Before getting lured away by topicality in my last post, I was about to make a point about ‘pseudo’ politics.
An epigraph to start:
“A thought is sometimes beyond the thing that it binds itself to in the course of resisting it, and that is its freedom. Freedom follows on from the subject’s need to express itself. The need to let suffering speak is a condition of all truth. For suffering is objectivity impinging upon the subject. What the subject experiences as its most subjective thing, its self-expression, is mediated by objects.”
– Adorno, Negative Dialectics
And next, a hypothesis: politics in the 20th century has been organized around the development of methods for control of the mass. It hardly needs to be added that non-state actors such as international corporations are at least equally involved. Political common sense says that modern politics = mass politics.
Despite all the noise about social networking, the basic ends remain the same. It’s just that the object ‘mass’ is being obsolesced as a useful heuristic, as capital’s free access to bodies, minds, and information becomes deeper and more intimate. Everywhere we see continuing development toward a completely controllable sensory environment – the grand synthesis promised by digital, biotech, neuroscientific, and architectural innovations, a world where ‘environment’ finally stops being a sloppy metaphor and becomes both empirical thing and technocultural object, virtually equivalent to ‘society’ itself. Whether this dream is ever actually realized anywhere is beside the point — it is the general direction of capital investment, assimilating even humanity’s attempts to stave off its own self-destruction, and so other possible lines of development are a priori subordinate. Another world is improbable.
Democratic ideology, on the other hand, insists on a definition of political agency that contradicts this current. Its ideal world consists of discrete, independent entities that are self-directed and thus individually responsible for their actions, as well as the stability of their relationships with others. Institutions are made up of individual actors, and the whole self-similar structure works best when all its parts are formally in agreement, an outcome which is never assumed but must be painstakingly arrived at through processes of deliberation. As Marx argued, the brave new world of capitalist utopia relies on the individualist ethical structure provided by democratic institutions while steadily eroding their ideological foundation: ‘enlightened self-interest,’ or the link between self-determination and mutual support.
Most public debates in the U.S. are waged by advocates of these two sides: the defender of democracy vs. the prophet of the artificial paradise. I use democracy in the broadest possible sense here; despite their differences, most advocates of anarchism, libertarianism, and liberalism tend to rally around the theme of autonomy, of freedom from coercion by an oligarchical state apparatus or ‘runaway’ corporation. Ideal collectives are imagined to be local and ad hoc (“grassroots” to use the current lingo), formed around a single issue, such as the management of a co-op, or a defense of civil rights, their duration inversely proportional to size. Large scale changes to political structure is where agreement breaks down, but the range of opinion seems to be between a) regulating institutional excesses (the liberals) and b) somehow guaranteeing negative freedom, as in “life would be better if we didn’t have x corrupt institution and we could do y ourselves” (the radicals).
Indeed, the very notion of collective (like ‘community’) implies a sense of ‘naturalness,’ of intellectual and affective immediacy: a group of more or less equal individuals who can communicate with each other without the assistance of an unwieldy technical or institutional apparatus. There’s even something counterintuitive about applying it to national populations, social classes, consumer demographics, and victimized ‘minorities,’ which, despite the fact that states, think tanks, sociological studies, and Web 2.0 corporations can ‘map’ their individual members to an unprecedented degree of detail, can only be popularly conceived in terms of the consequences of their (mis)management by elites. The mass as future reward — cue sentimental fantasy of universal community — vs. the mass as imminent punishment — cue the unpredictable, threatening mob.
The mass demonstration is a primitive form of political mobilization that serves to reinforce the limits outlined above more often than it points beyond them. Yet it remains the most reliable means of popular political change, because it subverts institutional ‘decision-making’ routines with ‘spontaneous’ collective agency. It frees a population from its bureaucratic context, allowing a group that normally appears as a particularized ‘identity’ (African-Americans, anti-war activists, community members, etc.) to make a direct, ‘universal’ claim. This is why left-wing protests are not only repressed and mocked in the corporate media, but the very future of the tactic is coming under attack. One can imagine an eventual compromise in which mass demos are legitimized in the same way that voting is, once they can be cheaply dispersed without damage to life or property. Once again we would have the familiar dilemma of liberal reform: many more people would be allowed a voice in mainstream political discourse, but at the cost of their political independence and the future of an independent left.
Enter cultural politics. To pick out one consequence of postmodernism that superficially seems to bolster democratic ideology: a free-floating notion of ‘influence,’ detached from the authority to determine policy, the possession of economic assets, or common interest, is broadly accepted as the true basis of legitimate power (even liberal and conservative defenders of the Status Quo are unhappy when people say it lacks ‘popular support’). So ideologically ‘culture’ has a privileged position, if a quixotic one — the sphere of human activity where individual freedom can express itself freely, a kind of virtual democratic utopia where participants compete for the right to influence behavior in the other, more restricted (and therefore less ideal) spheres of modern society. Where their secret truths can be read, where the future of the whole can be divined. In practice, every message has to route through the culture industry, which means every message must become a commodity. The results are familiar: politicians are celebrities, politics is entertainment, every movement must be branded, etc.
But lest we float off into ’90s-style hyperreality, we should remember that Baudrillard did nothing more than describe the subjective experience of the first world petty bourgeois consumer. There never was an absolute split between culture and reality for a regime of simulation to erase (just like there wasn’t one between mind and body); that pantheon of mythical divisions is commodity culture’s chief ideological product. Like other media commodities, Baudrillard’s theory of the simulacrum persuades us to imagine the problem for which it is the (merely intellectual) solution. What we see instead is the disciplining of culture into one of the most progressive forces of production and accumulation, one that relies on fantasies like the simulacrum (or ‘immaterial labor’ in another discourse) to give it a false sense of consistency and inevitability. The difficult thing to come to terms with, and what makes certain empty figments of postmodernity so attractive, is that the idea of ‘culture’ we’re taught to mourn is already a fantasy. What Raymond Williams argued began as an ideologically overdetermined reaction to 19th century industrialization, today does not necessarily refer to a shared history, creed, ethnicity, national identity, sexual orientation, commodity preference, or any difference at all; it can finally be used as a sign of contentless authenticity, indicating not the right to exist, but the factual existence of something closed to theoretical questioning (though no less urgent for that): the culture of poverty, the culture of ownership, business culture, geek culture, cultural influence, the culture of success, the culture of intolerance.
These various ‘cultures’ are more like environments, bubble-like ‘spheres of influence.’ Instead of defining the conditions for kinds of agency, they assume only a single kind, addressing the individual as a consumer (not necessarily of the culture commodity in question but of ‘culture’ at large) presumed to have some vague degree of influence over cultural ‘style.’ The most obnoxious version of this is the idea that we as ‘smart shoppers’ (or ethical shoppers, most advocates try to convince you that they’re the same thing) have the power to reverse climate change. However, it’s no less realistic than the claim it’s usually set against, that we have the political power to stop climate change despite being non or semi-organized. Certainly ‘we’ in the form of the many activist, labor, community, and consumer organizations we are free to join, can take effective action against coal power plants, get people we agree with elected, and encourage whatever ‘green’ production processes CEOs think will still be profitable, but the idea of a bunch of protests and boycotts passing a climate policy adequate enough to stave off armageddon is as doomed as trying to convince Bush or Obama to leave Afghanistan ‘prematurely.’ Not only is it true that elected officials will only act in their constituency’s favor if pressured to do so, they can only be pressured to do what will allow them as a class to retain their privileges. And today, the needs of biological life and the needs of capital are rapidly, catastrophically diverging.
All impotence aside, as long as we’re obligated to think of ourselves as autonomous individuals, responsibility for the collective consequences of our individual actions is a necessary consequence. This is impossible as either a citizen or a consumer. So, we go crazy. Tightening the double bind, the rhetoric that accompanies political and economic disempowerment is one of increasing empowerment, though with any hint of antagonism censored. That society’s improvement hinges on all of humanity transforming themselves into ‘responsible individuals’ is the polar opposite of liberating. Now I don’t think this ‘politically empowering’ rhetoric of ethical responsibility can be entirely dispensed with, even if it is tied to our subjection by a false individualism. But I don’t think it’s any more or less a part of the spectacle than the ‘politically disempowering’ rhetoric of the masses. They are, in the poststructuralist jargon, just conduits for different technologies of control that are currently in the process of becoming interoperable. The people of the world are mobilized according to the latter, ‘objectified’ form as well as the former ‘subjective’ one, and the conditions of appearance of the mass, not just the networked individual, have to be mastered if they (who are we) are ever to move beyond it.