The following is written hastily in a couple hours but what the fuck. Instead of “the artist” retreating at the sight of the hobgoblin of politics we plunge right into it, the magnificent obsession.
To allow the election of those who might possibly represent the will of ordinary people is the riskiest step power ever made. This was forced on it, beginning with the French and American Revolutions, and has been the source of the greatest anxiety power has ever endured. Threatened with collapse was the concept of the King’s Two Bodies, one that was the actual mortal person of the king and the other that of “true” power, eternal and descended from on high. Worshiped power was to be subject to a quantity of thumbs-downs of those who were not swayed by the iconic statue in which power had wrapped itself. No one could guess where the bold move would lead, but it threatened to dis-empower those in power in a twinkling. Every election was a potential revolution annulling the powers that be. They would have to learn through experience and struggle the psychology of manipulation and control over events that was never before needed. Power would have to face anyone whose x-ray vision could see that it was mortal and naked as the day it was born.
The spectacle was not born in the 1920s, when consumerism saved capitalism from overproduction (Fordism), but a century earlier, perhaps most visible in political cartoons that vilified political opponents and aroused fear among people who had little to fear. It was Jackson who mastered this, portraying the Indian as the aggressor who must be stopped, with of course himself as the one most capable of doing so. The embarrassment for power was that it was supposed to be enlightened.
The Enlightenment had challenged power rhetorically, for it consisted of intellectuals with the naïve notion that the rulers were reasonable people like themselves; a positive future could be achieved through criticism and persuasion. The populace, otherwise known as the mob, was more effective, combining force and self-belief (today’s “empowerment”). The enlightened mostly went along though with reservations, and eventually became the articulate persuaders and rationalizers of the various sides. Democracy was not their idea but, for the sake of power or at least influence, what they accommodated to. Naïve to this day, or rather simply needing to be gratified by a taste of power themselves, they mostly serve the spectacle as the loyal opposition, aka the left.
In America of the early 19th century, the guiding star of this awkward marriage of Enlightened Democracy, the only way to reconcile it with the conquest of a populated continent was to present genocide as merely self-defense. (“A man’s home is his castle,” was the slogan of a segregationist I saw pamphleting a Baltimore bus in 1965). To maintain their self-esteem as both rational and Christian, the voting population would have to be persuaded that those who initially acted rationally and sought accommodation with the white man through mutually binding treaties had turned irrational and now wanted to conquer him and wipe him out. The image of the noble and respected savage would now appear a masquerade, a sly deception and betrayal on their part. America would not exist today were not an image of the Indian created that inverted the reality, such that politicians could appear as defending an innocent people, a rational aim, against an evil enemy bent on eradicating them. Through imagery-manipulation fear is thereby converted from irrational and transparent to rational and unquestionable, and with a short lapses has been the basis of American politics ever since. With this turn American politics as we understand it today was created through the agency of what would later be called the society of the spectacle.
The Civil War could not have taken place if the issue were slavery but rather the fear that the slave economy was an alien being threatening the “free” economy of nascent capitalism and was expanding westward. Slavery was vilified, which motivated the enlighteners in the North and silenced any doubts they might have had concerning the union of democracy and capitalism. But the more effective argument was the threat of rebellion, to which power must respond. No more than the Bourbon kings could step away from the throne could Lincoln yield to the rebels. These did not perceive themselves fighting for slavery—few of the soldiers themselves were slaveholders (I’m guessing here)—but rather saw themselves as underdogs fighting for their independence, exactly the kind of fight that allied them with the founders of the Republic. The confusion continues today, for the liberal North, which believes it holds a monopoly on enlightenment, cannot conceive that Southern conservatism has a streak of rebellious resistance to power. After all, the postmodern offshoot of liberalism is “transgression,” which should envy those who “stand up for themselves.” In the view of liberalism, power is positive when in the hands of the enlightened, who by definition are the ones not hoodwinked. It has yet to come to grips with the fact that the revolution that gave them a function in the world of power was first and foremost a rebellion against power.
The history of America and its politics is the series of threats to the presumed unity of enlightenment, democracy, and political economy, otherwise known as capitalism. When it was a matter of saving capitalism from the (democratic) mass of people, the spectacle saved the day with its image of anarchy. When capitalism was threatened by its own success, overproduction, the image of unending progress of human happiness based on consumption reversed the situation, and power recovered its enlightened, people-friendly image. Even the condescending progressives came around. The unwashed immigrants who had been the threat were now reimagined as consumers, with capitalism their savior. When the Depression gave the lie to that story there was a threat of reversion to the earlier picture, but successful politics, now with no goods to buy off the populace, instead sold the image of the heroic masses struggling alongside power to rebuild not capitalism but democracy. This was positive and visionary: the only fear is fear itself, and freedom was from want, that is, consumption, so long as capitalism was the only means of satisfying need.
During the thirties American politics would be isolationist, aloof and protected against contagion from Europe. For the moment it could ignore the need of capitalism to conquer the world if it was to continue to expand beyond a saturated home market. Americans would not have been persuaded to join the fight of European powers in World War II if they had thought it was a fight for the expansion of capital; even the corporate elite didn’t argue that. No, people only agreed to fight for enlightened democracy, a continuation of the solidarity of the good against evil than enabled them to overlook what a clearer vision would see as evils in their very backyard.
To vote the lesser of two evils was once the cynic’s view and in the minority. Now that has become the only positive. It is the only politics possible, and both sides agree. (For reasons left obscure here, American politics, unlike European, has always depended on gravitation towards one of two sides). Eisenhower was the war hero president, our DeGaulle. As a soldier he was not impressed by fear and could make no use of it when faced with it politically with McCarthy, nor could he counter it. It was Kennedy who successfully utilized a politics of fear, when he raised the specter of a “missile gap,” the one weapon available to a non-incumbent that allowed him to squeak past Nixon (very possibly a stolen election). It was a lie and he knew it, but in the game of electoral politics it had become effective to speak to fear. Since McCarthy people had learned that television was the vehicle of politics; the spectacle was what mattered.
What glued people to the screen during the hearings (myself included) was fear, but a new version, for the medium was in fact the message. The spectacle then and what we know today turns fear into intimidation. We are mesmerized (hypnotized) by an image that pretends to be reality far more effectively than what is right in front of us or a political cartoon. To be critical of the screen requires another screen image, thus pulling everything into its vortex. The spectacle, born in fear, converted to the utopia of consumer goods and enlightened democracy, reverted back to its origins and now more powerful than ever. It was not ironic that the spectacle had been the weapon of the right, it was rather what all politics would have to master. However, what they thought they could master ended up mastering them, as McLuhan learned too late. Better appeal via fear of communism than leftist goals of expanding democracy to include blacks, the “American Dilemma” that both American and Russian Communists pointed to as the thorn in the side of rosy American idealism.
This segment of the society of the spectacle, which begins in McCarthyism, continues until it is the only show in town. It is the spectacle that has declared there is no history, no future other than disaster, with everyone powerless against it. Politics no longer presents society with specific positive options but rather unites people in opposition to “the other.” Liberalism speaks of support for the maligned other but the effective other is that of its political opponent, which is why today it is so gleeful. The positive is only the gathering of those who fear loss, like those voting for Jackson “against” the Indians (not “for” taking their land) and those voting “against” Trump (who is”for” Hillary?).
Obama had no program other than to reverse Bush, to win back lost ground, as if there were a positive future. His electorate was blindsided by his intelligence and his program of negating what had come before. His blackness silenced criticism (and he knew it), since for decades p.c. leftism had convinced people that any criticism of blacks was racist, the key test for enlightenment. Trump throws people a variety of options, even reverses himself on them, but, as the spectacle becomes the only memory, once a declaration has made its impact it cannot be taken back. What unites people behind him is to negate the enemy they feel threatens them, just as Obama had done more innocently in his pledge to roll back the Bush policies (innocent because he surely believed he could do good in office once he was successful).
Trump has done what no one else could, unite the left behind a candidate who has no program other than to achieve final victory over the right, in whose spoils the left hopes to share. This is what the left today, and its history of struggle and vision, is reduced to–a long conversion that I’m barely recounting here. Yet like Obama, if HRC does achieve that it would be apparent that she has no interest other than that struggle, none of her early idealism. That hollowness would convert strength into weakness. In terms of silencing criticism her vested interest, as Trump’s, is to keep the enemy alive, rather than to persuade it of any value she might present. There is a phantom enemy, however, that momentarily frightened her–those of the left who might become an effective opposition to her, resurrecting an enlightenment that ignores pc intimidation and recalls the positive vision of what has been called the defunct Old Left–including her own deja vu. That appeared in the unexpected candidacy of Bernie, counter-populist to Trump. The socialist, who earlier shared several planks with Trump, has since showed himself loyal to the politics of negating the other. Fear, the chief construct of the spectacle, is not a tactic of this side against the other, it is the only side.