The 2016 elections centered around how to interpret the post-WWII history of the US. A mixture of panic and nostalgia produced a bizarre confluence of memes in the time leading up to November 8th. Conservatives shared warm memories of Saddam Hussein because “at least he killed all the terrorists for us” and endless memes were spread among the center-left optimistically praying for the second coming of…Dwight Eisenhower?
On all sides except for the Hillary camp, there was a sense of an order collapsing-nostalgia without any countercurrent is the fork society sticks in an era to confirm that it’s done. Like the infamous Cargo Cults, they fixate on the external trappings of the US post-war boom as a way to avoid confronting the larger set of events that made it possible. The Sanders followers grew from a progressive left that had been saying since 2011 or so “If we bring back the New Deal tax code/financial regulations, everything will be back like it was.” The Trump followers said “If we go back to being as racist and sexist as we were then, the post-war boom will return.”
Of course neither of these options will actually bring the boom back, even if a return to New Deal checks would be welcome. The US economic miracle was a result of being the world’s only uncontested superpower and having endless contracts to rebuild Europe for 20 years and those circumstances coinciding with the peak of Fordist manufacturing. Those conditions aren’t going to happen again.
Hillary Clinton’s projected nostalgia, being for the last 8 years/the 1990s, was even less convincing and added insult to injury by using tired tricks on an increasingly politically aware population. Clinton was perhaps the most pragmatic in that she saw the 1950s weren’t coming back no matter what. However, she also offered a fatally unconvincing vision of what to do going forward.
The stories of election tampering taking root in the digital hive mind serve as proxies to speak about 3 primary suppressed anxieties shared by the majority of the population:
1) If advertising analytics/data crunching voodoo actually works then it by nature can’t coexist with actual Democracy. Our individual fantasies of being master of our own destiny, built up for decades by trying to label whatever it is we’re buying “the alternative” don’t hold. We know that our decisions are no longer entirely or even substantially our own. This isn’t a result of Russian etc. interference but simply a fact of surveillance capitalism/web 3.0.
2) Everyone knows that the wealth gap is increasing and will continue to increase due to the basic math that Thomas Picketty laid out: the rich getting richer and everyone else being left out to dry is what capitalism is. Capitalism as we imagined it up to this point is a withered carcass; all that’s left is the accumulated money at the top. No one besides maybe a couple die hard Hillary hold-outs seriously thinks capitalism can continue much further. The whole border wall thing is a ghost dance for a capitalism that isn’t coming back.
3) Climate change is real, and furthermore climate change is something we’ve done to ourselves and that we could conceivably rein in. I believe the part in italics is what actually scares much of the population and particularly the wealthy/religious as it punctures the idea a God is watching over us or an invisible hand is strategically grabbing the market by the pussy.
The upper middle class and aspirant classes beneath them been circling these tire fires for the last 9 years since the 2008 crash. Trying to “detoxify” ourselves and the uglier parts of our way of life by buying more expensive groceries and/or obsessively revisiting the markers of youth and trying to get double equity on them by reselling them as important political events (this is as true of the right wing ad campaign for the Seth Rogen vehicle The Interview as it was for the new Ghostbusters). These campaigns advertising everything from cars to movies to vegetables all had a heavy shaming element. This was because their actual social function wasn’t primarily to “save organic farming” etc etc but to preserve the social markers telling people as their wealth shrunk that they weren’t actually poor, that their college educations still made them meritocratically superior and not just deep in debt. Artisan hamburger restaurants and craft beer were similar manifestations. Of course, eating the right vegetables and other acts of symbolic ethical consumerism won’t pay off your student debt.
These 3 anxieties correspond with the death of an economic system, the collapse of the primary controlling social narrative (Horatio Alger etc), the rapid cold decimation of an entire way of life that existed before computers, and the potential deaths of hundreds of millions of people/loss of all of the world’s coastal cities. Everyone going crackers at the same time is a predictable if dispiriting response.
The way forward from here can’t be a nod backward. Automation’s arrival leaves two paths open for the US-either an equitable and liberal welfare state, or a society obsessed with ignoring/removing society’s “disposable” elements-the migrants, the poor, minorities, and anyone standing in the way of the disposal (the left basically.) The US is currently heading down the latter path.
We need to aim big if we’re going to have a future. We can’t simply shoot for reforms. The tools and infrastructure for a futuristic, equitable and sane society are in front of us. Automation’s impending destruction of the global jobs market could be a positive thing if the tools of automation were seized for the general population. Many platform economy systems could be replaced by open source software updated with tax payer money. There is little about Uber’s app that couldn’t be replicated fairly easily and certainly nothing about it that warrants the size of the single company. Austin Texas already has their own replacement app just for Austin that’s been working fine.The e-commerce platforms could become a dynamic unified e-communism without too much tweaking.
These are the sorts of demands we need to be making. This isn’t the same world it was 10 years ago. And this time we can’t just make demands-we need to be willing to fight for them.