Jean Baudrillard Grasped the Symbolic Life of Capital but Lost Track of the Material World

French thinker Jean Baudrillard developed a pioneering analysis of symbolism and consumption in modern capitalism with some valuable insights. But he lost sight of the material structures on which capital’s power depends and drifted into a political dead end.

French philosopher and social scientist Jean Baudrillard in Paris. (Sophie Bassouls / Sygma via Getty Images)

What should we think of Jean Baudrillard today? While he was once a key reference point for any student of late-capitalist hyperreality, nobody seems to have said anything about him for years.

On the one hand, this neglect is puzzling. Baudrillard’s pronouncements about the collapse of the line between reality and simulation are surely more prescient than ever, with Russian generals live-streaming their assaults on Ukrainian cities and QAnon “researchers” turning enigmatic 8chan poems into real-world insurrections.

On the other hand, it seems perfectly reasonable: with the revitalization of socialist politics, the performative radicalism of much of Baudrillard’s later work — accompanied by dismissals of Marxism and indeed any emancipatory political project — appears all the more vacuous. Perry Anderson once described Baudrillard as “a thinker whose temper, for better or worse, is incapable of assent to any notion with collective acceptation.” At a time when “thinking differently” for its own sake is the preserve of the far right, it’s doubtful if this kind of attitude will help us.

However, Baudrillard was not always convinced of the inefficacy of left-wing politics or the redundancy of Marxism as a theoretical framework. Indeed, his first three books — The System of Objects (1968), The Society of Consumption (1970), and For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (1972) — demonstrate a sustained effort to update Marxism so it could address the pressing questions of his time.

How should we explain the decomposition of the working class in the postwar era? What did mass consumption have to do with the decline of workers’ struggles? While Baudrillard’s replies to such questions unravel over the years into increasingly unserious proclamations about a “new phase” of semiotic capitalism, his shifting orientations can tell us much about the trajectory of French theory and the partial critique of capitalism that it left in its wake.

A Zoological Survey of Objects

Beginning his intellectual career as a Germanist, Baudrillard cotranslated Marx and Engels’s The German Ideology into French, read Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s work before it was translated, and encountered Georg Lukács early on. But it seems he took “literally,” as Charles Levin writes, Lukács’s claim that “the problem of commodities” was “the central, structural problem of capitalist society in all its aspects.”

In other words, the commodity was not for Baudrillard a fetishized bearer of capitalist social relations, making those relations appear as things external to us. It was quite literally an object, and the analysis of this object was for him the primary task of theoretical critique.

Thus The System of Objects, Baudrillard’s first book and doctoral thesis, sought to undertake a kind of zoological survey of everyday objects, beginning with the following question:

Could we classify the luxuriant growth of objects as we do a flora or fauna, complete with tropical and glacial species, sudden mutations, and varieties threatened by extinction?

This luxuriant growth of objects attested to what Kristin Ross describes as the “jolt” of French modernization in the postwar years: a transition from wartime poverty to consumerist domesticity that took place with remarkable speed, making the 1960s unrecognizable from the vista of a decade earlier. As Ross writes:

In the space of just ten years, a rural woman might live the acquisition of electricity, running water, a stove, a refrigerator, a washing machine, a sense of interior space as distinct from exterior space, a car, a television, and the various liberations and oppressions associated with each.

Such changes, which were felt equally in the rapidly expanding cities, explained why so many French intellectuals of that time — Roland Barthes, Maurice Blanchot, Henri Lefebvre, Edgar Morin, the Situationists — seized on the category of “everyday life” as a key to an understanding of the social order.

For Baudrillard, what these objects told us was above all something about the changing composition of class. Objects, for him, were not principally functional things. They were signs: signs through which class relations were communicated and reproduced, through which needs were fabricated and value extracted, and through which class antagonisms were stifled.

Any object thus needed to be understood from the perspective of its “sign value.” This was a dubious category that Baudrillard invented to supplement (and, eventually, to replace) Marx’s categories of use value and exchange value in his analysis of the commodity.

Sign value was, for Baudrillard, at the very core of how postwar capitalism functioned. The capacity for mass production outstripped demand, and hence new needs had to be manufactured and new desires fabricated into existence. Objects became unmoored from their use values, and a matrix of symbolic meanings propelled both production and consumption onward.

Baudrillard would eventually take this to mean that capitalism had itself been transformed into a semiotic system — a play of signifiers untethered from any material foundation. This myopic focus on the semiotic level was soon mirrored in the cultural or linguistic turn in social theory from the 1980s. This turn involved dispensing with any serious analysis of the huge changes taking place in the reconfiguration of labor, exploitation, and class relations across the globe and dismissing any form of materialist critique as economistic or class reductionist.

The Compromise of the “Middle Classes”

Yet when he wrote Towards a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, Baudrillard was still working within a broadly Marxist framework and intrigued by the mechanics of class reproduction. His own background was located somewhere in the complicated matrix of the “middle classes” — his grandparents were peasants while his parents were civil servants (“very lowly petty bourgeois,” as he put it) — and the middle classes were a central preoccupation of this book.

Baudrillard was fascinated by the singular way these middle classes related to domestic objects. What was behind the fixation on drapes, double drapes, carpets, slipcovers, coasters, wainscoting, lampshades, plinths, trinkets, and wire netting? What of the table that is “covered with a tablecloth which itself is protected by a plastic tablecloth,” the encircling of each artifact by a doily, or the moral elevation of coatings — “the triumph of varnish, polish, veneer, plating, wax, encaustic, lacquer, glaze, glass, plastic”?

For Baudrillard, this baroque covering and encircling of possessions spoke to a compulsion “not merely to possess, but to underline what he possesses two or three times.” This compulsion in turn revealed the fraught position of the growing middle class: simultaneously anxious and triumphant, this was “a class which has gone far enough to interiorize the models of social success, but not far enough to avoid simultaneously interiorizing the defeat.”

That is to say, the middle classes saw both their success (the possession of domestic objects) and failure (the hard limit on their social power) as of their own making. They accepted the comforting aura of objects as a compensation for their surrendered agency. It was this “thwarted legitimacy (with respect to cultural, political, and professional life) which makes the middle classes invest in the private universe, in private property and the accumulation of objects,” according to Baudrillard. The doily spoke of class compromise.

Savage Politics

The problem Baudrillard sought to investigate — what was once called the “embourgeoisement” of the working class and its relationship to its ongoing decomposition — was, and is, a real problem. The current mystification about why many apparently working-class constituencies seem to have abandoned their class interests to vote for far-right parties could perhaps be overcome with a better understanding of just who the middle classes are (for example, whether we should see them as a much-enlarged petty bourgeoisie, as Dan Evans suggests).

Yet Baudrillard’s approach to this problem was always one-sided. His microscopic attention to the arrangement of household objects placed out of the line of vision the immense shifts in labor and production that were taking place at the time. This emphasis seeps into his worldview: mass consumption seems to be no longer simply one site of class reproduction, and one important condition for capital’s self-accumulation, but the driving force of the entire system. On this basis, we can only understand resistance as the rejection of consumption and of the symbolic order underpinning it.

This seemed, for Baudrillard, to be confirmed by his experiences of political struggle. Working as Lefebvre’s assistant in the Sociology Department at Nanterre in March 1968, he had found himself at ground zero of the student movement. But after Charles de Gaulle’s landslide election victory in June that year, he recalled, “the movement fell away at fantastic — really fantastic — speed.”

Many of those involved in that movement argued that its failure was rooted in the contradictions between its worker and student base. The major labor organizations, such as the General Confederation of Labour (CGT), had sought to defuse the general strike, while French Communist Party (PCF) leaders denounced the student leaders as “false revolutionaries.” Yet if the workers’ institutions had sold out, it seemed that they did so, at least in part, in response to their base. As one speaker in a Nanterre faculty discussion put it, the working class had become “hung up on consumption.”

Those least attached to consumption seemed to hold the greatest revolutionary potential. Students, women, gays and lesbians, migrants: all those deprived, for various reasons, of a stable family wage or the dream of consumer domesticity had erupted into the public sphere with what Baudrillard called sauvage (wild) political conduct. From migrant workers’ wildcat strikes to student revolts, these “marginal” figures appeared to be the only ones capable of challenging what he called the “domestication” of humanity.

“Wild” strikes seemed, for Baudrillard, to express a fundamentally noninstrumental logic: “Overtly, collectively, spontaneously, the workers stopped working, like that, suddenly, one Monday, demanding nothing, negotiating for nothing.” They seemed to take heed neither of the intrinsic value of work, nor the salaried incentive, nor the capitalist rationalization of time.

Ultimately, the sauvage politics of the post-’68 landscape reflected the savage mind, with its refusal of all the old Marxist categories that seemed now to oppress us: production, labor, use value, universal history, revolution, dialectics, mediation, representation. For Baudrillard, all such categories revealed “an incurable ethnocentrism of the code.” They were trapped in the logic of the very system they sought to contest.

Anti-Capitalism Without Emancipation?

Baudrillard’s early writings thus reflect the same tendencies — and the same problems — as those of many New Left thinkers who sought to reinvigorate Marxism for the postwar era. This was a period of such booming prosperity that Marx’s thesis of growing proletarian immiseration seemed to have been disproven: crises ceased, productivity increased, wages rose, and the middle classes grew.

These conditions gave rise to a form of social theory that focused on alienation rather than exploitation, as the central problem of Western democracies appeared to be not precarity, poverty, and crisis but the commodification of everyday life. People were unfree not because they faced chronic material insecurity — or so it seemed — but because of the subsumption of human life and activity by the rationalistic injunctions to buy, sell, and consume.

As Baudrillard wrote in The System of Objects:

Just as needs, feelings, culture, knowledge — in short, all the properly human faculties — are integrated as commodities into the order of production . . . so likewise all desires, projects and demands, all passions and all relationships, are now abstracted (or materialized) as signs and as objects to be bought and consumed.

In other words, capitalism was a problem because of reification: it converted human life into things and flattened its irreducible variety into the standardized quantities required for exchange.

From our vantage point today, it seems clear that this critique is a partial one; it mistakes the symptom for the disease. To see reification, consumption, and commodification as the primary problems gave rise to political responses seeking simply to negate these things: de-reification, anti-consumerism, decommodification.

Baudrillard wanted to de-reify the world by introducing new categories — symbolic exchange, which took from Georges Bataille a fascination with waste, excess, and expenditure, was the most important of them. It was as if such vocabulary could itself overcome the dominance of capitalist relations. Other thinkers, less cynical than him, would build several generations of political radicalism on the basis of anti-consumerism and decommodification.

Of course, anti-consumerism in itself is by no means an emancipatory position. And decommodification has always been as much a moment of capitalist accumulation as the encroachment of commodity relations into ever greater corners of social life. Decommodification could just as easily be a project of leading women back from the workplace to their “natural” sphere, the home, as is the goal of many far-right movements today.

Indeed, leading far-right thinkers, such as Alain de Benoist and Aleksandr Dugin, are well-versed in the New Left’s critique of commodification and consumption. For the far right, “woke capitalism” erases our identities — which it fantasizes as being fixed in a biological or racial essence — by making us consume and in order to make us better consume. As Italy’s far-right premier Giorgia Meloni put it in a speech from 2019:

I can’t define myself as Italian, Christian, woman, mother. No. I must be citizen x, gender x, parent 1, parent 2. I must be a number. Because when I am only a number, when I no longer have an identity or roots, then I will be the perfect slave at the mercy of financial speculators. The perfect consumer.

Baudrillard was not himself a far-right thinker. However, his later works, such as The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, are underpinned by precisely the kind of clash-of-civilizations narratives upon which the far right thrives today. As Peter Osborne wrote, beneath all his apparent radicalism lay “the most hackneyed civilizational conservatism” — this was “a philosophical discourse of modernity in the worst sense.”

Baudrillard didn’t start off like this, and his early writings reflected a genuine effort to rethink the economistic Marxism of the French Communist Party and to understand the decomposition of the working class. Yet his brand of anti-capitalism shows itself to be a shaky foundation for an emancipatory politics.