Our Potemkin Civil War

“The trouble is that this calamity arose not from any lack of civilization, backwardness, or mere tyranny, but, on the contrary, that it could not be repaired, because there was no longer any “uncivilized” spot on earth, because whether we like it or not we have really started to live in One World. Only with a completely organized humanity could the loss of home and political status become identical with expulsion from humanity altogether.” Hannah Arendt, Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Right of Man

Something has gone terribly off track when it comes to the nation-state. It has imploded in regions where it had been artificially imposed- the Middle East- is unraveling in some sections of Europe- such as Spain- and perhaps strangest of all, where successfully resurgent against the forces of globalization has done so within the context of an internationally networked, populist right where so-called nationalist align themselves to what are less nation-states than racial and religiously based empires, that is Russia and the United States.

A nation-state exists when there is a near “perfect” correspondence between some ethnic group and the instruments of the state. Reference to the nation has been one way of answering the question: why should I obey the laws? Up until very recently, the state had no way of watching every person all of the time, so short of being absolutely terrifying as was Hobbes’ suggestion, a state had to find a way to encourage people to willingly follow its dictates.

Doing so because it serves the good of the people of which you are part proved to be a particular effective inducement to law following, but as a type of legitimacy and political regime nationalism, isn’t much older than the 19th century. Nationalism emerged in Europe where prior answers to why an individual should follow the laws included because God or the King says so. Being a criminal might lead to hell or the rack, and maybe even both. The nation replaced the myths of God and king with the myth of common origin and shared destiny.

In the strict sense, the United States has never in its history been a nation-state in the European sense of the word, but possessed a hybrid form of legitimacy based in varying degrees on Protestantism, claims of white supremacy, and civic-nationalism. In the latter, the legitimacy of the state is said to flow not from any particular ethnic group but from shared commitments among plural communities to a certain political form and ideal. Civic-nationalism remains the most effective and inclusive form of nationalism to this day. Yet after more than a half a century of having rejected both religion and race as the basis for its political identity, and embraced civic-nationalism as its foundation, the US is now flirting with the revival of atavistic forms of political authority in a way that connects them with strange bedfellows in Moscow and a European right-wing terrified of Islam.

The nation-state often gets a bad rap, but it has played a historical role well beyond inspiring jingoism and ethnic conflict. Nationalism, as in the quest to establish a nation-state, was one of the forces behind the rise of democracy in the 19th century, served as the well-spring for the liberation of colonized peoples in the 20th century, and formed the basis of social democracy and the welfare-state in post-war Europe.

Civic-nationalism has been present in the US since the American Revolution, was fleshed out in times of crisis such as the Civil War, and became by far the dominant form of political legitimacy during the Cold War as first Protestant Anglo-Saxonism and then white supremacy were supplanted by an America’s ideal of a Whig notion of history where society building off of ideas latent in its founding became ever more just and inclusive over time.

It’s not just European-style ethnic-nationalism, which always posed a danger to those who were outside the nation-state’s particular ethnic majority, that’s experiencing a crisis of legitimacy, but civic-nationalism as well. And this decline of civic-nationalism isn’t just happening in the US but also in that other great multi-ethnic democracy India.

Globalization seems to have undermined all of the positive legacies of nationalism and left us only with its shards, spewing forth monstrosities we thought the post-war world had killed. We seem to be in a genuine crisis of legitimacy in which the question of who the state serves, and above all, who is considered inside and outside the community it represents, has been reopened.

This isn’t the first time the nationalism as the source of authority has seemed to be on its deathbed, nor is it the first time that in its unwinding the definition of what constitutes the nation has become confused and taken on strange and blatantly contradictory forms. During the 1940’s when Hannah Arendt was struggling to understand the first period of the nation-state’s decline she too noticed how some of the nation’s most vocal defenders were themselves deeply embedded in international networks promoting nationalist ideologies, how the concept of the nation had been mixed up and supplanted by the idea race, how widespread security, military, and police services (supposedly staffed by the most loyal patriots) so-often coordinated with one another often to the detriment of the national interest.

Right-wing politics today is arguably more international than the right of the 1930’s, or the current left. And just like in the past, the alliance among the parties of the right is a partnership based on destroying the very connectivity that has made their strange international alliance possible. It is an axis driven by the fear of what globalization has enabled, that sees the police state as the solution to a world in flux, and somehow, and perhaps differently than its earlier incarnation, is unable, despite all its bluster, to extract itself from the centripetal force of the global capitalism in which it is embedded.

Here is the point at which the historical analogies with the 1930’s inevitably breakdown. In the 21st century right-wing nationalists aren’t really nationalists in the older sense of the word at all. Instead they are, as Nils Gilman brilliantly points out, the mask worn by a “plutocratic insurgency”. A slow moving counter-revolution whose mission lies less in national greatness than in bending the system to suit its own interests.

Still, we should count ourselves lucky to be living at the beginning of the 21st century rather than the 20th, for the fascists (they should have been called hyper-nationalist) of the last century could gain their mass appeal among the middle classes by positioning themselves as the only alternative to a genuinely revolutionary left. No such revolutionary left exists today except in the right-winger’s mind, his hatred directed not to a real challenge to his way of life, but as a sort of alternatingly villainous and pathetic cartoon.

Not only this, the military aspect of nationalism has changed immeasurably since Hitler and his goons in short-pants dreamed of Lebensraum . Wars over physical territory in the name of empire building no longer make sense, instead what constitutes territory has itself be redefined- (more on that in a moment). Modern day nationalist don’t want to conquer the world, but retreat into their shell, which in the end means turning the state itself into a gargantuan gated community. Thus trying to understand hyper-nationalists today by looking at fascists from the past the last century is a sort of analytical mistake, for the game being played has radically changed.

Perhaps we could get our historical bearings if we extended our view further back into the past and looked at the way systems of political legitimacy have previously sustained themselves only to eventually unravel.

Communication technology has always been at the center of any system of political legitimacy because the state needs to not only communicate what the laws are, but why they should be followed. The Babylonians had their steele, and Emperor Ashoka had his pillars, both like billboards out of The Flintstones. The medieval Church in Europe had its great cathedrals, a cosmic and human social order reified in stone and images blazed in stained glass. All of it a means of communicating to the illiterate masses when reading and writing were confined to an elite- this is the divine and political order in which you exist and to which you must defer.

The modern era of communication, and thus of political legitimacy, began in Europe in the late 1400’s with the widespread adoption of the printing press. We’ve been in an almost uninterrupted period of political instability ever since. Great images and structures were replaced by writing that now appeared and circulated with unprecedented speed. Different forms of arguments regarding what society was, what its borders were, who belonged to it, and what was owed to and from those who belonged to it emerged and fought one another for supremacy, with the border between what constituted religion, what constituted nationality, or what constituted a race often hybridized in ways we now find confusing.

In the late 18th century, European imperialism and African slavery gave rise to what would become the most insidious form of establishing the boundaries of political community- the ideology of white supremacy. Yet in that very same period we saw the emergence of a truly secular and potentially multi-ethnic and democratic form of political legitimacy with the rise of civic-nationalism during the American and French revolutions. (Though it had antecedents in the Italian city-states).

All these forms of political legitimacy, along with antiquarian ones that clung to the authority of church and king, and brand new ones, such as communism, would battle it out over the course of the 19th century with stability only lasting during times of war when the state would be united by a common project whose sacrifices were often justified on the basis of civic-nationalist discourse.

We don’t really see a stabilization of this pattern until after the world wars. In Europe, this was partly because many states had been ethically homogenized due to the conflicts and their aftermath, and in the US because not only had the wars helped fuse a stronger sense of national cohesion along multi-denominational lines, but because the Cold War that followed compelled the US to abandon white supremacy as a basis of national identity out of fear of Soviet incursions in the developing world.

Thus a kind of tamed ethnic-nationalism in Europe and an aspirationally multi-ethnic civic-nationalism in the United States became the dominant forms of political legitimacy in Western countries. Both coincided with what proved to be a temporary embrace of social democracy rather than the laissez-faire capitalism that had been predominant before the Second World War. Again a move inspired by fear of the Soviet Union and the danger of communist revolution.

And all this intersected with the new mass media that was able, for the first time, to center the public around not only a shared form of political legitimacy, but a shared political project in the form of a consumer’s republic and the fight against communism. It was not an interregnum that was destined to last long.

Nevertheless, the liberal consensus and reordering of political legitimacy around civic-nationalism that emerged out of the New Deal and World War II, which saw the last great act of a strong state in forcing an end to racial segregation in the American South, began to unwind in the late 1960’s and has perhaps entered a stage where it could never be rebound.

The feature that has stood at the heart of civic-nationalism since the time of Machiavelli– that of the citizen at arms- died with the debacle of the Vietnam War. Here began the breakdown of trust between technocratic elites and the public, including distrust in the mass media, with the crisis coming to a head with race riots, Watergate, followed by inflation, and the war on drugs. And whereas the left in this period largely abandoned politics for the commune and sexual liberation, the right began the slow process of crawling back into power with the hope of deconstructing the administrative state created in the New Deal. For while the political and economic system had become unstable, the mass of benefits, regulations and protections provided by the state proved exceedingly difficult to kill so long as politics remained democratic.

It was during what proved to be the crescendo of the liberal consensus, after its failure in the Vietnam War and the mobilized alienation of what Nixon called “the silent majority”- the mostly white middle and working who had in the interwar years lost much of their ties to ethnic identity, and who felt alienated from the new cultural currents sweeping the left, drug culture, the anti-war movement, feminism, gay rights, and black power- that the right saw its first major opening since FDR. It could use the gap between the old left and the new left to lever against the entire edifice of the post-war liberal consensus until the structure came crumbling down.

To do this the right would need to bring into being its own majority based consensus. For some astute and wealthy members of the right blamed the country’s persistent liberalism on the whole infrastructure of knowledge, communication and law, which liberals had used since the 1930’s to weave itself almost intractably deep into both society and law. Out of this drive a whole alternative infrastructure of information and knowledge would be created that included not only popular outlets that copied then left-leaning mass media platforms like television and radio, but institutions for policy production such as think tanks.

Thus we get the politicization of reason, not because the broad sweep of academia along with the first think tanks that held to the liberal consensus were a-political, but because the instruments of policy formation no longer proceeded under the kinds of shared assumptions that make reason possible to begin with.

All of these factors of broken consensus have increased rather than diminished in the 21st century as the newly decentralized nature of media production and the disappearance distance as a factor of political alliance meant that any worldview, no matter how niche and bizarre, now had a platform and was able to forge a constituency. Included in these worldviews are all sorts of atavistic ideas regarding race and gender equality many of us mistakenly believed we had evolved beyond.

It seems that retrograde ideas never truly go away, but lie waiting for the right conditions to re-emerge like killer viruses from the melting arctic permafrost. For many racists the conditions of awakening seems to have been the emergence of Trump. As usual, Cory Doctorow said it best:

In a tight race, having a cheap way to reach all the latent Klansmen in a district and quietly inform them that Donald J. Trump is their man is a game-changer.

Cambridge Analytica didn’t convince decent people to become racists; they convinced racists to become voters.

What can be dizzying is how historically mashed up and so obviously socially constructed many of these groups are, and how easily they can both resemble and even emerge from forms of fandom. (A point I’ve often seen made by Adam Aelkus).

The only step that would truly rid us of the cacophony of crazy would be to ban these groups from the internet altogether. Banning an obscene organization such as InfoWars, as all the major internet platforms, with the exception of Twitter, have now done may be a good thing, but whether such measures actually work, or even ultimately end up being worse than the disease is less certain. Banned groups are already turning to other alternative platforms such as Gab or Hatreon that are more amenable to whatever snake oil they are selling.

Right now I wouldn’t place any bets on either side winning the war between the platforms and those seeking to get their message out there whether it’s crazy or just a narrative those who own the press and the platforms would prefer the public ignore. It isn’t even clear which side a progressive should be rooting for. For while it seems clear that racist language or attempts to deliberately insight violence have no right to their place in the marketplace of ideas, it’s less clear what to do about a controversial figure like Cyprian Nyakundi who, from what I understand, was banned for leaking nude photos of Radio Africa Managing Director Martin Khafafa with young women- a rather attention grabbing way of exposing corruption

The platforms are immensely powerful because they not only control the major  interfaces between users and content producers but the servers on which this content is located. Given the censorship record of the platforms, especially outside the United States, this is nothing we should be comfortable with. To give just one example which I think is informative, FaceBook has essentially banned much of political speech from its platform in South Asia, yet much of this speech, along with all types of unsubstantiated rumors and nonsense continues to circulate through its encrypted WhatsApp, which FaceBook is unable to censor at all.

The platforms thus have an enormous amount of power and yet the structure of the internet itself makes the job of censorship much harder than it might otherwise appear. ISIS- the most reviled and hunted terrorist organization in the world still manages to have an internet presence, the ubiquity of encryption apps makes such censorship increasingly more difficult, not to mention the US commitment to the First Amendment, which makes any complete purge illegal.

And even if we could snap our fingers and make the internet disappear, our former consensus would remain very much in the rearview mirror. For both right and left would still possess a whole media infrastructure based on television, radio and print whose assumptions are so different one might think they originated in different countries.

Indeed, it was tech’s fear of the traditional right in possession of old media and its ability to gin up scandal that played a large part in them giving the alt-right a pass during Trump’s election bid. The platforms’ censorship will thread a careful line so long as Republicans are in control of the government and possess the power to break them up. A frightening prospect is that they will be nudged to turn their censorship towards the “radical left”, so that the Overton Window remains jammed open, but that it leans only in one direction- meaning rightward.

In other words, the internet platforms might find themselves aligned with conservative media to take us back to the world as it existed in the past. Not the long dead liberal consensus but the era of the culture wars that followed them. A phantasmagoria pretending to be a civil war where the masses gnaw virtually at each other over questions of identity and pseudo-scandals while the big shots divvy up the spoils of what really matters in an age dominated by technological infrastructure, namely the design of and access to the domains in and through which we all are now compelled to live, and that now subsume every region of the globe.



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