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From the commodity to the spectacle: Debord’s Marx (Russell, 2019)

Guy Debord with knife

by Eric-John Russell, Capitalism: Concept, Idea, Image eds. Osborne, Alliez, Russel (2019)

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Published a century after Marx’s Capital, Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle was described upon its release as ‘the Capital of the new generation’ (Le Nouvel Observateur). However, the book’s content has almost never been seriously examined alongside the dialectical logic of the social forms of value systematically ordered within Marx’s Capital. Despite Debord’s description of the modern spectacle as a development of the commodity-capitalist economy, discussions on Debord’s debt to Marx customarily emphasize those early writings in which Marx enunciates the critique of alienation without having yet traversed the works of classical political economy. And for good reason, as his archival notes can verify. A preliminary glance at The Society of the Spectacle elicits the impression that the ‘ruthless criticism of all that exists’ first enunciated by Marx in his early twenties continued to reverberate a century later. The book resounds with both implicit and explicit reference to the phenomenon of social alienation or estrangement described by Marx in the 1844 Manuscripts. READ PDF

A Sick Planet (Debord, 1971)

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Written by Guy Debord in 1971, this text was intended for publication in Internationale Situationniste 13, which never appeared. It was first published in the French edition of the present collection in 2004. It may also be found in Guy Debord, Oeuvres (Paris: Gallimard, 2006, pp. 1063-9). Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith, published in English, 2008. PDF

‘POLLUTION’ IS IN FASHION TODAY, exactly in the same way as revolution: it dominates the whole life of society, and it is represented in illusory form in the spectacle. It is the subject of mind-numbing chatter in a plethora of erroneous and mystifying writing and speech, yet it really does have everyone by the throat. It is on display everywhere as ideology, yet it is continually gaining ground as a material development. Two antagonistic tendencies, progression towards the highest form of commodity production and the project of its total negation, equally rich in contradictions within themselves, grow ever stronger in parallel with one other. Here are the two sides whereby a sole historical moment, long awaited and often described in advance in partial and inadequate terms, is made manifest: the moment when it becomes impossible for capitalism to carry on working.

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Basic Banalities (Vaneigem, 1962)

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Basic Banalities

Raoul Vaneigem

Internationale Situationniste #7 (April 1962)

Translated by Ken Knabb

1

BUREAUCRATIC CAPITALISM has found its legitimation in Marx. I am not referring here to orthodox Marxism’s dubious merit of having reinforced the neocapitalist structures whose present reorganization is an implicit homage to Soviet totalitarianism; I am stressing the extent to which crude versions of Marx’s most profound analyses of alienation have become generally recognized in the most commonplace realities — realities which, stripped of their magical veil and materialized in each gesture, have become the sole substance of the daily lives of an increasing number of people. In a word, bureaucratic capitalism contains the tangible reality of alienation; it has brought it home to everybody far more successfully than Marx could ever have hoped to do, it has banalized it as the reduction of material poverty has been accompanied by a spreading mediocrity of existence. As poverty has been reduced in terms of survival, it has become more profound in terms of our way of life — this is at least one widespread feeling that exonerates Marx from all the interpretations a degenerate Bolshevism has made of him. The “theory” of peaceful coexistence has accelerated this awareness and revealed, to those who were still confused, that exploiters can get along quite well with each other despite their spectacular divergences.

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The Right to be Greedy: Theses On The Practical Necessity Of Demanding Everything (For Ourselves, 1974)

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For Ourselves (1974)

The positive conception of egoism, the perspective of communist egoism, is the very heart and unity of our theoretical and practical coherence.

This perspective is the essence of what separates us from both the left and the right. We cannot allow its fundamental importance to be obscured, or ourselves to be mistaken for either the right or the left. We cannot allow any Leninist organization to get away with claiming that it is only ‘a little bit pregnant’ with state capitalism.

INTRODUCTION

1

Greed in its fullest sense is the only possible basis of communist society.

2

The present forms of greed lose out, in the end, because they turn out to be not greedy enough.

3

The repression of egoism can never totally succeed, except as the destruction of human subjectivity, the extinction of the human species itself, because egoism is an essential moment of human subjectivity. Its repression simply means that it returns in a hidden, duplicitous form. If it cannot show itself in the open market, it will find itself or create for itself a black market. If it is not tolerated in transparent n1 relations, the repressed self will split in two; into a represented self, a personal organization of appearances, a persona, and that which cringes and plots behind this character-armour n2. The repression of egoism, contrary to the dictates of every one of the so-called “Communists” (in opposition to Marx and Engels), from Lenin right down to Mao, can never be the basis of communist society.

Moreover, the repressive conception of “communism” misses precisely the whole point. It misses out on the validity of the egoistic moment. This is true even in the inverted form in which it emerges from an immanent critique of altruistic ideology: if I die, the world dies for me. Without life, I cannot love another. However, what it misses in “theory” – i.e., in its ideological representations – it nonetheless preserves in practice, and precisely with the help of that very ideology: its real basis is the egoism of the state-capitalist bureaucracy. This ideology of self-sacrifice serves admirably the task of extracting surplus-labour from the proletariat.
The actual negation of narrow egoism is a matter of transcendance (“aufhebung” n3), of the transition from a narrow to a qualitatively expanded form of egoism. The original self-expansion of egoism was identically the demise of the primitive community. But its further self-expansion will resolve itself into a community once again. It is only when greed itself at last (or rather, once again) beckons in the direction of community that that direction will be taken. Here the ancient Christian truth that no earthly force can withstand human greed rejoins us on our side of the barricades.

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The Use of Bodies, Prologue (Agamben)

1. It is curious how in Guy Debord a lucid awareness of the insufficiency of private life was accompanied by a more or less conscious conviction that there was, in his own existence or in that of his friends, something unique and exemplary, which demanded to be recorded and communicated. Already in Critique de la séparation, he thus evokes at a certain point as intransmissible “cette clandestinité de la vie privée sur laquelle on ne possède jamais que des documents dérisoires” (“that clandestinity of private life regarding which we possess nothing but pitiful documents”; Debord 1, p. 49/33); and nevertheless, in his first films and again in Panégyrique, he never stopped parading one after the other the faces of his friends, of Asger Jorn, of Maurice Wyckaert, of Ivan Chtcheglov, and his own face, alongside that of the women he loved. And not only that, but in Panégyrique there also appear the houses he inhabited, 28 via delle Caldaie in Florence, the country house at Champot, the square des Missions étrangères at Paris (actually 109 rue du Bac, his final Parisian address, in the drawing room of which a photograph from 1984 shows him seated on the English leather sofa that he seemed to like).

Here there is something like a central contradiction, which the Situationists never succeeded in working out, and at the same time something precious that demands to be taken up again and developed—perhaps the obscure, unavowed awareness that the genuinely political element consists precisely in this incommunicable, almost ridiculous clandestinity of private life. Since clearly it—the clandestine, our form-of-life—is so intimate and close at hand, if we attempt to grasp it, only impenetrable, tedious everydayness is left in our hands. And nonetheless, perhaps precisely this homonymous, promiscuous, shadowy presence preserves the stowaway of the political, the other face of the arcanum imperii, on which every biography and every revolution makes shipwreck. And Guy, who was so shrewd and cunning when he had to analyze and describe the alienated forms of existence in the society of the spectacle, is equally innocent and helpless when he tries to communicate the form of his life, to look in the face and dissolve the stowaway with which he had shared his journey up to the end.

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We Gotta Get Out of This Place: Anselm Jappe

Anselm Jappe was born in Bonn, Germany, in 1962. Now based in France, he is the author of several major works of critical theory and analysis in German, French, and Italian, with many translations of his works appearing in other languages, including English, Spanish, and Portuguese. He currently lectures at the Collège International de Philosophie in Paris and the Accademia di Belle Arti di Sassari in Sardinia. Alastair Hemmens interviewed him for Field Notes in August.

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Rail (Alastair Hemmens): Let’s start by talking a bit about your intellectual development as a critical theorist. Could you say something about the historical and intellectual context in which your approach to critical theory first developed? Can you pinpoint any particular personal experiences that originally drove you towards the radical critique of capitalism?

Jappe: One of the strongest expressions of the vision of the world shared by many young people in the Seventies is Patti Smith singing “Outside of Society / That’s where I wanna be” (“Rock ’n’ Roll Nigger,” 1978). It is also one of the best summaries of the change that has occurred since then. Today, there’s lots of talk about “exclusion” from society, about “marginalization,” about the necessity of “including” all kinds of people in society. To be “outside of society” is now thought of as the worst thing that could possibly happen to you. This is not surprising, given that today the greatest threat that capitalist society poses to every one of us is that we are virtually superfluous and might easily become factually so. But in my adolescence, which took place in the latter half of the 1970s in the German city of Cologne, the echoes of the ’68 rebellion were still quite strong, even among very young people. And the very last thing that I and other unruly young people like myself wanted was to “integrate” ourselves into a society which seemed contemptible to us.

School and family, work and the state, bourgeois culture and traditional morality, everything seemed to want to “get us” and force us to “adapt.” For me, as for some others, it became the challenge of our lives to refuse to “adapt.” Naturally, that turned out to be much more difficult than we believed; but I dare say that I have tried at least to stay faithful to the spirit of my early youth, in two senses: First, in the attempt to understand and criticize capitalist society essentially through reading and discussion—let’s call it the political side of rebellion, which comes from the “head.” Secondly, in the refusal of the forms of life that the authorities imposed on us—that was the “existential” side of the rebellion, which comes from the “gut.” To me, it was a clear choice: neither sacrificial militancy, nor “love, peace and happiness” (nor “sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll”, which is another version). Rather, to quote another song: “We gotta get out of this place” (Eric Burdon, 1965). So I chose Saint-Just and Bakunin for models. A little later on I started to read Marx, Marcuse, and Adorno, but I was also attracted to what was then called the “counterculture,” especially in its hippie form. I took part in a number of “collectives,” as they were called then, from opposition to authoritarian school measures to the anti-nuclear movement. When I was fifteen, a special teachers’ meeting was held to discuss whether I should be expelled from high school as punishment for my articles in the student newspaper. I wasn’t expelled, but it was a very close call.

My intellectual choices essentially served to deepen my rebellious spirit. I get the impression that this is much less common these days. Today, for certain people, a critical understanding of capitalist society goes hand in hand with a quiet university career (or the attempt at one) and does not appear to entail a rejection of bourgeois life and integration into society. On the other hand, “existential” refusal of bourgeois life today is often inarticulate and easily becomes a sort of alternative lifestyle choice, which can be recuperated into the logic of the commodity; the other possibility is that it leads to total self-ghettoization. There is a lot of discontent today but it is nearly always directed at some specific issue, from ecological disaster to racism, and very rarely at the totality of capitalist society. Postmodernism has profoundly reshaped even the antagonistic spirit.

So, I grew up with the myth of the French Revolution, and in 1974 – 75 (when I was only twelve years old) I thought that the Portuguese revolution was repeating it. You might laugh at my naïveté, but I prefer it to the attitude of those who, already in their teens, were preparing to “lose their life by earning it,” as we say in French. I was always somewhere between anarchism and heterodox Marxism, and never had any sympathy for Stalinist, Maoist, Leninist ,or any other authoritarian conception of revolution. Very early, I also became aware of the dark side of technological progress—a new theme back then—and I read authors like Ivan Illich and Régine Pernoud. But I had no ideological blinkers: I also read Nietzsche with great emotion.

Rail: In the English-speaking world, you are still best known for your work on Guy Debord and the Situationist International (SI). I would even say that your Guy Debord (1993) is still, more than twenty years on, considered to be the work on the subject. How did you first discover Debord? What effect, if any, has he had on your critical thinking? And why do you think your approach to his work still resonates so strongly?

Jappe: I got to know the Situationists in the context I’ve just described. A friend of mine, who was some years older and a kind of mentor to me, was one of the very few people at that time in Germany who knew about the Situationists. But I not only found their ideas quite hard to understand, they also really shocked me: they were directed against all of the radical left militantism that I was so close to (even though I was suspicious of it, but it seemed impossible to have any other kind of collective action). On the one hand, I felt that they struck at some of my innermost convictions; on the other, I was also fascinated by something much more profound, radical and, at the same time, poetical than the leaflets that the political groups around me distributed, which normally adopted a very moralizing tone. I was also very much seduced by the call for a revolution of everyday life. But it was only some years later that I read the work of Debord and the other Situationists systematically. Because I chose the Situationists as the subject of my Master’s degree, I was able to dedicate a lot of time to reading them. By that time I had moved to Italy and I studied philosophy in Rome. I did a Master’s degree under Mario Perniola, a professor of aesthetics who had known Debord and the Situationists personally and had been close to them around 1968. Officially, however, the SI did not exist in the academic world, or in the media. (It’s not right to complain about this: their strategy of resisting institutional and spectacular recuperation had worked quite well up until that point.) When Perniola suggested that I publish a part of my doctoral dissertation as a monograph about Debord, it turned out to be the first one dedicated to him.

If this book has been translated into five or six languages, and if it is still read today, even after the “discovery” of Debord, after his death in 1994, by a broad public and the consequential stream of publications about him, this might be due to the fact that I tried to stress his importance as a radical critic of capitalist society, both in theory and in praxis, as well as somebody who had succeeded in living as he wanted to live: outside of the spectacle. Most of the publications that came afterwards have emphasized—too much, I think—the aesthetic side of his activity, or his biography, or reduced his social critique to just a form of media theory. As such, they contribute, willingly or otherwise, to the incorporation of Debord into the postmodern culture industry.

But I did not want to foster the creation of a legend, nor did I want to become a “specialist.” Indeed, I continue to refer very much to his ideas, but I am also searching for the possibility of further developing a critique of the totality of the capitalist system. So, I cannot sympathize with those who develop “psychogeographical” mobile phone apps or other things like that! Nor with academics who praise Debord as a “prophet of the media age,” which ignores the fact that he articulated a merciless critique of all “permitted” forms of life, including nearly all forms of contestation—especially art! This “bitter victory of Situationism” was probably inevitable. It is all the more remarkable that the core of Debord’s analysis of the spectacle still stands as a landmark of critical social thought and that it can still be an important source of inspiration. Equally, his life and attitude can still be inspiring—and there are not very many figures of the 20th century about whom this might be said!

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A Small Guide To The System of the Left in Germany

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(communists in situ – berlin faction hereby presents a translation of “System der Linke: Kleine Einführung” from Die Axt #4, Organ of Social Decomposition , by the Office of Mental Rampage)

 

I.

Leninists: see Stalinists

Stalinists: Authoritarian scumbags; by socialism, they understand the police state; claim to introduce freedom by means of the whip; weak philosophers, bad aesthetes, big tendency for sectarianism.

Trotskyists: Stalinists who lost the power struggle for the Kremlin after Lenin’s death. Even bigger tendency for sectarianism.

Maoists: Stalinists who took over the Chinese imperial throne.

Anarchists: 1) Petty-bourgeois nonsense from Proudhon to the Ego and its Own. 2) Current of anti-authoritarian socialism; provided some of the best class-strugglers of their time. Representatives: Bakunin, Kropotkin, Goldman, Durruti. Parties: Jura section, FAI.

II.

 

68ers: The so-called 68ers are not at all what’s interesting about what happened around 1968. Although at that time they weren’t identical with what became of them, others were still smarter and more interesting than they, including Subversive Action, French workers, Yippies, Zengakuren, et al. German Parties: University, Student Councils, SDS, then KPD-XY, later the Greens and the Federal Army.

Situationists: Screw together Dutch-German council communism with Lettrism (a kind of French Dada) and Hegelian-Marxism and go beyond all, i.e., to outline a critique of the totality of the commodity-economy and late-capitalist daily life, and explore some ways to dissolve it. Overestimated their times, but made a fucking big party in May 68 in Paris, then drank a nightcap in Italy and Spain. Party: Guy Debord.

Terrorists: Nechayevistic comrades who cause and suffer indescribable, but quite unnecessary aggravation. Parties: RAF, June 2nd Movement, Conspiracy Cells of Fire

 

 III.

 

Undogmatic Left: Doesn’t exist in Germany; here each leftist and each sect has at least one dogma; after a short discussion, it’s clear that this is their identity, criticism of which is hence undesirable.

Antifa: Clubs of mostly young people who reject society but are still a bit unclear about why; that’s why they try to hoist their social criticism onto the nastiness of neo-Nazis. Leading the young comrades are at least two or three older people who refuse to grow up because they are too stupid to read intelligent books.

Ums-Ganze: Opportunistic bunch of older anti-fascists who, despite recognizing that anti-fascism is not enough for the “categorical critique of the capitalist socialization of value,” nonetheless still shy away from filling in the content of such phrases, i.e. to work towards a consistent critique of capitalist totality. “Theory” in general stands fairly indifferent as to its unification, since it’s not about knowledge for them, but rather about keywords for their “praxis.” They don’t want to let go of the occupational therapy learned in antifa (demos, campaigns, left coalitions, podium discussions), but of course in private they know it’s pointless, that’s why they don’t perceive theses things politically, but rather as “social events.”

Anti-imps: Leftists who’d rather talk about peoples and cultures than classes. Obsessively passionate about reproaching the Jewish state for its crimes (of which it certainly often exaggerates); no inclination for a materialist critique of the state. Have sympathies for even the most heinous dictatorships, as long as they are against “foreign domination.” Parties: RAF from 1972, Baath, Hezbollah.

Anti-Germans: Mostly responsible for making some leftists read Adorno again. For about ten years now though they’re not so different from their main enemies, the Anti-imps, even if they just adore the states that the Anti-imps most abhor. They don’t behave as social critics, but rather government advisors; geostrategy instead of social criticism. Only the early texts up to 2003 are of interest. Parties: Bahamas, DIG

Anti-German Communists: Anti-German comrades that remain communists. Try to move the reflection on Auschwitz into the center of Marxism. Party: ISF

Pomos / Poststructuralists: Want to abolish truth and objectivity; these poor devils cannot understand that truth is objective and not merely plausible. For them, society is based on all-powerful “discourses,” not relations of production and (material) violence. Bad metaphysicians who deny the body. With their irrationalism, they prepare the way for the authoritarian state. Successors: FLT and CW.

Women, Lesbian, Trans*-Activists (FLT*): Substitute the main contradiction between capital and labor for the one between sexes. Love to invent new words, abbreviations and offenses. Looks at the world through a microscope. Staunchly anti-materialist; don’t get to the bottom of sexism. Respond often to real filth and problems by proposing solutions that are mostly worse than the problems themselves. Cementing victim roles, instead of revolutionizing individuals. Party: Definitionsmacht

Critical Whiteness: Something like the FLT*-activists in the realm of antiracism. Making jokes irritates them even more. Think that reality would be different if all the bad words were censored. Pronounced paranoia. Quite often further the racialization of individuals themselves.

Autonomen: Are there any left?

Marxologists: Former philosophy students, thus foolish schmucks that waste too much brain power on dividing up Marx & Engels according to the motto: propositions that we agree with come from Marx, and whatever we dislike is Engel’s fault. After a while, the knowledge margin for others is quite small. Disarm and humiliate revolutionary criticism as an academic discipline. Don’t understand that the truth of society is not a reconstruction of Marx, but its negation. Some philological diligence. Parties: New Marx Reading, MEGA.

(Anarcho)-Syndicalists: Left-radical trade unionists who see the liberation of workers in their self-exploitation. Still mentally stuck in the Spanish Civil War, but on the side of the CNT and not the FAI. Party: FAU

Cultural Left: Students who read subversive potential into culture industry products that meet their personal taste. At best, you can drink a nice beer with them.

Left-communist-Bordigists: Don’t understand the difference between the first and second world war. What does it matter whether the CDU or the NSDAP governs since it’s all merely the rule of capital and a few million dead Jews are not as important as five oppositional workers.

Anti-speciesists: Vegans who can’t see the difference between dogs and humans. Enjoy living in construction trailers under conditions that no one would wish upon dogs. No smoking or drinking, true to their motto: „Whoever insults life is dumb or bad.“

Environmentalists: Petty-bourgeois opportunists who get very upset about global warming or whaling, but don’t see that the destruction of the planet can’t be stopped by some engagement in civil society, rather only by proletarian world revolution.

History of the Situationist International

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