Tuesday, 7 January 2014

People, we have a Situation : What Guy Debord and his merry gang of Situationists can tell today's protestors

Guy DeBord and his situationists get three entries in the index of Paul Mason's recent book "Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere!". Rosa Luxemburg, for example, has none. 

So who is Debord? 

Mason's index isn't faulty. 

His survey of today's rebels reflects their mood pretty well. Debord led a small, eccentric political group and coined some smart slogans. Luxemburg was a revolutionary intellectual whose organisation deposed one of Europe's most powerful dictators before she was murdered by a fascist gang. But Debord's situationists are more influential among many of today's "troublemakers" than Luxemburg's Spartacus League. Debord's "situationist international" was drawn from politically minded members of a Dada-ish bunch of bohemian artistic intellectuals in the late 1950s.

Over the next 20 years Debord argued we were living in the "society of the spectacle" - consumer capitalism drenched the world with empty rituals. "All that was once directly lived has become a mere representation," he said. His group stayed small, if noisy. They supplied some slogans for the events in Paris in 1968 but not a lot of manpower. But posthumously Debord is doing well. His situationist ideas might be more influential now because what he termed "the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing" seems even stronger now than then.

The "will of the people" first became the will to buy stuff, then merely the will to look like you have stuff. So last year's riots seemed like a rebellion by the poor. But they also looked like a rebellion demanding more brand-label products from JD Sports. And watching the X Factor makes me feel all Debord-y. The "spectacle" means soaking in a talentless talent show, an image of society where the "little people" beg to show their small skills to the benign bosses who will mold them into something great.

In any rebellious movement angry students are the first to move, and Debord speaks to them. Debord and his small gang of argumentative provocateurs picked at capitalism's cultural crap rather than, say, the organisation of the state or the workplace. This has a particular appeal for student radicals - not least because they might find him on their booklists. Art-college kids and "cultural studies" students find Debord one of the more exciting nuggets in the big pile of cultural studies. "All power to the imagination" is a great slogan for students paying for the privilege of being told how to think. Apprentices in the ideas factory, students are interested in the argument that society is held together by a network of empty images and hollow slogans.

I'm quite sympathetic to the  Debordian. I know that if you want to drop his name properly you should pronounce Guy to rhyme with "see," not "eye." The first demonstration I went on was organised by Fluxus, who were light-hearted cousins of the situationists. Yoko Ono was a Fluxus artist. Her "bed-in for peace" protests with John Lennon were a Fluxus political stunt. They were versions of the situationists' subversive political pranks, the "detournements" (diversions) that sought to hijack mainstream spectacles for radical ends. I should point out that I was taken to Fluxus artist Robin Page's 1967 event Protest March in a pushchair by my mum and dad. This "action event" was a protest in Leeds where everyone had to make their own placard expressing their own particular discontent. Mine was either a blue tomato (who says they should be red?) or Desperate Dan.

Debord's heirs have picked up his insistence that "using spectacular images and language to disrupt the flow of the spectacle" was key. Situationist-influenced protesters are keen on the stunt - the ironic, bizarre and witty disruption of mainstream messages, like Adbusters magazine or the entertaining work of Britain's Space Hijackers. They recently put For Sale signs in front of leading hospitals and freaked out the police by turning up at 2009's G20 demonstration dressed as comedy coppers in their very own tank. UK Uncut's street-theatre guerilla actions in high-profile high street shops have a dash of situationism. Their "detournements" turned the consumer spectacle of Topshop into national debates about Tories and tax-avoiders. In many ways modern situation-ish protesters have done a better job than Debord.

But I think there are problems. I think Debord underestimated the more basic systems of control which underlie the "spectacle," paying less attention to how the basic disciplines of work and worklessness keep capitalism together. The corporate emperors' grip on society relies on the way they control bread as well as circuses. But the situationist approach seems to suggest that the main way to unseat our Caesars involves disrupting the circus with well-placed farting noises, comedy gladiators and lion-confusion tactics. All of which are great - but we need to look at the bakery as well. The situationist influence has helped an effective rejuvenation of protest, keying into pop-cultural themes, catching the imagination and cutting right into the heart of some of capitalism's hypocrisies.

But we need more than symbolic occupations and protests to change society. Frankly just to stop existing attacks on our conditions we will probably need factory occupations and picket lines. So we need to create a transmission belt between the new protesters and the labour movement. The spirit of the situationist-inspired protesters should have some direct interplay with the branch, committee and conference meetings of the union movement. And the new protesters need to negotiate how their "detournements" work with the broader union movement: are they startling events that enthuse wider layers, or self-indulgent stupidity? "Black bloc" activities are arguably a very dour inheritance from Debord, and one which is almost entirely counterproductive. Equally the trade union movement should grab the post-situationist protesters with a friendly hand. Len McCluskey's suggestion of Olympic protests was a moment when Debordian "detournement" flickered across the labour movement. But we should make this real - not rhetorical - on both sides.
 (This piece I wrote on the Situationists originally appeared in the Morning Star on 22-Mar-2013)

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