In the late 1920s, the political philosopher and jurist Carl Schmitt, subsequently to join the Nazi Party, developed a theory of democracy that aimed to improve on the liberal version. In place of elections, representatives and parliaments, all talk and gutless indecision, Schmitt appealed to the one kind of expression that people can make for themselves: acclamation. The public should not be expected to deliberate or exercise power in the manner that liberals hoped. But they can nevertheless be consulted, as long as the options are limited to ‘yea’ or ‘nay’. The public can ‘express their consent or disapproval simply by calling out’, Schmitt wrote in Constitutional Theory (1928), ‘calling higher or lower, celebrating a leader or a suggestion, honouring the king or some other person, or denying the acclamation by silence or complaining’. ‘Public opinion,’ he continued, ‘is the modern type of acclamation.’
A host of new instruments were developed to capture this ‘modern type of acclamation’, though few of them held much interest for Schmitt. Representative sampling was designed by statisticians in the 1920s, making it possible for social scientists to discover the attitudes of millions of people by surveying just a small – but mathematically representative – fraction of them. A new industry of opinion polling, audience research and market research grew over the course of the 1930s, led by companies such as Gallup. The question of whether ‘the people’ favoured or disfavoured a particular policy or institution became a matter of intense political and public interest. Other new methods included focus groups and clunky mechanical interfaces by means of which participants would register their opinion of a song, advertisement or film as they were witnessing it. This new research industry operated largely within the parameters proposed by Schmitt. The topics and questions would be determined by whichever authority – commercial or political – was looking for answers. The respondents had the status of an audience, cheering or booing, agreeing or disagreeing, depending on what was dangled in front of them. In a plebiscitary democracy, power lies with the person who designs the questions.
About seventy years later, a new set of innovations arrived. The news aggregator website Reddit was launched in 2005, allowing users to share links with one another by means of a feature that echoed Schmitt’s vision of a people ‘calling higher or lower’: contributions could be ‘up-voted’ or ‘down-voted’ by other users, determining their prominence on the site. In 2008, an analogous technology was introduced to the political arena. That year’s televised debates between the US presidential candidates were accompanied by an onscreen ‘worm’ reflecting the sentiments of a sample of undecided voters, fluctuating in real time over the course of the broadcast. The fortunes of the Republican candidate, John McCain, took a dive during the second debate in Nashville, when an off the cuff reference to his opponent, Barack Obama, as ‘that one’ caused a sudden surge of negative opinion, visible to TV audiences across America.
The rapid expansion and consolidation of social media platforms led by Facebook has driven the logic of the ‘worm’ into everyday life. In the shadow of the ubiquitous ‘like’ button, however, the alternative to enthusiasm is often – as Schmitt anticipated – ‘silence or complaining’. Photographs, restaurants, research papers, songs, products or opinions are compared on the basis of their relative numbers of ‘likes’. On Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, there is no equivalent of a ‘down-voting’ button (though there is on YouTube). Negative opinion is expressed either through a sheer absence of acclaim, or through outbursts of denunciation, which other users may in turn wish to ‘like’ or share.
The radical difference between the infrastructure overseen by Mark Zuckerberg today and the one rolled out by George Gallup in the 1930s is that we can all now potentially act as the pollster. Here’s my dog: like or dislike? Donald Trump is a fascist: agree or disagree? This is not the idealised classical or liberal public sphere of argument and deliberation, but a society of perpetual referendums. The perennial question, when it comes to so much up-voting and down-voting, is who can be bothered to ‘vote’ at all. The passionately positive and the passionately negative can usually be relied on to take part.
Some of this can be attributed to consumerism. A society that bestows sovereignty of choice on consumers faces two immediate problems. First, there is the business challenge of anticipating and influencing the exercise of that sovereignty. What do consumers want? Surveys and focus groups were among the tools developed in order to help mass producers tailor their products – and advertisements – to the desires of their target market. Opinion polling simply extended this method to the ‘sale’ of politicians and policies. The emergence of huge platforms, such as Facebook and Google, in the 21st century vastly expanded and fine-tuned this science of taste, but didn’t substantially alter its strategic objectives.
Second, how do we, the consumers, cope with the burden of this sovereignty? How do we know what’s ‘good’ and what’s ‘bad’? What if, confronted with a flood of ads, campaigns, trailers, logos and billboards, I still don’t know what I like? This is where star ratings, endorsements and marks out of ten come in handy. In a society of excessive choice, we become reliant on what the French sociologist Lucien Karpik has described as ‘judgment devices’, prosthetic aids which support us in the exhausting labour of choosing and preferring. Karpik studied such comfortingly analogue examples as the Michelin restaurant guide. Today we are inundated with quickfire judgment devices: Tripadvisor, Amazon reviews, Trustpilot, PageRank and all the other means of consulting the ‘hive mind’. The scoring systems they deploy are crude, no doubt, but more subtle than the plebiscitary ‘yes’ or ‘no’ imagined by Schmitt and now hardwired into many social media platforms.
The tyranny of binary opinion isn’t just a symptom of consumerism, but also an effect of the constant flow of information generated by the internet. It is not for nothing that, in the age of the digital platform, we use liquid metaphors of ‘feeds’, ‘torrents’ and ‘streams’ to describe the way images, sounds and words surround us. In the midst of an online experience of one sort or another, clicking a button marked ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ is about as much critical activity as we are permitted. For services such as Netflix or Amazon, the design challenge is how to satisfy customers’ desires with the minimum of effort or choice, largely on the basis of what they have liked – or not – in the past.
The unceasing pursuit of audience ‘acclaim’, in the form of rapid, real-time feedback, bleeds into the sphere of cultural production. Talent shows are evidence of what happens when the plebiscitary form is extended to entertainment: singing and dancing become contests, tests of vocal and bodily agility, that eventually result in everyone straining for the same sound, look and appearance. Platforms such as Twitter and Instagram have a similar effect on the presentation of the self, where the goal is to win plaudits for instantly impressive slogans and iconography. Chunks of ‘content’ – images, screengrabs of text, short snatches of video – circulate according to the number of thumbs up or thumbs down they receive.
It is easy to lose sight of how peculiar and infantilising this state of affairs is. A one-year-old child has nothing to say about the food they are offered, but simply opens their mouth or shakes their head. No descriptions, criticisms or observations are necessary, just pure decision. This was precisely what Schmitt found purifying in the idea of the plebiscite, that it cut out all the slog of talking. But a polity that privileges decision first and understanding second will have some terrible mess to sort out along the way. Look at what ensued after 46 million people were asked: ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’
Acclaim and complaint can eventually become deafening, drowning out other voices. It’s not only that cultural and political polarisation makes it harder for different ‘sides’ to understand one another, although that is no doubt true. It makes it harder to understand your own behaviour and culture as well. When your main relationship to an artefact is that you liked it, clicked it or viewed it, and your main relationship to a political position is that you voted for it, what is left to say? And what is there to say of the alternative view, other than that it’s not yours?
In June, the right-wing think tank Policy Exchange responded to the fresh wave of public interest in Britain’s violent colonial past by announcing a new research project, History Matters. It was launched alongside a call for people to ‘share their experiences and concerns about the ways in which history is being politicised, and sometimes distorted’. The launch also featured the results of a poll revealing ‘public concern over the rewriting of British history’, which included the revelations that 71 per cent of people oppose the Cenotaph being ‘used as a focal point for demonstration, vandalised or desecrated’, while 67 per cent of people oppose Churchill’s statue ‘being spray-painted with graffiti’.
At a moment when institutions at the core of British public life, from the Bank of England to the British Museum, from Oxford University to Lloyd’s of London, are opening themselves up to dialogue about their history and current arrangements, a project like History Matters flattens discourse into questions of ‘for or against’. The poll is a litany of idiotic questions, with binary choices between equally idiotic answers. Do you think British history is ‘something to be proud of’ or ‘something to be ashamed of’? Do you think ‘even if the historical figure used wealth gained from the slave trade for public benefit, their statues should no longer be allowed to stand’ or ‘it is unfair to make judgments about people in the past based on today’s values’? Sorry, those are the options. Hurry up and choose. Statues are themselves a way of ossifying acclaim and it’s not surprising that they become the focus of these divisions. Context is important. The statue of the former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson outside Old Trafford wouldn’t go down so well – with Manchester City fans in particular – if it were placed anywhere else in Manchester. But by and large, the attempt to constrain how future generations allocate acclaim deserves to fail.
Policy Exchange protests that ‘history has become the focus of a new culture war [which] started on the political fringes’. They show no sign of wanting to end it. Once history itself becomes a matter of plebiscitary decision, we are assigned to cultural camps that we had no hand in designing, and whose main virtue is that the other camp is even worse. One stupid position (‘You can’t judge the past by the standards of the present!’) presumes its only marginally less stupid opponent (‘We must judge the past by the standards of the present!’). This turns an opportunity to address the myopia of the history curriculum and present the public with the complexities of their history into a matter of taking sides. The past becomes one more product to acclaim or decry.
The right understands how to play this ‘culture war’: identify the most absurd or unreasonable example of your opponents’ worldview; exploit your own media platform to amplify it; articulate an alternative in terms that appear calm and reasonable; and then invite people to choose. It isn’t all one-way traffic, of course. There is no shortage of progressive and left-wing opinion on social media aimed primarily at harming conservatives by misrepresenting them. One difference is that the left isn’t in control of the majority of the newspapers, though its opponents accuse it of controlling much else, from the BBC to universities.
The dilemma facing campaigns for justice is when to engage in such ‘wars’, or whether to do so at all. It’s hard to deny that focused efforts such as Rhodes Must Fall have had a rallying effect, while the evolution of Black Lives Matter would be unthinkable without the forms of ‘acclaim’ and ‘complaint’ that social media is so effective at propagating. The reason racism is being discussed by broadcasters, politicians and historic institutions as never before is largely thanks to publicity tactics that start with a smartphone video of an act of police violence and scale up from there. The challenge is to avoid conflating tactics with goals, as if movements for justice were solely concerned with imagery, reputations and statues. Conservatives and media outlets share a common interest in restricting politics to the level of sporting spectacle, occupying the space where other forms of inquiry and understanding might occur.
The outcome of all this is a politics with which Schmitt’s name is commonly associated, one that reduces to a base distinction between ‘friend and enemy’. The distinction itself is what counts, not whatever fuels or justifies it. From Schmitt’s grim perspective, the friend-enemy distinction is ultimately realised in the question: who am I prepared to kill and who am I prepared to die for? We are very far from this with regard to statues and national icons. Instead, the friend-enemy distinction has become a new type of ‘judgment device’, in which my preferences and tastes are most easily decided by the fact that they’re not yours. Things which you hate must ipso facto be good. It becomes embarrassing or even shameful to appreciate something, if the ‘wrong people’ are also praising it.
‘Tribalism’ and ‘populism’ have come in for plenty of stick over the past five years, especially from those at the liberal centre, who feel they are being squeezed out of discussions (and representation in elections). Some liberals still hope that the Covid-19 pandemic will re-establish a common political ground, within which debate will be had and evidence respected. The risk in framing things this way is that it places too much faith in a supposed political spectrum, its centre an Archimedean point of objectivity. But the centre can get dragged around. As Donald Trump demonstrated when praising ‘very fine people on both sides’ of the clash in Charlottesville in 2017, the notion of ideological equilibrium can be manipulated to the benefit of extremists.
The problem right now – exacerbated by the circumstances of the pandemic – is that when the past is the object of political conflict, the result is a tribunal convened to determine, once again, a binary question: guilt or innocence. Where the study of history might seek to discover, explain and understand, possibly to facilitate judgment, our current moment demands decision first, study later (if at all). Many conservatives imagine that when the British Empire and colonialism are taught in schools, it’s in order to spread shame or seek revenge, not because they are central features of the political, economic and social history of the past five hundred years. No doubt there are some activists, maybe even some scholars, whose primary relationship to this material is a passion for condemnation, but to abandon such an opportunity for public education on those grounds represents a terrible loss of nerve. What Britain sorely needs is not self-love, or self-hatred, but self-knowledge.
Melanie Klein identified as ‘splitting’ the psychic process whereby the self, unable to accommodate its own ‘bad’ aspects, projects them onto others. Terrified that one might be entirely and exclusively guilty, one adopts a position of exaggerated innocence and virtue, while attributing total and irredeemable badness elsewhere. Examples of this in the current ‘debate’ (if that’s what it is) are ubiquitous. Fearful of having to face up to an unbearable national guilt, the right projects its anxiety onto a culture of violent ‘wokeness’ which it claims is pulling society apart. Boris Johnson, a guilt-shedding maestro, derives his over-elevated status in public life precisely from his ability to accept no responsibility for anything he (or anyone else) has said or done.
The left, especially its more ‘online’ sections, suffers from its own version of this syndrome. Alongside sophisticated critiques of structural racism, renewed attention to the racialised and colonial foundations of global capitalism, and the increasingly detailed policy agenda of Black Lives Matter, eyeballs are invariably dragged towards the public shaming of unapologetic nationalists. Given that many of these targets thrive on outrage and provocation (otherwise known as trolling), this is hardly a good use of anyone’s time, but it provides further opportunities to ‘split’ off guilt from innocence. The online public sphere remains intoxicated by the prospect of the unambiguous baddie, whose condemnation will absolve others of all sin.
What is obstructed by such patterns of behaviour is a realisation that is integral to psychological maturity, as well as to many of the most important works of 20th-century social theory, from Max Weber to Hannah Arendt to Michel Foucault: guilt and innocence are rarely as easily distinguishable as we might like them to be. This is what it means for a problem to be systemic. Bad things don’t happen simply because bad people intend them; and good people often play an integral part in terrible political acts and institutions. To recognise as much is not to agree with Trump when he says there are ‘fine people on both sides’, but to make space for a politics that doesn’t start out with sides to be ‘up-voted’ or ‘down-voted’, and for a relationship to the past that refuses to be narrowed to manufactured media battles over Churchill’s statue.