An interesting and troubling phenomenon is taking shape around the world as far-right populism and authoritarian ideologies make significant in-roads into national governments and the global apparatus of power. As these political forces take possession of more and more territory and occupy larger swathes of humanity’s collective mental space, western liberal democracy—once seen as the bearer of a utopian world order once it was globalized to every nook and cranny of the planet—is either in retreat or fighting a difficult holding action. As explored in a recent article in the magazine Foreign Affairs, democracy is under some kind of threat “from Brasilia to Brussels and from Warsaw to Washington.” This trend has left many who study democracy befuddled. Why would national constituencies accept their nations’ comfort with authoritarian government where it already exists or, perhaps more confusingly, demand more authoritarian measures in states where liberalism has a legacy of legitimacy and good governance. The answer may have little to do with the type of regime one lives under and more about other variables that are more difficult to pin down. In this same article quoted above, the authors also observe that “within the next five years, the share of global income held by countries considered “not free”—such as China, Russia and Saudi Arabia—will surpass the share held by Western liberal democracies.” Stated another way, states that are not democracies have discovered that liberalizing the economic aspects of their country can provide them with the blessing of an advanced consumer economy without the messy popular government that often comes with it.
In this, we can recognize the ideal of the integrated spectacle. This idea has been discussed in previous posts, but for the time being we can remind ourselves that the integrated spectacle is the combination of the representations of authoritarian and totalitarian power (associated with the Eastern Bloc nations of the Cold War) with the representations of upper middle-class luxury and consumer abundance (associated with the West during the Cold War). In the integrated spectacle, these heretofore contradictory ideas enter into a surprisingly comfortable accommodation with each other. It means the shopping malls and sitcoms of liberalism are fused with the secret police stations and state propaganda of totalitarianism. It means the shining skyscrapers that are a signature image of western abundance are now found in cities like Abu Dhabi and Astana while the urban squalor associated with the imagery of the underdeveloped world can be found in the banlieus of Paris or the skid rows of Los Angeles. It means the cult-of-personalities that demanded unquestioned loyalty from their subjects that were a key aspect of leadership in closed societies now manifest themselves in a portion of the voters and supporters of western leaders like Donald Trump in the US or Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.
This is the triumph of the integrated spectacle–the victory of the form of spectacle that will take hold going forward and more fully entrench itself as more and more states realize many groups of people have no problem with curtailing political rights in exchange for the opportunities to enjoy consumerist comforts. One does not need the right to vote or be able to bring a grievance to the state in order to keep up with the Kardashians or become a social media celebrity. The ability to give “hot takes” about sports and show business can sit very comfortably alongside severe sanctions for criticizing political leadership of the decisions of the apparatus of rule. Indeed, the ability to engage in genuine protest can be tolerated up to the point that this protest actually shows signs of enacting real reform—then it can mercilessly be shut down without the dominant institutions of rule losing too much face. One can see this in proposals in places like Portland, Oregon where the mayor, at the behest of high end downtown business and restaurants has proposed limitations of public assembly and protest in an effort reduce the visibility of increasingly violent social tensions in the region.
The retreat from democracy and increasing comfort with authoritarian measures is due in part to the very real threat posed by the spectacle of disintegration to the power of the state and the forces of the status quo from a few years ago. Recall that it was in 2010 that then Secretary of State said:
…the internet is a network that magnifies the power and potential of all others. And that’s why we believe it’s critical that its users are assured certain basic freedoms. Freedom of expression is first among them. This freedom is no longer defined solely by whether citizens can go into the town square and criticize their government without fear of retribution. Blogs, emails, social networks, and text messages have opened up new forums for exchanging ideas, and created new targets for censorship.
During these heady days, events like the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, indignado occupations of public squares in Europe, and student strikes in Chile and Canada caused the towering superstructure of global capitalism to shake on its foundation. The force of this undulation came from the power of the still novel digital media technologies coming into widespread usage and the acumen those who wielded them demonstrated in confronting the apparatus of rule. Yet with the publication of classified documents by Wikileaks and the revelations of mass surveillance by Edward Snowden, this ferment of contrarian thinking came to constitute an enemy to powerful states and the larger global system they supervise.
This problem is most profound for the United States. Spreading democracy may have been a key objective of US foreign policy, but this objective would not be pursued at the expense of American power, which puts the US in a bad rhetorical position when these two things contradict each other. Authoritarian states like China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia don’t have to worry about this as they never promised democracy in the first place. Moreover, the emerging tensions between a US government embracing more overt authoritarian policies under Trump and the traditional myths about American moral exceptionalism give many of these illiberal states opportunities to lambaste the United States for its hypocrisy. In the meantime, thanks to some successes in generating economic growth, authoritarian states can offer the same consumerist fantasies (even if they are largely illusory) that were once the exclusive purview of the United States and its western allies. While the US insisted the power of this consumer spectacle was the result of democracy and liberal political principles, the story now taking shape is that liberal politics were less important than liberal economics. One could accommodate the latter without having to indulge the former.
As powerful states and monopolistic media corporations make daily inroads in learning to tame the unruly online world, the spectacle will become more and more integrated. Spasms of subversive information and feral activity will still spring forth from time to time, but these will become less frequent as they are met with harsher repressions by the state and bigger and more elaborate pop culture distractions sponsored by ever more powerful corporations. In the wake of this, a strange new medievalism emerges where the advancement of human knowledge and material well-being goes on hiatus for an extended period of time. But don’t call it a Dark Age—there will be too many bright HD billboards covering the skyscrapers of major buildings combined with the faint glow of millions of personal devices for that.