The January fever
"One man's informant is another's informer."
“Like all the men of Babylon, I have been proconsul; like all, a slave.” In the 2020s, political history has taken an almost Borgesian turn. We seem able to see the same events from opposite directions. We can almost flip them in our mind’s eye like a Necker cube.
A crowd rushes and occupies a state building. Is this a joyous expression of popular freedom—the spark that will begin a political revolution? Or is it a criminal assault on democracy itself? And if it is a criminal assault—how can democracy defend itself? Why—only with riot police, mass arrests, investigations, informants, denunciations.
Well: one man’s informant is another man’s informer. There is literally no difference. Neither of these frames is wrong; neither of them is right. The FBI is a democratic institution. It was elected. Or something. To attack the FBI is to attack democracy. Trust our democracy, citizen. Why wouldn’t you trust our democracy?
The test of propaganda is that propaganda can believe whatever it needs to believe. You can play two videos in parallel windows, differing only in the colors of the shirts, the flags, the syllables in the bellowed chants; one is the triumph of pure democracy; the other… the other is terrorism.
And democracy means the right to be safe from terrorism. In one window—whereas in the other window, democracy is messy… if you relax your eyes, you can even blend the windows, in a stereoscopic fusion of good and evil.
Recently I went for a walk in a park in Oakland and saw a plaque on a bench:
IN HONOR OF THE FIRST PEOPLE OF THIS PLACE, THE JALQUIN/IRGIN, AND THEIR DESCENDANTS
Every Bay Area person who has jogged past this plaque with their golden retriever, read it, and thought some happy thought about the Jalquin/Irgin (dollars to donuts that the Jalquin massacreed the Irgin at least more than once, presumably after much wrangling over whose brand sounded more like a birth-control pill), has figured out how to believe in blood-and-soil nationalism.
They are not Nazis. They do not need to be Nazis. They need to not be Nazis. If they needed to be Nazis, they could be Nazis. They have all the logical devices they need.
What this tells us is not that blood-and-soil nationalism is good, or bad, but that it is a human universal. Humans (but not golden retrievers) are both good and bad. It was bad for Germany to fight for Danzig. It is good for Ukraine to fight for Crimea. Why? Everyone knows why. Educate yourself, citizen. Some wars are brave and others cruel. Some peaces are sweet and others cowardly.
Principled people always fall into the propaganda trap. They are educated to believe that the crowd is always right, that people are people regardless of their ancestors. They have no idea that these principles came to them from propaganda. They believe their principles not even because they are useful, but because they were once useful.
Power has no principles. Times change and power changes. Then power needs you to believe that the riot police are right, that blood is inextricably tied to soil. You want power, but you want it in the wrong way; you want it by hating it, not by loving it. So power and those who love power will crush you, and your old principles, like a bug.
And until your exoskeleton crumples you will be cricketing out one song: “hypocrisy.” Actually your enemy is more right than you are; your old principles were just obsolete propaganda. They were not any better, or worse, than their opposites. Now power has no use for them. It needs their opposites. The flexible comply and triumph. You resist, and are crushed.
You resist—why? Not from of these principles, which are not even principles—from your immature, emotional need for power. All resistance to power is born of love for power, combined with a pathetic virginal insecurity about being able to get it. Love, underbaked and unrequited, curdles in the heart and turns to hate. The mature heart must teach itself to join with power…
Such is the mindset of all those for whom the witch’s Turkish Delight is a daily bread. I have met it again and again in the servants of power. In a way it is more respectable, more worthy, than the delusions of the people who, thinking they were storming the Bastille, merely committed a little petty vandalism, and for it were jailed without trial for years. A wise and cynical evil can be superior to a reckless and simple good… and not all of us, even today, agree that storming the Bastille was good.
Is there a way past this unappealing choice? A third way? There is. It will not allow you to keep any of your comforting illusions, though—it will not have any of these ways of feeling good.
Or rather: it will only feel good because you feel it will work. As its plausibility draws nearer, so will its attractiveness—more people will feel it could work. At first, this sense can only come from cold and unappealing logic; and only the logical can see it. Most people are not logical; most people are emotional. As more people feel it could work, it attracts more people; in the end, it is obvious to everyone that it will work.
And then it works. And when it works, it feels good to everyone—even the servants of the old power. After all, they have no principles! The new power feels as good to them as the old. Once you have accepted that blood-and-soil nationalism is good for B, but bad for A, how hard it is it to see the new reality that it is good for A, but bad for B?
Obviously these flexible people cannot be rounded up and put it camps. Instead, they must be employed—probably by the new power. Which they will serve faithfully—so long as it is really in power. And not just a mob vandalizing a government building.
By its juvenile mockery of power, the mob demonstrates its incapacity for power. Its attack is truly an attack on democracy—the mob, the essential element which makes democracy a tangible reality, attacks democracy by demonstrating its lack of power. For if the mob has no power, democracy has no power.
And if democracy has no power, oligarchy will come and crush it with the riot police. Democracy, in its moment of being utterly crushed, is bleating out two lies. The first is that democracy always wins. The other is that the oligarchy is really a monarchy.
Because the actors storming the state buildings, in the US on January 6 or Brazil on January 8, were acting in a drama in which they were a strong young democratic force defeating an old and tired monarchy—a drama which actually happened in the past—they felt jubilant as they walked into a trap. A trap is always an illusion. The reality behind this illusion is that democracy is old and tired, and oligarchy is middle-aged. In this reality, state security just rounds up everyone and destroys them.
Every attempt to explain our oligarchy using the worn-out template of “tyranny” fails. It always looks for a center, a plan, a direction, a cohesion. There are gravitational nodes of more or less weight—but there is no “there” there. And the mobs that storm the state buildings are not the concerned democratic people in their millions—they are a few thousand gullible malcontents.
This fake story was a dead end—a trap. The trap was baited in feel-good propaganda. When you act in reality, there is no bait. There is no false warmth. There is only real warmth, which is much harder to get. But when you get it—when you even approach it—you can feel the difference in every bone.