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A Riposte to Retort

Retort (Iain Boll, T.J. Clark, Joseph Matthews, Michael Watts), Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War (London/New York: Verso, 2005).

Among the millions who marched in the world’s streets before the American assault on Iraq and the hundreds of thousands who demonstrated against the war while the Republicans met in New York to reannoint G.W. Bush, I was not, I am sure, the only one to have felt a curious sensation of political energy coexisting with the assumption of failure. I never believed the demonstrations against the Viet Nam adventure would bring that war to an end, either, but at that time many did (while others imagined themselves part of an international force that would actually bring down the United States). Today’s demonstrators operate on a vastly different historical terrain. The great ideologies of the historical left have withered away, a process largely accomplished even before the final collapse of actually-existing socialism and the Chinese embrace of globalism. Even the phantasm of the “left wing of the Democratic Party,” whatever The Nation mumbles in its sleep, is vanishing in the dawn of our new day, when the limits of the state’s ability to control the social damage wrought by capitalism is ever more clearly revealed.

The nearly complete reduction of politics to squabbles over swag have made it almost impossible to believe that the sheer good will of activists, in whatever numbers, can end a war (much less create the other world still claimed by some to be possible). When the Americans withdraw from Iraq, it won’t be because of the demonstrations but because of the damage done to the ability of the military to defend corporate interests and the bewilderment and unhappiness of the citizenry who see their children dying and wounded, and their money spent, without anything presentable as victory in sight. Just as it was Nixon, not McGovern, who “got us out of Vietnam,” it is as likely to be some Republican warmonger as a Democratic one who oversees the “exit strategy” from Iraq.

Afflicted Powers is thus a timely title, taken from Milton’s portrait of the fallen angels facing up to the superior power of their divine antagonist. Retort—the name of a San Francisco-area collective, four of whose members jointly wrote the book—wishes to address a Left that “knows its own powerlessness” even while “it keeps alive, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, the notion of an alternative to the capitalist order …” The book admirably wishes to face the facts of the present; unlike much leftist literature, it neither rehashes quarrels of the past nor announces a program for the future. In fact, and quite properly, it is altogether less interested in the Left than in the enemy it faces.

Here too the focus of Afflicted Powers is on the novelty of the current situation, whose distinctive feature the authors locate in a “deep and perplexing doubleness”: the combination of atavistic brutality in the service of economic interests with the hypermodern politics of imagery and appearances that Situationist theorist Guy Debord termed the spectacle. Debord proposed in the early 1960s that capitalism had entered a new stage or form, in which more and more aspects of human life had come under the sway of the market, which exercised its power through the constant barrage of images spewed forth by every variety of media and social institution. Resuming Debord’s analysis, the Retort authors argue that the state, ever more imbricated with the economy it is increasingly called on to manage, also “came to live or die by its investment in, and control of, the field of images.” With image and economy increasingly intertwined, “the present condition of politics” makes sense only when “approached from a dual perspective—seen as a struggle for crude, material dominance, but also (threaded ever closer into that struggle) as a battle for the control of appearances.”

Exhibit A, with which Afflicted Powers begins, is 9/11 itself: Just as the Twin Towers were an image of financial capital as well as an actual place of business, so their destruction was “designed above all to be visible.” And because of the central role of spectacle in the current mechanism of power, the authors say, “The state was wounded in September in its heart of hearts and we see it still, almost four years later, flailing blindly in the face of an image it cannot exorcize, and trying desperately to convert the defeat back into terms it can respond to.” The chief example of those terms has been, of course, the war in Iraq. But here too material force and image both work together and at cross-purposes: bombing and torture produce both the falling statue of the dictator and the hooded figure on the box at Abu Ghraib.

The powers that be, the Retort authors suggest, are unable to disentangle appearance and reality. But the Left must try to do so to understand its enemies. Take, for instance, the anti-war movement’s leading slogan, “No Blood for Oil.” The official representation of the war as a battle against terrorism and a means to democratize the Middle East was countered by a simplified version of imperialism as the control of a particular natural resource. The most carefully argued, and most convincing, chapter of Afflicted Powers contends that while oil is, of course, a crucial substance and one American capital—and the Bush-Cheney gang in particular—wishes to control, blood is being spilt in Iraq for much more than black gold. Thus it explores the links between Big Oil and the armaments industry (greatly powered since 1973 by petrodollars), along with “the giants of construction (and ‘reconstruction’), the global engineering and industrial design sector, and, not least, financial services and banking capital.” More generally, the Iraq adventure represents the activation of the American will to create conditions for continued capital accumulation on a global scale. The military version of World Bank financial restructuring, the war was “intended as the prototype of a new form of military neo-liberalism.”

Is this to say that war in Iraq was an inevitable expression of America’s will to world domination? A chapter on “Permanent War” argues, again convincingly, that while this particular focus of militarism was the contingent product of a particular constellation of political forces and events, war itself is so inescapably an element of the social order as to render the notion of “peace” inadequate “as an oppositional frame or strategy.” Apart from the effort to deal with particular issues, such as the current need to respond to the dispersal of weaponry into the hands of non-state actors like al-Qaida, every exercise of military force serves “to normalize itself, and to keep the machine running.” Military action is both an attempt at forcible rearrangement of the ownership of resources and an advertisement of the readiness to perform such action.

This idea is further developed in a chapter dealing with the United States’ attachment to Israel. With the end of Arab secular nationalism and the rise of political Islam, Israel—so the authors believe—has ceased to be an actual strategic asset, its army useless in today’s Middle East. But “Strategy is one thing, imagery another.” As a symbol, Israel long stood in American eyes “for the victory of a dynamic Western modernity over a slothful Eastern dark ages.” Today, it functions “most deeply as an image … of the US’s own culture of endless armed build-up and the militarization of politics.” This part of the argument is less persuasive. It leaves out the important part played by Israel in the U.S. effort at global control so well described in earlier chapters: its role, for instance, within the American manipulation of the Iran-Iraq war, or its cooperation with apartheid South Africa (and so with the U.S.) in the long struggle to keep Africa within the Free World. In the Middle East, its role cannot really be understood outside of the system of alliances that also includes Egypt and Saudi Arabia; and, after all, the Israeli armed forces remain the one dependable, as well as the strongest, military ally of the U.S. in the region.

A chapter on revolutionary Islam presents a more accurate balance between the place of “image-politics” and that of the material forces of money, weapons, and a disempowered intelligentsia yoked to impoverished urban masses around the world. In an admirable survey of Islamism, the Retort authors underline its specifically modern character, identifiable not only in its origin in the crisis of secular national development in a band of countries ranging from Palestine to Pakistan to Indonesia, but also in its ideological sources in the romantic conspiratorial politics of the Western fin-de-siècle and early twentieth century. Observing that “the very idea of a militant vanguard” is “a key symptom of modernity,” they show how insurgent Islam “revived the project of anti-imperialism, couched now in the language of community decay, state illegitimacy, and moral bankruptcy.” As any short treatment must, this one leaves out various interesting parts of the story, such as the international activities of Pakistan’s secret service, the consequences for Central Asia of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the money-moving exploits of Islamic banks. But it is an outstanding introduction to the topic.

The last chapter, which draws together the themes of the book in considering the links between modernity and terror, is less impressive. What, it asks, explains the perennial attraction of vanguardism, whose most recent form is political Islam? “Why is it that human beings, faced with the cruelty and disappointment of the present, seem drawn ineluctably to …a dedication to hardness, ruthlessness, fierce bonding, closure against the mereness of the everyday; to a dedication finally to Death—to … the rewriting of the future according to the script of some dismal Messiah?” It seems important to object at once that most people don’t seem attracted to this ideal at all (else the concept of vanguard, the small group of exceptional individuals, would have no purchase), but are struggling to achieve the “mereness of the everyday”—to pay the rent, feed their children, have some fun. Why don’t the authors notice this?

For the Retort authors, the everyday bears the bad name of “consumerism,” the idea that “possessable and discardable objects do the work of desiring and comprehending for us, forming our wishes, giving shape to our fantasies.” It is the work these objects cannot do precisely in the modern capitalist world which gives them this function, not only because they are standardized by industrial mass production but because the meanings they can embody depend on their relation to each other, so that “happiness” or “loving” become properties of the system of objects rather than human capacities and relations. This is the heart of the spectacle, of the representation of life that takes the place of actual life. The millions who trade their productive energies for these things are trading reality for a simulacrum, endorsing the deprivation from which they suffer.

This dark vision is an old one, discoverable, for instance, in Matthew Arnold’s lament for the displacement of an authentic culture embedded in time by the cheap commercialism of industry, or more recently in Theodor Adorno’s contrast of the human meaningfulness of modernist high art with the false emotionality of commercial culture. In Debord’s variation on the theme, in The Society of the Spectacle, “commodities are now all that there is to see; the world we see is the world of the commodity.” This is far from true, however; just as the four authors of Afflicted Powers see much besides the machinations of commodities—for starters there are their relations with each other and their discussion group, their relationships with lovers and families, and the political questions that interest them—so do even the most impoverished members of society and those still able to make a good enough living to afford camcorders as well as housing and food.

The Retort authors assert that the spectacle is not only “the key form of social control … but also a source of ongoing instability,” because “too much of the texture of everyday life is captured and circulated” by image-machinery. But this is to place too much weight on imagery, as either stabilizer or destabilizer of the social order. Those pictures from Abu Ghraib went around the world without much impact on the war or even on the practice of torture, despite the fears and hopes of interested parties that they would amount to political dynamite. Why do intellectuals think that images, appearances, spectacle are so determining? A building worker friend to whom I put the question observed that professors and writers are not people who themselves make anything other than images, descriptions, and theories. It’s easy for “symbolic analysts” to forget that the world of commodities has to be made, every day, by people who in the process must attend to much outside the realm of spectacle. Perhaps this is also why Retort, seeking forces able to combat the status quo, can see no alternative to the new vanguardism of Islamism other than the “movement of movements” of political activists, forging links between the many images of capitalism’s destructiveness.

While I was finishing Afflicted Powers, the New York Times of October 22, 2005 happened to run a story on “Grass-Roots Aid in Pakistan,” describing the “thousands of volunteers from across the country” who “spontaneously collected vast amounts of food, clothing, and medicine and rushed it” to the earthquake-stricken North. “The government is doing nothing here,” one doctor said. So people had to do it themselves. This was, to be sure, a tide of activity doomed to recede as rapidly as it arose. But it seemed to me to contain the secret of the real opposition that might arise one day to the powers that now rule the earth. Whatever the charms of commodities and images, when the social machinery of the mere everyday breaks down, those who must act are also those who can, because they are, as my friend puts it, those whose work remakes the world each day. It remains true that these millions of people—whom Debord, in this bolder or less disillusioned than his present-day followers, was still willing to call, simply, the working class—are today constrained by the visible strength of the world’s rulers as well as by the image of inevitability that the existing structure of society presents. If it has little to say about how this aspect of reality might alter, Afflicted Powers offers an investigation of aspects of that structure not to be neglected by anyone with an interest in undoing it.


Paul Mattick

PAUL MATTICK'S book, Business as Usual: The Economic Crisis and the Failure of Capitalism (Reaktion, 2011) is based on articles written for the Rail.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 05-JAN 06

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