Tuesday, October 5, 2010

spectacle and austerity

Across France on Saturday (2 October), huge demos protested misery measures. But how huge, and who decides if such protests matter?

No secret: the business of capitalist news media is to market assertion, not to expose the truth about what happens. Circulating along with all the other transmitted garbage, truth rushes past, like slips of the tongue - but above all as truth about the concentration of social power congealed in every media report.

In the current coverage of resistance to austerity in Europe, what is striking is how relentlessly state and corporate news reports reduce massive, embodied contestation to mere contention - to assertion and counter-assertion about how many protesters were actually in the street.

The process is a form of castration: precisely the logic of spectacular representation Guy Debord raged against more than forty years ago. Maybe it won't be useless to recall how it works, and see how it is still operating today.

Power's representations of struggles from below routinely alternate between two forms.

If resistance is growing, mediated power repeats the mantra that it does not matter: austerity measures are necessary and inevitable, and we will ram them through anyway, no matter what you do.

If resistance weakens, mediated power congratulates itself for finding its predictions confirmed: that's right, just like we said, told you so, what exists is best because it exists and cannot be contested.

Struggles "appear" within the spectacle in one form or the other: defeated in advance or in fact, but in any case always and only defeated. The two castrating forms of representation are like the barbs of the pitchfork analytic philosophers use to spear and dismiss whatever fails to please them: inconvenient propositions are either "interesting but false" or "true but trivial."

Those in struggle can afford neither to ignore the castrating representation machine nor to mistake its products for reality and fate. Facing the media, they have to be both radically critical and strategic. Clarity about how it works is some protection against demoralization.

How many protested? Protesters say X, police say X/2. The battle of numbers is inevitable under the logic of spectacle. The aim of reducing the quality of struggle to quantity in this way is always to insist that nothing can change unless our masters above say so.

The representations, in turn, effect the balance of forces they are supposed to represent: if resisting workers can be convinced that the turnout for their strike failed to meet expectations or that the size of demos is falling and people are going back home, then this undercuts their morale and position in the force field. On the other hand, if a struggle is perceived to be growing and has a change of winning its aims, then those watching may dare to join it and thereby cease to be spectators.

Thus the cliché of hyper-mediatized capitalist politics: perception is reality, spin works. Radical praxis opposes the context that confirms this but in the meantime cannot ignore it: what is being contested, after all, is not the number of protesters but the repeated assertion that austerity is inevitable, that life cannot be organized otherwise.

If contestation can be reduced to mere contention, the real stakes never have to be acknowledged. This is particularly clear in an online report posted Sunday on France24: it pretends to mistake the war of representation for the main object to be reported and represented. The first part is reproduced below.

French unions hail protests a success but govt says numbers are 'down'

by France24 (3 Oct 2010)

Almost three million people joined protests across France to voice anger over changes to the retirement age according to trade union officials, while the French government put the figure at 900,000. Unions called on the government to "open dialogue".

AFP - French unions on Saturday brought millions of protestors onto the streets, they said, shunning strikes for rallies in their latest salvo against President Nicolas Sarkozy’s pensions reform plan.

“Around 2.9 million” demonstrators have taken part, the CFDT union’s deputy leader Marcel Grignard told AFP, “roughly the same number” as during the last day of action against raising the retirement age from 60 to 62 on September 23.

“This is a successful mobilisation. We expect the government finally to pay attention to this popular expression and take action on its plan,” Grignard said.

But the interior ministry said that numbers were down, with 899,000 taking part in over 200 rallies around France, although in western cities such as Rennes heavy rain reduced the number of demonstrators.

“Everyone recognises this evening that the movement has got no bigger,” said government spokesman Luc Chatel.

The protests were the first to be held at the weekend after two days of weekday strike action in September that failed to bow the government.

The previous day of action ended in an argument over how many people took part: police said numbers were down from the previous September 7 protest at around one million, unions said they were up at three million.


  1. All true, but the problem runs deeper even than spectacle and number fetishism: in order to stop Sarko and his gang, the politics of fear of this hyper-active cop must also be addressed. So, yes, fight against the "reforms" (a misused word if ever there was one) to the retirement system, but also fight the deportation of the Roma. All good communists need to show the necessary link between the two.

  2. Thanks, anon. Excellent point. Assuming you are a good communist, please send me more about this link and I'll be glad to post it. Meanwhile, I've put up a couple images that open the door to you...