A spectre is haunting Pitchfork’s top fifty. A spectre of milquetoast pop-rock, the variety favoured by suburban teenage white girls, who consume this manufactured notion of “alternative culture” without discretion or discrimination, in a misguided attempt to set themselves apart from the droves of similarly aged and pigmented fans of what adolescent rebellion holds to be the sonic malaise of contemporary music.
I was not surprised to see the newest offering from an ‘alt-rock’ group as bland as The 1975 among Pitchfork’s highest rated records of the year; their reviews are infamously controversial, and every record is approached as if it were marmite – Pitchfork either can’t get enough of the release, or despise it with the passion of a thousand suns. I was disappointed, but this despondency was not the progeny of any personal bias I might hold against the group’s music, or of a distrust of Pitchfork’s aforementioned lazy journalism, as the ego of this pretentious indie-head was thoroughly massaged by his personal favourites of 2018 placing far higher up on the list. It was a result of frontman Matthew Healy’s failure to realise that his appropriation of the radical politics and critiques of contemporary class society put forward by the Situationist International, the Marxist artistic and political collective active between 1957 and 1972 (of which French revolutionary theoretician Guy Debord was a founding and central member), is the most painfully ironic moment Marxists have had to sit through since at least a certain Tory conference speech of October 2017, during which Theresa May flaunted a bracelet adorned with images of Frida Kahlo, everyone’s favourite unibrowed Mexican Communist, who famously joined comrade Trotsky in an affair while living together at La Casa Azul in Coyoacán between 1937 and 1939. Much of the band’s recent work seeks to emulate the sentiment of youthful revolt that he clearly believes the International embodied, from references to the student slogans of May 68 and the technique of the dérive pioneered by the SI’s precursors, to explicit name-dropping of Guy Debord himself. Those already familiar with the writings of the International will already understand the irony behind this, and it is for this reason that I have endeavoured to publish this critique.
The Situationist International (or the SI, for brevity’s sake) expanded on Marx’s theories of alienation and commodity fetishism, developing a unified critique and analysis of modern capitalism, particularly of its accelerating tendency to express and mediate social relationships through objects and images, epitomised in the existence of the spectacle, and the existence of societies governed by it. As Debord described it in his 1967 polemic ‘The Society of the Spectacle’, the eponymous spectacle is the unbridled expansion of the aforementioned phenomena (which Marx observed existing primarily in the productive relationship between the worker and the capitalist) permeating every aspect of life to the point where they, and the spectacle itself, are inescapable, the most glaring examples of societies fallen victim to it being both those dominated by the spectacle of the then recently formulated mass media, and societies dominated by a far more obvious, concentrated form — the spectacle of fascism and the totalitarian regimes of the Eastern Bloc. To the SI, the spectacle is not merely “a supplement to the real world, an additional decoration”, but the realisation of class society’s ideological superstructure in the material realm, simultaneously the product of the capitalist mode of production and this mode of production’s goal — it is an affirmation of what capitalist production wishes to exist, where all that it wishes to exist is itself. While hitherto existing productive societies were characterised by production for the sake of survival, (the feudal peasant produced only for consumption of goods by his family and his lord, and the commodity sector was a by-product of productive capacity exceeding that necessary for survival) modern capitalism consists of survival for the sake of production, where consumers are passive observers, only able to contemplate the results of this translation: replicated images of actually lived life and desires that are simultaneously completely detached from what they represent. These images merge into a common stream of existence, exterior to organic life, which exists autonomously regardless of individual human input: a pseudo-world which perpetually justifies, and makes physical, itself. In a world which has made real life irrelevant to its perpetuation, the Situationists understood that to live according to non-manufactured desire and freedom, for however brief a period, was in and of itself a revolutionary act, and dedicated much time and research to exploring methods of doing so: the construction of “situations”, such bubbles of escape, from which the SI draws its name.
Regarding revolutionary doctrine, the SI chronicled the most important weapon the spectacle employs to achieve its ultimate goal. This weapon exists as the process whereby the spectacle obstructs subversive ideas from having any real influence over the public discourse, sterilising and trivialising such antagonisms against class society until they can safely be incorporated into mainstream culture, priming these once revolutionary ideas for exploitation for capitalist gains. This is the process of recuperation. It conjures up a vast puppet show of dress-up revolutionaries to waltz around the stage of counterculture, their strings gripped by capital itself. These pseudo-revolutionaries, whether they take the form of politically charged media stars, or the proletarians that fall victim to them, are unaware that their incomplete, half-hearted jailbreak from Bourgeois ideology has left them in the clutches of a far more dangerous false consciousness — the false consciousness of the counter-revolution. Revolutionary ideas and imagery are filtered into song lyrics, corporate slogans, and trendy t-shirts. The modern proletariat (now more confined to office cubicles than the Victorian mills Engels studied) are then sold back the illusion of rebellion, anchoring the alienated masses firmly to the seabed of the logical conclusion and physical realisation of Bourgeois ideology — the society of the spectacle itself. Whilst within spectacular rebellion (rebellion ultimately tolerated by the spectacle, as spectacular society is ambivalent to which spectacle the gazers gaze upon), it goes without saying that the rebel is therefore still only an actor within the spectacle — the dreamer who wakes from a dream he believed to be indistinguishable from real life proves only to himself how easy it is to be profoundly unaware that what he presently experiences while remaining passive is not authentic. The dreamer that wakes from a dream, taking immediately for granted that he is not still in slumber, may as well go back to bed, for he is just as passive as ever, and only leaves reality open to the possibility of being unreal. It is for this reason that communists must necessarily struggle not only against explicit and conscious falsifying contaminants within the movement (contaminants birthed forth by culprits at least somewhat aware of their own opportunist or outright reactionary nature), but against unconscious ones also: well meaning, but incorrect analyses of the present state of things, and the mistaken political actions that earnest revolutionaries make as a result of these lapses in judgement. Without concrete analysis of how the spectacle uses pseudo-rebellion to its advantage, we take for granted that our movement is, in-fact, revolutionary, by virtue of it waving the red flag, and it naming itself so. Without this analysis, we can never be certain of whether our struggle is merely a struggle within spectacular society, or a truly communist struggle against class society and all it entails.
While it is true that Debord spent the better part of his career chronicling how visible spectacles were in his life, both in the analytical sense, and in the literal (having been a lifelong glasses-wearer), he was not short-sighted, at least politically speaking. The SI understood perfectly that there was nothing about surface-level pop-culture interpretations of their work that made it inherently immune to the spectacle’s recuperative tendencies, and as such saw that their ideas would too, in time, fall victim to recuperation. In fact, by Debord’s own account, the SI was dissolved in 1972 because the recuperative process had already eaten up and spat it out. In “La Veritable Scission dans l’Internationale”, one of the organisation’s last publications, Debord ruminates on the nature of the pro-situs milieu — the mass of students and impressionables who had become enamoured with the international, just as one might fall in love with any other cultural product. In the twenty-seventh thesis, he points out that any meaningful critique of the pro-situs cannot “limit itself to sneering abstractly at them for their nullity and because they were not privy to the situationist aristocracy”, and while this is a good lesson to take away from the impact that the International had on the French students, Matthew Healy is not pro-situs, and neither is the Interscope record label, so sneer at him abstractly to your heart’s content. He does not fall into the same category as the well-intentioned radicals whose contemplation of the SI Debord critiques as “a supplementary alienation to alienated society”, stressing that this contemplation is only evidence of the extent to which his own ideas have permeated contemporary discourse. Interscope was acquired by the Universal Music Group in 1992 for around $200 million, and the total earnings of UMG in 2017 stood at $6.8 billion. The band’s latest offering sold nearly 70,000 copies, and Healy’s own net worth has been estimated at $15 million. In other words, Healy is in the first bucket of contaminants, making our task of critiquing him all the easier. His recuperation of the SI is merely a vector towards capitalist profit and plays the role of a cultural sedative as a result of this — its spectators are certainly dreaming, but by god are they having a wonderful time. The academic recuperation of the Situationist International began as soon as the organisation began publishing, as Debord saw this as an inevitable “manifestation of a profound alienation of the most inactive sector of modern society”, but the recuperation of it exclusively in service of profit was a delayed phenomenon. This only began to take shape in 1975, in London, molded by John Lydon and Malcolm McLaren — this was the first real instance of pseudo-rebellion being explicitly commodified and sold back to the proletariat, as well as to the children of the Chiswick and Tooting national bourgeoisies that Comrade Wolfie Smith so heroically struggled against. The runoff from the entirely performative British punk scene, devoid of any real desire for change, drained into the culture jamming movement of the late 1980s, and since 1994 the work of culture jamming alumnus Barbara Kruger has been commodified and distilled into a literally packaged product: the scarlet banner and italic text of a certain infamous streetwear brand. It seems everywhere that the ever-fleeting phenomenon of youth demands rebellion to satisfy its appetite, and in the absence of any real proletarian alternative (since the defeat of the first revolutionary wave), capitalism is more than willing to provide: “Run wild, ye servile masses of the fourteen to eighteen year old demographic, and wreak havoc. Be home by ten, dear”. Pseudo-rebellion is the day-nursery of political discourse, onto which established culture pawns its blithering children.
The loose grouping of the Instagram communist left’s interaction with Healy and his admirers was hardly fruitful: our earnest and wholly politely-worded (maybe not) attempt to reach out to Matthew and, through the divine medium of a post featuring an original French edition of La société du spectacle’s comments section, force him to see the error of his ways, was met with only dismissive hostility from Healy himself, and ruthless criticism from the ranks of his teenaged comrades — this is nothing short of a pop icon we’re talking about, and I doubt Matthew will ever let us forget it. Perhaps our short, impersonal correspondence has itself been manipulated; perhaps we have been dragged into the spectacle which surrounds Healy, and in our fifteen minutes of social media fame been transformed into punching bags for this pseudo-rebellion, but perhaps not. The chief culprit of this conflict is Healy’s disciples’ unfortunate inability to discern meaningful critique from internet-enabled contempt. They see themselves as the cultural outsiders, and any anatomisation of Matthew’s actions that even comes close to derision will therefore be identified with the orthodox parental conformity established as an oppositional force to teenage rebellion by the false dichotomy between official and sub-culture — even if it comes from the most non-conforming currents of political consciousness.
Authors of revolutionary political opinions who find themselves praised by bourgeois literary critics should ask themselves what they’ve done wrong.Guy Debord