What is it that crucially distinguishes the present – the second decade of the 21st century – from the past, the closing decades of the 20th century?
The dissolution of the Soviet Union was the epochal event from which all further politics was supposed to flow. A peaceful victory in hostilities that were never declared, the Cold War triumph of the US over the USSR was supposed to set the world on a trajectory that would determine its history for the next half-century. And yet 27 years later, the world is still divided into the same power blocs: Russia and its orbit; China, the awakening dragon; America and its client states. The Middle East remains war-scarred and volatile, a proxy theatre for the big powers. Sub-Saharan Africa and South America are tangential to the larger geopolitical rivalry except as sources of resources to be extracted. Southeast Asia remains a source of cheap labour and manufacturing costs. India and Pakistan are still bitter adversaries armed with atomic weapons.
What has truly changed the world is, in the end, a device carried in one’s purse or in one’s pocket – a screen that commands attention, a source of immediate intelligence, an irresistible invitation to self-expression. It is a library, a camera, a megaphone, a node in a global skein of incessant public chatter, an apparatus through which users reveal every aspect of themselves to the companies they are paying to provide the service of doing so.
The difference between then and now is that when the Soviet Union unravelled in 1991, we in the West followed events through news agencies and the dispatches of foreign correspondents, while a privileged commentariat interpreted for us what it all meant. Today, the slightest political development, not to say the latest in celebrity scandal, sports news, business transactions, or criminal activity, ripples through a medium of immediate popular reaction. The promise of democracy was that the people had a voice, but until the early 21st century that voice was contained, curated, channelled through professionals who worked for media companies that governed what was known and what was said. Today, anything can be said publicly by anyone. There is no governance of what shall be known, and certainly no media gatekeeping function.
The eclipse of the 20th-century agencies of mass communication by the social media platforms is a profoundly political development. By revolutionising how people come to know of the world, and how they interact with one another, the digital concourses have superseded what were once essential agencies of social cohesion and replaced them with little as yet beyond discursive turmoil. The news media have been stripped of their hegemonic authority.
In many respects, the result has been liberating. But when what could be said in public had to be filtered through media outlets mindful of their social responsibilities, the hateful and the demented could be sequestered. Discourse unleashed from the censorious hand of the 20th-century media permits and produces all manner of heterodoxy and every species of extremism. Now that all are free to say what they like, the social media channels seethe with venom, hysteria, rage, and paranoia. Political civility and the ‘norms of democratic decorum’ disintegrate.
What the new circumstances imperil is the notion of compromise, the mutual agreement that certain values and institutions lie outside partisan differences, the brokering mechanisms through which political disputes were traditionally negotiated under liberal democracy, and the crucial hegemonic operator, consent. Made possible by the new media environment, the insurgent alt-right movement amounts to a campaign to revoke confidence in the institutions that once legitimated political authority in the United States; and the reigning avatar of heterodoxy, Donald Trump, is its ringmaster, determined to tear down the architecture of international conventions and treaties that constituted the global order, because these described a negotiated world, a world answerable to shared understandings, rather than to the fiat of an autocrat.
Inasmuch as the outcome of the global hegemonic contest turns on the policies to be prosecuted by the United States, then the fate of the world hangs on a struggle playing out on the US home front over whether and how the institutions of civil society and the values of liberalism will prevail in the face of an ascendant political order determined to overthrow them.
What is at stake is whether America endures as a liberal society; and, if it does not, whether the remaining democracies can prevail in constituting and defending a ‘free world’.
Please do not quote this article without the author’s permission.