Situationists and Absolute Negativity

From the March-April 2012 issue of News & Letters:

Philosophic dialogue

Situationists and Absolute Negativity

It was good to have Ron Kelch’s Essay, “Absolute Negativity, Occupy and Situationists,” in the Jan.-Feb. News & Letters open an overdue philosophic dialogue. As someone who discovered the work of Guy Debord and Raya Dunayevskaya at about the same time, I’ve given a lot of thought to their relation.

I consider Debord’s work, especially The Society of the Spectacle (1967), as valuable. Further, the Situationist International’s (SI) influence in the Occupy Movement is real. My first night at Occupy Chicago I heard SI slogans and ideas, even if the people using them didn’t know the history.

I like the way Kelch discusses the question in light of Absolute Method. The Occupy Movement needs to grasp its own logic in terms of second negativity—not only what are we against, and wish to destroy, but what are we for, and wish to create. This includes the dialectics of the American Revolution and the vanguard role of Black freedom struggles.

The dialogue with the ideas of the SI, particularly Debord, can also help with this, even if there is a distinction to be made between Debord and Dunayevskaya in terms of method. Marxist-Humanism has rooted itself in the idea that revolutionary Subjects’ activities, whether “labor, Women’s Liberation, youth, Black, etc.—will be inseparable from the meaning of that activity… because in meaning, i.e. philosophy, is both ground and roof of all we do, survey, strive for, as we prepare for that ‘revolution in permanence'” (The Philosophic Moment of Marxist-Humanism, p. 18).

This has always been the project of News and Letters Committees. The aim is for each to experience Absolute Negativity as Marx first grasped it in 1844—his philosophic moment.

Debord has a different approach. Rather than the Humanism of 1844, his writings are steeped in Marx’s cultural critiques, like the “Contribution to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” of 1843, and through them the section on “Culture” in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind. As Kelch points out, for Debord the workers’ councils the SI called for remained more a normative abstraction—although the SI’s impassioned and ruthless anti-Stalinism kept the abstraction potent, and they never compromised the idea of “freely associated labor.”

This was Debord’s specific route of approach to Marx’s “fetishism of commodities” in Capital, Chapter 1. What is most important for today is that Debord grounded the critique of capitalism and the “Spectacle” in an Absolute. As Dunayevskaya writes of the fetishism of commodities in Chapter 1 of Philosophy and Revolution: it “…cannot be relegated to a place ‘below’ the theory of value and surplus value. Or, for that matter, below other economic laws Marx analyzed—the law of the centralization and concentration of capital or the ‘general absolute law’ of capitalist development, the unemployed army, which bourgeois economists were not to concern themselves with till the Depression!” (Philosophy and Revolution, p. 83). Debord’s influence thus creates an important opening to discussion within Occupy Wall Street.

—Tim Finnigan

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