Merry Crisis and a Happy New Fear. Let’s Disappear. Death to Politics. Everyone Hates the Police. End of Work. Magical Life. Omnia Sunt Comunia. Let’s Destitute the World.
These phrases not only appeared as street graffiti across the globe, in various languages, amidst the recent waves of struggle, but also are chapter titles from The Invisible Committee’s recent books, To Our Friends [2014; English 2015] and Now [2017; 2017 English]. Engendered by anonymous forces divorced from authorial claims and in defiance of the regimes of property, these material inscriptions act as rebellious slogans of the contemporary. Emblazoned across urban space, they register, before their inevitable effacement, the ongoing planetary insurrection. As chapter titles, they also provide a sense of the preoccupations of the anonymous far left French collective.
The Invisible Committee presents a thought of vehement antagonism to the actualized present, its imposition of work and isolation, its endless policing and emptied out modes of (neo-)liberal double-speak and governance. As they declare, “we live in a world that has established itself beyond any justification” (N, 9). Their texts present at once a diagnostic analysis of the contemporary conjuncture and a strategic thought located within the insurrectionary energies breaking that conjuncture apart. Hardly academic in tone or in site, their intransigent polemic encourages and registers a separation from and the creation of a counter-force to the imposed realities of contemporary capitalism.
What follows moves through some of The Invisible Committee’s key topoi, concepts, and interventions, before suggesting that their thought might be read as otherwise than straightforwardly secular. I will propose that it may be productively, albeit counterintuitively, understood as Gnostic, a perspective that will put into question some of the assumptions behind the way the political and the theological are demarcated from and related to each other in contemporary debates.
Communism, Destituent Power, and the Commune
Their first book, The Coming Insurrection [2007; English 2009], prophetically positioned itself within global struggle, at once predicting and calling for an intensifying wave of rebellion against the ongoing catastrophe of capital, its crises, and its modes of government. Their call was heard by more than sympathetic ears. The book become notorious when the French government of Nicolas Sarkozy proclaimed it a manual for terrorism amidst the Tarnac Affair, which brought charges of terrorism and of planning to sabotage high-speed rail lines against a group of leftists living in rural France. Some of those charged were suspected to be members of The Invisible Committee, including most notably Julien Coupat. (After 10 years of investigation and a short trial, they were acquitted of all major charges and the plot was pronounced a fiction by the judge.) In the US, Glenn Beck held up a copy of The Coming Insurrection on his Fox News show. Agitated and ready for battle, Beck proclaimed The Invisible Committee the true enemy who sought to bring the end of Western Civilization, sternly advising his viewers: “it’s important to read this book.”
The Coming Insurrection is written “in the name of an imaginary collective,” less interested in the claim of authorship than in “introducing a little order into the common-places of our time … [as] scribes of the situation” (CI, 28). The Invisible Committee might be understood not merely as a set of unnamed authors, but as the expanded anonymous collective of all those who hear its general call to enact a different kind of politics, one that is “anonymous but welcoming, contagious and uncontrollable” (IC, 17). For their address is at once a theoretical diagnosis of the conjuncture and a call for the expansion of the anonymous counter-force against the actualized world that would carry out politics as event and irruption, rather than a politics of governing, voting, and participation in “the orderly progression of disaster” (N, 61-62). This is perhaps most directly registered in the very title of To Our Friends, which is certainly directed to other far left anarchist and communist groups, but also to all those taking up the challenge of thinking and living against the suffocating order of the present.
Their call entails a communist horizon, where communism is a “sharing of a sensibility and elaboration of sharing. The uncovering of what is common and the building of a force.” (CI, 16); or, where it is “the return to earth, the end of any bringing into equivalence, the restitution of all singularities to themselves, the defeat of subsumption, of abstraction…” (N, 45). Here, communism is not a teleological end point culminating a process of historical development, brought about heroically by an organized world-historical revolutionary subject. Rather, communism is a name for a counter-force, a common, communal, and communist force and form of life, in opposition to the actualized present. Across their texts, re-definitions of communism proliferate: “Communism is the real movement that destitutes the existing state of things” (N, 89); or “Communism is not a ‘superior economic organization of society’ but the destitution of economy” (N, 137).
These last definitions register another key theoretical position: against all thought that would oppose the democratic potential of constituent power to constituted power (a position most forcefully elaborated and defended by Antonia Negri), the Invisible Committee, siding with Walter Benjamin and Giorgio Agamben, elaborate an account of destituent power. As they explain, we all too easily believe “the fable that tells us all constituted power is rooted in a constituent power, that the state emanates from the nation … that beneath the constitution in force there always exists another constitution, an order that’s underlying and transcendent at once, silent normally, but capable at certain moments of flashing into presence.” In reality, “this fiction of constituent power actually only serves to mask the strictly political, fortuitous origin, the raw coup, by which power is instituted” (TOF, 73-4).
In contrast to this dialectic stands an articulation of destituent power that withdraws all legitimacy from the power and the world, hence the appeal Let’s Destitute the World. The goal is “to free the revolutionary imagination of all constituent fantasies” (N, 76) that would entail an exit, a separation, a detachment that would simultaneously entail the generation of a counter-force (a logic articulated in other contexts by Mario Tronti).
One name for this counter-force is the commune, which indexes “a pact to face the world together … a qualitative bond and a way of being in the world” (TOF, 200). A form that emerges unpredictably but repeatedly against the appropriation and enclosure of space and life by the state and its metaphysics of individuation. “Why shouldn’t communes proliferate everywhere?” (CI, 101). This exhortation in the early text is followed in later texts by the analysis of the commune as a form, as well as its historical and contemporary manifestations—in Tahrir Square, in Istanbul, or in Oakland, etc. (TOF, 207-219).
The commune directly enacts a form of life—a key term for The Invisible Committee—because it organizes a form of shared living, “a common relationship with what cannot be appropriated” (TOF, 208). But, this can happen in other instances of collective subtraction or secession. As they write, giving a sense of what they mean by form of life: “Seceding means inhabiting a territory, assuming our situated configuration of the world, our way of dwelling there, the form of life and the truths that sustain us, and from there entering into conflict or complicity” (TOF,184-185). More broadly, the form of life is anything that works against the alienated, fragmented life of the individual in the metropolis, where “experience of life … dismembers us.” In contrast, communism’s goal, if it has one at all, “is the great health of forms of life” (N, 142-3).
A (Dia)Gnostic Reading
What is liberated in the commune is a “a force with no name” that “will enable us to be done with economy, that is, with calculation, … with all that petty accountant’s mentality which is everywhere the mark of resentment” (TOC, 2018). The Invisible Committee ties this refusal of the economy via an anonymous force to the medieval heresy of the Free Spirit, a connection that implicitly draws on the long history of the heretical, millenarian, and mystical affirmations of life against the imposition of the economic order reconstructed by the Situationist Raoul Vaneigem.
Despite occasional references to the heretical, it would not be difficult to read the texts of The Invisible Committee as straightforwardly secular. On this reading, their political theological relevance would be restricted to such asides as the critical exploration of the Church and the Grand Inquisitor as forming the genealogical heart of all institutions (N, 73) or the claim that Christianity “had to sacrifice itself as a religion in order to survive as an affective structure—as a vague injunction to humility, compassion, and weakness” (CI, 91).
I want to propose a different and less obvious way of locating The Invisible Committee within political theology conversations. Theirs is a thought and action not from the world and its interpellated subjections, but from within an insurrection and riot against the world as it is. “The riot is formative by virtue of what it makes visible” (N, 15). It occasions an illumination, a vision, a (dia)gnosis. This (dia)gnosis consists of a knowledge about the world as it is, beyond justification: a gnosis that withdraws all legitimacy from the world and its powers. It comes with an anti-worldly call to a form of life not exhausted by the interpellations of the world. An insurrection arising out of a “shared dispossession,” an anonymity and a no one (a not one) in common (TOF, 43). All this indeed is anarchist and communist, but taken together—along with the assertion of the primacy of civil war—it should also be seen as a clandestine, unnamed Gnosticism.
The name Gnosticism does not operate like a tradition, authorized and reproduced within the time of history, by authorities that guarantee and uphold it. Rather, it is a name of what always differs from itself. It names not a continuous tradition, but as Peter Sloterdijk puts it, “a revolution in the power of negation,” a force of refusal against the world that remains discontinuous and arises each time anew. What is central is less a determinate creedal belief or the formation of a pious subject, but an insurrection against the world that discloses an ongoing civil war below the peaceful (i.e. pacified) order of the world. This position in contemporary theory was articulated most forcefully by Michel Foucault, but is first found in the mythologies and theologies of the Gnostics.
In asserting that individuation takes place with respect only to the form of life, the Invisible Committee refuses a key element of secular modernity: the individual as it is produced and maintained by the secular state as citizen-subject, endowed with a private interiority containing faith and belief (i.e., precisely the essential elements of the modern concept of religion). Their call to abolish the individual self and its primacy, in order to inhabit a shared dispossession, targets not only forms of philosophical and political modernity, but also a key theological presupposition dominant at least in the Augustinian lineage. The Invisible Committee see the unified will as essential to the moral subject—a “neat invention of the theologians” (N, 155)—an invention to be rejected in favor of forms of life, those sectarian counter-forces to the state and religious authorities. Turning away from individuation and morality, discipline and law, The Invisible Committee embraces forms of life that are created and lived amidst contemporary struggles (and thus often understood as anarchist or communist), but they also recall heretical movements, underground sects, barefoot itinerants, uncreated antinomians, gnostic perfecti, and monastic spirituals—all those that the medieval church sought to incorporate, convert, or violently repress.
The introduction of the gnostic tendency—its dia(gnosis), its affirmation of shared dispossession and forms of life, its insurrectionary forms that delegitimate and destitute the order of the word—into the contemporary conjuncture reveals the collusion between the political and the theological (which, for the West and its modernity, often will read as the secular and the Christian). Neither properly theological nor properly political, this gnostic tendency forms a third that neither the secular nor the Christian will countenance. It troubles the sureties and understandings of the secular (autonomy, subjectivity, the political) and the theological (faith, obedience, salvation). It puts in question the very orthodoxies that determine the split of the theological and the political, along with the ruses of their polemical opposition. This heretical grammar of (under)common life in shared dispossession, against the world, arises each time anew, despite the perpetual repression imposed of theo-political authorities upholding orders of individuation.
What is decisive in The Invisible Committee’s affirmation of the primacy of the form of life and the insurrectionary force against the world is the absolute refusal of individual salvation. Against secular politico-philosophico-juridical individuation and against Augustinianisms of all stripes—against, that is, the primacy of individuation affirmed by orthodoxies, secular and religious alike—there is only collective redemption, if there is redemption at all. To read this view as Gnostic is to refuse the position (articulated most recently by Sloterdijk, though one hardly exclusive to him) that maintains that genuine Gnosticism must always remain exclusively concerned with individual salvation, and it is only through a mistaken projection, with catastrophic results, that salvation is applied to a collective politics. It is to refuse, that is, to limit Gnosticism to theology alone. What one finds, by contrast, in The Invisible Committee is an example of a gnostic politics and form of life that puts into question all theo-political agreements on prioritization of the individual, whether theologically or politically. There is no individual salvation, because individuation never really applies to the soul, the subject, or the individual.
Moreover, this collective salvation does happen at the end (of history, of progress), but must happen in defiance of the structure of deferral operative both in Christianity and the secular (and their “immense pedagogy of waiting” N, 17). It does not happen in after, but only in the mystical, insurrectionary, common, gnostic now, without delay.
The Coming Insurrection [2007; English 2009].
The Invisible Committee’s prophetic first book, which the French government of Nicolas Sarkozy proclaimed to be a manual for terrorism.
To Our Friends [2014; English 2015].
Thoroughgoing theoretical analysis of global insurrectionary struggle of the 21st century.
Now [2017; 2017 English].
Continuation of the analysis of To Our Friends, including an analysis of destitution.