Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Time and Politics 5: The Decline of Left and Right

Image Source: Dark Roasted Blend.

This is an apolitical blog, and for good reason: the Tech and Information Revolutions have transformed our societies almost overnight, and have swept away the standards and values that anchored us. This holds true wherever you are in the world, and whatever your values are. We can't know what new values will arise. Presumably, some will change global cultures and economies for the better, some for the worse. That 'normative entropy' also extends to the world of politics, where the platforms of left and right have crumbled. Politics has degenerated into name-calling, crisis-mongering, and a total breakdown of meaningful debate between left and right.  Any consensus that could be the basis of practical policy is also gone: voters vacated the political centre after 9/11.  Weirdly, political rhetoric has never been clearer about its left-right delineations.  But this fact belies the reality that actual partisan policies have disappeared, with politicians sifting through the wreckage, searching for anything that will get them elected.

Perhaps a good metaphor for the wasteland that politics has become is Daniel Hannan's recent speech in the European parliament. He is known best for his withering 2009 criticism of Gordon Brown's handling of the recession - a speech that went viral on Youtube and made him world famous (see that video here).  Whether you agree with Hannan's conservative-with-a-dash-of-Rand politics or not is irrelevant. He is probably most important as a Gen X politician, who is using the Internet to change the way politics is done.  His video below from 23 June 2011 got more views on Youtube than hearers in parliament.  The echoing, empty EU chamber speaks for itself. Maybe everyone was on holiday ...?

Hannan in the EU parliament, Brussels, Belgium (23 June 2011). Video Source: Youtube.

Politicians of all stripes increasingly pick and choose from different ideologies and polled concerns to cobble together short-term platforms based on market research.  The fact that market research replaced top-down, generalized political ideologies indicates again that objective values (old, clearly articulated, across-the-board party convictions) have disappeared. Platforms are based on catering to the whims of voters, and to a hodge-podge of their local concerns, regardless of whether those voters are liberal or conservative.  Under these conditions, what are the new, common political denominators? 

The search for new political standards began in the 1980s, when market researchers determined that a certain portion of originally left-wing Boomer voters would vote for Reagan in the US, and Thatcher in Britain, if these politicians appealed to the voters' personal aspirations and self-perceptions.  Their values became the new common political denominators (see my blog post on this topic continued on 26 July).  Political messages were geared toward independently-minded voters at the top of the consumer pyramid, whom researchers at Stanford Research Institute (SRI) called, 'Inner Directeds.' According to a BBC video on the subject: "These were people who were not defined by their place in society, but by the choices they made themselves ... by the different patterns of behaviour through which they chose to express themselves. ... [According to an SRI promotional video:] 'These are people for whom personal satisfaction is more important than status or money. They tend to be self-expressive, complex, and individualistic.'" 'Inner Directeds' were characterized by their desire to be autonomous anti-conformists.

In the late 1970s, SRI classified 'Inner Directeds' into types according to their values and lifestyles (VALs); these types included: I-Am-Mes, people who rejected traditional values and invented their own new social standards (3% of the population); Experientials, who asserted their independence through direct experience, physical daring, and 'trying anything once' (6% of the population); and the Socially Conscious (11% of the population).  All the VALs are defined in depth here.

Marketing psychologists and sociologists believed that these consumer types cut across generations, genders, political lines and social classes.  There must have been something to it: politicians who altered old school party platforms and consciously applied these theories to cater specifically to 'Inner Directeds' in the west were assured political victories.  This was demonstrated not only by Reagan and Thatcher, but also by Clinton and Blair.  From the 1980s to the mid-2000s, the values of this marketing lifestyles group determined the real standards of political platforms.

But what good is market research now, when the markets are weathering the worst recession since the Great Depression? How do pollsters gauge people's desires (as citizens and consumers) when the vast majority of those polled have almost no capacity to exercise those desires or put them into effect, due to lack of resources? When the so-called 'Inner Directeds' are demoralized, and politics as a mode of self-actualizing consumption begins to fail?

Some argue that corporations have finally caught up with these consumers who broke from the herd, and have harnessed and rebranded their social upheavals and means of self-identification.  Critics claim that corporations once again determine the 'market value' of independent voters, thereby also deciding political platforms.

Along these lines, Barry Ritholtz asserts (here) that left and right rubrics indeed no longer mean anything (Hat tip: Swadeshine).  He feels that political concepts crystallize through a conflict between individuals and multinational corporations, with governments standing merely as intermediaries in the transfer of wealth and power.  This is a 'little man versus the evil corporation' idea.  In Ritholtz's view, individuals are losing. Supporters of figures like Julian Assange or of an outfit like Anonymous likely agree.  They insist that the Internet ought to be a haven of freedom for the 'little man' against oppressive régimes and corporations alike.  They argue that the autonomy of free individuals on the Web must be aggressively protected against encroachments from evil corporations.

Are the corporations really that successful at oppression, or even engaged in oppressing online users?  To me, this seems more of a mutual affair.  Beneath radical messages, it looks like WikiLeaks and similar sites still follow SRI's formula; they are sites which preach values.  Site use (to some extent) implies identification with site values.  Many other online initiatives are also huge exercises in self-identification, minus the conspicuous consumption of goods and services that characterized that process in the 1980s to mid-2000s. Now, savvy voters consume virtual goods, delivered by choice Websites. And they no longer spend money to indicate their preferences: they spend time. That might make time the new global currency.

Unless their Internet access is intentionally blocked, people online don't behave like suppressed 'little men' (or 'little women') at all.  As the rapid growth of Google Plus demonstrates, they are highly selective and critical consumers.  There are no guarantees that Facebook or Google are fully in control when users join their social networks, because users are capable of dumping those networks at any time.

Thus, the new political common denominator looks more like a series of high-tension cooperative ventures between individuals and corporations, not a conflict.  What kind of politics will come out of this hybridization is anyone's guess.  But one glance at the contrast between Daniel Hannan's virtual hit rates on Youtube (4.3 million since he joined in 2007) and his speeches in an echoing, empty, and very real parliamentary chamber reveals that Millennial political standards may depend more on what happens, and how, and where, than the actual content of political messages. Obama's fantastic rock star popularity when he was elected was another merger of 20th century politics with 21st century conditions: a popular mass democratic politician succeeding in part through the wonders of the Internet.  If you want to know which political values will dominate the future, look at how the Internet works at the crossroads of technological classification, networking and mass quantification; machine logic; corporate interests; and users' identification with cults of personality.

In honour of the centenary of Marshall McLuhan's birth today, it looks like McLuhan was right once again: The medium is the message.

See all my posts on Time and Politics.

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