Since the End of the Movement of the Squares
The Return of The Invisible Committee
—To Our Friends
“The insurrections have come, finally.”
To Our Friends, The Invisible Committee’s most recent book, appears a little over seven years after 2007’s The Coming Insurrection. Its opening sentence—“The insurrections have come, finally”—savors a note of vindication. Sympathetic readers will indulge them this small triumph, and give them their due. There is little doubt that since the publication of The Coming Insurrection we have witnessed, on a global scale, a welter of riots and revolts the likes and intensity of which have not been seen for 40 years. “Ten years ago,” the authors go on, “predicting an uprising would have exposed you to […] snickers.” Today, they contend, everyone has on their lips the watchwords of the moment: que se vayan todos! (“out with them all”), or even that old anarchist refrain, all cops are bastards. Rarely do short essays risking themselves in the waters of historical speculation hit their mark. The Invisible Committee was clearly on to something.
All the same, a worry, a quibble, settles in quickly. Did the insurrections really come, after all? We can be sure the authors of To Our Friends are not speaking of the North American Occupy movement which, with the exception of some aspects of Occupy Oakland, was a largely toothless affair, swept away brusquely after a few weeks or months at most. They must have in mind instead some of the more spirited outposts of Occupy’s European counterpart, the so-called “movement of the squares,” such as the M15 movement in Spain and the Syntagma Square occupation in Athens, both frequent points of reference in To Our Friends. But there was little insurrectionary about these movements, despite the numbers and energies pouring into them: they remained focused largely on developing novel forms of mass democracy in their general assemblies, and denouncing the austerity programs implemented by their respective “caretaker” national governments at the behest of the true power players in Europe, the so-called “troika” of the IMF, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission. The weeks-long riot in Greece in December 2008 is marshaled as an example, but that moment of disorder, marked as it was by attacks on banks and symbols of the state, and the temporary routing of police in the streets, was in a way an exception to the period in question, unleashed as it was before the austerity programs could firmly take the country hostage and the wheels of crisis grind the social fabric down to powder.
The story told in To Our Friends therefore largely depends on what transpired in Egypt, which broke the seal on the epoch and remains its signature event. If Tahrir Square is still the pulsing center of our historical moment, the disheartening if predictable fallout of the mass movement—elections, Muslim Brotherhood, army coup—offers writ-large lessons on just how weak, despite its mobilization of millions, the movement was. Despite numerous attacks on police stations and a series of important factory strikes, everything unfolded under the knowing, patient eye of the army, and most of the key structures of the Egyptian state stayed intact throughout, generally in the hands of autocrats in waiting. Few of the telltale traits of insurrection came to the fore. No significant movement to occupy factories, no crippling of the economic infrastructure, and no veritable splits within the armed forces. The other key uprisings of the Arab Spring, in Syria and Libya, leapt quickly—due in large part to the standing regimes’ move to militarize these conflicts—from popular mass movements to full-blown civil wars, complete with territorial fracturing, competing offshoots of Al-Qaeda assuming command over key zones, and the entire region transformed into a geopolitical powder keg, vaguely reminiscent of the Balkans a century ago. The scene is, altogether, grim.1
It is this gray grimness that quickly overtakes the triumphant tone on which the book opens. The time of this book’s writing comes after the euphoria of the upsurges, after what it calls the “intoxication of the movements.” It comes in a lull of reflection, and in a pause of defeat. The authors of To Our Friends remain convinced of the coherence and consistency of the historical moment, decoding within their dispersion a cohesive age of riots: “a single historical sequence unfolding in a strict unity of place and time, from Greece to Chile.” But it is the failure of this pattern of riot to take the form of revolution, they argue, that is just as much a trait of our time. Where one key aspect of The Coming Insurrection was its relative marginalization of the thematics of “revolution”—what that book called “centralized revolutions”2—in favor of a vision of an almost inexorable proliferation of insurrectionary communes, To Our Friends places a great deal of emphasis on this classical distinction between insurrectionary conflagration and revolutionary staying power:
The insurrections have come, but not the revolution. Rarely has one seen, as we have these past few years, in such a densely-packed timespan, so many seats of power taken by storm, from Greece to Iceland. […] But however great the disorders in this world may be, the revolution always seems to choke off at the riot stage. At best, a regime change satisfies for an instant the need to change the world, only to renew the same dissatisfaction.
For a group that stakes so much on forcing a break with both “the Left” and with “leftism”—even attributing the defeat of the “insurrections” in part to the residual presence of this latter disorder—The Invisible Committee’s assessment of the limitations of this global wave of revolts, as well its proposed response to these impasses, has a pronounced classical cast. The distinction between insurrection and revolution is only one trace of this seeming return to orthodoxy. The reasonsTo Our Friends musters in order to explain the defeats visited everywhere on these riots and revolts reinforces this perception; for what they contend has been lacking within the intoxicating energies of mass movements is a certain practice ofstrategy, that is, a concerted effort to develop a “strategic intelligence of the present.”
Where a host of partisans of the Paris Commune, from William Morris to the Situationist International, paradoxically refused always to read that fugitive episode’s bloody conclusion in terms of defeat,3 the dominant tradition of the Left, particularly in its Leninist formatting, has always lamented the errors of the Commune and its incapacity to endure beyond some 70 days. What it lacked, the consecrated analysis asserts, was a strategic conception of state power and its weak spots, and the organizational vigor and aggressiveness to attack those points with the necessary intensity: whence the fable of Lenin dancing in the snow as the Bolshevik revolution beat the Commune’s mark for duration. It is this same pattern, in a certain sense, that To Our Friends reproduces. Its analysis begins with the fact of defeat, and with the conceptual cleavage between insurrection and revolution. From there, the authors sketch out remedies that hinge first of all on the development of a strategic analysis of the nature of contemporary power—at times identified with contemporary capitalism, at times with an almost self-referential figure of Power—in view of attacking it or, alternately, slipping free of its meshes, seceding from its cartography. The emphasis on strategy here is in turn inseparable from a push to organize: “we must now,” their analysis concludes, “organize ourselves, worldwide.” Such an organizational initiative is baptized with a name dear to the classical workers’ movement, and to the succession of communist internationals: the Party. The first person plural of the book’s title—thewe of “our friends”—is invariably identified throughout the book as a party: in the code used by Marx and Engels throughout their correspondence, our party. The passage from insurrection to revolution means taking on the task of building this party. Fortunately, this problem is its own solution: “our party is everywhere.” Defeat, insurrection, revolution, strategy, organization, party: such is the altogether familiar program, the tried if not always true syntax of revolutionary theory in its classical configuration.
A cursory survey of the chapters of To Our Friends registers a set of analytic nodes that include the notion of crisis, the role of democracy within mass movements, a Foucault-inspired refashioning of contemporary power as “governance,” and the examination of the various forms or platforms this reputedly novel form of power operates with or on: logistics, infrastructure, cybernetics, and counter-insurgency, to name just a few of its resources. Some of the final chapters of the book gravitate around the strategic and organizational questions from which the book begins. To Our Friends starts out from the contention that contemporary capitalism operates through a decomposition or ravaging of society, understood as a totality once held together by a battery of mediating measures (the wage, money, and so on). It is under these conditions that the authors anticipate a widespread resurgence of thecommune as a form both of struggle (with the withering of forms such as trade unions, but also the classical Soviet or workers’ council) and as a means for reproducing the patterns of everyday life. But the turn to the commune, familiar to readers of The Coming Insurrection, is here supplemented with a final chapter that places its bets on developing, on a global scale, a weave of ties among otherwise isolated, and thereby vulnerable, communes. The authors foresee the formation of a “historical party”: “So the first question we are faced with is the following: How does a set of situated powers constitute a global force? How does a set of communes constitute a historical party?”
“Power is Logistic. Block Everything!,” the third chapter of To Our Friends, sizes up a key aspect of recent mutations in the nature of “power,” and is undoubtedly the book’s theoretical core. In Anglophone debates, it is likely Fredric Jameson’s provocative thought experiment deciphering Wal-Mart’s ruthlessly efficient supply-chains as a paradoxically “Utopian phenomenon”4—that is, a kind of inverted blueprint for a hyper-efficient socialist planning to come—that has put the thematics of logistics on the map. To Jameson’s political left, the place of logistical networks in “revolutionary” theory has recently emerged, focusing in large part on what role they play in contemporary capitalist accumulation, and whether such infrastructures could be adapted to a post-capitalist world.5 The authors of To Our Friends make no explicit reference to these debates. The deep history of the term, with its roots in the science of supplying massive armies on the move, is only mentioned in passing, a surprising ellipsis considering the role military strategy (particularly “counterinsurgency” doctrine) plays elsewhere in the book. Where other commentators busy themselves charting capitalist valorization circuits as they thread their way across oceans and between continents—energy from the Mideast, raw materials from Sub-Saharan Africa, manufacturing and assembly in the Far East, design, administration, and consumption in North America and Europe—the authors of To Our Friends presuppose this work as done elsewhere.
Where the classical tactics of the workers’ movement centered on sabotage and the general strike, The Invisible Committee—as the second half of this chapter’s title indicates—wagers that the form of struggle most adequate to the age of logistics is the blockade.6 The reasons proposed for the precedence of this tactic are not entirely satisfying. The authors of To Our Friends see the blockade as a tactic opening up this disruptive leverage to all social layers provided they are committed ideologically to the task, that is, to “anyone who takes a stand against the existing organization of the world,” to argue that “the subject of the strike was the working class, [while] the subject of the blockade is whoever” is at the very least to leave unexamined the role logistical infrastructures have played, over the last four decades, in the erosion of working-class power in the U.S. and Europe. The authors neglect, in turn, to consider the way these same networks have contributed to the emergence of new working-class formations on the Asian side of the Pacific Rim (not to mention potential new ties between workers at either end of these supply chains). One wonders in turn why the key role these new supply-chain logics play in contemporary capitalism would not concentrate the capacity for disruption of their flows in the hands of a small, select group of workers in ports on either side of the Pacific. If the subject of the blockade is, indeed, no longer the worker but just anyone—but these “whoevers” are likely to be workers as well, even if they find themselves unemployed—To Our Friends does not consider whether the pride of place assumed by the blockade, today, in the militant toolbox is due in large part because it remains a “last resort,” all that’s left when the classical strike at the point of production, now strategically situated oceans away, is no longer an available weapon.7
Elsewhere in To Our Friends, The Invisible Committee single out the recent “ZAD” movement in France, with its signature occupation of an area near Nantes slated for a regional airport, or the longstanding “No TAV” blockade movement against construction of a high-speed rail line in the Susa Valley in northern Italy, as exemplary contemporary struggles.8 It is therefore significant that in this central chapter on logistical power, the authors single out the blockading of fuel refineries during the 2010 mass movement against pension reform in France. This initiative, which the authors concede was dominated by the Communist Party-affiliated CGTlabor union, seems if anything a throwback to an almost archaic scene of struggle, given The Invisible Committee’s contention that the “subject” of the strike was the working class, that of the blockade “anyone at all.” Though one of the innovative aspects of these refinery blockades was the role those who did not work at these sites played in their shutdown—with the attendant fuel shortages across the country—the authors of To Our Friends use this episode as an occasion to place particular emphasis, paradoxically, on the contemporary worker and its definition. “What defines the worker,” they write, “in a positive sense is his embodied technical mastery of a particular world of production.”
This conceptualization of the worker is bound to seem outdated to many readers, reminiscent perhaps of the situation of the late 19th century or of the first decades of the 20th century, where worker militancy, and the rise of the workers’ council as a form of struggle, was concentrated in industries where workers retained a high degree of knowledge of, and control over, the labor process.9 In the context of contemporary Europe and North America, the relation between the average wage-earner and the “world of production” is tenuous and remote. This is what it means for less than five percent of employment in the US to be in the manufacturing sector, and for the vast majority of work available to be in services (whether they be in fast food or finance, securities or security). Everything in To Our Friends’s chapter on logistics hinges on the idea that a consequent revolutionary strategy depends on a militant accumulation of knowledge, and specifically a mapping of contemporary capital flows. “We need to go look in every sector, in all the territories we inhabit,” they write, “for those who possess strategic technical knowledge. Only on this basis will movements truly dare to ‘block everything.’” The authors go as far as to propose the practice of “investigations”—a term used by French Maoists and Italian “workerists” in the 1960s—to characterize this procurement of technical mastery, though it is clear that a related Maoist practice, that of “settling down” to work and organize the class struggle from within, is not on the agenda: “we” will remain outside the site of production itself. For all its emphasis on the mutation of the subject of struggle from the worker to “whoever,” To Our Friends even speaks of a special “worker power” in this instance” “But even there, the workers’ power remains: someone who knows how to make a system operate also knows how to sabotage it in an effective way” (my emphasis).
The Invisible Committee’s turn toward a form of worker power—those workers said to have a technical “mastery” of contemporary capitalist production—is unexpected, given the reception of their previous work as a contemporary, theoretically sophisticated variant of insurrectionary anarchism. Their strategic “perception” compels them, it appears, to zero in on the most advanced—and therefore most strategically sensitive—sectors of the contemporary capitalist economy (in this case, fuel refineries and other “process” industries). It is in these sectors in particular that, according to The Invisible Committee, we witness an “inversion” of “the relationship between labor and production”: a relationship in which the role of human labor in the production process becomes increasingly negligible, and increasingly dominated by that process itself. These pages in To Our Friends are a characteristically cryptic evocation—despite the authors’ consistent anti-Marxist asides—of some well-known paragraphs from the so-called “Fragment on Machines” from Marx’s Grundrisse. In these passages, so important in the Italian strain of Marxism called operaismo that is now identified with, among others, Antonio Negri and Paolo Virno, Marx envisions a future expansion of the productive forces such that “labor no longer appears so much to be included within the production process; rather, the human being comes to relate more as watchman and regulator to the production process itself.[…] He steps to the side of the production process instead of being its chief actor.”10 Marx’s descriptions in these pages of the emergence of a “general intellect” that would be incorporated in the capitalist production process and replace human labor time as the direct source of material wealth are certainly prescient, and pertinent to the example of the energy sector. But Marx is quite clear that it is not the worker—now a mere “watchman”—who is the “embodiment” of technical mastery: it is the system of machinery, as fixed capital, which is the material, objective incorporation of scientific knowledge.11 Those tasked with overseeing these processes, with being alert to “an indicator light that switches on when it shouldn’t, an abnormal gurgling in a pipe” and so on, as To Our Friends puts its, can only tendentiously be said to possess a real “technical mastery” of these systems: their functioning is too complex and too automated, and a given worker’s relation to them too mediated and too fragmentary, to qualify as mastery. Such non-mastery is one of the chief effects, if not the entire point, of these processes’ intricacy.
This centrality of the figure of the worker as an embodiment of knowledge—a whocapable of mastering the technological complexity of contemporary capitalism—necessarily recurs in one of the later chapters of To Our Friends, concerned with the contemporary comeback of the “commune” in contemporary revolutionary politics. The focus is necessarily on Spain and Greece, the two countries in Europe where the squares movement was particularly vibrant, and the countries most dramatically impacted by the economic crisis of the past seven years: employment for youth under 25 has flirted with 60 percent in both countries for years. Both countries are witnessing a resurgence of the parliamentary left, with Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain—otherwise very different formations—both channeling the energies, or running on the fumes, of once vigorous if limited social movements. It is not to this “political” translation that The Invisible Committee directs its gaze, understandably, but it is to a reputed proliferation of mutual aid societies, solidarity networks, “strike committees,” and self-run co-operatives that they turn, seeing these to be the true upshot of the short-lived raptures and enthusiasms of mass movements: “from the intoxication of the movement” to a “profusion of means.”
With this transition from the mass movement to the mushrooming of strike committees and self-managed co-operatives, we seem to be a far cry from the “block everything!” tactic of the 2010 mass movement. That we return from an army of “whoever” blockading capitalist infrastructure back to worker power and the strike is inevitable, given the conclusions arrived at in To Our Friends’s key chapter on logistics and infrastructure. There, the failure of blockading of fuel refineries was chalked up to “our” lack of even a minimal knowledge of this sector of production, one possessed not by us, but by a “few engineers” with ties to theCGT trade union (with close ties to the still extant French Communist Party):
If the CGT had control of the whole struggle, it was due to our inadequacy in the technical sphere. All the union needed to do was turn the blockade of the refineries, where it was hegemonic, into the spearhead of the movement. That way it was free at any moment to signal the end of the game by reopening the refinery valves, thereby releasing all the pressure on the country. What the movement lacked at that point was precisely a minimal knowledge of the material functioning of that world, a knowledge scattered among some workers, concentrated in the egghead brains of a few engineers.
What follows this assessment is, we will recall, the assertion that there’s “no sense in its knowing how to block the opponent’s infrastructure if it can’t make such facilities operate for its benefit” (my emphasis). The authors of To Our Friends do not take into consideration the material pressures that shape the environment under which the blockading of the refineries and the springing up of self-managed co-operatives in Greece and Spain occurred, namely an atmosphere of urgency and crisis, at times even desperation. The pressure exerted by the ongoing crisis in Europe and elsewhere is hard to bring to bear in their analysis, however, since The Invisible Committee spends so much time early on in the book contending that the signifier “crisis” is mobilized primarily for political ends, as rhetorical cover for a new round of “restructuration” (“Far from fearing crises, capital now tries its hand at producing them experimentally”). Though it is clear that such occasions are exploited by those with the means to do so, the one-sidedness of this account leaves out the massive capital flight, the soaring unemployment, the erosion of the State’s role in social reproduction, and the resurgence, in Greece but also notably in France, of strains of fascism. Crucially, the cropping up of co-operative forms in those parts of Europe hardest hit by the economic crisis should remind us that, in our historical moment, such initiatives are often one of many last resorts. If capitalist crises entail, in their matrical form, a rupture of the relation between capital and labor, each standing over against the other, idle, then worker-owned and -operated “enterprises” become the only option remaining for workers faced with the loss of employment as capital flees to less turbulent sectors of the economy.
In the context of unrelenting crisis, the self-managed workplace can easily become the only form of social reproduction available to reserve armies of workers shut out of dramatically shrinking labor markets. Today, such ventures are often strategies of survival in a ravaged landscape. We must separate the vision of communism from the pressures of simple survival. Invoking the example of the self-managed Vio.Me factory in Thessaloniki, The Invisible Committee remains, all the same, attuned to the dangers posed by this “proliferation of means,” noting that similar experiments in Argentina ultimately dovetailed with Cristina Kirchner’s “Argentina Works” program.12 They at least register the problems that retaining the form of the enterprise or unit of production will inevitably occasion: even the self-managed workplace is subject to the pressures of inter-capitalist competition, the imperative to economize resources and time, and must seek the most productivity possible per unit of time. To Our Friends singles out the Vio.Me factory as a potential outlier to the fate of most co-operatives, however, because it remains situated within a larger “movement,” and it is this embeddedness of the factory occupation that separates it from other recent or historical examples. “What is different,” they argue, “is that is that the resumption of factory production was conceived from the beginning as a political offensive supported by all the remaining elements of the Greek ‘movement,’ and not merely as an attempt at alternative economy,” and it is this enveloping milieu that annuls the separation between work and life, or between “factory production” and struggle, or even insurrection. It is this presence of production—“using the same machines” once used for commodity production, they emphasize—within the movement, however, that gives the movement a “commune-like character.”
In 1962, writing in the wake of a recent massive general strike in Belgium, the Situationist International published a short, programmatic text which called for a reassessment of the history of the classical workers’ movement, to be undertaken “without illusion.” Particularly with regard to its successes and defeats, and with a view to what can be salvaged from this experience and what must be abandoned, or actively forgotten: “The apparent successes of this movement are actually its fundamental failures (reformism or the establishment of a state bureaucracy), while its failures (the Paris Commune or the 1934 Asturian revolt) are its most promising successes so far, for us and for the future.”13 The Invisible Committee has taken up this challenge. The experiences of the past seven years have, perhaps, made this backward glance urgent. One impulse displayed by To Our Friends is to highlight a break with an older dynamic of struggle, one rooted in class, located at the point of production, and carried out through the key tactic of the strike: “If the subject of the strike was the working class, the subject of the blockade is whoever. It’s anyone at all.” Despite this declaration regarding the shift in precedence from strike to blockade and from the working class to just anyone, the strike nevertheless makes a comeback in the course of the book’s unfolding argument, its “subject” now not simply the worker but an entire community, its theater of operations not only the factory, but what the authors call the territory. What the commune requires, in addition to a certain “resumption of factory production,” carried out no doubt by workers with a “technical mastery” of a particular sector of production, is what the authors describe as a territorial base, some spatial component that, through struggle and the consolidation of informal loyalties and ties, becomes an “extremely dense ethical fabric.” The history of the strike as a form, the authors argue, must be reconceived from the point of view of its impact on a given territory, its place in the production of a dense ethical tissue. “So many factory battles that appeared to involve entire regions and not just workers,” and the strikes themselves were primarily targeting “life more than simply the wage relation.” For The Invisible Committee, a productive rereading of the history of the worker’s movement would emphasize not the struggle over wages or the length of the working day, but would move us outside the factory and the point of production itself, and into the texture of community surrounding the factory, and the forms of solidarity, mutual aid, and self-defense that made possible such actions in the first place. Before the appearance of worker organizations specifically formatted for providing just such support—the modern trade union—the strike was undertaken by the community as a whole, its strength drawn from a weave of unbreakable loyalties, often defined by their rootedness in a specific neighborhood. These were the beginnings of the workers’ movement.
There is, therefore, a deep current within this short book that reactivates the classical tropes of the workers’ movement: the worker as embodiment of technical knowledge, the strike as a territorial action producing a community shaped by forms of mutual aid and solidarity, and the prospect of not merely sabotaging (or blockading) capitalist production processes, but taking them over, transforming the factories into co-operatives, and putting them in the service of “the commune.” The technical mastery the authors emphasize prepares our party to put such a world to work: for us. “There is no sense,” they write, in “knowing how to block the opponent’s infrastructure if [a revolutionary force] can’t make such facilities operate for its benefit if there’s a need.” The revolutionary assumption of labor processes heavily mediated by machinery and all that goes along with it—not least a refined division of labor and reticular fragmentation of that labor process, all geared toward the self-valorization of capital—is easier to imagine in a world before what Marx called the real, and not only formal, “subsumption” of labor processes by capital. The transition from formal to real subsumption, which in the most developed capitalist countries occurred as early as a century ago, entails an inversion of the relation between capital and labor processes, such that the former does not merely take over and harness existing processes already developed by individual or small producers, but rebuilds them from scratch, molding them in its own image, and subordinating these processes entirely to the pursuit of surplus value.
This vision of a resurgence of communes anchored by self-managed co-operative work sites is itself embedded within a larger strategic framework, which in turn mobilizes a conceptual and diagnostic syntax inherited from the classical workers’ movement, its battery of problems and solutions, its appeal above all to organization as a balm applied to the open wound of defeat. The authors of To Our Friends invoke, more than once, to Marx’s fleeting reference to a “historical party” that would “spring up naturally on the soil of capitalist society,” rather than be the closed, clandestine, insurrectionary organ formed primarily in view of the seizure of State power. The historical episodes invoked by The Invisible Committee offer some glimpse of what, in To Our Friends, is intended with the concept of organization—whose absence accounts for the defeat of insurrections—and the reactivation of the idea of the Party. Speaking throughout To Our Friends of the commune as having a necessarily territorial basis that alone permits the formation of “extremely dense ethical fabrics” whose matter is the “loyalties woven by informal ties,” the authors give examples ranging from Oaxaca to Bolivia to, surprisingly, the Northern Ireland of the late 1960s, in which the Provisional IRA“blended” seamlessly into those “enclaves that were in a constant state of insurrection.” More pertinent to our discussion, however, is the appeal to the Barcelona of the early 20th century (and not the Asturias of 1934), as if seeing in the proliferation of “co-operatives, for everything and in every sense” in contemporary Catalonia an echo of that impregnable worker bastion of pre-revolutionary Spain: “The ethical fabric of the Barcelona workers’ movement at the beginning of the 20th century can serve as a guide for the experiments that are underway.” This circling back to the early days of the workers’ movement entails, according to this logic, foreshortening that history itself, cancelling its development, and seeing the intervening years as a long parenthesis, a wandering, the history of an error. There is no reason not to reach still farther back, to the days before the first great revolts ripped across Europe in 1848. To the riot days of the 1830s and 1840s, even, that age of great disorder and thoroughgoing repression, of secret associations, of the wrecking of machines, and the proliferation of what Foucault calls “popular illegality.”14 To Our Friends in this sense can be said to echo a still earlier, still little known, text that appeared years ago. In 2002, a small booklet with no named author and the terse title Call began to circulate in radical milieus in France. It was a call to start from scratch, an appeal to return to the origins of the historical workers’ movement: “We remember the beginnings of the labor movement. They are close to us.”15
- All the same, in the concluding chapter of To Our Friends, whose title is tellingly “Today Libya, Tomorrow Wall Street,” the authors ask: “Who could have determined from here the exact nature of the Libyan insurrection?” (230).
- The Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurrection (Los Angeles: Semiotext[e], 2009), p. 131.
- See Kristin Ross, Communal Luxury (Verso: London, 2015), p. 96. Situationist International, “The Bad Days will End”
- Fredric Jameson, Valences of the Dialectic, p. 49.
- See Alberto Toscano, “Logistic and Opposition” and “Lineaments of the Logistical State,” and Jasper Bernes’ “Logistics, Counterlogistics and The Communist Prospect.” Bernes in particular links the development of logistical supplies to the contemporary relevance of the “blockade” as tactic; Toscano speaks of an ambient spontaneous ideology of “interruption” characteristic of many strands of the ultraleft, of which the prioritization of the blockade would a symptom.
- In his Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil, Timothy Mitchell suggests we can examine an earlier age of capitalist infrastructure in terms of the logistic nature of power. It was the configuration of the energy chains associated with coal that opened them to worker “sabotage,” and established the material condition for the accumulation, over decades, of a worker class power that has long since ebbed away, or been actively dismantled. “The word ‘sabotage,’” Mitchell writes, “originally referred to the actions of energy workers—coal workers, rail workers, dock workers—who discovered the effectiveness of coordinated strikes along the energy chain, or what became known as the general strike.” Timothy Mitchell, “Interrupting the Future: A Conversation with Timothy Mitchell.”
- On this point, see the important communiqué written before the December 12, 2011 port shutdown in Oakland, California, “Blockading the Port is Only the First of Many Last Resorts.”
- The acronym “ZAD” abbreviates the expression “Zone à Défendre”: Zone to be Defended. The acronym is a transformation of that used for the expression “zone d’aménagement différé,” used by governmental authorities in France to mean roughly “future development area.”
- cf. Sergio Bologna, “Class composition and the theory of the party at the origins of the workers’ council movement.”
- Marx, Grundrisse, p. 706.
- It is for this very reason that post-operaismo attempts to reinterpret these passages, emphasizing forms of intellectuality that condition contemporary production but which are irreducible to scientific knowledge and resist being embodied in systems of machinery.
- “Occupy, Resist, Produce!” is the slogan proposed by those involved in the occupation to describe their objectives.
- Situationist International, “The Bad Days will End.”
- “From the most violent,” Foucault writes, “such as machine breaking, or the most lasting such as the formation of association, to the most everyday, such as absenteeism, abandoning work, vagabondage, pilfering raw materials, deception as the quantity and quality of the work completed. A whole series of illegalities was inscribed in struggles in which those struggling knew that they were confronting both the law and the class that had imposed it,” Discipline and Punish, p. 274.
- This small booklet can be found at bloom0101.org, a website that collects all of the writings associated with The Invisible Committee.
Jason E. Smith is a writer who lives in Los Angeles. His research is primarily concerned with contemporary art and aesthetics, modern continental philosophy and post-1968 political thought. He has published inArtforum, Critical Inquiry, Parrhesia, Radical Philosophy, South Atlantic Quarterly and Theory&Event. He recently edited and contributed to a special issue of Grey Room devoted to the films of Guy Debord, and is currently working on a monograph on the same subject.
On The Invisible Committee’s To Our Friends
We are living through a period of upheavals erupting around the world, happening in unexpected places and with consequences greater than anyone anticipated. After these uprisings—in Egypt and Turkey, in Greece and Spain, in Quebec and the United States, and in so many other places—the present state of affairs appears as absurd as ever. To Our Friends, written by the anonymous collective The Invisible Committee, is an attempt to reckon with our present global situation. Whereas the book that made them famous, the 2007 manifesto The Coming Insurrection, dealt mostly with fierce premonitions of what has in fact come to pass, their follow-up strikes a more reflective tone, drawing directly from the events of the last few years in order to analyze what seems to be a revolutionary impasse. The authors declare their ambition “to produce a shared understanding of the epoch,” meaning to clarify the age that is now unfolding and to map the forces currently operating, reminding us that our lives and our struggles share a common ground and a common horizon. As To Our Friends investigates the historical character of our times, wracked by catastrophes obvious and not, we come to see novel schemes of governance and all the monstrous inertia of a dying civilization. But in the midst of this, we see breaches opening up everywhere. Taking up the question of the epoch, the authors want to dispel any lingering doubt: these are undoubtedly revolutionary times.
At its best, the book forces a confrontation with the age and delivers sudden jolts of recognition as to our current situation. It makes little sense to pick apart To Our Friends, as some critics have already done, when what’s at stake in such a strategic document is something altogether different. It’s not a book to be critiqued, whether or not we agree with every point. What it demands instead is an openness to its propositions, a willingness to engage it, to approach it as a nexus for conversations already taking place around the world. It’s meant to provoke debate and facilitate encounters, to provide a staging ground where we can meet up and get organized together. The book doesn’t aim to convince or persuade but to strike resonances with us. If we attend to it, it may illuminate the events of recent years and clarify a common trajectory, or not. Its potential force resides in suggestions waiting to be taken up and elaborated, given meaning by what we do with them. A decidedly practical book, to be marked up in glee and in frustration, dogeared by a dozen hands, read aloud to each other, translated and pirated, swapped between friends, comrades, and countries. It doesn’t call for a review or summary so much as an experiential account, noting what calls to us in our reading.
New York City has seen its own wave of unrest in the past few years, from Occupy Wall Street to the recent anti-police demonstrations in the fall and still continuing. For those who have been active in and identify with these movements, there are many passages in this book that speak directly to our experiences. To Our Friends identifies as a vital aspect of the present series of global uprisings the feeling of participating in “a shared power.” Tangible in each of these moments has been the astounding sense, directly lived by innumerable participants, of people coming together with a common purpose and all that this suddenly makes possible. We think of the fevered months of Occupy, a revolt that ultimately had nothing to do with inequality and everything to do with discovering the tremendous force of our being together. Once the occupation was declared people immediately leapt into action, identifying some task they believed necessary, and, alongside those around them, carried it out: procuring sleeping bags and tents, setting up a kitchen and medical tent, organizing a library, printing leaflets, collecting bail money. The countless activities of the following weeks were accompanied by the distinct impression that we were undertaking something together and, however minor in appearance, each contributed to our combined strength. In the plaza and in the street, it was an undeniable and unforgettable experience of our collective power and ability to organize ourselves.
Occupy soon encountered certain limits, in terms both of police repression and of a curious kind of self-incapacitation about which To Our Friends has much to say. The General Assembly, where we initially witnessed the potency of our shared presence in body and voice, quickly became an endless, exhausting routine. The movement’s strict insistence on democracy, which the authors rightly call a fetish, sapped its overall energy and brought about strategic limitations. We remember how, at one large demonstration, a democracy-obsessed crowd sat down in front of a police barricade to politely debate storming it. Beyond this obvious farce, To Our Friends indicates something else we should keep in mind: democracy is, after all, just another form of government, government “in its pure state,” they write, where the rulers and the ruled coincide. At a time when democracy is hailed everywhere as the universal good, this is a rejoinder we would do well to consider. Advocating democracy, in misguided hope of establishing our own laws and ruling ourselves, only aids the governmental machine: it’s a ruse whereby we deepen the ways we are governed, whereas the task is to deactivate any and all forms of government. If we want to be done with governing, to be finished with the law and with ruling, appealing to democracy as the horizon of our struggle is a dead end. We must recognize that our fight is for another way of life entirely.
As far as insurrection goes, To Our Friends affirms something else we have been suspecting: it’s hopeless to expect it to emerge from the radical left. Those who identify as “radical” tend to suffer a fundamental “disjunction from every situation,” substituting deadening moralism and abstract militancy for careful consideration of the real dynamics of a given moment. The more isolated they are from the actual conditions of struggle, the more convinced they become of the accuracy of their outdated beliefs—which only increases their isolation. In any case, recent uprisings have bypassed the radicals and demonstrated that they are lagging behind history. To Our Friends observes this promising tendency, for instance, in the massive Greek riots of 2008, where even the large contingents of anarchists were outstripped by the wild course of events. Consider also the anti-police demonstrations here in New York, where thousands spontaneously took to the streets and blockaded bridges, tunnels, and highways, stormed shopping malls and social gatherings in continual disruptions of the flows of the city. Stripped of their monopoly on such tactics, the radicals chased after what was happening around them, bewildered by actions they didn’t plan and certainly weren’t leading. Or take the epicenters of conflict in Ferguson and now Baltimore, where a much more interesting amalgamation of forces has appeared. Apparently radicals are becoming redundant. Instead of privileged actions or signifying gestures of the revolutionary, there is the generalized revolt of whoever is present, the unforeseen and wholly explosive force of people acting in concert.
Familiar to us as well, based on our experiences during the previous autumn, is an emphasis on infrastructure. That we moved so decisively to interrupt the usual metropolitan routines, undoing the city’s oppressive orderliness along the way, wasn’t just the chance spread of one protest tactic among others. These roving blockades made immediate and intuitive sense because they respond to our general situation and the reality of contemporary power. As To Our Friends insists, it’s through infrastructures that the world is organized, maintained, and administered: “the real power structure,” they write, “is the material, technological, physical organization of this world.” And we see that from the Rockaway Pipeline to the Susa Valley, from Gezi Park to the Zones à Défendre, infrastructures are increasingly becoming sites of conflict worldwide. What’s contested isn’t just a tract of land or another hulk of steel but the underpinnings of a civilization, for these constructions condition our very existence. The Keystone Pipeline determines a particular relationship between peoples, territories, geographies, the natural world—and carries alongside its toxic payload a whole outworn and idiotic way of life. One of our challenges is to reorient ourselves according to this logic of power when there is no longer a distinct class that adequately embodies the knowledge of how the world actually operates today. Our pressing concern is to meet those with an interest in the workings of things—people who know materials, machines, computers, networks, communications, the grid—and bring together enough know-how to dismantle this world and create something livable instead.
It’s a question, as it has always been, of building a revolutionary force. If we were able to occupy a plaza for months and to care for ourselves after a destructive hurricane, it’s because we gave ourselves the material means and developed the intensity of relationships to do so. A force is nothing other than what it is able to realize collectively, and questions of living and care are as essential as questions of sabotage and attack. There would have been no Occupy, no Tahrir Square, without the ability to feed and shelter thousands. To Our Friends makes clear there is no exclusive set of revolutionary actions, rote gestures like smashing the banks or storming the capitol, which we could simply enact in order to finally have our long-awaited day in the sun. There is a whole spectrum of experiences, practices, skills, resources, and desires that we must weave together to sustain the revolutionary upheaval. Who can jumpstart an engine, disinfect a wound, run a webserver, till the soil, fix the roof, or patch a tarp? These activities and a thousand others are not in the service of a revolution over and above us, something always off in the future, but constitute the immediate possibility of another way of life in common. Building such a force will require a composition of people much stranger than any of us know, a willingness and trust we are long accustomed to disavowing, and the guiding belief that together we can realize lives worth living and worlds worth inhabiting.
Constituting a force adequate to our times also means refusing the separation between our everyday lives and our struggles. To Our Friends calls us to develop forms of life and ways of living together, always in keeping with our particular situations, that can undo this fatal disconnect. On this trajectory the authors point us to the commune. It’s understandable if the appeal sounds strange, since most only know communes as an unhappy and failed tradition. But in this poignant passage we see that the commune, in its many manifestations, can be a fertile space, a collective experiment in autonomy that operates with a different conception of life itself. In this respect, the commune isn’t an alternative to the reigning order but an offensive maneuver against it. Thinking again of our own experiences, we recognize that its mythic name has appeared in our midst recently, as with the Oakland Commune. And, looking around us, we see a restless tendency towards other ways of collective life, even in unlikely places and in distorted guises. The squat, the artist colony, the intentional community—what total dissatisfaction and what potent inclination might we find animating these subcultural forms? Following the book’s wager, the commune names our growing desire for “a shared life” without imposing any necessary form. Every time it appears, it has to be invented anew. It’s a fluid and practical way to give ourselves the means to live in common, bound by “a pact to face the world together.” It’s up to us, in a process of collective improvisation, to find the shape such an endeavor might take, to give it the real weight it deserves, and to bind together how we live and how we fight.
As we cultivate these shared forms of life, as they gain a profound consistency, they can be stitched together across this ravaged planet to realize a power capable of displacing the devastation we currently live. In New York we are getting organized for this task, and we know others elsewhere are doing the same. We are forging alliances that are unlikely and necessary in equal measure. All in all, it’s patient work. Not because it will take a long time, but because it requires our care and attention. To Our Friends postpones nothing, least of all the break we are making with the disastrous order at present, when it calls for us to be in touch with our actual situation, to practice a kind of tact, to develop a revolutionary sensitivity. Our task is to foster promising dynamics in the ongoing upheavals as well as in our everyday lives together, to intensify them to the point where there can be no question of a return to the normal state of affairs. Our project begins from the here and now, with what’s at hand, with those around us, and we know the work to be immediate, practical, and meaningful. Surveying the epoch, looking to our friends here and abroad, those we know and those we don’t yet, we happily find our power increasing in manifold and surprising ways.
Ryan Richardson studied at The New School and now lives in Ridgewood, Queens
Anti-Terrorism and the Specter of The Invisible Committee
On November 11, 2008, a small army of heavily armed police in balaclavas moved into the village of Tarnac, on the Millevaches plateau, a rural area known for resistance activity during the Second World War and its tradition of rural communism. With duly summoned TV cameras looking on, the cops invaded private dwelling-places, a collective farm and a collectively run bar-grocery store. The latter establishment was designated by TV station France 2 as “a grocery hidden in the shadows,” like an animal ready to attack: this police-media hysteria, widely echoed, including by the post-leftist press (Libération and Le Monde), was dominant at first.
The then Minister of Justice (later discredited because of his links with the corrupt Ben Ali regime in Tunisia), the Paris prosecutor, and the anti-terrorist police brandished The Coming Insurrection, a book by then for sale everywhere for a year, as one of the chief proofs of a “criminal association with the intention of committing a terrorist act.” Apart from the existence of this book, the accusation rested on the testimony of a mythomaniac who had already been prosecuted for making false accusations, and an official surveillance report whose utterly false character was soon demonstrated. Among those arrested, Julien Coupat—presented by the authorities as “the leader” and the author of The Coming Insurrection (which he has always denied)—and Yldune Lévy, his former partner, were accused of having intended to place hooks on catenaries (train electric cables), a technique making it possible to immobilize a train without causing a derailment and therefore any risk to people. Arrests were also made in Rouen and in Paris; those arrested were kept in solitary confinement for eight days, as permitted by the anti-terrorist law.
Little by little, the weaknesses of the case became apparent. It was learned that the so-called Tarnac group had been targeted following an FBI report on a meeting between Julien Coupat and some anarchists, and a report from a British secret service agent who had infiltrated European leftist circles. Alain Bauer, a criminologist with a past in the Free-Mason “left” and now a friend of all governments, had drawn the Minister’s attention to this group in the name of “early detection,” a transposition to the sphere of law-and-order of the doctrine of preventive war. In fact, the “Tarnac group” consisted of young revolutionaries (some coming from the group publishing the journal Tiqqun, which combined various influences ranging from the Kabbalah to the Italian autonomía by way of council communism) who had decided to create a form of collective life while remaining in contact with struggles around the world. The Sarkozy government’s information operation was soon the object of general ridicule. François Hollande himself criticized this “invention of a terrorist enemy.”
Despite a vigorous defense, the judiciary and the police have always refused to recognize the aspect of pure political spectacle (admitted by Bauer himself). Seven years later, after Julien Coupat had done six months of prison and the others a few weeks, charges were dropped on three of the ten accused, while the others were sent back to criminal court, with three (Julien, Yldune, and their friend Gabrielle) accused of “terrorism.” A political and judicial struggle lies ahead.
It will be even more difficult since, after the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket attacks in Paris in January, there has been a hardening of police and judicial provisions: there is an enhanced presence of the army, in combat gear, in the streets of big cities and in public transportation, and a new anti-terrorist law imitating the American Patriot Act. In France, as elsewhere, anti-terrorism still has a brilliant future as a mode of government.
Serge Quadruppani is a French translator, novelist, and essayist involved in radical movements. In English he has published The Sudden Disappearance of the Worker Bees (Arcade Publishing). His blog can be found at quadruppani.blogspot.fr.