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01/12/2010

Elitist revolutionary strutting

"The Coming Insurrection" was greeted by two of Germany's leading feuilletons as exhiliarating, important left-wing theory. But it is an anti-modern, right-wing re-import, says Johannes Thumfart

This article, which is a response to the enthusiastic reviews in the FAZ and SZ feuilletons of the French manifesto, in turn prompted those papers to defend themselves in round three. More about that here.

When "The Coming Insurrection" (here in English) was published anonymously in France the state authorities came down hard on its presumed authors. Based on the theories of the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, the manifesto calls for political violence and fulminates against democracy and the rule of law.

Now that pamphlet, which kicked up quite a fuss in France and the US, has finally been translated into German, it is now being talked about here. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the Süddeutsche Zeitung gave it surprisingly glowing reviews. The radical text initially attracted the attention of the middle-class press because of the central role it played in a legal scandal. It was the main reason why a commune in the French village of Tarnac was put under police surveillance in 2008. The group was suspected of having sabotaged TGV lines and several of its members spent several months in jail, among them the independend scholar Julien Coupat, the head of the collective. The allegations proved unfounded. And yet on 22 October 2010 a court of appeal overturned the request to suspend the inquiry, on the suspicion that the alleged authors of "The Coming Insurrection" were likely to carry out terrorist attacks in the future.

A quick flick through the book suffices to see that the approach taken by the French authorities was a scandalous breach of justice but, with respect to the book's contents, one that was not entirely unjustified. The pamphlet contains an explicit call for political acts of violence to 'liberate territory from police occupation'. Democracy is the declared enemy. The post-war era is tersely summed up as 'sixty years of pacification, sixty years of democratic anaesthesia' and anyone who insists on 'the democratic character of decision making' is a 'fanatic of process'. The bit about 'bourgeois parliaments' engaging in nothing but pointless 'palaver' immediately calls to mind the Weimar Republic when extremists on the left and right described the Reichstag as a 'schwatzbude' or chattering-shop.

The authors summon up Carl Schmitt, the "crown jurist" of the Third Reich, and his ideas on the "state of emergency", "partisans" and the concept of the political. Another influence is the philosopher whose ideas served the Nazis so well, Martin Heidegger. Heidegger’s resentment of technology and modernity exert a particularly strong influence on the book. This emerges in the idea of Vernutzung, of "using up" resources, as well as in complaints about the supposed lack of human intimacy in our high-tech world.

With sources like these, even women's magazines, gyms and Smart cars become targets. Even the most harmless expressions of the present day are interpreted by the authors as signs of an all-prevailing "imperialism of relativism", and in the manner of right-wing conservatives, blamed for the "destruction of all roots". The only thing that is new about this patchwork nonsense is that the feuilletons are applauding. FAZ and SZ gave such positive reviews of the pamphlet that one Berlin bookshop felt obliged to send out an ironic circular mail saying that the leading German dailies were now actively calling for terrorism.

In his article in the FAZ, Nils Minkmar celebrates the antidemocratic manifesto as a "brilliantly penned diagnosis of our time" and speculates that it will become "the most important left-wing theory book of the age". Of course the most questionable part of this statement is whether this a leftist book at all. But the FAZ author was particularly impressed by the anti-modern sentiments it contained. Towards the end, though, he does admit that the "black SUVs" that will follow on the heels of the state's destruction will no doubt be worse that what we have now.

In the SZ, Alex Rühle goes further still. The journalist who wrote a book about his half a year spent offline, eagerly and almost unquestioningly laps up the book's "darkly revolutionary fury", its "aura of clear-sightedness" and its "heroic melancholia". It is the "refusal to participate" that appeals to him. He sums up the pamphlet as "a white paper for survival in tumultuous times". And it is not only here that it allows himself to get carried away: "The system," he writes, "is everywhere, like a gas that has permeated every last crack in our private lives."
The strange thing about this gas metaphor is that it is not marked as a quotation and does not originate from the text in either the French or German version. These are the words used by the critic – a German journalist – to describe the global, democratic, economic complex against which the pamphlet rages. The gas metaphor goes a step too far, though, even by the paranoid standards of the pamphlet.

Anyone who allows himself to get this carried away like this is overlooking the fact that the ideas expressed in "The Coming Insurrection" could have a somewhat different meaning in France than in Germany. This side of the Rhine, resentment against internationalism, democracy and technology is a solid component of post-war revisionism. The text is a form of re-import. Much of it stems directly - not from Houellebecq - as Rühle and Minkmar blindly copy from the France correspondent of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, but from the Nazi-tainted theorists Heidegger and Carl Schmitt.

These influences are also present through their most zealous imitator, Giorgio Agamben, in the explicit reference to his book "The Coming Community". Agamben and the two Germans are held in unquestioning veneration as father figures in the world of coming insurrections.

In this intellectual milieu it is commonplace to interpret the everyday life, and especially the everyday technological life of western democracy as totalitarian; it is the principle rhetorical device of this text and one to which the SZ article unwittingly alludes. In 1948 Heidegger raged: "Agriculture is now a motorized food industry, the same thing in its essence as the production of corpses in the gas chambers and the extermination camps." And in 1995, the Heidegger student Agamben wrote in his magnum opus "Homo sacer": "In modern democracies it is possible to state in public what Nazi biopoliticians did not dare to say. " With the help of Carl Schmitt's theories on the "state of emergency" and Foucault's concept of biopolitics, he places human rights and race laws, intensive care units and concentration camps on a par.

It is not only Agamben's friendship with Julian Coupat, the likely author of "The Coming Insurrection" that locates it within this school of thought. The book is a practical – and alarmingly naive – translation of Agamben's theories. The way to combat the so-called "normalisation of life" in modern societies, is to seek out invigorating salvation in a "state of emergency", a far cry from democracy, rule of law and the market economy – this idea of a better age minus all coordinates of the present day comes from Schmitt and Heidegger, as does the search for hidden totalitarianism within democracy. The latter was a strategical necessity for both Nazi theorists, in order retroactively to relativise their collaboration. No one can seriously claim these are "left-wing" ideas. There is no mention in the book of social justice, of the democratisation of technology or human rights. It is much more about following supposedly auratic philosophical leaders in their hatred of the present, a time when no one is impressed anymore by Ancient Greek quotations or thinking poses.

We must thank the translators of the book. Like a litmus test its unfortunate reception has revealed a number of uncomfortable truths that have been bubbling away beneath the surface in these times of burgeoning social genetics and German chauvinism. Late Weimar decadence is socially acceptable. Among German elites, it is popular to entertain resentments against democracy and modernity, even if they come in hand with political violence. Are there not enough solid democrats with a decent knowledge of history among their ranks?

And the book is also a shining example of the uncritical Francophilia of the so-called postmodern Left. And this enters particularly dodgy territory when re-imports of Schmitt and Heidegger are involved – what Brunello is to the Tuscany crowd, hollow revolutionary gestures are to the Deleuze dandies – peppered with dark brown quotations if need be.

This form of elitist revolutionary strutting is the best way to undermine the ongoing fight to emancipate the citizens from the elites. Anyone who genuinely wishes them good luck should keep their distance from antidemocratic resentments and renew their vows to the objectives of 1776 and 1789 which constantly need updating. Political theology is better left to the elitist clientele where it obviously still goes down a treat.

*

This article originally appeared in die taz on 23 November, 2010.
Johannes Thumfart, born 1978, writes for die Zeit, taz, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Lodown Magazine, De:Bug and Jungle World. His 2009 doctoral thesis on legal philosophy is due to be published in book form soon.
Translation: lp

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