Georges Bataille: The Struggle Against the Absence of Authority

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Evil is certainly not what hypocritical misunderstanding has tried to make of it; is it not really concrete freedom, the troubling break with taboo?
– Georges Bataille, Toward Real Revolution

For Bataille all past revolutions were against Sovereignty, against societies based on monarchy or its derivatives. In our time one could not follow even the Communists of the October Revolution. Why? Simply put, power in these older societies still resided in the figure of a Leader, in modern democratic societies this power is absent. In modern democratic states and societies power shifts between two tendencies, each of which cannot overcome the other except through supposed political change of parties so that without “a crowned head to unite the opposition against it, no lasting union is formed; for if a chief of state or head of government does become the object of a general outcry, the institutions normally at work will eliminate him, thus satisfying a portion of the disaffected. Political crises within these regimes develop differently and in a radically contrary direction from those within autocracy. Under autocracy, it is authority which grows intolerable. In democracy, it is the absence of authority”.1

Modern Bourgeois democracies are clock-work mechanisms, pendulums that shift Left to Right and back again as one or the other side moves too far toward an extreme position, thereby forcing a shift in the opposite direction. Yet, as we’ve seen in our own time, politics is stage-show, a sham for the masses that stages a theatre of media-propaganda to entertain rather than resolve difficult social, economic, or political issues. Nothing gets done. But that’s the point, both the Left and Right sold out to the powers beyond government long ago: the bankers, the stockholders, the rich and elites that squander the resources of the planet and keep us attuned to the charade of a democracy that has become for the most part an oligarchs paradise and for the oppressed  and exploited, the excluded and the poor of the world an End Game without an outlet.

Bataille wrote this essay back in 1937 but it is as fresh as ever. Bataille was a singular figure who attacked both Communist and Bourgeois democratic forms of government. In many of the essays of this book he was developing an answer to the rise of fascism in his time, as well as the dark fall of communism into Stalin’s terrors. Throughout his life he would follow Nietzsche’s diagnosis of Idealism wherever it was found, attacking any form of closed systematic systems of philosophical or political subterfuge. An arch anti-Platonist and anti-representationalism he strove to develop an attack against both discursive (linguistic) entrapments and any system of closure that tried to contain humans in enslavement.

What we’re seeing in the global world today is a repetition of this very absence of power across the civilized world of which Bataille suggests is an “absence of authority”:

Bourgeois society is an organization with no true power, which has always relied on a precarious balance, and which now, as its balance weakens, is expiring in powerlessness. It must be fought not as authority, but rather as absence of authority. To attack a capitalist government is to attack a blind, heartless, inhuman, truly unspeakable leadership, which strides helplessly, stupidly toward the abyss. Against this garbage we must use direct imperative violence, direct construction of the basic force of an uncompromising authority. (p. 35)

Some mistook his statements as harboring fascistic components, yet if one carefully reads his statements one comes to a direct opposition to both Fascism, Communism, and Bourgeois democracy under capitalists forms as totalistic systems of enslavement against which he was an arch-enemy. As he’d state it:

The crisis of bourgeois democratic regimes leads neither to the putsch nor to popular uprising; it regularly results in the development of organic movements, movements of recomposition to which important politicians are forced to give way. This move has until now been undeniably to the benefit of social conservatism of the blindest sort. Only the lackeys of capitalism could and would undertake it. Under the mask of demagogy, they have tried to reconstruct the social structure only the better to curb the oppressed. They have, however, discovered new methods of propaganda fitting to a new situation; they have exploited the sole possibilities of effective action against the dissolving regime. …

We must cease to believe that methods invented by our adversaries are necessarily bad. On the contrary, we must, in turn, use those methods against them. (p. 35)Bataille’s study of the Left showed him that its methods and goals could only ever be provisional at best, that their alignment with the oppressed and hatred of all authority allowed them to act nobly, yet brought them to a point of complete destruction and destabilization but yielded no ability to reconstitute new social, economic, or political forms beyond this destructive tendency.

Sadly, in most instances the Left during most crisis developed a their ideological constructs based on overcoming autocracy in any form, which cruelly led the opposing forces of religion, state, and the older conservative tendencies of economics, etc. to reassert themselves in altered forms thereby once again entrapping the base proletariat in new traps of exploitation. A circle of closure that must itself be overcome. All systems based loosely as Marx’s was on Hegel’s closed system were tainted by Idealisms. Marx and Lenin were tainted by Idealisms of a merciless kind, a materialism that was itself the epitome of Idealism.

Against the abstract and rational systems and schemas that most hard core revolutionary idealisms have forged their organic and limited insurrections Bataille sought something baser, closer to the actual world of relations and realize that “a given form of action is on principle useful in either of two directions, just as a cannon can be directed eastward or westward. Only the analysis of the political situation at our disposal, seen in relation to goals pursued, allows us to decide whether or not recourse to a given form in a clearly defined case is valid” (p. 39).

Bataille was clearly working toward a theory of events, of a timebound register of action rather than some abstract schematic or universal system of thought. As he’d question it we cannot be sure of the direction or ends to which such mass movements will eventually turn, nor can we control those outcomes: “This being so, extreme prudence is in order from the start. How is one to know in advance that this mass, caught in an evolution which may somewhat alter its composition, will not, eventually, be propelled by nationalist goals or by forces hostile to workers’ freedom? How is one to know that a movement which first appears to be antifascist will not rapidly develop toward fascism? (p. 39)”

As he saw it we we’re in a battle against two competing forces in the modern world. The first forces them to kill each other in the setting of nation against nation(Capitalist democracies); the second forces them to work for an inhuman minority of producers at a time when the latter have become blind and impotent (Communist regimes). Neither of these systems of government offer true freedom or individual sovereignty. Both are enslaved to power regimes that profit only a select elite and minority. “We are fighting to transform the impotent world of human society in which we live; we are fighting so that human omnipotence may free itself from a past of misery and freely distribute the world’s riches. (p. 40)” Against commodity capitalism or communism Bataille struggled for the emancipation of all oppressed peoples of the earth.

Against both Fascist and Communist systems Bataille believed in a third alternative, an “organic movement for the liberation of the exploited, of an organic movement not of national consciousness and moral slavery, but of the universal consciousness committed only to the struggle against war and to the hatred of the legacy of past constraints.” (p. 40) In his own time Bataille looked to the Popular Front as typifying this embodied form of organic movement. What he’d hoped for did not come to pass. What Bataille believed was that we must relinquish our democratic illusions which still prevent us from seeing that a government formed under a parliamentary organization can only be weak, ineffective, and disastrous. That ultimately the necessary task for any future form of government set up a “revolutionary authority which will set the capitalists trembling in their banks, which will liberate the exploited, and which alone can bring about the passionate union of the peoples of the world.” (p. 41)

Yet, one wonders what such revolutionary authority would constitute after the revolution? Humans seem to repeat the same mistakes in every new generation because we are bound to those inevitable and real tendencies that come not from some external realm of cosmic horror, but from the very real drives and impulses that so immanently control our conscious perceptions of reality from within. Bound and trapped in neurochemical systems or organic being we still hang onto the notion that consciousness once free of the traps of external coercion will suddenly manifest some new social form of freedom. Yet, history continues to prove otherwise. Are we truly victims of our own evolutionary blindness? Are we shaped to powers we still believe we can control? Is the brain after all an accidental machine or organic and chemical reactions that like other physical and animal systems binds us to a heritage of survival mechanisms that disallows the very abstract notions of freedom we so heartily pursue. Why else to we continually allow ourselves to be brought back into chains with another turn of the wheel of time? Bataille would turn from external political concerns toward the base material of our inner experience seeking answers to modern man’s dilemmas.

Bataille in his time pushed the limits of inner experience to extremes, forming a world of fragments and aphoristic gleams into that hinterland of shadows which rarely comes across in language, and never in communication; yet, it was communication that would haunt Bataille’s thought most of all, that unique ability to form a community of beings based on communication rather than language. He sought in his vision of primitive society a way back to those early ways of perceiving and being that we’ve all lost in the struggles of power within our trivial pursuits of economic comfort. We are accidents of time who have forgotten our uniqueness; and yet, he knew nostalgia was a trap, too, one that would lock us into a world of false images, dreams. There is no going back, only in. We must discover within ourselves that power that can answer the externality of the world that seeks to trap us in its systems and schemas of closure. Between ecstasy and horror we  hang by a thread like shadows on a wall moving silently in a black night of fate and silence that is both unknowing and without remembrance. The only answer to such externality is that sardonic laughter that seems to echo through time like a merciless litany to those dark twins, eros and death…

The fate of human existence thus appears as linked to a small number of beings who are totally without power. For some carry within themselves far more than they, in their state of moral decay, believe; when the surrounding crowd and their representatives place in bondage all that concerns them. He who has been schooled to the limit through meditation upon tragedy ought not to take his pleasure in the “symbolic expression” of destructive forces; rather, he should instruct his fellows in the consequences. He should, by his firmness and persistence, lead them to organize, to become, in contrast to the fascists and Christians, other than the degraded objects of their adversaries’ contempt. For it is incumbent upon them to impose chance upon the masses who demand of all men a life of slavery – chance, meaning that which they are, but from which, through failure of will, they abdicate. (p. 45)


1. Georges Bataille: Writings on Laughter, Sacrifice, Nietzsche, Un-Knowing translated by Annette Michelson with essays by Rosalind Krauss, Annette Michelson, and Allen S. Weiss (MIT Press)

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