The sick planet

Today "pollution" is in fashion, exactly in the same manner that revolution is: it takes hold of the entire life of society, and it is illusorily represented in the spectacle. It is boring chatter in a plethora of erroneous and mystifying writings and discourses, and in reality [dans les faits] it gets everyone in the throat. It reveals itself everywhere as ideology and it gains on the ground as real process. These two [mutually] antagonistic movements -- the supreme stage of commodity production and the project of its total negation, equally rich in internal contradictions -- grow together. They are the two sides through which a single historical moment (long-awaited and often foreseen in inadequate partial figures) manifests itself: the impossibility of the continuation of the functioning of capitalism.

The epoch that has all the techincal means to absolutely alter the conditions of life of the entire Earth is also the epoch that, by the same separated technical and scientific development, disposes of all of the means of control and indubitable, mathematical prediction to exactly measure in advance where -- and when -- the automatic increase in the alienated productive forces of class-society will lead: that is to say, so as to measure the rapid degradation of the conditions for survival in the most general and trivial senses of the term.

While imbecilic reactionaries still hold forth on and against an aesthetic critique of all this, and believe themselves lucid and modern when they affect to marry their century by proclaiming that the super-highway and Sarcelles have their own beauty, which one must prefer to the discomfort of the "picturesque" old neighborhoods, or by gravely remarking that the entirety of the population eats better, despite those nostalgic for good food, the problem of the degradation of the totality of the natural and human environment already completely ceases to pose itself on the plane of so-called ancient quality, aesthetic or otherwise, and radically becomes the problem of the material possibility for existence of a world that pursues such a movement. This impossibility is in fact already perfectly demonstrated by all of separated scientific knowledge, which now only discusses the expiration [date] and the palliatives that, if one applies them diligently, can slightly delay it. Such a science can only accompany to destruction a world that has produced it and has it, but is forced to do so with open eyes. It thus shows, to a caricatural degree, the uselessness of knowledge without use.

One measures and extrapolates with excellent precision the rapid augmentation of chemical pollution in the air; in the water of rivers, lakes and even oceans; and the irreversible augmentation of radioactivity accumulated by the peaceful development of nuclear energy;[1] the effects of noise; the invasion of space by plastics that can claim an eternity of universal landfill-storage; rapid birth-rates; the senseless falsification of food;[2] the urbanistic leprosy that over-runs what used to be the town and the country; thus mental illnesses -- including neurotic fears and hallucinations that will not fail to soon arise and multiply on the very theme of pollution, of which one everywhere displays an alarming image -- and suicide, the rate of growth of which already exactly matches that of the construction of such an environment (to say nothing of the effects of atomic or bacteriological warfare, of which the means are in place like the sword of Damocles, but obviously remaining avoidable).

In brief, if the scale and reality of the "Terrors of the Year 1000" are still a subject for controversy among the historians, the Terror of the Year 2000 is also quite well-founded; it is henceforth a scientific certainty. Nevertheless, what is happening is not fundamentally new: it is simply the forced conclusion of an old process. A society that is always sicker, but always stronger, has everywhere concretely re-created the world as the environment and decor of its illness, a sick planet. A society that still hasn't become homogenous and that isn't determined by itself, but is always more determined by a part of itself that places itself above the rest and is exterior to it, has developed a movement that dominates natures but isn't itself dominated. By its own movement, capitalism has finally provided the proof that it can no longer develop the productive forces; and that this isn't [simply] quantitative, as many have believed to understand, but qualitative.[3]

Meanwhile, for bourgeois thought, methodologically, only the quantiative is serious, measurable, effective; and the qualitative is only the uncertain, subjective or artistic decoration of the real, which is estimated by its true weight. For dialectical thought (and thus for history and the proletariat, as well), on the other hand, the qualitative is the most decisive dimension of real development. Here is what we, capitalism and us, have ended up demonstrating.

The masters of society are now obliged to speak of pollution and to combat it (because, after all, they live on the same planet as we do, and this is the only sense in which one can allow that capitalism's development has actually realized a cerain fusion of the classes) so as to dissimulate it: because the simple truth of the "harmful effects"[4] and current risks suffice to constitute an immense factor[5] in revolt, a materialist demand of the exploited, as vital as the struggle of the proletarians of the 19th Century for the possibility of eating. After the fundamental failure of all the reformisms of the past -- which aspired to the definitive solution of the problem of classes -- a new reformism delineates itself, which obeys the same necessities as its precedents: to oil the machine and open up new occasions for profit for peak enterprises [enterprises de pointe]. The most modern sector of industry throws itself upon the different palliatives for pollution [poisoning], as on a new opening, one that is more profitable than a good part of the capital monopolized by the State for its use and manoeuvres. But if this new reformism has the guarantee of its failure in advance, for exactly the same reasons as for the failure of past reformisms, it is radically different in that that it no longer has any time.

The development of production has been entirely verified until now as the accomplishment of political economy: the development of poverty, which has invaded and damaged the milieu of life. The society in which the workers kill themselves at work and only contemplating the result, given frankly for them to see and breathe, understand that the general result of alienated work is death. In the society of the over-developed economy, everything has entered the sphere of economic goods, even spring water and the air of towns, that is to say, everything has become the economic evil, "the perfected denial of man," which now awaits its perfect material conclusion. The conflict of modern productive forces and the bourgeois or bureaucratic relations of production of capitalist society has entered into its final phase. The production of non-life has more and more pursued its linear and cumulative process; over-coming a final threshold in its progress, it now directly produces death.

Today, the last function, avowed, essential, of the developed economy, in the entire world where the labor-commodity rules and assures all power to its patrons, is the production of jobs. One is thus quite far from the "progressive" ideas of the preceding century concerning the possible dimunition of human labor by the scientific and technical multiplication of productivity, which was supposed to assure still more easily the satisfaction of needs previously recognized by all as real, and without fundamental alteration of the quality of the goods that found themselves made available. It is at present so as to "produce jobs," even in the countries bereft of countrymen, that is to say, so as to use human labor as alienated labor, as salariat,[6] that one does all the rest, and thus one stupidily threatens the basis of the life of the species, which is currently more fragile than the thought of a Kennedy or a Breshnev.

The ancient ocean is indifferent to pollution, but history is not. It can only be saved by the abolition of the labor-commodity. And never has historical consciousness had as much urgent need of dominating its world, because the enemy that is at its door is no longer an illusion, but its death.

At a moment when the poor masters of the society of which one sees the deplorable outcome, which is quite worse than all of the condemnations that were heaped upon the most radical utopianists, must confess that our environment has become social, that the management of everything -- including the herbs of the field, the [very] possibility of drinking, the possibility of sleeping without having to take too many sleeping pills or washing oneself without suffering from allergies -- has become a directly political affair, one sees quite well that the old specialized politics must confess that it is completely finished.

It is finished in the supreme form of its voluntarism: the totalitarian, bureaucratic power of the so-called socialist regimes, because the bureaucrats in power have not shown themselves capable of managing the preceding stage of the capitalist economy. If they pollute much less -- the United States alone produces 50% of the world's pollution -- it is because they are much poorer. As in China, for example, where, by devoting a disportionate part of its budget-poverty, they can only afford the pollution-prestige of the poor powers: a few re-discoveries and perfections in the techniques of thermonuclear war or, more exactly, its menacing spectacle. So much poverty, [both] material and mental, supported by so much terrorism, condemned the bureaucracies to power. And what condemned the most modernized bourgeois power was the insupportable result of so much effectively poisoned richness. The so-called democratic management of capitalism (whatever the country) only offers elections-resignations that, as one has always seen, do not change anything in the ensemble and change even less in the details of a class society that imagines that it will endure indefinitely. They change nothing, moreover, at the moment that this management itself panics and, to settle certain secondary but more urgent problems, feigns to wish for some vague directives from the alienated and cretinized electrorate (USA, Italy, England, France). All of the specialized observers have always raised the fact -- without troubling themselves too much to explain it -- that the voter almost never changes his "opinion": this is exactly because the voter is someone who for a brief instant assumes the abstract role that is precisely intended to prevent him from being himself and changing (the mechanism has been demonstrated a hundred times, as much by demystified political analysis as by the explanations of revolutionary psychoanalysis). The voter no longer changes when the world changes around him always more precipitously and, insofar as he is a voter, he doesn't even change just before the end of the world. Ever representative system is essentially conservative, whereas capitalist society's conditions of existence has never been conserved: they are modified without interruption and always more quickly, but the decision -- always at base a decision to leave the process of commericial production alone -- is entirely left to the advertising specialists, who are alone on the path or quite in concurrence with those who will do the same thing and moreover announce it loudly. Meanwhile, the man who "freely" votes for the Gaullists or the F.C.P.[7] just as much as the man who is constrained and forced to vote for a Gomulka,[8] is capable of showing what he truly is, next week, by participating in a wildcat strike or an insurrection.[9]

On its Statist and regulatory side, the so-called " struggle against pollution" at first creates new specializations, ministerial services, jobs[10] [and] bureaucratic advancement. And its efficacity will completely be determined by such means. It can only become a real effort [volonte] by transforming the current production system from the roots. And it can only be firmly applied at the instant when all of its decisions -- democratically arrived at, in full knowledge of the situation, by the producers -- will at every instant be controlled and executed by the producers themselves (for example, ships will inevitably dump their oil in the sea as long as they are not [operated] under the authority of the real soviets of the seas). To decide upon and execute all of this, it is necessary that the producers become adults; it is necessary that they take hold of all power.

The scientific optimism of the 19th century has collapsed in three essential areas. Primarily, the pretense to guarantee the revolution as the happy resolution of existing conflicts (this being the Left-Hegelian and Marxist illusion, the one least experienced by the bourgeois intelligentsia, but the richest and, finally, the least illusory one). Secondarily, the coherent vision of the universe and, more simply, matter. Thirdly, the euphoric and linear appraisal [sentiment] of the development of the productive forces. If we dominate the first area, we have [also] resolved the third, and later we will make of the second area our business and our game. It isn't necessary to treat the symptoms but the sickness itself. Today, fear is everywhere; we will only leave it behind by trusting in our own forces, in our own capacity to destroy all existing alienation and all images of the power that escapes us; by putting everything except ourselves in the power of the Workers' Councils that at every moment possess and reconstruct the totality of the world, that is to say, in the power of true rationality, a new legitimacy.

In matters of the "natural" and constructed environment[s], birth rates, biology, production, "madness," etc., there will not be a choice between the festival and unhappiness, but [on the one hand] -- consciously and at every turn -- between a thousand fortunate or disastrous possibilities that are relatively correctable and, on the other hand, annihilation. The terrible choices of the near future leave this one alternative: total democracy or total bureaucracy. Those who doubt total democracy must make efforts to prove it to themselves, by providing the occasion to prove it, or else it only remains to them to buy their tomb on the installment plan, because "one has seen Authority at work, and its works condemn it" (Joseph Dejacque).[11]

"Revolution or death": this slogan is no longer the lyrical expression of the consciousness that revolts; it is the last word of the scientific thought of our century.[12]

It applies to the perils facing the species as well as to the impossibility of the belonging [adhesion] of individuals. In this society, in which (as one knows) suicide progresses [rapidly], specialists must recognize with a certain resentment that they were reduced [retombe] to almost nothing in May 1968. Without precisely showing it during the assault, this spring has also obtained a beautiful sky, because several cars were burned and all of the others lacked the gasoline [necessary] to pollute. When it rains, when there are false clouds over Paris, never forget the fact that it is the fault of the State. Alienated industrial production causes rain. Revolution makes for beautiful weather.

[1] See Jaime Semprun's essay Abyss (1986).

[2] See Guy Debord's essay Abat-Faim (1985).

[3] See "Censor" (Gianfranco Sanguinetti & Guy Debord), especially Chapter VII.

[4] The French here is nuisances. Note that the texts referred to in footnotes [1] and [2] where published in L'Encyclopedie des Nuisances (The Encyclopedia of Harmful Effects), founded by Jaime Semprun in 1984.

[5] The French here is facteur, and so both "factor" and "carrier" of that factor are suggested.

[6] The French here is a neologism that combines "salary" with "proletariat," to produce a proletariat that receives a salary.

[7] The French Communist Party.

[8] Wladyslaw Gomulka, a Polish Communist.

[9] In December 1970, shortly before this text was written, a massive anti-Communist insurrection had broken out in Poland.

[10] English in original.

[11] French anarcho-communist (1821-1864).

[12] "Sometimes, in the current prosperity of capitalist France, one wants to cry out: 'Beware! Revolution or death. . .' This does not mean, 'Let us die for the revolution,' but rather 'If you do not want to die, make the revolution, swiftly, totally.'" Henri Lefebvre, introduction to Space and Politics, (1973).

(Written by Guy Debord, 1971. Published post-humously by Gallimard, in 2004. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! March 2006. Small correction made December 2012.)

To Contact NOT BORED!