Chapter 2: Foreplay
Personal breakthroughs Critical interventions Theory versus ideology Avoiding false choices and elucidating real ones The insurrectionary style Radical film Oppressionism versus playfulness The Strasbourg scandal The poverty of electoral politics Reforms and alternative institutions Political correctness, or equal opportunity alienation Drawbacks of moralism and simplistic extremism Advantages of boldness Advantages and limits of nonviolence
Chapter 2: Foreplay
An individual cannot know what he really is until he has realized himself through action. . . . The interest the individual finds in something is already the answer to the question of whether he should act and what should be done.
Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit
Later on I will try to answer some more of the perennial objections. But as long as the objectors remain passive, all the arguments in the world will never faze them, and they will continue to sing the old refrain: Its a nice idea, but its not realistic, it goes against human nature, its always been this way. . . . Those who dont realize their own potential are unlikely to recognize the potential of others.
To paraphrase that very sensible old prayer, we need the initiative to solve the problems we can, the patience to endure the ones we cant, and the wisdom to know the difference. But we also need to bear in mind that some problems that cant be solved by isolated individuals can be solved collectively. Discovering that others share the same problem is often the beginning of a solution.
Some problems can, of course, be solved individually, through a variety of methods ranging from elaborate therapies or spiritual practices to simple commonsense decisions to correct some mistake, break some harmful habit, try something new, etc. But my concern here is not with purely personal makeshifts, worthwhile though they may be within their limits, but with moments where people move outward in deliberately subversive ventures.
There are more possibilities than appear at first sight. Once you refuse to be intimidated, some of them are quite simple. You can begin anywhere. And you have to begin somewhere do you think you can learn to swim if you never go in the water?
Sometimes a little action is needed to cut through excessive verbiage and reestablish a concrete perspective. It neednt be anything momentous; if nothing else comes to mind, some rather arbitrary venture may suffice just enough to shake things up a bit and wake yourself up.
At other times its necessary to stop, to break the chain of compulsive actions and reactions. To clear the air, to create a little space free from the cacophony of the spectacle. Just about everyone does this to some degree, out of instinctive psychological self-defense, whether by practicing some form of meditation, or by periodically engaging in some activity that effectively serves the same purpose (working in ones garden, taking a walk, going fishing), or simply by pausing to take a deep breath amid their daily round, coming back for a moment to the quiet center. Without such a space it is difficult to get a sane perspective on the world, or even simply to keep ones own sanity.
One of the methods I have found most useful is to put things in writing. The advantage is partly psychological (some problems lose their power over us by being set out where we can see them more objectively), partly a matter of organizing our thoughts so as to see the different factors and choices more clearly. We often maintain inconsistent notions without becoming aware of their contradictions until we try putting them down on paper.
I have sometimes been criticized for exaggerating the importance of writing. Many matters can, of course, be dealt with more directly. But even nonverbal actions require thinking about, talking about, and usually writing about, if they are to be effectively carried out, communicated, debated, corrected.
(In any case, I dont claim to cover everything; I am merely discussing certain points about which I feel I have something to say. If you think I have failed to address some important topic, why dont you do it yourself?)
Writing enables you to work out your ideas at your own pace, without worrying about oratorical skills or stage fright. You can make a point once and for all instead of having to constantly repeat yourself. If discretion is necessary, a text can be issued anonymously. People can read it at their own pace, stop and think about it, go back and check specific points, reproduce it, adapt it, refer others to it. Talking may generate quicker and more detailed feedback, but it can also disperse your energy, prevent you from focusing and implementing your ideas. Those in the same rut as you may resist your efforts to escape because your success would challenge their own passivity.
Sometimes you can best provoke such people by simply leaving them behind and pursuing your own course. (Hey, wait for me!) Or by shifting the dialogue to a different level. A letter forces both writer and addressee to work out their ideas more clearly. Copies to others concerned may enliven the discussion. An open letter draws in even more people.
If you succeed in creating a chain reaction in which more and more people read your text because they see others reading it and heatedly discussing it, it will no longer be possible for anyone to pretend to be unaware of the issues you have raised.(1)
Suppose, for example, that you criticize a group for being hierarchical, for allowing a leader to have power over members (or followers or fans). A private talk with one of the members might merely meet with a series of contradictory defensive reactions with which it is fruitless to argue. (No, hes not really our leader. . . . And even if he is, hes not authoritarian. . . . And besides, what right do you have to criticize?) But a public critique forces such contradictions into the open and puts people in a crossfire. While one member denies that the group is hierarchical, a second may admit that it is and attempt to justify this by attributing superior insight to the leader. This may cause a third member to start thinking.
At first, annoyed that you have disturbed their cozy little scene, the group is likely to close ranks around the leader and denounce you for your negativity or elitist arrogance. But if your intervention has been acute enough, it may continue to sink in and have a delayed impact. The leader now has to watch his step since everyone is more sensitive to anything that might seem to confirm your critique. In order to demonstrate how unjustified you are, the members may insist on greater democratization. Even if the particular group proves impervious to change, its example may serve as an object lesson for a wider public. Outsiders who might otherwise have made similar mistakes can more easily see the pertinence of your critique because they have less emotional investment.
Its usually more effective to criticize institutions and ideologies than to attack individuals who merely happen to be caught up in them not only because the machine is more crucial than its replaceable parts, but because this approach makes it easier for individuals to save face while dissociating themselves from the machine.
But however tactful you may be, theres no getting around the fact that virtually any significant critique will provoke irrational defensive reactions, ranging from personal attacks on you to invocations of one or another of the many fashionable ideologies that seem to demonstrate the impossibility of any rational consideration of social problems. Reason is denounced as cold and abstract by demagogues who find it easier to play on peoples feelings; theory is scorned in the name of practice. . . .
To theorize is simply to try to understand what we are doing. We are all theorists whenever we honestly discuss what has happened, distinguish between the significant and the irrelevant, see through fallacious explanations, recognize what worked and what didnt, consider how something might be done better next time. Radical theorizing is simply talking or writing to more people about more general issues in more abstract (i.e. more widely applicable) terms. Even those who claim to reject theory theorize they merely do so more unconsciously and capriciously, and thus more inaccurately.
Theory without particulars is empty, but particulars without theory are blind. Practice tests theory, but theory also inspires new practice.
Radical theory has nothing to respect and nothing to lose. It criticizes itself along with everything else. It is not a doctrine to be accepted on faith, but a tentative generalization that people must constantly test and correct for themselves, a practical simplification indispensable for dealing with the complexities of reality.
But hopefully not an oversimplification. Any theory can turn into an ideology, become rigidified into a dogma, be twisted to hierarchical ends. A sophisticated ideology may be relatively accurate in certain respects; what differentiates it from theory is that it lacks a dynamic relation to practice. Theory is when you have ideas; ideology is when ideas have you. Seek simplicity, and distrust it.
We have to face the fact that there are no foolproof gimmicks, that no radical tactic is invariably appropriate. Something that is collectively possible during a revolt may not be a sensible option for an isolated individual. In certain urgent situations it may be necessary to urge people to take some specific action; but in most cases it is best simply to elucidate relevant factors that people should take into account when making their own decisions. (If I occasionally presume to offer direct advice here, this is for convenience of expression. Do this should be understood as In some circumstances it may be a good idea to do this.)
A social analysis need not be long or detailed. Simply dividing one into two (pointing out contradictory tendencies within a given phenomenon or group or ideology) or combining two into one (revealing a commonality between two apparently distinct entities) may be useful, especially if communicated to those most directly involved. More than enough information is already available on most issues; what is needed is to cut through the glut in order to reveal the essential. Once this is done, other people, including knowledgeable insiders, will be spurred to more thorough investigations if these are necessary.
When confronted with a given topic, the first thing is to determine whether it is indeed a single topic. Its impossible to have any meaningful discussion of Marxism or violence or technology without distinguishing the diverse senses that are lumped under such labels.
On the other hand, it can also be useful to take some broad, abstract category and show its predominant tendencies, even though such a pure type does not actually exist. The situationists Student Poverty pamphlet, for example, scathingly enumerates all sorts of stupidities and pretensions of the student. Obviously not every student is guilty of all these faults, but the stereotype serves as a focus around which to organize a systematic critique of general tendencies. By stressing qualities most students have in common, the pamphlet also implicitly challenges those who claim to be exceptions to prove it. The same applies to the critique of the pro-situ in Debord and Sanguinettis The Real Split in the International a challenging rebuff of followers perhaps unique in the history of radical movements.
Everyone is asked their opinion about every detail in order to prevent them from forming one about the totality (Vaneigem). Many issues are such emotionally loaded tar-babies that anyone who reacts to them becomes entangled in false choices. The fact that two sides are in conflict, for example, does not mean that you must support one or the other. If you cannot do anything about a particular problem, it is best to clearly acknowledge this fact and move on to something that does present practical possibilities.(2)
If you do decide to choose a lesser evil, admit it; dont add to the confusion by whitewashing your choice or demonizing the enemy. If anything, its better to do the opposite: to play devils advocate and neutralize compulsive polemical delirium by calmly examining the strong points of the opposing position and the weaknesses in your own. A very popular error: having the courage of ones convictions; the point is to have the courage for an attack on ones convictions! (Nietzsche).
Combine modesty with audacity. Remember that if you happen to accomplish anything it is on the foundation of the efforts of countless others, many of whom have faced horrors that would make you or me crumple into submission. But dont forget that what you say can make a difference: within a world of pacified spectators even a little autonomous expression will stand out.
Since there are no longer any material obstacles to inaugurating a classless society, the problem has been essentially reduced to a question of consciousness: the only thing that really stands in the way is peoples unawareness of their own collective power. (Physical repression is effective against radical minorities only so long as social conditioning keeps the rest of the population docile.) Hence a large element of radical practice is negative: attacking the various forms of false consciousness that prevent people from realizing their positive potentialities.
Both Marx and the situationists have often been ignorantly denounced for such negativity, because they concentrated primarily on critical clarification and deliberately avoided promoting any positive ideology to which people could passively cling. Because Marx pointed out how capitalism reduces our lives to an economic rat-race, idealistic apologists for this state of affairs accuse him of reducing life to materialistic concerns as if the whole point of Marxs work was not to help us get beyond our economic slavery so that our more creative potentials can flower. To call on people to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. . . . Criticism plucks the imaginary flowers from the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he will throw off the chain and pluck the living flower (Introduction to a Critique of Hegels Philosophy of Right).
Accurately expressing a key issue often has a surprisingly powerful effect. Bringing things out into the open forces people to stop hedging their bets and take a position. Like the dexterous butcher in the Taoist fable whose knife never needed sharpening because he always cut between the joints, the most effective radical polarization comes not from strident protest, but from simply revealing the divisions that already exist, elucidating the different tendencies, contradictions, choices. Much of the situationists impact stemmed from the fact that they articulated things that most people had already experienced but were unable or afraid to express until someone else broke the ice. (Our ideas are in everybodys mind.)
If some situationist texts nevertheless seem difficult at first, this is because their dialectical structure goes against the grain of our conditioning. When this conditioning is broken they dont seem so obscure (they were the source of some of the most popular May 1968 graffiti). Many academic spectators have floundered around trying unsuccessfully to resolve the various contradictory descriptions of the spectacle in The Society of the Spectacle into some single, scientifically consistent definition; but anyone engaged in contesting this society will find Debords examination of it from different angles eminently clear and useful, and come to appreciate the fact that he never wastes a word in academic inanities or pointless expressions of outrage.
The dialectical method that runs from Hegel and Marx to the situationists is not a magic formula for churning out correct predictions, it is a tool for grappling with the dynamic processes of social change. It reminds us that social concepts are not eternal; that they contain their own contradictions, interacting with and transforming each other, even into their opposites; that what is true or progressive in one context may become false or regressive in another.(3)
A dialectical text may require careful study, but each new reading brings new discoveries. Even if it influences only a few people directly, it tends to influence them so profoundly that many of them end up influencing others in the same way, leading to a qualitative chain reaction. The nondialectical language of leftist propaganda is easier to understand, but its effect is usually superficial and ephemeral; offering no challenge, it soon ends up boring even the stupefied spectators for whom it is designed.
As Debord put it in his last film, those who find what he says too difficult would do better to blame their own ignorance and passivity, and the schools and society that have made them that way, than to complain about his obscurity. Those who dont have enough initiative to reread crucial texts or to do a little exploration or a little experimentation for themselves are unlikely to accomplish anything if they are spoonfed by someone else.
Debord is in fact virtually the only person who has made a truly dialectical and antispectacular use of film [see Guy Debords Films]. Although would-be radical filmmakers often give lip service to Brechtian distanciation the notion of encouraging spectators to think and act for themselves rather than sucking them into passive identification with hero or plot most radical films still play to the audience as if it were made up of morons. The dimwitted protagonist gradually discovers oppression and becomes radicalized to the point where he is ready to become a fervent supporter of progressive politicians or a loyal militant in some bureaucratic leftist group. Distanciation is limited to a few token gimmicks that allow the spectator to think: Ah, a Brechtian touch! What a clever fellow that filmmaker is! And how clever am I to recognize such subtleties! The radical message is usually so banal that it is obvious to virtually anyone who would ever go to see such a film in the first place; but the spectator gets the gratifying impression that other people might be brought up to his level of awareness if only they could be got to see it.
If the spectator has any uneasiness about the quality of what he is consuming, it is assuaged by the critics, whose main function is to read profound radical meanings into practically any film. As with the Emperors New Clothes, no one is likely to admit that he wasnt aware of these supposed meanings until informed of them, for fear that this would reveal him as less sophisticated than the rest of the audience.
Certain films may help expose some deplorable condition or convey some sense of the feel of a radical situation. But there is little point in presenting images of a struggle if both the images and the struggle are not criticized. Spectators sometimes complain that a film portrays some social category (e.g. women) inaccurately. This may be true insofar as the film reproduces certain false stereotypes; but the usually implied alternative that the filmmaker should have presented images of women struggling against oppression would in most cases be equally false to reality. Women (like men or any other oppressed group) have in fact usually been passive and submissive thats precisely the problem we have to face. Catering to peoples self-satisfaction by presenting spectacles of triumphant radical heroism only reinforces this bondage.
To rely on oppressive conditions to radicalize people is unwise; to intentionally worsen them in order to accelerate this process is unacceptable. The repression of certain radical projects may incidentally expose the absurdity of the ruling order; but such projects should be worthwhile for their own sake they lose their credibility if they are merely pretexts designed to provoke repression. Even in the most privileged milieus there are usually more than enough problems without needing to add to them. The point is to reveal the contrast between present conditions and present possibilities; to give people enough taste of real life that theyll want more.
Leftists often imply that a lot of simplification, exaggeration and repetition is necessary in order to counteract all the ruling propaganda in the other direction. This is like saying that a boxer who has been made groggy by a right hook will be restored to lucidity by a left hook.
Peoples consciousness is not raised by burying them under an avalanche of horror stories, or even under an avalanche of information. Information that is not critically assimilated and used is soon forgotten. Mental as well as physical health requires some balance between what we take in and what we do with it. It may sometimes be necessary to force complacent people to face some outrage they are unaware of, but even in such cases harping on the same thing ad nauseam usually accomplishes nothing more than driving them to escape to less boring and depressing spectacles.
One of the main things that keeps us from understanding our situation is the spectacle of other peoples apparent happiness, which makes us see our own unhappiness as a shameful sign of failure. But an omnipresent spectacle of misery also keeps us from seeing our positive potentials. The constant broadcasting of delirious ideas and nauseating atrocities paralyzes us, turns us into paranoids and compulsive cynics.
Strident leftist propaganda, fixating on the insidiousness and loathsomeness of oppressors, often feeds this delirium, appealing to the most morbid and mean-spirited side of people. If we get caught up in brooding on evils, if we let the sickness and ugliness of this society pervade even our rebellion against it, we forget what we are fighting for and end up losing the very capacity to love, to create, to enjoy.
The best radical art cuts both ways. If it attacks the alienation of modern life, it simultaneously reminds us of the poetic potentialities hidden within it. Rather than reinforcing our tendency to wallow in self-pity, it encourages our resilience, enables us to laugh at our own troubles as well as at the asininities of the forces of order. Some of the old IWW songs and comic strips are good examples, even if the IWW ideology is by now a bit musty. Or the ironic, bittersweet songs of Brecht and Weill. The hilarity of The Good Soldier Svejk is probably a more effective antidote to war than the moral outrage of the typical antiwar tract.
Nothing undermines authority like holding it up to ridicule. The most effective argument against a repressive regime is not that it is evil, but that it is silly. The protagonists of Albert Cosserys novel La violence et la dérision, living under a Middle-Eastern dictatorship, plaster the walls of the capital with an official-looking poster that praises the dictator to such a preposterous degree that he becomes a laughingstock and is forced to resign out of embarrassment. Cossérys pranksters are apolitical and their success is perhaps too good to be true, but somewhat similar parodies have been used with more radical aims (e.g. the Li I-Che coup mentioned on page 304 [A Radical Group in Hong Kong]). At demonstrations in Italy in the 1970s the Metropolitan Indians (inspired perhaps by the opening chapter of Lewis Carrolls Sylvie and Bruno: Less Bread! More Taxes!) carried banners and chanted slogans such as Power to the Bosses! and More work! Less pay! Everyone recognized the irony, but it was harder to dismiss with the usual pigeonholing.
Humor is a healthy antidote to all types of orthodoxy, left as well as right. Its highly contagious and it reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously. But it can easily become a mere safety valve, channeling dissatisfaction into glib, passive cynicism. Spectacle society thrives on delirious reactions against its most delirious aspects. Satirists often have a dependent, love-hate relation with their targets; parodies become indistinguishable from what they are parodying, giving the impression that everything is equally bizarre, meaningless and hopeless.
In a society based on artificially maintained confusion, the first task is not to add to it. Chaotic disruptions usually generate nothing but annoyance or panic, provoking people to support whatever measures the government takes to restore order. A radical intervention may at first seem strange and incomprehensible; but if it has been worked out with sufficient lucidity, people will soon understand it well enough.
Imagine being at Strasbourg University at the opening of the school year in fall 1966, among the students, faculty and distinguished guests filing into an auditorium to hear a commencement address. You find a little pamphlet placed on each seat. A program? No, something about the poverty of student life. You idly open it up and start to read: It is pretty safe to say that the student is the most universally despised creature in France, apart from the policeman and the priest. . . . You look around and see that everyone else is also reading it, reactions ranging from puzzlement or amusement to shock and outrage. Who is responsible for this? The title page reveals that it is published by the Strasbourg Student Union, but it also refers to the Situationist International, whatever that might be. . . .
What made the Strasbourg scandal different from some college prank, or from the confused and confusing capers of groups like the Yippies, was that its scandalous form conveyed an equally scandalous content. At a moment when students were being proclaimed as the most radical sector of society, this text was the only one that put things into perspective. But the particular poverties of students just happened to be the point of departure; equally scathing texts could and should be written on the poverty of every other segment of society (preferably by those who know them from inside). Some have in fact been attempted, but none have approached the lucidity and coherence of the situationist pamphlet, so concise yet so comprehensive, so provocative yet so accurate, moving so methodically from a specific situation through increasingly general ramifications that the final chapter presents the most pithy existing summary of the modern revolutionary project. (See SI Anthology, pp. 204-212, 319-337 [On the Poverty of Student Life and Our Goals and Methods in the Strasbourg Scandal].)
The situationists never claimed to have single-handedly provoked May 1968 as they said, they predicted the content of the revolt, not the date or location. But without the Strasbourg scandal and the subsequent agitation by the SI-influenced Enragés group (of which the more well known March 22nd Movement was only a belated and confused imitation) the revolt might never have happened. There was no economic or governmental crisis, no war or racial antagonism destabilizing the country, nor any other particular issue that might have fostered such a revolt. There were more radical worker struggles going on in Italy and England, more militant student struggles in Germany and Japan, more widespread countercultural movements in the United States and the Netherlands. But only in France was there a perspective that tied them all together.
Carefully calculated interventions like the Strasbourg scandal must be distinguished not only from confusionistic disruptions, but also from merely spectacular exposés. As long as social critics confine themselves to contesting this or that detail, the spectacle-spectator relation continually reconstitutes itself: if such critics succeed in discrediting existing political leaders, they themselves often become new stars (Ralph Nader, Noam Chomsky, etc.) whom slightly more aware spectators admiringly rely on for a continuing flow of shocking information that they rarely do anything about. The milder exposés get the audience to root for this or that faction in intragovernmental power struggles; the more sensational ones feed peoples morbid curiosity, sucking them into consuming more articles, news programs and docudramas, and into interminable debates about various conspiracy theories. Most such theories are obviously nothing but delirious reflections of the lack of critical historical sense produced by the modern spectacle, desperate attempts to find some coherent meaning in an increasingly incoherent and absurd society. In any case, as long as things remain on the spectacular terrain it hardly matters whether any of these theories are true: those who keep watching to see what comes next never affect what comes next.
Certain revelations are more interesting because they not only open up significant issues to public debate, but do so in a manner that draws lots of people into the game. A charming example is the 1963 Spies for Peace scandal in England, in which a few unknown persons publicized the location of a secret bomb shelter reserved for members of the government. The more vehemently the government threatened to prosecute anyone who reproduced this state secret information which was no longer secret from anyone, the more creatively and playfully it was disseminated by thousands of groups and individuals (who also proceeded to discover and invade several other secret shelters). Not only did the asininity of the government and the insanity of the nuclear war spectacle became evident to everyone, the spontaneous human chain reaction provided a taste of a quite different social potential.
Since 1814 no Liberal government had come in except by violence. Cánovas was too intelligent not to see the inconvenience and the danger of that. He therefore arranged that Conservative governments should be succeeded regularly by Liberal governments. The plan he followed was, whenever an economic crisis or a serious strike came along, to resign and let the Liberals deal with it. This explains why most of the repressive legislation passed during the rest of the century was passed by them.
Gerald Brenan, The Spanish Labyrinth
The best argument in favor of radical electoral politics was made by Eugene Debs, the American socialist leader who in 1920 received nearly a million votes for president while in prison for opposing World War I: If the people dont know enough to know who to vote for, theyre not going to know who to shoot at. On the other hand, the workers during the 1918-19 German revolution were confused about who to shoot at precisely by the presence of socialist leaders in the government who were working overtime to repress the revolution.
In itself, voting is of no great significance one way or the other (those who make a big deal about refusing to vote are only revealing their own fetishism). The problem is that it tends to lull people into relying on others to act for them, distracting them from more significant possibilities. A few people who take some creative initiative (think of the first civil rights sit-ins) may ultimately have a far greater effect than if they had put their energy into campaigning for lesser-evil politicians. At best, legislators rarely do more than what they have been forced to do by popular movements. A conservative regime under pressure from independent radical movements often concedes more than a liberal regime that knows it can count on radical support. If people invariably rally to lesser evils, all the rulers have to do in any situation that threatens their power is to conjure up a threat of some greater evil.
Even in the rare case when a radical politician has a realistic chance of winning an election, all the tedious campaign efforts of thousands of people may go down the drain in one day because of some trivial scandal discovered in his personal life, or because he inadvertently says something intelligent. If he manages to avoid these pitfalls and it looks like he might win, he tends to evade controversial issues for fear of antagonizing swing voters. If he actually gets elected he is almost never in a position to implement the reforms he has promised, except perhaps after years of wheeling and dealing with his new colleagues; which gives him a good excuse to see his first priority as making whatever compromises are necessary to keep himself in office indefinitely. Hobnobbing with the rich and powerful, he develops new interests and new tastes, which he justifies by telling himself that he deserves a few perks after all his years of working for good causes. Worst of all, if he does eventually manage to get a few progressive measures passed, this exceptional and usually trivial success is held up as evidence of the value of relying on electoral politics, luring many more people into wasting their energy on similar campaigns to come.
As one of the May 1968 graffiti put it, Its painful to submit to our bosses; its even more stupid to choose them!”
Referendums on particular issues are less susceptible to the precariousness of personalities; but the results are often no better since the issues tend to be posed very simplistically, and any measure that threatens powerful interests can usually be defeated by the influence of money and mass media.
Local elections sometimes offer people a more realistic chance to affect policies and keep tabs on elected officials. But even the most enlightened communities cannot insulate themselves from the deterioration of the rest of the world. If a city manages to preserve desirable cultural or environmental features, these very advantages put it under increasing economic pressure. The fact that human values have been given precedence over property values ultimately causes enormous increases in the latter (more people will want to invest or move there). Sooner or later this property-value increase overpowers the human values: local policies are overruled by high courts or by state or national governments, outside money is poured into municipal elections, city officials are bribed, residential neighborhoods are demolished to make room for highrises and freeways, rents skyrocket, the poorer classes are forced out (including the diverse ethnic groups and artistic bohemians who contributed to the citys original liveliness and appeal), and all that remains of the earlier community are a few isolated sites of historical interest for tourist consumption.
Still, acting locally may be a good place to start. People who feel that the global situation is hopeless or incomprehensible may nevertheless see a chance to affect some specific local matter. Block clubs, co-ops, switchboards, study groups, alternative schools, free health clinics, community theaters, neighborhood newspapers, public-access radio and television stations and many other kinds of alternative institutions are worthwhile for their own sake, and if they are sufficiently participatory they may lead to broader movements. Even if they dont last very long, they provide a temporary terrain for radical experimentation.
But always within limits. Capitalism was able to develop gradually within feudal society, so that by the time the capitalist revolution cast off the last vestiges of feudalism, most of the mechanisms of the new bourgeois order were already firmly in place. An anticapitalist revolution, in contrast, cannot really build its new society within the shell of the old. Capitalism is far more flexible and all-pervading than was feudalism, and tends to coopt any oppositional organization.
Nineteenth-century radical theorists could still see enough surviving remnants of traditional communal forms to suppose that, once the overarching exploitive structure was eliminated, they might be revived and expanded to form the foundation of a new society. But the global penetration of spectacular capitalism in the present century has destroyed virtually all forms of popular control and direct human interaction. Even the more modern efforts of the sixties counterculture have long been integrated into the system. Co-ops, crafts, organic farming and other marginal enterprises may produce better quality goods under better working conditions, but those goods still have to function as commodities on the market. The few successful ventures tend to evolve into ordinary businesses, with the founding members gradually assuming an ownership or managerial role over the newer workers and dealing with all sorts of routine commercial and bureaucratic matters that have nothing to do with preparing the ground for a new society.
The longer an alternative institution lasts, the more it tends to lose its volunteer, experimental, nothing-to-lose character. Permanent paid staffs develop a vested interest in the status quo and avoid rocking the boat for fear of offending supporters or losing their government or foundation funding. Alternative institutions also tend to demand too much of the limited free time people have, bogging them down, robbing them of the energy and imagination to confront more general issues. After a brief period of participation most people get burned out, leaving the work to the dutiful types or to leftists trying to make an ideological point. It may sound nice to hear about people forming block clubs, etc., but unless a real local emergency comes up you may not want to attend interminable meetings to listen to your neighbors complaints, or otherwise commit yourself to matters you dont really care about.
In the name of realism, reformists limit themselves to pursuing winnable objectives, yet even when they win some little adjustment in the system it is usually offset by some other development at another level. This doesnt mean that reforms are irrelevant, merely that they are insufficient. We have to keep resisting particular evils, but we also have to recognize that the system will keep generating new ones until we put an end to it. To suppose that a series of reforms will eventually add up to a qualitative change is like thinking we can get across a ten-foot chasm by a series of one-foot hops.
People tend to assume that because revolution involves much greater change than reforms, it must be more difficult to bring about. In the long run it may actually be easier, because in one stroke it cuts through so many petty complications and arouses a much greater enthusiasm. At a certain point it becomes more practical to start fresh than to keep trying to replaster a rotten structure.
Meanwhile, until a revolutionary situation enables us to be truly constructive, the best we can do is be creatively negative concentrating on critical clarification, leaving people to pursue whatever positive projects may appeal to them but without the illusion that a new society is being built by the gradual accumulation of such projects.
Purely negative projects (e.g. abolition of laws against drug use, consensual sex and other victimless crimes) have the advantage of simplicity, immediately benefiting virtually everyone (except for that symbiotic duo, organized crime and the crime-control industry) while requiring little if any followup work once they are successful. On the other hand, they provide little opportunity for creative participation.
The best projects are those that are worthwhile for their own sake while simultaneously containing an implicit challenge to some fundamental aspect of the system; projects that enable people to participate in significant issues according to their own degree of interest, while tending to open the way to more radical possibilities.
Less interesting, but still worthwhile, are demands for improved conditions or more equal rights. Even if such projects are not in themselves very participatory, they may remove impediments to participation.
Least desirable are mere zero-sum struggles, where one groups gain is anothers loss.
Even in the latter case the point is not to tell people what they should do, but to get them to realize what they are doing. If they are promoting some issue in order to recruit people, it is appropriate to expose their manipulative motives. If they believe they are contributing to radical change, it may be useful to show them how their activity is actually reinforcing the system in some way. But if they are really interested in their project for its own sake, let them go for it.
Even if we disagree with their priorities (fundraising for the opera, say, while the streets are filled with homeless people) we should be wary of any strategy that merely appeals to peoples guilt, not only because such appeals generally have a negligible effect but because such moralism represses healthy positive aspirations. To refrain from contesting quality of life issues because the system continues to present us with survival emergencies is to submit to a blackmail that no longer has any justification. Bread and roses are no longer mutually exclusive.(4)
Quality of life projects are in fact often more inspiring than routine political and economic demands because they awaken people to richer perspectives. Paul Goodmans books are full of imaginative and often amusing examples. If his proposals are reformist, they are so in a lively, provocative way that provides a refreshing contrast to the cringing defensive posture of most present-day reformists, who confine themselves to reacting to the reactionaries agenda. (We agree that it is essential to create jobs, fight crime, keep our country strong; but moderate methods will accomplish this better than the conservatives extremist proposals.)
Other things being equal, it makes sense to concentrate ones energy on issues that are not already receiving public attention; and to prefer projects that can be done cleanly and directly, as opposed to those that require compromises, such as working through government agencies. Even if such compromises dont seem too serious, they set a bad precedent. Reliance on the state almost always backfires (commissions designed to root out bureaucratic corruption themselves develop into new corrupt bureaucracies; laws designed to thwart armed reactionary groups end up being used primarily to harass unarmed radicals).
The system is able to kill two birds with one stone by maneuvering its opponents into offering constructive solutions to its own crises. It in fact needs a certain amount of opposition to warn it of problems, to force it to rationalize itself, to enable it to test its instruments of control, and to provide excuses to impose new forms of control. Emergency measures imperceptibly become standard procedures as regulations that might ordinarily be resisted are introduced during situations of panic. The slow, steady rape of the human personality by all the institutions of alienated society, from school and factory to advertising and urbanism, is made to seem normal as the spectacle focuses obsessively on sensational individual crimes, manipulating people into law-and-order hysteria.
Above all, the system thrives when it can deflect social contestation into squabbles over privileged positions within it.
This is a particularly thorny area. All social inequalities need to be challenged, not only because they are unfair, but because as long as they remain they can be used to divide people. But attaining equal wage slavery or equal opportunity to become a bureaucrat or a capitalist hardly amounts to any victory over bureaucratic capitalism.
It is both natural and necessary that people defend their own interests; but if they try do so by identifying too exclusively with some particular social group they tend to lose sight of the larger picture. As increasingly fragmented categories scramble over the crumbs allotted to them, they get caught up in petty mutual-blame games and the notion of abolishing the whole hierarchical structure is forgotten. People who are normally quick to denounce the slightest hint of derogatory stereotyping get carried away into lumping all men or all whites as oppressors, then wonder why they run up against such powerful backlashes among the vast majority of the latter, who are quite aware that they have little real power over their own lives, much less over anyone elses.
Aside from the reactionary demagogues (who are pleasantly surprised to find progressives providing them with such easy targets for ridicule) the only people who actually benefit from these internecine squabbles are a few careerists struggling for bureaucratic posts, government grants, academic tenure, publishing contracts, commercial clienteles or political constituencies at a time when there is increasingly limited space at the trough. Sniffing out political incorrectness enables them to bash rivals and critics and reinforce their own positions as recognized specialists or spokespeople of their particular fragment. The various oppressed groups that are foolish enough to accept such spokespeople get nothing but the bittersweet thrill of self-righteous resentment and a ludicrous official terminology reminiscent of Orwells Newspeak.(5)
There is a crucial, though sometimes subtle, distinction between fighting social evils and feeding on them. People are not empowered by being encouraged to wallow in their own victimhood. Individual autonomy is not developed by taking refuge in some group identity. Equal intelligence is not demonstrated by dismissing logical reasoning as a typical white male tactic. Radical dialogue is not fostered by harassing people who dont conform to some political orthodoxy, much less by striving to get such orthodoxy legally enforced.
Nor is history made by rewriting it. We do need to free ourselves from uncritical respect for the past and to become aware of the ways it has been distorted. But we have to recognize that despite our disapproval of past prejudices and injustices, it is unlikely that we would have done any better had we ourselves lived under the same conditions. Applying present-day standards retroactively (smugly correcting earlier authors every time they use the formerly conventional masculine forms, or trying to censor Huckleberry Finn because Huck doesnt refer to Jim as a person of color) only reinforces the historical ignorance that the modern spectacle has been so successful in fostering.
A lot of this nonsense stems from the false assumption that being radical implies living up to some moral principle as if no one could work for peace without being a total pacifist, or advocate the abolition of capitalism without giving away all their money. Most people have too much common sense to actually follow such simplistic ideals, but they often feel vaguely guilty that they dont. This guilt paralyzes them and makes them more susceptible to blackmail by leftist manipulators (who tell us that if we dont have the courage to martyrize ourselves, we must uncritically support those who do). Or they try to repress their guilt by disparaging others who seem even more compromised: a manual laborer may take pride in not selling out mentally like a professor; who perhaps feels superior to an ad designer; who may in turn look down on someone who works in the arms industry. . . .
Turning social problems into personal moral issues deflects attention from their potential solution. Trying to change social conditions by charity is like trying to raise the sea level by dumping buckets of water in the ocean. Even if some good is accomplished by altruistic actions, to rely on them as a general strategy is futile because they will always be the exception. Most people naturally look out first for themselves and for those closest to them. One of the merits of the situationists was to have cut through the traditional leftist appeal to guilt and self-sacrifice by stressing that the primary reason to make a revolution is for ourselves.
Going to the people in order to serve or organize or radicalize them usually leads to manipulation and often meets with apathy or hostility. The example of others independent actions is a far stronger and healthier means of inspiration. Once people begin to act on their own they are in a better position to exchange experiences, to collaborate on equal terms and, if necessary, to ask for specific assistance. And when they win their own freedom its much harder to take it back from them. One of the May 1968 graffitists wrote: Im not a servant of the people (much less of their self-appointed leaders) let the people serve themselves. Another put it even more succinctly: Dont liberate me Ill take care of that.
A total critique means that everything is called into question, not that everything must be totally opposed. Radicals often forget this and get caught up in outbidding each other with increasingly extremist assertions, implying that any compromise amounts to selling out or even that any enjoyment amounts to complicity with the system. Actually, being for or against some political position is just as easy, and usually just as meaningless, as being for or against some sports team. Those who proudly proclaim their total opposition to all compromise, all authority, all organization, all theory, all technology, etc., usually turn out to have no revolutionary perspective whatsoever no practical conception of how the present system might be overthrown or how a postrevolutionary society might work. Some even attempt to justify this lack by declaring that a mere revolution could never be radical enough to satisfy their eternal ontological rebelliousness.
Such all-or-nothing bombast may temporarily impress a few spectators, but its ultimate effect is simply to make people blasé. Sooner or later the contradictions and hypocrisies lead to disillusionment and resignation. Projecting their own disappointed delusions onto the world, the former extremists conclude that all radical change is hopeless and repress the whole experience; or perhaps even flip to some equally silly reactionary position.
If every radical had to be a Durruti we might as well forget it and devote ourselves to more realizable concerns. But being radical does not mean being the most extreme. In its original sense it simply means going to the root. The reason it is necessary to strive for the abolition of capitalism and the state is not because this is the most extreme goal imaginable, but because it has unfortunately become evident that nothing less will do.
We need to find out what is both necessary and sufficient; to seek projects that we are actually capable of doing and realistically likely to do. Anything beyond this is just hot air. Many of the oldest and still most effective radical tactics debates, critiques, boycotts, strikes, sit-ins, workers councils caught on precisely because they are at once simple, relatively safe, widely applicable, and open-ended enough to lead to broader possibilities.
Simplistic extremism naturally seeks the most extremist foil for itself. If all problems can be attributed to a sinister clique of total fascists, everything else will seem comfortingly progressive by comparison. Meanwhile the actual forms of modern domination, which are usually more subtle, proceed unnoticed and unopposed.
Fixating on reactionaries only reinforces them, makes them seem more powerful and more fascinating. It matters little if our opponents mock us or insult us, if they represent us as clowns or criminals; the essential thing is that they talk of us, preoccupy themselves with us (Hitler). Reich pointed out that by drilling people to hate the police one only strengthens police authority and invests it with mystic power in the eyes of the poor and the helpless. The strong are hated but also feared and envied and followed. This fear and envy felt by the have-nots accounts for a portion of the political reactionaries power. One of the main objectives of the rational struggle for freedom is to disarm reactionaries by exposing the illusionary character of their power (People in Trouble).
The main problem with compromising is not so much moral as practical: its difficult to attack something when we ourselves are implicated in it. We hedge our critiques lest others criticize us in turn. It becomes harder to think big, to act boldly. As has often been noted, many of the German people acquiesced to Nazi oppression because it began fairly gradually and was at first directed mainly at unpopular minorities (Jews, Gypsies, Communists, homosexuals); by the time it began affecting the general population, they had become incapable of doing anything about it.
In hindsight its easy to condemn those who capitulated to fascism or Stalinism, but its unlikely that most of us would have done any better had we been in the same position. In our daydreams, picturing ourself as a dramatic personage faced with a clear-cut choice in front of an appreciative audience, we imagine that we would have no trouble making the right decision. But the situations we actually face are usually more complex and obscure. Its not always easy to know where to draw the line.
The point is to draw it somewhere, stop worrying about guilt and blame and self-justification, and take the offensive.
This spirit is well exemplified by those Italian workers who have gone on strike without making any demands whatsoever. Such strikes are not only more interesting than the usual bureaucratic union negotiations, they may even be more effective: the bosses, uncertain of how far they have to go, frequently end up offering much more than the strikers would have dared to demand. The latter can then decide on their next move without having committed themselves to anything in return.
A defensive reaction against this or that social symptom at best wins some temporary concession on the specific issue. Aggressive agitation that refuses to limit itself exerts far more pressure. Faced with widespread, unpredictable movements like the sixties counterculture or the May 1968 revolt movements calling everything in question, generating autonomous contestations on many fronts, threatening to spread throughout the whole society and too vast to be controlled by cooptable leaders rulers hasten to clean up their image, pass reforms, raise wages, release prisoners, declare amnesties, initiate peace talks anything in the hope of preempting the movement and reestablishing their control. (The sheer unmanageability of the American counterculture, which was spreading deeply into the army itself, probably played as great a role as the explicit antiwar movement in forcing the end of the Vietnam war.)
The side that takes the initiative defines the terms of the struggle. As long as it keeps innovating, it also retains the element of surprise. Boldness is virtually a creative power. . . . Whenever boldness meets hesitation it already has a significant advantage because the very state of hesitation implies a loss of equilibrium. It is only when it encounters cautious foresight that it is at a disadvantage (Clausewitz, On War). But cautious foresight is quite rare among those who run this society. Most of the systems processes of commodification, spectacularization and hierarchization are blind and automatic: merchants, media and leaders merely follow their natural tendencies to make money or grab audiences or recruit followers.
Spectacle society is often the victim of its own falsifications. As each level of bureaucracy tries to cover for itself with padded statistics, as each information source outbids the others with more sensational stories, and as competing states, governmental departments and private companies each launch their own independent disinformation operations (see chapters 16 and 30 of Debords Comments on the Society of the Spectacle), even the exceptional ruler who may have some lucidity has a hard time finding out what is really happening. As Debord observes elsewhere in the same book, a state that ends up repressing its own historical knowledge can no longer conduct itself strategically.
The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of struggle. . . . If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.
Anyone with any knowledge of history is aware that societies do not change without stubborn and often savage resistance by those in power. If our ancestors had not resorted to violent revolt, most of those who now self-righteously deplore it would still be serfs or slaves.
The routine functioning of this society is far more violent than any reaction against it could ever be. Imagine the outrage that would greet a radical movement that executed 20,000 opponents; thats a conservative estimate of the number of children that the present system allows to starve to death each day. Vacillations and compromises allow this ongoing violence to drag on indefinitely, ultimately causing a thousand times more suffering than a single decisive revolution.
Fortunately a modern, genuinely majority revolution would have relatively little need for violence except to neutralize those elements of the ruling minority who try to violently maintain their own power.
Violence is not only undesirable in itself, it generates panic (and thus manipulability) and promotes militaristic (and thus hierarchical) organization. Nonviolence entails more open and democratic organization; it tends to foster composure and compassion and to break the miserable cycle of hatred and revenge.
But we have to avoid making a fetish out of it. The common retort, How can you work for peace with violent methods? is no more logical than it would be to tell a drowning man that if he wants to get to dry land he must avoid touching water. Striving to resolve misunderstandings through dialogue, pacifists forget that some problems are based on objective conflicts of interest. They tend to underestimate the malice of enemies while exaggerating their own guilt, berating themselves even for their violent feelings. The seemingly personal practice of bearing witness actually reduces the activist to a passive object, another person for peace who (like a soldier) puts her body on the line while abdicating personal investigation or experimentation. Those who want to undermine the notion of war as exciting and heroic must get beyond such a cringing, beggarly notion of peace. Defining their objective as survival, peace activists have had little to say to those who are fascinated by global annihilation precisely because they are sick of an everyday life reduced to mere survival, who see war not as a threat but as a welcome deliverance from a life of boredom and constant petty anxiety.
Sensing that their purism would not hold up under the test of reality, pacifists usually remain deliberately ignorant about past and present social struggles. Though often capable of intensive study and stoic self-discipline in their personal spiritual practices, they seem to feel that a Readers Digest level of historical and strategical knowledge will suffice for their ventures into social engagement. Like someone hoping to eliminate injurious falls by abolishing the law of gravity, they find it simpler to envision a never-ending moral struggle against greed, hatred, ignorance, bigotry, than to challenge the specific social structures that actually reinforce such qualities. If pressed, they sometimes complain that radical contestation is a very stressful terrain. It is indeed, but this is a strange objection to hear from those whose spiritual practices claim to enable people to confront problems with detachment and equanimity.
Theres a wonderful moment in Uncle Toms Cabin: As a Quaker family is helping some slaves escape to Canada, a Southern slave catcher appears. One of the Quakers points a shotgun at him and says, Friend, thee isnt wanted here. I think thats just the right tone: not caught up in hatred, or even contempt, but ready to do what is necessary in a given situation.
Reactions against oppressors are understandable, but those who get too caught up in them risk becoming mentally as well as materially enslaved, chained to their masters by bonds of hate. Hatred of bosses is partly a projection of peoples self-hatred for all the humiliations and compromises they have accepted, stemming from their secret awareness that bosses ultimately exist only because the bossed put up with them. Even if there is some tendency for the scum to rise to the top, most people in positions of power dont act much differently than would anyone else who happened to find themselves in the same position, with the same new interests, temptations and fears.
Vigorous retaliation may teach enemy forces to respect you, but it also tends to perpetuate antagonisms. Forgiveness sometimes wins over enemies, but in other cases it simply gives them a chance to recover and strike again. Its not always easy to determine which policy is best in which circumstances. People who have suffered under particularly vicious regimes naturally want to see the perpetrators punished; but too much revenge sends a message to other present and future oppressors that they may as well fight to the death since they have nothing to lose.
But most people, even those who have been most blamably complicitous with the system, will tend to go whichever way the wind blows. The best defense against counterrevolution is not to be preoccupied with sniffing out peoples past offenses or potential future betrayals, but to deepen the insurgence to the point that everyone is drawn in.
1. The SIs dissemination of a text denouncing an international gathering of art critics in Belgium was a fine example of this: Copies were mailed to a large number of critics or given to them personally. Others were telephoned and read all or part of the text. A group forced its way into the Press Club where the critics were being received and threw the leaflets among the audience. Others were tossed onto the sidewalks from upstairs windows or from a car. . . . In short, all steps were taken to leave the critics no chance of being unaware of the text. (SI Anthology, p. 49 [Revised Edition pp. 60-61] [Action in Belgium].)
2. The absence of a revolutionary movement in Europe has reduced the Left to its simplest expression: a mass of spectators who swoon with rapture each time the exploited in the colonies take up arms against their masters, and who cannot help seeing these uprisings as the epitome of Revolution. . . . Wherever there is a conflict they always see Good fighting Evil, total revolution versus total reaction. . . . Revolutionary criticism begins beyond good and evil; it is rooted in history and operates on the totality of the existing world. In no case can it applaud a belligerent state or support the bureaucracy of an exploitive state in the process of formation. . . . It is obviously impossible at present to seek a revolutionary solution to the Vietnam war. It is first of all necessary to put an end to the American aggression in order to allow the real social struggle in Vietnam to develop in a natural way; i.e. to allow the Vietnamese workers and peasants to rediscover their enemies at home: the bureaucracy of the North and the propertied and ruling strata of the South. Once the Americans withdraw, the Stalinist bureaucracy will seize control of the whole country theres no getting around this. . . . The point is not to give unconditional (or even conditional) support to the Vietcong, but to struggle consistently and uncompromisingly against American imperialism. (SI Anthology, pp. 195-196, 203 [Revised Edition pp. 252-253, 262] [Two Local Wars].)
3. In its mystified form, dialectics became the fashion in Germany because it seemed to transfigure and glorify the existing state of things. In its rational form it is a scandal and abomination to bourgeois society and its doctrinaire professors, because in comprehending the existing state of things it simultaneously recognizes the negation of that state, its inevitable breaking up; because it sees the fluid movement of every historically developed social form, and therefore takes into account its transience as well as its momentary existence; because it lets nothing impose on it, and is in its essence critical and revolutionary. (Marx, Capital.) The split between Marxism and anarchism crippled both sides. The anarchists rightly criticized the authoritarian and narrowly economistic tendencies in Marxism, but they generally did so in an undialectical, moralistic, ahistorical manner, contraposing various absolute dualisms (Freedom versus Authority, Individualism versus Collectivism, Centralization versus Decentralization, etc.) and leaving Marx and a few of the more radical Marxists with a virtual monopoly on coherent dialectical analysis until the situationists finally brought the libertarian and dialectical aspects back together again. On the merits and flaws of Marxism and anarchism see The Society of the Spectacle §§78-94.
4. What surfaced this spring in Zurich as a demonstration against the closing of a youth center has crept across Switzerland, feeding on the restlessness of a young generation anxious to break out of what they see as a suffocating society. We dont want a world where the guarantee of not dying of hunger is paid for by the certainty of dying of boredom, proclaim banners and spray-painted storefronts in Lausanne. (Christian Science Monitor, 28 October 1980.) The slogan is from Vaneigems The Revolution of Everyday Life.
5. For some hilarious examples see Henry Beard and Christopher Cerfs The Official Politically Correct Dictionary and Handbook (Villard, 1992): its often hard to tell which of the Correctspeak terms are satirical and which have actually been seriously proposed or even officially adopted and enforced. The only antidote to such delirium is a lot of healthy guffaws.
End of Chapter 2 of The Joy of Revolution, from Public Secrets: Collected Skirmishes of Ken Knabb (1997).