US Situationist magazine Point Blank!'s 1970s article on capitalism and the spectacle.
The history of modern society is a bag of tricks that the dead have played on the living. The forms and structures which are today prevalent everywhere did not simply appear by virtue of some fortuitous technological development; they have their origins in a social and historical fact the seizure of the means of production by the revolutionary bourgeois class. The privative appropriation by this class of the labour of the proletariat was concomitant with an appropriation of society in its entirety. What initially appeared as a purely economic conquest soon extended itself to a colonisation of all aspects of life and the occupation of the terrain of society as the terrain of capitalism. The bourgeoisie came to power in a physical environment that was. only partially the result of its own design and ever since its social victory it has consciously striven to obliterate any trace of a past in which it did not dominate.
The project undertaken by the bourgeoisie of remodelling the world after its own image has proved to be one of unlimited duration. The development of productive forces has in fact required a constant renovation, both structural and organisational, of society. The temporary success of the bourgeoisie has been transformed into a seeming permanence only through an economically induced and sustained ephemerality. But this socially planned obsolescence cannot be confused with technological chaos; the autonomy of the bourgeois economy can only be maintained through a continual exertion of power by the dominant class. The image the bourgeoisie has imposed everywhere has been the image of class society: from the factory towns of its infancy to modern suburbia, capitalism has produced a social structure which conforms with the needs of commodity production. This structure has undergone a series of successive transformation, nonetheless, its actual basis in the economy has remained.
An increased technical capacity (cybernetics, media) on the part of advanced capitalism to control the very conditions of existence has resulted in the society of the spectacle, where life itself becomes a show to be contemplated by an audience which is forced to be passive, the modern proletariat. The spectacle, which is both at the origin and the goal of modern society, is in a perpetual state of modification. The consumer society' of the sociologists is actually a society which is consumed as a whole - the ensemble of social relationships and structures is the central product of the commodity economy. Yet the theoretical concept of the spectacle, which was elaborated by the Situationist International, is in need of considerable revision. The forces described in Debord's Society of the Spectacle have come to maturity and in doing so they have prepared the foundations for a further modernisation of bourgeois society. While the form of this society only confirms the insights of the S.I., it is necessary to re-elaborate the critique of the spectacle and to delineate the nature of its contemporary development.
If the structures of bourgeois society have been determined by an economic reality, it is equally true that the development of society vis-à-vis the economy has been uneven. Today, bourgeois society is faced with a structural crisis which in many ways resembles previous economic crises. This crisis is only superficially a natural, environmental one and it is not surprising that all the 'critical' ideologists have concentrated on this latter blatancy. The decomposition which manifests itself everywhere is only incidentally ecological in nature and has resulted, not from mere technological excess, but from a contradiction between accelerated forces of capitalist production and an outmoded social framework. The directionless expanse of urban areas characteristic of bourgeois society up until the present is a remnant of the 19th century doctrine of laissez-faire; as advanced capitalism increasingly attempts to rationalise all of its processes, its social structure is necessarily modernised. But this rationalisation has by no means proceeded in a uniform, linear progression - capitalism has been forced to reconstruct itself. The urban revolts of the 1960's and the environmental hazards resulting from the continued growth of industry provided American capitalism with a vision of its annihilation. Now, after this immediate threat has receded through the diligent efforts of its mechanisms of recuperation, capitalism wishes to turn-a temporary truce into a permanent victory. This project is designed not only to defend the present system but to perpetuate its existence indefinitely.
On a purely physical level, capitalism has sought to resolve the crisis caused by its unlimited quantitative growth. The urban glut spawned by primitive industrial development has proved to be unmanageable and is being replaced by a more ordered structure. The advance of urbanism has not only resulted in the destruction of the traditional city but in the construction of the foundations for a controlled 'post urban' society. The excesses that were the by-products of industrialism are being eliminated in favour of more 'rational' alternatives. The obsolete form of automotive transport is being replaced by rapid transit systems which allow for both a greater degree of unity and diversity. Space is becoming unified in a different manner than before; having consumed the city, capitalism must deploy its component parts across the terrain of society at large. Mass-transit allows larger areas to be connected together, creating a vast urban area with no fixed centre and which contains within it many mini-cities. This movement of decentralisation and diffusion is at the same time the construction of a rationalised social territory. Advanced capitalism quantifies space to the extent that it generalises uniform, archetypal models of urban society. In every area, one finds the same kind of design implemented in the construction of shopping centres, schools, housing, etc. But this rationalisation of the terrain is also its aestheticization the line of demarcation between the spheres of culture and the economy has long since disappeared. Office buildings and shopping centres now disguise themselves as works of art and museums appear as supermarkets.
Like its predecessors, modern architecture is a social architecture. With the current need for a reunification of the space of bourgeois society, stress is being placed on the construction of planned communities. These 'model' communities have so far been realised on a primitive scale', nonetheless they contain an indication of the future by reproducing the axial relationships of society within a limited area- The planned towns are in most cases clusters of smaller units, each with a central area of day care centres, schools etc, Within these areas an attempt has been made to replace isolation with a sense of community:
One town even constructed a common driveway so that residents would be forced to have contact with each other. These beginnings are only rudimentary, however, when compared with designs for the future. Perhaps the most avant-garde tendency of urban design is represented by Soleri; his 'arcologies' would contract the present city into compact, highly dense urban areas. Industrial and residential areas would be separated and constructed in such a way that a 'personal'. feeling of community would be retained. Soleri's cities "in the image of man" represent only the next logical step in the perfection of the controls already inherent in the present spectacle; the cities would only be a concentration of the contemporary image of bourgeois society.
All the current changes in the spectacular organization of appearances, however, are only part of a change in the appearance of organization. The contemporary reconstruction of bourgeois society involves not only its form but its content. The reform of the environment is simultaneously a reform of power which exhibits itself on many levels. Structurally. the hierarchical matrix of power which was physically embodied in the traditional city now reproduces itself on an infinite and local level. The advanced spectacle h4 dispensed with a physical centre of command in favour of a poly-centered system of authority. The 'Invisible City' dreamed of by Mumford as a 'radical' alternative to modern society is fast becoming a reality. As the locus of power shifts from rigidly defined structures to a multi-faceted nexus of relationships, new organisational forms are emerging which will bind the individual more closely to his social environment. The decentralisation of authority is not to be confused with its destruction, it merely represents its further extension.
The alienation which is at the root of the modern spectacle became visible during the last decade. This visibility was expressed in a recognition by its inhabitants that the programmed survival of bourgeois society was no longer tolerable. The various soporifics produced by the spectacle: mass culture, commodities, etc., proved to be inefficient in ensuring the continued functioning of the system. The discontent which smouldered at the surface threatened to disrupt the entire fabric of capitalist society - the residents of the bourgeois necropolis had awakened from their sleep. The threat of this awakening turning into open revolt forced the guardians of class-society to develop new weapons in their arsenal of social control if they were to maintain their position. This development has taken the guise of an accelerated structural reform; everywhere capitalism modifies itself, utilising new technical, cultural and ideological means to re-establish its authority over an unruly populace. In doing so, it has proved capable of recuperating even that which seemed to pose a radical threat to its existence.
The vital process of socialisation - the mechanism of integrating individuals into society - broke down when people began to question the roles allotted them. The sterile vapidity of reified existence was all too easily seen through and large sectors of the population attempted to define themselves in opposition to spectacular life. But since this opposition expressed itself almost entirely in a cultural form, it was easily reintegrated into dominant society as just another cultural fragment. Bourgeois society was able to resist the challenge to itself by creating new roles and cultural forms within an expanded framework. While the spectacle previously sought to impose a contemplative attitude everywhere, it now endeavours to generalise an active alienation. This "active alienation, the alienation of activity and the activity of alienation", which Marx perceived in the act of commodity production, now extends itself to all aspects of life. This extension results not only in a quantitative increase in alienation but in a qualitatively different kind of alienation.
Not content with mere spectators, the spectacle now seeks to engage the proletariat as an active participant in its reified world. The present expansion of alienation is a demand for its reciprocity, resulting in a reciprocal alienation in which the distinction between spectator and show, between signified and signifier, becomes blurred. In place of mere passive reception emerges a reified subjectivity in which the individual is able to choose among a number of possible responses - he is given the illusory freedom of a greater role in the construction of the world of his own alienation.
The advance of such an active alienation has had a direct relationship with developments within the sphere of capitalism's star commodity, culture. 'Avante gardist' experiments in 'participatory' theatre are now being applied to mass-media as a whole. As usual, capitalism has proved to be one step ahead of its professional critics: McLuhan's voyeuristic fantasies of "participation' via the media, for instance, are being realised on a far more complex level than the vicarious tribal rites which he imagined for the 'global village' of the commodity. The strictly unilateral communication which McLuhan celebrated gives way before a kind of bilateral monologue in which the spectator's response serves as a stimulus for further transmission. The spectacle's house futurist, Buckminster Fuller has envisioned a world which would be governed by a 'telepathic' interaction between the masses and their rulers. With the development of Cable TV, which allows 'for greater specialisation and cultural diversification, and two-way receiver-transmitters, media has advanced beyond a simple reproduction of images for a passive audience - the entire sphere of consumption has acquired an added dimension.
Besides this advance in technics, bourgeois society has enlarged the domain of its economy. Where the marketplace dominates life it is not surprising that life-styles should become integral parts of the market-place. Even such supposedly 'rebellions' ways of living, such as the bohemian milieu, have become packaged as commodities for cultural consumption. The spectacle now affords everyone the luxury of a reified existential self-determination; the individual can select a mode of 'life', including a particular time and milieu, from among several alternatives. The administrators of the commodity economy have even gone so far as to inculcate a nostalgic yearning for the past; in a society where the present has been reduced to a moment of an already determined future, various atavistic life-styles (Renaissance, '20's, '50's, etc.) have flourished. The meaning of consumption has also changed; the mere possession of things (and extravagant displays of commodity indulgence) has been supplemented by a possession of experiences. The spectacle has been able to turn the contempt for "materialistic" values to its own advantage - it now offers the non-material for sale. The transition from simple accumulation to acculturation has been accompanied by an expansion of 'leisure' industries whose purpose is to ensure that all areas of time, including that not spent in work, are occupied by the spectacle. The reduction of the working day has only resulted in increased possibilities and incentives for consumption.
The present reform of bourgeois society is predicated upon an ad-mission of the sins of its past. Behind this confession, which exhibits itself in the form of ritualised denunciations of pollution, waste, poverty, etc., lies the preparation for a continuation of class society and the ersatz nature which capitalism imposes throughout its world. While acknowledging the excesses of its previous development, capitalism in no way wishes to relinquish its control over society. Rather, it proclaims itself capable of constructing a hygienic environment of exploitation to replace the present decrepit order. The accumulation of misery, which manifests itself everywhere - both physically and socially - has brought the spectacle into a showdown with the forces of its own decomposition. But by a spectacular sleight-of-hand, bourgeois society has only to admit that it is decomposed and it gains a new lease on life. By reshuffling the deck of hierarchical power, it prepares to deal out yet another hand. If all the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put Humpty-Dumpty back together again, his bourgeois descendants think they can by merely changing the guard.
With their customary stupidity, the various ideologists of 'social criticism' are playing their part in reassembling the pieces. One of the most useful auxiliaries to this process has been the "ecology movement". The favourite vision of these lifeguards is that of an in-dependent technology which is rushing madly towards an environmental 'gotterdammerung'. This ideological charade transposes the responsibility for such a crisis upon an imagined collectivity, humanity as a whole, which supposedly exists 'independently' of any class relationships. Ignoring the realities of class society, these critics (Ehrlich, Fuller, Mumford) have little difficulty in imaging a 'transformation' of society which has nothing to do with classes. This ruse is convenient for those who do know something about class power: the administrators of the spectacle are able to use the spectre of environmental holocaust to achieve a greater unity - it enlists the support of a duped citizenry to aid in cleaning the environment of their alienation.
The ecological 'revolution' is only a call for a further quantitative modification of the technics of bourgeois society; it consciously aims for a reform of the pseudo-nature produced by capitalism. This kind of reformism reaches its most absurd (and logical) limit in the demand for a pure' consumerism. While seeking a 'total' change in the form of society, the environmentalists actually project the basis of bourgeois society ad infinitum. The synergistic 'utopia' proposed by these ideologists as a solution to the ecological crisis is merely a sterile and technologically rationalised version of the present spectacle. Those who want to gain the controls of 'space-ship earth? wish to replace the traditional elite with a more professional one. In their future society, which would be nothing more than a perfected technocracy, the proletariat will not have assumed control over the means of production, it will merely have a greater choice in the direction of technological development. By seeking to make the spectacle less destructive, the ecologists only want to save capitalism from itself. In their reformed spectacle exploitation will be made more 'democratic' and its more advanced model will be extended everywhere.
The role of intellectual accessory to capitalism has not been confined to the environmentalists, however. Even those critics who had fancied themselves to be 'radical' with their sociological analyses of the isolated 'ills' of capitalism have been caught with their ideological pants down. That which once passed itself off as a radical critique of modern society now reveals itself as a mere modernist complement to this society. The criticism of the 'wasteland' of mass-society is now expressed as a self criticism of the ruling class - city planners and governmental bureaucrats now talk about the 'quality of life'. Since their critique never went beyond the form of bourgeois society, all the leftist ideologues could never realise that the content of this society could continue despite changes in its outward appearances. These changes have resulted, not in an Orwellian totalitarianism (the wet dream of an impotent Left), but in an advanced welfare-state which has been able to incorporate many of the 'radical' solutions of the Left in order to perfect its functioning.
Marx's perception that the act of commodity production is at the same time an act of social reproduction has been verified by the subsequent development of capitalism. The modern spectacle, moreover, has attempted to extend the scope of this social reproduction beyond the labour process. The proletarians "who daily remake their lives" are now required not only to reproduce the conditions of their survival but to participate in its organisation the colonisation of daily life achieves near-perfection when the colonised themselves begin to create and operate the machinery of their own oppression. The possibility that such a state of affairs could come about had been predicted by the SI ten years ago when it formulated a critique of the 'Cybernetic Welfare State'. But if this description is not to become a facile one it must here-examined- Cybernation cannot be understood in the limited sense of a programmed rationalisation in which men assume the characteristics of machines. while the spectacle seeks to pacify all of existence, it also attempts to create mechanisms whereby it can regenerate itself.
Having perfected the most extreme disassociation of society, capitalism now strives to maintain its coherence in the face of open social disintegration. Concomitantly, the abstract separation characteristic of recent society is being replaced by an imposed collectivity - a communal isolation. This communalization of alienation, reflected in the community control' of services, schools, local governments - even police, is an attempt to counteract potentially destructive tendencies by placing more of the responsibility for operating society with various constituencies (neighbourhood and ethnic groups, minorities). Today, the archaic hierarchy of the past is being supplanted by its modernist replacement, an accumulation of mini-hierarchies, From the universities to the poverty agencies, from the factories to the office buildings, various ideologies of 'participation' assist in the construction of a humanist alienation which brings the individual and society closer together.
Besides creating structures which are more 'responsive' to the inhabitants of bourgeois society, modern capitalism has refined the psychological dimension of alienation. This refinement has not been accomplished by enlisting the doctrines of crude behaviourism (Skinner, etc.) but through the use of the most modern and 'radical' tendencies of psychiatry. This school (Laing, Erikson, Perls), which formulated itself in opposition to traditional Freudianism, has only perpetuated the basically repressive function of psychiatry. Through the techniques of gestalt, encounter groups etc., the adjustment of the masses to reality is carried one step further. Here, alienation is viewed as essentially an internal matter; once anxieties are released through group therapy sessions, individuals are supposedly better able to 'cope' with their existence. While formerly such innovations were the privilege of the intelligentsia, capitalism is making wide use of these methods in the factories and the schools in order to reduce social tensions. As workers are made to join encounter groups to vent their hostility to their bosses, the role of the psychiatric police force becomes increasingly important.
With such resources at its disposal, advanced capitalism has sought to correct many of the deficiencies inherent in its earlier forms. Having located the areas of decomposition, the social technicians of the spectacle are attempting to reverse this process and turn it into one of reconstruction. White formerly relying on overt repression to maintain itself, bourgeois society now devises a thousand more subtle methods of control. In promoting a social pacifism, capitalism attempts to conceal the social violence at its base. Like the good salesman it is, the spectacle knows how to change its image and to do so without missing a step. But by transforming itself in such a manner, bourgeois society has left itself open to possible attack by those it seeks to pacify. The machinations of hierarchical power have been rendered even less mysterious by its decentralisation. This loss of mystique puts the dominant elite's privileged possession of society into question; when the specialists of power are forced to publicly admit that they are no longer capable of running society by themselves, there is little that physically stands in the way of the proletariat bringing the show to an end.
The present modification of capitalism is nothing else but capitalism's modification of its world. As a fragment establishing itself as a whole, the commodity economy has requisitioned all of society for its purpose. The augmented survival proliferated by the contemporary spectacle in no way alters this fact and if bourgeois society has succeeded in regenerating itself through a conscientious policy of reform, it has not obliterated the possibility of its overthrow The spectacle remains confronted by the permanent crisis of its possible destruction. While attempting to integrate the masses more fully into its operations, advanced capitalism can only offer them the ability to 'choose between several varieties of alienated existence. The modernisation of the system can only temporarily alleviate its tendency to create the most extreme dissatisfaction on the part of the proletariat - the vast majority of society who have no power over the conditions in which they are forced to survive. While having weathered the storms of the last decade, the spectacle has by no means had the last word. The society of the spectacle seeks continually to overcome the barriers to its continued existence, but it overcomes them only by means which again pose these barriers in its way and on a more formidable scale. The real barrier of spectacular reproduction is the spectacle itself.
The greatest revolutionary idea concerning urbanism is neither urbanistic, technological, or aesthetic. It is the decision to rebuild the entire territory according to the needs of the power of the workers' councils, of the anti-state dictatorship of the proletariat, of executory dialogue.
Guy Debord. Society of the Spectacle, Thesis No.179
The terrain of society remains that of the enemy and as such it must become the terrain of revolution. The transition from the old world to the new is not simply a change in the administration of society but in its use and this recognition is what separates revolutionaries from those who would merely rival capitalism in an ability to reform society. If the situationists have had the merit of describing modern bourgeois society in its totality, it is equally true that they have conceived of its total negation. Unlike the senile leftists of all varieties. the situationists have been concerned not with the quantitative amelioration of this society but with its qualitative supercession. From the beginning, the S.I. considered its task to be the practical realisation of a revolution of everyday life. With its early experiments in 'psycho-geography' and the systematic exploration of cities, the S.I. attempted to define the possibilities for a revolutionary transformation of society. Even if these initial experiments now appear as somewhat naive, the radical character of the attempt to expose the terrain of society for its practical subversion remains. In attempting to create situations which put the whole of life into question, the S.I. revealed the fundamentally social character of the present revolutionary project.
The politics which emerged from the city (polis) has now made the entire world its city. Politics, inherently an alien objectification of man, has in turn objectified a world of alienation - bourgeois political economy has carried this process to its most extreme materialisation. For the proletariat, then, which exists at the level of the most extreme alienation, the annihilation of class society is at the same time an annihilation of the political realm. Proletarian revolution is the affirmation of an unmediated practical dialogue with the world in which all the means of society are at the disposal of the proletariat. The transformation, through the labour process, of personal powers (relationships) into their alien and material objectification can only be eliminated by the action of individuals in again subjecting these material powers to themselves and abolishing the commodity spectacle. This revolutionary project is not possible except through the collective action of the proletariat in transforming society so that it conforms, not with the dictates of the commodity economy, but with the desires of its inhabitants. The struggle for self-management is not only a struggle for the means of production but for society as a whole.
Proletarian revolution requires nothing less than the construction of a society in which the individual finds his confirmation rather than his objectified denial. In place of the imposed collectivity of the spectacle it establishes an authentic community and "in the real community the individuals obtain their freedom in and through their association. (Marx) All the various bureaucratic pseudo-socialisms have only imitated the bourgeoisie's authoritarian use of the social terrain; every-where, the Leninist counter-revolutionary project has found itself confirmed in Stalinist architecture. Only in the free construction of situations, in the introduction of the element of play into the design of the world, will a genuine socialism be realised.
The technical capacities now in existence enable the immediate, concrete realisation of Marx's vision of a communism in which "in practice the senses have become direct theoreticians." The practical critique of urbanism exhibited in the revolts of the 1960's (Watts, Detroit, etc. marked only the beginning of this process; having seized the terrain of society it is necessary to reconstruct it. The direct democracy of the workers' councils must extend itself to a direct democracy of the environment so that "man is affirmed in the objective world not only in thought but through all his senses.,' To make the world a sensuous extension of man rather than have man remain the instrument of an alien world is the goal of a situationist revolution. For us, the reconstruction of life and the rebuilding of the world are one and the sane desire.
To go beyond the point where we can only talk about the world to the stage where we can talk to each other in the construction of a new world it is necessary to engage in the most radical practice possible - the critique of human geography must become a critique executed in acts. The development of such a practice entails an active intervention by revolutionaries in all aspects of society; up until now the concept of intervention has been limited almost exclusively to various points of production (factories, schools, etc.. In addition to this, it is now necessary to extend the tactics of subversion to confront the present modification of the spectacle directly. Rapid transit systems, shopping centres, museums, etc., as well as the various new forms of culture and media must be considered as areas for scandalous activity. It is the commonplace, the banal, which seems to be secure from attack and yet which is the easiest to subvert. It is on the terrain of daily life that the spectacle is most vulnerable.
Digitised by Subversion. Some minor corrections by libcom.org