Posted by: Rajesh Shukla | December 1, 2009

‘What is to be done?’ – Approaching the task through Debord and Negri

“We need not only a clear and absolute break in
representation, as was May 68, but we must leave this world,
all its dynamic, and find another world,
look in the past for its possibility that was denied”.(1)
– Jacques Camatte (1976)

“(beep) – it felt like I put my foot right into it – (beep)”.
– Armstrong (1963)

“But alas! All I want is tears;
All I want is that you should listen to this song,
That you should transfigure and adorn it –
Then it may darkly die away into nothingness”.(2)
– Karl Marx (1836


The following is intended as a recollection of thoughts that have been on my mind for some time now, thoughts I was unable to write down before undergoing a very particular experience during my recent seven week visit to the States and Cornell University: an experience that resulted in a kind of short-circuit of previous engagements. This particular experience and the very generous invitation from the editors of this necessary autonomous publishing project fused in a very fragile but nonetheless real cross-fertilization, connecting certain reflections and events concerning the problem of a desire for action – what is to be done? How are we to respond to the event? How are we to seize the moment? And will we ever be able to decipher whether an event is occurring or not in this moment or the next? Whether there is an opening through which to intervene? How are we to be receptive to the event both aesthetically and politically? And what about the question of enthusiasm? Is it possible to unite individual cognition and social necessity? How are we to construct a transpolitical perspective that appeals to both reason, the ability to conceptualise, and the senses? How are we to be affirmative to an artificial community without just remaining in an ‘attendist’ position wherein the enormous amount of still-to-be-done cognitive-work sets the agenda and forces us to abandon all action? The actual textual fragments or details which I have been able to produce are much too hasty and provisional to result in any kind of precise argumentation – that’s part of the problem – but I still believe that they may be of some value as a kind of balance sheet in the light of the rising popularity of such figures as Guy Debord and Toni Negri. Just bear in mind that programs put forward in the past often turned out to be wrong in the long run. Our judgment of these programs is itself subject to time-slip, to reconstructions of the meaning of the past, to failed scenarios of the future, failures of foresight from the point of view of the present.


With the publication of the book (or as some people would have us believe, manifesto) Empire, the Italian political philosopher and activist Toni Negri is fast becoming a house-hold name not only in academia but among readers of The New York Times, as is testified to by the recent presentation of his and his collaborator Michael Hardt’s book as ‘the next big thing’ after poststructuralism and Derrida. Although we all remain somewhat trapped in a 19th century feeling of disliking what circulates in the spectacle, sensing that this circulation always empties everything of critical potential for the constitution of a different organization of society, we know that this exposure does not necessarily ruin the positive effects of a work like Negri’s. And although it is annoying to witness the huge difference between the reception of The Politics of Subversion or Labour of Dionysys and the new book, it should not necessarily force us to give up working with Negri’s texts. Perhaps we should for once stay with a popular intellectual figure and try to reverse the vulgar reception slowly forming on the horizon. But it has been funny to witness the development, construction and placing of Empire in comparison with the two earlier books which were also published by larger publishers.

The Politics of Subversion was published by Polity Press in 1989 in a hardback edition with a very thorough introduction by the Althusser-pupil and Multitudes editor Yann Moulier Boutang.(3) The book was a collection of different texts all concerned with the changes occurring during the 70s and 80s where a new social subject antagonistic to capital came into existence. Following changes in the composition of capital a new social subject appeared whose enterprise was society as a whole. Already in these texts Negri underlined that the socialised worker stood for an intellectual labour force that produces intellectual cooperation and communication as its work. Besides the book written with Félix Guattari strangely translated as Communists like us The Politics of Subversion represents the most explicit investigation into an ecological theory of the antagonistic subject of labour power. Negri writes about “the capitalism of nuclear death” and “the ecological machine” and besides presenting a good introduction to Negri’s work and some interesting analyses of the student uprising in Paris in 1986 the book now seems very 80s-like which might account for the limited impact it seems to have made since its publication. Characteristic of its reception, Roy Boyne wrote, in his review of the book, that “Negri seems to be doing the selfsame thing [creating a virtual reality] with the idea of the socialised worker, which appears to be a virtual reality created on the basis of some quite contentious inferences”.(4) He characterises the book as participating in “a kind of postmodern framework, the vertebrae of which are taken from Marx’s Grundrisse, Foucault’s writing on power, Guattari’s notions pertaining to molecular revolution, and various diffuse insights from the antinuclear and Green movements”. Boyne’s review was typical for the reception of the book, which neither received any intensive discussion nor passionate commentary.

Labour of Dionysus was published by The University of Minnesota Press in the series called Theory out of bounds, edited by Brian Massumi, Sandra Buckley and Michael Hardt.(5) The book consisted of earlier texts written by Negri and two new chapters co-written with Hardt. As the subtitle ‘a critique of the stateform’ indicates the book was intended as a continuation of the work left incomplete by Marx on the state but it also attempted to account for the change occurring between the state and civil society during the 70’s and 80’s. The book managed to get a few more reviews than The Politics of Subversion and the new cooperation with the young literature professor, Hardt, looked like a fortunate opportunity for both of them, but they had to wait until the publication of Empire before they could reap the fruits of the cooperation. For Hardt it was a perfect situation, because Negri was a largely in America unknown Marxist philosopher who was very well known in France and Italy and who had produced an original approach to the now fragile and much attacked Marxist theories of politics and economy. For Hardt, who had written a small but good book on Deleuze, it must have been obvious that Negri was a much-needed mixture of French poststructuralist and Italian Marxist theory that could revivify an American university-Marxism in desperate conditions. For Negri, Hardt showed-up out of the blue with a translation of his book on Spinoza and must have seemed to be a perfect translator as well as manager for the presentation of his work in the States. But Labour of Dionysus did not really change at lot. It got some reviews but mostly by younger up-and-coming academics who were not yet able to create a unified horizon for a larger audience within which the work of Negri might prove useful. But within the next five years the situation changed and when Empire came out it was received in the English-speaking world of academia and soft-Marxism as a major contribution to critical theory. Now Negri was looked upon as creating a new interest in a Marxist framework of revolution, labour and communism.

Somehow Harvard University Press accepted to publish the book – it definitely looks as if it was worth it! – and Hardt managed to style the book as a synthesis of more or less all the major (post)Marxist positions available: from Jameson’s basically Lukàcsian (geo)historical project over Balibar’s neospinozian Althusserianism, Dipesh Chakrabarty’s radicalised subalternstudies, Saskia Sassen’s sociology of sovereignty to Zizek’s Lacanian Leninism. Seldom has a book been presented with such recommendations: “After reading Empire, one cannot escape the impression that if this book were not written, it would have to be invented. What Hardt and Negri offer is nothing less than a rewriting of The Communist Manifesto for our time” Zizek writes on the backcover. “Hardt and Negri rework Marxism to develop a vision of politics that is both original and timely. This very impressive book will be debated and discussed for a long time” Chakrabarty declares. While according to Balibar “[t]he new book by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, Empire, is an amazing tour de force […] the benefits [of a discussion of the book] will be enormous for intelligence”. “The first great new theoretical synthesis of the new millennium projects a theory of globalisation which is politically energising and which draws the whole host of doomladen poststructural analyses together into a positive and enabling vision of the future” Fredric Jameson adds to the celebration. While Sassen is quoted for finding it “[a]n extraordinary book, with enormous intellectual depth and a keen sense of the history-making transformation that is beginning to take shape”. Of course another interesting feature is the inclusion of an artist among the cheerleaders: the novelist Leslie Marmon Silk states that “Empire offers an irresistible, iconoclastic analysis of the ‘globalized’ world. Revolutionary, even visionary, Empire identifies the imminent new power of the multitude to free themselves from capitalist bondage”. Waugh!? No surprise that many people have found it necessary to read or browse through the book with recommendations like that.

Empire is first of all presented as a genuine (post)Marxist reading of globalisation, where the new political order is termed “empire”. This launching of the book as a ‘genuine’ communist project, or “even more substantially ‘communist’ than the classical Marxist one” as Balibar says, is a welcome return to terms that have been considered obsolete for some time now in academic discussions. But the characterisation of the book as primarily a reading of the possibility of communism in the new globalised world order of capitalism eclipses the possibility of a thoroughgoing introduction of Italian Marxism into America. Perhaps there is a greater need for a new horizon – one that might be built on the ruins of the Italian experience – than for introducing some new terms and names in the already very well-established canon of US cultural studies. The production and placing of Empire in a hysterically septic and non-threatening intellectual milieu of cultural studies wins us little more than the continuation of what we are already fed up with. The reading of globalisation as the return of the mixed constitution of Empire is brilliant, but it might turn out to be too slick a move: trying to turn the discussions about globalisation upside-down and claiming that ‘communism is now!’ is nice, but runs the risk of betraying a more formal reading of the Italian tradition in exchange for simply setting the cultural studies agenda or being allowed to evaluate scattered demonstration around the world against IMF and others. More or less all the analyses developed in the book are result from a historically specific intellectual-activist environment and experience in Italy (and later, during exile, in France) where a whole generation of Italian philosophers, theorists and activists developed a new Marxist project of insurgence. But this common experience and its historical background have completely disappeared in Empire. This need not be a necessary consequence of the translation into the Left US academy. The very important analyses and theories of class recomposition, working class ‘self-valorisation’ and the ontological priority of the working class were developed during more than 30 years in Italy by a large number of political philosophers such as Raniero Panzieri, Mario Tronti, Asor Rosa, Massimo Cacciari, Sergio Bologna, Maria Rosa Dallo Costa, Ferruccio Gambino, Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, Paolo Virno and many others.(6) This is not the time to reconstruct the genealogy of this tradition, so I will just point to a few interesting circumstances concerning the publication of Empire and the ‘lost’ tradition of Italian leftwing Marxism.

One of the most interesting aspects of the operaismo school was the critique of the work-form, undertaken as a direct consequence of their discovery that the working class was the motor behind any development of capital. Instead of class relations being enmeshed in a development of the relations of production that are in turn caught up in the forces of production – in which the economic aspect is the determinant – operaismo realised that class war was the fundamental aspect in the relationship between labour and capital. Raniero Panzieri, who was the first ‘leader’ of this heretic Marxist tradition, attacked the method, which was instituted in the Second and Third Internationals – the optimistic conception of the historical process that appealed to the automatic development of the ‘final phase’ of capitalism.(7) Operaismo sought to reintroduce the active, political, revolutionary perspective into Marxist discourse against a vulgar positivism that regarded the fatal crisis of the system as an unavoidable phenomenon stemming from the simple quantitative development of the productive forces. Their polemic was aimed against the pragmatic use, within the contemporary labour movement, of the argument concerning the ‘objective’ and ‘necessary’ character of the laws governing capitalist development. This pragmatic use tended to overshadow the contradiction between capital and labour, whilst marginalizing the urgency of developing ‘worker’s control’ within the entire productive process. Through a detailed investigation into the Marxist critique of political economy, Panzieri and Tronti were able to conclude that the ‘immanent contradictions’ have lost their naturalist character, typical of the competitive period of capitalist development. Every ‘naturalistic’ residue was eliminated from the theory of development by showing that the dichotomy between despotism in the factory and anarchy in civil society had been overcome by the post-war development of capital. They showed that the dynamic of the capitalist process was essentially dominated by the law of concentration and that the highest stage of development – whereby capital becomes autonomous – was planned capital and not finance capital. Capitalist transformation is always the reaction to working class demands or subversion. In other words, capital refits and improves its means and control of production in response to labour strategies making the existing regime untenable. In response to demands for a shorter working day, capital improves the efficiency of the production process by turning from the formal subsumption of pre-capitalist working practices to the real subsumption of labour through the introduction of capital’s own working practices. Capital re-acts to the acts of the working class. The working class is the subject of history and capital is forced to react or forestall working class antagonism that in turn forces capital to modernise. This ontological priority means that the working class is able to reject capital and, through self-valorisation, create a communist society. The working class therefore has to negate labour, defined as exploitation, and destroy capital. It was Mario Tronti’s Operai e Capitale that formulated this critique in the most poignant fashion: “Today, the working class need only to look at itself to understand capital. It need only combat itself in order to destroy capital. It has to recognize itself as political power and deny itself as productive power. For proof, we need only look at the moment of struggle itself: During the strike, the ‘producer’ is immediately identified with the class enemy. The working class confronts its own labour as capital, as a hostile force, as an enemy – this is the point of departure not only for the antagonism, but for the organization of the antagonism […] From now on, throughout this process, the enemy must constantly be attacked with the only subversive weapon capable of reducing him to a strategically subordinate position: the threat of denying him the mediation of the working class in the capitalist relations of production”.(8)

This very important critique of the category of work has been slightly toned down in Empire, with the result that the very negative and self-critical aspect of the reading of the working class has disappeared. In place of Tronti’s violent assault on work and the worker we find a more positive evaluation of the new intellectual capacities and character of the labour force. This is problematic: whereas Tronti continued to uphold the definition of the working class as the class that abolishes classes altogether, this aspect disappears in Empire, where no really good definition of proletariat is developed. (If the notion of proletariat is to have any relevance we might consult the work done by Anton Pannekoek, in which he developed the notion of the world-proletariat on the basis of Marx’s work on the reserve army of labour; the world-proletariat basically meaning those who give birth to the most children.) In the descriptions of the new socialised worker Negri and Hardt focus on the creative aspects of its labour, and in particular on the fact that the immaterial labour involves a series of activities not normally recognised as work and that the process of production immediately becomes the process of valorisation. Negri postulates that with this new situation the working class has, in a certain sense, already created the presuppositions for communism. This very affirmative and positive evaluation of the present situation changes the intonation of the concept of work. It no longer seems as necessary to actively destroy oneself as worker: according to Negri and Hardt, this has already taken place.

To have a job or not, that is the question. But it has not always been like that. If one looks to the few remains of non-capitalist cultures – that haven’t generated surplus value, the right to vote, compulsory school attendance and control clocks – one realises that ‘work’ doesn’t exist as a symbolic form or as a practical form of organisation for the cementation of social life. In these societies there are no schools and no prisons. There’s no factories, or no labour exchange that can force people in there. This history appears as a growth in civilisation and as the basis of and presupposition for the covering of human needs. Labour presents itself as a logical social expression for the biological pulsation of life from both the point of view of need and civilizing selfconsciousness. The culture that has created labour has at the same time installed a conception in the heads of the workers that the form in which they express their collective rhythm of life civilises their lives and fulfils their needs. But the fact that labour is a specific social form – and even a form that is an abstraction of an infinite number of different, concrete, useful-useless actions – disappears in this conception. To work is the most ordinary thing to do. Working is an inevitable part of the life of the capitalist population. To lose one’s job is considered an accident and you complain. This is the case whether you produce carrots, plastic-bags or nervegas. The anonymous movements of the unemployment statistics tell people that it is of no difference whether you are doing this or that. Labour is an abstraction that controls human life. What looks like a necessity and a presupposition is in fact a certain symbolic and practical principle for allocation of human bodies and for the destruction of other purposes in life than boredom, inscrutability and repetition.

The history of Western societies is a history of labour. Since the introduction of the embryonic development of the wage-form in the last part of the Middle Ages the belief in the necessity of labour has been in steady growth and now, in present-day capitalism, labour has spread with such a cancerogen explosivity that all of life’s other potential purposes have to be measured by the impenetrable cybernetics of labour logic. Labour is “in the first place, a process in which both man and Nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates and controls the material re-actions between himself and Nature”.(9) But under capitalism labour is not only this, labour is also the production and reproduction of surplus value. Labour has a double character: it is a concrete labour process, and it is a process that in no way can be made the object of sensual experience, the production or reproduction of value. Between these two definitions there exists an asymmetrical relationship: the invisible and abstract process subsumes the concrete sensual process. Abstract labour colonises concrete labour, value subsumes use value, and the extra-sensible posits the sensual under it and uses it for specific purposes. This purpose has a structure and a direction. The direction has a development but the direction of the development is invisible. Because the invisible cannot be experienced directly it is necessary to experience it through its appearance. The appearance of abstract labour is concrete labour. Socialisation for labour is then socialisation for a concrete relationship, which is a reproduction of an abstract relationship. After working for some time wages are dumped in your pocket. Abstract labour appears as uneatable money. You go to work and perform a concrete, apparently subjectcontrolled, action in so far as your body is moving, your brain is activated, etc. But these concrete actions and their subjective control are affixed to working conditions that are defined by things external to the subjectivity of the worker. Through labour the concrete action grows into objectified abstraction. The experience of these subjective processes is destroyed within the field of subjectivity: time has to go, as fast as possible; the experience that the dull and the necessary melt together in the same depressive idiocy.

Workers’ lives are collectivised on a daily basis with the lives of other workers through the eight hours spent in the production process. But going to work is not just the possibility of connecting our life with the lives of other people; it is also creating a community that is socially constructed in an arrangement that is an expression of objectification. The collective experience that labour can offer is connected to human desubjectification. The individual motive for going to work is also the acquirement of wage. Whether the performance needed for acquiring the wage is arduous or not and whether the wage is small or large is the uppermost thought the worker reflects upon before going to work. These considerations have been the substance of the dominant class war. That the wage is too small is experienced as unfair and the struggle for better wages or improved working conditions has been the content of the class struggle. The fight for a raise in wages, not a fight against wage. In 1865 Marx wrote in Lohn, Preis und Profit that the working class ought to write “Abolition of the wage system!” and not “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!” on their banners.(10) This is not a random slogan. Capital reproduces itself through the reproduction of the population as wageworkers – and capital cannot survive without wagelabour. This process is infinite. Capital is surplus value in movement. Surplus value is made from surplus labour, surplus labour is made from labour, labour is supplied by the worker. The simple sociological consequence of capital-logic is the transformation of human lifetime to labourtime.

“The conformism, which has been part and parcel of Social Democracy from the beginning attaches not only to its political tactics but to its economic views as well. It is one reason for its later breakdown. Nothing has corrupted the German working class so much as the notion that it was moving, with the current. It regarded technological developments as the fall of the stream with which it thought it was moving. From there it was but a step to the illusion that factory work, which was supposed to tend toward technological progress constituted a political achievement. The old Protestant work ethic was resurrected among German workers in secularized form. The Gotha Program already bears traces of this confusion, defining labour as ‘the source of all wealth and all culture.’ Smelling a rat, Marx countered that ‘…the man who possesses no other property than his labour power’ must of necessity become ‘the slave of other men who have made themselves the owners…’ However, the confusion spread, and soon thereafter Josef Dietzgen proclaimed: ‘The savior of modern times is called work. The …improvement… of labour constitutes the wealth which is now able to accomplish what no redeemer has ever been able to do.’ This vulgar-Marxist conception of the nature of labor bypasses the question of how its products might benefit the workers while still not being at, their disposal. It recognizes only the progress in the mastery of nature, not the retrogression of society; it already displays the technocratic features later encountered in fascism”.11 The development that Benjamin is describing is the history of the transformation of the capitalist work ethic from utopia to caricature. Classical economic theory was unsentimentally able to greet with cheers the explosive development of the productive forces of labour under capitalism. They were able to look at capitalism from a future-optimistic and utopian perspective as the guarantee for an optimal supply of every human need without closing their eyes to the immediate negative effects on the impoverished proletariat. Only after Ricardo’s radical realisation of the irreconcilable class character of the conditions of production of capitalism classical economy and an understanding of these relationships died. After that moment the idea of capitalism as a real utopia vanished and classical economic theory was replaced by the irrelevant talk of the vulgar economic theories we have to contend with ever since.

Nonetheless it’s noticeable that the organised working class movement has picked up several ideological notions from classical economic theory about the utopian potential of capitalism and the one-dimensional evaluation of the civilising moment in the hunger for accumulation in capitalism. The lack of critique of the form of the capitalist conditions of production and historical specific logic of development creates an ideological blockage for the capital-superceding communist conception/action. Even though capitalism may be seen as ‘in decline’, the principal, linear progress of optimism that characterised classic bourgeois thinking still hasn’t been challenged. If capitalism is dethroned as a goal it acquires historical rehabilitation as means – as the historical lever of socialism. Marx has, of course, critiqued these tendencies of the working class movement to more or less unreflectively take on the entire biedermeierset of the bourgeois ideology; for instance the critique he made of the way Das Gotha Programm rested on a unimaginative use of a bourgeois, utopialess labour and need conception.12 This dull conformism was of course also the target of Paul Lafargue’s provocative castigation of the anti-hedonistic labour-moral’s increasing grip on the working class where ‘workerpower’ still meant the power of work over the worker.(13) Neither Marx’s critical notes nor Lafargue’s radical satire has had any profound influence on the strategy or politics of the European working class movement. The ‘realism’ of the socialist strategies has resulted in serious difficulties when trying to connect the negation of capital with considerations on the nature of work.

The most horrible example of the meaning of work is found in National Socialist Germany. ‘Arbeit macht frei’ – it said by the entrance to Auschwitz. This was but one of several revealing slogans in National Socialist rhetoric – ‘Kraft durch Freude’, ‘Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer’ – which all functioned as strange imperatives. Of course we find similar imperatives in the Soviet Union where Beria was the source for the inscription above the entrance to the camp Kolyma: ‘Work is a question of honour, a question of courage and heroism’.14 When comparing the two slogans it is evident that Beria’s slogan is lumpier, appears more amateurish because he indulges in a concretisation of the virtues of work, while the National Socialist slogan is closed upon itself in a kind of unapproachable monumentality. The National Socialist slogan is much more far-reaching in its perspective of power than Beria’s because of its lofty, laconic formulation. In the National Socialist slogan the anonymous silence of power is not revealed, and by saying nothing, it says everything. Where nothing is mentioned, nothing is forgotten in the discourse of power. Even in silence, in absence, power is present. At the same time the stakes are higher in the National Socialist slogan than in the Soviet one. The more total the lie is the closer it gets to some kind of truth. The imperative of the slogan is weak and the sentence shows a sophisticated understanding of the logic of dominance. The master should not totally objectify the repressed as lifeless limbs in the organisation of power but leave room for a minimal reflectivity in the human subjects. Without this remnant of reconciliation with the extremely reduced needs of the individuals surrounded by the wire of the camp and the smoke from the ovens of the crematoria, the grip of power would be weaker or more casual. Even the most overt and inappellative power presupposes that the subjected individuals haven’t completely lost power over themselves.(15) The National Socialist regime uses a slogan that is seemingly a symbolic admission – it is necessary to locate a justification of power outside power. Something different than the brutal force of power is hinted at as the motivation for work. According to the literal meaning of the slogan the motivation is not negative: ‘you have to work, or else…’ but positive, that it might be possible to transcend the conditions of work and be free. But of course this admission is only ‘symbolic’. By not repressing the wishes of the prisoners but by captivating these, the National Socialist regime makes it possible to manipulate wishful utopian longings. By making freedom into a fixed point the utopian energies of the prisoners are employed in the service of domination. Thereby they manage to restructure the longing for freedom: it becomes an alibi for actual, present constraint. The actual constraint and extermination are attributed a meaning and significance by the preservation of the perspective of ideal freedom which they wouldn’t be capable of producing by themselves. This ideal redemption transforms the utopia into a domination-rational factor of discipline: if you want to preserve the hope of freedom in the camp, you have to work! “We ate and worked with torn and swollen hands. Worked! Oh, this work! We dug up earth till we were bathed in sweat in freezing cold. Woe be to him who dared to stretch his back to breathe for a moment, immediately he received a SS-guard’s riffle butt or a boot in the crutch. Or we were forced to toil hundredweight heavy loads. Like animals we waded in mud up to the ankles, loaded with planks, boards and rocks. We carried giant logs from hundred years old beech trees. 20 to 30 men to one log. Like millipedes the gangs moved through mud and ooze. Left, two, three, four. With bent backs and moaning under the heavy load, left, two, three, four”.(16) Work is forced work and freedom is not something that can be produced by work. In the camp work does not produce freedom but work paradoxically creates an expectation of freedom.

The insidious conception of work made visible in National Socialism can be characterised as a ritualisation of work. Work is considered to be a holy duty, a higher mission, which binds together the German Nation in a Volkscommunity. Work was considered the essence of man. Work was regarded as the authentic destiny of man and therefore the call to work was alfa and omega within National Socialist discourse. To work or create was the essence of the German people.(17) Through work it was possible to redeem the Arian race and relive the German nation of all guilt from the traumatic First World War. If Hitler and the National Socialist regime were able to create images of the essence of the German people the German people would awaken from the spell cast by the Jewish race. Hitler was to present an image to the people of their eternal spirit whereby they would be able to love themselves and therefore regain strength. He constructed a mirror in which the people recognised themselves as masters. Creation, work and art, possessed a healing power for the Arian race because works of art were necessarily narcissistic. Art was the creation ex nihilo of a new subject and a new world. Every German was to be a worker-artist, creating him/herself under the guidance of the artistFührer. The confidence of the Arian race was based on a belief in the creative genius of the race. These creative faculties had been sleeping for centuries and were under attack from the Jewish people, but making them visible could awaken them. To make the creative genius of the race visible was to recreate the confidence of the race and make it aware of its sacred mission. And vice versa to restore the confidence of the race was to regain vision. The obstacle to this creation was the invisible Jew who was the destruction of art and work. The Jew prevented the production of the Arian ideal as s/he had fought against Christianity and God in ancient times. A battle between the visible artistic Arian worker and the invisible Jewish freeloader took shape. A battle that was to eliminate all Jews and every Jewish tendency in all good Germans. That was also the meaning of the inscription above the camps: Arbeit macht Judenfrei.

National Socialism celebrated the 1th of May under the motto: ‘Ehret die Arbeit und achtet den Arbeiter’. The two elements of the motto were not of equal importance. ‘Ehret die Arbeit’ appeared in a much more emphasized typography than the rest of the motto. Thus it was work you had to honour. This idea of honouring work is strange. How can one honour something that isn’t anything in itself? There is no identifiable subject to address the honour to. The point is of course that work was mythologised in National Socialism as it tends to be in Western civilisation in general. Work is placed in a nature-idolatry. It is considered a form of nature not a social and historical specific category of mediation between humans and nature. This idea and practice of work has to be avoided: Work comes to signify the creation of oneself becomes a synonym of creativity or production. As Jean-Luc Nancy has shown us, the obsession with working or creating something, namely (one)self, which you then posses or have, has to be left behind in favour of a withdrawal in which a co-originary being-with is exposed.(18) The attempt to re-create an (lost) authenticity through/by work must be abandoned. “Regardless of whatever else it might have been National Socialism could be all that it was only because it was a system of work. International capitalsocialism, in this respect, does not lag behind. It is the perpetuation of that system with scarcely altered means. One will have to, when confronted with both – and we are, with no exceptions, confronted with both – one will have to ask oneself what in the structure of work in the joints, rifts, and rejects of its system permits another work and perhaps something other than work […] One will have to inquire into a conduct and a language – and doubtless, not only inquire – that does not work, that cannot be deployed as a means, and that serve neither these systems nor like systems to come”.(19)

The definition of human beings as producers, or workers, who are to produce their own essence in the form of their work was brought to a horrible culmination in National Socialism. This attempt to define human beings is still with us and characterises present political practice as Giorgio Agamben has instructed us. We are still, more than ever, moving in a horizon where politics is defined as the space (polis), where bare life (zoé) is transformed into the good life (bios), where politics is the necessary production of the bare life by the sovereign power in the attempt to provide material for a political-pedagogical refinement. The quality of the good life in both an ethical and political sense is only possible on the basis of its homogenised and fictive Doppelgänger. The mechanism working at a frantic speed within National Socialist discourse was concerned with the creation of a space within which good life was separated from bare life, or where good life was constituted as ‘higher’ through the exclusion of bare life. The camp was the space where the exception became the rule and pre-existing legal rules were suspended. This exclusion-inclusion is made possible by the definition of humans as citizens of a (nation)state. In being defined as citizens a part of their lives are transformed into bare life. Life is politised, when birth becomes a biopolitical legitimation. You do not exist if you are not a citizen of a state. The distinction between politics and life disappears as it did in National Socialist Germany. Life was immediately political. “[A] natural given tends to present itself as a political task“, as Agamben writes.(20) It was not necessary to convert the speeches of Hitler into rules, they were the rules.”[T]he biopolitical body (in its twofold appearance as Jewish body and German Body, as life unworthy of being lived and as full life) is not an inert biological presupposition to which the rule refers, but at once rule and criterion of its own application, a juridical rule that decides the fact that decides on its application“.(21) The construction of a place where bare life is created and put to death in a nonreligious and nonjuridical situation is not restricted to the camp in National Socialist Germany. As Agamben shows us, the camp does not refer merely to a place that is preserved as an archive, but rather, it is an event that repeats itself on a daily basis within Western societies. Whenever we see boats filled with refugees, when we see immigrants being contained in soccer stadiums, we have an instance of the camp materialising a state of exception where the individual is constituted as bare life and the logic of the juridical proceduralism reaches its limits. In democracy every human who receives rights as citizen of a nation state attains those rights only insofar as her/his birth becomes the excluded-included bearer of sovereignity. The life of every citizen is transformed into the life of what Agamben terms homo sacer – the one who can be put to death without committing a crime – this development marks the moment where modern western democracies show themselves to be very similar to the biopolitical practice of the totalitarian regimes. “If this is true, if the essence of the camp consists in the materialization of the state of exception and in the subsequent creation of a space in which bare life and the juridical rule enter into a threshold of indistinction, then we must admit that we find ourselves virtually in the presence of a camp every time such a structure is created […] The stadium in Bari into which the Italian police in 1991 provisionally herded all illegal Albanian immigrants before sending them back to their country, the winter cycle-racing track in which the Vichy authorities gathered the Jews before consigning them to the Germans, the Konzentrationslager für Ausländer in Cottbuss-Sielow in which the Weimar government gathered Jewish refugees from the East, or the zones d’attentes in French international airports in which foreigners asking for refugee status are detained will then all equally be camps”.(22)

Even though the revolutions in the years 1917 to 1921 might be the most important events in the 20th century, the event from which we have to analyse the political developments of this century, the battle against and the judgment of National Socialism remains vital as well. No one doubts that we are living in the shadow of what happened during these years, a fact that is strangely omitted from Empire, that reduces the Second World War to “a civil war [between state and multitude] cloaked in the guise of conflicts among sovereign states”.(23) The relationship between the economic breakdown in 1929 and the National Socialist takeover in 1933 constituted a decisive historical dynamic in the last century. Because the liberal-democratic system was not able to resolve unemployment, the working class as middle class was tempted into antiparliamentarism and antidemocracy. The economic breakdown destroyed the development of a multicultural German-speaking metropol on a constitutional basis. Because of this the combination of multiculturalism and constitutional state was delayed, and it is only now that we can actually envision the possibility of the creation of a similar social dynamic with the inevitable large-scale movement of people from the third world to the first world.(24) The enormous scale of the migration might result in a revolution in consciousness and the camp may be replaced by the metropol as the paradigm of our future lives. This could inject a dynamic into the small Western minority-culture and prevent the refeudalisation that we are presently witnessing. A solution where a so-called democratic dictatorship of the worldproletariat would be created seems less likely within the present power configuration even though such a solution to the present problems of migration does represent a truly global possibility as it would require a majority rule over the entire planet along the lines of the Mandela model. But these are of course solutions that presuppose that we want to remain within some kind of legal framework and state form. But do we?


The question of the state is of central importance when discussing ‘What is to be done?’ We all know that the question of the state represents a problem within Marxist thinking.(25) Few relevant critiques have been made of the state form; any belief in an alternative authenticity that would, in a utopian manner, relieve revolutionaries of the problems of representation and litigation must still be rendered probable. The historical revolutions in France, Russia, Germany, and Spain, indicate that it is not possible. This means that we have to take seriously the exercise of power and the problems of institutions, not remaining content with posing the problem of the historical subject of political power. So the problem of the law is pivotal for any discussion of ‘what is to be done?’ Even if the state were a transitory event, how would this transition be organised as an extraordinary event, necessitating extraordinary government, i.e., dictatorship? What kind of legal framework would then be applicable to the revolution? How are we to imagine a break with the state and a simultaneous creation of revolutionary tribunals that are to solve the problem of the substitution of political standpoints with economic or moral violations that has been the common practice of the revolutionary tribunals and the tribunals after the Second World War? Discussions of these matters are completely absent from the work of Toni Negri and we could probably do worse than to go back to Karl Korsch’s attempt (in his later years) to connect Marx and Kant in these matters.(26) A turn to Korsch would also be relevant insofar as Korsch and Lukács developed an argument in the 1920s and 1930s that in many ways is similar to the argument Negri advances in Empire: that revolutionary activity should not attempt to insert itself into the presumed weakness and ‘internal contradictions’ of the capitalist system, but should activate the autonomous will of the proletariat alone. This is not the place to give an account of the theories of Lukács and Korsch; I will just provide a short and simplified account of their positions within the horizon of the Marxist discussions of the 1920s.

In 1923 Lukács wrote Gerschichte und Klassebewußtsein while Korsch wrote Marxismus und Philosophie; in each case they focused on the moment of consciousness and theory in revolution.(27) Lukács and Korsch both criticized the repression performed by Marxist theory of its own origin in Hegelian philosophy. This repression had resulted in a transformation of ‘materialistic dialectic’ into a sociology in which the dialectic relationship between consciousness and society was ignored in favour of a positivistic social reformism. Without a revolution of consciousness no proletarian action would be possible or could be interpreted as proletarian, since the proletariat would still be imprisoned within bourgeois thought. According to Lukács and Korsch, Marxism after Marx had misunderstood the question of consciousness to be a matter of pure ideology to be simply passed over in favour of scientific investigations of the relations of production. Marxism had degenerated into a special science of the laws of motion of capitalist society, observing its object from without and projecting the communist goal into a distant future. In contrast to these development, Lukács and Korsch wanted to recover Marxism as the theory of proletarian revolution in which conscious human activity transforms the world. Lukács’s and Korsch’s Materialist Dialectics therefore placed the dialectical unity of theory and practice, consciousness and being, at the heart of its theory and rejected the primacy of matter over mind as a concrete response to the fact that, in 1923, all objective conditions for the revolutionary destruction of capitalism were present: what was missing was the subjective condition, proletarian class consciousness, which was still bounded by economic bourgeois presuppositions. Marx’s philosophy was “a revolutionary philosophy whose task is to participate in the revolutionary struggles waged in all spheres of society against the whole of the existing order, by fighting in one specific area – philosophy. Eventually, it aims at the concrete abolition of philosophy as part of the abolition of bourgeois social reality as a whole, of which it is an ideal component”.(28) The main target of their critique was the tendency to pose an automatic development – lifted from natural science – for society itself and eliminate the subjectivity of the proletariat as the conscious subject of history. After Marx and beginning with Engels a whole tradition within Marxism had suppressed the dialectical relation between subject and object in the historical process. According to Lukács and Korsch, revolutionary Marxism had degenerated into a science of legitimation; their task was to reveal the catastrophic practical objectivism contained in the economist theory and in the idea of the law-like historical inevitability of socialism. This objectivist attitude was meaningless for a practical theory of proletarian revolution, which should mobilise workers and explore the present situation, the level of consciousness, the level of organization and the proletariat’s disposition toward struggle.

This critique of what was termed Zusammenbruchstheorie – capitalism as a system inevitably collapses due to internal contradictions – resembles the account Negri and the Italian traditions give of the relationship between working class and capital, where the working class is an antagonistic force that, in a conscious attack, should reject the capitalist definition of its members as workers in favour of self-valorisation.(29) The common critique of objectivist Marxism’s theory of decline is therefore of great relevance, but unfortunately this critique tends to disappear in Empire’s extremely positive account of the present situation. Negri’s tendency to jubilatory optimism and overstatement of tendencies as realities has increasingly become unsustainable as a radical critique of the present situation. In Empire and interviews since, he, and promoter Hardt, tend to project scattered contemporary tendencies such as the protests in Seattle, Prague, Göteborg, and Genoa, into the conclusion that communism is already here, and all we need to do is fix the small problem of dismantling capital. Behind Negri’s back – to speak Debordian – a theory of decline in subjectivist guise manifests itself. If Negri had bothered to read Korsch – the Italian operaismo payed only scant attention to Korsch and rejected him as a subjectivist utopian – he might have been able to see clear of slipping into his own decline thesis. Exclamation marks or other indicators of self-belief or inappropriate complacency are scattered throughout the book (I haven’t bothered counting the frequency of “in fact” or “really”, but just chose any page and go ahead…). The slick enthusiasm is even infused with a form of religious mysticism that is supposed to substitute for a more accurate account or thick description of the present conditions. An extremely abstract history is all that is left when the proletariat is dressed in religious garment. The confidence of Empire is annoying, to say the least, and I would much prefer yet another dose of Panzieri’s ‘hot investigation’.30 The general overview of history contained in Empire, encompassing more or less two thousand years, has the effect of weakening its argument: the actual analysis of specific historical events becomes meaningless, because one event becomes equivalent to the next. Historical analysis is again and again overridden by a framework, which depicts class struggle as the uncompromising combat between two Titans, the multitude and capital. The transition towards the present global political order in which communism is imminent has been under way since antiquity, according to Negri and Hardt.(31) This homogenizing grab on history also results in a very schematic understanding of temporality, whereby the struggle between multitude and capital rushes forward complicating the axiomatic of capital and exploiting the multitude ever more until the final countdown takes place. Negri and Hardt might be right – following Deleuze and Guattari – that contemporary capitalism functions as an axiomatic system, its abstract rules of capital being employed recursively in any situation without necessarily being tied to this or that specific meaning, but this does not eliminate the possibility of an interruption of these fluxes in the particular circumstances in that they are necessarily also localised in specific regional features. Empire ends up presenting a seamless globalisation of capitalist forms where people not yet constituting immaterial labour and cooperative production are abandoned. All those exploited by Empire but not working with information, language and science are thrown overboard as Negri and Hardt gain more and more speed the less concrete their analyses get and the closer they get to 2000.

Given their continual references to Deleuze and Guattari, it is astonishing how easy it is for them to filter out all the specificities and discriminants within the multitude, keeping only their common attribute as embodiment of immaterial labour. Their analysis is grounded in dogmatic axioms that are positivistic reifications of Marxist theory, which it is hard to defend. Notions such as ‘class’, ‘worker’ and ‘state’ becomes uncritically accepted abstract categories which hide the present in theoretical garments of yesterday, thereby allowing Negri to forget the lesson of Giorgio Cesarano: that we have to go to the roots of things – be radical – and not believe in noncontaminated spaces like the proletariat, marginality, or the party.(32) Negri and Hardt transpose the historically specific determination of the working class as revolutionary into a new time lacking practically all the determinations that enabled Marx to validate that class. In certain passages Negri and Hardt expose a vivid belief in progress and new technologies that is simply astonishing and resembles the belief someone like the anarchist Gustav Landauer had when he proclaimed that: “The father of Marxism is steam”.(33) There is quite a distance from Panzieri’s groundbreaking critique of the way capital uses technology to Negri’s present elitist jubilation over computers and the Internet. Confronted with the present adversity I am not sure that the only worthwhile reaction is resistance or opposition through technology. What Gareth Steadman Jones terms ‘enclosed or defensive conservatism’ might also be an accurate answer to the changes going on.(34) A ‘culture of consolation’ might be necessary in so far as it enables psychic survival for people. The rush forward into millenarianism prevents Negri and Hardt from allowing contradictory temporalities to be present and active in Empire.(35) Although the power of the nation state is weakened by the transnationalisation of capital, the battle between multitude and capital is still more often than not centred in the nation state. Not only is Empire’s a very simple history, it also raises doubts whether communism is that close. Why now, when the battle has been going on for more than two thousand years? Has Negri created his own ideology out of Marxism?

Following the working class uprisings in the 1960s and 1970s, capital performed an informational restructuring process in which the passage from formal subsumption of labour under capital to real subsumption was completed. This mutation involved a total integration of labour into the process of value extraction. All productive processes now arise within capital itself. Production and reproduction of the entire society occurs within capital. The advanced capitalism that is the result of this restructuring is, according to Negri and Hardt, characterised by an immediate use of science and processing of information. The most important productive force is now an ‘immaterial labour’ that creates the informational and cultural content of the commodity. “Since the production of services results in no material and durable good, we define the labor involved in this production as immaterial labor – that is, labor that produces an immaterial good, such as service, a cultural product, knowledge, or communication”.(36) This transformation might give the impression that exploitation has disappeared or been transferred to ‘underdeveloped’ spaces within capitalist society, but this is not the case. Capital controls the new configurations of labour, but only from the outside. The older organisation of labour through disciplinary power no longer functions. Exploitation is now performed on a higher level in which the subject is recognised in its creative subjectivity, but controlled in the management of the power it possesses. Capital is only able to control this advanced working class from the outside because of the high level of technical-scientific competence and the level of cooperation immaterial labour presupposes. For Negri and Hardt, Marx’s concept of the ‘general intellect’ – according to Marx general intellect is connected to constant capital – has been altered in the passage to the present stage of capitalism so that it is now allied with living labour.(37) This of course means that general intellect virtually transcends the capitalist system.

This might be the core of Negri and Hardt’s argument in Empire: immaterial labour and the cooperative nature of present production are fusing into a new synthesis separate from capitalism and its state. This situation leaves capital the possibility of external control of the working class: capital is thus transformed into a parasite sucking the power out of the working class in order to survive. In this situation a necessary step consists in thinking a break with the state and domination. Negri and Hardt follow the work of Paolo Virno on this matter and use the notion of ‘exodus’ as well as pick up the notion of ‘constituent power’ from Negri’s work on Spinoza.(38) The possibility of the social is found in an absolutely positive power of life – an immanent field of power – that prepares a radical democratic vision in which the social order is constituted by the desire of the multitude. The multitude is an ontological power that refuses any juridical status, is unable to make political pacts and is radically heterogeneous to the state and its submission of the people-one. The power of the multitude is democratic because it expresses a radical openness to any conceivable singularity and never fixes anyone in an identity. Humans strive not after law and order but to create themselves in the encounter with others or the other. The abstract reason of the state is opposed by the immanent powers of the event that creates the world. The social lives of this ‘anomaly’ cannot be transferred to the state or a sovereign and fights, through escape, against the capture of the state. “Battles against Empire might be won through subtraction and defection. This desertion does not have a place; it is the evacuation of the places of power”.(39) Through exodus, the working class escapes the state’s attempt to lock them into a dialectical relation in which capital might profit from the power of the working class. It is an alternative to dialectical forms of politics that will simply evacuate the state’s means of support and create a different society. On the basis of Negri’s analysis of the spinozan notion of potenza, he and Hardt sketch a theory, or a political ontology, of a radical democracy that is able to constitute itself forever, in which the constituent power never is negated in the constituted. “We need to consider […] the power of the multitude to make history that continues and is reconfigured today within Empire. It is a question of transforming a necessity imposed on the multitude […] into a condition of possibility of liberation, a new possibility on this new terrain of humanity […] Our reasoning is based on two methodological approaches that are intended to be nondialectical and absolutely immanent: the first is critical and deconstructive, aiming to subvert the hegemonic languages and social structures and thereby reveal an alternative ontological basis that resides in the creative and productive practices of the multitude; the second is constructive and ethico-political, seeking to constitute an effective social, political alternative, a new constituent power”.(40) The constituent power is opposed to any form of contractual transference of power from the multitude through the people to the sovereign. But when Negri and Hardt approach the problem of constitution, things get prosaic: “A constituent power that connects mass intellectuality and self-valorization in all the arenas of the flexible and nomadic productive social cooperation is the order of the day. In other words, the program of the social worker is a project of constitution. In today’s productive matrix, the constituent power of labour can be expressed as self-valorization of the human (the equal right of citizenship for all over the entire sphere of the world market), as cooperation (the right to communicate, construct language, and control communications networks), and as political power, or really as the constitution of a society in which the basis of power is defined by the expression of the needs of all. This is the organization of the social worker and immaterial labour, an organization of productive and political power as a biological unity managed by the multitude, organized by the multitude, directed by the multitude – absolute democracy in action”.(41) I must admit that I personally experience a discrepancy between Negri’s radical and constructivist political ontology and what he tries to conceptualise as examples of this. He remains very unclear about the working of this absolute democracy. Remaining unclear or evading might not be bad, but Negri and Hardt offer nothing even resembling an account of the functioning of this democracy. No analysis of the specificity and problems of direct democracy are supplied. The possible distinction between the traditional Marxist concept of direct democracy and Negri and Hardt’s concept of absolute democracy is not even discussed. Things get no better when we turn to Negri’s more ‘philosophical’ work (such as Il potere constituente), and it seems as if Hardt and Negri avoid accounting for the specificity of absolute democracy for the precise reason that it is a recycling of a very old model: the soviet. That is, Lenin’s soviets. In his discussion of the Russian Revolution, Negri stays on very traditional ground and seems to side with Lenin against the ultra-left movement or the council-communists. I will not engage in yet another reading of the complex political-philosophical disputes occurring around the Russian Revolution between Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin, and between the radical left tendency led by Anton Pannekoek and Herman Gorter and Lenin once again.42 Just note the stubborn and uncritical use of Lenin that Negri apparently has no problems in carrying out. The political alternatives to rapidly consolidating Soviet Communism in the years until 1923 is not mentioned at all by Negri and Hardt, who remain within a dogmatic reading of Lenin in which the latter was the practical revolutionary who was able to separate politics and philosophy. I will not go deeper into the question of the Soviet Union here to show how what happened in Russia was that the Bolsheviks performed a counterrevolution and established a very problematic statecapitalistic model that was a result of a complete misunderstanding of Marx’s critique of the political economy. In 1917 almost three years into the First World War a revolution against the tsar broke out in Russia. The regime of the tsar was destroyed after which a provisional government with a background in the weak Russian parliament in existence since 1905 took power. In November a fraction from one of the revolutionary parties staged a coup and within a few years all political activities other than those of the Bolsheviks’ were banned. The name ‘Bolsheviks’ meant majority in Russian and the party had gotten their name because in an earlier congress they formed the majority in the Russian Social Democratic party. In 1918 the Bolsheviks broke away from The Social Democratic II. International and formed their own communist or III. International. Within a few months Russia experienced political freedom, meaning freedom of press, speech and assembly, followed by a counterrevolution that within a short time determined all aspects of the process of revolution. In January 1918 a democratically elected Russian National Assembly gathered in which the Bolsheviks made up a fourth of the assembly but the assembly was shortly thereafter suspended. This development and the total lack of a theory of abolishing the capitalist system within Bolshevism – Lenin never wrote anything in even the slightest political-economical terms about how to proceed – is absent from Negri and Hardt’s rather positive account of the work of Lenin. Lenin talked his party-fraction into taking power and begin revolutionising economic reforms no one knew anything about. They only knew that they wanted the best for the people and that they wanted a revolution, wanted to do something. The civil war, the hunger, and the NEP policy did not have anything to do with revolution. Social democrats had for several decades been spreading the myth that Marx had developed a scientific theory about socialism. The keyword was scientific a conception Lenin kept when he pretended that the communists would carry Marx’s theory through where the social democratic parties had failed. Because of this the economy in the Soviet Union was referred to as socialistic even though left communists such as Pannekoek and Amadeo Bordiga kept insisting that capitalism was in no way abolished after the revolution in 1917. Capital was merely expropriated by the state resulting in a gigantic meaningless economy in which money served no purpose because the state owned everything and destroyed its means of financing the system by issuing money and thereby destroying taxation. The economic and political system Lenin helped establish in the Soviet Union was totalitarian and instead of singling out Lenin as a model for future revolutionaries Negri and Hardt could have spent a bit more time going dealing with the rich challenge posed by the left-communists. The Leninist model should have no great relevance now for the multitude as it didn’t then for the worldproletariat.

But the attempt to rethink the power of the state is a necessary step in the right direction. And if Negri’s Empire is not able to do the job, we might consult Giorgio Agamben’s Homo sacer book, where the state is rethought and connected to origins other than the contract or the membership in a community. He wants to supplement the anarchist and the Marxist critique of the state form because both of them have been insufficient, and he is aware of the stakes in a reformulation of the theory of the state as he remarks in the introduction to his book”the theory of the state […] is the reef on which the revolutions of our century have been shipwrecked”.(43) Agamben continues the work of Foucault who (in La volonté de savoir) argued that politics in modernity has been transformed into biopolitics, meaning that the most important function of power is no longer to take lives but to pervade them. But neither Hannah Arendt – who both analysed how the working human being and biological life as such took up the centre of political affairs and also analysed totalitarian powers – nor Foucault were able to analyse the principal space of biopolitics in the 20th century: the concentration camp. Foucault also refused to connect the study of the political technologies, which make it possible for the state to integrate the care for the natural life of the citizen, with the study of the techniques of the self, which produces an attachment to identity and self-consciousness. Today this refusal is no longer sustainable to the extent that these technologies tend to converge. According to Agamben, both the biopolitical and the juridical-institutional models of power must be analysed together as the introduction of the bare life in politics is the operational scene of sovereignty. “It can even be said that the production of a biopolitical body is the original activity of sovereign power”.(44) The problem then: why the political is constituted through excluding bare life. Agamben exemplifies the structure of sovereignty through Carl Schmitt’s notion of the exception whereby the sovereign structure of law has its power in the possibility of the suspension of the rule such that a state of exception emerges. The outside is already included in the domain of the sovereign by means of the suspension of the juridical order’s validity. “The state of exception is thus not the chaos that precedes order but rather the situation that results from its suspension”.(45) This paradoxical, sovereign logic of exclusion-inclusion creates a zone of indistinction where exception becomes the rule and the distinction between rule and exception gets blurred in favour of a suspension of pre-existing legal structures. A flux between inside and outside, state of nature and law, rule and exception is activated by this simultaneous withdrawal and exercise of power. When the sovereign acts, human beings are abandoned or left outside the law and exposed to death. Bare life is infinitely exposed not to the rules of the city but to the powers of politics. Doubly exposed or abandoned because it is afforded no protection and because it entertains a relationship with power only through exclusion. “The relation of exception is a relation of ban. He who has been banned is not, in fact, simply set outside the law and made indifferent to it but rather abandoned by it, that is, exposed and threatened on the threshold in which life and law, outside and inside, become indistinguishable”.(46) This structure of exception is an ontological phenomenon that has become the rule in present day society. If we should save anything from the work of Negri it might be the concept of constituent power that, together with the structure of exclusion, cease to be political concepts in a strict sense but rather becomes ontological concepts. Constituent power is power in the sense of potentiality or possibility – potenza – in opposition to constituted power – potere – which necessitates a fundamental rethinking of the ontological categories – we need a new relationship between possibility and reality – that bind together domination and constituent power.47 We do not need a potential politics but a politics of potentiality, one that transforms the zone of indistinction into an exposition of forms of life. “By the term form-of-life […] I mean a life that can never be separated from its form, a life in which it is never possible to isolate something such as naked life […] A political life, that is, a life directed toward the idea of happiness and cohesive with a form-of-life, is thinkable only starting from the emancipation from such a division, with the irrevocable exodus from any sovereignity. The question about the possibility of a nonstatist politics necessarily takes this form: Is today something like a form-of-life, a life for which living itself would be at stake in its own living, possible? Is today a life of power available?”.(48)


It is well known we have been witnessing yet another of history’s great ironies over the last ten to fifteen years, with the almost jubilatory return to the practices of ‘situationism’ of the 1950s and 1960s.(49) What still seemed to be defensible as an egalitarian dimension of that practice – its impulse to connect an artistic expression to a political message, its enactment of the ‘death’ of the author in order to open a space for new audiences and potential collective production enabling a revolution – has in the current return resulted in the ever more cynical triumph of the marketing strategies of the contemporary art world. Of course many of you would respond that it seems almost conservative to stay interested in contemporary art and the ways it reintroduces older practices as their own, that a narrative build on the notion of chronological temporality should be abandoned and that now might be as good a time as ever for performing that abandonment. But as all of us also know art and aesthetics has played and still plays a very specific role in modern society; unless we are willing to risk embracing a bourdieuian ‘every-one-in-their-place’ scenario, (50) we must consider yet again the lessons of the practices traditionally associated with Internationale situationniste, not least because their struggle with the problem of the relationship between art and politics might present us with a base from which to start out from. The abandonment of art in favour of radical action undertaken by the situationists is still worthy of consideration and we still need to ask ourselves what would have happened had Internationale situationniste not excluded its artist in 1962, if they had not devoted itself to text and theory but had attempted to negotiate a dialect of aesthetic and political activity. (If I’m allowed a small excurse, it might be appropriate to question whether art actually still does play an important role in contemporary society. One of the lessons of the numerous attacks on modern or contemporary art we have been witnessing during the last 10 years in USA, France, Germany, England as well as in Denmark and practically all European countries seems to be that the role of art is changing.(51) Art has been under attack for some time now, and it seems as if no insult is strong enough to account for the frustration when standing in front of a new work of art. What has happened? Can we just neglect to take these attacks serious and dismiss them as Poujadist or ought we go deeper? Perhaps we should ask ourselves whether we are witnessing a great turn-around, where the political, the religious, the ethical, and the aesthetic are seeking new ways of relating to each other, in a context which no longer accords art a pre-eminent role? Could the present crisis of art be a sign of fundamental questioning of the exalted position of art in the implicit philosophy of the modern world? It is interesting that it is only within the last decades that it has become obvious that the modern epoch was characterised by the affirmation of an ontological pre-eminence of art over all other human activities, that art was the unanimous utopia of modernity. That it is slowly becoming visible that to much was asked of art perhaps signals that the situation is changing, that the belief in art’s power is imploding (Even the avant-garde or the wider current of nihilist and ironic modernism was negatively based on this modern consensus on the profoundly significant status of art as solution; only as long as the prejudices and norms that the avant-garde denounced were alive was the avant-garde intelligible). This crisis of belief in the powers of art occurs interestingly enough at the same moment that the combination of neoliberalism and capitalist market-forces is gaining world hegemony. The moment when pure axiomatic creation – the essence of capitalism – has managed to occupy the horizon totally, modern art suddenly seems dated or redundant. The implicit connection between the principle of modern art and economic liberalism means that art after the ‘success’ of neoliberal capitalism loses some of the power that was ascribed to it in modernity. But this development should not lead us to blame art for being indifferent to value or look for some kind of foundation in art. There is no point in turning art into the scapegoat of the success of neoliberalist capitalism. Which turns out to be completely empty – nothing but pure axiomatic creation – the moment when it gains world acceptance.)

The theory of Internationale situationniste is a complex affair. As a history that includes different publications, some films, the constitution and dissolution of an organization, it embraced a body of standpoints, concepts and analyses within the fields of political economy, visual art, working-class movements, everyday life, history and film. These fields were not to be considered separately, but understood to constitute a unity for the situationists’ theoretical and practical interventions. For the situationists contestation of the totality – which was to say first and foremost of an entire existence – was without doubt the only worthwhile adventure. But as Debord said in his film Critique de la separation, the contestation of the totality must confront the fact that “[i]n reality no adventure is directly formed for us. The adventures of life form part of the whole range of legends transmitted by cinema or in other ways; part of the whole spectacular sham of history”.(52) Because all endeavours are always already historically mediated, work on the totality must always be a work on mediations and, in an increasingly dominated by visual spectacle, this in turn means work on the spectacle. The groups primary occupation was thus to produce a radical critique of society. Not only with regard to the established economical-political order in the world, with its money- and statepower, but also with regard to any conceivable organized or theoretical critique of this order insofar as the latter merely demanded limited transformations and not the immediate abolition of the state- and moneyform.

The group of course existed from 1957 to 1972. In these years the primary occupation of the group was the “construction of situations, that is to say, the concrete construction of momentary ambiances of life and their transformation into a superior passional quality”.(53) As is evident in the definition, the situation was meant to supersede the concept of the work of art and was in this sense a radicalisation of the assault on art performed by dada and surrealism. The situationists were convinced that the whole world should be torn down then rebuilt under the sign not of the economy but of a generalized creativity. The situation was therefore necessarily collective, a demand for a workless community. A demand with global detonating power, functioning as a metaphoric stand-in for the global revolution. The situation left no space for interior or exterior, everything was to take place outside – collectively. The situation was thus not a privileged or exceptional moment in aesthetic terms. It was neither life as art nor art as life. In the situation both art and life were to undergo a decisive transformation.

The entirety of art was certified dead by Internationale situationniste. The alternative was a situationist invention called détournement, a collage-like technique whereby pre-existing elements were reassembled into new creations. Détournement comprised both an aesthetic and political critique. The technique was defined by Debord and Gil Wolman as the “[t]he mutual interference of two worlds of feeling, or the bringing together of two independent expressions” which through this juxtaposition, “supersedes the original elements and produces a synthetic organization of greater efficacy”.(54) As such the situationists transformed the role of creation from being the artist wrestling with the materials of nature to being the intervention of radical critique into society’s systems of communication. The traditional artistic material was replaced by a new material (the social discourses) – and problems of form were reduced to a question of the placement and efficiency of the situation. This substitution transformed the entire vocabulary of aesthetics: beauty was no longer defined as harmony but as conflict. Beauty had to do exactly with precision and sharpness and was to be exercised in actual life, not in a distinct sphere outside everyday-life. Beauty was a weapon to be used in the combat against the almighty enemy of people’s daily actions, in which they willingly sold their daily activities for money and thereby relinquished control of the products they produced.

According to the situationists it was time to realize in life what had previously been merely promised in art. This nonetheless included the negation of art – its transcendence and separation from life’s other aspects – as a continuation of modern art’s critical role. Once the historical avant-garde art was dead, it was to be surpassed by a new form of life and revolutionary activity – a form that would a once preserve and realise the content of modern art. Modern society was riven with contradictions and art had been given the function to represent the unity that had been lost, but because no part of the totality could replace the totality itself, art itself as an autonomous sphere could only be a contradiction. It was precisely in its role as a replacement for what was missing that art was forced to refuse being nothing other than the image of those lacks. Society had reduced communication to the cultural realm but the progressive dissolution of traditional communities meant that art now registered only the impossibility of communication. Art and capitalism had fused into a new synthesis: the spectacle. “All reasonably aware people of our time agree that art can no longer be justified as an superior activity, or even as a compensatory activity to which one could honourably devote oneself”.(55) Debord and the situationists were among the first to show this important alteration of the workings of capital – that knowledge and culture simultaneously constituted the fundamental ingredient in the fabrication of all commodities and represented the specific products of one particular sphere, the culture industry. After the Second World War culture played a decisive role in capitalist civilisation and replaced the industrial mode of production as the leading paradigm of capitalist development according to Debord.

Modern art reached its culmination and came to an end with dada and the surrealists. These contemporaries of the great proletarian revolution strove, although imperfectly, to abolish and to realise art. The twin defeats of the political and artistic avant-garde in the inter-war period brought the active phase of art’s decay to a close. “The two currents that marked the end of modern art were dadaism and surrealism. Though they were only partially conscious of it, they paralleled the proletarian revolutionary movement’s last great offensive; and the halting of that movement, which left them trapped within the very artistic space that they had declared dead and buried, was the fundamental cause of their own immobilization […] [D]adaism sought to abolish art without realizing it, and surrealism sought to realize art without abolishing it. The critical position since worked out by the situationists demonstrates that the abolition and the realization of art are inseparable aspects of a single transcendence of art”.(56) Art had now arrived at a point where it understood itself to be a form of alienation, a projection of human activity into a separate entity. Henceforth anyone who wished to remain faithful to the true meaning of art could do so only by negating art and realising it in the theory and practice of the critique of the society of the spectacle.

Art had to realise its promise not because of improvements in social conditions but because the prerequisites of such an improvement were now present. The development of the forces of production was now so far advanced as to allow humanity to emerge from mere survival, and accede to an authentic life at last. The goal of the situationists was to restore to the body its plundered powers; but only with the abolition of private property and the money-form would the senses be able to come into their own. This was not because money was the power of the society of the spectacle: money was just a social convention, whose only effect was the one ascribed to it by people. If people refused to sell their work refused to be defined as workers, money would not be able to perform any task whatsoever. The power of capital was the complicity of people, in their everyday activities, with the definition that capital attributes to them.

Internationale situationniste was critical towards any notion of the decline of capital. In opposition to a long tradition of objectivist Marxism, which believes that capitalism degenerates by itself, the situationists insisted that the proletariat should act as the active subject of history. The fall of capitalism would not happen by the force of some logic operating behind the backs of the proletariat. In contrast to a wide variety of Marxist positions like Trotskyism, the situationists refused to talk about capitalism as being ‘progressive’ or ‘declining’, or of the need for another mode of production. According to the situationists, communism was not a specific mode of production where the state owned the production-apparatus, but another way of living. Through the critique of this understanding of communism as a mode of production, the situationists argued that it was people, not capitalism, that were in crisis. People were decadent and had to negate themselves. The proletariat negates and transcends its alienation and itself. “As for the subject of history, it can only be the self-production of the living: the living becoming master and possessor of its world – that is, of history – and coming to exist as consciousness of its own activity”.(57) The revolution depended not on a crisis in capital but on the active and conscious behaviour of the proletariat. Beyond the society of the spectacle and the alienation of capitalism, people could participate fully in the conscious and continual organization of life.

What prevented this communist life was the society of the spectacle. The spectacle was the supreme form of alienation, when real life was increasingly deprived of quality and broken up into activities that were fragmentary and separated from one another, images reflected back as real life. Individuals found themselves cut off from everything of concern to them, their only contact was therewith mediated by images chosen by others and distorted by interests other than their own. What actually united people – namely images and language – was suddenly reifying them. Images and language were making people strangers to themselves. They were separated by that which should unite them. “We live within language as within polluted air. Despite what humorists think, words do not play. Nor do they make love, as Breton thought, except in dreams. Words work – on behalf of the dominant organization of life […] Words coexist with power in a relation analogous to that which proletarians […] have with power. Employed almost constantly, exploited full time for every sense and nonsense that can be squeezed out of them, they still remain in some sense fundamentally strange and foreign”.(58)

According to Debord the spectacle is the autocratic reign of the commodity economy where subject and attribute has been inverted. Man has become an attribute to an abstraction that he himself created, a fact he no longer recognizes as such. The state and money are the two fundamental forms of alienation in which people alienates themselves: as members of a community and as workers. Only in so far as a person partakes of the abstract, for instance is a member of a state or possesses wealth, does he have value or exist. But reification cannot completely erase the subject of history: the proletariat is immune to the abstraction of capital and has desires the spectacle can never fulfil. At several points in the writings of Debord it seems as if he describes the spectacle as a power exerted from without upon the worker’s lived reality. The spectacle is an invasion upon life, a distorted reflection of the subject who then basically is still not alienated from within, only from without. “The spectacle appears at once as society itself, as a part of society and as a means of unification. As a part of society, it is that sector where all attention, all consciousness, converges. Being isolated – and precisely for that reason – this sector is the locus of illusion and false consciousness; the unity it imposes is merely the official language of generalized separation”.(59) The spectacle is the opposite of life.

The notion of alienation is central in the work of Debord. It serves to show how at a particular time western societies were caught up in a kind of self-simulation. The society of the spectacle was a society exposed to nothing but itself. In the abundance of commodities and signs a symbolic lack became evident, a lack Debord and the situationists interpreted as problematic. Beyond the lack, hidden beneath the profusion of images, an authentic presence was realisable. This idea of a real presence however covered the real insight of Debord – an insight we have to presuppose under any alternative endeavour – that people are not so much alienated as simply lacking identity, property and purpose. That man is above all a testimony to a lack of being. Both the exploited (who are reduced to mere survival and are denied the right to existence) and the secure (who know that neither their well-being nor the poor-being of others produce any kind of sense of the world or sense of being man) lack identity.

The alienation thesis designated thus the situation in which a worker was exploited and forced to sell his labour for a wage, the product of his work being seized by his employer. Alienation was not actual exploitation but the conditions under which the worker was obliged to accept this theft. These conditions or these states of mind forced the worker out of himself. The worker was not able to be himself due to something without, which stole something essential form the worker. The problem with the notion of alienation (and it is evident in Debord) is that this notion rests on an idea of possession of oneself, that the self is proprietor of its self, master of itself and that this mastery is lost in alienation. First there is identity, I am what I am, then, in alienation, I stop being who I am or at least loose some of myself. This idea of being master of oneself is problematic and needs to be abandoned because it presents a nostalgic investigation of the alienation of man on earth.(60) Placing the critique of separation solely in a soft sociological analysis of political economy risks dramatising reification as a loss of authenticity. The temptation of constructing history as happening, whose synchronic impact is a result of the identification of the diachronic with the history of technique, which is interpreted as a decline, has to be avoided. If one looks at language it becomes clear that alienation cannot only be judged as loss of originality and authenticity. We all know that we do not master language, that language in a certain sense masters us instead, knows more than we do; we know that language has been around much longer than we have and will be here for thousands of years. When we speak we are unaware of most of the meanings words have and even though we pretend to know what we are saying we don’t. Language is always in excess and it produces ambiguities. But this alienation is not bad, this alienation is actually very productive and shows us that it is not possible to reduce language, words and phrases to determinate things, but that we are dependent upon other things than ourselves. And that we are necessarily exposed to this lack.

We all know now that it is not possible to deduct alienation from an analysis of the production-process. This means that the separation between work-process and valorisation still articulates the imperative for accumulation, but that this articulation does not subsume everyday-life. Wo/man lacks meaning and everyday-life is banal but not only because of exploitation. Lack and banality are fundamental or grounding so to speak. Of course people are posited in an ‘alienating’ or impenetrable situation and are reified by both the wage-form and the short-and longsighted accumulation-motive of Gesamtkapital, but not all of us are slaves of the material life (in the sense we used to mean it); that is not to say that the individual has control over material life. Very wealthy people, in certain sense, might do so (we have to be able to make this judgment without feeling envy or compromising the style of our analysis with resentment).


I have myself been guilty of doing some stylistic charades in trying to be truehearted to the practice of I. S. when I signed a text on the history of Internationale situationniste ‘Hans Lucas’.(61) As some on you probably know Hans Lucas was the pseudonym that Jean-Luc Godard used for his first writings in Cahiers du Cinéma. By signing the text with the name of Hans Lucas I was making a gesture towards withdrawing the critique I was advancing in the text as well as showing the complicated nature of writing about Internationale situationniste. I wanted to show that I considered it a problem that the text did not, so to speak, try to advance situationist practice and develop an appropriate historical continuation of the project. ‘How to take them seriously now?’ was the question I was trying to figure out (needless to say I’m still struggling to stage a certain stratum of situationism as still vital today, and not simply the subject of journalistic eulogies and intellectual histories). As well as signing the article with the name of Hans Lucas I staged a nervous and cacophonic discourse that was on the brink of breakdown. Interspersed in the text words like ‘further’ and ‘move on’ appeared and were supposed to indicate a rapidity and speed intended to exhaust the reader, who was made aware of the text’s artificiality. The beating heart pumped out pulses through the circuits of the textual machine. Falling in just behind the flows of words, the author sequenced its flow to martial rhythms, punctuated with cracks that send crackling palpitations across the nervous system of the text. These ‘surface’ indications were supposed to prevent the text from persuading anyone of anything. The text shivered or was flexible because in every sentence it was evident that the critique of Internationale situationniste was not grounded on any definite criteria as no textual arguments ever are. I tried to (re)present or even act out a certain vertigo that occurs when thought realises that it has no real foundation. I was trying to make it clear that it was not my aim to provide anyone – least of all myself – with a set of mini-manuals useful for the study of the situationists. The exercise was not conceived of as a conspective statement about their work – nor my own. By gesturing to Godard I was trying to compromise my text beforehand, I was trying to mark some opening, or lacuna, in the very presuppositions of the text. For as you know Internationale situationniste did not approve of the films of Godard and wrote dismissingly in the tenth issue of their journal: “In cinema Godard presently represents formal pseudofreedom and the pseudocritique of manners and values – the two inseparable manifestations of the substitute for recuperated modern art”.(62)

Unlike Internationale situationniste, which in 1962 expelled members committed to the production of artistic works in order that the remaining core might liberate political practice from the realm of art-as-object and action-as-spectacle, the directors of La nouvelle vague ironically embraced technology and appearance in order to jam the cultural logic of commodity production and circulation. Godard and his fellow directors did not define themselves against commercial cinema; rather, they tried to tear down the walls separating art and business. In this sense La nouvelle vague articulated a decentralised form of artistic production analogous in form to the regime of accumulation known as post-Fordism. The films they made were characterised by the new technology that was available in the late 1950s, which enabled them to work on location rather than in the studio. The small crews and lower budgets that became possible because of inexpensive lightweight cameras, lightweight light equipment and cheap portable sound equipment encouraged experimentation and improvisation and gave the directors more artistic freedom over their work. La nouvelle vague made semiautonomous universes of self-determining objects and flows of desire beyond the control of a single creator and beyond the comprehension of any single spectator. The films had a casual and ‘natural’ look but in contrast to the pre-World War cinematic avant-garde no actual coherent aesthetic was developed or articulated. Even though Francois Truffaut and Godard wrote several articles in which they criticized the ‘serious’ French cinema of realism and analysed its vulgarity, La nouvelle vague never positioned itself expressible as an avant-garde with specific political or artistic goals. According to Truffaut the films produced in France after the Second World War were perfectly rendered and perfectly dull. The French film was characterised by a studio system, which exploited high production values, conventional genres and glamorous stars to project an image of Frenchness tied to good taste and high culture. But although La nouvelle vague created itself as opposition to this cheesy film-industry it never articulated itself as a coherent avant-garde with a revolutionary teleology and a particular artistic practice and style. Truffaut, Godard, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol and Jacquette Rivette in their writings in Cahiers du Cinéma all criticized the studio system and the contemporary French film but did not elaborate a specific artistic program. Different directors and critics developed somewhat different methods and theories within a loose framework of common attitudes, this looseness was evident in the fact that they all gave prominence to different directors in their writings, directors from both Hollywood and Italy and France. The films of these directors were considered as singular artworks, which together constituted a film-politics centred on the relevance of the point-of-view of the cinema-artistic auteur. Naturally the directors of La nouvelle vague themselves then intended to pursue their individual visions as directors and as a result it is impossible to categorize the films in any straight forward way except that they were all exemplified by emotional realism, richly complex characterisations, extensive use of ambiguity and avoidance of specific political issues in favour of focus on the personal. In contrast to the situationists’ focus on the varied landscape of the transformed Paris La nouvelle vague discovered a Paris of apartments and cafés where characters could seek their salvation in one another, through conversation and sexuality. Concomitantly the films and the writings of Godard, Truffaut and Resnais were characterised by a rhetorical slippage between anti- and pro-capitalist rhetoric, that might be explained as a consequence of a commonly felt sense of liberation after the occupation of France by the Nazi regime and the Vichy government.

One of the occupations that remained constant during the life of Internationale situationniste and Guy Debord was the making or rather unmaking of films. Although Debord was extremely critical of the actual development of cinema and to a certain extent regarded cinema as a privileged figure for the society of the spectacle, he nevertheless did not conflate the spectacle with the ‘spectacularity’ of the filmic medium. The notion of the spectacle did not refer to the realm of representation as such in Debord’s writings. The spectacle did not simply coincide with the sphere of images or with what we nowadays call the media, but was rather “a social relationship between people that is mediated by images”, the very alienation of human society.(63) The moment production appropriated the visual, the sensual and cultural, film appeared as a higher form of capital that had to be destructed. For Debord the spectacle designated a Weltanschauung – the alienation of late capitalism – that manifested itself in various spectacular phenomena, among them the cinema. “The world the spectacle holds up to view is at once here and elsewhere; it is the world of the commodity ruling over all lived experience”.(64) Cinema functioned not as the cause but as an illustration or figure for a socio-political and epistemological shift that had taken place under capitalism. Only insofar as cinema was synonymous with spectacle – a fostering of passivity, alienation – was it unacceptable and to be eliminated. Debord and the situationists stayed away from any notion of inherent objectification in the very structure of representation. For what was in need of critique was a historically specific set of cinematic practices, a certain cinema. An alternative cinematic practice incompatible with the economy of the spectacle remained possible. A cinematographic practice that was to be reconstructed on the basis of the alienated body. Because even though the bodily experience was historically mediated it was still possible to let it function as a guide on the road to another existence. It was possible to distinguish between the false and true desires and determine that which did not support the continued existence of the spectacle. The true desires were not based in some pre-existent biological sphere or in some kind of unconsciousness but were present in negative in everyday life. “Cinema […] is a different form of representation of things’ temporal deposition, here as there the interest is when the alienating satisfaction of the spectacle can at the same time be sketches, in negative, of a planned development of affective life, that is to say of affective events inseparable from thought and action”.(65)

Internationale situationniste was not only the interpreter of the historical process, but historical development was on their side. Thus they did not need to keep art alive because historical necessity was backing up their theses; they constituted the most advanced point of human progress. The proletariat was pushing the world forwards and the situationists were the critical consciousness of this revolutionary virtuality. The proletariat, as figure of this latent subjectivity, expressed itself in nascent and unconscious forms all over the world as the revolt of the youth, race riots and anticolonial struggles. The motor of history was class struggle and that is what must be understood. The necessity of revolution manifested itself as revolutionary consciousness, which was to be expressed in the conscious unification of theory and practice. The revolutionary consciousness was the transcendence of the separation between theory and practice. Practice and theory must be transcended and transformed into the work of the revolutionary consciousness as the separation between everyday life and political action has to be transcended in favour of real life. “The fusion of knowledge and action must be effected within the historical struggle itself, in such a way that each of these poles depends for its validation on the other. What constitutes the proletarian class as a subject is it’s organizing of revolutionary struggles and its organizing of society at the moment of revolution: this is the point at which the practical conditions of consciousness must be assembled and the theory of praxis verified by virtue of its transformation into theory-in-practice”.(66)

To be true to its promise art must refuse to be disinterested. It has to fuse with the selfconsciousness of the proletariat or else it will conform to and support the spectacle. It is no longer possible to create art. The notion of the artist is false in so far as the historical development has made it obsolete to create individual works that address a structurally separated audience. Now art has to be replaced by an effect of surpassing; an effect of conscious transcendence of theory and practice where art becomes the work of everyone. Art is no longer possible as art but only as component of a historical effort. The artist has to make himself the subject of a political action, has to abandon art as an activity destined for a disinterested public. “Art in the period of its dissolution, as a movement of negation in pursuit of its own transcendence in a historical society where history is not yet directly lived, is at once an art of change and a pure expression of the impossibility of change. The more grandiose its demand, the further from its grasp is true self-realization. This is an art that is necessarily avant-garde; and it is an art that is not. Its vanguard is its own disappearance”.(67) After the failure of dada who managed to say all but did not manage to do all and was not able to convert this desire to say all into immediate revolutionary action nothing remains of the avant-garde but an condensed effect, the work, the creator and the audience have disappeared.

The opposite of this avant-garde effect is recuperation. Recuperation is when the established taste manages to institutionalise the artwork and include it in the hegemonic consensus. Because of the historical development it was not enough to desire, realisation had to follow immediately unless the desire was to be swallow by the spectacle. La nouvelle vague and especially Godard was a favourite situationist example of someone who was not able to create the avant-garde effect but only created images in which the established left could mirror itself without proceeding to action. “Godard’s ‘critiques’ never go beyond the innocuous humor typical of nightclub comics or Mad magazine. His flaunted culture is largely the same as that of his audience, which has read exactly the same pages in the same drugstore paperbacks […] [Godard is] the Club Med of modern thought”.(68) Godard not only wasted the possibility of realising and transcending art by making films that could be recuperated by the spectacle but was himself a recuperator trying to prevent the situationist from placing their critical avant-garde effect in the flow of images of the society of the spectacle. “Godard’s ‘critical’ art and his admiring art critics all work to conceal the present problems of a critique of art — the real experience, in the SI’s phrase, of a ‘communication containing its own critique.’ In the final analysis the present function of godardism is to forestall a situationist use of the cinema”.(69)

The only contemporary director to receive a positive evaluation by Internationale situationniste was Alain Resnais, who was also affiliated with La nouvelle vague, but who, according to the anonymous situationist writing under the title: “Le film après Alain Resnais” in the third issue of the journal from 1959, was actually not to be considered a member of that group. “Alain Resnais’ film Hiroshima mon amour is carried along with the rest of this famous wave, and is met by the same sort of admiration. It is easy to recognize the superiority of Resnais’ film, but it seems that very few people are concerned with defining its exact nature”.(70) As a matter of fact Resnais’s film elicited a certain amount of controversy in the mainstream press.(71) The Catholic newspaper La Croix directly advises its readers not to see the film and the critic Armand Monjo wrote in the communist newspaper L’Humanité that the film could only appeal to collaborationists and Petain’s followers. The influential communist film critic George Sadoul was more positive towards the film but expresses mixed feelings about the scenario and the privileging of the dialogue and words. This was exactly what the anonymous reviewer of Internationale situationniste was especially pleased with. The way Resnais privileged the spoken word over images in the film was signalled out as the most interesting aspect about the film. It is the words that structure the film and determine our interpretation of the images. Whereas in the ordinary films of the period it is the gestures of the actors that narrates the film, in Hiroshima mon amour it is the recitations, the situationist reviewer wrote. The film is of historical importance because it shows that the future of film is concerned with the autonomy of sound. After the lettriste films of the early 50s destructed the image and denunciated any medium-external subjects it is now time to surpass this original rejection of images through the recontextualisation of images and the privileging of the word. The article ends with an astonishing analysis where the success of Hiroshima mon amour – the fact that the film subverts classical narrative continuity and reveals the spectacularity of each image – turns out to be not the merit of Resnais but of the historical development which, without the conscious knowledge of Resnais and his screenwriter Marguerite Duras, has profiled the most advanced historical knowledge – cinema is dead and is to be surpassed by revolutionary activity – into the dialogues and scenes. “The fundamental trait of the spectacle is the mise en scène of its own ruin. The importance of Resnais’ film – conceived, of course, outside of this historical perspective – is to add a new confirmation to this”.(72)

The goodwill that Resnais enjoyed within the situationist community did not last forever. After his second film, L’année dernière à Marienbad, he was dismissed as a fraud. While it was the dialogue in Hiroshima mon amour that had pleased the situationists because the dialogue was as horrible as the images were in the new film. The images were beautiful but without any historical necessity and had more to do with the aesthetic of the silent films from the 20s. “It is clearly a step back to the silents, 1925 aestheticism, the fixed gesture, the clothes, the artificial mysteries, the pseudo-Cocteau. The only thing missing is a snowball”.73 The dialogue was uninteresting and involuntarily comical. According to Michèle Bernstein, who wrote the article, the film was a typical example of a wide current within modern art in which the artist is aware of the difficulty of creating art in a commercialised public sphere and therefore only presents fragments and remnants of a possible work. Consequently the audience can produce several readings of the work and is forced to reconstruct the meaning of the work in an interventive way. The problem is of course that such artworks are so easily recuperated by a spectacle that doesn’t mind frayed works. Producing ‘open’ works of art where the spectator can inject meaning into the film is not at all appropriate at the current historical moment. This mistaken take on modern art would inevitably lead to what Bernstein termed “poujadisme de l’esprit” where the spectator was encouraged to chose his or her personal interpretation of the film. Thus L’année dernière à Marienbad was a spectacular degradation of the correct historical tendencies in Hiroshima mon amour. “It is a film one can ascribe a lot of meaning to, but not one that is interesting. The content, if you can use that word, of the film is unimportant, ill-timed, no more connected to history, reality or life than Guignol. This in contrast to Hiroshima mon amour, which was not exactly revolutionary but was nonetheless rather well situated in regard to present behaviour”.(74)

After Resnais no one but Internationale situationniste were any longer at the heart of the historical development of cinema. Because no one was able to destroy the cinema and connect a cinematographic practice to the coherent understanding of the historical situation. The notable absence of the Algerian War from French screens was a sign of the lack of historical commitment in French cinema. And when even Resnais dropped his project for a film on Algeria and went to film L’année dernière à Marienbad only the situationists were capable of making a combined political and aesthetic intervention in cinema. Debord and later René Vienet were the only ones capable of (un)making film, an enterprise still worth pursuing: “[T]he cinema lends itself particularly well to studying the present as a historical problem, to dismantling the processes of reification”.(75) Debord’s first film Hurlement en faveur de Sade from 1952 – made when Debord was still a member of the lettriste group around Isidore Isou – was a black and white sound film without images. The soundtrack was literally black and white; when one of the voices on the soundtrack was speaking, the screen was white; during the remainder of the film the soundtrack was silent, the screen was black, the entire screening space was dark and the audience could only hear the continual noise of the projector. The dialogue consisted primarily of phrases that had been lifted from works by James Joyce, the French code civil and from westerns supplemented by quotidian banalities. The film lasted one hour and twenty minutes with only twenty minutes of sound track. The lack of images in the film was employed as the essential ingredient in a recipe of provocation intended to radically transform the cinematic situation from a shrine of passive consumption into an arena of active discussion. The film was a step in the direction away from the spectacular and toward critical engagement. That the audience, at the premiere of Hurlement en faveur de Sade, became furious and disrupted the screening of the film was deemed a successful outcome, for it meant that the spectators had refused their preordained role as consumers and escaped the logic of the work of art. The true audience of the film had already left the cinema-room and were engaged in creating a new life. “To those who follow us we prefer those who reject us impatiently because our language is not yet authentic poetry – the free construction of everyday life”.(76) The dispensing of all representation in favour of a collective reinvention of everyday life where everyone immediately realises their desires before the spectacle is able to capture them. Impatience as revolutionary strategy. Debord did not critique the image in order to invest the spoken word with a poetic quality. The critique of the film was inherent in the forms and methods of film. The ‘missing’ images pointed to the presence of images in other films, and indicated a détournement of the very medium of film whose essential element had been negated. Debord thereby criticized the dependency of the film-medium on pre-existent tropes of communication and tried to undermine the use of images by creating a film with complex non-narrative verbal expressions and a completely blank screen. He staged what is always necessarily present in the mode of absence in cinema – the projection, the screen, the lamp – with the blank field and thus confronted the spectators with their desires for a spectacle. The spectators had to be purged of what they had seen and be urged to make the revolution.

Debord’s subsequent films, notably the film version of his book La société du spectacle, all featured the reintroduction of photographic representation. However following the filmic tabula rasa produced by the elimination of the visual track in his first film, the images in his subsequent films had a special status – they were all visual quotations or citations. The soundtrack in Hurlement en faveur de Sade was composed of ‘invisible’ citations or fragments from various sources, similarly the visual track in his later films were veritable catalogues of détournement, employing found footage of policemen from all over the world, colonialist demonstrations in Algeria and elsewhere, speeches by de Gaulle, Mao and other politicians or rulers, scenes from westerns, comic-strip images, and images of favourite situationists haunts. The fact that the images were lifted from various sources pointed to the fact that the films in no way were unproblematic documentations of the situationists activities. “The ruling class’s monopoly over the instruments we had to control in order to realize the collective art of our time had excluded us from a cultural production officially devoted to illustrating and repeating the past. An art film on this generation can only be a film on its absence of real works”.(77)

The importance of cinema for Debord and the situationists had to do with the particular relationship cinema has to history.(78) As Gilles Deleuze has shown, the image in a film is not something immobile, is not in any sense an archetype, a stasis of meaning outside of history. Instead the image is a mobile rupture, a ‘movement-image’ loaded or charged with a dynamic tension. Following Walter Benjamin we know that the experience of history is made across images and that images themselves are loaded with history. History should be understood not in a chronological sense, but as a messianic history. Meaning a history of salvation – something has to be saved – and a history of eschatology – it is the end of history, something has to be judged without escaping to another place. The messianic history is immeasurable, it is not possible to know when the Messiah arrives, but at the same time every historical moment is the arrival of the Messiah, the Messiah has always already arrived, he is already here. Every moment and every image are thus loaded with history, insofar as they are the doorways through which the Messiah arrives. The situationist films rejected the suspension of history enacted by the spectacle and tried with all means to keep the door through which the Messiah might enter open. Confronted with a repressive imagesphere that tried to control everything and transform the world into the movement of a clinical automatic process, the situationists fought to keep the door ajar. The unlikelihood of the Messiah’s coming did not prevent the situationists from keeping a narrow passage open. That narrow passage through which no Messiah is likely to come was also the vanishing point of that meaning which we can from time to time wrest from the mad rationalisations of the world’s course, a little bit of reason, scattered from star to star in the madness of the rationalized world.

With cinema the situationists were in their natural element insofar as the main element of cinema is the montage, which makes détournement mobile and moveable. The appropriation of images and their re-use was rendered perfectly by the montage, which made it superfluous to shoot new images. In the situationist films it became evident that it was not necessary to shoot new images, you just had to repeat and stop the images of the spectacle that were flouting and mediating between human beings and nature. The appropriation and repetition of images recreated the situations of the images in an altered form. The relationships between people that had been caught in and by images that circulated in an autonomous sphere without connection to the actual origins of the images, were wrestled free from this capture. The reuse and repetition we see in the situationist films of the images of the spectacle is not the exposure of the same. To repeat something is not to recreate the identical, the same. Repetition is not the return of the identical. The force and newness of repetition is the return in possibility of what has been. The repetition reconstitutes the potentiality of what has been, makes it possible again. To repeat is to make something possible again. In the situationist films the past is torn away from a canonical history and recast under the sign of potentiality. The missed opportunities of revolutionary activity are recreated in the situationists films that turns history back to the moment when the counterrevolution was one possibility among others. To a time when the revolution was imminent. Simultaneously with the repetition of the past the montage effects a stop or break in this recreated history. It intervenes in the historical situation, destroys the spectacle and re-links present society to history. The representative self-oscillation of history, which was a consequence of the counterrevolutionary spectacle, was broken and a different history became possible – a history we have failed to enter so far.


What is to be done with the temptation to do something? The question of ‘What is to be done?’ is a good question. It’s always there somewhere on the horizon and somewhere in us, almost forgotten and not yet posed. Asking ‘What is to be done?’ always means being concerned with how we can help exploited and alienated people emancipate themselves and what kind of practice would enable them to do so, here and now. The prerequisite for asking the question was and is an analysis of the situation, the current historical conjunction. Potential praxis needs theoretical analysis, needs a correct understanding of ‘reality’. But this understanding has to be immediately followed by action. This much is clear from Marx’s eleventh and final thesis on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world differently; the point is, to change it”.(79) This call for action and its urgency is present in all of Marx’s writings, as Blanchot has shown us.(80) We should not only advance in a meta-rhetorical mode beyond the difficulties of opposed interpretations, but we should intervene in what is called economic or political reality and call out, not just for the inevitable friction of interpretation, but for change. Without reading, no action. Without revolutionary practice, no revolutionary theory. The relationship between reading and action, interpretation and change has always been one where the ‘and’ stands in for a ‘thus’. Or rather, the two-step sequence of analysis and action is not the correct interpretation of the world. Understanding inheres in one’s actions. There is no separate theoretical standpoint – the correct way to interpret the world is to change it. We are not separate from the world, disengaged from it and grasping something external to us. We are continually changing and changed by the world and an understanding of this phenomenon is attained through the process of changing the world. The problem is by now that the extra-political guarantee that Marx relied upon when he demanded that philosophical reading be a presupposition for action or engagement, is more fragile than ever. We now know that it might be difficult to stay focused and keep impatience at bay. It might be difficult to go all the way and read so as to act. The necessity to be responsible to this demand that we do both simultaneously shows the extent to which our enterprise is uncertain. The conditions of possibility are not guaranteed. The difficulty of the enterprise comes not only from the instituted abyss between reading and action, but from reading the world. Have we not all of us experienced difficulties reading certain objects we have found after hours of searching? The demand for action in ‘what is to be done’ does not presuppose that we already know what to do, no goal is prescribed. No interpretation of reality is already given upon which to act. In situations like this we are tempted to skip reading and proceed directly to action, ignoring the twofold demand. Patience is needed if we are to avoid passionate direct actions. But then the risk might be that we remain too patient and stop reading or acting. According to Blanchot these divergent voices in/of Marx(ism) were already fully present in Marx himself, and these different demands resisted being translated into each other. “The communist voice is always at once tacit and violent, political and sage, direct, indirect, total and fragmentary, lengthy and almost instantaneous […] Even if these languages seem to converge toward the same endpoint, they could not be retranslated into each other, and their heterogeneity, the divergence or gap, the distance that decenters them, renders them non-contemporaneous and produces an effect of irreducible distortion”.(81)

‘What is to be done?’ is nevertheless still occasionally asked by those belonging to the disappointed and defeated West European proletariat (I underline: Western European proletariat. The proletariats of Asia and Latin America might still have a chance. This might be the moment to indicate that what I’m saying in a certain sense only counts for Europe and rich countries. This is of course part of the problem or reveals another side of the problem: action is only possible outside Europe! The desire for action is located outside Europe now, but of course this ‘outside’ is present in the middle of Europe and in the rich counties as well) that proved unable to solve the problems and conflicts of the modern sociality and therefore disappeared around 1968 after a little more than 100 years of existence. The problem with the defeat of the proletariat has been that it has been unable to understand that it failed because of its own defensive actions. The proletariat of Western Europe opted for increased work and consumption by voting for the Social Democratic parties instead of struggling for the abolition of the state and money. “The German and especially Russian revolution show that the proletariat is perfectly suited to destroy the social order, which has been an obstacle to the development of the productive forces, cf. for the becoming of capital. But when it comes to creating another community, the proletariat has remained prisoner of the logic of the productive forces and locked itself in the question of their administration”.(82)

Following Camatte’s critiques of the proletariat’s delay in achieving anything but it’s own abolition, we might say that the division between left and right has no logical signification whatsoever. We all know that, but still we go on pretending that we know what the division means and we have done this for so long now that it has become a habit that conceals our ignorance. The terms have a historical origin in the French Revolution where the ones representing the emergent bourgeois society were sitting at the left and the ones representing the old society were sitting at the right. If it had been the other way around we would collect together groups like Socialisme ou Barbarie, ICO, and the situationists under the name the ultra-right. In Denmark the situation is especially interesting because we have a party called ‘the Radical Left’ whose politics place them somewhat to the right. But even though historical developments like the one resulting in strange constellations of names and acts are funny it remains a problem that the use of the political figure of left and right results in political (mis)understandings of society. The dichotomy of left and right is of great importance insofar as it creates political sympathies that are based on unconscious political reflexes alone. When I for instance hear that Chirac is to the right of Jospin, I immediately feel sympathy for Jospin even though he has not been any good. In a way it makes more sense to feel sympathy for the politician that makes the best impression on television. To locate people according to a one-dimensional left and right scale is silly. The actual political effect of this dichotomy in Western Europe is more often than not a very surprising equal voting between left and right. This is not the effect of a corresponding likeness in the social constitution of these states, but the effect of the purely mathematical logic in the left–right model, which manages to manifest itself. The figure produces a polarisation of the population, which cuts across social groupings. The population is split into two more or less equal political groups who are by definition opposed to each other.

The polarisation inherent in the figure of left and right has often resulted in political compromise where the parties in the middle moderate the political decisions. The problem is that the capitalistic reality is anything but moderate! It is radical in the sense of going to the core of things. Life in the most basic sense and the ecological coherence of the vegetable kingdom is threatened by capitalist production and capitalist work. The solution ought to be as radical – the negation of the capitalist system. But the figure of left and right prevents the development of this radical project. Within this figure of left and right radicalism is confused with ‘extremism’, which is loaded with negative associations and is portrayed as blind passion. People on the left are afraid to go to the extreme, to step outside the normal cosy political spectrum and end up being alone. Instead of working for the sublation of the capitalist system, people isolate themselves in political ghettos and postulate being the representatives of the ‘working class’ thereby being many. “[A]ll forms of working class political organization have disappeared. In their place, gangs confront one another in an obscene competition, veritable rackets rivalling each other in drivel but identical in essence”.(83) The fear of extremism functions as a blockage for thinking (through matters). The result is that the left function as a guarantee for the continuation of the current political thinking.

The remains of the left explain to us that people are exploited when they work. This can only mean that the part of the labour (whether this is products or services) that is consumed by the population is too small. This means that too large a portion of the general social wealth is used for something else; namely the labour that is spent in the recreation of worn-out capital, the increasing of total capital; that part of the governmental expenditure that doesn’t form part of the consumption of the population, and the excessive consumption of the privileged. The last entry is not specified here but one of the things that make the present capitalist system totally absurd is that luxury consumption isn’t widespread. The fantastic buildings that the former ruling classes built for themselves are today failing apart because no one has money to renovate them. The primary result of exploitation is no longer the luxurious living of the exploiters, but that the exploiting system grows bigger and is thereby able to intensify exploitation and absorb even more labour. Exploitation means: more banks, more factories, growth in the state bureaucracy, and more weapons. The capitalist system is a Moloch that eats labour.

In this situation the anti-capitalism of the left does not try to abolish work but tries to get everyone a job. The only thing evident in this proposal is the stupidity of the left. It is stupid to demand work for everyone because capital is in crisis. This interpretation of the crisis says nothing about the nature of capital. The crisis is caused by a lack in profit, which is caused by a lack of surplus value, which is caused by a shortage of surplus labour, which was caused by a shortage of labour. The origin of the present unemployment is paradoxically enough a shortage of labour, but this absurdity is not revealed by demanding full employment. Full employment is, of course, not possible when the system doesn’t need it. If a demand for full employment should have any relevance and not degenerate into a demand of slavery for all, a qualitative definition of the content of all work has to be made. But this is the same as demanding the abolition of capitalism. Work cannot both fulfil the capitalistic demand for profit and create worthy conditions for human life.

Abolishing private ownership of capital does not abolish capital. The abolition of private property in the Soviet Union only increased the power of the capitalist state over people. The social agencies controlling the movement of money from one account to another gained supreme power in a system where this movement directs most actions of the population. Abolishing private ownership of capital just results in an enormous concentration of capital. It ought to be clear, but it seems to be necessary to state it again: Marx defined capital as ‘money earning money’, money that is invested with the purpose of earning more money. When, after the coup d’état in 1917, Leninists and Stalinists wanted to describe their state-capitalism as socialism, they falsified the concept of capital and identified it with private ownership or private property. By doing this they were able to present the expropriation of capital performed by the state as an abolition of capital. The falsification of the concept of capital was accompanied with the equally false attribution to Marx of the creation of so-called historical materialism. As many other thinkers Marx was interested in the different stages of societal development and tried to understand the dynamic in these developments. Soviet propaganda used this notion to legitimate the claim that the development in the Soviet Union was an expression of the necessary progression of history.(84) That the so-called socialism of the new regime was the stage that, according to the lesson of historical materialism, occurred between capitalism and communism. But Marx never created a theory termed ‘historical materialism’. Scattered throughout his works one can find interesting considerations on the development of history. He used the term ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ a few times in political pamphlets, but it was never clear what he meant (it is even possible that he meant ‘enfranchisement for the propertyless’). He never developed a theory of classes in any known texts. He never wrote anything about socialism; in Das Kapital the word ‘socialism’ occurs twice in footnotes (as ‘philistinism’ and ‘petit-bourgeois shrewdness’). In a letter to the German Social-Democratic Congress in 1875 Marx wrote a short sketch of his idea of the economy after the abolition of capital, which, he underlines, necessitates the abolition of money in which the distributive role of money is replaced with worktime-calculations.(85)

The left often says that the ‘working class should control the means of production’. They actually already do that when they work, that’s what their work is about. Such control does not matter; what matters is the result of the production as it transforms conditions of life. This brings us back to the need for a qualitative definition of work. Any economic system where money is a means of circulation for articles of consumption, a means of production and labour power as well as a measurement of wealth will be capitalistic. The abolition of the capitalist system requires then, the abolition of money just as the abolition of money requires the abolition of the system of capitalism. With this we are somehow back with Debord and the situationists and their insight into capital as a distortion of the relationships between people. But the return to Debord and the legacy of Internationale situationniste, must present a theory of dependence that is in a certain sense post-emancipatory. Capital according to Marx emancipates people from feudalism or from primitive production. After this people can sell their labour power freely on the free market, but the valorisation inherent in the process of production produces a new fixation. This fixation is a fixation of consciousness because the process of valorisation appears inscrutable for the worker. The worker is not able to comprehend the relationship between necessary labour, variable labour and surplus labour and think that s/he is being paid for the time spent in production. The wage form has, in other words, a distorting effect and the abolition of salary through a socialist voucher-system would ensure a clear understanding of material distribution and production. While capitalism is based on the veiled form of calculation of money, socialism is based on the evident distribution of the voucher. Both capitalism and socialism are then abolished in communism: the free distribution of goods without any calculation, which makes possible a human practice of play and cognition (of course the central question remains whether this syntheses of capitalism and socialism is to take place as freedom or as community).

The solution proposed by Vladimir Ulianov Lenin to the question of Nikolai Chernyshevsky: ‘What is to be done?’ – the leadership of the party and hierarchy of the organisation – is not sustainable.(86) Pace Debord I submit that the old fashioned political solution seems out of date and has some internal problems. Developing appropriate practical interventions within the complex and ever changing networks of forces that make up the historical situation has become difficult. Engagement today often functions as an escape in which you avoid the difficulty and hardship of cognition. As Reinhardt Koselleck demonstrated as early as 1959 the historical origin of the desire to do something or be engaged was a result of the separation between individual-moral and public-politics that occurried in the passage from the religious wars to the consolidation of absolutism.87 After the end of the religious wars morality was considered to be free from politics but was subjected to the language of power, as Hobbes indicates with the notion of “be[ing] in secret free” from the political gaze of the absolutist king. This freedom could only function as long as it appeared in a secret, private space. It is out of this private space that the modern bourgeoisie developed, out of a secret space of morality. The growing importance of the freemasons necessitated an organized right to judge others: at first the other fellow crafts, then other citizens and finally power. The desire to do something or be engaged converged with the desire to do something for humanity: this signalled that practice became censorious and was split between bigotry and envy (towards the sovereign who got confused with power and absolutism). While engagement and the desire to do something succeeded in destroying absolutism, it also caused confusion in so far as it became difficult to think the relationship between power and society as anything but an opposition or a conflict.

Politics has been emptied of any content and no one any longer has any hope in the development of history. The problem with critique is that it will not live up to its self-fascination or its absorption in the object. We have to avoid the solidity of activism and its ideological security, keep its promiscuity and fervour at bay. The complex density of existence is suspended in a racketistic standpoint identity, i.e., in following. After Debord it seems clear that the critical analysis of society cannot be performed as a personal contestation. The critical analysis of society can either be based on a realistic gathering of knowledge and observations or be a matter of ideology or political conviction. It is no longer possible to try to connect a critique of everyday life with a critique of capitalism, where the sole outcome is that the revolutionary feels revolutionary. “We know the possibility of other vital insurrections, but we also know that their scarceness in history […] make them fall fatally into this mythology of subversion and mythology of a subversive-self that is among the most efficient means to avoid the revolutionary experience”.(88) This very suspect self-knowledge is caught between narcissism and the desire for condemnation. It is not possible to locate any kind of revolutionary mode de vie or capital-negating philosophy of life. But it might be possible to live in a revolutionary way, that’s all we are left with. The problem with the desire for action might exactly then be ‘desire’ and not ‘action’. The desire for action. The word ‘desire’ raises a lot of difficult questions that reveal the fragile character of this undertaking. Can desire be substituted with need? Is it simply an emotional response when I feel aroused by the destinies and thoughts of Kronstadt, The Commune of Paris, the group around Miasnikov, May’68, Sapronov-Smirnov, April’77, LEF, Barcelona, the Makhnovians, etc.? Perhaps the weight of the question of ‘what is to be done?’ is so tremendous that we do not even dare pose it in these times. Perhaps we are left with Pierre Guyotat’s judgment that until we have grown eleven fingers on each hand the revolution is still to come, meaning that we want a world where all is not already enshrined in a destiny, nor still entirely to do.(89)

Mikkel Bolt (1st – 30th of August 2001)

1 Jacques Camatte: “Vers la communauté humaine” IN Invariance, série 3:3, 1976, p. 32.
2 Karl Marx: “Schlusssonette” IN MEW Erzänzungsbände I (Dietz Verlag, 1973, Berlin), p. 615.
3 Antonio Negri: The Politics of Subversion. A Manifesto for the Twenty-First Century, trans. James Newell (Polity Press, 1989, Cambridge).
4 Roy Boyne: “Review of Antonio Negri: The Politics of Subversion” IN Sociology: The Journal of the British Sociological Association vol. 24, no. 4, 1990, p. 703.
5 Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri: Labor of Dionysus. A Critique of the State-Form (University of Minnesota Press, 1994, Minneapolis).
6 Even when Hardt had the opportunity to introduce the diversity of this Italian tradition in the book Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics (coedited with Paolo Virno (University of Minnesota Press, 1996, Minneapolis)) he remained within a Negrian framework and omitted texts by for instance Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi. More or less all the text in Radical Thought in Italy were originally published in the journals Futur antérieur, Luogo Commune, RiffRaff, and Derive Approdi.
7 See Raniero Panzieri: Spontaneità e organizzazione. Gli anni die ’Quaderni Rossi’ 1959 – 64 (BFS, 1994, Pisa).
8 Mario Tronti: Operai e capitale (Einaudi, 1966, Torino), pp. 261 – 2.
9 Karl Marx: Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Vintage, 1977), p. 301.
10 Karl Marx: Wage, Price and Profit, trans. Samuel Moore (Foreign Language Press, 1970, Peking), p. 79.
11 Walter Benjamin: IN Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (Schochen Books, 1969, New York), p. 59.
12 Karl Marx: “Kritik des Gothaer Programms” IN MEW 19, pp. 13 – 32.
13 Paul Lafargue: La droit a la paresse (Allia, 1994, Paris).
14 We should perhaps note that as early as 1947 – 8 there could have been no doubt about the existence of camps in the Soviet Union as testifies Jean van Heijenoort – Trotsky’s secretary – in his memoir: Sept ans aupres de Leon Trotsky (Robert Laffont, 1978, Paris).
15 The most known exposition of the stylised dialectic of domination is found in the chapter on the relationship between master and slave in Hegel’s Phänomenologie des Geistes IN Werke (Suhrkamp, 1970, Frankfurt) 20:3, pp. 145 – 55.
16 Bruno Apitz: “Ein Arbeitstag und eine Nacht in Buchenwald” IN Wolfgang Emmerich (Hrsg.): Proletarische Lebensläufe: Autobiographische Dokumente zur Entstehung der Zweiten Kultur im Deutschland. Band 2: 1914 bis 1945 (Rowohlt, 1975, Hamburg), p. 379.
17 See Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy: “The Nazi Myth” trans. Brian Holmes (IN Critical Inquiry, nr. 16, 1990) for a splendid account of the autoproductive nature of the Nazi myth. “The Nazi myth […] is […] the construction, the formation, and the production of the German People in, through, and as a work of art”. (p. 303) See also the work of historian Roger Griffin who has developed a generic definition of fascism as a coherent, relatively original ideology not in regards to doctrines but in regard to its founding myth, the myth of palingenese. The Nature of Fascism (Routledge, 1991, London). See also Anson Rabinbach’s instructive “The Aesthetics of Production in the Third Reich” (IN Journal of Contemporary History, no. 11, 1976) for an account of the role of work in National Socialism.
18 See Jean-Luc Nancy: La communauté désoeuvrée (Christian Bourgois, 1986, Paris) and Être singulier pluriel (Galilée, 1996, Paris).
19 Werner Hamacher: “Working Through Working”, trans. Matthew T. Hartman IN Modernism/ Modernity 3:1, 1996, pp. 38 – 9.
20 Giorgio Agamben: Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford University Press, 1998, Stanford), p. 148.
21 Ibid., p. 173.
22 Ibid., p. 174.
23 Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri: Empire (Harvard University Press, 2000, Cambridge), p. 110.
24 See Etienne Balibar: “Quelles frontières de l’Europe?” IN Penser l’Europe à ses frontiers (Editions de l’Aube, 1993, La Tour d’Aigues); Zygmunt Bauman: Liquid Modernity (Polity Press, 2000, London); Yann Moulier Boutang: De l’esclavage au salariat: Economie historique du salariat bride (PUF, 1998, Paris); Mario Perniola: “La differenza europea” IN Ágalma, no. 1, 2000; Edward Said: “Reflections on Exile” IN Cornell West (Ed.): Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Culture MIT Press, 1994, Cambridge); and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Towards a History of the Vanishing Present (Harvard University Press, 1999, Cambridge).
25 See Roman Rosdolsky: Zur Entstehungsgeschichte des Marxschen ’Kapital’: Der Rohentwurf des Kapital 1857 – 58. Band I (Europäische Verlagsanstalt, 1968, Frankfurt), p. 24 – 6.
26 For an account of Korsch’s attempt to connect Marx and Kant, see Fred Halliday: “Memories of Karl Korsch. Interview with Hedda Korsch” IN New Left Review 76, 1972. See among other texts by Korsch: “State and Counterrevolution” IN Revolutionary Theory (University of Texas Press, 1977, Austin) and “Literaturbericht. Rezensionen von ‘E. Paschukanis, Allgemeine Rechtlehre und Marxismus’ und ’Karl Renner, Die Rechtsinstitute des Privatrechts und ihre soziale Funktion’ IN Die materialistische Gerschichtsauffassung (Europäische Verlagsanstalt, 1971, Frankfurt).
27 Georg Lukács: Geschichte und Klassebewußtsein (Luchterhand, 1968, Berlin); Karl Korsch: Marxismus und Philosophie (Europäische Verlagsanstalt, 1972, Frankfurt).
28 Karl Korsch: Marxism and Philosophy, trans. Fred Halliday (NLB, 1970, London), pp. 67 – 8.
29 See Karl Korsch: “Ûber einige grundsätzliche Voraussetzungen für eine materialistische Diskussion der Krisetheorie” IN Karl Korsch, Paul Mattick, und Anton Pannekoek: Zusammenbruchstheorie des Kapitalismus oder revolutionäres Subjekt (Kramer, 1973, Berlin). Korsch discusses Eduard Bernstein, Fritz Sternberg, Rosa Luxemburg, Henryk Grossmann, Rudolf Hilferding among others. 30 The split between Panzieri and Tronti (Negri) occurred because the working class, according to Panzieri, wasn’t able to become a coherence that could give rise to alternative forms of organisation. For Tronti the working class was inherently antagonistic to capital and needed a party to provide a revolutionary strategy. Panzieri insisted on the need for collaborative research with workers so as to analyse and develop the anti-capitalist behaviour in the everyday life of the working class. Panzieri critiqued Tronti and Negri for abandoning empirical research and embracing idealist philosophy, reliving a philosophy of history.
31 Negri’s tendency to provide an ahistorical account of the struggle between proletariat and capital was severely critiqued by (situationist) Gianfranco Sanguinetti in his Due Note su Toni Negri (Varani, 1984, Milano) published under the pseudonym Anonimo Milanese. Sanguinetti wrote: “The Hign Spirit, the Absolute, the God of all teologies are by Negri replaced by Desiring Power as the foundation of the human existence […] Negri – ‘the communist’, ‘the materialist (‘the postmodernist’) – leeds us into total metaphysics, in company with the good old ghosts that Marx, […] the principal speaker of anti-metaphysics, persistently fought against […] [T]he latest standpoints that Negri supports is not qualitatively different from his former views, in contradiction with these; they are the continuation of his unchanged spontaneity and subjectivism (‘collective’) in altered political circumstances, supported by a invariable ‘theoretical-philosophical base’”.
32 Giorgio Cesarano, Piero Coppo & Joe Fallisi: “Chronique d’un bal masque” IN Invariance 3:1, 1976, pp. 97 – 8.
33 Gustav Landauer: Aufruf zum Sozialismus (Europäische Verlagsanstalt, 1967, Frankfurt), p. 98.
34 Gareth Steadman Jones: Languages of class: Studies in English working class history 1832 – 1982 (Cambridge University Press, 1983, Cambridge). In the texts collected in the book Steadman Jones analyses “the emergence of a working-class culture which showed itself staunchly impervious to middle-class attempts to guide it, but yet whose prevailing tone was not one of political combativity, but of an enclosed and defensive conservatism”. p. 183.
35 See Manuel Castells: The Rise of the Network Society (Blackwell, 2000, Oxford), pp. 453 – 9.
36 Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri: Empire, p. 290.
37 Karl Marx: Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, trans. Martin Nicholaus (Random Haouse, 1973, New York), p. 706. “Nature builds no machines, no locomotives, railways, electric telegraphs, self-acting mules, etc. These are products of human industry; natural material transformed into organs of the human will over nature, or of participation in nature. They are organs of the human brain, created by the human hand, the power of knowledge, objectified. The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed in accordance with it. To what degree the powers of social production have been produced, not only in the form of knowledge, but also as immediate organs of social practice, of the real life process”.
38 Paolo Virno: “Virtuosismo e Rivoluzione” IN Mondanità (Manifestolibri, 1994, Roma), pp. 98 – 9; Antonio Negri: The Savage Anomaly: The Power of Spinoza’s Metaphysics and Politics, trans. Michael Hardt (University of Minnesota Press, 1991, Minneapolis); as well as Antonio Negri: Il potere constituente: saggio sulle alternative del moderno (SugarCo, 1992, Milano).
39 Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri: Empire, p. 212.
40 Ibid., p. 47.
41 Ibid., p. 410.
42 Russell Jacoby gives an ok introduction to these controversies in his: Dialectics of Defeat (Cambridge University Press, 1981, Cambridge) and Philippe Bourrinet has written an excellent account of the concilist tradition: La Gauche Communiste Germano-Hollandaise des origins à 1968 (available at: But go directly to for instance Anton Pannekoek: Lenin as Philosopher: A critical Examination of the philosophical Basis of Leninism (Merlin Press, 1974, London); Rosa Luxemburg: Internationalismus und Klassenkampf (Luchterhand, 1971, Berlin); Herman Gorter: Organisation und Taktik der proletarischen Revolution (Verlag Neue Kritik, 1969, Frankfurt); Otto Rühle: Schriften: Perspektiven einer Revolution in hochindustrialisierten Ländern (Rowohlt, 1971, Hamburg) and Amadeo Bordiga: Scritti 1911 – 1926: La Guerra, la rivoluzione russa et la nuova Internazionale (Graphos, 1999, Torino).
43 Giorgio Agamben: Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, p. 12.
44 Ibid., p. 6.
45 Ibid., p. 18.
46 Ibid., p. 28.
47 I have kept this ‘homiletic’ passage to a minimum and left it to the devices of the reader to exit from Negri via Agamben. Just bare in mind that for Agamben the existence of potentiality must be thought without any relation to actual being and the actualisation must be thought of as different than the completion of the potential. See Agamben: Bartleby ou la création, trad. Carole Walter (Éditions Circé, 1995, Saulxures).
48 Giorgio Agamben: Means without end: Notes on Politics, trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino (University of Minnesota Press, 2000, Minneapolis), pp. 5 – 9.
49 Of course situationism was defined by Internationale situationniste as: “A word totally devoid of meaning, improperly derived from the preceding term [situationist]. There is no situationism, which would mean a theory of interpretation of existing facts. The notion of situationism was obviously conceived by anti-situationists”. “Définitions” IN Internationale situationniste 1, 1958, p.13.
50 It is of course Jacques Rancière who has produced the poignant and witty critique of Bourdieu and shown that Bourdieu only confirms what the statistics tell us, that people without the sufficient ‘cultural’ capital are not able to appreciate art. This reading of aesthetics and art completely misunderstands the historical specific role of aesthetics as a meta-political claim for equality. See Le philosophe et ses pauvres (Fayard, 1983, Paris); and Le partage du sensible (La fabrique, 2000, Paris).
51 See Yves Michaud: La crise de l’Art contemporain (PUF, 1997, Paris); and Nathalie Heinich: La Triple Jeu de l’Art Contemporain (Les Éditions de Minuit, 1998, Paris).
52 Guy Debord: Critique of separation IN Society of the Spectacle and other Films, trans. Richard Parry (Rebel Press, 1992, London), pp.45 – 6.
53 Guy Debord: “Rapport sur la construction des situations et sur les conditions de l’organisation et de l’action de la tendance situationniste internationale” IN Gérard Berreby (Ed.): Documents relatifs à la fondation de l’internationale situationniste (Editions Allia, 1985, Paris), p. 616.
54 Guy Debord & Gil Wolman: “Mode d’emploi de détournement” IN Berreby, op. cit., p. 303.
55 Ibid., p. 302.
56 Guy Debord: The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Zone Books, 1995, New York), p. 136.
57 Ibid., p. 48.
58 Internationale situationniste: “All The King’s Men” IN Internationale situationniste 8, 1963, p.29.
59 Guy Debord: The Society of the Spectacle, p.12.
60 For an unnostalgic and very interesting account of the relationship between alienation and the human being, see Luigi Pareyson: Ontologia della libertà (Einaudi, 1994, Torino). Raoul Vaneigem was perhaps the one in the situationist group who was aware of this problem when he placed the critique of separation in the analysis of existence and not in a soft sociological critique of the political economy along the lines of Debord. Vaneigem thereby turned the question of alienation into an ontological problem and was able to advance further into a proper understanding of the dialectic and drama of separation. See his: Traité de savoir-vivre à l’usage des jeunes generations (Gallimard, 1967, Paris).
61 Hans Lucas: “Spredte og undvigende bemærkninger om Internationale situationniste, videre, hurtigt…” [more or less translatable as: ‘Scattered and evasive comments on Internationale situationniste, proceed, fast…’] IN Månedsskrift for kunst og kunstrelateret materiale, nr. 24, 1997.
62 Internationale situationniste: “De l’Aliénation. Examen de plusieurs aspects concrets” IN Internationale situationniste 10, 1966, p. 58.
63 Guy Debord: The Society of the Spectacle, p.12.
64 Ibid., p. 26.
65 Guy Debord: “Lettre à André Franklin” IN Correspondance. Tome I. Juin 1957 – Août 1960 (Librairie Arthème Fayard, 1999, Paris), p. 246.
66 Guy Debord: The Society of the Spectacle, p. 59.
67 Ibid., p. 135.
68 Internationale situationniste: “De l’Aliénation”, p. 58.
69 Ibid., p. 59.
70 Internationale situationniste: “Le Cinema Apres Alain Resnais” IN Internationale situationniste 3, 1959, p. 8.
71 See the account given by Laurent Marie in the article “Le Chêne et le Roseau: The French Communist Critics and the New Wave” (IN (Ed.) Elizabeth Ezra: France in Focus: Film and National Identity (Berg, 2000, Oxford)).
72 Internationale situationniste: “Le Cinema Apres Alain Resnais”, p. 10.
73 Michèle Bernstein: “Sunset Boulevard” IN Internationale situationniste 7, 1962, p. 43.
74 Ibid., p. 43.
75 René Vienet: “Les situationnistes et les nouvelles formes d’action contre la politique et l’art” IN Internationale situationniste 11, 1967, p. 35.
76 Raoul Vaneigem: “Banalités de Base” IN Internationale situationniste 8, 1963, p. 38.
77 Guy Debord: On the passage of a few people through a rather brief period of time IN Society of the Spectacle and other Films, p. 31.
78 The following passage is heavily indebted to Giorgio Agambens “Le cinéma de Guy Debord” IN Image et Mémoire (Hoëbeke, 1998, Dijon-Quetigny).
79 Karl Marx: “Theses on Feuerbach” IN Collected Works, trans. C. J. Arthur (International Publishers, 1976, NewYork), p. 5.
80 Maurice Blanchot: “Les Trois Paroles de Marx” IN L’Amitié (Gallimard, 1971, Paris).
81 Ibid., p. 117.
82 Jacques Camatte: “Prolatariat et revolution” IN Invariance 2:6, 1975, p. 40.
83 Jacques Camatte and Gianni Collu: “De l’organisation” IN Invariance 2:2, 1972, p. 52.
84 Boris Souvarine – the lover of Colette Peignot – was probably among the first ones who pointed out the consequence of Leninism-Stalinism: the loss of any theoretical and historical possibility of reference. This loss meant that the broader working class movement got disconnected from a critical tradition and could easily be recuperated by Fascism, National Socialism, Frankism, Peronism and all the other fascism in the world. See Souvarine: L’observateur des deux mondes (Éditions de la difference, 1982, Paris).
85 Karl Marx: “Kritik des Gothaer Programms” IN MEW 19, pp.15 – 32.
86 Nikolai Chernyshevsky: What is to be done?, trans. Michael R. Katz (Cornell University Press, 1989, Ithaca);Vladimir Ulianov Lenin: What is to be done? Burning questions of our movement, trans. S. V. & Patricia Atechin (Clarendon Press, 1963, Oxford).
87 Reinhardt Koselleck: Kritik und Krise (Suhrkamp, 1959, Frankfurt), p. 60.
88 Giorgio Cesarano: Manuel de survie (Dérive 17, 1981, Paris), p. 34.
89 Pierre Guyotat: “La Découverte de la logique” IN Vivre (Denoël, 1984, Paris).



  1. you definitely did your homework.

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