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Baudrillard’s Revenge

The book that shaped the political culture of the 1990s appeared, in 1992, fast on the heels of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Almost simultaneously with The End of History and the Last Man, the French sociologist Jean Baudrillard published a slender reply that never so much as mentioned the name of his target. L’illusion de la fin appeared in English two years later as The Illusion of the End, part of Stanford University Press’s growing collection of works in postmodernism and French theory.1 Like many other French theorists of the 1980s, Baudrillard had begun to enjoy a higher profile in the United States than in his native France, where he had severed his tie to “established” theory in a self-liberating 1977 essay titled Oublier Foucault.2 But in the thirty years that have passed since his American heyday, Baudrillard has generally been remembered only as a curio in the academic postmodernism wars, one whose signal contributions were to inspire The Matrix (he disowned it) and to deny that the Gulf War had really taken place.3

Events have finally begun to catch up with Baudrillard’s analyses, however. He was a man of the Left, born in Reims in 1929 (he died in 2007) to what was originally a peasant family; his father had become a policeman. He studied under leading Marxist thinkers of the 1960s, particularly Henri Lefebvre and Roland Barthes. But after the 1968 student rebellions failed—that is, after Marxist revolution failed to materialize in France—he began to wonder whether certain very modern social phenomena, particularly the media, were altering the ordinary experience of politics in such a way that revolution had become impossible.4 His radical thought hid a kind of peasant conservatism which many of his French colleagues sensed, and which caused them to exclude him.

The often strange extremes he reached in his writings entranced and repelled readers at the time. But extreme and absolutizing theoretical leaps were part of a deliberate strategy to anticipate the direction in which contemporary trends would lead. “Here,” he wrote in The Vital Illusion (2000), “lies the task of any philosophical thought: to go to the limit of hypotheses and processes, even if they are catastrophic. The only justification for thinking and writing is that it accelerates these terminal processes.”5 Baudrillard’s theory thus seemed descriptively ill-matched to the normal America of the 1990s. But description was not the point of Baudrillard’s theory. Instead he was playing a game of one-upmanship with a world that he found “unintelligible and problematic.” “Theory,” he wrote elsewhere, “can be no more than this: a trap set in the hope that reality will be naive enough to fall into it.”6 In retrospect, it was the prophets of the end of history who failed to grasp the dynamics at work in the new, postcommunist, liberal “normal.” Reality never fell into their trap. Instead, it slipped through their fingers. It is time to reconsider Baudrillard as perhaps the best guide to our present moment “after the end of history.”

The Illusion of the End

Baudrillard interpreted talk of the end of history to mean that history had vanished rather than coming to an end, and he proposed three explanations for that disappearance. During the long phase of our progressive liberation, we were able to measure that liberation against its preexisting limits—boundaries of capital accumulation and exchange, boundaries of sexual propriety that gave meaning to the question of removing them. What makes history in the usual sense, Baudrillard suggested, was “a degree of slowness” through which successive events could be measured and processed, acquiring meaning and direction. But he sensed that a tendency to the “total dissemination and circulation” of every event, a tendency enabled by modern media, would undo the ability of history to put events together in a meaningful way. Indeed, he claimed that the means for a disorienting acceleration of events was present “already, here and now—in the shape of our computers, circuits and networks.”7 Writing about the transformation of events into particles that could achieve immediate, worldwide transmission would have seemed far-fetched in 1992. But our disaggregation of news into separately shared stories, tweets, snaps, and posts tracks Baudrillard’s sense rather well. The same “multiplication and saturation of exchanges,” he suggested, would eventually be associated not with the acceleration of events but with a slowing down of events through the difficulty of distinguishing the meaningful ones from the minutiae. The effects of history “are accelerating,” he wrote, “but its meaning is slowing inexorably.8

The proximate occasion of end-of-history talk was the end of the Cold War through the internal collapse of one of its two sides. This opening up of the Eastern bloc thrilled Western commentators who envisioned an imminent new birth or rebirth of liberty. Two hundred years after the French Revolution, when the glory and power of revolution had become only a memory in the West, it would be possible to witness it anew. Baudrillard’s pessimism was dismissed as a characteristic feint, but what he described was not a merely negative view but rather a paradox of liberation experienced in distinct ways. A culture that had already liberated itself from every constraint encountered the post-Soviet world in which liberty had been killed and its memory frozen. The result, Baudrillard suggested, would be very uncertain: the West did not have on offer the steady sequence of events that had built Western liberty, but the end-stage products of a culture drowning in pornography and used cars, searching for a new market. Undoing the twentieth-century totalitarianisms would in a strange way lead to a whitewashing of the previous century, “as if everything that had taken place . . . were merely a hopeless imbroglio.”9

The opening of Eastern Europe to Western markets would take on an unusual character too, Baudrillard thought, because the West had already completed its major internal processes of liberation. The liberal economy of the post–Cold War West was, he wrote, “a market economy with no social force to battle against it, no competitive force to drive it on, no collective project to propel it into the future.”10 The key features of the modern economy—“production, the market, ideology, profit and utopia”—had already given way to a market “unreal and speculative, lacking even the notion of production, profit and progress.”11 Liberation from Soviet rule would not bring about the end of history in the sense of the completion of Western achievement. Instead it would accelerate the erasure of opposition to the financialized and increasingly surreal economy of the Western world.

Baudrillard’s criticism targeted the disjunction between Western rhetoric about liberty and the realities, present and future, of a world that had already liberated itself—a world “after the orgy,” with little remaining to do other than to clean up the mess and to recycle the signs of its past exploits. Much of the uniqueness of Baudrillard’s argument stems from his application of Marcel Mauss’s thought in The Gift (1925), especially its analysis of the potlatch ceremonies, in scenarios far afield from indigenous anthropology.12 In everything from the to and fro of great power conflict to the exchange of goods and signs in digital marketplaces, Baudrillard found the destructive one-upmanship of the potlatch ceremony.

The end of the Cold War, in this interpretation, was not the victory of liberalism and markets, and so it could not herald a world (as Fukuyama expected) in which liberal democracy offered the last remaining terms of political legitimation. Instead the Soviet Union offered the spectacle of its own dramatic implosion, a gift that could only be met by a similarly dramatic final offering—the “contamination” of the East with the final stage of our own economy, one ever more centered on the production and exchange of images rather than goods. The collapse of the East was a shocking event that suddenly forced the West to give everything it had.

The “end of history” thesis was a triumphant one because it saw no available political justifications except for liberal democracy. Baudrillard cautioned, however, that the political dissolution of the East, because it came about for internal reasons, presaged a period of further destabilization rather than the consolidation of liberal democracy. Democratic values had not suddenly become triumphant, for there had been no new battle or victory to make them “held dear and dearly bought.”13 The seeming inevitability of democratic values was instead a sign of their cheapness, their liquid and easy availability—a frenzy of democratic speculation that foretold an eventual crash. The crash, Baudrillard suspected, would come about through the resistance of the vanquished to the sincere adoption of democratic values, and the viral spread, in the West, of the traits which had made Eastern bloc countries uninterested in Western values for so long. “It is possible, then,” he observed, “that the countries of Eastern Europe will pass on to us this model of viral collapse, of a virulence deconstructive of power. In exchange, we might pass on to them our liberal virus, our compulsion for objects and images, media and communication, a virus, in our case, which devastates civil society.”14 What might move in the Western direction, he went on to suggest, would be “the end of all democratic illusions” and the adoption of the East’s lack of democratic faith.15 Robust belief in liberal democracy as a “Good” had normally required framing it against an identifiable “Evil”—the specter of Communism and its political location in the Soviet Union. Breaking down the barrier between the West and the East, Baudrillard cautioned, would instead lead to the spread of Communism’s “model of dysfunctioning and of sudden, violent destructuring.”16 Freed from having to face a political enemy squarely, capitalism would even more aggressively achieve the “generalized exchange” at which Communism had aimed.

Baudrillard was outlining a dynamic in which market-based exchange would spread to the four corners of the earth without any longer experiencing the resistance that had been required to legitimate it in the first place. Accordingly—and here lay Baudrillard’s twist—that spread would occur without ideological battle and thus without triumph. Liberal political economy and democratic mechanisms of government would advance—but only because they found no resistance. Not one to shy away from further twists, Baudrillard added that the lack of belief in liberal democracy would in fact benefit its spread.

Baudrillard’s position diverged from the typical postmodern accounts, especially as they were received in the United States, that interpreted Jean-François Lyotard’s “incredulity toward metanarratives” as the sign of a coming ennui. This ennui quickly came to be understood by American critics of postmodernism as a kind of luxury good of the tenured and disaffected, insufficient to describing the thrilling era that had begun with the Netscape IPO. Baudrillard instead anticipated a combination of the wild spread of communications technology and an internal doubt about the meaning or purpose of the West. “Beneath their apparent mobility and acceleration,” he said, “they have come to a stop in their hearts and their aims. That is, indeed, why they are accelerating, but they are doing so out of inertia.”17 Freed from the burden of ideology, the liberalism of markets and human rights could spread for lack of credible alternatives, because credible opponents had disappeared. Uncredible opponents, however, could become more numerous and even proliferate.

The Play of Global Antagonism

In the dynamic Baudrillard identified, the commercial phenomena cited early on as evidence for the spread of Western values were not proof of the triumph of liberal democracy. Instead Baudrillard spoke of a global “hegemony” characteristic of the growth of networks aided by and reinforcing the communications technologies that built them. Decades earlier Baudrillard had already rejected the Marxist analysis of “capitalism” as a political-economic system of domination that was capable of critique.18 Faced with the failure of the May 1968 student revolts in France, Baudrillard concluded that resistance and critique had become impossible because consumer technology—first television and later the internet in all its forms—was immersive rather than alienating. The proper way to think about the breakdown of trade barriers from the 1990s onward was, then, as the expansion of an immersive system of consumption designed to facilitate the spread of global brands, and the replacement of traditional systems of cultural reference with a new set of signs provided by marketers. “Production, the market, ideology, profit and utopia,” wrote Baudrillard in 1992, “were all modern. The competitive capitalist economy was modern. Ours, unreal and speculative, lacking even the notion of production, profit and progress, is no longer modern, but post-modern.”19

The dramatic expansion of markets justified itself in the name of goals from the heroic stage of capitalist advance. It used (and uses) the terms of production, profit, competition, and entrepreneurship, even while the tendency of established Western firms has instead been toward reducing labor cost, preserving favorable tax advantages, and rent seeking. For many new firms in the technology space, the entrepreneurial goal has been to “monetize” as many types of human activity as possible. In recent years that goal has tended toward the creation of brand platforms whose aim is to touch human activity at an ever-increasing number of fee-generating points. The reason that straightforward critique or exposure of this strategy will not work, said Baudrillard, was that capitalists themselves had become cynical about many features of the consumer market. “Your money interests me!” was the openly cynical slogan of the Banque Nationale de Paris in the 1970s, he noted. “Denouncing capital and all of the banking mechanisms was nothing new, the scandalous feature was that the banker himself had said it. . . . It came from the dominant power and enjoyed complete immunity. It could admit its ‘crime’ in broad daylight.”20 Baudrillard coined the playful phrase “the intelligence of evil” to describe the new, more effective cunning of an approach to innovation that consisted primarily in the opening up (whether they wanted it or not) of new consumer markets, combined with the “transparency of evil” in which cynical motives were openly paraded as slogans. Such slogans continue to appear, as in Cadillac’s recent launch of a subscription car service with the slogan “Access is the new ownership”: not only did they openly parade their motive (to remain the owners and sell access) but they used it as advertisement.

Only occasionally, as in the recent political controversy surrounding Facebook, have events become configured such that this open secret of contemporary capitalism is considered shocking. It was precisely the rapid expansion of network technology that Baudrillard expected to become “viral”—a term he used long before it characterized how trends and information now spread. When addressing the role networks would play in his 1997 interview Paroxysm, he would say that the individual subject had “lost its freedom, it’s no longer master of its origins or its ends, it’s the hostage of the network. Priority is with the network, not with the subscribers to the network. Identity is on the network’s side, not on that of the individual.”21 At a time when most users’ experience of the internet was limited to email (instant messaging would only begin that year), Baudrillard’s claim would have seemed fantastical. But now it is becoming more obvious that networks and their owners have considerable “power”—something that they were not supposed to have so long as the classical model of liberal market interactions was considered adequately descriptive.

While the stated trends of the 1990s were toward the growth of multinational brands (leading to such amusements as the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention), the advent of networks would soon offer the illusion of a return of individuality. From the beginning, Silicon Valley’s most successful networking companies followed a two-pronged strategy: to increase the individualization or personalization of the user’s experience, and to monetize that personalization based on the new acquisition of detailed user information. “Behind the immateriality of the technologies of virtual reality, of the digital and the screen,” Baudrillard wrote in 2004, “there lies a hidden injunction . . . : that of a heightened participation, of an interactive investment that may reach dizzying proportions.”22 This strategy was the open secret of Facebook and, though in a different manner, Google as well. The shift toward a highly personalized consumer experience seemed to disprove the expectation that mass production of consumer goods would lead to a type of conformity. In reality it led to a more sophisticated classification of existing consumer types, as companies sought to know the consumer better than the consumer knew himself.

The ideology projected over this new stage of consumer experience was one of empowering individual choice and, above all, “transparency.” Baudrillard had identified “immersion, immanence and immediacy” as the signal characteristics of the digital world.23 But each of these, he thought, were in the process of creating an economic world markedly different from the classical model in which the laborer’s exploitation was experienced as alienation from the product one had helped to create. Consider by contrast the type of exchanges mediated by the technology platforms that have established themselves over the last fifteen or twenty years. Individuals or consumers now trade a limitless amount of information about themselves in exchange for information about the world around them (e.g., traffic), information about other people, and an increasingly enveloping stream of (apparently) highly tailored products and services. Baudrillard described this economic form as “an exchange that is not only general but total—completely freed from value and markets.”24 The hiddenness of these data exchanges (imagine if your phone screen flashed like a traffic camera every time it collected information on you) indicates how far markets have drifted from how they were classically conceived, with buyer and seller haggling over some product. Now the exchange is hidden by the end-user license agreement, and peeks through only at moments, like the recent Facebook scandal, when political circumstances warrant.

Baudrillard was attempting to diagnose a cultural condition that prioritized image over substance, appearance over reality, media consumption over firsthand experience, surgical strikes and “kinetic military action” over war, production over seduction, even (as would also prove prescient) pornography over sex. The universal exchange and idealization of transparency which facilitated this condition was a utopian project that had a home, Baudrillard thought, in America.

America between the Utopias

Like his account of the illusory end, however, Baudrillard’s trip to America, recounted in his book Amérique (published in English thirty years ago), produced observations out of place in the new American morning of the 1980s.25 America, Baudrillard said baldly, was “utopia achieved,” a society “built on the idea that it is the realization of everything the others have dreamt of—justice, plenty, rule of law, wealth, freedom.”26 But it is the conjunction of utopianism and pragmatism that make Baudrillard’s America: it is the place where religious sectarianism had the chance to build its utopia—forced by the emptiness of America to meet the challenge through the pragmatic realization of utopia. The sects in Europe that aspired to build a world in their own name never had the chance. But even the pragmatic task of town planning across the American West had the feel of the realization of a sacred destiny. Even smaller expressions of American freedom—our many small associations driven intently by a particular cause—would in Baudrillard’s view pursue “moral” or perhaps humanitarian ends. In their desire to do good effectively, in their freedom to do it, in their insistence on their righteousness—in all of these ways they include the elements that previously would have been proper to sects.

In his account of a “utopian” America, Baudrillard might be said to be describing something passé, naively driven by the promise of further commercial enterprise and more effective government. But he indicates that the projects that Americans undertook naturally changed or evolved after the, so to speak, initial building. According to Baudrillard, what is most characteristic about American society now is its proliferation of technology. “It is not so much,” he says, “in the operation of institutions as in the freeing of technologies and images that the glorious form of American reality is to be found: in the immoral dynamic of images, in the orgy of goods and services, an orgy of power and useless energy . . . in which the spirit of advertising is more to the fore than Tocqueville’s public spirit.” “The liberated man,” he concludes, “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, and who changes opinions not as his conscience dictates but in response to opinion polls.”27

Today there seems to be a chasm opening open between those who are satisfied with this liberation and those who are not, between those who revel in it and those who do not. The liberation Baudrillard describes is, in one sense, a much wider phenomenon than one might think from his description of the “liberated man”: it is not someone who has freed himself from any internal pressures or obligations that might limit him, but rather someone who gives way to the universal circulation, movement, and parade of imagery that is characteristic of hypermodern societies. In this sense, too, the world of 2018 is more suffused with constant imagery, presented in ever more tailored ways to specific persons—whether as consumers or as citizens—than it was when Baudrillard described it in 1986. But there is a sharp distinction between those who can maintain the pretense of thriving in the world of images, who seem to move with ease among different locations and different “games”—hard-nosed politico by day, committed Christian by weekend—and those who cannot.

Baudrillard in 1986 described or predicted a situation in which economic success in parts of the First World would lead to the “disintensification” of other parts:

Human rights have been won everywhere. The world is almost entirely liberated; there is nothing left to fight for. And yet at the same time entire social groups are being laid waste from the inside (individuals too). Society has forgotten them and now they are forgetting themselves. . . . This is the Fourth World. Entire sectors of our modern societies, entire countries in the Third World now fall into this Fourth World desert zone. But whereas the Third World still had a political meaning (even if it was a resounding world-wide failure), the Fourth World has none. It is transpolitical. This is a result of our societies withdrawing political interest, of our advanced societies withdrawing social interest. . . . The social order is contracting to include only economic exchange, technology, the sophisticated and innovative; as it intensifies these sectors, entire zones are “disintensified,” becoming reservations, and sometimes not even that: dumping grounds, wastelands, new deserts for the new poor, like the deserts you see forming around nuclear power stations or motorways.28

At the same time, we are teased ever more with the impending arrival of various advanced forms of technological utopia. We are supposed to support the transformation of the economy into one where products are “Designed in California, manufactured in China” on the basis of Silicon Valley’s hastening of utopia. Yet our futurisms are just as often dystopian. The communications revolution has brought along with it universal surveillance—a Panopticon far beyond that envisioned by Jeremy Bentham. Revolutionary advancements in robotics are now just as frequently presented as the “robopocalypse.” And we are much closer to advances in applied genetic knowledge (i.e., eugenics) than at any point in the 1930s.

We thus always occupy the space between what we insist is the realized utopia of the American way of life, and the uncertainty of utopia’s preservation and impending arrival. Let us return then to Baudrillard’s description of the “Fourth World desert zone,” the sectors of modern society that have been “disintensified,” or left behind. Again when he spoke of that in 1986, he was describing something that had not fully come into existence—but we find many more examples of this “Fourth World” today. Baudrillard says these zones have begun to lack political meaning from the standpoint of the successful zones. They are not the subject of a great historical struggle; they are not a zone of ideology; they are not aligned with an empire, for example, in the way that the Third World was aligned with the Soviet Union. He says that the social order has contracted to contain, essentially, those who are shallow enough to experience their liberation with no sense of loss, who enjoy circulating in the post-orgiastic world of free communication, association, travel, sex, meaning and lack of meaning. Among these history has come to an end in proportion to the intensity of their post-liberation frenzy. The “exponential stability” of these zones, however, goes along with an “exponential instability.”29 They are at risk of suffering reversals, like a fragile body fostering and succumbing to metastases, viruses, epidemics—to catastrophe.

What if one of those reversals is the re-politicization of the “Fourth World desert zone”? The “disintensified” zones can only remain content so long as the growth which economic management has promised them remains at a reasonable pace. Politics requires the action of a defined community to decide upon and pursue what it wants. The “First World” zones of liberated capital, liberated bodies, and the minds that direct them, rely upon the absence of politics and its replacement by management, the ease with which liberated spirits and their occupied bodies move through the flow of dollars, partners, countries, airports, politicians, images, signs, texts, food trends, and techniques of self-optimization. Now that we have succeeded in creating the utopia of religious freedom and human rights, as well as the utopia of a modern society whose economy and politics basically “works,” we have moved on to a new tension between our existing utopia and the utopia/dystopia that will be good for the few and dreaded by the many. If we look for the coming return of politics, then, we must keep our eye on the “Fourth World” and the members of the First World who are attuned to it.

The End of the Event Strike

The emergence of the “Fourth World” in reaction to the First recalls one of Baudrillard’s most famous proposals and helps to make sense of it in retrospect. Reinterpreting the end of history to mean that nothing would actually happen in the nineties, Baudrillard wryly proposed “that the 1990s be abolished in advance, and that we go directly from 1989 to 2000.”30 The real or surreal character of the end of history would be a liquidation sale: all the shelf-worn ideologies and political systems of the first two millennia would be pushed out the door at a steep discount. History had not really culminated in liberal democracy; rather, events had gone on strike. With the pop culture recycling of the nineties now in full swing, we are served daily reminders that Baudrillard’s advice to abolish the nineties should have been heeded.

Even though it is obvious in retrospect that the nineties did not live up to their exciting billing, no one at the time accepted that events had gone on strike. The Event Strike seemed like another luxuriously trollish concept of French theory that had no bearing on reality. But Baudrillard caught attention again when he declared, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, that the Event Strike had ended and history had resumed.31 He was criticized primarily by American neoconservatives for his tasteless suggestion (he was no respecter of persons) that the destruction of the Twin Towers was a symbolic comeuppance fated by the dominance of American capitalism. But the return of Events, the ones that triangulate all other events by their own importance, was the significant observation Baudrillard had made. Although nothing “happened” in the nineties, since the end-of-history hypothesis made us think we were merely watching our own success unfold, it turned out that Events had been set in motion because of the political and economic action of that decade. The foundation of the World Trade Organization and the integration of the European Union, for example, were not properly “Events” since they were intended to realize the universalization of trade and technocratic liberalism that marked the end of history. But they paved the way for the political reactions that will define our history by deflecting it, as they will do more and more, away from the naive trap set by the liberalism of the Long Nineties. To capture the point, imagine how easily Baudrillard could have captured favorable popular reaction to Brexit with the comment: finally, an Event!

The problem is that political thinking has not yet caught up to this return of Events. This story is now well known. Faced with the consequences of September 11, American foreign policy leaders responded by insisting upon rather than merely expecting the triumph of liberal democracy. But because neoconservatives in politics bought the ruse of their own exoteric praise of liberalism (an unforgiveable error compounded by their lack of the faintest glimmer of strategic sense), they accomplished only the further provocation of viral reactions that withal fit Baudrillard’s expectations. Likewise, faced with the growth (which they facilitated) of Baudrillard’s disintensified zones throughout their countries, neoliberals looked for self-absolving nineties explanations such as the “inevitable consequences of technological innovation.” “By setting off a chain reaction of the positive,” Baudrillard wrote in his 1995 book The Perfect Crime, “we have at the same time—by a perverse, but perfectly coherent effect—released an intense viral pathology.”32

Among the intellectual elite there have been at most halting but conflicted steps toward the realization that Events—that is, the events they never expected—have returned. One must now say that, of course, the expectations of a liberal-democratic end of history were (and there is a short pause while one searches for a word) naive, but that is not to say (one adds hastily) that nonliberal, nondemocratic developments are in any way good. The smart consensus, it then becomes apparent, is that the old consensus had its heart in the right place but that it was wrong in the details. That is why that consensus is not alarmist or hot but rather recommends cool crisis management, which is crisis management whose panic-inducing fears are suppressed in order to project “concern.” What underlies this postconfident liberalism is a quietly tearful yearning for the end of history to return, for the discomfort of political action and strategy to yield once again to the comfort zone of spectatorship. Our elites may well speak the words of knowing reassurance, but their eyes reveal a fearful confusion within, and in their breast beats the heart of the Long Nineties.

As a sociologist and observer, Baudrillard refrained from every sort of political prescription. But political thinkers have no such compunction. “In the process” of establishing a world order on theories intentionally constructed without any reference to reality, Baudrillard wrote, “a residue is left over which is not dealt with because it cannot be, and naturally this becomes transformed into hatred”—that is, into a viral and “also a vital” passion reasserting something that had been overlooked.33 But there is no reason to sit back and wait for the viral reactions that will reassert today’s overlooked regions, forgotten customs, and nations that refuse to have their history ended. Indeed, awaiting those reactions will prove dangerous. Baudrillard felt he had no option but to wait for them and to encourage other viral reactions by daring liberalism and techno-capitalism to, so to speak, do their worst.

Baudrillard was left in that method of heightening the contradictions, however, by the fact that a late and liquid form of liberalism had established itself to the exclusion of all challengers. The viral reactions—whether crashes in the market or political deeds such as Brexit—shocked the political elite in part because they could not imagine a world in which the rejection of liberal democracy was justifiable. But the truth of these viral reactions points to the embarrassing observation that Baudrillard had made when describing the end of history. Even when the devotees of modern managerial liberalism had draped their project in the philosophical reflections of the great early modern philosophers, only a few members of the political elite found it necessary to accept that illustrious pedigree and the demands of responsibility that went along with it. The truth was that it was liberalism that depended on a bizarre set of theoretical constructs designed to establish an absolute yet limited political power that would be devoted, in the end, to the ever greater expansion of market-based hyperreality. And it depended, in the decade of its apparent triumph, on a replacement of firm belief in the superiority of liberalism with a naive expectation of its continued advance. It does not require an extraordinary effort of political thinking, except by way of recovery, to reassert the importance of political forms whose disappearance has been hoped for in vain. It is not for theory to explain the unsurprising return of patriotism, “illiberal democracy,” assertive political leaders, ordinary insistence on economic gain, and the forms of political and religious mediation that enabled the formation of modern societies in the first place. Those political events, so confusing even to seasoned observers, are not strange or confusing at all. They mark the return of normal politics after its suspension in the name of everything postpolitical. If we work within rather than against the return of normal politics, we can avoid the viral excesses that our quest to replace it has caused. But if we stand aloof in the name of a liberalism whose terms no one accepts, least of all its implementers, then we, too, will succumb to Baudrillard’s revenge.

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume II, Number 2 (Summer 2018): 206–22.


1 Jean Baudrillard, The Illusion of the End, trans. Chris Turner (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994). Originally published as L’illusion de la fin, ou La grève des événements (Paris: Galilée, 1992). Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992).

2 Jean Baudrillard, Forget Foucault, trans. Nicole Dufresne (New York: Semiotext(e), 1987). Originally published as Oublier Foucault (Paris: Galilée, 1977).

3 See Jean Baudrillard, “The Matrix Revisited,” in The Conspiracy of Art: Manifestos, Interviews, Essays, trans. Ames Hodges (New York: Semiotext(e), 2005), 201–4; and The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, trans. Paul Patton (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995). See also François Cusset, French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States, trans. Jeff Fort, with Josephine Berganza and Marlon Jones (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).

4 See especially Baudrillard’s writings on the events of 1968 collected in Utopia Deferred: Writings from “Utopie” (1967–1978) (New York: Semiotext(e), 1968); as well as “Requiem for the Media,” chap. 9 in For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, trans. Charles Levin (St. Louis: Telos Press, 1981).

5Jean Baudrillard, The Vital Illusion (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 83.

6Jean Baudrillard, The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena, trans. James Benedict (1993; repr., New York: Verso Books, 2009), 125.

7 Baudrillard, Illusion, 2.

8 Baudrillard, 4.

9 Baudrillard, 32.

10 Baudrillard, 35–36.

11Baudrillard, 36.

12 Marcel Mauss, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, trans. W. D. Halls (New York: Norton, 2000).

13 Baudrillard, Illusion, 44.

14 Baudrillard, 38.

15Baudrillard, 47.

16 Baudrillard, 44–45.

17 Baudrillard, 42.

18Jean Baudrillard, The Mirror of Production, trans. Mark Poster (St. Louis: Telos Press, 1975).

19Baudrillard, Illusion, 36.

20 Jean Baudrillard, The Agony of Power, trans. Ames Hodges (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2010), 37.

21 Jean Baudrillard, Paroxysm: Interviews with Philippe Petit, trans. Chris Turner (New York: Verso Books, 1998), 51.

22 Jean Baudrillard, The Intelligence of Evil or the Lucidity Pact, trans. Chris Turner (Oxford: Berg, 2005), 31.

23 Baudrillard, 31.

24 Baudrillard, Agony, 43.

25Jean Baudrillard, America, trans. Chris Turner (London: Verso Books, 1988). Originally published as Amérique (Paris: Grasset, 1986).

26 Baudrillard, 77.

27Baudrillard, 95–96.

28 Baudrillard, 112–13.

29 Baudrillard, Illusion, 110.

30 Baudrillard, Transparency of Evil, 106.

31 Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism; and, Other Essays, trans. Chris Turner, new ed. (New York: Verso Books, 2003).

32Jean Baudrillard, The Perfect Crime, trans. Chris Turner (1996; repr., New York: Verso Books, 2008), p. 113.

33 Baudrillard, 148.

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