The fugitive thoughts captured below came to me while I was reading about, then visiting, the city of Vienna, Austria, a place much more famous for its composers and artists than its politicians. Vienna arose as the Baroque wedding-cake setting for a single imperial dynasty, the Hapsburgs, who were known mainly for their ability to persist. Emperor after emperor staggered into disaster, but from the Middle Ages to the end of the First World War the Hapsburgs managed to outlast their enemies.
The only ideology to emerge out of Vienna was political anti-Semitism. The only politicians of note in its long history were Prince Metternick, master of repression, and Adolf Hitler, who began his career as a painter of Viennese monuments and ended it as the embodiment of the Satanic in politics.
Given this context, it should not surprise us that the movement of art for art’s sake that swept Europe at the turn of the 20th century displayed singular purity and intensity in Vienna. Ambitious minds in London and Paris could opt for the great game of power. The Viennese were smothered between the dead hand of the empire and the rise of the mass movements that would soon destroy it. Art became more than a release: it was a religion driven in part by a spiritual hunger to soar above the grime and conflict of the industrial age, in part by the simple wish to escape reality.
It struck me that the worship of art, like our own digital age, trapped individuals in the delusions of a virtual existence. And it struck me, further, that as with the digital, the esthetic impulse began with high idealism but led by uncertain steps to a dark and vicious place. That probably wouldn’t have surprised a Viennese specialist in a different kind of repression, Sigmund Freud, who in his day must have rubbed shoulders with great artists like Gustav Klimt and unformed monsters like the young Hitler. Freud’s ruling hypothesis was that infants wished to rape and murder their parents, and that the guilt and frustration in adulthood from failing to do so powered political nihilism and reigns of terror.
Needless to say, the notions below are highly speculative. I place them before you, good reader, in the manner of a sketch for a longer essay, or even a book, that will never be written.
The life of extreme estheticism – of art for art’s sake – consists of cherishing experiences about experiences. It is, in every sense, a virtual affair that relegates naked reality to a secondary plane. Sometimes the passionate enjoyment of art is seen as the most sublime sphere to which the human spirit can attain; sometimes it’s a refuge, a walled garden protected from the tawdriness of the real. In both cases, energy is redirected from the immediate to a world mediated by artistic visions.
This process can only end in self-worship – that is, in narcissism. Since art can be validated only by the feelings it arouses, the esthete is sucked into a downward spiral of introspection in which his own feelings become, at some point, far more fascinating and meaningful than the works of art themselves. Divorced from function, from life, art ultimately loses any purpose other than to awaken those feelings. True creation then occurs, not in the artist’s mind and hands, but in the gilded temple of the esthetic soul. The ideal life is an eternal gaze into the mirror.
For those rare moments in history when esthetic sensitivity swelled into a movement – for example, Europe at the turn of the 20th century – a special style of art was produced. It was sexual and abstract. Anyone who imagines this to be a contradiction should consider the paintings of Gustav Klimt or the sketches of Aubrey Beardsley. Art for its own sake needed to balance two objectives. The sexual arouses potent instinctive emotions. Abstraction, the stripping out of social and historical context, keeps reality at bay.
I find it instructive to compare fin de siècle estheticism with 21st century digital humanity. This too may seem like a contradiction: one era displayed exaggerated sensibility and refinement, while the other, alas, trends in the opposite direction. They were dainty while we are gross. However, similarities can be found without looking too hard.
Digital humanity famously exists in a virtual and indirect realm: it can only know experiences about experiences. This is life once removed from life, and it inspires the same reversal of values as it did for the esthete: what begins as an outward voyage into digital information is soon transformed into a search for exciting internal states. Connections – friends, likes, retweets – are stimulants rather than interactions. Real persons, real friends, real communications matter strictly because of their effect on one’s feelings. The web is many things, but it is always the mirror of Narcissus.
The content of the web, like that of art, is the human comedy. To achieve the intended effect of the online life, the user must strike attitudes about real life as refracted through the digital prism. The esthete, in his realm, was drawn to the erotic and the abstract. A third of all the downloads from the web are dedicated to that most sterile expression of self-love, pornography. The purposes are easy to guess at but rarely noted in the theories of the intellectuals. Digital smut amputates humanity and reality from what was once the sexual act.
That’s not enough, of course. The hunger for a response, a click, another follower or a million, can never be satisfied. The flight from reality becomes the affirmation of existence. Politics, which deals with crowds, is a superior form of pornography. Rage is more sustainable than sex. Repudiation trumps lust. The actual world – all the flesh-and-blood humanity and its creations – can be destroyed to elicit one more orgasmic feeling in the user’s soul. And still that’s not enough. The virtual must conquer the real. Rage must spread like a plague to pollute every noble sentiment.
On behalf of some internal fancy, lone shooters have drenched nightclubs and theaters in the blood of innocents. Out of a dream of repudiation, the exalted brutes of ISIS turned the Levant into a charnel house. Reality can’t be conquered but it can grow narrow and dark. Somehow, unwitting, we have stumbled into claustrophobic quarters suffused with the stench of death. We began a pilgrimage to the center of ourselves, and we have ended the journey lost in the labyrinth of that human beast, the Minotaur.
Art is a function of life. The web was supposed to be an extension of life. Their declaration of independence from life merely opened up a space for bestial and predatory forces to enter history and dominate society. The esthetes of Europe were swept away by the mass movements that gave us the holocausts of the two world wars. The idealists of digital technology have been buried under an avalanche of mindless nihilism. We are stuck in a blind bleak place with the monster near at hand. We want out, but how? We want the truth about our condition, but where to find it?
What is the truth? When all experience is mediated that word begins to lose meaning. The farther we spin away from reality, the more reality appears to be just what we desire. In the mirror of Narcissus, truth is anything that triggers a novel sensation. In the labyrinth of the Minotaur, truth is whatever feeds the beast.
There is a thread on the ground that will lead us back to daylight. It has always been there, but we must look away from the mirror, make a pause in the rant and the rage, to find it. That transition is unexpectedly hard. We are afraid of the dark but terrified of the sun. We cry in loud voices that we wish to escape, to start the trip over, but are we willing to chance it?
The thread leads to places remarkable less for excitement than sturdiness: home and family, workplace and playing field, church and synagogue. The return to reality won’t be the gift of science but a painful moral turning – a turning away from ourselves. Under the light of the sun, we will recognize our own insignificance, and in this way regain our dignity.
Narcissus was punished for his cruel heart. To shatter the mirror that is his kingdom, we must learn again to walk in the shoes of others. The Minotaur was a devourer of the young. To break down the maze of confusion that is his lair, we must bear the wisdom of the past into the future and persuade the young that life is a synonym for courage. Art and the web will be there to assist us. They can enrich and expand our lives. We can even enjoy the feelings stirred in us by the mediation of great artists and thinkers. But that can never be the sum of who we are.
1. From the outside, in recent months American society seems to have been transformed into a kind of Hollywood scenario where good has triumphed over evil. Is this scripting of history a reformulation of facts as the victors can do to the vanquished?
It would be amusing to compare the 78-year-old Joe Biden with some of the young protagonists of Western films – say, John Wayne in Stagecoach or Alan Ladd in Shane. It doesn’t work. Both of those cowboy heroes were supposed to be outlaws and underdogs. Biden is a privileged and reactionary member of an establishment that desperately wished to defeat first the anti-elite Bernie Sanders and then the semi-nihilist Trump. In the movies, he would have played the role of the aging cattle baron who burns down the cabins of poor settlers to make a little more room for his animals.
There has been no transformation in America. We are the same as always, part good, part bad, and mostly indifferent. The exorcism of Trump has removed a deafeningly loud voice from the political scene. Biden is unable, and probably unwilling, to fill that void. But the noise is still there. The fracturing of society into sectarian war-bands, the anger and the impulse to repudiation and revolt – these are still there. All it will take is a triggering event, and the streets will be filled with protesters once again. I think it’s unwise to speak of victors and vanquished as if we were witnessing the end of an epoch. This movie never ends.
2. Many zealous observers have seen Trump as a potential dictator. More than the domination of an all-powerful leader, isn’t the first threat the disunity of the country? Does the election of Biden erase the American scars?
I have liberal friends who were sure that Trump was the next Mussolini. I have conservative friends who are worried that Biden will establish a “soft dictatorship” over the country. Neither of these developments are remotely possible. That they were considered likely by otherwise intelligent and sensible people is a symptom of the psychotic episode that is our moment in history. First, reality has fractured along sectarian lines: to a devout Republican, the inconsequential Biden really does appear like a dictator, just like the madcap antics of Trump seemed to many on the Left to recall the ravings of Hitler. Second, opinions are not only magically transformed into facts, but they must be asserted with fundamentalist certainty and communicated in screams of rage.
Liberal democracy has become the Tower of Babel, not a comfortable place from which to start a dictatorship. The threat to the United States – but also to France, Spain, Italy, Britain, and a host of other democratic nations – is definitely disunion and disorder rather than surrender to the fuehrer principle. We live in a time of disintegration, with the great institutions of the last century suffering traumatic injuries and hemorrhaging authority. We should take the danger seriously. The institutions of democracy must be reconfigured to the present age.
But let’s not confuse the noise with the truth. I grew up when Marxism-Leninism was, to many, an attractive alternative to democracy. My parents were young when Nazism and fascism nearly conquered the world. Today, democracy is the only game in town: it can be destroyed but not replaced. The choice is ours. As for Dr. Biden, he’s more of a cosmetic surgeon than the true healer of traumatic wounds the US and the world need at the moment.
3. Now that Biden is in office, will the establishment do everything it can to prevent the return of an off-system candidate?
Well, the establishment will always do everything it can to prevent anti-establishment figures from getting elected to office. That’s in the nature of things. In the 20th century, the structure of information and politics allowed elites to select and protect each other. In the 21st century, the wind is blowing from the opposite direction – and it’s a hurricane, a powerful and destructive force.
Biden is signing trillion-dollar checks as fast as his septuagenarian hand will allow him. He clearly hopes to purchase for his party and his clique the permanent domination of American politics. A trillion dollars here, a trillion dollars there, and very soon you find yourself applauded by a lot of new friends.
But the elites are out of alignment with the Zeitgeist. They don’t really understand the most significant aspects of the world in which they live – the digital networks of ordinary people that move at the speed of light, what Andrey Mir calls “the emancipation of authorship.” So they are always surprised. The elite dream is pure reaction: a return to the hierarchical structures of the last century. In particular, they wish to convert the great digital platforms like Facebook and Google into the front page of the New York Times circa 1980.
It won’t happen. Beyond the unseemly aspect of having the president of a democratic nation impersonating Hosni Mubarak, the information sphere is too massively redundant. For practical purposes, it’s infinite. To control it, one would have to reach far beyond Mubarak to become Kim Jong-un – and not even the most morbidly depressed Republicans expect that to occur.
Events have slipped out of the establishment’s control. It’s a structural reversal that no amount of money can nullify. If I were to advise President Biden, I would tell him: “Expect to be surprised.”
4. Emmanuel Macron is seen by many as the embodiment of an establishment “à la française”, after surviving the waves of protests of the Gilets Jaunes and those brought by various reforms, could he once again get away with it?
The most important circumstance for any politician is the quality of the opposition. Macron has been fortunate in his rivals. If that continues, he could certainly be re-elected (which I take it is what you mean by “getting away with it”). But see my answer to your last question. There are always surprises, which is why prediction is an unprofitable game.
Macron is a creature of the revolt of the public. His party, En Marche, didn’t exist a year before the election that somersaulted him to the presidency. He himself was too young and unknown. Like every carrier of revolt in this turbulent age, Macron claimed to represent radical change. He promised “revolution” but delivered the same unimaginative policies that had been embraced by his predecessors. The Left, where he originated, now considers him a traitor. But who will carry the banner of the Left at the next presidential election – Mélenchon? “Peripheral France” considers Macron to be an insufferable elite and establishment dupe. But who will these people vote for – Marine Le Pen?
Of course, no one expected Macron to win in 2017. Some new actor may emerge out of the shadows and take center stage in electoral politics – or some event may transform the present equation. The effect of the pandemic is an unknown factor. So far, the French public has accepted with remarkable docility the government’s confused and often contradictory handling of this crisis. That may change. Fortunately, it will be up to French voters – not an American analyst like myself – to decide the matter.
[In 2002, after years of intermittent research, I wrote a book-length essay titled “Freedom: A Question.” The question in the title concerned the very possibility of individual freedom, and the essay considered the latest data and analysis on the human brain (for example, on nonconscious processing and behavior) and cultural evolution (for example, Jared Diamond’s thesis that geography is destiny), and examined politics (that is, the conflict of freedom and power) as well. I never intended to get the essay published: I thought of it as a way to think through questions that I found to be of supreme importance. Many of its conclusions are foundational to the way I think and write today.
Below is a lightly edited version of the final chapter. I post it here not because it contains dazzling revelations but as an interesting example of one person’s eccentric intellectual quest. Readers are reminded that the data cited is good but old.]
Freedom is a biological capability of the human race. It may vary among individuals and between cultures and political regimes, but it coexists with us everywhere, at all times, if only as a possibility. And in fact it is impossible to eradicate human freedom with any completeness or finality. We are and must remain free, sometimes despite ourselves.
Unfreedom is also a biological trait – a capability – of the human race. Clockwork mechanisms help every human being to filter the immense number of signals from the world. Powerful desires organize our behavior in a rough and ready way. We are usually cleverest when least conscious.
But this paradox, which has attended us at every step of our explorations, means that we can be doing exactly as we wish and not be free – at least not as we have defined it. We can be driven by irresistible compulsions that bypass or overwhelm any mediation of the inner life and coerce obedience to some desirable object in the world. The resulting behaviors – for example, addiction – can be harmful to us, to others, and to social life.
We began this essay with a debate between the ages. At the heart of this debate is the human organism: driven, divided, bounded, but indeterminately free. How can the concept of community be reconciled with the predictable and repetitive urges of such an organism? How are lawfulness and stability possible? Or the peace of mind that figures so prominently in the record of human aspirations: dona nobis pacem? Given who we are, how must we proceed?
We have pursued the facts as far as they will take us. The answers now at best are guesses: acts of faith. We do not “know ourselves” with any mathematical precision. Freedom and unfreedom as ruling principles can only be justified subjectively. The question is about choice, not knowledge. The debate between the ages has been ferocious, bloody-minded, precisely for that reason.
One side holds that the human organism is beyond redemption. If allowed to roam free, nearly all individuals will become a source of chaos and corruption. Individualism is identical to selfishness; the promotion of one begets the other. The problem is finding a way to maintain order.
The solution is implicit in the vast and obvious inequalities within the human race. Some individuals are strong while others are weak; some are bright, others dim. Among the self-interested and self-indulgent mass of humanity, a few rare specimens can resist desire and act on conscious choice. They alone are free. Therefore, they alone should rule.
The rule of the worthy means the coerced obedience of the rest. Like children, the masses will get into trouble if they escape parental discipline. That has been the traditional view of the relationship of the human organism to freedom, from the time of the pharaohs to that of Pol Pot. Only “the best” can stand the temptations of power. Membership in this exclusive club has varied, depending on the culture and the temper of the times – but it has always been a minority. The most extreme version was surely the “fuehrer principle,” in which “the best” was reduced to one.
For an honest account of this principle, we must turn to Plato rather than Hitler:
“The greatest principle of all is that nobody, whether male or female, should be without a leader. Nor should the mind of anybody be habituated to letting him do anything at all on his own initiative; neither out of zeal, nor even playfully. But in war and in the midst of peace – to his leader he shall direct his eye and follow him faithfully. And even in the smallest matter he should stand under leadership. For example, he should get up, or wash, or take his meals…only if he has been told to do so. In a word, he should teach his soul, by long habit, never to dream of acting independently, and to be utterly incapable of it.”
Total obedience is the logical conclusion of this side of the debate between the ages. Totalitarianism, as we have seen, is a violent reaction against the market culture. But it enlists very old, very seductive styles and rituals to this reactionary cause, even as it reaches for the most modern and sophisticated means of coercion.
The potential of this doctrine to become a nuisance again has already been considered. As we turn to the future of freedom, however, we would do well to remember that the habits of obedience so dear to Plato have deep roots in human history. We don’t pray to an elected heavenly President, for example, but to a “king of kings” and “lord of hosts” or at best to “our Father,” whose will must be done.
The opposing side of the debate agrees that the human organism is beyond redemption but makes no exceptions to the rule. None can stand the temptations of power. To the degree they are exposed to such temptations, the best become the worst. It is as unrealistic to expect a king or an aristocracy to rise above private desire as it is to imagine they can defy gravity and fly. The least dangerous way to maintain order, therefore, is to fragment and disseminate the machinery of power as widely as possible, in part by enlarging and protecting the sphere of individual action.
Critical to this argument is the imposition of rules of the road. Individuals can be trusted to pursue their private ends. When those ends come in conflict, all parties must accept the arbitration of fair, impartial rules: otherwise, the tyranny of kings is traded for the tyranny of the masses or for a Hobbesian war of all against all. Society exists to inculcate and elaborate the rules. Its styles and rituals aim to minimize the likelihood of conflict. Government exists to protect the rules against private interests. That’s the legitimate purpose of coercion.
The privatization of culture and power is a relatively new event. Less than three centuries separate us from a world ruled by absolute monarchs and divine emperors. Only a generation separates us from the belief that dismal poverty is an incurable disease. We must consider the rule of the private person as an experiment whose outcome is still unknown. Individual freedom, everywhere cheered and celebrated and sung about, is in fact an open question.
Naturally, we want to know how it all turns out: whether the story of freedom has a happy ending. Yet prophecy is fatuous business. Karl Popper warned us against that type of “historicism” – and the human organism, individually and gathered in communities, however bounded, follows a trajectory that is impossible to chart with any confidence.
What, then, can we say about the future of freedom? I believe we can make a couple of observations, with which we may safely conclude this essay. One touches on changes in the environment: it ponders whether freedom can survive. The other explores possible changes in our behavior and asks whether freedom can grow. The subjects are large but will be treated with unseemly brevity. I only wish to show how the facts of the present are arrayed toward the future. As for the future itself – we may define that as the region where irreducible reality fades into irrefutable hope.
In the regions of the world where freedom has flourished, the environment is changing fast. That is our first observation. The change to the environment is not of the kind that worries Al Gore and Paul Ehrlich: it’s in the opposite direction. Long ago the human environment became humanized. Since then, the environmental factors that most powerfully influence our species have been culturally produced, and the most influential cultural factor is probably population density.
Knowledge held by a single person may allow a small band of hunters to survive. A crowded city requires specialized skills, mutual dependency, greater complexity, new behaviors. Mere numbers drive cultural evolution.
The market culture has been both the cause and the consequence of an immense population increase. That trend is about to be reversed. All the richest and freest countries of the world are experiencing a decline in fertility. Soon this will translate into a decline in population.
Consider the following UN estimates. By 2050, Europe will lose 124 million inhabitants. A mass of humanity roughly equivalent to the population of France and Germany today, with all its potential for science and art, will vanish from the scene. In Japan, the population will shed around 40 million persons by 2050; by the end of the century it will be half what it was at the beginning. Japan’s Ministry of Health and Welfare, in a burst of suicidal bravado, published a white paper showing that the entire population of the country will be wiped out by the year 3500. Since publication of the white paper in 1998, however, fertility rates have deteriorated, moving forward by 100 years the day the Japanese go extinct.
The structural reasons for this population decline are fairly well understood. The greater (and longer) investment in each individual that is the decisive innovation of the market culture has everywhere resulted in smaller families. Birth control technologies developed during the last half-century have tipped the scales below the rate of reproduction.
The moral choices involved are far more opaque. The availability of birth control, for example, doesn’t explain the refusal to breed. This isn’t “planned parenthood” at work. It’s little or no parenthood. Population declines are rare but not unknown in the human record. They usually follow catastrophic changes in the environment. That was the case with Ireland after the potato famine of the nineteenth century, and with Communist and ex-Communist countries today. Childlessness is a reaction to life conditions. Why it should take hold among people whose lives are wealthy, healthy, and secure is a profound puzzle. In fact, the strange brew of increasingly rich, highly stable communities with declining populations is unprecedented in modern history.
The consequences are therefore uncertain. We’ve never been here before. Few seem aware that we are here – after all, the pattern of the last two centuries has been population explosion rather than decline. Among those who see the change coming, opinions vary. Environmentalists like Ehrlich, who advocate “reducing human numbers,” consider the decline as the first step toward a sustainable society. Others worry about the “death of the West.” In any case, certain facts are beyond question. Many of the structures and institutions of liberal democracy rest on demographic assumptions that are about to go bad.
The obvious example is social security. There has been an understanding between the generations, entailing the transfer of money from young and middle-aged persons to the old. This “pay as you go” system assumes a population pyramid, with large numbers of the working-aged filling the bottom and far fewer retired persons at the top. But as birth rates drop and life expectancy rises, the pyramid inverts. Ever fewer working-age persons must support ever larger numbers of retired persons.
In Japan, the ratio will change from six to one in 1990 to one to one in 2050. Given the broad definition of “working age” used by UN estimates (those aged 15 to 64) and the reality of unemployment, by mid-century each Japanese worker will in fact support more than one retiree. Similar ratios apply in Europe. At that point, only two measures can preserve the system: increasing taxes on the worker or cutting back benefits on the retired. Either way, the understanding between the generations will be shaken if not broken.
Everything about our way of life is scaled to large and growing populations. Even if depopulation turns out to be an environmental boon, for the people involved the transition will be abrupt and difficult. A shrinking labor pool means a more expensive labor market. Heroic growth in productivity will be needed to avoid inflation. But consumption will shrink as well; any gains in productivity are likely to be the result of fierce competition and frequent bankruptcies. Immigration can make up only a fraction of the population loss, and will bring its own problems in tow.
The structures of freedom that have evolved since 1688 will come under severe stress. And we have no assurance that these dislocations will be transitional. We have no idea of what lies on the other side of the population divide. I doubt that faith in economic progress can be sustained if populations continue to decline.
Even if the numbers stabilize, the growth of wealth will have to depend on something other than a growing number of producers and consumers. The temptation to see prosperity as a zero-sum game will be difficult to resist. Control of the levers of government may win secure lives for some groups, while marginalizing others. Public opinion may splinter along generational lines, or between natives and immigrants – and as always between freedom and the desire for special advantage.
If freedom is chosen, we can add one more fact to the mix. To the greatest extent possible, human ingenuity and innovation will be deployed against the problem of smaller populations. The link between freedom and innovation is unequivocal. That’s one of the few clear lessons of this essay. The outcome is unknown and unknowable. That’s another lesson.
The triumph of the market culture and liberal democracy in this century, as in the last, is thus possible though not assured. The preservation of freedom requires the application of freedom: not a paradox or a slogan but a practical observation. And the part played by the United States will again be decisive. Ours is the largest liberal democratic country with a still-growing population. We are yet again the exception.
The question is how we choose to interact with the Europeans and Japanese, whose numbers are declining. We may do so on an “exceptionalistic” basis, which may well be self-fulfilling, or on the basis of shared principles, as democratic brethren and practitioners of the free market, which may offer the principles involved the best chance to adapt successfully to a new environment.
The decline in fertility underscores the importance of individual decisions. Human behavior is generally bounded and repetitive. My tomorrows can be largely inferred from my yesterdays. But every so often something changes: indeterminacy erupts out of nowhere, shattering old patterns, sweeping away all assumptions and predictions. Such tidal changes take place one person at a time. Whether they are driven by a harsh or an indulgent environment – whether they lead ultimately to freedom or unfreedom – they are an assertion of private choice. Options are weighed in someone’s subjective universe; the outcome, in the aggregate, overwhelms and redirects the strategies of governments, cultures, even the species as a whole.
The unwillingness of a free and thriving population to reproduce was unpredictable and, as a matter of record, unpredicted. Even now the causes are elusive. In some sense, however, the event is an expression of human freedom. Given the right technology, we can triumph over the most basic of desires: parenthood. The moral implications aren’t trivial but need not concern us. What is of interest here is the abolition of yet another barrier to human behavior.
We live in a time of tremendously expanded choices and capabilities: I believe, in the great age of freedom. Anything seems possible. Can that trend be sustained – can individual freedom continue to expand? If so, how does one go about growing freedom?
With this highly speculative subject, we will end our long day’s journey into the puzzle of human freedom.
Recall the debate between freedom and unfreedom. One side of the argument maintains that only a fuehrer or an aristocracy can restrain the destructive impulses of the human organism. The other side – the market culture, the “open society” – believes in self-restraint guided by a common set of rules of behavior. If, however, we are looking to an expansion of freedom, a third alternative leaps to mind: one that dispenses with restraint altogether. We have called this approach Proteanism. As a disputant in the debate between the ages, it is a very recent arrival, a child of the twentieth century.
Proteanism isn’t a single doctrine or outlook or way of life. It’s a cluster of contradictory propositions and attitudes that converge on the matter of individual freedom. All loathe any form of restraint or limitation on the individual. Consequently, all reject the validity of shared rules of behavior. To different degrees, all exalt self-expression and “self-overcoming” as the ultimate good and justification of each human life. The point of freedom is to produce such creative butterflies out of the caterpillars that we, as a species, mostly appear to be. To this end, the individual’s freedom can and should be expanded indefinitely. The rules of morality and the marketplace, even the law, are oppressive and deforming forces, crushing our diverse spirits into a single prefabricated mold. They too must be overcome.
Manifestations range from the cosmic to the commercial: from the “artist-tyrant” and “overman” of Nietzsche – for whom the ordinary person is a “laughingstock” and a “painful embarrassment” – to the children’s television network that labels viewers “unique” and “special” and urges each to “express yourself.”
In between, we encounter a curiously disjointed group. There’s postwar existentialism, which paired absolute personal freedom with the need for commitment. There are cultural anthropologists like Margaret Mead, who around the same time found behaviors rooted in sex, temperament, and family structure to be “socially produced” and easily reversible. There have been Freudians seeking to cure parental and sexual repression, Marxists working to overthrow political and economic oppression. More recently, postmodernists and multiculturalists have concluded that all boundaries to the human spirit, including reality itself, are subjective and therefore elective.
And no doubt there are unhappy persons who wish to change – caterpillars craving to become butterflies – children and even adults flattered to be designated unique and special. Proteanism is sometimes a consoling faith. It is always, in all its varieties, a doctrine of liberation. If we are looking to extend the boundaries of personal freedom, we are essentially on a Protean quest.
But what (we may ask) is the liberation against?
A believer in any of the creeds listed above would reply: against vast and oppressive but impersonal forces, such as capitalism, sexism, Eurocentrism, Christian morality. But what (we ask again) follows the overthrow of such ancient and pervasive forces? A metamorphosis follows. The consequences are transcendental: nothing less than the justification of human life. “The overman is the meaning of the earth,” writes Nietzsche in Zarahustra. Sartre makes the same point more democratically: “the ultimate meaning of the acts of honest men is in the quest for freedom as such.”
But what (finally) is the practical effect of all this sound and fury? How is behavior different? What changes in real life? Here we come to the root of the problem. The questions boil down to one: Who is entitled to liberation? Individual interests will differ. Individual actions will collide. The conflict of freedom against freedom will either be mediated by rules of behavior or dissolve into a Hobbesian melee, in which the strong will bend the weak to the desired posture and behavior. In other words, the more individual freedom expands, the fewer the individuals who can enjoy that freedom.
These are not profound observations. These are trivial truths. Nietzsche had no problem expressing his contempt for the market culture and liberal democracy. He believed in an aristocracy of the spirit. Whatever his “overman” meant to represent, he was a rare flower in the immense compost-heap that is the human race. Furthermore, like a true aristocrat, he was a law unto himself. Equality before the law Nietzsche derided as a sign of weakness and the “herd instinct.”
Margaret Mead was probably less witting of the consequences of her ideas, yet their logic led by a different path to the same aristocratic place. In Sex andTemperament, she assumed the aim of society to be “greater expression for each individual temperament.” Barriers to expression rest on arbitrary “social fictions” such as sexual roles. These can be abolished. “There would be ethical codes and social symbolisms, an art and a way of life, congenial to each endowment.”
Mead concludes the book with this remarkable statement: “If we are to achieve a richer culture, rich in contrasting values, we must recognize the whole gamut of human potentialities, and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse human gift will find a fitting place.” Sex and Temperament was published in 1935, two years after Adolf Hitler brought his bit of the “gamut of human potentialities” to total power in Germany. That unfettered self-expression must end in holocausts seems not to have occurred to Mead.
Pushed to its logical extreme, Proteanism is nothing more than the fuehrer principle applied to moral choice. It subjectivizes the world of objects and allows desire mastery over all things. What began as the release from all restraint quickly becomes the tyranny of desire: that’s cause and effect. Any expansion of individual freedom is temporary and illusory. Restraint will be reintroduced by the strong and the guileful, the “overmen,” the few, the one. Proteanism isn’t a third way in the argument between freedom and unfreedom. It represents the argument from unfreedom in its most primitive form.
If I extend my freedom outward, I will encounter two obstacles. One is Marx’s “kingdom of necessity.” Since the rise of our species, that has been the decisive barrier to choice: lack of food, clothing, shelter, knowledge. Today, however, I will scarcely be sensible of external necessity. The market culture has multiplied the choices available to me and to many ordinary persons.
We haven’t reached perfection, we aren’t gods – we still sicken and die, and the poor of choice are ever with us. But most of us don’t spend our day fretting after food or protection from beasts and the weather. We have transformed the conditions of our own existence. We have enlarged the field of play. In the liberal democratic world at least, we have flattened this barrier to a considerable degree.
The second obstacle is the freedom of other individuals. Being free, they compete and collide with me; they block my way. How I deal with this problem will largely determine my attitude towards freedom. The Protean way, for example, favors self-expression at all costs. It exalts love of myself and despises freedom as a shared ideal.
Now, I’m a child of liberal democracy. I prefer the rule of law. Better yet, I prefer generally understood but self-imposed rules of the road. The rules arbitrate my path through the community as I aim toward my private objectives. No doubt they will make illegitimate certain means and certain ends. I can’t legitimately lie, steal, or murder. I can’t legitimately become a tyrant: say, the owner of a slave plantation.
Here are the irreducible barriers to my freedom. I embrace them because I believe in the idea of justice: the proposition that no one subjective universe, not even my own, has primacy over another. And I believe in justice in public and private interactions, because the only alternatives are chaos and terror. I must choose between these models of behavior: between justice and terror, between self-imposed rules and unfettered self-expression. Early on, the outward extension of my freedom becomes a series of moral choices.
Morality is about public rules and behaviors, privately embraced. At the moment of moral choice the quest for freedom turns inward, to grapple with the forces that control each subjective universe. The obstacle we encounter here is ancient and unyielding: human biology.
Nonconscious processing of data drives much of my behavior. Part of me is pure machine; part is pure unmediated desire. The kingdom of internal necessity is powerful but its frontiers are unstable. Night networks with Day: the machine and the human who struggles toward morality belong to a single open system. The question is how, and to what extent, a model of behavior can be imposed on that system. Put somewhat differently: the question is whether the conscious bits who feel like me can make the case for the rules of morality, in such a way as to direct my actions with any consistency.
To expand the influence of conscious data, two approaches are possible. The first proceeds indirectly, by altering the environment. Human biology responds to signals from the world: if we remake the world, we can eliminate those signals that urge us to transgress. This approach is not without merit. It subscribes to the principle of “lead us not into temptation.” If I live in a placid, sheltered neighborhood I’ll have less opportunity to transgress than if I live surrounded by crime and vice.
Any attempt to construct a universally placid, sheltered environment will quickly run into difficulties, however. Above all, the entire approach begs the question. A high level of self-control will be required over a considerable length of time if we are to construct such a thing as a “moral environment.” But if we can claim such self-control, why do we need the changed environment? And if we don’t own the requisite self-control, what kind of change will we bring about?
The only viable path to morality is direct: that is, internal. The rules must be realized one person at a time. Each must confront the confusion of subjectivity and the power of nonconscious data. Each must wrestle with his angel. The results will be uncertain at any given time. Human life is largely a muddle. But it is a muddle struggling toward a theme – toward meaning, cosmic and personal.
Some individuals and communities have managed to approximate in their behavior certain abstract ideals: we need only recall Victorian England as documented by Gertrude Himmelfarb. Morality isn’t all hypocrisy. On occasion, people live by the rules. The question is whether we can advance beyond where we are today: whether consciousness and symbolic reason, on behalf of the rules, can push deeper into the kingdom of internal necessity, represented by clockwork biology.
Himmelfarb would say yes, and her arguments are at least plausible. The Victorians surely surpassed us in moral consciousness and self-restraint. They had lower rates of crime, illegitimacy, divorce, and cohabitation. They were more in control of their actions, and in that sense freer than we are. We are less bound to preconceived behavioral formulas – for example, about women’s place in the world – and in that sense freer than they were.
If the objective is the expansion of freedom, we should aim for the greatest degree of openness in behavior consistent with the greatest degree of conscious adherence to the rules. That would define the morality of freedom touched on in the last section.
We should be honest about the implications. To say that we won’t when we can is difficult and often painful. To pass judgment against oneself is agony. To pass judgment on others is awkward, alienating, and (to those judged) annoying. We all know it’s easier to look away, to mind one’s business, to pretend we each live in a separate but equal moral realm. That was the response of most Germans to the Nazi slaughter of Jews, Slavs, and gypsies: “I had nothing to do with it. I didn’t know.” Courage, even more than uprightness, is the foundation of morality – and morality, let us remember, is the only gateway to a multiplicity of legitimate ends.
At bottom, all discussion of freedom is really about its restraint. Once we move beyond the Protean cult of personality, human life becomes a balancing act between consciousness and desire, private goals and public demands, the individual and his family, his profession, his country, his culture, his God. In this matrix of possibilities, freedom means having the opportunity to choose when to surrender freedom. Thus the husband chooses his wife while giving up the freedom to bed others. Similarly, the athlete chooses a tyrannical training regime to achieve automatic (but consciously learned) behaviors like the overhead smash in tennis.
Even the acts of the greatest transformative geniuses, like the Buddha and St. Paul, involved what William James called “self-surrender,” the yielding up of the will. Is this a paradox? We have no way of knowing, but I suspect not. Something as convoluted as the aspirations of a single individual will embrace the aspirations and interests of many others. The husband freely gives up his freedom for his wife, the wife for her husband, parents for their children; the human soldier, unlike the termite, freely gives up his life for his country; and only a zealot, I expect, will see a contradiction.
Five days ago I received an email from a person who turned out to be a young woman, I’ll call her “Karma,” inviting me to a television interview on a famous cable news network – let’s call them “Fox.” I had just published something on post-journalism for City Journal, and her people, Karma said, were eager to learn more from me on the subject. I was flattered. The actual show I was to participate in was called something like “Things I Say on TV,” headlined by a woman I had never heard of. But I don’t watch TV news. She was probably very famous.
I said yes.
In a subsequent email, Karma informed me that the presumptively famous headliner was on vacation, so the interview would be conducted by her male sidekick, whom I will call, for painfully evident reasons, “The Voice.” I looked him up online. He had dark hair, a square chin, resembled Clark Kent without the glasses, and spoke in a manner no member of our species can attain to unless they are a TV announcer.
I must confess to a tiny bit of trepidation. My previous encounters with mass media consisted of being asked by a famous newspaper to write an opinion piece, which was then rejected, and a request for an interview at home by famous British broadcaster, who proceeded to take over my house for two hours then disappeared without a trace. Media people are incredibly frenetic and theatrical. I felt I wasn’t nearly interesting enough to hold their attention.
Plus, everyone said that cable news was entertainment, which isn’t exactly my line of business. On the other hand, the audience was in the millions. What if, even as a dancing monkey, I attracted the interest of this enormous crowd? Think how well my writings would sell. If I said something remarkably witty, I might become famous – I might even scale the heights of Olympus and become a meme!
“That’s fine,” I wrote back.
Three hours before broadcast time, during lunch, Karma telephoned me. To my surprise, she sounded like an anxious android whose algorithms had gone slightly wrong. She seemed to know this, which was awkward, and tried to compensate by thanking me a lot, which was really awkward. Karma said that I would be sharing the spotlight with a senior editor of a famous conservative magazine, who, she felt certain, knew just as much as I did about whatever it was that I knew about.
“Okay,” I said.
I had requested a 3 p.m. time slot. I was told to get on Skype at 3:30 for a tech check followed by a 3:45 interview. Sure enough, at 3:30 someone said, “Can you hear me?
I stared at my laptop. I could see my anxious face on a small tile in a corner, but otherwise the screen was blank.
“I can hear you, but I can’t see you,” I said.
“No, that’s the way it works. We can see you but you can’t see us.”
A minute later, another tech piped up. “You’re too close to the screen,” he told me. “Move back. Right. Now there’s too much head space – flip your screen. No, that’s too much – flip it back! And you’re not centered, not in the least. Slide to the right—”
The amazing thing is, I don’t take directions well, but I did everything this person told me to. I wish I knew why. It would be reassuring to say that it was his wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command, but the man was invisible to me.
Shortly before airtime, Karma came on to say hello. Her operating system seemed more distempered than ever, so she kept thanking me for many things. She thanked me for getting up early to participate in the show. It was 3:45 in the afternoon,
Now, you have to understand, while these sidebar conversations were going on, The Voice was blasting away at decibels that usually make your eyeballs burst. He was easily distracted, flitting from subject to subject, but always full of an inexplicable fury and mysterious insinuation, as if he were afflicted by some rare disorder – the political equivalent of Tourette’s Syndrome. “IRAN – THE AYATOLLAHS – NUCLEAR BOMBS – PRESIDENT BIDEN – STIMULUS PACKAGE – HUNTER BIDEN – SCANDAL ––.” All this was emitted in a matter of seconds.
Every now and then, there would be a snippet in which some obscure figure was allowed to agree with The Voice. That was me, I realized. I had become a snippet. I reminded myself of the advice typically given for TV appearances: be brief.
But when the time came, it was my interview partner, let’s call him “Other Guy,” who received the first question. It was long and loaded, and it had to do with the absolute and horrific abolition of freedom of speech in America – no, really, The Voice, who could be heard unamplified in the outer reaches of the solar system, was troubled about speech. Other Guy began his ritual agreement but was almost immediately cut off.
Finally, it was my turn. My host introduced me and read a quotation from the City Journal piece, but he did it so aggressively and vociferously that, even though I had written them, the words terrified me.
“MARTIN GURRI, WHAT DO YOU THINK?”
I cleared my throat. “Well, you have to understand, the concept of post-journalism was actually developed by a brilliant media scholar called Andrey Mir –“
“THANK YOU AND GOODBYE, MARTIN GURRI. THAT’S ALL THE TIME YOU GET.”
The Voice was gone. After a few seconds, Karma came on – by now she was totally out of order, apologizing even more profligately than she had done with her thank yous.
“Sorry about that,” she said. “We just bumped up on the end of the show and had to stop. Maybe we can do this again!”
I stared in seething silence at my blank laptop screen. In a moment of analytic solidarity, I could feel Other Guy staring in seething silence at his blank laptop screen.
“Well…” Karma began when I clicked out of the site.
Because we live in a Puritanical age, and because, in a puzzling and indirect way, the Puritans are my forefathers, I feel I should offer lessons. This is the lesson. Cable news, as everyone says, is entertainment – that’s true enough. But it’s entertainment of the kind that aristocratic ladies and gentlemen engaged in during the eighteenth century, when they visited Bedlam, the insane asylum, to watch the naked lunatics cavort and rave. The TV audience today are those tittering aristocrats. The Voice, with his manic effusions, does a perfect job of impersonating the inmates – and at least he wears a dapper Clark Kent suit.
But we live in the compassionate 2020s. I feel that something should be done to protect these people from themselves. Maybe an algorithm can be found to route the cable news audience to watch Duck Dynasty or the Kardashians instead. Maybe a deep intervention can be attempted on The Voice until he learns to speak like a human, rather than a kindly alien who imagines he has landed on the Planet of the Deaf. With a few meds all around, we might enter an age of peace and lower-case discussions of a kind not seen since that fateful moment, a million years ago, when we climbed down from the trees and evolved into argumentative apes.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made clear that the traditional information ecosystem is gone. People have been writing to us asking us what is going on, why their normally regular friends are suddenly sharing weird conspiracy theories, rejecting any information coming from the government or from scientists and advocating for the arrest of all politicians. So I was thinking I would put their question to you: what do you think is going on? What I think is interesting is that, in Quebec, the government’s response to the pandemic was initially very popular. But as the pandemic wore on and its bumblings came to light, popular opinion veered sharply against it. We now have a very mobilized and vocal resistance movement.
Well, I am far from an expert in Quebec politics, but what you are describing is a global and long-running development – so let me answer from that perspective.
What you call the “traditional information ecosystem” was simply a product of the industrial age. The old landscape was a desert of information. Institutions like government and media held a semi-monopoly over what little there was, and sold it in exchange for legitimacy and credibility. These institutions spoke with authority from on high. We listened and applauded with various degrees of enthusiasm – but it never occurred to us that we could talk back.
The digital earthquake that began rattling the world around the turn of the millennium unleashed a tsunami of information against this system, and it has never recovered. According to the scholars who measure such things, the year 2001 doubled the volume of information accumulated in all previous human history. The year 2002 doubled 2001. That trend has continued – if you chart it, it really does look like a stupendous wave, a tsunami. I was in CIA’s office for global media analysis at the time. Behind the tsunami, we watched the levels of sociopolitical turbulence suddenly increase in places like Egypt that had been dormant for decades. And we asked the same question you did: “What on earth is going on?”
What is going on is a crisis of authority that is battering the institutions we have inherited from the industrial age – government, media, business, science, the university – as a system that based its legitimacy on information scarcity is unable to cope with overabundance. What is going on is that the public is now talking back in spades: experts, pseudo-experts, ordinary people, extremists, frauds, cranks, an uproar of voices around every attention-worthy topic as discussion is conducted within a digital Tower of Babel.
The public that once applauded politely turns out to be in a surly and mutinous mood. Every falsehood and failure of the old system has been laid bare by the tsunami. Every unfulfilled promise by the elites who run the institutions, every act of corruption or sexual predation is now out in the open, center stage, for all to see. So the public takes to the streets or votes for populists who offer to “drain the swamp.”
The first political effects of the new information landscape were felt as early as 2011, with the sadly misnamed Arab Spring, the indignados of Spain, and Occupy Wall Street here in the US. All those movements were organized online. 2016 saw the triumph of Brexit and Donald Trump. By 2019, I could count at least 25 major street revolts around the globe, from Hong Kong to Barcelona and from Bangkok to Santiago, Chile. Then came the pandemic, and the political deep freeze of the quarantine.
The behavior of the institutional elites during the pandemic recapitulated all the causes of the crisis of authority. They spoke with confidence from on high, as if they alone possessed the relevant information – but in fact the institutions of government and the health establishment lumbered slowly, handicapped by bureaucracy and a maze of regulations, while the digital public tracked the progress of the virus at the speed of light. The elites claimed to have the technical expertise to protect the population – but in fact they contradicted each other and not infrequently the same expert contradicted himself. In the US, for example, Dr. Anthony Fauci denied the need for a quarantine then a few weeks later mandated one; he also flip-flopped on the need to wear protective masks. The elites wrapped themselves in the mantle of science – but science isn’t a religion, and scientists turned out to have as many opinions as politicians. Thus the noise surrounding Dr. Didier Raoult in France, advocate of hydroxycloroquine treatment, who railed against “the tyranny of the methodologies” and has been labelled a “medical populist.”
All of these hesitations and contradictions might have passed unnoticed in the 20th century. In the digital age, however, the confusion of the elites sets the information agenda. The public’s anger was a pre-existing condition – if not in Quebec then certainly elsewhere. The lockdown placed a lid on the anger, but that only built up pressure. We should not be surprised that the lid has blown open and protests have resumed.
The 2011 uprisings which are central to your book all seemed to stem in part from the 2008 market crash. You write in the final chapter that the one thing you might have gotten wrong is the speed at which the crumbling of institutions was going to happen. What role do crises like the market crash and the COVID-19 pandemic play into the metacrisis of authority? Do you see things speeding up even more?
No, I don’t actually think that the crisis of authority stems in any degree from the financial collapse of 2008. As I said above, my take is that the crisis has been caused by the lack of adaptation of the great modern institutions to the digital information landscape. There is an evident need for a structural reconfiguration of democratic government, but also a need for an elite class that has a clue. Elected officials seem to imagine that they are still carrying on in the 20th century. They make claims that can be easily falsified and act inappropriately in ways that will be inevitably found out.
The financial crash of 2008 and the pandemic of 2020 have been moments of great clarity, when the claims of competence of the elites and the experts have been exposed as hollow. The rhetorical style of the industrial age was utopian: if only we mix the right amount of data with great enough power, we can fix the human condition. That illusion should have vanished when the Soviet Union went out of business but, perversely, it has clung to political debates in democratic societies. We should know by now that human knowledge is frail and limited. A little humility in elite rhetoric would go a long way towards restoring trust.
As for the speed of change, guessing faster is probably the smart thing to say. I believe we are in the very early stages of a vast transformation from the industrial age to something that doesn’t even have a name yet. In this migration into the unknown, across a bizarre and tempestuous landscape, everything will appear too fast and too dangerous.
But I would not despair. My friend Antonio Garcia Martinez tells a parable: what if you had asked Europeans what they thought of the printing press during the 30 Years’ War – a conflict in which millions died over minute differences in belief, exacerbated by the availability of printed books and pamphlets? The answer might have been that the printing press was the most dangerous and destabilizing invention in human history. It was early days. The printing press became a liberating force, helping to propel revolutions in science and democratic government. It’s early days for digital technology as well – let’s not give up on it quite yet…
One of the more bizarre aspects of the last few months is the explosion in popularity of the QAnon conspiracy theory. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a sort of mishmash of many different conspiracies, which posits that all institutions are secretly run by pedophile satanists and that Donald Trump is fighting a clandestine war against them, which will see hundreds of thousands of them sent to prison or executed. To me, it clearly fits your definition of a nihilist movement. On the other hand, its proponents believe in a sort of institutional revival, if you will; that Donald Trump will save the institutions by eliminating the evil people within them. They also glorify the power of the State (as personified by Trump). As an aside, this conspiracy theory is very popular in Quebec, and some observers were horrified to see people marching with Trump 2020 flags in Montreal during anti-mask protests along with Quebec flags. Quebeckers are openly saying they wishTrump would come arrest our politicians and make things aright. What’s your take on this? Isn’t there a glaring contradiction?
The QAnon frenzy is a surface (and probably transient) manifestation of a tectonic collision in the depths.
The public now has a voice and is a leading player on the political stage: but the public is fractured. The public is many. That is what happens in the digital environment – free rein is given to a multiplicity of opinions. Every potential leader, organization, or positive program is thus divisive.
An angry public can only unify and mobilize by standing against the established order, with no alternatives in mind. The crowd in Tahrir Square stood against the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, with no thought of what should follow. Black Lives Matter protesters today stand against systemic racism, with no proposals how to end it. Taken to an extreme, the idea can be embraced that sheer destruction is a form of progress: my definition of nihilism.
Because elites and their institutions have failed to channel the impulse for change, the public, when looking to bestow its political favors, has searched for signals of non-elitism, of political incorrectness, of outrageousness in the face of the old norms. That’s how you get Trump in the US and Bolsonaro in Brazil. They looked and sounded nothing like elites.
In a crisis of authority, this process has no logical end-point – no proposition that is too outlandish, preposterous, or absurd to be a motive for action. True authority isn’t based on power but on trust. Truth isn’t some Platonic form but a statement from an authority you trust. When such authorities go extinct, the game is thrown wide open to every kind of weird theory of the world, particularly when the fun of the game entails horrifying the elites and calling attention to yourself. That’s how you get QAnon.
None of this has anything to do with institutional revival. It’s all against, on steroids. It all verges on nihilism and possibly crosses that line. I don’t know enough about QAnon to judge. An interesting question is whether the people who mouth these improbable theories actually believe them. That would be another discussion – my take is that most of them don’t believe, and use the very weirdness of the theories as markers for a community that is oriented ferociously against. For evidence of how this works I would point your readers to Hugo Mercier’s excellent book, Not Born Yesterday.
With the American election less than two weeks away, faith in the electoral system seems to be waning. Both sides allege that the election won’t be fair; either the Republicans will intimidate voters at the polls or seek to declare victory before the votes are counted, or Democrats will steal the election with mail-in voting fraud. Where do you see this going? Is there any scenario in which this is just a regular election? What if it’s not?
Actually, I don’t do prophecy. The present is hard enough to figure out. The future? Forget it…
On the other hand, speculation is cheap, and the post-election possibilities are interesting. The received wisdom is that the mail-in vote will delay the count. I have no idea whether this is right – but if so, it will add to the stress and storm of the moment. If Trump wins, there will be a massive uproar as there was in 2016, and for the same reason: everyone expects him to lose. If Biden wins, our politics will look something like three-dimensional chess, with the young warriors of the administration trying to displace the aging Boomers, while the baton of resistance is passed to the Trumpist/Tea Party warbands on the right.
But your question has to do with the sanity of the American people and the solidity of our democratic institutions. In such cases, a good mental exercise is to separate the monstrous noise from the media, digital and mainstream, and of the politicians who thrive in that noise, from the reality of people’s relationship to the democratic process. And having said this, I’m going to make an act of faith and add: while there is no such thing as a “regular” election, I don’t expect this one to be remembered for its irregularities.
And I say that knowing that this is precisely what that monstrous media noise will claim.
[The following conversation, recorded May 19 of this year, was hosted by Laurent de St. Martin, member of the French General Assembly for the government party, En Marche, and included David Goodhart, author of The Road to Somewhere, and myself.]
“What is truth?” Pontius Pilate asked, and famously did not hang around for an answer. Lately I have been asking, Pilate-like, about “post-truth” – and the answers, if they exist, are also hard to get at.
Post-truth is an old label that was revived by the political and media elites to explain what they considered to be the disasters of 2016: the British vote to leave the EU and the election of Donald Trump. On this account, the two outcomes could only be achieved through a massive distortion of reality. The elites, who had once decided such things on sheer authority, simply could not believe that any sane person, while in possession of the truth, would vote for Brexit or Trump. Hence, post-truth. A reasonably intelligent exposition of this argument can be found in Matthew d’Ancona’s book, whose title says it all: Post-truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back.
That is not my interpretations of the events of 2016 – and it is not what I mean by post-truth. In a recent essay for The Bridge, I offered my take on the matter: “Post-truth, as I define it, signifies a moment of endlessly divergent perspectives on every subject or event, without an authority in the room to settle the matter.” The elites once mediated between the public and reality. They were the authority that settled the matter. But truth is a function of trust, and the public’s trust in the elites evaporated long ago. Truth has fractured or unbundled, and is now up for grabs. I wrote:
A telling symptom is that we no longer care to persuade. We aim to impose our facts and annihilate theirs: a process closer to intellectual holy war than to critical thinking.
On the same day those words appeared, a perfect mini-melodrama of post-truth in action played out on the information sphere.
It began, as so many things do, with Donald Trump, who happened to cut loose with a tweet in which he expressed in vehement language his opposition to mail-in ballots. Since the Trumpian Twitter style is typically over the top, this was not in any way a notable effusion. However, a large blue exclamation mark, enclosed in a circle, suddenly materialized at the bottom of the presidential tweet, enjoining the reader to “Get the facts about mail-in ballots.”
The president had just been fact-checked by Twitter.
“Fact-checking” in the post-truth era is a dicey proposition. On whose authority do you rest your judgments? The old-time news media still believes it possesses authority, but that’s a case of senile dementia. The news dithered away the public’s trust decades ago. Unfortunately, as a result of recent history the social media platforms are by now even less trusted than the news – and Twitter, with its sudden manias and cancel mobs, is probably at the bottom of the heap.
Twitter introduced the fact-checking feature in response to the pandemic crisis, a moment of transfiguration for the big digital platforms. They became, so to speak, institutionalized. For reasons of health and safety, all searches about the virus were referred to established health bureaucracies like the WHO and the CDC. Crackpot conspiracies were thus weeded out – but so were merely eccentric or uncredentialed opinions. The same institutional third-party approach was used in fact-checking the president – the first time, as far as I know, that the feature was expanded to politics.
If Trump supporters were to demand, “Why should I believe you, Twitter?” the answer would be “Because experts.” But in a zero-trust society, this explanation is self-refuting. For much of the public, “expert” translates into “self-serving elite” – in effect, the enemy.
Concerns about this line of reasoning may have motivated Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to wade into this unenticing bog. Zuckerberg, of course, is the brontosaurus in the room when it comes to social media – his slightest twitch gets our attention. In an interview with Fox News, he took President Trump, who had been fulminating threats of government action against Twitter, gently to task. “I think a government choosing to censor a platform because they’re worried about censorship doesn’t exactly strike me as the right reflex here,” he said. But he also made an emphatic distinction between social media and Platonic truth: “I just believe strongly that Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online. Private companies probably shouldn’t do that, especially these platform companies…”
Zuckerberg seemed to be playing the part of Pontius Pilate, but that really wasn’t the case. His mind works like an engineering wonk’s rather than a philosopher’s, and he was reacting to a practical problem: given that millions of users, being human, constantly speak falsely online, what capacity or authority does Facebook have to call them out? A selective approach, like Twitter’s, would immediately strike the public as arbitrary or biased. Pointers to some third-party judge would only dodge the question of why this fact had been checked, and not another. A world of infinite fact-checking – of fact-checking the fact-checkers and those who fact-check them – loomed as the last stage of post-truth. In a Facebook post, Zuckerberg identified with those who were criticizing the president’s statements, but then added:
People can agree or disagree on where we should draw the line, but I hope they understand our overall philosophy is that it is better to have this discussion out in the open, especially when the stakes are so high.
It is a testament to the murkiness of this particular discussion that Mark Zuckerberg emerged from it as the voice of wisdom.
Predictably, he was punished for it. Elizabeth Warren, senator and former Democratic Party presidential candidate, attacked Zuckerberg in a full-Trumpian mode tweet for “going on Fox News – a hate-for-profit machine that gives a megaphone to racists and conspiracy theorists – to talk about how social media platforms should essentially allow politicians to lie without consequences.”
The war of fact against fact must inevitably devolve into a war of source against source. If Warren had her way, Fox News would be cast out to a spectral netherworld of hateful lies, consumed only by the politically damned. Zuckerberg stood condemned by association. Yet Warren was by no means the first or the worst to seek an informational lockdown that identified gang mentality with the struggle between good and evil. President Trump is probably world champion in the game of media demonization: CNN for him is always “fake news,” and its reporters are always targets of exorcism and banishment.
Increasingly, the post-truth landscape has come to resemble a science fiction nightmare. In a fractured universe, multiple “spheres of truth” reach blindly for domination – but when they collide, every claim for every truth is nullified, and nothing is validated.
The story ends where it began: with Donald Trump. Two days after the fact-checking flap, he hurled a thunderbolt of an executive order at the social media companies, threatening to revoke their “Section 230(c)” protection against legal liability. Historians may some day assess this to be one of the prime documents of the post-truth era. Trump portrays the platforms much like Warren portrayed Fox News: as moral and political abominations that exist to torment honest folk. The language is unusual for government but 100 percent Donald Trump:
Twitter now selectively decides to place a warning label on certain tweets in a manner that clearly reflects political bias. As has been reported, Twitter seems never to have placed such a label on another politician’s tweet. As recently as last week, Representative Adam Schiff was continuing to mislead his followers by peddling the long-disproved Russian Collusion Hoax, and Twitter did not flag those tweets. Unsurprisingly, its officer in charge of so-called ‘Site Integrity’ has flaunted his political bias in his own tweets.
In all likelihood, nothing will come of this. That’s another feature of our baffling times: the noise is deafening, the achievement nil. The president has given his supporters what they wanted. He has gotten what he wanted out of it, too – loads of attention, with everyone screaming about Section 230(c), something most of us had never heard of a week ago. I think it would be safe to parse the executive order as a gigantic troll by a master of the art form.
Twitter immediately doubled down by blocking comments to a Trump tweet on the disturbances in Minneapolis, also flagged with a statement that it “violated the Twitter Rules about glorifying violence.” That took the dispute to another level. President Trump is the top law enforcement officer in the country. He holds in his hands the monopoly of legal violence, so far as the Federal government is concerned. On what authority can Twitter condemn the sheriff for violence?
All that, on one side of the question. On the other, there’s the president’s inimitable online rhetoric:
Having finished my work as an analyst, I would like nothing better than to tiptoe away from this dreary neighborhood. To linger here is to risk being sucked down into the sound and fury emanating from the labyrinth of post-truth. Yet I can’t walk away. None of us can walk away. That’s true in a literal sense, because the structure of post-truth resembles a series of ever-narrowing circles, so that we always find ourselves back where we began, only with less to say. But it’s true also in an imperative sense. If we are ever to find our way out of the labyrinth – if we are to have any hope of restoring authority and recovering the truth – we must make very clear where we stand.
Can presidents be fact-checked? If a president walks into someone’s home to give a speech, the owner can correct him whenever he feels the urge. President Trump chooses to express himself on Twitter, which is the home of CEO Jack Dorsey. If Dorsey wants to fact-check him, it’s his prerogative.
Should presidents be fact-checked? That has happened since the first days of our republic. Presidents are citizens, not kings. Political conflicts at the highest level are about the interpretation of reality. If presidents were not contradicted about the facts of the world, we would be in China or North Korea, where truth is dictated by political power.
But in the present case, under conditions of post-truth, an extra burden of responsibility is placed on any digital platform that conducts a large volume of political discussion for a democratic society. I believe shouldering that responsibility is how you start to earn authority and credibility. It’s how you break out of the cave into the clear light of day.
My assumption is that Trump was fact-checked and blocked because his words triggered some algorithm in Twitter. The company has confirmed that “internal systems” rang the warning bells. In my essay at The Bridge, I observed that these algorithms work against the grain of the democratic process, and cannot help but taint the information they touch with their own illegitimacy.
With regards to information, democracy is about giving accounts. Presidents, for example, give accounts of their policies and are held accountable for them by voters. Yet that is precisely the opposite of how algorithms behave. Algorithms are proprietary secrets. On principle, they never give accounts of how they handle information and thus can never be held accountable.
So here is where I stand on the matter of Trump and Twitter. Twitter was perfectly within its rights to fact-check the president. However, that placed Dorsey and his platform under an obligation: they now had a responsibility to offer reasons – to give an account. They need to say “We applied to this case the following principles, which are transparent, and we can show that in every case these principles have been applied uniformly and fairly.” Zuckerberg has given an account of why Facebook went in the opposite direction. Whatever one thinks of Trump’s position, he has given an extensive account of it in the executive order. Neither Dorsey nor anyone else from Twitter, to my knowledge, have troubled to account for their decision.
There is still time.
Blocking the president was a foolish mistake. Jeff Jarvis is right: we come together in an open information system, and the attempt to flag or fence offending pieces of it to create a pure “sphere of truth” is wrongheaded and probably doomed to failure. Mark Zuckerberg was right, too: the only hope we have to get at some semblance of the truth is by hashing out our differences in the open, where all can see.
And as I finally tiptoe off to a happier place, it’s good to remind myself of a couple of incontrovertible facts. Donald Trump profits immensely from Twitter, which allows him to speak directly to his supporters and enrage his opposition. Twitter profits immensely from Donald Trump, who brings in 80 million followers and makes news on the platform on an hourly basis. That was true before this episode – and even more so after.
In recent years, we’ve opposed democrats to populists and often presented them as the two only options. However, was this the correct analysis? As neither Emmanuel Macron nor Donald Trump have handled the coronavirus crisis successfully weren’t we mistaken when opposing one political ideology to another?
I would say the opposition is between the elites and the public, with populism being a sort of weapon sometimes wielded by the public in democratic nations against the elites. Macron has taken his stand with the elites. Trump defines himself as anti-elite: so he is called (usually by the elites) a populist. Both play within the framework of liberal democracy.
More to the point, both preside over the monstrous and slow-moving machinery of the modern state. Democratic institutions today, including government, are a legacy of the industrial age, when it was believed that “science” and “rationality” in the hands of “experts” could cure the human condition, if enough power was applied. Salvation came from the top down, as if by divine grace. Presidents were expected to speak with Olympian authority. Every crisis was a “problem” to be solved, almost mathematically, by specialists deciphering the data.
The credibility of this model of organizing society has been destroyed by the digital age. There’s just too much information available. We know every falsehood, error, and failure of judgment that presidents and governments are responsible for. The public was promised salvation but is now condemned to elect persons with few divine attributes. So it is angry. The public was angry long before the pandemic.
Regardless of what Macron orates or Trump tweets, the French and American governments are very similar in their bureaucratic structure. Both function as if we are still in the 20th century, and not in the digital age. Such structures could never keep up with the speed of the contagion. Macron and Trump alike faced a health crisis with inadequate instruments at their disposal.
The question assumes that they have been unsuccessful. That reflects the anger more than any empirical measure of success. I tend to be more forgiving. Human knowledge has severe limits. The chief vector of contagion has been our ignorance. By global standards, France and the US have not been particularly unsuccessful in stopping the infection. The greatest failure of democratic government under the current circumstances has been a lack of humility: making proclamations as if from certain knowledge, when in truth they knew little more than ordinary persons.
The Chinese government seems quite confident that its time has come and that the West is currently imploding. Would you say that this is true? Are we currently witnessing the implosion of the West and its ideology?
Throughout the coronavirus crisis, China’s been exposed as a regime mainly based on propaganda and the West now seems much more vocal about it. The confrontation between China and the West seems to get more and more exacerbated. Is this an institutional issue or more of a civilizational one (Confucianism versus western civilization)?
I find it remarkable that, in light of the pandemic crisis, anyone would point to China as a model to emulate. To begin with, that regime isn’t really a system or model. Like Mao in his mausoleum, it’s a mummified version of the 20th century. The Chinese regime still believes they can subtract what is known from what is revealed, and, more seriously in the case of the pandemic, that they can control what is revealed from the top. Politics – pure power – is thought to command science, data, even reality. The consequence is an empire of lies: local authorities seek to deceive provincial authorities, who in turn seek to deceive the national leadership, who in turn hope to deceive their public and the world.
The reflexive action of the authorities in Wuhan when told of a new contagious disease was to detain and discredit the messenger: Dr. Li Wenliang, the doomed hero of the COVID-19 tragedy. In mid-January, weeks after the initial outbreak, the city of Wuhan held a festival for 40,000 neighbors. It is licit to wonder whether the pandemic might have been reduced or stopped if those in power there had possessed any sense of responsibility. The only question I have is whether the national leadership in China believed their own propaganda or were complicit in the deception.
Given the relationship between the regime and information, nothing out of China can be believed. Any statistics are bound to be distorted by politics. If one multiplied the number of coronavirus deaths in China by ten, twenty, thirty times the official number, this would not be surprising.
This is a universal weakness of authoritarianism. The democracies were confused and overwhelmed by the pandemic, but they have tried to serve their citizens. The first priority of every authoritarian is to stay in power. In Iran, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, accused Iran’s enemies of exaggerating the danger of infection. The deputy health minister, Iraj Harirchi, went public to downplay the dimensions of the pandemic, a day before he tested positive for the virus and was quarantined. The video of a sickly Harirchi uttering his denials can stand as a parable for the end of dictatorial illusions about information control.
Western democracies should not worry that their ideology has been superseded by China. But Western corporations, those in France very much included, will have to decide whether they wish to keep their manufacturing supply chains hostage to events in that country. When the present crisis is over, there is bound to be a broad reconsideration about the place of China in the developed world. The economic consequences are almost certain to be damaging to that country.
Europe already seemed quite weakened before crisis, do you think the political union can survive it and live past it?
I confess that I found it astonishing to see Angela Merkel, apostle of open borders, suddenly shut the gates to the entire country of Germany. Yet that was the reaction of every government in Europe. The EU was erected on the assumption that no existential threats remained in the continent. When the coronavirus crisis arrived, national governments immediately moved to protect their people: it was as if the EU did not exist. When Viktor Orban used the crisis to allocate extraordinary powers to himself, there was only silence from Brussels. When Italy desperately needed medical equipment, Brussels and the European nations looked the other way.
Imagine if, at the first shot of a battle, every member of a battalion ran away and tried to save himself, even at the cost of the others. That is no longer a military unit, and could never be one again. How do you erase the memory of mutual selfishness and cowardice? That is the situation that will confront the EU when the present draconian measures are lifted. A tremendous burst of political pressure – anger, resentment, uncertainty – will be released, I suspect, at that moment, aimed at anyone who represents the hypocrisies of the past.
In the US, the government has also in many cases been inadequate to the crisis, and the states have stepped in to fill the vacuum. But we are, by design, a decentralized country. The pandemic merely forced us to live up to that ideal. Looking forward, Europeans are going to have to decide what kind of European Union they want. The current system is a bureaucratic superstructure with little connection to the democratic process. It adequately represents the governments and the elites, but not the public of Europe. Yet the public today is the leading actor on the political stage. To ignore this is to invite more populism and more revolts in the style of the Yellow Vest movement.
Nothing is predestined. Europe will survive in some form. But I would be surprised if fundamental changes were not in store for the EU, even in the short term.
With the coronavirus crisis people seem to have further lost faith in experts and institutions. Would you say the ongoing crisis of authority is becoming more severe? What could be the outcome of such a crisis? Should we now fear the rise of political nihilism more than ever?
The crisis is not simply political. I have been fascinated by the drama surrounding Dr. Didier Raoult and his claims for hydroxychloroquine. Dr. Raoult is probably the top expert in infectious diseases in France, yet I have seen the term “medical populism” attached to him. This accusation is worth a moment of reflection.
The experts are divided. How is that possible? We believe science to be the great oracle of nature, and scientific experts to be the priests and sibyls attending the temple. There can only be one truth, one answer to every question. Yet, like the oracle at Delphi, science is now offering us ambivalent answers, and we are watching the experts fight like politicians over who gets to decide the truth. It is a profoundly revealing spectacle. For the French, who are taught to worship established authority, the revelation has felt traumatic and disorienting. The wild COVID-19 conspiracy theories now circulating among the French public are an act of faith that someone, somehow, must be in control of the situation.
We are suffering through a “post-truth” era. Nature has not changed. Truth is still one. But our perspectives have fractured, and there is no one who speaks with authority, no one who can provide a persuasive story about the virus and the cure.
So I return to an observation I made above. There are severe limits to human knowledge. Even our experts are blinded by ignorance. Modern science is a magnificent attempt to push that ignorance back, one centimeter at a time. Science is an exercise in humility, not an oracle in communion with the gods. If elected officials make it a practice to speak as if they possessed an Olympian omniscience, they will be unmasked as frauds, and the public will be driven to despair of democracy – and, ultimately, to political nihilism.
But there is an even more dangerous possibility. If scientific bureaucrats make it a practice to speak as infallible prophets, their imposture will also be found out, and post-truth will degenerate into a sort of anti-science nihilism. Movements like those that today reject vaccines will then prove to be precursors to a long night of willful ignorance.
The current shutdown of social and economic activity is unprecedented. How can we resume both once the pandemic is under control? How do we restore faith in a system that many now question even more than they did before?
The news coverage of the pandemic has made it the biggest story in history, what are your thoughts on this unprecedented media noise? Would you say that it is proportionate to the health crisis itself?
The two questions are closely related.
There has never been an affair in the information sphere like the pandemic story. The numbers associated with the actual disease, COVID-19, are not unprecedented, either for a contagion or as a cause of death. The uproar caused by talking about the disease, both in mass media and in digital media, makes it indeed the biggest story in human history, completely overshadowing every other subject. Sometime in March the US bombed pro-Iranian militias in Iraq. A Russian court gave Vladimir Putin permission to remain as president until 2036. Nobody cared. Nothing could penetrate the giant noise of the pandemic story.
Agenda-setting studies show that an event appears significant to the degree that it dominates public discussion. The unprecedented din of the story made the disease seem like an equally unprecedented catastrophe. Much of the discussion was a panicked and angry search for scapegoats, for sacrificial victims that could be offered up to appease the plague. The questions constantly repeated were: Who was to blame? Who had failed to protect us? In this information environment, governments were stampeded into treating the virus as an absolute, unparalleled evil. A prosperous global economy was destroyed in a few weeks.
The death of thousands is a horror, a tragedy. But it is relative to other forms of evil, such as the destitution of tens of millions. And it is not unparalleled. At present, COVID-19 does not rank particularly high as a global cause of death. Human life consists of an endless series of trade-offs: between immediate desires and long-term happiness, for example, or between necessary risk and the comfort of security. None can deny that the possibility of infection from the virus is frightening. But the roar from the information sphere has propelled that fear over the edge of panic, where any discussion of trade-offs is now considered unthinkable and inhumane.
As I said before, I believe we should be forgiving of those in places of responsibility, who had to deal with a contagion that moved faster than their ability to react. COVID-19 was the first existential threat of the digital age. Democratic governments and health organizations have made their decisions under very difficult circumstances. The impulse to blame and rant, at the moment, is both futile and sterile.
But we must keep in mind the distinction between the pandemic and its story as we move forward to reopen economic and social life. We must treat COVID-19 with rational caution, and not react to the bedlam noise of panic rising from the information sphere. We have learned enough about the progress of the disease to make intelligent trade-offs. We know who is at risk. The death rate has been highest among those who are over 60 or suffered pre-existing conditions. We must do everything possible to protect this at-risk population. The rest of the human race must, in the near future, come out of shelter and once again meet, love, play, worship, and work. We must resurrect society and rebuild the battered economy.
What choice do we have? Maybe I am limited in my imagination, but I can’t think of any set of conditions that will allow us to hide forever.
Beyond Washington DC, Donald Trump, and impeachment, there lies a great big world – and that world, at the moment, is being convulsed by a remarkable number of revolts against political authority. I will let Tyler Cowen, who is an economist, do the counting:
As 2019 enters its final quarter, there have been large and often violent demonstrations in Lebanon, Chile, Spain, Haiti, Iraq, Sudan, Russia, Egypt, Uganda, Indonesia, Ukraine, Peru, Hong Kong, Zimbabwe, Colombia, France, Turkey, Venezuela, the Netherlands, Ethiopia, Brazil, Malawi, Algeria and Ecuador, among other places.
That we hardly talk about the collapse of order within so many nations is a tribute to the unconquerable provincialism of our thinking classes.
So what are we to make of this mess? Why the frenzy of protests – and why now?
A reasonable explanation is randomness. What could Hong Kong’s protests against an extradition law have to do with an independence movement in Catalonia – or with anger at mass transit fare increases in Chile? Only coincidence in time. Cowen touches on this possibility, only to gently push it aside. For good reason: once you make randomness the cause, there’s nothing more to say. Still, I believe randomness has a place in this story. There are times when the odds suddenly play us false. The Soviet Union was our eternal enemy, and then, in Marx’s phrase, it melted into air. Hosni Mubarak was the immoveable pharaoh of Egypt, and then, in three weeks, he was gone. Donald Trump was unelectable, until he won. A nation is an exceedingly complex system, and at the heart of every complex system, propelling it toward each possible destination, is the sociopolitical equivalent of the Infinite Improbability Drive.
As his daunting list indicates, Cowen is among the few who have paid attention to the big picture, and his economist’s perspective on events is intriguing. Many of the protests, he observes, began with price or tax increases. Consumers, mustered online, may be the twenty-first century’s subversive class, much as factory workers were for the nineteenth. That would account for the protesters’ almost universal lack of interest in power or revolution, programs or ideologies – the traditional objectives of politics. A consumer revolt has no need for such baggage. In fact, as Cowen remarks, a political blank slate can be an advantage in rallying huge numbers against a specific grievance.
I agree with Cowen that the public has erupted into politics with the mindset of the digital consumer. The “producers” are the elites who inhabit the government, above all, but also the parties, advocacy groups, the media – they manufacture laws, programs, decisions like impeachment. The public stands aside, as it would from any production and marketing process, but it retains the ultimate consumer’s veto. It can say No. All its implacable fury is invested in that act of negation.
But we should take care not to mistake trigger mechanisms for a sufficient cause. The crunch between the public and authority today is tectonic: the slightest pressure can release vast destructive energies. In Chile, for example, a 4 percent hike in mass transit fares ignited protests that have led to 23 deaths, property losses approaching a billion dollars, and a constitutional crisis. That’s disproportionate on any accounting. Clearly, anger and alienation preceded the fare increases. “It’s not about 30 pesos, it’s about 30 years,” is how Chileans explain it. Similarly, in Bolivia, it’s been about 14 years of Evo Morales. In Catalonia and Hong Kong, it’s been about decades of perceived abuses by a remote central government.
Everywhere, the mobilizing force has been the wish to strike at the established order.
Revolt as Viral Message
Politics in the digital age revolve around information. A safe assumption when thinking about this environment is that everyone is aware of everything, globally. This sets up powerful demonstration effects: protesters in one nation can learn from those in another. One reason for the spread of anti-establishment revolts may well be their improved capacity to evade suppression.
The epic uprising in Hong Kong, conducted under the eyes of the world, has proved to be a sort of Cavendish Laboratory of revolt. Activists in that city have devised ingenious tactics to narrow the disproportion between public and power: coordination by way of encrypted applications like Telegram, for example, or summoning flash mobs that disrupt airports or shopping districts then melt away before the police can arrive in force. The effect has been a running morality play, performed on YouTube and social media no less than television news, in which the forces of change constantly outmaneuver and outsmart the lumbering Goliath that is the state. Imitation was inevitable and, in fact, has been widespread. The first move in the current round of Catalan protests was a message on Telegram urging users to swarm into Barcelona’s airport. Chile’s anti-government crowds, like their Hong Kong counterparts, have wielded laser sticks to dazzle the cops and bring down surveillance drones. Such examples can be multiplied at will.
Hong Kong has been experienced by the global public as incentive and inspiration for taking to the streets – but also as a lesson in the unsuspected resilience of revolt. The triumph of opposition candidates in the city’s recent elections has only reinforced this lesson.
Turmoil in one country is also transmitted, like a contagion, to others that share cultural or geographic affinities. The Sudanese and Algerian protesters who toppled two octogenarian dictators “borrowed each other’s imagery and slogans.” The massive October demonstrations in Iraq and Lebanon that led to the resignation of their respective governments were propelled by almost identical grievances. In Latin America, long-running insurgencies in Venezuela and Nicaragua provided a model for those in Chile and Bolivia – and the latter directly inspired Colombia’s unrest in late November.
The question, for me, is whether these repeated crises of authority at the national level represent a systemic failure. After all, the disorders of 2019 are the latest installment in a familiar tale. Governments long ago yielded control of the information sphere to the public, and the political landscape, ever since, has been in a state of constant perturbation. From the euphoria and subsequent horrors of the Arab Spring in 2011, through the improbable electoral victories of Brexit and Donald Trump in 2016, to last year’s violence by the Yellow Vests of France, we ought to have learned, by this late hour, to anticipate instability and uncertainty. We should expect to be surprised.
What appears to be new about the present cycle is the scope and pace of change. The revolt of the public has begun to circle the earth at warp speed, beyond the reach of analysis that conceives of it as an accumulation of national flashpoints. Demonstration effects, Hong Kong ingenuity, cultural contagion – these account for bits and pieces of the riddle, but seem insufficient to explain the whole. Something global and systemic looks to be at work.
I can think of two hypotheses that explain the matter from a global perspective.
The optimistic version is that revolt has, quite literally, gone viral. The process is well known, if imperfectly understood. The information sphere consists of billions of competing messages. Most are forms of entertainment, sports, and pornography, or trivial subjects like cute cats and comical babies, but political content is not unknown, and can include, say, a lesson in the glamor of defiance, or a video about an African warlord. If a message possesses qualities desired or needed by a network, that message has the potential to flood the entire network. A number of semi-magical accidents must first occur – but let’s skip the technicalities. All we need to remember is that we’re back in the company of our old friend, randomness.
The message of revolt of 2019, mediated by random factors, evidently has met a profound need of the network. In more concrete terms: when the whole world is watching, a local demand for political change can start to go global in an instant. At a certain point, the process becomes self-sustaining and self-reinforcing: that threshold may have been crossed in November, when at least eight significant street uprisings were rumbling along concurrently (Bolivia, Catalonia, Chile, Colombia, Hong Kong, Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon – with France, the Netherlands, Nicaragua, and Venezuela simmering in the background). Whether local circumstances are democratic or dictatorial, prosperous or impoverished, the fashion for revolt is felt to be almost mandatory. The public is now competing with itself in the rush to say No.
A true viral run will continue until the network is distracted by a new message or every possible node has been infected. Prophecy is a fool’s game – but I will freely speculate that we are not there yet.
That, I repeat, is the optimistic interpretation. Those of you with a taste for pessimism are invited to read on, as I weigh the consequences of revolt.
Revolt as Failure Cascade
Any attempt to sort out the consequences of the 2019 upheavals will soon bump into the inadequacy of our thinking on the subject. Consequences must refer to initial conditions: and these varied wildly. Algeria was ruled by a corrupt dictatorship. France, on the other hand, is one of the oldest democracies in the world. In the last two decades, the sectarian cliques that run Lebanon have destroyed a once-thriving economy, increased poverty, and blighted the infrastructure. In the “30 years” that sparked the Chileans’ indignation, however, their country became the wealthiest in Latin America, with the lowest poverty rate. Levels of acceptable violence also diverged broadly: the death of a single bystander shocked Hong Kong, but hundreds have been killed in Iraq. Given such an untidy tangle of starting-points, it may be futile to search for common landing-places.
In the event, there have been consequences. Two dictators of long standing are gone. A would-be strongman has fled to exile. At least three putatively elected governments have resigned. Others totter, helpless, on the brink. The cost in blood and treasure has been terrible, but there can be no question that a political earthquake has shaken the world in 2019. The puzzle is, to what end?
Beyond the oppositional stance, the public in revolt has displayed a singular lack of clarity about its objectives. Indifference to ideology and programs may be part of its consumerist charm. Pure negation – a loathing of the system and the elites who fatten on it – has taken the place of political doctrine. Ordinary people have faced bullets and beatings for that cheerless cause. The ideals of democracy are often invoked, but these are wielded like a club to smash at the temples of authority. France and Chile are well-functioning democracies with little corruption, yet the protests there have been notable for their violence and vandalism. While few are calling for revolution and absolutely no one is proposing alternatives to representative government, the public’s alienation clearly runs deeper than mere hostility to the elites. There is, I believe, a powerful if inchoate craving for structural change.
This would be a good time to bring up the pessimistic hypothesis. It holds that the loss of control over information must be fatal to modern government as a system: the universal spread of revolt can be explained as a failure cascade, driving that system inexorably toward disorganization and reconfiguration. Failure cascades can be thought of as negative virality. A local breakdown leads to the progressive loss of higher functions, until the system falls apart. This, in brief, is why airplanes crash and bridges collapse.
For systems that are dynamic and complex, like human societies, outcomes are a lot more mysterious. A failure cascade of revolts (the hypothesis) will knock the institutions of modern government ever further from equilibrium, until the entire structure topples into what Alicia Juarrero calls “phase change”: a “qualitative reconfiguration of the constraints” that gave the failed system its peculiar character. In plain language, the old regime is overthrown – but at this stage randomness takes charge, and what emerges on the far side is, in principle, impossible to predict. I can imagine a twenty-first century Congress of Vienna of the elites, in which Chinese methods of information control are adopted globally, and harsh punishment is meted out, for the best of reasons, to those who speak out of turn. But I can also envision a savage and chaotic Time of Troubles, caused by a public whose expectations have grown impossibly utopian. The way Juarrero tells it, “[T]here is no guarantee that any complex system will reorganize.”
Not every outcome is condemned to drown in pessimistic tears: the process, recall, is unpredictable. A structural reform that brings the public into closer alignment with the elites is perfectly possible. But I find it hard to see how that can be accomplished, so long as the public clings to the mutism of the consumer and refuses to articulate its demands like a true political actor. One rarely gets what one hasn’t asked for. Reform depends on the public’s willingness to abandon negation for practical politics.
If this willingness has been expressed in any of the revolts now under way, I have been unable to discover it. Meanwhile, for all the toil and trouble, little fundamental change has transpired: governments have fallen, dictators have fled, but the old structures of power are everywhere in place. The military are still in charge of Sudan. Corrupt sectarians still run the show in Iraq and Lebanon. Bolivia remains divided and on the verge of civil conflict. Spain rules Catalonia. China controls Hong Kong. Brutal sacrifices have been offered on the altar of negation – many have died, and economies have been wrecked. The gains, so far, have been largely symbolic and psychological.
The overwhelming success of anti-government candidates in Hong Kong’s municipal elections stands as the model of symbolic victory. From one perspective, the elections were an astonishing event – a “democratic tsunami,” the protesters exulted, repeating a phrase first coined in Catalonia. Repercussions may, in time, extend into China itself. Yet the reality on the ground hasn’t changed in the least. China holds Hong Kong in an iron grip. The hard authoritarians of the regime, motivated chiefly by survival instinct, could never allow democracy near power. The protesters, for their part, are caught up in the romance of revolt and the existential joy of bashing at a system they deeply hate. Their “Four Demands” are a polite request that the Hong Kong government abolish itself. That is not going to happen. The street insurgents mostly grasp this, and oppose to the futility of their struggle a tragic understanding of their situation. “[W]e cannot give up, because if we do, there will be no future for us anyway,” one of them said. “We might as well go down fighting,”
In Hong Kong and elsewhere, revolt has become a necessity, regardless of consequences. The global crisis of authority seems to be hurtling towards a point of no return: when submission to government is perceived as self-destruction, a fatal logic will ordain the destruction of government.
That’s consistent with the claims of both hypotheses outlined above. The public, too, may be riding powerful structural forces, as it assaults the settled order of the world.