Spectacle, Emergency and Exception: Benjamin and Agamben on Trump and Neoliberal Configurations of Violence

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘emergency situation’ in which we live is the rule. We must arrive at a concept of history which corresponds to this. Then it will become clear that the task before us is the introduction of a real state of emergency; and our position in the struggle against Fascism will thereby improve. Not the least reason that the latter has a chance is that its opponents, in the name of progress, greet it as a historical norm. – The astonishment that the things we are experiencing in the 20th century are “still” possible is by no means philosophical. It is not the beginning of knowledge, unless it would be the knowledge that the conception of history on which it rests is untenable.

Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History (1940)[i]

It’s been a long twentieth century.

For twenty-three months, since the November 2015 Paris attacks, there has been a state of emergency in France. In times of acute crisis, the French president assumes pouvoirs exceptionnels—‘exceptional powers’—granting the ability to carry out house arrests, instate curfews, regulate public assembly and conduct investigations with nearly inexistent oversight. Since the dispersion of thousands of refugees from the Calais Jungle, these exceptional powers have given free reign for police to legally harass marginalized populations scattered throughout the heavily securitized banlieues. Critics comment that this is the new normal for police brutality in France.

A present-day Walter Benjamin might have given the situation its grim diagnosis. The state of emergency is increasingly becoming the norm; the exception is becoming the rule. The challenge Benjamin throws down to our “astonishment” at the normalization of state violence should strike us even deeper today than at the time the above lines were written, in the spring of 1940, shortly before the author’s death. Europe seems embroiled in an endless crisis, and politics on the international scene aren’t faring much better.

The twenty-four hour news cycle does much to dull our senses, and whatever reaches our imagination is already mediated by spectacle: of these critiques, Benjamin was amply aware. Yet it would take an unapologetically situationist spin to heed Benjamin’s anxieties for the hyperrealistic farce of global politics in the Trump era. Beyond the normalization of the exception, Benjamin was keenly aware of the aestheticization of politics—and, by contrast, the politicization of aesthetics.[ii] A decidedly futurist aesthetic firmly rooted in the past germinated in proto-fascist Italy, and the Nazis envisioned similarly folkloric futures, each infused with jingoistic elements ranging from subtle to overt. The sway that these aesthetics hold is undeniable. The unsurrendering presence of an all-encompassing spectacle tends to cause us to surrender our judgement rather than embolden our beliefs, as Hannah Arendt observed, and this is especially true in periods of extreme crisis. It is with this in mind that we should approach the analysis of Trump’s position in international politics today.

Precisely because “The Donald” is hyperreal, pure simulacrum, a transcendent ego, etc., one must attend to the ways in which the spectacle causes and helps to maintain the normalization of the exception. His cartoonish irresponsibility, his excesses of racism and misogyny, are magnified and mediated by deeply networked relations of power. Everything Donald Trump says or does is deeply infused with the spectacular, from his warmongering with North Korea to his delusional dealings with Mexico and Venezuela. The news cycle magnifies his apish buffoonery while Twitter users are forced to choke on the drivel of his digital spew. By the simple fact that the media at our fingertips expand and contract the reality of things and events in the worlds of our concern, we must treat Donald Trump as a floating signifier that points back towards the exclusion; that is, the exclusion of a zone or state of exception from the game of politics as normal. The question is, what do we not see, when all that we can see is Trump?

Because practically everything he says is deeply polarizing, Donald Trump creates the illusion of being the utmost exception. More and more, public opinion sways violently away from the majority of positions Trump takes. Meanwhile, international allies and more polished neoliberal agents carry out similar abuses unburdened of the inconvenience of drawing too much attention to themselves. As France and Turkey remain in states of emergency, while the threat level in the United Kingdom has been recently downgraded to ‘severe’, analysts opine that Europe is slipping into a permanent state of emergency. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has received plaudits for his successful transactions with Trump, continues to receive little criticism for exploitation by Canadian mining companies abroad, particularly in Latin America, while the patience of First Nations is running thin over the much touted process of reconciliation for cultural genocide and systematic neocolonial abuses. While there is no state of emergency to speak of in Canada, many reserve lands carve out geographies of exception where our vision of progress has meant the brutalization and neglect of those seen to be non-progressive.

Sophisticated neoliberal ‘progressives’ like Emmanuel Macron and Justin Trudeau are seen as injecting some youthful vim into international relations and the management of the global economy by the world’s wealthiest nations. At the recent G7 Summit in May, Trump isolated himself over his negative stances towards the refugee crisis and climate change. Officially scorned by the other member countries, Trudeau and Macron (their “bromance” widely reported) came out strongly in favour of free trade and the Paris Climate Accord, clashing with Trump on either score. While Macron played “the good cop”, praising Trump’s “pragmatism,” Trudeau issued limp imputations of his American counterpart’s attitudes. Both profit from economic and environmental exploitation and political repression in their own countries.

One might contend that it is easier for Trudeau to govern with a certain gloss due to his country’s distance from direct terrorist threats; however, Canadian citizens in Quebec have been imprisoned for attempting to flee the country to join ISIS, and the quiet city of Edmonton, Alberta, was rocked by a terrorist attack as recently as last month. Alas, this contention somewhat misses the point. Zones of exception are indistinct in the abstract, as they are realized only in the concrete geographies of political landscapes. Such zones might be multiple and overlapping, but in any given landscape, some will be more pronounced than others.

Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben theorizes the exception beyond its normal limits. In a sense, Agamben’s entire work can be interpreted as an attempt to force the enclosure opened by Benjamin in the philosophy of history, and the history of philosophy. For Agamben, the paradigm of western politics in the era of modernity is the camp, meaning Nazi extermination camps or forced labour camps. The camp is a zone of indistinction, where sovereignties extend their power precisely by suspending the rule of law, treating citizens as non-citizens and erupting the continuity of any conception of ‘rights’. Sovereign power is constituted by the exclusion. It is no coincidence that Agamben’s critical currency swelled among American theorists following 9/11, in the search for a conceptual geography in which to think the explosion of rights and uses of exceptional violece against a targeted population of (non-)citizens guilty of being (or appearing) Muslim.

The banlieues in France, many First Nations reserves in Canada, exemplify states of exception. For Agamben, sovereign power is constituted by the power to proclaim the exception. He traces a shift in sovereign power, departing from Foucault, who held that the power of the sovereign consists in the capacity to let live or make die. Sovereign power for Agamben is characterized by the paradoxical status of Homo sacer—one who can be killed, but not sacrificed. Agamben’s point is that Homo sacer, “the sacred” or “the accursed man,” is held subject to the law by exclusion from it, thus having no legal protections from being put to death, but also constitutively lacking in the Spirit of a religion or a culture such that that man’s death could be ritualized. The camp is a zone of legal indistinction in which all are potentially Homines sacri. Crucially, as Agamben figures Homo sacer as the exact mirror image of the sovereign—that is, as paradoxically existing both inside and outside of the law—the figure of the accursed is the functional norm of sovereign power. to As the camp, or the state of exception, increasingly becomes the rule, all subjects of sovereign power, thinks Agamben, may potentially feel the force of sovereign power through the suspension of the law. The key point Agamben wants to emphasize is that those living in the state of exception lack legal citizenship in the eyes of the sovereign, and along with it, any right to claim a duty on the part of the state to protect them. They are literally stripped of their humanity, such that Agamben will also call Homo sacer, “bare life,” meaning brute animal living, excluded from any force or principle that could constitute a community.

First Nations in Canada have fought hard for the recognition of their stories by the federal government—an ongoing and incomplete process—while many communities continue to struggle for basic necessities. A suicide crisis plaguing many of Canada’s indigenous communities is a bitter testament to the logic of sovereignty Agamben describes. In France, police continue to carry out discriminatory raids and abusive searches in banlieues where thousands live below the poverty line with a complete lack of services, noted by critics and government agencies alike to be hotbeds of radicalization. Today Puerto Rico would be a further example of the state of exception, while the United States’ response to a terrorist act committed by a white man in Las Vegas merits attention insofar as it demonstrates the current limits of the rule of the exception—the insignificance of the shooter’s race (precisely what makes his race significant for philosophy) shows that the exception in the United States operates as a principle of racialized exclusion (although theory on this point would be infinitely less instructive than a drive through any of America’s inner city ghettos).

One could imagine innumerable examples, theorizing the ways in which neoliberal abstractions representing man as Homo economicus generate exclusions. But we must return, by way of a conclusion, to the subject of the spectacle. Agamben cites Guy Débord as a major influence. But even Benjamin, in his earlier engagement with the philosophy of the spectacle, offers a telling insight.

XI. The shooting of a film […] affords a spectacle unimaginable anywhere at any time before this. It presents a process in which it is impossible to assign to a spectator a viewpoint which would exclude from the actual scene such extraneous accessories as camera equipment, lighting machinery, staff assistants, etc.[iii]

What is remarkable here is that Benjamin connects spectacle with exclusion, the spectacular image with the apparatus responsible for generating it. What does this entail for the spectacle of sovereign power? According to Agamben, sovereign power is constituted by the power to proclaim the state of exception. The power that produces the exception is thus masked by the spectacle, and the spectacle reproduces the empty proclamation of the exception as a pure affect. Benjamin will suggest that this is similar to how the viewer loses the ability to place his perspective in the shift from stage play to film. That the logic of exclusion is constitutive of the power of sovereignty disappears from our imaginative fascination with Trump’s profane excesses. Benjamin concludes this passage, evocatively stating, “the sight of immediate reality has become an orchid in the land of technology.” Something tangible, even beautiful—because natural, pre-modern or pre-technological—is dissolved by the force of total mediation.

Politics in the Trump era play by the rules of the aestheticization of politics as much as they do the rule of the state of exception. The former point is crucial for understanding how Trump’s image has become the idol of the alt-right imaginary, but without holding this up as against the normalization of the exception, it is impossible to place Trump in the broader context of political power in the age of neoliberal globalization. Trump fits into the broader context of these power relations by performing what is problematic about the logic of sovereignty in an absurdly excessive manner, creating the impression that only he is the problem; this, while providing a cover for the actual routine excesses of neoliberal violence.

Is there any way to break this spell? Agamben, following Benjamin, entertain the possibility of a “divine” or “pure violence,” one which shatters the cycle of mythical violence that operates as a normal function of sovereignty, politics, the rule of law, etc. This violence would be violence as “pure means,” rather than a “means to an end”. Benjamin draws the comparison between a political general strike, in which workers stop work in order to force their employers to make certain concessions, and a proletarian general strike, which amounts to an absolute refusal, a refusal to employ violence as a means and to break with the cycle of mythical violence by exploding the continuities of law and sovereign power. The practical output of these elements of their theories remain unthought. But perhaps there is something to the outrageous spectacle of “The Donald” that will tend to peel his image away from the cycle of violence and lay the latter bare before all our naked indignation.

[i] While the exact time of writing is uncertain, Theodor Adorno and Hannah Arendt have surmised that Benjamin must have written the Theses in spring of 1940, months before his death in September of the same year. They were first published in German in 1942.

[ii] The former corresponds to a conservative reaction to liberal narratives of progress under the conditions of socioeconomic degeneration and destitution, while the latter points towards possible strategies of resistance, the spirit of which Benjamin saw in French Surrealism.

[iii] From Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936). My emphasis.

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When inglorious ghosts vote south of the border: storm winds blowing into sunny Canada

Tuesday the 8th – evening.

Roll a nice tight joint and pour out a glass of not-too-inexpensive Canadian rye whiskey, and do whatever it is you to do curl up into a big ball of “I-don’t-give-a-fuck-about-reality-anymore”. Hold onto your cats or your children and mourn the end of western democracy and fine delicate liberal sensibilities. The Canadian dollar is currently trading (on the Asian markets) at $1.35 US [edit: this appears to have stabilized now, more or less, despite the relative instability of global markets]. Pot may be the only sector of the United States economy still standing by the end of the week, with California and Massachusetts and a handful of other states voting pro-legalization in open-ballot initiatives, and mostly the entire population clamoring for an herbal reedy for the psychotic break their hallowed snake skin republic is currently collectively experiencing. (As it turns out only about 20% of Americans now live in green-free zones, but mass migration is never outside of the question where such crises are concerned).

My shares in this green capitalist venture on the TSX should fare relatively well, at least against the shaking and convulsing global market economy.

This unnaturally hot November evening in Victoria I reigned in what may be the beginning of the end of the long 20th-century with the members of an NDP student club based at a local university, their festivities infiltrated by clandestine pockets of unconscious Maoists, conscious Trotskyists, even a bona fide “black magic” psychoanalyst in the school of Wilhelm Reich (and Peter Carroll, renowned chaos sorcerer of the underground). Already by the time of my arrival at around 7pm early results were pouring in that Trump was leading in Ohio and New Hampshire, that Michigan and Florida were dead heats, that “if Trump has an actual path to the presidency, this is what it looks like” (in the words of one gilded CBC political pundit).

The sentiment in the room resembled that of a so-called “celebration of life” ceremony for that one uncle that nobody really cared for, all the anticipation pointing towards what the old dead bastard might have left behind in his will, having always been a part of the family but never one for open displays of affection or concrete details on his plans. What will President Trump give us? Besides flagrant misogyny, racism and xenophobia, bitterly reactionary nationalism, etc. – all of the rhetorical trappings of the forces of reaction and the “what’s-old-is-new-again” ‘Alt-Right’ populism. Will he tear up NAFTA and TPP and muster up all of the exeunt forces of production drawn out of the American industrial heartland – old boys Oklahoma and North Dakota – under the economic relations of capitalist globalization? It’s doubtful. Almost certainly open hostilities between moderate Republicans and the presumptive presidential elect (providing he doesn’t get assassinated between now and his inauguration) will cool off as the party becomes confident of its sweeping majority, its place atop the twin-heads of political power in the United States, in the White House and Congress, sealed. Trump will dump his enraged white Christian working class supporters faster than Paul Ryan can whisper the names of the Koch brothers into his ears. A political split doesn’t seem likely – only an aggravation of the existing split that made this whole chaos incarnate end-of-days dog and pony show a veritable possibility to begin with: the split between a disenfranchised and disillusioned mass political agency, and an all-powerful elite class in whose feeble hands political and economic power has been concentrating for decades, if not the whole godforsaken long 20th-C.

The count continues to roll in and around the time that that overgrown Oompa Loompa with the dead dog wig posts a nigh 40-point lead on “crooked” Hillary – prior to California’s first poll station readouts – the mood turns from one of uncertainty and slight perturbance to deep disturbance and catastrophism. Some student lefties leave to procure a greater supply of hard liquor for the party, while one who I’m told is an officer of the club can be heard singing to herself, “We’re all gonna die! We’re all gonna die…” [In the few days following the election, I came to gain a deeper appreciation and understanding of these kinds of reactions.] Overall [the night] was a party atmosphere in steep decline, the event of a party that got confused somewhere along the line and took itself in the Dionysian sense, coping with a buzzkill of existential proportions and making a drinking game out of the spectacular reality-TV version of the farce of neoliberalism in its death knell while schizophrenically losing itself in among the game’s tragic cast of actors. So all the boozehounding really was cathartic. For all the doom, gloom and delirium of the millennial student left, you’d think we could get a little credit, instead of slack-jawed talk from political commentators in the US blaming Trumpamania 2016 on the unpredictable millennial vote. Has anybody at USA Today or The Daily Beast stopped to ask what puts millennials in such desperate and despicable conditions that they’d be inclined to vote for such a cantankerous lout? [Exit polls show 52% of millennials that voted actually voted for Hillary – but the 2016 election had the lowest young voter turnout rate of any election since 1972, when Nixon was re-elected.]

What happens if there is violence – real, physical violence of the confrontational and oppressive sort – as a result of this hair-brained Houdini great escape from the shackles of democratic liberalism, or liberal democracy? It seems almost inevitable. Violence against women, race riots, semi-autonomous pogroms patrolling poor black or Latino neighbourhoods and mosques like polling stations, emboldened neo-fascist Second Amendment kooks, spooks and Klansmen. Of course it seemed inevitable either way, with those same kooks and Klansmen and President Plastic Surgery Cheesy Puff’s inflammatory anti-democratic pre-election gab, maintaining he’d accept the result of America’s vote “only if he wins,” and practically instructing self-armed militiamen and reactionary goons to suppress all dissenting political agencies – mainly women, Latinos, blacks (though the latter, so far, to less of an extent than most pollsters predicted, with early voting numbers in decline compared with Obama’s 2008 run at the White House). We know by now that such reactionary elements wouldn’t exist without the gutting of the American working class in the 80s and the 90s, that globalization has its winners and losers and the losers are always below the class of financiers, earning their bread through work, and not speculation. The great parched belly-up turtle of a dry American Midwest, sapped of industrial productivity, before briefly wetted by the paranoiac imperialist oil ventures of the late 70s, 90s and early 2000s especially, but finally exacerbated and brought to the brink by the 2008 financial crisis. The violence of the expansion of American empire now exists inside of US borders, staring itself in the face is the project of global capitalist expansion, as if into a Fun House mirror, all bent out of shape and distorted. The contradictions of production contain their own wacky logic. “The wall” is a paranoiac political demand, lashing out from some deeply-seated discomfort and anxiety wreaked in America’s own baseball and apple-pie unconsciousness.

At a dinner party earlier this week a retired engineer friend told that bookies were giving solid odds on a Trump victory – better odds than the pollsters were showing. Of course the bookies speculate against speculation, trying to eke a profit off of profit. So goes the logic of American neoliberalism today, speculating for and against speculation itself. Had I not been working-poor myself and a student and somewhat cowardly with my money I might have placed a bet. We all feel like we’re “living on the edge” of something at the present juncture: the edge of history, perhaps. Michael Moore said Donald Trump could be the “last president” of the United States of America, but it was decidedly a hyperbolic comment and, at any rate (forgiving the ad hominem attack), Michael Moore is a hack.

All of these forces exist in ugly old America, trembling before God, convulsing and prostrate, the “Land of the Free”. Unbridled hatred for women and racial minorities bubbling over – there is still open hostility to women entering the workforce and existing as equal partners in civil society and the world in America; over 600 unarmed black men have been shot this year, and millions of black men from poverty-stricken upbringings work in incarceration in private for-profit prisons in conditions of modern day slave-labour, many serving time for petty possession charges. Good that we’ll all be riding the green wave for some much needed mellowing of counterproductive and racist drug policies, if nothing else. Income inequality is growing rather than shrinking. Average household buying power steadily increased after the postwar period through the early 70s – with similar trends in Canada – but today are lower than they were 40 years ago. Most rural white Trumpeters come from communities that are almost entirely reliant on single factories for their viability and economic stability, making the Clinton era of free trade and the reality of rampant factory closures a living nightmare. Hillary Clinton’s most telling rebuttal to that hardiest of Trumpisms in this year’s presidential debates was, “We’re great because we’re good.” Hillary meant the message in a moral sense, but it can’t help but seem to put her at one (or more) steps removed from the stark realities of the status quo in America. Pollsters and financiers alike speculate on just the kind of status quo Hillary would have provided – so today they are in an only partially predictable panic.

What is left out of the calculations of this structural state of affairs, what escapes its algorithms is precisely this untold story, this conjured up narrative, what we might call a haunting “specter of Marx” (to borrow unapologetically from Derrida). It turns out Trump’s camp was more or less right about the “Silent Majority” theory. Whether it was pollsters overlooking crucial points in the formation of their questions, or decent ordinary folk ashamed to admit to anonymous mid-afternoon surveyors (and perhaps, to admit to themselves) their latent sympathies for whatever bat-out-of-hell flashback fever dream Trump gives the appearance of offering, it doesn’t matter much. Inglorious ghosts vote south of the border; in their rage they’ll haunt both the conjurer and his house, the hallowed halls of the world’s oldest democracy.

I had brought a bag of leftover Halloween candies to the NDP event which was mostly devoured except for the pixie sticks, which no sensible person enjoys. Vices for each to drown in, in their own way. Snacking on Caramilks and Sour Patch Kids and various other good tidings of capitalist modernity, we debate its downfall amid the fall of the American Empire. “Debate” – I wish I could use so strong a word. We shoot shit, shout and commiserate, making some progress where we fumble through theory. Maybe millions are doing the same at this very moment.

The violence, the forces of reaction that have now thrust themselves out into the open, weren’t inexistent before. They were all still there, silent, timid or unaccounted for, like pocket lint or old change or a dead rat in the toe of your boot. Part of the conditions of possibility leading up to the Trump crisis appear in a generations long vacuum in political unity and leadership on the left, lending itself to oligopoly and centralization among deeply entrenched political powers towards the center-right. Now the contemporary “progressive” Liberal left has no idea what it stands for or against, alternating between progressive empty talk and actual austerity, while disenfranchised masses – ghosts – are left without political representation. It wouldn’t be much of a mystery to discover high numbers of former Bernie Sanders supporters who voted for Donald Trump – the DNC made a vain and gross miscalculation in sabotaging his campaign, so some leaked emails are saying. The levels of discontent with the political system in America today are astounding. A Trump presidency, at least, has the silver lining of stirring up from quietude all these reactionary elements, foisting them out into the open as a clear target for the left to seize upon. In the case of actual fascism, as with history’s Hitlers and Mussolinis, the phenomenon does not stop with good-hearted Liberals crying out impassioned anti-fascismo. It stops with organizing against and attacking the fascists.

But let us keep our hands and our feet firmly planted inside of the vehicle at all times and not put the time too far “out of joint,” as Hamlet says, drawing conclusions from beyond our own history. I do not think that Trump is a fascist per se, even if the comparisons are inviting.

Curiously, in the short term, Trump could have the effect of pulling Justin Trudeau’s Liberals to the left on free-trade deals, which could bring them further into line with their election promises than with their preferred governing style. Will Justin’s “Sunny Ways” essence-of-selfie-stick fuzzy aura of hugs and hope hold off any latent anti-establishment sentiment or anti-globalizationist reaction in the Great White North? How will the Prime Minister of Canada take part in negotiations regarding the USA’s role, along with Canadian and other NATO military allies’, in monitoring the borders of Eastern Europe to protect against potential Russian threats from KGB Vlad? And will our economy boom or bust from the swell of American immigrants – perhaps we should call them refugees, fleeing a political crisis zone (here I kid; however, the Citizenship and Immigration Services section of the Government of Canada website did crash today, possibly because workers responsible for maintaining this key piece of infrastructure are refusing to work due to nonpayment from the spectacularly failing PHOENIX payroll system that’s hanging over half of Ottawa like a big red wet pocketbook. Possibly, but not likely.)

We can laugh and drink and enjoy the rising value of BC bud and housing prices and raise a glad to our southern neighbours in commiseration and confusion, some of us, with an air of smug superiority. The hangover will only be the realization that we are not immune, that this is the real world and it is hideous and cruel.

But, provided they don’t continue to delude themselves – and with a nod to the accelerationists – this study in history, and its attendant clarification of political aims could serve as a lightning rod for the disillusioned and directionless progressives. Likely only in the event of a storm on domestic soil. Thunder and lightning clouds a-brewin’ for good-old-fashioned prairie socialism! The kind of organization the Canadian left has been lacking for decades.

Maybe not – but Canadians do love talking about the weather. Storm winds are blowing down south of the border and they do look bound for a northerly push. It’s time the stormwatchers don their galoshes and prepare to organize our way out of the coming of the new political reality.