This is a short reflection on Raoul Vaneigem’s Notice to the Civilized… , which some friends and I discussed recently.
Most of the disagreements we had with this text were purely semantic.
We found the term “workers’ council” problematic for three reasons:
(1) Our own society today is heavily entrenched in the service economy. Most of us have only known work in the service sector, and no one in these sectors feels like a “worker” who labors in some kind of factory, especially the kind referred to in the writings of Pannekoek, Peret, and even Vaneigem. Of course people work, and “we are all workers,” yes, but our generation does not identify with this term. This can be attributed to the loss of class-consciousness.
(2) “Council” sounds like an organization of authoritarians who make decisions that the rest must follow. It does not sound like a democratically organized workplace, though the Council Communists intended it to imply a democratic organization. It does not fit with today’s vernacular either.
(3) We live in society where there is high amount of perceived social mobility, and no one sees themselves as having to work in the same work site their entire lives. Why should anyone’s position under capitalism be fixed after the establishment and cooperation of workers’ councils? A workers’ council sounds like something that we have to commit to indefinitely so long as we have to ‘work’. A workers’ council does not sound open-ended.
Instead of “workers’ council” we preferred to use the term “project” because, in reality, if our work sites were organized democratically, and each of us could invest the amount of time and energy that we felt we wanted to invest, and gaining as much as possible in return, then in the way we speak today, we are working on a “project”.
Originally, workers’ councils were called soviets. This is the original translation of that word. Think about how much of a turn-off that would be today.
And because the Soviet Union bureaucracy presented itself as the “Supreme Soviet” – a central committee for organizing the councils of workers – we associate “soviets” with authoritarian communism. But the word had its own meaning before the Soviet Union. Workers’ councils, or soviets, were revolutionary simply because of the fact that they existed as an alternative to the capitalist system. The Council Communists, as the original advocates were called, opposed Bolshevism and the October Revolution. Political power, as manifested through the Communist Parties, they argued, was completely antithetical to the revolutionary councilist project.
At any rate, when the whole of society is organized through workers’ councils – not through a political coup, but through workplace conversion – this is what Raoul Vaneigem calls generalized self-management.
Why would anyone want to embark on a revolutionary “project”?
Vaneigem has some interesting conditions, and all of them are very personal. I found this part about Vaneigem’s thought compelling, because he speaks to you personally. (He spells this out more in his book The Revolution of Everyday Life.) No one will want to be involved in a revolutionary project unless they see an immediate rise in the “pleasure of living” through their involvement. Vaneigem is anti-sacrificial, and thinks about this insurrection in terms of what it will immediately give us in return. This is as much about individual liberation as it is collective.
Elsewhere Vaneigem says, “As long as our mass tactics stick to the law of immediate pleasure there will be no need to worry about the outcome.”
We shouldn’t be hung up over this. He is not talking about pure hedonism. He is not talking about reckless abandon. Our desires our more complex than to rule out long-term projects in favor for short-term fixes. He is not advocating day-by-day subsistence living and poverty, although he does think about the revolution as a daily devotion.
This is what he means: sticking to the revolutionary project by satisfying direct needs and desires of the project, which may include the need to be daring and at times rambunctious too, can only ensure the success of “the movement.” Once you cease caring about immediate pleasures, you are effectively installing a bureaucracy. The secondary purpose of this principle serves to prevent co-option and prevent bureaucratic takeovers.
It should be mentioned that all this talk about “after the revolution” got on our nerves. Vaneigem never says this. But the notion of generalized self-management is several steps ahead of our present situation, and so the idea of it tends to sound, well, presumptuous.
Why are we talking about “generalized self-management” when we have not managed ourselves? I think this is a compelling question, but one that we can postpone for now, because part of discussing self-management as totally generalized – after all – involves the question of why we ought to manage ourselves in more discrete organizations in the first place.
There are Bolshevist inklings in the phrase “After the revolution.” And this is why you never hear many anarchists use this phrase.
It assumes the revolution is a singularity, after which everything is suddenly and magically reversed, having little or no connection to our lives today. It assumes an event.
Vaneigem does not hold this concept of revolution, either. Generalized self-management may seem difficult to talk about because we are presuming we can say something about society “after the revolution”. But whereas even the original Council Communists like Pannekoek, Ruhle, and later ones like Benjamin Peret, believed in this Bolshevist concept of social singularity – the revolution! – no one else really takes this idea seriously.
In the Spanish anarchist tradition, for example the writings of Ericco Malatesta, the movement was arguing for a revolution that was “little by little.” Modern hiers to Council Communism and anarcho-syndicalism argue “little by little” as well: one factory, one Starbucks, one Nanterre, at a time.
This is essentially a distinction between the character of the factory occupations movements you see in various parts of the world today (Greece, France, the UK, Argentina, Chiapas) and the top-down revolutionary movements of ages past (October Revolution, American Revolution, French Revolution, etc.)
This is not a question of after or before. It’s a question of what steps we are taking now to realize a situation where places we live, create, and play are organized democratically, and integrated amongst each other. To realize self-management on a general level is not a question of overthrowing some political bureaucracy and then starting from scratch afterward. We realize that revolutionary “projects” – by their very existence, threaten the existence of the state and capitalism. As the power of the projects [workers’ councils] grows, so the power of capitalism and the state diminish. So, these projects are the preliminary step towards generalized self-management. When everyone is working on a project and living by the project, the self-management of society has been generalized.
There are some paradoxes that crop up when you start talking about workers’ self-management on an intermediate scale, a scale short of the scenario when it has been generalized throughout society.
The problem is that, even though one project may be liberated from the guile of capitalism, it still has to operate within society that operates on capitalist principles. It has to sell its product on a capitalist exchange, or compete with it. So how does that work? And what sort of ridiculous projects or workers’ councils might you have in a society half-way in between?
Imagine a factory that is organized in the most revolutionary, most radical, and most innovative way possible. The newly transformed work place is now the site of new opportunities for play and new projects. It is an engine of democratic and anti-capitalist ideas in action, and an inspiration to workers elsewhere. But imagine also that the factory produces the most useless, most ridiculous and absurd commodity known to capitalism, and has no clear way of producing anything else. How do you reconcile this absurdity?
The demand under conditions of capitalism created the need for this factory, but under a generalized self-management the product of this factory would most likely become unnecessary. This is a Catch 22.
Vaneigem is staunchly anti-bureaucratic, and his notion of “immediate pleasure” is his technique for avoiding bureaucracy. Whenever the union leadership or “anyone who does not place [the workers’ council] at the center of the revolution of everyday life,” tries to co-opt the workers’ movement, they must be recognized as a “future bureaucrat” and thus a “present enemy”.
This tract is written on the heels of the 1968 occupations movement in France, and what Vaneigem also has in mind is the tendency of bureaucracies and power structures to slow down and wear down revolutionary movements. As soon as you start to enter into a bureaucrat relationship with the enemy, whether it’s a court case, or a union trial, or a government negotiation, the bureaucrats start to exercise their power. We recognize that, often, our movements need to be constantly moving if they are facing pressures from bureaucracies to recede, while the bureaucratic process is entirely stagnant and living on taxes. They do not have the same problem.
Why should anyone think that your position right now under capitalism, say working at a tire factory, should be your position under a generalized self-management? Why should anyone remain a worker, and why ought anyone have to remain fixed in the same factory or work site interminably? Why would the same commodities be produced? Why should you still be the “proletariat” after you have control of your own life? Why should it be a “proletarian revolution” if, once we have converted the places we formerly ‘worked’ to democratic strongholds, we are no longer the proletariat?
Capitalism manages crises. What the duty of capitalism is today is managing one crisis after another. Each month, each week, there is a yet another new crisis that capitalism one the one hand, causes, and on other hand, must fix.
Capitalism creates pseudo-problems and then attempts to solve them. Looting, for example. People loot because of inherent inequalities, a problem which capitalism can only sustain, and is the inherent cause of. The solution capitalism proposes is to improve its police force. This is a pseudo-solution.
It would be a mistake to say it solved a “genuine problem” since the problem would not have existed without capitalism. Vaneigem uses this example of looting. What prevents looting? When people are brought together in a relationship that makes theft seem absurd? Then there is not a problem of looting.
The workers’ councils, projects, are not just places where you work, but also live. And this becomes more apparent as the project unfolds. So it is necessary that these projects have a distinctive geographical character, as those working on the same projects will tend to live closer to one another. A food co-op based in a neighborhood, for example. A farm located not far from the co-op.
One of the dilemmas this poses is that people tend to always be coming and going, and never staying committed to one place for very long. This happens especially where there is no clear revolutionary project, and there is little to contribute to without starting something from scratch. The trick is seeing yourself as stuck with these other people for a long period of time, and thinking of how you are able to work with them.
We talked about punk affinity groups, and how positive this can be. Punks in various cities tend to know many other punks, and its easy for them to move amongst each other, live in different cities, and travel easily. However, this can also contribute to failing revolutionary projects, as everyone is habitually on a kind of summer vacation. California this month, Minnesota the next, etc.
Vaneigem broadens the definition of proletariat, just as the situationists in general did. In one comic the situationists defined the proletariat as anyone who does not have power over their own life. Similarly, Vaneigem broadens the definition of proletariat in saying that the proletariat, “by negating itself, gives clear shape to the project of generalized self-management, because it bears that project within itself objectively and subjectively.” By refusing to be the proletariat, it no longer is the proletariat. This is realizable only by the proletariat itself, today, by hastening “its own disappearance.”