The Pope as Spectacle By William Bowles

11 April 2005

So the Pope is dead (just in case you haven’t noticed). Listening to the BBC, one would think that it has transformed itself into Vatican Radio. Eulogies to the Pope have been never-ending ever since the geriatric reactionary finally shuffled off this mortal coil. The BBC for one, seems already to have elevated him to sainthood, this in spite of his abysmal record on such things as the AIDs pandemic, abortion, contraception, protecting paedophilic priests (a term the media is loathe to use for priests, confining use of the word paedophile to dirty old men in raincoats but never to dirty old men in dresses, sorry, cassocks).

Be that as it may, an important aspect of covering news coverage of events is the frequency and volume of news stories (never mind the content) on any particular subject and how it reflects the concerns of the ruling elites. Hence the prominence of a ‘news event’ is indicative not of its importance to us but to the corporate state in selling a policy. Such is the power of the handful of corporations that own the majority of major media outlets (at the last count around seven) that events literally disappear overnight. Such is the case with Iraq.

Disappearing Iraq
Ever since the invasion and occupation of Iraq I have been assiduously archiving news stories on Iraq and on a typical day I used to get between forty and seventy news stories from across the planet from various sources.

But over the past couple of weeks it has suddenly dropped to around 4-5 per day sourced from corporate outlets. Initially, I thought my search engines had failed me but the fact is, Iraq is no longer ‘news’. The ‘problem of Iraq’ it seems, has been solved and is no longer of concern to the corporate/state media, it’s dropped off the media map, to be replaced by the spectacle of an old man who represented much of what is wrong with the world, being feted by the world’s media pretty much to the exclusion of everything else. Frankly, the eulogies have been sickening to the extreme but follow a predictable pattern with the real nature of individuals and their relationship to events being totally airbrushed out of the picture to be replaced by the public spectacle.

Enter the public spectacle
Our understanding of the world is determined by a massive, global propaganda offensive of which the public spectacle is the most obvious expression. But there’s far more going on than the corporate media would have you know, for it’s not really about the next ‘big’ story, it’s really about the rise of the corporate state and the construction of a corporate culture to replace what was formerly held in the public domain. Enter the public spectacle.

The deliberate use of the ‘public’ spectacle as part of the propaganda process by the state and its hand-maiden, the media is a good example. EJ Hobsbaum in his epic ‘Age of Capital’ ( buy it from or documented the reincarnation of the use of the public spectacle in the latter half of the 19th century, retrieved from an even earlier age (ie the Middle Ages), as central to its mission to sell imperialist adventures to the public. Hobsbaum shows conclusively how even the images from that earlier age were rejigged to fit the new age of jingoism and imperialist arrogance. And if we needed any proof that we still live in an age dominated by the imperialist patriarchy, surely the picture of a decrepit old man in a dress must sum up the insanity of our age? After all, this reactionary old man and the institution he headed would rather condemn millions to a lingering death than urge the use of condoms, yet where in the sickening spectacle presented to us over the past couple of weeks have we seen this side of the Catholic church?

The BBC’s obsession with elevating the Pope to someone akin to a Hollywood celeb is all the more strange given that we kicked the Pope and all his reps out of the country over five hundred years ago. So what’s going on? Could the almost non-stop coverage of il papo’s demise be part of some larger agenda? After all, the BBC did same thing over the marriage of Prince Charlie to Camilla, according it the same kind of coverage one expects it to do with large scale disasters, wars breaking out or, dare I say it, the Pope’s death. One BBC commentator even expressed “astonishment” that the public were largely indifferent to prince Charlie’s marriage (BBC Radio 4’s ‘Broadcasting House’ 10/4/05).

But elevating the mundane to that of the spectacle is not confined to Auntie Beebeecee as anyone perusing the print media or watching TV will have noticed.

Aside from royal marriages, we have interminable mass sporting events, so-called aid concerts, tributes to the dead (and dying) of innumerable imperialist wars, indeed the entire ‘spectacle’ of a fictitious history, appear to trundle past us at every available opportunity, all designed on the one hand to create the appearance of us belonging to/being a part of, a community of interests long destroyed (or on their way to extinction) and on the other, to distract us from the pressing issues of the real world.

Corporatising Public Space
But I contend that lurking beneath the spectacle is another reality, that of the corporatisation of the public sphere, well documented by Howard Frederick* in a book written back in the 1980s that has its beginnings with the apparently innocuous decision to treat a corporation as though it were a person. For the Supreme Court decision marked the point at which corporate capitalism began its final assault on the ‘global commons’, the last areas of life that we share/own in common.

Just think about it – giant corporations having the same ‘rights’ as you and me – except of course by virtue of their enormous wealth and influence/relationship with the state, their ability to control society is limited only by their stupidity and short-term thinking and the opposition we put up.

One of the more obvious expressions of the corporate assault on the public space is the spread of the shopping mall and the death of the high street. For the mall privatises what had formerly been public. By corporatising public spaces you not only deprive citizens of the rights to free speech in a publicly used space, only corporations can afford to build shopping malls, they are by definition, corporate spaces, defined by the private interests that own the corporation.

Consider if you will one effect, that once public space is privatised, you lose the right of free speech in such places as many activists know to their cost.

But the shopping mall is just the tip of an enormous, privatised iceberg of which the ‘public’ spectacle is an intrinsic element, for not only does the spectacle become a marketing campaign for a handful of corporations who can afford to pay the whopping fees to be ‘associated’ with a ‘public’ spectacle, it also the point at which the corporate and political classes interests meet and fuse.

So public events of all kinds that formerly reflected a communality of public interests, for example, football or athletics, become wholly owned products of business and the state and serve the dual purpose of instilling the ideology of corporatism into what was formerly the public domain as well as serving the interests of the state’s propaganda campaigns in selling corporate capitalism to the public.

In the media, the use of PR companies to produce ‘news’ for the state is yet another effect where the privatising of the public sphere has been hijacked by corporate interests working in conjunction with the state. And many in the UK might not be aware of the fact that using so-called news outlets for government propaganda is not only legal but has been going on for decades. And when exposed, it got barely a mention in the media but then why bite the hand that feeds?

The Final Enclosure?
Increasingly, we are getting squeezed into a smaller and smaller space, for add to this the effects of the ‘war on terror’ that restricts our hard-won civil freedoms, movement being the most obvious but also the increasing restrictions placed on the sharing of information and knowledge in what had been common, public spaces. Even public libraries have been caught up in the process.[1]

Add to this the creation of national databases that are ‘joint ventures’ between corporates and the state and it’s clear that – in what I contend is the final stage of capitalism – that either the ideology of the corporate state will ‘triumph’ (a hollow victory no doubt) or we have to make defending the ‘global commons’ a central component of any strategy to overthrow the corporate state. For make no mistake, this is an ideological struggle led by those whose primary function is to justify capitalism’s assault on the planet (or what’s left of it) and it’s major assault is on the idea of the collective, even as it talks glibly of ‘family values’, ‘identity’ and instilling a sense of ‘community’ into what‘s left of a society that it has done its damnest to destroy.

It’s also increasingly obvious that in spite of the blanket effect of massive public spectacles presented to us as news that the effects are wearing off, forcing the ruling elites into ever greater extremes. Take for example the general indifference here in London in the bid for the Olympics in 2012, (a bid not helped by the bumbling and inept Labour government’s handling of it).

For although the nature of the struggle in the developed world takes a different form, I think it’s worth noting that the latest round of ‘primitive accumulation’ that is going on in the poor countries of the world is only made possible because we in the ‘developed’ world have been persuaded/propagandized into accepting the lies and deceptions of the media meisters, hence the struggles here and elsewhere in the world are part of a single struggle. Perhaps this is an indication of the direction the Left needs to be taking?

* Sorry, can’t find the reference to the small but valuable book Howard Frederick wrote on the subject. If anyone knows the title and whether it’s still in print, please let me know. My copy is entombed in a box in a loft in Brooklyn and ‘temporarily’ unavailable.

1. See ALA Questions Homeland Security Directive’s Effects

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