I want now to turn to Guy Debord’s article entitled “The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy”, from the Issue #10 of Situationiste Internationale published in March, 1966. This will help us to draw out some of the radical implications of Kimberley Jones’ analysis. (See The consummation of consumption 1 here.)
Like Kimberley Jones, Guy Debord draws attention to the almost universal condemnation of the riot – in this case the Watts Uprising. He singles out remarks by the head of the NAACP at the time, Roy Wilkins, who argued that it “ought to be put down with all necessary force.” Like Jones, Debord understands the uprising not in racial but in class terms, referring to MLK Jr’s statement in a recent Paris lecture that Watts wasn’t a “race” but a “class” riot. What drives the Blacks of Watts is proletarian consciousness according to Debord, which means consciousness that they neither are masters of their own activities nor of their own lives.
Like Kimberley Jones, Debord understands the uprising not in racial but in class terms.
The crux of Debord’s analysis aims at an inversion of the characterization of looters as the embodiment of animalistic drives. He does so by deploying a concept that he would elaborate in his most famous book one year later, which, in fact, gave direction to the events of May, 1968, and this is the concept of the spectacle. According to Debord, the spectacle is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes an image. The spectacular society is the society that creates, amidst real misery and deprivation, the appearance or fantasy of affluence and abundance.
The spectacle represents a new level of the fetishism of the commodity form which is an object with a certain use value that satisfies determinate human needs but that is, nonetheless, produced in order to realize its exchange value or profit.
For Debord the looters, far from being animals, represented a human response to dehumanizing conditions, namely, the fact that capitalist society, characterized by generalized commodity production, is a society in which relations between things appear as relations between people and relations between people resemble relations between things.
By challenging the almost theological sanctity of the commodity, the looters re-establish human relationships grounded in gift and potlash economies. For Debord, in the racist and colonial “hierarchy” of the society of the spectacle, people of colour, but particularly black people are reduced to the status of things. Insofar as the looters directly circumvent the logic of exchange with the demand for use, which is to say, the satisfaction of needs, however false such needs may be. He argues, and I quote: “The flames of Watts consummated the system of consumption…Once it is no longer bought, the commodity lies open to criticism and alteration, whatever particular form it may take.” Yet, such flames immediately call into action the police.
The policeman is:
"the active servant of the commodity, the man in complete submission to the commodity, whose job it is to ensure that a given product of human labor remains a commodity, with the magical property of having to be paid for, instead of becoming a mere refrigerator or rifle – a passive, inanimate object, subject to anyone who comes along to make use of it. In rejecting the humiliation of being subject to police, the blacks are at the same time rejecting the humiliation of being subject to commodities.”
The social contract, to reiterate, is not broken, but functions all-too well: for it is a contract geared to the maintenance of private property, with all the necessary violence and force necessary. This recently became amply clear in the actions of the 17 year-old White shooter in Kenosha on August 25th who was there, according to his own account, to help the police defend private property.
Returning to the question I started with, namely: the possibility of cross-racial solidarity, it is of vital importance to grasp the particular and universal significance of the uprisings and in the process to make of it more than a “racial” event, for this is exactly what the far-right want.
Rather, we must situate the uprisings that we’re seeing within the larger context of a society in which inequalities are deepening. It is also important to place recent developments in the context of a history of social struggles, from Watts in 1965 to Paris in 1968 to Minneapolis in 2020. It is vitally important to understand extreme forms of police violence not as effects of a mystical, transhistorical White supremacy, but rather as a manifestation of a racism that flows from the vicissitudes of a social order mediated by the commodity-spectacle, grounded in the sanctification of private property under deepening forms of a socio-economic inequality that hits Black and Indigenous communities especially hard.
This social order is a historical one – an order that came into being and one from which it is still possible for us to emancipate ourselves.
This piece was originally published on November 1 in the November 2020 Splinters edition.