The Metaverse Will Suck

With his social media company embroiled in scandal, Mark Zuckerberg went on the offensive on October 28th by rebranding his company with the new moniker “Meta” and laying out a futuristic vision of a cybernetic utopia. At the heart of this vision was the notion of the so-called “metaverse”—a virtual reality that takes the various apps of social media and turns them into immersive sensory experiences. By donning a piece of computerized headgear, one leaves the ostensibly limited material objective word of physical objects and people and enters an electronically generated universe of virtual objects and people that is infinitely changeable and far less constrained by the time and space of the “real world.”

     In his video introduction to the metaverse, Zuckerberg hints at some of the ways the metaverse would impact the daily lives of its users. One’s living space in the metaverse (or “homespace”) is an elaborate customized patch of virtual reality where one can generate almost any imaginable living arrangement—luxurious mansion festooned with opulent ornamental furniture, quaint lakeside bungalow with a calm lake visible out the window, rustic cabin with electronically generated wildlife meandering by, urban condominium with a famous skyline in the background, or whatever else would make the user feel at home. In Zuckerberg’s video, the Meta CEO appears to attend a meeting in a room on an orbiting space station—complete with the effects of zero gravity. But the physical environment is not the only thing malleable in the metaverse—the users themselves can assume any form they wish as they maneuver through this electronic realm. We see Zuckerberg going through various costume choices for his avatar ranging from his standard jeans and hoodie to an assortment of exotic costumes. When he arrives at his meeting on the space station, it appears one of his colleagues/friends has assumed the identity of a large robot. As with the landscapes, the only limit on what form the user can take is limited only by that user’s imagination.

     To the casual observer, this has the appearance of a rather novel and visionary form of social engagement. The video goes on to detail how the metaverse could be the new way to organize workplaces and offices, with employees able to remain physically home to do their work but still reporting to their offices in the metaverse and continuing to engage in faux face to face contact with their fellow workers and bosses. Beyond the workplace, Zuckerberg’s metaverse is also primed to open-up a completely new dimension of video gaming experiences with players able to interact with immersive competitive environments with players from around the world. Gaming would be only one of a panoply of recreational opportunities in the metaverse—one might imagine a program where a subject would be able to place themselves in an ultra-realistic historical simulation from the early nineteenth century taking charge of Napoleon’s armies during the Battle Austerlitz then fast-forwarding a century and a half and be walking on the moon for the first time as Neil Armstrong. And since the metaverse can create its own unique and original worlds, one now has the ability to enter into unexplored cyberscapes simulating lost continents on earth or planets and galaxies of the extraterrestrial world. Zuckerberg even suggests the world of science, medicine and academic research could get a boost from the metaverse and its endless applications.

     Lost in all of this utopian fantasizing, however, is the troubling fact that Zuckerberg’s metaverse is still tethered to the realities of the actually existing world. Whatever one wishes to call Zuckerberg’s company, it still epitomizes the business model of most other large Silicon Valley technological pseudo-monopolies and their functional imperatives to maximize the platforms’ interaction with mass audiences from around the world and collect that user data and process it so as to allow Facebook’s (or Meta’s or whomever) clients to generate ads and promotions for the metaverse’s consumers. Stated another way, everything that sucks about current social media platforms will exponentially enhanced and intensified in the metaverse. Indeed, when one considers that the average American spends on average 17 hours a day staring at a screen, then the metaverse represents more of a qualitative change in how people consume social media than a quantitative one. The metaverse is already here—all Zuckerberg is really proposing here is a Metaverse 2.0 (now with surround sound, immersive hologram imaging and more interactive cybernetics). When one realizes that the metaverse is social media on steroids, then one can quickly grasp how the metaverse does not represent a new form of human interaction, but a platform poised to exacerbate all the contradictions and absurdities already present in the society of the spectacle.

     Of course, there are no shortages of dystopian visions when critiquing the idea of the metaverse. The pop culture genres of science fiction, horror and action/adventure have already played around with all the ways an immersive virtual reality would make life less enjoyable and possibly apocalyptic. Within hours of Zuckerberg posting his video introducing his metaverse idea, an array of writers and posters across social media began making the obvious connections to the films like The Matrix, Ready Player One, Lawnmower Man, Disclosure and Brainscan, and many others that played around with the idea of alternative virtual realities wreaking havoc on society in general or in the personal lives of the film’s characters. Television shows like Black Mirror and the holodeck of Star Trek were also frequently referenced or cited. Popular books include the aforementioned Ready Player One as well as Warcross and Snow Crash. In most cases, the plots of these stories highlight the profound problems and potential society-destroying hazards of mass virtual reality alterna-worlds where most people spend most of their time. Yet if Zuckerberg’s metaverse is merely the extension of social media applications in a virtual reality space, then the evils of the metaverse are likely to be far more banal than what one can read or watch in the pop culture treatments of this subject.

     To get a sense of this, try to imagine what a Zuckerberg style metaverse would actually look like based on how current social media works. Imagine one decides to throw a party in the “homespace” in Zuckerberg’s metaverse. Going off some of the things in Zuckerberg’s video, it is likely many of one’s friends will arrive at the party in exotic avatars—robots, pirates, unicorns, and virtual impressions of almost anyone imaginable: famous celebrities, star athletes, politicians, historical figures, fictional characters and just about anything else that can be plausibly anthropomorphized. So far everything seems harmless and even fun. But one must remember that this is a platform designed with the Silicon Valley imperatives of collecting data and using it to generate “ad experiences.” The host will likely have to decide what kind of settings they wish to place for the party they are throwing. For a “premium fee,” the invitees can enter without giving up their data (through the answering of questions or filling out marketing surveys), but if the host does not want to pay the fee or cannot afford it, then anyone who wants to attend will have to jump through any number of data-sucking interrogatory hoops to attend. Already one can see how this would limit or restrict certain aspects of the metaverse and how one might have to pay some kind of subscription fee for a “premium experience” that allows one to use the platform beyond its basic functions.

     Like the “influencers” on Instagram or the “blue checks” on Twitter, the metaverse will be a tiered society of those who are at the center of the metaverse’s social gravity and whose activities in the metaverse may become monetized if they attract enough metaverse “followers” (who will literally follow them around in the virtual spaces of the metaverse like a sycophantic electronic mob), Mobs—both in the real world and in the virtual world—might also be common when rare items or access to rare worlds become available and their access is tied to some activity in the material world. One might recall a few years ago the large crowds of Pokemon Go players moving in packs around major cities when reports of a rare Pokemon became available at a certain location. Something similar is likely to happen as business tie sales and promotions to their physical store space in the real world to a special limited access virtual space. One might imagine shoppers being able to find 50% off coupons in this limited virtual space (where they must, again, provide personal data to access) that could only be redeemed at a particular store in the physical world. Of course, even this might be too much of a burden for most metaverse users, who will likely be content to shop in the virtual stores these retailers will be compelled to create.

     Returning to the party, however, the host might have to deal with another problem—uninvited guests. Like YouTube or Facebook suggestions, the metaverse will likely track who is attending the party and, based on the demographic and consumption data of the attendees, the metaverse may generate customized messages and AI “guests” to interact with the “real” guests. Imagine the metadata of the host and attendees determines that there a likely a lot of beer drinkers in the crowd. The virtual background of the walls will suddenly become festooned with the logos and slogans of beer companies who have paid to advertise in the private spaces of the metaverse in the same way Google can deliver tailored e-mail messages to a user’s private inbox. Beyond logos in the background, a particular beer company’s jingle will start playing in the background at random moments. Before long a group of tall supermodels arrive at the party wearing suggestive outfits bearing the beer company’s logo. Governed by an artificial intelligence, these guests who are complete computer-generated holographic simulations begin to engage with some of the guests at the party—some of whom may not realize they are computer holograms. Like in real world bars where promotional models will mingle with the crowd and give out free samples of a particular product, these virtual models will initiate conversations in a way that leads the small talk to mentioning the name of the product the virtual model is promoting and when a pre-determined message has been given in the course of the conversation, the virtual model walks away and engages with another guests. Alternatively, based on the interaction, the virtual model may begin a new thread of conversation to promote a different product. With advanced enough technology, a “real” guest could talk to AI holograms the entire evening without actually interacting with a fellow flesh-and-blood person. Like the YouTube suggestion bar feeding an endless number of videos to a user who winds up wasting hours watching online videos, a denizen of the metaverse may engage in hours of pseudo-conversations with a computer-generated figure who is always ready to extend the conversation indefinitely based on the interests of the individual. Indeed, one could remove all the real-world guests and the party could still go on. Instead of suggested videos on YouTube, the metaverse provides a room full of suggested avatars to interact with endlessly. 

     Further thought reveals even more nefarious aspects of this phenomenon. Like the phenomenon of social media creating hermetically-sealed information bubbles allowing an individual to curate their own customized worldview (that may bear little to no resemblance with the so-called “real world”), the metaverse turns the metaphor into a virtual reality. An individual entering their homespace is immediately greeted by computer-generated holograms of content-creators the user regularly indulges. A conservative Trump-supporter is met with computer avatars of famous Trump-supporting television and radio personalities like Ben Shapiro or Tucker Carlson eager to convey their latest conspiracy theories and dispense their analysis of everything that the “liberals” are doing to destroy America. Liberal supporters of Joe Biden encounter a similar virtual reality of computer-generated avatars representing the opinion of anti-Trump “Resistance.” Any real-world person who enters this space will be subject to these same interactions whether wanted or not. Opting out of these endless solicitations will be nearly impossible save for the now familiar paying of a hefty fee.       

     Because social media has burrowed so far into people’s lives, there is almost no real-world experience that does not involve these platforms. This being the case, the metaverse will also have access to people’s most intimate moments. Imagine someone’s partner has broken up with them and are deeply heartbroken as a result. In the despair-induced madness of the immediate aftermath of the break-up, they retreat to the metaverse is a desperate effort to address the countless questions that have gripped your conscious mind—When did everything go wrong? What did they do to push them away? Was their lover someone else? In the immersive world of the metaverse, one can physically enter life-sized projections of old photos and videos and analyze them like a detective looking for some obscure clue that would provide the explanation for why the person left. This person could spend hours, if not days literally walking through these images both reliving the happier times and scouring for information that would provide their grieving mind some fragment of hope the relationship can be recovered. Worse, one can still enter the accessible parts of their former partner’s metaverse crawling through every pixel of every new image or video they have posted. Content detailing a trip to the beach is scoured for any sign the ex went on vacation with someone else. A photo showing the ex with another person is rotated in all three dimensions in the search for a detail that might reveal the new face as someone who is more than friends. As one confides in their friends about their feelings and begin the process of recovery, the metaverse is collecting all those messages and video calls to friends and web searches for “how to get over a broken heart” they have entered into a web browser in a moment of relapse. Before long, the metaverse starts generating new messages, avatars and experiences to take advantage of the bereaved vulnerable state. Attractive avatars generated by dating websites appear inviting them to open an account and look for someone who resembles the attractive avatar. Media companies place ads for dating coach services throughout the “homespace.” Even explicit sex sites alerted to their new single status will start sending them immersive pitches for them to purchase their services. Indeed, a highly advanced metaverse may be able to alter sexual experiences themselves making people question the need for intimate relationships in the first place.    

     Despite this, however, when one looks over the full possibilities of the metaverse, the overall impression is not one of a post-apocalyptic hell world where humans spend most of their time at the expense of their “real-world” lives, but an extension of the already problematic world of social media that already exists replete with its aggressive data collection, information and image manipulation and restriction, invasive advertising techniques and countless other issues. The metaverse will obviously have some useful applications especially in the world of arts, recreation and leisure. But to see it as either utopia or dystopia is to confuse the most optimistic (or pessimistic) visions of the technology with how the technology will be commercially and socially viable. The answer to this question has already been answered by the impacts of social media on the lives of its users which tends be mixed at best. At its worse, social media makes a generally sucky world suck even more, and the most likely impact of the metaverse, despite its impressive technological capabilities, will be that it will make the world suck still more than before.    

The Post-Consumer Society

From the hoarding of toilet paper to attacks on service workers, the pandemic has brought out an endless number of examples of how civil society in the twenty-first century may not be quite as “civilized” as previously thought. A casual scroll through any newsfeed reveals a wide selection of articles that both observe this phenomenon as well as seek to dissect it, usually by interviewing a psychologist, psychiatrist, or some other mental health professional.[1] The reasons for this “age of anger” are often attributed to a combination of pandemic restrictions, lack of mental health infrastructure and social media stimulation among other things. However, what if something more profound was taking place? What if there is a difficult-to-observe transformation taking place in the forces and structures that generate the current assemblage of power and its ability to regiment the lives of a large portion of the world’s population?

World order as it is currently constituted has been given many names, often depending on the academic or intellectual discipline of the observer. The term “liberal international order” is a common reference as is the term “neoliberalism” despite the lack of a widely shared consensus on what the latter term means. Political economists and some political scientists have used terms like “post-Fordism,” “late-stage capitalism,” “Washington Consensus,” “consumer society” and “globalization.” Those who come from a background of international politics may use terms “American hegemony” or Pax Americana. Whatever its label, the assemblage of structures and forces that make the world go around are not only under substantial strain, but also may be coming undone.

There are many academic metrics to support this hypothesis,[2] but the great “angering” of the population in the developed world may itself be the best evidence of the trends. More importantly, the countless examples of aggressive and anti-social behavior may also be read as the population’s inarticulate acknowledgement that certain privileges and benefits are slowly coming to an end. The phenomenon on the Internet known as the “Karen” speaks to this. “Karen” is the stereotype ascribed to at least a moderately wealthy middle class individual (usually a woman, though the term “Kevin” or “Kyle” is sometimes used for a male) who is in the habit of making a very boisterous and very public display of irritation and resentment due to unsatisfactory levels of service or low performance levels of a product or member of a service staff. The common demand/threat of the “Karen” is to “speak with the manager” on the assumption that the problem with the poor service or faulty product will be fixed once someone with a modicum of authority recognizes that a valuable customer is making a grievance.[3]

While the use of this term has its problematic elements,[4] the behavior that the meme describes hints at the unraveling of a number of assumptions among many who live in the developed world have taken for granted and are unwilling to let go. To get at this, perhaps it is useful to bring down one of the terms mentioned to describe the current (or passing) world order—consumer society. One of the hallmarks of the prevailing assemblage of power in the world was the creation of a large popular base, located mostly in the western world, of consumers spenders whose primary responsibility in the world economy was to purchase the vast output of the world’s capitalist economy. In the earlier days of this social phenomenon, writers like Thorstein Veblen noted an emerging leisure class practicing “conspicuous consumption” and John Kenneth Galbraith described the parameters of an “affluent society.” Guy Debord, in his own unique way, incorporated a mass media component to this trend, coining the term “the society of the spectacle” to describe how media platforms created a divine-like aura around mass produced consumer goods. Globalization took this package of consumerist ideas and made them the software for re-wiring the global economy, ensuring that all nations of the world be brought into the process of consumer production and that an expanded population be brought in to perform the consumer role (even if that number is still relatively small). In perhaps its most utopian expression, the globalization guru Thomas Friedman suggested a “golden arches peace hypothesis” existed where countries that open themselves up to the various elements of the consumer economy (as represented by the opening up of McDonald’s franchises in their country) did not go to war with each—thus implying world peace was possible once every nation of the world opened its own McDonald’s.[5]

Along with the material manifestations of the consumer culture went many fundamental ideas that provided an ethic for navigation. One of the most common of these was the notion of “the customer is always right.” It the abstract, such an idea is preposterous—people who use goods and services have only vague notions of what they want and very often will forget the details of an order between the time they made it and the time it is fulfilled. But the point behind the maxim is that a successful and profitable business operating in the consumer society must do everything they can to satisfy their client and to never introduce any negative emotions or displeasurable elements into their consumer transactions. The role of the consumer was so important in this schema that they became an agent completely free of any responsibility or morality within the context of the specific transaction. So long as they could pay for the service or buy the product, the expectation of some social virtue or moral reciprocity was completely waived.

This idea rubbed up against other ideas often and tensions and contradictions were never hard to observe. The seller of cars to needed to make sales over determining if the car (and the various add-ons thrown in) were necessary for the customer’s needs. The discount airline needed to cram as many bodies on board a jet rather than creating a cabin that was comfortable to sit in for several hours. Even here, though, consumer culture found ways to offer “premium services” at higher prices for those who did not want to face these contradictions.

For decades this prevailing ideology instilled in millions of consumers around the world an expectation that when it came to the items they bought and services they used, few things beyond the limits of time and space should get in the way of their satisfaction. If something did go wrong, it was the responsibility of the consumer to “speak with the manager” in order to let them know of the flaw in their operation and insist they correct the problem lest the patron not return in the future. And it was the responsibility of the manager or owner to take the complaint in good faith and do whatever was necessary to correct the shortcoming whether it existed in reality or not. The internet and social media hypercharged these activities. Sites like Yelp became a one-stop forum for all manner of consumer complaints (and occasional compliments). Business and stores that accrued even a small number of bad reviews could see a decline in their business and income. Operators of business from bed and breakfasts to quick serve oil change garages implored their customers to pay them high compliments on internet review sites and “like” them on Facebook. Conversely, highly empowered consumers could band together and sink a business with a wave of bad faith complaints because one member of their party had an experience that did not meet their expectations, no matter how unrealistic or disingenuous those expectations were. The experience of poorly delivered service could also be publicly condemned on platforms like Twitter, where hashtags built around a company or business’s name could bring the story of one unsatisfied customer to millions of people.

Analysts of varying stripes have critiqued the moral and philosophical flaws of this consumer oriented social mileau. However, what was never often questioned until very recently was the material sustainability of such a framework. What would be the consequences if the ability to produce the consumer abundance were to be disrupted or collapse? The efficiency of the operation reached such a high level by the early twenty-first century that such scenarios were unthinkable. Even events like September 11th didn’t seem to be much of a problem for the day-to-day consumer who didn’t live in one of the areas attacked. Indeed, George W. Bush himself admonished the consumer public to go out and do even more shopping in the wake of the attacks as a means to bring back “normality” and to stimulate the American (and global) economy that was decelerating a bit after the attacks. The effects of more homegrown tragedies, like mass shootings and natural disasters are also soothed with the tonic of consumer spending and mass media binging. [6] Such admonishments worked due to the fact that no matter how unpredictable one’s life or how dysfunctional the performance of core institutions, the system that delivered consumer bliss would never fail. The problem now, of course, is that the system is now failing and the ability of consumer culture to paper over the contradictions of the contemporary global assemblage of power is waning rapidly. A consumer society of cheap goods and media spectacle is giving way to a “post-consumer” society where shopping and media consumption can no longer provide its anesthesia-like effects. And, like the surgical patient experiencing the unpleasant symptoms of coming off anesthesia after an operation, many of the outbursts of bad behavior are symptoms of having to endure the pain of life without the comforts of the past. Floods and rising ocean levels will destroy favorite beaches and destroy oceanfront vacation property. Droughts and water shortages will shorten ski seasons and prevent the filling of back yard pools. Pandemics will require lockdowns and the closing of the large portions of the economy. Supply chains will be disrupted from any number of new problems not contemplated in decades past.

The age of anger amid the current pandemic may only be the first tantrum in an endless cycle of whining and whinging that will not subside until the culture of “the customer is always right” comes to an end.     


     [1] For example,  https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/08/a-closer-look-at-americas-pandemic-fueled-anger/

     [2] See Donald Sassoon, Morbid Symptoms: An Anatomy of a World in Crisis (London, Verso: 2021). 

     [3] An informal history of the “Karen” meme is here:  https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/karen

     [4] See  https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2020/08/karen-meme-coronavirus/615355/

     [5] Thomas Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree (New York, MacMillan: 2012), 255.

     [6] https://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/15/business/consumer-spending-as-an-american-virtue.html

r/wallstreetbets as a Case Study in Détournement

The last week of January saw a captivating intrigue unfold online and on Wall Street as countless anonymous stock and securities traders engineered a spike in the price of several low-valued stocks—the most notable of which was the video game retailer GameStop (GME)—that forced many professional and well-compensated hedge fund managers to sustain heavy losses in their firm’s capitalization and clout. Media outlets that specialize in financial reporting as well as the more standard news operations kicked around many different ways of conceptualizing the populist maneuver. One approach was to invoke “tantalizing metaphorical comparisons to an even bigger story, the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol by supporters of now-former President Donald Trump.”[1] The legions of day-traders were akin to the unruly mob that stormed the US Capitol and, like the rioters, their stupidity and anarchism would do major damage to the US financial markets. This narrative did not prove too popular, however.[2] A more popular reference was to the Occupy Wall Street protests from ten years ago.[3] The virtue of this comparison was that the target of both the protestors of OWS and the speculators of WSB was the same—the corrupt and destructive nature of global financial capitalism in the twenty-first century.

But there may be a still better comparison. It should be recalled that before Occupy Wall Street took off, the online “hacktivist group” Anonymous was already wreaking havoc around the world using the tools of the still developing digital universe. Beginning with their first major operation against the Church of Scientology in 2008 and extending through their support of protestors in the Middle East during the Arab Spring, Anonymous was the original “global cyber-insurgency” that heralded the arrival of a populist but cryptic rebellion against the dominant institutions of the still prevailing neoliberal assemblage of power.[4] Deploying the newly minted digital communications platforms and applications whose power was still poorly understood, Anonymous was able to successfully wage a campaign of virtual pranks and cybernetic sit-ins that had the most potent security agencies of the most powerful states on the back foot for the first years of the 2010s. Only the betrayal of Anonymous’ most effective cells by informants to law enforcement along with the strategic turn made by agencies like the FBI and NSA toward data surveillance and harvesting (as revealed by Edward Snowden in 2013) did the power and effectiveness of Anonymous begin to fade.

The success of Anonymous stemmed in large part from their early adoption and familiarization with the social and political potential of digital media platforms. 4chan and Internet Relay Chat were lightly-treaded corners of the Internet where the young introverts of society could find each other and bond through the making and sharing of outrageous pictures and memes. This was the soil out of which a more activist community of “electronic Jacobins” emerged that managed to convert online discussion and speculation into real-world action resulting in concrete change. Their comfort and familiarity with the tools and capabilities with digital meant they were always one step ahead of the forces of the status quo who sought to disrupt them. A particularly vivid example of this took place when a private cybersecurity firm, HBGary, which billed itself as a “sharper, meaner, and leaner replacement for law enforcement and intelligence agencies” and claimed to have infiltrated the group, saw Anonymous breech its computer networks, download its private e-mails, erase its private files, and had the memory of the iPad and iPhone of the firm’s president, Aaron Barr, deleted.[5]

This kind of activity where the tools, infrastructure and institutions erected by the status quo to control the masses being deployed against these same masters was dubbed détournement by Guy Debord and other situationists in the 1960s. As explained by Debord in The Society of the Spectacle, détournement is an “insurrectional style” that “reradicalizes previous critical conclusions that have been petrified into respectable truths and this transformed into lies.”[6] Though speaking mostly in terms of linguistics and art, Debord nevertheless argued détournement was “a violent subversion that disrupts and overthrows every existing order.”[7] Debord’s fellow situationist, Raoul Vaneigem goes further still and describes détournement in the following way:

The spontaneous acts we see everywhere forming (in the 1960s) against power and its spectacle must be warned of all the obstacles in their path and must find a tactic taking into account the strength of the enemy and its means of cooptation. This tactic, which we are going to popularize, is détournement.[8]

Détournement is an action that takes the tools of legitimacy that make the current assemblage of power palatable and hijacks them in order to demonstrate the contingency of the status quo. Texts like novels and films and other works of art that are presented as having a firm and fixed meaning are subverted by reformulating them in a way that they communicate the opposite of their original intention. Images and words that put forth an air of the sacred in items like advertisements or government communiques are profaned through unauthorized alteration. 

Debord practiced détournement most famously through some of his filmmaking, where he would take already existing films and cut and spice them together so that the new film would convey a completely different message then the originals.[9] Veneigem’s notion of détournement, however envisions more than mere acts of plagiarism and vandalism but a more systemic undermining of the power’s of dominant institutions to sustain their power and legitimacy.

In the case of Anonymous, their détournement featured the taking of established digital media platforms and programs and redirecting them to a completely different and subversive purpose. Some examples of this were more prankish and absurd in nature, but in the case of the HBGary hack, Anonymous demonstrated in a vivid way how the institutions and agents that have created and benefited from the current assemblage of power are the opposite of what they appear—mostly symbolic performances and appearances of power, authority and competence that dissolve when the veneer of their legitimacy is penetrated.

And this is perhaps the best way to understand the drama with r/wallstreetbets. The day traders on this subreddit, many of whom had vivid memories of personal and family hardship due to the financial collapse in 2008[10] identified a vulnerability in the prevailing assemblage of power and sought to exploit it using the same tools that hedge fund managers and their technocratic fixers use to profit off the misfortune of others. Recognizing that established traders working for elite wealth management firms had overplayed their hand in betting on the decline of a handful of stocks, this subversive herd quickly bought up the stock and forced the short-sellers to answer collateral calls and purchase new shares at a price that was several hundred percentage points higher than where it started. The system of financial manipulation that had wreaked such havoc on the global economy and ruined the livelihoods of millions of people was hijacked and turned against its masters in a grand act of subversion. The spectacle of financial capitalism—a spectacle that has become the primary source of wealth generation in the world today—was revealed to be a mixture of algorithms and sleights of hand. The value of assets was arbitrary and contingent and not rooted in any way in any kind of objective determination of value in an ostensibly free market.

When the spectacle is revealed for what it really is—a sophisticated series of performances and facades—the response by those with the most to lose is to deploy hard power and harsh discipline. These measures are not the preferred way to maintain order, but they are nevertheless deployed with vigor when they are necessary. One need only look at the enormous expenditure to put down the social unrest that permeated US cities over the summer after the killing of George Floyd. In the case of r/wallstreetbets, the play of physical power wasn’t so much the spectacle of violence but the spectacle of silence–the unannounced locking down of countless trading accounts on digital apps like Robinhood that many of the insurgent traders used. In taking this bold step, powerful financial interests were not merely protecting their own capital, but demonstrating to the world that when necessary, the diffuse spectacle can be replaced with the concentrated spectacle—i.e. the deliberate and visceral display of totalitarian power.[11] In this case, one of the key myths of western capitalism—the free market—was unceremoniously suspended as thousands of individuals were unable to buy more stock or securities related to the listings in question. The only thing the insurgent traders could do was sell it because that is what the prevailing financial interests needed to happen to maintain their power.[12]    

And this is the danger of a successful détournement. Debord and Vaneigem believed acts of detournement would subvert conventional thinking in a way that would open-up new ways of being and “forms of life.” These experiments in alternative living would allow for the construction of counter-hegemonic orders and slowly push out the prevailing ruling institutions when they were no longer legitimate or necessary. Today, however, this loss of legitimacy has already taken place, yet the new alternatives have yet to fully form. Antonio Gramsci described this situation in the following way: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear;” though it often gets translated into the more sensationalist “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.”[13] Successful acts of detournement seem to reveal these monsters for what they are—the rampaging acts of the dominant assemblages of power stomping on those who have the audacity to point out the illusory legitimacy of those that brought them to life. Bereft of their power to entice and seduce, all that is left is to coerce and crush. 


     [1]   https://news.yahoo.com/column-no-gamestop-frenzy-not-202200969.html

     [2]   https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2021/01/leon-cooperman-gamestop-rant

     [3]   https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/technology/how-occupy-wall-street-explains-the-gamestop-fiasco/ar-BB1douy8?li=BBnbcA1

     [4]  Good book-length studies and recounting of Anonymous actions include Parmy Olson, We Are Anonymous: Inside the Hacker World of LulzSec, Anonymous, and the Global Cyberinsurgency (New York: Little Brown and Company, 2012) and Gabriella Coleman, Hacker Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous (London: Verso, 2014). 

     [5] See Coleman, 215.

     [6] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2014), 109-110. 

     [7] Ibid., 111. 

     [8] Raoul Vaneigem, “Basic Banalities,” in Ken Kabb, ed. The Situationist International Anthology (Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006), 162.

     [9]  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mjF6I6SYjgA

[10] https://www.zerohedge.com/personal-finance/you-dad-redditor-shares-heartbreaking-reason-destroying-short-sellers-wsb-raids

[11] For more on diffuse and concentrated spectacles, see Debord, 26-27.

[12] https://www.vice.com/en/article/m7ak7y/robinhood-stops-users-from-trading-gamestop-stocks-other-reddit-yolo-picks

     [13] For the first translation see Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 275-276. For the second translation, see  Slavoj Žižek, “Living in a Time of Monsters,” Counterpoints 422 (2012), 32-44.

The MAGA Putsch

The attempted putsch at the US Capitol in Washington DC on January 6th is remarkable for several reasons—the insurrectionary fuse being lit by the President himself in his speech to the crowd in the Ellipse, the collapse (and partial collusion) of the security forces assigned to protect the Capitol, the stark images of costumed protestors in the iconic congressional chambers of the House and Senate, and the rather nonchalant way everything returned to some semblance of normal mere hours after the last partisan had been flushed from the building despite the loss of life and the reality that for a few hours the nerve center of a global empire did not have a functioning government. Empires do not fall very often so there are not many scripts that one can reference in order to verify whether what one saw on this winter day will be an historical marker akin to the Goths sacking Rome or the Ottomans taking Constantinople or a mere health scare of a realm that still had plenty of time left on its imperial clock. Yet the putsch was unique in that it was our first glimpse of what major political turmoil will look like in a world that is now organized under the logic of spectacle. Understanding what this means allows one to perhaps make sense of so many of the absurdities that transpired.

Perhaps the first thing to point out is that while deep cultural and ideological differences exist in the United States, the attempted putsch does not necessarily represent a grave threat to the underlying assemblages of American power. To paraphrase a famous political thinker, the state is best seen as a steering committee of the ruling class and the chaos in the Capitol was a squabble about which ideological faction should perform that role for ruling elites in the US. While many who breached the gates and doors of the Capitol were clearly seeking to physically harm lawmakers, their intent in this was not to open up a space for the creation of a completely new form of governing institutions run by a subaltern political class, but to ensure the then currently sitting President did not have to step down in a few weeks’ time. Moreover, regardless of the how the putsch turned out, it is unlikely the major financial or commercial firms would not have been deeply impacted by the outcome. The marauders were not demanding turning over major industries to the workers nor were they even demanding major policy initiatives like COVID relief or universal healthcare. Simultaneous raids on major banks and financial institutions, corporate headquarters (including those of the much-reviled tech companies), or other hubs of US power were absent. Indeed, the putsch is most remarkable for the absence of any kind of clear ideological worldview—past authoritarian leaders of both the reactionary and radical variety went to great lengths to clearly spell out their agendas and political goals in lengthy written tracts. The most consistent and coherent political objectives coming from the erratic statements in the hectic moments from the Capitol was the need to overturn the election so that Trump could remain in office. Why Trump had to remain in office was never clearly expressed (unless the now immortal phrase “make America great again” emblazoned on the numerous red hats being worn answered the question sufficiently).

As Guy Debord first posited in the 1960s, (and as this space has explored in previous posts) social life in the western world has been absorbed into a vast spectacle that mediates all interpersonal relationships. One of the effects of this spectacle is to conceal and hide the levers of power and direct discontent with present world order into manageable and non-threatening acts of appearance and performance. For reference, recall Debord’s key line from Thesis 17 of The Society of the Spectacle: “The present stage, in which social life has become completely occupied by the accumulated productions of the economy, is bringing about a general shift from having to appearing—all “having” must now derive its immediate prestige and its ultimate purpose from appearances.” We can see this play in many ways during the ransacking of the Capitol. The aesthetics of the insurgents had a certain “military burlesque” quality to it—lots of wearing of tactical gear and brandishing of Trump or “Thin Blue Line” flags with a few fully costumed partisans wearing bulls horns or deer antlers in an attempt to pass off as primitive warriors. The vast majority of participants showed up with the expectation of having their pictures taken and of generating content for a galaxy of personalized social media and digital video accounts—a strange tactical calculation to make if one’s intention is to violently overthrow an (allegedly) heavily fortified building with substantial surveillance in place. Indeed, when the doors were breached and the building’s interiors were taken, the majority of participants began taking photos of themselves and posing in front of the Capitol’s famous interior features as if they were a band of particularly rowdy tourists.[1] This is not to suggest, of course, that the putsch “did not take place” or was some kind of elaborate simulacra—the blood that was spilled on this day and some of the emerging reports of behind the scenes coordination disprove this. Yet when it was all said and done, the putsch ended not with failure in gaining access to the key building (Hitler’s Munich Nazis never made it inside any government buildings before his Beer Hall Putsch was squelched), but with a kind of collective shrug and a nonchalant exit from the Capitol. There does not appear to be any concerted effort to hold the Capitol for an extended period of time or bargain for some kind of outcome. Many hardliners did show more nefarious intentions (such as hostage taking) and had to be forced out by reinforced police and National Guard, but it seems once everyone else got their selfies, it was time in the words of one exiting insurgent, “to go get a beer.”[2] Mere hours later, the Congress certified the election of Joe Biden—the one thing that seemed to be motivating the putsch in the first place.

When the performance of revolt had been sufficiently rendered, it was time to return to the various lives of career and consumption that constituted daily life for most of the participants. That the countless photos and minutes of livestream of their lawbreaking could be used as evidence against them in future prosecutions seems not to have been of a grave concern. The insurgents were so deeply embedded in the spectacle’s fragmented nature that they seemed unable to believe acts captured on cell phone cameras posted on the internet would have impacts in the non-digital world. Yet this speaks to the heart of the motivation of the putsch in the first place—the belief that an election that by all empirical accounts was free and secure was still somehow stolen and fraudulent.

In this one sees how the dialectical nature of the spectacle is at its most powerful. The spectacle generates what appears to be intractable conflict between rival factions within a given space. Yet this conflict never really threatens the underlying assemblages of power. In the case of the 2020 election, Trump and his supporters claim electoral fraud and rigged ballots while those opposed to Trump challenge his claims and suggest the election was on the level. The spectating masses become wrapped up in the drama as mere observers or as limited participants through comment sections on digital platforms. The various steps of the drama script themselves as various moments—lawsuits are filed, rallies are held, speeches given and all of it commented on sports talk radio style on various news platforms. For many, the dissemination of elaborate conspiracy theories like Qanon provide almost narcotic like experiences through the exploration of some of the dark peripheries of the Internet looking for clues and evidence of a completely alternate reality. Through it all, the institutions that benefit from this strife—cable news outlets, social media platforms, broadcast media platforms and the enormous corporate entities and banks that support their operations—showcase it all and profit from the largesse that is generated. Meanwhile, the core systemic contradictions of society—spiking death rates from COVID, health infrastructure in tatters, increasing numbers of people suffering from food insecurity, a collapsing small business economy, millions kicked out of their housing, etc. are ignored. It would seem that the current COVID infections and fatality rates—rates that rival some of the worst casualty totals from history’s worst wars would be of pressing concern to the political classes but such is the power of the spectacle and its ability to render “the true as a moment of the false.”[3]

Nevertheless, the various narratives as well as their internecine intensity serve the same grand spectacle. Debord observed this back in the 1960s during the periods of unrest that happened in his own time. Throughout The Society of the Spectacle, Debord discusses how the spectacle takes many and often contradictory forms. Thesis 57 is particularly instructive: “The bureaucratic regimes in power in certain industrialized countries have their own particular type of spectacle, but it is an integral part of the total spectacle, serving as its pseudo-opposition and actual support.”[4] Debord writes this in the context of the Cold War and the opposition of some countries to western hegemony. His point is that while there may be an ostensible political tension between countries like the Soviet Union and the United States, the conflict ultimately serves to sustain a larger global assemblage of power. No country is completely outside of the spectacle. Domestically, spectacles may also appear to compete with each other for dominance. Debord writes in Thesis 65, “The automobile spectacle, for example, strives for a perfect traffic flow entailing the destruction of old urban districts, while the city spectacle needs to preserve those districts as tourist attractions.”[5] In the aftermath of the Watts riots in 1965, Debord wrote, “American blacks have their own spectacle, complete with its press, magazines and coloured (sic) film stars and, if blacks realize this, if they spew out this spectacle as phoney, as an expression of their humiliation, it is because they see it to be a minority phenomenon-nothing but an appendage of the spectacle in general”[6] The overall point Debord makes in these examples is that specific spectacles may come and go, but each of them are a tentacles of the total spectacle whose function is to legitimize the prevailing institutions of socio-economic power and concealing their contradictions.  

Thus one can have a mob of partisans drunk on the stories and images and conspiracy theories proliferated on various media sites storm the Capitol building of the world’s de facto imperial power without it necessarily constituting a genuine threat to the position of that empire in the world and those who manage it. The traditional values of American democracy as expressed in the US Constitution may be a grave risk, but this is not the same thing. As China shows, the structures of global capitalism that the spectacle conceals can exist and thrive in a variety of political frameworks and the end of American democratic institutions would not mean the end of the global financial and commercial assemblage of power. Trump himself loved to boast how the stock market was always going up during his presidency and when the DOW, S&P 500 and NASDAQ all closed on January 6th, they were up anywhere between .5% and 1%.[7]

One other point seems relevant here to illuminate the place of the spectacle in all this. Social media was full of expressions of disbelief and discombobulation over the how so many people could be so riled up to commit acts of violence and sedition over fraudulent claims of electoral fraud? The situationist response to this would probably be to pose a similar question—what media-fueled fraudulent narratives do you believe in? Do you believe in the myth of the American Dream and do you spend your daily life pursuing it? Do you seek to acquire the material goods and lifestyle practices you see portrayed and celebrated via the various media platforms you consume? Do you believe that you are the next Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos and with enough grit and pluck you will reach the same heights of success? If the answer is yes, then you, Debord would argu,e are just as wrapped up in the spectacle as those who stormed the Capitol. This is not to suggest that the insurgents were somehow justified in their attack or some kind of equivalency exists—one still exercises agency and the responsibility to act in a law-abiding and moral upright way remains the obligation of each individual. But when one realizes that everyday the spectacle churns out all sort of false narratives and erroneous facts—from the claims of advertisements to the “stories” of social media “influencers” to the promises of politicians, then it should not be that surprising that a particularly potent spectacular narrative captured the minds of a segment of the American population and moved them to violence.

In this we can hear the words of Howard Beale from the iconoclastic 1974 film Network echoing the following condemnation and recommendation:

We deal in illusions, man! None of it is true! But you people sit there, day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds… We’re all you know. You’re beginning to believe the illusions we’re spinning here. You’re beginning to think that the tube is reality, and that your own lives are unreal. You do whatever the tube tells you! You dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube, you even think like the tube! This is mass madness, you maniacs! In God’s name, you people are the real thing! WE are the illusion! So turn off your television sets. Turn them off now. Turn them off right now. Turn them off and leave them off! [8]


[1] https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/elaminabdelmahmoud/trump-mob-social-media-insurrection

[2] https://twitter.com/RzstProgramming/status/1347016381703847942

[3] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, (Detroit: Black and Red, 1970), 10.

[4] Ibid., 32.  

 [5] Ibid., 36.

 [6] Ibid, “The Spectacular Commodity Economy,” in A Sick Planet (London: Seagull, 2008), 23.

  [7]  https://www.nasdaq.com/articles/stock-market-news-for-jan-6-2021-2021-01-06#:~:text=The%20Dow%20Jones%20Industrial%20Average,biggest%20gainers%20on%20the%20index.

  [8]   https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0074958/characters/nm0002075

The Crisis of the Spectacle After Trump

With the election of Joe Biden to the office of President of the United States, the reign of the world’s most spectacular head of state comes to an end. The legacy of the Trump term will likely be debated for years to come with little prospect for any immediate consensus on what this long strange trip of a presidency means in the greater historical context of the current era (and this of course, looks past the fact that Trump could regain the White House in 2024 as part of a “comeback special” that would fit very well within the television-oriented mindset Trump operates.[1])

Within the society of the spectacle, however, a greater crisis looms. Whatever one thought of Trump’s manners, leadership style or policies, his place at the center of the world’s political universe was a boon to the various media outlets that covered, commented or criticized the comings and goings of the 45th President. Traditional cable news channels like Fox News and Fox Business Channel became a magic mirror for Trump to stand in front of and be paid flattering comments from the networks’ sycophantic reporters. Even more profoundly, the upstart One American News Network, which came into existence a few years before Trump’s election, flailed in obscurity until it re-oriented itself as the unofficial mouthpiece of the Trump administration.[2] Meanwhile, several broadcast and print platforms took to performing a critical role in the face of what was seen by traditional elites as a quasi-authoritarian Trump government and heavily scrutinized Trump’s policies (such that they existed) and disparaged his surly demeanor. The most noteworthy examples of this included the evening programs of Chris Hayes, Rachael Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC, Anderson Cooper and Don Lemmon on CNN and the written print columns of Jonathan Chait and Paul Krugman in the New York Times (among countless others). And these represent just the mass media outlets—the online blogs, websites, podcasts and social media accounts that reveled in or reviled all things Trump are too numerous to count.  

The result of this fawning programming and critical counter-programming was enormous profits for the various media companies involved. While Fox News had long generated a small windfall of revenue as the informational safe space for ideological opponents of Obama, cable news outlets like CNN and MSNBC as well as the regular news operations of NBC, ABC and CBS and news and opinion web and social media sites enjoyed a flood of new viewers and subscribers who liked the daily castigations of all things Trump. Especially when the Russiagate scandal broke, viewers eager to see Trump get his comeuppance for his alleged clandestine ties to Vladimir Putin (or see these allegations explained away by Trump-friendly personalities) swelled the ratings for news media operations that were used to having audiences smaller than those that watched coverage of soccer matches in foreign countries. In a comment that has gained a certain amount of infamy at this point, Les Moonves, who was president of CBS network in 2016, said regarding Trump’s antics in the presidential primary race, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”[3] Few statements capture the idea Debord was talking about when he said in thesis 34 of The Society of the Spectacle that the spectacle is “capital accumulated to the point that it becomes images.”[4]

But now Trump is gone and the question now is what will the spectacle offer in his place that sustains the new expectations of the contemporary media political economy? The specialty of the spectacle, as Debrod describes it, “is the concrete manufacture of alienation. (…) The “growth” generated by the economy developing for its own sake can be nothing other than a growth in the very alienation that was its origin.”[5] What Debord is suggesting here is that economic growth requires the creation of an ever greater gap between the material reality of the present-day assemblage of power and the lived experience of that reality by the general masses. For example, a complicated discussion of the material reality of wealth disparity and who is responsible for the creation such disparities is rarely provided among the spectacle’s leading institutions in favor of sweeter and more digestible treats of scandal and salaciousness. Even before Trump’s arrival on the scene of presidential politics, the coverage of political campaigns assumed a reality-show like structure that emphasized sports-talk style analysis of each candidates “electability” and the meticulous delving into every action and statement by the candidates in the hopes of unearthing a bouillon cube of controversy that could be made into a full soup of scandal. The complexities of the world and the forces that vie for control within it rarely receive illumination. The result, as Debord argues, is an individual that may make a good-faith effort to understand the world around them, but “the more he contemplates, the less he lives, the more he identifies with the dominant image, the less he understands his own life and his own desires.”[6]

Trump upended this process not by withholding controversy, but by controlling it and serving it up to serve his interests. Like passing motorists that cannot help but stop to gaze at a car crash, Trump instinctually seemed to know that media institutions, desperate for ratings and viewers, could not help but point their cameras at him and cover whatever faux car crash he conjured through his outrageous statements, rude insults and shameless braggadocio. Audiences that watched this pageant unfold increasingly began to identify with some element of this alienated presentation. Some drawn by Trump’s supreme confidence and aggression toward elites and “liberals” found themselves increasingly devoted to supporting him and his success even though what little in the way of policy he offered was unlikely to benefit them materially. Conversely, those who found his antics repugnant were entranced by tropes of resistance fighters struggling against a fascist dictator or concocting elaborate spy-novel like scenarios that made Trump to be a secret asset of clandestine Russian intrigue. What both these approaches to Trump had in common was their fabrication within the framework of the spectacle, the growth of the financial benefits of the primary institutions of the spectacle (media outlets, political fundraising operations, etc.) and the deepening alienation of those who consumed the pageant.

Which brings us back to the looming crisis. What will the spectacle do now that Trump appears to be on the way out? If the spectacle is capital accumulated to the point at which it becomes an image, and capital itself, as David Harvey paraphrasing Marx argues, “cannot abide a limit,” then we should expect some new contrived abomination conjured up by the spectacle to overcome this new obstacle.[7] What follows are three possibilities among countless others.

  1. The Second Coming. Donald Trump eventually and reluctantly accepts that he has lost the election. He vacates the White House without formally conceding his defeat and still insists massive fraud was the reason why he lost. He makes no overtures or gestures to the incoming Biden Administration and spends his last weeks in office doing a kind of “farewell tour” where he teases the idea that he will run again in 2024—a statement that delights his still substantial following. In the succeeding months, Trump becomes a staple on conservative and insurgent right media, even hosting a show on One American News Network where he viciously savages Biden and the Democrats and occasionally does live mass rallies which continue to be well attended. After the midterm election in 2022, he declares his intention to run for president in 2024 and a similar series of events unfold as in 2016—wall to wall coverage of primary debates as Trump swats away “mainstream” Republicans who campaign on the promise to bring “dignity back to the Republican Party” but gain no real traction in the face of Trump’s usual antics. Choosing some media personality like Mike Lindell (the My Pillow guy) or Kanye West, Trump easily gains the Republican nomination and is poised to reclaim the White House. Left-oriented media outlets and operations resume their familiar position as banner-carriers of the so-called “resistance.”
  2. Fragmentation and Internecine Warfare. Trump continues to insist he is not going to concede the race and even refuses to vacate the White House as Inauguration Day approaches. This obstinacy alienates many members of MAGA nation, especially those in more elite perches who are worried about their ability to secure gainful top-level employment with elite law firms, think tanks and consulting groups. Many of these personalities go on Fox News to express their displeasure to the consternation of more hard-core Trump surrogates who launch their own broadsides against these traitors on the more fringe media outlets like One American News Network and Newsmax. As Biden takes the oath of office, conservatives find themselves in a savage process of ideological cleansing where once stalwart Republicans–including those members of the Lincoln Project–are accused of being communists or socialists. Meanwhile, though things seem calmer on the left side of the spectrum, certain vocal online voices begin to demand a purging of their own—starting with what many are calling an out of touch ruling gerontocracy in the Democratic Party that includes Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. News outlets like MSNBC rush to the defense of establishment figures of the technocratic center, but they suffer from a thousand small cuts from the podcasting and social media universe encouraging key progressive elected politicians to stall and block any legislation that is deemed too tepid and timid. A massive conflagration of endless guerilla media attacks on both the left and right are funded by thousands of Patreon and Substack subscriptions while legacy media struggles to survive in a spectacle where everyone must pick a side in order to survive.
  3. The Chosen One. Finally realizing that all his legal posturing is not going to give him the results he wants, a dejected Trump concedes the race and very somberly and sadly goes through the rituals of the hand over of power to Joe Biden. The sight of a defeated Trump briefly causes despair among the MAGA nation before a series of cryptic messages from obscure message boards loosely connected with the QAnon phenomenon begin to speak of a “chosen one” who is the real messiah of the conservative movement and will complete the work that Trump began—a kind of Jesus Christ to Trump’s John the Baptist. Depression and sadness quickly turn to joy and anticipation as far right media speculate who will fulfill the prophecy–perhaps a well-connected media figure like Tucker Carlson or an upstart fire-eater like newly elected Colorado Congresswoman Lauren Boebert. Media tied to evangelical Christianity will get into the act as well, blending apocryphal Bible prophecy with key conservative policy issues. But most spectacular of all will be the attempts to paint political figures on the left as agents of Satan—lightning rod figures like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar will be invoked in select churches and suburban barbeques around the country as tools of the devil resulting in an avalanche of online threats and even a few assassination attempts. As the presidential race begins in 2022, many Republicans will attempt to claim the mantle of the chosen one, but as with most Messianism, a consensus on who the chosen one actually is never emerges. Nevertheless, this discourse of a chosen one fills countless hours of programming on cable news networks, radio programs and a wide array of podcasts, blogs and social media accounts.   

[1] https://www.vulture.com/2017/01/donald-trumps-tv-rating-obsession-a-history.html

[2] Indeed, some of Trump’s cohort outside of the government have floated the idea of purchasing the channel. See Chung, Juliet; Driebusch, Corrie; Ballhaus, Rebecca (January 10, 2020). “Trump Allies Explore Buyout of Conservative Channel Seeking to Compete With Fox News”.The Wall Street Journal.

[3] https://www.politico.com/blogs/on-media/2016/10/cbs-ceo-les-moonves-clarifies-donald-trump-good-for-cbs-comment-229996

[4] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2014), 11.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 10-11.

[7] David Harvey, The Enigma of Capital (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press: 2010), 47.

There is no American Empire, and American power is not a source of good in the world

The final portion of the series of posts looking at the perception of American Empire in the last few decades focuses on the perspective that US dominance in the last decade of the 20th and first decade of the 21st century was ultimately not a good thing for most people in the world, but nevertheless argue this domination did not constitute an empire. This viewpoint takes two forms based on similar assumption about the obsolescence of imperialism: 1) the “Neo-Marxist” perspective that American power during this era was part of a new global authority comprised of the concentrations of global capital and the social forces they control and 2) what can be loosely called “post-structural” critics who suggest an age of expanding diversity renders American power, for all its visible might, illusory, disorganized, and incoherent.

The first perspective belongs almost solely to the work of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, who distinguish their own theory of Empire, defined in its most generic way as “a series of national and supranational organisms united under a single logic of rule,”[1] from traditional state-centric imperialism. The “empire” of Hardt and Negri’s conception is a structure of rule and control that functions by bringing together a collection of powerful transnational institutions, powerful states and their attendant militaries, hegemonic organizational and corporate frameworks and planetary communications platforms. What binds these various elements together is what might be described as a “consensus of truth” around the globalization of liberal capitalism and its moral superiority over all possible alternatives. While the United States has a privileged role in this assemblage of power, the nature of the global “imperial” network, with its fluidity and flexibility of its most vital components (i.e. the ability to function even if one part of the network is compromised of malfunctioning) means that “empire” is no longer headquartered in one state—nor is the imperial project the attempt by a single state to globalize their rule. Globalization may be described as “Americanization” of global governance, but Hardt and Negri argue this is an incorrect interpretation. Indeed, as time has passed and the world entered the third decade of the 21st century, the power and influence of the United States appears to be on the wane. The election of Donald Trump has signaled some contradictions in US domestic politics that suggest that the US state may not have the stomach for permanent global overseas commitments (if it ever had them in the first place) while the rise of China suggests the US would struggle to maintain its imperial project on the same footing as the previous decades.

The argument in Empire is also a discussion of rethinking the traditional Marxist narrative of class antagonisms in a new era when many of the conditions Marx described are no longer applicable. Perhaps the most controversial of proposals from Hardt and Negri is the idea that the agent of social and political change is no longer the industrial working class, but a similarly networked global subaltern they dub the “multitude.” The multitude is a heterogeneous mixture of people who experience the alienation of “empire” in their own unique ways. The fragmented nature of globalization and its scattering of global production has produced a agent of resistance who is equally scattered in their encountered and participations within empire. They are not merely producers that build the empire through their alienated labor, but also consumers, investors, voters and other functionaries who perform multiple hybrid roles. Focusing in on the “working class” is an obsolete way of thinking about power dynamics in the empire of the 21st century.

There is no need to go into more detail with Hardt and Negri’s argument here. The point being made is that American Empire as it is usually discussed is a flawed and misleading concept. Empire exists to be sure, and the United States has an enormous role to play in it—perhaps the most important role. But this new structure of global sovereignty and power is not American Empire—just Empire.

The other viewpoint considered here is far messier than the more regimented account of global power on display by Hardt and Negri. This other perspective is best captured by Michael Mann in the book Incoherent Empire.[2] This approach sees the United States as a “disturbed, misshapen monster stumbling clumsily across the world. It means well.  It intends to spread order and benevolence, but instead it creates more disorder and violence.” American clumsiness is due in part to the rise of competing centers of power in Europe (when the European Union looked more formidable) and China that share enough in common with the United States to avoid its full chagrin, but nevertheless offer alternative methods of social organization that infringe on the American self-perception of exceptionability. The move into Iraq in 2003 (and subsequently in Libya in 2011 and Syria after that) are not the result of an organized imperial blueprint or coherent ideology, but a knee-jerk reaction to the normal socio-economic and political turmoil in the world. Because of its huge military and insecure self-image, US intervention overseas and its efforts to at times to dictate politics and policy to certain countries is not evidence of empire, but of confusion and anxiety about the place of the US in the world. The death and destruction that result from the dubious acts of US intervention in the last few decades is not due to an inherent evil vision among US leadership and its animating ideologies, but is better understood as the effects of incompetence, bewilderment and insecurity. This argument is not offered up as excuse for these acts, merely to take some of the Manichaeism out of many of the critiques of US foreign policy.

In exploring these differing viewpoints of American power and alleged American empire, perhaps the real takeaway is that all these perspectives are probably obsolete. The contradiction of US power in the Trump era is the desire to “make America great again” while eschewing many of the things that historically are required to be “great.” Leadership in addressing the world’s toughest challenges is usually on that list, but the US has taken a back seat in many of these crucial discussions. Part of this might have to do with the nature of these challenges—global climate change, coronavirus pandemics, and global inequality are not the kind of problems that can be solved with brute military force. They require cooperation, compromise and coalition-building and the measure of success is not victory on a battlefield that translates easily into nationalist myth-making and propagandistic narratives but silent consensus for which it may take decades to experience the material effects.

What is lost in this is that by this new standard, the United States could be great again. Several generations in the future, the world might marvel at the crucial leadership the US exercised to curb the emission of greenhouse gases, willingly making dramatic cuts in its output of carbon dioxide and methane despite the fact there was not treaty obligation to do so and inspiring (or shaming) other rich states to do the same. It could marshal its still substantial productive capacity to produce vast amounts of medical equipment and export them at low cost to the rest of the world to confront the current coronavirus pandemic and lay the groundwork for a genuinely global response to future outbreaks. It could lead the way in creating an international tax facility to fund sustainable development programs around the world to reduce the ever-yawning gap between rich and poor in a world of unprecedented wealth creation. The surplus of soft power the US enjoyed at the end of World War II (when many begin the historical clock with regards to the existence of an American Empire) could be exceeded by a factor of 100 if the US showed leadership on these issues, in essence confirming some of the arguments from the first portion of this discussion whereby American Empire, such that it existed, would be a genuine benefit for the world. Yet none of the four perspectives looked over the past few posts have really seen American power in this way, suggesting the American Empire, such that is existed, has collapsed.

     [1] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambrdige, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), xii.

     [2] Michael Mann, Incoherent Empire (London: Verso, 2004).

American Empire Exists, But It Is Not A Force For Good in the World

Previous posts have sought to scratch the surface of thought about US foreign policy within the context of the now dormant question of American Empire. The first post on this topic briefly discussed those thinkers that believed American Empire was real and that is was a force for goodness in the world as well as hope for improving the lot of other states and societies in other parts of the world—a sort of mission civilsatrice updated for the American Century. The second post agreed that American power was a good thing, but that the use of this power as well as the global structure from which it came did not constitute an “empire” in any classical or academic sense. To be sure, American hegemony exists, but empire practiced in the manner of British or French imperialisms of the past were in no way applicable.[1]

This post samples perspectives who agree with the first set of ideas arguing for that American Empire is a reality in some form, but makes a sharp disagreement with the idea that American power represents a good thing in the world or is necessary to maintain any form of global order—imperial or otherwise. Indeed, the samples here generally see the projection of American power (especially military power) in a very negative light. These perspectives include what one might understand as the continuation of the Maxists-Leninist critique of imperialism, the “paleoconservative” critics of US foreign-policy interventionism, and a category one might label as “progressive internationalists” and “liberal anti-interventionists.” Together, they constitute one of the more diverse blocs of thought on the ontology and morality of American Empire.

The Marxist-Leninist perspective represented here flows from Vladimir Lenin’s critique of capitalism and the imperatives it places on the state for imperial expansion made famous in his pamphlet Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism.[2] In a nutshell, Lenin’s argument asserts that as capitalism progresses to its more advanced stages where competition between various commercial and banking concerns becomes ever more intense while profits become ever less abundant, will seek out foreign opportunities to escape saturated domestic markets and once more reap substantial profits. But these foreign opportunities are often fraught with danger—both from local native populations who resist foreign intrusion as well as from competing concerns from other countries seeking their own overseas windfalls. The state, which is famously described by Marx as being an “executive committee”[3] for bourgeoise, uses its military force to protect these commercial endeavors from the variety of these threats before more permanent arrangements are made (which can range from establishing settler colonies, formally annexing foreign territory, or working with local intermediaries to establish a framework of business-friendly rule and governance). Lenin’s argument is, among other things, an attempt to explain the outbreak of World War I and why this war, as least for Lenin at the time, was straw that would break the camel’s back in terms of bringing down the bourgeoise regimes of Europe. Unfortunately for Lenin, while revolution did arrive in Russia, it never fully materialized in the rest of Europe, even after the war ended.

For latter day critics of American foreign policy, this failed prediction on the part of Lenin, did undermine the larger critique he made in Imperialism. For much of the Cold War, writers like Harry Magdoff sustained a voice of radical critique of US foreign policy, which he dubbed “imperialism without colonies.” This form of imperialism, Magdoff argued, deployed other forms of governance and institutions beside direct political rule to economically exploit the natural resources and consumer markets of countries outside of Europe and North America, including conditional development assistance, unequal trading arrangements, and military bases that together constitute a “new imperialism.”[4]  In the wake of the attacks of September 11th, Robert Bellamy Foster borrowed from this strand of thought to characterize much of the transformations in US foreign policy taking place in the heady days after the attack as a need to reconsolidate and reorganize American interests overseas to protect capital investment (especially in Middle East oil infrastructure) and legitimize new waves of military interventions under the banner of humanitarianism.[5]

Taking a radically different path, but no less coarse in the their criticism, are the so-called paleo-conservatives. Represented most auspiciously by Patrick Buchanan, paleo-conservatives come at the idea of American Empire from a much less philosophical view. Instead, the problem of American foreign policy is one of elite policy errors brought about by a rejection or ignorance of the founding principles of the United States as expressed in key early documents like George Washington’s Farewell Address.[6] Because of this detachment from this original founding myths, the United States has, to mutate the title from one of Buchanan’s most famous book, transformed from a republic to an empire.[7] Instead of spending gargantuan amounts of money overseas to protect assets belonging to economic and cultural elites, US foreign policy should reduce or eliminate its global footprint and focus on developing the national economy alongside a national spirit and identity (with rhetoric that often features racial and other prejudicial overtones). Certain staunch libertarian activists also fit into this category, including Republican gadfly Ron Paul, who wrote with regards to foreign policy that, “setting a good example is a far better way to spread ideals than through force of arms.”[8] Ron’s son Rand continues to uphold this tradition in the Senate.

The final category of US foreign policy critics who see the United States as an Empire to the detriment of the itself and the rest of the world can be labeled as anti-interventionist. The main argumentative thrust of this perspective is that while the US should be engaged with the rests of the world diplomatically and economically, the propensity for US foreign policy elites and popular ignorance (or support in the form of patriotic bravado) to use its enormous military power as tool for realizing its interests creates what Andrew Bacevich calls “an imperial tense” that creates as many problems for global stability than it solves.[9] Perhaps the most visible adherent of this viewpoint is Noam Chomsky, who has published a series of books that often feature harsh critiques of US foreign policy and its role in creating or exacerbating global conflicts. For example, in Hegemony or Survival, Chomsky places events like the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq in a larger historical context going back to the early twentieth century and the frequent interventions in Latin America and the Caribbean to argue that the terrorist attacks of 9-11 did not change US foreign policy in any genuine or substantive way. Foreign intervention and empire-building were always in the DNA of US foreign policy and the “war on terror” that began after 9-11 is merely a rebranding of the same set of ideas and actions.[10]

This category also includes a collection of former military officers who, in the spirit of former Marine Smedley Butler, have written scathing critiques of US foreign policy and often use the words “empire” and “imperialism” in their arguments (even if they don’t offer any comprehensive definition of these terms).[11] During the late 90s and early 00s, one of the most prolific writers in this vein was Chalmers Johnson, who most famously invoked the term “blowback” to describe the consequences of an overreliance on US military force as a tool that could solve any and all foreign policy woes. While engagement with the world diplomatically remained crucial, Johnson argued, “the United States should bring most of its overseas land-based forces home and reorient its foreign policy to stress leadership through example and diplomacy.”[12] The aforementioned Andrew Bacevitch has also written eloquently on this topic. He writings range from a pre-9-11 critique of a mistaken bi-partisan foreign policy consensus on the liberal use of American military power to “the spectacle” and celebration of militarism in American society to a critical history of US military intervention in the Middle East.[13]

While no category discussed here can be said to have the ear of major foreign policy decision-makers or constitute an approach to foreign policy in general taken seriously among the halls of power in the United States, they have served a useful role in keeping the idea of American Empire alive in academic and cultural circles. And given President Donald Trump’s apparent aversion for foreign policy adventurism, especially as it pertains to his condemnations of the invasion of Iraq, it is perhaps possible a few of the ideas expressed here, especially by the likes of Johnson and Bacevich, made it to his ears or those of his advisors.

     [1] See Nye, Soft Power, (New York: Public Affairs, 2004).

     [2] Vladimir Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. Online version available at:  https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/imp-hsc/index.htm

     [3] Karl Marx, The Manifesto of the Communist Party available at:  https://marxists.catbull.com/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch01.htm

     [4] Harry Magdoff, Imperialism Without Colonies (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2003).

     [5] John Bellamy Foster, Naked Imperialism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2006).

     [6] For George Washington’s Farewell Address, see:  https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/GPO-CDOC-106sdoc21/pdf/GPO-CDOC-106sdoc21.pdf

     [7] Patrick Buchanan, A Republic, Not an Empire (Washington DC., Regnery, 1999).

     [8] Ron Paul, A Foreign Policy of Freedom: Peace, Commerce, and Honest Friendship (Foundation for Rational Economics & Education, 2007).

     [9] Andrew Bacevitch, The Imperial Tense, (Chicago, Ivan R. Dee, 2003).

     [10] Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival (New York: Holt, 2004).

     [11] Smedley Butler was one of the most decorated Marines in US history but who nevertheless came to recognize his frequent deployments were in service to things other than vital US national interests. In War Is a Racket, he famously worte  “I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers.”

     [12] Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: The Cost and Consequences of American Empire (New York: Holt, 2000). See also The Sorrows of Empire (New York: Metropolitan, 2004).

     [13] See Andrew Bacevich, American Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005), America’s War for the Middle East (New York: Random House, 2016).

 

American Empire Does Not Exist, But American Power Is The Best Hope For the World

This post will renew a thread of thought begun several months ago that contemplated the status of American power in the world. The key line of inquiry centered on the question of American Empire, and whether such a term was accurate or useful in the current assemblage of global politics. The discussion lent itself to four different answers based on how one responded to the questions of whether or not US power was a good thing or bad thing in the world and whether this power constituted an empire of some kind. The last post to address this question briefly explored a double affirmative response to these questions–that American power IS a good and necessary thing for world order and that American power IS an empire. Admittedly, there is not much scrutiny here in terms of whether those who argue for the existence of American Empire are actually describing an empire in the academic sense (something that some academics themselves have claimed is impossible to do)[1] or simply using the term to denote the overwhelming power of the United States—primarily its military power. But whatever the reason for using the term, there is clearly a cross-section of writers and thinkers who believe the US to be some kind of empire.

This post focuses on a similar perspective in terms of those who believe American power is a good thing and necessary for global stability. Yet those who fall into this box are either reluctant to use the term empire or eschew it altogether.

The main group one can identify holding the position of American power being good, but not an empire position is the neoconservatives. While many of what we might term as “hard neoconservatives” occupied the position where they believed American power was empire, these “soft neoconservatives are hostile to this position. Like Max Boot (discussed in a previous post), soft neoconservatives are unapologetic about the enormous righteousness and virtue they believe American power brings to the sphere of global politics, but they refrain from labeling this power imperial. The best examples of these “soft” neo-conservatives arguments come from the words of former officials in the George W. Bush administration who may indeed be more sympathetic to the view of more orthodox “hard” neo-conservatives, but must confront the burden of conveying their ideas in a more conciliatory fashion. Indeed, the credibility of American foreign policy initiatives that purportedly are designed to create and deepen democracy would be frightfully damaged should American overseas conduct come to be seen an imperialistic. Or, as Donald Rumsfeld declared in an interview with Al-Jazeera, “We (the United States) have never been a colonial power. We don’t take our force and go around the world and try to take other people’s resources, their oil….That’s not how democracies behave.” Fuller statements of this position are found in works by David Frum and Richard Perle, though even these seem to be little more than point-by-point defenses of American foreign policy since September 11th. Unfortunately, the more one becomes familiar with the soft neo-conservative vantage point, the more one sees they suffer from the same deficiencies as regular neo-conservatives, namely the inability to maintain a critical perspective on their own ideas and an almost divine belief in the inevitability of their vision.

This is, in an odd way, the current position of Trump and his administration as well. Trump’s rhetoric is full of references to the idea of “America First” and related phrases, but for the most part the language is free from references to a formal “empire” or imperium. Indeed, part of the “America First” disposition is a distancing from some of the imperial hallmarks of the past—including invasions of foreign countries, taking a leading position in international institutions (especially in institutions like NATO) and challenging foreign rivals. Of these past practices of US foreign policy, Trump has been highly critical of the Iraq invasion, has threatened to pull out of NATO, and been friendly with states like North Korea and Russia. He has maintained more hostile positions with China and Iran, but even here, his rhetoric is more about, in his words, “getting a better deal” (on trade with China and a more aggressive nuclear deal with Iran) than a recognition of a perpetual struggle against intractable enemies. On the Iran, issue, Trump has even squelched military actions that likely would have gone forward in the previous administration of Obama or the hypothetical administration of Hilary Clinton.

Yet Trump still believes in the central role of American power in the world. His eschewing of the language of empire does not negate his policies that still see a world where American power is best way of maintaining world order. Trump’s has boosted spending on the military, increasing the amount allocated to the Pentagon by several hundred billion dollars compared to where the budget allocation sat the last year of the Obama presidency. Trump has also directed much at the spending on systems and platforms of an offensive nature.[2] Trump has launched cruise missiles against Syria (in a moment when his normally harsh establishment critics praised him)[3] and rattled the US sabre against Venezuela (perhaps even being persuaded to launch a slow-motion coup in the that state).[4]

The tensions within the current national security apparatus are thus not debates about fundamental values about the role of the United States in the world, but debates about where to tinker with this power. Should the focus be in the Middle East or China? Should the US boost its nuclear capacity or keep it where it is? Should institutions like NATO be a focal point of US power or should the US be more independent and autonomous? Yet despite the differences, the common ground remains the same: American power is the central facet of world order today and maintaining it is the key priority of US foreign policy. But no matter how powerful it, how intrusive it may or may not be, or how much is costs: it is not an empire.

 

 

     [1]  “Imperialism is no word for scholars.” W.K. Hancock quoted in Benjamin J. Cohen, The Question of Imperialism: The Political Economy of Dominance and Dependence (New York: Basic, 1973).

     [2]  https://theweek.com/articles/828753/trump-isnt-rolling-back-american-empire-hes-expanding

     [3]  https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/327779-cnn-host-donald-trump-became-president-last-night

     [4]  https://www.newsweek.com/maduro-trump-venezuela-guaido-1444914

Russiagate and the Spectacle

The release of a summary of the key findings of the Mueller investigation into the alleged malfeasance of Donald Trump has caused a stir in the media world. Though the complete report has yet to be seen, the summary suggests the most tantalizing of the various accusations against Trump—his possible collusion with or being an agent of Russia—is either untrue or cannot be sufficiently proven given the information uncovered by the two-year probe. All this despite the fact that much of the news media, especially those outlets and personalities who have taken an oppositional or “resistance” stance with regard to the Trump presidency, have been weaving an intricate narrative of a complicated and clandestine plot that, once discovered by the Mueller investigation, would result in multiple arrests of Trump’s family and inner circle, the impeachment and removal of Trump from the White House and possibly a prosecution of the now deposed president on charges as grave as treason. With the release of the summary, however, it appears that these narratives were mostly fantasies brought about by wishful thinking or projections of suppressed shame and guilt on the part of a portion of the media industry unable to confront its role in bringing Trump to power in the first place.

A handful of writers skeptical of these narratives (and who feel a certain sense of vindication in what the summary report suggests) have suggested the media’s behavior throughout the entire Russiagate hullabaloo resembles the last time American (and to certain extent Western) media collectively adopted and mutually reinforced a dubious narrative about a major news event—the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in weeks and months leading up to the invasion in 2003. There, most of the major news media outlets disconnected their critical capacities and largely repeated and amplified the standard story about Saddam Hussein developing a sophisticated weapons of mass destruction program and a series of crafty platforms of deploying it (including remote-controlled drones). This narrative proved to be an essential component of the larger myth of justification for the invasion that succeeded into creating majority support for the invasion among both politicians and the general public. It was only later, when the invasion bogged down into a chaotic occupation and the popular jingoistic fever dream that accompanies the opening days of war subsided, was it revealed that no weapons of mass destruction were found and the supposedly rock-solid intelligence that was proof of their existence was a corrupt combination of speculation, dubious sourcing and outright falsehood.

But as bad as this episode was in terms of demonstrating the gullibility and groupthink of the media, the journalist Matt Taibbi thinks the Russia controversy is worse:

As a purely journalistic failure, however, WMD was a pimple compared to Russiagate. The sheer scale of the errors and exaggerations this time around dwarfs the last mess. Worse, it’s led to most journalists accepting a radical change in mission. We’ve become sides-choosers, obliterating the concept of the press as an independent institution whose primary role is sorting fact and fiction.

Taibbi then concludes:

We had the sense to eventually look inward a little in the WMD affair, which is the only reason we escaped that episode with any audience left. Is the press even capable of that kind of self-awareness now? WMD damaged our reputation. If we don’t turn things around, this story will destroy it.[1]

The question at this point centers on why the various elements of the national and international media fell into this trap of exaggerating and amplifying the most contrived and spectacular aspects of a major story like Russiagate? This question is especially pertinent given that if one were keen on trying to discredit Donald Trump and had an agenda of prematurely removing him from office, there was still plenty of corruption, malfeasance, venality and evidence of illegal or immoral activities to justify a campaign for impeachment and possibly indictment. Why latch onto the one story that, while certainly having the biggest blockbuster potential, was also going to be the hardest to prove? A conventional answer to this question lies in the commercial aspects of American media, with its focus on maximizing ratings and clicks in order to deliver the largest audiences as possible to advertisers. However, a deeper and more theoretical explanation is found by looking not just at the profit motive of the media companies themselves, but their place in the larger holistic world of the society of the spectacle—a world where appearances have the ultimate sovereignty over any material realities and, in the words of Guy Debord, “the true is a moment of the false.”[2]

As has been discussed here before, the spectacle is a world order built by the current iteration of global capitalism. It represents a world where the bulk of value-added assets come not from manufactured goods or commodities, but from the imaginary aura created by the sum-total of these commodities into various competing lifestyles and cultures. Each of these cultures conjure a menu of dreams, fantasies, aspirations and fears that individuals seek by associating themselves with a galaxy of brands, logos, and other signifiers through the purchase of the goods and services affiliated with those brands. For most individuals living in the spectacle, life becomes and endless effort to imbibe and emulate the sensory output of the spectacle, not just for the mere purposes of entertainment, but because this pursuit creates a ready-made existential meaning for individuals and communities in world that otherwise provides no such meaning. As Debord argues, “The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images.”[3]

What this means in terms of Russiagate is that certain material realities, such as Trump’s venality and the allegations of possible Russian interference in the 2016 get treated as the ingredients for an elaborate and sophisticated cloak-and-dagger intrigue resembling the plot from a spy novel written by a best-selling author rather than a story of banal quid-pro-quo style corruption that, while still constituting a genuine crime requiring investigation and prosecution, falls far short of the spectacular parameters of the pulp-fiction political thriller or summer blockbuster action movie. The problem is that in the spectacle, where millions observe and interpret politics and politicians along the lines of the fantastical portrayals in popular culture and “infotainment” news media, the existence of the clichéd and timeworn forms of corruption Trump is guilty of become invisible. The day-to-day conversations and arrangements by unremarkable middle-aged white men engaged in garden-variety conspiracy fail to capture the imagination of the masses who, after consuming endless hours of comic books, movies and streaming television, cannot recognize the banality of evil when they see it. They expect to see supervillains clad in dark hues or featuring grotesque physical deformities of the kind seen in a Tolkein or Brooks story. What they get instead is a cadre of pasty retirees, and whatever physical deformities they possess are the result of the excesses of consumerism rather than any “evil” that is growing inside of them.

So pervasive is the power of the spectacle that those who have active roles in creating and perpetuating it are no longer conscious of its existence (if they ever were). One of the more sinister elements of the Russiagate phenomenon was the ability of a few individuals on a few platforms to amplify the pageant to its epic proportions. Cable news, one of the central manufacturing hubs of political spectacle in the United States, proved to be an assembly-line of relentless speculation, opinion-making, partisan debate, and general myth making/busting on all facets of the conflict. On MSNBC, Rachael Maddow would present in breathless tones the latest kernel of rumor and conjecture on the status of the Mueller investigation and conclude that the day of reckoning for the Trump presidency will soon be at hand. Sean Hannity at Fox News would arrogantly dismiss the same rumor or conjecture and reassure Trump’s most ardent supporters that nothing would stop Trump from making American great again. CNN would feature endless panels of interchangeable pundits robotically espousing the talking points of the factions they represented. On social media, a swarm of Facebook posts, tweets, Youtube videos and Instagram pics went forth from the world’s TVs, computers and smart phones to devour the cognitive matter of whomever placed themselves in the path of this pestilence.

Yet nowhere in this audio/visual ecosystem was there anything that might be recognized as the truth—or at minimum, a sober narrative. In the Society of the Spectacle, Debord explains the reason for this:

The images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream in which the unity of that life can no longer be recovered. Fragmented views of reality regroup themselves into a new unity as a separate pseudo-world that can only be looked at. The specialization of images of the world has culminated in a world of autonomized images where even the deceivers are deceived.[4]

Perhaps most importantly, the farcical fantasy that was at the core of so much of the Russiagate coverage was a symptom of what put Trump in the White House in the first place. So much of the storytelling and mythmaking that comes out of the contemporary media is so detached from the lived realities of most people that, like a drug addict who hates the life chemical dependency has created but can’t break away from the euphoric effects of the drug they are using, keep consuming the same stories and internalizing the myths because its preferable to facing the grimness of reality. At some subconscious level, they know that part of the reason they find their life so thoroughly inadequate is due in part to the implied promises and subtle seductions of most media output—from the television advertisement that makes the purchase of a product the first step in a life of excitement and adventure to the binge-watchable serial drama that creates a relationship between the viewer and its characters more intimate than what that viewer experiences in the “real world.” On an instinctual level they know that something about this arrangement is not right, but cannot articulate this discomfort and are paralyzed to act when moved to try to change this situation. Along comes Donald Trump, who is a creature of this world and can provide a narrative of interpretation the people themselves struggle to produce themselves. He arouses and articulates the despair and rage of those whose lives turned out less beautiful and glamorous than what was presented in the various forms of media consumed and offers a ready-made list of culprits and enemies to blame for their discontent. That all this is yet another false narrative that will make things worse in the long run matters little. For now, Trump is providing a stronger and more potent myth that will temporarily ease the pain of the audience’s existence.

The spectacle, in its sinister way, now provides an alternative set of myths, stories, theories and conjectures that provide those whose existential crisis is connected to the threats to the status quo presented by the election of Donald Trump. While there are clearly examples of a growth in active engagement among certain segments of society, resulting in things like the turnover of the House of Representatives to Democrats in the 2018 election, for those who imbibed most deeply in the story, Russiagate was to be the sequel where the heroes win in the end—where Donald Trump is ousted from his perch in the White House and, perhaps through some extra-constitutional maneuver, Hilary Clinton takes her rightful place in the Oval Office. The key finding in the summary of the Mueller Report that no collusion existed between Trump and Russia shatters that fantasy, leaving those who pinned their hopes to this story left in a state of denial or despair. Unfortunately, with the spectacle, this is where everyone winds up in the end.

 

 

     [1]Matt Taibbi, Hate Inc. (OR Books, 2019). Forthcoming

     [2] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, (Berkeley, California: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2014), 4.

     [3] Ibid., 2.

     [4] Ibid., 2.

American Empire Exists; It Is the Best Hope for the World

One of the great ironies of the aftermath of the attacks of September 11th was the sudden fascination and celebration of the idea of American Empire. While the topic was occasionally kicked around by some—mostly on the far left side of western discourse—the moment when the United States was seemingly at its most vulnerable was also the moment when the recognition of an imperial potential on the part of the United States became the most widely recognized. Alongside the reckoning of the enormous power and influence of the United States was a moral imperative for the imperial project. The attacks in New York and Washington demonstrated that large areas of the world were governed by rogue states and brutal dictators that could provide safe havens for terrorists and other unsavory actors around the world. In the emerging world of globalization, maleficent actors had access to capabilities that empowered them to an unprecedented extent, suggesting they could not be left alone in some isolated mountain valley where they could possibly metastasize into a global movement. For this reason, the United States, with the help of its allies, had to go on the offensive and use all its power and influence to destroy these pockets of barbarity while constructing the conditions that would prevent any chance of their resurrection.

Two types of advocates emerged with this logic in mind—one that argued US power and might were needed to make the world a safer and more prosperous place but that a more interventionist and active role in the world did not necessarily mean an embrace of imperialism or “American Empire.” The other type did embrace the idea of American imperialism and American Empire. It is this latter category this article will focus on.

Among those who believe that some kind of “American Empire” exists and that the world is better off for having the United States adopt this position, one can identify two subgroups. The first is what we might label a “liberal imperialist.” This advocate believes in the importance of traditional liberal values like free and interdependent trading relationships, use of international institutions to facilitate cooperation among states, and a preference for states to be ruled via democratic government. However, as much of the world refuses or is unable to submit to these principles, the United States, as the world’s most powerful state and chief booster of this rule-based order, should embrace an imperial role akin to the British or the French in the nineteenth century and intervene in those areas that have yet to understand or appreciate the light of liberal values.

Examples of this “liberal imperialism”[1] include someone like Michael Ignatieff, who in 2003 called for, in his study of nation-building efforts by the United States, a more imperialistic attitude toward intervention in places like the Balkans and Afghanistan. This would yield greater success than the current short-term mindset that emphasizes “empire on the cheap or “empire lite.”[2] In this sense, Ignatieff can be distinguished from a host of other advocates for a muscular American interventionism who nevertheless avoid, refrain or dismiss from their discussion of interventionist foreign policy the existence and parameters of an American Empire (more about them in a future article).

A far more articulate advocate of liberal American Empire is Niall Ferguson. His 2004 book[3] Colossus remains the most powerful argument for both the existence of American Empire and the moral imperative for the United States to accept and embrace the role of “imperialists.” Focusing on the sacrifices necessary to maintain its imperial status, Ferguson insists that if the United States changes its attitude and gets over its “softness” toward long-term commitments to nation-building overseas and protecting the “public goods” of international capitalism, the American Empire can endure far into the future. Part of embracing this role would be getting its domestic fiscal and budgetary house in order, as the costs of long-term overseas commitments can be endured if programs like social security and medicare bankrupt the republic.[4] In this way, the American Empire is not merely a question about foreign policy, but about what each individual American is willing to give to the cause. In one particularly interesting passage, Ferguson laments the short attention spans of young US adults and explains how these spoiled and privileged adolescents lack the fortitude or vision to be the empire builders the US needs to be great:

But few, if any, of the graduates of Harvard, Stanford, Yale or Princeton aspire to spend their lives trying to turn a sun-scorched sand pit like Iraq into the prosperous capitalist democracy of Paul Wolfowitz’s imagination. American’s brightest and best aspire not to govern Mesopotamia but manage MTV; not to rule the Hejaz but to run a hedge fund.[5]

The second type of liberal imperialist argues the world needs American Empire because of the exalted status of the United States itself, and not necessarily because the United States is in the best nation or the only nation to defend a liberal world order. From this perspective, 21st century liberal empire gets its virtue from its origins in the founding ideas of the United States and the spread of those ideas with the expansion of US power around the world in the succeeding two hundred odd years. Implied in these arguments is that if the US was not a liberal country, American Empire would still be worthy of support. From their perspective American Empire is more important than American Empire.

Many so-called neoconservatives fall into this category. The controversial writer Dinesh D’Souza is a good preliminary example. Writing in 2002, D’Souza remarked the United States “is the most magnanimous power ever,” before giving examples of how the United States respects human rights and confers great benefits on the nations that it enters and occupies. He also comments on the role of US soft power, observing that in a “hotel in Barbados or Bombay, the bellhop is whistling the theme from “Titanic.” African boys in remote villages wear baseball caps. Millions of people around the globe want to move to America. Countless people are drawn to America’s technology, freedom, and way of life.”[6] For these and a host of other reasons, the American Empire is different than the empires of the past both in its power and its size, leading D’Souza to conclude “let us have more of it.”[7]

Other neoconservatives take their cue from the classic British poetry of Kipling or Tennyson (Ferguson also very much makes references to these poets). In making “The Case for an American Empire,” Iraqi war advocate Max Boot observed that “Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets.”[8] It was up to the United States, Boot continued, to assume the mantle of the British Empire and “Take Up the White Man’s Burden” to bring stability, democracy and prosperity to the regions of the world where chaos and mayhem give shelter to terrorists planning more evil deeds. Other neoconservatives invoked older cultural imagery, with Robert Kaplan quoting generously from ancient Greek and Roman texts that celebrated national greatness and the obligation of empires to rid the world of barbarism, since “Thucydides teaches us that civilization represses barbarism but can never eradicate it.”

This is but a small sample of the arguments that posit both the existence of an American Empire and the need for such an empire to exist in order to protect all that is good and virtuous in the world, whether that is civilization or human rights or democracy or any other “progressive” set of values. But many foreign policy analysts and practitioners are uncomfortable with this sort of language and go out of their way to avoid it. One need only look to the words of one of the Iraqi War architects, Donald Rumsfeld, (quoted in the last post) for evidence of this. This position of American Empire denialism but embracing of American interventionism is of particular interest in that it represents perhaps the most problematic and contradictory position—how does one insist the United States involve itself in countless conflicts and power rivalries around the world without believing something like an American Empire exists. These arguments will be explored in a subsequent post.

     [1]  https://foreignpolicy.com/2013/05/20/top-10-warning-signs-of-liberal-imperialism/

     [2] Michael Ignatieff, Empire Lite: Nation Building in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan (New York: Vintage, 2003).

     [3] Niall Ferguson, Colossus: The Price of the America’s Empire (New York: Penguin, 2004).

     [4] https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2004/05/our-imperial-imperative/303127/

     [5] Ferguson, 204.

     [6]Dinesh D’Souza, “In praise of American Empire,” Christian Science Monitor, April 26, 2002: See  https://www.csmonitor.com/2002/0426/p11s01-coop.html

     [7] Ibid.

     [8] Max Boot, “The Case for American Empire,” The Weekly Standard, October, 2001. See  https://www.weeklystandard.com/max-boot/the-case-for-american-empire