TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

The Spectacle of Power

This text was presented in January at the 2010 Telos Conference, “From Lifeworld to Biopolitics: Empire in the Age of Obama.”

1. The Fusion of Geo-Politics and Geo-Economics

Over the past thirty years or so, globalization has supplanted the sovereign national state with the globalized “market-state.” In this complex and non-linear process, the sovereign national state, which provides public investment and universal welfare for the citizenry, has been superseded by the “market-state,” which instead maximizes client and consumer choice by opening up all levels of the economy to global finance and trade, as Philip Bobbitt has documented in his seminal book The Shield of Achilles.[1] Beyond Bobbitt, I have argued elsewhere that the “market-state” fuses centralized bureaucracy with the extension of market exchange to all areas of public policy and the private sphere. In consequence, the institutions of civil society and the practices of civic culture have been largely absorbed into the “market-state” and subordinated to the logic of formal contract and exchange value.[2]

In spite of numerous differences, the model of the “market-state” captures the essential features of both the more market-driven capitalism of the West (the United States, Europe, and Japan) and the state-orchestrated capitalism of the East or the South (the so-called BRIC countries of Brazil, Russia, India, and China). Among these features is a growing polarization of society, with widening levels of inequality, increasingly entrenched pockets of poverty, and a gaping disconnect between the ruling “new classes” and a citizenry that is increasingly atomized and alienated. Faced with the administrative and symbolic order of the “market-state,” individuals and groups are deserting traditional parties or the ruling regimes and embracing a new populism which fuels anti-establishment protest movements as diverse as the Iranian Green Revolution, the Tea Party movement, or local Chinese revolts against the Communist nomenclature.

Arguably this tendency towards the convergence of state and market power is part of a wider and deeper change in geo-politics and geo-economics. However, it is not the case that geo-economics has simply replaced geo-politics, as Edward Luttwak asserted at the beginning of the 1990s.[3] We have not left behind the modern age of a geo-political logic of inter-state conflict centered on military war and territoriality—as evinced by the Gulf War of 1991, Somalia, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, the war opposing Georgia to Russia in August 2008, or ongoing territorial disputes between India and Pakistan, China and India, as well as the “frozen conflicts” in the former Soviet space. Nor have we entered a postmodern age characterized exclusively by geo-economic conflicts: water instead of land, access to world markets instead of the control over territory, trade and finance instead of armies and tanks. Rather, the post-Cold War era marks the fusion of geo-politics and geo-economics, a collusive complicity whose main theater of production is the “spectacle of power”—the rise of a “spectacular politics” and “spectacular societies” (Guy Debord) where power is largely derived from a sinister fusion of wealth and celebrity.[4]

Beyond Debord, one can say with Baudrillard that the mode of simulation underpinning the operation of capitalism reduces democracy to little more than procedural formalism as well as reinforces the demobilization and quiescence of the citizenry.[5] And beyond Baudrillard, one can suggest that the confluence of capitalism and secular liberal democracy reverses the metaphysical priority of actuality vis-à-vis possibility and enshrines the primacy of the virtual over the real. In turn, this is grounded in a subordination of the sacred to the quasi-sacrality of the state and the market. As such, we have already entered a post-democratic phase in which the rise of corporate, cartel capitalism is correlated with the decline of civil society and civic culture as well as the erosion of public, traditional religion and shared customs. Just as the crisis of liberal democracy is welcome because it de-legitimates the underlying secular ideology, so the growth of disaffection and populism further erodes the established democratic institutions that are necessary but insufficient for a politics that combines some degree of formal representation with real civic participation.

The old and tired ideologies of left and right have either collapsed or surrendered to the neo-liberal marriage of bureaucratic centralism and free-market fundamentalism, whose failure is now plain for everyone to see. A genuine transformation of the status quo will require a retrieval and extension of Renaissance and Enlightenment civic humanism that outwitted in advance the false dualism of the dominant, secular ideologies since the French Revolution.[6] Indeed, this tradition was instrumental in the original emergence and development of an autonomous space neither controlled by the state nor dominated by the market—a compact that is the grounded in the clear distinction of powers and embeds both political sovereignty and commercial exchange within the mutualist and reciprocal relations of communities and associations.[7] These (and other) traditions of Christianity are indispensable to a new civil economy that subverts the dominant logic of social and commercial contract with a logic of gift that translates into practices of mutual help and reciprocal giving.

2. On Modern Bio-Politics

Broadly speaking, the fusion of geo-politics and geo-economics is the combined result of a double shift that is synonymous with modernity: first, from market economies to global capitalism; and, second, from dispersed sovereignty with overlapping jurisdictions and participatory hierarchies to a politics of formal representation ruled by the sovereign center.[8] In the long and uneven process of modernization, the formalization of politics has been in league with the financialization of the economy. For both promote a growing abstraction from locality and community and thereby a dissolution of organic human and natural bonds. Beyond (and partly against) Marx, the Marxist economist Fernand Braudel and the Christian Socialist Karl Polanyi have shown in complementary ways how “disembedded” commerce centered on exchange and monetary value—which differentiates modern capitalism from traditional market economies—commodifies not just labor and social relations but also nature and life itself.[9]

Like the capitalist expansion of monetary value to virtually all areas of life, the modern democratic processes of abstract individual rights and formal representation tend to extend the formality of the law and procedural mechanisms to the entire range of social and communal activity. But far from representing a thorough democratization of power in favor of “the many,” democratic rule in much of the nineteenth and the twentieth century has been characterized by an increased usurping of sovereignty by the executive branch of government, as Giorgio Agamben has shown.[10] The problem is that this corrupting tendency can flip over into a process of self-corruption, as a democratically elected executive will claim the legitimate authority to exceed its own mandate in the face of circumstances which could not be anticipated by that mandate and which the electorate cannot vote on.

The most recent example that illustrates this point is the national state response to international Islamic terrorism. By launching a “global war on terror,” many different democratic systems in the West and elsewhere have declared a “state of exception” and suspended core constitutional provisions like habeas corpus precisely in order to protect the constitution from what they believe to be an existential threat.[11] For this reason alone, Carl Schmitt was right to define the sovereign as “he who decides on the state of exception.”[12] But when the executive decrees the “state of exception,” the conceptual difference between democracy and authoritarianism enters a zone of “in-distinction” where formal democratic structures remain in place but actual practices violate core values of liberal democracy such as fair trial, a proper measure of free speech, right to defense, and a fair treatment of detainees and the convicted. More fundamentally, the exercise of power in authoritarian democracies lacks proper checks and balances, such that the defense of sovereignty masks a radicalization of Foucault’s bio-political power where the value of human life is neither universally equal nor absolutely sacrosanct.

As such, modern sovereign power blends the juridical-constitutional model of state sovereignty with the “biopolitical” conception of power in terms of the application of politics to all aspects of life. Contrary to the Aristotelian idea that politics is coextensive with human life in society, modernity makes political power the foundation of life itself, as exemplified by Hobbes’ Leviathan, which “giveth and taketh life”. Late modernity, by reinforcing the procedural formalism of representative democracy at the expense of civic culture, undermines the social bonds upon which vibrant, participatory democracies depend. For these (and other) reasons, both capitalism and democracy deny the sacred dimension of the universe and the sanctity of human and natural life, both of which they conjointly subordinate to the quasi-sacrality of the state and the market, as I have already indicated.

This also explains in part why Walter Benjamin’s description of capitalism as a “quasi-religion” was so prescient and must now be extended to secular liberal democracy.[13] As such, bio-politics provides the conceptual and practical link between the modern primacy of state centralism and market anarchism over empires and the papacy, on the one hand, and the late modern collusion of global capital with the executive branch of government. Moreover, liberalism and the sort of economic and social liberalization that it advocates helps produce a kind of democracy that is post-democratic, as I argue in the following section.

3. Post-Democratic Market-States

Over the past one hundred years or so, neither democratization nor economic modernization in the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, or elsewhere in the West have moved in linear or cyclical ways. Instead, both exhibit a parabolic shape. Politics becomes increasingly democratized for a period (e.g., extended voting rights, regular elections, alternating governments) and democracy remains formally in place, even after actual democratic practices decline (e.g., falling voting turnout, party membership in freefall, political debate replaced by tightly controlled, PR-driven spectacles, etc.) and power reverts to elites which serve the interests of corporate business at the expense of the wider public. The “new classes” serve the interests of corporate business to the direct detriment of the wider public good, as both Christopher Lasch and Paul Piccone argued over forty years. Coupled with the concentration of power in the hands of the executive (as well as the unelected and unaccountable agencies of the para-constitutional state), we can say with Sheldon Wolin that this marks “the political coming of age of corporate power and the political demobilization of the citizenry,” whereby democracy becomes increasingly managed and flips over into something like “inverted totalitarianism.”[14]

Likewise, the economy does not follow regular business cycles of growth, stagnation, and contraction which follow a fundamental underlying trend. Rather, the modern history of economics is one of bubble cycles of boom and bust, characterized by “manias, panics and crashes” (Charles Kindleberger). Paradoxically, the rise of finance capital has created a kind of volatility that has pervaded all levels of the economy, including the reliance of local government on global financial instruments such as derivate trading. In turn, this has not simply led to the contagion of systemic risk but also generated a new climate of uncertainty which can never be insured against and which erodes the bonds of trust, cooperation, and professional ethos—as Richard Sennett has shown in his book The Corrosion of Character.

Taken together, the parabolic shape explains in large part why democracies and market economies have seen a growing centralization of power and a progressive concentration of wealth—a constellation that undermines communal bonds and social cohesion. Specifically, a new managerial class in state bureaucracies and elected politics has conspired with a globally expanding “culture industry” against locality, family, and the whole “moral economy” of both guiding virtuous elites and common popular customs.[15] Civic participation in political debate and economic activity has gradually been marginalized in favor of a tightly controlled spectacle of electoral campaigns and endless televised shows. All of which points to a double specularity: just as free-market capitalism is the spectacle of abstract, fetishized, idealized commodities, so liberal representative democracy is the spectacle of the mass representation of general opinion and desires to the alienated and atomized masses. Moreover, the fusion of economics with politics has produced a convergence of the capitalist and the liberal democratic modes of specularity whereby both are now dominated by the identical self-reproduction of the sinister show of wealth and celebrity which is hollowing out the tradition forms of participatory and representative democracy centered on localities and town-halls.[16]

4. Beyond the New Populisms

The modern bio-politics that underpins the fusion of geo-politics and geo-economics as well as the rise of post-democratic market-states is currently fueling a new wave of new populisms. First of all, an establishment populism deployed by (former) leaders such as Tony Blair, Silvio Berlusconi, Nicholas Sarkozy, and to a lesser extent Barack Obama who purport to be the agents of change and progressive renewal against the forces of conservatism in party politics and state bureaucracy. Secondly, an anti-establishment populism fueled by popular anger and grass-roots anxiety about persistent unemployment, bank bonuses on the back of bailouts with taxpayers’ money, and increasing central regulation. What is new about these populisms is that they elevate personalities over above political parties and replace a politics of rationality with a politics of affectivity where the emotional intelligence of leaders qualifies them for the highest state office, as Neil Turnbull has argued.[17] Moreover, the political discourse of current leaders eschews parliamentary and civic mediation by appealing directly to the largely passive spectators via the virtual media of social network sites, appearances on chat shows and tightly controlled “town hall” meetings. As such, the professed pragmatism of the ruling classes masks a more fundamental ideological and material commitment to the bio-political subordination of human, social and natural to the power of post-democratic market-states. The spectacle of power which constantly re-enacts the self-representation of mass opinion to the masses reinforces even the establishment populisms upon which it thrives.

A revivified kind of representative democracy alone is perhaps a necessary but certainly not a sufficient resistance against the combined power of state and market or against the new populisms just described. For example, Jürgen Habermas’s distinction between procedural and substantive democracy completely ignores the ontological problem of elevating representation over above participation. It also posits the normative primacy of modern, abstract secular values like tolerance or the will of the majority over non-modern virtues embodied in civic practices such as justice governed by notions of the good rather than merely fairness.

Nor does contemporary civil society provide a bulwark against the worst excesses of the secretly collusive centralized bureaucratic state and the unbridled free market. Indeed, both capitalism and liberal democracy view civil society as a part of the social contract and the logic of market exchange which historically consecrated the rise of the (secretly collusive) centralized state and the unbridled market at the expense of empires, the papacy and intermediary institutions such as guilds, cooperatives, traditional support networks, worker self-organization and autonomous local government. As a result, civil society in its current configuration is subject to the legal, administrative and symbolic order of the post-democratic market-state. Like governmental welfare, civil society now plays a merely “compensatory role” and as such it subservient to the dominant logic of abstraction shared by both capitalism and liberal democracy.

At the same time, the ongoing repercussions of the global Great Recession are exacerbated some of the trends just described. So far, political and policy responses to this crisis have failed to change the imbalance of power between global finance and local economies. Unprecedented state action to the tune of $9 trillion in cash injections, lending guarantees, and funding lines (according to IMF estimates)—all aimed at rescue banks and other “systemically important” financial institutions—has not improved lending to cash-strapped businesses or households. Nor has a proper contest of ideas resumed between parties in governments and in opposition. Instead, the left has bailed out global finance without reforming it while the right has printed money while preparing to cut public spending. Both have propped up a system that privatizes gains, nationalizes losses, and socializes systemic risk. Neither has so far launched a genuine redistribution of power and a re-balancing of wealth in favor of citizens, communities, intermediary associations, and small businesses. Credit and property bubbles are once again building, this time predominantly in China and countries with significant sovereign wealth funds—a worrying trends which threatens a second round of default and debt deflation.

What is therefore required is to diffuse sovereignty, pluralize power, and locate the relational nature of humanity and the environment at the heart of a new civil economy. In turn, this necessitates the embedding of markets in the complex web of communal relations and the blending of the universal virtue of justice with particular traditions of mutualism and association. The aim is that individual freedom and social welfare are no longer governed by purely economic-utilitarian calculations but instead by political-ethical goals of human flourishing in line with the organic links of both nature and culture.

Instead of mindless modernization, what is more important is a new kind of settlement whereby both the centralized bureaucratic state and the unfettered global free-market are transformed in order to serve the genuine needs and interests of persons, communities, and the environment. To achieve this, state and market must be re-embedded within a wider network of social relations and governed by virtues and universal principles such as justice, solidarity, fraternity and responsibility. This can only be achieved by combining the principle of solidarity with the principle of subsidiarity, according to which political and economic decision-making should take place at the most appropriate level in order to serve individual and communal well-being, i.e., as close as possible to the local level (including communities and neighborhoods) and if necessary at the regional, national, or global level. In terms of the current configuration, this requires a large-scale political and economic decentralization, coupled with the creation of intermediary structures such as trans-regional and supranational bodies. To be sure, restoring the local requires a certain kind of locally driven paternalism that corrects regressive social practices in accordance with the best traditions of that local culture as well as by introducing external standards of achievement and discipline.

Concretely, what is required is the creation of enterprises that operate on the basis of mutualist principles like cooperatives or employee-owned businesses, e.g., Mondragon in Spain (with over 100,000 employees and an annual turnover of more than US $3bn), Toyota in Japan, the John Lewis Partnership in the UK, or Crédit Mutuel in France. These and other similar businesses pursue not just private profit but also social ends by reinvesting their profit in the company and in the community instead of simply enriching the top management or institutional shareholders. In turn, this necessitates professional associations and other intermediary institutions wherein workers and owners can jointly determine just wages and fair prices. Against the free-market concentration of wealth and state-controlled redistribution of income, a more radical program is to enable labor to receive assets (in the form of stake-holdings) and to hire capital (not vice-versa), while capital itself comes in part from worker- and community-supported credit unions rather than exclusively from shareholder-driven retail banks.

Moreover, profit and technological innovation can no longer be viewed as ends in themselves but as means to secure the stability of businesses, their employees and the communities hosting them. Like the “market-state,” money and science must be re-embedded within communal, social relations and enhance rather than destroy mankind’s organic ties with nature. Based on new, positive incentives combined with more punitive action and reinstated social taboos, the world economy needs to switch from short-term financial speculation to long-term investment in the real economy, social development and environmental sustainability. Democracy and modernization will provide popular sovereignty and progress only if they eschew further abstraction from localities, communities and families and instead uphold the “good life” and the common good in which all can share.


1. Philip Bobbitt, The Shield of Achilles. War, Peace and the Course of History (London: Penguin, 2003), pp. 213-42.

2. Adrian Pabst, “On Market-States and Post-Democracy,” in Vladislav Inozemtsev and Parag Khanna, eds., Democracy and Modernization (Moscow: Europe Publications, forthcoming in 2010).

3. Edward N. Luttwak, “From Geopolitics to Geo-Economics,” National Interest 20 (1990): 17-24; Edward N. Luttwak, The Endangered American Dream: How to Stop the United States From Being a Third World Country and How to Win the Geo-Economic Struggle for Industrial Supremacy (New York: Basic Books, 1993).

4. Tocqueville and Carlyle were among the first to describe the emergence of “spectacular societies.” Their ideas were further developed by Thorstein Veblen in his The Theory of the Leisure Class (New York: Penguin Books, 1994 [1899]) and crucially in the work of Guy Debord, La Société du Spectacle (Paris: Ed. Buchet-Chastel, 1967) and Le déclin et la chute de l’économie spectaculaire-marchande (Paris: Belles Lettres, 1993).

5. Jean Baudrillard, The Mirror of Production, trans. Mark Poster (New York: Telos Press, 1975).

6. Eugenio Garin, L’umenesimo italiano (Bari: G. Laterza, 1958); trans. Italian humanism: philosophy and civic life in the Renaissance, trans. Peter Munz (Oxford: Blackwell, 1965).

7. On the Christian origins of civil society (which can be traced to late Middle Ages, the Italian Renaissance and the Scottish Enlightenment), see John Robertson, The Case for the Enlightenment: Scotland and Naples 1680-1760 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), esp. pp. 201-405; Luigino Bruni and Stefano Zamagni, Civil Economy: Efficiency, Equity, Public Happiness (Bern: Peter Lang, 2007), esp. pp. 13-99.

8. Adrian Pabst, “Modern Sovereignty in Question: Theology, Democracy and Capitalism,” Modern Theology, forthcoming.

9. Fernand Braudel, Civilisation matérielle, économie et capitalisme, XVe-XVIIIe siècle (Paris: Ed. Armand Colin, 1979); Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation. The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Boston: Beacon Press 2000 [orig. pub. 1944]).

10. Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2005), esp. pp. 1-40.

11. Jean-Claude Paye, La fin de l’Etat de droit: La lutte antiterroriste, de l’état d’exception à la dictature (Paris: La Dispute, 2004), trans. Global War on Liberty (New York: Telos Press, 2007).

12. “Souverän ist, wer über den Ausnahmezustand entscheidet”, in Carl Schmitt, Politische Theologie: Vier Kapitel zur Lehre von der Souveränität (Munich/Leipzig: Duncker und Humbolt, 1922), p. 11.

13. Walter Benjamin, “Capitalism as Religion,” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings—Volume 1 (1913-1926) , ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), pp. 288-91.

14. Sheldon S. Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Pres, 2008), p. x.

15. E.P. Thompson, “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the 18th Century,” Past & Present, 50: 76-136; E.P. Thompson, Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture (London: Merlin Press, 1991).

16. Colin Crouch, Post-Democracy (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004); Peter Mair, Ruling the Void: The Hollowing Out of Western Democracy (London: Verso, 2009).

17. Neil Turnbull, “On Left Spinozism,” paper delivered at the TELOS Annual Conference 2010 on January 16, 2010, at New York University.

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