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