In China eleven years ago I noticed something surprising about democracy and something disturbing about the world economy. They both involved discrediting and devaluing. In the case of the world economy, what I noticed in China indicated to me that the chief function of neoliberal globalisation was to reduce western wages and conditions to a Chinese level. I also noticed that the notion of democracy had lost a lot of its value, especially in comparison with the student uprising of fifteen years earlier. Since that time global events have, to paraphrase Thomas Pynchon, been proceeding in accordance with an ominous logic.
While in China government messages are often emblazoned in large white characters on massive red banners in public places, Western ideological communication is diffused much more subtly, disguised as entertainment, spectacle*. Two people who have been notoriously good at taking advantage of this are Berlusconi and Trump. Politics now wholly takes its form from entertainment – political relations are entirely mediated by images. This has partly been facilitated by the internet, that political tool for generating interpassivity. The Trump campaign succeeded, at least in part, by insinuating unanswerable lies deep into that place where, as They know very well, certain nerves, the ones closest to the surface, are eager to be tweaked. The affective economy of social media conditions us to respond unquestioningly to any stimulus, whether it be Hillary Clinton clearly mouthing the ‘N’ word or the top ten sneezing kittens of the week.
UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is in the odd position of both benefitting from and existing in opposition to this state of affairs. On the one hand, he is right to talk about the Government’s (lack of) Brexit plans in terms of ‘accountability’ and ‘transparency’. It is at once reassuring and demoralising that he and those around him prefer to reason with us, neither knowing nor caring to speak the language of affective spectacle. The latter is, after all, the language of new forms of new viral forms of social control and political manipulation. Unfortunately, it is also increasingly the only language that electorates understand. It seems to me that many Brexit and Trump supporters voted in accordance with impulses conditioned online, disciplined by the habit of Facebook likes and retweets. While Obama was the first black President and Hillary not quite the first female one, Trump is undoubtedly the world’s first Internet President**.
Back in 2005 I argued that even though events such as the war in Iraq had perhaps fatally discredited our electoral systems in the eyes of younger people around the world, what distinguished societies like the UK and the US from authoritarian countries like China was the integrity of our democratic rights as embodied in our democratic institutions (i.e. not just Parliament or the Congress/Senate), which must be defended amidst the global trend towards a more (ahem) ‘Asian-values capitalism‘. Since then we have also seen the financial coup of 2008 and the catastrophic failure of the Arab Spring. The refusal of political leaders to respond to climate change in accordance with the scale of the threat must also, consciously or not, have served to further corrode public faith in the meaningfulness of electoral politics. In the meantime, the grip of the internet on almost all aspects of our lives has tightened. It seems to me that the work of Sherry Turkle, in her decades-long research into how digital ‘communication’ serves to undermine actual human interaction, has something to contribute to our understanding of the damaging effect of the internet on democracy, as does the argument of Jodi Dean that our compulsion to register every one of our thoughts, experiences and opinions with some invisible authority is a symptom of a deeper surrender to power. The fate of Daniel Blake is not just the result of sadistic government policies – he dies also because he has no way of getting online, no way of registering his existence and his needs. We must therefore protect our democratic institutions from wholesale incorporation into the web of control and exclusion, a matrix defined and policed according to neoliberal values.
I wonder how Daniel Blake would have voted in the summer – after all, Newcastle as a whole voted for Brexit. As for Trump voters, perhaps they were inspired by the same impulses that led me to create yet another blog. In their case, something of consequence resulted from their gesture, a change was occasioned in the universe. It just so happened that their feelings coincided with the interests of some of the most powerful and evil people in the world. For all their solar guns and space-based mass-poisoning schemes***, no Bond villain ever had the vision or ambition to imagine a weapon of social and political domination as omnipotent, insidious and all-encompassing as the Internet.
* as is ideology in China, which is an infinitely more complex society than I stupidly thought it was when I first arrived there.
** the quote in the headline is from Trump himself: http://thehill.com/blogs/ballot-box/presidential-races/272824-trump-all-i-know-is-whats-on-the-internet
*** just for the record, I do not have an indepth knowledge of James Bond films, and have never seen an episode of Doctor Who.