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The relevance of Situationist ideas to Anarchism and todays late capitalist society

category international | the left | opinion / analysis author Wednesday December 21, 2005 19:43author by Cian Lynch - WSM - Red and Black Revolutionauthor email wsm_ireland at yahoo dot com Report this post to the editors

The Situationist International formed in 1957 from two avant-garde groups. The Situationists are mostly known to anarchists as a group that had something to do with the May 1968 Paris Uprising. However, the Situationists played a relatively peripheral role in the disturbances. Although much of the graffiti that appeared around the city (some famous ones included : "Never Work" and "All Power to the Imagination") were taken from Situationist works, the group did not play a major role in initiating the revolt themselves.


The Situationists are mostly known to anarchists as a group that had something to do with the May 1968 Paris Uprising. However, the Situationists played a relatively peripheral role in the disturbances. Although much of the graffiti that appeared around the city (some famous ones included : "Never Work" and "All Power to the Imagination") were taken from Situationist works, the group did not play a major role in initiating the revolt themselves.

The Situationist International formed in 1957 from two avant-garde groups, COBRA, (a group that sought to to renew art, architecture, and the action of art of life), and the Lettrist International, a tiny, postwar neo-dada anti-art movement. The Situationists were an avant-garde group that took artistic and cultural revolution just as seriously as political revolution. Although the Situationists could be described as an "anti-art" movement, this needs qualifiers to properly clarify their position. The Situationist family tree begins with Dada, the anti-art movement formed in Zurich at the legendary Cabaret Voltaire.


Dada as a movement was wholly negative, rejecting entirely all the values of bourgeois society. Though Debord saw that it was Dada’s wholly negative definition that precipitated its almost immediate breakup, he did not seem to apply the lessons of Dada’s decline to the case of the Situationist’s own decline.


Surrealism, the art-form which followed on from Dada, sought to give expression to the unconscious, which, through techniques like automatic writing, would give the artist access to a previously untapped and what Andre Breton and fellow artists of the time believed to be an inexhaustible source of inspiration.

Unfortunately as Debord saw in his "Report on the Construction of Situations"(1957), "The error that is at the root of surrealism is the idea of the infinite wealth of the unconscious imagination". As Debord and the Situationists saw it, surrealism's great failure was that it "wanted to realise art without suppressing it" - thus surrealism eventually became a gallery-bound art movement far removed from its original ideal of transforming everyday life through art.

The Lettrist International

The Lettrist International, and later, the Situationists themselves, wished to destroy Art as a separate, special activity but only so it could be re-constituted as an integral, and indeed the driving force of life itself.

Anarchism and the Situationists

One the major differences between Anarchism and the Situationist project was the exclusiveness of the project itself. There were only 10 members at most at any time, and many were expelled by Debord very quickly, over what seem to be the utmost trivialities. For example, Constant, the utopian architect from Amsterdam, was expelled because a guy who worked with him built a church, this apparently was too disastrous an influence for him to continue to be associated with the project!

The Situationists were a lot more concerned with developing a strong theory and critique than building a network of people willing to work with them. It was more important to Debord and those in his close inner circle (Raoul Vanageim and Michele Bernstein) that they possessed this unassailable unity of theory and action, than if they were "corrupted" by members who did not fully understand the nature of the project. It has to be said that this uncompromising stance seemed often to amount to not a lot more than agreeing with all of Debord's ideas. Practical, real-world actions were risky for SI members since there seemed to be such a high likelihood they might be seen as"reformist" or not revolutionary enough, which would result in expulsion.

It is possible to view the Situationist project as one that attempted to initiate a new revolutionary project which greatly emphasised the importance of cultural revolution. In practice however, the Situationists functioned mainly as a group that, although they claimed to have moved beyond Dada's nihilism, engaged themselves primarily in a total critique of existing society and culture.

The idea of "The Spectacle" is central to the Situationist critique i.e - "All that was once lived directly has become mere representation". In our 21st Century culture of Reality TV Shows, Soap Operas and Concerts like "Live 8" watched simultaneously by billions worldwide, it might well be argued that we have entered a new era of the Spectacle, where its domination is more far-reaching and omnipresent than ever before.

The Situationists believed that the primary effect (indeed, the goal) of this "immense accumulation of spectacles" was to create the maximum level of alienation in workers' everyday lives. The Spectacle's overwhelming (indeed inescapable) predominance would also require "the downgrading of being into having". To bring this up-to-date one need take only a quick look at MTV programming - "Cribs", "Pimp My Ride" or magazines like "Stuff".

The legacy of Situationism can also be seen in the "Culture Jamming" movement, popularised by Adbusters, who have unfortunately reformulated their approach and now seek to create a new "grassroots capitalism" - seen most clearly in their production of the "guaranteed produced by union-labor" "Black Spot" Sneaker. The Situationist project remains of great relevance today to the Anarchist movement, since they remind us that if we are to have a political revolution, it should necessarily also be a cultural revolution, in which we eliminate the division between actor/musician and spectactor, to enable a wholly non-alienated society to emerge.

by Cian Lynch

This article is from Red & Black Revolution
(no 10, Autumn 2005)

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author by Anon..publication date Wed Dec 21, 2005 23:12author address author phone Report this post to the editors

For starters, the Situationists were about critiquing ideology-all ideology-so to speak of "situationsm" is absurd, there is no such thing nor has there ever been such a thing. Debord himself said that anyone who speaks of "situationism" can only be an enemy of the situationist project.

I also don't like how this article emphasizes the cultural/artistic aspect of the S.I., sure that's important to mention, but I think that that is way over-emphasized by commentators on the situationists, it is usually emphasized at the expense of the more interesting aspects of the S.I., particularly their espousal of council communism and attempts to update ideas with their origin in Marxian concepts.

Certainly the actual practice of the S.I. as an organization left much to be desired and is not much of a model, but what's really important is what they said; so what if Debord perhaps unjustly kicked people out of the group or it was not very libertarian in practice, really they don't exist anymore, we can however learn from what they said.

To say that the legacy of the S.I. is primarily evident in pathetic groups like "Adbusters" is to do a tremendous injustice to the situationist project, which is hostile to recuperative projects like "Culture Jamming."

With regards to May '68, the sits did not instigate, nor did they play a gigantic part in the actual events; but it is probalby fair to say that May '68 would not have happened like it did without the existence of the S.I.

All in all, I'd say that as an introduction the Situationists, this article did a pretty bad job. There are far better intros the S.I. out there, such as the CrimethInc one, which really makes things like this redundant.

author by Colin - Seattle-NAFpublication date Thu Dec 22, 2005 02:46author address author phone Report this post to the editors

There are some lacking elements of this piece. The SI had a much deeper analysis of society and culture than this article gives it. It was never a movement or an organization per se, but more so a thinktank. The characters associated with it are not of as much use today as the writing that came out of it. Personally, I still believe that they have the most cutting analysis of commodity culture that is out there. I'd recommend folks read The Revolution of Everyday Life to get a good understanding of what the SI was trying to get across.

author by *publication date Thu Dec 22, 2005 22:27author address author phone Report this post to the editors

for shame

that's where genisis of 68 can be traced back to

an awful lot of the 68ers referred to themselves as pro-situ

rts is straight up situationism as is the idea of derailing summits

simplistic article

author by davipublication date Fri Dec 23, 2005 01:15author address author phone Report this post to the editors

... unfortunatelly, have to agree that this piece is very simplistic.

it is usually a job of academics or pro-situ people to point out cultural/media aspects as a hard core of situationist international, it makes it´s heritage more suitable for a capitalist ideology ("yes, there are problems with tv, advertisanment etc., it is a legitimate critique within capitalism").

debord´s texts were based on marx´s analysis (although gilles dauve can be right that he focused too much on sphere of circulation and ignored crucial nature of productive process).

and adbusters and cultural jammers have nothing common with situationist international.

too simplistic and... propagandistic. :((

author by anonpublication date Tue Dec 27, 2005 10:39author address author phone Report this post to the editors

yeah, this was a really disapointing piece. Anyone who wants to get a proper analysis of the situs (I'd say the best written to date) is Gilles Dauve's "Critique of the Situationist International". Shows the best and the worst tendencies of the SI.

This article doesn't seem to show anything except how little the person writing it knows about the SI. I mean really, Adbusters!? Surely they're just the recuperation of Situationist ideas which the SI themselves said would happen.

author by Kim Keyser - Anarkismopublication date Wed Dec 28, 2005 07:47author address Oslo, No(r)wayauthor phone Report this post to the editors

Yeah, it IS a simplistic article. However it doesn't purport to be a new tome on the situationists or something like that. It's simply a short introductionary piece on the topic. Something I think it does a good job of conveying: it mentions their origins as avant-guarde artists, their small size and exclusiveness, their most important theoretical concept -the spectacle, what's important to learn from them, and how they've inspired groups like adbusters.

The author does not claim that S.I.s legacy is PRIMARILY evident in groups like adbusters, however quite a few adbusters have been inspired and influenced by the theory of the spectacle. And while abusters might be competing with the groups of esoteric academics and embittered situationist purists and experts to be the biggest groups who's been inspired of situationist theory, people should'nt scream and shout just because it was mentioned that adbusters have been influenced by situationism.

I'm especially disappointed if all that critique were from anarchists and libertarians, as we should be supportive of each other. Empowering each other includes making polite and constructive critiques, but not hollow critique (as I see it anyhow).

Personally, I agree with those who say there's more to learn from what they wrote than what they did, however I'm not one of those who're all that enthusiastic of all of their theory either -some is valuable reading, but some are rather redundant, difficult and not interesting at all.

One of their most important works -"The Society of the Spectacle" by Guy Debord- is a literary AND sociological masterpiece -a must read. Even though it contains quite a few vague and ambigous concepts and formulations. "The Joy of Revolution" may also be worth reading.

"The Revolution of Everyday Life" (which is what it's called in English anyway) however, didn't contain much interesting at all (I actually threw this book after reading it -which is what I do with all books which are not worth saving).

I guess it's a matter of taste and interpretation.

Personally I think the single most important writing of the S.I. was Rene Riesels article called "Preliminaries on Councils and Councilist Organization". In this text he makes important critizism of the council movements which have existed, encourages us to further reflect upon how/why they not reached their fullest political potential (why most of them were dominated by leaders etc.), and urges us to further try to specify how councils should be organised and co-ordinated -an area where we still have tremendous challenges in front of us:

"The notion of the "Council" must be specified, not simply to avoid the crude falsifications accumulated by social-democracy, Russian bureaucracy, Titoism, and even Ben-Bellism; but especially so as to recognise the insufficiencies so far outlined in the brief practical experiences of workers' councils in power, and of course in the conceptions of the revolutionaries who advocated them."

As he wrote: "The supersession of the PRIMITIVE [my capitalization] council form can only come from struggles becoming more conscious, and from struggles for more consciousness."

This latter still needs to be worked on(!)

Read Riesel's article at:

author by Cianpublication date Thu Dec 29, 2005 11:47author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Thank you for the interest in my little piece. Many of your criticism are valid and I acknowledge that. There are a few points I would make in my defense though :- the piece was slightly expanded from some brief notes I'd jotted down as a basis for educationals in our branches. As such it was originally composed more as a jumping off point for more extensive verbal descriptions rather than as a comprehensive piece unto itself. This is probably one reason why it now seems too simplistic.

I think you should also bear in mind I was allotted only 800 words by the editors to write this( I cheated and did 888), but it was almost impossible to provide a full overview. In any case, the piece was not intended as a potted history of the Situationist Project.The intention was to give a short history of their origins and then cherry pick what I had thought were the lessons to be learned by Anarchists from the Situationist Project.
The cultural ideas were what attracted me most so thats what i have focused on. While I'm given to understand that they were close to Council Communism in their politics, I have not read any SI material that has changed my "political" beliefs away from common or garden class struggle anarchism. Other people will of course have different ideas about which Situationist ideas were most relevant to anarchism.

t is true that Guy Debord considered those who used the title "Situationism" to be enemies of the Situationist Project. I think most Anarchists will have read enough from Debord though, to understand that the Situationist Project does not constitute some new ideology. "Anarchism" often provokes the same ideology/practice argument, which people are used to defending,
In any case, that particular title is just what Andrew has given for the title of the article here on the webpage. The original title I have in my notes here is "The relevance of Situationist ideas to Anarchism and todays late capitalist society".

Several People have also remarked on my focus on the internal operations of the SI :- specifically the way people were ejected from it without (what i believe) to be good reason. This was not an accident though :- I believe any group that is involved in spreading ideas about a more anarchistic society should "walk the way they talk" so to speak. In my view, it is not enough to put out some nice ideas about how we need to have a less alienating society if the organisation promoting these ideas is itself involved in abitrarily alienating and rejecting people from its own ranks. Libertarian ends require Libertarian means.
Lenin wrote many fine things about workers democracy and "all power to the soviets" but in practice it was a different story indeed. I dont want to take away from the value of Situationist Theory and Analysis but nevertheless I dont think this non-Libertarian aspect within the SI should be glossed over either.

As already mentioned by the previous poster, when I brought up Adbusters, I meant it as an example of the way some Situationist ideas have been recuperated by groups who the SI would have detested.
I was not suggesting they are the true heirs to the Situationist Project!!
However, I dont think it's true to say that Culture Jamming has nothing in common with the SI. If you read the wikipedia entry on "detournement", you will see that this well-known SI technique has indeed found its closest descendant in the culture jamming movement.

The Crimethinc article is good but it's nearly 2000 words, so obviously its going to be more comprehensive than mine.The Crimethinc authors approach is also problematic though. He bemoans the fact that words like "spectacle, detourn, derive," are used by those who have not read/understood the original SI texts but then goes on to say that " a straightforward, accessible, user-friendly introduction is in order."
Well I agree, but then why did Debord use such difficult and academic language in the first place? If you're read the Society of the Spectacle you'll know what I mean. The Crimethinc author may complain about intellectual elitism but the fact is that many publications of the SI were perfect examples of the worst kind of political/intellectual elitism, and made little attempt to speak in language that would be accessible to the ordinary "man on the street".
I do admire attempts to make their ideas more accessible (also the "spectacular times pamphlets") but I dont agree that the original SI thought this particularly important themselves.
In any case, anyone who wishes to explore the original sources can easily access almost the entire situationist oeuvre at

author by davidpublication date Thu Dec 29, 2005 21:48author address author phone Report this post to the editors

hi cian,

thanks for your point of view...

well, i think the main problem is...

"I was allotted only 800 words by the editors to write this..."

i still think thar cultural jammers just wrested off some superficial aspect of "si" (and many others do the same, postomodernist academics etc.)

for me personally, the most interesting thing is the debord´s focus on marx analyse of commodity and commodity fetishism - it is interesting to read debord and some first hundred pages of "capital".

anyhow, it is fine that anarchist magazine put attentions also to other tendencies, i know unfortunatelly many anarchists who don´t want to look from their "holy family".

take care

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