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The Atrocity Election: A Ballardian Forecast

by gmoke Tue Sep 27th, 2016 at 12:36:49 AM EST

I've always liked JG Ballard.  Some know him as the author of the novel about being a British child in an intermit camp in Shanghai during WWII, Empire of the Sun, the source of the Spielberg movie which gave us Christian Bale.  Others know his more quintessentially Ballardian books of "dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments."

I took the DVD version of the recent movie of Ballard's novel High-Rise with Tom HIddleston and Sienna Miller out of the library the other day.  I had read the book long ago and originally wanted to see the movie in the theater but it came and went too fast.  Watching the film, it reminded me of the other novels of Ballard which followed the same theme of the balance between modernity and savagery from high rise apartment blocks like High-Rise to a Spanish resort community (Cocaine Nights) to the all-in-one business park of Eden-Olympia (Super-Cannes) to an environmental conservation project in the South Pacific that goes terribly wrong (Rushing to Paradise) to middle class rebellion in a gated community (MIllennium People).

Kingdom Come (NY:  Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2006  ISBN 978-0-87140-403-9), the last novel Ballard published during his lifetime, is about the confluence of consumerism and fascism. Digging into my archives, I came across my notes from when I read the book a few years ago.  Looking over the quotes, I found it to be quite an apt commentary on the current political climate, not just in the United States of America but all around the world (see this article on the relationship between Brexit, Trump, and authoritarian movements in Europe and other countries (http://www.vox.com/2016/9/19/12933072/far-right-white-riot-trump-brexit).  Don't tell anybody but there's an Asian contingent too with Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines, and Shinzo Abe's moves toward the re-militarization of Japan.  

The links between consumerism and fascism are becoming commonplace with late stage capitalism in a world ecosystem collapsing under the thoughtless appetites of the human population as we see political violence and 24/7/365 mediated lone wolf and small group criminally insane terrorism.  In this book Ballard combines the mall with mob politics.  He does not really provide any answers but JG Ballard does have a detailed definition of the problem.


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(pages 18-19)  I accepted that a new kind of hate had emerged, silent and disciplined, a racism tempered by loyalty cards and PIN numbers.  Shopping was now the model for all human behavior, drained of emotion and anger.  The decision by the estate-dwellers to reject the imam was an exercise of consumer choice.

(57)  "Today's politics is tailor-made for him [mall cable TV personality David Cruise].  Smiles leaking everywhere, mood music, the sales campaign that gets rid of the need for a product.  Even the shiftiness.  People like to be conned.  It reminds them that everything is a game...."

(61)  Without thinking, I said:  'The police sell violence.'
'What?'
'The idea of violence.'  I laughed to myself.  'Sorry, Sergeant.'
'You're upset.  It's understandable.'

(96)  Dissembling was so large a part of middle-class life that honesty and frankness seemed the most devious stratagem of all.  The most outright lie was the closest one came to truth.   

(102-103)  In general I advise people to steer clear of reason.  Consumerism celebrates the positive side of the equation.  When we buy something we unconsciously believe we've been given a present....

We're all children today.  Like it or not, only consumerism can hold a modern society together.  It presses the right emotional buttons....

Liberalism and humanism are a huge brake on society.  They trade on guilt and fear.  Societies are happier when people spend, not save.  What we need now is a kind of delirious consumerism, the sort you see at motor shows.  People long for authority, and only consumerism can provide it....

Remember, Richard, consumerism is a redemptive ideology.  At its best, it tries to aestheticize violence, though sadly it doesn't always succeed...

(109)  Confidentially, Christie lowered his voice.  'I come every Saturday, sooner or later someone asks, "How much?"  "Free," I say.  They're stunned, they react as if I'm trying to steal from them.  That's capitalism for you.  Nothing can be free.  The idea makes them sick, they want to call the police, leave messages for their accountants.  They feel unworthy, convinced they've sinned.  They have to rush off and buy something just to get their breath back...'

(118)  The public willingly colludes in its own deception.

(122)  People are never more dangerous than when they have nothing left to believe in except God.

(123)  'People feel they can rely on the irrational.  It offers the only guarantee of freedom from all the cant and bullshit and sales commercials fed to us by politicians, bishops and academics. People are deliberately re-primitivizing themselves.  They yearn for magic and unreason, which served them well in the past, and might help them again.  They're keen to enter a new Dark Age. The lights are on, but they're retreating into the inner darkness, into superstition and unreason.  The future is going to be a struggle between vast systems of competing psychopathies, all of them willed and deliberate, part of a desperate attempt to escape from a rational world and the boredom of consumerism.'...

The consumer society is a kind of soft police state.  We think we have choice, but everything is compulsory.  We have to keep buying or we fail as citizens.  Consumerism creates huge unconscious needs that only fascism can satisfy.  If anything, fascism is the form that consumerism takes when it opts for elective madness.  You can see it here already.

(166-167)  'Now.  I see you as tomorrow's man.  Consumerism is the door to the future, and you're helping to open it.  People accumulate emotional capital, as well as cash in the bank, and they need to invest those emotions in a leader figure.  They don't want a jackbooted fanatic ranting on a balcony.  They want a TV host sitting with a studio panel, talking quietly about what matters in their lives.  It's a new kind of democracy, where we vote at the cash counter, not the ballot box.  Consumerism is the greatest device anyone has invented for controlling people.  New fantasies, new dreams and dislikes, new souls to heal.  For some peculiar reason, they call it shopping.  But it's really the purest kind of politics.  And you're the leading edge.  In fact, you could practically run the country.'

(167)  'Avoid slogans, avoid messages?'
'No slogans, no messages.  New politics.  No manifestos, no commitments.  No easy answers.  They decide what they want.  Your job is to set the stage and create the climate.  You steer them by sensing their mood.  Think of a herd of wildebeest on the African plain.  They  decide where they want to go.'

(168)  'Mad?  Good.  Madness is the key to everything.  Small doses, applied when no one is really looking.  You say turnover is going down at the Metro-Centre?'...

'Tell them what they ought to want?'  Cruise waved this away.  'It doesn't work.'
'No.  It's too authoritarian, too nanny state.  It's not new politics.'
'And what is that?'
'The unpredictable.  Be nice most of the time, but now and then be nasty, when they least expect it.  Like a bored husband,  affectionate but with a cruel streak.  People will gasp, but the audience figures will soar.  Now and then skip in a hint of madness, a little raw psychopathology.   Remember, sensation and psychopathy are the only way to make contact with each other today. It won't take your viewers long to get a taste for real madness, whether it's a product or a political movement.  Encourage people to go a little mad - it makes shopping and love affairs more interesting.  Every so often people want to be disciplined by someone.  They want to be ordered about.'

(169)  'They'll walk away.'

'They won't.  People need a little bit of abuse in their lives.  Masochism is the new black, and always has been.  It's the mood music of the future.  People want discipline, and they want violence. Most of all they want structured violence.'...

Insist on faith and emotional commitment, without exactly telling them what they're supposed to believe in.  That's new politics.  Remember, people today unconsciously accept that violence is redemptive.  And in their hearts they're convinced that psychopathy is close to sainthood.'
'Are they right?'
'Yes.  They know that madness is the only freedom left to them.'

(174)  David Cruise and I expected a certain resistance, but the medallions [brand name badges for shirts/sports jerseys the sport team ofSt George's] were hugely popular, reinforcing the sense that people's lives were only complete when they advertised the consumer world.

(181)  bolshieness - Brit informal adj 1. difficult to manage; rebellious 2. (Government, Politics & Diplomacy) politically radical or left-wing  Derogatory any political radical

(190)  What we want is an aesthetics of violence.  We believe in the triumph of feelings over reason.  Pure materialism isn't enough, all those Asian shopkeepers with their cash-register minds. We need drama, we need our emotions manipulated, we want to be conned and cajoled.  Consumerism fits the bill exactly.  It's drawn the blueprint for the fascist states of the future.  If anything, consumerism creates an appetite that can only be satisfied by fascism.  Some kind of insanity is the last way forward.  All the dictators in history soon grasped that - Hitler and the Nazi leaders made sure no one ever thought they were completely sane.'
NB:  Nixon/Kissinger madman theory of history

(191)  Consumer fascism provides its own ideology, no one needs to sit down and dictate Mein Kampf.  Evil and psychopathy have been reconfigured into lifestyle statements.  It's a fearful prospect, but consumer fascism may be the only way to hold a society together.  To control all that aggression, and channel all those fears and hates.

(203)  'Tell people to join a consumer club at the Metro-Centre if they want to be part of their real family.  Defend the mall is the message.'
NB:  The mall is the message

(219)  Everything I've read about the Nazi leaders shows that their followers didn't fear disaster but actively welcomed it.

(228)  They knew they were being lied to, but if lies were consistent enough they defined themselves as a credible alternative to the truth....  Consumer capitalism had never thrived by believing the truth.  Lies were preferred by the people of the shopping malls because they could be complicit with them.

(250)  abseiled - 1. (Individual Sports & Recreations / Mountaineering) Mountaineering to descend a steep slope or vertical drop by a rope secured from above and coiled around one's body or through karabiners attached to one's body in order to control the speed of descent  2. (Engineering / Aeronautics) to descend by rope from a helicopter (Individual Sports & Recreations / Mountaineering) an instance or the technique of abseiling Also called rappel

(270)  Consumerism is built on regression....  Consumerism is running out of road, and it's trying to mutate. It's tried fascism, but even that isn't primitive enough.  The only thing left is out-and-out madness....

(281)  'Good. It's time for the patients to watch the physicians - that's the twenty-first century in a nutshell.'

(282)  'They're prayer sites, Richard.  Altars to the household gods who rule our lives.  The lares and penates of the ceramic hob and the appliance island.  The Metro-Centre is a cathedral, a place of worship.  Consumerism may seem pagan, but in fact it's the last refuge of the religious instant.  Within a few days you'll see a congregation worshipping its washing machines.  The baptismal font that immerses the Monday-morning housewife in the benediction of the wool-wash cycle...'
NB:  Cargo cults not mentioned nor does he mention shopping as hunting and entertainment but have to reread his earlier novel High Rise to see if he discusses it there.

(285)  'The magus of the shopping mall, a messiah without a message.  You helped to write the script, Richard.  The message is:  there is no message.  Nothing has any meaning, so at least we're free.'

(295)  'You saw fascism as just another sales opportunity.  Psychopathology was a handy marketing tool.

We're worth nothing, but we worship our barcodes.  We're the most advanced society our planet has ever seen, but real decadence is far out of our reach.
NB:  US politics as an extension of PR and advertising, a way of making money

(307)  Victims had to pay twice for the crimes committed against them.

(309)  Once people began to talk earnestly about the novel any hope of freedom had died.

Poll
Real links between consumerism and fascism?
. yes 33%
. no 33%
. not yes 0%
. not no 0%
. neither yes nor no 0%
. both yes and no 33%
. don't understand the question? 0%
. none of the above 0%

Votes: 3
Results | Other Polls
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I haven't read Ballard, so I can't comment much on his works or opinions directly.

Those quotes do absolutely nothing for me.  I have run into the "consumerism leads to fascism" and "popular culture leads to fascism" argument a few times - Adorno was one example - and have always been repelled to the point of feeling no desire to dig further.  There was always more to read, and there were always other cultural/philosophical takes on things. I was always drawn more to Anthropology and to Marxist critiques.

I think this stuff looks a lot different to people of older generations. I don't really know why - it's nothing I have studied in depth. In the US, Republicans and Trumpets skew quite a bit older -- maybe this is a generational malady which is gradually passing into oblivion. Who knows.

Yes, people care about their stuff, and their possessions are status symbols in a game of eternal one-upsmanship.  What else is new? As if this is a uniquely modern phenomenon?

As for those the more specific things in those quotes, how is that not just plain boredom, the ennui that comes from the general satisfaction of our animal needs and the yawning gulf of free time -- something that pre-war generations certainly had very little of, and which is nothing more than an aspirational dream to many of those a bit younger than me. How is this not the atomization of society, the destruction of all social bonds and the reduction of society to a collection of independently acting individuals?

by Zwackus on Wed Sep 28th, 2016 at 08:36:06 AM EST
There does seem to be something of the "writing will destroy society" about it.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Wed Sep 28th, 2016 at 09:58:56 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I think this stuff looks a lot different to people of older generations. I don't really know why

Many can remember a time before consumerism was a defining characteristic of modern society, and the lowest common denominator of popular culture (not me, I grew up with TV)

For an earlier look at the subject, Georges Perec's novel Les Choses, from 1965, is very good. Even after writing it, he said it wasn't yet sure if he opposed it...

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II

by eurogreen on Wed Sep 28th, 2016 at 08:46:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]


"Dieu se rit des hommes qui se plaignent des conséquences alors qu'ils en chérissent les causes" Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet
by Melanchthon on Wed Sep 28th, 2016 at 09:42:07 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Ah, Tati!  Good to see scenes from "Mon Oncle" and "Traffic" illustrating the song.

Solar IS Civil Defense
by gmoke on Wed Sep 28th, 2016 at 11:28:26 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I live in a house with 2 people, a little older than me, and my cat Truffles. Our living situation is what I call "sane living". Very little consumerism ... I hit the grocery store once a week and that's my contact with society. I have zero need of "people" ... I appreciate not being betrayed, which is the usual inevitable result of human contact. So I watch the US Empire disintegrate, on the tube, and wonder when I'll decide when to have that final cup of coffee. This world isn't designed for a problem solver/scientist like me; just for the consumer/alcoholics. Wonder why the hell I ever came to this planet/solar system/universe. As I said to a guy decades ago in the Blackwater Cafe (Stockton, CA);"I may be just a worm but I'm in a septic tank surrounded by bacteria". Boy, did that piss him off.

They tried to assimilate me. They failed.
by THE Twank (yatta blah blah @ blah.com) on Wed Sep 28th, 2016 at 01:20:09 PM EST
The "surrealist" Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami offers this spot-on twist in the middle of "1Q84":

"Most people are not looking for provable truths. As you said, truth is often accompanied by intense pain, and almost no one is looking for painful truths. What people need is beautiful, comforting stories that make them feel as if their lives have some meaning. Which is where religion comes from."

The ex-academic antagonist continues:

"If a certain belief, call it belief A, makes the life of that man or this woman appear to be something of deep meaning, then for them belief A is the truth. If belief B makes their lives appear to be powerless and puny, then belief B turns out to be a falsehood. The distinction is quite clear. If someone insists that belief B is the truth, people will probably hate him, ignore him, or in some cases attack him. It means nothing to them that belief B might be logical or provable. Most people barely manage to preserve their sanity by denying and rejecting images of themselves as powerless and puny."

For some people, Fascism is facing reality limitations and listening to progressive promises.

Anti-intellectualism has a long history. It is particularly strong before downfall of societies. Respect for reality is not that significant evolutionarily, and Science never had a deeply respectable status, really.

In the US, it really started with the First Great Awakening undoing the Enlightenment spirit of the Founding Fathers.

Opposition to intellectualism might not be deserving, but it persists. Now we have Nassim Taleb of the "The Black Swan" fame chiding intellectuals as idiots (personally as well). And the (neo)conservatives like the idea:

Evil And The Intellectuals

Newt Gingrich: Trump won the debate. Don't believe the "Intellectual Yet Idiot" class

So ri-ight, bring in those with huge skin in the game at the expense of others - those being smart with taxes as Trump (or with derivatives as in 2008).

So what is the core predicament for the rational progressives? Provocatively, I compare campaigning in this political climate to the Pick Up "game" from the masculine perspective. You don't go very far by logic and rational aspirations. At times you have to be entertaining, at other times comforting - and what not. Do you imagine Hillary Clinton like that?

Or to put it other way: the smart progressives are taking up an authority position - by the virtue of their knowledge, their broader values, by the will to build a prosperous society. The problem is, their authority is compromised in a few ways - for example, by their distaste for authority. Or lack of decisive action. Or lack of primal congruency that embodies authority in our primate species.

Scott Adams of the Dilbert fame is partially right: persuasion techniques often trump rational talk. Until they do not, perhaps. Hillary Clinton may need to show certain social intelligence unfamiliar to her, to galvanize for real.

by das monde on Wed Sep 28th, 2016 at 02:57:06 PM EST
Is Argument from Misogyny a recognised logical form? I can never remember.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Wed Sep 28th, 2016 at 03:01:46 PM EST
[ Parent ]
There is something that "logically" stops you from considering the point, right?

Too bad consequences of this election could be profound.

by das monde on Wed Sep 28th, 2016 at 03:15:52 PM EST
[ Parent ]


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