Chapter 5 of the book, partially translated.
Chapter 5 – From the critique of work to the overcoming of programmatism: a theoretical transition: the Situationist International
According to Le Monde Libertaire in December 1964: ‘The SI’s revolutionary critique of everyday life is incontestably right on the mark. However, there is one domain, far from having lost its importance, that escapes them: work.’ We, on the other hand, believe that we’ve more or less never dealt with any problem other than that of work at our epoch?: its conditions, its contradictions, and its consequences. The error of Le Monde Libertaire stems perhaps from the habits of undialectical thinking, which isolates an aspect of reality on conveniently recognizable terrain, and thus can only treat it conventionally. (SI nº10, p.67)
The SI was the theoretical putting into crisis of all programmatism at the time when, as the practical content of class struggles, it was becoming obsolete. Unlike the ultra-left, their critique does not arise from a contradiction that is passively suffered, and from the impossibility of reorganising the elements of programmatism. Indeed, the ultra left continues to speak about the affirmation of the proletariat whilst witnessing the collapse, as a revolutionary movement, of everything that could mean the rising in working class power in the capitalist mode of production – a rising in power without which this affirmation becomes a completely empty project. With the SI, it is the problematic itself and its basic elements as such – rather than their organisation – that is put into question. The SI expresses the crisis of programmatism as such, having recognised it in all its determinations, but without having recognised it generally and historically for what it was.
Rarely do critical analyses of the SI start from their texts: the SI has been obscured by its own myth. At an immediate level, whereas all critiques quote what they criticise, quotations are not used when speaking about the SI: it is enough to say ‘commodity’, ‘spectacle’, ‘generalised self-management’ ‘supersession of Art’, ‘critique of everyday life’ etc. That any critique speaks more of itself than of its presumed object – that at the end of the day this object is only a pretext for its own argument – is all in all ‘natural’, and even ‘legitimate’. But in the case of the SI, this approach becomes problematic, because the reliance on these catchphrases is usually accompanied with a critique which actually accords with the content of the concepts as developed in the SI. For example, the use of the category ‘commodity’ is criticized on the ground that ‘capital’ should be used instead, but the SI speaks about capital in the commodity, and that is precisely the problem. The theory of the spectacle is criticised as idealist on the ground that it is only a development of the alienation of wage labour, but Debord always saw it this way; the problem is precisely that he puts forward the alienation of wage labour this way. The workers’ councils are criticised as a formal and managerial conception of the revolution, but the SI always gave them the abolition of exchange as a content. The problem is that it formalized this abolition as well as the abolition of work and of the proletariat in the councils. The subjectivism of the SI is criticised on the ground that a crisis is necessary for the appearance of a revolutionary subject, but nothing is more objectivist than their theory of the revolution, etc. In fact, most of the time, there is no critique: the critique, at the same time as advancing these catchphrases, shows itself to be defending precisely what the SI puts into these words. What explains this is not the alleged difficulty of what is criticized, but rather the impossibility of criticizing the SI within the framework of programmatism. The SI represented theoretically, in a unified theory, the extreme point of tension of the contradictions of programmatism, namely: to speak of the abolition of capital as affirmation of a revolutionary nature of the proletariat which would have its own negation as its content (the overcoming of this problem is of an extreme simplicity: it requires thinking of revolutionary activity not as nature but as situation. However, a restructuring and a change of cycle of struggles were necessary to reach that point) Consequently, unless we escape this framework, which the SI circumscribed entirely, all critique is reduced to the mere attempt at opposing aspects of this theory against each other.
Unlike the other theories we examined previously, in the SI, the critique of work is a putting into question of the entirety of the problematic of programmatism: proletariat, alienation, content of communism, fetishism, human essence, the role of theory and of organisations, objectivism, etc. The point which focuses this general putting into question and its limits (as this putting into question stays within the framework of programmatism) is naturally that of the definition of the proletariat.
Section 1: The definition of the proletariat – A fragile state of grace
Division 1: Sociology and/or universalism
The SI, without doubt a little 'upset' from having been surpassed, in the field of theoretical innovation, by Castoriadis, in the Editorial Notes of number 8 (January 1963) takes up the latter’s problematic and goes further. There we find the famous definition of the proletariat: 'In the context of the reality presently beginning to take shape, we may consider as proletarians all people who have no possibility of altering the social space-time that society allots to them (regardless of variations in their degree of affluence or chances for promotion)' (p.13). This definition justifies the affirmation expressed in number 7, p.13: 'the new proletariat is tending to encompass everybody'. This definition is taken up and completed by Debord in the Society of the Spectacle: 'It [the proletariat] remains irreducibly in existence within the intensified alienation of modern capitalism: it is the immense majority of workers who have lost all power over the use of their lives and who, once they know this, redefine themselves as the proletariat, the negative at work within this society. (Thesis 114). Thus the existence of the proletariat, and consequently the proletarian revolution, finds itself to 'depend entirely on the condition that, for the first time, theory as intelligence of human practice be recognized and lived by the masses.' (Ibid, thesis 123).
Simultaneous to with this quasi-'universal' definition of the proletariat, the SI also implements a 'restricted' definition: 'If the situationists certainly anticipated the Provos in regard to a few vague novelties, there is all the same a central point on which we flatter ourselves on relentlessly remaining “nineteenth century.” History is still young, and the proletarian project of a classless society, even if it began badly, is still more of a radically new curiosity than the combined achievements of molecular chemistry and astrophysics or the billions of fabricated events channelled by the spectacle. Despite our “avant-gardism” and thanks to it, it is to this movement alone that we wish to return.' (SI n 11, p.66). This restricted definition is never expressed other than through historical references, in which it appears that the proletariat is no longer this class 'encompassing almost everybody', but simply the class of alienated work and more precisely that which is defined by the relation of exploitation.
At first sight it would seem that the SI is torn between, on the one hand, its project of the conscious taking in hand by individuals of the material means of social conditioning in order to transform them into means of construction of life (situations), to which corresponds an [broad] definition of the proletariat as the subject of this transformation. And, on the other hand, what makes all the material means of this construction foreign to individuals and, generally, what makes everything that they live distant from them and confront them as spectacle – the principle of this general situation being alienated labour, to which then corresponds a more limited historical figure of the proletariat, a more 'nineteenth century' one. However, the SI doesn’t stop at using two different concepts of the proletariat depending on the circumstances and on the subjects it tackles. They are only two angles of attack synthesized in a historical conception of the proletariat.
But the historical problem is not at all to understand what the workers 'are', – today they are only workers – but what they are going to become. This becoming is the only truth of the being of the proletariat, and the only key to understanding really what the workers are already (Debord and Sanguinetti, The veritable split in the International, Champ Libre, p.114)
Here is the whole theoretical problem that the SI has not managed to solve, because it was put in an insoluble way. There is definitely, on the one hand, a clear rejection of any sociological definition of the proletariat: 'the proletariat can only be defined by what it can do and what it can and must want' (Ibid, p.56). But, on the other hand:
Capitalism has continually modified the composition of classes as it transformed global social labour. […] Only the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the primordial historic classes of this world, continue to sport between themselves over its destiny, in a confrontation which has essentially remained the same. But the circumstances, the background, the bit part players, and even the spirit of the principle protagonists, have changed with the times, which has led us to the final act. (Ibid, p.53)
The class composition of the proletariat is therefore historical, but the contradiction and the 'project' which formalises its supersession have essentially remained the same. The result of this is a deadlock in which the SI is stuck, and where it expresses the point of rupture of the programmatic theory of the communist revolution. The revolution is negation of the proletariat by itself, abolition of work, conscious history, abolition of all separated power, of the commodity, of exchange, passionate construction of life, but the contradiction between classes remains essentially the same as in the nineteenth century. The SI puts forward an immediate content for revolution which isn't programmatism any more, but it puts this content forward as the result of a contradiction between classes which remains, as we will see, in a programmatic problematic: objectivism, natural constraint, appropriation of means of existence, revolutionary organisation, contradiction between productive forces and relations of production, revelation and affirmation of a lived reality under and against the spectacle, authentic reality under the mystification, 'revolutionary being' of the proletariat. By not historicizing the contradiction between the proletariat and capital, while conferring on it an overcoming which is historically new, the only remaining variable allowing their system to hold together is the notion of class compostion as the definition of the proletariat. It is the only variable by which they can attempt to maintain the terms of this contradiction together, but it is also, for the same reason, the weakest link, the soft underbelly of situationist theory.
Because of the programmatic problematic which defines its contradiction with capital (and therefore defines itself), the proletariat can't be the subject of the non-programmatic overcoming of the contradiction. At that point, what workers are confront what they will become, but what they will become 'is already what they are', the SI goes around in circles. The SI acknowledges the defeat of the 'old workers movement' and puts forwards the content that the revolution to come will have to have. However, conceiving of the contradiction between the proletariat and capital in its time as remaining identical as to its structure, and as differentiating itself from the 'old workers movement' only by an extension to new domains of society, (extension due to the characteristics of modern capitalism rather than understood as a restructuring implying the disappearance of workers identity and the putting into question of itself by the proletariat in its contradiction with capital), the SI can’t overcome a rigid opposition between what workers are and what the working class doing the revolution will be, given the content conferred to this revolution. What it lacks is an understanding of the contradiction as reciprocal implication between classes, that is to say, in fact, of exploitation as contradiction between the proletariat and capital, as this concept is the only one by which we can go beyond a programmatic understanding.
The SI always has a being of the class to reveal. That is why the structure of the contradiction remains the same, and that’s the core of the problem. The central point of the theoretical block of the SI was that it didn’t conceive simultaneously of the proletariat as class of the capitalist mode of production and as revolutionary class. It didn’t theorize the reciprocal implication as contradiction, that is to say it brought programmatism to a paroxysm without overcoming it.
The SI definitely speaks about the proletariat as it is in the capitalist mode of production but, at that moment, it is only commodity-labour power. From this arises its revolt against its situation as mere commodity, but this revolt, instead of stemming from the contradiction that this situation contains in the capitalist mode of production itself and for itself – that is to say from its situation as commodity labour power itself and from the contradictions that it implies (surplus labour–necessary labour; use value–exchange value) – but from what this situation denies: life, the lived, etc. It is not a question of the contradiction of two terms forming a totality and existing only through each other, but of two separate terms which are not mutually the raison d’etre and the negation of each other – it is not a contradiction.
For the SI, the reciprocal implication definitely exists in the capitalist mode of production, but only as representation of the class. Commenting on Rosa Luxembourg’s famous article, published in Die Rote Fahne of December 21, 1948, where she acknowledges the fact that the question of revolution is not posed openly and honestly any more, and that the troops protecting the old order intervene under the flag of the socialdemocratic party, Debord writes:
Thus, a few days before its destruction, the radical current of the German proletariat discovered the secret of the new conditions engendered by the whole process that had gone before (a development to which the representation of the working class had greatly contributed): the spectacular organization of the ruling order’s defence, the social reign of appearances where no ‘central question’ can any longer be posed ‘openly and honestly.’ The revolutionary representation of the proletariat had at this stage become both the primary cause and the central result of the general falsification of society. (Society of the Spectacle, thesis 101).
On one side, as representation, the proletariat defined in its reciprocal implication with capital; on the other side, the proletariat as revolutionary class, the class to which is denied all possibility of control of its means of existence and who knows it. The problem in the SI lies in the lack of a dialectical analysis of the contradiction between the proletariat and capital. This lack leads it to fix, face to face, the proletariat in the reciprocal implication, under the form of its representation, and the revolutionary proletariat. With this fixed reality, it is the relation between the two that escapes it and that it tries, as we will see, to recreate under the form of the workers councils: simultaneously the true revolutionary proletariat (conscious history, abolition of the commodity) and absolute reference to the proletariat as it is in the capitalist mode of production. With the councils, the SI produces a frozen synthesis, it is left with questions of functionality, questions of form, to try to overcome what’s static [in this ‘synthesis’ – on questions of strategy, to link up the two sides that it fixed in a face to face relationship.]
The situationist theory must square the circle: how to have a contradiction between classes and a proletariat conceived of in a programmatic way ('revolutionary being', revelation of a concealed essence, proletarian project of appropriation of the productive forces and instruments rival to capital’s project); and, at the same time, to have a non programmatic overcoming of this contradiction. Vaneigem cut the Gordian knot by giving up all theory of communism as theory of the proletariat, leaving it to the liberty of individual subjectivity, then to the power of desire, before discovering that women, 'beings par excellence', have children. Debord, as for him, from the Veritable Split retreats into a mechanical 'integrated spectacle', against which autodestruction is the only hope. If the problem of the relation between the project and the situation of the proletariat can be found at any moment of the theoretical history of the SI (cf. the thesis of the German section during the London conference, September 1960, in SI, n.5, pp. 20–21), for a moment (from about 1965 to the end of 1968) the contradiction will however remain unresolved, it is the period of 'the state of grace of situationist theory'. The workers movement remains globally structured by an ideology and by organisations which still proclaim themselves programmatic (if only because of their adaptation of keynesianism) at the same time as can be seen the glimmers of the refusal of work and of the imposed way of life, of looting, of the multiplication of wild strikes, glimmers that herald the future of this workers movement which will [supposedly] only have to get rid of the leadership of the organisations which maintain its struggle within the system. And all this was taking place while capitalism was transforming itself rapidly through its extension to all domains of social reproduction. The revolution would no longer content itself with changing the factory owners, not even with a change limited to the production process, it would encompass the whole of everyday life and only under this condition would it be revolution. For a moment it seemed possible to put forward a non programmatic content to the revolution, while still putting it in a programmatic way; the contradiction would be the same structurally, but it would take place in a 'modern capitalism' whose characteristics would allow the concepts of colonisation of everyday life, of survival, of the critique of the economy, of organisation, of consciousness, of bureaucracy, of spectacle to 'bridge' this gap between a
programmatic contradiction of the class struggle and its overcoming foreseen as beyond programmatism. At that moment of the proletarisation of the whole of society at the same time as the proletariat remained in its traditional sense (as it was still recognized as such in society and its reproduction), there was this brief and fragile state of grace when it was possible to invest a proletariat still defined more or less in a traditional way with the revolt of life against all existing conditions.
The SI, while maintaining its 'contradiction essentially the same', clearly saw that a new period of proletarian struggles was starting and that the previous period had already ended a long time ago (Barcelona 1937). But, being unable to formulate the concept of programmatism as well as the corollary historicisation of the contradiction between the proletariat and capital (quite simply because to do so, the failure of the wave of struggles of the late 60s / early 70s; as well as the beginning of a new phase of real subsumption were necessary), the SI, if it saw the end of the 'classical workers movement', didn’t understand its overcoming as a transformation – in its structure and in its content – of the contradiction that is exploitation. It was the case only of a change of circumstances:
What our critic [International Revolution, NDA] objects to is that we showed at the same time that these new developments in capitalism, and consequently the new developments in its negation, are also rediscovering their connections with the old truth of the previously vanquished proletarian revolution. This is very annoying to RI because it wants to possess this old truth without any newness mixed in (SI, n.12, p.53)
The way that the SI establishes a break between the ‘classical workers movement’ and the ‘new revolutionary movement’ will allow us to understand how it only envisages the overcoming of programmatism (contained in its project) in a way which is still programmatic. We will then develop the themes, already mentioned, of the objectivism of the SI and of the opposition it establishes between the real and its concealment. Lastly, we will be able to address the attempt at a synthesis – of a nonprogrammatic project and of a problematic of the contradiction which remains programmatic – in the theory of workers councils as overcoming of the spectacle, in the role given to the organisation and in the idea of the overcoming-realisation of art. We will finish with the drift of the concept of spectacle in the present cycle of struggles.
Division 2: The old workers movement and the new revolutionary movement – the critique of everyday life.
The assault of the first workers movement against the whole organization of the old world came to an end long ago, and nothing can bring it back to life. It failed. Certainly it achieved immense results, but not the ones it had originally intended. No doubt such deviation toward partially unexpected results is the general rule in human actions; but the one exception to this rule is precisely the moment of revolutionary action, the moment of the all-or-nothing qualitative leap. The classical workers movement must be re-examined without any illusions, particularly without any illusions regarding its various political and pseudotheoretical heirs, for all they have inherited is its failure. The apparent successes of this movement are actually its fundamental failures (reformism or the establishment of a state bureaucracy), while its failures (the Paris Commune or the 1934 Asturian revolt) are its most promising successes so far, for us and for the future. This movement must be precisely delineated in time. The classical workers movement can be considered to have begun a couple decades before the official formation of the International, with the first linkup of communist groups of several countries that Marx and his friends organized from Brussels in 1845. And it was completely finished after the failure of the Spanish revolution, that is, after the Barcelona May days of 1937. We need to rediscover the whole truth of this period and to re-examine all the oppositions between revolutionaries and all the neglected possibilities, without any longer being impressed by the fact that some won out over others and dominated the movement; for we now know that the movement within which they were successful was an overall failure. […] All this, of course, not with the aim of scholarship or academic eclecticism, but solely in order to contribute toward the formation of a new revolutionary movement, a movement of which we have seen so many premonitory signs over the last few years, one of which is our own existence. It will be profoundly different. […] There is no other way to be faithful to, or even simply to understand, the actions of our comrades of the past than to profoundly reconceive the problem of revolution… […]. But why does this reconception seem so difficult? Starting from an experience of free everyday life (that is, from a quest for freedom in everyday life) it is not so difficult. It seems to us that this question is quite concretely felt today among young people. And to feel it with enough urgency enables one to rediscover lost history, to salvage and rejudge it. It is not difficult for thought that concerns itself with questioning everything that exists. […] Many people are sceptical about the possibility of a new revolutionary movement, continually repeating that the proletariat has been integrated or that the workers are now satisfied, etc. This means one of two things: either they are declaring themselves satisfied (in which case we will fight them without any equivocation); or they are identifying themselves with some category separate from the workers (such as artists); in which case we will fight this illusion by showing them that the new proletariat is tending to encompass virtually everybody. (SI, n.7, pp.12–13).
It is significant that, in this long extract from SI number 7 (April 1962), there is nowhere a definition of the 'classical workers movement' and neither is there one elsewhere in the SI’s texts. It’s only negatively, against the description of the characteristics of the 'modern revolutionary movement' that we can understand the content of what the 'classical workers movement' was for the SI. It appears that what defines the classical workers movement is the fact that it didn’t ask the question of revolution at the level of a free activity in everyday life, of the free construction of it. We can therefore deduce a definition of the classical workers movement as a movement with a critique of the capitalist mode of production applied to specific forms of alienation, – essentially on the organisation of the productive process, on forms of property, on forms of distribution. What is most important here is the absence of a positive definition of the classical workers movement at the same time as the SI declares it to be over. If the SI is unable to define the classical workers movement in a positive way, it is because, even if it declared it to be totally over, the new revolutionary movement of which it is part, of which it is a proof, completes, in changed circumstances the project of this classical workers movement. We might even want to say that the only thing changing are the circumstances, as if the workers movement was a constant modelling itself according to circumstances. The second important point of this approach to the classical workers movement is, after the absence of a positive definition, the absence of an understanding of the relation between 'victories' and 'defeats', that is to say, the inability to understand the 'classical workers movement' as a totality, what we call here a cycle of struggles.
What escapes the SI absolutely, and has to escape it (unless it would give up any theory of revolution based on class struggles) is the necessary link between all the forms of affirmation of the proletariat, what we call programmatism, which makes all the aspects of the 'classical workers movement' participate to the same totality (where all cows are not equally grey…). Reformism is the necessary limit of the Commune; and Luxembourg and Noske belong to the same cycle of struggle. Not simply because their dates by chance coincide, but because the limits of the revolution of the former is the content of the counter-revolution of the latter (this unity has been demonstrated in the text 'The Bolshevik revolution' in Theorie Communiste, n.12). Similarly, the Bolshevik counterrevolution is, in Russia, the organisation of the limits of the programmatic revolution itself. As long as the revolution is affirmation of the class, the proletariat tries to free, against capital, its social power as it exists in capital. What gives to it its capacity to promote this [encompassing] affirmation, that is to say its coming to power as a class of the capitalist mode of production (formalised in the workers movement), becomes its limit. This affirmation turns against itself and constitutes itself as reproduction of capital, which it implies or which it organises (Russia), as counter-revolution.
Programmatism is the content of the contradiction between classes which defines the formal subsumption of labour under capital. During this period, capital, in the process of exploitation, doesn’t integrate the reproduction of the working class, doesn’t specify waged
labour in relation to any value producing labour, it is a constraint to surplus labour. What derives from this is the existence of a workers’ community of labour (that is to say of productive labour, of labour productive of value) and that the movement of class struggles has, as its resolution, the relation that the working class has with itself in the organisations of the workers movement. As well as the liberation of productive labour, the appropriation of the means of production, the liberation from free capitalist anarchy, the abolition of private property, the establishment of value as mode of production, the liberation of the productive forces, the necessity to conceptualise oneself as part of a tendency toward progress. All of this comes from the fact that the proletariat, in the contradiction which confronts it to capital, is already the positive moment to bring out/to free; its affirmation, its rise to being the dominant class, is the realisation of its being. This content of class struggles is what we call here programmatism (the proletariat, in its liberation, derives the programme of communism – communism as a programme – from what its situation and its definition is in the capitalist mode of production.)
What makes formulating this concept useful is the fact that it makes the historisation of the notion of class struggles, revolution, and communism possible. What’s more, it allows us to understand class struggle and revolution in their real historical characteristics rather than in relation to a norm; to stop opposing revolution / communism and conditions (the famous conditions that are never ripe enough); to escape the deadlock created by the gap between a proletariat which is always substantially revolutionary (revolutionary, in fact, as the following period understands this term) and a revolution that it never enacts; to understand the diverse elements of an epoch as a totality by describing the internal connections of their diversity and their conflicts (Marx and Bakunin, Luxembourg and Bernstein…). To avoid ending up with a revolutionary nature of the proletariat, which, each time it manifests itself, leads to a restructuring of capital. If we have at one’s disposal a totalising concept of class struggle – like that of programmatism – also allows us to go from this concept to the concept of cycles of struggles. If we understand the revolution, in formal subsumption, as affirmation of the proletariat, then we can understand all the determinations of this period – including the characteristics of the German revolution – in their internal connections (the relation between rising working class power and the autonomy of the class) and as a totality: from the social-democracy to the AAUE; from Noske to Rühle. (We will develop the whole history of the contradiction between the proletariat and capital in Volume 2 of this Theory of Communism.1) What results from this is the fact that the impossibility of revolution as affirmation of the class is produced from itself: contradiction between rising working class power in capital and its autonomy, which can however only find its bases in the former, necessity of a transition period, implication within the restructuring of capital.
The SI can very well state that all the revolutions of its century have been defeated from within (n.10, p.46), but it never explains why, because it never goes as far as criticizing the content of revolution itself. Critique for them, as is often the case, will only be a 'disillusioned' critique, while what we need now is critique full stop. The SI maintains that the classical workers movement produced its own negation, (it reached the point of rupture of programmatism), but it is unable to link the two and again leaves it to the 'dissilusioned critique'. The SI has reached the threshold of the understanding of programmatism without crossing it: '…the bureaucratic society is precisely the inverted world of proletarian community' ('The Explosion Point of Ideology in China', SI n.11, p.3). The SI also reaches this threshold without crossing at other points, when for exemple it describes unionism as 'an apparatus for the self-regulation of modern capitalism which aim is to integrate the working class into managerial capitalism…' However, the limit point that all theories which don’t formalise the concept of programmatism come up against is the impossibily of saying why bureaucracy is the inverted
world of proletarian community, why unionism and 'integration' in general, function at all. That is to say to simply recognize that the proletariat doesn’t need to be integrated to the world of commodities: it sells its labour power, and that is enough. To acknowledge the intrinsic links between all the aspects of the 'classical workers movement'; acknowledging that there is no integration would be for programmatism to sink itself, and this, neither the SI nor any other theoretical production of the time could do, unless they pushed unilaterally the theory of integration to the point in which contradiction and classes disappear, as it implies not understanding the reciprocal implication as contradiction in the definition of exploitation itself.
Because they didn’t, and couldn’t, base the break between the 'classical workers movement' and the 'new revolutionary movement' on a restructuring of the contradiction between proletariat and capital which would overcome the programmatic content of this contradiction, the SI could only base this break [cut] on its circumstances, on its framework, on its extention. The general programmatic problematic remained (development of the conditions, liberation of a revolutionary essence of the proletariat, affirmation of the class) but in circumstances such that this problematic had a non programmatic outcome: there lied the point of implosion of situationist ideology. In that break between the two periods of the workers movement, the central concept, the founding one, was the concept of 'everyday life', itself linked to the concept of 'modern capitalism'.
The theory of everyday life is that 'place' in the theory of the SI where we see this [contradictory] 'overcoming' of programmatism which remains in the framework of programmatism. At the seminar he devoted (via the mediation of a tape recorder) to the definition of what must be understood by 'everyday life', on 17 May 1961 (the script can be found in SI, n.6, pp.20–27), Debord maintains from the start, as a kind of postulate, that we can only define everyday life as something that we want to transform. This concept is for us fondamental, insofar as, (we will see later), the concept of 'everyday life' is defined by the possibility of the proletariat to go beyond the 'old workers movement'. While it is still stuck in the classical problematic of 'conditionning' and 'mystification', the critique of everyday life must simultaneously open new horizons/perspectives beyond the affirmation of the proletariat.
Debord quickly eliminates two possible meanings of the concept of everyday life, not because they are totally wrong in themselves, but because they are partial, and wrong if we go no further: to consider everyday life to be what remains from the whole of social practices once specialised practices have been taken out; and to consider everyday life to be peculiar to a specific category of the population, namely the working class.
Someone said here that it would be interesting to study the workers as guinea pigs who have probably been infected with this virus of everyday life because they, having no access to specialized activities, have no life except everyday life. This condescending manner of investigating the common people in search of an exotic primitivism of everyday life […] never ceases to astonish.
This attitude clearly reveals a desire to hide behind a development of thought based on the separation of artificial, fragmentary domains so as to reject the useless, vulgar and disturbing concept of 'everyday life.' Such a concept covers an uncatalogued and unclassified residue of reality, a residue some people don’t want to face because it at the same time represents the standpoint of the totality and thus implies the necessity of a holistic political judgment.
In relation to the first point, Debord maintains that there is no outside to everyday life, that it it the centre of everything, as shown by the small deviation from common practices that the utilisation of a tape recorder for his intervention represents. The critique of the second point completes the first one, but this conception which sees everyday life as what embarrassingly remains outside all specific activities, simultaneously recognizes it as the point of view of totality. 'Everyday life is the mesure of everything…' (ibid.) That everyday life is the standpoint of totality because it appears as a residue only means that 'everyday life is organized within the limits of a scandalous poverty' and 'there is nothing accidental about this poverty of everyday life: it is a poverty that is constantly imposed by the coercion and violence of a society divided into classes, a poverty historically organized in line with the evolving requirements of exploitation' (ibid.) Through an inversion, the common and uninteresting banal nature of everyday life becomes the proof of its centrality, but only from the point of view of the will to transform it – it is only possible to define everyday life as something which needs to be transformed. And if everyday life is still outside history, if it is where banality constantly repeats itself 'it is above all a verdict against the historical, insofar as it has been the heritage and project of an exploitative society'. In 'accepting' the starting point of the banality of everyday life, its residual statut, Debord inverts this definition as the standpoint of the totality of this banalisation which has become the general principle of this society. He draws from the extreme banality of everyday life, from the fact that it can’t be an object of analysis, the proof that it is the general verity of the society of capital. And it is only in this regard that it becomes the 'prerogative' of a specific category within this society, category which can precisely have the standpoint of totality because of its necessity to transform everyday life.
Everyday life, policed and mystified by every means, is a sort of reservation for the good natives who keep modern society running without understanding it – this society with its rapid growth of technological powers and the forced expansion of its market. History (that is to say the transformation of reality) cannot presently be used in everyday life because the people who live that everyday life are the product of a history over which they have no control. It is of course they themselves who make this history, but they do not make it freely or consciously.[…] And so everyday life, where all questions are liable to be posed in a unitary manner, is naturally the domain of ignorance.” (ibid.)
It will inevitably appear that the unbearable misery of everyday life will become the feeling that all real possibilities, all desires were lying in everyday life rather than in specialised activities and forms of entertainment. At that moment:
Awareness of the profound richness and energy abandoned in everyday life is inseparable from awareness of the poverty of the dominant organization of this life' (ibid)
By saying this, Debord dismisses all idea of 'reformism of everyday life' (what will be the fondation of the critique of the movement provo in the Netherlands), as the consciousness of the misery of everyday life can only be the consciousness what makes it miserable: the organisation of society into classes.
The critique of everyday life is in situationist theory the differentiating point between the 'classical workers movement' and the 'new revolutionary movement', which adopts the standpoint of the critique of totality. This differentiation occurs on different points (which, negatively, make it possible to get at a definition of the 'old workers movement'.)
10-First of all, the critique of everyday life imposes the end of the 'politics of separation'. Without the critique of everyday life, revolutionary critique is as conventional, separated and, ultimately, as passive as 'those holiday camps that are the specialized terrain of modern leisure.' (SI, n.6, p.4) The coming revolution can only be a critique of revolution; here the differentiation with the 'classical worker’s movement' clearly posed the differenciating moment with the 'old workers movement': a revolution which would not situate itself at the level of everyday life could only create a new 'separated power'. First, this implies a critique of the overestimation of the moment of the taking of power as this overestimation immediately implies the repression of all revolutionary tasks. The standpoint of everyday life consequently implies a conception of revoltion as immediate communisation of society; in this regard, this standpoint differentiates itself from programmatism. Secondly, the critique of 'separated politics' has the critique and the abolition of work as its content.
This is the essential differentiating point from the 'classical workers movement': the critique of everyday life can only be a critique of work. Because it is the first time we use this term in this chapter on the SI, we should say what the SI mean by work: 'work in the common sense of the word' (SI, n.8, p.4). We say it with no irony at all; it is certainly the richest and the most practical definition that we encountered in all these pages on the critique of work.
The experience of the empty leisure produced by modern capitalism has provided a critical correction to the Marxian notion of the extension of leisure time: It is now clear that full freedom of time requires first of all a transformation of work and the appropriation of this work in view of goals, and under conditions, that are utterly different from those of the forced labor that has prevailed until now (see the activity of the groups that publish Socialisme ou Barbarie in France, Solidarity in England and Alternative in Belgium). But those who put all the stress on the necessity of changing work itself, of rationalizing it and of interesting people in it, and who pay no attention to the free content of life (i.e. the development of a materially equipped creative power beyond the traditional categories of work time and rest-and-recreation time) run the risk of providing an ideological cover for a harmonization of the present production system in the direction of greater efficiency and profitability without at all having called in question the experience of this production or the necessity of this kind of life. The free construction of the entire space-time of individual life is a demand that will have to be defended against all sorts of dreams of harmony in the minds of aspiring managers of social reorganization. (SI, n.6, p.4)
It is necessary to go beyond the transformation of work, to go beyond the notion of production itself and of contenting oneself with the marxian idea of the extension of leisure time. The critique of work – rather than its 'humanisation' – the critique of the separation between working time and leisure time – to promote instead the unitary construction of lived time – appears to the SI to be the principal characteristic of the struggles which herald this 'new revolutionary movement' (cf. Naples, Merlebach, Liege, in SI, n.7, p.11). The centre of the revolutionary project is nothing less than the abolition of work, as well as the abolition of the proletariat.
Division 3: The proletariat class of consciousness – a resurrection of programmatism.
The criterion of the non programmatic overcoming that get formalised in the concept of everyday life remain however contained within a programmatic contradiction as it is not the contradiction which is modified but its setting. This is the principal point which makes this overcoming of programmatism part of a programmatic problematic: this differentiating point (the critique of everyday life) is linked to the new conditions of 'modern capitalism', these conditions being analysed as spectacle. All the rest then follows: the technical means to build another society already exist; the contradiction between classes, as it implies the realisation and affirmation of one of its poles, retains an affirmative general form; the Workers' Councils remain as the formal organisation of communism; and underlying all this is the presupposition of a human nature and an opposition between the real and its concealment.
The very fact of making the revolutionary project and practice of the proletariat dependent on objective conditions – rather than understanding the definition and the practice of the proletariat as a term of the contradiction of the capitalist mode of production, as the development itself of the contradiction between classes – shows that the SI remains in a problematic in which the class is in itself (as it represents the irrepressible nature of the lived) productive of communisme, face to face with capital, and therefore enters in contradiction with it. The revolutionary project is then, as we will see, dependant on the reversal/detournement of these objective conditions, seen as conditioning. Dependant on the contradiction between the misery of everyday life and the possible constructions of life rendered possible by present technical means.
These conditions are those of the 'bureaucratic society of consumerism' which everywhere shapes its own setting and manifests in all aspects of everyday life its fundamental principe of alienation and constraint. This extension of conditioning is the new framework from which the revolutionary movement will have to struggle. From that point on, the contradiction of modern capitalism is for the SI exactly the same as for SoB:
The internal defect of the system is that it cannot totally reify people; it also needs to make them act and participate, without which the production and consumption of reification would come to a stop (SI, n.7, p.9)
But while SoB sees the revolutionary movement as a taking in hand of the labour process by the workers themselves from their own experience in the factory, the SI extented the conception of alienated labour to the whole of society trough the concept of everyday life. This allows the situationists to answer Le Monde Libertaire who reproach them for speaking about everything but very little about work, that in fact they were never speaking about anything else, but not where the specialised politics intend to limit the question of work. Against modern capitalism, the revolutionary movement is a construction of life in its totality and an abolition of separations.
The thesis of Society of the Spectacle provide the theoretical basis of this extension. The principle of the spectacle is the fetichism of commodities. In modern capitalism, this fetichism has become the regulation of all the time and space of life.
The spectacle is the stage at which the commodity has succeeded in totally colonizing social life. Commodification is not only visible, we no longer see anything else; the world we see is its world.[…] With the 'second industrial revolution,' alienated consumption has become just as much a duty for the masses as alienated production. (Debord, op.cit., thesis 42)
But the fact that these conditions are theorized as spectacle gives them, as conditions, a very specific character. Their overcoming implies not understanding them as conditions any more, and what’s more it is only possible to understand the spectacle when conceiving its overcoming. Understanding present conditions as spectacle implies conceiving of them in an overcoming which would be the
abolition of all conditions: we are dealing with the critique of economy. It is in the formulation itself of the conditions of revolution as spectacle – that is to say in a programmatic problematic – that the SI manages to 'rub programmatism out'. The SI formulates conditions, thus a programmatic problematic, but these conditions are such that in them programmatism seems to disappear.
Understanding capitalist society as having reached the stage of spectacular society makes impossible the conception of a contradiction to this society which would be contemplative – that is to say dependant on the development of the productive forces or on any accumulation of conditions. An attitude at the same time contemplative (understanding itself as dependant on conditions) and antagonistic to capitalist society would be in itself contradictory, would abolish itself. To the extent that this society is understood as spectacular, this attitude would in itself be the acceptance of what it claims to be criticizing – that is to say capitalist society as spectacular.
The inversion carried out by Marx in order to 'salvage' the thought of the bourgeois revolutions by transferring it to a different context does not trivially consist of putting the materialist development of productive forces in place of the journey of the Hegelian Spirit toward its eventual encounter with itself […]. For once history becomes real, it no longer has an end. Marx demolished Hegel’s position of detachment from events, as well as passive contemplation by any supreme external agent whatsoever. Henceforth, theory’s concern is simply to know what it itself is doing. In contrast, present-day society’s passive contemplation of the movement of the economy is an untranscended holdover from the undialectical aspect of Hegel’s attempt to create a circular system (Thesis 80)
The historical critique that Debord makes breaks away from programmatism to the extent that it breaks out, through the critique of Hegelianism, from the return to itself of the subject which always remains an ahistorical dynamic and perspective because it presupposes an end. Marx’project is one of a conscious history. In a history without end, all contemplative position is abolished, as nothing guarantees the future: we need to free the dialectic from an affirmative essence such that the negation only exists for the advent of the positive, even if it is labelled 'negation of the negation'. History has no object distinct from what it creates from out of itself. The final metaphysical vision, according to Debord, is the one which looks at 'the productive progression through which history had unfolded as itself the object of history.' (ibid., thesis 74)
From this critical basis, Debord reaches the most important theoretical conclusion of Society of the Spectacle: that revolutionary practice doesn’t refer to anything outside itself which would guarantee its truth. There is no possible identification of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie from the point of view of the revolutionary taking of power. But we will see that it is precisely where Debord goes the furthest in the overcoming of all programmatic theory that he falls back to it and doesn’t achieve this overcoming because he resuscitates, through the concept of spectacle itself, a problematic of the conditions. Let’s look at these two important conclusions.
The scientific-determinist aspect of Marx’s thought was precisely what made it vulnerable to the process of ideologization.[…] The advent of the historical subject continues to be postponed, and it is economics, the historical science par excellence, which is increasingly seen as guaranteeing the inevitability of its own future negation. In this way revolutionary practice, the only true agent of this negation, tends to be pushed out of theory’s field of vision. (ibid., thesis 84)
As a result 'the proletarian class is formed into a subject in its process of organizing revolutionary struggles and in its reorganization of society at the moment of revolution – this is where the practical conditions of consciousness must exist” (ibid, thesis 90). When Debord declares that 'the most advanced theoretical truth of the International Workingmen’s Association was its own existence in practice', not only does he wrongly paraphrases Marx’ famous judgment on the Commune, but he also belittles his own claim. He wrongly paraphrases Marx’ jugement because by saying this he identifies the 'organisation' (the Commune) of an insurrection confronting its adversary through the mesures it takes for the production of new social relations with what is simply a formal organisation which has no vocation of being in itself the constitution of a communist society. (the SI, at their own level, partly came a cropper because of this confusion). Thus, if Debord ends up conceiving the course of the capitalist mode of production essentially as a contradiction between the proletariat and capital, and this contradiction as being its own condition – as he doesn’t refer to the development of productive forces or to the economy in general (which are only determinations of itself), it is only true to the extent that this unity takes shape in formal organisations. To the movement of the economy which must guarantee the necessity of its negation Debord substitutes the movement of the revolutionary theory 'which must reach its own total existence'. It reaches this total existence as its practical verification through the historical forms which appeared in the spontaneous struggle of workers, to the extent that these organisations guarantee 'the practical conditions of consciousness'. At that point, the fundamental condition for revolution is realised: 'The proletariat cannot create its own new form of power except by becoming the class of consciousness. The growth of productive forces will not in itself guarantee the emergence of such a power – not even indirectly by way of the increasing dispossession which that growth entails.' (ibid, thesis 88). The parallel is not accidental: the dialectic of theory –organisation – consciousness has replaced the dialectic of the productive forces, but it plays an identical role. And, as with the productive forces, it must go through a history of its realisation:
The weakness of Marx's theory is naturally the weakness of the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat of his time. […] Revolutionary theory thus could not yet [underlined by us] achieve its own total existence. The fact that Marx was reduced to defending and clarifying it with cloistered, scholarly work, in the British Museum, caused a loss in the theory itself. (ibid., thesis 85)
Throughout his life Marx had maintained a unitary point of view in his theory, but the exposition of his theory was carried out on the terrain of the dominant thought insofar as it took the form of critiques of particular disciplines, most notably […] of political economy. (ibid.,thesis 84)
This central question of organization was the question least developed by revolutionary theory at the time when the workers' movement was founded (ibid., thesis 90)
Debord conceives that the 'coming to be of the subject of history' is its own movement, its own conscious practice, but he understands it as a becoming of theory and it is this becoming that poses, as consciousness, the condition of this coming to be. This is where he goes back on his first principles. This is why the theory of the spectacle, for the same reason that it expresses the abolition of all contemplative attitude in revolutionary practice (simply because it defined capital as spectacle and therefore cannot critizice it in a contemplative way without finding itself in contradiction with the definition it gave to the object it criticizes), reproduces in the form of consciousness, not a contemplative attitude, but a new separation between the proletariat as class of the capitalist mode of production (simple determination and 'actor/agent' of the spectacle) and as revolutionary class (class of consciousness). As the transition from one to the other has been made impossible ( by the theorie of the Spectacle itself), consciousness will need to reach its own total existence through the dialectic theory/organisation/consciousness. The main weakness, up to this point, of the critique of programmatism – including the SI’s critique – is that it understands the reciprocal implication between the proletariat and capital as relations between things rather than as practices, activities. This is why the proletariat as active revolutionary class, was only understood and developed in the form of cousciousness, in opposition to its belonging to the capitalist mode of production, but only abstractly, and understanding the abstraction as its waiting to meet the practical conditions it was missing to become true. The overcoming of programmatism doesn’t consist in proclaiming the negation of the proletariat or the abolition of work, it starts when exploitation and the tendency of the rate of profit to fall are produced theoretically not only as development of capital but as contradiction between the proletariat and capital, the central concepts being exploitation and accumulation.
The second point (that there is no possible identification between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie regarding the way it seizes power in the revolution) that allows Debord (through his critique of hegelianism) to go the furthest in his critique of programmatism, is closely linked to the first one.
The bourgeoisie developed its autonomous economic power in the medieval period of the weakening of the State, at the moment of feudal fragmentation of balanced powers. (ibid., thesis 87)
The bourgeoisie came to power because it is the class of the developing economy. The proletariat cannot itself come to power except by becoming the class of consciousness.[…] A Jacobin seizure of power cannot be its instrument. No ideology can help the proletariat disguise its partial goals as general goals, because the proletariat cannot preserve any partial reality which is really its own. (ibid., thesis 88)
The distinction that Debord establishes is fundamental: the proletarian revolution cannot be the affirmation of a power which develops itself within capitalist society. For proletarians, all the conditions of existence of society have become something contingent, exterior and antagonistic, on which they have no control and on which no social organisation can give them control. It follows from this that not only is the proletarian revolution not the development of a power acquired within the [old world], but also that it is the negation of the proletariat itself.
Not basing himself on anything in the previous society whose power or whose 'mechanical' development would in itself guarantee its success, Debord draws the conclusion that the only 'guarantee' of the revolution is the proletariat becoming the class of consciousness. Here again we find the critique of the contemplative attitude which is the basis of everything we can consider as critique of programmatism in Society of the spectacle, that is to say the critique of the separation between the activity of the proletariat and its conditions, the fact that the contradiction between the proletariat and capital is considered as its own movement and as being based only on itself. The proletariat becoming class of consciousness means that the only thing it needs to know is what it does. It is clearly consciousness to the extent that the proletariat does not present itself as an observer exterior to what is happening, it is not in the situation of an observer contemplating the movement of an exterior supreme agent. But the proletariat cannot become the class of consciousness. Again Debord’s critique inverts itself and remains in the framework of programmatism at the moment when it would seem it is the furthest from it.
It is not enough to 'ruin Hegel's position as separate from what happens, as well as contemplation by any supreme external agent whatever', one must avoid reintroducing a new 'Reason' in order to achieve this 'critical confrontation with Hegelian thought out of which all the theoretical currents of the revolutionary workers' movement grew' (ibid, thesis 78) 'The thought of history can be saved only by becoming practical thought; and the practice of the proletariat as a revolutionary class cannot be less than historical consciousness operating on the totality of its world.' (ibid, thesis 78). If we are going to demonstrate the perfectly Hegelian character of such an assertion – which, involuntarily or not, follows the movement of self-consciousness exposed in the paragraphe entitled 'Idealism' in the chapter 'The certainty and truth of reason' of the Phenomenology of Spirit – it is not because we think that the simple qualification of idealist is enough to criticize a position. Criticizing the idealism of a position does not lead anywhere if it does not imply criticizing the position which needs an idealist formulation. Here what is most important is not idealism but what idealism is the expression of. What it expresses here is the revolutionary practice of the proletariat as consciousness operating on the totality of its world, that is to say a revolutionary practice in which the proletariat makes the world become its own – world in which it recognizes itself, in which it is itself its own object in the alterity of the world, this alterity having become, through the revolution, an alterity recognized as its own. It is the movement which brings the consciousness of the proletariat to recognize itself in a world transformed by revolution, but this transformation is in fact only an appropriation. The aim is not to manage existing misery because, by definition, once it has been appropriated, misery, which is the spectacle, is not misery any more. The proletariat takes itself as object; it is… the definition of the 'workers council' in the situationist theory (Luckacs’ identical subject-object). It is always when Debord seems the furthest from programmatism that he resuscitates it.
From the fact that self-consciousness is Reason, its hitherto negative attitude towards otherness turns round into a positive attitude. So far it has been concerned merely with its independence and freedom; it has sought to save and keep itself for itself at the expense of the world or its own actuality, both of which appeared to it to involve the denial of its own essential nature. But qua reason, assured of itself, it is at peace so far as they are concerned, and is able to endure them; for it is certain its self is reality, certain that all concrete actuality is nothing else but it. Its thought is itself eo ipso concrete reality; its attitude towards the latter is thus that of Idealism. […] Reason is the conscious certainty of being all reality. This is how Idealism expresses the principle of Reason. Just as consciousness assuming the form of reason immediately and inherently contains that certainty within it, in the same way idealism also directly proclaims and expresses that certainty. I am I in the sense that the I which is object for me is sole and only object, is all reality and all that is present.[…] Self-consciousness, however, is not merely from its own point of view (für sich), but also in its very self (an sich) all reality, primarily by the fact that it becomes this reality, or rather demonstrates itself to be such.” (Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Aubier Montagne, t.1, p.196–197)
If it is possible to let oneself get 'caught' into 'critical confrontation with Hegelian thought', it is because this selfconsciousness as reason is not a given, a definition of consciousness, but a becoming. Self-consciousness demonstrates itself to be all reality with the disappearance of otherness as beingin- itself, but also with the disappearance of otherness simply for itself. The idealism about which Hegel speaks here is self-consciousness which has forgotten the path which is behind it when it appears as reason. As idealism it only declares being all reality without considering the work which produced it as such. It is therefore possible to consider this self-consciousness as being a historical stage, even if it is a historical stage of Spirit (and, therefore, for Hegel, of reality). 'Consciousness will determine its relation to otherness or its object in various ways according as it is at one or other stage in the development of the world-spirit into selfconsciousness. How the world-spirit immediately finds and determines itself and its object at any given time, or how it appears to itself, depends on what it has already come to be, or on what it already implicitly and inherently is. (ibid, pp.198–199)
And Hegel continue with the study of the 'categories', that is to say the unity of thought and being, even if, as category, this unity is not developed concretely. If it was, this unity could very well, following self-consciousness as consciousness finding itself back in its object, become the movement of 'conscious history'. It is necessary for consciousness to go through separation, alienation, to be, as proletariat, consciousness of the world ; similarly in the 'workers' council', the proletariat would find itself back as subject by making the world – its own – world which wasn’t itself but which was already its production. It was necessary for it to produce this world as otherness (here the spectacle becomes a necessary moment of the history of the proletariat, as alienation is a necessary moment of the 'history' of Spirit) before finding it back in the process of finding itself back.
As we said, Debord’s thesis is not criticisable simply because it is idealistic but because, in the critical confrontation with Hegel, it retains the overcoming of a contradiction as a recovered positivity. It is at this moment that it becomes idealist. Debord, through his distinction between the bourgeois revolution and the proletarian revolution reaches an extreme point of the critique of programmatism, but the concept of spectacle that underlies this critique of programmatism – as it relies on an opposition between the real true and authentic and its mystification, presupposes its overcoming as the victory of the real recognizing itself as being the real and no longer, in an alienated way, as spectacle of itself. Its victory is to take itself as object, its victory is the victory of self-consciousness. If, as Debord himself says it, revolution is the communisation of society, that is to say the abolition of capital and of the proletariat, the proletariat cannot become the 'class of consciousness' Even the revolution (above all the revolution) is not the moment when the proletariat operates on its world. The communist activity of the proletariat has always as its content the mediation of the abolition of capital by its relation to capital; it is neither a liberation of capital as affirmation of the proletariat nor an immediatism of communism (a pivotal moment when the proletariat would recognize that all belongs to it before abolishing itself or as a precondition to its abolition). We must put an end once and for all to all transitional periods (whether they give themselves this name or not). The activity of the proletariat and the consciousness that is inherent to it always goes through something which is different from it: capital.
The self-consciousness of the proletariat is not an immediate consciousness. If, as any other class, the proletariat recognizes itself in its particularity only in its opposition to another class, it finds in this opposition no confirmation of itself. The proletariat has self-consciousness (which means nothing more than its existence and activity against capital) only in its opposition to capital. Because of this, this non-immediate consciousness is theory (we will develop this idea in the next chapter) Defining the proletariat as the class of consciousness, in the sense of the unity of the subject and the object, is still a form of its affirmation as a class:
The accession of the working class to historical consciousness will be the task of the workers themselves, and that will be possible only through an autonomous organization. The form of the council remains the means and goal of total emancipation. (Viénet, Enrages and Situationists in the Occupations Movement, Gallimard, p.155)
The programmatic duality of the revolutionary nature and of the conditions has only been suppressed because the conditions have taken the shape of the 'spectacle', and this reintroduced a new programmatic structure of the revolutionary course which still present itself, in the movement of selfconsciousness, in the form of the loss of the subject and its coming back to itself.
The spectacle is at the same time the condition of the critique of the classical workers movement, the possibility of formulating in an absolutly new way the contradiction between the proletariat and capital, and, simultaneously, the fondamental impossibility to go beyond programmatism: the contradiction which is exploitation can well be posed as the origin of the spectacle, it resolves itself as suppression of the spectacle which takes the form of the overcoming of alienation. In this instance through the creation of a world in which the revolutionary class recognizes itself, the world of Workers' Councils. The contradiction is only seen as separation, as the existence of a mediation (the spectacle) which takes away from the individual its own lived experience, the contradiction is the appearance of self-consciousness, that is to say consciousness recognizing itself in the world through the abolition of the spectacle.
Section 2: The Spectacle
Division 1: Reality and its concealment
The unreal unity proclaimed by the spectacle masks the class division underlying the real unity of the capitalist mode of production. What obliges the producers to participate in the construction of the world is also what excludes them from it (Debord, ibid., thesis 72).
The theory of the spectacle is able to conceptualise the reciprocal implication, but it conceptualises it as spectacle. As spectacle, this implication is an ‘exterior’ to the relation between classes, an ‘exterior’ to the contradiction which opposes them. Having posed the unity of the capitalist mode of production as having as its content the very division between classes, Debord can dismiss the struggles between the powers which constituted themselves for the management of the same socio-economical system as struggles which can not escape the capitalist mode of production. But Debord can not conceive of this unity without its mask, without the spectacle. This allows him to criticise the forms of representation of this reciprocal implication, while maintaining a reality of the proletariat which, on the one hand, is implicated with capital and exists only in this implication and, on the other hand, irreducibly, remains in itself essentially revolutionary. Here lies the content and the essential function of the concept of spectacle.
Thus we have here the entire history of the struggles of the ‘classical workers’ movement’ which become, as far as they now take place in ‘modern capitalism’ mere ‘sham spectacular struggles between rival forms of separate power…’ (Ibid., thesis 56). The concept of spectacle becomes, for us, (that is to say: now) a concept critical of programmatism because, on the one hand, it posits the unity of the division of the capitalist mode of production into classes, and, on the other hand, it implies that, for as long as the proletariat does not put its own existence into question in its struggle against capital, it can only remain in the framework of this unity, only demanding a different management of the same system. The unity is simultaneously the expression of a real basis and something that only exists in its spectacular concealment; in itself, the concept of spectacle implies a duality of level between the real and its concealment. If the concept of spectacle is for us a concept critical of programmatism (the proposition ‘of’ must here be understood in both ways, that is: criticizing it while at the same time remaining part of it), it represents in the SI the attempt, momentarily successful (thanks to their critique of the economy), at a synthesis between a non-programmatic project and the production of this project from a problematic that remains programmatic. The spectacle formulates the contradiction between classes as being their reciprocal implication while maintaining the essentially revolutionary reality of the proletariat. The reciprocal implication and the revolutionary nature become fixed in their opposition: the reciprocal implication is spectacular, exists only as mystification, and what the spectacle conceals (the lived, the authentic), is the revolutionary nature of the proletariat. Momentarily, this coexistence appears legitimate.
It is for this last reason that we will only untangle the threads of the theory of the spectacle after having made a detour, that is to say after having looked at it as a theory which showed its legitimacy in the crisis of the previous cycle of struggles, essentially as an analysis of May ‘68. To criticize the theory of the spectacle as a pure theoretical object, without showing its nature, at a precise historical moment (as we have always tried to do until now) as an attempt at solving the dead-ends of programmatism, therefore at theoretically formulating a moment in class struggles and activity within it, is a rather vain enterprise.
May ‘68: the spectacle is challenged
Nonetheless, in the space of a week millions of people had cast off the weight of alienating conditions, the routine of survival, ideological falsifications, and the inverted world of the spectacle. For the first time since the Commune of 1871, and with a far more promising future, the real individual was absorbing the abstract citizen into his life, his work, and his individual relationships, becoming a ‘species-being’ and thereby recognizing his own powers as social powers. (Viénet, ibid., p. 135).
From this general analysis of May ‘68 Vienet could draw from the movement the following main lesson:
It was these subjective obstacles that prevented the working class from speaking for itself (Ibid., p. 155)
The question that necessarily had to arise from May ‘68 – how can a class which acts as a class abolish itself? – could only, in the crisis of this first phase of real subsumption of labour under capital, remain unresolved, could only show the movement’s most advanced expression and its limits. Programmatism, as the general form and content of the struggle of the proletariat, showed its limits and the necessity of its overcoming. The greatest merit of the situationist theory is to have identified the problem; its great limit, however, is to have tried to solve it without escaping programmatism. The SI developed at that point in time an explicit theory of the duality of the proletariat: indeed, its affirmation as a class revealed a revolutionary nature which was coming into contradiction with, and was determined to be the abolition of, its existence within capital. A hasty analysis would only see in this the continuation of the problematic of the historic ultra-left. In fact, the SI goes further with its theory of the proletariat as subject and as representation. In affirming itself as subject (that is to say, as the class of consciousness, see above), the proletariat not only enters in contradiction with its own existence as representation and as such abolishes itself, but also produces its existence as a class as being only this representation. Therefore, its affirmation as a subject is an overcoming of its existence as a class. Then, its affirmation as subject makes its existence as representation the totality of its existence as a class. In this way, its affirmation becomes its abolition, it affirms what it is, a subject (self-consciousness), but this affirmation, at the very moment it is made, transforms its representation, does not leave the other term unaltered, it bestows upon it the totality of its existence as a class. Out of such a problematic, it becomes possible to express the self-negation of the proletariat in a variety of programmatic forms.
The ‘wildcat general strike’, ‘beginnings of direct democracy’ ‘critique of all alienations’, ‘recognized desire for genuine dialogue’, ‘despise for all former conditions of existence’ (IS no. 12, pp. 3–4), all of them understood as the ’spontaneously councilist tendency of the movement’ were the manifestations of the return of the proletariat as subject. ‘We were only an hour away from the formation of the first Workers Council.’ (Ibid, p. 12) However, ‘the majority of the workers had not recognized the total significance of their own movement; and nobody else could do so in their place.’ (Ibid), the strike remained a ‘sum of isolations’ and ‘got stuck in a defensive position’ (Ibid., p. 25). As long as the alternative sees itself as situated between ‘the autonomous self-affirmation of the proletariat and the complete defeat of the movement’ (Ibid., p. 12), only a complete defeat of the movement is possible. It is this very situation that the IS tried to overcome theoretically. This attempt could only refer to a ‘Eucharistic’ understanding of the revolution:
By launching the wildcat strike the workers gave the lie to the liars who spoke in their name. In most of the factories they proved incapable of really speaking on their own behalf and of saying what they wanted. But in order to say what they want it is first necessary for the workers to create, through their own autonomous action, the concrete conditions that enable them to speak and act, conditions that now exist nowhere. The absence, almost everywhere, of such dialogue and of such linking up, as well as the lack of theoretical knowledge of the autonomous goals of proletarian class struggle (these two factors being able to develop only together), prevented the workers from expropriating the expropriators of their real life. (Ibid., p. 8)
The programmatic overcoming of programmatism functions on the reality-falsehood binary. In the situationist theory, this binary makes it possible to pose the negation of the proletariat as the appropriation of its real life, this insofar as the existence of the proletariat as a class in its implication with capital is dismissed as being part of ‘falsehood’. The SI maintains the proletariat as the revolutionary class (‘we are very 19th century’), it does not replace it by humanity, because the very division of its existence into reality and falsehood confers a revolutionary virtue to this reality (to be a revolutionary worker) when it affirms itself against its falsehood (reciprocal implication as representation of the proletariat): the proletariat abolishes itself as soon as it starts existing for itself. The SI has never conceived of communism as the management by the workers of the production ‘the pseudo-control of workers of their alienation’, communism is always posited as the construction of the human community through the abolition of exchange, of the commodity, of the division of society into classes, it is posited in its content rather than as a form of management. However, in order to reach this point, the SI remains a prisoner of the theoretical necessity of positing a moment in which the proletariat becomes its own object, a moment in its liberation, which explains the great importance of the form of the Council as being this existence for itself of the proletariat, this existence as subject-object, the proletariat class of consciousness as a form.
It is obvious that the SI no longer conceives the abolition of the proletariat as a stage following its affirmation, but as a content within its affirmation. This recalls Vienet’s affirmations quoted above in which he tries to synthesise the ‘occupation movement’ as an attempt, by man, the real individual, to absorb his social forces in his empirical life. We can only subscribe to such a definition of communism, provided it is made clear that the real life of the worker in the capitalist mode of production is not to be considered as a lie and, as corollary to this, that the fact that the real individual absorbs its own social forces is not to be considered as the revelation of the truth of the worker, that is to say providing we don’t consider that this real individual of communism pre-exists in the worker and that is one and the same as the latter as soon as it occurs to him to exist for himself rather than for capital. As we will now see, this is the very limit of the concept of spectacle, insofar as it presupposes against itself a reality that is already here, whose affirmation is the movement of the revolution itself.
A dualistic theory of the spectacle
The theory of the spectacle sets out to solve the following enigma: the capitalist society is divided into antagonistic classes but at the same time this society is a totality, which means that these antagonistic classes, and their antagonism itself, exist in this totality and constitute it as such. This is the question that is central to all revolutionary theories. This is from this standpoint rather than as a ‘social critique’ type of subtle analysis that we take into consideration the theory of the spectacle. The starting point of this theory is simple: the lived, the real, the relations that individuals define between themselves, become estranged from them as the representation and mystification of their real relations, in such a way that these individuals end up living in the forms and categories of this representation which become the reality and impose itself as the dominant form of life; it is an ideology that has become real. However, from this ‘simple’ starting point immediately arise complicated questions. The main ones being the question of the relation between the ‘real’ and its “representation’, and the one of the status of the ‘observer’ of this process. Can we speak of a reality that remains despite and against the spectacle? Is the relation between the ‘spectacle’ and ‘reality’ only one of mystification, of concealment? What is the relation between the observer and the object that is observed (the repressed question of all theories of fetishism)?
Most of the time, the SI contents itself with a trivial conception of the spectacle, one which opposes a reality, irreducible, to its representation, one about reality and its occultation. This is the conception developed by Vaneigem in Basic Banalities (SI n°7 and 8), in Theo Frey’s text (n°10) and Jean Garnault’s (ibid). After grounding privative appropriation in nature (we will come back to this objectivism of the SI: one of the must obvious aspect of its theory, and one of its best kept secret), Vaneigem defines it as ‘the appropriation of things by means of the appropriation of people’ (op cit). Which would mean that: ‘privative appropriation entails an organization of appearance by which its radical contradictions can be dissimulated: the servants must see themselves as degraded reflections of the master’ Vaneigem ends up trying to solve a problem that only exists for the ideologists: the problem of ‘volontary servitude’ As soon as consciousness and conscious being are equated, the question of ‘voluntary slavery’ disappears and, reciprocally, the obligation to hide the contradictions, however ‘radical’ they may be. Contrary to the ‘myth’ which provided society with an almost infallible coherence, the spectacle, a desacralized form of myth, is vulnerable. Human relations, which used to be dissolved in divine transcendence, revealed their materiality.
Their materiality [of human relations] was revealed and, as the capricious laws of the economy succeed those of Providence, the power of men began to appear behind the power of gods. Today a multitude of roles corresponds to the mythical role everyone once played under the divine spotlight. Though their masks are now human faces, these roles still require both actors and extras to deny their real lives in accordance with the dialectic of real and mythical sacrifice. The spectacle is nothing but desacralized and fragmented myth. It forms the armour of a power (which could also be called essential mediation) that becomes vulnerable to every blow once it no longer succeeds in dissimulating (in the cacophony where all cries drown out each other and form an overall harmony) its nature as privative appropriation (ibid.)
The spectacle is here explicitly defined as an organisation of appearances that constrains to the negation of real life, it is a armour that masks the governing power, whose vulnerability lies in the fragility of its dissimulation of reality. We are here dealing, under the verbosity, with a rather simplistic conception of mystification, of truth and false. Truth have to prevail, just because it is truth.
By defining the spectacle as an accumulation of fragmentary roles, Vaneigem defines everyday life as the locus of the spectacle, but here everyday life has invaded everything. It does not allow to reach the standpoint of the totality to understand the capitalist relations of production and understand exploitation, it is one and the same with the totality. All social life is exposed as being only everyday life. For Vaneigem, the notion of roles is a fundamental one, and to understand the spectacle as a succession of roles, of fragments, is to understand its subversion insofar as it then betrays itself as an artifice. What follows could not be more simple:
But lived experience cannot so easily be reduced to a succession of empty configurations Resistance to the external organization of life, that is to the organization of life as survival, contains more poetry, etc. (ibid)
If the lived is ‘irreducible’ (the adjective is used a bit later), it is because the spectacle is only an appearance, it does not really shape the lived of capitalist society, which means that the classes and all these things are themselves only appearances. The spectacle is such a fragile appearance and the passivity it imposes defines so little the individuals of the capitalist society that even the stars of the spectacle want to escape it, and Vaneigem gives us the example of Brigitte Bardot’s soul-searching (we feel real tenderness for the BB of the 60s, but still…) or the tricks of Fidel Castro (pictured as a ruler ‘criticizing its own power’, both of them “demanding their status as free beings” to be recognised’ (ibid).
In Basic Banalities, everyday life has a double status. On the one hand, it is where the battle between the appearance and the lived takes place, but on the other hand it is also what by nature opposes the spectacle, what escapes the spectacular categories. It is the misery of the spectacle which reveals the existence of an everyday life which, despite its misery, is where is expressed the ‘authentic lived’. Vaneigem can well say that ‘the spectacle that imposes its norms on lived experience itself arises out of ‘lived experience’, he always comes back to a simple and rigid opposition between the spectacle and the ‘authentic lived’, an irreducible category which is simply linked to life, desires, etc… ‘Elements born of lived experience are acknowledged only at the level of the spectacle, where they are expressed in the form of stereotypes, although such expression is constantly contested and refuted in and by lived experience’.(ibid). The capitalist mode of production has become an ectoplasm, we are even left wondering how it can have been lasting for so long. We are here very far from the analysis of fetishism that Marx developed in his Theories on Surplus-Value and that we used as a basis for the definition of the economy (see above). What Vaneigem does not grasp is the very reality of the spectacle, and, therefore, the formalisation of the unity of the capitalist society into the reproduction of one of its pole, capital. (Even if it is ‘as spectacle’, this concept acknowledges the reciprocal implication between the proletariat and capital and the contradiction between them – which for us represents the very importance of this concept). However, the contradiction between appearance and authentic life remains one between exterior elements with no necessary relation between them. What’s more, this exteriority between the elements of the ‘contradiction’ makes it possible to no longer consider it as a contradiction between classes, insofar as the contradiction is no longer a motion internal to the capitalist mode of production but the opposition to it of something that is other; the only problem of capital is then to keep this other ‘confined/imprisonned’. The ‘politics’ or, using a situationist language, the ‘strategy’ that ends this analysis reveals, as usual, all its meaning. Its aim is to accelerate a crisis in the intelligentsia that would provoke a rupture in the appearance and in the ideology, and then, to crown it all: ‘We will form a small, almost alchemical, experimental group within which the realization of the total man can be started.’ (ibid) In the last thesis of Basic Banalities, Vaneigem points to the text that follows his own in Issue 8, and that he considers as a commentary of his own text: A Revolutionary Proposal: Invisible Insurrection of a Million Minds. In it Trocchi develops the possibility and the necessity to create experimental bases (“spontaneous universities’) within the intelligentsia. Difficult to be more idealistic! Lastly, the Editorial Notes of the 8th issue present in a few words all the limits of Vaneigem’s analysis ‘In Basic Banalities Vaneigem has elucidated the process of the dissolution of religious thought and has shown how its function as anaesthetic, hypnotic and tranquilizer (underlined by us) has been taken over, at a lower level, by ideology’.
The same dualistic conception of the spectacle is developed in the texts of Théo Frey and Jean Garnault, in issue n° 10. We insist on this analysis, because for us it is the dominant conception of the SI. In any case, it is the only conception of the spectacle that can be used immediately in a programmatic problematic, the only one allowing an understanding of ‘modern capitalism’ that can lead to the necessity of a formal organisation and to understanding theoretical work as having a role of demystification. We will see that the conception, far more complex, that Debord holds in The society of the spectacle results in such a theoretical tension within programmatism that it can only lead to the giving up of the theory of the spectacle itself, as it still wants to conceive of the capitalist mode of production as class struggle; that it condemns any separated organisation (and the SI itself) and any problematic based on the concept of demystification. This simply because Debord ends up conceiving of class struggle as only internal to the spectacle and has more and more difficulties to situate and define a point of view and an ‘object’ that would be exterior to the spectacle. At that point, either one abandons a conception of the capitalist mode of production understood as a contradiction between classes, or one abandons the concept of the spectacle which, taken rigorously, as it is, can not provide, from itself and in a way internal to it, a contradictory conception of society that would produce a revolutionary overcoming because it would be, according to the definition of the spectacle, a contradiction in itself. Unless one expects that the spectacle will produce its own collapse, but by saying that Debord leaves the field of communist theory.
Theo Frey’s text (n°10, p.33) is a caricature of what is exposed, in a more ‘subtle’ way, in Basic Banalities. The ‘conceptual framework’ is revealed from the very first sentence:
An insane society proposes to manage its future by spreading the use of technically improved and collective straight-jackets (houses, cities, real-estate developments), which it imposes on us as a remedy for its ills. We are invited to accept and to recognize this prefabricated ‘non-organic body’ as our own; Power intends to enclose the individual in another, radically different self.(op.cit.)
‘Society’ on one side, ‘we’ on the other, and ‘domination’ as the relation between the two. We will develop the critic of the theme of domination more at the beginning of next chapter, let’s just say for the moment that it rests on the separation between the individual and society, both considered as substances highly determined outside their very relation. This conception presupposes an individual predetermined outside its social existence, that is to say a substance of this individual that society, either dominates and constraint, according to critical theories, or fulfils, according to apologetic ones. We don’t need this to be in contradiction with capital: our own definition as particular individuals of this society is well enough.
This understanding of the spectacle presupposes the existence of a subject that is ‘non-spectacular’ and that corollary defines the spectacle as a certain use of existing technical means (the ‘straightjackets’). These very technical means, used by the authorities to subjugate us, are a means to our liberation.
Everywhere there is a spectacular clash between divergent economic theories and policies, but nowhere are the absurd imperatives of political economy itself challenged and bourgeois economic categories abolished in practice for the benefit of a free (post-economic) construction of situations, and therefore of all life, on the basis of the currently concentrated and squandered powers in ‘advanced’ societies. (op.cit.)
The SI never abandoned this vision of a revolution made possible by another use of existing technical means. What’s more, the revolutionary contradiction between the proletariat and capital is very often explained, and even based on, the very fact that these means exist now. This conception is present all along the theoretical development of the SI, from the critique of art in its first issues to the theme of pollution in the The Veritable Split… The SI could only break from it by putting into question its proclaimed raison d’être, what it said about itself as an ‘experimental practice’ All the theoretical evolution of the SI can be understood as the progressive suppression of its own conditions for existence, as the self-suppression of its theoretical bases, first with the elimination of the ‘artists’ followed by Debord’s problematic on the spectacle.
Theo Frey, like Vaneigem previously, seems to acknowledge the real becoming of the ideology which makes reality appear as inverted and distorted within reality itself (‘the real which appears within reality’, these are Frey’s words.) It would then be ‘an inverted world once and for all’ But Frey can not defend this position without putting into question his whole ‘conceptual framework’. The theory of the spectacle only holds if an ‘exterior’ is maintained, but at the same time its logic implies the reducing and the elimination of this exterior.
This modern process of reducing the gap between life and its representation for the benefit of a representation that turns back on its assumptions is merely an artificial, caricatured, spectacular resolution of real problems posed by the widespread revolutionary crisis of the modern world, a ‘simulacrum’ of resolution that will fall at the same time as the greater number of illusions that continue to foster it.(ibid)
What follows is that this world ‘once and for all inverted’, this real truly inverted within reality, always leaves a way out. This ‘real within reality’ is ‘factitious’ and only maintains itself as an ‘illusion’ that still abuses us a little but will not resist long to the ‘real problems’.
With the theory of the spectacle as an opposition between the real and the false, the authentic and the illusionary (even in the domain of wine and alcohol, see Debord’s Panegyrique), the SI gives us the key to the resolution of the problem we started from, that is the problem of the definition of the proletariat. This definition is not a problem for the SI. This opposition between the authentic and the illusionary is the general form of the contradiction that contains, in the capitalist mode of production, its overcoming as revolution. The proletariat, as for it, is constructed/derived from this contradiction as its social form of representation (the bearer of this general contradiction between true and false) rather than the revolutionary contradiction being derived from the situation of the proletariat in the capitalist mode of production. The mere ‘critique of society’ becomes then immediately the definition of the proletariat:
The ‘ruse of history’ is nevertheless such that the apparent early successes of this policing arrangement, an attenuation of the class struggle (in the former sense) and of the antagonism between city and countryside, disguise less and less the radical and hopeless proletarianization of the huge majority of the population, condemned to ‘live’ in the uniform conditions that constitute the bastardized and spectacular ‘urban’ milieu born of the break-up of the city (ibid).
Jean Garnault (‘The Root Structures of Reification’, SI, n° 10, p.36) brings to its conclusion this view that sees the spectacle as an opposition between reality and illusion.
It brings this view to its conclusion, because for him it no longer leads to a contradiction that would be univocal as for its overcoming, but to an alternative. Indeed, if the terms of an opposition are not linked by a necessary relation, the overcoming of the opposition must logically take the form of an alternative. Firsty, Garnault holds in the crudest possible way a view that sees the spectacle as a mystification, and even as a veil on reality. Because this view situates the terms as being completely separated from one another, it gives way to an alternative. Either the truly lived takes over, or does the ‘anthromorphosis of capital’ (a concept borrowed from the theoretical core of the magazine Invariance). However, Garnault can not bring himself to acknowledge this alternative, he posits the two possibilities simultaneously in modern capitalism, therefore making his text incoherent.
The commodity, like the bureaucracy, is a formalization and a rationalization of praxis: its reduction to some thing that can be dominated and manipulated. In the end, social reality under this domination reduces itself to two contradictory meanings: a bureaucratic-commodity meaning (which on another level corresponds to exchange value) and a real meaning. (ibid)
This defines the following alternative:
The spectacular-commodity form parodies the revolutionary project of the mastery of the environment, natural and social, by a humanity become master of itself and its history. The spectacular-commodity presides over the domination of an isolated and abstract individual in an environment organized by power. If it is true that men are the products of their conditions, it is sufficient to create inhuman conditions to reduce them to the state of things. In the organization of the commodity atmosphere, as in the principles of communicating vessels, ‘Man’ is reduced to the state of things, and things in return assume human qualities. (Garnault, ibid)
Garnault gives to what is a fundamental limit in the SI the dimension of an alternative. This limit being the fact of considering revolution as a competition, a race, between the lived and the spectacle, on the use of existing technical means for the production or conditioning of human life. Marelli, in The Bitter Victory of Situationism (Sulliver) has well noticed this aspect, even if he does not expressly relate it to the objectivism and programmatism of the SI.
Therefore, according to Garnault, either social reality, praxis and the lived prevail, or does the spectacle, both of them fighting over an object that is in itself ‘neutral’: the means of social conditioning. Social reality remains under this formal domination of the spectacle, but the spectacle is already becoming a ‘real domination’ and the commodity-capital is already becoming man. The commodity ‘has acquired an autonomous existence and created man and world in its image. A form that gave birth to the anthropology of an isolated individual who remained deprived of the riches of his social relationships; […] it has acquired the totality of social reality to the quantifiable and installed the totalitarian domination of the quantitative… […] ‘the “cybernated state” has summoned a fetishism at its own level: the commodity spectacle which is a projection of all life into a hypostasized and crystallized essence, ghost and scaled-down model of life itself. (ibid). Where then lies the lived? Garnault posits an alternative before going back to a totalitarian conception of the spectacle that suppress the very possibility of an alternative. We see here all the hazards that are inherent to the incapacity of the SI to pose a contradiction from its concept of spectacle. This incapacity being summarized in Garnault’s maxime “When the system can dispense with reality, it is because reality can do without the system.” (ibid.) The truth of the spectacle is to overcome its existence as a mediation between men and their activity and between men themselves; it needs to overcome the stage in which it is only a ‘deprivation for men of their reality’, it tends to become the ‘positive fabrication of the reality of individual existence’ (Communication colonized in SI, n°10). But simultaneously the SI could not accept the idea that ‘true life’ would produce the spectacle and that the spectacle would be ‘life’ full stop –, ‘life’ in which, as Marx says on the subject of fetishism, we feel ourselves ‘at home’, nor that the revolutionary contradiction would be a contradiction inherent to the spectacle, as it would destroy it as concept of the spectacle. The ultimate moment for the SI is the recognition by the spectacle of the use of ‘true life’.
The SI remains in a programmatic problematic because, in order to posit a contradiction able to produce the overcoming of capital it needs something that would already be outside, would already be an exterior, to what is abolished. The contradiction is only an opposition and can only lead to an alternative, that is,the immediate political form of an objectivism grounded on the neutrality of the development of productive forces reaching completion, or of the material means of the construction of life:
The systematic expropriation of intersubjective communication, the colonization of everyday life by authoritarian mediation, does not necessarily have to be the product of technological development’ (ibid.)
Conversely, when the necessary relation between the terms is constructed (the lived – the spectacle), it is the very possibility of their opposition that disappears. It is with this dilemma that Debord struggles in the 221 thesis of The society of the Spectacle.
Division 2: The Society of the Spectacle – a contradiction in terms
Situationism is a humanism
For Debord, what the spectacle masks is nothing else than itself, and, if we can say that ‘there is spectacle’ and that it ‘masks’ something, it is because he contradicts himself, he contradicts what makes the spectacle necessary: the humanisation of man through its appropriation of time as history. But this requires a human essence, and this is the ‘point of view’ that Debord builds for himself.
Man, ‘the negative being who is only to the extent that he suppresses Being,’ is identical to time. Man’s appropriation of his own nature is at the same time his grasp of the unfolding of the universe. ‘History is itself a real part of natural history, of the transformation of nature into man.’ (Marx) Inversely, this ‘natural history’ has no actual existence other than through the process of human history, the only part which recaptures this historical totality, like the modern telescope whose sight captures, in time, the retreat of nebulae at the periphery of the universe. History has always existed, but not always in a historical form. The temporalization of man as effected through the mediation of a society is equivalent to a humanization of time. The unconscious movement of time manifests itself and becomes true within historical consciousness. (Thesis 125)
This human essence is the one that Marx, ‘dialecticising’ Feuerbach, defines in the EPMs (We will see that Debord, more surprisingly, adds to it an existentialist colouration, a Heideggerian one to be more precise).
Marx, in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, conceives of such an essence in terms of man’s belonging to his natural species, his Gattungswesen. He sees human history as part of natural history, and the natural history of man is, precisely, the production of human nature, which has occurred within history. […] This humanization of nature, whereby man produces himself and becomes human himself, is understood by Marx as an organic exchange with nature and as a development of productive capabilities in the broadest sense. In Debord, likewise, we find the conception of a human essence that is not fixed, not given, but rather identical with the historical process, understood as man’s self-creation in time. (Jappe, Guy Debord, Via Valeriano, p. 56)
Even if it is possible that, as Jappe says, Debords does not attempt to build an ontology, it is undeniable that we find a definition of the human essence. As for Marx in the EPMs, it is not an abstract ontology (Feuerbach) but a phylogenesis. Nonetheless, as any philogenesis, it relates back to an ontology and can not escape from it.
However, this theory of the essence which, as a phylogenesis, wants to escape the ontology contradicts itself and falls back into an ontology in a twofold way. First, because of the presuppositions it has to pose as its principle, second, in its conception of the historical development itself. The mere fact of conceiving the historical development as the essence of man (this proposition is usually presented the other way round, in which it appears less philosophical) presupposes that some a priori categories of this essence have been defined (if we say that these categories are taken from history then we are going around in circles) categories which realise themselves, even if the subtlety goes as far as saying that they only exist through realizing themselves, only as history. We are obviously dealing here with the definition of man as species being and with the attributes of this being: universality, consciousness, freedom. The human essence is no longer abstract in a sense in which it would be completed and defined outside of its being and existence, nonetheless it can only function in its identity with history if we suppose in it a core of categories which constitute, like it or not, an ontology. This essence identical to history functions on the couple: substance (the core), tendency. The tendency is only the retrospective abstraction of the result to which the core can only lead us, thus this essence identical to history necessarily produces a teleology, that is to say the disappearance of history.
The teleological development is contained in the premises themselves. The starting point, given in the notion of species being and in its attributes, is the problematic of the subject and the object, which is at the core of all philosophy. Whatever the answer chosen among all the potentially conceivable ones, the mystification lies in the question itself. If primacy is given to the subject, one is ‘idealist’, if it is given to the object (nature in a philosophical sense), one is ‘materialist’ Feuerbach, and Marx after him in the EPMs, try to overcome this alternative in the name of ‘concrete humanism’ or ‘naturalism’. The definition given by Marx in the EPMs shows this, for this ‘concrete humanism’ is the real basis of the whole of the situationist theory, not only in its most ‘theoricist’ developments, but also in its strategical aspect (construction of situations, race against capital in the use of existing technological means, the realisation-negation of art as the content of the abolition of work).
Man is directly a natural being. As a natural being and as a living natural being he is on the one hand endowed with natural powers, vital powers – he is an active natural being. These forces exist in him as tendencies and abilities – as instincts. On the other hand, as a natural, corporeal, sensuous objective being he is a suffering, conditioned and limited creature, like animals and plants. That is to say, the objects of his instincts exist outside him, as objects independent of him; yet these objects are objects that he needs – essential objects, indispensable to the manifestation and confirmation of his essential powers. To say that man is a corporeal, living, real, sensuous, objective being full of natural vigour is to say that he has real, sensuous objects as the object of his being or of his life, or that he can only express his life in real, sensuous objects […] A being which does not have its nature outside itself is not a natural being, and plays no part in the system of nature. A being which has no object outside itself is not an objective being. A being which is not itself an object for some third being has no being for its object; i.e., it is not objectively related. Its being is not objective. A non-objective being is a non-being. (Op. cit., pp. 282–283)
However, Marx doesn’t consider this union of subject and object to a point of fusion – of consubstantiality – as a given, but as something historical. This is what the famous passage of the EPMs on the ‘human eye’ indicates. It is a rewriting of a passage of Feuerbach’s Principles of the Philosophy of the future, who himself only declared: ‘Similarly, the object of the eye is light and not sound or smell, it is through this object that the eye reveals its essence to us’ (in Part 1, History of Modern Philosophy). It is the application of the basic principle: the object of a being is its essence, therefore its being – the conditions of being of the essence – is its essence, proposition that Marx criticizes in The German Ideology as apologetic of the existing order. However (this second ‘however’ brings us back to the subject-object identical in itself of the previous paragraph, albeit in a enriched form), this historical becoming is only a smokescreen (to keep our main language register we will not say a ‘con trick’). Indeed, becoming is adequation.
The identity of the subject and the object which is in itself (the definition itself of the subject) can only become a coincidence for itself (alienation is the middle term).
But man is not merely a natural being: he is a human natural being. That is to say, he is a being for himself. Therefore he is a species-being, and has to confirm and manifest himself as such both in his being and in his knowing. Therefore, human objects are not natural objects as they immediately present themselves, and neither is human sense as it immediately is – as it is objectively – human sensibility, human objectivity. Neither nature objectively nor nature subjectively is directly given in a form adequate [underlined by us] to the human being. And as everything natural has to come into being, man too has his act of origin – history – which, however, is for him a known history, and hence as an act of origin it is a conscious self-transcending act of origin. History is the true natural history of man (I will need to come back to this). (Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Prometheus Books, New York 1988, pp. 155–156)1
Fortunately, he has seen this for what it is and he never came back to it. Therefore we have an identical subject-object, but as natural human being this identical subject-object can immediately only be identical in itself; as human being, this natural being is a species being, that is to say that it takes itself as object. It follows from this that the object which defines it in itself in their identity must become ‘in itself and for itself’. The reader will have recognised… the outline of the Phenomenology of Spirit. The subject, as external object, is first identical to its object (consciousness as knowledge of an exterior object: consciousness); then, the subject as object of itself (consciousness as knowledge of the subject itself: self-consciousness); lastly, the subject is identical to its exterior object and to itself in this object (consciousness as knowledge of thought, something at the same time objective and internal: reason). History is then only a middle term, a moment posited a priori in the definition of the human essence, it is then obvious that this human essence is the becoming to the extent that it is in fact the becoming that is part of it, that is already posited in it. Not only is history posited from the start as a category of the human essence (rather than the other way round as it itself claims) but also it is the nature of this history that is defined beforehand as alienation. We start from an identity and come back to an identity, as the first identity could only be unstable, according to the definition of the human essence itself; between the two can only be the loss of this identity: subject and object foreign to each other. But don’t get it wrong, this loss is itself only a form of the identity in itself in the process of becoming identity for itself, that is what the concept of alienation is, and that is why Marx abandons it. The loss is only a form of the identity, its necessary becoming to find itself back, its negative identity. History stems from the true reality of man, which he will find again when alienation comes to an end.
In the concept of alienation, the separation between labour and property or labour and capital, the separation between men, is brought back to the movement of an unique being (the fantasm of the origin), the separation is never real. If I conceive of capital on the model of ‘the essential forces of man transposed and facing him’, then I get ‘man’ on both sides as labour and as capital. Then the split of society into classes makes no sense, has no reality, it is only a form which has its overcoming and its resolution in itself, because the split is ‘absurd’, that is to say it is something which already contains the fact that it makes no sense in relation to itself because it is only, as split, a moment of existence of the identity. This split becomes ‘irrational’ and must therefore leave the scene of history. To conceive this separation and this transposition as the movement of waged labour and capital is completely different: it is no longer about a unique being splitting, while still containing the totality. Each term is given in its singular reality from which its reciprocal implication is produced. The ‘transposition’ doesn’t bring us back to an unique being, but to a social relation of production, in which capital is the transposition of the social forces of labour, because this labour is waged labour, it is itself ‘transubstantiation’ In the ideology of alienation, its overcoming is the ‘truth’ of man who, even if he is defined as history, is in fact part of its predicates. Communism becomes the realisation of human essence, alienation can only be posited if is first posited its return to the subject. Alienation implies its own suppression in its own conceptual structure rather than as a history, which is for itself only a detail, as there is nothing to say about it anyway. In the same way that the origin of religion is not in man as an abstraction but in society itself, the separation that alienation would want to explain is neither an ‘alienation of man’, neither does it come from the nature of its ‘activity’ (the two are interlinked), but it is a contradiction in particular historical societies bringing into play particular classes.
As Marx shows it and flusters it in The German Ideology, the anthropological and humanistic conception, instead of starting from particular historical social forms, abstract these societies and their succession in a concept of man. What is required is not, in an opposite way, to turn society into an acting entity (the ‘grand être’ of Auguste Comte), but rather to start from society as being the relations that individuals define between them.
This conception shows that history does not end by being resolved into ‘self-consciousness as spirit of the spirit,’ but that in it at each stage there is found a material result: a sum of productive forces, an historically created relation of individuals to nature and to one another, which is handed down to each generation from its predecessor; a mass of productive forces, capital funds and conditions, which, on the one hand, is indeed modified by the new generation, but also on the other prescribes for it its conditions of life and gives it a definite development, a special character. It shows that circumstances make men just as much as men make circumstances. This sum of productive forces, capital funds and social forms of intercourse, which every individual and generation finds in existence as something given, is the real basis of what the philosophers have conceived as ‘substance’ and ‘essence of man,’ [our emphasis] […] (Marx, The German Ideology, Part 1, B p. X)
The ideology of alienation, as it structurally functions on the split of an unique being, can not avoid producing this movement of abstraction and of production of an ‘essence of man’. For the same reason, it can not avoid being a teleology, as Marx expressed later on in an ironic manner:
In this way it is infinitely easy to give history ‘unique’ turns, as one has only to describe its very latest result as the ‘task’ which ‘in truth originally it set itself’. Thereby earlier times acquire a bizarre and hitherto unprecedented appearance. It produces a striking impression, and does not require great production costs. As, for instance, if one says that the real ‘task’ which the institution of landed property ‘originally set itself’ was to replace people by sheep — a consequence which has recently, become manifest in Scotland, etc., or that the proclamation of the Capet dynasty ‘originally in truth set itself the task’ of sending Louis XVI to the guillotine and M. Guizot into the Government. The important thing is to do it in a solemn, pious, priestly way, to draw a deep breath, and then suddenly to burst out: ‘Now, at last, one can state it.’ (Ibid., p. XX)
This is exactly the process of construction of history inherent to the concept of alienation and its corollary, the ‘human essence’.
The essential in human existence lies in the relations that individuals define between themselves. The definition that Marx gives in the Theses on Feuerbach contents itself with saying what the human existence is without answering to the trick question: ‘What is the human essence?’.
Feuerbach resolves the religious essence into the human essence. But the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations. (Thesis 6)
We could totally adopt the commentaries that Balibar realised on this famous thesis in The philosophy of Marx (La Découverte, pp. 28–32) as our own. We are here presenting the principal ideas of this commentary (without quotation marks, in order to facilitate the reading of the sequence of ideas. The reader could, to complete it, refer to this small book which is a necessary reading).
Philosophers have formed a false idea of what an essence is (and this error is so… essential to them that one can hardly imagine a philosophy without it). They have thought, firstly, that the essence is an idea or an abstraction (one would say today, in a different terminology, a universal concept), under which may be ranged, in a declining order of generality, specific differences and, finally, individual differences; and, secondly, that this generic abstraction is somehow ‘inherent’ (innewohnend) in individuals of the same genus, either as a quality they possess, by which they may be classified, or even as a form or a force which causes them to exist as so many copies of the same model. We can see, then, the meaning of the strange equation made by Marx. The point is to reject both of the positions (the realist and the nominalist) between which philosophers have generally been divided: the one arguing that the genus or essence precedes the existence of individuals; the other that individuals are the primary reality, from which universals are abstracted. Neither of these two positions is capable of thinking precisely what is essential in human essence: the multiple and active relations which individuals establish with each other (whether of language, labour, love, reproduction, domination, conflict etc.) and the fact that it is these relations which define what they have in common, the ‘genus’. They define this because they constitute it at each moment in multiple forms. They thus provide the only ‘effective’ content of the notion of essence, applied to the human being (i.e. to human beings). The words Marx uses reject both the individualist point of view (primacy of the individual and, especially, the fiction of an individuality which could be defined in itself, in isolation, whether in terms of biology, psychology, economic behaviour or whatever), and the organicist point of view (which, today, following Anglo-American? usage, is also called the holistic point of view: the primacy of the whole, and particularly of society considered as an indivisible unity of which individuals are merely the functional members.) Neither the ‘monad’ of Hobbes and Bentham, nor the ‘grand être’ of Auguste Comte, and we could add to Balibar’s commentary, nor the genus as lists of qualities represented in individuals. It is significant that Marx (who spoke French) should have resorted to the foreign word ‘ensemble’ here, clearly in order to avoid using the German ‘das Ganze’, the ‘whole’ or ‘totality’. When Marx speaks of ‘human nature’ he substitutes for the problems raised by the relations between the individual and the genus, an enquiry into historical social relations. (end of the borrowing from Balibar)
The method of alienation, with its complement the ‘human essence’, has this particular advantage that it can be applied to anything. One of its favourite subject is the State, in which case the separation lies between the generic universal life contemplated in the State and the personal life reduced to immediate practical activities. All of this is not wrong, it is the method which is wrong and which, after being the spiritual complement of all reformisms, has become the lifeline of all theories engulfed in the disappearance of programmatism. The State, as previously said, is indeed the ‘universal separated life’, an abstraction of the individual engaged in class relations, but it is not, as the whole problematic of On the Jewish Question, for example, puts it because man is split in two. It is so because it is society which is divided in two (before that, there is no State), because it is the State of the dominant class and because the latter subsumes the entirety of society under the reproduction of its particular interests. The problem of the concept of alienation is that it can only function when the subject and the predicate have been inverted, and this in all domains. History, as the succession of particular social forms, becomes the predicate of man/the subject or, in a form that claims to be more concrete, these social forms become the predicate of the activity/labour (see above). In fact, all this wisdom has been delivered in its totality as early as 1932 by the ‘discoverers’ of the ‘young Marx’: Landhut and Mayer.
Through his work between 1840 and 1847, Marx gradually widens his understanding to encompass the whole of historical conditions and secures the general human foundation without which any explanation of economical relations would remain the simple intellectual labour of a salacious economist. [This human foundation is of course defined in the mode of alienation.] The liberation of his existence from conditions external to himself which distort all the true manifestations of the being of man, […] all the manifestations of his being will be immediately what they really are [our emphasis]. After Marx arrived to this result through separating himself from Hegel and Feuerbach, and faced this result, the effort of the rest of his life uniquely concentrated on giving names to the forces of the current reality which solve the contradictions between the idea and reality. But these forces are the forces of the alienation proper, of the power of the conditions, of the domination of political economy: capital. (Landshurst and Mayer, ‘foreword’ to the collection of Marx’s Early Writings, published under the title Historical Materialism, in French in a ‘foreword’ to the Œuvres philosophiques, Costes)
In the EPMs, Marx considers private property and all the notions developed by political economy as, within it, ‘facts without necessity’. The critique of political economy consists in looking for its necessity somewhere else, in philosophy. The conceptions of the economists and the realities they refer to are considered as a whole. It is true that Marx is not a ‘salacious economist’ yet, in fact there is not in the EPMs a critique of political economy (as the first third of the book, mostly devoted to ‘loss and profits’, shows) To find the ‘necessity’, political economy is put through the filter of the relation subject/object, of the philosophy of alienation: the product of my work which is a manifestation of myself becomes a commodity, it therefore becomes foreign to me, labour thus ceases to be a human manifestation. The necessity of political economy is then based on human nature: ‘political economy has not recognized alienation in labour’ and the latter as the ‘becoming for itself of man in alienation’. And we come back to the aporias and the teleology of the essence of man. Private property, a human phenomenon, becomes the negation of human activity, therefore a nonsense, and must be abolished.
The ‘salacious economist’, showing himself a better philosopher, later ‘contented’ himself with understanding the fundamental form of capital, the production orientated towards the appropriation of the labour of others, as a historical form. ‘The view outlined here diverges sharply from the one current among bourgeois economists imprisoned within capitalist ways of thought. Such thinkers do indeed realize how production takes place within capitalist relations [if that…, author’s note] But they do not understand how theses relations are themselves produced, together with the material preconditions of their dissolution. They do not see, therefore, that their historical justification as a necessary form of economic development and of the production of social wealth may be undermined. (Marx, Missing Sixth Chapter)
‘Necessity’, ‘historical justification’, ‘production of the overcoming’, the terms are still here, but the ‘facts without necessity’ that have to be transcended by Labour or by Man have been done away with. The problematic is totally different. Capital abolishes its own historical meaning: here lies the difference. And when, in the new cycle of struggles, this movement is the structure and the content itself of the contradiction between proletariat and capital, all the ideologies which could support the understanding of this movement as alienation must collapse, including the objectivism in Marx. The theoretical overcoming of programmatism requires not less than that, and the Situationist International, as for it, has taken all this themes, including the one of objectivism (see below), to their breaking point.
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