[iDC] The War Against Preterrorism

rdom at thing.net rdom at thing.net
Mon Jul 6 15:13:38 UTC 2009

The War Against Preterrorism: The ‘Tarnac Nine’ and The Coming Insurrection
by Alberto Toscano


I. The Case*

On 11 November 2008, twenty French youths are arrested simultaneously in
Paris, Rouen, and in the small village of Tarnac (located in the district
of Corrèze, in France’s relatively impoverished Massif Central region).
The Tarnac operation involves helicopters, one hundred and fifty
balaclava-clad anti-terrorist policemen and studiously prearranged media
coverage. The youths are accused of having participated in a number of
sabotage attacks against the high-speed TGV train routes, involving the
obstruction of the train’s power cables with horseshoe-shaped iron bars,
causing material damage and a series of delays affecting some 160 trains.
Eleven of the suspects are promptly freed. Those who remain in custody are
soon termed the ‘Tarnac Nine’, after the village where a number of them
had purchased a small farmhouse, reorganised the local grocery store as a
cooperative, and taken up a number of civic activities from the running of
a film club to the delivery of food to the elderly. In their parents’
words, ‘they planted carrots without bosses or leaders. They think that
life, intelligence and decisions are more joyous when they are

Almost immediately, the Minister of the Interior, Michèle Alliot-Marie,
brushing aside Republican legal niceties, intervenes to strongly underline
the presumption of guilt and to classify the whole affair under the rubric
of terrorism, linking it to the supposed rise of an insurrectionist
‘ultra-left’ (ultra-gauche), or ‘anarcho-autonomist tendency’ (mouvance
anarcho-autonome), filling in the vacuum left by the collapse of the
institutional Left (the PCF). Invoking anti-terrorist legislation, the
nine are interrogated and detained for 96 hours; four are subsequently
released. The official accusation is that of ‘association of wrongdoers in
relation to a terrorist undertaking’, a charge that can carry up to 20
years in jail; what’s more, the accused might be detained for as long as
two years before their case goes to trial. On December 2, three more of
the Tarnac Nine are released under judiciary control, leaving two in jail,
at the time of writing (early January 2009): Julien Coupat and Yldune

Giorgio Agamben and Luc Boltanski, among others, write editorials decrying
the disproportion and hysteria of this repressive operation.[2] A petition
is circulated by Eric Hazan, radical publisher and friend of Coupat,
signed by Badiou, Bensaïd, Butler, Rancière, Žižek and several others.[3]
In Tarnac (a village proud of its role in the Resistance, and represented
by a communist mayor for four decades) a combative committee of support is
set up, conveying a virtually unanimous show of solidarity of the
villagers with the arrested; other committees and protests emerge in
Bruxelles, New York, Moscow, and elsewhere.

In what has been called ‘the greatest operation of intoxication of opinion
carried out by a [French] government in decades’,[4] the attention of the
media focuses on Coupat, personally charged with ‘directing a terrorist
group’. The time-honoured reactionary motif is that of the child of the
bourgeoisie who betrays his class and drifts into violent idealism. Some
journalists refer to him as the égaré de l’ESSEC, after the elite business
school where Coupat obtained his first degree. Readers of the press are
soon apprised of Coupat’s DEA dissertation on Guy Debord at the EHESS,
where he worked closely with Luc Boltanski (the latter thanks him in The
New Spirit of Capitalism), of his involvement in the journal and
collective Tiqqun, and of his alleged authorship of the book
L’insurrection qui vient (The Coming Insurrection) signed by the ‘Comité
Invisible’.[5] This tract (on which more below) – which Hazan, its
publisher at La Fabrique, refuses to ascribe to him[6] – turns out to be
one of the main planks in the aspersions and accusations with which
Alliot-Marie and various elements of the French state saturate the media.
She even avows that the aim of this operation is to send a ‘message’,
dissuading those who might be tempted to take the path of Coupat and his
comrades. In rather flagrant contradiction with both the tenor of
L’insurrection and what may be surmised about the modus operandi of the
Tarnac commune, he is painted as the charismatic ring-leader.

As the media feeding frenzy progresses, some of the ideological and
investigative background surfaces in the press (the intelligence agency
which reports directly to the Ministry of the Interior, the Direction
centrale du renseignement intérieur [DCRI], the ‘French FBI’ which
replaced the famous Renseignements géneraux [RG] in July 2008, seems
rather prone to leaks, managed or otherwise). It appears that Coupat had
long been an object of observation by the section of the RG tasked with
monitoring the left. One of their reports, which notes Coupat’s work in
Tiqqun and participation at Actuel Marx’s third Marx International
conference in 1998, in a panel with a number of Bourdieusian sociologists,
even describes him as a ‘critical metaphysician’[7] – one of several
ironic indications in this whole affair of the passing acquaintance of
French spooks with the world of philosophy and political theory.
Increasingly, he is tagged as a leading light in an ominous and diffuse
political agitation, vaguely designated as ‘anarcho-autonomist’, which
eschews the domains of organisation, political representation and
regulated conflict for the sake of direct action and irrecuperable
opposition to capitalism. Unsurprisingly, for a case steeped – however
‘tragicomically’, to borrow Agamben’s apt adjective – in the new language
of security and the ‘war on terror’, the Tarnac affair has a
trans-Atlantic component: the FBI had contacted their French counterparts
to signal an allegedly illegal crossing from Canada into the US by Coupat
and his companion Lévy, and the discovery, in a rucksack left at the
border, of a picture of the recruiting office in New York’s Times Square
which would later be the object of a small bomb attack, together with
written documents from North American anarchists.[8] The broader context
of the whole operation is the theorem, dear to Alliot-Marie and the
security apparatus of the Sarkozy government, of the mounting threat of an
anti-capitalist, anti-statist and anti-systemic radicalization of youth in
France and across Europe which cannot be contained in the usual avenues of
social conflict. The revealing title of a report on this putative
phenomenon by the DCRI is accordingly: ‘From the anti-CPE conflict to the
constitution of a pre-terrorist network: Perspectives on the French and
European ultra-left’.[9]

The 2006 protests against the law on job contracts for the young (Contrat
de première embauche), following hard upon the autumn 2005 revolts in the
marginalised banlieues, played a defining role in the rise to prominence
and eventual victory of Sarkozy, whose swaggering, bullying performance as
a Minister of the Interior during the riots – when he declared his
intention to hose down (karchériser) those neighbourhoods and to face down
the riotous scum (racaille) – became a trademark of sorts. The Sarkozy
presidency began under the sign of a deep anxiety, a reactionary rage for
order whose other side was the obsessive scrutinizing of the future for
signs of social turmoil and radical novelty – in this instance, one might
very well agree with the Comité Invisible that ‘governing has never been
anything but pushing back by a thousand subterfuges the moment when the
crowd will hang you’.[10] Given the political peculiarities of France,
this fear of the future (and its masses) took the form of an exorcising of
the past – as in Sarkozy’s campaign ultimatum: ‘In this election, we’re
going to find out if the heritage of May 68 is going to be perpetuated or
if it will be liquidated once and forever’. The compulsive reference to
the rebellious past, which is simultaneously imagined as a future – as in
Sarkozy’s recent statement to his cabinet, in view of the possible spread
of the ‘Greek syndrome’, that ‘We can’t have a May ’68 for Christmas’[11]
– provides the current French administration with its libidinal content, a
much needed supplement for its grim vapidity at the level of its

The very notion of ‘preterrorism’ is deeply symptomatic: it makes patent
the link between the obsessive identification of ‘dangerous individuals’
and the imagination of future revolts that call for repressive
pre-emption. As Boltanski and Claverie have noted, there is an echo of
Minority Report and its ‘precogs’. The context of the world economic
crisis and the not unrelated upsurge of the ‘600 euro generation’ in
Greece serve as a backdrop. Indeed, as an anti-terrorist magistrate
recently confessed: ‘There is a temptation during a time of crisis to
consider any illegal manifestation of political expression to be of a
terrorist nature’.[12] Reading the extracts from the RG and DCRI service
reports, the radical minded pessimist might be heartened to see such
confidence in the possibility of radical revolt being shown by the state
and its agencies. Alternatively, she might muse that the logic of
immunising oneself against ‘terrorism’ by nipping pre-terrorism in the bud
– with all of its hackneyed references to Baader-Meinhof or Action Directe
(‘they too started out by writing pamphlets and living in communes
’) – is
more likely to accelerate and intensify a process of so-called
radicalization, fashioning the state and the legal system into enemies
with whom one cannot negotiate. Whatever it may say about the prospects
for radical politics and its attendant suppression, this ‘affair’
illustrates the metastasis of a transnational politics of securitisation,
which is now being applied to any form of activity that importunes the
established order – from hacking to separatism, from anti-war
demonstrations to environmental activism. The looseness of anti-terrorism
legislation recalls Walter Benjamin’s characterisation of the police in
his ‘Critique of Violence’: ‘Its power is formless, like its
nowhere-tangible, all-pervasive, ghostly presence in the life of civilized
states’ – a situation enhanced by the development of what the parents of
the accused pointedly refer to as ‘reality-police’, as one might speak of

Julien Coupat’s father, Gérard, turned by his son’s ordeal into an
eloquent and intransigent advocate for civil liberties, recently put the
stakes of this police campaign in stark terms: ‘They are turning my son
into a scapegoat for a generation who have started to think for themselves
about capitalism and its wrongs and to demonstrate against the government.

 The government is keeping my son in prison because a man of the left
with the courage to demonstrate is the last thing they want now, with the
economic situation getting worse and worse. Nothing like this has happened
in France since the war. It is very serious’.[13] Like many others, Coupat
senior has underscored the ominous prospect of a form of government so
politically illiterate and monolithic in its reactions that it cannot
distinguish sabotage – a practice that has always accompanied social and
workers’ movements – from ‘terrorism’, a term that is indiscriminately
albeit deliberately used to cover everything from mass murder to train

II. The Book

What then of the book which – considering the meagre pickings for the
police at Tarnac (ladders, train schedules, bolt cutters) – seems to be
the centre-piece in the state’s inquisitional arsenal: L’insurrection qui
vient? The legal obscenity of basing arrests on a text – one that moreover
cannot be personally imputed to any of the accused – is obvious. The right
to practice collective anonymity, against the crude biographism and
sociologism of the press, should also be stressed. It is nevertheless of
interest to consider the Tarnac affair in light of this combative pamphlet
– half inspired dissection of the misery of everyday life in contemporary
France, half breviary for a diffuse anarcho-communist defection from
capitalist society. It appears that L’insurrection was first brought to
the attention of the powers that be by the criminologist Alain Bauer who,
coming across it on the shelves of the FNAC in 2007, immediately bought up
40 copies and circulated them to various security experts and
agencies.[14] A passage from it has been repeatedly referred to as
incriminating evidence against Coupat: ‘The technical infrastructure of
the metropolis is vulnerable: its flows are not merely for the
transportation of people and commodities; information and energy
circulates by way of wire networks, fibres and channels, which it is
possible to attack. To sabotage the social machine with some consequence
today means re-conquering and reinventing the means of interrupting its
networks. How could a TGV line or an electrical network be rendered
useless?’[15] A socialist with some sympathies for the emancipatory and
egalitarian potential of railway travel might answer like the Nouveau
Parti Anticapitaliste spokesperson Oliver Besancenot, commenting on the
sabotage, that ‘we want more trains, not fewer’, and end the discussion
there.[16] But it is worth considering the diagnosis and prognosis
advanced by L’insurrection, if only to understand the intellectual
backdrop to this call to interrupt the flows.

Were one in the business of the RG and the DCRI, one could argue that a
host of themes link L’insurrection to Tiqqun pamphlets such Théorie du
Bloom and Premiers matériaux pour une théorie de la jeune fille. A
narrative of completed nihilism; a Debordian excoriation of the spectacle
(embodied in the ‘young girl’, the commodity made flesh, and carried by
the schizophrenic entrepreneur); the vitriolic polemics against sundry
lefts (Trotskysts, Negrians, ecologists
)[17]; the view of communism not
as a programme but as an ethical disposition and collective
experimentation, an attempt to recover an emancipatory notion of
community; ‘the silent coordination of a sabotage in the grand style’[18]
and the very idea of an Invisible Committee (or an Imaginary Party) – all
of these betoken a certain political continuity. Yet the differences are
also significant. First, stylistically. The works of Tiqqun practiced a
kind of second-order situationist détournement, keeping Debord while
losing much of the Marx and Lukács which the author of The Society of the
Spectacle had felicitously plundered, and throwing into the mix a generous
helping of Agamben– an author who, albeit not so hard to pastiche, does
not lend himself all that well to Debordian operations. L’insurrection is
a more measured and plain-spoken text, whose politics are rooted more in
anti-urbanist libertarian anarchism than in the metaphysical auguries
carried by Agambenian figures such as the ‘young girl’ or the ‘Bloom’
(after Joyce). Though the agenda of L’insurrection is still dictated by a
situationist-inspired total critique of contemporary society, the lengthy
analyses of the ills of everyday metropolitan life in the age of flexitime
and the new economy are more in keeping with the recent concerns of
critical French sociology than with prophecies about homo sacer. Just as a
Bourdieusian perspective marks the sections dealing with France’s singular
relation to the State and the School as structures of subjectivation, so
the influence of Boltanski and Chiapello’s diagnosis of the dissolution of
class solidarity as a foothold for social critique can partly account for
the indifference of L’insurrection to a Marxist discourse of class
struggle, and its delinking of anti-capitalism from class politics.[19]

This is not to say that a certain catastrophism, or better active
nihilism, does not pervade this book too, as it did the bulk of Tiqqun’s
production. L’insurrection begins with the lapidary lines: ‘From every
angle, there’s no way out from the present. That’s not the least of its
virtues’.[20] It too is suffused by the kind of left Jüngerian imagery
that can be found in Théorie du Bloom. Where the latter declared ‘the line
is close, but it hasn’t been crossed’, L’insurrection tells us that ‘a
decision is close’.[21] But as we move through L’insurrection it becomes
clear that, despite the nod to Agamben in the title, his brand of
messianic reversibility – a left interpretation of the Hölderlinian adage
that ‘where danger is, grows the saving power also’ – is overtaken by an
anarchist blueprint for the secession from metropolitan capitalism and the
reorganisation of everyday life in communes that will serve as bases for a
diffuse and ‘horizontal’ overturning of the reigning system of misery.
This rejoinder to European Nihilism 2.0 is based neither on waiting for
eschatological signs, nor on figures of the reversibility of catastrophe
into promise (the young girl, Bloom), nor indeed on the ultra-modernist
idea that accelerating moral and material decomposition is the key to a
transvaluation of the world.[22] We are also not dealing with a
post-workerist exodus immanent to the resources of immaterial labour or
cognitive capitalism. Rather, L’insurrection advocates a comparatively
sober practice of defection and sabotage, which aims to turn the machines
of subjection against themselves.

Much of L’insurrection’s tableau of modern European (more specifically
French, and even more specifically bourgeois Parisian) misery is
compelling, especially when it heeds the situationist injunction that to
‘understand what sociology never understands, one need only envisage in
terms of aggressivity what for sociology is neutral’.[23] Like the Debord
of In girum, it can even strike notes of dark comedy: ‘Europe is a
penniless continent which secretly shops at Lidl and flies low cost so it
can keep on travelling’.[24] At its core lies something like a
social-psychological portrait of the micro-managed and multi-tasking
subject of contemporary work, the function of which is regarded as
fundamentally political: that of ‘biopolitically’ governing the entirety
of social life and perpetuating a regime of exploitation that is
increasingly superfluous. Though the insight is hardly novel, the Comité
Invisible does succeed in pungently capturing the horror and imbecility of
the current proliferation of disciplinary devices such as ‘personal
development’, ‘human resources’, ‘social capital’ and other managerial
monstrosities. L’insurrection encapsulates this under the aegis of what it
calls the ‘ethics of mobilisation’, the colonisation, through work, of the
very domain of possibility: ‘Mobilisation is this slight detachment with
regard to oneself 
 on the basis of which the Self [le Moi] can be taken
as an object of work, on the basis of which it becomes possible to sell
oneself, and not one’s labour-power, to be paid not for what one has done
but for what one is. 
 This is the new norm of socialisation’.[25] But
what lies beyond this salutary vituperation of the modern ideology of work
– an ideology which is all the stronger to the extent that it replaces the
heroisms and anxieties of the Sartrean project with the soft schizophrenia
of a thousand ‘projects’?

It is here that what one may maliciously term the Epicurean tendency in
situationism (present for instance, in Debord’s laments for the
disappearance of good wine in Panegyric) gets the better of
L’insurrection. ‘Mobilisation’ is not only linked to the capitalist uses
of a parallel-processed self, but to a discourse about the metropolis as a
space of deadening indifference and mortifying abstraction, and to the
idea that the modern city and its masters have perpetrated a kind of
assassination of experience: ‘We have been expropriated from our language
by teaching, from our songs by variety shows, from our flesh by
pornography, from our city by the police, from our friends by the wage
system’.[26] Despite the aptness of L’insurrection’s denigration of cities
turned into posthumous museums and the excoriation of the uses of mobility
and isolation for purposes of control – not to mention its call for the
marginalisation and ruination of Paris, that ‘frightening concretion of
power’[27] – the hankering for revolutionary authenticity is unpersuasive,
and ultimately myopic. Just as the short thrift given to the notion of
labour-power leads to a Manichean opposition between a malevolent economy
and emancipated ‘forms-of-life’, so there is not much attention paid to
the transformative uses of abstraction and alienation. There is more of a
hint of Jane Jacobs in the scorn against ‘indifferent’ modern housing and
the idea that ‘the multiplication of means of displacement and
communication continuously wrenches us away from the here and now, by the
temptation of being everywhere’.[28] What’s more, the notion that the
interruption of mobilisation will give rise to practical solidarity as the
‘façade’ of the ‘hyper-vulnerable’ city of flows crumbles, is too romantic
to bear scrutiny. Blackouts and blockages can intimate communism but also
be the occasion for even more insidious forms of violence and hierarchy
(Michael Haneke’s film Time of the Wolf is an evocative study in this
regard). Likewise, despite the welcome corrective to the idea of the
banlieue uprisings of 2005 as an instance of criminal mob rule, it is
doubtful that actions with ‘no leader, no claim, no organisation, but
words, gestures, conspiracies’[29] may be taken as a model for organised
emancipatory politics.

Though one wishes that the anti-urbanism of the Comité Invisible were more
dialectical, some of their reflections on the ‘commune’ are worthy of
consideration. Not only is renewed debate on the collective
experimentation of everyday life to be welcomed, especially by contrast
with nebulous figures of messianic transfiguration; L’insurrection also
raises some important questions for a radical left which conceives of
capitalism as an unacceptably destructive system and views
crisis-management as an unappetising and doomed vocation. Rather than an
ephemeral image of a glorious tomorrow or a utopian enclave, the commune
is envisaged simultaneously as a collective experimentation of politics
and as an instrument for a political action which is not merely
instrumental but existential, or ethical. Among other things, the emphasis
put on the density of real relations – as against the issues of identity
and representation that allegedly bedevil parties, groups, collectives and
milieus – gives a concrete political meaning to friendship, over against
the obsession, whether prudish or prurient, with the commune as the site
of sexual exchange.[30] Another classic motif, that of self-reliance, is
given a contemporary twist: the commune is presented as a way of gaining
and practicing the kind of know-how (medical, agricultural, technical)
that can allow one to no longer depend on the metropolis and its forms of
‘security’. In other words, to ready oneself for real crisis, as
communistic survivalism prepares for capitalist apocalypse.

One cannot gainsay the force and interest of concrete utopias, however
minimal or marginal, nor deny the all too familiar truth – once again laid
bare by this case – that the modern capitalist nation-state does not
suffer alternatives gladly. The young activists and intellectuals at
Tarnac, in this regard echoing if not necessarily following L’insurrection
qui vient, have certainly showed that even very simple experiments with
egalitarianism and emancipation can sow real political relations and
solidarities. But, especially at a moment when the political question of
the public is so crucial – whether we are speaking of universities,
hospitals, banks, or indeed trains – the alternative between the commune
and the metropolis is a false one, as is, to borrow another dichotomy from
L’insurrection, the one between hegemony and horizontality. To appropriate
authenticity is not enough. Any truly transformative politics must surely
appropriate distraction, mobility and indeed, alienation and indifference
too. Trains, like sewage systems, dams, airports and hospitals, are not to
be repudiated, interrupted or merely abandoned to the whims of the
capitalist state. Perhaps one day, rather than shuttling us from human
resources conferences to personal development seminars, they may be put to
more creative and revolutionary uses, like the Russian Kino trains of the

Alberto Toscano
* A slightly abridged version of this text will appear in Radical
Philosophy 154. I thank the editorial collective of RP for permission to
republish the text here.

[1] ‘Lettre ouverte des parents des inculpés des accusés de Tarnac’, 23
November 2008, available at: <

[2] Giorgio Agamben, ‘Térrorisme ou tragicomédie?’, Libération, 18
November 2008, available at: <
Elisabeth Claverie and Luc Boltanski, ‘Christ ou caténaire? Du sacrilège
religieux’, Mediapart, 13 December 2008, available at: <

[3] ‘Non à l’ordre nouveau’, Le Monde, 27 November 2008, available in
English at: < http://tarnac9.wordpress.com/2008/11/24/free-the-tarnac9/>.

[4] Christian Salmon, ‘Fictions du terrorisme’, Le Monde, 6 December 2008,
available at:

[5] Comité Invisible, L’insurrection qui vient (Paris: La Fabrique, 2007).
Also available at: < www.lafabrique.fr/IMG/pdf_Insurrection.pdf>. Online
English version at:

[6] Quoted in Christophe Cornevin, ‘SNCF: L’étrange itinéraire du saboteur
présumé’, Le Figaro, 19 November 2008, available at: <

[7] Jean-Michel Decugis, Christophe Labbé and Armel Mehani, ‘Ultragauche –
Le rapport des RG qui désigne Julien Coupat’, Le Point, 11 December 2008,
available at: <

[8] Anne-Cécile Juillet et François Vignolle, ‘TGV sabotés: quand le FBI
s’intéressait à Julien’, Le Parisien, 12 November 2008, available at:

[9] Isabelle Mandraud, ‘L’obsession de l’ultragauche’, Le Monde, 3
December 2008, available at: <

[10] L’insurrection qui vient, p. 83.

[11] Leigh Phillips, ‘Sarkozy fears spectre of 1968 haunting Europe’,
euobserver.com, 23 December 2008, available at:

[12] Quoted in Celestine Bohlen, ‘Use of French terrorism law on railroad
saboteurs draws criticism’, Bloomberg News, 4 December 2008.

[13] Quoted in Jason Burke, ‘France braced for “rebirth of violent left”’,
The Observer, 4 January 2009.

[14] ‘L’insurrection qui vient est en avance sur l’horaire. Interview avec
Eric Hazan’, Agora Vox, 12 December 2008, available at: <

[15] L’insurrection qui vient, p. 101.

[16] AFP, 11 November 2008, available at: <

[17] For Tiqqun’s critique of Negrism, see the first of the two issues of
the journal, available at: <
See also the retort by Jérôme Ceccaldi, ‘Rions un peu avec Tiqqun’,
multitudes 8 (2002), available at: <

[18] Tiqqun, Théorie du bloom (Paris: La Fabrique, 2000), p. 134.

[19] I owe this point to Julien Vincent.

[20] L’insurrection qui vient, p. 7.

[21] Théorie du Bloom, p. 130; L’insurrection qui vient, p. 12.

[22] I owe these notions of reversibility and accelerationism to Benjamin

[23] ‘Critique de l’urbanisme’, Internationale Situationniste 6 (1961),
English translation available at: <

[24] L’insurrection qui vient, p. 10.

[25] L’insurrection qui vient, p. 36

[26] L’insurrection qui vient, p. 20.

[27] L’insurrection qui vient, p. 122.

[28] L’insurrection qui vient, pp. 44–5.

[29] L’insurrection qui vient, p. 102.

[30] Endemic hardcore pornography seems to have put sex beyond a threshold
of political indifference for the author(s) of L’insurrection.

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