Capitalism and spectacle Review article: The Retort Collectives Afflicted Powers

Aufheben review of The Retort Collective’s Afflicted Powers

The Retort collective's book Afflicted Powers – Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War was first published in 2005, after having started life as a broadsheet (entitled Neither Their War Nor Their Peace) produced for distribution at the anti-war demonstrations of 2003. Its title derives from Milton’s Paradise Lost: Satan, cast down to hell and defeated after the war in heaven, rallies his troops and calls for a council of war:

And reassembling our afflicted Powers,
Consult how we may henceforth most offend
Our Enemy, our own loss how repair,
How overcome this dire Calamity,
What reinforcement we may gain from Hope,
If not what resolution from despair.

The book constitutes an attempt to take stock of the global political situation in the light of the anti-war movement’s dissipation; to set out the scale and nature of the tasks implied by opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to thus address the reasons for that movement's failure. However – if we adopt for the moment Retort's own trope of a council of war – this would seem to be a strategic analysis that not only fails to describe the terrain upon which battle is to be rejoined, but which also fails to identify the combatants themselves: Retort stress that if the anti-war movement is to have any hope of success it must understand that opposition to the war implies an opposition to capital, and yet they fail to offer anything beyond a highly abstract account of quite what capital is, what it does, and therefore how it might be challenged. Throughout the book capital is presented as a malign and independent entity, existing in its own right. Its nature as a social relation is thus obscured, and this results in a failure to deal with class antagonism and consequently with opposition to capitalism. For a book that presents itself as a contribution towards that opposition this would seem to be something of a problem.

So, why are we bothering to review it? The answer is that Retort's use of Guy Debord's concept of spectacle merits a response. The Society of the Spectacle was first published over forty years ago, but Afflicted Powers is nonetheless symptomatic of its abiding influence; in this respect Retort’s book provides us with a prompt to consider whether the theory of spectacle really does offer practical insights into the current political context.

Our approach to this question is informed by the following observations. The Situationist International (S.I.) were revolutionary activists, and as Debord himself stated, The Society of the Spectacle 'was written with the deliberate intention of doing harm to spectacular society.' Nonetheless, the assimilation of their work into art theory and academia has been continuing apace for almost three decades now; having been simplified and neutered into a crude form of media theory Debord's work is now often included within university courses, and both he and the S.I. have become canonised into the pantheon of art history. In view of the supposed connection between Situationist ideas and activism, it would thus seem relevant to ask the following: to what extent does Debord's theory render itself amendable to such 'recuperation'? Is it really the case that the dangerous, radical truth of his account necessitates its sanitisation and incorporation into the spectacle (as he himself held) – or is it rather the case that it was, from the outset, no more than an 'image' of the theoretical critique that it claimed to provide?

Afflicted Powers stresses the importance of images and appearances in contemporary politics, and yet, as we argue here, it fails to get past the most immediate, superficial appearances of capitalist social relations. Our enquiry, therefore, is as to the extent to which the same can be said for Debord's own work. In order to pursue that question, our own text aims to move from the superficial to the foundational: we begin with Retort's banal concern with media and communications technologies, and by questioning the theoretical concepts that underpin it we arrive at a consideration of the notion of praxis (the translation of ideas into action) upon which Debord's oeuvre is based. Although we reach this material by way of the failings of Debord's theory of spectacle – and although we argue that the notion of spectacle is in fact a theoretical dead end, and of little practical interest today – we do, nonetheless, suggest that the ideas that it rests upon remain interesting and pertinent.

This article thus moves through a series of stages. First, we describe Retort's book, the version of spectacle that they employ, and the political and theoretical problems that this implies. We then move to Debord, and describe the aspects of his theory that rendered it amenable and suited to Retort's implicitly liberal outlook. Having identified these issues, we then consider them in greater theoretical detail, paying particular attention to the theory's relation to class struggle. After establishing Debord and the S.I.'s departure from a classically envisaged notion of class and social production, we then look at Debord's problematic relation to Marx's economics; and through considering the ideas attendant to his claim that “for Marx it is the struggle – and by no means the law – that has to be understood”, we consider his notion of 'historical thought', and thereby the ideas about time, subjectivity and the relation between theory and practice that underlie his work. Finally, in outlining this notion of praxis we introduce its correlation with his fascination with military theory and strategy; and in this respect we return in our conclusion to Retort's own opening metaphor of a strategic analysis.

1) Debord's theory of spectacle

In order to present these claims, however, we should of course begin with a very brief sketch of Debord's theory. Perhaps the first thing that should be noted is that the concept of spectacle originated in relation to art and cultural criticism; it began to coalesce in the early sixties, after the formation of the S.I. in 1957, but Debord had been employing the term since the mid 50s as a means of describing the separation of bourgeois art and culture from everyday life. It quickly developed into a definition of the passivity and inadequacy of society as a whole, and in so doing became steadily more involved and reliant upon Marxist theory. However, as we will argue here, even in its completely developed form the concept retains an overwhelming emphasis on culture, and thus (ironically enough) on the more superficial appearances of society rather than on its concrete production.

The fully developed form of Debord's spectacle is based upon Marx's account of alienation: in working for capital rather than for themselves, Marx claimed, workers were separated and estranged (alienated) from their productive activity and from the results of their labour. Further, according to Marx, value – and thus capital – is separated, alienated labour, and as such the proletariat were described as being enslaved by their own alienated power. This state of affairs was said to be hidden by the 'commodity fetish', the attribution of human qualities to commodities: although value derives from labour, when commodities are related to one another in exchange their values appear as their own intrinsic properties. The labour relations of human subjects thus appear as attributes of the objects that they produce.

Debord's development of Marx's account was greatly influenced by the work of Georg Lukács, who argued in History and Class Consciousness (1923) that the drive for efficiency in the work process had extended beyond the factory walls. For Lukács, the whole of society had become regulated, measured and recorded in order to facilitate the operation of capitalism. Human subjects were reduced to the status of objects, whilst commodity production and exchange shaped history as if capital itself was a human subject. The commodity fetish was thus said to dominate consciousness, entailing that capitalist society was possessed of a purely 'contemplative attitude' (i.e. an alienated detachment) towards its own history.

For Debord, writing in post-war, newly rebuilt and seemingly Americanized France, this 'contemplative attitude' had reached its complete expression in the saturation of modern society with images celebrating the commodity (adverts, fads, fashions, media, etc.). The alienation underpinning society was thus exemplified in the relation between passive, disconnected observers and visual imagery extolling the virtues of a world shaped by capitalism. Consequently, the 'image' was taken to be the defining concept of all modern alienation. This means that the theory of spectacle is not solely concerned with visual phenomena and communications technologies, as is sometimes supposed. Simply put, Debord's 'images' are representations of a direct and autonomous connection with the creation of one's own history, and thereby that of society as a whole. As all experience and autonomy had been surrendered to capital life had become a mere image of itself, and as such human beings had become mere 'spectators' of their own lives.

2) Retort's version of the spectacle

In contrast with Debord, Retort are chiefly concerned with using the idea of spectacle to stress the predominance and significance of visual imagery, media and communications technologies within modern society. In this regard it’s worth indicating here that Debord himself stated in The Society of the Spectacle that the spectacle “cannot be understood as a deliberate distortion of the visual world or as a product of the mass dissemination of images”, and described the “mass media” as the spectacle's “most stultifyingly superficial manifestation.” Largely unconcerned with the sense in which the theory of spectacle describes alienated social activity, Retort thus arrive at a superficial version of spectacle well suited to their interest in its 'superficial manifestations'. Claiming that modern social practice has become increasingly reliant upon such media and imagery, they argue that although the spectacle's mechanisms (which, for Retort, essentially means communications technologies) once ensured docility, they are now able to be used against the state. This, they claim, is what took place with the destruction of the World Trade Centre on September 11th 2001: a symbolically significant target was destroyed, 'the perpetual emotion machines' were 'captured for a moment,' and on them appeared what they describe as an 'image defeat': a blow suffered by spectacular society on the 'terrain' of the spectacle itself. This, they claim, provided an ideological prompt and alibi for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But what does this actually tell us? Little more than that the media exerts an ideological effect; a claim that is at best banal, and at worst entirely superficial. Consequently, rather than pursuing these aspects of Retort's account we concern ourselves with the version of spectacle that underlies these assertions. In order to get to it, however, we will need to unpick it from the confused knot of ideas and theories that Retort present us with; and this it seems is best achieved by approaching it by way of two further concepts: 'military neo-liberalism' (a construct of Retort's own invention), and 'primitive accumulation' (a term first employed by Marx to describe the constitution of capitalist social relations). We describe both in what follows, and begin with the former.

Taking issue with the popular 'blood for oil' credo, Retort write that the Iraq war was not motivated solely by the desire for oil, but that it was rather an attempt to further a neo-liberal free-market agenda:

What the Iraq adventure represents is less a war for oil than a radical, punitive, 'extra-economic' restructuring of the conditions necessary for expanded profitability – paving the way, in short, for a new round of American-led dispossession and capital accumulation. ...It was intended as the prototype of a new form of military neo-liberalism. Oil was especially visible at this moment of extra-economic imposition because, as it turned out, oil revenues were key to the planning and financing of the military exercise itself, and to the reconstruction of the Iraqi 'emerging market'.

This recourse to force was motivated, they claim, by resistance to that neo-liberal agenda. Retort maintain that the problems brought about by globalisation became increasingly apparent from the late 1990's onwards, and although they admit to a degree of uncertainty (quite 'what precise constellation of forces began to put this methodology in question is still open to debate' ) they list a series of examples and causes. These include popular awareness of third world debt, 'cracks' in the 'World Bank establishment', scepticism towards unfettered markets and resistance to trade subsidies. The result was a new-found readiness to employ force in the creation of capitalist opportunities:

This is the proper frame, we believe, for understanding what has happened in Iraq. It is only as part of this neo-liberal firmament, in which a dominant capitalist core begins to find it harder and harder to benefit from 'consensus' market expansion or corporate mergers and asset transfers, that the new preference for the military option makes sense. Military neo-liberalism seems to us a useful shorthand for the new reality; but in a sense the very prefix 'neo' concedes too much to the familiar capitalist rhetoric of renewal. For military neo-liberalism is no more than primitive accumulation in (thin) disguise.

So, 'military neo-liberalism' is according to Retort a form of 'primitive accumulation'. As such, in order to explain and evaluate Retort’s claims further we should first outline Marx’s original presentation of this concept.

For Marx, primitive accumulation was a historical process that led to the formation of a class of individuals devoid of the means of reproducing themselves independently of capitalist production: a process through which the means of production became concentrated in the hands of a capitalist class, to whom the newly formed proletariat were 'free' – by virtue of having been 'liberated' from the possibility of independence – to sell their labour power for a wage. In describing how arable lands held in common by the rural working class (relics from the feudal past, in which the peasantry were allocated land to feed themselves in return for working for their lord) were cleared, broken up and parcelled out to industrialists and capitalist farmers, Marx concludes Volume 1 of Capital with a historical demonstration of the book's theoretical claims: capitalism is shown to be reliant upon the exploitation of labour, and thus upon ensuring that there is a working class that has no other option than to work in capitalist production.

Above all, Marx stresses here that capital is not a thing, nor the property of a thing, but rather a social relation mediated by things (i.e. by commodities). To put it extremely crudely: if I steal things from you, for example, I don't automatically have capital; I just have your things. I only have capital if I have the means of creating a greater amount of value than that which I already possess; and as for Marx the source of value is social labour, in order to create more value I must not only have a market in which I can sell finished articles, but also a) means of production, and b) a workforce to use them. In fact, to ensure that I have such a workforce, I and other capitalists must have sole access to the means of production: it must be the case that the only way in which our workforce can meet their own needs of subsistence is through working for us. If they were able to produce that which they need to survive without us they would of course have no reason to do so. Capitalism, Marx claims, is reliant upon property relations based around the expropriation of the workforce and the concentration of the means of production in the hands of a capitalist class.

For Retort, however, primitive accumulation simply means creating the conditions amenable to capital’s growth, and the abstract manner with which they describe this is directly related to their disinterest in the social relations that underpin capitalism. Primitive accumulation is presented chiefly in terms of dispossession, although not in the sense of creating a proletarian class; rather, it simply seems to mean creating conditions in which wealth can be appropriated (in the terms of the example given above, 'stealing your things'). Now, if – as Retort claim – capitalism is reliant upon a perpetual process of primitive accumulation, then according to this version of the concept it must be perpetually reliant upon the existence and availability of wealth and property that can be plundered. Rather than depending upon production, Retort present capital as requiring the immediate (i.e. the sudden, mysterious) existence of the results of production; and rather than relying on an expropriated proletarian class of workers, capital seems instead to rely upon a struggle to amass wealth, fought out between property owners.

Not only does this constitute what Marx would have termed a bourgeois perspective (i.e. a view limited to the sphere of commodity exchange and ignorant of that of production). In addition, it entails that capital is presented here as a force that exists separately and independently from an equally abstracted and classless 'humanity’, and not as a social relation. This becomes particularly apparent when we look at the relation between this version of primitive accumulation and Retort’s notions of military neo-liberalism and spectacle, as it underlies the problems in their use of Debord's work.

The current global political context, they claim, is based upon the creation of capital’s necessary conditions through their forced, militarised imposition, and through the more subtle violence of the spectacle's construction and maintenance of docile consumer subjectivities ('Primitive accumulation’, they write, ‘means...an armed struggle impelled by, and continuing to be fought in, that complex of circumstances we call spectacle.') But because Retort view capital as an abstract entity in its own right, and thus ignore issues of production, the spectacle and the operation of capital as a whole are pictured as alien forces imposed upon society, and not as the result of the social relations that compose it. This leads to an inherently abstract view that fails to identify the true nature of capitalism or indeed the of antagonism that underlies it.

As an aside: we might think back here to Retort's analogy of a council of war. As we suggested in the introduction, this is a strategic analysis that not only fails to identify the terrain upon which conflict is to take place, but also the combatants themselves.

The abstraction of this presentation is informed by the importance that Retort attribute to the 'enclosure' of the 'commons'. Again, these are terms that relate to Marx's description of primitive accumulation, which as we noted described the transformation of common land into private property. Many recent implementations of the concept of primitive accumulation have had much to say about the 'commons', often using the term to refer to areas of life that are independent (or potentially independent) from capital. Following Hardt and Negri's claims in Empire, Retort describe capital's invasion of the commons as taking place both 'intensively' and 'extensively': it expands 'extensively' by advancing into new territories, and 'intensively' by moulding human subjectivity in accordance with its own requirements. As regards the ‘extensive’ process it would thus seem – if the Iraq war was, as Retort claim, a form of primitive accumulation – that Iraqi markets and industry are, bizarrely enough, a form of commons; and as regards the ‘intensive’ process, Retort picture the spectacle as a form of enclosure forced upon a separate, otherwise 'natural' and classless 'humanity':

The spectacle...is not merely a realm of images: it is a social process – a complex of enforcements and exclusions... [It] is...a form of violence – a repeated action against real human possibilities, real (meaning flexible, usable, transformable) representations, real attempts at collectivity.”

The spectacle, for Retort, is essentially a form of ideological primitive accumulation. It is a form of violence imposed upon human subjectivity that serves to mask, sanitise and render acceptable the brutality of capital's true nature. But 'when a particular node of the spectacle enters into crisis,' which is what Retort claim occurred with the attacks of September 11th 2001, 'it is precisely the violence of [capital] that comes into view.' Playing on Mao's famous aphorism, Retort write that 'Ultimately, the spectacle comes out of the barrel of a gun. State power informs and enforces it. Mostly that fact is hidden. The spectacle is that hiding.' This is the basis for their tentative claims as to the radical possibilities inherent within a movement that opposes the conflicts prompted by those attacks: if primitive accumulation is the violent imposition of capital's requirements, and if capitalist modernity is underpinned by primitive accumulation, it follows that Retort should view the movement against the Iraq war (which they understand as having been conducted for imperialist expansion whilst prompted and ideologically validated by issues of spectacle) as implicitly grasping the true nature of both capital and spectacle.

This is, however, an entirely vacuous claim. Capital is supposedly reliant upon primitive accumulation, and yet their version of this concept – and by extension their understanding of capital – has no bearing on social relations. The call to arms that Retort bring to their council of war is thus an invitation to try and punch a cloud, for as a result of their disinterest in capital's basis in class antagonism they are singularly unable to name quite what might oppose it, and indeed how it might be confronted.

3) Debord's theory and its compatibility with Retort's perspective

We now move to consider the extent to which the failings in Retort's account mirror some of the themes and issues in Debord's own writings. In doing so, we aim to provide a contextual basis for the critique that we offer in the subsequent section.

Retort's presentation of the spectacle as something that is separate from humanity and effectively imposed upon it from 'outside' marks their divergence from Debord, who was at pains to stress that 'The spectacle cannot be set in abstract opposition to concrete social activity.' However, Debord's notion of 'social activity' is not the same thing as wage labour, and in introducing this issue we indicate the extent to which the focus of his analysis was not the relations of production per se, but rather the construction of the behaviour, experience and subjectivities – in short, the life – of society as a whole. It is in this respect that Debord's work transformed Marx's concern with the production of commodities into the production of life in the abstract.

However, having stated that Debord expands the relations of commodity production into the production of social life, we should clarify that he did not (as is sometimes supposed ) transform the commodity into the 'image'. Rather, the spectacle is 'a moment of the development of commodity production', a moment at which 'the commodity completes its colonization of social life.' For Debord, the alienation of society's powers and capacities was not specific to capitalism; such alienation had taken a host of forms throughout history (e.g. religion, hierarchy etc.), but with society's complete submission to and reconfiguration by the economy it had reached its complete and most extreme expression. As we will see, this view of modern society as constituting the very apex of such separation (expressed in the dichotomous relation between image and observer) was linked to the assumption that its revolutionary supersession was immanent.

For Debord, the context of the 1950s and 1960s demonstrated that the time was ripe for the emergence of a new form of human life. The civil rights, anti-Vietnam war and student movements of the 1960s all indicated the desire to move away from an old, inadequate society. At the same time Soviet Russia, the apparent impotence and collusion of the unions and the relatively recent suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956 indicated just how defunct and inadequate the options for change offered by the old order really were. The central chapter of The Society of the Spectacle is in fact a condemnation of the 'collapse' of the workers' movement into its Soviet representation, and a celebration of its return in the supposedly spontaneous struggles and disparate movements of its era. And, despite Debord's deliberate adoption of a cold and impersonal style, his tone is almost euphoric at times: history, he thought, signalled by the movements, protests and riots of the 60s, was about to reappear. Unsurprisingly, one year after the book's publication, Debord was all too happy to read the events of May 1968 as the practical verification of his theoretical work.

It is in this sense that Debord's apparently bleak account carries a note of triumph: if alienation had reached its apogee in the world of the spectacle, then surely its revolutionary denouement must be immanent. This assumption was based upon a particular understanding of modern consumer society: according to Debord and the S.I., although a wage-based economy had ensured the means of survival in the past, society's technical advances and the possibilities offered by automation meant that it was no longer a requirement. As a result, capital had been forced to continually invent new reasons for its own necessity:

[The] constant expansion of economic power in the form of commodities transformed human labour itself into a commodity, into wage labour, and ultimately produced a level of abundance sufficient to solve the initial problem of survival — but only in such a way that the same problem is continually being regenerated at a higher level.

'In these circumstances,' Debord claimed, 'an abundance of commodities, which is to say an abundance of commodity relations, can be no more than an augmented survival.' His claim was that however numbed people might be by its banal trinkets, capitalism could never master their desires; all it could do was attempt to satisfy them with more commodities, the increasing abundance of which was said to be inversely proportional to their ability to satisfy. The expansion of capital was thus one with that of the drive to supersede it. Consequently, humanity was effectively poised to 'wake up': 'By the time society discovers that it is contingent on the economy, the economy has in point of fact become contingent on society. ...Where economic id was, there ego shall be.'

The important issue here is Debord and the S.I.'s assumption that revolution would be driven by an abundance of the means of survival, and not by their deprivation. This position was taken partly in response to the debate, prevalent at the time (and still present today) as to the extent to which that abundance had eradicated the need and desire for radical social change. For the S.I., this new found wealth merely indicated that the material poverty of the 19th century had evolved into a deeper, more existential poverty of meaning. It is in this sense that Vaneigem asked rhetorically:

Where on earth can the proletariat be? Spirited away? Gone underground? Or has it been put in a museum? ...We hear from some quarters that the proletariat no longer exists, that it has disappeared forever under an avalanche of sound systems, TVs, small cars and planned communities. Others denounce this as a sleight of hand and indignantly point out a few remaining workers whose low wages and wretched conditions do undeniably evoke the nineteenth century.

The answer, in Debord's own words, was that 'the generalized separation of worker and product...leads to the proletarianization of the world.' Poverty now took the form of a lack of autonomy and self-determination, and as in spectacular society all experience and action were in thrall to the spectacle the 'new proletariat' was 'tending to encompass everybody.' The traditional Marxist programme of taking control over the means of production had effectively become the need to take control over the means of making one's own life, i.e. applying the means and possibilities offered by society's technical advance in the construction of 'situations': moments of life designed, lived and experienced according to the subject's own wishes . Anticipating our later comments on Debord's focus on time somewhat, and indeed our discussion of his problematic relation to Marx, we can note here that the drive to supersede present society was essentially motivated by a desire to take charge of one's own history, and to thus consciously determine one's experience of time. This, according to Debord, was the essential truth of all revolutionary movements in the past, regardless of the extent to which they might have been driven by comparatively humble and more explicitly material demands. For example, claiming that 'the worker, at the base of society' is ultimately responsible for giving rise to that society' s (alienated) history, Debord wrote that:

By demanding to live the historical time that it creates, the proletariat discovers the simple, unforgettable core of its revolutionary project; and every attempt to carry this project through – though all up to now have gone down to defeat – signals a possible point of departure for a new historical life.

Or, to quote Vaneigem: 'one might say that radical revolutionary currents are inspired by one unchanging project: the project of being a whole man, a will to live totally which Marx was the first to provide with scientific tactics.' We will return to this notion of Marx's 'scientific' status later, and indeed to the issue of 'tactics', and might now sum up the S.I.'s conception of the proletariat with the following. 'We are presently witnessing a reshuffling of the cards of class struggle,' they wrote; 'a struggle which has certainly not disappeared, but whose lines of battle have been somehow altered from the old schema.'

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 space-time that society allots to them... The rulers are those who organise this space-time, or at least have a significant margin of personal choice.'

This model effectively transforms wealth into qualitative experience and self-determination, class into an abstraction, and the wage relation into something even vaguer. All social practice was thus a form of 'labour' appropriated by a vaguely defined minority of 'rulers', and subsequently 'sold' back in the commodified form of 'augmented survival'. We can thus begin to see the extent to which Debord transforms the wage relation (the alienation of labour-power and its exchange for a wage) into the 'production' and 'consumption' of human life itself.

This can be illustrated by way of the following. Having claimed that 'The spectacle corresponds to the historical moment at which the commodity completes its colonization of social life', Debord equates that life to 'the entirety of labour sold’,' i.e. to the total activity of society. This becomes 'the total commodity’, figured as not just the concrete, material results of production, i.e. commodities themselves, but rather as all reified and 'rationalised' forms of behaviour. The entirety of social activity thus stands as a separated totality from which individual subjects are divorced, and which they merely 'spectate'. Comprising the result, activity and raison d'etre of a mode of life completely governed by the commodity, the spectacle thus comprises a representation of life; a life lived in accordance with the demands of an alien power, and which the acting subject is inherently alienated from. This concern with the whole of life, and not just the sphere of economics, is one with Debord's move away from a notion of class to a conception of humanity as a generality.

This of course recalls the problems that we identified in Retort's account, the distinction being that where Retort present capital and spectacle as complete abstractions Debord grounds them in social activity. However, his account lends itself to their bourgeois liberalism by virtue of the abstract manner in which he conceives production; for as we have seen, his theory is 1) based upon a kind of existentialism which – despite its virtues, which we return to below – implies the need to liberate human life as a generality; 2) deliberately replaces class antagonism with an abstract confrontation between those want to maintain and those who want to change the existing order; and 3) in doing so transforms the wage relation into an entirely abstract notion of the production of social life as a whole. If we think back to the previous section, where we saw that for Retort capital is an abstraction that seems to be imposed upon all individuals equally (and thus not a set of social relations that force one class to work for another), it might now seem reasonable to conclude that it is these aspects of Debord's account that rendered the theory of spectacle so attractive to them.

In the next section we begin to engage with Debord's work in greater depth, and enquire as to the reasons behind this abstraction; and this, we suggest, lies in the extent to which his view of capitalism suffers from a distinct bias towards focussing upon its subjective effects, and thus upon the circulation and consumption of commodities rather than their concrete production. This, we argue here, is greatly informed by the influence that Lukács exerted upon his work. Through presenting a critique of these issues we establish the extent to which Debord's theory is open to the same complaint that we levelled against Retort above: namely, that of providing an account of capital's appearances that fails to move beyond them.

4) Theoretical problems within Debord's account

In the sketch of Debord's theory that we provided at the beginning of this article we described how Marx's alienated worker became, via Lukács' concern with the 'rationalisation' of society, Debord's alienated society. In this section we now enquire as to how that change arose, and in doing so we argue that the abstract notion of production that this gives rise to brought with it a failure to theorise class antagonism, and thus opposition to capital. In doing so we set out the claim that Debord's concern with 'images' is intimately bound up with a fetishized view of class struggle, i.e. with a concern with the immediate appearances of that struggle that fails to deal with its concrete basis.

As was noted above, Debord's theory of spectacle developed from a concern with the separation of art and culture from social practice. This soon led to a concern with viewing society as a totality (i.e. as an interrelated, organic whole), and to the claim that it was not just culture but rather the entirety of social practice that had become alienated from its producers. The detachment from art thus became a similarly passive detachment from social life, and in developing these ideas it is of no surprise that Debord would have found Lukács' description of a 'contemplative' society attractive and theoretically useful. The commensurability of the two accounts, however, was due to more than the beguiling nature of Lukács' metaphor of 'contemplation': both theories focus far too heavily on circulation, consumption and the subjective effects of capital.

Lukács' History and Class Consciousness – the text that Debord drew most heavily upon, and in which Lukács provided his description of a 'contemplative' society – is based upon a flawed understanding of Marx's notion of commodity fetishism. For Lukács, the fetish is essentially an ideological misconception, and alienation is its subjective result. By contrast, for Marx the fetish is by no means a purely conceptual, ideal phenomena: in capitalist society things really do possess the power of human beings. The earth really does give rise to rent in accordance with the fertility of the soil; money in the bank grows on the basis of interest, and machines really do enable profits according to their productivity. To take such phenomena at face value, however, is to ignore the social relations by which they have come to acquire such power, and to develop an awareness of the true nature of these relations requires an acknowledgement of the real process of wage labour.

Because Lukács' account fails to deal with the reality of the wage relation, and is instead based upon its subjective effects, his critique of society's 'contemplative' detachment from its own labour is itself (as he later admitted ) inherently contemplative. His stress on the 'rationalization' of society in accordance with the commodity form (i.e. the concept of the commodity) stands in contrast to Marx's concern with the process of commodity production; and in moving away from a focus on the wage relation to consider capitalism's subjective effects, Lukács laid the basis for Debord's neglect of economic analysis and class.

By understanding society as a totality united under a single concept (that of the commodity) Lukács felt he would be able to provide a means of dealing with the ideological and cultural phenomena that traditional economic analysis had ignored. Such a method would enable an analyst to identify the true nature of capitalism and its potential supersession as not only located within economic phenomena, but as present throughout the entirety of society. One would thus no longer need to strip away “bourgeois thought” in order to concentrate on economic processes; rather, '”ideological” and “economic” problems [would] lose their exclusiveness and merge into one another.'

Understanding the commodity form as the general concept under which society was organised was thus, for Lukács, the key to understanding modern capitalism. Holding that 'the commodity-structure' had 'penetrate[d] society in all its aspects and...remould[ed] it in its own image,' he claimed that the quantitative equivalence that it established between qualitatively different things (e.g. X amount of tea = Y amount of iron) had entailed the 'rationalization' of both the worker and the object of his or her labour. Human faculties, labour and ultimately all aspects of society had become broken down into mechanical functions that could be calculated, refined and optimised in order to ease the smooth running of capitalism. Lukács called this process 'reification' – the transformation of human attributes and activities into quantifiable things – and described the commodity fetish as the form of subjective consciousness that arose from this state of affairs: an alienated, contemplative detachment towards one's own activity.

However, alienation for Marx had an objective (i.e. real, concrete, actual) side to it as well as the subjective (i.e. conceptual, ideological) side that Lukács focussed upon. It is not a form of ideology, or something that impinges upon the worker's 'humanity' and 'soul', but rather part of the real process of wage labour: the sale of labour power is sold as a commodity, the activity of labouring for the purchaser of that commodity, and the production of finished results that the worker has no claim to or direct interest in. For Marx, labour must be alienated (made other to the worker) in order to be bought and sold. Capitalist production thus relies upon the alienation of labour in two respects: firstly, in the sense that the capitalist requires the labour of others to augment the value of his or her capital; and secondly, in that it is the alienation and sale of social labour that renders individual labour interchangeable and socially equivalent, thus giving rise to the equivalence and exchangeability of finished commodities.

Now, if production and circulation depend upon the alienation of labour, then so too does the commodity fetish, which essentially means that the equivalence of commodities in circulation masks the social relations of those who produce them. Put simply, Marx's account of the fetish is as follows: the value of commodities derives from the labour of human beings, but when these commodities are placed in a comparative relation to one another – and when this relation is facilitated by money, the general equivalent – all reference to value's basis in labour is lost, and their value appears to be an innate quality within them. The corollary of this is that the power (the labour, activity and potential) of human subjects presents itself as that of the things that they produce.

Thus, where for Lukács alienation was the fetish's ideological and subjective result, for Marx it was its objective cause. Further, where Marx viewed alienation in terms of the relations of production, Lukács viewed it as a result of the quantitative equivalence of commodity circulation – and in thus developing a notion of commodity fetishism through Lukács' work, Debord took as his starting point an overriding concern with consumption as well as an abstracted notion of production. We can thus see a theoretical basis for the problems identified in both Debord and Retort's accounts.

This shift from production to circulation underlies Debord's concern with 'images'. Lukács' had attempted to unite social phenomena under the concept of the commodity, and Debord tried to do the same thing with his notion of spectacle ('The concept of the spectacle brings together and explains a wide range of apparently disparate phenomena...it is the historical moment by which we happen to be governed' ). But where Lukács had stressed society's oblivious acceptance of the commodity's logic, Debord's concept of choice had even less to do with economics; it instead simply sought to express a mode of life – considered as a generality – governed by an endless celebration of its own validity, and thus brought with it a departure from the actual reality and basis of class struggle.

The result was an effectively fetishized view of class struggle: and whilst Debord and the S.I.'s alliance with those who wanted more from the present necessarily entailed an allegiance with the labour movement, it remains the case that they had no theoretical grasp of its material basis. They affiliated themselves with class struggle, presented their ideas as its truth, and yet simultaneously effaced its real import. In this respect Debord's development of Hegelian Marxism can be read as a reversal of Marx's famous 'inversion' of Hegel: the materialist basis that Marx provided is replaced here with its own idealised image. Indeed, although Debord criticised the errors of abdicating historical agency to God, the Hegelian Spirit or the economy at every available opportunity, he nonetheless deified human history itself and at times presented it as if it was an entity in its own right.

5) Theory, practice and strategy

This takes us to Debord's problematic relation to Marx, and thus by a rather circuitous route to the merits of his account. He begins his celebrated fourth chapter of The Society of the Spectacle – in which he presents a history of the workers' movement – by describing the emergence of what he calls 'historical thought': a term which essentially refers to a conscious awareness of humanity's ability to shape its own history. This, he claims, first arose with Hegel's philosophy, which understood human self-consciousness to be the result of a historical process of development. Debord notes approvingly that for Hegel 'it was no longer a matter of interpreting the world, but rather of interpreting the world's transformation', but complains that Hegel's work effectively observed the world as it seemingly shaped itself, and that it crowned and concluded that process by celebrating the existing (bourgeois) social relations of Hegel's time as constituting the culmination and truth of that historical process. Debord then discusses Marx's development and appropriation of Hegel's work, and makes clear that in his view Marx's great merit was not the 'scientific' technicalities of his economic works but rather his 'demolish[ing of] Hegel's detached stance with respect to what occurs.'

It would thus seem that for Debord the real nature of Marx's work was effectively encapsulated in his most famous exhortation (and epitaph); namely, that: 'The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.' Marx's significance, for Debord, lies in his call to reclaim society's alienated powers and consciously shape history, as opposed to merely 'watching' as it seemingly made itself (or rather as the economy shaped it). He thus places enormous stress on the actualization of consciousness and on the relation between theory and practice. This, however, meant that he adopted a highly sceptical attitude to Marx's 'scientific' and economic work.

According to Debord (who was far more concerned with Marx's early writings than his later economic studies), 'for Marx it is the struggle – and by no means the law – that has to be understood.' He in fact held that Marx's concern with economic 'laws' constituted the weakest aspect of his work: 'The scientific-determinist side of Marx's thought was indeed what made it vulnerable to “ideologization.”' Debord's position is informed here by aspects of Lukács' writings (and indeed Marx's own), which claimed that the essential error of bourgeois thought was that it viewed a moment of history (capitalist society) as an eternal and natural truth. The attempt to define fixed, scientific laws for the operation of history and society, therefore, implied dogma and ideology. In engaging with 'the fundamental science of bourgeois society, political economy,” Marx had been “drawn onto the ground of the dominant forms of thought,' and 'it was [subsequently] in this mutilated form, later taken as definitive, that Marx's theory became “Marxism”.'

Debord's relation to Marx's economics is of course marked by his understandable frustration with Communist Party orthodoxy and the ideology of economic determinism, but of interest here is the extent to which this conception of 'historical thought' demands the constant development of theory in relation to practice, and the perpetual rejection of fixed dogmas. Indeed, according to Debord, after Marx 'theory thenceforward had nothing to know beyond what it itself did' ; Marx's famous 'inversion' of Hegel is thus effectively read as a reversal of past and future, in which the present moment would no longer be viewed as the conclusion of history (as is the case with Hegel) but rather as the genesis for its future development. 'History,' Debord claims, 'once it becomes real, no longer has an end,' and it is in this sense that he viewed the circularity of Hegel's system and its attempt at completeness as 'undialectical.'

Describing Hegel's philosophy as 'undialectical' may of course seem a little strange, but Debord does so as he interprets that philosophy as having reduced the true nature of history to the validity of a single historical moment. For Debord humans are essentially finite creatures, subject to the passage of time and limited in their awareness. The attempt to supersede such limitations through assuming that the illusions of religion, economics, metaphysics or political dogma constitute an eternal truth is to alienate one's own historical nature into a static, separate power to which one submits. Debord's entire oeuvre celebrates the finitude, temporality and uncertainty of human experience, and sought to reintroduce history into that experience through rejecting any such illusions.

This leads us to the significance of time in Debord's work. Time, for Debord, was the very essence of freedom; he claimed that it 'is a necessary alienation, being the medium in which the subject realises himself while losing himself, becomes other to become truly himself.' Quoting Hegel, he stated that 'Man – that “negative being who is solely to the extent that he abolishes being” – is one with time.' The human subject, in acting within time and thus differentiation, is a force that negates a given state of being; it changes it into a new state, and thereby negates and changes itself in turn. The important thing to note here is that if the negativity of the human subject is equated to the effectively endless negation of time, then the human must be defined by resistance to any immediate given, be that ideological dogma or concrete circumstance. This constitutes the basis for a permanent revolution, perpetually opposed to any a-historically static ideology or social structure. Rather than the completed, 'circular' dialectic of Hegelian philosophy, Debord proposes an endless process of self-determination and becoming.

This open-ended notion of conscious determination in time stood in complete contrast to the spectacle: 'The spectacle, being the reigning social organisation of a paralysed history, of a paralysed memory, of an abandonment of any history founded in historical time, is in effect a false consciousness of time.' The constructed situation, on the other hand, was defined as 'an integral ensemble of behaviour in time,' a deliberate construction of lived experience in accordance with the desires of the experiencing subject. Situations were to be 'ephemeral moments', the 'success' of which 'can reside in nothing other than their fleeting effect.' The point was thus to move with time and to make history, and in this sense the situation became one with the exuberance of the revolutionary moment; for example, the events of May 1968 were described later that year as 'a festival, a game, a real presence of people and of time,' and as 'an awakening to the possibility of intervening in history, an awareness of participating in an irreversible event.'

Two issues become apparent here, one negative and one positive. On the one hand, these aspects of Debord's work constitute the philosophical basis for the abstract humanism that creeps into his theory, and are what renders his development of Marxism so akin to its transformation into a form of existentialism. On the other hand, they also point towards the more relevant and interesting aspects of his work: namely, his stress on praxis and on the constant, endless refusal of dogma and orthodoxy.

We saw that for Debord 'man' (sic) is 'one with time', and that consciousness can never supersede the finitude that this unity with the negativity of time brings. We've also seen that any pretensions towards a universal or absolute perspective on history is necessarily an illusion, and a denial of the temporal and transitive nature of human subjectivity. Consequently, if all such 'historical thought' is characterized by these limitations, and if it exists only to affect change within history, then it can only be valid in so far as it acts within the context that gave rise to it. Theory, in other words, is historically specific, and is 'true' only insofar as it is realized in practice; for example, according to Debord, '[Marx's] Capital is obviously true and false: essentially, it is true, because the proletariat recognized it, although quite badly (and thus also let its errors pass).'

A further corollary arises from this model: if the finitude of consciousness entails that 'historical thought' must always be a case of making decisions and acting on the basis of limited knowledge, it must therefore always be subject to chance and unknown factors. This is the reason for Debord's great passion for military theory and strategy.

Theory for Debord was always to be an intervention, and never an absolute: 'theories', he wrote, 'are only made to die in the war of time. Like military units, they must be sent into battle at the right moment; and whatever their merits or insufficiencies, they can only be used if they are on hand when they’re needed. They have to be replaced because they are constantly being rendered obsolete.' Consequently, for Debord radical theory is best understood as the formulation of pragmatic tactics, and as the theorisation of strategy. This can be seen again in the closing pages of The Real Split in the International; the S.I.’s final text, in which they heralded their own supersession:

The theory of revolution in no way falls exclusively within the domain of strictly scientific knowledge…the rules of conflict are its rules, war is its means, and its operations are more comparable to an art than to a piece of scientific research or a catalogue of good intentions. The theory of revolution is judged on the sole criterion that its knowledge must become a power.

This last line about knowledge and power is not a reference to Foucault, as might be supposed, but rather to Clausewitz, whom Debord greatly admired and frequently referenced. The word ‘power’ comes by way of a translation of the original Können into pouvoir, and refers to a section of chapter 2, book 2 of On War entitled (in the present English translation) ‘Knowledge must become Capability.’ Here Clausewitz writes the following, in lines whose rejection of separated knowledge must have appealed to Debord:

Knowledge must be so absorbed into the mind that it almost ceases to exist in a separate, objective way. In almost every art or profession a man can work with truths he has learned from musty books, but which have no life or meaning for him. Even truths that are in constant use and are always to hand may still be externals. …It is never like that in war. Continual change and the need to respond to it compels the commander to carry the whole intellectual apparatus of his knowledge within him. By total assimilation with his mind and life, the commander’s knowledge must be transformed into a genuine capability.

Similarly, Debord also distances himself from any theorist seeking to derive social change from contemplative study, and clearly states that revolutionary theory must be developed in tandem with the circumstances to which it seeks to apply itself. The centrality of praxis to Debord’s theory allows for no conceptions that are not derived from and focussed upon activity and the actualization of the subject. Anything less leads to contemplation.

Sadly, the openness of this model stands in sharp contrast to Debord's own adherence to it; when the promised revolution failed to materialize, the optimism of 1967 developed into the rather more morose tone of his Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (1988); and rather than take the position that his earlier analysis may have been flawed, Debord subsumed society's new defining features into an extension of his former presentation, which he termed the 'integrated spectacle'. He had not been mistaken in his analysis, he claimed; rather, the possibilities for revolutionary change had not been adequately pursued, and the spectacle had been allowed to tighten its grip. In this respect his the theory's assumptions as to the complete development of social alienation in mid 20th Century consumer society, and as to the immanence of its revolutionary supersession, stand revealed as something similar to the 'closed' Hegelian dialectic that he had opposed: like Hegel, Debord effectively took his present circumstances to be the culmination of human (pre)history. Having viewed all revolutionary possibility as focussed at a particular historical juncture he increasingly came to see the decades beyond that point in terms of the spectacle's victory; and, in consequence, he effectively 'closed' his own dialectical model by refusing to acknowledge the new possibilities that those years might have offered. Debord's disinterest in economics and consequent failure to recognise the significance of the wage relation – which perpetually posits an antagonistic other to capital – not only led to a theoretical dead end, but also to an assumption of defeat and futility, and thus to the resignation, depression and withdrawal of his final years.
Conclusion

In 1979 Debord declared: “I flatter myself to be a very rare contemporary example of someone who has written without immediately being contradicted by the event, and I do not mean contradicted a hundred or a thousand times like the others, but not once. I have no doubt that the confirmation all my theses encounter ought not to last right until the end of the century and even beyond.” We reject this view, and suggest that it reflects a theoretical complacence and resignation that stands in direct contradiction to Debord’s own assertions as to the need to develop new theory. It is an exercise in banality to point out that in present society our lives and subjectivities are shaped and affected by capital; and if this is to stand as the theory of spectacle's historical validation, then it remains a theory that tells us very little. This is because its focus is one-sided: the assumption that the alienation that underpins capitalist society can be understood in primarily subjective terms is based upon a failure to understand the objective significance of capitalist social relations. This, as we have argued, results in an inherently abstract notion of struggle.

We've seen that this mistake was similar to and derived from Lukács' own errors: Debord disregarded the objective alienation of labour power as a commodity sold within the wage relation, and based his account of society upon an ideological notion of alienation centred around its subjective effects. Capitalist production was thus understood as an abstraction derived from circulation and consumption; or, to quote Dauvé, Debord's analysis 'start[ed]... from a reflection on the surface of society...[and] made a study of the profound, through and by means of the superficial appearance.' For us, the theory's consequent failure to deal with capital and class in an adequate manner resulted in an abstract notion of struggle; and it is this, we claim, that made Debord and the S.I.'s work so amenable to recuperation. We've also seen that this mistake eventually led Debord himself into depression and to an assumption of defeat. In order to gather these observations together and to thus bring our comments to a close, we might now note a form of recuperation frequently exercised upon Debord and the S.I. that exemplifies theses issues: namely, the view – widely promoted by academic commentators during the previous decade – that the implications of Debord's work were taken to their logical conclusion by the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard.

Baudrillard's work during the 1980's argued that the saturation of society with commodities had reached a point at which the true nature of social reality was no longer masked by the commodity's images, but was rather generated from them; any stable and authentic 'real' had thus been lost, and the distinction between capital and its opposition dissolved. Consequently, reading Baudrillard as the logical conclusion of Debord’s work entails viewing Debord's complaints about the spectacular organisation of everyday life as a dawning, half-glimpsed realisation as to the impossibility of radical social change. This is of course the absolute opposite of Debord’s own intentions; and yet the fact that it is possible to do so stands as a stark illustration of the problems inherent within the concept of spectacle.

The account of time, history and subjectivity that the theory of spectacle rests upon does, however, point beyond this post-modern dead end. In conceiving the human subject as a force that acts, changes and affects change, Debord presented an account that described that subject as always other and opposed to the world that it reacts to and acts upon. There is no such erasure of the 'real' or of an 'authentic' human subject as there never was such a pure, authentic and natural subject in the first place: as Marx stressed continually, and as Debord repeated when describing subjectivity (and yet seemed to forget when describing the spectacle), the human subject is not possessed of an immutable a priori essence but is rather always historically contextual. Within capitalist society the wage relation entails that this dialectical relation between subject and world is prevented from being a process of self-realisation, and instead becomes the real, objective alienation of oneself from one's own activity. When these issues are kept in mind, Baudrillard's political nihilism can be understood as the ideological reflection of a particular historical moment: as a failure to recognise the contingency of Western consumer capitalism (and indeed of capital as a whole) caused by a superficial focus on the commodity's appearances and subjective effects. And, if one can make that claim against Baudrillard, then one can also level it against the defeatism of Debord’s later years, and indeed against the essential premise of the theory of spectacle: namely, the assumption that it is possible to define capitalist social relations under the rubric of their most ‘stultifyingly superficial appearances’, and to thus understand the objective alienation of labour on the basis of its subjective effects.

This is not to deny the impact that the S.I. have exerted upon protest movements and on the struggle against capitalism. The Situationist slogans that appeared upon the walls of the Latin Quarter in May 1968 are still readily adopted and employed, and when this is considered in relation to the abstraction that we have complained of it's tempting to suggest that Debord and the S.I.'s contributions should, in some respects, be understood as form of aesthetics rather than as revolutionary theory per se: their work provides a poetic and romantic notion of the motive for revolt, and of what a revolutionary movement should aspire towards, but ultimately offers little more than this.

As we have indicated, these problems seem to have been entirely missed by Retort, who claim that that the theory of spectacle allows one to grasp the true nature of modern society. Such problems also seem to have been ignored by the many other writers and commentators who have ensured that at least one of The Society of the Spectacle's assertions has received a form of historical verification: writing in 1967 Debord claimed, with undeniable accuracy, that 'Without a doubt the critical concept of the spectacle is susceptible of being turned into just another empty formula of sociologico-political rhetoric designed to explain and denounce everything in the abstract – so serving to buttress the spectacular system itself.' The real problem however, as we have argued here, is that the theory was itself too abstract in the first place.

But whilst the theory itself may be of little use, the model of subjectivity, time and the relation between theory and practice that underlies it remains pertinent, interesting and relevant. Consequently, although we hold that the theory of spectacle should now be abandoned, we by no means suggest that the philosophy of praxis that it rests upon should be jettisoned along with it. These aspects of Debord's work have been almost universally ignored by academic commentators, but they hold far greater relevance to anyone seeking to answer the S.I.'s call for their own supersession than the theory of spectacle itself. In this respect we might close by thinking back one last time to Retort's trope of a council of war. Had Retort performed a closer reading of Debord's work they may perhaps have identified these issues, along with the conflation of strategic thought and radical theory that they entail. And, had they done so, they may have realised that the uncritical imposition of Debord's account onto today's society constitutes a similar mistake to that of a military leader, who regardless of changing circumstances, defeats, victories and reflection continues to use the same tactics in each and every engagement. It is in this respect that Debord and the S.I.'s exhortations as to the production of new theory in conjunction with practice are of far greater relevance than the theory of spectacle itself.

(FOOTNOTES COMING SOON)

Comments

Johnny
Dec 31 2009 20:46

(FOOTNOTES COMING SOON)
for some poor bastard laugh out loud

mjw101
Jan 31 2010 02:54

ok, maybe i am being nitpicky, but is it fair to say that the spectacle is conceived of by debord as a general mode of life? i had the impression that really the point was that the organization of society on economic bases had resulted in cultural production (etc) always placing the consumer/observer/whatever in the position of passivity; i think it's important to distinguish this from a general claim of a passive "mode of life" characterizing society. classic example/metaphor of this being the rows of people at the cinema on the cover of some editions of the book (i think this is a still from the film).

the author seems a fuck of a lot more knowledgeable than me about this stuff, so i understand it's likely i'm missing something. but it strikes me as an important difference that could affect the conclusions of the piece. for one thing, understanding that one is being constantly invited and urged to play one's prearranged part in life seems an invaluable (i don't think banal) realization. if it were really a banal thing, we would not have so many people spending their lives essentially trying to associate themselves with and match up to the images produced under these particular social relations.