contrary to their own reason. A conclusion proven empirically when one conducts even the most rudimentary survey of representative government and its effects on humanity over the course of the past 250 years.

In conclusionfor an anarchist, for myself, democracyas a system of self-governance, as a decision-making tool, as an idealis utterly devoid of any redeeming value or usefulness. It functions as a mask for coercion, making horror palatable whilst producing unbearable consequences for the individual, for the species, and for the planet. A dead end.

THAT: It is at this point that most anarchists and critical theorists begin backpedaling, some slowly (like Proudhon) and others rapidly (like Bookchin). Historically theorists have offered a scathing critique of democracy and then have immediately digressed, stating that the representative form of democracy as conceived by bourgeois (or socialist) society isn’t really democracy. That real democracy is reflected in some other formfor Proudhon delegated democracy, for Bookchin the Greek city-states, or the Helvetican Confederation. The argument then becomes that democracy can (and should) be recuperated by the Left as a workable form.

My own critique veers wildly off course at this point by virtue of having been skewed by empirical observation of a different form of democratic practice. Having recently returned from the Kurdish Autonomous Region in Northern Syria, known as Rojava, I had the opportunity to observe a unique form of unmediated democracy as implemented by a revolutionary libertarian social movement.

Sinjar Resistance - PKK hold up Ocalan portrait-777x437

Some theoretical context: Abdullah Öcalan, the head of the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê (PKK, The Kurdistan Worker’s Party) was captured by Turkish Security Forces, with assistance from the CIA and Israel’s Mossad, in 1999. Dodging a firing squad, he was eventually sentenced to aggravated life imprisonment and that’s when things get interesting. Eschewing making license plates, or working in the laundry, Öcalan began the long slow intellectual journey out of Marxist-Leninist jibberish and into some pretty durable anarchist theory. Eventually publishing his ideas in several works, including Democratic Confederalism, War and Peace in Kurdistan, and a multi-volume tome on civilization, particularly the Middle East and Abrahamic religions. In his writing Öcalan does what no one else in the contemporary North American anarchist milieu is even willing to think—he constructs, albeit vaguely—a blueprint for a libertarian society. This simple exercise, devoid of content, is incredible. His engagement resembles far more the utopian socialist project of the early 19th Century than any of the ensuing theoretics associated with social contestation—especially Marxism and working-class anarchism; indeed his silence on class analysis, Marxist teleology, historical materialism, and syndicalism is deafening. Öcalan is clear in his task when he states in the Principles of Democratic Confederalism, “Democratic confederalism is a non-state social paradigm. It is not controlled by a state. At the same time, democratic confederalism is the cultural organizational blueprint of a democratic nation.[bold mine]”

As implied in the name, there is a great reliance on democratic processes in the system known as Democratic Confederalism. Yet here Öcalan is silent in his definition of democracy—he never offers one—and in it’s implementation—he never discusses it with any specificity. In fact, democracy is presented as a given, as a decision-making process, as an approach to self-administration, and little else. There is no favoring of voting versus consensus-based models, nor does he describe in any detail, at any level (communal, cantonal, regional) the forms that he foresees democracy taking. As an example,

“[Democratic Confederalism]…can be called a non-state political administration or a democracy without a state. Democratic decision-making processes must not be confused with the processes known from public administration. States only administrate [sic] while democracies govern. States are founded on power; democracies are based on collective consensus.” (4)

He then expands on what he means by “decision-making processes” in IMG_0328the Principles of Democratic Confederalism, “Democratic Confederalism is based on grass-roots participation. Its decision-making processes lie with the communities.” Fair enough. So how does all this play out in Rojava? In other words, how are Öcalan’s ideas being translated into revolutionary institutions?

My first insight into democracy in Rojava happened over a plate of hummus and pita in downtown Kobanî. I was sitting with Mr. Shaiko, a TEV-DEM (Tevgera Civaka Demokratîk, Movement for a Democratic Society) representative on a warm, dusty afternoon, some three days after attending a commune meeting together. In that meeting, of the council of Şehid Kawa C commune, Mr. Shaiko had raised the issue of commune boundaries and perhaps moving them in allowance for the number of people returning to the rubbled, venerable hulk that is Kobanî. After some discussion and as Mr. Shaiko left the meeting, he requested a phone call to let him know what was decided.

So I asked Mr. Shaiko, “What happened with the commune? Did they call?”

“No, no decision yet.”

“Oh, do they need to give one?”

“No, they’ll decide when they’re ready. That’s how it is,” Mr. Shaiko looked at me over his glasses with a half-grin and then returned to the plate of pita and hummus.

IMG_0219Clearly a divergent view of democratic decision-making where no conclusive result is as valid a response as a “yes” or a “no.” While I only saw this adjustment to democratic decision-making in operation a few times it seems to be fairly common, especially with the TEV-DEM folks whose charge is implementing democratic confederalism. It is also an interesting “fix” applied to the issue of decision-making processes. In one sense it negates the democratic process in favor of discourse, argument, and engagement without the concomitant requirement of an outcome.

The response of the revolutionaries to the tyranny of majority rule has been structural rather than directive. Here Öcalan describes his views on a plural society and in so doing outlines how he plans to weaken or subsume majority rule,

“In contrast to a centralist and bureaucratic understanding of administration and exercise of power confederalism poses a type of political self-administration where all groups of the society and all cultural identities can express themselves in local meetings, general conventions and councils…We do not need big theories here, what we need is the will to lend expression to… social needs by strengthening the autonomy of the social actors structurally and by creating the conditions for the organization of the society as a whole. The creation of an operational level where all kinds of social and political groups, religious communities, or intellectual tendencies can express themselves directly in all local decision-making processes can also be called participative democracy.”

So for the revolutionaries the formation, growth and proliferation of all types of “social actors”communes, councils, consultative bodies, organizations and even militias is to be welcomed, and encouraged—strongly.

This plays out in Rojava in an insane patchwork quilt of organizations, interests, local collectives, religious affiliates, and…flags. TEV-DEM, the umbrella organization charged with implementing democratic self-administration, is actually an agglomeration of several smaller organizations and representatives from political parties. These various subaltern organizations include those whose priority is sport, culture, religion, women’s issues, etc… As an example of this proliferation, in December of 2015 a new organization under the TEV-DEM system was bornTEV-ÇAND Jihn, whose priority is women and cultural production. This new organization is in addition to the generic TEV-ÇAND, whose priority is society, generally, and cultural production. In order to derail issues of majority rule the revolutionaries have introduced a structural caveat that allows individuals to find a majority that suits their needs, and through which their voice can be heard in society. Note that IMG_0367TEV-DEM and others have not sought to tinker with the actual mechanics of how a commune or organization operates or decides. Rather, they have changed the social order such that if an individual refuses to uphold a decision by a group, commune or council, the ability to opt out and find a more amenable assembly of folks is available.

These innovations seem good first steps in turning democracy from a worthless antiquity to a workable principle within anarchist theory, and as such should be encouraged and studied.

THIS: My essay regarding the organizational form and its various moments of domination, “The Organization’s New Clothes,” was first published in February of 1989 (and republished in 2015), and I see no reason to redact any portion thereof. (5) That critique, therefore, resonates throughout the following discussion, though time and space prohibit using it in any way other than as a critical prism. The “commune” is a scrambled term. It’s origins lie in the smallest administrative entity in France, the commune—corresponding roughly to a municipality. The word itself is derived from the twelfth-century Medieval Latin communia, meaning a group of people living a common or shared life. Which as a point of departure is interesting as the concept, even then, implied some degree of autonomy, both political and economic. It was, however, the Paris Commune during the French Revolution (1789 – 1795) that wrote the term in large red and black letters in the book of revolution. The Communards, in that first great explosion, distinguished themselves by their intransigence and demands for the abolition of private property and social classes. Eventually earning themselves the nickname enragés (“the enraged ones”). The revolutionary commune then has a subversive nature. It is dangerous. It is always dangerous when humans interact beyond the terrain of Capital and state, or in opposition to them.

Throughout the 19th Century the term commune, outside the administrative network of France, came to be associated with socialist and communist experiments and in a looser sense with all manner of utopian projects and communities—Owen, Fourier, Oneida, Amana, Modern Times… A slump for a few decades through the first part of the twentieth-century, then to confuse things further, the 1960s happened. The definition of the word “commune” ends for many North Americans somewhere in 1972; a tangerine swirl of bad acid, free love, and the Manson Family.

Which is not to say that there weren’t some important projects; among the more interesting was the West Berlin-based Kommune 1 (1967-1969), and Wisconsin’s contribution to utopia, Dreamtime Village. There have been thousands (likely tens of thousands) of communes over the past two centuries, intentional communities, collectives, cooperatives each with its own “glue”—the stuff that brought people together and “stuck” them to one another. In most cases this glue has been a mix of politics, anarchism, communism, utopianism, religious sentiment (usually wacky), livelihood, necessity, drugs, sexuality, or just plain detesting the dominant culture.

So what, exactly, is a commune? Who the hell knows? The problem is not the vagueness with which the commune is understood; rather it’s the lack of theory (and experience) that would provide nuance and clarity to this vagueness. The idea of the commune has been lost or diluted as a result of it’s own jangled historical context and the easily recuperable forms that it has recently taken. Ultimately, very much like democracy, the commune seems a quaint and faded relic in the cabinet of anarchist theory; filed under “V” for vestigial.

THAT: As above, so below. My own interaction with the Commune spans several articles on the Paris events of 1871, and includes my ongoing engagement with the conundrum of anarchist organization. All of my interactions with the concept of organizations operating in a revolutionary milieu had been on paperin theory—up until the time I crossed into the Kurdish Autonomous Region. Then things changed.
The commune and council meetings I attended were varied. From an ad hoc encounter of a team of YPG militiamen near the Turkish border in Kobanî Canton, to a council of the Şehid Kawa C commune, to a ceremony and meeting between TEV-DEM representatives of Kobanî and Cizîrê Canton. In each instance I recall a series of similar impressions. First each encounter was characterized by a sense of purpose, of meaning. The attendees seemed clear that what they were engaged in, the simple task of meeting together, as a commune, as a team of YPG fighters, carried within it a seed, a moment of one possible future, for Northern Syria, perhaps for the planet. Many people commented on this when I asked their thoughts regarding these political forms. One woman I met in Paris at an HDP rally put it best, “We are here reinventing politics, in fact, the world.”

This perception, which could easily fade into arrogance, in these attendees seemed to produce a different mindset, quiet determination. These folks were not wealthy, they worked hard in an area where there was little work. The men’s faces were lined and etched with long hours spent under the harsh gaze of a Middle East sun. The hands of the women were simultaneously delicate and rough, while they carried callouses and cuts, they also carried the scent of lotion and perfume. The voices, gestures, and faces of the revolutionaries during the meetings were intent, searching, serious. There was kindness, hugs for a developmentally disabled young adult, a moment spent with a mother who had lost a son in the siege of Kobanî, and respect—as each person spoke to the accompaniment of silent nods from their peers.

Hope was also present, a quantity that history has so long denied to anarchists, and which some of us have reclaimed—not as an eventuality, but as a birthright. These folks believed they could change their lives, their community, many believed they could change (and were changing) the world.

Finally, and most importantly, in each of these meetings there was an overwhelming sense of the banal. These were folks who, when they mentioned the cantonal authority at all, referred to it laconically as the anti-government, or the anti-regime. They had seen and participated in sweeping social changes and experimentation and in the process it had become commonplace, like lunch. This is not to say that there was no joy in the proceedings, far from it. Rather what was really missing was fear, and in this sense the social revolution in Rojava may truly be said to have passed into a phase of maturity and permanence. The sole caveat in the short-term being the defeat of Daesh.

Some theorists have been advancing on the idea of the commune, but from strange directions, post-left directions. Peter Lamborn Wilson in TAZ: The Temporary Autonomous Zone and Pirate Utopias forces the issues of time and failure/success and the commune. He rejects utterly, as we must, the technological reasoning that the longer a commune exists the better or more successful it is, or was. In TAZ he specifically provides a formula for a new idea of a commune, a temporary encounter—perhaps hours, perhaps minutes—characterized by conviviality, joy. This encounter is also autonomous in that it is as independent, and free of the fetters of Capital and state as possible. This is essential to understand. The commune is combative, not subservient. That is the basis of its autonomy.

As opposed to bounding the definition of the commune or even trying to refine it, I believe that defocusing on the concept seems a sound strategy. I would argue that whether it is a phalanstère with all the Fourierist fauna intact, or a meeting between friends to relive old times, or to create new ones; it doesn’t matterit is a commune. Why bound something, why hem something in when it presents itself as a viable model for organization? Rather, without a definition, moving with tiny baby steps towards an understanding of what works and what is useless in the commune model. That strikes me as one promising, potential direction towards both engaged social experimentation and ruthless social contestation

Finally, and at a macro-level the concept of federalism may make a theoretical comeback. If the commune model makes any sense at all, then federalism isn’t very far behind. This returns anarchism to its philosophical roots, Proudhon especially, but also Pi i Margall, and Bakunin. The insurrectionary potential for federalism seems vastly underestimated. The movement to section society into smaller and smaller units, the federation of these units by mutual agreement, and the potential for economic cooperation and shared self-defense these units offer make of federalism a potentially daunting, though rather sp318bblunt, instrument. Note here that the current usage of federalism being the nation-states accumulation of power, wealth, knowledge…. ultimately producing the ability to control and dominate subject populations; is, in effect, the opposite of the concept’s standard historical definition. It is Pi i Margall, the non-anarchist grandfather of Spanish anarchism, in his 1855 work La Reacción y la Revolución who will offer the final word on the potential of federalism, “…the constitution of a society without power is the ultimate of my revolutionary aspiration[s],” stating he would, “divide and subdivide power,” until, “I shall destroy it.”(6)

The formation of communes also seems a viable real world strategy in that it fulfills two immediate functions—first they can act as support, a backbone for the movement of militants quickly to areas where their services might be required. In this way they may function very much as the book stores, infoshops, and alternative spaces did in the anarchist milieu of the past several decades in the US, or as the communes did in Kobanî during the siege. Their resources can assist in the provision of shelter, food, medical aid, and comfort for fighters. The communes can also provide valuable intelligence on local conditions, law enforcement, and assist in identifying those specific targets most noxious to the community. Put in contemporary military parlance, the commune may not be a weapon, but it can function as a weapons platform for the mobile anarchist fighters. Secondarily, the communes provide for the sedentary members of the milieu a laboratory, a setting in which to experiment with new ideas, new forms, coalescing, in protoplasmic form, the seeds of revolutionary institutions yet to be. Communes are nurseries where budding insurrections are reared. Ancillary to this effect, yet no less important, is the possibility that communes will help to shrink the attrition that has plagued anarchism since its inception as a political movement. A life dedicated to liberty is difficult to sustain, and most anarchists eventually succumb to the Cthulhu call of new cars, big houses, and squandered lives. At the age of 55, I have seen thousands of anarchists come and go, only those too stubborn, or too anti-social, like my friends, and myself seem to remain. Communes may stem this drift by producing a social milieu that is amenable to the various vagaries of the anarchist personality type, and by distributing resources for assistance with the real world issues of food, shelter, childbirth and rearing, loneliness, illness, old age and death.

The commune is a verb. The commune is a question.

THE OTHER THING

Anarchism has, rightly, been adrift since the end of the Second World War. With little understanding of its roots, history, and struggles most of us did the best we could with what we could find. There were no organizations to criticize or join and it was difficult enough just to find anarchists in NYC in 1984. We were orphans. The situation has changed, there are more anarchists, they are more easily contacted and the explosion of information has given us our story back. As a confluence, the news out of Greece, Rojava, Europe, in fact just about everywhere seems to be turning in our direction. Those in the milieu, therefore, have some choices to make. Where to place energy, where to invest time and effort, in a word—what to do? There are, at a minimum, as many possible answers to this question as there are anarchists now alive. As my response, I’ll state the following…

Form Democratic Communes.

Federate.

Be Ready.

NOTES
  1. La Boetie, Etienne (1975) The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude. Montreal; Black Rose Books.
  2. Vaneigem, Raoul. (1994) The Revolution of Everyday Life (Donald Nicholson-Smith, Trans.). London: Rebel Press
  3. Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph. (1867-1870) Oeuvres completes de P-J. Proudhon. Paris: A. Lacroix, Verboeckhoven et Cie.
  4. Ocalan, Abdullah (2011). Democratic Confederalism (transl. International Initiative). Transmedia Publishing Ltd.: London, Cologne.
  5. Simons, Paul Z. (2015). “The Organization’s New Clothes” Black Eye: pathogenic and perverse. Ardent Press, Berkeley CA
  6. Pi y Margall, Francisco. “Reaction and Revolution,” in Anarchism, A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One

In a moral Universe, there are no anarchists; Hakim Bey, Robert P. Helms, and leave out the liberal

Hakim_Bey,_painted_portrait_DDC_3021El Errante

(Before you continue, know that this article is wholly my responsibility, that Hakim Bey has neither seen, read, nor is aware of its existence. I take full responsibility for its content.)

Better late than never. It’s been a little over a decade since the articles by Robert P. Helms (RPH) appeared on the internet smearing Peter Lamborn Wilson/Hakim Bey as a paedophile. When they were first made public I was, unfortunately, in no position to respond. In fact, I was in a drug treatment facility in lieu of some rather impressive legal charges centered on my addiction to speedballing heroin and cocaine and the economic activities attendant thereto. I should also note that in my researches around this event no one else in the milieu had the time, ability, or cussedness to counter the onslaught of innuendo and hinted transgression. Most folks ignored the charges, some muttered darkly, and a handful, like Laure Akai, went out of their way to up the ante and hint ominously about what they “really knew.”

First off, this article is not a defense of Hakim Bey, not because his actions and writings are indefensible, rather because no defense is required. To even begin to enumerate the various charges made by Helms is to allow him, his fellow travelers, and the accusations they made a credence that they don’t deserve. If the measurement of a critical theorist writings is assessed against the morality of bourgeois society then—among others, my comrades and me, stand arrested, tried and convicted in the dock of the dominant culture. The only plea we could rationally make is nolo contendre, and hope for the best.

But this isn’t about the charges made against Hakim, nor about the mediocre men and women who raised them and continue to propagate them. It’s about a political milieu so unsure of its own bearings, so consistent in its own inconsistency, that when charges—whose etiology is wholly associated with the Social Enemy—are leveled at one of its best thinkers and writers that the vast majority of adherents slink away in venomous silence and embarrassment.

What is at issue, and what one sees play out, occasionally, in the comments section of @news, r/anarchism and several other sites and podcasts is the reintroduction of a morality based in the discourse of the dominant society. While the anonymous commenting bottom-feeders at the various anarchist sites can perhaps be forgiven for a lack of mental acuity as they troll for fools and google words that confuse them, Helm’s can claim no such dodge. As he informs us, he is an “independent anarchist historian,” and that presumably means that he has read a few books about the history and philosophy of the politics that he claims to espouse. This presumed knowledge fails to peek through any of his essays regarding Hakim Bey. As one example, the failure to mention and discuss the romance of Severino DiGiovanni and America Scarfò, age 26 and 15 respectively, when they began their relationship shows a real lack of integrity. Further the dearth in Helm’s articles of any theoretical justification for the denunciation, no discussion of the requisite standardization and solemnization of the bourgeois bedroom, nor the family as the fundamental building block of slavery—sexual, industrial, and psychological. Rather after giving us a quick and breathless tour of some of the passages that most tweaked his liberal conscience, he states: “I will not offer any reason to be offended by the paedophile literature or the misogynist position of Hakim Bey […]. The ethical idiocy of both are self-evident, and neither is part of anything that should be considered an anarchist idea.” In other words trust Helms, it’s bad—so bad in fact that an oxymoron like self-evident applies, just like it does to the glaring truths in the Declaration of Independence.

If things had stopped there, that likely would have been it, and Helms would have returned to the circle of hell reserved for moralists posing as anarchists. But that’s not what happened. Instead, libcom.org, picked it up and ran with it. An understandable mistake, red anarchists aren’t know for their intelligence, especially libcom who seem better at recruiting police informants than real workers to their moribund cause. Going so far as to publish a web page called Beywatch and featuring exactly two articles—both authored by Helms. The rot of innuendo spread quickly and precipitously and even made it to the web page of law and order types that are dedicated to hounding folks who write or discuss children and sexuality. Which if memory serves is the basis of most Western psychology.

Meanwhile, those who knew better, those who saw through the abject moralist scam that Helms had perpetrated remained painfully silent. Likely many hoped that Helms would either just disappear, or alternately that their friendship with Hakim would remain… unmentioned, by anyone.

I will follow no such course. Hakim Bey is my friend, I have known him for thirty years. His writings have influenced thousands, mention his name in Europe, Asia, or South America and people immediately know his work. They respect him. They want to know more about him.

And Hakim is still teaching us lessons, less through his writing than by the example of his fall and rehabilitation. The moralizing liberals who pose as anarchists are the cops, bureaucrats, and corrections officers of our future. Many new folks are hoodwinked, they don’t get it, and its up to the critical theorists of today to teach, and guide them through example, through writing. To take the bag of snakes that is the dominant society and to lay the squirming reptiles out straight—so that everyone understands how denunciation pays the wage of Capital and nation-state. That the slogan, “It is forbidden to forbid,” isn’t just rhetoric. It’s a signpost on where we must be headed, and anyone who stands in the way, or obstructs that process—pays the price.

Dispatches from France Four: Nantes Manifestación 6/2/16 Postscript, A Night at the Opera

nantesopera3
El Errante

“When the National Assembly becomes a bourgeois theater, all the bourgeois theaters should be turned into national assemblies.”
Graffiti, Paris May 1968 (above the entrance of the occupied Odéon Theater)

During the impromptu manif, referenced in the previous dispatch, several people moved through the crowd handing out leaflets. I took one, as did most of the folks I was with. They said that should the crowd be dispersed — as happened shortly thereafter — that folks will regroup at 6pm at the same assembly spot that the unions had used earlier in the day. It also indicated that food would be served and that more actions might happen. The afternoon was spent at a comrade’s apartment eating, hanging out, talking about demos in other countries that people had attended, drinking coffee and the local beverage Bretagne cidre.

At around 6pm we all headed out the door to see what was on the organizer of the event’s mind. We arrived at the rendezvous to find maybe 50 folks hanging out in small groups. Many were drinking beer, and the mood was decidedly more relaxed than the initial encounter in the morning. Some of the comrades were certain it was going to be an autonomist shenanigan, but only a few were there, and they seemed as curious as the rest of us. Finally about a half hour later a guy went from group to group, spoke for a minute or two and then would move on. He approached us and said that we were going to the theater area in Nantes and show support for some of the workers there, and that after we would meet at a park for food and drink. By now there were about 75 folks total and we set off to our first destination, walking initially in the center of the tram tracks and then blocking the road as we finished the march. Loud whistles and shouts came from the group, and occasionally folks would chant or sing. Everyone felt good, as I learned on a hot August night thirty years ago, its great to riot, and nantesgraffiti2even better to do it and not get caught. As we neared the theater area in Nantes we came upon the rear of the Nantes Opera and wheeled down one of the building’s side streets, finally pouring into a central plaza. As we arrived applause and shouts from protestors already there could be heard. Finally coming into view of the plaza it took about two seconds to realize that this was no show of support, it was something very different indeed.

Arrayed in the front of the Greco-roman columned Opera, were about 100 folks dressed in casual, but expensive attire. They had tans. They wore Rolex’s. And they were really pissed off. Standing under the portico were dozens of radicals who moved in and out of the Opera building freely. Occasionally someone from the plaza would walk up the steps, negotiate a path through the malcontents, enter the building and ask a question or two of what looked like Opera employees. Inside the building a man stood on the steps that led into the theater proper, he waved a large CGT red flag. The foyer was packed with folks from the morning march;[:] autonomists, anarchists, radicals, union folks. After one look I turned to a comrade and said, “It’s an occupation.”
“Not yet. We’re not completely into the theater. But it could be,” he replied.

In one sense the modern revolutionary era was kicked off by an occupation, that of the Bastille. In fact, as the July Column (that commemorates the revolution of 1830) stands in the place of the hated Bastille to this day — one could conjecture that this specific occupation has continued for 200+ years. The other occupation the situation called to mind was the seizure of the Odeon Theater in Paris on 15 May 1968, by a revolutionary committee of artists and students. They held the theater for a little less than a month when it was finally forcefully cleared by CRS goons.

The would-be occupiers in Nantes were listening to a well dressed woman speak to them from the stairs when I pushed my way inside. She thanked them for coming, expressed hope that the Loi du Travail manifs would be successful and then asked them to leave. Of course, no one budged. There was some additional milling around by the protestors. I went in and out of the building several times, the bourgeois who stood in the plaza and watched as their evening plans were being shattered fascinated me. Their faces were alternately angry, confused and indignant. Once or twice I caught a conversation between a protestor and one of the plaza crowd. The bougeois would ask questions like, “How could you do this?” Alternating with demands that the mob move on to other engagements. Like she was speaking to a child. And protestors would fire back about the Loi du Travail, the ZAD, or just ignore the question, and the questioner, completely.
Meanwhile on the plaza, two men in suits viewed the full scene from a nantesopera3distance. I turned to a comrade pointing them out with a nod of my head and he said, “Right. Likely CRS officers, deciding what to do.”
I walked back inside to watch a brief shoving match had broken out between the Opera employees and the protestors. It was pretty low key, as these things go. In fact the crowd seemed less interested in a full occupation that in taking the protest into the enemy camp. And if that was the goal, they succeeded.

Finally, some food and beer showed up for the mob. Evidently they had decided to party in the shadow of the Opera. The folks I had come with decided to eat elsewhere. So we walked off as the protestors milled about inside and outside the theater, talked, ate food, and relaxed.
I still was confused about the almost complete absence of cops; save the two CRS supervisors and some Nantes gendarmes who rode by on scooters, we had seen no one. I asked about this and got a reply that illustrates in many ways the ongoing nature of social contestation in France. The comrade replied, “They won’t do anything as long as the protestors eat and drink and don’t destroy anything. This is a nice neighborhood, they won’t attack unless absolutely necessary.”

As we walked we came upon another plaza removed by about 200 yards from the Opera plaza. In it dozens of gendarmes in full riot gear lounged by crowd control vehicles, talked, and waited to see if they would eventually be needed. Oddly they looked as relaxed as the crowd they were supposed to be ready to mercilessly attack with teargas and truncheon. That night, however, evidently in everyone’s opinion, another riot just didn’t seem worth the bother.

Dispatches from France Three: Nantes Manifestación 6/2/16, A Fateful Resonance, Lines of Graffiti

Nantes1

“Dans la rue avec la CGT on fout le zbeul”
(“In the streets with the CGT fucking things up”)
–Graffiti 06/02/16 Nantes

El Errante

Nantes, Pays de la Loire. Another day. Another manif against the Loi du Travail. This time, Nantes. I had wanted to see Nantes; it is near the ZAD and had been the scene of some of the more furious riots over the past months. Some of the video of the action shows the torching of a Porsche, black bloc versus CRS clubfests, and the arrest of dozens of protestors. Indeed, of those protestors held on house arrest as of 06/02/16 nationwide, the vast majority were residents from the area in and around Nantes. There are a number of reasons for this, the city saw a unique upswing in student revolutionary activity in the late sixties of sufficient size to warrant a trip to the city by Vaneigem to see what, in fact, was happening. The Nantes unions had declared for a Commune which lasted from 23 May to 12 June 1968 during this time the town hall was occupied by a joint strike committee of workers and peasants. This insurrectionary activity has continued to the present and the resonance between the ZAD, and the nearest large city, Nantes, is clear.

I arrived in Nantes on the Sunday prior to the event and had been told about the progress of the planning for the manif. It was pointed out to me that the folks involved in logistics had a very hard in time in Nantes estimating how many folks will attend any given demo. As an example at one of the pro-ZAD manifs in 2013, the expected 5,000 attendees was vastly underestimated, and most observers put the final census at a whopping 20,000 protestors. Planning therefore, and flexibility, are important. The date was set for June second at 10am, all the unions would attend, as would other interested parties — and basically any radical anywhere close to Nantes, who heard the call-out, marked their calendar. I went to the demo with a number of local anarchists and a member of the Federation Anarchiste from Paris. The turn out proved to be less than huge, perhaps 2 to 3,000 — tops. Yet there was a nantesdamagesignificant number of black bloc folks there, and also a good turnout of the local anarchist community. Who were missing were the police, CRS, and the assorted forces of law and disorder. They were nowhere to be seen, which I counted as odd. The march began with the union folks starting off followed by the black bloc and radicals who quickly moved to the front. The first turn was to lead to the local prefecture, essentially the executive of the large county-like structures that functions as a middling level in the hyper-centralized French state, and the police prefecture, no explanation needed and finally into the heart of Nantes. We were supposed to walk across a bridge that spans the Erdre river, a small tributary of the Loire, but it was blocked by hordes of cops, riot vehicles, all standing behind an impressive mesh steel fence reaching to the bridges upper structure. The black bloc went to work throwing bottles filled with paint and some irregular objects. But with the steel fence blocking projectiles there was little that the black bloc could do so the tactical decision to continue and ignore this first technical victory by the police was taken. By now the unions, led by the reformist CGT, had passed around the black bloc and continued to march to — God knows where. The stated goals of the march, the prefecture, the prefecture of police, the town hall and the Nantesgraffiti3train station now seemed out of reach. Undeterred the black bloc regrouped, a graffiti bombardment began (more on this later), and quickly sought to regain the lead position in the march. I stood in the back and watched as a virtual horde of black clad warriors moved quickly past the unionists by sticking to the sidewalk. It looked like a march of black ants climbing a non-descript multi-colored tree or wall. As they attained the front there was a brief halt as CGT marshals tried to get the black to bloc to turn around. They said if they tried to move into the town center, which was the general direction they were headed, that they would all get their asses kicked. The black bloc was not impressed and after some debate and a moment’s hesitation moved off. As I walked in the black bloc the FA comrade beside me looked back and said, “Good, the CGT is following.”

One thing the black bloc had brought to the march was new to me, a sound system, a good, loud, fucking sound system. Which they used to blast alternating dubstep, détourned revolutionary songs, French classics and pop. As we marched we saw a number of cops running in our direction from a side street, as they did the sound system blasted the last minute or so of MIA’s Paper Planes, which includes the chorus of, “All I want to do is (four loud gunshots) and take your money.” The song stopped the bloc and most turned and faced the advancing police as they mimed the gunshots by pointing their fingers at the cops and imitating the motion of firing a pistol and then loudly sang the final line. The faces of the police as a few hundred finger pistols shot at nantesgraffiti1them was classic; a mix of horror, anger, and something else…fear maybe, or vengeance. The song ended, and the march continued. It was pure political street theater, and a scene I’ll likely not forget.

We moved past the town hall, an ugly office like affair, which suffered greatly in smashed windows and loads of graffiti. Moving past the building brought the black bloc into a small open square, which revealed a line of CRS facing their right flank. Barely had I made the open square when the sound of dull thuds sounded and multiple canisters of CS gas poured down on us. The handkerchief came out and I wrapped it around my face. There was little to do but move fast past the spreading shadow of the NiklaBacteargas. The black bloc decided not to stand and fight in the tight streets and moved quickly down and onto the central plaza, and the final destination — the train station.

There was an impromptu march by the assorted radicals after the termination of the original march. We followed this march for about a mile. It was gassed twice and the CRS finally moved in to disperse it along with the most fearsome element of French law enforcement, the BAC (Brigade Anti-Criminalité). The BAC are units of physically fit lunatics whose job is to move in and arrest demonstrators, when there are no manifs to harass, they turn on drug dealers — and in Marseilles at least, steal their drugs and sell them or use them. The Marseilles BAC was fired to a man in a massive vandalismcorruption case that included drug seizure, sales, intimidation, etc. In the black bloc the BAC are loathed and everyone seems to have their own favorite BAC story of abuse and degradation. The folks I attended the manif with decided that the march was ending and so we moved off. At the same moment there was a sound of tear gas being fired and the entire remnant of the demonstrators turned the corner that we had left them at, and came running straight for us. As it happened the FA comrade smiled and said, “ The hardest thing is leaving a manif. Sometimes it follows you….”

The next day I retraced the route of the march to get some photos of the graffiti that had gone up. It varied greatly, alternately ironic, chiding, demanding, and funny. It’s only common characteristic was a knife-edge of provocation and subversion. I include some of the standouts with translations and explanations where necessary.

Dans la rue avec la CGT on fout le zbeul

In the streets with the CGT fucking things up

[A double meaning. 1) The black bloc chiding the CGT as reformist and pacific and 2) An invitation to the CGT to join the bloc to make thigs better. Note also the extreme slang of “fucking things up” (on fout le zbeul)]

2017: les urnes en miettes

2017: ballot boxes in pieces

(2017 is the next national election in France)

Nik la BAC

Fuck the BAC

l’action est le soeur du reve

action is the sister of dream

laragelaswag

Le Rage et le swag

The Rage and the swagger Nantesmayor

l’emuete embellit ma ville—Johanna Rolland

riot embellishes my city—Johanna Rolland

( Rolland is the mayor of Nantes)

Nantes, l’emeute au naturel

Nantes, all natural (organic?) riotimaginationpourvuir

L’imagination a pourvoir

The imagination fulfilled

(a twist on the May ’68 Situationist slogan, “All Power to the Imagination”)

Vive le Vandalisme

Long Live Vandalism

(in the original, Vandalism is misspelled…deliberately?)

 

Dispatches from France Two: Manifestación 5/27/16, Who’s on First, Losing a Friend in a Riot, and Black Bloc Logistics

manif2
El Errante

(Paris, Ile de France, 28/05/16) The scene is becoming clearer and it doesn’t look good. On one side of the street a line of CRS (Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité) stands in a wall, unmoving, silent, ready. And opposite them by about 100 meters is another solid row of CRS, hard rubber matraques held ready. I look down at Loni, whose view is obscured by the mob, and tell her to get ready, they may use gas. She and I both fish around in our backpacks for the red and black handkerchiefs that the Federation Anarchiste (FA) folks had given us. Movement is impossible in the crush, and I find myself less worried about being pummeled about the head and shoulders by CRS goons than the likelihood of being smothered or trampled should the crowd move or run suddenly. Two or three dull explosive thuds resound in the sunshine and a cloud of teargas, wafted by a slight breeze, moves ghostlike over the crowd. The sound of choking erupts immediately as the protestors begin to move away from grayish blue gas…

Earlier — I am walking with Leon, Loni, and a bunch of folks that we had met at the FA infoshop prior to the demonstration. As we walk I notice that we are headed to the front of the march, and that most of the anarchists and autonomists including the black bloc are positioning themselves there. I ask, “Are you always at the front of the march?”
“No,” Leon responds, “but with the way things are, we take the front and the unions let us. They don’t like diversity of tactics, but in this case they recognize that we are having an impact. Before this we were barely tolerated, now we lead.” And so it was. The manifestacións manif5(manifs) sparked by the Loi du Travail have had a fundamental impact on street-based social contestation in France. The unions failed to respond quickly to the legislation, and initially tried to distance themselves from the autonomist and anarchist challenge. In the ensuing days of confrontation and riot someone, somewhere decided that the unions had better support what the radicals had started — and so the placement of the black bloc (and others) at the head of the march had become, for now at least, standard.

The march was huge, the unions put the number at 50,000, though the initial police estimate was 19,000. The largest reformist union — the CGT — its flags, posters, vehicles and t-shirts were everywhere. Stark, working-class reds glowed in the early afternoon shade. Other unions, professional organizations, and left political parties were out as well — the Force Ouvrier, French Communist Party, Trotskyite groupuscules, etc. As we waited for the march to begin I had time to ask Leon some more questions…

“So what is the bottom-line? What do the unions want out of all this?”

“The ideal would be for the law to be repealed, not amended, not have the debate restarted. Just, deleted.”

“And what is the likelihood of that? Has anything like this ever happened before?”

“It’s possible. Some unpopular legislation has been dropped at the last minute, but this is already law. To retract it now would be committing political suicide. Especially as it comes from a Socialist administration.”

“I still can’t believe that we’re at the front of the march.”

“Well, it’s still about control. CGT has a whole squad of security that march right behind us. If the cops really attacked the anarchists or autonomists, I think the union security squads would back us up.”

The march began to move slowly; the FA folks handed out copies of their new magazine and pasted up circle-A stamps on lamp posts and manif1bus shelters as we walked along. A few “characters” moved through the crowd, one dressed as a clown seemed pretty well known and he would stop and talk to various libertarian groups. As we strolled down the Rue Diderot several explosions sounded up ahead — the black bloc had managed to lay hands on some impressive fireworks, likely M-60s or M-80s and were evidently tossing a few in the direction of CRS lines established to prevent people from splitting off from the main march.

The march then took an odd turn onto Rue Chaligny — we advanced perhaps fifty meters and then in an instant the people at the front of the march stopped, turned and began walking fast towards the back. Their faces immediately told the story — a line of CRS blocking the road up ahead. It’s a trap. Loni and I turned just in time to watch another row of CRS draw up, effectively blocking the street on both ends. She grabbed my hand and pulled me up onto the sidewalk, but that didn’t help matters, it was more crowded than the street and the cops had it blocked as well. I kept wondering what the hell do they want? They’ve blocked off the street, we’re trapped like rats — usually when cops pull this kind of shit they at least leave an outlet somewhere. The people around us began to mask up against the gas, and Loni and I did the same; then the thud of canisters being launched and the (almost beautiful) dispersion of teargas from multiple containers. I had never seen it this close before and just before my eyes began streaming tears I recall thinking, Wow, it’s like Fourth of July fireworks.

The crowd around us surged and I could feel Loni’s small hand slip from mine, and by the time I turned around she was gone — lost in the crowd, gas and fear. The CRS then backed off from the Rue Diderot side and allowed the crowd to return to the main thoroughfare. I met Leon and the rest of the anarchists under their red and black flag. They had brought water ampoules and after dousing my eyes and face my vision finally blurred back into sight. Evidently Loni had made it out safe, but had left the manif and was likely headed back to her hotel. I, on the other hand, wanted to see how it ended.

As I walked ahead of the FA group a commotion on my right caught my attention, it was the black bloc attacking the storefront of a Škoda dealership. The assault was spirited but the windows were proving to be pretty tough to get through. In fact with between 5 and 10 folks working on it took ten minutes to reduce the plate glass to whitish sand. As I watched the progress two things struck me, first there was a significant amount of communication between the attackers and folks standing next to me. This interaction took the form of both hand signals and yelling. Also the folks standing next to me were conspicuous in that one held a small red flag stapled to a dowel and the other occasionally held aloft a book that I recognized immediately, manif3The Coming Insurrection. I also noted that they were constantly looking up and down the street, possibly for police, or more likely for warnings from other lookouts who were placed further away from the action, so as to increase the likelihood of escape if the cops intervened. Which they didn’t. I also noted the complete support of the crowd. As the glass began to give way applause and shouts of encouragement came from all sides. I reflected back on demos in the US where spray painting a Nike store would always draw some liberal out of the crowd to castigate the destruction of property — or the time honored refrain supporting cops — “Well, they are workers too.” Anyway as I observed the black bloc folks, they started to take an interest in me, or rather my t-shirt, which depicted two nihilists in Italy kneecapping a nuclear power executive as they rode by on a motorbike. Rydra had given me the shirt at the East Bay Anarchist Book Fair, and the members of the black bloc obviously recognized the scene and after giving me (or the shirt) a thumbs up, they indicated I should follow them. Which I did.
Which is how during the last part of the march I was swept up into the black bloc and got the chance to observe their tactics more closely.

Which, when you see them on videos, appear utterly random and based on happenstance, opportunity — and to a certain extent they are. Yet there is also some sophisticated surveillance happening and, to the extent allowed by circumstance, security and coordination. The two spotters, distinguishable either by the red flag or the book held aloft, stayed well apart from the action, and each other. Some targets were obviously chosen by virtue of their being in the path of destruction, like the various bus shelters, advertising kiosks, and ATMs I watched being vandalized. The hand signals used were simple, non-military, expressive. The okay signal, indicated that it was time to move on, damage done. A hand wave towards the action brought more folks into the fray, and a hand wave away moved people out of the area. The various implements of destruction, paint balls, heavy objects resembling bricks for throwing through glass, firecrackers, and flares were kept by folks who stayed far away from the action — when needed they were called for. We finally reached the Place de la Nation, and the black bloc faded into the crowd — hoodies were placed into backpacks, shoes were changed, and they walked off in groups of twos and threes looking like normal Parisian high school kids out on a spring weekend. And not the angry, uncompromising insurrectionary that lurked just beneath the surface of each one.

The FA group arrived at the Place some ten or fifteen minutes after I did, we spoke for a moment or two. I thanked them for inviting me and we made plans to meet and talk the next day. I walked the long way home to the hotel in Montmartre. I was tired, my eyes stung, and I couldn’t shake the creepy feeling that the demo, the violence, the riot were still going on — somewhere. And that very soon I would once again be looking down a row of CRS goons, waiting for a teargas canister to blossom at my feet.

Dispatches from France One: the Forces Behind Events, Autonomism and Anarchism, and What Time Is It?

El Errante

My decision to travel to Europe was taken lackadaisically. There had been some indications that nation-states on the Continent were being stressed from a number of different directions. First, the movement of upwards of two million refugees from the Middle East, specifically Syria, through the social-democratic European heartland is challenging the legitimacy of both the economic and security structures of numerous states. It should be noted that the dual nature of the stress, on social redistribution schemes and border integrity, indicates that both ideological left and right are being drawn into the legitimacy maelstrom, and that the moment of the challenge, its core, is situated to call into question not just the nation-state or Capital, rather they illuminate the failure of the entire Western liberal hegemon, the whole enchilada. So, I thought, why not? I feel like traveling and writing and the timing seemed somehow, perfect.

In spite of being detained and interrogated by two Homeland Security investigators at JFK, who proved to be far better informed about my trip to Rojava in October, international speaking tours, and what I had for breakfast (that day) than I thought was possible, I was eventually released and allowed to board my flight, though without the obligatory x-ray examination of my baggage. As I hunkered down into my seat on the first leg of the trip to Moscow via Aeroflot I reflected that it will likely be a long time before I return to the United States. I will not miss it.Nuit Debout4

The first two days in Paris were allotted to rest, visiting a few museums, sitting in cafes, and consuming copious (and potentially lethal) amounts of caffeine and baguette. Finally on Sunday I walked through spring fog and drizzle to the Place de la République to see what was happening with Nuit Debout. In the photos I had seen of the first few days of the occupations the Place (a rectangle of about two acres where a number of thoroughfares converge including Rue du Temple, Boulevard Voltaire, and Boulevard Saint-Martin) had been virtually overrun by thousands of people. On the day I visited there were perhaps a few hundred folks, most sheltered under a dozen or so blue tarps that had been set up at random to accommodate various collectives, Nuit Debout logistics and publicity coordinating groups, and the occasional alphabet soup Marxist Party propaganda committee. On the afternoon I stopped by most of these tents were being used for presentations on a range of topics. These included DIY carpentry, a BiehlNuitDeboutworkshop on capitalism, “commune cause,” and a mini-assembly which appeared to be more about providing a venue for folks to vent than any specific debate or decision-making. At one tent a small YPG flag was set on a tabletop and as I circled outside I noticed that a smallish middle-aged woman was speaking and that questions would be translated for her and her responses were being translated for the listeners. I finally got a view of this presenter — and was not surprised to see that it was Janet Biehl; Murray Bookchin’s companion. I continued walking around for an hour or so, would stop and listen to a presenter and then move on.

Finally, tired of the mist and rain, I made my way to the Fédération Anarchiste (FA) infoshop just off of République. It was, as usual, busy. The FA, a synthesist working class confederation, is one of the more stable anarchist organizations in France. Meaning that while the FA is an excellent point of contact for folks traveling in Europe, it also makes of the FA one of the targets for bullshit sectarian attacks. A sectarianism that in many ways exceeds the petty sniping, character assassination and trolling that the North American anarchist community once reveled in, but now appears to be putting aside.

One of the anarchists, Lou, that I had met on my way home from Rojava was there and he and I settled into the back of the infoshop and talked a little about the renewed social contestation in France. First off, he said, no one saw this coming. The French anarchist community had pretty much given up hope on any significant social contestation for decades to come. The proposal of the Loi du Travail and its effective NuitDebout3unleashing of employers to hire, fire and discipline, essentially at will, was less an attempt to revivify the French economy than it was a direct challenge to workers and their protection under law. The large reformist trade unions, like the CGT, missed their cue completely, and the attendant riots were essentially the coming together of three distinct groups, high school students, the anarchists and the autonomists. The first two are pretty obvious; the autonomists are a new quantity (for us) and require some discussion. This amorphous group first formed around the journal Tiqqun and the subsequent Invisible Committee. The autonomists then, like the nihilist communists, reject any descriptions of the society that they envision bringing into being. In many ways the autonomists are the logical extension of the Situationist International and while Marx isn’t mentioned in as explicit a fashion as the SI claimed him as their own, their use of the dialectic, and some aspects of Marxist teleology is apparent. This has not diminished their militancy, and they have refined street contestation and tactics into a virtual art. They have also sought to organize those sectors of society largely ignored by both unionists and anarchists, including high school students. They have also proven themselves to be savvy at the placement of their ideas within mainstream media outlets. This has had the effect of placing their critique within the larger framework of French political discourse, regardless of how radical it appears. It has also placed them beyond the narrow confines of the emergency laws instituted after the Charlie NuitDebout2Hebdo attack and the ISIL bombing campaign. As an example the prosecution of the Tarnac 9 (the same group of folks who wrote The Coming Insurrection) never occurred, and probably never will. The acceptance (or at least acknowledgement) of the ideas of the autonomists among mainstream academics and theorists has removed them from the category of social villain that the anarchists and jihadis now inhabit almost exclusively. The formation and growth of autonomist organizations has also been rapid, and they have been fiercely competitive for members with larger more established organizations. As an example the French student union UNEF has had its membership raided by the autonomist high school organization MILI.

Finally, the autonomists are clear in distancing themselves from anarchism and the anarchists; in spite of some theoretical confluence, especially their critique of the dominant society and their understanding of insurrection. Which resembles some historical anarchist critiques (Stirner) and to a lesser degree recent anti-civilization theory.

The autonomists, the anarchists, and the high school students responded decisively to the proposed Loi du Travail, staging a number of ad hoc demonstrations. In the end, however, the filming of a student being beaten by the police galvanized the protestors and finally brought the unions, and everyone else, into the fray. Tensions have Nuitdebout1risen dramatically since then, the legislation itself became law when the Chamber of Deputies employed a little used legal caveat that ended debate and allowed the legislative cowards to vote by not voting. Demonstrations have been ongoing, and Lou invited me to the next big manif, on Thursday, May 26th. I jumped at the chance and we made plans to meet prior to the march.

(In the ensuing three days between meeting Lou and the manif the reformist union CGT struck at all eight oil refineries in France, and has also attempted to block entry to several of the nation’s nuclear power plants. Supplies of oil and gas have begun to dwindle, and as the CGT is the primary union for most of the transportation sector, their ability to pressure both the government and corporations into repealing the legislation will increase algorithmically.)

The next few weeks may prove decisive not only for the Loi du Travail, but for significant sectors of the economy, the political classes, and the population generally. The stress that the Syrian refugees are bringing to bear on European society seems to be matched, if not exceeded by, economic stagnation, emerging political authoritarianism, and what appears to be a restive, increasingly alienated citizenry. So the timing of the European trip was not bad. And timing, as we all know, is everything