Power and Strategy in the Age of the Spectacle

One of the insights the idea of the society of the spectacle reveals is the idea of a form of power in global politics that is not tied explicitly to military capability or state authority. This is not to say that these notions of power do not exist—just that they need not be the starting point for understanding the elements of the global assemblage of power in late twentieth and early twenty-first century. This provides some important flexibility in trying to understand how both states and other transnational actors are maneuvering around each other in order to gain an advantageous position in pursuit of their interests. Few examples of this are as illuminating as Russia, which by traditional measurements of power would be considered a sickly middle-tier power whose military is a shadow of its former self and its economic health is overly dependent on the current price of oil. Instead, Russia is perceived by prominent factions in western ruling classes as one of the greatest security threats to American hegemony and quite possibly a malevolent hub of covert manipulation and clandestine influence whose greatest coup was the engineering of Donald Trump into the White House to serve as Putin’s proxy. Indeed, so convinced are some in the US regulatory apparatus that Russia can pull strings in US political society that they have compelled the American arm of the Russian state television service (RT) to register as a foreign agent (a move that, among other things, deprives it of automatic 1st Amendment protections).

Whatever the true nature of Russia’s involvement in US politics is (a clear picture of which is still not readily apparent and up for debate), the example of Russia “maybe” or “possibly” rigging or manipulating the US election represents how the ability to use trickery, deception, illusion and ruse are increasingly becoming skills states and other actors need to come to grips with if the wish to realize their interests and protect their assets. Unfortunately, much of the theorizing about global politics today still overlooks these capacities or casts them into broad categories like “soft power” or “network power” where they are not given much space to provide useful insights on the ways formations of power are changing with advancing media capabilities. This oversight is made at their own peril, for those who are immersed in this world are quite confident of what they themselves are capable of. One sample of this was recorded by the anthropologist Gabriella Coleman, who chronicled a phone message she received in 2010 from a prominent hacker who went by the nickname of weev. Referencing an upcoming speech she was scheduled to give, weev said, “I see that you are giving a presentation on hackers, trolls and the politics of spectacle. And I just want to say that I am the master of the spectacle.”[1]

These hackers and hoaxers were particularly effective in 2010 when this recoding was made. This was the year of the Wikileaks release of US State Department cables and the height of Anonymous activism and host of other forms of mischief and mayhem that gave states like the United States a black eye. Since then, what was once the purview of a handful of troublemakers is now increasingly an arm of the military industrial complex of contemporary great powers whose interests in cultivating their power over digital media is not merely about protecting their respective homelands but also about conjuring up illusions from the digital ether to shape and shift the decision-making matrices and popular fantasies of foreign rivals (ironically, something that has been going in their own countries in the private sphere since the advent of mass communications).

The question becomes at this point, with states clearly taking a greater interest in exploiting the media, communications, and social networking technologies now available, is how does one conceptualize and theorize how states will try to exploit these newly emerging capabilities and what strategies are available to put them to use? Alongside of this is the question of how these new forms and strategies of power integrate (or fail to integrate) with already existing forms of power—especially that of military capability which is seen as the original and most elemental form of power in international politics. In future posts, shaking how “spectacular power”—the power of the elements of the spectacle—exist in the greater assemblage of power neoliberal power will be a focus of this space. In the future, it is hoped that a more theoretically sound understanding of this power emerges and can be applied to events like Russian manipulation of social media platforms to put them in their proper context. If we understand media and spectacle power in the same way as military power, then perhaps some of the same strategic dynamics can be observed or new dynamics can be identified.

There is also a historical question that also needs to be addressed. Media and propaganda capabilities have been around in some form for some time. To read the likes of Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan is to understand how the development of media capabilities is one of the essential stories of the rise of western civilization (and western imperialism). The histories of how the British and French Empires, Nazi Germany, and the Cold War powers used media as a supplement to traditional physical force has been told numerous times in numerous ways. What continuities and changes exist in today’s world of digital technology and a US hegemon presiding over a neoliberal assemblage of power from this previous era and what lessons do they teach those willing to see them? Can one see a world where the ability to deliver in a directed and deliberate way the dreams and delights of comsumer culture (or at least the representation of them) a greater from of power than the ability to deliver deadly destruction? Or, if indeed Russia had a direct impact on the 2016 election, the directed delivery is not dreams, but of fears and terrors; not cultivating  a sense of abundance and security, but of threats and hatreds. Such is the nature of the digital world of today that media echo chambers are places where, like illusionist wizards from fantasy novels, demons and ghosts are conjured up to scare and intimidate millions of people into behaviors they might not otherwise engage in. The ability to alter such behavior is the essence of theoretical understandings of power (Robert Dahl defines one element of power as the ability of A to get B to do what B otherwise would not do), and coming to grips with this new form power (and what strategies one can use to deploy it) or important question for any actors seeking their interests in the society of the spectacle.

The hope is that future posts in this space will begin to make inquiries in this direction.

     [1] weev quoted in Gabriella Coleman, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous (London: Verso, 2014), 20.

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