The Mystification of Dissent

In the first half of the 20th Century, particularly after the Russian revolution, dissent in the United States was a relatively formal affair for those who wanted to silence it. Simply put, the silencing of dissent was, when it was a concern at all, really mostly a State concern. In particular, the rise of the Cold War involved a massively government coordinated campaign to gut American labour of its (usually very effective) Communist union leadership.

By the mid-1950s organized labour and anything remotely constituting popular dissent was in shambles. In the 1960s something really interesting happened though, unfortunately in either of their favour. All kinds of “revolutions” developed and the public discourse of seditious and controversial matters became arguably acceptable – not to mention all the drugs. The ’60s quickly became a caricature of itself though, even with the world riots of 1968. Without denying earnest and critically considered revolutionaries, the social movements ’60s became co-opted into Capitalist production. This was opposite of what happened to the proto-hipster (hip-cat, if you will) culture of the 1940s, which was effectively forced underground, giving us The Beat Generation.

What is interesting about this transformation is how it so strikingly smacks of Marx’s mystification of commodities. In this case, dissent itself, or at least the so-called revolutionary attitude, is commodified, turned into a veritable fashion (hence our pathetic and politically charged notion of a “fashion statement”). While Adorno prefigured this transformation in his essays on the Culture Industry, the unique commodifcation (and consequent mystification) of dissent seems to escape his analysis of otherwise innocuous cultural phenomena. I mean, political dissent is supposed to be important, at least in a way different from how Benny Goodman was perceived as important in the day to day lives of middle-class “somebodies.” Anymore dissent, by virtue of its popular form, is structured like any other aspect of our free-time. Today, in Portland, many people have taken notice that our protests regularly end just in time to go home, make dinner and go to bed, because you have to go to work the next morning – or worse yet so you don’t miss your favorite television program.

So it comes down to this question, which Marx asks of commodities: whence came the enigmatic character of American dissent and so-called revolution? How did dissent obtain its commodity-form, such that we are quite aware of its pre-determined, repetitive character, yet we act as if it were (as if we were) truly radical?

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