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Marxist economics and the spectacular economy. Introduction to 'Time And Labour' from Guy Debord: Society Of The Spectacle (1971)

The situationists do not indulge in the sterile and academic exercise of bringing Marx "up to date" nor do they engage in lengthy critiques of specific Marxist theses, but their work, even apart from their adoption of the style of the "Theses on Feuerbach", would be inexplicable without that of Marx. The following section of "Society of the Spectacle" by Guy Debord re-examines the exploitation of the proletariat and the alienation of the labourer under the conditions of advanced capitalism.

The alienation of labour always had two sides in Marxism; the so-called objective side of the alienation of the products of labour from the labourer with which are bound up the concepts of value and rate of exploitation, and the so-called subjective side of the alienation of the labourer from the possibilities inherent in him as a human being in a society at a certain level of social development. Although circumstances contrived to swing Marx from an emphasis on the subjective aspect (in the "1844 Manuscripts") to an emphasis on the objective aspect (in "Capital") there is no question of the two not being aspects of the one process and in the "Grundrisse" the two aspects appear together. One of the main factors behind this change of emphasis attendant upon Marx's decision to devote his time to the elucidation of the objective aspects of the alienation of labour was Marx's, correct, conviction that political economy was the key to understanding bourgeois society and that for this a full development of the "objective" side of alienation (i.e. the capitalistic appropriation of surplus value) was necessary. Another important factor was that at no stage during Marx's lifetime was the level of social wealth sufficient to offer everyone the chance to develop themselves to the extent postulated for a communist society. Although a great deal could be done to alleviate the conditions of the working class, and the possibilities for working class advancement were great compared with the actuality of working class conditions, "utopia" was still unattainable and the disparity between what man was and what he could be was not yet a revolutionary issue except insofar as it was linked with the social fact of exploitation. Today the position has changed.

In advanced capitalist countries the Marxian value theory has ceased to be the keen analytical tool it once was because workers are no longer paid according to their labour value. There are a complex of reasons for this capitalist benevolence not being amongst them - but the fact by itself is sufficient to render the value analysis of little critical importance for the analysis of advanced capitalism. (It can still be applied to the analysis of the socialist countries and to the less modern sectors of advanced countries but the essence of the matter is that as capital accumulates the balancing of supply and demand and the maintenance of a uniform rate of profit across the economy implies that labour will be paid above its value and so the theoretical rate of surplus value will differ from the actual rate of accumulation and the wage rate will no longer be a subsistence one. This difficulty, which arises from the equations of expanded reproduction, suggests that there is a post-marxian phase of capital accumulation which can be predicted from the marxian analysis of the earlier stage and reasonable assumptions on the political strength of the working class movement.) On the other hand the accumulation of social wealth over the past century has created unprecedented possibilities for development (and destruction) in the advanced countries. The disparity between the way we. live and the way we could live is becoming a political issue. This amounts to a rejection of the model of human nature foisted onto man by capitalism.

(Forms of society create their own character structure). In particular the idea of work is being subjected to critical scrutiny in those countries past the initial phase of capital accumulation. Because of this it is necessary to re-examine the alienation of the labourer in those aspects most relevant to advanced capitalism.

The aspect that Debord fixes on is the expropriation of the labourer's free time, i.e. his life activity, and its return to him as commodities, some of which impose themselves as an alien consumption time on his remaining free time. In reading Debord's work it must be remembered that whereas the model of classical capitalism presupposed that all commodities were private goods, the modern economy not only accumulates wealth as goods but disipates wealth as spectacles. Just as in the ancient societies of Egypt, South America and Mesopotamia the dominant mode of consumption of social wealth beyond subsistence is by the production of objects for passive contemplation.

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