Chapter 1: Why capitalism must be democratic and the grandeur it achieves by being so

“You will soon be, thank Heaven, out of the hands of your rebellious subjects (…) Where they are concerned, my Cousin, I share all of your feelings, as you can see, and pray God that that He will keep you safe, but I cannot approve of your repugnance for the type of government that one calls representative and that I myself call recreational, there being nothing in the world that is so entertaining for a king, not to mention the not insignificant utility that it has for us (…) The representative form of government suits me marvelously (…) Money comes to us in abundance. Ask my nephew in Angoulême [in France]. Here we count by the thousands or, to tell the truth, we ourselves no longer count, because we have our own representatives [ des députés], a dense majority of them, as one says here; expenses, but they are small (…) One hundred voices, I am sure, doesn’t cost me in a year what Mme. de Cayla costs in a month (…) I truly thought as you did, before my trip to England; I had no love at all for representative government; but there I saw what it really is. If the Turk suspected as much, he wouldn’t want anything else, and he would make his Divan a two-chambered body (…) You shouldn’t be scared off by the words liberty, the general public, or representation. They work to our benefit, and their products are immense, the danger nonexistent, whatever one says. . . .”

(These extracts, translated here for the first time into Italian, come from a secret letter that Louis XVIII sent to Ferdinand VII in August 1823. In Cadix, this letter fell into the hands of a secret agent from Canning, and its publication caused a controversy in England. – The Morning Chronicle [English in original], October 1823.)[1]

What constitutes the most notable trait of our century isn’t so much the fact that capitalism has been challenged in a reiterated and bloody manner by the workers of all industrialized countries and also in some countries where the economy is still predominantly agrarian (not at all unexpected phenomena, except to those who undervalued the warnings issued by the first failed revolutions of the prior century), nor the fact that serious economic and monetary crises have regularly shaken internal stability (serious inconveniences, but unavoidable in any complex economic system), nor even the fact that errors in the management of power have been quite numerous and very costly in every country (this fact is inseparably tied to any historical form of domination). It seems to us that what is notable in our century, quite the contrary, is that the capitalist system has managed to resist all that, and that, despite all that, today it still continues to exist everywhere, in manifestations that are different and even appear to be contradictory, as the only existing form of domination in the world, not only capable of surpassing its own crises, but even coming out of them reinforced to the point that it has managed to spread and impose its methods of production, exchange and commodity distribution upon the whole planet. Even in the Communist countries, the economic and technological systems of modern capitalism have long since become the declared preference of the dominant bureaucratic class.

For the first time in universal history, an aggressive [ déterminé] system has imposed itself everywhere, annihilating all of the archaic forms of domination that were opposed to it, at the same time that it has successfully confronted the questions posed to it by new social forces, such as the class of industrial workers and salaried workers in general, who are necessary for the production and consumption of commodities, but who have an underlying disposition to combat in the name of their own “emancipation” the world for which they work and in which they live.

At the beginning of a Report dedicated to the critique of the current management of our system, it appears to us necessary, and just, to recognize its unquestionable historical success and its objective merits, which we risk seeing compromised in the near future because of current errors. It is fitting to know clearly what to preserve in what we must fight hic et nunc [Latin for “here and now”], and to be aware of what we have to lose at a moment when it is indispensible to choose how to comport ourselves, and what weapons will help us, if we wish to emerge victorious from the very grave crisis that is the cause of our worries and the origin of this text.

According to Thomas Carlyle, the French Revolution had the demand for truth as its essential meaning. It was an historic proclamation of the fact that all lies, on which one had up until then based the harmonious organization of a social hierarchy, had to be rejected from then on. If these ideas are correct, we can determine that, for the last two centuries, we should have been able to avoid the greatest part of what harms us.

All of the historically dominant forms of society have been imposed on the masses, who quite simply must be made to work, either by force or by illusion.[2] The greatest success of our modern civilization is that it has been able to place an incomparable power of illusion at the service of its leaders. Later in this pamphlet, we will see that this is also where the weakness of our power lies and threatens to become a serious crisis at any moment, because this illusion must never be shared by the ruling elite [French in original] that produces and makes use of it. Accumulative and rapid economic development (accumulative in the dimension of its rapidity), as well the positive technological upheaval that incessantly accompanies this development as its corollary, have caused in the totality of production and distribution an extreme concentration and a control that tends to become absolute. What has unfortunately challenged the current state of the world is the fact that this control possesses a strategy on the scale of its immense means. We will return to this point. But what is beyond doubt is the fact that economic development itself has demanded and brought about (in previously unimaginable proportions) the separation and passivity of the agents of production, that is to say, the very same ones who are identified by another branch of the social sciences as “consumers” and “citizens.”

This situation has produced, as a natural product of our stage of historical development, the social necessity for contemplation, which Bergson, in his time (in the pages of Creative Evolution), called “a luxury.” This contemplation is opportunely satisfied by the privileged part of our technology that is dedicated to the fixation and diffusion of images. The reason for this cannot escape anyone of good faith. The objective and measurable successes of our society are completely economic and technical. This society produces more and more things to watch [Ce que cette société produit, il n’y a plus qu’à le regarder]. Some people have asked us, moved by perfectly irrelevant sentimentality: “Must we also love this society?” The question is asked in vain or, rather, if one admits that posing such a question from any transcendent point of view means that real society would be a pure absurdity, we can only say that the question is effectively asked in vain in the sense that it has already fully found its response from the moment that one poses it in terms of real society, that is to say, in terms of social classes, by wondering, “Who must love this system of production?” Those who appropriate surplus-value necessarily love the existing form of production. As for the others, why should they love it? Production in itself appears to them as a simple necessity, and this is what it really is. As for the particular form this necessity assumes, those who hold capital don’t find it any more defensible than any other form, and are only attached to it due to the specific advantages that they draw from it. If the excessive hypocrisy of the social thought of our epoch hadn’t so mixed up and dirtied the playing cards that, cheating as always, it has ended up being unable to cheat intelligently, we would blush to recall such truisms. Our workers have in no way decided upon what they produce. And this is quite fortunate, because we might wonder what they would decide to produce, given what they are. It is quite sure, whatever the infinite variety of conceivable responses, that a single truth would be constant: they would assuredly not produce anything suitable for the society that we manage. And as these workers cannot be dazzled (no more than you or we ourselves) with happiness by the enlargement of the organizational chart of a multinational corporation or by the rate of growth in the sales of fighter planes to the Middle East, but find themselves deprived of any real compensation in the existence that is created for them, we must distribute to them some other compensation. This is what is accomplished by the massive diffusion of images that can be contemplated, though they no longer constitute the “luxury” spoken of by Bergeson, but a contemplative necessity, a diversion [French in original] like the Roman circuses [Latin in original] or Pascal’s definition of the term.

Whatever the importance, and even the gravity, of the dangerous weaknesses of our power that we must criticize today, we must not lose sight of the fact that all this is subordinate to these brilliant successes. One only defends a social order that is alive. And if bourgeois society hadn’t won this victory at the universal level, we wouldn’t be here today to discuss its defense, because it would otherwise be as dead as Darius’ Empire.

If we take a moment to remember (and that would be a healthy propaedeutic during the current struggles) that, for the last hundred years, we have run the risk of having the world escape from of our grasp in a short period of time, we will ascertain the importance of the reprieve that we have obtained, which, in addition, has permitted us to undertake a profound transformation of all the conditions for this strategy – a transformation that we can define as follows: the construction [l’aménagement] of a new terrain of battle in which we await a disoriented adversary who must at first recognize it as such and then is constrained to advance while surrounded by the powerful defenses that we have wisely set up.

One can say that the 19th century, in the wake of the frightening revolutions of 1848, discovered political economy. Society divided into classes and private property had already been challenged: the critique of them seemed inexorably tied to the progress of knowledge, notably among the working classes. Thus, because the ruling class feared the education of the working classes and universal suffrage (and apparently quite legitimately so), it tied its defense to a position in the past, to an attitude of retreat, which continually became more pronounced. Modern industry required education, at least a summary one, and education, by spreading, necessarily worked in favor of universal suffrage. The bourgeoisie remembered that the progress of its leading lights had accompanied its own march to political power, and it feared that the same route would be followed by the proletarians. Fortunately, the proletarians also believed in this identification of their respective destinies; both classes thereby deceived themselves, because the two revolutionary projects were so different that they could not make use of the same leading lights, nor their diffusion and usage by analogous means. Thus, both the fears of one class and the hopes of the other were in vain.

Over the course of the century, the development and expansion of political and economic power changed the face of the world, much more than any past revolution had been able to do. What have been the characteristics and the permanent effects of this change? What did it destroy, and what did it create? It seems to us that the moment has come to define and set forth the distinctive traits of the new reality, because today we find ourselves at the precise point where we can best evaluate the results of a series of upheavals. Though we are far enough from their beginnings to be sheltered from the passions of those who began them, we are close enough to them to distinguish their essential elements. Soon it will be difficult to make an objective judgment of these events, because, by making their causes disappear, the great historical changes that succeed subsequently become less comprehensible due to the very fact of their success. Thus we will now consider the secrets of our victories in the old campaigns, not to seek some hollow compensation in our pride in the successes of bye-gone days, but rather, at the heart of a new war that has suddenly been revived throughout the entire social field, to pull together and consciously use these secrets in other battles that we are called upon to fight anew. In the epic tale of the old social war, what were our decisive battles, our Salamines and our Marengos?[3]

To be brief, we will distinguish five of them.[4]

First, we have in a certain manner challenged Carlyle’s remark by quantitatively and qualitatively realizing the progression of the lie in politics to a degree of power never before seen in history, with its content growing alongside the proliferating extension of its means. It developed with the “radical” bourgeoisie and its journalistic and parliamentarian practices, which managed to survive the workers’ movement organized as socialist political parties. The process begun by the parliamentary representation of the citizens has been quite naturally and considerably reinforced by the success of the unionized representation of the workers, since it is true that all representation plays our game. What one has customarily called brainwashing [French in original], that is to say, the propaganda of false news diffused day after day by all the governments during World War I, has subsequently crossed a threshold beyond which, in normal times, one wouldn’t have believed it possible to take literate citizens. Cardinal Carafa’s remark, made at the time of the Inquisition, remains true: As far as the people can be deceived, that is as far as one should go [Latin in original]. Fascism was a pathological excess of the unlimited lie, but also a remedy in a time of crisis. But it is fitting to note that fascism completely failed due to its very nature, but by no means on the terrain of its means of propaganda, to the point that Hitler could theorize the fact that “the masses . . . will be more easily deceived by a big lie than by a small one.” The advertising of the modern market then came to exploit the possibilities more rationally, and it has proved its excellence as an autonomous power, although one must naturally criticize the excessively unilateral results that have followed from this very autonomy, which too often hasn’t conformed to the higher interests of the entirety of our economic order. And, no doubt, the most significant result of this entire period was the identification of communism with the totalitarian order that reigns in Russia and, subsequently, with the perspectives of its partisans in our countries, who, over the years, have believed that Lenin and Stalin abolished capitalism. It pleases us to remember the remark by our friend the eminent economist Piero Sraffa, who, years before the translation [into Italian] of Karl Marx’s Grundrisse, placed this passage in the book that settled the question: “To let salaried work continue and, at the same time, suppress capital, is an action that contradicts and destroys itself.” Thus the social revolution that had been desired in the 19th century quite effectively became utopian, since it no longer existed anywhere in the global society where it might have been able to assert itself as what it could truly be.

Second, we have witnessed the imposing reinforcement of the power of the States as economic powers, political authorities and evermore refined organisms of surveillance. We can even say that, in this sense, the dream of the bourgeois economists of the 18th century (a legitimate dream, but one that often aroused the hostility of the aristocrats of the time) has been realized, but in a different form. The State theorized by these economists not only had to command the nation, but also to form and educate it in a specific way. According to Turgot, Quesnay, Letronne, Mercier de La Rivière and so many others, it was the task of the State to shape the spirit of its citizens according to a certain model that it proposed; the State must inculcate in them certain ideas and sentiments that it judged to be useful and necessary to overcome the obstacles that social reality presented to its activity. The economists of that period said that the State had to reform its political and civil institutions, and even the conditions of the lives of its citizens, so that they could be transformed. Bodeau summarized these ideas by advancing this prophecy, which was very radical for his times: “The State makes men as it wishes them to be” [French in original]. In the 19th century, a very cultivated aristocrat, who was nevertheless too attached to the past, accused these economists of trying to create “an immense social power that isn’t merely greater than all those that currently exist; it is also different from them in its origin and character. It does not proceed directly from God; its origin doesn’t lie in tradition; it is impersonal; it doesn’t identify with the King, but with the State (…) This democratic despotism (abolishes) all hierarchies in society, all class distinctions, all fixed ranks; composed of individuals who are almost identical and completely equal, this confused mass recognizes only one legitimate sovereign (the State), but it has been carefully deprived of all the faculties that could permit it to lead or even oversee its government.” The economists defended themselves against these accusations by invoking public education. Quesnay said, “despotism is impossible if the nation is enlightened” [French in original]. The demands that these economists advanced were indeed better founded. Before the French Revolution, Letronne noted that, “for centuries, the nation has been governed by false principles; everything seems to have been done by chance” [French in original]. Today we see what they foresaw. Perhaps it is fitting to emphasize that, a century before Marx, contemporaries of these economists, working in the same direction, advanced the current of thought that was subsequently called socialism. For example, one finds in Morelly’s Code de la Nature all of socialism’s doctrines concerning the necessity of reinforcing the power of the State, and in this work he foresees “the right to work, absolute equality, the uniformity of all, [and] mechanical regularity in all of the movements of individuals.” It is surprising to see that in 1755, when Quesnay founded his school, Morelly recommended what is only today being fully realized everywhere. For example, we read in Code de la Nature that “the towns will be built according to the same plan; all the buildings used by individuals will be similar (…) Children will be removed from their families and educated in common in a uniform fashion, at the cost of the State” [French in original]. The Statist centralization engineered by the bourgeoisie and the socialist bureaucrats was the product of the same necessity and the same terrain; each of these powers is, with respect to the other, like the cultivated fruit and the natural tree. But everywhere the State has become the protagonist that, with more or less efficiency, plans and programs the life of modern society. Therefore, the State is the palladium of market society, which converts even its enemies into property owners, as has happened in Russia and China, for example. And this fact allows us to remark that we do not fear resurrecting the old and noble term “market society.” All of the grandeur of the world has been provided by merchants and the societies that they have built. Art, philosophy, knowledge in all its scientific and technical forms, political freedom in its actually practicable modalities – all this only appeared in history, and has lasted, with the emergence and survival of the mercantile bourgeoisie and within the exact limits of its local or universal domination.

Third, the isolation and the separation of people from each other has been highly perfected.[5] Everything that could more or less directly disturb the tranquility of the social order, everything that could unite individual communities, corporate bodies, the neighborhoods of old towns or villages, and even the customary clienteles of cafés and churches, have been almost completely dissolved by the putting in place of the new conditions of everyday life and the new urbanistic countryside. We can say that each person now finds him- or herself in a direct relationship with the powerful center of the system that commands even the details of existence, and this center appears to each person, either successively or simultaneously, in its restrictive aspect as governmental authority, in the choices made by industrial production as to what will be available on the market, and in the selection of images to contemplate. Thus the masses consume and watch what they want among the diverse things that are programmed for them, but they can only want what is available.

Fourth, we have witnessed the unprecedented increase in the power of the economy and industry. The modern economy has succeeded in giving a value and a price to everything, thus permitting everyone to consume the commodities that industry produces. We might even say that, to the extent that it has satisfied the essential needs of the population, the modern economy has been in the position to offer that population unnecessary things. Thereafter, what was inessential became necessary and this in the double sense that, subjectively, those things came to be perceived as such by the consumer and, objectively, they came to constitute a necessity for the industrial expansion that produced those precise commodities. Thus, at the moment that the citizen as consumer gained free access to the superfluous, all that was appreciated by the people of the past and all that was indispensible to guarantee them the maintenance of poorer and more precarious realities became useless and disappeared. From food to the entertainments of free time or vacations, there no longer exists anything that cannot be produced industrially, that is to say, cannot bring in an economic profit.

We do not want to deny that these developments also resulted in previously unknown inconveniences, such as new diseases caused by pollution, etc. But, in any case, the very progress of science – the science of pharmaceuticals, for example – in its turn furnished antidotes that, industrially produced, constituted more commodities that could be sold to the population.

The system came to make use of (as an attribute of its sovereignty) the still growing distance between these rapidly changing realities and the words and feelings that now only correspond to appearances.

Popular notions, rooted in place for generations, no longer bear any relation with the completely different realities that have been produced by the most modern industries. Whether it is a question of what one used to call work, vacation, meat, influenza, or house, economic and Statist power makes use of all its elements to make known the modifications introduced into these realities. This power itself experiences modification, either by chance or by pursuing deliberate goals. And yet people still speak of other things, the things that have disappeared, using the same old words, which are also used during their debates on electoral programs.

Fifth and last – and this result concentrates together all the previous ones that we’ve enumerated – we have seen the vertiginously growing complications of the daily intervention of human society on all aspects of the production of life, and the replacement of all apparently natural elements by new factors that we could call artificial, fully justify the indivisible authority of every expert who builds or corrects the new economic and ecological equilibriums without which no one could live.

Therefore, there are now only experts in the [workings of the] State and the economy, because there are no operational fields or diplomas outside of these areas. And so the existing hierarchy is forced to develop the secret and control in everything, even when it doesn’t want to do so. But all the hierarchies in history have always wanted to develop these things, even though doing so wasn’t obviously necessary for everyone’s interests. The double advantage that we derive from this situation resides in this: discontent with our society no longer makes sense, at the very moment that it has spread wider than ever before and concerns every single detail. Today, only total refusal, which is always difficult to formulate and put into practice, has a meaning that is threatening to our social order. And this threat is itself attenuated to the extent that a refusal of this kind, deprived of an exact comprehension of the totality and disinclined to envision the repercussions of real, historical confrontations, has the greatest chances of being stupid and contenting itself with some ideological illusion that leads its adherents astray.

Here, in brief, is how modern capitalism has been able to make the entire population participate in the freedom that it has built. And it is right to rejoice in this fact, because this enterprise had never been undertaken before, and bad omens piled up at the beginning. Perhaps a more lucid comprehension of history – for a century neglected in favor of economic studies that were themselves poorly disengaged intellectually from theology – would have inspired more confidence in the elite [French in original] of the time, who certainly could not have exactly foreseen the appearance of forms of domination that we have characterized here, but who could have speculated more boldly along the general line of the evolution to come, and thus perhaps more consciously hastened the useful formations? At the same time, one might have been spared a certain number of inconveniences from which we still suffer, such as the regressive mutation of capitalism in Russia. Let us reaffirm the point: despite the often legitimate, but many times exaggerated worries that the question has aroused in the dominant classes of almost all the countries, capitalism must be democratic because it can be nothing other. A glance at history, not to mention the most attentive and sharpest study of it, always leads us to the undeniable result that capitalism could never have grown, whatever the location, without a democratic society, [that is to say,] in the precise layer of society that lives the democratic life, wants it and needs it. And to deploy itself fully and completely, to transform everything into a commodity and incessantly renew the totality of commodities, capitalism must permanently give the entirety of the population a choice, the terms of which have been fixed by capitalism itself. Because one must be able to choose between two equivalent commodities, one must also be able to choose between two representatives. He who remembers fascism, who knows how badly State capitalism is managed by the totalitarian bureaucracies in the East, or who considers the permanent atrophy of the development of the merchant class in ancient Oriental despotism, will find the proof a contrario of this axiom.

Those who do not understand the necessity of remaining free quite simply do not have the [good] taste to do so, and we must give up trying to convince mediocre minds that have never known this sublime taste. The impassable limits that democratic freedom implies are its own safeguard, and it is reality that imposes them on it. Nevertheless, we can conclude that the peoples of the world have been more interested in concrete reforms put into action by democratic capitalism than in the multitude of sermons in favor of an abstract and total “freedom,” a “freedom” that no one has ever seen because it has never been realized. Thus freedom can only be understood on the basis of the actual reality of democracy, without being frightened or getting enthusiastic about the monotonous illusions that are always springing up about it.

No sensible person would think to deny the fact that, from its first admirable appearance in history, participation in the political management of democracy has been a domain reserved for a class of rich merchants or property owners, whether it was in the Athens of the 5th century [BCE] or the Florence of the 14th century. We see nothing different [from this pattern] in the famous year 1793 or anytime since then – beyond the fact that the dominant class of today isn’t as well served by the always more numerous personnel to whom it has delegated the tasks of political administration, and nowhere as scandalously as in Italy where these roguish and incompetent domestic servants have allowed the roast to burn while they have nabbed the loose change from the pockets and drawers of their masters. As for the quite notorious other side of the democratic republics, we would like to say that the always-resurgent excesses of the infinite pretentions of the working classes quite clearly constitute the opposite of this democracy. The proof of this is that they have always resulted in immediate loss. But we are no longer at that moment in history when democracy – put into place or realized in a few cities – could have succumbed under the blows of these pretentions without impeding the general growth of a capitalism that was still generally sheltered in its previous social relations. Capitalism seized hold of the world for its own ends. The democratic order must be defended without any thought of retreat, “not only with the spear, but with the axe”[6] because, at the same moment that it is defeated, capitalism will definitively succumb, too.

Of those minds and hearts that have become discouraged because, for the last ten years, they have taken the end of the troubles of a particular time for the end of the time of troubles, we ask, “Must we be resigned to the idea that any certainty that has been triumphantly conquered will be ceaselessly put into question, and is the crisis in society destined to always last?” We will respond coldly, “Yes.” We must confront the harshest truth, “the truest cause” (to quote Thucydides) of this social war, which is unfortunately but unavoidably permanent. Our world is not made for the workers, nor for the other strata of impoverished salaried workers whom our reasoning must place in the simple category “proletarian.” But every day our world must be made by them, under our command. This is the fundamental contradiction with which we must live. Even during the calmest days, the spark that could rekindle all of the masses’ insatiable passions and their limitless and unstoppable hopes always exists in the cinders. This is why we never have the right to abstain from being intelligent for too long.


[1] As Sanguinetti would later point out in his text “Proofs of the Nonexistence of Censor by His Author” (December 1975), “the letter attributed to Louis XVIII is in fact a celebrated literary fake by Paul-Louis Courier.”

[2] Machiavelli, Chapter VI, The Prince.

[3] The Persian Emperor Darius, who ruled from 522 BCE to 486 BCE, suffered a crucial naval defeat at the hands of the Greeks at Salamine Island. In 1800, Napoleon won an important battle in Marengo, Italy.

[4] See “The Chief Features of the Revolution” in Arnold Toynbee’s The Industrial Revolution (1881).

[5] See “Separation Perfected” in Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle (1967).

[6] A quote from Herodotus, Chapter CXXXV of The Histories. It also appears in “Investigations without a Guidebook,” an essay published in Internationale Situationniste #10, March 1966.