Turn On, Tune In, Cop Out: The Commodification of Revolution

By Penny Rimbaud

Martin Luther King’s dream is no longer a dream, it is an intellectual commodity, a plastic wrapped piece of ersatz, a gift-shop platitude as far removed from its revolutionary roots as a Che Guevara T-shirt (one size fits all). Who really knows what King’s dream or Guevara’s vision were if now they have become reduced either to leftist sentimentalism or rightist denial (both of which being examples of ‘commodity thinking’)? Classically, ideas were an expression of intent, a psychic co-relationship which at least aspired to authentic dialogue. In the cyber-world of the ‘information revolution’, ideas have become product, not an expression of intent, but a statement of ownership, an intellectual copyright controlled by the on/off logic of their source. Hence the intractable nature of today’s political dialogue, the ‘for or against-ism’ of Bush’s United States of Ersatz, the ‘I know I was wrong, but feel I was right-ism’ of Blair’s United Kingdom of Conformity.

Cyber-thought or not, there is by nature a schism between fluid fact and fossilised fiction, the first being an indefinable f/actuality subject to the temporal meanderings of humankind, the second being a soap-operatic conceit which promotes the illusion that human interaction is in some way ordered (or even that it might have some ‘greater’ purpose). The primary issue under consideration here is that of the commodification of thought and its negating effects upon revolutionary aspiration. Just as the term ‘heritage’ is so cynically employed to gloss over generally unacceptable pasts, so the term ‘legacy’ is employed to rewrite them. In what manner does ‘heritage tourism’ with its coach-trips to historical sites (from Welsh mines to Nazi death-camps to Ground Zero) differ from the obligatory retail-therapy stops, they all being expressions of the same consumerist construct? In what manner is any authentic insight offered or gained into the legacy of struggle (each individual, each unique, each human) that those sites so poignantly represent? And yes, even the most drilled SS officer was subject to human blunder (for which, incidentally, many were executed). The illusion of order is a major weapon of power. Did those thousands ‘go gentle’ into the coal-pits, or those millions to the gas-chambers? Did those who dived in escape from the WTC furnace do so with dignity? The stifled silence of formal history would like to suggest that they did, the choruses of terror being drowned out by the callous forces of ‘ordered’ reason. It’s more comfortable that way. Passively filing through such sites, our victim role within the status quo is confirmed and, worse still, we willingly seal that fate in purchasing gewgaws from the onsite gift shops with which to confirm that most dire of conceits – ‘I have been there as witness’ or, in more common American parlance, ‘been there, done that’. Within this framework, Monet’s water-lilies at the Jeu de Paume are inseparable from the piles of human hair and spectacles on display at Auschwitz (postcards available in the foyer). All are an intrinsic part of Guy Debord’s rightly named ‘spectacle’: the capitalist circus of sham delight.


If Ground Zero is to be engaged with as fact, then fictionalised sentimentalism which only confirms a shared victimhood will do nothing to achieve that end. The sickening truth of mass death, be it the WTC thousands or the Holocaust millions, is that we are intellectually incapable of transcending the heaped body-piles of the imagination. Blinded by crocodile tears, and hearkening more to the corpse than to the mind once contained within it, we travel no further than the death pits. Unable to countenance the scale or content of that death, we are inevitably drawn towards those who, like King and Guevara, appear to rise above it. In that construct we become observers from the death- pit, impotently acting as audience to those whom we have appointed to express potency. Paradoxically, however, it is exactly that construct which, by stripping potency of meaning, renders it impotent. Each body in the body-pile was a King or Guevara, but we, the mass-produced proletariat, have never given ourselves such value or allowed ourselves the kudos of the ‘one-off special offer’ quality that we assign to our cultural Gods. In this sense, we are complicit in (and even advocators of) the depressingly predictable deaths of those Gods. Who killed John Lennon? We did. Is God Dead? No, but Nietzsche is, yet, for all this, the übermensch still sleeps within us all.


Within the context of revolutionary discourse, ideas which do not truly challenge consensual conceits become commodified within the consensual, divorcing them from their root and thereby marginalising the more radical aspects of the discourse. Ideas are by nature oppositional. Whilst dark is the opposite to light, light cannot exist without dark, and vice versa. It is this tension of opposites which creates form, gravity giving gravitas, the sympolyosis of the apparently chaotic multiverse. Prevailing against this storm of consciousness stands the Internet, the American dream incarnate: one God, one world (a conceit unwittingly suggested in McLuhan’s ‘global village’ and notably exploited by high-street bankers HSBC. ‘Make Poverty History’? At whose profit?)

Against this construct, as creators of idea, we are all by nature revolutionary terrorists. Then how come we so willingly act like clowns, casually tapping away on the alphabetic keys of our own destruction? ‘My Face’? My arse. Without conflict we cannot exist. Without tension there is no form. It is against this very conflict and tension that the New World Order is currently waging all out war, a war of words which in its insidious long-term effects is (and ever more shall be) incalculably more destructive than the daily blood-baths in Iraq. In this sense, the Iraq ‘war’ is merely a practical, and deliberately transparent, piece of theatre, designed to obscure a deeper and far more sinister ‘hidden agenda’ which, I contend, is already beyond the realms of human understanding: the mathematics of totalitarianism which has taken thought beyond thought. The automaton logic of the digital compounds a mechanistic order far beyond the wildest dreams of Nazi Germany. It is this ‘quantum physics’ of evil which is now exercised by America’s State within the State, the CIA.

The ‘Special Relationship’ between America and Britain was forged long before the sleazy, sniggering tryst between Thatcher and Reagan. It was a post WW2 marriage in hell between Judaic and Christian monotheist conceits polarised by American Jewish bankers and Nazi SS intelligence under the auspices of the then (ironically named) OSS, later to become the CIA. This was not the first time in history that such a marriage had taken place. Ever since the crucifiction, there have been repeated marriages and divorces between the two parties concerned. It is exactly this necessary tension of interest that has enabled Israel to repeatedly stand outside international law and, whilst being the executioner, to wear the mask of victim. The major conceits of Christianity were first compiled by Saul, working under the adopted Christian name of Paul. By his account, Christ was a Jew condemned by Jews to be crucified as ‘King of the Jews’. Regardless of any historic truth, there can be no question that Paul’s crude crucifiction successfully commodified Christ. It was the first expansionist act within the monotheistic agenda (one God, one world) commonly referred to as the Judaic/Christian tradition, but which in reality should be called by its true name: globalisation.


Given the hegemonic nature of the Marshall Plan, it is not cynical to claim that every known cultural development within the post WW2 Western World was overseen by, controlled by, or deliberately constructed out of CIA interests. It deserves more than a moment’s consideration that ‘freedom of thought’ was a CIA construct designed specifically to undermine the ‘threat’ of communism, particularly in France. On occasions there were serious miscalculations made as to the effects that this piece of Orwellian ‘newspeak’ might have upon its victims, as was the case with the ‘the hippy movement’ which blindly took it at face value and later had to be disarmed through the employment of CIA-supplied heroin. However, whereas such miscalculations might confirm that the Agency was at least human, they in no way undermine the reality of the absolute nature of its power.

In this context one also might do well to consider Paris ’68. It is inconceivable to think that the CIA was not either directly involved in, or at least complicit in, the rise and then fall of the student uprising. Despite continued efforts by the CIA to discredit him and the communistic ideals he espoused, Jean Paul Sartre’s existentialism still held sway over the cultural discourse of France. Where intellectuals as varied as Arthur Koestler, Andre Malraux and George Orwell had at one time or another ‘loaned’ their services to the CIA’s programme for ‘Cultural Freedom’, Sartre had remained resolutely ‘against’. Despite President de Gaulle’s peculiarly Gallic brand of rightism, France had become a sticking point in CIA ambitions: the unions were still largely backed by the Communist Party, and the student adoption of ‘freedom of thought’ had led to a dangerous new form of anarchism: situationism. It is not impossible nor, indeed, unlikely that both parties were ‘encouraged’ by the CIA either directly through infiltration, or indirectly through propaganda, to stage an uprising whose overthrow would (and, indeed did) finally crush France’s leftist dissent.

In this sense, and whatever the truth, Paris ’68 served its purpose within commodity culture. In France, of all the Western nations most directly involved in ‘the year that rocked the world’, there has been a continuous drift towards rightist government and discourse: the totalitarian ‘freedom of thought’ first mapped out in the Marshall Plan.

Anything that can be removed from radical discourse will become incorporated and thereby nullified within the consensual narrative. Revolution and its leaders can all too easily become commodity: Che the poster, Sartre ‘le maitre de’. It is in this manner that revolutionary ideas are consumed as product within a construct of moderation calculatedly designed to render them impotent (look no further than the TV set). To reason with the enemy is to collude, the true radical voice becoming incorporated and lost within the drone of consensuality (or, as in the case of Gerry Adams, totally gagged). ‘Vive la Revolution’? No more than empty sloganeering within a culture of empty sound-bite slogans: ‘I have a dream – Just Do It’.

Thus the revolutionary discourse becomes divided into that which is sufficiently ‘moderate’ to be incorporated into the reformist agenda of the consensual, and that which is unacceptable to it and thereby marginalised. It is this process of marginalisation which leads to the increased ‘extremism’ of response from those disenfranchised by it (be they Palestinians or young British blacks). Equally, in the appropriation (and loss) of the moderate aspects of their discourse (which in turn might be defined as the compassionate), revolutionaries and radicals are left with only the hard-edged reality of demand.

Thus divided (and thereby ruled) from the wholeness of the discourse and of any means whatsoever of conciliation, those courageous or foolish enough to cling onto revolutionary principles are forced into a profound conflict of interest or, more clinically, a schizoid malfunction. Hence the large-scale suicides following the uprising of Paris ‘’68 or the endemic roundabout turn to hip capitalism following the flower power era of West Coast America. Given the overpoweringly cynical attitudes of commodity culture, it is surprising that the ‘Patchouli Nights’ boutiques of San Francisco’s Haight / Ashbury do not also sell ‘eau de cordite’.


Yet for all this, post-millennium, post-modernist ‘irony’ has allowed the streets to become the property of the galleries. Through no ‘fault’ of his own, Banksy originals are now available at a huge price on the Internet. The petrol bomb has become a bouquet of roses, and the revolutionary intent expressed in both, and so eloquently espoused by Che (‘….the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love’), becomes further devalued. Nonetheless, beyond the constant gaze of the surveillance cameras there are those who continue to believe that the sword is mightier than the word, and that petrol is more powerful than paint, but, as the demise of the IRA through the redirection of American money from arms to techno-industry indicates, they are few and far between.

In 1968, President de Gaulle was ready in the wings to wage an all-out war against his detractors, but were they truly prepared, or indeed even interested, in waging one with him? ‘Thou shalt not’ has always weighed heavy within revolutionary discourse: talking guns, pipe dream or bong fantasy? Fine, so turn on, tune in and drop out. But drop out into what? A drug-induced hallucination which makes the world a better place quite simply because it makes it feel like a better place. In that sense there is a strong parallel between psychedelics and politics. Both are reformist, concentrating on appearance rather than essence, and both allow for, and depend upon, the continuation of the status quo, leaving us with a delicious conundrum: if there is no ‘truly’ consensual world, how can we hope to change it? Notwithstanding, if we really have to confirm the nullifying effects of reformist liberalism, we need sniff no further than the noxious, rightist stench of Amsterdam. Where once the Provos pedalled their politics in the streets, now it is pot and prostitution which are peddled.


On this note, anyone foolish enough to imagine that there are comparisons to be made between the essentially white, middle-class uprisings of the sixties and the concurrent demands of American blacks to be allowed a voice which was their own rather than that of the dominant culture need look no further than the story of James Baldwin. Disgusted by what he saw as the appropriation of black culture by, in particular, the so-called Beat Generation, Kerouac, Ginsberg et al, Baldwin sought exile in Paris. Yet for all this, alongside Martin Luther King, he was accused by Black Panther spokesperson Eldridge Cleaver of being ‘a black hater with a sycophantic love of whites’. True, there are some battles you just can’t win, but any attempt to integrate the very separate struggles of blacks and whites during that era is no more than yet another attempt by whites to appropriate righteous black dissent.

Then what of that other great battlefield, the strident ’60s feminism of the Dworkins, Millets and Greers, that which demanded a future free of sexploitation? Again, commodified almost to extinction. Whilst the committed freed the body by freeing the mind, Hollywood’s ‘Charlie's Angels’ popped on the up-lifts, pumped up the silicon power and claimed a ‘new feminism’, one cynically designed (by men) to conform to prurient male fantasies (which any man who had been touched by feminist radicalism would, at least publicly, have been far too embarrassed to embrace). It has to be one of the great ironies of the late sixties that, at the very time that women were demanding not to be seen as sex objects, the Pill exploded onto the market which, within the male construct at least, made them the greatest sex object of all time: all pleasure and none of the pain.

In turn, this ‘sexual liberation’ led later to such as absurdities as the Spice Girls being forwarded as representatives of the new ‘Girl Power’, the binge-drinking, sex-partying, self-denigrating perversion of feminist idealism so lasciviously followed in the tabloids. From swank to wank in under two decades, the two decades which pushed the dreams of the ’60s screaming into the unbending arms of that New Age mother to us all, the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, she who so savagely demanded that we ‘rejoice’ over the pointless deaths of the Falklands, men and sheep all. It was at that moment that the Age of Dissent came to its end. The Enlightenment was over. This was the new Dark Age, the Age of Emasculation, the Age of Defeat. The psychic gateway to the New Millennium had been opened…


In conclusion, it would do well to remember that, by Thatcher’s reasoning, ‘there is no such thing as society’, and that, by John Major’s (confirmed by that simpering papist lap-dog Tony Blair), ‘there is no such thing as class’. I recently attended a public discussion in which a leading and influential Oxbridge professor had the temerity to suggest that we should make war ‘more comfortable’. This, I contend, is the level of dialogue, radical or otherwise, to be expected in a culture willing to tolerate Creationist madness or, perhaps even worse, whilst willingly accepting Darwin’s theories on evolution, to continue to essentially believe in God and His mandates. Thou shalt not kill? Then, if not in your name, in whose? One God, one world, or is it more a case of ‘thou shalt not because thou never was’? Within commodity culture, to question is to oppose, thus, Bush’s ‘for or against’ was not an option. It was a warning: accept or submit. I shall do neither.


Penny Rimbaud set up the Dial House anarchist community in Essex, now a centre for dynamic change, with Phil Russell; with Crass he created a manifesto for revolution in the form of a band. He continues to write, perform, agitate and demonstrate.