Amor Mundi: Reactionism


Andrew Sullivan rightly sees that we are in the grip of reactionism, not conservatism. Reactionism is not simply about hatred or racism. It is illiberal, yes, but an indignant rejection of the status quo. What Sullivan clearly sees is that reactionism is a political movement that is now worldwide at the height of its political power. To oppose reactionism as simply hateful and thus illegitimate is not enough. We need to martial a political opposition.

—Roger Berkowitz

“Look around you. Donald Trump is now president of the United States, having won on a campaign that trashed liberal democracy itself, and is now presiding over an administration staffed, in part, with adherents of a political philosophy largely alien to mainstream American politics. In Russia, Vladimir Putin has driven his country from postcommunist capitalism to a new and popular czardom, empowered by nationalism and blessed by a resurgent Orthodox Church. Britain, where the idea of free trade was born, is withdrawing from the largest free market on the planet because of fears that national identity and sovereignty are under threat. In France, a reconstructed neofascist, Marine Le Pen, has just won a place in the final round of the presidential election. In the Netherlands, the anti-immigrant right became the second-most-popular vote-getter — a new high-water mark for illiberalism in that once famously liberal country. Austria narrowly avoided installing a neo-reactionary president in last year’s two elections. Japan is led by a government attempting to rehabilitate its imperial, nationalist past. Poland is now run by an illiberal Catholic government that is dismembering key liberal institutions. Turkey has morphed from a resolutely secular state to one run by an Islamic strongman, whose powers were just ominously increased by a referendum. Israel has shifted from secular socialism to a raw ethno-nationalism.

We are living in an era of populism and demagoguery. And yes, there’s racism and xenophobia mixed into it. But what we are also seeing, it seems to me, is the manifest return of a distinctive political and intellectual tendency with deep roots: reactionism.

Reactionism is not the same thing as conservatism. It’s far more potent a brew. Reactionary thought begins, usually, with acute despair at the present moment and a memory of a previous golden age. It then posits a moment in the past when everything went to hell and proposes to turn things back to what they once were. It is not simply a conservative preference for things as they are, with a few nudges back, but a passionate loathing of the status quo and a desire to return to the past in one emotionally cathartic revolt. If conservatives are pessimistic, reactionaries are apocalyptic. If conservatives value elites, reactionaries seethe with contempt for them. If conservatives believe in institutions, reactionaries want to blow them up. If conservatives tend to resist too radical a change, reactionaries want a revolution. Though it took some time to reveal itself, today’s Republican Party — from Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution to today’s Age of Trump — is not a conservative party. It is a reactionary party that is now at the peak of its political power.”

Did South Park Create the Alt-Right?

Janan Ganesh asks a not so rhetorical question: did the satirical cartoon South Park help bring about the right-wing counter-culture of the alt-right?

“It has been 20 years since the debut of South Park. That is long enough to take the measure of its impact — and to conclude, with some confidence, that it did more than any cultural product of that era to predict the counter-elite mood of today. After a scatological start, South Park found its voice as a satire of the liberal left. It made joke figures of Barbra Streisand, Bono, Alec Baldwin, Toyota Prius drivers, pacifists, grievance-mongers, public sector bureaucrats, the politically correct and, in a double episode after the Danish cartoon furore of 2006, those who would cave in to religious intimidation. There were rightwing victims, too, but every other comedian picked on those. What gave South Park its electric effect — and its creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, hero status among me and my friends — was its willingness to go after the hardest targets, and with style. The only liberal-baiters we had grown up with were oafish standup comics on Britain’s seedy club circuit. The Anglo-American writer Andrew Sullivan, a “punk Tory” in his youth, went so far as to hail “South Park Republicans”: irreverent young people driven rightward by the priggishness of the other side more than by any doctrinal commitment. Parker and Stone winced at the link but knew he had half a point. “I hate conservatives,” said Stone, in a quote for the ages, “but I really fucking hate liberals.” Their artistic influence is still unmistakable — in Family Guy, in the standup work of Bill Burr, in the derision with which celebrity pronouncements on serious matters are now met, in the fact that South Park itself is entering its 21st season. The question is whether the show had an unintended political influence, too, creating a kind of anti-PC chic that curdled into what is now the populist right. Through no conscious design of their own, did Parker and Stone invent a monster?”

Politics vs. Moralisation

May 3rd’s Living Room Conversation Panelists

It should not have been such a big deal. As part of a six-person panel on how—or whether—we should cross the partisan divide and talk with people whom we find politically disagreeable or even offensive, I decided to include a recent Bard graduate who has had journalistic success and is not a White House Correspondent for the alt-right blog The Gateway Pundit. Sadly, given the state of our intellectual and political worlds, this panel became highly controversial. Thankfully, because of the excellent work by my colleagues at the Arendt Center, colleagues and students at Bard, and the support of Bard’s President Leon Botstein, the event went on as planned and without major incident. Unlike talks at other colleges around the country, the panel discussion featuring Lucian Wintrich IV (Bard ’12) was neither canceled nor disrupted.

Bard students who opposed the invitation organized a counter event, inviting free speech advocates from the writers group PEN and Columbia Law Professor Kendall Thomas, who spoke to the students about the importance of free speech. While a part of me wishes those students had taken the risk of coming to hear Wintrich speak, I applaud them for protesting in ways that were both responsible and intellectually provocative. In the end, we at Bard have shown that it is possible to bring controversial conservative speakers to liberal arts campuses and stand up for the principles of academic freedom, plurality, and freedom of speech.

At the same time, the intense effort required to allow this event to happen could well serve to chill future similar efforts if we don’t figure out a way to reestablish a campus and societal consensus around the importance of hearing from and engaging political adversaries. We need to ask: why are students and faculty so opposed to having people they disagree with speak on college campuses? There are likely many answers. But the overriding reason given by those who would censor Mr. Wintrich is that he is evil.

The claim that Mr. Wintrich and those like him are evil comes in many forms. Some argued he was sexist. Others that he was racist. He was said to be a white supremacist. Some said he was anti-Semitic. And in the end opinion solidified around the claim that he was transphobic. Amidst the nearly 100 emails I received making these arguments, only three bothered to try to provide examples of evidence to back up these claims. In my judgment, none did so successfully. We can argue about that. But the point is that for the vast majority of those opposing Mr. Wintrich’s right to speak, the reason had to do with a failing in his person. Mr. Wintrich was said to be disqualified to speak because his views made him a leper, someone outside the realm of democratic discourse.

Such arguments that go to the person of the speaker are called ad hominem attacks, attacks aimed at the person himself or herself, not at their ideas. Today’s “good liberals” are so confident that they have the truth, so sure that they are on the side of justice, that they believe in their right to censor those with whom they disagree; there is no need to engage with political adversaries when those adversaries are simply wrong and evil. Argument is difficult; it is much easier to present one’s opponents as moral degenerates to be mocked, censored, and deplored. No argument is necessary.

The increasing moralisation of politics, to use a term of Chantal Mouffe’s from her essay “The ‘End of Politics’ And the Challenge of Right Wing Populism,” is one important cause of the rise of right-wing populism around the world better. For Mouffe, “right wing populism is a consequence of the post-political consensus. Indeed, it is the lack of an effective democratic debate about possible alternative that has led in many countries to the success of political parties to be the ‘voice of the people.'” In other words, as political elites embrace an inarguable agreement on basic moral and political truths that cannot be contested, they refuse to engage political opposition to those truths. such an anti-political stance cedes the political ground to those who contest mainstream truths. The rise of right-wing populism can largely be understood as a democratic political rebellion against an elitist and anti-democratic and anti-political consensus.

If Mouffe is right, and I think she is, then it is important to re-engage right wing populists politically rather than to continue to condemn them as evil and deplorable. In an open letter to the Bard community, I tried to explain why it was that I believe it was wise to allow Mr. Wintrich to speak at Bard.

“For that reason, I want to write to the campus community and say clearly that I do understand the concerns that have been expressed about Mr. Wintrich. His approach to journalism, which is intentionally to undermine the institution of journalism, is one that I, as someone who studies political theory and totalitarianism, find politically dangerous. His willingness to use highly provocative humor has the potential to legitimate stereotypes and reinforce institutional discrimination. His mode of argument is one I find unattractive and potentially undermining of democracy.

At the same time his argumentative style has been, on a basic level, effective and one that we can understand to be—whether I like it or not—increasingly mainstream. Mr. Wintrich has White House Press credentials. This means he is one of the reporters in the country who has been given privileged access to the President of the United States. This makes Mr. Wintrich a successful representative of a journalistic approach that has become common in the United States. His style of argument—in which language is not treated with care or seriousness, —is not that different from the one used by the President of the United States.

I fully understand that many at Bard want to dismiss Mr. Wintrich as someone who spews hate. There is no question that he revels in saying things that are offensive and insulting. That he does so as part of a political act and thus as a performative argument gives little solace to those who feel themselves targeted by such rhetoric. And given a political climate in which more than 50 years of progress in civil rights, feminism, environmentalism, and other social justice movements are in danger of being rolled back, there is a desire amongst many who deeply value these progressive achievements to build protective walls around our communities.

But this is to overlook the basic fact that the push to roll back the liberal victories of the last half century is already well underway. This is true not only here in the United States, but in Turkey, Russia, Hungary, the United Kingdom, France, and elsewhere. At some point those who would censor the representatives of what is now undeniably a new and radical right-wing counter-cultural movement need to face the fact that the reaction against modern liberalism is not simply the work of isolated haters; rather, it is a profound movement that has captured a meaningful part of the global zeitgeist.

No doubt much of what is said by those in the emergent right-wing-counter-culture is radical, dangerous, and offensive; and yet, it is also true that much of what is said is convincing to many. The movement pushing back against the progressive liberalism of the late 20th century is certainly more influential amongst a more diverse and educated population than some want to believe. And it is also true that there are people in the wider Bard community who think that in important respects Mr. Wintrich makes valid points about the overreach of government and the dangers of political correctness—even if they sometimes do not like the way he goes about making his points.

Aside from violence, the only way to respond to a global movement one disagrees with is through persuasive argument. We must always remember that we don’t win an argument when we and our friends are convinced that we are right. We win an argument when we convince those who meaningfully disagree. If we want to change the world, we need to learn how to argue with and persuade others. It is important that as members of an intellectual community we resist the understandable urge to barricade ourselves in comfortable gated communities of liberal purity.

Some students and faculty have argued that it is enough to simply read the writings of the Steve Bannons, the Betsy Devos’s, the Charles Murrays, and the Lucian Wintriches—that offensive opinions can be experienced at arm’s length and kept out of the campus community. But it is not enough to simply read these views (or more frequently to read dismissals of them). A view we disagree with on the internet rarely argues back when we dismiss it. Actually arguing with someone who will respond to our arguments is the only way to truly test our arguments. The practice of arguing with those with whom one disagrees is the best way to learn how to engage actively and effectively in the political life of a citizen. It is the only way to learn our weaknesses and our opponents’ strengths. And, at the very least, it is the only way to discover whether, despite our real differences, we share a common commitment to reason and decency. When I write “only way” in this paragraph, I mean that after a life of watching politics and writing about it, it has been the only way that I have seen that ends up being productive. I ask that you take seriously this point of view and, of course, that you feel free to oppose it—that is to say, that you argue against it, if you disagree.”

Technological Extremism

Maciej Cegłowski gave a talk at the Emerging Technologies for the Enterprise conference in Philadelphia last month. Cegłowski argues that the business model that has led to the rise of Silicon Valley and the internet is inextricably tied up with the rise of political extremism and political polarization. (h/t Dean Hachamovitch)

“We’re all trying to understand why people can’t just get along. The emerging consensus in Silicon Valley is that polarization is a baffling phenomenon, but we can fight it with better fact-checking, with more empathy, and (at least in Facebook’s case) with advanced algorithms to try and guide conversations between opposing camps in a more productive direction.

A question few are asking is whether the tools of mass surveillance and social control we spent the last decade building could have had anything to do with the debacle of the 2017 election, or whether destroying local journalism and making national journalism so dependent on our platforms was, in retrospect, a good idea.

We built the commercial internet by mastering techniques of persuasion and surveillance that we’ve extended to billions of people, including essentially the entire population of the Western democracies. But admitting that this tool of social control might be conducive to authoritarianism is not something we’re ready to face. After all, we’re good people. We like freedom. How could we have built tools that subvert it?

As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

I contend that there are structural reasons to worry about the role of the tech industry in American political life, and that we have only a brief window of time in which to fix this….

These, then, are the twin pillars of the online economy. We have an apparatus for harvesting tremendous quantities of data from people, and a set of effective but opaque learning algorithms we train on this data. The algorithms learn to show people the things they are most likely to ‘engage’ with—click, share, view, and react to. We make them very good at provoking these reactions from people. This is our sixty billion dollar industry.

So what happens when these tools for maximizing clicks and engagement creep into the political sphere?

This is a delicate question! If you concede that they work just as well for politics as for commerce, you’re inviting government oversight. If you claim they don’t work well at all, you’re telling advertisers they’re wasting their money.

Facebook and Google have tied themselves into pretzels over this. The idea that these mechanisms of persuasion could be politically useful, and especially that they might be more useful to one side than the other, violates cherished beliefs about the “apolitical” tech industry.

Whatever bright line we imagine separating commerce from politics is not something the software that runs these sites can see. All the algorithms know is what they measure, which is the same for advertising as it is in politics: engagement, time on site, who shared what, who clicked what, and who is likely to come back for more.

The persuasion works, and it works the same way in politics as it does in commerce—by getting a rise out of people.

But political sales techniques that maximize “engagement” have troubling implications in a democracy.

One problem is that any system trying to maximize engagement will try to push users towards the fringes. You can prove this to yourself by opening YouTube in an incognito browser (so that you start with a blank slate), and clicking recommended links on any video with political content. When I tried this experiment last night, within five clicks I went from a news item about demonstrators clashing in Berkeley to a conspiracy site claiming Trump was planning WWIII with North Korea, and another exposing FEMA’s plans for genocide.

This pull to the fringes doesn’t happen if you click on a cute animal story. In that case, you just get more cute animals (an experiment I also recommend trying). But the algorithms have learned that users interested in politics respond more if they’re provoked more, so they provoke. Nobody programmed the behavior into the algorithm; it made a correct observation about human nature and acted on it.

Social dynamics on sites where people share links can compound this radicalizing force. The way to maximize engagement on Twitter, for example, is to say provocative things, or hoist an opponent’s tweets out of context in order to use them as a rhetorical bludgeon. Twitter rewards the captious.

On Facebook, social dynamics and the algorithms’ taste for drama reinforce each other. Facebook selects from stories that your friends have shared to find the links you’re most likely to click on. This is a potent mix, because what you read and post on Facebook is not just an expression of your interests, but part of a performative group identity.

So without explicitly coding for this behavior, we already have a dynamic where people are pulled to the extremes. Things get worse when third parties are allowed to use these algorithms to target a specific audience.”

Life During War Time

By Zyzzzzzy, CC BY 2.0

Charles Glass describes the state of play in Aleppo:

“On December 2016 the Syrian army, with Russian support, conquered the last insurgent strongholds in Aleppo’s east. UNHCR officials believe that about 36,000 people, rebels and their families, departed by bus under Russian protection for the opposition redoubt in Idlib province. What they left behind conjures memories of Dresden, Coventry, and Tokyo in the aftermath of World War II. The multiple forms of destruction testify to the ingenuity of the world’s arms factories. Bombs have transformed Aleppo into an Escher-like vision of six-foot-thick concrete slabs twisted into braids; five-story apartment buildings compressed into piles ten feet high; and collapsed façades of entire streets exposing rooms with ceiling fans eerily intact and revolving in the wind.

This is the horrorscape to which many residents are returning, only to find themselves still homeless. They camp in makeshift tents beside the remains of their homes, sticking close by to deter thieves from seizing unclaimed land at a time when many deeds have been lost or destroyed. Some sleep inside buildings that are exposed to the elements and subject to collapse at any moment. Children die when balconies crumble or they find shiny objects that turn out to be unexploded bombs.

UNHCR estimates that 150,000 of eastern Aleppo’s former residents came back within the first three months of the area’s return to government control last December. Eastern Aleppo lacks the basic services it enjoyed before the war: running water, electricity, garbage collection, sewage, television, Internet. Water pipes and electricity cables are ruptured, and mounds of debris make the streets impassable for public transportation and private cars.

Aleppo has always been known as the workshop of Syria, the place whose artisans made the finest furniture and household utensils, a metropolis of stone fashioned by generations of master masons. Many of its residents are not waiting for the state or international aid agencies to restore their dwellings, install electric generators, replace broken windows, and bore holes into the ground for water. “Reconstruction will take decades,” one foreign aid worker told me during my visit to the city in late March. Yet the process is underway. “In east Aleppo,” a United Nations official observed, “there has been a huge change in one month.””

It's Late

Annie Lowrey investigates the origins and current uses of a phrase which is both jargony and, somehow, suddenly ubiquitous:

““Late capitalism,” in its current usage, is a catchall phrase for the indignities and absurdities of our contemporary economy, with its yawning inequality and super-powered corporations and shrinking middle class. But what is “late capitalism,” really? Where did the phrase come from, and why did so many people start using it all of a sudden?

For my own part, I vaguely remembered it coming from the writings of Karl Marx—the decadence that precedes the revolution? I polled a few friends, and they all sort of remembered the same thing, something to do with 19th-century Europeans and the inherent instability of the capitalist system. This collective half-remembering turned out to be not quite right. “It’s not Marx’s term,” William Clare Roberts, a political scientist at McGill University, told me.

Rather, it was Marxist thinkers that came up with it to describe the industrialized economies they saw around them. A German economist named Werner Sombart seems to have been the first to use it around the turn of the 20th century, with a Marxist theorist and activist named Ernest Mandel popularizing it a half-century later. For Mandel, “late capitalism” denoted the economic period that started with the end of World War II and ended in the early 1970s, a time that saw the rise of multinational corporations, mass communication, and international finance. Roberts said that the term’s current usage departs somewhat from its original meaning. “It’s not this sense that things are getting so bad that the revolution is going to come,” he told me, “but rather that we see the ligaments of the international system that socialists will be able to seize and use…”

“Late capitalism” took on a darker connotation in the works of the 20th-century critical theorists, who borrowed from and critiqued and built on Marx and the Marxists. Members of the Frankfurt School, reeling from the horrors of World War II, saw in it excessive social control on the part of big government and big business. Theodor Adorno argued that “late capitalism” might lead not to socialism, but away from it, by blunting the proletariat’s potential for revolution. “The economic process continues to perpetuate domination over human beings,” he said in a speech on late capitalism in 1968. (If only he could have seen the Jenner-Pepsi ad.)

It was Duke University’s Fredric Jameson who introduced the phrase to a broader English-speaking audience of academics and theorists. “It was a much older and more popular term in German,” Jameson told me. (Spätkapitalismus, for those wondering.) “It’s very interesting! It’s kind of—how should I say it—symptomatic of people’s feelings about the world. About society itself,” he said, a little surprised and a little chuffed to hear that the term was finding wider appreciation. “It used to be a sort of taboo outside of the left to even mention the word ‘capitalism.’ Now it’s pretty obvious that it’s there, and that’s what it is.”

Born at the Right Time

Graham Vyse wonders what it means to be a historian in what seems to be an ahistorical age:

““The job of a historian is not only to knock down what President Trump says but create a climate for a sound debate,” Julian Zelizer, a historian at Princeton University and CNN contributor, told me. “There will be moments, if this continues, where there will be more historians and political scientists who feel an obligation to respond…. I do think more people who know what is true will feel the desire to get out there and engage that debate.”

If so, they won’t have a problem finding a platform, as the media has relied heavily on historians to help explain and contextualize Trump’s presidency. “His becoming president was a very dramatic development in American life,” Zelizer added. “It’s increased a thirst for understanding what is going on.” Greenberg, who wrote a book on the U.S.-Mexican War, told me, “People want to know what I think as a historian about what Donald Trump will do with regard to foreign relations. I never got questions like that when Barack Obama or George W. Bush was president.” When Zelizer gives press interviews, he said, “I do think the questions are more earnest…. I think people feel the stakes are little bit higher.”

But Trump also presents a challenge for historians: how to use their expertise to counteract Trump’s ignorance, but without appearing partisan. “You’re entering into a very heated world with a very heated president, so you have to be careful not to be an advocate. It’s very tempting for many people,” Zelizer said. “It’s difficult to figure out the proper tone with which to object to Trump’s positions,” Greenberg acknowledged. “Nobody wants to look biased.””

Posted on 7 May 2017 | 9:30 am

Back to News