Notes Toward a Situationist Manifesto

(Addendum to Theory of Poverty)


A qualitative leap has been made in the period since the SI ceased its experimentation around 1968.

The proletarian assault, gradually rediscovering the need for a revolution and defining through its struggles the conditions and stakes of a “new era,” has been decisively confirmed and clarified. The nature of this assault now enables us to reject or modify certain premature and overly simplistic hypotheses and slogans of the old theory and also reveals certain limits, the overcoming of which would create the conditions for a qualitatively different era.

In obvious connection with the return of social revolution, we are witnessing the unprecedented development of a partial-reformist opposition that is abandoning its traditional themes and drawing its inspiration from modern themes taken from revolutionary struggles. This phenomenon dovetails with the new orientation being taken by the ruling circles of the present society. Faced with the assault of the negative, they have concluded that it is essential, by any means necessary, to induce people to actively participate in their own alienation. They are exploring and setting up the futuristic conditions of such participation, envisaging significant changes in everyday life, in mores, in the social utilization of space and time, in proletarians’ role in production, and in this production itself. This is what is behind all the liberalizing experiments, all the questionings of the assumptions, goals and power of the economy itself, all the declarations, studies and programs promising the transformation of existence, which are accompanied, by an irony of the logic of statist power, by a sector-by-sector reinforcement of the means of control over social life. This is one of the contradictions that is going to dominate all social life in the next few years: the economic and state power structure cannot confront the present collapse and consider liberalizing the society without reinforcing its own bureaucratic control, and it can’t reinforce its bureaucratic control without substantially liberalizing the anachronistic social structures whose negative and negating consequences have become uncontrollable.

The ruling power cannot know how far it will be swept along by this course. This is why it so willingly leaves it to the diverse shades of contemporary critical thought to explore its possible stages, including the worst envisageable ones, and why it encourages experimentation with solutions aimed at transforming populations into credulous and cooperative actors of a renovated alienation. Its main concern, since it has already resigned itself to the fact that it can’t get out of the present period in one piece, is to keep the damage to a minimum and avoid generating irreversible instabilities. It is this process, taken up on a global political scale as well as internally in the various states and modified or delayed according to local necessities, that has given rise to a spectacle of opposition and social transformation (in contrast to the pre-1968 spectacle of a triumphant and euphoric economy).

Opposition has, of course, always been allotted a place in the world of the spectacle, but until recently that place has been peripheral and negligible. Now it shares center stage, openly competing with satisfied submission’s eulogy of existing conditions. The capitalism-Stalinism opposition that was the basis of the spectacle of the preceding period has now been replaced by the familiar imagery of the present society grappling with the forces and processes announcing its internal negation.

Throughout the highest political spheres we are seeing the still-groping emergence of a neoreformism that is reinforced by the foil of a certain revival of rightist or semifascist manifestations.

Considered as a whole, Western capitalism’s various attempts to reexamine itself and prepare the ground for its essential restructuring reveal the pivotal and even profoundly historical character of the present era. In response to the increasing signs and risks of a total negation, a terrain of experimentation is being formed whose purpose is to develop an ideology capable of propping up the faltering system during its reorganization over the next few years. This reorganization will involve a Stalinization of Western capitalism, in the sense that the restructuring necessary to safeguard state domination must be conducted in the most centralized and controllable manner possible, no longer in the name of the natural requirements of economic functioning but to save the economic order itself, in the name of an ideology imposing a new worldview and preparing the way for cybernetic society. In order to carry out this operation, however, the ruling power finds itself obliged to temporarily enter the favored terrain of revolutionaries, a terrain that terrifies it: that of adventure. Even if its goals are clear, it is far from controlling the process it finds itself engaged in. This is a key point for historically understanding the present period and the manifestations of the revolutionary adventure that is challenging it. None of the rulers can predict the ultimate consequences of the reformist measures they are forced to take. They all see their time running out and are aware of the last-ditch palliatives they urgently need to develop or generalize, but they hesitate to implement correctives whose processes and results are so uncertain. This paralyzing uncertainty leads them rather to give a clumsy and inadequate priority to the only one of their instruments that remains without surprises and that they know well — their police.

Revolutionary theses are being parroted and coopted everywhere, inspiring state-supported thinkers and future technicians of social control. With equal cynicism they are used both to praise modern commodities and to justify the possible need for to bureaucratically planned privation of many of these commodities. In a sense, those theses have never been so well known and popular; but only on rare occasions are they understood, used and developed on their own terrain. The spectacle effect obliterates their origin and their meaning. They don’t appear as the ideas of revolutionaries — ideas linked to a specific experience and project — but rather as exceptional outbursts of lucidity on the part of the rulers, stars and vendors of illusions.

This spectacular popularity of our anesthetized theses points to a major difficulty in the composition of a situationist manifesto. Such a manifesto will have to be conceived in such a way that the viewpoint it expresses cannot be pigeonholed as the “extreme left” of the existing currents of opposition. It must embody as unambiguously as possible the critique and supersession of those currents. That is, it must shatter the subtle but powerful “in” status that situationist theory holds today. The main purpose of the manifesto is in fact to implement such a break.

Guy Debord, for example, in putting out his recent film [The Society of the Spectacle], has ceased carrying on an offensive position and has actively contributed to entangling situationist theory in the contemporary oppositional spectacle. Not, obviously, because cinema is necessarily more “spectacular” than writing (though it is a domain that revolutionaries are nowhere near being able to dominate in the current context), but because seven years after the appearance of his book — well into a radically new period — he has made a film which is no more than that book and which is thus only a self-admiring glorification of an act of the past. But even if there is an excessive degree of flaunted self-satisfaction in this film, it isn’t our intention to deny Debord the talent that unquestionably remains to him and that can still manifest itself in certain partially effective and revolutionary ways. That’s not the problem. The problem is that in the field of situationist theoretical activity where he commands a well-merited respect Debord is devoting himself less to the theory of negation than to cultivating a personal glory for his achievements in the art of the negative, which the present society integrates as one more peripheral and entertaining art. This is an example of the path that a good manifesto and its authors must not follow.

As a prelude to drafting a manifesto, there is a huge backlog of unfinished business in revolutionary theory that must be dealt with. In particular we will need to develop a firmer grasp of various phenomena that (due to their scope or their novelty) are peculiar to the “new era” and that have thus far received little attention or interpretation. In so doing, we may well discover some new ideas that will be decisive in the struggles of the next few years.

A good manifesto, for example, should not address the revolutionary movement in that tone of frantic optimism that many feel obliged to adopt whenever they talk about revolution, overemphasizing the radical aspects of any situation (even inventing some if necessary) and constantly insisting on the inevitability of final victory. This doctrinaire position only reveals the doubts of those who adopt it.

The manifesto will have to consider the real revolutionary movement — including, of course, the admirable element of what has already been accomplished, which justifies the very notion of a revolutionary movement, but only in the sense that what has already been done is going to be superseded. It must also consider all the regrettable defects that jeopardize revolutionary development, all its forms of complicity with existing conditions. The accurate analysis of a single step of the real movement is worth more than a hundred discourses on the timeless certainties of the ultimate outcome. The era when the mere arrogant declaration of such certainties had a certain provocative value is now over.

The manifesto will take precise and incisive positions on the reality and the development of the revolutionary movement. It must locate and name this proletarian movement’s truly situationist tendencies, as well as those that can in no way be considered as situationist and those that may become so and under what conditions. It will avoid that habit of contemporary revolutionary prose which sees an unadulterated confirmation of its theses in virtually everything that’s happening. It will be necessary to clarify what has already been done and the present activity of consequential revolutionaries, by showing what the revolutionary proletariat is necessarily going to be obliged to do in the next few years. That is, what questions struggles are inevitably going to hinge on, what forms they are necessarily going to take, and what precise alternatives the dominant society and its revolutionary opposition are going to be faced with. Revolutionary theory can no longer content itself with presenting the final stage as the foreseeable negation of what exists; it is now necessary for it to conceive, in an ever more practical manner, all the eventualities of the intervening periods and to present various debated hypotheses on these periods.

We need to put ourselves in a position to confidently announce certain foreseeable developments while ruling out others; to reveal the function catastrophism fills for the ruling power and its opponents; and to discern which catastrophes can be reasonably shown to be avoidable and which are unavoidable. We should be able to foresee the principal socio-historic developments arising out of all the aspects of the present social breakdown, that is, to foresee the immediate context in which the proletariat is going to have to develop its struggles.

The point of a situationist manifesto is more to present a series of clear positions on problems hitherto left in abeyance than merely to make a more rational and striking presentation of points drawn from already existing theory. It will be a sort of guidebook for the revolutionary adventures of the next twenty years. Not an idyllic travel agency brochure but a practical document calling attention to the dangers and obstacles that have already begun to manifest themselves and to the scientifically evaluated and situated chances of success.

What will distinguish us from the pseudorevolutionaries who today monopolize attention, both in the manifesto and in the activity we are going to continue to develop, is that we are going to talk about revolution as a concrete and global enterprise for the last quarter of this century and that we are going to specify under what conditions it can succeed as a total revolution. Due to the conditions in which we and others are conducting our activity, and because we are conducting it in such a way that it cannot be directed by anyone, no one can say who will be the authors of the situationist manifesto or manifestos. One thing, however, is sure: our era really needs theoretical works, and it itself is going to create the forces necessary for the satisfaction of that need.



Notes pour un manifeste situationniste appeared in the journal Chronique des Secrets Publics (Paris, 1975). Translation by Ken Knabb (slightly modified from the 1975 translation that was later included in Public Secrets).

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