Monday, 13 July 2009

Discussion of Failure with Frére Dupont

My text on Failure and Its Possible Remedies was prompted in part by my recollection of a comment that Frére Dupont made to my a few years ago. I sent my text to Dupont. It took some time to reach him, as I sent it to an old email address that he now rarely uses; however, soon afterwards he published his observations on the Salon de ver Luisant discussion board. His critique, and my response to it, are reproduced below.

1) Frére Dupont's critique, 5 June 2009

"However, it seems reasonable to take the nature and extent of both private messages and public commentary as an indicator of the impact of what I have said. If so, I have to admit that my writings have had almost no effect whatsoever. In the main, they have been ignored, rejected or misunderstood. At best, they have been offered a rather generalized and unwanted praise and then simply put aside. "

One possible reason for this is that the method Wayne Spencer uses is to give a general descriptive explanation of social relations; it seems to me that this is no longer adequate for a number of reasons, the most important of which is the general descriptive mode itself. It is not clear how anyone is meant to relate to such material, there are not enough strong images, not enough theoretical elaborations/formulae, not enough practical/applicable perspectives which may be utilised in a person’s everyday life.

It would be useful if Wayne Spencer pursued this theme of disconnection further but he does not and unfortunately places his lack of influence within the milieu on a purely theological level, that is on this occasion, at the level of that old argument concerning the true nature of immiseration. He is certainly mistaken in this attribution and it is indicative of his isolation if he considers that such a small interpretive issue is significant enough for everyone else to send him to Coventry. In fact, most people (inside and outside of the milieu) aren't really interested in discussing ideas full-stop, this in itself is a matter for investigation although not necessarily to be regretted – the failure of the penetration of ideas has its positive features.

"Everywhere one looks, however, Marxists, anarchists and other revolutionaries absurdly proclaim that for several decades wages have catastrophically fallen, precariousness has catastrophically risen, and social security provisions have been decimated. This picture of general desolation is doubtless useful."

He then, perhaps rightly, perhaps wrongly, argues that because other ‘revolutionaries’ locate immiseration at the level of economic hardship rather than, as Wayne Spencer does, at the level of ‘affluent alienation’ they are unable to articulate the concerns of ‘ordinary people’. It is this disconnection of ‘revolutionary’ theory and perception from actual lived conditions that causes the lack of interest in such perceptions and theory:

"At the same time, however, this denial of reality makes itself incomprehensible and irrelevant to that very majority. Ordinary people will accept the practical, reformist assistance that leftists here and there offer when it seems calculated to make their life more comfortable within the society of alienation; but they easily recognize the revolutionary ideology that is bolted on to it as messianic, delusional, unconnected with their daily lives, and superfluous. Even the long-prayed-for profound economic crisis, that terrible external compulsion that leftists hoped would force the workers and themselves to take the road of revolution, has not changed this state of affairs. 2009 is not 1848 or 1929. A crisis in an advanced economy turns out not to have the same practical consequences for the majority of workers as it does in less developed economic conditions. It has left the majority largely untouched. It has provided no impetus to revolution whatsoever."

Presumably, his implication is that if others adopted Wayne Spencer’s analysis then the ‘ordinary people’ would have much more interest in ‘revolutionary’ politics. In this, he falls into a conventional fallacy within ‘revolutionary’ thought which begins by externalising problems and locating error within others but at the same time preserves the ideal of a potentially galvanising discourse. He does not, perhaps cannot, bring himself to develop his enquiry to its most radical point, namely the question, what if ‘ordinary people’ are no more interested in the right ideas than they are in the wrong ideas? In other words, he does not examine the (absence of a) role for consciousness. He does not consider the possibility that 'ideas' belong to an earlier impoverished age, an age which, elsewhere in his argument, he is convinced that we have left behind.

At some level he recognises ‘ordinary people’ s’ refusal of consciousness and attributes this (rightly or wrongly) to the spectacle which he then goes on to define:

"If revolutionary theory is to be made pertinent and dangerous to the ordinary lives of ordinary people, it must renew its critique of the dominant ideas of happiness, a critique that has been progressively abandoned over the past 30 years."

He seems to locate the problems of the spectacle externally, as a set of oppressive, miragic tableaux vivant and gives a list of 8 different forms of ‘spectacle’. The possibilities which each of the eight circles of hell express for their consumers are merely denounced, and this in itself becomes a 9th spectacle, that of externalisation and denunciation.

Of course, it is true that neither trade unionism nor psychogeography, neither dumpster diving nor rap, adequately express our potential or actual human relations but then nor does the denunciation of them. It remains true that within every commodity there remains an uncommodified surplus related to need and inter-human relations, a human element... and it is the recognition of this element which causes us to consider that social revolution must be located simaltaneously at the level of social reproduction as well as within human social relations.

Wayne Spencer argues that it is necessary to further develop the critique of the actualities of the spectacular form of happiness, and I think he is correct in this – but it is not enough. He needs to contain within his analysis (if he too, is not to become one-sided and thus spectacular) the possibility that this analysis whilst ‘true’ will most likely have no impact whatsoever. He also needs to include a ‘therapeutic’ element, by which I mean a practical application of his ideas and relations to existing ideas and relations in which a former state may be demonstrably released from its binds. He needs to relocate his ‘general’ critique and adopt instead a more personal approach (which because it is personal will be generalised by forces operating at a level above his person).

His suggestion of a journal dedicated to his analysis seems to me a good idea (provided that it is internally dynamic/scientific in its rigor – that is, blithely embracing of its failures). I look forward to it, and wish to aid it – an increase in the number of critical journals and websites (in other words formal structures) will increase both the rate and the density of critique.

2) Wayne Spencer's response, 12 July 2009

I am grateful to you for the observations on my text On Failure and its Possible Remedies that you posted to the Salon de ver Luisant discussion board. I am afraid that I have very little interest in the Salon itself. I do not doubt that it contains a certain margin of searching thought from individuals who have a real desire to confront the miserable impasse in which we find ourselves. Far more common, however, are abstract discussions of perfectly useless fragments of leftist, academic and cultural ideology. The need for a reconstruction of theory and practice may be all too great, and the opportunity to counter the world of alienation in which we live may be all too small, but we can at least recognize the obvious dead ends around us and refuse to enter into pseudo-dialogue with those who are content to play futile little games against their mildewed walls. I am, therefore, sending this response direct to you. If you choose to also post it to the Salon, that is entirely a matter for you. I do not seek to place any restrictions on your use of what I have said.

You suggest that one possible cause of the inefficacy of my writing is its reliance of a “general descriptive explanation of social relations”. I am not entirely sure what you mean by this, which makes it somewhat difficult to evaluate your criticism. But perhaps I can approach the matter by way of the three more specific deficiencies to which you afterwards refer.

You first say that material such as mine lacks “enough strong images”. It is noticeable that your own critique of my text itself contains no strong images whatsoever. This suggests that you do not regard such images as an essential requirement of effective communication. Yet you do not say when, for whom, or why their use is necessary or desirable. You also offer no evidence, or even suggestive anecdotes, to show that the ability of revolutionary theory to achieve the particular ends at which it aims co-varies with the vividness of its imagery. I do not think your perspective can be taken as self evident. After all, the use of searing metaphors and attention-grabbing graphics is not without its dangers. A taste for violent manifestations of social failure and conflict is all too widely cultivated amongst the many passive connoisseurs of decomposition. We must be careful not to end up as mere producers for this degraded marketplace of degradation.

You next refer to an insufficiency of “theoretical elaborations/formulae”. It would have been more helpful if you had referred to particular deficiencies of elaboration or formulation to be found in particular texts of mine. Your entirely general observation is of very little assistance, I’m afraid.

Finally, you refer to a shortage of “practical/applicable perspectives which may be utilised in a person’s everyday life”. I would hope that what I have said is not wholly lacking in useable perspectives. For example, I have written about the need:

(i) to repudiate trade unions and instead practice strategy, tactics, and communication by and for ourselves;

(ii) to recognise and act on the basis that that the commodity consumption and domestic life that alienated labour permits is as alienated as that labour itself;

(iii) for marginal rioters to develop and promulgate an account of their actions that recognizes the more affluent and secure alienation of the majority of the proletariat and quickens dissatisfaction with it;

(iv) to recognize and act on the basis that that the worlds of popular culture and gangsterism are continuations of the alienation of individuals and in no way antidotes or alternatives to it;

(v) to recognize and act on the basis that the dominant society defends itself as much by false critiques and inconsequent discussions of incidentals as it does by police clubs or naïve proclamations of its supposed perfections; and

(vi) to recognize act on the basis that the proponents of genuine representative democracy and civil society in Iran are the agents of a reconstituted alienation.

It seems to me that these points are hardly banalities amongst ordinary people and can serve as productive points of departure for, amongst others, the current wildcat strikers in Britain’s oil refineries, the rioters in French banlieues, the rioters in Greece, some of the protesters brought into the streets after the Iranian presidential election, and anyone watching or participating in the furore about the expenses of Members of Parliament. But it is true that in general I have not attempted to set out in detail what the practical consequences of my writings are. This is in part because it falls to each individual to determine what particular practical steps can effectively be taken against the specific landscape of subjective and objective alienation in which he or she is placed. It is also because my writings are conceived as invitations and preliminary contributions to a process of theoretical and practical reconstruction that I am seeking to begin not end. At bottom, perhaps, what I am seeking to do is to persuade some of those who are disaffected with the lives available in affluent capitalism to put away a few of the childish things with which they have sought to conceal, console, repair, dismiss or execrate the unhappy state of their existences and to begin to reflect, for themselves and in unmediated dialogue with others, on what a practical course of contestation directed against the social sources of their desolation might involve.

However, I am increasingly coming to the view that it is necessary to go further than I have to date in taking account of how very far the vast majority in the affluent countries have moved from any sense of social revolution as an individual and social possibility. How can this be done? Two responses have come immediately to mind. The first is to create relatively straightforward material that (i) encourages people to admit to themselves their unhappiness and disaffection with their lives; (ii) offers the suggestion that their ennui is caused by a reversible domination of individual and collective life by an alienated system for the production and consumption of commodities; and (iii) urges them to step beyond the journalistic, commercial, political, philosophical, academic, religious or common sense thought of their era when thinking and acting in relation to the real poverty of their everyday lives. Victory will go to those who can face, feel and fight their misery without fleeing or falling in love with it.

A second response that occurs to me is to seek to promote the notion that practical negation consists in treating work, consumption and permitted social life as enemies (or as the work of enemies, if you prefer). We can also be more specific about what this means. For example, I recently said to another correspondent: “Outside of work, we should treat ‘the machinery of permitted consumption’ (to take a phrase from Guy Debord) and the machinery of social indoctrination and seduction as our enemies. For example, the launch of a new line of commodities, a new season of fashion, clothing or sport, or a new tour by a musical or theatrical group, is tantamount to a renewed attack upon us that falls to be physically disrupted and denounced (by invasions of the venues, for instance). Equally, a wedding or other family ritual, a school reunion, a holiday, an educational course, the making and broadcasting of television and radio programmes, another night down the pub, etc, etc, should be understood and treated as curses and blights on our lives to be resisted, as concrete mechanisms for the perpetuation of alienation that must be crippled by action. Each of us needs to consult our individual everyday lives in order to determine the particular ways in which we reproduce the world of alienation and then embark on an evolving, practical course of individual and collective contestation directed at that reproduction”. Even if a lack of support within the wider society makes it difficult to put this (and an analogous attack on work) into practice for the time being, we can at least begin by viewing the facets of our individual and social life with the contempt that appallingly destructive enemies deserve. If you have a liking for rather romantic comparisons, you could say that, like partisans confronted with an occupying power that seems overwhelmingly strong, we should at any given time do whatever we can to seek out the weaknesses in the forces arraigned against us (including, of course, those that we bring to bear against ourselves), while carefully looking out for the moment when we can do more. But, as a minimum, let us corrode within ourselves the sense that what we are doing with our lives is worthwhile. Let us keep the home fires burning.

But I am doubtful that a change in form or content would greatly alter the effectiveness of my public writing. Before the perspectives I have briefly outlined above coalesced to any degree, I published a text on the current economic crisis (Their Passed-away Builders) that was something of a departure from my previous efforts, if only because it used the first person plural “we” quite extensively in an attempt to address the reader and his or her life more directly and reveal that I did not regard myself as having transcended the stupidities of our times. Of course, I have could have gone further than I did; nonetheless, the fact that this text shared precisely the same fate as its predecessors prompted me to think that something more fundamental than my mode of address was responsible for the indifference with which I was largely being received.

I first considered that small minority of the population that call themselves revolutionaries. I have read a good deal of Marxist and anarchist literature in the past few years. I have noticed quite a number of differences between my views and those to be found in the books, periodicals, websites, videos and leaflets I have seen. The one that seemed to me to most striking and salient was that I regard mass affluence as having persisted in the West down to the present, whereas other revolutionaries typically think that it either never existed or was definitively reversed at the beginning of the 1970s. You dismiss this theoretical divergence as irrelevant, but I think you are too quick to do so. The notion that capitalism has failed because it has not delivered the quantity of material goods and benefits we need for basic physical survival is close to the very centre of the critique and propaganda that contemporary revolutionaries advance. I suspect you underestimate how difficult it is for revolutionaries to relinquish this guiding principle of leftist thought. But in the end, I have almost no hope or interest in the current generation of revolutionaries, so let us waste no more time on this point.

I also considered those who are outside the revolutionary movement. The central notion I proposed was that “if we do not rebel against our narrow lives, this is more than anything else because we have been seduced by the dominant society’s ideas of happiness”. I then briefly outlined eight “contemporary notions of happiness” that I feel are in need of “nuanced critique”. In response, you write: “He seems to locate the problems of the spectacle externally, as a set of oppressive, miragic tableaux vivant and gives a list of 8 different forms of ‘spectacle’”. But this is your conception of the eight “spectacles”, not mine. In Their Passed-away Builders (section 4) I referred to how the huge increase in personal consumption since the early 1980s has been capitalism’s attempt “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”, and I certainly see a proper understanding of the particular ends that consumption serves for the consumer as an integral part of the critiques I called for. That said, I would approach with considerable caution the notion of an “uncommodified surplus related to need and inter-human relations, a human element”. Capitalism fosters particular forms or content of social life, particular social needs, through socialization, through publicity as to what is natural, achievable or desirable, and through the quietly insidious process of adaptation to what is possible in our places of confinement in existing society. We must not confuse these with essential human needs. In this connection, perhaps we should keep the unhappy example of the family in mind. No doubt the family might be said to address various human needs. Nonetheless, as Robert Cooperstein said back in 1974: “The family, tentatively defined as any collection of individuals who on a daily basis support and maintain one another in a state of mutual survival, is an essential ingredient of capitalist society. Briefly, it is that first factory of alienation that renders all subsequent degradations possible, while at the same time the sum total of these degradations make the family possible” (see Some Notes on the Reproduction of Human Capital).

Finally, there is one aspect of your critique that puzzles me. At one point, you say: “He does not, perhaps cannot, bring himself to develop his enquiry to its most radical point, namely the question, what if ‘ordinary people’ are no more interested in the right ideas than they are in the wrong ideas”. In itself, this does not puzzle me, because my text expressly recognizes the very point you suggest I am unwilling or unable to face. As I put it in the final paragraph:

“It also has to be admitted that the efforts of revolutionaries are neither necessary nor sufficient to create social revolution. They are not necessary because the mass of the proletariat is capable of deriving its revolutionary theory and practice from its own practical experience of commodity alienation without reference to what has been said and done by revolutionaries; they are not sufficient because history provides no guarantee that the rest of the proletariat will at any given time agree that revolution is necessary and desirable. So be it. We do what we can” [italics added].

It is what comes next in your critique that leaves me uncertain:

“In other words, he does not examine the (absence of a) role for consciousness. He does not consider the possibility that 'ideas' belong to an earlier impoverished age, an age which, elsewhere in his argument, he is convinced that we have left behind”.

Two interpretations of this passage come to mind. The first is that you are intimating that the material development of capitalism has eliminated any possibility of a desire for revolution on the part of most ordinary people. The second is that you consider that any modern revolution will rely wholly on non-conscious cognitive and affective processes and thus will be conducted by people who will not be aware of what they are doing. It seems uncharitable to attribute either view to you. Perhaps, therefore, you could say a little more about your perspective.

Before concluding, I should like to thank you for your interest in my proposed journal. Unfortunately, as I expected, the project is still-born. Only two other people expressed a tentative interest in the project, and subsequent discussion has suggested that our respective views are too far apart to permit effective collaboration.



Wayne Spencer

A Discussion of Failure with Dave Stratman

The following is an exchange of correspondence with Dave Stratman of New Democracy, prompted by my text On Failure and its Possible Remedies.

1) Dave Stratman to Wayne Spencer, 4 May 2009

Dear Wayne--

My friend and colleague John Spritzler recently forwarded to me On Failure and Its Possibilities, and I have since then read Gasping from Out the Shallows and On Lice and Fleas, all of them extraordinarily insightful and provocative pieces. I would like to offer some comments from a point of view which John and I and other friends have discussed and developed over the years since the publication of my book, We CAN Change the World: The Real Meaning of Everyday Life (New Democracy Books, 1991), with a view to opening a discussion.

We find that, while we have seemingly a very different starting point from yours, we arrive at similar places. We are strongly in agreement with your analyses of various struggles--British miners, South Africa, Poland, Iran--and of trade unionism, reformism, and the need and possibility of revolution.

In "Failure" you suggest some tentative principles of agreement for participants in a joint project:

1) The affluent alienation of modern conditions of production and consumption can no longer be endured and is the foundation of our discontent. Self-managed, social revolution is the only solution capable of practically dissolving the alienation of human activity inherent in all work and all consumption the dominant society produces.


2) All notions of revolution derived from Bolshevism are false.

Again, agreed. But the roots of Bolshevism lie in Marxism, which must likewise be rejected. Marxism presents a vision of workers dehumanized by capitalism and motivated--like capitalists--by self-interest. Lenin was thus presented by Marxism with the question, Who will act on behalf of society? His answer: the Party. Lenin discovered how to operationalize Marxism as a revolutionary theory. (My critique of Marx and Lenin are available at Hope and Revolution; Communism and Counterrevolution ; From Marx to Lenin )

A new revolutionary movement must be based on a new understanding of human motivation and development.

3) All notions of struggle and progress associated with trade unionism are false.

Agreed, the unions are capitalist control mechanisms, designed to discipline the working class. But the language is a little unclear here. At first I thought you were rejecting all struggle by workers at the point of production, but your (perceptive and correct) analysis of the British miners strike makes clear your belief that the strike had revolutionary possibilities had the miners rejected the control and ideology of the NUM, framed their struggle in terms of revolution against capitalist society, and appealed to the entire British working class on this basis. (I make a similar point in my book.)

There is a revolutionary component in every struggle initiated by workers in the workplace; the question is whether that revolutionary component is expressed and made the leading element of the struggle (or as you express it somewhere, "the point of departure must be departed from very quickly," or words to that effect) or is buried and forgotten, if perceived at all.

The apparent issues in any strike--wages, safety, etc.--are merely the occasions for struggle. Underlying class struggle are two opposing sets of values and human relationships, and two opposing--though not often articulated--views of what it means to be a human being. It is only in becoming conscious of the real--revolutionary--meaning of their struggles and by articulating revolutionary goals that workers can break out of the capitalist/union framework and succeed.

4) All reforms are false.

Agreed. But see the answer to 3). We have been experimenting for some years in using individual issues as jumping-off points for revolutionary analysis and organizing with mixed results.

5) All separate artistic creation is paltry and false.

Agreed, I suppose, though I'd like to see more discussion of just what this means.

6) All academic ideas about social life are false. All social relations within academia are alienated. All aspects of the academy serve to support and perpetuate the dominant system.

Agreed, though I'm afraid your comparisons of the conditions of present-day workers in the West with those in Victorian times fall into the category of "academic." I mean, what do you say to a man who is losing his home--Just think, things were worse 100 years ago?

Here in a nutshell is our approach:

The reason capitalist and Communist societies turned out the same--class societies in which a small elite holds the money and the cards--is that they are based on the same paradigm, in which the mass of mankind are viewed as the passive beneficiaries or victims of the actions of elites in a history driven by economic forces. In this paradigm, economic development is the basis of human development, and inequality is essential to economic development until that blissful stage of pure communism is reached.

Needless to say, a real transformation of society cannot be based on this paradigm. A new revolutionary movement will require a new understanding of human beings and their development.

We propose that the struggle to humanize the world is the most essential and pervasive of human activities, and one in which most people are engaged in their everyday lives. Most people, in the little part of the world they think they can control--with their wife or husband, their friends, their co-workers, their students or patients--are engaged in a struggle against the dehumanizing influence of capitalism on their lives. To the extent that they have supportive human relationships in any aspect of their lives, people have created them by struggling to transform capitalist relations into their opposite. The most intimate acts of love and personal kindness and the most public and collective acts of revolutionary struggle are on a continuum of struggle to humanize the world.

Revolution is possible because most people are already engaged in a struggle to create a new society. The problem is that they seldom get very far. The capitalist system is extremely powerful, and people's everyday struggles are invisible to the historical alternative, Marxism. But people don't get very far mainly because the meaning of the struggles in which they are already engaged is not clear to the people engaged in them. As you quote from the SI, "Human beings are not fully conscious of their real lives."

The role of revolutionaries is to make people more aware of the revolutionary significance of the struggles in which they are engaged so that they can bring them to their revolutionary conclusion.

We have applied this outlook to various settings over the years: Revolution (We Can Change The World, Hope And Revolution); Israel/Palestine (Is It Realistic to Demand the Right of Return of Palestinian Refugees?); unions (How the Unions Killed the Working Class Movement); education (You'll Never Be Good Enough: Schooling and Social Control); electoral politics (No To Politics, Yes To Mass Refusal); health care (Market-Driven Health Care And Social Control), and many others, to be found on our web site

A few random thoughts and questions:

1. I have long felt that much of our analysis (in New Democracy) tends towards leftist/economist complaints about unemployment, healthcare, etc., and fails as a revolutionary critique. It isn't clear to me though what a critique of society (as opposed to your excellent critique of certain struggles) such as you propose would look like. Do you have examples?

2. Our critique consists essentially of a view of people, and our view of capitalism derives from that. Yours is essentially an analysis of the alienated nature of life under capitalism. Interestingly though our views of revolution--and our critique of the various obstacles to it, such as the unions, liberalism, Solidarnosc, etc.--are strikingly the same.

3. Though we quite agree with your critique of trade union and leftists' pseudo-oppositional focus on wages, etc., you may be dismissing "economic issues" too easily. It's true that conditions for Western workers are nowhere near those of Victorian times. But it is also true that the ruling class has mounted a three-decades-long counterrevolutionary attack on workers on many fronts--economic, political, cultural--designed to make their lives less secure and them more frightened, which has had devastating results. This attack and its consequences in people's lives have to be considered in our analysis of contemporary society. Then too assuring someone about to lose his home or his pension or health care for his family sounds extremely uncaring, if not downright arrogant.

4. We reject the "the worse the better" school of thought, which I assume you do too (or do you simply think that things are nowhere near bad enough to matter?). Thus our view of, say, the French May: that it occurred when French workers were at the peak of their earning power--and the peak of their self-confidence--thus proving the falsity of left/Marxist expectations. This is true also of the social uprising in the US and elsewhere during the late 1960s-early '70s, the "revolution of rising expectations"; workers wages in the US peaked in 1973. Revolutions are based on hope and self-confidence, not despair. The task of the revolutionary movement is to restore hope and self-confidence to the working class so it can win.

5. In your view, do workers resist capitalism in everyday life, or are they merely passive? And if they do resist, how and when?

6. You write ("Failure") that your objective is "to contribute to the reader's understanding of the alienated world in which we live and thereby to the development of the individual's practical refusal of that world." Can you explain what you mean by "practical refusal of that world?" Can you give examples? Later you mention "a practical programme of negation directed at the roots of their alienation." Again, can you offer examples, other than the quite bizarre antics of the Metropolitan Indians?

7. In your view, what is it we should do as revolutionaries--aside from starting a journal, that is. We have an answer to this: to help workers see the meaning of the struggles in which they are already engaged. I gather that that is your view also, though our understanding of that meaning seems to differ.

8. What is your view of what revolutionary society would look like? John Spritzler has spelled out some tentative views: After the Revolution, What?; What Kind of Society Do We Want?

If you will send me your postal address, I would be pleased to send you a copy of my book, We CAN Change the World: The Real Meaning of Everyday Life, and a copy of John Spritzler's eye-opening book on WWII, The People as Enemy: The Leaders' Hidden Agenda in World War II, as small gifts. (My book is also available online at our web site.)

Congratulations on your quite brilliant writing and your efforts to spur discussion on the prospects for revolution. We hope that we can find some common grounds for useful discussion.

Dave Stratman

2) Wayne Spencer to Dave Stratman, 6 May 2009


Once again, thank you for your message, which raises a number of interesting questions and issues.

You argue that Marxism must be discarded along with Bolshevism. For my part, I would stress that the task of the revolutionary theorist is not to choose between or amongst bodies of thought as a whole, but rather is to construct an adequate and properly evolving understanding of contemporary society and contemporary struggles (including, of course, his or own role within those) from whatever material serves that purpose. Some sources have in practice proved themselves to be such comprehensive failures that they are indeed wholly unusable (for instance, the Bolshevik conception of revolution) but I am not sure that Marxist thought in its entirety is one of them. One undoubtedly has to be merciless to those elements of Marxism that sustained such disasters as totalitarian states ruling in the proletariat’s name and social democratic parliamentary reformism. Yet this does not seem to account for all of what Marx and some his successors said and did. Marx’s theory of alienation, for instance, remains an important tool for developing a critical comprehension of everyday life in modern capitalism. Moreover, the fact that some currents of Marxism, notably that of council communism, managed to marry elements of Marxist thought with an anti-Leninist theoretico-practice would seem to be proof that Leninism is not a necessary and inevitable consequence of every conceivable reconstruction or application of Marx’s theories. In the end, however, the proof of Marxism is in the eating. If there is in fact a use for elements of the theory, then the way to demonstrate that is to actually make profitable use of them in the here and now. It would seem that the matter can hardly be settled in the abstract.

You have asked about the inclusion of the rejection of separate artistic creation in the rather skeletal principles I proposed for discussion in relation to the journal. In the first instance, this concerns an important conception of revolutionary transformation at the level of everyday life developed by the situationists. To conflate two passages from the Situationist International:

“We are against the conventional forms of culture, even in its most modern state; but not, obviously, in preferring ignorance, neo-primitivism or petty-bourgeois common sense. There is an anti-cultural attitude that favours an impossible return to the old myths. Against such a current we are of course for culture. We take our stand on the other side of culture. Not before it, but after it. We contend that it is necessary to realize culture by superseding it as a separate sphere; not only as a domain reserved for specialists, but above all as a domain of a specialized production that does not directly affect the construction of life — not even the life of its own specialists. […] The situationists consider that [opposition to the universally dominant social system] implicitly requires the real abolition of all class societies, of commodity production and of wage labour; the supersession of art and all cultural accomplishments by their re-entry into play through free creation in everyday life — and thus their true fulfilment […].” (from The Avant-Garde of Presence (1963) and a short notice of 1965).

It also has to do with a recognition of the forces of recuperation arraigned against a revival of revolutionary theory and practice, a recognition that in this instance focuses on the ways in which artistic projects have mutilated situationist theory in order to accommodate it to aesthetic pursuits and more generally have served as important sources for pacification and consumption in overdeveloped capitalism. My short sentence was intended to render the journal unpalatable to sophisticated hucksters of artistic theory and practice. In the same way, the subsequent statements about academia were aimed at repelling any dutiful students or lecturers who have developed an abstract taste for revolutionary theory from their handling of a few misunderstood fragments of texts for the purposes of academic publication or passing examinations.

Another question you have raised is about the compatibility of our respective views of contemporary social struggles. I hope that I not doing you too much of an injustice if I say that you take the view that a conception of human life inconsistent with that on which the dominant society rests is expressly or by implication to be found in all workplace struggles by workers and all efforts to fashion supportive human relationships within or without working life. If that is a correct synopsis of your position, I would have to admit that there is some distance between us. Struggles are typically fought for specific ends and specific reasons. I think you have gone too far in disregarding what people actually say, do and desire in their struggles. I would suggest that many contemporary struggles arise from, and are pursued in accordance with, openly or tacitly held ideologies that take the fundamental forms of life within advanced capitalist society as inevitable or desirable. What they typically seek is to render life within that society more comfortable or endurable by reversing breaches of bourgeois or bureaucratic norms or by making perfectly achievable adjustments in the distribution of the risks and rewards offered to submission. Moreover, their actions are directed and tailored to achieving these goals and these goals alone and are promptly discontinued when their narrow objectives are achieved or success within the confines of the existing society is judged to be impracticable. It seems to me that your understanding of these struggles as tending logically to the abolition of the dominant society is an external imposition on what are in fact coherent and delimited attempts to carry on living within that society. Equally, your efforts to persuade those involved that they do not know what they want and do not know what they are doing are all too likely to be resented as a typically leftist attempt to manipulate, misrepresent and misdirect the actions of ordinary people in the interests of an alien ideology. In short, I think that such struggles constitute not the false pursuit of a true discontent but rather the true pursuit of a false discontent.

These distinctions may seem rather fine ones, but I suspect that they do have substantive consequences. I would suggest that an important reason for our failure to escape capitalism is the superficiality of the discontents on which we act. I wonder whether your position, which tends to laud those discontents as fundamentally antithetical to the dominant society and requiring only a true consciousness of what they already are, tends to make you too little uncritical towards the full array of our collaborations, captivations and compromises with the society. If so, now is not the time to be too indulgent to ourselves. I also wonder whether your views incline you to overlook the social function that superficial dissatisfaction serves. You point out that “the ruling class has mounted a three-decades-long counterrevolutionary attack on workers on many fronts”. I would agree, but this attack involves far more than the crude revanchism that is recognized by leftism and is here and there practised by the more reactionary branches of state and management. It has also featured a huge and ever-changing patchwork of public and private programmes aimed at reforming everyday life so as to make it more palatable to those who produce and consume it. Superficial dissatisfaction is the subjective correlate of this attempt to refine alienation, the cast of mind that feeds and sustains the endless process of identifying, displaying, discussing and mitigating the symptoms of alienation through which the dominant society refines itself. Your stance would seem to place you in danger of serving as revolutionary cheerleaders of this process.

Turning to your “random thoughts and questions”:

1) I think my text Their Passed-away Builders perhaps contains more in the way of “a critique of society (as opposed to [the] critique of certain struggles)”. You may wish to consult that. In addition, no small part of my social critique reflects points already brought forward by situationist theory. You may, therefore, wish to read, amongst others, the fine critique of Berkeley life in On the Poverty of Berkeley Life and the Marginal Stratum of American Society in General, the text by Chris Shutes to which my Gasping is a response, and the venerable On the Poverty of Student Life. I hasten to add, however, that these texts were critiques of specific milieus in specific times and places. They should not be taken as universally applicable. Furthermore, situationist theory has never been a complete, unified and invariably correct block of thought. I should not be taken to agree with every utterance made by self-proclaimed situationists or the members of the Situationist International.

2) I would prefer to defer proper consideration of what differences there are between your “view of people” and my notion of alienated life until I have had a chance to read the more extensive treatment of your position which I presume can be found in your book. At present, I wonder whether you the non-capitalist conception of human life to which you appeal is too static, abstract and intangible to serve as a useful tool of revolutionary theory.

3) My approach to the results of the counter-revolutionary attack on workers is guided by my own experiences and perceptions and the large-scale quantitative data that I have seen. Both of these sources suggest to me that the results for the majority have not been “devastating” in the ways that left-wing thought typically alleges. It seems that America is in some respects an exception, but in general incomes and social security expenditure have risen and not fallen, hours of work have more or less remained the same (or even fallen in places), and if anything the security of people’s jobs (as measured, for instance, by the length of time people have remained in the same job) may even have increased. In my view, if we are to recapture the idea of social revolution as revolt by the overwhelming majority, we have to recognize this and not take as typical the materially rather impoverished or precarious social conditions that in fact afflict relatively few members of our society. The sheer hallucinatory quality of many leftist accounts of contemporary life simply staggers me, so much so that I have sometimes been moved to suspect that the authors may never have actually walked down a typical street in a typical town or visited an average home, workplace or shop. This is not to deny that economic struggles are advantageous or even unavoidable as means of securing the wherewithal to survive within the dominant society. I have myself been involved in many. Why live with less when you can live with more? But I do suggest that these struggles have almost nothing to do with revolutionary change. They are one of the means by which we cement ourselves into the society that destroys us. We should frankly recognize this self-destructive quality of what we are doing and not pretend that in feathering our prison bed we are opening the way to revolution. Of course, when I say “we” in this instance, I mean self-identified revolutionaries. Ordinary workers are rarely so deluded as to mistake the banal means and ends of wage strikes, etc, as anything other than as an ordinary aspect of resignation to capitalism.

4) I would not go as far as saying that material deprivation can never serve as a cause of social revolution; however I would agree that it is neither necessary nor sufficient. It is also far from being sufficiently aggravated in the advanced western countries to serve as an operative reason for overturning the ruling order.

5) My knowledge of what other workers are and are not doing is inevitably incomplete. But my impression is that at the present time, at least in the advanced countries, workers are relatively quiescent. There is some resistance to the more egregious outrages of management and no doubt many workers quietly neglect every aspect of work they can get away with; however, the potentially revolutionary revolt against work, as seen in American, French and Italian and other factories at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, has, for the time being at least, abated. It now falls to be rediscovered, reinvented and intensified. The position outside the workplace is no better.

6) A "practical refusal of that world" and "a practical programme of negation directed at the roots of their alienation" can be taken as one and the same thing. It is a matter of refusing and attacking the forced performance of labour within the workplace, the forced consumption of commodities and ideologies outside the workplace, and alienated social relations everywhere. At work, it would seem necessary in the first instance to cultivate sabotage of the physical equipment of labour and a refusal to act in accordance with orders and procedures. Where the goods we create are not wholly useless, we can also do what we can to distribute them without payment (for example by refusing to collect payments and fares). The forms all this will take must depend of the specific forms of labour with which we are each confronted; but it seems essential that we forge practical connections with other disaffected workers and make the grounds of our rebellion public. Outside of work, we should treat “the machinery of permitted consumption” (to take a phrase from Guy Debord) and the machinery of social indoctrination, seduction and control as our enemies. For example, the launch of a new line of commodities, a new season of fashion, clothing or sport, or a new tour by a musical or theatrical group, is tantamount to a renewed attack upon us that falls to be physically disrupted and denounced (by invasions of the venues, for instance). Equally, a wedding or other family ritual, a school reunion, a holiday, an educational course, the making and broadcasting of television and radio programmes, another night down the pub, the functioning of local and national state bodies, etc, etc, should be understood and treated as curses and blights on our lives to be resisted, as concrete mechanisms for the perpetuation of alienation that must be crippled by action. Each of us needs to consult our individual everyday lives in order to determine the particular ways in which we reproduce the world of alienation and then embark on an evolving, practical course of individual and collective contestation directed at that reproduction. However, I have to say that if such public contestation is to escape suppression by the forces of order and incomprehension by workers in general, there must first exist significant numbers of people who have already crossed a far from negligible threshold of dissatisfaction with life as it is now led. I very much doubt that this dissatisfaction can be manufactured or accelerated by revolutionaries. There are some things you have to do by yourself.

7) What can revolutionaries do? Where workers are engaged in struggles that tend to go to the heart of contemporary alienation, then I would agree that we should “help workers see the meaning of the struggles in which they are already engaged”. Equally, we can perhaps assist a dissatisfaction that has festered without finding practical expression to comprehend its causes and consequences. But we are not ourselves separated from alienated consumption and alienated work. We are workers too. We should, therefore, take every opportunity that is available to us to stimulate and participate in rebellion in our own lives. We can also critique the various social ideologies and mechanisms that prevent fundamental dissatisfaction with the dominant society from emerging as a coherent and practical force.

8) What is my view of what revolutionary society would look like? I am afraid that this is too large a question to be properly addressed by a tired writer at the end of a long email message. I shall content myself with saying that first and foremost a revolutionary society must establish the power of workers’ and geographical councils over all aspects of social life. The Address to All Workers issued by the Enragés-Situationist International Committee and the Council for Maintaining the Occupations during the May 1968 events in France stated:

“What are the essential features of council power?

• Dissolution of all external power
• Direct and total democracy
• Practical unification of decision and execution
• Delegates who can be revoked at any moment by those who have mandated them
• Abolition of hierarchy and independent specializations
• Conscious management and transformation of all the conditions of liberated life
• Permanent creative mass participation
• Internationalist extension and coordination


In reality, what is necessary now has been necessary since the beginning of the proletarian revolutionary project. It’s always been a question of working-class autonomy. The struggle has always been for the abolition of wage labour, of commodity production, and of the state. The goal has always been to accede to conscious history, to suppress all separations and ‘everything that exists independently of individuals’”.

I would agree with this as the revolutionary point of departure. The rest will be decided by the councils.

Best wishes,


3) Wayne Spencer to Dave Stratman, 22 June 2009

I am very conscious that I have been more than a little tardy in sending you my comments on your book, We Can Change the World. A visit to a friend did somewhat delay my reading of the book, and a subsequent injury I sustained to my arm whilst out walking has also left me disinclined to spend too long typing; but aside from these rather inadequate explanations for delay, I have no excuses.

I cannot do justice to your rich and stimulating book in an email message; however, I should like to offer a few abbreviated observations in an attempt to illustrate what I think are certain key differences between our perspectives.

At the heart of your book is the proposition that ordinary people hold to values and relationships that are inconsistent with those integral to capitalism. Even if we accept for the sake of argument that the humane, cooperative and friendly notions of social life to which you draw attention are indeed widespread, I do not think that they constitute an effective foundation for revolutionary transformation. One central problem is the form these notions take. In effect, they are framed after the fashion of bourgeois moral thought and float over the landscape of social life as abstract ethical principles. When they return to concrete social relations and practices, they do so by means of fragmentary casuistic judgements that typically seek to evaluate the degree to which isolated individuals, actions or structures possess the abstract qualities they endorse. This form of reasoning is always vulnerable to the false collectivisms, solidarities, amiabilities and reforms that capitalism often uses to organise its operations, and it seems in practice to hinder rather than promote the progressive advance to a critical sense of totality on which social revolution depends. The alienation of individual and social life, an alienation that has its roots in the expropriation of the total labour power of society by capitalism and the return of the fruits of that labour to its dispossessed producers in the form of consumable goods and ideologies, is not easily grasped in terms of whether its manifestations are humane, cooperative and friendly in abstract terms. In support of this view, we surely need only consider the brute fact that the everyday notions you praise have subsisted for decades, even centuries, yet in that very long time they have moved their holders no nearer to social revolution. Worse still, perhaps, they have proved incapable of generating from within themselves a critical response to that failure. It would seem that we must found an evolving theoretical and practical critique of the shifting configurations of alienated existence that we find within and without ourselves on other bases.

But is it really the case that humane, cooperative and friendly values are as widespread as you suggest? I am somewhat doubtful. One way of approaching the question is to ask people about their values. Amongst others, the Eurobarometer public opinion project has done just that. In its latest poll (which you can find here), it found that just 13% of its representative sample of Europeans included “solidarity, support for others” in their three most important personal values, and only 19% did likewise for “equality”. Even if we treat this survey with the degree of scepticism that all opinion polls deserve, I think its results should give you some pause for thought. Equally, the fact that 84% of respondents to the survey were content to agree with the view that nowadays there is too much tolerance and that criminals should be punished more severely is not obviously consistent with your depiction of ordinary people’s values.

I also think that you have had too little regard to the limitations that I would suggest are not just incidental aspects of the values you highlight but part of their very essence. In particular, the practices of solidarity during struggles and mutual aid generally seem to me to be inherently defensive means of surviving within capitalism. Mutual aid seeks to provide individuals who are unable to secure the wherewithal to survive through work with temporary and minimal assistance until such time as they can earn a living for themselves by means of new or better paid alienated labour. It does not challenge alienated work or alienated consumption; it merely supplies some of their deficiencies during hard times so as to enable the life of alienation to go on. Workers’ solidarity is equally narrow. It brings people together as alienated labourers and during their delimited struggles with employers to maintain or advance their interests as alienated labourers. Far from being a strategy that is ripe to be shifted to a more offensive orientation, it is part of a culture of wary and proud surrender to capitalism. It is not the harbinger of a victory waiting to happen but an adjustment to a defeat that occurred long ago. The limitations of the old workers’ movement and the culture it sustained can be seen quite clearly in the quotations your book contains. For example, Peter Winkels, the business agent of Local P-9, says of the Hormel meatpackers strike that “we’re fighting for our families and for the next generation” (page 34), while another striker said “My father fought for my generation, and I’m going to fight for the next one” (page 38). There is no escaping the fact that what both of these individuals fervently wish is that the alienated labour that has destroyed their lives should also descend on their children’s lives. There are few sentiments more disgusting than this. In the same vein, Kath Townsend of Barnsley Women Against Pit Closures is quoted as saying “We went on strike to save our communities” (page 32). She does not seek the abolition of alienated social relations but their continuation without disturbance. Sadly for the British miners, their alienated and decomposing communities were doomed. It was merely a question of who was to destroy them: the government and the bosses or the miners and their families. Kath Townsend’s comments shed some light how it came to be that the state and the bosses prevailed: “The government was going to shut down our pits and destroy our communities. But it was on strike that we became a real community, more than we ever were” (page 32). However, if the community only became a real community during the strike, then it must have been an unreal community before it. It fell to the miners to turn ruthlessly against that unreal local world in its entirety and to challenge in theory and practice all of the miserable traditions of working class life that had permitted it to retain and reproduce its unreality for generation after generation. They did not do so. They held on to too many of their traditions (such as adherence to their trade union). They have now been scattered to the winds. For my part, I would precisely include a sense of solidarity that was inherently defensive and blindly reproduced as an abstract duty amongst the causes of their fatal inability to transform themselves.

Elsewhere in your book you are enthusiastic about social phenomena that seem even more remote from revolutionary social transformation. For example, in the field of education you describe your involvement in struggles for better education in Boston during the mid-1970s (chapter one) and Minnesota during the mid-1980s (chapter four). In neither instance was the form and content of an educational system that exists solely to instil the attitudes, motivations and skills that capitalist society require fundamentally challenged. Undoubtedly you proposed changes that would change the curriculum in certain respects and encourage higher expectations, self-esteem and critical thinking from students and greater involvement from parents, but all of this can be accommodated within advanced capitalism. For instance, I am not sure there is very much difference between the “education for democracy” you have proposed and the “ideal list of knowledge, skills, attitudes, values and intended behaviour” set out in chart 5.18 of the Commission of the European Communities’ working document Progress Towards the Lisbon Objectives in Education and Training: Indicators and Benchmarks 2008 (which can be found here). One thing that is noticeably absent from your accounts of educational struggle is any reference to encouraging students to practically repudiate the authority of parents and teachers, without which any transformation of education will be hierarchical and empty. But to my considerable astonishment, it appears that you regard the family as an exemplar of the social relations you wish to see. A complete critique of the family and “the frightful knot of serpents in the ties of blood “(Paul Eluard) is beyond the scope of this message. Suffice it to say that I agree with what Robert Cooperstein said back in 1974: “The family, tentatively defined as any collection of individuals who on a daily basis support and maintain one another in a state of mutual survival, is an essential ingredient of capitalist society. Briefly, it is that first factory of alienation that renders all subsequent degradations possible, while at the same time the sum total of these degradations make the family possible” (see Some Notes on the Reproduction of Human Capital.

It seems to me that what I consider to be your tendency to inflate the subversiveness of the family, educational reform, and humane, cooperative and friendly notions of social life has its roots in an excessively narrow view of the character of contemporary capitalism. You appear to take capitalism’s vaunted individualism seriously. This is a cardinal error. As Daniel Denevert once said: “Everything is said about the spectacle except what it always and fundamentally is: the colonisation of the point of view of the individual by the point of view of the collectivity”. The isolated and free individual exists only in the spectacle. In reality, capitalist society is fundamentally collectivist. Whether it is the family, the firm, the school, the club, the nation, or any of the other innumerable forms of social relations in contemporary capitalism, the collective prevails over the individual. Even in the sphere of consumption, where the individual appears to be free to indulge his or her individual urges and fantasies without the slightest regard to others, the reality is that individuals assimilate themselves into collective tastes and a social organization of consumption that absolutely dominates them. A second error lies, I think, in your acceptance (notably in chapter six) of a picture of contemporary capitalism as grimly dedicated to deindustrialization, deskilling, casualization, ever-lowering standards of living, ever-increasing attacks on education, etc. There is no doubt that each of these phenomena represent particular interests of particular factions of the dominant society at particular times; however, it seems to me to be false and incomplete to represent them as representing the sole or even predominant objectives of the capitalism of our times. I do not wish to bombard you with statistics; instead I shall merely refer you to the books Demanding Work: The Paradox of Job Quality in the Affluent Economy by Francis Green (Princeton University Press, 2005) and New Capitalism? The Transformation of Work by Kevin Doogan (Polity Press, 2009) for some initial data that point to the conclusion that for majority of people in the advanced economies work has become better-skilled, better-paid (although not necessarily in the USA) and longer-term over the past few decades. More than this, you seem to me to fail to notice that the interests that capitalism has in, amongst other things, reproducing a healthy, appropriately-skilled and motivated workforce; remedying deficiencies that produce potentially dangerous dissatisfaction or hinder the achievement of its own objectives; and creating social space and individual lives that justify the appropriation of humanity’s vast productive powers to itself and to its subjects all produce countervailing forces to the race to the bottom that its more Neanderthal proponents and administrators would otherwise pursue. Viewed in this broader light, the abstract qualities of humane, cooperative and friendly notions of social life that you vaunt, and the educational reforms you have pursued, may appear less as challenges to capitalism than the basis of a reformed collectivism better adapted to securing workers productive and consenting participation in a modernized capitalism. As for the area of consumption, nothing could be further from the governing spirit of capitalism’s last 30 years than Business Week’s 1974 idea of “doing with less so that big business can having more” (page 122). Leaving aside the point that what capitalism has in effect sought to do in many places, with some success, is to increase both corporate profits and the real wages of employees, it seems to me of central importance that capitalism increasingly rests its claims to legitimacy on its ability to make the vast majority of the population happy (and even, from time to time, veritably ecstatic). The sour-faced plea for renunciation of Business Week’s editorial captures precisely nothing of this; indeed, even where renunciation is sold in the modern spectacle, it is typically offered as part of an ideology of voluntary simplicity that leads to supposedly uncommodified contentment. On page 98 of your book, you note, quite correctly, that: “Those aspects of the student movement that were peculiar to the young – drugs, the ‘counterculture,’ rock ‘n’ roll – were the least revolutionary”. Your theoretical work would be greatly strengthened, I would suggest, by considering what it says about capitalism that drugs, counter-cultures, rock ‘n’ roll and other analogous products are now a far from insignificant part of both the spectacle’s spectrum of ideas about the good life and the actual lives of many ordinary people within capitalism.

Finally, I would turn to your theory of organization. Your notion that it is necessary for the ordinary membership to create an enlightened leadership to help it attain clarity and confidence and enable it to act by itself (page 269) is to me wholly untenable. The first step towards the autonomous pursuit of revolutionary practice is to repudiate hierarchical organization and to pursue one’s theory and practice alone or as full participants in egalitarian associations, as appropriate. We must begin by taking our own course: by making our own individual mistakes and by struggling without any hierarchical mediation to develop our thought and practice in the light of our errors, our failures and the particular tasks that lie ahead if we are to negate the social alienation that confronts us as individuals. However badly we may begin and proceed, autonomous thought and practice can only be conquered by and for ourselves. It cannot be handed down as a gift by smiling therapeutic hierarchs whom we somehow or other distinguish from charlatans and then sweetly trust to slowly loosen the bonds in which we have wrapped ourselves by entering into a subordinate relationship in the first place. You do not abolish dependency by indulging in it. Dependency must be rejected wherever we see it and ultimately destroyed by us, not entered into yet again in the perfectly delusional hope that this time it will kindly abolish itself and set us free.

In the end, do the various differences I have outlined make any practical difference? I think they do. First, your view that the proletariat lacks only the confidence and insight that would allow it to generalise its existing convictions discourages a theoretical and practical assault on the umpteen ways in which we have been seduced by capitalism’s visions of consumable contentment. Second, your narrow view of capitalism encourages you to endorse social struggles and social changes that may conflict with the most revanchist of capitalist ideologies yet serve only to modify capitalism. Third, your theory of organization seeks to combat alienation by means of alienated forms of struggle and sabotages the practical struggle for individual theoretical and practical autonomy that is the only possible basis for genuine social revolution. I fear, therefore, that our differences preclude any substantive cooperation between us.

Best wishes,