Tuesday, 12 March 2013
Jean Baudrillard: Postmodernist & Marxist?
Jean Baudrillard, the French philosopher and sociologist, was still writing and thinking within a/the Marxist paradigm until his death in 2007. Just as Marx could never escape from the snare of Hegel, so Baudrillard couldn't escape from the snare of Marx. Indeed it sometimes seems that no Continental – or at least French - philosopher, especially the ones who concern themselves with politics and any kind of social commentary, cannot escape from the snare of Marx.
So despite that endless Continental desire to out-radicalise the philosopher gone-just-before (the one-upmanship in which a new outré radicalism trumps that of its predecessor), this was still a conformity with the radicalism that was - and still is - Marxism. Philosophical and political Radicalism (Marxist or otherwise) are Continental conformity. (There is hardly a right wing in Continental philosophy.) These are the endless radicalisms and subversions of an “established order” which no longer exists - or which has already been subverted umpteen times before. So much so that the academic establishment has become subversion personified.
The use of both a Marxist language and a Marxist philosophical paradigm (or Foucauldian episteme) can be seen when Baudrillard argues, in various ways, that the proletariat (or the working class in English) has been is absorbed into the capitalist system and, in the process, neutered of its revolutionary or radical impulses. This lack of specificity still tells us that the working class, qua working class (which elsewhere Baudrillard also tells us doesn't exist) is rendered a slave of capitalism or, alternatively, it adopts the false consciousness of capitalism. (Whatever that means.)
But, apparently, Baudrillard didn’t reject the notion of a “revolutionary class”. The problem is that that revolutionary class has already done its business. That revolutionary class was a “bourgeoisie” which established its very own “bourgeois society”. It did so, though Baudrillard doesn’t specify things here, from the late 15th century onwards – or so received (even non-Marxist) history has it. And that Bourgeois Revolution, I suppose, ended sometime in the 19th century… except that the absolute finale of that Revolution happened recently and coincided with the rise of post-modern philosophy.
And, as with Marx, if the bourgeois has completely taken over the state, as well as everything else from Gramsci’s “institutions” to Fox TV, then everything and everyone has become bourgeois – or shall we say “capitalist”? If everyone and everything is capitalist, or consumes the same things, then we already have, effectively, a “classless society”. That is, a society of only one class – the capitalist class. This may sound bizarre but the argument must be that even the worker in the steel mill - or the one who makes underpants in a sweatshop - is nevertheless a capitalist because he has a “false consciousness” (i.e., his commitment to capitalism), as well as a shared “consumerism”, which unites him with one and all to capitalism and its “values”.
This is where yet another thinker, this time Baudrillard rather than, say, Francis Fukuyama, embraces the “end of history” idea so hated by Marxists and even by many non-Marxists. (Baudrillard’s fellow French philosopher, Jean-François Lyotard, also got in on this end-of-history act.)
History has ended because class conflict has ended. That is, we are all capitalists or adherents of capitalism (or at least of “capitalist democracy”) now. And if there aren’t mutually-fighting classes to drive history and society forwards, as with both Hegel and Marx, then history must surely be at an end. (If not literally, then at least metaphorically or symbolically.)
Here again Baudrillard not only uses the technical terms of the Marxist debate, he also embraces Marxist theory. What’s non-Marxist about talk of a “classless society”, the naturalisation of the proletariat and, not in these words, the end of history? All Baudrillard has done is substitute certain Marxist variables (or technical terms) and juggled them about a little. However, Baudrillard has kept the Marxist episteme and played all his post-modernist games firmly within it.
Baudrillard’s take on “consumerism” is also still set within a Marxist paradigm. It is still set within talk about “class-divided societies”, “dominance” and “social integration”. All that Baudrillard did, again, is substitute a few Marxist variables with his own. Or, more specifically in this case, “class-consciousness” (or the “false-consciousness” of the working class) is substituted with “consumerism”. Instead of “capitalist ideology” - or whatever! - integrating classes which otherwise should be at war, consumerism does that trick instead. All classes, from the proletariat (if such a thing still exists) to the upper-middle-class, consume pretty much the same things; from Coldplay CDs to microwaves. Thus, I suppose the argument goes, classes which otherwise should be at war, or least be behaving antipathetically towards one another, basically get on precisely because of those shared consumer products. The shared consumer products become a kind of shared language. And if former enemies have a shared language, then that’s surely half way to their not being such blatant enemies after all. (Or at least that shared language will help dissipate the mutual antipathy to some extent.)
Within the classes, too, consumerism provides “class integration”. In the olden days, that integration, or community/communalism, was provided at work. It was provided by workers doing the same thing; whether digging coal or stitching underpants. Or, for the middle class, communality was found in the lecturers’ common room or in the offices of the Guardian. Now the working class finds a certain communality in their shared reading of the Sun or the watching of EastEnders. And the middle-class do the same at interfaith meetings or at African drumming classes. (I am being only partly ironic here.)
But what does all this mean? For a start, is the multifarious and indefinite amount of consumer products somehow a bad thing? If so, why? In addition, is a shared reading of the Sun or a shared interfaith meeting really affecting “social integration” between - and within - the classes? And even if consumerism is providing social integration, is that automatically a bad thing? What would Baudrillard, or other radicals, prefer instead? Perhaps Baudrillard didn’t mind such consumerism; which seems to have been the case. So why the conspiratorial quasi-Marxist tone resplendent with phrases such as “social integration” and the assuaging of otherwise “class-divided societies”?
Even Baudrillard’s notion of the “hyperreal” can be seen as being essentially a Marxist construct. Or at least it must have fed off a particularly Marxist way of looking at things.
In this instance, instead of the “false consciousness” of the working class being a phenomenon of, well, consciousness; this time false consciousness departs from consciousness and is somewhat concretised in “what we take to be reality”. Just as in Marxist theory the working class develops a false consciousness which makes it see things as the capitalist sees things (thus it works against its own liberation, etc.); so with Baudrillard’s “hyperreality” we have nothing but “simulations” which people – the working class again? – take to be real or to be reality. (Or is it the case that in Baudrillard the hyperreal is reality and, in turn, it’s an act of false consciousness to look for the “reality”-in-inverted-commas behind it?)
Even though I can clearly see the Marxist heritage in Baudrillard’s notion of hyperreality and simulation, at the same time I’m not sure if I fully understand exactly what he’s talking about.
In hyperreality the problem isn’t false “representations” of reality – or even any kind of representation (true of false) of reality. Why is that? Because reality is already full of - or only - representations or simulations. So, in that sense, you can’t represent, falsely or truly, that which is already a representation. (Actually, I think you can.)
Here evil capitalism comes into the Baudrillard picture again. It is capitalism itself, or its bad baby, consumerism, that’s responsible for hyperreality becoming a substitute for reality. (Though, again, Baudrillard apparently loved hyperreality and everything it offered him.) Because capitalism is essentially about selling products, everything becomes – or must become - a product – even reality (or all of its individual parts) itself. Thus even the Iraq War of 1990/1 was a product. A simulation. It was hyperreal. At least to Baudrillard. We were not shown reality by the platonic Media. (Baudrillard, like most radicals, platonised the media into a single entity which seems to have had determinate identity conditions; just like Baudrillard’s fictional working class, in fact.) We are endlessly shown a simulation of reality – even in the case of the Iraq war itself. Because it was a capitalist simulation – the Iraq war was a product to be sold to all of us.
So capitalism, or at least the capitalist Media, even gets to work on reality. In so doing it turns it into Hyperreality. A system of “sign-values” that are variously “aesthetisised” for our consumption and enjoyment – even the killings and the bombings of the first Iraq war.
None of this would work if it were not for the Marxist paradigm which underpins Baudrillard supposedly “pomo”, therefore non-Marxist, vision. That is, hyperreality wouldn’t work - or be believed - if it were not for the false consciousness of the working class (perhaps of everyone else too). We need to have been hoodwinked by evil capitalists (whoever that platonic class includes) in order to “believe the hype” about the Iraq war and everything else for that matter. The platonic Media, the organ of the platonic class – [Capitalists], hoodwinks us all – even capitalists themselves? – into accepting “simulation” for reality. The hyperreal for the real. But, again, isn’t it also the case that Baudrillard also rejects this Derridarean “binary opposition” of reality-hyperreality in the first place? Or is it all yet another example of French philosophical one-upmanship?
There are many other aspects of Baudrillard’s thought which are far more explicitly Marxist in tone and political objectives/hopes. For example, the critique of “bourgeois” or even “capitalist humanism”; the postmodern fetishisation of "Otherness"; the talk of “liberation”, “emancipation” and the rest. However, since my concern has been Baudrillard’s implicit – rather than explicit – Marxism, I will leave these issues for another time.