The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear
Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks
Everything is Noise
Goaded into action by the Fast Food President – a man as full of empty calories as empty rhetoric, hundreds of disparate factions of his supporters breached the defences of the very heart of American Democracy. As rioters erected a mock-gallows to ‘hang Mike Pence’ for daring to suggest that President-Elect Joe Biden’s legitimate election victory was in fact legitimate, hundreds of others stormed the building whilst lawmakers from both sides of the aisle cowered under desks and hid in offices in scenes that most citizens of America and other ‘functioning’ democracies would associate with ‘somewhere else’; somewhere hot, despotic and lawless. Both Press Corps and protesters beamed us live images of bearded Incels waving Confederate flags inside the heart of the Union while a horn-helmeted self-professed Shaman tried to remove the Speaker’s lectern, we were watching something unfold that was almost impossible to understand.
The question it made me ask was ‘How will historians judge this time?’
Not the 2020 US Elections or even the reign of Trump, but the last decade and a half.
News cycles are fast, but time moves slowly. And it’s almost impossible to understand an era until it has almost passed. As Elon Musk moves markets and Swedish teens move hearts and minds and the status quo convulses as it fails to hold back the inevitability of demography, I can’t help wondering, what the hell was that?
We are witnessing the final act of a period play defined by its volatile lack of plot.
Whilst Britain veered from the coalition’s romance in the rose garden and the era of the centrist Dad to Remoaners and Brexit; From ‘Ooooohhhh! Jeremy Corbyn’ to Oh…..Dominic Cummings, the US managed to elect a mixed-race man twice and a sex offender once, whilst we saw the stellar rise of AOC, BLM and GME. One could talk about Macron and Gillet Jaunes, or jump to the Middle East and the two faces of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Saud; the moderniser who let women in the Kingdom drive and who is planning a utopian eco-city in the desert and the butcher who sent assassins on to foreign soil to murder and dismember one dissenting voice. Meanwhile in China, the optimism of the PRCs coming out party, the 2008 Beijing Olympics, has given way to a technological panopticon, powered by an integrated surveillance apparatus, which unlike Covid-19 (See; SARS, MERS, Ebola) is truly unprecedented, a comprehensive monitoring system first piloted as a tool for Genocide-Lite in Xinjiang, and now being primed to bring Hong Kong to heel.
At the centre of this, the pivot around which all these disjointed arms seem to whirl is the Great Financial Crash, the moment when the late 20th century, like Wile E. Coyote finally looking down and seeing that bridge has gone, fell to earth with a puff of dirt.
What was the future?
This was not what we were promised.
When the West ‘won’ the Cold War, the implicit economic consensus brought us the promise of prosperity and democracy for all. Former darling of the Neoconservative right, Francis Fukuyama declared the ‘end of history’ in 1992, but by 2004, whilst Dick Cheyney was declaring a ‘American Unipolar Moment’ at a speech to the American Enterprise Institute, Fukuyama had already decided that “All of my friends had taken leave of reality.”
But perhaps reality had taken leave of them. The bipolarity of the cold war hadn’t given way to uni-polarity, but to schizophrenia. Washington hawks had taken a Cold War mindset into fighting postmodern non-state actors and wading into the middle of fractionalized tribal grudges masquerading as international conflicts. The War on Terror would reveal the naivety of their confidence.
At the same time, during the early Noughties, we confidently looked East assuming that prosperity meant democracy. The ‘Chinese Spring’ of that era would prove to be an Indian Summer of opening up.
By universalising a very particular and very peculiar Western World view, we were able to paint a picture of a future that never came to be.
The Vodka-Handbag Curve
At home, this created a confidence that was converted into consumer credit.
On both sides of the Atlantic, we were all living ‘on tick’.
Masstige brands multiplied, creating an increasingly infinite asymptote of new shit to buy – the ‘vodka-handbag curve’ that stretched from Absolute and Coach to Birkin Bags and Diva Vodka, starting at $450k for a bottle of clear, flavourless alcohol dosed with diamonds. Vodka was the ultimate empty cipher; A drink whose quality is assessed by it’s purity and lack of taste. Distilled to 96% alcohol, the ethanol mix is then diluted down to 40-50% and bottled without any ageing. A placeless, tasteless, ahistorical creation that’s cheap to make, easy to drink and a tabula rasa for marketing myths. And from Smirnoff up there was fantasy for every budget.
But like Vodka, this economy was built on nothing.
Artists rarely create culture, but they do condense the miasma of the present into a tangible action and form. The night Lehman Brothers went down, Damien Hirst was holding an unprecedented auction of new works, including a platinum cast of an 18th century skull encrusted in nearly nine thousand flawless diamonds. Alongside that work, titled ‘For the Love of God’, Hirst held a fire sale of countless Spot paintings and vitrines, commenting that “you start thinking you’re going to need something else. Something more personal and quieter and darker.”
The bridge had disappeared, but we still didn’t look down.
Stranger, Unhappier, Less Productive
Despite ‘Build Back Better’ becoming the ruling elite’s platitude of choice on both sides of the Atlantic, the real chance to do so was in the immediate aftermath of the GFC. With the global economy of the 90s and 00s in pieces, there was a window of opportunity to reshape a capitalism that was about creating value and not just wealth. The cataclysmic derailment, as the runaway train of the financial sector collided with the buffer of reality was the moment to reassess; a chance to return to an economy that was at the service of politics, rather than a politics of serving the economy. But instead of foreclosing the banks and bailing out the citizens we chose the opposite, mounting the engine back on the tracks, reversing it out of it’s subprime siding and sending it on it’s way back down the main line, allowing the winners the past decades to still win, even when they lost.
In return, we saw quantitative easing dump petrol onto a dumpster fire, which while raising the flames of GDP did little to improve real lives. Underemployment, the gig economy and permanent departure from the labour force, alongside first Oxycontin then eventually Carfentanyl masked the pain in the US while Southern Europeans elected comedians and fascists to name just one sort of new politician that crawled from the wreckage.
Productivity stuttered and those leaving education came to find themselves stuck in service economy jobs which were never part of the deal when they elected to take on thousands in student debt.
Once again we were chasing the financialised dream of mass affluence rather than mass happiness. Where some time ago, money was a tool, an input to get to a goal, it was again the output itself.
Once again the runaway train came down the track, the whistle wide and the throttle back…
La Cage aux Fou
At the same time as the financial tragedy of the noughties was being rebuilt as farce, the internet began to metastasise into something altogether very different.
What was once a niche divergence, an amusement with an off switch increasingly came to swallow up everyday life, first through broadband and then through three, four and now five G mobile networks. And in the process of turning experiments in college popularity contests into viable businesses we gave birth to the attention economy.
From early banner ads served up via Microsoft in 2006, over time Facebook developed into the subtlest knife for keeping people engaged so that they can serve them more adverts. The problem is that keeping people engaged to sell ads is not the same as “making the world more open and connected” as they claim their mission is. In fact it’s the opposite. Keeping hold of eyeballs to sell ads means giving people whatever they need to keep coming back. Content becomes an all-you-can eat breakfast buffet where no-one will stop you coming down for bourbon and ice cream every morning. But keep doing that and eventually you get sick.
But this wasn’t even the Buffet. We got to eat like no-one was watching.
The need to harvest attention turned the internet from a tool for mass connection to one for mass abstraction. We all inhabited our own internet. Served a version of whatever the data science models deemed most likely to keep us engaged. The algorithms created wealth, but they began to erode reality.
This is my truth, tell me yours.
Schism and Ism
And then the internet decided to get into politics.
The internet combined with democracies and evolved towards ochlocracy. The problem being that as Paul Collier’s seminal work on failing states that voting is the least important part of democracy. Truth is the most. Without transparency, truth, fact checkers, all the things that might put a dampener on your scrolling we got a highly mobile vulgus.
The distraction had become the main event.
From the Monks of Myanmar taking to Facebook to whip up violence and hatred to Orban, Trump or Le Pen(s), the internet allowed politics to become detached from reality, while at the same time years of doomscrolling had left us primed only to believe what we liked rather than what was true.
In many respects, Isis was the greatest achievement so far of the internet ‘doing politics’. A transnational online community whipped into a frenzy and physically mobilised to found a state. Huge earned media through smart targeting and a great engaging content strategy, this was high-stakes LARP-ing for the age of unreality.
Xi’s frequently Kind and Suddenly Cruel
As the Caliphate’s experiment in Jihadi self-determination was fizzling out, we entered the era of America falling asleep at the wheel of the international order.
Centrifugal forces were already spinning the world in multiple directions, with affluence no predictor of freedom and repression proving to rarely be met with dissent let alone revolt, the post-Crash political order was rapidly moving towards Gangster Geopolitics. Increasing nationalism in response to – or perhaps directly precipitated by a fragmenting and increasingly transnational world brought a (re)surgence of strongmen such a Putin and summit for North Korea’s own Little Rocket Man.
Suddenly everyone was playing by their own rules, no one more so than Xi Jinping.
Xi represents the ultimate manifestation of this rejection of ‘the way things are done’; the proverbial game of chess against the pigeon who knocks down the pieces, shits everywhere and declares victory. Except now it’s looking like the West is the Pigeon and China is the Grandmaster.
China’s luxury automated authoritarianism is a technologically advanced, thoroughly modern and highly bounded form of freedom. Which is fine as long as you never venture beyond the bounds. With a fully surveilled – and fully controlled – internet, the only untruths are shared and close monitoring at scale creates a digital panopticon where it is increasingly futile to think dissenting thoughts if there are no spaces left to express dissenting views.
This is not to say there is nothing going for it; crossing from Shenzhen, the CCP’s showpiece of what this future could be, to Hong Kong, the place that represents what the future once was, is like stepping back into something dirtier, poorer and more tawdry. Which is their point. As the national security law is brought to bear on more and more elements of life in the old British Colony, it will increasingly become just a suburb of it’s brighter, brutal neighbour.
Of course, it won’t just be China’s future that China decides; it’s marketing the model and the tools of control to capitals from Brasilia to Brazzaville. And the action they decide to take on the climate crisis will be a choice that affects us all. The only silver lining is that on the last of these they seem to be paying attention, even as they continue to operate half of the world’s coal-fired power plants.
Dance into the fire
Late in 2019, I was living in Shenzhen, the poster child for undemocratic utopia. A vision of the potential of capitalism unencumbered by democracy to save us all from ourselves. Social Credit Scores and facial recognition could make us fitter, happier, more productive. The digital panopticon that is contemporary China is the first truly compelling alternative version of modernity since the industrial revolution. But even this would be exposed as lacking by one particularly truculent strand of RNA. By the start of the year, my WeChat feed was full of still shots, quotes and ‘reviews’ of popular HBO show Chernobyl, a miniseries recounting the eponymous 1986 disaster depicting a climate of fear where no-one dares speak truth to power. With collaborative tech giants, heavy censorship and a vast enforcement infrastructure this is as deep as dissent gets in China.
Whilst crises have smouldered all around us for the last few decades, we entered into a collective misdirection since the the start of the 21st Century that ‘This is Fine’; But ‘Sars-CoV-2: Judgement Day’ has acted as a refiners fire, burning away the impurities of our self-deception. We are in a fragile world that we are currently urging on towards ecological implosion whilst our societies become more unequal, more imbalanced and more uncertain. As transnational capital supersedes the nation state, nativism has become a refuge for the threatened evoking the rhetoric and too often violence that is as explainable as it remains inexcusable.
Yet months of confinement and millions of excess deaths so far continue to whip up a great variety of morbid symptoms. Art that doesn’t exist is bought for millions by Crypto-Bros rewarded for ‘HODL-ing’ for their Beeples and the Vox Populi takes collective action to make itself rich on penny stocks. We desperately need solutions to fix the planet yet the Billionaires who have mined us and it for their wealth are obsessed with leaving it.
The pandemic has forced a decision on us that we have put off for too long.
Looking Beyond the Wired Favela
Some time late in the first decade of this century, I watched a speech by Bruce Sterling. As I now possess the collective knowledge of the world at my fingertips through the computer I am writing on (there is an ‘evil twin’ essay to this which essentially outlines why this whole analysis is itself noise and everything actually is fine…), I can tell you it was from June 2009, given at Reboot, a conference exploring technology and public policy. In it, he outlines the cultural temperament of the Era:
What is the cultural temperament of this era? Well, I think it’s got a good two-word summary: “Dark Euphoria.” Dark Euphoria is what the twenty-teens feel like. Things are just falling apart, you can’t believe the possibilities, it’s like anything is possible, but you never realized you’re going to have to dread it so much. It’s like a leap into the unknown. You’re falling toward earth at nine hundred kilometres an hour and then you realize there’s no earth there…
… It comes in two flavours. Top end and low end. Everybody in this room is sort of schismed between top end and low end. Because that’s the nature of your particular demographic. The top end we can describe as “Gothic High-Tech”. Let me explain to you what Gothic High-Tech is like. In Gothic High-Tech, you’re Steve Jobs. You’ve built an iPhone which is a brilliant technical innovation, but you also had to sneak off to Tennessee to get a liver transplant because you’re dying of something secret and horrible. And you’re a captain of American industry. You’re not some General Motors kinda guy. On the contrary, you’re a guy who’s got both hands on the steering wheel of a functional car. But you’re still Gothic High-Tech because death is waiting. And not a kindly death either, but a sinister, creeping, tainted wells of Silicon Valley kind of Superfund thing that steals upon you month by month, and that you have to hide from the public and from the bloggers and from the shareholders…
…What is the downside, what’s the other side of this? The flip-side of Gothic High-Tech? The flip-side of Gothic High-Tech is downmarket, and it’s called “Favela Chic.” Favela Chic. What is Favela Chic? Favela Chic is when you have lost everything material, everything you built and everything you had, but you’re still wired to the gills! And really big on Facebook. That’s Favela Chic. You lost everything, you have no money, you have no career, you have no health insurance, you’re not even sure where you live, you don’t have children, and you have no steady relationship or any set of dependable friends. And it’s hot. It’s a really cool place to be.
Myspace is a favela. You’ve ever been to a Brazilian favela? It basically, politically, represents the structure of Myspace. You’ve got this remote, distant, old-school Brazilian tyrant. Anti-democratic, wicked mogul, pays no attention to you, supposedly owns the whole show, but the whole shebang is going south in a hurry.
It’s been out-competed by some other economy, there’s nothing happening there. You have no civil rights in Myspace. You can’t go anywhere in Myspace, you can’t organize in Myspace, you can’t make money in Myspace. You can have a hut in Myspace. And you live in the hut until they pull the plug. That’s a favela.
MySpace references aside, it’s disturbing to read this Science Fiction writer play back our ‘fact’ back in 2009. His analysis is what happens if we continue to project this present forward into the future a ‘Futurism’ rather than a ‘Utopia’ as discriminated between by American Ecologist Murray Bookchin that points us towards a ‘Ready Player One’ future.
But what more is there? Automation and Machine Learning promise leisure and infinite resources. But projected along our current vector, they continue Sterling’s bifurcated world. Rather than undermining inequality with a lack of scarcity, they offer infinite capture by an infinitesimally small group. Smug top ten-percenters or one-percenters, too late to speak up get pushed below the line. Or are we headed for the techno-gnosticism of the singularity, where we may end up mined by machines? Perhaps the Matrix was a documentary sent back in time to soften the hammer blow of our future?
The point is that the long interregnum is coming to an end and we must decide what future will be born.