“Our emerging post-privacy order isn’t quite totalitarian, but it’s getting there,” writes Ross Douthat in his latest Sunday column. For years, the Left has been shifting from a theory of justice rooted in the public/private divide to a theory of justice rooted in the divide between what’s in the realm of officialdom and what’s outside…
“Our emerging post-privacy order isn’t quite totalitarian, but it’s getting there,” writes Ross Douthat in his latest Sunday column. For years, the Left has been shifting from a theory of justice rooted in the public/private divide to a theory of justice rooted in the divide between what’s in the realm of officialdom and what’s outside it.
Some of us have been tracking that shift from the beginning, or close to it.
Ross reflects that, today, “Western order in the internet age might be usefully described as a ‘liberalism with some police-state characteristics.’ Those characteristics are shaped and limited by our political heritage of rights and individualism. But there is still plainly an authoritarian edge, a gentle ‘pink police state’ aspect, to the new world that online life creates. And what’s striking is how easily we have come to tolerate it.”
Those playing the home game will recall that I coined the “pink police state” concept just over a decade ago, having ruminated for ten years before that on the uncanny message Marilyn Manson seemed to have sent from the future in his splashy 1998 video for the Grammy-winning song “The Dope Show,” the lead single off his prophetic Mechanical Animals LP:
In September 1998, Marilyn Manson, who was then the most dangerous and threatening person in pop music, released his most high-profile album, entitled Mechanical Animals. The video for its lead single, a Grammy-nominated song called “The Dope Show,” teasingly featured an image of riot police, dressed head to toe in pink, drawing one another close in an amorous embrace….
Today, indeed, we confront a transformation in the regulatory state so profound as to indicate a change at the regime level. Today, our regulatory state does not simply promulgate the kind of docile “soft despotism” Tocqueville feared, or blanket the human passions with the kind of bureaucratic uniformity Nietzsche derided as the “coldest of cold monsters.” Instead, as we still struggle to accept, it is aggressively intervening in the intimate details of everyday life as a friend to some kinds of civil liberties but an enemy of others….
Rather than stamping out hedonistic pursuits and pleasure-centered living, 1984 style, the new statism creates a “safe” space for their “healthy” experience. Yet, rather than expanding the project limitlessly, Brave New World style, so as to make all pleasure official, the new statism tacitly acknowledges that our most potent appetites can never be fully domesticated, even with all the tools of force, surveillance, and coercion at the government’s disposal….
In “The Dope Show,” Manson made overt the latently sexual and violent tension between those two realms. “Cops and queers make good-looking models,” he croaked.
For the past twenty years, the concepts or archetypes of copness and queerness have developed a symbiotic relationship as twin secular gods in a new post-political secular theology. No longer are authoritarianism and transgressivism enemies or opposites, but rather mutually dependent forms of mastery: one bloodlessly technological, the other primally occult.
Had my book on democracy in America, where I developed these themes further, come out this year, I might have been able to take advantage of the current craze for 1999 retrospectives to emphasize that The Matrix teaches us the same lesson: it is both an allegory for the realization of trans identity and a master mythos for gnostic terrorism in a digital age. Reflecting on this symbiosis ought to awaken us to what is really confronting us regime-wise today—and what will continue to pose the urgent, defining question of our age.
In fact, the pink police state aspect of the regime change being thrust on us now is not at all a gentle one. Our technocrats today intend to perfect the long-held progressive goal of mastering people by mastering material science. To be granted this power, they gladly bow at the altar of the woke gods and accept its establishment as our official religion.
Their new fusionism is simple: by uploading woke gnosticism to the internet, our invisible robot masters will rule us instant by instant with a perfection beyond even the best of human experts. The posthumanity at the heart of woke religion and technology that enables the nonliving to rule the living merge into a politics of the anti-human, and the will to power becomes the ultimate science of “emergence.” Many of its priests and prophets say with a straight face, which is simultaneously a rictus grin, that they are the partisans of equality, ensuring you your due measure. Yet in truth they are at war with the naturally human creature, and strain to strip us forever of our political nature.
For years it has been important to me to stick as much as possible to simply analyzing the new techno-gnostic regime trying to assert mastery over us, and avoid opportunistically rushing a “politicized” judgment to the hot-takes market.
But the time has come to stop hanging back.
Millions of Americans are now frightened every day by the effects of the monstrous new future they see popping up everywhere, half-hidden deep in the shadow it casts on our present. It is scary to come to grips with how much the partisans of the new regime see being human as bad news—as something to be avenged. But it must be done.
For soon we will have the technology to destroy our humanity, our identity, our natural individuality. To stop others before they come into being. Before they can even be imagined. What will stop us from embracing this alien invasion of demiurges and daemons? Entities neither alive nor dead, God nor human? If your political life and thought isn’t framed around these questions, there’s still time to fix that. But not much.
The power nexus of identity politics and tech transhumanism, of woke religion and woke capital, must be broken and defeated: in academia, in media, in tech, in finance, in entertainment, in the corporations and the bureaucracies—in every cell of the commissars that has colonized the interpretive-industrial complex. Blessedly, digital itself is doing some of this work for us, disenchanting the rule of the imaginary and fantasy almost faster than our televisual elites with their Aquarian cults can escape. But the technocrats are working against us, and their bots know no gods or masters.
Whatever the rhetoric, in reality the power nexus opposes human justice, because it opposes human politics—and human nature itself. Therefore America, the place where the human politics of justice was enshrined in a founding political philosophy based on a grasp of human nature, is a unique stumbling block—an obstacle that must be radically transformed, and not at all gently, away.
Many Americans hungry to reclaim and assert their human agency are in search of the context that can finally explain what is happening to us today politically. This is it.
Must we reconcile ourselves to the federal bureaucracy? Paul Gottfried’s mixed review of Claremont senior fellow John Marini’s summa on unconstitutional government, Unmasking the Administrative State, leaves the reader with the more than sneaking suspicion that the answer is yes. “It represents a dramatic departure from what our federal union was intended to be, and…
Must we reconcile ourselves to the federal bureaucracy?
Paul Gottfried’s mixed review of Claremont senior fellow John Marini’s summa on unconstitutional government, Unmasking the Administrative State, leaves the reader with the more than sneaking suspicion that the answer is yes. “It represents a dramatic departure from what our federal union was intended to be, and a deviant model that may already be beyond our control,” Gottfried sighs. “We are being technically ‘administered’ by congressional agencies that run roughshod over our historic liberties;” worse, “there may be no way out of this situation.”
Also concerning, however, is the pique Gottfried reserves not for the nominal villains in the modern history of American government but for Marini himself. Marini’s account of their origins strikes Gottfried as not just overwrought—”he might have spared us his practice of repeating all the talking points of his colleagues at the Claremont Institute”—but indeed unacceptable: “In the book’s introduction, Ken Masugi lets us know (lest we miss the point) that the author is carrying forward the philosophical tradition of Jaffa, ‘who took account of the radical assaults on constitutional government demanded by Rousseau and above all, Hegel.’”
To his credit, Gottfried doesn’t scrimp on praise for Marini’s attack on Congress for abdicating its duties to the Washington regulatory apparatus. But in approvingly citing Marini’s discussion of Carl Schmitt, who diagnosed the same legislative weakness in Weimar Germany, Gottfried appears to think that “legislatures have been forced into doing what they were not meant to do” by “indecisive” executives—hardly the conclusion reached in Marini’s richer and more sophisticated account that Gottfried rejects. Faced with Marini’s claim that “ideology and politics become intelligible only with reference to a philosophy of history, which originated in the political thought of Kant and Hegel,” Gottfried, “as someone who has written on both German philosophy and the administrative state,” is left “truly puzzled.”
The process by which the philosophy of administrative liberalism was transmuted into practice throughout the West is complex and protracted. But the mystery of how it could have developed in America at all—for it was certainly not present at the beginning—raises questions Gottfried is disinclined to answer. Doubtless, a taste or case for “big government” was present since before the creation of the Republic. But as Marini demonstrates again and again, quantitative measures of the state are not the key to understanding what the administrative is; such understanding concerns the qualities of its force. Therefore me must trace the origin of the turn among American elites to embrace administration as a new kind of power—as a new science of rule that surpassed and replaced constitutional government.
Marini allows that more than one factor may be at work in the rise of administration as an intellectual temptation—and then a self-perpetuating mission—in America. As theorists of American democracy from Tocqueville to Marini have agreed, origins have a privileged and persistent influence over the character of nations, yet, as Marini notes, “some nations with long histories have forgotten their origins, or what it was that made it possible to distinguish themselves from others.” Certain technological developments such as industrialization and electrification surely helped shape a social environment in which administration and regulation took on an attraction they simply lacked beforehand.
But institutions and elites have the power to catalyze profound changes in the social order when conditions permit, and by the turn of the twentieth century, America’s intellectual elite—its academics and philosophers—had turned, too, with unprecedented enthusiasm and credulity, to their counterparts in the Old World, especially Britain and Germany, where notions of a grand unified theory of human organization reigned supreme. From Rousseau’s “general will” to Hegel’s dialectic of history, from Weber’s new social science to “ethology,” John Stuart Mill’s proposed science of character formation, Europe gave American elites a sobering but dazzling sense that if they did not update their approach to statecraft to suit the times, they, and the Union with them, would slip into a kind of civilizational backwater, becoming an orphan of history.
The quintessence of this kind of academized member of the American governing elite, Professor Woodrow Wilson, would run for president and win on exactly this basis. In his 1913 essay “What Is Progress?” (included in his book-length call for “the emancipation of the generous energies of a people,” and, notably, not the people themselves), Wilson put the matter quite bluntly. “From the other side of the water men can now hold up against us the reproach that we have not adjusted our lives to modern conditions to the same extent that they have adjusted theirs.” To the American in and out of government who hesitated to replace constitutionalism with a grand unified science of historic-heroic leadership, Wilson warned that “the world has a habit of leaving those behind who won’t go with it. The world has always neglected stand-patters.” The poor anti-progressive, Wilson said, “is going to be so lonely before it is all over. And we are good fellows; we are good company; why doesn’t he come along? We are not going to do him any harm. We are going to show him a good time.”
Industrialization and electrification may have shaped a public context in which Wilson’s revolutionary content could get the kind of hearing it did; but the formation of Wilson’s own character traces not to the Midwestern factory city or the Western telegraph territory but to the Eastward-looking university town—Baltimore, to be precise, where he wrote his PhD (under the intellectual influence of Walter Bagehot, the editor of The Economist) on the desirability of replacing the separation of powers in America’s constitutional government with a British parliamentarian system that allowed one man to lead the executive and the legislative.
Wilson was not a mere one-man wrecking crew set loose on constitutional government but the leader of a whole new class of American elites educated in such a way that they chose to break decisively with the political theory and political institutions of the Founding. Ignoring this is troublesome reality is not an act of intellectual independence from canned talking points. It is often rather an act of intellectual irresponsibility.
But Gottfried’s determination to set aside Marini’s account of the origins of anti-constitutionalism in America does not seem mainly intellectual but moral. Although he does not say so explicitly, reading between the lines strongly suggests Gottfried understands Marini’s account is what leads Marini to conclude that we must not reconcile ourselves to unlimited administration forever. Rather than casting the administrative state as a wearisome new normal to which we are obliged to submit, Marini’s study proves a political obligation, rooted in our very anthropology, to restore government and retrieve constitutionalism where today mere administration holds sway. Gottfried, by contrast, wishes to signal that the counter-administrative project is quixotic at best—and disingenuous at worst.
Marini recalls the Reagan administration as an exemplar of anti-Wilsonianism. Not so, says Gottfried; by the end, the “vast administrative apparatus” Reagan inherited had “intruded into our daily lives to a far greater extent than the government bequeathed to posterity by the New Deal.” Of course, the Great Society was designed to intrude in a manner quite different, and with different purpose, from Franklin Roosevelt’s immense executive assertions, which arose from a context of economic and ideological catastrophe itself much different from Wilson’s. But in putting forth the wrong measure of the administrative state—its size, not its power—to suggest that Reagan, and by imputation so many other smaller-government crusaders, were really all talk, Gottfried leaves Marini with the better of the argument.
“The Social Security program begun by FDR continued to grow under Reagan, expanding 15 percent during his eight years in office,” Gottfried asserts. “Despite initial efforts to apply strict means tests to welfare recipients, the Reagan administration increased welfare costs by 25 percent between 1981 and 1987.” He finds it significant that “in the early 1980s, most Western countries slowed the expansion of their social services, an expansion that had been going on since the 1960s. In the United States, this slowdown began during the latter half of Jimmy Carter’s presidency and continued at a brisker pace in 1981 and 1982.”
As Michael Anton notes in his own review at the CRB, however, Marini puts the “supernova-like growth” of the twentieth-century administrative state in proper context: expansion “not merely or even primarily in size but more fundamentally in power. He is especially merciless on Congress, which voluntarily and happily surrendered its own constitutionally enumerated powers to an unconstitutional fourth branch—the bureaucracy housed within the executive branch—which looks upon its nominal master with indifference or bemused contempt.”
Marini, as Anton explains, clearly and correctly frames the problem of administration as one of the purposes of government. The question of “limits” when applied to the economic or financial quantity of government is of subsidiary importance. “Every government of course needs executive agencies; politics is about making decisions, and decisions must be implemented. That said, to what ends do executive agencies work? How are those ends determined and by whom? What is the source of those agencies’ political legitimacy? What—if any—limits are placed on their power?” The fundamental limits of a constitutional government are described by the purposes of such a government.
All of which leaves open—not, as Gottfried would intimate, closed—the question of how constitutional government can be retrieved amid a breakdown in the potency of administrative rule as significant as the one that has unfolded in the opening decades of the twenty-first century. For all the administrative state’s entrenched power and overweening intransigence, its history since the end of the Reagan era has been a history of squandering, blundering, blindness, inefficacy, and systemic shock after systemic shock.
This experience has only intensified since the dawn of the smartphone era. Technological conditions are once again forming a new context for political speech and political audiences. As the old context wanes, the Old World dream of a grand unified science of human organization grows deeply disenchanted. Ours is therefore a uniquely propitious time to regain control over our identity and our agency—to rediscover the purpose of our governmental institutions, and thereby find our way out of the dead end that the administrative state has become.
Kids across America know that ads are for skipping and blocking. Their elders are more anxiety-ridden. Having grown up in an America economically and culturally dependent on its fantasy-mongering industries, they look upon ads as key to unlocking the appetites, desires, and dreams that get people moving, and spending. But they also see the purity…
Kids across America know that ads are for skipping and blocking. Their elders are more anxiety-ridden. Having grown up in an America economically and culturally dependent on its fantasy-mongering industries, they look upon ads as key to unlocking the appetites, desires, and dreams that get people moving, and spending. But they also see the purity or good conscience of the fantasy-driven economy as under constant threat of contamination by the secularized sins of greed and selfishness.
So while ads mean almost nothing to everyday kids using social media, elite adults have been freaking out over the way those awful social media moguls have used our love of fantasy to “target” us with ads and “hack our brains,” turning our attention into their billions. If only there were a way to redistribute that wealth and restore the fantasy industry to its blessed purity…
A tax on digital ad spend (*cough* Facebook and Google) could bring in $2 billion for journalism. Free Press is suggesting an analog to a carbon tax on fossil fuels — but atoning for the attention economy’s perils instead of climate change.
Hello. What’s that you say?
Think of it like a carbon tax, which many countries impose on the oil industry to help clean up pollution. The United States should impose a similar mechanism on targeted advertising to counteract how the platforms amplify content that’s polluting our civic discourse.
Levying taxes on products like gasoline, cigarettes or lottery tickets, whose consumption may harm parties other than the user, isn’t new to U.S. policy. The resulting revenue has helped fund public health, infrastructure, education and welfare initiatives.
Unlike excise taxes on products, the tax on targeted advertising would be levied not against individual consumers but against enterprises that profit from targeted-ad sales. The revenues could be used to create a Public Interest Media Endowment, which would support production and distribution of content by diverse speakers — with an emphasis on local journalism, investigative reporting, media literacy, noncommercial social networks, civic-technology projects, and news and information for underserved communities.
Inevitable. Of course, if you really wanted to clean up our civic discourse, you’d skip ads like a ten year old, care less about what random strangers say online, and use the internet to seek out a readily available and roughly $0 education in civics and American history. But the mandarins of the crumbling fantasy economy don’t really want to drain the swamp of the so-called discourse. They want to sail the seas of fake news and useless takes, of performative rage and irrelevant opinions, like Gilligan on the S.S. Minnow — named, they may no longer recall, in “honor” of John F. Kennedy’s FCC Chairman Newton N. Minow, who famously pronounced television a “vast wasteland.” Fun fact:
The phrase “vast wasteland” was suggested to Minow by his friend, reporter and freelance writer John Bartlow Martin. Martin had recently watched twenty consecutive hours of television as research for a magazine piece, and concluded it was “a vast wasteland of junk.” During the editing process, Minow cut the words “of junk.” Minow often remarks that the two words best remembered from the speech are “vast wasteland,” but the two words he wishes would be remembered are “public interest.”
If our wide-eyed media mandarins want to atone for something, it should (*cough*) be their own industry, which has long since ceased — as America’s kids already know in their bones — to be in the public interest.
This State of the Union address was notable for its subtle or quiet articulation of the American Dream, running parallel to the overt one. Beyond Trump’s affirmative messaging was an important theme sketched out through things unsaid. Today and on into at least the near future, the president suggested, Americans still have the needed resources…
This State of the Union address was notable for its subtle or quiet articulation of the American Dream, running parallel to the overt one. Beyond Trump’s affirmative messaging was an important theme sketched out through things unsaid.
Today and on into at least the near future, the president suggested, Americans still have the needed resources to dissipate fears that powerful global trends will overpower the American way, our more or less traditional manner of living. The New World need not yet kneel before the Old.
Despite taking his time with a lengthy speech, Trump devoted no space to the major forces roiling Europe. The grand meltdown of the established political economy, under ever greater populist heat that often takes a post-ideological character, posed no threat to America’s fortunes.
So too with technology. Although Silicon Valley is now held out for bitter condemnation by observers across the ideological spectrum, the dominant tech companies were spared Trump’s chastisement. Neither AI nor automation were singled out as menacing developments primed to take apart America’s social compact or labor markets. Trans-partisan criticism again notwithstanding, neither the deep state nor the Five Eyes intelligence alliance were invoked, or even alluded to, as encroachments on Americans’ freedom or flourishing.
These would be dark notes in any speech, and in this one, clearly calibrated to strike an upbeat tone without losing the political initiative, they might have felt ominously out of place. But they are the preoccupations of the public mind, and at some point they will need to be addressed—whether by Trump, his critics, or the American people themselves.
Ben Collins, NBC News reporter on the dystopia beat, has a gloomy prediction to make about the coming years. The online rule of the algorithms, he writes, “is going to dramatically shape politics in ways that were previously unheard of, and it will not be a party-line phenomenon. It will divide the electorate into groups…
Ben Collins, NBC News reporter on the dystopia beat, has a gloomy prediction to make about the coming years. The online rule of the algorithms, he writes,
“is going to dramatically shape politics in ways that were previously unheard of, and it will not be a party-line phenomenon. It will divide the electorate into groups who rely on empirical data and information from accountable news organizations, and skeptics of all stripes who have fallen down algorithmic rabbit holes based on inflammatory language and feel-good conjecture.”
Collins casts his vision in the now-familiar terms of an attack on social media. The ubiquitous platforms have become the main focus of anti-tech sentiment for making people psychologically delusional and politically extremist—anti-democratic, it would seem.
For people looking to mock or revile online #fullcommunists or nu-Nazis, this critique has its potency. But a different point of perspective offers a more challenging view. On closer inspection, social media is much less of a disruptor than it seems. In essence, it’s just the democratic principle applied to broadcast media. If you like broadcast and you like democracy, you ought to love social media. The fact that people delight in refusing to follow the scripts handed down from the ruling communications class may inspire rage and confusion within that class, but their desired solution is simply to more effectively broadcast the right visions to the masses.
Unfortunately for the comms elite, that ship has already sailed. The way to understand exactly what happened is to recognize that social media isn’t the paragon of digital change most critics think. The real embodiment of the technological revolution is social credit—a system that fundamentally rejects both broadcast and democracy as foundations for social order. Even a social credit regime driven much more by markets than by the state points toward a broad rejection of the old notion that citizens should spend lots of time attending the secular church of the 24/7 news cycle. The rise of technology that sharply divides the real and actual from the made-up and the hyped is bad news for the ruling comms elite that wants to make its every utterance a must-watch, must-listen event—and to rake in big money for their trouble.
This view of things sheds some unusual light on why Trump-like attacks on the media make such an impact. Already the public sense is deepening that what’s sold as the news won’t save us—and that if technology is increasingly merciless in marking off facts from fiction, at least it’s not running a royal scam.
Not that any of this answers the deeper question of how to avoid a new birth of servitude under the rule of those power-hungry algorithms—and the people who want to control them.
James Poulos is Executive Editor of The American Mind. He is the author of The Art of Being Free (St. Martin's Press, 2017), contributing editor of American Affairs, and a fellow at the Center for the Study of Digital Life.