By Sophie Molyneux
On a recent evening, sitting in a dark pub waiting for trivia to start, I spoke to new acquaintances I was trying to befriend. Standard introductory topics exhausted, we ventured into the realm of politics. Assuming a safe liberal echo chamber, a matter was brought forth and unexpectedly resisted by one person present. “I don’t think we’re going to be friends,” she said lightly. We laughed, steered around it and passed on to pleasantly red wine-sodden trivia.
The choice, immortalized in The Matrix, of consciousness and action (the red pill) as against the lure of inertia and bliss (the blue pill) seems to be the preliminary step towards critical thought. But this is not a choice that you can safely make once and be forever activated, enlightened and engaged. At every moment, there is the prospect of abandonment, surrender and regression.
Exhausting perhaps. But Now by the Invisible Committee (2017) warns against hoping for a final resting point where you can still and look back at the ground you have gained, satisfied. The book diagnoses something within us that yearns for “…the Sunday of life alloyed with the end of history” (p 127), that “is expecting solutions” (p 127). These won’t come. “…all those who claim to offer solutions to the present disaster are really doing just one thing: imposing their definition of the problem on us…” (p 128). Constant vigilance, then, is the watchword.
The moment in the pub was perhaps an act of surrender. The moment in the pub might have been one in which I succumbed to the powers at work that make me avoid conflict and maintain social bonds. Or it was a moment where we avoided an argument that we have inherited generation from generation to occupy and distract us in the hope that people can get along and bridge differences.
I revive these potentially trivial events in the pub for two reasons. The first is to better understand whether this was an opportunity for praxis foregone. The second is as a test to see whether discussion of how to apply theories of how to act critically to particular moments is praxis itself. Whether baldness of expression is praxis is my experiment.
So, I turned to Now to see what guidance or adjudication I could get. Here is my rough understanding (broken down into the book’s chapters):
- Tomorrow is cancelled: If it was ever possible, the world has at least now passed the point that one could hope to tinker with its systems to create improvement. Talk is meaningless and impotent. (“There’s nothing to criticise in Donald Trump. As to the worst that can be said about him, he’s already absorbed it, incorporated it… He displays on a gold chain all the complaints that people have ever lodged against him.” (p 8)) This is not the time to linger over lost hopes for what could have been done. We must abandon this. THINGS ARE TOO MESSED UP TO MAINTAIN THE STATUS QUO.
- Nuances of breakage: It is not sustainable to believe in a power or a governmental force that can bind us. The world is not about a rule of law, it is about ensuring submission. (“Kettling is a dialectical image of current political power… It’s the figure of a power that no longer promises anything, and has no other activity than locking all the exits.” (p 33)) Lawlessness is prevalent. Governments embrace it; respecting laws was never for those who made laws. (“It’s common knowledge that the drug squad is the biggest hash dealer in France.” (p 38); “Anyone who knows the underside of power immediately ceases to respect it. Deep down, the masters have always been anarchists. It’s just that they can’t stand for anyone else to be that.” (p 38)) The world is fragmenting, people are being driven to the edges and falling away from each other. This is a painful process. (“As something endured, the process of fragmentation of the world can drive people into misery, isolation, schizophrenia. It can be experienced as a senseless loss in the lives of human beings. We’re invaded by nostalgia then.”) But perhaps fragmentation is our best state and we should welcome it and find our home in that mutual separation. (“[Tosquelles] observed that mental patients tended to be few in number [in the Spanish civil war] because the war, by breaking the grip of the social lie, was more therapeutic to the psychotics than the asylum… the lie of social life makes us psychotic, and embracing fragmentation is what allows us to regain a serene presence to the world.” (p 46)) WE AREN’T UNITED OR UNITEABLE.
- Death to politics: Taking political action is not about being in politics. It is false to separate politics and life; politics is not a separate sphere of speaking, debating and voting which can be departed to return to “ordinary life”. The opportunities for hypocrisy in that bifurcated realm are extensive. So accept that politics can be found in your everyday moments and acting politically doesn’t need to mean having a clear vision of a better destination; it can simply be responding to something you care about in a certain moment. (“Even a marathon is always run step by step.” (p 66)) If we all do it, it may not be that bad. (“If we were more serene, more sure of ourselves, if we had less fear of conflict and of the disruption an encounter might bring, their consequences would likely be less disagreeable. And perhaps not disagreeable at all.” (p 67)) ALLOW POLITICAL ACTION ANYWHERE
- Let’s destitute the world: There’s no point trying to put a new, better system in place; our institutions will always be undone by the fact they are staffed by people in power:
For behind the façade of the institution, what goes on is always something other than what it claims to be, it’s 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 — stories of sexual conquest and pure folly, of old friendship and rekindled hatreds (p 72).
So rather than seek to replace these building blocks, abandon them. Move on from universities, judicial systems and hospitals, and manage your own education, your own disputes and your own health. There is nothing of value in these places but a trick of capitalism. Decline to be disciplined, to be coded, to be governed. (“The destituent gesture does not oppose the institution. It doesn’t even mount a frontal fight, it neutralises it, empties it of substance, then steps to the side and watches it expire.” (p 81)) NO NEED TO DECAPITATE, SIMPLY IGNORE, DESERT
- End of work, magical life: Capitalism and the reduction of people, places and experiences to quantifiable economic units have pervaded every aspect of our society: (every spare bedroom is now an Airbnb income foregone, every solo drive a missed chance to cash in (p 97); “[b]eing with a particular person is an unbearable sacrifice of all the other persons with whom one could just as well be with” (p 106)). Abandonment of the economy is difficult but destitution of these capitalist systems is possible through acts of subversion and distance: (“There is no “other economy”, there’s just another relationship with the economy. A relationship of distance and hostility, to be exact. The only relationship one can have with the structures adopted is to use them as umbrellas for doing something altogether different than what the economy authorises.” (p 109)). Commercial print shops might put through anonymous undocumented protest publications on the weekend; carpenters might use their company’s equipment to build a shelter for an occupy movement, a restaurant might host unsurveilled discussions after‑hours. SUBVERT, HELP FRIENDS OUTSIDE THE ECONOMY
- Everyone hates the police: The police have gained power as governments try to counter lawlessness with an ever-expanding unbounded ‘law enforcement’. “The outrageousness of police prerogatives and the incredible expansion of the technological means of control delineate a new tactical perspective.” (p 124). To adequately defeat these new tyrants, direct public action is to be avoided as it begets immediate repression and “a purely conspiratorial existence… makes one politically inoffensive” (p 124). We must instead work towards mass revolutionary engagement through slowly but surely establishing clandestine networks. MAKE ALLIANCES, QUIETLY
- For the ones to come: Do not understand yourself as a Sims character that you can drive around from experience to experience, constructing a life narrative from interactions with other characters. People are not individual units of soul bouncing off each other: “We are no longer nihilistic enough to think that inside us there is something like a stable psychic organ — a will, let’s say — that directs our other faculties. This neat invention of the theologian…institute[s] a formal separation between being and acting.” (p 155-6). We are rather assemblies of fragments, products of forces operating within us and outside us driving our actions:
…what “wants” within us, what inclines us, is never the same thing. That it is a simple outcome, crucial at certain moments, of the combat waged within and outside us by a tangled network of forces, affects and inclinations, resulting in a temporary assemblage in which some force has just as temporarily subdued other forces. (p 156)
This alteration in perception allows for a much greater freedom of movement and action: “We’re talking about addressing bodies and not just the head” (p 158). THERE IS NO YOU, YOU’RE A PUPPET MOVED BY A THOUSAND STRINGS HELD IN DIFFERENT HANDS, PULL AT CERTAIN STRINGS IN CERTAIN MOMENTS
By trying to apply these theories, I’m grounding them, taking them out of their packaging and leaving them vulnerable to the ageing process. Times will move on, my understanding will rust.
But here’s what I’m taking from this for my assessment of the pub interaction: political conversations are not to be avoided; alliances could be created so these connections are important; these smaller settings are where to have these discussions; social fear is useless; hope of agreement or coalition is redundant; make sure things are worth talking about, then act. But also having not done it, it doesn’t matter: these moments are endless and will recur and tomorrow you might very well act differently depending on the forces at play.