By Julian Huertas
The first impression the reader gets after finishing Now, is that of an intellectual electric shock. Written in a passionate way and dismissing – maybe despising – the formal conventions of academic scholarship, the Invisible Committee calls for an anarchist rebellion against the status quo. It is a cry from the depths of the soul that intends to affect the reader and the society in a very practical way, far from sophisticated theories. It is, it wants to be, pure praxis. But, as all practice does, the book has to face the complexities of our societies and the inevitability of grasping some notions that we may label as “theoretical.” In the end, every call for action must embrace, or at least admit, a certain ideal model of what society should and should not be. The scope and limits of the Invisible Committee’s call are the subjects of this post.
The chief merit of Now is the energy of its call, the radical decisiveness of getting rid of what seems false, hypocrite, illusory. However, after reading this manifesto, the reader may ask the hard question: not exactly “what is to be done?”, nor “why should we embark in ‘destituent’ revolution?”, but “how would it work?”. How would an anarchic revolution function in the 21stcentury, at a time when global trade and international institutions have made the planet a quite complex place? How can society revolt in the age of great surveillance, when virtually everyone is exposed due to technology? Will it proceed like other labor demonstrations, or like a protest march down New York’s Fifth Avenue, with well-educated millennials breaking the windows of commercial buildings? Or will it be a social media campaign with a catchy on Twitter and Facebook? Just how will it take place?
On its face, the “how” question may seem an easy issue to resolve for the author(s) of Now. The Invisible Committee could say that its manifesto is not an action handbook, but only a call to action. And indeed, it is. It does not set forth an action plan, but just a denunciation that ranges from individual existential weariness to the state or even geopolitical change. For example, the book deals with the problem of employment, which causes anxiety in unemployed people as well as in bored employees, but it also deals with macro issues, like institutions and destitution of reigning powers in a fragmented society.
Since what interests me most is the how question, I would propose that Now should be read more like a personal, psychological (almost spiritual) guide for promoting revolution at the individual level – with, of course, the hope of generating real effects. In its relationship with the reader, the book intends to cause a strong conscience-shaking experience, that expects to produce social and political effects. I will elaborate on this by focusing on the analysis of institutions – mainly global – and the economic alternatives to the current model; later, I will present my interpretation of why the book is written mostly for the individual who is confronted by a capitalized world.
- Institutions and their effective expected failure
In the first place, the book devotes several pages, directly and implicitly, to the failure of institutions and the need for destitution of almost everything, especially the ruler class. Now cannot but show its disappointment not only with institutions, but in general with postmodern social movements and assemblies. The “Let’s destitute the World” chapter is a crude but sincere reflection about the path the enthusiastic revolutionaries – people and institutions – follows towards the organizations they once promised to destroy. Institutions cannot be played. They are always a trap. No negotiation should be permitted, no compromise. However, one of the implications of the how-question is that one should be able to imagine how he destitution of institutions would look like. The problem here is that it is not enough to imagine a neighborhood without, for example, the presence of repressive police force. Nor it is sufficient to conceive a country free from the global power of the merchants of infrastructure that prevents the possibility of happiness (p. 46-47).
In our time, a real revolution must also cope with the political power that lies outside national borders. It would not be enough to destitute national institutions while the power also flows at an international level. In this section I will attempt to make sense of what that means, i.e., to destitute global institutions. Obviously, it is impossible to study here each international organization and, therefore, I will focus on a big one. Although Now doesn’t explicitly mention it, the international institution par excellence is the United Nations, with its unequal distribution of power between rich states (some of them in the Security Council) and “developing” countries, which compose the majority in the General Assembly. Along with that, one of the objectives of the UN is to “promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom”; and for that end, to “employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples” (Preamble of the UN Charter).
However, the UN is a good example of what the book refers as the real purpose of institutions: “Quite often, the apparent failure of the institutions is their real function” (p. 74). The Invisible Committee digs into what institutions are made for. After World War II, the winners of the war designed a new global order, based on the UN and other institutions like the IMF, the World Bank and the GATT (the predecessor of the WTO). The formal goals of those institutions are similar to those mentioned in the UN Charter Preamble: to achieve social progress, economic development, ensure human rights, equality, etc. This is the so-called ‘liberal order’, with its good intentions. But the mere existence of the institutions shows their internal contradictions. In a passage that is clearly inspired by critical theory, the book denounces the greed concealed by the official language of institutions:
For behind the façade of the institution, what goes on is always something other than it claims to be, its precisely what the institution claimed to have delivered the world from: the very human comedy of the coexistence of networks, of loyalties, of clans, interests, lineages, dynasties even, a logic of fierce struggles for territories, resources, miserable titles, influence (…). Every institution is, in its very regularity, the result of an intense bricolage and, as an institution, of a denial of that bricolage. It’s supposed fixity masks a gluttonous appetite for absorbing, controlling, institutionalizing everything that’s on its margins and harbors a bit of life. (P. 72).
According to its official documents, the United Nations stands for global cooperation and improvement of the living standards, especially among the poorest. That is why President’s Trump address to the UN General Assembly days ago shocked so many diplomats, as usually occurs when Trump or other nationalists leaders threaten to weaken the postwar liberal order. In his speech, Trump stated that “America is governed by Americans (…) We reject the ideology of globalism and accept the doctrine of patriotism.” Trump’s words only add to what has been described as the backlash against the international liberal order, so criticized from both left and right.
From a left perspective, books like Age of Anger by Pankaj Mishra, trace today’s rise of anti-liberal and populist leaders to the inherent defects of the liberal model. Mishra makes his critique of the current global situation as explained by the failures of the 20th century and the Western states. On the contrary, conservative authors like Edward Luce (The Retreat of Western Liberalism) laments the weakening of western hegemony and advocates for more promotion of enlightenment values as a solution to the global crisis. In both cases, there is a sense of losing something important with the languishing of international institutions.
Perhaps because of this anxiety over the present and the future, it may be useful to follow the Invisible Committee’s argument – and in general the critical theory insight – that institutions are to be viewed with suspicion. Even a liberal author like Graham Allison calls for overcoming conventional wisdom and not exaggerating the benefits of international intuitions (The Myth of the Liberal Order). To illustrate this, it will suffice to remember how the third world countries began an enthusiastic – but moderate – rebellion after the decolonization period in the 1960s.
At the UN General Assembly, many developing countries advanced an agenda that strived for their rights as non-military powers but claimed for a relevant place in the world due to their natural resources. In some Resolutions at the General Assembly, they invoked sovereignty over the resources under their soil. They also claimed the right of expropriation over multinational corporations. The result of this diplomatic fight was what the Invisible Committee would have predicted, had it been present in 1960. The developed countries found legal and institutional ways to abate the nascent insubordinate movement of poor nations within the UN. Many capital-exporting powers promoted foreign investment from their multinationals in developing countries under the condition of adopting free trade agreements and bilateral investment treaties.
Since then, also encouraged by the fall of the Soviet Union and the lack of alternative economic models, almost every society has surrendered to the corporate capitalist paradigm. The UN, the institution that should promote the welfare of all nations but especially the poorest, worked as a trap that kept the status quo. The former rebellious countries now defend the existing model. They would receive some foreign investment, and in return, they accept the condition of not messing with the cage of global politics and economy.
The case of the UN and its “democratic” General Assembly show well how difficult an anarchist revolution would be. Is it really feasible to destitute the world? How would it be done? The example of the UN and the decades of struggle for the revindication of developing countries also support the claim that, probably, the apparent failure of an institution like the UN is its real function.
2. The Wall of the Economy
This leads us to the second important point in Now: the economy invades everything. Both at the domestic and the international levels, and even at the psychological one, everything has acquired a monetary value. As a consequence, “capital has taken hold of every detail and every dimension of existence. It has created a world in its image” (p. 84). Today’s economy seems so complex that an alternative appears impossible. The Invisible Committee does not attempt to give a solution, nor is it interested in proposing a different actual path.
In its most vibrant and romantic chapter, “End of work, magical life,” the book only declares the need to escape the economy. “Economy is not just a system we must exit if we are to cease being needy opportunists. It is what we must escape simply in order to live, in order to be present to the world.” (P. 106). The problem is that the economy is inexorable. This is a dead-end road and there are no options different than the economy. Consequently, “[t]here is no ‘other economy,’ there’s just another relationship with the economy” (p. 109). The original call for an anarchist revolution in the first pages of the book seems to face the intimidating wall of the economy, of the outside world.
For the Invisible Committee, the only one feasible alternative is to look inward and concentrate on the most meaningful tasks we like to do: “The fact remains that we must organize ourselves, organize on the basis of what we love to do, and provide ourselves the means to do it. The only gauge of the state of crisis of capital is the degree of organization of those aiming to destroy it.” (p. 111). But, all in all, the question remains: how can we destitute the economic structures? At this point, the reader may feel that the anarchist revolt is more distant and more remote from the real world than the author(s) may accept.
3. The inner scape and the pursuit of love
At this point, the call for revolution capitulates before the superstructure, the economy, and the institutions. If we add to this the limits and hypocrisies of the institutions, as seen before with the most important global institution today, we must conclude that the real revolution is the one that takes place in the mind of the people. First, in the inner sphere and, afterwards, hopefully, in society. This is the answer to the question of how the revolution should be performed. That idea would help to explain why the book addresses one of the most pressing issues in capitalist societies today, namely unemployment and the lack-of-meaning employment. The author(s) not only deals with this issue from a political-ideological perspective but mainly from the existential concern of the individual that needs a purposeful activity in order to give sense to her life. (p. 91-93).
One hint for this conclusion lies at the beginning of the book. It is clear that the current moment demands a change. Technology has helped us to identify the existent inequalities and the miserable situation of many people in our societies and around the world, but nothing happens:
All the reasons for making a revolution are there. Not one is lacking. The shipwreck of politics, the arrogance of the powerful, the reign of falsehood, the vulgarity of the wealthy, the cataclysms of industry, galloping misery, naked exploitation, ecological apocalypse—we are spared nothing, not even being informed about it all. (…) . All the reasons are there together, but it’s not reasons that make revolutions, it’s bodies. And the bodies are in front of screens. (p. 7).
My personal understanding of Now is that its ambiguity may also be its strength. What, at a first reading, appears to be a strident call to pure action is truly an intimate whispering to a reader that is absorbed and anxious about how many likes friends will hit on the new Instagram’s photo. The book is more a conversation with the bored employee who listens when Amazon announces that it will raise the minimum wage to $15/hour, but still feels that her day-to-day life doesn’t have a purpose. What the book demands is the bravery to live in a more humane way.
Rather than producing a spectacular revolt, the actual worry of Now is to awaken society by rebuking every individual, to produce an uncomfortable reaction that leads to the thought that things must change now. This is the reason why the Invisible Committee is sometimes harsh with assemblies (pp. 55-58), but at the same time praises Nuit debout as “the site of wonderful encounters, of informal conversations, of reunions after the demonstrations.” (p. 54). The main concern of the author(s) is the spontaneous and authentic life. By extending its criticism of politics to all forms of social-political organization, the book is even ready to admit that “[p]olitics makes one empty and greedy” (p. 52). It is ready to sacrifice political effectiveness for a clean conscience.
Of course, the risk here is being accused of idealism, as with any anarchist call. Despite such risk, the book bets for a more “romantic” way of doing politics, quite different from what history has witnessed: “We need to abandon the idea that there is politics only where there is vision, program, project, and perspective, where there is a goal, decisions to be made, and problems to be solved. What is truly political is only what emerges from life and makes it a definite, oriented reality”. (p. 65). In that sense, the book obviously aspires to generate a revolution, but it does not care how it should be done. It may accept to be read as an unrealistic cry because, before calling for a transformation of the social structures, the Invisible Committee is interested in transforming the mind of the readers. From that perspective, it is a far more ambitious than a typical political program that sets the lines, the how, of a well-thought strategy.