Sitting in a haze of exhaustion. The modern world runs on this same sleep deficit. The primary experience in this modern world is work. But work is no longer confined to the factory or the office but rather spills over everywhere. Today work is decomposed into its component parts - boredom, frenzy, effort, distraction and sloth. Even if you are unemployed, you can get much of the experience of a job just by driving through downtown, standing in a welfare line or going to the emergency ward.
Work is also intertwined with interpersonal relationships (which we “work at”), with developing contacts for real jobs combined with treating love as if it was a job, filled with bureaucracy and competition. Like any age, the present age has feelings characteristic of it - confusion, overwhelm and desperation in this case. This situation does offer us the opportunity to become more adaptable and flexible. If you could say that a modern citizen has positive attributes, adaptability would be among them. At the same time, we can see the problems that unlimited adaptation can lead to.
To understand the present era, you can ask what power do you have over a three block radius around where you live? The logic of traffic, the logic of zoning, the logic of real estate and the logic of money crowd out any influence of those who just happen to be located in the area. You may have many choices in a complex game but you are given few choices about the rules.
Discussions about “issues” today generally occupy a completely different place in people’s minds than their awareness of the conditions of their own lives. And the present world has leveraged and increased this disconnect, extending it further into our relationship with even our own bodies (when a person repeats the arguments that teachers, bosses, television or advertising want, you may even hear a particular tone of voice reflecting a characteristic tension in his or her body). Everywhere, the urge to escape exists and everywhere it is harnessed to blow the ship of capital further along its path. Every partial liberation stands as a bulwark against complete liberation from the present system.
We live in a world where each person has a vague idea of the horror of things. Most people have learned as much as they can stand and sense that the rest is even worse. So those who imagine that they can change things merely by revealing vast conspiracies are sorely mistaken – any shock quickly turns to despair.
If we are going to tie these things together, we have to operate differently than usual. Here, we must follow a spiral path in describing the overall conditions of life. We go into one topic and then jump to go to another hoping to bring the entire picture together.
Social contact is a wonderful, multifaceted thing. We are meshed in signing and signaling, in competition and cooperation, in complex and sensuous interchange. Yet the way the present world uses this complexity is by putting us in a whirlpool of the transformation of our creative power into a apparently reliable, transportable and sellable product. If there is a delusion of modern religion and ideology, it is that human beings do not need each other, that human beings are not physical, needy beings but rather abstract choosers. Our relations are mediated with words, with gestures, with text, with images and with skin. Modern capitalism rips up the context of multiple layers of communication and leaves the raw calculation, calculation which dispenses with the convenient truce within the competition - "the leader of the game becomes the leader" Vaneigem. The Internet is just the most obvious way capitalist relations put us in competition with the entire world.
Yet, it is not the capitalists themselves who achieve fluidity or even the capitalist enterprise as such. We are the ones who are forced to be flexible. Work is universal and we, the dispossessed, are its ultimate product. The condition of having nothing to sell but labor is more and more universal. Moreover, we are the ones asked to be fluid enough to solve this society's escalating crises. Yet the more easily we adapt to the crisis, the more quickly the “race to the bottom” can unfold. The accelerating crisis is the ultimate, natural expression of this. Crisis is like a boulder rolling down a hill; a lucky some are able to dodge cleverly out of the way, while the unlucky others are crushed regardless. While some of the twists and turns of this process are out of anyone's hands, others are cleverly guided by those seeking profit. One thread that runs through this magazine is to determine the mix between these two aspects of the crisis.
In the now distant 2008 Republican primary, commentators compared the candidates unfavorably to Ronald Reagan, calling them shallow and foolish. Historical amnesia now masks the empty imbecility for which Reagan was famous for while president. Conveniently, Reagan’s idiotic repetition of platitudes did not result in disasters akin those of the Bush era (or, equivalently for spectacle, the disasters of Reagan’s presidency are no longer remembered). Unfortunately for Republican electoral fortunes, the destruction of New Orleans, the invasion of Iraq and the collapse of the economy were still fresh in the popular memory in November, 2008 – though naturally barely remembered in 2010.
This is the level that news has reached. History, economics, philosophy, law or any other formerly respected profession orbits around the same whirlpool of gossip and innuendo. Against Sleep And Nightmare has been sporadically published in radical opposition to the present order: one of a very few efforts to attempt to continue the total opposition strategy articulated by the obscure (or infamous) Situationist International. One notable aspect of the present world is that its many insane “features” are bounding ahead while any ostensible opposition seems frozen in stereotypical eras of the past – stuck in the 1960s, stuck in Russia of 1917, stuck in Spain of 1936 or stuck in even hoarier eras, like Seattle 1999.
Whatever their flaws, the SI described the way the thread of earlier historical opposition could reappear in the world, as it has, not just in May 1968, but even in Argentina in 2002. However, a further crucial aspect of this world is that it is changing at a break-neck speed. Each year, the world markets crack the whip for more flexibility with lower costs while humans adapt haphazardly to the technological and environmental transformation of their lives.
If there were any sophisticated observers of the last fifty years, they would note many instructive transformations of the qualitative into the quantitative and back again. But since these transformations involve the ability of quantities of money to simulate the qualities of education, sophistication and intelligence, we would have to deduce that sophisticated observers are becoming ever less common under the present regime.
Of course, we aim for a reversal of this stream of horrors. While one might unfavorably compare modern citizens to those of previous eras, we are merely strange and awkward adapters to a nightmarish environment. We modern people think abstractly and ignorantly. It is a product of our material conditions. The dawn of civilization witnessed knowledge being transformed from oral traditions to written facts. If I or many modern students today cannot write an essay without a spell checker or balance a checkbook without a spread sheet, it is a response to a material situation akin to the change in the early reader’s use of their memory.
Thus our modern praxis, for good or ill, is flowing with the sea of information around us. Certain “Marxist scholars” might ask whether “immaterial production” is a part of the “real economy”. Present day society has answered this question by merging the two irreversibly. China’s factories are supplemented by videogame virtual “gold miners” and services outsourced to India or Jamaica. Never has the condition of the totality been a more pressing question and never have more obstacles been placed in the way of our answering that question.
We are all time-travelers. Anyone with taste will realize that the time is much too late, that the present order is rotten and has held on way beyond its expiration date. Out of this, the crucial times of youth, of being part of unique occasions, are lost very quickly today. Deadness is universal. We must be prepared for a slow slog through the present banality. And we must be prepared for the sudden transformation of life into a situation with possibilities (though not certainties). The collapse of the economy only increases this despair unless mass resistance appears.
If we take this society as a single reality arrayed in front of us, we can see that it deploys the quantitative and the qualitative very vigorously. It deploys an army of engineers accompanied by a further army of advertisers and salespeople, with the traditional army eventually following. At the same time, it degrades both quantitative and qualitative experience. The administration of George Bush showed merely crude examples of repressing science for political expediency. Far more all-encompassing are those factors which allow science, journalism or other “objective” institutions to censor themselves (these still being maintained in the more rational Obama administration). These are complex processes where experts rely on more rarefied and unreachable experts to reach their opinions. From the AIDS crisis to the destruction of the WTC, we can see large events whose even rough outline cannot believed except by blindly accepting official stories of dubious value.
This world of whirling confusion creates an odd conservatism. The residents of the modern world put in constant effort keep a mental balance within this life of unbalance. OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) and ADHD (attention deficit/hyperactive syndrome) are a dangerous whirlpool that we must now carefully steer clear of. Whether true or false, “Conspiracy theory” is a pole of obsession which psychological self-protection steers the modern citizen away from. But there is no escape in the end. Those who accept the official logic of the 911 attacks have still become as attached to a particular, unprovable position as those who choose one of the fifty-seven explanations peddled by truthout.org.
When we look at the sea of uncertainty in which a modern person must swim, the flow comes as a fusion of intentional deception and the rising complexity of social relations – both effects naturally being products of advancing capitalist society. It is crucial to have a critical perspective on what ideas are useful as opposed to which ideas are intentional or unintentional decoys.
Though at varying rates, the cells of the human body divide and replace themselves. Thus a person is composed of substantially different matter than they were composed seven years previously. Similarly, capitalist society has incorporated different cultural traditions, different religious traditions and different personal attitudes yet has remained the same beast. Even the pieces that seem constant, like religion or heterosexual monogamy, have been renewed with narratives from Eastern Religion and scientific experimentation.
We can't take a moral attitude to the conditions of culture. In today’s society, advertising and self-help are the strongest, most active elements of culture, pointing the way to defining new forms of interpersonal relations. “High culture” is merely a remnant whose secondary role became evident fifty years ago in pop art – of course, now all art is “pop art” in the sense that high art is merely “niche marketing” in the universe of marketing.
Of course, I don’t accept the world of advertising and self-help yet I know that “making best of the now” is the form which must be overcome for new social relations to create themselves. The exposition of revolutionary theory is inseparable from the revolutionists’ concept of the pace of revolution. A theory that requires long study is only applicable to a revolution that will happen over many years – such an approach might indeed have been correct in 1870 but it cannot succeed presently. “Sound bites” are inevitable in a quick revolution – our challenges will be to relate to them clearly.
The development of history hasn't been merely a sad tale of us losing quality nor the exciting tale of our gaining rational understanding. It has involved both. A workers' movement which aimed for the orderly transition of the working class to the dominant class has been destroyed with no prospect of recovery. What remains is the prospect for an explosive transition – to communism, to madness, to the end of humanity. Thus revolutionaries need to find a means to directly express their program in the most compact fashion possible.
Any particular production process, as developed by capitalism, moves from piecemeal creation to the filtering and combining of an existing stream of information (information being fundamentally the result of human labor). Revolutionary process should naturally take part in this evolution.
The system produces an ever-widening gulf between what is possible in human relations and what is realized. The Internet shows this gulf floridly. It is now clear that we aren’t limited in our ability to send information but by our inability to create a language describing the system and its negation.
The progress of the means of production under capitalism thus involves the production process becoming more dialectical. One process may supplant another. Further advances may make the original factories valuable once again. But naturally, this advance everywhere results in missed possibilities and potentials. Revolutionary theory takes part in this.
Some limits and possibilities of present-day agitation can be seen in publicists who set-off Boston’s Homeland Security alarms with neon Adult Swim ad machines. The entrepreneur and the revolutionary each would follow the spirit of the present age. The entrepreneur wishes to profit from staying safely within what is permitted. The revolutionary wishes to extend the logic of the present system beyond what it can handle. At best, each is inspired by the Taoist theme of following the energy of the present moment and expecting that eventually the energy of this society will lead to its downfall.
“Ostrinski explained the organization of the party, the machinery by which the proletariat was educating itself. There were "locals" in every big city and town, and they were being organized rapidly in the smaller places; a local had anywhere from six to a thousand members, and there were fourteen hundred of them in all, with a total of about twenty-five thousand members, who paid dues to support the organization. "Local Cook County," as the city organization was called, had eighty branch locals, and it alone was spending several thousand dollars in the campaign. It published a weekly in English, and one each in Bohemian and German; also there was a monthly published in Chicago, and a cooperative publishing house, that issued a million and a half of Socialist books and pamphlets every year. All this was the growth of the last few years – there had been almost nothing of it when Ostrinski first came to Chicago.” HYPERLINK "http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/Literature/Sinclair/"Upton Sinclair, HYPERLINK
The snow on high mountains has a complex structure. After each snowfall, the heating of the sun and cooling of the night creates a hard layer of ice on the top of the drift. This crust melts more slowly than the underlying snow. After several snowfalls, these layers accumulate. As a person walks on the snow, they break the surface. Once they break the surface, they can land on a deeper layer. They may stop here or they may break this too, with momentum and friction interacting to produce unpredictable results.
The possibilities of fundamental change today have been covered now by many layers of snow. Revolts break through one layer of repression, only to be corralled by another. The momentum of revolt may expand through several layers but then the friction coming out of the resulting confusion stops further progress.
So breaking out of the drifts is going to be an adventure. We can deduce some the boundaries that revolution faces from the very structure of society but we must discover others by trial and error. We sometimes discover the kind of force needed to break through these barriers by observing the movement of revolutionary forces.
The world ushered in by modern industry was the beginning of a reality where human activity continuously altered the very landscape that human beings tread on. The surface structure of this world has been completely transformed several times over (by trains, car, steel, television, the internet). What has sadly stayed the same is the logic of the transformation itself (well outlined by Marx) – we remain slaves to wage labor, all of our activity becomes a product to be reshaped by the marketplace. And naturally this means a world transformed into an alien object.
In our circle of revolutionaries, we are sometimes as described as “Marxists”, sometimes as “Left-Communists” and sometimes as “Situationists”. In this circle, there is a tension between liking the Situationists and emphasizing the weaknesses of the groups inspired by them (a faith in democracy, a centering on the art world, councils and a tenuous critique of self-management). Today, those labeling themselves Marxist seem like earnest historical re-enactors. Those influenced by the Situationists might seem contemporary but just as obscure.
For the would-be revolutionary, the Situationists in particular are crucial for translating the concepts grappled with Marx by into the conditions of the mid-twentieth century. But seeing that we are living in the early twenty first century, as the march of capitalist progress continues willy-nilly, revolutionaries cannot be satisfied with “invariance” but must grapple further with the challenges the SI confronted.
Each day, the contradictions of the massive constructs about us accelerate, whether in social peace or in social war. Budget deficits shift from the billions to the trillions, the real estate bubble is handed off to the hedge fund bubble and then collapses completely – etc. Dealing with these conditions involves surfing on top of this transformation process. Play is the only approach that can easily be processed through today’s information stream.
For a while now, it has been obvious that the present world is built on rackets. Lately, as these rackets fail, because they are failing, it is becoming easier to call them for what they are. The last five years are something of a numb blur. The housing bubble actually determined the work, the hopes and the beliefs of a fair portion of America as well as Britain and even Eastern Europe. And in this same time, the rest have been too tired to do much.
Writing in early 2010, I can so far only imagine that this crazy churning of life may actually create a wake-up call. There is a moralistic tendency to loudly say “the system won’t fall apart by itself, workers/anarchists/poor-people/good-people will have to choose to destroy it”. Well, the system won’t turn itself into something that we would want, certainly.
But the system will tear itself apart quite nicely with or without our help. We are living in a self-destruction machine. This trajectory will be drastically altering the context of our lives whether we like that or not, whether we are mature enough to take it or not. This system generates the crisis that throws each person toward either collective resistance or individual despair. The strategy of individual survival indeed does not undermine the system but rather makes the wheels move faster. And the faster moving wheels of capital bring on a new crisis at an increasingly rapid rate.
Our situation does not follow a comforting path that invites just moral equations. Instead, the history of our era is an irreversible process of technological, human and cultural transformation. The controlling framework of the present regime remains the same but the conditions are altered constantly. They not altered at random but to make the game work better for the rulers. Yet this efficiency fights itself. As just one example, we discovered recently that being able to create a bigger, cleverer Ponzi scheme did not make the rich sit more securely at the end of the day.
The market place simulates a flow. It demands flexibility from all – in consumption, production, investing and existence. Yet any such increase eventually stops bringing any benefit, once the standard has been reached. Thus, in the market, all things are considered like water, flowing in a controlled, predictable and infinitely divisible fashion – however unrealistic that assumption is. And capital must not only keep the flow going but increase it continually.
So the only question is whether the human beings in this machine refuse this fluidity or whether they simply fail. Thus we wind up with a complex process of one crisis piled on top of another piled on top of another...
“Public opinion in Germany seems almost to forbid discussion of the evil and perilous consequences of a war, and especially of one that has ended victoriously: there is thus all the more ready an ear for those writers who know no weightier authority than this public opinion and who therefore vie with one another in lauding a war and in seeking out the mighty influence it has exerted on morality, culture and art. This notwithstanding, it has to be said that a great victory is a great danger. Human nature finds it harder to endure a victory than a defeat; indeed, it seems to be easier to achieve a victory than to endure it in such a way that it does not in fact turn into a defeat. Of all the evil consequences, however, which have followed the recent war with France [Franco-Prussian War, 1870-1] perhaps the worst is a widespread, indeed universal, error: the error, committed by public opinion and by all who express their opinions publicly, that German culture too was victorious in that struggle and must therefore now be loaded with garlands appropriate to such an extraordinary achievement. This delusion is in the highest degree destructive: not because it is a delusion — for there exist very salutary and productive errors — but because it is capable of turning our victory into a defeat: into the defeat, if not the extirpation, of the German Spirit for the benefit of the “German Reich.” Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations.
ASAN has been published irregularly over the last fifteen years. I am not concerned about this irregularity. My aim has been to publish when I believed that I could put forward an original perspective. Ideally, if nothing is really happening in capitalist society, I don’t have any reason to just put out more verbiage.
Certainly, my understanding and my position has evolved over this time. Some of my initial formulations were rather crude and I may still lack subtlety in some of my formulations. But I am still happy to put forward the idea of strategic communication. Strategic communication involves imagining communication as part of a total war against the present order. In the midst of a conventional battle, a commander must make constant, small adjustment to his plan as he receives the news of events. He must adjust as new possibilities appear and possibilities he imagined vanish. The adjustments must be made since the haze of battle makes any particular piece of information uncertain and any determined attack requires time to complete. We stragglers in capitalist society do not have a single commander but rather must be our own commanders. We must move agilely as history unfolds non-linearly.
“With Hitler’s invasion, the Party line changed in a split second from the “Yanks are not coming” to “Open a second front now.” The League of American Writers, the League Against War and Fascism, and all similar front organizations were dissolved, with no warning to their members or even officers. Eventually the Communist Party itself “dissolved” and called itself the Communist Political Association. Only the inner core remained. This, of course, fooled nobody. Browder was immediately let out of prison and became a consultant to the White House brain trust.” Kenneth Rexroth, An Autobiographical Novel
Kenneth Rexroth’s autobiographical novel gives a crucial picture of the end of the American left as an autonomous force with something to offer proletarian activity. The various strands of the broad left evolved and then were corrupted by Stalinism. We use labels and structures to give a convenient illusion of continuation to capitalist reality. In reality, capitalist production transforms the fundamental nature of the apparently fixed objects around us – especially the social phenomena. The meaning of demonstrations or “reform” or voting changes.
To say this is not to say that the original was not problematic. Before Stalinism, leftists of various stripes adapted to their position within capitalism, using ostensibly revolutionary positions as justifications for actions which strengthened their relative position in capitalism as artists, union organizers, politicians, social workers or occasionally workers.
Rexroth makes the point that many intellectuals who joined the original American Communist Party did so hoping to take control away from the Stalinists rather than based on agreement with the Stalinists. But such intentions were tossed to the wind by the need for a unified organization.
However, we need to keep in mind that the explicit Stalinist takeover was a result of the inherent weaknesses of the left. The history of capitalist society has involved those implicit weaknesses and informal corruptions of previous societies becoming explicit, calculated systems. None of the elements of what we now call “Bureaucracy”, “Stalinism”, “the Spectacle”, “recuperation” or whatever are new. The newness only appears since these methods have become systematized and reproducible on a larger scale.
For this very reason, there is no going back or hoping that previous mistakes can be reversed – since history can have mistakes only once and then only has tendencies. We live on the other side of this great divide,which is not getting smaller but larger.
In August, 2007, the stock market destroyed the strategy of Wall Street’s programmed traders. Since then, not only has the pattern of stock market trades stopped resembling the past patterns which computers had been programmed to expect, the programs’ efforts to compensate only made the pattern diverge further – ultimately the beginning of the chaos and seizing up, which I predicted in my previous issue, Return Of The Crisis. (Insert a caveat here: we are never certain this effect will be a cataclysmic crisis - state and secret interventions can stop the chaos up to a point, etc).
The praxis offered by most would-be revolutionaries is, if anything, more rigid than the behavior of the programmed traders. At best, in some varieties of anarchism or “left communism” say, it tries to follow whatever past rebellions these folks happen to have learned about while at worst, with other varieties of socialism, anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism, it philosophically posits one ideological organization strategy based on airtight reasoning or fixed categories exempt from any consideration of past or current conditions.
The world looks profoundly different if you consider your vantage point as akin to the position of a (football) linebacker. Where each of the players is is uncertain but, more importantly, the play itself is uncertain and must be deduced from the position of the opposing players. This contrasts with the point of view that people fall back into when reasoning from isolation – here, in isolation it is easy to imagine change as happening in terms of “one person telling two people telling four people...” and the capital system standing still as a counter-plan is erected around it. In contrast to this, we should realize that each person is thinking logically already about the best way out of the mess, even as the whirlpool of capital draws them back into the mess.
To view ourselves as engaging in a battle is a way for us to sustain ourselves in the quagmire of capitalist society. It provides drama. As much as this society deprives us of nutrition in our food, exercise within our activity, it deprives us of meaningful drama in the trajectory of our lives. The concern with the lives of movie stars, athletes and rappers comes as an effort to regain this sense of drama.
Every trend today suggests that we are reaching a historical juncture. The question is whether those forces moving toward a different world can take advantage of this.
It may seem to be assuming much to call the system we imagine, of interpersonal relations beyond the present world, communism. But this is the best of the poor words which we could use to describe a process of supersession that is also rooted in the historical experience of the dispossessed.
The present crisis situation brings to a head various contradictions. Some have existed for hundreds of years and others for thousands of years. So it essentially invites us to consider our fundamental conditions of existence like never before. At the same time, the present world produces a situation where many people simply do not consider their collective situation in any meaningful way.
Communism involves both going beyond the present conditions and returning to previous cycles. It is the end of pre-history and the beginning of history, the end of civilization and the expansion of production.
Capitalism already is superseding our biological condition. Communism naturally must extend this supersession. We certainly support those who might change their biological condition through altering the hormones that constitute gender. Yet a communist society would do more than let each person choose a single identity among many, sexual or otherwise. It would open a journey of creation where both fixed and moveable identities could play. Considering that primitive society often superseded biology through the ingestion of psychedelic drugs, such a supersession may not be entirely technological driven.
There are a series of predictable ideas about what strategy a revolutionary group should pursue. Even if a group does not intend to lead or organize a revolution, such a group certainly intends to hover about encouraging people and generally proving themselves well intentioned.
What is wrong with this? Should revolutionaries even want to be liked? Should they lead? Should they follow? Should they provoke? Should they produce order or chaos or simply know when to produce what? The Situationists International, which appeared and acted as a wave of revolutionary possibility, began as a mere murmur in the 1950s and crested in 1968. One crucial aspect of the Situationists is that they took up a different strategic position from that previously taken by the left – they refused dialogue, they aimed to be a “general staff without an army”.
Today, the historical waters do flow calmly but whirl with a crazed choppiness. Our situation is seemingly hopeless yet not static. Still, being at square zero gives the luxury to consider our strategies. We can carry our speculation beyond the models of either the Situationists or the traditional left.
The sky breaks open at just the point that one can unleash one’s imagination. Today, we are at an absolute historical juncture – whether you consider capitalism, civilization or biology, possibilities beyond the ordinary imagination are close at hand (whether these possibilities will be delights or horrors is certainly still up in the air).
In accordance with this extreme juncture, we can and must bring to bear all the strategic play which humankind has dreamed-up in its encounters with the totality of historical fate. The thought of the workers movement is a part of this and so are The Art Of War, the Zen Koans, the writings of Nietzsche, Freud and Reich, Cybernetics, internal martial arts and Neurolinguistic Programming, rap symbolist poets, and more.
My target audience cannot be those who need to have the horrors of this society explained step by step. They aren't worth talking to. Indeed, the naïve, “waiting to be convinced” Mr. Reasonable doesn't exist at all. The only thing that exists is people who take on this role for rhetorical effect. In reality, we all feel the effects of the present horrors. The people who claim to be enjoying things mainly are imagining later illusionary payoff and suppressing their present madness.
My target is those already seeking an end to the present madness, fellow seekers after pieces to this puzzle. Thus I imagine our communication is like the sharing of gems of insight between comrades in late-night brainstorming sessions. Just as much, I have no reason to repeat the very worthwhile ideas found in writings of Gilles Dauve or the Situationists, especially with the Internet.
What matters is what has changed in the last five years. But not in terms of particular events, many of which are just extensions of the same shit. Rather, what I look to is how the system has changed. We have an intuitive understanding of the subversive quality of, say, modern art, even as the reality of a real, successful artist reveals himself as contemptible. The avant guard of communication are simply those first to explore strategic communication, communication that jumps around the field of possibilities speaking to the entire person – which is to say speaking more to unconscious processes than to the “rational mind”. By this token, modern art in a limited way offered itself as a tool to capitalist ideology, from fascism to advertising.
Of course, such speculation is characteristic of this particular moment. Once an actual battle appears, things will be different and in the present chaotic stasis, such a battle could appear at any time – We shall see.