During the late 1950s and 60s the Situationist International (SI) developed arguably the most profound and far reaching critique of modern society for many decades. Although it now seems the height of hipness for arty intellectuals to make passing reference to situationism, few genuinely appreciate the distinctly revolutionary overtones of the SI’s ideas. Often criticised for specialised language and abstract concepts (with some justification), these ideas nevertheless hold tremendous relevance today, perhaps more so than ever.
Situationism has influenced, and been influenced by, anarcho-syndicalism. Larry Law, in one of the excellent Spectacular Times pamphlets, noted: “The remedies offered by the SI were taken from the history of autonomous workers’ uprisings and, despite their protestations to the contrary, looted from the theories and experience of anarcho-syndicalists”.
Resisting any attempt to pigeonhole their ideas, the SI emphasised real life activity, continually experiencing and reinventing itself in preference to static, rigid ideologies like Trotskyism. Thus situationism is open to some degree of interpretation. The central idea underpinning it, however, is that workers are systematically exploited by capitalism, both in work and ‘free’ time. To liberate themselves from this, solidarity, organisation and ultimately taking control of the means of production is necessary, and free democratic workers’ councils would form the basis of a new society.
The perceived limitation of this (a criticism often levelled unfairly at anarcho-syndicalism) is that free collectivism, in organising workers as workers, merely ensures continuation of ‘work’ as defined by capitalism. Therefore workers’ self-management must be seen only as a step in the longer term transition to a free society. Collectivising Tesco, McDonalds and Alton Towers is not what we’re about. Revolution must be seen as a continual, dynamic process of reconstructing economic, social and interpersonal relationships.
In modern western societies, as the situationists noted, many no longer live in absolute poverty or spend 12 hours a day immersed in the grime of fields, factories and mines (largely due to the workers‘ movement in the last 150 years). But instead of being beaten down by overt and savage state repression, we are subjugated by the poverty of everyday life.
Capitalism, they argued, subjects us to a distorted view of reality through a carefully concocted montage of ‘spectacles’ promoting mass consumption, social alienation and passivity. The spectacular images are a poor substitute for reality, serving our rulers’ needs by reducing us to spectators and constantly reinforcing the values, structures and power relationships which capitalism holds so dear.
The capitalist spectacle, with its huge advertising machine, feeds us empty promises and an endless supply of consumer goods as the key to satisfying our desires. That most of these goods lack the life changing characteristics bestowed upon them by the flash imagery and celebrity-driven hype matters little. As Raoul Vaneigem argued, “the consumer cannot and must not attain satisfaction”.
For example, it is common for magazine images of women to be manipulated so waist sizes are smaller and breasts larger in line with the projected ‘ideal‘. This ideal is further reinforced by fashion, TV and advertising. The resulting dissatisfaction prompts spending on a range of products and services, from ‘because I’m worth it’ cosmetics to major reconstructive surgery, in the pursuit of elusive perfection. This manufactured discontent sells literally millions of consumables. That the social cost is £1.3 trillion worth of UK consumer debt and prevalent feelings of inadequacy (reflected in eating disorders etc.) is irrelevant to capitalism. Profit for a few and the needs of the market are the overwhelming priorities.
Exploited both as producers and consumers, we buy back in our leisure time what we produce in work time. Far from being free, our leisure is increasingly mediated by an endless stream of commodities - Coca-Cola, Big Macs, Miramax movies, PCs, TVs, DVDs, CDs, MP3s or all manner of branded toys, gizmos and clothing. Leisure activities with their rules, user manuals and all-too-predictable outcomes, undermine our natural creativity and imagination. But the spectacle is not just confined to promoting wage-slavery and consumerism. All areas of our life are contaminated by it.
Political elections, for example, feed us the illusion of choice and control over who rules us. In reality, the differences between the main parties are negligible. They all promote capitalism, economic growth and market economics. That these cause appalling social injustice, war and the hastening destruction of the natural world is immaterial. We can vote for whoever every five years, but the inference is that government is intrinsically good, not that it sanctions repressive social and economic relationships on behalf of a small elite. We cannot vote for no government. Recently TV channels have been exposed for repeatedly rigging phone-in results. Political elections are no different; for all the appearance of ‘choice’, the outcome is a forgone conclusion.
Real democracy involves freedom from coercion and exploitation and the ability to exercise choice and control over all decisions which affect our everyday lives.
Another situationist concept, explaining how capitalism’s spectacle maintains itself, is ‘recuperation’. This is its ability to absorb a real threat, make it safe and sell its shadow back to us. Examples are all around us. The iconic image of Che Guevara sells everything from clothing to cigarette lighters. One current advert for a well-known corporate pizza chain features a red Bolshevik-style background emblazoned with the heading “Join the Revolution”. Pop culture is also laced with spurious opposition. For all their token rebellion, song titles such as “I predict a riot” offer nothing but a pretentious, tokenistic knee-jerk. The punk movement, for all its mutinous swagger, was pounced upon and engorged by market forces the minute it posed any threat. Both punk and hippy fashions have been aggressively marketed with their rebellious imagery gracing both the catwalk and high street boutiques.
Radical social movements as well are all too easily hijacked by capitalism. Flick through The Ecologist magazine where articles on environmental protest sit safely among a plethora of ads for alternative therapies, eco-friendly foods, investment opportunities and dietary supplements. Reject the mainstream, but whatever you do, keep on consuming. Single issue campaigns like environmentalism, by projecting the issue as an isolated one, divert the well-intentioned down a fruitless blind alley by failing to expose the real sources of the problem: government and capital.
The present trade unions are also part of the spectacle. Hierarchical, bureaucratic structures managed by professional leaders, they give the appearance of representing their members. Dividing workers by trade and workplace, they assist the bosses in negotiating the terms of our exploitation, rather than advocating and fighting for workers’ control. As defensive organisations they often accept attacks on working conditions and living standards with barely a whimper. Proven (syndicalist) methods of organisation and effective industrial direct action are definite no-nos. Like single-issue campaigns, they nullify the threat of militancy by appealing to those in power, rather than actively challenging them. The bosses’ fundamental ‘right’ to exploit us is never in question.
Vaneigem’s classic quote that “people who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have a corpse in their mouths”, is a poignant reminder of the limitations and stagnant authoritarian dogmas of the political left. Notably, most socialist (state-capitalist) regimes uphold highly autocratic and sexually repressive moral codes, reflecting deeply flawed ideologies.
In the last century (Kronstadt 1921, Spain 1936, Hungary 1956), the vanguardist left were instrumental in brutally suppressing workers’ attempts to take control themselves. Since then, striking miners, G8 and poll tax protestors and others taking direct action have also been roundly condemned by Trotskyite groups for lacking the ‘correct’ analysis. This reveals a true contempt for the masses and ultimately a fear of any move which may undermine their true intent to continue the spectacle of a few commanding the many.
Put simply, anything less than a complete attack on all oppressive social hierarchies and economic conditions which enslave us is not enough.
The situationists explained how authentic human desires always conflict with capitalism. In moments of true community, as in times of struggle, lie the possibility of a future joyful and liberated existence.
The pinnacle of the SI’s influence was in the Revolt of May 1968, when 10 million French workers went on general strike, bringing France to the brink of revolution. Today the significance of situationism remains immense. The observations on the cultural influence of consumer-capitalism and analysis of the spectacular mechanisms of modern social control retain enduring relevance.
Situationism, for all its ‘we have a world to win and nothing to lose but boredom’ sloganeering, was less descriptive however, in providing a practical strategy to realise its goals. This criticism can also be levelled at some anarchists and libertarian Marxists. As Larry Law noted, “freedom could seem a bit empty if there is nothing to eat and the sewage is running in the streets”.
Anarcho-syndicalism does rather better at articulating such a strategy. By promoting rank and file workplace solidarity, and through the process of struggle, it enables us to realise our strength to commandeer the means of life where it matters most, at the point of production. On the other hand, situationism forever warns us against the dangers of recuperation and complacency. True social liberation must supplant all relationships based on hierarchy and power, not just those in the workplace. For this reason, revolutionary change must be seen as a permanent and never-ending process.