Now and the anarchy of destituent power: Reading politics with the invisible committee
… they wanted to reinvent everything, each day; to make themselves masters and possessors of their own lives.
If to constituent power corresponds revolutions, uprisings and new consititutions, that is, a violence that lays down and constitutes new law, for destituent power, it is fitting to think of completely different strategies, of which the definition is the task of the coming politics.
Giorgio Agamben, The Use of Bodies
To destitute the government, is to make ourselves ungovernable.
comité invisible, Maintenant
What follows is a second exercise in the sharing of ideas, of visions. The most recent essay by the invisible committee, Now, continues a reflection-intervention that began with The Coming Insurrection and To Our Friends, and offers a powerful critique of contemporary politics, along with a defense of “autonomy”. What is proposed here then is again a partial summary and a critical commentary of the idea of politics expressed in the essay.
It also may be taken as a ongoing commentary on our recent posts dedicated to Eduardo Viveiros de Castro and Jacques Rancière. The work of Guy Debord and Giorgio Agamben also resonate throughout this reflection.
The enemy has already triumphed. We live after the disaster, disoriented amidst the rubble of fragmentation. What peoples remain, what social identities persist, are vestigial or function as instruments of control: “everything which for centuries constituted the splendor and misery of the generations who succeeded each other on earth have today lost all meaning.” In the expanding and accelerating flow of capital, in the sweeping away of use value by exchange value become spectacle, a parody of the Marxist project of a classless society is realised in the planetary petite-bourgeoisie. The “the state of the spectacle … empties and nullifies every real identity, and substitutes the public and public opinion for the people and the general will“, thereby producing “massively from within itself singularities that are no longer characterized either by any social identity or by any real condition of belonging: singularities that are truly whatever singularities.” (Giorgio Agamben, Marginal Notes on Comments on the Society of the Spectacle)
If the unifying fictions of nations, peoples, societies, cultures, classes and the like formerly functioned as instruments of State rule and reproduction, these same instruments weaken considerably in the tides of consumer desire and the semiotic (non-conscious, non-ideological) control of population movements and habits. The public is unstable and its opinions are ephemeral. The older disciplinary technologies (e.g. schools, factories, armies, etc.) that produced the former binding identities prove insufficient; in the acceleration of movement, they must give way to apparatuses of generalised surveillance and control, measures and registries of passage, techniques of seduction and financial subservience, politics of precariousness, marginalisation, of rendering superfluous, of death. The State, never a master of all that it unleashes, appears increasingly a a sorcerer’s apprentice, or as a marionette with its strings pulled in different, opposing directions.
The societies of control, of spectacle, are at best relatively successful in the administration of populations. And yet, cracks appear everywhere. Parts of populations rise up unrestrained or feel themselves to be unrelated to the “public” to which they supposedly belong, opinion loosens its hold. And the old fictions, today more fragile than ever, fracture.
The spectacle, by obliterating the past in fetishistic consumption and official memorialisation, and enslaving the future to a present of repetition, destroys time and thereby the spaces in which which histories are made. Peoples become populations of individual spectators, with one population distinguished from another only on the grounds of the apparatuses of control that restrain-create them. What human universality prevails is not that of a subject bearer of rights common to all (the illusion of the subject has vanished beneath the endless stream of images, representations), but that of a spectator. “Humanity as subject no longer has a face.” (39) And what “faces” do appear are either the children of ancient, though increasingly fragile, forms of life rooted in the earth of local spaces (e.g., the indigenous), or the rebellious faces that affirm momentary, seemingly ungovernable, identities before the oblivion of the spectacle (e.g., “undocumented” migrants and refugees), or of those “identities” expressed in the circular dialectics of dissidence and control (e.g., “women” under “liberal” governments, ethnic “minorities” in regimes of “multiculturalism”, homosexual and lesbian “minorities” harnessed in patriarchal paradigms of “home economy”, etc.). All of these identities, and others, serve or have served to ground politics of resistance, revolution as well as institutionalised politics. And States have relatively little difficulty in managing or absorbing them when circumstances and/or needs dictate. That is, their rebellious potential is invariably limited and their rise to power is inevitably reproductive of new oppressions and exclusions. The problem then lies deeper and radical thought and practice must move beyond concerns with sovereign identities, the liberation of peoples and State power.
The Invisible Committee’s most recent essay Now, argues that the problem abides in the separation of politics from other spheres of life. Politics is thus reified, made a thing, something that can be referred to by the use of a noun. If however it is denoted by the use of an adjective, then it reveals itself not as something substantive, fixed, but rather as a way of being – one is politically – a way of being in the world in opposition to, in conflict with, other ways of being.
“There are conflicts, there are encounters, there are actions, there is the expression of views which are ‘political’, because they stand decisively in a given situation against something, because they carry an affirmation regarding the world that they desire. Politics erupts, is an event, breaches the regulated course of disaster. It generates polarisation, sharing, taking sides. There is however no such thing as “politics”. There is no specific domain that gathers together all of these events, all of these occurrences independently of the place and the moment where they happen. There is not a particular sphere where the affairs of all would be addressed. There is not a separate sphere for what is general. … Everything which is of the nature of an encounter, the friction or conflict between forms of life, between regimes of perception, between sensibilities, between worlds from the moment that this contact attains a certain threshold of intensity is political. The crossing of this threshold is signaled immediately by its effects: battle lines are traced, friendships and enmities are affirmed, the uniform surface of the social cracks, what was falsely united shatters and subterranean communications between the different fragments are born.” (59-60)
The French Spring of 2016 was thus not a social movement, but a political conflict. Social movements have a frame, a liturgy, a ceremonial, with everything that falls outside of this being defined as excessive. However, what characterised the events of 2016 was that they continually overflowed this framework, whether it was set by political parties, labour unions or the police. In sum, the French Spring was an uninterrupted series of excesses, moments of political transgression; and this was the greatest virtue of Nuit Debout (against all of those who sought, and finally succeeded in, domesticating it). “The only ‘demand of the movement’ – the abrogation of the El Khomri labour law – was not one, insofar as it left no room for any arrangement, any ‘dialogue’. In its entirely negative nature, it meant only the refusal to continue to be so governed, and for some, the refusal to simply be governed. … It was a frontal collision between two forces – government against demonstrators -, between two worlds and two ideas of the world: one of craving beggars led by a few kings of beggars, and a world comprised of many worlds, where one breaths, where one dances and where one lives.” (61-2)
What comes to light in every eruption of politics is the irreducible plurality of human ways of being and doing, resistant to any totalisation. The unity of capitalist spectacle is thus radically anti-political and any opposition to State-Capital is, in its affirmation of the possibility and reality of ways of life, essentially political. “We have to abandon the idea that there is politics only where there is a vision, program, project and perspective, where there is a goal, decisions to be made and problems to be resolved. The only true politics is that which arises from life and which makes of it a determined, directed reality. And that is born from those who are near us, and not from what is projected on those distant from us. The near does not mean the restricted, the limited, the narrow, the local. It means rather the agreed upon, the vibrant, the adequate, the present, the sensible, the luminous and the familiar – the graspable and comprehensible. It is not a spatial concept, but ethical.” (63)
“It is only in contact that the friend and the enemy are discovered. A political situation does not proceed from a decision, but from the shock or the encounter of many decisions.” (63)
The plurality of conflicting forms of life that engenders politics echoes Carl Schmitt’s definition of politics as grounded in the opposition of friend and foe. But for Schmitt, this opposition must find expression in a sovereign-constitutional form; that is, in a State (child in turn of the decision on the exception). Otherwise, the tensions, conflicts, will only engender chaos. For the Invisible Committee, the constituted State of the friend-enemy distinction is the expression of alienated politics and the suppression of ethoses, forms of life, under the weight of institutional structures.
“The real has something of the intrinsically chaotic which humans have a need to stabilise by imposing on it a readability and, in this way, a predictability. And what every institution provides is precisely an arrested readability of the real, n eventual stabilisation of phenomena. If the institution so works out for us, it is because the kind of readability that it guarantees above all saves us, us, each one of us, from affirming anything, of risking our singular reading of life and things, of producing together an intelligibility of the world that is ours and common to us. The problem is that in renouncing to do that, we simply renounce to exist.” (67-8)
“In reality, what we need are not institutions, but forms. Now it turns out that life, whether it is biological, singular or collective, is precisely the continuous creation of forms. … Everything that lives is nothing but forms and interactions of forms.” (68)
While forms are plural and passionate, institutions are contemptuous of life. “The great malice of the idea of institution is to pretend that it would free us from the reign of passions, the uncontrollable hazards of existence, that it is beyond passions when it is one among them, and certainly one of the most morbid.” (69) To some degree, institutions, even if only temporarily, establish a fragile release from the uncertainties of human life, becoming, time, establishing a “little palpable eternity”, a simulation of death. (69-70)
The whole illusion however dissolves before the eruption of rebellion and revolution. Events strip away the facade of the institution, revealing so many sordid interests, passions, malevolence, miserable competition, that animate those who assure the institution’s functioning. “Every institution is, even in its very regularity, the result of intense makeshift interventions [“bricolage”] and, as an institution, the denial of this. Its alleged fixity masks a glutenous appetite to absorb, control, institutionalise everything that is marginal to it and which harbours a bit of life.” (70) Appearing as a means to the end of the rational ordering of life, the institution quickly becomes an end in itself. Its failure to fully control, its internal dysfunctionalities, are part of how it operates; paradoxically, the institution exists between the need to control life, while nourishing itself on its indomitable resistance. (71)
Plural forms of life are the fresh daily flesh upon which institutions feed. And each historical revolution, in its aspiration to conquer power, has only re-enacted the circle of rebellion-constitution-rebellion. It is this circle that must be broken; something that the Invisible Committee envisages through the notion of revolution as a destituent power, in opposition to constituent power and exemplified in the French May of 1968, the long Italian May and the so many insurrectionary communes. And if the many “occupy” movements failed in this regard, it is because they quickly put into play the old revolutionary dialectic that aims to oppose to “constituted powers”, the “constituting power” of a people invading public space. (74)
In the logic of constituent and constituted power, politics revolves around the appropriation and organisation of political, sovereign authority. It is this, however, at least on one level, that condemns all “revolution” (and one can add supposed “radical” reform) to failure. Destituent power seeks rather to escape sovereignty. “The gesture specific to it is to exit, while the constituent gesture is to take by assault. In a destituent logic, the struggle against the State and capital is first exiting from the lived capitalist normality, deserting the shitty relations experienced to oneself, to others and to the world.” (76) It obeys the vital necessity of pulling away. It does not regulate itself by the movements of the adversary, “but by the expansion of what its own power requires.” (76-7). It does not exhaust itself in criticism – to do so is to remain in the space of the adversary. Instead, it flees, to employ the language of Gilles Deleuze; without forgetting to pick up a weapon. (Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet, Dialogues II)
This last remark may suggest an analogy that takes us back to a conflict between powers for sovereignty. But the “weapons” in question are of a different nature, because to flee is not to escape. It is rather to create what Deleuze calls runoffs through the cracks of a social system. That is, the creation of forms of life beyond the State and Capital are already weapons, the only weapons worthy of a revolution. (Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet, Dialogues II)
“The true fecundity of an action resides in its very interior. This does not mean that there is no question for us regarding the verifiable efficacy of an action. What it does mean is that the power of the impact of an action resides not in its effects, but in what it itself expresses immediately. What is built on the exclusive basis of effort always ends up collapsing due to exhaustion.” (77)
At the heart of a radical politics of destitution, the aim is not to criticise or attack the institution (symptoms of a desire for it), but our need for it. In the words of Nietzsche, “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster; for if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes back into you.” (Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil) It is to do what the institution is perhaps sought for, and to do whatever it is (fundamentally satisfying perceived basic needs) outside of the institution, or to step beyond it altogether. “The destituent gesture does not oppose the institution, it does not lead a frontal attack against it; the gesture neutralises it, empties it of its substance, it takes a step aside and watches the institution expire.” (79)
[Gloss: “Stepping to one side” in L’an 01 by Jacques Doillon, with Alain Resnais and Jean Rouch, based on the comic strip of the same name by Gébé, published in Politique hebdo, then in Charlie Mensuel and Charlie-Hebdo, from 1970 to 1974
What is at stake here is the very notion of “revolution”: can it be rethought in such a way that it continues to render comprehensible and desirable a certain “political” project, or must it be jettisoned as terminally corrupt or moribund? For the Invisible Committee, the idea remains defensible, but only after a profound re-conceptualisation.
“The traditional revolutionary program was that of regaining control of the world, of expropriating the expropriators, a violent appropriation of what is ours, but of which we have been deprived. However, capital has taken hold of every detail and of every dimension of existence. It makes a world after its own image. From the exploitation of existing forms of life, it has mutated into a total universe. It has configured, equipped and rendered desirable the ways of speaking, of thinking, of eating, of working and of going on vacation, of obeying and of rebelling that are convenient to it. In doing so, it has reduced to very little what one might, in this world, want to appropriate.” (81-2)
But then Nietzsche’s monster rears its head, as the Invisible Committee imagines a duality in its politics/anti-politics of destitution. “On the one hand, there are worlds to make, forms of life to make grow apart from that which reigns, including recuperating what can be in the current state of things, and on the other hand, to attack, to destroy the world of capital. A double gesture that doubles itself again: obviously the worlds that we construct only maintain their distance in relation to capital by their complicity with the fact of attacking and conspiring against it.” (83-4) Without this opposition, confrontation, the construction of new worlds would exhaust itself in sterile activism. “In the destruction is constructed the complicity on the basis of which is constructed the meaning of the destruction. And vice versa.” (84) A double movement then, of creation and destruction, each of which is in turn complicit with the other, each bestowing mutual meaning on the other.
“The destituent gesture is thus desertion and attack, elaboration and plunder, and that from the same gesture. It defies at the same time the accepted alternatives and the standard activism. … It is not a question here of a new social contract, but of a new strategic composition of worlds.” (85)
The setting aside of any new constitution would seem to push away the ambitions of recuperation and novel sovereignty. The destituent gesture is one of withdrawal, but withdrawal is not escape; indeed, no escape is possible. Yet if retreat or self-removal is married to attack, then the latter risks colonising the very gesture of creativity, subjecting it to the vicissitudes of a politics of conflict and war for position and invariably enslaving the creativity of destitution to the logic (masculinist, vanguardist, and so on) of the struggle for hegemony.
This is not an argument for passivity. It is rather an effort to intensify the implications of destitution.
Constituent politics is structured around a conception of political life, distinct from other spheres of life, and even life itself (political bios versus zoe). Political life is then the actualisation of what we as human beings carry with us potentially; an actualisation that thus involves the isolation, suspension from, that which is mere life, something shared with plants and animals. The substance of politics, or political life as a substance, is the realisation of what “man” can be fully, in opposition to all of that and to all of those who must inevitably fall outside of the political order.
It is in this sense that constituent politics is a politics of sovereignty, in the most profound sense: it not only is constitutive of a political authority, but of subjectivities appropriate to that order. Those not suitable are thus to be excluded, marginalised, banned; they are Carl Schmitt’s exception, enemy, those against which sovereignty is defined.
By then bringing the enemy into political life, as they conceive of the latter, as a mode of being integrated into other spheres of life and opposed to other ways of being in the world, the Invisible Committee risks edifying anew the logic of sovereignty precisely when it thought it was freeing politics from it. And the doubly bounded gesture of creativity and destruction only heightens that risk.
Conceptually, we move away from the logic of sovereignty by understanding that the power to be, what one is potentially, is not defined first by what one is or can be actually, but by the power not to be what one can be. As a pianist, I am able to play the piano, but as a pianist, I am someone who first may or may not play the piano. And thus playing the piano is not something that I am condemned to, but something that I “freely” assume, or desire. In the same manner, and in parallel, a political regime is an actualisation of a human community potential, but what defines that political reality is the possibility that the regime can be otherwise or not at all. A sovereign authority is not then the actualisation of a dimension of human nature that can only be made real under institutionalised political authority, but the expression of one form of human community which need not be.
If all of this sounds excessively abstract, what is at stake conceptually is not. To understand that sovereignty is not the necessary realisation of what we are in potentia, that it is only so through the exclusionary violence of the exception, that we are never first merely naked, to be moulded and shaped as civilised, policed, by political power, that this violence is permanent as long as power is caught in sovereignty and that this violence fails permanently because it is not the expression of what any “people” are by nature, then it is possible to begin to heal the rift separating political life from life, and understand that all lives are already expressions of forms of life. It is then in autonomous, self-managed forms of life of growing intensity that lives beyond capital can begin to gain shape.
What thereby gains body however is not to be consumed in the burning flames of a police vehicle or the smashed windows of a bank, or more modestly, in ritualised mass protest. All of these can be recuperated by the spectacle. A far greater power resides in building without banks and police, that is, without the apparatuses of control of capital, to which we so quickly run in times of need.
Stated differently, we must try to imagine a politics of destitution as pulling us away from the concept and practice of politics as war. All war presupposes and creates the divide between friend and enemy, mine and thine; and all sovereignty and property depends on war. To endeavour to live beyond the violent fiction of sovereignty is thus to take us away from property, hierarchical political power and war. To say that such is impossible is to condemn us to the disaster that is our reality. To insist that radical, anti-capitalist politics must battle for the control of power, is to render impotent that politics under the guise of false courage.
Walter Benjamin once wrote that there is nothing more anarchic than the bourgeois order. And Pier Paolo Passolini could put into the mouth of one of the fascists of his film Salò, “True anarchy is of that of power”. Anarchism as a political ideology and practice has always been haunted by the seduction of power and it is by no means historically innocent. It is not then in any oppositional position against that which is, that anarchism will affirm its an-archy. Power in fact feeds on anarchy as its hidden food; it is power’s radical other. It is then and instead when nothing appears more anarchic than the established order that anarchy will free itself from its false master, from power; in such a setting, there will no longer be anything to conquer, to appropriate. The task will be rather to assume that all is “anarchic”, that the State decreed state of exception is permanent, that power is empty except for the gun, and to step away. The aim will not be to become a new power, but to occupy consciously that position where all that is, is understood as a possibility that need not be; that we may always not be what we are and thus that we remake ourselves, endlessly.
“[W]e must recognise that the principal enemy of freedom is not the authoritarianism of others, but our own and unconfessed authoritarianism, above all when one believes oneself to be the depository, the guardian and the most qualified representative of the ideological orthodoxy. … I believe then that the hour has arrived to stand for an anti-authoritarian anarchism, for anarchy and not for anarchism as a sect, in its ivory tower or as a pressure group. … The crucial problem for anarchism today is that of the imposture, of not being an anti-authoritarian, anti-dogmatic, anti-demagogic and anti-bureaucratic anarchism, that of not being open to all anti-authoritarian currents and practices, that of not having freed itself from idols and complexes of persecution. … We all know now that the dilemma is not between spontaneity and organisation, but in finding a form of organisation that does not combat, that does not kill spontaneity, that is sustained from it.” (Octavio Alberola, Revolución o colapso)