Incitement to Self-Defense

By Michel Bounan

Chapter IV

The industrialization of the previous century gave the abolition of all human suffering as its ultimate goal. Thus, History had a meaning that passed through "economic and technical progress" and led to "moral and social progress," with universal happiness at the end. Thus, the development of banking networks and railroads, the militarization of the factories and forced child labor, prepared -- calmly but with giant steps -- a radiant future for all of the human race.

Nevertheless, a contestatory movement clamored for, with impatience and sometimes with anger, "social progress" hic et nunc: too many intolerable injustices! Too much scandalous poverty! One demanded immediate reform to take care of the suffering of those whom Napoleon III called with tenderness "my friends who are in the thatched cottages and workshops." One encouraged the workers of a guild or a region to demand salaries equal to those of the workers of other regions or other guilds, and the same equality for the duration of their days at work. One supported the creation of "mutual aid societies" and "mutual credit and savings" [banks]. Sometimes one organized subscriptions and banquets for the benefit of this or that category of poor people, in a great hullabaloo of solidarity and embraces.

This generous, courageous and energetic contestation was poisoned -- and sometimes even weakened -- by the agitators who avowed themselves to be "internationalists" and who spread criminal notions: the market system alone was responsible for the misery that it claimed to combat and its logic in fact constrained it to maintain the standard of living of the workers at the level required for their survival as producers; thus, the internationalists added, "the subjection of the worker to capital is the source of all political, moral and material servitude" (preamble to the statutes of the International Association of Workers, 1864). Thus, they proclaimed that it was the very bases of the market world that had to be changed, that it was the roots that had to be extirpated and destroyed, and that any other attempt to reduce particular miseries was only oil poured upon always-renewed wounds. They concluded that "all the efforts made until now had failed, lacking solidarity between the workers of the different professions in each country and a fraternal union between the workers of the different countries" (preamble to the statutes of the I.A.W.).

Such a radicalization of social critique was obviously not a game played by aesthetes fascinated by beautiful theoretical constructions, nor even a supplementary effort with a view to obtain the maximum results as quickly as possible. It appeared from the start as the minimum basis for an efficacious critical activity: nothing could be durably obtained without overthrowing the entirety of the market system.

Against this dangerous association of malefactors were mobilized the armies of spies at the service of all the police forces of Europe. Precisely targeted calumnies were effectively propagated against its members with a view to opposing them to the entirety of the exploited people, and the suicide of Dombrowski, for example, on the barricades at Paris resulted from such a defamatory operation.

In the 60s of our own century, an almost identical confrontation opposed the just and generous social critique of the era to the whims and obsessions of the Situationist International, principally animated by Guy Debord.

Many novelties had then appeared in our market society. Capitalism had surmounted its initial contradictions, namely, the greater and greater accumulations of producers who were deprived of everything, and the just as monstrous accumulation of commodities that no one could [afford to] buy any longer. Asphyxiated in the 1920s, production was reconverted into the fabrication of strange commodities: to those whom the mode of production had deprived of their human space, the free use of their time, their consciousness and even their own images, the economic system abundantly furnished -- on the quite benign condition of maintaining the current mode of production -- popular automobiles in which to freely travel through the space of the commodity; moments of leisure to democratically consume what one made the producers produce; culture in which to learn the new rules of virtuous life; and photographic cameras with which to surveill -- in uncertainty and anguish -- their own new identities. The necessity of guaranteeing the adequation of such commodities with their announced use-values (liberty, happiness, culture, etc.) involved the monstrous development of what one no longer called "advertising," but "publicity." Certainly the duration of the illusions remained weak and required the incessant renewal of market lures: but it was exactly this that the mode of concentrated and accelerated production had the greatest need.

This liberation of market production was associated with an inverse movement of the enclosure of the producers, whose revolts one had just come to fear. The networks of workers' unions and old socialist parties were made to accept the idea of never practically contesting the center of the market system, and, additionally, in an immense part of the world, the great social revolution for which the workers of the 19th century had fought so hard, for which many had died, was finally realized (or so one said). One could see and even hear its spokespeople: the chiefs of state surrounded by rather ordinary governmental apparatuses, but who managed a "socialist" production and "socialist" salaried workers, with a great reinforcement of angrily "anti-capitalist" speeches, according to the martial tone that suited the "class struggle." This "dictatorship of the proletariat" protected itself, moreover, like any other, against its class enemies, with the means of an excessive but "proletarian" police force, with a network of "re-educational" penitentiaries, and sometimes even massacres of "objectively counter-revolutionary" populations.

Everything was thus accessible to the most demanding clientele in this universal market: well-being in the form of new refrigerators, liberty in the form of new diversions, intelligence in Le Nouvel Observateur, art in the New Wave, and even social revolution in Kruschev and Mao Tse-Tung. Several scrupulous critics nevertheless worried about the repercussions of such a brilliant success. They pointed their fingers at the poverty of the Third World, which paid the price for "Western luxury." Sometimes they evoked the existence of Stalinist concentration camps, and denounced the "embourgeoisification" of the unions. They also asked themselves about the excesses of publicity and propaganda, thus the risks of "mental manipulation." They questioned the leaders and warned the public. All of this generous activity nevertheless did not hinder them from acceding to a chair in a sociology department, an editorial position, or a Nobel Prize for literature.

The hardly recommendable individuals who then formed the Situationist International had the impudence to insult all these ardent and zealous protesters, and even to dishonor them. The situationists claimed that these people's virtuous remonstrances only served to lubricate the mechanisms of a system whose "excesses" were the only thing they deplored. They added that, in truth, the novelties over which they were in ecstasy or which they deplored -- union freedoms or Stalinism, popular automobiles or outrageous publicity, progress in sociology or progress of the police State -- were all dependent on a unique phenomenon: the universal production of images of what the market mode of production was constrained to prohibit. The situationists even spat upon the great Cuban, Yugoslavian and Algerian Revolutions, which the entire Left then loved passionately, and on the "Western luxury" of the automobile [quatre-chevaux] and television: images, they said, of the new proletarian poverty, of its aggravated alienation. In sum, the situationists concluded that the spectacle was the new face of capital, which had provisionally resolved its initial contradictions, and that it was necessary to resume Marx's critique on the basis of this new reality.

Many of those who initially composed the Situationist International came from the milieus of the artistic avant-garde, where one knew a bit about images and where one was not unfamiliar with their use-value. Thus, they recognized that the new social environment was in sum the virtual reality that computer science had not yet dared to invent: each person found him- or herself cut off from his/her true life and immersed in the strange universe of the spectacle.

For the situationists, it was a question of a social critique that was elaborated on the basis of the roots of the new alienation -- what one had called a "radical" critique for 150 years -- such as Marx and the first internationalists had undertaken on the basis of capital. This redefinition of the center of the world involved a redefinition of the proletariat (those who are deprived of the use of their lives and who know it). It permitted the union upon new bases of those whom the spectacle had not only isolated, but opposed to each other.

The extravagances of such a critique naturally aroused legitimate reactions. Nevertheless, it was necessary to defend oneself against the criminal usage that these people were making of a liberty that was so democratically accorded. For almost ten years, a conspiracy of silence thus covered the investigations, writings, activity and even the existence of the Situationist International. Some elements of its social critique were sometimes recuperated, separated from the ensemble and diverted from their meaning, according to the methods that Maurice Joly had successively denounced and then experienced. Efforts to infiltrate and manipulate the situationist group were also attempted, but they did not lead to any fortunate results: the fakers always found themselves rapidly expelled, often at the moment of their first fruitless attempts. Finally, calumnies were widely diffused against the situationists as a group and especially against the organization's founder, forged and propagated by individuals who often presented themselves as revolutionaries. One then spoke of CIA agents or KGB agents, rich bourgeois idlers or ambitious artists, but the goal was always the same: to separate the situationists from those whom they claimed to unite, to designate them as "natural enemies of the revolutionary class."

The type of celebrity acquired by Debord (despite everything) gave way to a new type of defamation in the form of praise. One was now ecstatic about his "great century" style,[1] his "strategic" genius, his "nihilist" taste for destruction: haughty aristocrat, cold calculator, implacable destroyer; the picture was widely reproduced by all the media people "specialized in the treatment of advanced critique." But from organized silence to excessive calumnies and perverse praises, the goal was obviously the same. Such an insistence could even suggest to an unwarned public that this critic remained completely intolerable in today's much more dramatic circumstances.

[1] The style of the 17th Century in France.

(New revised edition, published by Editions Allia, 2005. First edition published in 1995. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! November 2007. Footnote by the translator.)

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