Category Archives: Strategy

Episode 11 (Part 2): ‘”Situationism” and the 50th Anniversary of May ’68,’ with Charlie Umland and Jim Calder

Today, we are releasing Part 2 of our conversation with Jim Calder and Charlie Umland, on Situationism. In the last episode, we addressed some of the basic concepts and arguments of the Situationists, focusing largely on their critique of capitalist modernity. In today’s episode, we turn to question of strategy, and the way the approach of the Situationists to political engagement.

We think this is a timely episode — coming to you as it is, right in the middle of the 50th anniversary of the student revolt in Paris, of May 1968 — an event with which the situationists are often associated, sometimes even being seen as among the key standard-bearers of its intellectual values!

For those unfamiliar, the early weeks of May 1968 saw an major wave of student actions in Paris, protesting the closure and police invasions of University campuses at Nanterre and the Sorbonne. On Tuesday, May 14, the workers’ movements came out and joined the students, and a number of workplace occupations began, including at the Sud Aviation plant near Nantes, and at a Renault parts factory, near Rouen. By May 16, France was in the grip of a General Strike. The workers had occupied close to fifty factories, and hundreds of thousands workers were out on strike, across the country. By the end of the following week, ten million workers were on strike — a figure which amounted to about two-thirds of the entire French workforce.

And its no surprise of course, just as with the 100-year anniversary of the Russian Revolution last October, that the 50th anniversary of May ’68 is a big topic of discussion among the left right now. May 68 is the theme of the latest issue of Jacobin, for example, and there’s a great piece on the Paris uprising in there by Jonah Birch, called “How Beautiful it Was’. Birch argues that, although de Gaulle was eventually able to restore order, and the movement eventually collapsed into infighting:

…even now, May ’68 remains a potent political symbol of the Left’s hopes for a mass movement to challenge capitalism. Nowhere else in the Western world over the past half century was such a threat to capitalism posed.

Listeners might was to check out Birch’s piece (I’ll add a link as soon as there is a web version available). Its a great primer for anyone who wants a bit more background on the May ’68 moment. He has a really interesting discussion the economic and social factors in France at the time, and the extent to which they might have served as triggers of the student uprising. But what’s interesting about Birch’s account is that it mentions the Situationists only once, and then only as a way of sort of flagging an incorrect way of remembering May ’68 — Birch cites the slogans and art terrorism of the situationists, as if by way of ascribing them a merely horizontalist politics, or a politics of everyday life.

Similarly, in the latest episode of the Aufhebunga Bunga podcast, Catherine Liu also discusses May ’68 as nothing more than the sensational arrival of a performative and campus-based politics of everyday life — a harbinger, if you will, of the paradoxically vanguardist politics of today’s campus left; and, ultimately, a politics that is highly compatible with neoliberal managerialism. Early in the episode, she says:

…when you have this very elite group of students who see themselves as extremely important and their colleagues in the media are also striking against these traditionalists, the gaullists, the rightwing, and the fascists, the transformation of everyday life gets elevated to the height of Hegelian world historical significance

Listeners should definitely check that full show. As Liu says, while its a good thing for ordinary people to become aware of their political agency, its bad when people don’t see that agency in connection to the material and social relations of their lives.

But I think what listeners might find interesting about this episode is that, while we try to proceed in a way that is sensitive to the important critiques of Birch and Liu, concerning the hazards of a politics of everyday life, we do try to maintain a little critical distance between what we see as two narratives: on the one hand, an important discussion of the failures of ’68, and its naive lionization of campus politics; on the other, an attempt to recover the oft-elided materialism of the Situationists.

Last we week, we argued that one of the reasons the Situationists could not be written off merely as postmodernists was because of their commitment to the concept of “separation”, or alienation, which was a problem not just in capitalism but in any system of production where workers would not have direct control over the rationalities and systems of production that govern their lives. And it is in this focus on the worker, we argued, that Situationism is still very much a Marxist project.

Our episode last week ended on the question of strategy, and the call of the situationists for a radical break with the order of separation. Today, in Part 2, you’ll hear Charlie, Jim, and myself, pursue this line of thinking further, as we look at the situationists as activists, and their views on the student uprising in May ’68. We’ll look at some of the tensions in situationist praxis at the time, on the one hand trying not to establish themselves as any kind of intellectual vanguard, but on the other, perhaps simply because of their own personalities, behaving sometimes in ways that suggested a rather more stalinist approach. And we’ll also look at their attitudes towards other events in 1968, too, such as the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Finally, at end the episode, for a bit of fun, we’ll talk about what, if anything, Guy Debord would have to say to Jordan Peterson(!).

As always, feel welcome to reach out on Twitter if you have any feedback or questions: we’re at @occupyirtheory

Thanks again to Darren Latanick for producing this episode!

Episode 11 (Part I): ‘Situationism’, with Charlie Umland and Jim Calder

Welcome to Episode 11, of Fully Automated, an Occupy IR Theory podcast! Today, we have Part One of our first ever two-part episode, on the topic of Situationism! Joining me for this episode are two friends of mine from Columbus, Ohio, Charlie Umland, and Jim Calder. They are pretty sharp, when it comes to this topic. And, over the course of this two-part episode, they’re gonna help us understand just who the situationists were, and who they weren’t.

Now, coincidentally, situationism has sort of been back on the radar, lately. In February 2017, the New York Times ran a piece by Robert Zaretsky, called ‘Trump and the ‘Society of the Spectacle’.’ In the piece, Zaretsky offers this very Situationist sounding line:

Like body snatchers, commodities and images have hijacked what we once naïvely called reality. The authentic nature of the products we make with our hands and the relationships we make with our words have been removed, replaced by their simulacra.”

In the episode, Charlie, Jim and I get into some discussion of this piece. One of our big points is that perhaps Zaretsky’s take is kind of off the mark. For him, the Trump is the master of the image, in a time when the very form of image itself, has hijacked our reality. Focusing on the image as the problematic form this way, however, Zaretsky’s Situationists resonate somewhat too cynically. Indeed, it could be said they bear a familiar resemblance with the work of another famous French scholar, Jean Baudrillard. Now, Baudrillard doesn’t hail from Situationism. But he is a critic of contemporary capitalism, and he is particularly preoccupied with the rise of what he terms ’hyperreality’ — an economic era dominated by the logic of the image, wherein humans have been seduced into a state of passive consumption. For Baudrillard, where older modes of capitalism were predicated on production of actual goods, society today is a simulation; we are a consumer society, but what we consume is nothing more than signs, or symbols. In such a society, even political resistance has sort of dissipated into a kind of moral relativism; we no longer fight for any particular group’s “code” — instead we adopt a stance of ironic “fascination.”

This attitude of fascination, or what we might even call flanneurism, is exemplified in a scene in the recent Adam Curtis documentary, Hypernormalization. In this scene, we meet a young Patti Smith, giggling as she recounts the ironic prospect of poor people, watching movie trailers over and over, on a small screen outside of a cinema. Its as if she’s hypnotized herself, by the total surrender to passivity of the people watching the screen. She is overwhelmed by the cynicism of it all, and can only laugh.

But in the episode, we make the argument that this is perhaps precisely the wrong way to interpret the Spectacle. Situationism is much more than simply a critique of seduction; the theory of spectacle is NOT simply that we have been reduced to the status of a mass of consumers, or that we are simply distracted by the ongoing barrage of the media’s meaningless images. To the contrary, a key concept that has come up for us in our discussions is that of “separation” — which is something like the alienation experienced by everyday people, not just in capitalism, but also in other highly bureaucratized technical systems, like the Soviet Union, when rationalities of expertise work to delegitimize any demand they might make, for true collective participation in the productive systems that govern their lives. And, we argue, it is in this sense that Society of Spectacle is still very much a Marxist project. One need only consider how frequently the topic of the proletariat is discussed, and the various tasks to which it must attend, if it is to survive.

So, a little bit about our guests today. Both are from Ohio:

  • Charlie Umland is a cook. He likes to learn about art and philosophy and communism, and he is an unapologetic D&D fan.
  • Jim Calder works in public humanities, and supports the radical critique of everyday life, mostly through reading groups – and, he also loves smoking. Catch him on Twitter at @jamesdcalder

In the first part of the show, you’ll hear us outline some of the basic ground we want to cover: separation, the contrast with Baudrillard, the role of theory, the attitude of the situationists towards modernity, and the emancipatory potential of technology.

Next week we’ll be dropping Part 2 of this episode, which looks at Situationism in something more like an activist light. We’ll talk about the role of the Situationists in the context of the student uprising, in May ’68, their attitude towards the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, some of their scattered commentaries on war, and the question of what, if anything, Guy Debord would have to say about Jordan Peterson(!).

Special thanks this week to Darren Latanick, who produced the episode. As always, feel welcome to reach out on Twitter if you have any feedback or questions: we’re at @occupyirtheory

Episode 7: David Bailey on Protest Movements and Parties of the Left

David Bailey

Our guest for this episode is David Bailey, Senior Lecturer in Political Science and International Studies, at University of Birmingham. David is joining us to talk about his forthcoming book with Rowman & Littlefield, Protest Movements and Parties of the Left.

As we’ve been arguing on this show for the last few weeks, there is no doubt at this stage that the left is ‘back’. Arriving admittedly a decade or two later than Latin America’s “Pink Tide”, the left has made electoral gains recently, both in Europe, and in the US. Yet it is also clear that the left is not used to having this kind of potential. To the contrary, suffering through its long period of post-Cold War defeat, it has been content to engage in a lot of internal squabbling, and become comfortable avoiding the tough question of how it might engage ordinary people with its ideas. David Bailey’s book is a very interesting intervention, in this sense. Without necessarily taking a side in the debates he examines (to what extent should the left embrace the state? Should we pursue reform, or revolution?), he surveys the history of some of the more prominent moments and modes of leftist protest and struggle. What is interesting, however, is he choses to do this in an optimistic way. Refusing the left’s traditional mournful stance on its history, and deliberately trying to focus on the things the movements got right, Bailey is out to capture the spark of revolutionary disruption in each of his case studies, where the impossible was somehow, suddenly, made possible.

I got to see an advance copy of the book recently, and more than anything I was kind of pleasantly surprised by his open-minded stance on left strategy, finding those sparks of disruption everywhere, from the early days of 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, to the anarchist movements of the Spanish Civil War, and even in post-war parliamentary reformism. The civil rights movements get a look in here, and there are chapters on the New Left, the history of feminism, and the rise of environmentalism. And those interested in more recent history will find the last chapters quite interesting I think, looking at the Occupy movement and, more interestingly, the influence of ‘Left Populist’ struggles Latin America on the rise of what Bailey calls ’left pragmatism’ in Europe and North America, embodied of course in parties like Syriza and Podemos, but even more recently in figures like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders.

Episode 6: TYT’s Michael Tracey on Free Speech after Charlottesville, Left Iconoclasm, and the Fetonte Scandal in the DSA

Michael Tracey

Our guest for this week’s episode is Michael Tracey, of The Young Turks — Tracey by his own account is a man of the left, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that, to read some of the commentaries that have been written about him online. He’s known primarily known for his iconoclastic views on what he calls “the Russia derangement,” something we addressed on this show all the way back in Episode One, with Tara McCormack.

I encountered Tracey in Chicago last weekend, at the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) Convention. We set this interview up with a view primarily to talking about the Convention, and the state of the American left. In this episode, we do address those topics, including the controversy surrounding the election of Danny Fetonte to the DSA’s National Political Committee, or NPC. But with the tragic news of rightwing violence in Charlottesville, VA this morning (the interview was recorded early afternoon, on Sunday, August 13), it seemed proper to address the rise of fascism in the United States, too. In true form, Tracey has some views on that subject which might not be popular among left comrades — including a defence of the ACLU’s decision stand up for freedom of speech for Alt. Right activists. As you’ll hear in the show, however, he gives a good account of himself, and leaves us with much to think about.

Please enjoy the show. As ever, if you have any feedback, you can reach us on Twitter @occupyirtheory. You can follow Michael Tracey on Twitter @mtracey.

Episode 5: Douglas Lain of Zero Squared, on the Alt-Left, Angela Nagle, and #DSACon17

We have a very special guest for this episode. Douglas Lain, of Zero Books. In the interview, we discuss a range of topics, but I think the focus of the interview is on how capitalist narcissism is playing out in leftist online culture.

Specifically we address:

  1. How podcasting has enabled a new debate among the left, concerning the priority of identity;
  2. The rise of the Alt-Left, and whether or how the term functions to smear those seeking to re-assert the priority of revolutionary values in leftist discourse;
  3. We also address the critical reception of Angela Nagle’s sensational new book, Kill All Normies, published by Zero Books … a book that is ostensibly about the emergence of the Alt-Right, but in this conversation, Doug and I focus mostly on the other main aspect of the book, which is Nagle’s explanation of the rise of “call out culture” on the left.
  4. Finally, with the #DSACon17 (the 2017 Democratic Socialists of America convention) starting this week, I ask Doug if he has any advice for delegates to the convention.

Episode 3: Book Club – Peter Frase’s ‘Four Futures’

Four Futures

This episode is the first in an occasional ‘book club’ series of podcasts we will be doing, in an around the topic of fully automated luxury communism. This episode’s book is Four Futures, by Peter Frase (which is part of the Jacobin series, from Verso Books).

My guests on the show are Laura Horn and Phil Davis. Laura is a political economist working at the University of Roskilde, just outside of Copenhagen in Denmark. While her own research has mainly focused on dimensions of capitalist restructuring in the European Union, she has a strong political and personal interest in the nexus between political economy and science fiction. Four Futures is one of the texts she uses in her course ‘Repoliticising Capitalism: Contradictions, critique and alternatives’.

Phil Davis is a molecular biologist working in the Biodefense sector in the Washington DC area. He’s currently working towards a master’s degree in Bioinformatics from University of Maryland University College. Four Futures sits at the intersection of his enthusiasm for both left-wing politics and futurology. His hobbies also include music.

If you have any questions or comments, please send us a tweet @occupyirtheory

Struggling with Precarity: From More and Better Jobs to Less and Lesser Work | The Disorder Of Things

From Wanda Vrasti, does the language of precarity empower us? Or can we do better?

But what if precarity was the wrong rallying point to focus on? What if instead of describing a shared experience all that the concept did was point to the absence of a common ground? Is there any way we could turn precarity around from a testament to our shared vulnerability into a positive affirmation of collective desire?

via Struggling with Precarity: From More and Better Jobs to Less and Lesser Work | The Disorder Of Things.

…Another Occupy Is Possible – and Necessary

Useful reading… tho perhaps important to not get too carried away with notions of “silliness” in Zuccotti Park.

At the height of Occupy Wall Street’s efflorescence, when the enragés who took up residence in Zuccotti Park succeeded in raising the battle standard of the 99% for the entire world to see, I sat down for aninterview with Frances Fox Piven to help make sense of what was unfolding before us. Although I thought I knew more than my fair share about the theory and practice of social movements in the U.S., as a child of the End of History, I had never really been part of one. I was born in the early 1980s, during the dreadful dawn of “Morning in America,” so aside from my days as an undergraduate global trade summit-hopper I learned almost everything I know about this stuff from books. The occupation of Zuccotti Park went on for days, days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into months. It looked as if an honest-to-goodness social movement was breaking out in this country for the first time in my life. To be sure, I was elated. But to my surprise, that elation was often overcome by a sense of foreboding. I looked at all of the silliness that accompanied the encampments and feared that the movement (I still hesitate to use that phrase) would self-destruct before it made even a small dent in the power of the 1%.

via Another Occupy Is Possible – and Necessary.

On Formulation in Hardt and Negri’s ‘Declaration’

Among the various bits and pieces circulating about Hardt and Negri’s new Declaration, Jason Read’s blog suggests a tension between the newer, constitutionalist tones of their project and the sentiments of Negri in an older text, Insurgencies. For Read, Declaration is somewhat overly fascinated with “the US constitution”, whereas the younger Negri was much less interested in dictating formulations:

“A great current of modern political thought, from Machiavelli to Spinoza to Marx, has developed around this open alternative, which is the ground of democratic thought.  In this tradition, the absence of preconstituted and finalized principles is combined with the subjective strength of the multitude, thus constituting the social in the aleatory materiality of a universal relationship, in the possibility of freedom.”

via Unemployed Negativity: Revolution in Theory/Theorizing Revolution: On Hardt and Negris Declaration.

But interestingly its their openness to the non-formulative approach of the movements that draws ire. For example, Doug Henwood was rather critical on his FB page about H&N’s reference to the Israeli tent protest being pretty hushed on the topic of Palestine (Loc. 41/1506), thus reading H&N as saying this topic was treated was somehow correctly expendable in the interests of unifying the movement. Others chimed in on occupy being shallow on the topic of war in general, and not letting Cyndi Sheehan speak. But this seems to be missing the point. The movements of course likely contain sizable numbers of people who would wish to express solidarity with the Palestinians. That they don’t do so is no sign of lack of interest or solidarity. As the pamphlet argues, the movement does need to be strategic about its longevity. To accomplish this, the movement is experimenting with ways of finding an effective common platform. Of course, if not mentioning an issue necessarily means that you don’t care about it, then this is indeed a concern. But it could also mean that you you just want to avoid getting bogged down in an intractable debate. This is a common technique adopted by the GAs in the OWS movement where minimal common principles can be agreed as a consensus position and then returned to later. OWS movements are themselves careful on this. While they do express solidarity with other ‘occupy’-style movements around the world, they do not offer expressions of solidarity with people involved in armed conflicts (Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Uganda).

What is interesting about H&N’s new work is the extent to which they balance observation with evaluation. The general tendencies of the movements are examined for their ‘commonality’ but also for their potential to live up to their promise. They’re establishing criteria of what, in their view at least, would likely constitute a Princely strategy of success, all the while saying its too soon to tell what will come of it all. I need to give the book a much more detailed reading so these comments are necessarily somewhat sophomoric at this stage, but the initial intellectual reactions to this question of formulation are interesting. Commenting on the book more from the perspective of the activist, Mirzoeff summarizes the valences of domination that H&N suggest confront the populations of the world, and agrees with the way the book poses the ‘counter powers’ to these valences as necessarily exterior to ideology or centralized political leadership. The task of developing a new, open constitution against such an array of forces is a daunting one, to be sure. But Mirzoeff seems to get the point. As he concludes, “the next steps won’t be found in a pamphlet but in the sometimes arduous, sometimes exhilarating process of communing.”

Lexicon Pamphlet Series: Downloadable PDFs! | Outside the Circle

 

Some great free stuff here, from the Institute for Anarchist Studies.

Lexicon Pamphlet Series: Downloadable PDFs! | Outside the Circle.