By night Berlin has become a battlefield. Each morning reveals new casualties: burned out cars. There have been over 500 in the past three years. These nocturnal arson attacks are part of a protracted campaign of resistance to the city’s increasing gentrification, retaliatory strikes against the loss of areas of the city that have long fostered alternative culture and anticapitalist activity. As more and more residents are priced out of their own neighborhoods, such acts of sabotage have become the last-ditch efforts of the dispossessed.
These are certainly desperate measures, but we live in desperate times. We might ask whether cars are legitimate targets. Is there not something uncomfortable in the ethics of destroying the property of individuals, especially in such an environmentally careless manner? Would such violence be more productively focused on state or corporate targets? Perhaps, but this campaign has abandoned the unwinnable battle for public approval. An anonymous website, Brennende-autos.de, mockingly offers epitaphs for the sacrificed vehicles: “05.03.2010 – Fließstraße – Mercedes.” And there remains a powerful symbolic value to the burning car. We can sense that something is being said beyond the immediate context, beyond the localized struggle. So, what do these fires really illuminate?
We might first try to imagine the perpetrators, the arsonists, as they retreat into the night. Individuals have been arrested but the campaign has continued unabated, demonstrating that the arsonists are legion … they are many. Emerging from the city’s prominent autonomist movement, they form what we might call an invisible community: a network of loosely affiliated individuals who have refused both communication and accountability with the state. To comprehend their actions, we might think back to the lesson of The Coming Insurrection: We are right to be angry, we are even right to act upon that anger, but the important thing is to organize our anger. As the Invisible Committee put it, “People can burn cars because they are pissed off, but to keep the riots going for a month, while keeping the police in check – to do that you have to know how to organize, you have to establish complicities, you have to know the terrain perfectly and share a common language and a common enemy.” In the arson campaign’s dogged persistence, in its wildcat spread and in its unapologetic assault on liberal values, we can recognize a well-formulated and well-organized transformation of spontaneous rejection into tactical resistance. We see, in short, the work of a community.
Yet we must be clear that this is a community in and of revolt and that this revolt is not limited to the situation in Berlin. These fires are fueled by broader social conditions, the same conditions that have also recently catalyzed unrest in Paris and Greece. The Situationists made the same observation in their analysis of the Watts Riots of 1965, The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy. The Situationists argued that those riots were not just race riots or class riots but that they represented a revolt against the commodity itself. “Comfort will never be comfortable enough for those who seek what is not on the market.” Then in Watts and now in Berlin, looters and vandals engage in an unfettered festival of destruction. This violent rejection of everything we are sold is a phenomenon that recurs whenever the veil of consumer capitalism slips.
In the burning cars of Berlin we see the anguish and the anger of a community whose only presence is fire. But just as there is no smoke without fire, there is no fire without fuel. Instead of shielding our eyes from the glaring violence, we should anticipate the moment when this destructive impulse becomes a constructive principle and what has been invisible becomes manifest.
Meanwhile in Greece, violence on the streets only escalates. Protests that were once directed against police brutality now direct themselves against the state itself. Instead of retreating from the violence witnessed over the past year, increasing numbers of workers are joining demonstrations that contest the actions of their government and specifically the introduction of austerity measures intended to contain the national debt. The protesters rightly oppose that those most vulnerable should have to suffer further just to maintain the system that made them vulnerable in the first place. Capitalism is broken: It needs to be replaced rather than simply patched up. Britain and America have already bailed out their bankers, but the Greeks are refusing to forgive and forget.
Sam Cooper is working toward a PhD at the University of Sussex. His research focuses on the adoption of Situationist theory in Britain.