Generals are famously always “studying how to fight the last war,” with the last war’s technology, while dismissing how the world and its tech have changed in the interim. This is true for dissidents, rebels, and culture wars too. Our fears tend to be of 20th century boogeymen, the Nazis and the Soviet Union — but we should be worrying about other things entirely. The world and its dystopias have moved on.
The Nazis and the Soviets obviously inspired Orwell’s “1984,” which was stunning, visionary, and enormously influential … while still being slightly myopic compared to Huxley’s earlier, much weirder, and much more subversive “Brave New World.” But Orwell too was already able to prophesy a world in which no one really fought for territory any more. What would be the point?
Militaries around the world are constructed primarily for national defense against an invading, conquering force, but invading and conquering territory makes no sense any more. Wealth and power are no longer remotely related to how much real estate or raw materials you control. South Korea’s US-dollar GDP is higher than that of Russia.
The US swept Iraq’s military away like gauze paper when they invaded in 2003, but it turns out that, even after you overthrow a brutal dictator, even when it’s one of the most oil-rich nations on the planet, attempting to occupy and control a hostile nation inevitably becomes a horribly expensive catastrophe that costs enormously more than any possible benefits.
Nation-states don’t invade and conquer each other any more because of military defenses, or any kind of Pax Americana, or because everyone has gotten nicer and kinder over the last hundred years. They don’t do it because, thanks to technology-driven transformations over that time, it simply doesn’t make any sense; in fact it has become complete madness.
Similarly, counterculture individualists and lovers of freedom worry about Nazi fascism or Soviet police states. How twentieth century of us. There are plenty of neo-fascists out there, to my dismay, and we often seem to be doing our best to accidentally construct the tools of a police state out of modern technology — smartphones, drones, facial recognition technology, etc. in the much-abused name of “security.” I’m certainly not suggesting that people or societies today are somehow less likely to construct such horrors because they have grown morally better over time. There are plenty of awful people out there.
I am, however, suggesting that awful people today are a lot less likely to aim for fascism or totalitarianism because awful people benefit a lot less from those systems than they used to. The Soviet Union collapsed because it was an economic disaster as well as a moral one. The closest things we have to fascist states today — monarchies like North Korea and Saudi Arabia — are fragile, riven by internal contradictions and internecine warfare, facing the future with desperation and fear.
There’s a new playbook for oppression today. Instead of outright totalitarian rule, you construct the appearance of democracy, while controlling it by subtly — in some cases perhaps not even consciously — restricting the options available to individual voters; by controlling a tiered system of “representative” electors behind the scenes; or by simply outright stuffing the ballot box. (There can be much sound and fury about the distinctions between the available candidates, but if you’ve done your job correctly, and made democracy as awful as possible, in general only establishment candidates or easily manipulated narcissists will ever be nominated.)
Then you give your people enough freedom to thrive; to create, to disrupt, to innovate. And you siphon as much as you can of that created wealth.
You don’t give them enough to actually seriously challenge the establishment, of course; to, say, remake the system so that the siphoned wealth goes to its poor and oppressed people instead of its silent, invisible masters. That is a red line that must not be crossed. But the beauties of this system — call it parasitism — is that it is very rare to encounter a challenger who cannot be co-opted. It vampire-squids enough wealth for its upper-tier members and their families to live lives of extraordinary, gilded luxury, without the unpleasant threat of being assassinated or deposed that comes with outright fascism or totalitarianism.
These parasitic systems couldn’t exist without today’s technology. They are mostly networked, not hierarchical. They watch, they adapt, and they distract. They construct shell corporations that shuttle gobs of money around the globe like 747s. And they very rarely need to resort to violence, because, like the Borg, and like capitalism itself — from which it is distinct, although there are places where it has been so successful that people rarely recognize any difference — parasitism usually has the capacity to absorb all those who confront it.
I’m not saying fascism and totalitarianism are things we should be completely unworried about. They’re out there, they’re real, and they’re terrifying. But there are playbooks for how to fight them. Parasitism, though, seems almost unstoppable. Presumably the solution is a technological one; let’s hope it’s discovered soon.