[Below is the text and slides of the presentation I delivered October 12 at Bard College, New York, at the invitation of Roger Berkowitz, director of Bard’s Hanna Arendt Center. The occasion was a conference on “Crises of Democracy: Thinking in Dark Times,” hosted by the Center. I have invoked the author’s privilege of refining the text to make myself sound more articulate than I really was. I have also inserted links to the quotes whenever possible.]
My subject is the tectonic collision between a networked public and the old hierarchical institutions we have inherited from the industrial age.
I worked in the corner of CIA that studies global media. There, around the turn of the new millennium, my fellow analysts and I watched a tsunami of digital information swell and build and then crash over the landscape, leaving little untouched. At first we were mesmerized by the sheer volume of the thing. The sum of human information, which since the days of the cave paintings had grown in a stately, incremental manner, was now roughly doubling every year.
But it was the effects of the tsunami that mattered. Human relations were being transformed: social and commercial relations first of all, but in time, and in consequence, power relations as well. We could see fierce old dictatorships losing control over their own stories. A surprising number of them collapsed. Democratic governments became terrified of the public, and with good reason. The wave of information resembled an acid bath of negation.
Information, it turned out, has authority in proportion to its scarcity – the more there is, the less people believe. That is the theme of my story today.
So what do I mean by authority, and why is it in crisis? Before we get to the revolt of the public, let’s reflect on its target: the old dispensation.
For around 150 years, authority resided in the great institutions of the industrial world: modern government, of course, but also the corporation, the labor union, the university, the media, the scientific establishment. The elites who mediated between these institutions and the public were the keepers of truth and certainty.
How was this possible? Well, first of all, no alternatives existed. Each institution held a semi-monopoly over the information in its own domain. When Walter Cronkite, face and voice of a great institution, CBS News, told us “That’s the way it is,” we had no way of falsifying him.
Now, the human race has been organized hierarchically since we attained meaningful numbers. The industrial mind just made the pyramid bigger, steeper, and more efficient.
Frederick Winslow Taylor was one of the great prophets of industrialism. He preached “scientific management,” and that has always been the mantra of the industrial elites: that they are scientific. Their authority is derived from esoteric knowledge that the public lacks. In Taylor’s system, that knowledge justified control over every step of the manufacturing process. His ideal worker was a sort of robot programed from the top.
Politics followed a parallel path. In the great mass movements and totalitarian dictatorships that arose after the First World War, the individual disappeared into the masses. Democratic governments became both more intrusive and more remote. Policy-making devolved to a class of experts with Taylorist pretensions and utopian ambitions.
Politicians made, and make to this day, extraordinary claims of competence: that they can command the transactional swirl of the modern economy, for example, or engineer social equality, or win a “war” against poverty (or crime, or drugs, or cancer). Juscelino Kubitschek, democratically elected president of Brazil, promised to compress “fifty years of progress in five” by building Brasilia – that hyper-modern City of Man.
The reality is that democratic governments have been pounding away at the same projects for over a century. We know by now what they can do well and what they can’t. They can build highway systems and they can eradicate contagious disease. But they can’t fix whatever is broken in the human animal. They can’t deliver utopia. Whenever they tried, they failed.
Brasilia failed to deliver 50 years of progress in five. The wars against social conditions such as poverty and crime ended with the enemy standing pretty much where he had been when hostilities began. Most of the grandiose projects of the 20th century failed on their own terms – but the story told about these efforts wasn’t one of hubris and failure, but of a soaring ambition to improve the human lot, of reaching for the stars.
So long as the elites held the commanding heights of information and communication, they were the only authority in town. Once the tsunami fractured that monopoly, the elites as a class, their authority, and the institutions they managed, all lapsed into crisis.
The forces that swept away the old dispensation came almost entirely from below. They represented the voice of the gifted amateur, of the articulate non-elites. In terms of institutional standing, the individuals responsible were often insignificant persons – people from nowhere. Shawn Fanning was 18, an unknown kid, when he released the first version of Napster in June 1999. The shock of that beta release sent a mighty institution, the music industry, into a downward spiral from which it has yet to recover.
Hossein Derakhshan, better known by his blogname, Hoder, was an ordinary Iranian twenty-something who, in September 2001, succeeded in adapting blogging software to the requirements of Farsi script.
The consequences were remarkable. Tens of thousands of Farsi-language blogs materialized in Iran. Many commented on political news, advocated feminism, criticized the corruption of regime officials. Poor Hoder spent six years in prison for “insulting the sanctities” of the Islamic Republic.
Wael Ghonim described himself as “an ordinary Egyptian,” and so he was in many ways. He created a Facebook page and, in the form of a Facebook Event invitation, called for the protests that led to the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime. Over a million Facebook users viewed the invitation. Around 100,000 said they would attend.
Ghonim was thrown in prison during the protests, then was released and negotiated with by government ministers who clearly believed he was an important revolutionary leader. Symbolically, that was true. He embodied the tsunami. But empirically he was a political nobody whose claim to fame was that he administered a Facebook page.
With Wael Ghonim and his kind, we come to the hero of my story – or maybe the anti-hero, depending on your perspective. What is the public, and why – if I may quote old Mel Brooks – is it revolting?
First, let’s specify what the public is not. It isn’t the people, or the masses, or the crowd. It isn’t a fixed body of any kind. It isn’t even one – it’s many. I should rightly say “publics” – but that sounds terrible, so I don’t.
The public was formed by the dissolution of the industrial masses and their migration away from the center toward vital communities that represented their true interests and obsessions all along. In many cases, the journey has led to distant islands of personal identity. Information has been the catalyst – the perturbing agent – in this process. The tsunami is really the public, asserting its opinions and tastes.
Digital platforms provide the public with its organizational form: the network. Nothing within the bounds of human nature could be less like hierarchy. Digital networks are egalitarian to the brink of dysfunction.
Walter Lippmann, whose definition I used, tells us that the public is “merely the persons interested in an affair.” That affair can be trivial – cute cats, Taylor Swift, Star Wars. But when the public engages in politics, it’s to promote some specific cause, to right a specific wrong, to tag some specific event or person or policy with the correct modifiers.
Online political communities were spawned by the traditional right and left, but are not interested in working out coherent ideologies. They care, passionately and obsessively, about their particular affair. Anti-globalists, for example, care about the tyranny of corporations. Anarchists and libertarians care about the tyranny of government. Neither imagines that they are espousing a system of ideas that might be opposed by a different system of ideas. They think that they know truth, and that their opponents must therefore be liars and cheats.
These groups are born in negation – friction with the status quo brings them into being, and they exist to attack, condemn, repudiate. Negation binds a network and transforms it into a political force. You stand against Mubarak, for example, or Obama, or capitalism. Once the oppositional impulse is spent, there’s very little left. If you asked an indignado or an Occupier or a Tea Partier what they stood against, you would get long, long lists of grievances. If you asked what they stood for, you’d get throat-clearing noises and generalities like “social justice” or “the Constitution.”
Any form of organization, of command and control, is offensive to the egalitarian spirit of the web. Digital networks resemble barbarian war bands that roam the political landscape looking to win honor and fame in heroic combat with the enemy. The weird dynamics of the web makes verbal violence – ritual rage – the only acceptable rhetorical posture. Every political controversy ends in personal abuse and death threats.
Extreme actors on opposite sides rejoice in finding each other. They can engage in loud and vicious combat, attract attention, drown out moderate voices. There’s perverse satisfaction, almost happiness, when the people you oppose perpetrate some horror. It proves beyond reasonable doubt that they should not be allowed to exist.
The public has bought into the exaggerated claims of competence of the politicians. This is very strange, very central to our predicament. Even as the public repudiates modern government, it imposes fantastic expectations on it. On the one hand, government is the instrument of self-serving elites. On the other, it must deliver not only social justice and freedom but personal fulfillment and even identity. Political failure – which, given the expectations, is inevitable – evokes intensely personal feelings of injury and anger.
Mind you, the carriers of this anger rarely belong to marginalized groups. They tend to be young, university educated, highly articulate, owners of digital devices, masters of the information sphere. Their rage, in fact, is informational: Facebook and YouTube and Twitter torment them with a world full of unbearable things.
The web exists in a state of nature. Things are said and done there just because they can be said and done. A great deal of hypocrisy is therefore baked into those political communities that are born online. The rage is mostly rhetorical. The death threats are mostly a grab for attention through outrageous behavior. But when negation and repudiation play the part of ideology, when rage, stoked to the max, is the default rhetorical posture, when attention is the highest value and is earned by the intensity with which opponents are demonized – then we shouldn’t be surprised if individuals cross the hazy frontier between the virtual and the real, materialize among us, and begin to shed blood.
The two nice-looking young men on the slide, between them, murdered 126 innocent strangers and wounded and maimed many more. They represent the nihilist: the public as destroyer of worlds.
The question has been posed at this conference whether we are witnessing the rise of authoritarian or fascist governments. Among the old democracies at least, I believe the opposite is closer to the truth. Democratic governments are terrified of the public’s unhappiness. They know that heroic actions are expected of them, but also that every initiative will be savaged and every failure amplified. Their behavior is the opposite of authoritarian. It’s a drift to dysfunction: to paralysis.
Yes, there are Nazis among us. They are one byproduct of the public’s escape to sectarian islands of identity. These people with their tikki torches look pretty amusing – but they are no joke. One of their number, all of 20 years of age, plowed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing a woman and hurting many others. So far as is known, the perpetrator wasn’t acting on orders from his fuehrer or from anyone else. He acted on an impulse: the impulse to kill and to destroy. Given our structural realities, I don’t worry too much about the authoritarian or the fascist. I worry about that young man: about the nihilist who believes, with passionate intensity, that destruction and slaughter are by themselves a form of progress.
And maybe we should all worry whether the nihilist impulse has gained a broad enough acceptance with the public to make itself felt in the highest reaches of power.
Donald Trump has been good to me. He has sold a lot of copies of my book. Still, I suspect he’s the reason we’re here, talking about democracy in dark times. Hillary Clinton may be the very model of an entitled elite – but if she had won, few here, I’m guessing, would have had cause to raise apocalyptic political scenarios.
Why? What’s so terrifying about Trump? Well, he’s Frankenstein’s monster. He’s Hitler. He’s Mussolini or maybe Augusto Pinochet. These things have been said. Allow me to take a somewhat more analytical approach. I see Trump as an episode in the revolt of the public. Only in that context, I believe, could such a strange figure rise so far so fast.
Trump is a peacock among the dull buzzards of US politics. The one discernible theme of his life is the will to stand out: to attract all eyes in the room by being the loudest, most colorful, most aggressively intrusive person there. No question that he’s succeeded. By every measure I have seen, Trump sucks up our attention to a staggering degree. He’s less Adolf Hitler and more P.T. Barnum – only the circus is himself. This aligns him with a public that often confuses personal fantasies with practical politics.
Trump has mastered the nihilist style of the web. That, to me, is the most significant factor separating him from the pack. His opponents speak in jargon and clichés. He speaks in rant. He attacks, insults, condemns, doubles down on misstatements, never takes a step back, never apologizes. Everyone he dislikes is a liar, a “bimbo,” “bought and paid for,” the equivalent of a child molester. Ian Buruma has written that this sort of abuse is “what aspiring dictators have sought to do.” But dictators don’t deal in tweets. Trump is in the style of our moment: a man from nowhere, with no stake in the system, ignorant of history, incurious about our political habits and traditions, but happy to bash and to break old and precious things in exchange for a little attention.
Rhetorical aggression defines the political web. By embracing Trump in significant numbers, the public has signaled that it is willing to impose the untrammeled relations of social media on the fragile forms of American democracy.
I want to leave you with a question: what I call the cosmic Trump question.
Imagine a world in which an insignificant person with a talent for self-promotion decides to enter an election because all the cameras are there, with no thought of winning, and is catapulted to the presidency by historical forces over which he has no control, and which he does not in the least understand. What follows?
Well, if you think Trump is Hitler, you can relax. He’s not. You can quit the resistance and go to the ballpark. Trump doesn’t need your help to fail.
But if you’re me, tracking the trajectory of this structural conflict between political elites who are bleeding authority and a public that is stuck in negation – if you’re me, you worry that in a few years we might look back on these dark times and think of Trump as the good old days…