The Flip Side to the Commodification of Revolution: A Critique of the Activist Scene

By nato thompson

Growing up during the rise of the spectacle and culture industry it shouldn’t surprise us that our forms of resistance will substantially differ from those of previous generations. Because we have grown up during a period in world history where the economy is largely based on the production of our very own subjectivities, we may find navigating the terrain that is ourselves more difficult than we imagined. While it is easy enough to state that these changes effect the manner in which we conduct ourselves, it is much more difficult to pin down exactly how. This essay focuses on some clues I have on this subject. Looking at activist culture as just one more mass-produced cultural “scene” provides a cynical but also illuminating take on some of activism’s more contradictory approaches.  If we can extract the tenets of counter-culture that actually reify the capitalist ideology instilled in us by millions of baby boomer marketing dollars, and instead find methods for operating in radical culture on a strategic revolutionary level, then some progress has been made.

My interest in the relationship of counter-culture to radical politics turns on an important historic shift in the global economy. The move from a manufacturing economy to a post-Fordist information economy has moved identity and cultural production from the periphery to the center of our economic daily life. Let me say this differently, due to the growth of spectacle in mediated form (television, film, books, music), our very identities are now the battlegrounds of American capitalism. This analysis is nothing new - however, most theory does not trace these results through everyday experiences.

The economy that was once rooted in manufacturing (making cars, radios, dishwashers, beer and snacks) is now based on the flow of information. The flow of information and the products that it develops has a particularly different reality connected with it. I can not stress this enough, and if I sound like I am repeating myself, it is only that I sincerely believe that the implications of this point are continuously under recognized. One could argue that subjectivities are constantly produced through transitions in the economy, and that the shift to the information economy is not nearly as dramatic as the shift toward the industrial revolution. There is nothing particularly new in saying that who we are is in large part a result of the economic and technological shifts of our time. But what is absolutely different in the information age is that our subjectivities ARE the economy. We are not merely the results of production - we are the actual product. Imagine how many advertisements we have seen in our lifetime that have shaped the psychological terrain of who we are. In terms of sheer scale, the amount of time, energy, money and technology deployed throughout the course of our lifetime to influence who we are is historically mind-boggling. This new form of capitalist manipulation finds its very first subject in our generation and we typically operate quite removed from this as a substantive part of our aesthetic analysis.

Michel Foucault used the term bio-power to include the institutions of discipline that reinforce subjectivities of control, but I would like to break away from that slightly, to simply refer to cultural production. The Situationist’s clumsily, but insightfully, attempted to generate theory that inserted spectacle as a core attribute of the contemporary age. As fellow political organizers and artists, we must continue this important work by developing a language that accounts for the effects that mediated subjectivities have on political organizing (particularly in light of the fact that this magazine invests itself in studying this role). This shift, and the fact that these factors primarily manifest in forms of cultural production, places the arts in a historically different role in terms of their relationship to challenging power.

What makes the culture industry so pernicious is its ability to take the raw materials of our labor, cultural production, and turn it rapidly to its own use. In large part this could be called the commodification of revolution. Tellingly described by Thomas Frank’s Commodify Your Dissent and Naomi Klein’s No Logo, the commodification of revolution was the lesson of the 1990s. Whether this included the mining of the 1960s cultural arcane, such as Jack Kerouac wearing Khakis for Gap or Bob Dylan singing jingles for Volkswagon (the people’s wagon no less), or the co-opting of revolutionary imagery, such as Taco Bell’s Chihuahua as Che Guevara, the market for visual signifiers destroys their inherent meaning. While radical signifiers develop their meaning through their historic roles within communities, the market uses them until every last drop of meaning has been squeezed out.

The commodification of revolution is not a new story but one we are all familiar with. However, I would like to propose that there is an entirely different aspect occurring alongside this commodification. This alternate dynamic is rooted in a history of capitalist identity and finds its home in alienation. While we might argue that a band sold out for doing a jingle, we are also busy constructing new identities in response to the alienation this event inspired. Our constant search for non-alienated forms of participation at times has the effect of simply re-affirming our role in the cultural production circuit.

I tend to use pop music culture as examples of this because they are generally more familiar and move outside the niche discussion of “art.” Pop music also provides an opportunity to use the banalities of everyday life to demonstrate the level of power that operates within them. Many might say that a group like Rancid who played at the no-sell out punk rock venue, Gilman Street, pretty much sold out. When this lovely bunch of drunks entered the popular main stream, they lost their rowdy fan base. For the adoring Berkeley fans, the group’s meaning had worn out. But for the general audience, the group’s meaning had just begun.

What changes as a band gains fame? In the case of Rancid, it wouldn’t be the music nor any radical change in their message. They were pretty vapid on both counts. What truly changed was their relationship to counter-culture. That is to say, in today’s media-oriented  culture, we often associate our own subjectivity via our attitudes towards music, fashion, art, etc. Illustrated in Dick Hebdige’s 1979 book, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, many folks, particularly in the radical arts community, tactically choose an “outsider” position as a comfortable form of identity. Hebdige tellingly writes:

“Style in subculture is, then, pregnant with significance. Its transformations go ‘against nature’, interrupting the process of ‘normalization’. As such, they are gestures, movements towards a speech which offends the ‘silent majority’, which challenges the principle of unity and cohesion, which contradicts the myth of consensus.”

While style can be seen as a small tactic of resistance and identity formation, it is also an economy of difference. We learn who we are, in large part, by declaring specifically who we are not. One might say that questions of race or gender determine this for many, and that it is too simplistic to simply describe these as choices. I agree and I don’t. To what degree does capital rigidify notions of identity for the sake of consumption? To what degree do we gravitate toward these constructions as safe-houses for self understanding? Of course, finding an “outside” community to participate in is a genuine reaction. However, as we get older and the positioning of outside becomes naturalized in the manner in which we navigate the world, a strange confusion takes hold.

In constantly re-assessing where the inside and the outside are, we naturalize the fluidity between identity and ideology. Just to be simple: we might say that we no longer listen to Rancid because they sold out, but in fact, we don’t listen to them because we hate the idea of liking music that the rest of America has embraced. This is to say that to position oneself “outside” requires that one’s choices are never in cahoots with a popular majority. Yet, a sense of betrayal is inevitable in these circumstances, and it is this betrayal, this sense of “selling out,” that I want to investigate.

In understanding this problem, I would like to introduce the forces of alienation that I think are at work. There are many types of alienation out there that are indicative of contemporary life, but I take interest in the alienation produced through spectacle, as described by Guy Debord in Society of the Spectacle, mixed with the alienation described by Alexis de Tocqueville at the beginning of the 19th century in Democracy in America. This combination provides a space where the flight for subjectivity moves in a constant state of agitation between the alienation of the spectacle and the alienation of democratic liberty itself. The growth of mediated cultural production in contemporary culture and the corollary emphasis on the individual in American democratic capitalism produces a situation in which we must sew the current political landscape through our own habits and style choices.

“Although the spectacle seems to function through desire and pleasure (desire for commodities and pleasure of consumption), it really works through the communication of fear – or rather, the spectacle creates forms of desire and pleasure that intimately wedded to fear.” – Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire

Alienation has become the driving force in the culture industry. Below I list four “moments” in this configuration of alienation.

1. In a culture of alienation, we naturally gravitate toward spaces that produce meaning for us outside of capital. In the case of Rancid, for me, this was Gilman Street. This non-profit DIY punk club refused to play any major label bands, thus positioning itself in relation to capital. However, even the feeling of seeing a band in an apolitical club would probably have the same effect. The band exists outside popular culture and is “ours” on a deeply personal level. It is a less-alienated experience that we take as our own.

2. We see ourselves in relation to our cultural interests. The label “sold out” tends to have less to do with an anti-capitalist position then it does with anti-populist tendencies. In choosing to no longer associate with a band that has become popular, we retain our outside/avant-garde/cultural underground positions. That is to say, in recognizing a dissonance between an aesthetic choice and our style identity, we settle the issue by changing the aesthetic choice thus retaining our style identity.

3. We possess an intuitive understanding of the power of capital as it applies to growing signifiers of meaning. As an example, the larger a band gets the more we see them operating in the sphere of capital and control. A band once operating like ourselves, outside of the terrain of capital and control, suddenly is in cahoots with the forces of power that exploit us. Rancid is suddenly singing at Pepsi-sponsored arenas for Clear-Channel-sponsored world tours.  These moments make us crazy. How could they do this?

4.  While all these conflicting emotions play on us, we may cover them up in a language of capitalist critique. We castigate the band we liked under the veneer of a capitalist critique, but secretly, we just hate that they became famous. This is the kicker. And what could capitalism want more than for us to burrow down and begin our supposed underground quest for new cultural products? Nothing could be more complicit than our constant obsession with cultural niche markets and affinities for the supposed “underground.” Our ideology acts as a screen to preserve our capitalist cultural identities. While we may all accept that these tendencies exist when it comes to our musical tastes, what becomes more difficult is when we move this analysis toward other spheres of cultural production. For the purposes of this article, I would like to posit that these same tensions exist in activist circles.

An anecdote on the brilliance of hipsters

A few months ago, I was sitting with an undergraduate art student and the conversation inevitably turned to activism. The young artist says to me, “I don’t like the activist scene. They are all self-righteous, they tend to be hippies and they don’t have any fun.” What caught my attention was the description of activism as a “scene.” I countered, “but what if it isn’t a scene? What if anyone in any scene could take part?” He then insightfully countered back, “You’re kidding yourself. Everything is a scene, activists being one of the more obvious.” I initially dismissed the idea as a defensive reaction by yet another naïve hipster but his point remained with me. He was right. Activism is a scene and in fact, viewing the world as a series of cultural “scenes” has become normative. Instead of an ideological position, activism is yet another system of sign-play that allows one to differentiate themselves from others. If this kid sensed that most activists got into the game because they could carve their identity out of the rough-hewn block of self-righteousness, he was right. What he sensed, and what is absolutely accurate, is that what makes activism completely unpalatable for others is that activists are completely unaware of how transparent their disdain for the people they are trying to save is. That is, if activism, like all scenes, is built on the premise of defining who you are not verses who you are, then the contradiction reaches its most painfully obvious form in a scene dedicated to helping those in other “scenes.” Activism, as a scene, must overcome its own cultural contradiction.

We must all accept that, if not ourselves, we know many folks who get into the game of activism out of a deep down resentment for all humanity. Yet resentment or alienation tends to be the fuel that creates ever-increasing cultural movements. This convolution finds its resolution in realizing that in the growth of the culture industry we have begun to confuse ideology with identity. The two are constantly interwoven and our inability to discern them produces a situation where a value system quickly manifests as yet another social maneuver for “hipness.”

“Thus, not only does democracy make men forget their ancestors, but also clouds their view of their descendants and isolates them from their contemporaries. Each man is forever thrown back on himself alone, and there is danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart.” –Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

This focus on the individual is not simply a vestige of capital, but also an important American phenomena. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of the burgeoning democracy that is the United States in the early 19th century: “Americans are so enamored of equality that they would rather be equal in slavery than unequal in freedom.” His skepticism and appreciation of the roots of American democracy also pointed to an ongoing crisis of isolationism. Capital and identity, alienation and democracy - these two conceptual oppositions go hand in hand. We know who we are by who we are not, and the ramifications of this find their more haunting legacies in colonialism and institutional racism.  Given the American tradition of “freedom” and isolationist personal values, we shouldn’t be surprised by a cultural market that consistently re-enforces them. The market speaks to the individual through her/his own experience of alienation. The 1990’s focus on the “rebel” wasn’t simply a co-optation of the radical movements of the 50’s and 60’s, but actually a taking advantage of the great American experience of “alienation.” We are alone. We are a nation of rebels. Contrary to the claims of Marx and Debord, alienation is also a symptom of the democratic process in its historic form. For those of us operating in the cultural sphere, we must take this legacy seriously and tactically position ourselves within it. These contradictions are particularly acute when dealing with the art-activist crowd; a crowd that most likely feels an innate sense of personal freedom and expression and yet wants desperately to resolve this with the needs of social movements.

We probably have within us more than a few seeds of contradiction where we both hate the masses and feel determined to help them (and ourselves). We probably suffer more than a few headaches from the need to be “underground,” while simultaneously facing a careerist culture where we must go out and get a job. This not-so-talked-about subject seems to surround the activist culture on a daily basis and must surely effect the manner in which we establish a counter-cultural sphere.  In an infrastructure of resonance - the physical and social spaces that facilitate the movement of counter-culture - the ability to recognize these tensions might prove useful.

National alienation: red and blue states what?

“The problem is not that Democrats are monolithically pro-choice or anti-school prayer; it’s that by dropping the class language that once distinguished them sharply from Republicans they have left themselves vulnerable to cultural wedge issues like guns and abortion and the rest whose hallucinatory appeal would ordinarily be overshadowed by material concerns.” – Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas

There are also bigger fish to fry than deciding whether or not a band has sold out. In the wake of a growing cultural sphere, the identity positions within it are being decided by an increasingly powerful Right and a sold-out political system. Stepping into the void of a class-based public discussion, the Right Wing has maneuvered themselves into a powerful position for shaping cultural subjectivities. The classic Red State, Blue State situation is a dubious way of interpreting a complex terrain of shifting identity-based allegiances. The Bill O’Reilly-Rush Limbaugh phenomena isn’t as mind blowing when peered at through the alienating lens of spectacle. Of course folks in the Mid-West can’t stand the “city slickers” with their reality TV lifestyles. These mythologies of who “we” are, and who “they” are, are useful for those at the wheel of the information economy. It’s useful for pro-life enthusiasts and Monsanto big-business, but it’s also quite useful for Hip-hop, fashion and indy-music as well. In fact, it’s also a good bit of fuel for the inner self-righteous activist in all of us.

If we substitute identities for ideology, we gain a better sense of why most politics make little sense. We are reading them wrong. When we hold a demonstration, who are we holding it for? When looked at as a statement of identity, most folks watching on television will not see themselves on there, they’ll see just more of the same privileged youth, hating America. If that seems dumb, it is because it’s not being read through the experience of alienation. Televised protests are alienating for many folks.

This article combines two separate books by Thomas Frank, Commodify Your Dissent and What’s the Matter with Kansas. The alienation of spectacle does not simply effect the ways we interact with each other, but also the ways in which the battleground against capital is laid out. If we understand the shifting terrain, we can re-position ourselves within it. As artists and activists, we must understand the ways in which we internalize spectacle and play into these divisive traps. We must understand that alienated desire is not at all times in cahoots with the fight against capital and control.

If the cultural sphere is visually programmed, then we should locate and design spaces of slippage, where these reactive categorical barriers are broken down. We must also locate strategies that operate with the understanding that alienation is a driving force in culture. Above, Thomas Frank proposes that a good way to fight the shifting terrain of identity is to tie that slippage to an analysis and position in regards to capital. To not only call out the Republicans, but also the Democrats for being the party of capital. The Democrats inability to take a strong position against capital makes them a weak uninspired party that resonates with the very few. Without any reference to material reality, politics becomes a “scene” of never-ending sign play.

To what degree are our ideological positions style choices? To what degree are identities of vegan, straight-edge, hippie, non-violent, pro-choice, anarchist, leftist, tactical mediatition, lifestyle anarchist, squatter, black bloc, Earth First, just a tad bit removed from skater, punk, raver, gangster? Are these really positions or are they a way for us to carve out a personal niche in the activist “scene”?

Why does the “tactical” black bloc outfit look so conveniently like the over-the-top ominous clothes of their kindred, the squatter punk? In the realm of art-activism, to what degree are we simply applying the formula of the music scene’s cool-hunter to the next wave of art-activist paraphernalia? Are technological interfaces for protests really useful or are they just a method for providing a new “style” in the realm of protest boredom? Is it really that radical to introduce new forms of “style” to protests? Is the introduction of cultural innovation to protests just our way of finally contributing to the scene of activism in the only way we know how? Finally, to what degree do our “radical” politics replicate the subculture capitalism that we have been brought up on?

I am not attempting to provide answers in this essay. I know that constant conflagration is typically a bad idea in an all-too cynical cultural tide. My ultimate thoughts on this are that at times, pragmatic solutions are not necessarily as chic as we might like them to be. Operating in the radical aesthetic terrain, we must constantly be on the watch for our own predatory capitalist tendencies and the methods by which ideological posturing are only a veneer for new identity culdesacs. How to escape this trap is a little more difficult. In essence, we must consider broad cultural goals and move through the anti-populist tendencies that have made use who we are. We must consider the level of alienation that operates on a grand cultural level and see our actions as tactically positioned within that matrix. Ultimately, we must try to be honest about productive results and not to out-radicalize each other in a dubious quest for recognition on the level of Rancid.

1. Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style (New York: Methuen, 1979) pp. 18.

2. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000) pp. 323.

3. You might ask, “What about political bands like Fugazi and Dischord records?” Well right, I would never say that there are not ethical bands out there nor that music is a bankrupt media. I just think that Rancid demonstrates the case better. However,  these same tendencies exist regardless of the politics of the bands. Our internalized constant cool-hunter does not simply vanish if a bands politics are good.

4. Alexis de Tocqueville , Democracy in America (New York: Harper and Row Publishers), pp. 528.

5. Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004) pp. 245.