Demanding the Impossible
Guy Debord and the Situationists
by Peter Marshall
The other great important libertarian group which came to prominence during the May-June events in France in 1968 were the Situationists.
They originated in a small band of avante-garde artists and intellectuals influenced by Dada, Surrealism and Lettrism. The post-war Lettrist International, which sought to fuse poetry and music and transform the urban landscape, was a direct forerunner of the group who founded the magazine Situationiste Internationale in 1957. At first, they were principally concerned with the "suppression of art", that is to say, they wished like the Dadaists and the Surrealists before them to supersede the categorization of art and culture as separate activities and to transform them into part of everyday life. Like the Lettrists, they were against work and for complete divertissement. Under capitalism, the creativity of most people had become diverted and stifled, and society had been divided into actors and spectators, producers and consumers. The Situationists therefore wanted a different kind of revolution: they wanted the imagination, not a group of men, to seize power, and poetry and art to be made by all. Enough! they declared. To hell with work, to hell with boredom! Create and construct an eternal festival.
At first, the movement was mainly made up of artists, of whom Asger Jorn was the most prominent. From 1962, the Situationists increasingly applied their critique not only in culture but to all aspects of capitalist society. Guy Debord emerged as the most important figure: he had been involved in the Lettrist International, and had made several films, including Hurlements en faveur de Sade (1952). Inspired by the libertarian journal Socialisme ou Barbarie, the Situationists rediscovered the history of the anarchist movement, particularly during the period of the First International, and drew inspiration from Spain, Kronstadt, and the Makhnovists. They described the USSR as a capitalist bureaucracy, and advocated workers' councils. But they were not entirely anarchist in orientation and retained elements of Marxism, especially through Henri Lefebvre's critique of the alienation of everyday life. They believed that the revolutionary movement in advanced capitalist countries should be led by an "enlarged proletariat" which would include the majority of waged laborers. In addition, although they claimed to want neither disciples nor a leadership, they remained an elitist vanguard group who dealt with differences by expelling the dissenting minority. They looked to a world-wide proletarian revolution to bring about the maximum pleasure.
At the end of 1967, Guy Debord in The Society of the Spectacle and Raoul Vaneigem in The Revolution of Everyday Life presented the most elaborate expositions of Situationist theory which had a widespread influence in France during the 1968 student rebellion. [NOTE: Anarchy magazine has been including a chapter per issue of Vaneigem's book -- currently up to chapter 16, "The Fascination of Time". -- Ken] Many of the most famous slogans which were scribbled on the walls of Paris were taken from their theses, such as FREE THE PASSIONS, NEVER WORK, LIVE WITHOUT DEAD TIME. Members of the Situationist International (SI) co-operated with the enragés from Nanterre University in the Occupations COmmittee of the Sorbonne, an assembly held in permanent session. On 17 May, the Committee sent the following telegram to the Communist Party of the USSR:
Groups of enragés in Strasbourg, Nantes and Boudreaux were also inspired by the Situationists and attempted to "organize chaos" on the campuses. The active thinkers however never numbered much more than a dozen.
In their analysis, the Situationists argued that capitalism had turned all relationships transactional, and that life had been reduced to a "spectacle". The spectacle is the key concept of their theory. In many ways, they merely reworked Marx's view of alienation, as developed in his early writings. The worker is alienated from his product and from his fellow workers and finds himself living in an alien world:
At the same time, while modern technology has ended natural alienation (the struggle for survival against nature), social alienation in the form of a hierarchy of masters and slaves has continued. People are treated like passive objects, not active subjects. After degrading being into having, the society of the spectacle has further transformed having into merely appearing. The result is an appalling contrast between cultural poverty and economic wealth, between what is and what could be. "Who wants a world in which the guarantee that we shall not die of starvation," Vaneigem asks, "entails the risk of dying of boredom?"
The way out of the Situationists was not to wait for a distant revolution but to reinvent everyday life here and now. To transform the perception of the world and to change the structure of society is the same thing. By liberating oneself, one changed power relations and therefore transformed society. They therefore tried to construct situations which disrupt the ordinary and normal in order to jolt people out of their customary ways of thinking and acting. [Hardly an original idea, spanning from Leary-style LSD use to zen, etc. -- Ken.] In place of petrified life, they sought the dérive (with its flow of acts and encounters) and détournement (rerouting events and images). They supported vandalism, wildcat strikes and sabotage as a way of destroying the manufactured spectacle and commodity economy. Such gestures of refusal were considered signs of creativity. The role of the SI was to make clear to the masses what they were already implicitly doing. In this way, they wished to act as catalysts within the revolutionary process. Once the revolution was underway, the SI would disappear as a group.
In place of the society of the spectacle, the Situationists proposed a communistic society bereft of money, commodity production, wage labor, classes, private property and the State. Pseudo-needs would be replaced by real desires, and the economy of profit become one of pleasure. The division of labor and the antagonism between work and play would be overcome. It would be a society founded on the love of free play, characterized by the refusal to be led, to make sacrifices, and to perform roles. Above all, they insisted that every individual should actively and consciously participate in the reconstruction of every moment of life. They called themselves Situationists precisely because they believed that all individuals should construct the situations of their lives and release their own potential and obtain their own pleasure.
As for the basic unit of the future society, they recommended workers' councils by which they meant "sovereign rank-and-file assemblies, in the enterprises and the neighborhoods". As with the communes of the anarcho-communists, the councils would practice a form of direct democracy and make and execute all the key decisions affecting everyday life. Delegates would be mandated and recallable. The councils would then federate locally, nationally and internationally.
In their call for the "concrete transcendence of the State and of every kind of alienating collectivity" and in their vision of communist society the Situationists come closest to the anarchists. They not only referred to Bakunin for their attack on authoritarian structures and bureaucracy, but Debord argued that "anarchism had led in 1936 [in Spain] to a social revolution and to a rough sketch, the most advanced ever, of proletarian power." The Situationists differ however from traditional anarchism in their elitism as an exclusive group and in their overriding concern with coherence of theory and practice. In their narrow insistence on the proletariat as the sole revolutionary class, they overlooked the revolutionary potential of other social groups, especially the students. They also denied that they were "spontaneists" like the 22 March Movement and rejected the "ideology" of anarchism in so far as it was allegedly another restrictive ideology imposed on the workers.
Despite the acuteness of their critique of modern capitalism, the Situationists mistakenly took a temporary economic boom in post-war France for a permanent trend in capitalist societies. Their belief in economic abundance now seems wildly optimistic; not only underproduction but also underconsumption continue in advanced industrial societies. In many parts of the globe, especially in the southern hemisphere, so-called "natural alienation", let alone social alienation, has yet to be overcome. Nevertheless, for all their weaknesses, the Situationists have undoubtedly enriched anarchist theory by their critique of modern culture, their celebration of creativity, and their stress on the immediate transformation of everyday life. Although the SI group disbanded in 1972 after bitter wrangling over tactics, their ideas have continued to have widespread influence in anarchist and feminist circles and inspired, at times almost subconsciously it seemed, much of the style and content of punk rock.
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