Surrealism and Electoral Politics
The quadrennial abuse visited upon us by the boosters of the State, and their supplicants, grows worse. This electoral circus (to be clear, I am not limiting my scorn to that baroque institution, the Electoral College, ridiculed by all, even those, worldwide, who genuflect to what they perceive to be more sophisticated governing structures), this circus, I repeat, solidified after years of debate in the United States at the end of the 18th Century, when the assumption that control of unruly social forces belonged to wealthy white men (who, alone, had the franchise), was imposed, though not necessarily obeyed (rebellions repeatedly threatened the new rulers of the former colonies), and amounts to nothing more than a counter-revolutionary culmination of a bloody uprising – erroneously termed The American Revolution – that, itself, foreclosed Thomas Paine’s revolutionary vision.
Over the centuries, as the technology of popular manipulation increased and the possibilities of actualizing the dream of a free land (absent, of course, its murdered and displaced original inhabitants) receded from our grasp, it, at the same time insinuated itself like a tick, with the vengeance reserved for patriotic yearnings, as our spectacularized national birthright. The American Dream devolved from a forlorn immigrant hope to a cornucopia of material junk, to be fought over like desperate rats in debris.
In other words, the electoral system, here and everywhere “democratic governments” exist, amounts to an enclosure called “politics” that maintains Power against the anarchy of the political. That the politicians attempt to offer this sequestered territory as the field for the practice of our “rights,” materialized as the chain-link pens offered to protestors, proves that they have nothing but contempt for liberty. The public square in their hands,
modeled after its precursor, the Greek polis, morphs into a human zoo (missing only the fee at the gate), where endangered species practice democracy, not simply as media spectacle, but, embarrassingly, as ritualized farce.
There is nothing new being said here – the promise of a democratic vista grows dim on the horizon, like a sun setting on a late summer day, the vestiges of light remain well after the source disappears. And as the shadows grow – “It is time to move on,” as the politicians say after a catastrophe. But move on to what?
Representative government, birthed in the 18th Century at the beginnings of mass manufacturing, would have been aborted if the displaced peasants, craftspeople and the urban workers, by their ingenuity for battle and their rage, had won those early skirmishes. Against the newly powerful industrialists, the dispossessed – like the Luddites, who rose up exactly two hundred years ago this year – frightened the allied forces of the State and Capital into devising a system of control that would, they hoped, appease yearnings for a freer life. Their schemes succeeded, at least temporarily.
Coinciding with the expansion of both the factory system and representative government, a second wave of utopianism emerged in Europe, following on Thomas More’s famous tract that stimulated imitations in the 16th Century. These mental fabulations drew upon a desire to imagine a different way of living, and challenged a future-in-the-making in the coal pits, mills and polluted cities of the industrial regions of Europe. This utopian effervescence issued from the visions and insights of poets and writers attuned to what was quickly disappearing everywhere: an old sensibility of life, lived with conviviality, now quickly oxidizing as the maddening pace of the factory system debased both the body and the mind.
Owen, with his idealized, partially humanized factory in New Lanark took the pragmatic approach to a new society and Fourier, in France, with his model communities, the Phalansteries, took the speculative, delirious path. Both had their disciples in America who tried to create a life of promise, instead of submission as required by the factory system. If only their visions had been coupled, merged, blended like fine wines, maybe their cross pollinating utopianism would have seduced a critical mass in the New World, and the State of Indiana today would be The State of Harmony.
These optimistic and imaginative technicians of future life, however, where preceded by not more than a decade, by a poet of a life passing – William Blake. Blake, steeped in the life of the lowly, manual worker, notwithstanding that he was a craft-worker, distilled the grime and misery of a new economic disorder into visions that eluded Owen and Fourier, but that haunt us still.
Blake, and others usually classified as the Romantics, responded, as did the Luddites, as beautiful losers to a machine of destruction too powerful for them to detour. Two generations later in Paris the whole city would fight this machine and also loose, but not before they created a legacy Marx eulogized and Rimbaud poetized. And again, two visions that needed blending – to change society meant to change life.
And the role of Blake in Paris? Played by an obscure youth, Isidore-Lucien Ducasse, dying only months before the slaughter of 25,000 Communards in 1871, at the age of 24, who wrote as, Comte de Lautréamont, Les Chants de Maldoror – where the machine, as I would maintain, is personified as the embodiment of evil.
These utopians and poets, ridiculed as madmen completely out of touch with the reality around them, were, despite their many inadequacies, like flares in a soot-filled sky, illuminating just enough for others to follow. They, and their allies in the trades, who populated the history of desire, never had a chance against the scoundrels who controlled the levers of the economy and the weapons of repression.
Like a ponderous wall of boulders, the system of brutality, encompassing the regimentation of industrial production and political illusion and cooptation, consolidated itself in the latter part of the 19th Century. It cracked and failed along the way, but each time it scrapped away the human carnage to rebuild, until Europe erupted in war in 1914.
The horrors of this enterprise of insanity, guided by those with gold coins in their eye-sockets, detonated a subversive conscious opposition amongst Europe’s youth, as vast and as deep as that which responded to the beginnings of the industrial age. The spilt blood of a generation washed away all the promises of wealth, technological progress, and cultural refinement of the New Age. Electricity, that lit the streets of Parisian shoppers and their concert halls, left no lasting memory of glory when it lit the hospitals caring for the wounded of the war.
It was in one of those hospitals that Andre Breton discovered the anti-hero of the age, and his surrealist inspiration, Jacques Vaché. It was the surrealists who best confronted the mayhem after World War I, with a dose of cultural pandemonium in the service of the revolution. Unlike Dada, with its limited agenda of anarchy, the surrealists undertook a systematic demolition of the discredited civilization they inherited like a disease.
They played too close to the Art World not to be absorbed into that matrix of commodification, but to think of them as simply artists is to surrender their legacy to hucksters, just as to think of them as dupes of the French Communists, is to perpetuate ignorance of their revolutionary demands no Communist could tolerate. The surrealists revived Fourier, long forgotten in France, except to specialists who treated him as a rare specimen of a 19th Century bedlamite, as a precursor of their desire to overthrow the sclerotic culture that tolerated the murder of millions.
Do we not find ourselves in the same situation today? I will have nothing to do with those who reject the image that comes mind, as I, and millions, enter the voting booth, with sheep entering the shearing parlor. The sheep leave behind their wool, while we leave behind our dignity.
Bernard Marszalek co-founder of the anarcho-surrealist Solidarity Bookshop in 60’s Chicago and editor of a new collection of essays by renegade Marxist, Paul Lafargue, The Right to be Lazy (AK Press/Kerr Co.), can be reached at email@example.com.