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part 2

The Limits of Democracy

"...society becomes a mechanism and an organism which ceases to be comprehensible to the very people who participate in it, and who maintain it through their labour." Henri Lefebvre, on the process of alienation. [1]

"The Western model has made tabula rasa of the old forms of oppression and instated a democracy of the supermarket, a self-service autonomy, a hedonism whose pleasures must be paid for. ... The system has realised in the nick of time that a dead human being is more of a paying proposition than a dead human being - or one riddled by pollutants." Raoul Vaneigem [2]

The trouble with a state that purports to base its existence on the People's Will, is that it then has to go some way in ensuring that the People's Will is met, or at least pay lipservice to the idea. This is the position in which the Western industrial nations found themselves after the Second World War. Vestiges of old notions of tradition, privilege and precedent could no longer be appealed to. People knew their "rights" and one of these was the right to vote. In response, the expansion of the "consumer society" which had been developing steadily since the turn of the 19th century due to assembly-line mass-production techniques [3], was stepped up, partly as a response to the Cold War challenge of Stalinism and Communist theory. The consumer society served to create an ideology of consumer capitalism based on the notion of the citizen as consumer and spectator, rather than participant, of events. This was even true in the Soviet Bloc, as post-Stalinist leaders were able to hold out promises of consumer goods to ensure the smooth running of the state apparatus. [4] Of course, none of the capitalist oligarchs and communist apparatchiks wanted to have anything to do with the "People's Will." In the Soviet sphere, the carrot-and-stick approach was dependent upon a rather big stick, the gulag. In the West, as the above quote from Raoul Vaneigem points out, a cunning system of free elections, consumer choice and growth of an entertainment culture served to keep the energies of the population in check, while actual freedoms were tightly governed by State control. 1968 saw the crisis point of this system in both East and West. In Czechoslovakia, reformers within the Czech Communist Party were instituting a series of mild reforms, while, far more importantly, allowing an explosion of free speech all over the country. It was this latter development that alarmed the Russians, and influenced their decision to send in troops. The crushing of the Prague Spring showed how terrified the system was of freedom of thought, and discredited, for once and for all, the Soviet system. [5] In the West in that same year, French students and workers revolted against de Gaulle's government and the whole post-war French state system. In the United States, opposition to and criticism of US involvement in Indochina was dramatically increasing, encompassing, as in France, a wholesale rejection of the American state and what it now stood for. In the West, although a police response was used to counter these expressions of protest, allegiance to the system was ensured by still greater abundance of pleasures to consume. [6] But it is more than simply "bread and circuses" that maintains the Western system of consumer capitalism. Rather, it is the mentality of consumption and spectatorship which dominates our thought and decides our priorities.

Hegemony: Power and Practice

As early as the 1920's, jailed Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci was articulating the idea of what he called "egemonia" (in Italian "the presence of power," usually translated as "hegemony"). Hegemony is not simply the "superstructure" as more conservative Marxist critics would maintain, but the most everyday factors of life as these are lived within the frames that we think of - if we think of them at all - as having freely chosen. This "everyday consciousness" is produced and shared by all members of the polity, but is dominated by the dominant class. There is political society, which is the realm of the State, and civil society, the realm of the people - and Gramsci sees these in a conceptual opposition, although they are one and the same. Gramsci is careful to avoid reductionism, however. For example, a state-run broadcasting system is clearly at one level part of political society. But this does not mean that everything which takes place within the system, or everything that is broadcast, will be subservient to the State or reflect ruling-class interests. [7] Civil society is the site of consent and hegemony; political or state society is the site of coercion and control, yet of course they make up the single entity we live in and consider "society." Gramsci's analysis of hegemony, or the permeation of popular thought by the ruling class, is a useful tool for cultural historians and in cultural studies, as it can be used to analyse culture as a set of material forms and practices, and the institutions in which cultural forms are produced and by which they are rendered significant. For practical purposes, Gramsci had no innovative solution to the problem of the domination of hegemony by the ruling class. He hoped that it might be counteracted by a systematic but gradual re-education of the People by an organised Communist intelligentsia based on the experience of the workplace. [8]

The New Left

Following the Second World War, and the defeat of fascism by the combined strengths of "democracy" and "communism," the forces that shaped the popular consciousness were influenced by technological development, deliberate expansion of the consumer society and the even further decline of traditional society and traditional social bonds. In the Soviet bloc, no secret was made of the fact that the State was the source and regulator of this. In the West, however, the democratic idea meant that choice and participation were still expected to be the deciding factor in what kind of society people lived in. There were critics who distrusted the democratic idea, seeing it as essentially self-serving the oligarchies and the "military industrial complex." To old-style Leninists it was all perfectly clear: the repository of all good lay in Moscow, the precedent of the Bolshevik revolution was a serviceable global precedent, and it was up to them, the slogan-wielding vanguard of the working class (even if they were not personally working class) to lead the class struggle. Other socialists preferred a Gramscian approach to revolution, of permeation through education, where they vied with liberals who followed the ideas of Matthew Arnold to attempt to create a culturally aware, individually-responsible morally "good" intellectual and political culture. Other leftist intellectuals attempted to look more deeply into why the society of capitalist consumer production appeared to be working, not to mention thriving. To Althusser, the institutions which direct our information, culture and education are "ideological state apparatuses" and we are controlled by them, and that is a large part of how we function as a society. But schools, universities, newspapers, broadcast media, churches, political parties, "think tanks" and so on are more than State apparatuses, though they may be that too - they are agencies of power which organise our thinking. Michel Foucault maintained that modern society is marked by the unending struggle, or Will, towards power - conflicting discourses piled upon discourses. Foucault suggested notions of sabotage, resistance and counter-discourse to wrest power from the dominant. But he rejected the economic bais: the needs of the system of industrial capitalism, and thus forgot, or ignored, that the discourses of power and the truths they claim, do emerge from social, economic and technological realities. The struggle for power is not (deterministic) necessarily for its own sake but because these particular realities present crucial threats or opportunities to the contestants. But Foucault was right to see contestation for the power-domination, rather than the simpler assumption that one sector of society (e.g. the Rich, Men etc.) was bigger and stronger and therefore would dominate. Cultural and intellectual domination also perturbed the Frankfurt school. These philosophers and cultural critics on the Left disagreed with Leninism and its methods, but at the same time, warned against the industry of cultural production, identifying "mass" culture as manipulated and degenerate and serving only the status quo. To them, cultural production under capitalism worked the way religion had in Marx's day, as "opiate of the masses" to lull them into passivity and consumerism of shoddy, hollow junk goods. [9]

Henri Lefebvre and "Everyday Life"

In France, Henri Lefebvre was less concerned with the shoddiness of the goods and more concerned with the fact of alienation, one of the linchpins of Marxist thought but one which had gone virtually unremarked in orthodox Marxism. Lefebvre saw that alienation operated at all levels and in both capitalism and Soviet societies, where it was declared to no longer exist. To Lefebvre, everything in contemporary industrial consumer culture worked to turn the worker's attention from the realities of everyday life and exploit the alienation that capitalism relied on to operate. That is, alienation was more than simply the by-product of industrial capitalism but a cornerstone of it. The division of life into the realm of labour and the realm of leisure served to divide the human "from himself, from nature, from his consciousness, dragged down and dehumanised by his own social products." (p. 180) the realm of labour is one that Marxist had hitherto spent a lot of time discussing, and the workplace was considered the starting point of revolution. But Lefebvre argued for the consideration of leisure as at least as important. We think of "leisure" as something we have earned after putting in time at the factory or office. But leisure exists in a dialectic with work; it is not free, it is not hours but is as dictated by the rhythms and needs of capitalism as much as is the timeclock and the paystub. Furthermore, leisure as it exists substitutes for an "immediate sensory life" and is instead more often than not passive activity, which itself alienates or anaethsetises man from his "everyday life." Lefebvre exempts the all too rare occurrence "cultivated or cultural leisure" by which he means productive leisure such as hobby photography or painting, and is critical instead of the leisure we obtain through "leisure machines" (p. 33) which we buy with our wage packets purely to serve the purpose of occupying our time, our "leisure" time, as passively as possible while we are excused from labour. We have even created "leisure activities" which mimic work, like camping and sailing, as a response to the charge of passivity, though these too are essentially escapist and fantasial. But most leisure is extremely passive: Lefebvre notes the phenomenon of the "sportsman" who "participates in the action and plays sport via an intermediary" i.e. as a spectator.(p. 41) But the main form of leisure in the post-war era was of course the "couch potato" forms of radio and, even more so, television, of which more later. To Lefebvre, everyday life and the commodities, roles and discourses which inhabit (and inhibit) it, are the true realm of political debate. It is the very realm over which we ought to have the most control, yet we experience "everyday life" as dull and mundane, a source of worry and insecurity that is largely constructed by the promises of fulfilment to which we rush, in dazzled blindness, in the world of commodity pleasures.

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