Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle | Will Self 

Guy Debord

“What other text from the 60s so accurately describes the shit we’re in?’ – Will Self on Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle. Photograph: Situationist International

Will Self takes a walk through the banlieues of Paris and is astonished by the prescience of Debord’s 1967 masterpiece, which so accurately describes ‘the shit we’re in’

A small green tent was pitched on the small daisy-spotted patch of greenish grass. It looked tidily enough done; suitable perhaps for a summer rock festival. But this was just outside the Saint-Gratien RER station, north of the rundown riverine port of Gennevilliers, on the outer whorl of the Parisian fingerprint; and the tent – which had the limp-wristed bough of an evergreen touching its flysheet in benediction – was quite clearly being lived in.

The mental picture the non-Parisian has of the city’s banlieues is framed by the fictive: gangster movies such as La Haine, or TV cop shows such as Spiral that do battle with similar Danish, Swedish, British and, of course, American vehicles, in a race to see which can sandblast its respective society with the greatest quantity of grit. But within this framing, content and dimensionality are provided by recent history, and in particular by the widespread rioting of 2005 that thrust these under-imagined locales on to TV screens worldwide. Not since the événements of 1968 had Parisian street fighting commanded such attention, but whereas the soixante-huitardscould be characterised as the vanguard of a stillborn revolution, the young second-, third- and probably fourth-generation immigrants who chucked molotov cocktails at the flics and the CRS during the émeutes neither donned, nor were measured up for, any such ideological camouflage.

Instead, the violent eruption of the Parisian banlieues was anatomised by reference to a body politic sickening with pathological metaphors. Implicitly, explicitly … ineluctably, the rioters were the Muslim Other, which, having been almost accidentally ingurgitated as part of the colonialist couscous, was now playing havoc with Gallic digestion. The French state had found itself – willingly or not – as a fellow-traveller on the neocons’ coach trip to the rapturous intersection of medieval chiliasm and Fukuyama’s neoliberal end-point.

Walking from the RER station towards the Seine, I passed not through what the fictive might lead you to expect, but rather low and hummocky hills, the swoop of a B-class road, outcroppings of commerce, small apartment blocks, car parks, duff public sculpture, off-cuts of quasi-open space – over it all an ambiguous miasma of street furniture and signage: this was France, certainly, but a France at once decoupled from any sense of pays, and divorced from the least suggestion of the urbane. In a comparable district of London – picture, if you are able to, Ruislip or Hounslow, Abbey Wood or Enfield – there would be myriad subliminally registered cues, all of which would combine to force on the spectator the unavoidability of her metropolitan condition. In London, the interwar spread of municipal socialism through the arteries of the tube system was accompanied by the soft-modernism of the suburban stations and Harry Beck’s matching diagram, which completes their connectivity. In London, the map really is the territory, because the territory really is the map. Not here.

The vexed relationship between the map and the territory suffuses The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord’s 1967 masterpiece, which argues that not only authentic social relations, but even the bricks and mortar that frame them, and the tarmac that connects one to another, have all been replaced with their representation; a 1:1 scale model. Moreover, for Debord, as a sequel to the paralysis of “historical development”, the contrast between town and country has become submerged in a sclerotic suburbia. He is at pains to point out that this annulling is no cod-utopian “supersession” but rather an “erosion … visible in the eclectic mélange of … decayed elements”.

From the beige depths of a heavily shuttered house beside a hillock from which I could spy the Eiffel Tower, a deep, dark voice spoke: “Qu’est-ce que vous cherchez?” I suppose, had I been the ghost of Jane Jacobs I would have experienced this as reassurance: the eyes, even if unseen themselves, remained on the street. But, instead, I muttered pacifications: “Nothing … just having a look … about”, then walked on down and around the hill through a scree of crushed fag packets, centrifugally impelled aluminium trim and the petrified tears shed by long dead cars. Dragon’s teeth were sewn across the scabrous roadway – I queased between them and found myself within 100 metres of the riverbank. The A15 soared overhead: two pilotisplanted this side of the river, the next pair on the far bank, its two carriageways separated by curved air. Up there was the city, conceived of however you so pleased. Down here, however, was this un-place, an inter-zone, under-imagined and thus free to be itself. Sprays of cherry blossom mimicked by tangles of wire and a shaggy pelt of weedy grass. Two small brown kids sat beside an oblong concrete depression filled with dank water, one had her hair tied in pigtails. They were playing with tin cans, cups and a bucket. Beyond them, right on the river’s edge was their Paris: a bidonville of shacks built from bits of scavenged packing cases, plastic tarpaulin, car tyres and all sorts of other stuff.

Many of its most sympathetic readers experience The Society of the Spectacleas a concerted howl of disgust. I cannot agree – for me it is the Spectacle that, far from being the creation of some malevolent or false god, emerges instead as the hero of the piece, inasmuch as any hero can be conceived of as the unconscious product of insensate historical processes. The Spectacle, Debord writes, “is the heart of the unrealism of the real society”. We are all jammed up against the plate glass of the Spectacle, our faces crushed as we “lèche-vitrine” in search of the same old commodified poison.

The entirely manmade nature of the world from which the individual subject experiences alienation is not, for Debord, a factual programme to be passively viewed on the TV screens of the global village, but a belief that is actively entered into. It is the genius of Debord to have characterised the totalising capability of late capitalism so early in its post-industrial manifestation. The Society of the Spectacle reads – if you will savour a cliche – as fresh as paint. Debord’s analysis of time itself as a series of epochs is dizzying: such “pseudo-festivals” as sporting events (the Olympics springs immediately to mind), act to convince the denizens of the Spectacle that they are still living in a cyclical and eternal go-round, while only the anointed few, the celebrities, are imbued with the attributes of money and power that signify the ability to make choices – to progress into a better future. “Being a star,” Debord writes, “means specialising in the seemingly lived.” Sound familiar, “Sir” Peter Bazalgette?

But it is most of all in its analysis of the ideology of the Spectacle that Debord’s text repays close reading. It is the Spectacle’s genius to have “turned need against life” and thus effected “the separation and estrangement between man and man”. Hence the Spectacle’s embrace of economics as the only form of instrumental – indeed “scientific” – knowledge worth possessing; hence ritual obeisance made before the gods who will confer growth, and hence the fact that more or less any contemporary western politician – from Hollande, to Merkel, to Cameron, to Obama, and back again – who had eyes to see, could find their own Caliban image raging back at them from the pages of The Society of the Spectacle.

At Argenteuil centre-ville, I found echoic pedestrian underpasses, faux-19th century streetlamps of twirled iron and postmodern apartment blocks built of scaled-up children’s construction toys. I walked on across the oxbow of Gennevilliers, still feeling that I was nowhere at all in particular – standing beside a grocery store or an office block, then crossing between parked cars. The bridge across the re-encountered Seine that led to Clichy was lined with cheerful window boxes, planted with a gaily patriotic tricolour of blooms pinker, pinker and pinkest. Where there are window boxes there must, of course, be a window – this one framed the mirrored cuboids of La Défenseto the west, structures that might have been designed expressly to conform to the Debordian paradigm.

And then, some way past the Porte de Clichy, I was quite suddenly – if at an indefinable point – in Paris, a city to this day that defines itself by the micro-associations of its smaller parts: the awning of an alimentation, a drain cover, the angle of a pissing dog’s leg, the furl of paper around a stick of bread, the white apron around a smoking waiter – quite as much as the high extravaganza of its grand boulevards and gold-leafed public buildings. Rereading The Society of the Spectacle, I was struck yet again not only by Debord’s astonishing prescience – for what other text from the late 1960s so accurately describes the shit we’re still in? – but also wondered how it was that his dérives across the Paris of the time could have so attuned him to the way in which the urban environment of the near future would become quite so decoupled from any element of the felt or experienced life. After all, Pariswas by no means the most Spectacular city of the late 1950s and early 60s; indeed, it’s still not on an equal footing to London. Unplanned London, which has just arrived at its square miles of parametrically designed junk space, its CCTV-overseen gated business cantonments and Chinese party cadre-owned luxury encampments, its logo skyscrapers and purpose-built “iconic” tourist destinations.

It occurs to me that Haussmann’s attempt to impose civic order and authority on the medieval jumble of mid-19th century Paris had not only paved the way for the Spectacle, but it had also afforded its – and his – enemies with the material to rip up for their barricades. There seems a nice congruence between the go-rounds of the Grands Boulevards and centrifugal/centripetal current of French theorising, whereby notions given form in the cafes of the Boulevard Saint-Germain and the classrooms of the Sorbonne and the Ecole Normale Supérieure swirl out in widening circles from the metropolis, only to then gurgle back in again, before eventually disappearing up the arses of their originators.

Seen like this, The Society of the Spectacle is at once the bastard progeny of the French Enlightenment – out of Diderot, by means of the Napoleonic Code – and a salutary reminder of how the pursuit of some millenarian ideological purity only ever results – if successful – in the rumbling of tumbrels; or, if a failure, in its wholesale co-option by its stated enemies. That we no longer hear quite so much about “the spectacle” as shorthand for any of the following: the ludic element of consumer society, the post-ideological character of western “democracy”, the web-cum-matrix woven by the internet, the glocal character of late capitalism, may be because Debord’s concept has now been so thoroughly appropriated – one might fairly say détourned – that there’s nothing left of it but its coldly numerical bones.

Had Debord not shot himself in 1994 in his rural fastness of Bellevue-la-Montagne, he probably would have turned his gun on the likes of Tony Wilson and Malcolm McLaren (and no doubt me as well); pop music impresarios whose much-trumpeted situationist influence – such as it was – consisted only in a series of pranks, that, while they may have given succour to the culturally anomic nonetheless only resulted in the profitable sale of records, posters and other memorabilia. I doubt, somehow, that either Wilson – chiefly known for managing Joy Division and the Happy Mondays, and setting up Factory Records – or McLaren, rather more famous for his role as the Sex Pistols’ svengali, can have subjected The Society of the Spectacle to a sustained critical reading. Had they done so, they would’ve realised that their antics were anathema to Debord; that the playful elements of situationist practice – the bowdlerising of cartoons, the daubing on walls of whacky slogans, the exaltation of drunkenness – were only ever to be sanctioned if constitutive of a genuine insurrection, such as the few short weeks of 68, and as precursors of that revolution of everyday life (to adapt the title of the competing situationist theoretical work, written by Debord’s greatest rival, Raoul Vaneigem), which was to follow the final and complete dissolution of the Spectacle.

The relative success of the Situationist International during les évènementsalso sowed the seeds for the détournement of The Society of the Spectacleitself. I say relative success because it can be doubted – and will always be disputed – the extent to which Debord and his loose confraternity of freelance bully-boys and wannabe revolutionists actually succeeded in either manning the barricades themselves, or screwing the courage of the mob to CRS’s sticking post. But the important thing was that the situationists were perceived as having been in the thick of things – as instigators and ideological choreographers of the distinctively ludic elements of this particular civil disorder. The sneering, de haut en bas reception of The Society of the Spectacle on its publication the year before in French, was followed the year after by its rhapsodic one when it appeared in translation. By then, of course, the game was effectively up – something Debord, a man obsessed by war games and strategising, undoubtedly grasped. The Society of the Spectacle so far as being an animator of events, had in a matter of months become simply another text to be subjected to scores, hundreds, thousands of exhaustive academic analyses. The best that could be said for the thing – from its author’s point of view – was that the royalties paid his wine bills, and helped to supplement a lifetime of unabashed – and indeed, self-righteous – sponging.

Of course, The Society of the Spectacle still animates serious protest to this day – or, rather, since to admit to having been one of the Invisible Committee that authored the highly Debordian The Coming Insurrection (2007) is to court arrest on those grounds alone, the very style of the earlier work remains inflammatory. As to its content, The Coming Insurrection has nothing much to add – how can it, when, as I say, never before has Debord’s work seemed quite as relevant as it does now, in the permanent present that he so accurately foretold? Open his book, read it, be amazed, pour yourself a glass of supermarket wine – as he would wish – and then forget all about it, which is what the Spectacle wants.

We Shall Fight, We Will Win: On The Black Dwarf and 1968 (Verso)

We Shall Fight, We Will Win: On The Black Dwarf and 1968

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The Black Dwarf  was announced with a free broadsheet on 1 May 1968 and published four weeks later. The inspiration was the struggle of the Vietnamese liberation movement against American imperialism that had taken over territories from the European colonial powers. The Tet offensive by the Vietnamese NLF (National Liberation Front) that year had witnessed an assault on most of the provincial capitals in occupied South Vietnam which culminated with a surprise assault on the US Embassy in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh city), where the stars and stripes were lowered and the NLF flag hoisted. This symbolism, as well as real gains on the ground, marked the beginning of the end of the US war. The game was up. The tortures, use of chemical weapons, destruction of the ecology by defoliants carried on for another seven years. Imperial narcissism knows no boundaries. It was the Tet offensive that boosted the anti-war movements in the United States and across the world.

First issue of <i>The Black Dwarf</i> released as a free-sheet on May Day 1968

In Britain the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign grew rapidly. In October 1967, 10,000 marchers came close to entering the US embassy. In March 1968 contingents from the German SDS and the French JCR joined us as 30,000 people mobilised by the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign surrounded the US Embassy in London.  We had been baton-charged by mounted police (‘The Cossacks, the Cossacks’ was our cry as we edged forward thinking of Vietnam and Petrograd 1917). Mick Jagger, marching with us, angered by police brutalities, thought we should have answered force with force. Britain was hopeless. A few months later he wrote Streetfighting Man. Culture was intervening in politics.

‘Hey! think the time is right for a palace revolution, but where I live the game to play is compromise solution
Hey, said my name is called Disturbance; I’ll shout and scream, I’ll kill the King, I’ll rail at all his servants’

The BBC refused to play it. He scribbled a note ‘For you!’ and sent it to me with the song. We published the lyrics in The Black Dwarf, aligned with a text by Engels on street fighting. A debate on the new music and the new mood erupted briefly in the New Left Review with Richard Merton (Perry Anderson’s nom-de-plume) arguing that:

“… it is incorrect to say that the Stones are ‘not major innovators’. Perhaps a polarization Stones-Beatles such as Adorno constructed between Schoenberg and Stravinsky (evoked by Beckett) might actually be a fruitful exercise. Suffice it to say here that, for all their intelligence and refinement, the Beatles have never strayed much beyond the strict limits of romantic convention: central moments of their oeuvre are nostalgia and whimsy, both eminently consecrated traditions of middle-class England…By contrast, the Stones have refused the given orthodoxy of pop music; their work is a dark and veridical negation of it. It is an astonishing fact that there is virtually not one Jagger-Richards composition which is conventionally about a ‘happy’ or ‘unhappy’ personal relationship. Love, jealousy and lament—the substance of 85 per cent of traditional pop music—are missing. Sexual exploitation, mental disintegration and physical immersion are their substitutes.”

In Britain music, in France cinema, were the auguries of what was about to come.

VSC broke with the more traditional opposition to the war. It declared its solidarity with NLF and supported its victory. Whereas the old New Left had launched CND and developed a ‘third camp’ position, the VSC responded to the conjuncture. The NLF was created, led by the Vietnamese Communist Party. It was armed by the Soviet Union and China. At one point, Bertrand Russell, distinguished VSC sponsor, wrote an open letter to Leonid Brezhnev, then leader of the Soviet Union, demanding that the Soviet Air Force be dispatched to defend the Vietnamese.

This was the political context in which The Black Dwarf was launched. It was conceived as a political-cultural weekly. The idea came from Clive Goodwin, a radical literary agent who became the publisher. The first meeting to discuss the paper took place at his house on 79 Cromwell Road. The room was lit by Pauline Boty’s paintings. She had been married to Clive and died of leukaemia in 1963. Present were Clive, the poets Christopher Logue and Adrian Mitchell, the playwright David Mercer, Margaret Mattheson, BBC script editor Roger Smith, D.A.N. Jones (who we wanted to be editor) and myself. Behind the scenes were Kenneth Tynan (who offered to review the House of Commons, but didn’t), Ken Trodd and Tony Garnett. We all agreed it was a great idea. Christopher Logue was sent off to look at old radical journals in the British Museum. The following week he returned with the name: The Black Dwarf. It was a polemical paper edited by Thomas Wooler in 1817 and agitating viciously and satirically for electoral and parliamentary reform. The title was inspired by the stunted bodies and soot-stained faces of coal miners.

Communication was slow in those days and it wasn’t till late afternoon on 9 May 1968 that we got news that something serious might erupt in Paris. The Sorbonne had been occupied! Five thousand people were packing the amphitheatre. Action Committees of various sorts were sprouting like magic mushrooms. The isolation of the Nanterre March 22 Committee had been broken. Of its two principal inspirers, Daniel Bensaid died some years ago, steadfast as ever, while the other Daniel (I think his last name was Cohn-Bendit) died politically. His corpse, I’m reliably informed, is currently on guard duty at the Elysee cemetery. He now regards Macron as the true representative of ’68. We published Sartre’s remarks to the Sorbonne students in the amphitheatre:

“Something has emerged from you which surprised, which astonishes and which denies everything which has made our society what it is today. That is what I would call the extension of the field of possibility. Do not give up.”

The night of the barricades on 10 May set France on fire. Soon the whole country was involved and 10 million workers went on strike, occupying factories in Rouen, Nantes, Paris, Lyon, etc. It seemed as if the Paris Commune had been reborn. As the first issue was brought to us, I thought the cover chosen by D.A.N. Jones was too weak and watery. We needed to identify with the movement. On a scrappy piece of paper, I wrote: ‘We Shall Fight, We Will Win, Paris, London, Rome, Berlin’ and handed it to our designer, Robin Fior. Everyone except Jones agreed. We decided to pulp 20,000 copies of the first issue. Jones walked out and I was appointed editor.

In our May Day broadsheet in 1968 we had described the first Editor of the old paper thus:

“Tom Wooler was a clever and humorous man. He edited a great left-wing paper which closed down 140 years ago…He was a printer from Sheffield with an office in Fleet Street. When he was charged with writing seditious and libellous material (they said he had libelled King Richard II) he explained that he hadn’t written a word. He had simply set it up in print!”

He was acquitted but forced a change in the law. Henceforth printers became liable as well. Ironically our Black Dwarf was rejected by almost a hundred printers and we finally ended up taking the train to a printer in Bala, North Wales the only printshop prepared to do the job. It was the same with distributors. They rejected us en masse. Only the great Collets’ bookshop on Charing Cross Road in London and a few radical bookstores elsewhere in the country (all gone now) stocked the magazine. We were dependent on street sellers and Mick Shrapnell a VSC/hippy militant used to sell 500 copies on his own. The musical Hair , a huge West End hit, helped with the lead actress displaying the latest issue on stage in every performance. Our supporters in the painting fraternity: David Hockney, Ron Kitaj, Jim Dine, Felix Topolski didn’t have much dosh but donated paintings that we auctioned. Other donors would drop in with much needed cash. We managed to print 45 issues of the paper and were amongst the first to declare 1969 as the ‘Year of the Militant Woman?’ with Sheila Rowbotham’s stunning manifesto. I had told the designer David Wills that it should be designed like an old-fashioned manifesto. The unreconstructed pig tried to subvert the message by placing the manifesto on two gigantic breasts. Sheila rang in a state as she saw the proofs. I rushed over, had it changed and sacked Wills on the spot afterwards. These things happened.

Politics was getting polarised and a number of the staff and EB members split on my decision to publish three pages from dissident ANC guerrillas who had been tortured and denounced by their leaders simply for asking critical questions of overall strategy and tactics. I was convinced they were genuine. Supporters of the ANC leadership were horrified when the magazine appeared. Thabo Mbeki led a squad of supporters to buy up all our copies in Collets. We reprinted. But the vote had revealed a division between Trotskyists and the others and a split took place. Was it avoidable? Probably, but left politics was becoming more and more polarised after the French May and the Prague Spring. A group of us left and established The Red Mole, much more linked to the IMG [International Marxist Group]. Another problem was lack of funds. We were in trouble anyway but the split was regrettable. The non-Trotskyists set up Seven Days , a paper I liked very much which should have survived.

The Black Dwarf and Seven Days are now digitalised in full and made available by the Amiel-Melburn Trust archive, an extremely valuable resource.

Tariq Ali

17 May 2018

How Coffee Bars Fueled the Vietnam Peace Movement – The New York Times

Further evidence of the importance of coffee bars in the radical culture of the 1960s. (From the New York Times.)

In the summer of 1967, Fred Gardner arrived in San Francisco with the Vietnam War weighing heavily on his mind. Gardner was 25 years old, a Harvard graduate and a freelance journalist for a number of major publications. He was attracted to Northern California’s mix of counterculture and radical politics, and hoped to become more actively involved in the movement to end the war. He was particularly interested in the revolutionary potential of American servicemen and couldn’t understand why antiwar activists and organisers weren’t paying more attention to such a powerful group of potential allies.

Ever since completing a two-year stint in the Army Reserves in 1965, Gardner had been closely watching the increasing instances of military insubordination, resistance and outright refusal that were accompanying the war’s escalation. From the case of the Fort Hood Three — G.I.s arrested in 1966 for publicly declaring their opposition to the war and refusal to deploy — to the case of Howard Levy, an Army dermatologist who refused his assignment to provide medical training for Special Forces troops headed to Vietnam, it was clear that the Army was fast becoming the central site of an unprecedented uprising. By 1967, the “G.I. movement” was capturing national headlines.

And it wasn’t just the war that was aggravating American servicemen. The military’s pervasive racial discrimination — unequal opportunities for promotion, unfair housing practices, persistent harassment and abuse — fueled increasing outrage among black G.I.s as the war progressed. Influenced by the civil rights and black liberation movements, black soldiers participated in widespread and diverse acts of resistance throughout the Vietnam era. Racial tensions were particularly high in the Army, where a vast majority of draftees were being sent, and where evasion, desertion and insubordination rates among black G.I.s exploded in the war’s later years. An antiwar movement in the military was beginning to take shape, with black soldiers often its vanguard.

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Antiwar veterans protest at the Federal Building in Seattle, September 1968. CreditFred Lonidier

As Gardner sat in the radical coffeehouses of San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood that summer, he thought about the explosive power of servicemen turning against the war and wondered how that power could be supported and nurtured by the civilian antiwar movement. Most of all, he wanted to find a way to reach out to disaffected young G.I.s, to show them that there was a whole community of antiwar activists and organizers who were on their side. He finally settled on an idea: opening a network of youth-culture-oriented coffeehouses, just like the ones in North Beach, in towns outside military bases around the country.

In January 1968 he did just that, travelling with a fellow activist, Donna Mickleson, to Columbia, S.C., home of Fort Jackson, one of the Army’s largest training bases and the crown jewel of the state’s many military installations. The UFO coffeehouse, decorated with rock ’n’ roll posters donated from the San Francisco promoter Bill Graham, quickly became a popular hangout for G.I.s — and a target of significant hostility from military officials, city authorities and outraged local citizens (“It’s a sore spot in our craw,” a Columbia official said.) The coffeehouse was located just off base, out of the military’s reach but close enough for soldiers to visit during their free time — places where active-duty servicemen, veterans and civilian activists could meet to plan demonstrations, publish underground newspapers and work to build the nascent peace movement within the military.

By the summer of 1968, major antiwar organizations took notice of the controversy the UFO was stirring up in Columbia and initiated a “Summer of Support” to organize funds for more coffeehouse projects around the country. In ensuing years, more than 25 “G.I. coffeehouses” opened up near military bases in the United States and at a number of bases overseas.

Over the course of six years, the coffeehouse network would play a central role in some of the G.I. movement’s most significant actions. At the Oleo Strut coffeehouse in Killeen, Tex., local staff and G.I.s mobilized to support the Fort Hood 43 — a large group of black soldiers who were arrested at a meeting to discuss their refusal to deploy for riot control duty at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. A black veteran present at the meeting described its mood: “A lot of black G.I.s knew what the thing was going to be about and they weren’t going to go and fight their own people.” Army authorities were caught off guard by the publicity the coffeehouse brought to the case, and began to examine their strategies for dealing with political expression among the ranks.

When eight black G.I.s, each of them leaders of the group G.I.s United Against the War in Vietnam, were arrested in 1969 for holding an illegal demonstration at Fort Jackson, the UFO coffeehouse served as a local operations center, drumming up funds for lawyers and promoting the “Fort Jackson Eight” story to the national media. After G.I. and civilian activists created intense public pressure, officials quietly dropped all charges, signaling a shift in how the military would respond to soldiers expressing dissent.

During its brief lifetime, the G.I. coffeehouse network was subjected to attacks from all sides — investigated by the F.B.I. and congressional committees, infiltrated by law enforcement, harassed by military authorities and, in a number of startling cases, terrorized by local vigilantes. In 1970, at the Fort Dix coffeehouse project in Wrightstown, N.J., G.I.s and civilians were celebrating Valentine’s Day when a live grenade flew in through an open door; it exploded, seriously injuring two Fort Dix soldiers and a civilian. Another popular coffeehouse, the Covered Wagon in Mountain Home, Idaho (near a major Air Force base), was a frequent target of harassment by outraged locals, who finally burned it to the ground.

Though their numbers dwindled as the war drew to a close in the mid-1970s, G.I. coffeehouses left an indelible mark on the Vietnam era. While popular mythology often places the antiwar movement at odds with American troops, the history of G.I. coffeehouses, and the G.I. movement of which they were a part, paints a very different picture. Over the course of the war, thousands of military service members from every branch — active-duty G.I.s, veterans, nurses and even officers — expressed their opposition to American policy in Vietnam. They joined forces with civilian antiwar organizations that, particularly after 1968, focused significant energy and resources on developing social and political bonds with American service members. Hoping to build the resistance that was already taking shape in the Army, activists at G.I. coffeehouses worked directly with service members on hundreds of political projects and demonstrations, despite relentless government surveillance, infiltration and harassment.

The unprecedented eruption of resistance and activism by American troops is critical to understanding the history of the Vietnam War. The G.I. movement and related phenomenon created a significant crisis for the American military, which feared exactly the kind of alliance between civilians and soldiers that Fred Gardner had in mind when he opened the first G.I. coffeehouse in 1968. Despite the extraordinary political and cultural impact that dissenting soldiers made throughout the Vietnam era, their voices have been nearly erased from history, replaced by a stereotypical image of loyal, patriotic soldiers antagonized and spat upon by ungrateful antiwar activists. In the decades since the war’s end, countless Hollywood movies, books, political speeches and celebrated documentaries have repeated this image, obscuring the war’s deep unpopularity among the ranks and the countless ways that American troops expressed their opposition.

This historical erasure serves a distinct purpose, casting dissent — from wearing an antiwar T-shirt to kneeling during the national anthem — as inherently disrespectful, even abusive, to American soldiers. A fuller reckoning with the era’s history would begin by acknowledging the countless G.I.s and civilians who stood together against the war. G.I. coffeehouses are a vital window onto this history, showing us places where men and women came together to share their common revulsion at the war in Vietnam, and to begin organizing a collective effort to make it stop.

The Neglected History of the May ’68 Uprising in France

Source: The Neglected History of the May ’68 Uprising in France

On the morning of June 10, 1968—a couple of weeks after French labor unions signed an agreement with Prime Minister Georges Pompidou to put an end to a crippling general strike—workers at the Wonder battery factory in the northern Parisian suburb of St. Ouen voted to return to the job.

Later that afternoon, as union representatives conferred outside the factory gates with the rank and file, an amateur camera crew captured the scene. The group’s 10-minute film, Wonder, May ’68, focuses on a young woman who has drawn a crowd around her.

“No!” she barks at her union rep, fighting back tears and shaking her head as he tries to console her by listing management’s modest concessions. “I’m not going back inside. I’m not putting my feet back in that prison.”

The woman has the unmistakable glow of raised expectations, that special energy that comes from successful collective action. When you convince yourself you’re capable of changing the world by banding together with your co-workers, the feeling of power that results doesn’t fade easily. In France, during the months of May and June 1968, millions of other workers caught the bug: Between 7 and 9 million went on strike. Hundreds of thousands of them did so while occupying their factories, as at Wonder in St. Ouen.

The fact is all too often neglected, if not outright forgotten, today. The unprecedented wave of protests and strikes that swept across France for a few weeks in 1968—known today simply as “May ’68”—was, at its core, a workers’ movement. This was the largest wildcat general strike in the history of capitalism: a mass revolt against low pay, poor working conditions, and the hierarchical, dehumanizing organization of the capitalist workplace itself.

Events in the Left Bank of Paris simply provided the spark. Ironically, they’ve since become better known than the actual strike movement. On May 3, hundreds of college students gathered for a general assembly in the courtyard of the Sorbonne University. Administrators responded by calling the riot police—the infamous CRS—who subsequently marched onto campus and arrested hundreds of protesters, including student leaders. This, in turn, enraged the burgeoning student movement, culminating in nighttime skirmishes with the CRS known as the “Night of the Barricades.” On the morning of May 11, French people woke up to images of smoldering barricades in the heart of Paris, of overturned cobblestones, of riot cops beating students.

Then, the most important phase of the revolt kicked off.

On May 13, France’s two largest unions—the General Confederation of Labor (CGT) and the French Democratic Confederation of Labor (CFDT)—joined students in solidarity marches across the country, decrying police repression. While unions themselves didn’t call for further action, workers took initiative on their own, launching strikes and occupying factories across France. First, the Sud-Aviation factory outside of Nantes; eventually, plants belonging to Renault, Citroën, and the state-run energy company; soon, the postal service, the public rail company, and the entirety of the country ground to a halt.

The strike wave lasted for weeks. As it peaked by the end of May, union and government leaders gathered for negotiations. This proved a turning point. It is not unreasonable to posit that the revolt might have continued to grow under different circumstances. Had the CGT and the closely linked Communist Party thrown their full weight behind the workers’ movement, France might have drawn closer to full-scale political change. Instead, the country’s two largest left-wing organizations encouraged an end to the crisis. Enticed by a national agreement that ensured enhanced union rights, a 35 percent hike in the minimum wage, and a 7 percent pay raise for everyone else, millions of employees gradually began to return to their jobs. In a May 30 radio address, Charles de Gaulle announced the dissolution of the National Assembly and the organization of new legislative elections. A few weeks later, the Gaullists emerged with an even larger majority.

May ’68 is simply too large of a historical fact to ignore in France today. As such, this year’s 50th anniversary saw a host of museum exhibitions, TV specials, radio programs, and new books to commemorate the uprising. Rather than focus on the strike movement, though, most highlighted the familiar pillars of what has since become the dominant narrative of 1968, in France and abroad. According to this version of events, May was, alternatively, the product of a cultural rebellion and intergenerational clash; the outburst of privileged students feeling trapped by a centralized education system; the result of Parisian kids reliving their favorite Victor Hugo novels by playing revolution; or, at its best, a protest against the social conservatism of postwar French society. All of these things may be true, but they miss the bigger picture.

Even Tony Judt, the masterful historian of Europe, fell victim to these tropes. His magnum opus Postwar devotes just a few pages to May ’68. It contains no mention of the millions of workers who went on strike. In their place, Judt makes note of the “tight red corduroy pants and fitted black shirts” apparently worn by some Parisian protesters.

Ironically, the chronological proximity of May ’68 may be partly to blame. Since the events are still part of the recent past, a relatively small bunch of well-connected politicians, artists, and writers who participated in the events have been able to disproportionately shape collective memory. Since these unofficial experts of ’68 tend to speak from both personal experience and positions of authority, they receive an unusually generous benefit of the doubt. Other critics have observed as much. Rather than history, the general public is treated to a series of their interpretations treated as fact.

Of course, many of these former radicals have, by now, spent the bulk of their careers as either centrists or right-wingers: people like Alain Finkielkraut, the ex-Maoist who became an anti-communist “New Philosopher” alongside Bernard-Henri Lévy (commonly called BHL) in the mid-to-late 1970s; Romain Goupil, a filmmaker and ex-Trotskyist who supported the American war and occupation in Iraq; or Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the emblematic anarchist-leaning student leader who was later elected to the European Parliament and now backs Emmanuel Macron. Not only does their version of May ’68 nicely reflect today’s dominant ideologies—recasting May as a cultural rebellion avoids uncomfortable questions like the exploitation of labor and the distribution of wealth—but the life stories of BHL and company have the added benefit of fitting a media-friendly trope: the fiery young idealist who grows up and turns rightward.

While prominent ex-radicals have spilled much ink on ’68, they tend to avoid much talk of the workers’ rebellion. This makes sense from their perspective. For true believers in the liberal capitalist order, May ’68 is much easier to understand this way. After all, it is a profoundly unsettling thought that millions of people could be so unhappy with the supposedly democratic society in which they live—so enraged at what they put up with on a daily basis at work—that they’re willing to put their jobs on the line to change things. May ’68 retains its subversive aura because of what it suggests about the stability of our advanced Western societies: Possibilities for revolt are much greater than they appear on the surface.

As any trade unionist worth his or her salt knows, there is no such thing as a “spontaneous” job action. An unexpected development can sometimes trigger a movement, but workers act together only under certain conditions. They have to share grievances, for one. But just as importantly, they must trust one another and have confidence they can win the struggle they embark upon. France in the late 1960s encouraged this sort of thinking: Left-wing parties and labor unions were deeply present in the lives of the working class, supplying wage-earners with a culture of solidarity and a well-known history of resistance, from the Paris Commune to the Popular Front to the Maquis to mass strikes following the Liberation. At the same time, French employers were especially antagonistic, seeking to hit government-imposed production targets by maintaining tightly organized workplaces and downward pressure on wages.

Pay wasn’t so good. While the trend pales in comparison to the United States since the 1970s, Thomas Piketty’s research has shown that income inequality in France reached a postwar peak around the years 1967 and 1968, hitting its highest levels since the 1930s. Although unions and employers engaged in nationwide collective bargaining at the time, they often failed to lift up those at the bottom of the ladder.

In addition to subpar compensation, workers often had little say on the job, with few chances of career advancement and effectively zero input over the production process. Employers maintained strict classification schemes that left the lowest-paid categories of the work force, the ironically termed specialized workers, feeling disrespected and ready to lash out. Understandably, the strikes of May-June gave life to far-reaching critiques about the soul-crushing nature of work itself. And to more than a few moments of vengeance in the form of “boss-nappings.” At the occupied Sud Aviation factory, workers locked their boss in his office and forced him to listen to the “Internationale” on loop.

Immigrants and women advanced their own workplace grievances alongside those of their white male French counterparts. At Renault’s flagship auto plant in Boulogne-Billancourt, North African, Spanish, and Portuguese workers came up with their own list of demands, calling for an end to discrimination and for equal union rights. French law barred most foreigners from serving as union representatives until 1972—a change brought about thanks to worker activism in 1968 and subsequent years.

The strike movement in May swelled thanks to the mass, working-class base of the labor movement and the left. About a fifth of the French work force belonged to a union at the time. This was a sign of significant influence. Unlike in the United States, union membership in France doesn’t confer additional job benefits. To hold a union card in France is to be a workplace activist, to adhere to a certain set of values. In 1968, most unionized employees belonged to the Communist-tied CGT, whose program plainly endorsed the class struggle and the nationalization of key economic sectors. In certain workplaces—especially in the auto industry and in heavy industry—union density was higher than 20 percent, and non-members were often sympathizers. While labor leaders didn’t call for May’s strike wave and CGT officials sought to bring it to an end, it is inconceivable to imagine the movement’s taking root without a base of union activists.

By the same token, the dominant force on the left was the French Communist Party (PCF). Party leaders were famously critical of the student movement in 1968, and justifiably mocked for their outmoded political vision. Still, the PCF’s presence fueled a working-class political consciousness matched in Europe only by Italy, where the Communist Party carried similar weight. French Communists had received the second-highest vote total in the previous year’s legislative elections, just behind the Gaullists. While many critics emerged to the party’s left in the 1960s, nearly all remained attached to the Marxist tradition. Thousands of these Maoists, Trotskyists, and anarchists fanned the flames of rebellion in 1968.

Once the fire started, then, it was hard to put out.

In March 1968, Le Monde ran a now-legendary column titled “When France Is Bored.” The writer lamented the apparent calm reigning over France, just as the United States rioted, Vietnam burned, and China was swept by the Cultural Revolution. It’s a reminder of how the vast majority of the French intellectual establishment didn’t see May ’68 coming. Of course, an Algerian autoworker or a public-sector union activist would have written a very different piece.

Fifty years later, in a world that has increasingly little to do with de Gaulle’s France, this seems the most striking lesson of May ’68: Working-class discontent often runs far deeper than elites perceive—or, frankly, care to understand. When teachers went on strike this spring in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Kentucky, subsequent headlines often betrayed the ignorance of the political and media establishment. Journalists called the protests “spontaneous.” Republican legislators who had spent years slashing state education budgets were similarly caught by surprise. To the West Virginia teachers working side gigs to make ends meet and regularly lamenting the state of public education at union meetings, the movement was anything but spur-of-the-moment.

In the aftermath of ’68, left-wing activists endlessly debated the revolutionary character of the movement: Were striking autoworkers who raised the red flag over their plant truly intent on overthrowing capitalism? When workers booed union leaders encouraging them to go back to work, were they ready for political change? These debates won’t be settled soon. What’s clear, in any case, is that the discontent ran deep. And for a few weeks, millions of people let it be known, almost bringing down the government in the process.

Nearly 30 years after May 1968, director Hervé Le Roux set out to discover the identity of the young woman at the center of the Wonder factory film, capturing the quest in a documentary of his own, Reprise. Le Roux does manage to track down some of her colleagues, but the end of the film is disheartening. Not only does nobody seem to know what came of her, nobody even knows her name.

Tom Rapp, ’60s Folk Experimentalist And Civil Rights Attorney, Dead At 70 | BPR

I found this link on the Middle Earth Facebook group. Tom Rapp was part of a great late 60s band called Pearls Before Swine. They were one of my favourites. He was a really great songwriter and a big influence on me. He wrote a song called Rocket Man which inspired Elton John to write his version, which obviously became a big hit. Tom’s was better in my opinion, though.

Tom Rapp, a civil rights attorney and musician best known for his late-’60s and early-’70s recordings under the name Pearls Before Swine, has died while in hospice care at his home in Melbourne, Fla., his publicist confirmed to NPR Music. He was 70 years old.

Like many of his generation, Rapp was inspired by Elvis and The Everly Brothers. But it was hearing Bob Dylan‘s “Blowin’ in the Wind” in the early ’60s that finally galvanized him to begin writing music in earnest. (A possibly apocryphal tale goes that Rapp and Dylan actually competed as children in the same talent contest, with Dylan placing fifth, Rapp second.)

Pearls Before Swine’s first record, One Nation Underground, released in 1967, wore that influence plainly on its sleeve — not so much the fraught Hieronymous Bosch extract that adorned its cover, but in the Xeroxing of Dylan’s vocal delivery (with the addition of Rapp’s notable and endearing speech impediment) heard on the song “Playmate.” While Rapp may have been emulating on the mic there, the rest of the music on “Playmate” is woven with forward-thinking threads of psychedelia and garage rock. Further on, Rapp steps into his own, even presaging punk’s approach to institutional fealty (don’t) in the lyrics of “Drop Out!” and an avant-garde approach to a cursing word, spelled out in Morse code, on “(Oh Dear) Miss Morse.”

The album would go on to sell “about 250,000,” Rapp told NPR Music’s Bob Boilen last fall during a conversation centered on its 50th anniversary reissue. Despite the impressive sales, Rapp and his bandmates received next to no money from them. Bernard Stollman, who ran the label ESP-Disk’ that released One Nation Underground and its follow-up, told them that “the CIA and the Mafia were putting [the records] out themselves,” and so the sales weren’t ending with money in the pocket of ESP-Disk’ and, by extension, Pearls Before Swine. (Or many of the label’s other artists, the story goes.)

Rapp would go on to release eight more well-regarded records — Balaclava, the follow-up to One Nation Underground, perhaps highest among them — before utterly disappearing from music in 1974, not long after opening a concert for Patti Smith.

Infused with the spirit of the counterculture, but not willing to take his own advice and “drop out,” Rapp headed to college and, from there, law school, graduating from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1984. Rapp was a civil rights attorney in Philadelphia until 2001, after which he returned again to Florida. His practice emphasized reining in corporations and local governments.

As much as his music, Rapp’s work as a lawyer and his attitude towards his rediscovery in the popular imagination were illustrative of his spirit. Nearly 17 years ago, Rapp’s career was profiled for Weekend Edition by Peter Clowney. Rapp was bemused at the bloom of his late-in-life celebrity, treating it with a humbled, arm’s-length detachment, the attitude of someone who had long since filled his life.

Describing that rediscovery, which began around 1992 while he was in Philadelphia, Rapp said: “They call me a psychedelic godfather and they have these articles about how I’m a legend. The way that works is, you do some albums in the ’60s that are OK, you go away for 30 years, and you don’t die — then you’re a legend.”

During that piece, Rapp shared his “lessons from the ’60s.” They began with a dark half-joke: “One of the lessons of the ’60s was that assassination works.” He continued: “Love is real. Justice is real. Countries have no morals; you have to kick them to get them to do the right thing. Honesty is possible and necessary. And everything is not for sale.”

Source: Tom Rapp, ’60s Folk Experimentalist And Civil Rights Attorney, Dead At 70 | BPR

With the Weathermen: The Personal Journal of a Revolutionary Woman – Susan Stern (1975) | 1960s: Days of Rage

“Drugs. Sex. Revolutionary violence. From its first pages, Susan Stern’s memoir With the Weathermen provides a candid, first-hand look at the radical politics and the social and cultura…

Source: With the Weathermen: The Personal Journal of a Revolutionary Woman – Susan Stern (1975) | 1960s: Days of Rage

The day Jazz fans had a riot |Telegraph

Beaulieu Jazz Festival 1960

As he looks forward to the A Love Supreme festival, Ivan Hewett looks back at the day in 1960 that jazz fans went on the rampage at the third Beaulieu Jazz Festival

Outdoor jazz festivals have an air of wholesome, clean fun. It’s hard to be cutting-edge when there are infants pottering about and midges biting. The ambience is best suited to trad jazz played by chaps of a certain age, dressed in ties and with bald pates reddening gently in the sun.

Next week something more ambitious and up-market takes place in rolling meadows in Sussex. This is the second instalment of Britain’s only green-field jazz festival, A Love Supreme, which is set against “the gorgeous backdrop of Glynde Place,” an Elizabethan Manor House. Top-flight acts including Gregory Porter, De La Soul, Laura Mvula and Dave Holland will be there. You can bring a tent, or go for a superior ‘Glamping’ experience complete with hot showers, Pamper Parlour and 24-hour security.

For those with very long memories, this might remind them of a somewhat less upmarket event more than 50 years ago, when some jazz fans went on the rampage in front of a similarly “gorgeous backdrop”. The year was 1960, the occasion was the third Beaulieu Jazz Festival, which took place at Lord Montagu’s estate at Beaulieu near the New Forest. Lord Montagu was something of a jazz fan, and thought this was a risk-free way to indulge his enthusiasm.

Unfortunately it all went wrong, when specimens of a new and puzzling sort of human being – the teenager – invaded the stage. Stuart Nicholson, now the distinguished columnist of Jazzwise magazine, remembers that as the lighting gantry collapsed “someone grabbed a microphone and demanded ‘free beer for the working man’.” A lone figure made it to the top of the stage, a converted merry-go-round complete with fairground horses, and once the crowd realised he was on television, a mass climb began to join him.” There’s some tantalisingly brief footage on this Pathé newsreel.

How wonderfully British. It wasn’t an end to bourgeois hegemony the young rioter was fighting for, or even more power for the unions. It was just some free beer. However the invader wasn’t some lone eccentric. Jazz at that time was a hotbed of competing styles, with deep antagonisms between different sets of fans. These were driven by class differences as much as musical tastes. The jazz historian Duncan Heinen has uncovered these simmering tensions in his fascinating history of jazz in the Sixties and Seventies, entitled Trad Dads, Dirty Boppers, and Free FusionG

The book shows that the 1960 Beaulieu festival was really more a tail-piece to the Fifties, that edgy decade of beatniks, CND marches, Angry Young Men, pop art, and race riots (it’s only because the Sixties have been so mythologised that people automatically think of the Fifites as drab). Jazz was in the thick of it, though witnesses of the period never seem to agree whether a fondness for drainpipe trousers meant you were anti-nuclear power and for modern jazz, or despised Dizzy Gillespie and preferred skiffle.

The jazz festival’s stage was a converted merry-go-round. Pic: GETTY IMAGES

Some say it was a working class thing to like modern jazz, and that middle-class rebelliousness came out in ‘jiving’ to trad. One indubitable fact is that the rock and roll, R&B and jazz scenes were closely interlinked, and players such as Ginger Baker could migrate from one to another. Look closely at this film clip of the 3rd Beaulieu jazz festival and you’ll catch a glimpse of a very young Rod “the Mod” Stewart among the eager crowds.

So with competing styles of jazz on the platform, plenty of beer on tap, and the provocative backdrop of a stately home, the stage was a set for a classic British class confrontation. One imagines some of the youth were just itching to feel aggrieved, like the character in Colin MacInnes’s novel Absolute Beginners, who describes the Beaulieu festivals as “garden party’s (sic) for the ooblies and Hooray Henries.” (According to the poet Jeff Nuttall, “ooblies” was Humphrey Lyttleton’s term for devotees of the “original purist trad subculture”. George Melly preferred the term “moron”).

Finding out what really happened that day at Beaulieu is like asking what really happened at the riotous premiere of the Rite of Spring. Some say it was the bearded trad fans versus the modern jazzers. Other say it was nothing to do with music at all. One witness insists it was Teddy Boys shouting “We want Acker!” (meaning trad jazz clarinettist and singer Acker Bilk), while the correspondent for Melody Maker sniffed about working-class “mobsters” coming from Portsmouth and Southampton. Once the stage had been invaded, chaos quickly ensued. A building was set on fire, 39 people were injured, and the BBC pulled its outside broadcast feed off the air six minutes early. “Things are getting quite out of hand,” said the announcer primly.

That wasn’t quite the end of the Beaulieu jazz festival. Lord Montagu was game enough to try again the following year, but the cost of the increased security meant the event was no longer financially viable. And that was it, for “green-field” jazz festivals in the UK – until Love Supreme came on the scene. More than 50 years on, will this stir the same passions? Will someone grab a microphone after Gregory Porter’s set and demand “free champagne for the working man”? Somehow I just can’t see it.

Source: The day Jazz fans had a riot – Telegraph