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 41 - 50 of 72

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Voltaire

One thing to do if we are interested in human nature, is to de-mythologize it. The way to do this is to begin pinpointing empirical correlates to certain behavioral expressions. A good example that will illustrate my point is sociopathy. The world has sociopaths. It is a certain well-defined psychotype (narcissism, disregard for others, calculating self-interest, lack of empathy, etc) and we have known quite about about the neural and genetic correlates of sociopathy for some time.

How many world leaders, do you estimate, were sociopaths in human history? (This is just to illustrate the kind of connections one can make between social structure and a well-defined human nature). Interesting work on reciprocal altruism, called evolutionary game theory illuminates a phenomenon where "cheater" in a social network manage to carve out a parasitic niche for themselves by taking advantage of "suckers", organisms that will respond altruistically in every situation without expecting a return.

Mightn't sociopathy have evolved (been naturally selected) since it conferred differential reproductive benefits on the organisms who posses the traits? In which case, the genetic combination most likely to confer sociopathy might have a selective benefit (recall that natural=/= morally good).

These are the type of empirically substantive connections I mean to make when I talk about human nature. The term can have variable meanings, but not all of them are as well-defined as the one I reference (the goal here is scientific explanation, not exactly social pragmatics. Knowledge can be useful, but it can also just be knowledge).

I would point to many books written about evolutionary psychology, especially the book On Human Nature by E.O. Wilson. This is a beautifully written and enlightening take on human nature of the kind I think is scientifically studiable.

Voltaire

One thing to do if we are interested in human nature, is to de-mythologize it. The way to do this is to begin pinpointing empirical correlates to certain behavioral expressions. A good example that will illustrate my point is sociopathy. The world has sociopaths. It is a certain well-defined psychotype (narcissism, disregard for others, calculating self-interest, lack of empathy, etc) and we have known quite about about the neural and genetic correlates of sociopathy for some time.

How many world leaders, do you estimate, were sociopaths in human history? (This is just to illustrate the kind of connections one can make between social structure and a well-defined human nature). Interesting work on reciprocal altruism, called evolutionary game theory illuminates a phenomenon where "cheater" in a social network manage to carve out a parasitic niche for themselves by taking advantage of "suckers", organisms that will respond altruistically in every situation without expecting a return.

Mightn't sociopathy have evolved (been naturally selected) since it conferred differential reproductive benefits on the organisms who posses the traits? In which case, the genetic combination most likely to confer sociopathy might have a selective benefit (recall that natural=/= morally good).

These are the type of empirically substantive connections I mean to make when I talk about human nature. The term can have variable meanings, but not all of them are as well-defined as the one I reference (the goal here is scientific explanation, not exactly social pragmatics. Knowledge can be useful, but it can also just be knowledge).

I would point to many books written about evolutionary psychology, especially the book On Human Nature by E.O. Wilson. This is a beautifully written and enlightening take on human nature of the kind I think is scientifically studiable.

mike russell

Beautiful response, as I'm about to get mugged. You're right, you're right! Without the angst of youth where would the energy to evolve come from?

Human's are animals, we have instincts. All life must reproduce, categorical imperative. It is our nature to compete, we evolved quickly via war. War is our nature. But humans aren't just animals. We have reason.

We reach the end of the rope. Nukes make war obsolete. Capitalism is just the redistribution of wealth from the many to the few. Creates efficiency, but eats everything. The problem is not the unjust system alone, its that we, the species, don't know WHY.

Language. Dolphins have language. Elephants have language. Ants have language. Dogs have Language. Language is not special, not really. But reason is.

Reason negates instinct, it can. Reason creates meaning. The purpose of life was reproduction, not any more, now the purpose is to find purpose.

Add imagination. Create a future worthy of human life.
Love you all.

mike russell

Beautiful response, as I'm about to get mugged. You're right, you're right! Without the angst of youth where would the energy to evolve come from?

Human's are animals, we have instincts. All life must reproduce, categorical imperative. It is our nature to compete, we evolved quickly via war. War is our nature. But humans aren't just animals. We have reason.

We reach the end of the rope. Nukes make war obsolete. Capitalism is just the redistribution of wealth from the many to the few. Creates efficiency, but eats everything. The problem is not the unjust system alone, its that we, the species, don't know WHY.

Language. Dolphins have language. Elephants have language. Ants have language. Dogs have Language. Language is not special, not really. But reason is.

Reason negates instinct, it can. Reason creates meaning. The purpose of life was reproduction, not any more, now the purpose is to find purpose.

Add imagination. Create a future worthy of human life.
Love you all.

Voltaire

Well, if that is so, why do we all use language? Go through puberty? Have sexual desires, smile when we're happy, get embarrassed, and so on? Do you mean to imply this is all conditioned by culture? Have you ever studied the genome? What is the brain to you, a blank slate? Neuroscientists already know, to a moral certainty, that the brain is not a blank slate. Babies babble because they are genetically programed to acquire language.

If humans did not have a nature--a behavioral regularity carved into our nervous systems partly due to our genome, we would be no smarter than worms and no good at surviving either.

Your claims fly in the face of vast amounts of data, collected over the past one-hundred plus years. Your claims contradict every biological fact we have discovered about the functioning of organisms--including man.

Voltaire

Well, if that is so, why do we all use language? Go through puberty? Have sexual desires, smile when we're happy, get embarrassed, and so on? Do you mean to imply this is all conditioned by culture? Have you ever studied the genome? What is the brain to you, a blank slate? Neuroscientists already know, to a moral certainty, that the brain is not a blank slate. Babies babble because they are genetically programed to acquire language.

If humans did not have a nature--a behavioral regularity carved into our nervous systems partly due to our genome, we would be no smarter than worms and no good at surviving either.

Your claims fly in the face of vast amounts of data, collected over the past one-hundred plus years. Your claims contradict every biological fact we have discovered about the functioning of organisms--including man.

Anonymous

I've lived in Berlin for 5 years and this article is complete and utter nonesense. It makes it look as if a horrible uprising is taking place. If anything the most annoying thing about living in Berlin is the drunken brits roaming the streets at night. The only thing that happens in this city when neighborhoods are gentrified is the punks slowly move away and make as different neighborhood smell of dog piss and political discontent. Oh sure, when there is a demo with 6000 people protesting things like tuition hikes in colleges there are invariably a few idiots who throw bottles or make a lot of noise but most of them are merely driven to make a stand against their neighborhoods being made into trendy tourist traps.

Calling this city violent is compared to any other city with 3-4 million(depending on the tourist population) people in it is beyond laughable. This is the safest place I have EVER lived and the punks rarely do anything but yell at people. Fights are extremely rare.

The coming insurrection? Really? I don't know where you get your information but you've clearly not spent enough time here to understand the nature of the protests here.

Anonymous

I've lived in Berlin for 5 years and this article is complete and utter nonesense. It makes it look as if a horrible uprising is taking place. If anything the most annoying thing about living in Berlin is the drunken brits roaming the streets at night. The only thing that happens in this city when neighborhoods are gentrified is the punks slowly move away and make as different neighborhood smell of dog piss and political discontent. Oh sure, when there is a demo with 6000 people protesting things like tuition hikes in colleges there are invariably a few idiots who throw bottles or make a lot of noise but most of them are merely driven to make a stand against their neighborhoods being made into trendy tourist traps.

Calling this city violent is compared to any other city with 3-4 million(depending on the tourist population) people in it is beyond laughable. This is the safest place I have EVER lived and the punks rarely do anything but yell at people. Fights are extremely rare.

The coming insurrection? Really? I don't know where you get your information but you've clearly not spent enough time here to understand the nature of the protests here.

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