1) Intro -
"If I told you how easily it was to reach the highest high, you'd laugh and say nothing's that simple. But you've been shown many times before, Messiahs pointing towards the door, but no one had the guts to leave the temple." The Who, from Tommy
The Situationist International was founded in 1957 and broke-up in 1973. The SI developed a theory of personal and social revolutionary action that attacked the total conditions of modern life.
The SI is especially noted for having had a wide influence on the nationwide wildcat general strike that began in Paris on May 1968. The SI broke-up in the aftermath of the May 68, being unable to deal with a new period of struggle that began after that.
Within the spectacle's narrow field of vision, Situationist theory is barely visible as the enemy of "everything." It floats in that vague region slightly beyond the terrain of paid thinkers. It's role in the dynamics of changing this society is still as ambiguous as an impulse toward "love" in interpersonal relations. It can both justify mystified bourgeois, artistic, individualism and give steppingstone to revolutionaries coming to understand capitalism.
This article does not attempt a full summary of the Situationists history. Like any dialectical work, we idealize Situationist theory into a historical tendency and discuss how other tendencies intersect and go beyond it. The SI was closest to these idealized positions after 1963, when it explicitly broke from any positive artistic projects. The "political" SI is best known in English from the Situationist Anthology. By the same token, we will not apriori judge the SI by the many ridiculous characters who have been attracted to Situationist theory.
For us, the SI's concrete weaknesses come most into focus in its relationship to theories of self-management. While some of their writings certainly goes beyond the self-management ideology, they were not able to reject self-management in the practical struggles of their time. Moreover, they were unable to theorize the conditions of certain sort of subjectivist ideology that was and is generated by this society.
The SI's theories came out of a combination of artistic groups which were attempting to extend the force of art beyond surrealism to encompass all life and of marxist/trotskyist groups which were trying to go beyond Bolshevism.
The SI's economic theories came out of a wing of councilism, "Socialism or Barbarism," (S ou B in french). S ou B had entirely rejected the Bolshevik counterrevolution in Russia. But like other reactions to Bolshevism, S ou B tended to mythologize the dictatorial mania of the Bolsheviks. They saw authoritarianism as the active creator of the soviet state-capitalist regime rather than seeing an entire historic dynamic that involved backwardness, managerialism and lack of intention to abolish the world market. S ou B extended this theory to a formulation that the capitalist duality of worker/owner had been superseded by the bureaucratic duality order-giver/order-taker.
The SI's artistic theories were taken from the Letrist international, who developed the idea that the unproductive members of society, "the drones," were the most oppressed sector of society.
To achieve the program of these groups, the S.I. translated the contradictions of the capitalist system into various different structural contradictions. At various times, they described capital's contradictions as the contradiction between the fragmented and the total, between the subjective and the objective and the active and the passive.
In these conceptions the SI was similar to "western Marxism." What set the SI apart was its praxis of refusing to compromised with any part of this system.
"The spectacle is the technical realization of the exile of human power into a beyond; it is separation perfected within the interior of man." Society Of The Spectacle thesis 20.
The SI sometimes characterized the ruling system, "the spectacle," as the system of separations. As the market expands, it needs to sell more commodities. To sell the commodities., a capitalist has to make people not just want the commodity but need the commodity. By fragmenting more areas of previously undifferentiated social life into quantifiable units, the capitalists forced atomized workers to meet their needs externally rather than through community - direct non-market relations.
Alienation/separation could/can be seen equally in the order of factories, malls, universities or leftist meetings.
The SI thus wound-up seeing the contradictions within capital as being contradictions within any system of generalized separation
Before "canned" (prerecorded) music, people would sing together without any market exchange. There were still highly skilled musicians who people went to see but people still had the ability create their own music. Recorded music substituted a commodity for people's tendency to create their own music. Once recorded music became established, most people forgot or never learned how to carry a tune or play an instrument. Music on Records, tapes, and CDs is commodity needed to make life tolerable. In this same way, the specialist musician gained a monopoly on the production of music.
The view of the market is that the appeal of things like prerecorded music comes from their convenience. But in fact, the appeal is also based on the destruction of community. Everyone is short of time and there is collective process to think about the ultimate implications of each person's individual decisions. From this view, the markets don't grow in size but simply carve up the time people to spend their daily life.
4) Specialization/Pseudo opposition
The S.I. also described capital as a system of specialization; as the reign of specialists. This system's vast variety of apparently opposed powers unified in administrating a system of separations. Each power represents one type of specialized control.
"[The western and eastern blocs of capital] are not preparing for war but for an infinite preservation of this balance [of nuclear deterrence], which is in the image of the internal stabilization of their power."
The Russian revolution was a pivitol point for this process. Here, the representatives of the working class created a bureaucracy that ruled in the name of the working class but reproduced the conditions of capitalist society.
The reign of the specialist was perfected when every possible representation of change was administered...................
5) Enriched survival
The SI continued Marx's critique of political economy by stating that this society still reduced the wage of a worker to survival. But survival that became enriched survival. No matter how wealthy the worker becomes, the commodities they buy only give survival on the social level.
"The success of the economic system of separation is the proletarianization of the world." Society Of The Spectacle, Thesis 26.
Behind the entire praxis of the SI was the understanding that the movement for communism had been defeated but that this simply changed the conditions of struggle for communism. This Society was still capitalist and it still contained the germs of it's own negation.
Community and proletarian struggles always exists potentially but their possible forms change as capital develops. As daily life becomes more and more impoverished, people must challenge either the entire order or nothing. As capital tries to manage and control more and more parts of life that previously been generated by a community, communist struggles become more and more focused against this representation.
Authentic communist struggles previously took the form of an organized working class movements; unions, councils, parties etc. In fully developed capital, it has mainly taken the form of an atomized resistance to the order of daily life and a vague awareness that occasionally bubbles into massive rebellions. The Paris May 68 wildcat general strike was the quintessential Situationist event in that it's explicit program was essentially rejecting the rhythm of this entire society.
7) Knowing they were suspended between possibilities
The S.I.'s organizational principals were created to fight on the ambiguous ground that capital's expanding control created.
Within academia (or any realm of the spectacular elite), anything could (and still can) be considered but there is no way to actually live ideas - so even critical ideas could coexist with the most ridiculous garbage (and still do).
The SI dealt with this by saying that their theory and their practice were inseparable. The SI's "practice of refusal" was designed as a counter strategy to the specialist's method of trapping an idea within a vacuous dialogue. The organizational principal's of the SI demanded that members not be specialists of any sort. They were not to be stars, artists or leaders.
S.I. members were expected to reject work, "sexual repression," stars, specialized careers, and consumerism.
This practical refusal of the order of this society allowed Situationist theory move beyond the traps of academicism, pure revolutionary militance and spectacular stars.
Revolutionaries were expected to act in purely non-alienated, subjective manner to oppose the mechanistic, rationalistic order of the present.
"..the revolutionary organization must learn that it can no longer combat alienation with alienated means." - This was a central tenant of the S.I.. The statement contains many of their theory's strengths and weaknesses.
The S.I. saw unionists, Communist Party bureaucrats, and journalist are being part of this system by seeing that they reproduced its alienated order. The SI welcomed attacks on cars, journalists, and unionists during strikes because it showed an unconscious attack on the total conditions of life, an attack which they wished to a give voice to.
As a counterstrategy to the advancing control of this society, the SI formulated and used the critical concepts of subjectivity, detournement, ideology, recuperation, spectacle, specialist, etc. not simply as descriptions of the economy's domination of social life but as strategic tools for attacking both this domination and the economy itself (our definitions of each of these in the Glossary Of Terms is derived from the SI).
The idea of Subjectivity could counterattack to the entire calculated, specialized, "objective" order of life under managed capital. The counter part to bureaucratic capital's buildup of objective wealth is the subjective poverty of modern life.
Bureaucratic capital calculates the entire objective order of life to minimally satisfy all calculable needs. Not only are human beings given food, clothing and shelter but they get calculated does of entertainment (TV), choice (elections), self-understanding (psychiatrists) and so on. But the real living is outside of these things. Thus capital creates more of a subjective feeling of total oppression as it perfect it's objective
The SI saw a realm of the subjective that would appear and stand head to head against the objective order.
Recuperation allows a revolutionary to see the continued misery of capitalist society as a battle for social terrain. What masquerades as boredom is really defeat. Seeing the unity of capitalist culture allows rebels to attack it in it's entirety.
The SI realized that capitalist society constantly expands the area it controls. Any potentially revolutionary action has to be understood in light of this expanding framework. The mistakes of movements twenty or fifty years earlier had become incorporated into the methodology of capital in 1957 or later; Youth rebellion was sold in a prepackaged form by record marketers beginning in the fifties. The Communist Party had made an industry of out taking control of and destroying revolutions in every part of the globe. Unions, whether a revolutionary force or not, had once been produced by mainly by the struggles of the working class. By the fifties, unions in France (and America) were bureaucratic organizations tied to the state. The eight-hour day had been granted to make people work harder during those eight hours and to create managed leisure time for workers to consume all the goods that capitalism produced. (It now has been effectively abandoned in the US with three-job families and forced overtime but with the workday still kept at a high intensity.)
12) Limited Structuralism - overview
The SI's main strength was applying the abstract categories of political economy to particular structures that were dominant at their time; bureaucratic capitalism, managed leisure, enriched survival, the cold war. The SI's weaknesses came as they took their structural interpretations of capitalist societies to be its fundamental characteristics. Thus they believed that to destroy this society, it was sufficient to end this alienated activity.
The Situationist emphasis on subjectivity and it's emphasis capital as bureaucracy were conjugate weaknesses. If you see capital as a machine, on some levels, pure anti-mechanical activity will be seen as an autonomous positive force.
SI viewed boredom or passivity or bureaucracy or hierarchy as the forces that controlled people. "Boredom is counter revolutionary." Thus they could see certain animal forces, true pleasure or generalized self-management that would cause people to act in a communist way without being conscious about it.
13) The wage-labor relationship
The Situationists formulated their theories within the affluent society. During the 1950s and 60s, it seemed that capital had controlled it's tendency towards economy crisis using Keynianism inspire government interventions. The economies of almost all nations experience steady growth throughout that entire period. The economy was nothing but a vast feedback system that could be controlled as easily as a rocket going to the moon.
The economy was thus merely an instance of a total system of control or separation Vaneigem defines ownership as a variety of power in Basic Banalities #5, p.91 Situationist Anthology. SI as a whole groped for a definition of political economy in terms of a set power structure. The SI, like managerialist theorists of their time, saw the progress of capital as the reduction of life to a machine like order.
But actually, while any fixed command structures exists potentially within capitalist relations, the relationship of wage labor goes beyond any structurally definable power relationship.
Wage labor is a dialectal relationship. Wage labor as a social relation constrains the theoretically unlimited power of a human activity within a generally small area, but an area whose exact size and structure is never exactly fixed.
What makes this society capitalist is both single moments, single inputs and the goals, processes and results of those single moments. There's more to capitalism than a pure, subjective moment or a black-box input-output effect. It is possible to have pleasure in a purely capitalist way. It is possible to enjoy your job under wage labor. It is isn't common and it still maintain the entire system. The system itself may be miserable and murderous but we cannot be simply against misery.
When a capitalist buys the labor power of a worker, any form of human creativity can now confront other workers as a apparently separate, alien object. This give modern society its tremendous, (usually empty), variety.
14) Partial Truth Of Recuperation
The power of abstract exchange also gives capital a wide spectrum of tactics that can used against the proletariat. Capital generates a vast array of consumer goods as well as alternative products, naturalist ideologies, and opportunities for pseudo-participation. Capital can even balance more self-management or "authenticity" or "self-realization" or community within its total accounting in a crisis situation,
The SI understood capital's flexibility as its ability to recuperate. But since described this system as the spectacle, the sum of mechanical separations., they believed that it's ability to recuperate was limited.
To them, structurally authentic relations could not be recuperated because they were opposed to a machinelike quality. If boredom is counterrevolutionary, fun (pure subjectivity) must be revolutionary.
The SI's structuralism was often right in describing the general direction of capitalist management. Usually work is a relationship between order givers and order takers. But not always. Usually it is boring. But not always. People acting autonomously makes the normal order of life impossible to maintain. But it does not automatically create a new situation.
It is historical change where a purely structuralist analysis fails. People do not passively react only to the inputs of the structures. They also react to possibilities that open up and circumstances that change.
The SI structurally mythologized both the past they described. Also in Basic Banalities (p.90 Situationist Anthology), Vaneigem describes ownership in terms of spreading subjectivity. This sort of approach, which sees capitalist relations as spreading as a structure gradually reinforced itself, does not take into the account the pivot points of power.
Ownership and exchange have always existed at the least on the outskirts of human society. Civilization became capitalist when exchange became the dominant relationship but this domination didn't happen when it controlled many people's lives directly but when it became dominant within power's center of gravity. As Emmanual Wallerstein points out, capital did not spread from village to village but from trading center to trading center and only latter from the center to the periphery. Most of population of France was still peasants at the start of the French Revolution but autonomous surplus value had already gain enough potential power to rule for itself.
The SI equally mythologized the democratic future they looked towards. The point where the structuralist analysis of capital falls down is in describing what forces can destroy the entire order of capital. The only counter force to capitalist relations is a total, conscious of organization of society - Communism. Communism does not necessarily have exactly definable structures. Workers councils might not be communist and communist organizations might not use workers councils.
Communist organization demands absolute power - this is the suppression of the economy and all ideological power that derives from and maintains the economy. Communists must do more than understand that capital is flexible. They must understand that a conscious organization of needs to act to immediately suppress the most powerful forces of its enemies - which is the same as maximizing it's own force.
The SI's structuralism made it see communism as an extension of pure subjectivity - equalitatarian management systems extended to all parts of society and social life - "generalized self-management." During May 68, the SI specifically assumed that the force that would automatically sweep capital aside was an alternative method of decision making. "All Power To The Workers Councils" was the first slogan of the Situationist-influenced Council To Maintain The Occupations' (CMDO's) Slogans To Be Spread By Every Means. People "creating their own lives" was an all encompassing force that snowballed to engulf all of France in a general strike. But this tendency did not take the initiative to destroy it's enemies and constitute its own power. "Crush The Power Of The Unions" never appeared in the CMDO although the Situationists knew full well that the union stewards were strangling the strikes by confining them to each workplace. Thus the SI ignored communism as a critical power for itself.
We are not trying to "second guess" the SI during the occupations. It is quite likely that the weaknesses of the CMDO were the weaknesses of the entire occupation movement. Rene Riesel was elected to the occupation of the Sorbonne with the sincere promise to defend "direct democracy in the Sorbonne." If the CMDO had attacked or called on the workers to attack the union cops at the factory gates, the result might would likely have been the same or worse. Communists reason forward from the basis of a critique of political economy under capital. They reason backwards from the conditions of communist society and they attack the conditions of a transition period by always moving towards a qualitative extension of the struggle. As Kropotkin said to Nestor Makhno, the slogan of our activity must be "Audacity, Audacity, Audacity." By these criterion, the Situationists did excellent work in May 68.
What we can most absolutely reproach the SI for not seeing this weakness in their later discussions. Enragés and Situationists in the Occupation Movement sees the strength of the spontaneous rejection of all parts of this society but does not see weakness of the self-management-ism, democratism, subjectivism, and so-on of the movement's radical edge. It mentions weakness in the movement, but only a sort of quantitative weakness. There was not enough self-management; workers did not get the train moving again, did not distribute goods autonomously, etc.. There was not enough good theory although the CMDO posters were everywhere.
"All Power To The Workers Councils" is the ultimate expression of councilist/democratic ideology. If the mass are acting in an active communist manner, they quite likely would be using some democratic councils to decide their course. But to allot all power to the councils when the majority is passive is simply giving the only legitimate power to the passivity of those who have yet to act.
The initial revolutionary step of May 68 were taken by various minorities taking unilateral actions; individual disruptions classes, declassé elements fighting the police in the Latin Quarter or workers in one factory or another going on wildcat strike. If minorities taking audacious action were sufficient to sink the normal routine of the university, why couldn't they do the same against the union cops who held the factory gates? These extremist elements, Enragés, Situationists, worker-student actions committee, lost when they give over their initiative to the reified myth of total direct democracy.
For communists, proletariat must go from reacting to the present society to it constituting a power in itself. Whatever the size of the communist nucleus, its general task is to increase it's power and extent, with a focus on weakening and destroying the remaining capitalist powers. Getting the trains going again is secondary to these goals.
16) The explosion point after May 68.
After May 68, Situationist-influenced groups appeared in scattered locations around the world and ended in a few years from orgies of intense subjectivist criticism/self-criticism.
The weaknesses of the SI became most glaring in their effort to adapt to new circumstances of vague revolutionary ferment and spectacular interest in their activities. In response to the new circumstances, rather than modify their dualistic theory of control/subjectivity, the major SI theorist intensified the focus of their theory.
The Real Split In The International (by Debord and Sanguinetti) illustrates the SI's escalating demands for subjectivity. The SI is expected to break up in order to "appear everywhere." But to overcome the SI historical impasse, new revolutionaries must achieve a theory can "be fired pointblank" at their enemies. This was simply a call for an explosion point of subjectivist ideology.
The SI's intensified subjectivism had as it's counterpart a rigidified idea of practice. Dualism closed the door to ever going beyond the Situationist previous assault on the spectacle. To criticize or rearrange the direct relationship between subjectivity and theoretical clarity would damage the reputation of the Situationist May 68 assault on capital.
Since the SI couldn't go forwards in looking the events, it went backwards. Once the spectacle had been torn, the "old workers movement" was expected to reconstitute itself along with councils to defend against Bolshevik manipulators.
"When the workers are able to assemble freely and without mediations to discuss their real problems, the state begins to dissolve." (The Real Split', p.33, quoted by Barrot).
Thus The Real Split' engages in shameless workerism. It claims that absolutely only those cadre thrown out of the university were capable of revolutionary positions (The SI itself had few, if any, members in the factories.)
On the other hand, only the cadre (professional class) would take a autonomous theoretical practice similar to the SI. These "pro-Situationist" were described as now the most immediate enemy.
The "pro-Situationist" groups were only able to become parodied versions of the SI for the same reason the SI was not able to overcome its theory.
Jean Baudrillard and the present day anti-civilization line use this intensification of moral radicalism as their main weapon. It takes a Situationist style bend in it's reasoning and goes from the insight that primitive people lived well to saying that the subjective effects of modern society - technology etc., can be rejected in a subjective revolutionary leap.
17) Their Use
The Situationist myth of heroic subjectivism and related ideologies (which can't be wholly separate from the SI's practice) are the single biggest obstacle a revolutionary might inherit from the SI. Once rejected, the particulars of Situationist theory are free for looting by revolutionary theorists.
To critique this society's structures is quite useful during a period of stasis - when this society is not changing - square zero of revolution. But this is also the period when revolutionaries proportionately have little influence. The most important period for revolutionaries is the dynamic period - square one, two and three of the social struggle. This is where structuralist critiques fall down.
The critique of democracy we engage in, for example, is also a structuralist critique. But our critique makes democracy's foundation upon wage clear.
The SI tactics and observations are useful to revolutionaries. They are most useful as approximations to the conditions of the society. The spectacle may be a useful word but cannot be theorized as having an autonomous dynamic.
ASAN, Wildcat and other "antidemocratic communists" may describe democracy as if in has a trajectory separate from capitalism as a whole. But this only a simplification; capital has a whole is the process and democracy is only subprocess that can only be partially independent. Capital is not influence by democracy - rather democracy is a part of capital.
The SI's tactics also are useful but cannot be taken as magic. Like the SI, ASAN attempt address this society as close to "pointblank" as possible. Unlike the SI, ASAN does not expect this distance to linearly decrease in proportion to our theoretical development.
Revolutionaries must also make communism's relation to the material basis of capitalism clear. This involves debates along these particular line. The SI's reduction of capital's dynamics to the dynamics of its appearances makes this sort of debate impossible. Keeping alive a discussion of political economy is also critical for understanding the whole dynamic of this society.
18) Not a new point
A morality of the subjectivism became the last remnant of pure Situationist theory. It was at the heart of the self-extinguishing attempts to "go beyond the SI" made by the SI and it's imitator.
To go against this malign attitude, we mention that Jean Barrot's Critique Of The SI is excellent. The present critique was not modeled on Barrot's piece but we agree with his basic points. The critique of subjectivism offered by the post-SI journal Implications is excellent although the journal as a whole remains on within a hierarchy of subjectivist/autonomist prestige inherited from the SI.
(grammatical and spelling errors corrected 9/4/03)