Saturday, 23 December 2000

From "Straw Dogs"

By John Gray.

A generation ago, an obscure revolutionary group calling themselves Situationists inspired anti-capitalist riots that shook the capitals of Europe.

The Situationists were a small and exclusive sect, which claimed to possess a unique perspective on the world. In reality their view of things was a mélange of nineteenth-century revolutionary theories and twentieth-century vanguardist art. They took many of their ideas from anarchism and Marxism, Surrealism and Dada. But their most audacious borrowings were from a late-medieval sodality of mystical anarchists, the Brethren of the Free Spirit.

The Situationists were heirs to a fraternity of adepts that extended across much of medieval Europe, and which – depite unceasing persecution – persisted as an identifiable tradition for over five hundred years. The Situationists’ dream was the same as that of this millenarian cult – a society in which all things were held in common and no one was forced to work. In the early sixties, they enlivened student protests in Strasbourg with quotes from the medieval revolutionaries. During the events of 1968, they scrawled similar graffiti on the walls of Paris. Among the most memorable of these was Never work!

Like the Brethren of the Free Spirit, the Situationists dreamt of a world in which labour had given way to play. As one of them, Raoul Vaneigem, wrote: ‘Taking into account my time and the objective help it gives me, have I said any more in the twentieth century than the Brethren of the Free Spirit declared in the thirteenth?’ Vaneigem was right to see modern revolutionary movements as heir to the mystical anarchist cults of the Middle Ages. In both cases, their goals came not from science, but from the eschatological fantasies of religion.

Marx scorned utopianism as unscientific. But if ‘scientific socialism’ resembles any science, it is alchemy. Along with other Enlightenment thinkers, Marx believed that technology could transmute the base metal of human nature into gold. In the communist society of the future, there was to be no limit on the growth of production or the expansion of human numbers. With the abolition of scarcity, private property, the family, the state and the division of labour would disappear.

Marx imagined the end of scarcity would bring the end of history. He could not bring himself to see that a world without scarcity had already been achieved – in the prehistoric societies that he and Engels lumped together as ‘primitive communism’. Hunter-gatherers were less burdened by labour than the majority of mankind at any later stage, but their sparse communities were completely dependent on the Earth’s bounty. Natural catastrophe could wipe them out at any time.

Marx could not accept the constraint that was the price of the hunter-gatherers’ freedom. Instead, animated by the faith that humans are destined to master the Earth, he insisted that freedom from labour could be achieved without any restraints on their desires. This was only the Brethren of the Free Spirit’s apocalyptic fantasy returning as an Enlightenment utopia.

No comments: