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

This essay continues from Part One, here.

"Gasping From Out the Shallows," Part Two

Wayne Spencer



From late 1945 until 1947, strikes in Polish factories were common, with the autumn of 1946 in particular seeing a huge mobilization in most of the major centres of industry. In the following years, the crude police terrorism and anti-worker laws of a state capitalist regime seeking to expropriate the totality of labour and social life for its own benefit managed from time to time to secure the disgruntled acquiescence of proletarians; but eruptions of discord and dissent repeatedly returned.

In the mid-1950s, wildcat strikes continuously disrupted Polish industry. In June 1956, workers in Poznań went further. Reacting to a refusal by party officials to address their economic concerns, some 75,000 marched on the city centre. Party, police and security buildings were attacked, prisoners were released and police dossiers destroyed, and barricades thrown up. Nearly three days of fighting with the security police and army followed. The party managed to suppress the Poznań uprising and to overcome a large wave of strikes in 1957; yet social peace eluded it.

In December 1970, a wave of violent conflicts with striking workers erupted, as thousands of workers around the country attacked party headquarter buildings and fought government troops; scores of workers were killed. This new peak of resistance, however, also produced developments that were to have disastrous consequences in the following decade. For the first time, factory occupations and inter-factory committees to exchange information and co-ordinate struggles came into being. In both cases, the organizational structures erected were not subject to the total control of the striking proletarians. An element of mediation and hierarchy emerged as a group of elected or self-appointed specialists began to carry out important aspects of struggles as separate leaders. These specialists in the organization of the proletariat came to conceive and pursue the project of creating a trade union.

Matters came to a head in August 1980. Price increases and the dismissal of Anna Waletynowicz, an admired veteran of the 1970 protests, provoked strikes in Gdańsk and Szczecin, which soon came to engulf almost the whole of each city, as well as spreading elsewhere on the Baltic coast. Lech Wałęsa and the other bureaucratic specialists who exercised control over the inter-factory committees entered into negotiations with the government for the legal right to form a trade union. A moment of choice had arrived for the proletariat: either take the management of its struggles back into its own hands and deepen its attack on the separate power of the state and economy or surrender to an organization that would negotiate in its name in the hope of improving the terms on which the economy and the state dominated it. In the event, the proletariat failed to act for itself and Solidarność (Solidarity) was born.


Solidarność accepted the legitimacy of both the state and the separate economy, aiming only to create a mediated voice for workers within production and a measure of independence within a banal daily life confined between the state and the economy. Its limited objectives inevitably brought it into conflict with a party whose logic required it to dominate every aspect of society. But the tendency of both its philosophy and its hierarchical structure of governing local and national committees was to reduce the proletariat to order-takers and spectators in any conflicts that might ensue with the state. It also discouraged the development of a critique that ranged over ever aspect of alienated life, whether economic, political or domestic. The road to self-managed revolution led directly out of the union. It was not taken. In the months that followed the foundation of Solidarność, Wałęsa’s attempts to secure control over the organization and moderate local struggles that threatened to go beyond what he felt the communist party would tolerate created conflicts and dissent within the union. However, these remained within the structures of the union and were often dominated by bureaucratic factions. Solidarność continued to be trusted by the large majority of the proletariat and it soon had ten million members.


On 13th December 1981, the Polish leader, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, declared Martial Law and the leadership of the national Solidarność movement was soon detained. This decapitation of the union provided an opportunity for autonomous organization and struggle by the proletariat, especially as the imposition of martial law left Solidarność’s strategy of collaboration with the state in ruins. However, although workers resisted the militarization of workplaces by sit-ins, occupations and physical force, and the period of martial law was marked by numerous protest and clashes with the authorities, these typically remained under the control and co-ordination of local Solidarność organisations or other equally hierarchical bodies. The habit of submission persisted after Martial Law was lifted in July 1983. In 1984 the Party ended the suspension of independent trade union activity that had been imposed at the outset of martial law and granted a legal right to strike. Solidarność itself remained proscribed but some union activists proposed to take advantage of the new conditions to form local unions and even a new national union.

The leadership of Solidarność discouraged both this union-building work and industrial action generally. It equally opposed local activists’ efforts to register local Solidarność unions after a general amnesty was granted in 1986 and the possibility of legal recognition of Solidarność was re-opened. Instead, the national leadership created first a Provisional Council and later a National Executive Commission, and adopted an increasingly free-market ideology.

The union was preparing for a capitalist solution to Poland’s economic problems that would centrally turn on subjecting workers to freer market forces. It was interested in workers’ struggles only insofar as they could be used as bargaining chips to advance its separate interests. More than this, as the state capitalist regime began to disintegrate after the communists’ disastrous showing in a round of free elections that had permitted in June 1989 in the characteristically delusional expectation that they the ruling party emerge triumphant, the Solidarność leadership was in effect preparing to assume power and commence the construction of a system of liberal capitalism. Strikes continue to break out in these last days of state capitalism, but the proletariat failed to look beyond its immediate conditions. The question of who was to dominate society in the post-communist era was now at large but only Solidarność and other advocates of the continuance of capitalism in another form were thinking at this level of theory and practice. The proletariat was crippled by its long years of alienated thought and action within hierarchical unions and committees, an alienation that left it bereft of the desire, the organization means, and the consciousness necessary to seize control of the society that was collapsing around it and was to be rebuilt outside and against it. It continued to share Solidarność’s fundamental acceptance of a separate economy, a separate state and an everyday life shaped by both. As new foundations for a different society were proposed and constructed, it lacked the theoretical consciousness and means of association necessary to contest the fundamentals of the new alienation. It was unable to begin a struggle against separation and for a self-managed society at the moment when the implosion of the dominant society opened history to its grasp. It was accordingly swept aside and left to quibble over the compensation to be offered for its continued exclusion from the conscious control of the socio-economic mechanisms for the making of history.SOUTH AFRICA


The Soweto uprising in 1976 marked an intensification of the struggle against the apartheid regime. At its most radical edge, the new movement of black resistance widely contested the various aspects of the white domination of society, rejected reformism and collaboration, and refused the mediation of the myriad bureaucratic parties in search of power, raising hopes that it would form one basis of a global revolution for self-management. Within a decade, however, it had been overtaken by reformist currents that it had failed adequately to critique and resist. One of the enemies it omitted systematically to confront was the array of civic associations, street and area committees, youth groups, churches, women’s organisations, religious groups, sports clubs, etc, to be found in the United Democratic Front (UDF) and beyond. These served as institutions and service providers for the black population that were separate from both the existing state and the people themselves. Through their insinuation throughout everyday life, they began to produce on a daily basis both the ordinary social relations of and practices of liberal bourgeois society and the ideology that justifies such dutiful submission to alienation as freedom. This anticipatory habituation to the thought and actions of submissive citizens of representative democracy did not, however, encourage acquiescence to the authoritarianism of apartheid, and perhaps for this reason appears to have eluded the opposition that it merited on the part of the radical wings of the South African revolutionary struggle. What was nothing more than training in how to confine oneself to the narrow and mediocre life that liberal capitalism permits was left unchallenged. The same blindness extended to another important current that served to contain and limit revolutionary struggle in that country, namely the trade union movement. Black South Africans were granted the right to join trade unions in 1979 and in 1985 the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) was formed, bringing together unions representing 500,000 members into a single federation. A series of huge strike waves, including general strikes in 1984, 1987, 1988 and 1989 that involved millions of workers, gripped the country. These crippled industry and shook the confidence of the ruling circles of apartheid society, but they were largely conducted at the instance and under the control of the union leaderships. Workers remained the followers of the thought and plans of separate powers. They developed neither an autonomous practice nor an independent practice, and there was little theoretical critique from the township radicals encouraging them to do so. More generally, although boycotts, rent strikes, and other forms of resistance to apartheid were sometimes pursued outside of the control or mediation of reformist organization and individuals, they confined themselves to applying pressure for a social change that it was left to others to carry out. Even the most radical currents were hampered by an exclusive focus on the racialization of power that deprived them of a coherent theoretical and practical opposition to separate power and alienation generally. When the South African regime began the process of moving the country towards a multi-racial capitalist democracy in 1990, proletarians were disarmed theoretically and passive in practice, doing nothing to interrupt or subvert a change that eliminated some of the vilest impositions of state racism but left untouched the fundamental domination exercised over everyday life by hierarchical power and the separate economy of the non-racial commodity. Having failed to notice the refurbished alienation in gestation everywhere around it, the proletariat was mystified, outmanoeuvred and subjugated when that alienation stepped forward to succeed apartheid and bring South Africa closer to the forms of liberal capitalist society dominant in the West.



The commodity-spectacle society has not ceased to extend its domination both intensively and extensively. As the productive power of capitalism grows, the spectacle uses the increasing technological, organizational and other resources available to it to banish from consciousness any conception of a society not dominated by the state and the economy. It everywhere equates all desirable or even possible human life with life in the society of the spectacle.


From the earliest moments of life, the myriad processes of parenting, entertainment, education, training, advertising, fashion, art, therapy, social work, etc, inculcate with ever-growing intensity the thoughts and feelings that take for granted separate power and the separate economy as inescapable givens of human existence. A growing mass of media pundits and academic experts from diverse fields urge or compel the spectators to dedicate more and more of his or her time to developing or assiduously maintaining the skills, looks and other attributes necessary for success in the reigning society. The spectacular images of mainstream or pseudo-alternative achievement do the same, but more subtly and without the disagreeable didacticism. In these ways, human beings are relentlessly shaped from infancy so that they possess the emotional and intellectual apparatus, the minds and bodies, necessary to serve the modern commodity and the state. Every other stated goal is a lie or a delusion.


In the world of work, employers increasingly seek to intensify the subordination of proletarians to work and the economy. This is not necessarily or mainly a matter of imposing crude authoritarian domination by management over every gesture of the worker, although in sections of the economy where that seems possible, as in some call centres, management may try to do so. It is also not necessarily a matter of simply speeding up the pace of work, although managements do seek to eliminate non-productive time as far as possible and to accelerate any activities characterized by relatively simple repetitive actions. It is more a case of reducing the subjective distance between proletarians and their work and demanding a closer attention to, and perhaps identification with, work process than hitherto. At a relatively coarse level, corporations typically promulgate ideological ‘visions’ of their own activity that they expect their workers to embrace and parrot. These have some success with the gullible, the desperate and the ambitious, but they are perhaps normally too obviously ludicrous and deceptive to be taken seriously by the average employee. Other processes are more important. In general, work has become in some respects more complex and faster changing, if only because of the reliance on new technologies. This not only requires greater thought and engagement with a given task but obliges the worker to acquire, update and display the technical skills required to carry out the job. Alongside this, the granting of a limited degree of autonomy to workers in some fields, which permits or requires them to take actions without prior direction by binding codes or direct management instruction, expropriates more of their imaginations and reasoning power from them and seeks to foster illusions of self-control. The ideology of ‘accountability’ that often accompanies this mirage of autonomy makes things still worse, promoting the assiduous documentation of work done and its craven display for the approval of superiors and in the hope of securing performance-related pay additions or avoiding sanctions. That said, the dominant society recognizes that these and other attempts by employers to ensnare the senses and souls of those whose work they expropriate are far from infallible. Thus the spectacle continues to circulate the ideology that work is wasted time and that relief, freedom or self-realization is to be found in the consumption of the delusive commodities capitalism produces and circulates. The drink, dance, drugs, etc, consumed in desperate abundance each evening or weekend suggests that there are many who still seek to persuade themselves of the truth of this proposition.


Another aspect of the spectacle’s escalating project to absorb the whole of the available space and time is the relentless and massive refashioning of the human and natural environment to accord with the interests of the commodity. Cities and countryside have been, and continue to be, variously reconstructed as homogeneous wastelands given over to industrial agriculture, suburban life, financial services, industry or the circulation of vehicles; as playgrounds for commodified desire and the display and consumption of cultural commodities; or as spectacular parodies or representations of elements of the past. Those who imagine or seek authenticity and community in these sometimes dour and sometimes gaudy wastelands burned over by the commodity merely betray a superstitious belief in ghosts.


The spectacle’s claim to the totality has even affected the world of the celebrity. The transcendental star still exists as an object of distant admiration. However, the spectacle’s stars have tended recently to descend from the skies. In reality-television programmes and the pages of celebrity gossip, the new celebrities are reassuringly familiar to the spectator. They perform their function of consolation in a manner different from the classical star: by demonstrating that even amongst those who are rich, famous, powerful, talented, influential, beautiful or just noticed, life is fundamentally the same as it is everywhere else. The celebrity has much the same mediocre thoughts, feelings, values, goals, neuroses, etc, as the spectator. There can be no escape. There is nothing else and can be nothing else. The miserable life of the spectator is confirmed as valid, even celebrated, by its ubiquitous reflection amongst the once-golden people. But stars can move from the mundane to the transcendental, and back again, as the needs of spectacular non-life require. The death of a star, for example, may be taken up as an opportunity for a ritualised indulgence in collective lamentation for a supposedly extraordinary person.


Central to the spectacle’s colonization of the society is the vast and diverse array of commodities that an expanded and more sophisticated production and distribution of commodities has made available (the American food industry alone launched 11,500 new products in 1992). The burden of inspecting, evaluating, discussing, purchasing and maintaining the mass of goods and ideas that individual spectacular ideologies put forward as constituting all or part of the good life serves to support the system by the simple device of occupying a considerable part of the spectator’s free time. But the importance of the sheer scale of consumption for the spectacle does not stop here. The spectacle rarely calls for craven surrender; it rather speaks of freedom and individuality. The world of consumption is the cornerstone of this lie. In the spectacle, it is the process of choosing amongst the competing commodities and commodified thoughts that constitutes the essence of liberty and self-determination, and the spectator is encouraged to take this rummaging amongst the dead for the free and authentic expression of his or her subjectivity.


The need to generate demand for a wider range of commodities, and recuperate the aspiration for life beyond the mundane, has seen the spectacle supplement the still-available models of adherence to tradition or duty with an increasing emphasis on fun and hedonism, on the equally dutiful pursuit of those thrills, pleasures, sensualities, derangements and ecstasies that can be contained within the separate domain of everyday life and mediated by commodities. Pleasure is not always revolutionary. It is now one of the central defences of the commodity-spectacle society.


The past 40 years have also seen a progressive expansion of the spectacle of decomposition, to the point where its litany of cruelties, humiliations, deaths, accidents, disasters, wars, illnesses, disabilities, peccadilloes, frauds, lies and other transgressions transfixes the appalled or delighted gaze of growing numbers of spectators. In general, this spectacle encourages the ordinary cynicism of the contemporary spectator who agrees that more or less everything is shit yet continues to find consolations in the life he professes to disdain and reasons to work and consume. It also provides heightened stimuli for the spectator who has grown weary of more ordinary varieties of nonsense.


The spectacle’s reign may be unchallenged but that does not mean that opposition is absent within it. The spectacle displays numerous false means and objects of struggle for the conscientious. Of course, the pseudo-opposition between liberal capitalism and state capitalism has now ceased to be the central organising divide of the spectacle of false political choices; however, innumerable hierarchical organizations proposing greater or lesser ameliorations of the dominant system beckon to those who seek to improve the world other than by destroying everything that exists separate from individuals. Capitalism is now systematically reformist, and all aspects of collective life are more or less constantly under investigation by experts or amateurs with a view to their renovation and improvement as parts of the system of alienation. This does not mean that all reformists expressly accept capitalism, even if many do. The World Social Forum and the rest of the anti-globalization movement, for example, bring together various groups and projects that combine sometimes virulent expressions of opposition to the dominant society with programmes that leave the fundamental separations of that society untouched. One way or another, the spectacle never fails to have at hand an unending stream of urgent matters that appear to be sufficiently pressing to justify collaboration with elements of the dominant society and a deferment of fundamental change that by a quirk of history always turns out to be perpetual. The war in Iraq is an example. The calls for demonstrations (or other equally alienated forms of protest) are endless. The spectator is encouraged by leftists to join a shuffling column of passive, separated individuals that has been organized by others to shout idiotic clichés at leaders for the benefit of leaders who have decided in advance not to listen (and of course the mass media). The purpose of the protests is typically to bring an end to a war that the dominant society would happily live without and perhaps challenge a “neo-liberalism” whose crime, here as elsewhere, is to pursue the interests of the hegemonic economy without the benefit of humanistic means for the pacification of the population and mechanisms to redistribute some of the worthless wealth of a society of alienation to the poor. The fundamental alienations of a society that makes life barely worth living at home, and that would equally ensure that the lives of Iraqis preserved by peace would pass away in mediocre separation from history, are not attacked. They only grow stronger from the inattention.


In recent years social science has taken an increased interest in questions of the “quality of life” or “happiness”. This branch of scientific inquiry may be understood as studying the factors that are associated with people’s propensity to deceive themselves or others into thinking that they are content with their lives. Typically it is found that some 80-95% of respondents in the advanced industrial countries profess themselves happy and satisfied. These results, which resemble the plebiscites in authoritarian regimes that inevitably deliver huge proportions in favour of whoever happens to be in charge at the time, perhaps illustrate the desperate attempts that people make to associate their lives with the mirages of contentment that the spectacle spreads across society. But neither everyday experience nor dialectics should be forgotten. As successful as the commodity-spectacle society has been in preserving itself to date, the mediocre existences that its superabundant goods and ideologies inevitably deliver continue to exist as a source of dissatisfaction. There is also the fundamental and stark contradiction between what the dominant society can do and the possibilities that the state of knowledge and technology in principle make available to humankind. Even some social scientists have begun to talk of “affluenza” or other mysterious syndromes of faltering contentment amongst well-off consumers. And entrepreneurs of goods and ideas have for some years promoted “down-sizing”, spiritual practices, alternative tourism, green products, and other consumable means of expelling whatever epiphenomena of alienation that ideologue at hand claims to be evils of consumption. Some contemporary dissatisfaction with consumerism remains superficial, as yet expressing nothing more than a wish for a reform of alienated work and consumption to make it less authoritarian, ecologically damaging, time consuming, etc. Other elements have, or may come to have, a more profound discontentment as their basis.


One imperative for revolutionary theory in the early twenty-first century, an objective to be pursued as much in relation to the theorist’s own life as for wider social phenomena, is to resume the task of identifying the dissatisfactions that strike at the roots of contemporary alienation, criticizing the points at which the individuals concerned are entangled with alienated goals and means, and generally encouraging a more conscious, consistent and effective expression of autonomous revolutionary contestation. Nothing, however, can be gained by indulging in wholly archaic leftist fantasies about the economic failings of capitalism and the revolutionary potential of struggles to defend or improve the wages and working conditions of workers. For example, during the 2006 struggles over the Contrat Première Embauche (CPE or First Employment Contract) in France, a group of strikers from Saint-Nazaire issued a leaflet that claimed that, “we are fighting against a law aimed at totally destroying the rights of working people […], a ‘modernization’ designed to take us back to the conditions of near slavery suffered by workers and unemployed people in the nineteenth century” (To People in Other Countries, 3 April 2006; an English translation by Ken Knabb is included in his online Documents from the Anti-CPE Uprising in France). These notions, which were also propounded by others, constitute empty rhetoric that detaches the authors from the realities of contemporary labour for the majority of the proletariat in the advanced capitalist nations. The British example may be instructive in this connection. The first Thatcher government introduced a law that exempted people who had worked for less than two years from protection against unfair dismal, a measure quite similar to the proposed CPE. There was no return to nineteenth century conditions in Britain in the following years. In fact, real wages increased (the total wage and non-wage costs paid by employers less inflation increased in the British private sector by 53.3% between 1975 and 2002). More pertinently, permanent jobs (mostly full-time) remain the dominant form of employment decades later, with only 5.5% of all employees being in temporary work. As regards average hours of work, these levelled off at the start of the 1980s after a long period of steady reduction, but have not increased since (and may even have decreased once again in recent years). Of course, the intensity of work has increased but hardly to the levels experienced in Victorian times. To assert otherwise is to betray a profound ignorance of Victorian working conditions. Finally, it is not without interest to note that the neo-liberal Blair government actually reversed the Thatcher two-year rule. This should not come as a surprise. Unfair dismissal rules serve a useful purpose for capitalism. In the words of a textbook on British employment law: ”Some important elements of modern employment law were introduced originally in order to help reduce the need for strikes to occur. The major example is unfair dismissal law which originally dates from 1971 when the government was especially concerned with the negative impact on productivity caused by localised, ‘wild-cat’ strikes precipitated by the apparently unjust dismissal of colleagues” (Stephen Taylor and Astra Emir, Employment Law: An Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2006; page 13). Given this conservative function, which is not restricted to Britain, is it any surprise that the bulk of the protesters abandoned their actions when the CPE was preserved and declined to mount an assault on capitalism?


Precarious employment and poor wages undoubtedly exist within advanced capitalist economies; but they are minority conditions, and even those who suffer from them are relentlessly exposed to the dominant spectacle and its ideas of life, happiness and escape. In general, the functioning of advanced capitalism typically depends on relatively stable employment, high wages and extensive consumption. One conclusion to which the experience of the last 40 years points, I would suggest, is that any theoretical and practical critique that fails centrally and totally to repudiate the well-remunerated labour and massive consumption on which the advanced economies rest, that confines itself to pursuing increased wages and more bearable work, pushes out of sight and mind the actual poverties of everyday life and leads back to the alienation of life and labour from whose practical acceptance it has never escaped. Of course, the smallest of daily insults, humiliations or hypocrisies can open a person’s mind to the nature of contemporary society and serve as a point of departure from the illusions and satisfactions of the spectacle. However, a point of departure must precisely be departed from, and quickly, if the individuals concerned are not to find their thought and practise imprisoned within the endless disputes and debates whereby the society regulates its functioning and determines the distribution of the resources it expropriates. There can be no revolution except the modern. The predicament of the proletariat is not that capitalism is proposing to take away its highly-paid jobs and the commodities that these buy but rather that it proposes perpetually to force it to accept these substitutes for real life and nothing else. The sense that the best that global capitalism can in principle offer would never be enough lies at the beginning and not the end of revolutionary consciousness and revolutionary struggle.

March 2007

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The author can be contacted at aqrj35(at)dsl.pipex.com.