On the ZAD, destituent association, and the joys of pledging war.
While #MississippiStand water defenders were cutting fences and locking-down to oil pipeline machinery and trucks this past Saturday in Keokuk, Iowa, a massive mobilization was simultaneously taking place in Western France on the Zone To Defend (ZAD) in Notre-dame-des-landes. Upwards of forty thousand people traveled to the spawling open-air land occupation to express their refusal of the proposed airport mega-project and their affirmation of the world that has for 10 years been built up in resistance to all that it stands for.
After winning 55% support for the airport in a widely-contested referendum earlier this year, the French government promised an eviction of the ZAD “this october, or this autumn”. In defiance of the government’s threats, tens of thousands answered a callout to travel to the ZAD with wooden batons, with which to make a visible and collective sign of their determination to defend it. Upon arrival, they planted their batons in the ground, and pledged that if the territory should come under attack, they would each return, collect their baton, and wield it against the ZAD’s enemies. One version published on the ZAD support site reads,
“Pledge: On this, the 8th of October, we take hold of our batons, the symbol of our determination and the instrument for the defense of this ZAD that we love. By planting them here today, we seal into the soil of Notre-dame-des-landes our collective pledge to return to the ZAD, if necessary, to defend it. We won’t submit either to the law of profit, nor to the law of the strongest: we are here, we will be here!”
Regardless of how one feels about the ZAD, at a purely formal level it is certainly possible to read this demo as an admittedly-very-large but ultimately symbolic show of force, not fundamentally different from your garden variety leftist protest march or political festival. People marched, expressed their disapproval, listened to a few folk songs, ate some soup, then went home. That it included raising the frame of what will become a multi-function building adds some marginally practical dimension to the portrait, but doesn’t alter it in fundamental ways.
However, this picture misses something essential that, by touching on an essential paradox of our time, warrants more theoretical elaboration.
The collapse of classical politics and the reinvention of association
The past decade has testified both to widespread disenchantment with electoral politics and a major uptick in struggles against infrastructural megaprojects, from pipelines to airports, garbage dumps to high speed train-lines, and beyond. It is in the vanishing point between these two facts that we suggest the significance of the Baton Song of the ZAD lies.
As the protracted exhaustion of classical politics continues its headlong abasement through this US current election cycle—which seems to have distinguished itself only by its being perhaps the first in living memory in which all party’s candidates are at this point universally reviled—the urgency of effecting a wholesale bifurcation with the entirety of the dissociative nightmare of classical politics screams in our ears. We know this. But somehow, it was really only at the moment when we pulled our car into the Mississippi Stand anti-pipeline protest camp at Keokuk, IA and noticed that the camp’s welcome sign had been hastily painted over a Bernie Sanders placard, that the difficulty of our present task confronted us.
It is of course neither surprising nor remarkable to see ‘Berned-out Sandernistas’ turn from elections to pipeline blockades, a move which, while undoubtedly signaling some measure of overall radicalization, seemed to drag with it enough Jill Stein buttons on its #noDAPL merchandise to let its roots show through. Likewise, there is certainly nothing preventing these folks from relating to current-day anti-infrastructure struggles with the same degree of placelessness and leftist moralism that once typified the anti-globalization protests of the early 2000’s. Yet if there’s something that links the exhaustion of classical politics to infrastructure, it’s not only the fact that the real architecture of power governing our lives long ago shifted its center of gravity from city halls and Senate floors to the transport controllers at logistics parks and distribution centers. It’s also that, since there’s never a one-to-one correspondence between mutations in power and the recalibration of subjectivities, there remains an open question whether, given power’s logistical turn, resistance movements will mutate in ways that allow our forms of association to slip out of the fetish of moralistic and juridical thinking (revolution as either the harmonization of political institutions with their inner moral basis, or as the replacement of one set of laws with another), and assume a truly destituent character.
Here we wish to suggest that in the 40,000-strong Baton Song pledge at the ZAD we can see much more than the contours of a familiar leftist protest march. Everything appears as if, by severing the two elements of the classical theory of the social contract, Zadists and their supporters performed a “pact of association” against subjection, rather than for it. In its refusal to countenance the state referendum’s electoral majority, what is at issue is an irreducibly partisan pledge. Such a gesture is best understood not as a splitting of a totality into competing parts or factions each defined via mutually contested claims over the management of the whole, but rather as the intensification of asymmetrical differences that were already there within the way we live, which the ‘savage peace’ of the State only ever manages at best to attenuate, but never extinguishes. That its struggle is premised on a partisan idea of how we want to live is audible in very the slogan of the ZAD, “against the airport and its world”, which consciously distances itself from the politics of reasoned dissent or citizenly disagreement. After all, if one struggles by living differently on the ZAD, it is by means of the entirety of the world one builds thereby that one is waging war. In such a situation, what does one oppose, except another world?
To pledge oneself to the ZAD is not to lay the grounds for the constitution of a new totality, which some extrapolated “Zadist revolution” could some day fulfill or actualize, but to commit one’s resources to the gathering of a force in which construction and departure coincide. In a video interview from this Saturday, a Zadist assembling a cabin to house defenders explained that what distinguishes them from the state is not primarily their negative threat of self-defense, but above all their use of construction as a means of making war. This only begins to make sense if one recalls that to live in such a space is already to live experimentally, since the day-to-day absence there of police, of State administration, of prisons, and of a monetary economy within the territory of the ZAD is (in its contrast with the world surrounding it, in which we’ve all grow-up) a sort of complex problem to which life must respond by invention. Is every invention functional? Not at all. It simply means that life and politics are in reciprocal immanence—a single question, a single process, with no separation between oikos [household] and polis [politics] carving up our needs into specialized roles and functions. Destituent power is first of all this immanence of politics and life, from which it becomes impossible to separate off a supposedly ‘generic’ human form in whose name one may dominate others (every theory of human nature is in the end a metaphysical apologia for some form of subjugation). If every human life is already immediately a formed-life, a set of immediate evaluations of the important, the tolerable, the alluring and the repugnant, a sensitivity to this or that set of signs rather than others, and a set of corresponding capacities to act and think, then one is never not a partisan for some idea of living. The only question is: which one? And with whom are you allied?
This emphasis on the growing of a positive force of rupture rather than the contesting of power, this counterposing of association and subjection, tends to sever means from ends. What are classically treated as pre-political means (association, our powers of self-defense) in service of a political ends (a subjection to new laws, self-preservation) here become detached from any predetermined goal. Not that this makes them nihilistic. In fact, there is here a more difficult but potentially deeper affirmation that can emerge, if we attend to it. If, in our building of a force, we manage to consciously avoid relating to our enemies (and above all to ourselves) in terms of some claim we suppose ourselves to possess to a deeper universality or ‘constituent legitimacy’, if we measure our strength by the vitality of our positive asymmetry with the world of governance rather seeing ourselves as a People awaking to a “betrayal” by its representatives, then our entire idea of politics changes. Once we subtract innocence and abstract legitimacy from our idea of power, the pledge of association no longer exists to bring into being a proto-legal subject, but a new attachment to the world. It is on the soil of this attachment signaled in the pact that (in a secondary moment) we become capable of discerning who are our friends and who our enemies. It is this processural priority of the lived world, the sensitivity to and unwillingness to be disembedded from the immediate asymmetry or multiplicity of forms-of-life, that ensures that a quantitative “referendum” on our legitimacy will be unable to dent our confidence in our own power.
It is worth recalling that the idea of a pledge or pact to stand together is linked to an older and arguably more profound meaning of the term “commune”. As some friends have recently insisted, the pact may be seen as the germinal element of a practical communism founded not on a model of governance or ownership, but on a situated and partisan mode of living in the world.
“What constitutes the commune is the mutual oath sworn by the inhabitants of a city, a town, or a rural area to stand together as a body….a commune [is] a pact to face the world together. It means relying on one’s own shared powers as the source of one’s freedom. What is aimed for is not an entity; it is a qualitative bond, a way of being in the world. […] Declaring the Commune is always to knock historical time off its hinges, to punch a hole in the hopeless continuum of submissions, the senseless succession of days, the dreary struggle of each one to go on living. Declaring the Commune is agreeing to bond with others, where nothing will be like it was before.” (Invisible Committee, To Our Friends, “Omnia Sunt Communia”)
Lessons for the Midwest and Beyond
What might those of us engaging with infrastructural struggles in North America draw from this gesture of war?
As infrastructural struggles such as NoDAPL and Mississippi Stand continue to attract more newly-disaffected Sandernistas (a development we should welcome), the latter’s occasionally fanatical insistence on non-violence and symbolic ‘stunt activism’ can make trust and shared understanding between newcomers and more seasoned warriors difficult. In such a context, it is important that we find ways to resist reproducing the pacifist vs. radical binary, which condemns us to marginality, makes us more easily targeted, and reduces the overall potential for ungovernability and disruption. Clearly the question cannot be solved by tactical compromises—most of us won’t be going down for voluntary “non-violent arrests”. Nor can we remain content with the liberal notion of a ‘diversity of tactics’, whereby our separation into radicals and pacifists is ultimately reinforced through a polite indifference to one another.
Instead, what we must seek out are those gestures that can make war inviting, joyful, and good-humored, while finding ways to invest peace with a partisan meaning, to invest the soil with the seal of combative alliances between us: we will be back.
In Iowa, a group of hippies sporting Jill Stein™ buttons have a prayer circle in a ditch next to the access road to the drilling site. We shudder, incapable of anything but silent contempt. A failed encounter. Only upon returning home do we begin to ask: What is a prayer, but a sacrament of language? What is a pledge, if not a sacrament of war? What if the reinvention of the sacrament and the pledge have as their aim not a respiritualization of politics, but the elaboration of a war-machine utilizing all the resources of the spirit, the better to break-away from governance, to reattach to this world, to find our friends, to defeat our enemies?
Peace to the ZAD, war on infrastructure!