Way back in the 1960’s the French activist Guy Debord talked about The society of the spectacle, which is a simple idea, but the book is quite hard to follow. Capitalism needs us in order to exist, but it also needs us to go along with its bullshit. Given that it’s one of the most destructive things human beings have invented, it has to really break our ability to see it for what it is. It needs us not to question political systems that are incapable of delivering the things we need, industrial systems that are destroying our ecological base, endless profiteering wars that suck resources out of poor countries, poor countries themselves being forced into credit-based economics where the debts will never be repaid but the people living there are always paying off their abuser first before they can do anything else … and so on, murder, theft and destructive mayhem all the way down. So it creates this surface of consumerism, of commodities, a shiny happy dreaming spectacle of beautiful and interesting things, a cornucopia where we are all contented and happy. It hypnotises us to go along with a convenient dream that doesn’t disturb its true intentions. This is the world the small L liberal or small C conservative thinks we live in, this magical world where the life-destroying actuality cannot be seen. It’s a world where the rule of law protects everybody, rather than only those who can afford it. Indeed the whole murderous charabanc isn’t there, it isn’t being driven at breakneck speed off a cliff and taking everything we know and love with it.
Vast swathes of ideas, of the things gven to you that you were asked to take for granted and make up your world view, come from the magic of capitalism. They come from the spectacle that we are all forced to live with. The spectacle that is choking us and helping us pretend that we are alive at the same time. We are are lied to, or more often just not told about, the imminent collapse of the systems we need to survive all the time. When their system is predicated on infinite growth but it sits inside another system we all need to survive that is, in fact, finite, you’re a bit fucked. Actually, now that you’re on the edge of things going exponential, a lot fucked.
Consider the following bits of magical bullshit:
You don’t live in a democracy. For example, in the UK, no government has won the popular vote since the 1930’s, and that government was a war-time coalition where the parties agreed not to stand against each other. Another example, the majority of its citizens want the rail franchises to be taken back into public ownership and run for the wider good, rather than stuffing the pockets of the already rich with subsidies. Neither do they think the continuing privatisation of the health service is a good idea, there is no support for it at all. There is a long list of things that people want or don’t want, but are never asked to vote on. This makes the Brexit farce even more ridiculous, they’ve been ignoring inconvenient majorities for years. Our owners don’t ask us to endorse their true plans, whatever wars or theft are coming down the pipe. On the other hand the things we might want are never discussed because they either cost money, or stop them making money, or they can’t make money from them. In the USA, something like 70% of the people want a health system like the NHS, but no politician will deliver it because the insurance and health lobbies like their cost-bloated destructive system just fine. The other thing with the US example, the people are at least nominally armed, and yet the politicians carry on with their rubbish without ever being shot, which is something of a mystery.
You don’t have any rights. On paper, we have rights to health, housing, education, all sorts of things. We have paper rights before the law, and in the various human rights charters our governments have signed over the years, but there is no easy way to access them if you don’t have money. In the UK, there used to be a system where the relatively poor could get legal help if the state, or a rich malicious person, decided to turn on them. The only way to do this now is to crowd fund your legal costs. There are several examples of rich people not liking what’s been said about them and using the defamation laws to shut people up. Justice is not served by who has the deepest pockets winning, but that’s the way it works. You get the justice you can afford, and if the government decides it doesn’t like you you’ll be lucky not to be bankrupted. Large corporations like Google stop legal fights in their tracks because they simply have the budget to steam roller over the concerns of state-wide laws, and the people who want to hold them to account cannot. Big-sounding fines are levied against banks like HSBC for money laundering, but the amounts are risible when you consider the amount of money they made from it, and don’t forget you can get tax relief on fines anyway because they are classified as an expense. On a more trivial level a Tory was let off without any kind of custodial sentence for paedophile photographs, and a homeless man sentenced to prison for stealing some baby milk and a pastie. You don’t have rights, unless you can buy them or have friends.
You don’t even have control over the things you think own if you get in the way. Consider, for example, the communities in the North of England who didn’t want fracking to take place. The local residents didn’t want it, the local council didn’t want it, the local MPs didn’t want it, environmentalists and the public all over the UK didn’t want it. People didn’t trust the reassurances about how safe it was because historically the burden cleaning up messes is pushed on to the folks who are left behind after the fact when the companies who make the mess have long gone, just look a what happened when the mines closed in the twentieth century. Massive amounts of money have been spent policing and forcing the will of the frackers onto the people who don’t want them there, these folks face having their local water table ruined against their will because some people from far away want to extract gas that would be best left in the ground. There was an agreement that, if earth quakes beyond a certain limit were detected, fracking would be halted. When the quakes were detected the company tried to get the rules changed. No-one who lives there wanted this, but it happened anyway. It has always been like this, but a lot of the time our owners aren’t interested in stealing what you have, at least not right now. The frackers are a company part owned and funded by billionaires like Rupert Murdoch, and what he wants he gets.
You can be stopped, searched, and even arrested, for no apparent reason. If a police officer thinks they need to do this you have no recourse, most of us don’t see this happening because we’re white, but it happens all the time to black folks, particularly if they commit the crime of driving a nicer car than the officer owns. Suddenly cops claim to smell marijuana in the cars of elite athletes and off we go. In the 1980’s, during the miner’s strike, it suddenly became illegal to travel down certain roads if you were a miner. No new laws were needed, and if anything the unchecked reach of the authorities is far worse now. Of course, most of the time, they don’t use these powers, but they are still there, and if you get in the way expect to be rolled over.
You thought slavery was over. If you don’t have a job you might get some small amount of money from the government to discourage you from actively stealing and rioting, but it’s not enough to actually live a decent life on. Most of us live in fear of losing everything if we lose our jobs. You don’t have agency, if you don’t work (or haven’t worked enough to retire, which takes a very long time), you will starve to death, probably on the street. The Marxian concept of wage slave has fallen out of fashion, along with the rise of a lot of ignorance about his ideas, but it’s still true. Only the capitalist and property-owning classes don’t have to work. Everyone else is their slave, but doesn’t realise it. In some of his commentaries Chomsky points out that US workers in the early twentieth century called themselves wage slaves, but that was before the spectacle drew us all in and conned us into thinking we were free. The paper laws only work for the owners, for the rest of us we get what we can afford, which is usually nothing.
This is simply a parochial view from the UK. If you live in Gaza you are in danger of being shot by a sniper, if you’re black in the USA you’re far more likely to end up in bad housing and/or prison. If you’re descended from indigenous people in Latin America there’s probably a death squad trying to drive you off your land to steal the resources under your feet from you. In the UK the spectacle is so effective that they don’t need to use violence very often, but make no mistake, the capitalist state acts with relative impunity and has a monopoly on the use of violence. At least it likes to think it does. It took the folks who lost loved ones in the crush at the Hillsborough stadium nearly forty years to get some kind of justice, not many people have that kind of determination, and is it really justice after having to wait and fight for so long?
The spectacle is there to make us passive and put up with what we’ve been given, and put up with it being taken away without a fight. Everything is turned into a commodity, for example the reverse R revolution over the entrance to the bar, or the pictures of the fervent anti-imperialist Ché Guevara tee shirts being worn by imperialist royalty.
The social commentator Mark Fisher wrote Capitalist Realism in which he describes how we live in a world where we are told there is no alternative, as per Thatcher’s dictum. It’s taken as a given that things cannot be done any other way. We are told that private enterprise and markets can solve everything, whereas the reality is they’ve put us deeply in danger. Like all human endevours you can see capitalism as a technology. It is far more deadly than any nuclear device, they only devastate some part of the world, if we continue as we are capitalism’s demands for infinite growth in a finite system will do the whole thing.