Chris Roberts | Unconvinced

By Chris Roberts

The Invisible Committee is the anonymous anarcho-communist collective in France who authored 2007’s The Coming Insurrection, a call to “social rupture” that was the main inspiration behind French police’s decade-long wild-goose chase for a leftist terrorist group that ultimately was found not to exist (and whose condemnation by Fox News’s Glenn Beck briefly catapulted the anticapitalists’ book to number-one on the Amazon best-seller list).

Since then, the Committee has achieved wide popularity in France, particularly among the so-called “children of 2002,” the teenagers and young adults whose early lives’ defining political moment was the far-right National Front’s Jean-Marie Le Pen’s shockingly and Republic-shakingly successful performance in that year’s presidential election.

In this context, the Committee’s most recent book, Now is an answer to France’s existential questions: How could 1968 have lead to 2002—and what is to be done maintenant, after the November 2015 terrorist massacre at the Bataclan and Macron’s 2017 victory of centrism? Now’s answer is for citizens upset and unsatisfied with modern capitalism’s authoritarian, carceral, and destructive turns to do as Britain did to Europe and to exit—not to bother interfering with TGV lines but to become ungovernable, to refuse to engage in society and to form new anarchist communes through a “destituent process.” Don’t bother with revolution or with critique and don’t waste your time trying to blow it all up in order to start over, Now tells us; just withdraw.

Though The Invisible Committee scoff at critique in Now—the “critiques of critiques of critques” have accomplished far less than a single brick tossed through a bank window during a protest, as they write—Now’s philosophy draws on Giorgio Agamben’s State of Exception to justify its call to conquer the political struggle by absconding from it. Agamben was invited to critique Now at Praxis 2/13; had he been present, perhaps Bernard Harcourt would not have found himself almost alone in defending the essay from the other theorists present. For Jackie Wang, McKenzie Wark, Judith Revel, Emmanuelle Saada, and Jesus Velasco, Now failed to convince on multiple fronts—on both offering an alternative ideology and a feasible praxis.

I left unconvinced that Now’s notion of becoming ungovernable, with the final aim of creating anarcho-communist communes, had intellectual validity. Are not those truly ungovernable the dead, those wholly immune to compulsion only corpses? Does not the anarchist who rejects government—like the member of the ideal feminist collective described by Jackie Wang—govern herself in accordance with her values, and after constant reflection, renewal, and compromise with her community, with whom she will often find herself opposed? Is not even the Id governed, by its desires? Wark’s example of the union members who solve conflicts themselves without involving the police—thereby self-governing—is an object lesson of how easily this pillar of Now’s thought was refuted. This flaw in its foundation suffuses Now in an incoherence from which it did not recover at Praxis 2/13. Even Now’s call to adopt love as the ultimate praxis was not convincing. In this way, love becomes a command— an exercise of power, not an escape from it. “What if I don’t want to love?” Saada asked. “If love is a solution, it is also a problem.”

More problematic, from the view of a seeker of a practical philosophy of action—from someone hoping for a model of praxis—is that the alternative Now offers for those of us disgusted and alarmed by the path of modern society is not a useful model to follow. The solutions that Now offers are limited. Worse, they are available only to a select few—only to those already privileged by the system Now promises to overcome through abandonment and neglect.

As Wang pointed out, the imperative to become ungovernable—more than merely unruly—is itself couched in the power dynamics of a male-dominated society. It is inherently masculine. The more pressing question—emancipation for those that men domineer, or “What would it mean for women, the transgendered and the non-gendered to become ungovernable?” as she asked us—is not answered in Now. In its thrill-seekers’ praise of the “boys’ riot” and its disdain for the past—its “presentism”—Now presents a politics of a juvenile masculinity privileged by the very society it claims to loathe.

Coming to these conclusions would require a certain foundation. The Invisible Committee does not share its genealogy—“One wonders,” as Judith Revel put it, “how much attention the authors paid to their own existence”—and so we are left to guess at it. It is not a difficult pursuit.

It becomes clear that Now’s authors have not known the trauma universal among survivors of sexual assault, who may struggle even in progressive circles for acknowledgment. If it had, they would not dismiss anyone whose unhealed psychological wounds—the “temporal wormhole called ‘trauma’” descried by Wang—leave them truly and wholly unable to embrace the maintenant in the way prescribed. The fact that these pitfalls were avoided reveals The Invisible Committee’s class situation, and it is, as Revel points out, aristocratic. In this way, Now’s writers—who, French police believed, were radical graduate students—may share space with the academy it disdains. Their world, as Revel put it, is not the world in general.

Now does offer a reinterpretation of truth that can appear profound. This “relation to the facts of the world around it” is best found in the crucible of the police kettle, where strangers bonded together by a mutual enemy—in this case, the helmeted and booted riot cop—find “incandescent fraternity” in the heat of combat. This is the “boys’ riot,” as Wark said. A more interesting and important question, “What would a feminist riot look like? What would a disabled riot look like?” is not given inquiry. And it grants us at best a superficial and temporary union. “Bonds are not formed in the now,” Wang pointed out. They form over time, when the fast brothers leave the riot for the assembly and find themselves arrayed against each other. The bond—the union—is forged by resolving the disagreement, by surviving—or perhaps even avoiding—the “litany of betrayals” known to the anarchist movement.

It is that assembly for which the The Invisible Committee have possibly the least patience. Assembly is a waste of time. In their praxis, disputes are solved not by compromise, examination, or critique, but by withdrawing—by taking one’s toys and going home, to a new home. What happens when making the choice to becoming a destituent is not available—when there is no escape from the kettle, when one is confined in the banlieu or in the prison—is not Now’s concern.

In their world, you do not advance by renewing the revolution over and over again, by returning to the bottom of the mountain in order to continue to ascend it—you find another mountain. Now’s presumption that there is another mountain available, hermetically sealed from the troubles on the adjacent peak—and that it is available for this experiment—may be their boldest claim. To our panel, this was the philosophy of the reset button, with “indifference to real conditions and real subjects,” in Revel’s words, whose material realities cannot so easily and simply be wiped clean in order to begin again somewhere else.

To this, I would like to offer my own critique. As I read Now, I recognized something familiar, something the crowd assembled for a certain train to arrive at the Finland Station in Saint Petersburg in April 1917 would have known. Wark posited that The Invisible Committee stole their name from Marcel Marien’s Theory of Immediate World Revolution. Now’s grand view for an alternative society—the anarchist commune—is not so different from Peter Kropotkin’s century-old call for communes, remixed a bit for the children of 2002. If David Fincher were to direct a film adaptation of Conquest of Bread, it might not look so different from Now. In this way, Now may not be such a radical departure from what the soixtaint-huitards knew after all. They knew that recreating a society from scratch was exceedingly difficult.  “I’m on board with the aim,” Wark said. “It’s harder to do than it looks.” Until The Invisible Committee can provide a real-world model, Now may remain only a critique of a critique.