The Poverty Of Ecology - Jonathan Horelick

1973 situationist text, reworked from the 1970 original which was published by the American section of the Situationist International.

Submitted by Fozzie on May 2, 2023

No matter how severely the advanced modes of accumulating Capital may seem to slap the fundamental laws of merchandise, they do not spring from the violation but the excessive application of these laws. The commodity reappears as a spectacle, in excess of all expectations concerning its temporal limits, annihilating its own origins in utility and the spacious premises for its self-eulogy: that is to say, the entire planet. The sacred code of merchandise, the code of exploitation, intends to rebuild the world of alienation all over again out of its very debris.

The real and the imaginary life of merchandise are at opposite poles: the one spells an over-equipped misery and routine, the other an unfinished, primitive struggle for survival. According to its public image, the raw historical accomplishment of the old bourgeoisie--the physical domination of nature--is transubstantiated into the mysterious realm of unachieved possibility. After decades of putrefaction pile up with that domination, and the social alienation engendered by it, Capital looks in its fierce resistance to time for an impulse to reproduce itself through the conquest of this very decay. In a word, natural alienation is no longer natural.

The menacing congestion of modern surroundings is the extreme sign of our time surrounded by abstraction. From Shanghai to New York and from Paris to Prague, urban space bears nothing but the vertical point of view of hierarchical power. The universal relationship between glass buildings and the corporate empire is not accidentally but essentially spectacular. The commodity at work is necessary scenery, to be watched and visualized, because it cannot be lived. The city consumes at once the formless relativity of modern science and the abstract inertia of art, in exile of people and imaginative collaboration. As the thin walls of the urban complex exclude human privacy in order to trample the desire to meet, to speak and act, the departures from mass congestion as well as the points of seclusion issue nothing but packaged quiet. One cannot travel free of the tourism of spectators because all vehicles and all places belong to the hierarchy. In the space dominated by illusion, urban spectators encounter the very illusion of space. Repressive urbanism is characterized by “dead air” and bogus games, crowds gazing religiously at the competition of star-experts. The Astrodome autographs urban life, towering over the field of play. Man becomes a spectator by default of space, in a time confined to sacrifice and isolated vacations.

Social alienation is the malicious culprit behind all discomfort and tyranny existing in the spectacular city. After all springs of regeneration are exhausted, social alienation becomes an immobile energy which saps everyone of an authentic ease and in seeming urgency lures us toward its superficial dissolution. Today, global capitalism issues critical designs in regard to the rehabilitation of social space, space whose capacity to accommodate exploitation was exploited in turn, in order to prolong the massive conditions of economy. As known work holds no obligation outside the production of objects whose value lies in their exclusive ability to require others, popular designs, as urbanism and as ecology, seek nothing but an immaculate emptiness, an extended survival. The specialized division of the world, according to classes, can induce various rationalizations within the irrational framework of its material organization as well as various ideological alternatives--starting with state bureaucratic capitalism--but it cannot rationalize life itself nor impassion it. The bad joke on contemporary ruling classes is this plain and simply: they too are choking on their spectacle.

The long delay in the full deployment of technical innovations toward human emancipation can be traced to the false consciousness which transpired within the first international revolutionary movement.

In the historical hiatus, alienated industrial society inherited the very techniques of delay, that is to say, numerous partial critiques as sociology and ecology which graft the new opiate of reformism onto the old myth of eternity. The new proletariat suffers today according to conditions that were tragically pursued in a revolutionary manner by its ancestors and which could never be pursued again except as a comedy. Nothing exists in the atmosphere except techniques of integration, techniques which resolve certain conflicts while creating others from them. In a way, the advancing crisis of industrial society is the product of too much survival rather than too little. Here, men are found risking their own prehistory in the consumption of the most fundamental elements (as food or oxygen) after the most absurd refinement and diversification has been invested in them and only them up to the point of near extinction. Wherever modern technology multiplied in force without releasing social equality--which is everywhere--the perspective of survival became inseparable from the tyranny of the State and the banalization of life. Even from the highest citadels of state power, shining over their mutilated territory and torn subjects, the key bureaucrats talk ecology. Nixon, for example, played the computer-copy of Robert Frost in his first State of the Union Address saddened by the unfortunate failure of Capital in former days to expropriate hygienically.

From the publicity of governments to the melodrama of militantism, the redemption of existing conditions in all that is in question ecologically. Insofar as the ecological perspective pouts faithfully against prevailing social hazards from the playpen of separated thought the fetishistic powers of capitalist technology are effectively as natural for it as the false consciousness of men. In merely contesting the external effects of Capital--apart from the relative significance of every oppressive detail such as the automobile--the essential ridicule of reification is masked again. Ecology accepts the old world of classes, so much so that it defies its very existence, in the spirit no less of modernity. The ecologists have merely conveyed quantitative disapproval toward the guardians of state power, which crushes all traces of the living, in reproaching not their technocratic rationale itself but their failure to apply it.

Following in the footsteps of christian priests marching to colonized regions to stamp out primitive tribes, these new missionaries expect to rinse the urban proletariat clean with natural enzymes. When the smoke clears--not from gunfire but a sanitary explosion of technology--everyone will frolic admiringly around the electronic maypole in thanks for the new balance achieved between men and their price. In the noise filled desert of the city, maddened wanderers are flocking not to the most subtle but the most backward mystification. Unlike the political and syndicalist attachments of aspiring “do gooders,” the ecologically deluded receive no material compensations. There are only spectacles: to follow Bookchin beyond faded anarchism into an atmosphere of “ideal stimuli” ordered nicely on the sunset of a system, an “ecosystem,” and the fresh air of reconditioned technology fashioned according to the behaviorism of a “Greek polis”; to swarm around McCluhanism and its police esthetics for mass communication where youth nibbles on the images of technology and the technology of images as the supine voyeur of domesticated capitalism; to become a romantic aeronaut in the rocketship of Fullerism soaring above the stratosphere of banalities in order to install a global satellite cafeteria with a menu of non-radioactive television, dome be-ins and macrobiotic vending machines.

The ecologists have only interpreted the conditions of the modern city. But the point is to transform them. The great challenge for modern capitalism lies in the relocation of Capital itself according to urban ideology. From the redistribution of technology to the walking distance to work, less inhabited regions and zones are expected to become filtered, scaled down versions of existing cities streamlined according to the isolation and separation which are characteristic of them. Capitalist plannification hopes to revitalize the image of the neighborhood against its actual historical foundation in restless immigrant workers forcibly brought together as particles of an anonymous mass. The cities sprawled with traffic and congestion as they were brimming over with producers. Today, nothing more is sought than what now exists erratically: the reinforcement of that quieter immobility witnessed ephemerally in passing suburbs with their miniature apartment complexes--restrictive mixtures of park and schoolyard--their familiar police, their identical houses and linear streets. The automobile is expected to go away, but the family will remain. At the same time, the desperation of bureaucratic logic, as logic of desperation, is evident in the level of mercantile concentration which actually plagues urban centers today even at their outlying perimeters. In the flight of Capital toward suburban areas, in pursuit of vast caravans of migrating consumers, the new industrialists wonder “who will be the last one to turn out the lights?” in the old centers. This rhetoric affirms no doubt the expansion of the present conditions of the city rather than the desertion from them.

[missing photo]

Photo caption: Solid Smog. Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty holds a ring made of compressed particulate smog. The compressed smog is a golden color with glittering flecks in the synthetic stone of almost gem-like hardness.

-- International Herald Tribune

The eucharist of ecological salvation is the “new town” which originated in England and now finds wide reception everywhere in Western Europe and in America. “Many,” writes Vance Packard, “were designed specifically to take the pressure off nearby major cities and are not especially innovative in terms of community building.”

The very first experiment with the new town in Lentchworth, in 1920, revealed the general social repression which is contained in it: the planners failed to include a single pub in their original designs. At best, the author (no less inconsistent than he is intellectually honest) can locate the example initiated in Columbia, Maryland, which on the one hand “does not permit billboards or utility poles” and in which greenery, woodland and traffic-free villages are brought into existence and yet on the other hand still basks in the splendor of “pooled religious facilities” and space again “financed by private enterprise,” by a “dozen different builders”...“There is nothing,” said one resident, “we have control over.” Overall, the urbanistic-ecological formula is evidently a modest proposal for extinguishing the awareness growing among modern survivors, a species less predictable than ever, by way of a superlative count of environmentalism. On their horizons, an ideology without denomination awaits the next revolution.

One no longer knows the oppression of hunger but the poison of consumption. The material conditions which reify people are those which also expose them to the most fantastic forms of ridicule in which the accidental fatalities of particular individuals parody the mechanical banalization of lives day by day. Modern spectacular society reached the summit of its absurd necessity as soon as the majority of spectators were exposed to the biological hazards of primitive survival in technical comforts. The risks of annihilation known to the past are suddenly entangled in the annihilation of risks once assured by the present. The submission of the spectator is laughably shortchanged. The few comforts he knew and more often pursued erode in him in all their agony, depriving him of the halo of alienation at bargain prices. The price of his enriched survival becomes nothing less than his absolute dedication to the spectacle, as earnest libertine of insipid consumption and cheerful altar boy of pure spectacles. The spectacle is the home of the new puritans of excess.

The long sleep of revolutionary class consciousness brought about the present conditions of non-life. The dictatorship of the commodity now abuses men to the extent that they are forced to walk, travel, eat, drink, sleep and breathe miserably. At best, individuals sometimes find themselves freely active in functions. In their social activity, they are subjected to the time of the laboring spectator. In their natural activity, they no longer feel themselves to be anything but an animal. What is natural cannot become human; what is human cannot become natural. The ecological future is nothing but this: to recover satisfactory animal functions, separated from the sphere of all other possible activity, as the sole and ultimate end of being alive. Nevertheless, the ideological effort to intercept opposition before the revolution is derived from a real moment of great distress for all ideology. The shadows of the struggle for survival recovered in the modern spectacle in order to decompress the next challenge to the conservation of class tyranny cannot disguise the actual depth to which their origin in the present has already become visible. If the proletariat which is everywhere, is to tear out of the sky and the earth the excrement of spectacular merchandise, it is not to restore the survival of nature and natural survival. It is to subject the space and time of the society of classes to its conscious desires and dispose once and for all of its lie.

In 1970 a provisional version of this article appeared as “Strobe-Light Tyrannies of Adolescence”, with the address Situationist International, P.O.B. 491, Cooper Station, N.y.C. 10003. Both articles were written by Jon Horelick.

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