The Utopian Catastrophism of Insurrectionary Politics

As the tide of the Occupy recedes an assessment of the limitations of certain strains of insurrectionary politics is called for.

Contributed by Marla Zubel Graduate Student in Cultural Studies and Comparatie Literature at University of Minnesota
February 21, 2013
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#OccupyThought

Marla Zubel

The Utopian Catastrophism of Insurrectionary Politics

 

From whatever angle you approach it, the present offers no way out. This is not the least of its virtues.1

 

The 2007 publication of The Coming Insurrection2 was greeted enthusiastically by the far Left in part because it seemed to offer a radical departure from variously insufficient forms of utopian anti-globalization politics (particularly among its North American readership after the 2009 English publication). But several years on now, especially from the perspective of the waxing and waning of the Occupy movement, it is increasingly possible to understand this highly influential work in terms of both its continuities and discontinuites with the movements out of which it grew. The insurrectionary politics it fostered greatly influenced the direction of certain militant wings of the Occupy movement (particularly Occupy Oakland) and now as the tide of the Occupy insurrection recedes an assessment of its limitations is called for.

In the early 2000s the movement was hungry for new political direction. Since Genoa 2001, counter-summits appeared increasingly worthlessly rehearsed. September 11th seemed to shift the modality of 'Empire' (from the violence of economic policies to the violence of war), and the inability of mass protests to prevent the Iraq war was not only demoralizing but called for a kind of referendum on protest politics altogether. Ever-increasing environmental degradation and climate-related catastrophes, alongside the lingering fallout of the 2008 financial collapse, provoked a sense of urgency and desperation. At precisely the moment the movement began to concede it's own irrelevance, rather than interpret the present impasse as a cause for immobilization and despair The Coming Insurrection (referred to from here on as TCI) insisted defiantly in the work's opening lines that “the present offers no way out,” and thus called for incorporating and retooling widespread left pessimism to the left's advantage. But however novel this provocation seemed to be at the time, one would be hard-pressed to argue for its originality. From Fredric Jameson's invocation of the now cliché sentiment that it is “easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism”3 to Francis Fukuyama's post-Cold War neo-liberal triumphalism4; from legitimate left-wing anxieties about eco-devastation and climate change to Christian visions of Armageddon and so-called Maya end times prophecies; whether an impasse or the end of history, the end everywhere appears to be nigh. While its writers, the anonymous “Invisible Committee”, provocatively insist upon the label of communism5 for their line of thought, and have thus productively opened up space in for renewed identification with this term in contemporary movements, the underlying philosophy of the work, which posits the unlikely marriage of apocalypticism and radical politics, has much more in common with certain strains of early 20th century anarchism (of the Italian Futurist variety) and contemporary anarcho-primitivism (the anti-human politics of green anarchism has since the 1990s proselytized to a mostly West Coast audience with all the fire and brimstone of a Christian fundamentalist preacher hyped-up on Revelations). And while the sentiment is not unique to TCI, what is perhaps surprising, is the time and place of its re-emergence. In the first decade of the millennium, the urbanization of anti-civilization politics, the likes of which have not been seen since the early 20th century anti-modernity of not only certain anarchist tendencies but of conservative thinkers like Ortega y Gassett, found a home once again in the late capitalist metropolis. And much like it's earlier iterations, contemporary urban catastrophism is easily adaptable to right-wing or left-wing political positions. In this adherents to TCI's program should find cause for concern. If TCI is guilty of this kind of political ambiguity it is due primarily to its attitude toward the future, which at best insists upon an a-temporal revolution, and at worst, has already willingly exiled itself from the terrain of the political, ultimately to the benefit of the that which it purports to resist.

TCI's is a politics of pure negation – one which waivers back and forth between direct confrontation with the state and the forces of capital (although much more so the former), and utopian autonomous lifestylism. It is one which rejects not only a more rigorous examination of the determinate negations of the “system” but also stops short of naming that system precisely, in favor of a generalized anti-civilization politics and never-ending insurrectionary event. While, in historical materialist terms the TCI asserts that modern civilization produces “the means of its own destruction” (TCI, 61), it is a total destruction called for in TCI rather than an overcoming of social contradictions of capitalist society. The future imagined by the writers of TCI is a dystopian one, whose only possibility for redemption is to be found in the temporary ecstasy of confrontation with the machinery of the state and capital. In place of a revolutionary materialist dialectic, TCI offers an unmediated arrested dialectic of resistance. If this is the new face of communism, it is a communism thoroughly de-fanged. Either by design, or by lack of clarity, from whatever angle you approach it, The Coming Insurrection offers not way out.

But to reproach this work for nihilism is perhaps to take its opening lines – “the present offers no way out” – too much at face value – that is, in isolation – rather than to read them immanently in relation to the overall tendency of the work, which is in fact, not simply one of nihilism, but also utopianism. In light of this we should be careful not to posit the dytopic and utopic as antinomies. Fredrich Jameson's work on the role of the dystopic in science-fiction6 is instructive along these lines, for according to Jameson the utopian is, “sometimes to be found in positions explicitly characterized as 'anti-Utopian'” (425). Reading the utopian moment within the anti-utopian provides a useful approach to understanding the tension between catastrophe and possibility found in the pages of TCI. But if one is, in fact, able to find traces of the utopian in the anti-utopian, this should not serve to redeem the anti-utopian, as such, but rather to point to a fundamental political weakness shared by both of these supposedly oppositional positions. For whether TCI is interpreted as utopian or anti-utopian makes little difference in terms of the question of its usefulness for contemporary movements, as both positions posit a radical break with the present rather than the sublation of current social relations. “There will be no social solution to the present situation,” TCI argues, “No problems framed in social terms admit of a solution (25-26). Thus however socially determined the apocalypse might be, the total negation heralded by the insurrectionary event leaves little room for the category of the social, as such.

The inability of the utopian (and thus, also the dystopian) to think in terms of the social is a central concern in Jameson's 2009 essay, “Utopia as Replication.”7 In this work, Jameson draws our attention to the contemporary near impossibility of thinking utopia in terms of quantity, that is, on a large scale, rather than the more predominate “small is beautiful” mentality that emerged from the ashes of the anti-globalization movement. Here Jameson provides a useful diagnosis of the Left's all too common isolationist strategies:

"Surviving Utopian visions…mostly center on the anti- or post-communist conviction that small is beautiful, or even that growth is undesirable, that the self- organization of communities is the fundamental condition of Utopian life, and that even with large-scale industry the first priority is self-management and cooperation: in other words, that what is essential about Utopianism is not the ingenious economic scheme…so much as it is the collectivity as such" (414).

From squats, to cooperatives to worker-run businesses, the alternative space as revolutionary strategy has dominated far Left discourse since at least the last several decades of the 20th century. Whether envisioned as a network of so-called autonomous spaces facilitating varying degrees of anti-capitalist drop-out culture, or spaces from which to organize more direct assaults on the forces of capital and the state (often in the form of convergence centers for counter-summit demonstrations, and more recently, city squares and plazas), these spaces have tended to become less a means to a revolutionary ends than ends in themselves – sites of resistance by way of their very existence. And while the encampments of the Occupy Wall Street protests originally sought to break down the bearers between the wall-off autonomous space and the general public, this formation too, eventually succumbed to prioritizing its self-existence above all other aims. But for Jameson the self-sustaining presentism of such political practices are to be understood not as a weakness but as their source of strength, for he writes:

"Utopia is no longer in time…Utopia as the absolute negation of that fully realized Absolute which our system has attained cannot now be imagined as lying ahead of us in historical time as an evolutionary or even revolutionary possibility. Indeed it cannot be imagined at all; and one needs the languages and figurations of physics – the conceptions of closed worlds and a multiplicity of unconnected yet simultaneous universes – in order to convey what might be the ontology of this now so seemingly abstract and empty idea. Yet it is not to be grasped in the logic of religious transcendence either, as some other world after or before this one, or beyond it. It would be best, perhaps, to think of an alternate world – better to say the alternate world, our alternate world – as one contiguous with ours but without any connection or access to it" (612).

Thus, while Jameson begins with a critique of small-is-beautiful radical politics, his does not provide a fundamental challenge to the theoretical underpinnings of such a position; his corrective is a matter of quantity rather than quality. Jameson, seemingly unconcerned with the crippling stasis of such an in-itself politics, upholds the particular temporality of so-call “de-linked” spaces and wishes only to reproduce them on a mass scale. However at odds they may at first appear to be, Jameson's efforts to work out a conception of a large-scale a-temporal utopia is also a major concern for TCI and other insurrectionary currents within and without Occupy. If, a decade into the millennium, another world seems possible at all, for Jameson it to be found in the “always already” utopian desires expressed in mass-based cultural phenomena like Walmart, while TCI finds signs of it in the already self-destructing world of the apocalypse, for the possibility of a new world presupposes the very end of the world, as such. Provocative as both positions may be, they equally perpetuate nothing short of a myth of resistance.

The insurrectionists of the TCI are rightfully anxious about falling into the quagmire of left irrelevance, and correct for this, superficially at least, but putting forward a politics not of de-linking but of militant confrontation. But insofar this politics resists political organizing in favor of a fetishization of spontaneity and eventfulness it tends more often to reinforce the leftists self-ghettoization that it claims to reject. In fact, both Jameson's utopia and TCI's dystopia are, in different ways, indebted to the theoretical conceptions of a “multitude” already consolidating itself (albeit through its very non-consolidation) that were especially fashionable a decade ago.8 Theories of the multitude, such as those put forward by Hardt and Negri, by positioning themselves against so-called Hegelian developmental time in favor of an revolutionary now, sought, in part, to explode the concept of the revolutionary subject to make visible and viable the process of political transformation happening before our eyes. In the processes, however, the criteria by which to determine whether the Left is winning or losing, was discarded. In light of this, the anti-globalization movements at the end of the 20th century were certain that “another world was possible,” but no one seemed to be able to agree on what that new world would be, or worse, what precisely about the old world had to go. No particular revolutionary subject or standpoint could be posited in advance (if only in order to prevent the World Social Forum's patchwork of resistance from unraveling under sectarian strain). Attempts to parse out certain distinctions between the revolutionary subjectivity of the proletariat, the landless peasantry of the global south and the post-industrial unemployed of the north tended to be reformulated as important, but nonetheless often obfuscatory, critiques of first-world privilege. Furthermore, the anti-capitalist struggle tended to direct itself more against transnational corporations than against capitalism as such. We saw this again tendency again most recently in the Occupy movement where the populist anger of the “99 %” directed its anger primarily at big banks and the Federal Reserve. Interestingly, both the d.i.yers and the insurrectionary current within Occupy, equally resisted all attempts at consolidation and platform formation. In different ways, both of these tendencies (and they are far from mutually exclusive) argued that the crisis demands not demands but the post-political, anti-political exile of the political, as such. Though the insurrectionist distinguish themselves from the utopianism of de-linked collective spaces through their embrace of violent confrontation, at a theoretical level at least, it is plain to see that theirs is also a politics of retreat.

In the current moment, the anti-politics of the insurrectionist, captured by such statements as TCI's insistence that the present offers no way out, reads seductively as a position of realism. But if the present offers no way out, that is, if it is not understood as already containing not only the seeds of its own demise but also those of its own transformation, what does offer a way out of the impasse? At first the answer would seem to be, nothing. According to TCI, the collapse of civilization is immanent, “The catastrophe is not coming, it is here. We are already situated within the collapse of civilization” (TCI, 96). But TCI also posits the present as a source possibility (“…the present offers no way out. This is not the least of its virtues”). This, one could say, is the text at its most seemingly dialectical, the utopian within the dystopian. However, according to TCI it is only from the complete destruction of the present world that a radically new one can emerge. And the only lever for such a transformation, they seem to suggest, is the blind force of the insurrectionary event. What comes after is to be determined later. The destructive character, to borrow a term from Walter Benjamin, “knows only one watchword: make room. And only one activity: clearing away [….] he has few needs, and the least of them is to know what will replace what has been destroyed.”9

A closer examination of the text reveals the political shortcomings of such a position. In a chapter on environmental degradation, the crisis itself is presented as the condition of possibility for some form of escape from, if not transcendence of, that crisis:

"Let us suffer from some great social disruption and some great “return to savagery of the population,” a “planetary threat,” the “end of civilization!” Whatever. Any loss of control would be preferable to all the crisis management scenarios they envision…What makes the crisis desirable is that in the crisis the environment ceases to be the environment. We are forced to reestablish contact, albeit a potentially fatal one, with what's there, to rediscover the rhythms of reality…the only realistic option is to…take advantage of every collapse in the system to increase our own strength" (81-82).

 

The crisis is desirable because it pulls the breaks on the apparatuses of destruction, making impossible their prolongation, and thus opening up at least the possibility for a better world – a world which will be made possible, it seems, by the exercise of a quasi Nietzschean will to power by those willing and able to “take advantage of every collapse in the system.” But the organization (and reorganization) of the world quickly becomes mythologized in this formulation. The crisis, although created by human hands, has run amok and, according to TCI is now entirely beyond human control. Our only hope is to reestablish contact with an “environment” that is no longer “the environment” in order to rediscover the essence of reality which has been obfuscated by the appearance of civilization. In this way, TCI posits a fantasy of a return to the natural “rhythms” of reality, in place of any attempt to actually alter the course of global devastation. It insist upon the social causes of the problem, but simultaneously denies its social solution. From the perspective of communism, this is not only an illogical position, but a profoundly un-revolutionary one.

Furthermore, it is unclear who precisely stands to benefit from this crisis. Who is supposed to find ways to increase their “strength” from the “collapse in the system” and who stands to face the “fatal” results of “reestablishing contact” with the environment? Certainly the ability to take advantage of crisis in the manner put forward by TCI depends a great deal upon where one is situated in that crisis. Nowhere is the inadequacy of such utopian catastrophism more painfully apparent than in TCI's premature assessment of autonomous relief efforts in New Orleans. “In the apocalyptic atmosphere [after Hurricane Katrina], life is reorganizing itself” (83) they write. And indeed a certain reorganization has taken place, but not the autonomous one they envisioned. Without disparaging the important work of organizations like Common Ground and The People's Hurricane Relief Fund, it is important for us all to acknowledge that their “daily resistance to the clean-sweep operation of government bulldozers, which are trying to turn that part of the city into a pasture for property developers” (83), has ultimately proven to be little match for the deftness with which the forces of capital reorganize life in the “apocalyptic atmosphere” of crisis10. We should celebrate resistance in all its forms, whether successful or otherwise, but we should also not delude ourselves about our own effectiveness.

The example of New Orleans is an but one expression of the relationship between insurrectionary politics and the tendency towards de-linked collectivities, which ultimately prove ineffectual in resisting capitalist exploitation on any meaningful level. Another, more central to TCI's politics, is the insistence on the importance of “the commune.” The Invisible Committee offers a very particular take on this myth-word of revolution. A commune is not an organization or a social milieu, but rather a group of “friends” that “decide upon a common path…

"Communes…accept being what they are, where they are. And if possible, a multiplicity of communes…will displaces the institutions of society: family, school union, sports club, etc…A commune forms every time a few people, freed of their individual straitjackets, decide to rely only on themselves and measure their strength against reality. Every wildcat strike is a commune; every building occupied collectively and on a clear basis is a commune…Every commune seeks to be its own base…it seeks to break all economic dependency and all political subjugation" (TCI, 101-102).

 

The commune then, while resisting the atomization of the individual in everyday life under post-industrial capitalism, is also radically decentralized and walled-off from the outside world as it attempts to break all ties to the economic and social reality. In TCI the commune, first and foremost enacts a form of resistance by the very fact if its existence, “It's what makes us say 'we,' and makes that an event” (TCI, 101). But importantly this “we” does not refer to a coming into revolutionary class consciousness. It is an “event” that breaks from reality and then reorganizes itself in the cracks that open up as a result of this break. But rather than just maintaining their boundaries the communes, they claim, are able to significantly confront the state by way of disengaging from it. “Local self-organization superimposes its own geography over the state cartography, scrambling and blurring it: it produces its own secession” (TCI, 108-109). So, while the commune sets up its boundaries against the outside world it also must expand spatially. It must “create territories. Multiply zones of opacity” (TCI, 107). And the purpose of these zones is to “free up the most time for the most people” (104). Time firstly, for the practice of non-alienated social relations on the commune, and secondly, for participation in the insurrectionary event.

The insurrection is coming, but what is the insurrection exactly? As a provisional answer one might say that the insurrection is an event, or a series of events, which, like the commune, appears not to be a means to an ends but an ends in itself. The insurrection points to nothing beyond itself. It is the event of its own ungovernability. It is for this reason the authors of TCI write:

"We can't help but delight in the fits of anger and disorder wherever they erupt..All the incivilities of the streets should become methodical and systematic, converging in a diffuse, effective guerrilla war that restores us to our ungovernability, our primordial unruliness…rage and politics should never have been separated" (TCI, 110-111).

 

Like Sorel's general strike11, which also calls for the ceaseless quasi-apocalyptic transformation of society, the insurrection fights only for its continuation, and is thus decidedly lacking in specific political content. Or, like the metaphysical ontology of Artaud's “Theater of Cruelty”12 the insurrection allows for the spectacular release of “primordial unruliness” against various aspects of bourgeois conformism (The fact that insurrectionary theories like Sorel's have historically been appropriated by fascism and other right-wing movements will be dealt with momentarily). The insurrection's conception of time, like the “general strike” and “theater of cruelty,” is a static one. Insurrectionary events are removed from a dynamic revolutionary process and signal instead the time of capitalism brought to an abrupt end. Although in TCI the insurrection is uni-directional in so far as it is said to be “coming,” once it begins, time is brought to a standstill. With a nod to that famous graffiti of the May events, the last page of the book reads, it is “impossible to say whether it has been months or years since the 'events' began” (135). Refusing to deal directly with the intrinsically transitory nature of insurrectionary events, the Invisible Committee writes, “The goals of insurrection is to become irreversible. It becomes irreversible when you've defeated both authority and the need for authority, property and the taste for appropriation, hegemony and the desire for hegemony” (130-131). “Hegemony,” here is rejected as authoritarian (the point for Gramsci, of course, was not to do away with hegemony, as such, but for the subaltern classes to overthrow bourgeois hegemony and become hegemonic themselves). The insurrection must be left open, resisting closure in time and consolidation (by a class) in space. Thus, despite its claims to communism, in TCI, the “standpoint of the proletariat”13 or any other standpoint for that matter is nowhere to be found. TCI justifies its anti-class consciousness by arguing that capitalism has all but done away with the working class:

"[Labor] can no longer consolidate itself as a force, being outside the center of production process and employed to plug the holes of what has not yet been mechanized…today work is tied less to the economic necessity of producing goods than to the political necessity of producing producers and consumers and of preserving by any means necessary the order of work" (48-49).

 

While such a diagnosis of the post-industrial economies of the West may offer interesting insights into the role of work as a means of social control, to declare the worker entirely outside the production process and therefore irrelevant to the revolutionary transformation of that process, is not only to deny the on-going economic necessity of labor in its variously outsourced forms, but also to obfuscate the material relations of capitalism by way of mystifying production, or, what's worse, uncritically reproducing the fetishization of the labor commodity. This should not be surprising however, for in the generalized climate of catastrophe put forward by TCI, the enemy is authority as such, and not the determinate negation of capitalism by a class, or any other kind of social formation for that matter.

An almost hundred year-old debate between Lenin and Kautsky provides in interesting entry point for analyzing TCI's absolute rejection of, and fetishization of authority, over and above its critique of capitalism and, as such, helps to explain its ability to be easily appropriated by the radical right. In Lenin's polemic against Karl Kautsky in The State and Revolution14, he exposes the revolutionary limits of pure negation and its potentially counter-revolutionary consequences.

When Kautsky writes, “We can safely leave the solution of the problem of the proletarian dictatorship to the future,” Lenin argues that such an unwillingness to deal with the practical problems of the revolution results in the deformation not only of Marxism but of the revolution itself, “At present the opportunists ask nothing better than to quite safely leave to the future all fundamental questions of the tasks of the proletarian revolution” (Lenin, 353). Lenin goes on to accuse the anarchists of refusing to think through the contradictions of the state in favor of an oversimplified un-dialectical negation. Characterizing the anarchist position, Lenin writes:

"'We must think only of destroying the old state machine; it is no use probing into the concrete lessons of earlier proletarian revolutions and analyzing what to put in the place of what has been destroyed, and how,' argues the anarchist (the best of the anarchists, of course, and not those who, following the Kropotkins and Co., trail behind the bourgeoisie). Consequently, the tactics of the anarchist become the tactics of despair instead of a ruthlessly bold revolutionary effort to solve concrete problems while taking into account the practical conditions of the mass movement" (362).


  

The point here is not to uncritically validate Lenin's “bold revolutionary efforts” but it is at least to insist on the need for revolutionary responsibility. For the continual refusal to think through the material complexities of revolutionary strategy in favor of arousing the purely negating force of the insurrection, may prove not only strategically insufficient, but the political neutral “tractics of despair” might prive equally seductive to the far Left as to the far Right.15

The easy slippage from Left libertarianism to Right libertarianism is observable throughout much of the 20th century, and American ideologies of rugged individualism have long provided fertile breeding ground for anti-government sentiments and the idealization of “small is beautiful” style capitalism. The presidential campaigns of Republican Ron Paul (and the recent participation of Ron Paul supporters in the Occupy movement) backed enthusiastically by those self-identifying as belonging to both the Left and the Right, is but the most recent manifestation of this libertarian confusion. But this kind of political ambiguity is nothing new. Both Sorel and Blanqui were taken up enthusiastically by a young Mussolini, whose Nietzsche-inspired 'socialism' made for an easy transition to fascist politics. In Critique of Everyday Life Vol. 216, Henri Lefebvre offers the term “historical drift” for explaining tendency for revolutionary situations and positions to be blown off track. “[Historical drift is] the gap between effective actions and intentions, and the result of events provoked by tactics and strategies…After turmoil comes calm, drift, and the divisions and gaps” (129-130). While TCI would like to insist that, “In truth, there is no gap between what we are, what we do, and what we are becoming” (TCI, 15), even the most revolutionary intentions may prove to have reactionary effects. If the recent appeal of dystopianism in insurrectionary politics may be understood, at least in part, as the historical drift of a Left culture of autonomous utopianism, then TCI should also be wary of historical drift towards right-wing politics.

With this in mind, it is useful to remember that the anti-civilization politics of TCI is part of from a long history of 19th and 20th century anxieties around industrialization. In TCI, nightmarish descriptions of alienated life in the modern metropolis give way to rather romantic pastoral desires, “Our dependence on the metropolis – on its medicine, its agriculture, its police – is so great at present that we can't attack it without putting ourselves in danger” (TCI, 106). What is at stake here is not so much a guerrilla fighting strategy of taking to the hills, but rather a retreat from the metropolis for the cultivation of self-sufficiency. “We must start today, in preparation for the days when we'll need more than just a symbolic portion of our nourishment and care (TCI, 107). The intent then is to create a self-sustained space outside the metropolis in which to learn survival skills, as well as from which to attack the forces of the state and capital congealed in the metropolis. If other forms of utopian de-linking wished to wall themselves off from the world, insurrectionary de-linking is unique in that it aims at intentional confrontation with the metropolis in the event of insurrection, but imagines a space free of capitalist contamination from which to plot and regroup. It is in part, this self-sufficient survivalist twist on the insurrection that makes possible TCI's dismissive attitude towards humanity's future. The friendship-group commune has found do-it-yourself, alternative solutions to meeting life's basic needs (not so unlike the Christian fundamentalist back-to-the-lander stockpiling canned good and ammunition in preparation for Armageddon) and so should you.

The rejection of the modern city and nostalgia for the less alienated life of the countryside is by no means a necessarily Left sentiment. In “Utopia as Replication” Jameson writes of Heidegger's disgust for the urban collectivity of modern life. According to Jameson,

"This ideology expresses a horror of the new industrial city with its new working and white- collar classes, its mass culture and its public sphere, its standardization and its parliamentary systems; and it often implies a nostalgia for the older agriculturalist ways of life” (426).

Might TCI's rejection of mass-based political movements and the modern metropolis, then, be read not necessarily (or at least not only) as a Left-wing position but also as a potentially reactionary one? That the industrial (and post-industrial) city may indeed contain elements of the dystopic is not a matter of dispute here. What matters is the political response to these industrial horrors. Of alienated life in the metropolis TCI writes, “It's a paradox that the places thought to be the most uninhabitable turn out to be the only ones still in some way inhabited. An old squatted shack still feels more lived in than the so-called luxury apartments” (TCI, 55). When in the name of an indictment of bourgeois decadence, TCI romanticizes poverty as somehow more authentic and alive than their bourgeois counterparts, it not only betrays a more rigorous understanding of alienated life under capitalism but also projects utopian desires backwards rather than towards a future free of poverty and precarity. Once again, the way out of the impasse of the present appears not as a dialectical transformation into the future but rather a regressive total destruction of “civilization” in favor of the more “authentic” life of the shantytown.

In Destruction of Reason17 Lukács writes of Nietzsche's anti-civilization politics, for whom a revival of barbarity provides the only means of saving mankind. Lukács observes that “after subjective idealism and irrationalism had triumphed over Hegel, bourgeois philosophy became incapable of any dialectical linking of becoming and being, freedom and necessity; it could express their mutual relationship only as an insoluble antagonism or an eclectic amalgam.”18 TCI is equally incapable of such dialectical linking. The “eclectic amalgam” in the pages of TCI has produced a Frankenstein monster of contemporary American anti-civilization politics (of the likes of John Zerzan and Ted Kaczynski19) combined with French political thought (especially theories of the event) and interwar avant-garde ecstatic destruction – a theoretical deformity that is at turns both incomprehensible and inconsistent.

Of its many inconsistencies TCI, like much contemporary political thought, is plagued by that supposedly indeterminate and problematic category: the human. According to TCI, on the one hand, civilization in its current form results in the total denial, or impossibility, of humanity – an analysis of alienation that seems to have much in common with the humanism of the young Marx in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. But, on the other hand, these elements of humanism in TCI are immediately negated by the enthusiasm with which the Invisible Committee greets catastrophe. In History and Class Consciousness20, Lukács makes an important distinction between Marxist and non-Marxist versions of humanism in terms of mediation. While many non-Marxists have recognized how capitalism violates the human, Marxist humanist positions, Lukács argues, must possess correct knowledge of the present so as not to mistake the symptom for the disease.

"For otherwise, any description will inevitably succumb to the dilemmas of empiricism and utopianism, of voluntarism and fatalism, even though it may give an accurate account of matters of detail. At best it will not advance beyond crude facticity on the one hand, while on the other it will confront the immanent course of history with alien and hence subjective and arbitrary demands" (Lukács, 191).

Following Lukács, it is possible to see how TCI may provide a compelling, if not graphic, description of the state of the world and yet fall short in its strategic response – offering only the arbitrary demand of insurrection which confronts history as something alien and thus beyond saving. Lukács rightly identifies the counter-revolutionary logic of such a position, which reproduces “the inhumanity of class society on a metaphysical and religious plane” (190). The ‘revolutionary’ utopianism of such views,” he claims, “cannot break out of the inner limits set to this undialectical ‘humanism'” (191).

From nihilism to utopianism to “undialectical humanism,” accusing the theoretical framework of TCI of reactionary tendencies in terms of its arrested dialectics is perhaps overly uncharitable. The recent popular uprisings in the Arab World, Europe and now the United States may offer compelling examples of insurrectionary politics in action. The Invisible Committee's efforts to make comprehensible these insurrections and the forces they fight against is both politically necessary and intellectually admirable. The ability of these insurrectionary events to break from and reset the social and economic conditions of our world is still to be determined, but certainly these moments of rupture – the negating rage of the insurrectionary event as “propaganda by deed” – may yet hold the potential to coalesce into large-scale revolution. In that regard the political manifesto-as-field-guide that is TCI may prove timely and useful.

But, if texts like TCI, masquerading as a break from the dead-end of anti-globalization utopianism, discourage thinking through the contradictions of the present, a present which necessarily by virtue of these contradictions offers, or at least motions towards, a way out, it provides little by way of a revolutionary strategy. More significantly perhaps, its political ambiguities may actually encourage it to drift into more reactionary, right-wing political territory, as we have seen lately with the rise of the anti-statist Tea Party movement in the U.S, and the right-wing libertarian threat to blow the Occupy impulse off course. Furthermore, TCI's anti-organizing attitude of invisibility risks digging its own grave in the form of the “commune,” which can do no more than attack and retreat before finally being quietly dealt with by the violence of the state. Invisibility might not be a strength after all.

The way out of the impasse of the present moment is not through the dark corridors of insurrectionary nihilist-utopianism. While there is much to admire in TCI's attempt at a thorough diagnosis of the contemporary state of civilization, its failure to work through the contradictions of the present and thus to articulate a truly revolutionary praxis of not only negation but also dialectically mediated transformation, ultimately leaves it impotent to overcome the very crisis it aims to attack. Despite TCI's insistence to the contrary, the only solution to the crisis will have to be a social one.

 

 


  

1 “Sous quelque angle qu’on le prenne, le présent est sans issue. Ce n’est pas la moindre de ses vertus.”

2 Comité Invisible, L'insurrection qui vient (Paris: La Fabrique, 2007).

English Edition: Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurrection ( Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009).

3Jameson, Fredric. “Future City.” New Left Review (May-June 2003): Web. December 2010.

4Fukuyama, Francis. “End of History?” The National Interest. (Summer 1989): Web. December 2010.

5COMMUNISM. We know it's a term to be used with caution…our worst enemies use it and continue to do so. We insist. Certain words are like battle grounds: their meaning, revolutionary or reactionary, is a victory, to be torn from the jaws of struggle (TCI, 16).

6Jameson, Fredric. Archeologies of the Future: A Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (London: Verso, 2005).

7In Jameson, Fredric. Valences of the Dialectic (London: Verso, 2009) 410- 434.

8See Antonio Negri's and Micheal Hardt's Empire (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2000) and Multitude (New York: Peguine Press, 2004).

9Benjamin, Walter. Selected Writings, Vol. 11, 1931-1934. Trans. Jephcott. (Harvard University Press, 1999) 541-542.

10See Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Picador, 2007).

11 Sorel, George. Reflections on Violence (London: Collier Books, 1970).

12Artaud, Antonin. The Theatre and its Double (New York: Grove Press Inc, 1958).

13See: Lukács, Georg. History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1971).

14Lenin, V.I. The Essential Works of Lenin (New York: Bantam Books, 1971). 271-365.

15The recent rise of anti-statist right-wing libertarian politics in the Tea Party movement is significant in this regard.

16Lefebvre, Henri. Critique of Everyday Life Vol. 2 (London: Verso, 2008).

17Lukács, Georg. Destruction of Reason, (London: Merlin Press, 1980). This text is, as far as I can tell, out of print. I have consulted chapter 3 “Nietzsche as Founder of Irrationalism in the Imperialist Period” online at http://www.marxists.org/archive/lukacs/works/destruction-reason/ch03.htm December 2010.

 

18Ibid.

19See: Kaczynski, Theodore. The Unabomber Manifesto: Industrial Society and Its Future (Filiquarian Publishing, 2005).

Zerzan, John. Against Civilization:Readings and Reflections (Los Angeles: Feral House Press, 1999).

20 Lukács, Georg History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1971).