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Ideologies, Classes and the Domination of Nature

Internationale Situationniste #8 (January 1963)

Translated by Ken Knabb

THE HUMAN APPROPRIATION of nature is the real adventure we have embarked on. It is the central, indisputable project, the issue that encompasses all other issues. What is always fundamentally in question in modern thought and action is the possible use of the dominated sector of nature. A society’s basic perspective on this question determines the choices among the alternative directions presented at each moment of the process, as well as the rhythm and duration of productive expansion in each sector. The lack of such a comprehensive, long-term perspective — or rather the monopoly of a single untheorized perspective automatically produced by the present power structure’s blind economic growth — is at the root of the emptiness of contemporary thought over the last forty years.

The advances in production and in constantly improving technological potentials are proceeding even faster than nineteenth-century communism predicted. But we have remained at a stage of overequipped prehistory. A century of revolutionary attempts has failed: human life has not been rationalized and impassioned; the project of a classless society has yet to be achieved. We find ourselves caught up in an endless expansion of material means that continues to serve fundamentally static interests and notoriously obsolete values. The spirit of the dead weighs very heavily on the technology of the living. The economic planning that reigns everywhere is insane, not so much because of its academic obsession with organizing the enrichment of the years to come as because of the rotten blood of the past that circulates through its veins, continually pumped forth with each artificial pulsation of this “heart of a heartless world.”

Material liberation is only a precondition for the liberation of human history, and can only be judged as such. A country’s decision as to which kind of minimum level of development is to be given priority depends on the particular project of liberation chosen, and therefore on who makes this choice — the autonomous masses or the specialists in power. Those who accept the ideas of one or another type of specialist organizers regarding what is indispensable may be liberated from any deprivation of the objects those organizers choose to produce, but they will never be liberated from the organizers themselves. The most modern and unexpected forms of hierarchy will always turn out to be nothing but costly remakes of the old world of passivity, impotence and slavery — the antithesis of humanity’s mastery of its history and its surroundings — regardless of the material forces abstractly possessed by the society.

Because of the fact that in present-day society the domination of nature presents itself both as an increasingly aggravated alienation and as the single great ideological justification for this social alienation, it is criticized in a one-sided, undialectical and insufficiently historical manner by some of the radical groups who are halfway between the old degraded and mystified conception of the workers movement, which they have superseded, and the new form of total contestation which is yet to come. (See, for example, the significant theories of Cardan and others in the journal Socialisme ou Barbarie.) These groups, rightly opposing the continually more thorough reification of human labor and its modern corollary, the passive consumption of a leisure activity manipulated by the ruling class, often end up unconsciously harboring a sort of nostalgia for earlier forms of work, for the really “human” relationships that were able to flourish in the societies of the past or even during the less developed phases of industrial society. As it happens, this attitude fits in quite well with the system’s efforts to obtain a higher yield from existing production by doing away with both the waste and the inhumanity that characterize modern industry (in this regard see Instructions for an Insurrection in Internationale Situationniste #6). But in any case, these conceptions abandon the very core of the revolutionary project, which is nothing less than the suppression of work in the usual present-day sense (and of the proletariat) and of all the justifications of previous forms of work. It is impossible to understand the sentence in the Communist Manifesto that says “the bourgeoisie has played an eminently revolutionary role in history” if one ignores the possibility, opened up to us by the domination of nature, of replacing work with a new type of free activity; or if one ignores the role of the bourgeoisie in the “dissolution of old ideas,” that is, if one follows the unfortunate tendency of the classical workers movement to define itself positively in terms of “revolutionary ideology.”

In Basic Banalities Vaneigem has elucidated the process of the dissolution of religious thought and has shown how its function as anesthetic, hypnotic and tranquilizer has been taken over, at a lower level, by ideology. Like penicillin, ideology has become less effective as its use has become more widespread. As a result, the dosage has to be continually increased and the packaging made more sensational (one need only recall the diverse excesses of Nazism or of today’s consumer propaganda). Since the disappearance of feudal society the ruling classes have been increasingly ill-served by their own ideologies: these ideologies (as petrified critical thought), after having been used by them as general weapons for seizing power, end up presenting contradictions to their particular reign. What was originally an unconscious falsification (resulting from an ideology’s having stopped at partial conclusions) becomes a systematic lie once certain of the interests it cloaked are in power and protected by a police force. The most modern example is also the most glaring: it was by taking advantage of the element of ideology present in the workers movement that the bureaucracy was able to establish its power in Russia. Any attempt to modernize an ideology — whether an aberrant one like fascism or a consistent one like the ideology of spectacular consumption in developed capitalism — tends to preserve the present, which is itself dominated by the past. An ideological reformism hostile to the established society can never be effective because it can never get hold of the means of force-feeding thanks to which this society can still make effective use of ideologies. Revolutionary theory must mercilessly criticize all ideologies — including, of course, that particular ideology called “the death of ideologies” (whose title is already a confession since ideologies have always been dead thought), which is merely an empiricist ideology rejoicing over the downfall of envied rivals.

The domination of nature implies the question “For what purpose?” but this very questioning of man’s praxis must itself dominate this domination, though it could not take place except on the basis of it. Only the crudest answer is automatically rejected: “To carry on as before, producing and consuming more and more,” prolonging the reifying domination that has been inherent in capitalism from its beginnings (though not without “producing its own gravediggers”). We have to expose the contradiction between the positive aspects of the transformation of nature — the great project of the bourgeoisie — and its cooption and trivialization by hierarchical power, which in all its contemporary variants remains faithful to the same model of bourgeois “civilization.” In its massified form, this bourgeois model has been “socialized” for the benefit of a composite petty bourgeoisie that is taking on all the capacities for mindless manipulability characteristic of the former poor classes and all the signs of wealth (themselves massified) that signify membership in the ruling class. The bureaucrats of the Eastern bloc are objectively led to follow the same pattern; and the more they produce, the less need they have for police in maintaining their particular schema for the elimination of class struggle. Modern capitalism loudly proclaims a similar goal. But they’re all astride the same tiger: a world in rapid transformation in which they desire the dose of immobility necessary for the perpetuation of one or another variant of hierarchical power.

The criticisms of the present social order are all interrelated, just as are the apologetics for that order. The interrelation of the apologetics is merely less apparent in that they have to praise or lie about numerous mutually contradictory details and antagonistic variants within the system. But if you really renounce all the variants of apologetics, you get straight to the critique that does not suffer from any guilty conscience because it is not compromised with any present ruling force. If someone thinks that a hierarchical bureaucracy can be a revolutionary power, and also agrees that mass tourism as it is globally organized by the society of the spectacle is a good thing and a pleasure, then, like Sartre, he can pay a visit to China or somewhere else. His mistakes, lies and stupidity should surprise no one. Everybody finds their own level (other travelers, such as those who go to serve Tshombe in Katanga, are even more detestable and are paid in more real coin). The intellectual witnesses of the left, eagerly toddling to wherever they are invited, bear witness to nothing so much as their own abdication of thinking — to the fact that their “thought” has for decades been abdicating its freedom as it oscillates between competing bosses. The thinkers who admire the present achievements of the East or the West and who are taken in by all the spectacular gimmicks have obviously never thought about anything at all, as anyone can tell who has read them. The society they reflect naturally encourages us to admire its admirers. In many places they are even allowed to play their little game of “social commitment,” in which they ostentatiously proclaim their support (with or without regretful reservations) for the form of established society whose label and packaging inspires them.

Every day alienated people are shown or informed about new successes they have obtained, successes for which they have no use. This does not mean that these advances in material development are bad or uninteresting. They can be turned to good use in real life — but only along with everything else. The victories of our day belong to star-specialists. Gagarin’s exploit shows that man can survive farther out in space, under increasingly unfavorable conditions. But just as is the case when medicine and biochemistry enable a prolonged survival in time, this quantitative extension of survival is in no way linked to a qualitative improvement of life. You can survive farther away and longer, but never live more. Our task is not to celebrate such victories, but to make celebration victorious — celebration whose infinite possibilities in everyday life are potentially unleashed by these technical advances.

Nature has to be rediscovered as a “worthy opponent.” The game with nature has to be exciting: each point scored must concern us directly. The conscious construction of a moment of life is an example of our (shifting and transitory) control of our time and our environment. Humanity’s expansion into the cosmos is — at the opposite pole from the postartistic construction of individual life (though these two poles of the possible are intimately linked) — an example of an enterprise in which the pettiness of specialized military competition clashes with the objective grandeur of the project. The cosmic adventure will be extended, and thus opened up to a participation totally different from that of specialist guinea pigs, farther and more quickly when the collapse of the miserly reign of specialists on this planet has opened the floodgates of everyone’s creativity — a creativity which is presently blocked and repressed, but which is potentially capable of leading to an exponential progress in dealing with all human problems, supplanting the present cumulative growth restricted to an arbitrary sector of industrial production. The old schema of the contradiction between productive forces and production relations should obviously no longer be understood as a short-term death warrant for the capitalist production system, as if the latter were inevitably doomed to stagnate and become incapable of continuing its development. This contradiction should be seen rather as a judgment (which remains to be executed with the appropriate weapons) against the miserable development generated by this self-regulating production — a development that must be condemned for its paltriness as well as for its dangerousness — in view of the fantastic potential development that could be based on the present economic infrastructure.

The only questions that are openly posed in the present society are loaded questions, questions that already imply certain obligatory responses. When people point out the obvious fact that the modern tradition is a tradition of innovation, they shut their eyes to the equally obvious fact that this innovation does not extend everywhere. During an era when ideology could still believe in its role, Saint-Just declared: “In a time of innovation everything that is not new is pernicious.” God’s numerous successors who organize the present society of the spectacle know very well what asking too many questions can lead to. The decline of philosophy and the arts also stems from this suppression of questioning. The revolutionary elements of modern thought and art have with varying degrees of precision demanded a praxis that would be the minimum terrain necessary for their development — a praxis that is still absent. The nonrevolutionary elements add new embellishments to the official questions, or to the futile questioning of pure speculation (the specialty of Arguments).

There are many ideological rooms in the House of the Father, i.e. in the old society, whose fixed frames of reference have been lost but whose law remains intact (God doesn’t exist, but nothing is permitted). Every facility is granted to the modernisms that serve to combat the truly modern. The gang of hucksters of the unbelievable magazine Planète, which so impresses the school teachers, epitomizes a bizarre demagogy that profits from the gaping absence of contestation and revolutionary imagination, at least in their intellectual manifestations, over the last nearly half a century (and from the numerous obstacles still placed in the way of their resurgence today). Playing on the truism that science and technology are advancing faster and faster without anyone knowing where they are going, Planète harangues ordinary people with the message that henceforth everything must be changed — while at the same time taking for granted 99% of the life really lived in our era. The daze induced by the barrage of novelties can be taken advantage of to calmly reintroduce outmoded nonsense that has virtually died out in even the most backward regions. The drugs of ideology will end their history in an apotheosis of vulgarity that even Pauwels [editor of Planète], for all his efforts, cannot yet imagine.

Ideology, in its various fluid forms that have replaced the solid mythical system of the past, has an increasingly large role to play as the specialist rulers need to increasingly regulate all aspects of an expanding production and consumption. Use value — indispensable still, but which had already tended to become merely implicit since the predominance of a market economy — is now explicitly manipulated (or artificially created) by the planners of the modern market. It is the merit of Jacques Ellul, in his book Propaganda (1962), which describes the unity of the various forms of conditioning, to have shown that this advertising-propaganda is not merely an unhealthy excrescence that could be prohibited, but is at the same time a remedy in a generally sick society, a remedy that makes the sickness tolerable while aggravating it. People are to a great extent accomplices of propaganda, of the reigning spectacle, because they cannot reject it without contesting the society as a whole. The single important task of contemporary thought must center upon this question of reorganizing the theoretical and material forces of contestation.

The alternative is not only between real life and a survival that has nothing to lose but its modernized chains. It is also posed within survival itself, with the constantly aggravated problems that the masters of survival are not able to solve. The risks of atomic weapons, of global overpopulation, and of the increasing material impoverishment of the great majority of humanity are subjects of official alarm, even in the popular press. One very banal example: in an article on China (Le Monde, September 1962) Robert Guillain writes, without irony, on the population problem: “The Chinese leaders seem to be giving it fresh consideration and apparently want to deal with it. They are coming back to the idea of birth control, which was tried out in 1956 and then abandoned in 1958. A national campaign has been launched against early marriages and in favor of family planning in young households.” The oscillations of these specialists, immediately followed by official orders, reveal the sort of interest they really have in the liberation of the people just as completely as the opportunistic religious conversions of princes in the sixteenth century (cujus regio, ejus religio) revealed the real nature of their interest in the mythical arsenal of Christianity. The same journalist notes that “the USSR is not helping China because its available resources are now being devoted to the conquest of space, which is fantastically expensive.” The Russian workers have no more say in determining the quantity of surplus “available resources” produced by their labor, or in deciding whether that surplus is to be devoted to the moon rather than to China, than the Chinese peasants have in deciding whether or not they will have children. The epic of modern rulers at grips with real life, which they are driven to take complete charge of, has found its best literary expression in the Ubu cycle. The only raw material that has yet to be tried out in this experimental era of ours is freedom of thought and behavior.

In the vast drugstores of ideology, of the spectacle, of social planning and the justification of that planning, the specialized intellectuals have their jobs, their particular departments to take care of. (We are referring here to those who have a significant role in the actual production of culture — a stratum that should not be confused with the growing mass of “intellectual workers” whose conditions of work and life are becoming increasingly indistinguishable from those of ordinary blue-collar and white-collar workers as all of them evolve in accordance with the requirements of modern industry.) There’s something for every taste. A certain Roberto Guiducci, for example, demonstrates his understanding about “The Difficult Quest for a New Politics” (Arguments #25-26) by writing that the present social backwardness “leaves us caught between the stupidity of living within dead institutions and the mere ability to express proposals that are as yet scarcely realizable.” In order to avoid this painful dilemma, he confines his own proposal within the most modest and “realizable” limits: After having succeeded in lumping Hegel and Engels in the same sentence with Stalin and Zhdanov [Stalin’s Minister of Culture], he proposes that we grant that “the romantic impatience of the young Marx and the tormented exegeses of Gramsci are equally moth-eaten and outdated.” Although the blasé tone gives the impression that he has been through all that and succeeded in recovering from such illusions, it is in fact quite obvious from reading him that he was never capable of reading Hegel or Gramsci in the first place. Instead, he probably passed many years venerating Zhdanov and Togliatti. Then one fine day, like the other puppets of Arguments (whatever the particular Communist Party of their origin), he decided to call everything into question. Some of them may have had dirtier hands than others, but they all had clogged up minds. Like the others, he undoubtedly passed some weeks “reconsidering” the young Marx. But if he had really ever been capable of understanding Marx, or even simply of understanding the time in which we live, how could he have failed to see through Zhdanov from the very beginning? It’s been so many years since he and others reconsidered revolutionary thought, it all naturally appears to him as very “outdated.” But did he reconsider anything whatsoever ten years ago? It’s very unlikely. We can say, then, that Mr. Guiducci is a man who reconsiders more quickly than does history, because he is never in step with history. His stereotypical nullity will never need to be reconsidered by anyone.

At the same time, a part of the intelligentsia is working out the new contestation, beginning to develop the real critique of our era and to envisage correspondingly appropriate actions. Within the spectacle, which is its factory, this intelligentsia struggles against the organization of production and against the very aims of that production. Engendering its own critics and saboteurs, it is joining with the new lumpen, the lumpen of consumer capitalism that is expressing the refusal of the goods that present-day work enables one to acquire. It is also beginning to reject the conditions of individual competition, and thus the servility, to which the creative intelligentsia is subjected: the movement of modern art can be considered as a continual deskilling of intellectual labor power by the creators (whereas the workers as a whole, insofar as they accept the hierarchical strategy of the ruling class, are able to compete by categories).

The revolutionary intelligentsia has now to accomplish an immense task, beginning with an uncompromising departure from the long period during which “the sleep of dialectical reason engendered monsters” — a period which is now drawing to a close. The new world that must be understood comprises both the continual increase of material powers that have yet to be put to good use and the spontaneous acts of personal opposition engaged in by people without any conscious perspective. In contrast to the old utopianism, which put forward more or less arbitrary theories that went beyond any possible practice (though not without having some significant influence), there is now, within the various problematics of modernity, a mass of new practices that are seeking their theory.

The “intellectual party” that some dream of is impossible, because the collective intelligence of such a union of intellectuals would only be on the miserable level of people like Guiducci, or Morin, or Nadeau. The officially recognized intelligentsia is fundamentally satisfied with things as they are (if it is dissatisfied with anything, it is nevertheless quite satisfied with its own mediocre literary expression of that dissatisfaction). Even if it votes for the Left, so what? It is in fact the social sector that is most instinctively antisituationist. Like a preview audience, it tastes and tests the consumer products that will gradually be made available to all the workers of the developed countries. We intend to disillusion this stratum of intellectuals, to expose the fraudulence of all their trendy values and tastes (“modern” furniture, the writings of Queneau). Their shame will be a revolutionary sentiment.

It is necessary to distinguish, within the intelligentsia, between the tendencies toward submission and the tendencies toward refusal of the employment offered; and then, by every means, to strike a sword between these two fractions so that their total mutual opposition will illuminate the first advances of the coming social war. The careerist tendency, which basically expresses the condition of all intellectual service within class society, leads this stratum, as Harold Rosenberg notes in The Tradition of the New, to expatiate on its own alienation without engaging in any oppositional actions because this alienation has been made comfortable. But as the whole of modern society moves toward this comfort — a comfort which is at the same time becoming increasingly poisoned by boredom and anxiety — the practice of sabotage can be extended to the intellectual terrain. Thus, just as in the first half of the nineteenth century revolutionary theory arose out of philosophy (out of critical reflections on philosophy and out of the crisis and death of philosophy), so now it is going to rise once again out of modern art and poetry, out of its supersession, out of what modern art has sought and promised, out of the clean sweep it has made of all the values and rules of everyday behavior.

Although the living values of intellectual and artistic creation are utterly contrary to the submissive intelligentsia’s entire mode of existence, the latter wants to embellish its social position by claiming a sort of kinship with this creation of “values.” Being more or less aware of this contradiction, this hired intelligentsia tries to redeem itself by an ambiguous glorification of artistic “bohemianism.” The valets of reification acknowledge this bohemian experience as a moment of richness within extreme poverty, as a moment of the qualitative within everyday life, a qualitativeness which is excluded everywhere else. But the official version of this fairy tale must have an edifying ending: this moment of pure qualitativeness within poverty must finally arrive at ordinary “riches.” Poor artists have produced masterpieces which in their time had no market value. But they are redeemed (their venture into the qualitative is excused, and even turned into an inspiring example) because their work, which at the time was only a by-product of their real activity, later turns out to be highly valued. Living people who struggled against reification have nevertheless ended up producing their quota of commodities. Invoking a sort of aesthetic Darwinism, the bourgeoisie applauds the bohemian values that have proved fit enough to survive and enter into its quantitative paradise. The fact that it is rarely the same people who possess the products at the stage of creation and at the stage of profitable commodities is discreetly downplayed as an unimportant and purely accidental detail.

The accelerated degradation of cultural ideology has given rise to a permanent crisis in this intellectual and artistic valorization, a crisis that dadaism brought out into the open. A dual movement has clearly characterized this cultural breakdown: on one hand, the dissemination of false novelties automatically recycled with new packaging by autonomous spectacular mechanisms; and on the other hand, the public refusal to play along and the sabotage carried out by individuals who were clearly among those who would have been most capable of renewing “quality” cultural production (Arthur Cravan is a prototype of these people, glimpsed passing through the most radioactive zones of the cultural disaster without leaving behind them any commodities or memories). The conjunction of these two demoralizing forces continues to aggravate the malaise of the intelligentsia.

After dadaism, and despite the fact that the dominant culture has succeeded in coopting a sort of dadaist art, it is far from certain that artistic rebellion in the next generation will continue to be cooptable into consumable works. At the same time that the most elementary spectacular conmanship can exploit an imitation postdadaist style to produce all sorts of salable cultural objects, there exist in several modern capitalist countries centers of nonartistic bohemianism united around the notion of the end of art or the absence of art, a bohemianism that explicitly no longer envisages any artistic production whatsoever. Its dissatisfaction can only radicalize with the progress of the thesis according to which “the art of the future” (the phrase itself is misleading since it implies dealing with the future in terms of present specialized categories) will no longer be valued as a commodity, since we are discovering that it is only a subordinate aspect of the total transformation of our use of space, of feelings and of time. All the real experiences of free thought and behavior that succeed in taking shape in these conditions are certainly moving in our direction, toward the theoretical organization of contestation.

We believe that the role of theorists — a role which is indispensable, but which must not be dominant — is to provide information and conceptual tools that can shed light on people’s hidden desires and on the social crisis they are experiencing; to clarify things and show how they fit together; to make the new proletariat aware of the “new poverty” that must be named and described.

We are presently witnessing a reshuffling of the cards of class struggle — a struggle which has certainly not disappeared, but whose lines of battle have been somewhat altered from the old schema. Similarly, the nation-state has yet to be transcended; individual nationalisms have merely been incorporated into the framework of supernations, the framework of two global blocs which are themselves composed of concentrated or dispersed multinational zones (e.g. Europe or the Chinese sphere of influence) within which there may be various modifications and regroupings of individual nations or ethnic regions (Korea, Wallonia, etc.).

In the context of the reality presently beginning to take shape, we may consider as proletarians all people who have no possibility of altering the social space-time that the society allots to them (regardless of variations in their degree of affluence or chances for promotion). The rulers are those who organize this space-time, or who at least have a significant margin of personal choice (even stemming, for example, from a significant survival of older forms of private property). A revolutionary movement is a movement that radically changes the organization of this space-time and the very manner of deciding on its ongoing reorganization (as opposed to merely changing the legal forms of property or the social origin of the rulers).

The vast majority everywhere consumes the odious, soul-destroying social space-time “produced” by a tiny minority. (It should be noted that this minority produces literally nothing except this organization, whereas the “consumption” of space-time, in the sense we are using here, encompasses the whole of ordinary production, in which the alienation of consumption and of all life obviously has its roots.) The ruling classes of the past at least knew how to spend in a humanly enriching way the meager slice of surplus-value they managed to wrest from a static social production grounded on general scarcity; the members of today’s ruling minority have lost even this “mastery.” They are nothing but consumers of power — a power limited to organizing this miserable survival. And their sole purpose in so miserably organizing this survival is to consume that power. The lord of nature, the ruler, is degraded by the pettiness of his exercise of power (the scandal of the quantitative). Mastery without degradation would guarantee full employment — not of all the workers, but of all the forces of the society, of all the creative possibilities of everyone, for themselves individually and for dialogue with each other. Where then are the real masters? At the other pole of this absurd system. At the pole of refusal. The masters come from the negative, they are the bearers of the antihierarchical principle.

The distinction drawn here between those who organize space-time (together with their direct agents) and those who are subjected to that organization is intended to clearly reveal the polarization that is obscured by the intentionally woven complexity of the hierarchies of function and salary, which gives the impression that all the gradations are virtually imperceptible and that there are scarcely any more real proletarians or real capitalists at the two extremities of a social spectrum that has become highly flexible. Once this distinction is posed, other differences in status must be considered as secondary. It should not be forgotten, however, that an intellectual or a “professional revolutionary” worker is liable at any moment to tumble irretrievably into cooption — into one niche or another in one clan or another in the camp of the ruling zombies (which is far from being harmonious or monolithic). Until real life is present for everyone, the “salt of the earth” is always susceptible to going bad. The theorists of the new contestation can neither compromise with the ruling powers nor constitute themselves as a separate power without immediately ceasing to be such (their role as theorists will then be taken over by others). This amounts to saying that the revolutionary intelligentsia can realize its project only by suppressing itself — that the “intellectual party” can really exist only as a party that supersedes itself, a party whose victory is at the same time its own disappearance.