2001 review by Loren Goldner of 'Votre Révolution N'est Pas La Mienne' by Francois Lonchampt and Alain Tizon.
Francois Lonchampt Alain Tizon Votre Révolution N'est Pas La Mienne. (Ed. Sulliver, Arles, 1999)
This book is the work of two authors who came of age in the wildcat general strike in France in May-June 1968. They moved thereafter in the orbit of the Situationists, the ultra-left and anarchism, and never belonged to any of the "vanguard" groups which proliferated after May. One important dimension of the book is an attempt to understand and explain the failure of the revolutionary ferment of the late 1960's and early 1970's, when (to quote one ultra-left journal of the time) "delaying the uprising of the workers in every country seemed to be the sole real concern of the world political strategy of different states". The book is dedicated to both the many people swept up in the exaltation of those years and who, unable later to make a "judicious strategic turn", ended up in poverty, drugs and suicide, as well as to those who have not given up. The authors felt the need to painfully confront their past, and call into question some old certainties : 1) that capitalism necessarily engenders its supercession from within itself, 2) the "comfortable theory of alienation" projected onto individuals and oppressed groups by a "theorizing vulgate", and 3) the certainty of being on the threshold of decisive tremors as assured by "laws of history". The authors feel that the movement failed to foresee or understand society's ability in those years to satisfy an important part of the aspirations expressed in May.
I. For The Bourgeoisie There Is Never A Situation With No Way Out
1. Tolerated Revolt
A Thousand Triumphant Ubus
This chapter explores the way in which non-conformity and rebelliousness have became part of the ruling ideology of capitalism. Some retrogressive social forms have disappeared or declined, but so have some very humane ones. A gulf separates the proletarians who made the Paris Commune or theAragonese anarchist peasants and today's proletarian consumers. A "new man" is emerging, perfectly conditioned for the new period, characterized by an easy going false tolerance. Background music is piped in wherever people still have to be together ; all the old forms of politeness and courtesy have ebbed away, replaced by "boorishness, illiteracy, brutal manners and provocative looks". One wonders if capitalism has not colonized humanity to the point of ruining the chances of another kind of society. Similarly, this "new man's" rebellion is phony. Even the most timid feel empowered to act out, at no real risk. Pseudo-rebellion and bargain-basement non-conformity are encouraged by the status quo.
For years, an insidious propaganda has been getting people to internalize a "diffuse everyday violence", and the left and ultra-left (such as the Situationists) as have contributed to this, with their fascination with the social "lower depths". Journalists for the fashionable left newspapers cover up real acts of barbarism with superannuated nineteenth-century imagery about the "dangerous classes". But the state does not fear such groups, who (it is usually forgotten) often share the dominant values of the law of the jungle and individual success. The authors make frequent use of the writings of the Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, who already in the 1960's was warning about "a typology of neo-fascist delinquency". Some marginal groups have already worked out a modus vivendi with the state and are given tacit control of Parisian working-class and immigrant areas where they maintain order in exchange for a green light to run their rackets on workers and the poor. This in turn pushes their victims into the arms of the National Front, because the left, trapped in old schema, has nothing to say about their daily humiliations. It also feeds into a polite "anti-fascism" which in no way threatens the status quo. The libertarian left's inability to talk frankly about this is a crippling thought-stop.
This chapter deals with a "certain libertarian conformism" of people who "drape their narcissistic problematics in the banner of the great rebellions of the century ". They tolerate all kinds of questionable things in order to be tolerated in turn. They hide a basic flight from reality and irresponsibility behind revolutionary poses. For them, any norm is oppressive, any authority the enemy of freedom, minorities are always oppressed, women and gays are always subversive, immigrants are always comrades-in-arms for the revolution, and "street kids" are always resisting the established order. To question any of these shibboleths is to meet an intolerance worthy of the priests of an earlier epoch. Each of these received ideas has to be re-examined. The absolutist poses of these libertarians merely winds up reinforcing the liberal pretenses of a bourgeois society in which these libertarians are not doing so badly after all. Today it is the bourgeois himself who calls for an end to hierarchy. The bourgeoisie has set out to create from scratch a human type different from any which preceded it, "passably asocial but absolutely unthreatening".
The authors also devote some acerbic lines to the ex-Stalinists, who now talk repentently, as if everyone was compromised and had acted as "accomplices to the executioners of the proletariat". These people have stripped Marx of everything that demanded anything of them. They should not forget that "many of our comrades were liquidated by various Chekas, in Russia, Spain and elsewhere". "When one has apologized for too many outrages, a minimum of decency would at least imply keeping quiet !"
2. The Bourgeoisie Is Guiding The Revolution For Its Own Ends
A Vast Movement of Inclusion
The bourgeoisie reacted to May by digesting all the radical critiques and adding them to its own legitimation. The "modernist bourgeoisie", not the proletariat, adapted a hedonistic program for change, and "the accelerated erosion of all authority except functional or technical ones". Against the hedonism of the powers- that- be, revolutionary asceticism trapped in the past could not cut it. The revolutionary movement was overwhelmed by changes its own actions had help to bring about. Some people still live in the revolution that failed between 1917 and 1939, since that revolution will not require any commitment from them, its circumstances having vanished. A certain libertarian leftism made inroads only where its agenda meshed with that of the modernists arguing for the liberation of mores and the emancipation of all minorities.
In fact, this agitation helped to deepen the colonization of daily life, in a "vast movement of inclusion renewing all the norms of sociability within the framework that was supposed to be broken". The real change came from the right. Even the big strikes of December 1995 failed to impede the new, more informal organization of work.
The bourgeoisie is becoming the sole "class of consciousness", taking over the project of creating the new man. Science is making possible the superannuation of the workers' movement and the humanist and critical condition of the bourgeoisie itself.
Capital is reducing man to his biological dimension (genetic engineering), "stripping man of his past and all the cultural determinations inherited from the old class society". Marxist ideology has been emptied of content, and "no ruling class in history has had as much power and influence as today's". Ideological flip-flops and brusque changes of perspective pose no problem and are just stage props of freedom. Language itself is enlisted : old people become "senior citizens", the unemployed are "job seekers", poverty becomes "exclusion". Transmission of knowledge is taken over by television, and electronic media take over the rhythms of the family. Television has become the main mental prothesis, since people don't want good programs but escape and an immediate and pleasurable sublimation of reality.
Guy Debord and the Situationists
The Situationist International, in the late 60's and early 70's, was a beacon for many people then awakening to the "social question". The SI proposed a reinvention of the revolutionary project within modernity. It reinvented critical thought, which at the time was still stuck in quarrels from the beginning of the century. But its dogmatic character, its answers for everything, its endless ukases also helped to limit the thought and imagination of the 1968 generation. Along with its real contributions, it greatly overestimated its new revolutionary subjects : the Mulelist rebels in the Congo, the blousons noirs ("young working-class hooligans"), and wildcatting workers. By attacking the old militantism and its humanist content, the SI unwittingly prepared the terrain for the "narrow narcissism which would prosper behind the affectation of a complete withdrawal from political life". Their glorification of all "wildcat" forms of rebellion contributed to the making of a "radical life style" which glorified being more violent, more arrogant, and more consequential in "breaks" with others. But the workers in May 1968 did not, by their autonomous action, create the real conditions of supercession. The SI became known at the Sorbonne, more than in the occupied factories, a bit strange for a group that vaunted the working class and held students in such contempt. The extravagant character of their pretensions made them fly apart upon contact with the realities of a mass movement. The SI never asked what it was in their theory that attracted the crowd of "pro-situ" admirers that flocked to it. They hid behind the "alibi of autonomy", and "there is no authoritarianism worse than one which does not present itself as such..."
Situationism is coming back into fashion today. Debord is being published by Gallimard. After his book Commentaries, he discreetly dropped all reference to the proletariat and revolution, and threw himself into boundless self-celebration. Since his death, he has been celebrated everywhere, including by a parvenu intellectual elite which has come to steal a few crumbs after superbly ignoring Debord when he was alive, when they were "unreservedly admiring everything Debord despised". Debord had the merit of breaking with the art world, where he could have had certain success. But his notoriety today comes from an unbridled dandyism, and not from anything revolutionary. "The Situaationism which claimed to offer the most radical critique of the society of its time only wound up contributing to its new style".
The editors of the Encylopédie des Nuisances (1984-1992) tried to renew theory in the new conditions. They tried to "break, to a certain extent, with the widespread tendency to always put off the solutions to everything until after the revolution". Even though they seem wedded forever to the SI, the men and women of the Encyclopédie helped open the way to reinventing the revolution. From the beginning they discreetly dethroned the workers from their central role in all socialist theories. While admitting that a linkup between contemporary rebellion and the old workers' movement was becoming less likely, they sought nonetheless to "arm the vast and informal conspiracy of equals" which replaced the proletariat in their historical vision. They erred in an excess of self- satisfaction. But if they failed, it is because "Capital offered more risk, enterprise, responsibility, play, risk, pleasure and passion than the new theoretician-clerics, embalmed in their presentiments of apocalypse".
Jaime Semprum made important strides in his book L'abîme se repeuple ; without once mentioning the SI, he manages to liquidate almost everything that remains of the old heritage (forms of conduct, the ideologies of play and festival, the cult of subjectivity) showing how it has contributed to the formation of the present. But Semprum steps back, and opens no new path, neglecting "the need people feel, in order to throw themselves in an assault on everything that exists... of a new conception of the world and of life, and undoubtedly afraid of falling into "empty utopianism or mystical dilettantism".
II. The Spirit of the Working Class and the Victory of the Consumer
l. A Slippery But Safer Path
Marxism imposed a real taboo on thinking about what would happen after the victory of the working class. It gave the industrial proletariat a messianic function, wrapping old millenarian dreams in a scientific apparatus. The spirit of 1968 saw any specific outline of the future society as an attack on the creative spontaneity of the masses. Karl Korsch explained and justified Marx's embrace of bourgeois economic science with the defeat of the Parisian workers in 1848. In this vision, the proletariat became the new Christ-redeemer of humanity. But the revolution did not occur, and the working class handed its destint to a stratum of politicians. The Bolsheviks headed the first victorious proletarian revolution, and had an almost religious hold on enormous numbers of people, but they gave up on world revolution after the failure of the Spartakusbund in Germany, and after repressing all internal opposition. They set out to "Bolshevize" the workers' parties of the entire world. "Everything has been written on this tragic failure", and yet " this bloody epic remains a mystery for us". How was the revolutionary old guard and its invaluable experience decimated or, in some cases, won over to the Stalinist bureaucracy ?
The struggles of the working class push capital to evolve. Since the 1930's, in the developed countries, the working class has largely stopped questioning the power of the bourgeoisie. As consumption expands, a fraction of the ruling class came to consider the wage as an investment and a means of control. The working class paradoxically won a place in the social order as a class of consumers. As Serge Mallet saw, outside of the workplace, the worker moves in a world that is no longer working-class. Upward mobility became a real possibility for some working-class households. As the Situationist International put it "the old workers' movement failed, not without obtaining enormous results, but not the intended ones". The workers' accession to large-scale consumption in the 1960's greatly weakened the class by opening a new terrain of battle for which it, unlike the bourgeoisie, was in no way prepared. The violence of the triumph of a new wave of consumer goods, which had elements of the first phase of the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century, left the working class destabilized and disunited. In this context, "dissatisfaction becomes the object of a permanent inflation managed and exploited" by the capitalists, but also created "new subjects of discontent".
2. Delenda Est
The May-June general strike exploded the myths of working-class integration and the wildcat strikes of the 1970's "restored the credit which the working class maintained with those still attached to the ideals of socialism". But if the workers showed they could stop society from functioning, they were not able to reinvent its foundations. This combination of power and impotence would mean the decline and fall of the old working class. Capital set out to wipe out perceptions, memories and ties still charged with history, transforming all conditions of production, but also all the conditions of life.
A Revolution From The Right
The English sociologist Richard Hoggart in 1957 said that it was no longer possible, at a glance, to tell a worker from a petty bourgeois. Recent changes were dispossessing the popular classes of the best of their own culture. But he felt that the popular classes had not lost their old resistance to outside pressures. Less than twenty years later, Pasolini described the cultural annihilation of the working and peasant classes by the new power. As the Encyclopédie des Nuisances put it in 1985, "the destruction of the working-class milieu, i.e. the old practical bases of an autonomous proletarian confrontation, has been for 20 years the Delenda Carthago of all the innovative discourses of technological capitalism". Worker resistance has caved in on almost every level. Work, the family, household finances and credit and neighborhoods have been remade from top to bottom, almost all forms of recreation are imposed from without, and original forms of culture have all disappeared. Consumption is now about "difference" and "desires" and "passion".
The Management of Discontent
Jacques Camatte and the journal Invariance argued in the early 1970's that capital had dominated the contradiction of wage-labor, and that worker revolts had become something like the peasant revolts in the Asiatic mode of production. Camatte foresaw the exhaustion of the revolutionary phenomenon in the West, as the development of the productive forces winds up decomposing and cannibalizing humanity and the proletariat itself.
Two centuries of incessant struggles were not enough to forge the class of consciousness. The second proletarian assault against class society was transformed into an economic crisis, thanks to which the class was defeated without a frontal attack. We have to give up the well-known school of struggles by which workers daily clarified the road to emancipation. We have to acknowledge that today the working class is paying for all its defeats, and paying dearly. And if we acknowledge that the class has been weakened to the point where, by itself, it cannot engender a movement of social transformation equal to the demands of the present, we do not do so with the sense of relief of those who proclaim its historical end in order to free themselves of the fear the workers inspired in them, nor with the cynicism of those who, only yesterday, manipulated young rebellious workers and who now dismiss them from the heights of an imbecilic self-sufficiency. We do not forget that the workers' movement had within its ranks everything that was best in the proletariat, and that it was from the proletariat that the noblest struggles of our historical epoch emerged. And we do not doubt that workers' struggles will undergo new developments to which we remain attentive, and that, as Andre Prudhommeaux said, "nothing relieves us of the need to gather, from the mystical and political heritage of proletarian messianism, both all the elements we need to found a more realistic ideology as well as all the moral values that messianism exalted".
3. Arguments for the Partisans of Class Struggle
To explain the crisis of Taylorism, experts paid by the employer class evoke its rejection by a better-educated youth, or its inadequacy for the niche production now necessary to satisfy new consumers. One capitalist said "the repetitiveness of tasks and difficult working conditions gave arguments to the partisans the of class struggle".
Throughout the 1970's, under the impact of revolt, factory discipline broke down, wiping out the productivity gains of the previous decade. The workers' movement rediscovered old forms of struggle. The entire 1970's were necessary for the employers, the unions and the state take adequate stock of this phenomenon. One management theorist, in 1994, argued that the employers' lack of civic sense was ruining the French system and throwing society into a real retrogression. Some management theorists go completely against the grain of Taylorism and want to exploit man in his totality. The new police of industrial relations, working with the sociologists of the "hire academy", have moved into the previously neglected areas of the "imaginaire" and workplace cooperation. "Quality circles" have made possible an end run around the unions. New methods from "total quality" to "just in time" production attempt to federate the behaviour of wage workers and create a spirit of cooperation. The dream of the pacified workplace is facilitated by methods more powerful than corporatism or profit sharing. Permanent technological innovation has become the weapon par excellence for maintaining order in the factory and in society. The bosses have understood that accelerated change within the enterprise can be mastered to create consensus and motivation, always keeping the workers off balance.
If the enterprise of the past was made by men, men today are made for the enterprise. This is why the old professional communities had to disappear, being far too inclined to developing counter-powers, too human for the new enterprise. Servility has returned on post-Fordist assembly lines installed in the "lean and mean" enterprise where all economies of scale have given way, in saturated markets. Communication becomes a productive factor in its own right. The worker, who had no right to speak up not so long ago, is now required to talk to keep his job, but only a technical-commercial language for increasing production.
The threat of massive layoffs has given capital tremendous advantages. It is hard to see how enterprise restructuring could have proceeded without it. Much re-education has been justified by "adaptation to new technologies", the "struggle against exclusion", and "social reinsertion". Vast sections of the working class have been thrown into reeducation and adaptation to unprecedented conditions.
Working-class culture decomposes, places of collective memory are destroyed, and continuous retraining drives home the defeat. A government directive baldly calls for including an "apprenticeship in precarity" in the retraining programs. Andre Gorz also invites the working class to catch up in the "evolution of mentalities". Such programs urge workers to begin preparing for the next layoff even before being hired. (This entire chapter provides a whole glossary of the new "groupthink" language for these processes.)
The new man should be "strong enough to exist without a frame of reference and get used to permanently managing uncertainty." Remuneration will be equally virtual, except for "that elite permanently plugged into information coming from all over the planet". Everyone is expected to become the entrepreneur of their own person, the manager of their own skills, the promoter of their commodified passions, and everyone is called upon to rationally exploit their resources, their relationships, and their entourage. The bourgeoisie wants everyone to "recognize this world as their own, to 'look upon it soberly' not to overturn it (haven't all attempts to do so ended in failure ?) but to be eternally content with it". Workers, expropriated of all legitimacy, hit with symbolic annihilation, pose more problems today as consumers than as producers. They are hired temporarily to demolish the factories where they used to work for four times the pay. The jobs of tomorrow are in the maintenance of order and in social regulation. It is meaning that gets people to buy and which creates belonging. Michel Antoine, public relations manager for IBM, says "We have to provide meaning. We can announce, for example, that our main goal in 1997 is the growth of balance sheets in France." The hardest problems posed by the management of human resources are far from solved. How, in effect, can the system win allegiance from people who are everywhere pushed into precariousness ? And in the midst of all this, Taylorism has not disappeared, as phenomena such as "quality control" impose an unprecedented Taylorization. Henceforth, "a cleaning lady has to do a room every twelve minutes, handling a checklist of 54 operations", and "with improvement, the time dedicated to each room should drop from ten to six minutes."
III. Awkward Problems, Fraught With Danger, Which Reality Will Pose For Us Sooner or Later
l. The Comfortable Theory of Alienation
Shortly before he was felled by assassins' bullets, Karl Liebknecht wrote "For the primitive and elementary forces of the social revolution, whose irresistible growth constitutes the living law of social development, defeat is a stimulant. And from defeat to defeat, the road leads to victory."
This comfortable theory of alienation allows many revolutionaries to justify the disappointments inflicted on them by history. If proletarians love sports, their VCRs or their company more than the revolution, they don't know what they are doing, or they remain unconscious of "the world already present in their actions". In the same way that Cardinal Lustiger says that young people are looking for God but don't know it, the "proletariat has not yet acquired the consciousness of its revolutionary task". etc. etc. etc.
This world cannot exist without the consent and active participation of an important number of its victims. And today this participation is more conscious than ever. The abundance of education and information readily available to most people, in Europe, means that ignorance can no longer be a justification for passivity.
Contrary to a certain demagogy which grew through the 20th century and discredited what it called "educationism", certain revolutionaries did not shrink from demanding of the working class that it rise to its task of taking over the whole world. All kinds of political clubs and workers' academies were supposed to contribute. But what was the point if the laws of historical materialism already condemned the bourgeoisie ? If one could join the revolution out of ambition and still remain a tyrannical husband, a bad father and so forth ?
Given the proletariat's cool reception of vanguards claiming to bring it consciousness, isn't it possible this contained some obscure resentment against people proposing a freedom and responsibility that few proles wanted to assume ? Isn't it time to take another look at the confidence revolutionaries always placed in the masses ? Shouldn't everyone claiming to be a revolutionary ask themselves , each morning, what they can undertake, really, with the first person crossing their path ?
What value can we still find in a socialism derived directly from the "noble savage" of the Enlightenment (still so present in May 68), which assumes the innocence of the human being perverted by society ? And "what remains humanly valid in the hope we, with Liebknecht and Luxemburg, placed in the Proletarian Revolution..." as Prudhommeaux was already asking in 1948 in La tragédie de Spartakus ? What will replace the incentive of personal gain, the taste for victory ? What will replace money, that essential power over life ? Because, hateful as the passions it inspires, it is what, in spite of everything, really exists for most of humanity.
These are formidable questions which are posing themselves point-blank, but precisely because they are painful, we have to dig deeper. And the easy answers, such as "we'll see when the time comes", or "the revolution will provide the solution" will not help us in the slightest.
2. For A Conclusion Without An End
Capitalism is, in our view, condemned, unable to solve any of humanity's problems ; because it is threatening the very survival of the species, and because for two centuries it has evoked the opposition of everything that is most noble in humanity.
And even if we shouldn't hesitate to call into question the heritage of the revolutionary movements of the past two centuries, we are no in way inclined to renounce the hopes that people everywhere and always have placed in revolutions. Nothing reconciles us with a universe where virtual imagery will soon make it possible to reconstruct the entire past, making the photographic alterations of Stalin's police look like child's play. This world obviously needs a new civilizing phenomenon, not unlike what Christianity represented at the fall of the Roman empire. The minimum necessity for anyone desiring a new humanity is the fight against falsification. Fighting passivity and weariness obliges us to find another form of understanding, a formidable task in such a miserable time. Because the best solutions of past revolutions are no longer of much use, we have to dare to speak of what is real and learn to pose the questions of today. We must at last break with technical language and thought, as well as with the arrogance of theoreticians, and reappropriate the passions and humanism of all the revolutions in history. Our century has to free itself from the economy, and there will be no positive solution until the classes profiting from everything are put out of commission and can no longer cause harm, from the big corporations ravaging the world down to the last predators and schoolyard racketeers. As Castoriadis pointed out "a society without explicit institutions of power is an absurdity to which both Marx and anarchists succumbed", and we have to pose unflinchingly the question of the foundations of a new legitimacy of power and law. As Andre Prudhommeaux wrote in 1947, "Let us not shrink from confronting in advance the awkward problems, fraught with danger, which reality will necessarily pose for us sooner or later..."
What is left of the revolutions and avant-gardes of the 20th century ?
The surrealists practiced automatic writing and the study of dreams. The Situationists gave us their psycho-geographic dérives and unitary urbanism, and had the merit of exploring new, perilous areas of subjectivity and daily life, even if the results were not quite at the level of their expectations.
These pathbreakers were never at a loss for ringing declarations, unrealizable programs, boundless pretensions and provocations which were both easy and useless. They failed to remain sober during these bacchanalia of self-satisfaction so characteristic of our fin de siecle. Thus all the surrealist expulsions of people who refused to accept revolution in the Leninist light of October, and the murderous phrases which the Situationists hurled at members they expelled. These avant-gardes, with all their radical boasting, scarcely advanced the terms of the debate, which has to be resumed where Prudhommeaux left off.
Make no mistake : we are quite aware that we lack the practical experience of one or more revolutions, with which we would write better and more accurately.
And the historical epoch weighs on us, with its staggering conformism, backed up by economic pressures and morbid ideologies, bandied about by all the parties of the old world.
This world where confusionism sweeps all before it !
Where falsehood has acquired the flavor of truth !
Where every day imbecility mocks intelligence.
Where everyone can disappear in the midst of human indifference, surrounded by dead objects !
But there still as yet no small number of feminine faces capable of moving us. A dawn owned by no one, and vital risks far more fascinating than economic ones...
We will never give up.