How Sinclair Lewis predicted Trump, and how he didn’t


I have to admit I found Sinclair Lewis’ novel It can’t happen here painful to read. This was less because Lewis’ tale of a fascist takeover of America felt so close to home, which at points it did, than the fact that the book as a piece of literature was just plain awful.

I won’t go into details on that much, suffice it to say that if not for the novel’s importance as a dystopian thought experiment and political warning no one now, and in the future, would likely be talking about it. Perhaps it’s best to look upon It can’t happen here less as a novel and more of as a sort of political compass, for my guess is, as long as our American Republic lasts, we will return to it whenever we feel ourselves lost and in danger of wandering in the darkness towards dictatorship.

It can’t happen here depicts a 1936 presidential election won by a populist candidate named Senator Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip who heads the League of Forgotten Men. After winning the election Windrip proceeds to dismantle the American system of government and create an authoritarian regime. The novel is told from the perspective of its protagonists, Doremus Jessup, a Yankee journalist who will eventually join the resistance against Windrip’s “Cor-po” state- a fusion of corporate interest, white nativists and the military. As Windrip’s presidency fails to resurrect economic growth he is replaced in a coup by his Secretary of State, Lee Sarason, who moves the country even further in the direction of European style fascism upon which widespread rebellion breaks out. The novel ends with the country in the grip of a second American Evolution/ Civil War.

You would not be remiss in seeing in Windrip, a populist president with the potential for authoritarianism with his blending of white nativism and corporatism (in addition to his affection for generals) a twentieth century version of Donald Trump. Indeed, Lewis begins a number in chapters of It can’t happen here with a quote from Windrip’s imagined autobiography entitled Zero Hour that seem eerily similar to the types of speeches Trump made at his infamous rallies, though Buzz uses bigger words.

Here’s how Windrip feels about the press:

I know the Press only too well. Almost all editors hide away in spider-dens, men without thought of Family or Public Interest or the humble delights of jaunts out-of-doors, plotting how they can put over their lies, and advance their own positions and fill their greedy pocketbooks by calumniating Statesmen who have given their all for the common good and who are vulnerable because they stand out in the fierce Light that beats around the Throne. (Chapt. 5)

Here’s one example of how he makes his appeal to the common man:

When I was a kid, one time I had an old-maid teacher that used to tell me, “Buzz you’re the thickest-headed dunce in school.” But I noticed that she told me this a whole lot oftener than she used to tell the other kids how smart they were, and I came to be the most talked-about scholar in the whole township. The United States isn’t so different, and I want to that a lot of the stuffed shirts for their remarks about Yours Truly.  (Chapt. 11)

And here’s an example of the American dictator’s economic nationalism:

I shall not be content till this country can produce every single thing we need, even coffee, cocoa, and rubber, and so keep our dollars at home. If we can do this and at the same time work up tourist traffic so that foreigners will come from every part of the world to see such remarkable wonders as the Grand Canyon, Glacier and Yellowstone etc, parks, the fine hotels of Chicago, & etc., this leaving their money here we shall have such a balance of trade as will go far to carry out my often-criticized yet completely sound idea of from $3,00 to $5,000 per year for every single family-that is, I mean every real American family. Such an inspiring Vision is what we want, and not this nonsense of wasting our time at Geneva and talky-talk a Lugano, wherever that is. (Chap. 12)


As a novelist, Sinclair Lewis is most insightful where the essential skill of the novelist is needed most, that is, in showing us how the foibles and weaknesses of human psychology can lead both individuals and societies towards dark choices and disaster. Here’s are the words justifying a vote for the demagogue Windrip which he puts into the mouth of an imagined banker R.C. Crowley who sees authoritarianism as a short road to efficiency and his own economic interest:

Why are you so afraid of the word ‘Fascism,’ Doremus? Just a word—just a word! And might not be so bad, with all the lazy bums we got panhandling relief nowadays, and living on my income tax and yours—not so worse to have a real Strong Man, like Hitler or Mussolini—like Napoleon or Bismarck in the good old days—and have ’em really run the country and make it efficient and prosperous again. ‘Nother words, have a doctor who won’t take any back-chat, but really boss the patient and make him get well whether he likes it or not!”  (Chap. 2)

In large part Lewis wrote It can’t happen here as a kind of political prophylactic against the populist demagogue- Huey P. Long challenging and beating president Roosevelt, whose policies had yet to really dent the suffering of the Great Depression, in the 1936 election. (Long would actually be assassinated in September, 1935). Yet Lewis’ novel was also a kind of mea culpa for a colossal political failure by his wife- the journalist Dorothy Thompson.

Thompson was one of the most influential women of the early 20th century who broke ground for women in journalism ever after. It is a great shame, therefore, that she seems to be largely forgotten. Unfortunately, this otherwise brilliant journalist also wrote a piece about Adolf Hitler that totally missed his import and the great dangers he posed. In 1931, before Hitler had become the German chancellor, but when it was already clear he was poised to gain a leadership role, Thompson had the opportunity to meet and interview the future dictator who would transform Germany into a totalitarian state and plunge the world into its second world war in a generation. It was a meeting which became the source for her infamous essay I saw Hitler. She was not impressed:

When finally I walked into Adolph Hitler’s salon in the Kaiserhof Hotel, I was convinced that I was meeting the future dictator of Germany. In something less than fifty seconds I was quite sure that I was not.

Thompson’s conclusion was that other political figures, parties, leading economic interests, and rival states would act to contain Hitler whom she considered a raving buffoon whose ideas defied common sense. In other words, his mania would be checked by its collision with reality.

I thought of this man before me, seated as an equal between Hindenburg and Bruening, and involuntarily I smiled. Oh, Adolph! Adolph! You will be out of luck!

She was, of course, horribly wrong.

So when Lewis writes It can’t happen here he is, in a sense, trying to undo Thompson’s mistake. Hitler has made the idea of buffoons like Long or Father Coughlin coming to power and overturning the American system plausible and Lewis is in effect pleading with readers to take the idea of an American dictator seriously. The question is, was it? And now, more importantly, is it?

To answer the first part of that question a little history is in order. The historian Arthur Schlesinger in his monumental history of the Roosevelt administration The Age of Roosevelt has several chapters devoted to “the rise of the demagogues” and a number of lessons can be drawn from it. One is just how experimental American politics became during the crisis years of the Depression and how Roosevelt, rather than having any preformed ideology about what should be done in response to the crisis proved himself a master at adopting experiments dreamed up elsewhere. Much of this experimentation and brake with the consensus of laissez faire economics came from populists such as Long or Father Coughlin whose position on the right-left spectrum is less than clear-cut- both were early supporters of Roosevelt, or in the case of Upton Sinclair were leftists but not to the point of embracing communism.

Long, the most well-known of these figures was himself a complicated character. He was more akin to a Hugo Chavez than a Hitler having established his own fiefdom in Louisiana, which at the same time it crippled the economic oligarchy that had formerly ruled that state and distributed its riches to the poor, also replaced democracy with one man rule and lined the very deep pockets of the “Kingfish”.

Yet even had Long lived, run against Roosevelt, and won the 1936 election it’s doubtful he could have be able to do the same thing to the US as a whole. Louisiana was a small, poor state. It’s institutions were too weak to withstand political pressure and they crumbled before Long’s political maneuvering. It was different for Roosevelt whose New Deal was often stymied by the Supreme Court and had his subsequent efforts to pack the court in his favor rejected. It’s not so much that Long would have found any attempt to do to the US what he did to Louisiana impossible, so much as resisted by one or another political or economic institution or group at every step along the way. Exactly the scenario Dorothy Thompson had expected to play out in Germany.

When Lewis imagines Buzz Windrip taking control of the presidency he pictures the whole American system being knocked over as easily as a deck of cards. US states are abolished and replaced with administrative districts, African Americans stripped of the right to vote, Windrip’s personal militia “The Minutemen” are granted the same status as the traditional US Army, both the US Congress and the Supreme Court are stripped of their veto power, and in the latter case legislative powers, and their members are actually placed under house arrest.

What Thompson got wrong was in failing to see that the relatively new and untried democratic institutions in  post- World War I Germany were vulnerable to complete collapse in the face of the mass unemployment and hyperinflation unleashed by the Great Depression and thus open to precisely the kind of manic gamble Hitler and the Nazis represented. What Lewis probably failed to see was that despite the depth of the Great Depression, the fact the the US had suffered no physical destruction or revolution on account of that same war left it far less vulnerable to any sudden overthrow of its much older institutions, which brings me back to Trump.

With Trump we get a chance, in a sense, to re-play Lewis’ imagined history in which a populist demagogue with a disdain for democratic norms breaks his way into the White House. My guess is that Long would have been heavily constrained by still functioning US political institutions and mobilized opposing interests, and that Trump will suffer a similar fate. Indeed, Trump’s position is even worse than Long’s would have been for perhaps a better 1930’s analog to Trump isn’t the Kingfish but the radio celebrity Father Coughlin. Long at least had a state’s political machinery under his thumb whereas Coughlin was merely used the new media of radio to do an end run around print media and the ruling political machines in the same way Trump has used social media an alternative news outlets to do something similar against mainstream media and the GOP.

That said, no one should want to repeat the same mistake as Dorothy Thompson which was to not see that a buffoon who would be dictator can successfully use a severe crisis to overturn a democracy. However unlikely such a scenario is with Trump (here a major terrorist attack, war, or even catastrophic scale natural disaster would play the role of Germany’s Reichstag fire enabling a lunge towards actual fascism) the best defense is to assume the worst and oppose Trump’s continued violations of democratic norms and ongoing moves towards a cruel carceral state with continued political and institutional resistance. Such opposition would make Lewis and Thompson proud and allow It can’t happen here to fulfill its true purpose which is making sure that it never happens here because we chose not to let it.   


The Roots of Rage

Perhaps the main problem with the case made by Pankaj Mishra in his Age of Anger is that it gives an outsized place to intellectuals and the ideas that inspire them, people and their works like Mishra and his books, and as consequence fails to bring to light the material forces that are such idea’s true source.

It’s one thing to be aware that today’s neo-liberalism, and the current populist revolt against them have roots stretching back to the Enlightenment and Rousseau’s revolt against it and to be made aware that there’s a contradiction at the heart of the Enlightenment project that has yet to be resolved. It’s quite another thing to puzzle out why even a likely doomed revolt against this project is taking place right now as opposed to a decade or even decades ago. To do that one needs to turn to insights from sociology and political economy, for if the crisis we are in is truly global- how is it so, and is it the same everywhere, or does it vary across regions?

The big trend that defines our age as much as any other is the growing littoralisation of human populations, and capital. In the developing world this means the creation of mega-cities. By 2050, 75  percent of humanity will be urbanized. India alone might have 6 cities with a population of over 10 million.     

What’s driving littoralisation in the developing world? I won’t deny that part of mass migration to the cities can be explained by people seeking more opportunities for themselves and especially for their children. It’s also the case that globalization has compelled regions to specialize in the face of cheap food and goods from elsewhere and thus reduced the opportunities for employment. Yet perhaps one of the biggest, and least discussed, reasons for littoralization in the developing world is that huge tracts of land are being bought by often outside capitalists to set up massive plantations, industrial farms and mines.

It’s a process the urban sociologist Saskia Sassen describes in great detail in her book: Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy where she writes:

A recent report from the Oakland Institute suggest that during 2009 alone, foreign investors acquired nearly 60 million hectares of land in Africa.

Further, Oxfam estimates that between 2008 and 2009, deals by foreign investors for agricultural land increased by 200 percent. (94-95)

I assume the spread of military grade satellite imaging will only make these kinds of massive purchases easier as companies and wealthy individuals are able to spot heretofore obscured investment opportunities in countries whose politicians can easily be bought, where the ability of the public to resist such purchases and minimal, and in an environment where developed world governments no longer administer any oversight on such activities.  

For developing world states strong enough to constrain foreign capital these processes are often more internally than externally driven.  Regardless, much of littoralization is driven the expulsion of the poor as the owning classes use their political influence to chase greater returns on capital often oblivious to the social consequences. In that sense it’s little different than the capitalism we’ve had since that system’s very beginnings, which, after all, began with the conquest of the New World, slavery,  the dissolutions of the monasteries, and the enclosure movement.

What makes this current iteration of capitalism’s perennial features somewhat different is the role played by automation. I’ll get to that in a moment, but first it’s important to see how the same trend towards littoralisation seen in the developing world is playing out much differently in advanced economies.

Whereas the developing world is seeing the mass movement of people to the cities what the developing world is primarily experiencing is the movement of capital. Oddly, this has not meant that percentage of overall wealth has shifted to the coasts because at the same time capital is becoming concentrated in a few major cities those same cities are actually declining in their overall share of the population.

The biggest reason for this discrepancy appears to be the increasing price of real estate on the coast. Here’s what the US would look like if it was mapped by land values rather than area:

US land area by wealth


As in the case with the developing world much of the change in land values appears to be driven by investments by capital not located in the city, and in many instances located abroad.

In the developed world littoralisation has almost all been about capital. Though an increasing amount of wealth is becoming located in a few great cities, structural reasons are preventing people from being able to move there. Foreign money, much of it of nefarious origins has been pouring into global cities such as New York and London and driving up the cost of rent let alone property ownership. Often such properties are left empty while, as Tim Wu has pointed out, inflated property values have turned the most valuable real estate into something resembling ghost towns.

This is a world that in a strange way was anticipated by William Gibson in his novel The Peripheral where Gibson leveraged his knowledge of shady Russian real estate deals in London to imagine a future in which the rich actively interfere in the past of an Appalachian society in a state of collapse.

The evidence I have for this is merely anecdotal, but many of Dominicans who are newly arrived to small Pennsylvania cities such as Bethlehem and Lancaster are recent refugees from the skyrocketing rent of New York. If this observation is correct ethnic communities are being driven from large cities where wealth is increasing to interior regions with declining job prospects, which have not experienced mass immigration since the 1920’s. In other words we’ve set the stage for the rise of political nativist.

I said automation plays a role here that might make our capitalist era distinct from prior ones. The developed world has witnessed the hollowing out of the interior through automation before when farm machinery replaced the number of farmers required as a percentage of the population from 64 percent in 1850, to around 15 percent in 1950, to just two percent today. The difference is the decline of employment in agriculture occurred at the same time manufacturing employment was increasing and this manufacturing was much less concentrated, supporting a plethora of small and mid-sized cities in the nation’s interior, and much less dependent on high skills, than the capitalism built around the global city and high-end services we have today.

Automation in manufacturing has been decimating employment in that sector even after it was initially pummeled by globalization. Indeed, the Washington Post has charted how districts that went for Trump in the last election map almost perfectly where the per capita use of robots has increased.

Again speaking merely anecdotally, a number of the immigrants I know are employed in one of Amazon’s “fulfillment centers” (warehouses) in Pennsylvania. Such warehouses are among the most hyper-automated an AI directed businesses currently running at scale. It’s isn’t hard to see why the native middle class feels it is being crushed in a vice, and it’s been far too easy to mobilize human against human hate and deny- as Steven Mnuchin Trump’s Treasury Secretary recently did- that automation is even a problem.

These conditions are not limited to the US but likely played a role in the Brexit vote in the UK and are even more pronounced in France where a declining industrial interior is the source of the far-right Marine Le Pen’s base of support.  

The decline of industrial employment has meant that employees have been pushed into much less remunerative (on account of being much less unionized) services, that is, if the dislocated are employed at all.  This relocation to non-productive services might be one of the reasons why, despite the thrust of technology, overall labor productivity remains so anemic.

Yet, should the AI revolution live up to the hype we should witness the flood of robots into the services a move that will place yet larger downward pressure on wages in the developed world.

The situation for developing economies is even worse. If the economist Dani Rodrik is right developing economies are already suffering what he calls “premature de-industrialization” . The widespread application of robots threatens to make manufacturing in developed countries- sans workers– as cheap as products made by cheap labor in the developing world. Countries that have yet to industrialize will be barred from the development path followed by all societies since the industrial revolution, though perhaps labor in services will remain so cheap there that service sector automation does not take hold. My fear there is that instead of humans being replaced by robots central direction via directing and monitoring “apps” will turn human beings into something all too robot-like.

A world where employment opportunities are decreasing everywhere, but where population continues to grow in places where wealth has never, and now cannot accumulate, means a world of increased illegal migration and refugee flows- the very forces that enabled Brexit, propelled Trump to the White House, and might just leave Le Pen in charge of France.

The apparent victory of the Kushner over the Bannon faction in the Trump White House luckily saves us from the most vicious ways to respond to these trends. It also means that one of the largest forces behind these dislocations- namely the moguls (like Kushner himself) who run the international real estate market are now in charge of the country. My guess is that their “nationalism” will consist in gaining a level playing field for wealthy US institutions and individuals to invest abroad in the same way foreign players now do here. That, and that the US investors will no longer have their “hands-tied” by ethical standards investors from countries like China do not face, so that weak countries are even further prevented from erecting barriers against capital.

Still, should the Bannon faction really have fallen apart it will present an opportunity for the left to address these problems while avoiding the alt-right’s hyper-nationalistic solutions. Progressive solutions (at least in developed economies) might entail providing affordable housing for our cities, preventing shadow money from buying up real estate, unionizing services, recognizing and offsetting the cost to workers of automation. UBI should be part of that mix.

The situation is much more difficult for developing countries and there they will need to find their own, and quite country specific solutions. Advanced countries will need to help them as much (including helping them restore barriers against ravenous capital) as they can to manage their way into new forms of society, for the model of development that has run nearly two centuries now appears to be irrevocably broken.

Raging against the machine

As a consequence of our geographical isolation and preponderance of our country’s power Americans, at least since the Civil War, haven’t paid much attention to what is going on in the rest of the world. One can assume that few of us know or have thought all that much about how a Republic under president Trump isn’t just a sort of primal scream emanating from the failures of US politics and culture that we’ve been storing up for over a generation- though it is that as well- but stands as only one representative of a truly global phenomenon. In addition to Trump, populists strongmen now dominate many of the world’s most important and powerful countries and many lesser ones. There’s Xi Jinping in China, Narendra Modi in India, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, and yes, Vladimir Putin in Russia. Should Marie Le Pen take the French presidency in the upcoming elections a woman will join what for now is an all male club.

This wasn’t supposed to have happened. At the end of the Cold War we were promised an end to history. The world appeared to be inexorably moving in a liberal direction promising an end to the authoritarianism and dictatorship of the past, taking us through the providential telos of history now stripped of any reference to the divine or transcendent towards one world united and free world. The internet that emerged in this same era was thought to be the harbinger of a “global mind” of our finally unified world and would serve as the vector for a new and more democratic form of politics.

Many of us who once believed in this story are nowadays asking where did it all go wrong, whereas Pankaj Mishra in his new book The Age of Anger: a history of the present aims to show us why we were never right in the first place. Somehow we managed to forget, in all our talk about the end of history, the wisdom of markets, or the supposed disappearance of violence, that the inadequacy of the Enlightenment project had been apparent since Rousseau. To build a society on the basis of status seeking where only a tiny minority would ever scale the heights of wealth, meritocracy, and power, all the while proclaiming universal equality was a recipe for individuals being crushed under the weight of an inescapable ressentiment.

To aim for such as society at the same time we were willfully and inadvertently eliminating all the protections individuals had against such competition, whether in the form of the welfare-state built as consequence the disasters of the first age of ressentiment in the 20th century, or through more traditional means of support such as local communities, churches, and the extended and nuclear family- well, this was a recipe for revolution. And as we should have learned from fascism, revolution can just as likely come in a right-wing as a left-wing form.

What Pankaj Mishra sets out to do, and largely succeed in doing, in The Age of Anger is to wake us from our historical amnesia though an intellectual history that traces the roots of our failed enlightenment from its beginnings in the 18th century until today.

Underlying this history is a truth Mishra thinks too few liberals grasps. Ultimately the liberals are right in the sense that we do now live in one world in which every culture is going through a similar process of modernity. What liberals get wrong is ignoring the socially wrenching aspects of this modernity and in believing that the conditions it unleashes are sustainable or indeed even represent the type of society we should hope will be found in the human future.

For Mishra, Voltaire and other philosophes who during the 18th century imagined a commercial society in which the pursuit of wealth was made universal, and the upper echelons of power and status were open to those who rose into its ranks, rather than merely those born into it, were blind to is how this vision would collide with equality and democracy. Voltaire especially was the great fan of “enlightened despots” such as Russia’s Peter the Great. (The great myth of liberalism is that capitalism and democracy go hand in hand.) What was clear to the philosophes of the enlightenment was that you could have a competitive, meritocratic society in an already egalitarian society (US in the 1800s) which was politically democratic, but that you could not have a competitive social order which was both inegalitarian and democratic at the same time.

Intense competition in a society in which political action is either stifled or is no longer effective and which preaches universal equality results in many of those having lost in this competition becoming enraged. Mishra wants us to see a racist killer such as James H. Jackson and the ISIS inspired terrorist Khalid Masood as sown from the same cloth, both personified expressions of collective anger in the face of failure. It’s a very modern type of anger that looks for its resolution in concocting the new social bonds that Mishra claims was pioneered by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Rousseau was the anti-Voltaire who both identified the contradictions with the type of society the Enlightenment tried to create and who imagined solutions- from romantic individualism, to  nationalism to primitivist-environmentalism which have proven even more problematic than the very contradictions they were supposed to solve.

Mishra charts the global course of this conflict between Voltaire and Rousseau. It moves from France in the 18th century, to Germany in the 19th- sowing vile seeds that would later sprout with Nazism. It was a conflict that in the 1800’s made its way to Russia as well, a country that gave this conflict a spiritual and psychological depth it had never seen before or since in the works of the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

In 1862 Dostoyevsky was in London, just one stop along his tour of Western Europe. One place in London in particular made a deep impression upon the young Russian- the massive structure in Hyde park known as the The Crystal Palace. Built in 1851 to house The Great Exhibition, the first exhibition of technologies from all over the globe (the progenitor of the World’s Fairs that run to this day) The Crystal Palace was supposed to serve as a sort of museum of the future, a world suffused with technology and material abundance where the competition between nations was a matter of who produced the best technology and grabbed the most market share. In other words, the future conceived as a shopping mall. It is little wonder that Dostoyevsky found it empty and a just a bit terrifying. As he wrote of his experience, which Mishra quotes.

You become aware of a colossal idea; you sense that here something has been achieved, that there is  victory and triumph. You may even begin vaguely to fear something.  However independent you may be, for some reason you become terrified. ‘For isn’t this the achievement of perfection?’ you think. ‘Isn’t this the ultimate?’ Could this in fact be the ‘one fold?’ Must you accept this as the final truth and forever hold your peace? It is all so solemn, triumphant, and proud that you gasp for breath.

You sense that it would require great and everlasting spiritual denial and fortitude not to submit, not to capitulate before the impression, not to bow to what is, and not to deify Baal, that is, not to accept the material world as your ideal.  (68-69)

Dostoevsky would use The Crystal Palace as a symbol of what he found to be the soul crushing utilitarian materialism of the West in his novella The Notes from the Underground. That book ridiculed not only the new type of society and man born with the The Crystal Palace but the anarchist- utopianism that arose when Russia tried to assimilate these alien ideas. A vision of the world made new found in Nikolai Chernyshevsky utopian novel “What is to be done?”, whose title Lenin would rip as an homage for his now much more well known polemic.     

Indeed, The Crystal Palace is a good jumping off point for anyone who wants to understand what separates the world before the industrial revolution and the post-industrial era that is our own. For The Crystal Palace is where a seemingly already determined future – a future that would be based on material prosperity that was global in scope- came clearly into into view, along with the rebellion against it.

What can  be seen in the protagonist of The Notes from the Underground is just how soul crushing the quest for material goods and petty competition for status can be absent some larger source of meaning. The protagonist lives in the quest of a kind of status he can never achieve while at the same time lacking any source of values and that includes the value that would be bestowed by the esteem of the persons he is so keen to impress. A kind of self and world- destructive cynicism and nihilism lies very close to the competitive materialism unleashed by the modern age.

The kinds of contradictions and psychological distortions classical liberalism unleashed, which Dostoyevsky helped identify, exploded in the early decades of the 20th century and helped give rise to both fascism and state communism. During this same period the conflict between Rousseau and Voltaire found its way into European colonies and beyond to sow seeds only being reaped today.

Mishra largely skips the period of the Cold War- an era in which liberalism deliberately constrained itself, prohibited financialization and boom- and- bust cycles in the economy and adopted worker support and protections. In good measure this tempering of liberalism was a consequence of the existence of a revolutionary alternative in the USSR. Once the idea of a communist alternative began to unravel in the 1970’s, and especially after the Soviet Union and its empire collapsed in the 1980’s and 90’s, a version of liberalism that sought to be free of restraints became truly ascendant and became the project of not just elites in the US and UK, but throughout the world.

It’s here where Mishra’s story enters the contemporary period. The religion of the free market has ruled the world for a generation now, and while it has surely helped millions lift themselves out of poverty and into a global middle and upper class, it has also been the era of middle class erosion in the developed world. Billions have come to aspire to the material comforts of the richest nations and classes- a goal unobtainable in their lifetime, and given a world of finite resources should not be pursued at all.

Mishra states it this way:

In 2014 The Economist said that, on the basis of IMF data, emerging economies- or, most of the human population- might have to wait for three centuries in order to catch up with the West. In this assessment, the last decade of high growth was an ‘aberration’ and ‘billions of people will be poorer for a lot longer than they might have expected just a few years ago’.

The implications are sobering: the non-West not only finds itself replicating the West’s trauma on an infinitely larger scale. While helping inflict the profoundest damage yet on the environment- manifest today in rising sea levels, erratic rainfall, drought, declining harvests and devastating floods – the non-Wet also has no real prospect of catching up with the West.  (48)

So we’ve got a situation where we’re in an increasingly connected world where everyone can see what anyone else is doing- even if that person is on the other side of the world. It’s a situation where inequality within- though not necessarily between- societies is increasing rapidly and in which renewed growth appears unlikely to either restore the middle class to its prior glory in developed societies, or ever establish such middle classes in many developing countries to begin with. In such a world the lower middle and working class in advanced countries feel their way of life eroding even as many people in the developing world feel compelled to move to those countries to achieve opportunities for their families out of reach in their own societies. A vicious cycle of walls and refugee flows are predictable features of these conditions.

Automation will only make this worse as it simultaneously erodes middle class employment in the developing world while precluding developing countries from following the historical path to development which has always begun with leveraging cheap labor in manufacturing.

While Mishra’s Age of Anger offers us no solutions it does leave readers with an invaluable perspective. Understanding why human beings seem driven to embrace anger, populists authoritarianism, and violence at this particular historical juncture he shows us has very little to do with the clash of civilizations. From hillbillies to salafists were all stuck in the same modernity with all the damage it does by crushing humanity through its narrow sieve. Such anger will continue to return in periods and give rise to explosions until we finally stop acting as if we can base society on human greed and vanity.

In defense of the administrative state


A few weeks back Steve Bannon, Trump’s Rasputin-like chief strategists, while in a panel discussion at CPAC laid out the agenda for the new administration. According to Bannon that agenda consisted of three parts re- establishing national security and sovereignty, economic nationalism, and what he called “the deconstruction of the administrative state.” It was the latter which Bannon’s comments suggested was behind Trump’s otherwise Bizzaro cabinet appointments where, for instance, a raging opponent of environmental protections- Scott Pruitt, could be named head of the EPA, and promoter of the privatization of education, or Betty Davos, could be put in charge of the Department of Education. You only put the fox in charge of watching the hen house if you want the hens dead.

Back in 2016 Newt Gingrich had gleefully predicted something like this, arguing that the first term of the Trump administration would be years of vicious conflict between the new administration and the federal bureaucracy.  The first month of the administration appear to be proving correct as Trump’s rage over leaks shows an administration unprecedentedly at war with its own intelligence agencies.

A person brought from say the 1930’s into 2017 might find it unfathomable to see the political right which at that time worshiped the power of the state to today be so obsessed with the state’s deconstruction. It would seem as if fascist confused themselves with anarchist, one of the groups the police state of fascism set out to crush.

This move by the right from being the party representing the power of the state to being its most vociferous opponent has been a long time in coming, and one can see it developing by looking at the history of the best film on the dystopian aspects of bureaucracy ever made, Terry Gilliam’s dark comedy Brazil. When Gilliam directed Brazil he was tapping into a long tradition in the left of rebellion against the soulless machine of government, 19th century anarchists yes, but especially the individualistic left of the 1960’s who protested wearing mock computer punch cards mocking the bureaucratic society in which they were trapped that read “do not fold spindle or mutilate.”

Brazil depicts a world suffocating in tubes, the plumbing of a bizarre, ubiquitous air-conditioning system but also pneumatic cords of surveillance and control run by incompetent bureaucrats whose only job seems to be to prevent the independent action of everyone locked in the system’s iron cage. (Strangely we ourselves live precisely in such a world, though ours tubes are ones we cannot see.) It’s a word so drowning in paperwork that people can be intimidated by pointing out that they need to fill out a form.

In the film a typing error caused by a fly leads to the accidental arrest, and death under interrogation of Archibald Buttle instead of a renegade air-conditioning repair man Archibald Tuttle- played by Robert De Niro.  The core of the story is a romance between Jill Layton who is struggling against the labyrinthine bureaucracy to gain restitution for the widowed Mrs Buttle and Sam Lowry a low level bureaucrat sent to rectify the error that led to Buttle’s death. After Sam destroys government records in order to prevent Jill’s arrest, he himself is arrested by the Ministry of Information. He is about to be tortured into confession by a man who is his friend when it appears Sam is rescued by Tuttle and the resistance who blow up the Ministry of Defense and allow him to reunite with Jill. It is only an appearance, for in reality he has been tortured to the point of insanity.

Gilliam had set out to make a film critical of bureaucracy in the tradition of the romantic strain of the left. Yet the movie’s most notorious fan turned out to be Timothy McVeigh who was known at the gun-shows he frequented as Tuttle or Buttle and like the film’s characters of the resistance who blew up the Ministry of Information set off a truck full of explosives that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. An act which killed 168 people including children. The unstable characters perfected by De Niro seem to have an uncanny ability to inspire unstable people in real life.

Of course, hatred of government bureaucracy and the attempt to unwind it was a large component of the neo-liberal agenda. Ronald Reagan with his gift for memorable quips expressed the sentiment best when he said: “The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

Yet even if the anti-government hysteria of the far-right has been used as a tool by neo-liberals to try to mantle regulatory protections and redistributive taxation which threaten their interests, the far-right remains different.

Driven by the conspiracy theories that center around the fear of a world government, the far-right sees not only the instruments of hard-power which the progressive right correctly rails against as well, but any facility of state power as uniquely aimed at crushing the “real” citizenry and their way of life.

The far-right’s perspective is, for all its ugliness, not completely irrational. From the very beginning of its settlement wealthy elites had considered the interior of the American continent a dumping ground for what they considered the refuse of Europe- the origins of the phrase “white trash”. The American west was settled as an imperial project by a federal government newly empowered after the Civil War and continues to this day to have land ownership patterns that reflect that fact and which might make an easterner flinch-  84 percent of the land in Nevada– the site of the recent Bundy Standoff is owned by the federal government, 61 percent of Idaho– where the deadly Ruby Ridge confrontation of the early 90’s occurred is likewise owned by the federal government.

The costs of desegregation was largely born by lower class whites rather than their richer compatriots, as was the cost in blood (if not treasure) of the poor and lower middle class of all races who died in the failed wars- Vietnam, Afghanistan and The Second Gulf War,  initiated and supported by elites until their costs became unbearable and their stupidity impossible to deny. As many left- wing writers willingly admit, the boogie man of the far-right- globalism- is not a mere fantasy. Globalism began the process of eroding the the livelihood of the working class, which automation now promises to kill.

Still, if the nightmare of the libertarian far-right is the all powerful state that crushes all opposition with an iron heel, what they now have in the form of the Trump is an administration that makes these fears far more likely. Impregnable borders can be used just as much to lock people in than to keep people out. Extensive government powers to hunt down “Islamic terrorist”, criminals, or illegal immigrants can just as easily be turned on any political enemy. An even larger military and engorged police forces are but more of precisely the kind of “standing army” the Founders warned threatened the survival of the Republic.

In addition to all of this, the right lives under the delusion that by deconstructing the state they will be restoring freedom rather than, what actually will happen, which is that public bureaucracies will be replaced by private ones, for bureaucracy, rather than being a consequence of government interference, is simply the way modern organizations in complex societies are run.

The deconstruction of state bureaucracies would leave us in a bifurcated world of private entities where the rich will be able to shop in a competitive marketplace for services while the poor and middle class are locked into labyrinthine organizations now impossible to influence through democratic means, and whose primary purpose will be the extraction of rents. Exchanging public bureaucracies for private ones will have meant giving up the public control that comes from politics for the rule of money only the very few have.

Yet it’s not the right alone that lives in the fantasy that we can live in a world where the administrative state is no more, many on the left share a similar dream. The key for the left is to find a way to restore freedom, which the bureaucratic tubes of the state certainly strangle, with the needs of complex societies for precisely such entities in order to function at all.

On the use and misuse of 1984 in the reign of Trump


Events have taken such a dark turn in the United States with the election of Trump that many have felt the need to go back to the dystopian classics to get their bearings. These were novels written in the first half of the prior century when totalitarianism wasn’t just something relegated to gray photos in our history books while we lived our days in the bright neo-liberal sunlight of the post- Cold War era, but actually roamed alive and deadly in the real world.

Among the most well know of these novels, along with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is, of course, George Orwell’s 1984. Many of us had thought the bleak dystopia Orwell depicted had, by  the early 21st century, been relegated to isolated hermit kingdoms such as North Korea. Huxley, we all knew, with his mind altering drugs, free love, and mind-numbing consumerism had been more prescient regarding how authoritarian power would operate-  strangling our freedom not with an iron but with a velvet glove. Yet Trump seems to be proving the majority of us eggheads wrong. As Adam Gopnik so bluntly puts it in reference to what we’ve see of the Trump presidency so far:

Because the single most striking thing about his matchlessly strange first week is how primitive, atavistic, and uncomplicatedly brutal Trump’s brand of authoritarianism is turning out to be. We have to go back to “1984” because, in effect, we have to go back to 1948 to get the flavor.

Of course, Gopnik isn’t alone in suggesting 1984 has something especially important to tell regarding 2017. Since Trump’s election sales of the novel have soared by 9,500 percent.  And still, trying to use 1984 as a map through the Trump presidency might pose just as many distortions as insights, and not just because other dystopian novels might offer better depictions of the actual type of dystopia we are in danger of falling into, but because our efforts and attention might be drawn into an ineffectual resistance against an enemy unlikely to arrive, while the real villain slips in unnoticed in his place.   What’s required, then, is a close reading of 1984 to see where it fits and diverges from what’s happened so far, so here it goes:

1984 is the story of, Winston Smith, a “middle-class” member of the Outer Party of Oceania that works in the Ministry of Truth. His job is to doctor and destroy documents based upon the constantly shifting whims of what the Party which rules Oceania declares to be the “truth”.

Oceania is a totalitarian state that would make even monsters like Stalin and Hitler green with envy.  Oceania which includes what was formerly Great Britain (now called Air-Strip One, on which Winston lives), the United States, Canada and Australasia is covered with telescreens which are a kind of two-way television that projects propaganda in, and can also watch for subversive activities, and microphones that monitor citizens almost anywhere 24/7.

Whereas the mass of citizens, the “proles” are left unmolested by the Party largely because of their ignorance and inability to organize, the Outer Party, especially, is constantly monitored for “thought-crime” (even having a thought that challenges the orthodoxy of the Party) by the Thought Police who are housed in the Ministry of Love.

Orwell has a genius for playing with words, and his Oceania is a dystopia in a literal sense of being a world where everything is really its dark opposite: the Ministry of Truth is really an organization for creating lies, the Ministry of Love a hell-house of torture, the Ministry of Plenty a bureaucracy that administers privation, or the Ministry of Peace an institution of war.

One of the ultimate goals of the Party is to destroy the meaning of language itself- to fully institute the use of “Newspeak” so that all reference with the past and the truth has been destroyed. The Party then becomes the sole arbiter of what is real and what is fiction. Thus, the defiant act against the Party that would ultimately lead to Winston’s doom was when he started a diary. It was an act that declared what the Party found totally unacceptable- that a person could think for himself. Later, under the most brutal forms of torture, Winston would find himself compelled to deny the very sanity of trying to think outside of the iron grip of the Party:

He could not fight against the Party any longer. Besides, the Party was in the right. It must be so: how could the immortal, collective brain be mistaken? By what external standards could you check its judgments? Sanity was statistical. It was merely a question of learning to think as they thought. (290)

The Party of Oceania takes relativism, social construction, and collective solipsism to their logical extremes. It does not merely reflect a certain view of the world- it is the world- and can create and destroy the “truth” as it sees fit. Facts and the past are nothing but memory, so by controlling memory both individual and collective facts and history become whatever the Party wants them to be. Even logical, self-evident truths are capable of being overthrown- ideas such as 2 + 2 = 4. Under the proper pressure and manipulation even mathematics and science bend before the will of the Party.

Winston’s second crime against the Party is to engage in a secret love-affair with his co-worker Julia.  Orwell’s Oceania will not countenance divided loyalties and passions, especially the kinds of loyalties and passions that grow out of love and sex. Unlike in Plato’s Republic, the Party has not ended the family, but has turned it into a nest of spies, where children betray their parents at any hint of unorthodox thought or behavior. The sexual instinct, especially for women, is channeled into the love of Big-Brother and hatred of the traitorous Goldstein, both of whose no doubt imaginary images are plastered everywhere.

The emotions of the masses are constantly kept at a fever-pitch of hate against Oceania’s  geo-political enemies: Eurasia and East Asia. These two other great powers live under similar totalitarian systems as that in Oceania. Eurasia combines essentially the former Soviet Union and Europe, East Asia, China, Japan, the Koreas and nearby territories. The three great powers struggle with one another for what is left of the globe- essentially the Middle East and India. They fight not so much over resources or markets- all three are in essence self-contained, autarchic systems- as they do for labor power, with the peoples of these up-for-grabs regions being enslaved by one region and then the other into making weapons. Yet weapons, which because world wars have become a thing of the past, are essentially useless. The international environment in which Oceania exists is one of constant low-level or outright phony war between the big powers. Orwell in the mouth of the imaginary Goldstein muses that “war by becoming continuous has fundamentally changed its character” (205).

Winston’s third crime is to join the ranks of the secret revolutionary organization- The Brotherhood.   Like Big Brother, who serves as the face of the Party, or Goldstein who serves as the face of the revolution, The Brotherhood itself is a fiction created by the Party. In its name both Winston and Julia, in a act completely out of character, pledge themselves to crimes even against innocents.

The Orwellian state imagined in 1984 is a sadistic-state the likes of which have never been seen. What makes it so horrendous even in light of its very real world rivals in this regard is its concept of power as a self-justifying force.  As Orwell puts in the mouth of Winston’s torturer O’Brien:

Progress in our civilization will be progress towards more pain. The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love and justice. Our is founded on hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement.

Everything else we shall destroy- everything. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stomping on a human face-forever. (279)

The scenes Orwell depicts of Winston’s imprisonment and torture are gut wrenching and horrifying. They starve him until he becomes skeletal and loses his hair, break most of his bones, smash his teeth, burn his insides with electrical shocks. We are forced to watch a once dignified man reduced to groveling, bargaining and betrayal. But it is not the physical abuse that so much reduces Winston as the psychological:

These other questioners saw to it that he was in constant slight pain, but it was not the pain that they chiefly relied on. They slapped his face, wrung his ear, pulled his hair, made him stand on one leg, refused to leave him urinate, shown glaring lights in his face until his eyes ran with water; but the aim of this was simply to humiliate him and destroy his power of arguing and reasoning. Their real weapon was their relentless questioning that went on hour after hour, tripping him up, laying traps for him, convicting him at every step of lies and contradiction, until he began weeping as much from shame as from nervous fatigue. (253)

The ultimate psychological torture comes at the end of the novel when Winston, whose greatest fear is rats, has a cage of starved rats attached to his face. Under the extremest of fear he betrays Julia not in the sense of turning her in, but in asking that she be put in his place. It is a real rather than a feigned request, and with it Winston has lost both his mind and his soul to the evil of the Party.

What then might we learn from such a dark tale written only a few years after the Second World War as the Cold War between the US and Soviet Union was just coming into being? One quite disturbing similarity is that the kind of surveillance apparatus Orwell imagined hasn’t just become possible, but is now ubiquitous. The vast majority of us carry the watchful eyes of a potential Big Brother in our pockets, he is capable of staring back at us from our smart TVs, or listening to us through our Echos.

Thankfully for us, a major difference between Oceania and ourselves is that for us this capacity to surveil is located in the private sphere, not the state. After the Snowden revelations the extent to which the security state leveraged these capacities was somewhat reduced, but more importantly, private companies, especially Apple, have become much more focused on protecting their customers from government snooping.

One can see the direction the Orwellian direction the Trump administration pursue when looking at the attendees to the president elect s meet and greet with Silicon Valley giants. In addition to the heads of Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon there was Alex Karp the CEO of the security company Palantir. A seat at the big table for a relatively minor company, which might not so much represent payment for the company’s founder, Peter Thiel’s, nearly solitary support for Trump among the Silicon Valley elite, but the fact that Palantir  is the premier private sector  surveillance company and an open partner with the NSA.

A much less sexy, but perhaps, even more disturbing Orwellian trend in the Trump administration is their openness to merging federal law enforcement with that of state and local governments.

Again the differences between Oceania and Trump’s America are just as important. So far we’ve seen resistance to Trump’s authoritarian overreach at the level of major cities and majority liberal states. The judiciary appears to be doing its job of acting as a check on executive power- even if Trump doesn’t understand what checks and balances mean. Above all, citizens are coming to the defense of fellow citizens in the streets.

Perhaps the most striking similarity between Orwell’s fictional 1984 and our oh-too-real 2017 is the replacement of genuine political debate with Newspeak. That Orwell would provide insight into our world of internet filter-bubbles and fake-news when he was writing it what was still the golden age of radio makes sense once one recalls that 1984 was conceived and written while Orwell was working as a propagandist for the BBC during World War II. Yet while the enemy he was working in the 1940s was frighteningly real, the enemies of Oceania could, for all the reader knows, have been pure products a propaganda meant to organize society around the dark emotions of hatred and fear.

It’s at the very least possible that the longer the Trump administration experiences its own impotence the more tempted it will become to transform its agenda into one of inflaming public fear and anger alone, from which it will extract the kinds of extra-constitutional  powers it would need to achieve the agenda of its more radical members, most notably Steve Bannon. A major terrorist attack might Reichstag fire– like enable that, as would a war with a major power- China. If not, the authoritarian maelstrom Trump stands in the center of would be unlikely, whatever its wishes, to replicate, marching armies and all, in the United States the kinds of mass totalitarian state Orwell depicted in 1984, that Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and PRC were the penultimate examples of and which survives today alone in the dark kingdom of North Korea.

Only a truly massive crisis such as an attack on a major US city with WMDs, or a world war could resurrect the age of the mass men, because we live in an era of fractured media and politics. Under these conditions, disinformatzya as a tool to cause even further fracturing among political opponents is much more potent than any sort of propaganda that attempts to transform society into a single-willed blob. As Ethan Zuckerman describes it:

A third category of “fake news,” relatively new to the scene in most countries, is disinformatzya. This is news that’s not trying to persuade you that Trump is good and Hillary bad (or vice versa). Instead, it’s trying to pollute the news ecosystem, to make it difficult or impossible to trust anything.

Yet there’s another resemblance the Trump regime’s attitude to truth has with the dictatorship in 1984 that’s just as important, namely, their apparent proclivity to deny, or even delete, information that stands in the way of their agenda. As Winston the protagonist reflects in the novel:

If the party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened- that surely was more frightening than mere torture and death?  (37)

In terms of its willingness to openly lie, conceal or distort the truth to suit its own ends we might have to go back before the Nixon administration was felled by an independent press. Every president since Nixon, though they lied and were caught lying anyway, were fearful enough of the power of the press to expose them that they tended not to waste their dissimulation capital on petty disputes where lies could easily be exposed by journalists.

Shockingly, Trump has grabbed this mantle of truth-teller for himself, dismisses even objective evidence against his often outrageous claims as a mere fabrication by his enemies. Yet, with that said, and unlike in 1984, it’s not at all the case that the state has managed to become the sole arbiter of truth, but that everyone, whether actually capable of it or not, claims such a capacity as his own, and in like vein denies the reality of anyone who fails to agree with the facts as he understands them. Another difference: it’s not any Party which causes rival facts to disappear but the filter bubbles created by the algorithmic systems- such as FaceBook- through which the vast majority of the  information we absorb is brought to us.

These are problems that will long outlast Trump, though it’s unlikely we’ll see a more brazen liar, braggart, and conspiracy minded dolt anytime soon.

Putting aside the very real fear that policy within the Trump administration might actually be being made on the basis of a paranoid Manichean fantasy, what’s more immediately 1984 style frightening are efforts by his administration to hunt down and delete information that contradicts its agenda and worldview. Winston wrestled with the question of what truth could even mean in a society dedicated to its destruction over and above its transformation into lies:

The Party said that Oceania had never been in alliance with Eurasia. He, Winston Smith, knew that Oceania had been in alliance with Eurasia as short a time as four years ago. But where did that knowledge exist? Only in his own consciousness, which in any case, must soon be annihilated. And if all others accepted the lie which the party imposed- if all records told the same tale- then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’  (37)

The totally legitimate fear that Trump intends to sweep up and destroy government research that contradicts his denial it policy towards human caused climate change has resulted in an unprecedented collaboration between universities and other groups to copy and save government research findings before they are deliberately erased.

All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. ‘Reality control’ they called it. In Newspeak, ‘doublethink’. (37)

It is the very chaos of Trump’s style of communication that seems to upend the weight of our shared reality. He deliberately blurs the distinction between the insiders game and Protocols of Zion like  nut- job conspiracy. As Julia Ioffe has pointed out whomever Trump convinces to publicly lie for him he thereafter owns.

Rather than attempt to control absorb every aspect of private life as was done to the educated classes in 1984 or the entire society in actual totalitarian regimes Trump seems to give a rat’s ass when it comes to the private lives of Americans, unless it serves as a way to placate his restless culturally conservative base. Instead, Trumpism wants to confine us to our private lives except Trump rallies and performance politics indistinguishable from a reality TV show. All of us are to be like the proles (lower classes) of 1984:

“…where propaganda permeates the lives of people too distracted by rubbishy tabloids (“containing almost nothing except sport, crime and astrology”) and sex-filled movies to care much about politics or history.”  (46)

Yet another similarity Trumpism shares with 1984- though to be honest it’s something that stretches back not merely to 9-11, but back to the beginning of last century’s cold war, is the idea of continuous war in which the enemy is more a tool of those in power than an actual threat. And it’s this very absence of an actual existential threat that allows society to become unmoored from reality and mobilize against shadows.

What follows is a long quote from 1984, in which Orwell captured something essential regarding our current predicament:

All rulers in all ages have tried to impose a false sense of the world upon their followers, but they could not afford to encourage any illusion that tended to impair military efficiency. So long as defeat meant the loss of independence, or some other result generally held to be undesirable, the precautions against defeat had to be serious. Physical facts could not be ignored.  In philosophy, or religion, or ethics, or politics two and two might make five, but when one was designing a gun or an aeroplane they had to make four. Inefficient nations were always conquered sooner or later, and the struggle for efficiency was inimical to illusions. Moreover,  to be efficient it was necessary to be able to learn from the past which meant having a fairly accurate idea of what had happened in the past. Newspapers and history books were, of course, always colored and biased, but falsification of the kind that is practiced today would have been impossible… (205)

But when war becomes literally continuous, it also ceases to be dangerous. When war is continuous there is no such thing as military necessity. Technical progress can cease and the most palpable of facts can be discarded. As we have seen, researchers that could be called scientific are still carried out for the purposes of war, but they are essentially a type of daydreaming, and their failure to show results is not important. Efficiency, even military efficiency, is no longer needed. Nothing is efficient in Oceania except the Thought Police. (206)

It’s just possible that it is the very absence of current (which is not to say that these risks don’t exist over a longer time frame) existential threats to our society that has helped engender Trumpism in both the US and beyond. Whatever hour the Doomsday Clock is pointing to, the  danger we are in from the current mad assortment of nihilist loose in the world from ISIS to Al Qaeda to neo-Nazis, none of them pose capability of destroying society itself as was the case from the conflict between the big powers during the Cold War. Global nuclear war has receded into the background, climate change will unfold on the scale of centuries. Artificial intelligence remains science fiction. Our safety has given us the luxury to slip back into stupidity from which only painful errors can bring us back to our senses. Let’s hope they are not catastrophic.

Likewise, only a bourgeois in which revolution had become imaginatively impossible, and whose position in the global order was felt to be permanent would go all in for the dismantling of the welfare-state that was built as an alternative to revolution. Trump might be the culmination of this sense among the owning classes of having been granted by history eternal over lordship of the proles, but it began with Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980s. It’s Trump who gets to fulfill their dream of king raging against his own kingdom even if the project now comes wrapped in the language of protectionism rather than free trade.

Even the large number of citizens who seemed willing to risk it all by voting for Trump did so without realizing how far they were from actual crisis given all the protections against economic insecurity put in place when social democracy was accepted as the most humane and just way to run a society. Trump voters had no idea how ugly the world would be if capitalism were truly to run free red in tooth and claw.

Perhaps even something of Orwell’s deeper pessimism regarding human nature has proven right, that the very lack of struggle has led to the atrophy of our capacity for growth and innovation. It might even be the case that the very act of not having to defend our freedoms led to us being unable to recognize their importance and therefore unprepared to defend these freedoms when they were threatened, as they now certainly are.

The main reason Orwell saw for the new authoritarian revolutionaries was that machine based civilization had, for the first time in human history, made actual material equality possible. New groups wanting to seize power saw equality as no longer a bait for the masses, but as a threat to their own claims on power.

The earthly paradise had been discredited at exactly the moment when it became realizable. Every new political theory, by whatever name it called itself, led back to hierarchy and regimentation. (213)

Their totalitarian order, he thought, would likely be enabled by new technologies of surveillance and control. Technologies such as the aforementioned ubiquitous telescreens and microphones, but also neuropharmacology, and mechanisms such as novel writing machines. Indeed, because it aimed to destroy independent thought and empirical science, Orwell’s dystopia is a world of technological decline and endemic scarcity; the only areas in which it excels being that of manipulation and control.

It might be the case that one of the reasons we are finding 1984 so relevant today is that we never managed to permanently solve the problems of mass industrial society Orwell could see way back in 1948. The solution we thought we had come up with, solutions to the problem of inequality and exploitation, along with controls on the perpetual boom and bust of markets, proved a mere interregnum, and that we’ve slipped back to a world more like the one Orwell was writing in, where the dystopian nightmare he imagined was sadly a plausible version of tomorrow.

  • Part of the essay above uses large parts of a prior essay on 1984 from my blog.


A Reformation of Truth and Trust


“Fake realities will create fake humans. Or, fake humans will generate fake realities and then sell them to other humans, turning them, eventually, into forgeries of themselves. So we wind up with fake humans inventing fake realities and then peddling them to other fake humans. It is just a very large version of Disneyland. You can have the Pirate Ride or the Lincoln Simulacrum or Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride – you can have all of them, but none is true.”

Philip K. Dick  

“The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

Groucho Marx

When Vladislav Surkov invented the post-internet politics of  infowar back in the first decade of the 21st century he was openly drawing on Western postmodernism whose philosophers had been the first to articulate the nature of our “post-truth” age.  Surkov was especially influenced by the philosophy of Jean Baudrillard who in works such as Simulacra and Simulation had tried to put his finger on exactly what the West had lost when its belief in Truth- like God and morality before it-  first fell from the horizon, and then became inarticulable, only to finally become altogether untenable.

Yet Baudrillard’s ideas regarding the merely symbolic nature of the real, and the non-existence of the truth didn’t just appear like a rabbit out of a hat. They were the dividend of a centuries long process by which our notions regarding the true and the real had been lost under the relentless inquisition of both philosophy and science, and emerged as blowback from the catastrophic barbarity of scientism during the 20th century.

To start, some quick and dirty history: We had known since Plato how far our idea of the real likely diverged from the real itself with the tasks of philosophy being to uncover this hidden truth from its occlusion by human biology and historical prejudice. And yet philosophers never quite managed to pin down what this supposedly real world behind the world of appearances actually consisted of, though the pythagorean progenitors of Plato, along with the genius himself,  believed we caught our clearest glimpse of it when exploring truths related to numbers. Or, as it read over the entrance to the Academy: “Let no-one ignorant of geometry enter here”

Yet Plato, it should be remembered, wasn’t just motivated to discover a basis for the truth as a philosophical quest, but also as part of a political project that would form the basis for a non-democratic order. Athenian democracy which had proven fickle and a failure at war, and which, above all, had executed Plato’s teacher and friend Socrates could be proven unsustainable if the majority could be shown to be incapable of discovering, understanding, and living in conformity with the true and the good.

When well over a millennia after Plato a new science, based on mathematics and tested through observation, emerged in the modern era it was widely known how fragile a philosophical foundation such a project rested upon given what was either the loss an earlier prisca sapientia (ancient wisdom) based upon numbers (a loss that would have precluded the establishment of real science in the medieval period) or, and for the inventors of the new science the more troubling prospect, that such a foundation had proved impossible to establish in the first place.

In response to this foundational anxiety Descartes tried to ground mathematical truth within consciousness itself, the one thing whose reality he found impossible to dismiss. The problem here being that the “real” world, the one outside of our models, had now become trapped behind our eyeballs and was thus perhaps even less graspable than before. It took Kant in the 18th century to more or less prove that the ground of truth, mathematical or otherwise, which philosophers had long sought after was ultimately unreachable due to the limitations of the human mind. And yet, Kant still retained the faith that the real was actually there.

Nietzsche amplified Kant’s received recognition that the truth was unknowable into an explosion and concluded that what we called the truth was a mere weapon of power.  Much of 20th century philosophy- the linguistic turn begun by Wittgenstein, the critique of the media articulated by the Frankfurt School – has been footnotes to Nietzsche s conclusion that the will to truth is inseparable from the will to power. This then is the historical perch from which Baudrillard writes in Simulacra and Simulation where he lays out his own lament on the death of truth.

The stages Baudrillard lays out for the image through which we communicate the truth run this way with us believing that the image:

is the reflection of a profound reality;

masks and denatures a profound reality;

masks the absence of a profound reality;

has no relation to any reality whatsoever;

is its own pure simulacrum.

Our loss of faith in the religious truth revealed by the image parallels our the similar loss of the truth by philosophy and although Baudrillard doesn’t really delve deeply into the historical content of his meaning, I don’t think it’s all that difficult to draw such connections.

Images at first are believed to ways to connect with or echoes of a profound, transcendent world beyond our own. What perhaps the caves paintings of Lascaux were to those who made them and what Christian iconography was up until the Reformation, and especially in the Orthodox tradition.

Protestant iconoclasts broke violently with Catholic iconography at the very least because they saw it as a form of idolatry whose very purpose was to occlude the truth as it was given in the Bible. Atheists materialists saw in icons an attempt to plug the gaping holes which any attempt to actually believe the stories presented in the Bible or any other religious text required. They saw in idealist philosophy a childish attempt to escape the atheistic implications of the new science.

Perhaps it was a mistake to not see the entire thing as a fraud meant to keep the majority of human beings oppressed and confused. Or maybe all of our projections are merely a reflection of our own collective madness. Even insanity, however, is predicated on there being a reality one has deviated from. But if there is no reality, if all that exists are our representations of this non- existent thing we call reality, then all we are left with are our own images and models.

There is an economic and technological aspect to this loss as well. Technology, first in the form of industrial production, but now even more so as media and digital representation, has increased our capacities to make copies of things (simulacra) or such copies in motion (simulations). It is as our simulations have become ever more detailed and “lifelike “that they have managed to supplant what we once considered the truly real. Above all there has been the move towards financialization, the process by which all the world is being transformed into capital and code.  

At this point you many feel a little dizzy (I am a little dizzy), so to sum up, at our current historical juncture- the juncture which Baudrillard is addressing- Western culture (or at least a large and the most educated portion of it) has lost its belief both in some capital “T” truth lying behind our representations and models, along with our faith in any transcendent world where such truth might be grounded beyond our own, which might have to be accepted merely on faith. We’re thus left without the comforts of either realism or religion, and it’s into this vacuum that the flood of commodified and infinitely replicable simulations and simulacra will pour.

For Baudrillard this proliferation has resulted in the reign of the hyperreal, where our representations have swamped and often appear more authentic than reality itself. Given he was writing in 1981 we have moved far more deeply into the realm of the hyperreal than Baudrillard could have foreseen. Today a naturalists and author such Diane Ackerman can be seriously concerned that experiencing nature through the lens of the hyperreal- via video and virtual reality- is leading to the atrophy of our capacity to experience nature as the creatures who evolved within it which we undoubtedly are. In a similar vein astronomer and author Pippa Goldschmidt can lament how astronomers need never view the sky with their own eyes.

Far more worrisome is what has been alluded to by the novelists William Gibson; namely, that this kind narrowing of the distinction between the virtual worlds and persons and ones that actually exist can end up turning real flesh-and-blood human beings into mere playthings of our imagination. The fact that so much of this election cycle’s political speech has been the product of bots adds yet another level of hyperreal vertigo.

I am perhaps just as worried about the reign of the hyperreal resulting in a widespread incapacity to engage with the real world.  For Baudrillard as well the reign of the hyperreal results in what he calls the “implosion” of our social and political capacities. Politics becomes a game of symbolic impact rather than the pursuit of actual goals. It’s not a far step from here that every event that occurs dissolves into some sort of conspiracy or as Baudrillard puts it:

Is any given bombing in Italy the work of leftist extremists, or extreme-right provocation, or a centrist mise-en-scène to dis-credit all extreme terrorists and to shore up its own failing power, or again, is it a police-inspired scenario and a form of blackmail to public security? All of this is simultaneously true, and the search for proof, indeed the objectivity of the facts does not put an end to this vertigo of interpretation.


The facts no longer have a specific trajectory, they are born at the intersection of models, a single fact can be engendered by all the models at once.

If one of the primary reasons for speaking is so that we can come to consensus regarding the true and the good, the basis upon which Aristotle defined humanity as zoon politikon, then the reason for such communication disappears once the true and the good are no longer believed to exist. Language is then all about the issuing of commands, or, because in losing our belief in the truth and transcendence we’ve also lost any notion of authority that might be based upon them. If we want someone to do something our only options are coercion through violence- real and threatened- or seduction, which in a societal context means advertising. Writing in the late 1970’s Baudrillard could witness whole cities- Las Vegas- disappear under billboards of neon, a potent symbol of what was happening to society itself:

Today what we are experiencing is the absorption of all virtual modes of expression into that of advertising. All original cultural forms, all determined languages are absorbed in advertising because it has no depth, it is instantaneous and instantaneously forgotten.

Since Baudrillard wrote Simulacra and Simulation the situation has become incredibly worse. A pessimistic read of the current reproducibility problem in science, where seemingly evermore experiments are reported as breakthroughs only to never be replicated again, is that it arises in part from a lack of belief that the task of a scientist (or scholar) is to discover the truth, rather than pursue publication itself or attempt to bolster the bottom line of one’s client.

Science and scholarship has become sucked up in the optimization game where the goal is no longer to patiently build out structures of knowledge generations, but to make the biggest splash in the immediate present-science as advertising. None of that is nearly as bad as the deliberate manufacturing of ignorance, which can be done in the name of “gathering more evidence” as much as deliberate lying. Such agnotology was mastered by the tobacco and fossil fuel industries and seems to be a deeply ingrained political tactic of Donald Trump.

One might be forgiven for thinking Baudrillard would have gotten along with Silicon Valley types. After all, it’s among coders that the belief seems to be rife that we are already living in a simulation. The very same kind of world made out of 1’s and 0’s Stephen Wolfram think we’re on the verge of creating, which he calls “a box of a trillion souls”.  Yet Baudrillard supposedly hated when people compared his ideas to the movie The Matrix, the problem for him being those who thought we are living in a simulation, weren’t being radical enough. For Baudrillard there is no base level- just a snake made of code eating its own tail .

Baudrillard published Simulacra and Simulation in 1981 and we’ve fall much, much further down the rabbit hole since. On the political level- Ronald Reagan may have been an actor but he had also been the governor of the country’s richest and most populous state- California. Trump, by contrast, is a mere media construction, either that or something eerily similar to the tyrannical character Plato claimed democracies always create. Partly it was the sheer lack of trust that the media was telling the truth about his inadequacies that helped get Trump elected, but almost all institutions appear to be crumbling under this loss of public trust. ISIS. the most successful terrorist organization of our generation has been as much a media production company as anything else.

Every year advertising becomes more and more intimate with our bodies and our senses are quietly subsumed by those whose interests advertising serves, just as the fakes we create- our images and automatons- become ever more confusable with the real.

Where Baudrillard goes wrong, I think, is in believing that there wouldn’t be constant rebellions against this state of floating in thin air. What this means is that although elites and the educated may have lost their belief that truth and goodness could ever be satisfactorily defined most human beings were going to continue to sort themselves along these lines, and the new forms of media were going to vastly increase their capacity to do so free from any guidance or input by elites.

Yet a society composed of such warring collectives lacking some notion of the common good or means of permanently settling disputes isn’t sustainable either, which is why we’ll need to somehow recreate the kinds of buffers and editorial features of the older communications landscape without replicating its elite capture and control. The kinds of answers to the problem of post-truth whereby the internet giants are asked to police what is true or false or contract this role to some other organization is not a democratic solution to our problem.

The metaphysical claim that the truth outside of our social constructions does not exist has been adopted without understanding that we can not live absent these social constructions in the first place. We need a wholesale reformation of the institutions of truth in order to restore the trust without which any society will not long survive. It’s a tall order, happy New Year.

Should Facebook Censor the News?


In the era of information wars knowledge of the past is perhaps the only way we can remain anchored to reality. Such collective memory shouldn’t only consist of an accurate record of the facts, but would also include a sense of the history of knowledge and inforwar itself.

When not seen from the point of false omniscience we call the present, history has always been the unwieldy struggle of rival forces, shifting alliances, and enemies that cannot be clearly distinguished along purely ideological or religious lines. There is not, nor has there ever been, a direction to history, it being as Churchill lamented “one damned thing after another”. It’s perhaps the fact that we’ve been forced to re-learn this that makes the present so damned painful. Many of those who thought we were headed towards a brighter future instead find themselves slipping back into nightfall.

At least part of the reason for our shock over the 2016 election wasn’t just the outcome but the fact that it happened when it did at all. Stable, even sclerotic, societies such as ours don’t usually play Russian roulette with their future whatever the imagined benefits that might come if the chamber is found empty. Almost from the start of the 21st century we had experienced shocks none of which gave rise to even minor reforms let alone the kind of political earthquake Trump’s election represents.

As a reminder, since 2000’s we’ve gone through a presidential election whose outcome was decided not by the voters but by the US Supreme Court, the bursting of the 90’s tech bubble, the 9-11 attacks, the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent Great Recession, two failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with nearly a decade of lackluster economic growth despite unprecedented measures being taken by the world’s major central banks. And yet it is now when none of these crises are as acute as they been in the past that their consequent political upheaval has occurred.

What I think such questions regarding timing miss is the fact that not only has the breakdown in trust between elites (especially in the media and the academy) and a large portion of the American (indeed Western) citizenry been occurring across these different crises, but that this erosion has been running in parallel with a transformation of the communications landscape that has upended the ability of elites to as Noam Chomsky characterized it “manufacture consent”.

Since the Second World War, and only starting to unwind the 1980’s ,there was only a marginal difference between Republicans and Democrats (it was Nixon, after all, whom we have to thank for the EPA and Jimmy Carter who started what we now think of as Reagan’s arms buildup). American elites were in overall agreement over the fundamental questions regarding society and possessed means the likes of which had never been seen before to ensure the rest of society also held these assumptions as sacrosanct.

This was perhaps an odd situation give that liberal elites in Western democracies were able to reach such mutual agreement and gain such a degree of public acquiescence absent the types of control over information and speech that had been present both historically and which was so pronounced in the Communist societies that were their penultimate rival. It was the shape of this occluded form of control which political theorists such as Herbert Marcuse among others tried to uncover.

None of these others is more important for my purposes than Noam Chomsky and his book Manufacturing Consent first published in 1981. Ever like the owl of Minerva this revelatory book appeared on the very eve when the conditions it depicted were about to be transformed into something radically different.

In that work Chomsky argues that five features of the 20th century media landscape resulted in a world in which the media, rather than challenge elites, instead helped to consolidate elite control over the public. These five features were:

1) Size and concentrated ownership of media outlets

2) Advertising as the main source of revenue

3) Media reliance on government and corporate “experts”

4) “Flak” individuals experienced when they stepped outside of elite norms.

5) Anti-communism as an inviolable national religion.

By 2016 all of the elements Chomsky had described in Manufacturing Consent had been either been radically transformed or were no longer in existence.

The internet had permitted the rise of alternative or even conspiratorial media of which Breitbart and Infowars were just two prominent right wing examples. While advertising remained a primary source of revenue the cost of producing and distributing media (minus the kinds of editorial constraints of mainstream media) effectively shrank to zero with advertising’s role having shifted to content distributors such as FaceBook that refused to bear any editorial responsibilities.

2016 was also the year of the revolt against experts. The consequence, no doubt, of their repeated failures from the non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to the financial collapse that had not been foreseen by the phony experts and pseudo-scientists into whose hands we had placed our future- we call them economists.

It was also a year in which standard norms regarding political discourse collapsed, and the national religion of anti-communism was such an ancient memory that a former KGB operative could hack the American election in favor of the Republican candidate and very few within the GOP would be upset about it.

In some ways at least this merely returns us to the pre-cold war era before the kinds of media/elite alliance Chomsky describes in Manufacturing Consent had taken hold. We’ve been moving in that direction for quite some time now with the rise of openly partisan cable news in the 1980’s and 90’s.

In order to get our bearing we might have to look back even further to the period of Yellow Journalism when figures like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer battled for readership using the tools of sensationalism and scandal. Indeed, it was Pulitzer’s shame over his abuse of the truth during this period that convinced him to foster professionalism and standards of evidence through instruments such as the Columbia School of Journalism.

Yet we may have to look even further back. For one of the historical conditions that made the manufacturing of consent possible was the fact that in the late 1800’s information production itself had become industrialized. Those who had access to capital could produce such a flood of material that the effect was to drown out anyone who merely had access to the older, much smaller, means of publishing and distribution.

This centralization continued through post-print form of media. Radio was really only democratizing on a local level, which is why up until the 1950’s culture could still emerge from regional diversity- just ask Wolfman Jack.  National, not to mention international, broadcasts required access to limited in number (and therefore expensive) telephone lines. Television production and distribution was even more capital intensive. And then the internet changed everything. We’re now back to something that resembles the pre-industrial type media world with both its possibility for a truly public form of speech and its lack of any editorial bearing or control.

And yet, though media and speech have become decentralized and slipped completely outside the bonds of control in another they are more susceptible to censorship and oversight via centralized mediators than ever. A concerted effort by Google, Twitter, and especially Facebook, could in reality asphyxiate the platforms of the Alt-right should they so choose. The question is, even if it was politically possible at the moment, should we want them to?

My guess, from where we stand today, is that launching on such a course would not only ultimately fail but would come back to haunt us. Preventing the ugliest of sentiments from being spoken openly does not prevent people from having them, and perhaps it’s the opposite. After all, politics in countries with much stricter hate speech laws than the US have not merely gone down the same dark path as ourselves, but one that is perhaps even darker. The kinds of censorship in the name of social stability and elite interest Facebook is flirting with to secure its foothold in China should give us pause. For not only is this the opposite of the technologically enabled democratic future many of us long for, which would entail real democratic control over such editorial decisions and transparency regarding how those decisions were made, we can never be sure such a weapon used against frankly despicable enemies won’t someday be used by the very same elites to define the despicable- as us.