Wednesday, 18 November 2009

The Riots 7: Do you think we might join hands?

Here’s another long entry, which I write to follow up my previous notes on riots and bring them a little closer to if not a conclusion, then at least a semblance of order.

Part I: Negri, the Invisible Committee, and Rancière on the riots

So I am suggesting that the riots could be seen as part of a striving for autonomy. Fine, but haven’t I left a whole lot of questions unanswered? If the rioters are out after autonomy in the face of the spectacle, pride in the face of exclusion and the police, purveyors of an economy of “theft and gift” in the face of the neoliberal market, wouldn't then solidarity with the precarity movement – at least with its anarchist or autonomous wing – appear natural, logical? Why then don’t we see much more cooperation and solidarity between them? Are the differences between the “autonomy” of the rioters and that championed by the activists too great, perhaps even unbridgeable? A clue to this can be gained from what the activists and intellectuals of this movement themselves have to say about the riots.

Let us start by listening to what some of the more well-known intellectuals. I don’t think there is any more need for me to pay any further homage to Badiou (see this previous entry). I will instead give some (brief) attention to Negri, Rancière and the Invisible Committee. I can state already here that I am critical of all of them.


This interview with Negri – conducted at the time of the Paris riots in 2005 – is perhaps best known for his statement that the cars burned because their owners didn’t go out to defend them. As a whole the interview offers an instructive contrast to Badiou. Like Badiou, Negri is an enthusiastic supporter of the rioters (albeit with reservations: it fails to qualify fully as a proper “insurrection”), but for different reasons. To Negri, the rioters are in need of a theorist since they lack political awareness: “This movement wants something, but it does not yet know what it wants” (Negri 2005). He has no qualms about stepping in as their interpreter. The riot, he states, is above all a revolt against the neo-liberal Empire (that is how I understand his talk about the “crisis of Fordism”, “economic globalization” and “neoliberal cuts in public spending”).

This interpretation is substantiated somewhat in Commonwealth (coauthored with Hardt, 2009), but the basic message is similar: the "urban jacquerie" of the 2005 riots was an expression of indignation in the banliues, the “emblematic space of the precarious worker”. But as a challenge to empire it is insufficient. A revolution needs institutions to make itsself lasting and effective and ways must therefore be found of moving from jacqueri to organization (Hardt & Negri 2009:239, 245f, 259).

While not necessarily wrong, this is a perfect example of an ideological explanation: an explanation that could have been made without listening to the rioters themselves, that fits the theory just a little bit too well, and which teaches us nothing about the riots. In fact, it is highly predictable to anyone familiar with Negri’s theories. Despite the frequent appearance of the riots in the book, I can't help suspecting that the riots never mattered much to Negri, at least not the way Seattle or Genova did. An example of this is that they appear to have left no imprint on his and Hardt’s theory of the “three cycles” of protest in the anti-globalization movement (the first inaugurated by Seattle, the second by the anti-war mobilizations in the wake of 9.11, and the third by Heiligendamm). Let me conclude by saying that I think the texts by Negri mentioned here exemplify a widespread tendency among radical intellectuals to close their ears to the rioters. As far as I can judge, the latter have been quite ready to formulate their demands verbally, above all their complaints against the police. Instead of taking them on their word, however, commentators have been prone to lament their lack of political awareness, meaning a lack of explicit antagonism against neo-liberalism or global capitalism. As I’ve already stated, I believe that Badiou is one of the few radical intellectuals who has been honest enough to see the riots as fully justified even if they’re “only” motivated by a desire to get back at the police for once, or, in other words, even if the rioters lack all but the most rudimentary awareness of or interest in global capitalism.

The invisible committee

The “invisible committee” is already famous as the collective author of The Coming Insurrection and as a group that carries on the Situationist legacy in France. Unlike Negri, the authors of this book explicitly accord the “flames of November 2005” an exemplary, paradigmatic value. “Those first joyous fires were the baptism of a decade full of promise” (The Invisible Committee 2009:24). The book is full of statements endorsing the riots. For instance, seeing teachers whining about their school being burned downn on the evening news, the authors “remember how many times, as children, we dreamed of doing exactly this” (Ibid 38). Above all, the tactics of the rioters offers a model to be followed:
Not making ourselves visible, but instead turning the anonymity to which we’ve been relegated to our advantage, and through conspiracy, nocturnal or faceless actions, creating an invulnerable position of attack. The fires of November 2005 offer a model for this. No leader, no demands, no organization, but words, gestures, complicities. To be socially nothing is not a humiliating condition… but is on the contrary the condition for maximum freedom of action. (Ibid. 113)
However, I am skeptical of the authors’ idea of these riots. I see the riots as rooted in a desire to act out anger, get revenge and restore pride. I don’t see them as a model for any calculating, strategic plotting to topple the spectacle as the authors of this book seem to do. It's easy to feel sympathy for Coupat – one of the alleged authors – after his arrest, but I feel far less sympathy for the book. To be frank, I’m a bit downcast at what these authors have done to the Situationist legacy. No longer is the spectacle to be combated through détournements, shocking happenings or poetic terrorism. The structure is to be physically immobilized by striking at its vulnerable supply lines, in the style of guerillas. Sabotage becomes the primary means of liberation, a far more non-communicative means of combat that any of the Situationists’ acts of symbolic violence. I may be naïve, but I really like the ideal of everyone – and I mean everyone – having fun together. This is an ideal the Invisible Committee has thrown on the garbage heap.


If we turn to Rancière, finally, we find a rather hesitant and ambivalent attitude to the 2005 riots. On the one hand, he believes that the riots come short of real political action since they have failed to put forward a “political proposition” directed at their opponents with whom they share the social field (Rancière 2006a). They are therefore lacking something – a kind of verbal self-consciousness – that would be necessary for true politics. But on the other hand we should remember, as he stresses in another piece that also briefly touches on the riots, that politics to him is about the configuration of the “sensible”, of what can be perceived as possible. It is not something purely or merely verbal. It has to do with the senses. Politics is not simply a clash of words. It starts with “dissensus”, the contention that “there is not one reality”. Far more than being a merely verbal disagreement, dissensus is about “reframing the very field of the given, of the sensible, the intelligible and, consequently, the possible. It is about putting in the unique common world of the consensual logics several worlds, conflicting worlds” (ibid 2006b). To Rancière, such a clash of worlds happens above all through the process of “subjectivization”, the self-definition in public of previously neglected or invisible groups (the “part of the uncounted”) which upsets the field since they refuse pregiven categories. Applying these ideas to the 2005 riots, he opposes interpretations such as Finkelkrauts (see my discussion in this entry), who see the rioters as guided by a consumerist ideology. These voices all sees the rioters as caught up in a single “world” or “police” taken as a configuration of the possible, a neoliberal world in which the market is absolute or a given. What emerges from Rancière's texts is therefore a deeply ambivalent picture. Doesn’t his rejection of interpretations such as Finkelkraut’s imply that the riots have at least taken important steps towards a true “politics” in his sense? He claims not to regard the riots as politics, but this seems unfair from the point of view of his own theory of politics as the emergence of other worlds. At the very least, one should concede that they meant a big no, the appearance of a huge “dissensus” that shook the established field.

The contrast to the Situationist International

What triggered my excursus into what these radical intellectuals have had to say about the riots was the obvious overlap between some of their concepts and what the rioters seemed to be doing. For instance, the seemingly pointless burning of cars can easily be understood as taking pleasure in the confrontation itself, regardless of future goals. Isn’t this similar to Negri’s strategy of autonomous separation, desertion or exodus rather than dialectical conflict? Isn’t he too interested in delineating the idea of a social movement less interested in appealing to or demanding things from authorities than in the creative formation of a new life, in being able to lead their own life while having as much fun as one can, without having to feel like victims? Aren’t autonomists and rioters alike groping for forms of public confrontation that eschew classical forms of “voice” and political participation? Aren’t they both rushing in the direction of an exit or desertion of the established field of political dialogue – an exit which, however, doesn’t take the form of quietly withdrawing to some alternative sphere of living, enclave, or subculture, but which instead, in the manner of Rancière’s “politics” always simultaneously involves a challenge and confrontation that necessarily appears provocative and outrageous from the point of view of the existing “police”? Despite this overlap, however, none of the radical intellectuals discussed above seem interested in discussing these similarities.

This attitude contrasts to that of the Situationist International, which in 1965 greeted the Watts riots in L.A. as a “rebellion against the commodity” driven by the “demand to really life” which momentarily realized an economy of “theft and gift”. The important thing was that this was done “in festive celebration, in playful self-assertion, in the potlatch of destruction. People who destroy commodities show their human superiority over commodities” (Situanionist International 2006:197). Famously, they also wrote that the riot was the first rebellion in history to justify itself with the argument that there was no air conditioning during a heat wave” (Ibid 200). That is to say: the Watts rioters didn’t riot because they were victims, because they lacked something which the state could give them. They rioted because it was their pleasure, because they were no slaves, but free people who didn’t have to put up with anything. I feel a great deal of sympathy for this way of looking at the riots. Unfortunately, however, it’s not easy to come across similar views today of the riots in recent years in the banlieus or suburbs of Europe.

Part II: A way towards convergence

So is there any prospect of a fruitful convergence, alliance or even fusion between the movement of the immigrant youth and that of autonomist radicals? Here I can only sketch an answer. I take for granted that the reader will understand that most sketches end up in the waste basket.

To the "progressive" Left an alliance between a variety of immigrant organizations or immigrant movements is certainly possible and the fact that such alliances already exist is a welcome development. But whatever was expressed in the "movement" of the rioters, and I for one can't help feeling that this "something" was extraordinarily important, appears to me to be rather far from the "progressivist" camp. Commentators have already pointed out a number of differences between what we can call the standpoint of the "rioters" and that of the "leftists".

For instance, Alain Touraine points out two differences between the suburban riots of 2005 and the wave of student protest which erupted the same year. The first is the difference in social position.
The immigrants are wholly disoriented and set fire to cars since they can’t articulate themselves and lack advocates. The students by contrast are far more privileged and receive enormous support through their unions. Despite this the immigrants and the students share the feeling of discrimination and exclusion: the suburban youth have already stood outside society for a long time, while the students fear an impeded future, which could just as well turn them into excluded tomorrow. (Touraine 2006)
This portrayal of the student protesters is in keeping with his disparaging view of today’s precarity movement as driven less by political hopes than by fear of the future, by the desire to protect the rights and concessions they have already won. This difference in social position is important. However, it is also important to point out that this defensive posture is not shared by the autonomist/anarchist wing of the precarity movement. Unlike workers and students fearful to lose their privileges, this wing ought to be a a possible ally of the immigrant youth. In Japan too it is possible to discern two wings of the precarity movement: one making up the so-called “anti-poverty” movement and the other being animated rather by what could be called a “viva poverty” ethos (a largely anarchist ethnos which I’ve already given some glimpses of in connection with Dame-ren and Kubikubi Café).

Touraine also points to a second difference, namely that suburban riots are better seen as cultural struggles than as social movements. While the rioters rebel against social and economic exclusion, the exclusion is also experienced as cultural and the protest against poverty is therefore also a call for cultural recognition (Touraine 2006). This statement is vague, but as I’ve remarked in my previous entry, I agree that culture plays an important role in the riots, albeit a should underline that this is better seen as a wholly new culture, a culture in the process of being produced, rather than any stereotypical cultural essence. I don’t believe at all that a recognition of culture as a central element of struggle should be an impediment to cooperation between rioters and activists. I won’t enter into the difficult question of how compatible the various version of an alternative culture are that these groups may produce. Certainly there is a risk of cultural collisions – for instance regarding limitations on the freedom of women – but there are also signs of new cultures and lifestyles being born which are shared across ethnic borderlines.

A third possible difference is indicated in the rather condescending view of the riots that can be found among many commentators on the Left. We have already seen that Touraine describes the riots as “wholly disoriented” and lacking the ability to articulate their demands. Comments like that are surprisingly common. Negri and Ranciêre make similar comments, as we recall. And Zizek writes that “the recent revolt was just an outburst with no pretense to any kind of positive vision” (Zizek). Wiewiorka remarks that the riots “produce no discourse… they are typically crisis behaviours, and not at all a movement” (Wieviorka 2005). Even Lapeyronnie, one of their most understanding interpreters, thinks that the alienation of the rioters from the political system means that they remain caught in a helpless dependence on the political system from which they try to elicit understanding and concessions (Lapeyronnie 2006). The list can be made to go on and one. I’ve already stated several times that I believe that views like these are unfair, especially among activists of autonomous persuation who are the ones who more than anyone have advocated strategies of exodus, flight and desertion as better suited to the resistance of the multitudes than using established channels of protest. To the extent that the riots were motivated by being loyal to one’s desires – for instance, restoring one’s sense of pride by making fools of the police and authorities – they share the motivations of much anarchist and autonomist activism.

To summarize so far, I believe that the differences which various commentators have pointed out between the rioters and precarity activists are valid above all for those precarity activists engaged in the kind of struggle highlighted by what I have called the “progressive” interpretation, that is, the movement for social inclusion, for gaining or preserving a variety of rights and guarantees or livelihood and official support. If one instead compares the rioters to the activists oriented towards anarchism or autonomy, the differences almost melt away. Doesn't this suggest an affinity? Just as there are ways in which a "progressive" left might join hands with "respectable" immigrant organizations, might there not be room for a comraderie of rioters and autonomists? I am not saying, as the Invisible Committee, that the tactics of rioting is always right. I think that depends on the degree of oppression. All I'm saying is that I do think it would be good if the marginals, minorities, the discriminated and the dropouts could come together and help each other a little more often - and that the obstacles might be less serious than we think.

Part III: Freeters and immigrants

I will finish the entry by stating briefly why I believe that the problem of the solidarity between freeters and immigrants will become more pressing in Japan in the future. Here is my prognosis. After the media and opinion storm which has been continually growing in strength in recent years against the “reforms that went too far” – a common expression used for the deregulations and privatizations which reached a climax under the premiership of Koizumi – Japanese authorities are bound to take at least some measures to ameliorate the working conditions or freeters and other irregular workers in Japan. To the extent that their situation improves, it seems logical to expect that companies will respond by increasing the flow of immigrant labour. The DJP – the most important governing party in Japan – will probably welcome that development and may also try to further it through legislation. How will the freeters active in the precarity movement respond to this situation? Two difficulties can be predicted. Firstly, it may be harder to gain the support of the general public when the “victims” of precarity are no longer Japanese. There is a danger of growing nationalism. Already today groups like Zaitokukai (see this previous entry) have appeared. Secondly, there will be difficulties in creating a sense of solidarity within the movement between freeters and immigrant workers. Until now, freeters have been able to portray themselves as marginals and excluded. “Poverty” has been a personally directly felt (“mijika na”) problem, a problem of which they could feel themselves to be the direct victims or people most directed concerned (“tôjisha”). Among freeter activists there is also a rather widespread distrust against philanthropy and people who “support others” out of “compassion” or idealistic motives (“dôjô shite hito o tasukete ageru”). Being a “tôjisha”, a directly concerned victim, is often said to the most authentic way of participating in a movement. However, isn’t there a risk that this rejection of “compassion” and “helping others” will be used to justify cold-heartedness and indifference to the situation of immigrant workers? If freeter should concern themselves only with their “own” problems, should they simply drop out of the movement when their own situation improves? Will they be able to shed the jargon about the primacy of being a “tôjisha”, or will they perhaps be able to formulate some new conceptual framework in which they and immigrants will both be “tôjisha”?


Hardt, Michael & Negri, Antonio (2009) Commonwealth, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Negri (2005) “Finally a Little Revolt”, interviewed by Jacopo Iacoboni (orig. La Stampa 2005-11-12)

Invisible Committee, The (2009) The Coming Insurrection, Los Angeles: semiotext(e).

Rancière (2006a) “Our police order: What can be said, seen, and done”, interview by Truls Lie, Eurozine (contribution by Le Monde diplomatique)

Rancière (2006b) “Misadventures of Universality”, paper presented at the Moscow Biennale's Conference on Philosophy, Politics, and Art, 17 November 2006

Situationist International (2006) “The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy”, pp 194-203, in Knabb, Ken (ed. & tr.) Situationist International Anthology, Berkeley: the Bureau of Public Secrets.

Touraine (2006) “Explosion möglich”, Die Zeit 2006-03-23, Nr. 13-23 (March)

Wieviorka, Michel (2005) “Violence in France

Zizek, “Some Politically Incorrect Reflections on Violence in France & Related Matters

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