So, yeah… I used to be a socialist.
Now, I don’t mean the goose-stepping jackbooted socialists that haunt the nightmares of Eastern Europeans with a sense of history and paranoid Americans without a sense of history. Nor do I mean the kind of trendy quasi-Socialist street protesters that arose during the late 1990s and gained fruition with the Occupy movement of the late 00′s.
Nope: I was a theory socialist. I was a dyed-in-the-wool critic of structural systems of oppression. I wrote papers on things like class consciousness and commodity expropriation as evinced by Dutch still life paintings of the 17th century. I read the types of things that only Socialists read: a well-worn, sauce-stained (fish sauce from 1996 I think?), dog-eared copy of the works of Marx and Engels, of course, but also their even more difficult to understand theoretical descendants. I struggled through Adorno and Horkheimer, attempting to understand and find real precedent for the vague authoritative statements they made about the workings of culture and bureaucracy. I puzzled over the work of Paul de Man, a writer so difficult to read and littered with crazily specialized words that he’d send philosophy Ph.D’s scrambling for their dictionaries. Getting through a single page of Paul de Man would be the crowning achievement of an hour’s work poring over references and allusions to source material. And above all, before and after everything else, I read the Situationists, and Guy Debord.
Situationist philosophy – never “Situationism” as Debord was far, far too full of a niggling, typically Gallic insistence on using the exactly right goddamn word for everything to ever let his writing be referred to by something so banal and starchily Anglic as an “ism” – is essentially the rationalizations, power fantasies and militant confabulations of a band of smartass Socialist French street punks who thought they were going to participate in some grand global Socialist uprising as some kind of chain-smoking beret-wearing militant theoretical vanguard.
It’s difficult to believe today with our powerfully intrusive government and immense, global torrents of international capital that anyone ever thought that the entire thing could come crumbling down. There were periods in the 20th century, however, where such a thing seemed not just possible but even likely depending on where you were standing. And if you were standing, as Guy Debord was, on a Paris street corner in May 1968, in the midst of an open street revolt, painting witty shit on the walls like “NEVER WORK” and “DOWN WITH THE SPECTACLE”, well, it might even seem like something you could have a hand in.
Situationists were forever attempting to prove how militant and awesome they were. It’s the type of activity that seemed really cool in the 1960s when no one really had much of an idea about what to do with drug-addled youths boasting at least a nominally complete philosophical standpoint. Today it would probably put you on a no-fly list faster than you could say “dialectical materialism” (probably faster, considering education today). You could hardly get through an essay by Debord or Raoul Vaneigem without having to wade through some denunciation of Socialists who had not gotten up on the barricades and actually fought The Man as they apparently had, although not by leading men into combat or actually engaging in any kind of combat themselves. Debord was an avid reader of military history (I know, because I read a biography on this insufferable French bastard) and it showed in his talk of columns, theoretical flanking actions, ideological pincer movements and envelopments.
Debord didn’t have many good ideas, but the one good idea he had was sufficient to put his name in history as a philosopher on media before Marshal McLuhan or for that matter Tim Bern ever learned to put wires and switches together to make a flip-flop switch or knew what that meant. Debord made up a word for the world of material and visual crap that society gives us. From the television to the newspapers of the day to the public figures that you just knew or heard about, it was all an entity he called “the spectacle”.
The spectacle, as Debord defined it in an moment of uncharacteristically succinct clarity, was the show that capital made of its own creation and destruction. You consume visual culture and in a sense destroy its novelty and thus the individuality of each fragment whenever you view it; your consumption, however, also creates a new commodity. Consumption, in a perverse sense, becomes a form of production. The spectacle makes the gaze of the consumer a commodity.
Debord’s notion of the spectacle was his one good idea because it encompassed the entire world of visual culture and presented an opportunity to characterize it in new terms. It was also not entirely wrong by itself. We know this because trends like the growth of the graphical Internet, the commoditization of CPM advertising, the consolidation of media companies into conglomerates – all of it perfectly recapitulates the commodity transactions that Debord spoke of.
On the other hand, there is no huge, monolithic entity comprising the spectacle. Sure, there’s a couple big ones, but they are hardly smart or coordinated enough to act like the kind of amorphously all-powerful entity that Debord was speaking of. This is kind of a problem for philosophy of this generation.
Whenever anyone of Debord’s generation tried to figure out what the art of the future looked like, it always tended to center on big, important figures and clearly characterizable trends. If you didn’t know any better about how much people like to make crappy little bits of art you might think that it sounded reasonable that we had to worry about some huge, monolithic, statist entity controlling our perceptions. It’s a fundamentally different mindset that Guy Debord and indeed the Socialists of the 20th century had because simply put, they didn’t have the Internet. When people of this generation watch George Lucas’ THX-1138 they might think “Wow, this is an interesting and horribly awkwardly produced vision of some dystopic future that looks kind of dated.” People in the 20th century saw THX-1138 and thought “Yeah, I guess things might look like that one day.”
No one could have expected that the dominant, most popular democratic art form of the early 21st century would be getting cute cat pictures and putting terse messages on them in Impact Condensed. The Dadaists might have predicted it, but they were too busy having fun being Dadaists to produce the massive theoretical edifice of French bullshit the Situationists did. And indeed, being a Dadaist looked like it was probably a lot of fun. (Those guys and the Happenings scene in the 1960s seemed like they got laid the most.) This is, however, beside the point.
The point I’m making is that all the old Socialists were demonstrably, quite clearly wrong about how they thought things would turn out, and it’s why I’m not a Socialist today. Guy Debord could not have predicted cat memes. There is nothing in Marx’s Critique of the Young Hegelians or Grundrisse or whatever that suggests that at some point a massive technologically sophisticated economic and military superpower might end up winning the Cold War and impose an enlightened nuclear-backed capitalist hegemony upon the world (America, yay!).
More to the point, the irritating habit that Socialists have of trying to find a systemic “why” for every last goddamn little thing makes it either a tedious or hypocritical system of belief to have. This type of hypocrisy is the reason why, for instance, I find foodies so irritating; it’s not that I don’t like eating good food or that I even disagree with the new commercial trend in quality food/slow food/local food hipster kibble, but rather that I am completely and utterly not down to talk about food for several hours and tie choices in food to every last little hypochondriac dietary sensitivity I have like my avowedly foodie friends do. I don’t feel guilty when I eat cheap food or happy when I eat expensive food – it’s just FOOD. It’s actually pretty fucking irritating when other people do it.
For a foodie, as for a Socialist, the dimension of life that they concentrate on – food choice or resisting capitalism – becomes an end-all be-all, a kind of idiotic ultimate moral value. The finest thing a person can be, for a foodie, is someone who eats good food. And the finest thing that a Socialist can be is, well, not capitalist. Think about that for a second. That’s like saying that the best thing that you should aspire to in life should be to be, like, not racist, or not mean to pets, or whatever social cause you take most seriously.
The finest thing that a person can be in life is useful and good. Almost every religion agrees on this. Most atheists and agnostics who are not caught up in some kind of ideological predilection like Socialism would probably agree. If you are useful and good as a person and you also happen to be an asshole capitalist who is mean to animals and eats McDonald’s every goddamn day, Socialists, foodies and other ideologues are going to disagree on whether or not you are a good person. And as I understand it, in most civilized countries where people can speak their minds, when someone suggests you are not a good person or that your art is less meaningful or important or that your culture is banal because it is too ‘spectacular’ or some other minor, stupid shit, the proper response is some variant on “Fuck you”.
So, yeah… That’s why I’m no longer a Socialist.