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NONFICTION: Decline and Fall

Guy Debord, trans. by Donald Nicholson-Smith, A Sick Planet (Seagull Books, 2008)

Nearly fifteen years after Guy Debord’s suicide in 1994, his work stubbornly continues to resist domestication despite the best efforts of intellectual fashion-mongers. Debord, after all, explicitly defined himself and his work as part of a revolutionary project—one of his greatest hopes was that the Situationist International he had founded would in time be superseded—and for him, this project involved not only staking out terrains of combat unexplored by previous revolutionary movements, but also supporting and where possible extending the scope of existing global struggles. Carrying this out required a firm grasp of strategy, a sense of where the system’s weak links were and how best to use these in order to strike at or undermine its foundations. It should therefore come as no surprise that Debord considered his most enduring achievement to be A Game of War, a board game recently published by Atlas in a box set containing board, counters, and the move-by-move description of a sample game translated into English by Donald Nicholson-Smith.

This collection of three essays written by Debord between 1965 and 1971 serves as an eloquent reminder of Debord’s strategic as well as theoretical acumen. Posthumously edited by Debord’s companion Alice Becker-Ho and excellently translated by his former comrade Nicholson-Smith, A Sick Planet is in no way of purely archival or nostalgic interest. To be sure, the passage of time and the always unexpected ruses of historical reason have rendered certain of Debord’s insights obsolete, however perceptive they may have appeared amidst the fever and the fret of the occasions of their writing. But considering that these essays focus on two crucial episodes in 1960s history (the 1965 Watts riots and the Chinese Cultural Revolution) and on the looming global ecological catastrophe, their appearance in a single volume counteracts, however modestly, the historical amnesia promoted by the modern-day spectacle. Given that the United States and China are now superpower pillars of the present world economic system, unified in a common degradation of planetary life, these texts speak of truths far more inconvenient than any mouthed by hack politicians promoting an impossible reformism.

“The Decline and Fall of the ‘Spectacular’ Commodity Economy,” an analysis and celebration of the 1965 Watts insurrection, can now be read as a prelude to Debord’s classic work Society of the Spectacle. By “not only endors[ing] the Los Angeles insurgents, but…help[ing] supply them with their reasons,” Debord contended that the rioters of Watts, living as they did on the margins of spectacular abundance, were best equipped to see through the lies of that abundance and to act on that knowledge. “[T]hose whites who want to escape their own servitude,” proclaimed Debord, “must needs rally to the black cause.” Notwithstanding Debord’s rather undialectical dismissal of the Civil Rights movement (which had its own avowedly revolutionary tendencies, as he basically admits by citing the watchword “Freedom Now!”) and his rather sanguine declaration, which rings particularly hollow after the drug wars and Hurricane Katrina, that “[b]y and large, American blacks may be certain that—if they keep quiet at least—their survival is underwritten,” no amount of hindsight can obscure the fundamental soundness of his observation that the Watts uprising was “the first skirmish of an enormous struggle, infinite in its implications,” and, it might be added, as yet unfinished.

What distinguishes “The Explosion Point of Ideology in China” is its meticulous dissection of the Proletarian Cultural Revolution (which was none of these things) and demolition of the Maoist illusion as a whole, not only by means of a well-developed anti-bureaucratic theoretical perspective, but most devastatingly through the judicious use of Chinese news reports. The essay’s central contention that, with the Cultural Revolution, “the [Chinese] ruling class has split in two” has been borne out by subsequent developments: Nixon’s visit to China, the trial of the Gang of Four, the murder of Lin Biao, the rise to power of Deng Xiaoping, and the supplanting of a military by a technocratic, monied elite which, like its Maoist predecessors, uses ideology as an easily dispensable smokescreen for crass material interests. And now as then, the specter of working-class and peasant discontent continues to haunt the Chinese rulers.

But perhaps it is the title essay that possesses the most immediate relevance; indeed, there are more essential revelations in this bitingly aphoristic piece than may be found in the most exhaustively documented scientific examination of the global ecological crisis. If the planet is sick, says Debord, it is because the life of society is sick. “Pollution is in fashion today,” he states at the outset, “…yet it really does have everybody by the throat.” Capitalism has reached the end of its tether; having produced a world flooded by inanimate objects, by “non-life,” it can now only “produc[e], directly, death.” Debord demonstrates that capitalism can at most create top-down bureaucratic methods of managing pollution (to take a current example, professional campaigners against global warming traveling by plane from conference to conference and staying in air-conditioned hotels) but this “will never amount to a real will for change until the present system of production is transformed root and branch.” Easier said than done? And yet, what other choice do we reasonably have?


Christopher Leland Winks

Christopher Winks is Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Queens College.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2008

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