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Geopolitics of Hibernation


The “balance of terror” between two rival groups of states — the most visible basic aspect of global politics at the present moment — is also a balance of resignation: the resignation of each antagonist to the permanence of the other; and within their frontiers, the resignation of people to a fate that is so far out of their control that the very existence of the planet is far from certain, hinging on the prudence and skill of inscrutable strategists. This in turn reinforces a more general resignation to the existing order, to the coexisting powers of the specialists who organize this fate. These powers find an additional advantage in this balance since it facilitates the rapid liquidation of any original liberatory experience arising on the margin of their systems, particularly within the current movement of the underdeveloped countries. The same method of neutralizing one menace with another — regardless of who the victorious protector may be in any particular case — can be seen in the crushing of the revolutionary impetus of the Congo by sending in the United Nations Expeditionary Corps (two days after their arrival in early July 1960 the Ghanian troops, the first on the scene, were used to break a transportation strike in Leopoldville) and in the crushing of the revolutionary impetus of Cuba by the formation of a one-party system (in March 1962 General Lister, whose role in the repression of the Spanish revolution is well known, was named Assistant Chief of Staff to the Cuban Army).

In reality the two camps are not actually preparing for war, but for the indefinite preservation of this balance, which mirrors the internal stabilization of their power. It goes without saying that this will entail an enormous mobilization of resources, since it is imperative to continually escalate the spectacle of possible war. Thus Barry Commoner, head of the scientific committee assigned by the United States government to estimate the destruction that would result from a thermonuclear war, announces that after one hour of such a war 80 million Americans would be killed and that the survivors would have no hope of living normally afterwards. The Chiefs of Staff, who in their projections now count only in megabodies (one megabody = one million corpses), have admitted the impossibility of calculating beyond the first half day since experimental evidence is lacking to make any meaningful estimates at such a level of destruction. According to Nicolas Vichney (Le Monde, 5 January 1962), one extremist faction of American defense doctrine has gone so far as to argue that “the best deterrent would consist of the possession of an enormous thermonuclear bomb buried underground. If the enemy attacked, the bomb would be detonated and the Earth would be blown apart.”

The theorists of this “Doomsday System” have certainly found the ultimate weapon for enforcing submission; they have for the first time translated the refusal of history into precise technological powers. But the rigid logic of these doctrinaires only responds to one aspect of the contradictory needs of the society of alienation, whose indissoluble project is to prevent people from living while it organizes their survival (see the opposition of the concepts of life and survival described by Vaneigem in Basic Banalities). Thus the Doomsday System, through its contempt for survival — which is still the indispensable condition for the present and future exploitation of human labor — can only play the role of last resort for the ruling bureaucracies: the insane proof of their seriousness. But in order to be fully effective in reinforcing people’s submission, the spectacle of a war to come must henceforth extend its sway over the organization of our present peacetime existence, while simultaneously accommodating itself to the basic requirements of that organization.

In this regard the extraordinary development of fallout shelters during 1961 is certainly a decisive turning point in the Cold War, a qualitative leap that will one day be seen as of immense importance in the formation of a cybernetized totalitarian society on a global scale. It began in the United States, where Kennedy in his State of the Union Address last January was already able to assure the Congress: “The nation’s first serious civil defense shelter program is under way, identifying, marking and stocking fifty million spaces; and I urge your approval of federal incentives for the construction of public fallout shelters in schools and hospitals and similar centers.” This state-controlled organization of survival has rapidly spread, more or less secretly, to other major countries of the two camps. West Germany, for example, was first of all concerned with the survival of Chancellor Adenauer and his team (the disclosure of the plans to this end led to the seizure of the Munich magazine Quick). Sweden and Switzerland are in the process of installing collective shelters under their mountains, where workers buried with their factories will be able to continue to produce without interruption until the grand finale of the Doomsday System. But the home base of the civil defense policy is the United States, where a number of flourishing companies, such as the Peace o’ Mind Shelter Company (Texas), the American Survival Products Corporation (Maryland), Fox Hole Shelter, Inc. (California) and the Bee Safe Manufacturing Company (Ohio), are advertising and installing countless individual shelters built as private property to ensure the survival of each family. This fad is giving rise to a new interpretation of religious morality, certain clergymen expressing the opinion that one’s duty will clearly consist of refusing entry to friends or strangers, even by means of arms, in order to guarantee the salvation of one’s own family. Morality has had to be adapted to this process of intensifying the terrorism of conformity that underlies all the publicity of modern capitalism. It was already hard, faced with one’s family and neighbors, not to have the given model of automobile which a given salary level enables one to buy on credit (a salary level always recognizable in the American-type urban housing developments because the location of the dwelling is precisely determined by the level of salary). It will be even more difficult not to guarantee one’s family’s survival status once that commodity is on the market.

It is generally estimated that in the United States since 1955 the relative saturation of the demand for “durable goods” has led to an insufficiency of the consumer stimulus necessary for economic expansion. Hence the enormous vogue for trendy gadgets of all sorts, which represent an easily manipulable development in the semidurable goods sector. It is easy to see the shelters’ important role in this necessary boost of expansion. With the installation of shelters and their foreseeable offshoots and by-products, all the appurtenances of life on the surface will need to be duplicated for the new duplicate life underground. These investments in subterranean strata as yet unexploited by the affluent society are boosting the sale both of semidurable goods already in use on the surface (as with the boom in canned foods, of which each shelter needs a huge supply) and of particular new gadgets, such as plastic bags for the bodies of people who will die in the shelter and, naturally, continue to lay there with the survivors.

It is easy to see that these (already widespread) individual shelters could not possibly work, if only because of such gross technical oversights as the absence of an independent oxygen supply; and that even the most sophisticated collective shelters would offer only the slightest possibility for survival if a thermonuclear war was actually accidentally unleashed. But here, as in every racket, “protection” is only a pretext. The real purpose of the shelters is to test — and thereby reinforce — people’s submissiveness, and to manipulate this submissiveness to the advantage of the ruling society. The shelters, as a creation of a new consumable commodity in the society of abundance, prove more than any previous commodity that people can be made to work to satisfy highly artificial needs, needs that most certainly “remain needs without ever having been desires” (Preliminaries Toward Defining a Unitary Revolutionary Program) and that do not have the slightest chance of becoming desires. The power of this society, its formidable automatic genius, can be measured by this extreme example. If this system were to go to the point of bluntly proclaiming that it imposes such an empty and hopeless existence that the best solution for everyone would be to go hang themselves, it would still succeed in managing a healthy and profitable business by producing standardized ropes. But regardless of all its capitalist wealth, the concept of survival means suicide on the installment plan, a renunciation of life every day. The network of shelters — which are not intended to be used for a war, but right now — presents a bizarre caricatural picture of existence under a perfected bureaucratic capitalism. A neo-Christianity has revived its ideal of renunciation with a new humility compatible with a new boost of industry. The world of shelters acknowledges itself as an air-conditioned vale of tears. The coalition of all the managers and their various types of priests will be able to agree on one unitary program: mass hypnosis plus superconsumption.

Survival as the opposite of life, if rarely voted for so clearly as by the buyers of shelters in 1961, can be found at all levels of the struggle against alienation. It is found in the old conception of art, which stressed survival through one’s works, an admission of a renunciation of life — art as excuse and consolation (especially since the bourgeois era of aesthetics, that secular substitute for the religious otherworld). And it is found just as much at the level of the most basic needs, those of food and shelter, with the “blackmail of utility” denounced in the Basic Program of Unitary Urbanism (Internationale Situationniste #6), the blackmail that eliminates any human critique of the environment “with the simple argument that one needs a roof over one’s head.”

The new habitat that is now taking shape with the large housing developments is not really distinct from the architecture of the shelters; it merely represents a less advanced level of that architecture. (The two are closely related and the direct passage from one to the other is already envisaged: the first example in France is a development presently being built in Nice, the basement of which is designed to serve as an atomic shelter for its inhabitants.) The concentration-camp organization of the surface of the earth is the normal state of the present society in formation; its condensed subterranean version merely represents that society’s pathological excess. This subterranean sickness reveals the real nature of the “health” at the surface. The urbanism of despair is rapidly becoming dominant on the surface, not only in the population centers of the United States but also in those of much more backward countries of Europe and even, for example, in the Algeria of the neocolonialist period proclaimed since the “Constantine Plan.” At the end of 1961 the first version of the national plan for French territorial development (whose formulation was later toned down) complained in its chapter on Paris of “an inactive population’s stubborn insistence on living in the capital” despite the fact that the authors of the report, licensed specialists of happiness and practicality, pointed out that “they could live more agreeably outside Paris.” They therefore urged the elimination of this distressing irrationality by the enactment of legal measures to “systematically discourage this inactive population from living in Paris.”

Since the main worthwhile activity in this society obviously consists in systematically discouraging the plans made by its managers (until such point as the latter are concretely eliminated), and since those managers are much more constantly aware of this danger than are the drugged masses of underlings, the planners are erecting their defenses in all the modern projects of territorial organization. The planning of shelters for the population, whether in the normal form of dwellings or in the “affluent” form of family tombs for preventive habitation, in reality serves to shelter the planners’ own power. The rulers who control the architectural incarceration and isolation of their subjects also know how to entrench themselves for strategic purposes. The Haussmanns of the twentieth century no longer stop at facilitating the deployment of their repressive forces by partitioning the old urban clusters into manageable city blocks divided by wide avenues. At the same time that they disperse the population over a vast area in the new prefabricated cities which represent this partitioning in its purest state (where the inferiority of the masses, disarmed and deprived of means of communication, is sharply increased compared with the continually more technically equipped police), they erect inaccessible capital cities where the ruling bureaucracy, for greater security, can constitute the whole of the population.

Different stages of development of these government-cities can be noted. The “Military Zone” of Tirana is a section cut off from the city and defended by the army, wherein are concentrated the homes of the rulers of Albania, the Central Committee building, and the schools, hospitals, stores and diversions for this autarkic elite. The administrative city of Rocher Noir, which was built in a single year to serve as the capital of Algeria when it became evident that the French authorities were no longer capable of maintaining themselves normally in a large city, has exactly the same function as the “Military Zone” of Tirana, though it was erected in open country. Finally, there is the supreme example, Brasilia, the bureaucratic capital that is also the classic expression of functionalist architecture. Parachuted into the center of a vast desert, its inauguration came just at the moment when President Quadros was dismissed by his military and there were premonitions of civil war in Brazil.

Things having gone this far, many specialists are beginning to denounce a number of disturbing absurdities. This is due to their having failed to comprehend the central rationality (the rationality of a coherent delirium) that governs these partial, apparently accidental absurdities, to which their own activities inevitably contribute. Their denunciations of the absurd are thus themselves inevitably absurd, both in their forms and in their means. What is one to think of the naïveté of the nine hundred professors of all the universities and research institutes of the New York-Boston region who in the New York Herald Tribune (30 December 1961) solemnly addressed themselves to President Kennedy and Governor Rockefeller — a few days before Kennedy proudly issued an initial order for fifty million shelter spaces — in order to convince them of the perniciousness of “civil defense” development? Or of the horde of sociologists, judges, architects, policemen, psychologists, teachers, hygienists, psychiatrists and journalists who never cease gathering in congresses, conferences and committee meetings of all sorts, all urgently seeking some way to humanize the housing developments? Humanizing housing developments is as ridiculous a notion as humanizing atomic war, and for the same reasons. The shelters reduce not war but the threat of war to “human proportions” — “human” in modern capitalist terms: marketable human consumption. This sort of investigation of possible humanization strives quite explicitly for a joint working out of the most effective lies for the repression of people’s resistance. While boredom and total lack of social life characterize the suburban housing developments in a way as immediate and tangible as a Siberian cold wave, some women’s magazines now go to those new suburbs to photograph their fashion models and interview satisfied people. Since the stupefying power of such environments is discernable in the intellectual underdevelopment of the children, their maladjustment is blamed on their previous slum upbringing. The latest reformist theory places its hopes in a sort of culture center — though without using that particular term so as not to scare anyone away. In the plans of the Seine Architects Union (Le Monde, 22 December 1961) the prefabricated “bistro-club” that will everywhere humanize their work is presented as a cubic “plastic cell” (28 x 18 x 4 meters) comprising “a stable element: the bistro, which will sell tobacco and magazines, but not alcohol; the remainder will be reserved for various craft activities. . . . It should become a seductive showcase. Hence the aesthetic conception and the quality of the materials will be carefully designed to give their full effect night and day. The play of lights should in fact communicate the life of the bistro-club.”

Thus is presented to us, in profoundly revealing terms, a discovery that “could facilitate social integration on a level that would forge the spirit of a small city.” The absence of alcohol will be little noticed: in France youth gangs no longer need alcohol to inspire them to go on rampages. The French delinquents seem to have broken with the French tradition of mass alcoholism, which is still so important in the “hooliganism” of the Eastern bloc, while not having yet come around, like American youth, to the use of marijuana or stronger drugs. Though stuck in such an empty transitional period, between the stimulants of two distinct historical stages, they are nevertheless expressing a sharp violence in response to this world we are describing and to the horrible prospect of occupying their dismal niche in it. In any case, if we leave aside the factor of revolt, the unionized architects’ project has a certain coherence: their glass bistros are intended as a means of supplementary control on the way to that total surveillance of production and consumption that actually constitutes the famous integration they aim at. The candidly avowed recourse to the aesthetics of the show-window is perfectly illuminated by the theory of the spectacle: in these nonalcoholic bars the consumers themselves become as spectacular as the objects of consumption, for lack of any other attraction. Totally reified man has his place in the show-window as a desirable image of reification.

The internal defect of the system is that it cannot totally reify people; it also needs to make them act and participate, without which the production and consumption of reification would come to a stop. The reigning system is thus in conflict with history — including its own history, which is at once the history of its reinforcement and the history of the opposition to it.

Today (after a century of struggles and after the traditional or newly formed rulers’ liquidation, between the two world wars, of the entire classical workers movement which represented the force of general contestation), in spite of certain appearances, the dominant world more than ever presents itself as permanent on the basis of an enrichment and an infinite extension of an irreplaceable model. We can comprehend this world only by contesting it. And this contestation is neither true nor realistic except insofar as it is a contestation of the totality.

This explains the astonishing lack of ideas evident in all the acts of culture, of politics, of the organization of life, and in everything else — the lameness of the modernist builders of functionalist cities is only a particularly glaring example. The intelligent specialists are intelligent only in playing the game of specialists; hence the timid conformity and fundamental lack of imagination that make them grant that this or that product is useful, or good, or necessary. The root of the prevailing lack of imagination cannot be grasped unless one is able to imagine what is lacking — that is, what is missing, hidden, forbidden, and yet possible, in modern life.

This is not a theory without links to the way people see their own lives; it is, on the contrary, a reality in the minds of people as yet without links with theory. Those who really “cohabit with the negative” (in the Hegelian sense) and explicitly recognize this lack as their platform and their power will bring to light the only positive project that can overthrow the wall of sleep; and the measures of survival; and the doomsday bombs; and the megatons of architecture.



“Géopolitique de l’hibernation” originally appeared in Internationale Situationniste #7 (Paris, April 1962). This translation by Ken Knabb is from the Situationist International Anthology (Revised and Expanded Edition, 2006). No copyright.

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