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2/2/2017 / Issue #011 / Text: Sebastian Olma

Populism and its hidden allies

1. The Collapse of the Left
As the world holds its breath in the hope of surviving the first weeks and months of the Trump presidency, it is high time to start a political debate that is on par with the gravity of our current debacle. The American political system has been handed to an immature populist bully while in post-Brexit Europe many right-wing populist apprentices are waiting in the wings for their own Trump-moment. This is a crisis of democracy if there ever was one.

Given the experience of the 20th century, it should be clear that we urgently need to develop strategies that can effectively roll back populism and rebuild a path toward a democratic future. It should be equally clear that the political left carries the responsibility to take the lead in this endeavour. An important first step would consist of acknowledging the fears and concerns regarding mass migration and Islamic terrorism that are obviously fanning the flames of populism but respond to them with the rigour and complexity these issues require. Unfortunately, this is not what’s happening at the moment. Political parties on the left, it seems, waiver between the emission of pseudo-cosmopolitan platitudes and the adoption of watered-down versions of right-wing populist ideology. This inability to find a constructive political position in response to some of the great challenges of our time is a testimony to the impotence of the contemporary left. What makes matters worse is the fact that the left is in total denial of the depressing state it is actually in. We can observe this at the moment for instance in the reaction of the Democratic Party to the election of Trump. Instead of discussing the very real incompetence, corruption, and failure of its party apparatus, the Democratic establishment sees fit to fabricate a story of Trump the supervillain getting hacked into power by the country’s newly found archenemy Vladimir Putin. 

As depressing as this is in itself, these unfortunate meanderings and manoeuvres are only the articulations of a much deeper crisis of the political left. It is to this fundamental crisis that we have to turn if we want to understand the shocking weakness of Western democracy in the face of populism, not foreign dictators or mysterious dark forces of cyberspace. The self-mutilation of the left began in the 1980s, when, in response to the neoliberal revolution of Reagan and Thatcher, the international social democracy adopted a so-called “third way” that was meant to modernise progressive politics. This program was based on the idea that the conceptual and institutional weaponry the left had previously used in its struggle for social justice and emancipation had become obsolete and should be ditched. The purpose of leftist politics changed from the collective struggle for a more just and egalitarian society to the managerial stabilisation of a system made up of individuals in constant mutual competition. Questions around the distribution of money, power, property and so on, once the cornerstone of social democratic politics, all but disappeared from the political agenda. They did not, of course, disappear from social reality. The former parties of the left simply decided to ignore them, effectively joining the neoliberal project and abandoning not only their own constituency but also their essential political function within Western democracy: defending the weak against the powerful. What aided this process was a zeitgeist deluded by the idea that history had ended with the final triumph of liberal democratic capitalism thanks to both, the collapse of the Eastern bloc and the discovery of the principles of cybernetic government. 

2. Building a Society of Fear
As an immediate consequence of what was, in fact, the self-abandonment of the left, a radical transformation of society took its course. Without political representation, the legal and institutional mechanisms providing social and economic security began to be dismantled. While the speed and intensity of these processes varied from country to country, they adhered to the same goal: reprogramming society’s infrastructure according to the needs of financial capital. The hardship created by the staccato of financial crises since the 1990s, the transformation of our cities from vibrant civic spaces into real-estate investment opportunities, and the creation of a workforce expected to behave as flexible as the flows of global capital are all direct effects of the absence of leftist politics. Not to mention the countless cynical wars in the Middle East and elsewhere that caused the mass migration Europe is dealing with today. 

The overall effect of all this was the emergence of a society where social insecurity became the new normal. Economists usually criticise today’s breathtakingly high levels of economic inequality but the politically much more unsettling issue are the unprecedented levels of anxiety caused by the state of generalised insecurity throughout society. This begins with increasingly unstable employment relations and high numbers of unsustainable self-employment and ends with the absence of a political vision, let alone program, for the collective creation of a desirable future. The beneficiaries of this state of things are the populist movements who are able to push their right-wing agenda on the back of conspiracy theories about ruling elites betraying country and people and similar nonsense. What happened, in reality, was a breakdown of leftist politics in the 1980s and 1990s from which it has so far been unable to recover.   

And this is where we get to today’s really interesting and urgent political question. While it is important to mobilise, march, and argue against reactionary populists policies, it is much more crucial to develop strategies for the renewal of leftist politics. Isn’t it strange that the collapse of old leftist politics has not led to a takeover by a new generation of progressives? Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn have been remarkable in their (failed) attempts to rescue leftist politics but they are certainly not part of a new generation. 

3. Perception Management: Fake Innovation and Post-Factual Creativity
There are, of course, many reasons why the younger generations shy away from politics in general. However, given the persistent hunger for change among the young and the desperate state of the politics of change – usually, let’s be honest, located on the left of the political spectrum – the absence of a wave of innovation sweeping away the managers of pseudo-leftist incompetence is a bit of a conundrum. How can it be that a political movement that has become totally dysfunctional can be so resistant against change?

Some help in finding an answer to this question comes from Adam Curtis’ recent documentary Hyper-normalisation. According to Curtis, the term “hyper-normalisation” describes a situation in which politics has mutated from the practice of steering and shaping society (towards a desirable future) to that of managing the electorate’s perception of reality. In contemporary politics, Curtis argues, society is understood cybernetically, i.e., as a “system” that finds its natural balance more or less on its own. In this post-political system, powerful economic, financial, and military interests have to be accepted as if they were forces of nature. All that remains to be done for politics is perception management, i.e., to control how populations perceive the interplay of those holding real power in the world. 

Curtis’ dystopic vision has acquired a certain plausibility in the light of the fake news and alternative facts that (dis)graced Trump’s road to power. However, we should not forget that one of the most astonishing machines of perception management has been built by Silicon Valley. The purpose of operations such as the TED network and O’Reilly Media was to create a public image of the big technology companies as harbingers of a brave new world in which politics would become obsolete thanks to the benevolent powers of technology. As such, Silicon Valley’s PR-machine conducted the first successful experiment in perception management on a truly global scale. 

In Europe, its message that “making the world a better place” could be seen as a matter of combining technological progress and entrepreneurial fervour was welcomed by a political class that had more or less accepted its own post-political demise. Particularly grateful were those third-way technocrats on the left for whom this tied in perfectly with their ideological mixture of post-politics, entrepreneurship, and cybernetic systems thinking. They began to construct an apparatus of fake innovation and post-factual creativity modelled on the Silicon Valley marketing machine but without the industry: a publicly funded fantasy world where “making the world a better place” could be staged as a series of simulations with no effect on reality whatsoever. It churned out policy memes like “digital democracy”, “social innovation”, or “smart citizenship” and created countless programmes, conferences, calls for prototypes, hackathons, consulting reports, and what have you. And because it marketed itself as a new and more effective approach to “changing the world”, it attracted the hearts and minds of countless young “activists”, “pioneers”, and “change-makers”. In doing so, the political class, aided by smart and unscrupulous social entrepreneurs, infected an entire generation with the idea that the best way to shape the future of society was not democratic politics but a mixture of (subsidised) entrepreneurship and (digital) technology. This is perception management at its best, or rather, worst.

4. Re-politicising Politics
The tragic punch line of this story lies in the anti-democratic effect of this apparatus of fake innovation and post-factual creativity. It prevents the urgently needed renewal of especially leftist politics by trapping the young in an ideological hamster wheel while telling them that they are changing the world. Given the current political degeneration, wilfully wasting the energy of the young in such a way is no harmless matter: every time another “thought leader” argues that democracy will be saved by introducing online voting, blockchain technology, smart citizenship, or any other “digital social innovation”, we take another step toward the populist abyss. There is absolutely no excuse for grown-ups to seriously entertain the belief that technology (or entrepreneurship) is going to save us. We have to stop telling the young stories about the world we know are false. If we want to effectively confront the very real threat of populism – and it is obviously high time to do so – we have to repair our democracy so it can once again generate visions of futures that are actually desirable. An effective response to populism can only come from a re-politicised politics, which requires, above all, rebuilding a strong and timely politics of the left. And for this, we need a young generation whose minds are radically open rather than preformatted by second-hand versions of Silicon Valley perception management.  

Sebastian Olma is an Amsterdam-based author and critic. His latest book, In Defence of Serendipity. For a Radical Politics of Innovation was recently published by Repeater Books London.