An A to Z of Theory | Jean Baudrillard and Activism: A critique

Concluding his series on Baudrillard, capitalism and resistance, Ceasefire columnist Andrew Robinson here provides his own analysis of the usefulness and limits of Baudrillard's theory for activists today. He compares Baudrillard to other theories of crisis and collapse, and asks whether Baudrillard's theory is sufficiently global.

In Theory, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Thursday, February 7, 2013 0:00 - 0 Comments



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There are serious limits to Baudrillard’s work, in terms of his hostility to ‘minority’ struggles. Many of his formulations are inadvertently sexist and racist. There are also times when Baudrillard comes across as ableist in his critiques of the therapeutic. There are also times when Baudrillard attacks activism in strong terms: Hippies reproduce capitalist ideology; Feminists displaying images of porn are actually being seductive, against their will;  The left is keeping capitalism alive with its moral critiques and its quests for meaning. There are times when it is hard to tell if Baudrillard is a reactionary, attacking the concerns of progressives, or an ultra-left, criticising every rebellion as insufficiently extreme.

If one looks past such problems, however, there are important implications in Baudrillard’s work for emancipatory practice. Baudrillard’s work was clearly an influence on Negri’s early work. Ideas such as the reduction of the system to command, the spread of diffuse apparatuses of power and the panic of the system in the face of its own arbitrariness reappear in texts such as Time for Revolution. The idea of the ‘code’ or system functioning as a self-propelled irrational machine is also reminiscent of primitivists such as Fredy Perlman.

Baudrillard seems to see the regime of the code as the high-point of civilisation, in an almost anarcho-primitivist sense. Where he differs from such analyses is that he sees the core of civilisation not in technology or the domestication of desire or the ‘political principle’ of state power, but in the denial and suppression of symbolic exchange. Baudrillard is partly thinking through the issue of diffuse power. In capitalist and statist social regimes, power is immensely concentrated. He also gives a particular spin to the distinction between expressive and instrumental.

We can link the idea of the ‘code’ to preventionism and its impact on protest. As discussed above, Baudrillard’s idea of initiatory groups could also be applied to activist ‘neo-sects’. Baudrillard also offers answers to some of the big questions of today regarding psychological barriers to revolt. The loss of reality might explain why hope for liberation seems so hard to come by, and why revolutionary movements now seem to lack a clear vision of transformation.

The Immediatist Potlatch would be an example of gift-exchange as political action. Occupation of the remainders and waste-grounds of cities has been a constant aspect of dissident practice, from Traveller communities such as Dale Farm and shanty-towns in the global South, to reclaimed factories used as squats, to projects such as South Central Farm. Reversibility could also be thought of in terms of vendettas and cost-imposition. These return to the system the power it exercises, reversing it.

Another useful way to extend Baudrillard’s work is to cross-read it with Open Marxist views of capitalism as a process which must constantly be reproduced to exist. Simulation is not a finished process. It has to be constantly repeated in order to be kept active. The process of deterrence (or counterinsurgency) is therefore an ongoing process.

Baudrillard is often misread as celebrating the end of reference and the triumph of self-referential signs. It is easy to see how this misunderstanding came about, since he advocates outbidding the system in its own disintegration. He doesn’t think it’s possible or desirable to “go back” to production or fixed meanings. But the central point of his work is still anti-capitalist. He sees the system as unable to provide anything referential or emotionally meaningful. He sees it as a kind of totalitarian engine of permanent mobilisation for the empty goal of its own reproduction. Even in his ‘fatalistic’ later works, he remains fiercely opposed to the code and the system.

Baudrillard’s critique of Marx is interesting, and I think largely valid. What he puts in place of Marx’s theory is, however, contentious. His recent work gives the impression of a disillusioned Situationist seeking to find an alternative to revolution in a world where none is apparent. As a result, he finds ways to read conformist mass practices as unconscious resistances, irrational systemic functioning and implosion, and so on. Baudrillard is also too prone to conflate system collapse with liberation. There are scenarios of implosion which would not lead to liberation. One might, for instance, think of climate change due to overconsumption as a scenario of system-collapse. This would bring about the end of the code, but also possibly the end of humanity.

In some ways, the idea of implosion echoes Sing Chew’s theory of world-system collapse. Based on previous episodes of collapse, Chew argues that the world-system will collapse when it reaches its ecological limits. It won’t explode; it will collapse inwards and break down as the processes which sustain it are reversed. Each ‘civilisation’ is followed by a ‘dark age’.  Populations move outwards from cities, power is diffused, and local knowledge replaces global knowledge. This is not quite what Baudrillard has in mind, but similar enough to be suggested as an effect of continued implosion.

Or maybe implosion should be compared to the ‘extraordinary communities’ of disaster, to the sudden collapse of the system’s management structures after which people take over their own self-management (as in Argentina), to the fraying round the edges of a system which can no longer secure the code at its more remote limits (as in Africa). Perhaps as the code burns itself up, we will be left occupying wastelands where we are finally free, but at great cost. Hence, an implosive collapse of the system might give rise to a hope for other social forms. It might, after all, be liberation in disguise.

What of the crucial concept of ‘symbolic exchange’? Baudrillard’s discussion of symbolic exchange oscillates between three poles. Firstly, it refers to the experience of living in an embedded society, with rituals, exchanges and local knowledges. Secondly, it refers to the crisis-effects of the decomposition of the code, which create symbolic exchange as their effect. Thirdly, it refers to a kind of experience beyond the regime of simulation, through arbitrary connections. The political effects of the process Baudrillard advocates is thus rather ambiguous. Does the rise of symbolic exchange herald a return to embedded forms of social relations, to some kind of modern band or tribe which reproduces aspects of embedded forms, or something else entirely?

The recovery of immediacy, connectedness, uncoded relations, ‘exchange’ between signs and the world, are important aspects of disalienation. However, I have issues with the Lacanian view of the subject which underpins Baudrillard’s theory of symbolic exchange. It is possible to endorse Baudrillard’s view of the death of value in capitalism and the creation of a self-reproducing code, without necessarily seeing the alternative in terms of symbolic exchange and death. A wide variety of other theories are attempting the same thing – from ‘anti-civilisation’ theories to Agamben’s ‘whatever-singularity’. It might be more useful to hitch Baudrillard’s critique to a more affirmative theory, than to attempt to follow his ‘fatal’ strategies.

Another important aspect of Baudrillard’s work is his awareness of the close relationship between sign-value, status, and conformity. People are held back by their attachment to status. Baudrillard says that the exploited can demand only the minimum, but lower their status and they can demand everything. This observation relates to the rise of exclusion and autonomy in movements of resistance. By becoming autonomous, endorsing a position outside the system and rejecting the competition for status, the ability to resist is reclaimed. We can’t fight capitalism in determinate forms because it no longer has a goal, or determination. But we can fight its ‘secret weapon’: the reproduction of labour as an ideology or imaginary. This might, for instance, be expressed in the refusal of work.

One of the areas in which Baudrillard’s work is particularly useful is media critique. Media power allows all kinds of shenanigans in international relations. In Haiti in 2004 for instance, the US could simulate an entire crisis so as to invade and remove Aristide. The media reproduced the US narrative to the letter. In this case, simulation aids the powerful. In Rwanda, according to Peter Uvin, the opposite happened. External attempts to promote civil society led to a simulated civil society, produced by local elites to capture aid flows. Arguably, states in some African countries are themselves simulations, set up to attract external aid. In such cases, relatively marginal groups extract resources through mastery of simulation.

Baudrillard also seems to have a sharp sense of the strategic issues facing resistance today. On the one hand, political positions and subjective standpoints are codified as representable and quantifiable: as yes/no options on opinion polls, as particular niche markets susceptible to market research and targeted advertising, as psychological labels conducive to particular drugs or CBT methods, as variables to be added to a Facebook profile, and so on.

On the other hand, managerial procedures (classroom management, prison management, parental management, crisis management, protest management) are invented to provide a prior meaning and a predetermined response to each irruptive event. If a dirty protest, then tape up the cell; if a refusal to move, then send in an ‘extraction team’ using ‘pain compliance’, and so on. The effect is that every option available to resisters has already been encoded, given a meaning and a response. This makes the system seem impossible to fight. Its framing of the available options turns it into a kind of habitus, or second nature, which most people don’t even see as a social construct. The code makes it difficult to resist, because any act of resistance is reinscribed, either as another yes/no choice, or as another social problem to be managed.

These are challenges which can be met. Baudrillard’s analysis suggests that the system is vulnerable to any act which disregards consequences or is irreducible to the existing frame of possibilities, which is not a “rational action”. This is why the loss of fear has been so central in understanding revolts, from Tahrir Square to Tottenham. In addition, the system remains vulnerable, both to new tactics which it hasn’t thought of yet, and to any event on such a scale that it overwhelms available resources. Just-in-time production has reduced redundancy within systems. The result is that they don’t have the resources to spare, to cope with any events beyond the usual. This is suggested by Baudrillard’s view that the police simply simulate repression. As long as people are broadly conforming, the simulation works. The moment the unexpected happens, the police become unable to repress effectively. If Baudrillard is right, then the slightest thing escaping the system’s rationality is enough to pose a challenge to it.

The idea of involution suggests that the system is beginning to fray around the edges. As control is tightened, peripheral areas slip out of control. This phenomenon is widely discussed in relation to the global South. But fraying can also be seen in the system’s apparent incapacity to respond to emergent events, because of just-in-time production and the maintenance of systems lacking redundancy. Something like the August insurrection can spread on the basis of unexpectedness, rapidity and limited police resources.

Baudrillard’s theory of deterrence needs to be reconsidered in light of recent events. We have seen in 2011 that it is still possible to create events: the London unrest, the student protests, Occupy, the Wikileaks saga…  The system does not actually have the power on the ground to prevent revolts, occupations, movements. Even the system’s vice-like grip on future significations is being partially broken through movements like Occupy, which conveys different future images in its own rhetoric. Anonymous turns the anonymity of statistical indifference into a source of strength, using tactics based on the very vulnerability to excess the system creates – such as distributed denial of service attacks (using an excess of web connections) and leaking of documents (relying on the obscene overexposure of information in the Internet).

The difficulty, rather, is in sustaining events and expanding new frames of meaning.  The system monopolises and determines the effects of events, and kettles them in time and space. Firstly the system controls the ways in which events are signified to non-participants. Secondly the system, having once faced an event, will prepare in detail to prevent it “next time” – so it is hard for events to become waves. And thirdly, the system unleashes a dreadful wave of repression after each event, attempting to foreclose its irruptive force and restore the pervasiveness of terror. Resultant feelings of futility, anxiety and vulnerability are corrosive of movement-building and of repeated cycles of similar events.

The movement of revolt towards a terrain of refusal of meaning is also partly an effect of the system’s move towards coding. The apparent lack of demands in recent waves of social unrest (e.g. the Mark Duggan uprising, the banlieue revolt, the Greek insurrection of 2008, the Occupy movement, summit protests), and even many of today’s “terrorists”, is perhaps a result of the prevalence of the code. The presentation of demands risks reinscription as simply a militant version of a position already encoded within the system. People respond with actions which counterpose their own expressiveness to the code. This is also perhaps why theorising the conditions of possibility for an Event has become such a popular theme in contemporary radical theory.

Another possibility could here be added. It is possible, in open-ended surveys, to give responses deemed too complex to be codable. In principle, a more heterogeneous humanity would escape the code through each individual’s irreducibility to prior categories. There are also certain texts, such as Cabal, Argot and Barbarians, which argue for incommunicability as a necessary part of radicalism. The system demands that everything communicate in its terms. Therefore, esoteric language is an effective resistance.

Baudrillard’s theory also helps to explain why his appropriation by leftists has been strategically unsuccessful. Collectivist theories such as Negri’s are limited in that they fail to see the overexposure to the social. The masses do not feel a simple lack of the social but an overexposure – both in the pressure to consume sign-values, and in telepresence.

Collectivist alternatives open up a vertigo, seeming like more of the same, but even more totalising. Of course, Negri’s alternative would be a disalienated sociality, not a more totalising simulation. But if Baudrillard is right, most people can no longer tell the difference. And the move Negri makes – to attempt to re-socialise what he takes to be an atomised field – is the wrong move to recompose disalienated socialities. It is not a move which leads from the masses, the social ‘obscene’ or overexposed, to a disalienated sociality.

Recomposition requires first of all the decomposition of people’s connections to a dominant sociality. People need to rebel against this collectivism as a ‘new individualism’, an emphasis on desire and self-actualisation against the pressure to conform, before alternative social forms based on autonomy can be constructed. Today’s sociality rests on conformity rather than compassion. An authentic sociality can only proceed by rejecting and destroying this basis. At the same time, individuals cannot become free without transforming from a type of subject which internalises the code. The conception of self which is an after-effect of conformity, the neoliberal subject, is as much a barrier to self-liberation as to compassion.

One limit to Baudrillard’s theory is his tendency to over-totalise. Baudrillard is talking about tendential processes, but he often talks as if they are totally effective. There are still, for instance, a lot of uncharted spaces, a lot of unexplained events, a lot of things the system can’t handle. While Baudrillard is describing dominant tendencies in the present, these tendencies coexist with older forms of capitalism, in a situation of uneven development. The persistence of the system’s violence is a problem for Baudrillard’s perspective: the smooth regime of neutralisation and inclusive regulation has not ended older modalities of brutality.

At times, Baudrillard exaggerates greatly the extent to which the old authoritarian version of capitalism has been replaced by subtle regimes of control. He exaggerates the extent to which contemporary capitalism is tolerant, permissive and ‘maternal’. This may be because his works were mostly written in France in the 1970s-80s, when the dominant ethos was still largely social-democratic. What Baudrillard recognises as the retrograde version of capitalism associated with the right-wing was to return with a vengeance, especially after 911.

Another problem is a lack of a Southern dimension. Like many Northern authors, Baudrillard’s approach mainly applies to the functioning of capitalism in the North. The penetration of the code is substantially less in countries where information technology is less widespread. In parts of Africa, even simple coding exercises such as counting votes or recording censuses are extremely difficult. This is for the very reasons of respondent reflexivity which Baudrillard highlights. People will under-record themselves to stay invisible, or over-record themselves to obtain benefits. And without massive resources to put into its bureaucracies, the system is unable to find enough people who will act as transmitters for the code. Instead, people use their power to extract what they can from the system.

Explosions still happen regularly in the South. Furthermore, a contracting system ‘forcibly delinks’ large portions of the globe. Its power on the margins is lessened as its power at the core is intensified. As the system becomes ever more contracted and inward-looking, liberated zones may appear around the edges.

Without an element of border thinking, Baudrillard tends to exaggerate the system’s completeness and effectiveness. Baudrillard assumes that any excess is everywhere absorbed into the code. He ignores the persistence of borderlands. And when he talks about the South, he admits that the old regime of production might still exist here: people still work seeking betterment; colonial wars are fought to destroy persisting symbolic exchange; Saddam was not playing the Gulf War by the rules of deterrence. The Arab masses are still able to become inflamed by war or non-war; Iran and Iraq can still fight a real war, not a simulated non-war. So perhaps only a minority, only the included layers within the North, are trapped within simulation and the ‘masses’. Perhaps reality has not died, but been displaced to the South.

It seems, therefore, premature to suggest that the system has encompassed all of social life in the code. To be sure, its reach has expanded, but it has also forcibly delinked large areas of the globe. The penetration of simulated reality into everyday life varies in its effectiveness. At the limit, as in Somalia, simulated states collapse under their own irrelevance. In other cases, an irrelevant state hovers over a largely autonomous society. And the struggle Baudrillard advocated in his early works against subordination as labour-power is not simply theoretical. In fact, there is a constant war, fought at various degrees of intensity, between the system and its others, especially in highly marginal parts of the global South: Chiapas, Afghanistan, the Niger Delta, Somalia, West Papua, rural Colombia, Northeast India, the Andes… The system continues to be drawn into these conflicts, despite its apparent self-deterrence from total nuclear annihilation.

Andrew Robinson

Andrew Robinson is a political theorist and activist based in the UK. His book Power, Resistance and Conflict in the Contemporary World: Social Movements, Networks and Hierarchies (co-authored with Athina Karatzogianni) was published in Sep 2009 by Routledge. His 'In Theory' column appears every other Friday.


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