The line “Live without dead time” was daubed on a wall of the Sorbonne sometime in May 1968 when all of Paris seemed to be convulsed in revolutionary fervour. These were the most turbulent days France had seen since the Paris Commune of 1871. And many thought that the unrest, instigated by students and supported by many workers, but, notably, not by the French Communist Party, would bring down the government. It didn’t. By offering minor concessions and boosting police numbers the French government deftly diffused the situation and everything went back to ‘normal’. Except that the most poetic and inspiring of the slogans splattered across the city at that time, which came neither from the students nor from the factory workers, continue to haunt us with their painful reminders of the vacuity of modern life.
For Guy Debord, the radical lyricist and founder of the Situationist International – a rather strange and short lived revolutionary organisation which privileged authentic human action over theory and headed some of the early student protests, wasn’t interested in reform. To Debord’s mind, we have become enslaved to a form of life which not only dehumanises us, but lulls us into a state of comatose compliance. Accordingly, his goal was not to further the demands of any particular interest group, but to highlight the shared emptiness of our degraded existence. Debord blamed this desolation on the fact that life had become completely colonised by capitalism. To the extent that even our relationships with each other are now reflected through the prism of the market. Like many at the time, Debord believed that the Left had betrayed the working class in accepting the so called ‘post war consensus’, which insisted on the ‘logic of the market.’ By accepting the promise of jobs over power, the Left had failed those they were supposed to represent and condemned them to irreversible enslavement. And not just the working class, for now all of society was caught up in a rampant consumerism from which there was no escape. Debord saw how that fatal acceptance had locked us into a global system, creating “one consensual organisation of the world through the market”: a totality we can neither escape nor change.
This totality Debord famously dubbed ‘The Spectacle’, which he described with excoriating brilliance in ‘The Society of the Spectacle’, published a year before the riots. Written in aphoristic style, it is not so much a guide book to a new world as a handy compendium of poignant snapshots as to why we need to quit the old one. All the phrases Debord used to exemplify his concept of the Spectacle bespeak a weltanschauung of deadness. The Spectacle is “a negation of life that has invented a visual form for itself.” It is “A concrete inversion of life”, “an autonomous movement of non-life”. The Spectacle describes capitalism in its cultural form; shaping and managing all of life in accordance with the demands of the market. What Debord realised, which many on the Left did not, and still don’t, is that it is no longer possible to distinguish the forces of capitalism from culture, art, the state, corporations, public institutions such as education or healthcare, entertainment, the media and just about every other aspect of life, because everything is now joined up and infused by the market. It is a totality of commodification in which we exist merely as a network of representations. It is “a worldview turned into an objective force”. The Spectacle denotes a world in which life has been given over to function and representation, in which we have been hollowed out and repurposed to serve needs other than our own. We have roles and identities which we perform, but we no longer live authentic, self-determining human lives. In fact, Debord goes so far as to assert that “all individual reality, being directly dependent on social power and completely shaped by that power has assumed a social character. Indeed it is only inasmuch as individual reality is not that it is allowed to appear.” Because “nothing is allowed to appear which contradicts the spectacle.”
The experience of reading ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ is like swimming in a sea of jelly fish – exhilarating, but also quite terrifying. With Debord’s well-targeted barbs – painfully revealing the horror of the situation, gradually giving rise to the realisation that life is not at all as it seems. Because, according to Debord, what we misconstrue as authentic human activity is rarely anything motivated from within. We may like to imagine that we are the masters of our lives, if not our fates. But far more often what we are playing out are movements directed and choreographed by the spectacle. The delusion that we are free is unsurprising. Having always envisioned totalitarian regimes in terms of constraint and stasis, exercising choice appears the very embodiment of liberty. However, on closer examination that plenitude of social choices and the very busyness of the spectacle point to a micro-managed system of value extraction and control, in which genuine human activity is sublimated, neutralised and re-appropriated. Whereas kafka’s fictional victims realised their impotence when confronted with the faceless powers arraigned against them, within the Spectacle there is no such realisation. For the Spectacle shuns the stalemate of confrontation in favour of a constant flow of dissolution and reconstitution of which the victim isn’t even aware, presenting itself as an “Enormous positivity demanding passive acceptance.” Thus, the terror of the Spectacle doesn’t reside in our oppression but in our complicity. As we become its willing functionaries, ignoring our humanity to serve its interests. “By means of the Spectacle the ruling order discourses endlessly upon itself in an uninterrupted monologue of self-praise.”
It is important to realise that the Spectacle – the determining materiality governing our lives – is not something superadded to the world. It is not like a cancerous growth we can excise. It is us – it is our alienated world. “The Spectacle’s function in a society is the concrete manufacture of alienation.” Debord’s genius was in seeing that world in its totality and not in the fragmentary form in which it wants to be seen. And he realised that the purpose of the spectacle was to block that totalistic vision and that all of its efforts were focused on defeating such a realisation. To that end, the Spectacle encourages alienation and fragmentation: ‘the alpha and omega of the spectacle is separation.” Which it achieves by connecting to us like the spokes of a wheel. As a result, we are all directed from the centre but kept at a distance from one another. The Spectacle’s success depends on maintaining our alienation and preventing the re-emergence of notions like collective interests, community or solidarity. For its goal is an entirely solipsistic and depoliticised consumerist society.
Debord recognised the importance of authentic human activity, believing that it is by acknowledging and responding to our own volitions that we remind ourselves that we have inner worlds and are capable of reflection and critique, which is precisely why the Spectacle disallows it. “There can be no freedom apart from activity and within the Spectacle all activity is banned.” At no point did Debord question the presence or adequacy of human subjectivity, but he recognised that capitalism had created false needs in order to block our genuine desires. Indeed one of the practices advocated by the Situationists, named ‘Derive’ called for individuals to simply go off and wander at will through the streets, without direction or destination. Such personal exploration served not just to reclaim a place, which was particularly important to Debord, as he watched his beloved Paris carved up and gentrified, but was also a way of exploring and reclaiming oneself. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, ‘Derive’, has now been reproduced as an ‘urban exploration’ app, complete with direction cards and instructions on how to act like an anarchist! The fate of Derive mirrors the fortunes of much of today’s political Left, who have likewise been co-opted to serve the interests of the Spectacle. Former rebels in fear of obscurity have readily relinquished erstwhile allies in order to taste the Spectacle’s delights. Indeed, it is only by eschewing politics and speaking the language of the spectacle that one can achieve any recognition at all. Because the Spectacle is ‘the source of the only discourse which society allows itself to hear.”
This danger of co-optation or, as it is more colloquially known, ‘selling-out’, is nothing new. For, as history has shown, the human desire to wield power over others is well-ingrained; within totalitarian systems the only route to accessing such power is through collusion. Or, as Rousseau rather neatly put it: “people consent to wear chains in order to give them to others in turn.” Debord, however, was not one of those people. He abhorred the celebrity worship of movie stars that was beginning to emerge in France in the 1950s. As he saw it, a credulous public were being encouraged to ignore their spectator status and live vicariously through the flimsy lives of others: duped by the illusory prizes of easy power and leisure that were dangled before them. What Debord would have made of today’s celebrity cults and social media platforms given over to all manner of leaders, stylists, influencers and other gurus, all helpfully shepherding the hordes through the Spectacle like benevolent prison guards is anyone’s guess. Their value to the Spectacle is obvious, as they give the lie to the micro-managed reality of our functional existence. Debord, himself, refused to give interviews, to promote his work in the media or to appear on TV. He probably would have been horrified at the French government’s designating his legacy a national treasure, as they did in 2009. But he would also have recognised it as an obvious attempt to neutralise his damning critique.
In 1967, the year ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ was published, Herbert Marcuse gave a talk in London entitled ‘Liberation from the Affluent Society’. Marcuse, like Debord, recognised that capitalism was entering a new phase in which human potential was becoming entirely dominated by a social machine. But with the material comforts which accompanied that domination, would people resist their enslavement, or even recognise it, he wondered? In the talk, Marcuse referred to “the weakening and even disappearance of all genuinely radical critique” as he saw that all opposition had become integrated within the established system. And, any critique that resisted integration was rendered inarticulate. Much of Marcuse’s thinking here clearly reflects Debord’s, but Marcuse emerges as more of an optimist, prefacing his talk with the quest for “a new type of human being with new needs and desires”. Marcuse surmised that individuals with needs beyond the material had to exist if the consumerist system was to be overcome. And he seems to have naively believed that he had found them in the counter-culture gathering he was addressing. Within a few years, however, that same crowd had sloped off to Wall Street or Silicon Valley, to later emerge as rebel philanthropists, creating markets and selling us apps. Given his earlier works, it is surprising that Marcuse had such faith in the rather misnamed ‘counter-culture’. Debord, however, was under no such illusion, having already recognised that nothing ‘counter’ would be tolerated by the Spectacle. In fact what is most noteworthy about Debord’s preface to the 1992 edition of ‘Society Of the Spectacle’ is his observation that nothing had changed since ‘67, save that a younger generation were being inculcated in its ways. “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.’ The Spectacle has indeed succeeded in depoliticising younger members of society by flattering them into believing that passive compliance is an elevated life form, qualifying them as members of the new global elite above the riff raff of their political forbears with their ugly demands for power.
If Marcuse is the optimist, hanging on to the threads of Western Civilisation in the hope of a reversal of current trends, Debord emerges as its obituarist, chronicling the final days. These were the years of emergent niche capitalism, when the young and affluent were encouraged to find identity and meaning in material goods. The grey years of Taylorism were coming to an end and new markets needed to be created if capitalism was to continue to expand. At least as important, however, was the political desirability of nurturing a nascent hyper-individualism which would enable the Spectacle to slough off a burdensome working class with its challenging demands for community interests and solidarity. Divergence became key to enjoying a presence within the Spectacle and platforms were readily dispensed to those willing to play by the new rules. Which frequently involved undermining notions of collective interest. Indeed, the working class came to be regarded as the rump or silent repository out of which novel interest groups emerged and from which aspiring new political players needed to distance themselves. So whilst the 60s was surely a lucid time for politics, what emerged soon after was an obfuscating consumerism, under cover of which, the Spectacle encircled the globe.
For Debord, the end of human destiny was in sight. The Spectacle was immune to human correction or even review, and he had no hope that the fragments into which human life had split would or even could regroup to confront this engulfing totality. Much of his later life he spent quietly, and rather drunkenly, in a remote village in the French countryside. Whatever was foremost in Debord’s mind on 30th November 1994, he chose that day to put a bullet in his heart. The savvy Debord may well be right, but he would have to agree that there is another Situationist slogan popularised in those Paris days and still well remembered, which reads. “Our slogans are already in everybody’s head.”
1. Anand Giridharadas – ‘Winners Take All – The Elite Charade of Changing the World’ – 2018 ↑
2. Herbert Marcuse – ‘One Dimensional Man’ 1964 ↑
This post was originally published on Radio Free.