In the early 1990s, years before I had an internet connection, I read The Hacker Crackdown — an insightful journalistic account (by pioneer cyberpunk novelist Bruce Sterling) about the paranoid, heavy-handed reaction of the US authorities towards young computer hackers. From the countercultural perspective of the time, the hackers were seen as the “good guys”. (More on Sterling’s take on current events below…)
Fast forward to late 2017:- Recently leaked emails show that Wikileaks sought political favours from Donald Trump in exchange for helping his presidential campaign. Evidence for complex, multi-pronged Russian interference in the 2016 US election has become overwhelming, seemingly irrefutable. Reality Leigh Winner languishes in jail, largely unknown and unpraised, unlike Edward Snowden. Unfortunately for her, the NSA document she allegedly leaked (which documented attempts by Russia to hack US election infrastructure) didn’t reinforce the preferred narrative of the two prominent co-founding editors of The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill, who, as a result, appeared to be less-than-enthusiastic relayers of the “persecuted whistleblower” story in this case.
Their narrative — fairly relentlessly pushed by Glenn Greenwald on social media — held that “the whole Russia thing” was largely a hysterical conspiracy theory promoted by “libs” and “Dems” seeking to blame anyone but Hillary Clinton for her election loss. Greenwald has also (until now) aggressively defended Julian Assange against accusations of collaborating with the Trump campaign and/or Russia.
Greenwald, Scahill and many other mutually-referencing influential left social-media commentators use a collection of old, familiar ‘left’ tropes to frame the unfolding events. Namely:
1. Anti-establishment vs The Establishment (“liberal” establishment in this case)
2. “Ordinary people” vs The Elite
3. Heroic outsiders/whistleblowers vs The Corporate Media
4. Unjustly maligned “official enemies” vs The Malign Western/US “Deep State“
These binary political frames/categories, which I once found valid enough for high-level commentary, now look indurated—they seem inadequate for making sense of the fast-moving fractal-like chaos and complexity evident in 21st century political culture. At worst, I see these frames placing a kind of archaic tribal drag on attempts at a more sophisticated, empirical, up-to-date understanding of the political-social-media transformations occurring. Being simple, binary and readily internalised as “true reality”, they also seem prone to being co-opted and “weaponised” by starkly unprogressive interests. The obvious case in point: billionaire businessman Donald Trump, with funding and help from billionaire hedge fund CEO, Robert Mercer, ran successful sub-campaigns based on these traditionally ‘left’ anti-elite, anti-establishment, anti-media frames.
(The same appeared largely true of Brexit. I’ve written previously on how Glenn Greenwald and others bought the whole “left-behind ordinary people” anti-elite framing of the Leave campaign — apparently because it confirmed and reinforced the ways they were already thinking/generalising about politics from the perspective of these overworn ‘left’ tropes).
Weaponised: floating signifiers & hyper-generalisation
One problem of old-skool* ‘left’ political framing is a certain overuse of big floating categories (“liberal”, “elite”, “establishment”, “media”, etc) onto which pretty much anything nefarious can be projected. A demagogue’s populist rhetoric — parroting such hypnotic signifiers — easily sets up angry either-or, them-&-us territorial binary framing — but aligned with the demagogue’s interests. Steve Bannon used this type of rhetoric a lot during the Trump campaign and earlier (“There is a growing global anti-establishment revolt against the permanent political class at home, and the global elites that influence them, which impacts everyone from Lubbock to London” — Bannon to NYT, 2014). Breitbart, RT.com and Infowars, etc, also used it, blurring the lines between anti-establishment ‘left’ and so-called alt-right.
Why would you want to reinforce this framing? Unfortunately, a lot of influential ‘left’ commentators spend much of their time doing just that — overgeneralising about “libs”, “Dems” and “mainstream media”, as if these were bad uniform actors or fungible entities, and as if assigning inherent nefariousness to these big group abstractions were an act of deep truth-telling. There almost seems to be a tacit conceit that this constitutes true radical-left activism. I regard it as radical stupidity when it reinforces the “weaponised” political memes designed to put someone like Trump in power.
“Ordinary people” vs The Elite
As the story goes, “ordinary people” were fed up with the elite-run system. Trump, and Brexit, triumphed because of uprisings of discontent which united regular folks against the establishment elites. As a logical extension of this story, we shouldn’t be blaming Trump/Brexit for the long-standing evils/failures of the establishments which led to Trump/Brexit — our wrath should instead still be directed at those establishments (which are now in a battle with Trump/Brexit).
The Occupy movement expressed “the ordinary vs the elite” in terms of the 99% vs the 1%, which makes sense if you’re talking about the distribution of wealth. But it makes no sense if you’re talking about the distribution of political opinion. There is no uniformity of belief within the 99% — no common viewpoint which explains material discontent in political-value terms. The 99% — the “regular folks” — remain just as bitterly divided as ever when it comes to values/viewpoints/allegiances. The statistical correlations between things such as income level, class and voting preference remain just as weak and questionable as ever — even in the age of Trump/Brexit.
With so little empirical support for this “ordinary people” story, why do influential ‘left’ commentators argue as if this framing represented the real truth? You can validly argue, in the case of Brexit, that the Leave campaign in fact appealed to nationalist elitism — the British vs the non-British. That’s a fundamentally different framing than “ordinary people united against elites”. The rightwing UK tabloids have been full of this xenophobic, divisive elitism for years — in the form of endless attacks on immigrants, European bureaucrats and politically-correct liberals, etc.
Trump’s appeal to social elitism
Trump used “ordinary guy” anti-elite rhetoric, but his campaign spent a lot of time connecting with various subcultures (sizeable in voter numbers/influence) that have their own particular forms of social elitism. According to Joshua Green’s book, Devil’s Bargain, Steve Bannon’s business background gave him (Bannon) insight into the huge online communities that formed the audiences of sites such as Breitbart:
“Yet Bannon was captivated by what he had discovered while trying to build the business: an underworld he hadn’t known existed that was populated by millions of intense young men (most gamers were men) who disappeared for days or even weeks at a time in alternate realities.”
“While perhaps not social adepts, they were smart, focused, relatively wealthy, and highly motivated about issues that mattered to them, their collective might powerful enough to wreck IGE’s business and bend companies such as Blizzard to their will. As he would later confirm, this luciferous insight gave him an early understanding of the size and strength of online communities, along with an appreciation for the powerful currents that run just below the surface of the Internet. He began to wonder if those forces could be harnessed and, if so, how he might exploit them.” (Joshua Green, Devil’s Bargain)
Bannon took it further, according to Green. He “envisioned a great fusion between the masses of alienated gamers, so powerful in the online world, and the right-wing outsiders drawn to Breitbart by its radical politics and fuck-you attitude”. Bannon said that Fox News’ audience was geriatric and that political campaigns needed to connect with this younger demographic, with its own form of in-group elitism.
Angela Nagle has a wonderful take on the elitism of various online communities that supported Trump. In her book, Kill All Normies (chapter 7), Nagle first mentions the ubiquitous framing of Trump’s victory as reflecting the views of “ordinary people” who felt “left behind” by aloof liberal elites. She cites Thomas Frank as one of the most insistent purveyors of this frame — but then she turns this idea upside-down:
“Although the idea that ordinary people felt alienated by political correctness was not uncommon in right-wing rhetoric, there was also quite a remarkable shift from a subcultural elitism to a sudden proletarian righteousness, or even a bit of noblesse oblige, as though the right had been making Thomas Frank’s argument all along. In reality they had been making pro-inequality, misanthropic, economically elitist arguments for natural hierarchy all along.” (Angela Nagle, Kill All Normies)
As Nagle remarks, before the “ordinary people” narrative became common on these ‘new right’ online communities, Milo Yiannopoulos could be seen in photo-shoots wearing a “Stop Being Poor” T-shirt (a quote from Paris Hilton, apparently). Nagle argues that while Trump’s supporters are busy rewriting history, it’s important to remember that Trump’s young rightwing online “vanguard” had long been characterised by “an extreme subcultural snobbishness toward the masses and mass culture”.
“Anti-establishment” weaponised memes
I’m old enough to have partaken (at least remotely) in the left cyber-utopianism that flourished in the 1980s and early 1990s. This brings me back to Bruce Sterling and the reading I submersed myself in at the time (mainly to provide an escape from a tedious 9–5 office job). Timothy Leary, having been at the heart of the psychedelic revolution, was now writing — ahead of his time — about the liberating potential of personal computers; Robert Anton Wilson was writing genius-level surreal social satire with an eye towards progressive change aided by technology. R.U. Sirius produced an impressive magazine called Mondo 2000 — an entertaining journal of this techno-utopian current.
The subversive, countercultural “question authority” type memes seemed sweeter back then. Even the notion of “fake” mostly had an innocent ring to it, to me at least. Conspiracy was fun to think about. Russian meddling was merely “reds under the bed” paranoia — seen mostly in conservative newspapers or spy novels, perceived by most as something quaint from an earlier era.
It seems a bad idea to exaggerate the new 21st-century Putin type of Russian influence — one wouldn’t want to blame it for all the weirdness happening in elections. But, equally, it seems a really bad idea to be in denial about it — or to play down its importance — given the abundance of evidence for it on countless fronts. Consider something I stumbled across from R.U. Sirius recently (from a conversation with Douglas Rushkoff):
“If you follow some of the ideological discourse from people who are really influential in Russia, it’s postmodernism and Operation Mindfuck in the service of amoral raw power and political strategy. I know secondhand that there are people in Putin’s mindtrust who have read their Leary and their Discordianism and so forth and they are following a chaos strategy for disrupting the American consensus… or however you want to phrase the collapsing neoliberal order. And not collapsing towards a good end.” (R.U. Sirius, in conversation with Douglas Rushkoff)
This brings us to another point made by Angela Nagle — that 60s/70s-style countercultural transgression created a kind of void into which any ideology can now flow, as long as it appears anti-establishment and contemptuous of mainstream values. Nagle argues that whilst it was originally “left-cyberutopians” who were optimistic about the shift from old establishment-media control of politics to “leaderless user-generated social media”, the reality of this has enabled the right, not the left, to take power:
“The online environment has undoubtedly allowed fringe ideas and movements to grow rapidly in influence and while these were left leaning it was tempting for politically sympathetic commentators to see it as a shiny new seductive shortcut to transcending our ‘end of history’. What we’ve since witnessed instead is that this leaderless formation can express just about any ideology even, strange as it may seem, that of the far right.” (Angela Nagle, Kill All Normies)
Tearing down is easy
The emerging digital, decentralised media and politics make disruption and destabilisation easy to achieve. This appears to be the Pandora’s Box of 21st century politics — as Bruce Sterling puts it, these modern disruptive movements are “fatally easy to assemble” and “almost never have the aim of promulgating rational programs for legislative action”. But the changing technological landscape enables such movements to seize power shockingly quickly and relatively cheaply.
Tearing down, taking apart, dismantling, removing, sweeping away, “draining the swamp” — these metaphors seem to be favoured by both alt-right and radical left, with regard to an existing establishment/system seen as rotten to the core. The framing isn’t about building or progress in Karl Popper’s sense of piecemeal democratic improvement — it’s about take-down, dissolution, “cleansing” and “purity”. The binary frames listed above (eg anti-establishment vs establishment) tend to reinforce these stark either-or, all-or-nothing approaches to politics.
Bruce Sterling — who is certainly no apologist for western imperialism/hegemony — puts it this way:
“It’s the same phenomenon over and over, just with different branding: the Arab Spring, Occupy, Gezi Park, Euromaidan, the Ukrainian Civil War, Brexit, and now Donald Trump — except the last two have garnered legislative power. These miasmas appear anywhere save for the managed democracy of Russia and inside the Great Chinese Firewall, which is why both those powers now concentrate on spreading mayhem outside their borders. And whenever they do, they’re always electronically rapid. This means that they are spontaneous and therefore rantingly demagogic, unprepared for power, and tend to be poorly thought-through. Their political results are generally awful.” (Bruce Sterling, Notes on the 2016 US election)
The bottom line, for me, is that progressive ‘left’ framing needs to evolve, starting with the big hackneyed tropes I describe above. As Angela Nagle eloquently concludes (in Kill All Normies): “When we’ve reached a point where the idea of being edgy/countercultural/transgressive can place fascists in a position of moral superiority to regular people, we may seriously want to rethink the value of these stale and outworn countercultural ideals.”
(*As for my own unfashionable old-skool ‘left’ stances: I ferociously opposed Bush’s Iraq war — back when Glenn Greenwald supported that catastrophic invasion. I campaigned for Universal Basic Income back in the 1990s, when it was unfashionable and largely seen as hopelessly utopian. Contrast that wonderfully positive, progressive idea with the horribly libertarian nastiness that Edward Snowden expressed in 2009, when he wrote that the elderly “wouldn’t be fucking helpless if you weren’t sending them fucking checks to sit on their ass and lay in hospitals all day”. Choose your heroes carefully.)
Originally published at newsframes.wordpress.com on November 22, 2017.