Shepard Fairey's Obama: The Politics of Rebranding the Corporate State, and the Status of the Empire
By Chris Burnett
I recently came across Chris Hedges' article entitled 'Buying Brand Obama'. Hedges describes the current nature of the Obama administration, that there is a disconnect between reality and the illusion of Obama, that there is a chasm so deep it prevents people from thinking clearly about the nature of what we face in the world:
"Brand Obama offers us an image that appears radically individualistic and new. It inoculates us from seeing that the old engines of corporate power and the vast military-industrial complex continue to plunder the country. Corporations, which control our politics, no longer produce products that are essentially different, but brands that are different. Brand Obama does not threaten the core of the corporate state any more than did Brand George W. Bush. The Bush brand collapsed. We became immune to its studied folksiness. We saw through its artifice. This is a common deflation in the world of advertising. So we have been given a new Obama brand with an exciting and faintly erotic appeal. Benetton and Calvin Klein were the precursors to the Obama brand, using ads to associate themselves with risque art and progressive politics. It gave their products an edge. But the goal, as with all brands, was to make passive consumers mistake a brand with an experience."
And when reality catches up to the illusion, the prospect of a reactionary social order is not off the table, not unlike during previous economic depressions, where authoritarian movements thrive as people acquiesce civil liberties and power to leaders that claim they can fix all of our problems.
No matter how I read Hedges' article though, Shepard Fairey's Obama poster immediately came to mind as a cornerstone to the Obama branding campaign. The image as illusion. The image as propaganda. Brand Obama. This is not meant as a personal attack against Shepard, but the ubiquitousness of that poster demands that we take a close look at how that particular image might be cast in the context of Hedge's article, and then extrapolate from the illusion to the reality of Obama's Empire. To illustrate, I pulled some quotes:
"An image-based culture, one dominated by junk politics, communicates through narratives, pictures and carefully orchestrated spectacle and manufactured pseudo-drama."
"In an age of images and entertainment, in an age of instant emotional gratification, we do not seek reality."
"In his book "Public Opinion," Walter Lippmann distinguished between "the world outside and the pictures in our heads." He defined a "stereotype" as an oversimplified pattern that helps us find meaning in the world."
"[Images] can evoke a powerful emotional response, of overwhelming reality and replacing reality with a fictional narrative that often becomes accepted truth."
"The junk politics practiced by Obama is a consumer fraud. It is about performance. It is about lies. It is about keeping us in a perpetual state of childishness. But the longer we live in illusion, the worse reality will be when it finally shatters our fantasies."
I like a lot of Shepard's work, but the Obama poster is unique. It is reminiscent of totalitarian imagery, a focal point and symbol for the Obama illusion. I don't mean to suggest that those who supported Obama are totalitarians, far from it, but that iconic images are incredibly useful to those in power. It's why they are used. It's the merging of state power and iconography that makes it dangerous, changing its entire meaning and significance (there are plenty of historical examples), especially when we are dealing with an empire as violent and aggressive as the U.S. The ruling class needed an image makeover.
Shepard's choice to become an instrumental part in creating brand Obama, given his street level marketing style, often illegal, provided a legitimacy that was certainly needed by the Obama campaign. Seeing Obama on every street corner in soviet-style branding (read "pro worker, average guy, savior") was shocking precisely because of what Hedges describes as spectacle on the one hand, and the illusion of street cred provided by Shepard's style on the other.
I thought I was seeing Mao and Che everywhere, as though this was some populist uprising against the ruling class, against a cynically corrupt political class. Far from it. It *was* the ruling class inverting and misdirecting our anger in order to advance a corporatist political party and agenda. Genius. Horrendous. No doubt, it had a profound affect on all of our psyches.
But "HOPE" should have read "HYPE" and "PROGRESS" should have read "REGRESS". It was the epitome of bumper sticker politics: immediate gratification, feel good symbolism; very consistent with our hyperactive, but shallow corporate culture.
What I feared most came true once Obama was elected; namely, acquiescence, justifications and silence on the part of most Obama supporters in the face of continued war crimes, increased military aggression, protection for financial criminals, putting a better face on our violence in the world, etc. All entirely predictable and predicted. Even if McCain had won, and he continued Bush's policies (like Obama), do you think people would be as passive as they are now? Obama accomplished what no Republican could: defense of the indefensible and the silencing of dissent (self-censorship?) by his undeterred supporters.
I was terrified when I saw those posters. It was a gift to the corporate state, and fit in neatly with their desire to redefine the presidency as a safe brand, street brand, brand Obama, never mind history, never mind imperialism, never mind a critique of corporate power. Just do it. Yes we can. Progress. Hope. And shut the fuck up. That was the message.
Obama was overwhelmingly supported financially by the corporate class, contrary to the myth of the army of small donors accounting for the majority of money he raised. It was the most expensive campaign ever run. And now it is payback time for Obama. And it's obvious.
"Yes We Did!", it is yelled as if punching a button in a booth is going to change the nature of capitalism's amorality and our wars of aggression, or ease the suffering we have inflicted on the innocent. "Yes We Did (rebrand the U.S. empire in the interests of corporate America, and delude ourselves into thinking "change" was real)!"
There is over 1 Million dead in Iraq, and the Obama administration rebrands everything to make us feel better about ourselves, including the illegal occupation, expected to last at least another 10-15 years, as withdrawal. Spin ad infinitum.
Now lets move along as we continue to drop bombs and murder children and families in "Af-Pak" (yet another state branded atrocity in the making - where we hear the sick worshipping of the "drone" tech-war by the capitalist media). It is the "right" war, as Bagram Air Base replaces Guantanamo as the Walmart of torture, and another nail in the coffin of habeas corpus. And yes, to this day, Guantanamo is still open and functional. They've got another 7 months to hide their crimes elsewhere if we believe Obama's statements. And the torture at Guantanamo hasn't stopped since Obama's inauguration. (Read Jeremy's Scahill's 'The Black Shirts of Guantanamo')
Afghanistan is now Obama's war, an aggressive illegal war targeting the civilian population as "insurgents", where "Taliban" is now interchangeable with "Al Qaeda". This makes Obama and fellow Democrats that supported the escalation war criminals and they should be treated as such. (Read Glenn Greenwald's article, 'We wouldn't want to Inflame Anti-American Sentiment). And the war is being ramped up at this very moment (Check out Chris Floyd's, "Rolling Out the Product Again: A Full-Court Press for Pakistan War").
In short, Obama and the Democrats have changed almost nothing significant. In fact, they have adopted Bush's core policies on the newly branded "War on Terror" (It is now called "Overseas Contingency Operation"). Read Glenn Greenwald's article, Obama's Embrace of Bush Terrorism Policies is Celebrated as "Centrism", documenting this fact. To quote Greenwald, "Obama's political skills, combined with his status as a Democrat, is *strengthening* Bush/Cheney terrorism policies and solidifying them further." Noam Chomsky also points out that torture is systemic in the U.S., not an aberration. And read former FBI Agent and whistleblower Sibel Edmonds' take on Obama and the Democrats.
What about those responsible for torture? Nuremberg Trials be damned, "We are Americans!". All U.S. torturers walk free. America Uber Alles. Money Uber Alles. Big Brother is on your cell phone. Obama says FISA be damned. Bailout rich bankers (not the foreclosed families). Destroy the environment.
Simply put, Shepard became a propagandist for a corrupt political party, a party that serves what John Perkins calls the Corporatocracy in his book, "Confessions of an Economic Hitman"; a decision that was naive at best, and precedent setting, for artwork used by the state as inverted populist anger, at worst.
I think a real concern for all of us, though, is what will the inevitable backlash to the lies and illusion of Obama look like. I fear the worst, but will work for the best. I share Hedges concerns.
And when are we going to stop participating in this fraud anyways? Why do we kneel down every four years and give these people credibility? National elections are nothing more than a rubberstampocracy for two brands, advertised every four years as something different, but are really a continuation of the corporate state, representing the interests of the real owners of this society, the business class. Coke or Pepsi? It is the endless "good cop, bad cop" routine.
Liberals will always defend the corporate state and empire, rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, and explain that the chains around our hands and ankles will be loosened with a Democrat in the White House. Conservatives will deny that the ship is sinking, and redirect our attention to a sex scandal, while enhancing the corporate welfare state.
Granted, there are no easy solutions when going against such large, violent institutions. A revolution of some kind is certainly in order to remove the power of the corporate state. Some answers may reside in local movements, autonomous local movements, in solidarity with others, rejecting centralized, nation state systems that are dominated by private totalitarian structures; namely, corporations that are literally destroying the planet.
The environmental crisis demands a global solution, and demands a complete rejection of current global economic models. Capitalism must be stopped if we are to survive, including any ideology based upon infinite growth within a finite system (i.e. the Earth). The nation state must be transformed if we are to survive. The worship of power and cult leaders is still a problem on the left, one that must be fought against as much as the tendancies towards fascism on the right. We as a species, and the planet as a whole, will not be rescued by traditional authoritarian movements that attempt to seize state power. We need new approaches. Fast. They should be holistic and revolutionary, not isolationist and reactionary.
But we will never get there if we embrace false illusions and unaccountable power. The more we look upwards for our solutions, the more we surrender our dignity.
We should look down first, then side to side.