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The Situationist International

from le roman de nos origines - La Banquise No. 2 (1983)

The capitalist invasion of the totality of life, accelerated by the cycle of prosperity which began in the 1950s, had produced its liberal critique : works by Vance Packard on planned obsolescence, of Riesman on the solitary crowd , of Henri Lefebvre on everyday life, etc. The more slowly commodified industrial countries, like France, had for a long time maintained a chilly attitude to « americanism » ( see in particular Le Monde ). About 1960, at a time when a practical critique by proletarians coincided with an initial concern about the limit and direction of this growth, the whole mode and even style of modern capitalist life was in the hot seat. In this context, the Situationist International ( 1957-1971 ), the meeting point of the New World proud of its modernity, and of the Old World undermined by mass consumption, uniting Germans, Scandinavians and Americans on the one hand, and French and Italians on the other, would make a decisive contribution to the critique of the generalised colonisation by the market.

A product of the prosperity of the 1960s, the S.I. could undertake a critique of the world without shutting itself into the economy/production/factory/workers, while at the same moment workers, as at FIAT in 1969, made the space outside work ( housing and transport ) a starting point for their action. The S.I. reconnected with the critique of political economy of the period preceding 1848.

Historical evolution forces us to see that waged life doesn't just take place in the workplace. The old workers movement, which disappeared as a social network to give way to negotiating bodies, had extended its ramifications to all aspects of the life of the proletarian. Today parties and trade unions are salesmen who play the role of social services and largely function like state administrators.

The S.I. criticised « urbanism », science and the techniques of recreating social relations where the roots of previous collective bonds had been torn up. Capital had destroyed both city and countryside, producing a hybrid space, a town without a centre. ( In this way capital created a space in its own image, that of a society without a centre, but whose centre was everywhere. ) The many attempts at experimental model cities ( like Pullman near Chicago, at the end of the 19th century ) prevented neither social problems nor workers riots. The worker-employer's city, like the project of Nicolas Ledoux at Arc-et-Senans at the end of the 18th century, failed because waged life cannot have the workplace as its only centre. The « normal » modern city integrates workers better because they need a capitalist environment, rather than an employers'. This capitalist environment maintains a community even if it is to a large extent ( but not completely, far from it ) a market community constituted by the television and the supermarket, with the car as a means of connection between disconnected places. TV, supermarket and car still presuppose the existence of human beings to watch, to go and to make them function more or less together.

Faced with the modern city the S.I. sought new uses for certain places. It gave new life to utopia, to positive as well as negative utopian visions. At first it believed that it was possible to experiment with new ways of living but it ended up by showing that this reappropriation of the conditions of existence presupposed nothing less than the collective reappropriation of all aspects of life. It gave new meaning to the requirement to create new social relations. Where most revolutionaries debated « power », or the « withering away of the state », it put forward revolution not as a political affair but as changing the whole of life. A « banality » you say ? But a banality that was only reintroduced into the revolutionary movement in the 1960's, and thanks to the activity of the S.I. among others.

A product both of the councillist left, ( Guy Debord was a member of Socialisme ou Barbarie for some months ), and of its rejection, the S.I. started from a critique of the spectacle as passivity, and the transformation of all activity into contemplation, and this led it to affirm communism as activity.

Iconoclastic, freed from the problematic of workers' organisation ( unlike groups such as Pouvoir Ouvrier or ICO ), the S.I. shook up the ultra-left. But its theory of the spectacle drove it into an impasse : that of councillism. More the expression of attacks on the commodity than of an ( absent ) general movement against capital, it didn't produce an analysis of the whole of the capitalist process. Like Socialisme ou Barbarie, it saw in capital a form of management depriving proletarians of any power over their lives, and concluded that it was necessary to find a mechanism permitting the involvement of all. To this it added the opposition passive/active. Having conceived capitalism theoretically more as spectacle than as capital, it believed that in order to break the passivity it had found a means ( democracy ), a place ( the council ) and a form of life ( generalised self-management ).

The idea of the spectacle swallowed up the idea of capital and effected a reversal of reality. Indeed the S.I. forgot that « the most significant characteristic of the capitalist division of labor is the transformation of the worker from an active producer to a spectator of his own labor » ( Root and Branch : The Rise of the Workers' Movements, Greenwich, Conn. 1975. From A Break With The Past by Stanley Aronowitz ). The « spectacle » has its roots in the relations of production and of work, in that which constitutes capital. One can only understand the spectacle starting from capitalism, not the other way round. Spectacle and passive contemplation are the effects of a more fundamental phenomenon. It is the relative satisfaction of the « needs » created by capital over the last 150 years ( bread, employment, lodging ) that causes passivity in behaviour. The theoretical conception of the spectacle as the motor or essence of society was idealistic.

Thus the S.I., following the German left, recognised revolutionary spontaneity, but without showing the nature of this spontaneous activity. It glorified general assemblies and workers' councils, instead of specifying the content of what these forms were supposed to achieve. Finally, it gave in to the same formalism as the ultra-left which it mocked, not seeing the beam in its own eye.

The S.I. showed the religious aspects of militancy -- dissociated practise in which the individual acts for a cause, while making an abstraction of his personal life, represses his desires and sacrifices himself for an objective outside himself. Even without talking about participation in the classical political organisations ( Communist Party, Extreme Left. . . . ), permanent revolutionary action certainly sometimes turns into militancy : entirely devoted to a group, obsessed by a particular vision of the world, the individual becomes unavailable for revolutionary acts on the day that they actually become possible.

But this refusal of militancy, instead of anchoring itself within a practise, and within an understanding of the real relations which can prevent the development of militant behaviour, contributed to the requirement inside the S.I. for a radical attitude in all things. For one militant morality it substituted another, radicality, just as unworkable and just as intolerable.

Not satisfied with denouncing the spectacle, the S.I. undertook to turn it back against the society that lived it. The Strasbourg university scandal which heralded May 68 was a success. But the S.I. erected the process into a system and misused it so much that it rebounded back against itself. The repetition of the techniques of advertising and scandal turned into systematic counter-manipulation. There is no such thing as an anti-advertising advertisement. There is no good usage of media to get across revolutionary ideas.

In opposition to militant false modesty the S.I. put itself centre-stage and enormously exaggerated its impact on the world situation. Its repeated references to Machiavelli, Clausewitz and other strategists were more than just teasing. It was persuaded that an appropriate strategy would allow a clever enough group to manipulate the media and influence public opinion in a revolutionary direction. This is certainly proof of its confinement in the concept of the spectacle, and ultimately, of its incomprehension, through idealism, of the spectacular phenomenon. When it presented itself as the centre of the universe, and as the agent of revolutionary maturation, etc., one first thought that it was being ironical. When it made a constant theme of it, one ended up wondering if it didn't believe the enormities which it spread about itself.

The S.I. provided the best approximation of communism among the theories which had a genuine social diffusion before 1968. But it remained the prisoner of old councillist illusions to which it added its own illusions about the establishment of a revolutionary « savoir vivre » ['art of living']. It created an ethics in which pleasure took the place of human activity. In doing so it didn't get beyond the capitalist framework of the abundance permitted by automation, and was content to describe the end of work as an immense passionate leisure.

The Italian left had put forward communism as the abolition of the market and had broken with the cult of the productive forces, but it was unaware of the enormous subversive power of concrete communist measures. Bordiga put communisation back to the day after the seizure of power. The S.I. presented the revolution as an immediate and progressive decommodification. It saw the revolutionary process within human relations. Indeed, the State cannot just be destroyed on the military level. As the mediation of society it must also be annihilated by undermining the capitalist relations which sustain it.

The S.I. finished up in an error symmetrical to Bordiga's. The latter had reduced the revolution to the application of a programme. The S.I. were to limit it to overturning immediate relations. Neither Bordiga nor the S.I. saw the totality. The first conceived a whole abstracted from real relations and practical measures, the second a whole without unity or determination, the sum of partial points spreading little by little. Incapable of theoretically dominating the whole of the revolutionary process, they both resorted to organisational palliatives : the party for one, councils for the other.

In his practise Bordiga depersonalised the movement to excess, going so far as to deny and efface himself behind a self-mutilating anonymity which permitted all the manipulations of the ( bordigist ) PCI. By contrast the S.I. affirmed the individual to the point of elitism, going so far as to take themselves as the centre of the universe.

Although they were largely unaware of Bordiga the S.I. contributed as much as him to the revolutionary synthesis that was outlined around 1968.

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