(James Rosenquist, House of Fire)
The Suicide’s Defense
(Of all the stupidities wherewith the law-making power has oignaled its own incapacity for dealing with the disorders of society, none appears so utterly stupid as the law which punishes an attempted suicide. To the question “What have you to say in your defense?” I conceive the poor wretch might reply as follows.)
To say in my defense? Defense of what?
Defense to whom? And why defense at all?
Have I wronged any? Let that one accuse!
Some priest there mutters I “have outraged God”!
Let God then try me, and let none dare judge
Himself as fit to put Heaven’s ermine on!
Again I say, let the wronged one accuse.
Aye, silence! There is none to answer me.
And whom could I, a homeless, friendless tramp,
To whom all doors are shut, all hearts are locked,
All hands withheld — whom could I wrong, indeed
By taking that which benefited none
And menaced all?
Aye, since ye will it so,
Know then your risk. But mark, ‘tis not defense,
‘Tis accusation that I hurl at you.
See to’t that ye prepare your own defense.
My life, I say, Is an eternal thleat
To you and yours; and therefore it were well
T0 have foreborne your unasked services.
And why? Because I hate you! Every drop
Of blood that circles in your plethoric veins
Was wrung from out the gaunt and sapless trunks
Of men like me. who in your cursed mills
Were crushed like grapes within the wine-press
To us ye leave the empty skin of life;
The heart of it, the sweet of it, ye pour
To fete your dogs and mistresses withal!
Your mistresses! Our daughters! Bought, for bread,
To grace the flesh that once was father’s arms!
Yes, I accuse you that ye murdered me!
Ye killed the Man — and this that speaks to you
Is but the beast that ye have made of me!
What! Is it life to creep and crawl an beg,
And slink for shelter where rats congregate?
And for one’s ideal dream of a fat meal?
Is it, then, life, to group like pigs in sties,
And bury decency in common filth,
Because, forsooth, your income must be made,
Though human flesh rot in your plague-rid dens?
Is it, then, life, to wait another’s nod,
For leave to turn yourself to gold for him?
Would it me life to you? And was I less
Than you? Was I not born with hopes and dreams
And pains and passions even as were you?
But these ye have denied. Ye seized the earth,
Though it was none of yours, and said: “Hereon
Shall none rest, walk or work, till first to me
Ye render tribute!” Every art of man,
Born to make light of the burdens of the world,
Ye also seized, and made a tenfold curse
To crush the man beneath the thing he made.
Houses, machines, and lands — all, all are yours;
And us you do not need. When we ask work
Ye shake your heads. Homes? — Ye evict us. Bread? —
“Here, officer, this fellow’s begging. Jail’s
the place for him!” After the stripes, what next?
Poison! — I took it! — Now you say ‘twas sin
To take this life which troubled you lo much.
Sin to escape insult, starvation, brands
Of felony, inflicted for the crime
Of asking food! Ye hypocrites! Within
Your secret hearts the sin is that I failed!
Because I failed ye judge me to the stripes.
And the hard tail denied when I was free.
So be it. But beware! — a Prison cell,s
An evil bed to grow morality!
Black swamps breed black miasms; sickly soils
Yield poison fruit; snakes warmed to life will sting.
This time I was content to go alone;
Perchance the next I shall not be so kind.
Voltairine de Cleyre, Philadelphia, September 1894
Voltairine de Cleyre’s poem, “The Suicide’s Defense”, is a cry of hatred against the violence of the State and capitalism. And it threatens those who would punish the suicide attempt with a generalised violence against the violence of exploitation and oppression.
Robert Kurz’s essay “Economy and Consciousness” (palim-psao.fr) speaks of the loss of consciousness under the reign of contemporary commodity fetishism or spectacle capitalism. But the cry seems absent.
What separates the two texts may be thought to be the loss of that which formally fueled rebellion. But there is more than the tragic expansion of capitalism at play. If we share Kurz’s essay, it is because the marxist “school” of the critique of value continues to provide some of the most powerful interpretations of Capital. But it is blind to the pain and rebelliousness that simmers beneath the production of goods; a pain that engenders the uncivil “monsters” lying beneath the sleek flow of of regimented order.
Economy and Consciousness
The times are past when men were sometimes still ashamed to dare to think only of their own market value and that of their products. Secretly, silently, gently, each individual has metamorphosed into “homo-economicus”, which was formerly a pure ideology of the doctrine of political economy. When did it really start? The absurd “commodification of consciousness” is originally and fundamentally a postulate of the capitalist mode of production. But a long development was necessary to make it appear natural for everyone to evaluate themselves only as a commodity. Post-war capitalism has introduced practically the two presuppositions of the appearance of this final stage: the first consists of the colonization of “free time” by the automobile, the cultural industry …, the second consists of the break-up of the Fordist family (dad, mom, two children, the car, the dog) and the atomisation of the individual in postmodern unity (auto-erotic monad with computer and laptop).
In the nineties, these two trends merged to create a new type of socialization that pushes the adaptation of the personality to the market to its limits. For the new “generations”, the business economy, “work” and “personal free time” have become undifferentiated moments, as are the self and the world. To a certain extent, we have to deal with a highly competitive technological individual who, tendentially, regresses to a level of infant ego (Handelsblatt: “fast, flexible, effective, selfish, treacherous, superficial”). Even if it were to be a common place, this is particularly noticeable in this kind of high-tech porridge of internet capitalism: the “employees” of the new economy are ready to work 24 hours a day at the same time as they accept the lowest wages (in the extreme case for zero wages, with their only hope being to catch the crumbs of rising stock-market share prices). They completely identify with the company, its activities, its products, even if their contents are irrelevant, their technological performances weak and their qualities insignificant.
The existence of these new forms of consciousness could be regarded as mere curiosity if they were not the product of structural transformations of the whole society. The slow but inexorable pressure of competition pushes a growing number of men and women to extremes as they try to identify with their (often precarious) market existence and the demand that they should want themselves to submit to it and cling to it as a person. The official institutions of the “market economy and democracy” accompany such development through the organization of large-scale campaigns. In the UK, in recent years, concerted action by the Government and political parties, banks and savings banks, large companies and employers’ chambers of commerce, municipalities and school administrations have come into play; their three angles of attack are practical training, the administration of the state of crisis and brainwashing.
The aim pursued is that of a negative utopia: it is a question of making a completely economic “new man”, whose whole life would be determined by the criteria of the business economy. These fundamental requirements are constantly being hammered into both individuals and institutions by unparalleled mass propaganda: the “market” as destiny and luck, the “market” as the sole content of life and as identity, the “market” as unavoidable. There must no longer be any “demand”, neither cultural nor social, addressed to the state or society, but only “personal responsibility” in the face of economic dictatorship. The street beggar as well as the civil servant must consider themselves “entrepreneurs”. From the museum to the hospital, one must seek to sell oneself and make money. All social relations must be reduced to their simple expression of supply and demand, all human relationships must be transformed into “market relations”.
Any child must be made to feel bad if they cannot adapt to such a way of thinking. There are already whole classes where we simulate the creation of companies, the entry of companies on the stock-market, market movements. But above all, the school itself is released on the market of “freedom of enterprise”. Sponsorship is increasingly more important. The pitiful begging of companies is surpassed only by the commodification of the school. Everything is in its proper place if a school principal no longer thinks of himself as a pedagogue but as the head of a small and/or medium-sized enterprise. The ban on advertising has already been abolished in several [German] Länder. Whoever is already used to the transformation of school walls, notebooks and entrance halls into advertising surfaces, will find nothing but himself, transformed, as sports stars already are, into a living puppet for advertising.
The utopia of homo-economicus can only triumph by developing pathological forms in society. A society that relies on the existence of personality disorders has no future. The aggressive nature of the current campaigns leads to these results, that for men and women whose representations are unreal, nothing remains but to be plunged into violence.
Berlin, 8th of August 2000