This recent article on libcom, reposted below, is one of the better critiques of some main trends within the communization current that I have seen to date. A certain amount of what the author argues is accurate, particularly with regard to the economic determinism of the “structuralist” wing of communization, represented by Theorie Communiste. That said, the critique in many ways also misses the point entirely, transforming what is a (not insignificant) peripheral problem of communization’s political and social form into a damming condemnation of its theory as such.
One hint of this is in the article’s conflation of alternativism and the voluntarist wing of communization. It’s a very common conflation, because it’s largely supported by the actual political behavior and organization (or lack thereof) in anarchist scenes where Tiqqun/The Invisible Committee have become fashionable. The problem is that the actions of an authors’ readership should not be confused with that authors’ actual arguments. If this were the case, there would be little to salvage from Marxism at all.
If we look at the actual theory in the writings of Tiqqun/The Invisible Committee, we have to admit that much of it is explicitly anti-alternativist, arguing that there is absolutely no simple “subtraction” from the space of the state, that lifestyle changes are not revolutionary acts and that the “temporary autonomous zone” is ultimately in service of capitalism. The popularity of this trend within Anarchism in the last five years has been due precisely to the fact that many anarchists have realized the failures of the alternativist and lifestylist trends that emerged from the anti-war and alter-globalization era.
The specific variant of voluntarism that is used in the writings of Tiqqun and The Invisible Committee has plenty of problems. It risks elitism, contains few organizational suggestions about how counter-revolutionary regression might be avoided and presents a thoroughly reduced image of capitalism that is drained of all complexity. Some of these problems are sacrifices made for the sake of outreach—it would be incorrect to think that most of these insurrectionary writings are meant to be stand-ins for detailed theory of revolution. They are primarily simplified propaganda documents.
Still, even within this necessarily reduced format, both Tiqqun and The Invisible Committee argue explicitly against many of the things that the author accuses them of. The Commune is in no way equivalent to The Commons—which is the operational space of the various right-wing communitarianisms that the author (correctly) argues are just-as-likely outcomes of anti-capitalist resistance. Though the Commune is something which often utilizes the shadows cast by the state, it is never an alternativist “commune” (in the older, Hippy-ish sense of the word) that tries to find full self-sufficiency in the shadow of state and capital. There are certainly plenty of anarchists who conflate these, of course, overemphasizing the squatting, shoplifting, dumpster-diving aspects of expropriation—yet these anarchists are explicitly ignoring the theory in their hands, paying attention to only half of the equation.
In the same breath that such activities are advocated in passing, The Invisible Committee suggests building large-scale antagonistic infrastructure (beyond just squatted social centers), expropriating large productive technologies (i.e. “means of production”) for use by the Commune, and experimenting with various organizational forms to best accommodate the Commune’s spread—because the Commune, unlike the Commons, is defined by its very density, which is to say both its force of human attraction and its ability to warp the space of capitalism around it. The victory of the Commune is the victory of a singular, qualitative geography against a quantitative, territorial one through the inherent fracturing, division and subsumption of that capitalist territory—it means that the Commune, to be the Commune, must by definition spread: “The expansive movement of commune formation should surreptitiously overtake the movement of the metropolis.”
The author of the critique selects only a handful of metaphors used in The Coming Insurrection, lists them out of context, and thinks this is sufficient argument to prove the group’s alternativist leanings. This is by far the weakest part of the article, either resulting from explicit misrepresentation or a sloppy skimming of the primary text.
Here are a few longer lines, in greater context, from The Coming Insurrection which argue exactly the opposite of what the author claims The Invisible Committee is saying:
On the one hand, a commune can’t bank on the “welfare state” being around forever, and on the other, it can’t count on living for long off shoplifting, nighttime dumpster diving at supermarkets or in the warehouses of the industrial zones, misdirecting government subsidies, ripping off insurance companies and other frauds, in a word: plunder. So it has to consider how to continually increase the level and scope of its self-organization. Nothing would be more logical than using the lathes, milling machines, and photocopiers sold at a discount after a factory closure to support a conspiracy against commodity society.
Rather than calling for communes to exist in the interstices of the state, waging revolution without “taking power,” the Invisible Committee calls for
a multiplicity of communes that will displace the institutions of society: family, school, union, sports club, etc. Communes that aren’t afraid, beyond their specifically political activities, to organize themselves for the material and moral survival of each of their members and of all those around them who remain adrift.
Finally, if we put the “secession” metaphor back into context, its meaning seems to be hardly one of subtracting from the space of the state—in fact, “secession” seems to be chosen because of its association with the beginning of outright civil war and open struggle:
The territorial question isn’t the same for us as it is for the state. For us it’s not about possessing territory. Rather, it’s a matter of increasing the density of the communes, of circulation, and of solidarities to the point that the territory becomes unreadable, opaque to all authority. We don’t want to occupy the territory, we want to be the territory.
Every practice brings a territory into existence – a dealing territory, or a hunting territory; a territory of child’s play, of lovers, of a riot; a territory of farmers, ornithologists, or flaneurs. The rule is simple: the more territories there are superimposed on a given zone, the more circulation there is between them, the harder it will be for power to get a handle on them. Bistros, print shops, sports facilities, wastelands, second-hand book stalls, building rooftops, improvised street markets, kebab shops and garages can all easily be used for purposes other than their official ones if enough complicities come together in them. Local self-organization superimposes its own geography over the state cartography, scrambling and blurring it: it produces its own secession.
It’s easy to conflate this notion of opacity or invisibility with a sort of subtraction, if one makes the mistake of confusing tactics and strategy. But The Invisible Committee are clear on the point:
To be visible is to be exposed, that is to say above all, vulnerable. When leftists everywhere continually make their cause more “visible” – whether that of the homeless, of women, or of undocumented immigrants – in hopes that it will get dealt with, they’re doing exactly the contrary of what must be done. Not making ourselves visible, but instead turning the anonymity to which we’ve been relegated to our advantage, and through conspiracy, nocturnal or faceless actions, creating an invulnerable position of attack.
Visibility must be avoided. But a force that gathers in the shadows can’t avoid it forever. Our appearance as a force must be pushed back until the opportune moment. The longer we avoid visibility, the stronger we’ll be when it catches up with us. And once we become visible our days will be numbered. Either we will be in a position to pulverize its reign in short order, or we’ll be crushed in no time.
There are certainly critiques to be made of this tactical opting for invisibility (so similar to the clandestine era of communist parties a century ago), but we ought to keep clear that in doing so we critique a particular tactic associated with one stage of revolt.
It’s true that Tiqqun/The Invisible Committee never give adequate answers for how the Commune might best organize itself to resist communitarianism—but it is made clear that a shift toward the communitarian nullifies the communist and that the Commune must generate organizational models capable of resisting this.
It’s also true that the question of fascism has today been violently re-opened. But the fact is that no one seems to have a theory adequate to explain how to effectively resist reaction. No one poses new organizational checks against it, though some think it might be adequate to blindly parrot the old theory and (failed) models used by former communist parties and syndicalist unions, as if the rise of reaction today will exactly mirror its rise a hundred years ago.
Of all communization theory, though, it seems that the insurrectionary trend is more vocal and aware of the dangers of fascism, including anti-capitalist forms of reaction. However, by limiting printed works to these kind of materials aimed at a broader audience, insurrectionaries have often perpetuated the undertheorization of this very danger. Similarly, the flattened image of capitalism they present threatens a vulgarization of thought reminiscient of that caused by the oversimplifications of old Marxist propaganda.
When it comes to the “structuralist” variants of communization represented by groups like Theorie Communiste and Endnotes, the article accurately points out many of their failings. The determinism of some groups in this trend can be overbearing, as can the almost complete lack of organizational motion. Many seem to be content functioning entirely in a research capacity, as if concluding a class composition analysis of Greece is a wholly sufficient contribution to the revolutionary movement. Others can be just as dogmatic and programmatic as old Trotskyists, the only difference being their ultraleftist merit badge and a closet full of situationist souvenirs.
Groups like TC have real failings in their (sometimes very cookie-cutter) schema of capitalism’s “stages,” creating an overconfidence in the notion of terminal crisis. Ironically, they repeat the same failure as those older Marxist economists who deemed capitalism to be in such a terminal stage twice before (each time before a massive world war). This is precisely where the author points to the lack of critique of Fascism as symptomatic of a reckless optimism—and this critique (of optimism and inevitablism) is fair and accurate for groups like TC, at least. To it, I would add that “structuralist” communizers tend to downplay capitalism’s ability to regenerate itself through massive acts of destruction, massive acts of guile and (as the author argues) even through anti-capitalism itself.
But it is not fair and accurate to pretend that this is a summary critique of communization (large segments of the movement that make the author’s same points are ignored), or that this critique is even linked that strongly to the basic economic arguments at the heart of the “structuralist” school. Despite their over-optimism about the terminal crisis, one has to admit that the basic economic diagnoses of contemporary capitalism made by TC, Endnotes, et al. are largely accurate, though maybe more so for Western countries. More importantly, their explanation of the reflexive nature of class categories in Marx’s critique of capitalism—and thus the inevitability of the proletariat’s self-negation as it suppresses the bourgeoisie, the impossibility of “affirming” the proletariat against the bourgeoisie, the necessity of abolishing the value-form of labor, etc.—all of these points remain unchallenged by the critique, since the author makes absolutely no effort to tie the core of TC’s economic arguments to the same failures in strategy caused by an overoptimistic determinism.
Nor is it fair to try and explode what is basically an economic critique of contemporary capitalism into a full-blown system of political thought and recommendation for organizing. Communization, when applied by groups like TC, is much more the name for a basic reengagement with Marx in an attempt to rethink the deadlocks of the historic communist movement, particularly trying to look at the notion of class in a fresh manner but without reverting to complete voluntarism or “de-essentialized” nonsense like Hardt and Negri’s “multitudes.”
If we try to use this theory as more than that, it certainly won’t serve the purpose well. Marx’s Capital itself does not contain a theory of right-wing reaction, organizational suggestions to suppress counterrevolution, or explicit arguments for or against “contained” Commons systems at a national or regional level. All the arguments that the author levels at communizers, then, could be leveled equally at Capital, but I hope that stupidity of doing that would be more than apparent. Don’t conflate economics with political strategy.
Ultimately, though, the most disturbing aspect of the critique is that it mentions but never addresses what can be said to be communization’s preeminent thesis. I’ll quote from the article directly:
Communism has often been conceived of by both Marxists and anarchists as a future state of society to be achieved in the distant future long after the messy business of revolution has been sorted out. For advocates of communisation on the other hand, capitalism can only be abolished by the immediate creation of different relations between people, such as the free distribution of goods and the creation of “communal, moneyless, profitless, Stateless, forms of life. The process will take time to be completed, but it will start at the beginning of the revolution, which will not create the preconditions of communism: it will create communism” (Gilles Dauvé & Karl Nesic, ‘Communisation’, 2011).
Elsewhere, Dauvé has a few important addendums:
Because the vast majority of revolutionaries (Marxists and anarchists) regard communism above all as a new way of organising society, they are first of all concerned by how to find the best possible organisational forms, institutions in other words, be they fixed or adaptable, complex or extremely simple. (Individual anarchism is but another type of organisation : a coexistence of egos who are free and equal because each is independent of the others.)
We start from another standpoint: communism concerns as much the activity of human beings as their inter-relations. The way they relate to each other depends on what they do together. Communism organises production and has no fear of institutions, yet it is first of all neither institution nor production : it is activity.
These quotations are important, because they confront two of the most common critiques leveled at communization: 1. That communizers think communism should be “implemented,” fully-formed, immediately after the revolution, and, 2. That communizers reject organization and institutions, favoring spontaneity and subtraction into “communes” outside the state.
Clearly, neither of these claims are substantiated. Communization means that the activity of building communism begins with the revolution, meaning that the central mechanisms of capitalism (monetization, the value-form, labor time, etc.) need to start to be dismantled immediately—this doesn’t mean it happens overnight or even quickly, it just means that there is no focus on building some “new democracy” or “socialist” stage which supposedly gives us the preconditions for communism while still utilizing these capitalist mechanisms. I would even point out that, in some sense, the grassroots commune movements in Venezuela (which also just as often endorse Chavez), actually fit this definition of communization.
Similarly, communization has no aversion to organization or the building of institutions. Even the supposedly “alternativist” communization of Tiqqun/The Invisible Committee advocates the organized creation of large-scale antagonistic infrastructure—what more traditionally-worded communists call institutions of “dual power” or “working class institutions.” The difference is simply that organizational or institutional schemata are not the defining factor of communism in that they do not precede communist activity but are generated by it. This is the same point made by Badiou, when arguing that the Idea does not precede or dictate human activity but is born through it, humans having the capacity to intervene directly in the futurity of their own existence. The relation is dialectical, not linear. This means that there is nothing guaranteed, spontaneous or certain about communist revolution.
But the never seems very interested in addressing any of this. Instead, the article looks at some real failures of particular groups in the communization current, invents some new failures based on misreadings of the “voluntarist” trend, then spends even more time discussing the problems of ultraleftist movements from the later 20th century, regardless of how tenuous the connection to today’s communizers might be. Even then, the author makes no attempt to point out why communizers would be unable to provide a critique of fascism, for example. In fact, one of the only two groups (Friends of the Classless Society) quoted in reference to the issue speaks directly to the possibility of resurgent fascism that the author says communizers ignore.
Through all of this, we never once get an actual answer as to what the author’s position is on the central, more-or-less shared thesis of today’s communization current might be. Without that, the critique is only able to engage with the social embroidery surrounding communization, condemning it more for what it doesn’t talk about than what it does.
Unfortunately, this type of critique-through-inversion is bottomless. There are plenty of important things that communization groups haven’t talked much about—race and gender are two big ones, alongside reaction and fascism. But the practice of condemning a group for not speaking to one particular issue and then, for this reason, deeming them blind to it, is more symptomatic of identity politics than communist critique.
Personally, I’m sympathetic to the author’s critique of the structural communization groups. I’ve had many discussions on these exact issues with some of the more dogmatic communizers, and there does often appear to be an earnest blindness caused by reckless optimism. But I also believe in the basic practice, from classical logic, of arguing according to the principle of charity: making the best argument for your opposition that you can. In this case, we have to admit that communization is a broad, diverse current. In order to engage with it earnestly, it’s insufficient to reduce that current to its lowest common denominator of dogma and then to rail against that dogma. It’s also insufficient to automatically blame today’s inheritors of ultraleftism for the sins of their fathers—though we must be wary that those errors not be repeated.