This is a translation made by Notes from the Sinister Quarter of an article that originally appeared on the blog DDT21

"The subversive nature of a movement or organization cannot be measured by the number of armed women — nor its feminist character either."

“The subversive nature of a movement or organization cannot be measured by the number of armed women — nor its feminist character either.”


“There are times in which we can do nothing except not lose our head.”
Louis Mercier-Vega, from La Chevauchée anonyme [1]

When workers are forced to take in hand their own affairs in order to survive, they open the possibility of social change.

Some Kurds have been forced to act in the conditions that they find and  attempt to create, in the midst of an internationalized war unfavourable to emancipation.

We are not here to “judge” them.

Nor to lose our heads.

Self (defence)

In various parts of the world, proletarians are led to self-defence through self-organization:

A vast cloud of “movements” — armed and unarmed, and oscillating between social banditry and organized guerrilla activity — act in the most wretched zones of the global capitalist junkyard, presenting traits similar to those of the current PKK. In one way or another, they attempt to resist the destruction of already marginal subsistence economies, the plundering of natural resources or local mining, or the imposition of capitalist landed property that limits or prevents access and/or use. […] [W]e can randomly cite cases of piracy in the seas of Somalia, MEND in Nigeria, the Naxalites in India, the Mapuche in Chile. […] It is essential to grasp the content they have in common: self-defense. [O]ne always self-organizes on the basis of what one is within the capitalist mode of production (workers of this or that company, inhabitant of this or that district etc.), while the abandonment of the defensive terrain (“demands”) coincides with the fact that all these subjects interpenetrate each other, and that as the capital/wage-labour relation that structures them starts to disintegrate, the distinctions cease to exist. [2]

In Rojava, has self-organization led (or could it lead) from the necessity of survival to an upheaval of social relations?

It is unnecessary to repeat here the history of the powerful Kurdish independence movement in Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. The Kurds have been torn apart for decades through the rivalry between these countries and the repression that they suffer there. After the explosion of Iraq into three entities (Sunni, Shiite and Kurd), the Syrian civil war has liberated a territory in Syria where Kurdish autonomy has taken a new form. A popular union (that is to say cross-class) was established to manage this territory and defend it against a military threat. The Islamic State (IS) has served as the agent of this break. The resistance mixes old community ties and new movements, in particular women, through a de facto alliance between proletarians and the middle classes, with “the Nation” [acting] as cement. “The transformation taking place in Rojava rests to some extent on a radical Kurdish identity and on [a] substantial middle class […] contingent who, despite radical rhetoric, always have some interest in the continuity of capital and the state.” [3]

Democratic revolution?

In politics there is much in the words. When Rojava elaborated its constitution and called it Social Contract, it was echoing the 18th century Enlightenment. Lenin and Mao forgotten, the current Kurdish leaders read Rousseau, not Bakunin.

The Social Contract [of Rojava] proclaims the “mutual and peaceful coexistence and understanding between all strands of society” and recognizes “Syria’s territorial integrity“. It is what all democratic constitutions say, and there is no reason to expect praise for the class struggle, nor the demand for the abolition of borders, thus of states. [4]

It is the discourse of a democratic revolution. In the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, the right of “resistance to oppression” explicitly provided went hand in hand with that of property as well. Freedom was full but defined and limited by the law. It is the same in Rojava — “private property” is a right under the law. Although opting for the descriptive term “autonomous region“, the Social Contract provides for administration, police, prisons, taxes (thus a central power raising money).

But we are at the beginning of the 21st century: the reference to “Almighty God” stands alongside “sustainable development“, quasi-parity (40% of women), and “gender equality” (although linked to the “family“).

Add the separation of powers, that of the church and state, an independent judiciary, an economic system to ensure “general well-being“, a guarantee of workers’ rights (including the right to strike), and the limitation of the number of political offices, etc. — a left-wing, republican program.

If some people in Europe and the US see in such goals the announcement of social revolution, fault lies without doubt in “cultural relativism”. In Paris, this program would only provoke mockery among the radical milieu, but “over there, it is already not bad…”.

Those who draw a parallel between Rojava and the Spanish revolution should compare this Social Contract with the program adopted by the CNT in May 1936 (and with the way in which it was concretely translated two months later).

New nationalism

Like any political movement, a national liberation movement provides itself [with] ideologies, means, and allies that it is able to, and changes when it is convenient. If the ideology is new it’s because it reflects a change in time.

“One cannot understand the present turn of the Kurdish question, nor the trajectory of its political expressions — the PKK in the first place — without taking into account the end of the golden age of a socialist or “progressive” “Nationalism from below” in the periphery and semi-periphery of the capitalist system, and its causes. “[5]

The PKK has not given up the usual goal of national liberation movements. Even if it now avoids a word that sounds too authoritarian, the aim of the PKK is still today as it was yesterday, the creation of a central apparatus of management and of political rule over a territory — and there is no better word than State to describe this thing. The difference, apart from its administrative designation, is that it would be so very democratic, so much more in the hands of its citizens that it would no longer deserve the name of State. Here is ideology.

In Syria, the Kurdish national movement (under the influence of PKK) has replaced the demand for a state of law by a more modest and more “basic” [basiste — from the base, lit. ‘base-ist’] program: autonomy, democratic federalism, the rights of men and women, etc. What is put forward, instead of the ideology of socialism led by a single workers and peasants party developing heavy industry, or references to “class” and “Marxists”, is self-management, the cooperative, the commune, ecology, anti-productivism and, as a bonus, gender.

The goal of a strong internal autonomy with a democratic life at its base is not absolutely utopian. For instance various parts of the Pacific live thus, the governments leaving a wide margin of self-government to populations that do not interest anyone (except when mining interests are at stake — then the army is sent). In Africa, Somaliland has the attributes of a State (police, currency, economy) except that it is not recognized by anyone. In Chiapas (which many compare to Rojava) people survive in a regional semi-autonomy [that] protects their culture and their values without bothering the world outside. Incidentally the Zapatista uprising, the first of the anti-globalization era, did not seek independence or the transformation of society, but [rather] the preservation of a traditional way of life.

The Kurds live in the heart of a coveted oil region torn by endless conflict and dominated by dictatorships. This leaves little margin for Rojava… but maybe a small place though. Although its economic viability is low, it is not non-existent thanks to a little oil windfall. Black gold has already created puppet states like Kuwait, and allows the survival of the Iraqi Kurdish mini-state. Suffice to say that the future of Rojava depends less on the mobilization of its people than the interplay of the dominant powers.

If the abandonment of the nation-state project by the PKK is real, we must ask what a federation of three or four autonomous areas would be [like] — crossing borders in at least three countries — as the coexistence of several autonomous zones would not abolish the central political structure that brings them together. In Europe, cross-border regions (e.g. around the Oder-Neisse) do not diminish State power.

Another everyday life

Sometimes, such as in this case, solidarity against an enemy has caused the temporary effacement of social differences: the management of villages by collectives, links between combatants (men and women) and the population; dissemination of medical knowledge (the beginning of the overcoming of specialized powers); the free sharing of some food-stuffs during the worst moments ([of] fighting); innovative treatment of mental disorders; the collective life of male and female students; justice rendered by joint committees (elected by each village) arbitrating disputes, deciding punishments, [and] seeking to reintegrate and rehabilitate; [the] integration of ethnic minorities in the region; the self-organisation of women outside the home. [6]

Is this “a democracy without the State”? Our intention is not to oppose a list of the negatives to a list of the positives drawn up by supporters. It is necessary to see from where this self-administration comes and how it can evolve, because we have never yet seen a State dissolve itself in local democracy.

An unchanged social structure

No one argues that it is only the “Kurds” who have the privilege of being the only people in the world who have always lived in harmony. The Kurds, like all other peoples, are divided into groups of opposing interests, into classes — or if “class” feels too Marxist, divided into rulers and ruled. Now, one sometimes reads that a “revolution” is under way or in preparation in Rojava. Knowing that the ruling classes never willingly cede power, where and how have they been defeated? What intense class struggle has taken place in Kurdistan to trigger this process?

This [talk of “revolution”] tells us nothing. If slogans and headlines speak of revolution, articles affirm that the inhabitants of Rojava fight the IS, patriarchy, the State and capitalism… but, on this last point, no one explains why or how the PYD-PKK could be anti-capitalist… and no one seems to remark on this “absence”.

The so-called Revolution of July 2012 corresponds in fact to the withdrawal of Assad’s troops from Kurdistan. Having disappeared the previous administrative and security power was replaced, and a self-government called revolutionary has taken things in hand. But for what “self” is it acting? [And] of what revolution?

If one speaks willingly of taking power at the base [of society] and of changing the domestic sphere, it is never a question of the transformation of the relations of exchange and exploitation. At best, we describe cooperatives, without the least indication of the beginning of collectivization. The new Kurdish state has reopened the wells and refining centres, and produces electricity — [but] nothing is said about those who work there. Commerce, handicrafts and markets function, money continues to play its role. Zaher Baher, a visitor and admirer of the Kurdish “revolution” [says]: “Before leaving the region, we spoke with shop keepers, businessmen and people in the market. Everyone had a rather positive opinion on the DSA [Democratic Self Administration] and TEV-DEM [‘Movement for a Democratic Society’ — a coalition of organizations of which the PYD is the centre of gravity]. They were happy about the existence of peace, security and freedom and running their own business without any interference from any parties or groups.”[7] Finally a revolution that does not scare the bourgeoisie.

Female soldiers

It would be enough to change the names. Much of the praise today addressed to Rojava, including on the question of gender, was, around 1930, addressed to the groups of Zionist pioneers in Palestine. In the first kibbutz, alongside the often progressive and socialist ideology, were the material conditions (precarious and necessary for defence) that obliged them to not deprive themselves of half of the labour force: [thus] women had an obligation to participate in agricultural activities and defence, which implied their liberation from “feminine” tasks, including the collective rearing of children.

No trace of this in Rojava. The arming of women is not everything (as the Israeli Defence Force clearly shows). Z. Baher testifies: “I made one interesting observation:  I have not seen a single woman working in a shop, petrol station, market, café or restaurant.” The “self-managed” Refugee camps in Turkey are filled with women caring for the kids while the men look for work.

The subversive nature of a movement or organization cannot be measured by the number of armed women — nor its feminist character either. Since the 1960s, across all continents, most guerrillas have included or include numerous female combatants — for example in Colombia. This is even truer amongst Maoist-inspired guerrillas (Nepal, Peru, Philippines, etc.) using the strategy of “People’s War”: male/female equality should contribute to the tearing down of traditional structures, feudal or tribal (always patriarchal). It is in the Maoist origins of the PKK-PYD that one finds the source of what specialists call “martial feminism”.

But why do armed women pass for a symbol of emancipation? Why do we see here so easily an image of freedom, even going so far as to forget what they are fighting for?

If a woman armed with a rocket launcher can appear on the cover of Le Parisien-Magazine or a militant newspaper, it is because it is a classic figure. The monopoly of the use of arms is a traditional male privilege; its overturning must prove the radicality and exceptionality of a particular battle or a war. Hence the pictures of beautiful Spanish militia women. The revolution is at the end of the Kalashnikov… held by a woman. To this vision is sometimes added a more “feminist” one, of the armed woman vindicated, gunning down the bad guys, the rapists, etc.

Note that the IS and the Damascus regime [i.e. Assad’s regime] have constituted some all-female military units. However, and contrary to YPJ-YPG, they do not criticise gender distinctions, they do not seem to be used in the front lines, and are confined to supporting or police roles.

To arms

During Parisian demonstrations in support of Rojava, the banner of the united anarchist procession demanded “Arms for the Kurdish resistance.” Considering that the average proletarian does not have assault rifles and grenades to clandestinely send to Kurdistan, from whom do we demand such weapons? Should we rely on international arms dealers or NATO for weapons deliveries? Such deliveries have cautiously begun, but anarchist banners have nothing to do with them. Apart from the IS, nobody is considering new International Brigades.[8] So what type of armed support is this? Is it about demanding more Western air strikes with the “collateral damage” that we all know? Obviously not. It is, therefore, an empty formula and this is perhaps the worst of the deal: the so-called revolution is a pretext for demonstrations and slogans which no one seriously expects to be acted upon. We are as right-on in politics as in representation.

We are less surprised that people always ready to denounce the military-industrial complex now issue these calls if we remember that already in 1999, for Kosovo, some anarchists supported the NATO bombing… to prevent a “genocide”.


What is sad, more so than the organisations that have always supported national liberation movements, is that this exaltation reaches a wider milieu, of anarchist comrades, squatters, feminists and autonomists — often friends generally more lucid.

If lesser evil politics penetrates these milieus, it is because their radicalism is spineless (though this doesn’t prevent personal courage or energy).

Today it is much easier to get excited about Kurdistan (as 20 years ago it was for Chiapas) while militants despair over Billancourt.[9] “Over there”, at least, there are no resigned and drunken proles who vote for the FN [Front Nationale] and dream only of winning the Loto or finding a job. “Over there” there are peasants (even though the majority of Kurds live in cities), the mountain people in struggle, full of dreams and hope…. This rural-natural aspect (thus ecological) is mixed with a desire for change here and now. Gone are the days of the great ideologies and promises of the “Grand Soir” [10]: we make some things, we “create links”, despite the lack of means, we cultivate a vegetable garden, we realize a small public garden (like the one mentioned by Z. Baher). This echoes the ZAD [11]: roll-up our sleeves and make something concrete and small scale, in the here and now. This is what they do “over there”, with an AK-47 at the shoulder.

Some anarchist texts only evoke Rojava in terms of local achievements and neighbourhood assemblies, almost never speaking of the PYD and the PKK, etc., as if they were only spontaneous actions. It would be a little like if, in order to analyse a general strike, we only spoke of the self-management of strikers and of strike pickets, without considering the local unions, or the manoeuvring of the union management, or their negotiations with the State and the bosses…

The revolution is increasingly seen as a question of behaviour: self-organization, interest in gender, ecology, creating links, discussion, affects. If we add here disinterest or carelessness regarding State and political power, it is logical to see well and truly a revolution — and why not “a revolution of women” in Rojava. Since we speak less and less of classes, of class struggle, does it matter that this is also absent from the discourse of the PKK-PYD?

What criticism of the state?

What bothers radical thought in national liberation struggles is the goal of creating a State. It suffices for it to renounce this and consider that at its base, the nation (provided it is stateless) is the people — and how can we be against the people? [In it] is a little bit of us all, almost 99%. No?

Anarchism has the characteristic of (and to its merit) a principled hostility to the State. Given this, and this is something, its great weakness is to consider it primarily as an instrument of coercion — which it certainly is — without wondering why and how it plays this role. Therefore, it is sufficient to wipe out the most visible forms of the State for some anarchists (not all) to conclude that its disappearance has happened or is near.

For this reason, the anarchist is disarmed before what looks too much like their own program, having always been against the State but for democracy, though naturally they favour democratic federalism and social self-determination. The anarchist ideal is to replace the State by thousands of federated communes (and work collectives).

On this basis, it is possible to be internationalist and support a national movement, so long as it practices generalized self-management, social and political, now called “appropriation of the common”. When the PKK no longer claims to want power, but a system where everyone will share power, it is easy for the anarchist to recognise themselves there.


The attempt at democratic revolution in Rojava, and the social transformations that accompany it, have only been possible because of exceptional conditions: the breaking up of the Iraqi and Syrian states and the jihadist invasion of the region — a threat which had the effect of promoting radicalisation.

With Western military support it now seems probable that Rojava can (in the image of Iraqi Kurdistan) exist as an autonomous entity held at a distance on the margin of a persisting Syrian chaos. In which case, this small state, however democratic it wants to be, by normalising [its relations] will not leave intact social conquests or advancements. At best there will remain some local self-government, progressive education, a free press (on the condition of avoiding blasphemy), a tolerant Islam and, of course, gender-parity. No more. But still enough for those who want to believe in a social revolution to continue believing in one — needless to say by wishing for this democracy to become even more democratic.

As for the hope of a conflict between the self-organization at the base and the structures that oversee them, this is to imagine that there exists in Rojava a situation of “dual power”. This is to forget that the power of the PYD-PKK itself has driven this self-government, and retains the real power, both political and military.

To return to the comparison with Spain, in 1936 it was the “beginning” of revolution that was then devoured by war. In Rojava there was first the war and, unfortunately, there is still no sign that a “social” revolution is about to be born.

 G. D. & L.T.


Unless otherwise stated all footnotes are from the original article.

[1] Translator’s note: “Born Charles Cortvint in Brussels in 1914, Louis Mercier Vega was an anarchist journalist who was very active in the French labor movement. After fighting with the Durruti Column in the Spanish Civil War, Mercier returned to France, where in 1938 he joined (as Charles Ridel) a group of young anarchists called Révision, which demanded a process of radical ideological and strategic rethinking. During World War II Vega lived in Latin America, a continent he later analyzed in some of his works. In the late 1950s Mercier became co-editor of Volontà , an Italian newspaper of the anti-organizational current in anarchism that defended creative spontaneity and free experimentation in spheres such as education, culture, and aesthetics. In 1958, he created with Helmut Rüdiger the Commission Internationale de Liaison Ouvrière (CILO), a network around a bulletin of the same name published in Paris until 1965, which aimed to redefine the role of libertarian syndicalism in new contexts of production. His last endeavor was Interrogations , a quarterly review founded in 1974 and written in French, English, Italian, and Spanish, updating key concepts of anarchist political thought, especially the role of the state and the ruling class. The publication lasted until 1979, two years after Mercier committed suicide.” From: (http://www.blackwellreference.com/public/tocnode?id=g9781405184649_yr2010_chunk_g97814051846491752)

[2] Il Lato Cattivo , ‘The “Kurdish Question”, ISIS, USA, Etc.’

[3] Becky, ‘A revolution in daily life’

[4] The Social Contract (of Rojava)

[5] Il Lato Cattivo, op. cit.

[6] A relative eclipse of social disparities since the richest Kurds avoid participating in the self-government of camps by taking refuge in other countries with more comfortable conditions.

[7] Zaher Baher, « Vers l’autogestion au Rojava ? », Où est la révolution au Rojava ?, n°1, juillet-novembre 2014 p. 21. English version available as ‘The experiment of West Kurdistan (Syrian Kurdistan) has proved that people can make changes’

[8] Translator’s note: However a small pro-Albanian Stalinist group in Turkey, the ‘Marxist-Leninist Communist Party’ (Marksist-Leninist Komünist Partisi in Turkish) has commited to organising International Brigades for Rojava. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marxist%E2%80%93Leninist_Communist_Party_(Turkey).

[9] Translator’s note: I think this is a reference to the old centre of industrial working class radicalism in Paris. From Wikipedia: ‘Boulogne-Billancourt is a suburb in the western suburbs of Paris, France. […] Formerly an important industrial site, it has [been] reconverted into a business services centre and is now home to major communication companies headquartered in the Val de Seine business district.’ See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boulogne-Billancourt

[10] Translator’s note: The ‘Grand Soir’ is a term common in the French far-left, anarchist, socialist and communist, stretching back at least to the 19th century (though some have noted older, Christian origins). The ‘Great Night’ is in essence the night of the Revolution, the night of the reversal of the social order, the night of the final reckoning. According to Maurice Tournier it has more recently been recuperated by sections of the far right. See (in French): Maurice Tournier, « Le Grand Soir », un mythe de fin de siècle.

[11] Translator’s note: ZAD or ‘Zone À Défendre’ (Area to Defend). A name given by protestors to the area they wish to protect from the proposed ‘Aéroport du Grand Ouest Project’, i.e. the planned airport north of the city of Nantes. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A%C3%A9roport_du_Grand_Ouest.


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Review of McKenzie Wark’s The Beach beneath the Street

This originally appeared on a now defunct blog, http://antyphayes.blogsome.com/ on 11 April 2012. It has been edited slightly. A shorter version of the review is available at the Marx & Philosophy Review of Books website.

just say no

McKenzie Wark’s The Beach beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International is full of factual errors, a few of which I have drawn attention to in the review below. However the most appalling aspect of the book is in terms of its interpretative logic. Wark disguises his opinion by making historical figures act as his mouthpiece, whether that is Asger Jorn, Alexander Trocchi or even Guy Debord at times. Wark offers nothing new in terms of commentary and also pointedly fails to make good his promise of demonstrating the ‘contemporary resonance’ of aspects of the SI’s activity. The book is a poor introduction to the SI and anyone seeking such from it should instead seek out the writings of the SI themselves—most of them are available in English translation at the following sites: Bureau of Public SecretsNot Bored! and Situationist International Online. The problem that people who are not familiar with the situationists face in reading Wark is that Wark’s substantive position is to be discovered in what he does not say and leaves out in order to fashion an account favourable to his barely concealed bias, in this case the boring old chestnut of favouring the so-called ‘artistic’ SI.

McKenzie Wark
The Beach beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International
Verso, London and New York, 2011.

Early in his book on the Situationist International (SI), McKenzie Wark writes: ‘Do we really need another commentary on Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle?’ (4). It is an odd question, considering the dearth of good critical commentaries on Debord’s work in the English language. Certainly there is a growing quantity of books on the SI, as many have noted. Unfortunately, few provide new or insightful things to say on Debord’s La société du spectacle published in 1967. One exception is Anselm Jappe’s Guy Debord, translated into English and published in 1999. Wark notes that Debord’s 1988 Commentaires sur la société du spectacle is ‘enough,’ but this is mere rhetoric, and facile at that (ibid.) If we can consider any author’s commentary on their own work ‘enough’, then why bother writing a book such as Wark’s, which presents itself as commentary upon the SI? A better question to ask is: ‘Do we really need yet another fragmentary and inadequate introduction to the SI?’

Cunningly subtitled ‘The everyday life and glorious times of the SI,’ Wark’s The Beach Beneath the Street mostly covers aspects of the group before the so-called split with the artists in 1962. It is the oft- described ‘artistic’ SI of 1957-62 that is Wark’s main focus. He is also concerned with the Lettrist International pre-history of the SI in the 1950s, as well as some of the influences and results of the 1957-62 period, such as Henri Lefebvre and the work of Constant and Alexander Trocchi after they left the group in 1960 and 1964 respectively. About the greater portion of the SI’s ‘glorious times’ Wark barely writes. Crammed into the brief, final chapter is miserly coverage of the 1962-72 period of the group, his account remarkable only for its brevity, omissions and haste. Here you will find name-checked the group’s article on the Watts riots of 1965, and their book on the wildcat strike of May 1968. However, Wark is not capable even of dedicating the entirety of the eleven pages of this chapter to what is without doubt the most significant period of the SI’s ‘glorious times’, whether considered from its general effects upon working class contestation in the late 1960s and 1970s, or its enduring legacy for pro-revolutionaries today.

Wark is at his best when he writes ‘The Beach Beneath the Street claims no originality whatsoever’ (3). Certainly his book adds nothing new, whether in empirical revelation or critical commentary. When it comes to more positive claims for his work, Wark puts forward vague statements as a smokescreen: ‘it’s a question of retrieving a past specific to the demands of the present’ (ibid.), and ‘the criterion for inclusion is not historical importance but contemporary resonance’ (4). The problem is that Wark, in presenting a false dilemma between ‘historical importance’ and ‘contemporary resonance’, never clarifies why the ‘demands of the present’ require him to present this account rather than another.

In his defence, Wark presents his book as an attempt to avoid ‘artifacts […] too well remembered’, such as Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle and Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life, significant works of the post-1962 SI (ibid.) We should be suspicious of any account of the SI that proclaims its intent to ‘bypass’ the two best-known works of the group. Despite Wark’s apparently noble desire to ‘draw attention to some less well-known moments’ in order better to highlight the emergence of the ‘collective existence of the Situationist International’ from ‘the practice of everyday life’ (ibid.), it never occurs to him that Debord’s and Vaneigem’s books were the clear results of the collaborative everyday practice of the SI, distillations of the situationists’ attempt to realise philosophy, even if ‘written’ by the aforementioned individuals. To understand these works in term of the collective activity of the SI, particularly of the SI between 1962 and late 1967 (when both of these works were published), would go some way to correcting the spectacle of Debord and Vaneigem as the individual geniuses of the SI, a conception propagated by the enemies of the SI rather than the SI themselves. Wark appears to be aware of such spectacular appropriations of the situationists. Sadly, the effect of his ‘bypass’ is to reinforce just such a false picture of the SI. A better option would have been to confront it head-on.

If we consider Wark’s account of the 1962 split, we begin to understand his work as the confluence of its many faults: its omissions, its patchy research, its barely repressed bias in favour of the so-called ‘aesthetic’ phase of the SI pre-1962; all come together in his less than illuminating account of the SI in the crucial years of 1960 to 1962. Unfortunately, in the chapter dedicated to the 1962 split and its aftermath, Wark omits crucial events, and confuses the timing of others in order to produce a picture conducive to his perspective: ‘Art was now officially anti-Situationist. Spur were expelled. There was no procedure, no consensus. They were out’ (113).

Puzzling is Wark’s version of the simmering tensions between the Spur artists and the rest of the SI from the outset of the Spur group joining in 1959. His account suggests that such tensions arose from the Spur artists tilting the SI ‘toward their particular concerns’ (111). Wark needs to make such an assertion in order to set up Debord as the master manipulator, gathering ‘the forces that would enable him to dispense with their [the Spur artists’] nettlesome presence’ (ibid.) Discussion of two significant milestones in the development of these tensions, the 4th Conference of the SI held in London in September 1960, and the 5th Conference of the SI held in Göteborg in August 1961, are dealt with in the most cursory fashion. Wark mentions the 4th conference at the beginning of the chapter on the split, but only in the most superficial way, i.e. he does not mention any of the debates at the conference, in particular the debate over the role of artists and the proletariat initiated by the Spur artists, favouring instead a redundant literary description of the building in which the conference was held. Of the 5th conference there is not a word, even though it was at this conference that the argument between the Spur artists on the one hand, and Debord, Kotányi and Vaneigem on the other, reached its peak.

Considering Wark’s charge that ‘art was now officially anti-Situationist’ as a result of the 1962 split, it is interesting to note that it was at the 5th conference in 1961 that the work of art is first described as ‘anti-situationist’ by Attila Kotányi and Vaneigem. Significantly, Kotányi argued that this did not mean that situationists were forbidden to create art objects; such an injunction would, in any case, be ludicrous in a group that neither held nor aspired to the spectacular power it contested, not to mention the ongoing creation of art objects by situationists in the SI after they split with the artists. Rather, Kotányi, Vaneigem and Debord were arguing against the tendency of the Spur group of artists who juggled their ‘real world’ obligations to art dealers and the art market with their membership in the SI, even using the caché of their membership of the SI as a selling point for their art. As Vaneigem noted at the same conference, ‘the point is not to elaborate a spectacle of refusal, but to refuse the spectacle. In order for their elaboration to be artistic in the new and authentic sense defined by the SI, the elements of the destruction of the spectacle must precisely cease to be works of art’ (Situationist International, 2006).

There are other faults with Wark’s account of the 1962 split. For instance he confusedly presents the Hamburg Theses as a secret even from other members of the SI. And by ignoring the 5th conference he is unable to contextualise the Hamburg Theses, considering the theses were composed immediately after and as a consequence of the arguments over art at the 5th conference.  Worse still, by not accounting for the timing of the events he presents the Hamburg Theses in a way that could lead to the mistaken belief that they were composed after the split with the Spur artists, even though they were composed 5 months before the meeting of the SI’s Central Council on the 10th and 11th of February 1962. And though it was at this meeting the Spur artists were expelled Wark never mentions the meeting, even to attempt a refutation of its justification for the expulsion. All we get is ‘there was no procedure,’ even though there was, and ‘no consensus,’ even though the SI never operated on the consensus model.

Another example of avoiding the truth of the historical record is set up in an introductory comment: ‘The chapter on Henri Lefebvre shows what the Situationists took from him, as well as what he took from them.’ (5). Flash forward to the chapter in question and we find largely an exegesis of Lefebvre’s work that coincides with his brief relationship with Debord and the SI. Notably absent from Wark’s one-sided discussion of this relationship is the way it ended. Here you will find no mention of the SI’s 1963 pamphlet ‘Into the dustbin of history!’ in which the situationists accused Lefebvre of a self-seeking plagiarism and demonstrated their claim by reproducing the relevant sections from his offending article ‘The significance of the commune’ alongside of their article ‘On the commune’ written by Debord, Kotányi and Vaneigem. Most striking about Wark’s omission, regardless of whether you agree or not with the argument of the SI against Lefebvre, is that he divides what was proximally related into two distinct events. Thus the end of the friendship is merely ‘a casualty of the tensions of the times’ (108), whereas in another chapter Wark footnotes: ‘Only after his [Lefebvre’s] encounter with the Situationists would the city emerge as the great theme of his writing. No wonder they accused him of plagiarism’ (166). The point is that the SI ended the relationship precisely because of the accusation of plagiarism, not because of the more vague ‘tensions.’ Thus Wark’s account of Lefebvre and the SI is commensurate with his non-account of the expulsions of 1962. Rather than a serious examination of the arguments raised at the time Wark opts for casual dismissal and a loose deployment of ‘facts.’

There is nothing redeeming about Wark’s account of the situationists. That is not to say that there is no potential in his subject matter. A striking example of this is his chapter-long consideration of Asger Jorn’s Critique of Political Economy. Little has been written on Jorn’s 1960 book criticising Marx’s conception of value. Wark, however, never manages to improve on a similar exegesis in the final chapter of Richard Gombin’s The Radical Tradition. Considering Jorn’s critique of Marx’s formalism, a misguided critique at that, you would think that Wark would attempt to relate it to more recent scholarship on Marx’s theory of the value-form. However, Wark is completely out of his depth, opting like Gombin for a largely descriptive exposition rather than a critical interrogation. Jorn’s criticism of Marx can be excused insofar as he apparently had access neither to the Grundrisse nor, understandably, to the rich tradition of value-form criticism that began to develop in the 1960s and 1970s. Wark has no excuse in this regard. The best he is able to do is to have Jorn speak like Jean Baudrillard avant la lettre. Thus Marx is taken to task for the well-worn charge of reducing all value to a labour essentialism. However, such a charge can no longer stand against Marx’s conception of value as a form that is imposed through capitalist social relations, a conception that has been more clearly revealed through value-form criticism. What Jorn had in his sights was the ‘orthodox’ Marxist concept of a value substance or content that is revealed through the development of productive forces. Certainly, Jorn was right to take this conception to task; where he was wrong was in attributing it to Marx rather than to the Marxisms of the Second and Third Internationals. By merely resurrecting Jorn’s anachronistic critique, Wark inadvertently reveals how much he has in common with Castoriadis, Baudrillard, Lyotard and other ‘critics’ of Marx who rarely moved beyond confusing Marxism with Marx. Of more interest would have been an account of the relationship between Jorn’s critique of Marx, and Debord’s critique of Marxism set out in the fourth chapter of The Society of the Spectacle. Here Debord examined the tension between Marx’s innovatory dialectical critique and its reduction to an ideology of technical innovation and ultimately capitalist renewal. Sadly, the possibility of such a fruitful discussion is foreclosed by Wark’s ‘bypass.’

One area in which Wark attempts to be novel, or so it appears, is in his distinction between high and low theory. But here you will find nothing much of use. Wark distinguishes between the high theory of the academic institutions and the low theory ‘indifferent to the institutional forms of the academy or the art world’ (3). Why this distinction is necessary is, again, unclear as it serves no critical role in his work. Rather it appears to be some sort of badge of honour, an attempt to take on the mantle of academic theorist with street-cred. But the situationists were not interested in a low theory or any specialised theory separate from the concerns and practice of everyday life. Rather they were interested in putting theory back into play in everyday life and thus overcoming its academic separation practically. Thus any theory, low, high or otherwise, could be diverted to critical and practical ends. As a bizarre coda to his attempt to set low theory against the high theory ‘of the academy or the art world’ Wark invokes Debord in order to justify Wark’s own position amongst the purveyors of so-called ‘high’ theory! He writes: ‘Just as Debord, with the founding of the Situationist International, accepted the tactic of positioning the movement within rather than against the art world, perhaps today one might take up a defensive position within higher education rather than against it’ (158). Perhaps one might. The problem is Debord never accepted such a tactic. As Wark should know the situationists initially positioned themselves within and against the art world. Considering this, Wark’s falsification of the early situationist attitude to art can surely only be self-serving. And to make matters worse he never explains what he means by such a ‘defensive position.’ Without doubt it would be a worthwhile argument to make considering the situationists movement from a critical position within the avant-garde of the art world to one of unremitting hostility to it. Sadly Wark never makes the argument instead remaining at the level of an appeal to a falsified authority.

McKenzie Wark is a false friend of the SI, whether in terms of their historical importance or their contemporary resonance. The writings of the situationists are still the surest guide to their theory and practice, and perhaps even more accessible than Wark’s attempt, considering their ready availability online. You can find most of them online in English translation at Bureau of Public SecretsNot Bored! and Situationist International Online.

•    Gombin, Richard 1976. The Radical Tradition: A Study in Modern Revolutionary Thought, trans. Rupert Swyer (London: Methuen).
•    Jappe, Anselm 1999. Guy Debord, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Berkeley: University of California Press).
•    Situationist International 2006. Situationist International Anthology: Revised and Expanded Edition, ed. and trans. by Ken Knabb (Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets).

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Declaration: On the Charges Brought Against the Situationist International in Germany


A new translation from Not Bored!:

Declaration: On the Charges Brought Against the Situationist International in Germany

A scan of the original is available here.

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RAOUL VANEIGEM: Self-Portraits and Caricatures of the Situationist International

Avoir pour but la vérité théorique

New from NOT BORED!, a translation-détournement of Rien n’est fini, tout commence, by Gérard Berréby and Raoul Vaneigem.

From the translator’s preface:

To date, though there have been dozens of detailed histories written about the development of the Situationist International (the “SI”), which went through three overlapping phases between 1957 and 1972, none of them were written by a former member. […]

Always the exception, Guy Debord – the only co-founder of the organization still a member of it when it disbanded – commented often and extensively about certain moments in the SI’s history […] Almost unavoidably, Debord has become the face of the SI and the SI has been semi-successfully presented as just one of Debord’s many artistic creations.

With the very recent arrival of what amounts to Raoul Vaneigem’s autobiography – Rien n’est fini, tout commence (“Nothing has ended, everything begins”), published by Editions Allia in October 2014 – all this will have to change. […]

In its original form, this book is credited to both Raoul Vaneigem and Gérard Berréby, who put it together “with the help of Sébastien Coffy and Fabienne Lesage.” Indeed, Rien n’est fini presents itself as a kind of collaboration between Vaneigem and Berréby, as if the two men were equals with respect to the subject at hand. […]

Rien n’est fini is a deformed creation – deformed by the ego of Gérard Berréby, who, it would seem, is ready to rest on his laurels for having published 15 situationist-related titles (as well as dozens of others) over the course of the last 30 years. My translation tries to ameliorate this deformity. On the one hand, I have removed – that is to say, I have declined to translate – everything that is not relevant to Raoul Vaneigem himself and/or the SI as a whole. Here the reader should not worry: there were no gray areas; no texts that I had reservations about deleting. (As for the texts by the other situationists, they, too, have been translated, but have been posted as separate texts on the NOT BORED! website. Via hypertext links, my footnotes point the reader towards these texts at appropriate moments in the interview.) On the other hand, I have provided an index, a bibliography and this preface. As a result, Vaneigem: Self-Portraits and Caricatures of the Situationist International is shorter, leaner and easier to use than Rien n’est fini. […]

To read the unexpurgated translator’s preface, and the important new translation-détournement of Rien n’est fini, tout commence, press on the linked title below:

RAOUL VANEIGEM: Self-Portraits and Caricatures of the Situationist International

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Socialisme ou Barbarie : projet de scannerisation

Originally posted on Criticism &c.:

The Socialisme ou Barbarie Scanning Project web site is back online with a nice new design. Criticism &c. hopes to review the newly-published history, Looking for the Proletariat: Socialisme ou Barbarie and the Problem of Worker Writing by William Hastings-King, soon.

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Never Work – Cardiff University Conference – Friday 10 July 2015 – Call for Papers

Never Work!


“A corpse rules society – the corpse of labour.” – Manifesto Against Labour, Krisis-Group

Since the 1970s modern societies have been increasingly faced with social issues caused by a reliance on a form of life that technological development is making redundant: work. Competition drives companies to eject human beings from the labour process even while it relies on those people as consumers and producers of value. Equally, more human beings than ever before depend upon the capitalist production process for their survival, yet at this historical juncture it appears no longer to have need of them. It is this contradiction that some contemporary social critics have diagnosed as the basis of a crisis of civilisation through which we are currently living. The symptoms of this crisis are manifold and, one can argue, affect every aspect of society: privatisation, financialisation and economic crises, mass unemployment, the casualisation of labour and austerity programmes, regional conflict, the rise of political extremism, growing wealth inequality, individualisation, school shootings and the ever-growing number of people suffering from narcissistic personality disorders, to name but a few. Despite the sheer scale of problems that society currently faces, the dominant social discourse has rarely considered that a crisis of the very categories of capitalist society could be the source of the problem. Work, in particular, is central to modern notions of individual and collective identity, of morality and even of human nature. It is the means through which individuals are expected to realise themselves and to gain access to social wealth. It is perhaps for this reason that, while work is often seen as central to resolving the current crisis – either through calls for higher wages and the right to work or through attacks on immigrants and the unemployed – it is rarely seen as the problem in itself. The aim of this conference is therefore to ask what might a critique of work usefully offer us in addressing contemporary social issues and, if one will allow it, the possibility of a greater crisis of modern civilisation.

Contributors might consider:

  • What kinds of critique of work are necessary, on the basis of what criteria and in the name of what alternatives?
  • What hampers such a critique and how can we remove, go around or through these barriers?
  • What critical theories can usefully contribute to a contemporary critique of work?
  • How can contemporary social movements benefit from a critique of work?
  • How might a theoretical critique of work manifest itself practically and how might critiques of work in practice inform theoretical critiques?
  • What lessons can we learn from historical and contemporary social movements against work?
  • What might a critique of work tell us about the political, economic and psychological forms and changes that society is currently experiencing?
  • What are particularly unexamined aspects of the critique of work that need addressing?
  • How widespread and persistent are critiques of work in contemporary social movements and what kinds of critique of work have they developed?
  • What useful relationship might the critique of work have with critiques of the state, patriarchy, politics and other social forms?
  • What alternatives to work still exist, have existed and might exist?

Confirmed keynote speakers will be: Anselm Jappe (author of Guy Debord, Les Aventures de la marchandise, Crédit à mort) and Norbert Trenkle (author of Die Große Entwertung, Dead Men Working). Both of our keynotes are members of the wertkritik, or “critique of value”, school of Marxian critique.

Abstracts of 350 words, with a small bio, should be sent to Dr Alastair Hemmens (hemmensa@cardiff.ac.uk) by 20 February 2015. The conference itself will take place at Cardiff University, Wales, on 10 July 2015.

This research is funded by the Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship: Dr Alastair Hemmens, “‘Ne travaillez jamais’: The Critique of Work in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century French Thought, from Charles Fourier to Guy Debord.”

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Review of Ken Knabb’s Spectacle

Cover: Society of the Spectacle

Eric-John Russell has reviewed Ken Knabb’s recent translation of Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle. Russell raises some good critical points, primarily directed at Knabb’s scholarly notations and commentary:

On the whole, one cannot help but grasp a dramatically different tone in Knabb’s latest edition as compared with those that came before it. A principle of dissection reigns over the experience of uncovering what Debord’s thorny critique might afford. By the end, the annotations have submerged the subtlety of détournement simply into an aggregated pastiche. Since everything is listed in the back, one no longer stumbles upon an idea that, for instance, looks vaguely familiar and compels the reader to reflectively grapple with its meaning. Instead, the resonance of the ideas collapses against a disenchanted laundry list of proprietorship of who said what. One is prohibited from wandering through the edition and is incessantly tempted to jump to the end and prematurely spoil the identity of the killer. Ours is, without fail, an epoch without the strength to pause in the presence of an idea. As a tutorial to the theoretical work of the Situationist International and Debord, Knabb’s edition irrefutably excels. However, as a work that takes seriously the notion that there is peril in revealing too much all at once – and that perhaps revolutionary critique should be an impartial burden rather than easily adaptable to prevailing modes of discourse – Knabb’s edition is remiss to have forgotten that sometimes less is more.

In the comments section of Russell’s review an anonymous commentator asks the pointed question “who is the killer?” Knabb’s attempt to make Debord’s work more accessible seems to have ossified it – perhaps inadvertently.  No doubt Debord’s contribution to the project of the revolutionary transcendence of capitalism is past, but we are faced nonetheless with the difficult task of how best to represent it in the context of attempting to continue a similar project. This is the only way we can make his contribution live; to put his ideas back into play; to use them and in the using surpass them. Knabb has hitherto done much to rescue the Situationists from the oblivion of academic autopsy and historical forgetfulness, but one wonders if his latest tinkering is just taxidermy. For instance, though he writes that The Society of the Spectacle is “the most important radical book of the twentieth century” he has so far shown no interest in translating Debord’s attempts to extend his 1967 work. And so we should ask why his latest translation is bereft of the substantial Preface to to the fourth Italian edition (1979); or why Debord’s book length Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (1988) rates only the briefest of references. Indeed by bracketing Debord’s attempts to understand the transformations of the spectacle set in train precisely by the post 1968 rebellions that the Situationists contributed so much to, Knabb has helped to transform the Situationist project into a timeless and therefore lifeless ‘classic’.

Unfortunately Russell’s good review is occasionally upset by his use of a convoluted or unclear expression:

Any chatter surrounding the work or its author, Guy Debord, bears uncoincidental pertinence to the book’s central protagonist – a society for which the public relations industry affirms a priori models of commensurable social discourse at odds with acccommodating perspectives decidely intent on its abolition.

Despite this he is to be applauded for drawing attention to the increasing inadequacy of Knabb’s translation of the Situationist project into mere words.

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