Debord's New Book (review) - by The Red Menace

The Red Menace was produced by an informal group of communists and appeared for several issues in late 1980s London. It contained news and reviews of class struggle topics.

Submitted by libcom on October 28, 2005

The Red Menace, Number Four, September/October 1989


A review of Guy Debord, Commentaires sur la société du spectacle, pubd. Editions Gerard Lebovici (27, rue Saint-Sulpice, 75006 Paris, France), 1988

Not surprisingly, the Situationist International (SI), which lasted from 1957 to 1972 and was the most extreme revolutionary organisation of its time, has won contempt and false praise from all sorts of people who deign to acknowledge or capitalise upon its influence. Recently BBC2's Late Show spent half an hour illustrating the role of "situationism" in politics and art [sic], as a plug for an exhibition of "Art of the SI'' staged at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in June.

But the liars and imbeciles who make such programmes and stage such exhibitions, much as we despise them, are of little real historical importance. In most "advanced" countries today, the tiny minority of subversives can read the texts of the SI and use them as they see fit, just as a future revolutionary movement would be able to do.

Guy Debord was one of the SI's prominent theorists throughout its existence. In his Commentaries (as yet only available in French) he wastes no time defending the image of the SI. He begins by explaining that he is not at complete liberty to speak, since his Commentaries will be read by defenders of the system of spectacular domination as well as by those who seek to undermine it. The overall design of the book is left deliberately obscure, and even contains a few "decoys" ("the very signature of the epoch"). Amongst the subversives who read it there will probably be much disagreement over interpretation, and not least as to whether such a mode of expression is a rational one.


Debord's theses concern the directions commodity society has developed in since the troubles of 1968:

"...Since the spectacle today is assuredly more powerful than it was before, what is it doing with this extra power? What previously-unoccupied territory has it moved into? In short, what are its current lines of operation? The vague feeling that there has been a rapid invasion, obliging people to live a very different life, has since then become widespread; but it is felt rather as an unexplained change of climate or as another sort of natural equilibrium, a modification about ignorance knows only that it has nothing to say" (para.2)

His aim is to evoke certain practical consequences, still little known, resulting from "this rapid deployment of the spectacle over the last 20 years".

In his earlier book Society of the Spectacle (1967), Debord distinguished between concentrated and diffuse forms of the spectacle. The concentrated form, typified by Nazism and Stalinism, particularly the latter, corresponded to a regime with a dictator at the helm of the state and a bureaucratic, police-run system of commodity exchange. The diffuse form corresponded to freer competition between commodities and a higher form of commodity fetishism, with enthusiastic mass consumption of an ever-changing stream of star products. In Debord's view a third form, the integrated spectade is now in existence, combining the other two on the general basis of the diffuse form. Whereas Germany, Russia and the USA played the predominant part in the origin of the concentrated and diffuse forms, a similar role in the development of the integrated spectacle has been played by France and Italy. One factor which made these two countries stand out was the necessity to get rid of a surprise wave of revolutionary contestation. Other factors are the weak democratic tradition, the long-term monopolization of power by a single government party, and the role of Stalinist parties and unions in political and institutional life.

The integrated from uses various techniques of its predecessors: no more clear ideologies or Uncle Joes, but there is still a 'directive centre' albeit now under the cover of darkness. And the peripheries that were once immune to the diffuse spectacle are now no more: no more media free discussions in pubs or workplaces or cafes, no longer even the semblance of independent standards of competence among scientists, doctors or historians.

Debord identifies five major characteristics whose combined effects help make up modern society in the era of the integrated spectacle. Two tendencies that have been in evidence for a long while are non-stop technological renewal and an alliance between economy and state. Their effects in today's world include generalised secrecy, the presentation of falsehoods without fear of reply (with important consequences in the scientific, political and judicial fields, not to mention the field of artistic knowledge), and an atmosphere of a perpetual present.

Moreover, for the first time, spectacular domination has brought up a generation of people in obeisance to its laws. Memory, both in the field of historical life and in the sphere of personal consumption of fashions, has flown out of the window. In Debord's terminology, history, defined as what is memorable, as the totality of the events whose consequences are long lasting, as the measure of what is new, has been outlawed. Already recent history has been pushed into clandestinity. Those active in the 1986 events in French colleges and railway stations showed little knowledge of the movement of 68 and we doubt whether British youth in general have much recollection of the week of riots in 1981. The world is now more frantic.

There is much in the commentaries about secrecy, the law of omerta, the Mafia code of silence. Having broached upon the financing of political parties and the role of state speculations in various parts of the economy (new towns, motorways, nuclear energy, oil prospecting, underground distribution, banking, secret arms exports, pharmaceuticals), Debord cites Marx's reference in 'the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte' to a man "who, rather than deciding by night and striking by day, decides by day and strikes by night."

Whether or not conspiracy is growing in importance in international finance and matters of state (and we think it is, given the developments in the media, for whom arse licking is now considered unacceptably rebellious, and given the decreasing levels of knowledge among the population, not to mention the process of economic concentration), it is undeniably a reality.


Debord also analyses the secret services, for whom "knowledge must become power" (paragraph 20). Adopting the "police conception of history" (i.e. conspiracy theory), whilst accepting that in the 19th century it was reactionary and ridiculous, he states in paragraph 21 that "secrecy dominates the world, first of all as the secret of domination." Those who have access to a few supposed secrets feel superior to those who know nothing, but they remain merely first-class spectators, bribed with manipulated information. You won't find the answers to the questions "who rules?" and "how?" in the New Statesman or Private Eye, even if Duncan Campbell (lunch partner of a former Attorney-General) tells everything he knows about the coup plots of the mid-1970s.

Whereas catastrophes are in sight in areas such as ecology and banking, Debord thinks that capitalist domination has already got into position to deal with them with means other than the use of disinformation. After speaking of the recent history of the Mafia, the end of the "State of Right" (Rule of Law) along with democracy, and the growing importance of illegality in the economy (arms, hi-tech), he goes on to say that various means of "preventive civil war" have already been put in place.

Debord has written elsewhere about the manipulation and use of terrorism by secret services and P2 (the international secret Lodge that provided and probably still provides Italy with its secret government and has been involved in various financial scandals and political murders). Now he goes further:

"the secret services were called upon by the entire history of spectacular society to become its central pivot; for they more than anything else concentrate in themselves the characteristics and means of execution of the corresponding society. Henceforth they are also charged with adjudicating the general interest of the society, despite continuing to be modestly known as 'services'" (paragraph 27)

"Finally [surveillance's] principal contradiction at the moment is that it watches, infiltrates and influences an absent party: that which supposedlyt wants to subvert the social order. But where is it in evidence? Certainly, never have conditions everywhere been so deeply revolutionary, but this is only recognised by governments. Negation has been so perfectly deprived of its thought, that it dispersed a long time ago. Because of this, it is no more than a vague threat, albeit very worrying, and surveillance has consequently been deprived of the best field for its activity. The present necessities governing the conditions of engagement of this force of surveillance and intervention have led it to move onto the terrain of this threat in order to combat it in advance. This is why surveillance will have an interest in organising poles of negation to which it will feed information outside of the discredited channels of the spectacle, in order this time to influence not terrorists but theories." (Paragraph 30).

This last assertion is left without examples or scenarios, making us suspect that it is a "decoy". But one example of preventive civil war Debord gives is the possible future employment of the technique used in the Square of Three Cultures in Mexico City in 1968, where hundreds were massacred in one decisive move calculated to ensure the successful opening of the obscene Olympic Games. Such a technique can be used before the day of revolt. This is not what happened in Algeria recently, but it is exactly how the Chinese State has tried to impose its own order. Moves like this are not at all ruled out, indeed they are even implied by the theories of British counter-insurgency specialist Frank Kitson, who has written of the need to "drown the revolution in babies' milk." Outside of such extremes, Debord speaks of the use of assassination on a smaller scale. (His Commentaries are dedicated to his friend and publisher Gerard Lebovici, an entrepreneur ambushed and shot dead in Paris in 1984, with four bullets in the back of the neck).

On reading such thoughts we were left with the impression that what we need is a more detailed knowledge of State counter-subversive and counterrevolutionary operations and planning, although we recognise that this is not something to be discussed lightly.

In the penultimate paragraph of the Commentaries, Debord says that the changed conditions he has described will lead inevitably to a "relief operation" (presumably some kind of coup) from within the "co-opted caste that manages domination and, notably directs the protection of this domination." Whilst we agree that the wave of struggles that began in 1968 was defeated a long time ago, and that the period is still one where capitalist domination is plucking the fruits of past victories, we are still unsure as to exactly how well-organised and well-prepared it is possible for our enemies to get. In our view the style of the Commentaries does not contribute to a fact-based discussion of this point, although we recommend them for raising this and many other issues, only some of which we have dealt with above.



15 years 6 months ago

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Submitted by BNB on January 25, 2009

better translation of Debord's book