Wednesday, 21 December 2016

A long year of reactionary change – or was it?

Let’s do this right. If Trump, Brexit and Le Pen are a reaction, then the movement’s purpose is to change something. But unless I’ve missed something, reactionaries haven’t outlined their victory conditions. That’s why, as much as it pains me to say, the movement won’t win.

To change the world, it is not necessary to promise a better world – only to demonstrate that this world is not real. Specifically, to show what people consider to be real is not, in fact, reality but rather a construction; a narrative of reality that is demonstrably false.

For the past 200 years, democracy has been the only game in town. Every other form of government has been steadily crushed or subsumed into this world-eating blob. So to say the world is bending or breaking is to say something is wrong inside democracy.

In a modern democracy, the rules split citizens into progressives or conservatives. What’s fascinating is that both progressives and conservatives hate their government; they just hate different parts of it and cherish others. But none of them hate their government as a whole, so they can never unite to destroy it.

As Machiavelli put it: if you strike at a king, strike to kill. For a reaction to succeed, you must oppose the actual government. The first step is to find a way to stop being a progressive without becoming a conservative – or vice versa. At the very least, you might see how none of these politicians, movements or institutions is even remotely worthy of support.

But that’s not what’s happening. The difference between criticising democracy and criticising government is the difference between criticising Lutheranism and criticising Christianity. You can't doubt democracy only a little bit, dear reactionary. You have to doubt it on a grand scale so your doubt exposes the actual government.

Otherwise, the people with megaphones will yell and scream about change, while using the energy of the movement to secure their own power within the system. These people will simultaneously count you among their numbers even as they ask you to die for their goals. Or kill, depending on how much power they get.

The reactionary wants liberation from progressive tyranny and progressives want liberation from reactionary tyranny. But to be liberated is to be free of rules. Or to alter the rules. These people are merely breaking the rules. They haven’t cast them off or erased them. This is democracy’s equivalent of a car’s crumple zone: the actual government is always safe.

Consider what would happen if reactionaries were successful. When a view of reality is shown to be wrong, that view must adjust or collapse. If the state-controlled press is that nation’s “spectacle” – a combination of signs, symbols and messages representing reality and truth – then anything challenging that spectacle directly undermines not only the spectacle itself but also the state that sanctioned it.

To put it differently, by carefully controlling what people see or read, either as news, pop culture, literature or art, the state regulates, constrains and defines a single universal narrative all activities, thoughts and events and thereby reinforces its power over them.

When it came to crafting narratives in the 20th century, television was a government’s force multiplier of choice. Controlling television meant controlling what people thought was reality. The form of state control places all interactions into a rigidly bound cognitive space of permitted activity.

This is why state-controlled media always exists alongside a secret police apparatus. The former defines the acceptable reality and openly glorifies it; the latter exists outside of it but brutally and secretly imposes the acceptable reality. We saw this play out in Egypt in 2011.

Facebook and Twitter allowed Egyptians to see a version of reality different to what state-controlled media presented. It did not matter whether this new version of reality was true or simply a skewed narrative of another order and origin. What mattered was simply that it was (a) different and (b) not included in the narrative told by the state.

Middle Eastern states were once able to reconcile the openness of the West with their regimes by labelling the West as corrupt or decadent – the two things those states swore to defend against in the name of Islam or Arab socialism. They achieved this because the West’s narratives came primarily through the easily controlled, restricted or re-contextualised cultural dominants of film and television.

The problem for Egypt was it couldn’t reconcile its narrative with the uncensorable Facebook and uncontrollable Twitter. So it did what autocratic governments do best: panic and pull the plug. But the instant it blacked out the internet the curtain was also pulled on their illusion of power. It was an explicit admission by the state to the people that its media were pushing a false version of reality.

The inability to reconcile disparate narratives is the greatest problem for governments. So if the reaction is to change anything, all that matters is its narrative be different in a way that the existing narrative cannot be amended to contain. Has it done this? Of course not.

Reactions without control of the narrative gets the problem exactly backward. Governments adore mass media because they project the governments' messages to the masses. Twitter and Facebook allow people to choose to ignore those messages and receive entirely new and different messages. Here is where the reactionaries are failing.

Their complaints are made within democracy’s narrative of reality. They are tricked into debating a better form of democracy rather than asking if it is really the answer at all. The former allows the system to crumple in a safe way, while the latter would be to accept that our world isn’t real. If reactionaries knew this, protests would be the least of the government's concern. Real change would soon follow.

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