By the time this article appears in print the press will have thoroughly milked every egregious as well as superficial aspect of the American college admissions cheating scandal. The global media, having surveyed virtually every significant angle of commentary, will quickly become obsessed for a day or two with something else.
Indeed, just as I write this sentence, the mass shootings at two Muslim mosques in New Zealand is breaking. Who knows what will be the topic in extremis when this article is actually published? But what remains indisputable is how each of these incidents occurring sequentially within just a few days has the effect of galvanizing on different sides of the ideological spectrum a reliable, easily triggered cadre of enragées who will instantly pull out their familiar off-the-shelf narratives about who is to blame and what is to be done in an extremely short-lived tempest of emotional and self-indulgent excess, only to be superseded just as quickly by the next high-profile gale of indignation.
As a follow-up supposedly “aggrieved” victims of the atrocity will escalate in due time their own violent response. Immediately after the mosque attack, Islamist jihadis from all over the internet, according to the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), were calling for retaliation and at times making comparisons with the Crusades.
The unrelenting use of ubiquitous electronic media by what Jeffrey Berry and Sarah Sobiera term “the outrage industry” to keep the polarized political pot at an unremitting boil is a phenomenon familiar to just about everyone these days with the exception perhaps of a few strongly self-disciplined information ascetics holed up without television, radio, or internet in the remotest parts of the arctic wilderness. Likewise, every new, daily tremor of indignation amplifies a global psychology that is at once hyper-individualized and a collectivized automatism of the limbic brain.
In a provocative new book P.W. Singer and Emerson Brooking argue that the advent of social media has inadvertently precipitated a planetary version of what Thomas Hobbes termed a bellum omnium contra omnes (“war of all against all”). The kicker, however, is that such a war of all is primarily an information war that manifests from time to time in real time as terrorist theater, which is what the killing of 49 people at two mosques at Christchurch was really all about.
The internet has become what military strategists call a “force multiplier”, giving numerically insignificant or otherwise militarily inconsequential terrorist groups a distinct advantage. As Elias Groll writing in Foreign Policy notes, the Christchurch shooter brilliantly “played” the global media.
Even the location for the shootings, tucked-away New Zealand, was apparently selected to send a message that would resonate instantly across the darker digital world: No place on earth is safe any longer from the white supremacists and their creed, who have achieved a new life on the internet.
“White Supremacy” Goes Transnational
At the same time, it has not escaped the attention of many media theorists that the white supremacists and the most fanatical of jihadists such as ISIS are basically drawing on each other’s playbook. Both, as Milo Comerford observes, have developed a “transnational narrative” that not only claims to have a global reach while threatening random strikes at any time or any place, but to have created “a new hybrid of disparate extremist ideologies — in this case a mixture of eco-fascism, national socialism and white supremacy — which sits within a global framing.”
Like ISIS, the New Zealand mass murderer in his 74-page manifesto named a variety of seemingly disparate “martyrs” to the global cause, including notorious Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik.
But the killer also saw his terrorist act as merely a brutal shock effect adding emphasis to what was a larger mission centered on the use of information warfare. The profile he cultivated in his online persona was one that could not be easily reduced to an easily distinguishable stereotype. He contextualized his supposedly “white supremacist” declarations, which were on the face of it mainly the kind of ethno-romanticism and civilizational chauvinism characteristic of European colonialist ideology in the nineteenth century, within a confused general call for radical action of any kind, whether it be “right wing” or “left wing.”
His prototype for a “new society” ironically entailed all sorts of recognizable “leftist” aspirations, including “environmentalism,” “workers’ rights”, “anti-imperialism”, and even “responsible markets”. Most significantly, however, the shooter proclaimed that specific ideas were irrelevant to the larger struggle. The great basket of beans that is global multicultural civilization must be shaken up by any means available so that “change” will be forced to occur.
“Stability and comfort are the enemies of revolutionary change,” he wrote. “Therefore we must destabilize and discomfort society where ever possible.” Antifa becomes just as prominent in the amphitheater of revolutionary violence as neo-Nazism. “A vote for a radical candidate that opposes your values and incites agitation or anxiety in your own people”, he opined, “works far more in your favour than a vote for a milquetoast political candidate that has no ability or wish to enact radical change.” The terrorist even explained why he scripted the mass shooting of Muslims. His purpose was actually to instigate conflict within the United States, he contended.
I chose firearms for the affect it would have on social discourse, the extra media coverage they would provide and the affect it could have on the politics of United states and thereby the political situation of the world. The US is torn into many factions by its second amendment, along state, social, cultural and, most importantly, racial lines.
With enough pressure the left wing within the United states will seek to abolish the second amendment, and the right wing within the US will see this as an attack on their very freedom and liberty. This attempted abolishment of rights by the left will result in a dramatic polarization of the people in the United States and eventually a fracturing of the US along cultural and racial lines.
Of course, the sowing of social chaos through social media corresponds precisely to the very strategy the Russians adopted in the 2016 election, and according to various news sources routinely carry forward to this day. As FBI director Christopher Wray commented during his announcement last October of indictments in the case of the so-called “Russian troll farm”, the incident needed to be digested as “a stark reminder to all Americans…[that] foreign adversaries continue their efforts to interfere in our democracy by creating social and political division, spreading distrust in our political system, and advocating for the support or defeat of particular political candidates.”
The New Global Information Warfare
Whether it was the specific aim of this latest form of Russian “active measures” against its historic adversary the United States to ensure Trump’s victory in the 2016 election, or simply to harden and deepen already existing partisan enmity, the outcome shows that information warfare works, and that it works very well. Even if Trump is defeated in the 2020 contest, the level of political acrimony and rage already present is more likely than ever to intensify. The reason is that each one of us is not only a participant, if only unwittingly, in someone else’s information war, and that each one of us in our regular use of social media has declared our private war, or cluster of wars, against others.
In the words of Singer and Brooking, “the modern internet is not just a network, but an ecosystem of 4 billion souls, each with their own thoughts and aspirations, each capable of imprinting a tiny piece of themselves on the vast digital commons. They are the targets not of a single information war but of thousands and potentially millions of them.” The authors add: “which side succeeds depends, in large part, on how much the rest of us learn to recognize this new warfare for what it is.” (23)
Insofar as the vast majority of the educated public in the Western world have fallen into the trap of investing emotionally in whatever downward piston stroke of the global “outrage machine” activates their own politically charged neuro-receptors, it is doubtful that many in the short haul will have the equanimity to understand their own complicity in this “new warfare.”
Like a congenital alcoholic who has been finally obliged to confront, painfully and honestly, after multiple DUI arrests and the destruction of most intimate relationships, their own responsibility for so much of what has gone down, the majority of us prefer for the time to cling to some grand scheme of explanation that apportions blame to agencies other than ourselves.
The fact that these explanations quickly prove to be insufficient, or incoherent, does not seem to matter much, so long as there is a new and fashionable one to take its place. The goal of information warfare is to keep us perpetually convulsed – and distracted.
But warfare also has a singular purpose, that is, the defeat of any number of antagonists. And the key gambit of information warfare is the confounding and exhaustion of the mental operations of the enemy. Once such an objective has been attained, the adversary will more readily acquiesce to the convictions, and the far more resolute “will”, of the victorious party.
Thus the 64,000 dollar question arises – who can possibly “win” in an information war of all against all? The Christchurch shooter claimed explicitly in his manifesto that it would be his own favored brand of ethno-nationalism, but as the relatively brief history of digitized culture and communications and communications darkly demonstrates, the winners have been those maintain control of the infrastructure or, as Marx termed it, the “means of production.” In times of multiplying civil wars, it is the “warlords” who benefit primarily, and so the real question boils down who these warlords might actually turn out to be.
The New Information “Warlords”
Recently attention has been directed at the titans of the tech industry, popularly dubbed the “masters of the universe.” Ten years ago the same blackguards were international bankers, and in the wake of last week’s college admissions infamy, higher education and its baked-in system of advantage for the upper social classes found itself in the telescopic sight of finger-pointing political offense and activism.
Yet all of these villains for a day are but merely emissaries of a more diffuse, invisible global system of administration and control which Foucault loosely termed “biopolitics” and which in my forthcoming book Neoliberalism and Political Theology: From Kant to Identity Politics (Edinburgh University Press, 2019) refer to as the “corporate-university-financial-information complex.” It is also the global system, analyzed by Marinos Diamantides and Anton Schütz, as one “whose rationality is neither political nor legal, but rather administrative/managerial.”
Noah Rothman in his book Unjust: Social Justice and the Unmaking of America attributes much of this warlordism to a way of thinking that had its origins in Western (even more precisely, the American) university classrooms almost a half century ago and spread gradually throughout the corporate-university-financial-information complex. That way of thinking in his view is “identitarianism,” which while claiming to foster a more socially just liberal order, has had the opposite effect.
The original increasingly “inclusive” model of social democracy, advocated by the reformers of the nineteenth century and built on an ever more fine-tuned paradigm of distributive justice, has been hijacked in the current age of social media by a new virulent obsession with retributive justice for many different peoples with a variety of identities aggrieved by what has been done to them in the past as well as the present. This new paradigm, Rothman writes, “compels us to think of ourselves and those around us as victims inhabiting a complex matrix of persecution.”
It becomes obvious when reading the manifesto of the Christchurch killer that he was more an “identitarian” in Rothman’s sense than a “white supremacist” after the fashion of European colonialists in the late 1800s, or Nazi racial theorists during the Third Reich. Nowhere does he actually disparage other races. In fact, he writes: “I wish the different peoples of their world all the best regardless of their ethnicity, race, culture of faith and that they live in peace and prosperity, amongst their own people, practicing their own traditions, in their own nations.”
What the Christchurch shooter sought to do in his manifesto is cement the fulsome proposition that white people were “victims” rather than victimizers. Employing the same categoreal scheme as identity theorists, he even went so far as to contend subtly that the territories of the white societies of the world have now been both “invaded” by non-white peoples bent on colonizing them and committing cultural “genocide” after the fashion of previous white colonialists.
The analogies he draws are both reprehensible and ridiculous, but they illustrate Rothman’s argument. The shooter profiled himself as a cultivated cosmopolitan who had carefully thought through his heinous plan only after had “spent many years travelling through many, many nations.” He feigned a detached and reasoned perspective on all things demographic, but his slaughter of innocents in New Zealand, where Muslim in-migration has been for the most part inconsequential, was absolutely necessary to teach the “invaders” a lesson on a stage that would draw a global audience. A member of ISIS of Al-Qaeda would only have to substitute for the word “Crusader” for “invader”.
The new Hobbesean bellum omnium contra omnes is more likely to intensify in the years to come, if only because it is a historical truism that outrage only begets more outrage, and if the “outrage machine” with its internal force multipliers is as pervasive, formidable, and imbricated densely and subtly within our entire media-configured field of cognition, as Singer and Brooking maintain, then the only real solution is a drastic, spiritual one that each one of us must take on our own.
Straightforward political solutions become well-nigh impossible, because both the perpetrators and the targets of our own personal strategies of militancy become increasingly addled and imperceptible in the new, global “fog” of massive information warfare. We find ourselves embroiled in a putative “fight to the death” not only with everyone else, but with ourselves. In our idealistic commitment to the vaguest of parameters of a Derridean “impossible” justice that we can never concretize but feel categorically compelled to sacrifice everything at every moment for.
Perhaps it is not religion, as Freud believed, but the fugitive notion of a globally and indefinitely expansive novum ordo saeclorum where ill-defined, and ever more refined, constructs of justice encompassing all peoples in all highly differentiated typifications, past as well as present and future, that has become our true universal obsessional neurosis.
Just as Marshall McLuhan said several ago, the media is indeed the message, but nowadays it is both media and message that are igniting the dry tinder that could consume the world in a conflagration such as we have not heretofore conceived.
Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver, specializing in Continental philosophy, art theory, the philosophy of religion and the theory of religion. He is an internationally known writer and academic, who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to popular religion and culture to technology and society. Recent books include Postmodern Theology: A Biopic (Cascade Books, 2017), Critical Theology: An Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis (IVP Academic, 2016), Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2015) and The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012). His newest book entitled Neoliberalism and Political Theology: From Kant to Identity Politics, will be published by Edinburgh University Press later this year. He is also Consulting Editor for The New Polis.