Farces and Fiascos Before the Cataclysm
In a spectacle that has become predictable, every fall the inhabitants of the plateau region in central France see their lakes emptied in order to cool down the Civaux Nuclear Power Plant. With this year’s particularly severe drought and the drying up of so many springs, one of the questions that arise (though it never appears in the news) is whether the rain will return soon enough and abundantly enough before the Vienne River dries up and the Civaux plant triggers a nightmare.
The fate of humanity is linked to both real and phony questions. The above question, for example, is a real one. Phony ones are things like whether the French rugby team will miraculously win the world championship, or whether a François Hollande leftist presidential candidacy in 2012 will be sufficiently acceptable to make up for the dramatic crash of the extravagant director of the International Monetary Fund.(1) Yet these latter types of questions are pounded into our heads along with all the other media noise, as if we urgently need to know all about them in contrast, for example, to learning how the Japanese dealt with the Fukushima nuclear disaster earlier this year. In France, the world champion of nuclear gambling, it is considered best not to dwell too long on this latter topic. The French authorities in charge of nuclear safety fervently promised to seek “the most total transparency” about the accident that had just taken place on the other side of the globe, but the extreme discretion they have manifested since that time reveals the kind of transparency we can expect when such an accident takes place here.
A lot of water has flowed under the bridges, even those of the Vienne River, since the fall 2010 movement against raising the age of retirement a movement characterized by the formation of popular assemblies as terrains of decision and action (in contrast to labor-union-type bureaucratic structures) and above all by the systematic practice of blockading, explicitly aiming to bring the national economy to a halt.
In this regard, it is notable that a good part of the population, in attacking the health of this economy that is already reputed to be faltering, no longer seems very impressed by all the grave discourses on the state of the crisis, a crisis that contemporary capitalism seems willing to continue indefinitely.
Since that time, the chaotic news of this year 2011 seems to be dominated by a rapid series of improbable events, as if the essential function of each one was to make people forget the previous ones: a series of Arab insurrections, quickly labeled as “revolutions” by those who fear that a real revolution might develop into something quite different; the accident at Fukushima, a type of accident that had up till then been smugly declared impossible; the collapse into ridicule of a universally respected star of world governance; occupations of the public squares of Europe by young people sharing an utter contempt for the professionals of political representation; plebian riots in Great Britain to which the British rulers react Syria style; a new banking crisis that is bleeding the bureaucratic and financial union of the European states; and so on and on.
Despite their chronic myopia, those who make a profession of filming or speaking for others cannot totally ignore what is really impacting the world when history keeps pulling the rug out from under their feet. Thus, fortunately, there are moments when the fabrication of news no longer can be reduced to the offenses of some pedophile, the weekend sports results, the daily fluctuations of the stock market, and the diverse opinions of experts of every variety who crowd in front of the microphones and cameras to explain that, despite the surprises and fiascos that glaringly contradict their confident predictions of the day before, our world can and will continue as planned by those who know best.
The ocean of news essential or trivial, real or fabricated that forms the general background of media noise fosters an illusory relation of humans with contemporary history. This illusory relation is the real secret of the media’s persuasive power. An illusion of reality is based on distant actions, events, and other testimonies that are far from the direct observation or experience of the masses of ordinary individuals for whom they are produced. The media select these distant spectacles and drum them into people’s consciousnesses, drowning out all other actions and events, determining without appeal what is worth knowing and what isn’t, and if necessary blurring everything together in a cloud of chattering that no one will remember.
But what about democracy?
Unless the current collapse of the European economic edifice ends up causing a postponement, the news in France for the next few months will be dominated by the upcoming presidential election a soap opera whose outcome is predictable and whose impact is negligible, since practically everyone knows that the most powerful man in the country is the director of the Banque Nationale de Paris, whose position will never be voted on by any ordinary citizen.
Grasping the last remaining strand of the old rope that previously served to elect Mitterrand,(2) each presidential candidate is henceforth obliged to promise “change” because it has become so glaringly obvious, even to those who still think they have a duty to vote, that the world cannot long continue as it is. It may have seemed like a big deal when Mitterrand promised to “change life” (in order to co-opt and extinguish the last remaining subversive excitements of the 1970s), but nowadays campaign promises of change consist more modestly of letting people hope for an unlikely temporary slowdown of the ongoing movement from bad to worse.
A people really concerned about changing life i.e., seriously determined to reject the systematically harmful maneuvers and manipulations of its rulers would not waste a moment’s attention on the buffooneries of that family of leftish politicians currently canvassing for their votes: Martine Aubry supposedly the most “distinctly leftist” who in advance had agreed to step aside in favor of the ludicrous Strauss-Kahn, and François Hollande, who has sufficiently revealed his true colors by claiming to be the successor of Mitterrand. Which in no way exonerates all the other candidates, whose programs, as always, involve nothing more than trying to tweak the margins of an overall system that they consider untouchable, such as the pathetic Greens, corrupted by several decades of power-sharing at all levels of political representation, who present a candidate only in the hope of seeing him lose and who are already negotiating for their shares of the ministerial portfolios within the next coalition government of the nuclearist left. Which admittedly is no surprise, considering that these same pitiful offshoots of the old political ecology movement had already unanimously rallied to the Grenelle farce by agreeing to ignore the issue of nuclear power.(3)
From the eccentric little mayor of Égletons who imagines himself the incarnation of the people, to the politicians at the summits of the state who claim to speak in the name of France and of what the French people want, we continue to hear that strange old refrain of representative democracy: the notion that the people and their representatives are one and the same, distinct and yet mystically unified like the Father and the Son in Christian theology.
Like all the other outmoded notions of a global system that has already ceased to function the merit of work, wage labor as mode of participation in the overall economy, incessant growth as essential condition for maintaining social systems, the state as ultimate protector and regulator the spectacle of representative democracy is on life support. French voters have already experienced the value of the pitiful electoral system that is supposedly the ultimate democracy possible. Since the referendum on the European Constitution, they have learned that their decisions can be declared null and void if their rulers and beneficiaries judge that the people have voted incorrectly.(4)
Even if we grant the legitimacy of that absurd rule that a numerical majority of votes has any right to impose its errors of judgment on others, the electoral setup depends on ignoring the huge proportion of abstensions (more than 54% of registered French voters and nearly 70% of those in the eastern suburbs of Paris during the last regional elections). If the abstentionist party was taken into consideration — i.e., if a nonvote was counted as a rejection of the choices offered — most politicians would be sent back to civilian life.
This “democracy,” which the Western countries take such pride in at home while forgetting about it when their arms and investments invade other lands, is limited to periodic election spectacles in which the people are allowed a brief moment of apparent influence.
Only superstition or special interests push people to pretend they believe in this sort of democracy. You have to be pretty naïve to imagine that an election affects anything of any significance when it is well known that all candidates, whether they like it or not, are obliged to betray the pitiful programs they claim to support, and that such betrayals are so routine they are scarcely ever mentioned.
The media constantly extols the virtues of this democratic paradise, but in real life people rarely experience any of its supposed delights. Nothing is less democratic than the business model that reigns everywhere. Nothing is more authoritarian than businesses’ actual relations to their workers and to the work those workers do, which are in fact the sole form of social relations recognized in the media version of the world. This lamentable world is made in the image of its businesses and its state bureaucracies. It produces and reproduces itself and is taken for granted by practically everyone.
And yet . . .
Whenever a community reemerges somewhere and begins to resist, things suddenly become more clear. Who, for example, would be so clueless as to try to convince the indigenous people of the Oaxaca Commune that being a “free and responsible citizen” is a desirable fate? Not when everywhere around the world such citizens (assuming that they even manage to find a job) spend each day of their life carrying out some sordid or pointless task in order to receive a few tokens of survival for another month, in order to prolong as long as possible the same lamentable destiny.
Following the example of the retired people’s movement of fall 2010 or of those Athenians who have continued to fuel the nightmares of the decision makers of Europe, everywhere where groups of people try to seriously oppose this inescapable momentum from bad to worse, those groups tend to spontaneously take the communitary form of popular assemblies. Such assemblies appear to be the sole feasible countermodel for those who, for all sorts of good reasons, wish to be able to determine the course of events for themselves.
From the Paris Commune of 1871 to the soviets of 1905, from Catalonia in 1936 to the profusion of assemblies in the neighborhoods, schools, and factories of France in 1968, the formation of popular assemblies is almost always a community’s first political act in moments of conflict or power vacuum. The assembly form is the vital space where people recover their powers because they no longer wish to (or are no longer able to) delegate them. It enables people to participate in strategic debates, decision-making, and the organization of action. It can also be seen as a revival of the true freedom and democracy that are the official values of Western societies. Bureaucrats and other professional manipulators are so well aware of this danger that they gladly resort to such assemblies during tense situations they cant resolve in any other way, and when necessary even create phony versions of them.
The problem is that these assemblies have usually been too ephemeral and limited too much to the particular situations that have provoked them (like a parenthetical interlude within the ordinary course of life) for this exceptional practice of a different type of democracy to be very durable. Improvised on the spur of the moment and knowing they are destined to disappear, such assemblies too often retain a naïve belief that sincere debate and majority opinion will spontaneously produce appropriate orientations and decisions. And that is assuming that they have not (reflexively and even more naïvely) simply reproduced the disastrous practices of all political authorities complicated debates over trivialities, behind-the-scenes power plays, rushed and unprepared votes on predefined alternatives, etc. ultimately leading to burnout and demoralization.
Anyone who has ever taken part in a popular assembly cannot help having been struck by the unaccustomed sense of power and thrill of freedom it gives to each of its participants. To know what I’m talking about, you have to have experienced the spontaneous sharing of ideas, experiences, talents, methods, and resources, even if only among a few dozen people who have come together with the same determination.
Even if the assembly concept remains far from perfect and still presents many questions that need to be resolved, the dominant social model of each-against-all has for too long benefited from the fact that this democratic counterpractice has never succeeded in emerging from the shadow of history. Fortunately, the present social edifice is so undermined by doubt and uncertainty (like the old Soviet Empire) that the example of a single free community emerging anywhere on the planet could be enough to trigger its total collapse.
In this regard the people of Oaxaca have mapped out some of the terrain for us. In contrast to representational democracy a multitude of separated individuals who end up delegating everything and who thus remain powerless in the face of the organized powers an authentically democratic practice, one that is nonhierarchical and tenaciously horizontal, appears to require a certain degree of communitary culture and feeling among its members.
Quite aware of the traps posed by urgency that Trojan horse of all established powers the Oaxacans are teaching us that people don’t automatically make perfect collective decisions merely because they assemble and hold honest debates. It takes time to agree on the terms of the discussion, time to fine-tune an analysis, time to gather information and verify it, time to learn, time to form a judgment, time to convince others. In short, it takes time to develop a considered and effective decision.
This dynamic collective process is more important than any other consideration. On the historical stage where the fate of humanity is being played out, a good idea cannot be effective until it has been taken up collectively, until it has won the personal conviction of each of its protagonists. The Oaxacans know this, they know that they have to devote enough time to develop the most extensive consensus possible. One of the tasks that will face assemblies in the near future (assemblies whose continued appearance the increasing frequency of the system’s convulsions makes very predictible) will be to understand and articulate their own operation, at least to some extent. This is not an ideal to attain or a formal principle to follow, but a strategic stake with decisive consequences.
Beyond the assembly form, which is limited to temporary situations, looms the commune — the even more ambitious form of social organism through which communities strive to take power over all the conditions of their life. The practice of this authentic kind of communism may turn out to be no longer the outcome of a long and painful march to bring about a revolution, but one of the preconditions for overthrowing this world.
This amounts to saying that communism is beginning here and now. We’re already living it.
1. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the International Monetary Fund and French Socialist Party presidential candidate noted for his involvement in various financial and sexual scandals, resigned from the IMF in 2011 following allegations of sexual harassment.
2. François Mitterrand, Socialist Party leader, President of France 1981-1995.
3. Reference to the Grenelle Environment Conference of 2007, at which French political parties, labor unions, NGOs, etc., met on Rue de Grenelle in Paris to discuss how to address climate change and other environmental problems. Many measures were proposed, but none that seriously challenged France’s immense and entrenched nuclear power industry.
4. In 2005 the French people voted 55% against ratifying a proposed European Constitution. Two years later the French government approved a revised international agreement to similar effect without bothering to submit the question to a popular vote.
Petites scènes de débâcle en attendant l’implosion was originally published in Le Communard (Fall 2011) and reprinted in Daniel Denevert’s book Dérider le Désert (Éditions La Grange Batelière, 2018). Translated by Ken Knabb. This translation is not copyrighted.
Dérider le Désert is a collection of Daniel Denevert’s articles from 1980-2015. He discusses his book in this online interview.
Daniel was a close friend and collaborator of mine during the 1970s, and translations of several of his texts from that earlier period are also online at this website (see below). Those earlier texts were largely focused on the situationist movement. The articles in this later collection present critical observations on current events without much explicit reference to the situationists, but certain underlying situationist themes remain evident.
Other texts by Daniel Denevert:
To Clarify Some Aspects of the Moment (1972)
Theory of Poverty, Poverty of Theory (1973)
Declaration Concerning the Center for Research on the Social Question (1974)
Letter from Afar (1974)
Notes Toward a Situationist Manifesto (1975)