This is a linkpost for https://www.themetasophist.com/chapter/on-history-has-begun-by-bruno-macaes
One of the iconic events during the fall of Hellenic-Classical civilisation was the burning of the library of Alexandria. The conquering Muslims apparently thought that the books therein would “either contradict the Koran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, so they are superfluous.”
The story may be apocryphal, but it seems the tendency is very real, particularly in the US. Removing authors from reading lists, the knocking of statues, the renaming of buildings – is this a passing fad, or a world-historical event? Just as a nascent Arabic culture once cast off the forms of Hellenism, is a nascent American culture throwing off European patterns of thought and behaviour?
To help answer this question I turned to the new book “History Has Begun: The Birth of a New America” by Bruno Maçães. The book is not really seeking to solve a problem, but rather to describe a phenomenon called political virtualism.
The Idea of Political Virtualism
The underlying view of the book seems to be that the US is not undergoing a decline, but a metamorphosis: liberalism is mutating, and a new dispensation is starting to form. Maçães terms the emerging outlook political virtualism, meaning an immersion in stories and fantasies, none of which are held to be final. Importantly, fiction is not used to mask reality, as in Russia, but to replace it.
He uses a number of examples to illustrate this. Whereas politicians such as Reagan and Schwarzenegger used their acting skills to appear more credible as politicians, newer politicians use their political skills to perform in a way more suited to actors. Trump’s approach to governance was driven by what would look good on television. Of his own election night, he said “it was one of the greatest nights in the history of television”, and his obsession with cable news coverage has continued ever since.
Maçães also indicts Ocasio-Cortez on the same count — judging that the Green New Deal is lacking as a policy plan but complete as a movie script, he quotes the politician herself once stating that: “We have to become master storytellers. Everyone in public service needs to be a master storyteller.”
But according to Maçães, this tendency also manifests in many other forms such college students pretending to be drunk in order to live up to the role they are expected to play.
He also offers Silicon Valley as an example, whose elite “is so enamoured of the eureka moment of pure insight that it resists coming back to Earth in order to give a final shape to social relations” and “dream of a future world but is not necessarily interested in finding a role for everyone else in those dreams.” He believes the support for a universal basic income by some Valley thinkers amounts to an effort “to create a safe playground where every technological dream can be freely pursued because no one will be seriously damaged or harmed by it.”
But from where did this trend emerge?
According to Maçães, the trend was foreshadowed in the literary and philosophical works of Sinclair Lewis, William James and John Rawls. For William James, there were many truths, and he sought to create a liberalism where “people can go on with their separate lives and their separate philosophies”. For Rawls, the effort to make everyone make everyone think and act identically is unworkable. His solution was to “allow many different doctrines to flourish, provided they all agreed on some fundamental political principles.”
But the most accurate incarnation of the new dispensation is to be found in Lewis’s novel, the main character of which begins life by simply imitating everyone around him. He sees this as a good thing, as it pushes people to “produce — produce — produce!” Eventually realising how meaningless this situation is, his solution is to “preserve the social and economic fabric in its current form but grant each person the freedom to break with convention in his or her actions.” Maçães’s interpretation is that the tendency to “enhance or embellish reality becomes a vital operating system, and it is precisely this longing that Lewis suggests is the difference between Americans and Europeans.”
Is Political Virtualism unique to today’s America?
The idea of political virtualism is certainly a powerful lens: upon learning about it, it is difficult not to notice it repeatedly. Two examples include the common references to the election as a season finale complete with plot twists such as Trump contracting the virus, and the viral meme depicting the victorious Democrats as the Avengers.
How new is the phenomenon? It has possibly existed in miniature before. Was not a notion already in Shakespeare, when he said “all the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players”? And Trump is not the first politician to compare himself to an actor: Suetonius remarked that on the last day of the Emperor Augustus, he asked his friends if he played his part well in the comedy of life. Later, he said in Greek “since well I’ve played my part, all clap your hands, and from the stage dismiss me with applause.”
And the world has been embellished before, namely through religion. Pre-enlightenment superstitions included holy wells, fairies, and guardian spirits floating over a city. Is the tendency described by Maçães simply another episode in the rise and fall of rationalism which, according to Oswald Spengler, every society will experience? Because in political virtualism there are certainly some echoes of what Weber described as the “great enchanted garden” which was the traditional world.
To explain the phenomenon, elsewhere Maçães has offered wokeness as an example of virtualism:
Wokeness is virtual, not radical politics. The woke left has more or less deliberately abandoned every project of social transformation. Instead, it creates a public performance, a reality show of social progress and asks us to play our role. That it is not radical is amply shown by the way it seamlessly fits with corporate America.
But perhaps a better explanation for Wokeism is re-religiofication, as described by Toynbee and Spengler. Many have already noticed the similarities between Wokeness and certain strands of Christianity.
But why should we be witnessing such a phenomena now? Because as described by Eric Hoffer in The True Believer, when the lives of a section of society begin to worsen, their expectations are frustrated and so they turn to mass movements to give meaning to their frustrated lives – especially those movements that take on the guise of a holy cause. When conventional ways of obtaining meaning such as career and family are harder to obtain, fanatical movements thus spread like disease in a nutritionally deprived population. While the displacement and unemployment caused by the virus probably accelerated the growth of these movements, their formation was facilitated by prior discontent — probably caused by a hopefully temporary mixture of inequality and elite overproduction as described by Peter Turchin.
The fact that wokeness does not have any concrete idea of social transformation is another similarity with Christianity, which itself avoided any concrete criticism of the Roman social order and preferred to focus on the rich in general.
Notwithstanding the above points, it does seem that there is something qualitatively different about this episode. Perhaps the best example of virtualisation is QAnon, a conspiracy theory in which Donald Trump is pitted against a paedophiliac deep state. Game designer Adrian Hon has even likened it to an alternate-reality game as people must follow and discover clues to solve mysteries. Indeed those whose relatives became caught up in the game sensed that they were “inhabiting a different reality.” Maçães does not mention QAnon in the version of book I read, presumable because it is a relatively recent phenomenon.
Perhaps what needs to be explained is the degree of dramatisation and immersion, as opposed to the phenomenon itself. Technology is the obvious factor here, providing another datapoint for the materialist conception of history: social media gave us the stage to exercise our newfound dramatic sense, acquired over decades of exposure to TV and cinema. Maçães rightly points out that online “everyone is a television character.”
But is there another reason why virtualism is particularly prevalent in the US? The American media market is the biggest in the West. We know from standard economic theory that the greater the market size, the greater the degree of product differentiation. And the greater the degree of product differentiation, the more the product will match the tastes of the consumer. American media is thus likely to be more appealing, or immersive, to the average American then the media in any other Western country.
The major US media companies have actively nurtured this. Trump may have been bad for their mental health, but he was great for their revenues. Maçães offers an interesting anecdote about Dean Baquet, executive editor of the New York Times, where he describes the pivot they would make: readers had grown tired of the Russian story. He described that as Chapter One of the Trump story; the next one would be about racism. As Maçães notes, the allusion to literature rather than journalism is telling.
To convey what a political virtualism might look like, Maçães is fond of referring to the TV series Westworld, where robots almost indistinguishable from humans populate and play host to the wealthy in a Western-themed park. But in Westworld, the owner of the park, the Man in Black, became obsessed with discovering something true in it. Meanwhile, the architect of the park, Robert Ford, secretly prepared his creations to go out into the real world.
Such redeeming features are rarely found in the contemporary US media class, who seem blithely unconcerned with reality and intent on keeping their audience in a fictional and confrontational world. Their true resemblance is perhaps not to any Westworld character but to Elliot Carver, the Bond villain from Tomorrow Never Dies who tries to start a war between the UK and China in order to increase media revenues.
On this count, some of them are not doing too badly. In the past five years, the revenues of The New York Times have increased by around 15pc; the share price by 200pc. If the phenomenon was virtual, the rewards were very much material.
The Future of Political Virtualism
As technology continues to develop in the future, one can only imagine that Maçães believes that the tendency towards virtualisation will accelerate.
Can we imagine that an entire populace could become enchanted by political virtualism? Let’s return to Westworld. When the robots became aware of their situation, many of them naturally wanted to leave. As for the one human more immersed in the Park than anyone else, the Man in Black, one of the rare times we see him smile is when he gets shot in the arm a rebelling host — because now, finally, the consequences were real.
This reflects a general principle: in a world too real, people will want to escape from it. But the same may be true for a world that is too unreal, in which case the world proposed by Maçães will not be an equilibrium. To some degree the author accounts for this by saying there should be a kill switch for any given fiction. But the existence of such a switch indicates that the overall realisation of the model will be curtailed.
This is not a bad thing, as a full application of virtualism could weaken society. To survive, a society must do more then entertain and entrance: it must solve problems. Substantial amounts of attention devoted to the unreal would suck attention away from pressing issues. Worryingly, virtualism could even be self-reinforcing: problems unattended to will go unresolved, deepening the desire to escape from a worsening reality.
Another doubt relates to the fact that for the political virtualist model to work, nobody should try to impose their story on others. But normally, the most engaging stories have an ending that feeds into some world-historical narrative with a clear enemy. Evangelical Christians talk about the Antichrist and the Left talks about fascism. Although both threats are to some degree exaggerated or even manufactured, they are nonetheless projected onto disbelieving others. While this tendency remains intact, it is difficult to see how either side could live and let live in the way they would need to for virtualism to be a stable set of affairs. But Maçães provides insufficient indication of how such a modus vivendi might be established.
There are also issues with the internationalisation of his vision. His chapter on foreign policy is standard realist analysis in slightly different language — whereas an offensive realist such as John Mearsheimer would say the US should prevent any single Eurasian power from dominating the Eurasian continent, Maçães says the US should ensure that each part can pursue their own way of life.
But would a US elite immersed in fantasy really be able to do that? Mental models consciously developed in one context will unconsciously be applied in another; and stories developed at home will inevitably be projected abroad — we have already seen this with the domestic narrative of political liberalisation being projected on to other countries such as China and Turkey, despite nothing of the sort happening. Belief in narratives inhibited perception of the facts, the sin qua non of a realist policy.
Moreover, pursuing realism requires one to focus on the capabilities of other nations and not their intentions, as the latter can shift rapidly and so cannot be relied upon. And yet stories centre intentions, character development, and plot twists above all. That could mean that policy will bias towards a focus on oscillating intentions and fleeting emotions, whereas a realist foreign policy should discount or even ignore the same.
However, in another sense, such unpredictability or inscrutability could help the US pursue a realist policy. If allied countries know that the US will always be there to provide a security guarantee, they will be slower to invest in their own defence. An unpredictable US could thus be necessary for an offshore balancing style strategy to work, as containing a powerful rival is more viable if neighbouring countries are willing and able to defend themselves.
Implications for Metasophism
Are there any favourable features of political virtualism that could be used to enhance societal cohesion and creativity? At this stage it is important to note that the book mostly aims to describe what Maçães sees as an emergent phenomenon; he does not advocate it per se. However, he is enthusiastic:
I believe the quest for total immersion is the holy grail of modern politics. A society of stories would be able to create new experiences and genuine feelings and thoughts in a completely artificial environment. The possibilities are endless.
But perhaps the key advantage of political virtualism he describes as follows:
Democracy is less the incorporation of input from voters than the constant appeal to viewers with new content, new projects and new possibilities. Even if one movement or concept is often dominant, having more access to the public and greater resources, there are other alternatives struggling to survive and new ones being prepared. The goal of the state is similar to that of a scriptwriter: to bring all the different characters and stories together, deciding which should have room to grow and which should play a supporting role or move to the background.
I find this part of the vision attractive, namely because it is important to ensure a certain competition among narratives and worldviews. As Pareto saw with his theory of the ciruclation of elites, it is when one worldview monopolises institutions that things start to go wrong. However, it is precisely state institutions that have been monopolised in the past. This is why the Metasophist system includes a decentralised way for selecting elites and allocating resources to creative groups, with the explicit goal of ensuring a healthy competition among worldviews and narratives. Some of the young would propose projects, but it is their peers who would decide which get to go ahead.
Moreover, as mentioned above, there is a problem with incommensurable narratives. In order to make the narratives commensurable, they need to lead to the same point — in Aristotelian terms, they need to have the same telos. In Metasophism, the common destination of all narratives and actions is the ensuring the survival of humanity and discovery of the meaning of life (assuming such a thing is possible). As I have previously described, that is something to which each individual and group could contribute; their narrative could therefore be centred around it.
For the above two reasons, it seems that Metasophism already has integrated the fundamental advantages of virtualism.
In an arresting thought, the philosopher Roger Scruton once wrote that the person who set fire to the library of Alexandria did the greatest service to civilisation, as it meant that scholars in subsequent ages no longer needed to pore over mediocre tomes. He is probably right: people must be free to set off on their own path rather than constantly rethreading the well-worn paths of the past. If America set off on its own path, while Europe refines its own outlook, both may end up gaining from the informed perspective of the other.
In the same spirit, I am somewhat positive about political virtualism, even if I have an overpowering bias against the fact that it might ignore or even deny the idea of reality. It probably cannot work exactly as Maçães describes, but it could move at least one part of the West somewhat closer to a Metasophist condition where the validity of different paths and outlooks are recognised — and this shift in mindset is urgently needed.
In any case, the book is a highly engaging and thought-provoking read.
What's the evidence for political virtualism as a good model of explaining what's going on? What evidence does it fit better than other models (and what are the other, possibly unnamed models)?
Maybe this is in the book and not in the review, but I found myself unconvinced virtualism provides a good model of what's going on in American politics.
The support provided in the book is purely anecdotal (along the lines of what I discussed above) and doesn't really discuss any other models. The alternative explantions I discuss such as re-religiofication due to material conditions are not mentioned in the book, which is wrote in a somewhat impressionistic manner.