Reflections on Violence: Insurrectionary Anarchism

Of all the anarchist tendencies, none has become anywhere near as synonymous with anarchism in the minds of the rest of the world as insurrectionary anarchism. The recent explosion of anarchism into the mainstream through Antifa only further solidifies this image of the masked, black-clad molotov-slinging anarchist. And while this is certainly preferable to anarchists LARPing as Catalan CNT-FAI syndicalists, anyone with an interest or investment in anarchism would be advised to step back and think critically about this whole spectacle.

One of my favorite contemporary nihilist pieces comes from the journal Attentat that was published a few years ago by Little Black Cart. In this article, “Insurrectionary Anarchism as Activism”, we find the most devastating and yet also concise and simple critiques of the contemporary anarchist landscape I’ve come across. So simple, in fact, that I will spare you the pain of doing a close reading of the text.1

The critique of insurrectionary anarchism in this article is simply that, from the very foundations of insurrectionary anarchism, we find a latent vanguardist tendency that seriously calls into question the radical cred of the whole tendency. I’m sure that most anarchists will take this as yet another tiresome purity test to show that insurrectionary types are actually just cops who want to lead a revolution that isn’t really, truly bottom-up, but the fault lines of this critique go far deeper than most probably realize.

An essential feature of insurrectionary anarchism’s analysis is that revolutions must happen bottom-up, in countries especially where anarchism is repressed, via small insurrectionary acts. The point of these acts — despite what many might think — isn’t to actually wage a war and cause real damage to your enemy. The point is that insurrections are easily-reproducible tactics which are supposed to reveal to onlookers that revolt is indeed possible, that the crushing subordination they feel every day is not the only way. The hope is that this will inspire others to action, any action at all, and build up a revolution.

This should now be obvious, considering that smashy smashy black blocs don’t actually do very much to damage capitalist property or waste state resources.2 The analysis of insurrectionary anarchism is a decidedly and disappointingly post-phenomenological one: Insurrection is a tactic for breaking individuals out of the alienated malaise of the spectacle, militantly throwing people into the world and putting them back into engaging with it. Revolt is the means by which we return back to an authentic lived experience, and naturally given a taste of this one will inevitably return for more.

All well and good for anarchists whose analysis is still stuck in the early 20th century. But as Attentat’s article argues, this analysis carries with it an underlying vanguardism. There must be an original affinity group laying the foundations for the revolution by guiding individuals towards a politically conscious state. Whether through words or actions, it’s merely a vanguard in a different form.

The implications of this, however, go deeper than the woke conclusion that insurrectionists are cops and that we should engage in revolt for revolt’s own sake. It’s true to some extent that engaging in revolt for revolt’s own sake is preferable to doing it with the belief that this will somehow lead to a revolution. In fact, it is highly preferable. But as is often the case, the anarcho-nihilist analysis doesn’t go any further than being purely negative, just like the bulk of anything valuable in the post-left analysis is purely negative. In actions, yes, being purely negative is the only real possibility as far as I’m concerned for taking any actions, but that doesn’t require us to throw all thought out the window and die doing some hopeless insurrectionary act for the lulz.

Let’s start first by exploring the implications of vanguardism, which Attentat and I are both somewhat on the same page about. The problem with vanguardism, setting aside the woke bullshit, is that it casts away the greatest strength of anarchism: Decentralization. Though this has yet to be realized, the great untapped power of anarchism is that it can (and should!) be a wholly negative, anti-political comportment of the will. Not a party line, not a manifesto, not a praxis, but simply the will of individuals tended towards the destruction of the world as it is. From this, many possibilities open for agents of anarchy to engage in forms of attack that look less like smashy smashy trash can throwing, and more like waging war. Centralization is undesirable not because it necessarily stifles individual flourishing, but because it necessarily stifles the flourishing of self-organized networks. Focusing on the individual and the individual’s experiences is small-time shit that anarchists have spent more than enough time jerking themselves off over; the real power of anarchy is that it allows these individuals to work together as one towards the common, simple end of destruction, without anyone giving out orders. It allows for protocols to propagate through the network easily, for better protocols to deprecate the old ones, and for stopping the protocols from propagating and running to be nearly impossible.

The first point belies my second, however, and my primary objection with where anarcho-nihilism takes its critique. Despite claiming to be nihilists, they just like every other post-left tendency cannot get past post-phenomenological concerns.3 Their interests are regressive and humanist to the core, as they are ultimately only concerned with recapturing some idealized and long-gone narrative of experiencing the world authentically — something which the primitivists have most astutely out of everyone ran with and taken to its fullest and most thoroughly regressive and repugnant conclusions. I’ve spoken at length and will continue to write further in my cyber-nihilist series about why holding onto humanism and the desire for authenticity is a useless endeavor, and a deeper critique of it would require a post of its own. But I will say here that ultimately, the post-phenomenological line of thought is a trite inheritance from Kant. It is only human to fear the Outside or Other or Noumena with irrational fervor, and do anything we can to hold dominion over the realm of phenomena that we’ve been given, but ultimately it is only denying us other possibilities by clinging to the familiar.

We are, in a very Nietzschean sense, sickly to the core in trying to stave this off.

The insistence on post-phenomenology, the recapturing of authenticity, in insurrectionary anarchism is even more insidiously used as a tool or tactic, as I’ve mentioned earlier. Phenomenal experience is mobilized as a tactic for breaking people out of the spectacle so that they may become soldiers in the coming revolution. An upturning towards new arrangements, when what we want is to no longer be arranged, to paraphrase Stirner. To paraphase myself, what we want is not to bring about new modes of centralized organization, but to open up the possibility of networked self-organization. And no matter how woke and bottom-up your analysis may seem, it is in fact your analysis, your politics, your agenda.

The point in Stirner, post-left anarchy, and anarcho-nihilism is not and never has been to capture some awkward libertarian socialism of the past that has always paled in comparison to Marxism. What all have wanted and put the pieces in place for is an anti-political anti-praxis.4

Most revealingly of insurrectionary anarchism and its activist bent, which Attentat notes at but doesn’t elaborate on, is the treatment of violence. Contrary to the image of anarchists in the media, what I have talked about in this post essentially reduces violence to a performative act. Not even a tool, but more of a trick that snaps people back to being-in-the-world. Not violence for violence’s sake, but violence for the sake of a world where violence isn’t necessary. There is, quite frankly, an underlying pacificism in insurrectionary anarchism and most of anarchism as a whole. Violence must be sterilized of anything mean or nasty in order to pass anarchists’ purity tests. It must be treated not as an end in itself to cause as much damage as possible to your enemy, but as a game. It is not taken seriously by anarchists or most radicals of today coming from the Left (or post-left). It is sublimated and subordinated by all manner of flowery CrimethInc.-esque thinkpieces on violence which cannot succeed in divorcing violence from the brutish and quick moment when violence is wrought on a body. Violence is not a game, nor is it romantic; when violence is done against me or you, it will happen fast and it will be ugly. Fascists know this, and many train in real infantry tactics. The police most certainly know this, and many anarchists seem to have firsthand experience with police violence, yet the dominant narratives lack any genuine engagement with violence as a tool for the sake of causing more violence to cripple or kill your enemy as quickly and efficiently as possible. One would think this wouldn’t be the case when we’re all too aware of how well-trained and brutal our enemies are, but alas, perhaps being a milieu overwhelmingly made up of white boys who can get into confrontations with the police without being shot almost immediately has something to do with this 🤔

Even in the case of anarcho-nihilism, violence is repurposed towards an individualistic, post-phenomenological, and often annoyingly melodramatic angle. Violence is treated by nihilists as a means for individuals to seize their own gratified being-in-the-world, destroying the world for the sake of destruction, because they hate the world. Violence is treated still as a game, but a much more dangerous one.

This hatred is something I sympathize with, however, which is why it must be divorced from any connections to even ourselves, carriers of the world and all its evils as we are. If we truly want to see the world destroyed, we must make ourselves inhuman. We must become a hive of insect communists, continually perfecting our tactics into a protocol that flows through us and uses us and our actions to perfect itself.

And best of all for anarchists, it doesn’t actually require any of us to be cops.

  1. Anarchists, with their abysmal attention spans, will no doubt thank me for this. 
  2. Sadly, this is actually a very possible and latent part of much of insurrectionary/nihilist anarchist tactics that seemingly no one other than myself knows about or is talking about. But that is a subject for a future post. 
  3. By post-phenomenology, I mean here anything to come after the Phenomenologist movement that has dominated radical thought and Continental philosophy for the latter half of the 20th century. 
  4. For some very nice elaborations on antipraxis, see these posts by Vince Garton on antipraxis and antipolitics, and Edmund Berger’s post on antipraxis

New Year, New Tears

In 1916, the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci wrote in his article “I Hate New Years Day”:

Every morning, when I wake again under the pall of the sky, I feel that for me it is New Year’s day.

That’s why I hate these New Year’s that fall like fixed maturities, which turn life and human spirit into a commercial concern with its neat final balance, its outstanding amounts, its budget for the new management.1

Before the implicit Judeo-Christian culture that continues to dominate much of the West defeated the Romans many centuries ago, there were pagan tribes in Europe that we can trace many of our holidays in the US back to. And these pagan tribes, famously, were assimilated into Roman culture after being conquered by having parts of their culture assimilated into the Roman Borg culture conglomerate. Thus we have the origins of Christmas, not the day Jesus Christ was actually born on, but a convenient hyperstition to get the pagans to accept Jesus into their lives by associating him with the Winter Solstice.

Things have not changed, only become more refined. Holidays are no longer Christianity flexing its muscles as the dominant conquering religion. Superficially, they have long appeared that way, but only as a front to assimilate us into relations of capital. Christmas has evolved from the pagan solstice holiday to the Christian birth-of-the-savior holiday to a great, violent sacrifice for capital.

The notion of a Heaven and a Hell where people will be judged and sent to when they die is no longer a sufficient narrative for making people be good. The longer our lives become, the less death is a part of it, the less impactful it feels to say that we’re going to one day die and be judged. We may be judged then but we have a lifetime to prepare to be judged and a lifetime to have fun before repenting. This is only intensified when the idea of living into old age and being able to retire increasingly becomes a thing of the past, after the post-war honeymoon stage of American capitalism has worn off for more than the most maligned and marginalized groups.

If Santa Claus didn’t exist, he would have to be invented in the future and sent back in time. Christianity’s linear progression of birth-death-judgment is no longer sufficient. Time has become fragmented for us, and the “continuity of life and spirit” that Gramsci talks about in his New Years piece has likewise been ruptured. Our phenomenal experiences have no clear, pure locus in the world; they are in the wires, abstracted, everywhere and nowhere at once. And likewise, surveillance is not located merely in police and judges; it is everywhere and nowhere.

There is perhaps no simpler and more baldfaced metaphor for Oedipus than Santa Claus. He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake. He is everywhere and nowhere at the same time, and he’s coming to town.

Even this, however, is no longer a truly sufficient metaphor for capitalism to smuggle itself into our culture. Christmas happens once a year, and everything leads up to it. We learn as we become well-behaved adult players in the Oedipal drama that Christmas isn’t a time when we are rewarded for getting free stuff; rather, Christmas is a market exchange where we, ideally, will break even. A great sacrifice of capital (and in the case of Black Friday, often some lives) to mark off the year with equilibrium. The waste and excess that capitalism requires is forgotten.

This is why the subject of this post is on New Years, because while Christmas is the performative and outmoded spectacle of A-Time, New Years is what underlies this spectacle. The notion that time can be marked off neatly by cycles of waste, equilibrium, renewal — a mirror of the cycle of capital. That with each new year, things are any different.

Everywhere on social media, even among so-called radicals (even if they might claim it’s ironic), A-Time shuffles through the wires, yet New Years happens for us as many times as it happens for the world, in real time. New Years for me felt like nothing, as I had already experienced a hyperreal midnight several times that day. There were many New Years that day for me; already I am in the year 2020. And it is always midnight somewhere for us when everywhere we go, we have a device the plugs our phenomenal experiences into a matrix of shared social spectacles. How many years we age in one year, how much further we spiral into being past our life expectancy. Just as it was for our neolithic ancestors, by 30 death is already a part of our everyday lives.

The only thing that changes with each year are how many more ruptures in time have been torn.