:: Article

History in miniature

By John Barker.

Class War Games Presents: Guy Debord’s The Game of War, Unpopular Books, 2012

This 80 page book by Richard Barbrook and Fabian Thompsett is an extension of the film script that forms the basis of Ilze Black’s film of the same name. It describes how a group was formed to popularise and play the Game of War which Guy Debord spent the last 10 years of his life developing and playing with Alice Becker-Ho. It lists the various public venues where the group has played the game in real time, but also describes the game in detail and hints at why they think it is important. The first, unstated, is to rescue Debord, long term member and survivor of the Situationist International (SI), from the ironic recuperation of him and the SI by the cultural establishment they despised. Ironic because they were so hot on any kind of politics that could be, as they called it, recuperated, that is, absorbed by the very ‘Spectacle’ they had described. To have an exhibition devoted to them at the Pompidou Centre in 1987, and then for his personal archive to be described as ‘a national treasure’ by the French Minister of Culture in 2009 was the unkindest cut for someone who lived by the sword. The Game of War however does not fit this Debord-made safe, just as he himself truly did live by the sword, ripping of the bourgeoisie whenever possible and including with his own suicide that meant Alice would have some money. Instead, the Game claims a seriousness about not just analysing capitalism and its monologue, but thinking strategically about how to go about participating in its downfall.

This hints at the second, but similarly unstated purpose of the re-staging the Game and this book which is to encourage the use of simulation and game playing both to be prepared for situations, and to prepare them. When I was young I was involved in street and portable theatre and improvisation felt like a radical technique. But now it is the capitalist class, hard-hats, its satellites and useful idiots who use this technique to prepare, to envisage in advance how to deal with or promote points of conflict on its own terms. This is perhaps difficult for people who want to participate in the downfall of rationalised greed and the violence it both generates and demands, because one wants to live in relation to others without calculation, to be spontaneous. The Game, the authors suggest is a way in which this difficulty can be overcome, that how we are with our friends and comrades does not preclude learning calculation in class terms. This is surely going to be increasingly important as the worldwide war on the poor is cranked up on a daily basis.

In summarising the rules this thinking in strategic terms is however described as being non-militaristic; no real blood is being spilled as H.G. Wells said of his own war game; and there is no storming of the Winter Palace, an event that was anyway re-staged by the Bolsheviks in 1917. Rather the emphasis is on lines of communication and how these might be broken. In the modern world we see on the one hand the security around TV stations, but also the essential fragility of a world built on just-in-time production and distribution. It was made very clear the one time the Blair government was seriously worried, the blockades and strikes around oil refineries. Though the text does not mention it, one thinks immediately of the logistics (a military term) of modern day capitalism. Whether or not, as the text claims, “Each player is the revolutionary proletariat, learning how to build the participatory infrastructure of cybernetic communism'” is what playing the Game of War is something the Game creates is left open, but all encouragement to think strategically without becoming tempted into Winter palace fantasies is very welcome. This is articulated in the group’s witty “Communique 5” which uses the language of war to describe their invitation and performance at Cyberfest ’08 in St Petersburg, feeling ready for it after “a year of tough campaigning on the cultural battlefields of London.” It made them ready to fight “side-by-side against aesthetic conservatism and hierarchical ideologies,” and more specifically to counter the passive consumption of fantasy accounts of the Russian Revolution and instead, re-enacting “its history in miniature.”

John Barker was born in North London where he still lives. He was imprisoned in the 70s as an Angry Brigade ‘conspirator’ and served a further sentence in the early 90s for hash smuggling.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, January 15th, 2013.