Merv Bendall, in The Australian, 11 August 2011
THE media coverage of the British riots and the political response reveals an inexcusable incomprehension of the internal forces that are destroying Western societies. It would be laughable, if it weren’t so serious, to hear the cliches about poverty, racism, police victimisation and budget cuts cited as the causes of this violence and criminality, as if this narrative of oppression explains or excuses the wilful self-destruction of these urban communities. The dismissal of the rioters and looters as criminals is also lazy and short-sighted. Such violence is increasingly common in Western societies as their social structure slowly disintegrates. And it particularly reflects the volatile situation that exists among the urban underclass in large cities that have suffered de-industrialisation in the past 50 years and now house various marginalised and alienated communities of unemployed people of various ethnicities, many of whom survive on welfare and come from families that have not been in the mainstream workforce for generations. This situation has occurred also because of a failure of governance in Western societies, illustrated above all by the impotence of the police and the legal system, as most of those apprehended will escape with minor if any penalties. However, these riots and their rapid escalation are not spontaneous but reflect the co-ordinated efforts of self-styled revolutionary groups determined to incite and escalate outbreaks into urban insurrections. Central to this strategy is the rapid mobilisation of agents provocateurs such as the Black Bloc cadre, with their dark clothing, hoodies, ski masks, scarfs and helmets, who appear rapidly at such incidents to initiate violence and property destruction. The police and media are only now noticing their highly co-ordinated activities inBritain, despite their high profile in demonstrations against globalisation.
At this stage, these groups don’t aspire to lead a revolution, but the riots serve two functions. First, they confirm their radical theoretical analysis of Western society, which makes the urban underclass central to their revolutionary strategy. Second, the riots are seen as playing a vital role in the radicalisation and empowerment of this underclass, which learns how to organise and that it has little to fear from the police or the state.
Western society is doomed, rotting from within, according to such groups and the post-Marxist revolutionary theory that is pervasive on the radical Left, especially within the anarchist, anti-globalisation and radical environmental movements. According to this perspective, the squalor and alienation of the urban underclass constitutes a “pre-revolutionary condition” that can be exploited by an organised revolutionary elite to mobilise a mass uprising.
A representative manifesto of this militant tendency, The Coming Insurrection, attributed mysteriously to “The Invisible Committee”, was published in French in 2007 and in English in 2009.
The Invisible Committee sees itself as a successor to ultra-left terrorist groups of the 1970s and 80s, including the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the Weathermen and the Red Brigades.
The Coming Insurrection sees Western civilisation in apocalyptic terms. The West is “clinically dead [and] kept alive [only] by all sorts of life-support machines that spread a peculiar plague into the planet’s atmosphere”. Consequently, “what we’re facing is not the crisis of a society but the extinction of a civilisation . . . its clinical death”. What is required is “to decide for the death of civilisation, then to work out how it will happen”. All that is needed is the “decision that will rid us of the corpse”, and that decision is to join the coming insurrection and launch direct action against the system.
The book identifies components of a rapidly emerging revolutionary situation in Western societies: the global financial crisis and high-profile crimes and scandals associated with the rich and powerful; climate change and escalating environmental destruction; the alienation of youth, the failure of the educational system and widespread unemployment; political corruption, incompetence and inertia; urban degradation, irreversible demographic changes, anti-migration sentiment and ethnic conflict; the accelerating collapse of the welfare state; and spreading social chaos in many countries. It sees these factors as components of a systemic crisis that will overwhelm liberal democracies. Central to this insurrection will be an alienated generation that “has known nothing but economic, financial, social and ecological crisis”.
“Everyone agrees,” it begins, “it’s about to explode.” Suitably led, this force will exploit “the truly revolutionary potentiality of the present” to implement “a new idea of communism”, conceived as “the matrix of a meticulous, audacious assault on domination”, led by alienated youth, marginalised groups such as European Muslims and the radicalised underclass. In the face of this revolt, “the future has no future”.
The front line will be the metropolis, “one of the most vulnerable human arrangements that has ever existed” and susceptible to a “brutal shutting down of borders . . . a sudden interruption of supply lines [and] organised blockades of the axes of communication”, so that “the whole facade crumbles [as it] can no longer mask the scenes of carnage haunting it from morning to night”.
The Coming Insurrection and others like it showcase the tradition of radical extremism shaped by prominent post-Marxist theorists such as Michel Foucault and Antonio Negri, who was imprisoned on serious terrorism charges but still was allowed to publish a series of radical diatribes against the West — Empire (2000), Multitude (2004) and Commonwealth (2009) — all extremely influential in radical circles and academe.
According to these books, theUSis at the top of a global capitalist “Empire”, assisted by NATO, the G8, International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organisation and similar agents of oppression and exploitation. Beneath them is the economic oligarchy of multinational corporations and subservient nation-states such asBritainorAustralia. All of these are targets of direct action, sabotage, terrorism and so on, along the lines detailed in The Coming Insurrection. The objective is to achieve “true democracy” as exemplified by the UN and international non-governmental agencies such as Greenpeace, parliamentary democracy being a sham that perpetuates capitalism.
The British riots provide fertile ground for the promotion of this ideology and we are making a great mistake if we ignore the role played by these highly motivated militant groups.
Merv Bendle is senior lecturer in history and communications at James Cook University.