The Fake-News Head Fake

eris-apple-painting

It will be a long time into the future before we will know just what this election ultimately meant. What is perhaps more clear, even if we avoid donning the rose colored glasses of hindsight, is that the seeds that sprouted in 2016 were a long time- a- growing. They might even have been anticipated as far back as the culture wars that exploded onto the scene in the late 1960’s. More on that in a moment.

What would have certainly shocked someone brought here in a time machine from, say, 1981, was the role, even if less a prominent a role than some have suggested, that the Russians played in getting the Republican candidate elected president. We might never know if this bromance between Trump and Putin had to do with the former’s financial ties with figures in the Kremlin as the far from radical Francis Fukuyama recently suggested,  if it was a dog-whistle for white supremacists Trump has disgustingly courted over the course of the election, or if it was merely a reflection of Trump’s stance of being soft on Russia compared to the much more hawkish views of Putin’s nemesis Hillary Clinton.

Yet it’s probably just as likely that Putin and his cronies were as surprised by the election outcome as most of the rest of us. That the Kremlin had no expectation of influencing the election in Trump’s favor so much as to give the United States pay back for our interference in Russian politics and elections in their backyard, most notably Ukraine.

In some sense,though, the election of 2016 wasn’t so much influenced by what the Russians did, as the entire political technology and theory that not only won Trump the election, but might end up be the best way of understanding the political universe that will emerge from his victory. This political technology was one of the many ill fated consequences of the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was here, in the former USSR, so behind the West in everything else, that truly post-modern, 21st century form of politics was created.

This politics as infowar was born when Western style, television- centric, political campaigning was adopted by a social order in a state of  utter collapse. That is, when what is the worst of American politics was embraced by the disillusioned, perhaps nihilistic, former apparatchiks of the fallen Soviet Union absent the kinds of constraints of traditions and institutions that has, up until this moment at least, informed American politics.

The title of Peter Pomerantsev’ excellent book on this era Nothing is True and Everything is Possible says it all. Pomerantsev gives us an searing view into a society where all norms have collapsed. As a television producer he is most informative when it comes to revealing how the Kremlin has used the power of mass media to cling to power in the face of this collapse. It did so not (as in the era of totalitarianism) by uniting the people around an all embracing ideology, but by mastering the art of distracting and confusing the public in such a way as to shield those in power from political accountability and control by the people they rule.

The figure who is credited with pioneering this new form of politics is the Russian businessmen and “political technologist” (his term) Vladislav Surkov who has found himself in, then out, then in again, of Putin’s inner circle. Architect of the brilliant  “infowar” aspects of the Russian annexation of Crimea, Surkov is also a novelist writing under pseudonyms such as Natan Dubovitsky.

In Everything is true and nothing is possible Pomerantsev discusses Without Sky a revealing short- story Surkov published on the eve the invasion of Crimea that gives us insight into his world view. It is a tale of the first “non-linear war”, the philosophy behind which Pomerantsev describes this way:

There is no holy war in Sarkov’ vision, none of the cabaret, meant to tease and confuse the West. But there is a darkling version of globalization in which instead of everyone rising together, interconnection means multiple competitions between corporations and movements and city-states. Where old alliances, NATO and the EU and the “West” are all worn out, and the Kremlin can play the new, fluctuating lines of loyalty and interest, oil and money splitting the Europe from America pitting one Western company against another and against their governments so no one knows whose interest is what and where they’re headed. (231)

Of course, Surkov did not invent such an idea of nonlinear politics and war whole cloth, but according to Pomerantsev:

… inherited… tsarists practices of co-opting anti-government forces (anarchists in the 19th century, neo-Nazis and religious fanatics now), all fused with the latest thinking in television advertising and black PR. (64)

What Surkov and his ilk managed to do was birth a new form of authoritarianism that was adapted to 21st century conditions, which:

…instead of simply oppressing opposition, as has been the case with twentieth century strains, it climbs inside all ideologies and movements, exploiting and rendering them absurd. One moment Surkov would fund civic forums and human rights NGOS, the next he would quietly support nationalist movements that accuse the NGOS of being tools of the West. (65)

This phenomenon on the American scene has been labeled post-truth politics/media an appellation that captures something, but at the same time misses what is even more important. When Trump recently tweeted that individuals who burn the American flag should be imprisoned or stripped of citizenship the statement itself was neither true or false, but rather, (conscious or not) was a form of infowar the consequence of which was to separate even further a nationalist public and an elite media, to bait liberals into flag burning and thus “revealing” themselves as people who hate and therefore, in the eyes of arch-nationalists, hope for the destruction of the country. Every moment we were caught up in this artificial drama was one not spent in paying attention to what Trump is actually doing such as appointing the same sorts of Wall Street insiders he attacked during his campaign to major positions within his administration.

Better algorithmic filters for fake news deployed by FaceBook or any of the other major players in tech wouldn’t solve the problem that arises when one significant portion of the a country’s population thinks its founding document permits imprisonment, or worse, over burning the national symbol while another thinks that very same document protects such an act. We are in a crisis of values and meaning as much as we are in a crisis of truth, which doesn’t mean that this crisis bears no relationship with current communications technologies and their political economy or that this crisis isn’t being gamed by those with their own agendas- quite the opposite. Perhaps even more importantly, the more essential question of the day seems to be less about truth and falsehood than the increasingly fierce competition over whose ideas will be heard at all through the flood of information and misinformation under which all of us are drowning.  But more on all those points another time…   

Trumponomics

XIR164723 Pantagruel's meal, from 'Pantagruel' by Francois Rabelais (1494-1553) engraved by Paul Jonnard-Pacel (d.1902) (engraving) (b/w photo)  by Dore, Gustave (1832-83) (after); Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, France; Giraudon; French, out of copyright

So, literally overnight, we entered the stage of the great normalization. We’ve gone from the almost universal belief among the elites, media and a large number of the American public that electing Trump would be a disaster for the country, the economy, our liberty to an apparent shrug of the shoulders and sycophantic search for advantage in the new order.

We’ve gone from a candidate whose last act of his active campaign was to release a two minute ad that pledged resistance against a global financial elite that supposedly holds the white working class in its squid like death grip to a dizzying stock market rally upon his actual election.

What that tells me is that those so-called financial elites whose fortress Trump portrayed himself as storming at the head of an army of the forgotten aren’t all that scared and believe they will do just fine in the new order.

Perhaps that signals that Trump was merely play acting all along. His pulsating crowds shaking their fist at journalists or threatening minorities, and to imprison or even execute a former first lady, senator and secretary of state no more than a sideshow as unreal as Trump as in the ring of a WWE match.

Given his unreality, whatever emerges from the age of Trump is unpredictable and perhaps the man himself doesn’t know with the exception that he hopes to play the type of Moses leading Americans back to the promised land which would make Charlton Heston proud.

Apparently, the US stock market is rallying like Pavlov’ dog at the sound of coming tax cuts which will only exacerbate soaring inequality. On a more positive note they are also anxiously awaiting the kinds of infrastructure spending liberals like Paul Krugman have been arguing in favour of for years.

As the Steve Bannon the head of the alt-right media organization Breitbart, and the true genius behind Trump’s successful campaign strategy has laid out:

It’s everything related to jobs. The conservatives are going to go crazy. I’m the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. With negative interest rates throughout the world, it’s the greatest opportunity to rebuild everything. Shipyards, iron works, get them all jacked up. We’re just going to throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks. It will be as exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan revolution — conservatives, plus populists, in an economic nationalist movement.

This might mark an end to austerity and over reliance on central banks to keep the economy afloat, and though sorely needed it is not the same as support of social infrastructure which is maintained by many of the government  programs Trump and the GOP will aim to gut. Given how tight labor markets have become, it also might cause hyper-inflation or soaring interest rates as bond holder exit from the market and into an atavism like gold.

For now though the markets are far removed from the kind of crash that many thought a Trump victory would bring with the only group to have sunk with the election results being tech stocks. More on that in a bit.

What exactly Trump himself thinks about economics is something of a mystery. Other than seeing it as the ultimate game that creates the world’s winners and losers, where the most disreputable aren’t those obsessed by money or fame but those too stupid or lazy to play along with those who manipulate the rules so they can win.

Aside from that, Trump is like something out of another era- a kind of nationalist who thinks of the economy as almost synonymous with heavy industry. Inspired by his anti-globalism and the suffering of the rust belt men who launched him into office, Trump may be able to improve trade agreements at the margins and may even accelerate already apparent moves towards the “reshoring” of manufacturing. What he will not be able to do is restore manufacturing employment, which like agriculture before it, is seeing humans replaced with machines- and not just in the US.

I suppose even greater investment in manufacturing resulting in even further automation may improve US productivity, but not in the area where the majority of people work- that is services- where productivity gains are needed most- but where they’re needed least because those of us in rich countries are already drowning in stuff.

Perhaps Trump will try to a second great trust buster. That is, he will make an attempt to break up large banks and other multinational companies and especially the big 5 that dominate technology- Apple, Amazon, Alphabet, (Google) Facebook and Microsoft. At a minimum, Amazon appears to be in his sights.

Such a solution might go some way towards solving the fundamental economic problem of the age- namely the ever increasing accumulation of capital by only a handful of global companies and individuals. Yet it’s almost inconceivable that even a congress terrified of further populist revolt would go along with this. And even if they would, unless trust busting was truly global, such breakups would amount to the unilateral surrender of most of the world’s markets to the large multinationals based in other countries. Baidu and Taobao would fill the void left by a shattered Google or Amazon.

Trumponmics as of now is merely a set of assumptions and aspirations that are unlikely to survive their impact with reality because they reject or ignore the last several decades of economic change, namely, the move towards services and the rise of truly global companies. We’ll thus have to look elsewhere if we want to see how Trump will try to shape the current economic order while actually recognizing the economic order as it exists today.

I think one of the best places to look for this shape of Trumponomics would be in the thoughts of one of his smartest and richest advisers Peter Thiel (under any other administration I would say notorious) who lucky for us just wrote a book on the subject right on the eve of the election.

In an interview Theil rightly pointed out how the financial bubbles of the last generation have been catastrophic- that the system doesn’t work- and that what separated Trump from Clinton was his open acknowledgement of that fact. Theil also thought Trump’s move away from regulation would shift the balance back towards small business because large firms were not only able to better absorb the costs of regulation but often actively encouraged regulation to thwart upstart competitors.  In his book Zero to One Theil lays out a somewhat different and much deeper view of the current economy, what he sees as its problems, and his proposed solutions to them.

The big problem, as Theil sees it and explains in  Zero to One is that the present has failed to live up to its potential. We are living in the future that was imagined in the 1950’s and 60’s that was full of flying cars, space cities, and house robots, and though the technologies we possess are indeed wonders, we’ve certainly fallen short of those original dreams.

Part of the origin of this failure to reach our technological potential Theil lays at the feet of globalization. It’s not only that he thinks technology is a far more important driver for progress than globalization, he seems to think that globalization has slowed the pace of progress down- as cheap humans fill the role that should have been that of advanced machines or augmented, hyper-productive individuals.

That globalization is an unalloyed good is just one of a whole set of false assumptions Thiel believes is holding us back from our potential. Others include our belief that capitalism and competition are the same thing. In fact they are opposites, the whole goal of capitalism is to establish monopolies (zero to one) that then become the engines of progress.

Another would be that the shape of the future should not (or cannot) be defined in advance. The belief that the future will be better than the present but we have no idea what it will look like Theil calls the “curse of indefinite optimism”. The ultimate consequence of this is the move towards the financialization of the economy:

Finance epitomizes indefinite thinking because it is the only way to make money when you have no idea how to create wealth. (70)

In an indefinite world:

money is more valuable than anything you do with it. (71)

Thiel thinks this absence of an definite future we are trying to build means that the government spends its revenue on transfer programs rather than solving complex problem like “atomic weaponry and lunar exploration.” Such lack of a definite future also infects political philosophy both in its dominant egalitarian (Rawls) and libertarian (Nozick) forms where the goal is the adherence to a principle rather than the achievement of any particular form of society.

Darwinian probabilistic theory has also replaced intelligent design in the biological sciences (I’ve heard this before) the consequence of which is that we’ve lost sight of goals such as indefinite life extension. Yet wouldn’t the shift away from globalization and financialization to domestic production and the real economy not only promote accelerated automation (which Theil wants) but also demand even larger government transfer programs (such as a guaranteed income) which he derides as the application of advanced machines results in Marx’s “army of the unemployed”?

Thiel doesn’t think so but rather sees machines as a way to augment rather than replace human labor and thus better for domestic workers than globalization which truly does replace one worker with another (lower paid) one.

And he doesn’t just think the choices we make are mere political ones about what type of society we want to live in over the next century, but existential questions that will decide our very survival. Theil uses Nick Bostrom’s idea of 4 general futures for humanity- cycles of rise and fall, plateau, extinction, and take off, and argues that only road to human survival is to accelerate our pace towards take off because cycles of rise and fall have become unlikely now that knowledge is global, and plateau in a world of resource competition would likely result in extinction level conflicts.

Who knows how much, if any, of Theil’s views will inform the eventual economic policies of the Trump administration. And while there is certainly some truth to Theil’s diagnoses of our current malaise, what his vision of the future deeply lacks is any vision of justice, global responsibility, sustainability, or concept of the good life. His future is all about building an ever more powerful machine. I can see it in neon floating in space now: The Singularity: brought to you by the “God Emperor” Donald J. Trump.      

Trump and the Iron Heel

The Iron Heel

Like many others, I am still absorbing the shock of Trump’s victory in the presidential election. For the last month I had been on a holding pattern on the blog in the remote chance the pundits and pollsters had gotten this election terribly wrong. They have. Rather than having elected Hillary Clinton who would have preserved the status quo with all its flaws, but also its protections, a large portion of the electorate has chosen to blow up the system and take a dangerous, potentially dystopian turn.

It’s perhaps a good time then to reacquaint ourselves with depictions of American dystopia. Indeed what is perhaps the very first example we have of a dystopia in literature was written by an American and depicted the US under the rule of a right wing dictatorship. Way back during the last presidential election I wrote about Jack London’s now largely forgotten novel, The Iron Heel. I think my analysis of how that novel applies to our own time still holds, and frighteningly, appears on the verge of becoming our reality.

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The Iron Heel is a 1908 novel by Jack London. It’s a novel which I think is safe to say is not read much today, which is a shame especially for an Americans, for the setting for what was the world’s first modern political dystopia, a novel written when Orwell and Huxley were just babes in the cradle was the United States itself.

Reading the novel as an American gives puts one in a kind of temporal vertigo. It’s not only like finding a long forgotten photograph of oneself and being stuck with the question “is that really me?”, it as if when one turned the photo over one found a note from scribbled n from yourself to yourself a kind of time capsule rich with the assumption that the past “you” knew who the “you” reading the note would be. It makes you start asking questions like “am I the person who I thought I would be?” and set to pondering on all the choices and events which have put you on, or diverted you from, your self-predicted path.

The Iron Heel tells the story of the rise of , “The Oligarchy”, a fascist state deftly laid in almost all of its details before fascism had even been invented. The fact that London pictures the rise of not only the world’s first fascist regime, but what might be considered the world’s first communist revolution not “out there” in the Old World, but on the familiar grounds of the United States where places like California, Idaho, “Indian Territory”, Chicago and Washington D.C. are the setting for events that are hauntingly similar to ones that would indeed happen in Europe decades later, turn the novel into a kind of alternative history.

The story itself is presented in the form of a kind of time capsule, a buried manuscript that has been discovered by a scholar, Anthony Meredith,  in the year 2,600 AD. Footnotes throughout the book are written from this very long view of the future when, after centuries of repression and false starts, a true Brotherhood of Man has been obtained.

The manuscript,  footnoted by Meredith,  contains the story of, Avis Everhard, the wife and fellow revolutionary of seminal figure in London’s fictional history, Ernest Everhard. Avis tells the tale of an early 20th century America racked by inequality, class divisions, and the most brutal forms of labor exploitation. These conditions set the stage for a looming socialist revolution, a political alliance between industrial labor in the form of a Socialist Party, and American farmers in the Grange Movement, that is preempted by the forces of capital. Ernest Everhard is elected as a socialist US Senator, one of many members of the Socialists and Grange Movement who have been swept into national and state office by the groundswell of support for revolutionary change.

The chance to change American  society through constitutional means does not last long. The Oligarchs use a feigned terrorist incident in the US Capitol to turn the American Constitution into a mere facade. Members of the Grange Movement are barred from taking their seats in state legislatures. Socialists are hounded from office pursued as potential terrorists and arrested. The Oligarchs create new mechanisms of social control.  London, writing before the US had a true and permanent standing Army, describes how The Oligarchs turn the state militias into a national army “The Mercenaries” with their own secret service tied to the police that will act against any perceived challenges to the social order.

Writing a generation before corporatism was even conceived, London describes how this oligarchic coup would manage to divide and conquer the forces of labor by essentially buying off and vesting in the system vital workers such as those in steel or railroads so that crippling general strikes became impossible, and all other unskilled labor was pushed into what we would understand as Third World conditions of bare survival.

These wage slaves would be compelled to build the glittering new cities of the Oligarchs such as Ardis and Asgard. The lower classes are robbed of that singularly American right- the right to bare arms, and only allowed to travel using an internal passport system similar to the one used in Czarist Russia.

Under these conditions, actual revolution brews, and the Oligarchs and the revolutionary forces engage in a protracted struggle of espionage and counter-espionage that for the revolutionaries is to culminate in a planned revolution- essentially a set of coordinated terrorists attacks on US communications and military infrastructure that the revolutionaries hope will spark a genuine revolution against the Oligarchs.

The Oligarchs again set out to short- circuit revolution, this time by staging a massive military assault on the heart of American labor, Chicago. The assault unleashes violent clashes between the well-armed Mercenaries and police forces and howling crowds of the poor armed only with household tools: knives, clubs, axes. In scenes far more gripping than those in Collin’s Catching Fire, London depicts urban warfare between security forces fighting raging crowds and bomb throwing insurgents who attack their targets from the heights of skyscrapers, in a way surely reminiscent of Fallujah, or even more so, what is going on right now in Syria.

Eventually, the oligarchic forces burn the poor sections of Chicago to the ground, and end all chance of successful revolution within the lifetime of the Everhard’s. In such conditions the effort at revolution becomes pure terrorism, the names of the terrorists groups no doubt reflective of the limited geographical area in which they operate and America’s history of resistance to the powers of the federal government such as the Mormon group the Danites or the Comanches. The Oligarch’s suppression of revolutionary forces eventually reaches the Everhard’s. The novel ends abruptly with Avis’s narration stopping in mid-sentence.

The Iron Heel is a kind of warning, and the strange thing about this warning is that London, who was labeled a gloom obsessed pessimists by many of his fellow socialists, got so much of what would happen over the next 50 or so years eerily right, with the marked exception of where they were to occur.

Such prescience is hard to achieve even for someone as brilliant as the fellow novelist Anatole France the author of the introduction to the 1924 edition of the The Iron Heel I hold in my hand. France, who was 80 at the time and would die the same year, thinks London was right, that the Iron Heel was coming, but doesn’t think it will arrive for quite some time. “In France, as in Italy and Spain, Socialism, is for the moment, too feeble to have anything to fear from the Iron Heel., for extreme feebleness is the one safety of the feeble. No Heel of Iron will trouble itself to tread down this dust of a party”. (xiv)

1924 is the same year that the murder of socialist Giacomo Matteotti truly began the fascist dictatorship in Italy- a kind of corporate state that was certainly anticipated by London in The Iron Heel. Within 6 years “feeble” Spanish socialism would be locked in a civil war with fascism, within 9 years, the Nazis would rise to power on the backs of the same sort of fears of revolution, and using the same kinds of political machinations described in The Iron Heel. The bombing of the Reichstag ,which was blamed on the German communists but really committed by the Nazi’s, became the justification for an anti-revolutionary crackdown and the transformation of German democracy into a sham. It makes one wonder if Hitler himself had read The Iron Heel!

The Iron Heel throws up all sorts of historical questions and useful analogies for the current day. Why did neither revolutionary socialism or outright fascism emerge in the US in the 1930’s as it did elsewhere?

The Iron Heel should perhaps be read as part of a trilogy with Sinclair Lewis’ 1936 It can’t happen here! Which describes the transformation of America into a Nazi-like totalitarian state, or Philip Roth’s 2004 The Plot Against America which describes a similar fascists regime which comes about when the Nazi sympathizer and isolationist, Charles Lindberg, win the presidential race against Franklin Roosevelt. Full reviews of both will be found here at some point in the future the point for now being that there were figures and sentiments in American politics that might have added up to something quite different than American exceptionalism during this period. That what we ended up with was as much the consequence of historical luck as it was of any particularly American virtue.

Some, on both the right and the left would argue that what we have now is just a softer version of the tyranny portrayed by London, Lewis, and Roth, and they do indeed have something, but I do not as of now want to go there. The reason, I think, the kind of socialist revolution found in other countries never got legs in the United States the way it did elsewhere was that the US, which had been a hotbed of labor unrest and socialist sentiment and anticipation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, willingly adopted a whole series of reforms that made worker grievances against capitalism less acute.

  • Unemployment benefits- 1935
  • Eight-hour workday- 1936
  • Worker’s compensation in event of injury (widespread by 1949).
  • Government funded support for the poor that preserved a minimum standard of living- 1935
  • Minimum wage- 1938
  • Right to unionize and the adoption of a formal system to hold strikes- 1935

In addition controls were placed on financial markets so that the kinds of wild swings, financial panics, that periodically brought the nation’s economy to its knees would no longer occur.

Even when derided on the right as moves towards socialism or on the left as delusional reformism, these changes followed by an unprecedented era of prosperity for the middle class from the 1940s through the 1970s, essentially ended the vicious circle presented in the Iron Heel of a political system unresponsive to worker grievances and exploitation that gave rise to forces of social revolution that in turn  engendered a move towards state violence and tyranny by the wealthy elites, which resulted in widespread terrorism by continually frustrated revolutionaries.

As a system for producing widespread prosperity faltered in the 1970s the American right, followed by increasingly centrist Democrats diagnosed the economic malaise as having originated from both the choke hold American unions had over the economy and the stifling effects of too much government interference.  Through the 1980’s and 90’s labor union power was dismantled, economic production globalized, capital markets freed up from earlier constraints, welfare “re-formed”.

Support for the lower classes was now to come not primarily through government programs, but through tax policy, such as the Earned Income Tax, that would free individuals to make their own choices and vest them in the capitalist economic system rather than view them as an opposition. Such reforms with their explicit claim that they would lead to universal prosperity collapsed with the 2008 financial crisis and neither the American right nor the American left has any clear understanding of where we go from here. And while it’s true that programs to support the poor and working class, such as food stamps and health care, expanded the most since LBJ under President Obama, they did so in light of the deepest financial crisis since the Great Depression.

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With the 2016 election the Republic may have entered its deepest and most dangerous challenge to its legitimacy since the Civil War. What fills me with trepidation is that the only way to stop the Trumpian turn and preserve the rights and protections built up since the founding may be to engage in the very kinds of resistance and civil disobedience that will feed Trump’s open authoritarianism and disregard for the constitution. If that proves the case Jack London’s dystopia will have arrived, though a century late, and empowered by technologies of surveillance and control he could never have foreseen.  

A Declaration of Independence, from Trump

a-christian-dirce-by-henryk-siemiradzki

Should Donald Trump win the presidency, a prospect that looks almost impossible at the moment I am writing this, he certainly wouldn’t be the first misogynists and philanderer to occupy the White House, but he would be the first populist demagogue since Andrew Jackson who had broken through to that office, and everything he says leads me to believe he would, whether out of ignorance or the desire for the efficiency and the rush of power,  either disregard or even begin to dismantle our now over two century old constitutional order.

Thankfully, and barring some catastrophe, or some scandal regarding Hillary Clinton so troubling it erases her current advantage (a prospect that given the Clinton’s history is uncomfortably possible), Trump will in all likelihood lose. The immediate task will then be to shore up the legitimacy of the system with his followers who will likely doubt the results.

My prayer is that none of the disappointed whom Trump has whipped into a frenzy over a “rigged” election turn his dark and violent words into actual bloodshed. Indeed, Trump may be on the verge of tying together a host of disturbing, contemporary trends to create something genuinely new- a political movement as pure spectacle whose goal isn’t so much power as to nurture the desire for revolution only to feed off of the very individuals it cast as heroes crushed by a sinister and cruel order.

That’s the real danger: that we’re only at the beginning, rather than near the end, of this already exhausting drama. Conservative commentator, and, from the beginning outspoken opponent of Trump George Will thinks that Trump might be like chemotherapy for the GOP, his historic loss ultimately purging it of those who either never held the core principles of America’s libertarian brand of conservatism, or were more than willing to surrender them when it became politically expedient. Yet it is just as likely that Trump will end up being the midwife of a politico-media entity that would be like cancer itself eating away at the legitimacy of the the body-politic in which it lives.

Even discounting the potential for violence that would come from such a permanent movement of this sort, that’s a pretty dark vision, so let me close my eyes and imagine a much brighter scenario. That Trump on losing the election does what every other political figure, regardless of how nasty, has done since the birth of the Republic- that he graciously admits his legitimate defeat. To make my day dream even brighter, after his loss, Trump slithers away from the political world and back under his glittering rock of beauty pageants and Trump Success eau de toilette spray from which he came never to be heard from again.

Now to wake up- even if Trump and his Trumpians disappear from the political scene, it is still the case there will remain a hell of a lot of work to do, which we should have known had we ever watched The Tonight Show with Jay Leno (though I was always a Letterman man myself.) On The Tonight Show Leno used to do a skit where he’d walk the streets of New York. He would stop people and ask questions every American should know about the country’s history and politics such as “What do we celebrate on the 4th of July?” Or “Who is the vice president?”. The gag was just how horribly wrong people answered these questions. It was a funny segment, but also kind of, well… sad.

What we’ve seen in this election is how such ignorance can be turned into a weapon. And I don’t mean ignorance as in stupidly, as in Trump and his supporters are somehow stupid. Trump is anything but stupid, and if the people who follow him whom I personally know are a representative sample, neither are his followers. Rather it’s that that both Trump and his loyalists seem to be either ignorant or uncommitted to the very principles that hold our quite fragile polity together in the first place.

The proof I have of this assertion is not only statements that Trump himself has made, but that he has apparently never lost core on account of them. Instead, what seems to be sinking his campaign is the same sort of sexual character accusations we’ve be accustomed to for quite some time, and which almost destroyed the presidency of the spouse of his rival.

Democrats have aggressively, and sometimes shamefully, tried to personalize Trump’s political attacks, a tactic that’s probably effective, but which muddies the principle- we give rights to people despite the fact that we dislike them. In fact, it’s the people we dislike the most who are in greatest need of rights. Trump, and that means the perhaps forty percent of Americans who think he’s a fit candidate for office, have shown disregard or ignorance of rights guaranteed by the constitution in at least the following ways:

In other words, in modern times we’ve never seen a political figure show such ignorance of, or disregard for, the very principles which hold our country together. More importantly we’ve never seen what is actually an anti-constitutional movement become the animating force behind a major political party. And while some might think this signals that the so-called “American Creed” has had its day, we might also conclude that this election has taught us the importance of not only the constitution itself- in providing protections against want to be tyrants- but the necessity of remembering, or even merely learning- and teaching our children- what its principles and protections actually are.

Painting: “A Christian Dirce”, by Henryk Siemiradzki.

 

What democracy’s future shouldn’t be

birth-of-a-tyrant

As William Gibson has famously pointed out, the job of the science fiction writer is not to predict the future but to construct one plausible version of it from the pieces already laying around.  I assume that Malka Older was trying to do this deliberately low key Gibsonian thing with her novel Infomacracy, but given the bizarre nature of this current election cycle she instead, and remarkably, ended up anticipating not merely many of its real or feared events, but even ended her novel on the same note of exhaustion and exasperation and even dread resulting from the perceived failures of representative democracy now expressed by many among the elites, and from another the other angle, the young.

In terms of setting and plot, Infomacracy takes place in an imagined near future when democracy, with some notable exceptions, has gone global. As a consequence of some never quite explained crisis, the major powers we associate with political power today- The US, China, the EU, and Japan are no more. The world’s governments have been replaced by a global democratic order in which a variety of corporate and NGO based political groups compete with one another for electorally generated power. Given the absurd, and disturbing shape of current politics, and not just in the US but globally, one would be forgiven for thinking Older is out to describe a Utopian vision of the future, but you would be wrong.

Instead she describes global democracy dying almost the moment it is born. Sabotaged by an almost successful attempt to hijack a world election by the ruling party which is likely to lose called Heritage, or to ride to the majority through the resurrection of historical hatreds- the intent of the corporatist party named Liberty. I shouldn’t have to mention that there’s a party called Philip- Morris, to convey that Older is not describing a political order any small d democrat would look forward to. And all of this takes place within a world where it appears that the vast majority of media and knowledge are mediated by a sort of super-Google known simply, and perhaps as a shoutout to James Gleick, as Information.

Within the midst of this story Older ends up anticipating a number of the actual and potential cyber assaults on the democratic process during the current election. In Older’s imagined world computer hacks are a political weapon, challenges to democratic legitimacy are a trump card (pun intended), and an internet behemoth has become the arbiter of truth.

Whatever complaints I might have about the believability or depth of the novel’s characters, it did manage to make explicit something I hadn’t really thought through before. Few of us living in prosperous, liberal- democratic societies wouldn’t hope that at some point in the future the kinds of rights and capacities we take for granted will not be extended to all of the world’s peoples. And we think this even if we’ve finally learned the tragic foolishness of freedom compelled from the barrel of a gun.

Yet such faith and hope in the world’s democratic future probably should seem strange given how exhausted many of us have become with the sophistry and theater that defines electoral politics. It’s not just the exhaustion of being ruled by ad men, it’s ad men who don’t care what we want and are corrupt and incompetent besides. That American political consultants find it so easy to move between our system and that of deeply corrupt or authoritarian societies should be a troubling sign.

Older manages to capture this, but rather than imagining some truly democratic alternative ends up giving us the view of Plato refracted through the lens of the information age. After all, the heroes of her novel aren’t really in pursuit of political freedom, but are chasing an ideal world where the right course of action arises from an honest wrestling with the facts themselves, rather than, as in any democratic order worth its salt, emerging from conflicting human values.

One of these characters, Ken, is a high ranking member of the PolicyFirst party whose platform is about reasoned solutions along with a deliberate avoidance of the politics of personality and persuasion. Whereas the protagonist of the novel, Mishima, works for Information whose role it seems is not just to bring under one roof all the world’s knowledge and communication but to actively rid the world of falsehood and propaganda.

Whatever the outcome in the novel its underlying message seems to be one of resignation. With this pessimism Older seems to have joined the growing chorus of thinkers who think the way the internet’s democratic promise has imploded since the year zero of 2011 proves Plato was onto something. Let’s hope they’re wrong and that there are alternative versions of digital democracy waiting in the wings, but things don’t look good. 

Is the internet killing democracy?

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Standing as we are with our nose so tightly pressed against the glass, it’s impossible to know what exactly the current, crazy presidential election will mean, not just for American, democracy, but for the future of democracy itself. Of course, much of this depends on the actual outcome of the election, when the American public will either chose to cling to a system full of malware,  corrupted and buggy, yet still functional, or risk everything on a hard reboot. This would include the risk that we might never be able to reset the clock to the time before we had plunged over the abyss and restore an order that while outdated, ill-designed, and running up against the limits of both still managed to do the job.

Then again, even if Americans don’t go for a hard reboot, that we is avoid electing Trump, it might not be the end of the sort of virus, or even Trojan Horse, his near election had represented. Perhaps instead we’re only at the beginning of the process where the internet breaks democracy.

In less than six weeks we’ll learn a number of very important things about the impact of the 21st century communications technologies on democracy, including how such technologies are likely to be used in elections. For one, we’ll learn whether the centralized, data driven and highly targeted type of voter mobilization pioneered by the Obama reelection campaign in 2012- and now being replicated by Hillary Clinton- is more effective than the kind of shoestring budget, crowd-seeding strategy of Trump which has been technological in the sense that it takes advantage of the major weakness of our age of balkanized media, namely its inability to hold our attention, and thus its over reliance on scandalous behavior to capture our eyes and ears. Trump has also deftly used platforms such as Twitter to do an end run around established media and political institutions. His campaign is a kind of tabloid-addicted media, Twitter enabled coup against the dominant elites, first, of the GOP, and ultimately of the country itself. And neither the elites nor the rest of us non-elites praying for a Trump defeat would necessarily be completely out of the woods should Clinton actually win the election.

A few months back, in the small city of Altoona Pennsylvania, not far from where I live, Trump gave a speech in which he said that the only way Clinton could win the election was if it was “rigged”. From the perspective of those located in the post-industrial wasteland that comprises much of Pennsylvania  the idea that a Clinton victory is only possible through some type of conspiracy will make a great deal of sense. On the street I live on, perhaps one out of every four homes sprouts a Trump sign. The rest of the town is like that as are many of the small communities between here and Schuylkill county, where Trump’s usual catchphrase “Make America Great Again”, is often replaced with “Trump digs coal”.

Once while driving home from work my eyes nearly popped out of my head as I thought I had spotted a Hillary sign on a local lawn. It ended up being a poster that read “Hillary for Prison.” In all of my travels throughout the state I have seen only two actual “Vote Hillary” signs, and both of them were in the progressive, prosperous bubble of State College. If I didn’t actually trust in much of what the media tells me, and never traveled beyond the Pennsylvania rust belt, I’d guess Trump would beat Clinton in a landslide. I wonder what many of my neighbors will think when he doesn’t.

A replay of the election fiasco of Bush vs Gore might be very different sixteen years later given the fact that Trump has shown such willingness to step outside political norms, and has at least suggested that he might violate the most deeply held norm, that US elections are essentially fair and therefore should not be contested. Unlike the Bush vs Gore election, Trump vs Clinton occurs in an environment where the mainstream media and the leadership of the major political parties face competition from internet (and radio) enabled alternative media, and political actors are able to connect directly with the base of the party. And none of this takes into account the possibility that the election could be disrupted in such a way as to call into question its actual outcome even among those who appear to have gotten the result they were hoping for.

Such doubts might come from a domestic source bent on disrupting the election for political ends, or even the prospect of financial gain, by, for instance, short selling the markets before the vote takes place. Then again, such interference seems much more likely to come from a foreign source, most notably Russia, which has already, it appears, collaborated with Wikileaks to discredit Hillary Clinton. Russia’s real intention here seems less to help Trump and harm Clinton than to spread a pall of suspicion over American elections themselves. Though, given Trump’s ties and affection for the Kremlin a Trump win would be the sour cream on Putin’s smetannik.

Our digital communications architecture might also play a role in this disruption. As Bruce Schneier has pointed out our electronic voting systems are alarmingly vulnerable to being hacked. And unlike when I order an MTO at Sheetz, my vote doesn’t generate a paper receipt. Even an unfounded rumor that widespread electronic tampering had taken place might give an otherwise fair election the taint of illegitimacy. A belief that would be fostered and inflamed by those in alternative media for whom conspiracy theories and the revolt against elites has become their bread and butter.

None of this is to suggest that civil war would be the outcome of a Clinton victory. Rather, it is to wonder out loud whether the internet, and above the balkanization media and erosion of political parties it brings, might just end up killing democracy, whether through a sudden heart attack, which is what an actual Trump victory (or widespread violence in the face of his defeat, or even such violence as a response to his victory) would mean, or, as seems more likely, the kind of slow terminal cancer a Clinton victory lacking traditional legitimacy might come to represent where one- by- one the necessary components of the system decay and ultimately fail in the face of a constantly mutating and spreading enemy that emerged from our own cells.

Decadent Europe’s Islamist Dystopia

 

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Sometimes I get the feeling that the West really is intellectually and spiritually bankrupt. I take my cue here not from watching Eurovision or anything like its American equivalent, but from the fact that, despite how radically different our circumstance is from our predecessors, we can’t seem to get beyond political ideas that have been banging around since the 19th century. Instead of coming up with genuine alternatives we rebrand antique ideas. After all, isn’t  “fully automated luxury communism” really just a technophilic version of communism which hopes to shed all association with breadlines or statues of strapping workers with hammers in their hands? Let’s just call the thing Marxism and get it the hell over with.

Yet perhaps nothing that’s in fact sclerotic and is trying to pass itself off as new is as bad as the so-called “alt-right” (personally I liked the term neo-reactionaries so much better). After all, it’s these guys who not only stand a chance of putting one of their own in the most powerful political office on the planet, they’ve actually already succeeded in dealing what may prove the first of many death blows to the European project with Brexit. No one should doubt that creeps on both sides of the pond are united in their push to tear down the liberal, globalist order.

So far, the alt-right seems to have gotten far more political traction than anything coming out of the left, which means we need to understand why this rise is taking place in order to counter it, and that means understanding the dark experience and emotions driving this micro-counterrevolution- that is impotence and fear. In this post I’ll focus on Europe, which will at least give me an excuse for not having to think about the comic nightmare that is Trump.

It’s specifically the situation in France that I think we should be paying the most attention to, for it seems to me that the Germans, given their recent history and despite their own ascendant right-wing, will probably maintain their sanity (and their humanity) on account of the depth of the scars left from their prior attempt to deconstruct and remake society based on the nightmares and fantasies of the right. (And for that matter many former East Germans, such as Angela Merkel herself, remember what it is actually like to live under the weight of a Marxism that had declared the whole tradition of civil rights and liberties to be nothing but a bourgeois fiction and become totalitarian).

It’s also the case that unlike the United States the French have lost all interest or capacity to support a globe straddling empire that, like all such empires, ended up embracing some version of often contentious pluralism and multiculturalism as part of the cost of the broad geographical extent of its influence and power.

Indeed, in France the far- right in the form of the National Front is represented by a major political party, and there many people apparently think that banning Islamic swimwear is a victory for women’s rights, or part of the French tradition of separating secular from spiritual power -laïcité– rather than a gesture of forced assimilation by Islamophobes.

Marie Le Pen sitting in the Élysée Palace in 2017 seems a far likelier scenario than Donald Trump assuming the presidency despite the fact that he faces a rival that is by all accounts weak, and by many measures, corrupt. Should the NF assume the leadership of France, the EU would be toast (I resisted the temptation to put french in front of that word), and one of the few, and the most culturally significant country to cling to the civic- nationalist tradition as an alternative to racial, ethnic and sectarian bonds as the basis for community would have asphyxiated in the face of a world becoming woven together ever more tightly through technology and the movement of ideas and people.

If you want to get a feel for this French experience of (or better fear surrounding) serrer le kiki by the “barbarians” it once tried to “civilize” one couldn’t do much better than reading Michel Houellebecq’s dystopian novel Submission, for that book gives us a glimpse into the spiritual cul de sac that is the 21st century European soul, an experience of being crippled by history from even imagining, let alone creating, an alternative future, a feeling of imprisonment that feeds into dark calls to tear the whole damn thing down so society can return to a lost world that never really was.

Submission depicts a dystopian France of the near future (2022). The novel tells the story of the rise of an Islamist government in France, which then goes on to monopolize control over education and eliminate the political and social equality and sets out to rebuild the Roman Empire by joining the European Union and the Middle East.

François, the protagonist anti-hero in this story, plays no real active role for or against in these happenings. Nor does he really experience them emotionally, rather, he kind of floats along with them, less like a man than a leaf on the wind. A middle-aged professor of literature who specializes in the 19th century French author Huysmans, his main interest is in sleeping with his students, or maybe even more so, eating a good, ethnically-exotic, lunch.

I must admit that for how much I disliked the politics of the book it’s hard, even in the English translation, not to see Houellebecq’s genius as an author. You never really doubt his characters’ authenticity. The individuals he depicts are painfully human. As just one example, Houellebecq has a way of seasoning serious political and philosophical conversations between his protagonist and other characters with the former’s desire for a good falafel or blow job. In that respect, the novel, as some have pointed out, is deeply compassionate towards our human-too-human condition.

Indeed, at one point I thought he was leading me through a kind of spiritual pilgrimage in which François moves away from the empty hedonism of late modernity back towards the kinds of deep spirituality of the medieval era only to find such spiritual time travel impossible. (Apparently this was also Houellebecq’s original intent).  

Fleeing the violence and threats of greater violence in Paris, but even more so his own impotent sexuality, ill health, and melancholy François travels to the monastery where an equally troubled and spiritually lost Huysmans converted to Catholicism over a century before. It’s perhaps the first time in the novel where we see the character experiencing something like hope, even to the point of falling into transcendence:

During my first visit I loved the Vigils, with the long meditative psalms in the middle of the night- as distant from Compline, and its farewell to the day, as it was from Lauds, which greeted the new dawn. Vigils was an office of pure waiting, of ultimate hope without any reason for hope (176).

Yet this pilgrim’s journey never reaches its destination derailed by François modern weakness and frustrations- his cigarette smoking keeps setting off the monastery’s smoke detector.

Had Houellebecq left it there his novel would stand with the classic tales of the anti-hero like Notes From the Underground or Metamorphosis. But he doesn’t stop there. Instead he encases his butterfly of a story about a modern man in search of meaning within the ugly chrysalis of an Islamist dystopia. He does this because he has a larger polemical and sociological (I hesitate to call it philosophical) point to make.

As can be seen in his prior novel The Elementary Particles (Atomized), Houellebecq is obsessed with the apparent chasm between a liberated sexuality (especially the sexual liberation of women) and the dependence of human societies and the human species itself on this sexuality to reproduce itself. These reflections occur within a context of steep demographic declines in Europe (which France seems only temporarily to have been able to slow).

In The Elementary Particles Houellebecq’s character Michel address this problem technologically- by perfecting human reproductive cloning. In Submission the author imagines we will solve this problem by embracing the inequality of the sexes and blatant suppression of women found in some Muslim societies.

It is impossible to take this position seriously.

Instead, Houellebecq in Submission is doing something eerily similar to what the painter Jean-Léon Gérôme did with his piece “The Slave Market”. At one and the the same time Gérôme managed to point out a real moral injustice- female slavery, judge a culture from position of moral superiority (France had outlawed the slave trade less than twenty years earlier), and no doubt managed to titillate the tight-buttoned gentlemen of the Victorian era.

In some ways Submission might also be seen as a novelization of one of the most influential philosophers of the European intellectual right, Pascal Bruckner. Indeed Bruckner book on the decline of marriage- Has Marriage for Love Failed? makes a brief appearance in the novel, and the novel’s play and tensions only makes sense when read from the position of Enlightenment claims to universalism which Bruckner so vigorously defends.

In the hands of Houellebecq Islam becomes a cure for the Western disease of cultural decadence and demographic decline that will ultimately kill the patient, namely the very Enlightenment values that society is supposed to embody.

Both Houellebecq and Bruckner’s obvious disdain or ignorance regarding the cultural diversity within Islam, especially the former’s inability or unwillingness to use his genius to craft even one genuine Muslim character, or to question the West’s role (both through foreign and domestic policy) in fostering the kinds of perversions found in political Islam are all symptomatic of his membership in what might be called Europe’s “Enlightenment Right”- its own version of American neo-conservatives.

It’s hard to argue that Houellebecq doesn’t possess such disdain given that, at one point in the novel the rector of the Sorbonne Robert Rediger who is trying to convert the sexually obsessed François to Islam “favorably” compares Islam (whose literal meaning is submission, as in submission to the will of Allah) to the erotic SN&M novel The Story of O.  And even where the views of Houellebecq towards the Islamist government are somewhat ambiguous- as, for instance, his depiction of it implementing the policy of distributism–  (a reorientation towards localism that I’ve seen everywhere from Paul Ryan to Douglas Rushkoff lately), it’s clear that the purpose of such policies is to dismantle the welfare state so that power will return to religious institutions and especially families and their heads-of-households.

What gave Submission instant notoriety and potency was that it  appeared on the very day of the viscous Islamist attack on the French satirists of Charlie Hebdo, not only brought the novel notoriety, but seemed to confirm the very weakness in the face of radical Islam by French society that the book tried to convey. It is indeed the case that French society faces the very real danger of radical Islam. Banning the burkini is not a solution to this problem- finding a place in French society for French Muslims is, and Submission rather than helping on that score does just the opposite.

There are two problems here, only one of which is real. The first is that the problem of falling birthrates isn’t one of irreligious societies alone, and it’s not problem than the most admittedly paternalistic variants of Islam- such as the Wahabism found in Saudi Arabia actually prevent. Quite to the contrary, birth-rates are falling in the Islamic world far faster than they have in the West. The fear of an old-decrepit Europe overwhelmed by scores of Muslims breeding far-quicker because of their suppression is nothing but a dark fantasy, even if the current refugee crisis arising from the wars in Syria and Libya not to mention the far too under-reported crises in South Sudan and Eritrea are very real right now, as is Europe’s need to evolve into a migrant society or fall into the kind of economic and geopolitical stagnation seen in Japan.

The second, the real problem is quite different. We’ve reached a weird stage in our culture where the only intellectuals who need actual courage, to put their very lives on the line, are those too often motivated (or at least used as tools by) those driven by hate or disdain. Because courage is the necessary virtue of politics, and like all virtues, is only learned through practice, we find ourselves in a situation where only those expressing sentiments the majority of educated people find vile are actually able to practice political courage. It’s a society where elites lack all courage which has atrophied to the point of decadence and such decadence that is not far away from being overthrown by barbarians who are not only not lacking in courage, but would face so little martial defense of the liberal order they disdain should they decide to tear the whole thing down .