The Arch Conspirator

By Len Bracken,

Adventures Unlimited Press, 1999.


"Conspiracy, " n. from the Latin to breathe together. A secret agreement or combination between two or more persons to commit an unlawful act that may prejudice any third person

How much Len Bracken's new book has benefitted from the popularity of dramas like The X-Files remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the persistence of Elvis sightings, stories of alien abductions and continued interest in the Bermuda Triangle are testimony to the public's continuing interest in unexplained mysteries. And while interest in renegade CIA agents and neo-Nazis in the White House has abated since its peak with Oliver Stone's movie JFK, there is still sufficient popularity for a show like Conspiracy Zone with ex-Saturday Night Live comedian Kevin Nealon. Yet regular readers of Adventures Unlimited titles, along with the casual conspiracy buff picking up this tome hoping for a John Judge style expose are likely to be disappointed..

Len Bracken is best known for his 1997 critical biography of Situationist International leader/founder Guy Debord. In this current collection of essays, Bracken does not depart from his interest in the Situationists, but incorporates their ideas into the broader theme of conspiracy in history.

For those familiar with Bracken's work in Guy Debord: Revolutionary or in his zine Extraphile, much of the material covered here will be familiar. In addition to the Situationists in essays such as "Psychogeographical Map into the Third Millennium" and the hilarious "Situation Report on the Hacienda conference", Bracken also includes his anti-work ideas in "Anti-Labor Day 1997" which includes selected aphorisms against work. In addition each chapter is introduced by examples of Bracken's interest in photography.

The book can be divided into two sections. First a collection of shorter pieces. The book begins with an account of a Russian conspiracy It is followed by "Considerations on Conspiracies," which assesses past conspiracies as such Catiline, Spartacus, and of course JFK. Beginning, Bracken notes "hidden actions are the most admirable." This is for most people the definition of conspiracy, but Bracken's use of the term is clearly broader than most would have. In citing these examples, he clearly intends to prove a conspiracy theory of history.

The last third of the book is given over a sweeping historical account of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary moments in history. "A Zerowork Theory of Revolution and A General Theory of Civil War" is an examination by Bracken of the theory of civil war and also the possibilities for revolutionary transformation. Ostensibly ghostwritten as a master's thesis for money for a foreign student at a Washington university, the text was re-written for publication here.

Here Bracken distinguishes between six categories of civil war and three types. What follws is a histroical examination of the causes and methods of civil war, including both left wing, and right wing. Of particular interest is Bracken's ideas about the refusal of work in struggle, where he comments favourably upon the work of such groups as Echanges and Kamunist Kranti. The zero work council then would also be about reducing work. An important notion when the left babbles about workers councils as if a future society would be reduced to a huge factory and self-managed alienation.

It also seems that Bracken's mission here is to rescue the notion of conspiracy from the right, and to subject the idea to detournement. Detournement, to use a Situationist term, is the taking of familiar images or ideas and subverting their intent by filling them with revolutionary content,. For example the use of familiar images such as the Terry and the Pirates comic strip and re-writing the dialogue.

 Nevertheless, this idea can be problematic. The Situationist International began its existence as political avant guarde art group. In 1962 they adopted the political programme of workers councils as filtered through the lens of the French ultra-left group Socialisme ou Barbarie, of which Debord had briefly been a member. Bracken describes the ‘moments' of council communism, including the German Revolution of 1919, and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, as the "greatest moments of political intelligence of the twentieth century."

Bracken endorses the Situationist credo that poetry must be made by everyone or by no one, but the advocacy of conspiracy seems to contradict theat notion. For the council communists have pointed out the advocacy of political programmes and efforts to organize the workers, must ultimately lead to a substitution for the masses. A successful conspiracy without new forms of organization would merely introduce old forms of oppression.

The Arch-Conspirator is a sling shot. Some of its stones find targets, others miss their mark. Nevertheless, it is an erudite and witty read. And above all, it is an argument that ought to make the reader pause for reflection. Now there's a conspiracy that worked.


Dave Elswith


Post Script July 2002

The original review published in R&BN #14 contained several minor errors such as the spelling of Len Bracken's zine Extraphile and the year of publication of Guy Debord : Revolutionary. These ahve been corrected in the above version.


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