There is something oddly fitting about using the categories of modern French thought to critique the Decent Left. A lot of it has to do with their peculiar mode of thought, which mixes the anti-theoretical philistinism of the Anglophone pundit with the normal thought-process of the far-left sectarian, the latter combining a sort of crazed logical positivism with a strong streak of magical thinking. And, given their hostility to a French intellectual tradition most of them don’t understand, it’s quite amusing as well.
So we brought Baudrillard’s concept of the simulacrum to bear on Decency. Old Baudrillard got plenty of things wrong, but this is a case where the simulacrum fits perfectly: you could see this even at the birth of Decency some fifteen years ago, when there was a noticeable division between those small-d decent people who wanted to defend Bosnia on geopolitical or humanitarian grounds, and those for whom “Bosnia” was a Platonic ideal and “defending Bosnia” (which seemed to consist mainly of writing columns in the Graun and Staggers) a measure of personal virtue. Similarly, “Iraq” or “Darfur” or “Afghanistan” in Decent discourse are to be taken not as references to places on a map, but to intellectual categories used to bash the Indecent about the head. You find a lot of this with Professor Normblog, who rarely writes about Iraq the place, and who in his more lucid moments sees the war as a disaster, but is still intent on using the simulacrum of “Iraq” to prove that his support for the war makes him more moral than those who said all along it would be a disaster.
Similarly with Nick’s scattergun attack on “The Left”, a simulacrum that bears only a fleeting resemblance to an actually existing left, but a suspiciously close resemblance to Nick himself circa 2002. And don’t get me started on the Cohen-Wheen-Hari trope of “postmodernism”…
Closely related to the Baudrillardian Simulacrum, but distinct from it, is Guy Debord’s Spectacle, which itself was an expansion from the purely economic into the cultural sphere of the Marxian concept of reification. Now, if you’re one of those people who didn’t throw away his old situationist texts, you’ll recall that in the Debordian schema “liberal democracy” played the part of the integrated spectacle, while “terrorism” was not only the mirror image but the necessarily constructed enemy, the obscene other without which democracy could not exist, the big bad that proved the goodness and superiority of the democrat. And doesn’t this provide an excellent framework for reading Berman’s Terror and Liberalism?
Skipping from this to our own Decent Left, we find something rather striking. While those of us who count ourselves as Indecent generally have positive agendas of our own – shit, even Osama has a positive agenda of his own, albeit a repugnant one – the Decents, qua Decents, literally cannot exist without Indecency. They need to have big bad Obscene Others to define themselves against – this isn’t just rhetorical but existential. Without the ideological simulacra of “the Serbo-fascists” or “the Islamofascists” or “the Chomskyans” or “the SWP”, where would they be? I suppose this is what divides off semi-Decent New Labour hacks like Aaro or Norm, who can always retreat back into New Labour hackery, or a dilettante like young Johann, who can always find another big idea, from ideologues of Decency like Messrs Cohen, Kampf, or Hoare minor, whose self-worth seems to depend on running literary campaigns against straw men.
Back in May ’68, the Situationists reckoned that going beyond our allotted roles as passive consumers involved exploding the Spectacle. Today, the simulacrum-politics of the virtual warriors is as worthy of debunking as anything.