Democracy is going through stormy seas. The howling winds of the hurricane have been hallooing to anyone left on deck: Assange, Snowden, Weinstein, Epstein. All stand for whistleblowers, active and passive, all have become shorthands for the political scandals that shook liberal democratic political culture to the core. The sails of SS Democracy are permanently torn. It cannot simply return to the normal state of affairs.
Of course, these dossiers revealed nothing that was not already whispered between the more lucid observers. The US army’s entanglement as an immoral actor murdering journalists (Assange), comprehensive corporate-enabled mass state surveillance (Snowden), degenerate celebrity standard practices (Weinstein) and super-politically infused sexual blackmail rings in business, media, and politics (Epstein) can’t have been a surprise to anyone with a bit of independent-mindedness, that particular no-filter curiosity and 2 hours of a working internet connection.
The scandals – others are still in waiting – are meanwhile still significant and constitute the “getting up to speed” spoon-fed ugly information disenchantment for those perpetually mentally sluggish middle-classes who are just effectively incapable of reckoning with the malignant intricacies of hard statecraft. The nightmare hurricane was here all along, biding its time, waiting for the right conditions to coalesce. It was previously unevenly distributed, its power spent in lesser storms.
However, signs are multiplying that even with these reluctant audiences, something big is on its way. Pop-cultural emanations like House of Cards illustrate that, despite what remains unsaid in the series (spoiler: the important stuff), the political imaginary has at least become massively disillusioned and atomized to the point of imprecision (feelings as language of description).
Today, nobody can maintain the idiotic naivety of Western democracy as a good-willed and powerless process anymore. In terms of political culture, this is a game-changer. Extrapolating from the ever-growing pile of ugly precedent and the sheer scale and implications of the scandals, there is an increasing awareness that, even as an approximation, democracy never was the ideal we were taught about in school. It could only exist in the minds of a cognitively and materially bribed middle class – for a couple of generations – and today they are rudely awakening to the spiteful “boomer” insults of its empty-handed heirs.
Eternally late to the game, at the moment of political awakening, the boomer finds himself getting disenfranchised in real-time to adopt the perpetually grumpy and visceral totalizing immune reactions (“all politicians are crooks”) formerly reserved to the common sense of the lower classes. We find here the origins of the boundless will of contemporary democracy to replenish its range of naive voters (aspirations to include as voters the mentally handicapped, uneducated third-worlders, teenagers, etc.) who have yet to develop a similar immune system against the latest gimmicks in political marketing.
Liberalism has a similar problem: The rapid global proliferation of cybernetic capitalism’s recording devices, which find their developmental apex in the rollout of 5G networks, a “sentient” Internet of Things, is increasingly claustrophobic. Mainly because we cannot avoid interacting with its output. The massive production of data from its infrastructures – which has been anticipated by the ruthless investigation of human behavior in the psychological, medical, and sociological field in the war-science laboratories of the 20th century – exercises an enormous chthonic pull on culture. The pull of biology.
Techno-science’s pattern-recognizing unflinching eye now exoterically exposes us as members of genetically determined tribes, slaves to behavior and habit, as transparent socio-biological code waiting to be selectively accessed and influenced at declining transaction costs. In doing so it also deconstructs an increasingly untenable and indefensible postulate of a blank slate undifferentiated “humanity”: an enlightenment production and sustainable and superior idea-fuel for the expansion of empires and destabilization of traditional societies. With the rapid proliferation of data and pattern recognition entrepreneurs, the advocates of abstract equality and limitless interchangeability are coming under pressure. Algorithms meanwhile prove hard-to-reconcile difference heuristically by hacking humans along the fault-lines of race, sex, and marketing tribes.
The marketplace doesn’t care about individuals. In their place, it wants consumers and in innumerable subtle ways, the diverse public space media is making consumers worthy of eternal consumerism. In doing so they constantly undermine and second guess the universal political subject imagined by 1789. In manifesting the consumer, they are creating a society that’s both atomized and generalized; the individuated customer and the subordinated identity as a mere profiler, used by corporatist algorithms in product offer selection and authorities in predicting thought-crime against the state, anticipating law enforcement allocation of resources (which front doors get beaten down at the break of dawn).
With the massive proliferation of unpleasant information on these hard (i.e. super-political, biological) structures, liberal democracy becomes awkwardly self-conscious: In the West, its mask-like forced smile and psychotically cheerful voice is rapidly becoming the stuff of nightmares. With its focus on hate speech censorship and legislation, transformation into anti-racist authoritarianism has been well underway. But even in anti-racism’s heroic obsession of inverting traditional hierarchies glistens the principle of hierarchy still.
This confession, however, must be seen as a relief and clears the sight for the real political battle to come. Already, the liberal democratic veneer is taken as seriously as late 1980s Soviet newspapers. Giving it up as an aspiration liberates cognitive and political potential, and allows one to move on to the achievable stuff that really matters: Process, transparency, legitimacy, the rule of law, limited government, perhaps even meritocracy. The world is coming to terms that it is neither desirable nor ecologically possible to achieve liberal democracy’s implicit fever dream of turning the world’s 8-plus billion into an egalitarian community of 1970s Western middle-class consumers.
Politicians who can secure their citizens’ dignity against declining expectations will have an advantage with the growing numbers of the disenfranchised who have instinctively understood the game a long time ago. In their vision, they’ll honorably relegate neoliberal democracy to the dustbin of history as an indispensable catalyst without which the development of modern cognitive weapons could never have happened. The opposition, such as it is, will be the defenders of the ideal (universal suffrage) who’ve not yet given over to cynicism or the lust for power over the herd.
The post-right (i.e. new right-wing alt-right bloc) will be driven by a vision of authoritarianism as politics’s new inexorable horizon and convergence point. The post-left will stand or fall on the answer to synthesizing the altruism of socialism and the technology of free choice. If the left doesn’t find an answer soon, the political battles of the 21st century will be little more than battles over its aesthetic.