The implausible logic of an invisible committee
So I have been reading one of the older documents from The Invisible Committee, “To our friends”, and it is increasingly clear why they choose to remain invisible: beyond a few well formulated catchphrases, they offer nothing but a warmed over rehash of the disaster capitalism hypothesis of the Canadian author and social activist Naomi Klein. Similar to Klein’s silly argument, the folks in the Invisible Committee propose to overthrow “government” while ignoring the fascist state, labor and production for profit. By avoiding the problem of the existing state, the Invisible Committee find themselves in the rather bizarre position of advocating activists disrupt the production of material wealth, rather than abolish the production of social wealth, i.e., capital.
I offer some comments on their argument below.
Taking issue with Marx, The Invisible Committee, in its document has declared that democracy is not the truth of the state. “Democracy,” they argue, “is the truth of all the forms of government.”
I found this formulation just a bit curious. What is meant by the term “government” and how does it differ from what, up until this time, communists have referred to as the state. The distinction between government and the state is critical to their argument, because history since the 17th century is the history of a specific form of power, government. The modern nation state, unlike governance, is dispensable:
“What has continued to develop since the 17th century in the West is not state power but, through the construction of national states and now through their deterioration, government as a specific form of power. If today the rusty old superstructures of nation states can be allowed to crumble without fear, it’s precisely because they must give way to that vaunted “governance” — flexible, plastic, informal, Taoist — which is imposed in every domain, whether it be management of oneself, of relationships, of cities, or of corporations.”
I have understood neoliberalism as, if anything, a deep and prolonged crisis of the fascist state, the state in its function as manager of the national capital, as the direct exploiter of the proletariat. However, the Invisible Committee appears to propose that we ignore the crisis of the nation state and focus on something they call governance by crisis. Crisis is not, as Marx would have it, the product of the inherent contradictions of the capitalist mode of production and a potential jumping off point for proletarian revolution, but a method of managing society:
“‘If you want to force a change,’ Milton Friedman advised his Chicago Boys, ‘set off a crisis.’ Far from fearing crises, capital now tries its hand at producing them experimentally. The way avalanches are intentionally triggered in order to control their timing and size. The way plains are set ablaze so that a menacing fire will extinguish itself there for lack of fuel. ‘Where and when’ is a question of opportuneness or tactical necessity. It’s public knowledge that shortly after being appointed, in 2010, the director of the Greek Statistical Authority, ELSTAT, set about falsifying that country’s debt accounts, making them look worse as a way of justifying the Troika’s intervention. So it’s a fact that the ‘sovereign debt crisis’ was launched by a man still on the official payroll of the IMF, an institution charged with ‘helping’ countries get out of debt. Here it was a matter of testing out, in a European country under real conditions, the neoliberal project of a complete revamping of a society, to measure the effects of a proper policy of “structural adjustment.” “
Undeniably, this argument will ring true to many people. Many, if not most of the economic recessions prior to 1990 were deliberately triggered by the fascists as a means of preventing the so-called economy from “overheating”. The double recession of 1979-1982, which the Volcker Fed produced by raising interest rates to choke off hyperinflation, is a good example of this sort of technocratic tinkering. The double recession was, in large part, imposed on society by an unelected technocracy to cope with the consequences of the failure of Keynesian economic policies.
Beyond simply wringing inflation out of the economy, the double recession was also a chance for Washington to push a number of far-reaching changes in how the fascist state manages the so-called economy, turning the responsibility for maintaining so-called full employment over to the Federal Reserve and removing responsibility for employment from accountable elected representatives. This has given rise to a sort of perverse mantra among technocrats that crises are opportunities to push through drastic measures. As Obama’s former chief of staff and now Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, put it,
“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”
However, entirely too much can be made of these facts. It should never be forgotten that while the Volcker shock was imposed to cope with the failure of Keynesian economic policies, Keynesian policies themselves were a response to the collapse of production based on exchange value — a collapse that itself was not the result of technocratic intervention, but the law of value, predicted decades before it happened by Karl Marx.
I have a suspicion that the Invisible Committee are making the argument that the neoliberals are not simply taking advantage of periodic crises to impose their desired changes, but are responsible for capitalist crises in the first place. Perhaps I am misreading. To be fair, I am not familiar with this group; this is my first real exposure to them. Are the writers of this essay asserting crises, such as the one now gripping the fascist state, are entirely manufactured by neoliberals as a method of managing society? Does the crisis of the fascist state exist apart from the effort of neoliberals to take advantage of it or not? This question is never adequately addressed by the Invisible Committee.
A closely related question: Are crises themselves entirely stage-managed by neoliberals as a method of directing society in a given direction? Or are neoliberals driving the agenda today simply because they are better organized, have better data than us, a better strategy and react to emerging crises more nimbly than we do? Perhaps I am wrong, but I think the Invisible Committee leans more toward the former position than the latter.
The Invisible Committee thus calls into question the very legitimacy of Marx’s notion of capital as a relative, historically limited mode of production of material wealth. Further, we are told, Marx made an unjustifiable connection between capitalist crises and the prospect for a proletarian revolution and thus “spent the rest of his days prophetizing, with every spasm of the world economy, the great final crisis of capital which he would wait for in vain.”
I want to avoid making Marx’s theory the issue here, so I will not address this bizarre calumny that has been repeated elsewhere by Heinrich, but if proletarian revolutions are not triggered by crises, how does the Invisible Committee think revolutions are triggered? What mechanism do they call upon to explain the sudden revolution in consciousness that would be required even for their proposed insurrection?
Essentially, according to the writers of this essay, we are sheep who the neoliberals manage by judicious employment of terror, both economic and political. Correctly in my opinion, the Invisible Committee argues democracy is meaningless:
“The “power vacuum” that lasted in Belgium for more than a year is a clear example in point. The country was able to function with no government, elected representatives, parliament, political debate, or electoral issues, without any part of its normal operation being affected. Same thing in Italy, which has been going from “technical government” to “technical government” for years now, and it doesn’t bother anyone that this expression goes back to the Manifesto-program of the Futurist Party of 1918, which incubated the first fascists.”
Essentially, the political crises that have swept Europe demonstrate beyond all doubt that the nation state is superfluous to management of the production of material wealth. This passage is the first acknowledgement I have seen of the basic truth of the crisis: the state is superfluous! Based on this passage, any argument that the state has a necessary role to play in society must be rejected.
Based on this diagnosis, the Invisible Committee comes to rather surprising conclusion not with a call for abolition of the existing state, but that the insurrection must be directed against the productive infrastructure of society! For some unknown reason the Invisible Committee recommends we turn our attention to blockading the very productive infrastructure that makes it possible for society to function without a state and declares that this very productive infrastructure must be attacked!
The reason given for this staggeringly bizarre proposal is that, according to the Invisible Committee, the physical apparatus of governance is to be found in the productive infrastructure of society:
“Neither the Marxists nor the neoclassical economists have ever been able to admit that money is not essentially an economic instrument but a political reality. We have never seen any money that was not attached to a political order capable of backing it. That is also why the bills of the different countries bear the personal images of emperors and great statesmen, of founding fathers or personified allegories of the nation. But what is it that appears on euro banknotes? Not human figures, not emblems of a personal sovereignty, but bridges, aqueducts, arches—pieces of impersonal architecture, cold as stone. As to the truth about the present nature of power, every European has a printed exemplar of it in their pocket. It can be stated in this way: power now resides in the infrastructures of this world. Contemporary power is of an architectural and impersonal, and not a representative or personal, nature. … This whole personal politics is dead, and that is why the small number of orators that survive on the surface of the globe amuse more than they govern. The cast of politicians is actually composed of clowns with varying degrees of talent—whence the phenomenal success of the wretched Beppe Grillo in Italy or the sinister Dieudonné in France. … The politicians are … there to distract us, since power is elsewhere. … No one sees it because everyone has it in plain sight, all the time — in the form of a high-voltage line, a freeway, a traffic circle, a supermarket, or a computer program. And if it is, it’s hidden like a sewage system, an undersea cable, a fiber optic line running the length of a railway, or a data center in the middle of a forest. Power is the very organization of this world, this engineered, configured, purposed world.”
The argument the Invisible Committee makes here recalls an observation Engels made with regards to the technical imperatives of modern industry: “The automatic machinery of the big factory,” he writes, “is much more despotic than the small capitalists who employ workers ever have been.” The more social production comes to resemble a single instrument of production set in motion by a single social producer, however widely scattered over the face of the globe, the less space there is for ‘democratic decision-making’ on its employment. The social production process is nothing if it is not the very definition of an autocracy, where the natural and technical requirements of production rule, not the democratic whims of society. With the progress of social labor, production relations more and more become “technologically organized.”
“Government is no longer in the government”, but increasingly determined by the physical infrastructure of modern society. The insurrection must be directed at this productive infrastructure because, in one political crisis after another political relations may be brought to a standstill, but the machinery of governance, said to be embedded in the sum totality of the productive forces of social labor, nevertheless continued uninterrupted.
However, the idea the productive infrastructure of modern society is increasingly indifferent to the will of the social producers is neither new or particularly interesting. Already in volume 3 of Capital, Marx observed that, “the conditions regulating [social production] assume more and more the form of a natural law working independently of the producer, and become ever more uncontrollable.” This is not just a technical problem. While it is true that the management of a nuclear power plant is heavily resistant to the arbitrary decisions of the community of social producers, the social production of material wealth imposes its will on these same producers just as insistently as the laws of physics.
The idea that interrupting or blockading reproduction and circulation of the industry allows us to “politically attack the system as a whole” is ludicrous. Have these fools even read Capital? Do they not know the difference between use value and exchange value, between constant capital and variable capital, between value and surplus value? If they did, they would know that both the commodity and labor have a two-fold character; that useful labor is not the same as value-producing labor; and that the use value of the infrastructure of society is not — and has never been — the same as its exchange value. The problem then becomes how to abolish the exchange value of the infrastructure of production, without destroying its use value.
But, having decided Marx needs to be instructed by a bunch of third-rate theorists, they have apparently never even bothered to pick up Capital and understand Marx’s fucking argument. Which means the Invisible Committee are people who don’t really understand that bringing down the power grid is entirely unnecessary so long as you make it unprofitable for the capitalist to operate the power grid as capital.
I mean, how fucking stupid do you have to be not to realize, some 150 years after publication of Capital, that the problem here is not production as such, but production in its capitalistic form. How fucking stupid do you have to be to observe that the existing state is entirely superfluous to the production of material wealth, but decide we need to sabotage the production of material wealth not overthrow the fucking state?
Perhaps it’s me.
Fuck that. It ain’t me. Communists are as dumb as a box of fucking rocks.I don’t understand it. I really just do not understand it. You’re goddamned communists, for god’s sake. It is hard enough being a communist today, but to be a communist and fucking stupid? What the fuck is the point?
Here is the thing: if you want to destroy the use value of an object you have to in some way paralyze its function. This paralysis can be temporary or permanent; partial or total. Given the scale of modern forces of production of social labor, nothing short of a major war could possibly accomplish total paralysis; and even a global conflagration on the scale of World War II only destroyed the infrastructure of Europe and Japan for about 15 to 20 years.
Do the Invisible Committee think their insurrection can accomplish anything like this level of destruction? Of course not. Any credible strategy aimed at the infrastructure requires an effort to destroy it as as capital, not as a use value; to prevent its function as self-expanding value, i.e., as material for the expenditure of human living labor. This can only be brought about by withholding living labor, a strike.
To turn the Invisible Committee’s argument on its head, If the subject of the blockade is whoever, the subject of the strike, i.e., a blockade on the employment of labor power, must be the working class itself.
In this strike, the working class imposes a blockade not on the physical infrastructure, but on its own labor time. This could begin with as simple a campaign as “Friday’s Off”, where a complete embargo is enforced by the working class on labor beyond 32 hours in a week. This embargo could be extend each year to include one additional day out of each week. The ultimate aim would be complete elimination of all wage labor by the fifth year of action. Essentially, the working class would be progressively replacing production based on wage labor by the communist principle of “each according to need.”
What worked in Tahrir Square, according to this document, is that the occupation that ultimately brought down Mubarak first disrupted the normal flow of traffic and thus the very idea of normalcy. Likewise, activists in the social movements would be essential to this embargo on labor time by choosing, for instance, different companies at random to shut down to employee traffic. Entire roadways could be blocked during morning rush hour to prevent commuters from reaching their jobs.
There is no reason this sort of occupation need be a 24/7 operation; it is enough that occupations are sufficient to enforce an embargo on all labor beyond a 32 hours work week by preventing workers from reaching their jobs in the morning. In the same vein, there would be no need to call for a new constitution, a constituent assembly, or issue demands on the existing state — i.e., no need to create the trappings of a new normalcy.
The struggle for communism is the struggle for free, disposable time for the mass of society. By buying into the disaster capitalism hypothesis, the Invisible Committee has lost sight of this truth.