"What a strange, demented feeling it gives me when I realise I have spent whole days before this inkstone, with nothing better to do, jotting down at random whatever nonsensical thoughts that have entered my head."
- Yoshida Kenko, Essays in Idleness
In the following chain of correspondence Wayne Spencer and I discuss the problems of revolutionary action in decidedly unrevolutionary times. His blog, The Annals of Significant Failure
, has been an inspiration for this journal, and contains much useful material for those intent on getting out of the catastrophe of a society in which we find ourselves. None of the questions raised found any resolution; by their nature they could only be resolved in the process of revolutionary practice itself. Nevertheless, the act of restating such perennially crucial problems is a necessary first step towards discovering their solutions.
1) Siddiq Khan to Wayne Spencer, 23 October 2011
Your essay Nothing Burns in Hell
, which I've recently read, brought up the question of deepening the disruption caused by the dissatisfaction of delinquents by deepening the dissatisfaction itself. The question seems closely related to others you've been dealing with regarding the practical ineffectiveness of your critique and the possibility of organising a new association for the dissemination of situationist theory.
In the first place I'd like to ask you 1) what your methods of dissemination were for this document and 2) what the reception has been. I'm specifically interested in whether you've made any attempts at actually distributing the pamphlet amongst the youths whose acts of partial rebellion you provide with such a useful critique. Has it circulated in the schools? The juvenile jails? In the slums? Among the gangs? At the recreational events? If so, how was the distribution done? Put somewhere for anyone interested to pick up? Handed out without a word? Talked about before or afterwards? What was said? Who did the distributing? How were they received? What was learned?You have not publicly stated anything regarding the worldly existence of your writing since the discussions On Failure and its Possible Remedies 2 years ago - perhaps an update in this regard might be a worthwhile informing those of us who are only aware of your activities through your blog of any changes to your approach and the effects of such changes.
All these questions occurred to me because approaching these disaffected kids directly seemed to be the only sensible thing to do with such a critique. Similar questions could be put regarding your pamphlets addressing those rendered indignant by cuts to state funding, the occupation movement seems especially rich in possibilities for the dissemination of such propaganda.
If there is a need for a new situationist journal, as you suppose, then surely it would have to be intimately tied to similar considerations around the practice of theory - in its realisation by revolutionaries as well as everyone else?
Those who practically demonstrate their disdain of the authorities who oppress them are sure to win the approval of these masses, but not necessarily their trust or their camaraderie. I realised this while still at school myself, where the scandal generated by some trivial public act of refusal on my part was met with approval of many of my peers who previously viewed me with hostility; but the approval was accompanied with bewilderment. Altho I tried to use this publicity as a platform for launching some sort of collective insurrection, my attempts ended in total failure.
The hand which physically forces us together for its own ends, uniting us in our separation, is probably most effectively attacked in a pincer movement - both internally and externally. My failure at the time was greatly aided by my theoretical immaturity. The refusal which had created the opportunity for me in the first place was only a partially conscious-one, and my subsequent efforts at inciting my fellows were woefully misdirected. We are in fact attacked by both left and right jabs - from all sides really. If we are to counter the hand that beats us we must meet it at each front.
Therefore I have presented to a few comrades some preliminaries towards a unitary program aiming at the simultaneous extension of existing local struggles and the creation of new ones, or rather, the growth of the new from the elder. These are [Points largely elaborated in “This Day in Prehistory”
I am very interested in possibly collaborating on a journal whereby experiments in this vein may be proposed, reported on, analysed, etc. Commentary on current currents & events can be adequately accommodated by a website or blog - yours being an exceptionally incisive example. I am convinced a collaboration must be of consequence to the participants; reporting on first hand experiments, suggesting new ones, presenting theoretical formulations based on combined experiences - these seem to promise the possibility of practically improving revolutionary (including "therapeutic" in Vaneigem's sense) action. It was a report of previous radical experiments, after all, that was presented at the founding of the SI in '57. (Debord’s Report on the Construction of Situations)
I also suggest should such a collaboration commence, the regular practice by participants of such peer-review processes:
[content of the Anti-public-relations service in Internationale Situationniste #8]
The importance of the topics covered above led me to carry on for so long, but that's more than enough for now. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on all this.
2) Wayne Spencer to Siddiq Khan, 9 November 2011
Thank you for your message. I am sorry it has taken me so long to reply. I have been a little short of time of late.
I did not distribute any paper copies of Nothing Burns in Hell. My previous experiences with this method of distribution have been discouraging. Two of my previous texts were produced in paper form. I circulated these to radical distributors and bookshops, sold them at cost on eBay, and left a number of copies in public places (on trains, for example). In one case, the distributors to whom I sent copies gave them away for free. Amongst other things, this led to everyone who ordered a copy of a punk magazine receiving a copy of my text as well. The effects seem to have been negligible. Even in what you might imagine to be quite a favourable environment, an anarchist bookshop, the texts languished unread.
Communicating with delinquents presents its own unique problems. The delinquent youths who live locally have cultivated a particularly hermetic style. They pride themselves on displaying an extreme stupidity, vulgarity and lassitude. They carefully confine themselves to a limited palette of simple, one-syllable words, and they eschew the reading of anything other than tabloid publications. When encountered in a group, they assiduously display to each other their adherence to the group’s mores and norms. Any outsider who seeks to speak with them is typically used as a pretext for a ritualistic acting out of boorish contempt.
My experiences with this self-stultifying form of adaptation to life at the bottom of society have led me to conclude that public approaches to local delinquents in groups are more or less futile, especially if you wish them to consider a lengthy, complex and critical text. In the case of Nothing Burns in Hell, what I did instead was to post or submit it various websites (such as the one operated by the Void Network, a group involved in the anarchist scene in Greece). I also sent it to Crimethinc, an anarchist group whose admirers often seem to be drawn from sub-cultural circles) to see whether they would be interested in publishing it as a provocation in their magazine. They were initially quite favourable, but I have heard nothing since. However, Adbusters magazine, the people who evidently set the Occupy movement in motion in the USA, came across my article and decided to print a condensed version. As Adbusters has a circulation of 120,000, this diffused an abridgement of the text quite widely.
The idea behind this approach was that delinquents who are beginning to question the life they are leading, and who have begun to search in private for critical insights into that life, might come across it. The hope was that it would accelerate their disenchantment with the limitations of delinquency without encouraging them to pursue the pseudo-alternative of life in the mainstream. It was also hoped that it would unsettle some respectable citizens who came across it. In the event, it largely failed on both scores. A few people republished it online in whole or in part (in one instance translating a section of it into Spanish for the purpose). A small group of people also wrote to me in response. None of these seemed to have been involved in delinquency recently, and none of our discussions led anywhere. The appearance of the Adbusters extract on their website did, however, prompt quite a number of responses. They were largely negative. Some of the criticism can perhaps be explained by the fact that the extract left out most of what I argued and thus came across as somewhat perfunctory. But most of it seems to me to arise from a simple horror that anyone could criticise capitalist everyday life as a whole, and the passive habits of spectators who judge writing in aesthetic terms and expect to be given a complete practical remedy to follow. At some point I will publish a complete rejoinder to my critics.
So, my current strategy of internet-based publication has also proved largely ineffectual. There are doubtless a number of reasons for this. However, I remain of the view that the most important one is the fact that few people globally have arrived at an awareness of the alienation of their everyday lives, and fewer still are moving towards the truth that revolution as the only historical solution capable of practically dissolving that alienation. No matter how or when a revolutionary critique or analysis is presented to the mass of the population, they have no practical use for it for they are in no way contemplating revolutionary action. For this reason, I disagree with your suggestion that “those who practically demonstrate their disdain of the authorities who oppress them are sure to win the approval of these masses.” As the public reaction to the recent riots in Britain illustrate, it is quite likely that you will be received by the majority with at best indifference and at worse hatred (my own immediate thoughts on the riots, as published under a pseudonym are attached). Of course, this is not to say that there are not minorities here and there (for instance amongst the delinquents) whose reactions may be different. But it cannot be presumed that they are always and everywhere present.
For me, any revolutionary strategy must be founded on a clear and honest recognition of this unhappy state of affairs. In my judgement, it is impossible in practice to reach individuals who have deeply repressed their own discontent. It is equally impossible to communicate with those who whose sense of what is possible and desirable are profoundly defined by the self-evident truths and pseudo-alternatives of the spectacle. The gap between us is simply too wide to permit practical dialogue to develop. As for the rest, I remain of the view that a wide-ranging journal of revolutionary critique, and an association to carry it on, would be valuable step forward. The point is to create an increasingly visible and increasingly disquieting publication, a publication that exposes the alienation and misery of a wide range of everyday activities and the necessity of a unitary and revolutionary response; a publication that beckons to those currents of profound dissatisfaction that lie close to the surface of individual life and invites them to find their remedy in the practical negation of social alienation. This project would only be small and preliminary action. Nonetheless, I think it would be an important one, inasmuch as it has the potential meaningfully to contribute to the crystallization and catalyzation of a fairly widespread disgust with everyday life that does not understand itself as having reversible social causes, and does not see itself reflected in any of the currents of contemporary politics. Moreover, it would, in itself, constitute the practice of theory. It would not be a sufficient practice; nonetheless, it would an instance of practice.
I would not myself wish to see commentary on current events excluded from such a periodical. On the contrary, to ensure that it touches as widely as possible on everyday life, I would hope to see, alongside much longer treatments, many short (perhaps single paragraph), corrosive comments on facets of the contemporary worlds of work, consumption, celebrity, politics, culture, etc. Each issue should explode as widely as possible across the dominant society.
Your suggestion that a journal should encourage its writers continually to criticise its past publications seems a sensible one. At the same time that a revolutionary journal must refuse any dialogue with ideologies and other practices that reinforce the existing society, it must also encourage the free discussion and refinement of the huge number of points on which it is unclear, uncertain or mistaken. It must avoid the appearance or the reality of an imposed, fixed consensus.
I am not sure that the other suggestions for projects you have mentioned would prove possible or effective. At least in the UK, no-one can enter a school classroom without having passed a police background check beforehand. This may make matters awkward. Also, the process of fabricating a plausible-looking charitable or professional organization would be time-consuming and difficult. Is it worth the effort? I suspect that your approach within the classroom (or prison) would quickly betray you to the authorities. You may have as a little as one opportunity to forge a connection with the delinquents. Unfortunately, the pretext under which you have brought the delinquents together may defeat the possibility of any real dialogue. Your audience will have been coerced into attending your event, and in relation to you will initially have been placed in a social relation of passivity and subordination. Overcoming all of this quickly may not prove possible, especially as you have come together with any particular practical project in view and therefore your discussions will be more than a little abstract.
I also have some doubts about your proposal to stage discussions between young delinquents and older persons who have experience with past struggles. What (for example in terms of motivations) would bring the parties together? What would keep the discussions from being an inconsequent production and consumption of mere historiography?
I agree with you that the Occupy movement has some potential. It seems to me that the movement brings together four forces:
a) Existing organizations for the reform of capitalism away from neo-liberalism.
b) Groups and individuals from traditional leftism and anarchism.
c) A superficial discontent with the existing society that objects to its excesses or its withdrawal of certain previously provided goods and services.
d) A profound dissatisfaction with the existing society.
These four forces are not entirely separate from each other. In practice individuals may well fall within more than one category; some even straddle all four. The tenor of the movement at any given moment is determined by which of these tendencies is dominant.
As far as I can tell, at the moment (a) and (c) are preponderant. The movement is hardly sustainable in this form. At present, it neither pursues direct action to realize its objectives itself nor advances programmes or demands for others to put into effect; it is simply a movement of static and abstract protest. This is hardly sustainable. In all probability, it will fall victim to weariness and disappointment. Also, the movement’s unwillingness to identify and exclude its enemies from its ranks makes it vulnerable to the destructive influences of leftism. For example, Michael Albert says:
“Greek and Spanish activists said that at assemblies initially people spoke with incredible passion of their plights and desires. Their voices often broke. Their hands shook. Each time someone rose to speak, something real, passionate, and persistent happened. It was enchanting and exciting. People were learning not only new facts and interpretations - and, indeed, that kind of learning was relatively modest - they were also learning new confidence and new modes of engaging with others. But after days and then weeks, the flavor of the talks shifted. From being new folks speaking passionately and recounting their reasons for being present and their hopes for their future by delivering deeply felt and quite unique stories, the speakers shifted toward being more seasoned or habituated folks, who lectured attendees with prepackaged views. The lines of speakers became overwhelmingly male. Their deliveries became overwhelmingly rehearsed. Listening to robotic repetition and frequent predictable and almost text-like ranting got boring and alienating. Sometimes it was even demeaning.” (http://www.zcommunications.org/occupy-to-self-manage-by-michael-albert)
If the movement remains driven by superficial dissatisfaction and anti-neoliberal reformism, I would expect it to metamorphose into a reinvigorated campaign for a more equitable and sustainable capitalism. However, other forces are in play, so this result is not guaranteed. There has, for instance, been something of a conflict between anarchists and reformers within various American Occupy movements. As you might expect, the anarchists’ penchant for street-fighting does not seem to have won too many over to their side. But perhaps better interventions are possible. For myself, I would be inclined to see what a sympathetic critique of Occupy’s arbitrary and inconsistent limitation of self-management to the conduct of its own affairs can bring about. For instance, if the refusal of mediation and representation is appropriate for the movement’s own practice, why should it not be applied equally to the other domains of individual and social life? One could at least pose the question and bring to light the self-contradictions. Unfortunately, there are no substantive Occupy events in my vicinity. As yet, the movement is very small.
3) Siddiq Khan to Wayne Spencer, 15 November 2011
Since my previous message the movement of events, and the hand I've had in them, have overtaken many of the positions presented therein, as well as the forms in which they were presented.
For my part, there seems little purpose in the proposing of projects and the subsequent (sometimes interminable, frequently tedious and almost always inconsequential) debates about their merits, potential effectiveness, etcetera. I trust you'll thus excuse me for refraining from responding in detail to your critiques, which are nevertheless appreciated. In person discussions with comrades, correspondence similar to our own, a study of the lessons learnt from the organisational crisis of the SI and subsequent situationist-influenced groups, and most importantly, the advance of my own adventures, have all convinced me that the most useful critiques of the projects I have in mind are practical, and are to be made by history.
Since I can at least kick-off each of these by myself, that seems the most sensible thing to do. Analysis of the outcomes as they develop, as well as the development themselves, are probably more likely to make a lasting contribution to revolutionary theory than deracinated debate. If these projects prove worthwhile others will doubtless take them up either singly or in concert; then, as decisions of what to keep, what to chuck, and what to add in their adaptation to each particular context are made, discussion & debate will of course be indispensable.
Similarly, your vision of a journal documenting a comprehensive critique of everyday alienation which would encompass both in-depth as well as pithy commentary of various aspects seems wonderful; initially however, I feel that people need some elementary experience with the practice of revolutionary theory before such a project will be of much use to them - both as contributors and readers. That is certainly true for myself.
Your reports on the reception of your agitations, both in form and content, helped me to arrive at this decision. What you describe as the general failure of your efforts, together with the practical usefulness of your description to my own activity, have convinced me of the need to go beyond theoretical critiques. To attribute the failure of your attack to the strength of the very enemy it aims to destroy seems to me rather tautological. If the power of the spectacle is preventing people from engaging in efforts (such as yours) towards its negation, surely, if such failures are to have significance, they would somehow suggest their own supersession (different angles of attack, of weapon, etc)?
As it is, I'm afraid your analysis seems to me redolent of a variety of "determinism" (they had to fail because of such and such a reason) all too popular amongst the "scientific-socialist" inspired milieu which claims in hindsight powers of prediction it never displays in the thick of battle. Please don't think I'm prescribing what "lessons" you should learn from your own activity! I was merely illustrating, using what I've learnt from them, one possible alternative approach. You may dispute this. It may be that you think I've merely repeated what you yourself have stated.
If, however, you truly believe "No matter how or when a revolutionary critique or analysis is presented to the mass of the population, they have no practical use for it" then any such alternatives are would be of little use to you. I should point out however that such a view, taken to its logical conclusions, results in a pretty crippling variety of impotence! Why then bother with any critique at all? And how could one measure its success or failure?
I don't believe revolutionaries have come close to exhausting the possible modes of presentation/confrontation/ intervention in existence, and therefore consider the fact that the "masses" have "no practical use" for all existing critiques a result of the practical uselessness of such critiques. In any case, this is the starting point for my own activity. What remains is to report on the progression of this activity (and its consequences) and let others decide where their own activity (or lack thereof) stands in relation to it.
An interesting comparison with the Mike Albert quote on the occupations is this extract from an apparently far more radical situation in Albania:
It was modern, because it was a rebellion against the power of money, the commodity that rules nowadays and determines the modern capitalist relation. It was modern for another reason that links it to the rebellion in L.A. in 1992. Unemployed, immigrants or poor peasants did not create the material conditions of a longer standing community of struggle. They just demanded money, the doubly stolen surplus value, but without any perspective of self-determining and producing their lives. Although they were fully-armed and had overthrown the state -- which in mid-March 1997 was limited to a few squares in Tirana -- they did not advance with a process of re-organising all aspects of their everyday life.
No new communal institutions were created, and on the contrary the committees insisted on the reestablishment of the police, the army and the local administration which would now be composed of ''the representatives of the people'' and not of Berisha's followers. Thus, we had the contradictory situation that we described above: fully armed rebels failing to complete what started as an insurrection and to re-organise social life. The subsequent result was a situation of general inertia, stagnation, boredom and waiting. If in the beginning the images of the rebels playing cards with the Kalashnikovs on their feet brought forward an atmosphere of a festival of the oppressed, all they indicated later was fatigue and helplessness. (http://libcom.org/library/upheaval-land-eagles)
What Albert calls "outreach" might be a good way to begin the process of bursting the boundaries of the occupations. Probably the most effective form of outreach would indeed be the extension of "open and seductive liberations that desirably suspend as much of the old life as possible." May I ask why you didn't publish the riot article on your blog? It seems consistent with the rest of the material there.
Images of sex sell even sexless aspects of the spectacle. Even sexless images that promise sex sell submission to the spectacle as a whole. The spectacle is a conspiracy to make you happy. The spectacle is a conspiracy to make you miserable. The spectacle is a conspiracy to make you feel happy under miserable conditions by making you feel misery is sexy. The spectacle is a conspiracy to make you horny.
4) Wayne Spencer to Siddiq Khan, 16 November 2011
I would certainly encourage you to pursue whatever practical projects you wish, and to evaluate them in the light of the consequences and obstacles that arise as you proceed. There is merit, I think, in avoiding obviously foreseeable misadventures; but we should not be too quick to place our potential projects in this unhappy category. After all, we are not seers. Our ability to anticipate events with any degree of confidence is all too limited.
I would hope a revolutionary journal can offer something to readers with no experience of the practice of theory. I would guess that almost every revolutionary had their early scepticism of the reigning ideologues and ways of life quickened at some point by an encounter with a text that helped explain their dissatisfaction. I should like to think that a new journal would do the same for others who have not yet embarked upon a revolutionary praxis of any kind. It is for this reason that I would like to see the journal attempt to subject as much the society as possible to corrosive but illuminating critique. It is also another good reason to exclude from a journal any material that does not bear, however broadly, on the practical matters that confront the discontented of today. We can and should avoid analysis and debate that reduce theory into idle chatter.
You write, “if the power of the spectacle is preventing people from engaging in efforts (such as yours) towards its negation, surely, if such failures are to have significance, they would somehow suggest their own supersession (different angles of attack, of weapon, etc)?” This seems to presuppose that there is always something that individual revolutionaries can do to remedy the situation. However, ours is not the best of all possible worlds, and what is desirable is not always possible. Where the reason for inefficacy of revolutionary theory is the indifference of the general population to the project of revolution, the remedy is in all probability not in our hands. What is required is a qualitative change in the dominant subjective conditions. However, please do not let me discourage you from trying.
When I said “No matter how or when a revolutionary critique or analysis is presented to the mass of the population, they have no practical use for it,” I had in mind conditions here and now. It was not intended as a general statement about revolutionary theory. The more open the proletariat are to revolution as a practical project, the more willing they are to engage with revolutionary theory. At present, my own judgement, based on opinion polls and my own conversations and observations, is that there is very little sense amongst ordinary people that a social revolution carried out by they themselves is either desirable or possible. Everywhere I look, people are talking about and striving towards something else. This may well change, in which case so will my own approach. In the meantime, however, the underdevelopment of the subjective preconditions of revolution seem to me to define our terrain and limit our possibilities. They cannot be escaped by wishful thinking.
In these circumstances, I return to Debord’s comments in thesis 220 of The Society of the Spectacle:
“the search for critical truth about the spectacle [...] must struggle in practice among the irreconcilable enemies of the spectacle, and admit that it is nothing without them. By rushing into sordid reformist compromises or pseudorevolutionary collective actions, those driven by an abstract desire for immediate effectiveness are in reality obeying the ruling laws of thought, adopting a perspective that can see nothing but the latest news. In this way delirium reappears in the camp that claims to be opposing it. A critique seeking to go beyond the spectacle must know how to wait.”
Of course, if you are finding conditions more propitious, please do proceed on a different basis. For myself, I continue to consider new options. For example, I have wondered about publishing a series of short, perhaps heavily-illustrated vignettes designed to lay bare the poverty of typical moments of everyday life, or perhaps a straightforward book with the same theme, both directed at people who have never picked up a revolutionary tract.
I did not publish my text of the riots because the state was then taking a repressive and vengeful turn. It was distributed within a few days of the riots. Two people who published a vague invitation to riot on Facebook had already been arrested (they were subsequently sentenced to four years in prison) and I had no wish needlessly to expose myself to the risk of joining them. After all, it is of no importance who wrote the text. It stands or falls on the merits of its analysis alone.
5) Siddiq Khan to Wayne Spencer, 18 November 2011
Our discussion reminds me of an anecdote told by Mike Albert regarding would-be revolutionary activity. When faced with the enormity of the task at hand, those "irreconcilable enemies of the spectacle" are in a similar position to that of an ordinary person made to play a match against a champion tennis player. The situation all too easily invites the sort of attitude which leads one to reason "There's no chance of winning here, and there's no point in making the effort to prepare for certain failure. The mere act of giving it a go at all is good enough."
Obviously, you're not just throwing your hands up in resignation in that way, but it seems to me your line of reasoning, ("the remedy is in all probability not in our hands" - a position clearly not exclusive to yourself) when taken to its logical conclusions, leads precisely to this cul-de-sac. Rather than a guard against "sordid reformist compromises or pseudorevolutionary collective actions", it seems to me only the other side of the coin of such actions whose rationale ("Why bother to prepare a really effective assault? Whatever we do, the outcome is out of our hands, so anything we do is as good as anything else") seems similarly predictable both in justification and practical outcome.
Today it is not enough to merely acknowledge the banal fact that
"In a non-revolutionary period, revolutionary workers, isolated in their factories, do their best to expose the real nature of capitalism and the institutions which support it (unions, "workers" parties). They usually do this with little success, which is quite normal. And there are revolutionaries (workers and non-workers) who read and write, who do their best to provide a critique of the whole system. They usually do this with little success, which is also quite normal. It is inevitable that numerous revolutionaries are not greatly inclined to reading and are not interested in theory." (Jean Barrot; Eclipse and Re-Emergence of the Communist Movement)
If one is resolved to wait around and imitate Vladimir and Estragon, then this is fine. You and I, with a handful of similar soldiers of discontent, are not so resolved. Thus we are faced with an infinite series of choices regarding the most efficient expenditure of our limited time and energy, spreading before us as mysterious and exciting as an uncharted river delta, a labyrinth, or an endlessly branching forest path. Are we to trudge on in indifference, or gambol forward in exhilaration at the endless possibilities for experimentation? When posed the question in this way, you and I and many of our other comrades would choose the latter without hesitation. From our actions however, it becomes clear that too many of us too often seem to be resolved on the former course.
This too is "quite normal". Wasn't it our most lucid ancestor who exclaimed "The tradition of all dead generations weighs like an nightmare on the brains of the living"? But if those traditions are such a drag, hadn't we better ditch them like the ballast they are? If we really feel that, as Rexroth wrote
Good to be brave - nothing is
Better. Food tastes better. Wine
Is more brilliant. Girls are more
Beautiful. The sky is bluer
For the brave - for the brave and
Happy comrades and for the
Lonely brave retreating warriors.
This is the good life. Even all
Its sorrows and defeats and
Disillusionments are good,
Met with courage and a gay heart...
Why do so many of us so consistently seem to act as if the opposite were true? While there is no point in ignoring reality, it seems to me far too easy to focus on the "historical necessity" imposed by some external power, rather than on our own actions. If "the inexperienced will wonder why we engage in this strange activity in the first place" surely the best explanation is practical demonstration of it's beautiful effects? I find myself increasingly wondering with Ken Knabb at how strange it is that "we do it so little and so erratically." I too have come to confront the dismal fact that "the moments of real excitement and consequence come to us almost exclusively by accident. We lack the consciousness of why we haven’t done what we haven’t." As much as my character defences fight against it, I am forced to pose and repose to myself and my comrades, including you, the perennial questions:
Why is it that we don’t revolt more? What makes me an "irreconcilable enemy of the spectacle"? Are there really such people? Where are they, and what makes them so? Can we increase the effectiveness of our antagonism and if so how, and if not then what?
The immediate realisation of desire is the most exacting of scientific disciplines. The equipment is always decrepit and in need of re-moulding. The laboratory conditions are always unpropitious in the extreme. Things can tend to seem as if revolution is far more unlikely today than it was in the time of Marx, or Emma Goldman, or Debord - but the contradictions remain. As for the question of "consciousness" - well, people have always been brainwashed, and yet their rebellion has rubbished so much time and again; I don't see what is so special dismal about today. If anything, the lessons learned from the revolutionary experiments of the past, and the availability of information about them, put us in a better position than we've ever been in terms of avoiding repeating previous mistakes.
These moments when we collectively wake from our drugged sleep, when we decide to grab the promises dangled in front of us rather than following behind them in eternal deference to tomorrow, only serve to confirm the persistence of human desire to build a world worth living in from the ruins of the old. We are sick of lurching from one grave to the next, from family to school, school to varsity, varsity to job, job to job, job to retirement like the army of zombies which the commodity economy demands. 'Yet, within all of it is our lost youth; it isn't lost, it's just hidden by the command which says, "Grow up."'
Not so secretly, we still desire to 'turn work into a dance' (with the discipline, joy, energy, & expression of that lively art) rather than the nightmare-ridden sleepwalk that it currently is. We still want to turn our world into a playground, a labyrinth, a wilderness, rather than the growing wasteland that it's becoming. We know -- and if not, can easily discover -- that the material conditions for this exist here and now. 'In other words: the situation is excellent. Now is not the time to lose courage.'
Or as our beknighted comrade Sir Herbert Read wrote
To fight without hope is to fight with grace,
The self reconstructed, the false heart repaired.'
I offer this not as sagely advice but comradely encouragement and provocation. If you want to "a series of short, perhaps heavily-illustrated vignettes designed to lay bare the poverty of typical moments of everyday life" (similar in conception to things like "work community politics war"? If so, maybe we could collaborate on this as some comrades and I are also embarking on such a project) I challenge you not only to progress from "wondering" to "executing", but, more importantly, to play with ways of seriously making it worthwhile for people (whose time and energy is just as limited as your own, whose interests are likely very far from those which would compell them to read radical literature, whose habits have accustomed them to reject what is not passively digestable) to read - not forgetting to publish the results of your experiments for the benefit of your comrades!
Those used to taking their alienation straight will need to drink its negation equally without dilution if it's going to have any chance of hitting them in the gut, heart, hand & brain. If you find me needlessly repetetive, I apologise; writing to you serves to clarify my own thoughts on these issues.
6) Wayne Spencer to Siddiq Khan, 21 November 2011
There is undoubtedly a danger of paralysis and passivity in the position that individuals inclined to revolution are created by capitalism and not by revolutionaries. I agree this is something to be avoided.
I also agree that Barrot’s views are insufficient, but not for the same reasons as you. In advanced capitalist countries, relatively few people are employed in the factories of which he speaks. One of the largest changes in the structure of employment has been a shift towards management and professional services positions. There have also been increases, it seems, in more mundane service and public administration jobs. Managers need not detain us, but in many other areas of service and administrative work, the scope for the sort of revolutionary propaganda that Barrot mentions is not at all great. Managers are no longer as indifferent as once they were to the attitudes of their employees. To put in bluntly, open revolutionaries will quickly find themselves fired. As they accumulate such dismissals, they will also become incapable of securing most mainstream jobs. So be it, you may say. A revolutionary will just have to get by outside the mainstream. Fine. But we have to recognize that confining revolutionaries to the margins of society has consequences. I would say that one of the main obstacles confronting the relatively large revolutionary movement in Greece is that they have so few members amongst the mass of the working population. They have become outsiders with little influence on the working classes and little ability to sabotage work.
Of course, the process of remaining within mainstream employment, all the time keeping one’s nose relatively clean and watching and waiting for the general submission to work to decline, also has unhappy consequences. It is destructive of body and soul, and over the course of years you may even become what you have spent so long pretending to be.
I am not at all persuaded that, in any real sense, “we are faced with an infinite series of choices.” You seem to me to be taking too little account of practical obstacles and adverse consequences. When we discard the obviously futile, suicidal, or unachievable, the useful options available in any given time and place may be quite small in number or simply non-existent. If action is to be something more than a self-gratifying gesture with no wider consequences, specific conjunctions of circumstances are required, conjunctions that cannot be simply willed into existence. For the time being, the art of revolution, I suspect, has rather more to do with being able to spot the rare and fleeting opportunities to take effective action.
Equally, I think that one reason we do not revolt more is the recognition, at some level, that we must develop a praxis sustainable over a considerable length of time. For some years, the prospects of fundamental social change have been slight. If we are to survive these years of barrenness, if we are not to succumb to defeat and despair, we can hardly throw ourselves, day after day, against the unyielding brick walls that the power of the enemy and the indifference of our compatriots have, at present, erected around us.
I also think that any honest account of why people (including ourselves) do not revolt more would have to consider the pleasures of capitalism. Contemporary capitalism is not, for most, a charnel house. It offers a myriad of satisfactions of varying kinds, from, say, relatively quiet walks in what’s left of the countryside and cosy meals with friends, through avid sports-watching and drunken revels, to avant-garde arts and the latest designer drugs. There is some pleasure in this, if one has had a taste for it cultivated in you; and this cultivation is omnipresent, in the form of a more or less insidious spectacular moulding that seeks to reduce our expectations of life to these pleasures. None of us are immune. The seductiveness of spectacular life should not be disregarded.
Again, I repeat that I do not think that any of this is necessarily permanent. Yes, contradictions remain. Yes, it is perfectly possible for people to throw off the tastes, ideas and disabilities which the dominant society has inculcated in them. I am merely saying that they are not doing so in very large numbers at this very moment, and this has consequences for revolutionaries and revolutionary action.
I am not sure that the work community politics war is a very good example of what I am thinking of doing. The images seem rather dreary examples of Leftist clip-art, while the text is too general and banal. We would have to do better than that. Have you produced any drafts yourselves?
From Wednesday, I shall be in Prague for a week. I may not check my email messages while I am there.
7) Siddiq Khan to Wayne Spencer, 22 November 2011
To bring this correspondence back to a concrete basis, let me return once more to your pamphlet on delinquents and its effect on the world. I approached you with a series of questions regarding how it had been launched into the current of history. These each regarded a choice, one possible course taken among many. The field of action which stretches before the imagination is filled with a rich diversity of such paths, many of which are as you note rendered dead-ends by the circumstances beyond our control.
It should go without saying that my contention is not that we discard the dictates of necessity in favour of a dream world. Such utopian methods lead directly to that variety of paralysis which we both agree is best avoided. I maintain, however, that "the useful options available in any given time and place", while possibly "quite small in number" relative to those open to us during a mass uprising, are in fact much larger than we've been conditioned to believe, and are in fact never non-existent.
If we can't agree on that final clause -- otherwise stated: "an uprising is not available every day; but the practice of theory is constantly possible." (Knabb, Double-reflection) -- then we really do hold fundamentally differing positions. I doubt however that this is the case. In any case, my current focus is on the ramifications of this fact in my own actions and those of my comrades. As for your own pamphlet, the fact that you believe the options represented in the questions I posed, as well as those in the actions I proposed, are filled with futility, is beside the point. Although this is debatable -- and in fact I intend to find out just how futile they are by trying them myself rather than arguing about it -- I maintain that even so, there are still a variety of other possibilities for it, undiscovered & unthought of by either of us (and some unrealised by anyone), which are neither "obviously futile, suicidal, or unachievable". There's more to revolutionary action than is dreamt in of all our philosophy.
The discovery and consequent bringing to birth of these latent possibilities requires an experimental method; and despite what our school teachers told us, the qualities most necessary to experimentation are curiosity, adventurousness, courage, and imagination (as evidenced by those famous quips of Einstein “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” and “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”)
rather than the understanding of specialised theories.
Looking back on the failures of the past, whether they be attempts by inventors to make flying machines or attempts by revolutionaries to make history, it may seem to us, that many of them were "obviously futile". However, unless we put ourselves in their shoes and acknowledge all that they did not (& could not) know, we are not likely to learn much from them. By bringing this up I am merely saying that we do ourselves a serious disservice by limiting the realm of the possible to the merely achievable. Risk is the quintessence of manoeuvre. Between the poles of the safe and the suicidal there is surely a wide spectrum of actions whose outcomes are worth exploring. There is no such thing as an unsuccessful experiment as long as one discovers the possibility for a new approach from the failure of the old.
What you've achieved with your pamphlet (which I don't think negligible in itself) is one possible outcome; I doubt that with a change of input (ceterus paribus) a better outcome is impossible, or even improbable. It is hardly unsustainable (in fact, just the opposite) to constantly seek, through the practice of theory – bobbing and weaving, fleet footwork, and well placed jabs -- the opening for a full frontal assault. It is rather unlikely that any revolutionary project, whether individual or collective, is sustainable without this restlessness (as testified by, inter alia, Knabb's Double-reflection). While I don't pretend that this is any guarantee of success -- as if there were a royal road to revolution! -- I do believe it to be a prerequisite. The knock-out uppercut arrives from the ground rather than out of the sky.
P.S. We haven't produced any drafts, and I for one am doubtful of our ability as a collective to produce any very incisive critique. My own interests lie elsewhere, but should my comrades come up with anything decent, I'll let you know.
8) Wayne Spencer to Siddiq Khan, 22 November 2011
For myself, I think there are particular space-times in which our options are more or less the same as a person caught on a beach by a tsunami: i.e. none. But that is not the same as saying that all of the space-times open to us as individuals, the whole of our lives, are characterised by this one-sided balance of forces. I thus agree with you that an assertion that everything is hopeless is nothing more than a contemptible metaphysical pessimism.
I equally agree about the importance of an imaginative and experimental approach. Yet they must be grounded in a realistic appraisal of the possibilities that actually or potentially exist in the context we propose to explore subversively. The history of science is filled with examples of scientists who have imagined the wholly implausible and then wasted a life of experimentation vainly pursuing phantoms and mirages. Examples of this are the infatuation with the paranormal succumbed to by Alfred Russel Wallace and others.
I agree that putting oneself in the shoes of earlier revolutionaries is a part of learning from them. But so too is understanding what they did not know, especially as what was concealed from them at the time may well be what defeated them.
But perhaps none of this matters very much. We both agree that we must each explore the possibilities that lie around us in the most inventive and audacious way we can.
9) Wayne Spencer to Siddiq Khan, 27 January 2012
The questions we discussed are important ones. They have troubled me for some time, and they continue to do so. The levels of decomposition and dissatisfaction vary between places and over time. I remain of the view that there are times and places in which, for the time being, they are almost entirely subterranean. As far as I can determine, I have the misfortune to live in one of these purgatories. Across all domains of my everyday life, I encounter no signs whatsoever of a serious questioning or rejection of the characteristic alienations of contemporary life. Admittedly, there is no small amount of cynicism and resentment regarding the current government’s austerity measures. However, expressly and by implication, this does not go beyond a narrow wish for a return to more comfortable conditions of alienation. That is, a practical critique of the fundamental forms of alienated life in contemporary society is fundamentally alien to it. In these conditions, the possibilities of effective local action are simply non-existent. This is why I have confined myself to non-local publication. My hope has been that a visible critique of contemporary alienation, and especially a critique that is extended widely across alienated life by a collaboration between dispersed but like-minded individuals, might help in some small way to catalyze the self-awareness and self-activity of whatever profound discontent may come to surface in the currently frozen regions. It is in itself a practical activity, but it is by no means a sufficient practice. It does not replace or excuse a local confrontation with the actual alienation lived by me or any other revolutionary. Indeed, its only purpose is to be used, sooner or later, as a practical tool in such confrontation. In the meantime, however, what are the practical consequences of a contestation confined to publication? What is the effect of the de facto resignation that reigns in the rest of my everyday life? What, if any techniques, can be adopted so as to prevent a repeated acting out of the roles of the reigning society from erasing the self and its dissatisfaction?
The text about Prague I mentioned is one answer to some of these questions. In a sense, it was and is part of an effort to simultaneously act as a tourist and poison the experience – to take a holiday and keep myself keenly aware of the continuing necessity of abolishing holidays. It is nearly finished.
10) Siddiq Khan to Wayne Spencer, 27 January 2012
Over the past few months the depth and breadth of contemporary complacency and self-satisfaction has increasingly impressed itself on my consciousness. This seems particularly acute among those who claim to oppose the ruling society. From local incidents, such as case of the marxist professor who recently had Ayanda Kota of the Unemployed People's Movement arrested and beaten for losing one of the books he borrowed from her (the Communist Manifesto!), to the international fiasco around the cop-consultant work of "libertarian communist" academic John Drury and libcom/aufheben's defence thereof; the poverty of any and all currently existing opposition is laid bare increasingly glaring form.
To me, the almost total absence of "serious questioning or rejection of the characteristic alienations" among the so-called progressive milieu the world over, particularly glaring due to its contrary pretensions, is precisely what renders "contestation confined to publication" doomed to failure: in the absence of any simultaneous action, it is only this milieu that is at all likely to encounter, let alone read, let alone seriously consider, such publications - a milieu whose constitution renders it incapable (with one or two exceptions) of making use of such publications. Two of my articles, "The Wise Woman and the Fool" and "The Importance of Impotence", address this problem, albeit not at all exhaustively. The exceptions, of course, can't be discounted, and may with time develop into something formidable -- thus the virtue of knowing how to wait.
At the moment however, my patience with the astonishing poverty of our existence is absolutely exhausted. Partly due to my youth, partly due to my personality; the prospect of confining myself to such a strategy is unacceptable. At the same time I am moved to viscerally reject all existing forms of pseudo-opposition presented precisely to defuse this sort of discontent. If a third way has yet to be discovered, now is as good a time as any for the efforts of revolutionary pioneers. If not, well, as they say, I'll be damned!
If as, you assert, profound dissatisfaction is currently entirely subterranean (an assessment I won't argue against) I will undertake to unearth it, bring it to light, and thereby bring it to life. The most lucid and profound of our comrades in the previous century insisted that revolution involves revealing the submerged possibilities of the current epoch by (however partially) realising them through the construction of seductive situations. I insist that it also involves the revelation of the submerged opposition to the current epoch through the construction of subversive situations. I propose that there is substantial unity between the two projects; all existing evidence seems to me to suggest that this is indeed the case. If the construction of such situations are not permitted, they nevertheless remain undeniably possible. The spectre of their possible realisation haunts our rulers to the point of paranoia.
In the coming days my own experiments will play their small role in putting these hypotheses to the test.
11) Wayne Spencer to Siddiq Khan, 3 February 2012
You may be right that revolutionary writing tends, at present, to circulate within a small milieu of academic and reformist progressives (although I suspect that I myself am not even read by them). However, this is a function of the fact that ordinary people are not yet searching for such writing. If and when they at least begin to contemplate a revolutionary solution to their everyday lives, they will be able to find what they need. In the meantime, as I have no doubt said before, I suspect that no amount of forcing our material to their attention will make a difference.
It seem that the construction of a seductive and situation such as you envisage would involve the modification of all or part of an environment so as to move one or more responsive persons in the direction of an autonomous and practical contestation of the conditions of everyday life. At the risk of making the process seem rather unilateral and mechanistic, this can perhaps be broken down into three practical tasks: (a) determine what particular influence is to be exercised and how it is to be brought to bear; (b) locate the person or persons on whom the influence can usefully be brought to bear and the time and place in which it is to happen; (c) obtain and deploy the means by which this influence can be brought to bear on those persons in that time and space. Do you have any hypotheses that might guide your approach to these tasks?
12) Siddiq Khan to Wayne Spencer, 5 February 2012
Recently I've become very sceptical of the schematic separation between "ordinary people" and "revolutionaries". My experience of those who self identify as revolutionaries (in person and through various forms of mediation) has led me to the conclusion that the majority of such people are practically identical to the "man on the street". For them the contemplation and discussion of revolutionary activity replaces the creation of revolutionary activity. The actions they do undertake are in effect identical to that of trade-unionists and social workers. I do not pretend to have achieved any greater effect in my own action - but the difference between us is that I am not satisfied with my own impotence; from what they do, it seems that most of these self-styled revolutionaries are quite content with their incompetence.
Of course none of my critique is at all original - in the most recent piece
on your blog you yourself wrote "We avow in easy abstraction the need for revolution yet we do precisely nothing about it." For me however, the deficiency is not primarily that people have not been "bringing to the practical project of revolution at least as much time, effort and passion as we have been want to lavish on our jobs, families, pastimes and vacations" the modern day militant, whom I'll call "the activist", manages precisely this by collapsing everything into a unified experience of pseudo opposition. Thus, here in South Africa, there are plenty of "civil society" workers, both paid professionals and volunteer students, from Europe and America who come specifically to enjoy the opportunity to travel, work, protest, and play in an exotic location - four for the price of one! The majority of local activists identical except they might go abroad (to Europe or the US!) when the desire for some "progressive" tourism kicks in. Most activists are not in fact self-styled revolutionaries. They are generally what is described down here as "liberal", that is - thoroughly reformist, generally maintaining the ideology of the liberal bourgeoisie. The problem is, from my (perhaps "unrepresentative"?) own experience, it seems that, with the collapse of both the old revolutionary worker's movement and the "new left", the majority of self-styled revolutionaries are activists.
In any case, the majority of revolutionary proletarians are no less impotent than the majority of revolutionary activists, and are no less self-satisfied either. Worse than this, their revolutionary ideology serves as a very effective shield against any practical intervention. Though critical of their opponents, they are uncritical towards themselves, rendering them incapable, as the debacle of the cop consultant reveals, even of " viewing and treating our enemies as enemies." As the old saying goes, "always the enemy is the foe at home."
Therefore I agree that no amount of forcing our material to the attention of such people will make any difference. Forcing material to the attention of anybody is hardly likely be very effective in any case. Since the primary contradiction resulting in our impotence is the inability of our current actions to accomplish our current desires; it might be fruitful to force the attention of receptive persons towards this contradiction. The aim is to subvert 1) the habitual thoughts and behaviour of participants, thus enabling them 2) to subvert the petrified conditions they find themselves and so 3) convert these conditions into situations which create new desires. If rebellion is not seductive, it's unlikely to be dangerous either. From the satisfaction of immediate desires to the creation of new desires, seduction gyrates to the music of Pan or she does not move at all, simply because it is only through revolt (civil disobedience, looting, sabotage, strikes, extortion, shoplifting, etc) that even the immediate, "superficial" desires of most proletarians can be satisfied. Capital forces more and more of us to wallow in the margins of the economy; it is these marginal proles (who compose more than half the population in South Africa) who have always been most receptive to overcoming practical impotence, since they have always had -- in bare material terms -- the least to lose and the most to gain [*].
One is more likely to receive a more sympathetic hearing from a criminal than from a revolutionary when proposing a tactical modification in their practice, simply because the tactics of the revolutionary are part of his (I use the masculine form here because the "progressive" milieu continues to be dominated by males - numerically and otherwise) identity ("an oyster's identity is his shell") -- he has read what Emma Goldman said about doing it this way, he knows of a long radical tradition of doing it that way, he must take into account the materialist constraints of the "present conjuncture" -- he is as dogmatically opposed to practical "innovation" as a Sunni Muslim theologian. This is my hypothesis then. "Ordinary" proletarians, especially those on the margins, especially the youth, have the least to gain by turning their present inability to change life into a positive identity (thus the failure of the left to craft an image of "the noble worker" that anyone besides leftists ever bought into). They are bored, they are exploited, they are hungry for change. Some of them, such as the delinquents, have even taken practical steps towards rebellion, but these have been proven to be ineffective. Even though most remain at this level, they may not necessarily be satisfied staying there. One of the primary roles of the spectacle is to separate rebellion from its most effective tools (revolutionary theory), from access to its past and present. If, as they say, pre-history advances arse-end forwards, the movement which abolishes it cannot do the same.
It seems to me that your formulation of the practical tasks for the construction of seductive situations puts the cart before the horse. Coming up with a pre-determined goal and then looking for people to use in accomplishing it rarely turns out happily. No one will be receptive to us unless we are receptive to them. This involves recognising what they are already doing, what they are trying to do, and what the implications of these two have on our own intervention. The content of this intervention, or influence, your task (c), will necessarily be entirely specific to each individual case.
This was amply demonstrated today when an attempted temporary (two-day) occupation of a plot of open city land by residents of the townships was blockaded by at least 5 times as many police as there were participants.
[*] One could argue that, for the same reason, they have also been most receptive to populist ideologues. There is undeniably an element of truth to this, but as detailed in "The Seductive Passions of A New Life"
a lot of it is probably due to pragmatism. It is usually the petty-bourgeois and the "middle class" (with its "surplus of false-consciousness") that wholeheartedly buys into the ideologies that capitalism produces and throws away like last season's haute-couture.