Monthly Archives: February 2017

Politics is Downstream from Culture, Part 1: Right Turn to Narrative

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Our lives—indeed, our very species—has storytelling wound into our DNA. From the earliest cave drawings, man has expressed himself in terms of story. Ancient civilizations understood that stories are vital to understanding our place in the world, so much so that they codified storytelling and found base rules that form it. Oral histories are a part of every culture across the globe.

I’ll give you three guesses as to the author of this statement. In fact, I’ll give you thirty. It’s not Bill Moyers, and it’s not James Cameron, and it’s not some literature professor. It’s from Breitbart News. If you’re a member of the professional (or non-professional) humanities, that should get you to more than guessing.

The quote, by Lawrence Meyers, appeared in a 2011 article headlined “Politics is Really Downstream from Culture.” It was an elaboration of Andrew Breitbart’s mantra, “politics is downstream from culture.” The slogan—a nice inverse of James Carville’s “It’s the economy, stupid!”—means what it says: Change the culture, change the government.

Now, six years later, national politics, we might say, is culture, and maybe even only culture. Steve Bannon, Breitbart’s successor, is not only in the White House, but, for the time being at least, enjoys a front-row seat on the National Security Council. John McCain, concerned about the elevation of a civilian political strategist to chief advisor on foreign affairs, has called Bannon’s NSC role  a “radical departure from any National Security Council in history.”  But the concern should run deeper than the possibility of war becoming but another mode of dirty politics. It should include Bannon making international relations into little more than a good story. This sense of story, as something that captures the attention, immerses the reader or viewer, and manufactures a desired political attitude, is Bannon’s stock-in-trade. He’s explicit about his sources for his narrative techniques: “the Left,” conceived on a spectrum from Hollywood filmmakers to Lenin (whom Bannon has said he idolizes, with tongue pretty clearly in cheek). 

Since he left Goldman Sachs in 1990, Bannon has been first and foremost a worker in the culture industry, a producer of stories. After helping negotiate the sale of Castle Rock Entertainment to Ted Turner, Bannon gained a stake in television shows like Seinfeld. He then got into his own brand of filmmaking, producing among other works, a hagiography of Ronald Reagan, a celebration of Sarah Palin, an encomium to Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson, and a self-explanatory exposé, “Occupy Unmasked.” After Andrew Breitbart died suddenly in 2012, Bannon took over Breitbart News and single-handedly retrofitted the fringiest part of the “Right Wing Conspiracy” into a slick, savvy, and at least partly fact-based operation. (At the same time, Bannon helped found the investigative research organization that produced Clinton Cash, the book that undermined the Democratic nominee long before anyone from Vermont got involved.)

In addition to left-leaning pop culture sources, Bannon has also borrowed techniques from the academic left, specifically from the Humanities. That’s why it’s now possible to find quotes like the one I led off with above, where it’s hard to tell if we’re reading literary theory or an article on Breitbart Continue reading

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Empire’s Regrets

The Pentagon (2008). Via Wikimedia Commons.

The Pentagon (2008). Via Wikimedia Commons.

There was a time, not that long ago, when America’s “business” sensibilities were seen as both the economic and ethical boon of American empire. George F. Kennan, one of the chief architects of the cold war American empire, saw in “the reputation of Americans for businesslike efficiency, sincerity and straightforwardness” a singular advantage in America’s effort to establish and maintain its global power. (I am quoting from Kennan’s notes for his Memoirs, archived at Princeton.) Indeed, for nearly all of the cold war architects of American empire, the “business” personality meant reliability, responsibility, power, and stability.

This personality is also the kind needed to build an empire. Empires want stability. Power is not enough. The Pax Romana of the ancient world was not an accident of the centralization of power in the emperor. It was its purpose and its justification. By the time of Octavian’s ascent to imperial rule as Augustus in 27 BCE, the Roman Republic, though esteemed then and now for its renowned constitution, had been in upheaval for well near a century, fraught with plots, assassinations, power plays, coups, and civil war. The emperor meant the empire could stabilize.

The American empire of the postwar and cold war periods was frequently characterized as a reluctant one. This was part of its “businesslike” ethic. Certainly, America’s ascent to world power after World War II was not intended to be a replication of the British colonial empire. It was to be more subtle, and, if possible, more invisible in its workings. It was not to be “colonial” in the way of nineteenth-century empires or America’s own past approach to its indigenous peoples. Rather, it was to work through a kind of triumvirate of distributed American military power, America-led financial institutions, and strategic alliances. This is, and was, American empire. And like all empires, it wants, on the whole, stability.

Within the empire of postwar and cold war America, technology was to be a means of order, or ordering. During the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, technology and technological innovation were inseparable from the empire: Big science, big industry, and a very big military-industrial complex drove technological innovation. There is no other way to make sense of the remarkable technological developments of the period—computers, the internet, satellites, missiles, and thermonuclear warheads—than in terms of the overwhelming imperative of the empire to enforce order onto the world, just as there was no other way to account for the empire’s penchant to perceive threats to order everywhere, from Laos to Guatemala to the Arctic.

But this “businesslike” empire was also an empire of capital, and of capitalism, both ideologically (as America confronted communism) and structurally (as private capital and public funding worked together to uphold empire). And capitalism is disruptive. As Americans learned in the 1930s, it was prone to destruction and reconstruction, ups and downs, booms and busts. If empire wants stability, capitalism favors instability.

From the mid-1940s until the early 1970s, American domestic and foreign policy was aimed at making both empire and capitalism work by having them work together. If Keynesianism was the logic, a “businesslike” approach to technological innovation was the lynchpin. A primary way the American empire harnessed capitalism was by harnessing science, technology, and industry—the sources of “innovation.” Bell Labs, IBM, Westinghouse, General Motors: Big Industry meant not only working-class jobs but the cooperation between capital and empire. This cooperation was crucial to empire’s power, for it meant capitalism’s disruptive logics could be tempered by empire’s need for order.

But as things turned out, capitalists began to undermine the cooperative logic of the empire. In the age of Reagan, a new kind of capitalism and a new kind of capitalist emerged under the auspices of innovation and deregulation. Entrepreneurial capitalism began to exploit the stable networks of capital, communications, and human movement the empire offered. If neoliberalism was the new logic, technology was the motor, including new techniques and technologies of finance capital. Finance, computers, the internet, automation, and a new Silicon Valley ethic of creative, disruptive innovation emerged as insurgents within the empire. And “business” took on a new, distinctly disruptive look, too.

The entrepreneurial insurgents of the 1980s and 90s created new markets, even as they destroyed old ones, especially labor markets. Tech and finance industries took new risks, risks freed of empire’s insistence on stability. These risks were money motivated, but they were also social, ambitiously aimed at reshaping the way humans live their lives (for the tech industry the “human” is always the subject, and for the finance industry humans are always objects).

And on the backs of these insurgents rode yet another kind of capitalist, the postmodern capitalist convinced that brand is value, image is economy, and money but a manipulable bit. Retail, development, entertainment, and service industries made brand identity a franchise industry, all the while using fraud, bankruptcy, lobbying, and the exploitation of legal and tax loopholes to create value, or perceived value.

Remarkably, given empire’s need for stability, these entrepreneurial and postmodern forms of capitalism became not only an economic ethic but a political one, as if the solution to every problem were to shake things up. We saw this, above all, in the penchant for deregulation in the 80s and 90s. But we also saw it in the mythologies that developed around Silicon Valley, innovation, and technology, and around what Donald Trump would brand “the art of the deal.” Still, from Reagan to the present, every presidential administration has tried to have it both ways, making room for capitalism’s disruptions while maintaining hold of a relatively stable American empire.

Now, the balance has shifted: The postmodern anarcho-capitalist, seen in the likes of Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, and Peter Thiel, is now vying for the reigns of the empire. This personality seeks to reorganize geopolitical power around the most elusive of categories—spirit, culture, and identity—while trying to create maximum space for the disruptions of capitalistic innovation. “Strength” and “weakness,” understood in quasi-romantic terms of spirit and culture, are supposed to organize the values of this would-be world power (which, because it eschews stability, would not be an empire), and state violence is to be used as a technique of purification (thus the ubiquity of “war” in the rhetoric of these anarcho-capitalists, a striking point of commonality with their surprise allies, conservative culture warriors). On the other hand, the old empire is striking back in the personalities of the new secretary of defense, James Mattis, and the new secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, both of whom seem to represent a vision of empire in which capital cooperates in exchange for relative world stability and in which “strength” is measured less in cultural and spiritual terms and more in terms of diplomatic alliances, military might, and economic hegemony.

Which vision will prevail is still unclear, but the current condition of uncertainty might partly explain the box-office success of Split, a horror film about a man suffering from multiple personality disorder. One might describe it as a parable for an empire in crises, in which we viewers are the kidnapped hostages.

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Silicon Valley’s Survivalists

Bunker 318, Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge, Maynard Massachusetts. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Bunker 318, Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge, Maynard Massachusetts. Wikimedia Commons.

Seventeen years ago, just outside of Birmingham, Alabama, my wife’s grandfather built floor-to-ceiling shelves in his basement and filled them with toilet paper, tuna, Twinkies, and batteries. He was prepping for Y2K, the Millennium bug. Boom Boom, my wife’s normally calm and reasonable grandfather, was convinced that computer programmers had set civilization up for collapse by representing the four-digit year with only the final two digits. Once the digital clocks and computers tried to register the year 2000, electric grids and so all things electronic would crash. Civilization wouldn’t be too far behind. My father, in the foothills of western North Carolina, didn’t stock his shelves. But he did load his shotgun.

Today, prepping isn’t just for old southern white guys. The tech titans of Silicon Valley, as Evan Osnos recently wrote in the New Yorker, are buying bunkers and waiting for the breakdown of society as well. But Silicon Valley’s survivalists are different from Boom Boom and my dad. They are preparing for a civilizational collapse they otherwise celebrate as disruption and innovation. Continue reading

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