Signs of the Times, Part II: Post-Democracy in the Age of Simulation

Democracy — the exception to the rule in world history — belongs to the unique cultural signature of Western civilization. The societies of the ancient Greeks, Romans, Celts and Germans all shared a similar proto-democratic, tribal organization going back to a common Indo-European social order. In the course of its civilizational history, Western democracy has been transformed from direct city-state democracy to modern representative nation-state democracy. In the final, “globalitarian” state of its evolution, Western democracy resembles a “red giant” running out of fuel, gradually collapsing into a “white dwarf” called post-democracy.

Detail from the Acropolis, Athens

Jacques Rancière observes that the term ‘democracy’ does not strictly designate either a form of society or a form of government. Every state is oligarchic; every democracy contains an “oligarchic nucleus” — consisting of a “creative minority,” whose “creative power,” in Arnold J. Toynbee’sinterpretation, has been crucial to the rise and demise of civilizations throughout history.

Since government is “always exercised by the minority over the majority,” Rancière points out, there is strictly speaking “no such thing as democratic government”:

We do not live in democracies. … We live in States of oligarchic law … where … [oligarchic elites] hold free elections. These elections essentially ensure that the same dominant personnel is reproduced, albeit under interchangeable labels, but the ballot boxes are generally not rigged and one can verify it without risking one’s life. … Peaceful oligarchic government redirects democratic passions toward private pleasures and renders people insensitive to the public sphere. … [T]he multitude, freed of the worry of governing, is left to its private and egotistical passions.

In a post-democratized world run by inevitable oligarchies, Colin Crouch points out, “political elites have learned to manage and manipulate popular demands,” persuading people to vote by “top-down publicity campaigns.”Governing today, says Baudrillard, “is like advertising and it is the same effect that is achieved — commitment to a scenario.” The political world intensively imitates the methods of other more self-confident spheres like show business and the marketing of goods.  From this emerge the familiar paradoxes of contemporary politics:

[B]oth the techniques for manipulating public opinion and the mechanisms for opening politics to scrutiny become ever more sophisticated, while the content of party programmes and the character of party rivalry become ever more bland and vapid.

As Western societies are increasingly “moving towards the post-democratic pole”, politics and government are “slipping back into the control of privileged elites in the manner characteristic of pre-democratic times.” Elections become tightly controlled spectacles, managed by rival teams of professional experts in the techniques of persuasion.

This state of affairs can be illustrated by the last US presidential election. One of the key players in Obama’s election campaign was his chief strategist and “stage director” David Axelrod, the son of Jewish refugees escaping the pogroms of Eastern Europe. In the battle for America 2008, David Axelrod was in command of the successfully orchestrated transformation of “a whisper inSpringfield,” into “a chorus of millions calling for change.” The Obama campaign strategy was the work of a man who knows his trade: the business of astroturfing — i.e., the faking or manipulation of grassroots support, for example by setting up front groups that appear to be independent but are, in fact, backed financially by Axelrod’s corporate clients. One of Axelrod’s companies, the highly secretive ASK Public Strategies has been described as “the gold standard in Astroturf organizing.”

Axelrod has a long history of getting racial and ethnic minority candidates elected into key positions of power, apparently in an attempt to transform Tocqueville’s democratic “tyranny of the majority” into a post-democratic tyranny of the minorities”: Carol Moseley-Braun in Illinois; Dennis Archer in Detroit; Harold Washington in Chicago; Michael R. White in Cleveland; Anthony A. Williamsin Washington, D.C.; Lee P. Brown in Houston; John F. Street in Philadelphia, Eliot Spitzer in New York, Deval Patrick in Massachusetts (introducing the later recycled mantra “Yes, we can”), reaching a crescendo in the swift rise to power of Barack Obama — sometimes portrayed as an African-American parallel to the African-Roman emperor Septimius Severus.

The case of David Axelrod, thus, seems to fit into a larger picture of minority activism, guided by a special relationship — a “Grand Alliance” — between African Americans and American Jews. In this setting, Jews have often seen themselves as shareholders in a moral crusade. According to Hasia Diner, the Jewish cultural construction of Blacks has operated along the lines of a morality tale in which Blacks have been seen as noble victims, who, by virtue of their suffering, fall outside of the usual category of “goyim,” thus occupying a unique locus in the Jewish understanding of the world.

Despite Jewish self-conceptions, the realities “on the ground” have less to do with Jews as moral crusaders than about forming anti-White coalitions of minority groups. Lawrence R. Marcus points out that the coalition of African Americans and Jews came about because “both feared WASPs, non-Jewish white ethnics, and conservative Republicans more than they feared each other.” As Scott Atran notes, Jews have survived over time as a group by “sanctifying and steadfastedly implementing an ‘Us versus Them’ strategy”. Guided by this ancient Manichean instinct, “a highly sophisticated and pernicious two-faced moral system” has been developed, according to which humanist and universalist language games are intended “for show mainly to non-Jews,” while parallel “deeply racist and isolationist” strategies are employed to “maintain moral integrity among Jews alone”:

Jewish cultural and genetic separatism, combined with resource competition and other conflicts of interest, tends to result in division and hatred within the larger society. From this viewpoint, anti-Semitism is a ‘defensive’ response of the larger society from which Jews isolate themselves in order to better dominate it. … Jewish group evolutionary strategies, like those of its competitor groups and even those of other animal species, depend crucially on deception and self-deception […]. In the Jewish case, a key (self?) deception is to deny that proactive Judaism is a direct cause of anti-Semitism.

As Kevin MacDonald points out, “Jewish motivation need not be seen in defensive terms … but rather as aimed at maximizing Jewish power. The reality is that the rise of the Jews in the United States, as well as the rise of their black allies and the millions of post-1965 non-white immigrants has been accompanied by a consequent decline in the power of the old white Protestant elites.”

Indeed, not only was the organized Jewish community the most effective force leading up to the 1965 immigration law that resulted in massive non-White immigration, the organized Jewish community has made alliances with other minority groups (Latinos, Asians) that have established themselves in the US as a result of a liberal immigration policy regime. The result has been a well-established pattern for non-White minorities to cluster in the Democratic Party, while the Republican Party gets over 90% of its votes from Whites. As Donald L. Horowitz confirms:

Where ethnic loyalties are strong, parties tend to organize along ethnic lines for much the same reasons that other organizations, such as trade unions, social clubs, chambers of commerce, and neighborhood associations, tend to be ethnically exclusive. … The communitarian aspect of ethnicity propels group members toward concentrated party loyalties. … In any society, members of various ethnic groups rarely distribute themselves randomly among competing parties. Where conflict levels are high, however, ethnic parties reflect something more than mere affinity and a vague sense of common interest. That something is the mutual incompatibility of ethnic claims to power. Since the party aspires to control the state, and in conflict-prone polities ethnic groups also attempt to exclude others from state power, the emergence of ethnic parties is an integral part of this political struggle.

Ethnic conflict is a continuing reality in world affairs and at the heart of the construction of culture in contemporary Western societies. Issues of cosmopolitanism, tribalism, race and ethnicity have been revived in the aftermath of the descent of the nation states in the West. Global, competing tribes — Jews, Occidental Whites, East Asians etc. — are today’s quintessential cosmopolitans in contrast to the often narrow horizons and infighting passions of the territorial-centred nations of modernity. As Joel Kotkin points out:

Born amidst optimism for the triumph of a rational and universal world order, the twentieth century [ended] with an increased interest in the power of race, ethnicity and religion rather than the long-predicted universal age or the end of history.  The quest for the memory and spirit of the specific ethnic past has once again been renewed; the results will shape the [21st] century.

The “social volcanoes” of racialized tribalism are reportedly erupting. As the fossilized nation-states no longer have a dominant, credible ideology to supply a social cohesiveness for the modern world, we are seeing the nations breaking up into competing ethnic and racial groups. Post-WWII Western states have been transformed into obscure “museums for freedom and the Rights of Man,” reducing the political left to “a pure moral injunction,” in the words of Baudrillard:

A morality of Truth, Rights and good conscience: the zero degree of politics and probably the lowest point of a genealogy of morals as well. This moralization of values was a historic defeat for the left (and for thinking): that the historical truth of any event, the aesthetic quality of any work, the scientific pertinence of any hypothesis would necessarily have to be judged in terms of morals.

A “renaissance of particularisms” is occurring: “regional and tribal identities are being revived.” Samuel E. Heilman describes the way, “following on the heels of a renascent black consciousness, a celebration of ethnicity emerged at the end of the sixties as a response to the decline of the WASP establishment, which the revolutionary atmosphere of the decade had ensured.” The resulting re-emergence of tribalism can be observed in numerous signs of the times, as in the paradoxically race-charged, iconic status and tribal aura of Black leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama. As Grant Farred points out,

what is salient about Obama’s politics is its specifically South African roots. Obama traces his political awakening to the divestment movement [….] Obama locates himself within a radical African-American tradition of internationalist thinking that connects him intimately to black leaders such as W. E. B. Du Bois and theBlack Panthers, both of whom forged links with African anti-colonial or liberation movements.

Ama Mazama argues that “it is evident that race, even when, or especially when its significance is minimized on the surface, remains at the forefront of any meaningful understanding of the Barack Obama phenomenon.” Obama (as well as the hard core of his entourage) seems to personify a post-modern amalgamation of racialized tribalism and cosmopolitanism. In a global age, ethnic or tribal interests are played out on a global scale, transcending the linear borders of the decaying nation states.

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Under these circumstances, those who play by the Marquess of Queensberry rules of individual isolation can be easily overrun and outmaneuvered by collective ethnic and tribal cooperation. The dysfunctional asymmetries of elite-promoted “Enlightenmentism” are too obvious to derail Whites from eventually taking part in the same ballgame being played by aggressive minorities with victimological claims to moral, cultural, political and socio-economic hegemony.

The Obama Spectacle as Soap Opera and Reality Show

The “hyper-reality” of “Obamamania” —  a bipolar phenomenon fluctuating between excessive celebration of racial tribalism (dressed up as “post-racial” egalitarianism) and a flagellant masquerade of promiscuous out-group altruism — reveals itself in the fact that the real-life Obama campaign followed the script of the fictional presidential contest in Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing.

Eli Attie, one of the West Wing scriptwriters, modeled his fictitious presidential candidate on Obama, at the time (2004) not even a US senator. Attie consulted Axelrod regarding how he was orchestrating Obama’s approach to his race. Axelrod’s answers helped inform the fictional presidential candidate Matt Santos‘s approach to his Hispanic racial identity. It was an inside joke on theWest Wing that “the show had a prophetic quality”; Axelrod told Attie triumphantly that “we’re living your scripts!

Barack Obama and The West Wing’s Matt Santos

Baudrillard judged Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” to be the key formula of the age of simulation, staging a social world filled with copies of copies for which there is no original — rootless, circulating images and fictions without origin or referent, displacing discursive meaning with a stream of “random intensities” and a fetishism of style and surface.  As noted by Baudrillard:

Indifferent to every truth, reality becomes a sort of sphinx, enigmatic in its hyperconformity, simulating itself as virtuality or reality show. Reality becomes hyperreality — paroxysm and parody all at once.

So, what happens when life starts to look a lot like art? Is Obama a real president, or is he just acting out the sound bites fed him by his handlers? Scriptwriters, spin-doctors and benefactors dwelling in the shadows of the West Wing would probably have reacted to observations of empty rhetoric with a shrug: “The medium is the message is Obama,” or, in Eli Attie’s twist of words, “art imitates life imitates art advises life“ — a situation described by Baudrillard as trans-aesthetic, effecting “the dissolution of television into life” and “the dissolution of life into television.” Obama – also known as the “HBO president” – was reportedly so addicted to Entourage and The Wire that he rearranged his campaign commitments in order not to miss an episode —apparently spellbound by the media world’s ability to be more real than “ordinary life.”  As Baudrillard notes,

[T]he truth of mass media is that they function to neutralize the unique character of actual world events by replacing them with a multiple universe of mutually reinforcing and self-referential media. At the very limit, they become each other’s reciprocal content — and this constitutes the totalitarian ‘message’ of the consumer society.

Turning life into escapist entertainment is, as Neal Gabler points out, “a perversely ingenious adaptation to the turbulence and tumult of modern existence.” Celebrities are “the icons of media culture, the gods and goddesses of everyday life.” In the world of spectacle, celebrity encompasses every major social domain from entertainment to politics to sports to business. Celebrity has become the post-modern state of grace, “the condition in the life movie to which nearly everyone aspires.”

It is not any ism but entertainment that is arguably the most pervasive, powerful and ineluctable force of our time — a force so overwhelming that it has finally metastasized into life. As a tool of analysis, entertainment may just be what undergirds and unites ideas as disparate as Boorstin’s theory of manufactured reality, Marshall McLuhan’s doctrine of media determinism, the deconstructionist notion that culture is actually a collectively scripted text, and so much of the general perspective we call postmodernism.

Welcome to “the world of post-reality”: Life as the biggest, most entertaining, most realistic, omni-ever-present movie of all. Politics was, according to Gabler, among the very first arenas (after journalism) to adopt “the stratagems of show business” — a “Hollywoodization” marked bycommercialization … the disregard of privacy, the trivialization of the serious … the erosion of the boundaries between the real and the imagined, between fact and fiction, and between news and entertainment.“

Both journalism and politics have modeled themselves on advertising copy: very brief messages — visual images and sound bites — requiring extremely low concentration spans; the use of words to form high-impact images instead of arguments appealing to the intellect. As Colin Crouch points out:

Advertising is not a form of rational dialogue. It does not build up a case based on evidence, but associates its products with a particular imagery. … Its aim is not to engage in discussion but to persuade to buy.  Adoption of its methods has helped politicians to cope with the problem of communicating to a mass public; but it has not served the cause of democracy itself.

The post-WWII-era politician has, according to Gabler, “simply become another kind of star, the political process another form of show, and television its best stage.” In the early 1960s, Norman Mailer prophesied  — with JFK in mind — that “America’s politics would now be also America’s favorite movie.” Interestingly, JFK’s father Joe Kennedy was a film producer, as well as an ambassador, financier, and bootlegger. Reagan – “the acting president – compared his daily routine at the White House with the routine of an actor: preparing at night for the next day’s lines and scenes.  Clinton was labeled the “Entertainer-in-Chief”, providing “cheap entertainment”: sex scandals, soap opera, melodrama, impeachment, survival under constant adversity etc. Politics has been transformed into “politainment” — presidentialized, “Hollywoodized,” “post-democratized.”

By the new politics of entertainment, “the presidency has become the circus, the media are the ringmasters and we all sit in the bleachers clapping, stamping and cheering for the show to go on.” Silence is banished as media images and texts never fall silent: “Images and messages must follow one upon the other without interruption,” as Baudrillard points out. In order to “hit the jackpot” in this entertainment-driven, celebrity-oriented climate, Neal Gabler notes, it becomes vital to grab and hold the public’s attention:

It is a society in which those things that do not conform — for example, serious literature, serious political debate, serious ideas, serious anything — are more likely to be compromised or marginalized than ever before.  It is a society in which celebrities become paragons because they are the ones who have learned how to steal the spotlight, no matter what they have done to steal it. … [I]t is a society in which individuals have learned to prize social skills that permit them, like actors, to assume whatever role the occasion demands and to ‘perform’ their lives rather than just live them. The result is that Homo sapiens is rapidly becoming Homoscaenicus — man the entertainer.

Obama the entertainer is expected to be a combination of scoutmaster, Delphic oracle, hero of the silver screen and father of the multitudes.” Gene Healy has observed the unrealistic expectations Americans have of their presidents, predicting that Obama will end up as a failed president. The decreasingly hagiographic media reports largely seem to tell the same story, portraying an increasingly fading icon elevated to the pinnacle of power by elite-orchestrated mass hysteria:

People scream and faint at [Obama’s] rallies. Some wear T-shirts proclaiming him “The One” and noting that “Jesus was a community organiser.” An editor at Newsweek described him as “above the country, above the world; he’s sort of God.” … Perhaps Mr Obama inwardly cringes at the personality cult that surrounds him. But he has hardly discouraged it. As a campaigner, he promised to “change the world,” to “transform this country” and even (in front of a church full of evangelicals) to “create a Kingdom right here on earth.”

In an age of spectacle politics, as Douglas Kellner points out, US presidencies are staged to the public in cinematic terms, using media spectacle to sell the image of the president to a vast, diverse but seducible public. Politics is reduced to image, display and story in the forms of entertainment and drama. The presidential culture of personality and the swing toward mediatized politainment reflects a shift from a culture of individualism, with self-directed people shaping their own lives, to an “other-directed culture of conformity in which people are guided by the media and external social authorities.”

Aviopolis: Hyper-Surveillance as a Risk Management Strategy

As demonstrated in The Culture of Critique, aggressive minority activism can have a destabilizing and even transformational effect on a civilization’s oligarchic nucleus (its elites), gradually being transmitted by mimesis into mainstream culture. With growing degrees of coherence, structural complexity and heterogeneity, minuscule causes and self-catalyzing reactions can sometimes have fatal, long-term effects.

As Gregory G. Brunk points out, the greater the level of complexity, the closer a system (e.g., a civilization) is to a completely critical state. As societal structures become so inter-connected and hyper-sensitive that failure in one important subsystem affects all others, the whole hierarchy sometimes comes crashing down like a house of cards, as demonstrated by the financial collapse of 2008.

Under the instability of the system, orchestrating social control becomes crucial in order to keep the centrifugal forces at bay. Post-democratized states in the West address the control issue by imploding into “risk-avoidance organizations,” in which security displaces freedom and equality in the hierarchies of values and priorities. The quest for security occurs in a heated atmosphere of constant stress characterized by apocalypticism, alarm, excessive media spin, dialectical extremes of heaven and hell, epidemic hysteria and moral panics.

Under such extreme conditions, radical surveillance and risk-management strategies are in great demand and good supply — facilitating, as Clive Norrisobserves, “the power of the watchers over the watched not only by enabling swift intervention to displays of non-conformity but also through the promotion of habituated anticipatory conformity.”

As a consequence of the post-9-11 implementation and generalization of the airport surveillance model, normalizing a constant state of emergency in the name of “seamless security”, whole societies become soaked up in the gravitational field of the airport version of Orwellian dystopia, the exception thus becoming the rule: “levered into position through the politics of crisis and fear, biometrics quietly moves out of the spaces of exception into the open circuits of capital and regulation, becoming part of the information architecture of everyday life. Anyone who resists patching their body into a global network of tracking and control will simply not gain access.”

Passenger screening becomes citizen screening (employee identification, controlled access, perimeter security, biometrics etc.).  Secure areas, “sterile areas”, exclusive areas, security identification display areas (SIDA) – with their impressive arsenals of magnetometers, x-ray machines, ETD and EDS systems, and high-tech surveillance – are swelling and expanding far beyond the compounds of traditional airports: enter the dystopian world of “Aviopolis” – the catapults of globalization:

The airport has evolved into a complex techno-cultural machine. … Planes, people, cars, aviation fuel, freight, and catering are constantly plugging in, peeling off or just passing through the airport. Airports are multi-platform, multi-dimensional, multi-tasking movement machines. Like a complex overlapping of co-evolving biotechnical systems, airports around the world process millions of things (people, messages, cargo, missions, procedures) in unlimited combinations every day. … The variety of internationalist protocols, immigration, flight path routing, safety standards, corporate ‘customer focus’, airside management, signage systems, landside access and flow management converge and create architectures of global logistics.

Airports are sites of routinized paranoia (every passenger is a suspect, a potential security threat). Nowhere else is the post-democratic order more unveiled. Distinctions between private space and public space have collapsed to create spaces in which the airport is “a logistical node in a global network”:

Visible to all, only our thoughts move in private (though soon neuroscience and brain imaging may put an end to even that). Our baggage, our bodies, our movements are all part of an encompassing spectacle. … Flesh to image to code and back again, security machines scan us both inside and out. … Flesh, body and name are matched simultaneously to info-body and database — a body of electronic traces, image archives and credit card purchases, social security information, and travel itineraries, each hooked into another body (of information). … The increase of biometric technologies (along with DNA mapping and a whole range of biotech industries) seems to signal a new development in the very ancient ‘sympathetic magic’ of mimesis – a shift away from the visual to a more intimate form of contact based on manipulating a variable databody (and not on representing the body as an image). … With the rise of biometric systems of control access, life becomes quite literally a pattern match, and identity politics starts looking very weird. No longer just concerned with gross categories like race, gender, sexuality and the like, the apparatuses of state capture have gone cellular and the biological caesuras that race once ensured can be refined into other areas. … Identity in a biometric world of code is … now a data match fractured across multiple programmes in n-dimensional space: identity becomes a roaming oscillation, looking for a pattern match in a machine. In a world of global movement where global migrations and mass media have troubled the once easy attribution of race with otherness, regulative technologies move beyond the skin to code life itself: everyone is captured in this net.

Biometrics is a method of controlling the chaos of movement, of keeping people in or out: of buildings, of websites, or countries. Biometrics is part of traffic management. Traffic management is part of security and security is part of service. Accelerating surveillance becomes “fluid” and omnipresent — even merging with show-business in the form of “Big Brother”-style reality TV, a radical transmutation of Orwell’s totalitarian nightmare. As Daniel Boorstin observed, entertainment has – like a cultural Ebola virus – “invaded organisms no one would ever have imagined could provide amusement.” Indeed, the “liquid” stage of late modernity as a phase of civilizational transition is characterized by a “spinning vortex of events,” “gigantic circumvolution” and circular flow:politics and government – increasingly becoming bureaucratized and “re-feudalized” through nepotism, clannishness, and the circulation of elites – retreat into paranoid risk-management and omniscient surveillance. Surveillance penetrates everyday existence and entertainment. Showbiz flows and soaks into politics (“politainment”). And democracy dissolves into diffuse post-democracy as Western civilization undergoes a process of obscuration and hybridization. The wheel has turned full circle.

E. R. E. Knutsson (email him) is a freelance writer.