“In the old days it was forbidden to think freely; today we have gained the right but lost the ability”
Jaime Semprun (1947-2010) was an influential anti-industrialist writer, translator and publisher.
Estranged from the mainstream left because of his rejection of the modern mindset, he warned that we lived in “an era of acceleration and falsification” (1) controlled by a “mercantile tyranny”. (2)
Semprun echoed René Guénon in judging that so-called “progress” had in fact brought about severe cultural decline amounting to “the loss of all quality”. (3)
And he was scathing about those whose semi-radical thinking left the way clear for right-wingers and fascists to recruit those with a deep-seated aversion to the industrial capitalist world.
He warned in 1993: “We mustn’t neglect people’s need to attack existing society, or simply to counter it with a new conception of the world and of the life they could lead in it. We have already seen, with fascism, the high price of allowing our enemies to fulfil this need”. (4)
After being involved in the Situationist International, he was a key figure in the Post-Situationist movement and founded the journal Encyclopédie des Nuisances, which later became a book publisher.
Semprún translated and published writing by Orwell which had not previously been available in French, along with work by Theodore Kaczynski, Jean-Marc Mandosio, René Riesel and Chuang Tzu. (5)
He was also known as a leading opponent of nuclear power in France, publishing the essay La Nucléarisation du monde in 1980.
Semprun regarded industrial capitalist society as fake in both its whole and its parts. Reforming certain aspects of it would make little difference, he argued.
“Today, demanding to eat healthy food, for example, is in itself revolutionary”, he wrote, “because in order for that demand to be met it would be necessary to abolish the totality of the social relationships under capitalism”. (6)
Like John Ruskin, William Morris and Herbert Read, Semprun felt an overwhelming aesthetic distaste for the modern industrial world, arguing that its character was made quite clear by its sheer physical ugliness. (7)
He called out those who adopted pseudo-radical postures while actually defending the assumptions of this foul system. His 1976 pamphlet Précis de récuperation targeted postmodernists like Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard and Gilles Deleuze on this account, but Semprun identified the problem as polluting much of the so-called left.
The root problem was the general acceptance of the notion of “progress” as a means of interpreting history.
For Semprun, explains Patrick Marcolini, this notion was merely “a product of the bourgeois industrial age”, (8) For him, contemporary technology and science carried no promise of liberation – “on the contrary they form part of the structures of domination which have to be brought down”. (9)
The bourgeois-industrial concept of progress was accepted uncritically among supposed dissidents because of a state of mind that was itself a by-product of the general lowering of quality in industrial times, said Semprun.
He condemned “amnesia, identification with modernity and the hatred of critical thinking”, (10) commenting: “In the old days it was forbidden to think freely; today we have gained the right but lost the ability”. (11)
In Dialogues sur l’achèvement des temps modernes he has his character Ziffel declare: “What we are most missing today is individuals. Marxism told us that man is only the product of the social conditions in which he lives and that his individual conscience is a mere illusion, his freedom a sleight-of-hand and so on. And voilà, just through writing such horrible stuff, it ends up coming true”. (12)
Semprun shared Orwell’s distaste for conformist groupthink, and condemned modern followers of so-called democracy with their “remote-controlled indignation, their way of expressing all together and to order their hatred of those denounced to them as totalitarians, fanatics, or as racists, terrorists, in short as lunatics putting progress itself in danger”. (13)
The left-wing identification with modernity had lent a strange meaninglessness to terms such as “reactionary”, used to attack anyone who opposed the contemporary industrial capitalist machine.
“Everyone is so caught up in what they call progress that you could go as far as to say that if there were today any consistent reactionaries, they would certainly be mistaken for revolutionaries”, (14) wrote Semprun, but not without stressing that “criticism of the modern world is something too important to be left to reactionaries and nostalgists”. (15)
In common with other organic radicals and the anti-capitalist romantics identified by Michael Löwy, Semprun saw nothing wrong with looking to the past for inspiration as to how we might imagine another, non-capitalist, world, referring in a posthumously-published essay to “a past which was still filled with a future that we can imagine could have been, which could still be”. (16)
He was one of the first to expose the emptiness of the now-dominant strand of “environmentalism” which remains firmly embedded within the modern mindset and seeks “solutions” to environmental crisis in the development and production of yet more industrial technology.
He warned, with Riesel, that “precisely the same intellectual and material means used to build this world threatened with ruin, this teetering edifice, are now being deployed to diagnose the problem and recommend a remedy” (17) – which did not augur well for a successful outcome.
Semprun died in 2010, before “climate capitalism” raised the art of greenwashing to new levels of duplicity, but had astutely predicted that “the illusion-merchants have happy days ahead of them. During the disaster, the selling goes on”. (18)
As a genuine revolutionary, he of course completely discounted any possibility of ever creating a better world by reforming or adapting the very industrial capitalism which got us into this mess in the first place.
In Dialogues, the two characters discuss the difficulties in fighting a dominant system whose processes of production, distribution and domination, whose economic and social relationships and whose ideologies are so tightly and inextricably intertwined. Remarks Kalle: “You know full well how to deal with Gordian knots”. (19)
For those not familiar with the legends surrounding Alexander the Great, he is said to have sliced the knot in two with one powerful stroke of his mighty sword.
1. Jaime Semprun, Dialogues sur l’achèvement des temps modernes (Paris: Éditions de l’Encyclopédie, 1993), p. 44.
2. Jaime Semprun, L’Abîme se repeuple (Paris: Éditions de l’Encyclopédie des Nuisances, 1997), p. 54.
3. Semprun, Dialogues, p. 46.
4. Semprun, Dialogues, p. 86.
6. Semprun, Dialogues, pp. 122-23.
7. Jaime Semprun et René Riesel, Catastrophisme, administration du désastre et soumission durable (Paris: Éditions de l’Encyclopédie, 2008), IX.
8. Patrick Marcolini, ‘Jaime Semprun’, Aux origines de la décroissance, co-ordonné par Cédric Bagini, David Murray, Pierre Thiesset (Paris: L’Échappée, 2017), p 279.
9. Marcolini, Aux origines de la décroissance, p. 278.
10. Semprun, L’Abîme se repeuple, p. 29.
11. Semprun, Dialogues, p. 133.
12. Semprun, Dialogues, p. 31.
13. Semprun, L’Abîme se repeuple, p. 14.
14. Semprun, Dialogues, p. 34.
15. Semprun, Dialogues, p 37.
16. Jaime Semprun, Andromaque, je pense à vous, suivi de fragments retrouvés (Paris: Éditions de l’Encyclopédie des Nuisances, 2011), p. 18.
17. Semprun et Riesel, Catastrophisme, administration du désastre et soumission durable, X.
18. Semprun, Dialogues, p. 59.
19. Semprun, Dialogues, p. 93.