Spectacle and Simulation

A combination photo shows U.S. President Trump  trying twice to let go of a handshake with France's President Macron as Macron holds tight, before a working lunch ahead of a NATO Summit in Brussels

As Evan Puschack (a.k.a. The Nerdwriter) pointed out in his excellent video essay on cinematic violence, one of the most striking characteristics of action sequences in superhero movies is the seeming lack of consequences. The cityscapes in which the action is often situated exist as nothing more than ephemeral simulations, crumbling into rubble over and over again, only to re-emerge, unscathed, for the next sequence (or movie). Reality seems to be suspended, as punches fly and skyscrapers (usually conveniently evacuated) collapse, hordes of aliens are wiped out, and nothing happens. The choreography, for all its flashiness, is ultimately devoid of meaning. These fights seem more like ritualistic displays than battles for survival. Alright, now after I punch you in the chest, you’ll block my kick, and then I’ll tackle you into this building… Each blow is nothing more than an empty signifier, landing without any real impact. Of course, the point of these scenes is not to serve as a medium for the plot, moving it along to the next point. The “story” is an effect of the violence, a faint thread that links together the various pyrotechnic displays everyone expects to see in a superhero movie. The events of each film comprise a signifying chain, deferring meaning until the credits roll, and then, surprise surprise, there is no meaning. Don’t forget to stick around for the teaser scenes though! The violence in Tarantino films has been described as nihilistic, but Marvel/Disney and DC/Warner Bros are clearly the much bigger culprits when it comes to that. Why did that thing blow up? Because people like explosions, that’s why. To quote Puschack, “they write themselves up to the brink, and then let the stunt coordinators take it from there”. Superhero violence serves a purely aesthetic function, conforming to a narrative logic that rejects narrative.

This fetishization of the “symbolic” (can something really be symbolic if it doesn’t represent anything?), the fixation on the signifier rather than the signified, is not limited to the silver screen. If cultural products reflect larger social trends, then it seems fitting that the superhero flick has been such a staple of the cinematic economy for the past decade or so. With the rapid growth of the Internet and its prevalence in our daily lives, the spectacle of the political has become increasingly streamlined and compressed, reducable to sequences of signals on a representational level. A tweet, a video or sound clip, there are now a plethora of available micro-actions in the politician’s arsenal. The affective salience of an action takes precedence over underlying meaning or intention. Perception is everything. It’s not that people don’t care about policy anymore, it’s just that policy these days is simply a matter of public relations. Politics is no longer action (if it ever was), but gesture. 

Last month, Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump shook hands, and people lost their shit. Not because the new French president was engaging in an apparently cordial interaction with Trump; in fact all the fuss was for the exact opposite reason. The handshake was awkward, prolonged, uncomfortable. And for many, it was an act of resistance. Macron was lauded for his decision to shake Trump’s hands for a few extra seconds, praised as a potential “anti-Trump”. In the words of the man himself: “My handshake with him was not innocent. We need to show that we won’t make small concessions, even symbolic ones, while not overhyping things either.” He’s lying, of course. It’s all about hype. The art of politics is the art of turning the smallest non-event into a massive triumph, making history out of nothing. Politics is nothing but hype.

Macron does have a point, though. His handshake wasn’t innocent; nothing is. Everything’s political these days, as your annoyingly “civic minded” friends will tell you. That cup of coffee you had this morning is political, that t-shirt you bought at the mall is political, that text you just sent is political, your dog is political, everything’s fucking political. And how easy it this all is, when all it takes is one click! Click, you’ve signed an online petition, click, your Facebook banner bears the imagery of whatever cause is in vogue at the moment. If the world is at our fingertips, surely we can change it with those fingertips. Click, click, click. A million tiny gestures that amount to little more than a successions of virtual blips, disappearing into the cacaphony of a whole world of gesture.

Baudrillard’s comments on Watergate are applicable to the entirety of this regime of signification: “capital, immoral and without scruples, can only function behind a moral superstructure, and whoever revives this public morality (through indignation, denunciation, etc.) works spontaneously for the order of capital”. Politics is a parasite that leeches off our constant need to be outraged, draining that outrage of all its original affective meaning until it becomes something performed, rather than felt. Being angry is no longer a matter of being, but of doing. This doesn’t mean anger translates into action, rather, it only exists as an action. In its purely performative function, indignation does not have to be felt, it must simply be indicated. As Baudrillard points out, a simulated hold-up inevitably becomes a real hold-up. Simulated outrage becomes real outrage, because they can no longer be distinguished.

The most horrifying thing, however, is that we already know all of this. We know that a gesture is just that, a gesture. We know that access to capital’s communicative matrix does not amount to access to power. No one seriously believes that the flame wars they conduct in an article’s comment section are changing the world in even the smallest way.  The reason we can’t bring ourselves to disrupt this never-ending feed-back loop is that we see no way out. When serious, organized resistance to Trump fails to materialize, we are forced to content ourselves with uncomfortable handshakes. Gesture’s domination is not the result of the delusion that we can enact change in such a way. It is the result of despair, the belief that we can’t change anything. The spectacle triumphs in the absence of hope. The only way out is to believe there is a way out. Maybe some have begun to do so; only time will tell if the impossible dream of change will triumph over the bleak “realism” of political subjectivity.

The Practicality of Theory

In a 1972 discussion with Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze said “practice is a set of relays from one theoretical point to another, and theory is a relay from one practice to another. No theory can develop without eventually encountering a wall, and practice is necessary for piercing this wall”. This understanding of the relationship between the two categories provides a useful alternative to the standard dichotomization often seen in debates regarding revolutionary praxis. It is usually understood that theory must be enacted through practical activity, implying the existence of hierarchal binary, with theory viewed as a incorporeal body in need of reification as action. In other, more extreme cases, the utility of theory is discarded altogether as irrelevant to the “real world”. Thus the two concepts are often presented in an oppositional relationship; “it’s one or the other”. Yet is it really possible to separate one from the other, and if so, would such an ontology even be desirable? I would argue that the answer to both questions must be a resounding “no”.

Perhaps the best way to articulate the need for a reconfiguration of the theory/practice pairing would be to turn to Frederic Jameson’s call for an “aesthetic of cognitive mapping”. Cognitive mapping, in Jameson’s words, refers to “a pedagogical political culture which seeks to endow the individual subject with some new heightened sense of its place in the global system”. Jameson argues that in the same way urban denizens try to visualize a spatial representation of their city for the purpose of navigation, anyone looking to take socially impactful action must generate a conceptual model that allows them to orient themselves within the totality of capital. If this model originates from the individual subject, then it must follow that its development mirrors that of the subject’s experienced reality. For Jameson, the danger of this reality is that it consists of a multiplicity of discontinuous levels, and thus attempts to confront them as a totality can prove to be disorienting, obscuring representational clarity. However, as he points out, the suppression of distance imbues the subjective experience of late capitalism with a sense of immediacy. Despite its dangers, this immediacy, the vast collection of sensory input stored within a rapidly expanding informational system, also provides prospective agents of change with raw material through which they can trace conceptual schemata that more comprehensively detail social totality.

As I write this, a TV advertisement for United Healthcare is promising to help people “navigate the complicated healthcare system”. That the American healthcare system is unnecessarily complex and confusing is, of course, a truism, but what’s useful about this ad is that it provides us with a nice contrast to the idea of politically-motivated cognitive mapping, instead offering the “easy way out” by letting consumers delegate a whole set of cognitive tasks to a service provider. Such helplessness, a result of being constantly bombarded by the immediate “presence” of capital’s processes is what Jameson describes when he speaks of the “postmodern body” wandering absently through space. Isolated bodies in particular are unlikely to maintain a sense of place without voluntary integration into a cooperative cartographic project. This brings us to the collaborative dimension of theoretical practice.

The individual’s phenomenal reality is (to a great extent) built by others, as their actions shape what occurs within the experienced world and how the individual experiences those events. It would be only natural, then, if the goal is a maximal comprehension of society’s totality, that such a comprehension must arise from a collective effort, in which a multitude of subjective realities converge to detail a map that reflects both the functioning of global capitalism and the affective impact of its processes. In this manner, theoretical activity is indeed pedagogical, with every participant existing simultaneously as teacher and student. This is not merely a “theoretical” proposition; these communal maps are necessary for any collective action to occur, for it is impossible to properly and efficiently coordinate with others if everyone is on a different wave length. Some sort of common perspective is needed to ground an active unity, and this need not take the form of a shared political vision. When workers go on strike, they all agree there are objectionable conditions present, that a strike is capable of exerting sufficient pressure to change those conditions, and that this pressure must be directed at the owners/management in order to be effective.

“Strategic thought”, writes Jasper Bernes, “is not external to struggles, but native to them, and every set of victories or failures opens up new strategic prospects — possible futures — which must be examined and whose effects in the present can be accounted for. In describing these prospects, theory inevitably takes sides among them. This is not to issue orders to struggles, but to be ordered by them.” Theory is a matter of practicality, for it allows us to organize our actions. By asking questions about our situation, we can begin to understand how best we can change it. Practice involves the production of theory, and theory involves the production of practice. Rather than attempting to divorce the two, they should be viewed as aspects of the same process. The theorist and the practitioner are one and the same, and to force them into separate categories is to doom the world to blindness.

Capitalist Retro-Utopias

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The limitations of the contemporary political imaginary have been put on full display in this most recent electoral cycle, with the left failing to conceptualize alternatives beyond the hegemony of capitalist relations. Instead,  it has, in various ways, oriented its political challenges to the neoliberal order by looking backwards, appealing to a mythological Fordist past. This retro-utopian vision takes the form of an economic nationalism paired with institutional labor politics, dreaming of a return to an era of industrial wage-labor mediated by the combined might of trade unions and a paternalistic welfare state. The clock is wound back, and globalism recedes before the emergence of an economics of sovereignty, with nation-states re-establishing themselves as autonomous and self-governed territorialities, freed from the greed of multinational “corporate” capitalism. From Sanders to Mélenchon to Corbyn, electoral “resistance” to the status quo has relied to a large extent on this fantasy. It is telling of the current state of affairs that no currently relevant political actors have been able to look beyond the apparently endless of horizon of capital. This inability to respond to crisis with something other than nostalgic escapism only further proves that the ballot box (and those who organize around it) remains firmly ensnared in the clutches of capitalist ideology.

That anti-neoliberalism is not synonymous with anti-capitalism should come as no surprise, and yet for many on the left, the only viable course of action appears to be opposition to a particular modality of capitalist organization, be it embodied in the EU or free trade agreements. This opposition shares with its right-wing counterpart the assumption that a re-localization of capital is both possible and desirable. Characteristic of this crypto-nationalism was Bernie Sanders’ call for a “corporate patriotism” that prioritizes American jobs over outsourced labor. This was a recurrent theme in his presidential campaign, which was supported by many on the left as a potential force for positive change. Both he and Trump were consistent in their repeated calls for a reversal of the policies that lead to the de-industrialization of the Rust Belt, making it clear the crypto-nationalism of the left is not far off from from the politics of the populist right.

What many fail to realize is that the Rust Belt extends beyond its geographic existence and into the political psyche, a decrepit, desolate space filled with little more than dust and cobwebs. This intellectual Rust Belt is the result of the atrophy of the radical imagination in the face of the evolving landscape of capital. The contemporary left is more reactive than it is revolutionary, only capable of mounting a response to the horrors of the present order in the form of an alternative capitalism, rather than an alternative to capitalism. With this inability (or refusal) to dream of anything but variations of the current nightmare, is it any wonder that such reactive politics become recuperated by forces of reaction? As the late Mark Fisher pointed out, “any opposition to flexibility and decentralization risks being self-defeating, since calls for inflexibility and centralization are, to say the least, not likely to be very galvanizing”.

The “immobilization model”, according to Fisher, “amounts to a demand to retain the Fordist/disciplinary regime”. The proponents of this model wish to roll back the development of new systems of control, and return to the industrial enclosure. Neoliberalism, not capitalism, is the primary enemy of the immobilizers.

The problem is that the economic nation-state doesn’t really exist anymore, at least not in the way many would hope. Global capitalism treats all regions as sites for economic development, regardless of whatever flag they may bear. It would be a grave theoretical error to try to isolate the world into autonomous political-economic units, as everything has becomes interconnected by the deterritorializing and reterritorializing flows of capital. And yet, those who align themselves with the cult of capitalisms past continue to try and do so. All we must do is dismantle neoliberal institutions and implement protectionist policies, they say, and we can protect our respective working classes from the ravages of international trade. So not only do theorists of the immobilization model fail to see the increasingly apparent obsolecense of the traditional nation-state, but also see fit to divide the working class against itself. They fail to see, as Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt argue, that “the forces that contest Empire and effectively prefigure an alternative global society are themselves not limited to any geographical region. The geography of these alternative powers, the new cartography, is still waiting to be written—or really, it is being written today through the resistances, struggles, and desires of the multitude.” Any effective assault on global capitalism must be built around a common vision of a radical re-organization of society on an international level, rather than a push for economic isolationism. Visualizing a new world requires an affirmation of the potential of an international proletarian movement, one that is capable of adapting to new political and economic developments, without needing to appeal to ideological nostalgia.

Designed Incoherence: Populism and Discourse

The apparent peversion of authority delineates the limits of legitimized power within a given ideological field. When authority comes up against the boundaries it had previously set for itself, the contradictions of authority’s foundational systems become apparent. As a distruption of the established politico-cultural hegemony, Trump expresses these contradictions, and reveals the limitations of existing ideological structures when it comes to maintaining homeostasis. It is Trump as representative of this phenomenon, not Trump as an individual, that serves as an important subject for any critical theory of contemporary society.

The most obvious example of institutionalized resistance to Trump(ism) finds its genesis in the mainstream Left, the #Resistance. This isn’t at all surprising of course, with the presence of certain objects against which the “progressive” ideology is organized. The set of signifiers that constitute the expressive structure of this ideology are primarily formulated on the basis of opposition. Opposition to a somewhat vague, generalized enemy, usually seen as manifested in Republican Party. The idea of a great reactionary entity on the other side of the aisle allows people to coalesce around a specific code of values. American liberalism does not stand on its own, but relies on its avowed hostility towards the Other Side. The same can be said for conservatism. Differentiation is a crucial component of a pluralist democracy, no matter how superficial it may be.

Doubtless, many a protest will be raised by the notion of liberalism and conservatism as mutually reinforcing formations, most likely on the basis of differing policy viewpoints. The problem with such an argument is that it ignores that both groups seek to defend the same social order. The difference lies in their approaches to responding to the problems of capitalism. They may disagree on how to do it, but both are trying to do the same thing, i.e. save capitalism and all its exploitive relations. As they struggle to assert their competing visions of how to properly manage these relations, the two groups reproduce each other through the construction of an ideological discourse that attempts to contain any attempts at structural change.

An innate feature of politics is the building of monstrous enemies to be torn down, the projection of images of a dangerous, foreign Other that must be resisted. In this process of generalized contrasts, both fantasy and nightmare can be equally nebulous while maintaining their efficacy. Both sides appeal to concepts of “freedom”, “equality”, and “democracy”. The fragmentation of meaning here, the loss of common definitions in the midst of mutual application demonstrates what Slavoj Zizek calls the “signifier without signified”. Appeals to such high ideals are most effective when they are left without explicit description. We can all get behind the concept of “freedom”, right? But what does “freedom” even mean?

This question seems relatively straightforward. And yet, situated in political discourse, a field in which communicative agents speak past each other by design, any clear answer is elusive. It is similar to when a politician says “those people are ruining this country!”. “Those people” are a faceless abstraction, ready-made to have anyone’s fears projected onto them. Immigrants, bankers, racists, criminals, conservatives, liberals, even other politicians could all fit nicely into that nebulous non-object, “those people”. Each “side” is just a team of techinicians specializing in the manipulation of signs for a certain audience. The real goal of politics is to find a common ground through mutual misunderstanding.

The populist shares certain similarities with Deleuze and Guattari’s schizophrenic. He slips in and out of different states, frusturating theoretical or ideological schemas through the scrambling of codes, deterritorializing as he pleases. To try and pin him down, to trace out a definitive identity, proves impossible. The populist constantly slides along the spectrum, shaking hands and kissing babies. He is the politician accelerated and imploded, shifting across different thresholds with ease.

If Trump appears as a disruption of previous forms of discourse, a departure from business as usual, it’s certainly not because he’s “telling it like it is”. He doesn’t subscribe to any truth, so how can he tell any? The really peculiar thing about him is his existence as a political non-entity. He lacks a firm commitment to any particular set of political beliefs, making things up as he goes. All politicians are flip-floppers, of course, but unlike them, Trump has no starting point. He doesn’t change positions because he doesn’t have any positions to change. When he appears to take a stance on something, it’s just a representation, a still image of a moment in his constant movement. We should stay out of Syria, we should attack Syria. This mass of conflicting actions and statements expresses the impossibility of Trumpian policy as a coherent program.

Self-parody is perhaps the most apt description of this new administration. It utilizes much of the same usual tropes, but exaggerated to an absurd level, without any sense of self-awareness. Bloated and clumsy, it stumbles about, sticking its fingers where it shouldn’t. The breakdown of the old spectacle, the growing instability of the political sphere, are side-effects of capitalism’s increasingly frantic attempts to prevent its own disintegration. The fall in industrial employment and the continued growth of a surplus population (among many other things) puts a continous strain on class relations, forcing the mutation of political horizons in order to keep up.

Ernesto Laclau saw the emergent precedence of what he called a “social logic of equivalence” as a condition necessary for the rise of populism in a given situation. The accumulation of unsatisfied social demands forms an aggregate, coalescing as an “equivalential chain”. A unity is found in the common frusturation of demands, producing a new political subject, which Laclau designates the “popular” subject. The popular subject rejects the established routes for the satisfaction of specific demands, favoring a break with existing institutions. According to Laclau, “a situation in which a plurality of unsatisfied demands and an increasing inability of the institutional system to absorb them differentially coexist, creates the conditions leading to a populist rupture”. In the field of political discourse, a particular demand may come to consitute the medium through which the whole equivalential chain is articulated, assuming a represenational role. In the case of Trump, the call for the expulsion of illegal immigrants and/or the expanison of border security serve this purpose. A growing feeling of socioeconomic marginalization was expressed via anti-immigrant positions.

Laclau’s illuminating examination of populism provide important insight on how it capitalizes on societal trends, harnessing anti-institutionalism for the benefit of certain factions. It also allows us to see that populist sentiment develops as the result of the failures of a democracy to maintain an equilibrium. The current decomposition of political categories is emblematic of this problem. The binary dynamic of old is no longer sufficient when it comes to integrating dissent into an institutional framework. New tools are needed. Populism becomes the system’s only recourse as the old methods prove inadequate to prevent further disruptions. The irony of any populist political strategy, of course, is that it utilizes resentment towards institutional failures to reinvest public sentiment into those institutions, through the application of cosmetic changes. Such strategies allow systems of domination to evolve with changing circumstances.

The morbidly comedic manifestation of this latest populism in the form of the orange tryant further prove the precarious position of the state, as it flounders amidst the rapidly intesifying antagonisms of capital. Its agents leap from point to point, trying to encircle the expanding and increasingly diverse collection of grievances against authority. It’s becoming clear that even this strategy is seeing diminishing returns.

Only time will tell if this rupture will remain a political crisis or become a crisis of politics itself. Such an escalation would be dependent on the rejection of populism’s insitutionalized anti-institutionalism, and the independent action of a unified working class. Not unified by adherence to particular political formation, but by the struggle to end the reign of capital and give rise to a world free from exploitation. Such a struggle is beyond the scope of (electoral) politics, as it must seek to overcome the ideology of democracy and capitalism.

On Paranoia and Its Political Applications

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In the aftermath of their own failures, the champions of American liberalism have embarked on a mission to find the perfect alibi for their role in the latest electoral catastrophe. And, lo and behold, everywhere they turn, a multitude of phantom enemies spirng forth, extending their talons to grasp hold of our fragile democracy. Our defenders of liberty stand transfixed by the dance of twisted shadows across the halls of power, contorted, terrifying shapes that strike fear into their hearts. They take it upon themselves to enlighten their fellow Americans on the dangers of these shadow figures, these terrible monsters that hide in plain sight.

From racist hicks to Russian hackers to left purists, the list goes on. A procession of horrors that have come to wreck havoc on our much-revered institutions. Our liberal friends express virtulent outrage at these intruders, vowing to resist their advances at all costs. This fascade of righteous anger serves a very specific purpose, of course, redirecting any lines of questioning regarding the possible complicity of the liberal/moderate establishment in all of this. This acts to not only deflect criticism of a certain political faction, but of the system as a whole.

Trump is often accused of embracing a disintegration of the truth (“post-truth” is what all the cool kids are calling it now), but what he really does is present a destabilization of truth in the political realm. In the age of the Internet, information proliferates and accelerates at a growing rate, allowing for a greater multiplicity in narrative. However, it’s clear that this constant flow often congeals into huge blobs that overtake and swallow up everything else. This is the marvel of corporate news media, which has, despite facing new challenges, managed to integrate itself into this non-structure, maintaining a strong claim to the Truth™. These entitites produce a constant stream of experts and data, suffocating alternative perspectives  with phrases like “journalistic integrity”.

It is the nature of our informational systems that there remains a porousness to any formation, and there is always the danger of a rupture (or series of ruptures), opening up new paths and gateways that render the old hegemonic blobs obsolete. This necessitates a constant movement on the part of their defenders to patch up any new openings, safely subsuming any dangerously sharp objects into the greater whole, where they can be dissolved or reconstituted. It is no wonder then, that there has been so much hand wringing and dramatized hysteria over the threats of “fake news”, “alternative facts”, and “post-truth politics”.

That is not to defend anything placed within those categories, but simply to point out that those categories are generated in order to reconsolidate a pre-existing order in the face of a perceived threat to its dominance. This returns us to the related phenomenon of legitimized conspiracy theories. Such narratives are forged as weapons for a renewed epistomological crusade.

Vanity Fair recently published a hilarious self-parody titled “Why the Alt-Left is a Problem, Too”. In it, James Wolcott conducts a brave and principled defense of Meryl Streep by lumping Jacobin, Glenn Greenwald, Tulsi Gabbard, and Cornel West together under the neologism “alt-left”. It gets better, though; Wolcott goes on to insinuate that these “dude-bros” and “purity progressives” are in some ways akin to the alt-right. Now, while there’s a whole lot of solid criticism to be levied against these figures, to imply that their refusal to defer to the guidance of moderate Democrats makes them somehow fascistic is laughable. But wait, there’s more! Characteristic of this previously unknown section of the American left is a “disgust with identity politics and a climactic reckoning [read: revolution]”. The author’s aspirations to comedy writing aside, this article provides a clear view of authority’s current strategy. The marginalization of political alternatives becomes absolutely essential in such delicate times, and horseshoe theory seems to provide a useful tool for this. “You’re either with us or against us” becomes “you’re either with us or a Nazi”.

The word “alternative” itself has now become a subject of revulsion. To suggest any deviation from the homogenous plane of dialogues that monopolize the public sphere is to suggest a retreat from rationality, a movement towards delusion and madness. The only acceptible “critique” is a parroting of toothless platitudes, most of them involving the inevitable triumph of love and unity over hatred. Preferably, we’d all sit in front of our TVs and seethe at each new outrage, maybe occasionally retweeting our congressperson.

The concoction of various conspiracy theories is ridiculed, while others are embraced wholeheartedly. Liberals laugh at the idea of a deep state, some shadowy organization operating from within the government. Instead of this parasitic vision, they prefer one of obscene intercourse between two governments, the US and Russia. If you ever spot a panelist on CNN or MSNBC masturbating furiously on live television, it’d be safe to infer that they’re picturing an anthropomorphized Kremlin mounting the White House, laughing lustily as it deflowers our democracy. The Russian obsession has become so ingrained in the liberal defense that it’s been transformed into an erotic fascination. Indeed, a quick online search will provide a plethora of depictions of the two heads of state engaged in various lewd acts.

The fear of a foreign other ensnaring our political institutions has become an indispensible trope, with those elusive Russian hackers being thrown like a veil over each new debacle. On Real Time with Maher, Malcolm Nance called Wikileaks a “landromat for Russian intelligence”, refusing to actually discuss the content of the leaked DNC emails. To the puppets of the political machine, it doesn’t matter what comes to light about that machine, as long as the information can be somehow linked to a covert Russian propaganda campaign.

Putin may have meddled with the elections, but it is really the public, we are told, who are responsible for this. The foolish, ignorant masses who bought into all the Russian lies, remaining stubbornly in the safe confines of their demographic bubbles. If the stories are to be believed, much of the United States is filled with savage hordes of raging bigots, intent on resurrecting the Third Reich in North America. Why blame a growing disenchantment with the state of politics and the devastation inflicted by the economy, when there are rednecks to be scapegoated?

Politics have always involved the production of fear. Designing this fear to fit a certain version of the truth is a well-honed skill among politicians, to whom the construction and circulation of specific narratives has become of second nature. They play segments of the populace against each other, disseminating terrifying images that drive people to the ballots, hoping to ward off the nightmares they’ve been shown.

We already live in another sort of nightmare, one in which truth is an objectified monolith wielded as a means of domination. Reason is a political product, one that comes with clearly marked borders; cross them, and one becomes a pariah. There is no thinking outside the box, because the box is all there is, a self-contained reality that constrains both discussion and action. The insides of this box are constantly shifting their appearance, reflecting back mysterious apparitions that shriek and wail. Wherever one walks, some terrible monstrosity is waiting around the corner, or so it would seem.

Information is everywhere, but it’s no good unless it tells the right story. The guardians of the status quo push and nudge, guide and authenticate, reject and marginalize, factualize and qualify. Fake news, fake news, it’s all fake news. Don’t let the Russians fool you! Oh, you have a question, do you? What are you, a racist? A dude-bro? Move along, move along. Stick to the program. Nothing to see here, folks!

 

The Recuperation of Authentic Outrage

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By Ian Hinson and Aydin Jang

The victory of the Trump campaign, and the catapultic rise of the alt-right movement from the shadows of the internet into the mainstream political paradigm, has stimulated a mobilization of opposition, and an immediate call to action. However, the specter of performative activism and pseudo-outrage continues to blur the lines between genuine action and specious placation.

As noted in Internationale Situationniste #9, the S.I. appropriately identified the neutralization of revolutionary strategies, concepts, and images, for the purpose of emptying them of their subversive content, thus making them compatible with mainstream, bourgeois culture. They formulated this process under the concept of recuperation. Media culture absorbs and diffuses radical ideas as a way to create a homogeneous plane of discourse, in which even the most mutinous of societal critiques are brought under the dominant space of acceptable discussion. In doing so, not only are the proponents of these revolutionary concepts forced to struggle for control over their own definitions, but the revolutionaries themselves are effectively dragged into the realm of their own repurposed concepts, in an attempt to retain coherency and an ideological relation to the general public. The S.I. go on to point out a few notable examples of this process of recuperation:

From Khrushchev to the priests, socialism as a concept has been given the richest variety of contradictory meanings ever consolidated in one single word. Unions have undergone such transformations that at this point the most effective strikes are those organized by the members of the privileged classes, as evidenced by the Belgian doctors this year. Not even anarchy has been spared, as one can tell from the “anarchist opinions” of the pro-Chinese Mr Siné and, even more so, by the anarchist opinions of Le Monde libertaire

Acting in accordance with capital’s need to exert its dominion over nature, it also extends its domination over the domain of language, and over the realm of acceptable expressions of outrage. One needn’t look any further than the outpouring of protests and demonstrations which have materialized over the past few weeks for an example of this subsumption of the limits of radical outrage, with millions participating across the globe in a show of solidarity to those affronted over the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump. Multiple sources have stated that the “Women’s March” in particular, was the largest demonstration in Washington DC’s history, and while the ability to organize such a massive gathering of bodies is quite impressive, one must ask how effective this demonstration actually was at conveying its message. Moreover, what exactly is the praxis of these types of demonstrations, and why were the small glimpses of authentic outrage so universally condemned by the media, and similarly by the liberal stratum who made up the majority of the protest’s population? To put it simply, liberal activism can be described as that of an empty signifier, that is to say, it acts as an imitation of the radical activism in which it seeks to replace. It creates a stage for the general public to try on the mask of the political radical, while at the same time allowing for the members of the privileged classes to direct this performance by redefining what radical action actually looks like.The political radical in the sphere of mainstream discourse is no longer the black bloc creating a cacophony of kindled police mobiles and broken windows. The political radical has been recodified as the football star who kneels during the national anthem, or the movie star who gives an apathetic, detached speech during an awards show. The political radical no longer sees action as an instrument to realize systematic change, action is reduced down to means with no end, where the demonstration is a statement and nothing more.

Herbert Marcuse discusses the disarming of political action in his essay “Repressive Tolerance:

Thus, within a repressive society, even progressive movements threaten to turn into their opposite to the degree to which they accept the rules of the game. To take a most controversial case: the exercise of political rights (such as voting, letter-writing to the press, to Senators, etc., protest-demonstrations with a priori renunciation of counter-violence) in a society of total administration serves to strengthen this administration by testifying to the existence of democratic liberties which, in reality, have changed their content and lost their effectiveness. In such a case, freedom (of opinion, of assembly, of speech) becomes an instrument for absolving servitude.²

What Marcuse sets out to illuminate in this analysis is not only the ineffectiveness of bourgeois activism to actualize systemic change, but also how this type of activism is metamorphosed into action which exculpates the oppressive class for their exploitation. Opposition via political activity reconciles itself with the status quo through its own existence. It contains itself within the limitations of the very system it seems to resist. “It is the people who tolerate the government, which in turn tolerates opposition within the framework determined by the constituted authorities.” It is thus apparent that the dominant forms of activism represent not a subversive expression of dissent, but an implicit consent to be governed.

Engagement in activism constitutes an intervention within the space where politics and everyday life intersect. In this way it reflects the totalitarian nature of a democratic society, which controls the totality of life by appearing as the controlled object. In reality, of course, it is the individual whose life becomes co-opted by the machinery of the state through their own supposed participation in its process. This is the principal contradiction that the modern activist continuously and quixotically struggles to overcome. The politicization of human affairs is a component of the greater social phenomenon of alienation, as people act to strip themselves of autonomy through ritualized self-exploitation.

Politics function to a great extent on an abstract level, an intangible expression of the tangible violence of the state. It is a representational system, distorting images of the world by design. The public discourse that arises from this system is a reflection of a reflection, a second degree of non-reality. The rupture of this elaborate funhouse is seen through an act of physical violence, a refusal to engage in the maddening “dialogues” that form the basis of the mainstream consensus. With continued complacency, and an acceptance of this image of reality, that image becomes actualized. This series of relationships and social processes that constitute this spectacular construction becomes the manifestation of reality itself because it is understood that it is the totality of observable reality. The mystification of these spectacular aspects place them at the center of the social world. Guy Debord examined this phenomenon in his Society of the Spectacle:

The spectacle presents itself simultaneously as all of society, as part of society, and as instrument of unification. As a part of society it is specifically the sector which concentrates all gazing and all consciousness. Due to the very fact that this sector is separate, it is the common ground of the deceived gaze and of false consciousness, and the unification it achieves is nothing but an official language of generalized separation.³

We can see that this mask obstructs a clear view of the reality of society. The “politeness” of modern governance works to produce a societal consensus, one which inverts the truth of objective conditions by presenting helplessness as autonomy, coercion as accord. The maintenance of this phenomenological project is one of the most pressing issues of late capitalist modernity, as the intensification of crisis creates fissures in the objectified worldview.

It is this consensus which the activist, consciously or unconsciously, seeks to reproduce and perpetuate. Activism, as a by-product of capitalist democracy, is the art of manufacturing appearances. What is more important is to display anger, to compress it into a viewable form, rather than to actually act upon it. In the age of social media, this spectacular method can be virtualized and magnified, further diluting whatever emotional message was originally embedded. Activism is both an asocial and social affair, generating crowds that perform mechanistic demonstrations of indignation, brought together by an empty non-message. The deception of such crowds is that they are not so much crowds, but collections of individuals who are more focused on transmitting expressions of false personal investment to each other. The protester does not march towards any specific goal, but to engage in the act of marching itself. Expressive activism (protest politics) is the realization of the theater-form within our social world.

Consider the broken window, universally condemned as a product of “senseless violence”. Destroying a window attacks an ideological barrier as well as a physical one. The normative discourse of our society is one of simulated inaction, concealing brutality within pacifistic rhetoric. To subvert this false language and reveal its true nature is to speak the more “primitive” tongue of physicality. The burning limo and the smashed shopfront are not de-rationalized because they accomplish nothing, in fact the very opposite is true. They symbolize a death of passivity, posing an existential threat to the political mindset. This is why the puppets of the old order must denounce them as acts of insanity.

The limits of rational activity within a sphere of society are set according to the dominant narrative at play. For this reason, riots are depicted as the wrong way to dissent, that is to say, actualized resistance is an improper form of resistance. Violence is not sophisticated, they proclaim, the-pen-is-mightier-than-the-sword and so on. Once again, this returns to the very simple contradiction of democratic governance, that of representation versus content. Such a system can only survive by embracing its own contradiction, pursuing violence with greater theatrical flair, the imposition of a terroristic peace. Activism is only an expression of helplessness in the face of this terrible force. The ideological constraints reproduced by the activist are a consequence of state power, and only reinforce it, despite appearances.. As such, political performance is an expression of the cyclical nature of society’s administration. The perpetuation of the democratic ideology allows exploitative relations to produce the conditions for such an ideology to take root.

To point out the danger explicit violence poses to this system is not to say that the fracturing of a sheet of glass is such a momentous occasion. Breaking a window does not blow away the millions of police and soldiers and all their guns. Such an act does not practically undermine the state any more than a peaceful march does. Political violence faces the same problem that political debate does. The attempt to exert pressure and to force demands onto such a powerful entity is like screaming into a deaf ear.

It is violence as a form of action, in its movement beyond structure and symbolism, that threatens the present order. It bypasses the activist’s struggle to overcome the contradiction of their own work, and lays bare the foundations of the capitalist state. Beyond the political, lies the potential for a reconstitution of the human, if only we can cease to reproduce the conditions of our own oppression. It is only when it tries to overcome the state, rather than shape it, that any sort of resistance transforms itself into revolution.

References

[1] “Words and Those Who Use Them” Situationist International Online. Web. 09 Feb. 2017.

[2] Marcuse, Herbert, and Wolff, Robert Paul. Repressive Tolerance. Berkeley, Callif.: Printed by the Berkeley Commune, 1968. Print.

[3] Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. Detroit: Black & Red, 1977. Print.

Fragmentation and Reformation

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In the wake of the chaotic, confused spectacle of the presidential election, we find ourselves presented with two contradictory images of the world, both products of this frenzied display of rationalized madness. In a daze, we stumble around, grasping for points of reference. The ritualized demolition of the old political reality has birthed a new monstrosity, but it seems eerily familiar…

The first image is that of the neoliberal establishment in retreat in the face of a newly ascendant Right. The old sociocultural consensus has been torn apart, and ultra-nationalist extremism is on the rise. The curtain has been drawn back, the masks have been torn off, the lights flicker to life. The failures of the Democratic party have led to the end of their rule, and now they lie broken at the stairs of the Capitol. The liberal elite have been defeated by their own mistakes.

The second image appears to be completely at odds with the first. A vision of the continued dominance of liberalism within the public discourse persists. Across the country, people raise their voices in scornful howls, proclaiming their continued resistance to Trump, tripping over each other to denounce the latest hateful tweet. Celebrities and television hosts deliver impassioned pleas for unity in the face of hate, for together we can surely bring about a victory for love and acceptance. Articles skewering our new president and his goons are shared ad nauseum. Looking around, it seems impossible that the election could have ended in such a result, since everyone appears so loudly opposed.

What is happening? Which portrait is an accurate representation of our reality? Is this a new era of politics, or do the same old patterns remain?

Why not both?

The Left and Right are not so far apart as they like to claim. They both grow from the same twisted tree, two separate branches that often find themselves intertwined. Taking a step back, it is not difficult to find the point at which they both emerge from the trunk. As with all political formations, they both represent a tendency towards reconciliation, a rapprochment with the status quo. In fact, the nature of their apparently hostile relationship is what contains any movement within a set parameter. Presented with this binary choice, we become limited in our ability to see things as they are.

(In the context of American politics, the “Left” is often a category applied to liberals, but to a large extent we could include the “anti-capitalist” milieu in this analysis, as it too often mirrors the liberal establishment. An example close to the central point of our inquiry would be the unity we see in anti-Trump actions. Whether you call yourself a socialist or a Democrat (or both), you will probably find yourself marching downtown to chants of “not my president!”.)

We are led to believe that we are facing a terrible tragedy in the outcome of the presidential election. The ascendance of a new faction of the ruling class to power should terrify us, our former overlords say. The only responsible thing to do would be to work ourselves into a hysteric fit over the demise of our once great nation.

The victory of the Right can be attributed to an array of factors, one of which is the decline in confidence in the Democratic Party among working class voters. A backlash against neoliberal economic policies has produced this latest wave of nationalistic and protectionist sentiment. The continued intergration of global markets has led to the decay of sections of American society, namely those attached to industry. Lost in this post-industrial reality, many found themselves looking for someone to blame. It appears that a signifcant number of people have found such scapegoats in immigrants, providing an opportunity for the Republicans to take advantage of the situation. This, combined with the general inability of the Democrats to inspire, contributed a great deal to the present state of affairs.

Nothing has really changed about capitalism, of course. Not as a result of the election, anyway. We remain caught up in the machinery of living death, steadily grinding away towards the death of the planet. The essential nature of our collective predicament is still the same. But that’s boring, and we seek the thrill of political escapism. We want to believe that things are changing, and that we have a say in it. Yet, whoever the new management is, they’re still the management.

In the face of political defeat, liberalism has adapted to the new climate, manifesting itself in the role of Opposition instead of Ruler. Against authoritarianism, against the Russians, against plutocracy, the old order has returned as a resistance to the new. It retains dominance as an ideological force through its own perceived retreat. The power of nostalgic progressivism is now in full effect. No doubt, we will have to put up with incesssant whining about missing good ol’ Obama for the next four years.

Even the so-called revolt within the Democratic Party, led by left-populist Bernie Sanders, has subsided. In the aftermath of the election, it appeared that the party was on the brink of ruin, due to internal and external pressures. But their own defeat has given the Democrats a rallying point, an opportunity to re-establish unity. It is clear that they have taken full advantage of this. Even our “socialist” friends have joined this new popular front. Former divisions have disappeared in the wake of disaster, and it would seem the only pre-requisite for membership in this motley alliance is not outwardly or explicitly hating oppressed groups.

Liberals now see themselves as the brave resistance to all that is wrong in America, the focal point, of course, being a certain individual of an orange hue. There is a paradoxical combination of hysteria and aloofness that manifests itself in the forms taken by this “resistance”. Our brave freedom fighters chide the ignorant fools who have chosen to vote “against their own interests”, they ramble on about the end of the world, and every once in a while they take to the streets to signal their disapproval with signs and chants. Of course, after a few hours they’ll disperse, to shake their heads disapprovingly at the news from the comfort of their homes.

Protest politics are a dead end, a conjuration of hollow images that inevitably drift off into an empty void. They do the system a service by providing a harmless medium for people’s frustrations. Yelling at nothing doesn’t accomplish much, but that’s the point. “Taking to the streets” in such a way applies no real pressure to the state, as with all other theatrical displays.

The new Ruler of our central political institutions is abhorrent, and should be resisted, but mounting such a resistance is not possible within the system that produced it. The two major political players in America work in concert to maintain faith in this system, as they both mantain power through their eternal struggle against each other. Those desperate for guidance in this times of need shall look to the Democratic Party, flocking to its tattered banner. In doing so they will feed the cannibalistic machine of capitalist democracy, which devours itself to remain alive.

Let us consider another solution, perhaps a more sensible one: give up. The nature of politics make it impossible to use them in an emancipatory way. The horrors of capitalism will not lessen with the adjustment of the mode of governance, for it is governance itself that presents the problem. The ideal of a paticipatory democracy may initially appear to be quite attractive, and yet it is merely another ideological trap. Whether or not we vote for our masters, they will still exploit and oppress us for their own gain. Let us reject the instituitions that seek to ensnare us with promises of empowerment, for they are nothing but empty shells. Political games only mask the brutal reality of capital, and are themselves expressions of the tyranny of economy.

The system is not corrupt, and it has not failed. It is working exactly the way it should, and that is the problem. As long as we refuse to admit this simple truth to ourselves, we will remain a captive audience to the unending spectacle of electoral politics.

Not everyone seems to have gotten this yet. Many continue to seek hope in political institutions, clamoring to have their voices heard by politicians who will smile and nod, and then proceed to fuck us over. One especially relevant quote comes from Madonna, one of the many celebrities who have coalesced into a new vanguard of “resistance”. At the Women’s March in Washington DC, she told us: “Yes, I’m angry. Yes, I am outraged. Yes, I have thought an awful lot about blowing up the White House. But I know that this won’t change anything. We cannot fall into despair.”

It’s time to fall into despair.