The Society of the Spectacle
English Edition by Ron. Adams
Originally published in Paris, France as La Société du Spectacle by Éditions Buchet-Chastel (Paris) in 1967. It was reissued by Éditions Champ Libre (Paris) in 1971, and Éditions Gallimard (Paris) 1992.
This annotated English edition by Ron. Adams.
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In this book, Debord describes and critiques the way we live. The power of these ideas lies in their ability to question, identify, and name the common assumptions of the present. Debord develops the concept of The Spectacle, which describes the gaze of contemporary society. From its publication just before the May 1968 revolt in Paris, and ultimately influencing Occupy Wall Street, this book continues to transform a wide range of progressive philosophical and political movements, most notably anti-capitalism, postmodernism, marxism, and anarchism.
Debord’s work is not an ivory-tower philosophical treatise, it is a cold analysis of the history and development that leads directly to our present moment. He critiques various attempts to change society by comparing their advantages and disadvantages. Ultimately, he makes it apparent that a way out is absurd, and points to only one path forward: a direct democratic movement of decentralized workers councils, a suggestion made only twice in the entire text. Most importantly, he emphasizes the importance of validating theory with practice, and as such, this book is a practical framework for revolutionaries who think and do.
Debord’s text is concise, economical, poetic, provocative, and difficult. As Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri describe it in their notes to Empire as “delirious”fnQuoting Hardt & Negri: “…Debord recognized this spectacle as the destiny of triumphant capitalism. Despite their important differences, such authors offer us real anticipations of the path of capitalist development.” And continuting in their notes: “[The Spectacle], which is perhaps the best articulation, in its own delirious way, of the contemporary consciousness of the triumph of capital.” See Hardt, M. & Negri, A., 2000 (Pp. 188/444). [Close]. His work contains many references to Hegel and Marx. He uses words and phrases defined in other Situationist texts, and expects the reader to be familiar with them. This is to be expected, as he demands much from the reader, and had written for a small audience of “fifty or sixty people”fn“fifty or sixty people”: In Debord’s Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, he describes his audience in the first paragraph thus: “These comments are sure to be welcomed by fifty or sixty people; a large number given the times in which we live and the gravity of the matters under discussion. But then, of course, in some circles I am considered to be an authority. It must also be borne in mind that a good half of this interested elite will consist of people who devote themselves to maintaining the spectacular system of domination, and the other half of people who persist in doing quite the opposite. Having, then, to take account of readers who are both attentive and diversely influential, I obviously cannot speak with complete freedom. Above all, I must take care not to give too much information to just anybody.” See Debord, G. & Imrie, M, 1998. Pp 1. [Close] who were well versed in the history of the western philosophical tradition.
Debord was concerned that these ideas themselves would be recuperated by capitalism (see thesis 203), so he wrote in a way to limit them to a small and curious audience. His concerns turned out to be warranted, when a few years later in the early 1970s, the French Socialist Party under François Mitterrand co-opted the Situationist phrase “Change Life” as his campaign slogan, and Situationism became the party’s unofficial ideology—much to the consternation of Debord. His ideas were difficult because they were abstract, but the abstraction meant that it continues to remain relevant, arguably even more relevant half a century later.
The very first time I read The Society of the Spectacle, I knew I’d need to re-read it, and possibly need to re-write it in my own words if I wanted to truly understand it. It was only once I had grasped the gist of the text, that I was then confronted with the task of understanding the philosophy behind it. Debord didn’t lay out his ideas using plain language, because his ideas are austere, terrifying, and extremely dangerous. He is the kind of philosopher whose ideas and observations of the world are so bleak that one fears these ideas reaching mass consciousness.
This book isn’t as much a straight translation as it is an elaboration, or ‘remix’ that attempts to reveal more under the text than existed in the original and its various translations. Debord hid some ideas. This is an attempt to contextualize and reveal abstract ideas by bringing in references and annotations in order to add relevance for our current time. I have added a few thoughts and examples to help elucidate difficult concepts. In the hope of making Debord’s work more accessible to those unfamiliar with Marx, Hegel, and the breadth of other works and concepts alluded to in his text, I’ve knowingly ossified my own translation. The reader is strongly encouraged to wander from these pages back to the timelessness of the original—and beyond.
Foreign languages are much like distant places, and the act of translation is to visit these places. We may recognize similarities, but these places are unique because they have distinct histories. With languages, words not only have semantic meaning, but attachments to the rich cultural narratives that tell their histories, and these words are attached to libraries of other texts within the same cultural milieu. When translating these words, the histories, narratives, and cultural aspects most relevant to the original text aren’t always translatable with words alone; words simply aren’t enough to capture the rich cultural depth that exists between the words. As such, I’ve tried to add notes where the text made implicit references. When translating, “plagiarism is necessary”, it demands embracing the author’s ideas, and making them semantically and culturally relevant, and if done well, it can create an entirely new work, a copy without an original.
This edition isn’t merely a translation of words, but a translation of time. Since Debord wrote this book, society hasn’t changed in kind, but by degree, everything is exactly the same, only more. Advertising is no longer prominent, but dominant. Facebook and Google aren’t merely the tech companies driving the economy, but have captured the entire advertising industry, monopolized it, and built the foundations of a new form of capital on the back of data tracking, profiling, and machine learning: surveillance capitalism. Urban development has increased separation and inequality to public goods like education and transportation. Technology is now ubiquitous and we’re all glued to personalized screens all day, mediating nearly all interactions, even the ways we find love. For Debord, none of this would be new, only more.
The book before you is my attempt to participate in the development of his ideas. I’ve tried to ground some of his more abstract ideas upon the terrain of the recent economic development of surveillance capitalism. The emergence of commercial social media, particularly, is the confluence of a few concepts described by Debord: celebrity culture, the perpetual present, and mass media that work to automate the commodification of personal identity backed by machine learning.
If you’re looking for a translation that aims to stay faithful to Debord’s classical French prose, this book is not that. There are editions perfectly suited for that purpose, I would direct you to the translations by Ken Knabb, Donald Nicholson-Smith, or Fredy Perlman—all of which I referenced extensively during the preparation of this book. I’d especially like to point out how valuable Ken Knabb’s annotated translation has been as a resource for this edition. His work handed me most of these references, and was instrumental in pointing me in the right direction for a few others. If you are looking for new insight and academic rigor, I would refer you to Russell, E., 2021 and Bunyard, T., 2018. All of these editions can be found in the bibliography and are well worth reading.
I’ve arranged the notes along the margins rather than as endnotes because they’re meant to be read alongside the main text. If you are reading this book for the first time, I would suggest reading it in a particular order, as the first few chapters can be discouraging. I agree with the preface to Ken Knabb’s 2014 translation, in which he suggests starting with chapter 4 and 5 because they provide relevant historical and revolutionary background that helps to contextualize the book. From there, read chapter 7 which covers the development of cities, urban development and social issues. Then move to chapter 8 which covers culture, the arts, and the history of artistic movements. Finally, read chapters 1, 2, 3, 6, and 9 which establishes his concept of The Spectacle and provides a comprehensive critique of contemporary society. Thus, my suggested chapter reading order is: 4, 5, 7, 8, then 1, 2, 3, 6, 9.
My hope is to make Debord’s ideas more accessible to first time readers and to show how much more relevant The Spectacle is today than when it was first written. I am optimistic that together we can make another world possible.
English edition by Ron. Adams
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The Society of the Spectacle was first published in November 1967 in Paris by Buchet-Chastel. The 1968 unrest made it famous. The book, of which I have never changed a single word, was republished in 1971 by Éditions Champ Libre, who changed their name to Gérard Lebovici in 1984, after the publisher’s assassination. A series of reprints continued there regularly until 1991. The present edition,fn“The present edition…”: This preface was written for the Third French Edition published in 1992, four years after he had published Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, and roughly a year after the final collapse of the USSR (1989-1991). Debord died by suicide two years later, on November 30, 1994. [Close] too, has remained rigorously identical to the 1967 edition. The same rule will naturally apply to the reprinting of all my books at Gallimard. I am not one who corrects myself.
Such a critical theory does not have to be changed; as long as the general conditions of this period of history (that this theory was first to define accurately) have not been destroyed. The continued development of this period has only verified and illustrated the theory of the spectacle, whose presentation, reiterated here, can also be considered historical in a more limited sense: it testifies to what the most extreme position was at the time of the quarrels of 1968, and therefore to the knowledge that was already possible to know in 1968. The worst dupes of that time have since learned, through the disappointments of their entire existence, what the
negation of life that has become visible; the
loss of quality linked to the commodity-form, and the
proletarianization of the world has meant.
Over time, I also added other observations concerning the most remarkable developments that the subsequent course of the same process was to bring about. In 1979, on the occasion of a preface for a new Italian translation, I dealt with the effective transformations in the very nature of industrial production, as well as in the techniques of government, which began an authorized use of spectacular force. In 1988, the Comments on the Society of the Spectacle clearly established that the previous
worldwide division of spectacular labor, between the rival reigns of the
concentrated spectacle and the
diffuse spectacle, had now endedfn“the rival reigns… had now ended”: Debord is pointing to the ideologic rivalry between the diffuse spectacle exemplified by U.S. capitalism and the concentrated spectacle exemplified by the communism of the USSR. Amazingly, two of Debord’s major works: The Society of the Spectacle and Comments on the Society of the Spectacle were each published one year prior to two major worldwide upheavals: Spectacle published a year before the civil unrest in Paris in May 1968, and Comments a year before the collapse of the USSR. [Close] in favor of their fusion, into the universal form of the
This fusion can be summarized summarily by correcting thesis 105 which, touching on what had happened before 1967, still distinguished the earlier forms according to some opposing practices. The Great Schism of class power having ended in reconciliation, it must be said that the unified practice of the integrated spectacle, today, has
economically transformed the world, at the same time that it has
used police methods to transform perceptions (The police in this case, are of a new specialized variety).
Only because this merger had already occurred in the economic and political realms of the entire world, could the world finally proclaim itself officially unified. It is also because this situation that the universally separated power has reached such a predicament that this world needed to be reunited as soon as possible; to function as one block in the same consensual organization of the single global market, falsified and guaranteed by the spectacle. In the end it will not be unified.
The totalitarian bureaucracy, that
dominant substitute class for the market economy, had never believed much in its destiny. It knew itself to be an
underdeveloped form of dominant class, and it wanted to be better. Thesis 58 had long established the following axiom:
As the spectacle is founded upon an economy of abundance, the fruits of that economy tend to dominate the spectacular market within its sphere of influence.
It is this desire to modernize and unify the spectacle, combined with all other efforts to simplify society, that in 1989 led the Russian bureaucracy to suddenly convert itself, as one body, to the present ideology of democracy: that is, to the dictatorial freedom of the Market, tempered by the recognition of the Rights of Homo Spectator. No one in the West had ever once commented on the meaning and consequences of such an extraordinary media event. The progress of spectacular technology demonstrates this. Only the occurrence of a minor geologic tremor had been registered in the media. The phenomenon was dated, and is deemed to be sufficiently well understood, by simply repeating the very simple slogan-“the fall of the Berlin Wall”-which was just as indisputable as all other symbols of democracy.
In 1991, the first effects of modernization appeared with the complete collapse of Russia. There it is expressed, even more clearly than in the West, the disastrous result of the general development of the economy. This disorder reigning in the East is only one consequence of that development. Everywhere the same dreadful question will be asked, the one that has haunted the world for two centuries: how can we make the poor work, when illusion has disappointed and when force has been defeated?
Thesis 111, which recognized the first symptoms of a Russian decline, the final explosion of which we have already seen, and envisaged the forthcoming disappearance of a world society which, as we can say now, will be erased from the computer’s memory, formulated the following strategic judgment, the correctness of which should become obvious: “In the final analysis, the collapse and failure of global alliances founded on bureaucratic mystification is an unfavorable aspect of the development of capitalist society.”
This book should be read considering that it was knowingly written with the intention of damaging the spectacular society. It never said anything outrageous.
June 30, 1992
“But certainly for the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, the appearance to the essence… illusion only is sacred, truth profane. Nay, sacredness is held to be enhanced in proportion as truth decreases and illusion increases, so that the highest degree of illusion comes to be the highest degree of sacredness.”
—Feuerbach, Preface to the second edition of
The Essence of Christianity
In post-industrial societies where mass production and media predominate, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly experiencedfn“directly experienced”: A life experience in which an individual directly participates in the major events that make up the period of their life. Under the reign of the spectacle, all historical, political, cultural, and even typical events of one’s daily life are inaccessible—except for contemplation. A simple and concrete example of the replacement of direct experience with its representation is how the previously common practice of hunting animals which will be cooked and then eaten was first replaced with packaged meat bought at a grocery store—has finally given way to the proliferation of packaged pre-cooked meals, where the natural ingredients have been obfuscated and abstracted into food products. This experience is eventually mediated to its fullest extent by way of cooking shows on TV and ‘mukbang’ (먹방) videos on social media. [Close] has been replaced with its representation in the form of images.
Whereas directly lived experience is a continuum of emotion and sensation, the representational life is a stream of images detached from their living context. The original context of this directly lived reality cannot be reestablished. Living a representational life has a completely separate, but unified experience unto itself that exists purely in thought. As reality is increasingly represented as images to be experienced by sight alone, eventually a completely separate pseudo-world of images emerges—where the “actual” reality is only represented, but never actually experienced; merely performed and eventually simulated. The horizon of this representational reality is one in which individuals merely witness an image of the world in fully autonomous non-lived lives.fn“fully autonomous non-lived lives”: The original French is
est le mouvement autonome du non-vivant. or “the autonomous movement of the non-living.” C.f. Hegel, G., Harris, H. & Knox, T., 1979. The same reference is later made in thesis 215; the full quotation reads: “Need for labor, elevated into this universality, then form on their own account a monstrous system of community and mutual interdependence in a great people; the life of the dead body, that moves itself within itself, one which ebbs and flows in its motion blindly, like the elements, and which requires continual strict dominance and taming like a wild beast.” [Close]
The Spectacle presents itself as a universal way to provide representation of directly lived reality, the so-called “official language of generalized separation”. Additionally, it is a separate part of society that establishes common-ground between cultures and focuses all attention upon its spectacular images of representational reality.fn“spectacular images of representational reality”: This stream of images includes television, radio, advertising, academia, news media, social media, and devices streaming personalized perspectives on reality [Close] The stream of images provides individuals with common points of discussion and pseudo-connection.fn“common points of discussion and pseudo-connection”: E.g. the office water-cooler discussion “Did you see last night’s presidential debate?”; the banal talking points that offer no personal connection or relevance, but that act as mediator to relate to the spectacle rather than with other individuals. Facebook is the mediator par excellence in that it doesn’t actually connect people to each other, but connects people to Facebook. [Close] The stream of images simultaneously connects and separates individuals. The spectacle connects individuals to itself when oriented around the same topics, and atomizes individuals into niche interest-groups of one, where they become alienated from all those around them—trapped within an isolated pseudo-reality of personalized information. Ultimately the spectacle is the official language that separates individuals from one another.
The spectacle is not merely the apparatus of media, but the relations between individuals themselves, as mediated by the stream of images that represent their daily lived experience of this pseudo-reality.fnDebord’s critique of society isn’t merely a critique of technology and media; his concept of The Spectacle critiques the organization of society which includes a mediated experience of reality by technology the media. [Close]
The spectacle is not simply an overabundance of the media in everyday lived experience. It is an ideology that has become materialized. This ideology-materialized has replaced the lived experience of reality with a lived experience of a representational pseudo-reality, one accepted as objective truth.
The spectacle is both the product and producer of the contemporary form of reality. It is not a supplement to, or decoration of reality, but the very heart of pseudo-reality.fn“the very heart of pseudo-reality”: C.f. Hegel, G., Wood, A. & Nisbet, H., 1991. The complete quotation reads “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed, the heart of a heartless world, the spirit of spiritless conditions.” The original French here is
Il est le coeur de l’irréalisme de la société réelle or directly translated: “It is the heart of the unrealism of real society.” Debord uses different words to describe a fake reality, here choosing
unrealism. I have chosen to translate this as “pseudo-reality”. [Close] It comes in many forms, entertainment, academic discourse, education, news, advertisements, politics, dissent, and even common sense. It is the hegemonic social culture, a model for the prevailing way of life. The spectacle self-validates its continued existence with the continual affirmation of its mode of production. Because it is continually reproduced, it justifies its own creation and reaffirms its re-creation. This guarantees both its permanent presence and its monopoly on time spent outside the contemporary production process.
Social relationships are categorized into “real” social practice or an “image” of social practice.fn“real” social practice / an “image” of social practice: To illustrate an example. the former may be in-person, face to face relationships between individuals discussing the spectacle, while the latter may be an image or representation of a relationship such as “Liking” selfies of friends on social media. [Close] Both practices contain the spectacle, distorting these social activities to make the reproduction of the spectacle become the goal of all social activity. The language of these social activities consists of signs of the “ruling production” or the “indicators” of the most prestigious or popular ways individuals relate to one another. The creation, recreation, and adoption of these signs is the ultimate goal of this mode of production.
One cannot compare the directly lived experience of reality with the spectacle because contemporary society and spectacle are one and the same. Each side of this duality is the same and yet separate. The spectacle that invades reality is materialized by the contemplation of the spectacle. Directly lived reality produces and absorbs the spectacle such that directly lived reality is no longer accessible, it creates a totality in which reality exists on both sides. Each of the two notions, seemingly fixed, is actually its transition into its opposite: reality emerges in the spectacle, and the spectacle is reality.fn“Each of the two notions.. the spectacle is reality”: The original French is
Chaque notion ainsi fixée n’a pour fond que son passage dans l’opposé : la réalité surgit dans le spectacle, et le spectacle est réel. or as translated by Knabb: “Each of these seemingly fixed concepts has no other basis than its transformation into its opposite: reality emerges within the spectacle, and the spectacle is real.” [Close]
In the world that is really turned upside down,fn“turned upside down” a détournement of Marx: “This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world.” See Marx, K. (1844) [Close] the true is a moment of the false.fn“the true is a moment of the false”: C.f. the Preface to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, full quote: “The false (though no longer as false) is a moment of the true.” This quotation follows the French translation used by Debord. [Close]
The concept of “the spectacle” explains many diverse phenomena. The recognition of the spectacles ability to explain the diversity of this phenomenon is itself part of the spectacle, as it organizes and validates all social relations according to appearances. When studied by itself, the spectacle is the affirmation that all human relationships are merely an image of relationship.fn“an image of relationship”: This is to say, the superficial appearance of a relationship, but one devoid of any direct connection between individuals. For example, a Facebook or LinkedIn “friend” can be someone you’ve never met, nor even talked to. [Close] Any sufficient and total critique of the spectacle that grasps its underlying nature reveals it as a complete negation of lifefn“a complete negation of life”: The original French is
la négation visible de la vie. Life in the sense (and used elsewhere) of an individual’s participation-in, and experience-of directly lived events, as opposed to mere spectacing or participation in virtual or vicarious events. [Close] that presents an appearance of life.
In order to describe the spectacle, it is necessary to artificially separate and identify inseparable elements. When analyzing the spectacle, it is necessary to use the language of the spectacle in that we continue to operate within the methodological terrain of the society that is expressed by the spectacle. The spectacle is both the zeitgeist and the ultimate goal of this contemporary arrangement of social life. The spectacle is the historical period in which we are caught.
The spectacle presents itself as always positive, indisputable, and inaccessible. Because it is always recreating and regenerating itself, and is beyond dispute (generally accepted as common sense). It says nothing more than “what appears is good, what is good appears.”fn“what appears is good, what is good appears.”: C.f. Hegel, G., Wood, A. & Nisbet, H., 1991. The quote is: “What is rational is real, and what is real is rational.” [Close] The passive acceptance it demands is already imposed by its one-way dialog, a monopoly on the presentation of appearances, which presents reality as it is, as it must be.
The fundamentally indisputable, unchanging, and frozen nature of the spectacle stems from how its means are its ends. It is the sun that never sets over the empirefn“the sun that never sets over the empire…”: The phrase “the empire on which the sun never sets” was applied to the Spanish Empire of the sixteenth century and later to the British Empire. [Close] of modern passivity. It covers the entire surface of the world and bathes indefinitely in its own glory.
The society of modern industry is not accidentally or superficially spectacular by nature, it is fundamentally spectatorist. The spectacle is the image of the ruling economy. Its goal is nothing, its development everything.fn“Its goal is nothing, its development everything”: C.f. Bernstein, E., 1911. Full quote is “To me that which is generally called the ultimate aim of socialism is nothing, but the movement is everything.” [Close] It has no goal otherwise.
The spectacle presents itself as an endless parade of new products, as a repeating presentation of the systems self-validating rationale, and as an economic system that outputs an increasing multitude of image-objects. The spectacle is itself the leading product of contemporary society.
The spectacle is able to subjugate human beings to itself because the economy is its servant, having already subjugated them. The spectacle is the forcing function for the development of the economy for its own desires. The spectacle is a faithful reflection of the things produced opposed to a fictitious reflection of the objectification of the producers.fn“a fictitious reflection of the objectification of the producers” The original French is
et l’objectivation infidèle des producteurs. This is to say, the spectacle faithfully presents itself whilst it distorts and hides the alienation and objectification of the individuals involved. [Close]
The result of the industrial revolution was the dominance of the economy over all of social life, degrading life from a state of being to a state of having.fn“degrading life from a state of being to a state of having”: C.f. Marx, K. & Engels, F., 1988. Full quote: “Private property has made us so stupid and partial that an object is only ours when we have it, when it exists for us as capital or when it is directly eaten, drunk, worn, inhabited, etc., in short, utilized in some way. But private property itself only conceives these various forms of possession as means of life, and the life for which they serve as means is the life of private property-labor and creation of capital. Thus all the physical and mental senses have been replaced by the simple alienation of all these senses-the sense of having.” [Close] The contemporary phase of post-industrial society has again shifted from a state of having to one of appearing. All actual “having” must now draw its prestige and ultimate utility from appearances. All individual reality depends on and draws its power from social reality. Individual reality is only allowed to appear to the extent that it is not actually real.
When directly lived reality is replaced by a reality of representational images, the images become realfn“When directly lived reality is replaced by a reality of representational images, the images become real…”: The original French is
Là où le monde réel se change en simples images, les simples images deviennent des êtres réels C.f. Marx, K. & Engels, F., 2002 (Ch. VIII 3a), the full quote is: “For one to whom the sensuously perceptible world becomes a mere idea, for him mere ideas are transformed into sensuously perceptible beings…” [Close] and motivate new desires and hypnotic behaviors. Since the spectacle provides specific techniques of imagery to represent aspects of reality, directly lived reality can no longer be understood, appreciated, or even grasped. These images correspond to the human sense of sight, being the most general way for the spectacle to represent reality. The spectacle cannot be found by looking for it, nor even by listening for it. The spectacle escapes projects to evade it, wherever there is independent representation, the spectacle is reconstituted.
The spectacle is built upon the methodological traditions of western philosophy, one that analyses reality in the limited terms of our sense of vision, and the continual development of this observation-based form of rationality. Therefore, the spectacle inherits the weakness of those philosophical frameworks. As such, the spectacle transforms directly lived reality into the mere observation of realityfn“transforms directly lived reality into the mere observation of reality…”: The French here is
Il ne réalise pas la philosophie, il philosophie la réalité. Directly translated as “it does not realize philosophy, it philosophizes reality”. C.f. Marx, K., 1844 “you cannot supersede philosophy without realizing it”. It is here the spectacle reaches its apogee, the complete reification of reality, one in which we have fundamentally mistaken the map for its territory. [Close] (its image as a substitute for reality). The experience of directly lived reality has been degraded to a life of speculation.
Religion is the trend in which humanity attributes power and responsibility to a source outside ourselves. Spectacular technology has not disproved or diminished this trend, it only roots the source of power as centered upon Earth, recreating the misattribution of power to technology, such that even the most basic acts of daily life become abstract and alienated from directly lived reality. Philosophy, the act of thinking outside of context, and the power it entails; together with its contemplation of a power separate from humanity prevents it from full emancipation from theology.fn“full emancipation from theology”: In this context, theology is the study of how humanity places power in The Other, and thus absolve themselves of any responsibility to power. Similarly, the technological determinism apparent in Silicon Valley approaches a new form of Digital Theology, these technological utopians absolve themselves of responsibility and power by placing blind faith in big data and artificial intelligence. [Close] The development of the spectacle does not project a false paradise onto the heavens, instead offering the denial of life on Earth, a false material reality within ourselves but too sacred to participate in or directly access.
As long as our desires are socially dreamed pseudo-needs, dreaming will remain necessary. The spectacle is the nightmare of contemporary reality in which the only way to achieve our dreams is to remain asleep. The spectacle is the Ambien® that maintains that sleep.fn“The spectacle is the Ambien® that maintains that sleep”: Original French here is
Le spectacle est le gardien de ce sommeil. or “The spectacle is the guardian of that sleep.” C.f. Freud, S. & Brill, A., 1994 (Ch. 5, Section C), which contends that dreams reflect “the wish for sleep” and that “dreams are the guardians of sleep.” Ambien is a sleep aid sold at most pharmacies. [Close]
Those in positions of practical power within contemporary society have detached themselves from directly lived reality in order to focus on building practical power in the new empire of the spectacle. This can be explained by their continued lack of cohesion and the contradictions inherent in the exercise of that power.fn“the contradictions inherent in the exercise of that power”: C.f. Marx, K. & Engels, F., 1998. Full quotation is “But the fact that the secular basis detaches itself from itself and establishes itself as an independent realm in the clouds can only be explained by the divisions and contradictions within this secular basis.” This is to say, the ruling classes have a purely ideological and oversimplified understanding of reality, and have shifted the exercise of power to the falsified realm of the spectacle. This idea is explored in depth in the 2016 documentary HyperNormalisation: “politicians, financiers and technological utopians, rather than face up to the real complexities of the world, retreated. Instead, they constructed a simpler version of the world in order to hang on to power.” see Curtis, A., 2016. Quite literally, companies like Facebook and Google have established themselves in ‘The Cloud’. They resist moderation on their platforms because they’ve absolved their moral decision making to AI systems. [Close]
The oldest social specialization is that of an individual in control of power.fn“an individual in control of power”: With the development from hunter-gatherers to agrarian societies emerged the first specialization: the tribal chieftain. [Close] This specialization is at the root of the spectacle and acts as the representative and decision-maker for all other activities in society. It has banned all other acts of expression unless it is presented by the spectacle. The most modern specialization is simultaneously the most ancient.fn“most modern specialization is simultaneously the most archaic”: C.f. Marx, K., 2005. Full quotation “[Some] determinations will be shared by the most modern epoch and the most ancient.” [Close]
The spectacle is a self-congratulatory monologue with itself, describing its own totalitarian management of the very conditions of existence. The seemingly objective relationshipsfn“The seemingly objective relationships… conceal the fact that these are spectacular relationships between classes and people.”: C.f. Lukács, G., 1971. Full quotation is “The fetishistic illusions enveloping all phenomena in capitalist society… conceal the fact that they are the categories of the relations of men with each other. Instead they appear as things and the relations of things with each other.” [Close] between television, radio, advertisements, and social media networks to the individuals who consume that media conceal the fact that these are relationships between people, but appear as relationships between classes. Humanity continually destroys our irrational yet actually existing relationships and replaces them with a synthetic copy, a poor model built upon the same deadly irrationalities as before.fn“Humanity continually destroys… the same deadly irrationalities as before”: The original French is
une seconde nature paraît dominer notre environnement de ses lois fatales or “a second nature seems to dominate our environment with its fatal laws.” C.f. Lukács, G., 1971. Full quotation is “a kind of second nature which evolves with exactly the same inexorable necessity as was the case earlier on with irrational forces of nature.” [Close] The spectacle is not a natural or inevitable result of technological determinism, on the contrary, the spectacle is a configuration of society that develops technology for its own sake. Limiting the consideration of the spectacle to its most apparent and superficial manifestation of the “mass media”, it would seem to be imposed upon society as a mere technical apparatus. It must be understood that this apparatus is not neutral and that its development has progressed with respect to the demands of the spectacle. If the social relationships of contemporary times can only be facilitated by the mediation of instantaneous communication technologies, then the administration of these technologies becomes a form of power; as such, this “communication” is a unilateral one-way dialog. The continual consolidation and accumulation of these technologies results is the accumulation of this power.fn“The continual consolidation… results in the accumulation of this power”: To elaborate: these media conglomerates are not neutral in their relationships to people, they are unilateral communications, a one-way dialog that goes from the authority of the spectacle to the passive consumer. Communication never goes in the reverse direction. The systems that control these mediums control the dissemination of a worldview that expands their control of this power. [Close] The control of communication in a one-way dialog to the passive consumer reflects the division of social labor between the state and the passive citizen.fn“…the division of social labor between the state and the passive citizen”: Since this book was first written, the emergence of the Internet and companies like Facebook and Google, combined with ubiquitous tracking and machine learning, have exploited a new division of labor in society, and thus a new form of power: the division of learning under Surveillance Capitalism. This is named and described by Zuboff thus: “Who knows? This is a question about the distribution of knowledge and whether one is included or excluded from the opportunity to learn… Who decides? This is a question of authority: which people, institutions, or processes determine who is included in learning, what they are able to learn, and how they are able to act on that knowledge. What is the legitimate basis of that authority? Who decides who decides? This is a question about power. Whis is the source of power that undergirds the authority to share or withhold knowledge?” See Zuboff, S., 2019. [Close] These divisions are the primary tools of class domination, and provide the model for a continual separation of all social relationships.
The spectacles primary power is its ability to separate. With the shift to permanent agrarian societies came the institutionalization of the social division of labor in the form of a permanent ruling class. This class was legitimated by a form of thought borrowed from the earlier hunter-gatherer period, namely the legitimization of power as bestowed by mythical power, the same source from which every subsequent power has camouflaged itself. Religion justifies the power of those in the ruling class as sacred, and excuses their failures by corresponding them to the ontological order of the heavens. In this sense, all power bestowed by a social division of labor has been spectacular. The adherence to a belief in this separate and frozen ruling class was largely due to a general lack of regular, actual daily participation in social activity.fn“The adherence to a belief in this separate ruling class… actual daily participation in social activity.”: It wasn’t until the emergence of cities, and the breakdown of serfdom where the peasant class could move into the cities, making it possible for the actual daily participation in social life. [Close] Contrary to the frozen order bestowed by the heavens, the spectacle promotes a subset of real social activity,fn“a subset of real social activity”: E.g. protest in its undirected, symbolic, and mostly pointless form, the promotion of various forms of non-violence. [Close] creating a false opposition between that which is socially possible against that which is socially permitted. The spectacle maintains an unconsciousness about the real changes to the conditions of daily life. The spectacle is self-perpetuating, it makes its own rules: It is the contemporary pseudo-God. The spectacle makes no secret about what it is, namely, a hierarchical power developing for its own sake. The spectacle drives the division of labor into smaller, more specialized and efficient tasks until these tasks can be automated by machines. This increasing specialization creates the efficiencies required to sustain an ever-increasing global market. This specialization is so niche that workers cannot see the context or even the product of their labor, nor can they relate to other equally specialized workers who attend to similar tasks. Due to this alienation between worker and task, worker and worker, and worker to community, any and all shared sense of purpose are eliminated, without a clear path to reunite either in solidarity or power.
The acceleration of the division of labor and the depth of specialization increases the distance between the producer and the final product. This simultaneously reduces communication between producers, and eliminates any sense of accomplishment for the final product. As production processes are specialized (and aspects of the labor are outsourced to even deeper specialists) the organizer of labor continues to concentrate control over the entire production process. The abstract vision and control over the organization of all aspects of communication between vertical specialists becomes the only task of management. The measure and goal of this system of alienation is the proletarianization of the entire world.fn“the proletarianization of the entire world.”: This is to say, the global economic system is structured to shift the monopolization of the understanding of the productive process to the ruling class, and to alienate the working class; first from their labor, the products of their labor, from each other, and finally from their community. [Close]
The success of division of labor and automation becomes the primary goal—the production of the division of labor and automation—is the ends. In what was previously associated with one’s primary work, those whose jobs are on the leading edge of elimination by automation are finding this time associated with, and replaced with inactivity. This inactivity, however, is not free from productive power. The inactivity of the jobless is dependent on the productive output of the automated systems of production—namely in the form of consumption. The necessity of maximum efficiency rationalizes the existence of a jobless class, although it is recognized as an uneasy relationship. Individuals are either directly contributing to the spectacle, or partaking in consuming its output, but the spectacle has no space for real activity outside this arrangement. There is no “liberation from labor” or “increase in leisure” when at any time an individual is either contributing-to or consuming-from the system of production. None of the productive energy that was appropriated by the spectacle can be regained by the consumption of the spectacle, it all contributes to the development of the spectacle.
An economic system based on divisibility of labor continues to produce more division in a vicious cycle of isolation. The technology based on the isolation of concerns creates processes that further isolate. The automobile, television—technologiesfn“automobile, television…”: Even more applicable is how the smartphone and the increasingly personalized nature of internet media contributes to increasingly isolating islands of perspective. [Close] selected by the spectacle are also the weapons that perpetuate the isolation that creates our “lonely crowd”.fn“lonely crowd”: An allusion to David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd, see Riesman, D., Glazer, N., Denney, R. & Gitlin, T., 2001. [Close] Each technology recreates the basis of the spectacle in ever more concrete terms.
The spectacle originates from the alienation as a result of the division of labor. The enormous growth of the spectacle expresses the total loss of a unified perspective shared amongst individuals. All labor, specific techniques, jobs, and skills are abstracted along with increasing abstraction of the overall production process to the point where the ideas of being concrete is itself an abstraction. The spectacle represents itself as a perfect image of the world, a map or model of the world where the world is merely an instance of this map.fn“The spectacle represents itself as a perfect image of the world… an instance of this map”: The original French is
Dans le spectacle, une partie du monde se représente devant le monde, et lui est supérieure or “It thus tends to divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society.” C.f. Marx, K. & Engels, F., 1998. [Close] Spectators are connected no longer to one another, but solely by a one-way relationship to the spectacle at the center. The spectacle connects the separated, but it connects them only in their separateness.fn“The spectacle connects the separated, but it connects them only in their separateness.” C.f. Hegel, G., Knox, T. & Kroner, R., 1975. Full quotation “In love the separate does still remain, but as something united and no longer as something separate;” [Close]
The spectator of the spectacle cannot escape alienation by unconscious or conscious thinking. The more they contemplate the spectacle and their place within it, the less they livefn“The more they contemplate… the less they live”: C.f. Marx, K. & Engels, F., 1988. Full quotation: “The more the worker exerts himself in his work, the more powerful becomes the world of objects that he brings into being over against himself, and the poorer his inner world becomes, and the less he belongs to himself … The greater his activity, the less he possesses” [Close] in reality. Conversely, the more they passively accept living in a spectacular reality the less they understand of real existence and the source of their desire. The individual no longer performs their own actions, but sees them performed by another.fn“but sees them performed by another” Performance can take the form of spectating upon celebrities playing sports, actors enacting love in film, or his/her own video game avatar performing their actions vicariously in a virtual environment. [Close] This is why the spectator no longer feels like they participate directly in lived reality, and feels at home nowhere, as the spectacle is everywhere.
Workers do not produce their own circumstances, they produce an autonomous force of alienation independent of themselves.fn“Workers do not produce their own circumstances… independent of themselves”: C.f. Marx, K. & Engels, F., 1988, full quotation is “The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labor becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently of him and alien to him, and begins to confront him as an autonomous power; that the life he has bestowed on the object confronts him as a hostile and alien force.” [Close] The success of this production, and the abundance of autonomous power it generates, is experienced as an abundance of dispossession. Under the regime of the spectacle, workers earn wages in order to buy more products that further dispossess them of lived experience and instead substitute it with objects that make lived experience foreign to them. The spectacle is a map of this alienated reality, one which is identical to and yet obscures the real world.fn“The spectacle is a map of this alienated reality, one which is identical to and yet obscures the real world.” An allusion to Alfred Korzybski’s phrase: “The map is not the territory.” [Close] The map shows us what we’ve missed in high definition detail.
The spectacle is a concrete manufacturer of alienation. Economic expansion is the product of the increased demand for alienation-production. What grows with the growth of the economy is the very alienation that exists as its basis.
As systems of production specialize, and each worker is more alienated from the final product, and while they produce ever finer details of things in that world, they increasingly find themselves separated from participation in daily life. The closer their life seems to be at their own direction, the more they find themselves alienated from that life.fn“The closer their life seems to be at their own direction… alienated from that life”: This thesis is more relevant with the recent development of “social media influencers”, those individuals who curate an image of their lives online, only to find themselves forced to continually reproduce an image of a life they no longer actually live: commodifying themselves in a process that alienates themselves from lived experience. Their lives are a labor of self-alienation. [Close]
The spectacle is capital extended to such an accumulation that it becomes a substitute for reality itself.fn“a substitute for reality itself”: Original French
qu’il devient image. or “where it becomes image.” [Close]
“The commodity can be understood in its undistorted essence only when it becomes the universal category of society as a whole. Only in this context does the reification produced by commodity relations assume decisive importance both for the objective evolution of society and for the attitudes that people adopt toward it, as it subjugates their consciousness to the forms in which this reification finds expression …. As labor is increasingly rationalized and mechanized, this subjugation is reinforced by the fact that people’s activity becomes less and less active and more and more contemplative.”
—Lukács, History and Class Consciousness
The Spectacle’s basic operation is the incorporation of all the transient, directly experienced activities of human life into itself so as to regenerate them as commodities in frozen form. The spectacle is a process of the inversion of the values of daily life into purely abstract values.fn“the inversion of the values of daily life into purely abstract values”: The spectacle often presents these commodities in their negative, as products are typically advertised by their negative qualities, that which they are not: fat free, caffeine free, BPA-free, fair-trade (another way of saying it contains less exploitation.) [Close] In these abstract values we recognize our old enemyfn“we recognize our old enemy”: C.f. Marx, K., 1856. Full quotation “In the signs that bewilder the middle class, the aristocracy and the poor prophets of regression, we do recognise our brave friend, Robin Goodfellow…” [Close] the commodity, which seems trivial and obvious at first, but which is full of complexity and metaphysical subtleties.fn“full of complexity and metaphysical subtleties.”: C.f. Marx, K., Mandel, E., Fowkes, B. & Fernbach, D. 1978 (Vol I, Ch. 1, Section 4). Full quotation: “A commodity appears at first glance to be something very trivial and obvious. Analysis reveals that it is in reality a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological abstrusities” [Close]
The transformation of human life into commodities is the apex of commodity fetishism: a domination of society by “imperceptible as well as perceptible things”,fn“imperceptible as well as perceptible things”: C.f. Marx, K., Mandel, E., Fowkes, B. & Fernbach, D., 1978. Full quotation: “A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labor appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labor; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labor is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labor. This is the reason why the products of labor become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses.” [Close] which is to say, the very objects created by the labor of the working class. This results in a reality in which life is no longer directly experienced, but instead represented by images of experience. These images present themselves as the best possible version of reality.
The spectacle presents an image of reality in which the commodity dominates all living experience, this image is understood to be reality itself. The development of this image, the world of the commodity, is presented plainly as its rationale directly correlates with individuals alienationfn“the world of the commodity… directly correlates with individuals alienation”: The spectacle produces alienation as its predominant product, and alienation is the underlying ideology of the spectacle (accepted as common sense by society.) As such, the spectacle need not hide its alienating character, and can instead promote alienation since its underlying premise has already been accepted as truth. [Close] from each other and from the collective products of their labor.
The spectacle produces an increasing quantity of language that specifically describes the commodities it promotes and the behaviors it encourages. The resulting language gradually loses its ability to describe actual reality. This stems from a system of production that shuns reality. What remains is a large quantity of language describing its own corrupt production. A language increasingly capable of describing quantity and unable to describe quality.fn“A language increasingly capable of describing quantity and unable to describe quality”: In effect, language is a shattering mirror, increasingly able to describe the quantity of its own shards, but with a diminished ability to reflect reality. [Close]
The increased quantity of language describing the spectacle lacks any qualitative aspects,fn“The increased quantity of language describing the spectacle lacks any qualitative aspects”: The dynamic between mythical societies and quality versus ideologic societies and quantity is well established in Situationist texts, “The myth is based on quality, ideology on quantity” see Vaneigem, R., 2010. This is all to say, in the realm of ideology, culture tends to shed its content and embrace pure quantity; the less content the media has, the more it is repeated (e.g. Retweeted), the more it distracts people from their real problems‒a meme based society. [Close] but it is subject to qualitative change. The contemporary inability of the language to adequately describe the spectacle is itself evidence of the enormous development of the spectacle. While this development may not yet be evenly distributed across all localities, this change has progressed to such an extent that it is verified by the existence of a globalized marketplace.
The unconscious history of human society is the history of the development of production systems. This history has created the material conditions of society in the pursuit of survivalfn“the pursuit of survival/obfuscated version of survival”: The Situationists made sharp distinctions between mere “survival” and a life of participation and direct experience. For more on this distinction see Vaneigem, R., 2010. [Close]; it has become the economic basis of all human activity, and expands these conditions. The expansion of these conditions relies on the improvement of the underlying economic basis these developments rely on, thus creating a surplus of survival. When commodity exchange is limited to exchange between individuals, it will remain for a long time simply individual small-scale artisanal trade. The ends are still “the production of a craft” in which its quantitative aspect was limited and largely hidden. When trade conditions develop to include corporate and state size trades and the accumulation of capital—the entire economy switches to a process of pure quantitative development. This transforms craft into commodity, and craftsmanship into wage labor as all things produced by craft will become banalized as utility value demands equality and exchangeability across all commodities produced. The producer is freed from the natural pressure that demanded the struggle of survival, but they are in no way liberated from their liberator. The drive for survival is replaced with a drive for labor that transforms the world of survival into a world of economics. It is at this juncture where labor is alienated from craft. It is in this falsified pseudo-state within which human labor has become alienated, all human activity must remain forever in the service of the production of banal commodities that contribute to the expansion of this system of production. The abundance of these commodities, and the relationships of the individuals who both produce and consume them amounts to nothing more than a developed form of survival.fn“nothing more than a developed form of survival”: The original French is
ne peut être plus que la survie augmentée or “can be no more than augmented survival”, which is to say, a form of survival not in service towards the continuation of the experience of life, but the continuation of labor in service to the dominant mode of production. [Close]
The domination of the commodity, and the hidden way the world of economics became the material basis of social life remained misunderstood and unnoticed because it seemed so familiar.fn“unnoticed because it seemed so familiar”: C.f. Hegel, G., 2013 (January 31). Full quotation is “What is ‘familiarly known’ is not properly known, just for the reason that it is ‘familiar’.” [Close] In societies where commodities are scarce, money is the dominating force that acts as an emissary representing the voice of the unknown power.fn“the voice of the unknown power”: A concrete example is how money is used as leverage over developing nations, in the form of IMF loans, to enact socially conservative fiscal policies. These are essentially “unknown powers”, or more literally, foreign power exerted over local populations. [Close] It was with the industrial revolution, and the fordist mode of production that increased the division of labor and began production for the global market that the commodity became the colonizing principle of social life. It was at this moment that the political economy established itself as the dominant science and the science of domination.
The spectacle is the form society takes when the commodity colonizes all of social life. The total commodification of social life is not only visible, we no longer see anything else as all of reality is mediated by our relationship to commodities. Contemporary economic production extends its dictatorship of the commodity both broadly and intensively. In the least industrialized places, imperialism imposed by advanced societies forces the production of a few “star commodities” upon the colonized. In advanced societies, the alienated production of abstract commodities becomes secondary to commodity consumption. With the arrival of the “Information Revolution”, alienated consumption has become as much a duty for the working class as alienated production. The sum total of industrial production and consumer consumption is then sold as a complete commodity,fn“complete commodity”: I interpret this idea as the continual reproduction of the spectacle as the total and predominant product of all spectacular labor. According to Russell “the historical specificity of the spectacle unfolding in accordance with the development of the autonomy of the commodity can thereby be witnessed through a greater absorption of labour into the circulation sphere, an effort devoted strictly to the realization of surplus value, rather than to its creation.” See Russell, E., 2021 (Pp. 203). [Close] whose production must continue at all costs—the reproduction of the spectacle. In order to accomplish this reproduction, the spectacle must be fragmented, reimagined, and regurgitatedfn“regurgitated”: A similar and more relevant term today would be “retweeted”. [Close] in slightly new form for consumption by individuals who are completely alienated from its production. To serve the purpose of this alienation, the science of the division of labor (i.e. specialization) further breaks down the reproduction of the spectacle into fields such as sociology, psychotechnology, cybernetics, and even semiology; which oversee the operation of this process.
In the primitive phase of capitalism, the political economy only considers the labor-output of the worker, who only needs to be allocated the minimum amount to sustain his labor contributions, without considering his leisure or humanity.fn“the political economy only considers the labor-output… without considering his leisure or humanity”: C.f. Marx, K. & Engels, F., 1988. Full quotation: “political economy regards the proletarian… as nothing more than a worker. It can therefore advance the proposition that, like a horse, he must receive just enough to enable him to work. It does not consider him when he is not working, as a human being.” [Close] The ruling class is forced to reconsider this once the production of commodities reaches an abundance accessible to the general population. At this point, the ruling class must collaborate with the working class, the worker is no longer contempted for a lack of labor, but treated with politeness for being a consumer. In this way, the commodity takes on a humane approach, attending to the workers “leisure and humanity” for the simple reason that the political economy must expand from the realm of production to the realm of consumption. Thus the totality of human existence falls under the regime of the “total denial of man”.fn“total denial of man”: C.f. Marx, K. & Engels, F., 1988. Full quotation: “Thus, although political economy, whose principle is labor, appears to recognize man, it is in fact nothing more than the denial of man carried to its logical conclusion.” [Close]
The spectacle gradually leads individuals to identify personal satisfaction with survival itself. This transforms satisfaction into a commodity, and transitively, survival itself becomes a commodity. Survival must always increase, thus creating a continuation of lack. There must never be enough satisfaction, as satisfaction begets additional lack. The accumulation of satisfaction becomes a gilded poverty, but it cannot transcend it.
The technical practice of automation is the vanguard of the economy. Automation of labor creates a contradiction in the development of society: the technical apparatus which eliminates manual labor must simultaneously preserve labor as a commodity. If society doesn’t want the time involved in manual labor to decrease due to automation, then new labor must be created. Those jobs eliminated by automation will move a reserve army of the unemployed into “services” and tertiary sectors of the economy. This reserve army acts as the supply lines for the troops deployed to the production and consumption of the latest commodities at a time when increasingly excessive advertising campaigns are necessary to convince individuals to buy increasingly unnecessary commodities.fn“increasingly unnecessary commodities”: These are the pseudo-necessities of daily survival (E.g. an iPhone and a Netflix subscription). [Close]
Exchange value is contingent upon, but exists merely as a proxy for a commodities use value. Exchange value won its victory over use value, utilizing the weaponization of capital to create the preconditions necessary to become an autonomous power beyond use value. Exchange value has taken precedence over use value, monopolizing all aspects of human satisfaction, thus controlling a commodities use. The process of exchange tightly binds itself to every possible use, subjugating use to a secondary concern to exchange. Thus, exchange value becomes the condottierefn“condottiere”: The Condottiere were the mercenary leaders fighting for the wealthy landlords during Renaissance Italy who often ended up taking over the states they were fighting for. [Close] of use value, waging war for predominance in the ideology of the market, for its own sake.
The use value of commodities gradually declines as the spectacle continually generates new pseudo-necessities. This creates a new form of poverty alongside the older poverty: a poverty of dispossession from spectacular pseudo-necessities. As such, wage workers are continually going after an endless attainment of money as it loses value; a sisyphean task indeed. The worker labors under the false belief that they must attain more wealth or die, when survival itself is not actually in danger.fn“survival itself is not actually in danger”: See note to thesis 40 on “the pursuit of survival”. [Close] This is a sort of blackmail in which the worker only achieves an illusory wealth, in the form of increased commodity consumption but no real increase to the quality of their directly lived experience. The blackmailed are in fear of an illusion, and the commodity is the materialized illusion as made manifest by the spectacle.
Exchange value was previously understood as derived from use value. Now, however, within the inverted reality of the spectacle, use value must be explicitly (and with great pretension) advertised, as the actual use value of the commodity has been diminished as its connection to directly lived reality has been gradually eroded. The commodities relevance has been made obsolete by the continual development of the market economy. Thus, the pseudo-necessity of these commodities require pseudo-justifications.
The spectacle is the complement of money. Money represents the equivalent exchange of individual goods whose use value cannot be directly compared. The spectacle is the contemporary development transcending the equivalent exchange of individual goods towards a representation of the totality of the commodity market as the equivalent of what the whole of society can be and do. The first abstraction—money, useful commodities are represented for exchange, yields to the next layer of abstraction—the spectacle, in which money is merely gazed upon, because all use value has already been exchanged for the first abstraction. Thus, the spectacle is not only an abstraction of pseudo-use value, but an abstraction of the totality of the system of production of pseudo-necessities.fn“Thus, the spectacle… production of pseudo-necessities”: I’ve significantly reworded the original French in hopes of making Debords argument more clear. Original French is
Le spectacle n’est pas seulement le serviteur du pseudo-usage, il est déjà en lui-même le pseudo-usage de la vie. or as translated by Nicholson-Smith “The spectacle is not just the servant of pseudo-use—it is already, in itself, the pseudo-use of life.” This is to say, the consumer is at first separated from their labor through the dissatisfied consumption of those pseudo-needs generated by the spectacle. Second, the consumer is passively separated from the spectacle by their passive gaze upon the spectacle which no longer needs their labor, nor which creates products they need, yet produces false necessities they cannot afford. [Close]
When society reaches the level of generalized economic abundance, the result of all social labor becomes visible, transforming directly lived reality into the spectacle that is the product of this society’s system of production. Capital is no longer the invisible authority directing the system of production; as capital accumulates, it spreads to the ends of the earth in the form of commodities.fn“[capital] spreads to the ends of the earth in the form of commodities.”: Capital, the once secret fuel of the system of production, now becomes an outward symbol for this system. With the hegemony of globalization, it is now possible to travel anywhere in the world and buy products that are the same everywhere, each literally printed with the name of the company that created it, a dedication to the owners of capital. [Close] The entirety of society becomes a portrait of the capital who is its patron.
The financialization of the economyfn“financialization of the economy”: The original French is
La victoire de l’économie autonome… which is “The victory of the autonomous economy…” I’ve changed this text to refer to the hegemony of exchange value over use value, and how that has produced a self-perpetuating (autonomous) power. [Close] emerged victorious as an autonomous power for its own sake, simultaneously underwriting its own demise. The forces unleashed by the autonomous power of the financial economy undermine the efforts of ancient societies that put the material needs of humans (e.g. food, clothing, shelter) at the center of its economy. These needs are replaced by boundless financial economic growth itself, and society demands the necessity of infinite growth. The satisfaction of basic human needs is therefore replaced with the increasing growth of the generation of new pseudo-needs, and the abstract pseudo-need for this economic arrangement to continue indefinitely. Society then refocuses its basis to the maintenance and growth of these pseudo-needs at the expense of authentic needs, a result of a social unconsciousness dependent upon the economy of pseudo-needs. This is called the “autonomous economy”—the economy which has shifted from the satisfaction of basic social needs to the generation of pseudo-needs for its own sake. “Whatever is conscious wears out.fn"Whatever is conscious wears out…": Quote not found, but attributed to Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the founder of psychoanalysis. [Close] What is unconscious remains unalterable. But once it is freed, does it not fall to ruin in its turn?”
At the moment society discovers that it depends on the autonomous economy, the economy depends on society.fn“the economy depends on society”: Society is conscious that its way of life depends on the consumption of pseudo-needs lest it collapse. [Close] This formerly secret power, which has developed to such an extent that it became visible and autonomous, has lost its power.fn“[secret power] has lost its power.”: At this point, an autonomous economy is necessary in that it has become sovereign, while simultaneously fragile with its dependence upon society to continually consume the pseudo-needs it continues to generate, a parasitic symbiosis. Once this symbiosis is realized, society must internalize the autonomous economy as an intrinsic part of itself, not something external to itself, i.e. the economy is society, and society is the economy. [Close] The economic Id must be replaced by the I.fn“The economic Id must be replaced by the I.”: An allusion to The Ego and the Id, See Freud, S. & Strachey, J., 1989. Debord uses détournement with his replacement of Ego with “I”, perhaps interpreted as an allusion to the emergence of the individual in late-capitalism. The advent of the individual as the locus of self-determination, responsibility, and personal choice is a result of individuation: a social life determined less by geography, ethnicity, race, blood, kin, rank, and religion, and instead focusing on the emergence of the human as individual consumer separated from traditional norms, meaning, and rules. This life becomes a reality of self-choice to be discovered within the context of the global economy rather than a received destiny inherited at birth. To service this social shift, there must be an equal economic shift that organizes production around the individual, offering products and services customized and distributed to meet individualized wants and (pseudo-)needs. For more on this topic see Zuboff, S. & Maxmin, J., 2002. [Close] The individual, the subject of the autonomous economy can only emerge from the society that has organized itself for the production of the individualized pseudo-necessities of the individual—the general class struggle of each individual to create a self-determined reality against an economy prepared to create reality for its own sake. The existence of the autonomous economy is contingent upon the results of this struggle, the manifestation of which is the product and producer (i.e. the individual vs economic production) creating the economic and material basis of history.
Under the struggle of capitalism, the worker seeks to abolish all classes and control the means of production, the consumer desires to understand the nature of their desire for pseudo-necessities, while desiring the need to be conscious of this desire; which is to say, a consumer-worker in possession of complete control over their investments of time into both consumption and production. The opposite of this is the society of the spectacle, in which the commodity contemplates itself in a reality of its own making.fn“the commodity contemplates itself in a reality of its own making”: C.f. Marx, K. & Engels, F., 1988. “He contemplates himself in a world that he himself has created.” In the spectacle, the product (i.e. the commodity) exists for its own sake, external to any human desire, or even society itself, organizing reality in order to reproduce itself. This is what Debord means with the term the “autonomous economy.” [Close]
“An intense new polemic is unfolding on the philosophical front in this country, focusing on the concepts ‘one divides into two’ and ‘two fuse into one’. This debate is a struggle between those who are for and those who are against the materialist dialectic, a struggle between two conceptions of the world: the proletarian conception and the bourgeois conception. Those who maintain that ‘one divides into two’ is the fundamental law of things are on the side of the materialist dialectic; those who maintain that the fundamental law of things is that ‘two fuse into one’ are against the materialist dialectic. The two sides have drawn a clear line of demarcation between them, and their arguments are diametrically opposed. This polemic is a reflection, on the ideological level, of the acute and complex class struggle taking place in China and in the world.”
—Red FlagfnThe Red Flag (红旗) was a theoretical political journal published by the Chinese Communist Party, published from 1958 until 1988. [Close] (Beijing), September 21, 1964
The spectacle is simultaneously perceived as united and divided, it builds unity upon disjunction.fn“unity upon disjunction”: For example, Americans are unified around the concept of a two-party system, whereby Democrats and Republicans only exist in order to be opposed to one another. Similarly, when the individual sees wealth inequality, they are both disgusted and yet subsumed by the fact that the spectacle and society itself would cease to function without it. [Close] The unity of each is contingent upon violent divisions against the other. When this contradiction is portrayed by the spectacle, its meaning is reversed: the divisions it portrays are unitary, while the unity it presents is divided.
The power struggle between nations internationally, political groups, and parties within each nationfn“parties within each nation”: These parties differ only in the style of the theatrics they present to a willing audience of spectators. There is no distinction between parties when it comes to an alternative to the spectacle. [Close] all present themselves as legitimate contestants opposed to one another as the ones better equipped to manage society—but in fact are united in the representation and maintenance of the spectacle. In practice they only offer the continuation of the status quo.
The falsified struggle between power groupsfn“The struggle between power groups…”: Nominally a struggle akin to Coke vs Pepsi, while both offering mere sugar water. [Close] (despite being theatrical), is real in that the struggle defines their identities in relation to the spectacular society. The struggle is to define the dominant characteristics as well as the form and boundaries of these characteristicsfn“form and boundaries of these characteristics…”: As political groups, each group attempts to hold a monopoly on particular political opinions, e.g. ‘we’re the party of free public healthcare’. These typically take the form: we believe in ‘x’, we are against ‘y’, we do not ‘z’, we are ‘a’. [Close] in order to construct a cohesive social identity that stands apart from other identities. The difference between power groups is determined by their level of economic development or the contradictory interests of the classes that attempt to construct their social identities within these groups. The definition of these priorities are decided by the ruling group, to the detriment of, and in opposition to the minority. This impacts individuals within the nation as well as those in colonized regions inside the sphere of influence of the nation. The spectacle presents these differences as absolutely distinct forms of social organization, but in fact they are all different styles of localized capitalismfn“different styles of localized capitalism.”: E.g. social-democratic capitalism as in Europe, authoritarian capitalism as in China and Singapore, even Russia is a form of bureaucratic state-controlled totalitarian capitalism. [Close] that contribute to the transformation of the world into a globalized field of spectacular capitalism.
Where the economic form of the spectacle hasn’t yet dominated undeveloped colonized countries, they are instead dominated by its theatrical aspects in media, and the desire for pseudo-necessities: as the society of the spectacle. Cultural developments influence the indigenous ruling classes and limit their agendas. These cultural dominations, just like the pseudo-necessities that never satisfy, also provide false models of revolutionary behavior to local dissidents. At the national level, the spectacle presents local and national specializations,fn“local and national specializations”: E.g. the US has become the worldwide police & surveillance force, China the worldwide mass-manufacturer, and India a supplier of low-cost knowledge workers. [Close] but when looking from a global scale we see a global division of spectacular labor.
The division of spectacular labor primarily reinforces the dominance of the spectacle as a whole worldwide system, but it primarily focuses on the development of its most advanced economic sectors. As the spectacle is founded upon an economy of abundance, the fruits of that economy tend to dominate the spectacular market within its sphere of influencefn“the fruits of that economy”: The original French is phrased beautifully:
les fruits qui tendent finalement à dominer le marché spectaculaire. or “the fruits eventually tend to dominate the spectacular market”. [Close], despite any local authoritarian police protections or ideologies that grant the locality the appearance of independence.
As the spectacle increasingly produces new products to maintain our attention, it simultaneously increases the banalization of life, as the limitless choice of equivalent pseudo-necessities becomes meaningless when all of these objects fail to satisfy actual necessity. The relics of the class struggle that persist to the present day are religion and family.fn“The relics of the class struggle… family”: The family continues to be the primary mechanism of transferral of class status, wealth, and power from one generation to the next. [Close] These two institutions continue to tout the value of moral-oppression and conservatism as the solution to the spectacular excesses of our contemporary period. The result of economic abundance is both an apathetic smugnessfn“apathetic smugness”: This smugness comes in a few varieties: complacent acceptance e.g. “lets just face the facts, we can’t change anything!” or delusional technocratic reformism: “we can reform capitalism by increasing taxation and providing universal basic income.” [Close] and a new spectacular rebellionfn“spectacular rebellion”: Recently emergent examples of this type of rebellion take the form of religious fundamentalism, terrorism, cultural resistance, aimless protest, and culture jamming. [Close] that presents an image of opposition, but cannot exist without the spectacle it opposes. This is because dissatisfaction has become a commodity recreated by the spectacle, as dissatisfaction is the raw material for spectacular society.
The celebrity is a relatable living representative of the spectacle, each offering the individual a possible role for the spectacles portrayal of an actually lived life. The individual compensates for a life of narrow specialization in work and shallow participation in life by identifying with the celebrities they perceive as living an actually lived life—a life of complete participation that is both broad and deep. This is an identification with mere appearances. These celebrities act out various styles of living that a single individual could never live, in a totally free manner. The celebrity embodies the social labor made possible by individual specialists, but that the specialist can never realize themselves; namely the exercise of power, the enjoyment of leisure, taking vacations, making life-changing decisions, and the consumption of a wide variety of products and services. The celebrity is able to see and do what the individual is not—participate in both the beginning and endfn“participate in both the beginning and end…”: The celebrity represents the idealized form of life under the spectacle: a life in which the individual needs not make decisions that may foreclose other paths through life; but can live every life possible with full participation in all aspects of life. This is, of course, an image of life presented as life. In witnessing the ideal form of living as performed by a celebrity, the individual can themselves feel they have lived those lives. [Close] of the system of production. In the case of the exercise of power, the national government assumes the form of a celebrity personified, in the case of the celebrity consumption of leisure, travel, and products that present the star with the influential power over the experience of life. Ultimately, as these pseudo-lives are not representative of the totality of human lives, they offer no actual choice between real lives.
The celebrity is the opposite of the individual; in assuming the role of the celebrity, they must accept the public identifying with them and renouncing their own unique identities. The celebrity is as much an enemy of their own individuality as to the individuality of others. Each celebrity represents an aspect of identity to be consumed by the public. In doing so, each of their unique characteristics is up for sale and is no longer their own. With each performance, the celebrity outwardly expresses different modes of living and unique personalities, demonstrating happiness across the entire realm of consumable lifestyles. These stars, across multiple roles, possess a full range of admirable human characteristics, the contradictory differences between these roles is cancelled out by the presentation of excellence in each one. KhrushchevfnKhrushchev: Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev (Ники́та Серге́евич Хрущёв). In July 1943 near Kursk, the largest tank battle in history pitted roughly four thousand Soviet tanks against roughly three thousand German tanks. Khrushchev claims to have told Stalin (over his commanding officer) “Our defensive positions are solid,… we’ll be able to hold our ground.” See Taubman, W., 2003. He later became the Chairman of the Council of Ministers (or premier) of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. After Stalin’s death, he took power and attempted to end the purges and enact more liberal civil policies. [Close] had to be retroactively promoted to general in order to be given credit for the battle of Kursk, twenty years later. John F. Kennedy, the great orator, survived himself when his speech writer Theodore Sorenson penned his own funeral oration in the same style that created the dead man’s public persona. The most admirable celebrities who personify the spectacle are those who are known for being fake: they become famous by stooping below anything an acceptable individual would dofn“they become famous by stooping below anything an acceptable individual would do”: C.f. Hegel, G., Hoffmeister, J., Nisbet, H. & Forbes, D., 1975. Full quotation is “Thus, the great individuals of history can only be understood within their own context; and they are admirable simply because they have made themselves the instruments of substantial spirit.” Ex-Prime Minister of Italy Silvio Berlusconi and ex-US President Donald J. Trump are perfect examples of the celebrity politician who played themselves while in office. [Close]—and everyone knows it.
The spectacle offers an abundance of choice, expressed as loyalties to one side of a false dichotomy.fn“loyalty to false dichotomies…”: e.g. Democrats vs. Republicans, Coke vs. Pepsi; which is to say, alternatives which aren’t significantly different. [Close] These loyalties are aligned between competing & complementary spectacles or the juxtaposition of rules within the spectacle. These false dichotomies develop into struggles between opposing teams who claim fierce allegiance to what are otherwise trivial differences. This resurrects long-dormant racism and regionalism, creating irrational and unnecessary ontological superiorities. All this sets the stage for trivial confrontations—sporting events, theatrical elections, and the like. The presence of abundundant consumption pits the adults against the youth, but “real adults”, those people who are responsible for the destiny of their own lives—are in fact nowhere to be found. Furthermore, it is not the youth that makes change, but the spectacle.fn“it is not the youth that makes change, but the spectacle.”: The difference and confrontation between adult and youth culture is merely the difference between the commodities they consume, and their modes of consumption. Baby Boomers may tend to consume the spectacular media via television, while Millennials consumed the spectacular media by an ever-changing sequence of social media apps: MySpace, Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat, TicTok, etc. They both consume the spectacular media. [Close] It is the new commodities of the spectacle which are young and changing. At its core, the commodities are what are directly confronting and replacing one another.
Beneath the abundance of false dichotomies lies a unity of poverty, this is the struggle for dominance of trivial differences in form, maintained within the continuation of alienation. In making either choice, individuals become united in opposition to each other—engaged in a pointless struggle,fn“pointless struggle”: Revealing this truth will present the triviality of the false opposition—revealing the perception of total agency and free will as a superficial free will, one limited to decisions that reinforce the spectacle. Behind every choice we perceive to be based upon our free will and responsible choice, is a series of prior decisions based on experiences occurring in the spectacular society which shapes these experiences and choices in ways that are hidden to us. On both sides of spectacular opposition, the spectacle is the unity both sides share in their spectacular struggle against each other, a struggle that defines their identities (in part). [Close] where only the spectacle benefits from the continual regeneration of this false opposition while real contradictions are repressed. The spectacle, at its most abstract level, presents itself in one of two possible forms: the concentrated form or the diffuse form.fn“the concentrated form or the diffuse form”: Debord has since updated his analysis: “In 1967 I distinguished two rival and successive forms of spectacular power, the concentrated and the diffuse… The former, presenting an ideology concentrated around a dictatorial personality, had accompanied the Nazi and Stalinist totalitarian counterrevolutions. The latter, inciting wage-earners to apply their freedom of choice to the vast range of new commodities now on offer, had represented the Americanisation of the world… Since then a third form has been established, through the rational combination of these two, and on the basis of a general victory of the form that had shown itself stronger: the diffuse. This is the integrated spectacle, which has since tended to impose itself globally.” See Debord, G. & Imrie, M., 1998. [Close] One form comes to the forefront depending on the needs of the particular stage of poverty it needs to maintain and regenerate. In either form, it results in the happy harmony around false dichotomies and spectacular oppositions that generates desolation and horror at the calm center of misery.fn“happy harmony… calm center of misery”: A detournément from Moby Dick, full quote is “And thus, though surrounded by circle upon circle of consternations and affrights, did these inscrutable creatures at the centre freely and fearlessly indulge in all peaceful concernments; yea, serenely revelled in dalliance and delight. But even so, amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still for ever centrally disport in mute calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy.” See Melville, H., 1991 (Ch. 87). [Close]
The concentrated spectacle is primarily associated with bureaucratic capitalism, but is also the primary form used by both undeveloped economies or advanced economies to reinforce state power during moments of crisis.fn“bureaucratic capitalism… during moments of crisis”: The bureaucratic capitalist states use a centralized state power dictated by a supreme leader, or a central party with absolute power; for example, the former socialist USSR, contemporary China, and North Korea. In Western “neoliberal” or “free market” capitalism, absolute powers are given to the ruling class during moments of crisis such as natural disasters, popular protests, pandemics, and terrorist attacks. This approach to emergency powers was named “Shock Doctrine” by Naomi Klein in a book with the same title that describes the use of crisis to push through policies that grant additional powers to the state that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise, see: Klein, N., 2007. Although Western capitalism has also become increasingly bureaucratized, when Debord uses the terms “the bureaucracy,” “bureaucratic capitalism,” “bureaucratic class,” etc., he is referring to the “Communist” party’s evolution into a new type of totalitarian bureaucratic ruling class. See also theses 103 to 113. [Close] Bureaucratic ownership, which is to say, the ownership of the economy by the bureaucratic class is also concentrated, in that any individual bureaucrat maintains ownership only as a member of the bureaucratic community. Commodity production, while less developed under bureaucratic capitalism, takes on a concentrated form: the total control of social labor. What it controls in labor it sells back as exclusive access to the basic means of survival. As such, the dictatorship of bureaucratic economy cannot leave the exploited classes any margin of choice, all consumption is carefully chosen by bureaucratic capitalism because it has to make all choices itself and independently of demand, whether regarding food, music, or anything else. This amounts to a declaration of war against any independent choice outside of itself. Whatever is produced must also be consumed, and nothing outside this system officially exists. The masses cannot have any margin of choice, because choice ultimately leads to the choice to destroy bureaucratic capitalism itself. This dictatorship enforces itself with the exclusive control of the monopoly on violence. The concentrated spectacle imposes an image of the good which encompasses everything that officially exists, and typically reflects back upon the work of a single individual, who is the guarantor of its totalitarian cohesion. Everyone must magically identify with this star individual or they will disappear. This individual is the master of his non-consumption, the heroic image that explains and justifies the absolute exploitation that is in fact primitive accumulation accelerated by official terrorism. If every Chinese must learn Mao, and thus have to be Mao, it is because he or she has nothing else to be. Wherever the concentrated spectacle dominates, the police also dominate.
The diffuse spectacle is primarily associated with a society producing an abundance of commodities, one pursuing the fulfillment of modern capitalism—the production of commodities for the sake of increasing production, and the need for constant economic growth. The spectacle is its self-congratulatory mouthpiece. The major commodities argue with each other in contradictory ways, promoting conflicting social policies but allowing individuals to identify with them accordingly. The automobile achieves more efficient travel and empowers individuals to be autonomous, while destroying the environment and the organic feel of older cities that operate on a human-scale. This creates a tension between the desire for organic-feeling old cities and the tourism they attract at the expense of vehicle ownership. These tensions create a gap of satisfaction, where the consumer is unable to satisfy the whole of what society has to offer due to contradictions between its parts. Due to this contradiction, the whole is absent at every aspect of society.
Contradictory commodities struggle for themselves, and cannot acknowledge others. Each seeks to become predominant as if it existed alone. The spectacle is the heroic poem of this struggle, one in which the fall of Troyfn“the fall of Troy…”: An allusion to Homer’s Iliad. [Close] would not bring about its conclusion. The spectacle doesn’t sing of men and their wars,fn“The spectacle doesn’t sing of men and their wars…”: C.f. the opening line of Virgil’s Aeneid, full quotation: “Wars and a man I sing…” see Virgil. & Fagles, R., 2006. [Close] but of commodities and their passions. It is in this blind struggle that each commodity, following its passion, in fact unconsciously materializes something beyond itself: the globalization of the commodity, and thus, the commodification of the globe.fn“the globalization of the commodity, and thus, the commodification of the globe”: C.f. Engels, F., Marx, K., 1975. Full quotation: “As the world becomes philosophical, philosophy also becomes worldly.” [Close] Thus, by a deception of the commodity rationale, the individual commodity wears itself out in battle, while the commodity-form goes towards its absolute victory in the war of self-realization.fn“…this blind struggle that each commodity … self-realization.”: C.f. Hegel, G., Hoffmeister, J., Nisbet, H. & Forbes, D., 1975. Full quotation: “Particular interests contend with one another, and some are destroyed in the process. But it is from this very conflict and destruction of particular things that the universal emerges. The universal Idea does not itself enter into conflict and danger; it remains in the background, untouched and unharmed, and sends forth the particular interests of passion to fight and wear themselves out in its stead. With what we may call the cunning of reason, it sets the passions to work in its service, so that the agents by which it gives itself existence must pay the penalty and suffer the loss.” [Close]
The tension produced between commodities in opposition reduces the satisfaction of using these abundant commodities. The individual consumer exhibits religious fervor for having as commodity, where having is an end in itself.fn“having as commodity, where having is an end in itself”: For example, “sneakerheads”, those who collect hundreds of pairs of expensive sneakers, keeping them boxed and in perfect condition, never actually wearing them. The satisfaction comes purely from having them; Apple fans will wait in line for the latest Apple iPhone, while the phone in their pocket continues to work perfectly, and is nearly indistinguishable to the newer model. [Close] All forms of media engage in the promotion of waves of fervor for having these commodities. A new style of fashion emerges from a film, nightlife magazines publicizes new night clubs, which in turn launch new products. The proliferation of trendy gadgets expresses the fact that when the mass of commodities slides into absurdity, the absurd itself becomes a star commodity. Gimmicks such as key-chains, for example, which are no longer bought but are additional gifts that accompany luxury commodities, or which are traded back and forth as collectibles in their own right, reflecting a mysterious surrender to the predominance of the commodity. These commodities are then manufactured specifically to be collected. Collectors prove their position amongst their cohort of the faithful by showcasing their obedience to the maintenance of accumulation, an accumulation of commodity indulgences—glorious tokens exemplifying the commodities physical presence among the most faithful.fn“an accumulation of commodity indulgences-glorious tokens exemplifying the commodities physical presence among the faithful”: This whole thesis plays on associations with classic religious delusions, in this case the “indulgences” for forgiveness of sins peddled by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages and the doctrine of the “Real Presence” of Christ in the Eucharist. [Close] These commodified people proudly display the proof of their intimacy with the commodity. The fetishism of the commodity reaches similar moments of fervent exaltation as old religious fetishism, with its convulsionary raptures and miraculous cures. The only usage that remains within this relationship is the usage of submission to the commodity on the part of the faithful.
Undoubtedly, the pseudo-needs imposed by contemporary consumerism cannot be contrasted against any genuine material need or desire that is not itself shaped by society and history. The economy of commodity abundance represents a total break from the organic development of social needs. The mechanical accumulation of commodities unleashes a limitless demand for pseudo-necessities which overwhelms all material needs and desires. The cumulative power of this autonomous artificiality ends up falsifying the needs and desires of directly lived life.
Society presents an image of general unification around blissful consumption, yet this is merely postponing consumers awareness of the actual contradictions until their dissatisfactionfn“blissful consumption… dissatisfaction”: This sequence is institutionalized by the system of production as planned obsolescence. Society appears happiest when the newest object/product is released. In between, we just wait for the new release (occasionally quite literally, some wait in line for the next Apple product or Star Wars film.) [Close] with the next commodity. Every new product release presents itself as the solution to our unified pseudo-need: the desire to resolve the tension between contradictory commodities. But as with parents giving seemingly unique first names to their children which end up being given to virtually all individuals of the same age, the commodities that promise to solve all consumers dissatisfaction can only be mass-consumed if it has been mass-produced. This commodity acquires prestige if it is placed at the center of social life, however briefly, as the ultimate goal of the system of production. This commodity becomes vulgar as soon as it is brought home, revealing the poor quality of its mass production, but luckily, by then another product will soon be released, again promising to resolve the tension between commodities. The new release demands a new spectacle to tout its potential success.
Every commodity expresses its own inability to satisfy both real need and pseudo-need when the commodity is eventually replaced, proving both the fraud of satisfaction and the inability of the entire production process to satisfy any needs. The commodity, continually announcing its excellence in advertising campaigns, but having failed to satisfy, results in a new commodity which takes its place—perpetuating and regenerating the process of spectacular production. Stalin,fnStalin: Joseph Stalin (1878-1953), totalitarian leader of the USSR from the late 1920s till his death in 1953. Following his death, his successors, who had slavishly followed him for decades, undertook a “de-Stalinization” campaign, denouncing the “excesses” of his reign. [Close] like any other outmoded commodity, is denounced by the very forces that originally promoted him. Every lie of advertising is an admission of their previous lie, revealing the advertiser as someone who knows they produce lies. Each downfall of a figure of totalitarian power reveals the deceitful community that unanimously approved of them, which was nothing more than an assembly of solitudes without illusion.
The only constant within the spectacle is change. It is dogmatic only in that it has no dogma. Nothing remains constant for the spectacle, it constantly shifts and changes, and yet it presents itself as a permanent condition that has no historical events and creates an eternal present. This instability is the spectacle’s natural condition, but it is completely contrary to its natural inclination.fn“Nothing remains constant… it is completely contrary to its natural inclination”: C.f. Pascal, B. & Ariew, R., 2005. Full quotation: “When we try to anchor ourselves to any point, it wavers and leaves us; and if we pursue it, it continually eludes our grasp. Nothing stands still for us. This is our natural condition, yet it is completely contrary to our inclination.” [Close]
The spectacle rests on the class divisions of a capitalist mode of production. This is hidden by the projection of an image of unity within spectacular opposition.fn“unity within spectacular opposition”: The spectacle creates an illusion that everyone is involved in the same struggle of Republican vs Democrat, working class vs capital; when in reality there are grey areas between the two, as well as individuals and groups operating completely outside these false dichotomies. [Close] These class divisions must be maintained to keep the spectacle going. Capitalism motivates producers to create commodities that promise to break class distinctions, but this causes a finer stratification between the lower classes. That which connects individuals who are freed from their local and national limitations is that which alienates them. New hyper-rationalities require continually new oversimplifications of reality, creating new irrationalities of hierarchical exploitation and oppression. That which creates new abstract powers in society generate its concrete lack of freedom.
“Equal right to all the goods and pleasures of this world the destruction of all authority, the negation of all moral restraints—in the final analysis, these are the aims behind the March 18th insurrectionfnThe insurrection of March 18th refers to the Paris Commune, the radical socialist and revolutionary government that ruled Paris from March 18 until May 28th 1871. The national government continued to have authority in rural France during this time, but Paris became briefly independent, with aims of gaining control nationally. [Close] and the charter of the fearsome organizationfn"the fearsome organization…": The parliamentary committee of the national government characterized the First International, the Executive Committee of the Commune as fearsome because of their strong influence with the National Guard and among soldiers embedded in the army. [Close] that furnished it with an army.”
—Parliamentary Report on the Insurrection of March 18
The spectacle began when the bourgeoisie won the economy, and became visible when the bourgeois politicians put their interests into action within politics. The real movement that dissolves existing conditionsfn“The real movement that dissolves existing conditions”: C.f. Marx, K. & Engels, F., 1998 (Part 1, Ch. 2, Section 5.) Full quotation: “Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. What we call communism is the real movement that is dissolving existing conditions.” [Close]—the continual progression of capitalism destroying the old way of life in which individuals created goods as craft,fn“individuals created goods as craft…”: In its place is a thoughtless production of items bankrupt of craft, only to be consumed not for its use, but in order to satisfy an unsatisfiable pseudo-need. [Close] and their relation to the goods as an item with use value, the old static order crumbled into dust.fn“the old static order crumbled into dust.”: C.f. Marx, K., Engels, F. & Jones, G., 2002 (Part 1). Full quotation: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind, in a clear and disabused manner.” [Close] Everything that had been directly lived has been relegated to history.
When individuals can relate to the products they produce and consume, they understand it as direct participation in a historically cohesive context generated by their own labor and struggle, in a clear and disabused manner.fn“in a clear and disabused manner.”: See previous quote from C.f. Marx, K., Engels, F. & Jones, G., 2002 (Part 1). [Close] This is the creation of a history that has no ends other than whatever final unconscious metaphysical vision emergesfn“whatever final unconscious metaphysical vision emerges…”: One such vision of metaphysical history is The Philosophy of History, see Hegel, G. & Sibree, J., 2004. [Close] from the procession of events that make it up. The subject of history can only be the living, participating, and regeneration of themselves, becoming owner and master of their world—that very thing which is history, becoming conscious of their own adventures.
The class struggles of the long era of revolutionsfn“the long era of revolutions”: The period from approximately 1774 to 1849 in which a number of significant revolutionary movements occurred in most of Europe and the Americas. The period is noted for the change from absolutist monarchies to representative governments with a written constitution, and the creation of nation states. Arguably includes the Russian Revolution which would extend its end until 1923. [Close] that was initiated by the ascendance of the bourgeoisie, arrived with historical thought. This is the dialectic—a line of reasoning that doesn’t conclude at the definition of meaning of what exists, but aspires to understand the dissolution of everything that is—and in the process dissolve all separation.fn“dissolve all separation”: The role of human labor has shifted from manual labor to knowledge labor, and most recently, pure contemplation which is sufficient to call “labor.” Within this regime, class distinctions seem to dissolve, but will be (in reality) ascribed by ownership of power, capital, and signifiers of class membership. The potential for a revolution of the proletariat is then to ignore meaning in the contemporary moment, and instead create new meaning through direct action that seeks to eliminate all existing meaning and all forms of alienation. Pure contemplation can take an active form such as automation and computation (software engineering), and machine learning. The passive form includes individuals who exchange their time for television, social media, etc; their attention becomes labor in itself. For more on this see Beller, J., 2006. [Close]
The philosophy of HegelfnHegel: Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), German philosopher. Although it is possible to understand most of The Society of the Spectacle without knowing anything about Hegel, some familiarity with his work is useful to engage in the dialectical type of radical practice initiated by Marx and further developed by the Situationists. The dialectical method cuts through traditional logic, expressing the dynamic manner in which things interact, how they divide, merge, grow, decay, and transform; sometimes even into their opposites. Because most of Hegel’s work is quite difficult, commentaries and other secondary readings are essential. A good starting place might be Peter Singer’s Hegel: A Very Short Introduction. [Close] only examined the transformation of history through processes (but never examined the process or results of change itself.) He limited himself to the mere interpretation of the transformation after the event. His work represents the philosophical culmination of philosophy. He sought to understand a reality that generated itself. His historical thinking are justifications that have arrived too late,fn“his justifications are too late…”: C.f. Hegel, G., Wood, A. & Nisbet, H., 1991. Full quotation: “As for trying to teach the world what it ought to be, for this purpose philosophy always arrives too late. As the thought of the world, it appears only when actuality is already there.” [Close] as the meaning of reality depends on the historical completion of events—his analysis occurred in thought only, and as such was able to escape separation.fn“his analysis… was able to escape separation”: His work was able to cross specialized academic fields in order to articulate a line of integrated understanding. [Close] Hegel’s paradoxical intellectual position—the subjugation of the meaning of all reality to the material conditions and events that have culminated up to that point, while at the same time revealing that very meaning as the culmination of those conditions, arises because this great thinker of the bourgeois revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuriesfn“the bourgeois revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries”: Most notably in England (1640-1660, 1688), America (1775-1788) and France (1789-1799). [Close] desired a way to reconcile the results of these revolutions to the specific conditions and events he was attempting to understand. “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.” (Korsch, K., 2014) Hegel performed the task of the philosopher—“the glorification of existing conditions”—for the last time; but what already existed for him could be nothing less than the entire movement of history. Since his position rested upon the external position of thought (external to conditions and events), this position could only be maintained by identifying that thought with the apriori existence of Spirit—that heroic force that does what it willed and willed what it has done,fn“that heroic force that does what it willed and willed what it has done…”: C.f. Hegel, G. W. F., 2019, (Vol. 1, §140). Full quotation: “great men willed what they did, and did what they willed.” [Close] that same force whose achievement has created the present. Philosophy, in the process of being superseded by truly historical thinking, has thus arrived at the point where it can glorify its world only by denying it,fn“Philosophy… can glorify its world only by denying it.”: According to Debord, Hegel’s analysis glorified only the heroes whose work contributed directly to the conditions of the present, and ignores the work of those who contributed to the precursors & processes not existent in the conclusion. This philosophy can only be written once the conclusion is available, and its logic is only valuable when it can write judgement when the full scope of history is visible to draw upon. [Close] since it must presuppose that the totality of history to which it credits all present conditions has already come to its conclusion, and the only court where truth can be judged has been adjourned.fn“the only court where truth can be judged has been adjourned”: C.f. Hegel, G., Wood, A. & Nisbet, H., 1991. Full quotation: “over finite spirits in world history as the world’s court of judgement.” [Close]
When the working class exert their power & presence through actions, they demonstrate how they have not forgotten historical thought.fn“they have not forgotten historical thought”: C.f. Hegel, G., Hoffmeister, J., Nisbet, H. & Forbes, D., 1975. Full quotation: “Spirit often seems to have forgotten and lost itself, but inwardly opposed to itself, it is inwardly working ever forward as Hamlet says of the ghost of his father, ‘Well done, old mole’-until grown strong in itself it bursts asunder the crust of earth which divided it from its sun, its Notion, so that the earth crumbles away.” [Close] Their actions demonstrate the denial of the endsfn“the ends/new ends”: Ends as in ‘the ultimate goal’ or ‘ultimate purpose’. This language comes directly from Hegel: ‘End of history’ meaning the final form of human society, or the ultimate goal of the process of human social development. It does not imply that nothing more will ever happen. This is a denial of Hegel’s idealized philosophical conclusion. [Close] of historical thought, demonstrating the very real possibility of new ends that they themselves will materialize. These actions will simultaneously be a validation of their methods.fn“their methods”: Hegel’s dialectical methods. [Close]
Historical thought can only be salvaged by taking these theories of the contemporary social order and transforming them into practical thought. The actions of the working class as a revolutionary force can be nothing less than a newly emergent historical consciousness operating over the entire world. The theory powering previous revolutionary workers movements: Stirner,fnStirner: Max Stirner (1806-1856) a German individualist anarchist philosopher, and author of The Ego and His Own. [Close] Bakunin,fnBakunin: Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876), Russian anarchist revolutionary. collaborator and then later opponent of Marx within the First International. [Close] and MarxfnMarx: Karl Marx (1818- 1883), German philosopher, economist, historian, sociologist, political theorist, journalist, and socialist revolutionary. [Close]— grew out of a critical confrontation with Hegelian thought.
Marx’s theory is just as inseparable from the Hegelian method as it is inseparable from that theory’s revolutionary nature, that is, from its truth. The strong ties between Marxist theory & Hegelian action was first misunderstood, later ignored, and later denounced as a weakness—which was mistakenly developing into a “Marxist” dogma. Bernstein, in Evolutionary SocialismfnEduard Bernstein’s book Evolutionary Socialism: A Criticism and Affirmation was published in 1899. It was translated in 1911 and more recently as The Preconditions of Socialism in 1993. Shortly after The Communist Manifesto was published, both Paris and Germany erupted into the Revolutions of 1848. See Bernstein, E., 1911. [Close] affirmed this inseparability when he implicitly reveals the connection between the dialectical method of Hegel and historical partisanship in his analysis of Marx, he condemned the unscientific predictions of The Communist Manifesto (1847) which proclaimed the imminence of a working class revolution in Germany (and wider Europe): “This historical self-deception, so erroneous that the most naive political visionary could hardly have done any worse, would be incomprehensible in a Marx who at that time had already seriously studied economics if we did not recognize that it reflected the lingering influence of the antithetical Hegelian dialectic, from which Marx, like Engels, could never completely free himself. In those times of general effervescence this influence was all the more fatal to him.”
The radical synthesis achieved by Marx and his branch of scientific socialism was his ability to “salvage” the Hegelian method of dialectical thinking by transplantingfn“his ability to ‘salvage’… by transplanting”: C.f. Korsch, K., 1931. Full quotation: “The attempt made by the founders of scientific socialism to salvage the high art of dialectical thinking by transplanting it from the German idealist philosophy to the materialist conception of nature and history, from the bourgeois to the proletarian theory of revolution, appears, both historically and theoretically, as a transitory step only. What has been achieved is a theory not of the proletarian revolution developing on its own basis, but of a proletarian revolution that has just emerged from the bourgeois revolution; a theory which therefore in every respect, in content and in method, is still tainted with the birthmarks of Jacobinism, that is, of the revolutionary theory of the bourgeoisie.” [Close] it from its roots in German idealist philosophy to his materialist conception of nature and history; from the bourgeois revolution to the working class theory of revolution. This work did not consist trivially of swapping the development of the materialist system of production towards its historical ends—with the development of the Hegelian Spirit moving towards its ultimate encounter with itself, the Spirit whose objectification is identical to its alienation and whose historical injuries leave no scars.fn“historical injuries leave no scars”: C.f. Hegel, G., Miller, A. & Findlay, J., 1977. A détournement from Hegel, original quotation: “The wounds of the Spirit heal, and leave no scars behind.” [Close] For once history becomes real, it no longer has an end.fn“For once history becomes real, it no longer has an end.”: The original French is
L’histoire devenue réelle n’a plus de fin. Debord uses ‘real’
réelle in the metaphysical sense. In more contemporary philosophy, the term used is ‘Real’ (see Baudrillard, J., 1994) which refers to the metaphysical condition of reality as presented in the media and inscribed into history, while actual physical reality is the ‘real’. The ‘real’ is obscured by the metaphysical conditions presented by the media, while the ‘Real’ is portrayed as an increasing onslaught of mini-crises that play out in the daily media. Thus, once the pseudo-events of the Real are inscribed into history, the autonomous nature of the spectacle (here called history) no longer has any ultimate purpose (or ends), other than the reproduction of itself. [Close] Marx’s theory destroyed Hegel’s stance on detachment, that events which occur during the revolutionary event always exist in some form in its conclusion, and eliminates the contemplation of a supreme external agent—only the events themselves exist. Thus, theory needs only know those events which occur, those actions that are not part of the swing of the dialectic as described by Hegel: revolutionary actions without theory or a perspective on reality, immanent revolutionary action that physically transcends and refutes theory.fn“Marx’s theory destroyed… transcends and refutes theory.”: When Marx proposes a theory of a working class seizing the means of production, it must be done with practical action in addition to theory and law. It must be done in actions that change the zeitgeist—the common sense and spirit of the times must change to reflect these actions in order for the revolution to succeed. When revolutionary actions occur simultaneously with theory and practice—history and imagination work together to materialize an open trajectory for the emergence of a new society. [Close] In contrast, contemporary society’s passive analysis of the economy is a stagnant vestige from the undialectical aspect from Hegel’s attempt to create a self-referential system. It never attempts to rationalize any higher-order aspect of society, and remains satisfied with a mere self-validation of its own methods, and doesn’t need Hegelianism to justify itself or the sector of the economy it justifies. It simply validates the financialized sector of the economy where thought no longer has any place, an autonomous sector whose development dominates all others. Marx’s project is that of a conscious history. The quantitative that occurs in the unthinking development of merely economic productive forces must change into qualitative historical appropriation. This is to say that the task of revolution is to reappropriate history in its actions by redefining history, both by revolutionary & productive force of action. The critique of political economy is the first act of the end of prehistory: “Of all the instruments of production, the greatest productive power is the revolutionary class itself.”fn“Of all the instruments… class itself”’: C.f. Marx, K., 1995, (Ch. 2). [Close]
Marx’s thought is scientific where it understands and analyses the forces that operate in society, but his thought supersedes science in its drive to understand the struggles throughout history (of the proletariat striving to achieve real power) and not merely its laws. “We know only a single science: the science of history.”fn“We recognize… the science of history.”: See Marx, K. & Engels, F., 1998. (Part I, Ch. 1, Section 1). [Close]
The bourgeois period wishes to explain history with science, but this science is limited to the economy, so it can only ever become a history of economics. The scientific and limited perspective of economics overlooks history’s effect on the economy, a process that continually modifies its own scientific premises to prove its own conclusionsfn“a process that continually modifies its own scientific premises to prove its own conclusions”: This is the same type of ideological reasoning used by doomsday cults who continually push their predictions of the End Times into the future. Thus, The End Times are always just around the corner, and have been for the last two thousand years. [Close] —best exemplified by the socialist states who thought they had calculated the exact periodicity of economic crises. These crises are only mitigated by the constant intervention of the state. The project of transcending the economy, and appropriating history must indeed grasp and incorporate the science of society, but it cannot be a merely scientific project. The revolutionary movement will remain merely bourgeois if it limits itself to mastering the economy,fn“The revolutionary movement will remain merely bourgeois if it limits itself to mastering the economy”: Debord’s critique contends that existing class distinctions rely on a division of labor that continually creates separation between theorists and practicioners. Namely, there are the designer/theorists: those who know and do not act—technocrats and economists by another name. Then there are the builders/laymen: those who act and do not know. The task of the revolutionary movement is not to merely master the redesign of the economy, but to design and build a new society with both theory and practice that transcends a mere reformation of the economy. [Close] and economic history by means of a merely scientific approach.
Utopian SocialismfnUtopian Socialism was the first current of socialist thought as exemplified by the work of Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825), Charles Fourier (1772-1837), Étienne Cabet (1788-1856), Robert Owen (1771-1858), and Henry George (1839-1897). Their theories were contrasted with the “scientific socialism” of Marx and Engels. [Close] offered a vision of socialism that was a critique of capitalism, but one that didn’t go far enough, which is to say that their vision remained constrained by the limitations of purely economic science. Their utopian vision ignores history, the actual struggles of daily life, and ignores the more recent developments of society that have moved beyond the conditions that originally generated their now-dated utopian imagination of a happy society. On the contrary, they want to continue the application of rationality and science to lend social credibility to the control of power with purely scientific methods that are now centuries old. These technocrats do not consider themselves unarmed missionaries,fn“unarmed missionaries”: C.f. Machiavelli (see Machiavelli, N., Bull, G. & Grafton, A., 2003) Machiavelli compares “armed prophets” to “unarmed prophets” in Ch. 6 of The Prince, here I instead found missionaries and warrior-monks a cleaner comparison. [Close] but as warrior-monks, for they are faithful to the social power of scientific proof; or in the case of Saint-Simonism and the other utopian socialists, in the seizure of power by science. Sombart asked “How can anything that is to be accomplished by intellectual illumination, or at most by example, be achieved through strife?” (Sombart, W., 1896). But the utopians’ scientific understanding did not include the awareness that the wealthy have vested interests in maintaining the status quo, a monopoly on force, and control the media to promote a false consciousness.fn“the wealthy have vested interests in maintaining the status quo… and control the media to promote a false consciousness.” C.f. Sombart, W., 1896. Full quotation is “So far as his [Owen’s] followers assume that the present order of things is nothing other than a mistake, that only for this reason men find themselves in their present position, that misery rules in the world only because man has not known thus far how to make it better—that is false. The utopists fail to see, in their optimism, that a part of this society looks upon the status quo as thoroughly satisfactory and desires no change, that this part also has an interest in sustaining it, and that a specific condition of society always obtains because those persons who are interested in it have the power to sustain it.” [Close] Their limited perspective thus obscured the recent developments of the economic sciences itself, which were at that time largely driven by the wealthy classes who determined both which areas were scientifically acceptable to study, as well as which of those areas were worthy of funding. The Utopian Socialists thus remained prisoners to the scientific method of exposing the truth, conceiving this truth as a purely abstract model—although one that had been imposed by an earlier stage of the development of society. Their model is an abstract image which doesn’t include enough context, or resolution to be adequate or sufficient. As Sorel remarked, their science is based upon the model of astronomy, which they think they can use to discover and demonstrate the laws of society. The balance they aim for, which is hostile to, and disregards history, is the result of an attempt to apply the least historically dependent science of economics to the understanding of society. They described this balance as if they were Newton discovering universal scientific laws, and the happy understanding they continually promote “[that they] believed that he had found a ‘social dynamic’ which often compared to celestial mechanics.” (Sorel, G., 2018)
The gap in Marx’s work between practice and scientific theory is the weakness into which the wedge of ideologyfn“the wedge of ideology”: The original French is
laquelle pénétra le processus d’‹idéologisation›., or “into which penetrated the process of ‘ideologization’.” In this sense both Debord and Marx consider ‘ideology’ to be a rigid and increasingly dogmatic interpretation of the purely scientific aspects of Marxism at the expense of the practical. [Close] was forced, both during his own lifetime and even more so in the theoretical heritage left to interpretation by the workers movement. The acceptance of the individual as subject to the events and material basis of history remains postponed, and instead a dogmatic faith in historical economics dominates understanding, which only increases the oversimplification, contradiction, and misunderstanding that guarantee its eventual obsolescence. This faith ignores the theoretical vision offered by revolutionary practice, which is the only means of attaining truth. This faith sees it as essential to study purely economic development, to quietly accept with Hegelian tranquility the suffering this development imposes. Into this gap, new scientific economic models are pushed while real revolutionary actions are ignored such that actions become “a graveyard of good intentions.” According to this blind faith, the self-described “science of revolutions”, concludes that consciousness always comes too soon,fn“consciousness always comes too soon”: C.f. Hegel, G., Wood, A. & Nisbet, H., 1991. A détournement from the original quote, which reads: “philosophy, at any rate, always comes too late to perform this function.” [Close] and therefore requires a misguided education of the working class. “History has shown that we, and all who thought like us, were wrong” (Engels, F., 1903) Engels wrote in 1895, continuing “It has made it plain that the condition of economic development on the continent at that time was not yet ripe enough by far for the abolition of capitalist production…” (ibid). Marx maintained a consistent perspective on his theory throughout his life, but his expression of this theory changed as it often took place on the terrain of the dominant thought of the times—taking the form of critiques of specific areas of discourse, most notably the critique of the political economy, the realm of bourgeois society. It was this constrained form of Marx’s work that was gradually reinterpreted into a simplified and dogmatic “Marxism”—which ignored on-the-ground reality, instead merely reading the tea leaves of the economic sciences—which can never reveal when the ground is ripe for revolutionary action.
Weakened and dogmatic “Marxism” is linked to the fundamental weakness of the revolutionary proletariat of his times. The German working class failed to initiate a permanent revolution in 1848fn“The German working class… 1848”: See Engels, F., Marx, K., 1907. [Close]; the Paris Commune was defeatedfn“The Paris Commune was defeated…”: See Marx, K., Kemp, A., 1968. See also Theses on the Paris Commune Knabb, K., 2006 (Pp. 398-401). [Close] in isolation. As a result, revolutionary theory could not yet be fully realized. The dogmatic steadfastness to Marxist theory leaves the movement vulnerable to a state of inflexibility when unanticipated conditions arise from the activity on the ground. While in exile in England, Marx was reduced to refining his theory under isolated conditions working at the British Museum; the conclusions he arrived at later became obstacles and dogmatic fixtures that obscure the theory of his work for later proletarian revolutionaries.
The purely scientific theoretical defense of the proletarian revolution, is insufficiently theorized in both content and form; namely in that it misidentifies the proletariat with the bourgeoisie as those responsible for the revolutionary seizure of power.
Marx’s continual effort to demonstrate the scientific basis of a legitimate proletarian power can be seen as early as The Communist Manifesto, in which he cites a repetitive sequence of experimental precedents, leading him to support an oversimplified linear progression of the development of the modes of production. Furthermore, his analysis stipulated that this progression was brought on by a class struggle that results in “either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”fnRelated: “its political power must be broken; that the individual bourgeois can continue to exploit the other classes and enjoy undisturbed property, family, religion and order only on the condition that their class be condemned to the same political nullity as all the other classes; that in order to save its purse, it must forfeit the crown” Marx, K. (1963). [Close] (Marx, K., Engels, F. & Jones, G., 2002. Pp. 219) In reality, it is seen that in Asia (i.e. China with the “Asiatic mode of production” that Marx had noted elsewhere) these struggles resulted in neither outcome, and in spite of all the class conflicts through historical times; nor did any serf revolt overthrow the lords during feudalism, nor did the slave revolts of ancient times result in the rule of free men. This framework of linear progression overlooks the insight that the bourgeoisie is the only revolutionary class that has ever won the class struggle —at the same time it is the only class for whom the development of the economy has been the cause and consequence of its control over society. Marx ignored the state’s contributions to the economic management of class-based society. If the bourgeois revolution seemed to liberate the economy from the state, it was because the state used the economy as an instrument of class oppression during a period of economic instability. The emergent bourgeoisie developed its autonomous economic power in the medieval period when the states were weakest, in the moment of fragmentation of the feudal balanced powers. In contrast, the bourgeoisie was able to secure their own state in its contemporary form, which emerged from the institutionalization of the practice of mercantilism—this state directly supported their class interests. This state developed at the time of “laissez faire, laisser passer”,fn“laissez faire, laisser passer”: The phrase is generally attributed to Vincent de Gournay who had made it his maxim: “laissez faire, laissez passer, le monde va de lui même” or “Let it do, let it pass, the world does its own thing”. See Albon, C. d., 1775. [Close] later proved to be endowed with a central power in the calculated management of the economic process. What Marx would later describe as “Bonapartism”, is the fusion of capital and state power, a “public force organized for social enslavement”, one in which the bourgeoisie is totally disenfranchised from the events of a historical life by a new politics of “the things created by the modes of production” to such an extent that they were “condemned to the same political nullity as all the other classes”.fn“What Marx would later describe as ‘Bonapartism’… ‘the same political nullity as all the other classes’”: See Marx, K., 1963 (Ch. 4). Full quote: “… that in order to restore tranquility in the country, its own bourgeois parliament must be brought to a halt; that in order to preserve its social power intact, its political power must be broken; that the individual bourgeois can continue to exploit the other classes and enjoy undisturbed property, family, religion and order only on the condition that their class be condemned to the same political nullity as all the other classes; that in order to save its purse, it must forfeit the crown.” Marx’s text analyzes the process in which the social instability following the French revolution of 1848 caused the bourgeoisie to support the 1852 coup d’etat by Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (nephew of the famous general Napoleon) who would save their wealth at the expense of their political autonomy. [Close] This statement negatively implies that the proletariat is the only remaining inheritor to a historical life, albeit a pretend one. Thus, the socio-political foundations have been laid for the contemporary society of the spectacle.
Marx defines two classes in his theory developed in Capital, these are the only two revolutionary classes that have existed in history, but operating under different conditions. Bourgeois: their revolution has been completed, they control the developed economy. Proletariat: theirs is an ongoing project—built on the foundations of their previous revolutions, but they must tailor their new revolution unique to the conditions on the ground, and differing qualitatively. By ignoring the uniqueness of the historical role of the bourgeoisie, one hides the concrete uniqueness of the proletarian project which can achieve nothing unless it carries its own sigils and knows “the immensity of its tasks”.fn“and [it] knows the immensity of its tasks”: Marx uses this phrase in several places, e.g. “Proletarian revolutions… recoil again and again before the immensity of their tasks, until a situation is finally created that goes beyond the point of no return” Marx, K., 1963 (Ch. 1). [Close] The bourgeoisie came to power because it is the class that arose with the developing economy. The proletariat can only come to power by becoming the class of consciousness. The increasing efficiency of the productive forces does not guarantee such power,fn“The increasing efficiency of the productive forces does not guarantee such power”: It is actually quite the opposite. Under the global neoliberal economic regime that emerged in the 1980s, and the resulting wage stagnation among workers and increasing wealth of the ruling classes, it’s become apparent that all increases in productivity have benefitted the owners of capital, and not the workers themselves, resulting in an increase of dispossession. [Close] in fact it only increases the dispossession of the proletariat. Nor can a Jacobin-style seizure of the state be its means to this end. The proletariat cannot use ideology designed to disguise the goal of a partial reimagination of society when a total reimagination of society is necessaryfn“a total reimagination of society is necessary”: The goal of the proletariat is to become the creator of a totally reimagined society which includes everybody, or it will fail as it includes nobody. [Close] in order to call it a society that is truly its own.
Marx never placed faith in economic forecasting. He even wrote about the limits of his theory in a well-known letter to Engels on December 7th 1867, in which he presents a critical view of his theory with the wish that Engels would submit the letter to the press as the work of an adversary. In the letter, Marx described Capital as limited to conclusions that were both logical and internally consistent with itself, and with respect to history, but present conditions on the ground may not actually connect with theory: “…the author’s subjective tendency (perhaps imposed on him by his political positions and his past actions), that is to say, the way in which he pictures himself, and portrays for others has nothing whatsoever to do with his critical analysis.” This contradiction revealed the full nature of his methodology of theory & practice: that the conditions that exist in reality must inform theory and theory must inform practice.
Theory and practice must go hand in hand, as one guarantees the validity of the other. At the moment of the revolutionary event, the proletarian class must congeal into a conscious subjectfnconscious subject/consciousness: See glossary: “Consciousness”. [Close] with the organization of actions on the ground to further their own interests with the reorganization of society. This is where practical conditions of consciousness must exist. If this occurs, it confirms theory with practice by becoming practical theory.fn“theory with practice by becoming practical theory”: According to Debord this is detourned from Lukács, G., 1971. [Close] However, the central question of organization was ignored by revolutionary theory at the time when the workers movement was beginning to take shape, that is, when this theory was still unified with practice it had inherited from historical thought (thought which vowed to develop into unified historical practice). Instead, the organizational question became the weakest aspect of radical theory, a confused terrain mired down by a revival of hierarchical command structures borrowed from the statefn“a revival of hierarchical command structures borrowed from the state”: Or, more contemporaneously, borrowing organization and management structures from business. [Close] and inherited from the bourgeois revolution. Organizational forms that are co-opted from state become a weakening force that break up the unity of the movement into specialized and ideologically fragmented disciplines that will be unable to recognize the success of practical actions and unified theory of working class struggles. Instead it represses every manifestation of struggle and undermines the memory of their successes. Practice is least theorized as it requires unique conditions and unique actions responding to the dynamic changes upon the terrain underfoot. Practice must be planned immediately, as to prevent its dissemination and potential for disruption. Verification of theory emerges from successful application and deployment of practice. The Soviet, for example, was never theorized,fn“The Soviet… was never theorized”: The first soviet (Russian for “council”) was spontaneously formed by striking workers during the 1905 Russian revolution. No previous radical theorists had envisaged this form of popular self-organization, however obvious it may have seemed in retrospect. [Close] but its practice verified the theoretical truth of the existencefn“its practice verified the theoretical truth of its existence…”: Détourned from Marx, K., Kemp, A., 1968; full quotation “the greatest social measure of the [Paris] Commune was its own working existence.” [Close] of the International Workers’ Association.fnInternational Workers’ Association: The International Workingmen’s Association (IWA), often called the First International (1864–1876), was an international organisation which aimed at uniting a variety of different left-wing socialist, communist and anarchist groups and trade unions that were based on the working class and class struggle. It was founded in 1864 in a workmen’s meeting held in St. Martin’s Hall, London, and dissolved in the 1870s following the split between the Marxist and Bakuninist factions. [Close]
The initial successes of the First International lead it to free itself from the confused ideology existing for a while within itself. Soon afterwards it encountered defeat and repression as it split into two competing concepts of the proletarian revolution, both led by an authoritarian dimension that undermined the conscious self-emancipation of the working class.fn“an authoritarian dimension that undermined the conscious self-emancipation of the working class.”: C.f. the opening line of the Rules of the First International: “Considering that the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves…” [Close] On one side, Bakunin fought along the anarchist line: focused on the question of power in a future revolutionary society, against the illusion that classes could be abolished by means of an authoritarian form of state power, warning that this would lead to the formation of a bureaucratic ruling class, and to the dictatorship of the most knowledgeable (a technocratic meritocracy, or of those reputed to be such). On the other side was Marx, focused on the question of the organization of the current movement, who thought that the economic contradictions in democracy (democratic capitalism), and the education of the proletariat in democratic values would reduce the influence of the role of the state to a brief period of development necessary to legislate the new social relations brought into being by economic conditions—denounced Bakunin and his supporters as an authoritarian conspiratorial elite who were deliberately placing themselves above the First International with the goal of imposing on society a dictatorship of the most revolutionary (or who had designated themselves as such). Bakunin effectively recruited his followers on such a basis: “In the midst of the popular storm we must be the invisible pilots guiding the revolution, not through any kind of overt power but through the collective dictatorship of our alliance.fn"…the invisible pilots… but through the collective dictatorship of our alliance.": Quoted from Bakunin’s Letter to Albert Richard (August 1870), excerpted from Bakunin, M. A., 1980. The "Alliance" was Bakunin’s secret organization, the International Alliance for Social Democracy. [Close] A dictatorship without any insignia, or titles, or official status, yet all the more powerful because it will have none of the appearances of power.” These opposing groups were both partially true, but both lost the unity of historical thought, and still attempted to make themselves ideological authorities. Powerful organizations such as the Iberian Anarchist Federation and the German Social Democracy attempted to implement these working class ideologies accordingly; the results were very different from what had been intended.fn“… the results were very different from what had been intended.”: A détournement of the introduction by Engels, see Marx, K., Dutt, C. P., Engels, F., 1895 (Pp 18). Full quotation: “the Commune was consumed in unfruitful strife between the two parties which divided it, the Blanquists (the majority) and the Proudhonists (the minority), neither of which knew what was to be done.” [Close]
Collectivist anarchismfnanarchism: For a good historical overview, see Guerin, D. 2005. For an enjoyable fictional account of an anarchist civilization that implements “the revolution as the immediately present condition of revolution itself as its ultimate goal” see Le Guin, U. K., 1994. [Close] focuses on the outcome of the revolution as the immediately present condition of revolution itself as its ultimate goal, which constitutes both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. As such, anarchism has contempt for method and practice (the collectivist and socialist anarchist struggles are the only forms of anarchism that can be taken seriously, the pretensions of the individualist and libertarian forms of anarchism have always been laughable). Its critique of the political struggle remains too abstract and too ideologically pure—its methods are constrained by its single-minded focus on an ideal outcome, and focuses only on the strategy of the single blow of the general strike, or the insurrection, ignoring all historical thought of other contemporary class struggles. The anarchists strive to realize an ideal.fn“The anarchists strive to realize an ideal”: This is a détournement of Marx, K., Kemp, A., 1968. Full quotation: “They know that in order to work out their own emancipation, and along with it that higher form to which present society is irresistibly tending, by its own economical agencies, they will have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historical processes, transforming circumstances of men. They have no ideals to realize, but to set free the elements of the new society with which old collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant.” [Close] In this way, anarchism is the ideologic negation of the state and of class society, that is to say, the negation of the very social preconditions that generate separate ideologies. Anarchism is the ideology of pure freedom which makes everyone equal without a class or hierarchy, and removes any notions of historical evil.fn“removes any notions of historical evil”: From the French
écarte toute idée du mal historique. C.f. Hegel, G. W. F., Paolucci, A., 2001. Full quotation: “the Sunday of life which equalizes everything and removes all evil; people who are so whole-heartedly cheerful cannot be altogether evil and base.” The “Historical evil”
mal historique, could also be translated as “the bad side of history” is also referenced in Marx, as a response to the anarchist Proudhon’s simple distinction between the “good” and “bad” sides of various historical events “It is the bad side that produces the movement which makes history, by constituting the struggle.” see Marx, K., 1995. [Close] This positions anarchism above the merely specific and reformist stances of other political ideologies with its singular all-encompassing demand (no classes), which provides anarchism the great merit of representing the refusal of existing conditions in favor of the unitary condition that enables the whole of life and which drive all subsequent changes to daily life. At the same time, this singular demand that lacks any semblance of practice condemns anarchism to an all too obvious incoherence. This causes the movement of anarchism to be repeatedly injected into every struggle, using the same vision and all-encompassing methods every time. When Bakunin quit the Jura FederationfnJura Federation: Anarchist leaning section of the First International based in the Jura mountain region of France and Switzerland. [Close] in 1873 he wrote on the theory of anarchism: “During the past nine years the International has developed more than enough ideas to save the world, if ideas alone could save it, and I challenge anyone to come up with a new one. It’s no longer the time for ideas, it’s time for actions.” This attitude concludes that historical and existing revolutionary theory is sufficient, but it must be implemented in practice. It makes the assumption however, that the transition from theory to practice has already been discovered and not subject to change.
Anarchists distinguish themselves from the greater revolutionary movement by their ideological fervor and conviction, they use that conviction as well as how much one can recite standardized anarchist theory as a metric to separate the ranks amongst themselves. One can determine the level of mediocrity of a given anarchist by the way their intellectual activity is limited to repeating a number of unchanging “truths” with which they cling to. Within the revolutionary organization, unanimity works well to make discussions and eliminate hierarchy, but it generates its own uncontrolled authority within the organization itself: the freedom specialist. They expect this form of governance to expand outwards to the general populace. This mindset refuses to take into account just how opposed their views are from general society, and how it will be impossible to reach unanimity with coexisting workers movements under such conditions. This continues to generate a permanent separation of anarchists at the very moment of the common decision, as shown by the countless number of individualist anarchist groups across the country during the Spanish Revolution,fnSpanish Revolution: A workers’ social revolution that began during the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 until 1939 resulting in the widespread implementation of anarchist and more broadly libertarian socialist organizational principles throughout various portions of the country, primarily in Catalonia, Aragon, Andalusia, and parts of the Valencian Community. It was fought by the fascist forces of General Francisco Franco and the popularly elected Republic who was supported by the bourgeois. [Close] each individually destroyed at a local level because they could never gather universal cohesion.
The illusion explicitly maintained by anarchism is that a revolution is just around the corner, immediately proving the validity of anarchist organization and ideologies. During the Spanish Revolution an army pronunciation sparked the way for an anarchist revolution that was partially successful in establishing the most advanced model of power of all time. It must be remembered that the revolution began as a defensive reaction to the army’s attempted coup. The revolution was not immediately victorious, as Franco held half of the country with the Bourgeois republicans support of the state apparatus as well as international aid since the international workers movements had already been defeated. The anarchists proved unable to extend their victories beyond their own local territory, or even to defend it. Ultimately their leaders became hostages to the state who dismantled the revolution as it proceeded to lose the civil war.
The Second InternationalfnSecond International: Also known as the Socialist International, an organisation of socialist and labour parties formed in Paris on July 14th, 1889 continuing the work of the dissolved First International, though excluding the still-powerful anarcho-syndicalist movement. It broke up in 1916 when most of its constituent parties abandoned their previous internationalist antiwar policy and rallied to their respective national governments during World War I. [Close] believed in “Orthodox Marxism” as its form of ideology supporting a socialist revolution. The key tenets of which were that Marxism was completely about scientifically measured objective economic processes, and the leading organization must educate the working class about these objective economic processes. The idea of educating the working class was borrowed from the utopian socialists, which mixed demonstration with contemplative teachings of the course of history, a style in which practice was diminished beneath theory. This was completely out of touch with the Hegelian aspect of an education of a totalizing history, and out of touch with the static image of a totality as presented by the utopian socialists (best exemplified by FourierfnFourier: Charles Fourier (1772-1837) was a French philosopher, an influential early socialist thinker and one of the founders of utopian socialism. Some of Fourier’s social and moral views, held to be radical in his lifetime, have become mainstream thinking in contemporary society. For instance, Fourier is credited with having originated the word feminism in 1837. [Close]). Those who failed to realize that for Marx, theory was not to be separate from practice, and to do so guarantees its students to fall victim to the inevitability of finance capitalism with a contemplative and yet paralyzed response. This scientific perspective produces false dichotomies between ethical choices, and the nonsense like that of HilferdingfnHilferding: Quotation from the Preface to Hilferding, R. & Bottomore, T., 1981. [Close] when he claims in Finance Capital that socialism “gives no clue as to what practical attitude show be adopted, for it is one thing to recognize a necessity, and quite another to place oneself in service to that necessity.” (Hilferding, 1981). The failure of this group was the failure to recognize that for Marx, it was a unitary historical thought that was in no way separate from practical actions to be adopted, and therefore the lack of both theory and practice that entailed the revolutionary party would fall victim to their own exercise of power.
The ideology of the social democratic organizations handed power to teachers tasked with educating the proletariat, and this passive (a curriculum that focuses mostly on theory, yet little on practice) style dictated the organization of the movement into a passive state of contemplative and uncritical non-action against capitalism. The Second International practiced the reform of a propertarian and capitalist organization of society while presenting the illusion of revolution. The success of the revolution would be undermined by the leaders who claimed its success. The privileged position of the bureaucrats and journalists enticed the existing bourgeois intelligentsia as well as the proletariat to join their ranks, while industrial workers who had been recruited out of struggles in the factories were transformed by the labor-union bureaucracy into mere brokers of labor-power, buying worker-labor as a commodity like any other. For the activities of these people to maintain any semblance of appearing revolutionary, capitalism would need to have been incapable of tolerating the reforms they advocated for, and yet all these reforms were easily accepted. This activity contradicts the revolution against commodification and undoes the fundamental ideology of a movement that claims to reduce commodification.
BernsteinfnBernstein: Eduard Bernstein’s book Die Voraussetzungen des Sozialismus und die Aufgaben der Sozialdemokratie (“The Prerequisites for Socialism and the Tasks of Social Democracy”) was published in 1899, and its “revisionist” positions provoked heated debates for many years afterwards. See Bernstein, E. & Tudor, H. 1993. [Close] contradicted himself in being the social democrat least attached to the grip of political ideology while at the same time most openly attached to the methodology of bourgeois science. He was honest enough to point out this contradiction, one equally demonstrated when the English workers reformist revolution had shown proof of a socialist revolution without a working class educated in socialist theory. Historical developments since have proven this again and again, without a doubt. Bernstein rejected the notion that a crisis of capitalism would force the socialists into revolution because the they needed to ignite their own revolution in order to claim legitimate control. The social upheaval started by the first world war raised the consciousness of the people, but twice demonstrated the failures of the socialists to educate the German working class in revolutionary theory: first when the socialist party majority rallied to imperialist war, second in their own defeat—the party squashing those members supporting the Spartacist revolutionaries.fnSpartacist revolutionaries / Friedrich Ebert: Following the German defeat in 1918, there were mutinies and revolts throughout Germany. The Kaiser’s regime was replaced by a “Socialist” government headed by Friedrich Ebert, but revolts continued, culminating in a general strike and insurrection in Berlin in January 1919 involving the Spartakist League, a revolutionary socialist organization founded by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. Ebert’s regime, with the assistance of the rightwing paramilitary Freikorps, crushed the Spartakist revolt and murdered Liebknecht and Luxemburg. [Close] The socialist party leader and ex-worker, Friedrich Ebert believed in sin, and hated revolution “like sin”. Ebert later went on to become the precursor to the image of socialism, bankrupt of its original ideologies when he became the mortal enemy of the Soviet Russian proletariat. Ebert summed up this bankruptcy when he aptly proclaimed: “Socialism means working a lot.”
Lenin was a faithful and consistent Kautskyistfn“Lenin… Kautskyist”: Debord notes that the Russian Bolshevik leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870-1924) and the German social-democratic leader Karl Kautsky (1854-1938), though bitterly at odds in certain respects, were fundamentally aligned in many others, notably the belief that a professional revolutionary “vanguard” party of specialists must lead the proletariat from the outside. Lenin cites Kautsky directly: “Thus, socialist consciousness is something introduced into the proletarian class struggle from without and not something that arose within it spontaneously.” (Lenin, V. 1961). They both believed the proletariat were merely capable of organizing within their own soviet groups (or unions), but lacked a universal consciousness beyond their own class. This amounted to decapitating the proletariat so that the party could put itself at the ‘head’ of the revolution. The Situationist pamphlet On the Poverty of Student Life is most critical of Lenin: “Contesting the proletariat’s historical capacity to liberate itself, as Lenin did so ruthlessly, means contesting its capacity to totally run the future society. In such a perspective, the slogan “All power to the soviets” meant nothing more than the conquest of the soviets by the Party and the installation of the party state in place of the withering-away ‘state’ of the armed proletariat." See Knabb, K., 2006 (Pp. 426-427). [Close] when it comes to his Marxist thinking. He applied the revolutionary ideology of “orthodox Marxism” to the conditions in Russia that had resisted the merely reformist practices carried on elsewhere by the Second International. In Russia, the BolsheviksfnBolsheviks: A faction founded by Vladimir Lenin and Alexander Bogdanov that split from the Menshevik faction of the Marxist Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP), a revolutionary socialist political party formed in 1898, at its Second Party Congress in 1903. [Close] lead from the outside, using intellectuals who transformed into “professional revolutionaries”, a clandestine group tasked with teaching and leading the working class from the top-down. This group gave rise to a genuine profession—one disinclined to make deals with the managerial class of capitalist society (the Czarist regime, by this point, was totally incapable of offering any such compromise, because the bourgeois class had emerged as an intervening power with the ability to block any compromise). The consequence of this groups specialization was the fixation upon the management of total social domination.
World War I brought about a collapse of international social democracy as nationalism took its place, and the radical authoritarian ideology of the Bolsheviks quickly spread its influence around the world. The democratic movements of the proletariat came to various bloody ends, and Russian-style Bolshevism filled the vacuum left by this crisis. The Bolsheviks brought with it a hierarchical ideology, enticing the working class to “speak Russian” by applying this model against the ruling class. Lenin didn’t denounce the Marxism of the Second International for being a revolutionary ideology, but for ceasing to be a revolutionary ideology.
The very moment when Bolshevism celebrated its victory for itself in Russia, and when social democracy fought victoriously for the old world—fn“when Bolshevism celebrated its victory for itself in… for the old world”: In more detail: “The triumph of the Bolshevik order coincided with the international counter revolutionary movement that began with the crushing of the Spartakists by German ‘Social Democracy.’ The commonality of the jointly victorious Bolshevism and reformism went deeper than their apparent antagonism, for the Bolshevik order also turned out to be merely a new variation on the old theme, a new guise of the old order. … Capitalism, in its bureaucratic and bourgeois variants, won a new lease on life, over the dead bodies of the sailors of Kronstadt, the peasants of the Ukraine, and the workers of Berlin, Kiel, Turin, Shanghai, and finally Barcelona” See Knabb, K. 2006 (Pp. 422-423). [Close] marked the shift to our contemporary state of affairs: which is to say, the foundation of spectacular domination: the representation of the working class has become the enemy of the working class.
On December 21st, 1918 Rosa LuxemburgfnRosa Luxemburg: (1871-1919) A Polish-German Marxist revolutionary and founding member of the Spartacus League. Murdered during the suppression of the Spartakist uprising. [Close] wrote in Die Rote FahnefnDie Rote Fahne: The Red Flag was a German newspaper created on 9 November 1918 by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg in Berlin, most famously as the mouthpiece of the Spartacus League. [Close] “In all previous revolutions the combatants faced each other face to face: class against class, program against program. In the present revolution the protection troops of the old order do not intervene under the banner of the ruling classes, but under the flag of a ‘social-democratic party’. If the central question of the revolution were asked openly and honestly: capitalism or socialism, no doubt, no hesitation would be possible today in the great mass of the proletariat.” Thus, just a few days before the January 1919 destruction of the Spartacist uprising (and the murder of Luxemburg) she discovered the key secret of how the conditions leading to the formation (and the support by the proletariat) of the social-democrat coalition—lead to the support of the ruling class and the defense of the status quo—a complete undermining of the revolution. This led directly to a new social reign of appearances under which no “central question” could be “open and honestly” posed. By this point, the leaders of the proletariat had betrayed the revolution but supported its revolutionary image,fn“supported the revolutionary image…”: In this case, in support of the social democrat party. [Close] that is both the cause and the result of a general falsification of society.
The organization of the Russian working class on the Bolshevik model stems first from the economic immaturity of Russian conditions, and second due to the abandoning of the revolutionary workers struggle in economically developed countries. This same backwardness unconsciously contained at its organizations initial core, a momentum towards a counter-revolutionary overthrow. Evidence of this behavior was the continuing failure of European workers movements in the face of the hic Rhodus, hic saltafn“Hic Rhodus, hic salta”: From the Latin phrase “Prove it, right here, right now.” During the 1918-1920 period in the aftermath of World War I, Debord considered the European workers movement a failure in that they never took full advantage of favorable conditions, which included the fall of many governments, and a general sense of social upheaval. [Close] moment during the 1918-1920 period of social upheaval—a failure that included the violent destruction of their own radical minority party members.fn“violent destruction of their own radical minority party members”: Namely the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. [Close] The failure of the Bolshevik party to prove itself was used to undo the gains made by the workers, and instead used to present the party to the world as the only solution to the organization of the working class. The seizure of the state monopoly on power, the representation and defense of workers power, which formed the basis of legitimacy for the Bolshevik party, became what it already was: the party of the owners of the working class, eliminating any previous forms of ownership.
The Russian social democrats argued about theory for twenty years, concerned with which conditions were most favorable to overthrow Czarism: the weakness of the bourgeoisie, the shift in power to the peasant majority, the decisive role to be played by a centralized and militant working class, and so on. Finally, practice won over theory when the revolutionary bureaucracy placed itself at the head of the working class, seized the state and imposed a new form of class rule upon society. All other theories of revolution were impossible: a strictly bourgeois revolution; a “democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants”fn“democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants”: An early Bolshevik slogan. In French:
dictature démocratique des ouvriers et des paysans. from the original Russian
Демократическая диктатура пролетариата и крестьянства. [Close] was meaningless lip service; the proletarian power fought uphill against small landowners, there was a looming threat of the national and international White movement,fnWhite movement: The White movement was a loose confederation of anti-communist forces that fought the Communist Bolsheviks, also known as the Reds, in the Russian Civil War. [Close] and the alienated people this party represented—namely the absolute rulers of the state, the economy, the press, and eventually the expression of thought. Lenin espoused the only workable theory as proposed by TrotskyfnTrotsky: Leon Trotsky (1879- 1940), Russian Bolshevik leader, creator of the Red Army and most powerful figure in the “Soviet” regime except for Lenin. Following Lenin’s death in 1924, he was gradually outmaneuvered by Stalin, forced into exile, and later murdered by one of Stalin’s agents. [Close] and ParvusfnTrotsky and Parvus: Leon Trotsky and Alexander Parvus’s theory of permanent revolution (developed in the aftermath of the 1905 Russian revolution) held that it would be possible to proceed from the bourgeois to the proletarian stage in one continuous process, going against the previous theory that a bourgeois revolution as well as significant capitalist economic development was necessary to provide the material basis for the eventual emergence of a socialist society. [Close] in April 1917, a theory of permanent revolution that would work in countries with an underdeveloped bourgeois economy, but even in these specific conditions it could only work when the class bureaucracy came to power. In his many clashes with the Bolshevik leadership, Lenin was consistent in his push for leadership and power to be held in the hands of the ideological group of representatives: a dictatorship. He pragmatically championed solutions that flowed logically from the earlier decisions of the minority group that now held absolute power: A democracy refused to peasants at the state-level should also be refused to workers, to communist union leaders, to party leaders in general, and even the highest ranks in the party hierarchy. At the 10th Congress,fn10th Congress: The 10th Congress of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) was held during March 8–16th, 1921 in Moscow. Halfway through the Congress, the Kronstadt uprising started. [Close] by then the KronstadtfnKronstadt: (Кроншта́дт) In March 1921 the sailors of Kronstadt, who had been among the most ardent participants in the 1917 revolution, revolted against the Bolshevik government, calling for a genuine power of the soviets (democratic popular councils) as opposed to the rule of the “Soviet” state. Denounced as reactionaries, they were crushed by the Bolsheviks under the direct leadership of Trotsky. [Close] soviet was violently gunned down and slandered in the press, Lenin passed a judgement of the leftist bureaucrats of the “Workers’ Opposition”fn“Workers’ Opposition”: A radical leftist faction within the Bolshevik Party that had its roots in the trade unions that emerged in 1920 as a response to the perceived over-bureaucratisation of Soviet Russia. It was led by Alexander Shlyapnikov, Alexandra Kollontaĭ, Sergei Medvedev, and Yuri Lutovinov. It existed until 1922, when it was defeated at the 11th Congress of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks). For more see Kollontaĭ, A. & Holt, A., 1977. [Close] party which would set the future course of leadership under Stalin: “[in] Here with us—or out there with guns in your hand—but not as an opposition (party). We’ve had enough opposition.”
After the Kronstadt rebellion of 1921, the bureaucracy became the owner of a system of state capitalismfnstate capitalism: A centralized economy in which the state controls all capitalist enterprise. [Close]—entered into a temporary alliance with the peasantry with its “New Economic Policy”fn“New Economic Policy”: A temporary concession (1921-1928) to the peasants that included loosening certain aspects of state economic control, eliminating forced grain requisitions and permitting the peasants to sell surplus production on the open market. [Close] internally, sabotaging any revolutionary movements at home, and used the regimented workers of the Third InternationalfnThird International (a.k.a. Communist International or Comintern): From Knabb, “The Third International, ostensibly created by the Bolsheviks to counteract the degenerate social-democratic reformism of the Second International and to unite the vanguard of the proletariat in ‘revolutionary communist parties,’ was too closely linked to the interests of its founders to ever bring about a genuine socialist revolution anywhere. In reality the Third International was essentially a continuation of the Second.” See Knabb, K., 2006, (Pp. 423) “a reign of terror”: Primarily through the forced collectivization of the “Five Year Plans” during the period of 1928-1941. These plans were lists of economic goals under Communist Party General Secretary Joseph Stalin which centered around rapid industrialization and the destruction of traditional peasant farming plots and ways of life—in order to create massive collective farming systems and seismic shifts to cultural norms. [Close] to back up Russian diplomacy abroad, supporting the bourgeois foreign governments such as the Kuomintang in China (the Nationalist Party of China from 1925-1927), and Popular Fronts in Spain and France, whose support they expected in return to secure their position in international politics. In order to complete absolute social control, the Russian bureaucratic party used a reign of terror against the peasantry to achieve the most brutal primitive accumulation of capital in history. The industrialization during Stalin’s era revealed the bureaucracies ultimate intentions: to preserve and maintain the economy as the basis of society, and salvaging all essential aspects of a capitalist market, especially labor as a commodity. Thus it was demonstrated that, left independent, the economy recreated the class distinctions necessary for its own continued operation. The bourgeoisie had created a power so autonomous that it would continue to endure without the bourgeoisie. This totalitarian bureaucracy was merely a substitute ruling class for the commodity economy, and not “the last owning class in history” as Bruno RizzifnBruno Rizzi: Author of what can be considered the first in-depth analysis of the class nature of the Soviet Union, see Rizzi, B. & Westoby, A., 1985. [Close] had argued. This class replaced a tottering capitalist property system with a concentrated, centralized, simplified, less diversified, and inferior version of itself. This class reflected the underdevelopment of the economy at its foundations, and offered no agenda other than its own development. It was a cheap hierarchical and statist remake of the capitalist ruling class, staffed by a party of the working class, but still modelled on the hierarchic bourgeois organizations. Ante CiligafnAnte Ciliga: (1898-1992): Croatian revolutionary imprisoned by Stalin and later sent to Siberian labor camps. After Croatia’s independence, Ciliga returned to Croatia, where he died in 1992. [Close] put it most succinctly writing from one of Stalin’s prisons: “Technical questions of organization turned out to be social questions.”
Leninism represents the greatest voluntaristic attempt to the revolutionary ideology of coherence of the separate, an attempt by authoritarianism to change both reality and society under prevailing conditions. The advent of Stalinism returned revolutionary ideology to its fundamental incoherence at which point ideology is no longer a tool and a weapon, but an end in itself. The lie that is not contradicted becomes insanity. Both reality and ideological purpose (to transform the basis of reality) is dissolved into a totalitarian ideology proclaiming that whatever it said is all there is, and all there ever was. This was an early, local, and primitive form of the spectacle that was fit for the underdeveloped economy, and yet essential to the emergence and development of the universal, globalized spectacle. The ideology that emerged from this context did not actually develop the world economically, as capitalism had as it reached the stage of material abundance, this ideology merely used police state methods and violence to transform the perception of the world.
The ideological-totalitarian class in power is the power of the world turned on its head, the stronger the class, the more forcefully it proclaims that it does not exist, and it uses its strength first and foremost to assert its non-existence. Its modesty ends there however, as it simultaneously proclaims its own non-existence it also proclaims nothing exists beyond the current status quo—the success of the status quo of course due to both the zenith of historic developmentfn“zenith of historic development”: Debord uses the Latin phrase
Ne Plus Ultra meaning “the apex of development”, or “zenith of development”. [Close] and the infallible leadership of the party. The bureaucracy must always be invisible as a class, although always visible, thus forcing all of social life into a contorted series of lies, self-dilution, contradictions, and insanity. These social relations organized around contradiction create the corrupt foundation for the absolute lie.fn“the absolute lie”: I’ve chosen to directly translate the original French
mensonge absolu, keeping it as “absolute lie” and remain consistent with this phrase. It is an ideology of balanced contradictions that obscure the nature of all social relations based on falsehoods. [Close]
Under Stalinism, the bureaucratic ruling class was officially non-existent and had no legally recognized status as an owning class, nor any juridical legitimacy to apply to its members. Their power was based on a reign of terror within the bureaucratic ruling class,fn“Their power was based on a reign of terror within the bureaucratic ruling class”: For a wonderfully comedic take on the reign of terror within the bureaucratic class, look no further than the 2017 film “The Death of Stalin”. [Close] and used terror to become the owner of the proletariat and the ruling class. Its status as an owning class was obscured because it was based on false consciousness. The false consciousness maintains its absolute power only through absolute terror, where all true motive is eventually lost. As members of the (officially non-existent) bureaucratic ruling class only have a collective control of the ownership of society, they are participants in-and-reproduce the fundamental lie that forms the basis of the party: they are merely part of the proletariat, working in common to govern a socialist society—actors loyal to a script of ideological disloyalty. But effective performance in this theatrical production of lies requires and reproduces actual participation. Here lies an essential tension: no bureaucrat can exert power individually, since to do so would prove their membership in the bureaucracy, and proving this status is impossible since the bureaucracy’s official policy is its official non-existence. Thus each bureaucrat is totally dependent on the guaranteed stability of the ruling ideology, which legitimates the collective participation in the “socialist regime” of those bureaucrats it doesn’t eliminate. While the bureaucrats are collectively empowered to make all social decisions as long as they are members of the bureaucratic class, their membership in this class can only be determined by the concentration of the terrorist power in a single person (that is to say, the leader: Stalin). In this single person resides the actual truth of the ruling lie: the power to determine unchallengeable party norms which are nevertheless constantly being adjusted. Thus only Stalin can decide, without appeal, who is a “proletariat bureaucrat member in power” and who is “a traitor paid by Wall Street.” These separated bureaucrats can only find their collective legitimacy in the person of Stalin—the lord and master of the world who thus comes to see himself as the absolute person, for whom no higher type of Spirit exists.fn“the lord and master of the world… for whom no higher type of Spirit exists”: This phrase echoes Hegel’s description of the power of the Roman emperors over their subjects. Full quotation “the lord and master of the world holds himself in this way to be the absolute person, at the same time embracing within himself to be the absolute person, at the same time embracing within himself the whole of existence, the person for whom there exists no superior Spirit.” See Hegel, G.W.F., 1998. [Close] “The lord of the world becomes really conscious of what he is, viz. the universal power of the actual world, in the destructive power he exercises against the self of his subjects, the self which stands over against him.”fn“The lord of the world becomes…”: Ibid. [Close] Only he can determine the terrain of political struggle, and he is also “the power that ravages that terrain”.
The party in power demands total adherence to their ideological vision, and all reality must be mediated by their ideology, or else. This ideology presents itself as the only way to perceive reality, as no perspective otherwise exists. This dogmatic perspective must continually shift and contort reality itself to fit its absolute perspective, and in doing so creates the “absolute lie” that must be accepted, and thus any assertion can be rendered true when based upon its false premises. Under such a regime, empirical facts and history can no longer exist without contorting to the demands of this “ideology of the absolute lie.” This lie rewrites history as needed to create an unchanging perpetual present, under which lives the totalitarian society, where everything up to this point justifies and is accessible only to its police force, who are ready to amend, or change, or enforce the history it demands. Napoléon had formulated a similar project, that of “monarchically directing the energy of memory”fn“monarchically directing the energy of memory”: From the French quote by Napoleon, in conversation with General de Caulaincourt:
L’important est de diriger monarchiquement l’énergie des souvenirs… or “The important thing is to monarchically direct the energy of memories…” See Caulaincourt, 2002 (Pp. 153). [Close]—or rewriting the past to serve the interests of the present, and not just reinterpreting the meaning of the past, but in changing the facts of the past themselves. There is a price to be paid for this “emancipation” from the facts of historical reality however, which is the loss of any rational orientation which is necessary for capitalism to maintain its status as a historical social system. LysenkoismfnLysenkoism: Lysenkoism was an anti-scientific political campaign by Trofim Lysenko, a former agronomist who claimed to have developed an agricultural technique named “vernalization”, which tripled or quadrupled crop yield by exposing wheat seed to high humidity and low temperature, and these characteristics would be inheritable by the offspring of these plants. These findings were never reproduced by western scientists. Joseph Stalin supported the campaign. More than 3,000 mainstream biologists were fired or even sent to prison, and numerous scientists were executed as part of a campaign instigated by Lysenko to suppress his scientific opponents. [Close] in Stalinist Russia is a perfect example of an insane and irrational ideology extended to its dreadful ends. Totalitarian bureaucracy is challenged by internal contradictions in that it needs science and rationality to be effective, but refuses to accept a reality it doesn’t agree with. This is its primary shortcoming when compared to rationality under capitalist development. The management of agriculture and industrialized society cannot function under falsehoods, ultimately it seeks to plan in an authoritarian manner on the basis of a complete falsification of reality and a dogmatic adherence to the absolute lie.
Between the two world wars, the revolutionary workers movements were destroyed, in Russia by the Stalinist bureaucracy and in Germany by the fascist totalitarians who had borrowed their organizational form from the more developed totalitarian party in Russia. Fascism was an extreme defense mechanism for the bourgeois economy which was threatened at the time by working class subversion and the reparations of the Germansfn“reparations of the Germans”: As a result of World War I, the Paris Peace Conference imposed reparations on Germany (and the other Central Powers) following their defeat in the First World War by the Allied and Associate Powers. The German people saw reparations as a national humiliation; the German government worked to undermine the validity of the Treaty of Versailles and the requirement to pay. [Close] after World War I. Fascism is an expensive to maintain state of siege by the capitalist economy attempting to defend itself with an emergency dose of rationalization and massive state intervention in its economic and social management. But this rationalization is itself hindered by the immense irrationality of the methods it imposed. Fascism rallies to the defense of the conservative bourgeois ideology of the family, private property, the moral order, and patriotic nationalism. It unites the petty-bourgeoisfnpetty-bourgeois: A social class comprising small business owners, and the middle class whose personal identities are determined by an aspiration to the upper class bourgeoisie. Their political and economic positions tend to imitate the positions of the bourgeoisie class above them, although this position is often not in their own best interests. [Close] and the unemployed who have been hurt by the crisis or disappointed by the impotence of the socialist revolution—it is not by its nature fundamentally ideological, but may exhibit ideology to suit its needs. Its strength is how it presents itself truthfully as a violent resurrection of mythic origins—to claim the past as a “Golden Age” and a return to the successes of this golden past. It demands participation in a community held together by mythical archaic pseudo-values: race, blood, and the leader. Fascism is a cult of the archaic fitted out by modern technology. It revives and recreates its myth (both past and present) through the spectacle using speeches, television, radio, internet, and pop culture. It is a major factor in the formation of the modern spectacle. The false mythology of this “Golden Age” is one of the fundamental factors of contemporary society, and was a primary factor in the destruction of the workers movement. Fascism however, is the most costly meansfn“Fascism however, is the most costly means…”: Debord is alluding to the direct and expensive form of authoritarian-totalitarian enforcement of false spectacular consciousness he terms “The Concentrated Spectacle”. This form is less effective and more costly than the other variants of spectacular society—“The Diffuse Spectacle”, in which individuals willingly participate in a society that is both far more effective and efficient at subduing the masses, since it appears to empower individuals through consumer choice. The diffuse spectacle of contemporary capitalism reproduces itself by exploiting the spectator’s desires and dissatisfaction with an endless cycle of promises to satiate these desires and then failing to do so; and yet offers another promise. [Close] of preserving a capitalist order due to the scale and effort required of the state to enforce the authoritarian rule of a minority with a police state apparatus. Fascism is unsustainable in the long-term, and must be pushed aside by a more efficient and rational form of power.fn“more efficient and rational form of power”: Neoconservative or neoliberal representational democracy being examples in the West, and ‘Capitalism with Asian values’ being examples in the East. See Žižek, S., 2010 for more on the shift to post-democratic capitalist fascism. [Close]
Russia eventually reached a point in its development where it had successfully seized all private property which had hampered the communist party’s control of the economy. It had developed this property for the benefit of the party, and had received recognition worldwide by the great powers. Russia wanted to enjoy the tranquility of its powerful place in the world without any constraints (both internal and external), thus it began to denounce the Stalinism at its origin,fn“… denounce the Stalinism at its origin…”: De-Stalinization was a series of political reforms in the Soviet Union after the death of Stalin in 1953 and the rise of Nikita Khrushchev. It was started with a secret internal report to the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956 entitled “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences” which denounced Stalin as an individual who succumbed to paranoia and megalomania but never questioned the system which enabled his excesses. The reforms recommended changing or removing key institutions that helped Stalin hold power: the cult of personality that surrounded him, the Stalinist political system, the release of many people from concentration camps, loosening of censorship, all of which had been created by Stalin. The superficial nature of the campaign was revealed later the same year when Khrushchev sent Russian tanks to crush the Hungarian revolution. [Close] to forge a new path forward unencumbered by its past. This denunciation had to remain fundamentally Stalinist, arbitrary, unexplained and continually corrected because the absolute lie at its origins could never be revealed. Under such constraints, the party bureaucracy cannot truly liberalize culturally or politically because the party’s existence depends on its monopoly over ideology as the only property it holds title to.fn“its monopoly on ideology as the only property it holds title to.”: To liberalize control of cultural or political ideology is to question its very legitimacy to power, as ideology is the only thing the party really controls. [Close] Ideology has certainly lost the passion of its positive affirmation, but what remains of its indifferent triviality still has the repressive function of prohibiting the slightest competition, of holding the totality of thought captive. With the shift away from Stalinism, there was a corresponding loss of the passion that swelled within Stalinism; all that remains is a hollowed-out and indifferent bureaucracy which serves only to suppress competition from any other party or ideology, and claims to be the authority of all existing political and cultural thought. Thus the bureaucracy has become bound to an ideology that is no longer believed by anyone,fn“an ideology that is no longer believed by anyone”: For an in-depth examination of the collapse of belief in Soviet ideology, see Curtis, A. 2016. [Close] and all original passions have been stripped away. Where the party once inspired fear, now those same tactics inspire laughter (although a sort of gallows humor, under which the fear still lurks.) It is when the bureaucracy tries to demonstrate its superiority on the terrain of capitalism when it exposes itself as a bad knockoff of capitalism. Just as its actual history contradicts its current reality, and its stubborn adherence to ignorance and falsehoods about reality contradict its scientific pretensions; so does its project of becoming a viable competitor to commodity capitalism contradict the very fact that a capitalist society of abundance is pregnant with an implicit ideology itself: an extended freedom to choose from a spectacular set of false alternatives, a pseudo-freedom which is irreconcilable with the bureaucratic ideology of the party.
At this point in the development of the bureaucracy’s ideological title to property was already collapsing on an international scale. The party’s nationally established power, presented as a model for international rule, must admit that it can no longer impose its system of lies beyond its national borders. The unequal economic development between the “socialist” countries has forced the public confrontation between versions of the absolute liefn“public confrontation between versions of the absolute lie…”: This thesis is largely based on the Situationist essay The Explosion Point of Ideology in China, a relevant quote pertaining to this line is “The accelerating decomposition of bureaucratic ideology, as evident in the countries where Stalinism has seized power as in the others where it has lost every chance of seizing it, naturally began around issues of internationalism.” See Knabb, K., 2006 (Pp. 240-241) [Close]—the Russian lie or the Chinese lie? This makes it clear that any post-Stalinist bureaucracy in power, and any totalitarian party aspiring to power, will have to develop its own way to deal with the internal contradictions it has constructed. The dissolution and failure of the international bureaucracy exhibited its first visible symptoms of internal negation, when the workers in East Berlinfn“workers of East Berlin”: A reference to the East German uprising of 1953 by construction workers against the party; eventually crushed. [Close] revolted against the bureaucrats—demanding a “government of steel workers.” These actions spread to Hungary,fn“actions spread to Hungary”: The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was organized by a network of nationally coordinated workers councils. Eventually Soviet forces moved in and crushed the revolution, leading to a suppression of revolutionary action and a split that alienated Western Marxists and considerable losses of membership for communist parties. [Close] where workers successfully established sovereign workers councils. In the final analysis, the collapse and failure of global alliances founded on bureaucratic mystification is an unfavorable aspect of the development of capitalist society.fn“collapse and failure of global alliances founded on bureaucratic mystification”: In the Preface to the Third French Edition of The Society of the Spectacle, Debord noted that the failure of workers movements had rapidly accelerated since the “fall of the Berlin Wall” in 1989; a point also taken by Francis Fukuyama in his book The End of History and The Last Man. Both Fukuyama and Žižek argue that late-capitalism no longer has an opposing ideology. See Fukuyama, F., 2006 and Žižek, S., 2010. [Close] The global bourgeoisie (both the privately wealthy as well as large trans-national corporations) was in danger of losing their only viable opposition—a global union of the workers parties that objectively supported them—which was seemingly breaking apart all global alliances at the very moment of their peak development. This spectacular division of labor between two symbiotic aspects of the spectacle was coming to an end when their pseudo-revolutionary role was divided. The spectacular element of the dissolution of the workers movement will itself be dissolved.
With the exemption of some Trotskyist tendencies, Leninism no longer has any solid foundations. Its stubborn insistence on an ideologically based and rigid hierarchical organization despite all the historical experiences that have refuted these practices. Trotskyism is able to succeed in its revolutionary critique of present day society by maintaining a differential attitude towards ideological and tactical positions already proven false when they were used in real struggle. Trotsky was fundamentally loyal to the high bureaucracy until 1927, seeking to capture it to resume a properly Bolshevik foreign policy externally (he went as far as to slander his own supporter Max Eastman in order to hide the criticism against him, contained within Lenin’s famous “Testament”.fn“Max Eastman… ‘Testament’”: The famous Testament was a letter written by Lenin for the Russian Communist Party during his illness in December 1922, stating his views on how the regime should proceed following his death. The letter featured a sharp attack on Stalin’s brutality and deceitfulness and urged his removal from the position of General Secretary of the Party. It also criticized Trotsky’s bureaucratic tendencies. The Testament was suppressed by the Stalinists and only officially acknowledged much later in 1956 by Khrushchev. [Close]) Trotsky was doomed by his underlying perspective, for as soon as the bureaucracy realized its actions were counterrevolutionary on the domestic front, it had to become similarly counterrevolutionary on the international front (of course, in the name of the revolution at home.) Trotsky’s subsequent efforts to create the Fourth InternationalfnFourth International: An international alliance of Trotskyist parties founded in 1938 as an alternative to the Stalinist Third International. The original French text is written as “IVe Internationale.” [Close] contained the same inconsistency. During the second Russian revolution,fn“During the second Russian revolution…”: the first being in 1905, the second in 1917. During the first revolution Trotsky maintained an independent position between the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks. In 1917 he supported the Bolshevik Party. [Close] Trotsky became an unconditional believer in the Bolshevik style of bureaucratic organization, and from then on refused to acknowledge that the bureaucracy itself had become the new ruling class, a separate class apart from the working class. In 1923 Lukácsfn“In 1923 Lukács”: Debord is referring to the last chapter of History and Class Consciousness, section “Towards a Methodology of the Problem of Organization.” [Close] pointed to the Bolshevik style of organization as the middle way between theory and practice, where the working class are no longer mere “spectators” of events inside their organization, but consciously choose and live these events as participants; here what he was describing as the merits of the Bolshevik party were in fact everything that the party was not. Despite his profound theoretical work, Lukács was an ideologist promoting a power not actually available to the workers movement, and instead most grossly held by the bureaucratic class, he both believed and pretended that it was, and that he was completely comfortable with it. Subsequent events proved otherwise, as the aforementioned power repudiated and eliminated its servants; Lukács ended up repudiating everything he identified with and argued for in his prior work, History and Class Consciousness—instead identifying with the opposite and thus making a caricature of himself in the process. Lukàcs best verifies the essential heuristic that judges all the intellectuals of this century: that which they respect is that which is able to precisely measure their own contemptible reality. Lenin however was under no such allusions, he realized the party and the philosophies of its members were always one and the same, agreeing that “a political organisation cannot put its members through an examination to see if there is no contradiction between their views and the Party program.”fn“a political organisation cannot put its members through an examination to see if there is no contradiction between their views and the Party program”: Quotation from Lenin, V., 1909. [Close] The party whose idolized image Lukács had so inopportunely drawn was coherent and precise on one task only—the seizure of state power.
The success of contemporary capitalist society reveals the failure and contradictions apparent in the Trotskyist societies (rebranded as Neo-Leninist.) Neo-Leninism understandably gets the attention of corrupt governments in “underdeveloped” states, where the pseudo-socialist ruling classes present nothing more than the ideology of economic development. These states are forced by their status into maneuvering along the spectrum of the two global opposites: bureaucratic capitalism (e.g. China) and bourgeois capitalism (e.g. the U.S.) along with making cultural compromises to satisfy their social base (notably in Islamic states.) These ideologically compromised states end up stripping all fundamental aspects of socialism except the police. China, for example, established its bureaucratic power when an agrarian peasant revolt was used to enforce a Stalinist model of industrialization on a society even less economically advanced than Russia in 1917. EgyptfnEgypt: The Egyptian revolution of 1952 started by the Free Officers Movement, a group of army officers led by Mohammed Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser. The society underwent complete agrarian reform, and huge industrialisation programs were initiated in the first decade, leading to an unprecedented period of infrastructure building, and urbanization. The revolutionary government adopted a staunchly nationalist, anti-imperialist agenda, which came to be expressed chiefly through Arab nationalism, and international non-alignment. [Close] is a good example of the petty bourgeoisie (specifically a group of army officers) seizing power by force and going on to industrialize the nation. Algeria,fnAlgeria: The Algerian war of independence was fought between France and the Algerian National Liberation Front from 1954 to 1962, which led to Algeria gaining its independence from France. An important decolonization war, it was a complex conflict characterized by guerrilla warfare and the use of torture. [Close] following its war of independence against France is a good example of a para-state bureaucracy that was able to run a middle campaign compromising with a weak national bourgeoisie. Finally, in Africa amongst the former European and American colonies that are still economically dependent on the former colonizer, we see tribal leaders who constitute themselves as a local bourgeoisie with a seizure of the state. While economic imperialism still controls the economy, the former colonizer allows the state to maintain the appearance of local autonomy and independence, but this is an independence from the local masses and lacks any independence from imperialism. This superficial autonomy is awarded to the local ruling class who continue to sell natural resources and labor to the former colonizers. This artificially subsidized bourgeoisie is never able to accumulate real capital as it squanders its two main sources of surplus value: local labor and the foreign subsidies it receives from foreign protector states and transnational monopolies. This artificial bourgeoisie is incapable of fulfilling the necessary economic functions of a government, and thus will always face opposition movements trying to seize their position and power. These movements are organized on the bureaucratic model taken from socialist or communist origins, but adapted to local myths and conditions. A successful bureaucratic movement with the goal of industrializing the economy entails its own defeat: a bureaucracy of the bourgeois, through the accumulation of capital transforms the proletariat into members of a wealthy bourgeoisie, eventually eliminating the proletariat, and negating themselves in the process.
Over the course of the complex and terrible evolution of the conditions of late capitalism, the proletariat has lost its ability to assert its own independence amongst industrialized nations. The failures of the workers movements of the 20th century caused the proletariat to drop their illusions to class struggle, and yet have not been eliminated as a class within society. The proletariat still exists but under the increasing alienation of late capitalism, a great majority who have lost the ability to determine how their labor—and lives are used by capital. Once they realize this, they must necessarily redefine themselves as the recreation of a new proletariat, after the death of the industrial proletariat sprouts the proletariat of late capitalism, which exhibits the Marxist law of negation: the force to negate this society from within. The proletariat is objectively strengthened by the virtual elimination of the peasantry and by an extension of the logic of the factory system: as the peasantry disappeared into the factory worker, so too did the factory workers negate themselves into “service workers” and “knowledge workers”.fn“factory workers negate themselves into ‘service workers’ and ‘knowledge workers’”: The original French is
‹services› et des professions intellectuelles or “‘services’ and ‘intellectual professions’” but i’ve updated the text with more contemporary terms. [Close] Subjectively, the new proletariat is unaware of their class consciousness, unable to recognize their membership within this new class, which spans across regions, factories, services, and knowledge industries; few understand the impotence and deceptions of liberal politics to improve their conditions. This new proletariat will eventually discover that its representatives in government, unions, political parties, and even the state power it claimed for the purpose of emancipating itself merely works against itself to reproduce capitalism. The class will discover through concrete historical experience that it is a class opposed to all forms of external representation, the technocratic power of specialists, and politicians. This proletariat must become the bearer of a revolutionary force that critiques all forms of class separation, advocating for a unified, unspecialized, integrated class of integrated difference that cannot leave anything outside itself. The proletariat must assume an organizational form that is adequate to these tasks. It is not possible to reform society to fix the dissatisfaction of the proletariat, no welfare state or program, no jobs guarantee, no universal basic income, no reparations, no integration of the classes, or the abolishment of hierarchic power structures, or the righting of any wrongs—because the entirety as a multitudefn“the entirety as a multitude…”: ‘multitude’ is a term for a group of people who cannot be classed under any distinct category, except for their shared fact of existence with or without overlapping interests. This concept is defined in detail by political theorists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in Empire (2000) and Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (2004). I’ve used that term here as Hardt and Negri have acknowledged Debord’s influence. [Close] will not recognize these reforms as an amelioration of their place in society, nor does the multitude consider itself to have even suffered any of these wrongs. The absolute wrong the entirety of the multitude recognizes is having been excluded from participating in the events of their own lives.fn“having been excluded from participating in the events of their own lives.”: The original French is
le tort absolu d’être rejeté en marge de la vie. or more elegantly translated as “the absolute wrong of being cast to the margins of life.” I’ve decided to use the term “the events of their own lives” to remain more consistent with my translations of V. Time and History and VI. Spectacular Time where Debord elaborates on alienation from participation in the events of one’s own life. [Close]
We can conclude that a new period has already begun, when amongst the economically advanced countries we see increasing signs of negation. We first witnessed the failures against capitalism with the workers movements from 1905 through the 1930s, now we are witnessing the failure of capitalist abundance.fn“the failure of capitalist abundance”: Even under conditions of objective material abundance and relative affluence, we experience artificial impoverishment and a continual desire to BUY MORE! in order to satisfy continually disappointed desires. Spectacular society falsifies our needs into thinking we need to buy things we don’t need, to become more like the model-people we see in celebrities but who we don’t actually need to imitate. Simultaneously, objective material abundance is increasingly diminished as wealth is funneled to a shrinking group of oligarchs. [Close] We are witnessing a new spontaneous struggle on two fronts, namely the suppression of the workers struggle against capital, largely suppressed by the labor unions, and simultaneously protest by the youth that is still unorganized, untargeted, and abstract—against art, everyday life, and the old world of liberal and specialized and technocratic politics. The first symptoms of this struggle appear as criminal behavior: theft, vandalism, riots, piracy, etc. These symptoms are the harbingers of a second proletariat assault on class society. When these lost boysfn“lost boys”: Original French:
enfants perdus or “lost children”; an old military term for soldiers or scouts assigned to particularly dangerous or suicidal missions; by extension, people who are on the extreme cutting edge of a movement. Debord used this term, with its multiple evocative associations in many of his works. [Close] enter the battlefield of class struggle (which has changed and yet stays the same), they will have a new “General Ludd”fn“General Ludd”: Ned Ludd, possibly born Edward Ludlam, mythic leader of The Luddites, a secret oath-based organization of English textile workers in the 19th century, a radical faction which destroyed textile machinery as a form of protest against increasing mechanization. Over time, the term “Luddite” has come to mean one opposed to industrialisation, automation, computerisation, or new technologies in general. [Close] at the vanguard, leading them to attack the machinery of permitted consumption.fn“machinery of permitted consumption”: This is to say, to attack advertising, brands, and the mass market industry that creates the pseudo-needs and desires to consume; an attack on the industry of artificial impoverishment itself. [Close]
The 20th century had finally discovered that “Long-sought political formfn"The long-sought political form…" Marx’s characterization of the Paris Commune, see Marx, K. & Kemp, A., 1968. [Close] through which the working class could carry out its own economic liberation” in the revolutionary workers councils. This form vests all decision making and executive powers within the councils themselves, decentralized and yet federated amongst one another through the exchange of delegates answerable to their base, and recallable at any moment. The workers council form had only a brief and experimental existence; thus far their emergence has resulted in attack and eventual defeat by a number of tactics used by the ruling class, as well due to false consciousness within the councils themselves. As Antonie PannekoekfnAntonie Pannekoek: (1873-1960) Dutch revolutionary, author of Workers’ Councils (1947). [Close] correctly stated, the decision to set up workers councils does not provide solutions for the workers as much as it “poses problems”. But that power is precisely the site where the problems of the revolution of the proletariat can find real solutions. The power of the worker councils is the only context in which the objective conditions of the historical consciousness of the proletariat revolution can truly be understood, contextualized, analyzed, and ultimately solved. It is at these councils that realize active direct communication, where specialization, hierarchy and separation end, and where an understanding of the objective conditions of their subjugation under capital can be made readily apparent, and thus vulnerable to strategy and resistance. It is here where the conditions of the status quo are transformed into “conditions of unity”fn“conditions of unity”: C.f. Marx, full quote: “Its organization is, therefore, essentially economic, the material production of the conditions of this unity: it turns existing conditions into conditions of unity”, see Marx, K. & Engels, F., 1998. [Close] amongst all workers as a unified multitude. It is here where the proletarian subject emerges from a purely contemplative role of resistance to a lived and practical organization that is both revolutionary in thought and in action—one in which their consciousness is equal to the practical organization they have given themselves, because this consciousness has become inseparable from their coherent participation in the historical events of their lives.
It is the power of the workers councils, which must replace any existing powers internationally, such that this movement is its own product, and the product is nothing other than the producers themselves.fn“This product is nothing other than the producers themselves”: Another détournement from Hegel, full quote “But since they draw it from within themselves, from a source which was not previously available, they appear to derive it from themselves alone; and the new world order and the deeds they accomplish appear to be their own achievement, their personal interest and creation”, see Hegel, G., Hoffmeister, J., Nisbet, H. & Forbes, D., 1975. [Close] The movement is to itself its own goal, its own self fulfillment and self-actualization. Only in this way can the spectacle and its ability to create separation, alienation, and hierarchy—the very negation of life itself, be negated.
The emergence of the workers council movements during the first quarter of the 20th century was the most advanced development of the proletariat movement. This achievement has been ignored, or explained away as the workers movements collapsed and were ultimately destroyed. A final analysis of the proletariat movement however, reveals the workers councils as the only battle victory in the lost war for the workers movement. Those who are aware of the history of the workers struggle are now more conscious than ever: the councils are the distributed center of a new rising power, not a subsiding power.
A revolutionary organization which exists before the establishment of the workers councils can only find its appropriate organizational form through struggle. History has made it clear that any council cannot claim to represent the working class. The emergent workers council representative organization must recognize itself as radically outside any pre-existing aspects of spectacular or already-existing radical society. Its task is to promote a radical separation from the world of separation.
The revolutionary organization is a coherent expression of theory alongside practical struggles which put theory into practice. It is thus a process of practical theory: theory immediately put into practice, and theory validated by practice. Its own practice is to foster the two-way communication and coherence of these struggles. In the revolutionary event of the dissolution of social separation, this organization must dissolve itself as a separate organization.
The revolutionary councils organization must offer a comprehensive, integrated critique of every aspect of spectacular society (e.g. ecological, economic, technological, sociological.) The critique must address issues both locally and globally, and must refuse to compromise with any forms of separated, alienated, and spectacular life. The weapon in the struggle between class society and the combatants from the revolutionary organization is the very nature of the revolutionary combatants themselvesfn“the very nature of the revolutionary combatants themselves”: C.f. Hegel, G., 1998. Full quotation: “What will be the outcome of this conflict itself, what virtue learns from it, whether, by the sacrifice it makes of itself, the ‘way of the world’ succumbs while virtue triumphs—this must be decided by the nature of the living weapons borne by the combatants. For the nature of the living weapons are nothing else but the nature of the combatants themselves, a nature which only makes its appearance for both of them reciprocally.” [Close]: that is to say, the revolutionary organizations absolute resistance to any members specialization, or the promotion of a technocratic or meritocratic elite, and the separation of factions and divisions across hierarchy: their way of life is the weapon. They must constantly struggle to defend against their own deformation into the ideal form as exerted upon by the spectacular society. The revolutionary organization has a total democracy, universal participation and little representation, and the only requirement for participants is their adoption of the integrated and total critique of spectacular society, and their right to appropriate and extend this critique. This critique must be applied both in theory and practice, and only in the relationship between theory and practice does the critique remain coherent.fn“only in the relationship between theory and practice does the critique remain coherent”: This is all to say, the essence of revolutionary life is to develop a theory of life outside the spectacular, and then live it. [Close]
As capitalism continues to expand, creating an ever specialized workforce increasingly alienated from their lives, it becomes increasingly difficult for workers to recognize, name, and struggle against their own impoverishment. Eventually, workers will be in a position where they must reject that impoverishment in its totality or not at all. It is here that the revolutionary organization can no longer fight alienation by fighting the individual symptoms of alienation. The revolutionary organization must fight the integrated whole of spectacular society with integrated tactics.fn“can no longer fight alienation by fighting the individual symptoms of alienation… tactics”: I’ve significantly reworded here, but the original French
l’organisation révolutionnaire a dû apprendre qu’elle ne peut plus combattre l’aliénation sous des formes aliénées. or more directly “the revolutionary organization has had to learn that it can no longer fight alienation in alienated forms.” This is a détournement of Hegel, G. & Sibree, J., 2004 (Pp. 407), full quotation: “The Church fought the battle with the violence of rude sensuality in a temper equally wild and terroristic with that of its antagonist.” [Close]
The proletarian revolution is predicated entirely on the requirement that, for the first time, theory is no longer proscriptive to practice, instead, theory is an annotation of understanding of the human experience as directly lived by the masses. This revolution demands workers become dialecticians capable of synthesizing these perspectives into a coherent theory and practice. This revolution demands more of its participants (the ‘men without qualities’fn“men without qualities”: An allusion to Robert Musil’s novel The Man Without Qualities. [Close]) than previous revolutions had asked even of its leaders that the revolution had put into power (seeing as those leaders were from the bourgeois classes who already had the qualifications to run the economy, and who were largely already in control of economic life.) It is thus the development of class society into a spectacle representing the organization of all non-lived life that inspires and eventually obliges the revolutionary project to be recognized for what it essentially already was: the organization and practice of the lived experience of daily life.
Revolutionary theory is now the sworn enemy of all revolutionary ideology—and it knows it.
“O, gentlemen, the time of life is short!… And if we live, we live to tread on kings.”
—Shakespeare, Henry IV (Part I)
Man, “the negative being who is solely to the extent that he suppresses Being” is identical with time.fn“Man… is identical with time”: see Papaioannou, K. 1962. Possibly taken from Papaioannou, who is referencing and interpreting Hegel, but Debord may have taken the phrase directly from one of Hegel’s works. [Close] “History is itself a real part of natural history, and of the transformation of nature into man”fn“History is itself…”: C.f. from Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts, Marx, K. Engels, F. 1988. [Close] (Marx, K. Engels, F. 1988). Man’s self-determination of our own nature is at the same time our understanding of the development of the universe.fn“our understanding of the development of the universe”: Humanity perceives our place in the universe in the negative, in that we define our existence only by denying our existence as part of the whole. This is man’s general definition of time itself, as something apart from the singular time/space duality of the universe. This definition of time says much about the nature of humanity—displaying at the same time an unease and apprehension with the unfolding of the universe that operates independently of mankind. [Close] This “natural history” has no actual existence other than via the process of human history, which continually reaches into time, into the past in order to recreate it, like a telescope whose sight reaches back in time to the creation of nebulae at the periphery of the universe. History has always existed,fn“History has always existed…” C.f. Marx’s Letter to Ruge: “Reason has always existed, but not always in its rational form.” See Marx, K. 1843, September. [Close] but not in its historical form. The mediation of society produces the temporalization of humanity, and conversely produces an equivalent humanization of time. The unconscious progression of time only manifests itself and becomes true within humanity’s creation of historical consciousness.
The concept of history is born out of the actions of human society. As human society emerged, it slowly developed language and technology, forming the intangible “real nature of man”,fn“real nature of man”, “nature that is born with human history…”: C.f. “Private Property and Communism” section of Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts. See Marx, K. Engels, F. 1988. [Close] the “nature that is born with human history, out of the generative action of human society”, that is, a human society that is the product of their own historical actions. But a society that has mastered language and is technologically advanced is already the product of its own history, and is only conscious of a perpetual present. In this perpetual present, all knowledge is confined in the memory of the oldest members of society, and carried on by the living. Neither death nor birth is considered to be constrained or influenced by time. Time is motionless, unchanging, and without progression, an enclosed space. When a more complex society finally achieves consciousness of time, its project is to deny or reject it, seeing time not as something moving past, but of something returning. The static society organizes time according to its immediate experience of nature, in the model of cyclical time.fnI provide a diagram illustrating Debord’s concept of time as it progresses from cyclical time to irreversible time and finally to pseudo-cyclical time. See thesis 150. [Close]
Nomadic societies experienced cyclical time as the dominant framework for their understanding of time because they confronted naturally cyclical conditions, repeated along every moment of their journey. Hegel noted: “the wandering of nomads is merely a formal one, because it is limited to uniform spaces.”fn“the wandering of nomads…”: See Hegel, G. 1975. [Close]—that is to say, they don’t stay around long enough to impact or change their environment, so they don’t differentiate between “our cultivated land” versus purely new lands: all lands are undifferentiated and therefore uniform. Once agriculture began, communities invested labor into the land, imbuing content to the local area, fixing the community to the land, and therefore enclosing the community within cultivated lands, surrounded by a differentiated region of uncultivated lands. There is a shift from the nomadic time-oriented cycle returning people to undifferentiated but similar places, giving way to the agrarian perception of the return of a set of gestures (planting, harvesting, etc) in time, attached to a single place. The transition from pastoral nomadism to settled agriculture marked the end of an idle and unattached freedom, and the beginning of labor. The agrarian mode of production is governed by the rhythm of the seasons, and as such is the basis of cyclical time in its fullest development. Eternity is within this time, it is the return of the same above as it is here on Earth. Myth is the single frame of thought that conforms the whole cosmic order around the order that this society has already achieved within its own differentiated frontiers.
The social appropriation of time and the production of humanity by means of labor develops into a society divided into classes. Prior to classed society, time was external to society, so as to be outside the reach of appropriation. Within the agrarian society of cyclical time, the class that organized its social labor built itself a power on the basis of the accumulation of wealth, and the impoverishment of the laboring class by the appropriation of the limited surplus value which was extracted from their labor. This class also appropriated the temporal surplus value that was the result of the organization of irreversible social time.fn“irreversible social time”: Debord introduces the term
le temps irréversible du vivant—the “irreversible time of life” for the first time. He frequently returns to this term throughout the text. Historical history presupposes the prospect of irreversible and endless economic development; it is linked to the production of surplus value, control of this value in the form of capital, and to the political management of the economic power that results. Alternately rendered as “irreversible time of the living” in translations by Knabb, 2014 and Nicholson-Smith, 1994. [Close] Thus this class had the sole possession over how time was used and allocated: the irreversible time of the living. The wealth accumulated by this class was expended on lavish feasts and festivals,fnlavish feasts and festivals: These were a precursor to the Bread & Circuses of the Roman Empire. The term comes from Juvenal, a Roman poet active in the Second Century AD. The phrase is a critique of the political class who deliver not public services or policy, but instead public diversions, distractions, or other means of appeasing the populace with trivial or base appeals to amusement or other simple pleasures that make no lasting change or improvements to society. See Graeber, D., 2011. [Close] as well as squandering historical time at society’s surface. This class, owning the surplus value of both labor and time, were the only ones to be in a position to have knowledge of, and experience the enjoyment of directly lived events.fn“directly lived events”: Debord uses the term
événements vécus or “lived events”. In the city, those who participate in the “lived events” of history are not necessarily the ones who direct them. They participate in, and spectate upon what is essentially a conflict over power. It may be considered that the people of whom Debord speaks is the one who at the same time is deprived of an ability to direct the historical events as they occur; yet they are the ones who make the events of history possible. (Fabbri, 2008) But these events are part of a story that is not their own; that is to say, they are mere spectators, alienated from directing the most important events that define their lives. [Close] Historical time flows independently and above its own community of workers, separated from the social organization of time—as it is associated with labor and the reproduction of social life. (Thus there is a difference between commodified social time and the historical time—historical time being the recorded series of events as recorded by kings, queens, and rulers describing a narrative of their own lives and conquests.) Historical time is the official time of adventures and wars, the time from which the rulers of cyclical society pursue their personal histories; it is the same time that is contested in clashes between foreign states. Historical time is thus alien to ordinary individuals, something they don’t seek out and something from which they had thought they were protected from. This history revives the negative restlessness (the need to move) of the people who have been temporarily asleep during the development of agrarian social forms of living.
Cyclical time was a period without conflict.fn“a period without conflict”: Compared to historical time, where kings and masters write their own history, a history measured by procession of their conflicts; cyclical time is not measured by people, but by the recurring cycle of nature. [Close] Yet even this immature conception of history contains conflict: history struggled to become history by the adventures, conquests, and writing of the masters of society. This history creates a superficial irreversibility that consumes infinite cyclical time to construct finite historical time, expanding and constructing that time in the process.
The “frozen societies” are those that have successfully slowed down the rate of change within society, maintaining conflict within both human and natural arenas and keeping internal oppositions and conflict in an even, constant equilibrium. The vast diversity of institutions set up to maintain this constant equilibrium is ample evidence of the flexibility of human nature to invent itself. The eloquence of these institutions is only visible to an outside observer, an anthropologist looking back at what has been built, as filtered and influenced by historical time. The “frozen society” has a definitive organizational structure that is excluded from change. It identifies and limits all human social practice, and demands absolute conformity, there are no external limits to these practices other than the general fear of falling into a formless animal condition—the state of nature. Thus, in order for humanity to remain human, we are forced to remain the same.
There exists a relationship between the emergence of political power and the invention of technological achievements (e.g. the invention of iron smelting at the dawn of the iron age), that also coincide with the dissolution of the bonds of kinship. From the invention of iron smelting until the industrial revolution there were no pivotal upheavals to society. From then on, the succession of generations leaves the sphere of purely natural cyclical time to become an event-oriented succession of those in power. These events became the mechanism for the passing-down of power. This irreversible historical time is oriented around the succession of those in power, and its measure of success is determined by the number of successful successions. The written word (and therefore all of recorded history) is the weapon of choice of those in power. With writing, language itself attains a fully autonomous reality, an abstraction of reality that becomes reality when it mediates conscious thought amongst its readers. This linguistically-constituted reality, having gained independence of actual reality is just as independent of reality as the ruling class is independent to the agrarian and laboring classes. With the writing of historical time appears a new consciousness that has become autonomous, one independent of the consciousness conveyed and transmitted amongst living people: the impersonal thoughts and memories of the administrative apparatus of society: “Writings are the thoughts of the state; and archives are its memories” (NovalisfnNovalis: The nom de plume for the German poet and philosopher (1772-1801), Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg. The quotation is from his collection of aphorisms, Bluthenstaub (“Pollen”). [Close]).
The historical chronicle is the expression of the irreversible time of separate power.fn“irreversible time of separate power”: Debord uses the phrase
du temps irréversible du pouvoir or “irreversible time of power”, here he distinguishes the power controlled by the ruling class over the direction, management, recording of historical time, a power inaccessible to the laboring and agrarian classes. This power is most visible in the historical chronicle—a story narrating the events deemed most significant to the ruling class, and often the only recorded history we have until the arrival of the printing press. [Close] The rulers of society use this instrument to maintain the voluntaristic forward progression of their historical time by recording its past—out of which it has developed from their predecessor. The chronicles are oriented to the succession of power of each of its rulers, and recording their interests. With the eventual collapse of each ruling power, this historical orientation also collapses as these rulers and their interests become obsolete, as such, the future is opened, the historical past becomes irrelevant (or completely rewritten by the new ruling power), and the present returns to the indifferent oblivion of cyclical time—that intuitive time experienced by the rural masses who, in spite of the comings and goings of rulers and empires, never change. The ruling powers own history, giving it an orientation—a direction, and imbue it with meaning and significance. The historical chronicle of rulers develops and collapses fully autonomously as a separate sphere of abstracted reality from common reality. This explains why, from the Western perspective, the history of Oriental empires tend to be reduced to a succession of religions: all that remains of these chronicles are the autonomous histories of the administrative apparatus that served these illusory empires. China and Egypt both held a monopoly on the immortality of the soul, and the earliest of their famous dynasties are built upon imaginary reconstructions of the past. The rulers of these empires, the owners of the private property of history—protected by a mythical past, make use of illusions to prove the legitimacy of their claim to rule. But this illusory possession, up to that very moment, was the only possession then possible, of both the common history and the historical chronicle they themselves created. The expansion of their own historical power goes together with the popularization of mythical and illusory ownership. To the extent they took historical ownership of time and to the degree with which they underwrote cyclical time with their own mythical chronicles and illusions: such as the seasonal rites of Chinese emperors to guarantee the successful changing of the seasons, that they themselves were emancipated from cyclical time.
The deified ruling class offers to its subjects a dry, unexplained chronicle of events, which is tied to its mythic history, legitimizing their claim to power. Their intention is to be understood as the earthly execution of the mythic commandments. These chronicles were destined to be transcended and become conscious history,fn“conscious history”: A direct translation from
histoire consciente but here Debord’s meaning seems limited to the written, recorded, and internalized personal histories of living members of society. [Close] but in order for this to occur, a lived-participation of these officially recorded events had to be experienced by a majority of those in society. The resulting participation in these events is a recognition amongst themselves as the possessors of a unique present, a period defined by the richness of the events of their own actions, and a home built by their own lived experience. From this participation emerges a general language of historical communication. For members of this society, irreversible time truly exists, and within it they discover the memorability of their own history as well as the emergence of a newfound fear of being forgotten into the oblivion of natural cyclical time. “This is the display of the inquiry of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, so that things done by man not be forgotten in time, and that great and marvelous deeds, some displayed by the Hellenes, some by the barbarians, not lose their glory…”fn“This is the display of the inquiry of Herodotus of Halicarnassus…”: See Herodotus & Godley, A., 1920. [Close]
To examine history is also, inextricably, to examine the nature of power. Ancient Greece was the period when power and the changes resulting from the succession of power was first debated and understood. This occurred under a democracy of the masters of society, it was a system diametrically opposed to that of the despotic state—where power settles its accounts only within itself, hidden inside an impenetrable obscurity of internal affairs, by the only means of palace revolutions and intrigue. The eventual outcome, either successful, or ending in failure, is outside the realm of discussion and is taken ipso facto. The power shared amongst the Greek community was limited to spending a social life, one which existed entirely upon the separate production of the slave class—who were not allowed to live autonomous lives, and were kept totally separate. It was only those who do not work, that live.fn“only those who do not work, that live”: It was only members of the privileged ruling class who participated in events that were recorded into the historical chronicle who ‘lived’. Everyone else was forgotten as mere spectators. [Close] The principle of separation amongst the Greek city-statesfn“The principal of separation amongst the Greek city-states…”: See Thucydides. & Smith, C. 1980. [Close] defined them internally, but was then focused and expressed externally where it was used to justify the exploitation of foreign cities. Greece had dreamed of a cross-community universal history, but was not able to unify itself in the face of an external enemy. It was not even capable of standardizing a calendar across its constituent cities. In Greece, historical time became apparent and manifest, but was not yet autonomous.fn“became apparent and manifest… autonomous”: Debord uses the word
conscient or “conscious” and opposes it to being “self-conscious” (which I have rendered as “autonomous”), in that a society can be conscious of its own self-development, and its progression through time, but this society was not yet capable of a self-conscious development for its own needs. Thus, he is saying that Greek society was not yet developed to the point where the social bureaucracy reaches such an extent that it autonomously directs society for its own ends; completely separate from the needs of its constituents. [Close]
With the disappearance of the favorable local conditions of the Greek city-states came the collapse of these states, and the regression of western thought, there was no resurgence of the ancient mythical organizations. The subsequent clashes between mediterranean people, and the emergence and collapse of the Roman Empire gave rise to semi-historical religions that were to become the fundamental building block of a new consciousness of time, as well as new armor for the emerging separate power.
Monotheistic religions developed a compromise between myth and history, between then hegemonic cyclical time, as it dominated the sphere of agricultural production, and the emerging irreversible historical time—which was the theater of conflict between rulers and realignments between peoples. The religions that developed out of Judaism were the fundamental building blocks universally acknowledged as useful for building new societies based on irreversible historical time. These tools have democratized the ability to create societies, but remain constrained by their own illusions. Time within these societies remains totally oriented to a single final event at the horizon of time—the so-called “Kingdom of God” which is always and perpetually at-hand. These religions grew out of the soil of their own historical time, and have rooted themselves firmly in that place; however, they radically oppose this historical terrafirma as they proclaim their various semi-historical starting points in historical time (e.g. the birth of Christ, the flight of Muhammadfn“flight of Muhammad”: The Hegira
الهجرة meaning “departure” is the migration or journey of the Islamic prophet Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Yathrib, later renamed by him to Medina, in the year 622. [Close]). The chronicle that rolls forwards from these beginnings introduce an accumulation mechanism towards the final event—the Islamic conquest of the world, or the increase of capital under the Christianity of the reformation. This accumulation is a religious inversion of thought, one equal but opposite to the countdown as time runs out to the Last Judgement; the moment before the advent of the other, true world. Eternity emerged from cyclical time, it was the time beyond cyclical time. Eternity is the force which constrains cyclical time to its irreversible flow, such that it collapses into a fixed point at times horizon, where cyclical time has abolished itself. Bossuet said: “and by means of the time that passes, we enter into eternity, which does not pass.”fn“and by means of the time that passes…” The French bishop and theologian Jacques-Bénigne Lignel Bossuet, for full quote see Bossuet, J. 1872, and Perraud, A. 1891. [Close]
The Middle Ages is an unfinished mythical world until the Last Judgement, whose perfection lays just beyond the horizon—in heaven. It was during this period when cyclical time still dominated production, the first period in which historical time began to erode its foundations. It was during this period where one’s life was measured according to irreversible time, in the form of successive stages of life, with the consideration of life as a voyage, as passage without return, in a world whose meaning lies elsewhere. Thus it was during this period when the pilgrim was seen as the one who transcended cyclical time, and manifested the symbol of the voyage of life into lived experience. Individuals found the fulfillment of their personal histories within the sphere of powerfn“Individuals found the fulfillment of their personal histories within the sphere of power”: Just as the ruling classes defined themselves by waging war over disputed power, individuals attached their personal historical chronicles to these rulers—thus the knight and his story is entwined with the story of kings. [Close]: in the participation in the struggles led by power and in the struggles over disputed power; but the ruler’s irreversible time was shared amongst his people to an infinite degree, all unified to the orientation of the Cristian era (the realization of the Last Judgement)—a world of armed faith, where the adventures of the rulers revolve around fealty and disputes over who owes fealty to whom. Feudal society was born out of the merging of “the martial organization of the army during the actual conquest” and “the productive forces of the conquered country”fn“the martial organization of the army during the actual conquest… / …the productive forces of the conquered country”: See Marx, K. & Engels, F., 1998. [Close]—and the factors responsible for utilizing and applying these productive forces is the use and effectiveness of religious language. Under this regime, social domination was divided up into church and state powers, the latter further divided into complex relations of suzerainty and vassalage of territorial tenures or urban communes. Respectively, either those on rural landed estates or as city artisans and merchants. With the collapse of the official orientation of the Medieval world (the Christian Crusades), gradual diversification of personal histories emerged, simultaneously revealing the major unseen contribution of the entire period: the emergence of a cohesive society, propelled by an underlying irreversible historical time, that once-and-for-all obliterated the mythical origins of the past and resulted in a bourgeois class who produces commodities, funds the expansion of cities, and exploits the natural resources of the planet for commercial gain.
With the waning of the Middle Ages,fnWith “the waning of the Middle Ages”: The title of the 1919 book by Johan Huizinga. See Huizinga, J., 1999. [Close] the encroaching hegemony of irreversible time was experienced as a generalized obsession with an aspect of the old order—death. Death of oneself, death of the mythical period. This obsession was brought about by the melancholy of the passing of the mythic world—the last world where the security of the familiar myth could still counterbalance the onslaught of historical time as written by the ruling class. This was a melancholy felt for the inevitability of all earthly things to decay. The great peasant revolts at the end of the Middle Age were a response to the hegemony of historical time, a time that was violently wresting the peasantry from their patriarchal sleep formerly imposed by the feudal authorities. These were revolts spurred on by a millenarian utopian visionfn“millenarian utopian vision”: Millenarianism from Latin millenarius “containing a thousand”, is the recurring belief by many religious, social, or political groups or movements in a coming fundamental transformation of society, after which “all things will be changed”. Millenarianism has existed in various cultures and religions worldwide, with various interpretations of what constitutes a transformation. These movements believe in radical changes to society after a major cataclysm or transformative event. [Close] of creating heaven on earth, by those who believed the status quo was full of corrupt politicians and only a destructive purge could achieve their vision, thus reviving an ethos that originated from the Christian communities that grew out of the adherents of Judaism—who believed in the Last Judgement and the eventual arrival of the Kingdom of God on earth. These ancient beliefs were the response to the troubles and unhappiness of their times, where announcing the arrival of a new, legitimate king was subversive to the ruling classes of ancient society. Once Christianity developed to the point at which it shared imperial power within the Roman Empire, it officially denounced the hope of achieving Heaven on Earth as mere superstition. This denouncement came from the Augustinian proclamation,fnAugustinian proclamation: This denouncement came from the theologian and philosopher Saint Augustine of Hippo, who rationalized the sack of Rome by the Visigoths. According to his philosophy, Heaven on Earth is quite literally the Church itself, and is the only way to achieve eternity with God in Heaven; a unitary physical space shared with the Catholic Church in Rome. Thus the Church has become the kingdom of heaven for itself. This work establishes the idea of the Catholic Church (the City of God) using any means at its disposal, to oppose those governments, political, or ideological movements aligned with the Devil (the City of the World). See Augustine. & Dods, M., 1993. [Close] which became the ideological basis of the modern church—that Heaven on Earth had already arrived in-fact. It was nothing less than the Catholic Church in Rome. The peasant social revolts of the millenarians naturally defined themselves as an attempt to destroy that corrupt church. The theoretical problem with the millenarian revolt, however, was that it was revolting purely on the terrain of the historical, and didn’t address or attempt to undermine the church’s mythical basis. In effect, they were trying to rewrite their own history, but one built upon a mythical past they didn’t control, thus corrupting the project at its very foundations. In his book The Pursuit of the Millennium,fnThe Pursuit of the Millennium, see Cohn, N., 1970. [Close] Norman Cohn attempted to demonstrate that the revolutionary movements of the 19th and 20th centuries were not merely irrational sequels to the religious movements of the crusades, and the religious revolts of the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries. On the contrary, these revolutionary movements continue to use the false myths of religion as their very conceptual basis, while they struggle to subvert present history to control it for their own aims. What they lack however, is a consciousness that their struggle is limited to that which is historical and allows the mythical to remain as unconscious ideology. They fight the battle to control history but aren’t aware of the war to control mythic ideology. The millenarians had to lose because they could not recognize the revolution as their own operation. Their failure was due to actions contingent upon the external sign of “God’s Will” to enable their operation, similar to today’s revolutionary movements which condition their actions upon the decisions of outside leadership. The peasant class was unable to see or understand the workings of society, and their reliance on external validation and leadership prevented any sort of unity in action, nor consciousness of thought. Instead they waged their struggles in the vain attempt to achieve the same tired vision of an earthly paradise.
With the end of the Middle Age springs forth the Renaissance. This period took possession of the historical chronicle from the ancient world, refuting the religious authority of the Middle Ages and instead establishing both its heritage and legitimacy from the antiquity of the Greeks and Romans. It is a celebratory break from the concept of the eternal Kingdom of Heaven. With it comes an irreversible time defined by an infinite accumulation of knowledge; its historical consciousness is generated-by and written according-to the actions and experiences of its democratic governments and people. With it arrives both the ability to critique and analyze the power of authority vested in the state, and, as shown by Machiavelli,fnMachiavelli: Nicolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), author of The Prince and The Discourses, which are early critiques of the power of the state. See Machiavelli, N., Bull, G. & Grafton, A., 2003. [Close] an ability to say the formerly unspeakable—state legitimacy is desanctified, not bestowed by God, but by man. In the Italian cities of the Renaissance, the arts and festivals were for the enjoyment of the passage of time, but this enjoyment of transience was transient itself; which Burckhardt considered to be “the very zeitgeist of the era”: as evidenced by his reference to a song by Lorenzo de’ Medici, “How beautiful the spring of life—and how quickly it vanishes.”fn“How beautiful the spring of life…”: Burckhardt refers to the fleeting nature of the Renaissance period itself along with the enjoyment of transient as emblematic of that period. The quotation is from a song by Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449-1492), an Italian statesman, enthusiastic patron of Renaissance culture, and de facto ruler of the Florentine Republic. See Burckhardt, J., 1914, (Part V, Ch. 8). The song in Italian is:
Quanto è bella giovinezza
Che si fugge tuttavia!
Chi vuol esser lieto sia;
doman non c’è certezza.
“How beautiful the spring of life
and how quickly it vanishes
Let whoever wants to be happy, be;
There is no certainty of tomorrow.”
The age of kings and monarchs was defined by their tireless struggle to monopolize and determine historical time. It was a transitional period along the way to a complete and total domination of historical time by the bourgeois class, the first class to control irreversible time. The irreversible time of the bourgeoisie is tightly coupled with labor time,fn“labor time”: see Glossary, “time of production”. [Close] they are now liberated from the natural flows and cycles of the seasons as determined by the cyclical time of the peasant classes. As the bourgeoisie gained control over historical time, their labor gradually became a project to transform historical conditions. The bourgeoisie was the first ruling class for which labor became a valuable commodity. With the abolition of all social privileges, nobility, and titles, they recognize value only from the exploitation of labor, and have identified the control of the commoditized body of labor as their primary form of capital. Finally, the bourgeoisie recognized the growth of labor-capital as the measure of their own progress. The class that accumulates commodities and capital continually modifies nature by modifying labor itself, by unleashing and controlling its productivity. Up to this time, all official social life had been focused upon the poverty of court life—in the trivial ornamentation and superficial etiquette of banal state administration, whose prestige culminated in the “profession of king”—to whom all individual personal histories had to be sacrificed.fn“and to whom all individual personal histories had to be sacrificed”: The original French is
et toute liberté historique particulière a dû consentir à sa perte or directly “any particular sense of historical freedom had to consent to its loss”. This can be interpreted as literal sacrifices to the king in the form of one’s body: as a soldier in his wars, as sacrifice of crops and wealth in the form of taxes. It can also be interpreted figuratively, as the sacrifice of one’s personal lived experience, since the historical chronicle is only ever written by kings, and laypeople are only passive spectators destined to be forgotten. [Close] The era of control over irreversible time by feudal lords ended with the French wars of the Frondefn“French wars of the Fronde”: a complex series of social conflicts, revolts and civil wars in France between 1648 and 1653. Debord has variously expressed great interest in the Fronde, and even proposed to make a film about it: Les aspects ludiques manifestes et latents dans la Fronde (“Visible and Hidden Playful Aspects in the Fronde”). See Debord, G., 2003. [Close] in the 17th century, and with the failure in Scotland to put Charles Edward on the throne.fn“the failure in Scotland to put Charles Edward on the throne”: The failed Jacobite uprising between 1745 and 1746 in support of Charles Edward Stuart (“Bonnie Prince Charlie”). Also known as the Forty-five Rebellion, Charles Edward Stuart led the Jacobite army into England, culminating in the Battle of Culloden in April of 1746, resulting in the end of Jacobitism as a significant political force. [Close] The world was about to change its foundations.fn“The world is about to change its foundations.”: A verse copied from “The Internationale” (French:
L’Internationale) a left-wing anthem. It has been a standard of the socialist movement since the late 19th century, when the Second International adopted it as its official anthem. The original stanza in French is:
Foule esclave, debout! debout!
Le monde va changer de base
Nous ne sommes rien, soyons tout!
“Enslaved masses, stand up!, stand up!
The world will change its foundations
We are nothing, let us be everything!”
The victory of the bourgeoisie was a victory of a profoundly historical time, a time dominated by an economic form of production which permanently transforms society from the top to the bottom. As long as agriculture remained the primary form of labor, cyclical time continued to constrain social life with tradition, which inhibited the development of historical time. The irreversible time of the bourgeois economy is brought to bear upon the remaining vestiges of cyclical time, eradicating it at every encounter across the globe. Historical time, up until the period of the bourgeois revolution, limited participation to individual members of the ruling class. It was initially documented as a mere chronology of cohesive events, generally told as a narrative. Now however; it is understood in its generalized form—no longer a series of actions and events of individual rulers, but the inevitable unfolding of events for itself, crushing any individual in its path. The progression of historical time is now a chronology of events of the commodity, time is no longer controlled by the ruling class but by the market imperatives of the commodity. That historical time discovered its foundations in what was previously unconscious—its substantiation in the political economy—but it must remain hidden from the light of day. This directionless trajectory of time, a new fate led by no onefn“a new fate led by no one”: The original French:
une nouvelle fatalité que personne ne domine “a new fate that no one dominates”, is strongly influenced or copied from Lukács, G., 1971 (Pp. 129): “Hitherto it had been that of the blind power of a-fundamentally-irrational fate, the point where the possibility of human knowledge ceased and where absolute transcendence and the realm of faith began”. Essentially, that historical time is no longer the events and chronicles of the ruling class, but an irrational series of events generated by society in an aimless trajectory into an unknowable future. [Close] and yet fully influenced by the events of the commodity, is the only thing the market economy has democratized.
While history is always present as it supports the material and ideological basis of society, it tends to be invisible at the surface of daily life. The victory of irreversible historical time was the beginning of the time of things,fn“the time of things”: Debord uses the phrase
en temps des choses, rendered directly into English as “the time of things”, specifically the objects of mass production themselves have become the subjects of society, and thus these objects are privileged over social relations and individuals. This is a direct reference to Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism, see glossary. [Close] brought about due to the successful deployment of its weapons of mass production, according to the law of the market imperative. The period of the object has democratized historical time itself from a scarce luxury accessible only to rulers into a commonly consumed commodity—but as simplified, reduced, and abstracted changing of objects that subjugate all qualitative use of life. This newly democratized historical time is the participation in the chronology of a parade of ever-changing commodity objects, primarily in the individual’s ability to consume these objects. So while cyclical agrarian time had supported an increased participation in the events that defined the period of an individuals lived experience, irreversible historical time eliminates one’s participation in the events that define lived time.fn“participation in the events that define lived time”: rewording of Debord’s concept of “lived time”, originally written as
temps vécu, a concise wording of the concept where an individual can directly experience, participate, and contribute to the historical events that define their era. Lived time is opposed to commodity fetishism, see Glossary for “lived time” and “commodity fetishism”. [Close]
The bourgeoisie presented their own irreversible historical time, only to impose it on society while denying its use. Presented as “once there was history, but not any more”fn“once there was history, but not any more” This quotation is from The Poverty of Philosophy, see Marx, K., 1995. Similar concepts of a history of the perpetual present can also be seen in The End of History and The Last Man, see Fukuyama, F. 2006. [Close]—time has stopped once they gained control, as the owners of the economy, one tied to economic history, they are threatened by any other use of irreversible time which breaks from the historical chronological trajectory they control. The ruling class is made up of specialists in the ownership of things, who for that reason are themselves owned by things, their fate bound to the conservation of this reified history, and in doing so assure the permanence of an unchanging present. Meanwhile, the workers at the foundation of society are, for the first time, not materially alienated from participation in history, since irreversible time has been democratized,fn“irreversible time has been democratized”: The individual now has the ability to view, buy, and consume commodity objects in the general economy, whereas it was previously limited to a social elite. More concretely, social media allows individuals to participate in history by ‘going viral’, but history quickly moves past these individual moments, as the attention—or gaze of the public—becomes commoditized and buried under the continual Spectacle, and the individual subjects of the ‘viral event’ are quickly subsumed by the global flows of an emergent Spectacular attention economy that expands autonomously according to market imperatives. Simultaneously, the viral subject finds themselves increasingly alienated from the impossible possiblity of authentically living their personally branded lifestyle as presented in the spectacle. For more on this see Odell, J., 2019 and Zuboff, S., 2019. [Close] and historical events can be generated from those at the foundations of society. The demand to live within the historical time which it creates at its foundation, the proletariat discovers the simple, unforgettable core of the entire revolutionary project; although all attempts up to now have been defeated, every attempt signals possible lines of escape to a new historical life.
The first bourgeoisie to have seized power christened their period of irreversible time after themselves, and assigned it the value of its absolute origin: Year I of the Roman Republic.fn“Year I of the Roman Republic”: Much like the Roman Republic, the French Revolution revised the calendar to start its chronology from the beginning of the Republic, September 22, 1792. With the rise of Napoleon, it was then reverted to the traditional Roman-Christian calendar in 1806. See Figure 1 on thesis 150. [Close] The Republic blossomed out of the revolutionary ideology of general freedom which had to first destroy the last remnants of its mythical social values and any traditional regulation of society. But the ideology of general freedom had been unable to conceal its underlying will, although draped in Roman clothesfn“draped in Roman clothes”: Paraphrased from Marx, full quotation “Thus Luther donned the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789 to 1814 draped itself alternately as the Roman republic and the Roman empire…”, see Marx, K., 2008. [Close]—the freedom of commerce. Having destroyed the social foundations of traditional society in order to establish its unchallenged rule, this emerging society of the commodity found itself unstable, and had to rebuild the social passivity that came before it, thus “Christianity with its religious cult of man in the abstract was the most fitting form of religion”fn“Christianity … most fitting form of religion”: Full quotation from Marx, K. Marx, K., Mandel, E., Fowkes, B. & Fernbach, D., 1978 (Ch. 1, Section 4). [Close] for the reinstatement of passivity. Thus the bourgeoisie made a compromise with Christianity, one symptom of which is reflected in its presentation of time: the Republic abandoned its own calendarfn“the Republic abandoned its own calendar”: The Romans used the Coptic calendar (also known as the Alexandrian calendar) which was used by the agrarian populace in Egypt, it was a reform of the ancient Egyptian calendar introduced by Ptolemy III. This calendar was abandoned by the Romans after the reforms of dictator Julius Caesar and Emperor Augustus in the late 1st century BC, where it was called the Roman or Julian calendar. In October of 1582, Pope Gregory XIII introduced the Gregorian calendar, which is now the most widely used calendar in the world, officially coupling the Roman chronology with the Christian chronology. See Figure 1 on thesis 150. [Close] and its own conception of irreversible historical time—instead bound to, and extending the chronology of the Christian era.
The development of capitalism entailed the global unification of irreversible time. Universal history became a reality, as the whole globe was unified under the development of irreversible time. This is a singular history that progresses the same everywhere at once, amounting to the End of History—a refusal of the progression of any major historical divergence. This appears the world over as a repetition of the same day, a uniform and equal amount of time fully allocated to the production of commodities. This is a unified irreversible historical time belonging to the globalized marketplace, and thus also the time of the global spectacle.
The irreversible time of commodity production is primarily the measure of commodities produced.fn“the measure of commodities produced”: E.g. GDP: Gross Domestic Product. [Close] Therefore the conception of time generalized across the globe refers only to the time spent laboring to produce commodities, and should only be organized by the specialist interest groups who own the production of those commodities. This conception of time is not general in character, but merely one particular type of time.fn“merely one particular type of time”: Irreversible time attempts to generalize only the time spent laboring, which serves only the interest of capital, but this is a time that is devoid of any social value. Laborers only experience exploitation with the increase in capital, and the increase in measures like GDP are completely divorced from lived experience. [Close]
“We have nothing that is ours but time, which even those without a roof can enjoy.”
—Baltasar Gracián, The Art of Worldly Wisdom
The time of production—commodified time, that time which has been segmented, allocated, where every interval is equivalent in value and therefore indistinguishable. The time of production produces an infinite accumulation of these fungible intervals of time that are equivalent without equality. This effectively renders irreversible time into abstract units, of which each segment must prove on the stopwatch their quantitative equality. These abstracted units of time are, in reality, merely their use value in exchangeability. According to this regime of social-control by commoditized time—“time is everything, man is nothing; at best he is the carcass of time.”fn“time is everything, man is nothing…”: See Marx, K., 1995 (Ch. 1, Section 2). [Close] This is a complete devaluation of time—an inversion of the idea that time is the space in which human society grows and blossoms into the “terrain of human development”.fn“terrain of human development”: See Marx, K. 2005 (Ch. 13). [Close]
To complement the time of production—the time of human non-development, is consumable time. Consumable time is returned to social life as a by-product of the time of production. It is experienced as pseudo-cyclical time.
Pseudo-cyclical time is in fact the time of production disguised as time to be consumed freely by the workers. Pseudo-cyclical time exhibits the same characteristi