The Spectacle of Mineralisation.
Through time, what is rational becomes a reality and what is a reality becomes rational.
The Guardian has just discovered Society of the Spectacle 45 years after it was first published.
|Autonomous Terrace by Clifford Harper 1976|
I first read Society of the Spectacle around 1977 and it has been a significant influence on me, but reading the comments on the (3) Guardian pieces, I found I had nothing much to say about it.. Why? Probably because a few years ago I found that Debord had managed to re-cycle a lot of Marx in Soc. Spec. It is a complicated story, but in essence I found a connection from local (Galloway. South west Scotland) history to early industrial (1790-1830) Manchester which took me on to Engel’s links to 1840s Manchester then on to Marx and backwards to Hegel.
Finally, at the beginning of this year I read ’Energy and the English Industrial Revolution’ be E. A. Wrigley which distinguished between ‘organic’ and ‘mineralised’ economies. By ‘mineralised’ Wrigley means economies which exploit fossil fuels as industrial energy sources. Such economies/ societies are liberated from the constraints which ‘organic’ (human, animal, wood, wind and water powered) economies/ societies operate under. The shift to mineral (coal then oil) sources of energy transformed the political economy of the societies which used these sources of energy. Capitalism was one outcome of this transformation.
Last year I wrote 37 000 words of an ‘outline’ in an attempt to work through the implications. I stopped before reaching a conclusion. There was a lot of repetition in the writing. I would start on a theme but would always end up back at the industrial revolution and mineralisation. The ability to turn coal into mechanical energy changed the world. Changed ourselves. The immense energy released created an explosion of knowledge. The explosion has also ripped the world apart, threatening a catastrophic (as in irreversible) collapse of the relatively stable climate conditions which have prevailed for the past 10 000 years. That is, since the end of the last ice age. This period includes all known human ’civilisations’, all of recorded human history.
A problem is that apocalyptic thinking is usually religious and hence irrational. So although the science of global warming is rational, its findings appear to be irrational and so there is a tendency to discount them. There is conflict between short-term and long term rationality. It is similar to the personal rationality of our mortality. We all know that we will one day die, but do not let this fact get in the way of living our lives. So we are used to effectively ignoring the actuality of our mortality and so discount the possibility of some dreadful event happening in the future.
Another problem is that to take any effective steps away from the mineralised economy and society involves questioning its purpose. This is politically dangerous since, as Debord suggests, it has no purpose other than its own reproduction. So any break with business as usual brings with it the fear of a breakdown of society. That the modern world is an empty charade in which most ‘work’ is meaningless labour.
Is there a problem here with rationality? If religious beliefs are rejected, how do we find some other meanings for our lives around which to structure meaningful - future oriented - societies? This is more difficult than finding purpose and meaning in our individual lives. I think this was the problem Hegel was working on. He saw rationality emerging as we became historically self-conscious and tried to follow this through into a form of rational society. He did this before the effects of mineralisation had become apparent beyond a few regions in Britain. Without mineralisation, the problem would have become more rapidly apparent as existing organic societies reached their economic limits. Mineralisation displaced the problem in a wave of global economic expansion which seemed to have no limits. Societies became focused on ‘growth’ and the irrational (as explained by Marx) belief that everyone would therefore become wealthier.
The purpose of societies therefore became to increase economic activity.
The limits of growth are now being reached and the future will involve an increase in poverty. The most likely prospect is a return to forms of religious superstition and irrationality. The Age of Reason will be over. But is this a rational age? If mineralisation was irrational, then it is not. Or rather, assuming science to be rational, it has harnessed rationality to irrational (economic) ends. Since Hegel was the product of a still organic society, a future organic society could be rational rather than religious.
To condense Hegel - Through time, what is rational becomes a reality and what is a reality becomes rational.
There is an evolutionary aspect to this process. Through time, all forms of life have to adapt to what is real; that is to environments which are the product of rational (not created by a god) physical processes. In so doing forms of life affect and influence their environments. This changes the environments requiring further adaptations. Which in turn affect environments/ eco-systems. Thus once begun, evolution is a continual process. Life itself is a product of physical processes, so they contain its potential.
Since the human species is a form of life, our existence is also contained within the potential of physical processes. Through the many branches of science which have developed over the past 200 years, we know that physical processes can be rationally understood. They are natural rather than supernatural in origin. The universe we live in is a rational and comprehensible universe. To the extent that past organic (as in Wrigley’s use of the word) societies were successful, they were rational, adapting themselves to the limits and constraints of their environments. However, to the extent that such adaptations were evolutionary - based on the accumulation of successful random innovations - they were not self-consciously rational. History is littered with extinct civilisations and societies, indications of the limits of human understandings of the world.
The problem seems to be that in the short (on evolutionary/ geological/ universal timescales) run, irrationality can prosper before reality prevails and an empire falls. During the ascent of an empire, questioning its ability to endure seems irrational. In the phase of expansion, previous constraints are overcome and a new reality is imposed. The process of mineralisation has taken this historical observation beyond all previously imaginable limits. But is it rational to believe that the ability to exploit fossilised sources of concentrated solar energy has ‘liberated’ humanity from the constraints of organic rationality?
No it is not, since the mineral sources of energy which power our world are organic in origin. The constraints of organic rationality have not been overcome, they have simply been displaced into the near future.
To conclude. Debord’s Society of the Spectacle is a re-visioning of Marx’ Society of the Commodity which in turn was based on a turning upside down of Hegel’s Society of the Rational. Marx and Debord lived within a mineralised economy and believed that its rationality had replaced the organic rationality of the society Hegel lived in. We can now see that the mineralised economy and the societies it allowed to develop was a temporary rather than permanent reality. Therefore, rather than attempt to address its irrationality , we need to prepare to rationalise/ turn into reality a future organic economy and society.
Since this was the task Hegel set himself, his work is a useful starting point. The future is organic. The future is rational. The future is real.