Bernard E. Harcourt | A Reader’s Guide to The Invisible Committee’s *Now* (2017)

By Bernard E. Harcourt

The Invisible Committee’s latest book, Now, is remarkably rich in ideas and theoretical imagination. Whether one agrees or not with the overall intervention—which promotes a vision of destituent insurrection and communalist living—the work itself is chock full of provocative critical theoretic insights.

The Committee positions itself against critique and criticism, arguing that we now live in times that so explicitly value domination that there is no longer any need for the subtlety of critique. (8) Nevertheless, the Committee’s book is filled with critique. The Committee seeks to unmask illusions and to expose how power circulates in society, and sets forth how to challenge and contest that. It unveils the “illusion of unity” that has done “its work of fooling people,” and shows that we live instead in an increasingly politically fragmented reality (22). It exposes “the iron cage of counter-revolution,” in other words the fact that revolutionary movements always reconstitute the power relations that they at first attacked. (76) It offers a vision of critical praxis that places, at its heart, the value of action itself, for its own sake. It reverses the ends-means relation: action should not be undertaken as a means toward an end, but as an end in itself.

To be sure, there are internal tensions in the book that may lead some readers to question at times the coherence of the intervention. But it would be wrong to focus on those minor tensions, and more productive, instead, to focus on passages that make provocative contributions to contemporary critical thought. The Committee’s book, I suspect, is the product of several different authors, who have written separate portions of the book—or taken primary responsibility for separate chapters.[1] The author of the final chapter of the book writes about sitting underneath an “old sequoia sempervirens” (131) and mentions the other friends that they work with: “In this print shop dominated by an antique Heidelberg 4 Color which a friend ministers to while I prepare the pages, another friend glues, and a third one trims, to put together this little samizdat that we’ve all conceived, in this fervor and enthusiasm, I experience that continuity.” (132) Clearly, there are several hands at work on this book, and I suspect different contributing authors in different chapters. As a result, there are somewhat different theoretical takes on particular concepts, which suggests that the chapters can be read autonomously.[2] The task in reading Now should be to address segments of the book, I believe, rather than the book as a whole. Let’s do that here.

  1. Destituent power: Avoiding the Counterrevolution

The central argument of chapter four, “Let’s Destitute the World,” calls for destitution rather than constituent power: to knock down, rather than reconstitute political institutions.

For the Committee, the recurring problem with political action is that it always reproduces old forms of domination. Young student leaders become state ministers. Revolution turns into counterrevolution. This is what the Committee calls “the iron cage of counter-revolution”: the fact that revolutionary movements always reconstitute the power relations that they first attacked. (76)

In order to escape the cycle, the Committee argues for a new type of power, destituent insurrections, that it opposes to constituent insurrections.[3] The idea is to constantly avoid the reproduction of domination by always escaping from it, exiting, disengaging. The Committee writes:

where the “constituents” place themselves in a dialectical relation of struggle with the ruling authority in order to take possession of it, destituent logic obeys the vital need to disengage from it. It doesn’t abandon the struggle; it fastens on to the struggles positivity. It doesn’t adjust itself to the movements of the adversary but to what is required for the increase of its own potential. So it has little use for criticizing (79)

How can we understand this? Perhaps with the following comment that the Committee makes about Communism: “It’s not a question of fighting for communism. What matters is the communism that is lived in the fight itself. The true richness of an action lies within itself.” (80) So there has to be a reversal of the ends and means relation: action is not undertaken as a means toward an end, but as a means in itself. This should remind us of Benjamin who, in The Critique of Violence, imagines the possibility of violence as a means only. For their part, the Committee claims to draw inspiration from Deleuze and Guattari, and Lyotard. (79)

The Committee gives very concrete examples of what it has in mind with regard to destituent power:

  • “To destitute the university is to establish, at a distance, the places of research, of education and thought, that are more vibrant and more demanding than it is—which would not be hard—and to greet the arrival of the last vigorous minds who are tired of frequenting the academic zombies, and only then to administer its death blow.”
  • “To destitute the judicial system is to learn to settle our disputes ourselves, applying some method to this, paralyzing its faculty of judgment and driving its henchmen from our lives.”
  • “To destitute medicine is to know what is good for us and what makes us sick, to rescue from the institution the passionate knowledges that survive there out of view, and never again to find oneself alone at the hospital, with one’s body handed over to the artistic sovereignty of a disdainful surgeon.”
  • “To destitute the government is to make ourselves ungovernable. Who said anything about winning? Overcoming is everything.” (81)

According to the Committee, the idea is not to attack these institutions, but to let them wither and die: “The destituent gesture does not oppose the institution. It doesn’t even mount a frontal fight, it neutralizes it, empties it of its substance, then steps to the side and watches it expire. It reduces it down to the incoherent ensemble of its practices and makes decisions about them.” (81)

  1. To Create and Destroy

The destituent power combines two necessary elements, according to the Committee: a moment of separation, associated with the Latin etymology of destituere: “to place standing separate, raise up in isolation; to abandon; put aside, let drop, knock down; to let down, deceive” (78); and a moment of destruction, represented by the breaking of windows and property. The first represents the secessionist and separatist removal to the commune, apart from capitalism and liberal society; the second, the attack on capitalism, on private property, on consumption, on “the world of capital.” (86) The first is a communalist ideal, which I will come to next; the second, a violent anarchist action.

On the first—on separation—the Committee proposes a form of insurrectionary secession. “We mean the decision to desert, to desert the ranks, to organize, to undertake a secession, be it imperceptibly, but in any case, now.” (18) This secessionary element is tied to the concept of fragmentation, that is so important in chapter 2, “50 Nuances of Breakage.” The idea that “the world is fragmenting” and that “the illusion of unity can no longer do its work of fooling people” bolsters the impetus for secession. “[T]he states are coming apart at the seams,” we are told (25); and this can only reinforce the logics of secession. The Committee attributes to the “cortège de tête” a prefigurative role of secession (32): of the creation of an autonomous vitality separating itself from the corpse of conventional protest marches, or what they call “funeral processions.” (13)

On the second—on destruction—the Committee argues that riots afford “the paradoxical virtue of freeing us from” the anxiety that the government tries to instill in its citizens through a culture of fear. (13) The riot, on the Committee’s view, is productive and achieves value. “The organized riot is capable of producing what this society cannot create: lively and irreversible bonds.” (14) The Committee rehearses the Fanonian theme of self-transformation: “One never comes out of one’s first riot unchanged […] In the riot there is a production and affirmation of friendships, a focused configuration of the world, clear possibilities of action, means close at hand.” (14) The riot, the Committee suggests, makes the true conflict appear. It gives a face to the enemy. It has an enlightening, or “incandescent” effect. (14) “The riot is formative by virtue of what it makes visible.” (15)

But the important theoretical point is that the second can only be understood as a positive thing through the lens of destitution. “It’s only from the destituent standpoint that one can grasp all that is incredibly constructive in the breakage.” (87)

The ideal of destitution, then, brings together creation and destruction: it is “desertion and attack, creation and wrecking, and all at once, in the same gesture.” (88) and the combination of the two is what the Committee calls “communism”: “Communism is the real movement that destitutes the existing state of things.” (89)

  1. Communism

The Committee makes passing references to communism throughout the book, and then, in the final chapter, ends on that theme.

The Committee first gestures toward communism in chapter two, paradoxically, in the context of fragmentation. It is paradoxical, because the fragmentation seems to lead, on the Committee’s view, toward a certain kind of individualization; but the Committee represents that individualization as requiring the work of reparation and linkage.

The Committee defines “what we call ‘communism’” (in the second chapter) in terms of the need for reassembling the fragmented singularities: “it’s the return to earth, the end of any bringing into equivalence, the restitution of all singularities to themselves, the defeat of subsumption, of abstraction, the fact that moments, places, things, beings and animals all acquire a proper name—their proper name. Every creation is born of a splitting off from the whole.” (45) It is this splitting off that then brings about the potential “promise of communism,” which is precisely the act of relinking the fragments. (45)

It is through communalism and love that the Committee sees a path forward. In response to the isolation of our digital existence, the Committee urges us to leave our phones behind and come together in community:

In the face of all that, the thing to do, it would seem, is to leave home, take to the road, go meet up with others, work towards forming connections, whether conflictual, prudent, or joyful, between the different parts of the world. Organizing ourselves has never been anything else than loving each other. (49)

The Committee recognized in Nuit debout an element of this coming together, and praised Nuit debout for this aspect: it was, the Committee wrote, “the site of wonderful encounters, of informal conversations, of reunions after the demonstrations.” (54) But it devolved into endless talk and a bureaucratic view of politics that leads nowhere. (55) The model of peaceful general assemblies and the open discussion forum, the Committee argues, ends up becoming nothing more than a “bureaucracy of the microphone.” (56) Nuit debout, the Committee writes, “made the misery of assemblyism not just a theoretical certainty but a shared experience.” (57)

The communism that the Committee espouses in the final chapter is one of community, love, and friendship. It involves a form of community that “nullifies all the axioms of economy and all the fine constructions of civilization.” (131) It involves a form of love of the world and of one’s kindred. (132) It involves friendship tied to fraternity in combat and equality among friends. (133)

The Committee ends Now precisely at the point of communism, and leaves the reader there. But it is not a vision of communism as an end point or as a utopia. It is instead communism as a process of community, love, and friendship. It is a process, not a state. “For us, therefore, communism is not a finality. There is no ‘transition’ towards it. It is transition entirely: it is en chemin, in transit.” (154)

This reflects the idea of politics, expressed elsewhere, as a constant struggle, not in an instrumental way, but as a means in itself. It is in the struggle, in the destitution and destruction, in the ZAD, that we form bonds and that singularities achieve community. In the end, the vision of politics that the Committee offers is one of return and isolation in solidarity with friends and physical combat against the state and police. It is the life of the anarchist communitarian.

  1. The Role of Critique

In all this, there is little explicit role for critical theory. There is a sense throughout that what we need is action, not critique. Praxis, not theoria.“This world no longer needs explaining, critiquing, denouncing. We live enveloped in a fog of […] critiques and critiques of critiques of critiques…” (8) The reason is that our political condition today has rendered explicit forms of domination that had previously been hidden. There are no longer any liberal veil. The gloves have been taken off. “We live in a world that has established itself beyond any justification. Here, criticism doesn’t work, any more than satire does. Neither one has any impact.” (9)

The Committee does not challenge the issues surrounding truth in the same way that, say, Steven Lukes did at Praxis 1/13 or Hannah Arendt in “Truth and Politics.” The Committee takes a more humble approach, suggesting that there is room to debate truths. “In what follows we don’t claim in any instance to convey “the truth” but rather the perception we have of the world, what we care about, what keeps us awake and alive,” the Committee writes. “The common opinion must be rejected: truths are multiple, but untruth is one, because it is universally arrayed against the slightest truth that surfaces.” (13)

The Committee’s discussion of law is also fascinating from a critical perspective. The Committee remarks on the fragmentation and dissipation of traditional concepts of law’s universality, and its replacement with new legal norms centered around the law of the enemy and exceptional terrorist legislation. The Committee focuses on a relatively obscure German jurisprude, Günther Jakobs, who, influenced by Carl Schmitt, developed a jurisprudence around the criminal law of the enemy as a different, separate sphere of legality. (34-36) I had a PhD student in France who wrote her dissertation on Jakobs, Ahlem Hannachi, at the Université Paris I Panthéon in 2014—but Jakobs is not that well known outside of specialized penal law circles. Incidentally, the notion of the internal enemy that feeds the “penal law of the enemy” bears a lot of resemblance to the notion of the internal enemy at the heart of counterinsurgency theory.

  1. Conclusion

In conclusion, the Committee stresses throughout the urgency of the call to action and its own determination: “there isn’t, there’s never been, and there never will be anything but now,” the Committee emphasizes. “It is the present, and hence the locus of presence. It is the moment, endlessly renewed, of the taking of sides. […] The current disaster is like a monstrous accumulation of all the deferrals of the past, to which are added those of each day and each moment, in a continuous time slide. But life is always decided now, and now, and now.” (17)

The urgency of the present and need for action is compelling. Especially as it is conjoined with such determination on their part. “The epoch belongs to the determined.” (18)

There are strong Foucaultian themes throughout the text: on the courage of truth (11), discipline (22), civil war (25 and 121), relations of power (51), and  the history of police in the 17thcentury (115-116). When the Committee reflects on the genealogy of the police and on the police des grains (116), they are essentially picking up on Foucault’s work from Security, Territory, Population, which was at the heart of The Illusion of Free Markets. The theme of civil war is also particularly important—and ties back to the 1972 lectures on The Punitive Society. There is, in so many countries, the Committee writes, “a form of civil war that will no longer end.” (25) The resonance with Foucault’s discussion of the “matrix of civil war” is hard to escape. And when the Committee writes that “All social relations in France are power relations,” one hears a clear echo of Foucault. (51) They even place this discussion under his sign on the next page, referring specifically to Foucault’s theory of power. (52)

In the end, in light of the contemporary fragmentation of politics, the Committee advocated for the destitution of power, of institutions, and of the economy, in order to give way to a form of living in common. It calls for destituent insurrections, drawing on the historical illustrations of May ’68 and other insurrectionary communes, rather than for the recurring “constituent itch” of collectivities like Occupy Wall Street or Nuit debout. And it does so urgently because “there will never be anything but now”: “life is always decided now, and now, and now.” (17) It will be interesting to explore these ideas at Praxis 2/13!

Notes

[1] I am speculating here and do not have inside information. I’m not claiming to know this, but to suspect it because of the different style of writing and theoretical infrastructure for different chapters. For instance, the fifth chapter “End of Work, Magical Life,” is written in an entirely different register, with a different theoretical perspective, than the previous or subsequent chapters; chapter seven, “For the Ones to Come,” opens with an entirely different writing style, and its discussion of communism is distinct

[2] So, for instance, the different chapters address the notion of “the state of exception” in different ways. In the first chapter, “Tomorrow Is Cancelled,” the Committee takes the view that the state of exception is portrayed by the state as the rule of law—in a kind of Orwellian doublespeak. “The state of emergency is the rule of law,” the Committee writes (10), corroborating the notion of a “state of legality” that I develop in Chapter 12 of The Counterrevolution. Chapter two, “50 Nuances of Breakage,” picks up on this theme—suggesting that “the state of exception already reigned in the form of the Law,” (37)—but the Committee then goes on to argue that the state of exception is what we expected, and is not worth protesting against; instead, it must fuel a state of exception on the other side, on the side of protest. (If I recall correctly, this was Benjamin’s point in response to Schmitt: rather than contest the state of exception, deploy it on the other side). But in chapter six, “Everyone Hates the Police,” the Committee suggests that the police isthe expression of the state of exception—focusing in on the police in their daily operation. (117). These represent different angles on the state of exception that reflect not incoherence, but different registers and theoretical styles that suggest to me the multiplicity of authorship.

[3] The Committee associates the opposite conception, constituent power, fairly or unfairly, most often with the work of Toni Negri. (77, 83, 85).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *