Sunday, 7 December 2008

Their Passed-away Builders: The “Credit Crunch”

In the days before man had completely established his domination over the animal world, the poultry of a certain country, unnamed in any record, met in solemn conference in the largest hall they could hire for their money: the period was serious, for it was drawing near Christmas, and the question in debate partook of the gravity of the times; for, in short, various resolutions, the wording of which has not come down to us were to be moved on the all important subject, ‘with what sauce shall we be eaten?’ (William Morris, Justice, 19 January 1884)


The cascading set of economic maladies colloquially referred to as “the credit crunch” reveals with all too painful clarity the absurdity of both the dominant capitalist society and the lives we live within it. That global production and distribution should come to depend on reckless debt and the trading of such debt starkly demonstrates yet again how the capitalist economy exists outside the control and good sense of the individuals whose labour, creativity and desires it appropriates. That we did nothing of substance to challenge the absurdities of the autonomous economy, or even went so far as to pursue its delusive promises with relish, is one more reminder, for those who need it, of the timidity and nullity of the way we pretend to live.


The state of affairs that is at present disintegrating around us has its roots in the defeat of working class militancy in the 1970s. In advanced capitalist countries, the 1970s saw the culmination of a movement of proletarian resistance to the alienation of work, a movement characterized by wildcat strikes, sabotage, theft, absenteeism, shoddy work, disdain for trade unions and contempt for management. However, we did not develop this rejection of the dominant society very far beyond a mere avoidance of the worst aspects of work. We contented ourselves with minimizing the burdens that work placed on us and taking flight into the distractions of consumption and what we imagined was the refuge of family life. We failed to sharpen our understanding of what we detested and what we desired. We failed to consider where our actions left us in relation to the forces ranged against us and what must next be done to strike at the alienation that continued concretely to confront us in the work we could not wholly avoid, in the commodity consumption to which our work gave rise, and across social life generally. We never grasped revolution as the only historical solution capable of practically dissolving the alienation of human activity. We stagnated, allowing the initiative to pass to our enemies. We meekly handed our dreams and dissatisfactions to capitalism to fulfil.


As we failed to carry out our own social revolution, Thatcher, Reagan and the other proponents of neo-conservatism in the second half of the 1970s stepped forward to do it for us. In response to our narrow and confused wishes for individual and social change, the neo-conservatives offered a narrow and confused pseudo-revolution. The social democratic administration of capitalism was manifestly in decay. The neo-conservatives threw down a choice between economic collapse and a brutal restructuring that would eventually lead to economic revival, confident that we had not attained the theoretical and practical autonomy to make and impose a third option of our own devising. The problem, it was said, was not capitalism itself but our resistance to it. Equally, the freedom we too vaguely desired was to be found, we were told, not in the abolition of capitalism but rather in its intensification: in the freedom of capitalists and managers to make economic decisions unfettered by our protests and too stringent a regulation on the part of the state; in our voluntary, enthusiastic and active involvement in perpetual measures to increase efficiency and profitability; and in the greater choice of commodities that would be made available by the ensuing economic growth. The neo-conservatives’ bet that we remained profoundly colonized by the thought and feelings bred by the dominant society proved a good one. Of course, here and there we offered some resistance, drifting through trade unionist struggles demanding that we be permitted to continue in our uneasy sleep or indulging in riots that seized control of a few scattered streets only to return them to the state a couple of hours later; yet, in the end, we did not regard what we wanted as inconsistent with alienated labour and alienated consumption. Many of us embraced the new reaction willingly. Others took up empty pseudo-alternatives to it. For some, this meant sinking deeper into the trade unionism that had contributed in no small part to the poverty of our thoughts and actions. Others drifted off into charitable, social service or pressure group efforts to ameliorate the most glaring symptoms of the new order or into spiritual pursuits that left the inner and outer worlds mired in alienation but provided a comforting sense of connection with them. Still others retreated into a tiny domain of private or public consumption they thought would serve as a dignified refuge from the corruption, puerility and venality all around, or took up one of the lines of consumable hedonism that were increasingly made available by licit or illicit entrepreneurs who did not share the archaic petit-bourgeois scruples of the first neo-conservatives. The list of capitulations was a long one; the effect, however, was always the same: we left the making of history to capital and the state.


Not every aspect of the promises of the neo-conservative pseudo-revolution has proved entirely false. Although enduring pockets of unemployment have emerged, the large majority of us have retained or obtained jobs. Moreover, although inequality has grown and a margin of material deprivation remains, the large majority of us in the advanced economies have seen our real wages and incomes increase considerably since the end of the 1970s, with the result that for many of us the 1950s, 60s and 70s seem like epochs of primitive penury. Even in the USA, where real individual earnings have remained relatively flat, real household incomes have grown sharply for the majority (if only because women have increasingly joined the labour force), leaving families with more money than ever to spend. This general increase in income (supplemented by earnings from the black and illegal economies) has helped to fuel the huge increase in personal consumption since the early 1980s through which neo-conservative capitalism has striven to realize by way of the commodity our real and manufactured desires for autonomy, excitement, uniqueness, community, solitude, beauty, intimacy, oblivion, knowledge, adventure, frenzy, stillness, sensuality, creativity, rebellion, and so on. But it has never been enough. Capitalism’s quest for profit has always demanded more; and lost in capitalism’s house of mirrors, fruitlessly pursuing a succession of distorted images held up as faithful reflections of who we are or who we wish to become, we have ourselves been tempted to spend more than we can earn to seek that which cannot be found. It is here that consumer credit enters.


It is perhaps fitting that it should have been the housing market that precipitated the “credit crunch”. Our houses have been of singular importance to us, and not just because neo-conservatism has persuaded us to accept individual ownership of a small parcel of land in lieu of the collective self-management of society as a whole. Amongst other things, it is to there that we return from the work that we may tell ourselves is more creative and less constrained by authoritarian management than ever before but which only produces either commodities for sale or the people, processes and places that make the circulation of commodities possible. It is there that, in the name of love, parents assiduously destroy their children by moulding their thoughts, feelings and behaviours into the mediocre and alienated configurations required by the dominant economy, there that children impotently despise their parents for failing to match the particular juvenile image of coolness and modishness they have sheepishly bought from the competing purveyors of commodified popular culture, and there that both parents and children from time to time piously declaim the beauty of family life in an attempt to conceal from themselves and others the grim reality of shared incarceration. It is to there that we return after sordid local binges and holidays in distant places made very much like home by the universal reign of the commodity, fresh with disappointment yet hoping that conversation will make our dismal experiences seem and feel like the rich life we like to think we are living. It is there that we drag the audio-visual equipment, self-help books, cars, flat-pack furniture, exotic vegetables, shifting arrays of clothes, and all the rest of the useless junk that promises so much before it is bought but then is all too quickly replaced when it fails to deliver or something else loudly proclaims its virtues in the commercial spectacle. It is there that we entertain the friends who seem worryingly like strangers because after we have spent much of the day creating the world around us on the orders of our employers and in the interests of the commodity all that we have left to share are trivial concerns and private dramas, and there that we pass off those self-same trivialities and dramas as the very stuff of profound intimacy. It is there that we console ourselves for our social alienation and the physical isolation to which it leads by typing out electronic messages to dispersed networks of fellow isolates, like prisoners tapping on the bars and walls of their cells. It is there that we have repeatedly changed the décor of our dwellings rather than the lives we lead as a whole.


The collapse of the particular variant of the capitalist economy that has held sway over the advanced western countries for the past thirty years now gives rise to a moment of choice. The misadventure that saw us willingly or reluctantly hoping that escape from the poverty of everyday life would be found somewhere within an escalation of the capitalist production and consumption that caused that poverty in the first place is now, for the time being at least, shipwrecked. We cannot continue acting and thinking quite as we have done before; and our stupidity and the social organization of stupidity have however briefly been exposed a little more plainly to the view. Yet, although the question of where do we go next has arisen, the social organization of appearances with which the dominant society surrounds us precisely encourages us to leave the making of this choice to others. We find before us a rapidly-shifting spectacle of politicians, corporate bankers and others with power manfully struggling to fashion and implement policies to restructure the national or global economy. At the same time, a myriad of media outlets offer us endless critiques to consider and opportunities to take up inconsequential commentary and debate. Everywhere, we remain wholly excluded from the real decisions. This is no surprise, for there exists in the society no mechanism by which such a decision could even in principle be made by us. It is the commodity and its state that rule social life everywhere. No matter how strong the cynicism and disdain with which we view the antics of those set above us, our participation in this spectacle merely ensures that this state of affairs, and these affairs of state, remain in place. No matter how much we are disgusted by the individual and collective absurdity made sharply evident by the “credit crunch”, our passivity inexorably guarantees that this absurdity will only be reformulated outside and against us.


The society of the spectacle does not turn its decomposition to its advantage only by placing before us a pantomime of the rich and powerful struggling with economic disaster and then encouraging us to cheer or boo as we please. The worsening financial position that capitalism’s global difficulties has visited upon ordinary people also make its way into the spectacle of decomposition. From one direction, we are presented with the dramatic stories of those who have been worst affected, complete with despairing suicides, house repossessions, bankruptcies, unemployment and abandoned dreams. The fact that the spectator sits immobile before this catalogue of disasters is itself an advantage to the dominant society; however, the spectator is also drawn into revaluing the affluent wasteland that is his or her own life on the ground that at least it is not obviously as miserable of those who have fallen to the bottom of the heap. From another direction, spectators are led to consider themselves not as comparatively rich but as absolutely poor. Even a reduction of a few percentage points in GDP or disposable income is portrayed as a catastrophic fall from grace, a descent into a mire of desperate poverty, and newspapers, magazines and television programmes are awash with items containing advice on how to live more frugally or cheaply in the new era of “austerity”. A more specialized variant of this spectacle is directed at the unemployed themselves, urging them to regard their exclusion from the alienated roles of working life and the opportunities to consume beyond bare survival as a state of horrendous deprivation that must be reversed as soon as possible, in the first instance by acquiring new skills and a refurbished submission to sell to prospective employers. In these ways, a myriad of needs that exist in their present form only because they have been incorporated as more or less integral components of life within this society take on the dignity and urgency of basic human requirements, and we are drawn deeper than we already are into the disastrous habit of considering alienated work, alienated consumption and alienated social relations as the only possible realities. But this is not all. We can now feel not merely poor but deliciously or even virtuously poor. For some, there is the frisson of living in a dramatic moment of economic devastation or the thrill of personally descending into the exciting extremes of poverty merely by shopping in a cheaper supermarket, dropping the odd pseudo-luxury, eating out once or twice less a week or buying beauty products to use at home in place of expensive visits to salons. In the alternative, we can flatter ourselves that we are independent souls who do not indulge in vicious excess and stupid manufactured fads and see through consumer capitalism’s wiles. The result is that we blind ourselves to how the entirety of our lives remains enmeshed within the commodity economy and its spectacle of possible existences.


One of the oldest ruses of the dominant society, one that has repeatedly disarmed our dissatisfaction and maintained our passivity, is a timely electoral contest for state power featuring an opposition candidate proclaiming a new and radical beginning. The high turnouts for the recent elections of Nicolas Sarkozy and Barack Obama suggest that this mechanism continues to be effective. It matters little that every previous ‘radical’ departure of this kind has quickly descended into farce. It is equally unimportant that the candidates feverishly depicted by interested commentators of left or right as charismatic iconoclasts are all too palpably stilted bureaucrats with threadbare programmes that at best promise marginal renovations to the society of alienation. We who have failed to develop the capacity for autonomous thought and action, who have failed to begin a theory of practice and a practice of theory that refuses external ideologies, allow ourselves once again to put our discontents in the hands of political others and wait. It may seem a small matter to tick a box or press a button in an electoral booth, but in the same way that it is unwise to indulge a destructive narcotic addiction at the moment when you are hoping to give it up, so we are poorly advised to exercise yet again our entrenched habits of submission to external powers just when the matter of whether or not we will dictate the direction of historical change depends fundamentally on superseding those habits. The dominant society always has at hand one more little matter that makes a small difference within the terms of this society and that justifies a small postponement of radical change in favour of participation in reformist steps. Generations have told themselves that this or that emergency or contingency requires them to work within the society for the time being but of course that does not mean that they have abandoned the idea of radical change. Generations have died without taking a single practical step further forward.


The ideological shift with which the dominant society is responding to the economic perturbations it is experiencing, a shift which also confronts us as a new practical project to maintain our passivity and alienation, is at present modest in scope. The main lines of this renovation of the thought and practice of the ruling circles are already fairly clear and include an increased willingness to add financial regulation and direct investment in ailing financial and industrial concerns to the battery of measures the state uses to sustain capitalism; they also tend to feature almost hysterical attempts to provide us with the means and willingness to increase our consumption. However, the parties seeking to determine the direction in which global society shifts at this moment of historical choice are not restricted to the familiar exemplars of political and economic power. The collapse of the current economic structures offers an important opportunity for ideologies that have long been denied influence in ruling circles by the hegemony of neo-liberal ideas. One such pseudo-alternative ideology champions peace, social justice, reduced inequality, a tempered consumerism, high quality jobs, etc. In effect, this leftism proposes to solve the problems of profitability and demand caused by the reduced availability of credit by increasing the income, and therefore consumption, of the less well off in the west and abroad. Put another way, it proposes to us that we continue to surrender our lives to alienation in return for a better standard of compensation. Another ideology seeking greater ascendancy is that of environmentalism. The blind growth of the neo-conservative economy has pushed the planet to the brink of economic catastrophe. In response, the various shades of green reformism wish to expand the industrial and research sectors directed to environmental purposes and create a system of capitalist production and distribution that is consistent with the environmental resources of the planet and thus is perpetual. To this end, they propose for us, amongst other things, a new ethos of alienated consumption that goes further in valuing quality over quantity in the matter of consumable illusions and a quest for an impossible satisfaction within capitalism increasingly focussed on the consumption of non-material goods that use fewer resources. Put another way, they rest their hopes for the permanence of capitalism on a cleaner but more intense colonization of our subjectivities by the commodity and its logic. The sale of frugal but false spirituality, culture, activities and community will replace the sale of shoddy objects. Green wage slavery will replace wage slavery of other colours.


While the process of economic restructuring is underway, it seems reasonable to expect surges of other forms of the false opposition that challenge aspects of the system of alienation but take as granted the alienated production and consumption of commodities that lie at the heart of capitalism. Here and there, we can doubtless expect revivals of trade unionist struggles, although the trade unions themselves will often be rendered quiescent by a sense that little is possible for the time being within the capitalism that sets the limits of their thought and practice. This means that we shall be harangued, from both inside and outside the trade unions, to fight for what we already have by way of pay, security, conditions and pensions. Of course, the fact that we can be cast from employment into unemployment, or have our wages frozen or reduced, is one facet of our alienation, one manifestation of the basic fact that we serve a separate and autonomous economy as its slaves and the economy does not serve us. Let us, therefore, by all means refuse to accept the restructuring plans that affect not just us personally but also other workers. But alienation is neither abolished nor mitigated by preserving or improving the terms and conditions of our labour. Let us, therefore, by all means begin with a refusal to kowtow to plans for restructuring; but, if we do not wish to remain in the misery within commodity abundance in which most of us now subsist, let us on no account end there. We have tried ‘good’ jobs and ‘good’ wages; but they are not enough. We have already spent years striving to stay where we are in this society or to make ourselves better off in its terms; but no matter how successful we have been, we have still ended up lost. We simply cannot find an individual and collective life worth living in alienated work and the alienated world of consumption to which that work gives rise; it is time that we confronted in thought and deed our endlessly frustrated efforts to do so.


One extreme wing of trade unionist reformism consists of the tattered remnants of the revolutionary left. Emboldened by the appearance of grave economic problems, and undeterred by a history of prognostic failure that has seen them earnestly predict the death crisis of capitalism in each of the last 100 years or so, the more ludicrous elements of this spectrum are once again fervently proclaiming that the end is nigh. But while they are waiting for the ever-worse–to-come promised by their musty theology to provide both them and us with an external motivation to take up revolutionary contestation, at least a few of them are loudly trumpeting a trade unionist fundamentalism. This may go as far as discarding as irredeemably corrupt the trade union form, but beneath its colourful revolutionary rhetoric its objective remains the usual paltry trade unionist aspiration to obtain more of what this society offers. All this deserves to be treated with contempt; and so too do the absurd sub-Dickensian fantasies of grinding material deprivation which these antiquarians confuse for the reality of the life of the ordinary worker in advanced capitalist societies. The ability of leftists to blind themselves to what is in front of their eyes is remarkable, but it is not a habit to be encouraged. Our point of departure must be the actual alienation and poverty of everyday life within generalized affluence that we in the west experience now and not the forms of impoverishment that afflicted our great-great-great grandparents. Let the dead bury the dead; negation begins at home: in and against the lived experience of the present.

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Sunday, 3 February 2008

A discussion with Ken Knabb

The reflections on 2007 that I sent to Ken Knabb on 18 January 2008 led to a discussion between us. The following are the texts of our postings to date.

1) Ken Knabb to Wayne Spencer, 18 January 2008

Thanks for your message. I did not mind its lengthiness since it was all very interesting and well thought out and expressed. I suggest that you add it to your blog, slightly revised so as to refer to me in the third person (or if you prefer, left as is and presented as a "Letter to Ken Knabb"). It raises a lot of key issues on a lot of fronts, and might well help to sort out your relations with various people you know or have collaborated with in some of the projects you discuss.

Regarding your remarks on my post-Notice activities, you are no doubt partially right. On the other hand, I'm not sure that this is an either-or question. Meditation can indeed have some of the dubious aspects you mention, but it can also (or even at the same time) be a worthwhile venture for its own sake. Ditto folk music, rock climbing, or just about any other sort of art, sport, "spiritual" path, etc. It is possible to criticize such activities insofar as they contain illusions about themselves, but exclusively stressing such critiques sometimes becomes rather silly when the critiquers find that they have painted themselves into a corner where they hesitate to engage in anything whatsoever because virtually any sort of activity could be seen as representing some sort of compromise or cooption. I have indeed to some extent "stepped back from a critical examination of the development of contemporary alienation (and the resistance to it)", mostly because many of the manifestations of such resistance have never interested me. Rather than burn myself out arguing about things that I find obnoxious or boring, I find it more pleasant to do (and talk about) things that I find engaging.

Anyway, I encourage you to continue in this exploratory, experimental mode, and to communicate your findings ever more aggressively (via blogs, forums, emails, print publications, film, etc.) without being discouraged by initially disappointing responses.

Incidentally, what is your blog URL? I'm not sure you ever told me about it. (You might want to consider shifting to a website, which is scarcely any more complicated than a blog, but is suitable for more sustained texts as opposed to daily brief comments.)

2) Wayne Spencer to Ken Knabb, 20 January 2008

Thank you for your message.

I not wish to deny that there are pleasures and benefits to be found in meditation and the other activities you mentioned. However, I think we must be keenly aware that contemporary spectacular society increasingly secures the acquiescence of ordinary people (including, of course, ourselves) less through crude repressions than by means of the pleasures it fosters and delivers. If we are not to enter the spectacle of decomposition as one more voice condemning the dominant society in abstraction while at the same time extolling one or another consumable niche, we surely must be critical of our own pleasures and the pleasures of others. We should acknowledge that any pleasure that is consistent with the persistence of spectacular society is in all probability at least partly spectacular in nature; and, in that spirit, we should seek out and expose the alienated origins (or distortions) of the tastes we pleasurably indulge. Equally, we should not deny or conceal the awareness that such pleasures are inadequate, that the multiple confinements to which our pleasures are inevitably subject within a society of separation render them more or less paltry, especially when the possibilities of the epoch are considered.

What I have in mind is thus a balance between taking such pleasure as we can, if only to keep ourselves from depression, isolation and madness, and feeling and manifesting contempt and dissatisfaction toward those same pleasures.

Even if you take the view that you are pursuing a particular activity for its intrinsic rewards and not because one or other of the competing spectacles of consumable satisfaction has cultivated a taste for it, it is hardly likely that everyone else in the social environment in which that activity is conducted (such as a monastery or temple) is equally free of illusion. One outcome of your own participation in the activity will therefore be to support and advance the illusions indulged in by others. Is that not another good reason for making a clear and public statement of the ideologies that surround and suffuse the milieu, even if you feel you steer clear of them personally?

Be cruel with your pleasures and with everything that would keep them where they are, as it were.

For myself, one of the objectives I contemplate for my text on Berlin is precisely to attack the pleasures I take during my visits to the city.

You mentioned that you have never been interested in many of the manifestations of resistance to contemporary alienation. What actions do you have in mind here?

I think I shall take up your suggestion of adding my last message to you to my blog. The blog can be found at

3) Ken Knabb to Wayne Spencer, 21 January 2008

I understand the points you are making and agree with them to a certain extent. But I believe that if you stick too narrowly to these notions you will arrive at nothing but a very silly and pointless souring of everything you do. Strictly speaking, your points could apply to virtually anything — enjoying food and drink, making love, taking a walk in the woods, relaxing, dancing, humming a tune, playing a game, etc., etc. All of these things are indeed “allowed” by the current social system and could be said to “support” or “reinforce” it insofar as they help keep people physically and mentally functional, help prevent them from going insane or committing suicide, make the society seem somewhat more tolerable, take up time that might otherwise be devoted to radical activity, etc. Does that mean that each time you sit down to a meal with some friends you should remind them that what they are about to do is not revolutionary, and urge them to guard against the possibility that the pleasure of the food and socializing may tend to make them feel a little less angry and alienated? When I sing folk songs with some friends, would you suggest that I preface each song with a grim acknowledgment that singing it is “consistent with the persistence of spectacular society” and “at least partly spectacular in nature”?

As for ”clear and public statements”, I have made a number of relatively sharp critiques of the limitations of Buddhist ideas and practices (notably my two leaflets re engaged Buddhism, but also scattered remarks in “The Joy of Revolution,” The Realization and Suppression of Religion, my autobiography and elsewhere re the downsides of religion, the limits of nonviolence, etc.). Many of the people I have practiced Zen with over the years are well aware of my views, and some of them share them to some extent even if they do not fully grasp the whole situationist perspective. In any case, I don’t go there to discuss politics but to take part in the practice, which involves paying wholehearted attention to whatever it is we’re doing at the moment, however seemingly “paltry” and insignificant. Our present-day lives obviously fall far short of what they could be in a more sanely organized society, but I think it is missing the point to conclude that we should constantly “manifest contempt and dissatisfaction” toward the pleasures available to us now. A postrevolutionary society, if we are ever lucky enough arrive at one, will not be some nonstop orgasm. Its pleasures will still consist largely of simple little things like a kiss, a smile, a song, a cup of tea, a breath of fresh air, though such things will be multiplied and enrichened by the radically different social context in which they occur.

Just as I have no significant problem with many of these limited activities, I also have no problem if someone makes a more aggressive and explicit critique of them. I think that’s fine, I’m all for it if you happen to be particularly moved to do so. But you have to bear in mind that this sort of thing gets awfully old awfully fast. I disrupted a couple of poetry readings back in 1970 (the Gary Snyder reading and also the Ode on the Absence of Real Poetry Here This Afternoon that I read at an open reading), but I have not done so since then. If the issue comes up, I may tell someone that I like this or that poem but that on the whole I see certain limitations in poetry, and perhaps mention my Snyder disruption or the situationist ideas about the realization and suppression of art. I still feel very good about having done that Snyder disruption because it represented a personal turning point for me as well as a challenge for others — as I said in the autobiography, I believe that at that moment I was in a sense being more truly creative and “poetic” than Snyder was. But if I had continued to show up at every local poetry reading with substantially the same critique it would soon have become completely boring for me as well as for everyone else, and would have been unlikely to inspire any interest at all. You have to keep moving.

In this regard, I encourage you to approach Berlin with an open mind — ready indeed to call attention to its problems, but also ready to appreciate whatever you may discover that is new and unexpected. I will have no interest in reading a thousandth version of how alienated modern cities are, but I will read with interest a candid account of your experiences and experiments there, which will naturally include, but hopefully not be dominated by, your awareness of the city’s problematic aspects.

To sum up, if you feel deeply MOVED to express critiques of the illusions or limitations involved in this or that activity, by all means do so. But I think that people who DWELL on such things rarely accomplish anything but souring their own lives and boring everyone else.

4) Wayne Spencer to Ken Knabb, 30 January 2008

Thank you for the copy of your latest contribution to our discussion.

I agree with you that a narrow and mechanistic approach to questioning our pleasures would be self-defeating, ineffective and absurd. That is not what I am proposing. I am not suggesting that every pleasurable act should be prefaced or accompanied by public denunciation. Rather, I think that a suitable balance must be struck between the quiet indulgence in what we enjoy or need to survive and both:

(i) a subjective awareness, however intermittent or belated, of the limitations of what we are engaged in and the wider ideological delusions surrounding it; and

(ii) from time to time, appropriate, well-timed and well-placed public actions against those limitations and delusions.

Such a way of proceeding would have several aims. It would seek periodically to reconnect us with the dissatisfaction with concrete everyday life that should lie at the root of the desire and motivation for revolutionary change. It would prompt us periodically to confront at least a part of the shifting complex of external thoughts, tastes, desires and associated complacencies that we, in common with everyone else, adopt or absorb from fragments of the global spectacle and which tends to maintain us as producers and consumers of the commodity society. It would also, perhaps, prompt us to keep our theory more abreast of broad contemporary developments that affect the alienation of ourselves and others.

I agree that it is hardly plausible (or even desirable) to think that any post-revolutionary society will be perpetually orgasmic in nature. And far be it from me to disparage the pleasures of tea-drinking, whether before or after the revolution. However, the apparently basic pleasures you list do not exist in isolation. In practice, they are pursued and experienced as part of diverse ideologies of pleasure. I regard a critique of those surrounding ideologies as a central task of revolutionary theory.

Of course, I am aware of the criticism of Buddhist ideas and practices that you have expressed, and I am not suggesting that you have been wholly uncritical. One thing you do not seem to have developed, however, is an account of how those ideas and practices are being carried along by important changes within commodity society. In your Remarks on Contradiction and its Failure you went beyond the criticism of the particular ideas and practices that you and your colleagues were then concerned with and sought to show how those ideological phenomena pertained to “a wider and yet nonetheless delimited social stratum”. I may be mistaken, but it strikes me that you have not attempted anything analogous in relation to the social (including ideological) bases of contemporary Western Buddhism and other meditational practices.

For myself, my plan is not to write a candid account of my experiences and experiments in Berlin, although I recognise that that would have some value. Rather, I have it in mind to look in more general terms at some of the milieu and activities with which people like me are associated, as well as at some of the changes that Berlin has experienced since 1989.

2007 and I

On 6 January 2007, Ken Knabb, of the Bureau of Public Secrets, circulated his annual New Year News and Greetings to certain friends and acquantances. Intrigued by his example of looking back at his life and the wider society during the year just passed, I decided to reply to him in kind. This is what I wrote on 18 January 2008:

As you kindly sent me your reflections on the year just passed, I thought I would respond in kind.

2007 was a significant year for me, as it marked some important steps in my public return to a politics I had abandoned some 20 years ago. There were many reasons for this return, but some of the most immediate had to do with my consumption of culture.

A few years ago, my musical tastes moved from older mainstream jazz first to modern jazz, then free jazz, then the less jazz-inflected European free improvisation of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and finally to a form of music sometimes referred to as “reductionism” (borrowing an old formulation of mine, “reductionism” can be defined as wholly or partly improvised music that to a large degree utilizes microtonality, extended playing techniques, pianissimo dynamics, small gestures, silence, austerity, and unconventional sounds and timbres that blur the distinctions between music and noise). Along the way, I became intrigued by the notion (largely derived from the writings of improvising drummer Eddie Prévost) that the relations within freely improvising music ensembles and between such ensembles and the audience constituted a radical prefiguration of liberated, non-capitalist social relations. I also became convinced that reductionism’s refusal of the arbitrary conventions of tonal music and the loud and frenetic activity characteristic of certain sectors of contemporary society were subversive in nature. In the course of 2005 and early 2006, this philosophy of mine began to collapse. I was by then not just attending performances and listening to recordings, but also organising events as a volunteer member of a non-profit music promoter, writing reviews for publication online, and meeting and corresponding with musicians and some of the more dedicated aficionados of the genre. At length, I found it impossible to escape the conclusion that the political significance I imputed to the music existed only in my imagination. While many of the musicians were very pleasant individuals, almost none seriously regarded the music as having a substantial element of political praxis. Their perspectives were aesthetic, and their goal was the production of merely artistic performances and objects. Far from challenging the wider socio-political order, they sought only to find ways of operating within a framework of commodification, hierarchical social relations and cultural institutions that was largely taken for granted or viewed as unchangeable. They did whatever they needed to do to promote their music in a world of CD sales, concerts, state subsidies, radio programmes, etc. On the side of the audience, the supposedly radical effects of the music were equally hard to find. At bottom, the people who admired the music were much like any other musical fans. They avidly collected and discussed musical commodities, experiences and gossip. They had their heroes and their villains. They cherished the music simply as sound and analysed it in abstraction with the aid of various religious and philosophical views. They left each musical experience just as they entered it, returning to carry on their everyday lives of work and consumption much as before. In short, I recognised that the individuals involved in improvised music may in some instances have disdained the dominant society but their musical practices did not challenge that society. Moreover, neither musicians nor audience felt any great concern about the accommodation they had reached with the society. Whatever egalitarian relations it may transiently establish between performers in the separate world of the stage, improvised music helps produce and maintain everyday lives that are as a matter of practice resigned to the domination of the commodity-economy and its state.

My relationship with improvised music reached a point of crisis in early 2006. The music itself had been changing, shifting away from the quiet and austere sounds that I had enjoyed. More important, I had been working on a text, The New Improvised Music, that was intended to set out at length the political aspects of the music. The more I thought about the subject and interrogated my experiences, the more the philosophy I had meant to expand and expound turned to dust in my hands. The last draft I produced, dated March 2006, observes that the radical outcomes suggested as possible are not often found in practice. The text was then abandoned, having been circulated to a few friends and correspondents. I also dropped all my work as a critic and stepped down from the promoter with which I had been involved.

Another area of cultural consumption that led me to reflect more critically on my everyday life was the cinematic depiction of contemporary existence being produced by such directors as Bela Tarr, Tsai Ming-Liang and Hong Sang-Soo. Working with long takes, expressionless acting, minimal or fumbling dialogue, eventless or miserable plots, and ugly locales, this work can at times produce an unflinching portrait of the sheer, ghastly banality of everyday life in consumer societies. As such, it is a sobering experience. However, the films themselves offer no remedy for this evisceration of life, and neither do the practices of those involved in making and making available the film, consisting as they do of raising large amounts of state or private institutional money; constructing over time an aesthetic object under the hierarchical control of the director and various specialists; engaging in sustained conventional publicity for the benefit of capitalists, institutional managers and the passive public in order to secure and promote the release of the film; placing the film to be viewed in isolation by strangers who disperse afterwards; and then finally returning to the beginning of the cycle simply to repeat the process once again. It was necessary, I concluded, to step beyond the world of film. In order to negate the life the films portray, it is necessary to negate the world of which the making, showing and viewing of such films is an ordinary and supportive part.

A third cultural cause was a certain line of European fiction that takes a dark and sometimes savagely critical view of society, such as the work of the Austrian novelists Thomas Bernhard and Elfrida Jelinek. What I have already said about films applies equally to these books.

Of course, this cultural consumption did not have its effects in isolation from my everyday life as a whole. Rather it fed upon and advanced a dissatisfaction that was already there. I have not thought about this matter as much as I need to, however I suspect that the banalization produced by new waves of capitalist reconstruction of Britain’s cities and fresh economic growth played a significant part of the burgeoning of my dissatisfaction, especially when taken in conjunction with the mounting evidence of the serious environmental degradation arising out of capitalist production and consumption. The physical and social environments are being comprehensively remade. Production of commodities has reached such a fever pitch as to threaten the very survival of the planet. The individual is typically growing more affluent and consumes ever more. But what is the result? Nothing but mounting rubbish, in every domain of life.

My working life as a minor state functionary has doubtless also played a role. Having contrived to reduce the actual time I spend working to just an hour or two a day, I have created the opportunity to appreciate more vividly the misery and stupidity of the work I do. A sense that I probably have limited opportunities to escape through the fake novelty of taking up a new job (being too specialised and short of marketable skills), and that at age 43 my life is passing me by, also no doubt contributed, amongst many other things.

In an attempt to understand my life and the society in which I find myself, I read widely. Amongst other things, I took in academic social science, fashionable theorists such as Žižek and Negri, less fashionable figures such as Takis Fotopoulos, old Marxists such as Korsch, newer strands of Marxism such as that of CLR James, Castoriadis, and the Italian theorists of the 60s and 70s, plus a selection of contemporary anarchists and non-Leninist communists. Although I found some fragments of illumination here and there (for example, in the work of a group of British sociologists who have looked at the development of a hedonistic night-time economy to replace the decayed heavy industrial economy of parts of Britain), I was driven to the conclusion that only the work of the situationists provided a substantial basis for a critical theoretical engagement with the alienations of the ordinary person in advanced capitalist societies.

Looking around for contemporary material that draws on situationist theory, I soon found that the individuals who had been associated with the Declaration Concerning the Center for Research on the Social Question and the Notice Concerning the Reigning Society and Those Who Contest It and who had largely been responsible for extending situationist theory after the demise of the SI had largely abandoned the field. The one exception, of course, is you. I see that you have refined and added to your invaluable translations of the situationists (especially with your translation of ‘The Society of the Spectacle’) and that you added a number of new works of your own (notably the autobiography and ‘The Joy of Revolution’) in a new style that evidently aims for greater simplicity of expression. However, my sense is that in the post-Notice period you have somewhat stepped back from a critical examination of the development of contemporary alienation (and the resistance to it). Relatedly, you seem to have grown publicly rather uncritical about your own cultural consumption (Rexroth, rock-climbing, meditation, folk music, etc). This is not to say that there is no criticism at all, but at least some your personal enthusiasms touch on important developments in commodity society about which you are silent. For example, meditation would appear to be one facet of a constellation of ‘non-material’ and non-mundane consumption that now offers distinction, enlightenment or patient resignation to sectors of society who have either satisfied their basic needs to their own satisfaction or consumed the more ordinary and tangible commodities to the point of nauseous exhaustion. Moreover, in an age in which ecological pressures, and the patent failure of increased consumption to produce a better quality of life, might yet dictate a general shift away from resource-intensive consumption, ‘spiritual’ practices might perhaps best be thought of as an avant-garde laboratory for the reformed alienation of coming years. Your own experience might shed light on these hypotheses.

I also see some other familiar figures at work on the World Wide Web, for example Nick Brandt at Endangered Phoenix and the Wise brothers at Revolt Against an Age of Plenty. Unfortunately, these three appear to have been catastrophically affected by the rise of Thatcherism and the defeat of the miners, amongst others. They see the decimation of the old manufacturing industries and the resulting desperate lumpenproletarianization that has afflicted some of the working class areas those industries previously sustained. They also see some of newer types of work that have arisen, but only those with the very worst pay and conditions. What they do not perceive are the innumerable fairly or very well-paid jobs that survived Thatcherism or developed under or after it. The result is a frankly absurd caricature of poverty and dereliction that is far removed from the conditions of the average proletarian in modern Britain, one they share with the vast majority of anarchists and leftists, it seems. Brandt, Wise and Wise are undoubtedly right when they contrast the industrial militancy of the 1970s with the relative quiescence of today; however, it is a simple fact that the ordinary worker today is very considerably more affluent than his counterpart in the 1970s. That reality must be at the heart of any revolutionary theory about contemporary conditions in this country.

Looking further afield, I see numerous new translations of texts by the SI and former members of the SI albeit that the majority appear to be execrable (Bill Brown in particular has converted the unavailable into the unreadable on a quite industrial scale). Sadly, there appears to have been very few fresh and incisive applications and developments of situationist theory in recent years. Worse still, elements of the academy have taken up the situationists with gusto, transforming abstracted and misunderstood fragments of that theory into material for empty speculation, disarmed analysis, inconsequential debate, and the approval-seeking displays of bored students in search of qualifications.

During 2006 I decided that I should publish a text that would help clarify for myself why the revolutionary promise of the 1970s has not materialized and perhaps stimulate thought and debate amongst others considering the same issue from a revolutionary point of view. I also hoped that it would serve as a small contribution to resharpening situationist theory as a critical tool in contemporary conditions. The result was my text Gasping from out the Shallows, which was written over the Christmas period and then revised in early 2007. I printed a couple of hundred copies, some of which I offered to bookshops and distributors, and sent electronic copies to a few individuals I thought might be interested. I did not have any very definite expectations for the text, although I thought its criticisms of the proletariat and its assertion that the proletariat remained generally affluent might prove controversial. In the event, the response to date has been minimal. Sales have been quite slow. A few people have written to offer brief praise or brief criticism (the latter mostly being focussed on my comments about economic struggles), but in general it seems to have sparked little interest or public reflection. Why is that, I wonder? The text itself undoubtedly has problems. It was written quite quickly and revised even more quickly. I was very aware that the task of looking at four different areas of class struggle and providing the beginnings of an analysis of contemporary alienation was a huge one, and I was keen not to allow it to overwhelm me. In particular, I suspected it would prove easy to use deficiencies of structure or style as excuses for endlessly delaying, and ultimately abandoning, the project, so I had resolved to complete the text in a short time and then put it beyond prevarication or recall by publishing it immediately. In this way, I ensured that the text appeared but guaranteed that it would be deficient. Looking back at it now, I find the language rather turgid and the syntax sometimes wayward. The historical sections are also poorly structured and argued, with the result that my point has not been adequately conveyed in places. Other faults include a lack of concrete detail, which I suspect may make the discussion very abstract for those not familiar with the subject matter, and a failure to look at some of the issues dialectically. The text perhaps succumbs to catastrophism in its too rigid separation of the failed 70s and the contemporary period. It would have been better to examine the whole period from them to now more clearly and expressly in terms of the development of a proletarian dissatisfaction that has all along been entangled with the spectacle and that has sometimes been suborned and diverted by that entanglement and sometimes reacted against the recuperation that has resulted. I offered some remarks about how a continued adhesion to spectacular ideologies and practices contributed to the hobbling of proletarian resistance, but in each case that resistance simply disappears at some point in the text, as if some long-lasting absorption had abruptly descended.

In addition to the deficiencies of the text, and doubtless its invisibility to many, I suspect that a simple lack of interest in the kinds of question I raise has operated against my text.

Gasping was followed in June by On Lice and Fleas, a text built around the conflict between the Iranian and American governments. I intended that the text should range much more widely than a standard leftist tract denouncing American imperialism and perhaps the Iranian state. I wanted to look quite broadly at how the threat of such a conflict, and any actual conflict, might feed the false opposition that sustains rather than threatens the dominant society. I am not completely dissatisfied with the text. It is not sufficiently concrete in places and a couple of stupid last-minute changes served only to introduce errors; nonetheless, it’s generally better written than ‘Gasping’ and offers some pertinent and not-too-commonly expressed critical positions. That said, it was not directed at a concrete struggle and was launched into a vacuum. I have also relied on the internet to diffuse it amongst those interested, as well as emailing copies to a few rather far-left Iranian organisations (including the Komiteye Hamahangim, which I criticised). I doubt that has worked. One way or another, the text appears to have been a failure. As far as I can tell, it has made no impression whatsoever on anyone. A quick internet search suggests that it has been universally overlooked or ignored.

One of the recipients of the text was ‘situationist’ discussion list. In my experience, the list largely serves to exchange snide remarks, ancient texts, recommendations for cultural consumption, conventional discussion of news items, and absurd conspiracy theories and pseudo-science. I wondered, however, whether there may be a few lurkers who remained on the list just to pick up the odd useful item. My text prompted a lengthy discussion, albeit one concerned mostly with fragments of Gasping. It was a perfectly dismal experience. It may have led me to give some thought as to the relationship of theory to everyday life in a non-revolutionary epoch; but at length I became weary of arguing with people who seemed mainly concerned to deny that they themselves were proletarians or that proletarians were capable of becoming revolutionary. I signed off the list.

In terms of further texts, I have spent some time thinking about possible texts about Berlin (a city I visit quite often) and about the ideology of ‘affluenza’. They may be written this year. However, I am at present unsure that there is much point writing about such general phenomena.

I opened a blog this year, mostly because I was too lazy to start a website proper. I have added little to it beyond my two main texts. I do not have the time or inclination to engage in the habitual, daily commentary seemingly expected of the blogger. I am inclined to close it down. Indeed, a few weeks without the internet forced on me by a corruption in Windows made me aware of how much time I waste via the internet. For people generally, it seems in practice mainly to facilitate a ceaseless and enveloping immersion in inconsequence.

Finally, at work I have been involved in various strikes this year. The disputes concerned job cuts and a below-inflation pay deal. The public sector is the last redoubt of trade unionism in Britain, with membership rates of around 80%, I believe. The effects are nefarious. There is no conception of autonomous action, and not even the example of the postal workers has sparked the slightest interest in wildcat practices. The disputes have also, as usual, raised no passion or critical views of the wider system. Each strike is like a public holiday, with no discussion or debate before or after a strike and no collective activity; we all just shuffle off home for a day off. And, of course, the large majority of us know that we will survive the staffing reductions and the poor pay deal. Most of us would even survive forced transfer or redundancy (many may well be praying for the latter, as the payoff would be a good one). To some extent our indifference reflects the stakes for us.

My apologies for going on at such length.

[This message subsequently led to this exchange.]