(Notes toward a Situationist Dictionary)

The Situationist International (SI) used the term ‘power’ (‘pouvoir’) in two ways. First they used it as a verb, ‘pouvoir’, which translates as ‘to be able to’ or ‘to be capable of’. Thus they characterized both the capacity of the agents of capital (primarily owners and managers) to impose the conditions of commodity production and consumption, as well as the ability to refuse such, i.e. the capacity for revolutionary contestation. Such a conception of ‘power’ or ‘powers’ is also clearly related to Marx’s conception of human ‘powers’ and their alienation under conditions of commodity production.

Secondly the SI used it as a noun, ‘le pouvoir’. It is in the latter sense that they used the term often to characterize the human agency associated with the defence and implementation of capitalist social relations; thus they would speak of the ‘hierarchical power’ of capitalist society. In this sense ‘power’ (‘le pouvoir’) is used as a synonym for the reified practitioners and process of capitalist rule, in contrast to the capacity to resist or transform (‘pouvoir’) such power. In a suggestive sentence from his article Captive Words, Mustapha Khayati wrote of bureaucratic power that the ‘noun governs; each time it appears the other words automatically fall in around it in the correct order.’[1]

The unilateral nature of hierarchical power flows from the organization of powers in society. The SI wrote in 1963:

In the context of the reality presently beginning to take shape, we may consider as proletarians all people who have no possibility of altering the social space-time that the society allots to them (regardless of variations in their degree of affluence or chances for promotion). The rulers are those who organize this space-time, or who at least have a significant margin of personal choice (even stemming, for example, from a significant survival of older forms of private property). A revolutionary movement is a movement that radically changes the organization of this space-time and the very manner of deciding on its ongoing reorganization (as opposed to merely changing the legal forms of property or the social origin of the rulers).[2]

Note the SI’s distinctive conception of proletarian at this time. In contrast to such theorists of the ‘New Working Class’, like Alain Touraine and Serge Mallet, the SI did not theorize the disappearance of an alienated subject of capital, but rather its extension; thus their conception of a ‘new proletariat’.[3]

In such a conception power (‘le pouvoir’), is an attribute of the capitalist system itself insofar as it successfully co-opts the powers (‘pouvoir’) of people to the end of producing and reproducing the totality of capitalist social relations; i.e. their experience of space-time is organized to the end of producing and reproducing the dominant social relations.

To conceive of the ‘class relation’ in terms of the organizers of the space-time of society and those so organized (even the organizers), was without doubt distinct from the crude materialism of the Stalinist and orthodox Marxists. Indeed it had more in common with Marx who wrote that under conditions of generalized commodity production, all those who were submitted to the abstract domination of the commodity (thus its materialisation as a ‘world of commodities’), were alienated, even the capitalist class (though Marx noted how the ruling class were ‘at home’ in their alienation in contrast to the working class).

The SI were keen to describe the way such power hid itself in the most advanced sectors of industrial capitalism, or at least how the language of the state-sponsored academic (the ideological language of the academic) assisted in such concealment. The SI wrote in 1962 of the organization of the time of industrial society:

The question of power is so well hidden in sociological and cultural theory that the experts can blacken thousands of pages on communication — or the means of mass communication in modern society — without ever mentioning that the communication of which they speak is unilateral, that the consumers of communication have no way of responding. Within this false communication, there is a rigorous division of labor that ends up confirming the more general division between organizers and consumers of time in industrial culture (which integrates and formulates the unity of work and leisure).[4]

In such a society—the most advanced industrial societies of the early 1960s—the organizers of space-time issued orders and the organized of space-time receive these orders. Thus the powers of people, to the extent they are subjects of capital (as organizers and the organized), become reified as power (‘le pouvoir’). Here ‘power’ is a synonym for capital insofar as capital is the reified activity of workers (accumulated surplus-value). To the extent we do not resist or attempt to overcome our organization as labour-power for capital, as consuming-power for capital, we are caught in the subjection to power.

In order to be clear about such a conception we need to hold on to the way the SI see revolutionary power constituting itself, i.e. as opposition to the organization of our powers (‘pouvoir’) by power (‘le pouvoir’).[5]

Instead of a one dimensional conception of power as that which prohibits or forbids we have instead a conception of the social totality in which the powers of the masses are both cultivated by hierarchical power and canalised into the continued dominance of this power. To return to an earlier point this is in stark contrast to both the Stalinist and orthodox Marxist conception in which static conceptions of state-power and the power of the ruling class reign. The SI’s conception of hierarchical power as the organisation of space-time was closer to the spirit of Marx’s conception of the totalitarian domination of social relations through their submission to the abstract logic of the value-form. Thus human powers, and capacities, are organised and shaped by the abstract ‘needs’ of capital; for valorisation and self-expansion. With such a conception there is no ‘essence’ to be recovered in working class existence, only the domination of capital (the fashioning of the person into labour-power for capital), and resistance to this domination. In opposition to Marxist orthodoxy the working class have only one direction to go: the destruction of work and their ‘self-destruction’ as mere labour-power for capital.

The SI’s conception of ‘powers’ bears comparison to Marx who writes of the ‘essential powers’ of men and women, powers that are both naturally and historically conditioned (notably in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts and The German Ideology). In fact one cannot make sense of Marx’s conception of the alienation of these ‘essential’ powers—i.e. their reification as capital and as ‘centres’ of power (notably particular capitals and the state)—without paying attention to Marx’s discussion of powers as both natural and historical (i.e. transformed by human activity). In The German Ideology Marx talks of ‘personal powers’ as synonymous with ‘relationships’, and their transformation into ‘material powers’ (objectified, and in the case of capitalist social relations ‘alienated’). Such a conception is worth keeping in mind when considering Michel Foucault’s misrepresentation of Marx.

On the basis of such a conception the SI pose the negative being of the proletariat as simply those who are organised by power. Such a ‘negative’ conception is in fact a return to Marx rather than Marxist orthodoxy. Capital constitutes the masses as labour-power, i.e. as producers and consumers of commodities. Only on the basis of a critique of such negativity (i.e. human ‘powers’ organised for, and as the ‘hierarchical power’ of capital, and thus negated as the possibility of the free play of these powers), can a positive project be posed beyond the abstract domination of capital:

Those who really “cohabit with the negative” (in the Hegelian sense) and explicitly recognize this lack as their principle strength and their platform, will bring to light the only positive project that can overthrow the wall of sleep; and the measures of survival.[6]

In a latter entry on ‘power’ I want to return to the question of the relationship between the SI’s conception and Marx’s conception of ‘powers’ and the ‘alienation of powers.’ I also want to briefly consider Foucault’s ill-considered criticism of Marx and alienation. In relation to this I will also consider John Holloway’s criticism of Foucault’s conception of ‘power’, and the similarity (and difference) of his distinction ‘power-to’ and ‘power-over’ with that of the Situationists.


[1] Mustapha Khayati, ‘Captive Words: Preface to a Situationist Dictionary’ in Internationale Situationniste no. 10, March 1966.

[2] ‘Ideologies, Classes, and the Domination of Nature’, Internationale Situationniste no. 8, January 1963.

[3] The SI’s conception of the ‘new proletariat’, is of great importance, not only in opposition to the frankly reformist theories of working class ‘integration’, but more importantly for understanding the extensive development of the commodity-form by the 1960s. Such a conception is first outlined in the seventh issue of their journal (August 1962), in the articles The Bad Days Will End and Vaneigem’s Basic Banalities (1). In the former article they explicitly opposed their conception to those theorists that favoured the ‘integration’ or even ‘disappearance’ of the proletariat (e.g. Serge Mallet and Alain Touraine, though one can now extend the examples to such as Herbert Marcuse and Theodor Adorno), and also to those who, on the basis of such conceptions of ‘integration’ or ‘disappearance’, sought an alternative subject of contestation. Notable examples of the latter were the artists who had so recently been expelled by the SI; but one also finds such a conception of the radical artist or creator in people such as Constant and Asger Jorn.

I will return to a more considered treatment of the idea of a ‘new proletariat’ in a later entry.

[4] ‘Priority Communication’, in Internationale Situationniste no. 7, August 1962. Translation modified.

[5] In the future I want to return to the idea that insofar as we are organized by the hierarchical power of capital we are not only constituted by power, but we effectively become constituted as capitalist power, i.e. under such conditions we act only insofar as we compose the inertia of capitalist social relations against the contestation of this power. Needless to say this ‘condition’ can be resisted and radically transformed.

[6] ‘The Geopolitics of Hibernation’, in Internationale Situationniste no. 7, August 1962. Translation modified.

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One Response to Power

  1. Pingback: “controlled froth” | notes from the sinister quarter

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