Friday, 22 June 2007

Two all too insubstantial fragments on revolutionary theory


In my view, revolutionary theory is an articulation and explanation of those strains of dissatisfaction with the everyday life of contemporary capitalism that cannot be resolved outside of a social revolution and a critique of the subjective and objective obstacles that fetter the advance of such dissatisfaction towards its revolutionary remedy in the specific social circumstances that are now at hand. It can be of immediate interest and meaning only to individuals whose disillusion with everyday life has produced the particular depth of dissatisfaction to which revolutionary theory speaks. It does not follow that revolutionary theory is somehow permanently alien to the currently satisfied; it is just that satisfaction must undermine itself first. This is a matter less of the persuasive power of revolutionaries than it is of the contradictions and deficiencies of capitalism and the everyday life it sustains. Advanced capitalism increasingly justifies itself to the proletariat on the basis of its purported ability to deliver a richly rewarding everyday life, a life made up of various combinations of autonomy, excitement, glamour, sexual satisfaction, ecstasy, communication, community, enlightenment, delectable depravity, etc. Yet the trivialization, separation and subordination of an everyday life that is constrained to the production, circulation, glorification and consumption of commodities yields meagre rewards for even the most abject of spectators, and what little can be grasped is soon exhausted by experience or swept into obsolescence and ridicule by the next turn of the consumer's society's wheel. The task of the dominant society is to adroitly manage the change of illusions so as not to produce any insight into the illusion of change and to shrivel people's information, intelligence, desires, initiative and expectations of life down to the narrow dimensions that sustain some degree of satisfaction with, or resignation to, the society of the spectacle. Success is not certain for capitalism. Refusals of various sizes have erupted in the past. Moreover, the times in which we live hardly evidence a smooth absorption of the proletariat into spectacular life. Mental illness and depression appear rife. Even the well-adjusted and the pseudo-rebellious seem to have about their lives a desperation that speaks more of fragility and a grim clutching at consoling illusions that threaten to slip out of reach than of a stable and unthinking embrace of commodified existence. One would have to have a remarkable faith in capitalism to see in this state of affairs a definitive and permanent banishment of dialectics.


One task for revolutionaries and other proletarians is precisely to examine their own thoughts and feelings so as identify and confront the ideas and desires that are directly derived from the spectacle or that tend to sustain it within you and you within it. There is no algorithm for doing this and the process is inevitably fallible. It is, I would suggest, in the first instance a matter of tracing as far as possible the origins, natures, correlates and practical consequences of what we think and feel and ascertaining whether and how these serve to reproduce the system of alienation, on the one hand, or point beyond it, on the other. Needless to say, even if one is in a position to overcome particular alienated thoughts and practices to some degree in advance of revolutionary change, the exigencies and consequences of living within the society of the spectacle will either foster relapses into old ways or reconstitute alienation in new configurations in the changed circumstances in which one finds oneself. The process continues therefore until the individual acts with others to overthrow capitalism or subsides into one variety or other of resignation.

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

On Lice and Fleas: Observations Starting from the Conflict Between Iran and the USA

By Wayne Spencer

“Johnson, for sport perhaps, or from the spirit of contradiction, eagerly maintained that Derrick had merit as a writer. Mr. Morgan argued with him directly, in vain. At length he had recourse to this device. ‘Pray, Sir, (said he,) whether do you reckon Derrick or Smart the best poet?’ Johnson at once felt himself rouzed; and answered, ‘Sir, there is no settling the point of precedency between a louse and a flea’.” (James Boswell, Life of Johnson, 1791)

Within the catalogue of absurd actions, values, goods, entertainments, aspirations, emotions and ideas that the society of the spectacle ubiquitously parades before us as a summation of all that has been said and done, and all that can be said and done, the dispute between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran has of late obtained a certain intermittent prominence.

The possibility of an armed conflict between the United States and Iran is perhaps a fairly remote one. If and when an attack occurs, however, it will do so because that ever-shifting admixture of blind self-interest, shrewd strategic insight and deluded ideological delirium that characterizes the thought of the Bush administration and its global allies has come to conclude that the political and economic interests of the national and international capitalist systems they oversee would best be served by such a course of action. The ends pursued by such an attack would doubtless include the preservation of American and Israeli military hegemony within the region; the curtailment of an Iranian regional influence that has only been enhanced by the elimination of the hostile regime of Saddam Hussein and its replacement by a Shi’ite dominated government sympathetic to Iran; the opening-up of the vast Iranian oil reserves to less fettered use by the West; and the intimidation of present and potential opponents worldwide and those local governing regimes who have to date been dilatory in their submission to the dictates of the Western powers.

America and its allies have so far grounded their measures against Iran on the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and any approach towards war is likely to continue using the treaty as justification. The treaty undoubtedly lends itself to such use. In practice, it has always served to hinder new powers who are objectionable to the existing powers from acquiring weapons of mass destruction while doing nothing to require the globally dominant national powers to renounce their existing arsenals, or even to refrain from introducing new and modernized weapons systems. In this way, it perpetuates the military dominance of the states that possessed nuclear weapons in 1968 (when the treaty was first ratified) over those who came later. However, it is not just the hypocrisy of the treaty and the one-sidedness with which it is implemented that renders it contemptible. The fundamental function of the treaty is to ensure that the conflicts of interest that continually erupt between current or aspiring hierarchical powers competing with each for dominance over populations and resources do not escalate into a global catastrophe that would destroy the system as a whole. Thus, while it reduces the possibility of contending powers wreaking terrible destruction across the planet, it does so only as part of the institutional and regulatory framework of global capitalism and in order to ensure that humanity remains available to be subordinated by someone or other to the state and the economy. We are permitted to go on living, required indeed to keep ourselves alive, purely in order that the economy and its deceptions, the autonomous movement of the non-living, can continue to exercise its sway and pursue its blind passage to nowhere.

On the other side of the line of conflict that has been drawn for us, Iran cites its sovereignty as a nation and the needs of an economy worryingly reliant on oil in defence of what it claims is its entirely non-military nuclear programme. However, the sovereignty that Iran’s ruling elite insists upon in relation to other states is equally and necessarily asserted against the ordinary people of Iran. Moreover, the economy about which the state is so concerned is nothing more than the mechanism whereby the labour power of the Iranian proletariat is extracted from it, often with the crudest brutality, and then circulated locally and globally in the form of alienated commodities. The history of Iran since the 1978 revolution demonstrates beyond doubt that the practical reality of the clerical “rule of the just” at the heart of the self-definition of the Islamic Republic is the systematic subjection of society to the separate power of an external ideology and the social strata of clerics, cronies, traders and capitalists that rule in its name or flourish under its control of everyday life. It is the standing refutation of the false promises of all the pseudo-revolutionaries of radical Islamism. Of course, many Islamists belong to branches of Islam other than Shi’ism. But it is not the theological differences between Shi’ism and the other strands of Islam that have been responsible for the creation of a new tyranny within Iran since the revolution. Rather, it is the fact that the revolution permitted to come to power a regime that was separate from the proletariat and sought to impose upon it the dictates of a separate ideology. Liberation descending from above inevitably crushes those waiting below.

Even before any armed hostilities break out, sections of the ruling classes in the United States and Iran have sought to utilize the tattered but still functioning ideology of nationalism - with its core doctrine that the individual must assimilate into and defend whatever arbitrarily-defined hierarchical collectivity is said to be the nation - in order to claim that there is a threat to people like “us” that requires a rallying behind the state. The cynicism bred by the long line of all-too-obvious lies the Bush government and the rulers of Iran have trotted out over the years perhaps renders this crude manipulation of public sentiment of limited efficacy. However, the spectacle also uses the prospect of war between the two countries to secure obedience to the interests of the state and the economy in more subtle ways, especially in the liberal and affluent West.

In the advanced capitalist countries, submission to the logic of the commodity and the state is secured less by militarism than by the false pleasures, false choices and false oppositions the spectacle provides in abundance. The spectator is continuously presented with choices and issues that make no qualitative difference to everyday life. He or she is urged to support or participate in an endless succession of campaigns that may ameliorate some aspect of contemporary alienation but leave the fundamental bases of the society unchanged. We are already seeing the death in old age of individuals who have spent an entire lifetime battling inequalities and injustices, opposing wars, striving to increase citizen’s rights, exposing unsafe goods and practices, challenging the stupidities and deceptions of politicians and bureaucrats, etc, sometimes indeed with a reasonable degree of success. In doing so, they have not weakened the subordination of the totality of society to the commodity economy and its state in the slightest. Capitalist society is now openly reformist at almost every level, permitting, even encouraging, suggestions and demands for change within the confines of the system. For example, the UK Parliament alone (not counting the legislatures in Wales and Scotland) brings into force over 3,500 new statutory instruments (regulations, etc) each year, many representing attempts to modify some aspect of life. The total body of reformist activity is much vaster, as many administrative and other changes within government, industry, etc, do not require changes in the law. Far from weakening the dominant society, the vast tide of complaints, analyses and proposals for the amelioration of isolated symptoms of the reigning alienation generated by the many thousands of campaigning groups operating in every advanced country in effect serves as an invaluable source of hypotheses and data for the refinement of alienation, helping the system to identify ideological and practical improvements that have escaped the inevitably blinkered notice of politicians, industrialists and bureaucrats. Not everything is acted upon, and certainly not straightaway; nonetheless, small but real changes are introduced at the surface of social life over time and the observable consequences of the endless but intermittently rewarded process of pursuing such changes are to adjust capitalism to the beginnings of dissatisfaction and the beginnings of dissatisfaction to capitalism.

The spectre of war in Iran offers yet another opportunity for the spectator to spend time thinking and acting in ways that will leave his or her alienation just where it stands and just where it has always stood. The merits of the cases for and against an attack on Iran, as judged by one or another liberal, conservative or pseudo-revolutionary perspective within capitalism, are endlessly discussed by specialists and then mulled over by spectators. Means for a peaceful resolution are advanced and considered and protests are discussed and carried on. In all this, nothing of importance is challenged and nothing of importance changes. Even the narrow interests of American and European capital can be safeguarded without recourse to a military strike on Iran, as the existence of dissenting voices within the military, political and cultural establishments amply testifies. More importantly, whether or not America or its allies pursue an attack, the system in which we sacrifice the whole of our lives to the autonomous process of the capitalist economy, and the empty roles and pleasures it offers, will persist. Whether or not the hawkish voices for war within global neo-conservatism have their way in this instance, the everyday lives of the individual will remain imprisoned within the system of alienation that ensnares us. Mere opposition to war in Iran, like tourism, will take us nowhere worth going.

In Iran, the Islamic regime’s attempts to impose an ideological monopoly leave less room for proponents of reform or pseudo-revolution than in the West, but false opposition exists there too. The economic liberalization initiated by President Rafsanjani in the early 1990s and the growth of higher education in the country have increased the size of the bourgeoisie, the middle class and the student population. Some members of these groups have done relatively well in economic terms, while others, such as the students unable to find professional work commensurate with their qualifications, have seen their aspirations frustrated. Both hope that more radical socio-economic shifts in the direction of liberal capitalism will increase the benefits they receive from an economy that continues to be constrained by the economic isolation of Iran and the control of much of the economy by the state and the giant para-state Islamic charitable institutions (bonyads). Equally, this milieu expects that a civil society less bound by the moral archaisms of the current regime will allow it to indulge more freely those tastes for commodified pleasure and display that it derives from the global spectacle of consumable life and through which it likes to pretend that it is independent, sophisticated and superior to both the vulgar workers and the philistine clergy. The result is an ideology that loudly proclaims the importance of human rights and bourgeois democracy and remains silent about almost everything else. In recent years, the collapse of the organised reform movement in the face of the intransigence of the regime has left the middle classes without a vehicle for social change. Nonetheless, its capitalist ideology (with its retinue of photogenic human rights advocates, film-makers, musicians, fashionable young people and other enthusiastic proponents of consumer conformity to dramatize it) continues to serve as both a false model of radical social change within Iran and a resource for proponents of military action against Iran in the West.

The potential for radical opposition to the regime in Iran is to be found amongst the proletariat. In January 2004, the majority of workers who had constructed a copper-smelting plant in Khatonabad on the promise that they would be offered jobs in the works were dismissed. The workers and their families responded by strikes and blockades of the plant, demanding that the agreement be honoured and outstanding wages paid. After eight days of conflict, helicopters sent by the local Security Council fired on the protestors, killing between 4 and 15 and wounding up to 300. Around 80 workers were also arrested, with some later being tortured. This exercise in state violence did not, however, extinguish the dispute, for clashes between workers and the security forces persisted for several days afterwards. Moreover, the spreading news about the massacre served to stimulate rather than intimidate proletarian resistance in Iran. A growing wave of class struggle has now emerged, with teachers, bus drivers and workers in the car, petrochemical and textile industries, amongst others, taking up their own grievances against their employers.

As yet, the proletarian movement in Iran has not stepped beyond demands (such as those for better working conditions, the payment of arrears of pay and improved wages) that continue to recognize the existence of capitalism. However, there are also signs that sections of the workers are seeking a revolutionary position. One such is the formation of the Komiteye Hamahangi (“Coordinating Committee to Form Workers’ Organization”), an anti-capitalist grouping that has avoided the Stalinism that has long afflicted revolutionary thought in Iran and whose founding declaration attracted the signatures of over 3,000 Iranian proletarians. Unfortunately, the Komiteye’s present orientation appears to contain fundamental weaknesses that seem likely to hamper the class struggle. The objectives of the Komiteye are to foster the emergence of activists from the underground; to help create, link and coordinate workers’ organizations; to encourage workers to be open to organization; and ultimately to establish the founding committee of a national anti-capitalist working class organization in Iran. The purpose of the association between the members of the Komiteye is thus not to develop for themselves the theory of their own practice and the practice of their own theory; nor is to aid other proletarians to do so. The organization exists largely to build itself and other organizations and the individual is expected simply to aid this construction of collectivies. The internal structure of the Komiteye seems consistent with this mediated and submissive view of the individual’s role in class struggle and its inattention to the nature of social relations that result. The individual is required to attend the monthly ordinary meetings of the Komiteye but no attempt beyond this is made to require or ensure egalitarian and active relationships between the members. No concern about the possibility of hierarchy and passivity is evinced and no mechanisms to militate against these abnegations of autonomy have been instituted. Also, the role of the ordinary meeting is limited. It sets policies and the constitution and it elects both sub-committees and an executive committee; however, its control over these committees is evidently limited. The executive committee may be dissolved on a vote of an emergency committee but there is no requirement that it periodically report to the members and have the steps it has taken to carry out its mandate approved. There is also the question of the fundamental relationship of the individual toward his or her own activity in the organization. Who decides what practical steps are to be taken by the members? Is the individual’s initiative as a member subject to prior orders or subsequent approval by the executive or ordinary committee? The Komiteye’s constitution says nothing on this matter expressly, suggesting a complete indifference to the matter of whether the individual retains autonomy or surrenders it to the group he or she has joined. To the extent it is possible to tell from outside, it would seem that it is down to the executive committee to initiate the activity of the Komiteye’s members and perhaps appraise it afterwards. If that is so, the relationship between individual members and the Komiteye only replicates the alienated relationships between order-givers and order-takers, and between separate bodies and their subordinate members, that are found in the capitalist world. The individual members serve the organization; the organization does not serve the individual. Moreover, an analogous relationship appears to be contemplated between the Komiteye (and the national organization it aims at) and the wider proletariat, with the role of the proletariat being to open itself up to being organized from outside and approve the “influential and well-trusted worker activists” who will carry this organisation out on their behalf. Across the board, the Komiteye fails to take into account the long and sad history of proletarian revolution and revolutionary activities being subverted by the presence or emergence within them of alienated social relations; it fails fully to learn the historical lesson that alienation cannot be combated with alienated means.

In an interview with Against the Wage in 2005, Mohsen Hakimi, a founder member of Komiteye Hamahangi, suggested that the current wave of disputes over terms and conditions of employment in Iran “calls into question the bosses and the government” and “by its very nature, is anti-capitalist”. It can hardly be doubted that the concrete experience of the crude exploitation by which the Iranian ruling classes enrich themselves, an exploitation that often includes wages below the official poverty line for a family, dangerous conditions, and militarized workplaces, opens up the possibility of revolutionary praxis within the Iranian proletariat. However, the course of revolution depends fundamentally on the proletariat consciously and practically repudiating all the alienated thoughts and actions that arise out of and sustain capitalism, and doing so by and for itself. In the same way that the Komiteye fails radically to engage with everyday social relations within itself, so it fails in theory and practice to contest social relations in wider everyday life. For example, the Komiteye proposes to foster a propensity to organization in workers by means that include “cultural, artistic and athletic organizations of the workers”. These measures betray a taking for granted of separate thought, separate creativity and separate play in an epoch when culture, art and sport are not just lucrative fields of commodity production and consumption but also vital ideological bulwarks of the rule of the commodity and its economy worldwide, not least because of the ways in which they corral human creativity and play into specialized domains separate from everyday life as a whole and divorced from an unmediated use and control of the means of modern production. If the Iranian proletariat is to supersede a clamouring for better wages and more humane conditions of labour and embark on a social revolution, it can do so only by way of a comprehensive practical critique of everyday life. Such a critique must attack poverty and oppression at the hands of the ruling classes and everything else in the everyday life that makes individuals the agents, hand-maidens and mouthpieces of the commodity and prevents them from taking possession of the whole of social life. Such a critique should undoubtedly include, yet can hardly be restricted to, a practical critique of the alienations, constraints and miseries of ordinary family life, gender roles, nationalism, sport in particular and leisure in general, art, the organization of town and city, and the consumption of drugs, fashion and other forms of commodified oblivion.

A central threat confronting the project of proletarian liberation in Iran is to be found in the efforts within and without Iran to foster the growth and recognition of trade unions in the country. The hierarchical relations between officials and grassroots members, which can already be seen coalescing in the Tehran bus workers syndicate and other organisations in Iran, sooner or later take the theory and practice of struggles out of the hands and minds of proletarians themselves, assigning strategy, tactics, the correction of errors, and a wider comprehension of struggles to a specialized bureaucratic elite and reducing ordinary members to spectators and order-takers in their own struggles. Moreover, in relation to Iran, the unions are a counterpart to the spectacle of overseas consumer happiness carried by the popular culture, advertising and other commodified thought emanating from the West. At the same time that consumer publicity fosters a demand for the products of advanced capitalism, trade unionism seeks to promote a local economic organisation that will supply such consumption across a wider section the population. Here as elsewhere, trade unions seek to limit the ruling classes’ ability to extract profits on the basis of low wages and poor working conditions and thereby oblige the existing rulers or their successors to engage in an economic modernization that will increase the productivity of workers and provide the means to combine higher wages and continued profitability. The price of this strategy is every moment of every proletarian’s life, for the simple reason that life remains subordinated at every stage and every point to the alienated production of commodities and their alienated consumption. The same can be said for the array of ‘non-governmental organizations’ (NGOs) within Iran, a body of reformists of everyday life that may be content to see all or part of the existing regime replaced but envisages in its place nothing more than a new alienation refurbished in accordance with one or other brand of capitalist liberalism. At bottom, the civil society so beloved by NGOs and human rights advocates is conceptually positioned in its ideology between the state and the economy precisely because it takes these twin pillars of contemporary alienation entirely for granted as essential components of all conceivable life.

The progress of revolution in Iran turns in part on the extent to which proletarians rediscover, refine and put again into practice the historical experience of the Shuras. From the second half of 1978 onwards, Iranian workers became an increasingly prominent and effective component of opposition to the Shah’s regime, as the country’s economy was crippled by huge strikes in the oil fields, copper mines, banks, railways, civil service, ports, factories, shipyards, transport network, etc. With the insurrection of 14 February 1979 that destroyed the Shah’s regime, factory owners fled the country in considerable numbers. The Shuras arose as organs of workers’ control over these and other enterprises. However, they were at length eliminated by the new clerical regime. From the outset, the Shuras failed to understand themselves and act as the means by which proletarians exercise unmediated control over the totality of social life. They tempered but did not eliminate the control of management, foremen and other agents of power over the workers. They did not oppose the state but instead sought to bargain with it. They did not uniformly adopt a direct democracy that placed all decisions in the hands of the workers and their strictly mandated delegates but instead often allowed power within the Shura to be alienated from the workers in favour of representatives placed above them. They did not extend their reach by confederating both with each other and with local councils bringing together the elements of the population (such as the retired, the disabled and those housewives who worked only at home) that were excluded from workplaces. They did not communicate with workers abroad to spread their revolution, leaving it isolated within an extant global capitalist economy. The next time around, Iranian workers must know that nothing can be left outside the power of individuals organised in workers councils and must act quickly and consistently to that end.

The progress of revolution in Iran will also centrally turn on the extent to which it can foster proletarian revolution across the globe, and especially in the economically dominant advanced countries. The destruction of the state capitalist system in Eastern Europe in 1989, which was observed passively by the proletariat in Western Europe, America, Japan and Australasia, illustrates how social change that does not put into question the affluent alienation of the advanced countries, that restricts itself to demanding the miserable wealth and miserable freedoms that the proletariat already possess in those countries, is all too likely to remain unanswered and alone. The revolution in Iran must strike at the heart of capitalist society, at the alienated submission of life and labour to the commodity, if it is to find sympathetic echoes abroad. Nothing less will do.

June 2007

No copyright. Use and reproduce freely.

Sunday, 8 April 2007

No Work is Good

On 1 December 2006, the Council of the European Union endorsed the European Commission’s proposals to promote "decent work". Amongst other things, the Council's conclusions assert that:

"in order to strengthen the competitiveness of the EU in a socially sustainable way, it is important to improve productivity by promoting decent work and the quality of working life, including health and safety at work, combining flexibility and security, life-long learning, good working relations as well as better reconciliation of work and private life".

Of course, here and elsewhere, the Conclusions are suffused with ideology. However, the ideological dimension is not the underlying proposition that such work is possible within the confines of contemporary capitalism, but rather the presupposition that there is anything desirable or satisfactory about work that possesses these characteristics. All too many millions already labour under just these humane conditions; and yet we suffer still. Whatever the conditions of labour may be, the fact remains that all workers spend each moment of every day serving their employer and the global economy that ultimately dictates and absorbs our every working gesture. However safe and considerate work may be, it nonetheless appropriates the total production of the person performing it. What arises from this alienated labour across society remains a world of alienation, a world of eternally external powers and processes, with all the barely suppressed boredom, depression, frustration, anguish and separation that follows from it. And any improvement in productivity is merely an intensification of submission.

Monday, 26 March 2007

The Fraud of Happiness

In February 2007, the European Commission published European Social Reality, a report of the results of a survey of 26,755 people living in 27 European countries (the European Union member states plus Bulgaria and Romania). One of the questions asked in the survey was: "taking all things together would you say you are…very happy, quite happy, not very happy or not at all happy?". In the 25 European Union states, 89% of respondents described themselves as very or quite happy. This is propaganda directed at one's self. In an era in which the revolutionary transformation of society has largely ceased to be regarded as a practical and imperative project for individuals, the inevitable deficiency of an everyday life relentlessly subjected to the dictatorship of the economy places the individual in a quandary. How does one respond to the poverty, stupidity and inanity that afflict an everyday life crushed beneath economic, social and political systems that are constructed out of the powers and work expropriated from individuals but are nowhere under individuals' control? One could admit that one's life is wretched and try yet another electronic toy, therapy, drug, guru, sport, self-help regime, cultural event, holiday, style, job, crime, etc; and, indeed, these measures for refurbishing life without changing any of the basic conditions that made it lamentable in the first place remain popular. But it would seem that there are few of us who are prepared to threaten our shaky self-esteem by admitting to too great a disappointment with the life we lead. Hence the ubiquity of professed happiness. We may from time to time become horrifically aware of the emptiness and degrading narrowness of the domains of family life, friendship, entertainment, study, work, travel, etc, in which we are condemned to pretend to live, but we are surely happy. We may feel tired, bored, sick in mind and body because of the humiliating garbage we are required to think, say and do every day, but we are surely happy. We may rummage with mounting desperation through the commodified joy, fun and ecstasy offered by a Bacchanalian consumer capitalism, but we are surely happy. These are the lies we tell to keep us from cutting our throats.

Monday, 19 March 2007

Gasping from out the Shallows

Reflections on revolution in the early twenty-first century

By Wayne Spencer

Human beings are not fully conscious of their real lives. Groping in the dark, overwhelmed by the consequences of their acts, at every moment groups and individuals find themselves faced with outcomes they had not intended […] What should be abolished continues, and we continue to wear away with it. We are engulfed. Separated from each other. The years pass and we haven’t changed anything.
(Guy Debord, On the Passage of a Few Persons Through a Rather Brief Unity of Time, 1959)

We have invented nothing. We adapt ourselves, with a few variations, into the network of possible itineraries. We get used to it, it seems.
(Guy Debord, Critique of Separation, 1961)

If it seems somewhat absurd to talk of revolution, this is obviously because the organized revolutionary movement has long since disappeared from the modern countries where the possibilities of a decisive social transformation are concentrated. But all the alternatives are even more absurd, since they imply accepting the existing order in one way or another. (Internationale Situationniste #6, 1961)

Many people are sceptical about the possibility of a new revolutionary movement, continually repeating that the proletariat has been integrated or that the workers are now satisfied, etc. This means one of two things: either they are declaring themselves satisfied (in which case we will fight them without any equivocation); or they are identifying themselves with some category separate from the workers, such as artists (in which case we will fight this illusion by showing them that the new proletariat is tending to encompass virtually everybody). (Internationale Situationniste #7, 1962)

The worst of misery
Is when a nature framed for noblest things
Condemns itself in youth to petty joys,
And, sore athirst for air,
breathes scanty life
Gasping from out the shallows. (George Eliot, The Spanish Gypsy, 1868)



“In the context of the reality presently beginning to take shape, we may consider as proletarians all people who have no possibility of altering the social space-time that the society allots to them (regardless of variations in their degree of affluence or chances for promotion)” (Situationist International, Ideologies, Classes, and the Domination of Nature, Internationale Situationniste #8, 1963)


The first movement of the revolutionary proletariat against the alienation of capitalism, a movement exemplified by the great waves of workers’ struggles and revolutions that convulsed the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was destroyed by the machinations, mystifications and munitions of social democracy, fascism and Bolshevism. With the defeat in the mid-1930s of the attempts by the revolutionary workers and peasants of Spain to establish a self-managed society, the century chimed midnight. In the course of the 1950s, a second movement of proletarian contestation began to grow restless under the new conditions of alienation erected out of the partial successes and ultimate failure of the earlier expressions of proletarian dissatisfaction. This contestation affected both poles of the apparently divided but actually united system of global capitalism: the state capitalism of the societies expropriated by Bolshevism and the affluent consumer capitalism of the West. In the Soviet bloc, the uprisings in East Berlin in 1953, Poznan in Poland in 1956 and across Hungary in 1956, along with innumerable other acts of defiance both large and small, expressed the proletariat’s rejection of the pseudo-communist bureaucracies that reigned in the proletariat’s name yet subjected every aspect of society to an authoritarian domination for its own interests as a ruling class. In the West, wildcat strikes defied the unions, and sabotage, absenteeism, shoddy work and an avowed contempt for work revealed that sections of the proletariat were dissatisfied with the well-paid alienated labour on which the post-war consumer societies were based; so too there was a more sporadic and confused refusal of the machinery of permitted consumption. In May 1968 in France and during the 1969 ‘Hot Autumn’ in Italy, proletarian discontent coalesced into vast movements and refused quietly to subside afterwards; so much so that these two countries were singled out as objects of particular horror by an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development meeting of employment experts convened in 1971 out of fearful apprehension that “the industrial countries…are undergoing a revolution” whose first principle is the “challenge to authority”. According to this collection of specialists in workers submission, the perspective of a society “without classes, hierarchy, authority and regulations” was abroad in “industrial France”, while in Italy “the effects of industrial conflicts and social malaise are constantly combined” and “minor details of technical progress in workplaces…provoke conflicts whose violence is out of all proportion to their causes”. They were right to be alarmed. In their study of 123 industrial conflicts in France in 1971, for example, Claude Durand and Pierre Dubois found that “significant illegalities”, such as occupations of premises or physical violence against employers, cadres, supervisors or police, had occurred in half of all disputes. And high levels of conflict persisted in many other regions of the advanced capitalist societies. However, by the end of the following decade, the second upsurge of the proletariat had been defeated. The state capitalist societies of Eastern Europe had all been overthrown, but they were succeeded not by the management by proletarians themselves of all aspects of their individual and collective lives, but rather by the forms of representative democracy, alienated production and commodified everyday life characteristic of western liberal capitalism. In the west itself, the society of the abundant commodity continued to dominate every aspect of social life.


In the following sections of this document, I shall offer some tentative, incomplete and doubtless all too fallible views as to how and why the challenges to the dominant society in the second half of the twentieth century failed. To this end, I shall consider the four most developed movements to suppress the global commodity economy identified by Chris Shutes in his pamphlet On the Poverty of Berkeley Life and the Marginal Status of American Society in General (Berkeley, 1983), namely those to be found in Italy, Britain, Poland and South Africa. The goal in doing so is not to advance abstract historical understanding, nor to lambast and lament those who failed to overcome all the obstacles to revolution before them in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, nor to flatter the sense of superiority or the cynical submissiveness of those who come after them. An understanding of the failure of those revolutionary efforts is important only as part of a practical project to renew and intensify the revolutionary assault on contemporary alienation by going beyond what was said and done before.



The emergence of modernized class conflict in Italy was signalled by a series of unusually intense struggles in the factories in the central and northern regions of the country during 1968. Typically led by skilled workers angry at the deterioration of their relatively privileged terms and conditions, these struggles soon led to even less restrained assaults on the miseries of work by semi-skilled workers, often immigrants from the south, who regarded with equal contempt the authoritarian world of work to be found in the north and the local traditions of fearful deference that sustained it. In the course of 1969, some 5,000 strikes involving nearly 8 million workers broke out, with many escaping union control and being conducted directly by proletarians themselves. The methods used in the most radical of these conflicts included novel developments such as the ‘chess-board’ strike (a scacchiera), in which an unpredictable rolling sequence of short strikes by groups of workers in different parts of the production process would cripple a factory at minimal cost to the workers as a whole, as well as go-slows, factory occupations, sabotage of goods and machinery, and physical assaults on supervisory, personnel and management personnel. At their peak, the struggles began to approach a total rejection of both alienated labour and the notion of rendering alienation more comfortable by reforms in productive practices and quantitative increases in wages and holidays; as workers from Mirafiori and several other Turin factories put it in a demonstration on 3 July 1969: “What do we want? Everything!”. In other instances, however, proletarians expressed their dissatisfactions, with some success, in terms of demands for fixed-sum or other wage increases, generalized upgrading, control over speed of work or other superficial changes to work.


The ‘Hot Autumn’ of 1969 did not destroy capitalism. What confronted the proletariat after its conclusion was the new pattern of accommodation with capitalism that its own struggles, its own successes, had produced. It was imperative to create the consciousness and practices to overcome this new alienated equilibrium. Several obstacles stood in the way of the necessary advance in understanding and action. These included the legal action taken against thousands of workers whose actions has infringed the law and the terrorist attacks staged by elements of the state and their far-right supporters but attributed to the opponents of the state as part of a ‘strategy of tension’. Perhaps more important, however, as dangers to the deepening of the thought and praxis of the discontented proletariat were other factors that threatened to draw the proletariat back towards the goals and methods of trade unionism, starting with the unions.


The trade unions themselves, having initially been surprised and outmanoeuvred by workers’ militancy, launched strong efforts to contain that dissatisfaction within methods and objectives consistent with the existence of the commodity economy. Workers’ rejection of hierarchy and division had confusedly been expressed through egalitarian wage demands. These demands, which tacitly accepted the institution of work, were taken up by the unions as part of new negotiating packages. In the same vein, the unions recuperated the emerging critique of the alienation of the totality of proletarians’ labour, as expressed by the attacks on the ruinously high line speeds and crude authoritarianism that were the most obvious manifestations of a work extracted from them in the service of the commodity, converting this into a demand for an extension of the involvement of workers’ representatives in the regulation and reform of shop floor procedures. The unions also introduced organizational changes that improved their capacity to recuperate and divert struggles. The 1970 Workers Charter had extended the recognition of unions and allowed for the deduction of union dues from wage packets. This was a first step toward making unions more available to workers and tying workers more closely to the unions. Other organizational and procedural changes went further down this road. For example, the unions took greater steps to consult members over the demands to be included in the negotiations over national contract and opened the way for individual militants to be co-opted into the running of union-led struggles. The unions emerged in a better financial position and in a better position to exercise control over workers’ dissatisfaction and struggles. One important development was the absorption into the union structure of the system of factory delegates and councils. Developed, it would seem, by union militants and reformists from the Manifesto group and the Socialist Party of Proletarian Unity, the system of electing delegates to councils was understood as a means of replacing the unmediated associations between proletarians that had spontaneously emerged in the course of struggles with a permanent and separate structure to represent workers’ interests as alienated producers within a capitalism that was taken for granted. This made it not just the natural territory of trade unions, whose very raison d’être is to mediate the humane and affluent incorporation of the proletariat into capitalism, but a highly attractive one at a time when the unions found themselves out of touch with their constituency. Accordingly, the metalworking unions and the Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro (CGIL) adopted the delegates and the councils as constituent elements of their grassroots structure in 1970, followed in 1972 by the new federation between the CGIL, the Confederazione Italiana Sindacati Lavoratori and the Unione Italiana del Lavoro. By 1973 there were 97,161 delegates grouped into 9,813 councils. These proved instrumental in negotiating the 3,225 plant-level agreements in force by that year and in many instances had involved themselves in the day-to-day negotiation or regulation of work-rates, work-loads, breaks, etc. Every action taken by the delegates in the name of the workers struck at the autonomy of the proletariat and confined it within the logic of capitalism. Over time, the unions increased the powers possessed by the council secretariats and executives so as largely to eliminate delegates’ control over the councils. However, this did not change the essence of the councils. They remained what they had always been: separate bodies for the incorporation of the proletariat into the separate economy and a bulwark for the dominant society.


The onset of economic difficulties and rising inflation in Italy, phenomena that were in part the result of proletarians’ success in reducing productivity and increasing wages, soon gave rise to a spectacle of economic crisis. This did not merely counsel acquiescence and sacrifice on the part of workers but in its pseudo-oppositional variants encouraged an increasingly exclusive focus on the active defence of the superficial ameliorations to work already won and the endless pursuit of further wage increases to offset the depredations of inflation. In this way, the spectacle once again discovered urgent privations, supposedly basic needs, and outrageous injustices within abundance whose resolution justified the postponement of profound social transformation and the persistence of alienated production and consumption. In this way, the results of proletarians’ initial efforts to escape the commodity economy returned to them in alienated form to urge the abandonment of any intensification of those efforts.


Alongside the clamorous talk of crisis, the ordinary spectacle of the pleasures and compensations of consumption – as conveyed by advertising, entertainment, journalism, high culture, education, etc – continued to saturate society with propaganda in favour of an everyday life confined to the consumption of the products of alienated labour and the ideologies that give them false meaning. At every turn, proletarians were confronted with seductive visions of a life of consumption that would gratify desires and realize dreams without the need for revolution.


In the event, although vast struggles continue to harry Italian capitalism over the next several years, the proletariat failed to discover the means to overcome the obstacles before it. The trade unions succeeding in drawing huge additional numbers of workers within the orbit of their ideology of perpetual negotiated surrender to the alienation of labour, as membership grew from some 4.5 million in 1968 to over 6 million in 1973. Even where wildcat struggles escaped union control, they repeatedly settled for extending the margins of the bounded and false autonomy the individual possesses within the terms of the capitalist system. Wages typically increased, and in some workplaces the workers may have put themselves in a position to exercise a degree of choice as to how and when work was carried out; nonetheless, 100% of their labour power remained expropriated from them and the total alienated space-time constructed out of that fundamental alienation continued to dominate society without abatement. In effect, although proletarians from time to time went beyond trade unionist organization, they did not overcome the underlying trade unionist ideology that regards work as a necessary evil that is justified by the domestic life and commodity consumption it makes possible.


The faltering of proletarian struggle was in part attributable to a failure to confront the whole of the daily life that advanced capitalism provides. Outside of work, the everyday life of consumable roles and pleasures was the subject of very little critique, and workers who carved out greater free time by absenteeism or reduced hours tended to adopt conventional ways of life once beyond the factory gates. This is not to say that there was no criticism of how life was lived, for especially in the northern areas where the scale of immigration from the south had exceeded the capacity of corrupt administrations and private business to provide the banal facilities of everyday life in advanced capitalism, furious struggles for adequate accommodation and other goods were conducted. These struggles over a myriad of details of daily life gave the contestation in those areas a breadth that might have opened the way to a comprehensive critique of everyday life. But its focus on deficiencies in supply, on the ways in which the available facilities fell short of the ordinary expectations of the modern consumer, exposed it to recuperation into reformist campaigns for the provision of a properly modern alienation, inevitably led by specialists in each separate domain of consumption that was in issue, or to degeneration into a host of individual scrambles to use the increased wages that had been secured in order to purchase private solutions. Indeed, the extra money that became available as a by-product of factory struggles placed within proletarians’ reach a greater range of consumable needs and pleasures generally, calling for an awareness and practical critique of the poverties of the domain of separate consumption increasingly opening to it. Such a refusal did not develop. Apart from some promising but narrow critiques by feminists, domestic life and commodity consumption was accepted without reflection. This blindness to the nature and poverties of important aspects of capitalist daily life crippled the proletarian movement. It left untouched the pseudo-pleasures that the spectacle offers as compensation for work and that encourage those disgusted with what they do at work to seek reforms of working time, or simply to persist with gritted teeth, for the sake of what their work enables them to buy and do. The refuge of private life continued to beckon to workers exhausted by endless partial struggles. More importantly, the thought that there is something better, something worthwhile, to do in the everyday life outside of work powerfully contributed to the failure of proletarian consciousness to develop to the point where the prospect of leaving the means of producing individual and collective life in the hands of capitalism is regarded as utterly intolerable.


In this impasse, the proletariat received no assistance from the ‘workerist’ left (or its ‘autonomist’ successor). The grand theory of workerist intellectuals was notable for its hermetic obscurity and uselessness. Starting with a handful of fetishized abstractions derived from classical Marxism or newly coined, a series of largely a priori deductions would follow, resulting in nothing more than the conclusions the ideology had presupposed at the outset. Worse, perhaps, these pseudo-analyses all too frequently sought not to transcend bourgeois political economy but simply to practice it better than the people the corporations and the state paid. The point of view adopted was that of the narrowest and most pessimistic economic specialist; inevitably, almost nothing could be seen by means of this self-imposed myopia except the reified movements of a few economic variables and the shadows of a disembodied and idealized proletariat. The results were risible. Beyond these rarefied games of tenured revolutionaries, the workerists never escaped the Leninism that had destroyed the Russian Revolution and created an authoritarian state capitalism to support its rule in the name of an excluded and subjugated proletariat. For the workerist, proletarian autonomy was entirely consistent with the hierarchical subordination of the proletariat to a hierarchical vanguard organization, while revolutionary struggle in practice consisted of the vigorous and inflexible pursuit without end of trade unionist improvements to wages and conditions. The revolutionary transformation of the individual or the society was always and everywhere postponed for a swiftly receding millenarian tomorrow.


The second half of the 1970s brought a seemingly radical wing of the proletarian movement into increasing prominence: the autonomia. Bringing together, amongst others, students disappointed by their education in the newly-expanded universities and apprehensive at their prospects in economically difficult times, young people chafing at the persistence of archaic family and social controls or condemned by recession to unemployment or mundane work, and young workers who rejected the caution and conservatism of the generation of 1968/9, the autonomia movement eschewed the Leninism of the workerists in favour of smaller and more informal groups with an expressly egalitarian orientation. It also rejected the conservative cultures to be found in society at large and its workerist opponents, embracing more playful mores and counter-cultural styles (e.g. the Metropolitan Indians, a loose confederation that intermittently adopted pseudo-Native American dress and argot derived from westerns). The actions pursued by the various segments of the autonomia included wildcat strikes and factory occupations; the creation of social centres, typically in squatted buildings, that provided living quarters and a base for autonomous activities; “autoriduzione” (refusing to pay all or part of the cost of goods or services), often for leisure and cultural events; patrols against drug-pushers and attacks on fascists; protest marches; disruption of musical and other events; and a collective ‘hanging-out’ together. In 1977 the conflict between the autonomia and the state rapidly escalated, starting on February. At the beginning of the month a demonstration to protest an armed invasion of Rome University by fascists that had led to two people being shot was itself fired on by the police. A number of universities were occupied the next day and demonstrations followed. On 17th February when Metropolitan Indians and other autonomists attended a speech being given by Luciano Lama, the CGIL secretary and an exponent of economic austerity, at the University of Rome. The university was occupied by students and others and Lama urged that the occupation be broken. Equipped with a dummy in a cart bearing the message “Nessuno Lama” (“Nobody loves him”), the autonomists responded by chanting slogans such as “more work, less pay” and pelting Lama and his CGIL minders with water and paint bombs. After Lama’s speech, the CGIL minders attacked the protesters. This provoked a counter-attack that expelled the minders from the campus, which in turn led to an invasion by the police. Over the course of the next few months, skirmishes at protest marches led to the death by gunshots of two protesters and a policeman, riotous responses by the autonomia, and a programme of state repression that saw movement radio stations closed, the occupation of the University of Rome broken by armoured cars, and thousands of militants arrested and held for long periods for trial in special courts. In 1978 elements of the autonomia turned decisively to armed struggle, joining or supplementing the existing leftist terrorist factions underground. During the two years 1978–1979, the armed groups carried out 49 killings and 1,863 armed actions that did not result in fatalities; in 1980–1981 the numbers were 40 and 359, respectively. Each of these actions only oiled the wheels of state repression and helped the state to drive an ideological wedge between the proletariat and a revolutionary project represented as the obscure and murderous property of separate gangs. The larger movement of the autonomia soon disappeared.


The failure of the autonomia cannot simply be regarded as a product of external repression; it also had to do with factors within the movement that limited the extent to which it broadened and deepened its attack upon the dominant society. The movement was in part a product of the unevenness of development of Italian capitalism, an unevenness that pitched modern ideologies of capitalist life against more archaic conceptions of submission and excluded a section of the younger generations from work during a period of economic restructuring. For this reason, the autonomia incorporated within itself not just a dissatisfaction that reached to the very roots of contemporary capitalism but also a relatively superficial disappointment at the lack of means and opportunities to indulge the proclivities the spectacle had created. The result was ambivalence or even outright enthusiasm within autonomia for certain of the leading edges of commodity consumption, and especially the domain of youth culture. From the 1950s onwards, popular youth culture has been a central part of the development of advanced capitalism, producing vast new markets for clothes, films, music and other commodities and an associated spectacle of unrestrained, hedonistic consumption that has increasingly become a key exemplar of what desirable life consists of in contemporary times. The rock and roll spectacle’s catalogue of sensationalist thrills, fun and ecstasy produced by cacophony, speed, stereotyped bodily movement, abundant mechanistic sex, stylish dress, drink, drugs and the collective ideologies that allow these sensations to be construed as enjoyable has naturally horrified the bearers of moralist attitudes fashioned in more austere periods of capitalist development (e.g. many of the members of the Italian Communist Party); but the clash between the old and new means of adaptation to life dominated by the commodity, a clash that has undoubtedly sharpened the desirability and the apparent subversiveness of the latter, is only one more false division in the spectacle. By failing to repudiate youth culture in its entirety, autonomia fell into the contradictory position of proclaiming its rejection of the dominant society while simultaneously embracing an important dimension of the everyday life that the self-same society held out. It may from time to time have disrupted popular culture events, as in 1977 when the Metropolitan Indians stormed a jazz concert in Umbria, and denounced musical spectacles, yet dreams of producing or consuming popular culture permeated the movement without effective challenge, as can be seen for example in the music played on movement radio stations and at social centres, the autoriduzione that sought to reduce ticket prices for rock concerts and films, and the fashions in casual clothing marketed to the young that were taken up almost ubiquitously by movement members. Even the eventual slide into a destructive use of hard drugs by parts of the movement can be understood as more than the product of despair at the worsening conditions brought about by state repression. It was also another instance of the movement seeking the pleasures and consolations of the hedonistic spectacle.


Another aspect of the dominant society reproduced within autonomia was the domination of the individual by the collective. The organisations created within autonomia lacked the overt hierarchy of the leftist vanguards-in-waiting but in practice organisations existed as entities greater than the individual and not just associations formed by individuals to accomplish specific and agreed-upon objectives together. One consequence of this was that the organisation and revolution itself took on the air of an external, abstract cause to be served by individuals, encouraging either grim dedication, sacrificial militantism and a lack of internal and self-critique on the one hand, or an ecumenical ‘tolerance’ that equally restricted the free play of criticism on the other. The most obvious instance of militantism within the movement was its militaristic wing, both before and after its slide into counter-revolutionary terrorism. However, it was also present elsewhere, for example in the collective style of the Metropolitan Indians, a style that in any event was sometimes indistinguishable in essence from the disarmed puerility and superficial mockery of the more obvious components of the dominant society with which the cynical spectator lubricates his submission to that same society’s fundamental alienations. The absence of a thoroughgoing culture of continuous critical evaluation of self and others could be seen in the survival within the movement of the attitudes and practices of the most degraded masculinity and the evasive and defensive reactions offered to the justified criticism of those survivals by feminists and others within the movement. Rhetorical exchanges between groups on the basis of inflexible positions were common; careful and relentless re-examination of presuppositions, organizational practices, and programmatic statements within groups rather less so.


The limitations of autonomia’s critique of the dominant society no doubt contributed to its failure to draw in the mass of the proletariat and its consequent death in isolation. The emphasis within the movement on particular commodity enthusiasms as part of its practical self-definition could serve only to separate it from those who merely happened to have different consumer tastes. Along with its collectivism and its tendency to glorify marginal survival techniques in the name of a “revolt against work”, it also prevented the movement from offering a total and coherent theoretico-practical critique of the dominant alienation in which others could find an illumination of their own miseries and a practical project for assailing shared miseries together. In general, the movement failed to articulate a critique of alienation in terms that persuasively revealed what its own members’ confinement to a marginal survival, and the inflation-protected and relatively secure and affluent survival of the bulk of the proletariat, had in common. The distance between the autonomia and all too many other proletarians can be seen in the comments of a Fiat Worker in Bologna about his fellow workers’ response to a large autonomia demonstration in Rome a few days before: “There is the feeling that something big is happening. But Sunday’s news from Rome (the demo) didn’t succeed in stopping the usual talk about Sunday’s football matches” (Italy 1978-8: Living with an Earthquake, Red Notes, 1978; page 64). The tragedy and death knell of autonomia was that nothing it had said or done, and certainly not the ritualistic demonstrations and violent trashings that changed nothing but the headlines in the media, had prompted workers such as these to critically engage its own enthusiasms for the sporting and other spectacles that bound them to the commodity society, let alone discover a common cause with it.



In Britain during the 1960s, around 95% of strikes were unofficial initiatives by the workers themselves. In the 1970s, large union-led disputes became more common, to the point that in 1971 and 1972 the number of days lost to official strikes exceeded those lost to unofficial strikes. But the large majority of strikes continued to be launched without union sanction or control. Also common was a palpable contempt for work, expressed in conversation, absenteeism, sabotage, non-cooperation, low productivity and poor quality work. This “British Disease” persisted throughout the 1970s, reaching its peak with the waves of industrial disputes that made up the “Winter of Discontent” of 1978-9 that shattered the Labour Government’s latest attempt to restrict wage increases. However, three months after the Winter of Discontent began to fade in the wake of an agreement between the government and the Trade Union Council in February 1979, the Conservative Party of Margaret Thatcher was elected. Over the course of the ensuing decades, the incidence of strikes and other forms of proletarian resistance decreased. In 1998 the number of strikes was the lowest since records began to be collected in 1891.


Thatcher’s approach to industrial relations was in part organized around the notion of “returning the unions to their members”. The underlying assumption was that the rank-and-file were more moderate than the leadership of the unions. As Ian Macleod, a Conservative Minister of Labour in the 1950s, once observed, “this is not my experience, nor is it the experience of any Minister of Labour”; and, no doubt, it was equally untrue in 1979. Nonetheless, despite her ideological delirium, Thatcher had stumbled upon two central weaknesses of the British proletariat, namely the profound underdevelopment of its understanding of its own actions and dissatisfactions and its failure to develop a practical critique of commodity society that was fully autonomous of the unions and other separate powers. It was these and other weaknesses that Thatcher wielded against the proletariat.


It might reasonably be said that what Thatcher did was call the proletariat’s bluff. The spectacle of crisis and looming disaster had been prominent throughout the 1970s. From every corner, ecological, economic, terrorist or other catastrophes loomed. These permitted the spectacle to yet again reinvent its tawdry fabricated consumer needs and state ‘protections’ as urgent necessities and encourage the spectator to abandon fundamental social change in favour of supposedly imperative reforms, wage demands or a cynical private hedonism. At the end of the decade, the ideology of Thatcherism added to these apprehensions of collapse a stark demonstration that the manner in which state, industry, work and trade were organised could no longer sustain economic growth and widespread consumption, and that radical and painful change was necessary in order to secure the continuance of consumer society. This ideological attack was able to exploit several fault lines in proletarian thought and feeling. Although disputes in the workplace had been sharp and numerous, they stayed at the level of contesting the details of how the expropriation of the proletariat’s labour was to be organised and remunerated. What underpinned disputes with employers remained a notion of fair treatment and equitable rewards, together with a presupposition that large employers must somewhere possess the resources to meet their demands without difficulty. Both ideas accepted the legitimacy of the alienation of labour and were vulnerable to arguments of practicability within the terms of the capitalism they took for granted. A notable cause of the frozen and underdeveloped state of proletarian thought and practice was the shop steward system. Stewards were officials of a trade union but they were directly elected by relatively small groups of workers and it was not unusual for them to work side-by-side with the workers they represented. Their position close to the workers led to them being perceived as distinct from regional and national union officers of the union and the invidious compromises with which those more remote figures were associated. It also permitted them quickly to take up workers’ grievances or wildcat refusals, removing them from workers’ own hands and ensuring that they were understood and pursued as negotiable demands for the amelioration of particular features of alienated labour. Where disputes did escalate, they often resulted in walkouts, which only served to disperse the workers whom shared resentments had brought together, scattering them back into their individual daily lives as passive and separated individuals. In these ways, the forms of struggle adopted tended to make proletarians spectators of their own struggles and failed to create the practical conditions of control and decision in which consciousness could develop. They equally meant that disputes generally concerned individual workplaces or sectors of employment, with little effort being made to communicate with other proletarians, an omission that over time prevented the development of a wider movement and fostered a chasm of incomprehension between the workers who were frequently involved in strikes and other disputes and those, perhaps the majority, who rarely took action and for whom the actions of other workers were little more than a cause of irritating nuisances in everyday life and the inflation that constantly threatened their real income. Moreover, the proletarians who vigorously attacked their conditions of work did not extend that contestation to the rest of everyday life, tending indeed to seek refuge from the horrors of alienated work in the equally alienated consumption of the goods, spectacles and ideas that such work produced. Proletarian thought and desire continued to be captivated by the vast array of things, pleasures, tales and ideologies that advanced capitalism was producing in abundance and the spectacle everywhere offered to the gaze. Rather than practical questions of the revolutionary abolition of everything that exists separate from individuals, they were dominated at every turn by spectacular fantasies about domestic life, gardening, sport, royalty, crime, sex, drink, music, films, clothes, hairstyles, etc. The result was that proletarians’ theoretical understanding of capitalism and their own struggles against it was rudimentary throughout the decades down to the rise of Thatcherism. When finally confronted by the forceful Thatcherite argument that in order to continue enjoying the consumption it craved there was no alternative but to submit to economic restructuring, it had little practical answer to offer. It was all too obvious that its long-standing strategy of simply maximizing wages and minimizing work was a failure as a means of advancing individuals’ alienated interests within capitalism. Thatcherism was clearly onto something here. Yet it had developed neither the consciousness nor the unalienated forms of association from which a new strategy of resistance could develop and a rejection of capitalism and its economic logic emerge. What ensued for all too many was confusion, collapse or acquiescence, a surrender to Thatcher’s project or a retreat into nihilism, narrow self-interest, madness or despair.


However, Thatcherism cannot properly be understood merely as a grim demand for unconditional proletarian surrender. Amongst other things, it was also an ideology of liberation. As pseudo-revolutionary ideology, it attacked both the state (or at least those parts engaged in economic management) and the unions as separate hierarchical powers controlling the individual. It identified freedom with the unfettered making of choices within the market and the ownership of property, and equated adventure with the unsupported individual pursuit of market risk. It promised as the reward for initial sacrifice new, modern employment and a massive expansion of the universe of consumable desires with which the proletariat remained entranced. The proletariat was not beyond its seductions, perhaps especially as individuals and corporations unconstrained by the petit-bourgeois and patrician moralities of the Conservatives widened the opportunities within the world of work for the exercise of a degraded pseudo-autonomy and began to produce for consumption the elements of an expanded commodified hedonism, a hedonism that could even proclaim itself in opposition to Thatcherism. The resumption of increases in real wages for many, and the growing availability of credit, also served as temptations to the proletariat to seek happiness in the refurbished and expanded world of the commodity.


Needless to say, far from all proletarians succumbed to Thatcherite arguments. But proletarian resistance was hampered at every stage by its fatal entanglement with trade unionism. The Conservatives undertook a long series of reforms to industrial relations law, introducing measures that required pre-strike ballots restricted secondary picketing, etc. They and the employers they influenced also substantially reduced the extent of the collective bargaining in which unions played a prominent part. These measures, together with the loss of a sympathetic Labour government, produced timidity and malaise amongst trade unions and provided incentives for workers to pursue struggles autonomously. For example, the various industrial relations restrictions that were enacted were expressly restricted to trade unions and did not hamper wildcat actions. What the unions could not do under the industrial relations legislation, the workers acting themselves could. However, the distance between the unions and the proletariat was not sufficiently wide so as to allow workers to discard the unions with ease. The British proletariat has typically not waited for union approval before taking action, but it has relied on unions to a large extent to undertake negotiations on its behalf, translate its gains into agreements, offer it protection from reprisals, organize relations between workplaces, handle many mundane day-to-day matters, and even to bring it together as an acting collective in the first place. For all its dissatisfaction with unions, it has never wholly repudiated them in theory or practice. The notion that unions were an infuriatingly defective but nonetheless essential basis of workers’ struggles against employers weighed heavily on the proletariat throughout the 1980s and beyond, with the result that it repeatedly failed to take up the opportunities to cast aside the increasingly ineffective unions and pursue autonomous action. Instead, the inactivity and pessimism that had afflicted the unions was transmitted on to workers who remained stuck within them or found themselves unable to conceive practical means to proceed without them.


What did erupt in Britain was a series of riots. Beginning in the St. Pauls district of Bristol in April 1980, rioting later broke out in Brixton in April 1981 and then a growing number of town and cities in July 1981, including Liverpool, Manchester, Salford and Leicester. Often in response to police actions, rioting continued to recur in isolated outbreaks or larger waves throughout the following decade. Police were attacked, shops were looted, and cars and buildings destroyed. However, a riot suspends habitual behaviour and social relations only briefly. The important question is: what happens next? In the case of the British riots of the 1980s and early 1990s, the answer in practice was that there was a retreat to a wholly untransformed everyday life. The goods that were looted in defiance of the usual rules of the commodity economy, for example, were taken back into the separate and limited space that the commodity economy has granted to everyday life and then used in ways in complete conformity with the models of life the spectacle proclaims. The territory seized was returned to its owners and the state, who sooner or later reconstructed it in accordance with the needs of the commodity economy. Even when riots broke out later in the same or another place, there was no advance in the theory or practice of the rioters. The same things happened once again, with the same limited results.


There could be no advance in the rioters’ contestation of society outside of a critical understanding of what they had done and wished: without a continuous conscious refinement of their thoughts and actions. In the event, the rioters refused any encounter with revolutionary theory, with the thought that would allow them to explain to themselves what they were doing and then to take it further. This is not to say that they did not think at all about what they had done; it is just that that reflection was conducted almost entirely with the categories, desiderata, information and logic derived from the ruling spectacle. For all the practical lucidity the rioters may have shown in relation to some aspects of the dominant society, they remained satisfied or blind consumers of other elements of that society. They may have despised the police, schools, leftists and a few other prominent institutions of capitalist society, but they remained mired in the pseudo-rebellious seductions of the spectacle. Despite the economic difficulties of the times that had reduced the scale or number of mainstream businesses to the point where many young people could not secure employment, the spectacle continued to be everywhere in their lives. In particular, the spectacle of decomposition - the specialized spectacle that converts the failings of the system into consumable images, objects, modes of behaviour and justifications for cynical acceptance of the degraded world as inescapable – successfully held out its abundant seductions to marginal youth. What bound those youths who had gone beyond a respect for the law and the state to the dominant society were the models of happy pseudo-alternative life that the spectacle of decomposition offered. These models include codes of honour, gender roles, hierarchies, vocabularies of slang, pantheons of sub-cultural heroes, tastes for abstract intoxication and violent stimuli, constantly shifting lists of acceptably hip clothes and hairstyles, and associated criminal or other employments in which to work. They also contain various ideologies that claim that a submission to such external ways of thinking and acting, that a joyful embrace of marginal strategies of survival within capitalism, constitutes a living to the full qualitatively superior to the daily grind that everyone else engages in. The rioters wholly failed to critique their involvement in these non-mainstream modes of subjection. Indeed, as time passed, it seemed they grew only more and more caught up in them.


The riots had always been used by some as a platform on which to seek the approval of other members of subcultures who value the display of violent machismo; but increasingly the limited confrontations acted out by rioters seemed to serve little other purpose than flattering the pseudo-rebellious pretensions of hierarchical youth cultures and helping individuals create or maintain credentials within them. At their worst, as for example in the case of some of the riots that took place in various housing estates in the north of England during 1991, these violent encounters resembled less a conflict between the proletariat and the state than an internecine squabble between competing hierarchical powers equally intent in dominating the disputed territory and population for their own separate ends. In other instances, riots appear to have primarily arisen from a frustrated desire for the more turbulent forms of spectacular entertainment. Over time, the British economy has grown increasingly able to provide for the consumable preferences these rioters held on to. Former industrial towns, and other urban locations, have been converted into loci of a new night-time economy of consumable hedonism and mandatory intoxication. In vast corporate bars and the neon-lit streets around them, the taste for wild entertainment whose frustration by the underdevelopment of the economy once led it to seek its satisfaction in the explosions of Molotov cocktails and the other paraphernalia of directionless riots consumed as stimuli now finds realization in pneumatic music, brain-numbing binge drinking, barely-conscious sex, ritualistic violence against other proletarians, and the putative pleasures of vomiting cheap drink and bad food onto the pavement. There is also the expanded market for illegal drugs or the cheap thrills and gratifying displays of joyriding on offer. The latter has the air of defiance about it but it changes nothing in the reproduction of the commodity-spectacle society. It even serves as a useful means of re-associating car-driving with liberation, freedom and irresistible desire at a time when its reputation has been tarnished by the realities of Britain’s hopelessly overcrowded roads. Moreover, it helps inject new demand into both the saturated market for cars and the market for anti-theft devices and the police. The spectacle of threatening crime has for decades been an invaluable tool for worrying people into support for the state. Joy-riders dutifully act out the part of predatory nihilists in this law-and-order parable.


The rioters’ failure to develop a theoretical understanding of their actions affected their ability to communicate their dissatisfaction to other proletarians and find common ground with them. By saying nothing for themselves, they allowed their struggles to be presented to others by the spectacle. What could be seen in the spectacle was enough to encourage a few of those in an analogous social position to follow their example, hence the spread of the riots. However, the transformation of the society in which the rioters found themselves depended not just on other marginal youth but on the wider proletariat whose alienated labour produces the society. The proletariat in general appears to have regarded the rioters with disdain or indifference. They could see nothing in the riots that spoke to their own conditions and the rioters took no steps to illuminate them. By remaining silent, by refusing to engage in the production and communication of their own theory, the rioters thus ensured that their struggles would not spread beyond the strata of the proletariat in which they erupted and would not broadly challenge the dominant society. They thereby helped create the conditions of their own failure.


Another notable reaction to Thatcherism in the 1980s was the miners’ strike of 1984-5. A proposal to close 20 pits, with the loss of 20,000 jobs, vividly revealed the imperialist autonomy of the economy and offered the miners the opportunity to develop in response a conscious theoretico-practical refusal of the subjection of individuals to the economy such as might have brought together all of the proletarian dissatisfaction with alienation coursing beneath the surface of British society. However, this unification could not be brought about on the basis of a campaign for jobs or by way of the notion that the fate threatening the miners would soon afflict everyone else. By 1983, real earnings (i.e. earnings net of inflation) were again increasing and so too was the consumption of consumer durables and other commodities. Equally, the large majority of proletarians saw no reason to fear the loss of their own particular jobs (for example, in a national survey in 1986, 80% of workers said there was “no chance” that they would lose their job and another 5% considered such an eventuality to be very or quite unlikely). A critique that rejected unemployment and work, poverty and affluence, as equally repugnant expressions of the total domination of society by the economy was perhaps the only means by which the miners could speak to other workers and serve as a rallying point for all the fundamental disgust that capitalism produces and proletarians choke back. But this did not develop. Throughout a year-long strike marked by mass and sometimes violent pickets against a government and coal board that was determined to defeat them and was prepared to use vast financial and police resources to do so, the miners failed to disengage themselves from trade unionist ideology or even the National Union of Mineworkers that was handling the dispute with considerable pusillanimity and ineptitude. Aided by geographical isolation and the considerable dangers of the industry, mining communities continued to be characterised by a working class culture that had largely evaporated elsewhere in Britain in consequence of the mobility and multiple consumer identities fostered by advanced capitalism and its spectacle of what is possible and pleasurable. This old culture was a product of the defeat of the first revolutionary workers’ movements and promoted a wary, defensive but profound collective resignation to the inevitability of capitalism through an enveloping ethos of trade unionist solidarity and petty-bourgeois mores. In the 1984 strike, the road out of trade unionism lay through the contestation and supersession of this culture of proud abjection, of all of the ways of thinking and living of which it consisted. Although the long strike produced strains within mining communities, resentments toward the union, and some innovations, such as the greater involvement of women partners in the support of the strike, the miners did not initiate a root-and-branch assault on the culture that bound them to the union, and (aside for the scabs who sank below even trade unionism) they stayed largely loyal to it. The unions and its intellectual apologists spoke for the miners and did so in social democratic terms that had ceased to be credible years before, helping to ensure limited solidarity and comprehension on the part of other proletarians. Thus, for example, by the time the strike ended, 92% of respondents to a Gallup Poll were prepared to express disapproval of the miners’ methods and only 4% were in favour. Practical expressions of support beyond charitable donations were also limited. It would appear that proletarians took pity on the miners but were ultimately prepared to accept that the sacrifice of miners’ livelihoods and communities was inevitable, or even was one of the prices that had to be paid in order to secure an affluence that the miners had not called into question. They did not see the miners’ struggle as going to the heart of their own concerns. By remaining behind the union and staying within the constraints of the culture of which it was the centre, the miners ensured that they did not fashion a theoretical perspective or means of communication that could shake the indifference around them and link them to other workers and their miseries, leaving it only a matter of time before the government’s greater resources would prevail over their withdrawal of a labour that capital had decided to live without.



From late 1945 until 1947, strikes in Polish factories were common, with the autumn of 1946 in particular seeing a huge mobilization in most of the major centres of industry. In the following years, the crude police terrorism and anti-worker laws of a state capitalist regime seeking to expropriate the totality of labour and social life for its own benefit managed from time to time to secure the disgruntled acquiescence of proletarians; but eruptions of discord and dissent repeatedly returned. In the mid-1950s, wildcat strikes continuously disrupted Polish industry. In June 1956, workers in Poznan went further. Reacting to a refusal by party officials to address their economic concerns, some 75,000 marched on the city centre. Party, police and security buildings were attacked, prisoners were released and police dossiers destroyed, and barricades thrown up. Nearly three days of fighting with the security police and army followed. The party managed to suppress the Poznan uprising and to overcome a large wave of strikes in 1957; yet social peace eluded it. In December 1970, a wave of violent conflicts with striking workers erupted, as thousands of workers around the country attacked party headquarter buildings and fought government troops; scores of workers were killed. This new peak of resistance, however, also produced developments that were to have disastrous consequences in the following decade. For the first time, factory occupations and inter-factory committees to exchange information and co-ordinate struggles came into being. In both cases, the organizational structures erected were not subject to the total control of the striking proletarians. An element of mediation and hierarchy emerged as a group of elected or self-appointed specialists began to carry out important aspects of struggles as separate leaders. These specialists in the organization of the proletariat came to conceive and pursue the project of creating a trade union. Matters came to a head in August 1980. Price increases and the dismissal of Anna Waletynowicz, an admired veteran of the 1970 protests, provoked strikes in Gdansk and Szczecin, which soon came to engulf almost the whole of each city, as well as spreading elsewhere on the Baltic coast. Lech Walesa and the other bureaucratic specialists who exercised control over the inter-factory committees entered into negotiations with the government for the legal right to form a trade union. A moment of choice had arrived for the proletariat: either take the management of its struggles back into its own hands and deepen its attack on the separate power of the state and economy or surrender to an organization that would negotiate in its name in the hope of improving the terms on which the economy and the state dominated it. In the event, the proletariat failed to act for itself and Solidarno?? (Solidarity) was born.


Solidarnosc accepted the legitimacy of both the state and the separate economy, aiming only to create a mediated voice for workers within production and a measure of independence within a banal daily life confined between the state and the economy. Its limited objectives inevitably brought it into conflict with a party whose logic required it to dominate every aspect of society. But the tendency of both its philosophy and its hierarchical structure of governing local and national committees was to reduce the proletariat to order-takers and spectators in any conflicts that might ensue with the state. It also discouraged the development of a critique that ranged over ever aspect of alienated life, whether economic, political or domestic. The road to self-managed revolution led directly out of the union. It was not taken. In the months that followed the foundation of Solidarnosc, Walesa’s attempts to secure control over the organization and moderate local struggles that threatened to go beyond what he felt the communist party would tolerate created conflicts and dissent within the union. However, these remained within the structures of the union and were often dominated by bureaucratic factions. Solidarno?? continued to be trusted by the large majority of the proletariat and it soon had ten million members.


On 13th December 1981, the Polish leader, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, declared Martial Law and the leadership of the national Solidarnosc movement was soon detained. This decapitation of the union provided an opportunity for autonomous organization and struggle by the proletariat, especially as the imposition of martial law left Solidarnosc’s strategy of collaboration with the state in ruins. However, although workers resisted the militarization of workplaces by sit-ins, occupations and physical force, and the period of martial law was marked by numerous protest and clashes with the authorities, these typically remained under the control and co-ordination of local Solidarno?? organisations or other equally hierarchical bodies. The habit of submission persisted after Martial Law was lifted in July 1983. In 1984 the Party ended the suspension of independent trade union activity that had been imposed at the outset of martial law and granted a legal right to strike. Solidarno?? itself remained proscribed but some union activists proposed to take advantage of the new conditions to form local unions and even a new national union. The leadership of Solidarno?? discouraged both this union-building work and industrial action generally. It equally opposed local activists’ efforts to register local Solidarno?? unions after a general amnesty was granted in 1986 and the possibility of legal recognition of Solidarno?? was re-opened. Instead, the national leadership created first a Provisional Council and later a National Executive Commission, and adopted an increasingly free-market ideology. The union was preparing for a capitalist solution to Poland’s economic problems that would centrally turn on subjecting workers to freer market forces. It was interested in workers’ struggles only insofar as they could be used as bargaining chips to advance its separate interests. More than this, as the state capitalist regime began to disintegrate after the communists’ disastrous showing in a round of free elections that had permitted in June 1989 in the characteristically delusional expectation that they the ruling party emerge triumphant, the Solidarnosc leadership was in effect preparing to assume power and commence the construction of a system of liberal capitalism. Strikes continue to break out in these last days of state capitalism, but the proletariat failed to look beyond its immediate conditions. The question of who was to dominate society in the post-communist era was now at large but only Solidarnosc and other advocates of the continuance of capitalism in another form were thinking at this level of theory and practice. The proletariat was crippled by its long years of alienated thought and action within hierarchical unions and committees, an alienation that left it bereft of the desire, the organization means, and the consciousness necessary to seize control of the society that was collapsing around it and was to be rebuilt outside and against it. It continued to share Solidarnosc’s fundamental acceptance of a separate economy, a separate state and an everyday life shaped by both. As new foundations for a different society were proposed and constructed, it lacked the theoretical consciousness and means of association necessary to contest the fundamentals of the new alienation. It was unable to begin a struggle against separation and for a self-managed society at the moment when the implosion of the dominant society opened history to its grasp. It was accordingly swept aside and left to quibble over the compensation to be offered for its continued exclusion from the conscious control of the socio-economic mechanisms for the making of history.



The Soweto uprising in 1976 marked an intensification of the struggle against the apartheid regime. At its most radical edge, the new movement of black resistance widely contested the various aspects of the white domination of society, rejected reformism and collaboration, and refused the mediation of the myriad bureaucratic parties in search of power, raising hopes that it would form one basis of a global revolution for self-management. Within a decade, however, it had been overtaken by reformist currents that it had failed adequately to critique and resist. One of the enemies it omitted systematically to confront was the array of civic associations, street and area committees, youth groups, churches, women’s organisations, religious groups, sports clubs, etc, to be found in the United Democratic Front (UDF) and beyond. These served as institutions and service providers for the black population that were separate from both the existing state and the people themselves. Through their insinuation throughout everyday life, they began to produce on a daily basis both the ordinary social relations of and practices of liberal bourgeois society and the ideology that justifies such dutiful submission to alienation as freedom. This anticipatory habituation to the thought and actions of submissive citizens of representative democracy did not, however, encourage acquiescence to the authoritarianism of apartheid, and perhaps for this reason appears to have eluded the opposition that it merited on the part of the radical wings of the South African revolutionary struggle. What was nothing more than training in how to confine oneself to the narrow and mediocre life that liberal capitalism permits was left unchallenged. The same blindness extended to another important current that served to contain and limit revolutionary struggle in that country, namely the trade union movement. Black South Africans were granted the right to join trade unions in 1979 and in 1985 the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) was formed, bringing together unions representing 500,000 members into a single federation. A series of huge strike waves, including general strikes in 1984, 1987, 1988 and 1989 that involved millions of workers, gripped the country. These crippled industry and shook the confidence of the ruling circles of apartheid society, but they were largely conducted at the instance and under the control of the union leaderships. Workers remained the followers of the thought and plans of separate powers. They developed neither an autonomous practice nor an independent practice, and there was little theoretical critique from the township radicals encouraging them to do so. More generally, although boycotts, rent strikes, and other forms of resistance to apartheid were sometimes pursued outside of the control or mediation of reformist organization and individuals, they confined themselves to applying pressure for a social change that it was left to others to carry out. Even the most radical currents were hampered by an exclusive focus on the racialization of power that deprived them of a coherent theoretical and practical opposition to separate power and alienation generally. When the South African regime began the process of moving the country towards a multi-racial capitalist democracy in 1990, proletarians were disarmed theoretically and passive in practice, doing nothing to interrupt or subvert a change that eliminated some of the vilest impositions of state racism but left untouched the fundamental domination exercised over everyday life by hierarchical power and the separate economy of the non-racial commodity. Having failed to notice the refurbished alienation in gestation everywhere around it, the proletariat was mystified, outmanoeuvred and subjugated when that alienation stepped forward to succeed apartheid and bring South Africa closer to the forms of liberal capitalist society dominant in the West.



The commodity-spectacle society has not ceased to extend its domination both intensively and extensively. As the productive power of capitalism grows, the spectacle uses the increasing technological, organizational and other resources available to it to banish from consciousness any conception of a society not dominated by the state and the economy. It everywhere equates all desirable or even possible human life with life in the society of the spectacle.


From the earliest moments of life, the myriad processes of parenting, entertainment, education, training, advertising, fashion, art, therapy, social work, etc, inculcate with ever-growing intensity the thoughts and feelings that take for granted separate power and the separate economy as inescapable givens of human existence. A growing mass of media pundits and academic experts from diverse fields urge or compel the spectators to dedicate more and more of his or her time to developing or assiduously maintaining the skills, looks and other attributes necessary for success in the reigning society. The spectacular images of mainstream or pseudo-alternative achievement do the same, but more subtly and without the disagreeable didacticism. In these ways, human beings are relentlessly shaped from infancy so that they possess the emotional and intellectual apparatus, the minds and bodies, necessary to serve the modern commodity and the state. Every other stated goal is a lie or a delusion.


In the world of work, employers increasingly seek to intensify the subordination of proletarians to work and the economy. This is not necessarily or mainly a matter of imposing crude authoritarian domination by management over every gesture of the worker, although in sections of the economy where that seems possible, as in some call centres, management may try to do so. It is also not necessarily a matter of simply speeding up the pace of work, although managements do seek to eliminate non-productive time as far as possible and to accelerate any activities characterized by relatively simple repetitive actions. It is more a case of reducing the subjective distance between proletarians and their work and demanding a closer attention to, and perhaps identification with, work process than hitherto. At a relatively coarse level, corporations typically promulgate ideological ‘visions’ of their own activity that they expect their workers to embrace and parrot. These have some success with the gullible, the desperate and the ambitious, but they are perhaps normally too obviously ludicrous and deceptive to be taken seriously by the average employee. Other processes are more important. In general, work has become in some respects more complex and faster changing, if only because of the reliance on new technologies. This not only requires greater thought and engagement with a given task but obliges the worker to acquire, update and display the technical skills required to carry out the job. Alongside this, the granting of a limited degree of autonomy to workers in some fields, which permits or requires them to take actions without prior direction by binding codes or direct management instruction, expropriates more of their imaginations and reasoning power from them and seeks to foster illusions of self-control. The ideology of ‘accountability’ that often accompanies this mirage of autonomy makes things still worse, promoting the assiduous documentation of work done and its craven display for the approval of superiors and in the hope of securing performance-related pay additions or avoiding sanctions. That said, the dominant society recognizes that these and other attempts by employers to ensnare the senses and souls of those whose work they expropriate are far from infallible. Thus the spectacle continues to circulate the ideology that work is wasted time and that relief, freedom or self-realization is to be found in the consumption of the delusive commodities capitalism produces and circulates. The drink, dance, drugs, etc, consumed in desperate abundance each evening or weekend suggests that there are many who still seek to persuade themselves of the truth of this proposition.


Another aspect of the spectacle’s escalating project to absorb the whole of the available space and time is the relentless and massive refashioning of the human and natural environment to accord with the interests of the commodity. Cities and countryside have been, and continue to be, variously reconstructed as homogeneous wastelands given over to industrial agriculture, suburban life, financial services, industry or the circulation of vehicles; as playgrounds for commodified desire and the display and consumption of cultural commodities; or as spectacular parodies or representations of elements of the past. Those who imagine or seek authenticity and community in these sometimes dour and sometimes gaudy wastelands burned over by the commodity merely betray a superstitious belief in ghosts.


The spectacle’s claim to the totality has even affected the world of the celebrity. The transcendental star still exists as an object of distant admiration. However, the spectacle’s stars have tended recently to descend from the skies. In reality-television programmes and the pages of celebrity gossip, the new celebrities are reassuringly familiar to the spectator. They perform their function of consolation in a manner different from the classical star: by demonstrating that even amongst those who are rich, famous, powerful, talented, influential, beautiful or just noticed, life is fundamentally the same as it is everywhere else. The celebrity has much the same mediocre thoughts, feelings, values, goals, neuroses, etc, as the spectator. There can be no escape. There is nothing else and can be nothing else. The miserable life of the spectator is confirmed as valid, even celebrated, by its ubiquitous reflection amongst the once-golden people. But stars can move from the mundane to the transcendental, and back again, as the needs of spectacular non-life require. The death of a star, for example, may be taken up as an opportunity for a ritualised indulgence in collective lamentation for a supposedly extraordinary person.


Central to the spectacle’s colonization of the society is the vast and diverse array of commodities that an expanded and more sophisticated production and distribution of commodities has made available (the American food industry alone launched 11,500 new products in 1992). The burden of inspecting, evaluating, discussing, purchasing and maintaining the mass of goods and ideas that individual spectacular ideologies put forward as constituting all or part of the good life serves to support the system by the simple device of occupying a considerable part of the spectator’s free time. But the importance of the sheer scale of consumption for the spectacle does not stop here. The spectacle rarely calls for craven surrender; it rather speaks of freedom and individuality. The world of consumption is the cornerstone of this lie. In the spectacle, it is the process of choosing amongst the competing commodities and commodified thoughts that constitutes the essence of liberty and self-determination, and the spectator is encouraged to take this rummaging amongst the dead for the free and authentic expression of his or her subjectivity.


The need to generate demand for a wider range of commodities, and recuperate the aspiration for life beyond the mundane, has seen the spectacle supplement the still-available models of adherence to tradition or duty with an increasing emphasis on fun and hedonism, on the equally dutiful pursuit of those thrills, pleasures, sensualities, derangements and ecstasies that can be contained within the separate domain of everyday life and mediated by commodities. Pleasure is not always revolutionary. It is now one of the central defences of the commodity-spectacle society.


The past 40 years have also seen a progressive expansion of the spectacle of decomposition, to the point where its litany of cruelties, humiliations, deaths, accidents, disasters, wars, illnesses, disabilities, peccadilloes, frauds, lies and other transgressions transfixes the appalled or delighted gaze of growing numbers of spectators. In general, this spectacle encourages the ordinary cynicism of the contemporary spectator who agrees that more or less everything is shit yet continues to find consolations in the life he professes to disdain and reasons to work and consume. It also provides heightened stimuli for the spectator who has grown weary of more ordinary varieties of nonsense.


The spectacle’s reign may be unchallenged but that does not mean that opposition is absent within it. The spectacle displays numerous false means and objects of struggle for the conscientious. Of course, the pseudo-opposition between liberal capitalism and state capitalism has now ceased to be the central organising divide of the spectacle of false political choices; however, innumerable hierarchical organizations proposing greater or lesser ameliorations of the dominant system beckon to those who seek to improve the world other than by destroying everything that exists separate from individuals. Capitalism is now systematically reformist, and all aspects of collective life are more or less constantly under investigation by experts or amateurs with a view to their renovation and improvement as parts of the system of alienation. This does not mean that all reformists expressly accept capitalism, even if many do. The World Social Forum and the rest of the anti-globalization movement, for example, bring together various groups and projects that combine sometimes virulent expressions of opposition to the dominant society with programmes that leave the fundamental separations of that society untouched. One way or another, the spectacle never fails to have at hand an unending stream of urgent matters that appear to be sufficiently pressing to justify collaboration with elements of the dominant society and a deferment of fundamental change that by a quirk of history always turns out to be perpetual. The war in Iraq is an example. The calls for demonstrations (or other equally alienated forms of protest) are endless. The spectator is encouraged by leftists to join a shuffling column of passive, separated individuals that has been organized by others to shout idiotic clichés at leaders for the benefit of leaders who have decided in advance not to listen (and of course the mass media). The purpose of the protests is typically to bring an end to a war that the dominant society would happily live without and perhaps challenge a “neo-liberalism” whose crime, here as elsewhere, is to pursue the interests of the hegemonic economy without the benefit of humanistic means for the pacification of the population and mechanisms to redistribute some of the worthless wealth of a society of alienation to the poor. The fundamental alienations of a society that makes life barely worth living at home, and that would equally ensure that the lives of Iraqis preserved by peace would pass away in mediocre separation from history, are not attacked. They only grow stronger from the inattention.


In recent years social science has taken an increased interest in questions of the “quality of life” or “happiness”. This branch of scientific inquiry may be understood as studying the factors that are associated with people’s propensity to deceive themselves or others into thinking that they are content with their lives. Typically it is found that some 80-95% of respondents in the advanced industrial countries profess themselves happy and satisfied. These results, which resemble the plebiscites in authoritarian regimes that inevitably deliver huge proportions in favour of whoever happens to be in charge at the time, perhaps illustrate the desperate attempts that people make to associate their lives with the mirages of contentment that the spectacle spreads across society. But neither everyday experience nor dialectics should be forgotten. As successful as the commodity-spectacle society has been in preserving itself to date, the mediocre existences that its superabundant goods and ideologies inevitably deliver continue to exist as a source of dissatisfaction. There is also the fundamental and stark contradiction between what the dominant society can do and the possibilities that the state of knowledge and technology in principle make available to humankind. Even some social scientists have begun to talk of “affluenza” or other mysterious syndromes of faltering contentment amongst well-off consumers. And entrepreneurs of goods and ideas have for some years promoted “down-sizing”, spiritual practices, alternative tourism, green products, and other consumable means of expelling whatever epiphenomena of alienation the ideologue at hand claims to be evils of consumption. Some contemporary dissatisfaction with consumerism remains superficial, as yet expressing nothing more than a wish for a reform of alienated work and consumption to make it less authoritarian, ecologically damaging, time consuming, etc. Other elements have, or may come to have, a more profound discontentment as their basis.


One imperative for revolutionary theory in the early twenty-first century, an objective to be pursued as much in relation to the theorist’s own life as for wider social phenomena, is to resume the task of identifying the dissatisfactions that strike at the roots of contemporary alienation, criticizing the points at which the individuals concerned are entangled with alienated goals and means, and generally encouraging a more conscious, consistent and effective expression of autonomous revolutionary contestation. Nothing, however, can be gained by indulging in wholly archaic leftist fantasies about the economic failings of capitalism and the revolutionary potential of struggles to defend or improve the wages and working conditions of workers. For example, during the 2006 struggles over the Contrat Première Embauche (CPE or First Employment Contract) in France, a group of strikers from Saint-Nazaire issued a leaflet that claimed that, “we are fighting against a law aimed at totally destroying the rights of working people […], a ‘modernization’ designed to take us back to the conditions of near slavery suffered by workers and unemployed people in the nineteenth century” (To People in Other Countries, 3 April 2006; an English translation by Ken Knabb is included in his online Documents from the Anti-CPE Uprising in France). These notions, which were also propounded by others, constitute empty rhetoric that detaches the authors from the realities of contemporary labour for the majority of the proletariat in the advanced capitalist nations. The British example may be instructive in this connection. The first Thatcher government introduced a law that exempted people who had worked for less than two years from protection against unfair dismal, a measure quite similar to the proposed CPE. There was no return to nineteenth century conditions in Britain in the following years. In fact, real wages increased (the total wage and non-wage costs paid by employers less inflation increased in the British private sector by 53.3% between 1975 and 2002). More pertinently, permanent jobs (mostly full-time) remain the dominant form of employment decades later, with only 5.5% of all employees being in temporary work. As regards average hours of work, these levelled off at the start of the 1980s after a long period of steady reduction, but have not increased since (and may even have decreased once again in recent years). Of course, the intensity of work has increased but hardly to the levels experienced in Victorian times. To assert otherwise is to betray a profound ignorance of Victorian working conditions. Finally, it is not without interest to note that the neo-liberal Blair government actually reversed the Thatcher two-year rule. This should not come as a surprise. Unfair dismissal rules serve a useful purpose for capitalism. In the words of a textbook on British employment law: ”Some important elements of modern employment law were introduced originally in order to help reduce the need for strikes to occur. The major example is unfair dismissal law which originally dates from 1971 when the government was especially concerned with the negative impact on productivity caused by localised, ‘wild-cat’ strikes precipitated by the apparently unjust dismissal of colleagues” (Stephen Taylor and Astra Emir, Employment Law: An Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2006; page 13). Given this conservative function, which is not restricted to Britain, is it any surprise that the bulk of the protesters abandoned their actions when the CPE was preserved and declined to mount an assault on capitalism?


Precarious employment and poor wages undoubtedly exist within advanced capitalist economies; but they are minority conditions, and even those who suffer from them are relentlessly exposed to the dominant spectacle and its ideas of life, happiness and escape. In general, the functioning of advanced capitalism typically depends on relatively stable employment, high wages and extensive consumption. One conclusion to which the experience of the last 40 years points, I would suggest, is that any theoretical and practical critique that fails centrally and totally to repudiate the well-remunerated labour and massive consumption on which the advanced economies rest, that confines itself to pursuing increased wages and more bearable work, pushes out of sight and mind the actual poverties of everyday life and leads back to the alienation of life and labour from whose practical acceptance it has never escaped. Of course, the smallest of daily insults, humiliations or hypocrisies can open a person’s mind to the nature of contemporary society and serve as a point of departure from the illusions and satisfactions of the spectacle. However, a point of departure must precisely be departed from, and quickly, if the individuals concerned are not to find their thought and practise imprisoned within the endless disputes and debates whereby the society regulates its functioning and determines the distribution of the resources it expropriates. There can be no revolution except the modern. The predicament of the proletariat is not that capitalism is proposing to take away its highly-paid jobs and the commodities that these buy but rather that it proposes perpetually to force it to accept these substitutes for real life and nothing else. The sense that the best that global capitalism can in principle offer would never be enough lies at the beginning and not the end of revolutionary consciousness and revolutionary struggle.

March 2007

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