Corporate fascism. We know the term. Now we will see the full ugly face of its wrath in the vengeful fury of Trump. Trump, like all opportunistic social phenomena, is an expression of a trending wave of collective sentiment and will. He is neither sole cause (autonomous agent) nor simple effect (isolated outcome) of a deliberate plan of action on his own part. But the specifics of his own psychopathology optimize his virulent capacity for destructive impact. Watching and listening to the monster speak in the state of His Union address would be sufficient, even without other mountains of evidence, to feel the grotesque distortions of the personality in all of its many disorders. Now his rabid vengeance is unleashed and unrestrained.
But it would be a mistake to attribute the full credit for current political phenomena to the individual man. A confluence of forces created the conditions for his rise, among them, the deregulation of economic systems that unleashed unregulated capital at an unprecedented scale. (An argument could be made that capital was never regulated, only the institutions that managed it were subject to limits on risk and abuse.) Now, however vigilant we imagine ourselves to have been, we will be witness to wanton destructive power with the full driving energy of unregulated corporate capital behind it. Oligarchies and monarchical systems have existed in the past, but in the United States this alignment of power and concentrated wealth has no precedent. And never have the systems of fantasmatic production had such high cycles of transactional and mediated communication with a population so addicted to identification with the symbolic. The scene of the production of belief absorbs as never before, and as it does so, it produces a terrifying force field of imaginary understanding. Before we can find a way out, we need to understand this phenomenon.
Fascism is defined as the alignment of power, nationalism, and authoritarian government. We are there. The power is capital linked to politics. Capital is not merely the currency of money, but a force with nearly animate capacity for agency. The nationalism is an inflammatory rhetoric that galvanizes affect from responses to actual conditions (the real erosion of social infrastructure) in combination with a fantasy of entitlement grounded in long-standing myths of American exceptionalism. And the authoritarianism is an increasingly evident fulfillment of the worst fears of the founding designers of Democracy, as its checks and balances are put aside in favor of the interests of corporate wealth and its beneficiaries as a grotesque populism feeds on lifestyle fantasies and delusional identification.
Corporate fascism is wanton, virulent, and unregulated. Wanton because it has no regard for consequences (psycho-socio-political pathology is without constraints). Virulent because the full force of inflamed populism is fueled by self-justified rage and unbounded triumphalism. Unregulated because the capital is now amassed in extreme concentrations of wealth without any controls. Corporate because Citizens United created the legal foundation for corporations to act with the same rights, privileges, and protections accorded to individuals, thus sanctifying the role of disproportionate power within a mythic construct of corporate entities.
Trump’s denunciation of “government schools,” for instance, is a patent undermining of the role of responsible democratic societies to provide public education for all. This is one of the most crucial instruments of destruction of level playing fields, exclusionary practices of disenfranchisement from education, and the institutionalization of the ignorance that fosters nationalist populism. We let this happen.”
The recent lock-down of the Republican phalanx in Congress was not about politics-as-principle-or-policy. It was the raw and blatant evidence of politics as the power of capital. The question of whether capital has agency will dog us ahead, as the spectre of the unleashed and uncontrollable power of its flows rises with gargantuan potency. Do not be naïve. The worst is yet to come. Capital is the leveraged profit of transactions concentrated into value that is both symbolic (belief) and real (capable of action). Capital is the id of culture, completely self-interested. It has neither sentience nor conscience, only drive.
On the same day as the vote to avoid responsibility by turning the Senate “trial” into a sham, the day that marked the end of the Constitutional rule of law in the United States, Brexit was poised to take effect. Boris banged his gong: Europe became weakened and Britain vulnerable as the components of the United Kingdom are likely to disband. While some might cheer the downfall of the old colonial empires, others among us are more wary of the havoc this will cause. On the surface, Brexit is fueled by a nostalgia for the lost empire, economic and political success as a product of exploitation of human and natural resources. Theirs is an empire shrunk by attrition, ours is an empire squandered by misuse. These downfalls mark the end of five hundred years of colonial expansion. The solution is not to seek a reset of the same model, but to conceptualize a radical alternative. Really radical. Not just a re-distribution of wealth and power, but a turn away from progress, development, and growth.
As economies falter and nations fall, losing autonomy and sovereignty, which they will — pressured by broken supply chains, defaulted client state debt, and internal insufficiency of production — the world will become increasingly and rapidly destabilized by political and economic troubles. Climate decline will increase dramatically, bringing widespread famine, disease, and death. Epidemics will move through the transmission lines and communication networks with air and water (microbes and pollutants) and other elaborately complex systems. This will play out more quickly than we might have imagined. Rates of escalation are geometric, not linear, and stability is far more precarious than chaos, which feeds on itself. We know all this, though perhaps my apocalyptic vision is exaggerated. Still, the stuff of daily news reports suggests collapse. Analyzing causes is far less urgent than imagining survival tactics.
Back to the immediate issues. How did the conditions for corporate fascism come about and what is the role of art and aesthetics in either creating or addressing them? What concepts of agency and power do we need to rethink our way out of looming catastrophe and what methods of transformation exist, if any, for political change? How to intervene in the alignments of power and affective force in our extreme state. We are used to thinking of fascism in military terms, because that is how it manifest in the 20th century. Power is effected differently when the instruments of social control involve invisible operations. The repressive force of unregulated capital cannot be countered by the same methods as those that addressed a system with checks and balances operating with the regulatory mechanisms of a democracy based on 18th century rational principles — or on defeating military invasions or resisting territorial conquest on actual landmasses. Though geography still factors into armed conflict, it is largely as a symbolic scene of action. Economic control is brought about through disenfranchisement, exclusion and inclusion, and massive concentration of capital and its fuel-cell capacities for agency — and the mass production of ignorance. Trump’s denunciation of “government schools,” for instance, is a patent undermining of the role of responsible democratic societies to provide public education for all. This is one of the most crucial instruments of destruction of level playing fields, exclusionary practices of disenfranchisement from education, and the institutionalization of the ignorance that fosters nationalist populism. We let this happen. And we are letting other systematic undermining of fundamental values of civility occur as well in deregulation of clean water, air, food supplies, work environments, labor laws, and treatment of detainees in the centers, not to mention mass incarceration of our own citizens along racist lines. These are conditions with long histories of development. They are not the doing of a single man or administration. But the opportunistic triumphalism of current politics takes full advantage of these conditions with canny and lethal calculation.
We have known for almost a century that individuals act against their own self-interest, working within the fantasmatic, the domain of imaginary relations to the concept of lived experience. This is why aesthetics is essential as a way to engage with and reformulate an understanding of politics.”
While none of this is directly related to art or the politics of aesthetics, the formulation and dissemination of critical theory in European and American intellectual circles parallels the timeline of the decline of social infrastructure. No direct causal relation links these, but they follow the same historical trajectory for a reason. The withdrawal of the Left into ever more insular arenas of the university, gallery, museum, and guild-governed practices of the academy created a fantasy of efficacy. The “politics of art” replaced direct engagement with political systems. This development can be traced to the rise of the so-called “New Left” in the 1950s and 1960s, its focus on the “symbolic,” and distance from labor unions, workers, or class struggle. The identity politics of cultural studies and the embrace of “critique” as a major mode of para-political activity came to the fore. The complexities of historical detail and specifics that describe this full process are too complicated to go into here. What matters is not that we track the lineage of the politics of art — from alignments with socialist movements of the 19th century, development of critical theory within the early avant-garde, and academization of its tenets and principles in the later decades of the 20th century to its fully ossified and institutionalized place in the current fabric of social relations and institutions of critical discourse and art — but instead, that we shake off this outmoded orthodoxy and the blindness to our impotence it produces.
We need to articulate an aesthetics of politics, not the politics of aesthetics.
The “politics of aesthetics” is based on some long-standing beliefs and assumptions. One is the notion that fine art is somehow morally superior to that of the culture industries — not just more interesting, but “better.” The same assumption of moral superiority permeates cultural studies — as if its capacity for “critique” makes it superior to what it studies or criticizes. Within the fine arts, these ideas have been connected to the idea that by doing “critical” work — or work that poses a critique of mainstream culture — artists are doing political work. These ideas are based on assumption that art has the role of being the moral conscience of the culture, an assumption with long historical roots in modernism. The growth of this belief was historically coincident with the undermining of public education, the defunding of social safety nets, the erosion of productivity, the abandonment of the working class and then the middle class (and now, the professional class as well), and the restructuring of wealth as concentrated and unregulated capital. The New Left and the academic art world did not cause this to happen. Nor did they keep it from happening. Nor could they. But continuing to pretend that political art is political action is highly problematic in the face of rising “populism,” its racist justifications for racist actions, its fearmongering, and politics of MAGA-type delusion.
The lack of analytic understanding of the changing circumstances of American culture, and inadequacy of theoretical tools in critical aesthetics as currently practiced, has to be addressed by creating a new approach. I am not saying artists should not make topical work, thematically pointed statements, or images that address issues. Creating documents, bearing witness, sloganeering, didactic work that calls attention to events and the role of images in cultural practices are all important. But they are largely impotent. A “politics of aesthetics” that believes in a politics of form is not credible. Formal means can be put to any ends, radical or conservative. The claim that works of art have any impact on politics is suspect. Has aesthetics activity of any kind changed the structure of power relations? Certainly the art-world has changed as a result of political work. Once-marginal figures and communities became viable players—and their work became economically viable. But the power structures? The same forces that control art markets and institutions have not changed and they are inevitably associated with money. My statements about the politics of form are a direct attack on Jacques Rancière, current darling of the artists and writers who think dissensus, or non-normative discourse, is political. The lineage of critical theory on which this draws is as much a source of mythic fictions for the Left as populist delusions are for the Right. The basic line of thinking is that somehow, in some way, creating works of art that are disruptive to normative order (syntax, image, behavior) creates an intervention that is political in nature.
Again: We need to articulate an aesthetics of politics, not the politics of aesthetics. While we need to transform the theoretical framework of art practice, we need, more urgently, to rethink the theoretical perspective on which we analyze cultural and social formations. These latter are usually the stuff of sociology, political theory, psychology, economics — the so-called social sciences, with methods rooted in mechanistic instrumentalism and mythic positivism. They operate as if the behavior of culture could be analysed with rational methods. Not only are cultural phenomena stochastic and non-linear complex systems, they are affectively driven.
But the outmoded playbook of classical and traditional sociology still addresses the rise of extreme conservative politics as if they could be described rationally, explained by class position, shifts in economic distributions of wealth. Similarly, the mechanistic attempts at explanation and analysis put forth by these sociologists continues to propose models in which individuals make their own decisions for action. This is patently wrong and evident every day. We have known for almost a century that individuals act against their own self-interest, working within the fantasmatic, the domain of imaginary relations to the concept of lived experience. This is why aesthetics is essential as a way to engage with and reformulate an understanding of politics. Recognizing that the cultural sphere is a realm of affective forces that work at the level of the social field, not the individual, is a necessary corrective to humanistic delusions of agency. This is not to say that individuals don’t matter or have impact — Greta Thunberg and Donald Trump are both examples to the contrary. But they operate as galvanic nodes, poles of influence within a force-field that is not of their own making, even if they intensify or focus its energy. While this explanation begins to describe the physics of the social, and provides a more accurate description of cultural activity than mechanistic sociology, it does not address the causal agency of affect. For that, aesthetics is essential.
Absorbing all else, the triumphalist energies of corporate fascism know no limits or bounds, and aspire only to a full totalitarian condition of obedient submission to its will. Human beings will have to make a radical break from these conditions if we are to escape full destruction ahead. In essence, the question comes down to whether human beings will choose lifestyle or life?”
What is aesthetics? Traditionally, it is the field of philosophy associated with perception. We can think of perception broadly, as cognition, ways of knowing that are embedded in cultural conditions. But we don’t actually have direct knowledge of those conditions, according to psychologists and theorists. We create an “imaginary” understanding of those conditions, but we take that understanding to be an accurate portrayal of what is “real.” These ideas form the foundation of constructivist approaches to knowledge. We can think about this comparatively. Some other species construct their models of what is real through smell, for instance. Others can visualize heat patterns. We rely largely on sight, but our sense of sight is different from that of a frog. Immersed in the same physical universe, a frog sees things that move, but we see ourselves in a full visual world, as if it were the literal and only representation of actual phenomena. When we add cultural biases, individual taste and preference, or any other filters, we can readily see that the mental models are constructs, not simple representations, of the world (and that carries into all of its social and cultural dimensions).
That is where affect operates effectively and in ways that create forces that work through us as surely as we participate in their production. Bringing aesthetics to bear on the politics of affect is an essential move towards re-orienting understanding of the cultural conditions of our own delusion. The programmatic restructuring of global systems will take other work. We need to abandon long-standing narratives of progress and development to ones of de-growth, holistic ecology, and radical rescaling of expectations.
To gloss this quickly, here is the explanation of the juggling of those terms. Without a clear definition of “imaginary” and “fantasmatic” and “conditions” and “understanding,” we can’t proceed. And then we will wrap up with some final words on corporate fascism and its destructive force. The notion of the “imaginary” came from the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and was used by Louis Althusser to indicate an always deceptive idea of situated perception, the “made-ness” of individual understanding. But it can also be understood even more basically as the construction we make of actual phenomena and events. The idea that we never have unmediated access to “the real,” but only an elaborated idea of it, is embodied in this term, which also aligns with constructivist theories of knowledge. The “fantasmatic” is my term for the way this condition of the imaginary brings about events in the “real.” Shared beliefs bring things in the world into being. The danger of these effects is evident daily. The “conditions” of “understanding” are the constitutive dynamics of what Karen Barad refers to as intraction — a co-dependent relationship of elements whose identities are never autonomous (in contrast to interaction that assumes two bounded entities working separately).
In such conditions of illusion, delusion, and construction, individuals inhabit their own worlds and collective ones, social and cultural fields of force. The aggregate of belief, produced transactionally, escalates rapidly in circumstances of constant mediation and remediation. The networks of communication have their own efficacious effects, as we know, and meme-streams of immoderate information quickly shift mass-opinion in the volatile systems contemporary culture. The power engines of rhetorical deceit work in direct support of the wealth systems used to secure their own ongoing survival (not that they are at risk, just that they are ravenous and rapacious). These are attention engines, fueled by human engagement, the ongoing addiction to the scenes of production of the imaginary — we watch, swipe, click, refresh, but in all of these we identify first with the scene of activity, the screen, and secondly to the contents. Meanwhile, the pushers of these absorption drugs are the systems whose capital — cultural, political, and economic — accumulates exponentially as a result. The effect of these activities is alignment — the social expression of fascism is voluntary complicity with the authoritarian order. The political content is part of the drug, filled as it is with false promises, illusions of return to some lost order or moment or condition of making, in our case, “America great again.” But the driving energy is more crude, even, than those offensive illusions that ignore the reality of that supposed “greatness” and its racist, violent, environmentally destructive foundations. The driving energy is a force that is bent on its own survival — and this is where the agency of capital, concentrated in corporate entities, is motivated only by an ever-unsatisfied appetite. Absorbing all else, the triumphalist energies of corporate fascism know no limits or bounds, and aspire only to a full totalitarian condition of obedient submission to its will. Human beings will have to make a radical break from these conditions if we are to escape full destruction ahead.
In essence, the question comes down to whether human beings will choose lifestyle or life? The former is the current condition of over-consumption, the crazed drug-frenzy of affluence and its killing effects. We are already nearly dead from unbounded indulgence, and the aspirations never cease. Trump is the epitome of this pathology, the grossest embodiment of the lifestyle of the rich and famous as the fulfillment of the individual dream. But life? A being in the world with holistic and sane relations to its resources, including ourselves? To get to this requires a radical rethinking of the fundamental terms of human systems and their relation to imaginary understanding of the real conditions. We need to engage, instead, with a real understanding of imaginary conditions, to turn the original formulation around. To make it more descriptive, we may also have to engage in the imaginary understanding of fantasmatic conditions — come to terms with our delusional relation to the systems of control of which we are a part. We might, individually, eschew the assertion that we are aligned with the interests of corporate capital and its wanton and violent machinations. But we are all, in this first-world western culture, working within the supply chains and culture industries and consumption systems of its making. We have many challenges, much to rework and resolve. The last chance of humanity is its belief in its own agency. The time to act is now, but how?
Abandon the myth of progress, engage in de-growth, stop consuming, and steward our resources for survival. But above all, as artists and writers, we need to stop kidding ourselves about where and how political power works. Diddle with dissensus all you like. Expose the ideological apparatus, make strange the devices, intervene in normative orders and be rewarded with the critical acclaim of the insular academic establishment. But the “politics of aesthetics” looks inward to its own domain. An “aesthetics of politics” takes the critical analysis outward, into the cultural sphere. While engaging our deep commitment to the project of seeing and showing the world in all of its particulars, imagining otherwise, and calling attention to its workings, we have also to put our considerable energies into rethinking the potency of politics itself through aesthetic means — to consider the very real possibilities of how collective perceptual processing works and produces effects. The need to bring the full energy of creative thought into the political arena — to address politics as an aesthetic — has never had higher stakes.
Johanna Drucker is Contributing Editor on National Affairs at Riot Material. Ms. Drucker is an artist, writer, and critic known for her creative work in experimental writing, typography, and artist’s books; she is equally revered for her scholarly work on aesthetics, digital humanities, and the visual forms of knowledge production. Ms. Drucker is the Breslauer Professor of Bibliographical Studies in the Department of Information Studies at UCLA. Her new theoretical text, The General Theory of Social Relativity, is out now.