Thoughts On The Republication of a Uniquely Impactful Text
‘How, under the present social order, do you reconcile the inhabitants’ desire to breathe with the interests of the bosses of the motor industry? Free circulation of individuals with the fears of the luxury boutique owners? Children’s play areas with the cement of the car parks, banks and shopping centres? The empty houses left in the hands of the speculators? The blocks of flats that look like army barracks, that look like schools, that look like hospitals, that look like asylums? To move one wall in this labyrinth of horrors would mean putting the whole scheme in question. The further we move away from a police-like view of the environment, the closer we get to clashing with the police’
Memories From A Long Time Ago
To begin to discuss the implications of this piece, or the impacts of its initial translation and publication within the US context we have to go back to a time that few who are currently active can remember. This was an era in which the only forms of politics which were available to many came in the form of competing grand narratives of existence, and in which the forms of action that one could find emergent were inherently tied to a discourse of “the system” and “the movement”. This was a time, around fifteen years ago, of grand movement activity, massive street marches, a sense of hope, but also a certain listlessness. At the same time that it seemed that the streets were ripping themselves open, that the edifice of American hegemony was imploding from within, the avenues of possible activity were strangely closed, limited, absent of a pathway forward, an analysis of how power functions or the ways that contestation could move beyond the doldrums of the normal activist routine.
Within this moment the perspectives of many that find themselves within the anarchist milieu were beginning a process of becoming. While we watched the thousands march in the streets, often through a haze of exhaustion and delirium, there was always the sense that something was missing. For some the causes of this absence became clear one clear day in April 2003 in Washington DC. On this day many of us saw the police attack the anarchist bloc from behind, while still on the permit route, while the Communists from ANSWER fought us from the front, attempting to prevent us from leaving the parade, while at the same time trying to prevent us from defending ourselves. This all ended predictably, with broken windows, injuries, arrests and an array of “less than lethal” weapons fired in our general direction.
For many of us we got a glimpse into the causes of this absence on that day. It was during the launching of the smoke bombs that it all became clear; we were caught between the imposed totality of the state and law on one side, and the equally authoritarian attempt to regulate the means of resistance on the other. The gap between the liberals and the police that we ended up occupying that day was not merely a physical indication of being stuck between two enemies, it was the manifestation of something that we always knew, that the narratives of modernity, the grand political narratives that dominate the language of contestation, function to the degree that all opposition is eliminated. It was at this moment that many of us began to travel down a certain path, one in which the ends, and even the way points were unclear. We began to attempt to understand the fallacies that we had all been convinced of, the failures of movementism, the naivety of liberalism, the reality that we are fighting a different fight, and the implications of this revelation. On that day many of us decided that we were going to go it alone, to seek out what actual revolutionary action meant, and to break with the entirety of what we had come to expect in the context of so-called political activity.
To take on this task we needed terms, concepts, frameworks that could allow us to speak in a different language. Not unlike Nietzsche, who set out to create a new language of thought, we were attempting to not only understand fighting differently, but to become different sorts of people in the struggle itself. For as trite as it sounds certain texts came to exist in a space which allowed them to define this era for many of us, and At Daggers Drawn was one of these texts. It was difficult to explain at the time what about the text gave it a certain aura, what allowed it to become an integral part of the lexicon and circulations of that milieu at that time; our ideas were still not very well formed. But, over time, with the benefit of retrospect, what becomes clear on rereading this text, is not so much the tone, or the rhetorical bent that is important. Rather, what is being presented here functions as a conceptual machine wholly different than many of the texts that we had access to at the time. Unlike many of the texts of the time, which were attempting to still exist in a space of definitive speech and conclusions, while rejecting the idea of ideological certainty, this text seemingly rejected that very form of thought, not in declared rejection, but in the form of the argumentation itself.
What many of us saw in this text, and what enveloped many discussions around this text was less the sense that we learned anything, or obtained a different conclusion from which we could depart. No, the enchantment of the text was that it posited this new language, not from affirming the legitimacy of the language, but in articulating a language simply through the rejection of other possible, more totalizing languages. It was a text which undercut itself, challenged its own ability to speak for the readers, let alone the world, and firmly positioned itself as a howl, as a scream or an utterance; clearly enmeshed in its time and space, wholly of the writer.
Since these days a lot has been lost; a whole generation has been scattered to the winds by repression, addiction, suicide and incarceration. Increasingly it seems as if the monstrosities of movementism are on the rise again, while a small minority holds the line for liberatory concepts of insurgency. As we watch the movement celebrities reassert themselves, complete with their platitudes around mass action, pacifism, and electoral compromise the question arises, when is it going to be time to break with the forces of modernity for good; when can we find ourselves in a position to not only defeat the enemies in blue, but also the ones that masquerade as radicals, complete with stylish hoodies and skinny jeans? For us to ever find the ability to fight, to actually engage in the spaces in which we live, we have to embrace the inertia of that time, 15 years ago, when we decided that we were going to go out into the wilderness alone, regardless of the costs, impervious to the risks, comfortable with the sacrifices.
Defeating the Rotten Corpse of Modernity
Within the contemporary narratives that underlie the majority of perspectives labeled as revolutionary there is a common existential structure, one which revolves around concepts of systems and singular solutions. Within this conceptual space we are to imagine that the “system” is some sort of monolithic structure, which exerts an almost unchallenged ability to command the particularities of everyday life. Outside of the superficialities of this sort of a narrative, and the ways in which it eliminates the complexities of the existential structure of what we loosely call capital and the state, this narrative has a profound impact on the conceptual structures deployed in the attempt to think the activity of contestation.
Out of this monolithic narrative, one which has a tendency to become more monolithic and absolutist the further one moves into authoritarianism, the structures of contestation take on a very specific form. In the current day we tend to call these structures “movement”, or singular bodies meant to organize activity against singular systemic enemies. Our activity is channeled into the bodies of these massive political bureaucracies, run by steering committees, often for the purpose of the gains of political opportunists. We go to protests, hand out fliers, and go to meetings to determine what to do on the next day of action. And, all this time, through the hours of work, the exhaustion, the fervor and the crush of street actions, we never are able to move engagement beyond the simple level of symbolism, the abstract discursive engagement with conceptual enemies.
In this contemporary moment, where the assertion of the primacy of unitary action through the medium of the social movement bureaucracy, combined with the insistence on pacifism, what we are left with is nothing more than a toothless form of contestation. We are relegated to nothing more than the ritual of the march, the pagentry of the rally, and the inevitable discussion of the attendance at the event and how the “media” shortchanged the numbers. We become locked in cycles, cyclical attempts to get more numbers to make a louder statement to get more numbers, all the while doing so in the attempt to be able to engage in a discussion with those that inevitably command the same forces of the state that we are in conflict with in the first place; at least revolutionaries would take parts of cities by force, sometimes.
The problems that are faced in the rotting edifice of the contemporary social movement cannot be reduced to questions of strategy. This is not only a problem of a reliance on the ritual of resistance, or a question of the ineffectiveness of negotiating arrests with the police beforehand. The problems here cannot be reduced simply to problems of the ways that we engage, the questions of armed struggle and the discourse around maneuver warfare. The problem here is not merely that the Black Bloc has become nothing more than really militant activism, in all too many situations, or that we spend a lot of our time traveling from action to action to action, racking up little more than trauma and an increasingly sizable arrest record.
At its core the problems here are not internal to the narrative that gives rise to the concept of the unitary social movement, the concept of the revolutionary Party and the focus on policy; all of this makes sense if we understand politics as functioning primarily through the lens of unitary structures imposing commands. Just as with conspiracy theorists, who depart from a similar conceptual point of departure, or Leninists, who do nothing more than frame this point of departure in the language of pseudo-science, the effects are the same; the particularities of life are obscured, the ways in which capital and the state function are lost in their localities, and the very act of contestation occurs outside both the realities and complexities of our lives and the terrain in which conflict actually occurs within, the immediate. To be able to transcend the limitations imposed by the superficiality of simple explanations and easy solutions it is necessary for us to begin to complicate the structure of the operation of capital and the state, to begin to rethink the terrain of functionality from the perspective of events and occurrences, rather than the assertion of the unity of systems; we need to move beyond politics grounded in a narrative centered on universalized, body-less monsters.
To be able to transcend these limitations, to be able to complicate both the narrative of causes, as well as the narrative of solutions, what is required is nothing short of a total laying waste to the structures that have grounded thought around contestation in the dominant modernist paradigm. It is in the attempt to push a discussion that can finally push us beyond these limitations that Journey Into Night presents you with this pamphlet, and accompanying introduction outlining some of the themes contained within.
Capital, The State and Everyday Life
The necessity of understanding contestation in the context of immediacy is not merely a broad existential point, but functions in the strategic space as well. Within this text the entry point to this discussion begins with a discussion of the current state of things. Rather than the dark presentations of exceptional circumstances, which we often see populating the frameworks of breathless radical screeds, this discussion begins at a widely divergent place; normality, boredom, suspension. Far from the visions of slums and deadly factory conditions which populate so much of radical discourse in the early industrial period, we are facing a very different circumstance. The context of capitalist operation is no longer located merely in the realm of policy, the imposition of private property and land enclosure, the forcing of the agrarian worker into the city. Rather, the context now exists in the droning on of everyday life, the absence of dramatic change, maintenance and the management of crisis.
What we are facing is a mechanism of capture. Unlike some portrayals of the capitalist world, it is not that everything has ceased; this would lead to the collapse of the economy itself. Capitalism functions in a much different way than, say, the Soviet state. Rather than attempting to end all activity not proscribed by the state in a direct way the capitalist state functions more along the lines of canals, the process of framing action in the realm of economization and commodification, while utilizing the state merely for the purposes of maintaining the ability of the economy to function. In this operational space the locality of power, the points of departure for activity and the logistical ability to act emanates from many sites, all facilitated by the functionality of the state, which exists to do nothing more than manage crisis. In less obtuse language, the economy functions, companies rise and fall, jobs are gained and lost, and the role of the state is to do nothing more than to make sure that currency is supported, that subsidies flow to places that will facilitate economic growth and that the structure of private property continues.
This sort of captured motion has effects that we can begin to see incredibly clearly in microscopic forms, neighborhoods are reduced to collections of commodified structures and consumer indexes in non-profit reports, as well as in the structure of macro-economic policy, the IMF measuring the economic success of a space based on median incomes and GDP. The functionality of this framework is less in the imposition of force, as one would find in more traditional authoritarian spaces, but functions in subtle ways, in the construction of what we consider to be normal, in the very idea of the normal itself. Not only does this reality of late capitalism require a reorientation, especially in the West, away from a radicalism based on resisting the extraordinary, that which exceeds the expectations of normality, as in attempts to resist wars, but it also forces us to understand the functionality of what has traditionally been referred to as “the system”.
In other words, what the relationships which are prevalent in late capitalism make clear is that the modernist understanding of singular sources of power emanating from singular institutional sites is entirely insufficient to understand the functionalities of dominant paradigms in actual lived moments. The “struggle” does not occur on the level of grand, epic street battles with the police, although this is always a part of resistance. These struggles occur on the level in which the inscription of capitalist value and the logistics of the state actually operate, on the level of the moment, the level of the immediate, itself.
There are the obvious examples that can be offered in order to contextualize this shift. Of course capitalism functions to the degree that regular people go to work and use abstract resources accumulated through wage labor to perpetuate the consumer economy. Of course the state functions to the degree that normal, average people comply with police orders, and every policy articulated by every politician is a police order. But, less obviously the structure of conflict, the contingencies of moments and the contextualization of activity itself is where the terrain of conflict exists within. The question is not whether the union organizer gets fired for being arrested during the riot, the question is why participating in the riot is unthinkable to begin with, the question os why electoralism is so pervasive, for example. The terrain of conflict is not merely in the material avenues and barriers for action in a physical sense; but is also in the historical conditions, the material dynamics, of what shapes our thinking of the possible in the first place.
It is in this sense that the second turn in modernist notions of the grand revolution fail. It is not just merely in the reductionistic misunderstanding of the terrain of conflict, but also in the impossible insistence on predicting outcomes, on developing the plan or the programme. We here this insistence all the time, from the endless, useless debates about better future world to the random person in the coffee shop asking what we would do to replace prisons. The insistence here is an absurd injunction to imagine, from a position in which our senses of normality and permissiveness are framed through categories that depart from the capitalist state, what a world in which all the categories that we use to make sense of things now no longer functioned would look like. This calls us to not only achieve the impossible, to predict an incomprehensible future, but to do so in such a way as to limit the possibilities opened up by contestation in the first place, a concept that has been termed the end of history, or utopia.
What is important about starting at the discourse around terrains of functionality is not merely to make a conceptual point. Rather, it is from this point that we can begin to glimpse into both the problems of the failures of the modernistic revolutionary project, as well as to begin to see routes of escape. The recognition of the microscopic functionalities of conflict and operationalization, we well as the absurdities of predicting future worlds allows us to depart from a fundamentally different space. From this beginning point in immediacy the entire context for understanding contestation shifts from one based in the notion of the mass movement, grand revolution and end of history into one based in immediate action in localized space for the purposes of subterfuge, disruption and the construction of experimental possibilities; we move from the world historical grand project to the scheme planned in the basement, from a world of the utopian metaphysic to the materially graspable.
Revolution and Insurrection
The reorientation of fighting and the logistical operation of power within the context of everyday life, and the particlarity of moments, comes to challenge not only the concept of abstract engagement with conceptually singular “systems”, but decenters the concept of contestation and resistance away its central location within modernity, the concept of revolution. Much of modernist discourse, from the origins of the American and French revolutions all the way to the Arab Awakening movements and Occupy are located around the orbit of the concept of revolution.
The concept of revolution occupies a sort of peculiar space within the concept of modernity, specifically within the framework of liberal democracy. As Schmitt articulates, the frameworks for engagement formed around liberal democracy are predicated on the assertion that discursive engagement, in rationally crafted spaces, supersedes all other forms of engagement; that the only legitimate form of political engagement is one that is fundamentally based on the rational discourse around ideas. Now, this concept is based on an entire universe of assumptions around concepts of reason, the ability of particularized beings to understand absolute truth, the existence of absolute truth, and so on. With these aside, and this is a topic for other essays, the totality of engagement within modernist discourses is based on the assertion of a political framework grounded in some concept of truth, with all political activity occurring as discursive attempts to change the superficial aesthetics of these forms, but not the form itself.
It is from this basis that the concept of revolution emerges in order to address a problem and a paradox. The simple problem centers around the concept of personal and subjective autonomy, the ability to make sense of the world in particularized ways. \This raises the problem of errant state structure and action, or state action that departs from the concept of rational truth; or the problem of what occurs when the state form diverges, through the actions of the sovereign, from posited concepts of rational truth. As stated in the Declaration of Independence, where this errant mobility is termed tyranny, the possibility of revolution emerges. What is important here is that the concept of revolution is not an object that names a process of taking control, or a reclaiming of political autonomy; it only serves to name the mass action taken in order to reinstate concepts of absolute truth. Beyond the Declaration of Independence, which uses revolution as an escape clause, we can also see similar rhetoric in both Leninist concepts of revolution, as well as theocratic concepts of revolution, which aim to return “society” to a state closer to a concept of truth.
From these roots we can begin to trace some elements of the concept of revolution that are latent in the framework itself, and which are not apparent from the outset. The initial element that becomes clear is that the notion of revolution is ahistorical. By this we mean to say that the concept of revolution exists outside of the particularities of time and space, and outside of the contingencies of activities taken within the material world. As a concept grounded in a concept of absolute truth the notion of revolution functions as nothing more than a revelation, a coming of the inevitable end of history, the rapture, the Second Coming. Revolution in other words eliminates the past, present and future in the inevitable, universal truth of the concept of the revolution itself. It is a concept which is based in the assertion of the universality of its conclusion in all moments, before any events occur; the coming Communist utopia is always going to occur according to Lenin, the revolution is merely its harbinger.
This initial ahistoricism leads to a secondary layer of elements, the debasing of the concept of activity from the immediacy of the operational logistics of power. By decentering the concept of action from the immediate, by positiing it as the inevitable result of universal truth and by framing the enemy in abstractly systemic terms the concept of revolution removes activity from the immediacy of action, and begins to frame it in the context of both world historical inevitability and the notion of control over ground. The question ceases to become what form the operations of power take in their immediacy, the tactical question, which becomes irrelevant once the concept of the state is understood as a systemic entity that can be declared divergent from the concept of truth. The only goal, from this point of departure, then becomes the elimination of the “system”, rather than the prevention of local operation, the disruption of operation and the opening up of possibilities. As such, revolution tends toward the concept of frontal warfare; even in Maoist concepts of guerrilla warfare the goal is always to take space, impose political systems and build to the point of frontal mass warfare against the state.
It is in this sense that we can say that revolution performs all of the fundamental tasks of any other modernist framework (generalization, ahistoricism, the elimination of particularity and the abstraction of operational dynamics into concepts of systems), but does so as a marker of the threshold. In other words, even though the concept of revolution is fully based within the context of modernity, and serves to do nothing more than reframe modernity under different terms, it also exists as the limit of the discursive, the space where words break down into bullets. As such, revolution is not the point in which the modernist concept of the state collapses, it is merely the last bastion of its salvation, the point before it breaks itself apart. So, if the concept of grounded in a problematic point of departure, and replicates the same dynamics that remove us from the conditions of possibility of our own lives, the question is not merely what comes after revolution, but how do we destroy revolution in the act of exceeding its limitations.
This point of excess, the point of exceeding the concept of revolution, is being termed insurrection. Insurrection here names a point in which one takes on the exceeding of the discursive assertions of the modernist project, while at the same time eliminating the baggage of the concept of universal truth, the notion of the utopian future, the abstract framework through which contestation is thought and recenters the concept of contestation in the immediacy of lived experience. The insurrectionary project is not a positivist project, this is not an attempt to create the utopian future from the flawed present, this would be impossible to conceive of, let alone destructive and existentially nullifying to attempt. The goal here is not to build the new world on some partial framework of understanding names truth. Rather the attempt here is only to, through the mobilization of conflict, open up the possibilities of existence through the degradation of the operations of the logistics of control and regulation. The concept of insurrection here names not only the elimination of the discursive assertions of modernity, but also marks the point beyond the last outpost of the modernist project, revolution itself.
It is not merely that the concept of revolution and insurrection are different temporally, in the sense that revolutions have longevity or something like this, as Badiou would have it. Rather the concepts of revolution and insurrection are mutually exclusive, opposed concepts. The notion of revolution, as understood in the modernist context, is grounded in the concept that rebellions against the present order function to bring about some future order, one laid out in the theories of the parties involved and grounded in the same existential assumptions as the structure being contested. It is portrayed as a smooth process in which the conflict that destroys the present order somehow results in a clean transition to a future state. The notion of insurrection functions in a completely different way. Far from being grounded in the illusions of the determination of the future, and in direct opposition to the notion of social peace, the absence of political conflict, the notion of insurrection is a point of departure and condition of possibility. It function as a point through which additional questions can be asked, from the positionality of the impossibility, and recognition of the danger, latent in the attempt to determine some future world. At the same time it functions as a term which names the possibility created in the destruction of imposed limitations. As such, insurrection is not a political concept, as traditionally understood, but functions as a theoretical object which names nothing more than the possibilities present in moments and the unleashing of conflict to expand the possibilities of possibility.
In this sense insurrection, as an object, does not merely name the generally understood phenomena of street fighting, uprising, barricades and so on. Rather, it names a litany of more mundane realities. To the degree that we exist in a universe in which the entirety of events are not pre-determined existentially insurrection, or what we term the anarchic, is inherent in moments; things can occur based on the actions taken in these moments, possibilities always exist. Beyond naming this simple existential state of affairs the term insurrection also names a positionality. It names a decision in relation to the social war that we cannot escape; the social war imposed by the state’s attempt to eliminate these possibilities. It is a position against, a position grounded in the attempt to degrade the ability of these limits to function in the present, in every present.
Immediacy and the Existent
With the transcendence of the limitations of the concept of revolution, and the recentering of the question of contestation around the immediacy of the moment and the materiality of the logistics of the operations of power the discussion can ground itself in the immediate, rather than the symbolic conceptual ether of the concept of the modernist revolutionary paradigm. Immediacy here takes on a completely different structure than within the contemporary revolutionary paradigm. Within this concept of the moment within the revolutionary paradigm the present functions in a dual role, as moment of analysis, where one merely analyzes the moment and begins to think through the process of building revolutionary capacity, and as a moment in which one builds the formations necessary to take power. Within this paradigm the present becomes displaced; displaced into the ahistorical framework of analysis and displaced into some imagination of future events. This approach, from the insurrectionary perspective, becomes a non-engagement, an attempt to think revolution without activity; an approach which fails to disrupt the state of things in favor of displacing conflict into some future moment.
Within a perspective grounded in the immediacy of action and the moment the present takes on a fundamentally different tone. Rather than a moment of pure analysis, the present becomes a moment of activity, a moment in which the possibilities that are present are leveraged in order to cause disruption, create conditions for disruption and the point of departure for active negations of limitations to the possibilities of the moment. In this context tasks like analysis or writing become framed not as attempts to write the correct theory, imagine future worlds or build the Party, but become acts of disruption in themselves, measured purely based on their effectiveness, rather than their ability to reflect some concept of truth that we could never understand, if it exists at all. The measure here is not on the level of victory, or the storming of the Winter Palace, phenomena that we cannot even imagine if we are honest with ourselves. The measure is, rather, the ability of our activities here and now to both create possibilities in the following present moments, as well as to disrupt and degrade the functionality of the limitations that exist in the present. Rather than an exercise in political fantasy, the practice of insurrection takes the anarchic as its point of departure in the attempt to expand the possibilities of the anarchic; both a strategic deployment of conflict as well as the objective of deploying conflict.
The question posed here is not one of how can ‘we’, framed as the grand revolutionary formation, combat the state on the terrain of open frontal warfare, as we would have it in the traditional revolutionary paradigm. It is even less the question of the ‘movement’, the object that has taken the place of the Party in radical discourse. The question here is not one of how we build the revolutionary unitary body, the singular entity that subsumes resistance to itself. This is both fascistic and strategically absurd. The question here is not one of moments we define as moments of ‘political’ action. Rather, the question here is one of the immediate, the possibilities of the present, and the means deployed, alone and in small groups, to expand the possibilities of the next moments; the moments that follow this specific moment in time. The question is one of grounding; the grounding of the question of activity back in the moments in which activity occurs, the present, the immediacy of time and space, here and now. Rather than building the context through which action becomes possible, the isolated world of the Party and the movement, the question being posed here is one of acting within the worlds that we find ourselves in within everyday life, within the mundanity of social war, the occupation of our neighborhoods by the police and the indignities of wage labor. Above all, insurrectionary points of departure are a recognition that the state and capital are not abstract monsters that exist in power centers, but are constellations of actions taken in dispersed spaces, constantly constructing their existence in every moment. Every moment, therefore, becomes a point of contestation, becomes a point in which this constant reconstruction could, and sometimes does, fail.
Most importantly, and this cannot be underemphasized, the primary question being posed is not one that resolves itself in a solution; solutions are always fanciful. The question being posed here is just that, a question. Or, more accurately, the concept of insurrection, as a marker, marks the posing of questions without the possibility of the solution. The solution, the end of history, the utopian moment or the revolutionary programme, posits nothing more and nothing less than the end of possibilities. They posit the end of the ability to determine our present moments, the determination of the present through the vision of the future. It is not only that this perspective has led to the revolutionary failures that we live in the midst of, or that they are glorified acts of Christian fiction, but that they posit a disturbing possibility, a world without possibility. The question being posed here, the question of immediacy and activity, is a question because it marks not an end but a beginning point, a point of departure. It is not that insurrection results in the glorious future, but it is that through insurrectionary activity, in the present, here and now, we steal back the possibility of the moment. This is the only fight worth fighting.
“This world is poisoning us and forcing us to carry out useless noxious activity; it imposes the need for money on us and deprives us of impassioned relationships. We are growing old among men and women without dreams, strangers in a reality which leaves no room for outbursts of generosity. We are not partisans of abnegation. It’s just that the best this society can offer us (a career, fame, a sudden win, ‘love’) simply doesn’t interest us. Giving orders disgusts us just as much as obedience. We are exploited like everyone else and want to put an end to exploitation right away. For us, revolt needs no other justification.”