Dominique Routhier–A Question of Strategy: A Response to Arne De Boever

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This response was published as part of the b2o review‘s “Finance and Fiction” dossier

In the text “Wu Wei (無爲) on Wall Street,” Arne De Boever notes the curious ubiquity in finance fiction of references to the ancient Chinese war general Sun Tzi, author of the perennial bestseller The Art of War. De Boever ponders why ancient Chinese theories of war crop on Wall Street (in fiction as well as in reality) and whether there might be a deeper relation between Sun Tzi’s doctrine of “wu wei” and neoliberal ideology more generally.[i]

To get at the question of the “content” of the neoliberal “parallelism” between war, finance, and management, De Boever returns to the French sinologist François Jullien’s tri-partite work on “efficacy” written over the last two decades before the turn-of-the millennium. According to De Boever, Jullien’s thought—at the center of which stands the Chinese notion of “wu wei” or, in French, “laissez faire”—facilitates a particularly easy exchange between discourses of war and management and thus provides an intellectual template for neoliberal thought.

De Boever is thus suggesting how Jullien might have assisted—in a much more direct way than someone like Foucault, who has often been accused of intellectual alignment with neoliberalism (Zamora and Behrent 2016)—in the historical transformation of ancient Chinese military thought (broadly informed by Daoist principles of “action through non-action”) into neoliberal management theory:

China’s non-Western model of warfare as it is exposed in Jullien’s Treatise becomes highly productive both within Jullien’s work (where it leads to his Lecture) but also outside of it, in its reception in management studies, as part of the development of contemporary management strategies not just for China but at large.

This is a compelling argument, particularly so since Jullien, as De Boever notes, did not merely theorize “efficacy” in management but actively participated in shaping new management doctrines for the neoliberal era through his work as a prominent international business consultant. By zooming in on the “unexceptional” thought of Jullien, and on the doctrine of “wu wei” in particular, De Boever thus offers a fresh perspective on the genealogy of neoliberal thought.

In what follows, I will respond to this argument by taking a slightly different but, I hope, complementary approach to understanding why Sun Tzi became a reference for Wall Street stock traders as well as a stable of new management theory.

Let me begin with a recent remark by Junius Frey, who in the foreword to Yuk Hui’s The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics touches briefly upon the topic of Chinese Daoism and notes, à propos the doctrine of “wu wei”:

The idea that to govern is to follow the vagaries of Nature, and that power ideally merges with the order of things, already captivated Quesnay in the 18th century in his eulogy of China’s despotism. The fascination with Chinese politics during this whole episode went hand in hand with consternation over American politics. One can maintain, along with the Marxists of Chuang, that “     the Chinese Communist Party functions as a vanguard for the global capitalist class” and that “its experiments are important precisely because they are situated on the first line of expansion of capital today, in both its industrial and financial dimensions, and are suited to the confrontation with the very limits of accumulation on its largest scales (Chuang, Social Contagion).” (Frey 2021)

Though the consequences that Frey draws from this observation are to my mind rather obscure (in short, Frey claims that today’s “imperial domination” is essentially “Chinese”), the embedded quote by the Chinese anti-authoritarian communist collective Chuang usefully shifts the focus away from the terrain of competing “ideas” to the real terrain of the material struggle between classes or class war.

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One of the most incisive strategists of class war is the French situationist Guy Debord. Debord’s thinking on war in the expanded social setting of late capitalist society not only prefigures key insights in so called “French theory” but also points to the transformation of war theory, via François Jullien, into management theory.

While it is well known that Debord and the situationists played a key role in the (failed) revolutionary events of May ’68, it is less well known that after the dissolution of the Situationist International (SI) in 1972 Debord (re)focused his attention to the study of the history of war, military theory and the question of strategy (Guy 2018). Debord believed that late modern warfare was no longer isolated to the battlefield, with two opposing armies confronting each other. Instead, Debord believed that war had transformed itself into a form of generalized class war that “should be understood in its social omnipresence.” (Debord 2018, 449). For Debord, the study of war was more than simply an intellectual pastime: it implied the question of strategy—when, how, and where to fight—for those who, like Debord himself, actively sought to overthrow capitalist society’s class-rule.

During the 1960s and early 1970s, against the backdrop of anti-colonial wars and uprisings in Algeria, Congo, Vietnam, and many other places, Debord studied, excerpted, and commented on a number of historical strategists from Sun Tse (the spelling Debord preferred to distinguish from the French Maoist spelling then in vogue, as noted by Laurence Le Bras) to Machiavelli, Jomini and Clausewitz (who appears in De Boever’s text), to mention just a few of the most well-known (Debord 2018).

Read in the light of the voluminous dossier on strategy that Debord left behind, his entire late oeuvre comes across as a sustained strategic study of the dynamics of “the social war” as a continuation of traditional warfare with other more “spectacular” means (Debord 2018, 111: Debord uses the term “la guerre sociale sous le spectacle”). Debord was not alone in turning to military theory to understand society. Debord’s interest in military theory may be seen as continuous with a broader intellectual turn in France where “from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, with the Vietnam War also in recent memory, the topic of war began to attract the attention of a number of leading French thinkers” (Engberg-Pedersen 2022, ?).  A key figure in this context is André Glucksmann whose Discours de la guerre from 1967 took up aspects of Mao Tsé-Toung’s writings on Chinese guerilla warfare and became an intellectual touchstone for the French rethinking of strategy and war (Glucksmann 1979).

However, by contrast to Foucault or Deleuze & Guattari, who would become well-known for their repurposing of Clausewitz, Debord’s key role in the rediscovery of the “classics” of war, and hence his influence on French radical thought, remains partly obscured. Debord himself contributed to the obfuscation of his role in reconfiguring war theory for revolutionaries by withdrawing into the shadows of French public intellectual life, publishing scarcely, and conspiring with a still smaller circle of trusted comrades and friends. Debord’s correspondence with one of these comrades, Jaime Semprún, provides an interesting view into French (post)war thought.

Believing that Debord had recommended to the prestigious French publishing house Champ Libre to reject his manuscript, Semprún accused Debord of being a kind of literary puppet master working behind the scenes to actively curate the available body of knowledge to fit his particular ideas of social revolution. Debord vehemently refused to have played any such role. Interestingly, however, Debord admits in his letter to Semprún to have had a certain influence on the resurgence of classical war theory, the perspectives of which he felt had been intellectually compromised:

Concerning the majority of the re-published ‘classics’—Clausewitz, Gracian, etc.—I absolutely do not see what my revolutionary reputation might add to them and still less what they might add to my revolutionary reputation (or even to my not-too-spectacular personal notoriety), since I have kept myself far from consecrating scholarly prefaces to them or adding to them my name as the person responsible for the collection or any other affair. Moreover, I find that all this—for the happy few who know that I recommended these books (in any case, my name is not used to recommend these books to the public)—is only testimony to a certain general culture, about which I have never sought to brag, but I do not dream of being embarrassed about it due to Vincenno-cadrist illiteracy (Debord 1976).[ii]

Though he preferred to take no credit for it, Debord was in fact, indirectly, responsible for the republishing of major works of strategy by Clausewitz and others during the 1970s. But his interest in war theory reaches much further back, to the 1950s if not before. In fact, by 1965 Debord devised his own wargame, called Kriegsspiel; a ludic device to aid strategic thinking that Debord and the Chinese born situationist Alice Becker-Ho, later Alice Debord, would play together and about which they would co-author an entire book (Becker-Ho and Debord 2006). The literature on Debord’s wargame is vast, and growing, and for the tech savvy there’s even a digital version of the game available (Guy 2020; A. Galloway 2022; A. R. Galloway 2021).

One little-noted fact in the history of Debord’s war game, however, is that the 1963 “prototype” for this game was produced by fellow situationist René Viénet (Guy 2018, 466). This is an  interesting detail in the context of De Boever’s thinking about Jullien as Viénet was, incidentally, a sinologist like Jullien, and a quite influential sinologist at that. Viénet, then, was perhaps not only “the main person responsible for informing the Situationist understanding of Maoist China” but also in all likelihood one of the main avenues through which the stream from French radical thought flew back to inform, and shape, the ideas and intellectual problematics of someone like Jullien (Zacarias 2020, 224).[iii] Whether or not Jullien’s conception of Chinese strategy as starting from “the potential inherent in the situation” [Jullien qtd. De Boever     ] was shaped by situationist thought is less important than the fact that certain ancient Chinese ideas about the “vagaries of Nature” clearly resonated in French postwar thought. Debord, for one, seems to latch on to the Daoist elements in Sun Tse’s Art of War, noting how “an army’s form resembles water” and “an army is exactly comparable to water because in the same way as a stream flows around peaks and throws itself down slopes, an army avoids strength and strikes weakness” (Debord 2018, 317–18).

Interesting as it would be to trace the connection between Debord, Viénet, and Jullien in more detail, I want to end by shifting the methodological lens from the study of the historical transmission and evolution of ideas to the material and social conditions that produced these ideas in the first place. As already suggested, Debord’s interest in war did not arise in a vacuum but was defined by the backdrop of decolonization struggles, colonial violence and anti-colonialist liberation wars. If one studies Debord’s work there is frequent reference to anti-colonial struggles abroad in for instance Algeria, or in Congo, where the spontaneous revolts led by Patrice Lumumba was hailed as the only ‘worthy sequel’ to the interwar periods revolutionary avantgarde movements (Smith 2013, 70; Yoon 2013; Routhier 2023, 205–6). Within the constraints of this brief response, let me just gesture towards some of the existing literature on the situationists’ internationalist anti-colonialism (Dolto and Moussa 2020; Corrêra 2023). But even gesturing points us further in the right direction, I think, and helps shift the perspective from the history of ideas à la Foucault to the Marxist viewpoint of social antagonism and class war à la Debord. Method, in short, is also always a question of strategy.

From the viewpoint of social antagonism the question is perhaps not so much whether Jullien’s reconfiguring of Sun Tzi and the “wu wei” doctrine impacted or influenced neoliberal management theory. I think De Boever very convincingly shows that he probably did. What seems more urgent to ask, pace De Boever, is why a French sinologist like Jullien comes to ventriloquize Capital? Why is the reemergence of Sun Tzi’s theory of war conspicuously coterminous with the rise of neoliberalism? To what extent do the changes in the organic composition of capital during the postwar decades change the terms and conditions (literally and figuratively) of class war? And, most importantly: what is the proper strategic response for those happy few of us who would like to think, in the stinging words of Junius Frey, “that the encounter between traditional Chinese thought and the European tradition can be something more than a spiritual supplement for functionaries on the rise, à la François Jullien” (Frey 2021).[iv]

Dominique Routhier is a researcher, writer, and critic based in Copenhagen, Denmark. He has most recently published the book With and Against: the Situationist International in the Age of Automation (Verso, 2023).

References

Becker-Ho, Alice, and Guy Debord. 2006. Le jeu de la guerre: relevé des positions successives de toutes les forces au cours d’une partie. Paris: Gallimard.

Corrêra, Erick. 2023. “The Internationalist Anti-Colonialism of the Situationists.” Brooklyn Rail, February 2023. https://brooklynrail.org/2023/02/.

Debord, Guy. 1976. “Letter to Jaime Semprún,” September 26, 1976. https://www.notbored.org/debord-26December1976.html.

———. 2018. Stratégie. La librairie de Guy Debord. Paris: Éditions L’Échappée.

Dolto, Sophie, and Nedjib Sidi Moussa. 2020. “The Situationists’ Anti-Colonialism: An Internationalist Perspective.” In The Situationist International: A Critical Handbook, edited by Alastair Hemmens and Gabriel Zacarias, 103–17. London: Pluto Press.

Engberg-Pedersen, Anders. 2022. “War and French Theory.” In War and Literary Studies, edited by Anders Engberg-Pedersen and Neil Ramsey, 85–101. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Frey, Junius. 2021. “Sketch of a Communist Political Doctrine.” Ill Will, September. https://illwill.com/sketch-of-a-communist-political-doctrine.

Galloway, Alexander. 2022. “How I Modeled Guy Debord’s Brain in Software.” ROM Chip: A Journal of Game Histories 4 (1). https://romchip.org/index.php/romchip-journal/article/view/162#fn-d0da464098a70e702cbc1660bb575977.

Galloway, Alexander R. 2021. Uncomputable: Play and Politics in the Long Digital Age. Brooklyn, NY: Verso.

Glucksmann, André. 1979. Le discours de la guerre. Paris: Grasset.

Guy, Emmanuel. 2018. “Postface.” In Stratégie, by Guy Debord. La librairie de Guy Debord. Paris: Éditions L’Échappée.

———. 2020. Le Jeu de La Guerre de Guy Debord: L’émancipation Comme Projet. Paris: B42.

Routhier, Dominique. 2023. With and against: The Situationist International in the Age of Automation. London ; New York: Verso.

Smith, Jason E. 2013. “Missed Encounters: Critique de La Séparation between the Riot and the ‘Young Girl.’” Grey Room (July): 62–81. https://doi.org/10.1162/GREY_a_00116.

Yoon, Soyoung. 2013. “Cinema against the Permanent Curfew of Geometry: Guy Debord’s Sur Le Passage de Quelques Personnes à Travers Une Assez Courte Unité de Temps (1959).” Grey Room (July): 38–61. https://doi.org/10.1162/GREY_a_00115.

Zacarias, Gabriel. 2020. “Détournement in Language and the Visual Arts.” In The Situationist International: A Critical Handbook, edited by Alastair Hemmens and Gabriel Zacarias, 214–35. London: Pluto Press.

Zamora, Daniel, and Michael C. Behrent, eds. 2016. Foucault and Neoliberalism. Malden (Mass.): Polity press.

[i] I would like to thank Jason Smith for insights and improvements on a draft version of this text.

[ii] The term Vincenno-cadrist refers to those employed at the Centre universitaires de Vincennes, which was established in 1968 as a response to the Parisian student protests of May ’68. In the early 1970s, Vincennes was a maoist hotbed for much of what would become known as “French Theory.”

[iii] Worth mentioning here is also Simon Leys’ (the pen name of Pierre Ryckmans) important anti-maoist book Les Habits neufs du président Mao (Paris: Champ libre, 1971).

[iv] For a more nuanced assessment of François Jullien’s thought and its critical relevance, see Arne De Boever’s François Jullien’s Unexceptional Thought: A Critical Introduction (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2020).

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