1968 and all that: Situationism then and now

Printer-friendly versionSend by emailMay 68 was the high point of situationism, a current that combined a critique of the ‘spectacle' of capitalist culture with a certain number of revolutionary political positions. Slogans/graffiti of the hour, such as ‘under the pavement, the beach' and ‘all power to the imagination', caught the atmosphere of the May events, the feeling of sudden liberation from the deadening routine and atomisation of capitalist society, and they clearly reflected the influence of situationist ideas, as did the widespread call for action committees outside the unions and the occupation of the factories and universities. The situationists were by no means the only revolutionary current involved in formulating and disseminating those proposals, and their actual impact has almost certainly been exaggerated by themselves and their descendents, but no one can deny that this was their hour of glory.

However, situationism has been in decline ever since, even if it still has still left many remnants and retrospective admirers. The Situationist International itself was dissolved in 1972. Today situationism as a current of thought is largely kept alive by individual ‘pro-situs' who seem to be characterised above all by their total incapacity to work with other apparently like-minded individuals.

The ‘1968 and all that event' in London on May 10 this year, organised by a mixed bag of leftists and anarchists, gave us at least two examples of the survival of situationist discourse.

Outside Conway Hall was a stall manned by a member of the Principia Dialectica group/website. He was giving out a leaflet denouncing the whole event, entitled ‘Let the Dead Bury their Dead':

"If you go inside you will see a corpse, and mummies embalming this corpse. We were kindly invited to this mass but we have refused to take part. However we are here - outside, as their bad conscience".

The situationists have always been good at denunciations. Who can forget their ‘Shake in your shoes bureaucrats - the international power of the workers' councils will soon wipe you out' telegram to the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party in 1968?

But Principia Dialectica's stance on 10 May was not based on any effort to draw a class line against those representatives of the counter-revolution who were certainly involved in organising this event. Their main criticism was that the participants were nostalgic for an idealised past, dreaming vainly of remaking Russia 1917 or Spain 1936. And while they see the SI as the most advanced group in the movement of May 68, they insist that that it is necessary to go beyond the SI "which had based its cause on the revolutionary Subject of history", in other words the working class:

"It is easy to be done with the corpses that May 68 has already ridiculed and who today act as guarantors of the ‘spirit of May' (from the good democrat Left to the ex-Maoists, and right up to the anarchists). It is more difficult to be done with the May 68 which lives still, although fossilised: the one that says never work ever. It is even more difficult, in fact, because this old critique still shines. But let's repeat it, it shines with the light of dead stars. Never work ever: to really be done with work, one must be rid of the idea of the proletariat as revolutionary subject of history. The class struggle is an integral part of the capitalist dynamic: it is not a matter of a struggle between the dominant class and the revolutionary class, but between different interests (although differently powerful) within capitalism".

‘Never work ever' was always the Situationists' most stupid slogan, the one that revealed most clearly the ingredient of petty bourgeois artistic elitism that helped to make up the situationist pie. Dialectica Principia have gone a step further, elevating this lumpen-aristocratic boast into the basis for a definite abandonment of the notion of the class struggle and the proletarian revolution.

A healthier expression of the attempt to find what remains relevant in situationism today could be found at the meeting on surrealism and situationism in the May 68 events. Introduced in an amiable if stream of consciousness style by one of the event organisers, the meeting gave rise to various interesting threads of discussion that could not be followed up for lack of time.

The presentation showed, among other things, that the situationists were strongly influenced by the surrealists of the 1920s and 30s. This seemed to be rather hard to accept for one member of the audience, who argued that Andre Breton, one of the leading surrealists, was an ‘authoritarian' and indeed a Stalinist. One of the ICC comrades present at the meeting attempted to set the record straight on this: Breton and the majority of the surrealists were quite consistent opponents of Stalinism, siding with Trotsky and the Left Opposition at a time when the latter was not the real corpse that Trotskyism is today; and at least one of the surrealists, Benjamin Peret developed political positions that went well beyond Trotskyism (towards the positions of the communist left, in fact).

Concerning the ‘legacy' of situationism, we pointed out that in 1968 the situationists, influenced by the politics of Castoriadis and the Socialisme ou Barbarie group, interpreted the explosion of May 1968 as definite proof that the revolution of our times will not, as ‘traditional' Marxists had always argued, be precipitated by an economic crisis, but by a revolt against the boredom and alienation of the capitalist spectacle. After 40 years of deepening economic crisis, such a view is no longer tenable, and it points to a fatal flaw in the situationists' theoretical arsenal.

This provoked a number of responses from people who argued that the situationist critique of the spectacle was more relevant than ever in the epoch of reality TV and the cult of the celebrity. The meeting ended at this point, so we can only reply to this here: it's certainly true that capitalist culture has more and more a become an arid spectacle to be passively consumed by the masses, and that it functions as a means of social control, diverting our discontents into false communities and irrational mythologies. However, just as Rome in its decline resorted to ‘bread and circuses' to keep the plebs and proles in their place, so the rottenness of capitalist culture today is an expression of something rotten at the very basis of society, of the fact that capitalist social relations have become a fundamental obstacle to the realisation of humanity's needs. Without this materialist analysis of the foundations of social life, cultural critiques are doomed to remain one-sided and can end up as little more than ephemeral intellectual fashions.   Amos 30/6/08

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