Letters

No-Futurism

As a tenured academic I am one of the last of an almost extinct social class – the bourgeois. Unlike the capitalist, who owns capital, the bourgeois is the professional who keeps the superstructures of capitalism going, including those of art and knowledge. Our job is to be a superstructure that reproduces the infrastructure. As such our views are always aligned in some manner with this function.

I mention this by way of framing these notes on the recently translated tract by the Invisible Committee, To Our Friends (Semiotext(e), 2015). To be vulgar-Marxist about it: my class location determines in advance that I will not accept its theses. They are interesting theses, however, and worth a look. This text is not as bracing and astringent as the earlier Invisible Committee text, The Coming Insurrection (Semiotext(e), 2009) which really is a classic of the radical tract genre. The more recent one really does seem to have been written by committee, despite the anti-bureaucratic gestures.

“The world presents itself as an immense network in which the large cities, become metropolises, are no longer anything but platforms of interconnections, entry and exit points – stations.” (174) That’s not where the text starts, although it might. The network form is dominant and irredeemably belongs to the ‘enemy’. The town and country distinction has been abolished. There are now only differentially maintained territories under the sway of metropolitan platforms.

Beneath the disintegrating spectacle of its appearances, this world nevertheless has certain contours. “Its ungovernable appearance helps to make it governable in reality.” (18) The 1% are organized. They don’t fear crises, they even experiment with them. “The remedy is no longer there to put an end to the crisis. On the contrary, the crisis is set off with a view to introducing the remedy.” (23) Power is nihilist, grounded in nothing but its own survival. Its not a crisis of capitalism, so much as its crisis as capitalism.

If one lives long enough one can read many texts over the years that claim some sort of turning point has arrived. The framing of this one suggests a certain urgency. Its authors are “moved by a universal desire to be together that only a universal separation can explain.” (14) They acknowledge that the revolution was defeated and gave rise to a kind of moralistic discourse – even revolt became privatized. The text aims at restoring a certain strategic vision.

To do so it has to insist rhetorically that we all experience nothing but defeated life. Hence we thrill to apocalyptic narratives which give our dead suburban routines a sense of life. One wonders who is really speaking here. To whom is everyday life such total anathema? “The falsity of the entire Western apocalyptic consists in projecting onto the world the mourning we’re not able to do in regard to it. It’s not the world that is lost, it’s we who have lost the world.”(31) And so who is ‘we’?

Is it not the philosophically trained bourgeois subject who so struggles with the everyday commitments and petty bonds? Who wants some more profound being that the quotidian? Who wants to rebel against its own essentially bourgeois situation? One suspects as much in the reflexive gesture with which the Anthropocene is dismissed as a matter of mere calculation. The bourgeois subject, paradoxically, enough wants nothing to do with money or market or adding and subtracting. S/he is ‘above’ all that.

Another paradox: it is not the quantitative aspect of exchange value that is really the problem with it – it’s the qualitative. It’s the unreality of the qualities it quantifies. The great merit of climate science, and other quantitative and empirical earth sciences, is that they try to actually think through the qualities that need to be quantified. Bourgeois thought, in its reaction to its own banal origins, has a knee-jerk reaction against the quantitative, but it mis-perceives the object of its disgust.

The philosophically trained bourgeois subject wants something more noble. It wants to talk, not about mundane things, but things of the spirit, or better yet of ‘vital’ force. Hence: “The exhaustion of natural resources is probably less advanced than the exhaustion of subjective resources.” (33) The subjective is its bailiwick, as it appears to require no specialized knowledge – other than philosophy, of course. From such Olympian heights one can then declare: “The time has come to jump ship, to betray the species.” (34) Is this not the base belief of the philosophically trained bourgeois subject: that it is not part of the herd? It is special; everyone else is a dupe.

The special are those who commit a vital, authentic act, preferably one with some masculine bravado involved. “It is not the people who produce an uprising, it’s the uprising that produces its people.” (44) The insurrection comes not from revolutionary ideology – on that we can all agree – but from a commanding ethical truth. There’s not much mention of empty stomachs, or people fed up with police violence, be it arbitrary or systematic. Insurrection is here a philosophical matter, not a material one. “Ethical truths are… not truths about the world, but truths on the basis of which we dwell therein.” (46) The vital subject is self-legislating.

The other side of this ethical truth is disgust at metropolitan existence – we’re not too far removed from the pastoral side of the French radical tradition here. There is also a slightly alarming if fleeting moment of admiration for the strengths of the ethical bonds sustained by the Islamicists. (See p. 50) Truly, this is a text that plays with fire and doesn’t appear to know the likely consequences.

One has to admit that the critique offered of certain other tactics of opposition are generally correct, even if the alternatives are not particularly appealing. It is indeed the case that fighting against tyrants is not the same as fighting for ‘democracy’, as the western media so often, if selectively, like to maintain. “Western rhetoric is unsurprising.” (53) The spectacle takes control of movements by celebrating them for what they are not.

Sometimes the text appears to be against forms of democratic or constituent power altogether, as in its account of the cynical side of the general assembly, with its boredom and its parade of ‘micro-politicians.’ But there’s something a bit Boy’s Own Adventure about the celebration of the joy of insurrection. Direct democracy is indeed for worriers. The mundane stuff about getting people fed and their laundry done is indeed a hassle. One has to wonder about the hierarchy of values here.

There’s something rather romantic about the appeal to “replace the mechanical regime of argumentation with a regime of truth, of openness, of sensitivity to what is there.” (64) For whom is ‘mechanical’ a bad thing? And something more than the merely romantic lurks in such casual sentences as: “It is precisely because they are moments of truth, where power is laid bare, that insurrections are never democratic.” (64)

This reminds me just a little of the anarchist roots of the Futurists, with their celebration of direct action, their refusal of all representation, their aesthetic of force. Marinetti could have written this: “This is what exhilarated us: the feeling of taking part in, of experiencing, a shared power, one that was unassignable and fleetingly invulnerable.” (218) Who is it that wants, and gets, to experience their bodies as ‘invulnerable.’?

Still, there’s questions worth asking here: Does there have to be government? Does the taking of power not retrospectively constitute the world that appears to call it into existence? What if the state was not the end of the war of all against all but its very origin? To Our Friends is at its strongest as critique.

It is a keen observation that the riot squads prevent the mob from taking over the buildings which appear to house the organs of power, not because they house the organs of power, but because they don’t. Power is elsewhere. How does one occupy an abstraction? “[P]ower is simply no longer that theatrical reality to which modernity accustomed us.” (82)

There’s a belated recognition here that power is now a matter of infrastructure – dare one add that perhaps it always was? That infrastructure now organizes daily life directly. Not surprisingly, the strategies Invisible Committee advocate involve blocking infrastructures. The assumption is that by blocking the flows, a situation can arise for something else? But for what? Is this really something that can scale for 7 billion people? Or are those not forging their own being through insurrection not even actually people? We are no longer in a language here that takes its stand on proletarian internationalism and the weapon of the strike, but rather of the blockage that creates a whoever (non)subjectivity. But that’s a dangerous ideological landscape to navigate.

So there’s a climate crisis – although given the refusal of quantitative knowledge I do not know how the Invisible Committee think they know that. Their response is to block the global system, to “stop time.” (94) They’re not Futurists, more like No-futurists. Refusers of history. Of course there’s good tactical reason to block certain things, like pipelines, oil rigs, chainsaws. But I’m not sure it’s a universal strategy. A planet of 7 billion people is a planet of infrastructure. As Benjamin Bratton once put it, the question is whether this infrastructure is capable of building a qualitatively different one.

The Invisible Committee realize they are behind the game on this. “Obsessed as we are with a political idea of the revolution, we have neglected its technical dimension.” (95) They say they need technical knowledge, just a few pages after dismissing quantitative knowledge. “[S]o long as we can’t do without nuclear power plants and dismantling them remains a business for people who want them to last forever, aspiring to abolish the state will continue to draw smiles.” (95) Indeed.

The scale on which things need to be thought, the complexity and cooperation demanded by complex forms of change – all this is at odds with the demand for a form of authentic life based on getting one’s rocks off through throwing a few rocks. It does not make much sense to talk about “infrastructure warfare.” (98) Infrastructure is not reducible to such a one-dimensional sense of what action in the world can be.

There are, however, certainly infrastructures of subjectivity as well as of the object-world, and Invisible Committee quite rightly are suspicious of them. Facebook is indeed a form of government in actuality and already. Google is indeed a political project, as a power only maps a territory in order to appropriate it. Here like many others they sense the end of political economy as a mode of governance with considerable astuteness.

What they call cybernetic governance is producing a new kind of subject, no longer a ‘political’ one in the old sense. “[P]olitical economy reigned over beings by leaving them free to pursue their interest; cybernetics controls them by leaving them free to communicate.” (111) Cybernetics is however far short of a means of healing metabolic rift. It only locally impedes chaos to produce local enclaves of order, whose very existence may indeed add instability elsewhere. The limits of its ambitions are in its slogans: the ‘smart city’, or the ‘resilient city.’ The rest of the world can go to hell. It will manage the unforeseeable but only as far as the eye can see.

I do appreciate the nod toward the figure of the hacker: “The virtue of the hackers has been to base themselves on the materiality of the supposedly virtual world.” (118) More marxocological thought has had very little to say about such people – dare we call them a class? The received idea is that they are all ‘libertarians.’ Try telling that to Juilan Assange, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning.

Less successful I think is the attempt to force a binary between the hacker and the engineer, as if the former was some kind of artist that the philosophically trained bourgeois subject could appreciate, while the other has eternally to be regarded as a kind of rival. “The hacker pulls techniques out of the technological system in order to free them.” (125) Indeed, but the engineer makes stuff work, and even anarchists depend on whole systems of stuff working. Indeed, even philosophically trained bourgeois subjects depend on such things.

The tack towards cooperation with real technical knowledge is only fleeting in this text, as it would require sharing intellectual legitimacy with others whose world is different in so many ways. It would require some cooperative procedure, which in turn requires, if not a politics, then organization, which in the world of the Invisible Committee is already to be involved in something inauthentic, something that lacks the thrill of confronting power directly.

But perhaps the highest virtue of organizing is its inauthenticity, its forging of languages, gestures, worlds of reference. Perhaps the very falsity of such things is actually to be embraced. But this would require a way of thinking other than the authentic act in conflict with something other. It would involve restoring the figure of labor, as the cooperation in and against nature to produce the means of shared life. Labor is a figure of both cooperation and conflict, indeed where the conflict – with the ruling class – gets in the way of its cooperation.

The Invisible Committee abandon the idea of peace, of which they have no concept other than the state’s. They lack their own sense of what peace or cooperation could be. I think this ends up in very disturbing territory. Look closely at this language: “War is not carnage, but the logic that regulates the contact of heterogeneous powers… If there’s a multiplicity of worlds, if there’s an irreducible plurality of forms of life, then war is the law of their coexistence on earth. … {W]e have to recognize that war is in us – holy war, as René Daumal called it. Peace is neither possible or desirable. Conflict is the very stuff of what exists.” (138) And to further naturalize this philosophical anthropology: “Even our immune system depends on the distinction between friend and enemy…”

Some might see Deleuze and Guattari’s debt to Pierre Clastres here. But that can’t be. Clastres was writing about non-modern peoples in the Amazon, and Deleuze and Guattari were using it to build an historical anthropology to rival that of Engels. What I see is Schmitt, and a rather unthinking reliance on a philosophical anthropology that naturalizes conflict. Sure, ‘war’ here may not mean Blitzkrieg. But it does not exactly exclude the thought of modern war, either. Having abandoned the historical anthropologies of Engels (which is about labor) and Deleuze and Guattari (which is about desire), we’re left with a very one-dimensional view of our species-being: “holy war.” (One might here follow the Situationists and think conflict, or agon, via Johan Huizinga‘s Homo Ludens rather than Schmitt, against whom it eas in part written.)

It is odd that Invisible Committee are clear about why they want to steer clear of the languages of networks and multitudes, as these are part and parcel of power itself. But surely nothing is closer to the heart of power than thinking in terms of war and strategy. In avoiding one kind of complicit thought, they walk right in to another, no matter how much they insist theirs’ a different strategy.

“Engaging with the war that is present, acting strategically, requires that we start from an openness to the situation, that we understand its inner dynamic.” (145) Sure, but without some critical distance from this language, it veers off towards its own kind of masculinist and militarist fantasies. “Let’s leave the radicality worry to the depressives, the Young-Girls, and the losers, then.” (146) Young-Girl has a specialized in-group meaning here, but its not entirely free from a kind of anarcho-bro misogyny. Somebody else can worry about tidying up after.

“It sometimes seems as if revolutionaries are compelled to constitute themselves on the same model as what they’re fighting.” (156) It really would help to think through how this text does exactly that. It is astute enough to grasp how the state produces the anarchist Black Bloc as a kind of negative subject of the state. (This was already the Situationist position back in the seventies.) But perhaps it is the whole set of gestures which try to construct a (non)subject outside of the social and the state that is the problem, not just particular examples of it.

“Perhaps there is no longer a ‘society’ to destroy or persuade.” (171) One could press this further. What if it is not really about ‘biopower’ – a term now absent from this discourse – and never was. What if the state is about securing property, and its investment in producing populations was but a temporary aberration? There’s no social, only governance. But is it really a strategy to push the nihilism of today’s forms of power even further?

This Invisible Committee text sometimes accepts as fundamental a dialectical friend-enemy relation as primary – see above. And sometimes not. The text is inconsistent. Sometimes it wants rather to secede, not from the nation – as the international worker’s movement does – but from the whole geography of territories now constituted as a network of metropolitan platforms. They recognize the danger in this. Localism is not an alternative, but actually what globalization produces. Yet at other times it comes close to celebrating the local as site of blockage.

There’s merit in the rather cynical notes on the anti-globalization movement as a kind of petit-bourgeois revolt, which merely anticipated the proletarianization of that class. There was indeed something a bit hollow about the spectacle of counter-summits. But the problem is to critique counter-globalization as still caught within the logic of globalization while advocating a counter-strategic thought that can’t help but be caught in strategy as a key piece of the whole inheritance of cybernetic power.

The text rather lovingly describes the moment of the squares, the global cycle of occupations, where in the absence of the state, people cooperated and worked out how to organize themselves. Here the text reverts to a more classic anarchist philosophical anthropology, quite at odds with the Schmittian one earlier, in which in the absence of power our species-being is cooperative. Here, quite contrary to those earlier passages, war is an historical not a natural condition: “the war of all against all is not what comes when the state is no longer there, but what the state skillfully organizes for as long as it exists.” (233)

This is the sort of inconsistency that happens when one writes by committee, when a certain non-truth, non-immediacy, has to enter in order to thread different labors together. The form of the text bears me out here even when its words want something else. As with any committee report, one just pick out the bits one connects to best.

Anarchists just don’t really do historical thought. In the last pages we’re back in a philosophical anthropology, if not a mythic one: Georges Dumézil’s tripartite scheme of conceptual personae of priest, warrior, and producer. For us Marxists, even us ‘bad’ ones, only the last of these really matter. Producers are who are basic to species-being, and production has historical stages rather than an essence, be it ‘war’ or something else. The matrix of social forms is not reducible either to agon or love. And as for Dumézil: his presence in this text without comment does not add to our confidence in its political judgment.

The text concludes with an appeal for the unity of the priest, warrior and producer, or ideologically, of spirit, force, and riches. It criticizes deviations which privilege only one: the force of the Red Brigades, the priestly casuistry of the Situationist theorists, or the budding entrepreneurialism of the Italian social centers.

As a good bourgeois, I’m reluctant to dismiss the role of the priests entirely, even though a consistent labor point of view is going to see us mostly as parasitic. But I am going to refuse to acknowledge the warriors, and certainly to be suspicious of self-appointed warriors of a people who exist only when called into being by ronin-style insurrectionary acts of authentic being. As the Situationists insisted, the sort of temptation to which the Futurists succumbed is a variable of the labor movement gone wrong. Which is not to say that’s what we have with this text, only that in abandoning the working class, its internationalism, and the cooperative practice of social labor, one ends up in some rather difficult terrain.

“A friend wrote: ‘What is happiness? It’s the feeling that our power is increasing – that an obstacle is being overcome.” (237) Well, that’s happiness for anyone for whom the will to power and a friend-enemy metaphysics is a given. And its not a helpful line of affect in a time when it has to be acknowledged that most movements of the people are in retreat, and have to forego the pleasure of such an affect.

These days I think the real comrades are those who hold things together, who struggle for affective, intellectual and material gifts that sustain a bit of life. Who accept that doing so is not compatible with the pleasures of an authentic self. Who stick to the Grand Old Cause even as out losses pile up. Who acknowledge the scale and complexity of the world-historical situation. False comrades are those who are in it because they think we are winning. True ones are the ones who stick even though it is clear we have lost. This is why there are very few old comrades. Fewer still with a clear sense of what it means that we lost. Blessed are those who do not give too strong a sense of false hope.

McKenzie Wark

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