The progress of submission moves at a frightening speed
An interview with Rene Riesel

Liberation: In 1988, in his Comments on The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord wrote: "There is no longer any opposition."[1] For many this signified the annihilation of the idea of radical revolution. Do you share this finding?

Rene Riesel: I'll leave to the sophisticated and university-based Debordists their endless glosses of Debord. A lot of people, notably in the media and the [government] ministries, believed they found in him a master thinker and, late in life, he no doubt let himself to taken for one. I know what I owe to Debord but, rather than re-read him a hundred times, I prefer to observe the world as it is today. Nevertheless, to return to this idea of the absence of radical opposition to market society, it would also be necessary to say how the theory formulated by the situationists has become obsolete. To affirm that there is no longer opposition, without saying that, in any case, it is no longer on the basis of this theory that one could reorganize one, or even only to think about the possibility of one, this is only an imposture, a kind of pirouette, a play of personal poker, and in this Debord was not the most maladroit, with the result that it only remained for him to write his Panegyric, the aestheticization of his life, considered as a work of art.[2] Debord enclosed himself in an obsessional and sterile conspiracy theory for at least half of the Comments and, obviously, this manner of reducing everything to the lure fascinated the professionals of the lie. The people in the media and power recognized themselves in it and found in it their unsurpassable horizon. But history continued, and it was more serious and fruitful to analyze the material conditions that rendered opposition so difficult, to explain why one has assisted in the development of a truly terrifying taste for submission.

Liberation: Shortly after your expulsion from the Situationist International,[3] you left for the countryside and, in 1995, you reappeared as the National Secretary of the Peasants' Confederation, Jose Bove's organization. In your eyes, how did this organization incarnate the promise of a new radicality?

Rene Riesel: I left for the Eastern Pyrenees and became a breeder [of sheep], a way of life that suits me and allows me to reconstitute a "rear base," not in the military sense, but in the sense of re-learning the practices that in many respects constitute the real wealth of humanity. In the current state of the decay of our societies, it is necessary to re-invest in a certain number of lost practices. One knows the classic pleasantry about the kid who asks if fish are square because he has only seen them in the form of frozen blocks, about 40-year-old people who do not know a cow's front from its back: this state of tragic ignorance becomes generalized. But faced with the kind of panic that seizes people faced with the abyss, one tries to reassure them with the return to pseudo-rural traditions, which would be a possible refuge for quality in agricultural products, whereas in reality one only liberates the inventiveness of advertising to rehabilitate the same industrial shit. I have seen things degrade at a lively pace. There is no longer a peasantry[4] in France, only farmers who are more or less integrated -- whether they admit it or not -- into a segment of agro-industrial production. And, contrary to what the Peasants' Confederation ceaselessly cries out, the industrialization of agriculture does not necessarily translate into the concentration of cultivation.

Liberation: Why be allied with the Confederation if its project seemed false to you at that point?

Rene Riesel: The industrialization of the breeding of sheep was the dominant tendency and, as a breeder, I practiced exactly the opposite. It would have taken the devil to disengage me from it. In 1991, the people from the Confederation sought me out and, with them, I was enticed to slightly enlarge the fight. The Confederation brings together socialists, hippies, repented Leftists, Greens -- a club of quite paradoxical ideas that functions according to a kind of consensus that presents a unified facade, with all sorts of tendencies that cohabited without ever coming to a head in their discussions. . . . I wanted to advance questions that were central for me. Many of these people were or are truly of good faith. There were things to do on this terrain; but I never renounced anything, I always said what I thought about the functioning of the organization, about the illusions that were held by it. OK, I did what I could do in (against GMOs [genetically modified organisms], in particular), and I left in March 1999, when nothing more was possible.

Liberation: Can you explain how the development of the peasantry and questions tied to genetic engineering in your eyes constitute fundamental questions that open on to the possibility of re-founding a critical theory?

Rene Riesel: As a breeder, I have seen up-close the blitzkrieg[5] victimized the rural and agricultural world in the developed countries. One has broken peasant civilization, or at least what remained of it. Traditional peasantry was certainly not the carrier of marvelous valued to be preserved at all costs; it simply conserved a living memory that permitted one to follow other routes than those imposed by industrial development. One found in it attitudes concerning life and especially social life that were quite antinomical to the dominant rationalism, a way of life, in any case, less separated than what industrialization has ended up as, by reducing humanity to work and then colonizing free time. I have seen the old rural society [become] liquefied, rot on the spot, its behaviors stiffen. One cannot be content with the simplifications of the anti-globalists, with the wicked transnational that one substitutes for the 200 families and the capitalists in top-hats and [smoking] big cigars so as to have a clearly identifiable enemy, whereas domination essentially functions thanks to submission, submission to industrialization, to the control of a technological system.

Liberation: . . . which too few people, in your opinion, critique fundamentally.

Rene Riesel: My critique is not of the Heideggarian type and does not aim at technique as such. But it is quite necessary to grasp the stakes of the industrialization of agriculture, which reaches a final stage with genetic chimeras: it is a question, neither more nor less, of an attempt to definitively supplant nature (outside and inside man), to eliminate this last resistance to the domination of technological rationalism. A "reason" that wants to ignore -- and here practically suppressing -- whatever is not it, is, I believe, is the minimum definition of the delirium. If one comprehends these stakes, then one must totally question the very bases of the current agricultural system. Now what does one see?[6] A pseudo-contestation that appeals to the interventionist State to hold on to and moralize the markets, to assure the existence of the farmers, while the overt project of these States is to eliminate them, as in Great Britain, where the peasantry is only 1 to 2% of the population. Today there is a project, apparently progressive, aiming at integrating the farmer into an arrangement in which he is an agent of the State, which is a totally bureaucratic model, the historical sources of which one sees quite well. From this one can better understand the links between diverse movements such as Attac[7] and the Peasants' Confederation. They are all attempting to restore the party of the historically vanquished, that is to say, the partisans of the State, who in their own eyes have been defeated -- the sovereignty of the States crumbles -- but do not despair at re-founding one that, this time, would be "truly of the citizenry."

Liberation: You participated, with Indian peasants, in the sabotage of transgenic rice at a CIRAD[8] lab. Must one see in this "direct action," to use your own vocabulary, a sign of the renewal of the radical critique of the world?

Rene Riesel: The important word is "direct" rather than "action." Young rebels today often describe themselves as "activists," as in old Leftist politics, except that now this is played out above all before the cameras of the media, which are very fond of this supposed "new radicality." Radicality is literally "to grasp things by their roots," and not refreshing a summary anticapitalism that is agreeable to bourdieuseries.[9] The "Left of the Left," this mix of citizens' groups, partisans of the Tobin tax,[10] anti-globalists and third-worlders, more or less manipulated by the old Trotskyist general staffs, what does it demand? The State, more of the State. The most aware of the young "activists" admit that there is theoretical work to be done and that one can not serve themselves from a kit of the old ideas available on the [intellectual] market, nor to hang on to the wagon of what might appear to be the most accomplished [expression] of the old critical movement at the end of the 1960s: situationist theory. To grasp things at their roots means, to criticize the techno-scientific bases of modern society, to understand the profound ideological relationship between political or social progressivism (that is to say, the Leftist mentality such as Theodore Kaczynski defined it in Industrial Society and Its Future [Editions EdN, 1998])[11] and scientific progressivism. Ever since the "industrial revolution" in England, industrialization has been an absolutely fundamental rupture with the essence of the progress of humanization. Today one ascertains that, without peasant civilization, it is civilization itself that fails. And the historical meaning of industrialization, its profound truth, which has become manifest in the 20th century, is destruction: Auschwitz and Hiroshima are the two baptismal fonts on which the contemporary era has been carried.

Liberation: You re-think your critical approach starting from your ties to nature. But what about the town, the riots, the various questionings of sacrosanct "respect"? How do you analyze the urban violence of today?

Rene Riesel: Back then, the quite widespread ideological pretension was "wanting everything and [wanting it] now," by preferring to ignore, among other things, what everyone knew, that is to say, that life and humanization are a fight, in any case a process in which nothing is obtained without effort.[12] Today the absence of effort, the instantaneity permitted by machines, by informatics, is exactly what our society worships. As for the urban "barbarians" that this society secretes, because it cannot do anything else, up to a certain point, because they are useful as a contrast to it, they reproduce the market system in their fashion, they translate through their nihilism its lack of perspectives,[13] like the kids raised on the computer and the Internet: they are, furthermore, sometimes the same [people]. There is a complete psychological destructuration, a complete subjugation to the machine.

Liberation: Despite this somber picture, for the past few years you have taken the floor, you have written, in short, you express yourself anew concerning the idea of revolution.

Rene Riesel: On February 8th [2001] I will go on trial in Montpellier for the action against CIRAD. This will be the occasion to manifest the existence of a critical, anti-industrial current. But soberly: spectacular activism does not interest me, especially when it hides the poverty of its analysis. My critique of techno-science is actively radical: public research, private research, it hardly matters when these people literally do not know what they're doing, puttering around -- without having, by their own admission, the least comprehension -- with genetic chimeras with unforeseeable effects. The sabotage against CIRAD was a frontal attack against public research, in order to shatter the myth that citizen-controlled research can be regulated: we must begin to understand that this technology is essentially uncontrollable. The famous "precautionary principle"[14] of which one speaks so much -- we apply it, in the only manner in which it can be applied.

Liberation: Is it still necessary to make the wager of the revolution?

Rene Riesel: The progress of submission moves at an absolutely frightful speed. Through the Internet and every other artifice of technological hardware, industrial "culture" is spreading everywhere. Our time is limited, because the old idea that capitalism or the economy will collapse under their [own] contradictions is obviously false.[15] Our fate is in our hands: it is a matter of renewing the historical process of humanization.[16]

[1] In point of fact, Guy Debord does not say anything of the sort in his Comments on the Society of the Spectacle. In Chapter XXVII, Debord merely quotes from Thucydides' The Peloponnesian War (Book VIII, Chapter 5), which he introduces with the suggestion that this is "something that has relevance to the situation in which we find ourselves."

[2] This phrasing seems to imply that, rather than showing that Debord lived his life the way artists create works of art, Panegyric was an attempt -- after the fact -- to make a work of art out of his life.

[3] A member of the Sisyphus anarchist group (with Christian Sebastiani) and active in the occupations movement of May 1968, Riesel joined the SI at the age of 16 in June 1968. Neither Riesel nor his interlocutor mention that he was unable to successfully discharge his responsibilities as one of the editors of Internationale Situationniste, which did not come out after Debord resigned as its editor-in-chief in 1969. One of the "contemplative" situationists, Riesel was excluded from the organization in September 1971.

[4] Note that in his translation of this interview, Tom McDonough never renders paysannerie as peasantry, preferring instead "farmers."

[5] German term that means "speed war."

[6] Note well that, in what follows, Riesel -- like Debord -- can find no real opposition to capitalist society.

[7] Founded in 1998, Attac is the "Association for the Taxation of Transactions for the Aid of Citizens." The transactions to be taxed would be those involved foreign currency exchanges.

[8] The Center for International Cooperation in Agronomic Research for Development.

[9] A term that is virtually impossible to translate. Something along the lines of "commonplaces found in the writings of Pierre Bourdieu" is meant.

[10] Named after the economist James Tobin, the Tobin tax is designed to penalize short-term speculation on currency exchange.

[11] "EdN" stands for the Encyclopedia des Nuisances ("Encyclopedia of Nuisances"), a journal and publishing house founded by Jaime Semprun and the ex-situationist Christian Sebastiani in 1984. (The EdN also published Riesel's book Declarations on Transgenic Agriculture and on Those Who Claim to Oppose It in 2000.) Neither Riesel nor his interlocutor remind the reader that, as the "Unabomber," Theodore Kaczynski was a terrorist, and that his sexist and homophobic "manifesto" was only published because, in exchange, he promised to stop attempting to maim and kill people.

[12] One wonders whom Riesel has in mind here: it certainly cannot be either Debord or the other situationists!

[13] Contrast this superficial and unsympathetic "analysis" with Jean-Pierre Baudet's superb essay entitled From a Supper of Ashes to Embers of Satin.

[14] The idea that, in the absence of scientific consensus that an action or policy will cause serious harm to the general public, the burden of proof of the safety of such an action or policy falls upon those who advocate taking or enacting it.

[15] One wonders what Riesel thinks happened in the Soviet Union between 1989 and 1992.

[16] This interview was prefaced by an inaccurate title ("From Situationism to the Peasants' Confederation: A Radical Thinker") and a misleading biographical note: "Former member of the Situationist International, 51-year-old Rene Riesel breeds sheep on the Mejean plateau in Lozere. At the age of 17 he belonged the Nanterre 'Enrages,' then to the Occupation Committee at the Odeon in May '68. The 'situs' would recognize him as one of their own, the youngest and also the most promising of them according to Guy Debord, before expelling him like almost all the others. The very image of the urban rebel, Riesel became one of the eminences grises of the Peasants' Confederation. Then, at variance with them, he left it in 1999. He did not, however, give up fighting."

(Interview conducted by Alain Leauthier and published in Liberation, 3-4 February 2001. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! August 2007. All footnotes by the translator.)

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