From the Series: Book Forum: Guerrilla Marketing
Good ethnography is a provocation. It pushes us, of course, to think more deeply and more critically about its chosen subject. But good ethnography also raises questions beyond the text, leading its readers to explore new directions and offering them new tools.
Alexander L. Fattal’s Guerrilla Marketing (University of Chicago Press, 2018) is good ethnography. I came to the work knowing only what most moderately attentive nonspecialists might know about Colombia’s recent past. So Guerrilla Marketing was an education in the complexities of Colombia’s long conflict and its not-yet, not-quite aftermaths. An education, moreover, that works at multiple scales. Fattal effectively performs the ever-so-difficult feat of conveying the nuances of individual lives and the vicissitudes of global forces. It is what the ethnography offers for thinking life after its epilogue; however, that intrigues me here.
The brilliance of Guerrilla Marketing lies in the way it reads the intertwining of war and the strategies of contemporary capital. This is not, of course, a new pairing. But Fattal convincingly argues that branding and the postmodern logics of advertising, a logic based on micro-targeting and an aesthetics of care, mark a significant shift. Marx once wrote that labor progressed from a state of formal to real subsumption in capital’s logics of value production. It was a way to map the evolution from a time at which it was possible to imagine a space of nonwork, a space of contests over the limits of capital, to the point at which the line between sociality and capital’s value production no longer exists. In Guerrilla Marketing, war has moved from formal to real subsumption into the logic of advertising. It is no longer possible, Fattal writes, to find the outside to war or the outside to marketing. Branding has become the totalizing logic of the world.
In his epilogue, Fattal describes a Colombian state of affairs in which it seems perfectly reasonable to guess that the real subsumption of war into the logic of marketing is unassailable. And he makes the equally plausible argument that the “Colombia model of demobilization and brand warfare” (221) is an export model, itself a thing being marketed globally and subsuming the relations of war and capital from Afghanistan to Iraq to South Sudan. “Brand warfare is poised to proliferate,” (221) he writes, and with it the micro-targeting of intimacy and affect. Love is the ultimate target of advertisers seeking to build loyalty to a brand, and so “love, as we have seen throughout this book, is. . . war’s ultimate target” (237).
And yet we have not reached the end of history. We know that capital continues to evolve, and with it, presumably, war. In the short space between 2017 and today, some of the pieties so central to recent discourses of conflict seem to have been jettisoned or at least radically undermined. As the Trump administration dispatches warships toward both China and Venezuela, it seems fair to ask whether the next evolutionary phase in capital’s development will look more like a return to savage forms of primitive accumulation, a jettisoning of the logics of love and brand loyalty in favor of muscular dispossession and obedience through fear.
Whatever happens next, the theoretical tools Fattal develops here will no doubt remain salient. It would be hard to argue that messaging and spectacle will disappear as fundamental components of both militarism or marketing. But I suspect over time one of the most significant contributions of Guerrilla Marketing will be the careful, critical, and ethical standard it sets for scholars setting out to deconstruct their own contemporaneous intimacies in the relationship between modern capitalism and modern war.