Text Messages | Society of the spectacle

The spectre of May 1968 looms over French President Emmanuel Macron as a diverse opposition, united only in its common garb of

It is no surprise the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) are out on the streets of Paris, and many other French cities and towns. Income for the poorest quarter of households has dropped under the regime of Emmanuel Macron, who faces the sort of popular revolt that has always terrified French leaders.

Frank Buhler, one of the more readily identifiable faces in what is a deliberately leaderless movement, told the BBC: “The French Revolution started with flour wars; for us it’s fuel taxes.” No wonder Macron’s response has been to go to ground, stay mum, and then emerge with a few anaemic measures he hopes will appease the people.

Some might be mollified, mainly those protesting only against the rising cost of living. But others, portrayed by the mainstream media as being fanatics and fascists to the left and the right of the main body of the gilets jaunes, will be less easy to buy off. They are characterised as a lunatic fringe comprising on one side expedient radicals, and on the other opportunistic populists (with looters and hooligans thrown in for more heft).

Macron ignores both at his peril. The neoliberal poster boy that Time magazine proclaimed as “The Next Leader of Europe*” on its cover just more than a year ago, on 20 November 2017, would remember what that asterisk denoted: “*If Only He Can Lead France”. He would recall also the events of May 1968, the first wildcat general strike ever, involving more than 10 million workers, many of whom occupied their places of work.

That now legendary month is often depicted as a “student revolt”, but it was much more, a wholesale societal upheaval first given impetus by students, but reflecting a deep-rooted longing by vast numbers of people for a wholly different way of life. That desire, once articulated, almost brought down the state, an eventuality that the Situationist International had long foretold.

Guy Debord

It was situationist graffiti such as “sous les pavés, la plage” (“under the paving stones, the beach”) that appeared across the French capital that May. Mining that sentiment, the gilets jaunes turned paving stones into projectiles to hurl at police during their running battles in Paris over recent weekends. Many of the yellow vests surely know the man at the heart of the Situationist International, sometimes called the textbook author of May ’68: Guy Debord.

Born in Paris on 28 December 1931, Debord was the theoretician behind the now commonplace phrase “the society of the spectacle”. Debord meant far more by that than is popularly understood. His book, The Society of the Spectacle, was published in November 1967. Six months later, its ideas were among the chief articles of faith sparking and sustaining the worldwide student-inspired revolts of that miraculous May.

Made up of 221 theses, The Society of the Spectacle is a profound critique of the alienation and commodification of consumer capitalism. Referencing and paraphrasing Hegel, Marx and others, and elaborating on and extrapolating from them, Debord posits that the spectacle is the whole of social activity appropriated by the spectacle for the spectacle. Founded on “incessant technological renewal” and the “integration of state and economy”, the spectacle replaces reality with images in art, science, everyday living, politics and urban planning, among many others. The spectacle transforms everything into its opposite.

Thesis 1 is a deliberate echo of Marx’s Capital: “The whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation.”

Here is the Marxian precursor: “The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as ‘an immense accumulation of commodities’, its unit being a single commodity.” (Capital, Part I, Chapter I. Commodities)

Each of the 221 theses speaks to the world we live in. Here are two of the most pungent:

57. The society that brings the spectacle into being does not dominate underdeveloped regions solely through the exercise of economic hegemony. It also dominates them in its capacity as the society of the spectacle. Modern society has thus already invested the social surface of every continent – even where the material basis of economic exploitation is still lacking – by spectacular means. It can frame the agenda of a ruling class and preside over that class’s constitution. And, much as it proposes pseudo-goods to be coveted, it may also offer false models of revolution to local revolutionaries.

44. The spectacle is a permanent opium war making it impossible to distinguish goods from commodities, or true satisfaction from a survival that increases according to its own logic. Consumable survival must increase, in fact, because it continues to enshrine deprivation. The reason there is nothing beyond augmented survival, and no end to its growth, is that survival itself belongs to the realm of dispossession: it may gild poverty, but it cannot transcend it.

Debord shot himself in the heart on 30 November 1994, to avoid a slow death from incurable alcoholic polyneuritis. 

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.