Based on a script of a speech that was hold in Berlin on the 2.10.2007 on an event organized by Datacide Magazine.
Rave culture in the tradition of the hippies, of punk and cyberpunk; with its references to Hakim Bey, William S. Burroughs and Jean Baudrillard was not a classical approach for emancipation like the old workers movement and the new social movements that followed historically. But some projects like free parties and tekknivals showed the radical desires of the ravers. The unease, the dissatisfaction expressed by mostly proletarian kids led to the emergence of the rave scene in the U.K.
I will show 4 things: First, I will talk about one common myth of left winged subcultures, the myth of autonomy and autarky. There is no outside to capitalist production.
Secondly, I will focus on the role of drugs in the repressive system of leisure in capitalism. I will show thirdly on this example utopian elements of drug use in techno culture and as a last point I will close the circle with some remarks on the production of raves.
1. Myth of the rave subculture: autarky of production, autonomy in government
The rave takes place. The intention of the party community is pretty clear: the desire to party, to have fun. It looks like one found an exit-strategy to society: the hedonistic consumption of loud music. The negative attributes of capitalist collectivisation are seen exclusively externally,
as labour (individual deprivation caused by work and pollution of the environment) and police (repression), while the individual is seen as autonomous from both on the green meadow outside the town. The idyll of the free festival – a myth.
Where do the sound systems come from, who is constructing cars and what is needed to run motors? Posing all those questions would disturb this idyll. Because the answers would be that speakers are manufactured in China, that cars have to be refueled with petrol from the Middle East and that ecstacy is synthesised in complex chemical procedures. Those answers show that the idea of autarky (as independent production) is a chimera.
Is it Techno DJs playing music or is it that the Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd., the company that manufactures the legendary Technics turntable, needs customers for its products?
The old paroles of the subcultures of “self-government” and “freedom” seem to be liberal illusions based on the free individual in capitalist societies. Freedom means here to chose between certain goods.
The problem is that the individual is not free in its decisions and is not shaping the world it is living in. The fetish character of the commodity described by Karl Marx is shaping the rules behind the back of the individuals. The production of commodities is shaping the consciousness and needs of the subjects in capitalist society. Workers become consumers in their leisure time and the culture industry satisfies spectacular needs.
The just mentioned issues are some core elements of the critique on modern capitalism posed by the Critical Theory or Frankfurt School and the Situationist International. Seen from this point of view, Rave culture itself is part of the spectacular capitalist economy and a child of western culture.
2. Drugs and the leisure prison
German postmodernist writer Katja Diefenbach comes up with similar ideas in her essay “Hans im Glück – Das Technosubjekt im Freizeitknast” which can be translated as “Hans in luck – the techno subject in the leisure prison“.
What looks first like a liberation from everydays life in techno culture is subordinated under the rules of society and its instrumental reason. According to Diefenbach capitalism integrates antagonisms all the time. The techno party offers stepping out of society for one night and promises happiness. Techno as a subversive act meant historically according to Diefenbach formal improvements of music consumption. The abolishing of the rock show: no more applause, no more artistic virtuosity, no more stars. Everybody can be a DJ, everybody a producer, human is connected to the machine, technology is used against the instruction manuals, everybody can be a transmitter. Consumption of music done directly without derivation: music is seen as good not because some well known artist made it. Even here it makes sense to ask if all the mentioned points are really an improvment.
On the second glance it seems different: raves fall together with a new form of subjectivity in capitalism. After hundred of years of discipline, now the subject has to participate all the time and have fun while contributing to society.
Her conclusion is, that no action outside the borders of capitalism is possible. Diefenbach sees a roll back – or a form of recuperation to put it in the language of the Situationists – happening even on formal improvements: the wild aspects get integrated and e.g. bouncers are needed on parties. She describes the techno subject to be trapped in a „leisure prison“. So my question is what the contribution of drugs are in this leisure prison.
There were some dramatic shifts in the rave scene of the U.K.. The ecstacy saturated dreams of the early 1990s ended up in a ketamine driven nightmare after the year 2000 till today. Like Gregor Samsa, the protagonist of Franz Kafka´s novel “The Metamorphosis”, people transform literally into bugs and start creeping on the floor.
The individuals try to escape with the help of chemical substances into a better world but find nothing more there than what they brought with them. Hunting the lost nativeness and finding just nothingness. Doing drugs is not a spiritual act but the consumption of commodities. Those commodities are illegal, but also driving over a red traffic light is illegal. Nobody would come up with the idea that the latter is subversive in any way.
Synthetic drugs are chemical products, chemical products are industrial products,and those rely heavily on a complex procedure. Machinery, a broad knowledge and other chemical substances are needed to synthesize drugs even if that production happens in a backyard laboratory.
The methods and products invented in a long process of technical development are used by subcultures and youth cultures as the rave scene.
People find things that are already there and use them. I would pose the thesis that it is not adoption (the fight over material sources in society that can be seen as part of the classwar) as some radical left fractions (e.g. based on the post-operaist authors Negri/ Hardt) would argue, but part of the capitalist logic itself. Every product needs its consumer and vice versa: there are products for all needs of people.
At the end with the use of drugs also technology based on the progress of capitalist civilisation is used. This is hardly subversive. The countercultural approach, to “turn on, tune in, drop out” by Timothy Leary was already a lie. There is no exit option.
3. Instrumental reason and radical desires
The use of drugs is dialectically both: instrumental reason and radical desire.
1. ) It is instrumental reason because it fulfills certain functions in capitalism. People take drugs to get specific effects: to relax from work, or to be longer awake, to be more capable of making social contacts and so on. The use is subordinated under a certain function, that’s one thing. The other is, that doing drugs is part of the alienated needs. We don’t know how a liberated society would look like, all we can see is that all our needs today are shaped by capitalist totality. And under this logic all needs are alienated as humans are alienated from the products of their work.
2. ) On the other hand this hedonistic consumption opens spaces for wishes besides the capitalist logic. Art – and in our example – raves can open spaces not only to express and satisfy needs but also to articulate desires that are beyond the satisfiable. In terms of the Situationist International those are „radical lusts“, the needs that go far beyond the existing order of production.
Doing drugs implies the strong wish of not being forced to follow the rules, of not having to live under the capitalist order. It’s the particular, the wish of the individual of escaping the constraints of this society. The desire to escape is an act of discontent, of not finding satisfaction, of the feeling that there should be something more in life. Insofar we find an utopian element here, that could lead to the transformation of the whole structure of desires.
I tried to describe this antagonism. Both aspects are conncected together dialectically. In the historical perspective of the U.K. rave movement they failed to bring a radical change.
To get back to this historical perspective. Society as a whole changed in the meantime and the social experiments of the rave scene went wrong. Ketamine users are ideal victims for gangs and it became a sort of fun sport to mug people on squat parties. At the end the only way to save the rave is the transformation of party organizers into the role of the state: security firms get hired to keep the party going. Here you have obviously the guards in the „leisure prison“ Katja Diefenbach was talking about.
What posed the question how a liberated society could look like ended up ironically as a identical copy of the existing society. This is not a failure of the involved people or a question of sell out, but the simple truth that there is no way to form a different society inside the one we are living in. The recuperation is already part of the experiment as it starts as its base of production is nothing else than capitalism.
4. The temporary kibbuzim
The example of rave can be seen as a social experiment trying to show ways to alternative modes of production. How could the production of things look like if we collectively decide not to produce commodities any more? The D.I.Y. party as a temporary kibbuzim, where the visitors become workers and produce collectively; a place where work, non-work, subjectivity, feelings, life can be defined new.
It´s less about seeing the emancipatory aspects already fulfilled in the party. This is another myth of subcultures, that see their own existence as an role model for the whole society. Even if you´re avantgarde, you still play according to the capitalist rules. So if there are modes in exisiting society that grant happiness – why would you need liberation?
So I would focus not on the idea of subculture and consumption of certain goods but the new organisation of a production mode within(!) the culture industry. You can see this in free parties where people try to find alternative ways of getting things done. It´s the attempt to achieve the manifestation of something invisible, the dream of something radically different, the utopia of a different society. This is the common ground rave parties share with the use of drugs: the temporary character of an experiment.
Of course this also has its problematic aspects: the division of labour and leisure is not strictly seperated any more in postfordist capitalism as it was before. To avoid being the avantgarde of new exploitative capitalist work-forms, it’s important to carefully watch out here.
I also don’t think that the crucial point is forming permanent production collectives. Those will be self-governing forms of capitalist production, where the subjects replace the boss with the necessities of the market. The ideas of the israeli kibbuzim failed and so did the idea of socialism in general (the idea of a moderate, domesticated capitalism – it simply rests on the idea of a state).
What I mentioned already before, the adoption of the means of production is not the key.
I plead for temporary experiments of collectivisation; of the production of goods. My assumption here would be that the context of art/ parties open spaces for those experiments. Experiments can fail, but that’s the nature of them. Recuperation (in terms of the S.I.) is likely to happen and one shouldn’t be afraid of this fact but rather aware of it. So document the results and spread the experiences you made.
It’s the paradoxon the communist movement has to solve: abolishing bourgois culture on the base of bourgeois culture.
So what steps are to be taken? The promises for a good life given by capitalist culture have to be taken seriously: The happiness that is promised in drugs, in advertisements, in parties. A communist point of view (to make it precise: communism seen in the tradition of the Frankfurt School) would not claim the abolishment of the above but reclaim that those promises should be fulfilled. Therefore raves open spaces where radical desires can be expressed, where the pleasure principle or the Eros according to Sigmund Freud is less supressed by the reality principle which is a primary condition for a emancipated society.