The Situationist International circulated a document in 1966 on "The Decline and Fall of the Spectacular-Commodity Economy," which analyzed the conditions of the Watts riot along lines that showed that modern capitalism, even at its most affluent, presents very serious contradictions, and is incapable of resolving them harmoniously. This, at a time when all the apologists of the system claimed -- as they continue to claim, though with less assurance -- that the system has changed, and transformed the social conditions that it breeds. But the system -- we are beginning to realize again -- has in effect just sophisticated the methods of repression and, until the riots, offered a perfectly dissimulated portrait of social harmony. Watts -- and now Newark and Detroit -- have shattered the myth. But how many are aware of it? The word race today is being used on all sides to conceal the truth. How will the conscious and unconscious defenders of the system attribute to race -- and not class -- the black woman's proposition that hostages be taken at random from among the rioters, then shot and left to rot in the street?
A man is told he works 40 hours a week at three dollars an hour, and that he makes $120. The 40 hours does not include lunch time, time in preparing for work, travel time, so that the real time devoted to the job -- which is all the time that cannot be devoted to anything else -- is increased by four or five hours a day. He works then about 60 hours a week. He gives his employer 20 hours, he makes two dollars an hour. Before he has spent a cent of what is called his salary, he gives half of it away: taxes are not only federal; there is the city, the state, social security, pensions, sales taxes -- city, state, federal -- taxes on insurance, insurance itself. If a man works 60 hours a week, he makes about 60 dollars; gives a third of that or more to rent, another third or more to food. He is left with the rest, a rest rarely sufficient for him to buy outright any of the goods offered on the market, but a rest sufficient to make him buy on credit, buy a house for thirty years, a car for 2 or 3 or 5. It is life on the installment plan, lives at the mercy of the things around them, men controlled by their possessions.
But, even so, nearly every man [sic] considers his life begins after work, that his real life is the possibilities of pleasure open to him. It begins after 6 or 7 o'clock; he has four hours a day "for living." But even here he is not left alone. There is every attempt to regiment his pleasure: television, movies, ballgames, organized vacations or the places where they can occur, books -- the circus of life.
In contract negotiations between General Motors and the workers' unions, the company expressed the fear that the propositions from the unions would make unemployment more attractive than working, it would be rocking chair dough, fishing money. The problem is not that it couldn't be done but that it would -- in the words of management -- make unemployment more attractive. The latent avowal that, practically, labor could be eliminated. What stands in the way? if not the world organization of life, institutions that men [sic] perpetuate though they have outlived their usefulness?
Should a man [sic] wander through the city and see through the busy but aimless throngs, consuming themselves, he would be amazed. It has all the problems of ancient cities: of sanitation and waste disposal, noise, travel and communication, crime and corruption, but aggravated into another dimension by congestion. The results are environmental pollution -- of air and outlying waters -- mechanized travel reduced to a crawl, homes making way to streets, streets to bridges, highways, tunnels, the soil growing in cost, the buildings allowed to decay; the people living closer and closer to one another in shells that are more and more hollow, whole buildings become sounding boards for the noises in them. There is a choking at all levels of city life. Starting from New York, going north, you must travel over 200 miles -- get beyond Boston -- before you leave the city. The suburbs are merely the concentric circles of these immense stoneworks. Life, beyond the moviehouse and shopping center, is supposed to reside at the center. In the cities, silence is no longer silence but the memory of a noise. They are hotter than the surrounding countryside, vast amounts of carbon dioxide are produced in them, produce an oxide in combination with lead from motor vehicles, change weather patterns, air currents, bring drought to arable land hundreds of miles away. The prevailing organization of life, in the name of the city, is destroying man's place in nature. The city is a paradise of culture and civilization, some sort of private joke. The world, they say, has never had it so good. The standard of living has never been so high. Men [sic] have never been talked to more, communicated to more, in effect, controlled more. The mass media know their power. And if they do not know it, they exercise it. What they are selling is not this or that product -- whether it be an approach to city problems, to a governing system, or to soap -- but a belief in the viability and soundness -- above all the permanence -- of the prevailing organization of life. They hold the people in the sorcery of their perverted language. And the language is perverted so long as its use is the concealment of reality. There is a piecemeal and fragmentary approach to questions or problems which is deception. When The New York Times attempts to separate the so-called civil rights issue from the war in Vietnam, it is practicing such a deception.
It is common nowadays to condemn the whole system and then systematically attempt to recuperate it in its parts.
The United States has 3,300,000 men in its standing armies, ready at the drop of a hat to enforce freedom and its will anywhere in the world. Such are the imperatives of empire.Beyond that there is probably over a half-million men in the various police forces around the country. New York City alone has money allocated for over 32,000 cops. The law is made to protect property and the cops enforce the law. The size of the police force is no doubt a reflection of the relationship people have to property. The police are the only individuals in the community who, armed to the teeth, watch us in our streets. Theirs is the fundamental illusion that the property they protect is theirs -- and must be protected at all cost, against any life. All men are secret thieves. Hence the troubled fraternity between the police and those who confirm their conviction by being outward thieves.
There have been race riots before in America: a hundred years ago, white men turned to Harlem for black skin to lynch, to burn, to drown. In those nights men turned from setting the torch to buildings to a negro hut, resembling the lynching parties on smaller scale that still haunt the south. There is a passion for mutilation, a search for horror. It becomes a frenzy of killing, a madness. I have the vision of the glowing whites of men's eyes around dilated pupils in the torch light. Racism is the expression of the world that turns one man [sic] against the other as a matter of course, as a necessity of its own development, and sanctions it.
The riots that are sweeping America today can only be called race [riots] by ab extension of the white man's skin to the businesses he [sic] owns. Provoked in every case by the action of the police, people explode out of anger into violence. And in each case -- see Watts, Newark or Detroit -- they become expressions of joy: people dance in the streets, and feel, like the Governor said, as though they were people laughing at a funeral.
The peaceful demonstrations of the early sixties expressed the modest desire for a share of the crop. The riot is the expression of the feeling that the system will not give -- or give in -- and that what we need we want right now, immediately. The enemy is not man but the locked door, the padlock, the grill, the vault. Once broken into and its treasures taken, what can be sensibly done with storehouses if not to burn them to the ground? Beyond the storehouses lies the ghetto, and then, the city. The cry of joy that exploded out of Watts was "Burn, baby, burn." This is not the destruction of property; it is the direct expression that property as possession against every man has had its day.
The violence directed against men [sic] in these riots comes from the police. Check the lists of wounded and dead. The police are notoriously trigger-happy, but they are still subject to their chiefs. It might be revealing in New York City to compare the number of people killed by the police under the rule of Commissioner Leary and that of his predecessor Mr. Murphy. No doubt in other cities the game is the same. When people destroy a car, they may beat up the occupant: they are not fundamentally out to kill him [sic]. In Newark, a cop -- and for the ghetto a cop is first of all his function -- was beaten. He took out his revolver and, as the papers described it, accidentally shot one of the youths around him. At this point, they beat him to death. The insanity is to to see the direction of the violence, not to see the action of those youths as a reaction.
But then what can the police do? If it were not that they are armed and dangerous, one could pity them for being victims -- and perhaps pity them anyway. The question is not whether there are sensible men who join the police force -- or that all cops are pathological killers -- but that by becoming a cop, a man either is or is transformed into a willing weapon of the system. Their racism is the racism of the system. But the same unconditional violence met by the black man [sic] has been met by the whites. One need only remember police frenzy against white workers in the days when the trade union movement was wracked by the armed violence of the established order. One need only look at police action in the face of wildcat strikes by white workers. The class wars had come to a head. The thing with racism is, it is class war in daily life.
The problem today is not why the black man is rioting but why the white man is not. The riot is the momentary transfiguration of the everyday misery that afflicts us, called "life" by the prevailing organization of it.
The early demonstrations were ignored. The riot must be eliminated, by shot and bayonette if necessary. It is not a fundamental social change but it is an expression too close for comfort -- and in the streets -- of its need. If the state was the organization of resistance to want, it is now the organization of resistance to plenty. It strives for the continuation of transforming men into things, objects for labor, in a world that can dispense with labor. That even dimly sensed by the rioters is a terrifying prospect for the state. There are men, unfortunately, who are never so much attached to a past as when they feel it passing.
Parody of all tragedies, we are living ina world that enforces want.
"EMERGENCY STATE ENDED IN DETROIT: Some looters integrated," The New York Times, July 27, 1967
Anti-white feeling ran high on 12th Street in the heart of the city's major Negro ghetto, but elsewhere -- and especially in integrated neighborhoods -- Negro looters smiled and waved at white policemen and newsmen. Along one section of Grand River Avenue, where Negroes and Southern whites live in adjoining neighborhoods, stores were raided by integrated bands of looters. At Packer's, a blocklong food and clothing center, a Negro looter boosted a white looter through a window. Scores of other Negroes and whites looted and chatted side by side in the store, loading shopping carts, boxes and bags with booty. Negroes, who on Monday were carting off almost everything in sight, milled about the streets yesterday afternoon, waving and smiling at the heavily integrated paratroop units. It was clear, too, that the looting cut across class, as well as racial, lines. One well-dressed Negro filled up the trunk of a new Pontiac convertible with shoes, shirts and suits. Nearby, an emaciated woman a shopping cart heaped high with smoked hams and canned goods. Some Negroes obviously considered the riot a summertime frolic. At 3 am, two Negro couples perched on a fence just off the John Lodge Freeway, alternately kissing and watching firemen battle a major blaze. Once, the couples broke their embrace to shout a warning to firemen. A drunken middle-aged Negro man had staggered from a building and was firing a shotgun into the still night air. Police arrived within minutes and placed the man in handcuffs. "God damn it, shoot me," the man shouted at the policemen.
Riots rage through dozens of cities and towns -- and tonight as this is being written. Detroit is going up in flames, white looters and snipers have joined in with the blacks, nearly 5,000 paratroopers have moved in with automatic weapons, tanks and a company of 25 helicopters. Yesterday it was New Jersey, today Michigan, and then? Each one of these riots is an enclave; taken together we are in the middle of an insurrection that has been going on for over a month, establishing in the streets a pattern of guerilla warfare that has already required channeling into the ghetto's troops returning from Vietnam.
Understandably, the government hesitated to commit troops to the suppression of domestic unrest: by acting so outwardly it becomes touchy trying to maintain the permanence of its duplicity, the image of its benevolent paternalism. These give way under gunfire and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of property damage to the realities of state: class interest, brute force, total disregard for the lives of all individuals. What matters is sacred property, control of the population, domination. Those who are in government today are perfectly well-aware that their function is not to administer wealth, but to control it -- and for the benefit of the ruling class. They will act against the violence of the population to protect their own grounds for violence. They will not tolerate violence in Detroit like they do not tolerate it in Vietnam. And use the same troops.
There has never been a case when the people were not right against the government, against the prevailing organization of life -- whether on the job, in their cities, their strikes, demonstrations, insurrections. When they cease reacting to whatever is being done to them and, as the cute phrase goes, assume command of their own destinies, we enter the way to fundamental social change. The sociologists are busily at work trying to muddle the waters: these riots are anarchistic and rise out of the declassed, the workless, the mob -- while the workers are growing increasingly away from such people by a greater and greater assumption of the American way of life, which is to work yourself into a heart attack to procure the goods at credit. How fundamental a division is this in the face of cybernation? where the unions struggle to keep workers at the task of production, which can be carried on without them? And in the face of the workers who are beginning to realize that the house they've been paying for 20 years is merely a reflection of their ability to slave away. Out of a job, they discover that the real owner of the house is the bank that holds the mortgage. But even the sociologists will not claim that this is a criminal insurrection, carried on by the criminal element, hoodlums, or, as the Governor of California [Ronald Reagan] called them, "mad dogs." The sociologists at least know that those called "criminals" would be slitting their own throats by fighting the state; that the subterranean world of crime is an outgrowth of the prevailing organization of life, that it is a reflection of that life itself, without the frills.
The insurrection -- whatever be the future attempts to confuse it, to gloss over it, to gum it up -- is a clear sign that between the people and the state no orderly redress of grievances is any longer possible. There are no grievances to be made to the state -- there should be no state. We have witnessed an intuitive act of liberation from the prevailing system, beyond the flash of temper that characterizes any riot, no matter how violent. The riot does not show this determination, this persistence. The riot is without joy; and where during the past few weeks in the ghettoes have the people not danced with joy? In Detroit, some of the Uncle Toms complained bitterly that the police allowed a Roman holiday atmosphere to develop. And when the troops arrived the people milled around in the streets, waving and smiling at them, in a carnival atmosphere.
What did the soldiers feel, returning from Vietnam, flying in the same planes, running under the same helicopters, walking behind the same tanks, about the same job of suppression? -- only here the joke of fighting for freedom can't take, and the other joke of fighting a world Communist conspiracy must certainly be starting to come through as a transparent piece of buffoonery. In Newark, one of the national guardsmen fingered his weapon nervously, and wondered about the first time he has been told to pull the trigger, that it has been to shoot Americans.
The state, the government, the prevailing organization of life -- at this clear moment, before we sink back and for how long into the miasma -- is isolated: fighting for its life against a population that has revealed through its own action the roots of domination of life upon which the state rests, and for the continuation of which it exists.
The cry of life is being heard in these hours around the country, and the sound of it, in the words of the Governor of New Jersey, is like laughing at a funeral.
The Black Power Conference a few days after Newark burned established a general consensus around black capitalism. The spirit of opposition to white domination must not be assimilated to the simple desire of replacing it by a black one. A black bourgeoisie would be faced with the necessity of maintaining want and need -- of organizing against abundance -- in ways no doubt identical to those practiced by the prevailing state. Behind the desire to want to control the means for the organization of black wealth as behind the fear of extinction of the blacks (as in excess to the needs of white wealth) lies the same world of imposed poverty, a hoax to keep men [sic] struggling for what they already have, their's for the taking.
There is no need to make elaborate proofs of starvation in America, tumefied bellies from Kentucky to Mississippi, long-range starvation through malnutrition in the ghettoes and scattered through all the communities with high unemployment rates. We have seen photos in the daily press, we have heard Congress be pickeyune over the word they would like to choose up there to designate the condition. And the next day the farmers are paid not to grow wheat. Confusedly perhaps, but surely, all the bureaucrats -- from president to welfare worker -- realize that the problem of poverty is administrative. Men [sic] are not dying because there is not enough food to go around. This is not the older struggle of tearing out of nature enough to feed the living. The truth of poverty is that it is imposed. Anything today that does not aim at a total dissolution of society is a return to it, and thereby a re-intensification of its structure.
The project of the bourgeoisie has been to dominate nature, the old enemy, from which nothing could be taken without its being torn away. The past 100 years -- and particularly the last 25 -- have witnessed the victory of this project. But having dominated nature, the system organized for that purpose has merely tilted over into plunder. So we are forced to live as though the ancient struggles were still primary: the victory amounts to nothing. The potential for liberation is denied. The illusion of scarcity drives them [?] into a false opposition, while the true enemy remains, hard at work trying to recuperate the world that made it. It maintains itself by a fragmentation of problems, which it sometimes calls a pluralistic approach.
Besides the question of migration and immigration endemic to American cities, the expansion of population, the desertion of farms for the cities, the city faces a fundamental crisis in kind. It is no accident that the city is de-natured. It has always been a fortress against the ancient enemy, nature. And the enemy is [one] no longer. In the glassbubble cities of the city-planners, we see a vision of the future as a mere extension of the present, a prefabricated environment from which nature has been excluded. The system, as always, can only mirror itself, draw logical extensions of itself, even on the time span of eternity: whether on the morose tones of Spengler or the jubilant ones of McLuhan.
The transformation of historical existence into liberation also involves the destruction of what has been the city. It must be reborn in a new relation with the countryside, lead to a new harmony between man and nature. The rioters wanted to burn down the cities like the wildcat strikers turn to the destruction of cars and homes: intuitively they attack the dead objects that serve to crush them, to maintain them in their servitude. Each saw in the riots the particular realization or premonition of his dream, which could be a nightmare. But how many chose to ignore the direct attack they laid on what is fed to all of us as "life," with its well-defined roads to factory and pool-hall, to work and pleasure, both organized, both shells, both a continuation of existence by forced means, in the shadow of life?
Also available from the Council for the Liberation of Daily Life [Robert Chasse and Bruce Elwell]: "Desire and Need," and "The Human Condition and Beyond," 1967.
From COMMENT [Murray Bookchin, NYC]: "Ecology and Revolutionary Thought," and "Toward a Liberatory Technology."
From the Situationist International [Tony Verlaan, NYC]: "Address to the Revolutionaries of Algeria and of all other Countries," "The Totality for Kids," "The Decline and Fall of the Spectacular Commodity Economy," "On the Poverty of Student Life," "Ten Days that Shook the University," and "The Return of the Durruti [sic] Column."
[LETTRIST INTERNATIONAL ARCHIVE] [SITUATIONIST INTERNATIONAL ARCHIVE]