Coldness and Cruelty in the Time of Insurrection

Introduction | Ch. 1 | Ch. 2 | Ch. 3

Chapter Two: Why Insurrection?

“For as the princes are, so are the people… Their examples are soonest followed, vices entertained; if they be profane, irreligious, lascivious, riotous, epicures, factious, covetous, ambitious, illiterate, so will the commons most part be idle, unthrifts, prone to lust, drunkards, and therefore poor and needy, upon all occasions ready to mutiny and rebel, discontent still, complaining, murmuring, grudging, apt to all outrages, thefts, treasons, murders, innovations, in debt, shifters, cozeners, outlaws, of bad repute and dissolute life.”

Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy, New York Review Books (New York, New York, 2001), pp. 82–83.

But that’s the big question, isn’t it? Couldn’t we have the revolution after all? The archaic, reactionary forms of oppression that bear down on the social field today could be done away with. Not only that, but the products of the industrial process could be distributed in a just way. With the economic and the social made good at last, there will be no more need for insurrection, rioting, crime, violence. The power differentials simply will no longer exist to spur on such behaviour, and when we, from time to time, find ourselves shocked to see a crime of passion, we will have robust measures in place to hold the perpetrator accountable, rehabilitate them, and integrate them back into decent society. That’s what the revolutionary fights for. The insurrectionary who rejects this vision is a rabid dog, a beast, corrupt individualist or reactionary who will either fall in line naturally when they see the error of their ways or, if they’re stubborn, be comfortably accommodated in the re-educational institutions until they’re better.

Still, what if we took the insurrectionary seriously, that is, theoretically, for a moment? What if we made the case for insurrection—the case that, of course, the insurrectionary never makes. There is a fundamental perversion of thought when one tries to argue for that which is not arguable. Revolution can be justified theoretically, but mad, arbitrary, mindless, aimless destruction? Language just wasn’t built for that kind of behaviour. “The elementary unit of language—the statement—is the order-word. Rather than common sense, a faculty for the centralization of information, we must define an abominable faculty consisting in emitting, receiving, and transmitting order-words. Language is made not to be believed but to be obeyed, and to compel obedience.”1 How do we see language used today? The news is a stream of demands that we believe obvious and shameless bullshit: “Trump: ‘I’ve Never Been Against Masks’—“Keir Starmer: Competent, Likeable, Decisive”—“Rising Chance Of Exceeding The 1.5C Target”—“Truss Says US Trade Deal Won’t Mean Lower Food Standards”—“Report Says Emissions From Trunk Roads And Motorways Not On Track To Meet Net Zero By 2050. Government Says ‘Yes They Are’”—“My Dick And Balls Are Stuck In The Microwave”—“XR Activists Claim Climate Change Is Bad, But Personally, I’m a Hartmannian Pessimist, and This Is The Collective Suicide of The Will I’ve Been Waiting For”—One begins to wonder if half of these headlines are even real! Given the corrupt relationship between language and power, it’s really no surprise the insurrectionary doesn’t choose to speak, sign petitions, write to their MP, argue with distant family members on Facebook, re-enact the sad spectacle of political organising. ‘But that’s not organising!’ says the revolutionary. ‘That’s liberal nonsense. They’re not building a party. You’re not taking revolutionary organising seriously, are you? It’s all well and good to condemn language as a tool of domination and subjugation, but you ignore the revolutionary use of language!’ And that’s a fair point. In that case, then, before we make the case for insurrection, we examine the case for revolution, language and all.

Here I follow the Glauconian principle as it appears in The Republic: “Finally, we come to the decision between the two lives, and we shall only be able to make this decision if we contrast extreme examples of just and unjust men. By that I mean if we make each of them perfect in his own line, and do not in any way mitigate the injustice of the one or the justice of the other.”2 After all, is the revolutionary not the embodiment of justice? The insurrectionary not the ultimate figure of resignation to injustice? I admit that it’s easy enough to accuse the revolutionary of wasting their time by making some lazy, perfunctory appeals to impossibility. It’s far harder to be charitable, to Glauconise the issue, give the revolutionary their greatest due, and still show that they come up short. And anything less than this is not only time-wasting, but cowardly, the sort of thing reactionaries do despite living in a society nobody could have imagined prior to the bourgeois revolutions. No, comrade, I do not condemn you on the grounds of mere implausibility. You may well succeed yet. What I seek to show is that I have reason not to exalt your cause.

To begin with the revolutionary. We give them the greatest possible strength, intelligence, honour, every conceivable moral good that a solider-intellectual (yes, our revolutionary can do both!) would need. They understand that there can be no compromise or solidarity with the property owners, and they understand that socialism picks up where capitalism leaves off, that the proletariat “has no need to make plans for utilizing its victories: it counts on expelling the capitalists from the productive domain and on taking their place in the workshop created by capitalism.”3 There are no difficulties in organising the masses for our revolutionary. Nor does the revolution last very long. A weaker constitution would have, at the very least, dragged out the fun, but our revolutionary knows not to waste time or energy that is better put to a different use. What capitalism has built up, socialism inherits. From there, magnae turbae magnī dominī fiunt—the great masses become great masters. With the great productive forces under collective control, the body of the Earth recedes before unimaginable and incredible technological leaps that were held back by capitalism and its anachronistic system of private ownership for profit. Dream your wildest dreams here, comrade. Energy grids running on 100% safe renewable energy (we draw the line at nuclear fusion) ensure not a single particle of carbon is released for the sake of our new and just economy. Automated machines carry out the jobs of extraction and creation—never again will children be sent down Bolivian mines or into Indonesian mud pits for tin. Machines produce the clothes, the food, the computers, and everything else, liberating billions of human beings who were otherwise doomed to half-lives working for poverty wages in sweatshops and factories. All this happens overnight, almost, without even the slightest whisper of counterrevolution or revolt. Our revolutionary is that persuasive, and where they are not able to persuade, they are extremely deadly. The surgical strike, that bullshit sleight-of-hand, becomes a reality with our revolutionary. Only the intransigent elements are done away with violently. And with global revolution complete, the doubtful remainder realise their error. After all this time, we see that it could have been so simple, that it was always a ridiculous and uncanny thing to have so much power concentrated in the hands of so few. Comrade, you and I wake up on one sunny September morning. The walkways through the well-forested parks are adorned with crisp brown leaves, just now starting to fall, dewy, and you know, comrade, I can’t resist that satisfying crunchcrunchcrunch, go skipping through the piles of auburn, eyes catching that austere autumn sun casting a million small spotlights through the canopy which, soon, yes, will be bare, but for now is an ecstasy of dancing colour. There are no roads bisecting and trisecting the polis, but we have canals and gondolas for serene transportation if we don’t feel like walking. Our revolutionary is not just a social reformer. They immediately set to work directing all available resources to carbon capture technology and, thanks to this, the moment atmospheric carbon concentration hits 511ppm all anthropogenic CO2 is instantaneously removed from the atmosphere. With this measure, along with regular maintenance to keep the CO2 ppm down as the ocean and land biosphere release their own carbon over the ensuing decades, temperatures return to not much above pre-industrial levels (around 0.03 °C higher) and stay there in perpetuity.4 Food supply isn’t a problem either: innovative vertical farming methods enabled by cheap LEDs allow for the creation of plant factories—high-tech, fully automated cultivation environments: pesticide-free, wash-free.

And around about now, you might be wondering, what’s the catch? What is there to dislike about this? Why not strive towards this future? Why would anyone choose to give this future up without even trying and sink instead in the hopelessness of insurrectionary destruction?

Let’s follow our revolutionary a little longer.

The End of History has been reached, indeed. A beautiful moment, but only a moment. Structural limits to History’s demise are pulled out into the open kicking and screaming by a few calculations. There are 104 million km2 of habitable land on the Earth’s surface.5 To make everything easier, let’s say there are 8 billion human beings to whom an equal portion is distributed by our revolutionary, giving each person 0.013 km2 (or just over 3 acres) to play with. ‘Sounds nice,’ you might say. And it does, right? Except, of course, we will need room for our energy plants, our direct air capture plants, plant factories, not to mention our schools, hospitals, factories, theatres, city centres, arts spaces, roads, docks, parks, ponds, etc. And something else is missing in this picture, isn’t there? Oh, yes. The rest of species-life on the planet. It’s easy enough for you to forget this, civilised one, but there are other beings for whom the land is not habitable, but inhabited, even as we try our hardest to make this impossible. But perhaps this sort of thinking isn’t convincing to you. The Human Appropriation of Land for Food (HALF) index gives us a more rigorous way of quantifying our predicament by expressing “the land area required for the global population to consume a particular diet as a percentage of the world land surface.”6 As it stands, to generalise the diet of the average American, we would need to convert all habitable land to agricultural use and then find some more, since we’d still be short by 38 percent.7 Suddenly our planet looks very small, puny, quite a disappointment really, unable to live up to our needs.8 And we do have needs, don’t we?9

‘Yes, but fuck the American standards of consumption!’ you might say now. ‘The average American overconsumes. Every good socialist understands that. We could, must, and will reduce in sensible ways.’ So we are no longer bringing standards up, then? ‘No, we’re living within reasonable limits.’ But of course. The reasonable limits. Except those reasonable limits are unhealthy and destructive to the body: “Theoretically, if we wanted to restore natural ecosystems by using only 13 percent of habitable land for agriculture, we could all adopt the average diet in Liberia or Mozambique. However, such diets are typically low in diversity, and result in severe levels of micronutrient deficiency and malnourishment.”10 What has become of our revolutionary? “Live within the reasonable limits! Surrender your smartphones! Starvation diets for all 8 billion of you!” isn’t much of a revolutionary slogan, is it? ‘Well, that’s just what will have to happen.’ Have to? No, comrade, it isn’t. Our revolutionary, with bread and circuses for all, checked only by the limits of the biosphere, has failed the Glauconian test. So what makes you think that you, a speck of dust on the wheel of fate, with nothing to offer but misery and poverty to both the developing countries, hungry for their turn, and the developed countries, covetous of their spoils—what makes you think you are going to convince anyone of anything? You rail against the politics of the armed lifeboat, but what does the petty-bourgeois say when you demand environmental justice and wealth redistribution, when you tell them to give up their 4x4s and steaks? A scoff, an eye-roll—‘Come and take it.’ And what can you do about it? ‘I’ll rise to the challenge.’ Well we’re back at Ground Zero now, comrade. Meltdown, civil war, the return of the repressed, that is, the Schmittian political, the social field disintegrates into friend and foe as the temperatures skyrocket since—and you know this, don’t you?—there is never, of course, international co-operation on the climate crisis, technology does not come to our rescue, we do not restore atmospheric carbon levels to what they were before the industrial revolution or establish a global network of plant factories, no, we continue as we always have done: ‘…as on a darkling plain / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, / Where ignorant armies clash by night.’ You are delusional if you continue to cling to your religious hopes of salvation, and since I assume that you are “reasonable,” I will not insult your intelligence by belabouring the point further. We are finally ready to understand why someone would ever make the case for insurrection.

SCHEMA 3: The infernal revolutionary machine. (1) Systematic of Power-Capital (2) Moral-Apparatus of Power-Capital-Masochist Reproduction (3) Revolutionary-Masochist Body (4) Revolutionary-Insurrectionary Fragment (5) Political Masochist Discourse. The revolutionary remains a machine part in the power-capital circuit, maintaining the discourses and frameworks in which capital reproduces itself. At the same time, as a participant in the insurrection, the revolutionary scrambles the political masochist discourse to a greater or lesser extent.

See, the insurrection is not a reasonable response. It isn’t meant to be. You remain within the grip of religion for as long as you seek to put the real into 1:1 correspondence with the rational. The rational doesn’t exist, and it isn’t looking too good for the real either.11 To condemn the insurrection requires that you have some transcendental ground from which to condemn, from which you can point and say, ‘that isn’t right!’—but you don’t have that ground. To what Zero would you anchor your judgments? We have already seen that total revolution is a chimera. And it is obvious that anything less than heaven on Earth is simply unacceptable to the vast majority, who would sooner see you shot or hung, and the rest of the world drowned, than give up what they’ve fought so hard to get.

Comrade, before you start looking for someone to blame, you must understand that this tragic arrangement is nobody’s fault. Lovelock: “There are no benign or malign organisms: we just do our things and suffer or enjoy the consequences. I like to think our CO2 emissions were an innocent mistake, not something done with malice, so there is no occasion to feel guilty about it.” There have been many mass extinctions. There may well be more yet if any organisms are unlucky enough to survive this one. Darwinistic life integrates Malthusian scarcity and Lyellian deep time to generate varied and highly-interactive nightmares from limited and increasingly scarce components. Salient features of this sorting process include amorality in selection, toxic respiratory processes, recurrent catastrophic meltdowns of the biosphere and emergent sentience at certain levels of resolution—ethically less-than-useless but functionally an improvement viz. life’s tendency to self-terminate on long time scales. Humanity is a technology for global disintegration and therefore nature’s most impressive development, even if, to us, such an event appears as a hellish mistake.

Our insurrectionaries are Spinozists. Having thrown off the yoke of evaluation and disregarded utopian religious prophecy, they have recognised the importance (or lack thereof, which amounts to the same thing) of the here and now. With the future cancelled without sublimation, the way is left upon for a reckless expenditure without return. A given insurrectionary may later come to regret what you call their actions, but from the standpoint of the process, there is no guilt, and from the standpoint of the body, there is no them. Your “self” is a procedurally-generated avatar placed into a virtual environment your brain models based on guesswork, experience, and sensory stimuli. One day “you” may find “yourself” unlucky enough to inherit a self-conscious state from an earlier “you” who had had enough of the bullshit and committed some immorality, perhaps neglecting to pay proper reverence to a police officer or smacking the mouth-breather who insists on their free speech rights to scream neo-Nazi propaganda in your face. But in your darkest hour, as you reflect on what you’ve done to the social order, remember this—you do not exist. It could make all the difference.

This world guarantees us neither dignity nor fun, rather a carousel of humiliations and miseries. “Being alive: decades of waking up on time, then trudging through another round of moods, sensations, thoughts, cravings—the complete gamut of agitations—and finally flopping into bed to sweat in the pitch of dead sleep or simmer in the phantasmagorias that molest our dreaming minds.”12 Nietzsche recognised the religious-utopian ideal as a slave discourse, a bedtime story for the downtrodden, something to soothe the bitterness of subjugation.13 Because it is bitter, to reconcile yourself to civilisation’s codes and instructions, and you can never rest, for there is always something new to learn, new rules and regulations at work, new words and phrases to repeat in well-bred company, new ideas and new worldviews, and noises, the lights, police and ambulance sirens, strangers on the street barging into you, screaming matches at 3am, the never-ending buzzing and clanking of construction sites (haven’t they been there for years? How long can it take?) and you, your miserable self, the daily commute, the weekly shop, the news cycle, one socio-political inflammation after another, if you unplug you’ll be in the void, though, and, really, you have to ask, were you built for this? Was this not all some great mistake from the standpoint of our species-being? “Horses must be on some other shit to tolerate holding a bit in their mouth/a person just sitting on them telling them where to walk.”—“It’s called domestication. Wait til you learn about the ape that tolerates living in a tiny wooden box, travels to another wooden box in a metal box, which often smash into eachother and kill the apes inside, then stares at a glowing screen and/or does repetitive meaningless movements for 8 hours a day to pay for the tiny wooden box it sleeps in. Meanwhile his cousins are out sleeping in the sun and playing in the forest having a great life.” With that in mind, we see there really is no case to be made for the insurrection. The question, really, is why everybody isn’t an insurrectionary all of the time, how it is that civilisation can exist at all, and the answer is that you are a self-conscious no one who thinks they are someone, with bats in your belfry, several psychological complexes, a pathological interest in self-preservation, and a herd morality to keep it all together. You are domesticated, yes, a political masochist when you speak, when you attempt to establish communication with the insurrectionaries and jouisseurs in the presumption that you know something they don’t. And so when they say—‘Fuck this world!’—they are seizing a little dignity, a little fun, for themselves, and it pains you to see they do not step back shyly from your property, but view it always as their own, for as long as they remain insurrectionaries.

Is this enough? Has the case been made? May we proceed with our analysis? After all, we are primarily interested in the phenomena I call “political masochism”, aren’t we? I should hope enough time has been dedicated to preliminaries. ‘I don’t think I accept your analysis, it all seems too dire to me, reactionary even…’ Reactionary? ‘Yes. If we give up the possibility of positive change we cede the ground to the ecofascists. This work of yours is basically propaganda for them.’ If it is propaganda for them, comrade, I suggest you find plausible leftist alternatives which can prevent disillusion in the face of hopelessness. Such work exists, but there is much more to be done. Aren’t you tired of reactionaries getting the upper hand because you’re too slow to catch up? And besides, the fascist arrangement is no more stable or functional in the face of ecological collapse than the socialist alternative. You must get this into your head: soon enough, the question of political organisation will be completely eclipsed by basic exigencies of water and food. Burying your head in the sand is not a substitute for the hard work of considering what you will need to do to survive in your lifetime.

I will assume that we can now, at the very least, respect the insurrectionary as giving a sufficient answer to a pertinent and difficult question, and that we are no longer in the naïve sphere of asking—‘But what will that achieve?’—we can now turn to the respectable opposition, the Political Masochist, its discourse, its methods, what it wants, and why, in the next chapter.

1. G Deleuze and F Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Capitalism and Schizophrenia (University of Minnesota Press, 1987), p. 76.

2. Plato, The Republic, 2nd ed. (r (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books Limited, 1974), p. 106.

3. Georges Sorel, Reflections on Violence, ed. by Jeremy Jennings (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 161.

4. Long Cao and Ken Caldeira, ‘Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Removal: Long-Term Consequences and Commitment’, Environmental Research Letters, 5.2 (2010), 24011 .

5. Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser, ‘Land Use’, Our World in Data, 2013.

6. Peter Alexander and others, ‘Human Appropriation of Land for Food: The Role of Diet’, Global Environmental Change, 41 (2016), 88–98 (p. 89) .

7. Hannah Ritchie, ‘How Much of the World’s Land Would We Need in Order to Feed the Global Population with the Average Diet of a given Country?’, Our World in Data, 2017.

8. Incidentally, almost 65 million square kilometres (that’s 70% of global land use) was required to be used for the production of household purchases in 2007. See: Diana Ivanova and others, ‘Environmental Impact Assessment of Household Consumption’, Journal of Industrial Ecology, 20.3 (2016), 526–36 (p. 530) .

9. An early reader pointed out, here, that I hadn’t considered the possibility of space colonisation. While I have given our revolutionary implausible qualities, I decided to stop short of endowing them with superpowers. There is no reason to believe that it will ever be possible to send billions of human beings into space, and since our revolutionary is infinitely just, and would never countenance performing something so grossly unfair as sending a small minority of people to another world to start over, there’s no reason to factor this (im)possibility into the thought experiment. There is nowhere nearby quite like Earth. The microgravity of both Mars and the Moon would be destructive to the body, not to mention the lethal doses of solar radiation and psychological consequences of living on another planet. I do not deny that a different sort of political leader could organise a space expedition, but I deny our revolutionary the right to this option.

10. Ritchie.

11. The universe is completely colourless, soundless, tasteless—an incredible electromagnetic flux. The world outside our heads, Kantian noumena, is incomprehensible, though our brains have evolved to cleverly represent a fraction of this world as sensible to our so-called selves. See: D D Hoffman, The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes (New York, USA: W. W. Norton, 2019); T Metzinger, The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self (New York, USA: Basic Books, 2009).

12. T Ligotti, The Conspiracy against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror (New York, New York: Penguin Random House, 2018).

13. F Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic. By Way of Clarification and Supplement to My Last Book Beyond Good and Evil, Oxford World’s Classics (OUP Oxford, 2008).

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