Comments on the Society of the Spectacle and the Nature of Political Power in Malaysia
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Comments on the Society of the Spectacle and the Nature of Political Power in Malaysia

Comments on the Society of the Spectacle and the Nature of Political Power in Malaysia

In 1988, theorist Guy Debord published a new text revising and supplementing his earlier work The Society of the Spectacle. Titled Comments on the Society of the Spectacle the work built upon the reflections on power and the commodity-form which defined his earlier post-1968 work, but in an emerging post-Cold War context, it moved beyond the binary between capitalist and communist societies, and addressed itself to the growth of a new form of state power. As this piece will go on to argue the form of state power that Debord began to outline in Comments has a strong similarity with the way in which the modern state has developed in Malaysia, and can offer therefore a way to conceptualise political power in the country.

The Integrated Spectacle

Central to The Society of the Spectacle was Debord’s analysis of the way in which capitalist societies were increasingly transitioning from a model of power centred around property and ownership, towards one centred around spectacles and images. Basing his work on Marx’s theory of the commodity fetish the spectacle was for Debord not only a proliferation of images but the process through which images (and imaginaries) of desire, enjoyment, aspiration, belonging, identity, of unity and violence, mediated social relations between individuals, and thus the way in which the image and imagination would come to dominate and subordinate societies, proliferated by new forms: cinema, pop culture, advertising. This in turn moved the antagonisms central to capitalist society beyond the walls of the factory, and highlighted the way in which capitalist domination was increasingly penetrating all areas of social life.

In doing so Debord outlined two models of spectacular domination: the diffuse spectacle, based on the competition of commodities in the free marketplace of Western capitalist societies, and the concentrated spectacle, based upon the commodity production of bureaucratic capitalist societies of the Communist East. Whilst Debord in this earlier work didn’t address himself to countries of the Global South he argued that with the expansion of capitalist production in the "least industrialised places”, the reign of the spectacle was extending itself over the entire world.

One of the weaknesses of The Society of the Spectacle was however its lack of an analysis of states which fell outside of the binary of bureaucratic capitalism vs free market capitalism, which is to say its exclusion of developing states. In the era of the Cold War the world appeared split between those highly centralised one party-states of the Eastern Bloc and the democratic consumer societies of North America and Western Europe, yet there was little attention paid to those states which fell outside of this binary, states in which neither the concentrated spectacle nor the diffuse spectacle reigned supreme, states defined by a mixture of the two and whose development pointed towards neither side of the division.

This was the case in post-Colonial Malaysia which after independence took the form neither of a purely free-market capitalist nor bureaucratic capitalist regime, but a mixed model of state-led development. Nor did political power take either democratic or authoritarian forms, taking a form which was mixed, and divided between radical and conservative forces. So too in the areas of media and culture in which top-down statism mixed with global flows of information and technology.

It was a similar developments in Western Europe which led Debord to add onto his concepts in The Society of the Spectacle a new third term, that of the integrated spectacle. Such a concept emerged out to the popular movements of 1968 and the reaction to these movements which in the years after ensured the continuing stability of the old order in which the reign of the spectacle “continued to reinforce itself”. The integrated spectacle thus emerged out of a defensive response to a revolutionary challenge and represented the survival instincts of an old order under siege.

As Debord outlined it, if the country of the diffuse spectacle was the USA, and the countries of the concentrated spectacle were Russia and Germany, the countries of the integrated spectacle were France and Italy. These were societies firstly, of ongoing political instability and of fierce competition between Left and Right and secondly, caught between tendencies towards both Americanism and Totalitarianism (inspite of the Fascist heritage of both nations). What they shared argued Debord was, “the important role of the Stalinist party and unions in political and intellectual life, a weak democratic tradition, the long monopoly of power enjoyed by a single party of government, and the necessity to eliminate an unexpected upsurge in revolutionary activity.” In France and Italy this experience took different forms.  In France this took the form of Gaullism, of working-class populism, the colonial war in Algeria and the development of the OAS (a French-Algerian terror organisation made up of French Army officers who turned against their own side) and the collapse of the 4th Republic. In Italy it was the Anni di piombo (Years of lead), the period of labour unrest and student protest and a period of political terrorism, assassinations and kidnappings, as well as of preventative detention, secret police and pentiti's (what Debord terms, “sworn professional accusers”).

These realities shaped, however, the nature of a developing authoritarianism in both societies: not the popular totalitarianism of Russia and Germany, but operating through the mobilisation of extremist groups, political assassinations, secret terrorist and militant organisations and the mobilisation of the underworld (gangs, criminal elements etc.) – to reinforce the authority of the state through the use of force, extra-legal operations, the state’s use of secrecy and its alliance with forces of extremism in order to maintain stability. More generally then, what linked these counties was the way in which weak states lacking hegemony over society responded to revolutionary challenges through a process of counter-revolution which utilised the mixed nature of the regime's constitution to its benefit.

Typology of the Integrated Spectacle

To what extent is a structural analysis of Malaysian politics possible? There has been an important history in Malaysia of structural analyses which seek to link up he country’s political economy with forms of social and political power. Increasingly however, under the influence of democratisation theory, systemic analyses have declined in favour of formalistic political theory. Today the nature of power in Malaysia is often spoken of in terms of authoritarian democracy, semi-democracy or as a repressive-responsive regime. These categories, which highlight the kind of dualism Debord notes in the integrated spectacle, leave unsaid however the social, political and economic dynamics through which this system of authoritarian-democratic power functions, both at the micro and macro levels.

Central to Debord’s work was an attempt to link changes to the political economy of modern capitalism, to changes in political and social forms of power: to highlight new systems of power through which capitalism was reproducing itself. For societies of the integrated spectacle, this system would be defined by the following five characteristics: “incessant technological renewal; fusion of State and economy; generalized secrecy; forgeries without reply; a perpetual present”.

Incessant technological renewal entailed for Debord the overtaking of social development by technological development and the subordination of society to experts. The fusion of the state and economy expressed the fusion of the invisible hand of the market and the authority of the state. Generalised secrecy took the form of the mystification of the true, whilst forgeries without reply, took the form of the triumph of falsification within society, and therefore the displacement of truth as a fundamental value. The perpetual present marked the absence of systemic opposition or of an outside or future that could offer something an alternative route of social development, forming then a system which is beyond critique.

The cement holding these factors together for Debord is the category of "integration", which in manipulating the diffuse and concentrated, the market and state, anarchy and authority forms the basis for a new system of rule. As Debord argues:

The integrated spectacular shows itself to be simultaneously concentrated and diffuse, and ever since the fruitful union of the two has learned to employ both these qualities on a grander scale. Their former mode of application has changed considerably. As regards the concentrated side, the controlling center has now become occult, never to be occupied by a known leader, or clear ideology. And on the diffuse side, the spectacular influence has never before put its mark to such a degree on almost the totality of socially produced behavior and objects. For the final sense of the integrated spectacular is that it integrates itself into reality to the same extent that it speaks of it, and that it reconstructs it as it speaks. As a result, this reality no longer confronts the integrated spectacular as something alien. When the spectacular was concentrated, the greater part of peripheral society escaped it; when it was diffuse, a small part; today, no part. The spectacle is mixed into all reality and irradiates it. As one could easily foresee in theory, practical experience of the unbridled accomplishment of commodity rationality has quickly and without exception shown that the becoming-world of the falsification was also the falsification of the world. Beyond a still important heritage of old books and old buildings, but destined to continual reduction and, moreover, increasingly selected and put into perspective according to the spectacle's requirements, there remains nothing, in culture or in nature, which has not been transformed, and polluted, according to the means and interests of modern industry.

As Debord argues the integrated spectacle operates through the combination of the features of the diffuse and concentrated spectacle. In so doing it overcomes the defects of these previous modes: the concentrated spectacle imposed order from the centre but was powerless to control  those movements which fell out of its orbit, the diffuse spectacle sacrificed the principle of centrality but at the expense of order and control. The integrated spectacular for Debord thus enacts a centralization with diffusion and a diffusion with a corresponding centre, a movement which aims towards both totalization and diffuse control.

Thus whilst in earlier eras incessant technological renewal could destabilise concentrated political power, the fusion of state and market would lead to the demise of either term, secrecy and falsity could lead to dictatorship, the success of regimes of the integrated spectacle has been to stabilise these tensions in a present which is perpetual and perfected: producing both dynamism and stability. It is a system which ensures resilience and stability and neutralises political opposition.

Malaysia and the Integrated Spectacle

Within such a definition Malaysia appears as a country highly representative of Debord’s integrated spectacle. As in the case of Italy and France, it is a state with a long authoritarian tradition, a weak democratic tradition, a long monopoly of power enjoyed by a single party of government, and born out of a counter-revolutionary attempt to  suppress popular revolution. Since its birth it has continued to permit competitive elections but has mobilised the state to increasingly concentrate political power, it has become significantly developed through a model of state capitalism and government-linked companies which integrate the state and the market. So too is it a democracy in which generalised secrecy reigns, and in which slander and political lying now take place without response, as the proliferation of accusations and counter-accusations in the aftermath of prosecutions around the 1MDB scandal highlight. So too is it a society of a perpetual present, devoid of enemy or future, its governing system, now long entrenched, represented by its political elites as the best in all possible worlds, ensuring stability and prosperity in the country.

Malaysia is therefore a society of “fragile perfection”, the kind of perfection Debord describes in reference to modern democracy, negating both a need for opposition (because the system of rule can’t be improved) and a right to opposition (because opposition will serve only to destabilise this perfection):

Once it attains the stage of the integrated spectacular, self-proclaimed democratic society seems to be generally accepted as the realization of a fragile perfection. So that it must no longer be exposed to attacks, being fragile; and indeed is no longer attackable, being perfect, which no other society has been. It is a fragile society because it has great difficulty managing its dangerous technological expansion. But it is a perfect society to be governed; and the proof is that all those who aspire to govern want to govern this one, in the same way, maintaining it almost exactly as it is. For the first time in contemporary Europe, no party or fraction of a party even tries to pretend that they wish to change something important. The commodity can no longer be criticized by anyone: as a general system or even as the particular forms of junk which heads of industry choose to put on the market at any given time.

Debord’s insight allows us however to highlight what is central to the functioning of power in Malaysia: the process of integration between concentrated and diffuse spectacles. Through such a reading we can also highlight the way in which largely under-interrogated aspects of Malaysian politics refer back to this process of integration as described by Debord:

- The disappearance of public opinion

The false without reply has succeeded in making public opinion disappear: first it found itself incapable of making itself heard and then very quickly dissolved altogether

- The fabrication of an enemy on which the system wishes to be judged: ethnic violence

This perfect democracy fabricates its own inconceivable enemy, terrorism. It wants, actually, to be judged by its enemies rather than by its results. The history of terrorism is written by the State and it is thus instructive. The spectating populations must certainly never know everything about terrorism, but they must always know enough to convince them that, compared with terrorism, everything else seems rather acceptable, in any case more rational and democratic.

- The loss of historical knowledge

Spectacular domination's first priority was to make historical knowledge in general disappear; beginning with just about all rational information and commentary on the most recent past. The evidence for this is so glaring it hardly needs further explanation. With mastery the spectacle organizes ignorance of what is about to happen and, immediately afterwards, the forgetting of whatever has nonetheless been understood.
The precious advantage that the spectacle has drawn from the outlawing of history, from having condemned the recent past to clandestinity, and from having made everyone forget the spirit of history within society, is above all the ability to cover its own history of the movement of its recent world conquest. Its power already seems familiar, as if it had always been there. All usurpers have wanted to make us forget that they have only just arrived.

- The proliferation of political lying and disinformation

The relatively new concept of disinformation was recently imported from Russia, along with many other inventions useful in the management of modern states. It is always openly employed by a power, or, consequently, by the people who hold a fragment of economic or political authority, in order to maintain what is established; and always in a counter-offensive role. Whatever can oppose a single official truth must necessarily be disinformation emanating from hostile or at least rival powers, and must have been intentionally falsified by malevolence. Disinformation would not be simple negation of a fact which suits the authorities, or the simple affirmation of a fact which does not suit them: that is called psychosis. Unlike the pure lie, disinformation -- and here is why the concept is interesting to the defenders of the dominant society -- must inevitably contain a degree of truth but deliberately manipulated by a skillful enemy. The power that speaks of disinformation does not believe itself to be absolutely faultless, but knows that it can attribute to any precise criticism the excessive insignificance which is in the nature of disinformation, and of the sort that it will never have to admit to a particular fault.

- The secrecy of the state and the market

Our society is built on the secret, from the 'screen companies' that shelter from all light the concentrated wealth of their members, to the 'defense secrets' that today cover an immense domain of full extra-judicial liberty of the State; from the often frightening secrets of shoddy production, which are hidden by advertising, to the projections of variants in an extrapolated future, in which domination alone reads the most probable routes of things that it affirms have no existence, calculating the responses it will mysteriously make.

- The use of shadow politics: gangs, militant groups, shadow state organisations etc. Defined by Debord in terms of the mafia.

When it began to manifest itself at the beginning of the century in the United States, with the immigration of Sicilian workers, the Mafia was only a transplanted archaism; at the same time, there appeared on the West Coast the gang wars between Chinese secret societies. Founded on obscurantism and poverty, the Mafia at that time was not even able to implant itself in Northern Italy. It seemed condemned to vanish before the modern State. It was a form of organized crime that could only prosper through the 'protection' of backward minorities, outside the world of the towns, where the laws of the bourgeoisie and the control of a rational police force could not penetrate. The defensive tactics of the Mafia could only suppress witnesses, neutralize the police and judiciary, and install as ruler in its sphere of activity the secret that is necessary to it. Subsequently it found a new field in the new obscurantismof the society of the diffuse spectacular, then in its integrated form: with the total victory of the secret, the general resignation of citizens, the complete loss of logic, and universal cowardice, all the favorable conditions were united for it to become a modern and offensive power.

Finally then Debord’s understanding allows us to problematise political opposition under the regime of the integrated spectacle. Before one could oppose the diffuse spectacle through the assertion of unity – through the assertion of a united class organized under a centralized party. Alternatively could oppose the concentrated spectacle through the proliferation of activism, art and writing outside of its centralised control. But within the bounds of the integrated spectacle both challenges through diffusion or concentration can be responded to in kind.

One can take the example of technology, under the concentrated spectacle the state sought to monopolize the means of technology, it sought through super computers and military research to harness the power of technology for its own end. Diffusion was here the process through which a monopoly was challenged and the means of technology became liberated from the state and harnessed by a multiplicity of actors: personal computers, hand phones and the internet all placed the power of technology in the hands of a multiplicity of individuals, leading to a break up of the monopoly of the state over communication, public opinion etc. And yet as the diffusion of technological renewal has not simply led to a liberation of technology from control, rather continuous diffusion has in a certain sense led to the production of its opposite: to new forms of control which thrive through diffusion, from internet surveillance to the proliferation of fake news. One cannot simply turn here to either advocate further diffusion or concentration one appears caught between the two. The same is true of the other factors listed by Debord, the intensification of capitalist production calls for new forms of state control, the increase in information leads to a corresponding increase in secrecy, falsification begets more falsification.

What this means in the end is that political opposition isn’t confronted by a singular enemy against which one can act – either the state or marketplace – but a complex interplay between opposing forces and tendencies which form the basis for a stable system of political rule. How to respond to this political rule requires us then to problematise and develop new tactics to respond to the key features of the integrated spectacle Debord notes: incessant technological renewal; fusion of State and economy; generalized secrecy, forgeries without reply; a perpetual present.