Letters to the Heretics

First Letter


In which we sketch out a reform of the social spectacle, reprimand the traditional recourse to bloody methods and support the idea that popular resentment is more useful than harmful to governments.

Dear Marco,[1]

The time for bombs in henceforth past. The phase of bloody terrorism, conducted with an unspeakable clumsiness by our secret services, cannot and must not be pursued.

It is quite true that the operation at the Piazza Fontana[2] and others of the same type, though they succeeded for some time, have brought about a stupefying tactical success (paralyzing the social movement of the time and preventing it from tipping over into an insurrection), but, on the strategic plane, they have cost us harmful consequences, even today.

If we go into the question a little more deeply, I think that, today, no one can deny that the operation of 12 December, and it alone, was able to conjure away the worst. At a moment when, to paraphrase Hegel, Italy could no longer be regarded as a State, nor was it effectively one – since the roles and functions that we assigned to our subordinates were practically put into question, and each subordinate, some more than others, aspired to take the reins of the public administration under new forms of organization, apparently reconstructed with the names retained – only bombs had the power to paralyze working class presumptuousness and to allow the unions to clear the streets and gently settle the contractual disagreements that were still in abeyance. For its part, the Italian Communist Party [ICP] found itself in a position to recall the workers to it, under the pretext of the famous anti-fascist vigilance, thanks to which we have held the day until now. Not negligible results, it seems to me.

But in the long term, the recourse to bombs has shown all of its fragility, and in fact we no longer employ them today. The error was to defer in toto the management of the massacres to the secret services, which, essentially composed of military men, conduct themselves honorably when it comes to the practical execution of operations, but neglect to conduct an adequate disclosure of the operations that they put into action with so much skill, which is indeed the nature of military men, who are, with a few exceptions, little inclined to exploit their successes on terrains other than the battlefield, properly speaking.

Therefore, if we want an operation to produce a spectacular effect, it isn’t enough to provoke it, even if we must be in a position to present it, after the fact, with a plausible definition that is capable of subsequently evoking the impression that it produced at the time. In other words, it isn’t enough to display several mangled bodies on the television screen – let us say in passing that our TV operators can compete with the masters of German expressionist cinema when it comes to elaborating bloody images in horrific style – because the suggestion that results is certainly very vivid but of a short duration and very difficult to control politically. It is also indispensible to elaborate a credible version of the operation, that is to say, to reveal its goals and the feelings that it is supposed to elicit. As Marxism-Leninism teaches, the people must not be left uncertain; their consciences do not tolerate a void. But this is precisely what has happened in Italy, where the consternation that the bombs first elicited gave way to doubt and then uncontrolled indignation towards a State that, after making blunder after blunder,[3] was forced to keep silent.

I would call the strategic result of such a clumsy use of the massacre a loss for the State.

Everyone, from provincial editorialists to judges of the second rank, from student protesters to the man in the street, have clearly perceived that they were duped.

The expectation, each time disappointed, of some kind of public unveiling of the mystery has definitely removed all credibility from the official explanations, with the result that today we have had to witness the miserable spectacle of a State ready to be butchered by some judge.

Lacking any confirmed truth, each person has had to elaborate his own private truth in which the State is always and in every fashion the accused, which – for the moment and fortunately so – is only confirmed in words.

Certain military men and politicians have thus been the object of a purge, while others have been indicted.

But the enormity of the imbroglio in which our republic has been placed demands measures infinitely more draconian than a banal change in the ranks. A State such as ours, so profoundly undermined in its domestic credibility and in the international credibility that it begs for here and there, cannot regenerate itself by means of a simple injection of men who are “new” because of their public morality or their political affiliation. I have no illusions, dear friend, that the Communist or democratic elements mechanically introduced into key posts will do better than their Christian Democratic predecessors. To change a State, it isn’t enough to change men. And to survive, a State must change. I relay to you these words, full of political wisdom, from an English whig of the 18 century, which one might believe came from your mouth.

A State without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation. Without such means it might even risk the loss of that part of its constitution which it wished most religiously to preserve.[4]

This is why we Communists are not pressed to govern, despite the solicitations that are made to us from all sides. To govern a State, one must have a State that is credible and, to be credible, one must have a State that is different from this one, which we can hardly expect to have in current conditions. Thus we must first recreate the State’s credibility; then we can advance our candidacy. But how?

Therefore, a State is credible when it appears capable of determining the course of things, and can truly do so. Such is the meaning of the planning that we have always supported. But we must no longer understand that planning in a reductive manner, as has been the case until now, as an authoritarian programming of productive development based upon disposable resources, opportunely inventoried. Instead, this programming must invest in the customs, behaviors and representations of the citizens. We must no longer leave to them the archaic privilege of disposing of particular, private sensibilities. Such sensibilities must, on the contrary, be induced, fashioned ad hoc, and generalized. It matters little if one calls it the “class consciousness” of politicized individuals or the “civic sense” of the man in the street. The essential thing is to have the power to orient the people’s reactions when faced with events.

But one could ask oneself, is it truly necessary that the people have a particular reaction? From the perspective of programming, would it not be preferable to have citizens who are absolutely catatonic? Certainly, but this is a long-term objective and we are far from having reached it.

Human consciousness, as I have told you, is subject to the law of the fear of emptiness[5] and feeds upon continuous representations. In the absence of the central production of images, consciousness, on its own initiative, gives itself the representations that seem the best to it. As everyone knows, therein lies a supreme danger for any State.

The necessity of furnishing representations appears obvious to the politician, who, if he is well advised, has less recourse to ideological pitches than to the deeds from which ideology begins. Thus it falls to the State to determine every event in a manner that easily furnishes the key to its interpretation to the intellect and the sentiments of the members of society.

You certainly are not ignorant that governments of the masses have always had recourse to spectacle to keep their subjects in a state of controlled numbness. The vaunted Caesars and the circuses[6] are the unsurpassable models from which any State spectacle must take its inspiration, and the great masters have already understood that the paralyzing power of playful representation is much stronger when the space between the stage and reality is reduced. They also do not hesitate to show real throat cutting as fiction. We must make our own the lesson of the Roman State by leading it, in the new conditions in which we operate, to its ultimate consequences. The space between representation and reality must disappear. There will be real events that serve the spectacle, and fiction in the strict sense of the word will be left to the sector of human activity that one calls “art.”

In a pinch, any event, if it is presented with the appropriate artifice, can advantageously be employed for spectacular ends. But, as one knows, the people are insatiable in their appetite for emotions, and the well-advised governor will be able to perceive the new exigencies and be able, in a timely fashion, to renew the events and the scenarios in which to insert them.

This is why it is necessary to provoke certain deeds and prevent those that perturb the government through the manifestation of disordered phenomena. It seems to me that this is the meaning of the planning of the emotions.

And one must not believe that the people ceaselessly and only demand vile slaughter, as the statesmen of the recent past have believed. We Communists, we have never hidden the fact that we aim for hegemony over the management of the social spectacle, but we do not intend to reach it by the authoritarian route, but rather by the persuasion of all those – unfortunately still very numerous today – who defend the exclusive recourse to bloody spectacle. The pertinence of our proposition will convince the skeptical, and the first positive results will lead our most irreducible adversaries to advocate our methods.

Therefore, although at first this seems unbelievable, we can from now on present a proper spectacle, not only to discourage the people from making a revolution, but also to induce them to actively take the route of counter-revolution. Once and for all, we must liquidate the old prejudice that counter-revolution is the exclusive product of the dominant class, free to act after having paralyzed the subversive will of their inferiors. If this was ever the case in an authoritarian regime, it can no longer be so today in a democratic regime, where the initiative, any initiative, even a counter-revolutionary one, must come from the people. Thus, if it is true that bombs are completely indicated when one wants to annihilate revolutionary will or to render the people indolent or distressed, that is to say, similar to Tasso’s serpent, “biting its tail,” they are, on the other hand, absolutely unsuited to induce in the masses a contrary will, the will by which any concrete realization is not an end in itself but uniquely an instrument to conjure the revolution away to another day,[7] which one precisely designates by the term counter-revolution.

Unfortunately, a few isolated, scenic actions, or even a coordination of them, will not be enough to obtain this uninterrupted and tireless popular activism. The only result would be an indifference to all misfortune. But if the governors, instead of having recourse to episodes of crude effects, will know how to present to their inferiors spectacles that are perhaps less captivating but more usual, less adventurous but more evocative of the hassles of current life and, in any case, not denuded of a certain pathos, they will rule – thanks to the smallest stroke of genius – a people who aren’t paralyzed by terror, but simply resentful, annoyed, perpetually irritated and incapable due to the weak intensity of the vexations to which we will subject them.

Resentment, dear friend, is not hatred. As everyone knows, hatred unleashes war between the social classes. Nor is it apathetic indifference, which, on the contrary, provokes the abandonment of the field of social war, in sum, desertion.

Resentment admirably realizes the forced but democratic coexistence between attacked and attacker, and these absurd communities mutually accept each other, in the same manner that quarreling neighbors willy-nilly[8] become a single community with a dividing wall. As Nietzsche noted, the resentful person deeply identifies with the attacker’s reasons and the attacker, paradoxically, by nourishing that resentment, permits him to continue to exist as a resentful person. What would come of a resentful person if he were deprived of the things he resents? A wreck, a person deprived of identity, dispossessed of his unique manner of manifesting himself to the world: jeremiads.

Nevertheless, it is good that in civil society there always exist ample motivations for resentment and that they continually appear, even at the cost of a certain apparent disorder. Freedom, as our illustrious friend Bobbio[9] teaches, “does not remain immobile, and he who thinks it does has already abandoned it.” Thus, when motivations for resentment are lacking, it becomes necessary to replace one with another, judiciously conceived, with the result that the resentful course to freedom never ends.

In the past, there existed categories of individuals who were resentful but indifferent to the particular source of resentment, veritable professionals always ready to detect reasons for discontent and to ceaselessly feed them by preventing both the extinction as well as the exacerbation of the most inflamed sentiments. Traditionally, they were the causes of disorders, the troublemakers and ringleaders; they were responsible for the social management of resentment. Similar attitudes can still be encountered among individuals like you and others, who are very skillful at transforming any human fracas into a motivation for official resentment that is exchangeable on the market of political negotiations. Exasperated by trifles and capable of taking them for the whole of society by presenting them as questions of life and death, you have known how – like it was a natural gift – to season the parliamentary salad with the spice on which you hold a monopoly: continual resentment.

Alas! Notwithstanding the praiseworthy activity of these moaners, too many courageous people persist in living in peace, finding pleasant that which is made to be pleasing. They are foreign and insensitive to the hassles that occupy the minds of political complainers in the best of times. Today, too many people remain perfectly indifferent to the problems that nourish contemporary political struggles and do not at all resent the hassles, whether they are real or imagined, against which their champions fight.

Until now, nothing has come to disrupt their disinterest, neither divorce, abortion, the reform of the [criminal] codes nor even monetary inflation. They continue to live as if nothing bothered them and the temptation is strong to describe them as irremediable qualunquisti[10] and to combat them as such. But what if, instead of this, the “party” of the deaf and dumb, inaccessible on the inside, was precisely thus, not because its members were indifferent to this or that legislative problem, or skeptical with respect to this or that economic measure, but because they were hostile or foreign to legislation and the economy as such? I cannot affirm this possibility, but I would be ill-advised to exclude it.

Therefore, everyone knows that a deaf and dumb people can inspire nothing good. Unpredictable, they are the easy targets for suggestions when they aren’t influenced by their own suggestions, which is even worse. The greatness of our project resides precisely in the fact that it would transform each silent citizen into a “professional complainer,” which until now has been the prerogative of the elements that have made discontent a political issue; and to make people come out of their shells, we must importune them, obligate them to complain, to show them the many reasons for discontent every day.

Nevertheless, we must limit ourselves to showing that existing problems still do not suffice: the little people – unlike the intellectuals who are always on the alert to transform the evils of the world into “problems” – are too conditioned by their own hassles and they rarely complain about things other than the cares that effect them personally. The display of the disasters of the black market for abortion or the ecological degradation of particularly polluted locations as political problems leaves perfectly indifferent all those who have no need of abortions and those who, fortunately, still live in habitats that are not excessively degraded. From whence comes the silence and indifference with respect to political and legislative solutions to such questions. In the light of these considerations, I have expressed the desire that the space that has always separated touching fictions from pathologically realities should disappear, and I now maintain the necessity of indiscriminately generalizing to everyone the suffering of hassles and humiliations in a continuous rhythm. It is only thus that each citizen will finally be constrained to take the floor and participate in basic political initiatives by expressing his or her jeremiads. The people must be constantly kept under pressure, constrained to a permanent activity, if one wants to see the project of the politicization of society progress. A beautiful verse by Schiller clearly expresses the concept of democratic participation: “When kings build, the draymen have plenty to do.”[11]

And when a motivation for discontent is finally exhausted, that is when it should give way to another, which will take over from the first one. The people will thus comprehend that their complaints are not made in vain and, as Bobbio says, one will endlessly run in search of freedom.

To normalize the situation in Libya, one had had, as you know, to put a dead body in every yard and have the corpses visible to all. Certain political commentators coined the term “Libyanization” to designate the propagation of massacre in every corner of Libyan society. My intention is not to apologize for such savage carnage, which would be morally unacceptable and politically useless in Italy today!

I nevertheless believe that our country must be Libyanized in its turn by means of a procedure that is less barbaric than that of its origin. It is not a question of putting a dead body in every home, but of propagating in Italy, in a capillary fashion, motivations for discontent, hassles, small and large humiliations. What sensitive chords will it be necessary to vibrate?

Expecting that suffering must be continued, but lightly, it will be a question of importing small evils into places where there was health, fatigue where there was idleness, parsimony in place of prodigality, a quarrelsome character where there was the spirit of concord, and so on.

The regime of restrictions that has inaugurated what one has called austerity[12] – a general euphemism to designate human capital that digs into its refuse – presents a good example of the route to be followed. The hassles that one has occasioned among the citizens are modest; the restrictions are still not penury; and the result has been superior to that of a famine that has only been shown on a screen. To exhibit severe hunger in the pockets of under-development creates an emotion that is both immediate and temporary, while parsimony that has been forced upon every family creates a light but permanent difficulty. Moreover, no one today dares to buy anything without first having asked the price; at the moment of placing one’s hand on one’s wallet, everyone reflects, hesitates, for a moment. Even the spendthrifts, the generous and the improvident are finally convinced that everything has a price and that nothing in nature is available in unlimited quantities, not even money. People have thus felt a certain difficulty; they are irritated; they have left their apathy behind and have given free rein to their jeremiads, which is the only mainstay of a democratic State.

The members of society will have the occasion to persuade themselves gradually that a certain malaise is proper to the human condition, which is an old axiom of existentialism that we Communists have too hastily rejected.

The happiness of the people, my excellent friend, is a vain philosophical notion, and it is fitting to abandon it to the philosophers and the dilettantes of utopia. We who have the fate of the State at heart must absolutely avoid giving ourselves the obligation to choose between a people who hate us and a people who ignore us. All the powers have, sooner or later, seen themselves constrained to confront one or the other of these popular attitudes. If, in place of this choice, we know how to work in the direction that I have sketched out, we will finally and definitively escape the jaws of that vise. The socialism that we recommend does not foresee hostile or apathetic men, but citizens who democratically participate in political life, putting the least of their everyday resentments on the table.

Men have always feared power and have fought or avoided it. But if power goes to men, and if they approach it in their turn, the fear will be less intense. Then, for the first time in history, the sacred exhortation of Saint Augustine will know a profane realization: “Wish to flee from God? Flee to him.”[13]

And we will be the ones who have accomplished it.


[1] Publisher’s note: Marco Panella, parliamentarian, member of the Radical Party, is the most authoritative Italian representative of the regeneration of the State through working class resentment. There is reason to believe that he has never read Nietzsche.

[2] On 12 December 1969, the “secret services” (the intelligence agencies) of the Italian State arranged for a bomb to be exploded at the train station at the Piazza Fontana in Milan.

[3] French in original.

[4] Edmund Burke, Reflections on the French Revolution. English in original.

[5] Latin in original.

[6] Latin in original.

[7] Latin in original.

[8] French in original.

[9] Norberto Bobbio (1909-2004), a liberal socialist philosopher and historian.

[10] Adherents of the political party called L’Uomo qualunque (“The Ordinary Man”), who is supposed to be politically apathetic.

[11] Friedrich Schiller, “Kant and His Interpreters,” Xenien.

[12] English in original.

[13] Latin in original.




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