Situationist thought might seem like a mere historical foot-note from Cold War history but it is worth some reconsideration now that we have seen ‘capitalism’ go through one of its periodic bouts of creative destruction. It depended intellectually on yet another attempt by mid-twentieth century Marxists to weasel out of the tough fact that their Idealist origins meant that they could never actually relate to the human condition as most people lived it – life for Marxists is an expression of theory. On the other hand, shorn of its ridiculous and patronising Marxist rhetoric, it has been 'detourned' into every avenue of commercial art, that is where it has not become the hobby of marginalised contemporary anarchists operating on the fringe of political reality - and sometimes of reality itself.
Where Situationist Thought Sits
Yet it would be foolish to under-estimate its importance. Although derived from an untenable Hegelianism, still being played out by the buffoons in the European Commission, it had one big thing to offer. What the situationists wanted to do was to make individuals, especially individuals at the very base of society, critically observe and analyse their daily conditions of life, calculate their own intrinsic desires and act on them.
Forget the Young Hegelian padding, this was potentially pre-Socratic in form, a half-way house to a proper existentialist political ethic. Perhaps they needed to claw their way out of the very ideology in which they had set themselves and just failed and perhaps we should honour them simply for trying. Their contribution to Western culture is precisely to expose the impossibility of one’s own desire being encompassed by any theory.
Debord recognized this to a degree by opposing any attempt to turn the situationist impulse into 'situationism', an ideology. Unfortunately, he failed to escape the dominant intellectual ideology of his time. One can imagine a group of Christian radicals (anti-trinitarians perhaps) playing with similar ideas, yet getting trapped into a necessary but ultimately fruitless faith in God.
The Situationist and the Left
Debord understood Sartre’s insight into one aspect of our condition – that the will to the universal, embedded in ‘official’ left-wing thought, is deeply absurd. He saw ideology as legitimated in modern society ‘by universal abstraction and by the effective dictatorship of illusion’. What the Situationists expressed was a peculiar form of revolt that has resonance today. Within the Left, it was a revolt against the bureaucratic impulse of contemporary socialism and the repulsive dictatorship of Stalin’s nomenlatura. That particular argument was won in any case by history. From the Left, however, it was a revolt at the process of having one’s reality, desires and needs dictated by machineries that were no less bureaucratic than those of sclerotic communism but which were hidden within the operations of capitalism.
Later, the great left-wing weasel himself, Gramsci, managed to perform a trick whereby the official Left simply abandoned overt bureaucratism and adopted the manipulative techniques of capitalist enterprises for social engineering purposes. The Situationist impulse is thus important because the problems they identified have not gone away but have merely transformed themselves. Mow, the manipulation of reality comes not only from advertising agencies but from liberal-left infiltration of our culture.
Anti-Capitalism and Neo-Bureaucratic Socialism
What we have now is a culture of self-righteous and manipulative activists, all talking their book and using their minority power to force universalist regulation and legislation on a powerless population. From a Cold War situation of communist bureaucratic tyranny and ‘free world’ corporate drabness, we have transformed into a world of government by liberal-left elites amidst an economic chaos which they are incapable of managing.
The Situationist International was anti-capitalist (whatever that can mean today) but their revolutionary impulse embraced what they saw as the positive elements within capitalist development. Despite the bleatings of Marxist-Leninists, there are positive aspects. Capitalism, by lurches and starts, eventually provides for needs and desires far better than any other system, better than political traditionalism and provenly better than communism.
At a certain level of development, people began to have the opportunity for personal choice. This was certainly not the case in the industrial factory culture of mid-twentieth century France and it is not the case across most of the world for most of the time but, where the market (let us drop the loaded term capitalism) operates well, persons do have more choices although this does not mean that the choices are the ones we always want ... better is not to be taken here to mean good, just not-so-bad.
There is a current attempt at a back-lash against choice from the sourer elements of the liberal-left but this neo-puritanism, which can descend to complaints about the complexity of mobile phone tariffs in a world of stupid and lazy people, deliberately ignores that late capitalism gives us other more critical choices of real value.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century in the developed west, we have been given remarkable choices over our sexual identity, who we associate with, where and how we live, what we take into our bodies and what we can say (despite liberal-left attempts to control this last). These freedoms derive entirely from our relative prosperity and so from late capitalism. The tragedy of the current economic crisis is that many people have not found a way to extend their freedoms independent of prosperity and regardless of the cynical interest of the ‘capitalists’.
This is where the situationist impulse comes in because the situationists were ahead of their time by half a century in asserting the primacy of the ordinary person’s ability to assert his or her right to choose his or her condition of life according to his or her desires - against centuries of social control. What we can continue to do is bring desire as a reality to the forefront of the population’s minds so that these desires can be recognized as good in themselves and, if transgressive against some dictated norm, inspirational towards changing the norm itself.
Instead of the liberal-left activist transforming a norm to meet abstract universalist principles over the heads of the population, the population might be liberated to assess its own condition and then demand that ‘norms’ be transformed away from the universal and back to the particular. What they can also do is what Sanguinetti and Debord did in their hoax pamphlet of 1975 where they ‘tricked’ major figures into showing their true thoughts and feelings on the murderous fascist interventions in Italy at that time.
This was unforgivable to elites – Sanguinetti had to flee Italy and was denied entry to France. Yet all he had done was to get the elite to show its true sentiments to the ruled. This should have been the task of journalism but journalists were and are fully embedded in the elite. As we have seen in the outpourings of garbage over the Ukrainian and Greater Syrian situations, the 'free Press' is little more than the 'father of lies' (on all sides).
Marxism & Value
Let us turn to what is wrong with Situationist Thought. Almost everything that is wrong with it can be put down to its Marxist origins and its easy acceptance of Marx’s labour theory of value. Everything in Marxism depends on this theory – and on its elaborations such as commodification, reification and alienation – so that any theory that did not accept it could not be called Marxist. The Situationists had to see themselves as Marxist if they were to be credibly ‘of the Left’.
In fact, value is not created by work but by perception, in a very different way from Marx’s simple view of all production being simply economic and ‘scientific’. How we perceive value arises from considerations that relate to our desires as much as our needs. The Marxist impulse is not merely to diminish these desires but to start creating concepts such as 'false consciousness' that will be the basis of the totalitarian manipulation of desire. Above all, the Marxist will not investigate and respect (and socialise) the animal core of desire and the 'divine' aspiration within it. While not going so far, the Situationists made the revolutionary step of interpreting Marxist theory in terms of experience and perception but laid claim to this being a stage in capitalism, ‘advanced’ capitalism.
Today, the capitalist seeks out and enables a creativity which would not be expressed at all if it was not for the capitalist who permits both efficient and wasteful organisation of resources. The Situationists, however, were hobbled by their need to fit in with ‘progressive’ historicism. Their profound insight was vitiated by the fact that they failed to understand that all value is based on experience and desire once very basic needs are met and that even those needs are contingent on experience and desire. In short, experience and desire (if only to continue living) are far more intrinsic to value than some gobbledy-gook that inserts the capitalist between the worker and his product. Even the form of basic needs can be dictated by perceptions and experience as in those situations where markets are perverted by taboo.
The Age of Spectacle
The Situationists assumed that we lived in an age of Spectacle that was different from all other ages. The latest adaptation of this is the current interest in the hyper-real, best exemplified by the work of Baudrillard. But they were entrapped within Marxist historical thought here as well. In fact, all ages are ages of spectacle and of simulacra because that is the central fact of the human condition. The only difference today is the sheer extent of the technological enhancement of the real that is available to us.
The human condition is always one of interpreting too much data from too many sources through perceptual apparatus that are not only limited by genetics but by history, habit and other people. Our species is constantly creating a version of reality that is pragmatically designed for survival.
Our reality at any one time is not the only possible reality. If it is true that it is constructed (as Marxists claim) from a particular relationship to the means of production, it is also true that it is constantly being recreated by the minds of millions of persons with instinctive wants and desires that are independent of those means.
This spectacle, this unified and always growing ‘thing’, made up of objects perceived and turned into value by the perceiving (detached from any underlying reality and certainly from the analysed reality of the intellectual) is a Heraclitean flux that can never be made solid or fully understood (despite the fantasies of the AI and Big Data enthusiasts). The Marxist theory of alienation may be true analytically but it also contains an intrinsic problem that it derives from the Judaeo-Christian cultural tradition – that is, it does not want it to be true. Implicitly the Communist society is supposed, if not to abolish it, to reduce alienation of this type and yet this alienation is precisely what makes us evolve and be creative.
Why Alienation May Be A Good Thing
It may be far more sensible to embrace the flux, identify one’s own desires and then pragmatically seek fulfillment without collapsing into madness, in other words to be functionally happy within the flux by creating islands of vital personal rather than of sclerotic collective stability. Marxism is deeply conservative, terrified of change (unless a revolutionary blood-letting to end change), and nervous of emotion, desire and instinct.
Many Leftists would stand aghast at my comment and immediately suggest that such an acceptance of these things must be intrinsically ‘fascist’. So be it ... they misunderstand because they are wired to misunderstand these things. The Situationists embraced radical change in the short term, but their grand narrative still assumed that somewhere further down the line ‘revolution’ would bring some concordance between real reality and imagined reality. In this, they were wrong.
Though we may develop as a species in a robotic or purely intellectual direction over tens of thousands of years, we are defined now by having an individual reality (embracing our desires) that is disconnected from social reality ('norms’) which, in turn, is often out of kilter with the facts of the matter in the world. To seek to align our own situation with the ‘pseudo-reality’ of society by transforming the social into something that is in accordance with our own reality is absurd, utopianism of the worst sort, the basis of Hitlerism to name but one manifestation.
Why? Because there are millions of such realities, all competing and without any clear common class, race, sexual or other identity that is not created by the very society that we recognize as un-real. Faced with the flux of our desires and situation in a world where imbalances of power dictate the social norms which are imposed on us, where these same norms might be counter-productive to the effective management of scientific reality (as in some faith-based cultures), the Situationists have something to tell us but not precisely what they thought they wanted to tell us.
The Spectacle is not just a matter of contemplation but one of action where we, as individuals, have considerable opportunity to transform our and other lives if we only understood the degree of our freedom within our material and power constraints (so much, so Sartre).
What is not going to happen is any lasting transformation of society that is simply derived from a manipulative cadre – the sort of activist element we noted above – where a few individuals impose their phantasy on the majority without their own participation or informed consent. In practice only education (the art of questioning) and the market (the art of choosing) can liberate enslaved minds. Situationist events and cadres, in that context, are useful only insofar as they jolt us into questioning and into considering the value of our choices to ourselves.
Ideology as False God
From this perspective and as an example, AdBusters, which ‘detournes’ commercial advertising, is extremely valuable not because it will overthrow capitalism (it won’t) but because it raises questions outside of formal schooling institutions and it allows us to ask questions about our own values. However, if AdBusters simply replaces one world-view (slavery to the market) with another (slavery to an anti-capitalist rhetoric) nothing has been achieved.
The choice must include a value-driven choice for the product or service by the individual where that choice is informed and functionally useful to them. When an ideology like feminism raises questions for a woman (or man) about their relationship and offers a choice (to accept or not accept it) as well as a means of action (to act to make it a positive and effective choice), it is doing good.
But when it dictates an agenda that precludes questioning (‘all men are predators’) or forces a choice (‘sisterhood requires such-and-such an action'), then it is as oppressive as their invented Aunt Sally ‘patriarchy’. All ideologies need to be questioned in the same way. Debord’s ‘pseudo world’ of the spectacle is thus seen as a problem whereas in fact it is also a solution. There is no possible world that cannot be a pseudo world, in effect an imaginative construct limited by material reality, because the human species is defined positively by its own intrinsic alienation.
Taking Hold of the Spectacle
Once this is understood, we can abandon our puritanical moral panic about the lack of stability within existence and see the spectacle as something that we can create incrementally in our own image to the degree that we can ensure its and our functionality. What Debord is right to point out is the dangers of a liar lying to himself but, even here, we should not go too far.
A phantasy that is functional for the person is a tolerable madness. The issue is whether it is functional and not whether it is a phantasy. There is nothing wrong with phantasy at all. The liberatory element lies in an assertion (the only concession to the universal abstract) that the rights of persons to their phantasies are all equal and that the conditions of life should not include the acceptance of an unwilling submission of (or dominance over) one of another.
The lie that the liar may be telling himself is that he is happy or content when he has repressed and suppressed his true nature. An effective situationist response would be a socialized psychotherapeutic one, a revolutionary act of multiple enablings of self-assertions against the ‘given’. The current late capitalist spectacle works quite well at this critical level – the power of the consumer (which offsets the disempowered position of the employee or family member) permits an assertion of personal desire against the desire of capitalism to desire more resources.
The Hidden Moralism of Debord
A situationist economics might even emphasise the power of withdrawal of desire or the deferral of desire as a tactical act to get more of what is desired – not unlike the sexual politics within many relationships. The Spectacle is thus not the ‘concrete inversion of life’ (the Situationist view) but life itself, or rather what happens to life once individuals (who are truly alive) start to deal with one another in a constant process of gaming and trading.
Debord would have had much fun with our current obsession with zombies. This fascination is largely a construction of commercial interests but it is almost certainly hitting a sense in the population that the ‘system’ does treat them like zombies, units of production and consumption. But this does not mean that we are zombies, only that we are aware that we might become zombies. Zombies do not know that they are zombies.
Debord also argued that ‘things that were once directly lived are now lived by proxy’ but he exaggerates, sounding like a Christian moralist of the late pagan era. He has no proof for his statement because he was not 'there'. The literary evidence for the claim can be shown to be flawed and suppositious. He says that ‘once an experience is taken out of the real world, it becomes a commodity … the spectacular is developed to the detriment of the real. It becomes a substitute for experience’. But there is no harm in anything becoming a commodity if the trade is still good for the desiring subject. There is certainly no reason why the spectacle should not be regarded as being as real as the ‘real’ if it is felt as real by the person.
There is no real to be had in the sense that Debord is implying. Commodified experience is not only real to all intents and purposes but ‘more real’ insofar as it is the purchased expression of the fulfillment of a desire (albeit usually partially) that would otherwise not be experienced if it was not purchased. Marxism is riddled with pseudo-Judaeo-Christian moralizing about authenticity of experience and Debord cannot escape it. Here he is again: ‘our psychic functions are altered, we get a degradation of mind and also a degradation of knowledge’. He puts this down to capitalism. I put it down to socialisation under any system.
As soon as we relate to a single other person, we are beginning to see our psychic functioning altered, our mind is ‘degraded’ (meaning limited in its imaginative options) and our knowledge ‘degraded’ (made functionally useful to the system rather than ourselves). This altering and degradation increases to the degree that we are embedded in bigger and bigger institutions.
We have to recognize that this ‘degradation’ applies to all human systems (not just capitalism) and that many people actively choose such ‘degradation’ as enhancing to them (our bureaucrats, corporate men and women, the military, the churches). But it is the height of intellectual arrogance to assume that such people are somehow inferior in their choice to libertarians like Debord and myself – all we can ask is that they do not force us into their mould.
Where he has an important point to make is where he says that ‘knowledge is not used [any more] to question, analyze or resolve contradictions but to assuage reality’. The ‘any more’ is highly questionable but the statement is a true representation of most people for most of the time but whether this state of affairs can ever be changed by revolutionary action is to be doubted. What the 68-ers and most Leftists of that and earlier periods did not and could not ‘get’ (because of the scientific knowledge of the period) is that this is the human species – mostly uninterested intrinsically in questioning, analysis and resolving contradictions. It is the creature that lives rather than 'thinks through' its contradictions.
In fact, the last thing most people want to do is resolve contradictions. Contradictions are the only way they can cope with life. No revolutionary operation is going to remove the reality of and necessity for contradiction. There is no evidence that the allegedly ‘real’ experience was, in fact, ever more interesting or pleasurable or life-changing than any acquired experience through the market. To think otherwise is a moralistic myth, an ‘ought’ from a traditionalist perspective rather than an ‘is’. It is what we think that we ought to think – no more.
Contemporary technology has made this clearer. Most desires cannot be fulfilled and will never be fulfilled wholly. The reality was always that experiences of value were few and often turned sour – think of the romp in the hay that led to a lifetime being shackled to a podgy harridan. New technologies create a culture of life-enhancing vicarious pleasure that, far from making persons less able to cope with ‘reality’, lance the boil of desire and create the language for getting some simulacra of desire into private life.
These technologies allow desires to be identified and then managed. The commodification of sexuality has included Ann Summers whose very existence has permitted sex-positive discussion between couples and has created an atmosphere of desire that counters the inability to speak of pleasure – as was the case in the past.
The Spectacle as Process
How does Debord see authority in this Society of the Spectacle? As always, he follows the Marxist pattern of making authority a thing rather than a process. There is some intention in someone somewhere apparently to maintain social control and handle threats. This is absurd.
There is no controlling mind at the centre of capitalism inventing processes for social control. It is a process in itself. Social controls are intrinsic but also subject to our own engagement in personal and so social liberation. The process includes ‘recuperation’ (the interception of radical ideas, their commodification and safe incorporation) but this is not sinister or willful. It is just natural evolution. It should be regarded as a good thing.
Even attenuated once-radical ideas (like, say, the scientific reality of human racial equality) become included within the ‘spectacle’ and the whole moves forward on the basis of its functionality and facts on the ground. Intellectuals want perfection where there is no perfection to be had. Capitalism is not degrading the life of the people. The people degrade their own lives as victims of circumstances they fail to will to change. As all intellectuals (especially Marxist intellectuals) do, Debord treats the mass of the population as fools, to be enlightened by types like himself.
What We Need
The ‘people’ (that is actual persons in the world) are embedded in a process which is ‘given’ to them but which they change each and every day of their waking lives through their actions. We do not need grumpy Marxist theory. We only need a commitment to a questioning education and the freedom to make choices for ourselves – and intervention, the legitimate role of the community as collective, to ensure that no person is hobbled from making informed choices.
Under this more moderated form of the Situation, questioning and assertive persons can create ‘situations’, reconstruct their localities, choose their relationships, engage with their environments and merge playfulness, free choice and critical thought. There will be no help from a revolutionary proletariat while any ‘art’ that thinks it will transform the conditions of humanity is living in a phantasy all of its own. It is the other way around. The transformation of society will enable an art that can exist for its own sake and is not burdened by theory or politics. Rather Wilde than Marx …
The aim of the Situationist International was much the same as mine – a world of luxury, happiness and freedom but allowing education and the market (a proper market and not socialism for corporations) to thrive is almost certainly more likely to produce these goods over the long term than reliance on a revolutionary proletariat and a bunch of artists.