Thursday, May 28, 2009

Restless Sleep

Phoenix Insurgent

I recently came across the Situationist-inspired film "Call It Sleep". As expected, the movie spends some time discussing and explaining various Situationist themes, many of which are quite relevant today, or at least remain open questions. Revolutionaries who haven't yet encountered the Situationists or their theories (or, for instance, the May 1968 uprising in France) would find this film well-worth watching as something of a primer on their theory, as well as a work that still rings true today in many ways in terms of describing the broad strokes in which Capital paints our lives today.

Probably the foremost analytical "discovery" of the Situationists is the idea of the Spectacle, which is different, though related, to the idea of the mass media. The Spectacle, as I have heard Nowtopia author Chris Carlsson explain it best, is the voice of power telling you that your lived experience is nonsense and that the only story worth knowing (and comparing yourself to) is the narrative of Capital. It's clear to me that this analysis has been borne out, with one of it's chief symptoms being the increasing "medicization" of the western world. What modern society calls depression comes from the divorce between your desires, the desires that are implanted in you by power, your lived reality and the isolation that results from an atomized spectacularized capitalism. Capital is everywhere and you are nowhere. It is everything and you are nothing.

Nevertheless, I do have some minor disagreements with this film. First, and it will come as no surprise to Phoenix Insurgent readers, but while the Situationist-influenced dialogue posits (and often wishes were true because of its own generally white composition) the decomposition of traditional modes of social ordering and social control like race and gender, these categories have not yet ceased operating in the real world. The position of the Situationists is one of putting the theoretical cart before the actual horse.

To take an example, we at PCWC still maintain that the cross-class relationship of white supremacy remains a critical component supporting the maintenance of modern capitalist domination in the US. While I can appreciate the perhaps future and even particular desire of certain factions within Capital to remake this relationship and to replace it with a broader narrative, it's clear to anyone living in the southwest that this hasn't happened yet. Thus, attacking white supremacy is still a worthwhile endeavor for those that seek total liberation given the defining role it plays within American society.

That these decompositions haven't happened yet is perhaps a bizarre reflection of both the schizophrenia of the elite class in the new era and the power of the working class itself to maintain the petty privileges of whiteness in an era of globalized re-ordering, even if they are (in the case of whiteness) regressive identities and, perhaps, on the wane. In a sense, the continuing appeal of whiteness itself is an ironic proof that the white working class thinks and acts politically, which is good news. Sadly, however, it isn't a liberatory position in the long run. Still, recognizing this is a step above the dumb trailer trash elitist analysis so prevalent on the left. Without understand the continuing power of white supremacy to define the political framework for the white working class, I think theorists are at a loss to explain the actual positions taken by it.

By way of explaining this continuing appeal, it does seem that what we are seeing play out in Arizona, for instance, is a battle between two capitalist classes -- one older and rooted in ideas of traditional class divisions and allied by convenience with the white working class, and one new and rooted in transnationalism (although not internationalism, as the libertarian Right wrongly assumes). Perhaps it's the ground level expression of the classic contest between Marx's industrial Capital and finance Capital. That this battle is being waged within the elite class -- especially now in a day when GM has to fight for scraps while the banks get trillions without question -- cannot be denied. And it's precisely the fact that there is a contest around this issue that we know that it has not yet been settled.

In a broader sense, I'm very interested in the congruence between the anti-Bolshevik/Cadre argument of Situationism, the anti-Leftist and anti-organizational argument of post-Leftism and the fanatical argument being made by Joel Olson. "Call It Sleep" ends with the Soweto youth uprising of 1976 in South Africa, in which youth attacked Capital and the State and at the same time refused (and assaulted) the progressive and even radical mediators who sought to give voice to their struggle in their place. In true fanatical fashion, they attacked the moderate middle, demanding all or nothing, total emancipation or zilch. This put both the State and the recuperators in the middle and in the same boat.

One is reminded of the revolt in Paris in 2006 in which suburban North African French likewise attacked both state and capital, police car and store front, and at the same time worked their way through the anti-CPE protests of the students, robbing and stealing IPods from the protesters as they went. There is no room for compromise, perhaps, it turns out. At the least, we see parallels here that are worth exploring.

So, the post-Leftist seeks to refuse the default alliance of the left while the Situationist seeks to attack the anti-democratic, mediated and elitist role of the Bolshevik. And at the same time, the fanatic tries to evaporate the moderate middle ground, from which the compromising and recuperationist liberal emerges. Surely there is something in common here that can be investigated. And maybe that's our role now, viewing this film twenty-some years later.

Watch the full version here:

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