The Society of the Spectacle
by Guy Debord
Chapter 7 "The Organization of Territory"
And he who becomes master of a city used to being free and
does not destroy her can expect to be destroyed by her, because always
she has as pretext in rebellion the name of liberty and her old customs,
which never through either length of time or benefits are forgotten, and
in spite of anything that can be done or foreseen, unless citizens are
disunited or dispersed, they do not forget that name and those institutions....
Machiavelli, The Prince
Capitalist production has unified space, which is no longer bounded by
external societies. This unification is at the same time an extensive and
intensive process of banalization. The accumulation of commodities
produced in mass for the abstract space of the market, which had to break
down all regional and legal barriers and all the corporative restrictions
of the Middle Ages that preserved the quality of craft production,
also had to destroy the autonomy and quality of places. This power of homogenization
is the heavy artillery which brought down all Chinese walls.
In order to become ever more identical to itself, to get as close as possible
to motionless monotony, the free space of the commodity is henceforth
constantly modified and reconstructed.
This society which eliminates geographical distance reproduces distance
internally as spectacular separation.
Tourism, human circulation considered as consumption, a by-product of the
circulation of commodities, is fundamentally nothing more than the leisure
of going to see what has become banal. The economic organization of visits
to different places is already in itself the guarantee of their equivalence.
The same modernization that removed time from the voyage also removed from
it the reality of space.
The society that molds all of its surroundings has developed a special
technique for shaping its very territory, the solid ground of this collection
of tasks. 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.
The capitalist need which is satisfied by urbanism in the form of a visible
freezing of life can be expressed in Hegelian terms as the absolute predominance
of "the peaceful coexistence of space" over "the restless becoming in the
passage of time."
If all the technical forces of capitalism must be understood as tools for
the making of separations, in the case of urbanism we are dealing with
the equipment at the basis of these technical forces, with the treatment
of the ground that suits their deployment, with the very technique of
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.
The constant struggle that had to be waged against every possible form
of their coming together discovers its favored field in urbanism. After
the experiences of the French Revolution, the efforts of all established
powers to increase the means of maintaining order in the streets finally
culminates in the suppression of the street. "With the present means of
long-distance mass communication, sprawling isolation has proved an even
more effective method of keeping a population under control," says Lewis
Mumford in The City in History, describing "henceforth a one-way
world." But the general movement of isolation, which is the reality of
urbanism, must also include a controlled reintegration of workers depending
on the needs of production and consumption that can be planned. Integration
into the system requires that isolated individuals be recaptured and isolated
together: factories and halls of culture, tourist resorts and housing
developments are expressly organized to serve this pseudo-community that
follows the isolated individual right into the family cell. The
widespread use of receivers of the spectacular message enables the individual
to fill his isolation with the dominant images--images which derive their
power precisely from this isolation.
For the first time a new architecture, which in all previous epochs had
been reserved for the satisfaction of the ruling classes, is directly aimed
at the poor. The formal poverty and the gigantic spread of this
new living experience both come from its mass character, which is
implicit in its purpose and in modern conditions of construction. Authoritarian
decision, which abstractly organizes territory into territory of abstraction,
is obviously at the heart of these modern conditions of construction. The
same architecture appears in all industrializing countries that are backward
in this respect, as a suitable terrain for the new type of social existence
which is to be implanted there. The threshold crossed by the growth of
society's material power alongside the lag in the conscious domination
of this power, are displayed as clearly by urbanism as by problems of thermonuclear
armament or of birth control (where the possibility of manipulating heredity
has already been reached).
The present is already the time of the self-destruction of the urban milieu.
The explosion of cities which cover the countryside with "formless masses
of urban residues" (Lewis Mumford) is directly regulated by the imperatives
of consumption. The dictatorship of the automobile, pilot-product of the
first phase of commodity abundance, has been stamped into the environment
with the domination of the freeway, which dislocates old urban centers
and requires an ever-larger dispersion. At the same time, stages of incomplete
reorganization of the urban fabric polarize temporarily around "distribution
factories," enormous shopping centers built on the bare ground of parking
lots; and these temples of frenzied consumption, after bringing about a
partial rearrangement of congestion, themselves flee within the centrifugal
movement which rejects them as soon as they in turn become overburdened
secondary centers. But the technical organization of consumption is only
the first element of the general dissolution which has led the city to
the point of consuming itself.
Economic history, which developed entirely around the opposition between
town and country, has reached a level of success which simultaneously cancels
out both terms. The current paralysis of total historical development
for the sake of the mere continuation of the economy's independent movement
makes the moment when town and country begin to disappear, not the supersession
of their cleavage, but their simultaneous collapse. The reciprocal erosion
of town and country, product of the failure of the historical movement
through which existing urban reality should have been surmounted, is visible
in the eclectic melange of their decayed elements which cover the most
industrially advanced zones.
Universal history was born in cities and reached maturity at the moment
of the decisive victory of city over country. To Marx, one of the greatest
revolutionary merits of the bourgeoisie was "the subjection of the country
to the city" whose very air emancipates. But if the history of the
city is the history of freedom, it is also the history of tyranny, of state
administration that controls the countryside and the city itself. The city
could as yet only struggle for historical freedom, but not possess it.
The city is the locus of history because it is conscious of the
past and also concentrates the social power that makes the historical undertaking
possible. The present tendency to liquidate the city is thus merely another
expression of the delay in the subordination of the economy to historical
consciousness and in the unification of society reassuming the powers that
were detached from it.
"The countryside shows the exact opposite: isolation and separation" (German
Ideology). Urbanism destroys cities and reestablishes a pseudo-countryside
which lacks the natural relations of the old countryside as well as the
direct social relations which were directly challenged by the historical
city. A new artificial peasantry is recreated by the conditions of housing
and spectacular control in today's "organized territory": the geographic
dispersal and narrowmindedness that always kept the peasantry from undertaking
independent action and from affirming itself as a creative historical force
again today become characteristics of the producers--the movement of a
world which they themselves produce remaining as completely beyond their
reach as the natural rhythm of tasks was for the agrarian society. But
when this peasantry, which was the unshakable foundation of "Oriental despotism"
and whose very fragmentation called for bureaucratic centralization reemerges
as a product of the conditions of growth of modern state bureaucracy, its
apathy must now be historically manufactured and maintained;
natural ignorance has been replaced by the organized spectacle of error.
The "new towns" of the technological pseudo-peasantry clearly inscribe
on the landscape their rupture with the historical time on which they are
built; their motto could be: "On this spot nothing will ever happen, and
nothing ever has." It is obviously because history, which must be
liberated in the cities, has not yet been liberated, that the forces of
historical absence begin to compose their own exclusive landscape.
History, which threatens this twilight world, is also the force which could
subject space to lived time. Proletarian revolution is the critique
of human geography through which individuals and communities have to
create places and events suitable for the appropriation, no longer just
of their labor, but of their total history. In this game's changing space,
and in the freely chosen variations in the game's rules, the autonomy of
place can be rediscovered without the reintroduction of an exclusive attachment
to the land, thus bringing back the reality of the voyage and of life understood
as a voyage which contains its entire meaning within itself.
The greatest revolutionary idea concerning urbanism is not itself urbanistic,
technological or esthetic. It is the decision to reconstruct the entire
environment in accordance with the needs of the power of the Workers' Councils,
of the anti-statist dictatorship of the proletariat, of enforceable
dialogue. And the power of the Councils which can be effective only if
it transforms existing conditions in their entirety, cannot assign itself
a smaller task if it wants to be recognized and to recognize itself
in its world.
8 Negation and Consumption Within Culture