Chapter 4: The divided society

Submitted by Alias Recluse on March 31, 2014



“But let us admit: there is no question here about scientific formulas and problems; the relations of material things are all very simple; the right comprehension of the moral forces which come into play is more difficult.”
Carl von Clausewitz, On War

The numerous testimonies, ancient and modern, concerning the nomadic civilizations confirm the fact that such societies did not know division into castes or classes, as these divisions appeared later in history. Each member of the group was, at the same time, hunter and warrior, builder and artisan, and even priest, insofar as he was in personal communication with the world spirit, of which he was the voice. These characteristics of ancient societies were common to the Africans of the equatorial jungle, the Amerindians of the plains and mesas, the peoples of Oceania, the hunters of the Arctic and the nomads of the Siberian Steppes.

All these groups of hunters and warriors designated a chief who was capable of furthering their enterprises and conciliating conflicts that might arise within the group. The existence of these chiefs, in all nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes, might lend credence to the idea that these social organizations were by no means egalitarian and democratic, and that, in short, political power has always existed and that real democracy was nothing but a utopia or, in the best case, a future project only possible in industrial societies.

But the chieftains of the nomadic tribes were by no means the ancestors of political power as it appeared later in the settled societies. One could say that this institution was the opposite of and even the antidote to political power. In the Amerindian civilizations of North America, as the ethnologist Pierre Clastres points out, “the chief has no authority at his disposal, no power of coercion, no means of giving an order. The chief is not a commander; the people of the tribe are under no obligation to obey…. Mainly responsible for resolving the conflicts that can surface between individuals, families, lineages, and so forth, the chief has to rely on nothing more than the prestige accorded him by the society to restore order and harmony. But prestige does not signify power, certainly, and the means the chief possesses for performing his task of peacemaker are limited to the use of speech…. armed only with his eloquence, [the chief must] try to persuade the people that it is best to calm down, stop insulting one another, and emulate the ancestors who always lived together in harmony. The success of the endeavor is never guaranteed, for the chief’s word carries no force of law”.1 In short, the chief of the nomadic societies, chosen for his personal virtues, “his oratorical talent, his expertise as a hunter, [and] his ability to coordinate martial activities, both offensive and defensive”, has the fundamental role of embodying the social unity of the group, representing and preserving this unity (by way of the invocation of the ancestors). This chieftainship is a testimony to that unitary consciousness in which the individual consciousness and the social consciousness were merged. In no case did the primitive chieftainship identify itself with political power. Pierre Clastres concludes that, “the chief is there to serve society; it is society as such—the real locus of power—that exercises its authority over the chief…. primitive society would never tolerate having a chief transform himself into a despot”.

Just as the chief of the primitive tribes has often been identified with the monarchs of later social organizations, the other key personality in nomadic societies—the shaman or healer—has often been unjustifiably compared with the priests of agricultural societies and even with the prelates of industrial societies. The shaman, however, was under no circumstances the minister of the divinity, since each member of the tribe recognized himself as the object and subject of the universal Spirit, a participant in its perpetual work. In primitive societies, each person can intimately communicate with the spirit of the world by way of various practices of “de-individualization”: fasting, sweat lodges, cold baths, etc. The shaman is not the religious chief of the tribe. He is an echo chamber of the group that puts it into relation with the subject of the world by way of certain procedures in which music, rhythms and dance play the leading roles. It is the group that uses the shaman as a passive instrument to enter into communication with the Great Spirit. And this communication allows the group to not only apprehend the universal dynamic and its action on the tribe, but also to intervene in a practical way in that dynamic. The inquiries and the fields of intervention that are entailed in these collective sessions concern all that is related to the dynamic of life, the change of seasons, the migrations of the wild animals and the growth of plants, the occasions for peace and the occasions for war, and illness. In short, the shaman is the person who, thanks to certain dispositions acquired over the course of many years, allows access of the group and of each of its members to its own central condition of universal subject. While the chief of the tribe symbolically individualizes the social subject—and he is the one who leads each member of the group to recognize himself as such—the shaman manifests universal life and allows the group to merge into and with it. The chief and the shaman, those two fundamental personalities of the primitive tribe, are the interconnecting nodes of unity between the three figures of life: individual, social and universal.

These two primordial actors of the nomadic tribe, in whom some have sought to recognize political and religious power, do not, however, have any power over the group. Should they fail in their tasks—the chief in his task as peacemaker and unifier of the group, and the shaman in his capacity as conduit and revealer, for the requirements of the collective, of the universal dynamic—their prestige does not survive and they can immediately be rejected by their own community.

Because this is real democracy, we must add that slavery, such as it arose in certain agricultural civilizations, or the wage labor of industrial societies, has no place in the organization of the nomadic tribes. Prisoners of war were either condemned to death immediately or else were adopted by the victorious tribe to replace the warriors who had fallen in battle. The later divisions of the social group into structured castes, or into social classes, was born from the separation of man with respect to his living environment, from life with respect to himself, while the specificity of man is precisely the experience of the identity of the spirit. The loss of unitary consciousness had as a consequence the fall into isolation, division and, finally, social death.

Along the Nile, on the fertile plains of Mesopotamia, in what was once India and is now Pakistan, in the vicinity of the Indus valley, on the banks of the Yellow River in China, on the sunny and fertile plains of the Cordillera of the Andes and in Central America, and also in some countries in Western Europe, the exceptional conditions of fertility, although geographically surrounded by less favorable zones, allowed for human communities that faced the dual requirement of the need to feed a growing settled population and to defend that population against nomadic warriors. In these conditions of life and under these restrictions, settled agriculture and livestock raising was born, along with a new artisanry adapted to these activities and to the needs for defense against external aggressors.

In this settled way of life, man’s view of his environment—a view that was previously filled with wonderment and gratitude—became less radiant and more dour. The land was now “domesticated” and it was imperatively forced to yield its natural products. The living individual subject no longer identified himself with the universal subject, which was now expelled from him and forced beyond the frontiers of his existence, into a distant, inaccessible location.

This upheaval was not accompanied by a great deal of violence, although there were rivalries within the core of the group. It is possible that there were tensions between those who wanted to preserve their freedom and their living identity and those whose first concern was the conditions of survival of the group and its possible expansion. History shows us that, quite often, these conflicts do not lead to a definitive break. Such ruptures might have occurred in certain places—and perhaps this misfortune lies at the origin of the wandering of the Gypsies from the Iranian plateau—but in other circumstances, the opposed groups were united in a curious form of social organization in which each individual benefited from the whole community, to which they contributed their talents, their merits and their specific skills. Frequently, the warlike nomadic tribes were victorious in their struggles with the peoples who had recently attained the stage of settled agriculture and merged with them, while preserving their unitary consciousness, that is, by refusing to work. These invaders, like the Brahmans of India or the Incas of Peru, became the new ruling classes of the community.

In any event, the separation of individual consciousness from universal consciousness, the expulsion of the former from the individual and the expulsion of the latter beyond the frontiers of the country, led, in all the sedentary civilizations, to an analogous separation between those whose concern was the “earth” and those who were concerned with “heaven”.

The religious caste, relatively independent of civil power as in Europe, or a department of the state, as in the old empires of Egypt, China or Peru, claimed to maintain close contact between the universal and the individual. It promulgated what was permitted and what was dangerous for the equilibrium of the world, of the alliance between man and universal life and the practical conditions of this alliance. Like the shaman of the nomadic societies, the priest of the agricultural empires sometimes derived his inspiration from a special way of life in which particular foods, isolation, certain drugs and music played their traditional roles. Rhyming poetry, litanies and invocations were devoted to allowing these priests to attain a less individualized state of consciousness in order to dictate to the group the personal and collective rules of life that were in accordance with the order of the world. But these rules, decreed by the priestly caste and very much influenced by the social position of those who framed them, were received from then on without anyone in the group being able to verify their validity. Religion, in the modern meaning of the word—just like the power of the priesthood—was born at this moment in history. The religious caste was obviously fed, cared for and protected by the entire community, whose mutilated and deranged consciousness acknowledged its supremacy.

Without insisting here on this special aspect, we must add that the separation of the universal from the individual sometimes caused a disaggregation of the universal consciousness itself. The lines of resistance, opposed and complementary, of the living unity were registered in the form of a blossoming of polytheism. There were divinities of love and fertility, others of conflict and destruction, and even others linked to death and the rebirth of the life force. The schism of the living subject into the individual and the universal implied the parcelization of the Universe itself and the complete loss of the unity of life.

At the same time that the consciousness of the universal was monopolized and travestied by the sacerdotal caste, social consciousness was converted into the almost exclusive privilege of another caste. The permanent necessity to fight—or, at least, to be ready for combat—in order to protect the territory and eventually to extend it, was incompatible with the task, which was also incessant, of procuring the livelihood of the group (agriculture, mining, crafts). A specialized military aristocracy emerged in all the agricultural empires, distinct from the rest of the laboring population.

This aristocracy, the heir of an activity that once belonged to the whole nomadic tribe, and whose purpose was to protect the community and defend its existence as a group, even at the price of the individual survival of its members, then became the self-proclaimed bearer of the social consciousness of the whole community. And the same collective insanity—an insanity that we shall characterize and explain below—that made everyone endorse the existence of a religious caste responsible for expressing the universal consciousness also allowed the legitimization of the existence of a military caste, the exclusive bearer of the social consciousness of the settled agricultural communities.

The situation was quite different among those who were engaged in agriculture, raising cattle or working as craftsmen. This laboring population, which had been relieved of both its universal consciousness as well as its social consciousness by privileged social groups, which forced the earth to produce crops that it would not have spontaneously produced, which raised animals for the sole purpose of transforming them into edible meat, which, in brief, labored to subjugate the living environment, formed a caste that was despised by society. Its activity, directed exclusively towards the satisfaction of material needs, only served the individual needs of each of its members, who were excluded from the tasks of protecting the collective and those involving relations with the living universe.

Above all the castes, but at the same time always chosen from among the ranks of the warriors, there was a semi-divine monarch attended by an often quite numerous army of imperial officials. He was universally worshipped as the center of the empire, the symbol of unity opposed to any possible social disintegration, the equilibrium point between the complementary activities of the specialized castes, and the spectral representative of a now lost universal consciousness. The real power of this sacred monarch varied depending on the time and the place. An absolute autocrat in the countries where large-scale public works demanded the permanent intervention of a centralized state, the emperor possessed supreme power over the military aristocracies and over the priesthood, whose members were merely state functionaries (Egypt, China, Peru, etc.). In Europe, on the other hand, where such geographical conditions did not exist, the military aristocracy was divided into multiple kingdoms, where the princes had to defend their interests against insubordinate barons. Moreover, the European clergy was still ruled by a single pontiff, who stood in the way of imperial claims for centuries. As for the Arab-Moslem world, the power of the Caliph oscillated, depending on the era, between these two extremes.

All the settled agricultural empires were ruled by this highly structured and hierarchical social organization. Most of them also adopted that institution that was unknown until the advent of these empires, human slavery, born with sedentary labor and destined to replace the native population in the most arduous and disdained jobs. This servile mass, generally captured by the military caste, was sometimes quite abundant, especially in Greece, in Rome, and later in the African kingdoms and in the Arab-Moslem empire, that is, in the countries whose policies of conquest were most aggressive.

The sedentary societies therefore invented religion, the army, the state, labor and slavery. Most of these empires endured until quite recently. They only collapsed under pressure from modern Europe, which had been transformed for the special reasons adduced above.

The revolts that took place beginning in the late Middle Ages first broke out in Flanders, and rapidly spread throughout all of Europe via a route that also took a turn into England. These rebellions, which we discussed above and in which the abolition of the two-field system was the most characteristic sign, entailed profound changes in the continent’s social organization. Europe’s assiduous dedication to the intensive and feverish exploitation of nature put an end to the old social organization of castes or, more precisely, since we are talking about Europe, the hierarchical orders of the clergy, the nobility and the common people.

Europe dedicated its efforts to the rapid production of means of subsistence, tools, and various goods for domestic consumption, and this exploitation of the living universe rendered the old religious scruples against such practices obsolete, along with, more generally, the entire ideology that was opposed to these practices and, of course, the very existence of the religious caste increasingly perceived as parasitic in the view of the rest of society.

The military caste had also lost its reason for existence and its legitimacy. It had been several centuries since the raiding incursions of the peoples of the north, the east, and the south had come to an end and although the Arab-Moslem threat was always present the military orders no longer served any other purpose than engaging in intra-European conflicts between the nations of that divided empire, which were responsible for destruction that was prejudicial to survival and general welfare. Gradually, its power and its privileges came to be viewed as scandalous usurpations.

Beginning in the 14th century, in various regions of Europe, the laboring classes and the merchants challenged the power of the nobles by force of arms, supporting one noble against another if necessary. Finally, in the 18th century, the privileges of these two classes of the ancient European empire were abolished and political power was left in the hands of the producers and administrators of goods. As a part of the same historical movement that witnessed the collapse of the religious and military orders, the activities of the laboring population—previously scorned and disdained—became the reference point with which all of society was identified. The discredit that was still attached to labor in the old imperial societies no longer possessed any reason for existence, nor any image to which one could refer that would justify it. It was the artisans, the peasants and the merchants, the lawyers and bankers, who then sought, and with every right to do so, to govern a society that was exclusively oriented toward the production of material goods and the limitless exploitation of nature.

However, these new claimants to the rule of the world and the government of society were soon at loggerheads. For the merchants and the bankers, who did not directly participate by their activity in the production of material goods, but who were responsible for the regulation of their manufacture, distribution and management, man was nothing but an instrument at the service of this productive process. This fraction of the “common people” was the most cohesive class in the new social organization. It was the conscious vanguard and the ruling class. It legitimately imposed its directives on those for whom the universe was a machine, but they sought to preserve the illusion of being men. This class appropriated all of industrial production, promoted it, organized it and managed its operations under this new mode of production called capitalism.

This business of the servile use of man in the exploitation of nature would be brutally addressed in the second half of the 19th century during the American Civil War. Everyone knows that the most important issue at stake in that war was the abolition or the preservation of slavery. The northern states wanted to abolish the distinction, which was of course obsolete, between workers and slaves, while the southern agricultural states sought to preserve it. For the industrial world, it was by no means a question of abolishing slavery, but the very condition of free men that the agrarian system of the South was trying to preserve for the ruling minority. And in this respect, as well, it was the North, more industrialized and more cohesive, that imposed its will on the whole country.

The nature of property underwent a profound transformation that was exemplified in the new mode of social organization. During the later years of feudalism, the members of the two leading orders—the ecclesiastical and the military—who had long exercised conditional usufructuary rights over the territories that they were responsible for protecting, gradually acquired fee ownership rights over these tracts as a result of a new legal principle: the concept of real property that was both alienable and subject to conveyance by testamentary bequest. But this property was still subject to restrictions in accordance with the old social order: maintenance of the laboring population on the land, and the preservation of tracts subject to collective exploitation, that is, the “commons”. With the gradual disappearance and then the total abolition of the privileged orders, these restrictions were also abolished. Ownership of land—a mere raw material that must be made fruitful in the opinion of its new possessors—was no longer subject to any restrictions or conditions. The landowner not only had the right to convey his land by testamentary bequest or to sell it, but also to expel those who inhabit it, divide it into separate parcels for sale and to privatize the commons.

These legal precepts considerably exacerbated the situation of the peasants and artisans. Marx ridiculed—and quite correctly in accordance with his own perspective—what he called “feudal socialism”, the critique of the new capitalism from the point of view of the old seigniorial regime. Although his critique is, in a certain way, relevant, it is nevertheless necessary to recognize that the new industrial-mercantile order had severely exacerbated the living conditions of the working classes. This setback, however, was accepted from the purely economic point of view that it helped to weaken the old privileged orders, a point of view that was shared by all the new society’s supporters. Insofar as the universe was nothing but a source of raw materials to exploit without limits, where even the animal is considered to be a mere machine with respect to which everything was permitted, there was nothing to prevent the ruling class from treating and exploiting the majority of men in the same manner. No religious counter-force could stop this movement. The new mode of exploitation of the land and the new laws also allowed the landowners to expel the peasants, who were driven into the industrial cities. Technical development and the generalization of wage labor then made possible an enormous increase in the production of material goods for the sole benefit of the possessing class.

The economic causes that underpinned these social upheavals also caused Europe to embark on the conquest of the world. Beginning in the 16th century, under the modest appellation of the “Age of Discovery”, Europe seized vast continents, in wars of territorial conquest in which the new military technologies would invariably triumph over the bow, the boomerang and the spear. Implanted in these new regions, the new procedures of the exploitation of nature yielded a large amount of new wealth for the invaders and sometimes a domesticated labor force working in conditions of servitude that performed the tasks necessary for this exploitation.

In this connection, we must emphasize the fact that the industrial subjugation of the laboring populations of the agricultural empires—the Africans of Benin or Ghana, the Asians of China or Cambodia, the Arab-Moslems of the Maghreb or Northern India—was carried out with relative ease. The nomadic and free peoples, however, could never be domesticated, and had to be massacred, eliminated with famines or directly poisoned in order to put an end to their resistance. In some of these territories the colonial powers then imported, under the name of “ébano vivo”, people who because of their way of life had already been partially enslaved, in order to perform the agricultural and industrial labor required by the conquerors.

Some of the old empires resisted the European incursions longer than others: China, whose conquest was finalized at the beginning of the 20th century, or the Arab-Moslem empire under the Ottomans, literally dismembered shortly thereafter. At that moment, however, the initial “globalization” of industrial-mercantile civilization was complete, shortly before the economic catastrophes of the twenties and thirties brought about an important transformation of that social organization.

The economic, social and political crisis that afflicted Europe and its old overseas colonies during the first decades of the 20th century were principally due to the monstrous accumulation of commodities produced by modern industrial development and the equally formidable accumulation of a precarious proletariat, deprived of its means of production and financially incapable of consuming the accumulated commodities.

It was, of course, possible to just destroy the surplus commodities in order to preserve an acceptable exchange value for those that remained. Such destruction, however, also hurt the possessing class and was scandalous in the eyes of those who were sinking into poverty and humiliation. Most importantly, however, it was much harder to get rid of the accumulation of poor people and the unemployed using the same method.

The devastation inflicted by the First World War, which had been provoked by economic conflicts between the European states, and which led to the collapse of the Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, aggravated the sufferings of the working classes throughout Europe. A social revolution appeared to be on the agenda for the continent.

This social war was between two classes. One of them, in the minority, but consistent in its projects and the means for their implementation, sought to maintain the enslavement of nature, and this included human nature. The other, clearly in the majority, also sought the instrumentalization of life and untrammeled exploitation, but in this enterprise of universal exploitation it desired to reserve for itself an incongruent freedom. Just as the technological innovations of the 20th century were driven by the need to neutralize the natural resistance to industrial development, the political organization of that same century was designed to neutralize precisely a social conflict of the same kind.

The impossible dignity and presumptuous freedom demanded by the working class in this system of subjugation of life, a system that this class did not intend to substantially overthrow, was achieved in an illusory way, in the image of its own incoherent revolutionary project. The negation of life that was inherent to this system of general exploitation, and the human demands for that same life, conferred upon the 20th century its original aspect of a “society of the spectacle”.

The chimerical demands of the working class were satisfied by means of images and swindles that the new technological organization was in a position to create in great abundance. This organization supplied it with the images of freedom, dignity and meaningful life. The “spectacle” is nothing but the totality of false compensations offered to those who are nothing. It is the most intelligent response to the insanity of its social projects. It is the lie that is the best answer to the absurdity of its requirements.

The images created by the spectacle can, for the sake of convenience, be divided into two groups. Some promote the objects or combinations of objects conceived and produced by modern industry, objects invested with extravagant meanings and designed to procure for their buyers everything that the world of production denies them: freedom, an authentic life, human dignity. The language employed in advertising has the precise role of convincing the public that the object in question is the worthy bearer of these meanings, praising its merits by highlighting how effective it is as a vehicle for such purposes. These mass-produced, materialized images have constituted the usual form of the spectacle in the most highly industrialized countries, especially in the nations that emerged victorious from the First World War. This procedure allowed them to maintain their mode of production by dumping these products on the new market composed of the working classes who needed these deceitful images.

In the countries that were most impoverished by the war, on the other hand, the spectacle adopted the form of the popular hero, the admirable individual with whom everyone was destined to identify in the form of fantasy. This personality was, in himself and thanks to his speeches, the bearer of the values that everyone desired but which were, by virtue of the role they played in the production process, forever prohibited to them. The supreme dignity of this hero, his authority and power against nameless, concealed and treacherous enemies—enemies who were responsible for everyone’s misfortunes—as well as his proclaimed love for the humble folk, transformed him into the ideal compensatory image for the downtrodden masses.

Actually, this distinction was never absolute. The German “Volkswagen” or the Moscow Metro, and Nazi, Stalinist or fascist architecture, all show that these compensatory images were, in these countries as well, upheld by material objects devoted to collective admiration, and not only by the dictatorial heroes and their retinues. Above all, however, the most “concentrated” and the most “diffuse” spectacles have always been mediated, in the industrial societies, by fictitious or real heroes, enviable personalities, destined to possess the objects that arouse the covetousness of all and who have attained an admirable position. It was the function of advertising to spotlight this fairy tale.

Thus, the object of the spectacle is always man, apparently liberated from the burden of his modern alienation. Everywhere and always, the spectacle offers a hero of this kind, the bearer of values that each individual has been deprived of in the current mode of production, and the instigator of behaviors that are definitively reserved for its admirers. The hero offered by the spectacle, whether the dictator of a banana, oil or wine producing republic, an advertising personality or movie actor, is always a monstrous chimera who unites two irreconcilable elements: the image of an enviable human condition and the affirmation that such a condition can be acquired and maintained by participating in a modern system of production or consumption.

In order to justify the persistence and even the augmentation of private and collective suffering, despite the docile identification of the public with the mandates of these fantasy heroes, the spectacle is often obliged to feature other heroes, embodied by various actors, who are also bearers of irreconcilable values, but these values are diametrically opposed to those of the positive hero. These public personalities brag about how they have no respect for the current organization of the world, which they denounce right to its roots, and they call for revolt. Simultaneously, they terrorize civilian populations, apologize for slave regimes, and organize collective massacres.

The fundamental duplicity of the spectacle and its ambiguous heroes can be recognized in the new ruling class, which is responsible for the production of these heroes. The raw material that must be mined, transformed, managed and restored in the form of images is constituted of the permanently unsatisfied desires—desires for freedom and dignity—of those who are economically condemned to keep the system functioning at the cost of their own freedom and dignity. Those who are deprived of their humanity are also those who are today forced to manufacture, for their own use, the images of this lost humanity. In the most modern countries, the managerial class presents itself, first of all, as the faithful representative of collective desires and demands and, at the same time, as the creator of the material and political structures whose purpose is to satisfy these desires and these demands, structures that are obviously adapted to the current political-industrial organization, which excludes the effective realization of both.

This class is often divided into two ruling factions. The members of the first group, perhaps originating in the working class but exempt from any productive activity, are externalized as representatives and transmission lines of popular demands. The second group, largely derived from the old bourgeois or bureaucratic managerial class, obliged to pay attention to the new appetites of its clientele, assumes responsibility for transforming these dreams into reality and creating objects or structures adapted to the illusory satisfaction of these desires, thus integrating them into the modern system of production.

These two factors, in which one transmits the demands and the other transforms them into images, constitute a single instrument of management, whose articulation is commercial advertising and political propaganda. And what once passed for a “class struggle” is now nothing but a pincer movement between whose arms each person’s efforts to recover his humanity are crushed and shredded.

Such an instrument of government also serves to create the political objects or structures that the governing class and the economy require in order to continue to exist, defend themselves and develop. Like the monopolists of old, the managerial class can dismember certain public services, or abolish certain means of production and certain domestic consumer goods, for the purpose of arousing new desires, to which it will be attentive and which it will attempt to satisfy in the way that is most suitable at the moment. Is it not sufficient to abolish one or another type of mass transit in order to make a car “desirable”? A full tank of gasoline? Is it not enough to prohibit some ancient manufacturing process—which the “experts” declare to be dangerous—in order to make certain new instruments “desirable” and necessary that industry, fulfilling its responsibilities, will conceive, manufacture and sell?

In the same way, the managerial class can find it necessary, in order to control insubordinate or merely suspicious populations, to expand its police and military capacities, organize its systems of surveillance, and generalize inquisitorial controls: none of these operations are demanded by the populations that they affect. But the unforeseen occurrence of inexplicable attacks or riots can provoke the “desire” for these instruments of control and coercion. Might there not even be a great advantage in facilitating such events, by creating the suitable conditions for their occurrence and even maintaining the constant presence of an enemy in the shadows, endlessly conspiring in secret, in order to justify the increasingly more invasive surveillance of reticent populations, or to legitimize military operations against remote populations and seize their wealth? The class that today manages the production of images is therefore “conspiratorial”. It must convince its public of the existence of “conspiracies”, whether national or international, in order to justify its police initiatives or its military adventures. And, paradoxically, the fact that its spokesmen accuse those who describe the mode of functioning of our modern society of being “conspiracy theorists” is in reality the most original innovation of the current managerial class.

In the modern social organization, where each individual is deprived of his creation and his existence, anxieties and rebellions are neutralized by means of commodities or socio-political formations devoted to the illusory compensation for these privations. But the meaning of this profane world is situated beyond its confines, in a fantastic heaven towards which all desires are directed. That is where the inaccessible divinities reign; the popular icons, the battles of the titans and the secrets of the bedroom, the wars between the giants and the gods embarked on Manichaean adventures that are constantly renewed. Most of our young people hope that some day the doors of this heaven will open, in an individual apotheosis that their talents as football players, rappers, fashion models or computer geniuses will make possible. Their parents, even the most unbalanced ones, hope to get there thanks to the games of chance organized by the state. The disillusioned elderly, in the meantime, are limited to contemplating the images in the specialized press. All of them alleviate their malaise with the drugs that they obtain from the pharmaceutical industry or the neighborhood dealer.

This profane world, over which an imaginary heaven is extended, also has its own hell, populated by those who have not respected the rules of the social game. A continuously expanding prison population is today paying the price for its infractions and serves as an object lesson to those who might feel tempted to imitate it. After the First World War, in the countries that were engaged in a crash program to create or rebuild their industries, immense carceral spaces were constructed where millions of slaves lived like rats, malnourished, tortured, imprisoned behind barbed wire and watched from towers. Nazi concentration camps or Soviet gulags, this institutionalized hell has survived into our times in numerous countries in the process of accelerated development and especially in that modernized China that will soon have one billion five hundred million inhabitants.

This division of the Universe between a purely imaginary paradise, a very real hell and an intermediate world greedy for celestial promises and tormented by the fear of hell, is the one that today structures the geopolitical organization of the planet. Hell has its continents, immense territories devastated by industrial corporations where the inhabitants die, each year, by the millions from malnutrition, epidemics and massacres orchestrated by opposed financial interests. The alleged “chiefs of state” of this archipelago are at the service of one or another industrial empire and can be overthrown when their protectors suffer a setback. The populations imprisoned in these countries are watched by armed troops and, recently, in Melilla, desperation has caused them to launch themselves in waves against the barbed wire fences, despite the gunfire of their guards. The existence of this worldwide hell, which some people occasionally are allowed to depart thanks to “positive discrimination”, but who always live under the threat of being returned to it for the most insignificant infraction, serves to reassure the rest of the world, which pretends to believe that these populations are “undergoing a process of development”, just as people used to think that the populations of the gulag were “undergoing a process of re-education”.

Thus, at the same time that modern science invented telecommunications, information science, nanotechnology and genetically modified organisms, a system of tyranny that had full access to these technologies was installed all over the planet. People whose ancestors were the bearers of social consciousness and universal consciousness then found themselves socially isolated, excluded from their living environment and robbed of their humanity. It is therefore not the case that the slavery of the agricultural societies has been abolished, nor has the colonialism of the industrial societies been done away with; what has really been abolished is the general condition of the free man in a generalized neocolonialism and neo-slavery.

This intimate connection and complicity between the technical discoveries of an era and its social organization can be verified in all historical periods and in all parts of the world. Moreover, this relation is neither purely causal nor unilateral. It is also associated with profound changes in individual consciousness. For the loss of the living universal subject is not only accompanied by the weakening of social consciousness, but it is also linked—as we shall see below—to the collapse of the individual living subject.

  • 1 See Pierre Clastres, Society Against the State, tr. Robert Hurley and Abe Stein, Zone Books, Brooklyn, 1987.