The Spectacle of Independence Day

This July 4th let’s ponder the way in which our lives are dominated. Our existence slyly orchestrated. Our experiences siphoned down highways dotted with endless signs that ask in that prodding way “why aren’t you happy yet?”  

“Kids are in cages” we answer. “They are ripped from their families trying to escape violence and poverty that this country created in their own. They’ve been herded into pens. They sleep on concrete floors.  

“They are deprived toothbrushes, clean water, ample food. They are watched over by vicious and unfeeling people who have been trained every step of the way to dehumanize and humiliate. We cannot be happy in the midst of this.” 

Armed guards step out from behind each of the signs. They ready their rifles. And they ask, once again, “why aren’t you happy yet?” 

* * * 

Fifty years ago Guy Debord and the situationists looked at the way in which the logic of commodity had insinuated itself into every aspect of daily life. Building on Marx and Lukács he zoned in on the concept of reification, the way in which a commodity makes the manufactured seem natural, and the social relations of any given time appear eternal. Starting in the 1920s, mass media and consumerism had aided in the spread of this logic and its further transformation into a “common sense” worldview. 

This is the spectacle. Under the spectacle everything becomes a simulation of sorts. Materials and items are no longer viewed primarily in terms of what they can be used for but what their value is on the market. And since literally every item in our lives is a commodity, since even our time and consciousness are subject to that same process, every human interaction becomes transactional.  

With this transactional nature comes all kinds of other behavioral assumptions. We punish those who don’t live up to the transaction, praise those who do, conspire behind backs of both. Human bonds are based not on camaraderie, sympathy, solidarity, mutual recognition of talent, but on whether we can get back a return on what we invest in them. Every human interaction is mediated through this prism, and ideas that subvert them are easily sucked back into the system and sanitized. If commodity and bureaucracy present themselves as eternal and above history, what they achieve is placing us outside of the historical process, outside of our ability to experience and change the conditions of our lives. 

It is not quite correct to say that aesthetics play a role in this. More to the point, what the rise of consumerism, public relations, the streamlining of state and private media all managed to accomplish was a version of what Walter Benjamin called “the aestheticization of politics.” Aesthetics, the practice and study of how the environment can be changed to interact with our sensuous lives and subjective selves, becomes woven into political economy.  

For Debord the phenomenon of the spectacle could be accomplished through the implication of force (the maintenance of order through constant threat of violence that characterizes authoritarian states, which Debord called “concentrated spectacle”) or the illusion of choice in a society overwhelmed by commodities (“diffuse spectacle,” which we associate with consumerism).  

In most modern capitalist societies, however, Debord saw a fusion of the two prevailing. This he called the “integrated spectacle,” achieved through the close cooperation of state and private enterprise. Underneath the apparent abundance, very real and crude machinations of secrecy move. We are both convinced and coerced into the belief that this is the best of all possible worlds, systems, nations.

* * * 

In 2013 McKenzie Wark, radical author and one of the best living experts on the subject of Debord and the situationists, postulated that we had transcended the previous forms of spectacle. He wrote: 

These days one might speak of a disintegrating spectacle, in which the centralized forms of mediating the spectacle break down into fragments but retain their commodified form. Thus these days we all have to participate in making display ads and writing advertising slogans – selfies posed in newly purchased outfits – assuming the burden of doubling the consumption of things with the consumption of images. All against the background of what Debord called a sick planet, groaning under the weight of waste. 

Wark was correct. The brilliance of capitalism’s use of technological innovation has always been in its ability to parse and rearrange the process of production. It eliminates whatever it needs to eliminate and outsources whatever it can outsource. To make us not just complicit but active and enthusiastic actors in the market, even when we are not consciously working or buying something; this is truly genius. 

And yet one wonders whether the disintegrated spectacle even captures it anymore. As so many of the threats and specters we thought were long gone return and collide and mix with new existential threats. The new always brings with it markers of the old. Even as the disintegration continues, new ways are (re)discovered to integrate and infuse. 

Today, on July 4th, there is a military parade in Washington, DC. Awesome destructive power is rhythmically rolled through city streets, simultaneously encouraging wonder and threatening its use. Spectators cheer and clap and listen to music. We become even more emotionally invested in a system that when push comes to shove will gladly use that same force against us. 

Meanwhile, so much of online chatter seems to be boosting and reifying the idea that we should not call them “concentration camps” (we fucking should). But of course, given what we know of the medium, this narrative doesn’t just come from the “top down.” It’s not melodramatic to say that we are supervisors to our own virtual petty bureaucracies in which others read as disposable. This is the shape of participation in a process in which we are monitored and manipulated, in which commodification and securitization are quickly becoming synonymous. 

Is this a new phase? Are capital and the spectacle showing themselves capable of centralizing through decentralization? Hasn’t this always been how it operates to one degree or another?

Is the Trumpian moment, with its reality show redeployment of “America First” rhetoric, simultaneously searching for new ways to isolate and atomize, the moment of, for lack of a better term, “re/dis/integrated spectacle”?  

And what, exactly, does this mean for resistance? Actual resistance. Not the kind that comes with a hashtag in front of it. 

Space Madness

Donald Trump wants The Expanse to be real. If there were ever a president who could watch a show about a solar system constantly at war with itself and miss the entire point, it is this man. Picture it: Trump, late at night, holed up in the President’s Bedroom. Crumpled Big Mac wrappers litter the foot of the bed. The curtains are closed, the only light in the room is the ghostly blue of the television. 

Having heard that Amazon’s Jeff Bezos recently rescued the beloved-but-canceled SyFy favorite from oblivion, the President has decided to see for himself what all the fuss was about. As he watches residents of Earth, Mars, and the Asteroid Belt betray, lie, and kill each other off in power grabs, he begins to mumble to himself… “Hmmm… space… yeah, space… force… space force… yeah, space force. It’s a great idea, very important. Space force!”

And thus a press conference is called…

The above did not happen (or at least we don’t know if it happened). Trump has promised a space force before, and despite his official-sounding pronouncement on Monday, he has yet to sign anything like an executive order. Instituting a sixth branch of the military — the first new one for the United States since 1947 — is a massive and expensive undertaking. It will require congressional approval, and when asked about it last year, Trump’s own defense secretary Jim Mattis went on record to say it was a bad idea. 

Nonetheless, the wonders of outer space appear to be returning to a high place in the American popular imagination. Now is about the time in this piece where the author might trot out that overused Fred Jameson quote about it being easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. That remains true, but it is also worth considering the following sentence: “we can now revise that and witness the attempt to imagine capitalism by way of imagining the end of the world.” Enter the architects of late neoliberalism’s escape plan.

Today’s most beloved moguls are, rather shamelessly, no mere titans of a single industry. Elon Musk is CEO or founder of no fewer than three companies vying in the worlds of everything from auto to neuroprosthetics. Richard Branson brings us air travel, records, jewelry and more. Amazon has transformed the way logistics are thought about and made obvious that literally every consumer product relies on them. A colleague of mine who worked for a time at one of Amazon’s distribution centers was told on his first day by management “Thank you for helping us take over the world.” Tongue in cheek? Sure, but the kind of thing that makes you shudder with dread too.

All three are, of course, very publicly and enthusiastically engaged in the enterprise of private spaceflight. Bezos announced that Amazon had picked up The Expanse at a conference where he also received an award for “space settlement advocacy.” The lines between fiction and reality become more than a bit blurred in all this adulation. Saving a much-loved sci-fi show becomes symbolic of the future he is supposedly building.

Same with Musk. His proponents and defenders believe in his utopia, pointing to how courageously idealistic he comes across when spouting his dreams of an intergalactic future. And while Musk may appear confused over what exactly makes someone an anarchist, socialist, or capitalist, he reveals much more than he likely realizes in his confusion. When he writes on Instagram of “true socialism,” he puts himself — knowingly or not — in the vein of those who see a just society as a matter of technocratic social engineering. The liberal imagination doesn’t just tolerate but enthusiastically applauds this vision, be it in the shaping of leisure time, the way our brains are wired, or the willingness to colonize Mars. In all instances, the human material is just that. Material.

Musk and Bezos have, it is true, been at loggerheads with Donald Trump recently. To some this is enough to earn them a place in “the resistance.” It’s a low bar when that same resistance can shriek for a continuation of war on the Korean peninsula. America is an empire in deep crisis, or at least an empire being forced to pivot quickly and clumsily as the world changes radically around it. The days of a unipolar world are over. Trade blocs and international communities are in flux. History has restarted, and it’s brought with it the beginnings of a new Cold War.

The emergence of Trekkie Howard Hughes types alongside talk of a “space force” in the midst of this is unnerving. People who remember Reagan’s Star Wars program surely remember how it felt in equal measures laughable and terrifying. In 2007 and 2008, China and the US of the Bush administration engaged in a show of capabilities by firing missiles to down their own decommissioned satellites, prompting a brief worry about an arms race in space. What Reagan and Bush didn’t have were billionaires launching cars and reusable rockets into the atmosphere, pitching a populist tone about how an entrepreneurial spirit will open up the wonders of space to all of us.

All of which is to say that the apparent discord between Trump and today’s captains of industry is deceptive. Enterprise on this massive level needs the state. Musk has already used billions in public funds to build his sprawling empire. The way that industries and private companies combine and interweave with governments to assert their interests around the world is an evolving one, but it is not one that will be going away. When virtually every facet of daily life is already being militarized, there is no reason this should change beyond the stratosphere.

Musk and Bezos pitch their dreams for humanity in space as a solution for a profoundly troubled civilization, riven with inequality and climate disaster and refugee crises. But all of this waxing utopian is only believable if a society’s technological advances can be extracted from the broken bodies that make them feasible. Bezos’ ability to drop a USB cable on your doorstep a half hour after you order it doesn’t happen without distribution employees worked to death. Musk’s lightning fast underground transport tunnels don’t exist without the millions of proles left struggling to get to work on time.

Can we therefore feasibly imagine a colonized moon without all of those left behind to scrape by on an increasingly uninhabitable planet? Or perhaps terraformed refugee camps where children are separated from their parents?

If all of this sounds like a thought exercise, then it is worth remembering that discussion of a Trump presidency felt the same way two years ago. And that’s the point. Dystopia, once merely a feared future, has become reality. And it has shown itself to be far more insidious and sneaky than we thought. It does not explode onto the world’s stage all at once; it unfolds over time, creeping and insinuating itself into the norm, even alongside entirely opposed visions for the future. The sticking point of course is that the latter is dependent on the former. I would say Trump should watch Elysium to have this point driven home, but he is liable to get the wrong idea from it.

This post originally appeared at an earlier blog that I used to run. I have migrated it with its original post date.