Democracy is staggering. Its standing-count uttered by a concerned-looking world spirit goes: 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. 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 parapolitically infused sexual blackmail rings in business 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 affectively incapable of reckoning with the malignant intricacies of hard statecraft. The nightmare was here all along, it was just unevenly distributed. However, signs are multiplying that even with these reluctant audiences, change is underway. 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 complexified. Today, nobody can maintain the idiotic naivety of Western democracy as 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. It could only exist in the minds of a cognitively and materially bribed middle class that is currently 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 totalising 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 chtonic 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 an abstract equality and limitless interchangeability are coming under pressure. Algorithms meanwhile prove hard-to-reconcile difference heuristically by hacking humans along the faultlines of race, sex and marketing tribes. In doing so they constantly undermine and second guess the universal political subject imagined by 1789.
With the massive proliferation of unpleasant information on these hard (i.e. parapolitical, 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. They can honorably relegate liberal democracy to the dustbin of history as an indispensable catalyst without which the development of modern cognitive weapons could never have happened. In its absence, authoritarianism is politics’s new inexorable horizon and convergence point. The political battles of the 21st century will be battles over its aesthetic.
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.