Thursday


deplorables-1

The parallels between the US presidential election and the recent Brexit vote are so numerous and so telling and it is difficult to discuss one without the other. In both cases, almost every mainstream social institution declared itself for the status quo, the polls seemed to point to the maintenance of the status quo, the narrative of the media was a relentless drumbeat for the status quo that made the alternative not so much something to be avoided as something unthinkable, and yet the status quo was upended by a popular vote. The aftermath of the Brexit vote is still unfolding, and there are sectors of the media that, even today, months later, continue the drumbeat, which indicates that they are not yet reconciled to the accepting the result of the vote. Those who voted against the status quo did so in the face of overwhelmingly negative portrayals of such a vote, and of any voters who would so vote.

And make no mistake that this was a vote against the status quo. This was not a vote of left vs. right, or liberal vs. conservative, or even Democrat vs. Republican. This was a vote of insider vs. outsider, establishment vs. non-establishment, status quo vs. change (or even the media haves vs. the media have-nots). It is true that Trump ran as a Republican, but he did so in the face of many if not most of the party leadership explicitly in opposition to him. Indeed, the Republican leadership was every bit as bitter in its condemnation of Trump hijacking their party for his purposes as the Democratic leadership was bitter in denouncing Trump.

Perhaps the most telling headline I noticed was this: World media shock and dismay at Trump win. The media was not impartial in this presidential fight; they had a stake in the outcome, and, when the outcome failed to confirm their narrative, there was indeed shock and dismay. There was also this from the New York Times, indicating the first signs of soul searching on the part of the media: How Did the Media — How Did We — Get This Wrong? by Michael Barbaro. A surprisingly candid BBC piece from Rod Dreher, Senior editor of The American Conservative, US election 2016: America’s front-porch revolt, acknowledged that he, too, had been drawn into the media narrative — though, as I noted above, the presidential election was not about liberal vs. conservatives, so the conservative élites were just as likely to misread the election as were liberal élites.

In the wake of the surprise result, it will widely said that the polls cannot be trusted, and this will be used to imply that polling methodology is fatally flawed. But it is not the polls, but the pollsters, that cannot be trusted. Pollsters, like the media, have come to constitute their own political class — or, rather, pollsters belong to the same political class as journalists and pundits, and, sharing the assumptions of this class, they shared the idea that anything other than a Clinton victory was unthinkable. They formulated their polls on this basis, and so their methods dutifully repeated back to them the only message they were capable of hearing. There is a name for this in the study of cognitive bias: availability cascade.

It certainly isn’t rocket science to understand why the polls failed. Many people told me privately that they planned to vote for Trump, but no one who told me privately that they would vote for Trump said publicly that they would do so. (Yes, I understand that this is merely anecdotal evidence, but when statistical evidence has been compromised by statisticians in the grip of an availability cascade, telling personal anecdotes can provide a window into events that has been missed by the statistics.) Why was this the case? Why would individuals privately discuss their vote, but not discuss their vote publicly? Because to publicly state your support for Trump prior to the election was to be subject to a torrent of abuse (cf. the experience of Peter Thiel, alone among Silicon Valley notables supporting Trump, and who found his business interests threatened by this support). Not surprisingly, individuals do not wish to be subject to a torrent of abuse, so they simply choose to remain silent. I would not be at all surprised if Trump supporters intentionally misled pollsters, not out of any sense of malice, but simply knowing that they were talking to someone who had completely bought into the availability cascade of a Clinton victory, they may have found it easier to tell the pollsters what the pollsters expected to hear. This kind of thing cannot even be captured in the language of the questions of the poll: it may be the tone of voice or the attitude of the pollster that communicated the message.

The issue of subjecting those who differ from the establishment narrative to personal abuse and denigration is more important than is usually recognized. The phenomenon has been evolving in American political life since the tumult of the 1960s, first with the Civil Rights movement, and then with Vietnam war protests. With these issues it was widely felt that the establishment was not acting upon moral imperatives viewed as central at the time. Because no results were being had by traditional means of political participation, a culture of organized civil disobedience came into being. Traditional politicians told young people during their messianic stage (also known as youthful idealism) that the proper way to express themselves politically was to vote. But voting was not felt to be sufficient to address the evil at hand, so protest became an additional avenue of political participation.

The rise of protest as a form of political participation — and the observed efficacy of well-staged protests — resulted in what I will call the dialectic of activism and electoral politics. Activism has been so effective as a political tactic that some political pressure groups have entirely abandoned electoral politics (i.e., seeking a vote on an issue) in favor of activism. Activists do not need an electoral majority in order to realize their political ends; they merely need to be effective activists. The emergence of activist politics changed the political landscape of the US, allowing small minorities to advance their agenda in a way that electoral politics would not have allowed. One might say that it is the business of successful activism to create an availability cascade and so give the appearance that their cause represents the electoral consensus. But the success of activist politics that serves minority viewpoints means that electoral politics then becomes the opposite swing of the pendulum, and society is moved back and forth between votes that express an actual majority of the electorate, and activism that expresses the views of the most motivated and most effective activists.

With the Brexit vote and the US presidential election, the élites of their respective societies — political élites, policy élites, journalist élites, celebrity élites, business and financial élites, and even activist élites — not only created an availability cascade that was at odds with the electoral majority, they moreover believed the narrative that they themselves had created. Thus the shock at the electoral correction. And this dialectic of electoral and activist politics should be expected to continue. The most motivated and passionate activists will continue to press for political change unrelated to electoral politics, and electoral politics will repeatedly place politicians in office unrelated to the political demands of activists.

It is often noted that the US political system is gridlocked and incapable of functioning effectively (I wrote about this in Checks, Balances, and Gridlock, and a recent Harvard study, Problems Unsolved & A Nation Divided by Michael E. Porter, Jan W. Rivkin, and Mihir A. Desai, with Manjari Raman, focused on political paralysis; also cf. an article on this study at Geopolitical Monitor by Oscar Silva-Valladares, American Decline and the Limits of Academic Thinking). On the one hand, activism is a response to political paralysis, since it promises results outside the usual mechanisms of political influence, but, on the other hand, the dialectic of activism and electoral politics is itself a source of gridlock and stagnation. In order for democracy and popular sovereignty to have a future in the twenty-first century, it may be necessary to find a way around the traditional mechanisms of electoral politics that is nevertheless responsive to the electorate. Consider this a research question in the future of democracy.

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The BBC main page was more concerned with Clinton's concession speech than Trump's victory speech. This is one way to keep banging away on the same flawed narrative.

The BBC main page was more concerned with Clinton’s concession speech than Trump’s victory speech. This is one way to keep banging away on the same catastrophically flawed narrative.

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Sunday


Riots in Brazil...

Riots in Brazil…

Riots in Brazil. Riots in Sweden. Riots in Turkey. A popular revolution in Egypt now turned sour and the new leadership, placed in power by popular protest, facing popular protest of its own. This week began with a fresh round of protests of renewed vigor and greater numbers (cf. Egypt Morsi: Mass political protests grip cities and Brazil protests resume ahead of Confederations Cup final).

What’s going on? Do these protests represent an unprecedented global popular movement, or a mere coincidence, or is there some contingent relationship among the protests that is more than coincidence but less than the principled unity of a political movement? In short, are the protests one or many?

Riots in Sweden...

Riots in Sweden…

Such events as those in Egypt are not unprecedented, which implies the predictability of such popular unrest. The “People Power” revolution in the Philippines in 1986 ended the decades-long rule of Ferdinand Marcos and installed Corazon Aquino as president of the Philippines. However, it was not long before Malacañang Palace was the focus of popular protests against Corazon Aquino, but an historical parallel like this poses as many or more problems as the comparisons of civil unrest across contemporaneous nation-states, which is in itself problematic.

Of course, a detailed examination of political protests will always reveal unique conditions in each county where the protests occur, with unique historical antecedents to unique events in the present, so that any argument for an underlying unity of globally-distributed protests is prima facie implausible. But while every historical event is unique, individual acts of protest can take on a symbolic value that is not unique, as with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, which proved to be the trigger for popular protests that became the Jasmine Revolution and resulted in the fall of the government of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. What is true across Tunisian society might plausibly also be true across broader swathes of society, potentially even becoming a transnational trigger.

Riots in Turkey...

Riots in Turkey…

However, there are countervailing historical circumstances that suggest the plausibility if not of a globally unified movement, of a contingently unified manifestation of discontents intrinsic to industrially developing societies. (Several commentators on the protests in Brazil have said that the people of Brazil feel unconnected to the major political parties in the country. In other words, Brazil is a lot like the US, where popular protests on the right agitated by the Tea Party movement and popular protests on the left agitated by the Occupy movement each have a vague ideological content that seems to match up with existing political parties, but no robust party loyalties.) It has become a commonplace that social media has made communication global and instantaneous, and indeed this was foreseen in the earlier idiom predicting a “global village” — though it would have been more accurate to speak in terms of a global conurbation, or what Doxiadis called Ecumenopolis.

In contemporary terms this global immediacy of communication has concrete consequences: except for cases where governments radically restrict social media, as in China and North Korea, people know what is going on elsewhere in the world. However, it would be unwise to read too much into the “know” in the previous sentence. The fact of the matter is that people see emotionally charged images, often accompanied with stirring slogans, and they respond viscerally to this. Such images are sometimes called “memes” and are said to “go viral” when they are passed around through social media networks to the point of saturation — i.e., to the point that everyone who uses the internet is likely to have seen these images at some time or another. this we may call the emotional valorization of protest.

Riots in Egypt...

Riots in Egypt…

The intellectual or ideological valorization of protest is to be found in the parallel justifications that are made for protest as the need for rationalization is felt. Protest is defended on the basis of its being non-violent resistance, and the work and the lives of Henry David Thoreau, Mohandas Gandhi, and Martin Luther King jr. are invoked in defense of popular protest, no matter how marginal or unjustified the occasion of protest. But to what extent is popular protest non-violent? One of the central dishonesties of our time is our ambiguity about violence, which is on the one hand sometimes minimized, while on the other hand it is sometimes magnified. The perpetrators of violence minimize their violence, and claim to be responding to the provocations of their victims, while the victims of violence magnify the violence they experience and employ their victimization as a political strategy in the furtherance of their ends.

In all honesty we should admit that protest marches often occupy a gray area between peaceableness and violence, and once a protest has begun it often shades over into violence; sometimes the violence of “peaceful” protests takes the form of systematic attempts to bait police and crowd control officers into responding to provocations in a manner that can then be magnified for the maximum political effect (as just noted above). Exemplary protest, like exemplary justice, has a symbolic value, and this symbol is employed as a tool of political action. A symbol can be the trigger for wider spontaneous action, or it can be systematically exploited by a revolutionary cadre seeking to foment wider action. In precipitating an event that can be transformed into a symbol, protesters create their own propaganda — the propaganda of the deed, as it was once called.

The woman in a red dress being sprayed with pepper spray by Turkish police was among the viral images that rapidly gained global prominence in social media.

The woman in a red dress being sprayed with pepper spray by Turkish police was among the viral images that rapidly gained global prominence in social media.

A protest, then, is always potentially an instrument of mob violence. Moreover, there is no clear line between protest and revolution; the two are separated by a gray area just as peaceful and violent protest are separated by a gray area. An attempted revolution can fizzle into a mere protest, while a protest can snowball, gathering strength and momentum, until it becomes a kind of revolution. Peaceful protest that escalates into violent protest can, if sustained, escalate in turn into revolution. Short of revolution, social unrest and violence that begins in protest can bear some resemblance to the ritualistic rebellions of medieval peasantry, and repressive regimes may tolerate ritualized protest for its cathartic effects.

Established political institutions may be little affected by the waves of protest that wash over it, and which recede like the tide when the storm is over. One thinks in this connection of the Chinese protests over the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. In such cases popular protests putatively in opposition to a given regime play into the hands of state power, which benefits from the release of social tensions.

The Guy Fawkes mask from the film V for Vendetta has become a globally recognized symbol of protest.

The Guy Fawlkes mask from the film V for Vendetta has become a globally recognized symbol of protest.

Clausewitz has been quoted innumerable times to the effect that war is the pursuit of politics by other means. I have also written about Foucault’s corollary to Clausewitz, which is that politics is the pursuit of war by other means. Clausewitz’s principle and Foucault’s corollary constitute explicit and formal recognition of the convertibility of politics and warfare. There is also an implicit and informal parallel to Clausewitz’s principle and Foucault’s corollary, and this is the practical escalation of political protest into violent revolution (the implicit continuity of popular politics with popular revolution) and the use of popular revolution to obtain social concessions (the implicit continuity of popular revolution with popular politics).

The explicit formulations of Clausewitz’s principle and Foucault’s corollary are useful for understanding the explicit, formalized politics of established political entities; the implicit formulations are useful for understanding the implicit, informal politics of mass movements. The two are related to each other as explicit social contract to implicit social contract. This parallelism shows us that the valorization of protest is a parallel to the valorization of the martial virtues in explicit formulations of Clausewitz’s principle. It is easy to ridicule the explicit manifestations of state power such as the praise of military valor and the awarding of medals for such valor, yet all of this is precisely parallel to the implicit manifestations of popular power, such as the lionization of courageous protest and the de facto social recognition of the value of this protest.

Before social media in its electronic form, the Korda image of Che Guevara became a globally recognized icon merchandised on T-shirts, posters, and every imaginable kind of paraphernalia.

Before social media in its electronic form, the Korda image of Che Guevara became a globally recognized icon merchandised on T-shirts, posters, and every imaginable kind of paraphernalia.

I fully realize how what I have written here sounds outrageously reactionary, and that I sound like an apologist for state power, if not an unreconstructed totalitarian. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am no lover of state power, and no apologist for tyranny or totalitarianism. But just as tyrants and demagogues must own their responsibility for their depredations, now more than ever, in an age when popular sovereignty is the unquestioned presupposition of political order, the masses must own their responsibility for their depredations — and depredations are depredations, whether they are committed by a tyrant or by a mob, and regardless of motive. When mobs kill and destroy, it is no comfort to anyone that they kill and destroy in the name of the “the people.”

While tyrants can be made to pay for their crimes by their deaths in paradigm cases of exemplary justice, as with Nicolae Ceaușescu and Muammar Gaddafi (to name a couple of prominent examples from my life time), the diffusion of responsibility found in the collective action of large groups (i.e., a mob) usually means that no individual takes (or can take) responsibility for the death and destruction. This problem needs to be openly acknowledged, if popular sovereignty is not to degenerate into mobocracy.

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Mexico City Interlude

30 June 2012

Saturday


This time (unlike two days ago) my flight from Lima occurred as planned, and I arrived in Mexico City about 7:00 pm, with my flight to the US not until the next morning at about 7:00 am. Since I had twelve hours in Mexico City, and I honestly don’t know if I will ever again visit Mexico City, instead of killing twelve hours at the airport, or going an airport hotel, I decided to stay right in the heart of Mexico City.

I got a room at the historical Majestic Hotel located right on the Zócalo, and I was given a room on the second floor with a view directly into the center of the Zócalo. Though the hotel was rather run down and had obviously seen better days, the view was remarkable and worth any inconveniences. It was also quite loud because there was an enormous ongoing political rally in the square — a candlelight vigil and speeches and singing and every other conceivable form of expression. I couldn’t follow the speeches, but I picked out enough words to gather the left-of-center orientation of the protesters, since words like “lucha” (“struggle”) and “compañero” (roughly, very roughly, “comrade”) occurred repeatedly. Such words constitute the “identity politics” of language.

In the next balcony over from mine there was a Mexican man also out looking at the demonstration. I asked if he spoke English, which he did, and he told me that the protest primarily consisted of students who were concerned to make a point, on the eve of Mexico’s elections (which is tomorrow), of the need for political transparency and of the problems of corruption.

Later when I was walking around the streets of the immediate area, I saw protesters walking toward the Zócalo with their candles and their signs. Some of the signs said, “Yo soy 132” which I remembered in order to look it up later, because by this time I was curious about what was going on. There is a Wikipedia article on the Yo Soy 132 movement, which it describes as, “an ongoing Mexican protest movement centered around the democratization of the country and its media.”

The activities in square continued on late into the night, and if I was to get any sleep at all I had to get to bed sooner rather than later, though I would have found it interesting to continue to observe the proceedings.

By the time I left the hotel at 4:30 am (in order to be at the airport by 5:00 am, i.e., two hours prior to my 7:00 am flight), the Zócalo was quiet, and everyone had gone home, but there were still clusters of candles burning. When I arrived at the airport about 5:00 am it seemed to be as busy and bustling as the Zócalo was a few hours previously.

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Existential Due Diligence

17 October 2011

Monday


A series of protests emerging throughout the industrialized nation-states of the world and tagging themselves with the label “Occupy …” (insert a local place name for the ellipsis), have been the focus of much media coverage and political comment. Some in the US have opined that this occupation movement represents a left-of-center groundswell that is the mirror imagine of the right-of-center “Tea Party” movement. Both are thoroughly populist movements that have emerged outside the mainstream of the (moribund) two party system, and they share much in the condemnation of political and financial elites. Some outside the US have compared the “Occupy” protesters to the “Arab Spring” protest movements that continue to destabilize the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa. These latter are also genuinely populist movements, and so there is some superficial similarity.

In populist political movements, ideology takes a back seat. It would be very difficult to discern the precise ideology of the Arab Spring protesters. Probably the movement has been too large and too diverse to possess any unified ideology. In fact, the only distinctive ideological fact about these protest movements has been their opposition to the official ideologies proclaimed by retrograde authoritarian regimes.

With the populist “Tea Party” and “Occupy” movements in the US there is a more coherent ideological basis to the protests, but the fundamental fact is emotional and social rather than ideological. In the early days of the “Tea Party” movement many commentators outside the US claimed that the movement was narrowly focused on tax protest, but anyone in the US knew that there was a great deal of emotional if not reactionary right wing sentiment involved, rallied by a Democratic president whom the protesters wanted to replace, and anyone who knows this knows that the emotionally-driven right wing in the US is deeply concerned with the right wing social agenda.

The populist “Occupy” movement we now see also began as a relatively narrowly focused protest against perceived excesses of the financial sector, but anyone who knows US politics knows that the emotionally-driven left, like the emotionally-driven right, cannot stay focused on one issue, but the movement blossoms into a ployglot protest that becomes a catch-all for discontent of all kinds. Everyone who was unhappy with the current state of the US but who could not in good conscience march with the Tea Party movement, can now march (or sit in) with the “Occupy” movement.

Because of the unfocused, sprawling, and emotional character of populist movements like the “Tea Party” and the “Occupy” protesters, they lack the first the most important element that any successful campaign must possess: an objective. It is with good reason that “objective” is the first named of the principles of war. Social protest is a kind of informal war (it is a point along the Clausewitzean continuum, being the pursuit of politics by other means), and if that war is going to be successful, it must have an objective, and then it must take offensive action to secure its objective.

Here lies the fundamental difference between these populist protest movements in the US (and, to a lesser extent, in Western Europe) and the Arab Spring protesters: the latter have, in each case, an objective. Not only do they have an objective, they have a clear, simple, and obvious objective that can be understood by anyone. In Egypt, the objective was to be rid of Mubarak. In Libya, the objective was to be rid of Gaddafi. In Syria, the objective is to be rid of Assad. In Yemen, the objective is to be rid of Saleh.

In two of the four examples of Arab Spring protests I have just mentioned, the protesters have been successful and have attained their aim. This aim has been somewhat anti-climactic, since the protesters discovered that when they woke up the next morning that they were rid of their autocrats, but the society created by the autocrats was still largely in place. Egypt is not now a bastion of democracy, but is rather run by the military, who allowed the protesters to protest against Mubarak, but quickly cleaned them out of El Tahrir once Mubarak was out. Thus we see how tyranny always fails but democracy does not always prevail.

Many of these same structural forces are present in the advanced industrialized nation-states as well, but in a more subtle form. When a Ronald Reagan or a Barack Obama comes into office as president, people imagine that something will fundamentally change in society, and that things will be different from here on out. Well, something does fundamentally change in the executive branch of the US government, but very little else changes, and society as a whole changes almost not at all.

The difficulty of catalyzing fundamental change in a robust and mature political system like those of Western Europe or North America, despite their historically unprecedented inclusion of the vox populi in governance, gives these most privileged and entitled populations a feeling of apathy and anomie despite their privilege and entitlement. Even when they elect “their man” who comes into office with “red meat” speeches, still nothing changes.

Even in a system as different as that of Iran, we saw the moderate Khatami ejected from office in favor of Ahmadi-Nejad because there was very little that Khatami could do to change the established regime in Tehran. So the Persians went from a reformer to a reactionary. From the point of view of an ideal rational actor, this makes no sense at all, but from the point of view of emotionally-driven populism, it makes perfect sense. People seek change by one way, and when they fail be to satisfied, they seek change in another way.

Why do people seek change? Because the lives they have made for themselves within the accepted standards of society have proved to be dissatisfying. Populist movements consist of people who followed the rules of society, or believed that they were following the rules of society, but the rewards that were believed to follow from following the rules either failed to materialize or, upon attaining these rewards, they were felt to be inadequate compensation for the trouble incurred in their attainment.

There should be no mystery or misunderstanding as to the nature of such discontent, as it figures prominently in American literature. The character of Gooper Pollitt in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof delivers himself to this choice piece of inauthenticity:

“Big Daddy wanted me to become a lawyer. I did. He said get married. I did. He said have kids. I did. He said live in Memphis. I did. Whatever he said to do, I did.”

This is the perennial complaint of the privileged and the entitled, left and right alike: I did everything the way I was supposed to, so why am I still so unhappy with my life? Why do I have so little to show for my efforts?

This is precisely why Socrates said, “Know thyself,” and this is precisely why Francis Bacon said, “Seek ye first the good things of the mind, and the rest will either be supplied or its loss will not be felt.”

If you fail in the most basic existential due diligence in life, no matter whatever else you do with your life, it’s always going to come up short.

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