Letters to the Heretics

Eighth Letter

My dear Indians,[1]

First, the Neapolitan vibrion,[2] then Seveso,[3] and finally your living pictures[4] in rich colors have gained the attention of the responsible authorities concerning the frightening degradation of the environment in which we are plunged and of which the inactivity of the government and an anarchic and competitive form of economic development have been the criminal agents.

In truth, scientists of all countries have long denounced in dramatic fashion the risks of catastrophe that mankind and nature have run in the short term if we do not apply the brakes to an economic model that is founded on the hyper-development of certain industrialized countries and the imperialist looting of the weakest States. Such authoritative appeals and the empirical proofs that have documented their claims could not go unperceived for long. Public opinion – for which you, the Metropolitan Indians, express the malaise through bizarre and radical behavior – today begins to become sensitive to such ecological problems as pollution, the noxiousness of certain foodstuffs and pharmaceuticals, the degradation of the countryside, the impoverishment of the flora and fauna, the waste of sources of energy, and so on.

But despite a certain sensitivity on the part of the population, the inertia of the government has been and remains absolute, at least in Italy. The successive governments since the [post-WWII] reconstruction haven’t known how nor have wanted to put any kind of halt to the ecological degradation that we know today. When it comes to the sacking of the country, the politicians have systematically given free rein to private entrepreneurs, and even entrepreneurs in the public sector, and so Italy has become the enormous garbage dump that it is today.

Thus, the Leftist political parties have inherited an extremely serious situation where the environment is concerned. This is why it is necessary to have clear ideas concerning the goals and modalities of your and our interventions. To attain such clarity, I address myself to you, but where you are concerned – who are hardly docile – I will only and very soberly use the privilege that elders possess when they give advice to their young friends.

These interventions must be articulated on two levels. Above all, we must rigorously plan the development of economic production – the quality and quantity of consumer goods – in such a way that the two moments of the economic cycle do not compromise the biopsychic health of mankind. Parsimony is good for one’s health, and the program that pertains to it, which is called austerity,[5] is a step in the right direction. The fact that young revolutionaries have enthusiastically welcomed parsimony seems worthy of interest to me. The sensational proclamations made against “sacrifice” by a few little groups should not deceive us, because these are refusals on the intellectual plane, in other words in words only. Instead, let us consider the morals of the young people at the margins: the students, the feminists, the militants, the “pigs with wings,”[6] to use a fortunate expression that is valid for all of them. Over-cooked frozen food; makeshift clothing; hovels; macrobiotic cuisine: such is the catalogue of poverties of the most impoverished milieu,[7] which is intellectually impoverished as well, because it dares to use various pretexts to justify the parsimony to which it is constrained in everyday life.

The primary level of improvement in the health of the people must be confronted with solid political will. Politics must be placed at the service of the suggestions made by the scientific sectors that are competent in environmental protection (in accord with the beliefs of the general population), and not at the service of profit and speculation, which is the case today.

The secondary level of our intervention is certainly more complex, and it can be summarized by this formula: we must create a popular ecological consciousness that is compatible with economic production. The instrument with which we will obtain this result is the use of overt and covert propaganda. And it is precisely on the content of this ecological propaganda that I would like to dwell.

As you well know, in certain irrational milieus, ecological preoccupations tend to be transformed into a kind of millenarianist ideology of catastrophe. This ideology results from a preconceived refusal of economic development (this refusal represents a convergence of obscurantist tendencies and destructive extremism). In this ideology, economic development is sometimes considered as a cause of degeneration from an allegedly lost paradise, and other times as the last obstacle to the construction of a finally reclaimed paradise. You yourselves fall into similar states of mind. Such ideological aberrations must be pounded down, not due to their immediate danger to society, but because they constitute a fertile ground[8] in which the rejection of man as the master of nature and the world can germinate. And if man – as a species, of course – ceases to consider himself as the owner of nature, this would immediately lead to the irreversible stoppage of economic development.

But neither refutations in words nor anathema will be enough to effectively combat these irrational tendencies. On the contrary, using both words and actions, we must introduce into all the pores of the population certain attitudes – positive ideologies, we might say – that will be better welcomed and accepted if they are set out as the only solutions to the inconveniences that derive from ecological degradation.

If it is true that “our homeland is the entire world,” as an old anarchist song proclaims,[9] then we must take particular care of it and demand that each person acts as if it belongs to him alone. The home[10] of the human species is the world and we must create the laws[11] that regulate it. The passage is steep and crossing it will require balance, but it is the only practicable route, or at least we must have it believed that it is the only one. We must arouse in each person the conviction that nature is the property of the species, that it is the unique capital of a capitalist collective – men, precisely – and that nature must be fashioned in the image and likeness of the human collectivity. Today, economic development is only possible to the extent that this condition is adopted by the masses and inspires their desires.

We must convince our inferiors that the only alternatives are ecological catastrophe or the transformation of nature as the capital of a single capitalist collective. Let us abandon the first option to the nihilists and act to convince the population that the rational subjugation of the world must finally be completed.

But how should we reeducate the population, which has been perverted by centuries of competitive individualism to accept collective ownership? By popularizing certain values, formerly the prerogatives of the dominant classes, that capitalist development has denied the inferior classes until now. Traditionally excluded from all terrestrial bliss, the inferior classes will, for the very first time, understand that quantities and artificiality – the only sustenance that capitalism has offered them – are almost nothing when compared to the pleasures of qualities and authenticity that nature (once it has become collective property) will be able to provide them. Thus they will forget – perhaps for several decades – that “the commodity does not satisfy man,” to quote an aphorism by a utopianist whose name escapes me.[12]

Thus, the construction of a more authentic and qualitatively refined “me” must, in my opinion, be accompanied by the proposition of three different categories of natural values.

First, we must remind everyone that nature itself is delightfully harmonious and that man can only enjoy this admirable equilibrium if nature is not contaminated. Man must see nature as something external to him to be able to look at it and enjoy it. This estranged relationship to nature – who is a cruel mother[13] when man is an integral part of her, but becomes benevolent when he contemplates her with an ecstatic air – appears at first sight to be disinterested in and distant from all ideas of profit. The nature-lover doesn’t harm his biological patrimony, nor does he exploit it for his personal use. The pure and simple contemplation of the world, and the satisfaction that follows from it, appear exempt from all intentions to valorize the object that is observed. But in fact they are not. Although nature (when simply contemplated) is not capital, it becomes capital in the observing subject who, in the course of this process, valorizes nature, ennobles it, and refines it, following a progression that – starting from an initial simplicity – can attain [the complexity of] the search for the unusual, the ephemeral, the naturally rotten.

Thus nature ceases to constitute private capital and instead becomes the subject who observes it. But for this to happen, one must have a nature that has been reconstructed for this purpose[14]: a natural park that covers the whole planet, and not a nature that could result from an economic disaster. One can only derive satisfaction from the contemplation of nature if it has first been valorized, transformed into a national park, an ecological preserve, a window display for biology, a museum of the future. Upon closer inspection, nature allowed to be itself would not be particularly interesting nor would it establish a process in which the individual was valorized. On the contrary, nature must be revalorized and brought into fruition: it is only in such conditions that it would be gratifying. Reconverting nature, as one reconverts an industrial complex, will be a gigantic enterprise. What would the social costs of such an operation be? They wouldn’t be high and would be limited to preventive action and ecological propaganda. One would only have to create a quarantine line – better still: a screen – between man and nature, one that would prevent her from being assaulted.[15]

For these reasons, the appeals that you, the Metropolitan Indians, make with picturesque imagination in the name of a regenerated nature cannot leave us indifferent, because we are completely disposed to recognize the legitimacy of your appeals. Of course, we would have to temper your extremism [massimalismo]. Instead of ensuring each person of one square kilometer of green space, as you have demanded – not unlike the proponents of the well-established English tradition of allotment gardens[16] – we would support Comrade Novelli,[17] the Mayor of Turin, who offers each city-dweller a single shrub, that is to say, enough leaves to make a salad. But beyond these disagreements about mere details, the Italian Communist Party is sensitive to your appeals and hopes they do not fall upon deaf ears.

It is certain that the plan for the reconstruction of nature will divert several productive energies from traditional sectors, and it will be necessary, here and there, to destroy several factories, which is damage that will be amply recovered by the fact that the law of value will finally dispense its beneficial effects (even in the domain of biology) by assigning a price to nature itself and, what is more important, to those who enjoy it. Thus capitalism will have achieved its masterpiece: the production of the relations between men and between men and the world. The capitalist project would be reduced to almost nothing if it was limited to the mere production of commodities: its plan is much more ambitious and wishes to produce nature herself and, in her, man, too.[18] This would be a man with a slightly Hippocratic face[19]: it would be demagogic to seek to hide it, and such is not our style. If this man would be alive in the clinical sense of the term, what will keep him alive is the conviction that he is fighting for the regeneration of nature and the annihilation of the evil that has perverted it until now.

Thank heaven, you young Metropolitan Indians will give us a push in the right direction by making it believed the evil resides in the pollution of nature when it has already moved into the project of nature’s regeneration. Swift’s warning is, fortunately, unknown to you, and it is good that no one else knows it, either: “Seldom have two ages the same fashion in their pretexts and the same modes of mischief. Wickedness is a little more inventive. Whilst you are discussing fashion, the fashion is gone by. The very same vice assumes a new body. The spirit transmigrates; and, far from losing its principle of life by the change of its appearance, it is renovated in its new organs with a fresh vigor of a juvenile activity. It walks abroad, it continues its ravages, whilst you are gibbeting the carcass or demolishing the tomb.”[20]

Now I would invite you, my excellent friends, to consider the fact that the reconversion of nature into a mutated appearance [una veste mutata] will cost us nothing at all. By letting it spontaneously accomplish its work, it will reconvert itself by its own means. Unlike the intervention of the traditional capitalist, which presents itself as an action that is oriented towards valorization, our intervention in this domain will be limited to an abstention. But the goal will be the same, of course.

We can obtain the results that I have described with the collaboration of the people, and we will only get their collaboration if we succeed in sowing in each person a real and proper garden-worshipping cult.[22] But for worship to exist, its object must be outside of the adept. Thus we must combat any indifference, insensitivity or coarseness with respect to the natural pleasures that we will offer.

It is absolutely indispensible that we extirpate (or, even better, not allow the growth of) the convictions that man has no business valorizing nature and that any valorization would be fatal to anyone who is a part of nature. Put into practice, such convictions take the form of desires to withdraw from the world, its economic machinery and its mechanisms of valorization, and also lead certain particularly delirious people to imagine an insurrection of nature in its entirety, and not just the human species, against the totality of capitalism. They see the symptoms of such an insurrection in the abnormal proliferation of certain natural species, and they go as far as advocating a kind of aesthetics in which the entire economic system is left to its own [self-destructive] devices, thus prefiguring the end of capitalism. Here one might think of the extinct civilizations whose vestiges can be seen in certain Asian cities that have been conquered by the jungle. I would respond to these people with the words of the great Thomas Paine: “I do not like to see anything destroyed; any void produced in society; any ruin on the face of the land.”[22]

Another value (or, even better, a faculty) that must be rediscovered by the proletariat is memory. For a long time, its use by the people has been prohibited because capitalism needs people who are moveable and uprooted from all community; in short, deprived of memories. But a condition of generalized lability is only socially desirable when the present doesn’t regret the past nor arouse hopes for a better future. Unfortunately, such is not the case today. Thus it is indispensible to rediscover the past, its authenticity, its rustic pleasures and its natural simplicity, because it seems clear to me that ideas about the perfectibility of progress and the advent of Socialism have lost all credibility and so must be replaced.

Our propaganda has always concerned the future, “the rising sun of the future,” and this was opportune because we were addressing ourselves to men who had no memories of the past. But today, this lability has become dangerous because life during such a miserable present demands some kind of refuge if it is going to continue, and that refuge is memory.

We can no longer reject the creation and widespread use of memories among the proletariat. But memories need images and ideas to be illuminated. What could be sweeter than the vision of a nature that has hardly been touched by industry and that yields simple and vigorous products and authentic delights? The proletariat has never experienced such pleasures, nor will it ever. What’s important is that the proletariat appropriates memories that aren’t its own; memories that others have been able to enjoy thanks to it.

But who will create memories for the people?[23] Marxist-Leninist culture is hardly qualified for this type of thing. Gramsci appealed to tradition, but we haven’t been equal to his teachings, and have only offered exhumations of folklore and pavilions of regional cuisine at our working-class festivals. On the other hand, certain fringes of serious conservative culture – for the most part: isolated individuals who are buried in disdainful scorn for the era – have done much better than we have when it comes to the great task of creating proletarian memory.

Nevertheless, we must give them room to operate by assuring publicity for their studies, the foundations of their thinking, their tastes and even their lifestyles. Aesthetes, specialists in the sacred, apologists for obscure ages, people nostalgic for barnyard humor [umori di stabbio], metaphysicians, the hedonists of thought – these are the experts we must have. Well-calibrated flattery will bring them out of the isolation in which they languish and will put them into action. They will agree to popularize their doctrines and sell copies of their exquisite interiority.

Lenin sought to keep engineers and technicians in Russia by offering them high salaries. Whatever the costs, we must keep specialists in the quality of life on our side. If the memory of quality is irremediably lost, no one will be able to reconstitute it. And a people without memory, a people for whom recollections of the past do not serve as auspices for the construction of the future, cannot be governed for long. Indeed, such a condition is caused by an indolent attitude towards all value, a disdainful scorn for possible pleasures, the taste for the ephemeral and the unique, and the rejection of dominating the future, frenetic activity and the conviction that time is money.[24]

Finally, we must introduce into the social body a third belief: that a reconstructed nature would, in itself, be therapeutic.

Industrial development and the ways of life that it involves, once fraudulently presented as beneficial for man, are today revealed to be fatal for the health of the species. They cause an increase in illnesses and the intensification of a silent and diffuse illness from which no one can escape.[25] And the therapies that capitalism offers for the illnesses that capitalism itself has created have lost all credibility because they are the products of a now-exposed vicious circle: the creation of a surplus[26] produces disabled people, and from them one obtains a subsequent surplus[27] by selling them therapies.

Thus it is urgent that we take up the question at its roots by proposing a therapeutic solution that is able to get very large numbers of people to adapt to tolerably pathological conditions. And we can certainly obtain resignation to pain, but only if very large numbers of people accept the idea that illness is the product of a badly made society, of an exasperated industrialism – in short, that pain has a social genesis. This is in fact a commonplace for a number of people; thus we will not have difficulty suggesting that the remedy is the simple abandonment of the conditions that constrain people to live in an unnatural manner.

By presenting nature as a universal therapy, we will be able to obtain two notable results. On the one hand, we will convince the people that the harmful agents are external to them, and we will breathe into them the vivid hope of being cured by fighting the cause of their illness. They are in fact sicker than the people who despair of being cured: they will become victims of the plague, dangerous nihilists who are ready to live day by day. On the other hand, we will need to have it believed that the illness is elsewhere, not in the human species, which is reputed to be genetically healthy, but located in certain degenerated economic systems that have been put into operation by dark forces, which in truth exist as natural components of capitalism, but whose weight is out of proportion to the other component that is constituted by the workers.

The organism of capitalism is sick, but it is a question of making it believed that the illness is exclusively propagated from certain central points that, when removed, will allow the healthy cells to survive in a form identical to their original archetype. This is the meaning of our repeated appeals to the “healthy forces of the nation”: it would be unfortunate if the belief that the workers of Italy are nothing other than a troop of disabled people, incapable and powerless, should happen to spread. By definition, the workers must be healthy and the illness must be situated elsewhere. And the only therapy that is indicated for this comatose social organism is precisely regenerated nature. If we fail to intervene on this plane, we will see the victory of the convictions that the entire society is condemned to death and that its atrocious agony has only been postponed thanks to the cells that are still living: the workers and their paladins. The rats will leave the sinking ship and, after a short period of drifting, it will go down.

It is by divulging the ideas that I have expounded here and by implanting them in the great working-class masses that we will perceptibly reduce the distance between propaganda and practical politics. Ideology will thus cease to appear as conceptual baggage that is foreign to the real exigencies of the people and will materialize in the nature that has been intentionally reconstructed; this is where ideology will find its proper consistency, as one says today. On that glorious day, ideas will, for the first time, move the world by impregnating it.

The epoch of crude leveling is over. We Communists must now become the prophets of the authentic, the qualitative, and the natural. But the forces of our Party will be insufficient. We must have the collaboration of individuals who have kept alive the little flame of quality, unceasingly cultivating their “me,” lovingly taking care of their individuality, and refusing to think or feel in a gregarious way. This collaboration will be with intellectuals, for the most part, but they will be intellectuals of quality. They must leave behind the solitary acrimony in which they have kept themselves and in which the vulgarity of politics has long confined them, so that they can finally take a leadership role in society.

Moreover, my very amiable Indians, a renewal at the top of society is unavoidable. We traditional politicians, even though we have always had clean hands,[28] are irremediably out of bounds. Specialists in quality are the only legitimate candidates for the power that visibly slips from our hands. Well, let us transmit to them this power, gradually but without regrets. The interests of the collectivity, as well as our own interests, demand it.

[1] Publisher’s note: the author wrote this letter to the informally constituted movement recently known by the name “Metropolitan Indians,” who are particularly sensitive to ecological purification. The text nevertheless remained unsent, because this movement hasn’t yet produced any stable organization nor any leader [English in original] of caliber. Thus this letter remains without any particular addressee. This is why its author seized the occasion that this collection offered him to make known his thoughts to the young people, in the hope of starting a fertile dialogue with them.

[2] Literally speaking, a pathogenic microorganism, used here to signify the “virulent” working-class anger that erupted several times in Naples over the course of the 1970s.

[3] The location of a catastrophic industrial accident on 10 July 1976.

[4] The Metropolitan Indians were known, among other things, for painting their faces. French in original.

[5] English in original.

[6] Dei porci con le ali (1976) is the title of a “sexual-political” novel written by Marco Lombardo Radice and Lidia Ravera under the pseudonyms Rocco and Antonia.

[7] Unlike the Italian original, which speaks of the pitocco (“skinflint”) and the ceto (“class”), the French translation of this text uses words that echo the Situationist International’s famous pamphlet De la misère en milieu étudiant (“On the Poverty of Student Life”), which was published in 1966. We have chosen to follow the French rendering.

[8] Latin in original.

[9] Stornelli d’esilio (“Songs of Exile”), written by Pietro Gori in 1895.

[10] Greek in original.

[11] Greek in original.

[12] This aphorism would seem to be a garbled version of a remark that might appear in Karl Marx’s Das Kapital.

[13] Here and in what follows, it is important to remember that, in both Italian and French, the noun “nature” is feminine.

[14] Latin in original.

[15] Note the similarity to the letter sent to Adele Faccio: “One could say that Socialism would place each person under a glass enclosure, in absolute sensory isolation: this would be the most radical means to obtain mutual respect. Molestation during moments of shared thrills and compliments in bad taste would finally be vanquished. The planet would be transformed into a living museum, museums being the places where everything is respected in the extreme: sanctuaries in which one can look but not touch.”

[16] English in original.

[17] Diego Novelli (born 1931) is called “Comrade” because he was a member of the Italian Communist Party.

[18] A monstrous image: capitalism wishes to impregnate the nature that it has “regenerated” and thus produce the “new man,” which would only be alive “in the clinical sense of the term.”

[19] Latin in original.

[20] Not authored by Jonathan Swift, but by Edmund Burke (“Reflections on the French Revolution”). English in original.

[21] Note that in Italian, culto means both “worship” and “cult.”

[22] Not authored by Thomas Paine, but by Edmund Burke (“Reflections on the French Revolution”). English in original.

[23] Cf. Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), translated into Italian in 1971.

[24] English in original.

[25] Capitalism itself.

[26] English in original.

[27] English in original.

[28] The Italian Communist Party referred to itself as “the party of clean hands.”

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