Politics dressed up in a clown suit. (Internet activism as spectacle)

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN OVERLAND JOURNAL 19 DECEMBER 2013

 

So Micah White, the former editor of Adbusters and self proclaimed creator of the ‘Occupy’ meme, has formed his own boutique activist consultancy that apparently ‘is incubating a left-right coalition of post-cool, counter-culture and authentic parties’. His website borders on self-parody, with long hashtag lines about actions and events that have not occurred, and most likely never will. In the post Occupy milieu, what the power structure has yielded to the movement is, it seems, some book deals and this ‘boutique’ consultancy for the privileged.

Like Russell Brand, White understands that many people are disenchanted with modern politics, and he channels some of the anti-political sentiment. But embedded within his website are many strange ideas and concepts. White has written:

A battle is raging for the soul of activism. It is a struggle between digital activists, who have adopted the logic of the marketplace, and those organisers who vehemently oppose the marketisation of social change. At stake is the possibility of an emancipatory revolution in our lifetimes.

For someone who was the editor of Adbusters and who has called for the end to marketing, he seems exceedingly good at marketing himself, as a quick Google search will lay attest to. He gives himself, and himself alone, credit for giving rise to the occupy movement: ‘When you create an idea that’s easy for people to do themselves, it’s unstoppable’.  He says that ‘we tried to not position ourselves as leaders, we want to be meme warriors.’ A anti-hierarchical movement certainly has its benefits, but via the creation of memes?  Surely not.

Further, White has moved his ‘boutique activist consultancy’ (what the hell is ‘boutique’ anyway?) to support the Italian 5 Star Movement led by Beppe Grillo. This March, for instance, Adbusters ran an article on Beppe Grillo calling him ‘nuanced, fresh, bold, and committed as a politician,’ with ‘a performance artist edge’. Grillo, for Adbusters, was ‘planting the seed of a renewed – accountable, fresh, rational, responsible, energized – left, that we can hope germinates worldwide.’

But as Giovanni Tiso has noted, the movement is not as it seems. Grillo’s 5 Star Movement has a dodgy backer: Gianroberto Casaleggio, ‘an online marketing expert whose only known past political sympathies lay with the right-wing separatist Northern League.’

This 5 Star Movement is a right wing populist party, not a progressive left wing populist party like many would like to claim. Its leader Beppe Grillo espouses right-wing populism, attacking the European Union from a nationalist platform and with some nice sophistry about the dangers of the welfare state. What Grillo is speaking to are the sections of the petty bourgeoisie who regard racial minorities and the working class – in addition to the welfare state – as obstructions. This is confirmed by a glance at the movement’s electoral demands and publications, which agitate on behalf of small and mid-size entrepreneurs against the working class. The recurring polemics are against waste and ‘clean’ politics, at no point identifying the capitalist interests that serve these political mechanisms.

White’s vision of the world is one in which his ‘carefully crafted imagery’ can fight the poisonous efforts of the faceless marketers.  It is the fight in which for the Adbusterseditor, Buy Nothing Day and strange hybrid parties are the answer. Strangely inverting most theoretical understandings of capitalism, he does not see overconsumption, or advertising, as symptoms. Rather they are key tenets, and once confronted will rid capitalism of its excesses.  This is a form of hypocritical neoliberal activism, marketing against marketing.

Guy Debord’s classic The Society of the Spectacle has recently been reprinted, and is as prescient today as ever. White’s imitation of change in the world through his boutique activism is exactly what Debord predicted with his concept of the spectacle:

Here the real world changes into simple images, the simple images become real beings and effective motivations of hypnotic behaviour. The spectacle, as a tendency to make one see the world by means of various specialized mediations (it can no longer be grasped directly) . . . It is that which escapes the activity of men, that which escapes reconsideration and correction by their work. It is the opposite of dialogue. Wherever there is independent representation, the spectacle reconstitutes itself.

It is as if Debord is speaking directly to White, Grillo and the 5 Star Program. As he argues, this creation of a marketable gaze is the ‘opposite of dialogue’ creating ‘hypnotic behaviour’ in their incoherent rhetoric. Of course White is familiar with Debord, but White sees the Situationist movement as only identifying ‘media’ as the problem. On that basis, once one comes up with a new version of ‘mass media’ (which is what he appears to be attempting), many of the problems of late capitalism will simply vanish.

Yet, like Adorno before him, Debord saw media as only part of the greater spectacle, a reflection of class relations within society.  It is highly dubious that Grillo’s Five Star Movement will change class relations within the Italian state.

White’s spectacle-style activism attempts to flog Blackspot shoes and overpriced culture-jamming kits to ‘create new ambiences and psychic possibilities’ exaggerates the mass media’s ability to control the whole population, therefore overstating the importance of persuading the public with pure theatre rather than with politics.

More than anything, what sets White apart from more the more traditional Left and weds him to the Grillo camp of phonies is the overarching emphasis on his theory of ‘mental environmentalism.’ Mental environmentalism, he explains, is ‘the core idea behind Adbusters, the essential critique that motivates our struggle against consumer society.’

For White, mental illness rates are due to ‘subliminal infotoxins’ polluting our body. This is merely asserted – there is no research backing this idea.  It is only the ‘mental environmentalists’ such as White with their meme wars who are actually fighting the root cause of our capitalist alienations. There is no mention of labour-capital relations, alienation, class, power or anything remotely close to a rigorous analysis of late capitalism.

Debord  wrote:

The modern spectacle . . .  expresses what society can do, but in this expression the permitted is absolutely opposed to the possible. The spectacle is the preservation of unconsciousness within the practical change of the conditions of existence. It is its own product, and it has made its own rules: it is a pseudo-sacred entity. It shows what it is: separate power developing in itself, in the growth of productivity by means of the incessant refinement of the division of labor into a parcellisation of gestures which are then dominated by the independent movement of machines; and working for an ever-expanding market. All community and all critical sense are dissolved during this movement in which the forces that could grow by separating are not yet reunited.

Under White and Grillo, Debord’s formula takes a new twist.  They are using images and false promises of internet democracy to make sense of capitalist problems through simple formulations about the evils of consumerism and corruption, which, conveniently, align with many conservative commentators. It is the pseudo-concrete populist figure of the ‘advertiser’ that condenses the vast multitude of anonymous forces that determine us.

White’s spectacle of consumerism and Internet democracy refers to what Ernesto Laclau would call an empty signifier – a privileged element that gathers up a range of differential elements and binds them together into a discursive formation. Its emptiness makes it possible for it to signify the discourse as a whole. At the most rudimentary level, the spectacle defines nothing so much as this highly affected relation of looking – that is, the mutually constitutive relation of attraction between spectatorship and the expressly ‘empty’ aesthetic appeal of visual display. In this respect, the White style analysis is following the historical iterations of variety entertainment, pure empty vaudeville.

Debord writes:

The spectacle appears at once as society itself, as a part of society and as a means of unification. As a part of society, it is that sector where all attention, all consciousness, converges  …  the unity it imposes is merely the official language of generalized separation.

The spectacle is only a part of society but creates a focal point in which its broad appeal brings in the sightlines of its imaginary ‘all’ to create mass popularity, based on emptiness. It is a production of social unity that is predicated on separation.

It may appear that White and his like at Adbusters have similar concerns to others on the Left.  They fight for the environment, fight capitalist forces and aim to build a large and powerful popular movement.  But, ultimately, they produce mere spectacle, politics dressed up in a clown suit.

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