Politics dressed up in a clown suit

So Micah White, the former editor of Adbusters and self proclaimed creator of the ‘Occupy’ meme, has formed his own boutique activist consultancy that apparently ‘is incubating a left-right coalition of post-cool, counter-culture and authentic parties’. His website borders on self-parody, with long hashtag lines about actions and events that have not occurred, and most likely never will. In the post Occupy milieu, what the power structure has yielded to the movement is, it seems, some book deals and this ‘boutique’ consultancy for the privileged.

Like Russell Brand, White understands that many people are disenchanted with modern politics, and he channels some of the anti-political sentiment. But embedded within his website are many strange ideas and concepts. White has written:

A battle is raging for the soul of activism. It is a struggle between digital activists, who have adopted the logic of the marketplace, and those organisers who vehemently oppose the marketisation of social change. At stake is the possibility of an emancipatory revolution in our lifetimes.

For someone who was the editor of Adbusters and who has called for the end to marketing, he seems exceedingly good at marketing himself, as a quick Google search will lay attest to. He gives himself, and himself alone, credit for giving rise to the occupy movement: ‘When you create an idea that’s easy for people to do themselves, it’s unstoppable’.  He says that ‘we tried to not position ourselves as leaders, we want to be meme warriors.’ A anti-hierarchical movement certainly has its benefits, but via the creation of memes?  Surely not.

Further, White has moved his ‘boutique activist consultancy’ (what the hell is ‘boutique’ anyway?) to support the Italian 5 Star Movement led by Beppe Grillo. This March, for instance, Adbusters ran an article on Beppe Grillo calling him ‘nuanced, fresh, bold, and committed as a politician,’ with ‘a performance artist edge’. Grillo, for Adbusters, was ‘planting the seed of a renewed – accountable, fresh, rational, responsible, energized – left, that we can hope germinates worldwide.’

But as Giovanni Tiso has noted, the movement is not as it seems. Grillo’s 5 Star Movement has a dodgy backer: Gianroberto Casaleggio, ‘an online marketing expert whose only known past political sympathies lay with the right-wing separatist Northern League.’

This 5 Star Movement is a right wing populist party, not a progressive left wing populist party like many would like to claim. Its leader Beppe Grillo espouses right-wing populism, attacking the European Union from a nationalist platform and with some nice sophistry about the dangers of the welfare state. What Grillo is speaking to are the sections of the petty bourgeoisie who regard racial minorities and the working class – in addition to the welfare state – as obstructions. This is confirmed by a glance at the movement’s electoral demands and publications, which agitate on behalf of small and mid-size entrepreneurs against the working class. The recurring polemics are against waste and ‘clean’ politics, at no point identifying the capitalist interests that serve these political mechanisms.

White’s vision of the world is one in which his ‘carefully crafted imagery’ can fight the poisonous efforts of the faceless marketers.  It is the fight in which for the Adbusters editor, Buy Nothing Day and strange hybrid parties are the answer. Strangely inverting most theoretical understandings of capitalism, he does not see overconsumption, or advertising, as symptoms. Rather they are key tenets, and once confronted will rid capitalism of its excesses.  This is a form of hypocritical neoliberal activism, marketing against marketing.

Guy Debord’s classic The Society of the Spectacle has recently been reprinted, and is as prescient today as ever. White’s imitation of change in the world through his boutique activism is exactly what Debord predicted with his concept of the spectacle:

Here the real world changes into simple images, the simple images become real beings and effective motivations of hypnotic behaviour. The spectacle, as a tendency to make one see the world by means of various specialized mediations (it can no longer be grasped directly) . . . It is that which escapes the activity of men, that which escapes reconsideration and correction by their work. It is the opposite of dialogue. Wherever there is independent representation, the spectacle reconstitutes itself.

It is as if Debord is speaking directly to White, Grillo and the 5 Star Program. As he argues, this creation of a marketable gaze is the ‘opposite of dialogue’ creating ‘hypnotic behaviour’ in their incoherent rhetoric. Of course White is familiar with Debord, but White sees the Situationist movement as only identifying ‘media’ as the problem. On that basis, once one comes up with a new version of ‘mass media’ (which is what he appears to be attempting), many of the problems of late capitalism will simply vanish.

Yet, like Adorno before him, Debord saw media as only part of the greater spectacle, a reflection of class relations within society.  It is highly dubious that Grillo’s Five Star Movement will change class relations within the Italian state.

White’s spectacle-style activism attempts to flog Blackspot shoes and overpriced culture-jamming kits to ‘create new ambiences and psychic possibilities’ exaggerates the mass media’s ability to control the whole population, therefore overstating the importance of persuading the public with pure theatre rather than with politics.

More than anything, what sets White apart from more the more traditional Left and weds him to the Grillo camp of phonies is the overarching emphasis on his theory of ‘mental environmentalism.’ Mental environmentalism, he explains, is ‘the core idea behind Adbusters, the essential critique that motivates our struggle against consumer society.’

For White, mental illness rates are due to ‘subliminal infotoxins’ polluting our body. This is merely asserted – there is no research backing this idea.  It is only the ‘mental environmentalists’ such as White with their meme wars who are actually fighting the root cause of our capitalist alienations. There is no mention of labour-capital relations, alienation, class, power or anything remotely close to a rigorous analysis of late capitalism.

Debord  wrote:

The modern spectacle . . .  expresses what society can do, but in this expression the permitted is absolutely opposed to the possible. The spectacle is the preservation of unconsciousness within the practical change of the conditions of existence. It is its own product, and it has made its own rules: it is a pseudo-sacred entity. It shows what it is: separate power developing in itself, in the growth of productivity by means of the incessant refinement of the division of labor into a parcellisation of gestures which are then dominated by the independent movement of machines; and working for an ever-expanding market. All community and all critical sense are dissolved during this movement in which the forces that could grow by separating are not yet reunited.

Under White and Grillo, Debord’s formula takes a new twist.  They are using images and false promises of internet democracy to make sense of capitalist problems through simple formulations about the evils of consumerism and corruption, which, conveniently, align with many conservative commentators. It is the pseudo-concrete populist figure of the ‘advertiser’ that condenses the vast multitude of anonymous forces that determine us.

White’s spectacle of consumerism and Internet democracy refers to what Ernesto Laclau would call an empty signifier – a privileged element that gathers up a range of differential elements and binds them together into a discursive formation. Its emptiness makes it possible for it to signify the discourse as a whole. At the most rudimentary level, the spectacle defines nothing so much as this highly affected relation of looking – that is, the mutually constitutive relation of attraction between spectatorship and the expressly ‘empty’ aesthetic appeal of visual display. In this respect, the White style analysis is following the historical iterations of variety entertainment, pure empty vaudeville.

Debord writes:

The spectacle appears at once as society itself, as a part of society and as a means of unification. As a part of society, it is that sector where all attention, all consciousness, converges  …  the unity it imposes is merely the official language of generalized separation.

The spectacle is only a part of society but creates a focal point in which its broad appeal brings in the sightlines of its imaginary ‘all’ to create mass popularity, based on emptiness. It is a production of social unity that is predicated on separation.

It may appear that White and his like at Adbusters have similar concerns to others on the Left.  They fight for the environment, fight capitalist forces and aim to build a large and powerful popular movement.  But, ultimately, they produce mere spectacle, politics dressed up in a clown suit.

Andrew Self

Andrew Self is a journalist and teacher from Melbourne. He tweets at @andrewself.

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  1. Sure, “Boutique Activist Consultancy” is buffoonery, so clearly an embarrassment I can scarcely believe it is not in jest. It would be great to see who if anyone would respond to such ‘advertising.’ And if they’d ‘pay’ for it, they’d have to be the enemy, right?

    On the other hand, politics IS largely spectacle, certainly protest is, however real world its underpinnings, succeeds or fails in its goals as theater, so why should politics not be dressed up in a clown suit? It seems to us a greater danger than the odd folly or foolishness is the endless factionalism and inside-mauling among intellectuals in the big tent Left.

    As for a Left / Right populism, just what do you imagine a viable third-party would comprise, at least in its formative stages? The pop overlap is unmistakeable (if not unstoppable), especially as it concerns reforms to democracy essential to make third-parties possible and viable, whatever their composition, ab initio. E.g., proportional voting instead of winner-takes-all, public funding of elections, and end to the Electoral College…

    Schedule a debate with the guy if you want a dialogue, otherwise you’re in the same boat you’re sending White off to sea in.

    1. Thanks for the comment.

      Politics is largely spectacle yes, but part of Debord’s point is that it does not reflect any of the ‘real world’. One could argue that this leads to cynicism. We know what is happening, but continue to participate in the spectacle. This differs from politics that has the ‘real world’ as its underpinnings. This starts to move away from being pure spectacle in the Debordian sense I would say. But this is a much longer conversation.

      I am not sure what you mean by a ‘third party’? I don’t think populism is necessarily a negative thing, and we can take much from the unfashionable Ernesto Laclau here. It may not be an answer, but the ability of populism to link through chains of equivalence differing social demands to bring them together could be very fruitful for the left. Populism is ideologically empty, it is how it is used that is important.

      And some of the reforms you mention – proportional voting, and no electoral college do not even exist here in Australia, but that changed very little of the nature of liberal bourgeois democracy.

      On your last point, I have tried to contact him with no success. I suspect my lack of funds to pay him for his boutique consultancy might have something to do with that.

  2. Ha, that last is funny. I had the same idea to contact him through the guru form just to see if he was serious d/b/a, but managed to get through to him via G+ instead. Actually, he was kind enough to agree to review my book (book 1), and I’d like to extend the same offer to you. Contact the web manager at the site for a copy if you’re interested.

    I gather what you’re saying is that you do have proportional voting in Australia and are not burdened with an Electoral College? And this changed little? (not clear) I didn’t mean it as a guaranteed panacea for bourgeois two-party stasis, but you left out the crucial one, public financing, to which I’d add low threshold for becoming a candidate under the same rubric. Here stateside, you need 30 million and a law degree or business prominence to say boo.

    I’m not sure what you mean by politics that has the ‘real world’ as its underpinnings, and that is moving away from pure spectacle. In terms of Occupy, like all protest, it is spectacle with ‘real world underpinnings’ even without a specific set of demands or goals. How could any protest movement/spectacle be without such underpinning, even if frivolous? You mean ‘politics’ in general, equating ‘politics’ with a frivolous two-party bourgeois fiction?

    Here we have the problem of making any use at all of the electoral system, a number of steps seem necessary before that can happen, which I listed before. Getting those changes, which are ‘technical’ so to speak, with regard to democratic process and funding, would I think work well across the political spectrum as a populist position if candidates can be groomed.

    It is a long, winding road here I’m afraid, but the only way to get any traction here at all within the electoral process.

    Finally, back to Micah White. The fact is none of us are ‘holy,’ we are all ‘tainted’ with the hideous culture in which we are immersed, some more than others to be sure, some resisting some embracing, and some selectively resisting and embracing, which is what so many individuals and institutions on the Left are doing. It is unseemly, perhaps cynical, but on the other hand, as the heroine says in the novel, “There is scarcely an instrument of capitalism that cannot be used against it.” That includes marketing, etc. We are all faced with this conundrum to some degree.

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