Welcome to the Postmodern 1930s

The times are a-changin’. And often we find recourse to previous times to understand ongoing events. The confusing and volatile conditions of the present have been compared to the turbulent times of the first half of the 20th century, in particular the period between the two world wars. This comparison has its merits, but it’s not without dangers of becoming too anachronistic if our allegories are taken too literally and if we fail to include a sound analysis of the present. It’s important to keep in mind that we’re living in a vastly different world than our close ancestors a century ago. So even if some of the mechanisms and patterns seem to be similar, the outcomes are likely to be very different.

As mentioned in my previous post we seem to be in the middle of a major transition in history, just like the one the world was going through between the two world wars. Back then it was the transition to a fully modern industrial society, which resulted in major political, economic as well as existential crises. Today we are in the middle of a transition to a global information society, an increasingly postmodern society, which is likewise certain to bring about dramatic changes.

“The growing emphasis on information, signs and symbols is a very postmodern feature of our times to say the least. […] This doesn’t mean that the physical products themselves are without importance, but physical reality has been subordinated to the logic of the symbolic.”

What’s so Postmodern about our Times?

Postmodernity is not only a philosophical and artistic current, it’s also a stage of societal development. One of the most crucial postmodern developments in recent years is that we seem to have reached a critical tipping point towards an information society. In the developed world we live in a society where symbols, not manufactured goods, have moved to the center of the economy. The growing emphasis on information, signs and symbols is a very postmodern feature of our times to say the least.

The most powerful industries today are not the steel mills and automobile manufacturers, but those preoccupied with developing the latest in bits and bytes and those who control the billions of virtual dollars that make the world economy go round. This doesn’t mean that the physical products themselves are without importance, but physical reality has been subordinated to the logic of the symbolic. In the hierarchies of value the contents of products are mostly below that of the brands themselves, and the ones who most skillfully master the art of advertising will win the most profitable shares of the market. Again, symbols, rather than physical reality, matter the most in our postmodern world.

Another contemporary development is how electronic mass media is shaping the world, or more specifically, our perceptions of it – which according to a postmodern logic is what really counts at the end of the day. How we see the world ultimately decides how we shape it; and the ones who master the symbols most competently and manage to gain the attention of people, accordingly get to choose how it’s seen and what’s to be done with it. A wise person once noticed that something dramatic had happened to society as more people recognize the face of Nelson Mandela than that of their neighbors. Just think about it; most of us have our minds filled with famous people we have only been acquainted with through mass media but never met personally, while most of the people in our closest physical proximity remain unknown to us. The world has truly changed.

The most powerful people in our postmodern times are not the ones who control the largest armies; in the long run the winners are the ones with the largest amounts of cultural capital (for more on cultural capital read this post). The perhaps most critical feature that distinguishes the world’s most powerful economies, the one thing that most decidedly sets apart developed nations from developing ones, is not just their relatively larger military might, or their industrial output, but the level of cultural capital. “Soft power” with another term.

On one hand we have the level of scientific developments and on the other culture proper in the form of entertainment products such as movies, music and video games. Such commodities are sold on the global market at very favorable exchange rates and give the nations who possess these productive capabilities a most advantageous position on the global stage. A Korean politician once noticed that the value of the movie Jurassic Park was equal to about 1½ million Hyundai cars. And with significantly fewer working hours associated with the former, the production of high-end entertainment commodities accordingly constitutes a valuable asset to the nations that produce them. But that’s not all. Coal and steel don’t generate dreams. Factories do not appeal to people as much as centers of knowledge and culture. With the accumulation of cultural capital in select areas of the most developed countries, these regions enthrall the imagination of people all over the world; they effectively promote the values and ways of life of their nations of origin and have the capacity to attract the best and the brightest from all corners of the planet. A very powerful asset.

It doesn’t really matter how many nuclear warheads Putin has at his disposal, he’s unlikely to use them anyway (knock wood). As long as the global appeal of Russian artists don’t come close to the mesmerizing power of Beyoncé’s booty or the seductive smile of George Clooney, the approval rate of Russian values and way of life will continue to lag behind in the global competition.

During the Cold War Russian was part of school curriculums all across the Eastern Block; wide dissemination has always occurred with the language of a powerful empire. But today’s digital kids are learning Japanese, voluntarily, in their past time as part of their fascination with Manga culture. And that’s power. Japan is winning the hearts of people and is increasingly seen as a model society. This facilitates the continued growth of its cultural exports, and despite the country’s declining economic power vis-à-vis its neighbors, its position as a cultural great power in East Asia will prove to be a most favorable one. Admiration on the global scene is a powerful asset, both in order to sell one’s products, but also to gain diplomatic leeway.

Lastly it should be mentioned that we live in an ideological, postmodern, vacuum. The death of all grand narratives, as proposed by Jean-François Lyotard (who later, by the way, disowned his theory), is one of the primary features of postmodernism. Whereas the Cold War was a conflict between competing grand narratives such as communism and capitalism, the postmodern era has accordingly made way with such notions. Instead ideological conflicts between many small narratives have taken its place, sometimes dubbed identity wars, involving national narratives, religious ones or ideologies such as feminism among others. These seem to have taken primacy after capitalism won the Cold War and make for some very peculiar conflicts.

“Goebbels asked the Germans if they wanted “total war”. The Goebbels’ of today coyly ask us if we’d like just a little war, just something for the coffee.”

Postmodern War?

Postmodern war, what is it good for? My postmodern fellow scholars would be quick to point out that what war is “good” for is a matter of perspective, something inherent not to war, but to the eye of the beholder. That said, postmodern war fills the gap after modern large-scale wars have become less efficient and relevant: Putin’s war against Ukraine is almost not a war, yet it is ostensibly so. That’s what the postmodern war is good for; for waging wars that somehow aren’t. And then you win the battle by letting your troll factories spam online media with reports about there being no war. Goebbels asked the Germans if they wanted “total war”. The Goebbels’ of today coyly ask us if we’d like just a little war, just something for the coffee.

So let’s bring this point home – what are the postmodern wars? Tensions seem to have risen to a level not seen since the end of the Cold War. Military balances are shifting as American hegemony is challenged by new emerging powers around the world. This is perhaps one of the main issues that have impelled people into comparing the present state of affairs with the 1930s. Yet, we should be careful not to make to literal interpreted allegories. Obviously we are not going to see tanks equipped with Blitzkrieg tactics roll across the plains of Poland, or Mexico for that matter (seriously, that would be ridiculous). It’s highly unlikely that countries will engage in carpet bombing of industrial centers. We will not see another Marlene Dietrich entertaining the troops on the shores of Normandy (a bit less ridiculous, though). And no, anything bearing resemblance with the industrial mass killings known as the Holocaust is very unlikely to occur in the coming period despite the many injustices and cruelties that without doubt will happen in the near future.

We are becoming acquainted with another kind of warfare than the what we’ve been accustomed to from the world wars of the last century; a postmodern kind of warfare. So what would that entail? The term “new wars” as proposed by Mary Kaldor seems to describe many of the features we can expect in the future. Kaldor specifically notices that many of today’s wars tend to be “low intensity conflicts”. A typical example is – again – the current war between Russia and Ukraine. The countries are officially not at war, and neither of the combatants is putting all of their military strength into defeating the other. It’s noticeable that such wars, while being of a rather low intensity on the battlefield, instead tend to be high intensity media wars. Propaganda seems to be an equally, or perhaps even more, important measure of such wars than physical fighting, and manipulating public opinion is often a more critical war goal than the acquisition of strategic points on a battle map. Winning the hearts and minds of people seems to be of greater importance than winning the battles themselves, and in our highly globalized world that includes people all over the world with no personal stakes in the conflict itself. The war, in turn, offers a rich projection screen for personal identity projects that people pursue in the social media, vilifying or glorifying Russia, “disclosing” conspiracies, sharing citizen journalism, criticizing the wretched “mainstream media”, and so forth.

There have been frequent talks about a new emerging cold war between NATO and Russia. But instead of the proxy wars known from the 20th century and the secret operations of 007, the primary battlefront today seems to be located on the wild frontiers of the internet where battles are fought with information, disinformation and propaganda. Electronic mass media is truly shaping our postmodern world. The control over people’s minds is conducted with bits and bytes and competing narratives, while the very same bit and bytes are fighting to control our physical reality in the new emergent phenomenon known as cyber warfare. If the meaning of the term “war” is to be taken literally, then we’re already at it. Hackers have taken the role of good ole’ Mr. Bond, and his Russian, Chinese and North Korean equivalents are increasingly testing the capabilities of the world’s most developed nations in cyber space.

Terrorism proves another point in case. It is a very postmodern phenomenon because it’s not the physical damage that matters, but the psychological one. The word even implies it, terror, terror is an emotion, and the objective of terrorists is to inflict as much of this mental damage as possible. The damage is conducted through information, and the transmission of that information relies on mass media. In our postmodern world of mass media terrorism can be a very effective weapon, in fact, without mass media it probably wouldn’t have any effect. Just think about: what would the effect of a terror attack be in medieval times? How would you inflict terror on a nation of illiterate peasants, without any TV-set, internet or any other means of acquiring news than the slow measure of word of mouth? It simply wouldn’t work.

The most successful terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS are, despite their extreme reactionary ambitions, some very postmodern phenomena. They are children of the internet age as pointed out by the philosopher Alexander Bard. Without the internet they wouldn’t have managed to recruit as many combatants and they wouldn’t have had the means to spread their ideology as widely as they have. Accordingly a skilled media professional has been estimated to be worth more than a 100 warriors. Without these people the organization would never have taken off, it would not have had the power to recruit as many people and it would not have had the ability to promote its ideology and gain the support of disenfranchised people around the world. The postmodern logic of signs and symbols doesn’t escape even the most reactionary and backward-looking in today’s world.

“…to denounce the media as a valid source of information by calling [it] “fake news” […] is a very postmodern, and in our days a more efficient, way of delegitimizing oppositional ideas and ideologies than burning books.”

Postmodern Fascism

When making comparisons with the 1930s one hardly escapes the most notorious aspect of the era: fascism. There is no lack of analyses drawing parallels between the rise of fascism and Nazism in Europe and the present developments in the Western World. However, fascists are not what they used to be, and I’m not just talking about their loss of good taste in clothing.

It’s not the neo-Nazis with their fondness of short haircuts and shiny boots that make up the most prominent feature of today’s fascism. These guys have been around for a while and haven’t achieved much. As mentioned in my earlier post, by “…merely copying the Nazis they ironically disqualify themselves from being the fascism of the present, postmodern era.” They do so by simply not having the same transformative power as their predecessors.

Today’s fascists usually don’t run around beating up people in the streets, but instead tend to sit comfortably at home in front of their computers, developing the delicate craft of trolling the internet. Many of them also seem to have quite different views on the world than the old-school Nazis – more postmodern views that is. Following the last many decades’ surge in minority identity projects, the fascism of today can be seen as a counter reaction that ironically has taken the form of a white identity project rather that a quest for white supremacy and the abolishment of democracy. In fact, these guys are exceedingly more democratically inclined than their predecessors, even to a degree that they lean more towards popular opinion and direct democratic notions than the progressives of today, who seem to be in a state of panic regarding the fascist tendencies of the masses. How postmodern can it get? Democratic Nazis with identity issues, poor marginalized white men with a desire to be heard, focusing on cultural issues, trying to defeat the specter of “cultural Marxism”.

Speaking of which, a certain newly elected someone has made Hitler comparisons increasingly fashionable. As I asked in my previous post: “if a contemporary Hitler showed up today, would we be able to recognize him as such?” Well, a lot of people have. Even though it’s not nice to make comparisons with the aforementioned historical figure, and even if efforts should be done not to compare this new dude with Hitler, the circumstances are just too damn similar. However, calling Trump a Nazi is a rather unproductive endeavor, and no matter the analytic stringency of such comparisons it’s likely to collapse into immature name-calling. We don’t need to label him as such; his actions are enough to disqualify him as a competent and benevolent leader.

Given the transformative power of fascism in its heyday, a corresponding contemporary movement should also be energizing, populist, reactionary, masculine and profoundly felt by its adherents. So copying the programs of the aforementioned movement doesn’t suffice to make a postmodern version of fascism happen. What then are the features that make Trump a worthy postmodern equivalent of the fascism of the 1930s?

The idea of wanting to become great again is so similar to the situation in Germany after the First World War and the economic crisis of the 1930s that it’s hardly worth mentioning. Russia followed a similar pattern after losing the Cold War after which they too suffered from a deep economic crisis, which then was followed by the yearnings for a strong leader to restore the country’s former glory. Same old story.

But what makes the newly emerged American urge for greatness exceedingly postmodern is that it’s more a matter of perceived loss of greatness than an actual one. The country is still the only remaining super power, it didn’t lose a great war. It did experience an economic crisis however, along with the rest of the world, but recovered relatively fast and is now experiencing healthy growth. The US has never been “greater”, only in relative terms has the country lost ground, but it has done so since the end of the Second World War as other countries have modernized. The thing is that loss of greatness is a very subjective one. Crime in American hasn’t been lower for decades, employment is going up and terrorism is rare. But the perception of these things is different. It’s not the facts themselves that shape most people’s understanding of reality, but how the world is presented to them through the media.

This is where Trump enters the picture. Not only has he succeeded in using the common perception about a society in disarray to further his cause of making “America great again”, now he’s even attempting to denounce the media as a valid source of information by calling anything that goes against him “fake news”. This is a very postmodern, and in our days a more efficient, way of delegitimizing oppositional ideas and ideologies than burning books. Just think about it, the most powerful individual in the country proclaims that the media doesn’t provide the truth. If people stopped believing that CNN provided the truth he could just as well have burned the CNN Center down to the ground. And when his administration talks about “alternative facts” it’s an attempt to use postmodernity’s perspectivism and relativism – often against itself (as the very same postmodern ideologies, such as queer-feminism, multiculturalism and so on, are the ones getting targeted by these measures). According to the logic of postmodernity every perspective is worth of equal consideration, so why couldn’t the narratives of the Trump administration be just as true as anything else? And if anyone’s opinion is as good as another’s, why put your faith in the self-proclaimed authorities. Postmodernity is zealously anti-hierarchical and despises all authorities. But if no authorities exist on a topic, why bother listening to the experts, the elite, their analyses are just opinions, right? And anyone’s opinion is as valuable as any other.

It’s interesting to see how the reactionary Right is using this “post-truth” line of argument on a number of issues. Take evolution or global warming for example, “the scientific community is divided on the issue!” is a commonly proclaimed statement. Well, it’s not entirely true, the vast majority of scientists believe in these things, but that doesn’t matter because there’s always someone with another opinion out there, so who knows what’s right, you decide! It’s not as if Trump is likely to succeed in defining the truth, and he knows it. But that’s not the point. The Russian government is applying a similar strategy, and the goal is not to win the information war, but more to cause confusion, distractions from the truth and mobilize support from different opposition groups. It’s the postmodern equivalent of a guerrilla war, a type of warfare where a weaker opponent manages to withhold the enemy and inflict attrition.

Carelessness with the truth is a common fascist tendency as widespread today as it was back in the 1930s. The perpetual anti-intellectualism that follows from that is likewise a universal feature of fascism which draws its power from popular dissent. When the “elite” is perceived as not “delivering the goods” it is accordingly brought into question, with good reasons, but this is also dangerous. It’s a telling sign that fascist movements have always used popular dissent to fuel their agendas by alleviating gut feelings, anger and pandering the lowest common denominator. Populism has always been one of the crucial tools of fascism, in fact, that’s what makes the whole endeavor possible. It’s the everlasting danger in all true democracies, the Achilles heel of democracy, because in democracies power can be peacefully transferred from one agent to the other by popular opinion – and thus democracy can potentially obliterate itself in the process. It’s a danger that existed in modernity, as well as in today’s postmodern world.

“If you can remove certain groups of people from being visible in the virtual world of the media outlets, then they essentially don’t exist in a world that has become more and more distant from physical reality.”

Postmodern Genocide

The most disastrous consequence of the developments in the 1930s was the well-documented genocides that followed. For good reasons these events have served as a grave reminder of how bad things can go in industrialized societies. But even if large scale massacres may occur from time to time, as we’ve sadly seen in Rwanda and Bosnia, atrocities of the magnitude seen during the era of Stalin and Hitler are probably as unlikely to reappear as full-blown warfare between industrialized nations. Or let’s hope that is the case.

However, the vast majority of postmodern fascists are not really out to exterminate entire groups of people. After all, this sort of reasoning is limited to the utmost periphery. Instead of physically killing people, the goal of postmodern fascists is to silence them, to make them invisible – which according to a postmodern logic is almost the equivalent of death. And to many, it’s worse than death; being heard and seen is a cause worth dying for.

One of the primary ambitions of contemporary fascists is the silencing of minority and other oppositional voices, and the strategy to conduct this massacre is by disqualifying them as legitimate individuals. Fascists often portray themselves as “the real people”, the original inhabitants of the land, followers of the true faith and similar notions. By doing so they imply that the “others” are “false” people, with no valid rights to the land or of a false religion. Accordingly this line of reasoning entails that their voices are without legitimacy, that they shouldn’t be heard and that it’s acceptable to ignore them; often to an extent that it’s even a virtue to marginalize, oppress and humiliate them.

Now, freedom of speech is such a well-established right in democratic countries that very few postmodern fascist are actually proposing that anyone should be denied that right. In fact, they are probably some of the most enthusiastic and outspoken defenders of “freedom of expression” at the moment. So contrary the fascist regimes of the past, actual censorship is not on the agenda here. It’s too crude a tool, as inefficient as burning books in the streets and obviously not a viable measure in the age of the internet anyway. But censorship is not necessary. Much can be accomplished if you make the voices that oppose you illegitimate, if you drown them in disinformation and succeed in carving out your own group of followers by reaffirming their prejudices and vindicating their anger. And such an endeavor has become much easier to accomplish for a challenger to the establishment in the age of the internet. With the increasingly shorter attention span of a media saturated population, simpler and more spectacular narratives that resonate with people’s feelings can easily overshadow complicated facts and inconvenient truths. And with the growing tribalization into highly separated media bubbles, larger groups of people can more easily be insulated from alternative views than before.

But this is only step one. Just as they can use their purported “outsider position” to ultimately acquire the very same political power they despise the so-called establishment for having, the ultimate goal of postmodern fascism is also to seize control of the very same media institutions they criticize for not being “open-minded” enough towards their ideas. And if that happens, the postmodern genocide can begin. If you can remove certain groups of people from being visible in the virtual world of the media outlets, then they essentially don’t exist in a world that has become more and more distant from physical reality. The mission of postmodern fascists is thus to fight all attempts at a more diverse representation in the media landscape, to exclude the voices of minorities and to insulate majority cultures from outside influences. It also vigorously seeks to silence and delegitimize the intellectual voices that oppose them, often labeling them as “elites”, and thus according to a postmodern logic to be considered “evil” – even if they themselves obviously want to become the elite.

They know that they can’t just make away with all these people as dictatorships in the industrial era has done before; democracy is, after all, too well-established to allow for something like that to happen. But if people can be made invisible, under the moral pretention of democracy, the goal will have been achieved.

Now, it may sound a little exaggerated when using terms like “genocide” or even suggesting that silencing the many voices of marginalized groups out there constitutes an imminent danger in modern democracies. Contemporary fascists are, after all, not entirely insulated from the many rhetorical victories of progressive thought and do indeed have a hard time to conceptually oppose the freedom of speech they themselves seem so keen on defending. But still, it’s common to hear arguments from conservatives and reactionaries such as: “You can be gay, sure that’s no problem, but I don’t like how they keep talking about how proud they are about it, that gay agenda and all their propaganda, couldn’t they just keep it in the private domain? Shouldn’t we do something to protect our children from hearing these things?” Meaning, “shouldn’t we do something to revoke the right of free expression from this particular group of people?” In Russia, where homosexuality is legal, this line of thought has even made it into law, as so-called “homosexual propaganda” has been made illegal. You see, according to a postmodern logic it’s not important whether a phenomenon exists or not; if we don’t hear about it, it’s just as good as non-existent.

There are admittedly many sound arguments against the use of the term “genocide” when people aren’t actually getting killed, but if anyone succeeds in controlling the institutions that have the greatest attention of the majority of the population; if popular discourse has it that certain groups and individuals are considered illegitimate – made invisible – if diversity and the representation of minorities is sacrificed in favor of complete majority dominance – liberal, pluralistic democracy as we know it would have been replaced by a fascist form of democracy; a postmodern kind of fascism.

If nothing else, it hinders much preemptive progressive action to prevent suffering around the world – like the fact that a major famine is ongoing in Yemen, largely caused by Saudi bombings, but without hitting the top news. Half a million starving children somehow aren’t that interesting in the midst of Trump’s media fireworks about what went on in Sweden last Friday night.

Call it what you like, to me that qualifies as genocide.

There it is: postmodern war, fascism and genocide. Welcome to the postmodern 1930s. How about we try to beat our old record and handle this crisis a bit better than last time?

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here.