A Look at Some of the Reactions to “Public Secrets”
Bureau of Public Secrets, PO Box 1044, Berkeley CA 94701, USA
Most of the responses to Public Secrets: Collected Skirmishes of Ken Knabb (1997) have been favorable, sometimes enthusiastically so. But they have generally been too brief to call for any comment. In the present text I’m going to reply to some of the more substantial critiques of the book, coming from two American anarchist publications, a British ultraleftist journal, and a French situationist.
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The most hostile review, written by the anarcho-primitivist ideologue John Zerzan, appeared in the Missouri journal Anarchy. For reasons that will become apparent below, Zerzan’s misrepresentations seem to be intended primarily to dissuade people from reading the book.
His main theme is that I am stuck in the past and that my writings are outmoded:
One of the most striking things about this hefty volume, Ken Knabb’s magnum opus, is how firmly it is stuck in the past. Intelligent and articulate, Knabb is, above all, a card-carrying Situationist. And time has evidently stood still for him since the Situationist International disbanded in 1972.
This is a rather odd criticism to hear from someone who is himself constantly harkening back to the marvels of prehistoric times.
He goes on to claim that I advocate a society based on “classic workers’ councils” and that despite my radical intentions I am actually in favor of preserving practically all the basic features of the present social order. In reality, workers councils are evoked in Public Secrets simply as one of the suggestive experiences of the past that can help us envision the problems of popular self-organization that any nonhierarchical revolution will have to face, particularly during the period of transition from the old society to the new. The book makes it clear that this is just the beginning of a process that will soon lead to such a different society that about the only thing we can be sure of is that it will surpass any predictions — including, above all, that it will be far more diverse than anybody’s pet ideas of what an ideal society might be like: “Different communities will reflect every sort of taste — aesthetic and scientific, mystical and rationalist, hightech and neoprimitive, solitary and communal, industrious and lazy, spartan and epicurean, traditional and experimental — continually evolving in all sorts of new and unforeseeable combinations” (Public Secrets, p. 63). It’s hard to believe that Zerzan is talking about the same book:
In common with other prescriptions for self-management, Knabb’s puts the emphasis on democratic process while overlooking what it is that’s being managed. It really adds up to self-managed alienation, because it is worker control of essentially the same basic system we now endure, minus, it is hoped, excesses like war, famine, and Kathie Lee Gifford. The social landscape that Knabb outlines would employ “credits” instead of money, but otherwise it wouldn’t be qualitatively different from what exists now, including specialized expertise and computerized “coordination of global production.”
This flippant dismissal makes Zerzan sound very radical. He, presumably, advocates simply abolishing all alienation, all specialized expertise and all coordination of production (or perhaps all production, period), although it remains somewhat unclear how he would go about this. If people like Zerzan rarely specify how they imagine various practical matters could be dealt with in a postrevolutionary society, the secret is that despite their extremist rhetoric most of them do not really believe that a revolution is possible. As I note in the book:
Those who proudly proclaim their “total opposition” to all compromise, all authority, all organization, all theory, all technology, etc., usually turn out to have no revolutionary perspective whatsoever — no practical conception of how the present system might be overthrown or how a postrevolutionary society might work. Some even attempt to justify this lack by declaring that a mere revolution could never be radical enough to satisfy their eternal ontological rebelliousness. Such all-or-nothing bombast may temporarily impress a few spectators, but its ultimate effect is simply to make people blasé. [Public Secrets, pp. 31-32.]
But here we come to the main reason for Zerzan’s resentment:
Knabb avoids any substantial discussion of critical thought in the 25 years since the S.I. signed off. . . . [He remains] resolutely in the dark about the considerable deepening of analysis that has taken place.
If one wonders what this “deepened” analysis consists of, the list of issues I am reproached for ignoring (“the division of labor, symbolic culture, domestication, Progress, and industrialism, among others”) makes it clear enough that Zerzan is referring primarily to his own works. Now, although I consider Zerzan’s “critical thought” too silly to bother criticizing in any detail, it happens that Public Secrets does include a brief debunking of the trendy technophobia of which Zerzan is one of the more dogmatic examples (see pages 79-83 [Technophobic Objections]). Instead of mentioning this attack on his ideology and trying to answer it (which he would be incapable of doing), Zerzan tries to give the impression that I was simply oblivious to these issues.
Since he can hardly get away with this around anyone who has actually read Public Secrets, he scrupulously avoids mentioning anything that might incite someone to read it. The only thing he says about the earlier texts is that they were mostly written in the 1970s, as if that sufficed to demonstrate that they could have no conceivable interest. Of the two new texts, his “review” does not so much as mention the autobiography; and nothing is said about “The Joy of Revolution” beyond the few lines I have quoted, though in a lame effort to appear fair-minded he sprinkles in some faint praises of my literary merits (even if I am clueless, I am “not ineloquent”).
In sum, a 400-page book — the most extensive documentation of situationist activity in the Western hemisphere, including several texts that Anarchy itself had previously thought worth reprinting and featuring two new texts full of challenges to anarchists and to the whole radical movement — is dismissed in less space than the magazine routinely devotes to reviewing some forgettable pamphlet or responding to some inane letter to the editor.
The other contributors and editors of Anarchy apparently found nothing in Zerzan’s review to seriously disagree with. With the exception of a letter from a reader (who, though himself pretty fervently antitech, felt moved to object to a few of Zerzan’s more glaring falsifications), there has been no further mention of Public Secrets in the magazine during the past three years.
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It is interesting to compare the technophobes’ response to Murray Bookchin. When Bookchin’s critique of technophobic, primitivist and antirationalist tendencies in the anarchist milieu came out (Social Anarchism versus Lifestyle Anarchism, AK Press, 1995), they devoted two full books plus dozens of articles and leaflets to trying to answer him. Bookchin’s critique was erratic enough that they were able to drown out the valid kernel of his criticisms by attacking his weak points in other regards (reformism, academicism, etc.). They apparently did not find my criticisms so easy to deal with.
The Detroit paper Fifth Estate, for example, hesitated two years before making any significant public response to Public Secrets. In contrast to Zerzan’s piece, the Fifth Estate review does at least give a general idea of what the book is about. After noting several features that they more or less approve of, they come to my ”rant against technophobes” and attempt to answer it.
Knabb mistakenly asserts that everyone antagonistic to technology foresees “the return of a primeval paradise.”
When challenged, the technophobes often attempt to evade criticism by stressing that they don’t completely agree with each other. (Trotskyists could just as justifiably claim that it’s unfair to lump them with Stalinists.) Here Fifth Estate presumably wants to dissociate itself from the more extreme Zerzan-type tendency. But the fact that Zerzan wants to return to 500,000 BC while Fifth Estate only wants to go back somewhere or other before the Industrial Revolution does not alter the fact that this whole pastward orientation represents an evasion of present problems.
His worry that technophobic authoritarians will one day outlaw airplanes, telephones and automobiles in a post-capitalist egalitarian society is misplaced.
Public Secrets does not express any worry about “technophobic authoritarians,” or even contain any mention of such a term. On the contrary, as I noted on pages 79-80, if it ever comes down to a practical matter (i.e. if we are ever fortunate enough to find ourselves in a liberated society), even the most fervent technophobes will probably have enough common sense to abandon their ideology and join with their neighbors in figuring out what is the most appropriate technology in any particular situation. The problem is that under present conditions, where confusion reigns to such a degree that most people can’t even conceive of a rational society, this ideology can persist like so many other popular delusions because it never comes close enough to reality to be refuted. And like all ideologies, it reinforces the present social setup by deflecting attention from real possibilities to change it.
These objects [airplanes, telephones, automobiles] will disappear because “operatives” for the factories, steel mills and mines — even self-managed ones — won’t be available. Without being coerced, it’s unlikely anyone would spend a single hour in such environments.
It is strange to find myself having to explain basic anarchist positions to anarchists. When asked how an anarchist society would work, anarchists have always replied that once people are freed from political and economic repression they will have a strong tendency to voluntarily cooperate in order to take care of whatever needs doing; and that they are likely to be far more creative in resolving any difficulties that may remain. The anarcho-technophobes seem to have abandoned this belief. In their view, apparently, people in a postrevolutionary society will be more concerned with maintaining their purity from any taint of “industrial alienation” than with helping each other or even taking care of their own basic needs. When I envision a reduced but continued use of airplanes for certain kinds of urgent shipments (e.g. transporting food or medical supplies to some region of famine or natural disaster), Fifth Estate seems to imply that such disasters must be left to take care of themselves because any large-scale organization is doomed to bureaucratization. (“Once ‘urgent’ priorities as well as rationing exist, can an administrative cadre be far behind?”) The creativity of postrevolutionary people will apparently be as limited as their compassion: If some things are now produced in an alienated way (under conditions of capitalist exploitation), Fifth Estate seems to find it inconceivable that liberated people might notice the problem and figure out some different, more sensible and pleasant way to manage (e.g. by producing fewer of them, modifying them so they’re easier to make and repair, automating most of the labor, and sharing the remaining necessary tasks more equitably).
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While the anarchists regret that I am so stuck in traditional ultraleftism, the British ultraleftist journal Aufheben considers that I incline too far toward “bourgeois individualism.”
The Aufheben article begins by acknowledging some of the contributions of the situationists, particularly their critique of militantism. Aufheben feels, however, that one mustn’t carry this critique too far. In this context, my book is seen as illustrating the dangers of laying too much stress on “radical subjectivity.”
Ken Knabb’s Public Secrets illustrates the self-obsessed nature of the situationist milieu after the heady days of 1968. . . . Consistent with the rejection of the role of “the militant” and compulsive hack-like activism, the Knabb book, as an account of the “second wave” of situationists in the United States, is notable for its lack of references to the routine meetings and ongoing activism familiar to many of us. For example, when he had finished editing the Situationist International Anthology, instead of involving himself in another struggle, Knabb took up rock-climbing. . . . Was Knabb burnt out after editing the Anthology, or were there really no struggles going on around him at that time in which he could usefully participate?
One is almost reminded of the old Maoist exhortations to Serve The People. No doubt I could have made myself “useful” in any number of other worthy struggles. But I think people generally do best to concentrate on one or two projects that they’re really interested in, to which they’re willing to devote the necessary time and energy, rather than guiltily responding to every issue that presents itself and getting so burned out that they often end up abandoning any radical activity whatsoever (as has happened with so many of my contemporaries).
The article goes on to give a somewhat caricatural account of situationist interpersonal relations. I admit that the situ scene has contained its share of foolishness. But Aufheben is able to poke fun at our follies in large part because we intentionally brought our practices into the open where they could be examined and criticized; if other radical currents were not so discreet about these matters, we might note equally embarrassing contradictions among them. What Aufheben ridicules as “introverted theorizing about theorizing” was simply our effort to pay attention to interconnections between social and psychological repressions that affect anyone engaged in radical activity, including the comrades of Aufheben, as they might recognize if they stepped aside from their “routine meetings and ongoing activism” long enough to take a look at their own lives.
Knabb’s “The Joy of Revolution” is not meant to be original; rather it is a somewhat didactic but readable introduction to the “common sense” of non-hierarchical revolutionary theory, intended for readers not otherwise convinced.
To read this rather patronizing approval, one might suppose that practically everyone already knew all about these things. In reality, of course, the vast majority of the population is far from convinced of the feasibility of such perspectives, and in most cases has never even heard of them. Moreover, anyone who reads ultraleftist publications like Aufheben soon becomes aware that they are not only didactic but usually unreadable. Whatever new insights they may have are drowned out by their boring repetitious rhetoric; in every article and every tract they are constantly harping on the same old lessons — this or that event offers yet one more proof that capitalism is alienating, that unions are counterrevolutionary, etc., etc. They apparently don’t feel that their readers are already “convinced.”
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If the anarchists and the ultraleftists consider me too situationist (though for quite different reasons), the situationists themselves have often seen me as rather heretical. To mention the most obvious example, my 1977 pamphlet The Realization and Suppression of Religion was an almost unheard-of challenge to the whole situ scene from within. The diatribes by Michel Prigent reprinted at the end of Public Secrets give an idea of the more delirious reactions it provoked. A more sophisticated response can be seen in a letter from Jean-Pierre Baudet, a Parisian situationist of fairly orthodox vintage (author and editor of some Champ Libre books and sometime acquaintance of Debord). Like most French situs, Baudet was disconcerted by my breach of the situationist taboo against religion, but realized there was enough substance in the pamphlet that it could not simply be dismissed. Twenty years later the issue has not gone away.
Baudet begins by admitting that I correctly pointed out the continued vitality of religion where traditional “materialist” radicals (including the situationists) had complacently declared that it was on the verge of dying out:
No doubt that religion is a question that has to be faced nowadays for the very simple (although deplorable) reason that on different levels and in various modes, religion did not pass away, as could be possibly fancied (and hoped) some decades ago. . . . The Realization and Suppression of Religion was written in 1977 from an American point of view, I mean out of a country where the society of the spectacle was already fully developed, and where it was already obvious that some new kinds of religion (sects) were not (as could be wrongly believed from a European perspective) a mere compensation for an uncomplete degree of spectacle, and accordingly destined to disappear, but that on the contrary both, completely developed spectacle and religion, proved to be joint phenomena, able to coexist. . . . But should this not have led to an analysis somehow deeper of the question: what kind of religion passed away, and what kind stayed?
Baudet goes on to discuss different aspects of religion, concluding that I overemphasize its more modest and legitimate “therapeutic” aspects. But my pamphlet was not an attempt to cover the broad historical questions he evokes, however interesting they may be. The main purpose of the pamphlet was to confront the situationist movement with some glaring problems in its own theory and practice. I raised the “religion question” because I felt that the situationist blindspot regarding religion was intimately connected to these problems. The contrast between the situationists’ dialectical attitude toward art and their undialectical attitude toward religion was glaring. The subversive originality of the situationists stemmed to a great degree from their recognition of both the positive aspects of art (art as terrain of creativity) and its limits (its channeling of creativity into limited frameworks); so that the revolutionary project could be seen as involving the simultaneous “realization and suppression of art” through the extension of creativity into all aspects of life. In an analogous way, I believed that one could consider religion, despite all its obvious elements of bullshit, as a terrain where certain basic questions (ethics, personal integration, social communion, meaning of life) have been posed most profoundly, though within limited (and usually pernicious) frameworks. By totally dismissing religion, the situationists remained oblivious to experiences and perspectives that could have been helpful, and fell by default into a crudely “egoistic” outlook that encouraged the adoption of silly neo-aristocratic roles and left them at a loss when things didn’t go as they had expected.
None of these matters are discussed by Baudet, though he himself has been in a good position to experience the problems I called attention to. Rather than asking himself if the issues I raised might have some bearing on these problems, he flatly declares that there is no possible connection:
You tried to conciliate people and activities (Buddhism and critical activism) which have nothing in common, and which cannot have anything in common.
I’ve received exactly the same complaint from the radical Buddhists I have criticized, who cannot imagine how my “divisive” confrontational tactics can be reconciled with the Buddhist values to which they cling.
I don’t think that any of your European readers could approve this part of your book publicly, and as for myself, I would have of course to repudiate it at the first occasion. I suppose you are aware of such consequences, and would like to know your comment.
Baudet has since ceased all communication with me, presumably on the basis of these religious aspects since he has never objected to any other part of the book. So far, however, neither he nor any of the other disapproving European readers have criticized the book publicly. I invite them to do so.
This text is also published in print (copies free on request). For the reviews discussed above, see Selected Opinions on the Bureau of Public Secrets (2). For further discussion of the technology issues, see The Poverty of Primitivism.