We Are Experiencing Definitional Collapse
To return to a theme.
For me, the moment that seemed to pierce reality, Don Delillo in real life, was when anarchists protested in favor of mask mandates. Children in black hoodies who wave the anarchist flag fight for the government and its right to override individual choice. They do not do so because of how they have parsed Bakunin or Kropotkin; they never bothered to know what anarchism is or means in the first place. Why would they? Politics is only who you sneer at and who sneers at you. Jeremy Corbyn was briefly the most powerful authentically-socialist politician in the Anglophone world in generations. His reward is the World Socialist Website declaring him a “pseudo-leftist.” A lifetime of actual socialist practice, meaningful and real, wiped away by people who have never once in their lives thought that they might actually enact socialism. Liberals cheer the FBI and CIA, call for limitless censorship, and insist on blind faith in tech giants and pharmaceutical companies. Conservatives have cast off Christianity, their north star, the orienting principle of all they believed, discarding it offhandedly like a gum wrapper. All that remains in its place is pure reaction, corruption, bigotry, rot. Democrats gin up a new red scare and call out for war; Republicans care more about trans swimmers than small government. The show must go on.
What we are living through is definitional collapse. Our moment is one in which anything is possible because nothing means anything. Every last set of orienting principles in politics is being dissolved in the acid bath of culture war, before our very eyes. I am telling you: never in my lifetime have political terms meant less. You can easily imagine a world where vaccine skepticism was left-coded - indeed, in the Trump years it was! - but in this particular reality your thoughts on vaccines overrule your feelings about the means of production. That condition is the product of pure contingency, chance; there is no a priori reason the left-of-center would treat vaccination status as a definitional landmark. But right now that is what yelling people yell about, and there is no ideology anymore, no ideas, only Yooks and Zooks.
In other words there is a vacuum of meaning, in our politics, and the really scary question is what will fill it. The right strongman, whether R or D, could ride in and get 65% of the electorate to support him as he casually dispensed with law and democracy, giving the people the firm hand they so desire. We’ve just been lucky that our recent leaders have been so corrupt, feckless, and decrepit that no one’s taken the reins. But we won’t be lucky forever. If Obama tried to seize dictatorial power he’d do so with the permission of half the country. I would bet my life on it.
I think that in the next decade the most salient political evolution won’t be towards the right or towards the left. It’s that politics will become corporeal again for a caste that has enjoyed keeping it in the realm of the theoretical. A lot of people who have had the comfort of treating politics as entertainment their whole lives will find it suddenly, unspeakably real. I think chaos is coming.