Decodificare il presente, raccontare il futuro

MONITOR


Tue, November 24, 2020

PUNKED AND TRUMPED – The sharp margins of politics

It is the 7th of November, 2020. As dusk sets in London, images streamed from the United States, of jubilation and protest in streets flooded by some kind of Indian Summer skies, follow the announced victory of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris against Donald Trump and Mike Pence in the 2020 US elections.

«I am not the prince of Denmark and this hotel is not bloody Elsinore.»
Sid Vicious, New York


1. The Pandemic mindset

It is the 7th of November, 2020. As dusk sets in London, images streamed from the United States, of jubilation and protest in streets flooded by some kind of Indian Summer skies, follow the announced victory of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris against Donald Trump and Mike Pence in the 2020 US elections.

The images are striking not only for their intensity and for the diversity of crowds, but for the fact that all the participants do face masks. Faces disfigured and made anonymous in order to protect oneself and others. Even the new president-elect and his running mate show their adherence to the rules introduced to avoid contagion, as they take the stage where SUVs gathered in a car park in Delaware during the night.

This has been our reality since March of this epochal 2020: we have been living confined on our own bubbles, with our houses transformed either into a permanent bootcamp for kids or into a silent hermitage for old people and singles. For more among us, all the essential workers obliged and compelled to travel to work each given the day, the quiet of home more a mirage. For more of us, the pain of keeping distanced from our beloved ones.

During the short and anodyne summer, we allowed ourselves to the illusion of holidays, but that brief experience is now gone. Summer has been a season felt like a suspended sentence. We are back into the pinging noises of our social messaging services and the fuzziness of our conference calls. And the cloudy skies of Fall.

We adapted to this new version of modern life, with a strong dependence on working connections and delivery services. Monades with virtual escape routes. Tablets and smartphones what illuminated codices were for the first millennium’s monks.

Our immune systems are now slightly weaker than before the pandemic as we miss on the usual concoction of germs and bacteria we were used to share with others in public transports and workplaces.

Yet, the planet is not a different place than the one we left when we entered this suspended state in the first quarter of 2020. All the risks and the big trends are there, from climate change to the accelerated substitution human/machine. And a growing and baffling difficulty of the political milieu to grasp these changes and to define what are the key trade-offs and what are the big decisions facing us as individuals and as society.

We live confusing times, where abundance of data and overload of information do not translate on decision mechanisms or policy making adequate to the fast times we live. And where horizontal societies (I use the plural purposely) cross wires with different transversal agendas, being them equality, supremacism, environmental activism or citizen/consumer awareness. Though within a context of low objectivity, often. Politicians are the first ones, in some cases, to validate the confusion and the a-factual theories that circulate around. Using a simple metaphor, the new normal in politics is to point at the moon and claim it is an artificial satellite built by aliens billion years ago.

So, as a large swath of the world population sits on its own cocoons, waiting for new lockdown rules to be launched or implemented, there is a strong sense of lost direction. Or a sense of ‘no future’ ahead of us. Or each direction is taken, occupied, gorged with ideas and influencers. A traffic jam of epic dimensions, like the 800 kilometres of queues of cars trying to escape Paris before lockdown.


2. No future or one too many futures

We are into the midstream of a singularity, or a combination of different singularities, as some key tipping points are reached (as example, the accelerated melting of Greenland’s glaciers or the recent experiments with microbots to connect neural cells – a first step towards a cyberization of humanity). We are beginning to observe a new world, a new normal. If we ever had a normal to adhere to.

What is concerning for most of us is the array of scenarios with different degree of dystopia or challenges. We live, as never before, in a Montecarlo-simulated world. Where each scenario seems difficult to be priced, if not with the rosy lenses of market players.

These non-dystopian futures may seem aligned to the ‘no future’ war scream of Johnny Rotten/John Lydon when the Sex Pistols, more than forty years ago, spearheaded the punk revolution in UK, a precise moment in our recent history when chaos and innovation were once again intertwined, in some form of anarchism/old establishment carousel.

No future, they were telling us then. And it seems we are back to that moment in time, when the young generations were facing a similar period of radical changes in society, after the long austerity of the Seventies. The world back in 1977 was, especially in Western countries, a relic of a glorious past. Whatever promise of wealth and prosperity our parents imagined, the young generations had to deal with a world with an increased level of geopolitical complexity and the first reckoning to climate change. Let alone the absence of any intergenerational transmission of power if not through entitlement.


3. Trump ain’t punk

A picture of an aged John Lydon with a Make America Great Again t-shirt, a far cry from the skinny and spiky aired himself of nearly 50 years ago, taken in 2018, surfaced again and it created a substantial noise among his fans. In one of those thought-provoking chats in a social media, somebody claimed that, maybe, Lydon was right and Trump could be considered himself a punk, a disruptor of the finest nature. A kind of the bug of the system, or a swamp-drainer, on his own words.

Though considering Trump a punk completely misses the point not only about him but also about the way in which we can read these divisive times. More than with John Lydon, who continues to act as agent provocateur since he left the Sex Pistols and he invented with his new band PIL the post-punk movement, the real comparison could be thrown with Malcolm McLaren, another ginger haired mogul and the original mind behind New York Dolls and the Sex Pistols.

Both Trump and McLaren were the result of rich inner city elites (McLaren’s parents were diamond traders), with a strong sense of entitlement, based on census and ethnic origins transcending and annihilating the primal desire of the punk movement (in its truer forms after the evanescent period of the Sex Pistols) for a new freer society or rooting for the absence of it.

Both of them were the result of a post-Warholian society, based on instantaneous gratification via notoriety or via expensive objects (it doesn’t matter if copies of copies, like most of Warhol’s ‘masterpieces’). Trump’s perpetual grin, filmed by few hours by Warhol, would have been another classic like Empire.

He firstly exploited the traditional media notoriety, becoming a kind of It-kid in the New York socialite scene and, after a series of debacles in the real estate world, he moved into the reality show buzz. The Apprentice, where he was playing a gruesome and successful CEO. A fictional character that allowed him to become a caricature but more relevantly, to enter into the houses of every American. Like Ozzy Osbourne became a cartoonish hard rock god on his own reality family show, Trump became the archetypical American businessman. All testosterones and guts decisions.

Then, as The Apprentice closed, the damage was done. Trump discovered the incredible power of social media, where everybody is entitled to an opinion and where the high frequency of messages and feed of news and tweets expanded proportionately the capacity of influencers to thrive, in a kind of continuous, somehow delirious, sequencing of 15 minutes of fame, repeated each day million times.

Trump created then his own show, surrounded by millions of Trumpers and Anti-Trumpers, replicating a similar phenomenon of the one of Justin Bieber and his Beliebers. With a difference. Justin Bieber was still selling music, shows, entertainment. Trump realised that his own person was the product to be sold to Americans. His credibility as political agent/body and then as legitimate candidate for the Republican party was becoming stronger by the day. With the result we all know.

So, Trump’s life is a perfect parable of entitlement and notoriety, based on the extremely advantageous starting point he had. He was born under a good sign and, throughout all his life, he never conceded his spot on the limelight, even when discredited as businessman but as the ultimate product of the American all-white-male way to leadership.

Punk was different, it was a disillusion with the future as narrative of the generation immediately after the Boomers one.

It was a critical moment in UK History and the ‘punk’ movement was only part of a group of movements predicating radical change and eversion. When punk exploded as sub-culture in UK and US, in Continental Europe we had internal forms of terrorism (France, Italy, Germany and Spain) and the sense of fragility and confusion was very similar, with the main difference that the unrest was out there in the streets and not, often, confined into the realm of social media.

Trump is not an anarchist or a promoter of a radical agenda, but the extreme guardian of conservative values, not even trying to embody them. As the message is not anymore one of resemblance and assimilation but a mirrors game, where Trump and the Republicans engage with the racist and radical right and the more extreme fringes of evangelical movements as intermediary agents.

Trump does not need to behave, but he needs to defend a series of positions now threatened by modernity. With the big problem that the existential threat to the conservative American way of life is not into the political opponents or essential rights like LGBT ones or planned parenthood, but in much more radical transformations of our society and the world around us (e.g. climate change).

But this doesn’t matter to Trump or his accolites. His thirst for endorsement and fame has been so pervasive that he left not much space for other discussions, a deafening background noise not only for Americans but for all the global citizens. As Trump has been, like Malcom McLaren, a master on interpreting a series of current anxieties and tensions, using them for their own benefit, being power grab or filthy profit. And, moreover, substituting a discourse on how to cope with the evident realities and risks of this juncture in time with a continuous self-reference to himself, a continuous Trumpeness made of videos, tweets, soundbites, all passed through the echo chambers we all became. Me included, with this oped.

Trump is not a punk, for sure, but we have been all punked by him.


4. The Disillusioned Society

Trump thrives on a liquified or nearly gaseous society, where the political discourse is confined to the 140 characters of a tweet, or the even lazier action of a click of a retweet. Communication happens through Short Tik-Tok videos and we are exposed to some form of Tinderisation/polarisation of choices. In this kind of short-breathing and superfast now-here land, each opinion is counted and coded as a ‘like’, but no views seem to stick or count anymore.

A desirable long-term vision of the future is replaced by the continuous reaction and patching back to millenary fears we never abandoned since the last century.

It is a subtle game of fear tactics vs. strategies of hope or coping ones: the live streaming of chaos and unrest, wildfires in Australia and California and devastating floods and storms all across the rest of the worlds seems to reaffirm the fact we are living dystopian times, but the issue is that the culprits mask themselves as the victims.

As we are running on empty in terms of natural resources, our society is pushed, voluntarily or not, towards an accelerated introduction of forms of societal control via images and snippets of half truths becoming opinions, political parties, movements.

The social media-filtered chaos could be the best vivid dream for an anarchist, if it wasn’t for the fact that the anarchist views expressed by uber socialist thinkers have been slowly replaced by a very conservative and bigoted view of the world.

The society imagined by our grandparents after the Second World War, especially in Europe, was one where the scars of the conflict were supposed to heal, rebuilding a connecting tissue among the different classes and views of the world built around understanding and respect, nonetheless through continuous debate and regular rebalancing between the dominant political and economic philosophies: socialism and liberism.

The world post-1989 and post-2008 (two pivotal moments of disintegration or extreme challenges to both systems) has been one where the traditional conflicts, the ones of ideologies or countries opposed to each other, have been substituted by divisions and fractures in the society created in a rather horizontal and transversal manner. Also, thanks to the virtual blows of a small extremist minority (or minorities), able to influence or keep the silent majority at bay.

These fault lines built around the traditional ones associated to gender, race, wealth (and related access to education and health), have been boosted by other divisions, based not on tangible differences, but on extremization of views of the world, like the flat-earth and no-vax movements. The abundance of conspiracy theories or all-encompassing explanations of the world bring the risk to create substantial confusion and to lose sight on the adequate addressing of the biggest global social shock since the Second World War. Let alone the environmental stress we will have to endure.

The magmatic concoction of conspiracy theories has today reached the mainstream and, with it, the silent majority, thanks to social media and the proliferation of smart phones. The emergence of Breitbart boosted Trump’s chances to be elected, with a similar approach followed by QAnon, with its dissemination of fake theories, built on a mix of religion, numerology and pseudo-scientific theories. In a sauce of gossips and using celebrities to validate gossips and rumours, in a kind of Perez Hilton’s fashion.

The process of distribution is via social media, mostly Facebook or Twitter. Each new tweet or post is amplified by related sites and outlets of right-wing/populists, in a kind of virtual leafleting. The target of these theories is the same population target as the Tea Party during the 90s: the disillusioned middle class who survived the biggest financial crisis of the last century but which was hit deeply on their own aspirations and, for annuity holders, their future.

The phenomenon of the ‘disillusioned middle class’ is a communal aspect of European and American societies. In Europe, other factors are having an impact on the society’s stability: the age structure of many European countries, the end of fixed jobs and the perceived (yet not real) threat of a continuous replacement of ‘Europeans’ with immigrants or machines.

The disillusioned middle class considers itself more and more marginalised, having to deal with the absence of a stable and prosperous set of ‘futures’. Hence, figures like Trump in US, Farage in UK or Salvini in Italy offer a vision of traditional values and of the potential step into a past that does not exist anymore. The Punk’s ‘No future’ vs the Conspirationists’ ‘Back to the past’.

On the left side of the political spectrum, the fall-out of the financial crisis and the demolition of the middle class ambitions allowed the emergence of a kind of neo-radical communist thinking, far more left than the wilder Slavo Zizek or the recently deceased David Graeber. These ideas are well-represented in the books of The Invisible Committee and Tiqqun (written by collective of anonymous French left-wing thinkers published by Semiotexte, a Californian radical publisher distributed by MIT Press). These are proper handbooks for the revolutions to come, where the Euro crisis and the Northern Africa’s ‘Spring’ are considered heralds of new, communist times.

These books offer an intellectually exhaustive guide to channel dissent, but a cultured and well-educated one. And this where outlets like QAnon are more aligned to a society where people do not read books and where the attention span requires icons and symbols more than complex social theories. They don’t embolden the disparaged middle class with sophisticated explanations about social disparity and inequality and the right to fight back the ‘powers’, but they build a gory and mysterious narrative around some alleged powers (often aiming against progressive policies and leaders), to justify Donal Trump as a kind of angel of revenge.

An angel that seems to have clipped his own wings, with the lack of realisation that an externality like a pandemic would have triggered even wider and deeper fears than the one of the ‘different one’ or of the evil immigrants from Latin America. A rhetoric which served him well in 2016. But not in the world of 2020 battered by an invisible enemy. As the election’s results have shown clearly.
As the sense of crisis linked to immigration, inner city violence, libertarianism was playing well for the radical right, insofar winning the votes of the scared and fearful white working classes, Covid-19 has once again brought us back to the real fears we all share, the ones for a world changing so fast we may not recognise our own lives before the pandemic.

The pandemic led us to realise that, apart the theories and the fake news, we live in a ‘society at risk’, where the continuous pressure to the asymptotes of ideological distribution will not offer us solution, but more aggravation.

So, if there is a silver lining of this period, it may be the realisation that we should reacquire the true spirit of the punk movement of the end of the Seventies: making the most of scarcity of resources and redesigning a better no-future for all.

In order to save our society from dissolution or exacerbation of verbal conflicts into riots and disorder, we need to reaffirm the present as the main domain of action, a place of respect and challenge of ideas but without the psychotic social-media vandalism of the last decade. A place to re-imagine society, within the opportunities offered by technology but without the fear of using it and within the needs of environmentally and socially sustainable growth.

And, of course, in a Covid free world.
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