Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War

Overcoming the Endless Misery of Capital

Retort [Iain Boal, T.J. Clark, Joseph Matthews, Michael Watts], Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War (London & New York: Verso, 2006).

The 21st century is off to a bloody start. From terrorist violence to the carnage of US imperialism to assorted anti-occupation militancy (in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and elsewhere), we have witnessed brutality on a massive scale. Witnessing has, in fact, been fundamental to this process, as contemporary violence has been formatted to fit our television (and computer) screens.

The present book seeks to shed light on the intersections of imperialism and imagery. In it, the San Francisco Bay Area-based anti-capitalist discussion group Retort offers a multifaceted critique of neoliberalism aimed at developing a more effective revolutionary Left. Initially released in 2005 as an antiwar broadsheet entitled “Neither Their War Nor Their Peace,” the book is a wide-ranging, historically informed appraisal of the current political moment. It restores the best of the Left tradition of polemics: it is knowledgeable, non-dogmatic, furious, theoretically rich, politically challenging, and beautifully written. Complementing Naomi Klein’s reporting in Shock Doctrine, Retort provides an analytical framework with which to interpret the chaos of 21st-century imperialism and strategize our response to capitalism’s endless misery.

The greatest contribution of Afflicted Powers is its emphasis on spectacle as fundamental to contemporary capitalism. Spectacle underscores the ways that the display of power (whether imperial, leftist, or reactionary) is fundamental to its actualization; all sides use spectacle to build support and to contest for hegemony. The authors turn to Situationist Guy Debord, who defined spectacle as “capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image.” Spectacle, says Afflicted Powers, is not just the ubiquity of mass communication systems; it is the full integration of imagery as politics, “the key form of social control in present circumstances, but also a source of ongoing instability” (188), for it offers the illusion of political efficacy. It is violent, vicious, vanguardist. It substitutes images for actual changes in power, and it cedes leadership to those able to pull off the most daring action. Capturing ears and eyes becomes more important than winning hearts and minds.

Politics as spectacle dangerously levels the playing field, making available the apparatus of mass destruction to all who are callous, committed, and savvy enough to carry it out. As a result, the 9/11 attacks were a tremendous “image defeat” for empire—and many US global actions since then can be seen as a response to that defeat, waged as much through spectacle as through physical violence. Indeed, the authors do not treat the two as mutually exclusive: spectacle “is a social process—a complex of enforcements and exclusions—devoted to the suppression of social energies, with the imaging and distancing of those energies being only one (among many) of its techniques. The spectacle, that is to say, is deeply (constantly) a form of violence—a repeated action against real human possibilities, real (meaning flexible, useable, transformable) representations, real attempts at collectivity” (131).

Aided by the realm of spectacle, torture, terrorism, and tyranny do not need to be experienced to be felt. In that, the authors argue, physical violence has an impact that extends far beyond its immediate victims. Visibility contains its own political message and political work. Thanks to television and the internet, “circuits of capital are bound up, in the long term, with circuits of sociability—patterns of belief and desire, levels of confidence, degrees of identification with the good life of the commodity” (26). The image of defeat and denigration can be the most accessible point of vulnerability. Think 9/11, Shock and Awe, Abu Ghraib. Torture and terrorism, both bloody spectacles, rely on mediation to do their dirty work—they are inseparable processes. Bombs and images are mutually constitutive for both empire and its many foes. Or, as Retort puts it, “Ultimately, the spectacle comes out of the barrel of a gun” (131).

The US invasion and occupation of Iraq provides the catalyst for this analysis. The authors situate their critique in a refreshing, frightening, and creative take on contemporary capitalism and its vulnerabilities. “The invasion and occupation of Iraq must ultimately be located, in our view, in the deadly alchemy of permanent war, capitalist accumulation, and the new enclosures—all now conducted under conditions of the spectacle” (43). Afflicted Powers successfully bridges postmodern theories of representation, Marxist understandings of capital, and the best leftist impulses toward global solidarity. Besides introductory and concluding arguments, the authors devote chapters to oil, permanent war, Israel, and revolutionary Islam. Throughout, they proffer a layered critique of the economics and ideologies through which imperial power is claimed and contested.

In attempting to strengthen the antiwar movement, Afflicted Powers challenges sloppy thinking on the Left, such as the “no blood for oil” argument, which the authors see as short-sighted, contradictory, and conspiratorial—blaming the venality of normal capitalist relations on only one sector, and then suggesting that this industry itself is responsible for an immense imperial gamble. But, they argue, “never was a conspiracy less interested in concealment” (44). Blaming oil for the war in Iraq misses how “imperial oil” achieved such dominance—and, more dangerous, it fails to grasp the mechanics of capitalist war. The shift to permanent war is fundamental to what the authors dub military neoliberalism, i.e., hyper-nationalist US policies of military conquest in the service of dismantling social welfare and expanding capitalist control. As soon as they advance this interesting explanatory concept, however, the authors question its novelty, linking the phenomenon itself with long-standing practices of primitive accumulation. In fact, they argue, capital is always looking to expand, and thus perpetually seeking out new commons to control. Primitive accumulation always means war, now carried out under conditions of spectacle.

The politics of permanent war are most visible in Israel. For Retort, Israel reflects the illusion that the West can be projected onto the Middle East. Almost wholly part of the US empire, Israel is described by Afflicted Powers as both a failed state and a failed spectacle. While the former is a hallmark of neoliberalism, the latter spells defeat. The authors reject the view that Israel is a “strategic asset” for the United States; instead, they see the Zionist state as “the pernicious double identity of the American state” (110)—a settler state attempting to make itself palatable through catchy slogans of “democracy” that proponents hope will obscure its inherent politics of permanent war. Yet Israel is a liability; the continued association of the US and Israeli governments fuels outrage at both, making both imperial projects untenable.

If analyzing Israel brings out the bloody but fragile nature of failed spectacles, the discussion of revolutionary Islam provides the launching point for a critique of vanguardism: “The creed of revolutionary Islam… borrows heavily from the Marxist canon: vanguardism, anti-imperialism, revolutionary terror, and popular justice” (149). Building off the failures of secular nationalism and postcolonial statehood—failures caused, it should be said, by the dual venality of neoliberal economics and Cold War politics—revolutionary Islam constitutes the most visible anti-imperialist force today. It is urban, modern, male-dominated, technologically savvy, and cross-class in appeal. It is “universalist, multicultural, and internationalist” (167). And it is helping run civil society in many countries with Muslim-majority populations.

Revolutionary Islam has been far more effective at propaganda of the deed than the Left ever has, successfully casting US or US-supported imperial ventures in the Middle East as wars against Islam itself. Punctuating this analysis with periodic attacks has given revolutionary Islam enormous appeal, the authors argue. This movement is not just urban, but a byproduct of the concentration of wealth that has created sprawling slums alongside crass consumerism. Responding to the horrors of both colonialism and consumerism, revolutionary Islam mixes Lenin’s vanguard ideal with Microsoft’s technology and Che’s call to trap the empire in endless conflict. It is a blowback, targeting American imperialism through a reactionary mobilization that avails itself of certain Marxist tools while rejecting Marxist politics as just another failed Western trap.

Retort usefully spotlights the state as a site of struggle. “States are deeply war machines, and the peace they make is the peace of pacification” (94). Thus, our demand must be for more than “peace.” Ours is a quest to dismantle the apparatus of permanent war—politically, ideologically, socially, economically. Moving beyond the state, argues Afflicted Powers, requires a challenge to the project of modernism itself. Such a task is not easy, and unfortunately Afflicted Powers is clearer on what to avoid than on what to embrace. The primary task of a contemporary Left is developing and promoting an alternative to capitalist modernity (consumerism, primitive accumulation, war). Such an alternate vision must eschew vanguardist aspirations or styles; indeed, Afflicted Powers relies on Hardt and Negri’s concept of the “multitude” precisely because it is by definition not a vanguard force. The book is not entirely devoid of concrete suggestions; it argues, for example, that removing military bases constitutes a central front in the struggle against imperialism. Still, the authors’ focus remains almost entirely abstract; their strategic suggestions are macro and international, at times leaving the reader wanting more concrete ideas for developing a Left within the heart of empire.

Afflicted Powers concludes by calling for a democratic struggle to reclaim the commons without pining for a mythical Return or Rapture. In an appended interview, the authors acknowledge the dangers of only discussing what is not to be done. But they argue that reviving the critique of modernity would at least be an improvement on the “utter intellectual nullity” of the current scene. Afflicted Powers describes the elaborate hall of mirrors constructed from capital, communications, and carnage. But, the authors warn, reflections only bounce around for so long before they lose salience and shatter. For the spectacle “is a social process that is hollow at the core” (182), which means that US defeat in Iraq will ultimately be far more damaging than the loss in Vietnam “for it will register a failure to impose imperial will in a region that lies near the economic and geopolitical heart of things” (5). Ultimately, imperialism shows its colossal brutality, whether in the power-imbalance between stones and tanks or in the ease with which US corporations set up shop across the globe.

The revolutionary goal is not to develop a more successful spectacle but to craft collectively a new form of politics, rooted in the present and articulating a vision for a just future. Unfortunately, Afflicted Powers is fairly quiet on what this process might look like—the authors reject the current bloody politics of spectacle yet are silent on whether spectacle itself might factor into a reinvigorated radicalism. The book’s Situationist bent would suggest that the authors see some role for what Stephen Duncombe has recently called an “ethical spectacle” (Duncombe, Dream, New Press, 2008), yet their critique stops short of identifying any productive political role for seizing the means of communication. Cautioning against surrendering political calculations to aesthetic appeal, Afflicted Powers nonetheless seems to suggest that defeats on the battleground of spectacle comprise political openings for challenging reactionary rule. Walter Benjamin long ago declared that fascism aestheticizes politics, whereas communism revolutionizes art. Especially in a society so heavily dominated by mass media, it would seem that no one is safe from the alchemy of turning politics into images.

Reviewed by Dan Berger
University of Pennsylvania

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