In his seminal work The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord remarked upon the progressive degradation of social life under capitalism, which over the decades has brought about a socio-cultural shift from being to having to appearing. The abundance of consumer goods [sic] churned out by this mode of production in its pomp meant that ‘human fulfillment was no longer equated with what one was, but with what one possessed.’ And eventually, as the forward march of technological development gathered pace, the compulsion of capitalism to commodify whatever it can in the search for accumulation led to the usurping of possession by mere appearance. The eponymous spectacle of Debord’s text is ‘a social relation between people that is mediated by images’ and thus a ‘visible negation of life’ as tentacular as capital itself.
Debord’s perspicacity extends beyond the high art of advertising and its sometime parasite the corporate news media, beyond commercial music videos and photo-sharing ‘social’ networks. For political elections, those sturdy joists in the grand edifice of inverted totalitarianism, are also key components of the spectacular society. Kindly laid on for us once every few years, these farcical reproductions of democracy function to project the appearance of some dialectical conflict of ideals, but in fact are little more than shadow-plays which distract us, with regrettable success, from a necrotic global social and economic order that is undergirded at all times by capitalist relations of production.
One would be hard-pressed indeed to recall an election season more spectacular than the one currently unfolding in the United States. The presumptive nominee of the Republican Party is a septuagenarian multi-billionaire, a grotesque and graceless narcissist whose candidacy was at first ridiculed and written off, lacking as it did any recognisable popular support. But Donald Trump and the print and broadcast media have ended up working symbiotically as one, with the effect that Trump is now poised to receive more primary votes than any other Republican in history. Together they have succeeded in transforming these elections into precisely the kind of so-called ‘reality’ television that Trump is famous for appearing on, and just about everybody — regardless of their opinion of Trump — is securely plugged into the show.
In Trump’s unfiltered, contradictory and often highly offensive outbursts are reflected the ids and dumb grievances of a wide swathe of white working class America. The ten million or so people who have thus far voted for this draft-dodging, Manhattan-dwelling real estate tycoon sincerely believe that he is like them, and that he will be able to make good on his odious promises if elected. Their aggressive and of course wholly misguided nativism has been given life by the constant airtime lavished upon Trump over the past twelve months. But what they fail to realise is that their would-be saviour — a long-standing donor to the Clintons’ foundation and a guest at their daughter’s wedding — belongs squarely to that narrow class of propertied fat cats which benefits most from capitalism and which has been shafting them, and to a much greater degree their non-white fellow citizens, for very many years. Such rage as these people feel towards the system is being redirected back into the system. ‘The spectacle,’ wrote Debord, ‘aims at nothing other than itself.’
Meanwhile, the rise of Trump has enabled those who don’t agree with his pronouncements to discover quite suddenly a keen moral fervour which is then telegraphed to the world on ‘social’ media or divulged with a shake of the head in private conversations about ‘that awful man’. This obligatory repulsion serves no function other than to signify membership of a particular ingroup, namely that which is composed of otherwise unreflective individuals who are eager to be seen not to be insane, right-wing or racist. For in most cases, the liberals who satisfy their own consciences with glancing denunciations of Trump are perfectly at peace with the prospect of another Clinton presidency. Their new-found moralism is spectacular, then, in its demonstration not only of Debord’s claim that social life is characterised these days by appearances, but of the fact that ‘separation is the alpha and omega of the spectacle’.
In other words, the spectacle — whether manifested in ‘news, propaganda, advertising [or] entertainment’ — has mutilated our collective intelligence to the extent that we think it more courageous to criticise Trump than the next President of the United States for her participation in uncountable crimes and other iniquities over the past 30-odd years*.
We are heroic in our condemnation of Trump’s absurd remarks, but remain utterly blind to the mechanics of the system which has spawned his supporters — that is, a capitalist economy powered by our own debt peonage and wage slavery and the blood and viscera of innocents abroad. We are too busy re-tweeting somebody else’s aversion to this pouting demagogue to take notice of what is perhaps the gravest aspect of our common plight: namely the climate chaos that lies in wait for us as a result of the ceaseless plunder of the Earth by transnational capital. We are, then, almost completely detached from the world about us, and wired up instead — at least most of the time — to a kind of autonomous alternate universe that is both the ‘result and goal’ of capitalism. It is the separation or alienation that defines this fragmented perception of reality which Debord called the ‘essence and support of the existing society’.
Some might believe that the campaign of Bernie Sanders is — or rather was — mounting a challenge to all this. Indeed, the Vermont senator appears to his detractors and even some of his supporters to be a bona fide radical socialist. It is true enough that Sanders is by far the least abhorrent of all the candidates hawked up by either wing of what Gore Vidal correctly called the ‘Property Party’. That being the case, the corporate media on both sides of the Atlantic has been infinitely more hostile to him than to any other prospective nominee. But there are a number of reasons to be sceptical about Sanders’ now-expired attempt at inciting what he was given to calling a political revolution™.
Firstly, the Democratic primary is rigged — by virtue of the influence of corporate donors, super PACs and so-called superdelegates — to prevent candidates like Sanders who appear even remotely heterodox in their economic views from getting anywhere close to the nomination. Secondly, it is almost as though Sanders himself never wanted his putative insurrection to succeed. If he did, he would now be going it alone as an independent candidate, or at the very least pursuing vigorously the allegations of electoral fraud that have been levelled at his opponent over the past few weeks. Instead he has reiterated his intention to fall in line behind Clinton as soon as he is officially defeated. Thirdly, the American media — all six corporations’ worth of it — would work feverishly to undermine and ultimately destroy Bernie Sanders in any case, because his policies would not dovetail quite as snugly as Clinton’s with their interests or those of the advertisers and state-corporate elites which help in various ways to keep them afloat.
Given that Sanders has triumphed in 21 states so far, it would perhaps seem querulous to point out that the good senator is no socialist. He is all for free tuition, and commendably calls for the restoration of the Glass-Steagall Act. He wants to attack wealth and income inequality, and believes in extending the right to healthcare to every American too. These uncontroversial and frankly common-sense positions might have pleased any New Dealer, but we shouldn’t forget that the senator is no socialist.
Here, after all, is a man who was described as long ago as 1986 as having ‘out-Republicaned the Republicans’ whilst mayor of Burlington through, among other things, his adherence to the neoliberal dogma of trickle-down economics. Murray Bookchin went on to imply in his searing evaluation of Sanders’ tenure at City Hall that the administration of this ‘centralist’ was like Reagan’s in microcosm. It is also worth noting that Sanders, while leagues behind Hillary Clinton in his hawkishness, has supported many an American intervention abroad, from the bombing of Serbia in 1999 to Barack Obama’s ongoing drone assassination campaign. And yet in spite of all this, thirty-five years after he first came to prominence, a formerly ‘independent’ senator who votes with the Democrats 98 per cent of the time is — when he isn’t simply ignored — being made once again by parts of the media to look like some ‘demonic Bolshevik’. That such a tired stratagem as this is swallowed so readily by so many is yet another sad reflection of just how far to the right society has crept.
The notion that Sanders is a radical — and indeed the widespread hope that he would somehow beat Clinton — were absurd from the start, and even Sandernistas seem to have cottoned on to that now as they flock in their headless droves to embrace HRC. It seems for the moment, then, that the greatest achievement of Sanders’ campaign is the efficiency with which he has neutralised the righteous anger of tens of thousands of mostly young Americans by herding them into the giant cul-de-sac of party politics. This is recuperation in action, and so we can say with some justice that #FeelTheBern, too, seems in the final analysis to be a thoroughly spectacular phenomenon.
In the course of this election season, journalists have suggested time and time again that by voting for the likes of Sanders and Trump, ordinary Americans are registering en masse their deeply-felt disillusionment with the existing order of things. Observations like these are telling indeed, for they amount to an admission — implicit, of course — that capitalism, and specifically capitalism in its neoliberal phase, simply does not work for the majority of people. Nevertheless, any such self-reflection is drowned out by the din of voices which exhort the electorate to put its trust in the ‘experience’ and ‘pragmatism’ of Hillary Clinton, the Koched-up darling of Wall Street and war profiteers.
Thus we are reminded that elections in their current form and politics more generally are fundamental components of our spectacular society, for like the spectacle as a whole, they ‘affirm… the choices that have already been made in the sphere of production’. The fait accompli of which Debord speaks is a global economy built on exploitation, and it is one that elections alone cannot be expected ever to reconstruct.
It is a travesty even of capitalist ‘democracy’ that American voters will be forced this autumn to choose between two of the most unlikable characters in their country, many of them in the knowledge that both represent absolutely despicable views of the world. One has succeeded in activating fascistic impulses on a truly fearsome scale, while the other has a clear record of support for policies whose outcomes make such activation a damn sight easier.
All that we in Britain can do in response is find a little comfort in the fact that our fane to Debord’s famous work isn’t quite so monumental, since the sense of sheer unreality produced by our own ‘democracy’ isn’t quite so jarring — yet.
* The following, by no means exhaustive list of words comes to mind: Serbia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Honduras, Libya, Ukraine, Whitewater, cattle futures, Wal-Mart, ‘super-predators’, Goldman Sachs, Servergate.