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Hyperdemocracy or Hypermodulation?

“The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy. The people do not want virtue, but are dupes of pretended patriots.”

— Elbridge Gerry, 1787

“What is needed is a greater degree of moderation in democracy to overcome the excess of democracy.”

— The Crisis in Democracy, 1975

“It was increasingly hard not to see in Plato’s vision a murky reflection of our own hyperdemocratic times and in Trump a demagogic, tyrannical character plucked directly out of one of the first books about politics ever written.”

— Andrew Sullivan, 2016

In a May 1st New York article, “American Has Never Been So Ripe For Tyranny,” Andrew Sullivan writes that hyperdemocracy is what develops ” when all the barriers to equality, formal and informal, have been removed; when everyone is equal; when elites are despised and full license is established to do “whatever one wants,” you arrive at what might be called late-stage democracy. There is no kowtowing to authority here, let alone to political experience or expertise.”

What Plato described in The Republic, Sullivan here applies to U.S. democracy. It’s the encompassing paradigm we are in, one that has made us vulnerable to the demagoguery of Donald Trump.

Cultural critic, Dominic Pettman tells us a different story, one in which technologies and not the libertine license of democracy have set us up for the idiocy of the Trump campaign. There are two contradicting forces of technological advance operating here. One is “about the cynical, corporate-governmental control of attention, behavior, and thought” in which we “become herd-like.” The opposing force, however, more closely responds to the chaos of uncontrollable narratives that we are in.

“What if,” Pettman asks, “the raison d’etre of so-called social medial is to calibrate the interactive spectacle so that we never feel the same way as other potential allies and affines at the same moment? In this case, it is quite deliberate that while one person is fuming about economic injustice or climate change denial, another is giggling at a cute cat video…That nebulous indignation which constitutes the very fuel of true social change can then be redirected safely around the network … [W]e might want to call this strategic phenomenon hypermodulation. . . deliberate dissonance. Productive delay. Staggered distraction.” (Infinite Distraction, Polity, 2016)

So while Sullivan believes that a late form of democracy has unleashed an uncontrollable populism whose anger and frustration, deftly and I think accurately described by Sullivan, has led to Trump as Messiah, Pettman provides us with an insight in which we see democracy not as a controlling agent or force but itself caught up in a deliberate dissonance that preempts accurate interpretation and therefore intelligent action.

Action has been needed as long ago as when the destructive effects of Reagan’s dismantling of economic mobility were “not hard to find.” You cannot stand behind an economic system that will leave 80% of the population in a state of continuous anxiety over jobs, health care, retirement, debt and the usefulness and purpose of their own lives without expecting revolt.

Because we are in a state of deliberate dissonance, the revolt of Bernie Sanders, which makes Americans iconoclasts of a capitalist system, is heard simultaneously as noise by some and meaningful by others. The revolt of Donald Trump which promises to make great again a former capitalism that has been upended by evil forces is likewise disharmonious and unsuitable to some but not to others. The combined dissonance of both is transported to politics and politicians, pilloried and rejected by still others who believe they can stay outside “the game.”

Trump cleverly mines the Id of the American mass psyche and pulls out all the darkness that the Republican Party has been slyly massaging for decades. Trump rightly assessed that the times were right to play into the Dark Side openly, vigorously and without apology. He has not been proven wrong thus far. Bernie Sanders leaves the abyss of our own human nature alone but keeps a steady course in the direction of our growing plutocracy. His appeal is to a critical reasoning that is able to dismiss visceral appeals to hatred, bigotry, and the “fuck you all balls” approach to things, as a Trump supporter, quoted by Sullivan, puts it.

The incidence of all that Sullivan views as both causes and effects of hyperdemocracy can be traced to hypermodulation.

Have “all the barriers to equality, formal and informal, been removed and everyone is equal when” wealth is now ten times as unequal as income and hourly wages adjusted for inflation, have almost the same purchasing power as in 1979?

No form of democracy has effected any change in the steady movement toward a plutocratic order but rather that order has used electoral democracy as a shill. So it is not the excesses of democracy, a hyperdemocracy, that has historically been rolled out by both Liberals and Neoliberals as the villain when a populist upswing, either foreseen or present, threatens an established order of things. The equality feared as a result of an “excess of democracy” an economic equality, a populist recognition that the conditions that frustrate and anger are due to a serious imbalance in the relationship of political and economic equality.

When chance, the ruling force in financialized capitalism, determines economic outcome and that stochastic process establishes the unequal opportunity playing field of plutocracy then it is senseless to privilege equality of opportunity and ignore equality of outcome. A staggering and fragmentation of our consciousness in this rising climate of hyermodulation dispels the clarity of the situation we are in.

What can explain the fact that no solidarity of response has occurred? There is now clear evidence that the wealth of the middle class has been and continues to be siphoned off to the very top. The looting of the country by the opaque hydraulics of financialized capitalism has not resulted in indictments and convictions as they were in Iceland, for example, after the Great Recession of 2008. Our 20% sham democracy rolls along with blatant and contemptuous disregard of the diminished circumstances of 80% of the population. Common sense and common cause have been dispersed within the confusing cacophony of hypermodulation.

Tea Party devotion to free enterprise and The Constitution masked all the vile stuff Trump now openly displays. Occupy Wall Street pointed to the ends plutocracy had taken us to but couldn’t connect the dots and in fact made no assault on the new fundamentals of “free enterprise.” Both “revolts” have been swallowed up in the Great Maw of American Amnesia, which is itself a defense against a “deliberate dissonance” that like the choking man who cannot stop the flow of food to his mouth cannot be stopped.

We cannot stop the dissonance of what Franco Berardi calls infosphere or the universe of transmitters which we engage through “social media,” which “can be read as both a tautology and an oxymoron.” (Pettman, 31) Indeed, how can you have any sort of revolution if the solidarity required has collapsed into what Pettman calls a “self-obsession.” “We are losing, or some of us born directly into “social media,” have already lost any idea of society. “[O]ur own expropriating experiences of the network augur a new species: self-obsessed yet without a workable sense or definition of selfhood. Which itself adds up to a society without the social.” (10)

Whatever may have been at the root of the deep structural American goals of equality and freedom, what we now see is a self-obsession that sees itself equal to all and denies any hierarchy of judgment superior to its own. It is not hyperdemocracy in which “full license is established to do whatever one wants” but the delirium of a cyberspace infinitude. It is clearly not hyperdemocracy offering “endless choices and insecurities” but a virtual online realm that has replaced any notion of democracy with solipsism.

Ask those unemployed or under-employed or employed at three jobs to make enough to pay the monthly nut what license they have “to do anything they want.” The infosphere promises relief and fulfillment in the same deceiving way that heroin does.

There seems to be no bounds to an alluring self-privileging because boundless freedom is as essential in our new Millennium as order had been to the ancient Great Chain of Being. Cyberspace offers an infinitude of freedom to the self-obsessed, a domain privatized by the design of one’s personal choices, a domain in which “information wants to be free” of anything but what you make of it.

You are not, however, self-manufacturing either the freedom or the empowerment. Cybertech nurtures and confirms a self-obsession already spawn by the axiomatic forces of a “free enterprise” of zero-sum competitiveness in which others must lose for you to win. Psychologies of freedom, choice, personal autonomy and determination emerge from an economic of an unstoppable will to win, itself originating and designed by that will itself. This kind of circular reasoning has not perforated either the economics or the psychology based on it.

What this kind of economics does is expand to a globalized dimension enabled by cybertech, in turn divesting itself of an old school of worker, capital and product and turning to a financialized “free enterprise” whose machinations outwit the political order. What this kind of psychology does is drive us further and further into self-designing ventures within a cyberspace that becomes further and further removed from the un-obliging conditions of the “world out there.”

What we face now is a semio-capitalism much dependent upon a steady, periodic flow of cybertech innovations that “grow the economy” but also lead it toward a robotics and AI which will not obstruct financialized capitalism. Such a revolution will however put an end to all that enabled a brief period of middle class democracy in the U.S., thus far the only historical period in which capitalist economics could not counterpunch the mission of egalitarian democracy to the mat.

You can have a society without the social if cybertech has replaced society with “social media.” Or, more precisely, has transformed any analog understanding of society into a digital understanding.

The ways in which a threatened society responds is by first forging a common awareness of the threat via a means of communication premised on and directed toward solidarity and not on aggrandizement of the personal. The response of those not similarly threatened but in fact enriched by what threatens others is to hyper-stimulate and overload the chosen conduit of communication, i.e., cyberspace, so that any hope of a revolutionary solidarity melts into air.

This is not the old fashioned Cold War brain washing or Madison Avenue manufacturing of brain space but a destruction of any hierarchy of value and meaning so that the key piece in distinguishing what’s a red herring and what’s a clue is lost.

Pettman’s example is funny but spot on: “Facebook’s `trending’ panel: #Ferguson: Protests continue after grand jury doesn’t charge officer in Michael Brown case. 2. #Paul Rudd: University of Kansas yearbook photo shows actor sporting long hair style.” (35-36) The stuff that melts into dew is given the equivalence of what, as Hamlet put it, is “too, too solid.” It’s the distinguishing of the dewy from the solid that leads to a proper response to what in fact threatens to totally replace any form of democracy with plutocracy.

“So what happens?” Bifo Berardi asks. “As the electronic universe of transmission interfaces with the organic world of reception, it is producing pathological effects: panic, over-excitement, hyperactivity, attention deficit disorders, dyslexia, information overload, and the saturation of neural circuitry.” (And: Phenomenology of the End, 2015) And Donald Trump we can now add.

Trump is a pathological effect of the confusion caused by a submersion of the “organic world of reception” in this “electronic universe of transmission,” submersion in a “deliberate dissonance.” He is also a strong purveyor of that “deliberate dissonance,” so ontologically connected with it that a study of his words and actions reveals dissonance in the flesh, dissonance personified.

Because we have lost sight of any comparative frame out of which effective critique emerges, we cannot in fact distinguish what is pathological from what is not, cannot see what is dissonant and trace it to its source, cannot extricate ourselves from Trump’s bold evocation and personification of the disorder that engulfs us.

Politics, like society itself, has dissolved into a mindless, disturbing dissonance, has been transformed into a chaos of personal determinations. This is sad. This is tragic. This is a “What the fuck?” situation, one that the anger of Trump’s followers, justified anger, prevents them from seeing because their Trump Messiah fuels that anger while misdirecting it to those who are themselves suffering from the same dire conditions.

The last bastion of defense, our go-to defender and expositor, science, of The Great Outdoors, “offline reality,” has been driven into an equivalency frame with Paul Rudd’s hair, or more accurately, with Intelligent Designers and Global Warming Deniers. This upshot of scientific advance since the Enlightenment is not a result of hyperdemocracy but rather of the dark concatenation of personal autonomy, the open domain of cyberspace for the self-empowered will to roam, the axiomatic development of both by semio-capitalism, and the resulting establishment of an ungraspable chaos.

A tradition of sticking the middle finger up, as Alice Dreger puts it in Galileo’s Middle Finger (2015) to what cannot stand up to any rational or empirical test has now dissolved into your narrative and my narrative and his narrative and her narrative. And each one is sticking a middle finger up to the other.

The only reason I can see why this hasn’t triggered a real war of all against all is because the self-obsessed are “whatever” about your rejection of their narrative. And they are “whatever” about that because they are “whatever” about you. The Other. There are selfies but not “otheries.”

What is really going on in The Great Outdoors is now of less importance to us than what is going on in The Great Indoors of cyberspace and so the scientific method itself and its supporters are queued up along with supporters of brick and mortar bookshops and the printed edition of The New York Times. Science directed to technological innovation is, however, not so treated. We are in fact directing our education toward STEM courses, toward a future of an even greater overwhelming of our poor organic circuitries than we now experience and a mindboggling incapacity to interpret what any of this means.

Hyperdemocracy also apparently creates a society when “elites are despised,” an odd statement when one considers that what has baffled Europeans is an American disinterest in the erosion of their own egalitarian pretenses.

Rather than despise the mogul elite, however obscene their extravagances and privileges may be, Americans continue to live within the illusion that such wealth and privilege will soon be theirs. They will not deny to others what they hope to possess themselves. When everyone is greedy, greed is not a thing to be recognized.

However, I think a better explanation lies in the fact that classes are entombed within private enclaves of affiliation and association that are reminiscent of feudal divisions. On one level, many in distress are self-entombed within social networks that promise a sense of communal support and comfort but deliver only a reflection of their own illusions, misreadings, intractables. But on another level where the real conditions of the Umwelt operate, the many have been thrown on a trash pile labeled “Creatively Destroyed.”

The infinite distractions of the infosphere operate like daily doses of the soma tablets of Brave New World. And as a protective and defensive strategy, the top 20% do all they can to isolate themselves behind gated compounds, shun anything public and promote elite status consideration everywhere.

Thus, the Many do not despise the elites not only because they see such success as a fulfillment of a dream they share but also quite simply because the “up” is not there to be seen and the Many are so far down, it looks like up to them, to paraphrase a “back in the day” novel by Richard Fariña.

Andrew Sullivan admits to this disassociation from the angered and frustrated Many. “The deeper, long-term reasons for today’s rage are not hard to find, although many of us elites have shamefully found ourselves able to ignore them.” David Brooks has expressed the same failure. This is not a slight matter. Those public intellectuals whose work it is to interpret cultural change, culture being “a whole way of life,” are blind to what lies outside their own top 20% professional meritocracy. The gentrified seek to use the Many in a semiotics of authenticity for which they cannot shop. Multi-cultural inclusiveness and diversity are part of a semiotics of comparable bullshit. Trump has shown us how multi-cultural, inclusive and how welcoming of diversity we are.

Trump’s followers exhibit much rage against all established guardians and protectorates and he does likewise. With that line of communication not open to them and the communications of cyberspace either increasing dissonance or isolating the self and likeminded “friends” within the vicious circle of their own egos, we can expect little cognitive deliverance. The world we attempt to bring to what Berardi calls “the sphere of calculation” has already been back staged by the dissonance of the infosphere and human cognition disabled and impeded in distinguishing sense from nonsense within such a sphere of dissonance.

We have indeed “lost authoritative sources for even a common set of facts” as Sullivan tells us but that loss can neither be laid at the doorstep of hyperdemocracy or hypermodulation. The staggered distractions and deliberate dissonance of the infosphere is political preference free. However, the populist side of Trump’s success, which irks the conservative Sullivan, has all to do with hypermodulation and not hyperdemocracy. Conservatives mourn the loss of their own authority, an illegitimate authority bestowed on them by an illegitimate and corrupt financialized capitalism. That authority is now being undermined by a cybespace dissonance that capitalism itself has fostered for both political and economic reasons.

Not surprisingly that sponsored dissonance has not left a space open for a Neoliberal authority to stand. The existential sense of lost authority that pervades the post-truth world has, however, left spaces open for the recognition of the Other’s narratives. It has done so because “The Truth” has dispersed into multiple narratives. Perhaps the dissonance of hypermodulation inevitably followed but what we can clearly observe most recently in our presidential primaries is the dark side of this marriage of lost truths, or, more exactly, a lost universally accepted arbiter of truth, and the infosphere’s universe of transmitters overwhelming the fragile state of human and social reception. In short, at the same time as the culture experiences a loss of faith in any judgment of truth, the infosphere assails us with drone barrages of truth stories. Going there is noisy business. Dante in fact passed out.

The infosphere and all its created dissonance did not kill the pretenses of Enlightenement modernity nor has hyperdemocracy done so. But clearly the existential insecurities and confusions of a post-truth world have found a codependent relationship in our alter world of electronic transmission, in an infosphere society without the social.

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Joseph Natoli has published books and articles, on and off line, on literature and literary theory, philosophy, postmodernity, politics, education, psychology, cultural studies, popular culture, including film, TV, music, sports, and food and farming. His most recent book is Travels of a New Gulliver.

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