Julien Coupat was one of the accused of the so-called “Tarnac” group. He is the author, along with others, of this text on “things seen” of May and August 2020. It was published simultaneously in Reporterre and Terrestres (04/09/2020) and is presented here in translation.
What have we seen in the last six months, since the emergence of the virus, since the avalanche of transformations it has produced? How to prevent the weight of habit and the force of amnesia from accustoming us to what was then new, unthinkable, terrifying? While it undoubtedly calls for other observations, other records and other re-considerations, this text offers a journey through the times in order to avoid, with the passage of time, that the extraordinary molt into the ordinary and that the fearsome becomes legal.
We have seen the most elementary freedom of bourgeois constitutions – the freedom to come and go – abolished at the snap of a finger.
We have seen a president purporting to settle “the details of our daily life” from the Elysée Palace.
We have seen a government promulgate new habits overnight, such as the correct way to greet each other and even enact a “new normal”.
We have heard of children being treated as “viral bombs” – and then ultimately not.
We have seen a mayor forbidding anyone from sitting for more than two minutes on the benches of “his” city and by another from buying less than three baguettes at a time.
We have heard a depressed professor of medicine talk about “a form of collective suicide for themselves and for others” in relation to young people sunbathing in a park.
We have seen a thoroughly discredited media system attempt to regain an ounce of moral credit through an enterprise of massive guilt of the population, as if the resurrection of the “youthful peril” would cleanse its own.
We have seen 6,000 gendarmes from the “mountain” units supported by helicopters, drones, speedboats and 4X4s, launched in a national hunt for surveyors of trails, riverbanks, lakes – not to mention, of course, of the seaside.
We have seen Poles in quarantine ordered to choose between photographing themselves at home on an application combining geo-tracking and facial recognition, or receiving a visit from the police.
We heard old people banging on the door of their nursing home rooms, begging to be let out to see the sun perhaps for one last time, and the civilised barbarism draping itself in sanitary excuses.
We have seen the notion of “social distancing”, conceived of in the America of the 1920s to quantify white hostility towards blacks, come to the fore as the obvious norm in a society of foreigners. We saw accordingly a concept born to respond to the Chicago race riots of 1919 mobilised to freeze the 2019 wave of global insurgency.
We have seen, in our confined nights, Elon Musk’s satellites replace the stars, like the hunt for Pokemons replaced the hunt for extinct butterflies.
We have seen from one day to the next, our apartment, which had been sold to us as a refuge, close in on us like a trap.
We have seen the metropolis, once it faded as the theater of our distractions, reveal itself as a panoptic space for police control.
We have seen in all its nakedness the tight network of dependencies upon which our lives are suspended. We have seen what our lives rest upon and by what we are held.
We have seen, in its suspension, social life as an immense accumulation of aberrant constraints.
We have not seen Cannes, Roland Garros, or the Tour de France – and that was good.
We have read this press release from the Swiss Private Businesses’ Center: “One must avoid some people being tempted at getting used to the current situation, or even to being seduced by its insidious appearances: much less traffic on the roads, a sky deserted by air traffic, less noise and commotion, the return to a simple life and to local commerce, the end of consumer society … This romantic perception is misleading, because the slowdown in social and economic life is in reality very painful for countless inhabitants who have no desire to undergo this forced experience of degrowth any longer.”
We have seen the United States, France or Italy declare an inevitably implacable war on an enemy that is of course invisible, and mimic Chinese power. We have seen the most Western states naturally adopt the words, methods and manners deemed to be proper to “Oriental despotism” – but without the means of the latter. We have seen the ruthless governmentality of China being pointed out more as an enemy, while it actually serves as a model. We have seen where democracies are heading.
We have seen the social withdraw more and more into the government, and the latter reduce itself to the purely hostile. We have seen the completed separation coincide with the project of perfect governmentality.
We have watched, for weeks on end, the endless television sketch of masks, tests and places in intensive care. And we have seen in this masquerade the reflection of our own helplessness without measure. We have seen the sad passion of being well governed as always having to be disappointed.
We have seen village seamstresses fill in for state deficiencies and nurse aides speak louder than a so-called President. We have seen nothing but spokespersons without words, generals without an army, strategists without strategy and ministers without ministerial authority. We have witnessed the collapse of the old faith in the State at the very moment when it found anew an unexpected reason for being.
We have seen the French state, so commonly struck with grandiosity like all that is French, reduced to its real status as a failed state. We have seen it hiding beneath the gold of its institutions and apparatuses a Third World reality – stealing masks from its own local authorities and from its “European allies”, mobilising the army like the first Mexican president come to stage a mastery of the situation in which nobody believes, mimicking with the blows of helicopters and TGV trains a pasteboard efficiency, appropriating as its own the outbursts of spontaneous solidarity towards caregivers that it had hitherto never ceased to pluck.
We have seen, through the holes of nurses’ gowns, the intense do-it-yourself [bricolage] that masquerades as “our institutions.”
We have seen the private meta-bureaucracy of global consulting firms as clumsy as the state bureaucracy, and everywhere extending its hold.
We have seen how the United States, in fact a failed state, is worthy of France.
We have seen everywhere the pretension to administer things, to manage them from afar crash into reality – and this, to begin with, in the hospital.
We have seen the reflex to centralise-plan-organise everywhere worsen the situation, and only improve the image of the organisers.
At the height of the crisis, we have seen the State as what we no longer need, and from which nothing comes as relief but a silent threat and low blows. We have seen that living without the State, or far from its empire, has become, for many, the first vital step.
We have seen local self-organisation unfold, step by step, from neighbour to neighbour, in lived territories, as a vital reflex bringing back a little meaning and something to hold to – as a tiny but real experience of collective power.
We have seen the passion for gardens, even hen-houses, seize those who until then had only three pots of withered flowers.
We have seen no rupture, in the trial run of global confinement, between a world before and a world after. We have seen it only as revealing the world that was already there, but whose coherence was until then silent.
We have seen the emergence, with the effective house arrest of the greater part of the world’s population, of the ready-made new architecture of separation, where the absence of contact forms the condition for all relationships to be cybernetically mediated.
We have seen the emergence, around some statistics from the Ministry of the Interior concerning the 20% of Parisians who set off to confine themselves elsewhere, the hitherto clandestine ecosystem of mass surveillance. We have seen that it was futile, in this matter, to distinguish between state organisations and private data brokers, between those who hold the securities and those who have the levers.
We have heard Eric Schmidt, the former boss of Google who became a pillar of the American military-industrial complex, formulate what we are careful not to say officially in France: the online, connected de-schooling of children is indeed a “massive experiment in remote learning”. Then, refining the plan: “If we are to build a future economy and education system based on tele-everything, we need a fully connected population and ultrafast infrastructure. The government must make a massive investment—perhaps as part of a stimulus package—to convert the nation’s digital infrastructure to cloud-based platforms and link them with a 5G network.” We have perceived in his appeal for gratitude to the digital giants – “Think about what your life would be like in America without Amazon!” – the triumphant voice of the new masters.
We have seen, with the inexorable pretext of the pandemic, the coherence of the hitherto disjointed pieces of the imperial plans appear: geo-tracking, facial recognition, Linky smart metres, the clutter of drones, the prohibition of cash payments, the internet of things, the generalisation of sensors and the production of traces, digital house arrest, maddening privatisation, massive savings through telework, tele-consumption, tele-conferences, tele-education, tele-consultations, tele-surveillance and, to finish, tele-firing.
We have seen in the level of technological equipment possessed by each the condition to endure a seclusion which, ten years ago, would have been felt as intolerable – a little like the introduction of television in prisons put an end to the great revolts there.
We have witnessed the meteoric inflation of a specific type of technology: those that Kafka said we will perish by because they “multiply the ghostly among men.”
We have seen, with global confinement, the socialisation of the virtual respond to the virtualisation of the social. The social is no longer the real. The real is no longer the social.
We have seen, in the United States, the police curfew take over from sanitary confinement, and the tracking applications imagined “for Covid” serve to track down rioters.
We have seen, in France, demonstrations that were once banned for unfathomable reasons of public order, now banned for unfathomable health reasons.
We have seen, with the population confined, the police enjoy to the point of murder their regained sovereignty over an ideally deserted public space. And we have seen in return, in the United States, what a successful de-confinement can consist of: the taking of the streets, riots, looting, the burning to ashes of police stations, department stores, banks and government buildings.
We have seen, on a balcony in Nantes, this stupid and cowardly banner: “Stay at home! Let’s prepare the struggles of tomorrow!”.
Everywhere, we have seen citizens echo the “go home!” barked out by the cops and their drones.
We have seen the left, as always, at the forefront of the “civicism” that rulers aspire to produce – at the forefront, therefore, of following the leader, of herding.
We have seen the joke of the “living permit” imagined in 1947 by the Dadaists of the Da Costa Encyclopédique become reality as State policy and citizen measure. That it was permissible for everyone to issue them should have also alerted everyone to the silliness of the initiative.
We have seen what “budgetary rigour” is all about, as well as the moral imperative to get up early in the morning to go to the job.
We have seen, for those who continue to work, that forced labor is the truth of wage labor, that the essence of exploitation is to be without limits, and that self-exploitation is its primary source.
We have seen social hierarchy as purely based on the degree of parasitism. We have seen the utilitarian society dismiss its own managers as “inessential”.
We have experienced in the false alternative between a public space fully under control and a private space given over to the same fate, the lack of intermediate places where we can locally regain control of the conditions of existence which, on all sides, escape us. We have seen in the proliferation of intermediaries of all kinds – commercial as well as political, intellectual as well as health – the consequence of this lack of places.
We felt the media and government apparatus, from recanting to crude lies, from gaping contradictions to false revelations, playing for two months on our moods like on a piano. And enjoy the exercise so much that it intends to continue as long as possible.
We have experienced how, through the unfathomable threat of the virus, we have been bound to ourselves through being bound to others, but through a bond which is unbinding itself: fear.
We have seen a new civic virtue emerge from what was still a crime yesterday: being masked. We have seen fear protest its altruism and normopathy set itself as an example. We have seen the most complete disarray as regards the way to live – the most complete strangeness to oneself – dispensing lessons of good manners. We have seen in this uncertainty, and in this strangeness, the promise of fully re-programmable mores.
We have seen rulers and multinationals celebrate care in the sole hope of dissuading us from going to war with them. We have seen the champions of discredit try to cover up the jeers aimed at them by acclaiming those damned to wage labour. We have seen the usual slackers inventing the heroism of “frontline fighters” as the ultimate hiding place for themselves.
We have seen how the impossibility of distinguishing the lie from the truth, and not the exclusive reign of the lie, made us maneuverable at will, how, the slightest conclusive information being systematically denied during the day by another no less improbable, was enough to maintain a certain fog over all the data over which the rulers have a monopoly, to make us lose our footing.
We have seen science so stuffed with interests that it becomes incapable of producing the slightest beginnings of truth. We have seen knowledge so saturated with power that it imploded. We have been left with intuition and situated inquiry as the last practicable pathways of access to reality, as the roots of all logical reasoning.
We have seen the cause of “public health” as the pure and outright expropriation of any sensible certainty about our actual health.
We have not tasted the benevolent inquisition of Doctor Véran‘s “brigades of guardian angels”.
We have seen the Republican sovereign realize his dream of bringing together for his Mass all of his subjects, ideally separated in front of their screens between the four walls of their homes, and finally reduced to his exclusive contemplation. We have seen the Leviathan realised.
We have seen Macron peacefully appropriating the May Day of the workers and the happy days of the Conseil National de la Résistance – CNR, and the leftists mimetically claiming its legacy, rather than concluding that it has definitively expired.
We have seen, for two months, endless leftism multiply appeals in the void and political programmes for no one. We have seen it incapable, in these “exceptional circumstances”, of doing anything other than mobilising, that is, exploiting the last subjective resources to the point of exhaustion.
We have seen the great libertarians defend confinement and promote the citizen wearing of the mask and the biggest fascists denounce its tyranny. The anarchist who wants to believe in some goodwill or even some benevolence from the State reminds us thus that there is no government without self-government, and vice versa. Government and self-government are united, arise from the same system. That the pastor tends to his flock never stopped her/him from leading the lambs to the slaughterhouse.
We have seen Marxists, bewildered that the “valets of capital” interrupt in the least its reproduction, choke on the fact that the clergy of the economy decides to block it even a little, in short: we have seen Marxists discover that the economy is not a raw and insurmountable datum, but a way of governing, and of producing, a certain type of human.
We saw a Burgundian bourgeois, a philosopher in his spare time, who just yesterday sang of “economics as a science of passionate interests” and asked Microsoft to finance his university chair, to call for an exit from the economy.
We saw, during the confinement, a rich Chinese from Aubervilliers debauch his son’s teacher, a home tutor, and for that reason doubled her salary – less stingy in this than so many families of the Parisian bourgeoisie, but no less determined to put an end to public education.
We have seen the national education system call on its staff to be vigilant “in the corridors and the courtyard to spot comments that attack social cohesion”.
We met, in the undergrowth of containment, the smiles of complicit offenders. We have seen a government so disciplined that it ends up making simple woodland picnics seem like a conspiracy and good citizens feel like they are in a balancing act.
We have seen the FNSEA, always ready to relaunch, as in 1942, some new “youth work scheme”, be scandalised by the fact that the volunteers henceforth demand to be paid – to finally fall back on the exploitation of undocumented migrants, when there are no Romanians.
We have seen, as in 1942, the good French people always quick to denounce the poorly confined, and Ouest France launch into subtle distinctions between “délation” [denunciation] and “dénonciation” [denunciation].
We have seen the bastards – industrial fisheries, big foresters or agro-entrepreneurs – unleashed, to further intensify their butchering of oceans, lands and forests, while we were locked in our homes.
We have seen those who, faced with the event, hasten to build for “tomorrow” “worlds after”, or to place in safety their cozy illusions, and those who accept to take account of what is happening, however chilling that may be.
We have seen, then, who is unreasonable, and who keeps a cool head, who subscribes to the panic and who remains dignified, who has their mouth filled with propaganda and who still manages to feel and think for themselves.
We have glimpsed the entry into another temporality, foreign to social time, denser, more continuous, more adjusted, specific and shared. We have wanted the physical closeness of our loved ones, and the estrangement of the more hostile of our neighbours.
We have seen all the ties and all the places around us that render life livable reinforce themselves, and all that has no reason to be, in the end, slacken.
We have seen all of this, and it determines a sharing – a sharing with those who welcome the truths of the event and a sharing with those who still see nothing. We do not intend to convert these last to our views: they have hampered us enough with their damn blindness.
We see, before the growing “ungovernability of democracies”, a hardening of a social-gregarious block equipped technologically, financially and police-wise, while a thousand singular desertions and small diffuse maquis gain form, nourished by a few certainties and a few friendships. We see the general desertion from this society, that is to say from the relationships that it commands, asserting itself as the measure of elementary survival without which nothing can be reborn. We see annihilation as the manifest destiny of this society, and what is incumbent upon those to precipitate who set out to desert it – if at least we are to make life on Earth breathable again, anywhere. The wall that we are now before is that of the means and forms of desertion. We have the experience of our failures in the guise of an explosive to make it give way. All strategy follows from this.
We focused on formulating what we witnessed last spring, before the organised amnesia comes over our perceptions. We have seen and we will not forget. Rather, we will rebuild ourselves on this evidence. We do not presuppose any we, neither that of the people, nor that of some lucid avant-garde. We do not see any “we” in these times other than that of the clarity of shared perceptions and the determination to take note of them, on all levels of our humble and foolish lives. We are not aiming for a new society, but a new geography.