The production of decadence

[from Internationale Situationniste no. 10,  March 1966]

“There are already machines specially constructed to serve no useful purpose. Here is the best: on sale in New York, for a dollar, [there is] a self-eating machine. As soon as you press on a particular red button, a noisy mechanism starts and, slowly, ineluctably, the bits composing the machine get stuck, break, [and] fall. At the end of a quarter of an hour, there remains only a dismal pile of rods, springs, pulleys and disassembled gears! Supreme luxury: the advertising to make you buy this machine promises in large print, that the assembly — as soon as one has played with [it] once — is beyond repair!” (Elle, of 2-9-65)

In America, the automobile, the proliferation of which progressively reduces its use-value until it tends toward the status of a gadget (those responsible for the circulation of traffic in New York begin to envisage the necessity of a local prohibition of its use), has in 1965 spread to two cars for a quarter of American families (11 million). According to a survey by the Wall Street Journal, the motivation of the buyers is “to possess those that are better”, and to arouse the admiration of their neighbours: an enterprise worthy of Sisyphus, since the neighbours inevitably do the same. Far beyond the social sector whose riches permit such accumulation, these purchases are provoked through the facilitation of credit, the repayment of which can be extended to 42 months, and the guarantees to provide [such credit] reduced to a minimum. New gadgets appear that propel part of the considerable growth in crime. In New York an attempted rape is recorded every six hours, and someone is attacked every 12 minutes. According to a report by Michel Gordrey, who observes in this city a previously unknown “obsessive fear of crime” (France-Soir of 27-7-65), store fronts and newspaper advertisements offer “gadgets intended to strike assailants with an electro-shock of 4,000 volts, pocket sprays that cover them in an indelible colour and perfume them with an identifiable odour for a long time (to facilitate police searches”. One thousand two hundred special police officers have been assigned to surveillance of the subways, where armed attacks and other crimes have risen 52% from 1963 to 1964. “The avenues of the big department stores are now deserts once night has fallen. When I walk alone the rare passers-by who see me from afar start running.” A long film documentary for TV shows the “self-defense of a building” after many burglaries and murders: “The 45 tenants of the building and their families have formed a defense association, the men taking turns guarding the entry hall and the elevators, patrolling the basements and the cellars. At the end of the film, a police commissioner appears on the screen to encourage other buildings to ‘organise themselves’ in a similar fashion and to give advice…” Godrey concludes that we should not “take the psychosis of New York too lightly. What is happening in New York, at a higher level, interests all the large cities in a crisis of growth. Our city-planners who study American urbanism for the Paris of the year 2000 know that analogous sociological crises have suddenly appeared or will emerge in other forms in Europe.”

“Vietnam reveals the permanent violence that hides itself behind the smile and urbanity of the American way”, the Vietnam Day Committee wrote in their October [1965] bulletin.[1] Nevertheless the report of the commission of enquiry created by the State of California after the Watts uprising — which admits “the situation is so serious that unless adequate measures are taken, other troubles yet more serious can happen” — accuse the black “extremist” leaders, not only of having encouraged the masses to riot, but also of “delaying the solution of the black problem”.  We may even say that, generally, “extremist” men — like us — scandalously delay “the definitive solution of the problem of man” in the concentration camps programmed by the cyberneticians of power. If the contradictions of the barbarism of abundance constrain all the groups of society to self-defense, it will solely be necessary to redefine here and there the values and the type of life to defend.

In Encounter, August 1965, Irving Kristol pondered on the incredible revolt of American students.[2] He clearly sees that the support of the blacks’ demands has only been an opportunity and that “Viet Nam itself, one may suspect, is as much the occasion as the cause” of the movement begun five years ago. Kristol writes: “Why American students, amidst general prosperity, and under a liberal Administration that is expanding the Welfare State more aggressively and successfully than anyone had thought possible, should ‘go left,’ is a riddle to which no sociologist has as yet come up with an answer. One theory is, simply, that these young people are bored”. For a critique that finds this already paradoxical, “all sorts of paradoxes” result: “For instance, these young American radicals are in the historically unique position of not being able to demand a single piece of legislation from their government”. It is here that we discover the greatest novelty, the originality, of the contestation that is currently brewing in America, measured by the stupefied gauge of Irving Kristol. From on high he judges what remains incomprehensible to him: the appearance of strangers in his country, in his habits. But he shows its importance, which he himself does not see, when he notes, “It is a strange experience to see a radical movement in search of a radical cause — it is usually very much the other way around.”

The transformation of a society is a totally different affair from political struggles concerning a few precise points within a society that is accepted. Here the program precedes the movement; there the movement precedes the program — which will be made in the same process. In this same overdeveloped urban zone of the north-east United States — where the gigantic electrical power failure in November [1965] that paralysed thirty million inhabitants for a few hours showed what guerrilla opportunities can appear in the highly industrialised countries[3] — the recent attempt at a Free University in New York falls into the category of research into the formation of such a program.[4] The manifesto of the Free University[5] declares that it wants “to develop the concepts necessary to comprehend the events of this century” in “response to the intellectual bankruptcy” of the American educational order.[6] Oriented from the outset toward an active contestation, this self-managed university — which constitutes itself without any fixation in particular buildings, and declares itself ready for semi-clandestinity by being able to exist scattered throughout the city — “is necessary because, in our conception, American universities have been reduced to institutions of intellectual servitude. Students have been systematically dehumanised, deemed incompetent to regulate their own lives, sexually, politically and academically.” (Address of the Free University of New York, 20 E. 14th Street, New York City).


TRANSLATOR’S FOOTNOTES

[1] ‘Vietnam Day Committee’ in English in the original. The Vietnam Day Committee (VDC) was a coalition of left-wing political groups, student groups, labour organizations, and pacifist religions in the USA that opposed the Vietnam War. The VDC was formed as a result of a 35 hour ‘Vietnam Day teach-in’ organised in and around the Berkley campus of the University of California on May 21 & 22, 1965.  It is claimed the teach-in involved 35,000 people. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnam_Day_Committee)

[2] Irving Kristol, ‘Teaching In, Speaking Out: The Controversy over Viet Nam — Letter from New York’, in Encounter, August 1965, pp. 65-70. All  of the citations by the S.I. in the following paragraph have been checked against the original article. Available here: http://www.unz.org/Pub/Encounter-1965. Encounter was an Anglo-American literary magazine founded in 1953 and originally associated with the ‘anti–Stalinist’ Left. In 1967 Encounter was revealed to have been in receipt of funding from the C.I.A.: “The magazine received covert funding from the Central Intelligence Agency, after the CIA and MI6 discussed the founding of an ‘Anglo-American left-of-centre publication’ intended to counter the idea of cold war neutralism.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Encounter_%28magazine%29)

[3] “The Northeast blackout of 1965 was a significant disruption in the supply of electricity on Tuesday, November 9, 1965, affecting parts of Ontario in Canada and Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, New York, and New Jersey in the United States. Over 30 million people and 80,000 square miles (207,000 km2) were left without electricity for up to 13 hours.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northeast_blackout_of_1965)

[4] The Free University of New York (FUNY) “began as a home for professors dismissed from local universities for protesting the Vietnam War, or for holding socialist views. Course topics included: Black Liberation, Revolutionary Art and Ethics, Community Organization, The American Radical Tradition, Cuba and China, and Imperialism and Social Structure. FUNY opened on July 6, 1965 in a loft at 20 East 14th Street overlooking Union Square. FUNY began as an experimental school for the New Left, built on models such as Black Mountain College (North Carolina), though it became closely aligned with the Maoist Progressive Labor Party. Tuition for the 10 week session was $24 for the first course course, and $8 for each additional course; welfare recipients could attend for free. After the first year, many of the initial collaborators left or were forced to leave, and it shut down a few years later.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_University_of_New_York)

[5] English in the original.

[6] I was able to check the S.I.’s citations against a copy of the FUNY manifesto reproduced in an article of the Peace Times, 29 October, 1965. A scan of this article is available here: http://antihistory.org/image/19473441418

First published in Internationale Situationniste no. 10, March 1966, pp. 61-62. Translated from the French by Anthony Hayes, October 2013. Thanks to Not Bored! for help with the translation. You can find a pdf of the original issue number 10 here.

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