Is Utopianism Dead?

We are living through a long anti-1960s. The various anti-capitalist experiments in communal living and collective existence that defined that period seem to us either quaintly passé, laughably unrealistic or dangerously misguided. Having grown up and thrown off such seemingly childish ways, we now think we know better than to try and bring heaven crashing down to earth and construct concrete utopias. To that extent, despite our occasional and transient enthusiasms and Obamaisms, we are all political realists; indeed most of us are passive nihilists and cynics. This is why we still require a belief in something like original sin, namely that there is something ontologically defective about what it means to be human. The Judaeo-Christian conception of original sin finds its modern analogues in Freud’s variation on the Schopenhauerian disjunction between desire and civilization, Heidegger’s ideas of facticity and fallenness, and the Hobbesian anthropology that drives Carl Schmitt’s defense of authoritarianism and dictatorship, which has seduced significant sectors of the Left hungry for Realpolitik. Without the conviction that the human condition is essentially flawed and dangerously rapacious, we would have no way of justifying our disappointment; nothing gives us a greater thrill than satiating our sense of exhaustion and ennui by polishing the bars of our prison cell by reading a little John Gray. Gray represents a very persuasive Darwinian variant on the idea of original sin: it is the theory of evolution that explains the fact that we are homo sapiens. Nothing can be done about it. Humanity is a plague.

It is indeed true that those utopian political movements of the 1960s, like the Situationist International, where an echo of utopian Millenarian movements like the Heresy of the Free Spirit could be heard, led to various forms of disillusionment, disintegration, and in extreme cases, disaster. Experiments in the collective ownership of property or in communal living based on sexual freedom without the repressive institution of the family, or indeed R.D. Laing’s experimental communal asylums with no distinction between the so-called mad and the sane, seem like distant whimsical cultural memories captured in dog-eared, yellowed paperbacks and grainy, poor quality film. As a child of punk, economic collapse and the widespread social violence in the United Kingdom in the late 1970s, it is a world that I have always struggled to understand. Perhaps such communal experiments were too pure and overfull of righteous conviction. Perhaps they were, in a word, too moralistic to ever endure. Perhaps such experiments were doomed because of what we might call a politics of abstraction, in the sense of being overly attached to an idea at the expense of a frontal denial of reality. Perhaps, indeed. 

At their most extreme, say in the activities of the Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and the Red Brigades in the 1970s, the moral certitude of the closed and pure community becomes fatally linked to redemptive, cleansing violence. Terror becomes the means to bring about the end of virtue. Such is the logic of Jacobinism. The death of individuals is but a speck on the vast heroic canvas of the class struggle. This culminated in a heroic politics of violence where acts of abduction, kidnapping, hijacking, and assassination were justified through an attachment to a set of ideas. As a character in Jean-Luc Godard’s Notre Musique remarks, “To kill a human being in order to defend an idea is not to defend an idea, it is to kill a human being.”1

Perhaps such groups were too attached to the idea of immediacy, the propaganda of the violent deed as an impatient attempt to storm the heavens. Perhaps such experiments lacked an understanding of politics as a constant and concrete process of mediation. That is, the mediation between a subjective ethical commitment based on a general principle—for example the equality of all, friendship, or an infinite ethical demand—and the experience of local organization that builds fronts and alliances between disparate groups with often conflicting sets of interests, what Gramsci called the activity of “hegemony.” By definition, such a process of mediation is never pure and never complete.

 

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Are these utopian experiments in community dead or do they live on in some form? I’d like to make two suggestions for areas where this utopian impulse might live on: two experiments, if you will. One is from contemporary art, one is from contemporary radical politics: but the two areas can be interestingly linked. Indeed, if a tendency marks our time, it is the increasingly difficulty in separating forms of collaborative art from experimental politics.

Perhaps such utopian experiments in community live on in the institutionally sanctioned spaces of the contemporary art world. One thinks of projects like L’Association des Temps Libérés (1995), Utopia Station (2003), and many other examples gathered together in a retrospective show at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in Fall 2008, Theanyspacewhatever.2  In the work of artists like Philippe Parreno and Liam Gillick or curators like Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Maria Lind, there is a deeply felt Situationist nostalgia for ideas of collectivity, action, self-management, collaboration, and indeed the idea of the group as such. In such art practice, which Nicolas Bourriaud has successfully branded as “relational,” art is the acting out of a situation in order to see if, in Obrist’s words, ‘something like a collective intelligence might exist,”3  As Gillick notes, “Maybe it would be better if we worked in groups of three.”4  A great deal of contemporary art and politics is obsessed with the figure of the group and of work as collaboration, perhaps all the way to the refusal of work and the cultivation of anonymity.

Of course, the problem with such contemporary utopian art experiments is twofold: on the one hand, they are only enabled and legitimated through the cultural institutions of the art world and thus utterly enmeshed in the circuits of commodification and spectacle that they seek to subvert; and, on the other hand, the dominant mode for approaching an experience of the communal is through the strategy of reenactment. One doesn’t engage in a bank heist, one reenacts Patty Hearst’s adventures with the Symbionese Liberation Army in a warehouse in Brooklyn. Situationist détournement is replayed as obsessively planned reenactment. The category of reenactment has become hegemonic in contemporary art, specifically as a way of thinking the relation between art and politics (perhaps radical politics has also become reenactment). Fascinating as I find such experiments and the work of the artists involved, one suspects what we might call a “mannerist Situationism,” where the old problem of recuperation does not even apply because such art is completely co-opted by the socio-economic system which provides its life-blood.

To turn to politics, perhaps we witnessed another communal experiment with the events in France surrounding the arrest and detention of the so-called ‘Tarnac Nine’ on 11 November 2008 and the work of groups that go under different names: Tiqqun, The Invisible Committee, The Imaginary Party.5  As part of Nicolas Sarkozy’s reactionary politics of fear—itself based on an overwhelming fear of disorder and desire to erase definitively the memory of 1968—a number of activists who had been formerly associated with Tiqqun were arrested in rural France by a force of 150 anti-terrorist police, helicopters and attendant media. They were living communally in the small village of Tarnac in the Corrèze district of the Massif Central. Apparently a number of the group’s members had bought a small farmhouse and were engaged in such dangerous activities as running a cooperative grocery store and local film club, planting carrots, and delivering food to the elderly. With surprising juridical imagination, they were charged with “pre-terrorism,” an accusation linked to acts of sabotage on France’s TGV rail system.

The basis for this thought-crime was a passage from a book from 2007 called L’insurrection qui vient.6  It is a wonderfully dystopian diagnosis of contemporary society—seven circles of hell in seven chapters—and a compelling strategy to resist it. The final pages of L’insurrection advocate acts of sabotage against the transport networks of “the social machine” and ask the question, “How could a TGV line or an electrical network be rendered useless?”7  Two of the alleged pre-terrorists, Julien Coupat and Yldune Lévy, were detained in jail and charged with ‘a terrorist undertaking’ that carried a prison sentence of 20 years.  The last of the group to be held in custody, Coupat, was released without being prosecuted on 28 May 2009, although bail of 16,000 Euros was levied and Coupat was forbidden to travel outside the greater Parisian area.8 Fresh arrests were made in connection with the Tarnac affair late in 2009.9  Such is the repressive and reactionary force of the state, just in case anyone had forgotten. As the authors of L’insurrection remind us, “Governing has never been anything but pushing back by a thousand subterfuges the moment when the crowd will hang you.”10

L’insurrection qui vient has powerful echoes of the Situationist International. Yet—revealingly—the Hegelian-Marxism of Debord’s analysis of the spectacle and commodification is replaced with very strong echoes of Agamben, in particular the question of community in Agamben as what would survive the separation of law and life.11  Everything turns here on an understanding of the relation between law and life and the possibility of a nonrelation between those two terms. If law is essentially violence, which in the age of bio-politics taps deeper and deeper into the reservoir of life, then the separation of law and life is the space of what Agamben calls politics. It is what leads to his anomic misreading of Paul.

The authorship of L’insurrection is attributed to La Comité Invisible and the insurrectional strategy of the group turns around the question of invisibility. It is a question of “learning how to become imperceptible,” of regaining “the taste for anonymity” and not exposing and losing oneself in the order of visibility, which is always controlled by the police and the state. The authors of L’insurrection argue for the proliferation of zones of opacity, anonymous spaces where communes might be formed. The book ends with the slogan, “All power to the communes” (“Tout le pouvoir aux communes”). In a nod to Maurice Blanchot, these communes are described as “inoperative” or “désœuvrée,” as refusing the capitalist tyranny of work. In a related text simply entitled Call, they seek to establish,

 

A series of foci of desertion, of secession poles, of rallying points. For the runaways. For those who leave. A set of places to take shelter from the control of a civilization that is headed for the abyss.12

 

A strategy of sabotage, blockade and what is called ‘the human strike’ is proposed in order to weaken still further our doomed civilization. As the Tiqqun group write in a 1999 text called, “Oh Good, the War!,” “Abandon ship. Not because it’s sinking, but to make it sink.” Or again, “When a civilization is ruined, one declares it bankrupt. One does not tidy up in a home falling off a cliff.”13  An opposition between the city and the country is constantly reiterated, and it is clear that the construction of zones of opacity is better suited to rural life than the policed space of surveillance of the modern metropolis. The city is much better suited to what we might call “designer resistance,” where people wear Ramones T-shirts and sit in coffee shops saying, “capitalism sucks,” before going back to their jobs as graphic designers.

L’insurrection is a compelling, exhilarating, funny and deeply lyrical text that sets off all sorts of historical echoes with movements like the Free Spirit and the Franciscan Spirituals in the Middle Ages, through to the proto-anarchist Diggers in the English Revolution and different strands of nineteenth-century utopian communism. We should note the emphasis on secrecy, invisibility and itinerancy, on small-scale communal experiments in living, on the politicization of poverty which recalls medieval practices of mendicancy and the refusal of work. What is at stake is the affirmation of a life no longer exhausted by work and cowed by law and the police.

But this double program of sabotage on the one hand, and secession from civilization on the other, risks, I think, remaining trapped within the politics of abstraction identified above. In this fascinatingly creative reenactment of the Situationist gesture—which is why I stressed the connection with contemporary art practice—what is missing is a thinking of political mediation where groups like the Invisible Committee would be able to link up and become concretized in relation to multiple and conflicting sites of struggle; workers, the unemployed, designer resisters, and perhaps most importantly, with more or less disenfranchised ethnic groups. We need a richer political cartography than the opposition between the city and the country. Tempting as it is, sabotage combined with secession from civilization smells of the moralism we detected above, an ultimately anti-political purism.

That said, I understand the desire for secession: it is the desire to escape a seemingly doomed civilization that is headed for the abyss. The proper theological name for such secessionism is Marcionism, which turns on the separation of law from life, the order of creation from that of redemption, the Old and New Testaments. In the face of a globalizing, atomizing, bio-political and legal regime of violence and domination which threatens to drain dry the reservoir of life, secession offers the possibility of withdrawal, the establishment of a space where another form of life and collective intelligence are possible. Secession offers the possibility of an antinomian separation of law from life, a retreat from the old order through experiments with free human sociability: in other words, communism, understood as the “Sharing of a sensibility and elaboration of sharing. The uncovering of what is common and the building of a force.”14

It is also the case that something has changed and is changing in the nature of tactics of political resistance. With the fading away of the so-called anti-globalization movement, groups like the Invisible Committee offer a consistency of thought and action that possesses great diagnostic power and tactical awareness. They provide a new and compelling vocabulary of insurrectionary politics that has both described and unleashed a series of political actions in numerous locations, some closer to home, some further away. The latter is performed by what the Invisible Committee call—in an interesting choice of word—“resonance.”15  A resonating body in one location—like glasses on a table—begins to make another body shake, and suddenly the whole floor is covered with glass. Politics is perhaps no longer, as it was in the so-called anti-globalization movement, a struggle for and with visibility. Resistance is about the cultivation of invisibility, opacity, anonymity, and resonance.

I have my doubts about the politics of abstraction that haunts groups like the Invisible Committee. But if we reject such political experiments, then what follows from this? Are we to conclude that the utopian impulse in political thinking is simply the residue of a dangerous political theology that we are much better off without? Is the upshot of the critique of utopianism that we should be resigned in the face of the world’s violent inequality and update a belief in original sin with a reassuringly miserabilistic Darwinism? Should we reconcile ourselves to the options of political realism, authoritarianism, or liberalism (John Gray, Carl Schmitt, or Barack Obama)? Should we simply renounce the utopian impulse in our personal and political thinking?

If so, then the consequence is clear: we are stuck with the way things are, or possibly with something even worse than the way things are. To abandon the utopian impulse in thinking and acting is to imprison ourselves within the world as it is and to give up once and for all the prospect that another world is possible, however small, fleeting and compromised such a world might be. In the political circumstances that presently surround us in the West, to abandon the utopian impulse in political thinking is to resign ourselves to liberal democracy. Liberal democracy is the rule of the rule, the reign of law that renders impotent anything that would break with law: the miraculous, the moment of the event, the break with the situation in the name of the common. It is a political deism governed by the hidden and divine hand of the market. Other political forms of life are possible. 

 

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Allow me a final word on the future. I’m against it. I think we have to resist the future, I mean resist the idea of the future, which is the ultimate ideological trump card of capitalist narratives of progress. I think we have to resist the future and the ideology of the future. But in the name of what? In the name of sheer potentiality of the radical past and the way that past can shape the creativity and imagination of the present. The future of radical, creative thought is its past, and radicalism has always driven a car whose driver is constantly looking in the rear view mirror. Some objects may appear bigger, some smaller.

Capitalism is an evil that presents itself as inevitability, as a destiny to whom the future by necessity belongs. Capitalism—at the level of ideology—has become a form of passive nihilist, quasi-Buddhist self-help amnesia, a new jargon of authenticity and well-being. All we have to oppose it is an understanding of history, a clear-sightedness about the structural injustices present and a willingness to take action, a need to confront commitment-free bovine contentment with the urgency of anguished commitment, the anguish of a demand as that which prepares the possibility of action. Such action should not just dream of a non-relation of law and life, and a secession from an allegedly doomed civilization, but require that the relation between them be decisively rethought. The world is shit, I agree; the problem is that it’s our excrement.



1Notre Musique 2004, J.- L. Godard (dir.) (France/Switzerland: Avventura Films, Péripheria Suisse, France 3 Cinéma et al).

2See the documentation collected in Theanyspacewhatever (Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2008).

3H.-U. Obrist, ‘In Conversation with Raoul Vaneigem’, E-Flux Journal, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/view/62. See Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Les Presses du Réel, Paris, 2002).

4Liam Gillick, “Maybe it Would be Better if We Worked in Groups of Three?”, E-?ux Journal 3 (February 2009), www.e-?ux.com/journal/view/35.

5For more information on the “Tarnac 9” see http://tarnac9.wordpress.com/. See also the commentary by Alberto Toscano, “The War Against Pre-Terrorism: The Tarnac 9 and The Coming Insurrection”, Radical Philosophy (March/April 2009), http://www.radicalphilosophy.com/default.asp?channel_id=2187&editorial_id=27700.

6L’insurrection qui vient (La Fabrique, Paris, 2007); translated anonymously as The Coming Insurrection (Semiotexte[e], Los Angeles, 2009).

7L’insurrection qui vient, p.101.

8http://tarnac9.wordpress.com/2009/05/29/julien-coupat-released/

9 http://tarnac9.wordpress.com/2009/12/05/statement-from-the-tarnac-ten/

10L’insurrection qui vient, p.83.

11The obvious connection here is between The Coming Insurrection and The Coming Community, trans. Michael Hardt (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1993).

12See Call, http://bloom0101.org/call.pdf, p.57. Call was an earlier text by The Invisible Committee circulated anonymously in 2004.

13In Politics is not a Banana (The Institute for Experimental Freedom, 2009), p.156 & 162.

14See “A Point of Clarification,” a statement from January 2009 that appears at the beginning of the American edition of The Coming Insurrection, op.cit. pp.5-19, see esp. p.16.

15Ibid, p.12.