2014 marked the centenary of the beginning of the beginning of the First World War, arguably the first major conflict to employ what is known as “Total War”, where the home-front, previously a zone protected from active conflict, collapses into the frontline. Under such conditions everything and everyone, however civilian, becomes mobilised to serve the purposes of war. This was exemplified by a wartime campaign in England in which schoolchildren collected horse chestnuts, which became a source of starch to make acetone for the manufacture of ammunition. Such examples may seem bizarre to contemporary minds, and the concept of mobilising a whole population to war absurd. However, a century on, it is arguable that “Total War” as defined above persists to this day, because “Total War” is not simply a wartime phenomenon. Another, more banal kind of Total War has continued which has normalised war within the social fabric.
Recall the Columbine High School shooting of 1999. In the postmortem of the incident, fingers were quickly pointed to the shooter’s obsession with an icon of pop culture today, namely video games, and many were just as quick to dismiss the link. In focusing on whether the violence depicted in video games caused the violence in the classrooms, what was missed was the series of processes that made such artifacts of pop culture available in the first place. These processes are just as much a part of pop culture as the product itself, and it is these processes in pop culture that represent the real banalisation of violence, where the collapse of the frontline into the homefront is taking place in our time. It is a process where each and every one of us has become privy to a process whereby the step from peacetime to wartime has become so small as to become virtually non-existent.
An aid to understanding how this comes about can be found in Daniel M. Bell’s recent book, The Economy of Desire. Bell provides an important contribution to the discussion by looking at the mechanics whereby the totalisation of war operates within the contemporary social fabric via pop culture (as the offspring of consumer capitalism). Bell shows how, instead of conscripting the home-front into the frontline in a military confrontation, as it was in the Great War, pop culture is a condition where the homefront has become the frontline, and all social relations now by default parallel that of military confrontation.
Bell sets the stage by looking at the centuries long process by which governments evolve from being controllers of economic activity, as in the case of the agricultural societies, to facilitators of a depersonalised economic axiomatic, as in the case in post-industrial capitalist societies. In the course of its evolution from controller to handmaiden, what the state also becomes is a highly proactive player in fusing the social with the economic. In Bell’s words, the sovereign “aggressively encourages and advocates the extension of economic reason into every fiber and cell of human life”. Therefore, in the capitalist axiomatic, the market does not just become one area in a complex web of social activities. Instead, “economic or market rationale controls all conduct” within the social fabric as the market becomes the social fabric.
Pop culture enters into this equation as the ubiquity of the market seeps into the private sphere. Once a site protected from the logic of political-economy, the private sphere now becomes yet another zone of the market axiomatic. This is made manifest by more activities that constitute social relations becoming inserted into the market for commercial gain. Think of cellphones as the backbone of social connectivity, to the proliferation of insurance products to cover more areas of life from income to family to pets, to the proliferation of the commercial gym in place of communal sports, to the outsourcing of domestic chores with companies like Rent a Husband, to the commercialisation of prostitution and porn.
The crucial connective tissue between this seeping of the market into the private sphere and the notion of Total War is the process of commodification. This is the process whereby goods are removed from the original social and cultural context that gave rise to the good and is reduced to a self-sufficient thing able to traverse all sorts of social contexts, so as to make that thing fit for commercial exchange. Why this is crucial is because as capitalism seeps into the social fabric, social relations themselves can become commodified, since the reinterpretation of the entire social sphere in a market logic means that even things not up for a formal exchange process are treated as if they were commodities. What the commodification of social relations yields is more commonly known as the contract. A contractualised relation is an alienated relation, as social relations are reduced to a state where individuals, not communities, form the foundation of the social canvass. According to Bell, what capitalism proliferates is a desire for liberty from all forms of control that do not first subject themselves to the individual will. In other words, social relations are the result of voluntary association, rather than something that co-exists with individuality.
As capitalism seeps further into the social sphere, contract becomes the standardised type of relationship in both the private and public spheres, whether that relationship is getting a cup of coffee, to becoming a citizen of a country. In all of these, contract becomes the defining characteristic of that relationship. Moreover, as social relations become stripped into contracts between individuals with an infinite desire for self satisfaction, Bell writes that the nature of social relations themselves actually changes, in a vector described as an “agony of competition”. One self-maximising individual with endless desire will come to see other self-maximising individuals with endless desire as either threats to remove or potential resources to exploit. In this constant competition, what contracts end up becoming are social nodes whereby that competition comes to the fore in a manageable form, and thus pop culture constitutes a series of conflicts in sanitised form. Guns may be fired, provided they are mediated by a screen or paintball suit. Knives may not cut flesh, unless it is contractually entered into for the purpose of beautification in a plastic surgery, and so on. In Bell’s words, social relations under capitalism are not only reduced, but transformed into a kind of “commercialised warfare”. With Capitalism’s ironing out of the social fabric, the home front has now become an all pervasive series of frontlines.
Going even further, the pop culture contracts that have sanitised our conflicts on the home front form a core that is nestled within networks of other conflicts that are not sanitised. Think of the hotzone conflicts in mineral rich warzones, or the networks of slavery, cheap labour and human-trafficking that feed the supply chains, all of which find their way into our batteries, our clothing, our jewelry, our audiovisual equipment, our phones and our organ banks. Thus every one of pop culture’s trinkets constitutes a mopping up of a very real trail of blood.
To conclude, it would seem that life now resembles that of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. As Jeffrey Hunter has hinted in his comments about American Psycho, Capitalism has woven a layer of viciousness into a social fabric defined by the consumption of commodities. Capitalism’s mix of the proliferation of infinite self-seeking desire, the contractualisation of relations and commodification of everything and everyone, has in turn generated the paradox whereby sociality in every part of the fabric is established on a foundation of warfare. Capitalism thereby forms the cultural backdrop against which the distinction between the home-front and the frontline has disappeared. Pop Culture, as a trafficking in and consumption of commodities, has become the privileged handmaiden, for it is through pop culture that public conflict has pierced the veil of the private. With varying degrees of subtlety, total war is now defining the totality of social relations.
Bell suggests a corrective in what he has called elsewhere a “therapy of desire”, which he situates in the Christian Church. It is a therapy whereby Christ who, in His passion, dissociated himself from the cycle of violence and victimage, the Godhead who reveals our rivalry and all-encompassing victimage for what it is. This therapy is not just an abstract but a real encounter experienced in every node of the social fabric via the Church, so that in every exchange where there was rivalrous desire that brings the frontline into the home, the desire for self-giving can take its place and make each exchange a home once again.