The middle class is dead. The business school and start-up boys occasionally bubbling up from its dead carcass are temporary fermentation providing upward-drift semblances of metastability but rest assured that the parasited host body is only going to go down. Even in the case of Asia, where millions are currently embracing late Western middle-class simulacra like buying Ikea furniture, wearing brand athleisure and eating industrialized cheese, experts have already long ago pointed to the ecological limits of a Chinese and Indian consumerist middle class. Westerners in full decline, we can confidently dismiss the phenomenon as temporary.
In the West, the old middle class is the last remnant of another 20th-century social phenomenon, the masses. The mass is social techno-trauma: It is deracinated, reformatted and synchronized human accumulation, organized and disciplined by the factory, barrack and propaganda at the intersection of Taylorism and applied crowd psychology. The popular online insult “boomer” refers precisely to the intergenerational psychological hangover of this process. It designates a character deformed by the disciplinary institutions of the 20th century, unfamiliar with the subtleties of high information frequency aesthetic- and information warfare codes that have developed in the colorful subcultures of internet message boards and social media. Despite this dissimilarity both the boomer and his declassed heirs have entered into an alliance of reemerging populism. Can they resurrect mass politics?
In the Great European Civil Wars of the 20th century in 1914 and 1939, the masses was still wielded as the most formidable power tool. In his 1930 work The Revolt of the Masses, Ortega Y Gasset speaks of the “accession of the masses to complete social power.” In the same year, Ernst Jünger imagines a “total mobilization” and the “transformation of warring industrial countries into volcanic forges” seeking an “unlimited marshaling of potential energies.” Despite the already progressing rapid evolution in strategy and technology between the First and Second World Wars, the masses remain a decisive tool for the organization of industrial production and warfare in both conflicts. With the emerging mass media of communication systematically integrating knowledge from sociology and psychology, the masses can for the first time be instantly accessed and guided with a certain amount of precision. A sophisticated propaganda apparatus sustaining morale at home while dehumanizing the enemy and sowing doubt in its ranks becomes a decisive tool to enable the sacrifices of mass-casualty warfare and industrial expansion.
The crisis of the masses as a tool for technological warfare is without a doubt the development of the nuclear bomb, “the Absolute Weapon” (Bernard Brodie), and its use against Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. From the moment of its use, the nuclear bomb also becomes a counterfactual mathematical device transforming the battle field into megadeath calculations: It “saves” US soldiers needed for an invasion of Japan, it offsets Soviet conventional superiority by its capacity to deter large scale conflict. Herman Kahn’s 1960 bestseller On Thermonuclear War illustrates the emerging managerial mindset of how mass death and ecological disaster can be taken into account as realistic and acceptable scenarios to generate a credible strategic posture. Admittedly, throughout the Cold War, the conventional military never really disappears in strategic considerations but it is clear that its role becomes something different, not dissimilar to Chess after Deep Blue. Nikita Khruschev’s memoirs recount the Soviet leader in bathing trunks in a Beijing swimming pool with Mao Zedong, unimpressed by the Chinese communist party chairman’s affirmations of popular strength by remarking that “with the atomic bombs, the number of troops on each side makes practically no difference to the alignment of real power and the outcome of a war. The more troops on one side, the more bomb fodder.”
The development of the nuclear bomb then should also be understood as a turning point in the history of military-labor’s bargaining power. It is to the soldier what robotization is to the automobile factory worker: From the point of its inclusion into military arsenals, the possibility of total warfare and total destruction of the enemy in a complete absence of military, let alone popular consent increasingly existed. War propaganda in such a world at last resort becomes a luxury.
The nuclear bomb thus heralds the loss of power of populations with the decline of the mass army and its transformation into automated warfare scenarios and highly mobile expedition corps. Labour value is soon to follow with the transition of economies from Fordist to Post-Fordist modes of production, increasing service and office work, automation, and capital’s increasing bargaining power due to globalization and delocalization. Perhaps the Club of Rome’s 1972 report, The Limits to Growth, is above all a reinterpretation of the significance of populations: From their early-century role as a power asset for expansion and conquest, in a world territorialized by nuclear bombs, they become reinvented as a factor of ecological instability and ultimately as an arms-control problem. Anyone doubting the seriousness of arms control as an overarching paradigm for policy should read Nick Land’s essay on the matter, which might be remembered as one of the most important in the early century.
While frequently comparisons are made between contemporary populism and the one of the 1930s, the two phenomena bear only superficial resemblance. In the West at least, the contemporary mass, elevated above existential need and constituted by modern methods of multi-channel propaganda is increasingly fractured sociologically into milieus. It also does not control the strategic factories with their highly skilled workers nor the infrastructures. Supply chains are internationalized, assembled and controlled by specialists as logistical operations. As a tendency, automation, by replacing ever more sophisticated labour, continues to disenfranchise the mass. In the near future, we hear that transport, crucial to global logistics will be automated. And even sociologically, the automation agenda is currently uninstalling the backbone of the 20th-century state: With the digitization of bureaucracy and perhaps even legal process, a class relatively isolated from the immediate pressures of the private sector and a haven of civic virtue and stability of process faces the prospect of being largely eliminated. It will likely be replaced in favor of algorithms, even less transparent than the old bureaucracy’s workings, which, as observable in the policies of the dominant platforms increasingly closely mirror the hysterical whims and double standards of power elites.
Today, the symptoms of such an inflation of the masses via structural disenfranchisement are visible everywhere in the failure of populist politics to impose its will on those in power. In the UK, the political leadership prefers to sabotage popular choice of a political exit and generously takes into account a legacy of massive economic collateral due to indecision; in France, with the Yellow Vest movement, Europe’s most unionized, strike-disciplined and -trained population is failing to derive any significant concessions from its progressively militarized leadership; in the US, Trump prefers to ally himself to the political establishment rather than implement any of his main electoral promises. The masses — weakened by decades of consumerism, loss of infrastructural control, a lack of military discipline through the draft, premature commitments to non-violence, and divided by new technologies of niche propaganda — hardly inspire fear or respect anymore. In the meantime, political and economic elites have secured themselves a maximum range of maneuver by withdrawing to militarily secured concentrated techno-managerial interfaces which neutralize masses by waging them against one another as competing labor and ethnic group interests.
Political consciousness seems to not have caught up with this change of essence. Rather than perceiving populism as the last attempt of strategically resurrecting an outdated but still awe-inspiring power-tool in the service of regaining access to levers of infrastructural power, notions of “fully automated luxury communism,” or UBI–Yangbux inspire the overworked precariat of service workers and disenfranchised middle-class hopefuls. Somewhere the notion has gone missing that governments in parliamentary democracy are above all a reflection of the real existing forces in a country rather than an unmediated expression of popular votes. In today’s political systems, once a representative is elected, there is significantly reduced oversight from the part of the population. In France, Francois Hollande, Emmanuel Macron’s predecessor, for example, finished his Presidency with popularity ratings of four percent. The current electoral process guarantees that the pre-election phase is already a negotiation between popularity and the real power structure. Candidates must negotiate media exposure, freedom from all too violent scandalizing, while convincing political donors. After the election the influence shifts even further in favor of the existing structure and away from popular oversight.
New presidential hopefuls like Andrew Yang may even be good-willed, they will discover the more solid structures of power soon enough. Promises are one thing, however, particularly in modern democracies where the bond of blood and identity (whether as a matter of racial or class consciousness or a combination of both) between political leaders and populations has been largely dissolved, citizens need to focus again on the aspect of guarantees. The guiding question becomes how voters can ensure that politicians implement their promises. George Sorel, in his Reflections on Violence, still remembered that the power of the people resided in their capacity to implement a violent general strike. Are today’s populations anywhere near capable of doing so? Contemporary populations are rather inclined to have the rest of the infrastructure they control be automated and give away their last bargaining chips trusting in the benevolence of future owners to ensure their subsistence. This sort of strategic ignorance also emanates from the naivety of persisting middle class consciousness, a class traditionally shielded from both the hardship that comes with the experience of poverty and the cynicism and scheming of power-experienced elites. It prefers to anesthetize itself with the myth of production value having been replaced by consumption value. This, of course, is a false and shortsighted argument. Consumption is a social contract of pacification and is still loosely tied to labour value it buys albeit less and less so. Particularly in times of increased competition over environmental resources and declining labour value, the value of consumer classes continues to decline. Today, states are increasingly indifferent about increasing their population’s purchasing power.
Contemporary political movements need not forget the origins of political power and what enabled the revolt of the elites. The emergence of contemporary populism is a positive sign. It recent sophistication reflects an uprising of autochthonous elites and organic intellectuals who have already been politically and economically disenfranchised or are lucid enough to perceive their disenfranchisement to come. Increasing fractions of the managing bourgeoisie and upper middle class wealth are sensing that “above average” will not save them in a globalized world of mega accumulation, tribal insider trading and automation. They have already started to organize and must pay attention again on how to build counter architectures to paralyze and disturb the process of hyper-centralization and -verticalization of transnational integration. They are sane enough not remain aesthetically unconvinced by the paranoid assemblages of securitized enclaves and exhibition corps security apparatuses organizing extraction. Together they can still resurrect outdated social technologies of mass politics and return to the roots of modern parliamentary democracy which perceive the state above all as an engineering problem.
The world needs a multiplication of Second Amendments: No Andrew Yang or Donald Trump is going to save, absolve, or redeem politics. In the absence of structural guarantees, these politicians need to be considered as a means to an end, as vectors for discourses to build networks but also as single points of failure. The Yang, after all, is replaceable and weak. Politics was always about organizing the Gang.
Nicolas Hausdorf is a German editor, analyst, and essayist based in Melbourne. His essay “Superstructural Berlin,” an experimental sociology and pulp theory of Germany’s capital has been published by Zero Books. He tweets at @dcntrrr.