The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2015

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JUNE 2015 Issue
Field Notes

On The Invisible Committee’s To Our Friends

We are living through a period of upheavals erupting around the world, happening in unexpected places and with consequences greater than anyone anticipated. After these uprisings—in Egypt and Turkey, in Greece and Spain, in Quebec and the United States, and in so many other places—the present state of affairs appears as absurd as ever. To Our Friends, written by the anonymous collective The Invisible Committee, is an attempt to reckon with our present global situation. Whereas the book that made them famous, the 2007 manifesto The Coming Insurrection, dealt mostly with fierce premonitions of what has in fact come to pass, their follow-up strikes a more reflective tone, drawing directly from the events of the last few years in order to analyze what seems to be a revolutionary impasse. The authors declare their ambition “to produce a shared understanding of the epoch,” meaning to clarify the age that is now unfolding and to map the forces currently operating, reminding us that our lives and our struggles share a common ground and a common horizon. As To Our Friends investigates the historical character of our times, wracked by catastrophes obvious and not, we come to see novel schemes of governance and all the monstrous inertia of a dying civilization. But in the midst of this, we see breaches opening up everywhere. Taking up the question of the epoch, the authors want to dispel any lingering doubt: these are undoubtedly revolutionary times.

At its best, the book forces a confrontation with the age and delivers sudden jolts of recognition as to our current situation. It makes little sense to pick apart To Our Friends, as some critics have already done, when what’s at stake in such a strategic document is something altogether different. It’s not a book to be critiqued, whether or not we agree with every point. What it demands instead is an openness to its propositions, a willingness to engage it, to approach it as a nexus for conversations already taking place around the world. It’s meant to provoke debate and facilitate encounters, to provide a staging ground where we can meet up and get organized together. The book doesn’t aim to convince or persuade but to strike resonances with us. If we attend to it, it may illuminate the events of recent years and clarify a common trajectory, or not. Its potential force resides in suggestions waiting to be taken up and elaborated, given meaning by what we do with them. A decidedly practical book, to be marked up in glee and in frustration, dogeared by a dozen hands, read aloud to each other, translated and pirated, swapped between friends, comrades, and countries. It doesn’t call for a review or summary so much as an experiential account, noting what calls to us in our reading.

New York City has seen its own wave of unrest in the past few years, from Occupy Wall Street to the recent anti-police demonstrations in the fall and still continuing. For those who have been active in and identify with these movements, there are many passages in this book that speak directly to our experiences. To Our Friends identifies as a vital aspect of the present series of global uprisings the feeling of participating in “a shared power.” Tangible in each of these moments has been the astounding sense, directly lived by innumerable participants, of people coming together with a common purpose and all that this suddenly makes possible. We think of the fevered months of Occupy, a revolt that ultimately had nothing to do with inequality and everything to do with discovering the tremendous force of our being together. Once the occupation was declared people immediately leapt into action, identifying some task they believed necessary, and, alongside those around them, carried it out: procuring sleeping bags and tents, setting up a kitchen and medical tent, organizing a library, printing leaflets, collecting bail money. The countless activities of the following weeks were accompanied by the distinct impression that we were undertaking something together and, however minor in appearance, each contributed to our combined strength. In the plaza and in the street, it was an undeniable and unforgettable experience of our collective power and ability to organize ourselves.

Occupy soon encountered certain limits, in terms both of police repression and of a curious kind of self-incapacitation about which To Our Friends has much to say. The General Assembly, where we initially witnessed the potency of our shared presence in body and voice, quickly became an endless, exhausting routine. The movement’s strict insistence on democracy, which the authors rightly call a fetish, sapped its overall energy and brought about strategic limitations. We remember how, at one large demonstration, a democracy-obsessed crowd sat down in front of a police barricade to politely debate storming it. Beyond this obvious farce, To Our Friends indicates something else we should keep in mind: democracy is, after all, just another form of government, government “in its pure state,” they write, where the rulers and the ruled coincide. At a time when democracy is hailed everywhere as the universal good, this is a rejoinder we would do well to consider. Advocating democracy, in misguided hope of establishing our own laws and ruling ourselves, only aids the governmental machine: it’s a ruse whereby we deepen the ways we are governed, whereas the task is to deactivate any and all forms of government. If we want to be done with governing, to be finished with the law and with ruling, appealing to democracy as the horizon of our struggle is a dead end. We must recognize that our fight is for another way of life entirely.

As far as insurrection goes, To Our Friends affirms something else we have been suspecting: it’s hopeless to expect it to emerge from the radical left. Those who identify as “radical” tend to suffer a fundamental “disjunction from every situation,” substituting deadening moralism and abstract militancy for careful consideration of the real dynamics of a given moment. The more isolated they are from the actual conditions of struggle, the more convinced they become of the accuracy of their outdated beliefs—which only increases their isolation. In any case, recent uprisings have bypassed the radicals and demonstrated that they are lagging behind history. To Our Friends observes this promising tendency, for instance, in the massive Greek riots of 2008, where even the large contingents of anarchists were outstripped by the wild course of events. Consider also the anti-police demonstrations here in New York, where thousands spontaneously took to the streets and blockaded bridges, tunnels, and highways, stormed shopping malls and social gatherings in continual disruptions of the flows of the city. Stripped of their monopoly on such tactics, the radicals chased after what was happening around them, bewildered by actions they didn’t plan and certainly weren’t leading. Or take the epicenters of conflict in Ferguson and now Baltimore, where a much more interesting amalgamation of forces has appeared. Apparently radicals are becoming redundant. Instead of privileged actions or signifying gestures of the revolutionary, there is the generalized revolt of whoever is present, the unforeseen and wholly explosive force of people acting in concert.

Familiar to us as well, based on our experiences during the previous autumn, is an emphasis on infrastructure. That we moved so decisively to interrupt the usual metropolitan routines, undoing the city’s oppressive orderliness along the way, wasn’t just the chance spread of one protest tactic among others. These roving blockades made immediate and intuitive sense because they respond to our general situation and the reality of contemporary power. As To Our Friends insists, it’s through infrastructures that the world is organized, maintained, and administered: “the real power structure,” they write, “is the material, technological, physical organization of this world.” And we see that from the Rockaway Pipeline to the Susa Valley, from Gezi Park to the Zones à Défendre, infrastructures are increasingly becoming sites of conflict worldwide. What’s contested isn’t just a tract of land or another hulk of steel but the underpinnings of a civilization, for these constructions condition our very existence. The Keystone Pipeline determines a particular relationship between peoples, territories, geographies, the natural world—and carries alongside its toxic payload a whole outworn and idiotic way of life. One of our challenges is to reorient ourselves according to this logic of power when there is no longer a distinct class that adequately embodies the knowledge of how the world actually operates today. Our pressing concern is to meet those with an interest in the workings of things—people who know materials, machines, computers, networks, communications, the grid—and bring together enough know-how to dismantle this world and create something livable instead.

It’s a question, as it has always been, of building a revolutionary force. If we were able to occupy a plaza for months and to care for ourselves after a destructive hurricane, it’s because we gave ourselves the material means and developed the intensity of relationships to do so. A force is nothing other than what it is able to realize collectively, and questions of living and care are as essential as questions of sabotage and attack. There would have been no Occupy, no Tahrir Square, without the ability to feed and shelter thousands. To Our Friends makes clear there is no exclusive set of revolutionary actions, rote gestures like smashing the banks or storming the capitol, which we could simply enact in order to finally have our long-awaited day in the sun. There is a whole spectrum of experiences, practices, skills, resources, and desires that we must weave together to sustain the revolutionary upheaval. Who can jumpstart an engine, disinfect a wound, run a webserver, till the soil, fix the roof, or patch a tarp? These activities and a thousand others are not in the service of a revolution over and above us, something always off in the future, but constitute the immediate possibility of another way of life in common. Building such a force will require a composition of people much stranger than any of us know, a willingness and trust we are long accustomed to disavowing, and the guiding belief that together we can realize lives worth living and worlds worth inhabiting.

Constituting a force adequate to our times also means refusing the separation between our everyday lives and our struggles. To Our Friends calls us to develop forms of life and ways of living together, always in keeping with our particular situations, that can undo this fatal disconnect. On this trajectory the authors point us to the commune. It’s understandable if the appeal sounds strange, since most only know communes as an unhappy and failed tradition. But in this poignant passage we see that the commune, in its many manifestations, can be a fertile space, a collective experiment in autonomy that operates with a different conception of life itself. In this respect, the commune isn’t an alternative to the reigning order but an offensive maneuver against it. Thinking again of our own experiences, we recognize that its mythic name has appeared in our midst recently, as with the Oakland Commune. And, looking around us, we see a restless tendency towards other ways of collective life, even in unlikely places and in distorted guises. The squat, the artist colony, the intentional community—what total dissatisfaction and what potent inclination might we find animating these subcultural forms? Following the book’s wager, the commune names our growing desire for “a shared life” without imposing any necessary form. Every time it appears, it has to be invented anew. It’s a fluid and practical way to give ourselves the means to live in common, bound by “a pact to face the world together.” It’s up to us, in a process of collective improvisation, to find the shape such an endeavor might take, to give it the real weight it deserves, and to bind together how we live and how we fight.

As we cultivate these shared forms of life, as they gain a profound consistency, they can be stitched together across this ravaged planet to realize a power capable of displacing the devastation we currently live. In New York we are getting organized for this task, and we know others elsewhere are doing the same. We are forging alliances that are unlikely and necessary in equal measure. All in all, it’s patient work. Not because it will take a long time, but because it requires our care and attention. To Our Friends postpones nothing, least of all the break we are making with the disastrous order at present, when it calls for us to be in touch with our actual situation, to practice a kind of tact, to develop a revolutionary sensitivity. Our task is to foster promising dynamics in the ongoing upheavals as well as in our everyday lives together, to intensify them to the point where there can be no question of a return to the normal state of affairs. Our project begins from the here and now, with what’s at hand, with those around us, and we know the work to be immediate, practical, and meaningful. Surveying the epoch, looking to our friends here and abroad, those we know and those we don’t yet, we happily find our power increasing in manifold and surprising ways.


Ryan Richardson

RYAN RICHARDSON studied at The New School and now lives in Ridgewood, Queens.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2015

All Issues