Kenneth Rexroth at Large in San Francisco



The May Revolt in France
The Ecological Point of No Return
Radical Movements on the Defensive
The Ecological Revolution


The May Revolt in France

120 years have gone by and we are back where we were in 1848, the year of revolutions. The European empire of espionage, terror, subversion and wholesale bribery of cabinet ministers that had been set up by the Austrians and English with the unwieldy aid of the Russians broke down. As barricades went up in the streets of the capitals of Europe the comfortable classes found the whole thing incomprehensible. They looked back on forty odd years of what they considered peace and prosperity — The Happy Society. The revolutionists were disorganized, naïve, and basically without real leaders. Almost all the leading intellectuals were passionate supporters of the revolutionary movement but largely for personal and melodramatic reasons, although the most astute were aware of the fundamental change in the moral foundations of society that the masses were demanding.

This was a period in which Marx brought to its final definition his theory of human self-alienation. The terms were those of the left wing followers of Hegel, but he was certainly not alone in diagnosing the fundamental cause of the world ill. Throughout the intervening generations all but a handful of romantic anarchists have assumed that the fundamental problem, the radical divorce of man from his work, men from one another, and man from himself, would be solved indirectly by political and economic change. Today we have, over most of the world, either welfare states or state capitalism — total government control of the means of production and distribution. Human self-alienation has not decreased but increased, everywhere.

So has the incomprehension of the comfortable classes. They say to blacks, “What is it you people want? Give us a program. The Supreme Court has guaranteed that you are just as equal as we are.” To the young, “We gave you everything your heart desired; we sent you to the most expensive schools; your sports car cost twice as much as our Buick. All you ever had to do was ask. Why are you living in this filthy room, sleeping with twenty people on the floor, taking dope and living on popsicles?” They say to the police, “I tried to be a real pal to him; only last week I bought him the most expensive outboard motor. I simply can’t believe my eyes as I see him hanging there.” They are totally, absolutely, utterly and incurably incapable of realizing that they have made life intolerable.

A generation ago the great Jesuit scientist and philosopher Teilhard de Chardin said, “The revolutions of the past hundred years have been for political and economic objectives. The great revolution of the latter part of the twentieth century will be to change the quality and meaning of life.” Thank God he said it. I must have quoted it one hundred times trying to get some inkling of what’s happening into the heads of the straight and square world.

Youth, blacks, the starving inhabitants of the neocolonial world, are alienated by definition. They are not alienated on the job — like a worker on the assembly line whose conditions of life and work turn him into a mindless appetitive automaton, lured on from day to day through a world empty of all human values by the bait of meaningless commodities dangled before him in the idiot box. American college students, the blacks in Hunters Point, the Indians of India or Arizona dying of malnutrition in mud huts, are outside the society and look at it as a whole. What they see is unadulterated moral horror, made doubly evil and terrifying by the fatuous boasts of idiot politicians — The Great Society, The Happy Society, You Never Had It So Good — and by college administrators who are superprogressives and can quote Paul Goodman, A.S. Neill, Signora Montessori, at the flip of a punched card, and militant civil rights advocates who are passionate practitioners of high-toned miscegenation.

Probably the most significant thing about the explosion in France is the revelation of the moral bankruptcy of the establishment. Neither the General nor the leaders of the Communist Party had the faintest idea of what it was all about. De Gaulle had no explanation except the sublimely comic one that it was all due to the Communists. The Communists, with just enough insight to be really scared, indiscriminately denounced the revolt — both of the rank and file leaders of the striking workers and of all the youth — with savage, unbridled abuse. The terms of this slanging match were derived from the political argot of a bygone age. De Gaulle might have been Clemenceau attacking Jaurès. The Communist bureaucrats picked their vocabulary from the records of the Moscow trials.

Most significantly the labor bureaucrats united in striving to behead the movement with “pork chops” — as American labor slang has it, with wages and hours sops. But the French working class are as well off as any in Europe except the Swedes and the West Germans. They did not rise for wages and hours, although they may give up if sufficiently bribed. Every effort was made by the left politicians and trade union bureaucrats to create antagonism between youth, the workers and the peasants who were just beginning to join the revolt. What all these people (“piecard artists” is the old American labor slang) were united in defending was Their Way of Life and it was this the revolt was against.

Whatever the temporary settlement in France, this rejection of the immense, deadly system of false values which has ruled the age of commerce and industry will not stop. The sentiment is shared by the millions within the counterculture all over the world who are under attack from university presidents, ghetto police and CIA-subsidized politico-militarists. Their Way of Life is unbearable and they are passing over to the assault.

[June 1968]

NOTE: For the situationists’ accounts and analysis of the May revolt, see The Beginning of an Era and May 1968 Documents. For a taste of the spirit of the revolt, see May 1968 Graffiti.


The Ecological Point of No Return

In the past, men have planned utopias where life would be better, and they have advocated revolution to get rid of the predators of society and bring about a world where man was no longer wolf to man. Meanwhile, the human race struggled on, crippled and thwarted by exploitation and its side effects, from alcoholism to silicosis, but it survived.

For the last 200 years we have seen the growth of an economic and social system based fundamentally on the extractive industries and with a built-in dynamism that forces it into ever-increasing production at all costs. This competitive system has universalized a morality based on covetousness. For the last 50 years, the benefits, such as they are, of this system have been extended to most of the productive workers of the major industrial countries, the “metropoles.” This is least true of the United States, where about a tenth of the population is redundant — youth, the aged, Negroes, Southern poor whites and others. This is not due to the backwardness of the American economy; quite the contrary.

We have just gone through a long boom period with ever-accumulating surpluses; yet the overall production has never passed 80 percent of capacity. The source of profit is no longer, as it was in Marx’s day, labor power. Every year we need fewer people to produce more. The surplus we lock up in subsidized housing projects, in Aid to Dependent Children or in Garrison State College or toss in the Disposall of Vietnam. Our social-economic structure is itself in a state of civil war. The old extractive, industrial, financial structure based ultimately on the exploitation of labor power applied directly to primary raw materials is at war with the new technological society of computers and transistors and the Keynesian morality of Hugh Hefner’s la vie luxueuse. Meanwhile, outside the metropoles, starvation, disorder, breakdown sweep over the southern three-quarters of the globe.

Twenty-five years ago all the contradictions and conflicts of the present had already come into existence, but they only threatened individual men with war, hunger, and crippled lives. Today, an extractive, accumulative society more than just threatens — makes certain — the extinction of the human species within a comparatively short time.

The carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere can no longer be kept in balance even over the equatorial regions. A dense fog of carcinogens blankets whole areas — the Rhine-Saar, the Upper Po, the Bay of Naples, the Tokyo-Osaka-Nagasaki metropolitan complexes — as well as the major cities. I have crossed the Siskiyus and seen the smog filling the entire Central Valley of California, and I have seen it rise on the warm morning air from around Milan and cover Lake Como in the Alps. Lake Erie is a cesspool. Lake Michigan is unfit for swimming at Milwaukee and Chicago and stinks all summer long so that the grand rich are now abandoning their lakeside stately homes to charitable institutions, dance seminars and apocalyptic Black religious groups. If all the atomic energy installations now planned are built, they will raise the temperatures of the oceans with cataclysmic results. The things we are doing to our environment are changing it far more drastically than the changes necessary to account for the extinction of the great reptiles at the end of the Jurassic Age and incomparably more quickly.

I have quoted before the old, now-abandoned slogan of the U.S. Forest Service: “The forest is a crop, not a mine.” Unless we can stop treating the planet as a mine and start treating it as a crop, people now living will see the beginning of the end of the human species.

What can we do about it? Probably very little, because the old order is shutting down with a police state. In the Thirties the Marxists called Fascism and Nazism “forced rationalization” of the German and Italian economies. (Lenin admitted that Bolshevism was precisely forced rationalization.) Today, the state, but most especially the American state, is dedicated to forced irrationalization. Unless this can be halted, there is no hope for the human race. But what does this mean? It means de-mounting the whole structure, rebuilding it and starting in the opposite direction. Growth rates and GNPs and capital expansion have got to be replaced by changing the standard-of-living value system so that the possession of large numbers of commodities becomes a vice, not a virtue.

The extractive industries must be reduced to a minimum. The use of fossil fuels must be brought to a complete stop; coal, oil and gas should be consumed totally with nothing but completely inert residues at the sites and sent out over wires. Atomic plants should be stopped until it can be determined how to destroy the wastes. More and more articles should be made of organic plastics. Chemical fertilizers and insecticides must be replaced by organic manures, which now pollute all our bodies of water instead of being pumped into the fields, and by the ecological management of the health of agricultural crops; for instance, replacing poison sprays with ladybird beetles. There are innumerable ecological maneuvers of this kind now known. Along with this would have to go a complete moral conversion from the acquisitive, competitive, covetous “virtues” of present society to a whole new scale of cooperative mutual aid simplicity value system not unlike the South Sea Islanders of romance. The population growth must not just be stopped, but reversed. The optimum is probably about one billion people to the planet.

You say this sounds like turning the whole world into a national park? Precisely. We must save ourselves as we are trying to save the sandhill crane. All power to David Brower!

[May 1969]


Radical Movements on the Defensive

Ever since the Time of Troubles — the interval between the collapse of Western Civilization and whatever is to follow — began, I have pointed out that the forces struggling for a humane, human society are on the defensive.

From January 1919 to 1924, the Russian Bolsheviks systematically exterminated the libertarian councils (soviets) and individuals who had made the Revolution; then, in sadistic irony, called the country “the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics,” a despotism ruled by bureaucracy and ex-police agents where every socialist or republican was dead or in jail. American dollars and Russian duplicity collaborated to betray, exterminate or coopt all those struggling for a new social order. The same was true of Hungary.

A generation later, under the identical slogan of Woodrow Wilson — “For the Defense of Democracy” — the Spanish libertarian revolution, which had risen in defense against what was essentially a foreign invasion, was cut down without mercy by other foreign invaders who had seized control of the beleaguered republic.

Today, De Gaulle and his successor from the House of Rothschild are supported first by the pledge of American armed intervention at the Baden Baden emergency conference, after the May Days of 1968, and by American money and perfectly open and shameless Communist support in June 1969.

Just where is this revolution everybody’s talking about? It is in the hearts and minds of men and women, especially young, black, or colored who find the horrors of a civilization in its long, drawn-out death throes morally intolerable and who hope for a better world. Are they struggling for it? Is there a worldwide revolutionary movement? Of youth, blacks, and the Third World? There is not. There is a defensive struggle against extermination which isn’t even a holding action. All over the world, what is going on most resembles the hopeless defense of the telephone building in Barcelona [in May 1937] by the entrapped Socialists, Libertarians, and Catalan Republicans against the Stalinist defenders of democracy, while the bombs and shells of Franco and the Italians and Germans, manufactured with American loans, fell indiscriminately on the city. Another “May Days.”

Anyone who believes the youth and the blacks of America are on the offensive is hallucinating. The cynicism of the attacks of the dying social order was utterly exposed, stripped naked by the events in Berkeley [People’s Park, May 1969]. Another “May Days.” On the eve of the Los Angeles mayoralty election I said on the air that it had suddenly dawned on me that every step in the evolution of the Berkeley battle had been initiated by Rotten Reagan, and that the minute it started Sam Yorty had shifted his attacks on Thomas Bradley from blatant racism to accusations that Bradley was somehow the evil genius of the dope-crazed hippies who were poison gassing themselves, killing themselves with buckshot, and blinding themselves when not otherwise occupied in shouting obscenities at the forces of Lawn Ordure.

As a case-hardened journalist, it further occurred to me that the entire business had been carefully planned, move for move, by Reagan’s PR apparatus to ensure the election of Yorty, his fellow sweetheart of the Swimming Pool Soviets in the days when Tenney, Shelley, Yorty, Ronnie, and other up and coming young operators were the darlings of the cocktail parties of Shocking Pink Hollywood. I think “Shocking Pink” is the term one used to see in Vogue and Bazaar as the latest chic in lipsticks and lace panties.

This is the great, and possibly lethal, fallacy of the elder statesmen of the New Left. Herbert Marcuse insists on talking as though his ideas and his followers were winning, when actually their backs are against the wall. UATWMF! is a fine slogan, but not when the MF’s are you. The Tamurlane ruthlessness of the American power structure was revealed in Berkeley — in response to the most trivial of challenges. If Hitler had poison gassed the University of Heidelberg as late as 1938 for any reason, much less for planting flowers in a vacant lot, his government would have fallen within a week. In America, the Board of Regents unanimously approved wholesale mayhem and manslaughter. If this is the way great liberals like William Roth behave when challenged with some shrubbery and kiddie slides, what would American power do if seriously threatened?

Yet the self-appointed bureaucrats of the New Left still preach massive confrontation and deploy massed ranks of defenseless students as though they were the armies of Frederick the Great.

It is my opinion that the situation is hopeless, that the human race has produced an ecological tipover point and is rushing toward extinction, a species death that will be complete within a century. This is quite without any consideration of the hydrogen bomb — a very large box of matches given to a bunch of subnormal children with a 6000-year record of suicidal delinquency to play with in a house made of tissue paper and magnesium foil. But assuming there is a possibility of changing the society’s “course in the darkness deathward set,” it can only be done by infection, infiltration, diffusion and imperceptibly, microscopically, throughout the social organism, like the invisible pellets of a disease called Health.

The New Left worship Che Guevara, as wrongheaded a man as ever lived. He completely exposed himself to a hostile population. He was dumbfounded when the Bolivian Communist Party did not support him, but betrayed him. He was even more dumbfounded when his communications with Havana mysteriously went silent. His physical tactics and strategy were appropriate to the days of Simon Bolivar and even then they would have been foolhardy.

What is effective? The corruption of the social mind from malignancy to benignity. A poem by Gary Snyder or a song by Leonard Cohen or Joni Mitchell is infinitely more effective than the pitiful arsenal the forces of California Lawn Ordure, working night and day, have been able to round up from all the black militant organizations put together — a total of less than 200 “pieces.”

[July 1969]


The Ecological Revolution

Harold Gilliam, in the San Francisco Daily Playboy [the SF Chronicle] Sunday edition which is combined with the 19th Century Bulletin [the SF Examiner], writes: “It would have been unthinkable at the beginning of 1969 to write that the college generation was being turned on by ecology.” The piece is headed: ECOLOGY IS NOW A WITH-IT WORD—AND CONCEPT. Gilliam is a tireless propagandist for the ecological revolution, is far and away the best writer on the staff and not responsible for the smart-aleck tone of the headline writer. Still, the article itself shows the signs of a corruption of prose style by Merlaism or Caenitis.

The sudden tremendous interest in ecology amongst students, and in Berkeley and San Francisco amongst older people, and spreading across the country like wildfire, is not a fad, and it is not unheralded. For years, KPFA and the other Pacifica stations and their associates have hammered on the subject. On my own book review program, the oldest thing on the station, I have talked about it at every opportunity. Twenty-five years ago a group of us were conducting lectures and seminars at the Workman’s Circle, whose whole emphasis was on ecology as a scientific foundation for a philosophy of social reorganization. The period of David Brower’s leadership of the Sierra Club witnessed an attempt to turn that organization of Sunday hikers and summer trippers into the leading cadre of an ecological revolution — which is why he was ganged up on by corporation lawyers, power company executives and Native Sons and Daughters of the Berkeley Hills.

The reason for the sudden explosion of the ecological revolution in the Bay Area is simple. It was prepared by many years of work, and it is occurring at the critical point when the ecology of California has become intolerable. Water turns into steam very suddenly; just as suddenly we have been brought face to face with the question, in the words of Lawrence Halprin, “Is man merely a dominant species in a transitional life association or is he the characteristic member of a climax of living things that will endure for a geological epoch or more?” The cockroaches and the octopuses are waiting. Perhaps we cannot turn the steam back into water. Perhaps the critical point is gone. The Santa Barbara Channel has become a dead sea. DDT is killing off the crab fisheries. In Berkeley, mother’s milk has been found below the standards for human consumption. Environmental specialists tell us that within months people will start dying by the thousands in smog-filled cities. Others say famines will kill hundreds of millions in the next decade and it is too late to prevent it.

The sudden popularity of ecology is not a craze. It is the response to the deadly crisis caused by a craze called the profit system. Man’s end is in sight. One thing ecology has always taught is that the relationships of living things to each other and their environment are governed by critical points where catastrophe occurs with great suddenness.

For example, Monterey recently staged a festival in memory of Ed Ricketts, the ocean scientist who was the brain trust for John Steinbeck and the “Doc” of his novels. Ricketts told his employers in the sardine industry that if they continued their fertilizer factories in the sea — their wholesale destruction of the sardines — the species would vanish suddenly. They hired other scientists to say, “Oh, nonsense, there are billions of sardines and the ocean is illimitably fertile.” Ed pointed out that in the ocean, above all places, creatures, no matter how numerous, live in the most delicate balance and when that balance is destroyed they become extinct. So it happened. Most of us who knew Ed well believe he committed suicide, not, I hope over the greed and folly of the sardine industry. Mankind at this moment is in exactly the fix of the sardine when Ed Ricketts issued his warning, and man is his own sardine canning industry. We are all implicated.

The prospect of the imminent extinction of the human species is a final perspective of 400 years of the growth of value neuter science and technology. Today terribly fashionable amongst old academicians, we still have “value neuter” philosophies,” whatever in the Hell those are, and I mean in Hell. Marx’s revolutionary drive came from the tradition of the Hebrew prophets; the profoundly moving exhortations and denunciations in Capital and The Communist Manifesto are in contradiction to his “scientific” economics. But only superficially different from the bourgeois economists who were his masters (“the sum total of private evils add up to the social good”) and the process is governed by the value neuter laws of physics. We can no longer endure a value neuter science, neither chemistry and physics nor the sciences of man. Ecology is the science that automatically produces evaluation without ceasing to confine itself to purely scientific methods. This is nothing new. Erasmus Darwin (Charles Darwin’s grandfather), Lamarck, Buffon tried to develop an evaluative theory of evolution. Peter Kropotkin, the great anarchist leader, at the end of the last century attacked Darwin’s “survival of the fittest,” and the social Darwinism derived from it as well as Marxism, with his classic Mutual Aid. Kropotkin and his libertarian, communitarian colleague Élisée Reclus were actually ecologists, though in those days they called them geographers. It is no accident that college students who call themselves (lower case) communist-anarchists now say, “Down with the red flag, down with the black flag, up with the green, forward to the ecological revolution!” Lenin refused to talk about postrevolutionary society and dismissed such speculations as utopian. He really believed in a value neuter revolution. So today most Marxist groups and most black revolutionary groups refuse to answer, because they cannot, the simple question, “What do you want?” History and evolution are assumed to be the only source of value. This means that one situation is better than another simply because it follows it in time. Absurd in itself, this has now been proven a lethal assumption. The old hymn, popular with Socialist summer camps, “We are climbing higher, higher,” is false. We are not on Jacob’s ladder but on a greased toboggan to the everlasting bonfire. For us, evolution has turned out to be value negative. If the processes are not reversed in the next 10 years the human species will not survive much beyond the century. Most of those 10 years promise to be the years of the administration of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew in the most powerful empire the world has even seen — hardly a cheery prospect.

If you want to bone up read Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid; Frederick Clemens’s Plant Ecology; Paul Ehrlich’s, The Population Bomb, and a collection of articles on all aspects of ecology, The Subversive Science; and subscribe to Keith Lampe’s bulletin Earth Read Out, 439 Boynton Avenue, Berkeley 94707. You better learn. You haven’t got much time and your life is in the hands of Nixon, Agnew and Hinkle — ventriloquist’s dummies for J. Walter Thompson.

[December 1969]


Kenneth Rexroth at Large in San Francisco (selected columns from the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Magazine). Copyright 1960-1975 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.