Gilles Dauvé undertakes a radical critique of 'morality' and social mores and presents communism as a 'world without moral order'. We do not agree with much of it but reproduce it for reference.
This was published in ‘La Banquise’, #1, 1983, and first translated into English by the US magazine ‘Anarchy’. This version has been slightly modified, and notes added.
The 1998 postscript was written when the text came out as a pamphlet in Britain.
For A World Without Moral Order (1983; modified, 2014)
The present article is an introduction to a critique of social mores, a contribution to the necessary task of revolutionary anthropology.
The communist movement possesses a dimension both of class and of humanity. Although the central role of the proletarian worker is at the foundation of that movement, and although that movement works toward human community, it is neither a form of workerism nor of humanism. For the time being, reformism lives off separation by the accumulation of demands in parallel spheres, never calling the spheres themselves into question. One measure of the potency of any communist movement is (or should be) its capacity to recognize, and in practice to go beyond the gap or contradiction between the dimensions of class and of community.
This gap and this contradiction flourish in the ambiguities of our emotions and make a critique of social mores an especially delicate matter.
What follows is not about "sexuality", which, like economy or work, is an historical and cultural product. Like work and economy, sexuality was born as a specific sphere of human activity under 19th century capitalism, when it was honed down and theorized (discovered), then made banal by the capitalism of the 20th century. Within the totality of a communist existence, it can be superseded.
For the same reasons, this is not a "critique of daily life", which would apply to that social space excluded by work and in competition with it. "Mores", on the contrary, include the entire range of human relationships in their emotional aspects. They are no stranger to material production. (Bourgeois family values, for example, cannot be dissociated from the work ethic.)
Since capitalism, in its own way, sums up the human past which produced it, there is no revolutionary critique without a critique of social mores and ways of life preceding capitalism, and the way they have been absorbed by it.
If one can believe Marx's 1844 Manuscripts, "the most natural relationship between man and man is the relationship between man and woman". This formula may be understood and applied inasmuch as we keep in mind that the history of man is that of his emancipation from nature by the creation of the economic sphere. The idea of man being anti-nature, completely external to nature, is clearly an aberration. Man's nature is at once a pure biological given – we are primates – and his activity as man modifying the pure biological given of himself and outside himself.
Man is not outside natural conditions, since he is part of them. But he wants to understand them and he has begun playing with them. One can debate the mechanisms which brought this about (the extent to which it resulted from difficulties of survival, especially in temperate regions, etc.) but one thing is certain: By transforming his environment and then, in turn, being transformed by it, man has placed himself in a position radically different from any other known state of matter. Once unburdened of metaphysical presuppositions, this ability to play somewhat with the laws of matter is precisely what constitutes human freedom. Stripped of this freedom – since it went to feed the economy – as he produced it, man must now reconquer it without deluding himself about what freedom is. It is neither the freedom of unfettered and ever-surging desire, nor the freedom to follow (who could decipher?) Mother Nature's commandments. Full rein must also be given to this freedom to play with the laws of matter – whether one is talking about changing the course of a river or the sexual use of an orifice not naturally "intended" for the purpose. Finally, it must be understood that risk is the only guarantee of freedom.
Since human freedom must be given full rein, a critique of human mores must not hold up one practice or another as a symbol of impoverishment. It has been written that in the modern world freedom, as pertains to social mores, is limited to masturbatory activity (alone or with one or more partners). This is misunderstanding the essence of sexual impoverishment. Must we belabour the point? There are solitary jerk-offs infinitely less sordid and impoverished than many gropes in the dark. Reading a good adventure novel can be much more exciting than a group tour. The real impoverishment is living in a world where adventure only exists in books. Whatever one person daydreams about another, whether or not he acts on it, it is not disgusting. The disgusting part is all the conditions that must be fulfilled for one person to meet another. When, in the personal ads, a bearded man invites the old lady and her dog who live upstairs from him over for a good time, it is neither the beard nor old age, nor bestiality we find disgusting. What is really repulsive is that, by the publishing of the ad in Libération, the bearded man's desire has become a sales pitch for a particularly nauseating ideological commodity.1
Alone in one's room drafting a theoretical article, inasmuch as that article provides some handle on social reality, one is less isolated from his fellow man than riding the subway or at work. The essence of sexual sordidness and impoverishment does not reside within one or another sexual activity, although the predominance of one activity may be symptomatic of that impoverishment. It is rather to be found in the fact that, whether alone, with one other person or ten other people, the individual is irremediably separated from humanity by relationships of competition, fatigue and boredom. Fatigue provoked by work, boredom with roles, boredom also with sexuality as a separate activity.
Sexual impoverishment is first and foremost social constraints – the constraints of wage-labour and its morbid litany of psychological and physiological hardships – which operate on a sphere presented by mainstream culture and its counter-culture flipside as one of the last frontiers in the world where adventure is still possible. Sexual impoverishment is also, to the extent that capitalist and Judeo-Christian society imposes itself upon him, man's profound helplessness before what Western civilization has made of sexuality.
From Stoicism, dominant world view of the Roman Empire, Christianity adopted the two-fold idea that, on the one hand, sexuality is the basis of all pleasure and, on the other hand, it can and must be controlled. Eastern cultures, by an open affirmation of sexuality (and not only in the bedroom) tend toward a pan-sexualism whereby sex must, of course, be controlled but by the same token as everything else – it occupies no special place. Western culture doesn't mistreat sexuality by forgetting about it, but by thinking of nothing else. Everything is made sexual. Judeo-Christian society's fascination with and organization of sex is by far more terrible than its repression and suppression. Western culture has made sex into not only the hidden truth of normal consciousness, but of madness (hysteria) as well. At the outset of moral crisis, Freud “discovered” that sexuality is the great secret of the whole world and of every civilization.
Sexual impoverishment is a seesaw struggle between two moral orders, the traditional and the modern, which more or less reside together within our contemporary brains and glands. On the one hand, one suffers from the constraints of the old moral order and work, which prevents one from attaining the historical ideal of sexual and amorous fulfilment. On the other hand, the more one liberates oneself of these constraints (or imagines one does) the more that ideal seems hollow and unsatisfying.
A tendency and its spectacular representation, taken together, do not constitute a totality. While a relative liberalization of mores characterizes our era, the traditional moral order has not disappeared. Just try being openly paedophile. The traditional order still functions and will, for a good portion of the population in industrialized nations, go on functioning for a long time. In many parts of the world (Islam, Eastern bloc countries), it is still dominant and harmful. Even in France, its representatives (priests of Rome and Moscow) are far from inactive. The weight of the suffering caused by their misdeeds is great enough that we will not be forbidden to denounce them in the name of the fact that it is capital which undermines the foundation of traditional moral order. It isn't true that any revolt against this order tends toward neo-reformism. Revolt can also be the cry of the oppressed creature, containing the seed of an infinite variety of sexual and sensual practices repressed for thousands of years by oppressive societies.
It should be clear by now that we are not opposed to "perversions". We're not even opposed to life-long heterosexual monogamy. Nevertheless, when litterateurs and artists (the Surrealists for example) hold out l'amour fou ("mad" love) to us as the sum of desirable, we are obliged to recognize that they are buying into the modern West's great reductive myth. This myth is meant to provide an extra helping of soul to couples, isolated atoms which make up the best foundation for the capitalist economy. Among the riches which would be reaped by a humanity rid of capital are the unlimited variations of a perverse and polymorphous sexuality and sensuality. Only when those practices are allowed to flourish will "love", such as André Breton or Jacqueline Suzanne sing its praises, be exposed for what it is – a transitional cultural construction.
Traditional moral order is oppressive and as such it deserves to be criticized and fought against. But if it is in crisis, it isn't because our ancestors had less taste for freedom than our contemporaries. Rather, it is because bourgeois moral rules are revealing their inability to adapt to modern conditions of production and circulation of commodities.
Bourgeois moral order, which took on its full scope during the 19th century and was handed down through religion or lay education, was born out of the need for an ideological extension of industrial capitalist domination at a period when capital was not yet totally dominant. Moral rules for sex, family and work went hand-in-hand. Bourgeois and petit-bourgeois values served as a platform for capital – property as the fruit of labour and savings, work as terribly hard but necessary, family life. In the first half of the 20th century, capital came to occupy the entire social space. It became indispensable and unavoidable. Wage labour was the only activity possible since there wasn't any other. That is how, even as it is foisted upon all of us, wage labour can have the appearance of non-constraint, a guarantee of liberty. Since everything is a commodity, each moral rule winds up obsolete. We own property before saving, thanks to credit. One works because it is practical, not out of a sense of duty. The extended family gives way to the nuclear family, which in turn is upset by constraints of money and work. School and media vie with parents for authority, influence and upbringing. Everything that The Communist Manifesto foretold has been accomplished by capitalism: we bathe in “the icy waters of egotistical calculation”. As public places where working class people live out their lives become more and more scarce, replaced by consumer centres (discos, malls) which don't have the same emotional character, too much is being asked of the family precisely when it has less to offer.
Underlying the crisis in bourgeois moral values, there is a deeper crisis of capitalist morality. It's hard to establish "mores" to find ways of relating and behaving with one another which go beyond a bankrupt bourgeois morality. What morality does modern capitalism provide for people? Its submission of everyone and everything, its omnipresence theoretically makes prior support systems superfluous. Fortunately, this doesn't work. There is not now and there never will be a wholly, purely, uniquely capitalist society. For one thing, capital creates nothing out of nothing. It transforms beings and relationships born outside of it (urban migrators, petits-bourgeois déclassés, immigrants) and something always remains of former social relations, at least in the form of nostalgia. In addition, the actual workings of capital are anything but harmonious – it can't keep its promise of a Madison Avenue dream world and this provokes a reaction, a falling back on traditional values which are largely outmoded, like the family. Which explains the phenomenon that people keep getting married while one out of every three or four marriages ends in divorce. Finally, because it has to direct, constrain, and bully wage labourers, capital must constantly reintroduce the prop values of authority and obedience that its present phase claims to be obsolete. The result is the constant use of old ideology in conjunction with the new (participatory democracy, etc.)
Our era is that of the coexistence of moral orders, of proliferation of social codes and not their abolition. Guilt (the incessant fear of violating a taboo) is juxtaposed with angst (the feeling that one lacks guideposts for the "choices" to be made). Neuroses and hysteria, the historical maladies of a bygone era, are replaced by narcissism and schizophrenia.2
What guides our contemporaries' behaviour is less and less a whole set of commandments passed along by the paterfamilias or the priest and which cannot be called into question, but rather a sort of utilitarian moral order for individual fulfilment, aided by a fetishization of the body and a frenzied psychologizing in which interpretation-mania takes the place of confession and examination of conscience.
Ahead of his time, de Sade simply foretold ours – one of the disappearance of any moral guarantee, before man becomes himself. Sooner or later one experiences the same intolerable boredom in reading the marquis' monotonous catalogue, as when reading the personal ads with their infinite repetition of the forms of a pleasure without communication. Sadeian desire aims to completely reify other people, to make them into a clay out of which he can cut his fantasies. Annihilating otherness, refusing to be dependant on someone else's desires is a morbid attitude – it means the repetition of the same thing, and death. But, while the Sadeian hero needs to smash social restraints, modern man and his logic of individual fulfilment becomes his own fantasy clay. Rather than getting carried away by his desires, he "realizes his fantasies". At least he tries to, as one goes "jogging", instead of running for pleasure or because one has to be somewhere in a hurry. Modern man doesn't lose himself in his partner – he operates and develops his capacity for carnal pleasure, his aptitude for orgasm. Whipless tamer of his own body, he tells it, "Come!" or "Come harder!" or "Run!" or "Dance!"
For modern man, the obligation to work is replaced by the obligation to successful leisure time, sexual constraints by the difficulty in asserting a sexual identity. Narcissistic culture goes hand in hand with a new function for religion: instead of evoking transcendence, it smooths, in part, the way through critical periods in life – adolescence, marriage and death.3 Indeed, to become modern, religion isn't enough – modern man needs the help of the family! Here's how a psychologist (C. Lasch, Le Monde, April 12, 1981) talks: "Not an over-present family, as in the 19th century, but an over-absent one. It is defined not by the work ethic or sexual constraint but by ethics of survival and sexual promiscuity".
In the midst of the moral crisis facing Western society, man is less equipped than ever to resolve "the issue of sex". It is precisely when this issue is addressed in all its naked glory that one has the best chance of understanding that it is, in fact, a non-issue.
Sex, brow-beaten for two thousand years, only emerges to become a commodity, the victim of an all-consuming commodification – sending modern man, all the more lost, into a panic. In a world of commodities, the unbridled pursuit of sensuality (such as in the film La Grande Abbuffata, 19734 ) sets the individual even farther apart from humanity, from his partners, from himself. In the end, once the idea of sex as alienating and deadly re-emerges, religion (Christian, Moslem, etc.) is back.
The work of a Georges Bataille (1897-1962), for example, is revealing of this evolution in Western society since 1900.5 Running counter to the history of civilization, Bataille starts from sexuality and works back to religion. From the novel Story of the Eye (1928) until the end of his life, Bataille spent all his time exploring what was implicit in The Eye. He crossed paths with the revolutionary movement and rapidly and easily moved away from it – especially since this movement practically disappeared. Nevertheless, he had time, in the late 1930s, to take up positions with respect to antifascism and the threat of war, the lucidity of which is in sharp contrast with the verbiage produced by the vast majority of the far left. This explains the ambiguity of his work. It can be used as an illustration of the religious dead-ends where the experience of unbridled sexuality pushed to the extreme inevitably leads:
"A brothel is my true church, the only one unsoothing enough". (Le Coupable [The Guilty One], published in 1944.)
Although here, as in most of his work, he settled for going to the opposite extremes of accepted values, honing down a new version of Satanism, he did also write some lines revealing great intuition about essential aspects of communism: "taking perversion and crime not as exclusive values but as things to be integrated into human totality". (April 4, 1936)
Through the cultural constructions to which they have given birth (love as in Ancient Greece, courtly love, systems of kinship, the bourgeois contract, etc.) our emotional and sexual lives have always been at once source and object of passion and conflict, as well as crossroads with another cultural sphere – the sacred. In trance, in ecstasy, in the feeling of communion with nature, human aspiration to go beyond the limits of the individual is expressed in the form of paroxysm. Diverted toward the cosmos or divinity, this aspiration to become one with the species has until now worn the prestigious rags of the sacred. Religion in general, and monotheism in particular, have set narrow limits around the sacred, assigning it a guiding role while distancing it from human life. While in primitive societies the sacred is inseparable from daily life, statist societies, on the contrary, have made it more and more specialized. Capitalist society has not liquidated the sacred, but repressed it. Multiple residual and ersatz manifestations of the sacred continue to encumber social life. Faced with a world where old religious artefacts and mercantile banalization coexist, the communist critique is two-pronged – it must desacralize, i.e., smoke all the old taboos out of their hiding places, and it must prepare to supersede the sacred where capitalism has only degraded it.
Desacralization then, of areas where old goblins have gone to hide – like the pubis, for example. Against penis worship, against the penis' conquering imperialism, feminists have found nothing better than the fetishization of the vagina. Backed up with piles of literature and pathos, they have made it the seat of their difference, the dark fold wherein their very being is to be found. Rape then becomes the crime of crimes, an ontological assault. As if a penis penetrating a woman by violence were more disgusting than forcing a woman into wage slavery by economic pressure. True, in the first case the guilty party is easily found – he is an individual – whereas in the latter case the guilty party is a social relationship. It's easier to exorcize one's fears by making rape into blasphemy, an intrusion into the holiest of holies. As if being manipulated by advertising, constantly physically abused at work, numbered and filed by government agencies were less profoundly violent in their assault on a person than imposed intercourse.
Ultimately, what makes the Somalian rip out his wife's clitoris and what drives the feminists flows from a common conception – for both, it is conceivable that human individuality may constitute the object of ownership. The Somalian, convinced that his wife is part of his livestock, feels duty-bound to protect her from feminine desire, a dangerous parasite for the economy of the flock. But, in so doing, he truncates, impoverishes his own pleasure, his own desire. The woman's clitoris is the symbolic target of all human desire, regardless of gender. This mutilated woman has been amputated from all of humanity. The feminist who cries out that her body belongs to herself would like to keep her desire for herself. But when she desires, she enters into a community where appropriation dissolves.
The claim "My body is my own" would give substance to the 1789 "Rights of Man". Hasn't it been repeated often enough that these rights merely apply to an abstract man and that, ultimately, the bourgeois individual (in contemporary terms, "white, male, over 21 and bourgeois") is their sole benefactor! Neo-reformists claim they close this loophole by gathering up real substance and giving it to this hitherto abstract "man". In sum, the "real rights" of "real man". But "real man" is none other than woman, Jew, Corsican, homosexual, Vietnamese, etc. "My body is my own" toes the line of a bourgeois revolution forever being completed, perfected by asking democracy to have content instead of only form.
Radical critique is not dismissive of these endeavours: it only points out their limits. When it is impossible to address the causes of oppression, it is inevitable for the oppressed to fight against its effects. In that case, the claim to own one’s body is experienced as a protection against its appropriation by a father, a husband, a doctor, a priest, a politician, a teacher, or whatever form male, capitalist, religious, statist domination takes over women. Unfortunately this safeguard proves an illusion. Individual ownership is no protection against dispossession. The demand for personal control over one’s body will remain an unavoidably minimal line of defence: the individual is the single smallest possible human form of existence, the social atom, the indivisible particle (individuum means what cannot be divided, separated). Re-appropriation of the self can only be collective.
Turning a historical limitation into a programme is the opposite of a revolutionary perspective.
Demanding ownership of one's individual body is a renewal of the bourgeois demand for the right to own property. To escape the secular oppression of women, once (and still, in other forms) treated by their husbands as property, the feminist has found nothing better than the broadening of the right to own property. May the woman own property as well, thus she'll be protected – and good fences make good neighbours! In this pitiful demand, we see the reflection of the "security" media and political parties would at all costs share among our contemporaries. The demand is born of an outlook stopped up on the inside, whereby private appropriation is the only means imaginable to be master of a thing (in this case, one's body.)
Our bodies belong to those who love us, not by virtue of any legally guaranteed "right", but because we live and move, flesh and feeling, only as a function of them. And, inasmuch as we can love the human species, our body belongs to it.
Even as it desacralizes, the communist critique must denounce the capitalist utopia of a world where one could no longer love to death, where everything is flattened out and therefore of equal value and exchangeable. Practicing sports, fucking, working would all take place in the same quantified time, sliced like a salami-industrial time. Sexologists would be on hand to fix any faltering libido, psychotherapists would rid us of any suffering of the psyche, and the police, with the support of chemistry, would prevent any stepping out of line. In such a world, no sphere of human activity is likely to give another rhythm to time, to turn into a game in which the stakes are nothing less than the whole of life.
Mystical practices are founded on an ahistoric illusion. By definition, only that part of these practices which isn't really theirs is of interest to us – that which can be communicated. One doesn't step outside of history, but history, whether it be that of the individual or that of the species, isn't the pure linear movement which capitalism works to produce and works at making people believe it produces. History includes apogees which go beyond and outside of the present, orgasms which are a losing of oneself in the other, in sociality and in the species.
"Christianity gave substance to the sacred but the nature of the sacred [...] is perhaps the most elusive thing that happens between people. The sacred is nothing but a privileged moment of communial oneness, the convulsive communication of what we ordinarily stifle". (G. Bataille, The Sacred)
This moment of "communial oneness" can be found today at a concert, in the panic gaining a crowd and, in its most degraded form, in great swells of patriotism and other sporadic outbursts of the Union Sacrée as happened at the outbreak of World War I. Manipulate it, and you can do any dirty deed. One may presume that in a modern war, unlike what happens in backward capitalist nations such as Iran, only a minority would actually participate. The rest would only watch. But nothing is for certain – the manipulation of the sacred may have some good days left in it, because the sacred, to date, has been the only powerful moment offered as manifestation of man's irrepressible need for togetherness.
As much as they have furnished a more or less imaginary niche outside of class struggle, mystical practices have been known to cement revolts. This is demonstrated, for example, by the role of the Taoist trance in the resistance to central power in imperial China, voodoo in slave uprisings, or millenarian prophecy. Although contemporary mystical pursuits play a counter-revolutionary role because they are merely one of many ways the bourgeois individual turns inward, the fact remains that mercantile banalization of every aspect of life tends to empty existence of its passion. The world we live in asks us to love only a jumbled bunch of individual inadequacies. Compared to traditional societies, this world has lost an essential dimension of human experience – the powerful moments of oneness with nature. We are condemned to watch pagan festivals on TV.
But it would be ridiculous for us to advocate a return to the past, to its joys which, history has taught us, are repetitive, cause of illusion, and short-sighted in character. When capital tends to impose its exclusive reign, looking elsewhere than revolution for "communial oneness" and "convulsive communication" becomes purely reactionary. That capital has made everything banal gives us the chance to liberate ourselves from that specialized sphere known as "sexuality". We want a world where being carried away, out of oneself, exists as a possibility in all human activities, where what could give another rhythm to time is the content of life in its entirety.
"History makes no sense – and it's a good thing it doesn't. Would we torment ourselves for a happy outcome, for a final celebration paid for wholly by our sweat and our disasters? For future idiots leaping about on our ashes? The vision of a paradisiacal culmination surpasses the absurdity of hope's worst wanderings. The only excuse one can find for Time is that we find some moments more enjoyable than others, accidents without consequence, in an intolerable monotony of perplexities". (E.M. Cioran, A Short History of Decay)6
Communism is not a paradisiacal culmination.
First of all, identifying communism as a paradise means one can accept anything in the meanwhile. In the case of a social revolution, it implies that one accepts that society is not changed from top to bottom: “Of course we want a stateless society, without prisons, of course, but later… when men are ready for it, i.e. when they’re perfect”. In the meantime, everything can be justified – worker state, people's prisons, etc. – since communism is only good for a humanity of gods.
Next, there is a soothing vision of a desirable society which is a turnoff to desiring it. Every community, regardless of its size, requires that its members renounce a part of themselves. And, if one defines "positive desires" as those which, if realized, would not compromise the liberty of others, every community forces each member to leave certain desires unsatisfied. The reason is simple: these desires are not necessarily shared by the other member or members. What makes this situation tolerable is the certainty that anyone who feels that these renouncements threaten the very integrity of his being would still have the possibility of leaving. Leaving would not be painless, but isn't the risk of pain and death indispensable to the full measure of a meaningful life?
That humanity, playing with matter, risks self-annihilation and with it annihilation of all life on the planet, is not what bothers us. What is unbearable is that humanity does this in utter thoughtlessness and practically in spite of itself, because it has created capital and capital has imposed its own inhuman laws upon it. It is nevertheless true that once man begins modifying his environment, he does so at the risk of destroying it and himself along with it, and that this risk would probably subsist in no matter what social organization. One could even conceive of a humanity which, after first struggling with, then taming and loving the universe, would decide to disappear, to reintegrate nature in the form of dust. In any case, there is no humanity without risk, because there is no humanity without others. The play of human passions also bears this out.
It is relatively easy to imagine that a world less severe would give women and men (men, who since the bourgeois revolution have been condemned to wear only work clothes!) a chance to be more attractive, to be at once simpler and more refined in their seduction. At the same time, however, one can't help yawning at the idea of a world where everyone would be attractive to everyone else, where one fucks like one shakes hands, without any implied commitment. (Liberalization of mores, make no mistake, promises just such a world.) Realistically then, Jenny will still like Karl more than she likes Friedrich. But one would have to believe in miracles to believe that never a Friedrich would desire a Jenny who doesn't desire him. Communism does not in any way guarantee the reconciliation of all desires, and the tragedy of non-requited desire seems unsurpassable, the price to pay if seduction is to remain an enthralling game – not for any "no-pain-no-gain" old-fogey principle but because desire includes otherness and therefore its possible negation. There is no human or social game without stakes and without risk! That is the only norm which seems unsurpassable – unless our ape’s imagination, still paying tithe to the old world, cannot fathom man.
What makes Fourier less boring than most of the other utopians is that, besides a very poetic and very extensive polling of possibles, his system allows for the necessity of conflict. We know that most events considered crimes by the old world are sudden changes of ownership (theft), accidents of competition (the murder of a bank teller), or products of the poverty of social mores (crime of passion). But in a stateless society it is not unimaginable that the exacerbation of passions may lead one man to inflict suffering upon or kill another. In such a world, the only guarantee that one man wouldn't torture another would be that he doesn't feel the need to. But what if he does feel it? What if he enjoys torturing? Rid of such old models like "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth", "a pound of flesh", and the like, a woman whose lover has just been murdered, a man whose beloved has just been tortured, would, in spite of their sorrow, find it perfectly stupid to kill someone else or lock him away, as fantasy compensation for the loss they have endured. Perhaps… but what if a desire for revenge won out? What if the perpetrator kept on killing? In the workers' movement, the anarchists are probably among the few who have concretely addressed the question of a stateless society. Bakunin's answer is not very convincing:
"Complete abolition of all degrading and cruel sentences, of corporal punishment and the death penalty as established and executed by law. Abolition of all indefinite or too-lengthy sentences which leave no possibility of rehabilitation – as crime must be considered a disease [...]"
Sounds like the Socialist Party line before they got to power, but what follows is more interesting:
"Any individual condemned by any society whatsoever, whether local, provincial or national, shall retain his right to refuse to submit to the sentence pronounced against him by declaring that he no longer wants to be part of that society. In that case, however, the society will in turn retain the right to eject the individual and declare him outside its guarantee and protection. The individual would thus be thrown back to the natural law of eye-for-an-eye, at least in the territory occupied by that society, and could be fleeced, mistreated, even killed without the society stepping in. Everyone else could cast off the resister, like you would a harmful beast, although never could he be forced into servitude or enslaved". (Bakunin, La Liberté)
The so-called primitives shall not go unremembered in this solution. The individual who has transgressed a taboo is never again taken seriously. People laugh every time he opens his mouth, or he has to flee into the jungle, or he becomes invisible, etc. In any case, he is cast out of the community and therefore bound for an early death.
If it's a question of tearing down the prisons in order to build them back up again, a bit less harsh and better ventilated, then count us out. We shall always side with the resister. What, after all, is a "too lengthy" sentence? One needn't have wasted away in prison to know that time spent there is always too lengthy. However, if this is about replacing prison by an even more radical alienation, count us out all the same. As for treating crime as a disease, it's an open invitation to a society under the absolute control of psychiatric argument and medication.
"Curiously, the basest of bandits can seem like a real nice guy the instant one stops taking things so seriously. [...] Is the social order at the mercy of a belly laugh? […] Life is not all one big laugh, teachers and mothers say, and not without a note of hilarious earnestness. It's news to the children. [...] Nevertheless I imagine that in the poor mind darkened by this training a shining paradise is born in the crash of broken dishes. [...] unbridled fun makes use of all the world's products, every ruined object is there to be smashed like a toy". (Bataille, Les Pieds Nickelés, 1930)7
So what do we do with dish breakers? It is impossible, today, to answer this question and, even in a stateless society it isn't sure a satisfactory answer can be found. What about the guy who won't play along, who breaks the dishes, who's ready to run the risk of pain and even death, simply for the fun of breaking off social ties? That is the risk, the probably unsurpassable risk run by a society which refuses to cast anyone, no matter how asocial, out of humanity's midst. The damage done to the society would always be inferior to the damage done by making the asocial person into a monster. Communism must not lose its raison d'être to save a few lives, no matter how "innocent" they may be. To date, let's admit, the mediations conceived to avoid or buffer conflict and maintain society's internal order have caused oppression and human loss infinitely greater than those it was supposed to prevent or limit. In communism, no substitute State or "non-State" which would remain a State. As Antonin Artaud wrote,
"The repression of antisocial reaction is as fanciful as it is objectionable on principle". ("Letter to the Insane Asylum Head Doctors", La Révolution Surréaliste, # 3, April 15, 1925)
The issue is not pertinent only for a distant future. It is on the agenda at times of social unrest. Consider the looters and thieves of 19th century riots, consider the moral order reinstalled by these riots. In the same way, during the early part of the Russian revolution, a "Bolshevik marriage code" (the title alone speaks volumes) was juxtaposed with a powerful movement of transformation of social mores. Any more or less revolutionary period will give birth to gangs half way between social subversion and delinquency, temporary inegalities, hoarders, profiteers, but especially a whole range of uncertain conduct which one would be hard-pressed to characterize as "revolutionary", or "for survival" or "counter-revolutionary", etc. Ongoing communization will resolve this, but only over one, two, perhaps several generations. Between now and then, we must prepare ourselves – not for a "return to order" which will be one of the key slogans of all anti-revolutionaries, but by developing what makes the originality of a communist movement – essentially, it doesn't repress, it subverts.
This means, first of all, that it uses only the amount of violence strictly necessary to obtain its goals, not out of moralism or non-violence, but because superfluous violence always becomes autonomous, turns into its own end. It also means that one's weapon is first and foremost the transformation of social relationships and of production of living conditions. Spontaneous looting will no longer be a massive change of ownership, a mere juxtaposition of private appropriations, if a community of struggle is formed between looters and producers. Only on this condition can looting be the starting point for social reappropriation of riches and use of those riches in a context broader than plain and simple consuming. (Consuming, per se, is not to be denounced, since social life is not only productive activity. It is also consumption and consummation. If poor people wanted first to taste a few pleasures, who but the priests would hold it against them?) As for the hoarders, if violent measures are sometimes necessary, it will be to recuperate goods, not for punishment. In any case, it is only by spreading the reign of freeness that hoardess can be rendered completely harmless. What good is hoarding if money is only paper, if you can no longer sell what you hoard?
The more a revolution is radicalized, the less it needs to be repressive. We make no bones about stating this especially since, for communism, human life in the sense of biological survival is not the supreme good. It is capitalism which offers this monstrous sucker deal: “Be assured of maximal survival in exchange for maximal submission to economy”. Yet isn't a world where one has to hide in order to choose the hour of one's death a terribly depreciated world indeed?
In communism, one doesn't start from values set by a common accord but from the real relations in which one lives. Any group practices, refuses, allows for, imposes certain acts and not others. Before we have values, and in order to have them, there are things one does and doesn't do, imposes and forbids.
In a contradictory class society, the forbidden is cast in stone and, at the same time, made to be moved around and violated. The taboos of primitive societies and, to some degree, those of traditional societies do not constitute a moral order as such. Values and taboos are constantly reproduced by every act in social life. As work and private life opposed one another more and more radically, the issue of social mores came to the fore, and became acute in 19th century Europe with the emergence of what the bourgeoisie called "dangerous classes". On the one hand the worker must be considered free to go to work (in order to justify the capitalist's freedom to refuse him work) and, on the other, moral order had to keep him mechanically sound by telling him that it isn't good to get drunk and that work is his dignity. Moral order only exists because there are mores, i.e., a domain which society theoretically leaves up to the individual but which it constantly legislates from the outside.
Law, first religious and then State law, supposes its scoffing. That is the difference with communism, where there is no need for intangible law which everyone knows will not be respected. No absolutes, unless perhaps the primacy of the species, which is not to say its survival. No falsely universal rules. Like law, like ideology, all moral orders rationalize after the fact. They always take themselves for, and purport to be the foundation of social life, but have no foundation themselves, except those based on God, nature, logic, social welfare… i.e., a basis which can't be called into question: and what existence has a foundation which no-one is supposed to question? In communism, the rules that human beings would give themselves (in ways we cannot predict) would flow from communist sociality. They will not constitute a moral order insofar as they will claim no illusory universality in time and space. The rules of the game will include the possibility of playing with the rules of the game.
"Revolt is a form of optimism which is hardly less repugnant than the usual kind. For revolt to be possible, it has to suppose the possibility of an opportune reaction. In other words, that there is a preferable order of things toward which we must strive. Revolt, considered as an end in itself, is optimistic as well – it goes on the premise that change, disorder is satisfying. I can't believe that anything is satisfying. [...]
Question: 'In your opinion, is suicide only a lesser evil?’
Exactly, a lesser evil hardly better than having a profession or a moral code”. (Jacques Rigaut, testimony in the "Barrès Affair", 1921)8
An entire body of nihilist literature has developed the "dish breaker's" point of view, that of one who resists all social attachment and who, as a compulsory corollary, has a taste for death. But the nihilist thinkers' lovely music never kept most of them from fading into the hubbub of daily life to a respectable age. This incoherency supports the idea that the pure resister is only a literary myth. As for the rare individuals who, like Rigaut, chose the last resort of suicide, or like Genet, who tasted true debasement, they lived out this myth like a passion. But if true and intransigent mystics have existed, that doesn't prove the existence of God. These "refractors" are fodder for an elitism which is false right from the get-go. The worst of it is not that they believe they are superior, but that they think themselves different from the rest of humanity. They position themselves as observers of a world from which they are separate – but participation is prerequisite to understanding. Being on the outside, they would have it, is lucidity. But, as Bataille explains, they fall into the worst of traps:
"[...] I have never seen existence with the absent-minded contempt of the man alone".
"It is human tumult, with the stink and vulgarity of all its needs, big and small, with its strident disgust for the police that represses it – it is the frenzied activity of all men (excepting that police and the friends of that police) and this activity alone, which shapes the revolutionary mentality in opposition to the bourgeois mentality".
The myth of the resister has at times cluttered revolutionary theory – witness the Situationists' fascination with outlaws in general and Lacenaire in particular, epitomized by Debord's last appalling film.9 But if this myth must be criticized, it is also because it is the flipside of class society's production of fascinating monsters, and so tends to validate it.
Upon this sea of zombies in which we swim, sometimes a shiver of passion goes, when citizens are served a radically alien being, something which looks like a man, but whose real humanity is entirely denied. For the Nazi, it is the Jew. For the anti-fascist, the Nazi. For the mass of our contemporaries, it is the terrorist, the gangster, the killer of children. When the time comes to track these monsters down and determine their punishment, at last passions splash back to the surface, and imagination, which we thought extinguished, takes off at a gallop. One can only regret that this type of imagination and its fine-tuning is precisely what is attributed to that other guaranteed-inhuman monster: the Nazi executioner. In reality, never can everyone be forced to respect a law in contradiction with the way relationships really work. Never can murder be prevented where there is a reason to kill. Never can theft be prevented where there are inegalities and where commerce is based on theft. So an example is made, by focusing on one particular case. Even more than that, we exorcize that part of us which would have wanted to be the executioner of those defenceless bodies or the rapist-murderer of those children. The share of envy in the hateful cries of the crowd no longer needs to be demonstrated. It is clear even to the stubbornly myopic eyes of the journalist.
Communism, on the contrary, is a society without monsters, because each person will finally recognize in the desires and acts of others, as many possible shapes of his own desires and humane existence. "The human being is the true "being-together” [Gemeinwesen]" (Marx). The term "being-in-its-totality", or collective being, express our movement better than the word "communism" which is primarily associated with collectivizing things. Marx’s statement is worth developing extensively, and we will come back to it at another time. For now, suffice it to notice the critique of bourgeois humanism contained in the statement. While, thanks to the mediation of culture, the Montaigne-type honest man can be every man, the communist man knows from practice that he can only exist as he is because all others exist as they are.10
This does not in any way mean that no desire must be repressed. Repression and sublimation keep one from plunging into a refusal of otherness. But communism is a society with no guarantee but the free interplay of passions and needs, whereas capitalist society is crazy for insurance and would like to provide a guarantee against every happenstance of life, including death. All possible risks and dangers should be "covered by insurance", except "in case of absolute necessity" – war and revolution – and even then… The only event capitalism cannot insure against is its own disappearance.
When one sets about a global critique of the world, remaining on a purely theoretical level is unacceptable. There are periods when subversive activity is almost entirely reduced to the writing of papers and exchanges between individuals. Our discomfort is deployed in this "almost". To continue having a lucid view of the world, one must be possessed of a tension it is not easy to maintain, as it implies refusal, a tending to the fringes, and profound sterility. This refusal, this tendency to the fringes and this sterility contribute as much to maintaining passion as it does to hardening it into misanthropic bitterness or intellectual mania. No act spun by social life is considered self-evident by one who refuses capital's organization of the world. Not even the supposedly obvious facts of life are exempt from his torment! Signing on to procreation seems suspect to him – how can one want to spawn in such a world, as long as one can't make out the possibility of transforming it any time soon? Nevertheless, outside of a few simple principles – not to participate in the machinery of mystification or repression (neither cop nor star), not to pursue a career – one can't claim to precisely and permanently define the forms for refusal. For radical critique, there is no decent behaviour. There is only some things more indecent than others and certain behaviours that mock theory. Thinking of oneself as revolutionary in a non-revolutionary period… what counts is less the result of this contradiction – unavoidably fragmented and crippling – than the contradiction itself, the tension of refusal.
What good is criticizing the sordidness of mores if it must remain? Our way of being only makes sense with respect to communism. In answer to Cioran's quote which opened this section, it must be said that the truly unbearable sweat and disasters are those which don't belong to us, which this world foists upon us. The only excuse we find for time's killing us is history's promise to avenge us. The meaning of our way of being is the possibility that social connection is guaranteed only by itself, and that it works!
If the social crisis worsens, there will be less and less room for half-way choices. Calling for "a little less police" will become less and less feasible. The choice will more and more be between what exists and no police at all. That is when humanity will have to show whether or not it loves freedom.
Love. Ecstasy. Crime. Three historical products through which humanity has lived out, still lives out its emotional practices and relationships. Love: consequence of indifference and generalized selfishness, seeking refuge in a few beings who have the advantage of chance and necessity. It is the impossible love for mankind which finds a poor excuse for an outlet in a handful of individuals. Ecstasy: a brief escape from the profane, the banal and into the sacred; fleeing and immediately captured and boxed in by religion. Crime: the only way out when the norm can no longer be respected or gotten around.
Love, sacredness and crime are ways to give meaning to the present in escaping it. Positive or negative, the three include both pull and repulse, in a relationship of attraction and rejection with respect to one another. Love is glorified but mistrusted. The sacred is by nature threatened with profanation – calling on it to exclude it and, at the same time, strengthening itself. Crime is punished, but it fascinates.
These three rides out of the ordinary run of days will not be any more made general than they are abolished by communism. Any life (be it collective or individual) supposes borders. But communism will be amoral insofar as it will no longer need fixed norms, exterior to social life. Ways of life and behavioural models will circulate, not without clashes and violence. They will be transmitted, transformed and produced at the same time as social relationships. As absolute separation between the inside and the beyond, the sacred will fade away. In this way, religion will no longer have its place, neither those of olden times nor those modern religions who have no gods but only devils to be cast out of the social midst. The liberty of man, his ability to modify his own nature, project himself beyond himself. Up until now, moral order, all moral orders – and all the more insidiously when they are not presented as such – make these beyonds into human-crushing entities. Communism won't level the "magic mountain". It will do what's necessary so as not to be dominated by it. It will create and multiply distant horizons, and the pleasure of losing oneself in them, but also the ability to foster new ones, which subverts the "natural" submission to any world order whatsoever.
To translate a text is enough to measure, word by word, both its breadth and its limitations – in the case of this article, its Franco-centrism. The disappearance of "public living places", for example, is different in France and in Anglo-Saxon countries. The degradation of the Dublin or London pub can't be compared to the losses sustained by the Parisian bistro over forty years. As for the United States, luncheonettes, candy stores and diners don't constitute poles of sociability resembling the French café. And even on the continent, while Paris sells her soul to Big Mac, Rome holds the line. The tendency to mercantilization of daily life is universal; it isn't uniform.
The evolution of mores is probably no faster but certainly more readily perceived in a place where modernity is the oil floating upon an old Catholic vinegar. When the current occupant of the White House11 is in danger of blowing his job over a blowjob, it's not because ethical values weigh more heavily in Washington than in Paris, but because the French do not traditionally accord the hoi polloi a say in matters of morality, and public confession is not common practice. But in sniggering over the hypocrisy and archaism at work over the pond, the Parisian forgets that the Clinton scandal illustrates the pervasive triviality of TV democracy, a democratic moral order that modern Europeans, be they left or free market, are intent on imitating.
"For a World Without Moral Order" was written in 1983, during the backwash of the subversive wave of the sixties and seventies. Since then, things have only gotten worse. "Just try being openly paedophile", we wrote. Sadly prophetic. Any form of child-adult love is instantaneously identified as child abuse, whether in its least "offensive" forms or its most atrocious – rape and murder. Parental love would be the only exception to this rule, but, alas, let us not forget that statistics cruelly demonstrate that a child is most at risk of sexual molestation inside that bastion of security known as "the family". By the same logic, every heterosexual male ought to shake in his boots at the thought of Jack the Ripper, since this would be the ultimate result of all male-female attraction. (The dark cloud of this logic, indeed, seems to loom over current intersexual relations in whole sections of the U.S., to such a degree as to desexualize man-woman relationships.)
Over the course of the last fifteen years, capitalist society has become more visibly itself, answering social struggles and human demands with an array of monsters fresh off its assembly line. Consumer society gets rid of cars only by designating pedestrian areas which die every evening at closing time. Modern urban development can only accommodate motorist, cyclist, jogger, rollerblader, etc. by assigning each his own lane. Mores, unfortunately, adhere to the same each-his-own-lane model. The revolt against an all-too-real white male domination gave rise to the universally derided and almost universally practiced Politically Correct. Unable to change reality, it settles for euphemizing and separating realities, only changing the language.
Fifteen years of ever more crippling separation, invariably painted in the pleasing pastels of liberation. What is gay? A man who only goes out with men, convinced he will never feel the attraction of the opposite sex? How should he know? How can he exclude the possibility of being overwhelmed by the desire for and of a woman?
Gay fiction? Why not rearrange the bookstores along the lines of department store clothing (as is practically the case already in certain U.S. bookstores)? Put Virginia Woolf in Women's, Shakespeare in Men's (although the sonnets…), Lord Byron in the "Physically Challenged, Diet Addicted" section and any writer over sixty-five will see new works displayed in Senior fiction.
Granted, thanks to this gay-ity, the gay man feels safe from all-too-real discrimination. Different clubs, different neighbourhoods, different literature, and last but not least a different vocabulary. How sad that, in order to escape age-old repression, millions could imagine nothing better than making up a category even narrower than the family, and founded only on the choice of sexual object: penis vs. vagina. Act is made into identity, definition into destiny, and sexual preference into a world vision (“gay culture”). While language does express social relationships, it is the latter that must be changed. And in the twilight of the 20th century, words are more easily modified than things.
"Be a nice girl and go make some coffee”. Is the sexism in the girl? Does this mean that a man who says "Girl, I love you. How about I make us some coffee?" loves and/or respects his partner any less than if he'd said woman? In reality, where intimate relations are concerned, intentions are rarely ambiguous. It is in the sphere of formality – polite terms, official appellations, workplace jargon – that there is a whole universe to be revolutionized if not abolished, and here lingual feminism aims merely to euphemize, desexualize, neutralize. What is gained by replacing girl with person? More or less what was gained in substituting Ministry of Defence for War Office, and soon thereafter giving up on the word altogether and saying only "M.O.D." The acronym reigns, painless and incomprehensible to outsiders. Generalist language is a thing of the past.
By the way, what does communism express? Should the word be changed because for decades it served the inversion of a reality founded on the defeat of the workers' movement? Or would it be better to give new life to the thing and thereby to the word? We, men and women who are not misogynous, feel no urgency to prove our femininophilia through appropriate language. Let's let those sitting chair get excited about whether to say chairperson or chairwoman.
Whether Antonin Artaud gets thrown into the nuthouse, institutionalized, or worse, certified, the matter at hand is the psychiatric treatment of a human and social problem – should the asylum be a closed building or chemical restraints.
The enemy is what makes passive, what divides. Good fences make good neighbours. Autonomy is a fenced-in, private space within which I believe I am free to do what I mustn't do outside it. From a state, feminism makes a border. "Hands off!" Whether intentionally or not, this contributes to individual parcelling, which requires a superior authority with the power to guarantee the rights of each (child, parent, man, woman, the old, the young, the gay, the consumer, the worker, the ill, the pedestrian, member of a minority, etc.) with respect to the others. For each right may be declared absolute, it is always relative with respect to others. "Absolutes are not cumulable", as Jean Genet said it. And what redefines and referees the adding up of these relativities if not the power of the State? Privatization of life goes hand in hand with ever increasing judges and psychologists.
Humanity shall not liberate itself by slicing itself up, like liberated territories with poles to mark their borders. Revolution means going beyond all borders. It means superseding womanhood as well as manhood. Individuals getting private control over their lives, even over something as vital as their own bodies, is not a solution in itself. The only true solution is to create with others (of both sexes) relationships of a different nature, where one no longer fears nor risks domination. The point is not for women to be free of men, but free with them. The goal is not for each person to declare his independence, but that each may stop fearfully refusing to be dependent, interdependent. Liberty is a relationship.
One shortcoming of "For a World Without Moral Order" is probably that it doesn't stress enough just how much usage and customs of a future world would surprise, even shock this one. Many dilemmas, fears and terrors, perennial or recent, would disappear. Others would resurge. This is not any more about getting to paradise than it is about soothing barbarity.
Criticizing moral order is not a way of saying "Everyone do what he wants and thanks to human goodness all will turn out for the best". The problem is not how to avoid conflict and norms, but to change the presently fallacious relationship to those norms. There is no other logic, no other meaning and so no other guarantee of my actions than my relationship with my fellow (wo)man. The goal – and the whole problem – would be, will be one day to live a norm not separate from my and from our actions.
- 1Libération is a French daily, launched in 1973 in the aftermath of “68” as a “people’s paper” with the support of Sartre. For a while, it published fringe sex ads and letters from prison inmates. It gradually drifted away from any far-left pretentions, and is now politically mainstream, i.e. social-liberal.
- 2 Since Ch. Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism (1979), the trend has grown to unprecedented proportions. Self-centeredness now complements – and is fuelled by – a constant quest for socialization, as exemplified by the recent craze of selfies: one takes a picture of oneself (usually in the most banal situation and surroundings) with the sole purpose of making it instantly uploadable in cyberspace by thousands or millions of potential viewers.
- 3On that subject, see The Continuing Appeal of Religion, on this site.
- 4Abbuffata means excess eating. In Marco Ferreri’s Blow Out, four men eat themselves to death.
- 5 Bataille took part in the Surrealist movement for a while (Breton derided him in the 1929 Second Surrealist Manifesto). The Story of the Eye could be called a transgressive pornographic novel: published under the pseudonym of Lord Auch, it originally only sold 134 copies. Bataille is also the author of The Accursed Share (1949).
- 6Cioran (1911-95) Rumanian born, lived in France after 1937. In his youth, he was a dedicated anti-Semite and a pro-fascist. Though he later regretted and changed his views, his cultural pessimism always bordered on elitist traditionalism. To get a feel of Rumanian political and literary life in the 30s and early 40s, one can read the Journal 1935-44 of Mihail Sebastian, a much less known but more interesting author (Ivan R. Dee publishers).
- 7 Bataille was commenting upon Les Pieds Nickelés, a French comic book widely read in the first half of the 20th century, featuring the adventures and pranks of three pleasant petty crooks. “Pieds nickelés” (nickel feet) used to be a slang term for work dodgers.
- 8Jacques Rigaut (1898-1929), Dadaïst and Surrealist, chose not to write much – and mostly fragments – until he shot himself.
- 9 Pierre François Lacenaire (1803-36), dandy, criminal and poet, died on the guillotine. He left Memoirs and a myth. Film buffs can see him portrayed in the French 1945 classic Les Enfants du Paradis (‘The Children of the Gallery’).
- 10 Written over several decades in the late 16th century, Montaigne’s Essays were an attempt at understanding himself (and therefore humankind), one of the first consistent descriptions of the self, with an effort to involve the reader in the narration-analysis, with a frequent shift from topic to topic, as well as a lively stream-of-thought style. In that respect Montaigne is one of the founding fathers of European humanism, with all its merits and shortcomings. He is also remembered for being the closest friend of Etienne de la Boétie, who wrote the Discourse on Voluntary Servitude (1548).
- 11In 1998, President B. Clinton was involved in a sex scandal due to his relationship with a White House intern. He was acquitted by the Senate and remained in office.