The Situationists and the Occupation Movements (1968/2011)

One of the most notable characteristics of the “Occupy” movement is that it is just what it claims to be: leaderless and antihierarchical. Certain people have of course played significant roles in laying the groundwork for Occupy Wall Street and the other occupations, and others may have ended up playing significant roles in dealing with various tasks in committees or in coming up with ideas that are good enough to be adopted by the assemblies. But as far as I can tell, none of these people have claimed that such slightly disproportionate contributions mean that they should have any greater say than anyone else. Certain famous people have rallied to the movement and some of them have been invited to speak to the assemblies, but they have generally been quite aware that the participants are in charge and that nobody is telling them what to do.

This puts the media in an awkward and unaccustomed position. They are used to relating with leaders. Since they have not been able to find any, they are forced to look a little deeper, to investigate for themselves and see if they can discover who or what may be behind all this. Since the initial concept and publicity for Occupy Wall Street came from the Canadian group and magazine Adbusters, the following passage from an interview with Adbusters editor and co-founder Kalle Lasn (, October 4) has been widely noticed:

We are not just inspired by what happened in the Arab Spring recently, we are students of the Situationist movement. Those are the people who gave birth to what many people think was the first global revolution back in 1968 when some uprisings in Paris suddenly inspired uprisings all over the world. All of a sudden universities and cities were exploding. This was done by a small group of people, the Situationists, who were like the philosophical backbone of the movement. One of the key guys was Guy Debord, who wrote The Society of the Spectacle. The idea is that if you have a very powerful meme — a very powerful idea — and the moment is ripe, then that is enough to ignite a revolution. This is the background that we come out of.

Lasn’s description is a rather over-simplified version of what the situationists were about, but the Adbusters at least have the merit of adopting or adapting some of the situationist methods for active subversive use (which is of course what those methods were designed for), in contrast to those who relate to the situationists as passive spectators.

Another example of this quest for influences can be found in Michael Greenberg’s In Zuccotti Park (New York Review of Books, November 10):

The antic, Dadaist tone [of the Adbusters] . . . sounds more like something that was cooked up in a university linguistics class than by conventional grassroots populists. But when combined with anarchism, the hacktivism of the WikiLeaks phenomenon, and the arcane theories of Guy Debord and the so-called Situationists on the May 1968 student demonstrations in Paris, a potently popular recipe appears to have emerged.

If the situationists’ theories were really all that “arcane,” it is hard to see how they managed to inspire such an immense popular movement. But Greenberg’s article is at least a fairly decent and objective attempt to understand what is going on. This cannot be said of a more extensive article by Gary Kamiya, The Original Mad Men: What Can OWS Learn from a Defunct French Avant-Garde Group? (, October 21), which attempts to account for what he sees as “the peculiar liaison between Occupy Wall Street and the Situationists.”

Actually, there is nothing peculiar about the connection. If Mr. Kamiya thinks there is, it is because his limited and confused knowledge of the situationists is derived primarily from second-hand sources that are themselves very limited and confused:

I first heard of the Situationists in 1989, when I was doing research for a review of Greil Marcus’ weird and wonderful bookLipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century, in which they play a leading role. They also popped up as one of the inspirations behind a zanily creative San Francisco-based group called the Cacophony Society, several of whose odd urban expeditions I took part in during the 1980s. Founding members of the Cacophony Society, in turn, helped create Burning Man, the most rockin’ Saturnalia since Nero fiddled. There is thus a strong connection between the Situationists and various counter-cultural carnivals, provocations and eruptions — a fact that holds both promise and peril for any political movement influenced by them.

Marcus’s book, though not without interest, is very one-sided, focusing on the early situationists’ avant-garde cultural adventures and almost totally ignoring their revolutionary goals and methods. The two countercultural “eruptions” mentioned have even less connection with the situationists, whatever their participants may have imagined. But having thus pigeonholed the situationists as playful “cultural pranksters,” Mr. Kamiya then comes upon a puzzling inconsistency:

That playfulness should be the most lasting legacy of the Situationists is ironic, for it’s hard to imagine anything less playful than The Society of the Spectacle, the 1967 book by Situationist founder Guy Debord that is the movement’s bible. Grim, pedantic, hectoring and, not to put too fine a point on it, mad as a hatter, it is one of those works of Grand Theory that clank along like an ideological tank, crushing everything, including logic and common sense, in their path.

The supposed “irony” is only in Mr. Kamiya’s head. One might suppose that if the most important book by the most influential member of the group had all these grim and serious and heavy qualities, it would cause Mr. Kamiya to rethink his initial opinion that the situationists were merely zany pranksters. Instead, he launches into a weird and crazy diatribe about how weird and crazy Debord’s book is. The Society of the Spectacle is admittedly difficult, hardly to be well understood without careful study. (For those of you who are new to the situationists, I recommend that you start instead with some of the articles from the situationists’ journal, where you can see how the group evolved and how their theories played out in specific concrete contexts.) I suppose it might seem grim to someone looking for something light and cheery, but there is nothing pedantic or hectoring about it, let alone insane. It is a coldly calculated elucidation of the nature of the social system in which we find ourselves and of the advantages and drawbacks of various methods that have been tried in the endeavor to change it. There is indeed a certain relentlessness in its systematic critique on every form of hierarchy and alienation; but if Mr. Kamiya feels that it “crushes everything” in its path, that says more about his own (shocked and fearful) state of mind than about Debord’s.

Debord’s theory is psychotically simple: “Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.” Yes, you heard right — reality itself has been taken over, emptied out, by capitalist society, which has converted it into what Debord called “an immense accumulation of spectacles,” mere images at which people can only gape like stupefied slaves.

I’m surprised that Mr. Kamiya finds such an elementary observation “psychotic.” Debord’s thesis is far more frequently criticized for the opposite reason: for being so obvious as to be old-hat. To give just one example, more than twenty years ago France’s leading newspaper stated: “The fact that modern society is a society of the spectacle now goes without saying. . . . Countless books continue to appear that describe this phenomenon, which now marks not only all the industrialized nations but even all of the developing ones” (Le Monde, September 19, 1987). As I noted in the introduction to my translation of Debord’s film scripts, “Statements by Debord that used to be dismissed as extravagant or incomprehensible are now with equal superficiality dismissed as trite and obvious; people who used to claim that the obscurity of situationist ideas proved their insignificance now claim that their notoriety demonstrates their obsolescence.”

The situationists are of course best known for their role in inspiring the May 1968 revolt in France. Mr. Kamiya acknowledges their impact on the “rhetoric” of that revolt, but then immediately reverts to his disdainful dismissal:

They did have an outsize impact on the rhetoric — expressed on posters, publications and most famously in graffiti — of the 1968 French protests that almost toppled Charles de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic. “Never work,” “Boredom is counterrevolutionary,” “Under the paving stones, the beach” — these and dozens of other provocatively poetic pronouncements were written by or inspired by the Situationists. But their claim to have been the driving force behind the student revolt was overblown . . . and Situationism itself as a movement barely outlasted those delirious days in May.

The situationists never claimed any such thing, first of all because they had the greatest contempt for the student milieu in general (see the notorious Strasbourg pamphlet On the Poverty of Student Life) and secondly because, as they noted, “the May movement was not a student movement” (though triggered by a small situationist-inspired group in the Paris universities, it was carried out primarily by nonstudent youth and by millions of workers). The Situationist International did indeed dissolve itself in 1972, four years after the May revolt, but it did so primarily because it had become too popular and it wished to force its thousands of admirers and would-be followers back on their own, so that they would have to form their own groups and carry out their own actions rather than anxiously waiting to see what the SI would do next.

By any real-world measure except for providing grist for countless future Ph.D. theses, the Situationists were a complete failure. . . . By refusing to bring their ideas down into the real world — it’s hard to see how they could, since they considered the “real world” to be an empty fraud — the Situationists ensured that their influence would remain purely intellectual, not tangible. . . . Because they remained snootily above the fray, the Situationists ended up as a cultural hood ornament, another flashy appendage of the “society of the spectacle” they were at such pains to decry.

Let’s see. In the late 1950s and early 1960s a tiny group quietly lays the groundwork for a new type of radical contestation of modern society. Though at first almost totally ignored, the group’s new tactics and new perspectives gradually begin to resonate with more and more people, particularly after the 1966 Strasbourg scandal makes headlines all over Europe. In early 1968a group directly inspired by them (the Enragés) begins agitation in the Parisian universities, which leads to demonstrations, expulsions, and then several days of street fighting (in the which all the situationists take part). The police brutality and hundreds of arrests arouse sympathy from all over the country, forcing the government to back down and pull back the police. Students and other young people occupy the Sorbonne and invite everyone else to join them, to come together in a democratic general assembly to address the many problems they face and see what solutions they might come up with. (Does a lot of this sound familiar?) The situationists take part in the initial stages of the Sorbonne general assembly, where they advocate two main policies: maintaining direct democracy in the assembly, and appealing to the workers of the entire country to occupy their factories and form workers councils — i.e. direct-democratic workers’ assemblies that would bypass the labor-union bureaucracies. Within two weeks (in one of the few movements in history to spread even faster than the current OWS movement) virtually all the factories of France are occupied by over 10,000,000 workers. The situationists and Enragés and others organized into a “Council for Maintaining the Occupations” (CMDO) undertake a massive effort to urge the workers to bypass the union bureaucrats and carry on the occupations in order to realize the radical possibilities that their spontaneous action has already opened up, noting that if they do so they will soon be confronted with the task of restarting the social functions that are actually necessary, under their own control. Here, finally, the situationists’ desires are not fulfilled — the workers, understandably unsure of what to do in this strange and unaccustomed situation, allow the union bureaucracies (which had resisted the occupation movement from the beginning) to insinuate themselves back into the movement in order to deflate and dismantle it. (For detailed accounts of the May 1968 revolt, see René Viénet’s book Enragés and Situationists in the Occupation Movement (Autonomedia), Debord’s article The Beginning of an Era, and the leaflets and other documents issued by the CMDO.)

In short, a tiny group manages to trigger an unprecedented mass movement — the first wildcat general strike in history, which in the space of a month brings a modern industrial country to a standstill; but because that movement did not go on to achieve a total victory and bring about a definitive global revolution, Mr. Kamiya believes that it represents a “complete failure.” He apparently has unusually high standards. I would be curious to hear an example of some social movement or radical group that manages to meet with his approval. But stranger still is that he attributes this “failure” to the fact that the situationists “remained snootily above the fray.” They supposedly refused to “bring their ideas down into the real world” and thus their influence remained “purely intellectual, not tangible.” The university agitation, the street fighting, the Sorbonne assembly, the factory occupations apparently were not “tangible”; they did not happen in the real world, but in some “purely intellectual” realm. It seems to me that if anyone is remaining “snootily above the fray” here, it is Mr. Kamiya.

Despite the many social and cultural differences between 1968 France and 2011 America, anyone who has been paying attention to the current Occupy movement will see a number of obvious analogies between the initial stages of the two movements. And with the recent call for a general strike by Occupy Oakland (which included the blocking of the Port of Oakland and the attempted takeover of a public building), even the notion of factory occupations no longer seems quite so distant and unrealistic as it did even a week ago. We may still have a long way to go for that, but such ideas are now clearly in the air.

Another interesting similarity: Just as May 1968 was characterized by an incredible richness of personal creativity expressed in thousands of graffiti, the Occupy movement has already been characterized by a similar creativity expressed in thousands of homemade signs. The tone may be a bit different — perhaps a bit more wicked and incisive in France, more naïve and earnest in America — but in both cases there is a rich mix of joy and humor, insight and irony, poetry and poignancy, camaraderie and community. Like the graffiti, the signs are of course only a modest, visible expression of the movement, but they tend to express its nature, what it really going on in the participants’ hearts and minds, better than any official declarations or political programs.

But Mr. Kamiya hardly seems to notice any of this. He is almost as demanding and demeaning when it comes to the Occupy movement as he is about the situationists:

A nascent popular movement has sprung up in protest, but to be effective it must grow exponentially.

Isn’t that what it’s been doing? How else do you describe a movement that spontaneously spreads to autonomous occupations and assemblies in over a thousand cities in the space of a month?

On Oct. 15, when hundreds of thousands of protesters turned out in cities across Europe, an estimated 100,000 turned out in America — a decent showing, but not enough to shake the system.

Well, gosh, sorry about that. We’ll try to do better next time. Apparently nothing is good enough for Mr. Kamiya unless it “shakes the system.”

In particular, the movement needs to reach beyond its base, which is currently — at least in San Francisco, which may not be a fair sample — made up overwhelmingly of the young and culturally disgruntled, those who have not even been able to get a foot in the American door.

Well, as a matter of fact, it isn’t a fair sample. The race and class demography of the occupations varies considerably in different cities and different regions of the country. In any case, it is obvious that occupiers, especially the initial ones, will tend to be those who are younger, because young people will be readier to rough it than people who are middle-aged or older, and also because many young people are among those hit hardest by lack of employment and are seeing their whole future sold out, whereas older and more white-collar or “middle-class” people are more likely to be caught up in struggling to keep their jobs and their homes and raise their families. This doesn’t mean that they too are not participating, even if simply by contributing to help those who are literally on the ground.

When I went down to the protesters’ camp in Justin Herman Plaza this week, I talked to several highly intelligent young people with articulate grievances . . . but there was nary a middle-class-looking person to be seen. This is not a judgment, and the vanguard of a movement are never the mainstream. But it is going to be extremely difficult for Occupy Wall Street to be effective unless this changes.

And what is Mr. Kamiya’s prescription for dealing with this problem?

It’s all about advertising. And this is where the Situationists come in.

He then goes into a lengthy and rather confused argument to the effect that while the situationists were totally weird and insane in just about every other respect, they did have a certain knack for catchy slogans and publicity.

But if the Situationists’ ideology offers no guidance to the Occupy Wall Street movement, they still have something to offer it. Their ideas are good: The problem was that they elevated them into crackpot dogmas. . . . One does the Situationists no favors by taking their ravings literally. Strip away the crazy-Marxist, quasi-religious claim that under capitalism “spectacle” has completely replaced reality . . . and what is left is a smaller, but legitimate, insight about the insidious power of media to shape consciousness in the modern age. . . . Their demented worldview, in which we’re all trapped forever inside a gigantic Reality Commercial, led them to devise escape routes that utilized some of modern advertising’s favorite techniques — irony, collage and pastiche. Moreover, their interventions exuded a silly lightheartedness that, if used right, can move product.

In other words, the Occupy movement may want to incorporate a few of the more superficial and catchy aspects of the situationists in order to “move product.” But it should beware of paying any attention to anything else about them.

Readers who rely on Mr. Kamiya for their information will in fact learn almost nothing about else about them. In his article there is no mention of the other major situationist book, Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life, which can be seen as a more subjective and lyrical complement to Debord’s book. . . . No mention of Debord’s films, among the most innovative in the history of the cinema. . . . No mention of the numerous articles in which the situationists examine all sorts of different topics, from architecture and urbanism, to art and cinema, to poetry and revolution. . . . No mention of their lucid analyses of the Watts riot, the Vietnam and Arab-Israel wars, the Prague Spring, the Chinese Cultural Revolution and other crises and upheavals of the sixties. . . . No mention of their affinities and differences with dadaism and surrealism. . . . No mention of their innovative organizational forms and agitational tactics. . . . No mention of the lessons they drew from the revolutions and radical movements of the past, including their critical analyses of anarchism and Marxism and their rejection of Stalinist “Communism” in all its forms. No mention of their advocacy of workers councils as a crucial means of struggle or of their vision of total self-management as the ultimate goal. . . . Instead of examining any of these things, Mr. Kamiya offers his readers a hodgepodge of snide, would-be clever quips: “Basically, Situationism is cultural Marxism on acid.” “It’s a weird explosion of lucid paranoia.” “It would seem the last place progressives should look for ways to build an effective movement would be a tiny, extinct priesthood of jargon-spouting frogs.”

Just as I was finishing this examination of Mr. Kamiya’s article, I discovered another article that is equally snide and equally silly, Ben Davis’s What Occupy Wall Street Can Learn from the Situationists (A Cautionary Tale) (, October 17). Mr. Davis’s article might seem at first glance to present more information on the situationists than Mr. Kamiya’s, but in a way this is even worse since his information is almost all wrong or at best severely distorted. There is also a similar glib hostility:

Situationism does have some lessons for the present. But they are mainly negative ones, because, as a political project, Situationism was a dud. . . . What Situationism’s history shows are the limits of certain strategies — a commitment to a purely propagandistic politics, avowed leaderlessness — that still have currency because movements like Situationism are blindly glamorized by professors and cultural types. Offering the Situationist playbook as an alternative guide for political engagement today would be like offering alcohol as an alternative for mother’s milk.

I could just as easily have demolished Mr. Davis’s article, but luckily for him I discovered it after I had already spent all the time I wish to devote to this topic focusing on Mr. Kamiya.

I have examined Mr. Kamiya’s article here not because what he says about the situationists has any particular significance, but simply because it happens to be among the first examples of the sort of thing we can expect to see in the coming months as media commentators attempt to get their tiny minds around this strange phenomenon in order to reassure their readers and viewers: “Don’t worry, we’ve got this covered, we’ve already read this stuff so you don’t have to and we can assure you that these situationists are of no significance, they’re just some sort of zany cultural pranksters, or ivory-tower theorists, or grim radical dogmatists, or stuffy academic propagandists, or loony utopian dreamers, or irresponsible vandals, or something . . . . Anyway, whatever they are, there’s nothing to see here. Move on.”

Just as a police reaction to an occupation may convey more about what is at stake than any number of speeches and declarations, the fury with which people like Mr. Kamiya and Mr. Davis react is an indication of how the situationists have touched some sensitive points. If they really were nothing but “a tiny, extinct priesthood of jargon-spouting frogs,” it is hard to understand how they could still be provoking heated debates half a century later.

They have in fact been engendering these kinds of panic-stricken reactions from the very beginning. For a selection of some of the more amusing and often mutually contradictory ones, see The Blind Man and the Elephant. If you had to, I suppose you might be able to deduce a fair amount about the situationists just by figuring out what strange type of entity could have provoked such diverse reactions. But it is really much simpler and more sensible to read their original texts. Despite the situationists’ reputation for difficulty, they are not really all that hard to understand once you begin to experiment for yourself. Which is why people who are now taking part in the occupations will understand them far better than those remaining on the sidelines.

Ken Knabb edits the Bureau of Public Secrets.

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