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<nettime> The State, the Spectacle and September 11
J Armitage on Thu, 3 Jun 2004 08:02:40 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> The State, the Spectacle and September 11

[reformatted  {AT}  nettime]

[Hi nettimers, I found this a very useful article, well worth a read
... John.] 


New Left Review 27, May-June 2004

The current global conjuncture as a collision between brute imperial
interests and blunders in hegemonic control of the image-world. State
power and spectacular warfare after September 11, in the view of the Bay
Area's Situationist collective.



The State, the Spectacle and September 11

He too fought under television for our place in the sun. Robert Lowell on
Lieutenant Calley, 1971

We begin from the moment in February 2003 when the tapestry copy of
Picasso's Guernica hung in the anteroom to the UN Security Council Chamber
was curtained over, at American insistence-not 'an appropriate backdrop',
it was explained, for official statements to the world media on the
forthcoming invasion of Iraq. [1] The episode became an emblem. Many a
placard on Piccadilly or Market Street rang sardonic changes on Bush and
the snorting bull. An emblem, yes-but, with the benefit of hindsight,
emblematic of what? Of the state's relentless will to control the minutiae
of appearance, as part of-essential to-its drive to war? Well,
certainly. But in this case, did it get its way? Did not the boorishness
of the effort at censorship prove counterproductive, eliciting the very
haunting-by an imagery still capable of putting a face on the brutal
abstraction of 'shock and awe'-that the velcro covering was meant to put a
stop to? And did not the whole incident speak above all to the state's
anxiety as it tried to micro-manage the means of symbolic production-as if
it feared that every last detail of the derealized decor it had built for
its citizens had the potential, at a time of crisis, to turn utterly
against it?

These are the ambiguities, generalized to the whole conduct of war and
politics over the past three years, that this essay will explore. We start
from the premise that certain concepts and descriptions put forward forty
years ago by Guy Debord and the Situationist International, as part of
their effort to comprehend the new forms of state control and social
disintegration, still possess explanatory power-more so than ever, we
suspect, in the poisonous epoch we are living through. In particular, the
twinned notions of 'the colonization of everyday life' and 'the society of
the spectacle'-we think each concept needs the other if it is to do its
proper work-strike us as having purchase on key aspects of what has
happened since September 11, 2001. Our purpose, in a word, is to turn two
central Situationist hypotheses back to the task for which they were
always primarily intended-to make them instruments of political analysis
again, directed to an understanding of the powers and vulnerabilities of
the capitalist state. (We take it we are not alone in shuddering at the
way 'spectacle' has taken its place in approved postmodern discourse over
the past 15 years, as a vaguely millenarian accompaniment to 'new media
studies' or to wishful thinking about freedom in cyberspace, with never a
whisper that its original objects were the Watts Riots and the Proletarian
Cultural Revolution.)

None of this means that we think we comprehend the whole shape and dynamic
of the new state of affairs, or can offer a theory of its deepest
determinations. We are not sectaries of the spectacle; no one concept, or
cluster of concepts, seems to us to get the measure of the horror of the
past three years. We even find it understandable, if in the end a mistake,
that some on the Left have seen the recent wars in the desert and
squabbles in the Security Council as open to analysis in classical Marxist
terms, proudly unreconstructed-bringing on stage again the predictions and
revulsions of Lenin's and Hobson's studies of imperialism-rather than in
those of a new politics of 'internal', technologized social control.

The present dark circumstances call for fresh political thought. No
attempt at such thinking can avoid three obvious, interlinked questions:

To what extent did the events of September 11, 2001-the precision bombing
of New York and Washington by organized enemies of the US Empire-usher in
a new era? Did those events change anything fundamental in the calculus
and conduct of advanced capitalist states, or in the relation of such
states to their civil societies? If so, how?

Are we to understand the forms of assertion of American power since
September 11-the naove demonstration of military supremacy (largely to
reassure the demonstrators that 'something could still be done' with the
monstrous armoury at the state's beck and call), the blundering attempts
at recolonization under way in Afghanistan and Iraq, the threats and
payoffs to client states in every corner of the globe, the glowering
attack on civil liberties within the US itself-as a step backwards, a
historical regression, in which the molecular, integral, invisible means
of control which so many of us believed were indispensable to a truly
'modern' state-system have given way to a new/old era of gunboats and

Do the concepts 'society of the spectacle' and 'colonization of everyday
life' help us to grasp the logic of the present age? Or has the level of
social dispersal and mendaciousness to which those concepts once pointed
also been overtaken-displaced, abruptly, at a special moment of urgency
and arrogance-by cruder, older imperatives of statecraft?

None of these questions, to repeat, can be answered in isolation. No one
level of analysis-'economic' or 'political', global or local, focusing on
the means of either material or symbolic production-will do justice to the
current strange mixture of chaos and grand design. But one major aspect of
the story-the struggle for mastery in the realm of the image-has so far
barely been thought of as positively interacting with others more familiar
and 'material'. It is the first outline of this interaction that we aim to
offer, for further debate.


The version of 'spectacle' with which we operate is minimal, pragmatic,
matter of fact. No doubt the idea's original author often gave it an
exultant, world-historical force. But his tone is inimitable, as all
efforts to duplicate it have proved; and in any case we are convinced that
the age demands a different cadence-something closer (if we are lucky) to
that of the lines from Paradise Lost we use as our pamphlet's epigraph [2]
than to anything from Lukacs or Ducasse.

The notion 'spectacle' was intended, then, as a first stab at
characterizing a new form of, or stage in, the accumulation of
capital. What it named preeminently was the submission of more and more
facets of human sociability-areas of everyday life, forms of recreation,
patterns of speech, idioms of local solidarity, kinds of ethical or
aesthetic insubordination, the endless capacities of human beings to evade
or refuse the orders brought down to them from on high-to the deadly
solicitations (the lifeless bright sameness) of the market. Those who
developed the analysis in the first place resisted the idea that this
colonization of everyday life was dependent on any one set of
technologies, but notoriously they were interested in the means modern
societies have at their disposal to systematize and disseminate
appearances, and to subject the texture of day-to-day living to a constant
barrage of images, instructions, slogans, logos, false promises, virtual
realities, miniature happiness-motifs. Batteries Not Included, as the old
punk band had it.

The choice of the word 'colonization' to describe the process was
deliberate. It invited readers to conceive of the invasion and sterilizing
of so many unoccupied areas of human species-being-areas that previous
regimes, however overweaning, had chosen (or been obliged) to leave
alone-as a specific necessity of capitalist production, just as much part
of its dynamism as expansion to the ends of the earth. The colonization of
everyday life, we might put it from our present vantage point, was
'globalization' turned inward-mapping and enclosing the hinterland of the
social, and carving out from the detail of human inventiveness an ever
more ramified and standardized market of exchangeable
subjectivities. Naturally the one colonization implied the other: there
would have been no Black Atlantic of sugars, alcohols and opiates without
the drive to shape subjectivity into a pattern of small
(saleable) addictions.

The point of the analysis, again, was to bring into focus the terms and
possibilities of resistance (wars of liberation) against the colonizing
forces; this in a situation, the later 1960s, where it was not foolhardy,
even if ultimately mistaken, to imagine 'reassembling our afflicted
Powers' and doing real harm to the enemy. Debord, to speak of him
directly, was concerned most of all with the way the subjection of social
life to the rule of appearances had led, in turn, to a distinct form of
politics-of state formation and surveillance. His opinion on these matters
fluctuated: they were the aspect of the present he most loathed, and which
regularly elicited his best tirades and worst paranoia. We extract the
following propositions from his pages.

First, that slowly but surely the state in the twentieth century had been
dragged into full collaboration in the micro-management of everyday
life. The market's necessity became the state's obsession. (Slowly, and in
a sense against the state's better judgement, because always there existed
a tension between the modern state's armoured other-directedness-its
raison d'jtre as a war machine-and capital's insistence that the state
come to its aid in the great work of internal policing and packaging. This
tension has again been visible over the past three years. We believe it is
one key to the obvious incoherence of the state's recent actions.) Second,
this deeper and deeper involvement of the state in the day-to-day
instrumentation of consumer obedience meant that increasingly it came to
live or die by its investment in, and control of, the field of images-the
alternative world conjured up by the new battery of 'perpetual emotion
machines' [3] of which TV was the dim pioneer and which now beckons the
citizen every waking minute. This world of images had long been a
structural necessity of a capitalism oriented toward the overproduction of
commodities, and therefore the constant manufacture of desire for
them; but by the late twentieth century it had given rise to a specific

The modern state, we would argue, has come to need weak citizenship. It
depends more and more on maintaining an impoverished and hygienized public
realm, in which only the ghosts of an older, more idiosyncratic civil
society live on. It has adjusted profoundly to its economic master's
requirement for a thinned, unobstructed social texture, made up of loosely
attached consumer subjects, each locked in its plastic work-station and
nuclearized family of four. Weak citizenship, but for that very reason the
object of the state's constant, anxious attention-an unstoppable barrage
of idiot fashions and panics and image-motifs, all aimed at sewing the
citizen back (unobtrusively, 'individually') into a deadly simulacrum of

At times, the first writers to confront this nightmare seemed to despair
in the face of it:

There is no place left where people can discuss the realities which
concern them, because they can never lastingly free themselves from the
crushing presence of media discourse and of the various forces organized
to relay it . . . Unanswerable lies have succeeded in eliminating public
opinion, which first lost the ability to make itself heard and then very
quickly dissolved altogether . . . Once one controls the mechanism which
operates the only form of social verification to be fully and universally
recognized, one can say what one likes . . . Spectacular power can
similarly deny whatever it wishes to, once, or three times over, and
change the subject: knowing full well there is no danger of riposte, in
its own space or any other. [4]

Too many times over the past twelve months these sentences, in their anger
and sorrow at the present form of politics, have echoed in our minds. But
ultimately we dissent from their totalizing closure. Living after
September 11, we are no longer so sure-and do not believe that spectacular
power is sure-that 'there is no danger of riposte, in its own space or any
other'. For better or worse, the precision bombings were such a
riposte. And their effect on the spectacular state has been profound: the
state's reply to them, we are certain, has exceeded in its crassness and
futility the martyr-pilots' wildest dreams. Therefore we turn to another
sentence from the same book, which (characteristically) acts as finale to
the previous admissions of defeat. 'To this list of the triumphs of power
we should add, however, one result which has proved negative: once the
running of the state involves a permanent and massive shortage of
historical knowledge, that state can no longer be led strategically.' [5]
Issued by a devotee of Sun Tzu and Clausewitz, this last verdict is

Debord had a robust and straightforward view of the necessity, for
individuals and collectives, of learning from the past (not the least of
the ways in which his thinking is classical, as opposed to postmodern). Of
course he knew that the past is a 'construction'; but of obdurate and
three-dimensional materials, he believed, constantly resisting any one
frame, and which only the most elaborate machinery of forgetting could
make fully tractable to power. His deepest fears as a revolutionary
derived from the sense, which grew upon him, that this elaborate machinery
might now have been built, and really be turning the world into an eternal
present. That was the key to his hatred of the image-life: that what it
threatened, ultimately, was the very existence of the complex, created,
two-way temporality that for him constituted the essence of the human.

Such was the nightmare. But even Debord sometimes took (cold) comfort from
the recognition that the state too lived the nightmare, and would suffer
the consequences. For it too could no longer learn from the past: it had
progressively dismantled the contexts in which truly strategic discussion
of its aims and interests-thinking in the long term, admitting the
paradoxes and uncertainties of power, recognizing, in a word, 'the cunning
of reason'-might still be possible. The state was entrapped in its own
apparatus of clichis. It had come almost to believe in the policy-motifs
its think-tanks and disinformation consultancies churned out for it. How
Debord would have revelled, over the past year, in the endless double
entendres provided by the media, to the effect that Bush and Blair's rush
to war in Iraq should be blamed on 'faulty intelligence'!


What, then, politically and strategically, took place on September 11,
2001? And how, politically and strategically, has the US state responded
to it? Of course, we realize the dangers here. Why should we follow the
lead of the spectacle itself in electing this one among many
atrocities-raised to the new power of ideology, inevitably, by the idiot
device of digitalizing its dateline-as a world-historical turning
point? How much of the real dynamic (and pathology) of American power is
conjured away by pinning it thus to a single image-event-in much the same
way that American victory in the Cold War was rendered in retrospect
magical, unanalysable, by the mantra 'The Fall of the Wall'? There have
been moments when we found it easy to sympathize with those of our
comrades who, partly in reaction to the flood of cloying,
pseudo-apocalyptic verbiage released by September 11 (which shows no sign
of abating), go so far as to dismiss the bombings as so many pinpricks,
attentats, hopeless symbolic gestures on the part of those with no real
power to wound.

'Hopeless symbolic gestures.' We agree quite strictly with all three words
of the diagnosis. (As do the perpetrators, it seems. In them chiliasm is
spliced with nihilism, to form a distinctively hyper-modern compound. When
they boast in their communiquis of being 'for Death'-in contradistinction,
they imply, to modernity's miserable attachment to a Life not worth the
name-one is never sure if one is hearing Tyndale's cry from the stake or
Stavrogin's in the last pages of The Possessed. As so often lately, the
twenty-first century seems an amalgam of the sixteenth and
nineteenth.) And the question remains: what is the effectiveness-the
specific political force-of this form of symbolic action, hopeless or not,
within the symbolic economy called 'spectacle'? Spectacularly, the
American state suffered a defeat on September 11. And spectacularly, for
this state, does not mean superficially or epiphenomenally. The state was
wounded in September in its heart of hearts, and we see it still, three
years later, flailing blindly in the face of an image it cannot exorcize,
and trying desperately to convert the defeat back into terms it can
respond to.

One last caveat. It should hardly be necessary to state that, if we refuse
to extract the September bombings from the cycle of horrors over which the
US has presided since 1945, and believe it necessary, if we are to
understand them politically, to treat the events of September as an
occurrence in a war of images, it is not because we fail to recognize (and
wish we could find words for) the obscenity of those events. On the
contrary, precisely because the attacks in September were calibrated to
leave an indelible image-trail behind them, they have seared in the memory
item after item of evidence of just what it is, in terms of human fear and
agony, that political calculus so habitually writes off. We too are
haunted by the flailing arms of the jumpers, and the scream on the
soundtrack as the tower stutters into dust; just as we are haunted by the
image of Hanadi Jaradat's bloody head, 'her thick hair tied in a
ponytail', dumped by the clean-up squad on a table at the back of the
restaurant in Haifa she had blown to pieces an hour before. [6] We wish we
had words for these things. We wish we lived in a political culture where
the language of revulsion had not been debauched by decade after decade of
selective gravitas. (Your Chechnya for my Guatemala. Your Suharto for my
Pol Pot.)

We proceed then, unwillingly, from the image on the screen. It matters
profoundly that the horrors of September 11 were designed above all to be
visible, and that this visibility marked the bombings off from most
previous campaigns of air terror, especially those sponsored by
states. There were no cameras at Dresden, Hamburg, Hiroshima. [7] The
horror there had to be unseen; it had to act-was meant to act-on the
surrounding population in the form of uncontrollable hearsay and
panic; and it was to be presented to the enemy state apparatus in the form
of report, statistic, prediction, ultimatum.

September's terror was different. It made no demands, it offered no
explanations. It was premised on the belief (learned from the culture it
tried to annihilate) that a picture is worth a thousand words-that a
picture, in the present condition of politics, is itself, if sufficiently
well-executed, a specific and effective piece of statecraft. Of course the
martyr-pilots knew that bringing down the Twin Towers would do nothing, or
next to nothing, to stop the actual circuits of capital. But circuits of
capital are bound up, in the longer term, with circuits of
sociability-patterns of belief and desire, levels of confidence, degrees
of identification with the good life of the commodity. And these, said the
terrorists, thinking strategically, are aspects of the social imaginary
still (always, interminably) being put together by the perpetual emotion
machines. Supposing those machines could be captured for a moment, and on
them appeared the perfect image of capitalism's negation. Would that not
be enough? Enough truly to destabilize the state and society, and produce
a sequence of vauntings and paranoias whose long-term political
consequences for the capitalist world order would, at the very least, be

Or perhaps entirely predictable, from a geopolitical standpoint. 'You know
our demands', said the martyr-pilots (strictly to themselves). 'And we
know you cannot accede to them. We know what you will do instead. We are
certain your answer will be military. We anticipate your idiot leader
blurting out the word crusade. What you will do will vindicate our
analysis point by point, humiliation by humiliation, and confirm the world
of Islamism in its despairing strength. And you will do it because there
is no answer to our image-victory, yet you (because humiliation is
something in which you have no schooling) have to pretend there is one.'

The terrorists (to put it only slightly differently) followed the logic of
the spectacle to its charnel house conclusion. If, to trot out Debord's
over-famous aphorism again, 'the spectacle is capital accumulated to the
point where it becomes image', [8] then what more adequate encapsulation
of the process could there be but the World Trade Centre (with its
multiplication of the terminally gigantic by two)? And what other means of
defeating it-its social instrumentality, that is, its power over the
consuming imagination-than have it be literally obliterated on camera?

We are rehearsing a logic, not endorsing it. But we believe that only by
recognizing what was truly 'modern' in the martyr-pilots' strategy-truly
the opposite of a desperate, powerless, atavistic pinprick; truly the
instigator of the state's present agony-will the Left be able to move
toward argument with the new terrorism's premises and upshots, something
it has not yet begun to do. At the level of the image (here is premise
number one) the state is vulnerable; and that level is now fully part of,
necessary to, the state's apparatus of self-reproduction. Terror can take
over the image-machinery for a moment-and a moment, in the timeless
echo-chamber of the spectacle, may now eternally be all there is-and use
it to amplify, reiterate, accumulate the sheer visible happening of
defeat. It is a confirmation of the terrorists' hopes that after the first
days, in the US, the fall of the Towers became exactly the image that had
not to be shown. [9] The taboo only made the after-image more palpable and
effective. Everything in the culture went on, and still goes on, in
relation to that past image-event; nothing in the culture can address the
event directly. The silence of so-called 'popular culture' in the face of
September 11 has been deafening. (It is as if the commercial music of
America in the mid-twentieth century had had nothing to say about war, or
race, or the Depression, or the new world of goods and appliances. It had
plenty-partly because the adjective 'popular' still pointed to something
real about its audiences and raw materials. That was long ago, of
course: the present total obedience of the culture industry to the
protocols of the war on terror-its immediate ingestion and reproduction of
the state's interdicts and paranoias-is proof positive, if any were
needed, of the snuffing out of the last traces of insubordination in the
studios of TimeWarner.)

The logic of the pilots was part fantasy, we would argue, part
(proven) lucidity. We could reply to it by saying that the new terrorists
succumbed to the temptation of the spectacle, rather than devising a way
to outflank or contest it. They were exponents of the idea (brilliant
exponents, but this only reveals the idea's fundamental
heartlessness) that control over the image is now the key to social
power. And that image-power, like all other forms of ownership and
ascendancy under capitalism, has been subject to an ineluctable process of
concentration, so that it is now manifest in certain identifiable
(targetable) places, monuments, pseudo-bodies, icons, logos, manufactured
non-events; signs that in their very emptiness and worthlessness (the Twin
Towers as architecture were perfect examples) rule the imaginary
earth; and whose concentrated, materialized nullity gives terror a new
chance-to frighten, demoralize, turn the world upside down.

Once upon a time (and still, as we write) bombers went out into the city
with their sensible holdalls, or their windbreakers a little more tightly
zipped than usual. Once upon a time the shrapnel sliced through livers and
skulls in neighbourhood restaurants, street markets, dance halls, breeding
the contagion of rumour in the narrow streets, sapping the will of a class
or colonial enemy, driving its cadres back into the isolation-the
demoralization-of 'home'; eroding, that is, the patterns of sociability
(patterns of fear and enforcement, yes, but embedded in a wider and deeper
universe of loyalties) that had held a regime together.

Now a new breed of bomber has understood that in the society they are
attacking such networks of sociability are secondary: not absent, not
irrelevant, but increasingly supplanted by a ghost sociability which does
not need its citizens to leave home for its key rituals and allegiances to
reproduce themselves. The terror of September 11 had a handful of targets
(our tendency to make it, in memory, simply 'the bombing of the Twin
Towers' is not untrue to the logic of the event). The perpetrators knew
full well that they lacked the means to spread out through the wider
social fabric and bring ordinary doings to a halt. And they believed,
rightly or wrongly, that in present circumstances they did not need
to. What they did was designed to hold us indoors, to make us turn back
and back to a moving image of capitalism screaming and exploding, to make
us go on listening (in spite of ourselves) to the odious talking heads
trying to put something, anything, in place of the desolation.


More than one commentator since September 11, particularly over the last
year, has tried to make sense of the special desperation of the state's
conduct in the aftermath. David Runciman has gone so far as to argue that
what is happening amounts to a genuine utation of the international

Suddenly, the Hobbesian view that states and states alone have the power
and security to operate under conditions of lawfulness is threatened by
the knowledge that even the most powerful states are vulnerable to assault
from unknown and unpredictable sources. It can now be said that in the
international arena 'the weakest has the strength to kill the strongest',
or they would do, if only they could get their hands on the necessary
equipment. This, potentially, changes everything . . .

The common view that 11 September 2001 marked the return to a Hobbesian
world is therefore entirely wrong. It marked the beginning of a
post-Hobbesian age, in which a new kind of insecurity threatens the
familiar structures of modern political life. In one sense, of course,
this insecurity is not new, because it carries echoes of the natural
uncertainties of individual human beings. But it is new for states, which
were meant to be invulnerable to such paranoid anxieties. And since they
are not designed to deal with this sort of threat, even the most powerful
states don't know what to do about it. [10]

This strikes us as capturing something real. There are several things to
be said in response. First, Runciman's argument starts, very reasonably,
from the idea that the state's new level of fearfulness is derived from
the possible or actual availability of 'weapons of mass destruction' to
groups sheltering under the wing of regimes hostile to the new world
order, or rich and skilful enough to bargain with such regimes for a share
in their military technology. (The fact that such technology was usually,
in the first place, eagerly provided by the states now quaking in their
boots at the thought of its going astray-that fact ought to be entered
into the reckoning, no doubt, if it can be done without too much
repetitive 'I told you so.') It is a slight embarrassment to Runciman that
the attack which precipitated the change in the order of state relations
used weapons that had nothing to do with the disintegrating international
arms market. Nothing could be more foolish than to leap on his analysis at
this point, brandishing some tinpot argument to the effect that from now
on the real weapons of mass destruction are the media, that the war is a
war of simulacra not bullets-that 'the Fall of the Twin Towers Did Not
Take Place'. But we would argue that the present condition of politics
does not make sense unless it is approached from a dual perspective-seen
as a struggle for crude, material dominance, but also (threaded ever
closer into that struggle) as a battle for the control of appearances.

We agree with Runciman (against many on the Left who would prefer Al Qaida
to be a last-gasp, exotic, pathetic, pre-capitalist phenomenon) that the
September bombings are a distinctively modern symptom. What they point to,
far beyond the specific atrocity and its grisly religious fuel, is a new
structural feature of the international state system: that the historical
monopoly of the means of destruction by the state is now at risk. This new
feature has many causes. Technological advance is one of them. The rise of
a worldwide secondary market in arms-partly the result of the chaos
attending the end of the Cold War, partly a natural product of the
neoliberal commodification of the globe-is another. Likewise the
contracting-out of an increasing number of military services to a shady
corporate world, again something that neoliberalism began by warmly
recommending to its client nations. The permeability of borders obviously
matters, and has become another major item in the new paranoia. But that
fact is linked to a deeper and more pervasive reality, which again is a
product of the 'globalization' to which these same states are
committed-and on which their bloated home economies depend. Failed states
is the term of art for this endemic reality from which the personnel and
ideology of September 11 so unmistakably arose.

'Failed states', 'rogue states', 'weak states', 'societies left behind by
modernization'-the diagnoses are legion, and the facts they point to
complex. [11] Here, with the problem of September specifically our object,
we will simply assert that 'failed states' have become a structural
element of the international system-a product, a necessity, of the new
universe of globalization. There is no ontological distinction between the
successfully weakened and permeable states, on which the world order now
thrives, and those whose weakness has become chronic fatigue and
disintegration, and whose embrace of foreign capital has widened just
enough to include independent arms dealers, war lords and drug cartels.

Weak citizenship, then, at the spectacular centre; and weak states in the
'world economy' which the centre works endlessly to exploit. A weak state
is one whose local defences against imperial control have (through the
implanting of 'bases', the rifling of natural resources, the helping hand
to local elites in the event of indigenous revolt, and neoliberal
penetration by the corporations) all been satisfactorily dismantled. A
failed state is one where the logic of abjection has been carried, often
imperceptibly, too far-so that suddenly the 'flourishing' economy
shatters, the bribes no longer produce the shoddy goods, the death rates
climb, the effigies of Uncle Sam are paraded through the streets, and up
in the mountains or the university dormitories young men and women cover
their heads and study The Art of War. We could say with only the slightest
edge of exaggeration that failed states are the
typical-determinant-political entities of the world left behind by Cold
War and 'crash programmes' and the attentions of the IMF.

The events of September, it is common knowledge, were directly the
creature of this world of despair. They were trained for in Jalalabad,
paid for in Riyadh. But this does not conflict with the perspective-that
of spectacle-from which this essay began. One of the key phenomena of the
'failed-state' reality we have been describing is the power of Al
Jazeera. (The US has learned that, much to its chagrin.) Nothing enrages
the young Arab intellectual so much as the sight of people his own age,
surrounded by an urban fabric arrested midway on the path to postmodern
squalor, clutching their cell phones and telling their video worry
beads. One of the formative moments in the education of Mohammed Atta, we
are informed, was when he came to realize that the 'conservation' of
Islamic Cairo, in which he had hoped to participate as a newly trained
town planner, was to obey the logic of Disney World.

Weak states or failed states are a hideous amalgam of the feudal, the
Nasserite 'national' and the spectacular-that is the point. Intellectuals
brought up in such circles of hell need no lessons from postmodern theory
about where power lies in the chaos around them, and what means might be
available to contest it. They draw conclusions-cruel and mistaken ones, in
our view, but emerging from a treadmill of pain and hopelessness at which
we can only dimly guess-and choose their weapons.


We return to the pivotal sentence from Debord. 'To this list of the
triumphs of power we should add one result which has proved negative: once
the running of the state involves a permanent and massive shortage of
historical knowledge, that state can no longer be led strategically.' This
should be unpacked in various ways. First, there is what we might call the
Kissinger problem-the problem of weak citizenship in relation to the
actual, brutal needs of empire. (This is understandably an obsession of
the old Peace Prizeman. He for one has never recovered from the Vietnam
syndrome.) A tension exists-let us put it mildly-between the dispersal and
vacuity of the public sphere, which is necessary to the maintenance of
'consumer society', and those stronger allegiances and identifications
which the state must call on, repeatedly, if it is to maintain the
dependencies that feed the consumer beast. Weak citizens grow too soon
tired of wars and occupations. To this long-term dilemma is now added
another. A state that lives more and more in and through a regime of the
image does not know what to do when, for a moment, it dies by the same
lights. It does not matter that 'economically' or 'geopolitically' the
death may be an illusion. Spectacularly it was real. And
image-death-image-defeat-is not a condition this state can endure. 'There
now exists a threat,' to quote Runciman again, 'which makes some states
feel more vulnerable than their subjects.'

We would put it differently. Of course, as materialists, we do not believe
that one can destroy the society of the spectacle by producing the
spectacle of its destruction. This is the nub of our tactical dissent from
September 11, leaving aside our strategic rejection of terror as a
political means. [12] But the present state does not share our scepticism,
it seems. It feels the cold hand of the image-event at its throat. It
lives and relives the moment that its machines always had lying in wait
for it-the violent rendezvous of speed with enormity, the non-human of
technology meeting the non-human of accumulation. As if Cheops himself had
looked on while the Great Pyramid was split in two by a bolt from the
sun. Just in time for Good Morning America.

The spectacular state is obliged, we are saying, to devise an answer to
the defeat of September 11. And it seems it cannot. Of course many of the
things it has tried out over the past three years have ordinary military,
neo-colonial, grossly economic logics underlying them. The invasion of
Iraq is the obvious case in point. We too take seriously the idea that
factions within the US administration had long thought the impasse of
'sanctions' intolerable, had thirsted for oil, had dreamt of a new
bridgehead in an increasingly anti-American region, and so on. But at the
very least it can be said that the manner in which these policies were
finally acted on-they had been the pipedreams of the ultra-Right in
Washington for more than a decade-has been a barely credible mixture of
blunder, gullibility, over-reach, lip-smacking callousness (hardly
bothering to disguise its lack of concern at the 'stuff happening' in the
streets of Kandahar or Baghdad), unfathomable ignorance and wishful
thinking, and constant entrapment in the day-to-day, hour-by-hour
temporality of the sound bite and the suicide bomb. And where, in the end,
is the image the war machine has been looking for-the one to put paid to
the September haunting? Toppling statues, Presidents in flight jackets,
Saddam saying 'Aah', embedded toadies stroking the barrels of guns
. . . wake us (wake the whole world of couch potatoes) when it's over.

The state has behaved like a maddened beast. This does not mean it is on
the path to real strategic failure, necessarily, or that it will prove
incapable of pulling back from the imperatives of the image-war and
slowly, relentlessly accommodating itself to the needs of a new round of
primitive accumulation. The hatchet men and torture brigades are being
recruited again as we write. 'Road maps' are to be thrown in the
dustbin. Failed states become weak states once more. 'Democracy' proves
unexportable. Iran and Syria join the comity of nations. Exit Wolfowitz
and Makiya, mumbling.

States can behave like maddened beasts, in other words, and still get
their way. They regularly do. But the present madness is singular: the
dimension of spectacle has never before interfered so palpably, so
insistently, with the business of keeping one's satrapies in order. And
never before have spectacular politics been conducted in the shadow-the
'historical knowledge'-of defeat. It remains to be seen what new mutation
of the military-industrial-entertainment complex emerges from the

[1] This is an extract from 'Afflicted Powers', a pamphlet amplifying the
themes of the broadside 'Neither Their War Nor Their Peace', prepared for
the San Francisco anti-war marches of February-March 2003. Other sections
of the pamphlet, which will be published later this year, include
'Islamism and the Crisis of the Secular Nation-State', 'Permanent War',
'Blood for Oil?', 'Peace, Anti-Capitalism and the Multitude' and
'Opposition to Modernity'. RETORT is a gathering of council communists and
affiliated nay-sayers, based for the past two decades in the San Francisco
Bay Area. Involved in the writing of the present essay were Iain Boal,
T. J. Clark, Joseph Matthews and Michael Watts.

[2] And reassembling our afflicted Powers, Consult how we may henceforth
most offend Our Enemy, our own loss how repair, How overcome this dire
Calamity, What reinforcement we may gain from Hope, If not what resolution
from despare.-Paradise Lost, Book 1

[3] Perry Anderson, The Origins of Postmodernity, London 1998, p. 89.

[4] Guy Debord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle [1988],
trans. Malcolm Imrie, London 1998, pp. 13-19 (order of sentences altered).

[5] Comments, p. 20.

[6] New York Times, 5 October 2003.

[7] It was not until a year after Hiroshima, in July 1946, that the twin
signs of postwar modernity-the mushroom cloud and the two-piece bathing
suit-were given form in and around the Bikini 'tests'. 'Eighteen tons of
cinematography equipment and more than half of the world's supply of
motion picture film were on hand to record the Able and Baker
detonations', Jack Niedenthal, For the Good of Mankind: A History of the
People of Bikini and their Islands, Majuro, MH 2001, p. 3. Interested
readers may also wish to consult Michael Light, 100 Suns, New York 2003.

[8] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle [1967], trans. Donald
Nicholson-Smith, New York 1994, p. 24.

[9] A Bush campaign commercial in March 2004 broke the rule of
invisibility, and was taken off the air (with grovelling apologies) in a
matter of hours.

[10] David Runciman, 'A Bear Armed with a Gun', London Review of Books, 3
April 2003, p. 5.

[11] Other sections of 'Afflicted Powers', which address oil,
privatization, nationalisms, the Balkans, Israel and Palestine, will have
more to say on these questions.

[12] We realize that a great deal now turns, for Left politics, on the
possibility of offering a definition of 'terror' having nothing in common
with that of Blair and Bomber Harris, and a rejection of it similarly
cleansed of sanctimony. This is too big a topic to enter into here. We
might indicate the general lines of our approach by saying that for us,
the question of Terror is always capitalized, and returns us to the
politics of 1793. Terror as a political instrument, in other words, is the
property of the state (maybe the founding property of the state in its
'modern' manifestation), or of those thinking like a state. Its purest
exponents are the Churchills of the world. 'I do not understand this
squeamishness about the use of gas . . . I am strongly in favour of using
poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes [to] spread a lively
terror': Churchill in 1920, as Secretary of State at the War Office,
justifying his authorization of RAF Middle East Command to use chemical
weapons 'against recalcitrant Arabs', quoted in Geoff Simons, Iraq: From
Sumer to Saddam, New York 1994, p. xiv.

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