We have all sat enthralled by the recent images dancing across our HD TVs, our PC and Notebook screens, as events have unfolded in the Middle East and Northern Africa over the past few months. From Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt to Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, a surge of popular uprisings has appeared before us in brilliant and revolutionary technicolor – the actions themselves having become spectacular commodities for our collective consumption. Better than reality television, we sit engrossed in these unfolding media spectacles.
But that is not all. We have also been quick to adopt as our own the frequent refrains we are fed by our media pundits and political leaders concerning the interpretation of such events. Their drumbeat is incessant: these enslaved masses want freedom! they want choice! they want democracy! they want what we have in America! And we the people dutifully allow such assumptions to go unchecked while their irony escapes us. The facts are that America has long supported those very regimes against which the rebels are now fighting. The uprisings across MENA have become just another gimmick, another prop, another marketing tool for our own elite and their paid propagandists in a bid to suppress domestic unrest and opposition here in the homeland.
But this is not the end of the story. The US and its ad hoc coalition of co-conspirators have now gone further with this charade, claiming the moral high ground and inserting their own military muscle into that civil war in Libya. They have attacked a sovereign nation while the media mythology of a humanitarian mission continues unabated, faithfully echoing the talking points from our beguiling leader: that we are fighting for the liberation of our Muslim brothers and sisters who are longing to join the ranks of the free and reap the benefits of unbridled democratic capitalism. (BTW: It’s a song whose basic theme sounds an awful lot like the Soviet regime not too many years ago claiming to be fighting for the liberation of its brothers in Afghanistan.) And we the people sit guilelessly in the back bleachers listening to the choir and accepting such pabulum as gospel from the church hymnal.
We still remain comfortably entombed, again perched in front of those omnipresent big screens, gawking at the protests in the Wisconsin State House, and other sympathetic rallies that emerged across the U.S.A. We watched the quaint antiwar demonstration in Washington D.C. last December (attended by none other than author, blogger and war correspondent Chris Hedges along with the infamous Daniel Ellsberg). And we are witness to the demonstrations planned for New York’s Union Square, inveighing against the abuses of kleptocrats at Bank of America and other high-rolling, high-riding banksters. But, has the movement of resistance, the very act of defiance, of rebellion, itself not been co-opted in advance by the system that it is aimed at reigning-in or overturning?
As the Soviet émigré Mikhail Epstein pointed out many years ago in Transculture and Society: a society like ours, a culture that commodifies everything it touches, “is able to absorb and assimilate even revolutionary challenges [through] the mechanism of commodification.” In this way, any radical challenge to the system is instantly transformed, “denial itself, turned into another commodity.” Or, as Allan Bloom suggested with a slightly different twist in The Closing Of The American Mind, a liberal democracy is capable of taking even the most countercultural activities and absorbing them into the mainstream, transforming such acts into acceptable cultural practice – with appropriate rules, policies and procedures.
It is not an unreasonable bet that this is what happens time and again to the resistance movement in the United States. It is turned into a commodity to be hawked through new media like Facebook and Twitter, proffered for consumption by the mainstream corporate press, and corralled by the establishment of new political movements like the Tea Party gang. Resistance becomes hoodwinked and then mainstreamed; brought in under the Big Tent. Here we have the taming and suppression of the human spirit. Even in full battle mode, those seeking actual change have simply become a spectacle to be observed, tolerated, enjoyed, even lauded; then clicked off once the next commercial bursts onto our screens. So much for radical politics and real rebellion in America: even our most sacred acts of defiance, of insurgency, are now routinely transformed into objets de art, objets de cultura – commodities to be used for entertainment, distraction and propaganda.
The entire apparatus of our culture – a “culture of make-believe” as Derrick Jensen has dubbed it – may be brought to bear at any moment in defusing resistance, not through authoritarian suppression or banana-republic brutality, but through more subtle means of control, persuasion and marketing: allowing it, praising it, and repackaging it for distribution to the public. This in turn further stabilizes and emboldens the system, reinforcing its faux image of cultural, political or religious openness. As Allan Bloom well noted, openness becomes the enemy of the good; but it also becomes the enemy of any real challenge to the system itself. Openness betrays its true nature, as a core element of that “inverted totalitarianism” that Chris Hedges is so fond of discussing these days.
Ours is a system that gives much lip service to openness, reform, and fairness; but in reality it is one in which real change has become a genuine impossibility. Unfortunately – and what Hedges may have missed in his own acts of resistance – even our best attempts at “disrupting” the State or its mechanisms are easily hijacked by the regime and quickly turned into political treasure. In other words, while the State’s police forces and other Homeland Security thugs gingerly manhandle the rebels themselves (according to more or less agreed upon rules of engagement), the acts of rebellion are commoditized and re-packaged by the media, our politicians, and their puppet masters for general consumption by, and medication of, the populace.
In this way, any legitimate internal threats to the State are effectively disarmed through commodification and effective marketing. And the snake oil works! We demonstrate, we disrupt, we challenge, we take our lumps and go to jail for a night; and we think we are free and have a bona fide voice in how this entire show is produced. But the truth is they have us right where they want us; and us, what do we have? We have nothing but our medications and our enslavement to the State!
But, if you have any doubts about America’s totalitarian allegiances or the commodification of our resistance to it, just look at the arrests in Washington D.C. last Sunday (April 10th) of those demonstrating against our militarization of Latin America and our material support for totalitarian dictators in MENA and elsewhere around the globe. In that bit of news we were spectators to an “annual event” of self-described “street theatre and artistic expression,” including puppets and performances, as integral parts of the planned “die-in.” If the American resistance movement has not been transformed into just another commodity – another distracting entertainment – of our society of the Spectacle, then I do not know what it has become. I did not see street theatre in demonstrations across Iran, Egypt, Tunisia, or Libya. And I do not now see artistic expressions on the streets of Bahrain. We should stop drinking the cool-aid my friends!