The Ecopsychology Issue

The Coming Insurrection

The last-ditch efforts of the dispossessed.
Photo by John Kolesidis / Reuters
Photo by John Kolesidis / Reuters

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.

72 comments on the article “The Coming Insurrection”

Displaying 31 - 40 of 72

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ken vallario

your opinions are quite strong, you are passionate, but to be frank, you lack a nuanced understanding of the fields you are referring to...most likely you cannot cite studies that 'indicate' the claims you are making. the idealization of 'primitive' man is also a simplistic way of looking an equally diverse set of human manifestations, some of which were brutally violent. my point is, we don't have to have a definitive answer to keep open the idea that human beings exist in nature, are prescribed by certain natural preconditions, and therefore exhibit a nature all their own. to this nature philosophy, ethics, religion all work to sculpt or understand or seek to liberate us from that nature, all to varying degrees of success or failure, depending on your relative viewpoint, your opinion. as to the final conclusion, it does seem in our nature to keep talking about it, about us..you know, monkeys...who love to sex, drugs and rock and roll....

ken vallario

your opinions are quite strong, you are passionate, but to be frank, you lack a nuanced understanding of the fields you are referring to...most likely you cannot cite studies that 'indicate' the claims you are making. the idealization of 'primitive' man is also a simplistic way of looking an equally diverse set of human manifestations, some of which were brutally violent. my point is, we don't have to have a definitive answer to keep open the idea that human beings exist in nature, are prescribed by certain natural preconditions, and therefore exhibit a nature all their own. to this nature philosophy, ethics, religion all work to sculpt or understand or seek to liberate us from that nature, all to varying degrees of success or failure, depending on your relative viewpoint, your opinion. as to the final conclusion, it does seem in our nature to keep talking about it, about us..you know, monkeys...who love to sex, drugs and rock and roll....

friends of Aris...

fair enough i'll admit to making errors, its been a while since I opened the books from uni. I simplified things for the sake of not going into the varying schools of thought on human behavior vs nature that could take ages especially on a message board. I wouldn't want to idealize primitive man, and I accept some of those societies were violent for vary reasons. I'll go back to doing my own research so I don't have opinions but facts which lends to the pursuit of the truth. Til next time

friends of Aris...

fair enough i'll admit to making errors, its been a while since I opened the books from uni. I simplified things for the sake of not going into the varying schools of thought on human behavior vs nature that could take ages especially on a message board. I wouldn't want to idealize primitive man, and I accept some of those societies were violent for vary reasons. I'll go back to doing my own research so I don't have opinions but facts which lends to the pursuit of the truth. Til next time

Mustard Tiger

I agree friend... after all these years of theorizing and elaboration and cross-cultural studies why don't we have this supposed nature down to a science? All we can really do is look back and say "why the f*k did that happen?" and that is exactly what Cooper is doing. The fact that babies are programmed by evolution to learn language is irrefutable but to say there is some deeply embedded "nature" in our subconscious that informs our everyday decisions and structures our social world seems silly at best and is not supported by any social science. Even if there is a primitive nature embedded somewhere, it has been demonstrated that human behaviour is very unpredictable. There are other social forces that are far more powerful such as nationalism and religion. Find all the neural pathways you want but it doesn't mean dick in explaining socio-cultural behavior.

I think it's the people who say "It's human nature... can't change it" when faced with a problem who are truly blinkered and are looking for an easy way out.

Also while youth have the unfortunate combination of unapologetic lethargy and idealism, I think we are really the ones who bring new ideas and new votes. If everyone was born an adult, the cultural evolution process would be even slower. Imagine that! Another millenium of dog-eared capitalism!

Mustard Tiger

I agree friend... after all these years of theorizing and elaboration and cross-cultural studies why don't we have this supposed nature down to a science? All we can really do is look back and say "why the f*k did that happen?" and that is exactly what Cooper is doing. The fact that babies are programmed by evolution to learn language is irrefutable but to say there is some deeply embedded "nature" in our subconscious that informs our everyday decisions and structures our social world seems silly at best and is not supported by any social science. Even if there is a primitive nature embedded somewhere, it has been demonstrated that human behaviour is very unpredictable. There are other social forces that are far more powerful such as nationalism and religion. Find all the neural pathways you want but it doesn't mean dick in explaining socio-cultural behavior.

I think it's the people who say "It's human nature... can't change it" when faced with a problem who are truly blinkered and are looking for an easy way out.

Also while youth have the unfortunate combination of unapologetic lethargy and idealism, I think we are really the ones who bring new ideas and new votes. If everyone was born an adult, the cultural evolution process would be even slower. Imagine that! Another millenium of dog-eared capitalism!

ken vallario

yo tiger ROAR!!!
you are misinterpreting the idea of human nature...it does not imply that there is no choice, that there is no variety, or even that it is unchanging. human nature is a way of referring to 'TENDENCIES'...all animals have tendencies...tigers like to roar and eat gazelles...they can be changed to live in zoos and eat steak...fish usually like the water...and humans, well we like to make religions and vote for american idols and shoot each other, and sometimes stand up against injustice....my point is, we are complex, complicated, but that does not mean we do not have a point of deep and undeniable connection to our natural state...in fact, i think the coming sustainability era will be a lot about coming to terms with Nature (big N), and how we relate to our bodies, as opposed to our minds (ideology)...as i also believe our emotions are more rooted in our bodies, and therefore the necessary emotional intelligence will come as we rebalance with our hearts...don't give up on human nature just because its hard...

ken vallario

yo tiger ROAR!!!
you are misinterpreting the idea of human nature...it does not imply that there is no choice, that there is no variety, or even that it is unchanging. human nature is a way of referring to 'TENDENCIES'...all animals have tendencies...tigers like to roar and eat gazelles...they can be changed to live in zoos and eat steak...fish usually like the water...and humans, well we like to make religions and vote for american idols and shoot each other, and sometimes stand up against injustice....my point is, we are complex, complicated, but that does not mean we do not have a point of deep and undeniable connection to our natural state...in fact, i think the coming sustainability era will be a lot about coming to terms with Nature (big N), and how we relate to our bodies, as opposed to our minds (ideology)...as i also believe our emotions are more rooted in our bodies, and therefore the necessary emotional intelligence will come as we rebalance with our hearts...don't give up on human nature just because its hard...

Mustard Tiger

That's a really interesting take... I haven't thought about it that way. I really like the whole reintegration with Nature idea and as undeveloped as it is I hold great hope for it as well. But how will this work exactly? Will technology not always lead to further exploitation of nature? Will this new era not also be a social system? So many questions. I still think 'human nature' in traditional conceptions does imply something unchangeable and that gives the wrong idea to a lot of people. Your examples of human 'tendencies' are all social ones and are products of or part of (as in religion) a social system. Leave a child alone in a dark closet and they won't do any of these things. Perhaps a better term for your conception is human's natural state... bringing society down to a more natural scale.

Governments and other institutions are compelled to reinforce the status quo and they are constantly (explicitly or not) chiseling and reinforcing the social system to their liking. Those who go outside these norms in some respects escape the system of cultural reproduction. For us, the flow of ideas is not only top down! Lets continue our dissidence and work towards a new horizon of integration as you say! Cheers,

Mustard Tiger

That's a really interesting take... I haven't thought about it that way. I really like the whole reintegration with Nature idea and as undeveloped as it is I hold great hope for it as well. But how will this work exactly? Will technology not always lead to further exploitation of nature? Will this new era not also be a social system? So many questions. I still think 'human nature' in traditional conceptions does imply something unchangeable and that gives the wrong idea to a lot of people. Your examples of human 'tendencies' are all social ones and are products of or part of (as in religion) a social system. Leave a child alone in a dark closet and they won't do any of these things. Perhaps a better term for your conception is human's natural state... bringing society down to a more natural scale.

Governments and other institutions are compelled to reinforce the status quo and they are constantly (explicitly or not) chiseling and reinforcing the social system to their liking. Those who go outside these norms in some respects escape the system of cultural reproduction. For us, the flow of ideas is not only top down! Lets continue our dissidence and work towards a new horizon of integration as you say! Cheers,

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