The Society of the Spectacle
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The Society of the Spectacle

Guy Debord, Donald Nicholson-Smith

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eBook - ePub

The Society of the Spectacle

Guy Debord, Donald Nicholson-Smith

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Few works of political and cultural theory have been as enduringly provocative as Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle. From its publication amid the social upheavals of the 1960s to the present, the volatile theses of this book have decisively transformed debates on the shape of modernity, capitalism, and everyday life in the late twentieth century. Now finally available in a superb English translation approved by the author, Debord's text remains as crucial as ever for understanding the contemporary effects of power, which are increasingly inseparable from the new virtual worlds of our rapidly changing image / information culture."In all that has happened in the last twenty years, the most important change lies in the very continuity of the spectacle. Quite simply, the spectacle's domination has succeeded in raising a whole generation moulded to its laws. The extraordinary new conditions in which this entire generation has lived constitute a comprehensive summary of all that, henceforth, the spectacle will forbid; and also all that it will permit."— Guy Debord (1988)

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The equal right of all to the goods and enjoyment of this world, the destruction of all authority, the negation of all moral restraints – these, at bottom, are the raison d’ĂȘtre of the March 18th insurrection and the charter of the fearsome organization that furnished it with an army.
— EnquĂȘte parlementaire sur l’insurrection du 18 mars
73 THE REAL MOVEMENT that abolishes reigning conditions governed society from the moment the bourgeoisie triumphed in the economic sphere, and it did so visibly once that victory was translated onto the political plane. The development of the forces of production had shattered the old relations of production; every static order had crumbled to nothing. And everything that had formerly been absolute became historical.
74 IT IS BECAUSE human beings have thus been thrust into history, and into participation in the labor and the struggles which constitute history, that they find themselves obliged to view their relationships in a clear-eyed manner. The history in question has no goal aside from whatever effects it works upon itself, even though the last unconscious metaphysical vision of the historical era may view the productive progression through which history has unfolded as itself the object of that history. As for the subject of history, it can only be the self-production of the living: the living becoming master and possessor of its world – that is, of history – and coming to exist as consciousness of its own activity.
75 THE CLASS STRUGGLES of the long revolutionary period ushered in by the rise of the bourgeoisie have evolved in tandem with the “thought of history,” with the dialectic – with a truly historical thinking that is not content simply to seek the meaning of what is but aspires to understand the dissolution of everything that is – and in the process to dissolve all separation.
76 FOR HEGEL IT was no longer a matter of interpreting the world, but rather of interpreting the world’s transformation. Inasmuch as he did no more than interpret that transformation, however, Hegel was merely the philosophical culmination of philosophy. He sought to understand a world that made itself. Such historical thought was still part of that consciousness which comes on the scene too late and supplies a justification after the fact. It thus transcended separation – but it did so in thought only. Hegel’s paradoxical posture, which subordinates the meaning of all reality to its historical culmination, while at the same time revealing this meaning by proclaiming itself to be that culmination, arises from the simple fact that the great thinker of the bourgeois revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries strove in his philosophy merely for reconciliation with the results of those revolutions. “Even as a philosophy of the bourgeois revolution, it does not reflect the entire process of that revolution, but only its concluding phase. It is thus a philosophy, not of the revolution, but of the restoration” (Karl Korsch, “Theses on Hegel and Revolution”). Hegel performed the task of the philosopher – “the glorification of what exists” – for the last time, but, even for him, what existed could only be the totality of the movement of history. Since the external position of thought was nevertheless maintained, this could be masked only by identifying that thought with a preexisting project of the Spirit – of that absolute heroic force which has done what it willed and willed what it has done, that force whose achievement is the present. So philosophy, as it expires in the arms of truly historical thinking, can no longer glorify its world without denying it, for even in order to express itself it must assume that the total history in which it has vested everything has come to an end, and that the only court capable of ruling on truth or falsehood has been adjourned.
77 WHEN THE PROLETARIAT demonstrates through its own actions that historical thought has not after all forgotten and lost itself, that thought’s conclusions are negated, but at the same time the validity of its method is confirmed.
78 HISTORICAL THOUGHT CAN be saved only if it becomes practical thought; and the practice of the proletariat as a revolutionary class cannot be less than historical consciousness applied to the totality of its world. All the theoretical strands of the revolutionary workers’ movement stem from critical confrontation with Hegelian thought, and this goes for Marx as for Stirner and Bakunin.
79 THE INSEPARABILITY OF Marx’s theory from the Hegelian method is itself inseparable from that theory’s revolutionary character, that is to say, from its truth. It is under this aspect that the relationship between Marx and Hegel has generally been ignored, ill understood or even denounced as the weak point of what has been fallaciously transformed into a Marxist dogma. Deploring the less-than-scientific predictions of the Manifesto of 1848 concerning the imminence of proletarian revolution in Germany, Bernstein perfectly described this connection between the dialectical method and a historical taking of sides: “Such historical autosuggestion, so grievously mistaken that the commonest of political visionaries would be hard pressed to top it, would be incomprehensible in a Marx – who by that period had already become a serious student of the economy – were it not possible to recognize here the traces of a lingering loyalty to Hegel’s antithetical dialectics, from which Marx, no more than Engels, had never completely emancipated himself. In view of the general turbulence of the times, this was all the more fatal to him.”
80 THE INVERSION THAT Marx effected in order to “salvage” the thought of the bourgeois revolutions by “transplanting” it was no trivial substitution of the material development of the forces of production for the unfolding of the Hegelian Spirit on its way to its rendezvous with itself in time, its objectification being indistinguishable from its alienation, and its historical wounds leaving no scars. For history, once it becomes real, no longer has an end. What Marx did was to demolish Hegel’s detached stance with respect to what occurs, along with the contemplation of a supreme external agent of whatever kind. Theory thenceforward had nothing to know beyond what it itself did. By contrast, the contemplation of the movement of the economy in the dominant thought of present-day society is indeed a non-inverted legacy of the undialectical aspect of the Hegelian attempt to create a circular system; this thought is an approbatory one which no longer has the dimension of the concept, which no longer has any need of Hegelianism to justify it, because the movement that it is designed to laud is a sector of the world where thought no longer has any place – a sector whose mechanical development in effect dominates the world’s development overall. Marx’s project is the project of a conscious history whereby the quantitative realm that arises from the blind development of purely economic productive forces would be transformed into a qualitative appropriation of history. The critique of political economy is the first act of this end of prehistory: “Of all the instruments of production, the greatest productive power is the revolutionary class itself.”
81 THE CLOSE AFFINITY of Marx’s thinking with scientific thinking lies in its rational grasp of the forces actually at work in society. Fundamentally, though, Marx’s theory lies beyond science, which is only preserved within it inasmuch as it is transcended by it. For Marx it is the struggle – and by no means the law – that has to be understood. “We know only a single science,” says The German Ideology, “the science of history.”
82 THE BOURGEOIS ERA, though eager to give history a scientific foundation, neglects the fact that the science available to it must certainly have been itself founded – along with the economy – on history. On the other hand, history is fundamentally dependent on economic knowledge only so long as it remains merely economic history. History’s intervention in the economy (a global process that is after all capable of changing its own basic scientific preconditions) has in fact been overlooked by scientific observers to a degree well illustrated by the vain calculations of those socialists who believed that they could ascertain the exact periodicity of crises. Now that continual tinkering by the State has succeeded in compensating for the tendency for crises to occur, the same type of reasoning takes this delicate balance for a permanent economic harmony. If it is to master the science of society and bring it under its governance, the project of transcending the economy and taking possession of history cannot itself be scientific in character. The revolutionary point of view, so long as it persists in espousing the notion that history in the present period can be mastered by means of scientific knowledge, has failed to rid itself of all its bourgeois traits.
83 THE UTOPIAN STRANDS in socialism, though they do have their historical roots in the critique of the existing social organization, are properly so called inasmuch as they deny history – inasmuch, that is, as they deny the struggle that exists, along with any movement of the times beyond the immutable perfection of their image of a happy society. Not, however, because they deny science. On the contrary, the utopians were completely in thrall to scientific thinking, in the form in which this had imposed itself in the preceding centuries. Their goal was the perfection of this rational system. They certainly did not look upon themselves as prophets disarmed, for they believed firmly in the social power of scientific proof – and even, in the case of Saint-Simonism, in the seizure of power by science. “However did they imagine,” Sombart wonders, “that what needed to be proved might be won by fighting?” All the same, the utopians’ scientific orientation did not extend to knowledge of the fact that social groups are liable to have vested interests in a status quo, forces at their disposal equipped to maintain it and indeed forms of false consciousness designed to buttress their positions. Their idea of things thus lagged far behind the historical reality of the development of science itself, which was by this time largely governed by the social demand arising from factors, such as those mentioned above, which determined not only what was considered scientifically acceptable but also just what might become an object of scientific research. The utopian socialists remained prisoners to the scientific manner of expounding the truth, and they viewed this truth in accordance with its pure abstract image – the form in which it had established itself at a much earlier moment in social development. As Sorel noted, the utopians took astronomy as their model for the discovery and demonstration of the laws of society: their conception of harmony, so hostile to history, was the product, logically enough, of an attempted application to society of the science least dependent on history. This conception was introduced and promoted with an experimental ingenuousness worthy of Newtonism, and the smiling future continually evoked by the utopians played “a role in their social science analagous to that played by inertia in rational mechanics” (MatĂ©riaux pour une thĂ©orie du prolĂ©tariat).
84 THE SCIENTIFIC-DETERMINIST side of Marx’s thought was indeed what made it vulnerable to “ideologization”; the breach was opened in Marx’s own lifetime, and greatly widened in his theoretical legacy to the workers’ movement. The advent of the subject of history was consequently set back even further, as economics, the historical science par excellence, was depended on more and more as guarantor of the necessity of its own future negation. In this way revolutionary practice – the only true agent of this negation – tended to be thrust out of theory’s field of vision altogether. It became important patiently to study economic development, and once more to accept, with Hegelian tranquillity, the suffering it imposed – that suffering whose outcome was still a “graveyard of good intentions.” All of a sudden it was discovered that, according to the “science of revolutions,” consciousness now always came on the scene too soon, and needed to be taught. “History has proved us, and all who thought like us, wrong,” Engels would write in 1895. “It has made it clear that the state of economic development on the Continent at that time was not, by a long way, ripe.
” Throughout his life Marx upheld his theory’s unitary standpoint, yet in the exposition of that theory he was drawn onto the ground of the dominant forms of thought, in that he undertook critiques of particular disciplines, and notably that of the fundamental science of bourgeois society, political economy. It was in this mutilated form, later taken as definitive, that Marx’s theory became “Marxism.”
85 THE WEAKNESS OF Marx’s theory is naturally part and parcel of the weakness of the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat of his time. The working class failed to inaugurate permanent revolution in 1848, and the Commune went down in isolation. Revolutionary theory was thus still unable to come into full possession of its own existence. That Marx should have been reduced to defending and honing that theory in the detachment of scholarly work in the British Museum can only have had a debilitating effect on the theory itself. What is certain is that the scientific conclusions that Marx drew about the future development of the working class – along with the organizational practice founded on them – would later become obstacles to proletarian consciousness.
86 ALL THE THEORETICAL shortcomings of a scientific defense of proletarian revolution, be they in the content or in the form of the exposition, come down in the end to the identification of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie with respect to the revolutionary seizure of power.
87 AS EARLY AS the Manifesto, the urge to demonstrate the scientific legitimacy of proletarian power by citing a sequence of precedents only served to muddy Marx’s historical thinking. This approach led him to defend a linear model of the development of modes of production according to which, at each stage, class struggles would end “either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” The plain facts of history, however, are that, just as the “Asiatic mode of production” (as Marx himself observed in another connection) preserved its stasis in spite of class conflict, so too no jacquerie of serfs ever overthrew the barons and no slave revolt in the ancient world ever ended the rule of freemen. The first thing the linear model loses sight of is the fact that the bourgeoisie is the only revolutionary class that has ever been victorious; the only class, also, for which the development of the economy was the cause and consequence of its capture of society. The same simplified view led Marx to neglect the economic role of the State in the management of a class society. If the rising bourgeoisie appears to have liberated the economy from the State, this is true only to the extent that the State was formerly the instrument of class oppression in a static economy. The bourgeoisie developed its autonomous economic power during the medieval period when the State had been weakened, when feudalism was breaking up a stable equilibrium between powers. The modern State, on the other hand, which first supported the developing bourgeoisie thanks to the mercantile system, and then went on, in the time of “laisser faire, laisser passer,” to become the bourgeoisie’s own State, was eventually to emerge as wielder of a power central to the planned management of the economic process. Marx was already able, under the rubric of Bonapartism, accurately to depict a foreshadowing of modern State bureaucracy in that fusion of capital and State which established “capital’s national power over labor and a public authority designed to maintain social servitude”; the bourgeoisie thus renounced any historical existence beyond its own reduction to the economic history of things, and permitted itself to be “condemned along with the other classes to a like political nullity.” Already discernible in outline here are the sociopolitical bases of the modern spectacle, which in a negative way defines the proletariat as the only pretender to historical existence.
88 THE ONLY TWO classes that really correspond to Marx’s theory, the two pure classes that the whole thrust of Capital’s analysis tends to bring to the fore, are the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. These are also the only two revolutionary classes in history – but they are revolutionary under different conditions. The bourgeois revolution is a fait accompli. The proletarian revolution is a project, formulated on the basis of the earlier revolution but differing qualitatively from it. To neglect the originality of the bourgeoisie’s historical role serves only to conceal the concrete originality of the proletarian project, which can get nowhere unless it advances under its own banner and comes to grips with the “prodigiousness of its own aims.” The bourgeoisie came to power because it was the class of the developing economy. The proletariat will never come to embody power unless it becomes the class of consciousness. The growth of the forces of production cannot in itself guarantee this accession to power – not even indirectly, via the increase in dispossession that this growth entails. Nor can any Jacobin-style seizure of the State be a means to ...

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