“No one today can reasonably doubt the existence or the power of the spectacle; on the contrary, one might doubt whether it is reasonable to add anything on a question which experience has already settled in such draconian fashion.” – Guy Debord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, 1989
Within five years of writing these lines, Guy Debord – author, filmmaker, and leader of a coterie of radical intellectuals known as the Situationist International – despairing at the ever quickening advance of the society he opposed, brought his own life to an end. He had lived long enough to see the collapse of the bipolar world order of the Cold War and the Americanization of the world. He had lived long enough to see the development of a form of totalitarian power at once concentrated and diffuse, the marriage of persistent seduction and unrelenting violence from Washington to Moscow. He had lived long enough.
Were Debord alive to see the 50th anniversary of his magnum opus, The Society of the Spectacle – his attempt to analyze the development and the function of late capitalist consumer culture’s rigged game – he might well be taking up his pistol this very moment.
Ours is a moment in which a reality TV host and beauty pageant manager has managed to bluff his way (with the aid of every media institution) into the American presidency. Donald Trump’s reputation as master of the “Art of the Deal,” despite having declared bankruptcy four times, is proof enough of what Debord considered the defining characteristic of modern capitalist society; the slide from having to appearing.
Ours is a moment in which a new Cold War is brewing between the same old powers, albeit stripped of any trappings of ideological distinction. It is a moment in which carefully curated social media personas exist to promote products in the snapshots of their public but otherwise banal daily life; in which the commodification of one’s own identity is both the calling card of the savvy entrepreneur and the savvy consumer. It is a moment in which the language of proletarian class consciousness is not counterposed to racialized conceptions of cultural struggle but rather the latter is presented as the former and the former as the latter.
This is a moment demanding coronation as the ultimate victory of the spectacle.
Were Debord alive today, he might take heart in the universalization of certain Situationist concepts. Young people implicitly understand what he considered the necessity of plagiarism so fully that a steady flow of memes utilize popular images in order to express the discontent, alienation and radical impulses of a generation gripped by the fear of dying both of boredom and of starvation. Or perhaps Debord would instead, like Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, cash in on his former status as a cultural rebel and embrace the system’s total absorption of everything he once hurled at it.
In any case, Debord is dead and we are not. We are thus faced with the simple choice of either confronting and resisting the spectacular power of late capitalism or else being consumed by it. Debord and the Situationists developed a sophisticated analysis of the presently reigning system and worked to find methods of combating its unique features. These deserve serious engagement and incorporation as we endeavor to construct a dynamic new left which sees both the necessity and the joy of resistance.
I: We should read The Society of The Spectacle with fresh eyes
The term “Society of the Spectacle” sounds odd at first but upon inspection, it seems to encapsulate everything about late capitalist culture, and our lives within it, that cause us to despair. The language of Situationism is often somewhat obtuse – they were trying to describe new phenomena – but so too are terms like “proletarian” and “bourgeois” to anyone first acquainting themselves with Marxism.
Debord observed that as modern methods of production have enabled the mass accumulation of capital, so too have they changed the fundamental nature of the experience of living. The result is the complete degradation of social life. First, the condition of being is replaced by the condition of having. This is the rule of the commodity in capitalist society, observed and analyzed by Marx and Engels. Next, the condition of having is replaced by the appearance of having, something Lukács recognized as a feature of modern capitalism. The spectacle, defined in the fewest possible words, is capitalist alienation and commodity fetishism universalized in every sphere of human activity.
Debord wrote that “the spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.” By that it is meant our perception of events, our interactions with one another, our self perception, our imagination and vision for the future; the complex sum of our everyday reality is all filtered through a maliciously and impossibly fantastical presentation of life and life’s possibilities. Debord’s proposition was the logic of capital, has come to dominate not just labor but every single aspect of human existence.
“Behind the masks of total choice, different forms of the same alienation confront each other,” Debord said, and one can’t help but imagine ourselves voting, switching jobs, and moving to new cities only to repeatedly run up against the same conditions from which we have turned. In analyzing the generalized sliding of having into appearing, he may as well have been browsing the social media accounts of the internet-famous, with their perfectly cultivated public lives. It’s no surprise that such people also act as spokespersons for a variety of products. Our identities are dreamed up in board rooms and marketing to us by celebrities which are meant to embody individual freedom but are in fact bound to present only a specialized brand.
When we read that “the establishment of spectacular domination is seemingly a social transformation so profound that it has radically altered the art of government,” one might consider President Trump’s theatrical signings of non-binding memos with the same attention from the press normally reserved only for actual legislation.
Everything about the arrangement of our lives is a distraction from living. Work is drudgery, a necessary evil for everyone who wishes to eat. But our leisure time is neither liberation from labor nor from the society we labor to maintain. We produce and sell commodities at work in order to consume commodities at play, either in the form of physical objects or in the form of experiences. Even vacations aren’t so much adventures away from our routine as they are packaged, mapped-out excursions from one sphere of estranged relations to another. We are alienated even from our own history by the commodification of time itself.
There is such a sharp contrast between our actual experiences – at our soul-crushing jobs, in our detached social interactions, in our consumption of uninspired art, and the omnipresent narrative praising our society of abundance, opportunity, and enjoyment – we find it so difficult to effectively navigate our own thoughts. This total degradation of life, wrought by a system which supposedly makes life easier and more fulfilling was to the Situationists, the primary contradiction of both capitalism and of “actually-existing-socialism” in the consumer age.
II: We should familiarize ourselves with Situationism
The Situationist International was a small collection of artists and intellectuals, with roots in the cultural avant garde of postwar Europe and in colonial North Africa. They grew out of a division within the Lettrist International, a radical counter-cultural grouping of the early 1950’s to which a number of Situationist ideas can traced. From 1957 to 1972, they attempted to refound revolutionary theory and practice on the basis of a reinvigorated Marxism. Theirs is a legacy of radical experimentation to achieve genuine experiences in a world of false consciousness and illusion, of conceptualizing revolt as joyous festival, of “borrowing and correcting” the artistic and political works of others, and the reassertion of proletarian revolution as the mass engagement in the making of history by the object of history.
The influence of the Situationists is recognized as being greatest during the May 1968 revolt in Paris. Situationists were prominent in the Sorbonne Occupation Committee which both reflected and urged on the wave of factory occupations which shook France to its core. Their influence was most evident in the language of the streets, the graffiti and written word of the youth rebellion:
“We don’t want a world where the guarantee of not dying of starvation brings the risk of dying of boredom.”
“In a society that has abolished every kind of adventure, the only adventure that remains is to abolish the society.”
May ‘68 was not a Situationist revolt, but the Situationists captured the spirit of the moment and the rebellious youth spoke the language of the Situationists. They were insistent that mechanisms of popular power are necessary for the revolutionary transformation of society. The explicit rejection of bureaucracy, parliamentarism, and focoism is a critical component of Situationism and of Debord’s 1967 work in particular. In June 68’, when the Communist and Socialist parties pursued a purely electoral strategy, along with the end of the general strike and dismantling the factory councils, the Situationists were among those who opposed the surrender of liberated space. For the Situationists, the assemblies and councils where the most genuine experiences that working people could have in a society where participation is reserved for specialists.
Debord once remarked that anyone associating Situationism with “spontaneism” and anti-organization simply didn’t know how to read. What the The Society of the Spectacle did say about organization was that a revolutionary group must not reproduce within itself the dominant conditions of separation and hierarchy and that it must struggle constantly against its deformation by the pressures of the reigning social order. “When constantly growing capitalist alienation at all levels makes it increasingly difficult for workers to recognize and name their own misery, forcing them to face the alternative of rejecting the totality of their misery or nothing, the revolutionary organization has to learn that it can no longer combat alienation with alienated forms.”
Debord was viciously critical of the codified doctrines and stifling internal political life of the Communist parties as well as the Trotskyist movement’s tendency to reproduce them. He also decried the incoherence of Anarchism and the inability of Anarchists to amalgamate and act decisively. One need not share Debord’s uncharitable views of either tendency to share a basic agreement with the basics of Situationism. The point is to salvage and détourne that which is most useful to us in the present moment.
The legacy of Debord and the Situationist International is mixed. To extent they are remembered, it is largely done in bad faith. The impact of Situationism on pop culture, especially in the musical rebellion of early punk, is often noted but rarely is the commitment to the upending of existing social relations. Much like the insights of Gramsci and Marx, the revolutionary content of Situationism is ignored while the analytical tools it provided are blunted by academics interested in Situationism as merely an art movement. But we have every reason to engage with Situationism, if only to plagiarize its best features as we try to craft a body of revolutionary theory that helps us navigate the horrific era through which we are all regrettably passing together.
III: We should be Situationists ourselves
Situationism is neither a singular moment in history to studied in the abstract, nor the foundation of yet another distinct leftwing sect. Situationism is an ingredient to be infused with the existing body of revolutionary theory in order to prevent its congealing into pure ideology.
Debord said that Situationism was not a doctrine but rather an experimental attitude. With this in mind, there a few key concepts that should be taken from Situationism by today’s socialists and incorporated into the project of organizing a new, constructive, revolutionary left.
We should strive to understand The Spectacle, or late capitalism’s physical and psychological complete domination us even at the level of our identity and our comprehension of reality. It’s the official politics and the culture, but it’s also our own methods of coping with the separation and division that dominates social life. It’s the whole phony reality in which we live. It is “the autocratic reign of the market economy, which had acceded to an irresponsible sovereignty, and the totality of new techniques of government that accompanied this reign.”
The spectacle has existed in three forms, starting with The Diffuse Spectacle, or the totalitarianism of the advanced capitalist economies in the era of the Cold War. Its primary expression was the seductive power of commodity abundance, relative freedom of choice, and leisure time. Its counterpart and competitor was The Concentrated Spectacle. This was the totalitarianism of backward economies engaged in primitive accumulation, of “State Capitalism,” and of advanced capitalism in crisis. This was the bureaucratic enforcement, via police methods, of the various mythologies of Fascism, Stalinism, and their respective copycats. Since the end of the Cold War, we have had The Integrated Spectacle: The synthesis of totalitarian spectacular power that emerged with the “End Of History,” that reigns East and West alike. Terrorism is its counterpart. Just as the world was once presented to us as bipolar, a contest between two variants of spectacular power, today we have the duality of spectacular power and the living hell of permanent warfare and terror, even as the spectacular powers unleash war and terror around the world.
We should understand the spectacle’s capacity for Recuperation; its power to absorb radical ideas and images and incorporate them. Advertising which utilizes “revolutionary” slogans and imagery to sell products, Che Guevara’s face stamped across every imaginable commodity, even protest itself can be purely spectacular. “Happenings,” love-ins, and rock concerts all once raised the horizons of the youth before countercultural rebellion itself began to be recuperated and commodified. “Ethical consumption” schemes – whereby one buys a product with the understanding that a portion of the profits are “given back” to a community left behind by the market – are an example of the systems recuperation of our unease with its actual operation.
We should counter this by engaging in Détournement, which means rerouting or hijacking. Détournement is the opposite of quotation. It is appropriation. It is the socialization of intellectual property. Debord said that plagiarism is necessary because it “embraces an author’s phrase, makes use of his expressions, erases a false idea, and replaces it with the right idea.” This should have profound implications for how we approach the role of art in politics and that is very much the point. If the agitprop aesthetic can be recuperated and commodified, so too can corporate logos, popular artworks, and famous photographs be détourned and used as agitprop. Any image – the more recognizable the better – is a potential mechanism for transmitting revolutionary ideas. We already use memes to express new thoughts and emotions by seizing upon the popular identification with a given image. Memes are a universalized form of détournement.
We should seek to construct Situations; the fulfillment of our innate desire for authentic experience. Situations are moments of genuine community and personal experience. There is a strong link between culture, revolution, and everyday life. A situation is a spontaneous moment of reaffirmed humanity in an otherwise utterly inhuman world. It is anything that has us “stepping out of our phony, third-rate version of reality,” whether in the throes of mass revolt or in the mere rejection of the banalities of everyday life. Situations are the practical alternative to spectacle. During revolutionary struggles, the general strike and the workers council are the means by which the masses construct situations. In daily life, a situation is the intentional discovery of adventure and the liberation of desire in defiance of alienation.
We should practice Psychogeography, which is “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” It’s about pondering the urban landscape’s effects on one’s consciousness and it’s about increasing the possibilities for new situations. It’s about countering the effects of automobile and shopping centers; of isolating everyone together and breaking up the natural dialectic of our interactions with one another and with the space around us. The primary method of psychogeography is the Dérive, which means “to drift,” and is the act of stepping out of our routines and allowing the urban landscape to push and pull us along. It means to explore, “not with subordination to randomness but complete insubordination to habitual influence.” The dérive is necessarily carried out on foot.
One should engage in the dérive both as individuals and also in groups. This is because we must gain a greater comprehension of how the oppressive urban landscape affects our own psychology, as well as ways in which people who are racially and sexually oppressed are uniquely alienated. The urban landscape is full of “no-go” areas for some, which are open to others. There are ads and artworks which evoke one set of emotions in one group and another in the next.
Situationism is about direct action in the real world, of the realization of the self through collective activity, and the development of methods of struggle that are calibrated by the constant shifts and developments within capitalist society. It’s about the reassertion of the revolutionary humanism at the core of the communist project from its inception. It’s an immanent critique which puts action at its core, and as such, it has a role to play in the reimagining and reconstruction of the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.
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Postscript: If the 50th anniversary of Debord’s primary work generates a greater interest in Situationism, McKenzie Wark’s The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International and Frances Stracey’s Constructing Situations: A New History of the Situationist International should see a spike in sales. One should consume these texts alongside Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life, Debord’s The Society of The Spectacle, and his Commentary on the Society of the Spectacle, which is essentially a Volume II.
- A small group of radicals interested in understanding specific changes in capitalist society in the mid to late 20th century and in incorporating that understanding in methods of political struggle.
- Published in 1967, the best known Situationist text.
- The postwar capitalist order, characterized by multinationals, globalization, mass media, and consumer culture.
- A development of the Marxist categories of commodity fetishism and reification at the core of Debord’s thought.
- In the Economic Manuscripts of 1844,’ Marx argues that under the system of commodity production and exchange, human interaction is subordinated to a relationship between things and this estranges people from one another, from nature, from the value of their labor, and from their very essence as human beings.
- György Lukács, Hungarian Marxist philosopher and literary critic, best known for theoretical work on alienation, reification, and class consciousness.
- The worshipful ascribing of intrinsic value to an object produced for the purpose of exchange.
- On May 6, Trump staged a public ceremony to sign a non-binding memo outlining his support for the privatization of the air-traffic control system. The memo was in no way legally binding, nor did it aid in the passage of any legislation.
- The basis of Khrushchev's “revisionism” in the 1960’s, according to the Maoists was the doctrine of “peaceful coexistence” with the West and economic competition to prove the USSR’s superiority, as opposed to a perpetual holy war against the imperialist powers. Mao’s China made a similar rapprochement with the US in the 1970’s.
- Engels used this term once to describe how thinkers work without awareness of the superstructural conditioning of their own philosophical framework. Lukács popularized the term in his essay, ‘Class Consciousness.’
- Lenin wrote that “Revolutions are the festivals of the oppressed” in his “Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution” (1905).
- Period of civil unrest from May 2 - June 23, 1968, characterized by strikes, protests, clashes with police.
- Radical student organization which led the occupation of the University of Paris.
- A list of May 68 slogans can be found at the Bureau of Public Secrets website (www.BOPsecrets.org).
- A theory of social revolution which maintains that there is no need for a conscious element, in the form of a political party, to lead, direct, or otherwise influence the working class in revolt. Lenin dedicates an entire chapter of his 1901 work, ‘What Is To Be Done?,” to a ruthless criticism of spontaneism.
- Antonio Gramsci, founding member of the Italian Communist Party, best known for theoretical work on Cultural Hegemony, a favorite of academics who find refuge from his revolutionary politics in his obtuse terminology.
- Or what Louis Althusser called “the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.”
- The Situationists advocated for the development of a revolutionary urbanism similar to Henri Lefebvre’s conception of the “Right To The City” (1968). And in fact, Lefebvre was quite close with the Situationists in the mid-to-late 1960’s.
- Marx’s famous characterization of communism in The German Ideology (1845).
This essay appears in our third issue, “Return of the Crowd.” Purchase a copy at wedge shop.
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Jason Netek is a longtime socialist, activist and nuisance from Texas. After a period of wandering the earth, doing as little work as possible, he moved to Hollywood to contribute to the cultural emasculation of Christian civilization. He is a member of Democratic Socialists of America’s newly formed Refoundation Caucus and the Red Wedge editorial collective. Jason is now on Twitter: @dialectronixxx