Spectacle in Space

originally posted on Notes from the Sinister Quarter

the spectacle in space…

Doing our bit for 50 years of cold war shenanigans and the alienation of technique and knowledge in the service of spectacular power. The text on the poster is adapted from Eduardo Rothe’s text The Conquest of Space in the Time of Power, first published in Internationale Situationniste no. 12, September 1969. The image is the justly famous photo Armstrong snapped of Aldrin at Tranquility base. A pdf of the poster is available here.

In Promethean mode, Rothe continues:

The “Conquest of the Cosmos” is the greatest spectacular expression of scientific oppression. […] The conquest of space is part of the planetary hope of an economic system which, saturated with commodities, spectacles and power, ejaculates into space when it arrives at the end of the noose of its terrestrial contradictions. Functioning as a new “America,” space must serve the states as a new territory for wars and colonies — a new territory to which to send producer-consumers and thus enable the system to break out of the planet’s limitations. […] But the revolutionary old mole, which is now gnawing at the foundations of the system, will destroy the barriers that separate science from the general knowledge that will be accessible to everyone when people finally begin making their own history. No more ideas of separate power, no more power of separate ideas. Generalized self-management of the permanent transformation of the world by the masses will make science a basic banality, and no longer a truth of state. […] Humanity will enter into space to make the universe the playground of the last revolt: the revolt that will go against the limitations imposed by nature. Once the walls have been smashed that now separate people from science, the conquest of space will no longer be an economic or military “promotional” gimmick, but the blossoming of human freedoms and fulfillments, attained by a race of gods. We will not enter into space as employees of an astronautic administration or as “volunteers” of a state project, but as masters without slaves reviewing their domains: the entire universe pillaged for the workers councils.

Does identity politics have racist roots?

Kenan Malik has written a critique of the racist roots of identity politics in The Guardian. He argues that rather than consider identity politics as the sole province of the “left”, it is better to understand it as a product of the “right”–and, in particular, of racist ideas generated in the 18th century primarily to justify the purported superiority of Europeans and their colonial expropriations:

It is […] in the concept of race–the insistence that humans are divided into a number of essential groups, and that one’s group identity determines one’s moral and social place in the world–that we find the original politics of identity, out of which ideas of white superiority emerged.

In contrast to the identity politics [sic] of 18th and 19th century racism, Malik notes that,

radicals challenged inequality and oppression in the name of universal rights. From anti-colonial struggles to the movements for women’s suffrage to the battles for gay rights, the great progressive movements that have shaped the modern world were a challenge to the politics of identity, to the claim that an individual’s race or gender or sexuality should define their rights, or their place in a social hierarchy.

Malik further argues that a paradoxical situation arose in the wake of the Second World War. On the one hand, racism fell out of favour in the West in response to the explicit racist, eugenicist and genocidal theory and practice of fascism and Nazism. On the other hand, with the rise of anti-colonial struggles, and campaigns against racism, sexism and homophobia in the two decades after the war,

black people, women, gay people and others transformed the political landscape by placing their own experiences of oppression at the heart of new social movements.

However,

what began as struggles against oppression and for social change transformed over time into demands for cultural recognition by myriad social groups. The social movements of the 1960s gave way to the identity politics of the 21st century.

In the broad lines of Malik’s argument, there is much to be admired. However–and even considering the understandable gaps that are a consequence of the strictures of his brief and schematic article–there are telling problems with his argument. Of least concern is perhaps his unfortunate representation of the ‘counter-Enlightenment’ as a source of singularly reactionary and racist ideas and practice. Even considering the more modern origins of this term, those that questioned the unalloyed progressive chops of Enlightenment thought were not always racist (consider the often confusing and misunderstood bequest of Friedrich Nietzsche).

More importantly, Malik seems unable to reckon with the emergent universalism of many of the struggles for freedom in the 19th century. We believe that these struggles are ‘emergent’ to the extent that they posed the possibility and desirability of a truly universal, global society. However, this proposition was posed in response to the ambiguity of the development of capitalist societies and social relations. On the one hand, capitalism tended to extend itself across the globe, destroying existing societies, and in the process haphazardly bringing a global society into being. On the other hand, capitalism continued to rely upon, and more maliciously foster the particularisms and bigotry of racism and nationality, as capitalists chased profit around the world. Those internationalists that opposed capitalism–in particular the emergent international worker’s movement of the 19th century–argued that the implicit global society emerging in spite of its capitalist shackles must be made explicit. Struggles such as these that embraced a critical internationalism can be considered as having offering an alternative form of universalisation than that offered by the capitalist market, the dominance of work and money, and the often-brutal expansion of capitalism–both “domestically” and colonialist.

However, it is Malik’s exceedingly brief historical gloss of “left-wing” identity politics that is most problematic. He is right to locate the rise of “identity politics” proper, to the period after 1968. However, he does not reckon with the fact that left wing identity politics can be found to already pre-exist this–even, and especially, in the heart of those struggles against ‘inequality and oppression in the name of universal rights’.

We believe there are two vectors for leftist, identity politics in the 18th and 19th centuries. On the one hand, at the heart of the project of bourgeois liberalism is the figure of the unitary nation and people. Without doubt, this “identity politics” fuelled not only what became obviously the “reactionary” nationalism of European nations in the later 19th and 20th centuries, but also those ‘national liberation struggles’ of the 20th century that adopted bourgeois nationalism as its model. The idea of distinct and unitary ‘cultures’ and ‘peoples’ is a modern confabulation which certainly has more ancient antecedents, but only bloomed in its nationalist form with the advent of capitalist nation states in the 17th and 18th centuries.

No doubt there is an ambivalence in the bourgeois nationalist project–at least at its most radical. For instance, in the Great French Revolution of 1789-99, the universal ‘rights of man’ sat uncomfortably alongside of the more particularistic ‘rights of the citizen’. The former, rather than the latter, inspired the more radical worker’s movement of the 19th century. But as Marx, among others, would argue, the vision of ‘man’ (sic) offered by the French revolutionaries was irrevocably sunk in particularistic worldview of the bourgeoisie. Indeed, this tension between the universalist and particularistic claims of the bourgeois revolutionaries was taken over by later working-class revolutionaries, rather than abolished and transformed. In particular, the unitary and universalising moment of the bourgeois ‘man’ was mirrored in the representation of the worker (albeit, ‘inverted’).

Which brings us to the second vector of contemporary identity politics, and by far the more confusing and misunderstood one, found at the heart of what many consider the most progressive and radical movement of the 19th and 20th centuries–namely the working-class movements. The identity politics that pervades much of the “intersectional” politics of the current world has its roots in the labour politics of social democracy, orthodox Marxism and workerist anarchism of the 19th and 20th century. Among these movements we can find the cult of labour and the worker. In contrast to Marx’s critique of labour–in which he posed that the reduction of all human activity to labour and wage-labour was in effect the negation of human potential–the labour movements that arose in the latter part of his life, and came to dominate most of the reformist and revolutionary movements of the 20th century, held to the belief that labour was the essence of the human, and as such was the pivot of human liberation. At its most grotesque we can see this in the social realist deification of the “worker” in Stalinist and Maoist propaganda, and the insane religion of the Stakhanovite in the old Soviet Union. But even its more apparently anodyne variants–like labourite and social democratic demands for the “right to work”–draw upon the same, identitarian font: that the human “essence” is work.

Amidst the movements of 1968 and after, the thinking that would later be associated with left-wing identity politics intuitively criticised the reductive, identitarian thought of Marxist and anarchist orthodoxy. Against the figure of the worker other subjects of liberation were posed: women, blacks, gays, lesbians, transsexuals, etc. However, in broadening the scope of the potential revolutionary subject many of these thinkers ended up merely replicating the reductive identitarian thought of Marxist orthodoxy. Now, instead of one identity, multiple identities were posed, all with the weakness that flows from the tendency to pose an absolute difference in identity. More pointedly, in criticising Marxism they often misunderstood or ignored the negative dimensions of Marx’s ‘proletarian’. For Marx, the proletarian identity is not merely historically contingent, it is generally enforced by capitalist relations. The point, then, of a proletarian revolution was not the elevation or deification of working-class identity, but rather its abolition.

The present bulwark of the destructive reduction to identity, is capitalism’s ongoing drive to reduce all human activity to the measure of labour-power for sale. No doubt there are other reductive moves on the part of capitalist hierarchy. Today, they are inextricably caught up in the central reduction: the measurement of what it means to be human by work-time and money.

In all forms of reduction to identity–at least when it comes to conflating social individuals to largely ephemeral, historical notions of group identity–there is little to be gained from distinguishing left wing and right-wing variants. This is something Malik seems to be oblivious to, for instance when he distinguishes between good identity politics (left wing) and bad identity politics (right wing). Rather, we should distinguish between the types of identity and universality that we fight for–and against.

By posing the possible and desirable emergence of a truly human community–one that is not based upon the reduction of the social individual to identity but rather the flowering of human powers and creativity–we do not necessarily reject identity. The problem with identity is not identity as such, but rather the absolutism of both left- and right-wing variants. Life is neither sheer contingency nor absolute being. Short of the sheer materiality of being and becoming, and the struggle with and against entropy and time’s arrow, we now know that stable identities tend to change over time.

Science has revealed the common animality of the human species, and this in itself is one of the most startling rebukes to the irrationality and falsehood of racism and its attendant ideologies. Nonetheless, the brute fact of our shared species heritage is still not enough to pose the possibility or even desirability of a truly universal community. In order to fashion a society beyond the narrow particularisms of nation and capitalism, we must do away with nationalist and capitalist identities–alongside with other, equally contingent identities such as those pertaining to sexuality and gender. Identity is a conquest, not a given–and perhaps most important of all, it is ephemeral–like every species that has ever been or ever will be.

–APH

This image is appended to Richard Gunn’s article “Notes on ‘Class'”. In the article Gunn contrasts the Marxist view of class with the academic sociological one–the former having a ‘relational’ viewpoint in which class is a result of a social individual’s position in the production relations of capitalism, whereas the latter has the viewpoint of a fixed, categorical conception of class. Gunn is arguing against the identitarian notion of class and in favour of a relational, and so too an historical and ephemeral one. We have a lot of time for Gunn’s article. However, we would correct his picture by saying that the so-called ‘Marxist’ view is in fact Marx’s viewpoint (and those inspired by such, like prole no prole), whereas much of what is described as ‘Marxist’ over the last two centuries advocated what Gunn calls the sociological view. When Gunn’s article was published–in 1987–many heterodox Marxists were still engaged in an operation of recovering the ‘true’ or at least more critical version of a Marxian viewpoint from under the dead weight of really existing socialism. Today, we can clearly enunciate the perspective that sees all Marxisms–even the more interesting, ‘heterodox’ versions like Gunn’s–as necessarily ideological in Marx’s sense of the term. As the situationists said more than 50 years ago: we are Marxists to the same extent that Marx was when he declared he was no Marxist.

The yellow days of May

Since the following was written, protesters–including ‘yellow vests’–at the traditional May Day march in Paris have been confronted with a violent police crackdown. It is hard to read the course of the yellow vest phenomenon in France. Are we witnessing its slow decline? Or is its persistence a sign of a new proletarian movement? What is beyond doubt is that the conditions that brought the yellow vest movement into being have neither been ameliorated nor solved. Indeed, Macron–despite the spectacle of debating and listening to the yellow vests–has not only refused to roll back his pro-capitalist ‘reforms’ but has prepared the French state for further disruption by way of beefing up anti-protest legislation and policing. It is clear is that the capitalist crisis is not going away. The capitalist class know that their rule is precarious. Today there is less carrot and more stick, while the rich bunker down behind their wealth and their cops to watch the world slowly burn. We too must come to an understanding of what is at stake, and not retreat from the consequences of this clarity. The question then remains the same as the one faced in the 1840s: the proletariat is revolutionary or it is nothing.

–prole no prole


Sunday April 13–one week after their weakest mobilisation–‘Act 22’ of the ‘yellow vests’ (gilets jaunes) protests took place in Paris and regional France. Act 22 was the first since the ‘anti-rioters bill’ (‘loi anti-casseur’) came into effect. Despite being bigger than Act 21 on 6 April, it was far from the beginning of the hoped for ‘yellow tsunami’ wanted by so many of its participants as well as those supporting from the sidelines. A week later tension returned with ‘Act 23’: widespread footage of burning barricades, looted shops and more bloody confrontation between demonstrators and the forces of (dis)order. Undoubtedly fuelled further by the hypocrisy of the French elite’s response to the burning of Notre Dame. ‘Everything for Notre Dame’, cried a group of protesters, ‘but nothing for Les Misérables’.

Despite this heightened conflict, the yellow vests have nonetheless been losing momentum. This tendency is partly being driven by the repression from Macron and his supporters: the ongoing and intensifying police violence towards those demonstrating–pacifists and ‘casseurs’ (rioters) alike, and the persistent demonization of the protesters by the capitalist media and its allies. This has been topped off with another draconian measure: the anti-rioters bill mentioned above, which rules that that all masked demonstrators (as well as those carrying bags) shall be considered criminals. Additionally, the new law effectively bans anyone from assembling in any of the monumental public areas–and above all in those places important to capitalist valorisation, such as the battle ground on the Champs-Élysées which so many have witnessed over the last 23 weeks.

On the other hand, this loss of momentum is also linked to a perspective unfolding within the movement itself. Common to this perspective has been a vague opposition to ‘neoliberalism’, to ‘financialization’ and to the reduction of ‘purchasing power’. Regrettably, such an approach leads to the belief that the problem lies solely in the hands of a small, greedy elite. One sees here the re-emergence of the 1% vs 99% rhetoric so prevalent in the last decade of social movements–a rhetoric that falsely pits ‘bad’, ‘useless’, finance against ‘good’, ‘useful’, production. This simplistic view, apart from its dubious moral absolutism, is incapable of reckoning with the real entailment of finance and production in capitalism over the last century and more. Worse still, it reproduces elements of the fascist worldview, in which finance capital is bad to the extent that it is associated with a spurious Jewish cabal. It is hardly surprising then that a small minority of Nazis and Alt-right cave dwellers have tried–and largely failed–to hijack the movement. What is clear, however, is that the state’s recipe remains the same as it has been for the last 40 years: the fallout from capitalist crisis is dumped onto the majority of working people, who are then obliged to carry the burden of the crisis under the guise of ‘austerity’.

The point is, that in order to draw out a serious critical practice and avoid being derailed into the dead end of racism and fascism, we must target capitalism in its entirety. As long as such vague oppositions exist, all the fragmentary remedies which have thus far been proposed serve only as an impotent outcry against the symptoms of current capitalist barbarism. This theoretical disarray, coupled with the heightened repression from the state, limits the potential development of a more subversive movement. As long as the yellow vests confine themselves to embracing capitalism with a more ‘human face’, and/or concede to the increasing populism of the right and left, they will condemn themselves to being a part of the capitalist circus rather than its remedy.

Nonetheless, there exists a revolutionary proletarian tendency within the movement. The ‘East Parisian Yellow Vests’, associated with the GARPA group, are one instance of such. GARPA (Groupe d’Action pour la Recomposition de l’Autonomie Prolétarienne; Eng.: ‘Action Group for the Recomposition of Proletarian Autonomy’) have for their goal the redirection of the yellow vest movement towards the critique of capitalist production, the increasing precariousness of work, and the growing pool of proletarian labour which is no-longer necessary to the valorisation process–a critique, moreover, that avoids the pitfalls of nationalism, neo-liberal reformism and fictitious conspiracy (as opposed to the real conspiracies of the ruling class). Additionally, GARPA also recognises the heterogeneous nature of the protest up until now–manual and intellectual workers, government and office workers, small business owners, etc. This is just one of the reasons why the unions and workers’ parties haven’t been successful in co-opting the movement–yet. Such diversity is for GARPA an important step in restabilising a critique which targets the entirely of capitalist production (regardless of whether or not a revolutionary subjectivity is being constituted), and at the same time avoids the deadend of Marxist orthodoxy and anarchism that ignores the negative content of proletarian identity.

What follows is an English translation by prole no prole of an East Parisian Yellow Vests leaflet.

More information on GARPA–in French–can be found here.

PD
April, 2019


AN APPEAL FROM THE EAST PARISIEN ‘YELLOW VESTS’

Our yellow vests are no longer the uniform of road safety. They have become the rallying signal of the global contestation of the established order. If they reflect the light, it’s not to alert the authorities of some emergency or social distress. We do not wear them in order to demand something from the powers that be. The yellow of our vests is not what the labour movement traditionally connects to treachery. The colour of this vest is that of the lava of rage, which the long dormant volcano of social revolution begins to spit out. It is only yellow because it embraces the red.

Under the name ‘yellow vests’ a titan is beginning to awaken, though still groggy from the coma into which it fell for more than forty years. This colossus no longer knows what to call itself, no longer remembers its glorious history, and does not recognise the world into which it wakes . Yet as it wakes, it discovers the magnitude of its own power. Words are whispered to it by false friends, jailers of its dreams. It repeats these words: ‘French’, ‘the people’, ‘citizen’! But in pronouncing them, confusion prevails as vague images emerge from the depths of memory. These words have been worn out in the streets of poverty, on barricades and battlefields, during strikes and from the heart of prisons. Such words come from the language of a formidable adversary, from the enemy of humanity, which for the last two centuries has masterfully wielded fear, force and propaganda. This deadly parasite, this social vampire–is capitalism!

We are not a ‘community with a shared destiny’, proud of its ‘identity’, full of national myths, which does not know how to resist social history. We are not French.

We are not a mass made up of ‘ordinary people’ ready to ally ourselves with our masters, if only we were ‘well governed’. We are not the people.

We are not an aggregate of individuals who owe their existence to the State–whether by virtue of being acknowledged by it or defending it. We are not citizens.

We are those who are forced to sell our labour power to survive, those from whom the bourgeoisie extract their profits by dominating and exploiting us. We are those which Capital, by way of its survival strategy, tramples, sacrifices and condemns. We are the collective force that is going to abolish all social classes. We are the proletariat.

Conscious of our historical interests, we warn that:
• The yellow vest movement will be destroyed if it persists in believing that the interests of workers can be reconciled with those of the bosses. This illusion is already causing harm because Macron is using it to redirect the protest movement against the exploited. The poor capitalists– small business people, artisans and other self-employed people, opportunely depicted as struggling capitalists–are also victims of social ‘costs’, and share the same fate as their employees. Therefore, it will be necessary on the whole to spare them and be content with begging for money from the biggest amongst them. Such an approach allows the powers that be to insult us all, while pretending to respond to our demands. For instance, the supposed increase in the minimum wage (Salaire Minimum Interpersonnel de Croissance, SMIC) will only be paid for by wage-earners. And the cancellation of the rise in the social security tax (Contribution Sociale Généralisée CSG) hides the ongoing reduction of the pensions of the poorest retirees.

• From this flawed approach, a fraction of yellow vests claim that a state that spends less would cut back on the tax burden which is crushing businesses, and that economic activity would thus be revived and everyone would be onside. This approach is a bad fairy-tale. It’s not the state which suffocates small capitalists, but rather the law of competition, which not only allows them to exist, but also allows them to grow and take their share of the market. The social problem is thus so poorly posed by the movement–to the extent to which the ‘badly governed state’ is targeted instead of the capitalist system–that the government program of dismantling the ‘social state’ in the name of the ‘optimisation of public action’ is in fact strengthened. Ironically, the predatory social politics of abolishing the redistribution of wealth to the poor, which up until now has being carried out by means of social security and public services, is reinforced. Likewise, the measures to reduce overall wages through the compromises of deferred wages (e.g. retirement funds, unemployed benefits…) are now also justified. We give them the stick with which they beat us.

• According to this perspective–which gives pride of place to economic equilibrium as long as it’s well managed–what is ‘bad’ in the economy comes in from the outside: e.g. from the fiscal state, the European union, ‘finance’, ‘cosmopolitans’ (behind which are sometimes said to be ‘Jews’ and the ‘illuminati’) and immigrants. The inability to understand or the refusal to admit the blatant truth that it is capitalism (a system of the production of wealth based on the exploitation of human labour) that is in crisis, opens the door wide to reactionary idea which safeguard the established order. Ten years of far-right activism on the internet weighs heavily on this suicidal state of confusion in which a number of yellow vests believe to have found a solution to their misery.

• Amongst these ‘solutions’ the Citizens Initiative Referendum (Référendum d’Initiative Citoyenne), long promoted by the ‘fasho-sphere’, and which the Mélenchon conformists eventually rallied to, is a farce which will allow the social question to be suffocated by institutional garbage. This alteration of democracy will solve nothing, even if it was to be adopted. It would only draw out the electoral elastic while maintaining the relationship between social classes–their conditions as well as their stakes–with the addition of the strengthening of legal reformism, the poor parent of the already illusory economic reformism. This would amount to condoning everyday servitude a little more directly.

Conscious of our tasks, we recognise that:
• The yellow vest movement stops at the doors of business–which is to say, where the totalitarian reign of the boss begins. This phenomenon is the result of different factors. Let’s restrict ourselves to three:
1) the atomisation of production, which sees a great number of employees working in (very) small businesses in which the close proximity of their employers makes the possibility of a strike very difficult.
2) The precariousness of work for many employees seriously worsens their capacity for conflict with their company.
3) Exclusions and unemployment place a great number of proletarians outside of production.
A large part of the yellow vests are directly concerned with at least one of these three facts.

• The other group of wage workers, those who work in large companies and who have greater employment security, seem to be isolated as if under glass, and upon which the powerful force of the movement breaks like a wave upon rocks. Special treatment, made up of managerial efficiency and shameful union collaboration, is reserved for this segment of the working population. The bourgeoisie well understands that this category of workers has the power to strike at the heart of capitalist production, by way of unlimited general strikes. This is why the bourgeoisie secures its pacification through the use of sweeteners like ‘end of year bonuses’.

Conscious of our goals, we maintain:

• The calls of the yellow vests of Alès, Commercy and Saint Nazaire (who refuse all hierarchical organisation, all representation, and target capitalists) signifies for us the path to follow.

• The desire to smash ideological, managerial and union barriers which keep the yellow vest movement outside of production. We must use the extraordinary force and determination that this movement is developing in order to achieve that which millions of the exploited have wanted for so long (without ever having been able to reach it): to paralyse production from within, to decide upon and coordinate strikes in general assemblies, and to unite all the categories of waged workers with the same aim of overthrowing the capitalist system and the reappropriation of the productive apparatus. Let’s put an end to hierarchical, capitalist and state oppression.

• Today, if you want to discuss these strikes, their triggers, extension and coordination, then contact us, and join us!

gilets-jaunes-revolutionnaires@protonmail.com

Epitaph for a monument to the war dead

Apparently, Benjamin Péret’s poem, ‘Epitaphe pour un Monument aux Mort de la Guerre’ caused a scandal in the late 1920s on its submission to an Académie française competition. The competition sought a poem for a national war memorial. Péret, World War One veteran, and by this time ex-Dada and staunch revolutionary Surrealist, submitted what he believed to be the only appropriate memorial to the farce and horror of war. A fitting tribute to the absurdity of Anzac Day. Below is a new translation of the poem. It originally appeared in La révolution surréaliste, N°12, 15 décembre 1929.

Epitaph for a monument to the war dead

The general told us

finger up the arsehole

The enemy

is over there, Go!

It was for our motherland

That we left

finger up the arsehole

The motherland that we met

finger up the arsehole

This brothel madam told us

finger up the arsehole

Die or

save me

finger up the arsehole

Yesterday we met the Kaiser

finger up the arsehole

Hindenburg Reischoffen Bismarck

finger up the arsehole

the Grand Duke X Abdul-Amid Sarajevo

finger up the arsehole

Hands cut off

finger up the arsehole

They broke our shins

finger up the arsehole

devoured our stomachs

finger up the arsehole

pierced our balls with matches

finger up the arsehole

and then very slowly

we were exhausted

finger up the arsehole

Pray for us

finger up the arsehole