Optimistic text from the Situationist International that suggests whilst previous revolts have failed, future ones may not.
As the world of the spectacle extends its reign it approaches the climax of its offensive, provoking new resistances everywhere. These resistances are very little known precisely because the reigning spectacle is designed to present an omnipresent hypnotic image of unanimous submission. But they do exist and are spreading.
Everyone talks about the youth rebellion in the advanced industrial countries, though without understanding much about it (see “Unconditional Defense” in issue #6 of this journal). Militant publications such as Socialisme ou Barbarie (Paris) and Correspondence (Detroit) have published well-documented articles on workers’ continual on-the-job resistance to the whole organization of work and on their depoliticization and their disillusionment with the unions, which have become a mechanism for integrating workers into the society and a supplementary weapon in the economic arsenal of bureaucratized capitalism. As the old forms of opposition reveal their ineffectiveness, or more often their complete inversion into complicity with the existing order, an irreducible dissatisfaction spreads subterraneanly, undermining the edifice of the affluent society. The “old mole” that Marx evoked in his “Toast to the Proletarians of Europe”(2) is still digging away; the specter is reappearing in all the nooks and crannies of our televised Elsinore Castle, whose political mists are dissipated as soon as workers councils come into existence and for as long as they continue to reign.
Just as the first organization of the classical proletariat was preceded, during the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, by a period of isolated “criminal” acts aimed at destroying the machines of production that were depriving people of their work, we are presently witnessing the first appearance of a wave of vandalism against the machines of consumption that are just as certainly depriving us of our life. In both cases the significance obviously does not lie in the destruction itself, but in the rebelliousness which could potentially develop into a positive project going to the point of reconverting the machines in a way that increases people’s real power over their lives. Leaving aside the havoc perpetrated by groups of adolescents, we can point out a few examples of actions by workers that are in large part incomprehensible from the classical “protests and demands” perspective.
On 9 February 1961 in Naples factory workers coming off the day shift found that the streetcars that ordinarily took them home were not running, the drivers having launched a lightning strike because several of them had just been laid off. The workers demonstrated their solidarity with the strikers by throwing various projectiles at the company offices, and then bottles of gasoline which set fire to part of the streetcar station. They then burned several buses while successfully holding off police and firemen. Several thousand of them spread through the city, smashing store windows and electric signs. During the night troops had to be called in to restore law and order, and armored cars moved on Naples. This aimless and totally spontaneous demonstration was obviously a direct revolt against commuting time, which is such a burdensome addition to wage slavery time in modern cities. Sparked by a chance minor incident, this revolt immediately began to extend to the whole consumer-society decor (recently plastered over the traditional poverty of southern Italy): the store windows and neon signs, being at once its most symbolic and most fragile points, naturally drew the first attacks, just as happens during the rampages of rebellious youth.
On August 4 in France striking miners at Merlebach attacked twenty-one cars parked in front of the management buildings. All the commentators pointed out dumbfoundedly that nearly all these automobiles belonged to the workers’ fellow employees at the mine. Who can fail to see in this action — over and beyond the innumerable reasons that always justify aggression on the part of the exploited — a gesture of self-defense against the central object of consumer alienation?
The strikers of Liège [Belgium] who attempted to destroy the machinery of the newspaper La Meuse on 6 January 1961 attained one of the peaks of consciousness of their movement in thus attacking the means of information held by their enemies. (Since the means of transmitting information are jointly monopolized by the government and the leaders of the socialist and union bureaucracies, this is precisely the crucial point of the struggle, the barrier that continues to bar workers’ “wildcat” struggles from any perspective of power and thus condemns them to disappear.) Another symptom, though less interesting because more contingent on the de Gaulle regime’s clumsy propagandistic excesses, is nevertheless worth noting in the following communiqué of the unions of French journalists and radio and television technicians last February 9: “Our fellow reporters and technicians who were covering the demonstration Thursday evening were attacked by the crowd merely because they were bearing the ‘Radio-Télévision Française’ insignia. This fact is significant. This is why the SJRT and SUT unions consider themselves justified in stressing in all seriousness that the lives of our fellow reporters and technicians depend on the respect in which their reports are held.” Of course, along with the first concrete reactions against the forces of conditioning we cannot close our eyes to the extent to which this conditioning continues to prove successful, even within very combative workers’ actions. Thus, when at the beginning of the year the Decazeville miners delegated twenty of their number to go on a hunger strike, they were fighting on the spectacular terrain of the enemy by relying on the tear-jerking potential of twenty stars. They thus inevitably lost, since their only chance of success would have been to do whatever was necessary to extend their collective intervention beyond their limited sector (the only industry they were blocking having already been losing money anyway). Capitalist social organization and its oppositional by-products have so effectively propagated parliamentary and spectacular ideas that revolutionary workers often tend to forget that representation must always be kept to the essential minimum and used as little as possible. But it isn’t only industrial workers who are fighting against brutalization. The Berlin actor Wolfgang Neuss perpetrated a most suggestive act of sabotage last January by placing a notice in the paper Der Abend giving away the identity of the killer in a television detective serial that had been keeping the masses in suspense for weeks.
The assault of the first workers movement against the whole organization of the old world came to an end long ago, and nothing can bring it back to life. It failed. Certainly it achieved immense results, but not the ones it had originally intended. No doubt such deviation toward partially unexpected results is the general rule in human actions; but the one exception to this rule is precisely the moment of revolutionary action, the moment of the all-or-nothing qualitative leap. The classical workers movement must be reexamined without any illusions, particularly without any illusions regarding its various political and pseudotheoretical heirs, because all they have inherited is its failure. The apparent successes of this movement are actually its fundamental failures (reformism or the establishment of a state bureaucracy), while its failures (the Paris Commune or the 1934 Asturian revolt) are its most promising successes so far, for us and for the future. This movement must be precisely delineated in time. The classical workers movement can be considered to have begun a couple decades before the official formation of the International,(3) with the first linkup of communist groups of several countries that Marx and his friends organized from Brussels in 1845. And it was completely finished after the defeat of the Spanish revolution, that is, after the Barcelona May days of 1937.
We need to rediscover the whole truth of this period and to reexamine all the oppositions between revolutionaries and all the neglected possibilities, without any longer being impressed by the fact that some won out over others and dominated the movement; for we now know that the movement within which they were successful was an overall failure. Marx’s thought is obviously the first which must be rediscovered — a task that should not present much difficulty in view of the extensive existing documentation and the crudeness of the lies about it. But it is also necessary to reassess the anarchist positions in the First International, Blanquism, Luxemburgism, the council movement in Germany and Spain, Kronstadt, the Makhnovists, etc.(4) Without overlooking the practical influence of the utopian socialists. All this, of course, not with the aim of scholarship or academic eclecticism, but solely in order to contribute toward the formation of a new, profoundly different revolutionary movement, a movement of which we have seen so many premonitory signs over the last few years, one of which is our own existence. We must understand these signs through the study of the classical revolutionary project, and vice versa. It is necessary to rediscover the history of the very movement of history, which has been so thoroughly hidden and distorted. It is, moreover, only in this enterprise (and in a few experimental artistic groups generally linked to it) that seductive modes of behavior have appeared — modes that enable one to take an objective interest in modern society and the possibilities it contains.
There is no other way to be faithful to, or even simply to understand, the actions of our comrades of the past than to profoundly reconceive the problem of revolution, which has been increasingly deprived of thought as it has become posed more intensely in concrete reality. But why does this reconception seem so difficult? Starting from an experience of free everyday life (that is, from a quest for freedom in everyday life) it is not so difficult. It seems to us that this question is quite concretely felt today among young people. And to feel it with enough urgency enables one to rediscover lost history, to salvage and rejudge it. It is not difficult for thought that concerns itself with questioning everything that exists. It is only necessary not to have abandoned philosophy (as have virtually all the philosophers), not to have abandoned art (as have virtually all the artists), and not to have abandoned contestation of present reality (as have virtually all the militants). When they are not abandoned, these questions all converge toward the same supersession. The specialists, whose power is geared to a society of specialization, have abandoned the critical truth of their disciplines in order to preserve the personal advantages of their function. But all real researches are converging toward a totality, just as real people are going to come together in order to try once again to escape from their prehistory.
Many people are skeptical about the possibility of a new revolutionary movement, continually repeating that the proletariat has been integrated or that the workers are now satisfied, etc. This means one of two things: either they are declaring themselves satisfied (in which case we will fight them without any equivocation); or they are identifying themselves with some category separate from the workers, such as artists (in which case we will fight this illusion by showing them that the new proletariat is tending to encompass virtually everybody).
There are related misconceptions about the Third World. Apocalyptic fears or hopes regarding the movements of revolt in the colonized or semicolonized countries overlook this central fact: the revolutionary project must be realized in the industrially advanced countries. Until it is, the movements in the underdeveloped zone seem doomed to follow the model of the Chinese revolution, which began just as the classical workers movement was being destroyed and whose entire subsequent evolution has been dominated by the mutation it suffered due to that destruction. It remains true that the existence of these anticolonialist movements, even if they are polarized around the bureaucratic Chinese model, creates a disequilibrium in the external confrontation of the two great counterbalanced blocs, destabilizing any division of the world by their rulers and owners. But the security of the stakes in the planetary poker game is threatened just as much by the internal disequilibrium that still prevails in the factories of Manchester and East Berlin.
The radical minorities that in obscurity managed to survive the crushing of the classical workers movement (whose force the ruse of history transformed into state police) have handed down the truth of that movement, but only as an abstract truth of the past. Their honorable resistance to force has succeeded in preserving a maligned tradition, but not in redeveloping it into a new force. The formation of new organizations depends on a deeper critique, translated into acts. There must be a complete break with ideology, in which revolutionary groups think they possess official titles guaranteeing their function (that is, we must resume the Marxian critique of the role of ideologies). It is thus necessary to leave the terrain of specialized revolutionary activity — the terrain of the self-mystification of “serious politics” — because it has long been seen that such specialization encourages even the best people to demonstrate stupidity regarding all other questions, with the result that they end up failing even in their merely political struggles, since the latter are inseparable from all other aspects of the overall problem of our society. Specialization and pseudoseriousness are among the primary defensive outposts that the organization of the old world occupies in everyone’s mind. A revolutionary association of a new type will also break with the old world by permitting and demanding of its members an authentic and creative participation, instead of expecting a participation of militants measurable in attendance time, which amounts to recreating the sole control possible in the dominant society: the quantitative criterion of hours of labor. A genuine enthusiastic participation on the part of everyone is necessitated by the fact that the classical political militant, who “devotes himself” to his radical duties, is everywhere disappearing along with classical politics itself; and even more by the fact that devotion and sacrifice always engender authority (even if only purely moral authority). Boredom is counterrevolutionary. In every way.
The groups that recognize the fundamental (not merely circumstantial) failure of the old politics must also recognize that they can claim to be an ongoing avant-garde only if they themselves exemplify a new style of life, a new passion. There is nothing utopian about this lifestyle criterion: it was constantly evident during the emergence and rise of the classical workers movement. We believe that in the coming period this will not only hold true to the extent it did in the nineteenth century, but will go much further. Otherwise the militants of these groups would only constitute dull propaganda societies, proclaiming quite correct and basic ideas but with virtually no one listening. The spectacular unilateral transmission of a revolutionary teaching — whether within an organization or in its action directed toward the outside — has lost all chance of proving effective in the society of the spectacle, which simultaneously organizes a completely different spectacle and infects every spectacle with an element of nausea. Such specialized propaganda thus has little chance of leading to timely and fruitful intervention during situations when the masses are compelled to wage real struggles.
It is necessary to recall and revive the nineteenth-century social war of the poor. The word can be found everywhere, in songs and in all the declarations of the people who worked for the objectives of the classical workers movement. One of the most urgent tasks confronting the SI and other comrades now advancing along convergent paths is to define the new poverty. Certain American sociologists over the last few years have played a role in the exposure of this new poverty(5) analogous to that played by the first utopian philanthropists vis-à-vis workers’ action in the previous century: the problem is revealed, but in an idealistic and artificial way; because since understanding resides in praxis alone, one can really comprehend the nature of the enemy only in the process of fighting it (this is the terrain on which are situated, for example, G. Keller’s(6) and R. Vaneigem’s projects of introducing the aggressiveness of the delinquents onto the plane of ideas).
Defining the new poverty also entails defining the new wealth. To the image propagated by the dominant society — according to which it has evolved (both on its own and in response to acceptable reformist pressure) from an economy of profit to an economy of needs — must be counterposed an economy of desires, which could be defined as: technological society plus the imagination of what could be done with it. The economy of needs is falsified in terms of habit. Habit is the natural process by which fulfilled desire is degraded into need and is confirmed, objectified and universally recognized as need. The present economy is directly geared to the fabrication of habits, and manipulates people by forcing them to repress their desires.
Complicity with the world’s false opposition goes hand in hand with complicity with its false wealth (and thus with a retreat from defining the new poverty). Sartre’s disciple Gorz is a good case in point. In Les Temps Modernes #188 he confesses how embarrassed he is that, thanks to his career as a journalist (which indeed is nothing to write home about), he can afford the good things of this society; among which he respectfully mentions taxis and trips abroad — at a time when taxis inch forward behind the mass of cars that everyone has been forced to buy; and when foreign travel presents us with the same boring spectacle of the same alienation endlessly duplicated around the world. He also waxes enthusiastic — like Sartre did once upon a time about the “total freedom of criticism in the USSR” — about “the youth” of the only “revolutionary generations,” those of Yugoslavia, Algeria, Cuba, China and Israel. The other countries are old, says Gorz, in order to justify his own senility. He thus relieves himself of the necessity of making any more precise analyses of, or distinctions among, “the youth” of those or other countries, where not everyone is so old or so visible, and where not every revolt is so Gorz.
Fougeyrollas, the latest thinker to have “gone beyond” Marxism, is somewhat disconcerted over the fact that while all previous major stages of historical development were characterized by a change in the mode of production, the communist society heralded by Marx, if it were to come about, would seem to be no more than a continuation of the society of industrial production. Go to the back of the class, Fougeyrollas. The next form of society will not be based on industrial production. It will be a society of realized art. The “absolutely new type of production supposedly in gestation in our society,” whose absence Fougeyrollas laments in Marxisme en question, is the construction of situations, the free construction of the events of life.
1. The Bad Days Will End: title of a nineteenth-century popular song.
2. “In the signs that bewilder the middle class, the aristocracy and the poor prophets of regression, we do recognise our brave friend Robin Goodfellow, the old mole that can work in the earth so fast, that worthy pioneer — the Revolution” (Marx, speech at a dinner celebrating the founding of The People’s Paper, London, 14 April 1856). Cf. “And when it [the revolution] has accomplished the second half of it preliminary work, Europe will leap up from its seat and exult: ‘Well burrowed, old mole!’ ” (Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, chapter 7). In both places Marx is alluding to Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Act 1, Scene 5): “Well said, old mole! canst work i’ the earth so fast?” Robin Goodfellow is a mischievous prankster in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Elsinore Castle is the haunted locale where Hamlet takes place.
3. The International: The International Workingmen’s Association, founded in 1864 and effectively dissolved following the 1872 split between the partisans of Marx and Bakunin. Usually referred to as the First International, as distinguished from the Second (“Socialist”) and Third (“Communist”).
4. Makhnovists: Ukrainian anarcho-communist peasant movement (1918-1921) led by Nestor Makhno. It allied with the Bolsheviks against the White Armies, then was betrayed and crushed by the Bolsheviks. See Peter Arshinov’s History of the Makhnovist Movement and Voline’s The Unknown Revolution. On the other revolutionary movements mentioned in this article, see Riesel’s Preliminaries on Councils and Councilist Organization.
5. For more detailed discussion of the limitations of these sociologists’ insights, see theses 196-200 of The Society of the Spectacle.
6. Asger Jorn resigned from the SI in 1961, but for a year or so afterwards he maintained some collaboration with it under the pseudonym George Keller. He resigned because his increasing fame as an artist had led too many spectactors to imagine that he was “the head of the SI” (see Debord, Correspondance, vol. 2, p. 134).
“Les mauvais jours finiront” originally appeared in Internationale Situationniste #7 (Paris, April 1962). This translation by Ken Knabb is from the Situationist International Anthology (Revised and Expanded Edition, 2006). No copyright.
Taken from the Bureau of Public Secrets.