Tuesday, March 7, 2017

What a Spectacle (1995)

From the August 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard

Despite the media’s pathetic attempts at convincing us all that the Tory leadership tussle was of world-historical importance it had all the attraction of a bad Punch & Judy show

Some years ago (1967, to be precise) Guy Debord wrote a book entitled The Society of the Spectacle which was fascinating in almost every respect except one: its virtual unreadability (a rather major failing in a book, it must be conceded.) The thesis of the book, which made it so compelling to try to read, was that society was becoming increasingly a spectacular performance, with most people merely onlookers upon everything from urban life to political conflicts.

Rarely has this notion of the spectacle been more apparent than in the recent third-rate theatricalities of British politics. The resignation of John Major in order to make way for himself as successor had to be one of the all-time low-points of sham political duelling.

No sooner had Major resigned than we, as spectators, were treated to endless stories, presented as news, about who might replace him. Major, we were led to believe, was a dull and rather hopeless chap, but personally quite nice. His opponent, who did little to enhance the image of extraterrestrial life-forms, was shown to us as bright but personally brutal. Then, after Act One which was to be dominated by The Two Johns, we were being prepared for the (ultimately unperformed, but well rehearsed) Act Two starring The Two Michaels: one an ambitiously rich brat and the other a man about whom it is impossible to say anything personal which will not be libellous.

But who knows anything about these people personally? And who wants to? What difference does it make if Major does eat his peas with his knife and Portillo is a smarmy backstabber? Even if these things are true (and they may not be: Major may well be as vicious personally as his policies are and Portillo might weep at bullfights), what possible relationship has this to political power? It is simply bad theatre.

As if to rub in our role as spectators, the election to determine who would be Prime Minister was one in which votes were only given to Tory MPs. So, as millions watched on, instructed by Dimbleby and his pathetic crew to recognise Punch from Judy and to favour one against the other, none of the hapless spectators even had a vote.

As for the barmy SWP, ever eager to chant for Major to be Out Out Out so that their lip for the top, Tony Blair, can be In In In, they were in quite some difficulty. Believing as they do (and as all Leninists must) that workers should be encouraged to support the lesser evil (thus leading them to support Iran against Iraq, Prescott against Blair and now Blair against Major), ought not political logic have persuaded them to support Major against Redwood? “The Central Committee calls upon the proletariat to support Major without illusions... “ But then, given that their real reason for telling workers to vote for Blair is to teach the suckers how bad life will be under a Labour government, why not support Redwood to teach workers just what it would be like to live under a right-winger from Outer Space?

At 5 p.m. on The Big Day millions were glued to their sets, hoping that something unpredictable might happen. In the event the highly predictable happened and the Tories did what they are good at doing: uniting behind anyone who looks like he will do them the least damage.

In the months approaching most elections the spectators are whipped into a sense of futile expectation, as if by electing a new government, which itself will be governed by the capitalist system, something might change. The run-up to the next election must be the dullest and most predictable in decades, with apparent certainty as to who will win and indifference as to the outcome on the grounds that the nearer Labour comes to victory the further it goes out of its way to convince Tory spectators that the victory' will be theirs.

To be a spectator upon history is to become dehumanised, for it is the historical consciousness of humans which makes us unique. Appealing to lemmings to avoid cliffs is a pointless exercise, and the most intelligent dog can only sit back and watch Crufts without any knowledge that it has ever been staged before. But for us, with minds which reflect and make history, to sit on the sidelines and observe the passing show of capitalist political foolery, is to abandon the weapons which could free us from the Redwoods and Deadwoods and Blairs and Blurs and fancy-dress Lenins who preside over our stunted lives as wage slaves.

We are makers of history, not spectators. When the change from capitalist insanity to production for need comes about we will not be watching it on the box. We will not be following leaders or waiting for the revolution to be announced from a podium. The socialist revolution will be the activation of human consciousness, transforming us from viewers of the spectacle to makers of the future. When will socialism rule? When the majority decide that they will no longer be ruled by others.
Steve Coleman

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