The following text appeared yesterday on the French platform lundimatin; they describe it as the best sociological and political analysis to date on the yellow vest movement. Although we are no more optimistic about the supposedly “non-ideological” character of the first phase of the yellow vest phenomenon than we are about the antiquated tactics and methods of organization it supplanted, the movement itself has become a battleground to determine what form the next wave of opposition to neoliberal austerity will assume, and none can afford to stand aside. This text concludes with a cool-headed appraisal of the risks and possibilities before the gilets jaunes and all who will follow in their wake.
“I’ll end up becoming a communist . . .”
-Brigitte Bardot, interview with Le Parisien, December 1, 2018
“Beautiful as an impure insurrection”
(graffiti seen on a building façade on the Champs-Elysées)
If it might soon prove fragile, for now one of the principle merits of the current mobilization remains to have sent the rhetoric and the tactical repertoire of the left movements of the past century to the Grévin Museum1—all while demanding more justice and equality and without reproducing the anti-tax rhetoric of the post-war right and extreme-right. After the collapse of the Social Democrats signified in France by Macron’s election, we see the collapse of the communists, the (in)soumis,2, the leftists, anarchists, members of the “ultra-left,” and other class struggle professionals or spokespeople of radical chic: and a majority of them, after sneering or holding their noses, are running at full speed after the movement with their factions, unions, parties, media coverage, and blog posts. Welcome to the rearguard!
The delay is obvious, the protest is funereal. Everyone can foresee the calls, editorials, motions, petitions, the route from Place de la République to Bastille announced by the prefecture, their protest marshals and their black bloc, the committees coordinating and negotiating between representatives and rulers, the little theater of representativeness between the leaders or delegates and the “base,” taking the floor through the press or in general assemblies. In short, the final ruins of the welfare state, or rather, of its forms of protest, have gone up in smoke; they are not only useless, but above all obsolete and pathetic, the terms of a completely dead language that may still be spoken for a long time by the ghosts that come to haunt them. One can always count on bureaucrats, professionals, or trainees, and on the army of organic intellectuals of emptiness, to play the ventriloquist, to play the grand game of the Party, to imagine themselves once more in the avant-garde of a movement, for which they are in reality just sad street sweepers bringing up the rear.
Here they are proposing watchwords, soon to be constitutions, enacting rules of good collective conduct, exhorting the inversion of the power struggle, rambling on learnedly about the pre-revolutionary characteristics of the situation, infiltrating protests and meetings, calling for the convergence of struggles… These practices, these speeches were already hollow and incantatory last year during the movements of the railway workers and the students—they are hollower than ever today. For the novelty, the tenacity of the first successes of the “yellow vests” cruelly illuminate the series of almost systematic defeats that have taken place over the past several years in France and the general decomposition into which all the currents of the left, so proud of their heritage and singularity and always so stupidly heroic in their posturing, have sunk little by little over half a century. Far from being an obstacle, it’s precisely the much-disparaged ideological impurity of the movement that has enabled it to spread and rendered obsolete all the unifying voluntarisms of specialized organizations and activists. To the professionals of the leftist order and the insurrectionary dis-order, the movement of “yellow vests” only offers an invitation to travel, to a participation that will finally be free of the established collectivities, like so many ideological and material weights of the past.
The mobilization underway has no need of being inflated—or rather, competed with, if one knows how to read between the lines of the deposed little chiefs’ revanchist declarations—by existing or parallel movements. In the roundabouts and in the streets, by blockade or by riot, it is already bringing together forces that are heterogeneous, politically diverse, or even opposed (though often sociologically close) to encounter and to clash. Instead of using preexisting ideas or shared class consciousness or even videos and messages exchanged on social networks, the movement clings to local sociability, old and commonplace, to interactions outside of the workplace, in the cafés, groups, sports clubs, buildings, neighborhoods. Because the religious character of progressive ideology, with its hackneyed myths and empty rituals, is completely foreign to them, the “yellow vests” don’t appear in the first two weeks of the movement to carry assurances or pat interpretations of their common misery. With suppleness and adaptation, at the risk of division and dissolution, they take to the streets, advance on crossroads and tollbooths without prejudice, without imposed certitude, free of the pathological intellectualism and idealism of the left and of leftists and their fantasy of the proletariat, the historical subject, the universal class.
The movement is situated at the turning point between two periods of capitalism and the modes of government associated with them. In its content more than in its form, it bears the marks of the past, but leaves glimpses of a possible future of struggles or uprisings. The critique of the tax, the demand for redistribution, the correction of inequalities—all these are addressed to a regulating state that has largely disappeared. At the same time, the movement wants less tax and more state. It only attacks the state to the extent to which it has withdrawn from the urban and semi-rural zones. And though until recently the issue was a question of purchasing power, that was the case only as a consequence of ignoring the salaries that for the most part determine the general level of purchasing power even more than taxation does. A remarkable trait of the current period is that no one in the government has thought of blaming the bosses for their wage policies. This tactically incomprehensible restriction of focus demonstrates better than any discourse what interests the leading politicians of the current regime serve, even at their own peril.
Since it defies the parties and expresses itself outside of unions—and even, at the beginning, against them—the movement also confronts the entire system of representation of interests that dates from the Second World War and from the Fifth Republic: a set of mechanisms of delegation attached to the Keynesian administration of capitalism. In thus dismissing the left and leftists to ancient tradition, or better, to formaldehyde, the “yellow vests” complete for some the demands for autonomy that have been expressed since May 1968. But for the same reason, they are also in harmony with the program of destruction of union organizations and democratic institutions that has been implemented under advanced capitalism since the 1970s. Or rather, they are its irreducible remainder, the emergence of which some had prophesied. Keynesian, libertarian, and neoliberal by turns, or all at once, the movement brings with it, in its relationship to the state, the economy, and history, the stigmata of these dying political ideas and the ambivalences of our time.
Nevertheless, the movement proposes, albeit in a still paradoxical form, the first mass politicization of the ecological question in France. This is why one would be wrong to relate the mobilization only to the conditions of class, status, and profession, and to create an oversimplified opposition between the problems of the end of the month and the question of the end of the world. This old reflex is also a remnant of the old regime of regulation and protest. In the movement of the “yellow vests,” labor is not the epicenter any more than purchasing power really is. What the movement protests, beyond ecological injustices (the rich destroy much more of the planet than the poor, even while eating organic and sorting their trash, but the poor are the ones who bear the pressures of the “ecological transition”), is above all the enormous differences existing in the relationship to traffic, which have hardly been politicized until now. Rather than expressing itself in the name of a social position, in this sense the movement makes mobility (and its different regimes: constrained or chosen, diffuse or concentrated) the principal focus of the mobilizations, and, in blocking traffic, the cardinal instrument of the conflict.
The Three Vests
On the level of concrete mobilization, the chief quality of the movement will have been to have invented a new tactic and a new dramaturgy of the social struggle. Weak means, perfectly put into play, will have sufficed to create a level of crisis that has rarely been attained politically in France over the past several decades. The logic of numbers and convergence, which was part and parcel of the mobilizations of the Keynesian period, is no longer the decisive factor: no more need to count on high school and college students, on the unemployed and the retired, on their availability and on their time; nor to seek a central, mediatized, Parisian resonance chamber to give the movement its strength and legitimacy. The unique combination of a proliferation of small groupings in the spaces without spontaneous political life for half a century; of the practice of blockades; and of the obvious, natural, ancestral recourse to the riot, reaching to the very hearts of the local, regional, and national urban centers, has supplanted, at least temporarily, the repertoire of the strike with its imposing and well-established figure.
Beyond this common trait, three practical and tactical tendencies currently appear to divide the movement and determine its future. The first is electoralist in its heart, “citizenist” in its fringes. It already calls for the formation of a brand new political movement, for the constitution of candidacies for the next European elections, and it no doubt dreams of a destiny comparable to the Five Star Movement in Italy, or Podemos in Spain, or the Tea Party in the US. This is a matter of weighing in on the existing political game via representatives whose social characteristics are as similar as possible to the characteristics of their constituents. The most radical ones in this camp are not satisfied with the current political institutions and demand that these be completely transformed immediately: they want their referendum or their “Nuit debout”,3 but in the giant soccer stadiums where they imagine a new deliberative democracy will be invented and put into practice.
A second polarity within the movement is openly in favor of negotiation. It expressed itself in the press last Sunday by calling for discussions with the government and by accepting its invitations before those were retracted. A more or less rebellious fraction of the parliament members and politicians of the majority responded, with representatives of the opposition, the unions, and the heads or seconds-in-command of the party, by calling for a change in course: complete transformations of the Estates General [legislative assemblies], taxation, ecology, inequalities, and other burning subjects. This pole dominated the debates in the third week, but it is quite contested inside the movement, which doesn’t see how a new Grenelle Accords,4 a fortori without unions or legitimate representatives and probably diluted with time, could possibly address the rage. After a false start, the government’s principal advantage is now the time of year; they hope to drown the opposition in end-of-the-year parties and make the discussion last several months. We know as well that, in other circumstances, the Estates General could not dress the wounds.
The third kernel of the movement is dégagiste (oppositional), and in its margins, insurrectionary or even revolutionary. It expressed itself this weekend in Paris and in the prefectures, demanding the immediate resignation of Macron without any other program. It obtained results that are unprecedented for several decades in France by reaching the rich neighborhoods west of the capital and responding to the forces of order with an unheard-of enthusiasm despite the police repression, the numerous victims of violence, hands ripped off, faces battered. A few statistics offer an idea of the violence underway: on December 1, the police shot as many grenades in Paris as they had in France throughout the entirety of 2017 (Libération, December 3, 2018). It is possible that the very acute character of these confrontations has been, in part, the product of a governmental calculation aiming to disqualify the riotous fractions of the movement. This strategy failed last week. It has been the object of mass propaganda once again this week. Whatever happens, the best prospects of this segment of the movement are reminiscent of the Arab revolts of 2011, when a very heterogeneous political mobilization brought down several authoritarian regimes, but without succeeding in going further and affirming a revolutionary positivity.
This portrait wouldn’t be complete without recalling that the neo-fascist possibility spans the three camps of the movement. The extreme right is present in all of them. The identitarian and authoritarian tension is also a possible scenario for all of the tendencies: in alliance with (like in Italy) or by absorption into the electoralists; by disgust or its equivalent, if the negotiators win the day; by backlash or counter-revolution, if the putschists of the left or the insurgents triumph. The extreme right in ambush! All the good spirits are demoralized. Will that be enough to tarnish the movement? In reality, the neo-fascist possibility has been present in France since Macron’s election: it is its necessary double and the most probable consequence. The emergence of the extreme right is occurring everywhere today as the logical consequence of maintaining the neoliberal economic order and police state in conjunction with social crisis, witnessed by the authoritarian turn in many countries since 2008. The existence of this danger is not uplifting, but it is the obvious proof that we are at a crossroads in France, in Europe, and beyond. In critical times, history is always uncertain and molten; the purists and the hygienists of the mind and of politics are at a loss. If they are not yet illiberal, the “yellow vests” are already anti-liberal. But who can say whether they wish for new liberties?
By this measure, the insurrectional riot amounts to nothing, even if the ones that took place November 24 and December 1 in Paris and in some cities in the provinces were of historical scope. We sometimes forget that the French have violently risen up, most often against taxes and the concentration of powers, for nearly four centuries. Over the last hundred years, tolerance for destruction and street violence had considerably weakened. However, since 2016 and the new, fragile understanding between the “black bloc” and assemblies, the demonization of riots has receded. This trend has been reinforced over the past few days by ordinary citizens’ encounters with exacerbated police brutality. A tactical course of action could profit from this advantage, perhaps provisionally, in order to conquer the movement from within and sharpen the precision of its aims.
The storming of the Palace de la Republic will not take place. For the moment, there are still many mechanisms in reserve with which to defuse the situation: the dismissal of the government, the declaration of a state of emergency, the army, et cetera. Let us finish mourning all leftism: revolution itself, understood as event, is no longer a necessity, nor even an absolute horizon. Henceforth, the battle can only take place continuously: that is to say, by attacking, according to priority, the weakest parts of the strategic systems of the presiding power. The media and police, to begin with.
The media are effectively divided on this movement. Some media support the anti-tax position of the “yellow vests” to increase the class interests of their owners, all while fearing popular violence. Other media, ideologically closer to the government, in social affinity with the figure that Macron embodies, are nonetheless held to account by their consumers, who support the “yellow vests” even if they aren’t participating. In a fluid situation, representation is one of the decisive arms of war. However, social networks and various protest sites only partially correct the monopolistic tendency of traditional audiovisual media when they themselves are not won over by shameless counter-truths. We like to imagine a part of the “yellow vests” interfering as soon as possible with one or several radio and television stations, national ones if possible, associating with defecting journalists, thus enablng the historical developments underway to appear more clearly. At the very least, we must immediately expand the instruments of counter-information that we already have.
The police presence is paradoxically the other weak link in the presiding system. It’s a used up, overexploited machine, full of rusty parts and weapons, and whose human cogs experience socio-economic conditions very close to those of the “yellow vests.” This proximity could succeed in dividing the ranks of the police, their unions, if they are pushed where their pains have accumulated, softening the base. The task seems rough, difficult, perhaps impossible, but no uprising occurs without at least a partial reversal of the repressive apparatus. Temporality is tight. We can’t be sure that this Saturday, the plan decided by the Interior Minister will not be more insidious, avoiding frontal conflicts in favor of targeted arrests—in the German manner, as it were—in order to contain the tension to the point of breathlessness. But will that work when a mass radicalization has taken place over the last two weeks against the ordinary practices of the police? At Pau on December 1, the CRS [riot police] took off their helmets in front of the protestors. Didn’t a union (Vigi) already call for an unlimited strike after Saturday? Other unions of civil servants (teachers, fire and rescue departments, the entirety of public services) have formulated similar calls for the next few days and next week. The state apparatus is fissuring slowly.
Aim well, but also persist, above all. Paris is a riot, but Paris is also a trap. A spectacular showcase. The scale of the movement is local. We hope it will remain local and multiply its points of existence as well as the meetings held there. The generalization of the perspective of local “popular” assemblies, like at Saint-Nazare or at Commercy, that are able to draw together other groups beyond the already mobilized “yellow vests,” would head in this direction. This would take resources, energy, force, mutual aid. Locking boxes, both hardware and digital, could be put in place. Politically, the role of the supportive associations and even of sympathetic local elected officials is yet to be determined, like that of the turning of the new year.
All of these considerations, already excessive, are nonetheless small in the face of the questions the movement will face in the future, like those about business and ecology, which have mostly remained on the margins of the current commotion, whereas they are at the heart of all the demands. We will have to return to them. December 8 is only the fourth act of mobilization. All the best tragedies have five.
-Deposed agents of the Imaginary Party
December 6, 2018
The Insoumis, the “untamed” or “not submissive,” is the populist democratic socialist party of Mélenchon. The parentheses in the original French text convey doubt as to whether it is more correct to describe Mélenchon’s devotees as tamed or untamed. ↩
Nuit Debout, “up all night,” was a French knockoff of Occupy that took place in 2016. ↩
The accord that effectively ended the insurrectionary events of May 1968. ↩
In response to Emmanuel Macron’s proposal to increase the tax on fuel for “ecological” reasons, France has experienced several weeks of unrest associated with the yellow vest movement. This grassroots uprising illustrates how the contradictions of modern centrism—such as the false dichotomy between addressing climate change and considering the needs of the poor—can create social movements that offer fertile ground for populists and nationalists. At the same time, the increasing involvement of anarchists and other autonomous rebels in the unrest raises important questions. If far-right groups can hijack movements, as they did in Ukraine and Brazil, can anti-capitalists and anti-authoritarians redirect them, as well?
Yesterday, the Macron government offered its first concession, delaying the fuel tax for six months. At the same time, protests and police violence around France continue unabated; another day of action has been called for this Saturday, with the authorities promising a massive crackdown in response. The involvement of truck drivers and high school students signals that the story has not yet reached its climax. The model has already spread to Belgium and there are demonstrations called in Germany and Spain. As seems usual these days, no one on any side of the conflict seems to have any strategy in mind except to continue escalating.
But who will benefit from this escalation? Will it radicalize ordinary people, equipping them to defend their livelihoods against neoliberal austerity measures by means of direct action? Will it offer the police state a new justification for further repressive laws and measures? Will it bring a far-right nationalist government into power in place of the government of Macron?
Likewise, if this internally contradictory movement spreads to other parts of Europe, what aspects of it will spread? Will it supplant nationalist populism with economic populism, preparing the way for a revolt against capitalism? Will it serve as a vehicle for the far right to create a surge of grassroots nationalism, opening a new era of fascist street violence? Will it continue to be a battleground on which nationalists, anarchists, and others vie to determine what form the opposition to centrists like Macron will take in the coming years?
In the United States, in less reactionary times, the Occupy movement saw some of the same conflicts emerge: legalistic liberals, leftist pacifists, insurrectionist anarchists, far-right crypto-fascists, and unaffiliated angry poor people all converged in the space of the movement and fought to determine its character. At first, it was unclear whether Occupy would be most useful to middle-class democrats, right-wing conspiracy theorists, or the genuinely poor and desperate; in fact, during that time, some of the same pessimism circulated about Occupy that we have heard from a few anarchists about the yellow vest movement. However, after a few weeks, anarchists and other militant opponents of capitalism and white supremacy seized the initiative, especially in Occupy Oakland, focusing the movement on confronting the root causes of poverty in capitalism and ensuring that many of the people who were radicalized during Occupy adopted emancipatory rather than reactionary politics.
We saw the opposite process play out in Ukraine two years later, when fascists gained the initiative via the very same approach anarchists had used in Occupy Oakland—taking the front lines in clashes with the police and forcing their political adversaries out of organizing spaces.
Today, the far right has made considerable gains since 2014, and conflicts around the world are playing out at a much fiercer pitch than they were in the days of Occupy. France has a long history of movements for liberation, including many powerful struggles over the past decade and a half. Hopefully, these have created powerful networks that will not let nationalists take the lead in determining what social movements in France will look like.
But even if we understand the movement itself as a battleground, that only poses further questions. What is the best way to fight to determine the character of a movement? How do we engage in this struggle in a way that doesn’t weaken the movement in a way that offers the advantage to the police? How do we remain focused on connecting with other ordinary participants in the movement, rather than getting mired in a private grudge match with fascists?
In order to explore these questions in greater detail, we present the following update from France. This report picks up where our previous analysis left off, in the aftermath of the yellow vest demonstration of November 24.
The Aftermath of November 24
A week ago, total confusion reigned about the yellow vest movement—and within it. The self-proclaimed “leaderless,” “spontaneous,” and “apolitical” movement against the increase of taxes on gas had reached its first impasse. How could the movement remain unified when people from across the entire political spectrum were participating with completely contradictory views about how to address the government, what sort of tactics to employ, and what narratives to rally around? At the same time, how could the movement resist the attempts from political opportunists and party leaders to coopt it, while continuing to push ? The yellow vest movement was fracturing over these issues.
The day after the Parisian demonstration on Saturday, November 24 that saw the avenue of the Champs Elysées transformed into a battlefield between demonstrators and police, part of the movement voted to elect eight official spokespersons. In doing so, they hoped to reintroduce some good old-fashioned hierarchy and centralization into the movement, so as to establish dialogue with the government.
Once again, with these elections, it was not easy to maintain the appearance that the yellow vest movement was “apolitical.” Two of the newly elected spokespersons had connections with the far-right:
Thomas Mirallès ran for the Front National (now Rassemblement National) in the 2014 municipal elections. To defend himself, he describes this political experience as “a youthful mistake” and emphasizes that since that election, he “has never campaigned again.”
On social media, Eric Drouet has shared videos against migrants and expressed arguments used by the xenophobic far right. Knowing that this could tarnish his new “respectable” image as a spokesperson of the movement, he deleted all his Facebook publications up to November 18.
However, these elections were rejected by another part of the movement that refused to fall into the traps of representation and negotiation. Some yellow vesters explicitly reject the concept of representation: rather than having a spokesperson, the idea is that every participant should speak for himself or herself. Moreover, after the intense confrontations that took place during the November 24 demonstration in Paris, several local organizers decided to distance themselves from the movement.
The conflict within the movement didn’t stop some determined yellow vesters from calling for another day of action on Saturday, December 1, in order to increase the pressure on the government to rescind the tax—or simply to destabilize the government itself. The tone was set!
The Government Tries Dialogue
It is clear now that the French government was not expecting the demonstrators’ rage to escalate, producing hours of rioting in Paris. When another call appeared to demonstrate in Paris the following weekend, the government realized that they were losing the control of the situation. This is why, after weeks of expressing contempt towards the yellow vest movement, members of the government changed their strategy in hopes of pacifying the situation. In this regard, the decision to elect official spokespersons for the movement was a strategic mistake, in that it facilitated the government’s efforts to establish a “dialogue” in which politicians would dictate terms to representatives who would then dictate them to participants.
On Tuesday, November 27, President Macron made a public speech in order to present the creation of the Haut Conseil pour le Climat (the High Council for Climate), the purpose of which is to “provide an independent perspective on the Government’s climate policy.” During his speech, President Macron changed his strategy by directly addressing some of the demands and concerns of the yellow vesters, presenting himself as a pedagogue willing to listen to what people have to say. This political masquerade failed; many members of the yellow vest movement rejected the so-called “helping hand” offered by the president and criticized his hypocrisy, as Macron had categorically refused to meet some yellow vesters just that morning.
Later that day, at the request of President Macron, the Minister of Ecological Transition, François de Rugy, received the leading figures of the movement. This meeting was supposed to establish some kind of dialogue between the government and the movement in order to find an exit from the situation. However, after two hours, the deadlock remained. Unconvinced by their exchange with the minister, the two spokespersons reaffirmed their intention to demonstrate on Saturday, December 1.
Understanding that the situation was escalating as more and more yellow vesters rejected the idea of dialogue and committed to gathering in the streets, the government tried one more time to re-establish dialogue. On November 30, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe invited the eight spokespersons of the movement to a meeting. This meeting was a failure, too: in the end, only one spokesperson out of eight met with the Prime Minister and the Minister of Ecological Transition. A second spokesperson, Jason Herbert, left the meeting shortly after it began.
A Fertile Ground for Populists
That same week, the self-proclaimed “legalist” and “official” part of the movement, including the elected leaders and spokespersons for the yellow vests, presented traditional media outlets with 42 demands. Looking at this list, it is easy to see the confusion within the movement, but also to identify some of the political influences that its protagonists share.
The list includes demands from every position on the political spectrum. There are social demands such as increasing minimum wage, fighting homelessness, and increasing financial assistance to handicapped people. But there are also reactionary demands, including deporting immigrants who haven’t received the right to asylum, blocking migration, developing a policy of assimilation for those who want to live in France, increasing the presidential term from 5 to 7 years, and providing more funding to the Justice department, the police forces, and the army.
Alongside these demands, we saw the now “classic” opposition to the increase of taxes on gas, as well as some ecological, protectionist, and nationalist arguments. The “legalist” or “official” part of the movement was playing a dangerous game in giving populists from the left to the far right reason to support the movement, if not enabling them to coopt it completely.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the leftist populist party France Insoumise, publicly denies that his party has engaged in any efforts to coopt the movement; in reality, the populist leader, who is obsessed with the idea of a coming “citizens’ revolution,” is hoping that the anger in the streets will weaken Macron’s government. This is purely opportunistic, as the leftist populist party aims to increase its ranks by attracting “angry” voters in the 2019 European elections.
On the other side of the political spectrum, emboldened by the wave of far-right victories in the US, Italy, and Brazil, nationalists know that this movement of collective anger represents a great opportunity for them to gain power and confirm their status as a “real political alternative” to the current government. Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, leader of Debout La France, has been supporting the movement from the beginning, and some yellow vesters are members of his political party—Frank Buhler, for example, whose video became viral online.
Marine Le Pen, leader of the Rassemblement National, believes that the yellow vest movement represents what she’s been describing for years as “the France of the people left behind.” The nationalist party believes that [yellow vesters] “look like our voters. Unhappy and unlucky people because they are usually invisible, and who have a strong contempt for politicians.” This explains why the Rassemblement National has been extremely cautious in terms of strategy. They fear that if they attempt to coopt the movement too obviously, they could turn the demonstrators against them. They decided instead to offer verbal support to the demonstrations without their leaders marching in the streets alongside protestors. They have concentrated on communicating and defending some of the “42 demands” in corporate media outlets. Marion Maréchal Le Pen, niece of Marine Le Pen, said that she was present at the Champs Elysées on November 24 and described herself as “an ardent moral support for the yellow vesters’ suffering,” claiming to have “a lot of empathy for them.”
Preparing for the Unknown
Frustrated at having failed to neutralize the movement through dialogue, and fearing that, for the second week in a row, images of chaos in the streets of Paris would dominate the airwaves, the government decided to take every possible measure to maintain its precious republican order during the demonstrations of Saturday, December 1.
To secure the capital city, prevent or contain confrontations, and deal with the infiltration of radicals and “extremist elements,” the government arranged 5000 anti-riot police (Gendarmes and CRS) for the day. Their mission was to control all the access routes to the Champs Elysées, the meeting location of the demonstration. To ensure that no dangerous objects or possible projectiles would be brought inside the demonstration, the authorities filtered the access points, searching every single person who wanted to enter the perimeter. These controls were to be in effect from 6 am on Saturday, December 1 until 2 am on Sunday, December 2.
In order to protect the most important buildings, symbols, and organs of power, the authorities designated restricted areas where freedom of movement would be limited. All access to the Elysée (the Presidential palace), the Place Beauvau (the Ministry of the Interior), the Hôtel Matignon (the Prime Minister’s office), or the National Assembly was sealed off completely for the day.
Another reason the government took all those safety measures was that the yellow vests were not the only group demonstrating that day in Paris. At 10 am, railway workers were supposed to gather near the Saint Lazare train station to defend their status; they planned to join the yellow vesters after their action. At 12 pm, other trade unions were gathering for a traditional annual march against unemployment and precariousness. At 1 pm, several collectives of Parisian suburbs and antifascists decided to gather at Saint Lazare to join the yellow vest movement.
In short, on the eve of the December 1 national day of action, all the elements were combining to make for a truly explosive mixture in the streets of Paris.
The Fuse Is Lit…
Due to the dramatic scope of what happened on December 1, we cannot provide an exhaustive list of all the actions and confrontations that took place in the streets of Paris that day. This is only an incomplete overview of the course of events. Also, in reference to the images and stories presented herein, it bears saying that some of the protagonists may be members of the far right.
Early in the morning, the first demonstrators began to converge on the Champs Elysées. Police were already deployed and on the alert; all yellow vesters were searched before entering the perimeter of the demonstration. The trap set up by the government was in effect. During the first few hours of the day, police arrested several individuals on accusations of possessing weapons and projectiles.
Surprisingly, the safety plan set up by authorities protected the avenue of the Champs Elysées, but not the Place de l’Etoile—the large traffic circle around the Arc de Triomphe. Proposed by Napoléon I in 1806, the Arc de Triomphe was inaugurated in 1836 by Louis Philippe, then King of France, who dedicated the monument to the armies of the Revolution and the Empire. In 1921, the French government buried the Unknown Soldier of World War I beneath it. The flame of remembrance is revived everyday and official military commemorations take place annually in front of the flame. The monument is a symbol of French glory.
Aware that the Arc de Triomphe was not under police control, and knowing that, to access the Champs Elysées, they would have to submit to a search and have their identities checked, demonstrators began to gather around the monument, just outside the police perimeter. At 8 am, about a hundred yellow vesters were already on site, while the official beginning of the demonstration was due at 2 pm. Shortly after, around 9 am, the first confrontations began when yellow vesters tried to force their way through a checkpoint to enter the Champs Elysées. Police responded immediately with tear gas, which only escaladed the clashes.
From this vantage point, it is not easy to confirm precisely who initiated the first confrontations or who took part. As during the previous week, the confrontations included everyone from neo-Nazis and other fascists to anarchists, anti-capitalists. and anti-fascists, not to forget angry yellow vesters from many other different backgrounds and political tendencies.
As is becoming usual with the yellow vest movement, the situation was quite confusing. Some protestors gathered around the Unknown Soldier’s flame as if they were paying tribute to war, nationalism, and imperialism. Others started singing the Marseillaise—the French national anthem. Meanwhile, the more determined protestors were throwing cobblestones at police forces, erecting barricades in the neighboring streets, and setting cars on fire.
Soon, the entire traffic circle was enveloped in tear gas. The situation continued to escalate. Every time the police line got too close, rioters welcomed them with a shower of cobblestones and other projectiles. In the meantime, the first tags appeared on the Arc de Triomphe; this imperial symbol was finally profaned! Sadly, although some of the tags were clearly inscribed by anarchist and anti-statist comrades, others were written by fascists.
The presence of organized fascist groups during the clashes around the Place de l’Etoile during the morning of November 1 is undeniable. Several mainstream media outlets covering the yellow vest movement mentioned their presence among the yellow vest movement. In one article, the journalist says: “Several police vehicles had to leave the Place des Ternes hastily after being attacked by tens of individuals wearing visible far-right symbols.” In another article, the author reports the presence of monarchists, traditionalist Catholic groups, and nationalist and fascist groups, such as the GUD (Groupe Union Défense), a far-right student union—backing up these claims with photographs.
In their personal report about the yellow vest demonstration, anarchist comrades also mention the presence of the far right near the Place de l’Etoile:
“When we arrived at the Place de l’Etoile around 12 pm, it had been already a huge chaos for almost three hours. According to some comrades we met on site, the confrontations had been extremely violent underneath the 8Arc de Triomphe* during the morning. It seems that a lot of people had been injured. It was also in this sector that radical far-right groups were most present during the day. The GUD was there. We saw a good amount of walls covered by Celtic crosses. The far right in its “legalist” tendency also appeared to be well represented among the demonstrators. It seemed to us, and according to several other testimonies as well, that these fascist tendencies stayed present all day long around the Place de l’Etoile. Nevertheless, it was difficult to really quantify them.”
The Arc de Triomphe was the focal point of confrontations throughout the morning. Police repeatedly tried to repel protestors from the historical monument, but not without difficulties, as evidenced by this scene in which a group of demonstrators charged an anti-riot police unit that was trying to protect the edifice. During the charge, one policeman was isolated from his unit and beaten up by yellow vesters.
This event illustrated once more the confusion and disagreement within the movement. While some yellow vesters were attacking the police officer, others helped him to escape from his attackers, so he could rejoin his unit. Later, another yellow vester even returned an anti-riot shield to the police after demonstrators had seized it.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the French capital, other people in yellow vests gathered in the district of Bastille and walked along the large street of Rivoli, passing in front of the main City Hall of Paris, with the objective of entering the Champs Elysées from the opposite side—via the Place de la Concorde.
Around 1 pm, while the Arc de Triomphe was still surrounded by massive clouds of tear gas, a group of comrades decided to change their strategy and create a new dynamic by starting a wildcat demonstration and leaving the stalemate around the traffic circle behind them. Rapidly, a procession of 800 individuals left the square and entered the streets of wealthy Parisian districts. The crowd was quite heterogeneous, but the atmosphere seemed friendly.
On the Hoche avenue, the wildcat demonstration ran into a large procession of railway workers who were heading towards the Saint Lazare train station in order to join the afternoon call made by suburban and anti-fascist collectives. Without thinking twice, the two processions united and continued to march towards the meeting point. This development shifted the horizon of possibility for the rest of the day.
When all the processions converged in the luxurious Opéra district, thousands of individuals were marching through the streets. Over a century ago, during the Belle Epoque era, anarchists such as Emile Henry demonstrated the concept of propaganda of the deed in this neighborhood by attacking the rich and their symbols in their own luxurious district. Here, in contrast to the ambience around the Arc de Triomphe, the atmosphere was comfortable. Within this large procession, there were anarchists, anti-fascists, queer radicals, collectives against police violence, railway workers, garden variety yellow vesters, some people we might describe as rioters without adjectives, and many others, including the simply curious. For the first time, it really seemed that some kind of anti-capitalist and anti-fascist force could gain a foothold within the troubled waters of the yellow vest movement.
Heading south, the large procession finally arrived at Rue de Rivoli—a large street that connects Bastille to the Place de la Concorde, the highly restricted area near the Presidential palace. At this point, part of the crowd decided to go east and continue marching towards the City Hall of Paris—where they were welcomed by police forces with tear gas. The rest of the procession, about 1500 individuals, were determined to go the opposite way and force their way through the police checkpoint near Place de la Concorde.
When they approached the square, numerous police trucks and a water cannon blocked their way. Uninterrupted and intense confrontations followed between radicals and police forces. Barricades appeared on different fronts, projectiles were thrown at police, while a rain of tear gas canisters fell on protestors and the water canon attacked them at full blast. Eventually, however, the water canon seemed to have some technical issues. Some demonstrators seized this opportunity to set a car on fire for use as an additional barricade.
Further away, near Saint Augustin, about 3000 individuals had been gathering at a major intersection since 3 pm, building numerous barricades in the area to block traffic. People were joyously expressing their desire to overthrow President Macron. The fences of a nearby construction site were used to erect new barricades, while others were set on fire. A little further away, police forces were already blocking the streets. At this point, mounted police also appeared. Not thinking twice, protestors began breaking up the asphalt and throwing projectiles at the police. For over an hour, a confrontation continued at this intersection. This shows how determined people were that afternoon. In the meantime, a nearby bank was thoroughly damaged, while other demonstrators flipped a truck over. Law enforcement finally cleared the area of protestors with a massive tear gas attack.
Several different parts of Paris were completely chaotic. Three cars were burning on the fancy Haussmann Boulevard, named for the reactionary urban planner who attempted to make Paris insurrection-proof after the revolution of 1848. Several streets further, an empty police car was destroyed, looted, and set aflame. A crowd of radicals arrived at Place Vendome, well known for its luxurious jewelry stores, the Ministry of Justice, and the infamous column that the Communards once destroyed. Plastic Christmas trees found in the nearby streets were piled up as barricades and set on fire.
While a thick cloud of smoke enveloped the Opera district, the anti-capitalists decided to move towards the Bourse, the historical stock market building—another symbol of capitalism and state power. Granted, since 1998, no more financial transactions are made inside this building. Nevertheless, several windows were smashed, the front doors were opened, and fireworks made their way inside the hall. Then the rioting crowd left the area, attacking another police car in a neighboring street on the way. They used urban furniture and construction equipment to block traffic, destroyed the front windows of several banks, and disappeared into the early night.
The emergence of some kind of anti-capitalist and anti-fascist bloc was an important development within the yellow vest movement. Likely drawing on years of experience in demonstrations such as the May Day and Loi Travail protests, the bloc took advantage of the general confusion to carry out multiple actions throughout Paris with clear objectives and intentions.
In view of such determination, the government and police forces were completely overwhelmed. There are several explanations for this. The first reason is the wide range of people taking part into the riots. It was not just anarchists and anti-capitalist radicals attacking police forces, but also a great number of other angry people in yellow vests including far-right activists and other rioters. Secondly, the protests continued to change and develop throughout the day, assuming unpredictable new forms. Finally, the extreme mobility, diffuse organization, and determination of the protestors made them a match for the officers, who were pinned down by their task of defending predefined areas. Indeed, as most police forces were assigned to positions around the restricted areas or busy dealing with confrontations near the Champs Elysées, they couldn’t respond to the developments in other districts of Paris. Nevertheless, on several occasions, members of the BAC (Anti-Criminality Brigade) were seen in the streets haphazardly shooting rubber bullets at every demonstrator in view.
Many officials and media agree that Paris hasn’t experienced such riots since 1968. To this assessment, we must add the following figures.
It is difficult to tell how much ammunition the police used; numbers vary widely between sources. However, it appears that they deployed about 8000 tear gas grenades, 1000 sting-ball grenades, 339 GLI-F4 stun grenades, 1200 rubber bullets, and 140,000 liters of water during the confrontations.
In the end, during the Parisian demonstration alone, 133 individuals were injured, while the authorities counted 112 cars, 130 pieces of urban furniture of one kind of another, and six buildings set on fire for a total of 249 fires.
Paris was not the only place in France were yellow vesters expressed their anger with actions. In various cities, protestors gathered for this third nationwide day of action; some of them were as determined as those who took the streets in Paris.
In Toulouse, intense confrontations took place between yellow vesters and law enforcement. In Narbonne, yellow vesters set fire to a toll collection point. In Bordeaux, clashes erupted between police and protesters when the crowd of yellow vesters arrived at City Hall and tried to enter by force.
In Tours, a demonstration drew about 1300 individuals. Shortly after the beginning of the march, participants began smashing shop windows, and confrontations with police escalated. One yellow vester lost his hand as a consequence of a grenade thrown by police.
Finally, about 3000 individuals gathered at Puy-en-Velay. Yellow vesters entered the courtyard of the local Prefecture with tires and refused to leave. Some of them set fire to the tires. Police forces tried to disperse the crowd by using tear gas, but this only increased the anger of the demonstrators. Numerous confrontations followed. The prefect himself tried to discuss with the protestors in order to bring back order but without any success. In the end, dissatisfied with the situation, yellow vesters burned down the Prefecture.
The day after the demonstrations, the government knew that it had reached an impasse of its own. President Macron was on a trip to Buenos Aires for the G20; as soon as he heard about the situation in Paris, he returned to France immediately to deal with this major political crisis.
On Sunday, December 2, President Macron met with some of the policemen and firemen who had been in the streets the previous day. He also made a small tour of the damages caused by hours of insurrectional confrontations before heading back to the Elysée palace for an emergency meeting with all of the government. The President asked his ministers to cancel all their business trips for the next two days.
President Macron did not make any official declaration after the meeting. Nevertheless, he personally asked the Prime Minister Edouard Philippe to see all the political leaders of the different parties the next day, as well as the spokespersons of the yellow vest movement.
In the meantime, the left populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon requested that every political group in the National Assembly opposed to the government should make a vote of no confidence to denounce the “catastrophic management of the yellow vest issue.” At the same time, the far-right leader Marine Le Pen demanded the dissolution of the National Assembly. Once more, it is not difficult to see who wants to take advantage of the situation.
On Saturday night, the Minister of the Interior said that he was willing to consider all possibilities to ensure republican peace and order in France, even re-imposing the state of emergency to deal with the yellow vest movement. This is gratuitous: in the new antiterrorist law adopted on October 31, 2017, many of the elements that constituted the exceptional aspect of the state of emergency are now fully integrated into ordinary French common law—for example, the creation of restricted zones during events.
Nevertheless, on Sunday, December 2, yellow vesters determined to push their movement further were already planning a fourth round with the government, calling for another national day of action on Saturday, December 8. It happens that on the same day, the global climate march will take place in Paris. For the occasion, radicals have made a call for an offensive contingent. We will see whether it is possible for these two movements to establish a connection.
On Tuesday, December 4, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said that the government had decided to suspend gas tax increases for the following six months. In addition, the government is also suspending new tougher rules on vehicle checks for the same amount of time, and committing not to increase electricity fares until May 2019. In addition, the Prime Minister announced that a debate about taxes and public expenses at a national scale would take place between December 15, 2018 and March 1, 2019. In making these concessions, the government aims to show that it is open to dialogue with yellow vesters.
Nevertheless, it seems that part of the yellow vesters are not willing to give up the fight. The spokespersons of the yellow vest movement rejected the invitation from the Prime Minister to find a way out to the current situation; several local yellow vests groups are calling to continue their actions.
So far, the government’s announcement does not seem to have had much effect upon the ranks of the yellow vest movement. Since the beginning of the movement on November 17, the number of demonstrators has dropped as the intensity of conflict has escalated. Yet even if some yellow vesters have dropped out due to the increasingly confrontational strategy, the last day of action showed that some demonstrators are determined to continue forward.
We still have an unknown horizon before us—and so many dawns yet to break.
As we hoped, an anti-capitalist and anti-fascist front has emerged within the yellow vest movement. In Paris on December 1, this created a convergence point and catalyst for people who do not identify with nationalist narratives. Hopefully, this will help to spread a discourse that identifies the structural causes of Macron’s programs, rather than framing them as the “betrayals” of a politician who should simply be replaced with a more nationalistic populist.
In only three weeks, the yellow vest movement has gone from blocking traffic to demolishing the wealthy districts of Paris. This illustrates the efficacy of direct action, horizontality, and the refusal to negotiate. In the era of globalized capitalism, any movement that is to face down the neoliberal assault on the living standards of ordinary people will be forced to radicalize rapidly in this manner, and to resist all attempts to control, represent, or placate it.
As many anarchists have emphasized before, effective resistance to capitalism requires the participation of a wide range of people, not just those who share a common ideological framework. This means that a movement must spread beyond the control of any one group or position. Indeed, we can understand the yellow vest movement as a widespread popular appropriation of the confrontational tactics that anarchists and other rebels have been employing in France for years—for example, in the protests against the Loi Travail and on May Day.
Yet the widespread appropriation of confrontational tactics is not necessarily a step towards a better world unless people also absorb the values and visions that accompany them. The rise of Trump and grassroots nationalism in the US has been marked at every step by the far-right appropriation of left and anarchist rhetoric and tactics, which they have used to advance their own agenda.
What happens inside a movement against the reigning government is just as important as what happens in the conflicts between that movement and the police. This is why we have emphasized the importance of fighting on two fronts—against Macron’s police and likewise against the fascists who hope to impose their own authoritarian agenda.
There’s No Such Thing as an Apolitical Movement
From the outset, the yellow vest movement has claimed to be an “apolitical” space open to all. This has offered fertile ground for populists and nationalists to promote their ideas. In most cases, they have not been the ones taking action in the streets, but they have often set the discourse online. Fascist groups have gained visibility, too, even if their number seems comparatively modest; they are better organized now than they were at the beginning of the movement. We must not abandon the streets and the movement to the far right.
No social movement is a monolith; each is a heterogeneous space of perpetual change and tension. It is foolish to deem movements worthy or unworthy, standing in judgment like the Pope and relinquishing the ones that do not meet our standards to the influence of our adversaries. Instead, we can aim to intervene in movements in ways that enable the liberating currents within them to gain momentum and become distinct from the reactionary currents. The challenge is to offer other participants models for how to solve their immediate problems and to connect those with emancipatory visions of long-term change—and to do all this without creating tools or momentum that fascists, authoritarian leftists, or other opportunists can capitalize on.
We need to think more about the relationship between street battles and the battle of ideas. Historically, anarchists have often assumed that those who are willing to take the most risks will be better positioned to determine the character and goals of a movement. On the ground, this is often true—for example, if you escalate conflict with the police, it can force centrists and legalists to withdraw. But we should also remember all the times that rebels from oppressed groups have been the ones to take the most risks and suffer the most repression, only to see authoritarians take advantage of our sacrifices to consolidate their power. This is a very old story, from the French revolutions of 1830, 1848, and 1870 and the Italian Risorgimento to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Egyptian Revolution of 2011.
We should bear all these lessons in mind when we weigh whether the best way to gain leverage within a movement is to be the ones who take the most risks within it. How can we make sure that our adversaries within the movement cannot force us to take the majority of the casualties while they simply—take power?
A decade ago, in less complicated times, some anarchists and autonomists imagined that, rather than being connected by a common set of values and aspirations, people in revolt could be connected simply by behaving ungovernably in relation to the prevailing authorities. It is still possible to find examples of this “anti-ideological” attitude in France today, despite all the evidence that at least a few of those who wear the yellow vest are simply fighting to enthrone other authorities who will be just as dangerous if they come to power. It would not be the first time that rebellious street violence brought a new oppressive government into office.
Yes, the order that reigns must be undermined by any means necessary. The same goes for the proponents of rival ruling orders. Driving Yvan Bennedetti out of a demonstration is just as important as defending it against the police.
At the same time, it must be clear to all the newly mobilized and politicized participants in these movements that we are not simply robots acting according to a pre-programmed ideological framework, but that we genuinely hope to connect with them, exchange ideas and influences with them, and work together to create solutions to our mutual problems. Our opposition to authoritarians is not a tenet of a religion, but a hard-won lesson about what it takes to create spaces of freedom and possibility.
In this regard, the moments of dialogue between strangers that take place in the street are just as important as the courageous acts by which people hold police at bay and force out fascists. Let’s not be naïve, let’s not disavow our opinions or abandon our convictions, but let’s remain open to the possibility that we could become stronger and more vibrantly alive by working with others we have not yet met, who share our problems but not our reference points.
The Long Game
Sooner or later, this moment of crisis will pass—either the leaders will cut a deal with the state and the police will succeed in isolating those who refuse to cooperate, or Macron’s government will fall and be replaced by another that promises to solve the problems that drove people into the street.
And what then? Will the far right be able to claim that they were the ones who scored the victory against Macron? Most of the aforementioned 42 demands are compatible with both leftist and far-right populist programs; it would not be surprising to see the movement split in two and be coopted by the two populist parties. Since the riots last weekend, both populist leaders have been galvanized by the demand to oust President Macron and his government. It is entirely possible that a far-right government will come to power after Macron. What should we be doing right now to prepare for that situation, to make sure that people will continue to come together in the streets against them?
As we fight—in France, in Belgium, and everywhere else that neoliberal governments are forcing austerity measures on us—let’s be thinking about how to come out of each fight more connected, more experienced, and with a sharper way of identifying the questions before us. Good luck to each of you, dear friends.
Further Reading: Comparing the Yellow Vests with Ukraine and Italy
The past weeks have seen a massive confrontational movement arise in France opposing President Emmanuel Macron’s “ecological” tax increase on gas. This movement combines many contradictory elements: horizontally organized direct action, a narrative of being “apolitical,” the participation of far-right organizers, and the genuine anger of the exploited. Clearly, neoliberal capitalism offers no solutions to climate change except to place even more pressure on the poor; but when the anger of the poor is translated into reactionary consumer outrage, that opens ominous opportunities for the far right. Here, we report on the yellow vests movement in detail and discuss the questions it raises.
Preface: The Ruling Center and the Rebel Right
In the buildup to the 2018 elections in the US, we heard a lot of arguments that it would be better for centrist politicians to win control of the government. But what happens when centrists come to power and use their authority to stabilize capitalism at the expense of the poor? One consequence is that far-right nationalists gain the opportunity to present themselves as rebels who are trying to protect “ordinary people” from the oppressive machinations of the government. In a time when the state can do precious little to mitigate the suffering that capitalism is causing, it can be more advantageous to be positioned outside the halls of power. Consequently, far-right nationalism may be able to gain more ground under centrist governments than under far-right governments.
In attempting to associate environmentalism, feminism, internationalism, and anti-racism with neoliberalism, centrists make it likely that at least some of the movements that arise against the ruling order will be anti-ecological, misogynistic, nationalistic, and racist. That works out well for centrists, because it enables them to present themselves to the world as the only possible alternative to far-right extremists. This is precisely the strategy that got Macron elected in his campaign against Marine le Pen. In this regard, centrists and nationalists are loyal adversaries who seek to divide up all possible positions between themselves, making it impossible to imagine any real solution to the crises created by capitalism.
In short: if the wave of nationalist victories still sweeping the globe eventually gives way to a centrist backlash, but anarchists and other revolutionaries are not able to popularize tactics and movements that adequately address the catastrophies that so many people are facing, that could pave the way for an even more extreme wave of far-right populism.
We should study populist social movements under centrist governments in order to identify the ways that far-right groups can hijack them—and figure out how we can prevent that. This is one of the reasons to pay close attention to the “yellow vests” movement unfolding right now in France under the arch-centrist President Macron.
The “yellow vests” movement shows the strange fractures that can open up under the contradictions of modern centrism: above all, the false dichotomy between addressing global warming and addressing the ravages of capitalism. This dichotomy is especially dangerous in that it gives nationalists a narrative with which to capitalize on economic crisis while discrediting environmentalism by associating it with state oppression.
What is taking place in France is reminiscent of what happened in Brazil in 2013, when a movement against the rising cost of public transportation provoked a nationwide crisis. This crisis gave tens of thousands of people new experience with horizontal organizing and direct action, but it also opened the way for nationalists to gain ground by presenting themselves as rebels against the ruling order. There are two significant differences between Brazil in 2013 and France today, however. First, the movement in Brazil was initiated by anarchists, but grew too big too quickly for anarchist values to retain hegemony—whereas anarchists have never had leverage within the movement of the “yellow vests.” Second, the movement in Brazil took place under a supposedly leftist government, not a centrist one. The hijacking of the movement against the fare hike in Brazil set the stage for a chain of events that culminated in the electoral victory of Bolsonaro, an outright proponent of military dictatorship and extrajudicial mass murders. In France, the context seems even less promising.
What should anarchists do in a situation like this? We can’t side with the state against demonstrators who are already struggling to survive. Likewise, we can’t side with demonstrators against the natural environment. We have to establish an anti-nationalist position within anti-government protests and an anti-state position within ecological movements. The “yellow vests” movement provides an instructive opportunity for us to think about how to strategize in an era of three-sided conflicts that pit us against both nationalists and centrists.
The Yellow Vest Movement in France
Several weeks ago, the Macron government officially announced that, on January 1, 2019, it will once again increase taxes on gas, which will raise the price of gas in general. This decision was justified as a step in the transition to “green energy.”
Diesel vehicles comprise two thirds of vehicles in France, where diesel is less expensive than regular gas. After decades of political policies aimed at pushing people to buy cars that run on diesel, the government has decided that diesel fuels are no longer “eco-friendly” and therefore people must change their cars and habits. Macron reduced taxes on the income of the super-rich at the beginning of his administration; he has not taken steps to make the wealthy pay for the transition to more ecologically sustainable technology, even though the wealthy have been the ones to benefit from the profits generated by ecologically harmful industrial activity. Consequently, Macron’s ecological arguments for the gas tax been largely ignored. Many people see the decision to increase the tax on gas as yet another attack on the poor.
The French government is responsible for creating this false dichotomy between ecology and the needs of working people. Decades of spatial planning have concentrated economic activity and job opportunities in bigger metropolises and developed public transportation in those same areas while isolating rural areas, making cars necessary for a large part of the population. Without any other option, many people are now completely reliant on their cars to live and work.
In response to Macron’s announcement about the tax on gas, people started organizing on the internet. Several petitions against the increase of the price of gas became viral, such as this online petition that is about to reach a million signatures as this text goes to press. Then, on September 17, 2018, a driver organization denounced the “overtaxation of fuels,” inviting its members to send their gas receipts to President Macron along with letters explaining their disapproval. On October 10, 2018, two truck drivers created a Facebook event calling for a national blockade against the increase of gas prices on November 17, 2018. As a result, more and more groups appeared on Facebook and Twitter sharing videos in which people attack the president’s decision and explain how difficult their financial situations already are, emphasizing that increasing the taxes on gas will only make it worse.
On the eve of the national call, about 2000 groups across the country were announcing their intention to block roads, toll collection points, gas stations, and refineries, or at least to hold demonstrations.
In order to identify the participants during this day of action, demonstrators decided to wear yellow emergency vests and asked sympathizers to show their support to the movement by displaying these vests in their cars. The symbolism behind this vest is simple enough. The French driver’s manual mandates that every driver must keep an emergency vest inside their car in case of accident or other issues on the road. In view of their dependency on cars, fearing to see their living conditions worsen, protestors chose these emergency vests as a symbol of resistance against Macron’s decision. By extension, protestors and media came to call this movement the “yellow vests.”
Thousands of actions took place during the weekend of November 17. Approximately 288,000 “yellow vests” protestors were present in the streets for the first day of national blockade. This was a success for the movement, especially considering that it did not receive any assistance from trade unions or other major organizations.
Unfortunately, things escalated when fights broke out between “yellow vests” and other individuals. One “yellow vest” protester, a woman in her sixties, was killed by a driver, a mother who was trying to take her sick child to the doctor and attempted to drive through a blockade when people in yellow vests started smacking her car. Altogether, more than 400 people were injured, one protestor was killed, and about 280 individuals were arrested that weekend.
The movement remained strong despite these incidents. The blockades continued over the following days, even if participation diminished. In order to maintain the pressure on the government, the “yellow vests” made another national call for the following Saturday, November 24. Once again, various “yellow vest” groups on Facebook planned actions and demonstrations everywhere in France and circulated a call to converge in Paris for a big demonstration.
At first, this demonstration was planned for the Champs de Mars, near the Eiffel tower, where law enforcement would have surrounded and contained the protestors. However, this official decision did not satisfy some “yellow vesters,” and other calls circulated on social media. The November 17 demonstration in Paris had failed to reach its objective, the Presidential palace; consequently, the “yellow vesters” who were about to converge in Paris decided to repeat that effort on November 24. So it was that, rather than gathering at the base of the Eiffel tower, people converged and blocked the Champs Elysées, a target with powerful symbolic status. This luxurious avenue is the most visited in Paris; the Elysée palace where President Macron resides is located at the end of this avenue.
As they had the preceding week, demonstrators tried to get as close to the Presidential palace as possible. Barricading and confrontations took place all day along the most well-known Parisian avenue. It was reported that this second round of actions gathered about 106,000 participants throughout France, with about 8000 in Paris. These figures suggest that the movement is losing momentum. In the course of the demonstration in Paris, 24 people were injured in clashes and 103 people were arrested, of whom 101 were taken into custody. The first trials took place on Monday, November 26.
What Kind of Movement Is This?
The “yellow vests” movement describes itself as spontaneous, horizontal, and without leaders. It is difficult to be certain of these statements. The movement started via social media groups that facilitated decentralized actions in which people decided locally what they wanted to do and how to do it. In this regard, there is clearly some kind of horizontal organizing going on.
Regarding whether the movement is truly leaderless, this is more complicated. From the beginning, “yellow vesters” insisted that their movement was “apolitical” and had no leader. Instead, it was supposed to be the organic effort of several groups of people working together on the basis of their shared anger.
Nevertheless, as in practically every group—anarchist projects included—there are power dynamics. As is often the case, some people manage to accumulate more leverage than others, due to their access to resources, their capacity to persuade, or simply their skills with new technologies. Scrutinizing some of the self-proclaimed spokespersons of the “yellow vest” movement, we can see who has been able to accumulate influence within the movement and consider what their agenda might be.
Christophe Chalençon is the spokesperson for the Vaucluse department. Presenting himself as “apolitical” and “not belonging to any trade union,” he nevertheless presented his candidacy for the 2017 legislative election as a member of the “diverse right.” When we dig deeper into his personal relations and Facebook profile, we can see that his discourse is clearly conservative, nationalist, and xenophobic.
In Limoges, the organizer of the November 17 action of the “yellow vests” in the region was Christophe Lechevallier. Once again, the profile of this “angry citizen” is quite interesting. The least we can say is that Christophe Lechevallier seems to be a turncoat. In 2012, he presented his candidacy for the legislative elections as a member of a centrist party (the MoDem). Then he joined the extreme-right Front National (now called the Rassemblement National) and invited in 2016 its leader Marine Le Pen to a meeting. In the meantime, he was also working with the French pro-GMO agricultural organization FNSEA (the National Federation of Agricultural Holders’ Unions), known for defending the use of chemicals, such as the Glyphosate, to intensify their productions.
In Toulouse, the “yellow vest” spokesperson is Benjamin Cauchy. This young executive has been interviewed several times on national and local media. Again, this spokesperson is hardly “apolitical” if we consider his past. Benjamin Cauchy speaks freely about his political experience as a member of the traditional neoliberal right (at that time, the UMP, now known as Les Républicains). However, during law school, Benjamin Cauchy was one of the leaders of the student union UNI—well-known for its connections with conservative right and far-right parties and groups. But even more interesting, Benjamin Cauchy has not publicly acknowledged that he is now a member of the nationalist party Debout La France, whose leader, Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, made an alliance with Marine Le Pen (of the Rassemblement National) during the second round of the last presidential election in hopes of defeating Macron.
So it is clear that conservative and far-right groups are hoping to impose their discourse, spread their ideas, and use this “apolitical movement of angry citizens” as a way to gain more power. This has not gone entirely unopposed. The yellow vesters of Toulouse decided to evict Benjamin Cauchy from their movement due to his political views. On November 26, while invited at a radio show, the latter said that as an answer to his eviction, he was creating a new national organization entitled “Les Citrons” (the Lemons) to continue his fight against tax rises and took the opportunity to denounce the “lack of democracy that exists within the ‘yellow vests’ movement.”
Finally, it seems that the so-called “leaderless movement” completely changed its strategy in the aftermath of the second Parisian demonstration. On Monday, November 26, a list of eight official spokespersons of the movement was presented to the press. Apparently, the preceding day, yellow vesters were asked to vote online to elect their new leading figures. These nominations and strategic decisions are already creating tension within the movement. Some yellow vesters are now criticizing the legitimacy of the election, raising questions about how these leaders got selected in the first place.
Meanwhile, some members of the movement have called for another day of action on Saturday, December 1. The demands are clear: 1.) More purchasing power; 2.) The cancellation of all taxes on gas. If these demands are not granted, demonstrators say that “they will march towards Macron’s resignation.” So far, 27,000 persons have announced that they will participate in this event. Once again, the unity that was the watchword several weeks ago seems to have evaporated, as several local organizers have dissociated themselves from the movement in opposition to the more confrontational path that the movement seems to be taking.
Rather than addressing the question of horizontality, corporate media outlets have been focusing on another question: is the protesters’ anger legitimate?
Many media outlets have suggested that this movement is mostly composed of undereducated low-income people who are against protecting the environment; they describe the demonstrations as violent in order to delegitimize the anger of the participants. Despite this, some media outlets have shifted their discourse over time, becoming somewhat less condescending and more whiling to broadcast demonstrators’ concerns. For example, after the confrontations at the Champs Elysées last Saturday, Christophe Castaner, the new Minister of the Interior, said: “the amount of damages is poor, they are mostly material ones, that’s the most important thing.” Quite a surprising statement, considering how corporate media outlets and politicians have decried similar actions during the demonstrations on May Day and the protests against the Loi Travail.
From our perspective, there’s no doubt that their anger is legitimate. Most people who take part in this movement speak of the difficult living situations they have to deal with every day. It makes sense that they are saying that they have had enough; the gas issue is just the straw that broke the camel’s back. The lower-class population has to struggle harder and harder to survive while everyone else remains comfortable enough not to be affected by economic shifts and tax increases targeting consumers. For now, at least.
So anger—and direct action—are legitimate. The question is whether the political vision and values that are driving this movement can lead to anything good.
Numerous racist, sexist, and homophobic acts have taken place during yellow vest actions. During the November 17 demonstration in Paris, several well known anti-Semites and nationalists were seen among the crowd of demonstrators. Members of far-right and nationalist groups participated in the demonstrations on November 24 in Paris, as well. Some comrades have reported that the presence of the far right in the Paris demonstration is “undeniable.” They describe seeing a group of monarchists with a flag; the crowd considered their presence “insignificant” compared to the water cannons that law enforcement used during the clashes.
The same report also mentions several elements that are difficult to interpret. For example, while the crowd in Paris chanted some classic slogans of May 1968 (“CRS SS”) and the Loi Travail demonstrations (“Paris debout, soulève toi!”), they also chanted the first verse of the Marseillaise, which is currently associated with traditional republican parties and the far right, not radicals. This chant could be understood as a reference to its origins in the French Revolution, but the song has been coopted by its role as the French national anthem, giving it a patriotic and nationalist tone.
Another example: while marching down the Champs Elysées, the crowd chanted “We are at home.” For an English-speaking reader, this statement seems innocuous enough, an affirmation that the demonstrators had taken the streets, as the authors of the above report framed it. However, this chant echoes the one regularly used by National Front supporters during their meetings. Understood in that context, “we are at home” has a more sinister connotation. For nationalists, it means that France is and will always be a white, Christian, and nationalist country. Everyone who doesn’t fit their identity and political agenda is therefore considered a stranger or an intruder. In other words, this slogan creates a narrative about who belongs and who doesn’t. The use of these words during the yellow vest demonstrations is poorly chosen, if not ominous.
Paris is not the only place reactionary tendencies have emerged in the movement. Indeed, on November 17, in Cognac, yellow vest protestors assaulted a black woman who was driving a car. During the altercation, some protestors told her to “go back to [her] country.” The same day, at Bourg en Bresse, an elected representative and his partner were assaulted for being gay. In the Somme department, some yellow vesters called the immigration police when they realized that migrants were hiding inside a large truck stuck in traffic. The list goes on.
Finally, some participants in this “apolitical” movement have openly expressed contempt for social movements in general—including the movement for better education, the movement to defend hospitals and access to health care, and the movement of the railworkers. In effect, this movement that purports to dissociate itself from collective struggles so it can benefit “everyone” ends up promoting individualistic self-interest: the right of isolated consumers to keep using their cars however they want at a cheap price, without any real vision of social change.
How Should We Engage?
Among anarchists and leftists, we can identify two different schools of thought regarding how to engage with the “yellow vests” phenomenon: those who think that we should take part in it, and those who think that we should keep our distance.
Arguments to distance ourselves:
The yellow vest movement claims to be “apolitical.” By and large, the participants describe themselves as disgruntled citizens who work hard but are always the first to suffer from taxes and government decisions. This discourse has a lot in common with the Poujadisme movement of the 1950s, a reactionary and populist movement named for deputy Pierre Poujade, or, more recently, with the “Bonnets rouges” movement (the “red beanies”).
The idea that the movement is “apolitical” is dangerous in that it offers a perfect opportunity for far-right organizers, populists, and fascists to insinuate themselves among protesters. In other words, this movement offers the far right a chance to restructure itself and regain power.
As soon as the movement gained widespread attention, extreme-right politician Marine Le Pen and other conservatives and populists expressed support for it. So much for the talk about being “apolitical”!
Arguments in favor of participating in the movement:
This appears to be a genuinely spontaneous and decentralized movement involving low-income people. In theory, we should be organizing alongside them in order to fight capitalism and state oppression. Mind you, the concepts of class war and anti-capitalism are far from being accepted or promoted among the demonstrators.
Some argue that we should participating in order to prevent fascists from coopting the movement and the anger it represents. Some radicals believe that we should take part in these actions as a way to make new connections with people and spread our ideas about capitalism and how to respond to the economic crisis.
For some radicals, being skeptical of the current movement and not wanting to take part in it can also indicate some sort of class contempt directed at the “apolitical” poor. Others argue that in every situation, we should always aim to be actors rather than spectators. Some even assert that if we are “true” revolutionaries, we should leap into the unknown and discover what is possible instead of passively criticizing from a distance.
All these arguments are valid, but if they lead to anarchists participating in a movement that offers fascists a recruiting platform—as some anarchists did in the Ukrainian revolution—that will be a disaster that opens the way for worse catastrophes to come.
The fundamental problem with the yellow vest movement is that it begins from the wrong premises, attempting to preserve conditions that we should all have been fighting to abolish in the first place. Rather than seeking to protect today’s alienated and miserable consumer way of life, which is itself the result of a century of defeats and betrayals in the labor movement, we should be asking why we are so dependent on cars and gasoline in the first place. If our ways of surviving and traveling had not been constructed in such an isolating, individualized way—if capitalists were not able to exploit us so ruthlessly—we would not have to choose between destroying the environment and giving up the last vestiges of financial stability.
We have to change our habits and give up our privileges in the course of fighting for another world (or another end of the world), but as always, governments and capitalists are forcing us to bear the brunt of the problems they caused. We must not permit them to frame the terms of the discussion.
Incidentally, the situation is quite different outside the French homeland. On the island of Reunion, since November 17, there has been a social upheaval in which all strategic sites have been blocked—the port, the airport, and the prefecture. Fearing that they might lose control of the situation and being concerned about the impact on the economy, French authorities established a curfew on November 20 that lasted until November 25.
In Europe, as the yellow vest movement attempts to restructure itself after being weakened by leadership issues and conflicts over strategy, this might be an opportunity to create new bridges and make proposals about more systemic solutions to the problems that caused this movement.
Regarding ecology, we have to emphasize that the rich are the ones chiefly responsible for climate change, and that they will have to be the ones who pay to deal with it—if we are not able to dethrone them first. To some extent, this seems to be what the current blockading movement against capitalism and climate change Extinction Rebellion is trying to do in England. It is ironic that two different blockading movements about capitalism and ecology are taking place on either side of the English channel right now—one making ecological demands of the state, the other reacting to state environmental measures.
About nationalism, we must assert that it is no better to be exploited by citizens of our own race, gender, and religion than it is to be exploited by foreigners, and emphasize that we will only be able to stand up to those who oppress and exploit us if we establish solidarity across all the various lines of difference—race, gender, religion, citizenship, and sexual preference. We are inspired by the yellow vest protesters in Montpellier who formed a guard of honor to welcome the feminist and antisexist march on November 24.
Above all, we need an anti-capitalist, anti-fascist, anti-sexist and ecological front within the space of social movements. The question is whether that should take place inside the “yellow vests” movement, or against it.
On November 30 and December 1, the 2018 G20 summit will bring together the rulers of the 20 most powerful nations for a meeting in Buenos Aires, Argentina. In the third installment of our coverage of the 2018 G20 summit, our international correspondents describe the unprecedentedly massive security operation that is accompanying this summit, the international protest mobilization, and police violence against the poor population in the periphery.
Tuesday, November 20
Border Controls, Security Zones, and a City Blockade
The government announced on Monday, November 19 that it will be tightening border controls, focusing on the border triangle with Uruguay and Brazil as well as the international airport. They claimed to have “extensive international lists” and that they “will strictly prevent the entry of radical G20 protesters.” In case friends and activists are detained at the airport, the Protest Alliance has set up a round-the-clock legal emergency service.
On Tuesday, the “security junta” chaired by Minister Patricia Bullrich held a press conference; Bullrich is a machine of repression with an oligarchic family background and also some (decidedly dubious) past association with the Montoneros. Everyone expected large security zones and restrictions on freedom of movement, but the scope of what Bullrich announced went beyond the expectations of the assembled capitalist press.
The graded security zones will cover an area of about 20 square kilometers only in the inner-city area—a tenth of the total area of the capital. There will also be “variable corridors” and closed roads to the international airport 40 km away. Within the dark red security zone, the “Villa 31” is located—the so-called “Villa Miseria”—with its approximately 30,000 residents, which is close to the conference venue. As it appears, the residents are to be locked in or out of their homes and their neighborhood. They have virtually no lobby at all to advocate for them; on the contrary, they are highly stigmatized.
The square-shaped area below (to the south) in the following city plans is justified as “protection of the Theatro Colon”—where this Friday, the feudal dinner of the heads of state is to take place. However, the theater is not located in the middle of this zone, but close to the upper left edge, between the metro line B and the zone border. More than 200,000 inner city residents live in this square, which also houses the political and historical center of the city and the entire country, including the Congress and the Plaza de Mayo. The security zones also include the entire port, the inner-city airport, the city’s main arterial roads including the sixteen-lane Avenida of July 9, Retiro Central Station, large parts of the historic Recoleta district, and the expensive new Puerto Madero port quarter. For the latter two, we are talking about approximately 50,000 more residents who will be directly affected by the security around the summit. In addition, there is a smaller control area to the south, near the Plaza Constitución, which can only be explained by a “troop site” planned there.
In addition to all these security zones, restrictions on local public transport have been announced, on a scale that has never been implemented before at any previous summit. The entire regional rail network and the metro (“Subte”) network will be completely shut down during the G20. This will render travel impossible throughout the city. The same is true for all shipping traffic on the Rio de la Plata, the river that separates the neighboring cities of the metropolitan region and Montevideo in Uruguay from Buenos Aires.
On the other hand, some buses within Buenos Aires “may still run.”
All this is hard to swallow for city residents who have only experienced such conditions during general strikes. This time, however, the aim of the intervention is not a social concern—and certainly not “guaranteeing the safety of the summit”—but rather, cutting off or inhibiting the flow of protest towards the center. In the city center, only police and politicians should move freely. Everyone else—the inconvenient others—should leave for the countryside or stay locked inside their homes.
Wednesday, November 21
A Book, an Article, and a Call for a Demonstration
On Wednesday, the widely read national online newspaper Infobae published an article about the multilingual book To Our Compas in Buenos Aires by activists from Hamburg and Paris. Infobae is considered to be close to the reigning government; it is often cited by the German Foreign Office as a “serious source.” The lengthy article was titled “Take Care Compas—The Handbook of International Protest that the Government Is Studying ahead of the G20.”
First, the text briefly presents the concerns of the Argentine government, highlighting the alleged threat posed by international opponents of globalization. After that, however, the article quotes the book at great length in a fairly unbiased manner. For example, the book description appears unabridged and passages referring to the forthcoming summit in Buenos Aires are highlighted. The text is framed as a kind of “guide to protest,” though this is already refuted by the quotations. However, the article sketches a relatively comprehensive picture of the courses of events in Hamburg, chiefly through the quotations. Infobae describes it as “ridiculous” that the authors of the book describe the attendance of 80,000 people at the central demonstration as a “success”—a rather small number of participants, by Buenos Aires standards.
Surprisingly, on the same day, the short call for a demonstration in Hamburg to show solidarity with the protests in Buenos Aires, translated into Spanish, appeared on the front of the local protest website in Buenos Aires. The call is for a demonstration on the afternoon of December 1 after an FC St. Pauli home game. The preceding evening, there will be a meeting in a left cultural center in Hamburg to follow the events in Buenos Aires. The December 1 demonstration is also intended as a reaction to the anticipated repression.
And International Protests?
In addition to those in Hamburg, parallel protests will take place in Paris and London. There are probably also plans elsewhere. Very few activists from Europe or North America will come to Buenos Aires, and not only because of the announced border controls. The flights are expensive and harmful to the environment, police repression is expected to be intense, and the strange conditions in which the G20 will take place in Argentina are likely to deter many more protesters.
The alliance “Confluencia” expects activists from neighboring countries. In view of limited resources and the long distances, however, even within South America, travelling to protests in neighboring countries is by no means standard. Now, the Argentine government has added the offensively announced border closure. The national government and international security management are doing everything they can to minimize the number of participants from outside Argentina. Even journeys from other regions of Argentina will be rendered considerably more difficult by the interruption of the railway connections into Buenos Aires. It is even conceivable that this will extend to regional train connections and bus routes. The announced repression is also having an effect: one of the larger Peronist trade unions has already toned down its mobilization for this reason and in view of next year’s elections. One does not want to be associated too much with the foreseeable (or even conjured up) “riots.”
Thursday, November 22
“No Roof, No Land, No Life”
This is the headline of the progressive, left-leaning daily newspaper Página 12. Rodolfo Orellana, 36 years old, of Bolivian origin and father of five children, is dead, most likely murdered by the police. What happened? In the early morning, between 100 and 200 residents attempted to occupy a vacant site in the huge suburb of Matanza. In fact, the owner had already signed a far-reaching temporary use agreement with the local neighborhood association, in which Rodolfo Orellana was also active. This agreement document has been pushed from office to office for a long time in order to take effect legally.
Despite this legal grey zone, the police immediately arrived at the occupation in full gear and shot numerous rubber bullets, seriously injuring several people. A video shows Rodolfo Orellana, likely after his death. As became known later during the autopsy, he died as a consequence of live ammunition entering his shoulder. Based on the exit wound, the shot must have hit him when he was in a stooped posture, either standing or squatting with his back to the murderer.
Police maintain that neither the bullet nor the shell were found; the caliber of the bullet is supposed to be determined in a second autopsy. The police deny the use of firearms, alleging that there were hostilities between Bolivian and Paraguayan groups within the occupiers. Since the bloody political unrest of 2002, it is forbidden for the police in Argentina to carry firearms during demonstrations—and even more so to use them. But it is absurd to imagine that now, during a brutal evacuation, the demonstrators would have shot each other under the eyes of the police.
There were four more arrests, including a mother who was “allowed” to have her baby in the police cell for a short time every three hours to breastfeed. On the following day, there was a fierce and emotionally moving protest rally in the city center.
Housing Shortage in the Periphery
Officially, the city of Buenos Aires covers only 203 km² with 2.9 million inhabitants; by contrast, Berlin covers 891 km² with 3.6 million. However, there are officially almost 14 million inhabitants in the immediate metropolitan area. In the periphery there are also some isolated “islands for the rich” and areas with a mixed character, but by and large, the “outskirts” range from poor to extremely poor districts and informal settlements. The social and cultural contrast to the official “capital” is dramatic.
The “suburb” Matanza (in English, “slaughter” or “bloodbath”) hosts 1.8 million inhabitants—as many as the city of Hamburg. There are also several “villas,” places with improvised buildings. The housing shortage is most clearly visible in these shantytowns and their surroundings. Migrants from neighboring countries often live in highly crowded and inhumane conditions. Empty spaces are often squatted in order to open up a little more space for survival and life. In addition, there is a widespread “economía popular” via which people organize their everyday lives. Rodolfo Orellana was an activist there.
On November 30 and December 1, the 2018 G20 summit will bring together the rulers of the 20 most powerful nations for a meeting in Buenos Aires, Argentina to strategize about how to maintain world domination. Following the courageous disruption and mass unrest during last year’s G20 summit in Hamburg, the whole world is watching to see what will happen in Buenos Aires. Organizers have planned a global week of action expressing opposition to the concentration of power in the hands of politicians and capitalists and conveying a vision of a more egalitarian world. Our international correspondent in Buenos Aires will be reporting to us daily. Below, you can read the reports from the last few days before the mobilization and review our coverage of a decade and a half of previous resistance to G8 and G20 summits.
We will be publishing a kind of logbook covering the 2018 G20 summit in Buenos Aires and the demonstrations taking place against it. The function of a logbook is to record all essential events concerning the ship—including events on board, but also everything that could affect the ship from outside and observations during the voyage or when going ashore. Here, we will try to present the essential context of the 2018 G20 and give an impression of the general city events.
Prehistory and General Conditions
Buenos Aires was already chosen as the venue for 2018 before the 2017 G20 summit took place in Hamburg. This metropolis of 14 million people has been a protest stronghold in Latin America for a long time. This is even truer now, as a result of the far-reaching social cuts introduced by the neoliberal policies of President Macri’s government. The background to this is a currency crisis and a loan imposed by the IMF as the “only possible antidote.” According to official figures, the repayment and interest burden alone will account for approximately 25% of the state budget for many years to come. (In Germany, by contrast, a total of 6% is currently spent as “debt service” in the state budget.) The IMF is an integral part of the G20; consequently, the protests against the summit address the IMF, social questions, and the future viability of society.
The protest alliance “No al G20” is broad-based: it involves numerous trade unions, environmental associations, human rights groups, ATTAC, and large sections of the women’s movement and left-wing organizations. This mobilization is international, especially involving people from neighboring countries. An action week is planned before the summit, as well as a large-scale demonstration on Friday, November 30, the first day of the two-day summit.
The Argentine government has taken tremendous repressive measures. The deployment of 22,000 Argentine police officers has already been announced, and a further 5000 security forces from various countries are to supplement them. The government purchased discarded combat aircraft from France and new armored vehicles from China with optional MG armament on the roof. In addition, they bought an arsenal including fully 2 million rubber bullets, various surveillance equipment, and other police weaponry. The Argentine state is spending money on this while in the universities, the lights are going out in the evening due to unpaid electricity bills and pensioners have to tighten their belts three holes at a time.
November 30 has been legally declared a “holiday without work” for the entire city of Buenos Aires; the residents are encouraged to spend a long weekend in the countryside. In addition, for the duration of the summit, public transport will be completely suspended in the city center, if not the entire city.
Wednesday, November 14
Senate Waves IMF Program through; Protests before Parliament
It was foreseeable. After the House of Representatives had already approved the draft of the IMF program by a narrow majority; the approval of the much more conservative Senate seemed to be certain. This time, however, the Macri government made every effort to secure the broadest possible approval. That is why they haggled until the end—especially aiming to gain the approval of at least a few Peronists and of representatives of the rural regions. Those in rural areas will be particularly affected by the program because, in addition to the social cuts, it will also cut funding previously earmarked for the poorer provinces. A few specific representatives negotiated special conditions for their regions and finally agreed to pass the controversial IMF budget package. The vote was 45 in favor, 24 against, while opinion polls showed almost exactly the opposite picture among the general population.
While the debate was taking place, a rally of between 3000 and 5000 demonstrators gathered in front of the parliament (“el Congreso”)—quite a small number for Buenos Aires and especially in view of the important reason. A few weeks before, during the vote of the Chamber of Deputies, there came many, many more people and fierce clashes broke out. The largest blocs at that time were young Trotskyists and a more leftist faction within the Peronists. But there was also a kind of “standing panel discussion,” the “Barrios de Pie” were involved, and also a few more militant groups. When a small group, mostly unmasked despite several cameras, began to pry up paving stones from the street with iron rods, a sturdy group came out of the Peronist block and took the rods away from them. The Trotskyists sealed off their bloc with a human chain and shortly thereafter pulled away to hold their own smaller demonstration.
Finally, about 80 fully-equipped police officers stormed out of their own fencing towards the Peronist block, grabbed a very young anarcho-punk demonstrator, and dragged him away to loud protests from the crowd, which they blocked off by forming a chain across a side street. According to the press, a second person was arrested as well.
Notably, after a comparatively short sprint, most of that riot police in full gear were gasping for air. Their protective equipment must be enormously heavy.
Ritualized Protests and Repression before the Congreso
There is hardly a protest in Buenos Aires that does not end in front of the Parliament building—if it does not begin there. Accordingly, everything seems to be arranged: the roadblocks (2-meter-high connectable steel grids) are not transported away between demonstrations, but stored nearby and always rebuilt at the same intersections. At the adjacent main artery, this is indicated by installed signs reading “Evitar zona Congreso—Corte total” (“Avoid the congress zone—total blockage”). The standard barriers cover several hundred meters with numerous shops and an estimated 5000 residents. At the narrow checkpoints, the security guards wear suits; they probably already know many of the residents and regulate everything without helmets and truncheons on their belts. Often, everyday life plays out on three of the four sides of the ritualized barrier.
On the fourth side, however, in front of the main façade, demonstrations take place in front of the barrier on the large square, and clashes occur regularly. Behind the barriers, the police position their “Infanteria” (the usual term here), i.e., helmeted riot police, as well as water cannons and motorcycle units. If they think it´s necessary, they move to the spacious square in front of the parliament building, shoot tear gas and rubber bullets, clear the area, and beat and arrest people, often against embittered resistance.
Thursday, November 15
Press Conference of the Protest Alliance “La Confluencia—Fuera G20 y FMI”
This press conference took place at the Latin American human rights organization “Servicio Paz y Justicia.” The small hall was full to capacity—including, among others, the 1st German Television and the news agency Reuters. The podium is occupied by Beverly Keene, a spokeswoman of the alliance, and Nora Cortiñas, one of the best-known “Madres de la Plaza de Mayo.” Behind them stand other representatives of the alliance.
Beverly Keene briefly introduces the alliance and emphasizes its versatility and openness. It was not for nothing that it is called La Confluencia, i.e., a “confluence” of many different flows into a common river. She stresses that all meetings and preparations are open to the public and, in this context, criticizes the surveillance carried out by security forces. The danger does not come from the alliance, but rather from the premeditated state repression and from the G20 itself.
Then, succinctly but comprehensively, she sets forth the protesters’ concerns. The G20 leaders do not represent the interests of the people, as they claim to, especially not those of Latin America. Rather, their policies produce hunger, poverty, and destruction worldwide, especially in Argentina, where the IMF stipulations are currently aggravating the misery of millions of people. But this is only one part of an international system that no longer has any legitimacy. It is not for nothing that the G20 leaders have to hide behind an armada of security forces.
Then we hear about the events of the protest week, especially the “summit of alternatives” on November 28 and 29, which will take place on the square in front of the parliament building, and the mass demonstration on November 30, the first day of the summit. A trade union representative adds that several million demonstrators have already taken to the streets throughout Argentina against Macri—against the IMF program and thus also against the policy of the G20. Everywhere in the country, mobilizations are taking place; one may expect very, very many participants.
Next, we heard from Nora “Norita” Cortiñas with a short but touching speech. She vehemently called on people not to be intimidated and instead to take to the streets in droves. Her demand carries weight; she publicly opposed the military dictatorship at a time when participating in demonstrations could get you killed. Over 30,000 people were murdered—including Nora Cortiña’s son.
Protest Alliance and Appeals
The alliance involves nine international networks, 102 Argentine organizations, and eight from other countries. Among them are environmental associations (e.g., Friends of the Earth), several grassroots trade unions, organizations that are critical of capitalist globalization, left-wing anti-imperialist groups, ATTAC (also from France and Spain), a Basque Antifascist organization, internationalist groups, various campesino organizations, student associations, women’s organizations, human rights groups, associations for grassroots economy, and others. It does not involve the Peronist-dominated trade unions, but for example the “Movimiento Evita,” who see themselves as “revolutionary Peronists.” What is striking about the alliance and its external image is the large proportion of women in general and the specifically feminist component of the mobilization.
From the outset, the “Confluencia” has explicitly positioned itself as internationalist. This is all the more remarkable in view of the fact that generally, Argentinian politics from right to left are limited to a standard national framework. The call for mobilization was translated into five other languages, including English.
Friday, November 16
An Explosion at the Cemetery; Raids and 14 Arrests
Already on November 14, in the early evening, an explosion took place in the cemetery in the district of Recoleta, allegedly in direct proximity to the grave of Ramón Falcón, an infamous police chief who was assassinated by anarchists on November 14, 1909, precisely 109 years earlier. A woman was seriously injured in the explosion. A mother of two, she lost three fingers and was taken to hospital with severe facial and skull injuries; her companion was arrested directly. According to police, four more “homemade pipe bombs” were found at the grave.
Shortly thereafter, bodyguards arrested another man who allegedly threw a “highly developed incendiary bomb” that did not detonate under the parked car of the judge Claudio Bonadio. The federal judge had conducted various sensational corruption proceedings against former high-ranking Peronist officials and politicians, as well as sentencing two demonstrators to several months’ imprisonment after riots in December 2017. The arrestee is alleged to have visited one of them once in prison.
The police and large sections of the press evaluate both “attempts” as part of a militant campaign in the context of the upcoming G20 summit and classify the three arrested as “violent anarchists.” On this pretext, police carried out raids of several houses, including three left-wing cultural centers. The man arrested at the cemetery is alleged to have lived in one of them, which is alleged to be the “epicenter of the anarchist movement.” The police stormed the long-occupied house with heavily armed special units and arrested ten more people. So-called crow’s feet (caltrops) were presented to the press as “bomb material.” On the following day, another arrest took place.
In addition, two Lebanese brothers were arrested and accused of possessing numerous weapons. Both were accused of associating with Hezbollah and of planning an assassination during the G20. The whole thing became mixed up in the media, which used the excuse to portray a scenario of extreme danger. The press conference of the alliance “Confluencia” was pushed under the table and instead one media “fish story” chased after the next.
Bizarrely, the “donated” armored clearance vehicles from the Chinese to Argentina were delivered in a public ceremony. Security Minister Bullrich once again urged city dwellers to leave Buenos Aires already on the Thursday before the summit, because “…the situation in the city will become very complicated… if there is any violence, we will take immediate measures against and stop it.” In the meantime, the German Foreign Office has also issued a corresponding safety warning.
Anarchism in Argentina
From the late 19th century to the early 20th century, there was a very strong libertarian and anarcho-syndicalist movement in Argentina. For several decades, the FORA (Federación Obrera Regional Argentina) was the largest and most militant trade union in the country. After a long history of strikes, demonstrations, factory occupations, and bloody repression, the movement was largely crushed in the 1930s and 1940s.
Currently, the relatively small anarchist movement is closely linked to a subcultural context, similar to the anarchist movement in many parts of Europe. But anarchists also participate in major political mobilizations, such as those bringing attention to the kidnapping and murder of the activist Santiago Maldonado.
Appendix: Previous Coverage of Resistance to the G8 and G20
For nearly two decades, CrimethInc. has published firsthand accounts and analyses of demonstrations and acts of defiance at summits including the G8 and G20. These stories of strategy, courage, and adventure deserve to be passed on from one generation to the next.
We saw you last night among thousands of other anti-Trump demonstrators around the US. Their signs proclaimed, “No one is above the law.” You were the one with the sign reading “I love laws.” We need to talk.
Really, this is what gets you into the streets? Trump’s goons have been kidnapping your neighbors, preparing to block your access to abortion, openly promoting “nationalism,” calling the targets for lone wolf assassins who send mail bombs and shoot up synagogues—and your chief concern is whether what they’re doing is legal?
And if Trump and his cronies were to change the laws—what then?
If you’re trying to establish the foundation for a powerful social movement against Trump’s government, “no one is above the law” is a self-defeating narrative. What happens when a legislature chosen by gerrymander passes new laws? What happens when the courts stacked with the judges Trump appointed rule in his favor? What will you do when the FBI cracks down on protests?
If everything that put Trump in a position to implement his agenda were legal, would you be at peace with it, then? When some nice centrist politician takes office after him, but the police keep enforcing the policies he introduced and the judges he appointed keep judging, will you withdraw from the streets? Come to think of it, where were you under Obama when people were being imprisoned and deported by the million? Perhaps you have no problem with millions of people being imprisoned and deported as long as no one colludes with Russia or talks over a journalist?
We saw other protesters with signs entreating us to “Save Democracy.” Didn’t democracy inflict Trump on us in the first place? Isn’t it democracy that just brought Bolsonaro to power in Brazil—a racist, sexist, and homophobic advocate of the Brazilian military dictatorship and extrajudicial killings? If democracy enables outright fascists to legitimize their authority rather than having to seize power by force, what’s so great about it, exactly?
If “no one is above the law,” that means the law is above all of us. It means that the law—any law, whatever law happens to be on the books—is more valuable than our dearest desires, more righteous than our most honorable aspirations, more important than our most deep-seated sense of right and wrong. This way of thinking prizes group conformity over personal responsibility. It is the kiss of death for any movement that aims to bring about change.
Social change has always involved illegal activity—from the American Revolution to John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry, from the sit-in movement to the uprising in Ferguson. If not for the courageous deeds of people who were willing to break the law, we’d still be living under the king of England. Many of us would still be enslaved.
That is what makes your cheerleading for the FBI so chilling. You’re familiar with COINTELPRO, presumably, and many of the other ways that the FBI has set out to crush movements for social change? Imagine that your best-case scenario plays out and the FBI helps to orchestrate Donald Trump’s removal from power. What do you think that the FBI would do with all the legitimacy that would give them in the eyes of liberals and centrists? It would have carte blanche to intensify its attacks on poor people, people of color, and protesters, destroying the next wave of social movements before they can get off the ground. Nothing could be more naïve than to imagine that the FBI will focus on policing the ruling class.
The greatest peril we face is that Trump’s government will be replaced by a centrist government that will continue most of the current administration’s policies without violating any rules or norms. The more Trump’s regime is described as exceptional, the easier it will be for the next administration to get away with the same activities. In the long run, the system is at its most dangerous when it does not outrage people.
Mobilizing to support an FBI Director in response to the firing of one of the most racist Attorney Generals in living memory—this is the same “lesser of two evils” argument some have made for voting taken to its logical extreme; this approach guarantees that we will be reduced to advocating for the second worst of all possible evils. Firing Jeff Sessions helps Trump evade Mueller’s investigation, yes, but let’s be clear—men like Sessions, Trump, and Mueller do the most harm in the course of carrying out their official duties in strict observation of the law.
What Gives the Law Legitimacy in the First Place?
In the feudal era, when kingly authority was thought to be bequeathed by God and laws were decreed by kings, it was at least internally consistent to hold that everyone had a sacred duty to obey them. Today, this assumption lingers as a sort of holdover—yet without any rational basis. Certainly, the law decrees that no one is above it, but that’s just circular reasoning. What obliges us to regard laws as more valid then our own personal ethics?
Partisans of democracy like to imagine that laws arise because of their general utility to the population as a whole. On the contrary, for most of the history of the state, laws were decreed by monarchs and dictatorships—and only existed on account of their utility to rulers. Sovereignty itself is a fundamentally monarchist metaphor. If we no longer believe in the divine right of kings, that undermines any inherent claim that laws could have on our obedience. Rather than blindly complying, we have a responsibility to decide for ourselves how we should act. To cite Hannah Arendt, “No one has the right to obey.”
The law masquerades as a sort of social contract existing for everyone’s benefit. But if it’s really in everyone’s best interest, why is it so hard to get people to abide by it? The truth is, neither the powerful nor the oppressed have ever had good cause to obey laws—the former because the same privileges that enable them to write the laws release them from the necessity of observing them, the latter because the laws were not established for their benefit in the first place. It shouldn’t be surprising that a billionaire like Trump does not obey the laws. What’s surprising is that you still think that the rest of us ought to.
What’s the difference between the illegal activity of a Donald Trump and the illegal activity of a person who engages in civil disobedience? If “no one is above the law,” then they’re both equally in the wrong. No, the real distinction between them is that one is acting for selfish gain while the other is attempting to create a more egalitarian society. This is the important question—whether our actions serve to reproduce hierarchies or undermine them. We should focus on this question, not on whether any given action is legal.
What we are seeing today is the fracturing of our society. The peace treaties that stabilized capitalism through the second half of the 20th century are collapsing, and members of the ruling class are adopting rival strategies to weather the crises ahead. On one side, nationalists like Trump are betting on chauvinism and brute force, preparing to make the best of it as society splinters into warring groups. On the other side, centrist technocrats want to present themselves as the only imaginable alternative, using the specter of Trump and his kind to justify their own quest for authority. When they get back into office, you can bet that they won’t turn down any additional power that Trump has vested in the state. Your advocacy for “the rule of law” is music to their ears. And, of course, whatever additional power and legitimacy they concentrate in the state will be passed on to the next Trump, the next Bolsonaro.
Each side aims to instrumentalize the discourse of law and order in order to outflank the other in the battle for power. This isn’t new; it’s as old as the state itself. Immediately after the confirmation of Kavanaugh, you’re a sucker to imagine that the law represents some sort of social consensus rather than the edicts of whoever happens to control the institutions. To fetishize obedience to the law is to accept that might makes right.
To march under the banner “no one is above the law” is to spit in the faces of all those for whom the daily functioning of the law is an experience of oppression and injustice. It is to reject solidarity with the sectors of society that could give a social movement against Trump leverage in the streets. It is to assert the political center as a discrete entity that holds itself apart—that views both Trump and the social movements that oppose him as rivals to its own power. Finally, it is to legitimize the very instrument of oppression—the law—that Trump will eventually use to suppress your movement. Remember “Lock her up”?
You have to ask yourself some important questions now. Do you love laws—or justice? Do you love rights—or freedom?
If it’s laws you believe in, you’re on the right track. Just don’t have any illusions about what it means to value the law above everything else. If it’s justice you want, on the other hand, you need to be prepared to break the law. In that case, you need a totally different narrative to explain what you’re doing.
If it’s rights you’re after, you’ll need a government to grant them, protect them, and—inevitably—take them away when it sees fit. Whenever you use the discourse of rights, you set the stage for this to occur. There are no rights without a sovereign to bestow them. On the other hand, if you love freedom, rather than vesting legitimacy in the government, you’d better make common cause with everyone else who has a stake in collectively defending themselves against invasive efforts to impose authority, whether from Trump or his Democratic rivals.
From the anarchist perspective, all of us are above the law. Our lives are more precious than any legal document, any court decision, any duty decreed by the state. No social contract drawn up in the halls of power could provide a basis for mutually fulfilling egalitarian relations; we can only establish those on our own terms, working together outside any framework of imposed responsibilities. The law is not our salvation; it is the first and greatest crime.
A year ago, the Russian Federal Security Service—the FSB—initiated a wave of repression, arresting and brutally torturing anarchists in order to force them to sign false statements admitting to participating in a supposed terrorist group invented by the Russian authorities. The ensuing crackdowns put tremendous pressure on anarchists around Russia; you can learn more about the cases and solidarity efforts here. Today, a young Russian anarchist died in an attack on the FSB headquarters in Arkhangelsk. Below, we present a rough translation of the initial report from Russian anarchists, including the young man’s personal claim of responsibility.
As we have previously emphasized, we don’t believe that individual attacks on specific authority figures will suffice to abolish the institutional power of the state and capitalism. But the Russian state has left precious few alternatives for those who desire a means of bringing about positive change. At the conclusion of a week that has seen a tremendous upswing in authoritarian repression and fascist violence around the world, from Pittsburgh to Brazil, it is time for us to discuss how we can collectively respond to the escalating violence of the state and its fascist supporters.
It also bears mentioning that the FSB is directly descended from the KGB, showing the continuity of oppression between state socialism and capitalism.
We respectfully bid farewell to this young man who took a stand against repression, torture, and deceit, doing the best he could with the few options that were available to him. Let’s organize together to give people like him a reason to live. Please go to the support page for those targeted by the FSB operation.
At 8:52 am, at the entrance to the FSB Directorate for the Arkhangelsk Region, an explosion took place. The anarchist rebel, Zhlobitsky Mikhail Vasilyevich, also known on the app Telegram as Valerian Panov, blew himself up. This is the first case of anarchists carrying out such an attack on the FSB in 19 years; the previous attack was organized in 1999 at the reception of the FSB in Moscow by the New Revolutionary Alternative organization.
The comrade died as a result of the explosion, also causing injuries of varying severity to three officers of the FSB.
Seven minutes before the explosion, Valerian left a message in one of the anarchist chats via Telegram, in which he described the reasons for his action:
Comrades, now in the FSB building in Arkhangelsk there will be a terrorist attack, the responsibility for which I take upon myself. The reasons are clear to you. Since the FSB fabricates cases and tortures people, I decided to go for it. Most likely, I will die because of the explosion, because I have initiated the charge directly by pressing the button attached to the bomb cover. Therefore, you are requested to spread information about the terrorist attack: who committed it and what the reasons were.
Well, sort of like everything. I wish you to go unswervingly and uncompromisingly towards our goal. Light to you, the future of anarchist communism!
We bow our heads before the heroism of our comrade. We were not acquainted in person, but through communication, he left an impression of himself as an intelligent and well-prepared person who was not apathetic, who aspired to go beyond the swamp of the official opposition struggle that is now mainstream.
We are sorry that he had no other choice, no way to do more damage to the enemy with less harm to himself.
Yet be that as it may, he lived as he thought was right, and died as a hero in the struggle for our common ideals.
As the Kurds say—Şehid namirin! Heroes do not die!
In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, fascist proponent of dictatorship and mass killings, has won the election. Who needs a military coup when you use voting to accomplish exactly the same thing? We’ve already explored in detail how the left and centrist parties paved the way for this. From Brazil to France, parties across the political spectrum have lost all pretense of offering any solution to social problems other than escalating state violence. In this context, it’s not surprising that politicians who explicitly represent the police and military are coming to power, as they have become the linchpin of the state itself.
Our hearts go out to our comrades in Brazil, who have already experienced a tremendous amount of state repression and capitalist violence—and will now face far worse. Perhaps the immediate resistance that greeted the election of Donald Trump can serve as a useful reference point. Yet because of the specific ways Brazil is on the receiving end of colonialist violence, the wave of nationalism that has already crested in the United States and Europe will involve considerably more brutal violence there. We call on everyone around the world to prepare to mobilize in solidarity with those who are targeted in the attacks that Bolsonaro has promised to carry out.
As anarchists, we don’t believe that elections grant legitimacy to any ruling party. No election could legitimize police violence, homophobia, racism, or misogyny in our eyes, nor prisons, borders, or the destruction of the natural world on which everyone’s survival depends. No vote could give a mandate to anyone who wants to dominate others. Majority rule is as repugnant to us as dictatorship: both make coercion the fundamental basis of politics.
The important question is not how to improve democracy; fundamentally, democracy is a means of legitimizing governments so that people will accept their impositions, no matter how tyrannical and oppressive those may be. The important question is how to defend each other from the violence of the state; how to find ways to meet our needs that don’t depend on unanimity or coercion; how to collaborate and coexist rather than competing for power. As more and more oppressive regimes take power around the world, we have to have done with our illusions about “good” democratic government and organize to protect each other by any means necessary.
The opposite of fascism is not democracy. The opposition of fascism is freedom; it is solidarity; it is direct action; it is resistance. But it is not democracy. Democracy, yet again, has been the mechanism that brought fascists to power.
Over the past several months, our comrades in Brazil, Greece, and Germany have all published translations of From Democracy to Freedom, our analysis of the common threads that connect democracy and dictatorship. We offer those translations here—in case the Brazilian group’s site unexpectedly goes offline—along with an English translation of the epilogue to the German translation. Our comrades in Germany are also organizing public presentations about the book.
For more on why the democratic movements of 2010-2014 reached an impasse, enabling far-right groups to appropriate their rhetoric and seize the initiative, read this analysis we published ahead of the Swedish elections last month.
Epilogue from the German Publishers
Before this book was published, we presented discussions about democracy together with comrades from the US and Slovenia in autonomous centers around Germany. Although none of the texts in From Democracy to Freedom explicitly deals with the situation in Germany, that does not mean that we have not had quite similar experiences—on the contrary.
A few weeks before the federal election in 2017, a propaganda truck was driving around on behalf of the Bundestag, the German federal parliament. They were distributing baseball caps and candies featuring the Bundesadler, the coat of arms of the Weimar Republic (which is back in service to today’s German government), as well as propaganda films for students about parliamentary democracy. The organizers emphasized how democratic Germany is. This sort of advertising offensive was obviously necessary for a system that has good reason to fear for its own legitimacy.
All parties represented in the Bundestag claim that democracy as one of their central issues. The SPD wants to risk trying more democracy, like Willy Brandt said; the Green party wants to expand democracy; the Left just wants more democracy; Christian Democrats want to strengthen democracy; liberals want to revive democracy; and the racist, neo-fascist AfD presents itself as a party for direct democracy. The entry of the AfD into parliament confirms once again that advocacy for direct democracy is hardly a guarantee of emancipatory politics.
Whatever we do, whatever we demand, we should always make sure to emphasize why we are struggling, so as to protect our ideas and rhetoric from appropriation by conservative or fascist groups who fight for the exact opposite of what we are fighting for.
Those who pursue initiatives for “more” or “real” democracy like to present themselves as courageous or even revolutionary fighters against the prevailing political order—when in fact, they only want another kind of representation. Conferences with names such as “Democracy Needs Movement” are an example of this development. As people who express ourselves uncompromisingly against any form of democracy, we nevertheless spoke there; people raised their eyebrows at us because our positions and goals cannot be implemented in the context of a better democracy.
For many, it is impossible to imagine that there could be anything else. This is one of the problems with democracy: it narrows down what we can imagine.
In anti-capitalist struggles in Berlin, we met people who appeared to believe that making signs with their hands during meetings represented the epitome of revolutionary behavior. Some people told us that the methods of communication and decision-making should take priority over the results. Some didn’t see it as a problem that their chosen form of decision-making resulted in the permanent obstruction of any meaningful form of activity.
All this, because for the first time in their lives, they understood themselves as an important part of an apparatus. We were expected not to destroy this feeling of finally getting it right. We did it anyway.
We tried to adapt to the proposed rules of “non-violent activists” in order to be able to cooperate with them. In the process of making decisions with them, we used the right of veto to block a decision that seemed intolerable to us. We discovered that our veto was less important than other people’s veto. In the end, we had to discuss whether there could be a veto against our veto.
Once again, we saw that the official methods of decision-making only last as long as they serve the interests of those who introduced them.
When we were part of the discussions preparing the blockading actions at the G20 summit, we decided to be strategic: we sat in different positions in the meetings, we split up into different working groups. We did this to prevent worse attempts at manipulation, to block authoritarian attempts to control the process from the very beginning, to influence the discourse. Doing this, we learned something about our own power potential—and it scared us. We saw that we could play this game too: we knew the mechanisms and we could play the same tricks. We knew how and when to formulate a question if we wanted to be the ones who determine how the discussion would go—how to fix the order of the points on the agenda—when to set the start time of a meeting. Sometimes we were not just afraid of ourselves, but also disgusted—because on the way to overthrowing all authority, we were tempted simply to seek to get our own piece of the cake.
This experience gives us all the more reason to be critical of the democratic framework.
We have not only encountered the debate about democracy in practical struggles on the street. We can also find it in a few theoretical texts from German-speaking countries. We can recommend two such publications here:
A secret children’s book passed from hand to hand, invisible to the market. After a decade and a half, we’re finally offering a zine version of The Secret World of Duvbo, the companion to our other children’s book, The Secret World of Terijian. This is a story about the furtive outlets we create for the parts of ourselves that do not fit into our ordinary lives—about the potential for transformation hidden within seemingly staid and conservative communities—about how the courage of one can become the courage of all.
This story has followed a long and winding path to reach your hands. The plot line was conceived in São Paulo, Brazil in early 2000. The first draft was composed at the end of January 2002, at Demonbox, a now-defunct collective house in Stockholm that, incidentally, was also the original European publisher of Days of Love, Nights of War. It was written as a gift for Arwin, who was born the following May in the real-life neighborhood of Duvbo.
In 2004, after publishing several books for sale on the market, we wanted to make a book that would only be available through gift economics. We printed a few thousand copies of The Secret World of Duvbo and gave them away to friends, lovers, and charming strangers over the following years.
Traveling in Minnesota in 2006, we discovered a new CrimethInc. cell that had composed a sequel, The Secret World of Terijian. In 2007, we published it in the same format as The Secret World of Duvbo, selling it as a fundraiser for defendants accused of earth and animal liberation. Within two years, the authors were themselves imprisoned on such charges and we had to raise funds for them as well. By then, most of the print run of The Secret World of Duvbo was long gone.
In 2018, we saw copies of the 2004 printing of The Secret World of Duvbo selling online for $125 and up, shipping and tax not included. We had eluded both the market and the internet for 14 years, but they were finally catching up to us. We prepared this edition to make sure that the text can still reach you outside the exchange economy, if no longer in the context of personal interaction that gave the original printing its special power. May we meet someday as friends, nonetheless.
Burn every toy store and replace them with playgrounds,
-CrimethInc. Children’s Crusade
The Secret World of Duvbo
A magical story about a perfectly ordinary world
I wanted to write the most perfect story for you, so you would know how excited we all are for you to join us. I went around with a blank notebook for weeks, trying to work out the perfect first line for a perfect story. Finally, since I couldn’t come up with it, I moved on to trying to work out the perfect second line. I went through every line that way, right up to the last one, without any success. And then it hit me: I had written a perfect story, after all, but since this is not a perfect world, the story couldn’t join me here—it was waiting in another universe, the one where everything is perfect, even me.
To solve this problem, I had to sit down and write you an imperfect story, so at least you would have something to read. If nothing else, I think I’ve succeeded in doing that. By the time this reaches you, it will have been waiting for years; but all the same, late as it is to say this—welcome here!
Duvbo was a sleepy town in the world that is just like our world in every respect except that it is the one in which stories like this one take place. It wasn’t particularly close to or far from any other towns, and although people came in and out sometimes, life in Duvbo centered around what was going on in Duvbo, which generally wasn’t much at all. The residents didn’t seem to think much about this, but if someone had asked them, they probably would have answered that this was the way they preferred it.
If you were to take a walk around Duvbo on a sunny afternoon, you would pass through neighborhoods of modest houses, a few to a street, trees shading the well-trimmed grass behind white picket fences. Whatever path you took, you would be bound to come eventually to the center of town, where there were a street of shops, a street of civic buildings, and a central square where they intersected. It was a large enough town that a small child could get lost in it, but not so large that he would not quickly be found and returned home.
In this town there lived one mayor, four policemen, six firefighters, three mail carriers, four hundred and twelve assorted other workers, some retired, and their one hundred and nineteen children, most of whom attended the one school, which was staffed by nine teachers, including a particular Ms. Darroway, who taught mathematics. In addition to all these inhabitants, there were two especially grumpy retired army officers, who don’t come into the story until later, and one especially shy, especially sensitive boy, Titus, who will be the hero of this tale.
All in all, then, there were five hundred and fifty seven residents of Duvbo; you should try to remember this number, in case it becomes important later on.
Let’s start with Titus: he was a tousle-headed little fellow, perhaps a little shorter than his classmates, given to daydreaming and distraction but no more preoccupied than any other child his age. He wasn’t a boy to stand out in a crowd, but on closer inspection you might notice him—he would be the one near the edge of the group, looking one direction while everyone else was looking the other. Truth be told, he paid more attention to his surroundings than adults gave him credit for, and sometimes noticed things no one else did.
The mayor was a great big ostentatious man given to flaunting extravagantly ordinary ties and delivering long-winded speeches about nothing in particular, and Titus only saw him on special occasions like the county fair or the Christmas parade at the end of autumn. He didn’t see too much of the police officers, either, and though police officers in other towns are known for doing quite horrid things, these four weren’t really a bad sort. The firefighters would come to his school once a year to ramble through a presentation about fire safety and prevention, but as far as Titus could tell, there were never any fires in Duvbo for them to put out.
The mail carriers were more interesting to the boy, or at least one of them was. Every day on his way back from school, Titus would pass her coming down the driveway from his house, having just dropped the mail in the mail slot; as soon as he had passed her, so she wouldn’t see him do it, he would run up the front steps and fling open the door to see what had arrived. Nothing ever had, of course, except for bills and other confusing, humdrum things that set his parents to muttering; but all the same, it seemed to Titus that a mail carrier ought to bring important packages, magical invitations, parcels that would open to reveal hidden entrances to other worlds or at least maps to buried treasure. So every afternoon, just in case, he was there, fingers crossed, to check the mail—and every afternoon it was the same: bills and advertisements.
As you’ve probably already guessed, Ms. Darroway was Titus’s mathematics teacher, and he sat in her classes many long hours every week daydreaming and counting down the minutes until he and the mail would arrive on that doorstep. She was a stern, strict, unlaughing woman, and would always catch him with his head in the clouds and chastise him in front of his classmates. Still, his mind would wander, and he couldn’t help following it out those windows, across the placid fields around Duvbo, over the hills and far away into wild jungles where women and men with painted skin rode winged fish up black rivers to abandoned cities at the feet of towering mountains… sometimes when the bell rang to release him, he was almost sorry to come back to his seat, even though he knew it was time to run home to see if the package he longed for had finally arrived.
Through the course of this tale, you may sometimes wonder where Titus’s parents were; the answer is, of course, that they were there, somewhere in the background, like many people’s parents are these days. Titus was not so lucky as to have parents who knew how lucky they were to share their lives with him, and he had to work a lot of things out on his own. This is the story of how he did, and of how much of a difference it made for everyone.
Weeks and weeks of hopeful afternoons added up to months with still nothing special in the mailbox. At Titus’s young age, that seemed like an impossibly long time for nothing special to happen, and he began to fear that something was wrong in the world; but everyone around him carried on in such a nonchalant manner, and with so little visible desire for Something Special to arrive in the mail or from any other direction, that some days he wondered if something was simply wrong in himself that he should want such a thing. If he had been a braver boy, he thought to himself in a tone of accusation, he would have asked the mailwoman if strange packages from exotic lands didn’t show up on at least some doorsteps, sometimes; but he was at that age when boys become too self-conscious to ask such things aloud, even if a part of them still shouts the question silently.
He should not have been so quick to criticize himself, for as it would turn out, he would demonstrate great bravery and initiative when the time came. But he had no way of knowing this, yet, and went about thinking of himself as something of a coward, hoping for an opportunity to prove his courage with the same mounting impatience with which he awaited the arrival of something magical in the post.
This impatience led him to do something that parents tell their children Never To Do Under Any Circumstances, the sort of thing they certainly do not want little boys doing in the stories their children read—so if you’ve gotten this far, you can consider yourself lucky. Fed up with a life in which nothing ever happened, Titus began secretly staying awake until everyone else in the house was asleep, and then—this is the really controversial part—sneaking out of the house to take walks in the witching hour of the night. Each night he would wait until he heard the low rumble of his father’s snoring, then the quieter whistle of air between his sleeping mother’s lips, and, after counting breathlessly to one hundred, would hold the pillow over the window latch to muffle the sound as he unlocked it. Then he would open the window just wide enough to slip his body out, and lower himself carefully to the ground a few feet below, trembling as he did in the thrill of doing something so frightening and forbidden. Some nights he would step on a twig as he reached the ground, and freeze in terror for minutes until he was sure he hadn’t awakened his parents; he began to check the area under his window for sticks in the afternoon, after the latest disappointing batch of bills had arrived.
On the first few outings, he didn’t stray far from the house—it was enough just to stand in the dim streetlight in the front yard, looking at the dark forms of trees that loomed overhead and savoring the chill air on his face. After a week of this, though, he had built up enough courage for a short expedition down the street, and then another. The whole world looked so different at night—everything that was familiar in daylight became, in the still starlight and emptiness of sleeping Duvbo, spooky and nearly magical. Squinting at the silhouettes of street signs made blank by the blackness, almost swallowed up by the silence in which his footsteps boomed, Titus felt like the last human being on earth—or the first.
Parents and other adults forget this as the years pass, but you know it well, I’m sure: children’s lives are electrified by secret adventures like this, given their true form and meaning by moments no one else witnesses. Already Titus was daydreaming less about the afternoon mail and more about what he would do later in the evening while the city slept; and every day in class a taciturn, tired Ms. Darroway would snap him out of his reveries with a sharp word or a rap on the wrist.
One night, flushed with a growing confidence from weeks of these expeditions, Titus crossed a line. This evening, when he arrived at the edge of the neighborhood he knew, he didn’t turn back, but paused—and then, mustering all of his little boy’s bravado, walked forward, onto a street he could not recognize in the darkness. Every step was a terror, at first: he laid his feet down as if the pavement might give way beneath them, or the whole town suddenly be transformed into thick and impassable jungle. As successive steps revealed these fears to be unfounded, he shook himself, tried to relax a little, and returned to his usual pace. It was a little like walking with your eyes closed, which, if you’ve never done it, you should try some time: he expected to hit disaster at any moment, and shuddered sometimes despite himself, but the disaster did not come, and if he didn’t think about it too hard, it was as easy as anything to keep moving.
Soon, he began to feel free and sure of himself in a way he hadn’t before in the few long years of his young life. Here he was, out in a fairyland no one else ever saw, navigating it with the fearlessness and finesse of a true explorer; if those sleeping civilians only knew! He rounded corners and set off down new lanes like a pirate captain swaggering onto the beach of a newly discovered island. Finally, he decided it was time to return to his bed.
And then, with a dread that ran as deep as his elation had soared high, he realized he was lost. He hadn’t kept track of every turn as he should have—and in the dim of the streetlamps, all the landmarks he had haphazardly picked out looked the same. He took one familiar-looking road, but it led to no others he remembered; he turned back, and tried another, only to have second thoughts—and, upon trying to retrace his steps, lost track of his path altogether.
Looking on from above, as it were, we can see that Titus had not strayed more than a few streets from his neighborhood; but from where he stood, in the murk of moonless night, it seemed home might as well be a thousand miles away. He wanted to sit down and cry, but he knew he was in such deep trouble that he couldn’t afford to waste a moment. Bravely, he walked on, deeper and deeper into the maze of his own confusion, hoping now against hope that he might stumble upon something he recognized—Duvbo was not such a big town, after all. Still, nothing of the sort appeared, for what seemed like hours and hours and miles and miles, and he was in the final stages of panic when he was startled by something altogether extraordinary and unexpected.
At the far end of the street he was passing on his left, he made out a glimmering distinctly different from the light the sparsely scattered streetlamps cast. It glowed, red and golden, and flickered as if with movement, or shadows. This was such a wild development that for a moment little Titus forgot all about his predicament: he had to see what it was, whatever the consequences. A lifetime of private fantasy had prepared him for this moment, and although his imagination conjured nightmares and well as wonders out of the light ahead of him, he turned and crept up the sidewalk towards it all the same.
As he proceeded, the street grew wider, and he saw that there was an open space ahead of him, in which he could make out the silhouettes of trees above and the texture of grass below. He also made out something else: figures, spinning and whirling around a great fire. The fierce light stretched their forms and magnified their proportions, made them appear unreal and enormous. This was beyond out of the ordinary—it was positively beyond belief, and Titus whirled internally at the shock and wonder of seeing with his own eyes, in monotonous Duvbo, a scene the like of which he had only dimly imagined in his mind. He froze, dizzy, torn between running forward and running away—but it was a choice he did not have to make.
In the very next instant, the great bonfire went out with a whoosh of sparks, and the figures disappeared in all directions, melting into the darkness. Titus leaped into the bushes behind him, but it was unnecessary—nothing and no one reappeared, and soon the stillness settled back in and resumed its air of permanence. Something else happened, too: Titus discerned the first glimmers of pink in the sky overhead—the sun was preparing to rise.
As it got lighter, the street came into focus, and Titus suddenly realized where he was: this was the central square of Duvbo! He could make his way home from here, if he followed the street past the fire station. There was no sign anywhere of the fire or the feral dancers, and he crept carefully out of his hiding place and across the cool grass, morning dew dampening his shoes, to start back.
He hurried through neighborhoods that once again took on an entirely different character, the rosy first light falling on familiar roofs and hedges as the dreams of slumbering families drew to a close. He was drained and out of breath, yet still shaking with adrenaline and awe from his discovery, when he slipped back in through his bedroom window and pulled it shut behind him, almost too distracted to muffle the latch. A few minutes later, as he lay in bed, heart racing, attempting to feign sleep, his mother came in to rouse him for school. It was as amazing to him as everything else had been that night that she didn’t notice anything unusual.
Titus spent the next day in a confused combination of exhaustion and exhilaration. It was impossible to think about anything but what he had seen, what it could have been, what he should do the coming night, and at the same time his brain was so foggy, his eyelids so heavy, his body so worn out that it was all he could do to stay awake in class. Ms. Darroway seemed particularly short-tempered and weary herself, and gave him no quarter whenever his head drooped to one side. Poor Titus pinched himself and kicked his feet against each other, trying to keep up at least a veneer of attentiveness, but with his mind swirling with dervish dancers and sleep deprivation it did little good. Finally, after five hundred years of mathematics and dour reprimands crammed into fifty-five minutes, class was over.
There was nothing special in the mail, of course, so Titus set himself to the task of killing the hours until his parents were asleep. What was it he had witnessed, after all, he wondered? Did witches visit Duvbo? Was it haunted by ghosts? Had he almost interrupted a gathering of bandits? Were there even bandits, or witches, or ghosts anywhere, anymore, in this age? The one conclusion he came to again and again was that, whatever the danger and however great his fears, he had to go investigate further that night.
But when the moment came, and his mother switched off the light in his room, he plunged instantly into sleep—long before his parents even retired to their room. He was simply too exhausted to stay awake any longer.
The next evening, of course, he was wide awake and electrified with anticipation. After he heard the first whistle of his sleeping mother’s breath he was barely able to restrain himself while he counted, as fast as possible, to one hundred. On the final number he bolted upright and threw open the window latch with scarcely any muffling at all, and hopped down to the ground, which he had carefully picked clear of twigs that afternoon.
Once on the street outside, apprehension set back in. What would happen if they caught him, whoever or whatever they were? What if they were unfriendly? They were certainly otherworldly, at least of another world than Duvbo. He couldn’t know what to expect from them, couldn’t begin to imagine. But there was no way around it: he would have to be careful, and find out what he could. He wrapped his scarf over his mouth and nose as an impromptu mask, more as a charm against his own fears than anything else, and set out.
He had carefully charted the route from his house to the central square that afternoon, so there was no chance he would get lost again; all the same, it was a very different walk in the darkness. The uncertainty of what awaited him ahead coupled with the gloom of the streets around him made the trek fearsome indeed. Had he been older and more what adults call “mature,” he might have reasoned himself out of it, or at least waited to return with reporters and a camera crew; but he was young, and innocently impetuous, and ready for magic.
And it was waiting for him. Drawing close to the central square again, he once more made out a light in the center, beneath the trees. It was less bright, and flickered less wildly; soon he saw that the figures around it were not dancing, now, but gathered in a great circle of seated silhouettes. In the middle, before the bonfire, one towering figure stood, moving its arms in powerful sweeping gestures. All backs were to him, so Titus moved in closer.
The standing figure was draped in a complete bearskin, the fur hanging in strips around the arms, the shadow of the open jaws obscuring the face within. And she was speaking: when Titus heard her words, he recognized it as a woman’s voice, one that sounded almost familiar, and yet at the same time was unlike anything he had heard before. Her tone was so clear and strong that it carried through the square and resonated in his chest, but it had a softness and a warmth that only deepened his impression of its strength. It was a story she was telling, a story like the ones he made up in mathematics class, but fleshed out with even more imaginative details and fantastic settings than his own: men tattooed maps to mysterious portals on their children’s skin, women traveled on subterranean streams to the inner space at the core of the earth, flew there in the zero gravity to a hidden moon floating within. He listened, entranced, and crept closer, despite himself.
The speaker concluded her tale with a line of eerie poetry, and then turned sharply in Titus’s direction: “And now,” she pronounced, “it is time for us to hear a story from our new guest.”
Titus jerked to his feet and stumbled backward, but before he could get any farther a pair of hands seized him from either side and bore him to the center of the circle. Little Titus stood there before the great fire, surrounded by dark forms in outlandish costumes, and froze like an animal under a searchlight. Impulsively, he tightened the scarf around his face, but there was no getting around it: he was caught. “Go on,” another figure urged him, in a tone of voice he could not decipher: “a story.”
Titus opened his mouth, and began to speak: haltingly at first, but then, discovering a voice of his own that he had never had cause to engage, he told, with mounting confidence, one of his own stories from his daydreams. He narrated for dear life, adding clever digressions and extravagant descriptions, hoping the shadowy circle would not be disappointed and have him flayed or burned alive.
At the end of his story, there was a silence. He looked, fearful, around the circle, but could not see the eyes of the ones watching him, could not imagine what would happen next—and then, all at once, there erupted from all hands a great applauding, and from all throats a great cheering, and in the next instant, as had happened two nights before, the fire went out in an explosion of sparks and all the figures disappeared abruptly into the darkness.
The following day Titus was as exhausted as he had been two days earlier, and as perplexed and excited. He sat in mathematics class, eyes pointed at the blackboard but unfocused, and reflected on his discovery. He had uncovered a fabulous mystery, a secret side of Duvbo that no one knew of but himself; it was amazing that such an exotic company would gather in the heart of such an ordinary, even dreary, place. Where were they coming from? What drew them here? He had the strange feeling that the pieces of the puzzle were right in front of him, but he couldn’t put it together. He resolved, head blurry with fatigue, to let himself catch up on rest that night, so he could be in top condition to investigate further the following evening. At that moment, Ms. Darroway wrenched him from his reverie with a sharp word. She looked as tired as he felt.
The night after, he was there again, making his way into the main square in the middle of the night, scarf around his face and heart pounding in his chest. Again it was different: now there was no central fire, but the area was lit by torches on the trees; some of the figures were playing instruments, sweet-voiced silver wind instruments and belligerent booming box-drums and great strange stringed things stroked with two-pronged bows, while the others spun and twirled and leaped in trailing scarlet gowns and elaborately layered veils and elegant black capes. It was a masked ball.
Still apprehensive, Titus paused at the edge of the torchlight, but one of the dancers saw him and, as she passed by, seized his hand and pulled him into the dance. He had never danced like this before; growing up in Duvbo, he had hardly ever danced at all. Now they were all clasped in concentric circles. They sped above the ground, feet barely brushing it, clutching each others’ hands lest they hurtle out into space, momentum pulling the circles ever wider as they spun faster and faster. In the center of the action, Titus now made out the imposing woman from his previous visit: the bearskin was gone, replaced by a wrap of dozens of multicolored scarves, but it was unmistakably her. She held hands with no one, but stamped out her own dance, kicking her legs high over every head and swinging her arms like the wings of a fierce bird of prey; the scarves retraced her movements in the air behind her in slow motion, following like a shadow dancer in her footsteps.
All in an instant, the dance shifted, and each participant took a partner. Titus was chosen by a young woman with a brightly painted face, who lifted him up high in the air above her; then the music paused for an instant, and the partners switched. Now Titus was passed to an impossibly tall, long-legged man—no, he must be wearing stilts!—and now, at another sudden pause, to a pair in matching costumes, and then to another partner, and another. The song grew rowdier, faster, more forceful and irresistible; it seemed to be emanating from his own pounding heart.
Suddenly, Titus was arm in arm with the woman in the scarves. The rest of the world seemed the fall away to a great distance, and even the deafening music became remote, manifesting itself instead as the inexorable rhythm of their bodies. She was clearly possessed of a superhuman strength, and as her companion, it was communicated to him: Titus found he could leap high in the air, spin in circles, lose himself in movement in a way he never had before. The musicians struck a high, drawn-out note which brought the world back into focus for a second as he spun to face his partner, and then again cut all the sound for a second’s pause: and in that instant, looking into her eyes, he recognized exactly who this woman was—it was Ms. Darroway.
Another dancer seized him, and she disappeared behind him into the throng before he could react. Now, looking around, he saw others he could recognize in the torchlight, despite their disguises: there atop the stilts was the fireman who did the yearly fire safety presentations, and there behind a veil was an older student from the school, and there—that was even the woman who brought the mail to his doorstep every afternoon! This was far stranger than any strangers’ carnival could have been. And once again, in the instant he formed that thought, all the torches came down, the square was plunged into darkness, and Titus found himself absolutely alone in the hour before dawn.
The next day was a Saturday, so Titus had the chance to fall asleep when he slipped back into bed, and he slept late—later than he ever had before. His parents didn’t notice; they went out early to do something, and so when he woke up, muscles sore and feet raw from the dancing, head still groggy from a week of little sleep, he found he was alone in the house. He dressed slowly and then stepped out onto the front porch.
It was nearly noon. Duvbo looked exactly the same as it had every Saturday morning for as long as he could remember, but he saw it with different eyes. As old men passed walking their dogs, or mothers with their children, he wondered which ones had been with him in the dance the night before, which ones shared the secret he now possessed as well. Now every passer-by was a potential conspirator, a might-be fly-by-night reveler or story-spinner; it was as if trap doors waited around every corner and under every bush, all leading right out of reality as he had known it. Titus’s world, once no bigger than the small town from which he had pined for deliverance, now expanded around him in every direction.
When Monday found him back in mathematics class, he concentrated for the very first time on really paying attention, and fixed his eyes on Ms. Darroway’s. They were indeed the eyes of the woman who had told that dazzling story and danced that magnificent dance, though here they were somewhat tired and distant. He winked at her, as he had wanted, walking on the clouds of his new discovery, to try winking at everyone he had met since his last adventure, in case they too were in on the secret. She gave no indication she had noticed anything: either she hadn’t recognized him, or it was a secret not to be referred to outside the gatherings. Titus was comfortable with that. He would see her and their companions in surreptitious adventures later that night at the square, after everyone else was asleep.
Months passed. Through a strange process of attraction, an invisible magnetism, or perhaps simply as the inevitable result of living in a town in which Nothing Ever Happened, every week brought a few more wanderers to the secret gatherings. All were absolutely astonished to discover that they were not the only ones who had harbored unspoken longings for Something To Happen, that fellow dreamers had lurked in the ranks of the polite and restrained citizens surrounding them.
The night assemblies were everything these unconfessed outsiders had dreamed of, and more—they were the very opposite of life in Duvbo: witches’ sabbats in which everything savage and beautiful, every wild impulse stifled by decorum in daily town life, was given free reign in a symphony of creativity and abandon. The conspirators juggled, walked through, and swallowed fire, erected fantastic stages and performed life-sized puppet shows, lay naked but for their masks in the moon’s rays upon the grass and composed their own constellations out of the stars in the sky. They lived for these hours, they counted down the minutes through weary mornings and tedious afternoons and uneventful evenings to the nights when they could give expression to their secret selves, when they would be possessed spirits again. As little Titus had discovered early on, no one ever spoke aloud of the meetings, or alluded to them in any gesture or sign—in fact, as it turned out, he was the only one perceptive enough to have recognized any of his fellow revelers by their daytime personas—but for all who participated, these nights dominated everything, invisibly.
And so something else was happening, in a town where no one could remember ever seeing any change at all. It was a very slight thing, something an outsider would have missed entirely and that the residents did not notice because it appeared too gradually, but all the same, it was true: an air of mystery now hung in the streets, and however placid and simple everything appeared in Duvbo, there was always something beneath the surface, like a fluttering just outside the corner of your eye. This was not all: all those sleepless nights had started to show on certain faces. In every office and classroom, in the supermarket and the synagogue and the fire department and at the post office, the watchful observer could pick out the dark circles under eyes, the drooping eyelids, the drowsy sluggishness of bodies that have not had enough rest. Nothing like this had appeared in Duvbo before, either, and so no citizen could yet articulate a question about it to himself, let alone aloud; but the scene was set.
As smart as you are, you’ve probably guessed that a tension like this could not remain unresolved forever. But there was nothing yet to light the fuse; so things continued like this for a few more months, and all that time, every week brought more people to the night gatherings.
Summer came and passed; Halloween arrived. By this time, it seemed that nearly the whole population of Duvbo was meeting at the central square at midnight. Anticipation among the conspirators was great, and preparations in the nights leading up to it had been extensive. That evening, after an early dinner, parents dressed their children up in matching plastic costumes modeled after television personalities—Titus was a cartoon character from a Saturday morning show, at his mother’s insistence—and walked them neatly around the block, collecting little sweets from the baskets that every household had dutifully provided. Then the adults hurried their children home, took the sweets from them to be rationed out one a day over the following weeks, and quickly set about the business of putting them and then themselves to bed. As soon as each one was sure the others were asleep, windows were slipped open, clothes hurriedly slipped on, and fathers, daughters, mothers, and sons slipped out into the night to assemble, disguised beyond each other’s powers of recognition, in the town square.
There the wildest, most enchanted carnival yet unfolded. Red-skinned devils, tails swinging, muscles flexing, prowled between the legs of great dragons and Trojan horses bulging with Greek soldiers; zombies and vampires and skeletons danced to rhythms beaten out on bones by ghosts; eagles flew overhead. It was as if the earth itself had opened up and revealed a fairy kingdom within; the throng stretched in every direction as far as the eye could see through the torch-dotted darkness. Although there were so many present that it appeared practically the entire populace was in attendance, each individual still felt that he or she was getting away with something that Duvbo would never and could never countenance.
In fact, if an outside observer had been there to witness the nights’ antics, and had carefully counted all the people in the crowd, the total would have come to exactly five hundred and fifty five. Who was there and who was not there were about to become very significant, though only two people knew this was coming—and they were the ones who knew least of all what was going on.
The next day Titus, like everyone else, was exhausted beyond words. In every class every body sagged, students’ and teachers’ alike. Ms. Darroway droned listlessly through her lecture, scarcely bothering to scold the students whose heads lolled on their shoulders and chests. After school, the boy practically staggered home—to find something new and unexpected had, once again, taken place.
These days, he only checked the mail out of habit, in unthinking faithfulness to a routine he no longer regarded with any serious optimism—his longings for adventure and escape were fulfilled by the nights’ activities, anyway. But there, just dropped off by the drowsy mail woman, was a letter unlike any other that had ever arrived on his doorstep. It wasn’t a bill, and it wasn’t an advertisement, either, as far as Titus could tell. It seemed to be an announcement: it was a single sheet of thick paper, folded in half and taped shut, with ominous lettering on the front that read simply FELLOW CITIZENS OF DUVBO. In an instant Titus was awake again, nearly bursting with curiosity. This was the first unexpected thing that had ever appeared during daylight hours—could it be that the secret world was about to erupt into being around the clock? As curious as he was, he knew the daytime rules still applied, and they dictated that he wait to find out what this message might be until his parents came home and opened it themselves.
It seemed an eternity before his mother and father were both home from work, and then Titus had to wait all the way through the usual silent proceedings of dinner. Finally, when the boy was at his wits’ end, his father drew out the mail to go through the dismal daily process of paying bills and balancing accounts. He dealt with every bill at length, reading every invoice and receipt twice and perusing all the fine print with a magnifying glass to be sure not to miss anything, making notes on his clipboard as he went, before he came to the announcement. Titus held his breath. “Oh, you open it, honey,” his father sighed, passing it to the boy’s mother: “it’s nothing important.”
She did, and peered at it for some time, until Titus could restrain himself no longer. “What does it say, mom?” he ventured, trying to sound nonchalant.
“It’s some of kind of public notice, I think,” said his puzzled mother. “It requests our attendance at a meeting tonight of ‘All Concerned Citizens of Duvbo,’ at the town council building. It doesn’t say much more than that.”
His father grumbled about always having to go to meetings and how the last thing he needed was another one but he figured they had better go anyway since you can’t risk looking bad in the eyes of the community, and all the same what a chore it all was, wasn’t it. “Can I come, too?” queried Titus, in his most courteous voice.
“I don’t think this is the sort of thing for young boys like you,” she answered definitively, and that was the end of the matter. So of course, well-practiced prowler that he was by now, Titus sneaked out and followed his parents at a careful distance when they left an hour later to attend the meeting.
The town council building was one of the oldest in Duvbo, and correspondingly dour and stuffy, like a bitter old man clinging too tightly to tradition. Inside, the adults sat stiffly in rows of uncomfortable chairs, backs straight and aching, hands folded in their laps, in much the same way that a decade and a half of schooling had taught each of them to when they were younger. Virtually every grown person in the town was there: the firefighters were seated near the front, Titus’s mail deliverer just behind them, and in the center were all nine teachers, including Ms. Darroway—taciturn as she was in class, and still wearing the same grey dress. There was a dry, awkward silence in the room, broken occasionally by the hiss of a nervous whisper, or the screech of a moving chair as an embarrassed man arrived late. Hidden in a bush to escape detection, Titus looked on through a window from outside.
At precisely eight o’clock, two stern, grim middle-aged men stood up from their chairs and advanced to the podium in the front of the room. One of them took his place at it while the other stood behind him, casting vaguely menacing and judgmental looks around the audience at random.
“It has come to our attention,” began the first of the two retired army officers, for that of course was who these men were, as you may remember from the beginning of the story, “from certain sources we need not divulge, that Duvbo has become a fallen town, a den of iniquity, a place where evil has taken hold. We have summoned you to this meeting because, as you well know, it is your duty as Responsible Citizens to root out all blemishes and stains, all Unacceptable Behavior, from the precious soil of our community, and steps must be taken immediately to do this before our beloved heritage of Honor and Morality is lost forever.”
The second man stepped to the podium and replaced the first, and the first in turn took on his role of glaring at the audience. “Back in our day, in the Service, we ran a tight ship, as they say, so I believe you’ll all agree when I say that we are the right men for the task of cleaning up Duvbo. What you must do is report to us any inconsistencies, any foul Deviations you are aware of, beginning tonight, at this moment. Well then, who’s first?”—and he joined the other in glaring.
Titus craned his neck to see the faces of the adults throughout the room. They were all casting furtive glances about, guilt writ large on every face, each practically wondering aloud who the wrongdoers were but secretly cringing lest his own culpability be uncovered. Months of living in secret had subtly, inexorably bred into all of them the sense that they had something to hide, and now that the question of evil had been broached, those feelings rose to the surface. Every citizen felt the officers must be talking about him, and looked around to see what he could expect if they were. Who could be trusted here? Who was a part of their secret intrigue, and who was a spy waiting to catch them in it? Could fellow conspirators even be trusted, now that the pressure was on? None of them had needed to consider such questions before. The officers might have been bluffing, might have been referring to a boy who had copied his friend’s homework or a driver who had run a stop sign; but the reception of their claims—as if everyone knew exactly what they were asking about—was so suspicious that now there was no going back. No one spoke, or even dared cough; the tension became unbearable. Finally the mayor came hesitantly forward.
“Good men,” he began, deferentially, “of course we are all very honored as well as outstandingly fortunate to have you put your services at our disposal to expose and eliminate this—er, contagion—in our midst. I move that each citizen goes home to make a full report of all the suspicious activities and criminal behavior he is aware of, so when we reconvene in a week to address this matter further, we will have some reference material for, uh, reference in pursuing this matter, arhum, further.” He straightened his tie, twice, and attempted to compose his face into an ingratiating expression while maintaining the dignity befitting a dignitary.
“All right then,” growled the second army officer, with a look that snarled Consider Yourselves Lucky, “we’ll meet again in a week, and you’d all better have some evidence by then of what’s going on and who’s to blame. Remember, citizens,” he thundered in a concluding tone that made Titus’s skin crawl, “in the war of good against evil, right against wrong, tradition against corruption, you are either one of us, or you are against us. There is no middle ground to muddle around in. See you in a week, with your reports, and God Bless You all. Oh, and policemen—” he snapped, singling them out, “keep your eyes especially open this week. This is supposed to be your department.” He turned, and, with his fellow ex-officer behind, stomped out the door.
Every citizen of Duvbo woke up the next day feeling hunted, guilty. The time-engrained habits of concealment, the exhaustion that attended such double lives, these now felt like bodily indictments—if they had nothing to be ashamed of, why had they been hiding? And if what they were doing was healthy and right, why were they exhausted all the time? Forced now to assess their nighttime activities by daytime standards, they found they could not translate between the two contexts, could not justify themselves. Each felt he could never explain what he had been doing to those who had not been a part of it; in the meeting room of the town council building, with those two men glaring at them, some had even wondered if they were indeed monsters in disguise, if their nightly pursuits proved they were in fact evil. So while it might seem surprising to an outsider that the citizens of this little town could so easily be turned against themselves and one another, it was not actually so unusual, after all.
For the following week, daytime Duvbo crackled with rumors and suspicion. Everyone went about with a great show of righteous outrage at the discovery of possible illicit influences in their precious community, and gossip abounded as to who might be responsible. All mature citizens were too well-mannered to refer to anyone by name, but insinuations proliferated: the residents of each street spoke of other streets, “bad neighborhoods,” just as the employees at each company spoke of the bad sorts that might be found in less honest lines of work, just as, at the end of the day, husbands and wives spoke in hushed tones of the bad influences of other families. Everyone was anxious, above all, to direct attention away from themselves, since each person was sure that, were their own nocturnal activities to come to light, their fellow citizens would give no quarter in the rush to attribute guilt and deflect suspicion.
By night, the gatherings still took place, but in decreased numbers, and there was a tension in the air that had never been there before. In denial about the measures being taken in the daylight world, afraid to speak aloud about the situation but unable to shake the burden from their minds, the conspirators who did show up threw themselves all the harder into their invented ceremonies and flights of fancy, but to less and less avail: a dark cloud hung over every moment of abandon, every step of each dance. At least here, in open if anonymous admission of their guilt, people did not look at each other with hostile or judgmental eyes; but each morning as they passed their fellow citizens on the street, things were decidedly different. When once they had looked on passers-by, like Titus did that Saturday morning, with a sense of joy and companionship, wondering if they too were secret revelers, they now regarded all others with fear, lest they be judges waiting to pass sentence upon them, or former comrades who would turn them in to save their own skins.
At the next town meeting, every adult arrived with a complete report. Some brought big sheaves of papers under their arms, others great folders divided into sections according to arbitrary systems of categorization, others thick notebooks with every possible infraction of public morals and tastes that had come to their attention noted and annotated. They sat, heavy testimonials in their laps, backs ramrod straight, lips tight, faces blank masks, looking neither to the left nor the right, and waited for the proceedings to begin. No one was late this time, and at the appointed hour, the mayor, anxious to maintain the image of responsible authority, arose to officiate. From their seats at the front of the room, the two ex-officers regarded him with expressions of acid impatience; Titus, too, looked on from his post in the bush.
“Fellow concerned citizens,” the mayor began, and cleared his throat as if to command attention, in a room already empty of all distractions: “we are gathered here to show our concern about, our commitment to, our deep-seated feelings for the continuity of our proud tradition of greatness and purity in this town which we all so know and love, the name of which you know as well as I, fair Duvbo. I hope you’ll join me in these trying times in holding out a light of hope to the future—“ and he went on, and on, and on in this style for some time, before one of the ex-officers cut in and demanded he get down to business.
The mayor summoned the first citizen to the podium to make her report—the roster was arranged in alphabetical order, so it was Anna Abelard, the retired grocer. She shuffled through a veritable mountain of loose papers, and approached the stand with her eyes on the floor. Anna had a gentle heart, and much as she knew what was expected of her, she hadn’t been able to bring herself to specify any names or risk endangering anyone else, so her entire account was a string of abstractions and ambiguous references to unspecified people and events. For the purposes of the ex-officers’ inquisition, it was absolutely useless, but they let her stumble through it for a good half hour, presumably because they could tell this was even more mortifying for her than it was exasperating for them. Time seemed to grind to an even slower pace than it kept in mathematics class.
Then without warning, without asking permission, someone stood up from the audience. It was Ms. Darroway. Her face was lined with years of little sleep, the dark circles under her eyes were heavier than ever, but the air of elderly irritation she affected during the day dropped away and her bearing here was suddenly as imposing as it was when she presided over storytelling circles in the witching hour. “This is foolishness, and you know it,” she stated plainly. “Let Anna be—she obviously doesn’t have anything to tell you. If you’re so certain there is wickedness in our town now, why don’t you tell us where it is?”
Both former military men shot to their feet in indignation. “Hold your tongue, schoolteacher!” shouted the first. “This is an important meeting, not to be interrupted by idle questions! You should know from your own profession better than to talk out of turn!”
“So tell us where it is,” she insisted, calmly.
“I’ll tell you where it is,” yelled the other, “it’s in teachers like you who set bad examples! How are our children supposed to grow up with a proper respect for rules and authority with women like you for role models?” He stepped back to address the audience in general. “And it’s in all of you who let the moral fabric of this town fray and unravel! It’s written on every face in this room, the secrecy in your movements, those mysterious bloodshot eyes, the indifference you show to important matters like this! We may not know what’s going on yet, but mark our words—we’ll find out!” He stomped out of the room in a rage, his henchman close behind.
At the mention of bloodshot eyes, everyone in the room had flinched despite themselves. They looked around, and it was true: on practically every face was this sign of guilt, the evidence of a double life. So the game was almost up: the two self-appointed detectives knew nothing yet, but they knew where to start looking, and it was only a matter of time before they would uncover the truth about Duvbo. The townsfolk trembled, gazing at one other in fear—for however many of them were involved, it only put each one at greater risk if they could not trust each other—and hurriedly began filing out the door to head home. Only the mayor remained behind, wringing his hands at the scene his citizens had caused and yearning for the simpler days when his greatest concern had been which tie to wear for the Christmas parade.
That night, five hundred and fifty five conspirators sneaked out their bedroom windows, one by one, each going to greater pains than ever not to wake the others from their sleep. They crept through dark streets thick with the shadows of their sisters, brothers, fathers, mothers, neighbors, and coworkers, doing everything to avoid detection until they arrived, in disguise, at the main square. Here, a great bonfire burned, and Ms. Darroway, clad in her magnificent bearskin, was already leading a discussion of what was to be done.
Tensions were high and accusations flew. Some held that the gatherings had to be suspended until a safer time; others, speaking eloquently of the freedom and energy they prized in these moments, believed they could continue to take place, but at more prudent intervals; still others argued that it was foolish and irresponsible to think of gathering this way ever again, that it endangered everyone too much. All agreed, if nothing else, that the good old days had come to a close, and dark times descended in their stead.
“But what are we supposed to do, if we can’t come together here anymore?” demanded an impassioned young woman no one recognized as a local real estate agent, clad in a scintillating dress of green sequins and wild feathers. “All of us went wandering and discovered this midnight carnival because life without it was too vacant to bear! We can’t simply go back to those barren lives, can we? I almost feel as if I’d rather die!”
“I wish I could tell you there was another choice, dearie!” said Anna, the retired grocer, sadly, from behind her silver veil. “But I think we have to let it go. That’s the way life is. There was a life for me before I found my way here, you know, and there will be a life after, for all of us, though it may not be what we’d prefer.”
“We don’t have to let it go unless we choose to,” countered Ms. Darroway, hotly. “We decide what risks are worth taking, we decide what we give up and what we keep. That’s how we made this secret society for ourselves, and if we suspend or dissolve it, it should only be because we believe in doing so, not because we think we are the victims of fate. Make your decision for yourself.”
“That’s easy for you to say, perhaps!” It was Titus’s father. Titus himself looked on, his face concealed as usual by his trusty scarf, in unnoticed mortification. “Some of us have children. We have to think about their future, about making this a healthy environment for young people! We’re not at liberty like you must be to make decisions for ourselves alone. In fact, when you make your decisions, they affect the rest of us as well! What if you and people like you keep coming out here, causing trouble for all of us? How are we supposed to raise our children in a town where things like this go on?”
Little Titus wanted to demand how children like himself were supposed to grow up in a world without magic, without dances and costumes and fairytales, but he was afraid to speak up, afraid too of being recognized by his parents. “You’d have us give up our lives all over again!” shouted an angry figure from the shadows, a fireman by day. “What did you start coming here for, anyway?”
“Who are you to risk our lives for us, and our children’s lives?” retorted another enraged parent, and real quarrelling broke out. Everyone tried to shout louder than everyone else, and for many minutes the chaos spiraled out of control—until a sudden realization choked the words in every throat: the townsfolk had lost track of time and dawn was already breaking. In a panic, they scattered everywhere, leaving the square in such a hurry that they forgot the care they had always taken before not to leave any evidence of their gatherings.
The next morning, while doing his rounds, one of the policemen came upon the still-smoldering remains of the fire in the center of the town square. He tried to pass it nonchalantly, stifling a shiver of fear as he realized how careless he and the others had been, but then he caught sight of another citizen at the far end of the street. If he was caught deliberately ignoring such obvious evidence of unusual activity, it would be taken as a sign of complicity; he put his whistle between his teeth and sounded the alarm.
The report of his finding spread like wildfire, and the responding outcry was immediate and intense. Word passed from mouth to ear to mouth around the town in a matter of hours, and an emergency meeting of All Concerned Citizens of Duvbo was called for that evening. All afternoon speculations circulated as to what outlaws or fiends might have been doing in the very heart of Duvbo the night before, and how they could be captured and brought to justice; everyone fought to outdo each other in shows of righteous indignation.
This time the mayor did not even make a show of administering the meeting. The two former officers had set themselves up at a tall table in the front, from which they glowered at everyone else as they filed in. This was the tensest atmosphere yet: hostility hung in the air like an electric charge, and while no one dared make eye contact with anyone else, condemning glances were cast like darts all around the room.
“As spokesperson for the emergency panel that has been established to handle this situation, I call this meeting to order,” began the first ex-officer. “Obviously you are all well aware now of how real the threat we warned you of is, so I trust we will not have to bear any more interruptions tonight”—he cast a withering look at Ms. Darroway—“and will be free to get down to the business of cleaning up this town.”
“Clearly, the undesirable elements, the subverters, are meeting by night, plotting heaven knows what sickening disgraces and crimes,” continued the other man at the table. “Police chief—”
“Yes sir,” responded the haggard-eyed chief of police.
“You’ll need to extend your patrols to cover every hour of the night in addition to the standard daytime schedule, starting this evening, so the monsters can be brought to justice and their plans foiled.”
There was a long, uncomfortable pause. “I’m afraid I can’t do that, sir,” responded the police chief, and one of his men nodded. “My men will need at least one good night’s sleep to be ready for a shift change like that. We can get the patrols in effect by tomorrow night, but that’s the soonest. I’m sorry.”
“Well, lock your doors tonight then, fellow citizens!” roared the first ex-officer, and it sounded more like a threat than a warning. “This will be the last night any funny business takes place in this town! And tomorrow we’ll meet here, at the same time, to discuss some other Big Changes that are going to be made around this place.”
After midnight, only the bravest few dared to congregate for a final time. Ms. Darroway was there, and the woman who delivered the mail to Titus’ house, and the young lady in the green sequins, as well as a few others, including the police chief who had bought them one more night to bid a melancholy farewell to each other and the world they had created. Titus was there, too, of course; his parents had indeed locked and barred the doors of his house, but they hadn’t thought yet to do the same with the windows. Spirits were lower there at that moment than they had ever been before in Duvbo, day or night. No one spoke; they simply sat in a circle around the small, struggling fire, staring into its dwindling flames, lost in their own thoughts.
Finally the woman in green broke the silence. “It’s just so sad, so unendurably sad,” she began, haltingly, “to discover what you spent your whole life longing for, to find that it was within you all along, and to explore it, to find out how much bigger and wilder it is than you’d ever imagined, and even share it with others, only to lose it, all of it, because of their fears.”
“Because of our fears,” the sorrowful police chief broke in. “Because of our fears. And there’s nothing we can do, however much we want it, however much it breaks our hearts.”
Ms. Darroway, still tall and proud even in this bleak moment, remained silent. Titus looked at her in horror and dismay: it was unthinkable to him that this powerful woman, who was practically a supernatural being in his eyes, might become, again, a mere math teacher, a woman who had to lecture and reprimand indifferent students all day as an actual life’s work rather than an alibi. Just as he had once before, on the first night he ventured outside his neighborhood, he gathered his courage—and spoke up.
“Is there really nothing we can do?” demanded the boy. “Aren’t we giving up too easily? Are you sure there isn’t something we haven’t thought of yet?”
“But what could that be?” asked his mailwoman, who still didn’t know that he had once believed so fervently that she could bring him an invitation to another world.
“Well, let’s think!” Titus furrowed his young brow. “if this is our last night together, and tomorrow we will never be able to meet again, well, at least we are free and together now. That’s something.”
“Yes, go on,” encouraged Ms. Darroway, quietly. “What can we do with that?”
“If we’re still free now, and we don’t want to lose that, and we know we’ll lose it tomorrow”—Titus pondered this, but there seemed no other way around it—“then I guess the only hope for us is that tomorrow doesn’t come.”
“And that’s impossible,” said the policeman. “The sun will rise in just a few hours, and then I’ll be just a policeman, nothing more, for the rest of my life.”
Titus was much younger than the others, though, and not as resigned to the inevitable as they were. “Who says it’s impossible?” he replied, surprised at his own voice. “I believed that it was impossible that you could be anything more than a policeman, before I stumbled into the dance here that first night. All we need is some magic to stop the sun from rising, and this world will be ours forever, as it has been only for a few hours at a time until now.”
“Magic? Yes, that’s what we’d need,” sighed the woman in green. “It’s too bad it’s only in our stories. We could use it in real life tonight!”
“Maybe we can!” said Titus, standing up. “What we need is a magical dance, a ceremony to stop the sun. Will you join me in making one?”
The others were silent; the hope in the little boy’s voice only saddened them more. But finally Ms. Darroway spoke up. “It’s true that when I came upon my first night gathering in Duvbo, years ago, when there were fewer people meeting than we are here tonight, I felt as though I’d found something magical,” she began. “It was like a miracle, something so totally different from everything I’d known that it seemed to defy the very laws of nature. If that’s what we’d need to discover again, tonight, for this story to have a happy ending, perhaps we shouldn’t despair yet, since it has already happened to each of us once.” She looked around at the others, her eyes bright in the firelight. “I’m ready to dance with the young man, unless any of you have a better idea. Even if it is our last night here, it’s better we spend in on our feet than at our own funeral.”
The others slowly rose and joined Titus on their feet. Titus seized a great burning branch from the fire, and lifted it high over his head, waving it defiantly towards the east. Ms. Darroway did the same, and the others followed. One of the firemen began to beat out a quiet rhythm on the one drum that remained with them, and the dancers began stamping their left feet, then their right. Titus took the towering woman’s hand, and they began spinning.
As they had so many times before, they left the world of solid things and gravity, and entered the world of energy and motion. The stars in the night sky, the red glow of firelight on the trees, the grass and shadows underfoot became a blurred background against which their bodies sailed, crisscrossed by the streaks of white light their torches left in the air. The rhythm intensified and accelerated. Their feet were flying over the soil, barely touching down long enough to push off again, their hearts pounded with the drums—their hearts were like drums themselves, inside them, urging them on. The others too were whirling now, coming in and out of their vision like comets, trailed by the afterimages of their torches, wild animals set free for a moment from fear and inertia and weight itself.
But they knew they had to break out of everything, to leave the world they had known entirely, so they danced harder and faster. Harder, so the drummer feared his thumbs might fly off; faster, so dizziness welled up in them in almost unendurable waves; harder, so they thought their bones would break and their fingers snap away; faster, until it seemed that their feet and hands and muscles themselves were fire, that they danced as only fire can dance through burning leaves. They danced as though mad, as though animated by demons or angels; leaping into flight, they kicked against the ground so hard it seemed the force must stop the earth’s rotation, must halt it dead in space.
They were so caught up in their dance, so absolutely possessed and entranced, that they didn’t even notice the light creeping into the sky in the east. They didn’t notice the first bird calls, as the breeze lifted the branches of the trees overhead; they didn’t notice the red clouds burning away to reveal the first ray of sunlight shining over the horizon; they didn’t even notice as the sun crept up, over the hills, and morning began. There they spun and flew and twirled, the torches shooting out sparks around them, sweat raining down upon the grass from their bodies, eyes rolled back in their heads; they were oblivious to all but the magical world of the dance. This is how their fellow townspeople found them that morning.
And a strange thing happened. As the first early risers filtered out into the streets, and saw their companions from previous nights of abandon here in the sunlight, leaping without shame in the same unchained motion they too had savored, one by one they came forward and joined them. They, too, began to dance as if it were still night, as if they were wearing masks that hid their identities, as if no one were watching—as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Slowly all Duvbo assembled in that square, as they had so many midnights before, but now with no camouflage or subterfuge; all, that is, of course, except the two retired army officers, who had the sense to get out of town immediately and never come back.
The schools and offices were empty that day, and the next day as well; and no one in Duvbo ever had to sit up straight and quiet, or struggle silently with boredom, or cast a suspicious eye on a neighbor again. Some say you can still find the townspeople there, that life in that village is a continuous festival that knows no beginning or end; others say Duvbo is a hidden and wandering town, that it appears for moments or hours in every city across the world, unexpected and unpredictable, and one day it will emerge everywhere at once. Still others insist that the whole thing is just a myth, or a bedtime story to be told to little children without being believed; but at your wise age, little one, I’m sure you know better than to believe the ones who speak like that.
…like all children are born to smuggle in the end of the world with no one qualified to herd them…
From Victor Jara to Public Enemy, music has played a pivotal role in countless cultures of resistance. A large proportion of those who participated in the anarchist movement between 1978 and 2010 were part of the punk counterculture at some point; indeed, many were first exposed to anarchist ideas via punk. This may have been merely circumstantial: perhaps the same traits that made people seek out anarchism also predisposed them to enjoy aggressive, independently produced music. But one could also argue that music that pushes aesthetic and cultural boundaries can open up listeners to a wider spectrum of possibility in other spheres of life as well.
Yet just as anarchism was coming into its own in the US around the turn of the century, radical activity in the domestic punk scene began a nosedive. Now that it is no longer possible to depend on the punk1 subculture as an incubator for anarchists, we should set out to understand how and why it served that role for thirty years.
Preface: When Punk Was a Recruiting Ground for Anarchy
“People talk about ‘preaching to the converted’—well who fucking converted them?”
-Penny Rimbaud of Crass
There are countless reasons not to tie the fate of a revolutionary movement to the fortunes of a music scene. Coming into anarchism via punk, people tended to approach anarchist activity in the same way they would participate in a youth subculture. This contributed to an anarchist milieu characterized by consumerism rather than initiative, a focus on identity rather than dynamic change, activities limited to the leisure time of the participants, ideological conflicts that boil down to disputes over taste, and an orientation towards youth that made the movement largely irrelevant upon the onset of adulthood.
Yet during the decades of global reaction that followed the 1960s, the punk underground was one of the chief catalysts of the renaissance of anarchism. Were it not for punk, anti-capitalists in many parts of the world might still be choosing between stale brands of authoritarian socialism.
Granted, the average punk show was as dominated by patriarchy as a college classroom. All the hierarchies, economics, and power dynamics of capitalist society were present in microcosm. And anarchism was not the only creed that utilized this soapbox: countless ideologies competed in the punk milieu, from Neo-Nazism to Christianity and Krishna “consciousness.” But all this only makes it more striking that anarchist ideas fared so well, considering that they gained less purchase in other circles at the time.
We can attribute that success to structural factors. Many years before internet access became widespread, the do-it-yourself punk scene offered a rare model for horizontal and participatory activity. Organizing their own affairs in decentralized networks, participants experienced firsthand the benefits of leaderless autonomy. Once you’ve booked a tour yourself, sidestepping the monopoly of profiteering venues, record labels, and tour promoters, it’s not hard to imagine organizing other aspects of your life in a similar way. At the same time, in a youth culture founded on opposition to authority, there were fewer built-in mechanisms to suppress radical ideas.
It’s also possible that anarchist values took root in the punk scene precisely because they were so marginalized elsewhere: in an era when radical ideas were pushed to the periphery, peripheral subcultures teemed with them. This can create a feedback loop that keeps those ideas marginal, as they are not associated with popular or successful initiatives. The romanticization of obscurity and failure that made punk hospitable terrain for revolutionary ideals in the 1980s did not encourage their new partisans to fight to win outside the punk ghetto.
But the self-imposed exile of the punk community was also an effective defense mechanism through an era of capitalist cooptation. The punk scene helped keep anarchist ideas alive between the 1970s and the 21st century in the same way that monasteries preserved science and literature through the Dark Ages. Although the demands and influence of the capitalist economy recreated the same power imbalances and materialism that punks had hoped to escape—limiting the punk critique of capitalism to a variant of the liberal maxim “buy local”—the anti-capitalist DIY underground displayed a remarkable resilience. In a cycle that became familiar, each generation expanded until profit-driven record labels skimmed the most popular apolitical bands off the top, setting the stage for a return to grassroots independence and experimentation. So the punk scene provided the music industry a free testing and development site for new bands and trends, but this process also served to cleanse it of parasites.
Far from MTV talent scouts, competing independent labels, and alternative consumerism, you could find something beautiful and free at the heart of the DIY underground. At best, it was a space in which the roles of protagonist and audience became interchangeable and the dictates of the dominant culture were shaken off.
Let’s contrast this with the models of anarchist activity that are currently in vogue. While political activism often focuses on matters outside the daily lives of the participants, and thus tends to cost more energy than it generates, DIY punk was basically pleasure-oriented, offering activities that were fulfilling in and of themselves. Although this might appear frivolous, sociality and affirmation are as essential as food or housing. In some parts of the world, the punk scene was significantly more working class and underclass than much of the current anarchist milieu; this may indicate that it provided for real needs, rather than catering to the middle class propensity for abstraction. In contrast to protests, which are often criticized as reactive, at its best punk emphasized creativity, demonstrating a concrete alternative. It was youth-oriented, yes; but as youth are among the most potentially rebellious and open to new ideas, this could be seen as an advantage. In focusing on self-expression, it enabled participants to build their confidence and experience in low-risk efforts, while producing a great deal of artwork that doubled as outreach material; as a decentralized cultural movement, it reproduced itself organically rather than through institutional efforts.
Were we to attempt to invent a cultural counterpart to contemporary activism that could replenish energy and propagate anarchist values among young people, we could do worse. Meme culture alone has considerably less to recommend it.
Anarchists often complained that in actuality, the punk scene was full of people with no regard for anarchist values. Unfortunately, if you want to introduce new people to anarchism, you’re going to have to deal with a lot of people who are not anarchists. This is especially true in the United States, in which so few people grow up with any exposure to radical ideas at all. In Italy, by contrast, anarchist punks could say “Punk equals anarchy plus guitars and drums; anything less is just submission.”
There’s a lot to be said for operating in diverse environments, in which the ideas of individuals and the culture that connects them are still evolving. Because the punk scene was not beholden to any rigid ideological framework, it offered a more fertile space for experimentation than many more explicitly radical milieus. Had this lesson been applied elsewhere—had anarchists initiated influential projects in other politically diverse, horizontal, network-based milieus—anarchist ideas might have spread further afield.
Though critics often accused the punk scene of being nothing more than a playpen for privileged First World consumers, punk has been integral in the resurgence of anarchist ideas far outside the US and Europe. While punk arguably originated in Britain and the US, a great proportion of the activity of the global punk underground took place in Latin America and the Pacific rim, not to mention South Africa, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, and the former Soviet bloc. In many of those nations, punk is still more overtly associated with radical politics than it has been in the United States; punk was especially instrumental in revitalizing anarchism in contexts in which there was no radical alternative to Marxist hegemony. It would be instructive to examine why punk took root in nations like Brazil, Malaysia, and the Philippines but not India or most Arabic-speaking nations, and study how this correlates with the spread of anarchist ideas over the past thirty years.
Punk and Resistance: A Trajectory
The first major wave of politicized punk can probably be traced to the British band Crass, which drew on Dadaism and other avant-garde traditions to fashion early punk rock into a form of cultural agitprop. Decades later, a visitor to Britain could find small circles of middle-aged anarcho-punks who had been politicized by Crass still participating in the same independent music underground and resuming the same arguments about The Clash whenever they got drunk.
In the United States, over a decade later, the DIY underground of the mid-1990s contributed to an increase in animal rights activism and helped pave the way for the anti-globalization movement. Magazines such as Profane Existence introduced radical perspectives on everything from feminism to firearms; DIY communities developed in which everyone wrote a zine, played in a band, or hosted basement shows; even in the most macho scenes, every band addressed the audience between songs—if only, in some cases, to urge people to dance more violently.
On the eve of the debut of the anti-globalization movement,2 hundreds of punks gathered in Philadelphia late in April 1999 for Millions for Mumia, a march to deter the state of Pennsylvania from executing Mumia Abu-Jamal. For many, it was the first time they had traveled out of town for a protest; likewise, though no major conflict took place with the police, it was the first time most of them had assembled publicly in black masks and sweatshirts. This moment, in which politicized punks realized that there were enough of them to constitute a social force, set the stage for everything that came after; a year later, many of the participants fought shoulder to shoulder at the demonstrations against the IMF/World Bank meeting of April 2000 in Washington, DC. The night following the march, a standing-room-only crowd assembled at Stalag 13, a local DIY venue, to see His Hero Is Gone; there was a feeling in the air that there was no real distinction between subcultural identity and political activity. That same year, the Primate Freedom Tour achieved a synthesis of punk music and radical activism, using a series of shows around the country to promote regional demonstrations against laboratories experimenting on primates.
The DIY boom of the mid-1990s fed into the momentum of the anti-globalization movement. Those who had been in or around punk bands already understood how an affinity group worked; operating in decentralized networks and coordinating autonomous actions came naturally. It was easy for people who routinely traveled across the country to engage in rowdy subcultural events to shift to traveling across the country to participate in rowdy anti-capitalist demonstrations. So-called “summit-hopping” offered many of the same inducements as punk—risk, excitement, togetherness, opportunities to be creative and oppose injustice—along with the additional attraction of feeling that you were on the front lines of history.
In the period leading up to this explosion of political activity, punk music and culture had become more experimental as punks sought to match daring aesthetics to radical rhetoric. There had always been a tension in punk between the folk art aspects of the craft—three-chord musical progressions and hand-drawn layouts—and the desire to innovate and challenge. As the subculture offered participants broader conceptions of what could be possible, they began to play music and make demands that strained against the limitations of the medium. On one hand, innovative music could make radical ideas more compelling: following an unfamiliar yet exhilarating experience, a listener might be more likely to believe that an entirely different world was possible. On the other hand, this experimentation contributed to the fragmentation of the punk subculture, as traditions were abandoned and the standards for musicianship and creativity reached prohibitive heights.
Volatile phenomena eventually break into their constituent elements and stabilize. The Swedish band Refused, for example, who had combined hardcore, techno, jazz, and classical music on their final album, split asunder in 1998, and the members went on to form much more traditional bands according to their individual tastes—none of which were nearly as interesting as Refused. Once there was an anarchist movement for the most politicized punks to join, a similar process occurred within the punk scene. Until 1999, politicized punks tended to stick around the DIY underground, as there was usually no larger revolutionary milieu to move on to; playing music and writing zines were seen as political activity, despite the narrow horizons of the subculture. All that changed after the 1999 WTO protests, which kicked off an era of non-stop demonstrations and political organizing. Most of the people who were serious about their politics shifted focus away from the punk scene. Meanwhile, the people who were involved in punk only for music and fashion remained, and led a reaction against political engagement of all kinds. While others focused on anarchist convergences, black blocs, and accountability processes, the reactionaries were the ones still booking shows and recording albums, and they set the tone for an apolitical and musically conservative 21st century punk scene.
Between 1998 and 2002, nearly every band that had helped to politicize the punk underground broke up, and many influential magazines ceased publication. By May 2002, when Boston anarchists staged the Festival del Pueblo, a rupture had developed between the aesthetic and political elements in the subculture, evident in tensions between punks who only attended for the shows and anarchists striving to establish a revolutionary movement. To name a single example, the person who had booked the His Hero Is Gone show after Millions for Mumia and later played a role in anarchist organizing against the Republican National Convention of 2000 came to perform with his band, but headed home afterwards rather than attending the demonstration scheduled for the following day.
A few years later, the split between punk and anarchism was complete. Even Against Me, the progenitors of the folk punk reaction to the stagnation of the anarcho-punk scene, had deserted the DIY movement and eschewed their former anarchist politics. From Ashes Rise, who had been colleagues of the uncompromisingly independent His Hero Is Gone, signed to a larger record label and recorded a final album with songs about nuclear war—a regression to 1980s nostalgia all the more absurd in the midst of the Iraq war—before breaking up. Punk—at least for that generation—had reached the end of its trajectory as a force for social change.
Technology, Legitimacy, and Accessibility
Let’s return to the resurgence of folk punk shortly after the turn of the century. His Hero Is Gone had been one of the first DIY bands to shift from single speaker cabinets to full stacks, and within a few years every band that wished to be taken seriously had done the same. This led to an arms race and a sort of aesthetic inflation: no volume was loud enough, no recording powerful enough, no gear expensive enough.3 Folk punk was a reaction to this: an accessible, cheap, self-consciously unrefined format. Yet it never achieved the popularity of gear-based punk; tellingly, the flagship band Against Me shifted to standard rock instrumentation in the course of their shift to corporate careerism.
Similarly, one might ask why, out of all the formats that flourished in the DIY underground, there were never any traveling drama troupes. On the face of it, theater would be the perfect medium for independent performers with limited access to resources. A drama troupe could travel without expensive equipment or need of a large vehicle; performances could take place practically anywhere. Dario Fo, the Living Theater… radical theater has had a rich history in every other nation and era. Puppet shows were practically a cliché on the DIY circuit—so why not drama?
This indicates a lingering materialism in DIY culture. Equipment, be it a shoddy cardboard puppet stage or ten thousand dollars’ worth of amplifiers, conferred the legitimacy that both performers and audiences longed for. “Look,” working class dropouts could say to themselves, gesturing at a rusty van full of gear that cost them years of wages, “we’re a real band!”
In capitalist society, activities are invested with meaning primarily through the marketplace and the media. Rock music was originally a working class art form that came to be cultivated by capitalists as a cash crop; the meaning people find in it is real enough, but it is generated through forces largely beyond their control. Rock stars are important precisely because not everyone can be one. Paradoxically, punks took up the rock format as a way of asserting their own importance, even in the process of rebelling against the corporations that introduced them to it.
One could read the rise and fall of DIY punk as the historical “hiccup” during which record-releasing and printing technology first became accessible to the general public. Crass was one of the first bands to release their own records; this was exciting because they were using technology that had been largely unavailable to the working class. Within a couple decades, however, this development was rendered moot by technological advances and oversaturation. Once anyone could release a record, it wasn’t meaningful anymore—it wasn’t “real” in the sense that everything on television is “real” while our lives feel unreal and insignificant.
The punk scene had been founded on the tensions created by limited access to the musical means of production; with the arrival of technologies that extended this access to everyone, its structures collapsed. The internet replaced painstakingly built distribution networks and zine cultures with the offhand immediacy of music downloading and blogs; some of this took place in genuinely decentralized structures, but more of it was based in corporate counterfeits such as myspace.com. The proliferation of the latter was particularly ironic in that the DIY underground had been a testing area for the sort of network-based systems that the internet universalized.
When every band of middle-class teenagers could have their own webpage and home recording studio, the ensuing disenchantment revealed how banal the promise of rock stardom had been in the first place. In some ways, it is healthy to be divested of one’s illusions, especially the ones instilled by one’s enemies. On the other hand, if nothing takes their place, this only drains the world of meaning even further—and pure nihilism helps maintain the status quo.
Punk had been exciting because, in contrast to corporate rock, it offered a relatively unmediated experience: one could meet one’s favorite musicians, dance and interact outside the prescriptions of a repressive society, even form one’s own band and remake the subculture itself. Thousands of people attended Black Flag shows because they offered a genuinely different experience than anything corporate capitalism had to offer. But once the internet made every band into its own promotions agency and youtube.com made it possible for everyone to appear on the equivalent of MTV, independent music was no less mediated than corporate music, and no less vapid.
Learning from Punk
Punk’s long run as a breeding ground for anarchism shows how much we stand to gain from social activities that are pleasurable and creative. In nurturing organic cultural currents, we can create social movements that do not depend on any one institution but are naturally self-reproducing. Ideally, they should be subversive while not immediately provoking repression—it’s important that the lines be drawn, but participants must have enough time to go through an evolutionary process before the police break out their batons. A sustainable space that nurtures long-term communities of resistance can ultimately contribute more to militant struggle than the sort of impatient insurrectionism that starts with confrontation rather than building to it.
As much as punk has been dismissed as insular, the success of anarcho-punk demonstrates how effective it can be for anarchists to invest themselves in ongoing outreach in a milieu of a manageable scale. All the better if it is a politically diverse space in which debate and dynamic change can occur and new people can encounter radical ideas.
At the same time, it is crippling for a social movement aimed at transforming the whole of life to be associated with a single subculture. Learning from years of anarchist organizing rooted in the punk scene, we can see the importance of creating spaces that bring people from many backgrounds together on an equal footing. Likewise, we can learn from the factors that both produced and crippled punk, such as the love-hate relationship with rock stardom. Channeling desires fostered by capitalist society into resistance movements can produce swift growth, but also fatal flaws that only come to light over time.
Today, in the anarchist movement, we sometimes miss the Dionysian spirit that characterized the hardcore punk underground at its high point: the collective, embodied experience of dangerous freedom. This is how punk can inspire us in our anarchist experiments of today and tomorrow: as a transformative outlet for rage and grief and joy, a positive model for togetherness and self-determination in our social relations, an example of how the destructive urge can also be creative—and vice versa.
The term “punk” has been used to describe a broad range of phenomena over the past four and a half decades. In this analysis, it refers to the social and cultural networks associated with the do-it-yourself underground, not to any particular musical style or fashion. ↩
On June 18, 1999, a global day of action coinciding with the 25th G8 summit, London was shut down by a Reclaim the Streets “Carnival Against Capitalism” that resulted in massive rioting. The independent news coverage of this event presaged the Indymedia network that was formed during the historic demonstrations against the WTO summit in Seattle five months later, and heralded a new era of anti-capitalist organizing. ↩
Anyone familiar with the inner workings of the music industry knows that few venues, fewer labels, and almost no musicians make money on their efforts. So where does all the money go? Perhaps to the gear manufacturers. One can find innumerable used amplifiers for sale that “never left the basement”—as usual, capitalists sell us impossible dreams, then cash in on our attempts to realize them. ↩