Volume 4, Number 2 (July, 2007).
Rethinking the Political: Taking Baudrillard's “Silent Majorities” Seriously
Dr. Jason Royce Lindsey
(Department of Political Science, St. Cloud State University, Minnesota, USA).
What would a fundamentally pessimistic political strategy be like, one without illusions, cynical but energetic, one which would transform the fatal state of public affairs into an open challenge, instead of exhausting itself in trying to unmask it – unsuccessfully as it happens – though not without making its contribution to turning us into political morons?1
Today, there is a tendency to discuss Baudrillard’s In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities as his first examination of terrorism. However, this contemporary perspective on Baudrillard’s book obscures its other important theme. In addition to his conclusions about terrorism, Baudrillard questions many fundamental assumptions about what politics is and what value it possesses for contemporary societies. As a consequence, Baudrillard’s observations appear to pose a stark choice for political theorists and social scientists. We can either continue to debate political activity, as we have known it since the modern period – which will increasingly consign our field to elite studies – or we must redirect our focus toward the contemporary culture that occupies today’s majorities.
To understand why political thought and the social sciences face this choice, one must closely follow the path of Baudrillard’s argument. He begins the work with an observation most contemporary political theorists can sympathize with. Most of us lament the tendency in modern political thinking to reify the people, or the common man as some object of study. Throughout modern history political observers have always seen the masses as a potential source of power, or as a frustratingly passive subject. Or, as Baudrillard puts it:
According to their imaginary representation, the masses drift somewhere between passivity and wild spontaneity, but always as a potential energy, a reservoir of the social and of social energy; today a mute referent, tomorrow when they speak up and cease to be the 'silent majority', a protagonist of history.2
Thus, for those with political agendas, the people are always the hero, the victim, or the chief obstacle. For the modern political left, the masses are the victim suffering from false consciousness but are also a latent hero. Thus, the revolutionary can awaken this fettered colossus and stride into the next stage of history. Or, when these projects fail, the people are the ignorant masses who remain enslaved due to their narrow vision of the world. For the modern political right, the masses can be a useful political ally, but also an ignorant and dangerous one. Thus, they must be disciplined and talked to on a level they can comprehend like a child that does not know its own strength. This is the object that Baudrillard confronts us with: the crowd of Le Bon, subject to unpredictable spasms of violence, Burke’s decent but ignorant citizens, the rural idiocy that Marx laments, or the heroic everyman lacking proper consciousness, which must be supplied by Lenin's vanguard.3
Yet, Baudrillard does not intend to criticize this reification of the masses as a sloppy concept. Instead, the masses are useful to study as an endpoint. The deconstruction of class, socio-economic status, race, and other categories shows that these “better” tools of analysis, or better candidates for the idea of the masses: “have also only ever been muddled notions themselves, but notions upon which agreement has nevertheless been reached for mysterious ends: those of preserving a certain code of analysis”.4 Instead, the idea of the masses is a useful endpoint, a solid immovable barrier that we cannot pass. Our inability to dissect the mass into classes or discernible categories shows the flaw in our idea of the social. According to Baudrillard, our desire to study society, to have a science about human life, meets its match here. Instead of finding a subject for study, the modern project of social science crashes into this unmovable, unknowable first particle, the masses. All of the work of social science is confronted with the fact that there is no discernible object of study, just, “a black hole which engulfs the social”.5
This impenetrability of the masses and their rejection of elite cajoling, is a rejection of meaning. This is a deeper point that Baudrillard argues is overlooked or deliberately ignored. The tendency in modernity has always been to lament the ignorance of the docile masses. Instead, Baudrillard argues that within the masses indifference to political events, history, art, and culture there is: “nothing in this to deplore, but everything to analyze as the brute fact of a collective retaliation and of a refusal to participate in the recommended ideals, however enlightened”.6 Yet, social thinking does not take this observation as its starting point. Rather than facing what Baudrillard says is the truly important point, social and political philosophy ducks the issue by asking how to enlighten this poor victim.
This quest to enlighten the masses has led to the social sciences inventing new forms of contact: surveys, polls, and tests. This maneuver has extended the life of the social and political because the masses do, after all, exist. However, Baudrillard argues that, “their representation is no longer possible”.7 Politics has been forced to rely on simulations of the people as a substitute. Thus, the media reports to us through newscasts what Americans, Britons, Germans, etc. are thinking. The masses that do exist are not engaged but simulated or at best probed by the technology of social science: “No Longer being under the reign of will or representation, it falls under the province of diagnosis, or divination, pure and simple – whence the universal reign of information and statistics”.8 No longer a participating subject, the masses are simulated for the political class to engage with through the media and probed for some sign of their desires, hopes, and fears by social scientists.
In the political class's efforts to engage with the simulation of the silent majorities and with social science's attempts to study this silent mass, there is a transmission of information. However, the mass Baudrillard describes transmits and accepts all information. In the consumer preferences and demands detected within the mass we find all leanings and wants. Thus, the mass that contains traces of everything is in the end nothing intelligible to those wanting to objectify it. So the silent majorities, today on a global scale, contain a bit of everything. They are like a material in a laboratory that contains all elements and thus, becomes an unknowable, unclassifiable, and uncategorized lump.
Those individuals still committed to the modern ideal of the political will tend to react to Baudrillard’s argument by discussing reality and the seriousness of the issues within the political domain. However, this again flows into Baudrillard's argument. The silent majorities in contemporary society are not interested in reality and seriousness. Although our society is good at creating consumer demand, Baudrillard argues that our technicians of social science and our political leaders have failed to stimulate demand for meaning. Or, perhaps we should say, demand for any particular meaning.9
In the face of this looming silence, what are policymakers to do? What does it mean for politics if the majorities decline to participate? We have seen a real world example recently in Russia where the authorities have removed “against all candidates” from future election ballots. This action was taken precisely because they were alarmed at the growing number of the masses choosing this option. In the case of some Western democracies we have seen the introduction over the years of compulsory voting.10 Yet, compulsory voting or the limiting of choices to opt out is a mere administrative device for papering over this deep chasm in contemporary politics. If the silence of the majorities shows the hollowness of the social and the political, then what option is there for political thinking?
Baudrillard encourages us to embrace the problem head on. We should seize upon his observations as a starting point for thinking about what is after the modern political. Yet, what would this look like? Baudrillard's, In the Shadows of the Silent Majorities, originally appeared in 1978, and in its English translation in 1983. Over 20 years later, we still find much contemporary (especially Anglo American) political theory and social science uninterested in the trajectory of Baudrillard's thought. If one accepts his argument, then is there a way to move forward? Or, does Baudrillard’s description of the political for contemporary society undermine any political thinking? The answer to this question is “not necessarily”. For Baudrillard, the silent majorities prove that politics is an artifact. It is and always has been an elite activity, despite the attempts of modern democracy to conservatively conceal or progressively transform this fact. The continuing silence shows that there is no ignorance to overcome, no mass Prometheus to unbind. Instead, the silent majorities decline participation because they do not want politics.
However, what is their alternative? As of yet, there is no new project of politics to replace the modern. No movement has emerged that expresses the dissatisfaction of our contemporary majorities. Without a choice of positive or kinetic action, the masses stockpile their potential energy. Given this situation, Baudrillard argues that silence is the best strategy:
People do in fact defend themselves, they have their defensive and even offensive strategies; but this time, through indifference. ...There is still something at stake, there is still an antagonism, there is certainly a struggle between the strategy of simulation at the level of political power, or what is left of political power, and a strategy of indifference, which is to say that the masses also manage to neutralize power, but by their silence, by their indifference. It’s no longer a strategy of subversion. ...You up a bid of neutralization with more neutralization. So it becomes a game, at this point, it’s become something else. It is no longer exactly a historical or political space.11
This rejection undermines the pretension of political activity and its practitioner’s claims. Instead, what the masses actively engage with in contemporary life is elsewhere.
So, from this perspective, what should political theorists and social scientists think about? We should think more deeply about the history of political activity and its possible replacement. Maybe this replacement is politics in a new form.12 Perhaps its replacement is a different form of social activity for contemporary societies that addresses the questions once answered by politics. In either case, Baudrillard shows that our discipline should devote more effort to investigating what the masses are concerned with. Rather than maintaining this fiction that they are silent through ignorance, political observers should accept that the masses silence in politics is due to their engagement elsewhere. For political theorists and social scientists this shift would involve study of contemporary, popular culture. An activity they have often relegated to those interested in “postmodernism” or “cultural studies.”
Yet, studying popular culture and activities can arguably tell us more than traditional social science methods have. For example, the fact that consumers in America are saving at an “irrational” negative rate tells us much about what the masses really care about. Writing in an earlier context, Baudrillard describes this difficulty:
To their amazement, economists have never been able to rationalize consumption, the seriousness of their ‘theory of need’ as the general consensus upon the discourse of utility being taken for granted. But this is because the practice of the masses very quickly had nothing (or perhaps never had anything) to do with needs. They have turned consumption into a dimension of status and prestige, of useless keeping up with the Joneses or simulation, of potlatch which surpassed use value in every way.13
One could study this phenomenon as a social scientist lamenting the ignorance of the American consumer. Or, one could probe deeper and think about what this activity proves about economic “science” and the actual desires of the majority.
Similarly, a turn by political theorists and social scientists to what the masses are concerned with can serve as a starting point for criticizing and reconstructing contemporary politics. Baudrillard argues that:
The people have become a public. It is the football match or film or cartoon which serve as models for their perception of the political sphere. The people even enjoy day to day, like a home movie, the fluctuations of their own opinions in the daily opinion polls. Nothing in all this engages any responsibility.14
Thus, we should look to these cultural models for help with our political thinking.
Baudrillard himself has provided an example of how the idea of the silent majorities is useful for understanding contemporary politics. In his analysis of the 2005 French referendum on the proposed European constitution, Baudrillard argues that the vigorous support for the no vote was not about the merits of the constitutional draft.15 Instead, we can understand the energy of the no campaign only when we look at this referendum as a chance for the silent majorities to lash out. In this case they seized the opportunity to say no to the whole range of politicians and political institutions attempting to guarantee this weak link. Thus, for Baudrillard the no vote is a “reflex” in that inert, unclassifiable lump that is the public. Written before the vote, Baudrillard’s cultural interpretation is very effective at capturing the sense of frustration that led to the no vote winning the day.
On the other hand, Baudrillard's observations may be wrong. Perhaps he has misinterpreted or distorted the silent majorities. Arguably, the society that Baudrillard argues is the most post modern and thus, presumably, the most post political is the United States.16 Yet, we have seen in recent years very close elections in the United States with higher levels of voter participation than in the past. From this perspective, Baudrillard’s argument seems less convincing or perhaps more applicable to Europe.
However, if we look at voting behavior in the United States more closely, we do find evidence for Baudrillard’s silent majorities. In the case of the United States, the best predictor of voting preferences at the moment is an individual’s religious leanings. Specifically, the dispensationalist, evangelical population has become a reliable voting block for the Republican Party.17 If one wanted to understand this group of the masses, the best place to start would arguably be the popular Left Behind bestsellers about the end of the world rather than any social science analysis.18 It is precisely this sort of observation that Baudrillard is talking about. In societies that are increasingly post political (in the modern sense), the areas of activity that engage the masses are to be found in this arena of mass culture. The forms of activity and interests that do engage these silent majorities are what they draw upon when confronted with the old political mechanisms of voting, campaigns, and political parties.
In addition, the ferocity we see in some political behavior reflects Baudrillard’s description of “hyper-conformity”. For example, in the United States we find a very divided electorate despite surveys that show citizens less politically informed than ever. Thus, the masses do not reject politics, but instead display the zeal of hyper-conformity based on non political foundations such as religious leanings and cultural views. This behavior is similar to Baudrillard’s observations about the masses and economic activity. According to Baudrillard, mass behavior in the economy is to consume to the point of wrecking the economy. Or, in another example, he sees the masses conforming to healthcare injunctions to the point that they demand more and more health provision. “The masses alienated in medicine? Not at all: they are in the process of ruining its institution, of making Social Security explode, of putting the social itself in danger by craving always more of it, as with commodities”.19 Thus, we see national health services and health insurance schemes stretched to the breaking point in the developed world. Why, not because the majority is alienated from healthcare, but because it has taken medicine to heart and wants all the medicine it can get. Now too in politics, when the masses are confronted with mechanisms of voting and questions of party allegiance we are beginning to see in the United States a vengeful conformism.
To see this as aiding the manipulation practiced by elites is to fall again into the trap of modern politics with its script of heroes, victims, and false consciousness. Instead, it appears that Baudrillard is on to something. Baudrillard argues that the masses are: “far too conforming to every solicitation and with a hyperreal conformity which is the extreme form of non participation…”20 Thus, a well-documented sociological fact, one that challenges the fundamental assumptions of the social sciences, is still sitting there, silently, compelling a new trajectory of thought. Baudrillard’s main point remains – we should stop lamenting the indifference of the masses to politics and instead confront the meaning of this fact. The observations he confronts us with appear to compel a choice. Political observers can either study politics as an elite activity, alienated from the life of the majority, or work on transforming the political into an activity that has meaning for these silent majorities. The first choice would relegate political theory and much social science to the field that best suits the interpretation of elite activity and motivation, history. Thus, the social sciences would become a discipline that looks backward at “serious” events and interprets their importance for observers already removed from the subject of study.
The second choice is a call for deeper investigation of everyday life and activity within our global, consumer, and media driven societies. This option is the one likely to provide some critical traction for contemporary politics. However, this turn must indeed be one of thick cultural exploration rather than the distant and thin observations of social science.
Instead of cajoling some percentage of the masses into choosing an answer from one of our ubiquitous surveys, thus creating the simulated public Baudrillard describes, we should be investigating what the masses are doing without such provocations. This task demands a more anthropological approach toward thinking about politics and society. With a methodology of thick description, we may find new intersections of social activity that can replace the modern political forms we have inherited. To revive politics, we need to find an alternative to the current, dominant strategy of mass political behavior – the looming silence Baudrillard describes.
What would this application of Baudrillard’s thought to politics look like more specifically? It would criticize and reveal simulations of consent in a method similar to his deconstruction of the other simulacra that surround us in contemporary society. In the discussion above, I mentioned Baudrillard’s analysis of the no vote in France and what this rejection really meant to individuals in the no camp. Similarly, Baudrillard has applied his interpretative skills to explaining the persistent phenomenon of Le Pen and the Front National in France.
In his criticism of the French political elite’s failure to defeat the Front National once and for all, Baudrillard sees again the reduction of politics to the binary. The political mainstream and left in France has taken on a moral discourse so that:
The real question, then, becomes whether one can still open one’s mouth, utter anything which may sound strange, irreverent, heterodoxical or paradoxical without being automatically called a fascist…21
Thus, we have again a simple binary function. Baudrillard argues that in their failure to engage and defeat the Front National on the terrain of politics, the elite in France opts for this absolutist discourse that simulates an ability to banish Le Pen and his followers from politics.
Yet, the Front National is still around, because this is not a real political victory but an attempt to simulate one by shifting the argument to a moral plane. Baudrillard argues that Le Pen and his group are used in a magical way. The racism and discriminatory attitudes found throughout contemporary French society are projected onto this convenient face of evil. This conjuring trick provides the political elite with a way to simulate their engagement with this problem (through their war of words with the Front National) rather than taking on the real challenge of confronting racism at its deeper level of infestation in French society.
This type of thick cultural analysis by Baudrillard suggests how we should think about the future of political activity. In our analysis of politics we need to break out of the 1 and 0 binary relations exposed by Baudrillard. These relationships simulate political activity by ineffectual elites and create simulations of consent despite a silent public. Instead, we need to expose these political simulacra and find forms of political activity that cannot be so easily hijacked by simulation. To do so we will have to emulate what Baudrillard does. We will have to expand our traditional categories of political analysis to include phenomena from contemporary mass culture. It is in this bewildering but provocative terrain that we are likely to find counterpoints to the political simulacra that the silent majorities disdain.
Jason Royce Lindsey received his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 2004 and is currently Assistant Professor of Political Science at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. His specialization is political theory though he also researches the politics of Eastern Europe and travels there extensively.
1 Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories, 1980-1985, (1987) New York: Verso, 1990:191.
2 Jean Baudrillard. In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities. New York: Semiotext(e), 1983:2.
3 See: Gustave Le Bon. The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind; Marx's comment in Chapter 1 of the Communist Manifesto; and Lenin's call for a vanguard party best explained in his What is to be Done?
4 Jean Baudrillard. In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities. New York: Semiotext(e), 1983: 4-5.
10 Examples are Australia, Italy, and Belgium, though all have varying levels of enforcement and possible penalties.
11 Judith Williamson, “An Interview with Jean Baudrillard,” Block 15, translated by Brand Thumin, 1989: 19.
12 Editor’s note: Giorgio Agamben is among those political philosophers attempting to understand what form “a politics to come” may take. See Giorgio Agamben. “Form of Life”, Part II of: “Intersections and Divergences in Contemporary Theory: Baudrillard and Agamben On Politics And the Daunting Questions of Our Time”, with an Introduction (Part I) by Gerry Coulter: International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (On The Internet) Volume 2, Number 2, (July 2005): http://www.ubishops.ca/baudrillardstudies/vol2_2/agamben.htm
See also: Giorgio Agamben. Means Without End: Notes on Politics. University of Minnesota Press, 2000; State of Exception (c 2003). University of Chicago Press, 2005; and The Open: Man and Animal (c 2002). Stanford University Press, 2004.
13 Jean Baudrillard. In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities, New York: Semiotext(e), 1983: 44-45. In this discussion of economics and consumption, Baudrillard draws on the work of Bataille. See Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy, 3 volumes, Translated by Robert Hurley. New York; Zone Books, 1988-1991.
14 Jean Baudrillard. In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities. New York: Semiotext(e), 1983: 37-38.
15 Jean Baudrillard. “Divine Europe” In International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, Volume 3, Number 1, January 2006: http://www.ubishops.ca/baudrillardstudies/vol3_1/Baudrillard.htm
16 Jean Baudrillard, America. New York: Verso, 1988.
17 For a good description of this situation see Kevin Phillips. American Theocracy. New York: Viking, 2006.
18 Kevin Phillips uses this popular, bestselling series to help explain this worldview in Ibid.:252-254.
19 Jean Baudrillard. In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities. New York: Semiotext(e), 1983: 47.
21 Jean Baudrillard. “A Conjuration of Imbeciles,” Liberation, May 7, 1997. The English translation used here is by Francois Debrix and available at: www.uta.edu/english/apt/collab/texts/conjuration.html
©International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2007)