In the last few weeks, I’ve written a few times about the epistemological questions posed by post-democracy. This notion put forward by Colin Crouch sees transitions within mature democracies as involving a hollowing out of democratic  structures rather than a dramatic shift to non-democracy. As he described it in a recent interview I did with him:

I defined post-democracy as a situation where all the institutions of democracy – elections, changes of government, free debate, rule of law – continue, but they become a charade, because democratic institutions have been surpassed as major decision-making entities by small groups of financial and political elites. I argued, not that we had reached such a situation in most western countries – there is far too much lively politics for that – but that we were on the road towards it.

This runs contrary to many folk theories of democracy’s death, tending as they do to associate the end of democracy with a sudden seizure of power. It would be foolish to deny this as a possibility, not least of all because political scientists have ably theorised this as ‘authoritarian reversion’:

We think that comparative experience demonstrates that there are two distinct forms of backsliding, each with its own mechanisms and modal end-states. We call these authoritarian reversion and constitutional retrogression. The basic difference between reversion and retrogression as we use the terms is how fast and how far backsliding goes. Authoritarian reversion is a wholesale, rapid collapse into authoritarianism. Such a wholesale movement away from democracy most often occurs through the mechanism of a military coup d’état or via the use of emergency powers.

One of the reasons conversations about post-democracy have entered the mainstream is the number of unfolding cases we can see at present. The authors of the aforementioned blog post cite Hungary and Poland but we could just as easily point to Brazil or Turkey:

Examples of retrogression abound. In both Hungary and Poland, for example, elected governments have recently hastened to enact a suite of legal and institutional changes that simultaneously squeeze out electoral competition, undermine liberal rights of democratic participation, and emasculate legal stability and predictability. In Venezuela between 1999 and 2013, the regime established by Hugo Chávez has aggregated executive power, limited political opposition, attacked academia, and stifled independent media. Crucially, across these examples and others, democratic decay is catalyzed incrementally and under the “mask of law”: It is a death by a thousand cuts, rather than the clean slice of the coup maker.

The extent to which our democratic imaginary is dominated by examples of such authoritarian reversion works to squeeze out constitutional regression. This is further compounded by what I’ve argued are pronounced tendencies in how we conceive of social continuity:

  1. We tend towards a generic assumption of the durability of social structures.
  2. We tend even more strongly towards a generic assumption of the durability of social formations (i.e. assemblages of social structures)
  3. We tend to miss the origins of social formations in the intended and unintended consequences of deliberate action, as well as the interactions between them.
  4. We tend to reason inductively and, in doing so, miss the possibility that the future will be radically distinct from the past.
  5. Even if we deny it intellectually, we tend towards exceptionalism in how we see social formations which are deeply familiar to us.

What capacity we have to recognise the possibility of large scale change reduces it epochal transitions. We have one social formation then we have another, with a detailed conception of the process of change being subsumed into the (inflated sense of the) agency of some macro-actor  whose machinations account for the real or imagined transition. This is why a gradual process of retrogression struggles to register at the level of political experience:

Retrogression, on the other hand, is a more subtle and insidious process. It involves a more incremental, but still ultimately substantial, decay in the three basic predicates of democracy, namely competitive elections, liberal rights to speech and association, and the rule of law necessary for democratic choice to thrive.

One of our core claims is that scholars have largely focused on the possibility of swift autocratic reversions such as a coup d’etat (as in Thailand, Mali, and Mauritania) or via the use of emergency powers (most famously, in Weimar Germany). But we think that threat of constitutional retrogression—a more insidious form of institutional erosion—is more substantial.

The threat is indeed more substantial and our awareness of it is limited by many factors. But some of these, I wish argue, should be understood as epistemological. A process of this sort is harder to conceive of because many of the ways in which we tend to think of social change militate against it.

What I have written so far is prospective, concerning how we imaginatively orientate ourselves to a future possibility. But the same issue confronts attempts to conceive of what is ongoing because such a retrogression is, as these authors describe it, “a death by a thousand cuts, rather than the clean slice of the coup maker”:

Each of the individual changes may be innocuous (or even) defensible in isolation. But a sufficient quantity of even incremental derogations from the democratic baseline, in our view, can precipitate a qualitative change that merits a shift in regime classification. Understanding where, how, and whether that happens in the United States, we think, is furthered by a close study of experience of other countries.

A sufficient quantity of isolated occurrences across the system can cumulatively constitute a qualitative change in the system itself. Democracy can unravel around us, without any grand announcements of its death. Recognising the epistemological obstacles to acknowledging this unraveling can help us appreciate the urgency of the situation we are beginning to face.

By far the best film I’ve seen this year was The Childhood of a Leader. It recounts a number of episodes in the life of a nascent tyrant, exploring the emergence of what is hinted to be a boundless rage that might one day transform the world:

I’ve been thinking about this film since encountering Auden’s Epitaph on a Tyrant yesterday:

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

What makes a potential tyrant? It’s the most obvious question to ask when history presents us with towering, pathological and destructive figures who have seemingly remade the world in their image. It’s one sociology is instinctively sceptical towards, given the risk that we uncritically adopt a ‘great men’ theory of history and obscure the social and cultural forces which allowed any such figure to assume the power that they did. But it’s one which I think can be legitimately asked, from a psychosocial perspective, without lapsing into reductive individualism.

This must surely involve resisting simplistic applications of labels. As Jon Ronson points out in his new book on Trump, there’s something that could be seen as a tad psychopathic about arm-chair diagnoses of psychopathy from afar. From loc 538:

A FEW WEEKS BEFORE I flew to Cleveland, I sat in the Green Room at the Pasadena Convention Center. I was there to give a talk entitled “Is Donald Trump A Psychopath?” All year, people had been asking me my opinion on that topic. (This wasn’t random: I had written a book about psychopaths.) I consider it somewhat psychopathic to label someone from afar as a psychopath. We love nothing more than to declare other people insane, especially people we don’t like. Diagnosing people as psychopaths from afar, I’d say, speaks to Items 2, 8 and 15 on the Psychopath Checklist —Grandiose Self-Worth, Lack of Empathy and Irresponsibility. You might even add Item 9, Parasitic Lifestyle, if you consider diagnosing Donald Trump from afar as a psychopath to be a parasitic lifestyle.

But can we nonetheless try and imaginatively enter into the affectivity of nascent tyrants? I have no idea of how to begin this process in a systematic way but there are cultural resources which might offer us hints. Two songs I’ve always liked came immediately to mind when I had this thought:

One concerns rejection and the other mastery. In the first case, we can imagine a refusal to accept rejection and an absolute mythologisation of self that emerges from this. In the second case, a preoccupation with the pleasures of mastery and where this might ultimately lead someone in how they orientate themselves to the opportunities they see in the world to assume further control.

They both suggest the sheer potentiality inherent in raw emotion, how this is usually canalised in predictable patterns but the terrifyingly open-ended possibility of where certain individuals might under certain conditions be led in their coming-to-terms with what they confront.

Has anyone got suggestions of further pieces of music that explore these themes?

I’ve long been fascinated by the question of what the descent into fascism feels like for those living through such a transition, how daily life changes (or fails to do so) as the fabric of the old order begins to unweave. There’s an insightful essay in the LA Review of Books which addresses precisely this question as it takes issue with a prevalent misunderstanding of Nazism:

POPULAR CULTURE IS REPLETE with cartoonish depictions of Nazism. Hitler seems to emerge suddenly, as if he had been waiting in the wings as a fait accompli. One moment it’s Weimar decadence, really good art, and Stormtroopers and communists fighting in the streets. The next, Hindenburg is handing Adolf the keys to the kingdom and it’s all torchlight parades, Triumph of the Will, and plaintive Itzhak Perlman violins. Hitler rises above a reborn Reich as a kind of totalitarian god. All aspects of life come under his control through the Nazi party’s complete domination of German life. Of course, this is not really how it worked.

Before Hitler achieved his genocidal powers, there were years of what we would now call “intense partisan bickering,” decreasing prosperity, and violence in the streets. In the end, Hitler cobbled together a rickety coalition of business-minded technocrats, traditional conservatives, military interests, and his own radical ethno-nationalists into a plausible government. As the new government consolidated its power, thousands of communists and trade unionists were subjected to harsh suppression and were among the first to be shipped away to what would eventually become the concentration camps. And yet for a time, life for the overwhelming majority of Germans — even briefly for German Jews — went on largely as it had in the Weimar era. There was clearly a new regime in town, but most Germans got up in the mornings in the mid-to-late 1930s and went to work, just as they had in the 1920s. January through March of 1933 was not 1776, 1789, 1791, 1917, or even 1979. Far from the world turning upside down, things were strangely continuous for many Germans as though nothing much had happened at all. For a few Germans, things were astoundingly better.!

A similar liminal reality can be seen in the Norwegian drama Occupied. A green-left government’s declaration that the ‘era of oil is over’ leads to a surreptitious occupation of Norway by Russian forces. For many reasons, not least of all the narratological demands of being a ten issue drama series, dramatic changes eventually come to Norway. But what fascinates me is what comes prior to this, as the everyday life of those in Oslo is strikingly unchanged despite the mammoth geopolitical upheavals underneath the surface.

These depictions interest me because they point to an aporia in how we see social change. Our experience of ‘social change’ is by definition retrospective. We may experience social changes in the present but what we grasp as ‘social change’ is something we look back upon from the reality born through such transformation. We tell stories and sing songs about the most dramatic of these transformations, as collective recognition imbues that-which-has-unfolded with the appearance of inevitability. As Graham Crow puts it:

2.8 Proposition 7: Accounts of change after the event are vulnerable to post-hoc rationalizations in which the confusion and indeterminacy of events as they unfolded is played down and inevitability emphasised. Aron’s remark about how the language of ‘apparent necessity… creates an illusion of fatality’ (1961:178) is pertinent here. Burgoyne and Clarke’s respondents’ accounts of why their previous marriages ended contain a number of such rationalisations that reflected the ‘careful scripting’ (1984: 76) that had gone into their construction. It is instructive that Game and Metcalfe also use the process of becoming divorced to illustrate their point that the beginning of a story ‘can only be seen in retrospect; when it was beginning people were unaware of its full significance… Beginnings are always written from hindsight’ (1996: 70). The sense of predictability that such narratives convey often stands in stark contrast to the lack of certainty that people have while changes are unfolding about the direction in which they are heading.

2.9 Proposition 8: The popular metaphors through which ideas about endings are expressed have a bearing on how people respond to them.The ideas of reaching ‘the end of the line’, ‘the bitter end’, or a ‘point of no return’, ‘flogging a dead horse’, ‘giving something up as a bad job’, being on a ‘sinking ship’, ‘fighting a losing battle’, ‘throwing good money after bad’, ‘cutting one’s losses’, ‘writing something off’, and the proverbial ‘straw that breaks the camel’s back’ have different implications from the ideas of a ‘turning of the tide’, ‘calling it a day’, ‘the darkest hour coming before the dawn’, or ‘one door closing and another opening’ which also mark end points but are less linear and more rhythmic in their understanding of time (Young 1988). Modernity’s linear conceptions of time produce more final understandings of endings than the conceptions of ‘cycles of renewal and regeneration’ (Adam 2004: 14) that characterise ancient perspectives on temporal processes.

The individual and collective stock of experiences of change which we draw upon when we imagine our future leave us systematically ill-equipped to elucidate the many potentialities latent with out present circumstances. The tendency of fiction, particularly when it considers the macro-social, to explore the social change itself rather than the process through which the change unfolded aggravates this. I want to read stories and watch dramas about liminal transitions because this can sensitise us to the not-so-determined realities latently subsumed into what we call ‘present times’.

Are journalists personally afraid of a Trump presidency? That’s the suggestion of this Vox article:

In my experience, it goes yet deeper than this. Quietly, privately, political reporters wonder if Trump is a threat to them personally — if he were president, would he use the powers of the office to retaliate against them personally if he didn’t like their coverage of his administration? How certain are they that their taxes are really in order? How sure are they that a surveillance state controlled by Trump would tap their phones and watch their emails for leverage?

I am not saying this drives coverage of Trump, but it recasts negative coverage of him. Trump has made criticism of his campaign a reflection of an ideal journalists are particularly committed to: that the United States should have a free and open press able to scrutinize leading politicians without fear of reprisal. Thus, when Trump bars different publications from his press conference, it becomes proof that they are doing the work that journalists should do, and that a President Trump might make that work impossible to do.

If so what does that mean for American democracy? I don’t think the concern is unwarranted, at least to some extent, nor do I think that Hilary Clinton or Barack Obama could take it as a given that they would go unharassed in the (increasingly unlikely) event of a Trump presidency. Even if this was not motivated by personal animus, it’s disturbingly easy to imagine a creepingly fascist United States in a few years time, in which a ‘lock her up’ campaign would be used by Trump to motivate his base or distract from economic failure and social decay.

Furthermore, given this idea that the digital surveillance apparatus might one day constitute a threat to individual journalists, should we expect a greater degree of self-censorship than has been the case? I can imagine the sheer fact of the idea being ‘out there’, if this is something American journalists might fall into conversation about when drinking together say, could begin to entrench it in a way that is dangerous even in the absence of a reality to the threat.

This address to Congress seems remarkably relevant given current events in the United States. It’s quoted in The Deep State, by  Mike Lofgren, page 30:

Unhappy events abroad have retaught us two simple truths about the liberty of a democratic people. The first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic State itself. That, in its essence, is fascism—ownership of government by an individual, by a group or by any other controlling private power. The second truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if its business system does not provide employment and produce and distribute goods in such a way as to sustain an acceptable standard of living. Both lessons hit home. Among us today a concentration of private power without equal in history is growing. —Franklin D. Roosevelt, message to Congress, April 29, 1938

I recently stumbled across this old* Huffington Post article by James Bloodworth, editor of Left Foot Forward, speculating about what a British fascism would look like. I don’t think it’s actually very good but it’s a fascinating question to ponder.

And yet, were a far-Right government ever to win power in Britain – and never get too complacent, for a Searchlight poll last February found a staggeringly high number of voters who said they would be prepared to vote for party of the far-Right if it renounced violence – what might it do in its first year of power?

This is pure speculation of course, but interesting all the same, I think.

One of my favourite works of fiction in recent years was Dominion by C.J. Sansom which depicts a Britain that surrendered in World War 2 and has become a satellite state of Nazi Germany. I found it much more plausible than Bloodworth’s speculations but perhaps that’s in part due to gradually showing this world over 500 pages rather than baldly stating it in a 1500 word blog post.

Thanks to Danny Birchall for sharing this film – “It Happened Here”:

There’s also a 2004 documentary drama which addressed this question: (embedding disabled)

I wonder if counter-factual drama of this sort can be included within the remit of design fiction for digital public sociology?

*Well 2012. I’m not sure when that became ‘old’.

Earlier this week I finally bought the Jawbone Up24 after weeks of deliberation. I’d got bored with the Nike Fuel Band, losing interest in the opaque ‘fuel points’ measurement and increasingly finding it to be an unwelcome presence on my wrist. I’d also been ever more aware of how weird my sleep patterns have become in the past couple of years, cycling between rising early and staying up late, with little discernible rhyme or reason. The idea of tracking my sleep in a reasonably accurate fashion, using degree of bodily movement as a cypher for the depth of sleep, appealed to me on a reflexive level. Somewhat more practically, the Jawbone’s silent alarm sounded great: it gently wakes you by vibrating on your wrist at the period within a defined interval at which it detects you are in the lightest state of sleep. It’s only been a few days but it really seems to work. I’ve woken up refreshed in a way that feels oddly natural given the rather novel consumer technology that’s bringing it about.

So thus far I’m rather pleased with this purchase. It also looks so much better than the Fuel band. It wasn’t a major factor in my decision by any means but it’s still nice. However there is something that bothers me about it. The Jawbone Up24 has an “idle alert”. This is how the company describes the feature:

What is an Idle Alert and how does it work?The UP Idle Alert is a great way to remind you to get up and move. You can set an Idle Alert within the app, so the band will gently vibrate if you’ve been inactive for a period of time.

This sounds innocuous, right? I spend far too many hours sitting down each week. I’m either working on a computer and sitting in a chair or I’m sitting reading sociology books and papers on my sofa. It has really started to bother me and the idle alert initially struck me as a great way to help ameliorate this problematic trend in my lifestyle. I spent yesterday afternoon working my way through various bits of social theory at home, with the Jawbone gently vibrating every 15 minutes to remind me that I’d been sedentary for that length of time. I stood up, walking around the room while continuing to read and sat down again. It’s only one occasion so it would be a mistake to overgeneralise but I was struck by how much less lethargic I felt than I often would have after spending an afternoon reading at home on my own. Oddly I also forgot to drink coffee, though it’s entirely possible that was a coincidence.

However I spent this morning struggling to copy edit and format an upcoming book when I really wasn’t in the mood for it. I was trying to decipher the superficially helpful instructions provided by the publisher which were, in practice, anything other than helpful. A task that had seemed simple, albeit dull, suddenly acquired an unexpected complexity. I spent the morning getting increasingly stressed out and the Jawbone would not stop fucking vibrating…. oddly it didn’t occur to me to just turn the feature off until after lunch. The constant buzzing on my wrist, as the little device grappled for my attention in a manner that felt creepily agentive, only served to intensify my general state of irritation at the world and frustration with my lack of progress at the task at hand.

I set the ‘idle alert’. I did so because I found it an appealing idea. It was an expression of my own agency. But it left me with a sense of quite how intrusive and aggressive this technology could be if it were ever mandated. How hard is it to imagine a situation where Amazon factory workers are expected to wear similar bands, programmed to issue a vibrating warning after 15 minutes of idleness and to alert the supervisor if the worker is still idle a few minutes later? Is it at all challenging to imagine a comparable band with an RFID chip being used to track and sanction a call centre operator who spends too long in a toilet? The social arrangements invoked here are not a matter of dystopian science fiction. They already exist. My suggestion is that this technology very likely will be rolled out in such settings, at least in the absence of legislative intervention which seems unlikely. How far could it go? What will a debate about its implications look like? What role will voluntary self-trackers and the quantified self play in these debates?

As Emmanuel Lazega has argued, ironically in one of the chapters I was editing this morning, the conditionality of welfare is likely to be an important vector of diffusion for these techniques of control. Earlier this morning, enjoying a relaxed start to the day at the crack of dawn thanks to the silent alarm on my magical band, I listened to a radio discussion of ‘sobriety tags’:

People who repeatedly commit alcohol-related crime will be forced to wear ankle tags that monitor whether they are still drinking, under a year-long pilot scheme.

The “sobriety tags”, to be worn around the clock, will enforce abstinence by measuring a person’s perspiration every 30 minutes and testing whether it contains alcohol.

If any trace is found, an alert will be sent to the offender’s probation officer and they can then be recalled to court, where they may be resentenced or face sanctions such as a fine. The tags register alcohol consumption but do not monitor movement or where people are.

The scheme is being trialled for 12 months in four London boroughs – Croydon, Lambeth, Southwark and Sutton. It is anticipated that up to 150 offenders will be fitted with the tags. They will be banned from drinking alcohol for up to 120 days.

Offenders will be screened before being tagged, and the scheme will not be used on people who are alcohol-dependent and require specialist support.

The scheme, being introduced by the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, builds on a similar scheme in the US and aims to reduce alcohol-related reoffending and ease pressure on the police and courts.

Consumer self-tracking devices and schemes like this serve to normalise tracking of this sort. What comes next? How hard is it to imagine a situation where a Conservative government, eager to separate ‘strivers’ from ‘skivers’ demands that welfare recipients submit to monitoring of their alcohol and nicotine intake? How hard is it to imagine a situation where recipients of weight related interventions on the NHS are made to wear activity tracking bands with the threat of withdrawn rights to healthcare in the case of unhealthy eating or sedentary lifestyles? What comes next? Part of me wants to research this stuff, looking at the subjective meanings attached to self-tracking as the devices become mainstream and analysing the assumptions loading into the emerging discourse surrounding the application of this technology for social policy. Part of me wants to write a dystopian science fiction novel about the coming techno-fascism. Part of me just wants to despair about a likely future in which the iron cage becomes an iron straight jacket.