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Instabilities and Critical Opportunities:Guy Debord's Contributions to Crisis Theory

The following text was presented at the 2011 Telos Conference, “Rituals of Exchange and States of Exception: Continuity and Crisis in Politics and Economics.”

(For the people of Tunisia.)

There is a tension in Guy Debord’s crisis theory, which stems from a particular bifurcation in his own consideration of crisis. On the one hand, Debord sought to completely deconstruct the Marxian logic of crisis, but on the other, his own situationist theory of praxis depended on the relationship between crisis and opportunity. In short, Debord abandons any notion of the grand crises of world-historical significance, and looks instead to minor crises of ideology and critique.

In Chapter 17 of Marx’s Theories of Surplus Value—a work sometimes referred to as Volume 4 of Capital—one finds the best exposition of his “crisis theory.” There, Marx attacks the arguments of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, by then (1863) a common mechanism for delineating his own theories.

Very generally, “crisis theory” refers to Marx’s arguments that capitalism will not be able to survive the crises it gives rise to forever, and that the emancipatory course of this development will be assisted by the midwifery of a revolutionary class. Even when Marx focuses on the technical aspects of how the value, quality, and availability of raw materials could unexpectedly change and disrupt business cycles, his theory was always ultimately about system crisis. As the subtitle to Chapter 17 states, “The very nature of capital leads to crises.” Marx’s theory always sought, in other words, to never lose sight of the operational logic for the operational modes of capitalism. The operational modes of capitalism change over time, but the logos of capitalism remains the system’s center of gravity. Crisis theory is indeed a good framework for thinking about the inexorability that Marx speaks of with regard to oppositional and antagonistic forces.

Today, of course, there are new crisis theories we’re all familiar with. Some Marxists argue that the destruction of ecosystems cannot be prevented under capitalism, and that capitalism is in the process of producing an ecological crisis it can’t overcome. Climate change and peak oil are particular crises, which signal to many the environmental limit of capitalism’s perpetual 3% compound growth imperative. That crisis theory is defining of the ecosocialist milieu can be seen in the journal Capitalism Nature Socialism.[1] One can find crisis theory in multifarious places today, from geology to geography, from the works of David Harvey and Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri to the primitivist theories of John Zerzan (whose work has appeared in the pages of Telos). Primitivism is a clear modality of crisis theory, which views civilization itself as producing its own demise. More common, perhaps, are ominous predictions about contests over water resources. And, it is hardly surprising that crisis theorists are now considering the survivability of the current financial collapse.

With these opening remarks I only want to set the stage, pointing out that radical theses on system crisis and opportunity survive and evolve, and that what these crisis theories have in common is that they embody one contention or another about world-historical transitions.

Debord, as it turns out, wrote one of the most rigorous and uprooting critiques of Marx’s crisis theory. Yet, Debord was a crisis theorist of a different kind. One of the central premises of his work was that a good crisis is always a crisis for particular mythologies—that we should forget the world-historical system crises Marx anticipated, and those that many others anticipate today, and look instead to crises in the pervasive mythology of spectacular capitalism. Like much of the contemporaneous critical theory and postmodern philosophy, Debord held in the 50s and 60s that capitalism had proven itself flexible enough to survive various material crises by changing its operational mode without abandoning its operational logic, by producing what he called “a general gloss on the rationality of the system.”[2] This gloss refers to the ideological luster of capitalism and its culture, which may suffer certain blows, but can effectively be refinished with various forms of apologetics.

To apply this in a very general way we might consider how capitalism in the US has mainly escaped criticism, while discourses throughout Europe, perhaps most notably in Greece, demonstrate that capitalism could be identified as the cause of the crisis. Here in the US the question of the culprit is always a personal question, or a question about one policy or another, but is never a systems question that considers capitalism itself.

Yet even in Greece, which has been in a steady upheaval since December of 2008, the generalized crisis (social and political, and not only financial) is fundamentally about criticism, and not—at least I do not think—about revolution in any classical sense of the word. The situation in Greece is the kind of event that Engels would have sent news stories to Marx about while the latter was living in London working as a journalist—the upheaval surely would have appeared to Marx and Engels as a potential prelude to world-historical crisis, particularly with related uprisings in Brussels and France and very recently in the UK. Even the anarchist anthropologist David Graeber has said of the Greek rebellion, “Future historians may well conclude that the Revolution finally began in 2008.” But contrary to this line of thinking, I view the Greek rebellion in a similar light as the Zapatista rebellion of 1994. Those who viewed the Zapatista rebellion as a prelude to revolution set themselves up for disappointment, because they saw in that rebellion what they wanted to see, not what it was in fact. To be more precise, what we see is that certain crises give rise to upheavals, and the upheavals serve to thematize, comment on, or even to intensify the crises, functioning as philosophy from below, creating inroads for radical criticism, for the deep rethinking of the related problems.

Debord’s 1957 Report on the Construction of Situations understood well that revolutionary politics occupied an especially desperate position in the decades after World War II, and that this desperation necessitated a kind of opportunism with regard to all contestatory interventions, most of which could only ever aspire to be interruptions or disruptions. Situationist theory admits its desperation but doesn’t give up (at least in its more activist years from 1957 to 1968). Debord was more than dissatisfied with Marx’s crisis theory. He wanted to abandon the whole enterprise as inappropriately hopeful to the point of delusion, as pseudo-scientific, as totalizing and contradictory, and as the ultimate betrayal of dialectical understanding (See Chapter 4 of The Society of the Spectacle, theses 79 to 95).

Yet, as a situationist, Debord understood that people were not open to structural transformations in the absence of crises, and certainly not without some provocation and feeling. So the first and maybe even impossible task is to expand and circulate radical affinities. Not only the SI as an idea (perhaps more so than as an actually existing group), but also Debord’s films, and the gallery events he organized in the late 50s, were a reflection of this initiative—always done with a sense of the desperation of the project.

US political culture may serve to bear out the desperation of Debord’s position. Not only are we generally uninterested in radical and revolutionary politics, but one of the best means of defamation is to characterize your opponent as a socialist or Marxist. To take a recent and especially nonsensical turn, the fact that Jared Loughner read Karl Marx has been invoked as an accessory to his crime in Arizona, to further defame his character. Radical perspectives are regarded in the main as the points of view of villains and enemies, such that what is hyperbolic in Glenn Beck, appears to be, once relaxed, a general disposition. But perhaps this disposition has something to do with crisis; perhaps it to be expected when the crises many people worry about are still in the realm of abstraction for most Americans. Americans, for example, need to find themselves in greater imminent danger than a mostly avoidable flurry of mad-cow disease to prompt some kind of paroxysm about factory farming. Likewise, the “crises” of peak oil, climate change, and fresh water reserves are not imminent for as long we can continue everyday life relatively uninterrupted, except by occasional worries about the abstract becoming concrete. After 9/11, outside of the usual academic and activist circles, we did not engage in free and open criticism of US foreign policy as much as a redoubled patriotic discourse with its heels dug in. In the 2008–2010 financial breakdowns, the US was only prepared to bail out its private sector through gargantuan measures of corporate welfare. US civil society vacillated between seeing this as a regrettable necessity (the liberal position), or, suspending all logic, socialism. Something in all of this captures the sense of Debord’s desperation with regard to Marxian crisis theory and the prospects for a revolution against capitalism.

Meanwhile, between 2008 and 2010, many in France and Greece were ready to advance real socialist arguments and political contestation. There, in the wake of financial instability, capitalism was susceptible to radical criticism. In some places and times, then, if and when crises are deep and widespread, the “permanent situation” of spectacular capitalism becomes all at once evidently impermanent and is thus exposed to the sharp edges of philosophy. It is in this spirit that Debord himself seized upon the 1965 Watts Riot in LA to advance a critique of the conciliatory discourse on “race” relations in America.

In 1971, Debord wrote that

if the scope and even the reality of the ‘terrors of the year 1000’ are still a subject of controversy among historians, terror of the year 2000 is as patent as it is well founded; indeed, it is now based on scientific certainty. At the same time, what is happening is by no means fundamentally new: rather, it is simply the ineluctable outcome of a longstanding process. A society that is ever more sick, but ever more powerful, has recreated the world—everywhere and in concrete form—as the environment and backdrop of its sickness: it has created a sick planet.[3]

In this forward-thinking essay from 1971, Debord not only forecasts the crisis theories of Y2K, but also discusses at length what was then an emergent discourse on environmental crisis focused on pollution and acid rain. Today, of course, the terror of the year 2000 is behind us, now replaced by fear of the 2012 apocalypse, discussed with seriousness by scientists on the History and Discovery Channels.

But to conclude with present concerns (as if 2012 was far away) the question is not if capitalism will survive the current crisis, for that seems certain. Marx was right that crisis is not enough: a revolutionary historical subject is also necessary. Crisis, however, could make “critical opportunities” for criticism. It even compelled Alan Greenspan to see the flaws of his own fundamentalism (Greenspan famously said in response to a question from Congressman Henry Waxman, “I discovered a flaw in the model that I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works.”).[4] For all of Debord’s desperation, he nevertheless saw radical criticism as a prerequisite to something like unitary revolutionary struggle. While I am not confident about the emergence of unitary revolutionary struggle, Debord was right about the prerequisite, and those of us interested in the problems of capitalism could, and I think should, make greater use of his theory.


1. See any number of James O’Connor’s works and Arran Gare’s article in Volume 19, Number 1, March 2008.

2. Thesis 15, The Society of the Spectacle.

3. Debord, A Sick Planet (Seagull Books, 2007), p. 81.

4. Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the Federal Reserve and major architect of US economic policy since 1974. This quote was cited in numerous sources documenting the proceedings of the US Congressional Committee, i.e. The Guardian, Friday, October 24, 2008.

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