Political Life in the Lottery of Babylon
The American regime obscures civic relationships and responsibility even as it manages and moderates every aspect of human life.
A great confusion has settled over America’s political scene. The country, for most, seems harder and harder to recognize. Our capacity for ceaseless revision has given way to longer trends that have locked us onto tracks whose fixity we never thought to anticipate. The confusion has been made more intractable by the self-delegitimation of the academy and the press, which are selectively allergic to context and historically shallow, respectively.
As Theta Skocpol noticed, over the course of the 20th century America went from membership civics to managerial civics. Membership civics involved civil society groups with thick social ties—the Knights of Columbus, the Elk’s Lodge, and so on. Even presidential candidates had to win them over. But as America became more disaffiliated, membership groups gave way to managerial civics. Rather than relying on the power of regularly meeting groups, we got a world of PACs and lobbyists and inboxes buckshot with panicky fundraising emails warning of imminent partisan collapse without another $5 donation to someone you’ve never heard of.
While this happened, Karl Rove’s Red Map strategy went into effect. Republicans came to dominate the local level from schoolboards to judiciaries to statehouses. Democrats, meanwhile, shifted from a pseudo-labor party to the party of the urban professional. While Rove’s plan worked to cinch victory at the lower levels, Democrats took to the federal level. Couple this with a trend Christopher Lasch noticed in the ’90s, and which lockdowns and the 2020 riots helped deepen: the death of “third places,” local organizations and establishments that allowed the co-mingling of classes and provided venues for civic practice.
Set atop this yet another trend: the downfall of local news media to social media. The internet, and social media in particular, has devastated local press, blinding the public to local issues and turning their gaze toward larger national issues over which they exert less and less control. Thus all news is national news and most national news is helmed by an establishment of so-called centrists and progressives. What we see here is the death of a federalist civic culture, a huge shift in American political subjectivity.
Ellen Meiksins Wood marked this shift from a different angle nearly 25 years ago as she surveyed political life in America since the fall of the Soviet Union. The left began to quit socialism for a postmodern “new pluralism” anchored in identitarian issues. Wood worried that the left’s abandonment of class politics for “new pluralism” would mean surrendering to a politics that reached “beyond the traditional liberal recognition of diverse interests and the toleration (in principle) of diverse opinions” in three important ways: first, “its conception of diversity probes beneath the externalities of ‘interest’ to the psychic depths” of identity while expanding the political into lifestyles; second, it no longer assumes that universalist principles can “accommodate all diverse identities and lifestyles”—in other words, a politics of exception and entitlement; and, third, its belief that no larger structure overhangs human life so that society is little more than a sum of different fragments that need to be brought together by evermore elaborate theorizing. Wood thought that identity politics would launder elite interest while the left cheered it on. Imagine.
On the right, a different mistake was being made: that business was the “innocent opposite” of government, as Christopher Caldwell puts it. Now that Lockheed Martin is putting on white guilt human resources seminars, the CIA is posting woke advertisements to YouTube, and efforts like Prop 22 are incentivizing further destruction of unions as Uber puts up billboards shaming “racists,” it’s clear that business has no cultural counter-state allegiance to the little guy. Of course, it never had much material allegiance either. Deploying wokeness as a script to co-opt the left is a remix of big business’s relationship to the traditional values of the right: pledge concern for said values while steamrolling whatever stands in the way of making a buck.
But Wood’s and Skocpol’s angles need updates. Since the Non-Profit Industrial Complex has come of age, the managerial civics Skocpol described have evolved into something far stranger. And Wood wasn’t cynical enough.
Anyone who’s been paying attention has noticed how the wealthy have bankrolled foundations and NGOs that now dictate much of our political life. In some cases, it helps entrench certain discourses at the national level. Take Jack Dorsey of Twitter bankrolling Ibram X. Kendi, for example. Or the hundreds of millions major foundations poured into #BlackLivesMatter which has done bupkis for everyday black Americans, their alleged cause. In other cases, it has led to a new version of the company town. Take Kingston, New York, for example, which Peter Buffet—Warren’s son—has terraformed with various other woke overlords. They have inundated the town with so much money residents would sooner choke on a wad of Benjamins than criticize the Buffets. Those who do face ostracism and are severed from the money pipeline. Yet while Buffet and his buddies decolonize hot chocolate by calling it cacao and astroturf local politics, a fentanyl epidemic ravages Kingston’s working class.
This is a politics as divorced from democracy as is possible without altering the Constitution. The civil society formation brought on by the non-profit regime works as an end run around the public will as different elite-funded groups vie to Gene Sharpe their way into dominance. Not only that, this formation has restructured political life at the local level—how could what’s left of traditional membership organizations compete with NGOs with well-stocked war chests? No surprise the word “neofeudalism” has been popping up on both sides of the partisan spectrum.
Because civil society has ballooned to capture government and political proceedings at every level it feels increasingly hard to tell what’s real and what pro wrestling calls “kayfabe.” The net effect of unreality and elite meddling casts a fog over the national self-understanding. Who’s in charge? What are they doing? And why are they doing it? Unsurprisingly, a bounty of conspiracy theories—left and right, hub and heartland—has flowered over the last few years. The role of the citizen is less in doubt than increasingly irrelevant. So why do we feel so involved?
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Whoever manages to capture the hearts of the people can do so at the expense of reality and to their own advantage. Fear of this has been around as long as democracy. Where people need persuasion—as all democracies do—political rhetoric enters the fray. The potential disjuncture between rhetoric and truth and the consequences incurred by that disjuncture can be found in writers like Thucydides and Plato. Political emotions have proved a boon and a burden to human society for a long time. What I want to highlight is not so much new in itself as it is a new version of an old problem.
The novel permutation goes by what I call the “culture of emotionalism,” though it has gone by many names and been puzzled over by all thinkers of all political persuasions. It came to the fore in the post-war era when mass media, particularly television, came to present new political problems and opportunities. The problems involved information control, deception, and seduction. The potential could best be summarized by a member of the Chicago Six, Abbie Hoffman, who thought that whereas previous revolutionaries headed to the job site, “a modern revolutionary group should head to the television station.”
The most optimistic engagement with mass media came from those who conveniently ignored that hedges and warnings within the work of Marshal McCluhan. A gentler, softer, more connected world was possible, they said. This was a world of uplift and feelings over facts. It rejected the regimentations of Fordism and embraced the coming horizontalism that the Telstar-1 satellite, which first connected the world via simultaneous television broadcast, prophesied. We would become a “global village.” Nation-states would fall into obsolescence and so too would other divisions that arbitrarily bar our hearts from touching.
In other words, the Cold War battle plan for a society that could remain connected after nuclear winter and the vision a society so interlinked as to provide us with new intimacies anticipated the same technology: the internet. A strange fusion of ’60s pathetic appeal and hawkish cynicism intertwined as the internet grew and brought each of us into its network. No surprise then that the author of the “Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace,” published in 1996, was John Perry Barlow, a former lyricist for the Grateful Dead. Like Newt Gingrich, Barlow found himself favorably depicted in the early issues of Wired magazine.
While this material, technological, and media shift took place, culture became more therapeutic in tone. We used to worry about “self-esteem” and now we fret over “mental health.” Everyday life has become yet more pathologized, more in need of experts to adjust, interpret and rework it for us. It’s as if we can make no commonsensical assumptions about how to behave, how to raise children, how to date, marry, or even weep.
As our society has become more invested in our emotions, it has become more manipulative. Slavoj Zizek likes to joke about the difference this way: while the older, authoritarian father would tell you that you’re going to grandma’s whether you like it or not, the new, postmodern father would say, “You know how much your grandma likes it when you come with us to visit her.” Rather than commanding you, our society prefers to emotionally massage you into obedience. This, of course, means access to your interiority. And access to your interiority is what the internet, as it currently exists, is designed to secure, catalog, and adjust. At least, that’s their hope.
To put it succinctly, the emergent telos of the culture of emotionalism from the ’60s wedded well to the expansion of control society as incarnated in the internet. Their mutual development has given us what we’re now living in: an emotionalist managerial regime concerned with moral coercion on behalf of elite interest.
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The online version of the bureaucrat is the moderator, who has deep roots in the culture of the internet. You could argue that today the figure of the moderator has replaced that of the bureaucrat. Policing the norms of discourse is the moderator’s job. Its function, originally, was small “p” political back when forums, messageboards, and other internet venues were the norm. As the major platforms grew, moderators grew with them.
Not all moderation is bad of course. There are plenty of underpaid workers in places like Florida whose lives are slowly ground down by monitoring Facebook for videos and images of child molestation, animal cruelty, murder, etc. But that’s a category apart from the regime-legitimizing moderator function we’re watching now. As the Biden administration has rolled out its “domestic terror” initiative, obviously meant to punish those outside the monoparty orthodoxy, and as Twitter and Facebook have severally purged accounts with dissenting views, it’s obvious that moderation exists in a loose agreement between private tech companies and the federal government. What’s more, those in the media and many in the academy, members of the professional-managerial class all, serve as enforcers of the regime in the open.
The managerial class is obsessively meritocratic, but of course meritocracy can’t concern itself with instrumental knowledge alone. It eventually adopts moral worth as criteria and thus turns moral worth into a category of knowledge about which people need to be taught. The managerial class moderators’ role is to “educate” people on the latest moral formulations. This makes for much of this class’s political commitments. As Catherine Liu writes in Virtue Hoarders, “If [the professional managerial class’s] politics amount to little more than virtue signaling, it loves nothing more than moral panics to incite its members to ever more pointless forms of pseudo-politics and hypervigilance.”
I say “latest moral formulations” because, as we’ve noticed, a large portion of this moderating class is interested in enforcing “wokeness,” an ideology born on the internet with antecedents in the “new pluralism” of the new, new left that Wood criticized. Wokeness seems endlessly revisable with new acronyms and obscure social rules issued by the month and sometimes week. With each new iteration, people must be shown how they ought to relate so that they can merit moral worth. Their inner lives must be plumbed for old badness so that the knowledge of the new goodness can take its place.
Philosopher Jacques Ranciere calls this dynamic the “schoolteacher’s paradox.” The logic of the relationship between the schoolteacher and the ignoramus constitutes itself around abolishing “the distance between his knowledge and the ignorance of the ignoramus. His lessons and the exercises he sets aim gradually to reduce the gulf separating them.” The catch is that the schoolteacher can only achieve this goal by constantly recreating the gulf between himself and the ignoramus. “To replace ignorance by knowledge,” Ranciere writes, “he must always be one step ahead, install a new form of ignorance between the pupil and himself.”
Thus our unending tutelage under the managers. Those who cannot or will not get with the program are delegitimized and even drummed out of the discourse to make more room for the semi-official line. As the “epistemic gulf” between the woke schoolteachers and the ignoramuses of the world bloats and shrinks, a sister dynamic plays out at the same time.
As Geoff Shullenberger noticed during the flare-up over the Harper’s Letter (remember that?), “Regardless of which side wins any particular battle in the recurring speech wars, both parties to the conflict end up reinforcing the power of the overall system in which the drama is enacted.” What appears as ideological conflict is in actuality a process that social media platforms are built to foster. Shullenberger continues,
It is an arena for perpetual conflict driven by an accumulation of grievances collected in a mass program of decentralized surveillance. We are incentivized, by the coded logic of the social media platforms where public engagement now takes place, to find reasons to hate each other. The algorithms that encourage and reward particular behaviors on Twitter and Facebook play on our deepest human instincts and desires to create spectacles of symbolic violence and sacrifice.
And so the miasma shrouding American political life, more and more divorced from its most basic political traditions, thickens around us. What appears to be a “breaking point” at any given time is more likely confirmation that the platforms work as planned to the benefit of those already in power. In this way, resistance gets absorbed into the legitimating machinery itself. Wokeness is only one version of content that will generate the correct squabbles to perpetuate the platforms. The status quo remains remarkably plastic.
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“Like all men of Babylon,” the narrator begins in Borges’ In the Lottery of Babylon, “I have been proconsul; like all, I have been a slave.” As the story unfolds, we learn a lottery has taken hold of Babylon. At first an innocent game, like any lottery, it eventually came to incorporate more people by replacing financial remuneration with non-monetary chances. Sometimes you could win the role of proconsul, sometimes that of a slave. Some began to say a shadowy cabal runs it. Others that there no longer is a lottery. But it is impossible to tell because it has so colonized everyday life that no one can determine what activity does or does not fall under its control.
It feels today as if America is a lottery owned by elites but run by those below them, so that unifying against them and their interests appears so obscure and difficult that we hardly know where to begin. But what we seem to be losing in the confusion is a basic civic sense of equality. While it may appear unclear who will find themselves proconsul or slave, so to speak, the durability of those roles becomes more and more ingrained in the national culture. No republican democracy can survive without a basic commitment to common standards that apply to all. To the extent difference and exception become the name of the game is the extent to which we abandon basic democratic values.
And this is the darkest success of the regime thus far: that fewer and fewer Americans believe they are or can be a nation of co-equals committed to the shared project of society.
Emmet Penney is a writer and the co-host of the ex.haust podcast.