Why Jean Baudrillard's Notes on Watergate Matter Today

In “The Procession of Simulacra,” Jean Baudrillard made the following points on Watergate and the nature of political scandals:

  1. Scandal operates along an “artificial perimeter” that mediates between the reality inside the scandal (i.e. the facts of the scandal) and the reality outside the scandal (i.e. the denunciation of these facts, paid as “homage to the law”).
  2. Jean Baudrillard SimulationIn actuality, there is no “reality” either inside or outside of the artificial perimeter of scandal. We want to bear witness to the scandal as something rare or exceptional, as opposed to the rational outcome of politics as usual or as the morally indifferent expression of capitalism.     
  3. Under this crisis, we desperately try to “regenerate a moral and political principle” that will allow us to denounce the scandal without having to denounce the nature of politics or capitalism that underlies it.
  4. Thus Baudrillard claimed, “Capital, which is immoral and unscrupulous, can only function behind a moral superstructure, and whoever regenerates this public morality (by indignation, denunciation, etc.) spontaneously furthers the order of capital [by obscuring its nature with displays of public morality]."
  5. The Left wanted Watergate to be the quintessential scandal, because it “above all succeeded in [...] the reinjection of a large dose of political morality on a global scale.” They needed this “successful” reinjection to mirror their imaginary notions of the rule of law and its ability to serve/uphold justice: “hoping that capital will fall for this phantasmagoria of the social contract and fulfill its obligation towards the whole of society.”
  6. Baudrillard, however, stressed that Watergate could never be the scandal the Left hoped for because “capital doesn't give a damn about the idea of the contract which is imputed to it—it is a monstrous unprincipled undertaking, nothing more. Rather, it is 'enlightened' thought which seeks to control capital by imposing rules on it.”

In a mere 650 words, Baudrillard made these points under the section “Political Incantations.” He doubled down on his pessimism in the proceeding section, which one can anticipate from its title: “Moebius-Spiralling Negativity.” This section is even more striking than the one before it. At first it seems like Baudrillard is defending a false equivalency between the Left and the Right: “the work of the Right is done very well, and spontaneously, by the Left on its own [...] For the Right itself also spontaneously does the work of the Left. All the hypotheses of manipulation are reversible in an endless whirligig.” The Left and the Right become interchangeable in the precession of the model, in which one forms the axis of the other, and vice-versa, until “facts no longer have any trajectory of their own, they arise at the intersection of the models; a single fact may even be engendered by all the models at once.” In the age of spin, all hypotheses on manipulation become plausible.

PrecessionPrecession of a gyroscope.Credit: Wikimedia CommonsToday, the Left looks toward Special Counsel Robert Mueller for hope, “by putting an arbitrary stop to this revolving causality [so] that a principle of political reality can be saved.” The Left looks toward impeachment for hope, by regenerating our faith in a democracy that can maintain fair elections between two political parties. The Left, however, should keep rereading point number six until “the entire cycle of any act or event is envisaged in a system where linear continuity and dialectical polarity no longer exist, in a field unhinged by simulation, then all determination evaporates, every act terminates at the end of the cycle having benefited everyone and been scattered in all directions.”

This sounds like mystical nonsense, but the point remains: even if Donald Trump were to be impeached, and these scandals resolved themselves favorably, the underlying problems that allowed for him to get elected will still remain. Further, if there truly is something to the idea of economic anxiety and low information voters in connection to this president's election (as something distinguishable from racism), then the implementation of significant reforms to capitalism (like a universal basic income or free higher education) could require a massive upheaval of Baudrillard's precession between the Left and Right as we presently conceive it. The root problems will not simply disappear with the end of Trump's presidency.




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Omar Baig is an independent scholar who splits his time between Washington, D.C. and Charlottesville, Virginia. His research interests include Ethics, Critical Animal Studies, and Speculative Realism. Baig’s areas of specialization are Post-Kantian Continental Philosophy and American and European intellectual history.