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Wayne Spencer, "Gasping From Out the Shallows," Part One

Anonymous Comrade writes:

Gasping From Out the Shallows:
Reflections on Revolution in the Early Twenty-First Century
Wayne Spencer

"Human beings are not fully conscious of their real lives. Groping in the dark, overwhelmed by the consequences of their acts, at every moment groups and individuals find themselves faced with outcomes they had not intended […] What should be abolished continues, and we continue to wear away with it. We are engulfed. Separated from each other. The years pass and we haven’t changed anything." — Guy Debord, On the Passage of a Few Persons Through a Rather Brief Unity of Time, 1959

"We have invented nothing. We adapt ourselves, with a few variations, into the network of possible itineraries. We get used to it, it seems." — Guy Debord, "Critique of Separation," 1961

"If it seems somewhat absurd to talk of revolution, this is obviously because the organized revolutionary movement has long since disappeared from the modern countries where the possibilities of a decisive social transformation are concentrated. But all the alternatives are even more absurd, since they imply accepting the existing order in one way or another." — Internationale Situationniste #6, 1961

"Many people are sceptical about the possibility of a new revolutionary movement, continually repeating that the proletariat has been integrated or that the workers are now satisfied, etc. This means one of two things: either they are declaring themselves satisfied (in which case we will fight them without any equivocation); or they are identifying themselves with some category separate from the workers, such as artists (in which case we will fight this illusion by showing them that the new proletariat is tending to encompass virtually everybody)." — Internationale Situationniste #7, 1962

"The worst of misery
Is when a nature framed for noblest things
Condemns itself in youth to petty joys,
And, sore athirst for air, breathes scanty life
Gasping from out the shallows." — George Eliot, "The Spanish Gypsy," 1868



“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)” (Situationist International, Ideologies, Classes, and the Domination of Nature, Internationale Situationniste #8, 1963)


The first movement of the revolutionary proletariat against the alienation of capitalism, a movement exemplified by the great waves of workers’ struggles and revolutions that convulsed the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was destroyed by the machinations, mystifications and munitions of social democracy, fascism and Bolshevism.

With the defeat in the mid-1930s of the attempts by the revolutionary workers and peasants of Spain to establish a self-managed society, the century chimed midnight. In the course of the 1950s, a second movement of proletarian contestation began to grow restless under the new conditions of alienation erected out of the partial successes and ultimate failure of the earlier expressions of proletarian dissatisfaction. This contestation affected both poles of the apparently divided but actually united system of global capitalism: the state capitalism of the societies expropriated by Bolshevism and the affluent consumer capitalism of the West.

In the Soviet bloc, the uprisings in East Berlin in 1953, Poznań in Poland in 1956 and across Hungary in 1956, along with innumerable other acts of defiance both large and small, expressed the proletariat’s rejection of the pseudo-communist bureaucracies that reigned in the proletariat’s name yet subjected every aspect of society to an authoritarian domination for its own interests as a ruling class. In the West, wildcat strikes defied the unions, and sabotage, absenteeism, shoddy work and an avowed contempt for work revealed that sections of the proletariat were dissatisfied with the well-paid alienated labour on which the post-war consumer societies were based; so too there was a more sporadic and confused refusal of the machinery of permitted consumption.

In May 1968 in France and during the 1969 ‘Hot Autumn’ in Italy, proletarian discontent coalesced into vast movements and refused quietly to subside afterwards; so much so that these two countries were singled out as objects of particular horror by an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development meeting of employment experts convened in 1971 out of fearful apprehension that “the industrial countries…are undergoing a revolution” whose first principle is the “challenge to authority”. According to this collection of specialists in workers submission, the perspective of a society “without classes, hierarchy, authority and regulations” was abroad in “industrial France”, while in Italy “the effects of industrial conflicts and social malaise are constantly combined” and “minor details of technical progress in workplaces…provoke conflicts whose violence is out of all proportion to their causes”.

They were right to be alarmed. In their study of 123 industrial conflicts in France in 1971, for example, Claude Durand and Pierre Dubois found that “significant illegalities”, such as occupations of premises or physical violence against employers, cadres, supervisors or police, had occurred in half of all disputes. And high levels of conflict persisted in many other regions of the advanced capitalist societies. However, by the end of the following decade, the second upsurge of the proletariat had been defeated. The state capitalist societies of Eastern Europe had all been overthrown, but they have been succeeded not by the management by proletarians themselves of all aspects of their individual and collective lives, but rather by the forms of representative democracy, alienated production and commodified everyday life characteristic of western liberal capitalism. In the west itself, the society of the abundant commodity continued to dominate every aspect of social life.3

In the following sections of this document, I shall offer some tentative, incomplete and doubtless all too fallible views as to how and why the challenges to the dominant society in the second half of the twentieth century failed. To this end, I shall consider the four most developed movements to suppress the global commodity economy identified by Chris Shutes in his pamphlet On the Poverty of Berkeley Life and the Marginal Status of American Society in General (Berkeley, 1983), namely those to be found in Italy, Britain, Poland and South Africa. The goal in doing so is not to advance abstract historical understanding, nor to lambast and lament those who failed to overcome all the obstacles to revolution before them in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, nor to flatter the sense of superiority or the cynical submissiveness of those who come after them. An understanding of the failure of those revolutionary efforts is important only as part of a practical project to renew and intensify the revolutionary assault on contemporary alienation by going beyond what was said and done before.



The emergence of modernized class conflict in Italy was signalled by a series of unusually intense struggles in the factories in the central and northern regions of the country during 1968. Typically led by skilled workers angry at the deterioration of their relatively privileged terms and conditions, these struggles soon led to even less restrained assaults on the miseries of work by semi-skilled workers, often immigrants from the south, who regarded with equal contempt the authoritarian world of work to be found in the north and the local traditions of fearful deference that sustained it. In the course of 1969, some 5,000 strikes involving nearly 8 million workers broke out, with many escaping union control and being conducted directly by proletarians themselves. The methods used in the most radical of these conflicts included novel developments such as the ‘chess-board’ strike (a scacchiera), in which an unpredictable rolling sequence of short strikes by groups of workers in different parts of the production process would cripple a factory at minimal cost to the workers as a whole, as well as go-slows, factory occupations, sabotage of goods and machinery, and physical assaults on supervisory, personnel and management personnel. At their peak, the struggles began to approach a total rejection of both alienated labour and the notion of rendering alienation more comfortable by reforms in productive practices and quantitative increases in wages and holidays; as workers from Mirafiori and several other Turin factories put it in a demonstration on 3 July 1969: “What do we want? Everything!”. In other instances, however, proletarians expressed their dissatisfactions, with some success, in terms of demands for fixed-sum or other wage increases, generalized upgrading, control over speed of work or other superficial changes to work.


The ‘Hot Autumn’ of 1969 did not destroy capitalism. What confronted the proletariat after its conclusion was the new pattern of accommodation with capitalism that its own struggles, its own successes, had produced. It was imperative to create the consciousness and practices to overcome this new alienated equilibrium. Several obstacles stood in the way of the necessary advance in understanding and action. These included the legal action taken against thousands of workers whose actions has infringed the law and the terrorist attacks staged by elements of the state and their far-right supporters but attributed to the opponents of the state as part of a ‘strategy of tension’. Perhaps more important, however, as dangers to the deepening of the thought and praxis of the discontented proletariat were other factors that threatened to draw the proletariat back towards the goals and methods of trade unionism, starting with the unions.


The trade unions themselves, having initially been surprised and outmanoeuvred by workers’ militancy, launched strong efforts to contain that dissatisfaction within methods and objectives consistent with the existence of the commodity economy. Workers’ rejection of hierarchy and division had confusedly been expressed through egalitarian wage demands. These demands, which tacitly accepted the institution of work, were taken up by the unions as part of new negotiating packages. In the same vein, the unions recuperated the emerging critique of the alienation of the totality of proletarians’ labour, as expressed by the attacks on the ruinously high line speeds and crude authoritarianism that were the most obvious manifestations of a work extracted from them in the service of the commodity, converting this into a demand for an extension of the involvement of workers’ representatives in the regulation and reform of shop floor procedures. The unions also introduced organizational changes that improved their capacity to recuperate and divert struggles. The 1970 Workers Charter had extended the recognition of unions and allowed for the deduction of union dues from wage packets. This was a first step toward making unions more available to workers and tying workers more closely to the unions. Other organizational and procedural changes went further down this road. For example, the unions took greater steps to consult members over the demands to be included in the negotiations over national contract and opened the way for individual militants to be co-opted into the running of union-led struggles. The unions emerged in a better financial position and in a better position to exercise control over workers’ dissatisfaction and struggles. One important development was the absorption into the union structure of the system of factory delegates and councils. Developed, it would seem, by union militants and reformists from the Manifesto group and the Socialist Party of Proletarian Unity, the system of electing delegates to councils was understood as a means of replacing the unmediated associations between proletarians that had spontaneously emerged in the course of struggles with a permanent and separate structure to represent workers’ interests as alienated producers within a capitalism that was taken for granted. This made it not just the natural territory of trade unions, whose very raison d’être is to mediate the humane and affluent incorporation of the proletariat into capitalism, but a highly attractive one at a time when the unions found themselves out of touch with their constituency. Accordingly, the metalworking unions and the Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro (CGIL) adopted the delegates and the councils as constituent elements of their grassroots structure in 1970, followed in 1972 by the new federation between the CGIL, the Confederazione Italiana Sindacati Lavoratori and the Unione Italiana del Lavoro. By 1973 there were 97,161 delegates grouped into 9,813 councils. These proved instrumental in negotiating the 3,225 plant-level agreements in force by that year and in many instances had involved themselves in the day-to-day negotiation or regulation of work-rates, work-loads, breaks, etc. Every action taken by the delegates in the name of the workers struck at the autonomy of the proletariat and confined it within the logic of capitalism. Over time, the unions increased the powers possessed by the council secretariats and executives so as largely to eliminate delegates’ control over the councils. However, this did not change the essence of the councils. They remained what they had always been: separate bodies for the incorporation of the proletariat into the separate economy and a bulwark for the dominant society.


The onset of economic difficulties and rising inflation in Italy, phenomena that were in part the result of proletarians’ success in reducing productivity and increasing wages, soon gave rise to a spectacle of economic crisis. This did not merely counsel acquiescence and sacrifice on the part of workers but in its pseudo-oppositional variants encouraged an increasingly exclusive focus on the active defence of the superficial ameliorations to work already won and the endless pursuit of further wage increases to offset the depredations of inflation. In this way, the spectacle once again discovered urgent privations, supposedly basic needs, and outrageous injustices within abundance whose resolution justified the postponement of profound social transformation and the persistence of alienated production and consumption. In this way, the results of proletarians’ initial efforts to escape the commodity economy returned to them in alienated form to urge the abandonment of any intensification of those efforts.


Alongside the clamorous talk of crisis, the ordinary spectacle of the pleasures and compensations of consumption – as conveyed by advertising, entertainment, journalism, high culture, education, etc – continued to saturate society with propaganda in favour of an everyday life confined to the consumption of the products of alienated labour and the ideologies that give them false meaning. At every turn, proletarians were confronted with seductive visions of a life of consumption that would gratify desires and realize dreams without the need for revolution.


In the event, although vast struggles continue to harry Italian capitalism over the next several years, the proletariat failed to discover the means to overcome the obstacles before it. The trade unions succeeding in drawing huge additional numbers of workers within the orbit of their ideology of perpetual negotiated surrender to the alienation of labour, as membership grew from some 4.5 million in 1968 to over 6 million in 1973. Even where wildcat struggles escaped union control, they repeatedly settled for extending the margins of the bounded and false autonomy the individual possesses within the terms of the capitalist system. Wages typically increased, and in some workplaces the workers may have put themselves in a position to exercise a degree of choice as to how and when was carried out; nonetheless, 100% of their labour power remained expropriated from them and the total alienated space-time constructed out of that fundamental alienation continued to dominate society without abatement. In effect, although proletarians from time to time went beyond trade unionist organization, they did not overcome the underlying trade unionist ideology that regards work as a necessary evil that is justified by the domestic life and commodity consumption it makes possible.


The faltering of proletarian struggle was in part attributable to a failure to confront the whole of the daily life that advanced capitalism provides. Outside of work, the everyday life of consumable roles and pleasures was the subject of very little critique, and workers who carved out greater free time by absenteeism or reduced hours tended to adopt conventional ways of life once beyond the factory gates. This is not to say that there was no criticism of how life was lived, for especially in the northern areas where the scale of immigration from the south had exceeded the capacity of corrupt administrations and private business to provide the banal facilities of everyday life in advanced capitalism, furious struggles for adequate accommodation and other goods were conducted. These struggles over a myriad of details of daily life gave the contestation in those areas a breadth that might have opened the way to a comprehensive critique of everyday life. But its focus on deficiencies in supply, on the ways in which the available facilities fell short of the ordinary expectations of the modern consumer, exposed it to recuperation into reformist campaigns for the provision of a properly modern alienation, inevitably led by specialists in each separate domain of consumption that was in issue, or to degeneration into a host of individual scrambles to use the increased wages that had been secured in order to purchase private solutions. Indeed, the extra money that became available as a by-product of factory struggles placed within proletarians’ reach a greater range of consumable needs and pleasures generally, calling for an awareness and practical critique of the poverties of the domain of separate consumption increasingly opening to it. Such a refusal did not develop. Apart from some promising but narrow critiques by feminists, domestic life and commodity consumption was accepted without reflection. This blindness to the nature and poverties of important aspects of capitalist daily life crippled the proletarian movement. It left untouched the pseudo-pleasures that the spectacle offers as compensation for work and that encourage those disgusted with what they do at work to seek reforms of working time, or simply to persist with gritted teeth, for the sake of what their work enables them to buy and do. The refuge of private life continued to beckon to workers exhausted by endless partial struggles. More importantly, the thought that there is something better, something worthwhile, to do in the everyday life outside of work powerfully contributed to the failure of proletarian consciousness to develop to the point where the prospect of leaving the means of producing individual and collective life in the hands of capitalism is regarded as utterly intolerable.


In this impasse, the proletariat received no assistance from the ‘workerist’ left (or its ‘autonomist’ successor). The grand theory of workerist intellectuals was notable for its hermetic obscurity and uselessness. Starting with a handful of fetishized abstractions derived from classical Marxism or newly coined, a series of largely a priori deductions would follow, resulting in nothing more than the conclusions the ideology had presupposed at the outset. Worse, perhaps, these pseudo-analyses all too frequently sought not to transcend bourgeois political economy but simply to practice it better than the people the corporations and the state paid. The point of view adopted was that of the narrowest and most pessimistic economic specialist; inevitably, almost nothing could be seen by means of this self-imposed myopia except the reified movements of a few economic variables and the shadows of a disembodied and idealized proletariat. The results were risible. Beyond these rarefied games of tenured revolutionaries, the workerists never escaped the Leninism that had destroyed the Russian Revolution and created an authoritarian state capitalism to support its rule in the name of an excluded and subjugated proletariat. For the workerist, proletarian autonomy was entirely consistent with the hierarchical subordination of the proletariat to a hierarchical vanguard organization, while revolutionary struggle in practice consisted of the vigorous and inflexible pursuit without end of trade unionist improvements to wages and conditions. The revolutionary transformation of the individual or the society was always and everywhere postponed for a swiftly receding millenarian tomorrow.


The second half of the 1970s brought a seemingly radical wing of the proletarian movement into increasing prominence: the autonomia. Bringing together, amongst others, students disappointed by their education in the newly-expanded universities and apprehensive at their prospects in economically difficult times, young people chafing at the persistence of archaic family and social controls or condemned by recession to unemployment or mundane work, and young workers who rejected the caution and conservatism of the generation of 1968/9, the autonomia movement eschewed the Leninism of the workerists in favour of smaller and more informal groups with an expressly egalitarian orientation. It also rejected the conservative cultures to be found in society at large and its workerist opponents, embracing more playful mores and counter-cultural styles (e.g. the Metropolitan Indians, a loose confederation that intermittently adopted pseudo-Native American dress and argot derived from westerns). The actions pursued by the various segments of the autonomia included wildcat strikes and factory occupations; the creation of social centres, typically in squatted buildings, that provided living quarters and a base for autonomous activities; “autoriduzione” (refusing to pay all or part of the cost of goods or services), often for leisure and cultural events; patrols against drug-pushers and attacks on fascists; protest marches; disruption of musical and other events; and a collective ‘hanging-out’ together. In 1977 the conflict between the autonomia and the state rapidly escalated, starting on February. At the beginning of the month a demonstration to protest an armed invasion of Rome University by fascists that had led to two people being shot was itself fired on by the police. A number of universities were occupied the next day and demonstrations followed. On 17th February when Metropolitan Indians and other autonomists attended a speech being given by Luciano Lama, the CGIL secretary and an exponent of economic austerity, at the University of Rome. The university was occupied by students and others and Lama urged that the occupation be broken. Equipped with a dummy in a cart bearing the message “Nessuno Lama” (“Nobody loves him”), the autonomists responded by chanting slogans such as “more work, less pay” and pelting Lama and his CGIL minders with water and paint bombs. After Lama’s speech, the CGIL minders attacked the protesters. This provoked a counter-attack that expelled the minders from the campus, which in turn led to an invasion by the police. Over the course of the next few months, skirmishes at protest marches led to the death by gunshots of two protesters and a policeman, riotous responses by the autonomia, and a programme of state repression that saw movement radio stations closed, the occupation of the University of Rome broken by armoured cars, and thousands of militants arrested and held for long periods for trial in special courts. In 1978 elements of the autonomia turned decisively to armed struggle, joining or supplementing the existing leftist terrorist factions underground. During the two years 1978–1979, the armed groups carried out 49 killings and 1,863 armed actions that did not result in fatalities; in 1980–1981 the numbers were 40 and 359, respectively. Each of these actions only oiled the wheels of state repression and helped the state to drive an ideological wedge between the proletariat and a revolutionary project represented as the obscure and murderous property of separate gangs. The larger movement of the autonomia soon disappeared.


The failure of the autonomia cannot simply be regarded as a product of external repression; it also had to do with factors within the movement that limited the extent to which it broadened and deepened its attack upon the dominant society. The movement was in part a product of the unevenness of development of Italian capitalism, an unevenness that pitched modern ideologies of capitalist life against more archaic conceptions of submission and excluded a section of the younger generations from work during a period of economic restructuring. For this reason, the autonomia incorporated within itself not just a dissatisfaction that reached to the very roots of contemporary capitalism but also a relatively superficial disappointment at the lack of means and opportunities to indulge the proclivities the spectacle had created. The result was ambivalence or even outright enthusiasm within autonomia for certain of the leading edges of commodity consumption, and especially the domain of youth culture. From the 1950s onwards, popular youth culture has been a central part of the development of advanced capitalism, producing vast new markets for clothes, films, music and other commodities and an associated spectacle of unrestrained, hedonistic consumption that has increasingly become a key exemplar of what desirable life consists of in contemporary times. The rock and roll spectacle’s catalogue of sensationalist thrills, fun and ecstasy produced by cacophony, speed, stereotyped bodily movement, abundant mechanistic sex, stylish dress, drink, drugs and the collective ideologies that allow these sensations to be construed as enjoyable has naturally horrified the bearers of moralist attitudes fashioned in more austere periods of capitalist development (e.g. many of the members of the Italian Communist Party); but the clash between the old and new means of adaptation to life dominated by the commodity, a clash that has undoubtedly sharpened the desirability and the apparent subversiveness of the latter, is only one more false division in the spectacle. By failing to repudiate youth culture in its entirety, autonomia fell into the contradictory position of proclaiming its rejection of the dominant society while simultaneously embracing an important dimension of the everyday life that the self-same society held out. It may from time to time have disrupted popular culture events, as in 1977 when the Metropolitan Indians stormed a jazz concert in Umbria, and denounced musical spectacles, yet dreams of producing or consuming popular culture permeated the movement without effective challenge, as can be seen for example in the music played on movement radio stations and at social centres, the autoriduzione that sought to reduce ticket prices for rock concerts and films, and the fashions in casual clothing marketed to the young that were taken up almost ubiquitously by movement members. Even the eventual slide into a destructive use of hard drugs by parts of the movement can be understood as more than the product of despair at the worsening conditions brought about by state repression. It was also another instance of the movement seeking the pleasures and consolations of the hedonistic spectacle.


Another aspect of the dominant society reproduced within autonomia was the domination of the individual by the collective. The organisations created within autonomia lacked the overt hierarchy of the leftist vanguards-in-waiting but in practice organisations existed as entities greater than the individual and not just associations formed by individuals to accomplish specific and agreed-upon objectives together. One consequence of this was that the organisation and revolution itself took on the air of an external, abstract cause to be served by individuals, encouraging either grim dedication, sacrificial militantism and a lack of internal and self-critique on the one hand, or an ecumenical ‘tolerance’ that equally restricted the free play of criticism on the other. The most obvious instance of militantism within the movement was its militaristic wing, both before and after its slide into counter-revolutionary terrorism. However, it was also present elsewhere, for example in the collective style of the Metropolitan Indians, a style that in any event was sometimes indistinguishable in essence from the disarmed puerility and superficial mockery of the more obvious components of the dominant society with which the cynical spectator lubricates his submission to that same society’s fundamental alienations. The absence of a thoroughgoing culture of continuous critical evaluation of self and others could be seen in the survival within the movement of the attitudes and practices of the most degraded masculinity and the evasive and defensive reactions offered to the justified criticism of those survivals by feminists and others within the movement. Rhetorical exchanges between groups on the basis of inflexible positions were common; careful and relentless re-examination of presuppositions, organizational practices, and programmatic statements within groups rather less so.


The limitations of autonomia’s critique of the dominant society no doubt contributed to its failure to draw in the mass of the proletariat and its consequent death in isolation. The emphasis within the movement on particular commodity enthusiasms as part of its practical self-definition could serve only to separate it from those who merely happened to have different consumer tastes. Along with its collectivism and its tendency to glorify marginal survival techniques in the name of a “revolt against work”, it also prevented the movement from offering a total and coherent theoretico-practical critique of the dominant alienation in which others could find an illumination of their own miseries and a practical project for assailing shared miseries together. In general, the movement failed to articulate a critique of alienation in terms that persuasively revealed what its own members’ confinement to a marginal survival, and the inflation-protected and relatively secure and affluent survival of the bulk of the proletariat, had in common. The distance between the autonomia and all too many other proletarians can be seen in the comments of a Fiat Worker in Bologna about his fellow workers’ response to a large autonomia demonstration in Rome a few days before: “There is the feeling that something big is happening. But Sunday’s news from Rome (the demo) didn’t succeed in stopping the usual talk about Sunday’s football matches” (Italy 1978-8: Living with an Earthquake, Red Notes, 1978; page 64). The tragedy and death knell of autonomia was that nothing it had said or done, and certainly not the ritualistic demonstrations and violent trashings that changed nothing but the headlines in the media, had prompted workers such as these to critically engage its own enthusiasms for the sporting and other spectacles that bound them to the commodity society, let alone discover a common cause with it.



In Britain during the 1960s, around 95% of strikes were unofficial initiatives by the workers themselves. In the 1970s, large union-led disputes became more common, to the point that in 1971 and 1972 the number of days lost to official strikes exceeded those lost to unofficial strikes. But the large majority of strikes continued to be launched without union sanction or control. Also common was a palpable contempt for work, expressed in conversation, absenteeism, sabotage, non-cooperation, low productivity and poor quality work. This “British Disease” persisted throughout the 1970s, reaching its peak with the waves of industrial disputes that made up the “Winter of Discontent” of 1978-9 that shattered the Labour Government’s latest attempt to restrict wage increases. However, three months after the Winter of Discontent began to fade in the wake of an agreement between the government and the Trade Union Council in February 1979, the Conservative Party of Margaret Thatcher was elected. Over the course of the ensuing decades, the incidence of strikes and other forms of proletarian resistance decreased. In 1998 the number of strikes was the lowest since records began to be collected in 1891.


Thatcher’s approach to industrial relations was in part organized around the notion of “returning the unions to their members”. The underlying assumption was that the rank-and-file were more moderate than the leadership of the unions. As Ian Macleod, a Conservative Minister of Labour in the 1950s, once observed, “this is not my experience, nor is it the experience of any Minister of Labour”; and, no doubt, it was equally untrue in 1979. Nonetheless, despite her ideological delirium, Thatcher had stumbled upon two central weaknesses of the British proletariat, namely the profound underdevelopment of its understanding of its own actions and dissatisfactions and its failure to develop a practical critique of commodity society that was fully autonomous of the unions and other separate powers. It was these and other weaknesses that Thatcher wielded against the proletariat.


It might reasonably be said that what Thatcher did was call the proletariat’s bluff. The spectacle of crisis and looming disaster had been prominent throughout the 1970s. From every corner, ecological, economic, terrorist or other catastrophes loomed. These permitted the spectacle to yet again reinvent its tawdry fabricated consumer needs and state ‘protections’ as urgent necessities and encourage the spectator to abandon fundamental social change in favour of supposedly imperative reforms, wage demands or a cynical private hedonism. At the end of the decade, the ideology of Thatcherism added to these apprehensions of collapse a stark demonstration that the manner in which state, industry, work and trade were organised could no longer sustain economic growth and widespread consumption, and that radical and painful change was necessary in order to secure the continuance of consumer society. This ideological attack was able to exploit several fault lines in proletarian thought and feeling. Although disputes in the workplace had been sharp and numerous, they stayed at the level of contesting the details of how the expropriation of the proletariat’s labour was to be organised and remunerated. What underpinned disputes with employers remained a notion of fair treatment and equitable rewards, together with a presupposition that large employers must somewhere possess the resources to meet their demands without difficulty. Both ideas accepted the legitimacy of the alienation of labour and were vulnerable to arguments of practicability within the terms of the capitalism they took for granted. A notable cause of the frozen and underdeveloped state of proletarian thought and practice was the shop steward system. Stewards were officials of a trade union but they were directly elected by relatively small groups of workers and it was not unusual for them to work side-by-side with the workers they represented. Their position close to the workers led to them being perceived as distinct from regional and national union officers of the union and the invidious compromises with which those more remote figures were associated. It also permitted them quickly to take up workers’ grievances or wildcat refusals, removing them from workers’ own hands and ensuring that they were understood and pursued as negotiable demands for the amelioration of particular features of alienated labour. Where disputes did escalate, they often resulted in walkouts, which only served to disperse the workers whom shared resentments had brought together, scattering them back into their individual daily lives as passive and separated individuals. In these ways, the forms of struggle adopted tended to make proletarians spectators of their own struggles and failed to create the practical conditions of control and decision in which consciousness could develop. They equally meant that disputes generally concerned individual workplaces or sectors of employment, with little effort being made to communicate with other proletarians, an omission that over time prevented the development of a wider movement and fostered a chasm of incomprehension between the workers who were frequently involved in strikes and other disputes and those, perhaps the majority, who rarely took action and for whom the actions of other workers were little more than a cause of irritating nuisances in everyday life and the inflation that constantly threatened their real income. Moreover, the proletarians who vigorously attacked their conditions of work did not extend that contestation to the rest of everyday life, tending indeed to seek refuge from the horrors of alienated work in the equally alienated consumption of the goods, spectacles and ideas that such work produced. Proletarian thought and desire continued to be captivated by the vast array of things, pleasures, tales and ideologies that advanced capitalism was producing in abundance and the spectacle everywhere offered to the gaze. Rather than practical questions of the revolutionary abolition of everything that exists separate from individuals, they were dominated at every turn by spectacular fantasies about domestic life, gardening, sport, royalty, crime, sex, drink, music, films, clothes, hairstyles, etc. The result was that proletarians’ theoretical understanding of capitalism and their own struggles against it was rudimentary throughout the decades down to the rise of Thatcherism. When finally confronted by the forceful Thatcherite argument that in order to continue enjoying the consumption it craved there was no alternative but to submit to economic restructuring, it had little practical answer to offer. It was all too obvious that its long-standing strategy of simply maximizing wages and minimizing work was a failure as a means of advancing individuals’ alienated interests within capitalism. Thatcherism was clearly onto something here. Yet it had developed neither the consciousness nor the unalienated forms of association from which a new strategy of resistance could develop and a rejection of capitalism and its economic logic emerge. What ensued for all too many was confusion, collapse or acquiescence, a surrender to Thatcher’s project or a retreat into nihilism, narrow self-interest, madness or despair.


However, Thatcherism cannot properly be understood merely as a grim demand for unconditional proletarian surrender. Amongst other things, it was also an ideology of liberation. As pseudo-revolutionary ideology, it attacked both the state (or at least those parts engaged in economic management) and the unions as separate hierarchical powers controlling the individual. It identified freedom with the unfettered making of choices within the market and the ownership of property, and equated adventure with the unsupported individual pursuit of market risk. It promised as the reward for initial sacrifice new, modern employment and a massive expansion of the universe of consumable desires with which the proletariat remained entranced. The proletariat was not beyond its seductions, perhaps especially as individuals and corporations unconstrained by the petit-bourgeois and patrician moralities of the Conservatives widened the opportunities within the world of work for the exercise of a degraded pseudo-autonomy and began to produce for consumption the elements of an expanded commodified hedonism, a hedonism that could even proclaim itself in opposition to Thatcherism. The resumption of increases in real wages for many, and the growing availability of credit, also served as temptations to the proletariat to seek happiness in the refurbished and expanded world of the commodity.


Needless to say, far from all proletarians succumbed to Thatcherite arguments. But proletarian resistance was hampered at every stage by its fatal entanglement with trade unionism. The Conservatives undertook a long series of reforms to industrial relations law, introducing measures that required pre-strike ballots restricted secondary picketing, etc. They and the employers they influenced also substantially reduced the extent of the collective bargaining in which unions played a prominent part. These measures, together with the loss of a sympathetic Labour government, produced timidity and malaise amongst trade unions and provided incentives for workers to pursue struggles autonomously. For example, the various industrial relations restrictions that were enacted were expressly restricted to trade unions and did not hamper wildcat actions. What the unions could not do under the industrial relations legislation, the workers acting themselves could. However, the distance between the unions and the proletariat was not sufficiently wide so as to allow workers to discard the unions with ease. The British proletariat has typically not waited for union approval before taking action, but it has relied on unions to a large extent to undertake negotiations on its behalf, translate its gains into agreements, offer it protection from reprisals, organize relations between workplaces, handle many mundane day-to-day matters, and even to bring it together as an acting collective in the first place. For all its dissatisfaction with unions, it has never wholly repudiated them in theory or practice. The notion that unions were an infuriatingly defective but nonetheless essential basis of workers’ struggles against employers weighed heavily on the proletariat throughout the 1980s and beyond, with the result that it repeatedly failed to take up the opportunities to cast aside the increasingly ineffective unions and pursue autonomous action. Instead, the inactivity and pessimism that had afflicted the unions was transmitted on to workers who remained stuck within them or found themselves unable to conceive practical means to proceed without them.


What did erupt in Britain was a series of riots. Beginning in the St. Pauls district of Bristol in April 1980, rioting later broke out in Brixton in April 1981 and then a growing number of town and cities in July 1981, including Liverpool, Manchester, Salford and Leicester. Often in response to police actions, rioting continued to recur in isolated outbreaks or larger waves throughout the following decade. Police were attacked, shops were looted, and cars and buildings destroyed. However, a riot suspends habitual behaviour and social relations only briefly. The important question is: what happens next? In the case of the British riots of the 1980s and early 1990s, the answer in practice was that there was a retreat to a wholly untransformed everyday life. The goods that were looted in defiance of the usual rules of the commodity economy, for example, were taken back into the separate and limited space that the commodity economy has granted to everyday life and then used in ways in complete conformity with the models of life the spectacle proclaims. The territory seized was returned to its owners and the state, who sooner or later reconstructed it in accordance with the needs of the commodity economy. Even when riots broke out later in the same or another place, there was no advance in the theory or practice of the rioters. The same things happened once again, with the same limited results.


There could be no advance in the rioters’ contestation of society outside of a critical understanding of what they had done and wished: without a continuous conscious refinement of their thoughts and actions. In the event, the rioters refused any encounter with revolutionary theory, with the thought that would allow them to explain to themselves what they were doing and then to take it further. This is not to say that they did not think at all about what they had done; it is just that that reflection was conducted almost entirely with the categories, desiderata, information and logic derived from the ruling spectacle. For all the practical lucidity the rioters may have shown in relation to some aspects of the dominant society, they remained satisfied or blind consumers of other elements of that society. They may have despised the police, schools, leftists and a few other prominent institutions of capitalist society, but they remained mired in the pseudo-rebellious seductions of the spectacle. Despite the economic difficulties of the times that had reduced the scale or number of mainstream businesses to the point where many young people could not secure employment, the spectacle continued to be everywhere in their lives. In particular, the spectacle of decomposition - the specialized spectacle that converts the failings of the system into consumable images, objects, modes of behaviour and justifications for cynical acceptance of the degraded world as inescapable – successfully held out its abundant seductions to marginal youth. What bound those youths who had gone beyond a respect for the law and the state to the dominant society were the models of happy pseudo-alternative life that the spectacle of decomposition offered. These models include codes of honour, gender roles, hierarchies, vocabularies of slang, pantheons of sub-cultural heroes, tastes for abstract intoxication and violent stimuli, constantly shifting lists of acceptably hip clothes and hairstyles, and associated criminal or other employments in which to work. They also contain various ideologies that claim that a submission to such external ways of thinking and acting, that a joyful embrace of marginal strategies of survival within capitalism, constitutes a living to the full qualitatively superior to the daily grind that everyone else engages in. The rioters wholly failed to critique their involvement in these non-mainstream modes of subjection. Indeed, as time passed, it seemed they grew only more and more caught up in them.


The riots had always been used by some as a platform on which to seek the approval of other members of subcultures who value the display of violent machismo; but increasingly the limited confrontations acted out by rioters seemed to serve little other purpose than flattering the pseudo-rebellious pretensions of hierarchical youth cultures and helping individuals create or maintain credentials within them. At their worst, as for example in the case of some of the riots that took place in various housing estates in the north of England during 1991, these violent encounters resembled less a conflict between the proletariat and the state than an internecine squabble between competing hierarchical powers equally intent in dominating the disputed territory and population for their own separate ends. In other instances, riots appear to have primarily arisen from a frustrated desire for the more turbulent forms of spectacular entertainment. Over time, the British economy has grown increasingly able to provide for the consumable preferences these rioters held on to. Former industrial towns, and other urban locations, have been converted into loci of a new night-time economy of consumable hedonism and mandatory intoxication. In vast corporate bars and the neon-lit streets around them, the taste for wild entertainment whose frustration by the underdevelopment of the economy once led it to seek its satisfaction in the explosions of Molotov cocktails and the other paraphernalia of directionless riots consumed as stimuli now finds realization in pneumatic music, brain-numbing binge drinking, barely-conscious sex, ritualistic violence against other proletarians, and the putative pleasures of vomiting cheap drink and bad food onto the pavement. There is also the expanded market for illegal drugs or the cheap thrills and gratifying displays of joyriding on offer. The latter has the air of defiance about it but it changes nothing in the reproduction of the commodity-spectacle society. It even serves as a useful means of re-associating car-driving with liberation, freedom and irresistible desire at a time when its reputation has been tarnished by the realities of Britain’s hopelessly overcrowded roads. Moreover, it helps inject new demand into both the saturated market for cars and the market for anti-theft devices and the police. The spectacle of threatening crime has for decades been an invaluable tool for worrying people into support for the state. Joy-riders dutifully act out the part of predatory nihilists in this law-and-order parable.


The rioters’ failure to develop a theoretical understanding of their actions affected their ability to communicate their dissatisfaction to other proletarians and find common ground with them. By saying nothing for themselves, they allowed their struggles to be presented to others by the spectacle. What could be seen in the spectacle was enough to encourage a few of those in an analogous social position to follow their example, hence the spread of the riots. However, the transformation of the society in which the rioters found themselves depended not just on other marginal youth but on the wider proletariat whose alienated labour produces the society. The proletariat in general appears to have regarded the rioters with disdain or indifference. They could see nothing in the riots that spoke to their own conditions and the rioters took no steps to illuminate them. By remaining silent, by refusing to engage in the production and communication of their own theory, the rioters thus ensured that their struggles would not spread beyond the strata of the proletariat in which they erupted and would not broadly challenge the dominant society. They thereby helped create the conditions of their own failure.


Another notable reaction to Thatcherism in the 1980s was the miners’ strike of 1984-5. A proposal to close 20 pits, with the loss of 20,000 jobs, vividly revealed the imperialist autonomy of the economy and offered the miners the opportunity to develop in response a conscious theoretico-practical refusal of the subjection of individuals to the economy such as might have brought together all of the proletarian dissatisfaction with alienation coursing beneath the surface of British society. However, this unification could not be brought about on the basis of a campaign for jobs or by way of the notion that the fate threatening the miners would soon afflict everyone else. By 1983, real earnings (i.e. earnings net of inflation) were again increasing and so too was the consumption of consumer durables and other commodities. Equally, the large majority of proletarians saw no reason to fear the loss of their own particular jobs (for example, in a national survey in 1986, 80% of workers said there was “no chance” that they would lose their job and another 5% considered such an eventuality to be very or quite unlikely). A critique that rejected unemployment and work, poverty and affluence, as equally repugnant expressions of the total domination of society by the economy was perhaps the only means by which the miners could speak to other workers and serve as a rallying point for all the fundamental disgust that capitalism produces and proletarians choke back. But this did not develop. Throughout a year-long strike marked by mass and sometimes violent pickets against a government and coal board that was determined to defeat them and was prepared to use vast financial and police resources to do so, the miners failed to disengage themselves from trade unionist ideology or even the National Union of Mineworkers that was handling the dispute with considerable pusillanimity and ineptitude. Aided by geographical isolation and the considerable dangers of the industry, mining communities continued to be characterised by a working class culture that had largely evaporated elsewhere in Britain in consequence of the mobility and multiple consumer identities fostered by advanced capitalism and its spectacle of what is possible and pleasurable. This old culture was a product of the defeat of the first revolutionary workers’ movements and promoted a wary, defensive but profound collective resignation to the inevitability of capitalism through an enveloping ethos of trade unionist solidarity and petty-bourgeois mores. In the 1984 strike, the road out of trade unionism lay through the contestation and supersession of this culture of proud abjection, of all of the ways of thinking and living of which it consisted. Although the long strike produced strains within mining communities, resentments toward the union, and some innovations, such as the greater involvement of women partners in the support of the strike, the miners did not initiate a root-and-branch assault on the culture that bound them to the union, and (aside for the scabs who sank below even trade unionism) they stayed largely loyal to it. The unions and its intellectual apologists spoke for the miners and did so in social democratic terms that had ceased to be credible years before, helping to ensure limited solidarity and comprehension on the part of other proletarians. Thus, for example, by the time the strike ended, 92% of respondents to a Gallup Poll were prepared to express disapproval of the miners’ methods and only 4% were in favour. Practical expressions of support beyond charitable donations were also limited. It would appear that proletarians took pity on the miners but were ultimately prepared to accept that the sacrifice of miners’ livelihoods and communities was inevitable, or even was one of the prices that had to be paid in order to secure an affluence that the miners had not called into question. They did not see the miners’ struggle as going to the heart of their own concerns. By remaining behind the union and staying within the constraints of the culture of which it was the centre, the miners ensured that they did not fashion a theoretical perspective or means of communication that could shake the indifference around them and link them to other workers and their miseries, leaving it only a matter of time before the government’s greater resources would prevail over their withdrawal of a labour that capital had decided to live without.

[This essay continues here.