John Jordan: ZAD and the Revenge of the Commons

Recently I posted a CrimethInc. piece on the recent acquittal, on most charges, of the Tarnac defendants in France, an unsuccessful attempt by the French state to criminalize anarchist activity as a form of terrorism. Around the same time as the Tarnac verdicts were issued, the French state launched an all out attack on the ZAD, near Nantes, a “zone to defend,” originally set up to prevent the construction of a large airport on agricultural land. The ZAD became an ecological autonomous zone, an attempt to reclaim the “commons” that has been under attack since before the spread of modern capitalism across the globe. The assault on the ZAD by about 2500 French police, which began on April 9, 2018, was set to resume this week. Here I present excerpts from John Jordan’s blog from the ZAD, briefly summarizing the ideological issues at play – neo-liberalism v. ecological community.

The Revenge of the Commons

[…] ex TV personality Nicolas Hulot, now Minister of Ecological Transition, in charge of the zad case since Marcron’s election… is flown in specially to Nantes in the presidential jet. Following the meeting with us, he gives a press conference in the palatial hall of the Prefecture. The government’s hard line is held, the rights of property and the market reign, there will be no global or collective contract for the land, we have to give individual names and land plots by the 23rd or face evictions. In a rhetorical floury he ends, “ecology is not anarchy.”

Not surprising for a man whose ‘ecology’ involves owning six cars, signing permits for oil exploration and supporting the nuclear dump at Bure. Hulot is simply the ‘eco’ mask for Macron’s “make the planet great again” form of authoritarian neoliberal green capitalism. But his statement shows Hulot’s absolute ignorance of the history of both ecological and anarchist thought. Many of the first theoreticians of ecological thinking, were anarchists. Élisée Reclus, world famous geographer and poet, whose beautiful idea that humans are simply “nature becoming aware of herself,” fought on the barricades of the 1871 Paris Commune. 19th century geographer Peter Kropotkin, spent many years in jail and exile for his politics, but was renowned in scientific circles as an early champion of the idea that evolution is not all a competitive war of “red tooth and claw” but instead involves a cooperation, what he termed Mutual Aid. From the 1950s onwards, US political philosopher Murray Bookchin (now best known for the influence he has on the Kurds to build a stateless form of Municipal Confederalism, taking place in the autonomous territory of Rojova – Northern Syria) brought ecology and anarchy together.

At the heart of his Social Ecology is the idea that humans dominate and destroy nature because we dominate ourselves. To avert ecological collapse we had to get rid of all hierarchies – man over woman, old over young, white over black, rich over poor. According to Bookchin, our greatest lesson to gain from the natural world was that we had let go of the idea of difference, and reclaim the concept held by many small scale organic societies, of unity in diversity. Diversity being the basic force of all bio-systems. He envisioned a world that would be neither communist nor capitalist, but what he called “Communalist”. “The effort to restore the ecological principle of unity in diversity,”  he wrote, “has become a social effort in its own right – a revolutionary effort that must rearrange sensibility in order to rearrange the real world.” For him the question of society, to reframe Rosa Luxembourg’s: “Socialism or barbarism” – was: “Anarchism or extinction.”

When we truly inhabit an eco system it becomes obvious that life has no control centre, no heirachy, no chiefs or bosses, no governments or presidents. Every form of life is a self organising form of commons – deeply connected and interdependent, always changing, always embedded and entangled – from the cells in your fingers to worms in your the garden, from the trees in the forest of Rohanne to the bacteria in your gut. As biologist and cultural theorist Andreas Weber says, all life forms “are continuously mediating relationships among each other – relationships that have a material side, but also always embody meaning, a sense of living and the notion of belonging to a place.” The more we observe the living world in all its complexity the more we are able to understand how to become commoners, how to truly inhabit a place and see that the separation between the individual and the whole is a fiction.

Evictions in ZAD de Notre Dames de Landes, March 2018
The forest takes over the road (photo: Penelope Thomaidi )

“In the ecological commons” writes Weber “a multitude of different individuals and diverse species stand in various relationships to one another – competition and cooperation, partnership and predatory hostility, productivity and destruction. All those relations, however, follow one higher principle: Only behaviour that allows for the productivity of the whole ecosystem over the long term and that does not interrupt its capacities of self-production, will survive and expand. The individual is able to realise itself only if the whole can realise itself. Ecological freedom obeys this basic necessity.”

And so to be really free is not to be an individual able to operate free from constraints, but to be tied to beneficial relationships with people and habitats, relationships that feed you materially and psychologically. Without a tie to your food – you starve, without the tie to lovers – you sadden. We are free because we are linked. Freedom is not breaking our chains but turning them into living roots and veins that connect, share, flow together and enable us to change and evolve in common.

Since the abandonment of the Airport, changing together on the zad has been a very a painful process. On the zad often it is a fight between those of us who try to read the terrain and invent something new that is messy and hybrid yet fits the situation we are in and those of us who want to keep a pure radical position, more based on uprooted ideas and ideology than the complexity of the present moment, the here and now, the forces we hold and don’t. In 1968 Bookchin asked“When will we begin to learn from what is being born instead of what is dying?” It is a question still just as relevant today on the zad.

John Jordan, April 2018

Protesters react as they gather during the evacuation operation by French gendarmes in the zoned ZAD (Deferred Development Zone) at Notre-Dame-des-Landes, near Nantes, France, April 11, 2018. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

 

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CrimethInc: Unravelling the Logic of Anti-Terrorism

A group of alleged “anarcho-autonomist terrorists” in France was acquitted on April 12, 2018 of the most serious charges against them. Around the same time that the 10 year legal ordeal of the defendants was coming to an end, the French police mounted a full scale assault on the ZAD—the Zone a Défendre (Zone To Defend) against the construction of an airport near Nantes. From one struggle to another. Here I reproduce excerpts from a CrimethInc. piece reflecting on the Tarnac trial, “The Tarnac Verdict: Unravelling the Logic of Anti-Terrorism.”

Subverting the trial process

The Tarnac Verdict

In 2008, the state of France accused the Tarnac Ten of terrorism, charging that they had formed “a group of the ultraleft, of the autonomous type, maintaining links with international extremist movements.”1 After a decade-long ordeal, the remaining defendants received their final verdict on April 12, 2018.

All of the defendants were found not guilty of the charges of sabotage, rioting, and conspiracy; the terrorism charges had been dropped much earlier. Christophe Becker was sentenced to six months of probation for possession of fake IDs and a fine of 500 euros for refusal to give a DNA sample to the authorities. Julien Coupat and Yildune Lévy were also found guilty of refusing to give DNA, but face no sentence on account of the amount of time that has passed. Considering how many resources the French state had invested in this court case, this represented a massive victory for the defendants…

The original charge was essentially terrorist conspiracy—seeking “to severely disturb public order through intimidation or terror.” The alleged crime consisted of taking part in international meetings in Germany, the US, and Greece, inciting violence against police officers and destruction of property, and destroying train power lines. The anti-terrorist prosecutor was determined not to let the narrative of terrorism collapse, and presented appeal after appeal against the dropping of the terror charges. Eventually, the prosecution took the accusation of “terrorism” to the highest court of France, the court de cassation. In 2015, the court ruled that the charge of a “terrorist enterprise” was to be dropped, but that a criminal trial without the charge of “terrorist enhancement” would continue.

The accused of Tarnac were downgraded from terrorism defendants to an association de malfaiteurs, a charge introduced in 1894 for the express purpose of sending anarchists to jail in France for supporting direct action in newspapers such as l’Anarchie even if no other charges could be brought against them. Without the terrorism charge, the case was held together by the barest of threads. Gabrielle Hallez and Aria Thomas saw their charges completely dropped, reducing the Tarnac Ten to the Tarnac Eight.

Matthieu Burnel and Benjamin Rosoux were charged with refusing to give their DNA to the police. Manon Glibert and Christophe Becker faced charges for faking documents. Bertrand Deveaux and Elsa Hauck remained charged with association de malfaiteurs, but not on account of the sabotage, which everyone maintained they had nothing to do with. Rather, they were accused of participating in an anti-fascist demonstration against an EU summit on blocking immigration that was organized in Vichy—ironically, during the occupation, the seat of the collaborationist government that deported Jews and communists to Nazi death camps. Only Yildune Lévy and Julien Coupat retained the sabotage charges and the charges of being part of an association de malfaiteurs. Julien had been demoted from being the chief of a terrorist conspiracy to a mere animateur, dovetailing with his current job as part of a theater group.

The attempt to introduce the logic of anti-terrorism had failed. The French state had tried to use a massive media operation to convince the public that the “anarcho-autonomous” movement was a “pre-terrorist organization” in 2011, but they were defeated on their own territory. The Tarnac Ten withstood the pressure and managed to convince the vast majority of the French population that autonomy was not synonymous with terrorism.

At the same time, in the end, the prosecution was able to avail themselves of all the special resources reserved for pursuing terrorism cases to target what turned out to be a handful of perfectly ordinary activists. All the evidence gathered under the auspices of “fighting terrorism” was still admissible in the trial. The lead anti-terrorist prosecutor was still prosecuting the case, despite the merely criminal nature of the trial. Above all, the tremendous, debilitating repression reserved for terrorism cases was directed at paralyzing the defendants and their communities. This gives us a foretaste of what we can expect from the security apparatus in the future. We can see this process somewhat further along in Russia and Brazil.

The “Tarnac Process”

“Before the judges of the bourgeois class, the revolutionary does not have to account for his acts nor does he have to respect any so-called truth of theirs.”

-Victor Serge

In every court case, there are certain roles: the solemn judges, the defendants pleading guilty or innocent (but above all, pleading), and a well-paid supporting cast of parasites, from lawyers to journalists, who stand to profit from the case. The entire procedure requires everyone to play by the rules. Even denouncing the entire juridical procedure, as popularized by Algerian revolutionaries and illegalist anarchists,8 has become a formalized part of the procedure. But when the court case opened on March 13, 2018, it became clear that the defendants were not playing the game.

How might the accused avoid playing the game of the state? Perhaps, first, by treating all the members of the trial, including the prosecutor and the judge, as everyday people: laughing when they say something stupid, chiding them when they forget a key point, refusing to put them on a pedestal. The judge, irritated, demanded that the defendants either denounce the court or continue in a respectful manner: “You are free to adopt a defense of rupture,” she railed, “it’s your right. But if you don’t want this, you need to respect the court.” The Tarnac defendants refused either approach, discussing the facts of the case in detail but according the pomp and circumstance of the judicial sphere no respect. The proceedings resembled a decidedly more philosophical version of the Chicago Seven trial, with the defendants constantly interrupting the judge, the police, the lawyers, and each other.

Another way the defendants subverted the justice system was by neither denying the charges nor validating them. While the act of sabotage itself was clearly defensible as an anti-nuclear ecological measure and the French court attempted to suppress the fact that police had received a communiqué from German groups claiming responsibility for it, the defendants never denounced the action. Likewise, the prosecutor showed picture after picture of the accused at a demonstration in Vichy against the opponents of immigration, at which they were alleged to have brought ropes to pull down the fencing around the meeting. Finally, Christophe emerged and noted that it was ridiculous to question the defendants about a demonstration that had taken place ten years earlier, but asserted that he was proud to have participated in a demonstration for immigration. The entire court broke into applause. The defendants never recanted any of their actions but, one by one, gave reasons for them. Julien, for example, justified his illegal border crossing into the United States from Canada as a refusal of a fascist biometric system.

More importantly, the defendants never refused their cause. While the defendants proclaimed their support of the autonomous project of Tarnac in public, the police and intelligence officers hid their identities behind masks, referred to by numbers rather than names.

The judge attempted to go through the file in chronological order. She hastily pushed through the files on Mark Kennedy and the infamous trip of Julien and Yildune Lévy to New York City after Julien openly mocked FBI reports about a Network of Worldwide Anarchists (NWA). Even in France, NWA sounds like an acronym for a hip-hop band or wresting federation; the defendants took the opportunity to hold forth on the history of hip hop in the USA. Still, the judge refused to acknowledge the crucial role played by the intelligence of Mark Kennedy, seeking to avoid blaming the English spy for the initial frame of anti-terrorism.

As the trial continued, the question of the authorship of The Coming Insurrection came up again and again. The book states that,

“To sabotage the social machine with some consequence today means reconquering and reinventing the means of interrupting its networks. How could a TGV [high speed train] line or an electrical network be rendered useless?”

This quote was used as evidence to demonstrate conclusively that there was a plan to “paralyze” the city. While expressing agreement with the contents of the book, the defendants never admitted to authoring the text. Strangely, the charge of thoughtcrime premised on authorship of The Coming Insurrection had been the raison d’être for the terrorist charges. In the time since the charges had first been pressed, it had become one of the best-selling political books in France; legions of intellectuals, paranoid police officers, and journalists had agreed that the book was of high quality. The terrorism charges created a paradox for those who wished to see themselves as the defenders of society: if the authors were terrorists, was the popularity of the book a sign of popular support for terrorism?

… Mathieu Burnel, in his final statement, used the court as a platform to indict the state apparatus itself rather than submit to the judgment of the state. Julien took the stand and noted that it was indeed their privileged roles as intellectuals that saved them: “The peculiarity of this trial is that the judicial apparatus has come up against people who are prepared to defend themselves and determined not to let themselves be crushed. We are conscious of having had the chance to defend ourselves, of being able to speak, of having three weeks in which to do so. Since we’ve fought, we have benefited from certain privileges. Having spent a little time in prison, I would like to dedicate this trial to all those who haven’t had the means to defend themselves, who are not listened to and who are convicted in silence.” The court broke into a final applause for the alleged terrorists.

Anti-terrorism is a peculiar kind of logic. As the enemy is potentially anyone, all it takes to label someone a terrorist is to frame the actions of the accused in such a way that they potentially undermine the stability of the state. As the state edges closer to dissolution, there are more and more excuses to accuse people of undermining its stability. The security apparatus is on the lookout for anyone who refuses the logic of capitalist individualism—a category that can include anyone from Islamic fundamentalists to anarchists who want to live in a commune. Benjamin Rosoux observed this irony in court when he noted that life in Tarnac was based on openness and sharing, while the police were hiding in the forest taking photos of their houses.

What is terrorism? Terrorism is the panic put into the state apparatus by the fear of its own demise. Terrorism, defined by the state, is not a matter of human anguish but of institutional loss of control. The Tarnac Ten struck a chord of terror in the state—not because of the force they could muster, but because of the uncontrollable potential they represent. The specter of insurrection that had disappeared in the 1980s returned, as new groups of young people appeared who were prepared to defy the existing order.

One should never underestimate the power of small groups. The Paris Commune was not brought about by a great organization or Party, but by myriad small conspiracies: the Vigilance Committees that met in each arrondissement, the networks of friends and neighbors on each street in the faubourgs. When the stars align, little conspiracies like these can spread like wildfire until they are innumerable; that is what creates the conditions for uncontrollable insurrection. This is why the state apparatus always attempts to nip these conspiracies in the bud; it is why they targeted the Tarnac defendants in hopes of forestalling the wave of unrest that surged in December 2008; and it is why no amount of repression can ultimately stem the tide of insurrection, for it can spring anew from any of the countless nodes in the vast web of relations that makes up this society.

It is the intensity of feeling that we can share that the state fears above all, the capacity to generate new dreams and ambitions together. This is the very stuff of life. For those who can find it together, it is worth any ordeal, any degree of repression.

Some have criticized the way the Tarnac Ten engaged with the media and with the public notions of legitimacy represented by the intellectuals who came forward to speak in their favor. We should never make the mistake of believing that media exposure or social legitimacy are tools that can in themselves serve to advance the cause of liberation; but nor can we always afford to do without them entirely when the forces of repression use those tools to set the stage to destroy us. As anarchists, we are always fighting against the terrain itself as well as against our adversaries. This is not a reason not to fight on the terrain of media or perceived legitimacy; it simply means that we must find a way to operate in that territory that enables us to outflank the authorities without absorbing their logic. Every blow they strike against us must cost them double: in this regard, the explosion of interest that the Tarnac arrests produced in The Coming Insurrection sets a good example for how revolutionaries can prepare to make the phase of repression just another step in our plans—a phase in which we can continue to advance.

At the same time, spectacular fame is dangerous, above all because it enables the spectator to sit back and let another protagonist stand in for his or her own agency. We must not look to any particular cadre of heroes for the next brilliant theory or courageous action. If the promise of the Invisible Committee is that perhaps, in a world of Maoist academics and hipsters spouting empty words, someone somewhere might be putting their thoughts into action, that someone must be us.

There are still many battles to be fought, and many thoughts yet unthought, and many acts for which one must try not to get caught. The fear of imprisonment should not prevent us from unifying our thoughts with our actions. Indeed, the possibility that we might do so is the last, best hope of a dying world.

CrimethInc. April 2018