by O’Shay Muir
In Adam Curtis’ new documentary film, Hypernormalisation, he describes the spirit of our time as one in which people have lost faith in the political status-quo. Due to this loss of faith, popular demagogues like newly-elected US president Donald Trump have come to fill the void (Curtis, 2016). Curtis argues that political figures like Trump are the creation of the cultural logic of modern consumer societies (2016). Deformed chimeras that have escaped the control of the sorcerers who created them.
Curtis argues that from the 1970s onwards, the worsening economic and political conditions of many western nations resulted in a retreat into fantasy for both the right and the left (2016). Not wanting to, or unable to, comprehend the social complexities of the time, the right opted for the fantasy that the logic of the market could solve the crisis (Curtis, 2016). This faith in the market was combined with the belief that technological progress in the field of information and communications was giving rise to a new form of capitalism. This new capitalism was believed to be free from the limitations of material production and able to avoid speculative risk through the advance of information technologies.
Illusions on left and right
The hope that the right placed in their economic models and the advances in information and communication technologies led to the fantasy that the world was entering a stage of capitalism freed from the periodic crises of the past (Curtis, 2016). The left on the other hand, disheartened by their inability to create revolutionary social change during the upheavals of the late 1960s and 1970s, retreated into self-made fantasies of creating revolutionary social change from outside economic and universal political struggle (Curtis, 2016). Instead they increasingly turned to creating new communities and identities outside the cultural and political mainstream (Curtis, 2016). Militant political agitation was replaced with artistic expression and universal emancipatory politics was replaced with supporting the isolated struggles of marginalised groups while fetishizing the alienation of such groups from one another in a positive light.
For both the right and the left this created a bizarre fantasy world, where both sides could convince themselves that what they were doing was working, while the world outside fell into decay. The term ‘Hypernormalisation’, used by Curtis to describe this cultural malaise was coined during the last days of the USSR. Soviet citizens used it to describe how the state went into an ideological overdrive to describe how everything was fine while the system began to collapse (Curtis, 2016). Like the USSR, the ideological state apparatuses of many western nations have also descended into a state of hypernormalisation.
Curtis argues that the right and the left in the west for decades have been united under the same ideological umbrella. This ideological umbrella being the cult of the neoliberal self (Curtis, 2016). While the rise of industrial capitalism gave birth to the view of the liberal self that is not beholden to church and state and is a free rational actor with the power to create their own material reality, the rise of digital capitalism has given birth to a neoliberal self that is not beholden to cultural traditions and is free to create its own identity. While the liberal view of the self as being rational and capable of recreating material reality gave rise to universal emancipatory politics, the neoliberal self’s focus on identity has resulted in a narrow and divisive form of politics. This fetishizing of the self can be seen in both the neoliberal right-wing self as consumer and the neoliberal left-wing self that structures its reality around the multiple and often contradictory particularities of identity.
State of breakdown
The latest embodiment of this dominant ideology of the self was US president runner up, Hillary Clinton. Zizek argues that Clinton embodied this dominant ideology through her broad coalition. A uniting of the imperial interests of US capital with the growing popularity of gender and sexual politics (Zizek, 2016). The defeat of Clinton at the tiny hands of Trump has sparked the death knell of the unity between market liberalism and identity politics. Despite the backing of the corporate and political establishment along with endorsements from celebrities and academics, she lost.
The ideological status-quo has now shown itself to be in a state of breakdown. In the same way that Marx used Hegel’s logic to uncover the universal logic of capital, one can do the same, to uncover the universal logic of the ideological breakdown of the status-quo. Hegel’s logic describes the movement from ignorance of reality to the formation of theoretical structures that are the truth of reality and enable people to act based on such truths. Hegel argues that since this movement from ignorance to truth is dependent on cultural-historical development which in turn is dependent on the development of concepts that guide social activity, his logic is the logic of development itself in its most abstract form.
In regards to the ideological breakdown of the status-quo it can be understood through the movement from Being to Essence in Hegel’s logic. Hegel’s conception of Being describes a state of reality that exists prior to conscious contemplation. Hegel argues that Being is pure immediacy. It is Being as such and as such it is indeterminate. This means that it only stands in relation to itself. Hegel argues that since Being is pure immediacy with no determinacy, Being is also Nothing. Both concepts pass into their opposites. As such they include the concept of Becoming. Being becomes Nothing and Nothing becomes Being.
Just the way it is
This state of Being and Nothing can also be used to describe the mundane everyday consciousness of people as they go about their lives without critical contemplation. Things are simply the way they are. While Hegel’s conception of Being describes it in its most abstract form, the concrete Being of social reality is an immediacy that is at the same time mediated through social activity and the concepts that guide these activities. This means that people uncritically go about their daily lives guided by cultural knowledge. Often this cultural knowledge is unconscious.
An example of how people can be unconsciously influenced by cultural knowledge is shown through Fink’s explanation of the intellectual relationship between psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. Fink argues that Lacan explains how people are unconsciously guided by cultural knowledge through Levi-Strauss’ account of a villager explaining the layout of his village. “The subject of the signifier is what might be called the ‘Levi-Straussian subject’, in that this subject contains knowledge or acts on knowledge without having any idea that he is doing so. You ask him why he built a hut in his village in such and such a place, and the answer he gives seems to have nothing to do with the fundamental oppositions that structure his world and effectively order his village’s layout” (Fink, 2002, p. 22).
Another example of how cultural knowledge can be unconscious is Zizek’s use of Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism as an extension of the theory of ideology. Zizek argues that the basis of commodity fetishism is a social belief in the intrinsic value of money (2008/1989). Zizek argues, that this belief functions through one’s participation in the market rather than in passive intellectual contemplation. This means that while as contemplative individuals, people most likely do not believe in the intrinsic value of money, through exchange they act as if it does (Zizek, 2008/1989). Zizek argues, that capitalism is dependent on this collective acted belief as it mystifies the social relations of production and how value is created through the exploitation of labour (2008/1989). Zizek argues, that Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism shows how ideology functions through social activity as well as private beliefs (2008/1989).
From Being to questioning
At the core of this guiding cultural knowledge is the concept. Hegel argues that the totality of material culture or what he refers to as Spirit is structured through concepts. These concepts are the product of Spirit and they shape the consciousness and actions of the members who reproduce Spirit. This means that social development, shapes the development of conceptual consciousness, which in turn shapes the actions of individuals, who in turn shape social development. Hegel argues, that this process is driven by people trying to comprehend Being using their existing concepts. When these concepts prove themselves to be inadequate, people are driven to create new concepts.
For this process to occur people need to be lifted out of the state of nothingness that is Being. While people remain guided by the concept in Being, they have yet to reach a state of questioning. At this stage people exist in a state of continuing sameness. Due to this state of continuing sameness, people have little reason to question their reality. When this state of continuing sameness is somehow disrupted, people can be driven to critically contemplate their reality and the concepts that structure this reality. Hegel refers to this process of having to overcome inadequate concepts to arrive at a true conception of Being as the Essence. Since Being is the totality of reality within both nature and Spirit, the development of conceptual truths is the result of consciousness abstracting moments from this reality.
Hegel argues that consciousness can perform this process of abstraction due to the mediating role of Determinate Being in the relation between Being and Essence. Previously I mentioned that Hegel argues that Being and Nothingness are interconnected through the mediating concept of Becoming. Hegel argues that the movement from Being becoming Nothing results in Determinate Being. This is because the concept of Nothing invokes the concept of a something. Hegel argues that Being as something supposes the concept of Quality. He goes onto argue that Quality as something is finite. This is because something supposes it is that thing and not another.
This results in placing limits on what the thing is. The placing of limits on what a thing is means that if the thing crosses over these limitations it is no longer what it was. It becomes a new Quality. This means that the concept of limitation invokes the concept of overcoming, therefore giving rise to the concept of change. Hegel argues that this process of qualitative change results in the concept of Quantity. This is because the process of qualitative change occurs within spatial and temporal settings that can be measured. Hegel argues that this possibility to notice and measure qualitative change is the first step in consciousness journey to truth.
In regards to the ideological breakdown of the status-quo, the process of Determinate Being is the social qualitative changes that disrupt the state of continuing sameness. Due to this disruption, there becomes a disconnect between social reality and the dominant ideology that explains this reality. This ideological breakdown is further exacerbated through the internal contradictions within the ideology itself. For the ideology of the neoliberal self these two processes can be seen through the social qualitative changes brought about through the 2007 global economic crisis, imperialist interventions and meddling’s in North Africa and the Middle East and the contradictions between the self as consumer and the self as creator of its own identity.
The growing economic uncertainty since 2007 has disrupted the fantasy held by the right and the left that class politics is an outdated concept and people are more concerned with private issues focused around identity. The imperialist interventions abroad and their blowback in the form of terrorism and the refugee crisis has shown the emptiness of concepts like multiculturalism. Multiculturalism is what Hegel refers to as an abstract universal. It tries to overcome difference through the praise of difference. Unity in the name of unity. An empty tautology.
What is missing in the concept of multiculturalism and other empty liberal universal concepts like intersectionality is the fact that people only become connected to a universal through the particular. Hegel argues that concepts have three parts; Universal (name), Particular (types) and Individual (person and object). This means that while people in society are influenced through the same universal concepts, there understanding of them will be shaped by the particularities of their own individual lives. For concepts like multiculturalism and intersectionality without a shared particular like class, that cuts across other particulars like ethnicity, gender and sexuality there is nothing substantial to unite people. Instead they become bogged down in their own identities and the mirage of unity gives way as the reality of unmediated differences leads to antagonisms.
Modern capitalism’s cultural logic(s)
The fluid reality of modern identity is mostly due to the cultural logic of late capitalism. A stage of capitalism dominated by the production of spectacles rather than material commodities. This domination of the spectacle has its roots in the rise of 20th century consumer society. For the first half of the 20th century these consumer spectacles were connected to Fordist production. In the same way that Henry Ford allowed people to choose any colour car they wanted so long as it was black, people could only construct their identities per the limited, ready-made, and often oppressive choices offered by cultural tradition and consumer commodities. For a brief period, the countercultural movement managed to disrupt the hegemonic intersection between limited traditional identities and consumer expression.
The Fordist paradigm’s reliance on marketing readymade commodities to limited consumer segments could not cope with a younger generation who demanded variety and refused to be imprisoned in the cells of cultural traditions. However, capitalism managed to do what it does best. It adopted to the changing cultural circumstances and mostly abandoned Fordism.
The rise of Post-Fordism saw a switch from marketing readymade commodities to limited consumer segments to researching the consumer preferences and lifestyle choices of individuals and then creating and marketing commodities for such people. This means that the greater freedom people have in constructing their identity, the more opportunities for capital to create consumer commodities for such people. In our own time the rise of social media has increased the freedom that people have in constructing their identity. Thus, the opportunities for capital are becoming endless.
While people in consumer societies today have greater freedom to construct their identities, this identity construction is still mostly performed within a capitalist context. Using information technologies people construct a virtual representation of themselves within the confines of the algorithms set by the likes of Facebook and so on. A new form of pseudo individuality has emerged that would even make Adorno blush. At the heart of this neo-pseudo individuality lays the contradiction between the neoliberal self as consumer and the neoliberal self as free to construct their own identity.
While one may have greater freedom to express their identity be they trans or otherkin (someone who identifies as another species. Real or mythical. Yes, this is a thing), the fact that they are subjects of capitalism remains. As subjects of capitalism they either own the means of production or they do not. They either mostly achieve their means of subsistence by selling their labour-power or they live off the surplus labour of others. While one may express themselves anyway they see fit in their virtual lives the fact remains that they are still material beings. As material beings, economic concerns drive them. One can push identity based social reforms all they want, which has its place in the universal emancipatory struggle, but the economic reality remains.
The inability of the left to realise this reality has contributed to the ideological breakdown of the status-quo. The left is now in the state of Essence. Trying to understand what happened using the inadequate existing concepts at hand. Whether they will move pass this stage and reach objective truth (Idea) is yet to be seen. One can see this process of Essence in the western political climate in general. The dominant ideology of the unity between market-liberalism and identity politics no longer explains reality or offers a sense of social and psychological stability.
The ideological status-quo has broken down and people are now driven to understand their reality through alternative narratives and come up with new ideas. While this process of Essence can give rise to progressive ideals and movements, it can also give rise to its opposite. Scapegoating narratives of hate can explain the sickening social reality and deformed idealisations of the past can motivate people to create a new future. Sadly, the continuing failure of the left to make a clear-cut separation between itself and the right and build a universal emancipatory movement is resulting in this very dark alternative.
Curtis, A. (2016). Hypernormalisation. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-fny99f8amM&t=39s
Fink, B. (2002). Knowledge and Jouissance. In Barnard, S. & Fink, B (Eds.), Reading Seminar XX: Lacan’s Major Work on Love, Knowledge and Female Sexuality (pp. 21 – 45). Albany, United States: State University of New York Press.
Hegel, G.W.F. (2001). Science of Logic. Retrieved from http://www.hegel.net/en/pdf/Hegel-Scilogic.pdf (Original work published in 1812).
Zizek, S. (2008). The Sublime Object of Ideology (2nd ed.). London: Verso (Original work published in 1989).
Zizek, S. (2016). Trump Against the Machine: How Political Elites Failed. Retrieved from http://bigthink.com/videos/slavoj-zizek-on-donald-trump-presidency