Saturday, 14 July 2012


Dick Pountain/31 January 2006/12:16/Political Quarterly/

TITLE: "Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War".
AUTHOR: RETORT collective (Ian Boal, T.J.Clark, Joseph Matthews, Michael Watts)
PUBLISHED: June 2005, paperback, pp 224 , £9.99

When Guy Debord published 'The Society of the Spectacle' in 1967 it was the most radical critique of modern consumer capitalism to date (and this in a decade marked by Sartre, Lefebvre and Marcuse). Debord's thesis, to brutally condense it, was that  the worlds of capitalism and Soviet communism were converging toward a single system in which advertising/propaganda were colonizing the very human imagination. An ahistorical world in which appearance dominates reality, whose inhabitants become spectators on their own lives, lived vicariously through worship of celebrity and self-definition via brandnames. His was not a conspiracy theory: although the spectacle serves the interest of owners/bureaucrats by absorbing dissent, they are as much mesmerised by it as everyone else. Debord's Situationist International had its brief moment of glory during the Paris events of 1968, but he dissolved it in 1972 on the grounds that it had itself become part of the spectacle. After publishing a darkly pessimistic footnote to 'The Society of the Spectacle', in 1994 he shot himself through the heart in his Auvergne farmhouse.  

'Afflicted Powers' by the RETORT collective of Berkeley, California, asks whether Debord's thesis is still capable of throwing light on our present post-9/11, post-Iraq conjuncture, and concludes that with some modifications it can. The authors are well qualified to answer, at least one of them having known the Situationists first hand, and despite modest disclaimers to the contrary, they recapture Debord's caustic, laconic and pithy tone with surprising success (a welcome contrast to the post-post-structuralist treacle of so much modern commentary). Describing the present state of the world as one governed by 'the contradictions of military neo-liberalism under conditions of spectacle', the book begins by posing three central questions:
1 To what extent did '9/11' usher in a new era?
2 Are we to understand US actions since 9/11 as an historical regression to naked force?
3 Do the concepts 'society of the spectacle' and 'colonization of everyday life' still have explanatory value, or are we now facing a cruder, older kind of statecraft?

The book does not claim to fully answer these questions, but merely to open them up to further debate, as a precondition for rebuilding any sort of coherent left opposition (the title 'Afflicted Powers' comes from Paradise Lost, used by Satan in recounting his failed rebellion). The book takes off from two striking (ie. spectacular) images, al-Qaida's devastating attack on the Twin Towers and the grotesquely hooded Iraqi prisoner in Abu Ghraib prison. RETORT contends that al-Qaida fully understands that US military power is now based as much in spectacle as material firepower, so it committed an outrage that while itself confined within the spectacle (that is, which could achieve no conceivable political goal), still inflicted great damage on the spectacle of US power. RETORT most definitely does not sympathise with al-Qaida: on the contrary, in a well-argued chapter they explain how Revolutionary Islam outmanoeuvres its secular progressive rivals using a vile mixture of the worst aspects of Leninist/Guevarist vanguardism with anti-modern religious fundamentalism.  

Empires have always depended upon armed force, originally to conquer and plunder territory directly, then to protect trade routes and extort improved trade terms, and finally to support and enforce the rule of colonist elites. The classic Marxist theorists of imperialism, Lenin and Luxemburg, described a world divided between the capitalist and pre-capitalist, in which Great Powers fought each other for control. However 20th century nationalist revolts rendered this sort of empire no longer tenable, and since the collapse of the Soviet Union the entire world is - tiny pockets apart - now under capitalist production. Under these circumstances empire works differently: companies invest in subordinate countries and repatriate their profits; governments loan money to subordinate countries to develop export industries, and use the resulting debt as a lever of control. In an excellent chapter called 'Blood for Oil?' RETORT analyses this system in some detail as regards the Iraqi oil industry, contradicting those vulgar Marxist critics who claim that invasion was launched only to grab the oil fields. They describe a complex circulation of oil, construction services and arms sales between the US and Middle East, in which oil companies prefer to buy the oil (and being major producers themselves don't always seek the lowest, but rather the 'right' price).      

This new wholly capitalist empire cannot be directly ruled by a single imperial power, but is instead administered by a plethora of sovereign nation-states, each of which separately maintains the rule of law and property relations necessary for global capitalism to flourish. However a single hegemonic power has taken upon itself the policing of these nation states to prevent any of them going off the rails, turning rogue - and of course that power is the USA. When the rogue is a Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan or Soviet aggressor in Europe, then liberals see this policing as a good thing, whereas when it overthrows democratically-elected left governments in Latin America it's a bad thing. There's a strong case though for seeing it as always the same thing, at least since WW2 and possibly since WW1, and regardless of whether Democrats or Republicans are in power. The US has built up the largest army in history for complex reasons (including crypto-Keynesian economic stimulation and plain pork-barrelling) but mostly to provide a show of irresistible force that will deter any other state from even attempting to rival it.

Hence I found the chapter on 'Permanent War' mostly persuasive: defence of the 'just war' is no longer necessary, and wars don't now even need a clear objective or exit strategy, but merely to project a convincing image of US invincibility. 9/11 punctured a blazing hole in that image, hence the hasty and deceptively-excused Iraq War. The term preferred by neocon military planners is the 'demonstration effect', aka Shock and Awe, and it operates as much on America's friends as on its enemies. For example the status quo in Korea suits US hawks rather well, permitting them to keep troops there to deter Japan from becoming a modernised military rival. An occasional firefight is required though to keep such lessons convincing.   

What I find wholly unconvincing is RETORT's characterisation of modern privatisation as a historical regression to Marx's 'primitive accumulation'. Certainly enclosures and forcible expropriations persist - in the Chinese countryside or the Brazilian rainforest for example - but Enron's plunder of its shareholders or Putin's crude re-theft of GazProm from the oligarchs took place under the rule of modern law. Rather than helping, this notion clashes with their argument that violence is becoming spectacular rather than appropriative in purpose. They're on stronger ground when describing the other contradictions at the heart of the US's imperial role: modern weapons, smart or not, are so extremely destructive that they lay waste the very infrastructure necessary for capitalism to flourish; and equally important, the US public, while still fired with nationalist fervour, has largely lost its taste for sacrificing its children and will not tolerate casualties for ever. Bush remembers well that the televised spectacle undid the US army in Vietnam and has taken good care to censor coverage of Iraq, but you can't hide all the body bags all the time.

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