Chapter 3: Unity and division within appearance

Submitted by libcom on July 28, 2005


“An intense new polemic is unfolding on the philosophical front in
this country, focusing on the concepts ‘one divides into two’ and
‘two fuse into one.’
This debate is a struggle between those who are for and those who are against
the materialist dialectic, a struggle between two conceptions of the world:
the proletarian conception and the bourgeois conception. Those who maintain
that ‘one divides into two’ is the fundamental law of things are on the side
of the materialist dialectic; those who maintain that the fundamental law of
things is that ‘two fuse into one’ are against the materialist dialectic. The
two sides have drawn a clear line of demarcation between them, and their
arguments are diametrically opposed. This polemic is a reflection, on the
ideological level, of the acute and complex class struggle taking place in
China and in the world.”

—Red Flag (Beijing), September 21, 1964



The spectacle, like modern society itself, is at once united and divided. The
unity of each is based on violent divisions. But when this contradiction
emerges in the spectacle, it is itself contradicted by a reversal of its
meaning: the division it presents is unitary, while the unity it presents is


Although the struggles between different powers for control of the same
socio-economic system are officially presented as fundamental antagonisms,
they actually reflect that system’s fundamental unity, both internationally and
within each nation.


The sham spectacular struggles between rival forms of separate power are at
the same time real, in that they reflect the system’s uneven and conflictual
development and the more or less contradictory interests of the classes or
sections of classes that accept that system and strive to carve out a role for
themselves within it. Just as the development of the most advanced economies
involves clashes between different priorities, totalitarian state-bureaucratic
forms of economic management and countries under colonialism or semicolonialism
also exhibit highly divergent types of production and power. By invoking any
number of different criteria, the spectacle can present these oppositions as
totally distinct social systems. But in reality they are nothing but particular
sectors whose fundamental essence lies in the global system that contains them,
the single movement that has turned the whole planet into its field of
operation: capitalism.


The society that bears the spectacle does not dominate underdeveloped regions
solely by its economic hegemony. It also dominates them as the society of the
. Even where the material base is still absent, modern society has
already used the spectacle to invade the social surface of every continent.
It sets the stage for the formation of indigenous ruling classes and frames
their agendas. Just as it presents pseudo-goods to be coveted, it offers false
models of revolution to local revolutionaries. The bureaucratic regimes in power
in certain industrialized countries have their own particular type of spectacle,
but it is an integral part of the total spectacle, serving as its
pseudo-opposition and actual support. Even if local manifestations of the
spectacle include certain totalitarian specializations of social communication
and control, from the standpoint of the overall functioning of the system those
specializations are simply playing their allotted role within a global
division of spectacular tasks


Although this division of spectacular tasks preserves the existing order as a
whole, it is primarily oriented toward protecting its dominant pole of
development. The spectacle is rooted in the economy of abundance, and the
products of that economy ultimately tend to dominate the spectacular market and
override the ideological or police-state protectionist barriers set up by local
spectacles with pretensions of independence.


Behind the glitter of spectacular distractions, a tendency toward
dominates modern society the world over, even where the more
advanced forms of commodity consumption have seemingly multiplied the variety of
roles and objects to choose from. The vestiges of religion and of the family
(the latter is still the primary mechanism for transferring class power from one
generation to the next), along with the vestiges of moral repression imposed by
those two institutions, can be blended with ostentatious pretensions of worldly
gratification precisely because life in this particular world remains repressive
and offers nothing but pseudo-gratifications. Complacent acceptance of the status
quo may also coexist with purely spectacular rebelliousness
— dissatisfaction
itself becomes a commodity as soon as the economy of abundance develops the
capacity to process that particular raw material.


Stars — spectacular representations of living human beings
— project this general banality into images of permitted roles. As
specialists of apparent life, stars serve as superficial objects that
people can identify with in order to compensate for the fragmented productive
specializations that they actually live. The function of these celebrities is to act
out various lifestyles or sociopolitical viewpoints in a
full, totally free manner.
They embody the inaccessible results of social labor by dramatizing the
by-products of that labor which are magically projected above it as its ultimate
goals: power and vacations — the decision-making and consumption
that are at the beginning and the end of a process that is never questioned.
On one hand, a governmental power may personalize itself as a pseudo-star;
on the other, a star of consumption
may campaign for recognition as a
pseudo-power over life. But the activities of these stars are
not really free and they offer no real choices.


The agent of the spectacle who is put on stage as a star is the opposite of
an individual; he is as clearly the enemy of his own individuality as of the
individuality of others. Entering the spectacle as a model to be identified
with, he renounces all autonomous qualities in order to identify himself with
the general law of obedience to the flow of things. The stars of consumption,
though outwardly representing different personality types, show each of
these types enjoying equal access to, and deriving equal happiness from, the
entire realm of consumption. The stars of decision-making must possess the full
range of admired human qualities: official differences between them are thus
canceled out by the official similarity implied by their supposed excellence in
every field of endeavor. As head of state, Khrushchev retrospectively became a
general so as to take credit for the victory of the battle of Kursk twenty years
after it happened. And Kennedy survived as an orator to the point of delivering
his own funeral oration, since Theodore Sorensen continued to write speeches for
his successor in the same style that had contributed so much toward the dead
man’s public persona. The admirable people who personify the system are well
known for not being what they seem; they attain greatness by stooping below the
reality of the most insignificant individual life, and everyone knows it.


The false choices offered by spectacular abundance — choices based on the
juxtaposition of competing yet mutually reinforcing spectacles and of distinct
yet interconnected roles (signified and embodied primarily by objects) — develop
into struggles between illusory qualities designed to generate fervent
allegiance to quantitative trivialities. Fallacious archaic oppositions are
revived — regionalisms and racisms which serve to endow mundane rankings in the
hierarchies of consumption with a magical ontological superiority — and
subplayful enthusiasms are aroused by an endless succession of farcical competitions, from sports to
elections. Wherever abundant consumption is
established, one particular spectacular opposition is always in the forefront of
illusory roles: the antagonism between youth and adults. But
real adults — people
who are masters of their own lives — are in fact nowhere to be found. And a
youthful transformation of what exists is in no way characteristic of those who
are now young; it is present solely in the economic system, in the dynamism of
capitalism. It is things that rule and that are young, vying with each
other and constantly replacing each other.


Spectacular oppositions conceal the unity of poverty. If different
forms of the same alienation struggle against each other in the guise of
irreconcilable antagonisms, this is because they are all based on real
contradictions that are repressed. The spectacle exists in a concentrated
form or a diffuse form, depending on the requirements of the particular
stage of poverty it denies and supports. In both cases it is nothing more than
an image of happy harmony surrounded by desolation and
horror, at the calm center of


The concentrated spectacle is primarily associated with bureaucratic
capitalism, though it may also be imported as a technique for reinforcing state
power in more backward mixed economies or even adopted by advanced capitalism
during certain moments of crisis. Bureaucratic property is itself concentrated,
in that the individual bureaucrat takes part in the ownership of the
economy only through his membership in the community of bureaucrats. And
since commodity production is less developed under bureaucratic capitalism, it
too takes on a concentrated form: the commodity the bureaucracy appropriates is
the total social labor, and what it sells back to the society is that society’s
wholesale survival. The dictatorship of the bureaucratic economy cannot leave
the exploited masses any significant margin of choice because it has had to make
all the choices itself, and any choice made independently of it, whether
regarding food or music or anything else, thus amounts to a declaration of war
against it. This dictatorship must be enforced by permanent violence. Its
spectacle imposes an image of the good which subsumes everything that officially
exists, an image which is usually concentrated in a single individual, the
guarantor of the system’s totalitarian cohesion. Everyone must magically
identify with this absolute star or disappear. This master of everyone else’s
nonconsumption is the heroic image that disguises the absolute exploitation
entailed by the system of primitive accumulation accelerated by terror. If the
entire Chinese population has to study Mao to the point of identifying with Mao,
this is because there is nothing else they can be. The
concentrated spectacle implies a police state.


The diffuse spectacle is associated with commodity abundance, with the
undisturbed development of modern capitalism. Here each individual commodity is
justified in the name of the grandeur of the total commodity production, of
which the spectacle is a laudatory catalog. Irreconcilable claims jockey for
position on the stage of the affluent economy’s unified spectacle, and different
star commodities simultaneously promote conflicting social policies. The
automobile spectacle, for example, strives for a perfect traffic flow entailing
the destruction of old urban districts, while the city spectacle needs to
preserve those districts as tourist attractions. The already dubious
satisfaction alleged to be obtained from the consumption of the whole
is thus constantly being disappointed because the actual consumer can directly
access only a succession of fragments of this commodity heaven, fragments
invariably lack the quality attributed to the whole.


Each individual commodity fights for itself. It avoids acknowledging
others and strives to impose itself everywhere as if it were the only one in
existence. The spectacle is the epic poem of this struggle, a struggle that no
fall of Troy can bring to an end. The spectacle does not sing of men and their
arms, but of commodities and their passions. In this blind struggle each
commodity, by pursuing its own passion, unconsciously generates something beyond
itself: the globalization of the commodity (which also
amounts to the commodification of the globe).
Thus, as a result of the cunning of the commodity, while each
manifestation of the commodity
eventually falls in battle, the general commodity-form
continues onward toward its absolute realization.


The satisfaction that no longer comes from using the commodities
produced in abundance is now sought through recognition of their value as
. Consumers are filled with religious fervor for the sovereign
freedom of commodities whose use has become an end in itself. Waves of
enthusiasm for particular products are propagated by all
the communications media. A film sparks a fashion craze; a magazine publicizes
night spots, which in turn spin off different lines of products. The
proliferation of faddish gadgets reflects the fact that as the mass of
commodities becomes increasingly absurd, absurdity itself becomes a commodity.
Trinkets such as key chains which come as free bonuses with the purchase of some
luxury product, but which end up being traded back and forth as valued
collectibles in their own right, reflect a mystical self-abandonment to
commodity transcendence. Those who collect the trinkets that have been
manufactured for the sole purpose of being collected are accumulating commodity
indulgences — glorious tokens of the commodity’s real presence among the
faithful. Reified people proudly display the proofs of their intimacy with the
commodity. Like the old religious fetishism, with its convulsionary raptures and
miraculous cures, the fetishism of commodities generates its own moments of
fervent arousal. All this is useful for only one purpose: producing habitual


The pseudo-needs imposed by modern consumerism cannot be contrasted with any
genuine needs or desires that are not themselves also shaped by this society and
its history. Commodity abundance represents a total break in the organic
development of social needs. Its mechanical accumulation unleashes an
unlimited artificiality

which overpowers any living desires. The cumulative
power of this autonomous artificiality ends up by falsifying all social life.


The image of blissful social unification through consumption merely
the consumer’s awareness of the actual divisions until his next
disillusionment with some particular commodity. Each new product is
ceremoniously acclaimed as a unique creation offering a dramatic shortcut to the
promised land of total consummation. But as with the fashionable
adoption of seemingly aristocratic first names which end up being given to
virtually all individuals of the same age, the objects that promise uniqueness can
be offered up for mass consumption only if they are numerous enough to have been mass-produced. The
prestigiousness of mediocre objects of this kind is solely due to the fact that
they have been placed, however briefly, at the center of social life and hailed
as a revelation of the unfathomable purposes of production. But the object that
was prestigious in the spectacle becomes mundane as soon as it is taken home by
its consumer — at the same time as by all its other consumers. Too late it reveals its
essential poverty, a poverty that inevitably reflects the poverty of its production.
Meanwhile, some other object is already replacing it as justification of the
system and demanding its own moment of acclaim.


The fraudulence of the satisfactions offered by the system is exposed by
this continual replacement of products and of general conditions of production.
In both the diffuse and the concentrated spectacle,
entities that have brazenly asserted their definitive perfection nevertheless end up
changing, and only the
system endures. Stalin, like any other outmoded commodity, is denounced by the
very forces that originally promoted him. Each new lie of the advertising
industry is an admission of its previous lie. And
with each
downfall of a personification of totalitarian power, the illusory community
that had unanimously approved him is exposed as a mere conglomeration of loners
without illusions.


The things the spectacle presents as eternal are based on change, and must
change as their foundations change. The spectacle is totally dogmatic, yet it is
incapable of arriving at any really solid dogma. Nothing stands still for it.
This instability is the spectacle’s natural condition, but it is completely
contrary to its natural inclination.


The unreal unity proclaimed by the spectacle masks the class division
underlying the real unity of the capitalist mode of production. What obliges the
producers to participate in the construction of the world is also what
them from it. What brings people
into relation with each other
by liberating them from
their local and national
limitations is also what keeps them apart. What requires increased rationality
is also what nourishes the irrationality of hierarchical exploitation and
repression. What produces society’s abstract power also
produces its concrete lack of