So, I’ve been using these few days off of work to indulge in some reading. Top of the pile was Ivor Southwood’s relatively new book Non-Stop Inertia, out on the Zer0 books imprint. Like many of these books it has emerged from a research trajectory Ivor has been pursuing over at the excellent Screened out (http://screened-out.blogspot.com/). The Zer0 imprint started really strong with Capitalist Realism by Mark Fischer (AKA K-Punk) and One Dimensional Woman by Nina Power, both great books with important points to make. However, recently Zer0 has perhaps strayed from their stated aims of producing
‘another kind of discourse – intellectual without being academic, popular without being populist.’
Recent publications dealing with Awkwardness, Class as portrayed in Cinema and modernist architecture perhaps stray from political rootedness and engagement but Southwood’s contribution to the series does not fall prey to this.
Southwood’s topic is the form which work takes in the 21rst century in the Global North. Beginning with his experiences and subtly incorporating post-autonomist theorists to support his claims, Southwood produces a bleak picture of the conditions in which many of us are forced to sell our labour power. Non-Stop Inertia serves as an excellent introduction to the key concepts needed to unpack our current political economy. Notions such as precarious labour, affective or emotional production and the privatisation of unemployment are introduced and explored throughout the text. Indeed, in the context of austerirty measures and predictions of a jobless recovery Southwood’s investigation of the privatisation and management of unemployment is particularly worrying. The book is littered with personal observations and a succession of stimulating yet also challenging ideas.
Southwood deals with a complex and oft tricky topic and simultaneously avoids the dangers of over-simplification (i.e. we all face precarious work in the same way) and hyper-specificity (i.e. there are no universal labour conditions that we can analyse). What emerges is a timely analysis of work in the Global North. It is surprising that this is one of the only notable introductions to precarious theories that I can think of. One can only assume that this stems from a reluctance from much of the non-union/workerist orientated Left to deal with the new conditions of work. Given the context Southwood’s book is an even more important read.
Perhaps the only weakness of the text comes towards the end when Southwood turns towards discussing possible means of resistance. His argument centres around the concept of ‘campness’ of over-exaggerated seriousness and the micro-tactics of individual resistance. Whilst this is no doubt important I am unconvinced that this is enough to challenge the hyper-flexibility of 21rst century capital accumulation. Southwood himself recognises that his suggestions are not likely to yield revolutionary results but (quite rightly I think) are strategies for attempting to limit the alienation felt in the immaterial factories of the UK today. The lack of serious antagonistic strategies, in many ways, highlights the conspicuous silence of those on the Left orientated around workplace struggles and the limited thought put into re-orientating workplace struggle in a period of precarity and austerity. Discussions around strategies for dealing with precarity, however difficult they are right now, are likely to prove useful as resistance to the cuts and austerity broadens beyond set-piece street battles.
Given the oft daunting task of wading through post-autonomist and political economic theory (e.g. The New Spirit of Capitalism) Southwood’s book is a welcome jump off point and a real success for Zer0 books. It delivers an accessible, challenging and altogether human analysis of labour conditions in the Global North and is an important contribution to a discussion much needed within the Left at large.
Situationist ideas are still used all over the place; in texts, articles and agit-prop by radical groups as well as by an ever increasing army of academics, commentators and ‘theorists’ who demonstrably have nothing useful to say, but have nevertheless created a minor publishing industry which feeds on the SI (and has done so ever since its disbanding in 1972). They have sought to reduce the SI and its principal theorists to the status of cultural or artistic avant-gardists, precursors of punk or proto-post modernists; conveniently forgetting that the central point of their project was nothing less than total social revolution.
On Monday the Bingham Autonomia Group met for the first time to discuss Society of the Spectacle. As already mentioned I am hoping to keep up with them on this side of the water and try and chip in frequently with responses to the discussions which the group are having. For the first meeting the Bingham group discussed The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord (1968) and, from the notes, attempted to use this as an historical marker for upcoming discussions on Autonomia and Italian Politics in the 1970’s.
The spectacle is seemingly one of the most familiar of the idea’s developed in the text. However, I’d be inclined to agree with the opening quote that “a minor publishing industry” has developed surrounding The Situationist International’s (SI) ideas and the spectacle is perhaps both the most frequently used and the most frequently misinterpreted by commentators on the SI. From the first two chapters it becomes clear that, despite what some media theorists may wish to argue, the Spectacle is not a phenomenon limited solely to the visual sphere. Rather, it is the visible outcome of a concrete mode of production i.e. capitalism. Debord himself explicitly states that the spectacle is not merely a visual phenomenon.
The spectacle is not a collection of images, rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.
The alienation which occurs during the production of commodities is mirrored in the alienation experienced in a world organised both socially and politically around the production of these commodities.
The text was written in the 1960’s, a moment in history when some parts of the world were (still) riding high on the Fordist mode of production and mass consumption was becoming generalised. It is at this moment in which everyday life became increasingly colonised and commodified by capital that the concept of the spectacle, a way of describing the pervasive alienation of humans within a world dominated by the commodity, was developed and gained theoretical traction. Indeed, many of the concepts in the book are as relevant, if not more, than at the time of publishing.
One of the questions which emerged from the Bingham groups discussion was “Is the unilateral function of mass media still true?”. Despite the decline of certain traditional models of mass media such as newspapers (certainly here in the UK) the structural functions of the spectacle are not tied to specific technologies but can be reproduced in different forms. Whether opinions emanate from large printing presses or the world of web 2.0 (twitter, blogs and facebook) the spectacle, the “official language of generalised separation” (Theses 3) still has the possibility of being reproduced. The spectacle is a political not a technological phenomenon. The democratisation of the media via the internet does not necessarily lead to a challenge to the ideological strength of commodity society.
I’d agree that chapter 4 serves as a nice “intellectual prehistory of Autonomia” and a useful thread to start unravelling the relationship between organisation and antagonism to Capital. I’d like to chip in with a few comments about Anarchism but before that it might be useful to briefly discuss those seeking to represent the working class. Debord is critical of both the USSR, which (in his eyes) is essentially a less efficient and more bureaucratic form of liberal capitalism, and the Unions those “mere brokers of labour – traders in labour power as a commodity to be bought and sold like any other” (Thesis 96). A split with both the USSR and the Unions as representatives of the workers and/or the movement towards Communism is, as far as I understand at the start of this reading series, a key facet of autonomous politics and places it clearly at a moment of departure from previous forms of political organisation. Debord’s critique of those that would seek to represent the proletariat is part of an important historical process with regards to the history of autonomous politics.
In thesis 92 Debord argues that the Anarchist position that the goal of the “proletarian revolution as immediately present is at once the great strength and great weakness of the real anarchist struggle”. The SI’s support for the revolution of everyday life (As Vaneigem would have it) and the critique of socialist strands of which “consciousness always comes to the scene too soon” (Thesis 84) are key parts of SI thought. Strands which will clearly emerge later in the programme as we encounter Bonnano and the Invisible committee.
Before making my next point I must confess that my knowledge of the historical conflicts between those that would define themselves as Socialists/Marxists and Anarchists is not particularly abundant. However it seems that the boundaries between Socialist and anarchist organisations as distinct ways of doing appear to be breaking down. Perhaps I’m jumping the gun, but one of the interesting things about autonomous politics in the political laboratory of 1970’s Italy is the blurring of these traditions. Political immediacy, an understanding of the everyday and a commitment to extra-parliamentary politics met with class based analysis and an attempt to understand the mechanics of capitalism. From my position, involved in organisation here in the UK, both the traditional socialist and the anarchist left appear obsolete. Whilst movements critical of capital and the state exist they don’t fit easily into these traditional positions. The most interesting forms of struggle seem to internalise interesting parts of both of these traditions. I personally prefer to name these movements Communist, a term enjoying a resurge in (albeit academic) fashion at the moment, but understand arguments for resisting the urge to name it also. Communism as the “The Real Movement Which Abolishes the Present State of Things”has moved beyond what, definitely here in the UK, is labelled the radical left. The radical left in the UK is, in the most part, resigned to playing what Vaneigem and Debord’s would critique as the role of the militant. This isn’t, for the most part, a conscious role but one which derives from the unwillingness to inform theory with practice. Methods and tactics must change with society. Perhaps this will change, and there are certainly initiatives involved in trying to make this happen, but the process will bevery difficult.
Workerism and Council Communism
The final point which I feel probably should be mentioned is Debord (and the SI’s) support for workers councils. These were seen as the key transitionary vehicle by which a post-capitalist world could be realised. By giving power to the workers this would help avoid the pitfalls of the bureaucratic management of capital as seen in the USSR. However, as Gilles Dauve notes in his insightful critique of the text, Debord is stuck within a contradiction between two of his key positions. Dauve notes
There existed an historically insurmountable incompatibility between
“Down with Work”
“All power to the workers (Councils)”
Dauve’s Excellent Article can be found here.
One reading of the spectacle is that it is a critique of the production of value (chapters 1 and 2) and an investigation into the seeming divisions and conflicts within the political sphere of capital which are in fact mere sectors of the same unity (chapter 3). Thus leading to the slogan “Down with Work” and a complete rejection of Ebert’s understanding of Socialism as “working hard” (Thesis 97). This is a position shared by the value critique school of Marxism as emphasized by Moishe Postone, Principia Dialectica and the Krisis Gruppe amongst others.
However, this position can’t be reconciled with the other key slogan of the SI “Power to the Workers” in the form of workers councils. Dauve is insightful in recognizing this as a key contradiction and problematic within both this text and the work of the SI. This call for workers councils, and its implicit support for the production of value, is in contradiction with (admittedly what I hazily remember of) Tronti’s “refusal of work” and later autonomist work such as John Holloway’s “Stop Making Capitalism”.
Ultimately this was a great text to start with, helping to situate Italian political thought in the 1970’s and bring to the fore some of the key questions which will be discussed over the course of this reading programme. Hopefully the physical group Stateside will find these virtual comments as interesting as I found theirs.
P.S. If anyone in Manchester, or the UK even, wants to join in reading with me get in touch.
P.P.S. I’ve attached some of the articles that I found discussing the Society of the Spectacle in the library section of the blog. Link can be found here.
In a bid to use my under-employed time more productively I will be reading a selection of articles and books on autonomia and autonomous politics in parallel with a group at Bingham University in the US. Parts of this I’ll be doing by myself, and other sections will probably feature cameo’s by an assorted gaggle of housemates and other interested parties. I’m hoping to get notes up to engage with the conversations happening in Bingham. These notes will go on my blog, as hopefully, will lnks to the Bingham group’s notes. I will also be (finally) using my library page on the blog to store the reading lists so that people interested in doing similar can see how we did it. If anyone else wants to get involved (either virtually or physically) please let me know.
The Bingham group will be meeting on Monday to discuss Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle which I’m looking forward to re-reading and engaging with.