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The 2020 Election Did Not Take Place
This aestheticization of politics is a process that has been decades, if not maybe a century, in the making but with the election of Trump in 2016, the ‘24-hour-news-cyclization’ of politics no longer simply affects the passive lumpen participant in the system and now begins to affect those that liberal democracy claims represents them; the politicians. This process, of course, happens in the most absurd fashion, one which further heightens politics as a game of entertainment. This is a vicious cycle which, like the wrappings upon an ancient Egyptian pharaoh, definitively embalms the rotting corpse of modern politics. They could not simply let this modern system die and a new one arise from its ashes but instead work to preserve its corpse and expect that no one notices.
This preservation is one that is, of course, purely aesthetic. The post-modern political world is then quite like the mummy of modern politics. Its organs appear intact, its corpse simply a sleeping human being, but any meaningful signs of functioning life have ceased. The embalming of Lenin’s corpse represents the act of aesthetic political preservation in a 20th century, modern political system. The increasingly entrenched political bureaucracy, seeing their post hoc connections to the theorists that gave their political project its ontological purpose slipping, attempted to preserve the October revolution's ideals. On the other hand, the development of the aesthetic form within 21st-century politics is not based upon the physical preservation of a corpse for metaphorical significance but takes on a significance that is literal.
The 20th-century form of aesthetic politics is Brezhnev pointing to Lenin’s displayed, preserved corpse and saying, “we are just like him.” The 21st-century form is instead a charismatic news anchor pointing to his corpse and saying, “he is still in command.” This process can be seen in a politician like Joe Biden, where the democratic party apparatus (with its pseudo affiliated media attachments) managed to convince, at minimum, millions of people that he is a competent and functioning politician. As the best way of describing politics in the contemporary age is through movies, we can imagine that this is a “weekend at Bernie’s” situation.
Fundamentally the 20th-century aesthetic could be meaningfully pierced by reality. This is why state sensors were required in the soviet system to meaningfully uphold the Kruschevite lie that “actually existing socialism” had any connection to Lenin and, even more absurdly, Marx. In the post-modern world, the aesthetic is no longer, in its traditional sense, a “lie” of sorts. This new reality, or hyper-reality, as Baudrillard put it, is purely aesthetic and has no capacity to pierce into reality. The aesthetic becomes politics. A sign which only references itself, a simulation that exists which is in reference to nothing. The sensor is not required to prevent the layman’s potential piercing of the aesthetic into reality, and all that any fascist government could dream of is available in a “liberal” society with a “free press” and “democratic institutions.”
Gaspar Milkos Tamas’ writes of the similarities between modern Hungary, with its democratically elected government, free press, and bustling tourist industry from the west, building fences against refugees at its borders. He says, “the same thing happened in 1944. Some six hundred Jews had just been taken to Auschwitz – and in the newspapers of the day you could read about the new premiere of cabaret operettas, musical comedies in the cinemas, and the football championship that was on. – Everyone was enjoying themselves – while the death marches were going through town. People picked up their newspapers, opened the sport pages – and nobody gave a toss. It’s the same thing now. Nobody cares. – Well, of course, when the Keleti station was occupied, that was unpleasant, because people couldn’t travel… But now everything is back to normal. The trains are running to Vienna. Mr. Orbán has won.”
There is a reason why Trump’s post-election speech after he had, of course, lost spent much more time talking about unfair media polls and media bias than any actual allegations of voter fraud, or why he claimed that the election had to be called the night of because that’s how it's done on the news every four years. It’s the same reason that after fox news had called Arizona for Biden on election night, Trump was so insistent on calling Rupert Murdoch and getting it changed. This is because Trump thinks that the tv box is what makes something real. It's not a representation of reality but what solidifies its existence. This makes sense considering that Trump is a man who watches approximately 9 hours of news television a day, a watching pattern that can only be described as connecting an individual to an entirely different reality than the one which plays out in the physical, material world.
This is not a process that is ,of course, exclusive to Trump but is fairly clearly endemic to American (and, at minimum, Western) society. We can see this in general voting patterns, where affiliation between democrat and republican functions far more as a cultural signifier which is not rooted in any policy positions or material interests. This is perfectly displayed in Florida, which Trump won by three points while, during the same election, a minimum wage increase up to 15$ was also approved by a majority of voters. Trump, of course, does not support a minimum wage increase to 15$, while Biden does. The general fox exit polls indicated something similar, with 72% of voters favouring government-run healthcare, 67% favouring increased spending on renewable energy, 77% thinking racism is a problem in society (72% of which think its also an issue in policing) and many other positions that shows that a majority of the electorate is more left than both political parties. What results from this (or arguably what this is caused by) is politics being the realm of cultural signifiers, one which is primarily aesthetic, where voters submit their ballots like a sports fan roots for their favourite team. Fast-paced and generally inaccurate news coverage turns the individual’s political world into an entertaining spectacle where it seems as if, for the most part, material interests are becoming a vestigial element of American electoral voting patterns.
As you may have guessed, the two seminal concepts/thinkers incorporated here to describe the 2020 election are French social theorist Jean Baudrillard’s conception of the simulacra and Gaspar Milkos Tamas’ idea of post fascism. The main thesis here, or the main worry is probably a better way to put it, is that reality is shrinking away from the individual and material politics is leaving alongside it. What's replaced is a political/cultural life that is purely aesthetic, with no reference to any material reality. Baudrillard's analysis connects with that of the concept of post fascism, where the political goals of a fascist can be met in the post-modern world within a liberal democracy with universal rights, freedom of speech, and a parliamentary system. I emphasize that this thesis functions as a worry insofar as the beginning of this ep has been me speaking in hyperbole. It requires the individual to pay attention to particular elements of politics and culture within their lives but set aside other ones. The real political world is certainly shrinking, but it is not doing so quietly. What I mean by that is material politics in the world are still, for many people, certainly “real.” Baudrillard writes of war, for instance, that it is the most “real” thing that still exists (even if CNN has reduced it to a spectacle for many viewers.) What we can learn from this analysis, primarily, is to attach any radical politic onto this fading “real” as it exists for the most marginalized (those displaced by drought, war, famine, poverty, climate catastrophe) and help build a political program suited to their interests, for if we wish to have a material, political program, its base must be centred on those whose visceral experiences of exploitation and politically engineered poverty force them to live in the real world and not the one depicted on the news.
American politics will continue to accelerate into the hyper-real representation of nothing, as the competition between the democratic and republican parties remains a purely aesthetic competition between two factions of the ruling class, and as this sports match continues, the massive upsurge in migrants from the global south fleeing a newly present climate catastrophe are blocked at arbitrary borders which they did not consent to being born on the other side of and put in concentration camps. While this reality fades away for the most privileged within the global north, it remains viscerally real for those who are forced, through artificial scarcity, to live in poverty. The debates between the republican and democratic parties can necessarily not concern questioning and attacking the structural root of these problems, and as competition between them melts into a gaseous nothingness with as much substance as a sports ball match, we must attach our politics to those (both within and without our borders) whose political world is still necessarily real.
There is a certain sense in which you don’t really need to read Baudrillard (as confessed by the man himself in his book “Forget Baudrillard”) because much of his predictions about politics and culture are becoming reality (or should I say becoming hyper-reality) and his conclusions are depressing enough that you’re better off taking the time you would have spent reading him and spend it watching a movie. The matrix, for instance, attempts to work off Baudrillard’s theories (and explicitly quotes him and uses his seminal work “simulacra and simulation” as a prop) but ends up with a much more optimistic account of reality, where at least the simulation (the matrix) can be pierced by the existence of the real world (however bleak that real world is.) For Baudrillard, late techno-capitalism (which is the acceleration of capitalist productive forces towards the commodification of all elements of culture and society combined with the technological developments that are possible due to this acceleration) has essentially shut the door on reality. The individual’s understanding of the world (the hyper-real) is a pure product of the images they see on TV, the sounds from the radio, and in a contemporary context, the memes posted on Twitter. This, of course, is why Twitter is not a place that meaningful material organizing can be done. It at best leads individuals off of Twitter to real, physical sites of organization and at worse convinces the individual that posting is political praxis and their political world is filtered through the notification box on a website design and ran by a nazi sympathizer.
A simulacrum, which is the model that Baudrillard believes contemporary culture is built upon, is unlike the simulation, which works to copy and represent perfectly an original. The simulacrum exists purely in reference to itself. It does not represent anything but creates its own reality. This reality is “realer than real” in a certain sense. Hyper-reality, as it is constructed in movies, on the news, in video games, on the internet, becomes more real than our own intimate phenomenological experiences. Hyper-reality is perfectly described in the movie “A Clockwork Orange” with the quote, “it’s funny how the colours of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen.” This in reference to how blood in real life doesn’t look like it does in the movies. Real blood is less exciting and interesting, less real than our typical conception of it in the movies.
This is precisely how the American political/electoral system is meant to function. The promises and goals (and even objective statements about reality) made by political parties are not “real” in the earnest sense of the word. They aren’t meant to be. For them to reference “reality,” they would have to reconcile and appeal to people's material interests. This is why we can imagine the democratic party establishment was so vividly disgusted with Bernie’s political platform, as it was contingent on, at some level at least, appealing to the real material situation of potential voters. While it is highly unlikely you could undo this process of turning politics into hyper-reality through a social democratic bourgeois electoral party platform, we can imagine that at some level, it upset the process of taking the individual’s material interests out of what they imagine “politics” to be.
Baudrillard adds to Marx’s traditional conception of three different values existing, adding a fourth one: sign value. This is, essentially, the value of something as it relates to cultural clout and prestige. Consumption, for Baudrillard, in the post-modern (or ultra-modern as he puts it) world is primarily driven by an object's signified social value. One buys the supreme brick (a literal brick that had the supreme logo on it) because others say that the supreme brand is valuable. An analysis of Trump and his ilk I've made before is that he is the first zoomer president (in the same sense that Clinton was the first black president, and Obama the first gay president insofar as Trump is the first president that truly appreciates clout and ratings.) I’ve also generally referred to Trump’s brand of authoritarianism as “influencer fascism.” What this really comes from is that Trump is the first president who is explicitly driven by sign value and the concept of “people” as an abstract group liking him.
This post-modern aesthetic façade masquerading as modern politics is, in many senses, driven by the 24-hour news cycle. As previously mentioned, this is the only reasonable explanation for people imagining that the election is called the night of and not months later when the electoral college convenes. While in reality, news stations call elections when it is seemingly mathematically impossible for the election result (which they have no legal or institutional place within) not to be one of the main candidates and not the other. This does not consider that news stations are the most concentrated and impactful production of hyper-real politics. In this world, the electoral college process, which convenes in December, does not matter. What matters is the newsman on the tv box. Both parties understand this. Trump understands it in a fairly obvious and direct way. At the same time, there is a reason that Biden planned a speech the Friday after the election, stalled the beginning of the address for multiple hours while pressuring major news outlets to finally call the election, and then after they didn’t call it for him that night (to stretch the news cycle another day for more ratings) he simply made a speech saying that it was looking good for their campaign. It was only until the next day, after most major news outlets called it, that Biden made his official victory speech. This may not prove directly that those in the democratic party are as brain poisoned by television as Trump is, but what it at minimum proves is that many in the democratic party at least understand that the hyper-real is present among much of the American population, who would be far less receptive to Biden declaring victory even after a point where it was mathematically impossible for him to lose the election because the newsman had not said he was president.
In his later (and more wacky and absurd) work, Baudrillard covered the first Iraq war for a French news outlet. Like a good student of the hyper-real he, of course, did not go to Iraq or Kuwait but stayed in his apartment and watched the coverage on CNN. The book he published titled “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place” discusses how CNN took the most real thing in existence (which is war) and made it hyper-real. Baudrillard understood the first gulf war as a “media stunt” of sorts for the west, with a pre-determined result and a pre-drawn narrative depicted on CNN regardless of the war's real explicit content. “Since this war was won in advance, we will never know what it would have been like had it existed. We will never know what an Iraqi taking part with a chance of fighting would have been like. We will never know what an American taking part with a chance of being beaten would have been like. We have seen what an ultra-modern process of electrocution is like, a process of paralysis or lobotomy of an experimental enemy away from the field of battle with no possibility of reaction. But this is not a war, any more than 10,000 tonnes of bombs per day is sufficient to make it a war. Any more than the direct transmission by CNN of real time information is sufficient to authenticate a war. One is reminded of Capricorn One in which the flight of a manned rocket to Mars, which only took place in a desert studio, was relayed live to all the television stations in the world.”
Baudrillard attempts to totalize his analysis by also analyzing the Iraqis and Saddam, but I think the main point that’s important is the America side of this, where CNN represents the war through repeating the few pieces of footage they had of Iraqi scud missiles doing damage (very few of them actually penetrated the Patriot missile defence system and did any damage.) The image generated here is a war between the aggressing Iraqi onslaught of “scud” missiles against the American patriot missile system. Even the names generated sound like they're from a GI Joe movie, and the narrative which is driven here has a minimal actual reference to the reality of the war. The actual content of the war did not matter for this, and regardless of the real result, the capacity the war had for promotion (in relation to its economic sign value) was endless. “Promotion is the most thick-skinned parasite in our culture. It would undoubtedly survive a nuclear conflict. It is our Last Judgement. But it is also like a biological function: it devours our substance, but it also allows us to metabolise what we absorb, like a parasitic plant or intestinal flora, it allows us to turn the world and the violence of the world into a consumable substance.” The promotional capacity of an important historical event (if history within Baudrillard’s world is even a legible concept) sucks the life out of any real, meaningful understanding. Like a spider injecting its victim's insides with venom, it turns the victim's heterogenous system of functioning organs into a homogenous innert goo readily available for consumption. This is what the 24-hour news cycle also does to the 2020 election.
Regardless of the election's real result (as the electoral college decides in December), the promotional advantages from both sides of the aisle are clear. The republicans get their win (based upon pre-mail-in ballot results on the news the day of the election, which showed Trump leading in most key states) and the democrats, in turn, theirs as well (based upon being sabotaged by the progressive wing of the party, black lives matter activists, and even Russia.)
It does not matter that the Trump campaign has no real legal/juridical basis for arguing in courts that any of the election processes are illegitimate, nor does not matter that every “progressive” democrat in the house and senate held on to their seats while the meaningful losses within the democratic party mainly came from the centre. What matters is that these “real” elements of the world are smoothed over by the hyper-real construction of politics as a spectator sport that has no real reference to an individual’s material life.
Wanting a society where homeless people don’t die is not a “political” belief. Wanting a minimum wage that anyone can live on is not a “political” belief. Wanting a healthcare system where you can go to the emergency room with an injury and leave without a bill is not a “political” belief. This is because the “political” world is not the world of the real, but the hyper-real.