Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Nothing Burns in Hell: On Delinquents and Respectable Citizens

In the bottom, sorrow dwells, in the heights anguish


A society as disastrous as the one in which we unfortunately live can hardly avoid talking about its shortcomings. But social problems are only taken up by the institutions and media of this deceptive society in falsified form. All that we see are misrepresented failings and spurious remedies. The prevailing babble about youthful ‘anti-social behaviour’ is no exception. We are typically given to understand that delinquents are rejecting the norms of society, and respectable citizens are being impoverished by a loss of the tranquil enjoyment of ordinary life. This way of viewing matters is perfectly misconceived. The problem is not that young delinquents have gone too far in their defiance of the dominant society, but that they have not gone far enough. The problem is not that the lives of the respectable citizens of this society have become disturbed, but that they have remained frozen. Delinquency does not so much cause the poverty of everyday life as continue it in different guises.


I shall not offer exhaustive definitions of what I call the "delinquent" and the "respectable citizen". Who cares for such tedious exercises in procrustean classification other than the spent souls of academia? Suffice it to say that my delinquents include, amongst others, (a) bored kids who try to draw a line between themselves and the shitty world around them with music, dress, and the frugal use of cool talk; (b) the loose, local groups of friends and acquaintances who come together from time to time to sneer at passers-by and indulge in unlawful kicks and perhaps a little criminal enterprise; (c) other minor street criminals who ply their trade in order to pay for their partying; and (d) the more consistently crimiminal associations sometimes referred to as "gangs". But not everything I say applies to each kind of delinquent equally. As for my respectable citizens, well, I'm sure we all know one when we see one. At bottom, what is important, at least to me, is that you consider whether you recognise some part of your own everyday life in what I have to say. If you do, I am afraid that it is up to you to determine what practical consequences follow from this. One step toward refusing the dominant society consists in breaking the habit of expecting one's thought and practice to be handed down to you.


It is often lamented that delinquent youths lack respect for figures of authority. But it should come as no surprise that teachers, the police, parents, etc, do not attract respect, for the very simple reason that these contemptible roles do not deserve it. Why on earth should we treat with deferential regard those who would reduce us to the shrunken lives this society permits? The very notion of deference is merely a demand that we quietly and blindly submit to the external authorities who have placed themselves above us. It is loathsome. The delinquents are to be congratulated for taking steps towards a practical recognition of this. Unfortunately, while they reject some of what the society offers up for respect, they defer to other elements of the alienated life we are asked to lead. What is worse, they have come to admire and desire the very alienations they have failed to contest. For as long as this persists, they will remain stultified.


To dependent youth, the unemployed, the working poor in shit jobs, and the residents of ghettos, it is all too obvious that boredom, subordination and contempt are no small part of their lot. There are several different ways of responding to this insight. One is to grin and bear it in the hope that conformity will eventually be rewarded by higher status and better-paid work. This is perhaps the most common response. Another is to contest the society that produces so much dead time. A third is to pursue alternative sources of prestige and money within this very society. For all too many, delinquency is in essence a search for such illusory alternatives.


Consumer capitalism expropriates the whole of humanity's capacity to create its own world, the whole of its labour power, and subordinates it to the production, circulation and praise of commodities. In return, it offers to the individual a selection of goods, and of images of the good life, to consume within the narrow confines of his or her private life. This is not just a matter of offering a pallid world of subdued, suburban pleasures to the well-behaved middle classes. Far from it. There are only so many washing machines that can be sold. There is only so much grief and disappointment that can be assuaged with replacement furniture, a holiday in a European hill village, or an unending succession of polite men and women on screen and disc. Modern capitalism must offer something different, something more, if it is to survive.


Since the Second World War advanced capitalism, and the quest for contentment through consumption that it fosters, has generated a long series of consumable youth rebellions. This has included the teds, mods, rockers, hippies, skinheads, punks, rave culture, and the worlds of hip-hop and rap. Each of these has put forward its own particular array of clothes, music, drugs and cool behaviours as an authentic and ecstatic alternative to the misery of unskilled and semi-skilled work and the ways of life that honest and conforming people pursue. Indeed, where mainstream employment and commerce have more or less completely abandoned an area (as in ghettos of North America), cool culture and cool criminality may appear to be the only realistically available means to avoid poverty and obtain a sense of dignity. But none of these rebellions has marked the slightest departure from the global domination of the commodity and its logic. They have served only to assimilate young people into yet more external models of thought and action, and yet more waves of commodity production and consumption. The delinquents of today remain stuck in this pseudo-rebellious process. Consider, my friends, their sportswear, trainers, caps, and jewellery, the ways in which they walk, talk, fight, fuck and get high, and their view of what makes up the good life. Do these not reveal the extent to which they are seeking to gain status and pleasure by acting out a small local variation on a few global gangster templates the dominant society has shown to them ("It probably had a little to do with the gangster films we saw. Like a gang had a lot of drugs or money. They did drugs, had the coolest cars and chicks, that kind of thing...mostly we got it from films and those kind of things" — Swedish heroin user)? Consider, too, their unbroken, nervous concern for the visible approval of their friends. Does this not show how the individual is subordinated to a domineering collective? For all their defiance, the delinquents essentially live much as others do. Assimilating oneself into an external image of the good life, and submitting to a collectivity, is a perfectly ordinary form of alienated existence in the existing society. The delinquents are mistaken to associate this state of affairs with autonomy, excitement, shrewdness and freedom. They may purchase some fragile self-esteem, kicks and acceptance, they may even secure some precarious means of survival, but they pay for them with the usual currency of self-alienation.


The admiration that delinquents have for what the dominant society says is desirable is not necessarily confined to its pseudo-rebellious products. Delinquents may straightforwardly yearn for some very ordinary consumer goods ("I want nice clothes, to get my hair done, I want nice bags and all the other shit...The right shampoo, the right shoes, the right fucking name on your T-shirt: it's life, it's all there is" — prostitute in the north east of England). They may dream of such widely-admired trappings of success and affluence as widescreen televisions, sports cars and the kinds of gaudy wives and homes preferred by professional footballers ("one of them proper top-notch houses, swimming pool and that...a nice car, top-class bird" - criminal in the north east of England). In the end, they may wish for nothing more than to have the things they read about in tabloid newspapers and see on television ("them massive plasma screen TVs all over the place...a proper mansion and that, big gates and CCTV cameras" — criminal in the north east of England). Aside from their criminal methods and their taste for a few illegal commodities (notably drugs), their submission to the degraded tastes of their era may be total.


The conservatism of many delinquents can equally be seen in their attitudes towards gender roles. The ideology of gender roles, the utterly idiotic notion that each gender has its own distinctive set of attitudes, emotions and behaviours to which individual men and women must adhere on pain of ridicule or violence, has been one of the more destructive prisons of human possibility developed by the dominant society. Its practical repudiation across everyday life has been, and remains, an essential means and end of any real project of human liberation. Yet it is almost entirely absent from the lives of the delinquents. They continue to value toughness, aggression, unintelligence and a lack of emotion outside of sport in men, and submissive domesticity or submissive sexual availability amongst women. Why? These roles were only the alienated means by which working class men and women once adjusted themselves to the needs of harsh manual labour and imperialist warfare. The women maintained the men, and the men maintained the production and profit of the bosses. This division of labour was part of the surrender of a defeated working class. The roles it created may have allowed those who adopted them a small sense of dignity, but it was never anything other than a dignified prostration. There is nothing to admire or emulate in these straightjackets of human behaviour. Those who continue to live within their narrow limits betray a very unfortunate taste for bondage. Of course, it is true that one has to be tough to survive in some of the social environments in which delinquency flourishes. But that need for toughness is in part precisely a product of the predatory violence to which delinquent machismo itself leads. Moreover, the options available to delinquents are not restricted to machismo or a wimpishness that encourages victimization. Becoming a macho idiot is not the only way of not being a "pussy". Merely transposing a few elements from one gender role to another (for example, by adding a dash of violence to the old femininity, or vice versa) does not help: if you mix together two types of shit, you still end up with shit. It is a matter of discovering new types of 'toughness' that reject the old solutions to the problems of surviving in harsh circumstances and supersede both masculinity and femininity. You might start by developing a consistent cruelty to the man and women within you: by treating the gender roles you have picked up along the way as the fatal alien implants they really are.


With some delinquents, the old masculinity has been fused with a callousness towards others characteristic of the most predatory capitalists and managers. These delinquents have the same taste for power and degradation as the managers, the same absence of humanity, and the same willingness to subordinate others to their own narrow self-interests ("Oh, yeah! Its like, ‘That bugger didn’t want to give the keys up for nothing!’, ‘Had to beat him to death’, and all that. We get a buzz off it. I love it. Love the cars and the buzz" — criminal from the south west of Britain). Their craven inability to step beyond the tastes and ideas of their masters, their submissive aping of the worst oppressions visited upon ordinary people, condemns them. Even where violence is indifferently practiced by gangs of criminal entrepreneurs for such utilitarian purposes as enforcing payments from customers, it nonetheless leaves them with all the charm and subversiveness of a firm of unscrupulous bailiffs. They may have stepped outside the law, but they have not gone beyond the alienated social relations of the dominant society.

One social space in which delinquency often flourishes is the school. For those who do not wish to be in school, who are failing to succeed within it, delinquency provides an apparent means of defence against the depredations of schooling, as well as an alternative source of status and satisfaction. Through disobedience of teachers and school rules, vandalism and truancy, delinquents curtail their own education and disrupt individual classes and events. However, their impact on individual schools and the system of mis-education tends to be small and transient. Even where they manage to exercise a widespread terror over their fellow students, and prompt the authorities to introduce ever-greater security measures, it all leads nowhere. They quickly become prematurely satisfied with an inadequate revolt, settling for bad reputations, mistreatment of the more studious, the same old antics, and escape. They do not deepen their refusal when they find that the school has survived what they have so far thrown at it. They do not subvert the majority into joining them (indeed cannot because their bullying of the more compliant students only repels them). They do not forge cooperative links with delinquents in other schools. They do not seek out a shared project of negation with those who suffer different forms of subordination outside of school. Like minor aristocrats in a small country, they blindly pursue in doomed isolation the same clichéd roles, impoverished privileges and debased abuses as their forerunners did. Sooner or later, they leave their schools much as they found them and join the ranks of the working, the unemployed or the incarcerated.

One of the paler variants of delinquency can be found amongst middle-class youth. During the long adolescence through which they must pass on the way to higher educational qualifications, they possess few of the conventional badges of status. Some abjectly submit to the authorities placed over them, content with the prospects before them. Others, however, puff themselves up with the cartoon nihilism of gangster rap (or some other facet of popular culture) and act out a jaded pantomime of bad manners and intoxicated hedonism for the approval of their peers. It does not last long. These accountants-in-waiting quickly grow old, as they graduate and take up other roles more appropriate to their new professional status. Less risible are those who grow disgusted with their education and falter on the path to affluent respectability that has been mapped out for them. However, many dissipate their incipient rebellion by directing it into deviant sub-cultural consumption. To the extent that they content themselves with different clothes, music, argot, drugs and gestures, their dissatisfaction is contained and recuperated. It does not matter how outrageous the content of the sub-culture may be. If it sustains itself by producing and consuming commodities, if it confines itself to the space, time and choices left over by the state and employers, it leaves the dominant society untouched. Regardless of the intentions of its originators, it functions as one more component of advanced capitalism's spectacle of pseudo-opposition.


Contrary to what disapproving conservative commentators like to suggest, delinquents often work for a living. This may involve participation in the legal world of shit work or involvement in less licit professions such as burglary, car theft, street crime, smuggling, fiddles kept from the prying eyes of social security officials, or the sale of stolen goods and illegal drugs. It is all work. It is all activity given over to the exchange of commodities, to the imperial imperatives of a separate economy that is not within our control. It is all alienated. However, delinquents’ practical criticism of work is generally limited. They may well be starkly aware of the vileness of the monotonous, humiliating and poorly-paid work in the service industries to which they are periodically forced to return by circumstances ("You going to the office? How late you working till? No fucking way...I thought they'd abolished slavery" — East London gang member). But their response when doing that work rarely goes beyond transient gestures of defiance and slamming the door behind them when they leave. They have little conception of acting with others to sabotage the operations that have quite rightly nauseated them or of putting an end to the social institution of nauseating work. Their critique of criminal work is more limited still. In some cases, the fact that this particular way of succumbing to the logic and the world imposed by the capitalist economy may not involve a boss or a rigid formal hierarchy is mistaken for a sign of freedom and autonomy. This is rather like those respectable citizens who regard themselves as free because they do exactly what is required of them before anyone tells them too loudly to do so. But much more important than any illusion of relative freedom, the delinquents are timid and defeated. For all their swagger, they cannot envisage a successful attack on the existing society and are persuaded that they themselves, in concert with others, cannot successfully overturn that society. They have settled for adjustment to what exists. They have limited themselves to desiring the goods and the illusions of consumable pleasure that advanced capitalism offers in return for abandoning the creation and control of the world to it. They have failed to recognize that the very tastes and pleasures they seek to indulge are externally imposed impostures. In place of pursuing in theory and practice a carefully-calibrated assault on a society that has excluded and enraged them, they have picked up a false image of revolt from the counters of that same society, from its spectacle of pseudo-opposition.


The delinquents lack a critical relationship to their own practice and to the history of the delinquents of previous decades. Look at the delinquents of ten, twenty or thirty years ago. What they were doing then is very much the same as what today’s delinquents are doing now. Where have they ended up? No small number are dead, prematurely killed by violence, accident or disease. Others are imprisoned, or crushed by illness or addiction. Some are still hustling in the old ways, always hoping for a break into the big time that never comes or never lasts, while a very few have achieved ‘success’ in conventional or criminal terms, allowing them to have a little more of the same rubbish that everyone else does. Most have settled into the narrow mediocrity of family life and run-of-the-mill work. It is not just the broken and becalmed who are failures. They have all failed to create an everyday life that it is really worth living. Yet the current generation of delinquents has learned nothing from this. They persist with the same failed strategies and tactics, the same well-beaten paths down blind alleys, the same signposted roads to surrender.


Failure stalks the present as much as the future. When they are not working, the delinquents try to make something happen that will break the prevailing boredom through fights, harassment, fucking, escapades, partying, etc. The results are invariable paltry. The 'real life' that delinquents like to contrast so favourably with the gullible drudgery of the respectable citizens is a mess of puerile pranks, pointless fracas, mechanical sexual encounters, and thin, fragile, artificial paradises built out of pneumatic beats, desperate dancing, and the chemical impairment of the senses. It is no surprise that at the heart of delinquent life is a conspiracy of exaggeration through which petty events are talked-up and retold afterwards. Nonetheless, boredom returns. The delinquents largely find themselves back where they began, tediously stuck at the bottom of a society over which they exercise no control.


When the delinquents manage physically to intimidate the occupants of an area, their dominance is equally illusory. They may control some of the movements of some of the occupants some of the time, but they are not masters even of their own tiny terrain. Above and beyond them, decisions about public services, infrastructure, redevelopment, education, healthcare, employment, production, etc, continue to be largely made outside of their control. And when the state and capital decide to reclaim their territory, they are simply swept away. For example, no matter how numerous and arrogant the gangs of Chicago may have been, when it was decided that the two-mile stretch of land occupied by the Robert Taylor Holmes and Stateway Gardens housing projects was to be given over to Legends South, a new housing development largely occupied by the middle classes, they were ejected along with all the other residents. In the end, the delinquents are, at best, the temporary caretakers of abandoned ruins.


The alienated character of delinquent life is starkly revealed by the code of respect many live by. This code may serve to deflect the contempt directed at those at the bottom of society; nonetheless, it is an external and arbitrary system that ties an individual to a reputation miserably dependent on the approval or deference of others. One of its most destructive facets is the expectation that any display of disrespect is remedied by violence. Another is the encouragement it gives to newcomers to establish status amongst their peers and competitors by engaging in eye-catching acts of especially ruthless violence. All this has led to a reified contempt for life, disdain for open criticism, staggeringly high rates of injury and death (in Harlem during the mid-1990s, for example, young men were as likely to die violently as soldiers were during the second world war), more and more defensive weapons, and a ubiquitous ambience of threat and fear in the areas where delinquents live. None of this is in the best interests of the delinquents themselves, the worst of which have been reduced to veritable zombies by their relentless treatment of others as objects and the need to suppress all real thought and feeling about their patently loathsome actions. What is supposed to be the delinquents' own code has clearly escaped them. Like an angry god, it consumes those who worship it. More generally, delinquents' activities create blighted lives for themselves as much as for anyone else, but they doggedly persist with this self-immolation. "I dunno, they've got a brand new Merc outside but they're cracked out in some poxy flat with their mum. They can't use the front room in case someone shoots the house up, and they're looking at untold 'bird' if they get nicked. What's that about?" (London gang member). Even when things seem to be going well for criminals who engage in business, all they spread around them are alienated relations with suppliers and customers. Their relations with others are mediated and defined by the goods for which they have become the bearers and the mouthpieces. All they find around them, all they have created around then, are people who wish to buy from them, sell to them, or supplant them — people for whom they are merely buyers, sellers or commercial competitors. They strove to break free of the constraints around them; they ended up as hooded greengrocers of oblivion.


As well as failing to confront their own reliance on alienated images of delinquency, delinquents have done little to disrupt the wider use of images of delinquency by the rulers of society. For decades, the threat supposedly posed by delinquents has been an important element of the state’s justification of its rule over society. In effect, the state has presented itself as a necessary defence for the respectable citizen against what are said to be their common enemies, the delinquents. For their part, the delinquents have rarely even attempted to disabuse respectable citizens of this illusion. Often confined in estates on the outskirts of cities and the poorer parts of town, they have not explored ways of breaking down their isolation and communicating directly with ordinary people who are better off than they are. They have not sought out common ground with ordinary people whose lives are as blighted by affluence as theirs are by deprivation. (Artistic specialists may have offered up depictions and discussions of the life in the margins through rap and music, plays, poetry, etc, but such portrayals and protests, having been framed as cultural products, merely end up being taken within the narrow private lives of the affluent and passively consumed as aesthetic experiences or news.) Worse, some delinquents seem perfectly content to play the part that the state’s spectacle of terror assigns to them, delightedly acting out their gangster role on the streets, the media and youtube videos, or simply dolling out rote discourtesy to passers-by. They are happy to feed the fist that strikes them.

There is no doubt that the actions of delinquents disrupt the everyday lives of respectable citizens. Over the past thirty or so years, the majority of the population has chosen to pursue the rewards of conformity instead of the fruits of revolt. What they have been left with are ugly and stupid lives, ugly and stupid places, and a planet pushed to the very edge of destruction by capitalism's efforts to keep feeding them new promises of consumable happiness. But the thought that one is wasting one's life is not a cheerful one, and respectable citizens everywhere have gone to considerable lengths to avoid it. They have erected elaborate architectures of lies and self-deceptions in an attempt to persuade themselves and others that their work is not petty nonsense directed by contemptible bosses to idiotic ends, that their families are not desolate bunkers of mutual contempt and shared incarceration, that their leisure and friendships are not collections of inconsequential games and insubstantial interests, that their holidays are not banal tramps through despoliation, that the ways in which they think they avoid the common vulgarity are not entirely spurious, that their pleasures are not dreadfully small. They cling to these illusions with ferocious desperation; but the whole house of lying ghosts and grim parodies is a fragile one, and it is threatened by the depredations of delinquency. To the extent that delinquency prevents respectable citizens from misperceiving themselves as happy and free people who are blessed with rich experiences and continue to grow as individuals, it provokes their fury. It threatens to take away the very little they have, and replace it with nothing. It threatens to bring them face to face with a poverty of everyday life that has been there in one form or another all along.


The rage of respectable citizens is compounded by their impotence. They have no control over their social environment, no ability to do anything other than stand or cower as isolated individuals in the face of the delinquents who harass them. They have given up the power to manage everything outside their front doors to others and accepted random collections of juxtaposed individuals in lieu of communities. Having refused to contest the separation and impotence that the dominance of the state and the commodity economy imposes on everyone, they can only clamour for more police patrols and harsher punitive regimes.


At bottom, delinquency is a product of the absence of revolt, the abeyance of revolution. It is a pathological result of the unwillingness of men and women to act against the conditions of their own alienation. If respectable citizens wish not to be the victims of delinquents, they must precisely become less respectable. If they wish to open a dialogue with delinquents that is capable of superseding their mutual hostility, they must end that sheepish plodding through a lifetime of work and consumption which understandably makes them so contemptible in the eyes of delinquents. They must develop, by and for themselves, an autonomous, self-managed project of practical negation that is directed at the reigning alienation and reproaches the delinquents with doing too little against the dominant society rather than too much. They must invite the delinquents to join them in a richer and more subversive game. If that does not happen, if a process of revolutionary contestation is not created in which both the respectable and the delinquent can participate as equals, the same old nonsense will proliferate, and the same old failed pacifications will be regurgitated by the state. We shall all end up dying before we have even begun living.


Of course, it is necessary to act against recalcitrant delinquents who insist on bringing misery and terror to others. This cannot involve cooperation with the police, local authorities and courts, or demands for more from them. These separate powers are part of the apparatus that dispossess ordinary people of control over their lives and they must always be treated as the enemies that they are. Ordinary people have to find their own solutions. We know that individual confrontations with groups of delinquents can be dangerous, so seek out and act with others who are prepared to stand with you. Propose shared, self-directed confrontation by word and deed to those who share your frustrations. Bring thoughtful strategy and tactics to the matter. Carefully study the activities and operations of the delinquents. Gain as complete a picture as possible of what they do, how they do it, and where they do it. Be clear about what you wish to achieve. Identify the weak points, the times and places where confrontation with individuals (including customers of delinquents engaged in criminal commerce), or destruction of things (for example, stolen goods, drug stashes), will have large effects but carry acceptably small risks. Be imaginative in your tools and methods. Do not feel obliged to confine yourself to what is lawful. Make sensible use of publicity. Paste up criticisms of individuals and groups on the physical walls of the area and on the internet. Through texts, pictures, sound recordings, and videos, make public that which they wish to conceal from the wider world. Be as anonymous and as cautious as you need to be. But in the end, such an approach can only be a complement to a revolutionary strategy that contests the social conditions that breed delinquency as one form of alienation amongst many others. In South Africa, an Islamic group, the People Against Gangsterism and Drugs, went so far as to execute some 30 gang leaders in 1996 alone. The gangs still exist.


There is no-one to save you. It is up to you. And me. Courage. So that the night triumphs no more.

Wayne Spencer
14 July 2010

No Copyright. Use as you please.

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Tuesday, 30 March 2010

What use would an international association of situationist revolutionaries be?

The following comes from a reply I sent to a person who expressed interest in the new situationist collaboration that I have proposed.

I think you are right to approach the notion of a new international association of situationist revolutionaries with cautious scepticism. Such an association should only be created if the inter-relations between the individual members that constitute it are likely to serve a useful practical purpose.

My initial thought is that a new association could in principle have two principal functions. The first is to foster the creation of a body of revolutionary theory properly adapted to our times. This it would do by opening channels of communication between theorists such as permit a more systematic and sustained circulation of information, ideas, encouragement, debate, collaboration, and assistance with the practical matters of publication than would otherwise take place. The initial goal would perhaps be to create a wide-ranging critique of the currently-dominant forms of alienation and the factors that have led dissatisfaction with everyday life not to find a revolutionary solution over the past forty years. However, all this presupposes the existence of individuals willing and able to enter into this form of cooperation.

The second function of the association that comes to mind is to serve as a network through which individual members can propose, and subsequently collaborate on, particular interventions in social life. I should stress that, here and elsewhere, I do not envisage the association acting as a separate and superior entity that produces activities for its members. It is merely a means by which its individual members carry out particular projects, with specific collaborators, at their own initiative. Once again, this presupposes the existence of individuals willing and able to enter into this form of cooperation.

If a new association is in due course length created, I suspect that it will tend to concentrate on the first of these functions for the time being. In the case of interventions that go beyond the production and dissemination of theory, the scope of what can usefully be done at any given time and place will depend on such factors as the degree of discontent and the array of repressive forces to be found locally, and the availability, material resources, and willingness to take risks on the part of the members of the association. Unfortunately, it seems to me that, at present, the notion of contesting the processes whereby individuals' lives become alien to them is in general fairly far removed from the proletarians' sense of what is possible and desirable, with the result that practical actions directed against those processes by members of the association are unlikely to be taken up or even understood by the wider population. Repression amidst indifference is all too likely to be the only outcome. Of course, where conditions are more favourable, the members of the association should do whatever they can to disrupt the alienation of their own everyday lives, and thereby encourage others to do the same in their own lives. But a masochistic or vainglorious indulgence in foreseeable failure appears to me to possess no merit. The same goes for the reformist measures that are always seductively at hand. Where the only available actions consist of inconsequent kamikaze missions or some species of pseudo-oppositional protest that takes the continuance of the fundamental processes of the existing society for granted, the revolutionary course of action, I would suggest, is precisely to express practical contempt for both options by refusing to take up either.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Why Break the Seals of Mute Despair Unbidden, and Wail Life's Discords into Careless Ears? A Reply to Bill Not Bored

In his text Form a new Situationist International? Let's not and say we did, Bill Not Bored criticises my proposal for the creation of a new international association of situationist revolutionaries. This is my reply.

According to Not Bored, the defining quality of proletarian life is not a craven acceptance of the separate commodity economy and the state as unchangeable givens but “a constant struggle to make a living in an unliveable world”. It is not clear to me what he means by this. How does “a constant struggle to make a living in an unliveable world” differ from the practical capitulation to an unending cycle of alienated work and alienated consumption that I would suggest constitutes the reality of the everyday lives of the vast majority of ordinary people in the advanced capitalist countries? A clue perhaps comes from Not Brown’s contention that: “Spencer’s attention is on ideology, not socio-economic conditions”. Is he suggesting that proletarians are merely grimly working away trying to provide for their basic, utilitarian needs, while the spectacle’s claims about specific products and wider forms of life pass unheeded above their heads? If he is, I think he has failed properly to take into account the rather large amount of discretionary spending that the large majority of people engage in, and the uses to which they put it. More importantly, it ignores the fact that even basic needs are now saturated in ideology. A suburban house or a hip pad in an inner city redevelopment is not just a roof over a family’s head. A car is not just a means to convey people and objects from A to B. A meal at MacDonalds or a macrobiotic restaurant is not just (or even) a means of absorbing essential nutrients and calories into the body. This year’s array of fashions is not just a collection of rags to protect the body from inclement weather. These and many other things are also parts of spectacular ideologies of pleasure, happiness, normal life, etc, that people absorb and pursue in their daily lives. But I do not propose to settle this point of contention here. I would merely appeal to readers to keep their eyes and ears open at work, in shops of all kinds, in the houses of friends and family, on holiday, during leisure time, and in all the other domains of everyday life. What are people discussing, and what are they doing? What do they wish for and what do they aspire to? Where does all this thought, action and desire have its origins? If dissatisfaction is expressed, what practical action is directed against its causes? Readers might also care to direct the same scrutiny at their own lives.

If Not Bored is to be believed, I place myself outside all of this: “with respect to the proletariat -- he places himself outside of it, as a nay-sayer to its ‘craven’ acceptance, not inside, as an inmate in the same prison”. But Not Bored should not be believed. In the very first paragraph of my proposal I wrote: “This practical submission […] is equally ubiquitous […] in your life and mine, amongst many others”. In paragraph 8 I added that the proposed new association “would not consist of individuals who claim to possess unusual abilities or see themselves as having already transcended the sordid, stupid and miserable lives that everybody else leads. Rather, its members would be, and would see themselves as being, perfectly ordinary proletarians”. Not Bored might also have given some thought to why I chose to begin my text with this quotation from Rimbaud: “Perhaps he has secrets for changing life? No, he’s just looking for some, I told myself”.

Not Bored next contends that discontent is not buried but “front-page news”. He mentions in particular “the student occupations movement in America; the on-going rioting and social strife in Greece; the popular demonstrations against the government in Iceland; the social movements in France against detention centers and expulsions”, etc. Leaving aside my doubts about the more or less openly-avowed reformist intentions of some of these activities, I would suggest that the frequency with which contestation appears in the media is rather less important than its prevalence as an ongoing practical project amongst ordinary people. If we assume that the four movements Not Bored mentions in particular have involved around 100,000 people, this would represent 0.0073% of the total population of Europe, Scandinavia and North America. That is, those movements have failed to involve 99.9927% of the population. Of course, this calculation includes the owners and managers of the dominant society, and no doubt Not Bored would wish to add in a few more tens of thousands of participants to the ranks of the rebels. However, there is no escaping the fact that the overwhelming majority of the proletariat is not, at present, translating its profound but buried discontent with work and consumption into practical refusal. When the rioting in Greece was reported to the European proletariat by the media, the vast majority did precisely nothing.

We could also approach this question by considering some evidence from opinion polls. One typical example is contained in the recently-published Eurobarometer report on Social Climate. This asked a sample of the European population whether, on the whole, they are satisfied with the life they lead. If ordinary people were admitting their discontent to themselves, and acting on it, it seems reasonable to expect them to take the minimal step of expressing dissatisfaction with life to an opinion pollster. However, the poll found that 80% of respondents professed to be very satisfied or fairly satisfied with their lives. Only 4% of respondents were very dissatisfied. We could go on to discuss many more polls about self-reported happiness and even some polls that somewhat surprisingly asked large samples whether they considered revolutionary change necessary; but we won’t. Suffice it to say that much the same picture emerges.

As Not Bored claims that “Spencer speaks of a world that was destroyed more than 40 years ago”, it may be useful to consider a study of 123 industrial conflicts in France conducted in 1971 by Claude Durand and Pierre Dubois. This found that “significant illegalities”, such as occupations of premises or physical violence against employers, cadres, supervisors or police, had occurred in half of all disputes. I invite Not Bored to identify a single American town or city (or indeed a town or city elsewhere in the advanced capitalist economies) in which a similar state of affairs existed last year. If he cannot do this, perhaps he can explain how the process of practical contestation of the dominant society can properly be regarded proceeding quite satisfactorily over the past 40 years when in the vital field of work it has not even maintained the levels of resistance with which it began?

Not Bored claims that “Spencer speaks as if revolutionary theory stopped cold in 1972”. He also cites various theoretical and practical developments he considers have occurred since then. However, my proposal refers to “the twenty five or so years since the development of the situationist project was largely abandoned” (paragraph 4). “Largely” does not mean “completely”. Moreover, if Not Bored had subtracted 25 from 2010 he would have arrived at an approximate date of 1985 not 1972. This date was selected partly because it was roughly the point at which the last of the comrades once linked by the Declaration Concerning the Center for Research on the Social Question and the Notice Concerning the Reigning Society and Those Who Contest It largely abandoned their development of theory largely abandoned their development of theory, and partly because it could be stretched to include the best parts of Debord’s ‘Comments on the Society of the Spectacle’ of 1988. My text also expressly recognized that “here and there one can find small fragments of insight that can be put to good use when torn out of their original context and reintegrated into a new critique” (paragraph 4). The existence of some useful work within and without a situationist framework is not, therefore, logically inconsistent with what I wrote.

I am very doubtful that the ideas and actions mentioned by Not Bored adequately adapt the theory and practice of revolutionary contestation to the exigencies of our times. But the reasons for my scepticism need not detain us. I once said that an up-to-date revolutionary theory might include (but not be restricted to) a nuanced critique of:

1) The mainstream spectacle, the worlds of high street shops, shopping malls, suburban homes, family life, family cars, sport, gardening, gossip, and holidays spent by the sea or in cities seen through the eyes of guide books; of newspapers, women’s magazines, popular television programmes, gymnasiums, guides to better sex on DVD, and trashy books and films despised by the critics; of run-of-the-mill jobs tolerated because they pay quite well or provide opportunities to meet the public, socialize with colleagues or exercise a little power or creativity within the narrow limits dictated by one’s employer. In short, the whole of the lives and lies of people who regard themselves and others like them as just “ordinary”.

2) The sophisticated spectacle, the world of design, elegance, the supposedly exclusive, and gentrification; of prize-winning books, broadsheet newspapers, self-help techniques, world music, the theatre, and arthouse films; of spiritual retreats, holidays off the beaten track, second homes, haut cuisine, artisanal goods, and slow food; of concern for the third world or eulogies to self-reliance and the rewards of enterprise; of straining one’s finances in order to have a large home in a good area and children capable of passing examinations; of careers, work in research centres, arts administration, the creative industries, therapies, or the tattered remnants of the professions. In short, the whole of the lives and lies of those who regard themselves as just a little above the vulgar.

3) The hedonistic spectacle, the world of sex, drugs and rock and roll; of the fast, the frenzied and the dangerous; of drunkenness, madcap escapades, exhibitionism, carnival, and choruses of collective laughter; of raves or nightlife in the regenerated cities. In short, the whole of the lives and lies of those who regard themselves as experiencing life to the full, if only during the evenings and weekends.

4) The youth culture spectacle, the world of the ever-changing tribes of the young and the gadgets, clothes, body shapes, haircuts, makeup, music, films, celebrities, slang, attitudes and poses that define them. In short, the whole of the lives and lies of those who may be subordinated by school, dependency on parents, and the menial jobs now left to the young but who nonetheless regard themselves as superior to the old, the uncool, and the passé.

5) The criminal spectacle, the world of drug-dealing, burglary and street crime; of respect, revenge, guns, knives, flash cars, hip talk, branded training shoes and sportswear; of hard men, bitches and the rap music about them; of dreams of movie gangsters, the hope of one day living like a rap star or a millionaire sportsman; of predatory hierarchies amongst prisoners. In short, the whole of the lives and lies of those who regard themselves as better than the sad losers who play the game.

6) The spectacle of decomposition, the world of resigned cynicism and contemptuous scoffing; of endless news of real and invented corruption, ineptitude, disaster, crime and conspiracy; of images of suffering, humiliation, disability and decay circulated for entertainment; of hooliganism, vandalism, bad manners, defiant stupidity, proud illiteracy, animal mutilation and other inversions of bourgeois sensibilities. In short, the whole of the lives and lies of those who hold the world in contempt yet find some measure of contentment in either acting out the decay themselves or watching others doing so.

7) The avant-garde spectacle, the world of conceptual art, artistic manifestoes, small galleries in fashionable parts of fashionable cities, corporate-sponsored major retrospectives of artists declared to be radical or innovative, the music covered by The Wire magazine, street photography, limited edition books and CDs produced by the artists themselves, state-subsidised electro-acoustic experimentation, psychogeographical walks, ‘visual culture’, experimental film, critical studies in the university, post-graduate exhibitions, a horror of any ‘foreclosure’ except that which accepts the basic economic and social forms of the commodity society as immutable, and the hip clothing, hip bars and hip milieus in which the buyers and sellers of the avant-garde are often to be found. In short, the whole of the lives and lies of those who consider that the separate world of art is a domain in which daring, insight, subversion, innovation or new forms of life can still be practised.

8) The alternative spectacle, the world of trade unionism, ecological activism, community campaigns, culture jamming, the open source movement, exhibitions of radical texts in state museums and university galleries, fair trade, alternative medicine, guerrilla gardening, anarcho-punk, protests in solidarity with the third world, protests in general, children’s rights, the New Age Movement and other claims of the paranormal, the World Social Forum, feminism, reduced consumption and other remedies for ‘affluenza’, welfare rights advocacy, the anti-war movement, ‘dumpster diving’, anti-globalization, campaigns against corporate abuses, and the short-term suspension of ordinary life found in rioting. In short, the whole of the lives and lies of those who believe that substantive and desirable improvements to everyday life can be brought about, or revolution approached, by changing one or more aspects of the dominant society and leaving the appropriation of labour and life by the commodity unchanged; of those satisfied with the display or repetition of an inadequate revolt.

If Not Bored is right about the adequacy of the developments he cites, he should be able to provide at least a partial list of the work that has already done what I have said is still to be done. I should certainly be grateful to him for this service.

Not Bored rightly regards the appearance of my proposal in English only as unsatisfactory. I am not in a position to translate the text into other languages. Rather than simply sit on my hands, however, I decided I would start with English readers and hope that the proposal eventually reaches individuals who have no interest in a petit-bourgeois display of satisfaction with their language skills and are prepared instead take upon themselves the task of translating and disseminating the text in other languages.

In relation to the SI, Not Bored argues that I have failed to take into account that the theory of the SI changed several times between 1957 and 1972 and failed to outline its basic principles. However, the particular association I propose would be a collaboration between individuals who are already persuaded that the thought of the SI provides an unsurpassed theoretical resource for revolutionaries and who are capable of participating as equals in the practical tasks of applying and developing that resource. I do not think that such individuals would require a theoretical history of the SI (and certainly not a history as poor and unhelpful to revolutionaries as the one that Not Bored offers). Moreover, situationist theory is nothing more than a practical weapon to be directed against dominant society, a means by which dissatisfaction with alienation comes to conceive and execute an evolving practical negation of the social organization of alienation that confronts it. I did not consider that individuals who approached situationist theory as a toolkit for revolutionary contestation would need to be told about the theories and practices that the SI itself long ago rightly discarded as obviously inadequate to a revolutionary transformation of society. I also did not consider it appropriate to attempt a comprehensive summary of the components of situationist theory that remain useful to the practical struggle against capitalism, not least because other revolutionaries with different experiences and another set of specific targets in mind might well be able to supplement or correct any inventory that might occur to me. To the extent that a shared understanding of some basic principles is required, its elaboration was left to the process of discussion that will precede the formation of any new association.

Not Bored also alleges that: “His text is anti-situationist when it comes to matters of organization: the SI never allowed its members the abilities to carry out ‘theoretical and other practical actions […] in the individual names of those who produce them, and on their responsibility alone’ and/or ‘carry out projects outside the framework of the international and to form other associations to do so’ (thesis #7)”. In fact, article 5 of the Provisional Statutes of the SI adopted at the 8th SI Conference says: “It goes without saying that personally undertaken projects or theoretical hypotheses cannot be limited by the section, nor by the SI as a whole — except in cases where they are manifestly hostile to the SI’s very bases”. Far more important, the one and only relevant consideration is whether preventing the members of the association from undertaking any revolutionary thought and action outside of the association is necessary in order to advance revolutionary contestation or to retard its recuperation. For my part, I cannot see any good reason for taking that step. Of course, a facility must exist to expel members who enter into avoidable compromises with the dominant society that are incompatible with the association’s purposes. But no useful end would be served by making the association into a jealous entity claiming exclusive rights over the thought and actions of those who enter it. The association is a means by which individuals unite so as to carry out certain practical goals that they themselves hold, not a collectivity that members submit to and serve.

Not Bored does not appear to have recognized that the organizational principles I have proposed have their roots in a situationist critique of the failures of the SI as an organization (an organizational failure manifested in, amongst other things, its ability to foster the growth of the satisfied inactivity that eventually produced the crisis and dissolution of the SI). This critique appears not to be well-represented on the Web. But it can be found in such texts as Daniel Denevert’s Suggestions for the Legitimate Eulogy of the SI and of all Revolutionary Activity in Order to Arrive at a Merciless Critique of Our Enemies (1976). One of the insights informing this critique was expressed in Denevert’s text in these terms:

“Everything is said about the spectacle except what it always and fundamentally is: the colonization of the point of view of the individual by the point of view of the collectivity”.

The distance between Not Bored and this perspective is plainly revealed by the latter’s concluding set of criticisms. This includes a perfectly reasonable question about who would decide whether or not any individual was to be excluded from the founding conference of any new association. The answer is the participants in the conference as a whole. There are various ways in which this could be done. However, even if I drew up a provisional list of participants who should be invited myself, I would circulate a list of the excluded individuals, and copies of all relevant documents, in advance of the conference convening and ask the invited individuals to ratify or revoke the exclusion of each person concerned. If a majority took the view that they would wish to associate with an excluded person, he or she would be invited to participate in the forthcoming conference.

Unfortunately, Not Bored’s comments are not restricted to a commendable concern with democratic procedure. In his view, my proposal is a “monologue” that descends into “a sterile dialogue with himself”. If Not Bored really believes that I am merely talking to myself, it is not obvious why he has wasted time responding to me; unless, of course, he is taking an opportunity to publicly display his supposedly superior grasp of situationist matters for the benefit of the admirers who consume his work on that basis. It is equally unclear why a text that addresses a foreseeable and reasonable objection to itself should be equated with a sterile dialogue with oneself. No grounds are given for this characterization. I fear it may have more to do with rhetorical display than reasoned critique.

Yet this is not all, for Not Bored points out that my proposal is made by a person who “is not a member of any organization, no matter how small, but an isolated individual”. Yes, I am just an ordinary individual, known to a few friends, neighbours, associates, family members and work colleagues. I am not even a famous isolated individual, like Raoul Veneigem, whose post-SI work Not Bored deigns to publish and translate. In fact, I could be just any person in the street, the factory or the office. Who would seriously entertain a suggestion from such a source? Not Bill Not Bored, it seems. Not for him the rabble who speak only for themselves. Not for him any notion of autonomous individuals coming together for specific ends. Before he is prepared to consider a proposal, it must have already been approved by others. Before he is prepared to act, there evidently must be a collectivity into which he can assimilate himself. It looks rather like he walks only where reputation and collective approval has cleared the way. His is a timid soul, it seems.

No doubt Not Bored can be assured that he is not speaking to himself. He presents his work at galleries. He lectures at subsidized cultural events. He speaks to the press and appears in documentary films. He leads walks. He stages plays and displays placards before passers-by and surveillance camera workers. He complains that his civil liberties are not upheld. He translates and comments. But after 25 or so years of presenting tepid social critique to spectators who have evinced no practical dissatisfaction and passively view his activities with no practical revolutionary purpose in view, nothing in the way of revolutionary contestation has been achieved. His efforts do not disrupt the processes by which his own life becomes foreign to him, however briefly. Nor do they attack the processes by which his audiences’ lives become foreign to them. Yet he continues untroubled by the compatibility of what he does with the persistence of the society of alienation and takes no steps to turn against his palpably inadequate praxis. Indeed, he seems quite content with the cultural and pseudo-oppositional niche he has found within that society. For him, it seems, revolution is a process that is satisfactorily unfolding at some distance from his own everyday life and will one day deliver salvation to his door. All this is very different from the views that prompted my proposal for a new international association of situationist revolutionaries. It is no surprise that Not Bored views that proposal with contempt.

Wayne Spencer
23 March 2010

Friday, 5 March 2010

Towards a New Situationist International

"Perhaps he has secrets for changing life? No, he’s just looking for some, I told myself.”
(Arthur Rimbaud, A Season in Hell, 1873)


It is a brutal fact that the defining quality of proletarian life at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, the foundation on which the everyday thought and action of ordinary people rests, is a craven acceptance of the separate commodity economy and the state as unchangeable givens. This practical submission exists everywhere in the advanced capitalist countries. It is not just a matter of the unthinking obedience of the many good children (of all ages) who have nearly always confined their thoughts, actions and desires to the obviously submissive conventions of their times. It is equally ubiquitous in the endless impotent complaints about fragments of social life, in the many varieties of contemporary cynicism that sneer as they obey, in the swaggering search for status and money of the urban gang member or the petty criminal, in the myriad campaigns for the reform of this or that unseemly fragment of everyday life, in the search for the cool, the spiritual or the perfect state of wasted oblivion; and in your life and mine, amongst many others.


However, as well as submission, there is also a profound but buried discontent with the petty and idiotic lives that a world subordinated to the production and consumption of commodities obliges us to lead. This misery that dares not speak its name, this festering sense that we are utterly wasting our limited time on earth, may be evaded, repressed, or concealed behind a mask of happiness. It may be treated with therapies, religions, permitted holidays or forbidden drugs, a new family or a new job, or one of a multitude of other changes in our consumption of goods and ideologies. And yet, after everything, it remains. Indeed, a history of the changing means by which our sense of the profound inadequacy of life has been confusedly expressed, avoided and recuperated would be a history of much of the individual and social life of our epoch. As a corollary, the revival of revolutionary contestation precisely depends on the degree to which contemporary dissatisfaction can extricate itself from the consumerist, reformist and escapist forms into which it has been diverted and seduced over the last 30 or more years. In place of revolution, discontent with everyday life has attempted to find remedies in the new forms of work and consumption held out by a rejuvenated and increasingly sophisticated capitalism. The practical negation of this misadventure is the road to social revolution in our times.


As one response to this desperate state of affairs, I propose the formation of an international association of situationist revolutionaries, a new situationist international. Such an association would in the first instance seek to catalyze the efforts of its presently scattered and isolated members by bringing them into intensive collaboration and discussion with each other. The efforts of revolutionaries to understand and contest the impoverishment of everyday life under contemporary capitalism (and first and foremost the impoverishment of their own everyday lives) have proved palpably inadequate. Notably, over the past several decades, revolutionary theory has almost completely failed to keep abreast of developments within advanced capitalism. In particular, it has failed to engage with the devastatingly stultifying notions of consumable happiness and human possibility with which the spectacle has come to secure an uneasy acquiescence amongst much of the working class. The new international would seek to intensify and deepen the theory and practice of its members; and to give them a cumulative breadth and power. At the same time, it would aim to catalyze dissatisfaction outside its ranks by providing inspiration to dissent, disquiet to obedience, and the beginnings of a practical theory to individuals who are moving towards the conclusion that social revolution is the only remedy for the poverty of their lives.


The emphasis on a situationist international is a reflection of the simple fact that the thought of the first situationist international provides an unsurpassed theoretical resource for revolutionaries seeking to engage with capitalism under conditions of commodity abundance. In the twenty five or so years since the development of the situationist project was largely abandoned, other theoretical lineages have had free reign to develop a more acute successor to it. Their efforts have only served to demonstrate the startling bankruptcy of Marxism, anarchism, academia, the new social movements, and the arts. Of course, here and there one can find small fragments of insight that can be put to good use when torn out of their original context and reintegrated into a new critique. In general, however, the legacy of self-styled revolutionary thought in the last quarter of a century is one of anachronism, obscurantism and timid reformism. It has not advanced the revolutionary critique of the capitalism that actually exists but fled from it.


In 1964 the Situationist International said of the term ‘situationist’: “For the moment, however ridiculous a label may be, ours has the merit of drawing a sharp line between the previous incoherence and a new level of rigour” (Questionnaire, Internationale Situationniste #9, 1964). One can hardly say the same today. As situationist thought has been abandoned by individuals with revolutionary intent, it has been taken up in traduced form by legions of students, academics, architects, artists and commentators. Its critique of alienated everyday life has been discarded, attenuated or rendered devoid of subversive consequences for the everyday lives of those who handle it. As a result, far from being a badge of rigour, the adjective ‘situationist’ is now typically to be found attached to specialised tools of toothless analysis or justifications for inane artistic or leisure activities. This may seem to make it an unpropitious moment to take up again the situationist label. However, revolutionary theory cannot simply ignore or lament its recuperation by the dominant society; rather, it must confront it. One virtue of a revival of an avowedly situationist revolutionary movement is precisely that it will bring these two hostile forces into open conflict with each other. In this way, the sophisticated critique of modern conditions can be cleansed of the repellent taint of academicism and returned to the streets, where it belongs. At the same time, a revivified situationist theoretico-practice must engage with the proliferating reformist ideologies that address the distinctively modern maladies of everyday life without indulging in any overt reference to situationist theory. As the more obvious costs and miseries of the expanded consumer society of the past thirty years become flagrant, pseudo-critiques of (and pseudo-remedies for) ‘consumerism’, ‘affluenza’ and stubbornly static levels of ‘happiness’ and ‘well-being’ increasingly clamour for the attention of the spectator and the policy-maker. In response, those who believe that the poverties of everyday life are matters of correctable excesses within the world of alienated work and alienated consumption must find themselves opposed by the proponents of a revolutionary solution for the interconnected misery of everything that exists. Those who would reform social, political and economic life so as to prevent our uniquely modern discontents from running out of control must be met as enemies by those who would have such discontents develop a conscious, coherent and practical expression.


There can be no question of simply reviving the Situationist International that was dissolved in 1972. It would be absurd to think of the practices, organizational form and theoretical propositions of the situationists as providing a fixed set of prescriptions that need only be dusted down and put back into use. Indeed, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that revolutionary theory and practice stands at present in a state of perfectly scandalous dereliction. For example, according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, in 2009 American children aged 8-18 spend an average of 7.38 hours a day, seven days a week, using the various media the society of the spectacle makes available. The corresponding statistics for adults are hardly more encouraging. Where can one find radical critiques of the particular ideas of contentment and excitement, or the general forms of desirable life, that this torrent of alienated representation endlessly parades before its spectators? Where might the satisfied spectator or the burgeoning malcontent encounter a revolutionary theory that is sympathetically alive to what contemporary spectacles promise (and to some degree deliver) and yet is uncompromising in its critique of the lived realities? Where might workers weary of their unhappy dance to an unchosen dirge find a critique of work that extends as far as the well-paid and secure employment that remains preponderant in the advanced western economies? It would not be very much of an exaggeration to answer: nowhere. Inaugurating a modernized contestation of the advanced, affluent capitalism of our era will be at the heart of what the new international seeks to do. Everything must be reconsidered and brought up to date so as to ensure we have the theoretical and practical tools that are required today. The lessons of the past (including those of the failure of the Situationist International) must be learned. The real social changes that have occurred since the heyday of the Situationist International (and their consequences for revolutionary theory and practice) must be recognized.


The new situationist international cannot be a collectivity that serves as a cause for the militant, a shelter for the passive, a source of vicarious status or activity for its members generally, or a self-perpetuating mechanism for organizing the organization. As an association of individuals, it would serve to bring together the particular persons who happen to be its members at any given time for the particular purposes of producing theory (both individually or in concert with one or more other members) and carrying out actions (both individually and in concert with other members). Theoretical statements and other practical actions would be carried out in the individual names of those who produce them, and on their responsibility alone. Every member would be expected to participate in the life of the association by using it for one or more of the purposes for which it was created. Every decision that concerns the association should be taken by the members as a whole, either directly or by way of mandated delegates, and in general the association should be egalitarian in nature. Members would be free to carry out projects outside the framework of the international and to form other associations to do so.


The new international must recognize that there are no currents within the intelligentsia or amongst artists from which an ‘avant-garde’ might be formed. That is all dead and gone; art and the academy are now wholly integrated within the dominant society. In any event, every last vestige of the unmitigatedly disastrous notion of the vanguard party must now be repudiated. The new international would not be “a general staff”, not even one “that does not want troops” (The Counter-Situationist Campaign in Various Countries, Internationale Situationniste #8, 1963). It would not be a separate grouping of intellectuals whose thought and instructions the proletariat need only absorb and act on. It would not consist of individuals who claim to possess unusual abilities or see themselves as having already transcended the sordid, stupid and miserable lives that everybody else leads. Rather, its members would be, and would see themselves as being, perfectly ordinary proletarians. Their arrival at the view that social revolution is necessary, desirable and possible in advance of others is of no more significance than the lumps that sometimes appear when a sauce is first stirred; they may be early but they are not special. As can be seen from the long history of failed revolutions (a history that has repeatedly seen revolutionary workers fatally abandon the making of decisions to specialised bodies who claim to represent them), social revolution depends on proletarians acting and thinking at all stages by and for themselves. For this reason, although the new situationist international will publish its theory, it must do so solely in order to encourage other proletarians who wish to understand and suppress their misery to pursue an autonomous contestation of their own alienation. In the revolutionary army without officers, drills or uniforms, there must only be foot-soldiers.


It might be objected that a proposal such as this one can avoid an abhorrent abstraction only to the extent that it is an immediately realizable suggestion for a collaboration between known individuals. It might also be objected that it is not obvious whether and where associates in a new international can at present be found. If I fail to heed these weighty objections, it is because I hope that the public appearance of the notion of a new international will, over time, help to crystallize from the currents of history the forces it needs for its realization.


In the event that individuals prepared to create and work actively within a twenty-first century situationist international do come forward, I would suggest that the next step should be a conference between the interested parties. This should preferably be a face-to-face meeting; but if that proves impracticable, it could be conducted by post or e-mail. Each participant should be required to present beforehand his or her written views on (a) the minimum definition of ‘situationist’ for the purposes of the association; (b) the best organizational structure and procedures to be adopted; (c) the practical purposes to which the association should be put; (d) the contribution (theoretical, practical or financial) that he or she personally proposes to make to the association in its initial stages; and (e) any other questions that he or she wishes to have discussed at the conference. Individuals who are unable or unwilling to do this, or cannot specify any concrete steps which they themselves would take within the proposed association, should be excluded from the conference. We might save ourselves a little time by excluding from the outset anyone who holds an academic position or is a public practitioner of art. Such assiduous prostration before the dominant forms of diminished thought and action is necessarily inconsistent with participation in an association whose only goal is the revolutionary transformation of the totality of everyday life. At the same time, it may well be necessary to defend the incipient association from being overwhelmed by that widespread credulousness that seems prepared to believe almost anything, as long as it places capitalism or the state in an unfavourable light. As a convenient rule of thumb, the new international might reject anyone who believes that the attacks of 11th September, 2001 were orchestrated by the American state. Nothing but confusion can be expected from an individual whose standards of acceptable evidence and argument are this low.


If an accord can at length be reached as to the terms and form of a new international, its inauguration should be made contingent on the successful production of a first issue of a journal. A journal is, of course, not an end in itself. On the contrary, it is merely one of the means by which its writers and readers seek to develop firstly a practical understanding of the constituent elements of contemporary alienation and the forces of repression, mystification, seduction and pseudo-critique that it brings to bear against dissatisfaction and revolt, and secondly a practical communication with other radically disaffected individuals and groups. Yet, an association that cannot even produce a single issue of a journal is unlikely to achieve anything else of substance. It would be better if it never was born.


If serious discussions about the creation of a new situationist international are entered into, everything written above will be open to debate and alteration.

Wayne Spencer
March 2010
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Use as you please
Translations encouraged
Note: Bill Not Bored has published a critique of this text. My reply can be found here.