A libertarian Marxist/communist critique of the Encyclopedie des Nuisances, chronicling the group's evolution from situationist-inspired councilist activism during the 1970s, to its "abandonment of any kind of revolutionary perspective" during the early 1990s, until its final surrender to "passive contemplation of the catastrophe" and "apocalyptic defeatism" during the late 1990s. Includes critiques of Guy Debord's situationist theory and the Frankfurt School.
From Situationism to the Abyss:
A Pamphlet against
the Harmful Phenomena of the Encyclopedia – Alpha Vingt
“Brevity flatters and does better business; it gains by courtesy what it loses by curtness. Good things, when short, are twice as good. The quintessence of the matter is more effective than a whole farrago of details. . . . Well said is soon said.” (Balthasar Gracian, Art of Worldly Wisdom, tr. Joseph Jacobs, MacMillan and Co., London, 1927, p. 60.)
First of all, the reader must be warned that criticizing the ideology of a leftist group sometimes involves granting that group a coherence, a degree of consistency and a theoretical level which it is actually far from possessing. To express such an ideology clearly, one must raise its actual level in order to confer upon it the cohesiveness required for proper criticism. This is the case with the subject presently under discussion.
The Parisian post-situationist group “Encyclopédie des Nuisances” (EdN), or “Encyclopedia of Harmful Phenomena”, was born from the ruins of the French revolutionary movement of May 1968. The self-dissolution of the Situationist International (SI) took place in 1972, with the publication of its last text: The Veritable Split in the International, signed by Guy Debord and Gianfranco Sanguinetti. This text proclaimed that the critical theory of contemporary society must be based on two pillars: pollution and the proletariat (Theses 14-19). It was upon these two pillars that the EdN’s eponymous journal would be founded in 1984.
Between 1974 and 1984 the future Encyclopedists engaged in rabid leftist activism, as chronicled in the journal L’Assommoir [the title of a novel by Zola: it has been translated into English as Dram Shop; a place where one goes to get obliterated or knocked out, as from the effects of cheap liquor; the word is derived from the French verb that means to stun or to bludgeon—translator’s note] and in various pamphlets and leaflets published in Spanish under the name of “Los Incontrolados” or “Trabajadores por la autonomía y la revolución social”. In 1984, in the first two issues of their journal Encyclopédie des Nuisances, the Encyclopedists announced the bankruptcy of their previous political activities and views. Jaime Semprun’s analysis of the 1974 Portuguese “revolution” as an extension of the May 1968 revolt throughout Europe, and the initiation of the world revolution by a few Portuguese workers councils, which did not in fact exist as practical forces, and the similar fiasco of the analysis made after the events concerning the strike wave during the Spanish Transition, led the EdN to proclaim the definitive defeat of the revolutionary movement, which the EdN identified SOLELY with the situationist movement (since any other political current, Marxist or libertarian, was scorned and stigmatized as “leftist”; that is, ignored and disdained as dogmatic, wooden and superannuated). Just as the revolutionary political problematic was reduced to situationism, beyond which nothing and no one existed, the geographic extent of the existing world was reduced to France, Portugal, Spain, Italy and Poland, since they said nothing, and really did not care about, any international struggle outside of these five countries.
At its very beginning the Encyclopedia thus carried out two reductions of the social revolutionary movement, which it restricted to the situationist movement and the geographic areas of the Iberian Peninsula, France, Italy and Poland. (Only much later, in 2001, was a new country added: Algeria.) This reductionism, accentuated by the Encyclopedia group’s firm belief that it was destined to renew critical theory at the end of the millennium, led to a somewhat surprising conclusion: the failure of the revolutionary movement was a result of the original errors of the SI. The passage from this idea to the view that the error was rooted in the SI’s theoretical concept of the “revolution” required only one step; and they took it in the article entitled “Abregé” (Compendium), published in the 15th issue of EdN.
Along with the past struggles of the old workers movement, the EdN journal addressed new issues and critical concepts relating to the new revolt born spontaneously in the contemporary “society of the spectacle”: the situationist critiques of work, of the commodity and of alienated life as a whole. The EdN did not learn any lessons at all from the failure of May ’68, nor in particular from the SI’s organizational ineffectiveness during the following years. It restricted its considerations to confirming the disappearance of the workers movement, which it variously considered to be crushed and defeated, or integrated into the capitalist system. It also resorted to political myths like the idyllic and idealist return to nature and the millenarian announcement of the great ecological, technological and social catastrophe. It adopted an attitude of resigned contemplation of the history of revolutions, without ever understanding the practical tasks that must be fulfilled in future revolutions. The EdN did not successfully meet the challenge of finding a new point of departure after the failure of May ’68, but has instead savagely denounced any new revolutionary attempts, thereby transforming itself into the sole and exclusive proprietor and guardian of social critique. The journal (and the group) were founded in 1984 (in response to the assassination of the publisher Gérard Lebovici and a widespread press campaign to discredit Guy Debord) amidst a climate that was somewhat paranoid and characterized by a persecutory mania (which was more or less justified, but which overwhelmed and definitively left its mark on the group) which led the group to abandon any kind of revolutionary perspective and to assert that a historical threshold had already been crossed that made any attempt to overthrow capitalism impossible. The group never apologized for the existing world, nor had it yet fallen (it would not do so until 1997) into a mere passive contemplation of the catastrophe, which it nonetheless ceaselessly evoked. The EdN swept the very idea of revolution under the rug, without offering any alternative except an anti-industrial and anti-technological myth, which continually served to assure them of the inevitability of the “great” disaster.
After a brief initial period when Debord contributed a few articles to the EdN journal (it seems he was the inspiration or principal author of the articles “Abat-faim” [“Hunger-Killer”—first course of a meal to quash pangs of hunger before the main course] and “Ab irato” [a Latin legal term referring to a testamentary clause barring inheritance to an heir, executed “in anger” as a posthumous punishment of the heir]) in 1987, following a bitter exchange of polemics between Jean-Françoise Martos (defending the positions of Guy Debord) and Christian Sebastiani (defending the positions of Jaime Semprun) concerning the occupation of the Sorbonne by high school students in December 1986, Debord began to distance himself from the EdN. This emerging rupture became a definitive break when the EdN revealed and disproportionately exaggerated Guy Debord’s debt to Günther Anders. In 1956, Anders published The Obsolescence of Man, which, according to the Encyclopedists, not only anticipated the theses elaborated by Debord in The Society of the Spectacle by ten years, but, besides having been the first to expound them, also did so more effectively and with greater clarity. Even so, in 1988 Jaime Semprun passed a very favorable judgment on the persecutory delirium of Debord’s Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle.
The concept of “nuisance” (harmfulness or harmful phenomenon) became the magic wand of confused thought, wherein capitalism ceases to be the accumulation of means of production in order to obtain a profit, but is instead considered to be an infinite accumulation of means of pollution (emission of “harmful phenomena”). The raison d’être of the capitalist system of production is now alleged to be the production of harmful phenomena, so that a factory’s purpose would be the production of smoke, and no longer the enrichment of its owner through the production of commodities to be sold on the market for a profit. In other words, the phenomenon of pollution has ceased to be a marginal and undesired product of capitalist production that was the object of neither study nor concern as long as it did not get in the way of making a profit, and has instead become, according to the Encyclopedist view, the fundamental destructive purpose of a capitalism that is now characterized as industrialism.
Just as the SPECTACLE was the characteristic sign of the SI, the EdN’s trademark was HARMFUL PHENOMENA. In 1972 pollution and the proletariat were the two legs upon which theoretical social critique was poised, an idea that the EdN took from the SI’s last text, The Veritable Split in the International. But without the proletariat, which the EdN soon came to consider socially defunct, its critique was rendered lame, as it stood only on the one leg of harmful phenomena. And without any revolutionary perspective, since the proletariat no longer existed for the Encyclopedists and they have not yet found a replacement for the role of revolutionary subject, Semprun’s groupuscule dedicated itself, from 1984 to 1992, to the following tasks:
1. Elaborating a dictionary of harmful phenomena, with no other horizon than the inevitable global catastrophe. For eight years the EdN devoted itself exclusively to writing and selling the volumes of an encyclopedia that never got past the letter “A”. The rabid situationist revolutionaries of May ’68 were transformed, during the 1980s, into salesmen peddling an incomplete, monothematic, and endless encyclopedia.
2. A project of counter-journalistic critique, already assayed in the journal L’Assommoir, which, by means of an avid perusal of the daily newspapers, indicated, revealed, collected together and multiplied to infinity all the harmful phenomena of our world, which were presented in a feverish, repetitive, aristocratic and elitist manner as examples of the barbarism of the society in which we live, and as the harbingers of imminent catastrophe. The monotonous enumeration and repetition of harmful phenomena became a kind of theoretical argument through the accumulation of proofs for the existence of harmful phenomena, which at the same time serves as a substitute for the elaboration of a critical theory that could embrace and explain harmful phenomena in their entirety. The EdN restricted its efforts to the elaboration of a phenomenology of harmful phenomena.
3. The deliberate and complete separation of theory from practice is the hallmark of the impotence of the EdN with respect to assuming a revolutionary perspective that would comprehend and include the totality, on the basis of the sum of particular harmful phenomena. The EdN’s essence definitively shifted towards its realization in literary, philosophical and publishing pursuits as an end in itself, and therefore as a goal separate from the real social and historical movement of the workers, which soon led it to openly oppose that movement. The absence of a real historical and political perspective rendered illusory any attempt on its part to devise a critical position worthy of being called a theory.
The EdN effectively lacks a theoretical corpus worthy of the name. The theories it upholds derive from Marxist thought (primarily from the Frankfurt School’s reactionary and academic version of Marxism); or they have been inherited from situationism (among many others, the basic EdN concept of harmful phenomena); others have been influenced by Hegelian idealism (essentially via the Hegelian concepts of historical teleology and the Absolute Idea), and some of its most frequently employed theses not only accept, but elaborate and modernize the anti-technological, anti-industrial and reactionary thought of Heidegger. But the Encyclopedists, avid readers in search of authorities to support their delusions, phobias and fantasies, do not hesitate to lift quotations and arguments from the most diverse and ideologically divergent authors, sometimes acknowledging and at other times concealing their sources, such as Mumford, Noble, Rifkin, Adorno, Bernanos, Gorz, Traven, Anders, Marcuse, Horkheimer, Orwell, Zerzan and a lengthy etcetera.
This multifarious “theoretical corpus” (if it can be called that) lacks any originality at all, as well as the theoretical cement that could fuse such a disparate conglomerate, borrowed from such dissimilar sources. It also lacks a consistent theoretical foundation that could withstand the passage of time, since the unprecedented evolution of Jaime Semprun, from his leftist-councilist activism of 1974 to his current passive existence as a gardener, has transformed him into a notable, capricious and absolutely rootless weathercock.
Basic concepts like capitalism, proletariat, revolution and critical theory totally change their meaning from decade to decade. Only one thing stays the same: the absence of any historical and political perspective. Since 1984 the EdN has moved in a constant, perpetual and eternal present of catastrophic harmful phenomena. In reality the EdN no longer has any other reason to exist as an elitist and aristocratic group that is trying to lay claim to the exclusive ownership of the critical theory of our time. The replacement of the Marxist concept “capitalism” by the Luddite concept of “industrial society” or “industrialism”, combined with the rejection of the proletariat as the revolutionary subject, has led the group to concur with the most reactionary ideologies, generated by bourgeois intellectuals (like Rifkin) in the service of the capitalist system for its defense and legitimization, which implies an OBJECTIVE complicity with such ideologies, and with the capitalism that generates the harmful phenomena that the EdN claims to criticize and to fight.
In 1992, the last issue of EdN, Number 15, was published and the EdN then became a publishing house. From an organizational point of view, the group dissolved into a series of individual pursuits, almost exclusively of a theoretical and literary nature, which were more or less held together by a particular editorial perspective. They translated the Unabomber, William Morris and Günther Anders, and published Baudouin de Bodinat, René Riesel, Jean-Marc Mandosio and a series of collective texts of a Luddite bent, critical of “industrial society”, opposed to genetic modification in agriculture, against technoscience and automation, in praise of primitivism, etc.
TODAY, the essential theoretical fruit of the EdN can be summarized as: the disappearance of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, which have been replaced by a proletarianized and exploited nature and scientific-technological domination. The society of the spectacle (a concept of the SI) has, in turn, been replaced by an accumulation of harmful phenomena that are dragging a reified and ignorant humanity towards an inevitable catastrophe (guaranteed by the EdN).
The EdN’s few attempts to coordinate practical actions, such as the “Alliance for the Struggle against All Harmful Phenomena” (1991-1995), were brought to a conclusion by their most absolute failure and ineffectiveness, which results have contributed to the EdN’s current theoretical deviations and passivity. At the beginning of its journey, in 1984, the EdN, as epigone and heir of situationist thought, demonstrated its determination to preserve the mythical image of the SI, which had attempted to revitalize the critique of a kind of neo-capitalism that it characterized as “consumer society”, by way of new practices and a new revolutionary project. But by 1992 the EdN had fallen into the dead end of endless lamentation over technological slavery. The fertile rage against capitalism’s colonization of everyday life, which characterized the SI in 1957 (when it was founded), was transformed into the impotent sectarian pessimism and mournful apocalyptic fanaticism of the EdN in 1997 (when The Abyss was published).
This critical anemia of revolutionary thought in the eighties and nineties, which affected other groups besides the EdN, was the result of an almost total absence of radical social conflicts. For the pro-situs of the EdN the revolution died with those who were supposed to have carried it out, a proletariat that had been hoodwinked and annihilated at the same time by Stalinism and by its integration into the capitalist system (even though the Stalinist regimes fell in 1989-1991 and the economic crisis has refuted the integration theories of the “consumer society” of the sixties). The proletariat, yesterday’s hero, becomes today’s villain, because it embodies the EdN’s failed revolutionary hopes. This is why the EdN became a groupuscule upholding decidedly conservative and reactionary ideas during the nineties, although its language, pretensions, and topical focus were still the products of “THE ONLY critical theory of our time”. In reality, its theoretical contribution, alternating between technological theosophy and apocalyptic pessimism, helps to increase the ideological confusionism of the world in which we live.
The EdN’s critical theory can only be valid TODAY for those who have ALREADY renounced the perspective of the revolution, a renunciation that, due to the failure of the French May ’68, affected so many other groups (whose members were disenchanted by and disillusioned with the old workers movement) in the period immediately after May ’68. The EdN became a bothersome leftist boil on the backside of the civil society and antiglobalization movement, with which it competed in the publishing market.
In spite of the Taoist passivity of a Jaime Semprun, we also discover in the EdN the leftist activism of a Miguel Amorós, eternally in search of social movements where he can didactically intervene, with the permanent goal of conquering, influencing and ideologically colonizing the libertarian movement, demonstrating his unlimited capacities as a con artist in attenuating the worst aberrations of Encyclopedist thought, and going so far as to venture obvious contradictions of the fundamental dogmas of the EdN groupuscule. With four discredited concepts lifted from other sources, “turbocapitalism” (borrowed from Robert Brenner), “technoscience” (from Castoriadis and the “Unabomber”, among others), the Party-State (from Munis and others) and the non-existence of the working class (from Adorno and Rifkin, among others), the Miguel Amorós traveling circus stages a conference, writes a pamphlet or takes up needle and thread and scissors to make a disguise for himself consisting of an ideological costume as on-duty interlocutor. He is a charlatan who copies and appropriates whatever takes his fancy, by first amorphously deforming, absorbing and encyclopedizing it. He deserves the moniker of “encyclopedist chameleon”. And we cannot fail to mention the fact that René Riesel recently (2001) joined the EdN (Riesel was expelled from the SI and later became a farmer in the nineties), the most media-savvy of the Encyclopedists, thanks to his interventions in the struggles of the Farmers Federation in France, together with Bové, in “spectacular” actions against tainted food or transgenic research, against McDonalds restaurants or CIRAD, and who had a certain media impact, which also involved certain legal consequences. Riesel is the “encyclopedist farmer”.
It is not Jaime’s current Taoism, but the activism of the other Encyclopedists, that has brought the EdN a certain spectacular and media impact, and the consequent promotion of its publishing business in various languages. Yet despite the existence of various conflicting tendencies that can be melded only with difficulty, it is Semprun, the “encyclopedist gardener”, who remains the ideological guarantor of the group.
So as not to inordinately extend this presentation, and to save much more valuable paper than the ideology we are criticizing, we shall set out our critique in a series of brief numbered paragraphs, which touch upon the basic key aspects of Encyclopedist thought. We cannot refrain from reminding the reader that the cartoonish aspect of the Encyclopedist theories outlined below is solely and totally due to them alone, and that we have had to go to great lengths to provide them with the coherence that they lack. The key aspects of Encyclopedist thought were descended from a few key points of situationist thought concerning which, rather than attempting to outline a critique of situationism, we shall merely discuss those theoretical propositions that had the most influence on the SI’s Encyclopedist epigones.
We shall focus our critique on Jaime Semprun’s book L’Abîme se Repeuple (“The Abyss Repopulates Itself”, 1997) because this book is simultaneously: the ideological apex of its author, chief and axis of the groupuscule of the Encyclopedia; a final stage expressing numerous blatant oppositions, contradictions and denials with respect to what was said and done during the councilist-workerist period of “Los Incontrolados” and L’Assommoir (1974-1984); an original settling of accounts with his feared and admired master Debord, who died two years before the publication of The Abyss; and above all because it perfectly summarizes the dead end of the STERILE ideology of the Encylopedists. We shall therefore examine neither the media campaign against the genetic modification of agriculture waged by René Riesel in France, nor the attack on the libertarian movement in Spain carried out by Miguel Amorós. We shall not even criticize Jacques Philipponeau’s shocking theory concerning the poisoning of the rapeseed oil in Madrid, which he attributes to El Ejido’s greenhouse tomatoes. Nor shall we comment upon the EdN’s silly enthusiasm for the critiques of industrial society made by Theodore Kaczynski (a/k/a the “Unabomber”). We shall not give any consideration at all to the mystical enlightenment which led the Encyclopedists to discover in Anders the illustrious precedent of a Frankfurt School philosopher who devoted decades to the prediction of imminent catastrophe; a well-known pacifist and radical ecologist who, in the last months of his life, issued an appeal to violence as the only realistic way to oppose the destruction of the planet; and finally, as if all those omissions were not enough, we have a perfect alibi for ignoring Debord. We shall focus on the works of the principal guide and ideologue of the EdN, Jaime Semprun, who is ultimately the person who establishes, channels, glamorizes and determines the basic doctrines of the Encyclopedist philosophy.
It may seem to be an exaggeration and an unfounded, distorted and malicious criticism to assert that, after thirty years of herculean labors on the terrain of critical theory, the “revolutionary” program advocated by Jaime Semprun can be summarized as a call to cultivate one’s own garden in order to survive the imminent ecological, technological and social catastrophe of the world in which we live. But such is its actual ridiculous, grotesque and preposterous character. In September of 2003 he confirmed ("Le Fantôme") what he had already intimated in 1999 (Remarques sur. . .): that he wants us all to go ‘back to the land’. In Semprun’s own words: “I will conclude by saying that a good handbook on gardening [. . .] would undoubtedly be more useful for overcoming the approaching cataclysm than any number of theoretical writings which continue to speculate serenely, as if we were on solid ground, concerning the how and the why of the shipwreck of industrial society” ("Le Fantôme de la Theorie"--"The Ghost of Theory").
The idiotic utopianism and apocalyptic defeatism advocated by Semprun with his call to cultivate our gardens (even if they are the gardens of Epicurus) can only be characterized as reactionary and eccentric buffoonery. Few things are as sad and as deplorable as those unfortunate clowns who think they are geniuses. Hardly any proletarians (pardon them for existing!) have gardens, unless you call a couple of potted geraniums a garden; furthermore, following the thread of the stupidity of Semprunian reasoning, we ask ourselves: how will Semprun defend the fruits and vegetables of his garden from the attacks of the miserable barbarians of the ghetto? How will he prevent the ecological catastrophe announced by the EdN from also affecting his garden? Does the EdN have the rifles and the artillery it will need to defend its garden from the attacks of the miserable starvelings of the People of the Abyss?
Key Points for a Critique of Guy Debord and Situationism
“There are many fanciful sects, and from all the prudent man has to flee. There are bizarre tastes that always take to their heart all that wise men repudiate; they live in love with singularity. This may make them well known indeed, but more as objects of ridicule than of repute. A cautious man does not even make profession of his wisdom, still less of those matters that make their followers ridiculous.” (Balthasar Gracian, Art of Worldly Wisdom, tr. Joseph Jacobs, MacMillan and Co., London, 1927, p. 18.)
1. For Debord, the spectacle is the tyrannical rule over society by the capitalist economy, which rules over the life of man not only in the production process, but also in every aspect of his life. The rule of the capitalist economy also affects leisure time and all human relations. The capitalist economy controls and programs not only working time, but also the “free” time of weekends and recreation. Man is a creature of just one dimension: the economic. In what came to be universally and deceptively referred to as “consumer society” during the sixties, the rule of the economy penetrated the private sphere of all individuals, invading and conditioning the most minor aspects of their private lives, leaving no stone unturned. The economy acceded to autonomy. The Encyclopedists would apply this autonomy to technology as well.
2. The concept of the spectacle is inseparable from that of the regimentation of man under capitalism. The spectacle is capital at such a high degree of concentration that it is transformed into an image (Thesis 34 of The Society of the Spectacle) only in the imagination of Debord and the situationists, but never on the planet Earth for all the rest of us mortals.
3. The proletariat ceases to be the SOCIAL CLASS, without property or means of production, that is compelled to sell its labor power (Marx) in exchange for a wage, in order to become an abstract sociological designation applied to all those who have no decision-making power over their lives (Debord) “and know it”.
4. Capital is no longer a SOCIAL RELATION between the proletariat that needs to sell its labor power to survive, and the capitalists who need to buy labor power to obtain surplus value. Debord contemplates the commodity only in the sphere of circulation. The concepts of surplus value and the valorization of capital have disappeared. The motive force and purpose of capital, the cycle M-C-M1 of the valorization of money, has disappeared. Debord only attends to the commodity in its moment of consumption, never in the sphere of production. The specific mode of capitalist exploitation based on obtaining surplus value has disappeared. Debord only contemplates dead labor (constant capital) and says nothing of living labor (variable capital), or about the production relations which capital establishes between the two in a prodigiously effective manner.
5. Due to the absence of the concept of the proletariat as a dispossessed class forced to sell its labor power for a wage, and for that reason a potentially revolutionary class, and of the concept of capital as a social relation between antagonistic social classes, Debord’s theory amounts to an idealist dialectic, which can only oppose what “should be” (in the mind of Debord) to what actually exists (the real social and historical activity of the proletariat). Thus, Debord’s historical formulations (the Workers Councils) are situated outside the social reality of his time, in order to be contrasted with the real conditions of the society in which he lived.
Hence the SI’s disenchantment with the proletariat, in which the situationists had already begun to lose faith in 1972, and which their pro-situ epigones, the Encyclopedists, ended up rejecting lock, stock and barrel during the nineties.
Both the SI and the EdN ignore the fact that the proletariat is a historical relation, one that is neither static, nor statistical, nor stable. The proletariat is not composed solely of workers (or wage laborers), nor is it composed only of those who produce wealth for capital and misery for themselves; it is above all else the historical relation (dynamic, unstable and social) that arises in the class struggle between capital and the working class, and that will only put an end to the existence of social classes with the communist revolution.
6. The ideology of the SI pretends that it is not an ideology, but knows that it is. The ideology of the SI pretends to be the critical theory of its time, although it knows it is not. But it does have such pretenses, and that is why it calls all the other critical theories of capitalism “leftist”. Debord’s critique of the spectacle is both spectacular and alienated. And since it also lacks any kind of practical application, it became a mere philosophy, which Debord in the end degraded to the point of transforming it into the mere expression of the individual opinions of the “genius Debord”, which are often as interesting as any other run-of-the-mill truisms.
7. The failed, but “spectacularly” successful pretension of expressing a critical theory of The Society of the Spectacle was transformed into the persecutory paranoia of the Commentaries, only in order to degenerate into a theosophy of the end of the world in its Encyclopedist epigones.
8. Debord makes no distinction at all between labor and labor power. Marx carried out a critique of political economy. Debord and the situationists disseminated an anti-economistic and anti-industrialist ideology born of an absolute incomprehension of the basic economic categories of capitalism: labor power, constant and variable capital, use value and exchange value, surplus value, capital as a social relation between antagonistic social classes, etc. . . .
9. Capitalism can only be understood in its characteristics and its historical necessity if it is analyzed from the perspective of its supersession and negation by the revolutionary proletariat, in communism. That is, on the basis of a theory that is elaborated and realized in practice: the practice of a revolutionary class that negates capitalism and negates itself with the destruction of the State and the suppression of all classes.
10. Debord’s philosophy utilizes a Marxist jargon that falsifies Marx’s basic concepts. He speaks in an abstract and idealist way about nonexistent workers councils, without reference to any historical or social situation. Although it pretended to be the driving force of a theory of the proletariat, the SI was only an expression of the demoralization of the middle classes in the face of the rapid and inevitable process of their proletarianization in the French society of the fifties and sixties.
Debord created a new (non-proletarian) reader fascinated by the intelligence, the sensitivity and the audacity with which he addressed a red-hot NEW problematic in modern society (between 1957 and 1972): the manipulative power of the communications media, the misnamed “consumer society”, the submission of the worker to capital not only during working time but also during leisure time, the one-dimensional economic character of modern man and his complete alienation. In 1972, in The Veritable Split, Debord added pollution and the destruction of natural resources to his critique, threats to the future of humanity to which the EdN would add nuclear radiation and genetic modification, ecological catastrophes, etc.
But it is precisely this aspect of Debord’s thought, the voracious desire to analyze the spectacular novelties of the modern world, that gave birth to the situationists’ theoretical falsification of reality, when they attempt to replace the analysis of capitalism elaborated by Marx in the 19th century, with theoretical novelties of a supposedly Marxist origin, poorly assimilated and applied in Debord’s analysis of The Society of the Spectacle of 20th century capitalism. Following in the footsteps of their situationist masters, the Encyclopedists made a great mortal leap into the void, replacing the capital accumulation process theorized by Marx with an accumulation of harmful phenomena that is to blame for the extensive poisoning and deterioration of nature, instead of capitalist development that, impelled solely by its search for a maximum profit, leads to this aberrant, iniquitous and gratuitous destruction of natural resources; rather, these harmful phenomena are attributed to progress and industrial development, viewed as blind productivism, whose final goal is no longer capitalist profit, but the application of scientific and technological innovations that are transformed (as the economy is transformed in Debord’s work) into an autonomous, independent and omnipotent being, which in addition possesses its own will and even a concrete political program: the destruction of humanity.
Key Aspects of a Critique of Jaime Semprun and The Abyss
“Do not indulge in the eccentricities of Folly. Like vain, presumptuous, egotistical, untrustworthy, capricious, obstinate, fanciful, theatrical, whimsical, inquisitive, paradoxical, sectarian people and all kinds of one-sided persons; they are all monsters of impertinence. All deformity of mind is more obnoxious than that of the body, because it contravenes a higher beauty. . . . Where self-control is wanting, there is no room for others’ guidance. Instead of paying attention to other people’s real derision, men of this kind blind themselves with the unfounded assumption of their imaginary applause.” (Balthasar Gracian, Art of Worldly Wisdom, tr. Joseph Jacobs, MacMillan and Co., London, 1927, pp. 100-101.)
11. The power and the splendor of the discourse of the Encyclopedia of Harmful Phenomena (EdN) merely evinces its own impotence in relation to the understanding and explanation of the social, economic and political reality of the world in which we live. Not only do they completely lack the least intellectual rigor, they even exalt their lack of specialization and knowledge. Their discourse often displays a brilliant yet empty literary style, with detailed yet superficial analyses of the potential tendencies of contemporary social and political phenomena, although the tendencies they discuss, besides exhibiting a paucity of proof for their existence, are exaggerated, distorted and magnified to the point of caricature; and, of course, these tendencies are not considered as potential FUTURE tendencies but as CURRENTLY taking place. Thus, for example, the quantitative diminution of the industrial proletariat in the developed countries becomes the disappearance of the proletariat in the books, articles and pamphlets of the EdN. Diminution becomes disappearance, and the industrial proletariat becomes the (entire) proletariat (without taking into account the growth of the proletariat in the tertiary sector, or the growth in part-time and temporary sectors, or the displacement of industrial production to the peripheral capitalist nations). The red-hot novelty of their theories, which may for that reason seem attractive and self-evident, is the fruit of this rash and hardly rigorous extrapolation of potential future tendencies into the present. They sacrifice theoretical rigor for “spectacular” flashiness, innovation and “splendor”.
Their style is plagued by devastating and impertinently personal insults (especially in the Manual of Recuperation) and fulminating and capricious dismissals (Foucault is arbitrarily discounted, after Semprun’s explicit confession that he never read any of his works). Such dismissals, when they are expressed within a groupuscule, can lead to exclusions on the basis of theoretical minutiae, which only serve as justifications for the inability of Encyclopedist thought to understand and to grasp reality. Such exclusions are often carried out in a cruel and dishonorable manner that unnecessarily subjects former comrades to ridicule. They are the hallmarks of the situationist “style”.
This style also implies a peculiar relation with the potential masochistic reader of EdN publications. Thus, in The Abyss, Jaime Semprun is really only addressing the other Encyclopedists (they can be counted on the fingers of two hands) because he is convinced that the book will fall into the hands of a decidedly imbecilic audience, whom he mistreats and scorns as such. Hence the insufferable tone of messianic superiority employed by the author throughout the book, which continuously exudes a comical and unbearable mystical dilettantism.
12. Reality never measures up to the idea. If reality does not measure up to the idea, reality is abolished.
In the fifteenth and last issue of the EdN (1992), a search was undertaken for the facts that would confirm critical (Encyclopedist) theory and allow for its continued development; and since such facts were not discovered, they decided in 1997 (in The Abyss) to renounce any knowledge of the world in which we live and to definitively disregard the facts. Reality and the facts were replaced by the myths of primitivism, Luddism, the critique of industrialism, praise for small self-sufficient communities, and a vague desire to return to Rousseau and the noble savage.
It seems that Semprun begins every one of his books with a new renunciation. In the Manual of Recuperation he renounces the attempt to find solutions for real social problems; in The Abyss he renounces knowledge of the world and understanding how society functions. In "The Ghost" he renounces critical theory and therefore political intervention: now all that remains is to cultivate our gardens.
These renunciations are furthermore presented in a provocative way, as if they were conquests. However, a logical question immediately arises: what kind of political project renounces knowledge of how the society in which we live functions, along with any understanding of the world? And the clear and obvious answer is: theology. A theology in which the god of evil (Satan) is the scientific and technological DOMINATION of humanity, a domination that is ubiquitous and omnipotent in the world in which we live. But if the pretension to knowledge of and understanding the world is abandoned, what becomes of activity to change the world? If critical theory is renounced, so too is political intervention. And, after all, since the proletariat has not carried out the revolution (which the group predicted would first break out in Portugal in 1974), which it should have done by now according to the EdN, the EdN declares the dissolution of the proletariat.
13. The Abyss offers us the image of a total and irreversible submission of a reified and idiotic humanity, of a world in which the increasing proletarianization of the middle classes and the petit-bourgeoisie, the spread of ghettos of misery and barbarism in the urban fringes, the lumpen-proletarianization of the worker in the peripheral regions of capitalism, as well as the quantitative and qualitative deterioration of working conditions in the industrial sector, are understood as the end of the history of the old workers movement due to the absolute victory of capitalism, which has won because of the unconditional surrender of its adversary. The EdN proclaims and certifies the disappearance of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The reader will search in vain for the statistical study or the bibliography upon which the Encyclopedists have based assertions of such far-reaching scope: nothing more or less than the end of the bourgeoisie and the end of the proletariat. One only finds arguments, statistics and hypotheses similar to the thesis of the end of the proletariat defended by the EdN in the texts of the ideological defenders of the capitalist system, such as Jeremy Rifkin.
The Encyclopedia, which, let us not forget, considers itself the vanguard of the critical theory of our time, adopts the theses of Andre Gorz, Jurgen Habermas and Herbert Marcuse (among others) without directly admitting this fact, appropriating them as if they were their own discoveries. The analysis of a society of conformist masses, where the discoveries of science and technological advance are simultaneously the epitome of scientific rationalism and the means for obtaining the total submission of the individual’s thought and behavior in capitalist society, was already made by Marcuse (to cite just one author who was popular during the 1960s). The EdN’s activity consists in pursuing these ideas to their logical conclusions, in a paroxysm of exaggeration.
What the authors mentioned above viewed as a tendency, the Encyclopedia perceived as a fait accompli (already manifest in the 1990s); and an irreversible one at that. The critical theory of the Frankfurt School is transformed in the Encyclopedia into the ridiculous caricature of a theory of the imminent end of labor, the bourgeoisie, and the proletariat, and the advent of the omnipotent rule of a demonized technology tyrannizing over a reified humanity. It is a millenarian prophesy of the end of the world. The EdN has gone beyond the critical theory of the Frankfurt School in order to reach the summits of theosophy and the Apocalypse.
One of the key points for understanding the vagaries of Encyclopedist thought is this PARALLEL PROCESS OF THE PERSONIFICATION OF TECHNOSCIENCE AND THE REIFICATION OF HUMANITY.
14. For Semprun, after the theosophy elaborated in The Abyss, all that remains is literature, the cultivation of brilliant turns of phrase and of grotesque insults, because he has lost all contact with reality and knowledge. Objectivity is not possible within the solipsism of the groupuscule, which is considered as an extension of the ego; all that remains is lyricism, that is, the literary essay as the poetic expression of one’s own subjectivity. But the insult, which in the SI proved its effectiveness in the pitiless critique of the spokespersons of the existing society, which the SI sought to combat and to change, lacks any kind of power or originality in the Encyclopedists, and is transformed into a vulgar, repetitive, banal and crude gesture, one that takes the place of the missing arguments. Thus, for example, the Encyclopedist refutation of Marxist theory is limited, on every occasion and in connection with any issue, to a handy catchphrase: “as a Marxist idiot would say,” which spares them the effort of engaging in rigorous argumentation and something more laborious than base insults. Libertarians and leftists of all tendencies may very well deserve insults of a more elaborate and subtle, but not so vulgar and pointless, kind.
Furthermore, we are presented with a confusion of genres that requires the subordination of critical theory to the author’s pretentious literary aspirations, which are now subject to the publishing interests of the EdN. We have an example of this subordination of critical theory to the bon mot in The Abyss, where Semprun does not hesitate to provide us with two contradictory endings (the catastrophe is simultaneously something that will happen in the future and something that has already taken place), because he feels incapable of rejecting the literary beauty of either one of the two images (the vain hope for a liberating catastrophe or the house in ruins) with which he concludes his book, far removed from any respect for a minimum of rigor and coherence, when he presents the hecatomb to us as being in both the past and the future. It is even possible that Semprun thinks anyone who distinguishes between the past and the future and who refuses to view them as distinct moments of one present, understood by the Encyclopedists as a perpetual temporal process, is a fool.
15. The EdN not only erroneously equates capitalism and technology, but subordinates capitalism to technology and therefore speaks of industrial society instead of capitalism. The Marxist concepts of “productive forces” and “relations of production” have also disappeared. The result is nothing less than the demonization of technology as the protagonist of a tyrannical rule over nature and as the source of absolute power over humanity.
The EdN also conducts a MORAL debate over the acceptance or rejection of technology, which leads to the dead end of a sterile and abstract philosophical conflict between the supporters and the opponents of scientific and technological advance. Encyclopedist extravagance formulates infantile phobias and questions concerning the use of the contraceptive pill, sonograms, amniocentesis and the use of epidurals in childbirth; traveling by jet, high speed train or highway; the use of cell phones, microwaves or plastic bottles; using a credit card, being a tourist, going to the movies, listening to music on CD players, listening to the radio or watching TV; reading on the computer screen, sending emails or publishing texts on the internet (because, among other things, this could endanger the EdN’s publishing business!), and a very lengthy and eccentric etcetera. We do not know whether or not they question the use of forceps, paying into retirement pension funds, the electric light bulb, begetting children or riding a bicycle, although for the moment it seems that they have yet to reject the use of flint, the fork or the ox-drawn plow. It is quite clear that they do not use a compass, since it is obvious that they have lost their bearings.
Technology and harmful phenomena have a privileged relationship. Behind each harmful phenomenon lurks a technical apparatus, and the result of every scientific advance or technological application of scientific principles reveals a harmful phenomenon. It is a vicious circle in which technoscience is the snake biting the tail of pollution. In the EdN, the noxiousness of harmful phenomena attains a meaning extended towards the infinite, embracing everything, from the irreversible alterations induced in nature by technology to human consciousness and self-consciousness and its understanding of a falsified reality. Productive forces, State and society are in turn harmful phenomena, since the social production of harmful phenomena is itself a harmful phenomenon. It is an infernal circle where humanity, victim of all these harmful phenomena, suffers its own alienation as a species, separated and estranged from nature and from itself.
The class struggle yields, in the Encyclopedists, to humanity’s (already lost) fight for life and for its survival as a species. For the EdN there are no more proletarians or bourgeoisie; there are only “living beings” struggling to survive, foundering in a catastrophe which for all intents and purposes is now irreversible and inevitable.
Now that the class struggle has disappeared, all that remains is Taoist passivity. What philosophy could better serve its interests, and what “better” revolutionaries than the Encyclopedists, could capitalism wish for in the 21st century? What sort of revolutionaries are these who proclaim the unconditional defeat of the revolution before the fight even begins?
16. Now that knowledge, the proletariat and reality are abolished, all that remains to us is the Absolute Idea of God (which the Encyclopedists locate in technoscience) and literature (and/or philosophy). There is a good reason why allusions to Hegel are constantly cropping up in the Encyclopedia’s groupuscule, and this is why the references in The Abyss are always literary: Jack London and George Orwell. It dresses up Orwell as a prophet who predicted the current totalitarianism of technoscience. But it is from London’s book The Iron Heel that Jaime Semprun took the title of his essay, The Abyss Repopulates Itself. It appears, however, that he is unfamiliar with another one of London’s books: The People of the Abyss, and it is particularly evident that he is unaware of the fact, and certainly would not care to know, that the title of this last-mentioned book was inspired by London’s personal investigation, a kind of journalistic report on the poor neighborhoods of London in 1903, in which he exposed the real living conditions of the London proletariat. London’s conclusion in this book is just as disappointing as Semprun’s conclusion in his 1997 book. London compares the English and American proletariats and concludes that the deficient diet of the English proletariat produces a deficient worker and a backward country, while the North American proletariat is better fed, and is therefore a better worker and this is responsible for the higher productivity of the U.S. economy. London therefore presages Fordism.
From London Semprun borrowed the concept of the People of the Abyss, which is nothing but a name for the lumpenproletariat, enslaved, humiliated and degraded by poverty, generalized unemployment and the prevalence of temporary and part time employment in the London of 1903, in order to assert in 1997 the opposite of what London said in 1903: the end of the proletariat.
The long road traveled by the EdN leads us from the workerist and councilist activism of the extreme left (which viewed the officers’ “revolution” in Portugal and the strikes during the Spanish Transition as the beginning of the world revolution) to the abyss of the disappearance of the proletariat, and with it the disappearance of the revolution; and from there to the irreversible victory of technoscience and the capitulation of humanity, which is irreversibly treading the path to the Semprunian Apocalypse.
What is to be done? What solution does Semprun offer us? The one that finally leads us to the felicitous and promising cultivation of our gardens. We can certainly qualify Encyclopedist thought as reactionary and demobilizing, the complement and leftist accomplice of the greatest defenders and champions of that thought which is only advocated by neoliberalism and the extreme right. It was not by chance that Rifkin and Semprun were in agreement during the mid-nineties with their grandiose announcement of the end of the proletariat.
The Encyclopedists have undergone an ideological development that led them from situationism to a reactionary position that exalts the small rural community of craftsmen, peasants and pre-industrial workers, demonizes technological and scientific advancement, sanctifies the artisan who feels pride in a job well-done, and advocates a reactionary and elitist relationship with nature.
17. The Abyss is what stands between the EdN’s ideology and social and historical reality. During long counterrevolutionary periods the proletariat remains passive and is sociologically nullified; it is only in the midst of class confrontations and during brief revolutionary periods that the proletariat appears as the revolutionary subject capable of transforming the world. This is because revolutions are not made by vanguards, or revolutionary minorities, or much less literary or Encyclopedist circles, but by the anonymous proletariat, which is an uneducated, inactive and nugatory mass in periods of social peace. And why is that? Because the proletariat is not the “supreme savior” but a historical relation. The proletariat negates capitalism and puts its destruction on the agenda at the very moment when it unifies as a class and organizes, not in order to constitute itself as the ruling class, as the bourgeoisie did in the past, but in order to destroy class society. Outside of revolutionary epochs the proletariat is nothing (Marx). It is this historical relation between two opposed classes that determines the revolutionary character of the proletariat, not its alleged redemptive and soteriological mission as a sort of 20th century Christ, attributed to it by Jaime Semprun during the days of “Los Incontrolados” and L’Assommoir in the 1970s. In the nineties Jaime and the EdN ceased to believe in the proletariat they had deified as savior and redeemer, to become an end-of-the-world sect predicting that humanity will meet its end at the hands of the new god, technoscience. This theological thought (so characteristic of the EdN) can and often does make such leaps from the adoration of a Christ-proletariat to the submission to a Satan-technoscience, because its idealist basis does nothing but replace one deus ex machina with another, without requiring even the slightest change in the rest of its philosophical conceptions.
The proletariat, as revolutionary class, LACKS partial goals which conceal from it the final goal: the struggle to end capitalism and for its own abolition as a separate class. The proletarian revolution can only be total and can only destroy all aspects of today’s society of exploitation, and is born from the conflict between the development of the productive forces and the existing social relations of production, which no longer correspond to those productive forces.
18. All revolutionary perspective has disappeared in The Abyss. The only thing we have now is the end of the world. And, of course, an idyllic past that never existed: that of the peasant, the small self-sufficient rural communities and the pre-industrial craftsman.
Semprun’s discourse is becoming an apocalyptic, anti-progress, anti-technology meditation, related to Hegel’s idealism and the traditionalist current of reactionary anti-technological thought of the Nazi Heidegger (who taught the leading members of the Frankfurt School). The references are endless as are the Encyclopedists’ debts to theoretical pessimism and defeatism, the theory of the proletariat’s integration into the capitalist system, the obsession with an “end of History” marked by a concrete event in the past (Auschwitz) and the Frankfurt School’s most aberrant analyses: Adorno, Horkheimer, Arendt, Marcuse, Benjamin, etc.; as well as the late discovery of Günther Anders (who was married to Hannah Arendt, who was at one time Heidegger’s lover).
Despite certain marginal critical merits, the Frankfurt School settled into University Chairs and, entrenched in its vast learning, removed itself from all practice, until it became a clique of pedantic “Marxist” theoreticians.
Under the cloak of the “critical theory” trademark, Horkheimer and Adorno tried to legitimate their reactionary turn, which had accelerated in their post-World War Two works, in which the historical existence of an anti-Leninist or antiauthoritarian left was denied, and in which Marx ceased to be a revolutionary and was instead depicted as a mere sociologist or philosopher; they were therefore excellent predecessors for the EdN to imitate and to quote.
The Frankfurt School also provided not only the model for the EdN’s reactionary version of a supposedly critical theory, but also an aristocratic critique of mass society, which the EdN has taken to its ultimate logical conclusion with the concept of the People of the Abyss and the cultivation of one’s garden.
The eleventh thesis on Feuerbach (written by Marx in 1845) says that the philosophers had limited themselves to interpreting the world and that from then on it was a matter of changing it. Marxism attempted to connect theory and practice in an inseparable whole. Revolutionary theory and action cannot be conceived separately. Marx was a revolutionary who set forth a critique of the bourgeois political economy of his time. He was not just a philosopher or a theoretician, he was above all a revolutionary who fought to change the world from the perspective of the working class, that is, on the basis of the historical and class interests of the proletariat. Marxism was and still is the revolutionary theory that sees the proletariat as the revolutionary subject capable of burying capitalism, destroying the State and building a worldwide human community without social classes.
The Frankfurt School rejected the term “Marxism” and invented a new term to define its activity, “critical theory”. The Frankfurt School undertook a Hegelian reading of Marxism, to which it added, when it thought that it was opportune, other social or philosophical theories, such as Freudianism, the study of mass culture as carried out by American sociology, etc. The Frankfurt School is not Marxist, although it is deeply anchored in and takes freely from Marxist theory. The leading theoreticians of the Frankfurt School posited a cleavage, which does not exist in Marxism, between theory and practice. Furthermore, according to the Frankfurt School, the proletariat (already defeated in the 1930s) ceased to be (during the sixties) the revolutionary subject appropriate for a consumer society, which had succeeded in integrating the workers movement into the capitalist system. In this separation of theory from practice posited by the Frankfurt School, theoretical activity (carried out by university professors isolated from all social movements) is completely disconnected from any practical or revolutionary activity. “Critical theory” was thus transformed, by its own efforts, into the only “revolutionary” activity, comfortably conducted from a University Chair or a publishing house by the Frankfurt School’s leading members. The proletariat as revolutionary subject was no longer necessary, because if it were to be acknowledged it would only be a bothersome competitor of the professor and/or the essayist and would reduce bookstore sales.
The EdN drinks from these retrograde springs of the Frankfurt School in order to bring it all to its ultimate consequences, no matter how aberrant and ridiculous it is. Semprun, on the basis of this illustrious inheritance from the Frankfurt School, does not hesitate to openly claim for himself and the Encyclopedists this reactionary thought and sensibility, as soon as they agree with the defense of his ecological theses, when in the Dialogues sur L’Achèvement des Temps Modernes (1993) he proclaims: “today the consistent reactionaries, were such to exist, could only appear as revolutionaries” (p. 34). What times we live in, when a few “consistent reactionaries”, as the Encyclopedists define themselves, believe they are revolutionaries! What times we live in, when we have to fight for the most obvious things! What times we live in, when even those who call themselves revolutionaries deny the existence of the proletariat!
In the EdN the proletariat, after being under a cloud of suspicion for many years, has now completely disappeared as of the mid-nineties. The EdN, which has always declared that it was neither Marxist nor libertarian, has attempted to transform “critical theory” (inherited from the situationists and the Frankfurt School) into its own private and exclusive property at the beginning of this millennium. Not only has it decreed the end of the proletariat and Marxism, not only has it proclaimed the death of anarchism and the workers movement, but it has also cornered the market on the “critical theory” of our time, in order to sell it between 1984 and 1992 in the form of convenient installments of an Encyclopedia that never got past the letter “A”, and since 1992 in the form of exquisite pamphlets and booklets. But why does the EdN want this monopoly? Why else, than to proclaim the defeat of all revolutionary practice, to sing the praises of the definitive and eternal triumph of the victorious “industrialist” (capitalist) catastrophe. They are not only defeatists, confusionists and demobilizers, but they anticipate and certify the UNCONDITIONAL defeat of any attempt at revolutionary opposition. There is no revolutionary future, because there is no future.
The EdN has cut the ropes that bound Ulysses to the mast of his ship and has melted the wax in the ears of his crew. It has caused the ship to founder on the reefs, where beautiful singing accompanied by melodious music enchants Ulysses and his crew. Against this deadly song of the Sirens, hired by the EdN to capsize the sailors into the marine ABYSS, one must have one’s own song, like Orpheus when he saved the Argonauts from shipwreck.
Believing that the proletariat and wage labor have disappeared, or are in the process of going extinct, while the capitalist system (based on obtaining surplus value extracted from wage labor) remains, does not make sense. Theorizing the inability of the capitalist social relations of production to provide full employment and dignified living conditions, as well as the notion that it cannot possibly continue to sustain the social policies typical of the so-called Welfare State is, like theorizing the end of work and of the proletariat, more than just an error, it gives the capitalist system an alibi. Because it is not the end of work and of the proletariat with which we are confronted, but a crisis situation of the capitalist relations of production, which NO LONGER guarantee the continuation of the process of reproduction of labor power. The emergence of an enormous industrial reserve army on a world scale, as a result of the insufficient absorption of labor power by the production process, led to the appearance of the phenomenon of jobless growth, yet another symptom of the exacerbation of the world crisis of capitalism.
The Encyclopedists do not understand that the relation between man and nature is simultaneously a relation between men, which is now determined by capitalist social relations of production. Because what is approaching is not THE GREAT catastrophe of humanity, proclaimed by the EdN, but the catastrophe of capitalism. And the only Orpheus is the revolutionary proletariat, which is alone capable of burying capitalism and preventing ecological disaster.
19. As the supposed heirs of the SI, the Encyclopedists present themselves as the vanguard of social critical theory; even though they are the rhetoric of its putrefaction. They put the revolution at the service of poetry and theology, and this poetry and this theology have in the meantime been subordinated to publishing interests. What else could explain a handbook on gardening, a dictionary of neologisms or a novel about the end of the world?
The Abyss is also a definitive settling of accounts with their fearsome and feared master Debord, conducted in the subtle yet mean-spirited Encyclopedist style, exemplified in this case by the fact that they do not quote him even once, and ignore his works as if they never existed. The tempestuous relationship between Semprun and Debord is displayed in the letters Semprun wrote to Debord and the publisher Lebovici in 1977, addressing the latter’s refusal to publish a short pamphlet by Semprun on the Spanish revolution. The break that began in 1986, after an initial period when Debord collaborated with the EdN between 1984 and 1986, followed by Semprun’s later expressions of admiration and his somewhat unhealthy praise for Debord’s Commentaries, was finalized after a long estrangement with Semprun completely ignoring Debord’s works, only two years after Debord’s death, and their replacement by the new Anders cult.
From the zeal to “change life”, characteristic of situationism, the latter’s epigones in the EdN have graduated to the sole desire to survive as an elite. From the will and the struggle for universal social change, the revolution of situationism, they have arrived at the end of the world, characteristic of the EdN: the abyss. The abyss is an “ism” that never even manages to become an “ism” [untranslatable pun in French based on the French word for “abyss” (abîme) and the French suffix “-isme”—translator’s note].
The EdN cultivates an aristocratic and elitist conception of the gruopuscule, which rejects any upstart followers as contemplative pro-situs, and which closes its ranks to all proselytism, while appearing to enjoy the merciless and humiliating exclusion of anyone who expresses dissent concerning the least detail regarding theory, ethics or lifestyle. When all of this is combined with its reactionary conceptions concerning man’s relation to technology and nature, which are not considered as social relations of production, but as the RULE of a deified and/or satanic technology over a stupid humanity, which exploits nature beyond the latter’s possibility of recovery, we are slipping towards a new concept of revolution. The revolution against the power of technoscience (an incarnation of Hegel’s Absolute Idea among the Encyclopedists), has been degraded to the point of becoming something like a private banquet which requires of its participants the exquisite taste of a gourmet, capable of savoring and singing the praises of a fine beefsteak from a healthy cow, concerning which one knows not only its name and pedigree, but everything it ate throughout its life. The Encyclopedist’s ideal therefore approximates to the current reality of a Masai herdsman, transferred of course to the fine table of a Parisian bistro. For the EdN the revolution’s goals are restricted to wolfing down some tasty chops.
20. Jaime Semprun, the son of a former PSOE minister in Felipe González’s Cabinet, has never during his entire life had a job or a trade upon which he could make a living. This fact, which is not intended as an insult, but as a statement of fact, and which, furthermore, was usually viewed as praiseworthy among the situationists, may help us to understand how someone who has never worked in his whole life could really believe that the proletariat has disappeared and that work is coming to an end. This has always been the typical silly paranoid claim of the Left Bank rich kid who is convinced that his navel is the center of the universe, and who is quite capable of confusing his cold, his fever or his indigestion with the end of the world.
The following sentence written by Semprun, which seems to have been so well received by certain educators due to its novelty and extravagance, needs to be put into context: “When the citizen-ecologist intends to pose the most disturbing question by asking ‘What kind of world shall we leave to our children?’, he avoids posing this other, truly disturbing question: ‘What kind of children are we going to bequeath to the world?’” This sentence may be subjected to a more skeptical and less foolish reading if we bear in mind the fact that Jaime Semprun has no children, he has never been a teacher, nor does he possess knowledge of or an aptitude for teaching. Maybe we would discover that his experience with young people is limited to groups of boisterous adolescents, the barbarians raised in the filth and poverty of the ghetto, which he saw from a distance in the Paris Metro, scandalized by their hooliganism. To accuse the marginalized youths, victimized by the lack of full time jobs and the miserable life of the city outskirts, of the mere fact of being young, of being the fruit of and/or those responsible for the irresolvable problems of neoliberal capitalism, has always been, besides cruel and unjust, an ideological goal scored for the reactionary thought of the extreme right.
A little intellectual pride, a great deal of narcissism, a few drops of the sterile leadership of a groupuscule, and a vigorous shake of the ideology inherited from situationism mixed with the social and historical reality of the world in which we live have produced a cocktail which stupefies as a result of the ideological confusion these cretins demonstrate, the groupuscular sectarianism they take such pride in, their warped and hallucinatory arguments so supportive of reactionary thought, and an apocalyptic prophesying more typical of Jehova’s Witnesses than of leftist groups. When the masochistic reader of EdN publications intends to pose the most disturbing question by asking, “What kind of revolution would our Encyclopedists make?”, he avoids posing this other, truly disturbing question: “What will the revolution do with the Encyclopedists?”
Towards Some Provisional CONCLUSIONS
Encyclopedic Manicheanism, by claiming that Nature is Good and Technology is Evil, allows us to neither understand or to analyze certain complex social and historical processes. Instead of studying and understanding real and concrete social phenomena, such as the passage from Fordism to Toyotism, for example, it is easier for the Encyclopedists to cast the blame on any old demon, who could be held responsible for all evils. What began as a reasonable doubt concerning an excessive faith in technology, and an appropriate demand that nature must not be transformed into a laboratory for conducting all kinds of experiments with unknown consequences, has ended by becoming a desperate and unjustifiable faith in the return to a primitive paradise, which has only ever existed in Encyclopedist fantasy. This faith in the primitivism of the small rural community in turn provokes an abstract, theological and apocalyptic analysis of a demonized “industrial society”, which leads the Encyclopedists to an irrational form of thought that is incapable of understanding the social and historical reality of today’s capitalism.
Technophiles (from capital’s left and right wings) and Encyclopedist technophobes are involved in a moral dispute over technology, which isolates the latter from all other social and economic factors, so that only their respective conclusions differentiate the two sides, that technology is liberating for the former, and alienating for the Encyclopedists. Neither side thinks that capital is the cause of the alienation of all human production, which seems to take on autonomous ends that escape human control. Technologies are also affected by this social alienation and are utilized to reinforce it. Only a proletarian revolution that liberates us from this alienation will make it possible to exercise control over noxious technologies. Some technologies, such as the nuclear and chemical industries, are really so dangerous that they will be immediately suppressed. Many other superfluous industries will automatically cease production as soon as the sole reason for their existence disappears: commerce. Other industries (electricity, metallurgy, printing, photography, telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, etc.) will be used more wisely and cautiously, firmly controlled and improved in order to avoid undesirable harmful effects, and will above all be put to a human and no longer capitalist use. What really matters is putting an end to the production of commodities with the exclusive goal of obtaining surplus value, in order to clear the way for the satisfaction of the real and sustainable needs of humanity, and to thereby assure the availability of earth’s natural resources for future generations.
A society in decomposition generates its own characteristic putrefied ideologies, like that of the Encyclopedists, which appeals to a partial rebellion against one of the worst blights of the capitalist system: the massive destruction and contamination of nature; while simultaneously demonstrating its inability to recognize the cause of that blight: the capital accumulation process. The proletariat, as a revolutionary class, cannot be satisfied by any ideology offering a few partial goals that obscure the final goal: the struggle to end capitalism and its own abolition as a separate class. The revolution can only be total and must embrace all aspects of today’s society of exploitation, and is born form the conflict between the development of the productive forces and the current social relations of production, which no longer correspond to those productive forces. Semprun, of course, by means of that verbal game that the pro-situs find so pleasing, but which exhibits no intellectual rigor and is utterly lacking any relation to social and historical reality, now speaks to us of “destructive forces” instead of productive forces ("Notes on the Krisis Group’s Manifesto Against Labor").
The Encyclopedists have graduated from the leftist verbalism of the seventies to the reactionary verbal diarrhea of the nineties. They do not hesitate to attack the idea and the concept of progress, they reject the undeniable technical and scientific advances of the last few centuries, they always insult and attack the leftists and the left wing of capital, for very good reasons that we undoubtedly share; but they have never set forth a coherent critique of the right or the nazis. Their taboos against birth control, prenatal tests and painless childbirth, among many other extravagances, are not merely anti-feminist or anti-progress phobias, but defining traits that they share with religious fundamentalists. We should pay attention to the Encyclopedists when they speak of themselves as “consistent reactionaries”, because their irrational and cretinous analysis of a fantasized and unreal world, of a capitalism without either bourgeoisie or proletariat, irremediably leads them to conceive of technoscience as Evil. And this demonized technoscience also has, according to the Encyclopedists’ paranoid thought, a definite political program, which consists in the destruction of nature and of humanity.
This incredible idiocy that the Encyclopedist ideology has become is the direct consequence of its denial of the existence of social classes in contemporary capitalism. The presence of the proletariat as revolutionary historical subject establishes, identifies, concretizes and simplifies the insoluble problems of capitalist society, reducing them to the common denominator of its own existence as an obsolete social and economic system. The absence of the proletariat leads to the dead end of the abstract stupidity and madness of a handful of Encyclopedists cut off from reality. The EdN, without an authentic and plausible historical and political perspective, renders illusory any critical position worthy of being called a theory. After announcing the end of the bourgeoisie and of the proletariat, they lost their bearings, their sense of shame, and even their identification papers, and today they are announcing the end of the world, to take place tomorrow.
But if the world still exists tomorrow (2005?), they could sell their publishing business, at a rock-bottom price, and, poised right on the very edge of the abyss, they could decide to once and for all take a great leap forward.
Alpha 20 (Alpha Vingt)
Brussels, June 2004
During the end times (of the world or of the EdN?)
Translated from the Spanish translation available at: