Monday, 9 January 2012

Guy Debord's The Society of The Spectacle

I had a terrible cold over Christmas and re-read Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle. This might be a cue for jokes about French philosophers making more sense if you have a cold, but it isn't. The book is famous and never out of print, but I'm not sure how many people now would read it all the way through. By today's standards it's an abstract tome written in best 1960's academic Marxism. There's no fun bits where we can lament with the author the appalling bad taste of the masses. It's not about The Spectacle, it's about the society that Debord thought it took The Spectacle to maintain. It's also showing its age.

Back in the 1960's the people who ran consumer goods companies and advertising agencies were a great deal more patronising and sure that the consumer would do as they suggested. The consumer didn't have a whole lot of choice then. Companies didn't need to "control" the media because they were behaving reasonably well - by today's standards. Today, from the outside, Capital's "control" of the media looks a lot more assured, calculating and deliberate than it is. On the inside it's a bunch of highly-paid, not-very-bright-but-very-shrewd men (and ever more women with the same values as the boys) desperately trying to clean up the mess before the grown-ups get home, or hoping that the cool kids will like what they're pushing, or the ever-fickle public won't be influenced by this week's scare story and stop buying the crap that fills the shelves, the airwaves and everywhere else. Skilful single-cause activists can cause PR and business headaches with a few low-cost, high-profile stunts. The underpaid, under-resourced churnalists who work in print and broadcast media lap all this pre-packaged stuff up like hungry kittens. Senior managers and advertising creatives aren't patronising, but scared. Those that can, loot everything in sight and move on, like marauding bands of mediaeval knights.

In one sense, the capitalism that Marx wrote about and Debord refers to was defeated, or perhaps changed, sometime in the 1980's. There's a 1967 proverb that it doesn't matter who you vote for, the government still gets in. Capital is similar: it doesn't matter what you buy or even if you buy nothing, it still winds up in a bank account and the capitalists get to use it. I once had a neat little book called Commodify Your Dissent which described how any kind of dissent wound up as a product to be bought. Choose your cause, buy the tee-shirt. In complex economies and societies, some kind of central administration is unavoidable - though whether it should think of itself as "governing" us like so many unruly subjects of a monarch is another matter. Large businesses are unavoidable for mass-markets as well - though whether they should be allowed to send jobs to other countries, pollute the water table to extract gas, and make food that their senior managers don't let their own children eat is again another matter.

It's not the structure that's the problem - it's the content. There's a seminal book called Four Arguments For The Elimination of Television  which, quite apart from giving you a tour round every "alternative" cultural idea of the 1970's, has strong arguments for why you should stop watching TV. When he wrote "TV" meant the set-and-the-shows-broadcast-by-the-networks. Video, DVD and LCD screens hadn't come along to turn the TV screen into a home movie screen on which we could watch anything. Turns out that much of what Manders was talking about was the shows and the idea that TV is something you leave on in the background all the time (some people do, I'm always amazed when they tell me). He used the example of how much more effective an ecological campaign that used images of a dead forest was than when it used images of beautiful countryside. On the TV sets of the mid-70's showing images shot on the video of the time, that's true: on modern 16:9 LCD screens showing images shot on film or HD, it isn't. Beautiful nature looks overwhelming.

Debord died in 1994 and I wonder if he appreciated that at least in the Anglo-Saxon countries, the post-Murdoch media reached a synergy (or incestuousness, if you're not a fan) with the entertainment industry and business that made the 1960's look like it was run by people who weren't really trying. Need I only say "Fox News"? Are you old enough to remember when the Financial Times didn't consist entirely of re-cycled press releases and pre-packaged spin from "contacts"? And you do realise that sports "news" isn't really news? It's just celebrity gossip and reviews, but about people who have skills.

Debord saw a society where, he believed, people were separated from each other by the Spectacle, because that was what Capital needed. In this he couldn't have been more wrong. It's not Capital that needs us to be isolated in the fear of ridicule of our differences from a norm we imagine everyone else upholds. Capital doesn't care about our social arrangements and personal preferences: it makes money whatever we do. The human condition could be described as one of being separately-together for much of the time, simply because that's what it means to be responsible for our own survival and advancement. The fact that people are so very different means that there's no guarantee we will find congenial company we can trust living within one percent of the Earth's radius from where we were born. It's Government that exploits this to make its job easier. Capital needs us to a) consume, b) work, c) pay our due bills, d) not wreck stuff. Government needs to tax us and not depose it, which is easier if e) we think that it is "just us" who thinks or feels like this, f) believe that everyone else is content with the way things are, and g) fear that the barbarians will ruin our lives if we don't accept being governed.

He thought that the society created by advanced Capitalism and the Spectacle was something new, that once there had been a time when people communicated, formed co-operative ventures, held out against the Bad Guys together and probably raised their children as a village as well. Well, not in any world I'm welcome to. Every now and then, yes, and historians write books about such episodes and revolutionaries dream on them. Then everyone goes back to business-as-usual: distracted from themselves by the work, children, gossip, bill-paying, status and entertainment that make up their lives. For some people that distraction is not enough, while others make it their life's very meaning, but it occupies most people and leaves them semi-connected to themselves and the world. That's what Debord was looking at, and it's been a permanent feature of human life. He wanted that to change, so he had to believe it wasn't.

If The Spectacle really is a structural feature of capitalism that can only be removed if capitalism is removed, then we are condemned to a mass culture of endless soap operas and bad comedies, with temporary fringe cultures around it like so many soap bubbles. But if mass culture and the conduct of business is the result of decisions by people, some of whom live next door to you, doing jobs like yours, then we can think of ways to make those people make different decisions next time. "Let's not do another cheap decorating / cooking show." "Let's not just re-cycle that press release about an odd-sounding condition that Pfizer has an expensive drug to treat". "Let's not lend people money for houses they can't afford." "Let's not send those jobs abroad, let's train our own people instead." "Let's not shove this insurance product down our customers' throats just because we can". "Let's not hire another insecure person who will use their bureaucratic position to bolster their fragile sense of worth: let's hire a grown-up instead."

In the end, this is a temperamental thing. I was raised as an engineer: I know people are not beavers, they don't do design and make stuff by genetic instinct. Anything made or run by people is the way it is because someone made a decision to put them there, design them like that, use those materials, run the procedure this way not that way, and so on. It's sometimes fun to imagine a world ruled by abstract powers and processes, but I can't do it when it matters. When it matters, the little corner of the world that has made our lives worse is the way it is because someone decided it would be that way. They should be found, exposed, questioned, if necessary ridiculed and shamed, and the people who hired them, trained then and managed them should have the same treatment. (Yes, people should make better decisions because they don't want their children to be taunted in the school playgrounds.) The process should be changed. But while people believe they can hide behind institutions, "commercial confidentiality" and self-serving laws that stop individual bureaucrats being identified and called to account, then they will be tempted to take the short-cuts, economies and assumptions of compliance-at-our-expense-and-inconvenience that make the bureaucrat's life so much easier.

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