An A to Z of Theory | Jean Baudrillard: From Revolution to Implosion

Ceasefire columnist Andrew Robinson begins an exploration of what Baudrillard's critique of capitalism has to say about political resistance, and explains why Baudrillard thinks that revolution is now impossible.

In Theory, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, August 24, 2012 12:32 - 2 Comments



“Baudrillard terms 1968 the first implosive episode, a ‘retraction’, a challenge to the hegemony of the social, a violent reaction to social saturation.”

Baudrillard and resistance

Last week, this column explored Baudrillard’s account of the collapse or implosion of capitalism. What does all of this mean for political resistance?  For one thing, it means that the dominant system must continue to be opposed. For Baudrillard, there is always something missing from the code. It is always incomplete, leaving a radical remainder.

The system is based on a split. The code is differentiated from reality. It has to be, to avoid symbolic exchange. It cannot achieve the complete inclusion which comes about with generalised reversibility. Yet the code tends to take over all of social space. Its “other” disappears or becomes invisible. It tries to be a complete system, a total reality. It largely succeeds in sucking intensity from social life. Yet it also remains vulnerable, because of the exclusion on which it is based.

Baudrillard theorises resistance in terms of the irruption of the symbolic in the realms controlled by the code. It is something like what Hakim Bey terms the ‘return of the primitive’. We really need the dimension of the ‘secret’. Its forced revelation is destructive and impossible. The return of the symbolic is discussed in various ways in different texts.

Resistance arises when subjects come to see their own programmed death in the accumulation, production and conservation of their subjectivity. They become fiercely opposed to their reduction to the regime of work-buy-consume-die. Resistance becomes increasingly nihilistic, in response to the programming of the universe. It becomes resistance to the code as meaning, and at the same time as lack of intensity. In seeking to restore intensity, it resorts to the modalities of symbolic exchange.

The impossibility of “revolution”

It is important to differentiate Baudrillard’s view from standard accounts of revolution. To be sure, this is the position from which Baudrillard emerges. In the early work, The Political Economy of the Sign, Baudrillard argued that the regime of the code could only be destroyed by a total revolution. ‘Even signs must burn’. Baudrillard’s early work can be read as a call for a Situationist-style overthrow of capitalism through a revolution in the everyday, which breaks the power of the code and of signs.

In more recent works, Baudrillard rethinks this view. He claims that revolution is now impossible. Baudrillard makes this claim because of the end of production. Revolution was historically seen as the liberation of the productive energy of humanity from the confines of capitalism. But if production no longer exists, this kind of vision has no hold. Labour has become another sign. There is no tendency for it to liberate itself by moving beyond capitalism.

Baudrillard is deeply critical of standard leftist responses to neoliberalism. He criticises revolutionaries of his day for seeking a return to the “real”. He sees this as nostalgia for the previous, Fordist period of capitalism. People seek to get rid of the code, and go back to the earlier kind of simulation. Or they seek to identify something which is not yet signified in the system and which ought to be – for instance, excluded groups who should be included. This actually ties people to the prior forms of the dominant system. For Baudrillard, the weapons of the previous period are already neutralised in the order of the code.

Revolution is a casualty of the end of the period of system-expansion. Explosions and revolutions are effects of an expanding order. This expanding order is an effect of the regime of production. But simulation is instead an inward-looking order. It is ‘saturated’ – it cannot expand any further. As a result, explosion will never again happen.  It has been replaced by the ‘cold’ energy of the simulacrum. Instead, there is constant implosion. The world is saturated. The system has reached its limits. It is socially constructed as dense and irreversible, as beyond the ‘liberating explosion’.

Baudrillard believes that we are past a point of no return: the system can’t be slowed down or redirected to a new end. We are in a ‘pure event’, beyond causality and without consequence, and every effort to exorcise hyperreality simply reinforces it. These are little fractal events and gradual processes of collapse which no longer create massive collapses, but exist horizontally. Events no longer resonate across spheres.

It is as if the forces carrying the meaning of an event beyond itself have slowed to a standstill. The London ‘riots’ or the student fees protests, for example, do not turn into generalised rebellions in Britain as perhaps they still might in Egypt or Greece. We are in an era of ‘anomalies without consequences’.

But the system will nevertheless come to an end, by other means. Even if people can’t revolt, a reaction is certain. Explosive violence is replaced by implosive violence, arising from a saturated, retracting, involuting system. The system has lost its triumphal imaginary because of its saturation. It is now in a phase of mourning, passing towards catastrophe.

Things don’t get transcended anymore, but they expand to excess. Baudrillard sees this as the culmination of a kind of negative evolution. Systems pass through stages: a loose state produces liberty or personal responsibility; a denser state produces security; an even denser state produces terror, generalised responsibility, and saturation. Beyond saturation there is only implosion.

Anti-consumerism is another target of critique. Criticising consumer society for doing what it claims to do – for supplanting ‘higher’ virtues with everyday pleasures – is a false critique which reinforces the core myth of consumerism. Consumer society functions as it does, precisely because it does not provide everyday pleasures. Rather, it simulates them through the code.

Baudrillard also criticises moral critique and scandal, such as Watergate. He argues that the system requires a moral superstructure to operate, and the revival of such a superstructure sustains the system. What is really scandalous is that capital is fundamentally immoral or amoral. Moral panics serve to avoid awareness of this repressed fact. Similarly, critiques of ideology risk reaffirming the system’s maintenance of the illusion of truth. This helps cover up the fact that truth no longer exists in the world of the code. Since there is no reality beneath the simulacrum, such analyses are flawed.

It is now the left (or the Third Way) that tries to re-inject moral order and justice into a failing system, thereby protecting it from its own collapse. Baudrillard implicitly criticises theories such as Laclau’s, which seek to re-inject meaning and intensity into politics. For Baudrillard, this task is both impossible and reactionary. Baudrillard sees the system as creating the illusion of its continued power by drawing on or simulating antagonisms and critique.

There is thus a danger that critique actually sustains the system, by giving it a power it doesn’t have. Trying to confront and destroy the system thus inadvertently revives it, giving it back a little bit of symbolic power. He also sees conspiracy theories and current forms of Marxism as attempts to stave off awareness of the reality of a systematic code.

In any case, the energy of the social is simply a distorted, impoverished version of the energy of “diabolical” forces (i.e. of symbolic exchange). Baudrillard thinks that societies actually come into being, not for the management of interests, but coalesce around rituals of expenditure, luxury and sacrifice.

Politics itself was a pure game until the modern period, when it was called upon to represent the social. Now politics is dead, because it no longer has a referent in reality. This is because it lacks symbolic exchange. The absence of symbolic exchange leads also to an absence of possibility of redistribution, either North to South or elite to masses.

Fascism also resists the death of the real, in a similar way. It tries to restore in an excessive way the phenomena of death, intensity and definite references, in order to ward off the collapse of the real. Fascist and authoritarian tendencies revive what Baudrillard terms ‘the violence necessary to life’ – they keep up some kind of symbolic power. (Baudrillard’s Lacanian heritage is clearly shown in this idea of a necessary violence).

Baudrillard has a certain sympathy for the desire to escape hyperreality in this way, but also sees it as futile. People doing this – both left and right – are trying to resuscitate causes and consequences, realities and referents, and recreate an imaginary. But the system deters such efforts from succeeding. Le Pen for instance is ultimately absorbed, as the mainstream integrates and repeats his racist ideas.

This analysis could also be applied to various “fundamentalisms” and ethno-nationalist movements today. This kind of resistance is ultimately reactionary, seeking to restore the declining regime of signs. But it can only be understood if its basis in energies of resistance to simulation is recognised. It is because it channels such resistance that it is able to mobilise affective forces.

Baudrillard’s analysis is here similar to Agamben’s view that the sovereign gesture is now exercised everywhere because of the rise of indistinction and indeterminacy. The paradox is that the performance of fundamentalism often leads back towards the world of simulation and deterrence. Such movements map symbolic exchange onto the state, restoring some of its reality, but ultimately contributing to the persistence of simulation.

Resistance from inside the regime of power is impossible because of deterrence. Baudrillard suggests that it’s now impossible to imagine a power exercised inside the enclosure created by deterrence – except for an implosive power which abolishes the energies preventing other possibilities emerging. He also suggests that the loss of the real is irreversible. Only the total collapse of the terrain of simulation will end it, not a test of reality.

A truly effective revolution would have to abolish all the separations – including the separation from death. It cannot involve equality in what is separated – in survival, in social status and so on. The strategy for change is now exacberation, towards a catastrophic end of the system. Baudrillard believes that the resultant death of the social will paradoxically bring about socialism.

The workers’ movement, 1968, and the end of representation

In analyses of labour struggles, Baudrillard suggests that the transition from production to reproduction has thrown workers into confusion. Strikes are difficult today because the idea of snatching back a fraction of surplus-value is thrown into doubt by the death of value. Since capital is no longer extracting surplus-value, it can leave strikes (and we might add, uprisings and protests) to fizzle out of their own accord.

As workers cease to be essential to production, unions cease to be representative. This leads to the phenomenon of the ‘savage’ strike: wildcat and grassroots actions, often emerging from migrants, youths or un-unionised workers (as in May 1968). They make unlimited demands for higher wages, or demand nothing at all. These strikes undermine the unions’ claims to represent or manage struggle, and threaten the edifice of the system. The unions tend to be mobilised to channel or defuse such movements.

Baudrillard thinks the process of undermining parties and unions as representatives is ultimately for the best, but it has costs in terms of a loss of clarity. Instead of demands, workers become able to directly exercise power, striking for no reason at all. Baudrillard sees migrant workers as particularly subversive. They have recently been extracted from ‘non-productivist’ traditions, usually by force. In turn, they destructure productivist morality. Their distance from western ideology gives them an ability to critique it. Baudrillard sees them as an internal colony, imported by the system. He also thinks industrial discipline – which is of recent origin even in the west – is starting to break down.

Baudrillard also discusses the growing tendencies towards reaction among certain sectors of workers. I would argue that there has been a vicious reaction from the old included groups who were happy with exploitation and representation. They resent their own loss of power, which they blame on the excluded for refusing to be represented. Baudrillard sees this phenomenon in terms of the inclusion of workers. They become reactionary when they are no longer struggling against their own dehumanisation.

He also argues that deterrence functions against workers because their power is so great. It is now possible for workers to shut down the system fairly easily. For instance, electricians can shut down a national economy by flicking a few switches. Precisely because the stakes are so great, so catastrophic, the power of workers is never used – just as the nuclear bomb is never used by states.

I think we should add here that this capability, which is not limited to workers (a lot of nodes and hubs are vulnerable to disruption), is difficult to use because of a generalised dependence on the system. It would only be effectively usable if the rebelling force had its own sources of resources outside the system – if it was not also shutting itself down.

Furthermore, people would need a total psychological rejection of the system to be prepared to use such total power. Both of these kinds of preparedness are generally lacking today, and are preventing the most effective means from being used.

Similar to the unlimited wage-demands are upward pressures on prices of raw materials from producer-countries. There is no upper limit to oil prices, just as there is no upper limit to labour prices. Their negotiation becomes political. This is because each is simply the price of peaceful coexistence with capital. It no longer has a definite value within the system. However, the system tries to defuse such demands through the threat of poverty. It threatens to withdraw the use-value of the entire system in order to prevent such demands – by forcibly delinking countries, or sacking workers.

There is no space of production or space where something happens. Nowadays, we are simply reproductive. And the new wave of struggles, from France 1968 onwards, strike at sites of reproduction, not production. Baudrillard thinks this process will eventually spread across society into a general challenge to the system.

Baudrillard terms 1968 the first implosive episode, a ‘retraction’, a challenge to the hegemony of the social, a violent reaction to social saturation. It started at Nanterre, which for Baudrillard was an early site of the new, hyperfunctionalised university lacking in a specialised function. Since 1968 and in response to it, the social has grown. But it comes closer in many micro-sites to reversion and disaffection.

Institutions such as the university are rotting. Yet rotting itself threatens the system, as it is a symbolic process, related to death. If the rotting becomes violent or ritualised, if it expresses mockery and defiance, it can be turned into something dangerous to the system. This, according to Baudrillard, is what happened in 1968. It challenged the system’s deterritorialisation with an even more radical deterritorialisation. It brandished the ruins of the university for all to see, as urban uprisings brandish the ruins of localities.

Today it is hard to brandish ruins because power itself is rotting. Behind the illusion of power, the terror of the code has grown. The system is approaching its point of no return. It is in a mode of disappearance, not of production.  Elsewhere, Baudrillard suggests that the strategy of 1968 was to force power to occupy its own place, thereby appearing as obscene. Not simply to make power seem repressive, but to make it seem simulated.

The 1968 effect was possible because knowledge entered the field of simulation ahead of power. Therefore, knowledge could be turned against power. This is no longer possible, because power has joined knowledge in the field of simulation.

While 1968 in Paris was showing the emptiness of power, in Vietnam it was the moment when non-war was waged to force the revolutionary movement to bureaucratise. And in China, in the Cultural Revolution, destabilisation was used to short-cut spontaneous popular movements. Baudrillard sees the 1968 revolt as an alternative politics which displaced activity back into the symbolic dimension. However, he also portrays it as a strategy of the system through entropy and the generalisation of difference.

The belief that one is productive is now a major ideological defence of the system. Today’s revolts are against the futility of reproducing the code for its own sake. The illusion of actually producing use-values or meeting needs undermines this revolt. This is why capitalism suddenly ‘admits’ what it previously concealed: that all institutions exist to serve the economy. It is keeping up a pretence that control exists for the sake of the economy, when in fact it exists for its own sake.

In the same way, exchange-values now hide the fact that commodities really circulate as signs. And people become nostalgic for scarcity and the morality it creates.  Baudrillard sees ecology and the fear of sudden crises such as oil shocks as examples of this nostalgia.

[Part Eleven will be published next week. Click here for other essays in this series.]



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Feb 13, 2014 1:27

[...] is lost. A contemporary reader might wonder whether this point has already been passed, as in the point in Baudrillard in which history is lost; or whether, perhaps, the onset of climate change is the pending [...]

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