Notes on Society of the Spectacle: Chapter 4


Notes from chapters 1-3 can be found here.

Chapter 4 The Proletariat as Subject and as Representation

A lot of Marx and Marxist history and theory in this chapter.

#73 Basic Marx. The spectacle began as soon as the bourgeoisie won in the economy and became “visible” after politicians that represented these interests were put in office. The development of capitalism and its “productive forces” tore down the way in which humans used to relate to the goods they produced.

#74 The real study of history should be understood as “the living producing himself.” Essentially, the different ways in which humans have related to what they produce to keep themselves alive.

#76 He is critiquing Hegel and philosophy. Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about Hegel to have a good grip on this thesis.

#77 and 78 It is important for the proletariat to understand history or otherwise they lose sight of the struggle and the revolutionary spirit will die. – My take, anyway. You could argue this has happened today. Most workers are happy to even get benefits from their employer. They know nothing of the labor struggle of the early 20th century that helped secure things like 40 hour work weeks, let alone understand Marx or Hegel or the development of capitalism. If everyone had this historical consciousness, the revolutionary spirit would be hard to kill. Unfortunately, it seems as if most people think that capitalism has pretty much always existed and will continue to always exist because it is the correct and only way to operate a society.

#80 “The quantitative which arises in the blind development of merely economic productive forces (the spectacle) must be transformed into a qualitative historical appropriation (marxism).” Parenthesis are mine. My take- Marxism is the answer to defeating the spectacle. It is the only way in which we will stop blindly following economic production until it blows up in our face.

#81 He closely equates Marx’s theory with scientific thought because he calls it a “rational understanding of the forces which really operate in society.”

#82 He criticizes those who believe they can “master the economy” and says that any “movement which thinks it can dominate current history by means of scientific knowledge remains bourgeois.” My take- All projects that want to break the qualitative complexities of society down into a perfect science, in which we can establish “the exact periodicity of crises”, are bourgeois ventures. He believes they ignore history, and history is important to Debord.

#83 He rejects utopianism because it rejects “history — namely the real struggle taking place, as well as the passage of time beyond the immutable perfection of their picture of a happy society.” He believes utopians are “completely dominated by the scientific thought of earlier centuries” because they “sought the completion of this general rational system.” He argues that in order to be utopian, there has to be a line of rationality built into the order of how things work. Does this mean he disagrees with Marx’s rational dialectic way of how he believed capitalism would turn to socialism until society eventually adopted full communism? How does this relate to thesis #81?

#83 Cont’d “How did they want to seize through struggle what must be proved?” So Debord believes utopians are too busy looking for rational arguments to take down the system, and not worried enough about actual action that needs to be undertaken to defeat the spectacle. “It is on the model of astronomy that the utopians thought they would discover and demonstrate the laws of society.” A big mistake of the utopians, according to Debord, was that they failed to even think about the “historical reality of the development of science itself.” They failed to think about the history of science and to uncover the partisan, bourgeoisie “truths” that were already built in. He’s all about history over science here.

#84 He takes issue with Marx’s “deterministic-scientific facet” (#81), saying it penetrated the workers’ movement. Saying that history is linear and there are stages that the struggle needs to go through basically hinders “revolutionary practice” because it accepts “suffering with a Hegelian tranquility, so that the result remains ‘a graveyard of good intentions.’” His issue with Marx here, kind of reminds me of the difference between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. X wanted change by any means and he frequently criticized MLK, who seemed fine with slower change and progress. This makes sense given that he was apart of the situationist movement. He wanted to take action now, rather than arguing about when it was the perfect time for the revolution.

#85 It sounds like he’s saying it’s not Marx’s fault necessarily for getting bogged down with the scientific theory of the revolution. Rather, because the proletariat was not able to overthrow the bourgeoisie in 1848, Marx was left to defend and clarify his communist point of view scientifically. If they would have succeeded in a revolution, the academic world would have been focused on the movement, itself.

#87 He is criticizing the linear model of Marx again. He says Marx missed the fact that the bourgeoisie are the only revolutionary class that ever won power. He also criticizes Marx by saying he neglected “the economic role of the State in the management of a class society.” He says that the bourgeoisie weakened the former state “at the moment of feudal fragmentation of balanced powers.” Then when they rose to power, they reshaped the state and gave it “the central power of calculated management of the economic process.” Or as professor Krier would have said it, this is when the market began to move to the center of everyday life. Also, as Debord put it, this is where “the socio-political foundation of the modern spectacle are already established.”

#88 The bourgeoisie and the proletariat are the only revolutionary classes in history, but in very different conditions. The bourgeoisie came to power because they were the class of economic development. The proletariat cannot come to power unless they are “the class of consciousness.”

#89 He uses a letter from Marx that criticized his own use of “scientific forecasting” in order to prove his criticisms of Marx and Marxism correct.

#90 He argues that knowledge and action must be fused together equally. He seems to be saying there really hasn’t been a revolutionary movement that has put these two together, rather the main issues with revolutionary movements so far have been because they favor one more than the other. I would imagine he hoped/believed that his situationist movement combined these two things well.

#91 and #92 He highlights differences between Marxism and Bakunin Anarchism. He then critiques Bakunin’s approach as basically being too simple and naive. Debord has already critiqued people who simply theorize and overthink and never put these thoughts into action. However, with Bakunin and Anarchism, he condemns the “deliberate contempt for method” and says “Anarchism has merely to repeat and replay the same smile, total conclusion in every single struggle.” This is Debord trying to find balance between theory and action, knowledge and history.

#95 While he criticizes anarchism for not thinking enough in theses 91-94, he then critiques “orthodox Marxism” for thinking too much, calling it the “scientific ideology of the socialist revolution.”

#96 He criticizes social democracy as the “form of organization, which was adopted was the form most suitable for this passive apprenticeship.” It sounds like he’s criticizing social democracy for undermining action and revolutionary though, by making citizens “pass apprentices” to capital/the spectacle. They are corrupted/transformed by bureaucracy into bourgeois intellectuals. It simply leads to constant reform of the system, while never addressing the root cause of the problems.

#98 His critique of Lenin is that applied “orthodox Marxism” to Russia’s conditions at the time. By applying “OM” Russia was condemned to be ruled by an intellectual elite “transformed into ‘professional revolutionaries.’” Because they were professional revolutionaries constantly looking for the correct way to build and sustain the revolution, the USSR turned into a state that focused on “the absolute management of society.”

#99 WWI and the “collapse of the social-democratic international in the face of war” set the stage for Bolshevism to become the dominant form of organized communism around the globe. He dislikes Bolshevism because it is hierarchic and authoritarian.

!!!#100 Debord argues that a critical turning point which has helped damn us to the current spectacle was when Bolshevism won in Russia and social democracy began to be seen as inseparable from capitalism. At the heart of things, we know that capitalism and democracy are really opposed to one another. And that capitalist countries today really aren’t actual democracies, but have the “appearance” of being democracies. Marx believed that communism should go hand-in-hand with social democracy, but the USSR adopted a totalitarian stance.

#101 Rosa Luxembourg pointed out in 1918 that revolutions had become more spectacle-like. In previous revolutions, it was clear who each side was fighting for. People fought outright for an aristocracy or monarchy, nowadays people fight for a party. The party says it wants the best for everyone in society, but parties are controlled by bourgeois elites and look out for their interests while being shrouded in a message of equality or freedom.

#102 More of his views on the USSR. He called the Bolsheviks the part of the owners of the proletariat because they seized the state monopoly over representation and defense of workers’ power. #103 He blames Lenin and the Bolsheviks for making communism and bureaucracy synonymous with each other. Says the Bolshevik revolution “gave society a new class domination.” #104 Calls bureaucracy the “sole proprietor of State Capitalism” hence why he says the USSR is part of the spectacle, or just another capitalist country operating under a concentrated spectacle. Debord says this was most evident when Stalin industrialized USSR, as it demonstrated the “continuation of the power of the economy and preservation of the essence of the market society commodity labor.”

#105 Ideology became the goal within the USSR. Everyone must tow the party line, as he says “all it says is all there is.” If they don’t, they are killed. Hence why Debord writes that ideology doesn’t economically change the world, rather it has “merely transformed perception by means of the police.”

#106 He’s talking about totalitarian bureaucracy and how it must, on one hand, maintain power and control, while at the same time acting like it doesn’t exist or is non-powerful. “Extended everywhere, the bureaucracy must be the class invisible to consciousness.” My example: When you talk about how the business elite control politics, you are often discredited by being called a conspiracy theorist. “No, you’re crazy. The country isn’t run by the rich.” Or “The rich don’t really have that much of a say over politics.”

#107 “The bureaucracy became proprietor by way of false consciousness. False consciousness can maintain its absolute power only by means of absolute terror, where all real motives are ultimately lost.” He’s talking about the USSR here, but it can easily be applied toward the US or any “western democracy” today. There is a false consciousness surrounding the legitimacy of the U.S. government today, and that false consciousness is maintained by labeling anyone that protests as a “terrorist.”

#107 Continued He does a great job of explaining how politicians and other people involved in the bureaucracy help hold up this false consciousness. He talks particularly about Stalin’s use of terror within the ranks of the party bureaucracy. Bureaucrats had to act like part of the proletariat that had been put in office to help guide the socialist revolution. That was despite the fact that they were greedy, self-interested, corrupt and looking for power. In order to keep the cohesion of the party and the appearance intact, Stalin had to make sure that everybody stayed in line and upheld the spectacle by carrying out purges. If one person in the party was to stop playing their role in the spectacle, the false consciousness could be revealed, the lie ruined, and their control over society lost. My take- This could also apply to the U.S. today. Not the purges, per say, but the CIA has been accused of hacking e-mails or wiretapping phone calls of congress. One congress person could come out of the closet about how corrupt the system is and about all the money they receive for supporting corporate interests and bring the entire façade down. However, most people uphold the spectacle because of the money and power that comes with it. They also begin to believe this ideology and possess a false consciousness about what they are doing.

#108 “When ideology, having become absolute through the possession of absolute power, changes from partial knowledge into totalitarian falsehood, the thought of history is so perfectly annihilated that history itself, even at the level of the most empirical knowledge, can no longer exist.” Great quote. Once ideology is given the spotlight by the ruling class, it becomes fully engrained into the spectacle. It totally erases history, and rewrites it to fit and help uphold the appearance of the spectacle. Stalin was an editor and was notorious for changing past events, but this goes beyond Stalin. Even before the Bolsheviks took power, ruling classes have always changed history to fit their narratives. Wars of aggression that included genocide are covered up and promoted as patriotic wars, etc.

#108 Continued The problem with believing so deeply in an ideology is that it gets in the way of facts. Debord talks about how the contradiction of the USSR being a totalitarian bureaucracy, attempting to manage an industrialized economy; capitalism requires rationality but the USSR relied on irrationality to maintain the “communist” spectacle. This contradiction led to starvation when collectivization of the farms happened and this also led to empty store shelves when central planning went wrong. This could also be applied to the U.S. today. The elite have an ideology that also contradicts the system from which they profit. They continue to find new ways to make profit, but income inequality continues to rise. As income inequality goes up, it creates less demand because people have no money to buy stuff. Credit cards and other forms of debt have become a huge business, but people default, their credit gets ruined and they can’t take out any more loans. This was a huge part of why the global system crashed in 2008. This is why Marx believed capitalism would eventually sow the seeds of its own destruction.

#109 Debord claims that the revolutionary workers’ movement was destroyed by both world wars, the totalitarian bureaucracy of the USSR, and the fascist governments that also spread throughout Europe. He goes on to rail on fascism, calling it a stop-gap attempt from the bourgeoisie at holding power by giving complete control of the economy over to the state and playing on ancient, conservative myths (family, race/blood, morality, order, property).  He calls it “technically-equipped archaism.” He credits it as being a factor in the development of the spectacle. You can see this type of nationalistic fascism today: after 9/11 in America, the rise of the neo-nazi parties in Greece, Hungary, Germany, etc.

#110 Calls the move from Khrushchev to distance himself from Stalin and Stalinism just another part of the spectacle. He calls it “arbitrary, unexplained, and continually corrected” because if it was none of those things, the lie would crumble and all power would be lost. The best quote from this thesis is “The ideology has no doubt lost the passion of its positive affirmation, but the indifferent triviality which survives still has the repressive function of prohibiting the slightest competition, of holding captive the totality of thought. Thus the bureaucracy is bound to an ideology which is no longer believed by anyone.” This could also apply to basic “western democratic capitalism” today. Most people are fed up with working all the time, making very little money, and are disenchanted with politicians. But most people believe resistance is futile. Thus, going back to what he said in an earlier thesis, we are alienated in every aspect of our life.

#111 He calls the USSR a national power that has been acting like an international one. He cites as evidence the split with China after Stalin died. He also references the revolt of the East German workers party and issues in Hungary. The same could be said about the Prague Spring. Any type of split or deterioration in the appearance, allows us to get a glimpse within the spectacle.

#112 He criticizes Trotsky for going along with the Bolshevik way of organizing society. He states that he didn’t distance himself from the party until 1927 and he always refused to admit that the Soviet bureaucracy was really a separate class that ruled the proletariat. He also criticizes Lukacs, while actually admiring his theoretical work. He called him an “ideologue” and a “lackey” for the USSR.

#113 In underdeveloped countries, the spectacle is spread via local ruling classes by putting in place a bureaucratic capitalist society under the guise of socialism.

#114 The situation of the proletariat in the modern spectacle: The spectacle negates the proletariat, especially within industrialized countries. Negation is important, because while the being of the proletariat is still there, it is canceled out by the alienation the proletariat feels. But that doesn’t mean it has been destroyed; it could be recovered. But it’s not easy for people to see, for them to get past their false consciousness and recognize the exploitative structure. Debord mentions this as being even more difficult for white collar workers and wage workers. I’m not sure how much he is talking about globalization and the change of the economy here (I’m not sure if it really took off until after he wrote this or not), but the move within modern, western society to change from an industrialized economy to a service economy has made it even more difficult to see the exploitation. Instead of working in a satanic factory, people work in a store or an office building, so the exploitation is more subtle and less noticeable.

#115 He says we are in a new epoch, a new “proletarian assault against class society.” The problem with reading this book now, is remembering to put myself totally in the times he was writing it. I’m guessing he was talking about all of the anti-establishment stuff going on in the 60s.

#116 He seems to be proposing a better way for the proletarian to govern once they awaken from their false consciousness. He proposes workers’ councils, rather than hierarchical company models. Admittedly, though, Debord seems to understand that these have had limited success so far. They haven’t spread like wildfire, and they have been stamped out by corporate interests. However, he argues for the councils by saying “This is where the objective conditions of historical consciousness are reunited.” I imagine he is saying that capitalistic, hierarchical companies promote false consciousness, while workers councils allow the proletariat to make decisions and participate, which allows them to develop historical consciousness. It removes the alienation, thereby negating the negation of the spectacle.

Side note: I wonder what he would say about these types of movements popping up today? The plenums following the protests in Bosnia, Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, etc. David Harvey frequently talks about these movements all over the world. The plenums in Bosnia seem to me to be the closest thing to what he was talking about.

#117 The closest thing to reality or getting behind the spectacle, according to Debord, were these workers’ councils popping up in the early 20th century. They were, however, “eliminated by the entire historical experience of the time.” What does this mean? Both World Wars?

#119 and 120 Revolutionary organizations in this instance, I imagine, are something like the USSR. He saw they didn’t work in the USSR, therefore, he calls them unrepresentative of the working class. However, he thinks they are useful still in helping to reach the “moment of dissolution of social separation.” Once the spectacle has been overcome, the revolutionary organization must “recognize its own dissolution as a separate organization.” I imagine that is because otherwise, once the revolutionary organization is in power, if it still promotes the idea of the revolution all the time, the ideology becomes a goal in itself (i.e. USSR).

#121, 122, and 123The revolutionary organization serves as a critique of the spectacle. It helps the proletariat develop historical consciousness and overcome the false consciousness brought upon by the spectacle. He recognizes that the only limit to participation in “the total democracy of the revolutionary organization” is really understanding their situation. “When constantly growing capitalist alienation at all levels makes it increasingly difficult for workers to recognize and name their own misery, forcing them to face the alternative of rejecting the totality of their misery or nothing, the revolutionary organization has to learn that it can no longer combat alienation with alienated forms.” Great quote! Making theory more available and common for the masses to understand is how the proletarian will come to gain historical consciousness.

#124 He calls for “revolutionary theory” and not for “revolutionary ideology.”

Comment: My one critique of Debord on making theory more available to the masses, is that I’m all for it as long as that means making it more understandable for the masses. If everyone was required to read him, they would probably give up due to the abstract and complicated nature of his writing. Many people wouldn’t be able to get beyond the writing style to understand just how relatable everything he says is.

Summary: This is a long chapter that spends a majority of the theses reflecting back on Marxist (and Hegelian) theoretical history, and critiquing various points of it. He criticizes the overly-scientific reliance of theory today, and notes that many critical thinkers lack an understanding of history. He then goes on to critique the USSR and the ideological, capitalistic bureaucracy that it really was. He finally ends the chapter by discussing the current situation of the proletariat. He stated that we were entering another epoch of the proletariat rising up, I imagine because he was living during the counter-revolutionary times of the 60s. However, that clearly never came to fruition as the neoliberal revolution was just around the corner. Incorrect predictions aside, he proposes that workers’ councils are the solution to moving beyond the total alienation of the spectacle; what would be the negation of the negation of the spectacle. The revolutionary organization is important to help critique the spectacle and move us closer to the overthrowing the spectacle. However, once that time comes, the revolutionary organization must understand that it needs to step down or dissolve in order to avoid the whole ideology-as-the-goal problem that the USSR demonstrated.


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