29: Society of Spectacle

SHORT review


“The first phase of the domination of the economy over social life brought into the definition of all human realization the obvious degradation of being into having” - Guy Debord

Published originally in 1967, The society of Spectacle is the seminal text of Guy Debord, a French thinker and artist that spearheaded the movement known as The Situationist International (SI). The Society of Spectacle is written quite unconventionally; it is composed of 221 paragraphs or exclamations that are grouped by theme, that in tandem try to explain the ideology of Spectacle.

Precise in its language yet general enough to be applicable to any contemporary version of capitalism, The society of Spectacle is lacerating in critiquing our modern way of living, our relation to media, and our unspoken societal values.

“When economic necessity is replaced by the necessity for boundless economic development, the satisfaction of primary human needs is replaced by an uninterrupted fabrication of pseudo-needs” - Guy Debord

Every individual that is born within a society dominated by modern means of production is already submersed in a nation and a world order that has articulated very clearly its materialist ideology (relation to commodities) which is why the difficulty of analyzing a system being born in it.

Roughly speaking, any economic system can be understood by its position towards commodities and its means of production. Capitalism articulates very clearly what commodities are (i.e. an iPhone or 1kg of meat), how they are valued (money), how they are exchanged (free market), who produces them (working class), who benefits (the bourgeoisie ) and how these commodities are publicized (media / advertisement industries). 

Debord’s spectacle is not the economic system itself but the veil of self deception, the power dynamics that cover the mechanisms which preserve class order and make the system seem as self-evident.

“The spectacle is the other side of money: it is the general abstract equivalent of all commodities. Money dominated society as the representation of general equivalence, namely, of the exchangeability of different goods whose uses could not be compared” - Guy Debord

The pseudo-need imposed by modern consumption clearly cannot be opposed by any genuine need or desire which is not itself shaped by society and its history. The abundant commodity stands for the total breach in the organic development of social needs” - Guy Debord 

Leaning heavily on Marxist theory and a Hegelian interpretation of history, The society of Spectacle is a coldly written guide for understanding the modern world and its deceptions. It is a great revolutionary book to weaponize thought against the bourgeoisie, media and the ruling class and as it is also, as with every lefty book written in the 60s, depressive and unable to model any specific actions for a successful world-order change.

Alienated from the means of production and disconnected to the products they produce themselves, the worker class keeps losing; time and time again the bourgeoisie keeps wining the capitalist war. Otherwise, why would the top 1 percent hold more wealth than the whole middle class in the US?


 “What appears the world over as the same day is the time of the economic production cut up into equal abstract fragments. Unified irreversible time is the time of the world market and, as a corollary, of the world spectacle” - Guy Debord 

In regards to urbanism, Guy Debord is not convinced either.

“Urbanism is capitalism’s seizure of the natural and human environment; developing logically into absolute domination, capitalism can and must now remake the totality of space into its own setting ” - Guy Debord

“Urbanism is the modern fulfillment of the uninterrupted task which safeguards class power: the preservation of the atomization of workers who had been dangerously brought together by urban conditions of production” - Guy Debord 

What Debord describes is a society of separated individuals with no collective goals. Atomized individuals with no purchase on the media, no control over public myths, and no real upscale mobility; all we have left in 2019 is but to play as if we were celebrities on social media apps.

“The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images” - Guy Debord

“The widespread use of receivers of the spectacular message enables enables the individual to fill his isolation with the dominant images - images which derive their power precisely from this isolation ” - Guy Debord

In a society where no one can any longer be recognized by others, every individual becomes unable to recognize his own reality. Ideology is at home; separation has built its world ” - Guy Debord 

One day at the end of our civilization, the collapse will showcase the myth of capitalism, its intentions unveiled, its arrogance and illusions exposed, its values and inequalities laid bare. How will neoliberalism justify the global destruction of our ecosystems as payment for boundless economic production? 

“This is why we reduce the history of Oriental empires to the history of religions: the chronologies which have fallen to ruins left no more than the apparently autonomous history of the illusions which enveloped them” - Guy Debord 

With a parting paragraph, Guy expresses this as his call for action:

“Emancipation from the material bases of inverted truth ” - Guy Debord