France, the pandemic, and the crisis of authority

[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.]

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Fact-checking the president:  A study in post-truth

“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.

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The revolt of the public in 10 minutes

The following video was my participation in the virtual class “Politics and Populism,” taught by one of my favorite contemporary thinkers, Yascha Mounk, at Johns Hopkins University.

 

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The pandemic crisis and its consequences: An interview

Dr. Didier Raoult

[The following is the original English version of my recent interview with the French online publication, atlantico.fr.  It has been lightly edited.  Those who wish to read the French translation can find it here:  https://www.atlantico.fr/decryptage/3589116/martin-gurri–pour-les-francais-a-qui-l-on-apprend-a-venerer-l-autorite-etablie-la-revelation-des-failles-de-leurs-elites-politiques-et-scientifiques-a-ete-traumatisante-emmanuel-macron-coronavirus-covid-19-analyste-cia-peuple ]

 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.

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2019: The year revolt went global

Revolt as Consumer Backlash

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.

Santiago

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.

Hong Kong

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.

Barcelona

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.”

Beirut

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.

Posted in cataclysm, the public | 38 Comments

Who is an elite?

“So, who’s an elite?”  “Am I an elite?”  “Are you an elite?”  “Isn’t Trump an elite?”  “Don’t you just call ‘elite’ anyone you don’t like?”

Fair questions all, which I am I often asked.

If I write a lot about our elites (see here and here), it’s for a reason.  I find elite behavior and rhetoric to be pathologically maladapted to the digital age.  Much of the toil and trouble of our time, I have argued – I mean the fractured politics, the anti-establishment fervor, the nihilism – follow from the willful blindness of the people at the top to the fact that the rules at ground level have shifted forever.

But exactly who are these people at the top?  It’s easier to say what they are not.  They’re not a bloodline caste like the Brahmins of India – although their children are usually well placed in the hierarchy, even if a bribe or two is required for the favor.  They’re not a Marxian class endowed with a special “consciousness” – although, from timidity and herd instinct, they share many of the same narrow fascinations and opinions.  The elites would be horrified to be considered in this way, because they imagine themselves to be the winners in the great meritocratic competition that is their understanding of democratic society.  With the simple faith of the mystic, they believe that they have earned their place at the top.

The elites aren’t solitary heroes who conquer against the odds.  Rather, as I noted, they are herd animals, who graze contentedly on the upper reaches of the institutions that sustain modern life.  They are political people, government people, media people – members of some established order that amplifies their reedy voices into thunder, and wreathes their coiffured heads with high status and prestige.  The most remarkable thing about them is how unremarkable they are, once they step down from their lofty perches.  Walter Cronkite, the most trusted man in America when at CBS News, on retirement became just another geezer grousing irritably at any unsuspecting soul who happened to say hello.

The institutions these people run received their shape in the twentieth century.  They are, invariably, top down, obsessed with rank, titles, and accreditation, and stuck in broadcast mode:  they speak but they do not listen.  The twentieth century remains the alpha and omega for the elite mind, the paradise lost that must be regained.  While piously mouthing a creed of science and progress, our elites, in fact, have become profoundly reactionary.

In the media, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and their television brethren, have kept up a Wagnerian shriek about “fake news” and “post-truth” and Vladimir Putin as the supervillain behind the badness of our times.  They want to see the information superhighway as tightly tolled and regulated as the New Jersey Turnpike.  They expect Donald Trump to melt away like the Wicked Witch of the West:  all it will take is a bucket of “real news.”

In politics, Trump and Bernie Sanders stand for disruption – of the worst kind.  The rest in the vast buffalo herd of Democratic presidential candidates are running on a promise to bring back the twentieth century.

If you ask yourself, “Do I belong with this crowd?  Am I an elite?”, I would answer with another question:  on whose behalf do you speak?  That will change depending on the context and the moment.  If you ask, good reader, whether I am an elite, that can be easily dealt with.  When I toiled in the labyrinths of CIA, the answer was Yes; today, and ever since I left government service, the answer is No.  I am a free agent – a rank amateur – and I speak on my own behalf.

The central question is:  why should we care?  The population of Eliteland can’t be very big:  there’s only so much room at the top of the pyramid.  I have made the case that the great industrial institutions, having lost their grip on information, are fast hemorrhaging authority and legitimacy.  Those in charge, as anyone with eyes can see, now scuttle around like mice when the cat is close.  Why worry about their fate?

Of course, the wobbliness of our institutions is precisely the reason they matter.  We need to medevac them to a Digital Emergency Center for transfusions of fresh blood.  The decadence of our elite class is exactly why we should care about their fate.  We must insist that they impersonate leadership and integrity with some conviction, or get out of the way of those who will do so.  Beyond that, habits of obedience, deep-rooted and long-engrained, still favor the elites.  A fraction of the population, having lost faith in everything else, will always believe in experts.  I’d guess this group correlates with the obsessively well-informed – individuals whose heads are so cluttered with “news” that they are unable to cross the street without a kind neighbor taking them by the arm.  The well-informed aspire to expertise, but are condemned to recapitulate for all eternity the Mickey Mouse role in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

Even stranger, the twentieth-century mindset that is the genetic marker of the elite class provides us, to this day, with the only acceptable rhetorical model for imagining the future.  The public, angry and volatile, erupts out of digital chaos, but it is reaching for stock images of Utopia imprinted during the industrial age.  The political consequences of this time paradox have been predictably unintended.

***

It should be evident that each domain has its own set of elites, and that, on rare occasions, a clash of interests can ignite intra-elite quarrels that have all the cheesy drama of sibling rivalries.  Our political class, for instance, has become the mean older brother to the high-tech people, who get punched in the face for inventing the internet and other abominations.

But mostly the elites look on the multiplicity of domains as a bountiful field to be harvested by their families as well as themselves.  Briefly and mysteriously, Chelsea Clinton worked a stint with NBC News.  Chris Cuomo of CNN is actually the little brother of the governor of New York.  Given the chance of a sideways shuffle, scarred political warriors will pose as fresh faces in a new medium.  George Stephanopoulos was once a consigliere for the Bill Clinton mob.  Joe Scarborough started out as an obscure Republican congressman.  Now both make a good living yapping in front of TV cameras.  Ever since Ronald Reagan, entertainment figures have been crossing over in the other direction.  Before he resigned last year, Al Franken had descended from funny skits in Saturday Night Live to the soggy punchline that is the US Senate.

The epic example in this category is of course Donald Trump.  Is Trump an elite?  In fact, he is three.  Propelled by a hunger for attention that verges on a medical infirmity, and assisted by what can only be described as a world-class genius for self-promotion, Trump has hopped to the top of the pyramid in business, entertainment, and politics.  Does that disqualify him from playing the populist rebel?  Not on any account.  Elites monopolize all the important jobs – even that of revolutionary.  George Washington was a real estate magnate.  Lenin came from an aristocratic family.  In this particular case, there is, in addition, the unutterable strangeness of the man.  Trump desperately wants to be what he can never be – to be perceived as what he is not – to reorder the world, regardless of damage, until he becomes an object of admiration and applause from the people who matter.  For all the glittering splendor of the towers with his name affixed to them, Trump will always be an outsider, peering in.

The various domains can turn into employment opportunities because all elites share a worldview and an attitude.  The worldview is as old as Plato’s Republic and as contemporary as a Hollywood red-carpet walk:  those who possess power and fame are believed to own an equal measure of virtue and intellect, otherwise why are they there?  Success, in other words, is always deserved.  In a just society, many are called, but only sturdy pillars of the establishment must ever be chosen.  They are the Platonic guardians of the modern world.  They are the super-scientific experts who understand complexity and nuance in a way that ordinary people, driven by base appetites, never could.  Politics, for this crowd, is a game of “Us or else.”  Democracy is the best of all possible systems when it favors elite candidates and projects.  Democracy dies in darkness when it delivers into office mutant monsters like Trump or Boris Johnson.

The attitude follows logically from the worldview.  The people at the top watch one another with unnatural fixation, and are morbidly sensitive to minute changes in fashion among their own kind.  But if you are not an elite, you don’t exist.  It isn’t a question of snobbery or protocol.  If you are not them, you simply are not there.

The elites never really debate an issue with the public.  Today the public may scream at authority in a rolling, deafening online roar:  but the elites hear nothing.  They were not trained to listen.  Lesser breeds can have no knowledge to impart, being prisoners of a skewed perspective.  (Their own skewed perspective the elites call scientific truth.)  When they trouble to think about ordinary persons, it’s invariably to fix them – to push and pull them this way or that, for righteousness’ sake.  Thus the political tropes most beloved of the elites are those that take for granted the public’s innate nastiness and ignorance:  economic inequality, ecological devastation, racial prejudice.  The public is a beast to be caged.

And when, as increasingly happens, the elites are unpleasantly surprised, there is no need for reflection, much less soul-searching:  reflexively, like a sort of hiccup, the beastliness of the public will be blamed.

***

Do I turn the word “elite” into an insult, aimed at individuals and groups I don’t like?

I think the persons who have charged me with this are themselves grumpy elites.  (Is that an insult?  Work it out.)  They wish I would be nicer to their tribe.  I do, too.  Elite used to mean superior.  It should do so again.  I’m not alone in articulating that wish.

There is much not to like in the behavior of the divided and sectarian public.  Its demands tend to be vague and shifting.  Its street revolts at times descend into vandalism and nihilism – destruction for the pure hell of it.  The Yellow Vest Movement in France burned banks and bashed at the Arc de Triomphe.  The protesters in Chile destroyed a chunk of Santiago’s mass transit system.  These are not elites.

Yet nobody gets offended by being called part of the public.  Nobody thinks it an insult to be plopped in the same bucket with hairy hipsters and monument-smashers.  Part of that is reverse snobbery, I imagine, but mostly the reason is that the revolt of the public was never about the public:  it’s about those who possess power and once possessed authority.  The public can rattle the cage but remains trapped in the moment.  Only the elites have the perspective for a long view of events – long, in particular, regarding the future, which is the realm of change.

Instead, we get a dream of reaction.  It’s impossible to exaggerate how uncomfortable our elites are with the present, or how frightened they are by the future.   The sheer speed of digital life terrifies them.  These are people whose idea of progress in transportation is the bicycle.  (Paris, most perfect of cities, is being destroyed as I write this:  not by barbarians, but by politicians mandating bicycle lanes.)  Naturally, only the public will be condemned to pedal in heavy traffic, while they themselves – the bearers, I mean to say, of that misbegotten signifier, “elites” – continue to ride a golden motorcade towards the darkness they have mistaken for tomorrow.

Which leaves me wondering just who, exactly, is insulting whom…

Posted in democracy, elites | Tagged | 11 Comments

A tale of two elites

The Great Reaction

America’s elites are a house divided.  Ranged on one side are the people who rule the mighty institutions of modern life:  I mean government, politics, bureaucracy, media, the university, the scientific establishment.  They represent the forces of order.  Across the divide stand the technical or “Silicon Valley” (SV) elites.  They engage in a peculiar form of capitalism, and are agents of invention and disruption – of change.  In a perfect world, the forces of order and change would attain some sort of balance.  In the actual world we live in, the two sides are so out of whack as to push the clanging machinery of American politics to the edge of the cliff.

As with so much else, the turning point came with the election of Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016.

Already baffled and demoralized in the Wild West of the digital information landscape, the institutional class perceived Trump’s triumph as a horrific existential threat.  They were used to conflating democracy with their own dominance of it.  Trump in the White House was therefore perceived as a failure of the system – of democracy itself.  That was the level at which dazed elites sought to explain the event.

The preferred explanation turned an accusatory finger back at the digital world, and, by implication, at those who profit from it.  That should surprise no one.  The institutional elites, lords of order, have always loathed the untrammeled nature of the web.  Trump, they believed, could only have won because the information sphere had been sabotaged by social media vandals.  Populist rot from the web had overwhelmed the shared facts and norms needed for democracy to function.  Reasoned argument then yielded to nihilistic rage.

Even reality seemed up for grabs.  Here is Barack Obama, speaking in February 2018: “Essentially we now have entirely different realities that are being created, with not just different opinions but now different facts – different sources, different people who are considered authoritative.”  He added: “it is very difficult to figure out how democracy works over the long term in those circumstances.”

Since the hard rain of 2016, the institutional elites have pursued a fever dream of reaction.  Even at the cost of great disorder, they aim to turn back the clock.  President Trump, that vandal-in-chief, must go, of course.  But the informational chaos that made him possible must be returned, by fair means or foul, to some pale version of the twentieth century.  Elite control must be restored.  The political web must be curated by those who know truth from falsehood.  The SV elites, wayward billionaires in tee shirts and sweat pants, must either be coopted or broken.

The people of the institutions are adept at measuring advantage:  and they have observed a change in the landscape that seems to favor the reaction.  While the web was born in an anarchy of sites, today it is dominated by a handful of gargantuan corporations.  Vast amounts of content are concentrated in very few hands.  The possibility exists of a democratic analog to the Chinese internet police.

When a presidential candidate like Elizabeth Warren attacks Big Tech for having “too much power over our economy, our society, and our democracy,” that is the obvious subtext.  When that compass of received opinion, the New York Times, ritually rants on  Facebook and argues “The Case Against Google,” there is more to it than meets the eye.  The forces of reaction are on the march.  The political seeks to regulate the digital.  It isn’t quite a war of the elites – but certainly a family quarrel, with nontrivial consequences.

The Hippie Elites

This dispute makes no sense unless I say more about the character of the SV elites.  At least three circumstances set this group apart from their institutional cousins.

The first is San Francisco.  The city was Mecca to the hippie movement, and it imparted to the hacker culture that begat Silicon Valley a freewheeling, anti-establishment, hippie-dippy kind of idealism.  As far back as 1984, Stewart Brand could proclaim, “Information wants to be free.”  In 1995, John Perry Barlow declared the “independence” of cyberspace:  “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel… You have no sovereignty where we gather.”  From a messianic faith in technology to an obsession with clean and unclean food, San Francisco has gotten into the DNA of the tech culture, even as it moved north and east.

The distance between the Whole Earth Catalog and a trillion-dollar corporate monster like Google may be thought too great for any confluence of values:  but I dispute that.  Systems are powerfully informed by their origins.  Google’s mission, we are told by Sergey Brin, is “to organize the world’s information, making it universally accessible and useful” – a pragmatic rephrasing of Brand, with a small (but significant) difference.  Google’s unofficial motto, “Don’t be evil,” could have been nailed over the doorway of an old-time hippie commune.  Mark Zuckerberg wants Facebook to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.”  Most players in Silicon Valley believe, to this day, that technology can be a humane and liberating force.  How far their actions have departed from this ideal I will explore momentarily.

A second circumstance is the capitalistic start-up culture that nests, weirdly but comfortably, within the same heads that brim with visions of people power.  I won’t try to improve on Arnold Kling’s take on the subject:

Large, established organizations develop a “culture of no,” in which lots of people have veto power and there is little incentive to say yes.  It makes sense, because a lot of people have a stake in the existing way of doing things, a major failure could cause an otherwise-thriving organization to get into trouble…

With start-up culture, the culture is MFABT (“move fast and break things”), as Zuckerberg put it.  When you have an idea, you don’t encounter a culture of “No, we veto your idea.  Forget about it.”  It’s more of a skeptical optimism: “Here are all the doubts we have about your concept.  But go ahead and try and show us what you can do.  We won’t fund you now, but if you meet these milestones we’d be interested.”

If you are truly willing to move fast and break things, you have a very different attitude to risk and failure than what is found in Washington DC (where failure, being fatal, is habitually denied or even doubled down on).  The constant churning and gambling on new ideas is winnowed by a Darwinian process of selection:  for all the idealism, reality rules Silicon Valley with a heavy hand.  Your concept either works or it doesn’t.  Your product either sells or it doesn’t.  Post-truth never enters the equation.

The outcome has been a flood of innovation that, for better or worse, has altered the texture of human relations in the last two decades.  By contrast, our political life resembles a gigantic intellectual recycling plant, where the worn-out old – nationalism, socialism, populism – is converted into the insipid new.

The last and least-remarked difference is youth.  Elizabeth Warren is 70.  Mark Zuckerberg, who runs the company she wants to break up, is exactly half her age.  Thousands of young people enter our established institutions, but they must bow before their seniors.  In Silicon Valley, the 30-year-old billionaires set the tone.  The disparity in energy levels is therefore breathtaking.  The tee-shirted indifference to protocol can leave a Washingtonian stammering.  Idealism, wild ambition, love of risk, a joy in being disruptive “chaos monkeys” – all are part of the maddening attributes of youth.

Even the quarrel with the institutional elites is in part generational.  SV people may blithely tell themselves that they disrupt the status quo for the greater good, but to the gray heads in Washington and New York they resemble children playing with dangerous toys.  In the style of tough parental love, the keepers of order have delivered a warning:  grow up and enter the safe, quiet spaces of Kling’s “culture of no,” or your toys will be taken away.

The Road to No

The power elites reject any trace of blame for the disasters of 2016.  They do not in the least believe that they failed the public.  On the contrary:  they believe the public was manipulated through its worst instincts.  In that sense, the public failed them.  The fault lay with fake news, bald lies, Russian meddling – but above all with the demented digital netherworld, with social media, with Facebook.  Zuckerberg has assumed a place next only to Trump and Putin in elite demonology.  He stands convicted, in their eyes, of the crime of ending the twentieth century.

The problem is that in a democracy pledged to protect freedom of speech, digital technology now promotes types of speech that are destructive of democracy.  The evident solution is to apply massive pressure against the corporate owners of online platforms, and force them to detoxify their content.

Our institutional elites are rarely clever enough to engage in successful conspiracies.  But they think with a hive mind, and they attend to obsessive compulsions, so that their words and actions, at times, can appear closely coordinated.  In the past three years, a relentless political and regulatory campaign has been waged from all quarters against the masters of Silicon Valley.

There have been multiple congressional hearings, at which the tech companies were hectored for an astonishing array of transgressions – including, randomly, bringing “catastrophe” to the news business and inciting “genocide.”  There have been fines:  by the FTC, a record $5 billion against Facebook for privacy violations associated with the Trump campaign; by the EU, a total of 9 billion euros against Google for its “anti-competitive” brokering of online ads.  There’s a federal anti-trust investigation of “big tech” on the horizon, and various proposals in Congress to regulate the industry more tightly.  Besides Warren, two Democratic presidential candidates are promising to “break up” the tech giants – and most of the remaining candidates are willing to entertain the notion.  The ritual dance of the politicians has been performed to the drumbeat of all those New York Times articles and opinion pieces, which, in turn, have set the tone for a news media with a very special interest in taking down the digital competition.

The SV big fish have reacted with confusion.  Accustomed to judging themselves in the flattering light of their idealism, they seem perplexed in their new roles as movie super-villains.  Shortly after the 2016 election, Zuckerberg brushed off the fake news uproar as “crazy.”  “Voters,” he said, “make decisions based on their lived experiences.” This was empirically correct but politically not, and the barrage of criticism that followed compelled him to retreat, apologize – and temporize.  Facebook now pleads that it is “working to stop misinformation and false news.”  Google does the same.  In fact, both companies have invested serious money into rooting out online lies, but this has earned no applause.  The politicians want curation, not truth.  Theirs is an honest reaction:  an existential hunger for Life Before Trump.  Neither the tech elites nor anyone else can deliver on that.

The reality is that the titans of Silicon Valley no longer represent the start-up culture.  They are comfortably established, defensive of their winnings, and entering that terrible condition known as middle age.  Brin and Page, the Google founders, have turned the corner on 46.  Jeff Bezos of Amazon, ancient at 55, is recovering from a messy divorce.  Even Zuckerberg now has a wife and two kids to worry about, and might be less inclined to “break things” than in the old days.  These are astute men.  It must occur to them regularly that they can protect their gains by striking a bargain with the “culture of no.”  The most interesting episode in the quarrel of the elites, I would guess, is taking place inside their heads.

Google and Amazon would seem to need little persuasion to align with the forces of reaction.  As a matter of politics, Google is the most openly progressive of the digital giants, having enjoyed intimate connections to the Obama administration and the Hillary Clinton campaign.  Brin declared himself  “offended” by Trump’s victory.  As a practical matter, the company updates its algorithm, without explanation, more than 500 times a year.  These are editorial decisions about content, no different in substance from the editorial planning of the New York Times.  In other words, Google already curates the web.  The process would have no trouble fitting smoothly into the elite ideal of a scientifically irrefutable search engine that defeats the lies of populists.  (Republicans, of course, believe this nefarious mission-switch has already occurred.)

By virtue of owning the Washington Post, Jeff Bezos is a major stakeholder in the anti-Trump crusade.  He apparently thinks that the president, using Saudi agents, was behind the leak of embarrassing selfies that helped destroy his marriage.  (For his part, Trump has bestowed on “Jeff Bozo” one of his least imaginative Twitter handles.)  With a new mansion in Georgetown and a new Amazon headquarters in the suburbs of Washington, Bezos looks ready to settle into a new life as a pillar of the old establishment.

There is no question of giving up control, no question of allowing the business model to be torn apart by politicians.  A convergence has begun to take shape, based on visceral loathing of Donald Trump.  Tech lords like Brin and Bezos now acknowledge that someone, somehow, must say no to technological disruption when it goes too far.

What remains of the quarrel of the elites thus hangs, precariously, on the enigmatic figure of Mark Zuckerberg.

The ‘To Be or Not To Be’ Moment

Zuckerberg isn’t the controlling jerk of The Social Network, but neither is he the world-connecting idealist of his fond imaginings.  In truth, he makes an unlikely Hamlet:  a mind attuned to the practical and the specific, with an engineer’s respect for numbers and contempt for empty abstractions.  Not surprisingly, he often sounds lost in Obama’s age of fractured realities.  Not surprisingly, too, he’s been forced to apologize a lot.

Some of the more alarming things he has said appear to be attempts to give concrete form to impersonal processes:  that Facebook is “more like a government than a traditional company,” for example, or that “a squirrel dying in front of your house” may seem more relevant than “people dying in Africa.”  Even the famous mantra about a willingness to break things is a fairly literal description of Facebook’s trajectory from college fad to billion-dollar commodity.

Beyond question, Facebook is the most subversive of the big digital platforms.  You go to Google to get information.  You go to Amazon to buy goods (including books).  But you turn to Facebook to “self-assemble” around some cause or interest – and to plan the momentous leap from online chatter to street protests.  Globally, the platform has been a potent enabler of what I have called the revolt of the public.  It has magnified the reach of populism – another aspect of the same revolt.  It provided the political fuel that helped propel Trump into the White House.  (The claim that Russians hacked the election is, to put it mildly, questionable, but the Trump campaign’s dominance over Facebook was real enough.)

Zuckerberg now faces a familiar choice:  double down on breaking things, or accommodate the political pressure for curation and stability.  Last September, on the occasion of Facebook’s fifteenth anniversary, Zuckerberg delivered himself of a manifesto that channeled John Perry Barlow’s contempt for the “weary giants” of the industrial age.  Contemplating the “large hierarchical institutions” of the old regime “that provided stability but were often remote and inaccessible,” Zuckerberg chose rather to align Facebook with “networks of people” who shared “the freedom to interact and the ability to share ideas and experiences.”  He concluded with a show of defiance:

As networks of people replace traditional hierarchies and reshape many institutions in our society — from government to business to media to communities and more — there is a tendency of some people to lament this change, to overly emphasize the negative, and in some cases to go so far as saying the shift to empowering people in the ways the internet and these networks do is mostly harmful to society and democracy.

To the contrary, while any rapid social change creates uncertainty, I believe what we’re seeing is people having more power, and a long term trend reshaping society to be more open and accountable over time.

The message seemed clear:  Zuckerberg was still a breaker of things, and Facebook remained a force in the start-up culture.  But that was not his first statement on the subject – and it wasn’t his last.  Zuckerberg the hacker has been wrestling publicly with Zuckerberg the CEO.  Zuckerberg the idealist has just as openly struggled to discover where goodness lies:  among those “networks of people” in revolt, or with the political reaction against the detested Trump.  The moment called for decision, but the most powerful man in Silicon Valley, Hamlet-like, was unwilling to decide.

On March 30, less than six months after the anniversary proclamation, he came down hard on the side of the institutions.  In a remarkable Washington Post opinion piece, he now professed to advocate a “more active role by government and regulators,” to balance the “freedom for people to express themselves” online with the protection of society “from broader harms.”  Zuckerberg included “harmful content” and political ads as categories of digital speech in need of regulation.  The “networks of people” of the September manifesto, in brief, were to be placed in the hands of their “remote and inaccessible” superiors. Politicians and bureaucrats in search of a final solution to social media would be ceded the right to say no to opinions that offended them.

That may well be a sound business move.  Regulation tends to freeze the market in place.  But a more abject retreat from a previous position – and from all the idealistic talk about community and “people having more power” – can hardly be conceived.  If it is really the last word on the matter, it signals Zuckerberg’s less-than-graceful leap out of the start-up culture, into the arms of those who do not wish him well.

The Speculative Future

On the surface, the quarrel of the elites looks to be mostly over.  Institutional people have co-opted or browbeaten the top SV elites into submission.  Reactionary Washington can at any time grasp digital San Francisco in a tight regulatory embrace.  From Palo Alto, Mark Zuckerberg is calling for just that.  The objective is to change the rules of the information game – to make sure that 2020 turns out differently from 2016.  A democracy-preserving internet police will curate massive amounts of content and make short shrift of the public’s delusions about populism.  The US will return to that happy time before Trump – maybe even to the golden age before this lunatic century.

But on all questions touching technology, and in particular the web, appearances can be deceiving.  The digital universe is, for human purposes, infinite.  Even a concerted attempt by the largest tech corporations to ban “harmful content,” as defined by politicians and regulators, would leave a vast amount of open spaces to be colonized by the “harmful.”  Content and controversy would simply shift to other sites.  Reddit has 300 million registered users.  Tumblr gets 400 million visitors a month.  A few hundred new servers would handle the extra load.  And if these second-tier sites were pressured into elite control, the stream of impolitic material would just cascade downward into the impenetrable darkness of the web.

The effect, I suspect, will be the exact opposite of the reactionary dream.  In wild and seedy digital gathering-places, far from any pretense of idealism, political discussion will inevitably grow more unfettered, more divisive, more violent.  The attempt to impose Victorian standards of propriety on the information sphere will end by converting it into a vicious and unending saloon brawl.  No matter how revolting the web appears at present – it can always get worse.

Another possibility arises from the fact that Silicon Valley hasn’t gone away.  The start-up culture endures.  Zuckerberg may have abdicated, but young people in significant numbers are still moving fast and breaking things, on the way to innovation.  The most successful will move into profitable empty spaces.  If Facebook, Google, and Amazon smother controversy and disruption in content, new companies will sweep in that promote these qualities and make money from them.  They will be managed by youngsters whose ambition makes them immune to political pressure, and who understand regulation minutely enough to evade it – by increased use of encryption, for example.  Instead of breaking up Facebook and Google, the “culture of no” will have multiplied them. The boorish public will find its voice magnified.  The quarrel of the elites will resume, only with different players.

If this speculation is anywhere near the mark, the triumph of the institutions will prove ephemeral and ultimately self-defeating.  The sheer volume and complexity of the information sphere has removed it far beyond the reach of effective curation.  Consider the original model for an internet police:  China’s.  It enjoys unparalleled funding, staffing, and sophistication.  The regime wields dictatorial authority that our elites can only envy.  Undeterred by all that, over three months of a long summer, web-savvy activists have managed to evade surveillance and censorship, and orchestrated immense protests in Hong Kong.  For the keepers of order and dreamers of reaction here at home, these disorders half a world away should be a portent and a warning.

Posted in democracy, web | 10 Comments

Revolt and disinformation in Hong Kong: My interview with atlantico.fr

[This is the English version of an article published yesterday, in French translation, at atlantico.fr.  Links have been added.]

– Since the beginning of June, pro-democracy demonstrations have been taking place in Hong Kong against the policies of Carrie Lam, who is very close to Beijing. Should these demonstrations be compared to the great popular anti-communist movements of the last century, or to public revolts, as you described them in your book The Revolt of The Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium?

The form of the Hong Kong protests is strictly 2019, not 1989.  The protesters have no organizational structure, no leaders or chain of command, no shared ideology, no programs or policies they advocate.  (Four of their “five demands” are negatives – calls for the Lam government to cease or investigate certain actions.)  In these characteristics, they strongly resemble other 21st-century revolts – the indignados of Spain, for example, or the gilets jaunes in France.

The insurgents have also demonstrated a brilliant grasp of the agility of digital networks.  The only advice from a 20th century figure they seem to take seriously is that of martial arts star Bruce Lee:  “Be water.”  Coordinating on encrypted applications such as Telegram, demonstrators appear suddenly, disrupt traffic and business, then roll away to another location before the authorities can react.  The heavy hand of repression comes down – but the protests swirl around it like water.

This strikes me as a new and quite clever adaptation in tactics.  The public in revolt has always organized online, but the preferred method of disruption has been to “occupy” a public space – Puerta del Sol, Zuccotti Park – which then becomes symbolic of the movement.  That was the approach taken during Hong Kong’s 2014 protests.  Several government buildings were taken over until police intervened.  But lessons have been learned.  Occupation has obvious tactical disadvantages:  it concentrates and exposes the occupiers to repression, while robbing them of mobility and flexibility.  The “liquid” mobilization of 2019 requires constant and intensive digital communications, but it’s allowed anti-Lam activists, so far, to retain the initiative.

Needless to say, none of these tactics or tools were available to the anti-communist dissidents of the last century.

A final contemporary aspect of the conflict is the dominance of the visual.  The enormous crowds, the troop transports mustered across the border, the clashes with police – mediated by tens of thousands of cell phone cameras, these become scenes in a protracted video playing out on the web:  and both sides appear desperate not to be cast in the villain’s part.  For the protesters, the desperation is existential:  they don’t wish to provide a pretext for intervention by the Chinese regime.  They have thus taken great care to have their revolt perceived as “the most polite, clean, and orderly ever,” as one report put it.  An interesting question is why all those cameras have until now prevented the regime from ending the protests by brute force, in the manner of Tiananmen Square.  It may be that Xi and his top people are governed by prudence – but it may also be, without contradiction, that they are aware of the uneasy relationship between their power and any idea of legitimacy.  (For those with a tragic sense of history, who believe that, in the non-biblical world, Goliath usually defeats David, the obsession with visuals appears to be a struggle over future memory:  that is, over the potent images and evoked emotions that will be associated with the regime’s actions to bring the revolt to a conclusion.)

The only visual moment in Europe’s liberation of from communism was the fall of the Berlin Wall – and by then the system had already crumbled, much like the wall itself.

The substance of the Hong Kong revolt connects directly with the aspirations of 1989:  but these aspirations, I would hope, are universal.  The public of Hong Kong, in large numbers, is fighting a slow political strangulation at the hands of Beijing.  They want their freedom, and, like the rebels of 1989, they associate freedom with a specific system:  democracy.  The only positive demand they have made is for the universal ballot.  It is, I think, the one demand the authoritarians in the mainland can never grant.

 

– Even if Donald Trump or Dominique Raab seem to raise their voice against the movement’s repression, the West seems rather reserved. In your opinion, is this revealing of the fact that the ideological conflict between communism and liberalism has given way to an international conflict between ruling elites and the public? Or is it simply economic opportunism, especially for European leaders?

One of the most remarkable developments of the 21st century has been the decline of ideology as a political force.  During the time when Nazism and communism contested the world with liberal democracy, the choice of an ideology resembled a religious conversion – determinative not only of politics but of personal life.  Today, democracy stands alone.  The ruling class in China is composed of privileged billionaires, not revolutionaries or communists.  The Chinese regime isn’t a “model” but a mafia.  The same is true of Putin and Russia.  Both have admirers but few imitators:  there will never be a Chinese Model International.  Democracy stands alone – but it stands for very little in the way of political or personal commitment.  Without the Holocaust or the Gulag as points of comparison, the flaws in the democratic system appear to many of the public to be enormous, monstrous.  Those who praise democracy, we now believe, are often self-interested hypocrites.  When protesters in Hong Kong express their faith in our system, we feel, at best, uncertain.  Other protesters – in Egypt and Ukraine, for example – have done the same, and their revolts led directly to authoritarianism or corruption.

Politics in the old democracies are at present consumed by the struggle between an angry public and frightened, demoralized elites.  The public loves to smash at institutions it considers remote and undemocratic.  The elites identify democracy with their enlightened control over the masses.  Ideology hardly factors into the quarrel:  politicians and movements arise in the left or right, but the mobilizing question is always whether you repudiate or embrace the system.  Lately, the direction of events has favored the populists – that is, the chosen instruments of the public.  Trump, Salvini, Bolsonaro, López Obrador are on the move, while paragons of the old regime, like Merkel and Macron, are on the defensive.  The mandarins who rule the EU probably consider Trump’s America a more immediate threat to their authority than Xi’s China.  The conflict is fought over the definition of every event and aspect of society:  it leaves the contending forces exhausted.  Caught in the chaotic early stages of the transformation out of the industrial age, democratic nations have no time or energy to spare for those, like the insurgents of Hong Kong, who wish to join their club.

 

– To what extent does the Hong Kong case show an increasing adaptation of authoritarian governments to new methods and objectives of demonstrations? I refer to the ideas in Peter Pomerantsev’s article: ideological flexibility of leaders to demotivate protesters, propagation of conspiracy theories, censorship of collective issues, but not of demands for individual freedom, etc.

I am continually amazed by the number of Western thinkers who ascribe superpowers to China’s ruling class.  Sometimes I think it’s a form of wish-fulfillment:  intellectuals long to discover a system that can end the current informational chaos, and impose order.  China’s colossal economic success, I imagine, makes it the obvious candidate.

Here I’m going to touch on two putative superpowers that relate to the situation in Hong Kong:  the claim that regime surveillance of the population has reached 1984 “Big Brother” levels of sophistication, involving all sorts of electronics and artificial intelligence (AI); and the idea, put forward by Pomerantsev and others, that China has somehow cracked the code for discouraging opposition through disinformation and propaganda.

On the first claim:  you can install 1984-style surveillance, and collect every word and image (and triggered motion-sensor, face-recognition, and CCTV) produced by every person in China.  When you add all of it up, what do you have?  For one, you have contracted the Big Data problem:  it’s mostly Big Noise.  There are (roughly) 1.3 billion people in China.  They will generate fantastic volumes of information.  How to analyze it?  You can tag certain words and phrases and images, but internet humanity in China is very adept at twisting the language in new ways to avoid the censors (I refer readers to the apparently nonsensical phrase, “grass mud horse”).  The cops will eventually catch on, but dissidents will catch on to that and change their language:  it just makes the Big Data problem exponentially worse.  It would take millions of person-hours just to begin to make sense of the output of the AI surveillance algorithms.

Jorge Luis Borges had a short story titled “Funes the Memorious,” about a man who recalled perfectly, second by second, every experience in his life.  In the end, he was overwhelmed by the data, and just lay in bed, paralyzed, remembering minutely some trivial tidbit from the past.  That’s how I envision China’s digital surveillance people in the 1984 scenario.

Regarding disinformation, Pomerantsev makes many interesting points, but they don’t add up to much.  2019, he insists, isn’t 1989.  That’s tautologically (and trivially) true.  The regime in China, he writes, has learned ideological “flexibility”:  it now mixes up “the language of communism with a culture of consumerism.”  But who is persuaded by that strange coupling of ideals?  And what is revealed, other than the massive contradiction at the heart of the regime’s claims of legitimacy?  The regime is said to promote conspiracy theories involving shadowy powers – and the effect of these theories, Pomerantsev maintains, is the belief that “you, the little guy, can never change things.”  But that is the opposite of what I have observed.  The web is the mother of all conspiracy theories – and the revolt of the public was born precisely out of that dark netherworld.  Belief in conspiracies inflames the “little guy” and motivates him to political action.  In the US, for example, belief that the “Deep State” has conspired in various ways against Trump has helped to mobilize the forces of populism.

For clarity in these matters, it’s always best to look to effects, rather than causal claims.  Last Sunday, a gigantic crowd marched down the streets of Hong Kong, through heat and heavy rain, to protest the Lam government and assert the “five demands.”  Estimates of numbers varied from many hundreds of thousands to over a million.  The marchers kept the peace and disbanded uneventfully in the evening.  This took place three months after the first large demonstrations began in the city.  During that time, Chinese propagandists and the Hong Kong government worked their disinformation magic.  Presumably, they sought to confuse people with consumerism and spread conspiracy theories.  The size of Sunday’s crowd is empirical evidence that, on that day at least, their superpowers failed them.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Notes from a nameless conference

Sometime this year, I found myself at a conference centered around the theme of “regaining trust.”  For obvious reasons, I won’t name names, but it was a professional gathering of the old regime:  the industrial elites.  In their hundreds if not thousands, I was swarmed by people of good will who were also smart, articulate, and hyper-educated.  They craved, sincerely, to help the disadvantaged and save the earth.  The words “science” and “reason” were perpetually on their lips, as if they held the copyright for these terms – which, in a sense, they did.  And if they were a bit defensive, a tad obtuse, their intentions were the purest I could imagine.

So why, by their own admission, do they no longer inspire trust?

I have met their kindred before, in other glittering places.  They run the institutions that hold center stage in our society, but look on the world as if from a walled mountain fortress, where every loud noise from beyond is interpreted as risk and threat.  They disagree about minutia, but mostly move in lockstep, like synchronized swimmers, with word and thought.  They are earnest but extraordinarily narrow.  In a typical complaint, one speaker blamed the public for hiding in an “information bubble” – yet it occurred to me, as I sat through the conference, that the bubble-dwellers controlled the microphones there.

The same unmodulated whine about present conditions circled around and around, without even the ambition to achieve wit, depth, or originality:

The internet is the enemy:  of rationality, of democracy, of truth.  It must be regulated by enlightened minds.

The public resembles an eight-year-old who is always fooled by tricks and lies.  For its own protection, it must be constrained by a Guardian class.

Populism is the spawn of lies.  Even if it wins elections, it is never legitimate, and must be swept away by a higher authority.

Climate change is a scientific mandate for torturous economic and political experiments, implemented by experts.  To deny this is worse than error – it’s a crime against humanity.

Hate speech, offensive words, fake news, deep fakes, privacy violations, information bubbles, bitcoin, Facebook, Silicon Valley, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Brexit:  all must be controlled, criminalized, exploded, broken up, exposed, deposed, or repeated until the right answer is obtained.

None of this was up for discussion.  None of it was uttered with the least semblance of self-awareness.  In the same breath, a speaker called for the regulation of the web and the education of children in “tolerance.”  If I had pointed out the contradiction, the speaker, I’m certain, would have denied it.  Tolerance, for her, meant the obliteration of opinions she disliked.

In fact, each narrative loop I listed above ends with the elites happily in charge, and the obliteration of the wretched present.  If we wish to understand why trust evaporated in the first place, consider the moral and political assumptions behind this rhetorical posture

***

The industrial elites have lost their way.  In every major profession and institution, they once commanded vast, widely-admired projects that filled their lives with meaning and endowed the entire class with an unconquerable confidence.  But the twentieth century couldn’t be preserved forever, like a bug in amber.  The elites now face a radically transformed environment – and they are maladapted and demoralized.  An inability to listen, an impulse to spew jargon in broadcast mode, a demand for social distance as the reward for professional success:  such habits, which in the past placed them above and beyond the mob’s reach, now drag them down to contempt and mockery in the information sphere.  Among the public, trust has curdled into loathing.  The elites are horribly aware of their fall from grace – hence the conference – but being deaf to the public’s voice, they are clueless about how to respond.

To some extent, this is a family drama:  the last gasp of the Baby Boomers before their children snatch the world away from their palsied hands.  It would be good to believe that a rising generation, at ease with new models and habits, simply by taking over could broker a fair peace between the public and the industrial elites.  But this places too great a weight of expectation on the young. They, too, no less than their elders, can be seduced by behavioral tics and rhetorical reflexes shaped by the imperatives of a vanished age.  Always there have been those young in years but old at heart.

Both cohorts were represented at the conference.  On the matter of the mysterious death of trust, each held a distinct theory of the case.

The senior people, largely white and male, seemed to believe that, in punishment for the sins of their fathers, trust had fractured along identity lines.  Women today were thought to trust only women, for example.  Muslims trusted Muslims, and no one else.  Some archetypical essence of “woman” or “Muslim” made internal communications possible, and separated each group from the rest of the human race.  It was, to be sure, a disaster of biblical proportions – the story of Babel told in the times of the tweet – and it left the men in charge desperate to put forward individuals of a different sex and skin coloration, to say the things they wanted to hear.

For younger elites, trust involves a sort of cosplay of historical conflicts.  They put on elaborate rhetorical superhero costumes, and fight mock-epic battles with Nazis, fascists, “patriarchs,” slave-owners, George III, and the like.  Because it’s only a game, no one gets seriously hurt – but nothing ever gets settled, either.  Eventually, the young cosplayers must put away their costumes, take one last sip of Kombucha, and set off, seething with repressed virtue, to make money in the world as it really is.

I was intrigued by the pathology of mutual dependence between these generational postures.  It’s the way abusive relationships are supposed to work – although, in all honesty, I was at a loss to say who was the abuser and who the abused.

***

We are living through the early stages of a colossal transformation:  from the industrial age to something that doesn’t yet have a name.  Many periods of history have been constrained by structural necessity.  This isn’t one of them.  Rather than a forking path, we face possibilities that radiate in every direction, like spokes from a hub.  Even the immediate future seems up for grabs.  We could see the formation of a hyper-connected liberal democracy, or plunge into nihilism and chaos – or we could contemplate arrangements and relations that are, at present, unimaginable.

The future will be determined not by vast, impersonal forces but by an accumulation of individual choices.  Ultimately, the elites must lead the way.  Whether selected by the public or self-anointed and self-perpetuating, they hold in hand the institutional levers of change:  that’s just how the world works in a complex civilization.  We will not transcend our petty and immobile present with protests or referendums.

The dilemma is that this present is defined by a radical distrust of the institutions of industrial society, and of the elites that control them, and of their statements and descriptions of reality.  The conference organizers got our predicament right.  At every level of contemporary social and political life, we are stuck in the muck of a profound crisis of authority.  The mass audience of the twentieth century has fractured like a fallen mirror.  An angry and alienated public inhabits the broken shards – and nobody speaks for the whole.  The elites who should take the first step into the unknown are paralyzed by doubt and fear.  They utter the words science and reason like incantations, claim ownership to Platonic truth, and believe, with astonishing unanimity, that they have been overthrown by a tsunami of lies.  One need only restore truth to its former throne of glory, with themselves as mediating lords, they imagine, and the masses, as in the golden past, will bend the knee of trust.

But the solid masses are now a fractured public.  Truth, for mediated information, is a question of perspective.  Today the political and media elites must deal with a huge number of competing perspectives:  theirs is but one reedy voice in the uproar.  It never occurs to them, as it never did to my conference-goers, that they would profit from understanding the splintered perspectives of the public:  why, for example, a devout Christian with eyes wide open might vote for a man like Donald Trump.  A canonical explanation for Trump already existed, involving the usual tropes – fake news, Facebook, Putin.  Racism took care of the remainder.

The decisive endeavor of our moment – far surmounting, I believe, any specific policy call – is the re-establishment of trust in the institutions of representative democracy.  Only after the system has been reformed and the public has been reconciled to it can we again talk about truth as a self-evident proposition.  Until then, all we will have is perspectives – fragments of truth circling, randomly, the gravitational power of some opinion.  Appealing to tribal identity only compounds the fragmentation.  Fighting imaginary fascists and Nazis can be no more rewarding than hugging an imaginary friend.  What we need is a rhetoric aimed at the whole and persuasive to the whole – and for that to be possible, the public must be heard, and its perspectives, in their multiple and contradictory reality, must be taken seriously.

I left the conference uncertain about the prospects of the good people I had encountered there.  They belonged to the class that should take all the forward places in the great migration away from this frozen hour, toward the new.  Instead, they were transfixed with longing for a dead past.  And the clock, for them, is ticking.  The flood of events is sweeping forward ever faster.  The public lost patience long ago.  I had the sense of what it must have been like on the upper deck of the Titanic, minutes after the iceberg struck:  the band was still playing, the proprieties were mostly maintained, but the pervasive mood was of hopelessness and doom.

Posted in cataclysm | 31 Comments

AOC explained: A digital performer enters the political stage

From one perspective, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the second coming of Donald Trump.  By this I mean that she surfed the same structural forces to Congress that swept Trump into the White House.  These forces can be characterized, very roughly, as the escape of information from institutional control and the desire of an angry public to overturn the established order.  AOC, like Trump, communicates digitally, and thus directly, with the public, somersaulting over institutional gate-keepers like the media and Democratic Party elders.  And as with Trump, AOC’s digital voice has struck a chord with the millions who follow her online.

Politically, of course, she’s the anti-Trump:  that is to say, the president’s polar opposite.  She’s young, female, Hispanic, and a member of the very progressive Justice Democrats.  There was an open space in American politics for a populism that tilts leftward.  AOC has now occupied it.  From that slot, she aims her rhetorical fire across the elites of her own party at President Trump’s populism of the right.

Her rise to fame, influence, and political office has been astounding in its rapidity.  In June 2018, she was waitressing at a taqueria in Union Square.  By January 2019 she was proposing on 60 Minutes a radical increase in the marginal tax rate – and being faithfully seconded by a Nobel-prize-winning economist.  Entering a speeded-up universe is a mysterious, but not infrequent, digital occurrence.  We call it going viral.  Virality tends to be explained in confident terms after the fact, but random elements are always involved, and it is impossible to predict or manufacture.  All of this holds true for AOC’s viral political ascent.

Certain factors had to be in place before AOC’s universe could hit warp speed, however.  She was extremely lucky in her historical moment.  The election of Donald Trump in 2016 dealt a traumatic shock to the Democratic Party.  The leadership was old, discredited, and stuck in a totemic dance of death around the mesmerizing figure of the president.  The party faithful craved fresh faces and fresh ideas:  they wanted to break loose.  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won her seat to Congress after defeating Joe Crowley, a 20-year incumbent and chair of the Democratic Caucus, in a primary.  She was the anti-Pelosi and anti-Clinton before becoming the anti-Trump.

She could pull this off because she possesses an ineffable star quality.  Some have labeled this quality authenticity, and discerned in it more parallels with Trump.  The president is said to be able to get away with his often outrageous tweets, and AOC with her sometimes bizarre Instagram posts, because both are real, unscripted persons who are simply being themselves.  I don’t buy this notion with regards to Trump, and I doubt that it explains AOC’s appeal.  As video of any family outing will prove beyond dispute, the camera rarely loves those who are “being themselves.”  Unscripted isn’t synonymous with authentic.  Both Trump and AOC are extraordinary performers.

They might be called authentic performers:  they convey to the camera, and thus to the public, an enormous confidence in the parts they play.  They wear controversy comfortably.  When mistakes are made, they double down, and never retreat or apologize.  The president’s tweet with the non-word “covfefe” brought down a storm of derision from political antagonists.  He pocketed the attention and returned the ridicule.  Similarly, when conservative websites mocked a video of a youthful AOC doing a dance routine, she responded with a new video of herself dancing in the Capitol.  “I hear the GOP thinks women dancing is scandalous,” she tweeted.  “Wait till they find out Congresswomen can dance too!”

The play in which both perform was invented on the web but is now the dominant ritual of US politics.  It consists of three acts.  Act one:  the protagonist says something outrageous.  Let the mention of “cow farts” harming the environment in AOC’s Green New Deal explainer stand for many other such effusions.  Act two:  the opposition is driven into full-throated rant mode, with the protagonist as target of contempt, insults, and sometimes worse.  It’s difficult to exaggerate, in this regard, the obsession of conservative and libertarian websites with AOC’s utterances.  They just can’t get enough.  Act three:  in response to the attention generated by the attacks, supporters rise in a host and gather behind the protagonist, who is now seen in the light of leader and commander of the faithful.

That is how a 29-year-old first-time Congressperson acquires immense authority over her political kindred.

How far can she ride the current wave of virality?  Could we, realistically, see a President Ocasio-Cortez by 2024?  The timeline for the presidency strikes me as too long – and outside of that, this sort of question is irrelevant.  AOC is a creature of the digital environment.  She derives her leverage from her vast following there.  Online authority is personal rather than institutional:  it’s earned day by day and can be lost at any moment.  Her future will be determined by whether she can retain her influence over her millions of followers, not by her success in climbing the Washington hierarchy.

This leaves her vulnerable to the inconstancies and misadventures of online relationships.  The web loves to devour its heroes.  Anyone who goes viral is inspected and researched minutely for hypocrisies, naked photos, shady deals, dirty friends, violations moral or criminal – anything that will bring down the high and mighty.  The horde of ruthless digital egalitarians is at work on AOC even as I write these lines.  The mysteriously-posted dance routine video was a weak attempt to make her look foolish.  Other material is sure to follow.

On top of that, the ritual of outrage and response, at which she has so far excelled, makes her political opponents highly motivated to fling at her whatever accusation they believe will weaken her position.  Already she has been entangled in allegations of campaign finance irregularities, brought about by complaints from conservative groups.  This is part of the script.  The charges and counter-charges never end.  The effect can be death by a thousand cuts.  Donald Trump has survived the ordeal by developing the scarred carapace of a bull sea lion.  Nothing that Trump can be charged with will detach his supporters.  I’m not sure the same can be said of AOC, who often posts about her awe-struck feelings and affects a “Ms. Ocasio-Cortez Goes to Washington” naïveté.  Any taint of scandal would likely damage her political future.

Finally, there’s the question of ideology.  AOC was selected to run in her district by the Justice Democrats, a political action committee that operates on the extreme US left.  If its website is to be believed, the group’s objectives are to punish the rich and knock down most standing institutions.  While this ferocity is actually in tune with the public’s temper, the devil, as always, lurks in the details.

The public in the digital age is not one but many:  it has fractured into pieces like a fallen mirror.  The single unifying and mobilizing impulse is the repudiation of the established order.  The public stands powerfully against.  Positive policies and coherent ideologies drain away energy and aggravate the fractures.  To the extent, therefore, that AOC uses her influence to condemn the status quo, she could solidify behind her a public in revolt.  To the extent that she chooses to promote the cauldron of ideas burbling out of the Justice Democrats’ coven, she will risk turning into a divisive sectarian figure even within the progressive movement.

Yet this is pure speculation.  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been a political celebrity for less than a year.  She may yet rise, in time, to spectacular heights, or plunge into the abyss and be forgotten.  No one can say at this point.  The only prediction I offer with confidence is that her performance, along the way, will be hugely entertaining.

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