On 'Politics'

(Letter to JLD 13 October 2001)[1]

In their 14 theses "On the Commune," signed [Guy] Debord, [Attila] Kotanyi and [Raoul] Vaneigem -- who wrote it on 18 March 1962 and republished it in the 12th issue of IS (1968) to polemicize against Lefebvre[2] -- the situationists expressed their approach to the festival as unitary practice in the context of an historical example. The situationists aimed at the surpassing of separated spheres. For this return, they could not fail to aim at the sphere of politics, in the meaning that this term has in the bourgeois (or bureaucratic) world, that is to say, the practical organization, the codification and the systematization of collective dispossession and subjective deprivation, the putting in positive form of the negation of the masses and life. The absence of leaders in the [Paris] Commune, the arming of the general population, the realization of a revolutionary urbanism (through the destruction of the places of Power), the negation of separated art (the burning of Notre-Dame) -- so many themes that Spanish anarchists later developed with more or less consequence and success, but without ever forgetting their necessity. All of these measures can be quite easily summarized: they all work against the subordination of the people, against the separation between deciders executing their power, on the one hand, and a mass subjected to these decisions and this power, on the other. This destruction of Power can only be rendered by the disappearance of all the ingredients of Power. For the same reason, the situationists reproached the Commune for the examples in which it showed itself forgetful of absolute necessity and let the enemy continue to exist: for example, by renouncing an destructive assault on the Stock Exchange. In brief, this is how the Commune surpassed politics and proceeded forward towards festival.

Thus, this [situationist] text does not concern "festival" in the sense understood by the adepts of the happening[3] or other codified and pseudo-spontaneous rituals (and what the SI said in this text does not at all fit with a "Dionysiac festival that ends in a Promethean blood bath": the romantic over-emphasis of this kind of formula amounts to drowning the fish, despite the more or less sympathetic intentions). In this text, the festival was a notion (more or less well chosen) that was utilized to signify the surpassing of institutional comportments, [that is to say] actions of which the intelligence resides in the practical impulses of the masses, in opposition to the actions premeditated or guaranteed by ideology. One could situate "festival" in the continuation of Rosa Luxemburg's conceptions of the spontaneity of the masses, and one could show the poverty in which specialized comportments (the "serious," the "diverting," the "reflective," the "impulsive") depend upon a reified world and begin to dissolve in a revolutionary situation, giving way to new syntheses that are more lively, richer, more capable of evolution over time, also more capable of not losing themselves in the impasses of ritual. It is not at all a question of opposing a Dionysiac irrationality to an Apollonian rationality, but rather surpassing this sterile opposition and surpassing the finding of the rational where, stupidly, one does not seek it.

The opposition of this spontaneity to the reified movement of political institutions and to the very existence of these institutions is obvious. In the practical and, in the final analysis, insurrectionary opposition to the society that exploits and repudiates them, the proletarians are thus led to overthrow the framework that contains them. This framework is almost endless, to the extent that few positively existing things do not translate the power of the market economy and the powerlessness of those who are subjected to it: towns, city outskirts, shop windows, factories, governmental or religious monuments, administrative towers, ministries, barracks, museums, clubs, supermarkets, vacation villages -- nothing escapes from this rule, quite simply because, for several centuries, the commodity and the State have had the time to rebuild the world in their images. What one calls "politics" is only a moment in this system of alienation and, from all the evidence, it doesn't merit surviving the other moments.

Then why have the Friends of nemesis undertaken to speak of politics, even to speak positively of the idea? Is this done to simulate a theoretical novelty? It is due to being subjected to the influence of Hannah Arendt, who is the origin of a kind of rehabilitation of "politics" or, even worse, subjected to the influence of the citizenists[4] who try to save "the Left" and who oppose -- in the pages of Le Monde Diplomatique and in [the activity of] Attac[5] -- a regeneration of the National Assembly to the violent acts of "globalization" and the "market"? Or is it to initiate a battle of words (one more, as vain as the others?)

No: we firmly reject the totality of these attitudes and we consider them to be enemy positions.

Thus, what are our motivations?

First of all, the notion of "politics" has accompanied all of the practices of the enemy since the bourgeois revolution: the bourgeoisie has given itself an air of respectability by dressing its exercise of power in antique terms, a little like a manager who goes to the office in a toga and a chlamyde. One could obviously declare: it is enough to leave this term ["politics"] to the enemy, the term will perish along with the thing itself. But one can also start from the idea that there are no empty terms or that terms are not reduced to their alienated uses. The situationists posed the questions of the dictionary and the ownership of words quite well.[6] Therefore we will fight for certain words if they appear to surpass the usage that is made of them and when we find in them a rational kernel that one must avoid throwing out with the troubled waters of alienation.

Politics did not wait for the bourgeois use of the term to exist. It constituted a major axis of reflection in ancient Greece. We do not mock ancient Greece and we do not reduce it to a kind of bourgeois epoch before the term "bourgeois" existed, that is to say, before the domination of capital over a salaried proletariat: Plato and Aristotle have a lot to say to us, including the question of surpassing the bourgeois world (and it is only this perspective that interests us, in these matters as in the others). Greek thought preceded the instauration of economic alienation; it started to fight against its premises; and it emerged from Statist alienation, which it abandoned to the "barbarians": it was thus opposed to both and represents a moment of free lucidity, at least in fragmentary fashion.

Current [bad] habits appear to us to show at what point a pertinent meaning of politics would matter: because our era produces both defenses of politics that stop mid-stream, such as those of Miguel Abensour in his Democracy Against the State, and well-intentioned but limited rejections of politics, such as those expressed by Roland Simon in Radical Democratism (we only mention positions that are intended to be radical). It does not seem superfluous to be opposed to these two abstract points of view that, in the final analysis, bury and occult the potential of this idea, of this project. Because politics in Athens circa the 4th century BCE or in the world of the 21st century is a project and, beyond all empirical circumstances, this dimension as project appears to us to be essentially inherent in politics: human beings have only to unite and work together to realize their will. This is also to say that, today, what one calls "politics" is situated a thousand miles away from it.

Politics appears to be a particular and reified zone as long as one limits oneself to the impoverished rationality of the societies [dominated by] Power and the State. But this would be to judge politics poorly: because it is precisely in these societies that no politics (no political being-together) can exist (assuredly it can exist in the so-called "primitive" societies). Therefore, the surpassing of this limited conception of politics appears to us to be indispensable as the corollary of an anti-economic revolution. According to us, politics had been precisely constituted against the domination of social life by economic categories (a little like what [Pierre] Clastres wrote -- too abstractly, in our opinion -- about Society Against the State). Freed from its shackles and from its alienation by the economy and the positive categories (in the sense of the word in the writings of the young Hegel) of the hierarchicalized social system (family, property, State), politics is itself a mode of being that would liberate passions that are still unknown. For example: the feeling of history would be part of that, in the sense of the immediate perception of the historical quality (decisive, irreversible, joining the particular to the universal), and it only leads a secret, clandestine and underlying existence in our world. In the existing order, few paths to it exist: authentically revolutionary moments, of course; certain literary works that are almost entirely devoted to the pursuit of this feeling (such as those by Georg Buechner, for example, whose all-too-short life was only a quite conscious and, in any case, quite coherent quest for it); and certain forms of individual madness (psychoses that appear quite clearly and insistently as the permanent hallucinatory demand for this quality).[7] The same was true of classical Greek philosophy (which ends with Aristotle and then falls into an individualistic hygiene with no common measure with the grandeur that preceded it) was conscious of this quality, unique in its eyes, to the point of dividing its practice from the rest of existence, which was judged to be inferior and domestic[ated].

We think that, at the least, a debate on this subject is merited. We do not believe we can provide a ready-made solution, but we desire to reopen a perspective that is closed-off, even ignored or combated. It also behooves us, of course, to determine with what this perspective is compatible and with what it is incompatible. Our search in no way belongs to invention or discovery (from which we should nevertheless not abstain), but rather involves an inflection of the critical orientation without any disavowal of its established precedents. Moreover, we fully recognize ourselves in Freud's remark that all discoveries are rediscoveries.

We hope you have been provided with information concerning our research and no longer fear that we fall on this side of the surpassing that "politics" in the current sense of the word violently and urgently demands.

Les Amis de Nemesis

[1] Note that it was the translator, and not the authors, who provided the title "On politics" to this text. On 10 October 2001, JLD wrote the following to the authors:

Here is an extract from the 14 theses on the Commune, signed DEBORD, KOTANYI, VANEIGEM. The theses were published in the journal Self-management and socialism, March 1971.

"The 1871 revolution was no doubt the first revolution in which politics, as the regulation of social relations under the rule of the bourgeoisie, began to decline and give way to the revolution of real social problems. Introduction [by] Rene Lourau.

Thesis IV

'Everyone has been able to make justified critiques of the Commune, of the manifest defects of an apparatus. But today we think that the problem of political apparatuses is much more complex than the deceptive inheritors of the Bolshevik apparatus have claimed; it is time to consider the Commune not only as a surpassed revolutionary primitivism, the errors of which one has surmounted, but as a positive experience, of which the truth has still not been found and accomplished.'"

The Commune was a Dionysiac festival that ended up as a tragedy in a Promethean blood bath, Henri Lefebvre wrote. A revolutionary festival that radically transformed everyday life, the situationists added. It is just, indeed, to declare -- as the authors of "Editorial Notes to I.S. #7" did -- that the successes of the workers' movement were its failures (statist bureaucracy) and that, on the contrary, its apparent failures (the Commune or the Asturian revolt) are the overt successes on which we would be quite inspired to lean upon.

[2] The tract, "Into the Trashcan of History," was originally published on 21 February 1963 and accused Henri Lefebvre of plagiarizing the situationists.

[3] English in original.

[4] For more on the subject, see this critique of citizenism.

[5] Le Monde Diplomatique is a monthly publication, founded by Ignacio Ramonet. Attac stands for "Association pour la Taxation des Transactions pour l'aide aux citoyens" (the Association for the Taxation of Transactions for the Help of Citizens), founded in 1998 and in response to an article published in Le Monde Diplomatique.

[6] See Mustapha Khayati, "Captive Words: Preface to a Situationist Dictionary," Internationale Situationniste #10 (March 1966).

[7] Authors' note: To the extent that one define madness as resulting from the collective absence of this quality from the lived and from activity. But even the classic neuroses merit being studied from this angle: research into psychopathology has never analyzed the etiology of its object, except through a relationship to what exists, but never through a relationship to what does not [yet] exist, but what tries to come into being (the category of the possible in the Hegelian sense).

(Translated from the French by NOT BORED! on 7 October 2007. All footnotes by the translator, except where noted.

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