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 | 12 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 | 32 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.

Posted in democracy, influence | 5 Comments

Populism and the trauma of history

Populism Is a Door That Swings Both Ways

Let me introduce you to Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who became president of Mexico in January of this year.  He’s a populist of the left.  I bring him up because there’s a misperception in the US, and even in Europe, that populism is a pathology of the right, appealing to low but deeply-rooted prejudices about race and nation.

In fact, populism swings both ways.

“Populist” is a term favored by the elites for politicians who have migrated into, and occupied, the vast space between the public and themselves.  Local history and circumstance determine the direction of the populist’s advance.  In the US and Brazil, where the establishment was controlled by the center-left, populism, token of a public in revolt, erupted from the right.  In Greece and Mexico, where government and the economy were in the hands of the center-right, the assault came from the left.

First in the current crop of triumphant populists was Alexis Tsipras, who in 2015, at the age of 40, was elected prime minister of Greece.  Tsipras is, or I should say was most of his life, a Communist.  His program attacked capitalism, the banks, the European Union as a tool of German bankers, and traditional Greek politicians as corrupt agents of the EU.  He stood against the international and domestic status quo, and for a sort of economic nationalism.  Tsipras the prime minister soon abandoned most of Tsipras the candidate’s long-held beliefs – but these remain a fair representation of left populist positions.  The world is said to be controlled by shadowy forces – the super-rich, the one percent.  The nation is in bondage to these foreign, or rather rootless, entities.  Mainstream politicians and established institutions are merely stooges and enablers, feeding off the trough.  They must be swept away.

Obrador, 65, is somewhat younger than his American counterpart, Bernie Sanders, but he belongs to an older generation than Tsipras, and his rhetoric often sounds dated, an echo of the Sixties and Seventies.  But the message is the same.  The dragon Obrador believes he was put on earth to slay, his Great Satan, is “neoliberalism.”  This is the cause of social and economic inequality.  This is the reason for Mexico’s violence and corruption.  Obrador holds that democracy in his country is really a “mafia in power.”  He has cried “to the devil with the institutions,” and is currently attempting to replace many of them with his own improvised structures.  Resistance he blames on sellouts and puppets of neoliberalism.  A constant target of Obrador’s rage is the “bourgeois” news media.

It would be useful, before I enter into my theme, to contrast the world of the left populists with that of their supposed opposites on the right.

In many ways, it’s the same dark place.  Power and money go hand in hand.  For the left populist, government is a tool of the one percent.  For the right, it preys directly – and vampirically – on the “forgotten man and woman.”  “Washington flourished,” charged Donald Trump at his inauguration, “but the people did not share in its wealth.  Politicians prospered, but the jobs left, and the factories closed.”

On the question of why modern society is in crisis, the differences are somewhat more marked.  For a left populist like Obrador, it’s the repudiation, by the ruling class, of the principle of equality.  Those at the top kill and steal with impunity.  (Obrador has sold off the presidential airplane, and now flies, ostentatiously, in economy class.)  For populists of the right, the crisis of society follows logically from the destruction of what is usually termed “culture” but could just as accurately be called “community” or even “morality.”   Global elites, promoting alien values like multiculturalism and political correctness, are said to be systematically dismantling the mos maiorum, the ways of the founders, like faith, family, and patriotism.  Their open objective is the abolition of the nation.  The response, therefore, must be the affirmation of the nation.  Trump insists on placing “America first.”  For Viktor Orban, it’s “Hungary before everything.”  That is the true basis of sovereignty, and thus the only possible grounds for equality.

The right populist wants to make the nation great again.  The past is a domain of turmoil and trauma, where much has been lost:  but for the right, that is the way to salvation.

The Past Is a Wound That Never Heals

On March 25, Obrador revealed that he had sent a letter to the king of Spain, demanding an apology for the conquest of Mexico 500 years ago.  He spoke of “massacres” of “indigenous people” and “human rights violations” by the conquistadors.  This backward projection of contemporary attitudes exemplified the left’s relationship with history, which serves a useful function as a bottomless source of grievance.  The past, on this account, is the mother of all injustice.  It has spawned bigots and fascists, and opened a gaping wound where memory should be.  In a world defined by racial and sexual identity, the only acceptable stance toward the past is repudiation.

Obrador doesn’t want to make Mexico great again.  He would agree with Eric Holder’s statement:  “Exactly when did you think America was great?  It certainly wasn’t when people were enslaved.  It certainly wasn’t when women didn’t have the right to vote.  It certainly wasn’t when the LGBT community was denied the rights to which it was entitled.”  The conquest of the vote and of rights to which minorities are entitled does not elicit admiration.  There are no lessons to be learned in that house of pain.  On the brutal master and abuser of power alone fell the snows of yesteryear.

The negation of history – that is, of every injustice against race and sex – is utopia, a place built from nothing on science and pure reason.  This has always been the orientation and destination of the left.  The past is to be transcended.  Political radicals of the last two centuries assumed that the task of transforming society required a profound understanding of history.  That faith has been discarded.  Obrador, the time avenger, has simplified Mexican history to three progressive episodes, to which his ascension to power is the culmination.  The Age of Obrador he has christened “the fourth transformation”:  it will make “honesty and brotherhood a way of life.”  Forgotten in this utopian scheme are the multitudinous life-stories of all the centuries since the Spanish conquest, and the millennial experiences of Mexico’s “indigenous people.”  The past is sorrow and grievance, not memory.

At least Obrador has thought about history, if only as a prologue to himself.  He gives away his age by this.  Younger prophets on the left reduce the past to rhetoric in the Holder style – a rote recital of iconic crimes against humanity.  Comparisons to US and European history favor Hitler and the Nazis to an exhausting degree.  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, budding populist, has deployed the trope with regard to slavery.  Cory Booker, mere apprentice, has done the same with regard to Trump and the environment.  None of this is intellectually taxing.  The notion that we should make an effort to understand the past appears almost immoral.  The past is to be rejected, and the happy populist is liberated from the need to read all those fat tomes.  At the extremes, this attitude approaches nihilism, and takes the form of a war against memory.  The overturning of Confederate statues, the renewed call for slavery reparations, the erasure of Columbus Day to make room for “Indigenous People’s Day” – here are the skirmishes in the wars of time.

Spain’s government and mainstream political parties huffed their rejection of Obrador’s demands.  The left populist party, Podemos, declared that the Mexican president was justified “in demanding an apology for abuses during the conquest.”  Podemos is the offspring of the 2011 street protesters who embraced their own hazy visions of utopia.  The party’s spokesperson argued that an apology would “recover democratic and colonial memory that would restore the victims.”  Memory, in this instance, seemed to mean the invocation of loss and the resurrection of pain.

Greatness Is a Memory That Hides Beyond Recall

Populists deal in exaggeration.  Left and right alike, they inflate rhetoric until it bursts.  The present, therefore, is depicted by both sides in the most appalling terms:  we are stranded, so the story goes, in a disastrous, dystopian age – the worst of times.  Our existential political riddle is how to escape this horrific epoch.  The answer, from the left, is to erase the past and build the perfect society from scratch.  Matters are more complicated for the right.

Everyone knows that President Trump wants to make America great again.  But what, precisely, does that mean?  Trump aims to break out of the “carnage” and corruption of the decadent present.  The status quo must be overturned.  Unlike the people of the left, however, he doesn’t intend to hold the present accountable to a future utopia.  His ideal looks back to the past.  In the Trumpian formulation, greatness is a condition to which we must return.

Part of the ideal is economic.  There was once a time when workers could obtain high-paying jobs and enjoy comfortable middle-class lives.  The elites who rule over the awful present have somehow destroyed that possibility.  Trump has promised that his every decision “will be made to benefit American workers and American families.”  He will crush the “arrogant” elites.  Presumably, the golden age of working-class comfort will then resume.

Longing for a cinematic version of postwar society has been commonplace in politics, not just in the US – and not just on the right.  Even a progressive like Barack Obama can, on occasion, wax nostalgic:  “during the post-World War II years, the economic ground felt stable and secure for most Americans, and the future looked brighter than the past.”  The point of the exercise, here and always, has been to use the past as a cudgel with which to beat the present.

Trump has set his sights on more than prosperity for a particular class:  he seeks a resumption of national greatness.  To what period does his brand of greatness pertain?  The main difficulty to finding an answer is of course Trump himself, a man who (in the words of a defender) “never contextualizes,” and whose understanding of American history may be placed at or below Ocasio-Cortez levels.  The president, in brief, appears quite indifferent to the past in which he has located his ideal.  This creates ambivalence about the ideal itself:  predictably, opponents have denounced it as a “dog whistle” to frustrated racists.  That would be consistent with a gauzy memory of postwar society.

The reality is that, in his statements and tweets, Donald Trump has shown as little interest in race as he has in history.  While this could be a ruse to conceal all manner of secret maneuvers and dog whistles, we should at least consider a more straightforward explanation.  The president may have planted his ideal of greatness in a place beyond his reach and a time beyond recall.

On July 6, 2017, President Trump delivered a speech in Warsaw, Poland.  His subject was the West and its meaning.  A recurring theme was the need to remember.  Poland was praised as a “faithful nation” that “never lost that spirit.”  Our shared enemies were “doomed because we will never forget who we are.  And if we don’t forget who we are, we just can’t be beaten.”  This was repeated, as if to underscore the president’s urgency:  the US and Europe “will never forget.”  And what did we need to remember?  In what followed, Donald Trump came as close as he ever has to articulating his sense of the mos maiorum:

We write symphonies.  We pursue innovation.  We celebrate our ancient heroes, embrace our timeless traditions and customs, and always seek to explore and discover brand-new frontiers.  We reward brilliance, we strive for excellence, and cherish inspiring works that honor God.  We treasure the rule of law and protect the right of free speech and free expression.  We empower women as pillars of our society and our success.  We put faith and family, not government and bureaucracy, at the center of our lives.

And we debate everything.  We challenge everything.  We seek to know everything, so we can better know ourselves.

It was, in many ways, an extraordinary statement:  a portrait, visible in broken outline, as through a glass darkly, of the anti-Trump.  The virtues and achievements the president enumerated added up to a society in which people like himself would be unlikely to succeed.  It’s enough of a strain to imagine Donald Trump enthralled by Mozart in a concert hall.  But faith and family?  The builder of “Trump” edifices on the scale of Babel, honoring God?  And there’s no point to dwelling on his relationships with women, his inability to debate without insulting, his monumental incuriousness…

Trump found greatness in a past in which he could never have been president.  He belongs to, and personifies, the semi-barbaric present, the culture of self above all – yet in that darkness he searches for an America shimmering with virtue, rich in civilization, risen above the tawdry now.  Whether this is tragic or comical – or worse yet, cynical – I leave for others to decide.  The outcome is the same in every instance.  The trauma of time makes the right populist a blind guide to his own nostalgic future.  Trump’s life is the negation of the mos maiorum invoked in Warsaw:   no more than Obrador can drag Mexico to a utopia beyond the reach of history, can he return this country to a forgotten Camelot.

Social Life Is a Story That Starts With ‘Once Upon a Time’

Memory is authority.  To paraphrase George Orwell:  whoever controls the past commands the present and gets first shot at shaping the future.  Some model of right action, traced back to a remote, semi-mythical time, is the usual mobilizing factor.  The Romans emulated the ways of their earliest ancestors.  Christians look to the imitation of Christ.  We are constantly asking about the intent of the founders and framers.  These models embody the noblest ideals of humanity.  A nation, a people, or a class, come into view only in the bright light of their example:  they set the shared standard by which we become ourselves.

Hannah Arendt, asking “What is Authority?” as far back as 1954, had a somewhat different take on the matter.  Concerned, even then, that we were “in danger of forgetting,” she believed such an “oblivion” would “deprive us of the dimension of depth in human existence.”  “For memory and depth are the same,” Arendt explained, “or rather, depth cannot be reached by man except through remembrance.”  A person without a past is little more than a shadow on a screen.  A nation without a history is a shallow puddle that any strong wind will erase.  Only the “dimension of depth” could stand against the totalitarian assumption that society was the plaything of a messianic ideology or leader.  Arendt, I should note, wrote her essay less than ten years after the Jewish Holocaust.

True elites are the keepers and interpreters of a nation’s history.  But everywhere we find the current elite class abandoning the terrible discipline of remembrance for the joys of striking virtuous poses and increasing their moral distance from the mob.  The Baby Boomers, who learned history, felt superior to it.  The Millennials are unconscious and smug in their oblivion.  The elites, on this front, have played us false.

They have also become unmoored from their deepest source of authority.  The old appeals to “experts” and “science” and “technology” had no magic of their own.  Why should we believe an “expert”?  Who speaks for “science”?  The only possible answers were in shared stories with deep roots into the past.  The elites have made a bonfire of these stories, and watched their own authority go up in smoke – and now the public, swarming out of digital platforms, constantly and without hesitation tramples on their claims and ridicules their failures.  The public, for its part, has never felt the trauma of history.  It cares about the here and now, launching-point of its consuming anger at the established order.  A confident governing class would shift the engagement to the grounds of shared memory:  but that is not the way of our elites.  Their response has been to retreat ever farther from the public.  The distance today is astronomical.

Into that space have moved the populists.  They are the fruit of alienation – from the past, thus from ourselves – and the natural consequence of a crisis of authority.  The populist, we have seen, has no memory, no sense that anything of value existed before his arrival on the political stage.  For this reason, populism in power must exert a great deal of energy in a desperate search for some principle of authority.  Obrador signals ahead to his utopia, Trump peers behind to his golden age, but both, like others of their kind, can rule only by personifying the public’s rage against the system.  Unless we make nihilism the goal of government, that will not go far.  Meanwhile, we appear intent on proving Arendt right.  Democratic politics are declining to a shadow-show, frenzied in sound and motion but incoherent and insubstantial.  Deprived of a past, we are uncertain whether we can assume every conceivable identity or have been condemned to none.  We seem to be drowning in the shallows.

None of this is predetermined.  Massive changes in the flow of information have battered the institutions of democratic government and made the public ascendant.  Beyond that, it’s a matter of choice.  The public isn’t doomed to negation and nihilism.  We can choose otherwise.  Elites aren’t compelled to turn into escape artists.  Other groups in other times have chosen differently.  The dimension of depth is still within us, if we care to attain it.  That the past was tainted with injustice only makes remembrance a more urgent business.  Eric Holder’s ancestors were sold as slaves in Barbados.  He is a graduate of Columbia Law School, a former Attorney General, and senior partner in one of the country’s most prestigious law firms.  There is much injustice in that story – and more than a touch of greatness.

The restoration of authority is the supreme political task of our moment.  Nothing else comes close in importance.  I’m suggesting here that the recovery of historical memory will be a central element of this project:  the two quests, rightly considered, soon converge into one and the same.

Posted in democracy, narratives, the public | 2 Comments

The revolt of the Yellow Vests: My interview with Atlantico.fr

[The following is my interview with Nicolas Goetzmann, chief economics editor of Atlantico.fr, a French online publication.  It was translated into French and published Saturday, March 23.  Francophones who wish to read it can link to it here.

The interview was in writing.  I have slightly edited it to make the interlocutors sound slightly wiser.]

1 – Your 2014 book The Revolt of the Public has been presented as a kind of prophecy of the Yellow Vest movement in France. To what extent do you think the ideas developed in your book match the French situation?

My book’s thesis is that the decisive conflict of the twenty-first century isn’t between left and right, or between Islam and the West, or even between democracy and tyranny.  The pivotal struggle today pits an angry public, newly empowered by a dazzling array of communications technologies, against the elites who run the great institutions of modern society – very much including government.

These institutions received their form and spirit during the industrial age.  They function from the top down, hierarchically, methodically, ponderously, obsessed with five-year plans and pseudo-scientific position papers.  They make extraordinary claims of competence:  that they can deal with unemployment and inequality, for example.  To retain their legitimacy, therefore, industrial institutions require a monopoly over the information in their own domains.  Today, that monopoly has been swept away by the tsunami of information set in motion, around the turn of the millennium, by the digital revolution.  A roar of strange new voices now drowns out government pronouncements and explanations.  An overabundance of information, it turns out, is subversive of every kind of authority.

The elites still possess all the guns and most of the wealth – but they know they have lost their authority, their ability to command, and they are disoriented and demoralized.  The public in revolt can organize online and erupt in street protests, seemingly out of nowhere, at any time.  And the elites are always surprised:  from Tahrir Square to Brexit to the Yellow Vests, governments were shocked by the sudden radical change in the political landscape.  The elites had no idea of what was coming, and they have been unable to learn since.

Now, I don’t believe in prophecy.  I think that, in principle, we can’t know the future of complex systems like human societies.  Accurately describing the present should be the analyst’s task:  and that’s hard enough.

That said, the Yellow Vests and their movement match my description (not prophecy) of the public in revolt to a remarkable extent.  To begin with, they gathered below the digital horizon, in Facebook “anger groups” where they could whip themselves into a frenzy of grievance and repudiation and yet remain beneath the notice of the media and the politicians.  Then tens of thousands appeared, as if by magic, on the streets, branded by the yellow vests and a consistent anti-Macron rhetoric.  They lack leaders.  In fact, they are anti-leader, a super-egalitarian feature of movements that begin online.  They lack programs.  Programs pertain to government, and government is never to be trusted.  They lack a coherent ideology.  They are neither left nor right, and their identity is a sort of non-identity:  they are nobodies who wish to be recognized as something.

Above all, with absolute conviction, they stand against.

The political web is a fractured place, crowded with sects and splinters of opinion.  The public is not one but many.  Positive proposals divide and frustrate it.  The public can become a political actor, unified in purpose, only in the act of repudiation:  in the negation of the social and political established order.  And that is the sentiment that pervades the public’s online voices – the rhetoric of rage that attracts more attention the more vehement and violent it becomes.  Ultimately, a revolt driven entirely by negation risks tipping into nihilism at every occasion.  Vandalism in that case is a virtue.  Destruction appears as a form of progress – a razing of corrupt, exploitive structures.

The Yellow Vests have been an almost ideal illustration of this trajectory and these attitudes.  They began with the angry rhetoric of the Facebook groups and ended by smashing at the Arc de Triomphe and burning banks.  They are also typical in one more respect.  The public never takes “yes” for an answer.  I can’t think of a single street protest in my research that was disarmed because of policy concessions by government.  The grievance that ignited the Yellow Vests’ rage was a fuel tax – but the rage, and the protests, continued after the tax was withdrawn.

2 – Emmanuel Macron started his 2017 presidential campaign by publishing a book, Revolution, in order to convince French citizens of his ability to deliver a real change. Ironically, a IFOP/Atlantico poll published this week shows that 39% of the French people think a revolution is the solution to the situation in France, far more than in Italy (28%), in Germany (20%) or in Spain (13%). Are we seeing here another piece of the puzzle described in the Revolt of the Public?

My short answer to the last question would be:  no.  Revolution means conquering power, and the public has shown no interest in doing that.  The clearest thinker on this subject (as on many others) is Pierre Rosanvallon.  In Counter-Democracy he writes: “Radicalism no longer looks forward to un grand soir, a ‘great night’ of revolutionary upheaval… To be radical is to point the finger of blame every day; it is to twist a knife in each of society’s wounds.”  That, of course, is the rhetoric of rage – the preferred form of discourse by the public in the digital era.

Nobody, public or elites, believes revolution is desirable.  Worse, nobody believes it’s possible.  What are the alternatives to liberal democracy?  What would be the new order?  The Chinese “model”?  Putinism?  Liberal democracy endures despite the public’s anger and distrust because at present no conceivable alternatives exist.  This provides a minimum of political stability but also feeds the stream of nihilism:  better nothing, a blank page, than the status quo.  Our conceptual sterility has also made it possible for some to embrace the corpses of old ideals, like socialism and nationalism, that were long ago laid to rest by history.

I suspect that the 39 percent of the French who voted for revolution in the poll meant many things by this gesture.  No doubt a message of repudiation was intended, but there is probably a cultural element as well.  I’m American, but I was born in Cuba, and I have observed that in France, as in Cuba, the word “revolution” is nearly synonymous with “patriotism.”

3 – In the same poll, 81% of the French say that the opposition between the elites and “the people” should be strong in the short term. You made a distinction between “the people” and “the public” in your book. Today, who is the public in France, and what relationship does this public have to the elites? 

As I use the term, the public is not “the people,” though it often claims to be.  It’s not “the masses,” which is a concept from the last century.  It’s not exactly “the crowd,” either, though in the day of the mobile phone the crowd and the public share an intimate relationship.  I took my definition from Walter Lippmann, who said that the public is not a fixed body of individuals, but merely the persons who have been mobilized by interest in a particular affair.  Thus the Yellow Vests are mobilized by the affair of getting rid of Macron.  The Brexiteers were mobilized by the affair of getting out of the EU.  Trump voters were mobilized by the affair of “draining the swamp” in Washington DC.  It is always some sharp interest, some irritant, that brings the public to life.  Today, that almost invariably means the repudiation of something.

The French public is like the public everywhere.  It is fractured along many fronts.  It can unite and mobilize only in opposition to the established order.  But it lacks alternatives to the ruling system, and it has no interest in seizing power:  so it lapses, on occasion, into nihilism.

The French elites rest uneasily at the top of the pyramid.  They once ruled supreme in a national system that gave the top greater power than most democracies tolerate.  Now they are besieged by protests and uncertain about what comes next.  In a very real sense, the French elites created the French public and by their sheer blindness provoked it to the present state of unhappiness.  The elites never knew such people existed.  They were invisible from the top.

Although he is usually portrayed as the last hope of the status quo, Emmanuel Macron is a creature of the revolt of the public.  En Marche didn’t exist a year before it won the election of 2017.  That is unprecedented in the Fifth Republic.  Macron had never held elected office before he won the presidency.  That is also unprecedented.  These are new people – literally so, as many citizens entered politics for the first time to support the Macron campaign.  That is the mark of a populist movement.  Macron’s language, which exhorts the French to return to their former greatness, often echoes that of Trump.

A number of adventures and accidents led to Macron’s election, but once in office he had within his grasp an astonishing possibility:  the fusion of the tremendous political energies released by the public with the permanence and purpose of the institutions.  That never happened.  I won’t pretend to inhabit the mind of the French president, and explain what went wrong.  He was inexperienced.  Possibly, he lost his way.  He wrote a book called Revolution yet spoke of an Olympian presidency and gave his first major speech in the Palace of Versailles.  He is ambitious.  My guess is that he was tempted by the crown of the Holy Roman Empire:  the dream of becoming the next Angela Merkel.  He was, when all is said, an elite of the elites, a graduate of the grandes écoles, and he threw in his lot with his class.  The people around him speak at best with ignorance and usually with contempt about the public.  Gilles Le Gendre told an interviewer that the government had been “too intelligent, too subtle, too technical” for ordinary people to understand its achievements.

The 81 percent in the poll who spoke of strong opposition between public and elites surely had statements of this sort in mind.

4 – How could we reconcile the nihilism of the public and the government’s claims of competence? 

I would rephrase the question:  How can we reconcile an unruly public to the democratic system?  Here is the great dilemma of our era:  our riddle of the Sphinx.  The answer is usually couched in economic terms.  The public is said to want more money, more jobs, more government programs.  That may well be true in specific cases.  But I note that in no instance that I am aware of have the poorest or most marginalized members of society participated in the public’s revolt.  The Yellow Vests are not from the most destitute classes in France.  They own laptops and smartphones and they know how to gather on Facebook.  The indignados in Spain were mostly university educated.  Similarly, the crowds in Tahrir Square were the children of Egypt’s educated elites.  The Occupy Wall Street protests in the US lost their charm when homeless persons began to infiltrate the protesters’ camp.

I don’t have any towering solutions – and I am suspicious of anyone who claims to have one.  We are in the early stages of a massive structural transformation.  The industrial model that for the last 150 years has become for humanity almost like part of the natural world is now being battered to bits.  This includes the industrial model of democracy:  top-down political parties, executive-dominated government, cozy arrangements between politics and media.  Many of the old ways are already gone with the wind.

But democracy predates the industrial age, and it is not too much to hope that it will survive it.

When I read the public’s complaints, not just in France but globally, I find two overriding themes:  distance and failure.  The public feels that elected officials climb to the top of a very steep pyramid, then disappear from sight.  Presidents aren’t Olympian gods.  Politicians aren’t Hollywood stars.  That is contrary to the democratic spirit.  When the public demands increased proximity, frightened elites draw away.  Le Gendre will explain that political elites are “too smart” for this conversation.  Hilary Clinton will observe that, in any case, they are dealing with “deplorables.”

If we want to reconcile the public to democracy, our political elites must behave as if they believe in equality.  They must speak in plain language rather than jargon.  They must participate in the endless digital conversation.  And they must do more than talk:  they must listen.  They must come down from the pyramid, with fewer bodyguards, fewer limousines, and be seen to belong to the same mortal species with the public.

Failure is less an empirical assessment about the functioning of the modern state than a perception, not entirely false, that much is promised and much less is delivered.  Politicians make extraordinary claims about their ability to “solve” unemployment, say, or economic inequality.  But society isn’t a mathematical equation.  Complex historic conditions are not liable to be “solved.”  Candidates thus run for office on promises that will often destroy their credibility once they are elected to government.

If we want to reconcile the public to democracy, the elites will have to embrace the limits to human knowledge, and learn to speak with humility.  They will not tempt the public by promising them all the kingdoms of the world.  They will not speak as if the normal state of humanity is utopia, so that any fall from perfection must be blamed on selfish and corrupt forces – their opponents.  They will have the integrity to speak the truth as they see it, and they will have the courage to say “I was wrong” when necessary.

None of this will be easy.  None of it, I imagine, will come without a struggle.  The elites like their distance from the deplorables.  That’s the joy of being elite.  The public, for its part, wants to believe in miracles.  Politicians who speak the truth in all humility will have to overcome much prejudice and persuade many cynics.  Is that an impossibility?  I have come down against prophecy:  I can’t say.  But at some point one has to move forward on faith.  The democratic system has weathered turbulent times before – for example, in the 1930s, when totalitarian governments appeared to own the future.  There is no reason to believe that democracy can’t surmount the present crisis of authority.

5 – After the decline of Yellow Vest violence in the beginning of the year, new violence broke out last Saturday in France. The French government has chosen to respond to this security question by deploying – symbolically – French army units against the Yellow Vests’ next street protest. Where does the path of this logic lead?  

nce protests begin, governments have very limited options.  Weakness will be exploited by the protesters.  Shows of force will produce shocking digital images that scandalize independent observers.  The current government in France is caught in this vise and keeps wriggling this way and that.  First it offered a number of concessions, including the withdrawal of the fuel tax.  Then it staged a “great debate” with Macron on one side and shadowy figures on the other.  Now the talk has turned to deploying the military against protesters.

It may well happen that the Yellow Vests become exhausted and end their protests.  That happened in Spain with the indignados and in Israel with the “social justice” movement.  These protesters were able to remain irreconcilably against for only so long; in the end, they lost interest in their affair and went home.  But government action had very little to do with that.

I take the question to mean that civil war or military authoritarianism may be immediate threats to French democracy.  I can only say that, despite the rhetoric of rage so prevalent today, organized violence between hostile parties – protesters and the government, for example – has yet to occur on the scale of civil war anywhere in the democratic world.  Individual nihilists and small sects have perpetrated atrocities, as in Bataclan theater and more recently in Christchurch.  Can such tactical horrors be expanded to all of society?  ISIS achieved this in the Levant.  But let’s be clear:  in democratic nations, the horrors so far have been mostly verbal and virtual.

And the image of Emmanuel Macron as authoritarian is, frankly, risible.  Invoking the military is a sign of weakness.  The malady of democratic governments in this turbulent age isn’t that they have become dictatorial, but that they have lost the trust of the public and thus their authority.  That is equally true for Macron, Merkel, Salvini, and Trump.  They rule from the top of disintegrating pyramids, and can only muster weakness in the face of nihilism.  If we accept that reform is imperative, every attempt at reform must start by acknowledging this reality.

Posted in democracy, geopolitics, the public | 2 Comments

Has modern government failed?

Emmanuel Macron at the Palace of Versailles

I want to point readers of this blog to Noah Smith’s generous review of The Revolt of the Public (ROTP), posted a couple of weeks ago.  I would characterize the piece as “critical engagement” – for an analyst, the ideal treatment of your work.  A standing ovation is a wonderful thing, but when it’s over you are left there, smiling awkwardly, wondering what to do next.  If you are booed off the stage, on the other hand, all you can do is go home and have a good cry.  But critical engagement means that your ideas are moving forward, are in fact leaving their author’s grasp, so that you must think harder and move faster if you want to catch up with your own intellectual offspring.

That, in any case, was the way I felt on reading Smith’s review.

Here I want to re-examine the relationship of modern government to the revolt of the public, in light of what Smith had to say about it.  An entire chapter of ROTP is dedicated to “The Failure of Government.”  Smith believes this is much too bleak a view of the matter, and makes the case that “government often gets things done.”

What follows, however, shouldn’t be construed as a disputation or defense of the book, but rather as my reflections on Smith’s critique:  my attempt, if you wish, to move forward and think harder about the origins of our current predicament.

How Can We Tell When Government Has Failed?

Smith offers empirical evidence on behalf of modern government.  Some of it is, I think, indisputable:  governments have built highway systems and paid for cheap, near-universal health care.  Other claims are more controversial:  that government has been responsible for a reduction of poverty, for example.  But even if we grant all of these achievements, a troubling question presents itself.  To what extent is the failure or success of government susceptible to empirical evidence?  Stated somewhat differently:  what is the relation between statistical data and legitimacy?

A standard of judgment divorced from reality would seem like the definition of lunacy.  A government that fills its jails with opponents and pauperizes its people, like the regime in Venezuela for the last two decades, must be considered a failure.  Venezuela, of course, is an extreme example of statistical disaster – and what I find interesting about it is how many people, both inside and outside that country, would reject the imputation of failure.  The regime there still has defenders who would presumably bring up non-statistical factors – benevolent intentions toward the poor, say – to keep critical data out of the jury’s hands and so arrive at a much more favorable verdict.

A government’s success or failure isn’t derived from a number.  It’s an opinion based on something – and that something can shift ground in a most disconcerting fashion.  It can be economic growth measured in GDP.  It can be a government’s embrace of a particular ideology, as is the case with Venezuela and socialism.  It can also be an event – World War II and the Vietnam War determined the success and failure of several American administrations.

The turbulence of our moment in history adds to the confusion.  We are clearly in a time of transition, as industrial society devolves into a flatter, faster, and less tangible digital model of organization.  Our statistics look backward to the industrial age:  they miss or mis-measure much of the current reality.  Like so many aspects of contemporary life, the economy, Arnold Kling once told me, has become increasingly illegible.

Statistics like GDP or the unemployment rate are immense aggregates that create the illusion of a single national reality.  They follow the first commandment of the industrial age:  one size fits all.  Yet every day we are more fractured and fractious in our opinions, if not in our social lives.  Most of us are migrating away from the crowded Center to solitary islands of identity, and our political judgments are being transformed in the process.  It is entirely possible for magnificent GDP numbers to conceal shadowy patches of unhappiness and pain.  It is entirely possible for unhappy groups, though small in numbers, to assemble online, storm into the streets, and taint with failure an elected government.  That has been the trajectory of the Yellow Vest Movement in France.  The people involved in the movement were invisible to the statistics, and probably represent a minority view:  but they have pulled Emmanuel Macron, and his soaring ambitions, crashing to the ground.

In the darkling plain of our divisions, reality itself is a battleground.  Every standard and measurement dissolves in an acid bath of distrust.  The triumphs of high modernist government, which Smith cites, are turned into evidence against contemporary decadence and failure.  Nobody believes that government today could build the interstate highway system.

I remain comfortable with the two frameworks for success and failure I put forward in ROTPgovernment’s claims of competence and the public’s expectations of government.  Both include subjective elements – but both can be measured to some extent.  I’ll deal with expectations below.  About government’s claims to competence I will say only that these are spun out of our expectations, but tend to be sincere.  Barack Obama claimed to know to the decimal point how his stimulus would reduce unemployment, even though such projections could be falsified by events – as, in fact, they were.  When Donald Trump enthuses about his “big, beautiful wall,” he probably means it.  We have trained our politicians to self-delusion, and so increased the likelihood of failure.

And failure, alas, is likely.  How can I know that?  Because an unimpeachable witness has told us:  government itself.  On becoming president, Barack Obama looked back to the previous administration and spoke about our “collective failure to make hard choices,” our schools that “fail too many,” our “nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable.”  When his turn came, President Trump reviewed the work of the Obama administration and perceived an “American carnage” in which “Washington flourished – but the people did not share in its wealth.  Politicians prospered – but the jobs left, and the factories closed.”

The odds are high that Trump’s successor, regardless of affiliation, will not have nicer things to say about his time in government.

What Drives the Public’s Alienation?

I have described the public as spurred primarily by negation, sometimes tipping over into nihilism.  Smith disagrees with this characterization.  “Recent protests in the U.S.,” he writes, “have not been completely nihilistic – often, they’ve motivated real, concrete policy changes.”  Occupy Wall Street, he maintains, led to financial regulations.  The Black Lives Matter protests inspired police reforms.  The Tea Party forced Obama to cut spending.

These connections seem pretty tenuous to me, but in any case I am concerned with the public’s temper rather than the policy trimmings of the elites.  And the public never takes yes for an answer.  Does anyone suppose that OWS protesters were satisfied with regulations ordained from the top of the political establishment?  Or that Black Lives Matter militants have been mollified by police reforms, any more than Tea Partiers were by the sequester?

Protests triumph or peter out – but the public is never satisfied.  I can’t think of a single instance of an insurgency disbanding because of policy concessions.  The Israeli tent city protesters rejected legislation that addressed their concerns.  Many refused even to speak to the government.  The Yellow Vest Movement has rumbled on after the original grievance, a fuel tax, was eliminated.  The crowds that gathered in Tahrir Square to demand the overthrow of dictator Hosni Mubarak were back to demand the same of his duly elected successor, Mohamed Morsi.

Modern government, that vast pile of procedural machinery, has no way of transacting with the public’s action-hero aspirations.

Harking back to an old, sound concept, Smith suggests that the revolt of the public may well be a “revolution of rising expectations.”  That’s accurate enough.  The public craves perfect justice and meaningful identity.  It seeks to make France fraternal and America great again.  Yet it is condemned to drudge in the workaday world instead:  a source of alienation and despair.  The rebels have been mostly well-fed and well-educated.  They rage for existential reasons beyond the reach of politics.  In a landscape denuded of true authority, they turn to power, in the form of government, and place the blame.  Failure under these conditions is inevitable, and triggers the urge to smash at anything that blocks the way to utopia – notably, the institutions of government.

It is at this point that the nihilist – the public as destroyer of worlds – appears on the scene.

How the public has arrived at its extraordinary expectations is a question for which I have no answer.  No government has ever delivered the Kingdom of Heaven, and no government – not even Venezuela’s – has failed at every undertaking.  So the question is begged:  success or failure, relative to what?  If we wish to stick close to the facts of human experience, I can think of just two axes along which this judgment can be plotted:  that of the past and that of currently existing governments.   Donald Trump’s administration can be compared, illustratively, to Abraham Lincoln’s in the 1860s or to Theresa May’s in Britain.  Every other method, in my opinion, must lean on abstractions that verge on the fictional.

Yet our quarrels today are remarkably empty of examples from the world or from the past.  We gesture towards “iconic” moments, good and evil – the beaches of Normandy, Jim Crow – but to an astonishing degree we are devoid of interest in any place or time other than our own.  We are all surface and no depth – all skin, without bone or muscle.  Unlike previous radical movements, like Marxism, which were obsessed with history, the public in revolt views the past as worse than an irrelevancy:  it’s the mother of all injustice, to be abolished rather than understood.  The consequences have been predictable.  Tattered old ideas, like socialism and nationalism, are advocated in a vacuum of historical context, as if they were invented yesterday.

Of course, nothing has changed in reality.  We are still caught in the coils of history.  We are simply unaware of it.  We behave like sociopolitical stroke victims.  An organism in that condition will tend to make bizarre decisions.

At this juncture, we enter the realm of morality:  never a comfortable place.  But if untethered expectations lead beyond government failure to nihilism, then we really should pause to examine the part each of us play in the drama.  To cite a well-known example:  behavior on social media can be atrocious.  The elite response has been to blame the platforms involved, and demand filters to prevent privacy infringements, hate speech, fake news, etc.  Some wish to “break up” social media, as if they could re-impose the silence of pre-digital times.  That’s way too easy on them and on us.  The collapse of human decency online can’t be bandaged over with algorithms or anti-trust threats.  It must be starved of an audience, one user at a time.  The burden is personal, not technical or political.  It falls on me – not thee.

The fault, dear reader, is not in Facebook, but in ourselves – and so, I believe, is the fix.

Are We Slouching Into Darkness or Racing to the Dawn?

The question of government failure is hopelessly entangled with potent, long-term forces that are changing us by the hour.  There is an almost comical disproportion between the pettiness of political life and the enormity of our social transformations.  The actors strutting on stage look small, deluded, self-important.  They are overwhelmed by the backdrop:  we glimpse, behind the players, a tremendous firestorm of technological innovation, irrevocable, unpredictable, thundering with strange new voices.  The public rants about failure because government can’t meet its fantastic expectations.  The elites mourn democracy’s death in darkness because the public is now ascendant.  Even for polar opposites – cats and dogs – negation is the protected gathering-place.

The industrial mode of organizing humanity is retreating in disorder before the whirlwind of change.  How much ground it will yield, and exactly where or when – these are open questions.  Nothing is predetermined.  Everything will depend on our personal choices.  I have frequently described the encounter between industrial institutions and the digital age in violent terms, as a collision, a conflict, a war of the worlds.  In my zeal to explain the elements of our political turbulence, I may have overdone the rhetoric.  History rarely deals in either-or.  Industrial and digital are interpenetrating far more than they are colliding.  A good Hegelian would expect a synthesis to be engendered by this dialectic – the birth of a new, future-facing model, neither one thing nor the other, a creature of the dawn.  That scenario seems at least plausible to a non-Hegelian like me.

The task at hand is to re-form and vivify the institutions of liberal democracy.  Through all the years in the wilderness, we, the chosen people of this tortured epoch, must sustain and convey our covenant against the dead hand of the elites and the vandalism of sectarians.  The promised land is not a place but a time:  that happy morning when the public is once again reconciled to the system.

If government failure and the broader crisis of authority are, to a considerable extent, a function of unrealistic expectations, then we must ask what we can realistically expect from our political institutions.  The promises of candidates must be measured against the limits of human knowledge, rather than accepted as a down payment on utopian dreams.  Elite claims of competence must be regarded with skepticism.  No movement, however passionate or single-minded, can save the earth.  No politician, however eloquent, can endow an empty soul with meaning.  No government will ever validate your identity.  These are spiritual hungers, best left for religion to satisfy.

A whole literature has blossomed that insists we know a lot less than we think.  I’ll name Paul Ormerod, N. N. Taleb, Duncan Watts, and Tyler Cowen as my favorites in this bracing genre:  their arguments overlap and draw the boundary-lines of what can be promised.  We should turn to these writers when confronted with the Amazonian flood of political and policy prescriptions that aim to fix everything from the climate to obesity.  They will remind us that miracles, like meaning, are the province of religion.  Any attempt to make a religion of power will reprise that 70-year run of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” called the Soviet Union.  Failure will then be complete, and come attended by murder.

If even expert knowledge is too frail to lean on, can any government deliver the changes needed to reconcile the public to our democratic institutions?  This is actually a portentous question:  our riddle of the Sphinx.  I’m not sure I have a confident answer – but I know that I like Tyler Cowen’s.

In Stubborn Attachments, Cowen acknowledges that we exist in a state of “radical uncertainty.”  The future is, and must remain, contingent.  (Paul Ormerod will say, flatly, that “it is not in our power to ordain the future.”)  What follows?

Tolerance should follow.  Since even the wisest lack access to revealed truth, we should respect all opinions offered in good will.  The elites aren’t Platonic guardians.  They can see no better or further than the rest of us, and should therefore speak carefully – and humbly – about the future consequences of proposed programs.  The public, for its part, should treat online discussions as tests of character rather than occasions for primal screams.  That jerk you disagree with on Twitter could well turn out to be right.

A reinforced sense of the importance of morality should follow.  Since we are radically uncertain about the long-term consequences of our actions, we must choose in the moment between right and wrong.  Human life thus becomes high moral drama, riven with doubt and self-judgment, rather than a series of mechanical moves engineered to obtain predictable outcomes.

For government, the most important implication of Cowen’s uncertain world concerns the crafting of policies and programs.  Even if the policy goal is clear, the way there never is, so the marching orders should include a great deal of trial and error and the possibility of self-correction.  To avoid the fatal illusion of a steady-state reality, big, ambitious programs must advance one step at a time.  We need not surrender to cynicism or despair.  Government can play its part in bringing about the changes needed to reconquer the public’s loyalty – but it must show greater flexibility between ends and means.  “Our attachment to particular means,” Cowen writes, should be “highly tentative, highly uncertain, and radically contingent.”

I find myself wanting to live in the adventurous world Cowen describes:  and it may be that I already do.

Where, finally, do we stand?

The public’s quarrel with government, and its perception of failure, is driven as much by elite behavior as by an assessment of how political institutions have performed.  The generation of elites that was young when industrial giants roamed the earth is now failing, literally and physically.  Its enjoyment of the large corner offices within the pyramid will soon go the way of all flesh.  Many expressions of extreme political despair coming from the elites can be ascribed to a panic of mortality.  Young people are displacing old.  The latter have had their day.  Of the young, an analyst should say as little as possible, other than to wish them the best of luck.

When I consider our unsurpassed affluence, high levels of education, and freedom from oppression, I’m inclined to agree with Noah Smith that the rumors of government failure have been greatly exaggerated.  That is the perception nonetheless.  Part of the responsibility falls on political rhetoric:  confident claims of competence too often crash and burn against Cowen’s contingent reality.  In part, as we have seen, failure is a function of the utopian hopes of the public.  These are largely subjective factors.  A naïve observer would imagine that they can be easily changed.  I can only say that I have plowed this particular field for many years now – and it has been my experience that nothing is harder to change than a human mind.

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Europe: Populism and the agony of the elites

Elites on the edge: Merkel, Macron, May

Over the past month, protests have swept across France.  What began as an objection to the fuel tax became violent displays of general outrage.  These are the surface symptoms of a deeper crisis of authority in Europe’s political order.  The “yellow vest” movement lacks leaders, programs, or an ideology.  But the protesters know what they stand against:  the government, the system, above all the young French president, Emmanuel Macron, avatar of the elites.  And who are the elites?  They are the men and women who run the institutions of modern society.  There is a sense that this group has lost its bearings – that it has retreated an immense distance away from the concerns of ordinary people.

Loathing elites has become the most potent political force in Europe.  It mobilized the “Brexit” vote in Britain, and just squeezed Prime Minister Theresa May through the wringer of a party no-confidence vote for botching negotiations with the European Union.  It visited a series of electoral humiliations on German chancellor Angela Merkel, whose tenure may be counted in months rather than years.  In France, it has driven popular support for the yellow vests:  at its peak, it reached 80 percent by one count.  Everywhere, it has shattered the political coalitions, right and left, that governed the continent since World War II, and raised to prominence new parties and persons nominally attached to the right or the left but always fractious, sectarian, “populist.”

What is a populist?  Ambitious people have moved into the gap between the public and the elites.  They’ve tended to be unpolished outsiders, vulgar and abrasive in their rhetoric.  Populist is an elite term.  It seems to imply that certain opinions are popular when they shouldn’t be.  Populists of a nationalistic strain have won elections, handily and repeatedly, in Hungary and Poland.  In Italy, two very different populist parties, cats and dogs together, share in running the most popular government in Europe, with 68 percent approval ratings.  (By comparison, Macron’s approval numbers have plummeted as low as 23 percent.)  Elites ascribe these victories to demagoguery:  populists win elections by misleading the public.  The reverse of this proposition is more nearly correct.  Populist parties and politicians are riding, sometimes uneasily, on the wild kinetic energies surging from a mutinous public.

And what is the public?  It is a creature of the new information landscape.  Not long ago, elites in government and media could silence outsiders by the simple expedient of denying them an audience.  Today, information has slipped the leash.  Amateurs have taken control of the conversation.  The hordes that swarmed into the Arc de Triomphe began their march on the digital steppes – in their case, Facebook “anger groups,” in which hundreds of thousands of French citizens vented their hostility to Macron’s government.   Behind the anger groups stood people from nowhere, who had been quite invisible to the elites:  bricklayers, truckers, therapists, workers and the self-employed of small-town and rural France.

The same process has been repeated elsewhere in Europe.  The public has taken command of the information sphere, and political life has tumbled into turbulence and unpredictability.  As early as 2011, the indignados of Spain, having organized for months on Facebook, attracted millions of ordinary citizens to their street protests.  (In their rejection of leaders and positive programs, and their utter disgust with the status quo, the indignados and the yellow vests bear a strong family resemblance:  both are almost ideal archetypes of the kind of movement I described in The Revolt of the Public.)  In 2016, the Brexiteers dominated the digital discussion, even as Britain’s respectable media, in its entirety, supported remaining in the EU.  Both of Italy’s populist parties have a powerful online presence.  The largest of the two, the Five Star Movement, began with a blog by a former comedian who called himself Beppe Grillo, after the “Jiminy Cricket” character in Pinocchio.  Grillo straddles the three domains that absorb the public’s attention:  entertainment, politics, and the web.

The public has learned to speak about politics in the style of the web:  the rant.  Populists have naturally followed suit.  Violent language and political incorrectness trigger elite fury, and so reward the populist ranter with that most valuable currency, attention.  An impenetrable wall of noise presently surrounds every political decision.  Leaks and rumors, facts and opinions, truth and falsehood, poured out in massive volumes, inspire a permanent sense of uncertainty and frustration.   No statement is beyond dispute.  No outcome is ever final.  To this day, Remain voters in Britain – like Clinton voters in the US – are unreconciled and wish to litigate the results.

The insurgents are vague on details but sharply focused on the big picture.  They want the pyramid flattened, and their rulers brought into closer proximity.  The elites, in turn, are embedded in arrangements reached over a century ago during the industrial era, which enshrined top-down decision-making made by accredited experts with pseudo-scientific pretensions.  The elites think mathematically, in terms of a single rational “solution” to each political “problem.”  The public’s voice, erupting from below, they find not only disagreeable but deranged.  Whatever isn’t settled from on high always comes as a surprise.  The indignados’ arrival on the streets startled Spain’s political establishment.  The Brexit vote shocked Britain’s.  The new Italian government horrified Europe’s elites.  The yellow vest protests caught Emmanuel Macron utterly unprepared.  The gulf between the public and the elites is very wide, and probably getting wider.

Europe’s politics, as a result, tremble on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  From Sweden to Spain, the status quo is everywhere under attack.  If it endures, it will be in an enfeebled condition.  Increased fragmentation and even disintegration are possible, as the public in regions like Scotland and Catalonia hacks away at the ties that bind the nation-state.  Yet there are few proposals for reform on the horizon.  The left calls for more government intervention and redistribution of wealth.  The right wants more nationalism and less immigration.  These are worn-out ideas, and they can be imposed on an anarchic digital culture only through compulsion.  It may be that the European elite class, now permanently under siege, will arrive at the opinion that compulsion is necessary.  A more hopeful possibility is that the turmoil and anguish currently gripping the continent represents one stage in a necessary, if painful, process:  the replacement of the industrial elites by a younger generation that will align democratic politics more closely with digital expectations.

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‘Revolt of the Public’ to be published today

Today is publication day for the new edition of my book, The Revolt of the Public.  In a gorgeous design by Stripe Press (see above), with upgraded images and graphics, this new edition includes a foreword from Arnold Kling and a long section updating the thesis of the book into the age of Trump and Brexit.  If you’ve read the e-book, this edition is more than worth it.  If you haven’t read the e-book, then you must read this…

Followers of this blog are no doubt aware of its close relationship to The Revolt of the Public.  It was here that I tested and refined the ideas that found their way into the first edition of the book.  Since that edition came out in 2014, this is the place I turned to if I wanted to project the book’s core thesis onto the shifting landscape of the present.  The new edition extends this process in greater detail and depth of research, while beginning the search for paths that will lead us out of our rant-ridden moment to something resembling social and political health.

For those of you who have earned my gratitude with your kind and constructive comments in the past, I have one more favor to ask.  Pass the word about The Revolt of the Public.  Review it if you have a blog of your own.  These ideas are important.  Let’s get them out to as large a body of people as we can.

You can get the hardcover or Kindle versions of the book on Amazon (hardcover link below) – an Audiobook is available as well.



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