Jean Baudrillard and Postmodern Globalization: The Utopia of the Real and the End of Liberalism


We shall remain nostalgic Utopians, agonizing over our ideals, but balking, ultimately, at their realization, professing that everything is possible, but never that everything has been achieved (Baudrillard, America, 85)

Social scientists should not be reading Jean Baudrillard. This is because, as writers like Bogard (1990) argue, he dissolves the social into nothing more than images. These are “simulacra,” images corresponding to no object; inventions only. Such images Baudrillard calls the “hyper-real.” “Policy” is impossible in such a world, and neither is anything that tries to claim the status of “science.” Therefore, while the postmodernists skillfully criticize the present “western social system” and its economic market, they have nothing positive to advocate, since anything constructive must also be tainted by its interaction with the hyper-real.

This critique renders the language of social life false. Importantly, it also renders the language of rebellion equally illusive. Baudrillard is intolerable because, as Bogard writes:

Baudrillard radically denies the possibility of sociology by way of an argument which claims that the social field, i.e., the web of social relationships conceived as the empirical ground and reality principle for a uniquely sociological enterprise, is in the process of collapsing into an undifferentiated and homogeneous 'mass' – a mass which is itself the product of a social process yet can no longer be identified with any particular social subject or object (Bogard, 1990: 2-3).

Bogard is incorrect to argue that the society is “in the process of collapsing” into a mass of unreal images without referents. It has already done so, and sociology was its product. The essential criticism, however, is correct. The argument in this paper is that, if social life is based on images, and images refer only to themselves, then those who project the images are insulated from all serious criticism. This is simply because there is nowhere solid to stand that. Language and the social do not exist except as mental images that skillfully manipulate the herd. Yet, the nature of this criticism does not yield results.

This is especially manifest in the postmodern market, that, among other things, believes itself to be the very manifestation of “utopia achieved.” Hefner writes, “The realm of personal/social need satisfaction has increasingly been tied to the operation of a market, and this has been accompanied by an expansion of socially-defined wants and the market geared to their continued growth” (Hefner, 1977: 113).

While Hefner, albeit writing from the Dark Ages, is skeptical of the above description of the postmodern critique, he is also drawn to it. Baudrillard will later add some overgeneralized theory to it, but the essential idea is the same. Markets are impersonal machines. Over time, mass production, advertising and the total monetization of all “social” relationships has dissolved the “market” into a set of images. The rise of virtual reality just confirmed the trajectory and is nothing new or special.

Hence, the machine is inorganic and artificial, it is one step away from reality. Making it “abstract,” that is, wholly monetized, is yet another layer of the unreal, making it twice removed from reality. Finally, that it is now virtual and global (that is, corresponding to nothing), dissolves even that realm of illusion, making illusions out of previous ones. It is three times removed from reality.

Bogard is the most vehement in his rejection of this thesis. His conclusion is that Baudrillard is wrong because he renders “liberal change” impossible, and by extension, the academic role in that change (Bogard, 1990: 13-14). How this is a reason to reject Baudrillard remains a mystery. That it is an argument deriving from professional self-interest. He actually says one has to reject Baudrillard because academic liberals would be out of a job; or alternatively, that academic social science would cease to exist.

Policy, social science, and maybe academia itself seem to be uncomfortable when deconstruction is turned around on themselves (cf. Bogard, 1990: 10-14). Others (cf. Rubenstein, 1989) use it for partisan purposes. The postmodern criticism might itself be criticized and even parodied, but to reject it entirely is difficult. Baudrillard writes:

Yes, California (and America with it) is the mirror of our decadence, but it is not decadent at all. It is hyperreal in its vitality, it has all the energy of the simulacrum. It is the world center of the inauthentic. Certainly it is: that is what gives it its originality and power. The irresistible rise of the simulacrum is something you can simply feel here without the slightest effort (Baudrillard, 2010: 113-114).

The only problem is that energy need not come from the real. Originality almost requires the make-believe. Most of all, power must justify itself through the creation of an imaginary world. Thus, the quote above is not a positive view, nor does it remotely defend the present system. Worst of all, the system itself is “irresistible,” and in part, that is because it holds itself out as inevitable.

Therefore, the issues here are that a) social sciences pretend that what they analyze is somehow objective, b) that the market and individual “needs and desires” are some of these objects, and c) that such mechanisms can be analyzed like any other social phenomenon. Baudrillard and Applbaum (1998) argue that they are incorrect as the social sciences have been deconstructed out of existence.

Applbaum's scathing parody of the pseudo-academic field of “marketing” is both necessary and accurate. Market-oriented writers and the market as such often act as the epiphany of “freedom” itself. The truth is that “the free market” has long become a set of images delivering the message that, in being absorbed into this matrix, the subject is now a non-conformist and even a rebel. The “rebel” is safe from repercussions, because even the act of rebellion is stylized, standardized and rendered hyper-real (Applbaum, 1998: 325).

As part of his critique, Applbaum cites several significant authorities in this “field” to the effect that customers do not know their interests. Their needs are indeterminate (apart from staple items) and thus need to be led and directed. While even a cursory glance at the typical high-priced advertisement shows this to be true, the system itself is normally justified by a reference to “reason.” This is the crux of the matter.

“Reason” is defined in the most vulgar way possible – the constant search for one's utility, value and profit. These might be defied broadly, but they manipulate the “mass” of the population in the name of individual self-creation. Implying that the market is based on the rational “maximization of utility” on the one hand, while acting as if the mass are a mere herd on the other; those who control the market are mocking the herd, rubbing their nose in their inability to realize that they live in a world created by anonymous others. That the “mass,” the herd, remain unaware is part of the process. The more inert the herd proves itself to be, the more powerful the system becomes (Applbaum, 1998: 326-327). Applbaum writes,

Coca-Cola and McDonald’s surely must be counted among the seven wonders in modern times. Beholding this massive barrage of communications all shouting ‘‘Buy me!’’ (though in fact the message is ‘‘Choose me!’’), the critics have often held that a force capable of co-opting consciousness in this way must be organized, conniving, and hegemonic (Applbaum, 1998: 334).

While this is true, Applbaum would rather not be associated with it. Instead, he substitutes the idea that the simulacra of hyper-reality, economically speaking, are appropriated by consumers for “the procurement and use of commodities for the purpose of self-construction” (Applbaum, 1998: 334). The only problem is that the foundation for this “identity” that consumers are constructing is nowhere to be found. In other words, one cannot agree that the social world is little more than images, while still arguing that there is some fundament from which the “sovereign individual” can “construct himself.”

He argues that “the aspect of the cosmology that I address is the implicitly held theory of needs and their purported satisfaction through the mutually constructed cultural economic entity of the free market” (Applbaum, 1998: 347). While claiming that this “cosmology” of the “free spirit” is pure illusion, he insists that this same “self-construction” is autonomous. This attempt to save the social sciences fails, because the basis on which an “individual” will seek to “construct herself” must be derivable from some power, something with significant social salience. This authority is normally pop-culture or one of its derivatives.

Baudrillard (2010) argues against such unexplained academic innocence:

Politics frees itself in the spectacle, in the all-out advertising effect; sexuality frees itself in all its anomalies and perversions. . . mores, customs, the body, and language free themselves in the ever quickening round of fashion. The liberated man is not the one who is freed in his ideal reality, his inner truth, or his transparency; he is the man who changes spaces, who circulates, who changes sex, clothes, and habits according to fashion, rather than morality. . . (Baudrillard, 2010: 105).

Given the sheer depth of the immersion into the matrix, it is difficult to argue with him. The only problem left is that he sounds like a conservative of several generations ago. His reputation as a “leftist,” however, renders such critical ideas fashionable, and unfortunately, hyper-real.

The late Russell Kirk, a well known expositor of traditionalist conservative ideas writes:

I think it would be better, if the choice could be made, for society to be dissolved into its constituent atoms than for the society to become one featureless bulk of production-men and consumption-men. . . As the media for expression of thought decay or expire, the parlor-tables in British hotels are covered with a new spawn of trade-journals and automobile-company magazines, luxuriously printed, fat and glossy, published out of the ample advertising-funds of the great stock-companies (Kirk, 1956).

This is no different from Baudrillard. Had the name been removed from the above quotes, many of Baudrillard's followers would nod along with the ideas presented. Once informed that it was “Russell Kirk,” the reader, picking up the cue, would just as quickly be revolted. Kirk's approach, developed at length through his long career, contains substantial criticisms of market relations, mass society and the force that creates them both: the substitution of base desire for traditional conceptions of virtue. Confusingly, post-modern “conservatism” is actually libertarianism, whose love of the postmodern market and its globalized enforcement regime know no bounds.

Importantly, when Hefner states “This system in turn has had a most dramatic effect on other world cultures increasingly linked to events originating in the West. In this many people would see an event of tragic proportions” (Hefner, 1977: 113), he needs to clarify what “west” means. He certainly cannot be considering the west of Aristotle or Aquinas. He can only be using the simulacra of “the west” to refer to the social degeneration Kirk and his followers rightly decry.

Baudrillard seems to agree: “Utopia has been achieved here and anti-utopia is being achieved: the anti-utopia of unreason, of deterritorialization, of the indeterminacy of language and the subject, of the neutralization of all values, of the death of culture” (Baudrillard, 2010: 106).

What values are being referenced? That is the problem: Baudrillard seems to be in full agreement with Kirk and many others of that tradition, but overtly saying so seems quite non-academic. Yet, as if from nowhere, Baudrillard writes

The great lesson of all this is that freedom and equality, like ease and grace, only exist where they are present from the outset. This is the surprise democracy had in store for us: equality is at the beginning, not at the end. That is the difference between egalitarianism and democracy: democracy presupposes equality at the outset, egalitarianism presupposes it at the end (Baudrillard, 2010: 103).

Where are these abstractions coming from? How are “freedom and equality,” “democracy” or “egalitarianism” anything other than simulacra? Even worse, what is this mysterious force that will make everyone “even” at the beginning? And would not that force, by its very existence, prove that such equalization “at the outset” is impossible? These phrases, completely out of sync with the rest of his writings, do not seem to even be written by the same man. These kinds of modern, almost libertarian constructs seem almost like concessions to his academic readership rather than serious ideas.

A “simulatory culture” is a world where words have no referents; there is no corresponding object. It is not a culture at all. Such falsity requires a population to accept it as real. They are hypnotics. This is Baudrillard's conception of a virtual, or simulatory world; one where the entire planet is brought to accept the images as reality. “Insanity,” and “terror” is defined as not accepting them as real (Baudrillard, 1988: 98-99).

They bring benefits to their subjects in that they are easier than reality, since they are infinitely plastic and malleable. It is the final manifestation of the Enlightenment and its drive to reshape reality (Baudrillard, 1988: 92-93). Finally, this world has been created by globalized capital, where national cultures are inconveniences. The less cultural specificity exists, the easier it is to bring them into the vortex of capitalist relations without a foundation for resistance (Baudrillard, 1988: 91-93).

The “global culture” is a system, a network of images. Its goal is profit, but it is far more. The system must be recognized by all as “the obvious good, the natural ideal of the human race” (Baudrillard, 1988: 99-101). It cannot have its claim to be the universal satisfaction of all human desire “cast into doubt” (Baudrillard, 99-101). Even if it is just a handful of “fanatics,” their very existence is overwhelming to the system. It is humiliation that it fears most of all.

The global order has its own life, language and social relations that correspond only to the images the system projects as “reality.” These images are infinitely plastic, and hence, can correspond to the interests of those who project them and craft the desires of those who receive them (Fisher, 2009: 54ff). This more friendly world, more exciting than the real, Baudrillard calls “hyper-reality,” and is the pseudo-ontological foundation for the present globalized order (Baudrillard, 1988: 88-89).

Virilio (1995) argues that “there is no such thing as globalization, there is only virtualization. What is being effectively globalized by instantaneity is time. Everything now happens within the perspective of real time: henceforth we are deemed to live in a 'one-time-system'” (Virilio, 1995: np). In terms of culture, Virilio argues that the richness and diversity of history comes from the local, that is, the national or the ethnic. Virtualization and universalization mean its destruction.

The hypnosis is driven by the consumer, the subject. This is not “forced” on society, but, once any sense of the absolute has been destroyed, society loses any purpose or aim. This void then makes its subjects easy prey for the friendlier virtual world. Reality forces people to make hard choices and be responsible for their acts. The world of consumer images makes no such demands, and, since it is based on relativism, the struggles for virtue and the good are not significant.

Fisher explains: “‘Being realistic’ may once have meant coming to terms with of a reality experienced as solid and immovable. Capitalist realism, however, entails subordinating oneself to a reality that is infinitely plastic, capable of reconfiguring itself at any moment” (Fisher, 2009: 54). This virtual world is created by the drive for profit. Money (itself a simulacrum) reduces all human relations to itself. Once human interaction is reduced to dollars, the “human” is totally effaced (Baudrillard, 1988: 93).

“Violence” is defined by Baudrillard as this process of reducing all reality into monetary relations (Baudrillard, 1988: 92). The violence of the system is manifest in “our own submission to an integral technology, to a crushing virtual reality, to the grip of networks and programs, which perhaps represents the involutive profile of the entire species, of the human race's become 'global'”. . .(Baudrillard, 1988: 104). The broader point is that it is the generator of images that decides what reality is and hence, who is outside it.

“Violence” is different from “terror.” The latter is anything that exists outside the system; it is everyone who seeks its subversion through both the unmasking of its values. They seek the re-establishment of specific cultures. They are illiberal and hence, dangerous to the system (Baudrillard, 1988: 96-97).

The system sees terror as a problem and opportunity. The system's bureaucratic organization does not permit to effectively respond. This machine, neither private nor public, cannot fight a guerrilla war because such wars follow no rules. “Guerrilla terrorists” do not wear uniforms, follow no standard military protocols, and have a flair for the symbolic. The “symbolic” refers to those realities that are expanded beyond their initial impact and become emblematic of their broader ideas. 9-11 destroyed the Trade Towers and surrounding buildings. Yet, in the virtual world, it is far more. It served to humiliate the insulated projectors of the hyper-real. These eternally invisible “terrorists” are a threat because they actually live in the real, have a solid culture and are not enmeshed in hyper-reality (Baudrillard, 1988: 101).

However, the existence of these guerrilla bands, large enough to cause fear but not so large as to take the system head on, are used by the it to keep everyone on guard. Subjects then become fearful and suspicious, which leads to a state of great suggestibility. Baudrillard and Klein (2007) argue that “crisis” is used to buttress the system of images. Baudrillard argues that when the system runs out of enemies, it must create them (Baudrillard, 1988: 93). The upsurge against it is sporadic and decentralized, but really only an irritant. They are the revenge of the “singular” against the global order: the constant drive to homogenization (Baudrillard, 1988: 98).

Globalisation has been created by economic actors far more powerful than states or governments. John Urry (2005) writes “Empire is the sovereign power, creating a ‘smooth world’, the single logic of rule that now governs the world. This new sovereignty is deterritorialised and de-centered, with a merging and blending of a ‘global rainbow’” (Urry, 249). Scholte (2002) says the same, but argues that the imperial use of technology can empower, as well as dis-empower, those seeking to resist it. Poster argues that the faux-universal ideas stressed by Baudrillard are the final manifestation of the “Enlightenment” (Poster, 2008: 5). The universal claims of globalization are western European, elite and purely modern, based on concentrated capital and mechanization (Poster, 16).

Mark Fisher states that such a system “. . . can only emerge in a late capitalist culture in which images acquire an autonomous force. The way value is generated on the stock exchange depends of course less on what a company ‘really does’, and more on perceptions of, and beliefs about, its (future) performance (Fisher, 2009: 54-56). The point is that the world of virtual reality, relative values, an elastic “individualism” and capitalist relations are all part of the liberal order. Liberalism leads to a world without purpose; an ethics without virtue and discourse without foundation. Modern globalization is not conceivable without it (Fisher, 30-32).

To reject this world, even passively, is to be an outsider. The problem is that none of the authors in this field are outsiders, they are deeply enmeshed in the system and have made their peace with it. Actual rebels end up dead or in prison, not granted tenure.

Nevertheless, their arguments all converge on the truth that nominalism, individualism and relativism are absolutely essential for hyper-reality to have an “anti-ontology” from which to generate “reality.” It would seem that the solution to the evils of liberalism world require, at a minimum, a rejection of liberalism. Such an argument is not an option for most academics. It would be career-destroying.

Z. Bauman states: “The very project of modernity is born out of the desire for a world without surprises, a safe world, a world without fear” (in Galecki, 2006). He is arguing that this false world comes from the desire to reshape reality. He then comments that the older ties of human solidarity have been destroyed by the individualism necessarily promoted by this same project: “there is no individual self-determination without social solidarity” (Bauman, 2006: 144-146). Where these past values came from remains a mystery. Social solidarity, given his definition, must come from a pre-modern world. It must exist prior to the Enlightenment. This leaves us with romanticism, ethnic and religious community, agrarianism and the traditional world of the village. Committing to these, however, are not options in liberal academia, so he has to leave that part blank.

Bauman, rejecting the religious movements against globalization, reduces them to a “. . . longing for certainty in an unstable world. It is an escape from extremely complicated problems we cannot even name. . . It is nostalgia for a lost, simple world and the elementary array of tasks within this world” (in Gałecki, 2006). This dismissal is an extreme example of oversimplification. It is the use of virtual symbols to reject illiberal movements against the same liberalism he too rejects. If these problems are too complex for even a name, then how does he know to reject these solutions? Since he offers none in his (2006) work, dismissing other forms of resistance is forced and sloppy. This is especially acute when these groups use language almost identical to his own. If they are correct on diagnosing the problems, then how 'simple' can they be? This poor reasoning derives from Bauman's refusal to admit the obvious: If liberalism is to be replaced, then its replacement cannot be liberal. Given the strictures of academia, he is forced to live with cognitive dissonance.

The other authors reviewed here have the same problem. David Harvey, in his (2005) A Brief History of Neoliberalism, writes that capitalism appropriated the rhetoric of the “liberty of consumer choice, not only with respect to particular products but also with respect to lifestyles, modes of expression, and a wide range of cultural practices” (Harvey, 2005: 42).

From the point of view of modern liberalism, Harvey is treading on dangerous ground. Worse, he writes, “[New York's] elites acceded. . . to the demand for lifestyle diversification (including those attached to sexual preference and gender) and increasing consumer niche choices.” Capitalism, neoliberalism and the hyper-real are all connected. The machinery of hypnosis that makes it all hang together is summarized as: “The narcissistic exploration of self, sexuality, and identity became the leitmotif of bourgeois urban culture. Artistic freedom and artistic license, promoted by the city’s powerful cultural institutions, led, in effect, to the neoliberalization of culture” (Harvey, 47).

As if reassuring himself as to the obvious correctness of the same liberalism he just excoriated, he writes:

The Republican Party sought an alliance with the Christian right. . . . they appealed to the cultural nationalism of the white working classes and their besieged sense of moral righteousness (besieged because this class lived under conditions of chronic economic insecurity). This political base could be mobilized through the positives of religion and cultural nationalism and negatively through coded, if not blatant, racism, homophobia, and antifeminism (Harvey, 49-50).

Harvey has backed himself into a corner. He is condemning the “Christian right” for rejecting the same phenomena he has just condemned. Harvey, for example, does not tell us the nature of these moral foundations that have been washed away. Aren't these Christian standards? He makes reference to an absolute standard without bothering to explain it. Harvey does not have to justify his views because his colleagues are generally liberal. He must reassure himself as well as the structure within which he works that he remains a liberal. The strange conflict that derives from this will just have to stand.

Naomi Klein has the same problem, but she merely denies that exists. The mental gymnastics required for this are really not a problem, since much, of not all of her audience is unaware of the conflicts. She argues that capitalism and globalization are not liberal ideologies at all, but conservative. Refusing to define the term, she lumps militarism, nationalism, traditionalism and post-modern capitalism into the same hyper-real symbol (Klein, 2007: 7). It is a pure simulacrum; it has no referent.

The “Shock Doctrine” is a well-known idea usually associated with the “far right” in American politics. She does not bother to cite the originators of this idea, but permits the reader to believe it is her creation. Klein is correct that the rhetoric of capitalist freedom is a fraud, but this only shows that liberalism is authoritarian. Fisher has already said the same above.

Klein makes no attempt to explain how the followers of Burke, Adams and Dostoevsky have suddenly converted to a revolutionary, global, culture-less capitalism, only that they have (Bowman (2010) makes the same error; Norberg, (2008) however, makes a similar argument about Klein). These are all slaves of their own hyper-real ideological prison. There is no escape for this unless they want to be run out of academics.

Baudrillard, Fisher, Bowman, Poster, Bauman and Harvey are all saying the same thing. Their negative analysis is first-class. Their positive ideas either do not exist or are reduced to vague, hyper-real symbols such as “democracy” or “human rights,” themselves liberal. Refusing to admit that this same deconstruction can be turned on themselves, they reassure each other through fierce condemnations of the illiberalism their own criticisms make necessary. They have to be aware of this.

All of these are examples of what Baudrillard, et al. define as both “violence as symbol” and the hyper-reality of post-modern globalism. The critics of globalization operate within a virtual world that rewards their efforts without the inconvenience of being outsiders against it. Klein's lucrative job in academia, tenure, light work loads and best selling books do not bespeak a “outsider” status. Rebellion is itself standardized and proceeds according to a script. Keeping to that script permits the “rebel” to act as an outsider while reaping the rewards of an imprisoned, conflicted insider. The harsh rhetoric above is likely a consequence of this. Holding that global capitalism is relativist and amoral, she does not tell us where her absolute demands for justice come from.

Everyone above agrees that the global order is modern, imperial, technological, secular and morally relativist. No one claims that post-modern virtual reality comes from the Carolingian empire. Therefore, the solution must be based upon strong social, ethnic and religious ties; limits on technology and personal desire; religion and the absolute; communitarianism, cultural specificity and decentralization. These are only the more obvious consequences, and none of them are, ipso facto, a problem to advocate unless there is some other force constraining them (all).

The broader point about Baudrillard and the school he helped make mainstream is that it spells the end of liberalism. It retains its power over many, but its assumptions are being rotted away by the continual exposure of its own absurdities. However, the act of making something mainstream is to bring it into the hyper-real. That has yet to dawn on many of them. They have provided the mental tools to become real outsiders and to, as a result, expose the similacra for what they are.

The reader is left to console himself through suspension of disbelief. Weiner speaks of the distinction between America and Europe as the distinction between the pragmatic “expert” and the lofty “intellectual,” (Weiner 2003, 16). This is probably true, albeit a wild over-generalization. It is also an older conservative opinion. Kirk himself made a similar distinction between “training” and “education” or, alternatively, between the “scholar” and the “intellectual” (Kirk, 1953: 476-478). Kirk states that the postmodern world is that of the technician, while the real world, the world outside the matrix, is that of the great authors from Plato to TS Eliot (Kirk, 1956).

Kirk makes more sense than Baudrillard or his followers, if only in that Kirk still hangs on to the real world that exists, barely, under layers and layers of illusion. It may be as simple as the difference between Baudrillard surrendering to the matrix while Kirk did not. At the same time, rescuing the social sciences is not worth anyone's time, since the nominalist, Enlightenment-era naivete of modern “science” is guilty of laying the foundation for this matrix. Baudrillard writes in this regard:

America is the original version of modernity. We are the dubbed or subtitled version. America ducks the question of origins; it cultivates no origin or mythical authenticity; it has no past and no founding truth. Having known no primitive accumulation of time, it lives in a perpetual present (Baudrillard, 2010: 82).

No wonder Bogard is so irritated. The conclusion here is simple: if the world of the postmodern market is illusory, has no “origins” and does not even pretend to be “authentic,” then what is real? How is it known? And how is it returned to its rightful place? If the real is said not to exist at all, then several conclusions seem inescapable, that a) the critique of the illusory has no purpose; b) the critique itself is undercut; and c) no critique is possible at all.

If the real is always a social construction, than Nietzsche wins; power is all that matters. Yet, the use of power for someone else's self interest is what made Baudrillard put pen to paper in the first place. Liberal and leftist academics are in a constant state of cognitive dissonance. They cannot claim to be liberals and then accept the arguments of Baudrillard. Relativism is a bad thing, they all say, and is the cause and foundation of modern capitalist authoirtarianism. There was a time when the politics of the spectacle didn't hold sway. Therefore, those periods and ideas were, generally speaking, better than the present “hyper-real” world. The likes of Klein would rather chop off her own foot and eat it before admitting this inescapable fact. So unless the above questions are answered, the impasse might be permanent.



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