Coming to Terms With Commodity Culture

Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy

by Stephen Duncombe, New Press, 2006.

Stephen Duncombe’s compelling book, Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy, analyzes the ways in which political groups engage the public and communicate their messages. Duncombe is both an activist and a scholar, currently teaching the history and politics of media and culture at New York University. He has authored several books, including Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture (1997), and edited the Cultural Resistance Reader (2002). A veteran global justice organizer, Duncombe co-founded the Lower East Side Collective and was one of the main organizers for the New York City chapter of the international direct action group Reclaim the Streets. Throughout Dream, Duncombe uses “we” to talk in an inclusive way about activism on the Left, coming across with sincerity as someone who is directly engaged in this work.

Duncombe’s central thesis is that we live in an age of “manufactured consent” (a term first coined by Walter Lipmann), where spectacles that appeal to our needs and desires win our hearts and minds. As progressives, we’ve failed to learn how to “manufacture dissent” because we think that it can only be done in a way that is manipulative and exploitative, in the style of large corporate advertising firms. Duncombe, arguing that an ethical spectacle is not only possible but necessary, sets out parameters for spectacles that are neither manipulative nor exploitative.

Duncombe asks, “What is spectacle?”

By default most people think of throwing Christians to the lions, parading missiles through Red Square, or maybe the Ice Capades. But spectacle is something more. It is a way of making an argument. Not through appeals to reason, rationality, and self-evident truth, but instead through story and myth, fears and desire, imagination and fantasy. It realizes what reality cannot represent. It is the animation of an abstraction, a transformation from ideal to expression. Spectacle is a dream on display (30).

As an example, Duncombe cites George W. Bush’s arrival on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln in a fighter jet to deliver his “Mission Accomplished” speech (28).

Duncombe sets the stage with astute observations about the failure of the Left to meaningfully impact political discourse in the US. He argues that American politics on the Left is based in empiricism, or truth. As progressives, we feel that if we just tell the truth or expose the facts, people will be convinced and join our cause. This, however, is not enough, and anyone who sticks with this approach will, Duncombe warns, “be doomed to insignificance” (6). Instead of just teaching people how to critique messages, we need to create our own powerful messages.

What’s missing, he asserts, is a politics that embraces dreams and desires, the vernacular of our time (9). If we want our ideas to lead, we need to speak a language that recognizes these dreams and desires, and that means using spectacle, or simply making our arguments through stories, associations, and images. We need to admit that people are emotional and passionate, not simply rational.

Duncombe goes on to examine elements of wildly popular American culture, like Las Vegas, celebrity culture, and video games. From these examples, he deduces several basic needs or desires that are not being met elsewhere in our lives. Take the video game Grand Theft Auto, for example. On the surface, the game is violent and has no redeeming social value. It’s a game in which the player is encouraged to steal and kill, where the main character is a poor, black gangbanger. In all of its iterations, Grand Theft Auto has sold more than 21 million copies since 2001, earning US $924 million in revenue (53). Duncombe spends a chapter dissecting the game, first by making analogies to outlaws who are popular and revered in Western culture like Robin Hood, Butch Cassidy, and even Tony Soprano (50). He argues that the base desires at play are what really make the game wildly popular: the desire to rebel (though that rebellion is through crime); the desire to identify with what we are not – embracing difference – where identification with “the other” in a game like Grand Theft Auto is a pleasure, not a chore; the desire for autonomy and freedom of choice – Grand Theft Auto is played out in a:

noninstantial, open-ended, well-realized world”; the importance of play – how you play the game matters as much as getting to the finish line: GTA is popular because the needs and desires it meets are not being fulfilled elsewhere in people’s lives.

This leads us to the basic question that Duncombe poses: what dreams or desires do things in popular culture fulfill, and how can those needs be otherwise met? (105).

Consider the way in which we ask individuals to participate in politics on a mass scale: it usually involves signing a petition, giving money, or sitting through a boring meeting. No wonder masses of people aren’t flocking to our causes. We have failed to set up structures that facilitate true engagement and participation. Though there are great examples of true engagement, such as Reclaim the Streets, Critical Mass, and large-scale direct actions, by and large the public as a whole is not engaged or asked to participate by activists. Groups that embrace participatory democracy while increasing in size and number are still the minority outside of dedicated activist spheres. Politics, in a mainstream sense, has been moved into the realm of professionals, with individuals asked to participate just by voting. Of course people feel alienated and disengaged. What more do we offer them? Rallies? Duncombe insists that we need to model the world we want in our activities, and long boring rallies are not part of the world we want (67). He puts that claim into perspective by citing contemporary groups that truly engage the public, such as the Reclaim the Streets movement or ACT UP, and by contrasting them with groups that do not engage the public, like the Sierra Club or the Democratic Party.

What is important is how we “do” politics. Duncombe cautions that there is a danger in focusing on the means as much as the ends, considering that this could lead to valuing means more than ends: “In her study of the antinuke movement of the 1980s, social movement scholar Barbara Epstein tells the story of one small protest group that blockaded an isolated, unused access road to a nuclear power plant even though the action had no impact on the facility’s operation nor any chance of media coverage. What mattered to the activists was not efficacy but the principle of putting their bodies on the line – even if that line led nowhere” (70). Not all goals can be prefigured, Duncombe reminds us, and not all necessary political work is a street party.

Duncombe concludes the book by deconstructing what an ethical spectacle would look like, and how it could be created in a way that is not manipulative. He starts this discussion by saying that ethical spectacle needs to be grounded in progressive beliefs: “A progressive ethical spectacle will be one that is directly democratic, breaks down hierarchies, fosters community, allows for diversity, and engages with reality while asking what new realities might be possible” (126). He goes on to establish criteria based on these beliefs, concluding that ethical spectacles should be:

1. Participatory beyond just observing – in terms of leadership, organizing, and other dimensions. As well, ethical spectacles should inspire action that is “transformative” to the individual and to society. Traditionally, spectacle is anti-democratic and created by the few for the many.

2. Open and responsive to input. Though there are leaders/organizers (because someone needs to set the stage for participation), ethical spectacles should have many interpretations or possibilities, just as modern art is open to interpretation. Good examples of this are Critical Mass and social forums. This responds to desires for autonomy, exploration, and modification.

3. Transparent. It should be obvious that it’s a spectacle and not trying to pass off illusion as real. Bertoldt Brecht chose to alienate the audience instead of drawing them in so they wouldn’t forget they were watching a play. This doesn’t mean the spectacle can’t be enjoyed. Billionaires for Bush is an excellent example.

4. Based in reality. Cindy Sheehan is a spectacle. She is immensely popular and well known because her story is true and compelling. It is what it claims to be. The goal of ethical spectacle is not to replace the real with spectacle, but to reveal and amplify the real through spectacle. Dramatize the unseen and expose the elusive.

5. Productive of dreams. Imagine a future world that we want to get to. Is there a problem with the Zapatistas’ imagined future because it is impossible? No, Subcomandante Marcos provides us with visions and realms that we know are impossible – there is no illusion. They are part of the spectacle.

After reading the book and conducting several interviews with Duncombe, I had a few lingering questions, which I posed to him over email. First, I asked for his thoughts about the assessment that certain elements of commodity culture are only wildly popular because the public is given limited options for entertainment by mainstream media. Duncombe responded, “I would probably agree, in part… If commercial culture is the only game in town then of course people will flock to it and that’s why we have to play the game. But I also have a problem with this argument because I think it overlooks the fact that most commercial culture fails and that people are not idiots: they buy into certain commercial culture because it touches them at some deep and profound (or perhaps necessarily light and frivolous) level. Again, this is why my argument is not about embracing commercial culture, but about understanding why it is so popular and then providing a progressive equivalent.”

I was also interested in his use of the word “leader,” and the way in which he relates leadership to activists and organizing. While many radicals talk about the concept of leadership and vision, the term “leader” is often eschewed by leftists who think this connotes hierarchy. I wanted to know if Duncombe felt that hierarchy is implicit in leadership. Duncombe echoed what many activists with whom I have spoken with say – that denying leadership leaves you vulnerable to informal leadership. The way to counteract this tendency, he suggests, is by “consciously undermining hierarchies through constantly revolving leaders, training new people to lead, being open to contingency and context, ‘leading’ the situation but letting go of what happens within that situation, and so on.” In brief: if you don’t recognize leadership then you can’t combat hierarchy; once you do you are free to deconstruct and rebuild the whole concept.

Similarly, power is often a scary term for leftists. Duncombe notes, “Progressives worry about abuse of power before we have it – this is a sign of our reluctance to pursue it” (125). When asked to expand on this point, he replied:

Power is scary. With it comes responsibility. As with leadership, if you don’t acknowledge that power is necessary then you won’t do anything about re-imagining it. I think leftists have gotten very comfortable being critics of power. Criticism on the road to power may be useful, but criticism by itself, in our day and age, is actually an attendant to dominant power. ‘Look,’ the powers that be argue, ‘we have critics, that means you have freedom and democracy, right?’ Criticism, by itself, is just self-serving politics: it makes the critic feel better about their non-compliance but changes nothing. Therefore I’m interested in moving past criticism and really thinking about what is necessary to win power. For without power you can’t change things. And I’m in this game to change the world, not just comment about how bad it all is.

I left the book thankful for Duncombe’s thoughtful and sincere work, and happy to add another title to the list of books that challenge activists to imagine a future world and to reexamine our current strategies and tactics. Duncombe says it best: “Again, this is what I’ve learned from successful commercial culture (and from being a community activist): you’ve got to give people a vision of what they can become, and then open the door and let them in.”