Radical Chains #5

Partial contents of the final issue of Radical Chains.

Last Editorial - Radical Chains

"The message that the end of stalinism and the defeat of communism are the same has not been effectively contested. Yet the irony is that if the working class had never tended to communism, the likes of Hobsbawm, Marxism Today, the official communists parties or even Stalin's USSR would have been neither possible nor necessary."


radical chains no.5

There is no shortage of issues for struggle. There are any number of workplace issues, especially over intensification of work, and there are community struggles relating to general environmental issues as well as welfare struggles. The need to struggle forces itself on us at every turn. The problem now is the crisis of social vision; it is not so much the prevention as the end of communism that we appear to face today. The loss of social potential directly influences the conduct as well as the aims of everyday struggle. It is the potential for change, the vision to go beyond capital that enables struggle to contest the logic of capital.

Today that logic is generally understood in terms of globalisation. The free movement of capital is linked by commentators not just to the limitation of working class struggle but also to the end of a working class social vision. The various world financial crises have asserted the key element of the global economy that capital can avoid particular labour and go elsewhere. What this comes down to is simple enough. Bourgeois strategy today starts from the assumption that the working class cannot be communist. This also implies something else: the communist vision is a practical issue for everyday struggle. Struggle requires a communist perspective for everyday success.

Capital may have free movement but it cannot accumulate as pure exchange value; whatever its power before particular sections it cannot avoid the working class as a whole. It may dream of abstract labour but there cannot be accumulation without a circuit through concrete labour. We can do without them, they cannot do without us; yet while it may be long past time that we cracked down on this dependency culture it seems even more embedded than before.

Of course there is an irreducible obstinacy in the class. This continues to limit the logic of capital but it is not extended because of the loss of vision under the lasting influence of stalinism. Where people had once hoped for and believed in an alternative vision of society there is at best doubt. Whether we like it or not the fate of that vision is tied into the left and who today is willing to trust the left? The influence of stalinism goes deeper than the far left would like to accept. The end of the Soviet Bloc and the dissolution of the official communist parties have been used to underline the message that the working class could offer no alternative. Today many can claim with little risk of refutation that capital has won. While The Communist Manifesto may include accurate descriptions of capitalism, it was crucially wrong, says Hobsbawm, in assuming that the working class tended to communism. The Manifesto should have been written by Carlyle or some other advocate of moral community; Marx's whole analysis of alienation could be stripped from his work for that cleaner brighter uncluttered look. However much some of us like to applaud ourselves as never having been infected by stalinism, the message that the end of stalinism and the defeat of communism are the same has not been effectively contested. Yet the irony is that if the working class had never tended to communism, the likes of Hobsbawm, Marxism Today, the official communists parties or even Stalin's USSR would have been neither possible nor necessary.

In its crisis, however, the prevention of communism has created a situation where nobody can reinvent communism. This is not a matter of opinion, of whether a particular individual believes in, or acts for communism. The problem is how can communism reappear as a social movement after fifty years of stateised administration of the working class in the name of communism and social democracy.

We can only grasp the consequences of the end of the Stalinist era if we grasp the extent to which anti- stalinism was formed by what it opposed. Opposition shared aspects of stalinism that eventually sabotaged any chance of offering an alternative. The most damaging notion was the identification of planning with hierarchical administrative processes. For Stalinists the centralised subordination of the USSR was achieved socialism. The principal problem is that opponents of stalinism have not been so far from taking up the same position. It is not just that many trotskyist groups had at best an ambiguous view on Soviet planning; even those who have moved away from trotskyism have accepted that there was planning in the USSR. Some clung to the notion of something called 'nationalised property relations'; others rejected all working class content within the USSR but argued that it was capital that was planning in the Soviet Union. The common feature was a notion of planning as abstractly rational rather than as a social activity. In this the left and far left were joined in a last ditch attempt to preserve an Enlightenment project. Even those who rejected this external project have not escaped. Dropping the whole notion of planning in favour of the class struggle as an end in itself, they have tended towards a romanticism of struggle that lost any critical edge as it sought out subjects for heroism.

The common theoretical problem in visions of planning has been the separation of subject and object. As a rational process planning has been conceived of as something performed by an individual: given a set of aims, a set of means follow with something like a logical sequence. This is the Enlightenment plan of Reason. While planning is to some extent recognised as social this is only accepted as a residual content. Democracy may be involved in selecting aims and targets but can then be separated from the process of rational administration. Hence, for ex-. ample, the plan could be compared with the organised administration of a factory. The USSR, considered as one big factory, simply required either democracy or trade unions or some other counter-plan from the class. What all these conceptions lacked was a notion of planning as a social process in and of itself, as an end and a means that cannot abide exterior objectivity. Planning requires active participation and not the passive acquiescence that most of the left were content with.

Planning arises within the class itself as a necessity for full participation in struggle, a necessity that fully socialises individual responsibility and abolishes the hierarchical administration of struggle. It develops into a social vision since struggle cannot but be founded on need against exchange and so on the enrichment of need against exchange. Administration developed as a response to the emergence of planning, from capital's necessity to re-establish external discipline for needs once the logic of exchange has been punctured and lost its objectivity. Administration fostered the division of the wage by which economic and political spheres were separated for the prevention of communism. Formal recognition of need was the key because it allowed a political channel for welfare and an economic channel about conditions. This separation was crucial for the relation of subjectivity to objectivity. On the economic side political considerations tended to objectivity while from the political side economic arguments were the language of external discipline. For many this division appeared to be overcome in principle, within the total administration of the USSR.

There were not many Marxist groups that, despite opposition to stalinism, did not also think of the USSR - or some variety of the Labour Party or of local government - as 'ours'. Underlying this was a pessimistic view of the working class as subject. Planning did not arise from the social existence of the working class but was something outside, something rational. The survival of this Enlightenment version was down to the disaster in Russia and its pernicious influence through stalinism. Especially in the absence of world revolution during and after the Second World War, it became almost impossible for any group to found radical theory on working class subjectivity. The confusion of administration with planning became common to both the right and the left and because this confusion was part of the opposition to stalinism we can characterise a whole historical era as trotskyist.

The most notorious group holding this confusion of planning with administrative processes was the Tories. The Tory Party was an alliance of groups joined by the necessity to oppose the development of the working class. It could point to the disaster of the USSR while taking a pragmatic view on partial suspensions of the law of value. Crisis for this form of Toryism came with the defeat of Heath by the miners and the spread of class struggle in the late sixties and early seventies.

Defeat prepared the way for acceptance of the idea that all limits on the law of value were on the path to serfdom rather than preventions of communism. Where before some modicum of socialism was taken as necessary for order, it had now become anathema because it had failed to anticipate and contain working class aspirations. Hayek became the central ideological figure in a party that had up to then emphasised pragmatism, realpolitik rather than ideas. Although Hayek's ideas originated in middle Europe in opposition to stalinism and nazism, in Britain they came to represent more petit bourgeois and smaller capitalist groupings within the Tory Party.

While capital as a whole was monopolised and so not ideologically obsessed with the dream of a free marker, the political cal situation required for them also a decisive ideological shift. The attack on the working class that was to follow could not be intellectually open, even if obvious to everyone. The free market provided the ideological point of unity even if for some it was a real dream in which a thoroughly impoverished notion of free individuality could flourish. It is indicative of the stalinisation of the left that it was unable to mount an effective critique. Lacking a social vision founded on the emancipation of the individual from the objective bondage of exchange, the left could only thunder about society being more important than the individual.

For capital as whole the free market programme was the means of disorganising the working class and imposing impersonal external discipline. It was the means to attack every position of advantage from which the working class had conducted the struggle of the sixties and seventies. It held together attacks on nationalised industries and on legislation protecting trade unions. Crucially, it could associate these and many aspects of the welfare state with a stalinist notion of planning that was discredited amongst the working class. Such was the need for cohesion in the attack on the working class and so important was the association of radical aspirations with stalinist administration that the idea of the free market became far more than a convenient means of attack. So complete did the free market ideology have to be that some of the most vicious politics occurred within the Tory party itself - the attacks on the 'wets' for example.

This deliberate streamlining of the Tory Party was necessary for the task it had to perform, indicating the extent of the crisis it faced, but left it with little to build on once it had succeeded. Once the Soviet Union fell, once the old welfarism in the Labour Party was defeated, once struggles were contained, the reasons for unity behind an ideological free market programme had gone. The Tory Party had been transformed into a carrier of the stupidest little bourgeois ideas, so little that its aspiration for a free market collapsed with intellectual exhaustion at the thought of the political implications of a free market in Europe. More importantly, the old discipline on Tory party unity had also gone since the working class no longer represented an alternative vision. With nothing to keep the party in check, and no viable ideological basis for a party that had disowned pragmatism, there was little of substance except the desire to keep power, a desire that by itself must inevitably be corrupted by the narrowest forms of self-serving. All they can do now is complain that the Labour Party have nicked their best ideas. Unless they escape the ludicrous side-show of a little nationalism which the bulk of the bourgeoisie, for the moment, find unnecessary, impractical, and even an embarrassing obstacle to the spread of capital, the Tory party may never be elected again.

The current Labour Party has its roots, in the overwhelming and humiliating defeats inflicted by the Tories in the eighties. Those defeats were also the defeat of its role as a party of administration linked closely to the unions and able to deliver a viable pact with the working class. It was scarcely surprising that the Labour Party was defeated; with the break up of their income policies of the seventies it was obvious that they could not deliver the working class.

But working class rejection of the Labour Party went further than the fight against income control. The Party had come to represent many of the aspects of administration that were objectionable to a great mass of people. The formal recognition of need that was the basis of the welfare state had delivered new forms of misery. Formal recognition did not mean the abolition of scarcity; the signal of recognition was the waiting list. Perhaps more important was the quality of what you waited for. You could, for example, be housed but had no say over the quality of housing, over the running of repairs, over the environment in which the housing stood and so on. Especially in local government the Labour Party had approached, if incompletely, the stalinist vision of planning. Thatcherism was able to strike a chord with a large section of the working class; the sale of council houses along with other measures that reduced the impact of administration appealed to a deep distrust of what had come to be understood as planning and positively offered some control over everyday life even if highly curtailed by the discipline of exchange.

The defeat of the old Labour Party by thatcherism also provided an opportunity for that party. In the thirties, Keynes had rejected the Labour Party as a party capable of government because its lead ing elements, however sensible, would not be able to control the radical left within the party. Now that left has been effectively sidelined. Blair has been able to reconstruct the Labour Party as the party of government. The removal of Clause 4, however absurd, signified a new control over the party made possible by the crisis of social vision. The relationship to the trade unions has been changed as the party moves towards being a party of single membership levying through the credit card.

Blair is the first leader of the Labour Party who will not betray the working class. There are one or two people who did not listen or arrogantly assumed that others weren't listening. They will, indeed do, shout betrayal. In fact Blair has done an excellent job in doing what he said he would do. He has said clearly 'we will get rid of the Tories but in return for this revenge expect nothing and perhaps if you are lucky you might get a bit more.' Blair represents a Labour Party that no longer has to deliver the working class out of the clutches of a more radical alternative.

This does not mean the working class is forgotten. It remains central. While the welfare state will be changed, probably run in a chronic crisis mode, it cannot be abolished. Blair has indeed promised the 'unthinkable' but this does not yet mean the kind of confrontation that an abolition of the welfare state would lead to. Those on the left who still expect this should be cautious about basing any political strategy on this non- eventuality What we will more of is a restructuring of the terms of the welfare state. If we take up the old leninist trick of predicting total disaster we will be unable to grasp what is actually going on. Far left catastrophism was always a cop-out that relied on a quantitative degradation of wages and services that it hoped would compel revolt from a class that was essentially regarded as otherwise passive; it fell short of affirming the positive supersession of private property by social planning.

Many free marketeers were driven by the ideal of the free market as an achievable utopia but they have really only constituted a lunatic fringe. The erosion of the welfare state under the guise of the free market has been able to promise nothing that could replace the welfare state. The free market could offer no vision of social order that could sustain bourgeois society for the longer term. It is no accident that Thatcher was indelibly marked by the phrase 'There is no society'.

Worse though than the ultimate vision of the marketeers was the disorganised manner in which they never reached it. All efforts to achieve the freemarket have involved ever more draconian administrative intervention and new layers of management in the public services with the proliferation of unelected government bodies. For every attempt to remove or cut down on welfare another avenue was created. The crudest of these was the ad hoc extension of access to invalidity benefits. The Tories were ideologically opposed to the welfare state but could not ignore the consequences of removing aspects of it; they ended up with a mess that actually undermined what they were looking for. It is significant that a previously strong free marketeer such as John Gray has found it necessary to assert the importance of some conception of morality or community as a vital addition to a market and as the basis for reforming welfare. It has been the Labour Party that has picked up this agenda with its stress on atomised responsibility and on duties. Of course this has not meant they avoided the problems of getting rid of welfare to impose work while keeping it to preserve order. The free market was successful in disorganising the working class but while conditions for accumulation have marginally improved they have done so at the cost of new social problems that threaten in turn the basis of a social order for capital in the longer run.

While the welfare state has been undermined it cannot be destroyed without potentially disastrous consequences for capital. Developments we shall see in the future will be similar in form to the Jobseeker's Allowance in that moral behaviour expected for successful operation of the market will become codified in regulation, laws, policing, in general administration. As community is observed not to exist, as the effects of its absence become increasingly apparent in various crimes, pointless drug taking, and forms of anti-social behaviour, so in short, just as life fractures, as the atomism of the market is achieved so community will become the transcendental morality. The more money succeeds in governing society, the less the bourgeois mind is able to exist as a coherent whole. Social thought fragments into competing doctrines and disciplines, all of which urge different and incompatible solutions to differently described problems and the state comes forward as the bearer of social morality.

As forms of administration are seen to collide with market logic in allowing escape from the market so administrative morality will develop yet further to reassert the market through new rules, deals and procedures. The new Labour Party will extend administrative coercion in the name of community. What cannot be real - community founded on the atomism of labour power - is made compulsory.

There is nothing interesting about the future offered by the Labour Party. They do not even offer some of the ranker visions of socialism that once emanated from that party. They propose a modest administration of capital for which we can expect some degree of success in global competition with some degree of limited insurance against individual failures. What is offered is more work and discipline yet the conditions of work have reached a point of crisis. The only scarcity faced today by humanity is entirely self-induced. The capability for production in the richest sense is immense. Indeed it is so immense that without the self-discipline of the immediate producers we threaten our own environment. For this reason alone the capability for social production needs to be realised. Just as important is the continuation, alongside the immense productive powers of the planet, of the poverty of the majority. For many life is worse than it has ever been yet we have developed the means in technology to surpass the external imposition of work. The rapid development of computers and potential for automation are immediately present but they are simply the platform for a yet greater potential. Some scientists are now saying that the implications of their latest scientific researches, for example in nano-technology, are so dramatic that they must warn us of their social consequences. Just as vision departs from the social world so those who are not even looking for it find the necessity for its retrieval.

Humanity is distinguished above all by its ability to act in the present according to its imagination of the future; but today this is impoverished with the ridiculous indeed minute ambition to get capitalism working a mite better. Meanwhile scientists speculate about machines that will work at such small (nano) levels that their energy requirements will be effectively zero and their capabilities, for example in the precise rearrangement of atoms, so immense that it will be meaningless to speak of work as having any other discipline but desire. If scientists are imagining this kind of future then we may well ask why we should hang on to stale visions derived from the continuing discipline of exchange?


Obituary of Class War - Radical Chains

Radical Chains on the demise and legacy of the UK anarchist organisation Class War Federation.

radical chains
Obituary: Class War

It was far too easy to dismiss Class War and now they have dissolved it is tempting to say they have done the best thing they could have done. Yet in dissolving they raise an issue relevant for all the left. The general problem is that communism no longer seems plausible. Even those fully committed cannot deny that scarcely anyone else believes a genuine alternative is possible.

Questioning the role of organisation today does not mean we can also come to simple answers. Indeed although the crisis in SE Asia could still have devastating effects in Europe and America there is no way of rushing at solutions. The movement has not yet escaped the anti-Stalinist era; the left formed in its opposition to Stalinism was in important respects deformed. There is an objective absence of any vision of a communism for people rather than of a system for mad ideologues and henchmen.

Class War appeared in the eighties and while they may not have had solutions for the left of those days they were something of a relief. Who else showed anything approaching the same uncompromising humour in class politics. Of course you can point to the crudity of Class War but this would come as no source of anguish nor surprise for those in Class War. Far from being a theoretical desert Class War represented an important advance over the majority of those who dismissed them. To understand this we need to place them in their context.

They appeared at the point when the left was about to collapse. Evident to many that the left was inadequate to the task of resisting the political movement of the eighties, it was not so obvious to the left itself. Campaigns against cruise missiles and for 'Peace', or the 'right to work' preserved the priestly worthiness of parts of the left fora few years but this just disguised the extent to which they diverted attention from the dramatic changes during the early eighties. The Peace Campaign, given a massive boost by Reagan saying that Europe was expendable, attracted huge demonstrations as industry after industry was decimated, firms went bust daily and unemployment was soaring. Just as the bourgeoisie was successfully asserting the `right to manage' after the obstructions of the early seventies the left was content to parade its good credentials. When it did respond it was with several `right to work' marches that owed more to showbiz than to politics. Studiously recreating pictures from the original Jarrow marches, they also reproduced the original cosy politics. The demand for the 'right to work' accepted the logic of the global capital market which dictated the conditions workers had to comply with if the invest-menu that would create jobs could go ahead.

The ripe fruit of this left has been Tony Blair. However, where Blair refreshingly makes little pretence at radicalism the 'right to work' campaigns were touted as opposition to capital, an idea that was already ludicrous in its time but which now, given the results, would be embarrassing to its participants. The right to work is linked with the duty to work, hence the Labour Party's acceptance of administrative measures for the working class along the lines of workfare but with a new cherry on top.

One of the most remarkable facts of Thatcher's period of power was not her `iron will' but rather the impression of invincibility granted by the absence of serious alternatives from the left. There were some remarkable struggles in which much commitment was shown. However the Miners' Strike was lost before it started. The restructuring against which they fought had already been achieved in the car industry, the steel industry, and indeed most other industries. Not only left to last, they were picked out at a time suitable to Tory planners. Even if the miners had won, what would they have achieved other than confirming large parts of the left in its nationalist reformism? No amount of nostalgia for the seventies was ever going to summon the kind of social energy needed to sweep away the reaction. The left was unaware of just how much it was tied into state administrative structures, whether local or national. Nor was it aware just how its influence was dependent on these structures rather than on an active grass roots. Thatcherism, by denying this root in state structures to the left and trade unions showed the left to be hollow.

Blair has learnt much more than the far left that for many people the market was preferable to bureaucracy. The use values delivered by administration whether nationalised industry, central bureaucracy or local were heavily compromised by the absence of the discipline of the direct producers. In as much as the left did not break from this it offered a nationalist future of bureaucratic decline, desperate struggles, and vicious repression. Arthur Scargill, while certainly representing a very real anger at the Tories, never broke, indeed could not be expected to break, from the left that was so discredited. He never broke from the perspective of a national coal mine, of national energy policy, and ultimately of a fortress Britain economy on its way to Eastern Europe. This was crucial to the government's black propaganda campaign.

While Class War never fully distanced themselves from this left they had recognised and built on a new phenomenon of anger that could not be contained in the usual channels. They set out to recruit the working class `Youth' who had been disaffected not just by the collapse of any opportunities in the mainstream economy but also by the left's response. They did this by emphasising certain basic class hatreds and what's more doing this with a sharp regard for effective publicity and the use of an appropriately entertaining black humour. In their break from official politics, that of the revolutionary as much as the reformist left, they anticipated the evolving culture of political action that was clearly demonstrated during the anti-poll tax campaign. One of the most dramatic turnarounds for Thatcherism came from outside the left that had dominated the seventies. Where that left did act within the campaign it was either treated with great suspicion or as in the case of Militant thoroughly disgraced itself. It was the anti-left left such as Class War and many more unattached class militants who prospered during that campaign. The poll tax campaign brought down Thatcher but was unable to break from the limitations imposed by antithatcherism. It could not address the issue of organising for needs that underlay opposition to the poll tax.

Despite the strength of their rhetoric, despite the vivid attack of their graphics, Class War could never quite leave the left it despised. In attempting to join class politics to anarchist activism they never achieved an adequate theory of what they were actually doing. This was helped by lazy duplication of an anti-intellectualism that many leftists of various hues have taken to, confusing this with purity of position against the sinister influence of Leninists, party-builders and the like. The nearest they achieved to a distinct theory was in basing themselves on the emotionally felt anger of working class youth, an anger that could be trusted against potential confusion from shady academics. While this challenged little in the culture they purported to want to change, it did in fact allow real insights into the current mess. Class War recognised clearly the pernicious effect of various 'middle class' functionaries.

However this had its problems as well. Based on instinctive anger it comes to a rather ponderous and worthless end in Unfinished Business as the attempt is made to ascribe class positions to people on the basis of their occupation. Not merely ridiculous, this exercise condones the sterile sectarianism of so much of the rest of the left. It was just this kind of mentality that lead to the comment (applauded at a RCP conference) that teachers are state agents of order. It is all rather sad.

The real problem is the absence of an attempt to understand the political economy of mediating functionaries. There is no question that administration has burgeoned in the twentieth century; with it has arisen an extensive cadre of `middle class' functionaries. Nor is there any doubt that these functionaries have had an influential role in the development and direction of the left. They have been able to represent working class interests because involved directly or indirectly in the administration of the formal recognition of needs. Their significance arises not from any psychological disposition they might have but rather in that they arose from important modifications in the operation of the law of value. The question is to analyse how this affects class formation, changes the nature of struggle and whether capital can sustain such modifications.

It is significant that Class War felt the practical necessity for some theoretical statement of their political position. Unfinished Business demonstrates that behind their paper there was indeed not just careful thought but also knowledge of what needed to be faced. It shows a struggle within the working class movement to come to terms with the difficulties of the age. It had all the signs of a work born out of a reasonable participatory process. It is anarchist but it considers that Marx should be read. It is anti-imperialist but `argues against the local oppression waiting in the wings to take over the local management of capitalism.'; while they supported the struggle in Northern Ireland they dealt with every anticipated objection as a valid argument. It was an intellectual effort from a group that had suspicions of intellectuals; and yet here again we should not be deceived for it is here that they declare that 'Our aim is to make everyone an intellectual'. What they object to is anything that smacks of the 'Dictatorship of the intellectuals'.
And such a book in which responsibility is taken is precisely the kind of effort that undermines any basis for such a dictatorship.

Their voluntary dissolution is consistent with this. Indeed where their previous politics of publicity was appropriate to its period their dissolution is appropriate to a period where the left has lost direction now that it has no well organised Stalinism to oppose. The publicity of anger was appropriate when the class position was disorganised by the organisations; now the need is to recreate a positive vision of what we must fight for, a positive vision of another society and not bellyaching about who the welfare state is safe with. Without this we will be trampled by the logic of global capital, damned in occasional nationalist horrors. Genuine intellectuals must come from the working class experience because it is precisely there that there is something to understand. The intelligentsia simply have to run things and for that any ideology even marxism or anarchism can be made functional, although the scope for such appropriation becomes limited the less it is backed by formal recognition of need. In the chronic crisis of needs through which the welfare state will both continue and dissolve there will be much occasion for anger, but we have to be clearer where that is going. In the end anger is not enough.


Unfinished Business. The Politics of Class War, Class War Federation/AK Press, 1992, ISBN 1-873176-7

Situating the Situationists - Radical Chains

A critique of The Most Radical Gesture; The Situationist International in the Post Modern Age by Sadie Plant.

radical chains

born again

The Situationist International and its derivatives have been experiencing something of a revival in recent years. Associated with this phenomenon has been an attempt by the academic establishment to integrate Situationist ideas into Cultural Studies; and at the same time to breathe life into its own moribund post modern discourse. The Most Radical Gesture: the Situationist International in the Post Modern Age by Sadie Plant (Routledge, 1992) is the most comprehensive attempt at such a recuperation. Her motivation is to submit post modernism's heritage and traditions, which according to her are to be found most particularly in the Situationist International, to the spotlight of academic analysis; and, in so doing, reinvigorate the post modern project. Her book, she insists, has a 'specific mission': "In telling the story of the situationist influence on contemporary culture and insisting on the pivotal significance of the movement to a century of political, artistic and philosophical debate, it [the book] has explored the possibilities of critical thought revealed by this history and tried to reintroduce some sense of meaning, purpose, and passion to a postmodern discourse of futile denial" (p.183).

the spectacle

The way in which she prepares her case, by extensive quotation, referencing and full bibliography, make it an important book for anyone with an interest in this subject. She provides a particularly complete account of the work of the leading theorist of the Situationist International, Guy Debord. In his book The Society of the Spectacle (SoS), Detroit, Black and Red (1977) [translated from La Societe du Spectacle, Paris, Buchet-Chastel 1967], Debord maintained that in modern society life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles, where everything that was directly lived has moved away into representation. The 'spectacle' is not a collection of images but a social relation mediated by images. It defines the alienated individual as a passive, contemplative spectator consuming, but otherwise not involved in, their own life and the world around them. Yet, the spectacle is, paradoxically, in turn (relationally) defined by the active desirings of the same individual , whose dreams and imaginings, inspired by the spectacle, contain the means by which the spectacle and its alienations can be transformed. The negation of life contains its own negation.

the story so far

Sadie Plant enunciates the development of the Situationist International as part of a tradition of reaction to the dehumanising effects of the commodity form. This tradition includes Marxist theory and philosophy, in contradiction to orthodox Marxism which merely perpetuates it, various artistic avant-garde modernisms and cultural critics - in particular Futurism, Dada and Surrealism - and other forms of spontaneous refusal and resistance. Representations of these antagonisms converged in 1957 in Italy with the amalgamation of the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus (IMIB), Nuclear Art, the London Psychogeographical Society and the Lettrist International at the First World Conference of Liberated Artists to form the Situationist International. Beginning as a subversive art movement, they evolved into a practice that denied art insofar as it was not political, and denied the political in so far as it did not involve the revolutionary transformation of everyday life. In this way they sought to destroy the gap between art and politics to create not simply a new form of art or a new form of politics, but a new form of life. They were defined most clearly by their involvement in the revolutionary upheavals of 1968 in Paris and elsewhere. They provided the text and the sub-text for this extraordinary period, inventing, designing and rehabilitating forms of revolutionary activity and re-interpreting the alienated and alienating structures of modern society through the perspective of possibility. Their denouement was the denouement of that time. They disappeared within it, or rather, the way in which they were destroyed - controlled self-destruction - provided the basis for new life. The Situationist International is not extinct, it has become something else, providing the inspiration for a kaleidoscope of cultural, political and social oppositions, artistic subversions and assorted revolutionary milieux, including this revolutionary milieux, and my place in it.

The Situationist International was a real expression of revolution, and yet it was not the revolution. In that sense the Situationist International was inadequate. It could provide no basis for opposition outside the spectacle and became, therefore, a part of the spectacle. In order to recreate the revolution it is necessary to recreate the Situationist International and make it more. It is not enough to simply repeat it, as the radicals do, but rather to write through it, to make up for its inadequacies, to theorise more completely their complete account, rather than celebrate their theoretical weaknesses. These theoretical weaknesses are not just theoretical, they have political implications. There can be no revolution developing from Situationist theory. The revolutionary theory of the Situatonist International must be revolutionised.


Through an 'idiosyncratic' (Sadie Plant's description), account of post modernism she attempts to place the Nietzschian inspired, nihilisms of Lyotard, Baudrillard, Foucault and others within this most optimistic Situationist discourse. As she says: "in spite of the radical opposition of situationist and post modern thought, all theorisations of postmodernity are underwritten by situationist theory and the social and cultural agitations in which it is placed. The situationist spectacle prefigures contemporary notions of hyperreality, and the world of uncertainty and superficiality described and celebrated by the postmodernists is precisely that which the situationist first subjected to passionate criticism" (p.5). She argues that while post modernism does, in a sense constitute a radical difference from the situationist project, a number of continuities makes it impossible to oppose the two world views completely (p.112). She connects the post modern to the Situationist International by tracing the autobiographical connections and shared ideological preoccupations between Debord and Lyotard, similarities between the work of Debord and the early Baudrillard and points to the use of identical techniques: derive, detournemont, montage, cut-ups; subject matter: urbanism, the commodity, love, play, everyday life; and to their various reversals of perspectives by which they tried to redefine modern society, i.e. the politics of the aesthetic and the aesthetic of politics, the language of culture and the culture of language, the philosophy of power and the power of philosophy.

While she is right to draw our attention to these similarities, the attempt to rejuvenate post modernism with Situationist theory is doomed because she does not understand the limitations of the Situationist project, of its own critique, nor of the critique of its own critique. While the Situationist International do not, unlike post modernism, set out to confirm the victory of the commodity and the corresponding death of the subject, they do not provide an adequate theory of subjectivity which could escape the logic of their commodity-spectacle. These limits become her limits and ultimately the limits of the book. The limits of this review are that it focuses on the credibility of the Situationist International as a coherent revolutionary theory. The legitimacy of post modernism to make any such claims for coherence have been extensively dealt with elsewhere (e.g. Callinicos, Berman, Harvey ).


Sadie Plant's comparative analysis is severely constrained by her inability to contextualise the Situationist International other than against a crude, vulgar, orthodox Marxism, an interpretation she gets from Debord (SoS:84-89). This leads her to conclude that the SI is a development of Marx - a new paradigm (p.9). The Situationist International did, in fact, contain a certain originality and was a significant and serious attempt to contradict orthodox Marxism and various examples of social democracy with a rediscovery of the communistic perspective by which humanity is redeemed through the activity of the working class emancipating itself (SoS:74). And yet, despite that, it was still an incomplete formulation of a revolutionary theory, pieced together from an interpretation of Marx's early work and a plagiarism - plagiarism being no bad thing in the Situationist world (SoS:207) - of the work of various Hegelian inspired Marxist philosophers most notably Lukacs, Lefebre, and Adorno - of whom she is curiously silent, the only reference appearing in the bibliography. It is this open endedness centering on an inadequate theory of abstraction based on a formal, rather than determinate analysis of the abstractions of modern society (see Introduction to Gundrisse p.100 ), producing a phenomenal study of society's phenomenal forms, which gives the Situationist International its wide appeal to post modernists, and provides the space for Sadie Plant to attempt her incorporation.


The limitations of the Situationist theory begin from their analysis of production. They do not ignore production, as Jean Barrot would have it in What is Situationism: Critique of the Situationist International (Unpopular Books, p.27, 1987), but refer to it directly. Their notion of separation is, in fact, explicitly based on the alienating processes of modern production (see Ch. 1 'Separation Perfected' in SoS, and :140). Their theoretical problems arise because of their inadequate account of the processes of production and its resulting alienating forms. This inadequate theory of abstraction is based on a common formalist misreading of Marx on the subject of alienation. Following Marx in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844), Debord identifies alienation as the major problem for modern (wo)man in modern society. Following Levebvre, he attributes alienation to the division of labour: "It is equally clear that Marx sees the division of labour (his italics) as the cause of alienation" (p.63 Critique of Everyday Life Vol. 1 1947, republished Verso 1991). As Debord put it: "Separation is the alpha and omega of the spectacle. The institutionalisation of the social division of labour, the formation of classes ... it shows what it [the spectacle] is: separate power developing in itself, in the growth of productivity by means of the incessant refinement of the division of labour into a parcelization of gestures which are then dominated by the independent movement of machines; and working for an ever-expanding market. All community and all critical sense are dissolved during this movement in which the forces that could grow by separating are not yet reunited" (SoS:25). This explanation has serious implications for the Situationist International. Constrained by an analysis based on the organisational form of what is essentially commodity and not capitalist production - the division of labour occurs in all productive societies - they are unable to theorise the basis of working class antagonism and are reduced to prescriptive, external and organisational solutions, e.g. workers councils. And without an understanding of the nature of the determinations to which the capitalist worker is subjected and objected, they are reduced to reproducing the voluntaristic wish-come-true desiring dreams of the not-yet post Blochian subject where commodity labour is overcome not by its overthrow but in its generalisability: not only a baker, but a footballer, graphic designer, and teacher as well. Or, as Lautremont might say, we are all poets now.

alienated labour

This explanation for the causes of separation does not contain an explanation of the determinations of capitalist commodity production. This is a basic misunderstanding of Marx's critique of political economy which he described initially in his theory of alienated labour and developed later in Capital as his theory of the value form and commodity fetishism. In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844), Marx argued that it is not private property (the commodity) that is the foundation of alienated labour, but - on the contrary - that alienated labour is the foundation of private property. In a society based on commodity production "the worker becomes poorer the more wealth he produces ... The devaluation of the human world grows in direct proportion to the increase in value of the world of things. Labour not only produces commodities; it also produces itself and the workers as a commodity ... The product of labour [becomes] the objectification of labour. His labour becomes an alien object that exists ndependently of the worker ...[and]... the more the worker exerts himself in his work, the more powerful the alien, objective world becomes which he brings into being over and against himself ... What the product of his labour is, he is not." (Marx, 1844: 324). This alienated activity, the way in which the product of labour comes to exist apart from the direct producer, is the result of the fact that the worker is not working to satisfy his own needs but the needs of someone outside himself. It is therefore 'forced labour' which belongs to someone else. Thus through the activity of work the worker is lost to himself. But the worker is not only detached from himself he is also estranged from his species and his species-life: the active fashioning, creation and contemplation of the world around him and from other workers. But if the worker is lost to himself , his loss is someone else's gain: "If the product of labour does not belong to the worker, and if it confronts him as an alien power, this is only possible because it belongs to a man other than the worker" (ibid:330).


By explaining the basis of separation Marx reveals the process whereby social needs and capacities can be reunited. This can only happen with the abolition of private property: if alienated labour is the basis of private property, the abolition of private property can only take the form of the abolition of alienated labour. Marx concluded: "... the emancipation of society from private property, etc., is expressed in the political form of the emancipation of the workers. This is not because it is only a question of their emancipation, but because in their emancipation is contained universal emancipation" (ibid:333). By this Marx did not reduce the category 'worker' to men working directly in factories, but extends the domination of capitalist production to the whole of human experience: "The reason for this universality is that the whole of human servitude is involved in the relation of the worker to production and all relations of servitude are nothing but modifications and consequences of this relation" (ibid:333). The potential for transcendence of the commodity form can only therefore be contained within the activity of the working class: in the revolutionary abolition of themselves as workers.

the spectacle

Marx developed this work more concretely through his analysis of the commodity, the concept with which he begins Capital. Debord, in SoS, begins with the commodity. However, while Marx, working from the abstract to the concrete, goes on to reveal the many and rich determinations from which and out of which the commodity is derived, and is so doing provides an explanation for the eventual overthrow of the commodity in all its forms, Debord analysis of the commodity, stuck in the abstract notion of 'the spectacle', ends with the victory of the commodity. He never escapes the commodity nightmare system that he constructs. Unable to reveal the basis for revolutionary antagonism nor the real life contradictions in which, through which and out of which class opposition occurs, Debord's working class subject is reduced either to the 'other' of liberal social theory : a radical individual entranced by the 'propaganda of desires' (SoS:53); or, following his formalist account of alienation, is generalised into a collective political consciousness through the instrument of the workers' council. Trapped within a closed system of commodity logic, where possibility is reduced to innovation, Debord's commodity form moves towards its absolute realisation: the spectacle (SoS:66). The spectacle becomes what it has always been for Debord, the subject of its own process. He is not able to theorise the other subject within the process: antagonistic subject (the working class) by which the spectacle can b transcended. The basis for this misunderstanding is that he does not understand value, the value-form, the self-expansion of value, value-in-motion : capital.

value versus theory of utility

Without an understanding of value, Debord cannot adequately explain how and why the system reproduces itself, and therefore how it can be transcended. Instead he attempts to counterpose against the law of value - of which he has little to say other than in functionalist (SoS45) and regulatory terms (SoS:46) - a theory of general utility by which he can theorise his spectacle. For him: "The spectacle is the other side of money: it is the general abstract equivalent of all commodities. Money dominated society as the representation of general equivalence, namely, of the exchangeability of different goods whose uses could not be compared. The spectacle is the developed modern complement of money where the totality of the commodity world appears as a whole, as a general equivalence for what the entire society can be and can do. The spectacle is the money which one only looks at, because in the spectacle the totality of use is already exchanged for the abstract representation. The spectacle is not only the servant of pseudo-use, it is already in itself the pseudo-use of life" (SoS:49). This attempted generalisation of consumption is an extension of the formal logic which Debord used to explain alienation in production (the division of labour). That is, a process by which the consumer is separated not only passively from the spectacle, through contemplation; but also actively: in the act of dissatisfied consumption based on their own pseudo-need, and the fact that the commodity is not what it claims to be. However, Debord is arguing against himself. His spectacle cannot exist. If use value exists only in use then it cannot exist as non-use, as contemplation, or as not-useful-pseudo-use. Marx has already addressed this matter in Capital I and A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (Lawrence and Wishart, 1971). Not only is it the usefulness of a thing that makes it a use value, with usefulness being a function of that which is peculiar to itself, e.g. its physical properties (Capital 1 p.126), this usefulness has value only in use, and is realised only in the process of consumption (Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy p.27). The concept of utility is meaningless except where it has a particular material form. As something in general it has no meaning and is therefore unreal ( Kay in Value ed. D. Elson, CSE Books, 1979: 'Why Labour is the Starting Point of Capital' p.53). It exists purely in the imagination of Debord, the unreality of which he is forced to concede with his notion of pseudo-life: an escape into contentless abstraction.

metaphysics: false consciousness and pseudo-need

While Debord refers to this 'illusion' as the fetishism of commodities(SoS:67) this is not the same thing as Marx's commodity fetishism. This is not simply an academic point. Debord's metaphysical imaginings have not-Marxist consequences in that they lead into and from Lukacsian notions of (false) consciousness which provide the intellectual legitimation around which elitist parties and their ideologues can gather. While the Situationist International reject vanguardism (SoS:96) and advocate direct participation, emphasising the importance of political activity by the working class as the basis of emancipation, Debord does not theorise adequately the basis of this activity. He demonstrates a tendency to idealise consciousness and to separate intellectual activity from practical action with a propensity to grant a certain primacy to an Hegelian interpretation of the dialectic with its emphasis on thought process as above, beyond and before practical activity. Therefore, "it requires workers to ecome dialecticians and to inscribe their thought into practice" (SoS:123) and "The class struggles ... develop together with the thought of history, the dialectic, the thought which no longer stops to look for the meaning of what is, but rises to a knowledge of the dissolution of all that is, and in its movement dissolves all separation" (SoS:75).

Related to the notion of false consciousness is the Debordian concept of pseudo-need. Debord uses this idea to theorise the basis of the contradiction of 'the spectacle'. Antagonism to the commodity form is based on the fact that it is either not what it claims to be, leading to dissatisfaction, or it is what it claims to be but what it is addresses a false need. That is Debord compares the material existence of the commodity with a metaphysical and idealistic notion of human need: "the satisfaction of primary human needs is replaced by an uninterrupted fabrication of pseudo-needs which are reduced to the single pseudo-need of maintaining the reign of the autonomous economy" (SoS:51). If commodity production produces pseudo-need then it can only be producing pseudo-abundance which undermines the progressive nature of capital and an essential prerequisite for communism.

These are very different interpretations from those of Marx who saw the consciousness of the working class coming out of working class activity itself (immanent), who identifies contradiction in the commodity form itself (immanent: not between the commodity and something which it is not: an external point of reference), and who theorised need and its development as an immanent progressive part of the capitalist production process (Grundrisse p.409-410). In order to see the differences more clearly it is necessary to look at Marx's route to fetishism through the law of value.

the law of value

Liberal social theory is based on an analysis of society as a proprietorial relationship between private individuals and the things that they own. However, working from an abstract model of direct commodity production, Marx showed that in commodity producing societies things are not produced for appropriation by their direct producers but for the quality of their exchangeability (alienated labour) with other commodities on which the direct producer relies for their continuing subsistence and further commodity production. So that, what appears as an intensely private activity is, in fact, the manifestation of an extensively social relationship. "Each act of production or exchange only makes sense as a moment of the total process of social production, so the motive of each exchange can only be found in the process as a whole" (Clarke, Marx, Marginalism and Modern Sociology, Macmillan 1991: p122). And so while the desirability of each commodity is determined by the concrete quality (use value) of a particular thing, exchange itself is an expression of the social relation (value) out of which the thing was produced. So that value endorses not the quantity of labour embodied in a commodity - an idea which characterised the Ricardian and liberal models of private properties exchangeability - but, rather, is a recognition of the social usefulness of a product and the socially necessary labour that constitutes its production. The significance of this discovery was that the fetishistic notions of freedom and equality on which liberal individuality were based were called into question as were their socialistic antidotes (radical subjectivity). But in order to substantiate this as yet abstract theory based on the notion of alienation Marx had to investigate value more precisely (concretely) and in particular the way in which this process not only reproduces itself but also expands.


It was with the discovery of labour-ower (the social form of labour) that Marx was able to postulate not only the source of surplus value (the social content) but also the material basis upon which separation of modern society is established and maintained (alienation): through the law of money, the law of contract and the state. These alienated forms of social power constitute the maintenance of 'universal subjectivity': the right of individuals to own property in abstraction from property in its historical materiality. This is essential for the intensification of property into capital and labour: the emergence of a class of workers who are formally free to own property, but who own no property except their own person; and for the emergence of capital as the self-constituting, ever-expanding subject of private property. The formal content of liberal capitalism, the freedom and liberty of the individual, is thus contrasted with the absolute poverty of individuals as a class of producers, a class alienated and estranged from the necessities of life, other than those required for their continuing reproduction as workers, and all property except the self (Taylor and Neary 'Robert Ross, Probation and the Problem of Rationality' forthcoming, Centre for Crime and Social Justice, Edge Hill University).

In this more concrete analysis the direct producer is replaced by the capitalist employer and the worker. The worker sells his labour-power, the capacity to work, at its value (the wage): that which is necessary for its continuing reproduction for a limited time. The specific quality of labour power, unlike other 'values' is that its consumption involves production of value. But, having been purchased, the labour-power can be made to work for a longer period than it needs to reproduce himself. But, not only that, the worker has renounced all right to the product of their work and as such has no interest in developing the capacity of their labour-power beyond the terms of their contract of employment. Quite the reverse, with no material interest in the product of their own labour workers seek to appropriate more of the surplus value than they have produced and for a shorter working day, or less intensive working arrangements against dehumanising and degrading work practices. In order to maximise their surplus (profit) the employer has to ensure that the amount of value paid out to her employees is kept to minimum and that the workers work as intensively and for as long as possible without reservation. This is, therefore, a relationship of antagonism and contradiction. This is not a natural process but involves two antagonistic wills. And what is more, because of the equitable nature of the exchange, two wills with right on their side: "There is here therefore an antimony, of right against right, both equally bearing the seal of exchange. Between equal rights, force decides." (Capital I: 344) The capitalist is simply enforcing his right over the commodity labour power when, driven by the pressure of competition, he attempts to make it work as intensively and for as long as possible; and the worker, because of the nature of the labour contract, with its specified limited duration and duties, is attempting to enforce her rights as the possessor of her own commodity labour power. Capital is forced labour.


Separation is now given a concrete material and socially specific reality. It takes the form of the working class as a mass of people separated from themselves (labour and labour-power) and the means of their own survival (the means of production). The process by which commodity production is maintained - separation (the commodity-form): the premise of production - becomes its result: separation (the commodity-form). But the subject of labour cannot be totally commodified (objectified) for it is constituted by the life-force of humanity which contains within itself the possibility of the appropriation and unification by itself (labour) of that which has been apropriated and separated by capital. This life-force forms, on the one hand, the basis for capital's continual restructuring of society appearing in its most modern ideological guise as post modernism, and on the other, the basis for labour expressing itself as subjectivity: the working class, in all its antagonistic forms, transcending through struggle determined by the capital relation the limits of that relation and ultimately of itself as the proletariat. This is the nature of working class subjectivity that the Situationist International was unable to explain.

value and fetishism

It is this relationship of contradiction antagonism and struggle over production, generalised through reproduction to the whole of human experience, and apparent in the everyday disputes between employer and employee, that forms the social basis for the social relations of capitalist society and by which their contradictory nature can be understood. Indeed, it is only through an understanding of the labour and valorisation process that commodity fetishism can be adequately theorised. It is this contradiction between use value (labour) and value (the capitalist labour process) where the social reproduction of the worker is subordinate to the reproduction of capital that finds its expression in the commodity form. It is only through the direct suppression of labour (use value) that capital (value) can expand. The expansion of value is constrained by the only process through which it can be directly produced, and the direct producers are determined by the very process that they themselves produce. Value is a form of social labour, in order to produce itself it must overcome itself and in order to be recognised it must appear in another form: use-value. It is only in the form of its opposite that it can express itself and be recognised in exchange. Only through the thing (use value) can the social form (value) be represented. It is this process which results in the concrete-abstract phenomena which Marx describes as commodity fetishism.

That is to say, and this is a crucial point, the contradiction lies in the value expansion process itself and not between value and something else. It is immanent. The law of value is undermined by itself, in the very act of its production. While it is true that this opposition expresses itself in the form of working class organisation, it is not this organisation that has provided the dynamic for the antagonism in the first place.

back to Sadie Plant:

And so the limits of the Situationist International become Sadie Plant's limits uncritically repeated. Sadie Plant understands that opposition to capital can only arise in, through and against capitalist social relations; but she is unable, following Debord, to theorise the nature of that antagonistic subjectivity. Repeating his account of commodity fetishism (p.11) she is unable to theorise the basic contradiction within capital, reducing it to an exogenous symptom of consumer dissatisfaction "between life as it is and life as it could be" (p.12); and mystification "poverty is enforced and reproduced by the production of commodities which pretend to offer satisfactions they continually deny and which in turn reproduces the alienation and isolation experienced in production" (p.23). Production is then reduced by her to the logic of capital and its diamatic, synthetic, dynamic: the essential antagonism of capitalist society being the contradiction between the forces and relations of production (p.12-14). But this account describes a deterministic process which denies the very thing it is trying to identify. Radical subjectivity is trapped within predetermined "perpetual cycles of redevelopment ... [in the midst of which] ... revolution is, of course, the one change precluded by the spectacle. Change occurs within the spectacle, but the spectcle is static: time frozen into its own commodification and constantly reproducing itself in cycles of return." (p.26). So that the spectacle produces not only itself but the opposition to itself. But as the spectacle does not exist, then neither can its opposition. Or rather, the form in which the spectacle appears, in the dream-like imagination of Debord, is the form in which opposition expresses itself. This antagonism is left to reveal itself as the declared faith and assertive confidence of Debord's disciples.

Why PM and SI now?

Sadie Plant's book, as with post modernism by 'design' and the Situationist theory by default, constitute a distraction. The question that remains to be asked is why is this distraction situated in this most modern form. Post modernism is the ideological phenomenal form of the underlying capital relation currently experiencing a generalised crisis of profitability, struggling to reconvene, as it would have it, the conditions for growth. It is attempting to do this by restructuring social relations through the reconstitution of the abstract individual via the depoliticization of the economy (Reaganism, Thatcherism, Citizen Major etc.). Premised on the naturalism of the commodity and capitalist social relations, liberal social theory, faced with the increasing decomposition of its idealised social order, retreats even further into the abstract where the abstract individual of modernity has been further deconstructed by abstraction into a series of separated individuals (sexual, consumer, citizen). Post-modern individuality is constituted as an abstraction from the abstract individual (Taylor and Neary).

The Situationist International is 'the other' of liberal social theory. Unable to explain the basis of radical antagonism, it is left with no adequate description of an antagonistic subject, other than 'the other' of liberal theories' rational choosing individual, reconstituted as the desiring dissatisfied deconstructor. As Debord can provide no meaningful account of how this systematic model can be transcended the Situationist International and its derivatives escape into their own form of abstraction. While post modernism escapes into a series of 'others', Situationist theory is an attempt to define not the essentials of otherness but 'the otherness' of 'otherness': an abstraction of an abstraction (hyper-reality). The positive element of this is that it attempts, against post modernism, to focus on subjectivity and the part played by real people in real life processes. The danger is that it reifies subjectivity, e.g. 'youth': "the transformation of what exists" (SoS:62), reducing it to a series of formless abstractions which it then attempts to rescue through prescriptive organisationalism categorised as revolutionary working class activity.


Debord was careful never to claim too much. He could describe but not explain. As he said, he prophesied nothing. He simply pointed out what was already present and to the significance of various forms of antagonistic activity, e.g. youth crime, ignored or condemned by previous commentators. His was a serious and significant attempt to theorise revolution. It is important to engage with Debord as he hoped we would and challenged us to do; and to rigorously contemporise the nature of class struggle in the act of which that radical subjectivity which he tried unsuccessfully to identify - because it can never be identified - might more concretely express itself and be recognised.