2016 has been a year of turbulence, revolt and change, especially in the West. Over the next month Dark Mountain is publishing seven blogs by seven different writers, stepping outside the bubble of instant opinion to reflect on the wider significance of these changes. Following on from Paul Kingsnorth’s ‘2016: The Year of the Serpent’, the series continues with novelist and cultural critic Hal Niedzviecki.
During the 2016 presidential campaign in the USA, and during the primary season which preceded it, the eventual winner Donald Trump was the only candidate to come out as hostile to that darling of both traditional parties and their corporate pals, the technology sector. Asked about his thoughts on the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in an interview, he said: ‘I have always been concerned about the social breakdown of our culture caused by technology. I think the increased dependence and addiction to electronic devices is unhealthy.’
When US high-tech industry CEOs started a lobbying and education group to advance the cause of expanding the H-1B visa programme, which they rely on to bring foreign computer programmers and engineers into the country, Trump was unmoved. In fact, one of his few clear policy pronouncements was to oppose the H-1B visa programme altogether. Trump also said he would initiate anti-trust action against Amazon and promised to force Apple to make its products in the United States – later calling for a boycott of the company when it declined to unlock the iPhone of a suspected terrorist. And sure, Trump used social media in his campaigns, but not the way the other candidates did. As one commentator noted, candidates were ‘dropping $5,000 to $10,000 per month’ on social media management and delivery systems like Sprinklr or Hootsuite, ‘with the exception of Mr. Trump who definitely’ managed ‘all his accounts by hand.’
While Trump was trashing or ignoring the techno standard bearers, his opponents were eagerly deploying slick social media and analytics technologies and kowtowing to the new gods of so-called innovation. Blackberry-bearing Jeb Bush hailed an Uber to the San Francisco startup Thumbtack where he praised the digital economy to the skies. Hillary Clinton travelled to San Jose, CA, in Santa Clara County, the centre of Silicon Valley, national leader in average wages despite a poverty rate higher than 10 percent. Clinton called San Jose ‘a city that’s all about the future: the future of our economy, the future of our society, of how we’re all going to be stronger together.’ During his presidency Barack Obama visited an Amazon factory and compared the workers there to Santa’s Elves, completely ignoring Amazon’s reputation for mistreating perpetually precarious workers, shuttering stores on Main Street and soaking up state tax breaks for the privilege; his White House website featured a whole section dedicated to innovation and ‘winning the race to the future’. Back when Trump was perceived as just an annoyance, Hilary Clinton was giving speeches talking about the ‘on demand or so called “gig” economy … creating exciting opportunities and unleashing innovation.’
Trump rejected the prevailing ideology of future-first both in words and in symbol. His campaign slogan – Make America Great Again – evoked not the future or even the present, but the past. Trump conjured up a fantasy era when America was (mostly) white and mostly just one union job on the assembly line away from a car and a house and a wife who stayed home and took care of the kids. His signature campaign policy was also very instructional: a wall separating the US from Mexico. A wall. Not lasers or satellites or big data or colonising Mars or getting to the future first. Trump constantly talked about his real estate holdings, his wealth. During the primaries and presidential campaign, he took time out to cut the ribbon on a new Trump hotel in Washington DC. He visited his Scottish golf course. He held forth on his net worth and his ability to outfox creditors and evade the taxman. Trump embodied his rhetoric – make real things, cut through the crap, get rich and get away with whatever you can.
These thoughts whirled through my mind throughout the campaign. I found myself fascinated with the highly ironic fact that of all the candidates, only Trump seemed to be able to signal (if not actually say) that, as I and others have argued, many of the so-called advances in technology over the last twenty years have been harnessed to create efficiencies that significantly reduce employment and compensation. Only Trump was able to repeatedly signal agreement with the conviction that, as one journalist wrote in the aftermath of the election, Silicon Valley ‘is out of step with [a] national and global mood’ beset with ‘social and economic anxieties’ at least partly caused ‘by the products the industry devises.’ For Trump, this was just a part of his overall bricks-and-mortar-build-the-wall rhetoric; but it was a terribly important part, a core element of his spiel’s appeal.
Still, though Trump, as with Bernie Sanders, sensed the intense anxiety around technological displacement and precarious labour, though he seized on it, he didn’t – and doesn’t – have any meaningful course of action to resist or rebut it. It’s not like he was out garnering votes in small-town Ohio by telling the unemployed that that the virtual Eden perpetually promised by the demi-gods of future is a dangerous chimera that needs to replaced by pragmatic action to replace consumption with community. As New York Times columnist David Leonhardt writes: ‘Clinton didn’t lose to Donald Trump because he had a more serious set of policies for revitalizing working-class America.’ Trump’s election, like his anti-future campaign, is a rebuttal, but not an answer.
Instead we should think of Trump’s win as the sudden swoon from flight into lifelessness for the canary in the coalmine. It’s as evocative a sign as the relentless California drought and the looming extinction of most of the planet’s largest mammals. The ascendance of Trump signifies that we’ve moved past the point of conventional politics, past, in some ways, the point of return. It signifies, if nothing else, that progress is hard to sell in a world that is literally getting hotter and more unlivable every year. Though many reject man-made climate change (a Chinese conspiracy, blusters Trump), and many more of us refuse to give up the luxuries that might avert the worst, the spiritual emptiness of living, powerless, in a time of perceptible decline, is our primary common value. We all find ourselves emotionally emptied with noticeably fewer prospects than our parents and even their parents.
In response, more and more of us are rightly rejecting technology-as-saviour and future neoliberalism (from both the right and left). But with no better option being offered to us, into the void the strongman is promising to return us to ancient ritual, the sword and the scythe, blood dripping onto land. With Trumpites pumping nostalgia direct to our veins, far-right conspiracy theory preppers round the circle with far left anti-vax dropouts. This is what a Trump win signifies: the post-political void at the end of the capitalist fantasy. Guess what? The world was burning while we looked for meaning in our Netflix echo chamber of Stranger Things and Celebrity Apprentice reruns, neato plans to terraform other planets and social media campaigns to save the species of the month.
Like a lot of people, I stuck my head in the sand during the campaign and said to myself: not yet; it’s too soon; I’m with her. I second-guessed myself, talked myself into believing that we hadn’t yet gotten to the point at which all we had was rejection, was void. But like everyone else, I was wrong. It happened. It is happening. Into the vacuum of contemporary politics voided by technological displacement, rapacious capital and the existential threat of climate change arrives Donald Trump, Brexit, Putin, Turkey’s Erdoğan and the Phillipines’ Rodrigo Duterte – anti-future emblems of an unquenchable thirst for simplified belief systems, circles of life, the easy path back to the idyllic pre-literate past.
These yearnings are not solutions or ends. They are, instead, impulses and desires, angry fires burning our brittle principles right down to their foundations. In the anti-future we build walls. We fall back upon primal impulses. We turn inward, turn tribal. We rage impotently against the machine’s virtual reality rainbow and seek an impossible return to a real which doesn’t exist, which never existed. We vote Trump for president because, if nothing else, he was the only one; the only one who told us he loved us; the only one who promised to save us from the future and make us great again.
Hal Niedzviecki is an author of fiction and nonfiction including Trees on Mars: Our Obsession with the Future.
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Our 2016 series continues on 27 December with writing by Charlotte Du Cann. Watch this space!