Can a New Elite Save Us?
Martin Gurri’s The Revolt of the Public & the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium
The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium
San Francisco: Stripe Press, 2018
Though the recent wave of social media censorship has been particularly harsh, those active in Rightist politics are well aware that the struggle between corporate and governmental information controllers and political dissidents is not new. For many decades, there has been a concerted effort to silence voices deemed threatening to the status quo, especially with regard to anything considered remotely pro-white. But with the sweeping shift in information dissemination capabilities made possible by the Internet, radical political messages were suddenly rather easily made available to wide audiences at little to no expense, and their purveyors found large, receptive audiences, many of whom already held similar thoughts but were disconnected from like-minded others by social barriers of various types. The online world was flooded with information that the elites never had any intention of allowing people to access, and a panicked scramble to put the lid on Pandora’s box began. This fundamental shift in information hierarchies and related phenomena are the subjects of The Revolt of the Public, a 2014 book (republished in 2018 with a new chapter on recent political developments) by Martin Gurri, a former Central Intelligence Agency open media analyst who currently writes a blog called The Fifth Wave, named for the term he uses to describe the current era of “cataclysmic expansion of information and communication technology” (p. 32).
The author describes his central argument in an early chapter aptly entitled “My Thesis.” In it, he states, somewhat illogically, that we are currently both undergoing a “slow-motion collision” (p. 66) of two extant, competing worlds, while at the same time being “caught between an old world which is decreasingly able to sustain us intellectually and spiritually, maybe even materially, and a new world that has not yet been born” (p. 66). But, sensibly, he opts to pursue the “collision” model, and this becomes the basis of his argument. The old world of established institutions and hierarchies is colliding with the new world of a public with access to decentralized and rapidly expanding amounts of information. The latter, to which he refers as the Border, undermines the authority of the former, to which he refers as the Center. The goal of the Center is to maintain its power against the tidal wave of resistance coming from the various networks that make up the Border. The networks lack the formalized political platforms, bureaucracies, and other trappings of establishment enjoyed by the Center, and tend to view the concept of hierarchy in conspiratorial fashion. The greatest strength of the Border is “the digital network: [it] can inflate into millions literally at the speed of light” (p. 70).
Gurri does not see this conflict as having a clear winner and loser. He writes, “The result is paralysis by distrust. The Border . . . can neutralize but not replace the Center. Networks can protest and overthrow, but never govern. Bureaucratic inertia confronts digital nihilism. The sum is zero” (p. 72). Instead, he predicts a cultural evolution, a synthesis of some sort analogous to earlier disputes between Protestants and Catholics: cultural battles that, to the modern man, seem now to have had no winners or losers (p. 73). But just as there were real winners and losers then, there are real winners and losers now – there always are, in every conflict. If Gurri cannot find them, it is because his understanding of the categories is antiquated or his knowledge is limited.
The author’s “great concern,” he writes, ” is for the future of liberal democracy” (p. 73). He notes that representative democracy has always had a shifting relationship with power and that, given the turmoil of these Center/Border conflicts, its future is uncertain (perhaps this is the reason for his earlier incongruous assertion that the new world is both colliding with the old and at the same time unborn). “How [democracy] changes may depend on the aggregated decisions of individual citizens – in other words: on us – no less than on procedural reforms” (p. 74).
Central to his belief in the transformative effect of this collision of worlds is that “a revolution in the nature and content of communication – the Fifth Wave of information – has ended the top-down control elites exerted on the public during the industrial age” (p. 75). But how does Gurri believe that information influences power? For the purposes of this book, he defines power as “a particular alignment between the will of the elites and the actions and opinions of the public: a matter of trust, faith, and fear, apportioned variously but involving both sides” (p. 80). The Center (state) relies on a public comprised largely by those convinced by its “stories of legitimacy” (p. 80), but a public with access to information that casts doubt on such stories begins to weaken the Center and may lead to them “actually [conceiving] of an alternative form of government and [acting] to attain it” (p. 82). The traditional safeguards of state control – everything from teachers and policemen up to and including the mediation of information – traditionally granted the state relative immunity from a resistant public. Homo informaticus, as the author calls the man of the Fifth Wave, is far more attuned to the world outside of the one maintained by his particular state. Thus he consumes more information from Border sources and “it becomes progressively harder to determine exactly what [his] relationship is to the regime’s justifying story” (p. 83). Additionally, the author writes that this new information “broadens Homo informaticus’s field of vision to encompass alternative values and systems. Most importantly, it shatters the illusion that his way of life is inevitable and preordained, a first, necessary step toward revolution” (p. 85).
Due to his reliance on the concept of the public, he feels the need to clarify its meaning. He shares the opinion of the Jew Walter Lippmann (about this and many other things), and quotes him: “The public . . . is not a fixed body of individuals. It is merely the persons who are interested in an affair and can affect it only by supporting or opposing the actors” (p. 95). He believes, as did Lippmann, that the public is never privy to insider information and relies on experts and propagandists to form its opinions. Moreover, the public that forms around a particular issue will dissolve completely once that issue stops being a concern for them. The public is ephemeral and should not be mistaken for “the people” in a political philosophical sense. Nor, Gurri argues, should it be mistaken for the masses, which he sees as a concept rooted in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Taylorism: ” . . . the masses impersonated the public for the benefit of the hierarchy, while stripping it of all spontaneity and repudiating its authentic interests” (p. 102). The masses are people without interests independent of those of the particular hierarchy to which they have attached themselves (or been attached). But even in the age of the masses – of mass movements, totalitarianism, and Taylorism – the public never fully disappeared, and Gurri provides as evidence the reliance by authoritarian regimes on propaganda, which he calls “Taylorism of the soul” (p. 106), to shape public opinion. Power was never fully consolidated by the elites of these societies, and so the public was never fully tamed. He makes a final distinction between the public and the crowd: “the public mediates the transformation of the crowd into a symbolic force” (p. 110). The crowd, he writes, is “an instrument to communicate public opinion” (p. 110).
Gurri argues that although elites have always distrusted the public, “the public’s distrust for authority – and its increased power, in the age of the Fifth Wave, to translate that distrust into action” (p. 119) has increased. Absurdly rejecting the idea that a single year cannot be used as a historical “meaningful causal unit” (p. 120), he marks 2011 as a decisive moment in his collision of worlds theory. Numerous events are mentioned as examples, but he focuses on a few in particular. In Spain, the indignados protested against establishment institutions and policies. The same year also saw the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States, and a similar occurrence in Tel Aviv. He describes all three in detail because they fit his Border model very well: a public, having lost faith in the establishment through access to vast amounts of anti-establishment information, utilizes information available on social media to resist the establishment but, without having a leader, a plan, or any long-term goals outside of a blanket renunciation of the existing elite, cannot take steps beyond accelerating the undermining of the state’s legitimacy.
He writes that the digital platforms of the Fifth Wave even enabled the public that year to engage in rioting in London, in which mostly non-whites organized via social media to engage in criminal behavior with no regard for the legitimacy of the state. Though the London riots were simply another in a long string of regularly occurring race riots in historically white countries, and so not related to the idealism – however misguided or incomplete – of his previous examples of Center/Border conflict, Gurri argues that the rioters were in fact the logical conclusion of the attitudes towards authority set forth by the indignados, and so on. He argues that the rioters “effected a strange mental separation between the life they wished for and the structures which made that life possible” (p. 156). He quotes one rioter: “Why are you going to waste the opportunity to get new stuff?” (p. 156). Any equivalency between rank criminality and the naïve but hopeful anarcho-clumsiness of Occupy Wall Street is ludicrous. But what is more important was the government’s reaction: The media were blamed for having portrayed a police force that had lost control of the situation (something which they happened to have gotten correct), and social media was targeted as facilitators of the riots. David Cameron said that people who “[used] social media for violence” (p. 157) needed to be stopped. Gurri writes, “Belief that political power could switch off the information sphere was shown to be more than an aging dictator’s hallucination. It was a persistent delusion of the Center” (p. 157). But so is equating black crime to political protests.
Next, the author turns his attention to the crisis of authority. He argues that authority “flows from legitimacy,” that it “[delivers] certainty in an uncertain world,” that it “explains reality in the context of the shared story of the group,” and that it “must rely on persuasion rather than compulsion, since naked force is a destroyer of trust and faith” (p. 173). The mistakes made by and weaknesses of authority figures and institutions in the past were more easily hidden from the public. This is no longer the case. He writes, “With the arrival of the global information sphere, each failure is captured, reproduced, multiplied, amplified, and made to stand for authority as a whole” (p. 175).
Everything he has written, however, is entirely context-dependent: Authority can exist without legitimacy; legitimacy can exist without authority; and force can build trust and faith just as often as it can destroy it. The presence of rigid, formulaic libertarian utopianism and social conservatism is already apparent in his work. One of Gurri’s weaknesses is that, in his conception of the world, authority is inherently tied to legitimacy in a self-justifying creation myth of the Center, and so he completely misses the fact that it is only the authority of the Center that is being undermined: numerous other authorities or potential authorities spring up, each willing – if not ready and able – to replace the Center and become “legitimate” under the right conditions.
For the author, this crisis of authority brings to society a lack of certainty and a sense of impermanence. He describes, for example, the displacement of the old-fashioned encyclopedia and the rise of the randomly-edited Wikipedia, “which leaves the reader uncertain about the agenda of any given version” (p. 214). He also describes failed efforts at damage control by the Center to leverage this uncertainty to their advantage, such as accusations against the public of engaging in things such as a “war on science” (p. 214) to discredit independent voices who might threaten a particular Center narrative. Along with the stalemate of suspicion and distrust, the public is confronted with rapidly changing technologies, governments, and cultures, which leads to a present that seems increasingly disconnected from even the recent past. Gurri believes that these factors are driving the public towards various fundamentalist movements, which fill the void left by the failed hierarchies of the establishment. For him, this is worrying. He writes:
Liberal democracy has been the chief mechanism for mediating such internal flaws. The question of nihilism, now inextricably tangled with the crisis of authority, will be answered in terms which either affirm or negate the legitimacy of the democratic process (p. 217).
He devotes one chapter of his book to “the evolution of democracy in an atmosphere made toxic with negation and distrust” (p. 225). It follows that “at some point the entire system must be implicated in failure” (p. 225). Gurri spends some time discussing Barack Obama as an example of a politician who gained prominence due to his ability to capitalize on public distrust of the establishment, but who was unable to reestablish the power of the Center. He writes of Obama’s presidency as a politics of negation analogous in ways to those of the earlier conservative Tea Party movement: Both were united mostly by what they opposed rather than by what they supported. Obama’s language and policies, he argues, betrayed an ambivalence about his own authority and an inability to please his diverse coalition of competing interest groups, which resulted in an acceleration of the delegitimizing forces already at work. This assessment is similar to later critiques in this book. Gurri tends to view those with whom he disagrees politically as being nihilists. One is tempted at first to attribute this to some sort of coping mechanism or unwillingness to delve into sensitive issues, but by the end of the book it becomes clear that he simply does not really understand politics outside of his classical liberal bubble. He attributes all deviations from his particular brand of classical liberalism to either nihilism or incompetence.
The author makes a distinction between the “high modernism” of the twentieth century and the current era of what he calls “late modernism,” of which he considers Obama a part. The former is described as the age of large-scale, highly-engineered, bureaucratic, utopian, often even authoritarian governmental projects (p. 241). Gurri’s description of late modernism is worth quoting at length:
If high modernism in power was an engine of perfection, late modernism has become a happiness machine. It feels bound to intervene anywhere it has identified groups that were somehow victimized, disabled, troubled, below average, offended, uncomfortable – actually or potentially unhappy. Its actions are the political equivalent of handing out a chocolate chip cookie: government today desperately wishes to be seen doing something, anything, to help, and to be recognized for its good intentions. There are no boundaries to intervention, but no epic outcomes either. Elected officials know perfectly well that the public is on the move, and they are terrified of the consequences. Their chief ambition is to persuade us that they feel our pain, are on our side, have given a little money to our favorite cause, if only we, the public, allow them to last out their terms in peace (p. 246).
By encouraging the public to believe that government can fix the unfixable, governments are becoming complicit in their own failure. Gurri notes that “[l]ate modernist dithering can be explained more economically by political necessity than by elaborate conspiracy theories” (p. 249). Unfortunately, he does not elaborate on this point. Instead, he pivots towards a libertarian critique of government based on the work of economist Paul Ormerod, who argues that all human systems tend to fail because human action cannot account for the totality of the context in which it is taken, and so unintended consequences are inevitable. In one example of this phenomenon, Gurri mentions how crime, racial segregation, and poverty have increased in the United States since the 1960s despite massive governmental expenditures on their eradication (p. 255). The reason for the specific problems described in his example is, of course, at least mostly the radical shift in American demography. But in a broader sense, a partial solution to the problem of systemic failure is to lessen the amount of context in which decisions are made. A human system – in this case government – that actively draws more and more variables towards it will increase the likelihood of failure. And even if the failure of any given human system is inevitable, the chronology of its failure certainly is not: it can be accelerated or decelerated based on known and understood phenomena, even when unknown variables are acknowledged to be possible.
As hinted at earlier, Gurri sees a dangerous nihilism in the delegitimization of authority. He writes:
A growing chorus of voices now affirms, with passionate conviction, a preference for nothingness – nihil – over the present state of affairs. All you need is ears to hear its negations and condemnations from many corners of the information sphere” (p. 272).
In describing his concerns, he restates much of what he has already written. But now, instead of the words of an interesting – albeit naïve – observer of cultural trends, the reader is confronted by a man with no imagination and no vision: a temperamental conservative hoping that the status quo can be maintained long enough so that he will not have to deal with the consequences of that which he is too terrified to confront. Specifically, this is the impossibility of personal isolationism in a rapidly intensifying global order which seeks to undermine and ultimately destroy the foundations of that which he values. Gurri believes that those who react to the failures of their governments are just reacting:
[The nihilist] is not a philosopher with an elaborated ideology, or a political figure leading an organization. Membership in the Nihilist Party cannot be had for love or money. Rather, the nihilist is merely reacting, as all human beings must, to the pressures applied to his environment: which means, in this case, that he is acting to destroy that environment . . . the nihilist, while essentially at war with himself, will happily bring down the entire edifice of democracy as part of his suicide pact. He has taken radicalism to its logical extreme. He doesn’t mean to conquer power or replace it with some new deal, only to obliterate the institutions that stand in his way: “fuck the feds” (pp. 282-83).
He even accuses the “nihilist” of being a child of privilege, of biting the hand that feeds him – essentially of being an ungrateful young whippersnapper. For someone who has clearly given these issues much thought, these conclusions can only be either strategic or wishful thinking, but in this case it seems clear that it is the latter. No one who has investigated radical politics from any side of the political spectrum can honestly come to the conclusion that the majority of participants simply want to burn everything to the ground just for the hell of it.
Even the Left has reasons for their destructiveness. To suggest otherwise is to both empower them by giving them cover in the shadows of obscure motivation, and to weaken the Right by letting them believe that the Left is comprised of drooling idiots who can be easily defeated. Accusing those with whom one disagrees of nihilism – unless they are actually nihilists, of course, which those about whom Gurri has written are really not – is as counter-productive and anti-intellectual as dismissing hard truths as “racist” and “sexist.” But, to be fair, one gets the impression that he really does in fact believe that the people he describes in the book are nihilists. He cannot comprehend the possibility of a person rejecting his worldview for rational reasons.
For those who do not sympathize with the radicals of the Border and have little faith in the Center, but still want things to just sort of carry on as before, what does he suggest? First, he argues that “politicians should be rewarded for the modesty of their claims rather than the heroic ambition of their rhetoric” (p. 306). As every politician, every statesmen, who has ever walked the Earth is well aware, this idea is preposterous. This is simply not what people want, and so it will never work. In addition to the business of governance, the public wants politicians who are leaders: men who inspire and who provide meaning, a sense of vision, authority, security, confidence, and power. At the very least, they want their immediate interests protected in an increasingly insecure world, something which rarely lends itself to the language of moderation and restraint.
Second, Gurri suggests individuals remove themselves from the world of statistics, of the big picture, of the collective. He writes:
I may live in peaceful Vienna, Virginia, safe from harm – but a report that several Americans have died violently in Kabul appears like a fatal failure of authority. By dwelling on the plane of gross statistics, I become vulnerable to grandiose personal delusions: that if I compel the government to move in this direction or that, I can save the Constitution, say, or the earth, or stop the war, or end poverty now (p. 309).
He rejects the idea that this attitude is selfish or escapist. “Selfishness,” he writes,” would entail the demand that the government meet all my needs” (p. 310). And “[e]scapism would mean burying my personal responsibilities under a concern for the brotherhood of man” (p. 310).
He allows for engagement in radical politics, but offers no quarter for anyone who believes that the future can be predicted by statistics, or who “pour a corrosive stream of rejection and negation” (p. 311) on the democratic system because it has not met his particular expectations. With regard to statistics, he is referring to economic matters and the notion that statistical analysis is a guarantor of certainty, but it is still a very peculiar thing to say. It ultimately amounts to a rejection of the pursuit of truth. Statistics consolidate large amounts of information from the wider world in order to better understand it, and in an increasingly complex world, they are increasingly important. But it seems that this is at odds with Gurri’s idea of holing up inside one’s own insular world and hoping all will be well.
As for the corrosive stream of rejection, it is unclear what role Gurri believes average men play as agents of historical change. One wonders what the world would look like had it been populated for the past two thousand years by those who shared his outlook.
Gurri suggests that governments become more transparent and put their business online for public viewing. He believes this will demystify governmental actions, and thus begin to rebuild some of their lost legitimacy (p. 319). However, contemporary governments could not function at all with real transparency of this sort, or any other, because they do not serve the people, nor are they intended to serve the people. And this is why “nihilists” on the real Right want them radically altered, or dismantled and replaced – replaced, not abolished – with new and improved versions based on truth and genuine, legally codified national interest.
In the additional chapter included in the recent edition of the book, Gurri takes on Donald Trump. Much of the chapter merely restates the case he has already made: Donald Trump’s supporters are nihilists who believe in nothing, and those who voted for him just wanted to tear the system down. Presumably, immigration, tariffs, and endless foreign wars were just minor distractions from their larger project of destruction for destruction’s sake (so typical of white middle- and working-class Americans, right?).
Gurri admits that he sees no hint of the impending authoritarianism feverishly described by “age of Trump” scribblers and cable news schlock jocks, but he makes sure he is still welcomed in respectable company by expressing his distaste for Trump’s vulgarity, which he sees as resulting from the dynamics of social media playing out on the political stage. The vulgarity is indeed similar to the world of social media, but social media itself is a reflection of reality: a massive amount of diverse voices, struggling to get a word in amidst loud and often unintelligent and/or uninformed people, all while under the thumb of corporate and government censors with a very specific political bent. Trump’s vulgarity is more effect than cause. Gurri does mention that Trump has been nothing but a mainstream Republican in practice, however, but chooses not to discuss why, which is unfortunate because this discussion would be highly relevant to his Center/Border hypothesis.
Next, he discusses “fake news,” “post-truth,” and what is perhaps Trump’s only remaining positive contribution to American culture: the dramatic acceleration of outright hatred for journalists and the mainstream media. Gurri believes that Russians attempted to meddle in the 2016 election by influencing social media, but argues that it had no influence. Of interest to him is the reaction by the media to their new status among many Americans as “enemies of the people”:
The question was never asked why people would believe fake news over the real stuff. Trust in news as an institution had imploded. News as a business had been the first casualty of the public’s assault on the hierarchy of the industrial age . . .The prevalence of falsehood and the importance of Russian conspiracies had become canonical. The news industry felt justified in taking the last logical step: in effect, a leap out of mediation over the edge to advocacy (p. 387).
No one asked why because the astute elites had a pretty good idea of the various answers, among them being a resurgence (albeit largely implicit) of white racial advocacy and a rejection of neoliberalism, but to discuss such things would be to spread them: If frustrated and isolated white Americans were made aware that their frustrations were felt by others, that there were sophisticated analyses that could explain their predicament, and that, unbeknownst to them, there were intellectuals and activists laboring tirelessly on their behalf, then the American political landscape would become very uncomfortable for the elites and the collaborator class. But this presupposes what Gurri missed entirely: that the news media had leapt over the edge to advocacy long before Trump. Again, it seems that the author is simply naïve. He is disturbed by the use of the term “post-truth” by the Left to describe a world of contemporary politics based on supposed lies, because it leads to nihilism (of course), but is it really any different from missing threads of crucial information in a book purporting to explain profoundly important sociopolitical shifts?
By this last chapter, Gurri seems bewildered by the world. He has analyzed himself into a state of fear and a longing for submission to the comfort of a known quantity, an imperfect but familiar authority:
What happens when the mediators lose their legitimacy – when the shared stories that hold us together are depleted of their binding force? That’s easy to answer. Look around: we happen. The mirror in which we used to find ourselves faithfully reflected in the world has shattered. The great narratives are fracturing into shards. What passes for authority is devolving into the political war-band and the online mob – that is, to the shock troops of populism, left and right. Deprived of a legitimate authority to interpret events and settle factual disputes, we fly apart from each other – or rather, we flee into our own heads, into a subjectivized existence. We assume ornate and exotic identities, and bear them in the manner of those enormous wigs once worn at Versailles (p. 396).
But stories can only hold us together when there is an “us.” And there is no “us” outside of blood. The great narratives of recent history are falling apart in historically white countries precisely because they deny the “us” to their white populations, which are the engines of creation, order, and prosperity, while fostering racial cohesion among others in opposition to whites. The ornate and exotic identities he perceives are largely the authentic political selves of the non-whites surrounding him, who he was informed “all bleed red,” as well as the whites emboldened by the anonymity of social media to defend their interests among hordes of racial competitor citizens, invading aliens, and governments hostile to their very existence as anything other than sources of revenue and cannon fodder. No one told him this was going to happen, and he couldn’t figure it out on his own. It all must seem so strange.
Gurri ends the book with the hope that a new elite class will arise, reclaim legitimate authority, and save liberal democracy. He believes that this can be accomplished by elites behaving in an ideal and noble fashion and serving as role models for a receptive public:
In the right relation between elites and the public, the former act as exemplars to the latter. They embody and live out the master narratives. We can think of George Washington returning to his farm after the Revolution as a striking example (p. 422).
For those readers still capable of sympathy for the educated but ignorant, this quote will strike a chord of melancholy, like looking at a dead mall. For others, it will be maddening. Yes, we can think of George Washington. But can Tyrone, Tran, or Mohammed? And while whites are thinking of him, will the San Francisco Unified School District paint over a mural of him so as not to offend brown children (or, more specifically, their ungrateful, invasive parents)? Perhaps Gurri’s new liberal elite will appeal to the hordes of brown people already behind our borders in ways that no one else has been able to do, and perhaps some of these elites will even be white-presenting brown libertarians who will agree with Gurri’s ideas about liberal democracy. Perhaps he has some ideas on how this can happen, some historical evidence that this could possibly work. He does not say. He writes, “Is this scenario realistic? Who knows? Stranger things have happened” (p. 425). No, Mr. Gurri, it isn’t realistic. Smart and informed people know. And stranger things have not happened.
Gurri seems to want to extricate himself from the world and turn this dereliction of duty into a moral act. But considering his conclusions, it is probably for the best. His ideas are not self-replicating; they lack an inner logic of survival and will wither and die on their own. And it cannot happen soon enough.
The first half of the book, in which he discusses the collision of worlds and the Center/Border conflict, contains some interesting analyses and some thought-provoking commentary; the second half, in which he drifts away from “hard” analysis and into speculation and opinion – and in which the underlying anxieties, social fantasies, and astounding naïveté of his work are truly revealed – demonstrate a man very far removed from crucial aspects of the subjects about which he has been writing.
This disconnect leaves the reader with a sense of unease about the entirety of the work. One thinks of the many decades of sociopolitical literature that will have been for naught due to the taboo on racial differences and the rabid insistence on human interchangeability. Every single book, statistic, and theory that relies on a universal man, a universal American, or a post-1965 American nation is irrelevant.
Gurri’s book, while not entirely irrelevant, comes dangerously close at times. Such fissures run through it just as they do America, weakening its foundation while waiting for better men to return, repair the damage, and save what of value remains. We, these men, are waiting in Gurri’s Border, and we are not content with a stalemate.