Between Marx and Coca-Cola

Between 1957 and its dissolution in 1972, the Situationist International sought to theorise consumer capitalism in order to overthrow it. A new collection of essays explores their legacy.

My introduction to Situationism came through music journalist Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century (1989), an anarchic collage of materials that tore excitedly through the past, ripping up notions of what history writing is or is for in the process. Marcus heard in punk an unwitting echo of social critiques posed by earlier artistic movements: Surrealism, Dada, Lettrism, and Situationism. By the time I read the book in the mid-2000s, John Lydon had recently stormed off I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! and would soon be appearing in adverts for Country Life butter.

The Situationists had a term for the co-optation of once incendiary ideas by capitalist culture: recuperation. The excoriating ‘No Future’ of The Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’ found a maudlin echo in erstwhile Situationist TJ Clark’s 2012 essay ‘For a Left with No Future’, which surveyed the catastrophes of the twentieth century and sombrely advocated for a ‘politics in a tragic key’, very different from the boisterous exuberance associated with the Situationist International. In 1958, Guy Debord proclaimed that Surrealism could only be considered a success ‘in the context of a world that has yet to be fundamentally transformed’ and was therefore a failure on its own terms. Could the same be said of Situationism?

More staid and scholarly than Lipstick Traces, The Situationist International: A Critical Handbook tours the SI’s history and key concepts. The editors claim that Situationist ideas resist attempts to domesticate them, citing as evidence the reappearance of SI slogans on Parisian streets in recent protests. The sociologist Michael Löwy characterises the SI as revolutionary romantics whose nostalgia for a pre-capitalist, pre-industrial, myth-infused world retains an ‘explosive force’.

The spectacle is perhaps the most influential Situationist concept, though its definition remains contested. Co-editor of the collection, Alastair Hemmens underlines that while often misconstrued as a theory of mass media and advertising, Debord’s theory of the spectacle was intended as a deeper critique of consumer society, extending from the shining surfaces of commodities to the hidden realms of subjectivity. Under capitalism, people are not just pacified by an onslaught of seductive yet superficial images, but alienated from the human labour that produces the objects around them.

Activities like the dérive (a drifting journey untethered from the dictates of capitalist work and leisure) or détournement (critical appropriations of familiar artefacts to subvert their original meanings) were intended to prise open the narrowing gap between representation and reality to reveal the sky behind the billboards or the beach beneath the streets.

Taking their cue from earlier avant-garde cultural movements, the SI wanted to obliterate art by bringing it into everyday life, understood as a political terrain. Revolution was not situated in the future, but enacted in the present. Elements of a free life lay scattered among the commodities, like flowers poking through cracks in the concrete, waiting to be grasped.

The SI both influenced and participated in the events of May ’68 in France, their slogans scrawled on paintings in universities and daubed on city walls: ‘Consume more, you’ll live less’, ‘Alienation behind here’, ‘Never work’. But, as Anna Trespeuch-Berthelot argues, their place in the collective imagination as the source of the playful countercultural iconography of May ‘68 is at odds with SI members’ more militant agendas. They may have extolled eroticism, impulsiveness, passion and creativity but the slogans they produced in that moment were directly political: ‘Occupy the Factories. Power to the Workers’ Councils.’

Situationists attacked hierarchy, vanguardism, and the bureaucratic structures of more traditional left-wing parties and organisations, while celebrating everyday forms of proletarian rebellion and spontaneous political acts, like wildcat strikes and vandalism. Unlike those on the left who ‘deplored the irresponsibility, the disorder, the looting’ of the 1965 Watts Rebellion, Debord hailed the event as revolutionary. Black people in America were ‘daring to demand … the right to really live.’ In the collection Sophie Dolto and Nedjib Sida Moussa explore the SI’s engagements with anti-colonial struggles alongside their responses to the Watts riots, but such writings do not always demonstrate an attentiveness to race so much as a tendency to view all political events through the same lens: ‘The Watts riot was not a racial conflict’, but ‘a rebellion against the commodity’.

While advocates of ‘Fully Automated Luxury Communism’ today envisage a world of generalised bourgeois luxury — infinity pools for all! — the SI attacked notions of bourgeois happiness and leisure. In a liberated society shiny products would not be made available to everyone because desires and modes of fulfilling them would be fundamentally transformed. Genuinely free time demands genuine freedom. But while the SI’s refusal of austere political visions remains urgent, their emphasis on hedonism over survival and on boredom seeming as deathly as starvation, appears strangely complacent about the scale of social and natural catastrophe faced today.