Abolir - Guy Debord

An unsigned article by Guy Debord. Published in L'Encyclopedie des Nuisances #11, June 1987. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! June 2007. All footnotes by the translator.

Submitted by Fozzie on December 10, 2022

To Abolish

To abolish, which in its Latin etymological meaning simply means to destroy, quickly became specialized in its juridical and social dimensions. Antoine-Leandre Sardou, in his New Dictionary of French Synonymes (1874), thus compares it to Abrogate: "To abolish concerns many things, customs, usages laws, etc: to abrogate only concerns laws, decrees, public acts having the force of law. Non-usage suffices for abolition, but abrogation necessitates a positive act: a law fallen into desuetude is abolished in fact: it can only be abrogated by another law or by a formal authoritative declaration."

The French Revolution abolished in rights the privileges of the nobility and the clergy, so as to found bourgeois civil equality. The 19th century abolished slavery in the colonies that depended upon the European powers and, later on and not without resistance, in the United States. The revolutionary program, which must obviously encounter more durable resistance, proposes to abolish the State, classes, the commodity, etc. Some points of this program have, to some extent, been realized already -- but upside-down -- by the progress of the counter-revolution of this century, thereby abolishing much of what had existed and always in the sole perspective and by the sole practice of absolute, policed and psychiatric control, and the elimination of all liberty outside of the "deciders" of the State.

Thus, the futile ideology of the "rights of man" is nothing other than an epitaph on the tombstone of all that all of the States have buried. The abolition of the town/country separation has been attained by the simultaneous collapse of both. The work/diversion separation is undone when work becomes so massively unproductive and inept (in the derisory "tertiary sector") and when diversion becomes a boring and tiring economic activity. The inequalities in culture have been abolished almost everywhere and for almost everyone with the new illiteracy -- the old project of the suppression of ignorance has been transformed by suppression of the ignorance deprived of diplomas -- and this in its hard version (primary school) as in its soft version (the neo-university), because the formula of A.-L. Sardou verifies its exactness everywhere: "Non-usage suffices for abolition." Money is in the process of being abolished in a special way by the use of plastic money,[1] through which the citizen-child -- confident and well-educated -- must leave the management of their small piggy-banks to machines that are more competent than they are, that indubitably know better than they do what suits them and from what they should abstain.

One knows that Christian thought, whose tenacious life has unfortunately lasted nearly two thousand years, undertook to establish that the world was only a "valley of tears." Thus it disapproved of, under the name "deadly sins," the principal tendencies of real humanity, but without flattering itself with ever arriving at suppressing them in the vast expense of the societies that it controlled for so long.

The list of these deadly sins is quite forgotten today and the small minority of our contemporaries who maintain a certain familiarity with reading and language remember that there were seven of them. The sources of all the others, the deadly sins were pride, avarice, lust, envy, gluttony, anger and laziness.

In the roar of uninterrupted proclamations that inform us of the triumphs of the dominant society on the terrains of its overwhelming, energetic power, its gross national product, its modernized crises and its cultivated computers and so many other pleasant abstractions, one too modestly forgets a concrete phenomenon of an immense significance: the worldwide organization of society that is being put into place, with an always-increasing speed, in the second half of the 20th century has succeeded in abolishing six of the seven deadly sins (or, to put it in the terms that are more transmittable today, a percentage approximately equal to 86%). We will prove this is a few words: that each person simply thinks of examples of what he no longer dares to call "his country"!

Pride is obviously dead for the administered voter, the sounded-out automobile driver, the polluted telespectator, the inhabitant of the HLM[2] and the highway vacationer. No one who has accepted surviving in this way can even hope for the possibility of experiencing a fleeting moment of pride.

Avarice no longer has any basis, since property tends to become concentrated in the State, which squanders on principle. Read individual property, accessible to very few people, is gnawed at by hairsplitting control and the right to intervention by a thousand public or corporate authorities. The salaried worker can no longer hoard a little poor money, which is of a value that is always changing, fictive and as fluid as water. This same money distances itself into an always-further away abstraction, simply "plastic," a game of accounting that is played without the worker's participation. And if he thinks of accumulating a few more precious objects than what is offered daily on the market, a thief carries them off.

Lust has disappeared almost everywhere, with the liquidation of real personalities and real tastes. Lust has withdrawn before the flood of ideology that is too obviously insincere, cold simulation and the comic pretensions of the robot to automatic passion. AIDS arises to perfect this rout.

Gluttony has surrendered its weapons in the face of the findings of the food-processing industry. Moreover, the spectator - here as well as at the theater -- no longer believes himself capable of judging the taste of what he eats. Thus he is guided by the stimuli that are the names of the fashionable dishes, advertising and the judgment of gastronomical critique.

Anger has so many reasons [for existing] and so few manifestations that it is dissolved into the general cowardice and resignation. In good faith, does a voter have the occasion to become angry with the final result of an election, which in truth is always the same and thus precisely foreseeable and guaranteed? Ill-advised to play with disappointed and humiliated innocence, the voter is in any case guilty. He can only feel anger at himself and this is an uncomfortable position that he ordinarily wants to avoid.

Laziness is no longer hardly possible: there is too much noise everywhere. It is even worse for all those unfortunate people who hurry to work or their vacations. Laziness is only a pleasure for the one who is pleased with himself and in his own company.[3] The modern countries can have an elevated number of unemployed people and others who work on many completely useless things. But they cannot preserve laziness for anyone; they are not rich enough for that.

One might object to us that this exposition, despite its profound truth, is a little too systematic because reality in history is always dialectic and that it is an impoverished schematization that presents all the deadly sins as being condemned to the same ruin. This objection is not founded: we have not at all forgotten envy, which contradictorily survives and which is the only inheritor of all the other annihilated powers.

Envy has become an exclusive and universal motive. Envy has always proceeded from the fact that many individuals measure themselves according to the same scale. Most often, this is power and money. Beyond this common measure of limitation, reality remains diverse and those who do not care too much for power and riches obviously remain sheltered from envy. On another side, some envious characters can always be in rivalry with people in their spheres of activity. A poet might envy a[nother] poet. And such envy can be manifested by a general, a prostitute, an actor or an owner of a cafe. But the largest number of individuals hardly arouse the envy of others. Today, when people have almost nothing and love nothing, they want everything, without neglecting the contrary. Any [given] spectator envies almost all of the stars. But he can also simultaneously envy all of the traits of all the stars. He who has the baseness to make a career, and who is thus hardly satisfied with that career (others are always higher up), would also have the honor and pleasure of being considered as someone who is misunderstood, insubordinate and "cursed." And since this pursuit of the wind is absolutely vain, all of today's cuckolds are thus condemned to run unceasingly. Ignoring real life, they do not know that almost all the human traits are actually grounded by necessarily excluding many of the others.

Antiquity said: "It is not given to everyone to go to Corinth." At present, one can add that this prevents the simultaneous inhabitation of Tokyo.

One easily understands the triumph of envy, the uncontrollable fusion of its radioactive heart and the dispersal of its fall-out everywhere. The deadly sins that have disappeared concern the personal traits of the individual acting on his own (or, in the case of laziness, preferring not to act). But envy is the only trait that concerns others. It is normal that it remains alone, to amuse and goad those who have been dispossessed of everything. In our century, these are the stupefying findings that one is not allowed to forget about. Previously, Cesar Borgia did not envy Michel-Ange, Frederick II did not envy Voltaire and Mr Thiers himself certainly did not even think of envying Baudelaire.[4] More recently, President Valery Giscard did not reject the satisfaction of making it known that he admired Flaubert (this same Giscard was Homais, Bouvard and Pecuchet[5] in a single person) and that he would have quite willingly renounced a year of political activity if, during this period, he was assured of making an artistic work at Flaubert's level, which in his eyes would have been quite worth the renunciation of two semesters of other, more sure gifts. And many contemporary illiterates, from their [university] chairs, envy the culture of the editors of this Encyclopedia and the richness of its information!

We say that the intensive and extensive repression of personality inevitably involves the disappearance of personal taste. What can actually please someone who is nothing, has nothing and knows nothing -- other than lying and imbecilic hearsay? And almost nothing displeases such a person: such is exactly the goal that the owners and "deciders" of this society propose, that is, those who hold the instruments of social communication, with the aid of which they find themselves in a position to manipulate the simulacra of disappeared tastes.

Edgar Poe's "The Colloquy of Monos and Una," which takes as its subject the impending destruction of the world and which long ago anticipated what our contemporaries have so recently discovered concerning the accumulation of irreversible and blind ruptures of the ecological equilibrium, said in 1845:

Meantime, huge smoking cities arose, innumerable. Green leaves shrank before the hot breath of furnaces. The fair face of Nature was deformed as with the ravages of some loathsome disease. And methinks, sweet Una, even our slumbering sense of the forced and of the far-fetched might have arrested us here. But now it appears that we had worked out our own destruction in the perversion of our taste, or rather in the blind neglect of its culture in the schools. For, in truth, it was at this crisis that taste alone -- that faculty which, holding a middle position between the pure intellect and the moral sense, could never safely have been disregarded -- it was now that taste alone could have led us gently back to Beauty, to Nature, and to Life.[6]

Nothing has better shown at which point taste and knowledge have both disappeared, along with the senses of the improbable and the ridiculous, than the clumsy archeological-cultural imposture of this century, which (it seems) people still laugh at and which its principal dupes prefer to believe has been forgotten without any other explanation. Around 1980, one was ecstatic about an army of statues of thousands of soldiers and horses, a little larger than life-size, that the Chinese claimed to have discovered in 1974 and that were supposed to have been buried with Emperor Tsin Che Hoang Ti [Qin Shinuangdi] twenty-two centuries ago.[7] Hundreds of newspapers and dozens of publishers swallowed the bait and the line, and -- guaranteed, moreover, by the enthusiasm of the aforementioned Valery Giscard -- this treasure was displayed in many great cities of Europe. Inevitably, subaltern doubts about whether these traveling marvels were the originals, as had been affirmed by the neo-Maoist government, or copies, as it was forced to admit later on. Here, the formula of Feuerbach, which already said that his times preferred the copy to the original, was quite surpassed by progress, since these were copies of originals that had never existed. With a single glance at the first photos of the "excavation," one could only laugh at the imprudence of the Chinese bureaucrats, who so shamelessly took foreigners to be cretins. But still more extravagant than all of these absolute improbabilities was the fact -- easily discernible from the images of the soldiers' heads (all of which were strongly similar) -- that nowhere and at no moment in the history of the world were such figures produced in molded forms, that is, not before the first third of our century (in fact, they were fabricated in the last years of Mao's reign to be an abundant and miraculous discovery that compensated for all that had been destroyed during the insanity of the pseudo-"cultural revolution"). To compose the poor, basic forms of these gigantic marionettes, one needed to already have the die-casting capabilities of the factories of the early 20th century; the paintings of [Paul] Gauguin, which had relatively recently traced a new artistic figure of the exotic in Western art; and, finally and especially, Stalinist and Nazi statuary -- which were the same things -- , which had existed since the 1930s.

Two centuries of deepening in the history of civilization, the history of forms, and all that Winckelmann and Schiller, Burckhardt and Elie Faure, and a hundred others from Schlegel to Walter Benjamin[8] were able to show -- all this is forgotten in the same obscurity, since those who hold the floor, as the people of Paris say when they still speak, have been persuaded that there is not, neither here nor elsewhere, anything scientific that one must know and that ignorance can say anything, since they know that they no longer have to fear a response.

It is perfectly definite that thousands of people in the world, without need of being an archeologist or a Sinologist, understood all this [about the Chinese statues] straight off, as we did. But what about the spectacle and those that it informs? They are purely ignorant people, who pour disinformation into the masses.[9] And as far as the rather mediocre professionals who treat such questions: when they finally learned of their error through the confidences of certain insiders, they thought that it would surely be more elegant on their part to not remember anything. And here is why the tyrant, as La Boetie showed,[10] has so many friends. There are many people with small interests who, on behalf of those with large interests, want to see history and memory abolished.

[1] That is to say, credit cards, debit cards, et al. "Plastic" or electronic money is in fact the very subject of the article entitled Abolition.

[2] Huge subsidized housing-blocks in France.

[3] See Raoul Vaneigem's text on the subject of refined laziness.

[4] Ceasar Borgia (1475-1507) was a ruthless Italian Duke, military leader and cardinal. Michel-Ange (1475-1564) is better known as "Michelangelo," the famous Italian painter, sculptor, poet and architect. Frederick II (1740-1786) was brilliant military leader and the King of Prussia; he was also a friend of Francois-Marie Arouet, aka "Voltaire" (1694-1778), a celebrated essayist and philosopher. Louis Adolphe Thiers (1797-1877) was a French politician infamous for the suppression of the Paris Commune. Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) was a great French poet and translator.

[5] Three characters in Flaubert's Madame Bovary.

[6] Rather than translate Debord's Poe back into English, we have quoted directly from the original text.

[7] Debord would briefly refer to this affair in his Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (1988).

[8] Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768) was a German art historian and archeologist. Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805) was a German poet and philosopher. Jacob Burckhardt (1818-1897) was Swiss art historian. Elie Faure (1873-1937) was a French art historian. Karl Wilhelm Schlegel (1772-1829) was a German poet and scholar. Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) was a German historian and social critic.

[9] Debord would again take up the theme of disinformation in his Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (1988).

[10] In Discourse on Voluntary Servitude.