The vast gulf that separates politics from real life seems to be growing.
What strikes you most about the world today is precisely how little confidence people have in political solutions. If you listen to the leading politicians talk these days, you would think that the whole of American life is currently dominated by violence, injustice, discrimination, pillaging, isolation, deceit, fear, poverty, suffering, and decline generally. There are left and right wing versions of this story, but each portray a population cowering in fear, seething with resentment, obsessed with inequity, longing for a time gone by...and begging politicians for the strength and vision to change things.
It illustrates how it is that states thrive in bad times more than good, and how even a slight downtick in the rate of economic growth can enliven politicians to advertise their services to people clamoring for answers.
And in the US of 2016, once we turn off the media and shut down their voices, we discover a different reality all around us: more choice, more convenience, more peace, and new technologies and options that make life ever more wonderful. Because markets are still working and human ingenuity has not been entirely shut down by regulatory controls and taxes, we still see beauty all around us; so much so that you barely recognize the world that politicians describe.
It’s truly bizarre, this disconnect. And what strikes you most about the world today is precisely how little confidence people have in political solutions. Indeed, they are mostly not buying what the politicians are selling. It’s no wonder that roughly two thirds of Americans tell pollsters that they are both dissatisfied and alarmed at mainstream political options, and one in four are willing to say that they dislike both leading candidates.
If you feel the same, consider that you are in the majority.
Dystopia vs. Utopia
This strange disjunction struck me this Saturday. That afternoon, I finally bit the bullet and listened to Donald Trump’s grimly dystopian nomination speech at the Republican convention. It was more dark than even I expected, and I’m writing as the guy who called him out for his brown-shirted fascist themes more than a year ago. He shouted at length about the state of country, how it is being invaded by parasites and criminals and how order is breaking down everywhere.
And this week, from the Democrats, we’ll get a different dystopian view in which average people are people pillaged by the 1% and how billionaires are robbing us, while minority populations are suffering egregious exploitation and public institutions are being starved of money thanks to the selfishness of average people who are undertaxed and underregulated.
In both scenarios, nothing is working. Solutions are all about restoring some glorious past that somehow slipped away.
And yet, this Saturday evening, I went fact-finding in downtown Atlanta, Georgia, one of the world’s most multicultural cities, just to see what the suffering masses were doing. What I found was a bustling, happily integrated, and busy community of consumers who were loving life. There were some large conventions taking place in town, with tens of thousands of people having come from all over the world to enjoy the nightlife in this city that is “too busy to hate.”
People of all races, nationalities, languages, classes, and backgrounds populated the hotels, bars, restaurants, and streets. There were smiles all around. Street musicians played and their instrument cases filled with money tossed in by passersby. Students walked in packs. Professionals from all nations took in the sights. Every manner of fashion was on display.
The Hard Rock Cafe had a wait to get in. Hooters was doing crazy business. Every bar was standing-room only. A posh art-deco hotel with a fabulous bar was keeping its highly trained bartenders busy with fashionable cocktails, under a techy steel canopy that must have been amazing in the 1920s but still has that aspirational modern feel. Just to enter the bar on the 72nd floor of the Westin hotel required a 30-minute wait, and the people in the place delighted at the bird’s eye view of this spectacular city. In a delightful touch, the room rotated slowly in circles to show off the achievement of human hands.
Each instance of private property is employed in the service of the one and the many.People at the bar were taking food and drink selfies and posting them in Snapchat and Instagram and gossiping among themselves about the people who liked or failed to like their posts. They commented on the music selections, how they love this singer and band and don’t like this singer and band. They posted their comments on their dozens of social accounts from their smartphones, each one of which had been customized for global and instant communication based on their own preferences.
Everywhere indoors and outdoors, you saw people walking briskly with their smartphones pointed forward, playing – you guessed it – Pokémon GO. Here is a game that has united humanity to a greater extent than every existing political establishment.
Where was the violent crime? I didn’t see any. There was no feeling of threat. Also, I didn’t see any police presence. Remarkably, the teeming masses seemed to be managing themselves just fine. People were laughing, talking, walking, delighting in the sights and sounds, falling in love, and generally doing what people do in real life.
What Makes this Place Work?
Now, if you were visiting from another planet, you would most certainly discover this scene, pronounce it to be working beautifully, and then ask the question: why? There is one common element here: commerce. Every behavior, every action, was knitted together by the market operating at full capacity. Every institution used cash as the accounting nexus to determine its success or failure. This is true of the drivers (thank you ridesharing!), the food-servers, the shops, the condos, the hotels, everything. There is no plan, no script. And yet everywhere you look in this great city, you see the working energy of commerce and private enterprise, each instance of private property employed in the service of the one and the many.
To be sure, all these people pay taxes. Every business obeys regulations. Annoying things like zoning still exist. But the question is: are these interventions in the market order the thing that makes this beautiful community work? Or do they drag it down and slow its operations?
Even a casual observer knows the answer. Commerce is what creates this evolving community of mutual interest. Commerce is the heart of this system. It is because of commerce that the divisions created by political agitation are nowhere in evidence. It is because of commerce that people put aside race, class, gender, and even language, and instead discover value and dignity in people as people. And the city here is playing its traditional role of bringing hugely different people together in a common and coordinated effort to build a more wonderful life.
For this to exist in Atlanta is particularly impressive. This is a city that has been destroyed multiple times, mostly by various forms of political intervention, extending from General Sherman’s fires in the latter days of the Civil War all the way through to the urban planning of the 1960s and 1970s. What a blessed relief when governments finally gave up the business of trying to make this city into something of their own design and learned to just let it be what it wanted to be. This is the reason for Atlanta’s beautiful revival over the last 20 years.
Whither the State
We are depending on the state ever less.If you think about it, we are depending on the state ever less. Sure, people are glad to take their food stamps and other benefits when necessary. But on a practical level, the state does very little for us as compared with the past. The loss of control by politics is palpable. The state has lost ground in communications, transportation, security provision, education, consumer protection, and cross-border dealings, and can no longer expect anything like a unified acquiescence to any aspect of its rule.
Globally, poverty and hunger are in dramatic decline, not because of government aid and planning, but because of private-sector innovation and ever-more intricate trade relationships. More human beings experience what it is like to possess human rights than at any time in history, and this is not due to bureaucracies and agencies but to the spread of markets, communications, and economic efficiencies.
Where does that leave the great statist project? No matter what the state does today, there will be a cross-section of the population screaming for it to stop. Even in once-nonnegotiable sectors like money production, there is now competition with the traditional public-sector monopoly.
A century ago, this thing called the state bragged that it would manage the whole of our lives better than we could manage them ourselves. We look around and everywhere we see failure in the very things it aspired to do. And when we look for successes, we see only the beauty of private enterprise in a digital age.
The Politics of Revanchism
How dare people move on without political managementIf your life were devoted to power, to the well-being of the public sector, to the thriving of bureaucracy, to holding a people captive to a civic religion, how are our times going to make you feel? The overwhelming sense is that you and your cause have lost territory that you once owned and controlled. Much of it is already gone. Much more of it is going fast.
In late 19th century France following the Franco-Prussian war, a group of reactionaries determined to recapture lost lands formed a movement: Revanchism, from the French term for revenge. They swore they would get it all back. They would avenge their losses. The movement came to be characterized by hatred, bitterness that comes with loss, and a loathing of modernity, dedicated to stopping the forward flow of progress.
This is more and more the basis of modern politics and its attitude toward people and technology today. How dare people move on without political management! How dare they push forward with building their petty lives while ignoring the doctrines of the civic religion and paying obeisance to the masters who rule the social order!
What the left and right share in common is a demand to go backRevanchism in our time has both left-wing and right-wing forms.
The left seathes at concentrated wealth, peer-to-peer technology, homeschooling, gun buyers who provide their own security, members of the bourgeoisie who have lost interest in their fanatical dreams for perfect equality and social justice, and the customized, privatized, media-driven civilizations the youth have created for themselves in the online world.
The right rails against people who reject nationalism, dare to live different lifestyles, doubt the glories of the latest political messiah, question authority of all types, defy the cops, live and love how they want, outsource business and buys abroad, while it tolerates things once heretical and keep disrupting the status quo by finding ways to innovate around incumbent industries and ruling-class elites.
What the left and right share in common is a demand to go back, to reclaim, to seek revenge against those who resist them. They want it all back: communications, education, technology, transportation, consumer protection, and the whole of the service economy that is governed by the private, spontaneous, innovative, and personalized app economy.
Neither Trump nor Clinton understand the way modern life works. They aren’t just fuddy duddies. They are angry reactionaries, generals of revanchist armies, each bearing a distinct color, and their cry is to restore the status quo ante.
Take a look at any bustling city center and observe how people truly live. Here is the future. There is no going back.