by Andrew Ryder
The Invisible Committee, a French revolutionary collective, has emerged as an influential voice in anarchist and left-communist political thought and activism worldwide. This is partly owed to the intense repression directed against them by the state, as well as their striking formulations and the unusual lineage of ideas from which they draw. Combining biopolitical theories (largely academic) with anarchist activism, they argue that logistics of control have largely replaced economic production as the basis of society. Moreover, they emphasize war as a fundamental element of existence; both these theses have led to considerable controversy. My inquiry into the Invisible Committee’s notion of war reveals other precursors and interlocutors for their project, including German and French modern philosophers as well as militants in the traditions of decolonization and anti-racism. While I critically defend their combative rhetoric, their sidelining of class struggle as the determining factor tends to over-emphasize an existentialist understanding of oppression, thereby forfeiting many of the political advantages and conceptual lucidity of a materialist understanding of history. The Invisible Committee’s description of conflict and their attentiveness to novel forms of control should be brought into conversation and debate with a more orthodox Marxist perspective, and this will result in a strengthened notion of practical action by the whole of the working class.
Seven years ago, anti-terrorist police detained and tried nine people in the French village of Tarnac. While the defendants were accused of sabotaging high-speed trains, their trial has largely concerned the ideas contained in a book allegedly composed under their authorship: an agitational text titled The Coming Insurrection and credited to the Invisible Committee. An impressive variety of philosophers and theorists from multiple left-wing traditions, including Alain Badiou, Luc Boltanski, Jacques Rancière, Giorgio Agamben, Daniel Bensaïd, Slavoj Žižek, and Judith Butler, immediately denounced this state repression and its criminalization of revolutionary ideas. Despite the evident insistence on a collective writing process, media attention especially focused on a single man, Julien Coupat, as the author of the book. This crackdown on the Tarnac Nine can be read as one example of a global state initiative to prevent the development of any revolutionary practice; as Alberto Toscano writes, “The broader context of the operation is the theorem … of the mounting threat of an anti-capitalist, anti-statist and anti-systemic radicalization of youth in France and across Europe which cannot be contained in the usual forms of social conflict.” In a bizarre twist, Glenn Beck, the right-wing television host, began discussing The Coming Insurrection on his show, emphasizing its significance as a plan for annihilation of civilization. More credibly, Paul Mason has also written about the significance of the book for the global revolutionary movements of this century.
While their ideas have proven influential worldwide, the primary activity of the Invisible Committee and its following has been in France. They were especially active in demonstrations last year surrounding the death of Rémi Fraisse, a conservationist killed by the police. In addition, they have participated in the construction of autonomous communes in provincial France, most famously the “zone à defendre” named Notre-Dame-des-Landes. This initiative intends to block the construction of a new airport in this space. “Blockage” has become a concept for the group, the preferred strategy the group recommends for counteracting the state and capital, rather than the more traditional interest in strikes, occupations, or electoral strategies.
The legal case remains unresolved. In June, a number of other figures, including Frédéric Lordon, an economist, and Stathis Kouvelakis, at that time a member of Syriza’s central committee, signed a letter in solidarity with the Invisible Committee, which concluded, “the real author of The Coming Insurrection … is me.” The letter of support also included the statement that the book “is one expression (among many others) of a current of critique of capitalist civilization. If its positions are debatable, even so they must be debated from the point of view of this multiform effort at criticizing the old world.” Two months later, the charges of domestic terrorism were dropped, although the trial for conspiracy will take place. Last year, the Invisible Committee published a second book, recently translated into English as To Our Friends. This is, then, a good moment to debate and to discuss the theses that they present. Aside from the question of solidarity with the resistance to state repression, the creative labor of the Invisible Committee deserves serious consideration, and sober evaluation of their contributions and errors.
The group draws its theory and practice from a variety of sources. They believe that the period in which struggles could be directed by a common program has ended, and that the previous socialist struggles resulted in the generalization of exploitive proletarian conditions. For this reason, they advocate a more immediate enactment of communes on a local level, which would bypass the creation of a workers’ state. In these respects, they are somewhat comparable to other, older authors and groups associated with the “communization” tendency (such as Théorie Communiste and Gilles Dauvé). However, the Invisible Committee (and Tiqqun, a precursor group) draws on an eclectic variety of sources, mainly from outside the Marxist tradition. In particular, the group takes inspiration from the French post-structuralist theory developed by Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault, and the biopolitical conceptions of Giorgio Agamben, an Italian philosopher strongly influenced by their work. They combine these ideas with the experience of contemporary anarchist practice (such as squatting), the Situationists, and the tradition of Italian autonomism that emerged in the 1970s.
While the libertarian reception of Marx’s writings is present in their work, they reject the conception of the working class as the privileged revolutionary agent. Instead, they see a refusal of labor as crucial, and advocate a variety of heterogeneous struggles that need not be resolved or articulated according to class solidarity. In their view, the production of surplus value is no longer the principle underlying the mode of production that governs the social totality. Rather, a more diffuse form of power and domination underlies most social relations; a technical aspect of existence that is not primarily oriented toward the production of commodities or profit. This governance, they argue, has become encoded in basic habits of life. For this reason, they see all new social struggles against domination as equal in their potential value, refusing to privilege the point of production or direct confrontations with state power. This is partly an effect of their reception of biopolitical thought. They argue that the management of life has become a question of logistics, more than political economy. As others have pointed out (like Toscano (http://viewpointmag.com/2014/09/28/lineaments-of-the-logistical-state/)), public transport, shipping, and the internal communications of states and multinational corporations now determine the contours and lineaments of struggle, perhaps more so than factories.
The group believes it has recognized a general breakdown according to which the social and political order is no longer viable. They view this as not simply a matter of economic downturn or cynicism towards government, but a kind of epistemological or ontological crisis for all thought and experience (“the real catastrophe is existential and metaphysical”). While they recognize the potential for horror in this state of affairs, and are often quite pessimistic, they also believe that the possibility of new forms of organization and living have become possible. In advocating a new collective movement, they especially appeal to the experience of contemporary social movements and uprisings. While initially inspired by the alter-globalization movements of the late 1990s, they believe that many of their ideas describe the riots and uprisings of the past decade, in Latin America, the Middle East, Europe, and elsewhere. As their name suggests, the group rejects visibility, recognition, or identity, and instead prescribes an escape from politics as traditionally understood, or media discourse regarding it (including social media). The Invisible Committee overstates the possibility of absolute escape and refusal of “blocking everything” – in place of a more sober and sequential analysis of which sorts of struggle might interrupt logistics, or take its capacities for a collective purpose.
One of the most striking sections of The Coming Insurrection is the distinction made among communes, organizations, and milieus. As one would expect from anarchists, the Committee are withering in their criticism of official revolutionary organizations, lambasting their proceduralism. They also reject democracy, which they see as a name fundamentally wedded to government. Emmanuel Barot and Juan Chingo recognize that the committee spurns “any ‘institutional’ organization in any sense whatsoever (the party-form is populist by nature and doomed to bureaucratization), in favor of the conspiratorial formula inherited from Blanqui, with invisibility as a tactic of circumventing apparatuses and any personalization of power, preferring the éthico-affinitaire as a criterion for delimitation, and finally antidemocratism as a public posture.” The group even argues for the disruption of popular assemblies, viewing such attempts at spaces of direct democracy as ruses of power.
Their scathing description of milieus is more unpredictable, and more valuable. The Committee writes of the gossip and “informal hierarchies” of activist and anarchist milieu, formulating a sharp critique of the anarcho-liberalism that characterizes much of Occupy and other contemporary social movements. In To Our Friends, the Committee returns to this point:
Anyone who begins to frequent radical milieus is immediately struck by the gap between their discourse and their practice, between their ambitions and their isolation. It seems as if they were dedicated to a kind of constant self-incapacitation. One soon understands that they’re not engaged in constructing a real revolutionary force, but in a quest for radicality that is sufficient in itself— and is played out equally well on the terrain of direct action, feminism or ecology. The petty terror that reigns there and makes everyone so stiff is not that of the Bolshevik Party. It’s more like that of fashion, that terror which no one exerts in person, but which affects everyone alike. In these milieus, one is afraid of not being radical anymore, just as elsewhere one fears not being fashionable, cool or hip.
While they are certainly on to something in this description, the Committee must then distinguish their preferred mode of practice from this sterile lifestylism. In positing their own, revolutionary form of life – the commune – they require a theory of authenticity. The milieus they are describing are simply dictated by fashion, the Invisible Committee argue that their thought can lay claim to a more true anarchist identity. Some of the critical readings of the Invisible Committee that have already appeared, such as those of McKenzie Wark and Alberto Toscano have suggested that the Invisible Committee depend on a conception of authentic community that is rooted in the ontology of Martin Heidegger (who was an author of inspiration for Foucault and Agamben). In order to establish this authenticity, the Committee appeals to risk and self-sacrifice. Wark has voiced alarm at their insistence on war as an essential element of human experience. In their new book, the Committee writes:
[T]he rejection of war only expresses an infantile or senile refusal to recognize the existence of otherness. War is not carnage, but the logic that regulates the contact of heterogeneous powers. It is waged everywhere, in countless forms, and more often than not by peaceful means.
Alongside this emphasis on war, Wark identifies a crucial distinction between friend and enemy in this book, which recalls the ideas of one of Heidegger’s contemporaries, Carl Schmitt. Both Heidegger and Schmitt were active members of the Nazi Party, and so this association carries with it the possibility of serious guilt – Wark is willing to charge the Committee with a crypto-fascist allegiance. He leads us to suspect that the Committee are portraying themselves as Mad Maximalist “war boys,” dying historic on the fury road.
In my view, it is too hasty to assimilate them immediately to Heidegger, Schmitt, or the heritage of the right. Rather, it is necessary to complicate the notions of war, authenticity, mortality, and community, and that this problematic cannot be immediately assimilated to fascism. The ontology of war and the confrontation with mortality are not the fundamental errors of the Invisible Committee. To a degree they arguably share this with some of their more Leninist adversaries, especially Žižek (and to a lesser degree, Badiou). The idea that we experience our freedom most fully in the face of death is a powerful notion that can be allied with many political perspectives, including progressive and revolutionary outlooks (better to die on our feet than to live on our knees).
The Committee is much closer to a tendency of French left-wing thought that emerged in the 1930s, rather than the German reactionaries of the previous decade. They are a throwback to the generation of French intellectuals who were affected by the ideas of the Russian émigré Alexandre Kojève and his reading of G.W.F. Hegel. Authors like Georges Bataille, Jacques Lacan, and Jean-Paul Sartre were strongly affected by Heidegger, but their debt to him was always alloyed with Kojève’s incorporation of Heideggerian innovations, alongside the Marxist tradition, into a distinctive Hegelianism. In all of these authors, one finds an ethical condemnation of the modern world as empty and consumerist, and an emphasis on a conscious break exerted by individuals who become capable of forming a new community. Their language at times reads as uncomfortably similar to that of fascist propagandists.
In Sartre’s encomium to the Resistance to the German occupation of France, “The Republic of Silence,” he writes that “the choice that each of us made of his life and of his being was an authentic choice because it was made face to face with death, because it could always have been expressed in these terms: ‘Rather death than…’” He also speaks of community, freedom and authenticity fundamentally defined by a confrontation with the possibility of death; but he does so in service of a profoundly anti-Nazi political ethic. There is no question that he’s employing a certain irony here, dabbling in Heideggerian language while rejecting Heidegger’s politics, but clearly this perspective can be used against the fascists just as easily as it can be aligned with them. As he wrote,
[I]n my own thought there was a hint of fascism (historicity, Being-in-the-world, all that tied man to his era, all that bound man to his roots in the earth, in his situation). But I hated fascism and the relation of these terms to fascism served like a pinch of salt that one puts on a tart just to make it appear all the sweeter by contrast.
Sartre maintained this anthropology until the 1960s, at least. In his Critique of Dialectical Reason, Sartre argues that human community is able to move from atomized individualism to political organization by means of its immersion in combat and risk; Frantz Fanon took on this viewpoint wholesale from Sartre, in his description of the Algerian struggle for national liberation. Like many of the intellectuals of Kojève’s generation, the theorists of decolonization believed that war was a fundamental experience for restoring human subjectivity.
In contrast, while Nazi propaganda employed a line of argument that emphasized war and sacrifice, these were not really their defining politics. The decisive point was their identification of “Judeo-Bolshevism” as the essential enemy; they had a reactionary ideology first, and adopted an agonistic rhetoric and aesthetic subsequently. While Nazis and fascists made use of the pathos of mortality, contemporary post-fascists and neo-fascists have shown that they can largely do without this rhetoric or this philosophical commitment. Most authoritarian leaders in Europe do not need to take recourse to militarism. Instead, they emphasize the value of tradition, the unity of the people, and the dispensable menace of cultural diversity. This line of thought is much more fundamental to the fascist worldview than the concern with death and war.
Heraclitus’s aphorism that “war is the father of all things” is not fated to fascism. This primary philosophical concern with discord can lead to a variety of different political positions, depending on subsequent choices and commitments. In a later generation, and markedly opposed to Kojève’s influence, Michel Foucault famously advocated a contemporary Heraclitism:
Here I believe that one’s point of reference should not be to the great model of language and signs, but to that of war and battle. The history which bears and determines us has the form of a war rather than that of a language: relations of power not relations of meaning […] Neither the dialectic, as logic of contradictions, nor semiotics, as the structure of communication, can account for the intrinsic intelligibility of conflicts. ‘Dialectic’ is a way of evading the always open and hazardous reality of conflict by reducing it to a Hegelian skeleton, and ‘semiology’ is a way of avoiding its violent, bloody and lethal character by reducing it to the calm Platonic form of language and dialogue.
Foucault allies his adherence to the agonistic foundation of being with a pronounced opposition to the problematic of authenticity (which he associates with Sartre). The later Foucault speaks of aesthetic self-creation without the need for recourse to fixed identity. Arguably, this concern with self-fashioning is developed not in spite of his prior conceptualization of war as the foundation of all history, but as a consequence of it; opposition as conceptual origin rules out the problematic of authenticity, because there cannot be agreement with a prior or inner sense of self. However, because Foucault rejects class struggle as the fundamental key to history, he is danger of tending toward the same position as the Invisible Committee; that solidarity could never take priority over war, even after the demise of class society. The Committee’s extensive reference to his ideas makes this inheritance explicit.
The point of distinction between Foucault and the Invisible Committee on one hand, and Kojève, Sartre, and Fanon, on the other, is that the latter thinkers argued that war was a crucial means to an end; for them, upon the foundation of a new society, war would end. Whereas the Committee suggests that war is a primordial fact that would survive any revolutionary transformation. On the other hand, as Wark points out, this contention co-exists with other statements that rely on a classical anarchist notion of mutual aid as fundamental – indeed, even in the passages on war, they speak of a paradoxical war waged “by peaceful means”. We then have to question what they really mean by emphasizing war – are they saying that the friend-enemy distinction can and should always survive as the fundamental basis of politics (like Schmitt), or do they see this as qualitatively changing in a postcapitalist society? Perhaps, like Foucault, they see the essential war underlying human experience as capable of expressing itself in radically different ways, with relatively amicable conceptions of conflict capable of achieving priority.
In contrast, Kojève’s understanding of history depends on the dialectic of lordship and bondage, and argues that a fully human community will overcome this. In his philosophy, society has always been split into owners and workers, which he metaphorically describes, as Marx did, as owners and slaves. Kojève suggests that this division will eventually vanish, and that workers will emancipate themselves through the intermediary of a revolutionary war. He thought that the proletariat achieved its world-historical significance through the Russian Civil War, and that communism (Stalinism) proved its value by its victory against the Nazis. In his reading of Hegel, human history is rooted in the capacity to risk death. Unlike the Committee, Kojève thinks that this essential value for war will vanish at the end of history; so it is a historical aspect of the human, not eternal. Nonetheless, there’s a basic agreement between Kojève and the Invisible Committee that in the contemporary period, combat will prove decisive.
A skeptic might ask whether Kojève was really a Marxist. After all, Marx posits labor as fundamental, not risk or war. Marxists speak of class struggle, rather than “class war.” However, like Kojève, Marx’s classic writings suggest that class struggle, in its highest stages, will express itself in the form of civil war. In Kojève’s approach to the experience of revolutionary war, loss and destitution are prior to the recognition of community. The problem with the Committee is actually that they do not take their recognition of destitution far enough, because they end up preserving a factional identity politics. The significance of the conceptual figure of the proletariat is that it is the class that fights for its own self-abolition. So there is a profound internal desire for escape from identity in proletarian experience; there is no essential sociological content to the notion of the proletariat (something that culturalist understandings of the working class forget). In contrast to Marx’s framework of class struggle, according to which the working class are the majority of society who are engaged in a fundamental effort to become conscious of themselves in a manner that will abolish their own conditions of existence, the Committee have a more dispersed idea of communities who each have their own cherished beliefs and lifestyles.
It is clearheaded to see that in global capitalist society, war is a constant. Coming to terms with that is descriptive. We should not glorify or romanticize this, but we are a war generation. Franco “Bifo” Berardi wrote in June,
civil war is clearly visible not only at the Southern border where corpses are floating on the sea, and at the Eastern border where Putin is deploying 40 new generation nuclear warheads, but also at the Italo-French border, at the Railway Station of Milano, and in hundreds of European cities where nationalist hatred is getting organised. Prepare for war: this is the only suggestion.
What does it mean to prepare for war? Does this mean that we will give ourselves over to cruelty? I do not think that this is the case. We might anticipate that war will fundamentally threaten our own survival, not that we will be called to brutality. This is one of Martin Luther King’s more famous ethical declarations: “There are some things so dear, some things so precious, some things so eternally true, that they are worth dying for. And I submit to you that if a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.” This cannot be written off as a rhetorical flourish; King believed that dignity was partly gained by an awareness and acceptance of death, and that this self-sacrifice was at the beginnings of an ethics of shared commitment. For him, this philosophical axiom led to something drastically and radically different from fascism. However, King’s ethics are fundamentally bound to a Christian ethos of self-sacrifice. In contrast, Huey P. Newton took this idea further by his concept of “revolutionary suicide”. While Newton, like King (and Badiou), drew on Pauline thought, Newton emphasized an offensive dimension to revolutionary struggle, embracing hostility toward the oppressor foreign to King.
Philosophically, the ethical focus of the Invisible Committee, and even their bellicose stance, are defensible, provided that their emphasis on knowledge and freedom won through combat is allied with a correct analysis of the conjuncture. Here is where they fall short – they return to the themes of the existential generation while forgetting the realizations of subsequent French political thought, such as the discoveries of Louis Althusser and his students. These authors discovered the significance of pre-experiential concepts in an understanding of historical materialism. For the Althusserians, the risks of a revolutionary practice and contestation were very much secondary to fundamental immanent causality, prior to consciousness. In fact, for them the subject who fights is a secondary production of the state and its ideologies. With this in mind, it may be that the Invisible Committee’s rediscovery of the heroism of activity obscures the materialist awareness of determining economic factors. This is not simply to advise superior factual material or a renewed empiricism; rather, a conceptual understanding of class struggle and relations of production is necessary, prior to economic or sociological data. Jason E. Smith takes this point of criticism further, pointing out the relative merits of the Italian workerist theory of class composition, which counter some of the Committee’s intuitions about the working class today.
Because they do not root their experiential claims properly in the productive relations, they end up in a “bad infinity” (in Hegelian language) of continual self-contradiction. There is essentially no means of discovering or enacting communist society in their mindset, because contestation is eternal; each revolutionary group would remain constitutively susceptible to conflict and antagonism with others, and it may be difficult to resolve these disagreements amicably. This empirically expresses itself in their claim that the squabbling of rival Palestinian factions has helped them to wage their national liberation struggle! In reality, the Palestinians have continually lost ground precisely because of the sectarianism of their leadership, and a truly popular victory will overcome this in favor of newfound unity.
I agree with the Invisible Committee on the need for strategy, and I even agree, partially, with many of their philosophical claims; however, they fall short of a sober materialist analysis of class composition today, and for this reason they are not able to pull themselves out of a nihilist abstract condemnation. Because the Invisible Committee believe that we have entered a period in which working-class solidarity is no longer the grounds for revolutionary action, they tend towards a praise of discord that prevents negotiation under a horizon of unity. In 1871, Marx wrote that civil war would be an inevitable corollary of workers’ power. For this reason, he urged us to prepare for the “war of the enslaved against their enslavers, the only justifiable war in history.” In line with this, we might see the reality of war as something we are have to face lucidly. A justified victory in this war will depend on the recognition of global community of the exploited.
Andrew Ryder is a Visiting Lecturer of Gender Studies at Central European University in Budapest, Hungary.If you like this article, please subscribe or donate.