“Don’t get caught up in the spectacle of Opposition. Oppose the spectacle.”
This is much easier said than done, since we are a generation raised entirely under the domination of the spectacle, without a counter-hegemonic workers movement from which we could learn and to which we could contribute. To date, all that we have had is an echo of a memory of a time when there was such a thing. We don’t yet know how to move toward what we need. All we can know right now is that we needn’t any longer cling to our routines, and even that is a matter of debate.
How does a movement, made up of people raised entirely under the domination of the spectacle, construct methods of resistance to its total domination, especially as the movement is only just beginning to emerge from a long period of isolation, ossification, and decomposition? Some people might take issue with this characterization of our glorious tradition(s), but for those of us who can see clearly where we stand, there are a number of habits on the Left, developed under the unchecked hegemony of the spectacle, which we need excoriate if ever we are to speak meaningfully of opposition.
Our habit of responding to every injustice with a registration of discontent, in the form of a protest, is a difficult subject. On the one hand, we cannot sit by as mere spectators while events unfold. On the other hand, in a society which has provided seemingly infinite means of simulation for every conceivable activity, it’s worth taking a step back to assess what it is that we are doing.
When the workers movement was a force which contended for power, protests and marches were a show of strength and a threat. Along the way, as the struggle for power became ever more abstracted and relegated to the other side of a perpetually drifting horizon, the act of protesting came to replace organizing, or to be thought of *as* organizing, and thus came to replace the struggle for power. During the long period of retreat, it was perhaps all we could do or at least all we could imagine we could do.
Under the domination of the spectacle, all normal political activity -- that is to say, non-revolutionary activity; activity which is not consciously driving for popular subjectivity and deliberate steps toward The Great Refusal -- is activity which is worse than ineffective. It is activity which assists only in alleviating our guilt and our sense of helplessness, while allowing for the operation of the machinery to continue unabated. Such activity is spectacular.
We have somewhat over-adapted to the marginality that has been the norm for the revolutionary left since the latter stages of the Cold War. In order to keep up with the times, we should draw a distinction between performative outrage and base building. Rather than write it out myself, I have elected here to steal a Facebook post from a friend:
“Keeping up with current events is good, but political strategies and priorities shouldn't be completely driven by the news cycle. That's how you have even Socialist groups hopping around from #J20 #RESISTTRUMP, to Syria, to gun control debates, to deportations, making zero long-term impact on anything. It's tailism at its purest.
All of these issues are important, crucial even, and the desire to Do Something is nearly overwhelming for any decent human. But until you've done the slow, long, sometimes boring work to actually build up a proletarian base you can mobilize and sustain in struggle you'll just spend lots of time ineffectually flailing for 2-month stretches at The New Thing and then hopping to the next Crisis while the situation gets worse.”
At this stage, our maintenance of narrow cliques representing specific traditions is purely spectacular.
The spectacle was born at the moment the workers movement had to pretend to be in power in order to suppress its appetite for actual power. In isolation, the pretense of an appetite has served as a substitute. But now we are again living through a time when mass socialist politics is a genuine possibility, so our activities and methods of inquiry should be exclusively geared toward mass upheaval, mass organization, and mass participation. When Marx said that every step of real movement is worth a dozen programs, this is what he meant.
The devolution into competing sects may have been an inevitable consequence of historic decisions with historic consequences -- the Popular Front, the Prague Spring, the Cultural Revolution, Solidarnosc -- but the source of every important schism in the workers movement is long behind us. The Left today is a garbage heap. To reconstitute the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class means to salvage not only theories and practices but also individuals from across the scattered remnants and blend them together.
That doesn’t mean theory is unimportant, it means that to the extent that there is space to theorize and polemicize collectively, that is the same extent to which is should be done. It means Lenin, Bukharin, and Trotsky were all in the same group.
The charge here is to dissolve the sects. The time has come for us to merge fully with the masses in motion and be transformed together by the real dialectics of events. Liquidate the apparatuses, merge the centers, and build a real party which contends for power. No existing group, no matter how well constructed, is a party-in-embryo waiting to grow into its role.
The reason why the Democratic Socialists of America has 42,000 members right now is precisely because of how poorly organized and vaguely defined the group was prior to the moment of rupture that Trump’s election seemed to indicate. That’s not to say that the party of the future is DSA-squared but only that the more well defined, and ostensibly better positioned revolutionary grouplets clearly haven’t presented an open door to the new generation. The DSA is itself now in a position to either clarify to a considerable degree or burn out.
The persistent infatuation with celebrity is an expression of the dearth of both theory and practice with regards to the struggle for power. It’s an expression of the marginality to which we are over-adapted. We should applaud every genuine act of rebellion, like when Colin Kaepernick speaks of the systematic destruction of black people. But what is genuine?
In 2016, the conversation was about Beyoncé, who is not a rebel. She’s an actual capitalist whose products are birthed in the sweatshops of the periphery and as such, she should find as great a difficulty entering the hearts of radicals as a camel passing through the eye of a needle. Beyoncé is “radical” because she said she was a FEMINIST (just like Hillary Clinton) and because her dancers once were made to dress up like Black Panthers. Sometimes it’s difficult to discuss how symbols can be hollowed out and refilled with entirely different content but sometimes it’s very easy.
In 2018, Beyoncé was lauded for her radical performance at Coachella. Coachella incidentally is perhaps the best example of how the music festival atmosphere has more to do with commerce than with whatever alt-lifestyle fantasy we wish to graft onto it. Yes, representation matters and a black woman headlining Coachella is a sign of the times. But we should be careful to not misinterpret those signs. Beyoncé is not on “our side.” We all use celebrities as proxies for our real lives and by-extension, our real life battles. We do this by force of habit, because we’re taught to.
It’s not that celebrities are the enemy. It’s that their activities are only so much window dressing on the facade of the spectacle. Generally speaking, a good set of rules would be to listen to a song if you like it, to always engage in rigorous criticism of cultural production, and to never mistake any of these people for our representatives.
Next: Some More Notes On the Spectacle of Opposition