The New Caesarism: a Lexicon, Part II

I’m continuing here the chapter of my book that I began posting yesterday.

Western populations have suffered a profound degradation of reason, intellect, and moral integrity. The symptoms of this are many and flagrant. Among the most telling: Americans are rapidly losing both passive and active vocabulary. Both declined at a fairly steady pace postwar until the advent of e-mail and the text message; vocabulary loss then accelerated.

Reading skills have been lost. Only a small minority of Americans now have the ability to read and understand a book—book-reading now is the purview of the personality type drawn to endurance sports—which means most of us are functionally illiterate for democratic purposes. Those who can’t read at book length cannot follow a sustained, linear argument. The brain is highly plastic, and we have changed ours in a way that makes it much harder for most of us to think beyond 140 characters—slogans, not arguments—even as we have created in the Internet such a riveting system of rival entertainment that reading a book now requires exceptional personal discipline whereas once it required only the desire to be relieved of boredom.

Our shrinking vocabulary is not merely a curious linguistic trend. It signifies that we are losing our capacity for complex thought—and liberal democracy cannot survive this. Liberalism, and the tolerance it demands of citizen, relies upon the public’s sense of, and respect for, the near-infinite complexity of life generally, and human societies, in particular. Caesarism takes root easily in cultures where the capacity for complex thought and reasoning has for one or another reason been atrophied. Trump’s rise to power was presaged by decades of cultural simplification that manifested itself across every domain: American Pop music, for example, has become demonstrably less complex with every postwar decade, to the point that it now often lacks a musical motif at all and is not much more than the sound of an electronic heartbeat.[1]

To make an effective case against the New Caesars, we must understand them. But most of us cannot understand them because we have so limited our own powers of speech. Yes, yes, of course—you understand them. But you are not typical: You are reading this. To make the case against them, our wider public must reclaim its powers of speech. It must be capable of understanding and using language with precision, language that is not shot through with clichés. This is the very opposite of our contemporary political discourse, which every day closer approaches a series of primitive, pre-verbal grunts.

We are losing this war of ideas because we have become growingly stupid and increasingly delicate about calling stupidity what it is. Stupid people—that is, people who have not been educated to think in rigorous ways, or who are incapable of being educated in those way—are particularly vulnerable to believing improbable things, believing in implausible conspiracies, and knowing too little about history and politics to appraise what they’re being told about either. This, mixed with the Internet, allows what we now call “post-factual” politics to take root.

It need not be this way. This has occurred in large measure because our system of education is absurd, from preschool to graduate school. This is not the cause of lapsed attention spans and the loss of deep reading skills—the Internet is. But our education system does not compensate for this loss, and indeed operates as if it were not taking place at all. It is given over to empty and meretricious educational, academic, and philosophical doctrines that reinforce the worst instincts of people who can no longer concentrate or read. It is a system designed to produce unreasoning and unreasonable people, a superabundance of the type of man well described by Ortega y Gasset:

The Fascist and Syndicalist species were characterized by the first appearance of a type of man who did not care to give reasons or even to be right, but who was simply resolved to impose his opinions. That was the novelty: the right not to be right, not to be reasonable: ‘the reason of unreason.’

That Western academics have become enamored of the idea that nothing is true and only power matters was not an inevitable consequence of our freedom, but a contingent accident of our intellectual history. Nonetheless, academia, and with it our intellectual life and all that is downstream of it, has been degraded by this empty and trivial orthodoxy. This, combined with the revelation that our politicians have lied to us so many times, about so many things, has given rise to widespread cynicism about truth itself. None of this must happen in a free society; there was nothing inevitable about this. It just happened to happen. But this is precisely the climate that allows a New Caesar come to power.

New Caesarism is a regime of lies. Such systematic lying cannot be as effective as it is unless the public believes already that there’s not much of a difference between truth and a lie—that “truth” is a fiction created by power, and that it is natural and legitimate to manufacture facts and arguments to serve a desirable aim or power structure.

The Recipe

The forces bringing the New Caesars to power in the West are threefold: first, a technological and economic revolution; second, the invention of a recipe for a new form of authoritarian governance; and third, a global crisis of confidence in liberal democracy.

We’ve seen, in our lifetime, technological change comparable in historic significance to the invention of the printing press. Our lives have been entirely reshaped by the advent of the Internet and the invention of the cell phone. Other new technologies—containerization, fiber-optic cables, air freight—have been revolutionary too, but less widely appreciated as such. They are. Their widespread adoption means we can’t roll back globalization’s trade effects, even if we would wish to.

People old enough to remember the world as it used to be (people born, roughly, before 1980) understand very well the revolutionary impact of these technologies have had on their personal lives. They may not yet see that their impact on our political lives has been just as revolutionary. But this will become increasingly clear in the coming decades.

This is why there is something genuinely new about the form of authoritarianism now sweeping the world. Conservatives of the old-fashioned kind—the ones who aimed to stand athwart history, yelling Stop–have been made irrelevant by these changes. It’s too late. Whatever conservatism was, its moment has passed; while we were yelling Stop, history ran over us.

The Whig Delusion [discussed in an earlier chapter-ed], along with our unexpected sudden victory in the Cold War, left us exceptionally slow to recognize the threat these new regimes pose. We came to take it as axiomatic that unfree societies could not really compete with liberal democracies. What’s more, we assumed that the unfree societies of the future would resemble the unfree societies of the past. But the new authoritarian regimes don’t look like the old ones—nor do they suffer from the same weaknesses. They are pioneers in the political exploitation of the Internet and the other revolutionary technologies that define our era—and in this, they are not only able to compete with liberal democracies, but to run us over casually and leave us as roadkill.

The so-called techno-dystopians—for example, Evgeny Morozov—long warned of this. Morozov was quick to spot as cant the idea that the Internet would liberalize authoritarian regimes; he argued that it would be, instead, a powerful tool for mass surveillance, political repression, and spreading regime propaganda. He was right. (It is not incidental that Morozov is from Belarus. People who have lived under authoritarian regimes instinctively understand authoritarianism in ways Americans don’t—water, fishbowl, etc.).

Illiberal democrats quickly learn from one another these techniques for acquiring and keeping power. No such regime has been as successful as a liberal democracy—not, at least, if we define “success” as “creating broadly prosperous, fair, and humane societies.” But they have been far more successful than their totalitarian forebears, and they have been successful enough to be confusing—and tempting—to Westerners who are unsatisfied.

Simultaneously, the number of unsatisfied Westerners has risen dramatically. Liberal democracy has suffered a devastating crisis of confidence and prestige. Although our loss of faith in liberal democracy is vastly disproportionate, it is not without cause. A series of real failures have devastated our confidence—and the world’s—in our system of governance. Above all, the 2007 financial crisis and its sequelae, and the West’s inability decisively to win any of the conventional wars it has undertaken since September 11, have shattered our faith.[2]

Elected governments have failed effectively to respond to the disruptive effects of globalization and technological change. They have presided as well over growing inequality of wealth, and a stagnation—for many—in standards of living. Whereas previous generations enjoyed large increases in their standard of living from one generation to the next, this is no longer the case.[3] We have real enough cause for complaint. So on the one hand we have growingly unsatisfied, growingly stupid Westerners. On the other, we have the recipe—a dangerous combination.

The recipe is as effective as it is for reasons that are profoundly ironic. A century of American efforts to promote democracy—through example, persuasion, propaganda, rifles, and bombs—was phenomenally successful. We won. The United States persuaded the better part of the world that democracy and only democracy—the holding of regular elections—confers legitimacy upon a regime.

We failed to realize, however, how easily democracy could be divorced from the liberal consensus that had for generations underpinned the American experiment. For no good reason at all—and certainly contrary to everything the founders of the United States knew and believed—we convinced ourselves that “democracy” entailed these values. So gravely did we conflate democracy and liberalism, not only in our own minds, but in the minds of most of the world, that we achieved the most bitter of foreign policy victories, a victory we cannot even really describe, because our vocabulary is no longer adequate to describe it. Somehow, we succeeded in making the world safe for democracy and lethal to freedom.

Nothing quite like this form of authoritarianism has been seen before in human history, which is one reason we have been so slow to recognize it and sense its dangers. Unlike such totalitarians as Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot—or the 20th century fascist and military regimes such as Franco’s or Pinochet’s—the New Caesars’ regimes rest upon on elections and propaganda, not violence. Because we have been so successful in promoting the idea that elections confer legitimacy, they are widely viewed by the public as legitimate—even as they systematically destroy the institutions that make democracy meaningful.

They do not come to power through coups. They do not rely upon mass terror, killing, martial law, mass arrests, or summary executions to solidify their control. They studied the failures of those regimes and learned from them: They appreciate not only that regimes based chiefly on violence were moral horror, but they do not work, instrumentally, to secure either the regime’s aims or the regime itself. Gulags and killing fields are not necessary, because the New Caesar’s aims, for their aims, unlike their totalitarian forebears, are modest. The totalitarian regimes of the 20th century sought to transform the human soul. The New Caesars seek only to boost their popularity ratings.

Violence and terror are in the regime’s toolkit, to be sure. But unlike their forebears, who proudly displayed the state’s capacity for violence pour encourager les autres, the New Caesars tend to hide their hand in political murders, which become “unsolved mysteries.” Murder it is the seasoning, not the meat; it is reserved, in the main, for disfavoured minority groups, dissidents, and journalists. (They cultivate a special loathing of journalists—they are perennially accused of bias, treason, or lack of patriotism—to the point that the public is rarely overly exercised when occasionally journalists meet with misfortune.) The public, generally, understands that the people who get whacked are not really people like them, and thus that they have no special reason to fear. If you don’t mess with Caesar, he won’t mess with you.

Rarely do they kill opponents outright. Instead they harass them, humiliate them, or accuse them of fabricated crimes. Where 20th Century dictators would have thrown a dissident from a helicopter into shark-infested waters, a New Caesar will hack their iPhones, commandeer the camera, and leak the inevitable sex tape to their cronies in the media.

When things are functioning properly, little violence is needed, because the New Caesars are genuinely popular. Voters believe they are doing a good job—particularly compared to the leaders of other countries, whom they believe to be making of things an anarchic mess. But why are they so popular? Why do the people believe other leaders are making of things an anarchic mess? The answers to these questions are fascinating.

We will return to them tomorrow.

[1] This trend toward simplification has had an important secondary effect. Our entertainment industry has become so simplistic—and so violent, degraded, coarse, and stupid—that it is no longer functioning, as once it did, as an advertisement for our system of governance. To the contrary, we’re noisily pumping out propaganda against our way of life. If your assignment were to design a psy-op aimed at persuading the world that liberal democracy causes mental retardation, you could not excel the halftime show at the Superbowl. Most of the world is revolted by us—and truthfully, we are revolted by ourselves.  

[2] As we will see in Chapter Six, these foreign policy failures were in large measure a consequence of the prevalence of the Whig Delusion.

[3] It is crucial, however, to remember that standards of living are nonetheless improving, albeit more slowly than they did before. The New Caesars argue that standards of living are declining—which is untrue—and tend to favor policies apt to slow or even reverse economic growth.