A conceptual preliminary to understanding meme warfare

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The subject of the Internet’s effects on politics has provoked a good deal of nonsense, often attracting the expansive and tedious commentary of people who have little experience at the core of online politics and much less understanding of it. Many of these analyses—though not all—have missed the genuine novelty emerging in the interaction between politics and the Internet, attempting pathologically to subsume it into previous modes of political thought. This retrograde form of analysis is, to be sure, successful to the extent that the Internet is often politically operationalised in a very conventional manner. But there are, substantially, two forms of interaction between politics and the Internet: one which is easily comprehensible, and another which is far less so but increasingly the more important. As a preliminary analysis, it is worth understanding the distinction between the two.

Instrumental-regulatory digital politics

The instrumentalist approach to the Internet represents an intuitive humanist mode of engagement. It begins with a matrix of objectives constituted without reference to the Internet, and attempts self-consciously to bring the Internet to bear on their realisation. Inherent to this is a distinction between humans as social actors and the Internet as an instrument that transparently mediates their interactions.  This mode of engagement encompasses coordinated political mobilisation as much as conventional advertising and broadcasting, in effect positioning the Internet as merely a more democratised form of the familiar twentieth-century mass media, enabling essentially conventional hierarchical as well as peer-to-peer means of transmitting messages with particular determinate goals.

Within and alongside this instrumentalism we may also distinguish a regulatory approach to the Internet that conceives of it as the object of external intervention, subsumed as one particular component of a calculus of power. This is the Internet from the perspective of the post–Cold War state, a tool and also a problem that demands external intervention and regulation—if not because of any direct threat from its weaponization through instrumentally digital politics, then because of the mere fact of its existence as a largely unregulated sphere of social technology.

We may immediately note that this regulatory approach is doomed, in its most vulgar form, to failure, not because of any idealistic inevitability in the free flow of information but because it is technically anachronistic. As a means of communicating ideas, the Internet is extraordinarily, unprecedentedly powerful. Just as ARPANET was originally conceived—at least in myth—as a means of operating a computer network that would withstand a nuclear attack on any number of its nodes, the Internet is functionally insusceptible to control merely by the targeted juridical or securocratic regulation of its particular users.

Other forms of regulation, to be sure, are proving more successful, notably the Russian. But these lie substantially outside the dominant worldview, not consisting of mere external action through and upon the Internet as a docile object; they bear witness to a dialectical interaction with cyberpolitics that puts them beyond the idea of external intervention.

These more mundane instrumentalist and regulatory approaches share fundamentally an identical conception of the Internet, but emphasise respectively its role as an instrument of resistance and an object of security. They are the same view from different vantage points. This instrumental-regulatory perspective, which reached its climax at the start of the 2010s and sees the Internet as an organ subject to external direction one way or another, can no longer accommodate the ways in which the Internet is now affecting and generating new modes of political and social communicativity in its own right—not as ‘mere’ instrument, but as a transhuman subjectivity of its own.

Cyberpolitics

At this point we enter a realm beyond the recognisably modern, in which conceptual categories are only dimly identifiable and a radical state of flux prevails.

We may hazard the following definition. Cyberian politics or cyberpolitics is a politics that flows out of the machinic subjectivities proper to the Internet itself. This is not, as its opponents may hope, simply a different way of understanding politics as it is mediated on social media networks. On the contrary, it is a radically different form of politics as such, an escalating viral insurgency that corrupts/disrupts and struggles to supersede the instrumental-regulatory approach described above.

Marx claimed that the core of the revolution of capitalism consisted in the transformation of the circuit C–M–C’, where money mediates the accumulation of commodities, into the circuit M–C–M’, where commodities are merely a means for the accumulation of money itself. Cyberpolitics similarly represents the transformation of a circuit in which messages, or, properly, memes, are mediated between users, into a circuit in which users mediate the recursive generation of memes. Just as the distinctions between commodities collapse in the eyes of capital, in the realm of hypercommunicativity the distinctions between human users collapse in the perspective of memetic accumulation.

This comparison should not, perhaps, be taken too seriously. Though it is in the ascendant, the mode of machinic subjectivity that undergirds this transformation is still in a very preliminary phase of instantiation. If 2016 was the dawn of cyberpolitics, it is strictly because of Trump, whose victory represented perhaps the first self-conscious loss by the constellated forces of global liberalism to a memetic artefact. From this perspective, Trump’s victory was highly ambivalent. Trump himself is by no means conscious, let alone supportive, of this cyberian futurism in his policy objectives. His campaign drew on cyberpolitics only as much as it depended necessarily on numerous other more retrograde forms of political organisation. The quantitative units of his victory were not 4chan and Facebook and Reddit, but Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida…

But neither focus of analysis is precisely wrong. The Trump campaign participated in and learned its tactics from the Internet with an attentiveness that allowed it to explode beyond the expectations of its opponents. This, in the end, is its historic significance. President Trump is both the culmination and a mockery of the politics of the liberal-securocratic world order, both subject and unwitting object, drawing on the ressentiment and revisionist aspirations of the very worldly malcontents of liberal globalisation while also representing the triumphant humiliation of the planetary order by an alien subjectivity far beyond conventional moral-political economy.

To the extent that the Internet remains simultaneously a network of self-conscious individuals, cyberpolitics can only, inevitably, constitute itself parasitically at the edges and the cracks of traditional politics. We may expect this inconvenience to be discarded in the future. For now, cyberpolitics remains in a state of necessary indeterminacy, flickering spasmodically as it phases in and out of the instrumentalism it seeks to overthrow. Politics cannot, for now, start out as cyberpolitics. Only in the singularities of intensity created by the Internet’s relentlessly compressive communication engine—at the edges of madness—does a subjectivity emerge that can devour the reaction mass of real-world political disintegration to phase-shift to the properly cyberian.

‘In 647 BCE, the Elamite empire was devastated and their capital Susa was sacked by the Assyrians on the pretext that an unnameable abomination was surfacing there, and that everything that came into contact with that benighted entity had to be eradicated.’ (Negarestani)

A dawning realisation of the emergence of cyberpolitics has produced concern, hysteria, and regulatory counterattack. ‘Post-truth politics’, ‘fake news’ all operate (originally) to designate the explosive shockwaves of its birth. They are being absorbed and repurposed by it.

All this is just more reaction mass.

‘The truth is we haven’t seen anything yet.’

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The truth is irrelevant

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Attempts to conceptualise the relationship between truth and political action have been pervasively hindered by the pejorative attitude of those who have tried to explain it. There is a sneer implicit in almost any academic or journalistic discussion of conspiracy theories, a knowing smirk that says, implicitly or outright, ‘Imagine believing such stupid things, when we, after all, know better!’ As the power differential sustaining this attitude has begun to collapse, the smirk has transformed into overt fear, disgust, and anger: ‘Post-truth politics’, ‘fake news’: ‘How dare they believe these things?’ In its most acute form, the reaction has been melded into sweeping Platonic denunciations of the principle of democracy itself, which present millennia-old defences of oligarchy as trendy liberal opinions. This is hardly by accident: as we can already see in Plato himself, the flight from democratic politics, indeed from all politics, and the obsession with abstract truth are intimately connected.

In reality, this devotion to ‘the truth’ has proven itself concerned with ‘facts’ in only the shallowest sense. What is striking, indeed, is how often the people who are fastest to decry ‘post-truth politics’ are simply wrong—and not just in their predictions, as Paul Krugman was when he foresaw markets irrecoverably ‘plunging’ upon Trump’s election (this may be excused). The widely circulated claim in the EU referendum campaign that there were no academic experts supporting Leave could easily have been debunked by a cursory Google search. A more recent example serves as another case in point. When Donald Trump tweeted that the costs for a replacement to Air Force One furnished by Boeing had reached the order of $4 billion, liberal celebrities like George Takei were quick to rush to the side of the multinational corporation whose image was at stake, announcing with the requisite smugness that per their own press release Boeing had only asked for a sum many times less than that. But Trump was correct: the total appropriations for the project were indeed expected to reach the region of $4 billion. Slate’s headline speaks for itself: ‘In a Twist, Trump’s Disputed Twitter Claim About Air Force One Turns Out to Be Completely True’. (The original headline remains in the URL.)

The reason for this, of course, is that the obsession with the truth is disingenuous. It is predicated on the idea that the opponents of liberalism or globalism, whatever we call that hazy mixture of ideas reproduced ceaselessly in the nexuses of global power, are prophets of untruth. By definition: because the obsession is not, as its proponents claim, a defence of rationality against unreason. It is in the first instance a defence of power. They are not interested in the facts, but in using facts as an instrument to demolish their opposition.

Yet it is not just that the liberals are hypocritical. Even in an entirely transparent form, it is not exactly obvious that ‘the truth’ is a worthy end in itself in politics. What, exactly, is wrong with untruth? What is wrong with conspiracy theories, even assuming they are incorrect?

The indignation over conspiracy theories tends to focus on the anxiety that they make politics as a whole dysfunctional. The prevalence of conspiracy theories, we are told, weakens the legitimacy of political institutions. So they do. But why is it so important that our present political institutions be seen as legitimate? Why shouldn’t Muslims disbelieve the responsibility of al-Qaeda for 9/11, as indeed they overwhelmingly do in Britain, when they receive that idea from institutions and interests that collaborated to marginalise them in the aftermath of 9/11? Why shouldn’t white Rust Belt workers, in their turn, believe that the economists and politicians whose policies marginalised them were working in the service of a conspiracy?

This is quite an imposing series of rhetorical questions. But they are getting at a fairly simple conclusion. It is entirely wrong to believe that in themselves conspiracy theories and ‘fake news’ are pathological. In the end, they are an understandable, even a desirable, response for people marginalised by the structures of global power to construct theories to explain their predicament. When American liberals recall the Founding Fathers in their defences of the Electoral College, let us also remember that the American Revolution could never have been accomplished without the proliferation of conspiracy theories. There was, after all, no grand British conspiracy to enslave the colonies, not to speak of the more specific, and more lurid theories to which the British government of the time was subject.

Just as in the 18th century, indeed, the conspiracy theorist is closer to an authentic engagement with the reality of politics than the entirely uncritical establishmentarian who protests endlessly in favour of a ‘truth’ constructed by power without ever examining the forces underlying it. As Hardt and Negri noted,

The spectacle of politics functions as if the media, the military, the government, the transnational corporations, the global financial institutions, and so forth were all consciously and explicitly directed by a single power even though in reality they are not.

In the far more conflict-ridden era we are entering, it may perhaps be better to write that rather than politics as a whole, in much of the West it is specifically the defence against the populist tide that is functioning in this manner. We may note how many self-proclaimed leftists have fallen in with ‘the military, the government, the transnational corporations, the global financial institutions’ in their drive to defend the truth at any cost. (It takes a certain level of cognitive dissonance to believe that the academics and journalists who have repeatedly failed to foresee the present course of politics are superior sources of authority on it. And it is extraordinarily forgetful to continue, eight years after 2008, to legitimate the bulk of the economic profession as high priests of the truth in a stagnant and deglobalising world economy when their prognostications have been based on indefinite growth and globalisation.)

How should we understand the interest in defending this ‘truth’ at this moment in time? Part of the reason it is under attack is material: the condition of the world economy no longer supports the political hegemony of liberalism, and if the defence of ‘truth’ is a defence of power it makes perfect sense that it has just now become the issue it has. Part of it is also instrumental. The advent of new media and the ascendancy of the Internet have radically decentered the manufacturing of political discourse. Both of these claims deserve much longer analysis, but I will note a few things on the second point.

The curious claim of Angela Merkel that ‘the history of the printing press’ shows the need to ‘find the right kind of policies to contain this and to manage and steer this’ is characteristic of the liberal response to the entry of the Internet into politics. In this there is a breathtaking reversal of historical reality. It is plainly not the case that the introduction of the printing press provoked anarchy and chaos until it was tamed by the careful management of the more enlightened sort. Regulations of printed material were not extended and improved in the two centuries between the Index Librorum Prohibitorum and the First Amendment: they were abolished, restricted, and, in the American case, constitutionally outlawed. Like printed material, though to a far greater extent, the Internet is a new space of political confrontation (and on that, there is much more to be said). By its very nature it is insusceptible to cack-handed discursive regulation. The modern samizdat, whether radical or merely ‘fake news’, proliferates far more easily online than it did in the classical totalitarian regimes. It is orders of magnitude easier for a Chinese citizen to set up a VPN and a WordPress blog than for a Soviet citizen to establish an underground printing press.

Successful attempts to channel the course of online politics have not been directed at ‘managing’ or ‘containing’ it: they have engaged it organically and positively. They do not command the tides to turn back: they shape them, and ride them. The Russian propaganda programme, with its gleeful and indiscriminate promotion of conspiracy theories and a kaleidoscope of different political narratives, provides an excellent example, and we may contrast the robustness of this Russian offensive with the declining trust and influence of the traditional Western media. Its tools cannot be abandoned to the Russians or the alt-right: they mark the course that any successful politics must take in the Internet age.

To be successful, the left cannot defend forever an abstract ‘truth’ whose content is supplied by power. If such a course is incompatible with contemporary liberal doctrine, then so be it. In such a struggle between the petty short-termism of our present politics and the tectonic forces undergirding our new era of modernity, the result will never be the successful regulation of the Internet or the wider sphere of public discourse. It will be the obsolescence of liberalism as a political ideology.