Some critical notes on the US anarchist group CrimethInc. following the publication of their book, Days of War, Nights of Love by webmaster of the Situationist website Bureau of Public Secrets, Ken Knabb in 2001.
The reader should bear in mind the following:
Knabb: "It's merely an email response written as a courtesy to someone who asked for my opinion, so it's not quite as rigorous as it might have been if I had examined the book in detail and written a text for general circulation."
Copy of an email, June 2001]
Note: In this reponse, I was under the erroneous impression that the person who sent me the Crimethinc book ("Days of War, Nights of Love") was one of the authors.]
...Thanks also for the Crimethink book. In answer to your request for comments, I don't have time to go into any great detail, but here are some brief impressions:
On the positive side, the book is well written and communicates a number of good points. In this regard it's more interesting than most anarchist writings, which usually just repeat the same few basic ideas for the thousandth time. And it is evident that your ideas are closely linked to actual experiences -- when you talk about the feel of freedom, the reader senses that you know what you're talking about based on your own experiments and adventures.
It seems to me, however, that there are also some criticizable aspects.
Despite your cautions against ideology, your book is riddled with simplistic, unqualified declarations. In some places you are admirably open and modest, but in others you come on like you have definitive answers to practically everything from the meaning of life to whether people should wear deodorant or not.
Many of your descriptions of radical struggles are rather simplistic. One minor example out of many: To describe the Paris Commune as "a sort of continuous anarchist festival for a few months, before the usual spoilsports regained control and slaughtered everybody" (p. 83) is a really gross falsification of reality. Even if there was a festive aspect that it is important to acknowledge, the Commune was also filled with suffering, self-sacrifice, patriotism, compromises, confusions, betrayals, sordid political intrigues, conflicting ideologies. And part of the interest and importance of the Commune is precisely that its repressors were not "the usual spoilsports" -- i.e. the relation of forces and classes was complicated and in some ways unprecedented, the people involved were not totally clear about who were friends and who were enemies. Readers who know nothing about the Commune will get an erroneous and trivialized impression of what went on, while those who actually know something about it may conclude that your social analyses are not to be trusted -- that you're presenting things very selectively in order to reinforce your ideology.
Just as you present rebellious actions as almost purely GOOD, you tend to present the system as almost purely BAD. In reality, just as most revolts and radical movements have been full of mistakes and limitations, many aspects of the present society are positive, or at least potentially so. The very fact that humanity has survived to this point demonstrates this. We all have a natural tendency to define our perspectives in these good vs. bad terms -- it makes it easier to drum up enthusiasm for struggle -- but when it gets too simplistic it falsifies reality and thus actually hinders any serious struggle.
There is also a recurring moralizing simplisticness. It is good that you recognize the element of necessary hypocrisy and compromise in our lives. But a lot of your agonizing over whether this or that practice is hypocritical is, to me, a phoney, nonexistent issue. I do not view my options primarily in terms of whether I am "implicated" in capitalism, as if that were some sort of sin to be avoided at all cost. Nor, conversely, do I consider that I am accomplishing anything very notable if I avoid some such compromise, as if radical struggle were a matter of more and more people gradually becoming less and less implicated in the prevailing system. That perspective is just as simplistic as pacifists' feeling that we will arrive at peace by more and more people becoming pacifists (while failing to confront economic and other factors that engender wars despite most people's preference for peace). While I salute the sense of experimentation of your friend who tried to live off garbage pickings instead of buying food, it does not seem to me that such choices have much to do with radical strategy. If you take May 68, for example, the outcome hinged almost entirely on whether or not the workers occupying their factories would take that one additional step of restarting up necessary production and distribution under their own control. In such a context, whether this or that worker had previously been "implicated" in the system can be seen as largely irrelevant. (It is true, of course, that the workers' previous habits of working, consuming, TV watching, etc., undoubtedly contributed to their hesitancy to take that final step. But that's not at all the same thing as saying that the way to overcome capitalism is for people to withdraw from it as much as possible.)
I think that you could have made most of your points in far less space (a pamphlet rather than a book).
There is also an impression of excessive self-importance. I realize that your opening bit about the "spectre of crimethink" is at least partially ironic, but there still is a sense that you "crimethink agents" believe you are really hot stuff, a pole of international subversion, and that you are trying to mythologize yourselves (so people will have an image of cool crimethink underground adventurers like they used to about Che Guevara or the Weathermen, etc.). Without judging whether your present or potential importance justifies such posing, I think it's usually more important to go in the other direction, to demystify yourselves and the intimidating images people have of radical underground heavies, rather than building them up.
I apologize for not giving more detailed examples of what I mean. But I think that this should suffice to give you a general idea.
As it happens, a group in Australia recently sent me an issue of their "Theft" magazine (it's also online at http://www.theftmag.com ) and asked me for comments. Although you will no doubt find some differences between yourselves and them, I think there are also a number of commonalities. In any case, I am appending my remarks to them because I think that some of the more general points also apply to your book.
[Knabb to Theft Magazine, 12 May 2001]
Dear Theft Magazine folks,
I don't have time to comment on Theft #2 in any detail. The most notable criticism I have is that the last chapter is sometimes rather simplistic. While I think it's fine to recommend that people seek pursuits that are enjoyable and satisfying to them, it seems to me rather silly to declare that life "should be" "perpetual ecstasy" etc. This kind of "should be" amounts to little more than that you think it would be nice if things were that way. It's ultimately pretty meaningless, like saying that insects "should" have "the right" to live freely without being eaten by birds. It's a false reasoning which you have probably picked up from Vaneigem. He rightly criticizes traditional leftism's overemphasis on sacrificing for the cause, but then flips into an equally unjustified opposite conclusion that pleasure is the supreme criterion for everything, and then to the even more absurd implication that a successful revolution will somehow magically produce endless unalloyed pleasure.
Again, I think it's good that you encourage people to reexamine their lives, to reduce addictive consumership, and to make space for relaxation and reflection. But you have to be careful not to be too rigid in your recommendations. "The more you consume, the less you live" makes a good graffiti, it conveys a good general point. But it shouldn't be taken too literally, as if it were a precise scientific formula. In your SHIT percentage test, for example, you more or less equate "the more of yourself is actually yours" (a rather vague notion in any case) with lower SHIT percentages. This amounts to an inverse economic fetishization, a sort of anti-economic puritanism, as if enjoyment was always inversely proportional to the degree of economic taint. Actually, of course, in many cases an activity that creates profit for someone may nevertheless be more enjoyable than another activity that puristically avoids the market. The best things in life are not always free, even if they "should" be. If you frequently present this kind of over-simplified formula, people with enough sense to know better will not take you seriously regarding the many other areas where you have valid points to make.
It's also important to resist the temptation to be too specific. It's good to give a few examples to give people a clearer idea of what you're talking about. But if you fall into the "positivist" trap you end up trivializing your points. Many of our problems do not have easy solutions. One person in one situation may be better off to quit his job and try to get by in a different way. Another person in another situation might be better off to get a job rather than spending his life half starved scrounging in garbage cans and living in the streets. The choice involves a lot of factors (does he have a family? what kind of jobs are available? what sort of social welfare is available if he doesn't work? how risky are the alternative illegal expedients he might use? etc.) that are more complex than simply declaring that "work time" is bad and "free time" is good. Part of being genuinely "antiauthoritarian" involves recognizing that the ultimate solution to the "social question" involves leaving people to figure out their own solutions to many of their problems.
In this context, I would say that although your pamphlet contains many valid points, the general format strikes me as somewhat too similar to ordinary publicity -- collages of slogans and ads that add up to an overwhelming barrage of frantic bits of advice: "DO THIS AND YOU'LL FEEL GREAT!" "AVOID DOING THAT, IT'S ALIENATING!"... To take just one example, you say "Day dreaming subverts the world!" But you could just as justifiably have said "Day dreaming helps preserve alienated society" (by providing a psychological safety valve). Try to resist the temptation to rigidly separate things into Good and Bad. Most things are much more subtle and complex, they contain different aspects, they may even become transformed into their opposites. It's usually better to examine things as calmly as possible, so as to foster people's own reflective thinking. Have the faith that if you have really said something relevant to their lives, they themselves will figure out some appropriate conclusion without having simplistic formulas shouted at them.
I realize that in other parts of your pamphlet you do go into many of these issues in somewhat more nuanced detail. But I think you will see what I mean about these general tendencies.
BUREAU OF PUBLIC SECRETS
PO Box 1044
Berkeley CA 94701