Paul Virilio

Speed and Politics



“Revolution goes faster than the people,” declared President­ General Costa Gomes at the beginning of the Portuguese events.

How could such a thing be possible? Simply because in the final account the West’s so-called revolutions have never been made by the people, but by the military institution. Economic liberalism has been only a liberal pluralism of the order of speeds of penetration. To the heavy model of the hemmed in bourgeoisie, to the single schema of the weighty Marxist mobil-machung (ostensibly planned control of the movement of goods, persons, ideas), the West has long opposed the diversity of its logistical hierarchy, the utopia of a national wealth invested in automobiles, travel, movies, performances… A capitalism that has become one of jet-sets and instant-information banks, actually a whole social illusion subordinated to the strategy of the cold war. Let’s make no mistake: whether it’s the drop-outs, the beat generation, automobile drivers, migrant workers, tourists, Olympic champions or travel agents, the military-industrial democracies have made every social category, without distinction, into unknown soldiers of the order of speeds — speeds whose hierarchy is controlled more and more each day by the State (headquarters), from the pedestrian to the rocket, from the metabolic to the technological.

In the 1960s, when a rich American wanted to prove his social success, he bought not “the biggest American car he could lay his hands on,” but a “little European job,” faster, less limited. To succeed is to reach the power of greater speed, to have the impression of escaping the unanimity of civic training. Since total war, there have been no foreign, external wars in the strict sense; as the Mayor of Philadelphia so aptly put it during a hot American summer: “Now the frontiers pass inside the cities.” Whether highway or street, everything is part of the single glacis of the frontier desert.

The Berlin wall benefited in the summer of 1977 from the latest advances in mines and video systems — a veritable face-lift! After Belfast, Beirut showed us the old communal city crushed under the blows of the Palestinian migrants. What they lived through was not the old state of siege, but an aimless and permanent state of emergency. To survive in the city one had to stay informed daily, by radio, about the strategic situation of one’s own neighborhood; everyone transformed his car into an assault vehicle, loaded with weapons in order to ensure freedom of movement. Not only didn’t the violence distinguish between uniforms, but the combatants themselves veiled their faces, like members of a hold-up. They didn’t want to be recognized even by their neighbors or social partners. They return to the state of the native combatant, to “open warfare”; a reappropriation of a certain technological under-development of the masses in the realm of weapons; a new progress of the disinformation of citizens, parallel to de-urbanization.

When the American State refuses to help New York in a time of crisis, when hospitals and schools have to shut down, when social aid is cut back and the city is no longer cleaned, it’s the dissolution of the city in its own outskirts, the future popular self-government of civil fear. Popular war had largely contributed to making the means of survival on the battlefield into a means of existence. The modern State takes credit for the formula in its new logistical revolution: when the Kang of Morocco decides in the fall of 1975 to take back the Spanish Sahara, he sends not his armies, but “peace marchers,” a miserable mass picked up in the cities and thrown unarmed into the desert at the front lines of the Moroccan tanks — as if, after all, it was now an ecological matter to be settled more between civilians than between military men.

With the Palestinian problem, popular war had suddenly taken on global proportions. Indeed, the tactic that consists in embracing in a diffuse manner the most widespread territories to escape the powerful nuclei of military repression could have no meaning for them, since the very cause of their struggle was the deprivation of geographic territory. They therefore lost no time in literally settling into the time zones of international airports. The new unknown combatants, come from nowhere and no longer finding a strategic terrain, fight in strategic time, in the relativity of travel time. Since in the final account there is no road that is not strategic, from this moment on there is no longer a truly civilian aviation. It is understandable that supersonics like the American SST, or more recently the Concorde, give rise to heated discussions: their high performances are a problem for the military. They reproduce in the vectors of the nuclear status quo the 1920s phenomenon of automotive assault in the streets of the bourgeois city.

On March 4, 1976, France’s Michel Poniatowski, then-Minister of the Interior, declared, “Security cannot be divided!” But to be more precise, he should have said: From now on, security can no longer be divided. As then-President Giscard d’Estaing stated three months later in a speech at the Military Academy, “Alongside the supreme means of ensuring our security, we need the presence of security. In other words, we need to have a social body organized around this need for security.” On August 25, Olivier Stirn, Secretary of State in the Overseas Territories, told the Council of Ministers that “The evacuation of the inhabitants of Basse-Terre Island, who were threatened by the eruption of the Soufriere volcano, demonstrated the possibilities for spontaneous action in a liberal society.” As we saw later, civil and social protection in this type of affair is no longer contemporary with the catastrophe; it precedes and, if need be, invents it.

In fact, the government’s deliberately terroristic manipulation of the need for security is the perfect answer to all the new questions now being put to democracies by nuclear strategy — the new isolationism of the nuclear State that, in the U.S., for example, is totally revamping political strategy. They are trying to recreate Union through a new unanimity of need, just as the mass media phantasmatically created a need for cars, refrigerators… We will see the creation of a common feeling of insecurity that will lead to a new kind of consumption, the consumption of protection; this latter will progressively come to the fore and become the target of the whole merchandising system. This is essentially what Raymond Aron recently said, when he accused liberal society of having been too optimistic for too long! The indivisible promotion of the need for security already composes a new composite portrait of the citizen — no longer the one who enriches the nation by consuming, but the one who invests first and foremost in security, manages his own protection as best he can, and finally pays more to consume less.

All this is less contradictory than it seems. Capitalist society has always tightly linked politics with freedom from fear, social security with consumption and comfort. But as we saw, the other side of this obligatory movement is assistance; since the war of movement, the infirmity of unable bodies has taken on a social consistency through the demands of the military worker. If the Treaty of Versailles is concerned with assistance, it’s because the inevitability of national Defense requires it, and henceforth imposes a plan of social action on the States as part of their general defense. As Gilbert Mury notes, the first true social workers were not neutral because they came from places like Colonel de la Roques “French Social Party.” It’s a good thing to remember: the promoters of the new “Social Security” in Great Britain (Sir Beveridge, for example, in 1942) had made it an objective of total war. Furthermore, it was to encounter similar groups of fascist or Petainist inspiration on the European continent, such as the National Aid movement. It is interesting to note the enrolment in these movements of certain members of the fascist denunciation forces (who were formerly occupied with civilian surveillance and repression), their integration into the new personnel of social aid, as we take advantage of the experience of common-law prisoners today. This is because the activities of these technicians of standardization are inseparable from the hegemonic aims of the State administration.

The tasks of the “social worker” increase and change with the opportunities afforded. Currently known as a tutor, educator or group leader, he also performs other functions: after decolonization, the department of “native affairs” becomes the department of “social affairs”; in their own country the Portugese colonial troops establish a “ministry of social communication.” And General Pinochet, who doesn’t mince words, very simply creates in Chile a department of “civilian affairs!”

Several years ago in France, in a period of full economic prosperity, the social workers declared, “We are workers like any other because we repair the socio-productive apparatus.” After ’68, they
were less sanguine: “The social workers feel very strongly the ambiguity of the notion of social work and are sensitive to the misunderstandings it can generate.” In fact, in the new economy of survival, it is no longer a matter of participating in a society of (more or less futile) abundance. Mr. Berlinguer said it in January 1977: “We are the ones who want austerity, in order to change the system and construct a new model of development.” And Strangely enough, he immediately refers to the transportation system, “to the revision of the myth of the personal automobile with the reorganization of cities. The solution to the transportation problem should lead to a radical transformation of State mechanisms through a modification of the nature of business.” Thus, everywhere, the mobile mass’s vehicular power is repressed and reduced; from limits on speed or fuel to the pure and simple suppression of the personal auto, the myth of the car is condemned to disappear along with the myth of the worker, the central historical agent of the logistical State.

The austerity preached by Enrico Berlinguer, as we know, had disastrous repercussions even within the Italian Communist Party, and many comparisons were made to the Spartan regime. But doubtless it would have been more correct to speak only of the end of the Lycurgean system, of the decomposition into anomie of a “society” whose members had been trained for centuries only to launch an attack, and who no longer knew what to do with their existence when this occupation was suddenly denied them. If you take away the Westerner’s car or motorcycle, what will be left for him to do? — if not completely fulfill the prophecy of M.I.S. Bloch, who, in 1897, announced: “War having become a kind of stalemate in which neither side can gain the upper hand, the armies will remain face to face, constantly threatening each other but unable to strike the deciding blow. This is the future: no combat, only famine; no killing, only the bankruptcy of nations and the collapse of any social system.”

In a social configuration whose precarious equilibrium is threatened by any ill-considered initiative, security can henceforth be likened to the absence of movement. The extended proletarianization of the suppression of wills can be likened to the suppression of gestures, for which the rise in unemployment is the best and most obvious image. We redistribute social work; we spotlight the performances of the physically and mentally handicapped, their records in Olympics for the disabled; we impose the new belief that a body s inability to move is not really a serious problem. Strangely enough again, the army can be found behind these philanthropic enterprises. Read the memoirs of Abbot Oziol, the French country priest who created centers for retarded children from nothing, centers designed to tear them away from the psychiatric wards: “A visitor may sometimes be surprised to hear us say that one of our children is in the army.’ That doesn’t mean that our unfortunate little retard was called into the service. We simply mean by this to designate the building that was given us by the Military Treasury, which since then has given us so much other help.” And it was General Malbec, director of the same National Military Treasury, who uttered the terrible slogan of these centers: “From the cradle to the grave!” But the army has never been anything else…

The redistribution of social aid finally aims at making the handicap functional, as the old Prussian State did in 1914. Financial aid takes on the appearance of a remuneration, a salary, at a time when the government insists on rewarding citizens who by denunciation act like auxilliary policemen. The indivisible security discerns in the bitter old man, excluded from the economic system by his modest pension and revenue, a last proletarian, a kind of attentive sentinel, immobile in the middle of the frenetic agitation of the social environment. One begins to meet these otherworldly beings in the street, aged persons whose wrists are equipped with an electronic alarm system scarcely larger than a wristwatch and relayed to a monitoring center. Gilbert Cotteau is at the origin of this kind of social action with the “Delta 7 Foundation,” which is responsible for many things, but which also had recourse, in order to get off the ground, to financial aid from the armed forces (particularly the Air Force). Its beneficiaries were mainly Vietnamese children made deaf by the bombardments, who received hearing aids; or old persons who were given free telephones, complete with an alarm system hooked into the central police computer. Behind this operation we find the National Union of Social Aid Offices and the Ministry of Health, as well as the Ministry of the Interior.

The posters that launched the great campaign for the safety of senior citizens, the audio-visual spots: all this indoctrination is widely broadcast in old people’s homes, clubs, hostels like so many orders for police mobilization, all of it furnished free for the asking.

For other social strata, manipulation of the need for security takes different forms. Since antiquity, precious metals, the gold standard, has been a “refuge value,” a remedy for anxiety, and thus a symbol of individual security — this “insurance” value having been, as we know, freely transferred to a multitude of exchange systems. Nonetheless, the current questioning of the gold refuge as basic standard of the monetary system is quite reminiscent of the events of the Law Bank shortly before the French Revolution. It contributes to the collapse of social “security;” and we find here, in the midst of the nuclear status quo, the reasons that made the Spartan State refuse the use of precious metals as one of the consequences of non-war. (The State, careful to put the people’s vigilance in defense to full use, deprived individuals of the means of protecting themselves other than by becoming totally engaged in the Lacedaemonian war machine.)

The code of production itself always aims at the “infinite receptacle of consumption.” But the latter becomes the consumption of total security; the utopian use of defense reflexes leads us to modify esthetics and the nature of production. The meaning of business reform is totally different from the one ascribed to it by the powers that be. Thus, the appearance on the market of “nonbrand name products that are just as good” — which passed more or less unnoticed — seems to me to be a considerable event: merchandise in large demand is presented for reasons of “economy,” in “anonymous” white labels, the company’s obtrusive trade mark having disappeared. They are promoted with an immense anti-publicity campaign. They are, so we are told, “free products;” in other words they no longer rely on the dubious methods of whorish old marketing techniques. From now on, repulsion sells more than attraction; this is what organizes our new social existence around the objects of protection. If the companies are asked by the consumer protection agencies to moderate their advertising campaigns, it’s because other forces of production seek to develop theirs in the area of information, like the members of the above- mentioned National Defense institute.

After the war of the domestic market, the war of the military market. It is no longer a system of consumption/production aiming at a democratic alliance, but the system of objects seeking to directly elect the military class or, more accurately, a technological and industrial development in the area of weaponry.

After his failed bid in the Portugese elections in April 1976, Mario Snares declared: “I don’t need to govern with politicians; I can do it just as well with soldiers and specialists.” The new Chinese leaders spout the same discourse. “Military socialism” wasn’t born in Peru or Portugal in 1976, any more than it first appeared in Berlin in the 1930s or in the last century with Bismarck, Napoleon III and “social imperialism.” The elimination of the political bourgeoisie’s partner is only the realization of a strategic dream based solely on scientific and technological speculation: militarized nations that can do without armies (General Gallois’ minimum vital force).

For Clausewitz, the political State is already a “non-conducting medium, a barrier that prevents full discharge. ”In such a statement, the nature of the military class’s ambition is perfectly revealed and the atomic situation projected… “Under Bonaparte (general/chief of State), war was waged without respite until the enemy succumbed, and the counter-blows were struck with almost equal energy. Surely it is both natural and inescapable that this phenomenon should cause us to turn again to the pure concept of war with all its rigorous implications.” Dynamic efficiency is the State machine’s primary quality, and the nuclear State, ultimate stage of dromological progress, ensures the concept’s cohesion thanks to the strategic calculator. Faced with and boarded by this ultimate war machine stands the last military proletarian, the henceforth will-less body of the President of the Republic, supreme commander of a vanished army. The President’s body resembles those of the ancient conscripts caught between two fires. His final act will once again be Assault.

Posted: August 2018
Category: Essays