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Alberto Toscano, “The War Against Preterrorism: The ‘Tarnac Nine’ and The Coming Insurrection”

The War Against Preterrorism: The ‘Tarnac Nine’ and The Coming Insurrection Alberto ToscanoSupport the Tarnac 9

I. The Case* On 11 November 2008, twenty French youths are arrested simultaneously in Paris, Rouen, and in the small village of Tarnac (located in the district of Corrèze, in France’s relatively impoverished Massif Central region). The Tarnac operation involves helicopters, one hundred and fifty balaclava-clad anti-terrorist policemen and studiously prearranged media coverage. The youths are accused of having participated in a number of sabotage attacks against the high-speed TGV train routes, involving the obstruction of the train’s power cables with horseshoe-shaped iron bars, causing material damage and a series of delays affecting some 160 trains. Eleven of the suspects are promptly freed. Those who remain in custody are soon termed the ‘Tarnac Nine’, after the village where a number of them had purchased a small farmhouse, reorganised the local grocery store as a cooperative, and taken up a number of civic activities from the running of a film club to the delivery of food to the elderly. In their parents’ words, ‘they planted carrots without bosses or leaders. They think that life, intelligence and decisions are more joyous when they are collective’.[1]

Almost immediately, the Minister of the Interior, Michèle Alliot-Marie, brushing aside Republican legal niceties, intervenes to strongly underline the presumption of guilt and to classify the whole affair under the rubric of terrorism, linking it to the supposed rise of an insurrectionist ‘ultra-left’ (ultra-gauche), or ‘anarcho-autonomist tendency’ (mouvance anarcho-autonome), filling in the vacuum left by the collapse of the institutional Left (the PCF). Invoking anti-terrorist legislation, the nine are interrogated and detained for 96 hours; four are subsequently released. The official accusation is that of ‘association of wrongdoers in relation to a terrorist undertaking’, a charge that can carry up to 20 years in jail; what’s more, the accused might be detained for as long as two years before their case goes to trial. On December 2, three more of the Tarnac Nine are released under judiciary control, leaving two in jail, at the time of writing (early January 2009): Julien Coupat and Yldune Lévy.

Giorgio Agamben and Luc Boltanski, among others, write editorials decrying the disproportion and hysteria of this repressive operation.[2] A petition is circulated by Eric Hazan, radical publisher and friend of Coupat, signed by Badiou, Bensaïd, Butler, Rancière, Žižek and several others.[3] In the city of Tarnac (a village proud of its role in the Resistance, and represented by a communist mayor for four decades) a combative committee of support is set up, conveying a virtually unanimous show of solidarity of the villagers with the arrested; other committees and protests emerge in Bruxelles, New York, Moscow, and elsewhere.

In what has been called ‘the greatest operation of intoxication of opinion carried out by a [French] government in decades’,[4] the attention of the media focuses on Coupat, personally charged with ‘directing a terrorist group’. The time-honoured reactionary motif is that of the child of the bourgeoisie who betrays his class and drifts into violent idealism. Some journalists refer to him as the égaré de l’ESSEC, after the elite business school where Coupat obtained his first degree. Readers of the press are soon apprised of Coupat’s DEA dissertation on Guy Debord at the EHESS, where he worked closely with Luc Boltanski (the latter thanks him in The New Spirit of Capitalism), of his involvement in the journal and collective Tiqqun, and of his alleged authorship of the book L’insurrection qui vient (The Coming Insurrection) signed by the ‘Comité Invisible’.[5] This tract (on which more below) – which Hazan, its publisher at La Fabrique, refuses to ascribe to him[6] – turns out to be one of the main planks in the aspersions and accusations with which Alliot-Marie and various elements of the French state saturate the media. She even avows that the aim of this operation is to send a ‘message’, dissuading those who might be tempted to take the path of Coupat and his comrades. In rather flagrant contradiction with both the tenor of L’insurrection and what may be surmised about the modus operandi of the Tarnac commune, he is painted as the charismatic ring-leader.

As the media feeding frenzy progresses, some of the ideological and investigative background surfaces in the press (the intelligence agency which reports directly to the Ministry of the Interior, the Direction centrale du renseignement intérieur [DCRI], the ‘French FBI’ which replaced the famous Renseignements géneraux [RG] in July 2008, seems rather prone to leaks, managed or otherwise). It appears that Coupat had long been an object of observation by the section of the RG tasked with monitoring the left. One of their reports, which notes Coupat’s work in Tiqqun and participation at Actuel Marx’s third Marx International conference in 1998, in a panel with a number of Bourdieusian sociologists, even describes him as a ‘critical metaphysician’[7] – one of several ironic indications in this whole affair of the passing acquaintance of French spooks with the world of philosophy and political theory. Increasingly, he is tagged as a leading light in an ominous and diffuse political agitation, vaguely designated as ‘anarcho-autonomist’, which eschews the domains of organisation, political representation and regulated conflict for the sake of direct action and irrecuperable opposition to capitalism. Unsurprisingly, for a case steeped – however ‘tragicomically’, to borrow Agamben’s apt adjective – in the new language of security and the ‘war on terror’, the Tarnac affair has a trans-Atlantic component: the FBI had contacted their French counterparts to signal an allegedly illegal crossing from Canada into the US by Coupat and his companion Lévy, and the discovery, in a rucksack left at the border, of a picture of the recruiting office in New York’s Times Square which would later be the object of a small bomb attack, together with written documents from North American anarchists.[8] The broader context of the whole operation is the theorem, dear to Alliot-Marie and the security apparatus of the Sarkozy government, of the mounting threat of an anti-capitalist, anti-statist and anti-systemic radicalization of youth in France and across Europe which cannot be contained in the usual avenues of social conflict. The revealing title of a report on this putative phenomenon by the DCRI is accordingly: ‘From the anti-CPE conflict to the constitution of a pre-terrorist network: Perspectives on the French and European ultra-left’.[9]

The 2006 protests against the law on job contracts for the young (Contrat de première embauche), following hard upon the autumn 2005 revolts in the marginalised banlieues, played a defining role in the rise to prominence and eventual victory of Sarkozy, whose swaggering, bullying performance as a Minister of the Interior during the riots – when he declared his intention to hose down (karchériser) those neighbourhoods and to face down the riotous scum (racaille) – became a trademark of sorts. The Sarkozy presidency began under the sign of a deep anxiety, a reactionary rage for order whose other side was the obsessive scrutinizing of the future for signs of social turmoil and radical novelty – in this instance, one might very well agree with the Comité Invisible that ‘governing has never been anything but pushing back by a thousand subterfuges the moment when the crowd will hang you’.[10] Given the political peculiarities of France, this fear of the future (and its masses) took the form of an exorcising of the past – as in Sarkozy’s campaign ultimatum: ‘In this election, we’re going to find out if the heritage of May 68 is going to be perpetuated or if it will be liquidated once and forever’. The compulsive reference to the rebellious past, which is simultaneously imagined as a future – as in Sarkozy’s recent statement to his cabinet, in view of the possible spread of the ‘Greek syndrome’, that ‘We can’t have a May ’68 for Christmas’[11] – provides the current French administration with its libidinal content, a much needed supplement for its grim vapidity at the level of its programme.

The very notion of ‘preterrorism’ is deeply symptomatic: it makes patent the link between the obsessive identification of ‘dangerous individuals’ and the imagination of future revolts that call for repressive pre-emption. As Boltanski and Claverie have noted, there is an echo of Minority Report and its ‘precogs’. The context of the world economic crisis and the not unrelated upsurge of the ‘600 euro generation’ in Greece serve as a backdrop. Indeed, as an anti-terrorist magistrate recently confessed: ‘There is a temptation during a time of crisis to consider any illegal manifestation of political expression to be of a terrorist nature’.[12] Reading the extracts from the RG and DCRI service reports, the radical minded pessimist might be heartened to see such confidence in the possibility of radical revolt being shown by the state and its agencies. Alternatively, she might muse that the logic of immunising oneself against ‘terrorism’ by nipping pre-terrorism in the bud – with all of its hackneyed references to Baader-Meinhof or Action Directe (‘they too started out by writing pamphlets and living in communes…’) – is more likely to accelerate and intensify a process of so-called radicalization, fashioning the state and the legal system into enemies with whom one cannot negotiate. Whatever it may say about the prospects for radical politics and its attendant suppression, this ‘affair’ illustrates the metastasis of a transnational politics of securitisation, which is now being applied to any form of activity that importunes the established order – from hacking to separatism, from anti-war demonstrations to environmental activism. The looseness of anti-terrorism legislation recalls Walter Benjamin’s characterisation of the police in his ‘Critique of Violence’: ‘Its power is formless, like its nowhere-tangible, all-pervasive, ghostly presence in the life of civilized states’ – a situation enhanced by the development of what the parents of the accused pointedly refer to as ‘reality-police’, as one might speak of ‘reality-TV’.

Julien Coupat’s father, Gérard, turned by his son’s ordeal into an eloquent and intransigent advocate for civil liberties, recently put the stakes of this police campaign in stark terms: ‘They are turning my son into a scapegoat for a generation who have started to think for themselves about capitalism and its wrongs and to demonstrate against the government. … The government is keeping my son in prison because a man of the left with the courage to demonstrate is the last thing they want now, with the economic situation getting worse and worse. Nothing like this has happened in France since the war. It is very serious’.[13] Like many others, Coupat senior has underscored the ominous prospect of a form of government so politically illiterate and monolithic in its reactions that it cannot distinguish sabotage – a practice that has always accompanied social and workers’ movements – from ‘terrorism’, a term that is indiscriminately albeit deliberately used to cover everything from mass murder to train delays.

II. The Book

What then of the book which – considering the meagre pickings for the police at Tarnac (ladders, train schedules, bolt cutters) – seems to be the centre-piece in the state’s inquisitional arsenal: L’insurrection qui vient? The legal obscenity of basing arrests on a text – one that moreover cannot be personally imputed to any of the accused – is obvious. The right to practice collective anonymity, against the crude biographism and sociologism of the press, should also be stressed. It is nevertheless of interest to consider the Tarnac affair in light of this combative pamphlet – half inspired dissection of the misery of everyday life in contemporary France, half breviary for a diffuse anarcho-communist defection from capitalist society. It appears that L’insurrection was first brought to the attention of the powers that be by the criminologist Alain Bauer who, coming across it on the shelves of the FNAC in 2007, immediately bought up 40 copies and circulated them to various security experts and agencies.[14] A passage from it has been repeatedly referred to as incriminating evidence against Coupat: ‘The technical infrastructure of the metropolis is vulnerable: its flows are not merely for the transportation of people and commodities; information and energy circulates by way of wire networks, fibres and channels, which it is possible to attack. To sabotage the social machine with some consequence today means re-conquering and reinventing the means of interrupting its networks. How could a TGV line or an electrical network be rendered useless?’[15] A socialist with some sympathies for the emancipatory and egalitarian potential of railway travel might answer like the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste spokesperson Oliver Besancenot, commenting on the sabotage, that ‘we want more trains, not fewer’, and end the discussion there.[16] But it is worth considering the diagnosis and prognosis advanced by L’insurrection, if only to understand the intellectual backdrop to this call to interrupt the flows.

Were one in the business of the RG and the DCRI, one could argue that a host of themes link L’insurrection to Tiqqun pamphlets such Théorie du Bloom and Premiers matériaux pour une théorie de la jeune fille. A narrative of completed nihilism; a Debordian excoriation of the spectacle (embodied in the ‘young girl’, the commodity made flesh, and carried by the schizophrenic entrepreneur); the vitriolic polemics against sundry lefts (Trotskysts, Negrians, ecologists…)[17]; the view of communism not as a programme but as an ethical disposition and collective experimentation, an attempt to recover an emancipatory notion of community; ‘the silent coordination of a sabotage in the grand style’[18] and the very idea of an Invisible Committee (or an Imaginary Party) – all of these betoken a certain political continuity. Yet the differences are also significant. First, stylistically. The works of Tiqqun practiced a kind of second-order situationist détournement, keeping Debord while losing much of the Marx and Lukács which the author of The Society of the Spectacle had felicitously plundered, and throwing into the mix a generous helping of Agamben– an author who, albeit not so hard to pastiche, does not lend himself all that well to Debordian operations. L’insurrection is a more measured and plain-spoken text, whose politics are rooted more in anti-urbanist libertarian anarchism than in the metaphysical auguries carried by Agambenian figures such as the ‘young girl’ or the ‘Bloom’ (after Joyce). Though the agenda of L’insurrection is still dictated by a situationist-inspired total critique of contemporary society, the lengthy analyses of the ills of everyday metropolitan life in the age of flexitime and the new economy are more in keeping with the recent concerns of critical French sociology than with prophecies about homo sacer. Just as a Bourdieusian perspective marks the sections dealing with France’s singular relation to the State and the School as structures of subjectivation, so the influence of Boltanski and Chiapello’s diagnosis of the dissolution of class solidarity as a foothold for social critique can partly account for the indifference of L’insurrection to a Marxist discourse of class struggle, and its delinking of anti-capitalism from class politics.[19]

This is not to say that a certain catastrophism, or better active nihilism, does not pervade this book too, as it did the bulk of Tiqqun’s production. L’insurrection begins with the lapidary lines: ‘From every angle, there’s no way out from the present. That’s not the least of its virtues’.[20] It too is suffused by the kind of left Jüngerian imagery that can be found in Théorie du Bloom. Where the latter declared ‘the line is close, but it hasn’t been crossed’, L’insurrection tells us that ‘a decision is close’.[21] But as we move through L’insurrection it becomes clear that, despite the nod to Agamben in the title, his brand of messianic reversibility – a left interpretation of the Hölderlinian adage that ‘where danger is, grows the saving power also’ – is overtaken by an anarchist blueprint for the secession from metropolitan capitalism and the reorganisation of everyday life in communes that will serve as bases for a diffuse and ‘horizontal’ overturning of the reigning system of misery. This rejoinder to European Nihilism 2.0 is based neither on waiting for eschatological signs, nor on figures of the reversibility of catastrophe into promise (the young girl, Bloom), nor indeed on the ultra-modernist idea that accelerating moral and material decomposition is the key to a transvaluation of the world.[22] We are also not dealing with a post-workerist exodus immanent to the resources of immaterial labour or cognitive capitalism. Rather, L’insurrection advocates a comparatively sober practice of defection and sabotage, which aims to turn the machines of subjection against themselves.

Much of L’insurrection’s tableau of modern European (more specifically French, and even more specifically bourgeois Parisian) misery is compelling, especially when it heeds the situationist injunction that to ‘understand what sociology never understands, one need only envisage in terms of aggressivity what for sociology is neutral’.[23] Like the Debord of In girum, it can even strike notes of dark comedy: ‘Europe is a penniless continent which secretly shops at Lidl and flies low cost so it can keep on travelling’.[24] At its core lies something like a social-psychological portrait of the micro-managed and multi-tasking subject of contemporary work, the function of which is regarded as fundamentally political: that of ‘biopolitically’ governing the entirety of social life and perpetuating a regime of exploitation that is increasingly superfluous. Though the insight is hardly novel, the Comité Invisible does succeed in pungently capturing the horror and imbecility of the current proliferation of disciplinary devices such as ‘personal development’, ‘human resources’, ‘social capital’ and other managerial monstrosities. L’insurrection encapsulates this under the aegis of what it calls the ‘ethics of mobilisation’, the colonisation, through work, of the very domain of possibility: ‘Mobilisation is this slight detachment with regard to oneself … on the basis of which the Self [le Moi] can be taken as an object of work, on the basis of which it becomes possible to sell oneself, and not one’s labour-power, to be paid not for what one has done but for what one is. … This is the new norm of socialisation’.[25] But what lies beyond this salutary vituperation of the modern ideology of work – an ideology which is all the stronger to the extent that it replaces the heroisms and anxieties of the Sartrean project with the soft schizophrenia of a thousand ‘projects’?

It is here that what one may maliciously term the Epicurean tendency in situationism (present for instance, in Debord’s laments for the disappearance of good wine in Panegyric) gets the better of L’insurrection. ‘Mobilisation’ is not only linked to the capitalist uses of a parallel-processed self, but to a discourse about the metropolis as a space of deadening indifference and mortifying abstraction, and to the idea that the modern city and its masters have perpetrated a kind of assassination of experience: ‘We have been expropriated from our language by teaching, from our songs by variety shows, from our flesh by pornography, from our city by the police, from our friends by the wage system’.[26] Despite the aptness of L’insurrection’s denigration of cities turned into posthumous museums and the excoriation of the uses of mobility and isolation for purposes of control – not to mention its call for the marginalisation and ruination of Paris, that ‘frightening concretion of power’[27] – the hankering for revolutionary authenticity is unpersuasive, and ultimately myopic. Just as the short thrift given to the notion of labour-power leads to a Manichean opposition between a malevolent economy and emancipated ‘forms-of-life’, so there is not much attention paid to the transformative uses of abstraction and alienation. There is more of a hint of Jane Jacobs in the scorn against ‘indifferent’ modern housing and the idea that ‘the multiplication of means of displacement and communication continuously wrenches us away from the here and now, by the temptation of being everywhere’.[28] What’s more, the notion that the interruption of mobilisation will give rise to practical solidarity as the ‘façade’ of the ‘hyper-vulnerable’ city of flows crumbles, is too romantic to bear scrutiny. Blackouts and blockages can intimate communism but also be the occasion for even more insidious forms of violence and hierarchy (Michael Haneke’s film Time of the Wolf is an evocative study in this regard). Likewise, despite the welcome corrective to the idea of the banlieue uprisings of 2005 as an instance of criminal mob rule, it is doubtful that actions with ‘no leader, no claim, no organisation, but words, gestures, conspiracies’[29] may be taken as a model for organised emancipatory politics.

Though one wishes that the anti-urbanism of the Comité Invisible were more dialectical, some of their reflections on the ‘commune’ are worthy of consideration. Not only is renewed debate on the collective experimentation of everyday life to be welcomed, especially by contrast with nebulous figures of messianic transfiguration; L’insurrection also raises some important questions for a radical left which conceives of capitalism as an unacceptably destructive system and views crisis-management as an unappetising and doomed vocation. Rather than an ephemeral image of a glorious tomorrow or a utopian enclave, the commune is envisaged simultaneously as a collective experimentation of politics and as an instrument for a political action which is not merely instrumental but existential, or ethical. Among other things, the emphasis put on the density of real relations – as against the issues of identity and representation that allegedly bedevil parties, groups, collectives and milieus – gives a concrete political meaning to friendship, over against the obsession, whether prudish or prurient, with the commune as the site of sexual exchange.[30] Another classic motif, that of self-reliance, is given a contemporary twist: the commune is presented as a way of gaining and practicing the kind of know-how (medical, agricultural, technical) that can allow one to no longer depend on the metropolis and its forms of ‘security’. In other words, to ready oneself for real crisis, as communistic survivalism prepares for capitalist apocalypse.

One cannot gainsay the force and interest of concrete utopias, however minimal or marginal, nor deny the all too familiar truth – once again laid bare by this case – that the modern capitalist nation-state does not suffer alternatives gladly. The young activists and intellectuals at Tarnac, in this regard echoing if not necessarily following L’insurrection qui vient, have certainly showed that even very simple experiments with egalitarianism and emancipation can sow real political relations and solidarities. But, especially at a moment when the political question of the public is so crucial – whether we are speaking of universities, hospitals, banks, or indeed trains – the alternative between the commune and the metropolis is a false one, as is, to borrow another dichotomy from L’insurrection, the one between hegemony and horizontality. To appropriate authenticity is not enough. Any truly transformative politics must surely appropriate distraction, mobility and indeed, alienation and indifference too. Trains, like sewage systems, dams, airports and hospitals, are not to be repudiated, interrupted or merely abandoned to the whims of the capitalist state. Perhaps one day, rather than shuttling us from human resources conferences to personal development seminars, they may be put to more creative and revolutionary uses, like the Russian Kino trains of the 1920s.

* A slightly abridged version of this text will appear in Radical Philosophy 154. I thank the editorial collective of RP for permission to republish the text here. [1] ‘Lettre ouverte des parents des inculpés des accusés de Tarnac’, 23 November 2008, available at: . [2] Giorgio Agamben, ‘Térrorisme ou tragicomédie?’, Libération, 18 November 2008, available at: ; Elisabeth Claverie and Luc Boltanski, ‘Christ ou caténaire? Du sacrilège religieux’, Mediapart, 13 December 2008, available at: . [3] ‘Non à l’ordre nouveau’, Le Monde, 27 November 2008, available in English at: . [4] Christian Salmon, ‘Fictions du terrorisme’, Le Monde, 6 December 2008, available at: . [5] Comité Invisible, L’insurrection qui vient (Paris: La Fabrique, 2007). Also available at: . Online English version at: . [6] Quoted in Christophe Cornevin, ‘SNCF: L’étrange itinéraire du saboteur présumé’, Le Figaro, 19 November 2008, available at: . [7] Jean-Michel Decugis, Christophe Labbé and Armel Mehani, ‘Ultragauche – Le rapport des RG qui désigne Julien Coupat’, Le Point, 11 December 2008, available at: . [8] Anne-Cécile Juillet et François Vignolle, ‘TGV sabotés: quand le FBI s’intéressait à Julien’, Le Parisien, 12 November 2008, available at: . [9] Isabelle Mandraud, ‘L’obsession de l’ultragauche’, Le Monde, 3 December 2008, available at: . [10] L’insurrection qui vient, p. 83. [11] Leigh Phillips, ‘Sarkozy fears spectre of 1968 haunting Europe’, euobserver.com, 23 December 2008, available at: . [12] Quoted in Celestine Bohlen, ‘Use of French terrorism law on railroad saboteurs draws criticism’, Bloomberg News, 4 December 2008. [13] Quoted in Jason Burke, ‘France braced for “rebirth of violent left”’, The Observer, 4 January 2009. [14] ‘L’insurrection qui vient est en avance sur l’horaire. Interview avec Eric Hazan’, Agora Vox, 12 December 2008, available at: . [15] L’insurrection qui vient, p. 101. [16] AFP, 11 November 2008, available at: . [17] For Tiqqun’s critique of Negrism, see the first of the two issues of the journal, available at: . See also the retort by Jérôme Ceccaldi, ‘Rions un peu avec Tiqqun’, multitudes 8 (2002), available at: . [18] Tiqqun, Théorie du bloom (Paris: La Fabrique, 2000), p. 134. [19] I owe this point to Julien Vincent. [20] L’insurrection qui vient, p. 7. [21] Théorie du Bloom, p. 130; L’insurrection qui vient, p. 12. [22] I owe these notions of reversibility and accelerationism to Benjamin Noys. [23] ‘Critique de l’urbanisme’, Internationale Situationniste 6 (1961), English translation available at: . [24] L’insurrection qui vient, p. 10. [25] L’insurrection qui vient, p. 36 [26] L’insurrection qui vient, p. 20. [27] L’insurrection qui vient, p. 122. [28] L’insurrection qui vient, pp. 44–5. [29] L’insurrection qui vient, p. 102.