“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel … I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose,” declaimed the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, 21 years ago. Welp. That did not go quite as intended. Instead the Internet seems to have brought us new, networked forms of fascism.
The Internet was supposed to dissolve national boundaries, and turn the world into a global village — but that village wasn’t supposed to be run by racist bullies. Alas! The first successful networked, borderless, transnational political coalition has arisen, and guess what? It’s composed largely of “ethno-nationalists,” aka “white supremacists.” Joke’s on you, John Perry Barlow.
I’m talking, of course, about the Brexit braintrust; the Trump administration; Vladimir Putin’s kleptocracy; and various lesser hangers-on, such as Holland’s Geert Wilders, France’s Marine le Pen, Austria’s Norbert Hofer, Germany’s AfD party, and (sigh) my homeland Canada’s Kellie Leitch.
Of course the irony is that all of the above claim to be in favor of national sovereignty, and stronger nation-states. But this is clearly only a means to end, that being: drastically reducing nonwhite, and especially Muslim, immigration to their white nations. They’re all on essentially the same team. As Josh Barro puts it: “For members of a movement that purports to focus on putting American interests first, American nationalists seem to spend an awful lot of time obsessing about Europe.”
It’s not like this coalition is in any way secret. Trump invited Nigel Farage, architect of Brexit, to Trump Tower shortly after his electoral victory, and suggested he be made UK ambassador to the US. The links between Putin and the Trump administration are far too numerous to summarize here. Breitbart, run by Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, has made a point of supporting far-right movements around the world:
Bannon, of course, says that:
the Judeo-Christian West is in a crisis …we’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict … against this new barbarity that’s starting, that will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years … it’s a very unpleasant topic, but we are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism … if we do not bind together as partners with others in other countries that this conflict is only going to metastasize … we believe — strongly — that there is a global tea party movement … there is a major war brewing, a war that’s already global. It’s going global in scale, and today’s technology, today’s media, today’s access to weapons of mass destruction, it’s going to lead to a global conflict … I believe you should take a very, very, very aggressive stance against radical Islam.
(It would be unfair of me not to mention that, to Bannon’s credit — not a phrase I use often — he also cites crony capitalism and Ayn Rand libertarianism as major problems. But if you read the whole thing, it’s clear that his Islamophobia is far, far more important to him.)
I am prepared to grudgingly accept that a lot of misguided-but-not-actually-evil people genuinely believe, somehow, wrongly, that the fabulously rich and powerful West is in the midst of a war for its very existence against the grindingly poor and oppressed inhabitants of Islamic nations. But many more are simply racist assholes who fear different cultures, and different skin colors, and are in search of an enemy to justify their beliefs. (Cf the bizarre proposal to build a wall at the Mexican border in an era when more undocumented people are leaving the US than entering.) Some of them are outright fascists, and fascism always needs an enemy.
We’ve always had racist assholes and fascists. What nobody expected is for them to have networked together into a potent, postmodern, 21st-century international political force, one far more effective than any comparable network; one which (so far) has been shitposting, fake-newsing, and 4channing their way through their stuck-in-the-20th-century political opponents like a Roman phalanx through barbarian hordes. Noah Smith observes:
Go on 4chan and check out the country flags on white supremacist posts – you’ll notice that more than half are from outside of America. That constant contact with international fellow-travelers tends to erode national and local allegiances and create borderless identity groups defined by race, religion, and ideology … Whatever the sins of nationalism, I think history shows that militant trans-national movements are far more dangerous – they also commit mass violence, but they fail to provide the public goods and institutions that make life good in peacetime.
I think that last is a little too pessimistic. It’s certainly easy to envision transnational movements that would be enormously beneficial. Think of the Tobin tax, if implemented in all major financial centers. Think of meaningful collective action against climate change.
But right now those notions are pipe dreams, while the Great Barrier Reef will be dead within decades, and everyone’s favorite vampire squid, Goldman Sachs, has no fewer than five alumni at the top table of what remains, for now, the most powerful country in the world.
Meanwhile, the self-proclaimed progressive left remains completely ineffective at mounting any kind of networked, transnational movement for their version of a better world. Perhaps this is because they are more interested in language policing and obsolete no-platforming tactics than in meaningful policy — although the eruption of protest in response to Trump’s vile attempted immigration ban offers some hope. Perhaps this has always been so: as Yeats wrote a century ago, The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.
What seems clear, though, is that the utopic dreams of the early Internet, in which technology’s erasure of national borders led to a global utopia of harmony and fellowship, could hardly have been further from the truth. We may well be moving into a post-Westphalian world, but it won’t automatically be a better one. We’ll have to work much harder, and much smarter, for that.