“Be calm when the unthinkable arrives. When the terrorist attack comes, remember that all authoritarians at all times either await or plan such events in order to consolidate power. Think of the Reichstag fire. The sudden disaster that requires the end of the balance of power, the end of opposition parties, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Don’t fall for it.”
This warning was written by American historian Timothy Snyder, part of a lengthy Facebook post he made following Donald Trump’s election victory in November. Snyder, author of the book “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin” and a highly regarded expert on the atrocities of the 20th century, advised Americans to learn from the experience of Europeans who watched as democracy was wiped out before their eyes.
Americans, he points out, are no smarter than the Germans or Italians of the 1920s and 1930s. First of all, he urges his fellow citizens not to give up without a fight, and not to adapt without question to anti-democratic measures. A large portion of an authoritarian regime’s power is achieved without a fight, he says: People calculate what they think the government will want, and act accordingly before they’re even asked.
Snyder further recommends that people keep an eye open for extensive use of the words “terrorism” and “extremism” and to be wary of declarations of emergency.
All this may sound like a bit much. For now, Trump’s victory still seems mostly like a bad joke gone awry. A dangerous, grotesque joke, but still a kind of joke. We’re still busy digesting the weird new political phenomena that keep popping up one after another: alt-right, post-truth, Twitter diplomacy, Russian hackers Donald Trump seems like a clown who rose to the top but who doesn’t quite have a grip on the situation.
But that could all change after the first major terror attack. Panic will spike, and the public will yearn for a father figure. At the moment of truth, the Orange Emperor’s political power could turn out to be unlimited. He has the Senate and House well in hand. He may soon shift the Supreme Court his way, and meanwhile the media is weaker than ever. And there aren’t many other players in the world who could balance his power, certainly not in Europe or Russia. China is the main power that could clash with Trump, but it’s hard to believe anything good would come of that.
Where will the opposition to Trump come from then? Will he really be able to do whatever he pleases? Not necessarily. There is one significant power still out there that could block him: The tech barons. Or, to be more specific, Mark Zuckerberg.
During the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency, Facebook has become a major global power. Obama himself rose to power in part due to clever use of social media, in a way that was groundbreaking at the time. Later on, he made the tech barons a key source of his support, an alternative to the oil tycoons and conservative Wall Street plutocrats who traditionally support Republicans. Thus the mega-geeks of Silicon Valley became a new and very powerful elite. Historians may one day look back at the Obama presidency and describe it as the starting point of their planetary rule.
Trump’s victory was a rude awakening for this new elite. Trump was the unanticipated product of the platform they had created – the monstrous demagogue who sprang from out of the digital town square. After the election, it was argued that Facebook’s algorithm did not distinguish between authentic news and fake, and thus gave long life to false attacks that hurt the image of candidate Hillary Clinton. Nonetheless, the algorithm is still under Zuckerberg’s control, and it is fixable. If Zuckerberg abetted Trump’s rise, he could also be part of his undoing.
Last month, Zuckerberg reportedly refused to attend a meeting of 13 leading tech barons with the president-elect at Trump Tower. He was the only invitee who declined to come, although he sent his company’s CEO, Sheryl Sandberg. At the same time, there have been reports that Zuckerberg has started to show greater interest in the world beyond Silicon Valley. He announced that he plans to visit 30 states by the end of the year, and spoke of the need to address the rifts that technology and globalization have created in many people’s lives. And he said that he was no longer an atheist. According to speculations in numerous magazines and newspapers including Newsweek and Forbes, some people have surmised that the Facebook founder is thinking of running for Congress, or even the presidency.
But Zuckerberg has no need to get into politics. Facebook is politics. The web doesn’t just influence politics or project onto it – it’s the place where 21st-century politics happens. In this sense, Obama and Trump aren’t much more than puppets, outgrowths of a much deeper process. Hence, Mark Zuckerberg has no cause to try to lead this or that country. These days, countries have a tendency to become failed states. They are very hard to run, and are subject to international financial institutions and old constitutions. But while a constitution is very difficult to update, Facebook’s code can be changed instantaneously – like in the video that Zuckerberg recently presented, in which he demonstrated how he programs his robotic personal assistant, Jarvis.
In her book “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” Hannah Arendt described the rising power of theater in late 19th-century Vienna, and suggested that at the time the theater became more important than the state itself, which tried to imitate it. “While the state played an ever narrow and emptier representative role, political representation tended to become a kind of theatrical performance of varying quality until in Austria the theater itself became the focus of national life, an institution whose public significance was certainly greater than that of Parliament,” she wrote.
What Arendt said about the theater in Austria could be applied to Facebook in today’s global world. As the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, who died earlier this week once wrote, according to a Haaretz article a few years ago: “Power has left the level of nation-states and has gone upstairs, to cyberspace ... while politics remains as before at the level of nation-states. The hands of politicians are too short to reach the real power, which operates somewhere in ‘the space of flows.’ It is a very serious crisis of the democratic system.”
This situation, of technological and web power, is behind many of today’s major social developments – from changing norms in the relations between the sexes, to identity politics, to lone-wolf terror attacks. It’s a new structure of control that is fundamentally different from traditional liberal democracy. For now it still uses democracy, raising up one politician one time, and another politician the next. But soon it could replace democracy.
Like Plato’s philosopher-king, Zuckerberg is the programmer-king of this world. And the fear of having lost control may be just the thing to push him to center-stage, to demonstrate without mediation the power of his platform. So it’s not completely farfetched to envision a clash of the titans’-type scenario here. One, a 70-year-old giant, seeks to tyrannize the world with bursts of thuggish violence, aided by others of his ilk; and the other, a 32-year-old geek, seeks to run things with an all-encompassing artificial intelligence system that adjusts automatically to each person and simultaneously shapes one’s experience.
Something tells me I know who’s going to win.
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