Terms Related to the Society of the Spectacle:
Understanding the Existential State of [Post] Modern Capitalist Society, Mass Media, and Advertising as it Relates to Commodity Fetishism, Consumer Culture, the Theory of the Spectacle, “Proletarianization,” and the Resulting Alienation
We define terms related to “the society of the spectacle” like commodity fetishism, consumerism, “proletarianization,” and alienation.
More specifically, we look at these terms and more, as well as the related works of Marx, Bernays, Debord, and others, and explain how they relate to the world of consumer capitalism and mass media (where appearance trumps substance) we find ourselves in today.
“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.” – Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle.
TIP: You’ll note that Trump is the main subject of the video below. The video choice is not a statement on being “anti-Trump” (or “pro-Trump”), it is rather a statement on centuries of philosophical theories leading up to the sociopolitical environment we find ourselves in today (of which Trump is emblematic; you know, the one where a reality TV star with a strong brand who tweets liberally became leader of the free world). Do we think Trump marks “the End of History” or “the End of Politics?” No. Do we think Trump’s rise to power and his brand’s tension with the Mass Media and State is an emblem of what Debord called “the society of the spectacle?” Indeed. That would be the point we, and the 8-Bit Philosophy video below, are getting at. Check out all the useful media on this page and make the call for yourself.Is Trump the END of Politics? – 8-Bit Philosophy.
A List of Definitions of Terms Related to the Theory of Spectacle, Commodity Fetishism, and Alienation
Below is a list of terms that together explain the general existential qualities of modern consumerism and the state (NOTE: despite the Marxian terms, this is a statement on consumerism not communism).
Karl Marx: The socialist from the mid-1800’s who laid the foundation of Communism. Laying the ground-work for the tyranny of Communism-in-action aside, Marx was also an important economist, historian, and philosopher. With this in mind, part of his theory of capitalism from his Capital and other works includes the ideas of commodity fetishism, what we can call “the proletarianization of the world” under “capitalist bourgeoisie society” in the “capitalist mode of production” (where more and more people become workers, and less and less own the means of production, in capitalist society), and the resulting alienation felt as a result of the disconnect between workers and the fruits of their labor. That may sound like a lot of jargon… and it is, but clarifying it is the point of this page (so don’t let it scare you off). The main point ot understand here is that Marx helped to predict the detached consumerism and general socioeconomic paradigm present in the modern state. Simply put, Marx saw the economy and state as naturally occurring social systems and realized we could look to history to find patterns and make predictions. The idea was that people naturally create economy when they organize and trade, and this naturally results in historic cycles based on the current “factors of production” (labor, management, machines, etc) and their relations, that those cycles historically have ended by revolution, that we are in such a cycle (as we always are), and that what happens next can be predicted based off of “the relations between the current factors of production in the current cycle.” This is to say, Marx didn’t call for revolution as much as he predicted it. Meanwhile, the catalyst of his revolution was based on the alienation works feel in the modern mode of production. See how to understand Marx’s class theory or Read Das Kapital.
TIP: To Marx, a commodity is anything outside of us that satisfies human wants. Further, a commodity has use-value if it can be used, and exchange-value if it can be exchanged for something useful. When we start to fetishize (“worship” or “place high value upon”) commodities with exchange-value (like money itself), it is a sort of Commodity Fetishism (commodities as a religion of sorts). When we place value on “the appearance of having commodities with exchange-value,” for example “the appearance of being rich,” that is “the society of the spectacle”… a natural advent of bourgeoisie economy in the age of marketing.
The main point: The main point here is that Marx predicted the focus on commodities with exchange-value rather than use-value and that this (and a host of other factors) had an alienating effect. Marx’s theories lay the groundwork for the main topic of this page, they aren’t directly the main topic.
Karl Marx & Conflict Theory: Crash Course Sociology #6.
“A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.”
MUSING: The fetishism of the commodity (the idolizing of things or ideas as products) is different from the commoditization of fetishism (the marketing of powerful symbols as products). With that said, buying at a high price a trendy jacket laced with symbols that sort of hints at a subculture, worn as high fashion, that imbues a person with identity (form their own perspective and from that of others) essentially checks all the boxes. When punk rock’s culture became in vogue in the late 1970s, it was this ironic thing where a movement that rejected mainstream consumerism in anarchistic fashion, quickly became a commodity over which fetishization and consumerism occurred. I use this example as bands like the sex pistols also popularized sexual fetish inspired gear. Anyway, I’m essentially playing with words here to try to paint a clearer picture of the many prongs of commodity fetishism. Moving on…
Edward Bernays: The early 1900’s, liberal-conservative nephew of Sigmund Freud and father of propaganda (or public relations; if we want to play public relations on behalf of the term propaganda). Modern capitalist society relies on a consumer culture of consent (and sometimes dissent-as-a-product) driven by mass media. This doesn’t require a bureaucrat or oligarch to pull strings, instead it creates many bureaucrats and oligarchs who “as if by an invisible hand” form a “shadow government” which in turn manufactures consenting consumers. Not because of a coordinated shadowy plot, but because humans are incentive-based and social creatures, and the incentive in the modern state is the acquisition of capital and power (generally power by capital). In other words, the goal is “having,” to have one must sell, and to sell requires consent. Meanwhile, since not everyone can “have,” the product that is bought and sold via propaganda often transforms into what we can call “the appearance of having.” This sort of cycle, and the necessary self-creating shadow governments that arise based on incentives (not coordinated plot), essentially drive the modern state (as if by many uncoordinated and loosely coordinated different invisible hands). The propaganda of those many hands gets a happy face in most cases, because the propaganda desires conformity and consent, because its goal is the acquisition of capital driven by consumerism. Whether its “if you feel sad, buy this,” or “buy this, it will make you feel happy,” or fear them, and vote for me, if you want to be happy,” the gist is the same (emotion politics and buying into approval and happiness). See our page on Bernays or read: Propaganda.
The main point: The main point here is that images are used to sell consumerism, and people are highly subject to being persuaded by images (after-all we all share the same basic human traits, and that is ripe for manipulation). Going beyond Bernays, over time, this focus on “having” results in the appearance (or image) of “having” being more important than actually having and consuming. To be clear, Bernays didn’t focus on the “appearance” part, but our next subject Debord did.
“THE conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. Our invisible governors are, in many cases, unaware of the identity of their fellow members in the inner cabinet.”
“THE media by which special pleaders transmit their messages to the public through propaganda include all the means by which people to-day transmit their ideas to one another. There is no means of human communication which may not also be a means of deliberate propaganda, because propaganda is simply the establishing of reciprocal understanding between an individual and a group.”
TIP: The free-market, democracy, and other such systems should be self correcting in theory, because [very roughly speaking] the rule of averages says “the more instances considered, the more correct the mean will be.” The problem with this truism is that, while “the general will” may always line up with the wills of many in mundane situations, the wills of the many can be corrupted and influenced. If the wills of each citizen are corrupted by the specific and corporate wills of special interests, then the law of averages breaks. If the capitalist wants to “sell eggs,” and the state wants to subsidize “eggs,” the propaganda will say “buy eggs,” the consumer will be sold the image of “eggs as a status symbol,” and when the vote comes in it will show “the people prefer eggs.” Simply put, people are subject to rhetoric (the art of convincing people) and also to the modern form of rhetoric, propaganda. This only gets more absurd in the modern age of mass media, social media, and internet, because we are that much more surrounded by “the world of images” and their influence.
TIP: When we trade logic and reason for the fetishization of commodities, trade substance for the appearance of value, and trade critical thinking for propaganda, we start down a slippery slope. That said, Plato knew this and suggested the same solution for any level which we apply his general metaphor to, that solution is “a mixed-republic.” A mixed-republic doesn’t rely on democracy alone for correctness, instead each aspect of the entity restrains the other aspects to check-and-balance and separate powers (and therefore staves off the corrupting forces of any single power; intentional or not, immoral, moral, or amoral in intention).Edward Bernays and the Art of Public Manipulation. The other side of Bernays.
Guy Debord: A western Marxist from the mid-1900’s who played on the ideas of Marx and Bernays to define what he called “the Theory of the Spectacle” in his masterwork, the Society of the Spectacle. This is that which we are moving continually toward in the modern state; a consumer driven capitalist society that speaks only in propaganda and PR (in Debord’s terms it speaks in “images” or “spectacles”). A state where every force together forms a shadow government, and where the only purpose is to obtain the appearance of having “stuff.” This fetishism of the commodity (the love of stuff) replaces substance. The cycle moves from a joy of “living and being,” to a joy of “having,” to a joy of “appearing to have.” In other words, in consumer driven capitalist society we naturally move toward a place where appearing to be a billionaire is more important than actually having a billion dollars! Evolving this idea, to speak in modern language, soon we all speak in images and tweets, and worth is judged on how many “likes” we get and how we look to ourselves in a mirror. In this culture puffery and spectacle win the day, and substance and truth are absurd (and falsehoods are seen as truth). This is post modern existentialism, it is the evolution of what surrealism, dada, and nihilism all spoke to. Religion (the first estate) is replaced by consumerist capitalist bourgeoisie society and, in the modern digital age, is replaced by the digital version of the ten thousand Madison avenues and Deep States. Read: The Society of the Spectacle.
The main point: Marx and Bernays’ theories lay the groundwork for Debord. Debord simply traces propaganda in the capitalist mode of production to its logical result, that is a state based on selling the idea of “having” (which itself morphs into a state based on the idea of “appearing to have”). Then he points out the other obvious, that is, the result can be rather alienating and lacking in substance (and thus can be rather absurd). Why are we depressed? Is it because we don’t have X-drug… or is it because our lives lack substance? Is it because of the post-truth word (where in a world that really has been turned on its head, truth is a moment of falsehood), or is because we didn’t get enough likes on our latest post? When we see Caesar Flickerman (the talk show host of the Hunger Games) treating a serious issue as entertainment and doing everything for the spectacle, we see the cumulation of everything Marx, Bernays, and Debord are pointing at.
TIP: Social validation and connection, even on a superficial level, isn’t something we should dismiss. Neither is manufactured happiness. Neither is the value of the appearance of having. It isn’t these things alone that are a problem, it is the absolute focus on images and spectacles. It is the ignoring of truth for spectacle that is the problem. Again, like it is with Plato’s theory, it isn’t the desire for wealth and sensual pleasures that is bad (it isn’t the desire for vice or acting on it), it is an absolute lack of restraint. A tyrant is one who does not restrain, anarchy is unrestrained democracy. If we let our base desires control us, if we fill our bodies with drugs, or our minds with images, then we don’t have balance. The answer is the same as it always is “temperance and balance and moderation.” Being, Having, and Appearance are all important; the dangers is when appearance trumps having trumps being.
The Society of the Spectacle.
“The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.” (It is both the result and product of the modern mode of production… the very heart of society’s real unreality).
The spectacle manifests itself as an enormous positivity, out of reach and beyond dispute. All it says is: “Everything that appears is good; whatever is good will appear.” (It is a naturally occurring system based on the incentives found in consumer capitalism).
Other thinkers and concepts: Do we cite Nietzsche’s Nihilism, Camus and Sartre, Kafka, or go back to the origins of Greek thought and talk about contradictions in the dialectic or vice and virtue, or should we discuss Hegel (from whom Marx borrowed a lot), or do we discuss Noam Chomsky’s idea of manufactured consent? We could do all this, as this all relates to the main topic, but that would be a long page. Instead let’s just say, this page is about existentialism and advertising and the disconnect humans feel when they focus all their energy on aesthetics and the world of things rather than the world of ideas. Plato’s tripartite soul (and state) clued us into this, and religion used to teach us this, you know… before we lobbed the head off the first estate and replaced feudalism with modern consumer capitalism. 😀 See our pages on propaganda, reasoning, Plato’s Republic, and existentialism.Noam Chomsky – Manufacturing Consent.
Alienation: Marx’s theory of Alienation is central to his theory, as it is to the concepts of nihilism and existentialism. There are many ways to explain it, but perhaps the simplest is best. When we focus on “stuff” with no inherent meaning instead of focusing on that which has deep human meaning, we feel a sort of disconnect from the world. It leaves us feeling empty. When workes gets for their labor capital in the money-form (numbers on paper), and the use-value commodities they produce are owned and traded by the capitalists, they feel disconnected from the fruits of their labor (and from the social relations between each other). When a person buys a fancy hat and then seeks approval by peacocking it around on social media (aiming to get likes as a commodity; or a digital form of social approval as a commodity), that scratches one itch of the ego, but doesn’t scratch a deeper itch of the human soul (as the soul requires substance and real social relations). When the world is all images and no substance, when the worker works for capital but keeps nothing they produce, when the politician and media personality sell appearance rather than substance, when the world is a sea of images and fake smiles, when reality is talking points and slogans and the truth is “fake news”… the people feel a sense of alienation. As the focus of society moves from “living,” to “having,” to “appearance,” as PR replaces truth, and as the truth itself sounds absurd and fake… the people feel a sense of alienation. Alienation: the secret sauce or revolution alongside extreme inequality and a loss of dignity. Marx predicted a workers’ revolution, because he saw the workers being alienated in capitalist society. His prediction came true… but people blamed it on Marx instead of giving him credit for predicting WWI and WWII.
TIP: When people sell “anti-Marx” they are selling a form of dissent (not even dissent-with-a-smily-face as a product like Candice from the Hunger games; but more more like straight up dissent). Anything that promotes consumer capitalism gets a smily face, anything that opposes it gets a sad face or angry face. Both are a result of the shared intentions of the many capitalists.Alienation.
Absurdity: Looking for meaning where there is none is absurd. Looking for fulfillment in the world of images and appearance alone is inherently absurd. Making a religion out of “stuff,” replacing the human soul with the animal ego (the super ego with the ID), and replacing God with a commodity… is absurd. The “alien” who realizes the world is absurd is bound for an existential crisis. Luckily that crisis can be quickly followed by the mandate to create our own meaning out of the meaningless, to find faith without a guarantee, or simply to affect the system for the benefit of the here and now despite the absurdity. See: existentialism.
Commodity Fetishism: A butcher has a pile of meat, the farmer a pile of corn, and the dentist is skilled in dentistry. They could trade their goods directly (a substantive social relation), but it makes more sense to trade a third item, a specific exchange-value commodity, capital in the money-form. From this perspective, commodity fetishism is just what it sounds like, it is the transference of value onto commodities that don’t specifically have use-value (like meat or corn do; meat and corn have both exchange-value and use-value). When we worship the dollar rather than the apple pie, or when we worship the appearance of dollars rather than dollars themselves, giving a sort of holy status to something that has no inherent value, it is commodity fetishism. A society that worships commodities without use-value practices commodity fetishism. TIP: Fetishism in anthropology refers to the primitive belief that godly powers can inhere in inanimate things (totems). Marx borrows this concept to make sense of his concept of “commodity fetishism.” Dobard’s book is largely about Commodity fetishism in a consumer capitalist society of “appearances” and “spectacles.” The spoils goes to the one who appears to have the most, the “value” of the commodity is transferred to the one who holds the most of them and practices PR and puffery.Cultural Theory: Commodity Fetishism.
Consumerism / Consumer Culture: Consumer culture is the culture that arises when the focus of a culture shifts from “living/being” to “having” to “appearing to have.” Capitalists should take heed, in a world where we can all appear to have, no one actually needs to work or buy anything. I appear to have a job, I appear to have things, I really just sit in my room all day create a fake image. If the leader appears to be doing a good job, but is not, the company will suffer. If the worker appears to be working, but is not, no work will get done. Images are important, but they are only part of… the full picture.HISTORY: CONSUMERISM.
Dialectic and Contradiction: Every concept has a contradiction. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Every complex set of actions has a complex set of reactions. Social actions often have unequal or un-opposite reactions. The world is complex, but it follows basic rule-sets! The cycle that drifts toward the absurd culture of spectacles isn’t an End of History theory. It is just a tale of the cycle we are in. At some point a contradiction will lead us to the next cycle. The anti-thesis / syn-thesis may be a return to “being and living” or… not. Either way, the system is naturally occurring, and thus what comes from it will be too. That said, people can affect the system (as we’ll note below).
Existentialism: The idea that there is no essence (no intrinsic meaning that can be confirmed by the senses or reason). What is the essence of the table you made from scratch? You can probably answer that. What is the essence of the exchange-value of the table in the money-form (for example, the value of $100 instead of a table you made worth $100)? That question is harder to answer. What is the essence of all your friends thinking you have $100 and the social worth you feel from this? Well, there is a sort of value there, but its pretty far removed from its essence. The further we move away from substance and meaning, the more existential the situation becomes.Existentialism: Crash Course Philosophy #16.
Post-Modernism: In this sense, it is the art-form based around all of this. In American Psycho a serial killer is treated as a normal elite in 1980’s New York City. Is that more absurd than a soup can being art, having more value than the soup, or the idea of propaganda as an art-form (see examples of how the lines between post-modernism and propaganda blur)? The line between consumer capitalism, propaganda, and war blur… and the lines between art and reality blur…. well, they blur on paper at least. I assume its always very real for the person on the ground in the trenches.
The Proletarianization of the World: As the capitalist mode of production continues, workers replace owners, big businesses replace small ones, and automation replaces labor. The result of this, and the mechanics behind the wealth gap, is that capital (social, political, and fiscal) is placed in few and fewer hands on one hand, and everyone else becomes a worker (a proletarian) on the other hand…. that is sort of the mid-1800’s version of what was going to happen, and it wasn’t fully wrong. However, what actually happened is even more absurd. Instead of everyone being a mangey peasant-worker-type-thing, everyone is becoming a sort of consumer-worker-pseudo-mega-star-on-their-own-profile. That British influenced liberal individualism is great and all, but paired with the disconnect and fetishism, the picture grows a little more complex.
Puffery and Spectacle: In a world of “appearing to have,” having is important, but “appearing to have is King/Queen.” In this world advertising isn’t just something an ad company sells to you, it is something everyone sells to each other. The picture I posted on social media is a lie, and I sell it to my friends to consume, because I want likes in the social-approval-form. No shadowy figure needed; I was the closest thing to a shadow in the story. In this version of the modern world, the one who puff ups their feathers and peacocks the best, the one who is the most attractive spectacle, is King/Queen. This is of course, absurd and alienating.
Specialization: Humans are incentivized to be the best, to specialize, so they can create more, so they can get more capital. Specialization drives all forms of capitalism. The point of bringing this up here is… The Society of the Spectacle incentivizes people to specialize in Puffery and Spectacle… which is useless by most reasonable measures (it is only useful in select fields like acting, modeling, deal making, and manufacturing consent).
The Theory of the Spectacle (the theories from The Society of the Spectacle): The visual reflection of the ruling economic order, the society of the spectacle, as explained by Dobard. In Dobard’s time he was talking about TV Presidents and adverts, today we have way more media and the internet. The digital version of spectacle that arises in the modern day, where we all compete to be the spectacle, and going against it gets you shunned, or worse, going against it is turned into a spectacle itself, that is one of many aspects of the theory of the spectacle. Thus, the theory of the spectacle is a way to say all of this without writing a bunch of words. It is Dobard’s theory, but it was correct enough in the 1960’s to still apply today. The only thing we have to add to it is social media. Dobard didn’t see that coming specifically, but it is clearly an evolution of these ideas. For the social Media aspect, check out the series Black Mirror (or better, watch “the Wisecrack philosophy of Black Mirror” below).The Philosophy of Black Mirror – Wisecrack Edition.
How to Combat This All Without Resorting to a Violent Workers’ Revolution
So, like Marx, we illustrated a problem. However, unlike Marx, but like Dobard or Bernays, we aren’t going to suggest that the solution is a workers’ revolution and Communism.
Instead, the idea is simpler and more straightforward.
The idea is found in the concept of Judo (roughly redirect the energy of others, doing as little work as possible to flip the situation). That is, one simply has to turn the ads against ads.
One holds a mirror up to the world of images, and watches the spectacle turn to stone.
This is essentially what Shepard Fairey does, what South Park does, or George Carlin did.
Take propaganda, change a few words, and then put it back out into the world.
Take a call to “appearing to have,” and replace it with a call to “being.”
Take post-truth, and replace it with actual truth.
Take factoid that is designed to convey emotion, and change it into a fact that draws its power from truth.
It is repurposing weaponized information into peaceful protest; it is making virtue and education sexy.
It is educating without capital incentive; it is not buying the product, and not becoming the product yourself.
The revolution needs to take place democratically in the marketplace of ideas, like the spectacle itself was a product of democracy in the marketplace of ideas, and like the consumer state was a natural product of free exchange and other advents of man as a social being.
The answer to liberty isn’t necessarily more state, and the answer to the state isn’t always more liberty, instead, the answer is the same as Plato gave in his Republic. That is, respecting the higher orders over the lower orders, or valuing those who are better at this then we are (not looking for the puffy-ist spectacle who has what we want, but looking for the philosopher king who has what we need).
If for every attempt to brainwash, there is two attempts to enlighten, then the world will move toward enlightenment. If we propagandize facts and higher order ideals, then lower order vices are naturally knocked down a peg.
It takes more work to sell someone snake oil than a cure, but only in a world that respects doctors of snake-oil salesman.
It is much easier to guide a ship then it is to try to change the direction of the current.
The best defense against fake news, is real news. The best defense against the fetishism of lesser things is the fetishism of greater things. It is much less work to tweak propaganda than it is to create it, it is also substantially more honest. If we help replace the lack of meaningful social relations with… meaningful social relations… the world will likely be a better place.
TIP: The movie below is all about everything we just talked about. So Hunger Games, Black Mirror, the movie Branded, Warhol, Fairey (and the movie They Live for that matter), etc, etc. Of course media is going to get meta and discuss this, after-all “Hollywood” and TV (all entertainment media in this sense) are some of the very entities that transmit propaganda in all forms… not because they are evil, but because “as if by an invisible hand” the product that sells will be made (that is after-all, the economic system known as consumer capitalism).
Bottomline: The spectacle is both the result and product of the modern mode of production. It goes beyond an evil plot, it is much more complex and absurd than that… it is arguably a naturally occurring social system based on the modern factors of production and human incentive (which is then leveraged by many).Branded Official Trailer #1 (2012) Jeffrey Tambor Movie HD.
Solutions and goals: To be clear, my take-away on the matter isn’t that we should revolt in some bombastic way, instead we should constantly push for a slightly better version of what we have now via art, democracy, and our own personal focus; pushing for something that is a little more truth-y, and a little less fake. Pushing for something based a bit more on consciously focusing on the value of higher principles over lower order ones. Instilling that in our culture, while at the same time knowing that we are in a system that doesn’t explicitly incentivize this. Things that would also help: Fair rules and regulations; a bit more focus on staving off inequality and corruption; and probably a little less money in government; helping to teach people to spot propaganda and “flip the script.” Simple things and tiny peaceful and democratic steps. We all still want a smart phone in our pocket, we just don’t want to treat it like a golden idol that distracts us to the degree that we can’t see Rome burning around us.