Disturbing the Neurotic Balance:
Brussels, May 26, 2019
A first-hand account by Q
“We have been living for decades in a state of exception, which has become the rule; as in the case of the economy, crisis is the normal condition. The state of exception that was supposed to be limited in time is instead the normal model of governance today and this is true of the very same states that call themselves democratic. Few people are aware of the fact that the security regulations introduced after September 11 (they had been established in Italy since the Years of Lead) are worse than the ones that were on the books under fascism. And the crimes against humanity committed under Nazism were made possible by the fact that Hitler had taken power and proclaimed a state of exception that was never repealed. Hitler, however, did not have the same possibilities of control (biometric data, surveillance cameras, cell phones, credit cards) that are at the disposal of our contemporary states. One could very well say that today the state considers every citizen to be a virtual terrorist. This can have no other consequence than to diminish and render impossible the participation in politics that is supposed to define democracy. A city whose squares and streets are controlled by way of surveillance cameras cannot be a public place: it is a prison.’’
“The center of a circle can be reached from any point on the circumference. The circle is, in terms of magic, the containment of the power within, the power of “uncontrollable forces” – in our terms, the power of life itself. Only from the center can the prison be exploded. And so, the movement must always be to the origins, the expedition to the source, the axe to the root.’’
An international call to gather (“peacefully”) in Brussels on May 26, 2019 – the Election Day for both the European and the Belgian parliaments – had been distributed by the Yellow Vests’ “Assembly of Assemblies” in Saint-Nazairei. Since the main worthwhile activity in this society obviously consists in systematically discouraging the plans made by its managers (until such point as the latter are concretely eliminated), and since those managers are much more constantly aware of this danger than are the drugged masses of underlings, the planners are erecting their defenses in all the modern projects of territorial organization. The managers of the EU Capital had efficiently planned and set up their defenses against this moderate attempt at public critique of the democratic system – “where we can test our strength but never use it”. I arrived a bit late to the meeting-point in Gare du Nord (Brussels North train station) – about twenty minutes after the scheduled meeting-time – to a disappointingly small crowd of about 200-300 that had gathered in a square in front of the train station (I later realized that there was another smaller group that marched from somewhere else and managed to get around the kettle, as well as some others who caused minor damage to the city centre’s façade and to the Socialist Party’s office windows). I greeted the only two persons I knew and, “ere I could make a prologue to my brains, they had begun the play”. Very quickly, as if in a scene from a film, orchestrated rows of heavily geared-up riot-cops emerged out of nowhere to encircle us, to keep us in our place figuratively and literally, and to arrest us later under the legal code of “disturbing the public order”. The real meaning of this newspeak in this case is very simple: being together at a certain place and at a certain time without asking permission from the rulers; in other words, trying to live.
Abstract rights enforce concrete wrongs
“It was now no more than a smoking ruin, for the Bulgars had burned it to the ground in accordance with the terms of international law.”
“…the bitter lapse into everyday life – the hideous dropping off of the veil.”
–Edgar Allan Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher
Some people at the demo shouted at the cops how this is us being more like a dictatorship and not a democracy, that we have rights and blah blah blah. But the cops and those in the corridors of Power know better: there’s no contradiction between a democracy and police violence, censorship or other forms of oppression that make leftists shout “fascists!” or “dictators!”. Democracy is merely the political representation of the dictatorship of the commodity and its market, a more useful way to run the business of the State more smoothly and “peacefully”. All states have a monopoly on violence; the only variation is in the degree and scope of its use, the tactics chosen at a certain time. The fact that this organized violence is called “protection” or “security” doesn’t change anything. We all know the protection of whom and the security of what are behind these hideously veiled expressions.
Here Come the Blues
“And the means they employed were always the same: they planted themselves before us, looking as large as possible, tried to hinder us from going where we purposed, offered us instead a habitation in their own bosoms, and when at last all our balked feelings rose in revolt they welcomed that like an embrace into which they threw themselves face foremost.’’
–Franz Kafka, Unmasking a Confidence Trickster
Right at the beginning of the kettling there were some attempts to push back the cops but unfortunately there were far too few people for it. I saw some batons smashing people’s heads and bodies around me, the usual stuff. After this most people retreated back inside the kettle, chanting “everyone hates the police” followed by (this one was new to me) : “the police hates everyone”. I can say that the atmosphere was fairly anti-State and definitely anti-police, which is encouraging. Other chants and songs were heard such as the usual On est làii, as well as À bas l’État, les flics et les bourgeois iii. I don’t remember seeing people throwing stuff at the cops other than some fire-crackers here-and-there, but I don’t think there were many throwable objects around there. There was a guy and a girl who tried to encourage the rest of us to nevertheless try and advance against the line of cops, shouting something like “you are Gilets jaunes, come on! What are you afraid of?” but nobody answered their call. I myself had mixed feelings considering the balance of forces.
Something rather amusing happened around that time. One of the few flag-carrying patriots there was standing next to a small “black-block”-type group of masked young guys who were more confrontational with the cops. After a while, something made him angry, he shouted something like “I don’t want anything to do with you hooligans” [casseurs], and, as a stream of indispensable swearwords and insults were hurled at him, he walked away from that group towards the line of cops – perhaps to complain or something, I don’t know – only to be gassed in the face…
And so the kettle was getting smaller and I was becoming more bored and frustrated. A few people were using their phones to film themselves speaking about what’s going on (annoying); others were communicating with the cops as if they were their equals (even more annoying and discouraging, I’ll get back to that later); others were singing songs from the Spanish civil war or just fooling around; someone shared a big box of home-made food. An RTL crew was spotted, bringing people to chant of “everyone hates RTL” (to the rhythm of “everyone hates the police”). After an hour or two the kettle was getting extremely tight. The area where we were encircled had some picnic tables and benches, so as the filth were closing-in on us some people, like me, were sitting on these benches. If your response wasn’t quick enough or if you stayed seated, the cops simply squashed you with their boots or violently pushed you away with their shields and knees before you even realized what was happening. They did this to a not-so-young woman sitting next to me and I myself was almost kneed in the ribs. Some people behind me at the other side of the picnic-table were gassed directly in the face on a few occasions. This led to more anger and aggression among us, rather than fear. Seeing their friends being gassed in the face, an array of swearwords and insults plus some spitting was hurled at the cops, followed by the suggestion “kill yourselves!” – an homage to the wave of suicides among the forces of order in France since the beginning of the Yellow Vests movement. iv
A tourist attraction
And so the hours passed and people began to be “voluntarily” arrested and taken into the police bus. Some preferred to give themselves up directly to the cops whereas others were dragged by force. I didn’t personally know anyone on my bus, but there was this one guy that had already annoyed me at the beginning of the kettling with his citizenist attitude and the way he was trying to make chit-chat with the encircling, violent cops. So on the bus, this attention-seeker acted like he’s on a school trip or something rather than on his way to custody with hands cuffed behind his back. He was all friendly with the cops and their boss, joking with them (not at them), asking for music, asking where they’re from in Belgium, etc. It made me think that he was either repressing the most obvious and sensible response to his humiliation or that he was a total asshole. What I’m saying is not that anger and hate should take hold of your entire personality in these situations; it’s always good to keep some sense of humor or a sense of Zen during difficult situations. But people who are incapable of hate or anger have some serious issues with themselves. “Don’t hate the black, don’t hate the white, if you get bit just hate the bite, make sure your heart is beatin’ right” (Sly & the Family Stone). I found it hard to stay indifferent to his despicable display of solidarity with one’s enemies and I tried to ask him what’s the meaning of this fucking conviviality, but unfortunately my French is not yet good enough under stress so it didn’t get to him.
“I usually sing a different version: ‘Je suis là, je suis là, je suis là et bien payé pour faire cela.”v
–The commanding officer of our bus, responding to the guy mentioned above.
Anyway, that guy continued with his annoying behavior, but also with loud singing and chanting, then others joined, making it a very loud and lively ride to the police station. The funny thing was that the police station they took us to is located next to the Grande Place – one of the most touristic areas in Brussels. So the sight of a police bus full of cuffed men and women chanting their lungs out was kind of a surprise for the tourists who were simply doing what they were trained to do that afternoon in the shopping streets of central Brussels, gentrified and uglified precisely because of their presence.vi
After this short and rather surrealist voyage we arrived at the station’s parking-lot, probably because there wasn’t enough room for everyone inside the building. Nothing really interesting happened there except the following nice act of joint insubordination: initially they made us all sit down, still with our hands cuffed behind our backs; but after a short while some were finding it uncomfortable and humiliating to be seated like this on the floor of a parking-lot, so they stood up, loudly expressing their discontent and refusing to accept the cops’ orders to sit the fuck down. After several attempts at policing, the cops eventually backed down and let everyone remain standing.
Eventually it was my turn to be called up, frisked (they didn’t bother to look at the pamphlets I had in my pocket – one of them criticizing non-violent resistance, the other entitled “Death to France“), then taken to the clerk who entered my details into the computer, after which his shithead of a boss came in, and, with the smug cynicism of someone who knows how these are the only moments of his life in which he has some sort of power, sent me on my way with the promise that if he were to see me in the city centre in the next 24 hours I’d be locked up. “When his words have died away he is more cowardly than he who has never spoken.” (Nietzsche).
i SF note : The St.Nazaire assembly, in relation to the European elections, expressed itself like this: “Our founding principle is the autonomy of groups of yellow vests and individuals in general. That is why we choose not to give any instructions for voting or even participation in these elections. We condemn all attempts to build a political list in the name of the Yellow Vests!”, which presumably is why the author was impressed by this call. However, there’s more to this assembly than this – and I felt it was worth mentioning a few of the confusions of this assembly and of assemblyist ideology as a whole, without, for the moment, going into all the historical antecedents of this ideology.
The St.Nazaire assembly puts out classic lowest common denominator statements , acceptable to all forms of populism, right or left. Whilst one of the world’s largest shipyards, in which the French state has a majority stake, is in Saint-Nazaire and employs a lot of foreign workers, temporary workers under contract and sometimes without a contract, poorly paid and poorly accommodated, their calls, as far as I know, have never even mentioned all this or the strikes there repressed by thugs. Instead they prefer innocuous general statements such as « our real enemies are the few who have immense wealth that they do not share », constant references to « the people », calls for the enactment of republican ideals such as « Liberty, Equality and Fraternity », opposition to neoliberalism (the sole form of capitalism explicitly opposed by the yellow vests), fetishism of Macron as the only embodiment of this, and other products of an ideology of consensus. The ideology of consensus , when it comes to words – declarations, texts, leaflets, etc. and even spoken words – invariably means tending towards abstractions so as to avoid possible conflict: tailoring what you say in order to conform to what others will find acceptable, rather than arguing, discussing and being prepared to not always be considered « correct ». So there’s an assumption that everybody must agree. Which means a lot of unnecessary compromises and a lot of rhetorical slogans such as « of the people, by the people, for the people », a slogan that a bourgeois president – Abraham Lincoln – used to describe his form of government. Whilst the St.Nazaire assembly was probably unaware of the origins of this, it still can come out with confusing « criticisms » of Macron’s government as being “unrepresentative government in the service of a privileged minority”, which implies, despite the call for “direct democracy”, that there could somehow be a government that was not in the service of a privileged minority or that “genuine” representation could be something positive. Presumably that’s why there was a call to support what they considered was the movement in Rojava (ie the Stalinist PKK, who even went so far as to congratulate Trump on his election win back in November 2016), because, maybe, they considered the government there to be authenticallly “representative” (for a radical take on the Rojava question see this).
A developed critical analysis of the contradictions of the yellow vests (and of those with some kind of revolutionary perspective who either support them uncritically or who oppose them dogmatically) , of which the St.Nazaire assembly is a part, requires a separate and far longer text than this. There are lots of other confusions plus some better, more radical-sounding and potentially more genuinely subversive, statements coming from this assembly, but this footnote could go on for several pages longer than the main body of the text if it were to critique the contradictions of the yellow vest movement. So, for the moment, in relation to the ‘yellow vests’, I’ll leave it at that. Though I feel it’s worth quoting from this, about the contradictions of the assembly form, which I wrote probably in 2003:
“The Zapatistas are hailed by the anarchists and other ideologists of the assembly form for their non-hierarchical form of decision-making. They see what they want to see. The genuine desire for mutual self-determination latches onto a form of organising which is certainly necessary in many circumstances but which usually doesn’t go far enough in its refusal of external authority. It ignores the fact that the assembly form has, throughout history, been more than just occasionally compatible with capitalist progress…. self- management of local production and distribution was carried out by collective ‘non-hierarchical’ decision-making but within an externally-defined framework … the logic and practical form of “democracy” allows people to be manipulated – it’s mostly based on the resignation of individuals to the limit of externally defined notions of acceptability, to what everyone else says and does. Usually it involves resignation to those who specialise in taking the initiative and to the experts who can put their nebulous feelings into words. The experts in making speeches only express the lowest common denominator of the mass of individuals at the assembly: the different nuances of autonomous self-expression in struggle never get a word in. Especially because of the fear of being ostracised or made fun of, of being humiliated for daring to criticise those who command hierarchical respect. Manipulation falls on the fertile ground of everyone’s anxiety of being “incorrect”, of making their own mistakes; it falls on the fertile ground of the gang mentality, the corruption of the desire for community.
However, the critique of the assembly form can go too much the other way, dismissing mass decision-making in favour of the ‘clarity’ of the communist minority. This is the typical line of the Bordigists, for example. That Bordiga, apparently till the end of his life, supported the crushing of the Kronstadt commune is illustrative of how intellectual, abstract and elitist this notion of the ‘correct’ minority is. Whilst every struggle may have a minority of people who are clearer about the necessary aims of the movement these perspectives have to be argued openly, and a movement should be judged on its practical progress towards these aims, a process over time, not on its failure to spontaneously launch an assault on the totality of commodity relations from the moment of the insurrection, a magical absolutist fantasy that has little practical meaning: an ideology of conversion to an ahistorical truth. Conveniently, the critique of this ‘totality’ of commodity relations that this intellectual perspective involves excludes a critique of the specialists in consciousness. So much for an assault on the totality. Moreover, it’s just as destructive of subversive initiative to submit to the dictatorship of the minority as it is to submit to the dictatorship of the majority. “
ii SF note : «On est là, on est là ! Même si Macron ne le veut pas, nous on est là ! Pour l’honneur des travailleurs et pour un monde meilleur ! Même si Macron ne le veut pas, nous on est là ! » – a detournement of a Marseilles football chant. Translation : « We are here, we are here – even if Macron doesn’t want it we are here ! For the honour of the workers and for a better world, even if Macron doesn’t want it we are here !»
iii SF note :”Down with the State, the cops and the bourgeois”.
iv SF note: The other day in Montpellier (where the captain of police committed suicide on April 18th), there was a trial of some people I know a bit – arrested for shouting a version of this slogan (“A cop who commits suicide is half-forgiven”), and charged with the crime of ‘outrage’. In the cells, in the face of their silence, the cops threatened to kill them, but most of them refused to say a word. The prosecution originallly called for the maximum sentence of 2 years in prison, and then at the actual trial called for a suspended sentence of 8 months imprisonment and a 1500 euro fine. Strangely, although the prosecution referred to a video of them chanting this no video was shown to the court or in private to the defence. The prosecution is probably a result of a government decision to crack down on this slogan (and, perhaps even these specific people), a slogan that pre-exists the ‘yellow vest’ movement, since when there’s been a large rise in cop suicides (last figures I have are from 19th April, and are only for this year – 28 cops killed themselves, twice the amount for the same period in 2018 ; the previous high for cop suicides was 1996 when 70 suicides were recorded for the whole year). They were given a guilty verdict on July 4th and were each given a 3 month suspended prison sentence and a 1300 euro fine.
v SF note : A cynical re-write of the ‘yellow vest’ chant – “I am here, I am here – I’m very well-paid to be here”
vi Author’s note : “Tourism – human circulation packaged for consumption, a by-product of the circulation of commodities – is the opportunity to go and see what has been banalized. The economic organization of travel to different places already guarantees their equivalence.” Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (1967), Chapter 7: Territorial Management, trans. by Ken Knabb.