Every era is defined by its sustaining myths. Among ours is surely “disruption”. The book that seeded the mythology, Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma, is only a little more than 20 years old, yet its “technological disruption” thesis has become an article of faith for business and government, trafficked like narcotics from TEDx to trading floor to ministerial report.
Established companies often fail, so the thesis argues, not because they make bad decisions but because they make good ones. They stick with “sustaining technologies” because they are too successful to risk otherwise. Meanwhile, minnows with little to lose bring new technologies to market that initially may not be as good as seemingly entrenched “sustaining technologies”, but are cheaper and more accessible: think mainframe computers versus PCs, high-res CDs versus low-res MP3s, SLR cameras versus phone cameras, encyclopaedia versus Wikipedia. This is how Apple became a music company, Amazon became the world’s biggest bookstore and Facebook became your news feed.
But as with most mythologies there’s something a little too convenient about “disruption”. Christensen’s thesis emerged just as Silicon Valley venture capitalists – whose reverence for Christensen has helped make him a perennial keynote – were looking for new justifications for cutthroat business models and a rationale to gloss up their claims to “innovation”.
Behind their glitzy mission statements, many tech companies are little more than middlemen with a point-and-click front end: “intermediaries” in tech speak, “aggregators” of other people’s content that deliver product based on someone’s else’s property and/or labour to consumers, and then deliver those same consumers to advertisers.
The “technological disruption” mythology has provided cover for downsizing, lay-offs, the theft of intellectual property, the casualisation of labour and normalisation of precarity, the exploitation of free labour by users of digital platforms (as in when, say, Facebook users create content for free), the normalisation of totalitarian levels of surveillance, and what is no doubt the greatest misappropriation of personal information in human history.
As the historian Jill Lepore showed in a devastating takedown in The New Yorker in 2013, Christensen’s thesis is based on dodgy premises. Yet the “disruption” myth prospers. It sits all too comfortably alongside other myths of neoliberal times. As Christensen acknowledges, his theory reprises Joseph Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” thesis, published in 1942 and since corralled by free-market ideologues to justify the wholesale destruction of jobs, industries and ways of life in the name of economic “efficiency”.
Now, to be clear, I’m not suggesting technological disruption doesn’t happen. What I am questioning is the magical transformative powers attributed to the process. The disruption myth ties our notions of progress to the concept of destruction. It does so under the technologically determinist assumption that such progress is inevitable and good, and skips past the possibility that as well as being liberating, technology can have devastating social impacts.
What happens, then, when the thing being “disrupted” is the fabric of democratic culture itself?
In mid 2018, I was walking through an Australian airport when I spotted several mini billboards for Facebook’s “Here Together” campaign. “Fake news is not our friend” said one. “Data misuse is not our friend” said another. The campaign was launched in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which more than 50 million people had their Facebook data improperly shared with the right-wing polling company. This happened amid ongoing scandals about fake news and fake accounts on the platform.
At the time I had just spent four weeks trawling the Facebook pages of eight Australian far-right groups to gather data for a research project. I’ll spare you the full details, but suffice to say that Australia’s Islamic population isn’t popular with the far right. Nor are refugees, feminists or environmentalists.
As I read posts from the pages, two trends stood out. The first was their pointed incivility. Not only were they uncivil, they revelled in their incivility. Their attacks on perceived opponents were not merely intended to rebut or disagree, but to undermine their credibility and delegitimise their humanity using any possible means. Incivility was being used in lieu of debate as a weapon to shut people down.
Much of the material that I analysed met the formal criteria for hate speech. It was clearly intended to incite animosity and hatred against target groups, to intentionally inflict emotional distress, and to threaten or incite violence. It defamed entire groups and used slurs and insults in an attempt to marginalise and silence their perceived opponents.
Many posts advocated strong-arm tactics without due process to target minority groups. In these angry calls for the demolition of longstanding human rights conventions and the subversion of law to suit the interests of the dominant (white, male) group, a form of proto-fascism could be heard.
Inspired by the US alt-right
The second trend is that Australian far-right Facebook pages increasingly model themselves on the US alt-right. Whereas old-school, far-right groups stick to white nationalism, the sites I looked at mixed race, gender, sexuality and a smattering of science issues. This mirrors the way in which the US alt-right has built links between white supremacists and so-called “men’s rights” groups as well as a growing emphasis on climate science among the far right in the US and Europe. Figures associated with the alt-right such as Milo Yiannopoulos, Lauren Southern, Steve Bannon and Gavin McInnes are revered on the Facebook pages I surveyed.
News of their proposed Australian tours is greeted with glee and multiple repostings. Also common are alt-right memes such as “cultural Marxist”, “social justice warrior”, talk of “white decline” and the idea that the “white race” is being subject to a form of “genocide”, crowded out by minorities and multiculturalism, a myth long nurtured by US white supremacist Bob Whitaker. There was considerable support for absolute “freedom of speech”, an alt-right meme that functions as cover for open racism and the public spread of hatred. These memes were often intermingled with imagery featuring alt-right mascot Pepe the Frog, Donald Trump, on occasion imaginatively mashed with images of Pauline Hanson or Sonia Kruger (celebrated for publicly questioning Islam).
The popularity of the sites was also notable. Between them they had over 400,000 followers. A much greater number of people are likely to have viewed the sites but not signed up. Most postings had been liked and/or shared hundreds of times, some thousands.
These sites are part of a global trend towards the networked industrialisation of hatred. Cambridge Analytica wanted those millions of Facebook profiles so they could target users with divisive messages to influence the 2016 Brexit vote and US election. According to Cambridge Analytica chief executive Alexander Nix, “It sounds a dreadful thing to say, but these are things that don’t necessarily need to be true as long as they’re believed”.
A leading entrepreneur of industrialised hatred is Steve Bannon, a former Cambridge Analytica board member, former Trump campaign adviser and then White House strategist, and before that editor of the right-wing Breitbart News. Bannon has lately become a globetrotting activist for white nationalism, offering advice to far-right figures such as Marine Le Pen and Viktor Orbán, and parties such as Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and Italy’s the League and Five Star Movement, as part of a project to build support for his idea of a far-right populist “supergroup” to win seats in the European Parliament.
Fox News has positioned itself at the forefront of developing the hate business model, via the work of commentators such as Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter. In Australia, Sky News “after dark” does similar work. The fostering of division has long been ingrained and normalised in tabloid news business models, as seen in a column by Andrew Bolt in August 2018 that singled out Jews, Chinese, Cambodians and Indians as part of a “tidal wave of immigrants that sweeps away what’s left of our national identity”.
Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are also complicit. Conflict creates clicks. A few weeks after the Facebook “Here Together” campaign was over I checked the sites mentioned above again. All survived intact.
Decline of the public sphere
The hate business model uses incivility as a weapon to forestall public discussion about bigotry and to attack opponents. It is not enough to sow division; it must be done with unapologetic aggression and an open contempt for ideological enemies. The aim, ultimately, is to move norms of acceptable public discussion far to the right.
When Lauren Southern touched down in Australia in July 2018, she disembarked wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the alt-right meme “it’s okay to be white”, a statement first promoted by white supremacists on 4chan to “trigger” progressives and to underpin the idea that whites are somehow under threat. The following month Australian parliamentarian Fraser Anning unapologetically gave his race-baiting first speech to parliament. Two months later Pauline Hanson tabled a motion that asked the Senate to acknowledge “anti-white racism and attacks on Western civilisation” and that “it’s okay to be white”, which was supported by the Coalition government.
It took less than a year for a meme concocted to sow racialised division to find its way from an internet bulletin board to a parliamentary vote in a major Western democracy.
The electoral harvest of the new incivility can be seen in the Brexit vote and the rise of UKIP, the 2017 electoral success of AfD in Germany, the impact of Marine Le Pen’s Front National in the 2017 French presidential elections, and the 2018 formation of a populist government in Italy comprised of ministers from the League and Five Star Movement.
It can be seen, too, Donald Trump’s 2016 electoral victory and presidency, and the persistent use of Indigenous peoples, Muslims and asylum seekers as political scapegoats in Australia. It can also be seen in the return of “strongman” politics: Duterte in the Philippines, Erdoğan in Turkey, Orbán in Hungary, Putin in Russia, Trump in the US. All fomented social division to gain power, and have since waged war on “elites” and attacked and diminished democratic institutions.
This industrialisation of hate exploits two revolutions. The first is the centrality of economic and human mobility to modern life and the anxieties it has created at a time of uncertainty, precarity and hardship for many. Growing public resentment at the failures of economic globalisation has created an audience ripe for harvest by the reactionary machinery of the culture wars. The second is the relative openness of the internet. Just as Bill Gates famously commented in the early optimistic days of the internet that it offered a “frictionless” environment for commerce, so it was no less available as a “frictionless” environment for the circulation of hate.
The white supremacist site Stormfront was one of the earliest online communities, even if, amid the hype for the economic and democratic possibilities of online communities, no one paid much attention at the time. As traditional intermediaries and the “managerial class” that presided over old-time democratic culture – editors, publishers, journalists, academics, civic leaders – were bypassed, and as the traditional journalism business model was weakened by the loss of print advertising revenues and the growing domination of click-based online models, so new space was created for figures such as Bannon, quick to understand the new media dynamics and leverage them to build audiences for publications such as Breitbart News with a business model based on division.
This hate-based business model enacts a sobering version of Christensen’s theories. Democracy is being “disrupted”. Low-quality, easily trafficked disinformation produced cheaply by “new entrants” is crowding out higher-quality information produced by established incumbents (journalists, civic leaders, academics), who accumulated power through older technologies and institutions (print media, broadcast television, the university).
The old expensive-to-maintain public sphere, supported by comprehensive education systems, robust journalism and informed critique, is giving way to a cheap-to-run, “near good” public sphere corralled in privatised platforms. But there is no magic attached to this process, only the malodorous waft of divisiveness, hatred and encroaching authoritarianism.
What to defend?
Right now, the story of the new incivility is only partway told. The reactionary right has not yet achieved its aims, and in Australia is currently on the defensive. But the struggle over the future of democracy is global and the forces of reaction are playing a long game. Power is gradually being ceded away from liberal democratic norms towards populism and proto-fascism. Should this trend continue then the prospects for freedom, social justice and the environmental viability of the planet are bleak. Those on the left who for a long time have derided liberalism and been deeply suspicious of the Enlightenment culture that produced it, are thus forced to make a difficult decision: what to defend?
In the 1930s, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci famously wrote from his prison cell: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Morbid symptoms of our moment of interregnum are everywhere now.
Refugees of failed modernity roam the seas in leaky boats, hunt for gaps in fences on European borders, form caravans to walk the “route of death” through Mexico in the hope of getting to the US, rot in the asylum centres of Manus and Christmas Island, take indentured jobs sweeping floors in the penthouses of Singapore or walk girders on the construction sites of Abu Dhabi, searching for the wealth, freedom and security that Enlightenment did not give them.
They are met, when they get to those borders, with the forces of a new counter-Enlightenment: concrete walls and razor wire, white nationalism, militarised policing, curtailed human rights. Other refugees are within: casualties of deindustrialisation, casualisation and the winding back of welfare, who make up a new precariat.
Young people have felt the effects of this most brutally. Too often denied meaningful careers and kicked off the wealth-accumulation ladder, many hear the siren call of 4chan or are drawn to figures such as anti-“social justice warrior” celebrity psychologist Jordan Peterson, with his paeans against feminism and bestselling tips on how young men can recover their masculinity; or to reactionary activists like Southern, whose racist pitch to disaffected youth is summed up by the title of her book: Barbarians: How Baby Boomers, Immigrants, and Islam Screwed My Generation .
Intellectual refugees are everywhere also. A displaced managerial elite searches for relevance: journalists with their Twitter accounts, academics with their online opinion pieces, public intellectuals declaiming at festivals and in the “serious” media. As the refugees of modernity spread out from its decaying outposts, so the logic of interregnum becomes almost irresistible.
The trouble with this logic is that people tend to fixate on what is ending rather than grapple with sparking new beginnings. Displaced progressive intellectuals, in particular, like conservatives, routinely complain that the world is about to end, but unlike conservatives are frozen into inaction rather than galvanised into action. For those who believe in democracy there is pressing work to do. Enlightenment ideals of rationalism, civility, universalism, cosmopolitanism and the social contract must necessarily inform any rebirth.
But new conditions of possibility mean that to succeed they can’t be simply a redux of enlightenments past. There are as yet no emancipatory leaders for the age of disintermediated knowledge. For want of messiahs, it is incumbent on those who possess educational, cultural and intellectual resources to understand their new roles as toolmakers of ideas, talking across rather than down, embedded at every social and cultural level, who can bring a variety of skills to civic culture and start telling new, productive stories about how democracy works in an age of dystopic disruption.
Imagining such a democracy will no doubt require a rethink of the oppositions that structure our world. It is essential, now, to think commonality without universality, citizenship beyond public versus private, growth and profits without inequality and externalities, nationalism without chauvinist particularism, and to think cosmopolitanism and particularism, and collectivity and individuality, in tandem. That is, to refashion Enlightenment oppositions for new times.
First, though, a more practical reckoning is no doubt required.
The underlying issue with democracy is that national and global social contracts have failed to deliver. The democratic connections between work, freedom, citizenship, rights and fairness have been lost, jettisoned in the name of liberalising markets and making labour more flexible with a promised pay-off that for many never came. Privilege has replaced citizenship as the arbiter of human destiny.
There can be no revitalised democracy without skewing economics away from the rich, emptying their apologists from parliamentary hallways and offices, scrapping the divisive politics of scapegoating, acting on planetary health and remembering what mutuality and social generosity look like. Without the dynamics of inclusion and trust that derive from a healthy social contract, why would anyone bother with civility?