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René Riesel: From Situationism to the Farmers' Confederation, a Radical Thinker

Submission is Advancing at a Frightful Speed

Alain Léauthier

Libération (3-4 February 2001)

Translated by Tom McDonough

Still fighting

FORMER MEMBER of the Situationist International, 51-year-old René Riesel breeds sheep on the Méjean plateau in Lozère. At the age of 17 he belonged the Nanterre “Enragés,” then to the Occupation Committee at the Odéon in May ’68. The “situs” would recognize him as one of their own, the youngest and also the most promising of them according to Guy Debord, before expelling him like almost all the others.

The very image of the urban rebel, Riesel became one of the gray eminences of the Farmers’ Confederation. Then, at variance with them, he left it in 1999. He did not, however, give up fighting.

In 1988 in his Comments on The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord wrote: “There is no longer an opposition.” For many this meant the rejection of the idea of radical revolution. Do you however share this belief?

I’ll leave the endless interpretations of Debord to his fashionable and academic partisans. A lot of people, especially in the media or the government, thought they found a mentor in him and, late in life, he probably lent himself to that. I know how much I owe to Debord but, rather than rereading him for the hundredth time, I would rather just study the world as it is today. However, to return to this idea of the absence of a radical opposition to the market, we would also have to talk about where the theory formulated by the situationists had become insufficient. Asserting that there was no longer an opposition, without stating that in any case such opposition — or even the mere thought of its possibility — could no longer be reorganized on the basis of that theory, that bordered on fraud, it was a kind of about-face, a personal card trick, and Debord was not the worst at those; so that nothing remained for him afterwards but to write his Panegyric, the aestheticization of his life, his life conceived as an artwork. Debord locked himself up in an obsessional and fruitless conspiracy theory for at least half of the Comments and, obviously, that way of boiling everything down to deception fascinated the professional liars. People in the media and the power structure recognized themselves in that portrait and saw there the limits of their horizon. But history has continued elsewhere, and it would be more pressing and fruitful to analyze the material conditions which have made opposition so difficult, to try to explain why we have witnessed the spread of a truly terrifying taste for obedience.

Shortly after your expulsion from the Situationist International, you left for the countryside and, in 1995, you reappeared as national secretary of the Farmers’ Confederation, José Bové’s group. In your eyes, how did this group embody the promise of a new radicality?

I left for the Eastern Pyrénées and became a breeder, a way of life that suited me and allowed me to reconstruct a “rear base,” not in military terms, but in terms of relearning practices that in many respects make up the genuine riches of humanity. In the present state of our societies’ decay, we need to re-endow a certain number of lost savoir-faires. We all have heard the classic joke about the kid who asks if fish are square because he never saw them other than as frozen blocks, we all knew 40-year-olds who could not tell the front end of a cow from the back: this state of tragic ignorance is becoming universal. But in the presence of the kind of panic that seizes people facing the abyss, we try to reassure them with the return to rural pseudo-traditions as a potential refuge of quality for agricultural products, while in reality we are only setting free the inventiveness of advertising in order to dress up the same old industrial shit. I have seen things go to the dogs at a lively pace. There are no more farmers in France, only agricultural workers who are more or less integrated — whether they admit it or not — into a segment of agro-industrial production. And, contrary to what the Farmers’ Confederation unceasingly exclaims, the industrialization of agriculture does not necessarily translate into the consolidation of farming.

Why go into the Confederation if its project seems so wrong to you?

The industrialization of the rearing of sheep was the dominant trend and, as a breeder, I practiced exactly the opposite. (It would have taken an unholy alliance to disengage me.) In 1991 the people who founded the Confederation came looking for me and, with them, I was tempted to broaden the fight a bit. The Confederation gathers together socialists, hippies, repentant lefties, Greens — a rather paradoxical circle of ideas that works through consensus so as to present a unified front, with all sorts of tendencies which cohabit without ever going to the bitter end of discussions … I thought I could introduce questions that were pivotal to me. A number of those people were or are genuinely working in good faith. There were things to do on the ground; afterwards I renounced nothing, I have always said what I thought of the organization’s workings, of their widely held illusions, so fine, I did what I could do (against GMOs, particularly), and I left them in March 1999, when nothing more was possible.

Could you explain how the evolution of farming and questions tied to genetic engineering in your eyes frame essential discussions which hold the potential to reestablish a critical theory?

As a breeder I have seen up close the blitzkrieg of which the rural and agricultural world in the developed countries was victim. The farmers’ way of life, or at least what remained of it, was shattered. Of course traditional farmers weren’t the bearers of wonderful values, to be preserved at any price; they simply were keeping alive a memory that allowed us to follow paths other than those prescribed by industrial development. In that world you found approaches towards life, and particularly social life, very antinomical to the dominant rationalism — a way of life, in any case, less divided than that to which industrialization has led by reducing humanity to work and by then colonizing free time. I have seen the old rural society liquify itself, rot on its feet, I have seen behaviors harden. We can’t content ourselves with the simplifications of the antiglobalists — with exchanging the 200 families and the capitalists with their top hats and fat cigars for the wicked transnationals - in order to have a clearly identifiable enemy, at a time when domination is working thanks essentially to submission: submission to industrialization, to the power of a technological system.

. . . Which too few people, in your opinion, critique in its essentials.

Mine is not some kind of heideggerian critique and it does not aim at technology as such. But we have to understand what’s at stake in the industrialization of agriculture, which is reaching a final stage with genetic monsters: it is neither more nor less than an attempt at definitively supplanting nature (exterior or interior to humanity), at getting rid of this last resistance to the domination of technological rationalism.

A “reason” that insists on ignoring — and in this case practically abolishing — whatever it is not: this, I think, is the minimum definition of madness. If we understand this stake, then we have to completely put back in question the very bases of the present agricultural system.

What do we see instead? A pseudo-contestation that appeals to the interventionist State to control and moralize the markets, to guarantee farmers’ lives, at a time when the frank project of these States is to get rid of them, like in Great Britain where farmers total at most 1 to 2% of the population. Today there is a scheme, seemingly progressive, to merge farmers into an apparatus in which they become agents of the State — a totally bureaucratic model whose historical sources are obvious.

As a result, we better understand the links between various movements like Attac and the Confederation. They are all attempting to reinstate the camp of the historical losers, in other words the advocates of the State, who in their own eyes have been defeated — the sovereignty of States is crumbling, etc. — but do not despair of reestablishing one that will be, this time, “genuinely of the people.”

You participated, with Indian farmers, in the sabotage of transgenic rice at a Cirad [Center for International Cooperation in Agronomic Research for Development] lab. Should this this “direct action,” to use your own terminology, be seen as a sign of renewal of the radical critique of the world?

The important word is “direct” rather than “action.” Young rebels today often style themselves “activists,” as in old leftist politics, except that from now on this is played out first before the media’s cameras, which are very fond of that supposed “new radicalism.” Radicalism means, literally, “grasping things by their roots,” not rejuvenating a peremptory anticapitalism adorned with clichés from Bourdieu. What does the “left of the left” — this miscellany of citizens’ groups, supporters of the Tobin tax, antiglobalists, and third-worldist holdouts, all more or less managed by former trotskyist cadres — want? The State, more of the State. The most conscious of the young “activists” will admit that there’s some theoretical work to do and that you can’t make use in kit form of the old stuff available on the market, nor even hop the train of what might appear the most accomplished expression of the old critical movement at the end of the ‘60s: situationist theory. Grasping things by their roots means critiquing the technoscientific bases of modern society, understanding the deep ideological kinship between political or social progressivism (in other words the “mentality of the left” as Theodore Kaczynski defines it [Industrial Society and Its Future]) and scientific progressivism. Since the “industrial revolution” in England, industrialization has been an absolutely fundamental rupture with the essence of the progress of humanization. Today we can certify that without the culture of farming, culture as a whole is condemned. And the historical object of industrialization, its profound truth which the 20th century has made manifest, is destruction: Auschwitz and Hiroshima are the two fonts on which the present era was baptized.

You are rethinking your critical approach starting from your link with nature. But what about the city, rioting, the various questionings again of sacrosanct “respect?” How do you analyze urban violence today?

Back then, the rather widely-held ideological conceit was to “want everything and want it now,” by choosing to ignore, among other things, what everyone knew, i.e. that life and humanization a struggle, or in any case a process where nothing is gained without effort. Today the absence of effort, the instantaneity allowed by machines, by information technologies, is precisely what our societies worship. As for the urban “savages” that this society produces, because it cannot do otherwise but also, to a certain degree, because they are useful to it as a foil, they copy the commodity system after their fashion, they paraphrase, through their nihilism, its lack of perspectives, like the kids brought up at the computer and on the Internet: besides, they’re sometimes the one and the same. We are in complete psychological destructuration, the complete subjugation to the machine.

Despite this gloomy picture, for the past few years you have resumed speaking, you are writing, in short you publicly express anew the idea of revolution.

On February 8th I go on trial in Montpellier for the action against Cirad. This will be the occasion to demonstrate the existence of a critical, anti-industrial current. But thoughtfully: spectacular activism does not interest me, above all when it disguises the deficiency of analysis. My critique of technoscience is actively radical: public research, private research, what does it matter when these guys, literally, have no idea what they’re doing, fooling around — without having, by their own admission, the slightest theoretical understanding — with genetic monsters whose effects are unpredictable. The sabotage against Cirad was a frontal attack against public research, in order to shatter the myth that civic-controlled research could be regulated: we have to start by understanding that this technology is by definition uncontrollable. We are applying the famous “precaution principle,” that is so spoken of, in the only manner it can be.

Do we still have to make the wager of revolution?

The advance of submission is proceeding at an absolutely frightful speed. Through the Internet and every other expedient of technological hardware, industrial “culture” is spreading everywhere. Our time is precious, because the old idea that capitalism and the economy will collapse under the weight of their own contradictions is obviously wrong. Our destiny is in our hands: it is a question of renewing the historical process of humanization.

René Riesel is the author of Declarations on Transgenic Agriculture and on Those Who Claim to Oppose It (Paris: Editions de l’Encyclopédie des nuisances, 2000).