April 12-18, 2006

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The Byrne Report

Political Spectacle

By Peter Byrne

The spectacle is capital to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes an image. --Guy Debord

LATELY, I HAVE BEEN doing my civic duty, interviewing politicians running for assembly in Sonoma-Marin's June Democratic primary. The candidates share much in common: they are all white liberals (not their fault); they do not like Mr. Bush, nor his illegal war (what sane person does?); they support education (gasp!); they want to protect the environment (double gasp!); and they think it is too darn bad that traffic is such an intractable mess along the 101 corridor.

And, oh yes, they have each hired a media consultant to wash our brains with subliminal suggestions that will encourage us to send them off to Sacramento where they can merge with the plutocrats. (A plutocracy, by the way, is defined as "government by and for the wealthy.")

Enter candidate No. 4: Damon Connolly. A lawyer who works for the state attorney general, Connolly, 42, is a nicely spoken, honest-seeming homeowner-type. After chatting with him for 90 minutes, I cannot say whether he would be a better or worse plutocrat than the other candidates. But that is hardly surprising, since candidates are professionally packaged--trained to project an image of "change" while tactfully ignoring the elephantine presence of wealthy backers who finance their expensive campaigns.

The absurdity of this charade is captured in Guy Debord's 1967 situationist manifesto, Society of the Spectacle. Debord begins by quoting Ludwig Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity: "But certainly for the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, fancy to reality, the appearance to the essence . . . illusion only is sacred, truth profane. Nay, sacredness is held to be enhanced in proportion as truth decreases and illusion increases, so that the highest degree of illusion comes to be the highest degree of sacredness."

To finance the creation of his sacred illusion, Connolly has raised nearly a quarter-million dollars, a goodly portion of it from members of corporate law firms and government bodies. He is paying tens of thousands of dollars to a star-maker: San Francisco-based Jim Ross, who has managed public-affairs projects for PG&E, Michelin Tires and Peets Coffee. Ross flacked for the Committee on Jobs, a roundtable of corporate CEOs that support lowering commercial property taxes and cleansing San Francisco of homeless people.

The jovial Ross, who has run campaigns opposing public power, is a self-described hired gun for corporate America. He told me, with a cynical laugh, that "candidates become their image." Responding to the results of a public-opinion poll, which he declined to reveal, Ross designed two television spots pumping up Connolly's minor role in the state attorney general's investigation of Enron Corp. The commercials, which have a martial air, insinuate that it was Damon Connolly who brought Ken Lay and Enron to justice. Ross depicts the Connolly family marching through a field "fighting" for "your values." The content of these "values" is not described, but the word "fight" is repeated over and over.

"In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved into a representation."

If Connolly wants to take credit for fighting Enron, so be it, but he should also take credit for the lawsuit settlements his office made with a corporate pantheon of energy gougers that returned a mere 30 cents on the stolen dollar to consumers. These defeats were heralded as victories.

"The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images."

Connolly says he wants more regulation of the electric power industry, but that the "market must be allowed to flourish." These two goals are, of course, mutually exclusive, but logic does not matter inside the spectacle.

"In the spectacle, which is the image of the ruling economy, the goal is nothing, development everything. The spectacle aims at nothing but itself."

Connolly expresses an interest in ferreting out waste and corruption in state government, but he makes no concrete suggestions about how he will do that, or what specific agencies or programs he will investigate. He wants to sail the boat, not rock it. To that end, he trusts his image-maker more than he trusts the voters upon whom his campaign method relies to remain controlled by imagery.

"The basically tautological character of the spectacle flows from the simple fact that its means are simultaneously its ends. It is the sun that never sets over the empire of modern passivity. It covers the entire surface of the world and bathes endlessly in its own glory."

Plutocrats, rejoice!

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