The Spectacle of Mass Media: Debord was almost right

Debord's spectacle in politics

In 1967, philosopher Guy Debord released The Society of the Spectacle, a book that would go on to influence a generation of thinkers with a concept the author called the spectacle.

Similar to Adorno’s Culture Industry, Debord viewed the spectacle as a creation of the 1920s, epitomized by modern advertising and public relations. In the socialist-minded Dedord’s words, the spectacle is the “autocratic reign of the market economy.” Put simply, the reason the great worker revolution failed to occur.

While Debord viewed the spectacles as an obstacle a society would need to overcome before accepting communism, his criticisms quite certainly have a modern relevance that can’t be ignored by thinkers of all dissident traditions.

The mass media, the spectacle’s “most glaringly supercritical manifestation” has transformed much since the time of the Frankfurt School. A critic of Debord existing in the 60s or 70s could point to the unlikelihood of so many different media corporations working towards the same goal of maintaining an under-informed, distracted public. Even in 1983, 90 percent of the county’s media was spread out between 50 corporations.

Today, that number is 5:

Edward Bernays, Freud’s nephew and tobacco marketing pioneer, outlined the kind of “conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses.” If we compare the ink on paper world of 1928 described by Bernays with the fully-immersive, perpetual, multi-pronged effort in 2021, considering the influence capable of these 5 groups is both intriguing and alarming.

With these holding companies providing millions of dollars to politicians each year, the often confusing line between politics and industry blur. Since our public is limited by their party-specific analyzing lens, fixating on either the state or industry as the oppressor of human rights, arguments against what we’d call crony capitalism never gain traction.

A pop song circulates wider than a complex sonnet. Short and simple view-points provide their thinker with the positive chemical release associated with comprehension and familiarity. Since the general public remains uninterested in the symbiotic relationship in question, there leaves little incentive to engage in the stressful thought of expanding past common, party-related political criticism.

We now live in a world that provides us the tools to build our very own personal spectacle. In that world, we can be communists or anarchists, perverts or virtue seekers. We can be anything we like – except for informed.

There is a terrible falsehood about information, linking its validity with its power or truth. Power comes from the number of times you receive information, and truth becomes the byproduct of consensus.