“The sphere of political representation has come to a close,” announce the Invisible Committee early on in their short book The Coming Insurrection. All we can expect from the political parties is empty posturing, lifeless formulae of statistical correlation. “From left to right it’s the same nothingness striking the pose of an emperor or savior, the same sales assistants adjusting their discourse according to the findings of the latest surveys” (23). Against such empty theatrics, the book argues instead for the virtues of obscurity and opacity, for “turning the anonymity to which we’ve been relegated to our advantage” (113). “Sabotage every representative authority,” the book advises, not least also “the unions and the entire micro-bureaucracy whose job it is to control the struggle” (121). Against the politics of recognition (“from whom do we seek recognition?” it asks ), The Coming Insurrection promotes the “joy” of “being nobody” (114).
No doubt this is why its authors choose to remain invisible, though the French domestic security services have alleged that they are in some way connected to the so-called “Tarnac Nine.” Vice Magazine’s ”Vive Le Tarnac Nine” is a good account both of the tiny village of Tarnac in Central France, and of the small group that briefly made it famous: “young people with a history as squatters and anarchist activists who had left the bustling Parisian metropolis to go and live in a forsaken village in mountains that had been, historically, a site of guerrilla warfare.” When, in late 2008, police discovered an attempt to interfere with the high-speed railway lines that pass nearby, nine of these dissidents (who also happened to run the village shop and bar) were rounded up and put on trial for supposed terrorist offences. The Coming Insurrection was presented in court as exhibit A for the prosecution. All of which ensured, of course, that these nobodies became more like somebodies while the book itself was soon more visible than ever.
The notion that this is some kind of terrorist handbook, however, is frankly silly. It’s much more interesting–and serious–than that. It’s unabashedly Communist (“All power to the communes!” it ends ), but not conventionally Marxist, though it does endeavour to revive the concept of political economy. Its critique of capitalism has less to do with any concept of exploitation that with the forms of subjectivity that the labour relation engenders. For production today is not so much a matter of the creation of commodities for the market, than it is concerned with the construction of the self, as both producer and consumer: “Producing oneself is becoming the dominant occupation of a society where production no longer has an object” (49). What we sell is “oneself rather than one’s labor power, to be remunerated not for what one does but for what one is, for our exquisite mastery of social codes” (50). This is the truth of “human capital,” the outcome of a never-ending manufacturing process, which occupies our so-called leisure time as much as our work time, in which “you are yourself a little business, your own boss, your own product” (51). In short, the problem of representation is not merely a question of political theatre, but also of everyday life as we are endlessly enjoined to polish our CVs, our social media profiles, and make ourselves adaptable, employable. We are being consumed, or rather emptied out, by our own self-representations. Those who can’t make it–or, more precisely, those who cannot make themselves–are left on the scrapheap. This is capitalism’s own mechanism of terror, by which “on the one hand, ghosts are brought to life, and on the other, the living are left to die. This is the properly political function of the contemporary production apparatus” (51).
What then is to be done? Form communes, of course. “Communes come into being when people find each other, get on with each other, and decide on a common path” (101). This also involves an exodus from the regime of the individualized self, but what counts is ultimately what they affirm rather than what they might (somewhat incidentally) negate. What matters and what defines a commune is “the density of the ties at [its] core” (102). And this in turn is what the book, perhaps surprisingly, describes in terms of a form of truth, for “there’s a truth beneath every gesture, every practice, every relationship, and every situation. [. . .] An isolated being who holds fast to a truth will inevitably meet others like her. In fact, every insurrectional process starts from a truth that we refuse to give up” (97-98). In contrast, then, to a revolutionary tradition that tends to stress sacrifice, here it is tenacity that is the ultimate virtue. And while both sacrifice and tenacity may be forms of selflessness, here that is because what is refused is the imposition of a self (or an injunction to self-fashioning) that takes us away from a truth that is always impersonal, shared, held in common.
This discourse of truth may seem strangely staid, perhaps even quasi-religious (fundamentalist?). It’s not what we usually expect of contemporary French philosophy–and interestingly, The Coming Insurrection also features a short but sharp critique of “postmodernist thinkers” for promoting a “total absence of certitude.” “Western imperialism,” we’re told, “is the imperialism of relativism, of the ‘It all depends on your point of view’” (92). At which point the danger is that the Invisible Committee, like denizens of hippie communes in the 1960s, fall into the celebration of an exotic and largely imaginary version of non-Western certitudes, perhaps centered around a localist relation to the Earth or Nature. But the truths affirmed here are always relationships rather than essences, and however much the book argues for blocking the flows that define the capitalist metropolis (hence allegedly the link between this book and the sabotage of the French railway network) it has little time for “local slowness and rootedness” (109). A commune is not a withdrawal or retreat (a “return to the land,” say); it involves taking up arms, if silently and invisibly, such that “the expansive movement of commune formation should surreptitiously overtake the movement of the metropolis” (109).
The Invisible Committee’s subsequent publication, To Our Friends, opens with the declaration that “The insurrections have come, finally.” And indeed it’s true that the years following the 2007 appearance of The Coming Insurrection have seen not only the Arab Spring but also the rise of movements such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain. But are these constituted by communes as envisaged here? Too often–not unlike Corbyn in the UK, as well as Sanders and even Trump in the USA–what they claim is in fact to reinvigorate political representation, to make hegemony fit for purpose once more. As such, we are still some way from this book’s “dream of an age that is equal to our passions” (84).