Society of the Spectacle, by Guy Debord, 1967, re-issued 2005.
This thin philosophical classic was written by Debord, a Marxist ‘situationist’ living in France. It is in two main parts – one, on the ‘society of the spectacle,’ which is really about the all-compassing alienation brought about by bourgeois culture; and stuck in the middle, a criticism of Leninism, Trotskyism, Lukacs, structuralism, anarchism and Stalinism from a ‘Councilist’ and also a 3rd Camp perspective, similar to CLR James.
What is most striking is that Debord writes in an epigrammatic and dialectical form which is enjoyable to read, though not always so easy to understand. It initiates surprised pondering and stuns the reader into thinking. To do this, as Feurbach and Marx did, Debord many times replaces the subject with the predicate. While Debord is against quotations, or as he might put it: “Quoting is the death of the quotation,” I will do it anyway. Here is one example from section #72, which shows his dialectical method of thought:
“The unreal unity proclaimed by the spectacle masks the class division on which the real unity of the capitalist mode of production rests. What obliges the producers to participate in the construction of the world is also what separates them from it. What brings together men liberated from their local and national boundaries is also what pulls them apart. What requires a more profound rationality is also what nourishes the irrationality of hierarchic exploitation and repression. What creates the abstract power of society creates its concrete un-freedom.”
The dialectic realizes that within every process is its negation, which is the heart of historical movement. Nothing is fixed. Capital, on the other hand, requires everything to seem eternal.
According to Dubord, Situationism believes in the ‘supersession’ of art – not its realization, as in Surrealism, or its suppression, as in Dadism (#191). It was most powerful in France during the worker-student strike wave in May-June 1968. The Situationists developed ‘unitary urbanism’ and ‘psycho-geography’ as fields of study, combining Marxism with non-alienating architecture and urban planning. They disbanded in 1972.
Dubord’s main point is that during the early phases of capitalist accumulation, the proletarian is only seen as a cog, receiving the minimum compensation for his contribution. However, as the society becomes more abundant, what is also required of the worker is ‘collaboration.’ Hence arises the ‘humanism of the commodity’ (#43) – the bourgeoisie finds it necessary and also profitable to take over the workers whole cultural existence. And the “society of the spectacle” is born. As Dubord puts it: “The real consumer is a consumer of illusions.” (#47) Gramsci understood the necessity of a proletarian cultural politics for this same reason.
Dubord identifies the ‘spectacle’ as not just religions, or sports, but every non-physical ideological commodity - tourism, celebrity worship, television (and now, the internet…), pseudo-festivals, the disappearance of history, credit, the service economy selling ‘experiences,’ art as a ‘collection of souvenirs,’ – perhaps even dating services, outdoor adventure trips and sites like Facebook.
Many ideas within this book show up later in the works of other writers. The commodification of dissent (#59) leads directly to Thomas Frank’s “The Conquest of Cool” and many articles in the Baffler. The ‘dictatorship of the automobile’ (#174) and the fake ruralism of suburbia (#177) show up in James Kunstler’s analysis of the suburbs, “The Geography of Nowhere.” Even Dubord's comments on the bourgeoisie’s belief and promotion of cyclical time can be seen as a criticism of writers like James Joyce, who posited the ‘endless return.’
The Revolutionary Organization:
Dubord’s ideas on the events in the USSR and other former and present workers’ states regarding third-campism are nothing new. The opposition of the ruling class to the bureaucratically-run states was part of their ‘bourgeois spectacle,’if you may. However, I am becoming more and more convinced that the Party, or the revolutionary organization, should ‘wither away’ itself. And it should wither away before the workers state.
Lukacs, in his 1924 book, “Lenin, a Study of the Unity of His Thought,” fresh from his own participation in the Budapest Soviet, wrote: “…had a relatively quiet period of prosperity and of the slow spread of democracy ensued …the professional revolutionaries would have necessarily remained stranded in sectarianism or become mere propaganda clubs. The party … is conceived as an instrument of class struggle in a revolutionary period.” If a highly ‘centralized’ party (Lukacs words) is not fit for time of ‘relative quiet,’ according to a Leninist like Lukacs, than why would it be fit to control the state after the working class takes power? In other words, if actual power is held by proletarian Soviets /workers councils, a party (or parties) is redundant. It/they should slowly relinquish it/their role(s), as the working class, through the councils, matures in its running of society. The Leninist idea of the party, or a single party, or any revolutionary organization, is really a ‘raft’ for revolution. And the raft, like the state, needs to wither away, not to exist eternally. Otherwise the party becomes (and did become, and still is) the vehicle for rule by a new bureaucracy. Of course, this bureaucracy is also made possible by the continued world dominance of capital. As such, another guarantee against bureaucratism is the extension of the revolution.
The Intellectual Commodity:
Debord reminds us that the development of late capitalism is not just about increasing financialization. Intellectual property and intellectual services have become a larger and larger segment of ‘production’ in the US and other advanced capitalist societies. This is in the form of films, inventions, software, music, graphics, television, etc. Intellectual services like legal work, engineering, drafting, academic theses, etc., and the paper/electronic ‘products’ of that labor, are also a larger part of the economy. They do not just play the role of 'spectacle' but also a role in profitability. As such, Marxists have to develop a clear analysis of intellectual property, and the nature of intellectual/cultural labor and its role in political economy.
Dubord's book is a delight, and if Craig has any copies left, grab one. It is certainly not for sale anywhere else in town.
And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog, October 17, 2010