Tooze and the Tragedy of the Left

Adam Tooze is one of the most impressive public intellectuals of our time. No other writer has the Columbia historian’s skill for laying bare the political, economic and financial sinews that tie together the modern world.

Tooze’s new book, Shutdown: How Covid Shook the World’s Economy, provides everything his readers have come to expect: a densely woven, relentlessly analytical narrative that uncovers the inner workings of a great crisis – in this case, the global crisis sparked by the Covid pandemic in 2020.

But Shutdown provides something else, too. It shows with unusual clarity that, for all his dry detachment and attention to detail, Tooze’s view of history is rooted in a deep sense of tragedy.

Towards the end of the book, Tooze reflects on the escalating “polycrisis” of the 21st century – overlapping political, economic and environmental conflagrations:

In an earlier period of history this sort of diagnosis might have been coupled with a forecast of revolution. If anything is unrealistic today, that prediction surely is. Indeed, radical reform is a stretch. The year 2020 was not a moment of victory for the left. The chief countervailing force to the escalation of global tension in political, economic, and ecological realms is therefore crisis management on an ever-larger scale, crisis-driven and ad hoc. … It is the choice between the third- and fourth-best options.

This seems at first typical of Tooze’s hard-nosed realism. He has long presented readers with a world shaped by “crisis management on an ever-larger scale.” Most of his work focuses on what, in Shutdown, he calls “functional elites” – small networks of technocratic professionals wielding enormous levers of power, whether in the Chinese Communist Party or among the bureaucrats and bankers of the global financial system.

These authorities, Tooze emphasises, are unable or unwilling to reform the dynamics of “heedless global growth” which keep plunging the world into crisis. But their ability to act in moments of extreme danger – the ability of the US Federal Reserve, for instance, to calm financial markets by buying assets at a rate of $1 million per second, as it did in March last year – is increasingly our last line of defence against catastrophe. The success or failure of these crisis managers is the difference between our third- and fourth-best options.

But when Tooze notes that radical change would have been thinkable “in an earlier period of history,” it is not without pathos. It calls to mind a historical moment that looms large in Tooze’s work. 

That moment is the market revolution of the 1980s, the birth of neoliberalism. For Tooze, this did not just bring about an economic order based on privatisation, the free movement of goods and capital, the destruction of organised labour and the dramatic growth of finance.

More fundamentally, neoliberalism was about what Tooze calls “depoliticisation.” As the west’s governing elites were overtaken by dogmas about market efficiency, the threat of inflation and the dangers of government borrowing, they hard-wired these principles into the framework of globalisation. Consequently, an entire spectrum of possibilities concerning how wealth and power might be distributed were closed-off to democratic politics. 

And so the inequalities created by the neoliberal order became, as Tony Blair said of globalisation, as inevitable as the seasons. Or in Thatcher’s more famous formulation, There Is No Alternative.

Tooze’s view of the present exists in the shadow of this earlier failure; it is haunted by what might have been. As he bitterly observes in Shutdown, it might appear that governments have suddenly discovered the joys of limitless spending, but this is only because the political forces that once made them nervous about doing so – most notably, a labour movement driving inflation through wage demands – have long since been “eviscerated.”

But it seems to me that Tooze’s tragic worldview reveals a trap facing the left today. It raises the question: what does it mean to accept, or merely to suspect, that radical change is off the table? 

We glimpse an answer of sorts when Tooze writes about how 2020 vindicated his own political movement, the environmentalist left. The pandemic, he claims, showed that huge state intervention against climate change and inequality is not just necessary, but possible. With all the talk of “Building Back Better” and “Green Deals,” centrist governments appear to be getting the message. Even Wall Street is “learning to love green capitalism.”

Of course, as per the tragic formula, Tooze does not imagine this development will be as transformative as advertised. A green revolution from the centre will likely be directed towards a conservative goal: “Everything must change so that everything remains the same.” The climate agenda, in other words, is being co-opted by a mutating neoliberalism. 

But if we follow the thrust of Tooze’s analysis, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that realistic progressives should embrace this third-best option. Given the implausibility of a genuine “antisystemic challenge” – and in light of the fragile systems of global capitalism, geopolitics and ecology which are now in play – it seems the best we can hope for is enlightened leadership by “functional elites.”

This may well be the true. But I think the price of this bargain will be higher than Tooze acknowledges. 

Whether it be climate, state investment, or piecemeal commitments to social justice, the guardians of the status quo have not accepted the left’s diagnosis simply because they realise change is now unavoidable. Rather, these policies are appealing because, with all their moral and existential urgency, they can provide fresh justification for the unaccountable power that will continue to be wielded by corporate, financial and bureaucratic interests. 

In other words, now that the free-market nostrums of neoliberalism 1.0 are truly shot, it is the left’s narratives of crisis that will offer a new basis for depoliticisation – another way of saying There Is No Alternative.

And therein lies the really perverse tragedy for a thinker like Tooze. If he believes the choice is survival on these terms or not at all, then he will have to agree.

The Fall of Zuma Threatens More Chaos for South Africa

This article was originally published by Unherd on 1st July 2021

It was a moment South Africans thought would never come. On Tuesday the Constitutional Court sentenced former president Jacob Zuma to 15 months in prison, after he refused to testify at an inquiry into corruption during his time in office.

When that inquiry reaches its conclusion, Zuma could face a much longer sentence — an amazing prospect. For now though, the simple willingness of the court to punish such blatant recalcitrance offers tantalising hope that the rule of law is not dead in South Africa.

The verdict was surprising given that Zuma still commands a significant power base in the ruling African National Congress party. The eye-watering levels of graft that marked his 2009-18 presidency means there are plenty of ANC figures at every level of government who want the anti-corruption drive of his successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, to fail.

And therein lies the more ominous question posed by Tuesday’s ruling. Even if Zuma hands himself over to the authorities as instructed, he won’t do it quietly. So could this lead to an escalation of the already murderous internal politics of the ANC – an all-out civil war within the party that drags the nation into the abyss?

The Zuma presidency was a waking nightmare for those of us who prayed that, after its miraculously peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy, South Africa’s governing elite would resist the slide into gangsterism which has squandered the potential of so many African nations. This was always a danger with the ANC because, being the party of Mandela and the heroic anti-apartheid struggle, it was destined to rule virtually unopposed during the first decades of democracy.

Zuma’s infamous Nkandla homestead in KwaZulu-Natal, for which he fleeced the public purse to the tune of £14 million, offers a flavour of his regime’s conspicuous venality. More serious was his gutting of the criminal justice system, paving the way for the kind of corruption that would make a hardened kleptocrat blush. At the current inquiry, witnesses have lined up to detail how Zuma effectively handed control of much of the state to a notorious trio of shady businessmen known as Gupta brothers. Apparently these cronies installed government ministers, siphoned money from state-owned companies and cashed-in on lucrative contracts. Prosecutors claim as much as £50 billion was swindled from state coffers.

With the ANC having lost ground in recent elections, Ramaphosa’s campaign to clean up the party might be a sign of democratic pressures finally kicking in. More cynically, we might note that the president needs to purge Zuma’s faction to consolidate his own leadership. At any rate, Ramaphosa knows corruption has to be addressed if South Africa is to attract the investors it sorely needs. Youth unemployment stands at a grim 75%, while millions of its citizens have only the most rudimentary housing and sanitation. Its tax base continues to shrink as wealthier citizens flee appalling levels of violent crime.

By insisting that Zuma be subject to the law, the Constitutional Court’s latest ruling suggests a positive outcome to this saga is still possible. But it remains far from clear what direction the ANC’s internal struggle will take —  and ultimately, it’s this struggle that will determine the country’s future.

Disaster Junkies

We live in an era where catastrophe looms large in the political imagination. On the one side, we find hellacious visions of climate crisis and ecological collapse; on the other, grim warnings of social disintegration through plummeting birth rates, mass immigration and crime. Popular culture’s vivid post-apocalyptic worlds, from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road to Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, increasingly echo in political discourse – most memorably in Donald Trump’s 2016 inauguration speech on the theme of “American Carnage.” For more imaginative doom-mongers there are various technological dystopias to contemplate, whether AI run amok, a digital surveillance state, or simply the replacement of physical experience with virtual surrogates. Then in 2020, with the eruption of a global pandemic, catastrophe crossed from the silver screen to the news studio, as much of the world sat transfixed by a profusion of statistics, graphs and harrowing reports of sickness and death.

If you are anything like me, the role of catastrophe in politics and culture raises endless fascinating questions. How should we explain our visceral revulsion at fellow citizens dying en mass from an infectious disease, and our contrasting apathy to other forms of large-scale suffering and death? Why can we be terrified by climate change without necessarily feeling a commensurate urgency to do something about it? Why do certain political tribes obsess over certain disasters?

It was questions like these that led me to pick up Niall Ferguson’s new book, Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe. I did this somewhat nervously, it must be said. I found one of Ferguson’s previous books extremely boring, and tend to cringe at his use of intellectual gimmicks – like his idea that the past success of Western civilisation can be attributed to six “killer apps.” Then again, Ferguson’s contrarianism does occasionally produce an interesting perspective, such as his willingness to weigh the negative aspects of the British Empire against the positive, as historians do with most other empires. But as I say, it was really the subject of this latest book that drew me in.

I might as well say upfront that I found it very disappointing. This is going to be a bad review – though hopefully not a pointless one. The flaws of this book can, I think, point us towards a richer understanding of catastrophe than Ferguson himself offers.

Firstly, Doom is not really about “the politics of catastrophe” as I understand that phrase. A few promising questions posed in the introduction – “Why do some societies and states respond to catastrophe so much better than others? Why do some fall apart, most hold together, and a few emerge stronger? Why does politics sometimes cause catastrophe?” – are not addressed in any sustained way. What this book is really about is the difficulty of predicting and mitigating statistically irregular events which cause excess deaths. That sounds interesting enough, to be sure, but there’s just one fundamental problem: Ferguson never gets to grips with what actually makes such events catastrophic, leaving a rather large hole where the subject of the book should be. 

The alarm bells start ringing when Ferguson introduces the book as “a general history of catastrophe” and, in case we didn’t grasp how capacious that sounds, tells us it will include:

not just pandemics but all kinds of disasters, from the geological (earthquakes) to the geopolitical (wars), from the biological (pandemics) to the technological (nuclear accidents). Asteroid strikes, volcanic eruptions, extreme weather events, famines, catastrophic accidents, depressions, revolutions, wars, and genocides: all life – and much death – is here.

You may be asking if there is really much of a relationship, throughout all the ages of history, between asteroid strikes, nuclear accidents and revolutions – and I’d say this gets to a pretty basic problem with tackling a subject like this. Writing about catastrophe (or disaster – the two are used a synonyms) requires finding a way to coherently group together the extremely diverse phenomena that might fall into this category. It requires, in other words, developing an understanding of what catastrophe actually means, in a way that allows for useful parallels between its different manifestations. 

Ferguson seems to acknowledge this when he rounds off his list by asking “For how else are we to see our disaster [i.e. Covid] – any disaster – in proper perspective?” Yet his concept of catastrophe turns out to be circular, inconsistent and inadequate. Whatever aspect of catastrophe Ferguson happens to be discussing in a particular chapter becomes, temporarily, his definition of catastrophe as such. When he is talking about mortality, mortality becomes definitive of catastrophe (“disaster, in the sense of excess mortality, can take diverse forms and yet pose similar challenges”). Likewise when he is showing how infrequent and therefore hard to predict catastrophes are (“the rare, large scale disasters that are the subject of this book”). In Ferguson’s chapter seeking similarities between smaller and larger disasters, he seems happy to simply accept whatever is viewed as a disaster in the popular memory: the Titanic, Chernobyl, the failed launch of NASA’s Challenger spacecraft. 

This is not nitpicking. I’m not expecting the metaphysical rigor of Immanuel Kant. I like an ambitious, wide-ranging discussion, even if that means sacrificing some depth. But attempting this without any real thesis, or even a firm conceptual framework, risks descending into a series of aimless and confusing digressions which don’t add up to anything. And that is more or less what happens in this book.

Consider Ferguson’s chapter on “The Psychology of Political Incompetence.” After a plodding and not especially relevant summary of Tolstoy’s concluding essay in War and Peace, Ferguson briefly introduces the idea that political leaders’ power is curtailed by the bureaucratic structures they inhabit. He then cuts to a discussion of the role of ideology in creating disastrous food shortages, by way of supporting Amartya Sen’s argument that democratic regimes respond better to famines than non-democratic ones. It’s not clear how this relates to the theme of bureaucracy and leadership, but this is one of the few sections where Ferguson is actually addressing something like “the politics of catastrophe;” and when he poses the interesting question of “why Sen’s theory does not apply to all forms of disaster” it feels like we are finally getting somewhere.

Alas, as tends to be the case in this book, Ferguson doesn’t answer the question, but embarks on a series of impromptu arguments against straw men. A winding discussion of British ineptness during the two World Wars brings him to the conclusion that “Democracy may insure a country against famine; it clearly does not insure against military disaster.” Who said that it does? Then Ferguson has suddenly returned to the issue of individual leadership, arguing that “it makes little sense” to hold Churchill solely responsible for the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942. Again, who said we should? Ferguson then rounds off the chapter with an almost insultingly cursory discussion of “How Empires Fall,” cramming eight empires into less than five pages, to make the highly speculative argument that that imperial collapse is as unpredictable as various other kinds of disaster.

Insofar as anything holds this book together, it is the thin sinews of statistical probability models and network science. These do furnish a few worthwhile insights. Many of the events Ferguson classes as disasters follow power-law distributions, which is to say there is no regular relationship between their scale and the frequency with which they occur. So big disasters are essentially impossible to predict. In many cases, this is because they emerge from complex systems – natural, economic and social – which can unexpectedly amplify small events into enormous ones. In hindsight, these often seem to have been entirely predictable, and the Cassandras who warned of them are vindicated. But a regime that listened to every Cassandra would incur significant political costs in preparing for disasters that usually won’t materialize.

I also liked Ferguson’s observation that the key factor determining the scale of a disaster, in terms of mortality, is “whether or not there is contagion – that is, some way of propagating the initial shock through the biological networks of life or the social networks of humanity.” But his other useful comments about networks come in a single paragraph, and can be quoted without much further explanation:

If Cassandras had higher centrality [in the network], they might be more often heeded. If erroneous doctrines [i.e. misinformation] spread virally through a large social network, effective mitigation of disaster becomes much harder. Finally… hierarchical structures such as states exist principally because, while inferior to distributed networks when it comes to innovation, they are superior when it comes to defence.

I’m not sure it was necessary to have slogged through an entire chapter on network science, recycled from Ferguson’s last book, The Square and the Tower, to understand these points.

But returning to my main criticism, statistical and network analysis doesn’t really allow for meaningful parallels between different kinds of catastrophe. This is already evident in the introduction, when Ferguson states that “disaster takes too many forms for us to process with conventional approaches to risk mitigation. No sooner have we focused our minds on the threat of Salafi jihad than we find ourselves in a financial crisis originating in subprime mortgages.” As this strange comment suggests, the implied perspective of the book is that of a single government agency tasked with predicting everything from financial crises and terrorist attacks to volcanic eruptions and genocides. But no such agency exists, of course, for the simple reason that when you zoom in from lines plotted on a graph, the illusion that these risks are similar dissolves into a range of totally different phenomena attached to various concrete situations. The problem is absurdly illustrated when, having cited a statistical analysis of 315 conflicts between 1820-1950, Ferguson declares that in terms of predictability, “wars do indeed resemble pandemics and earthquakes. We cannot know in advance when or where a specific event will strike, nor on what scale.” Which makes it sound like we simply have no way of knowing whether the next conflict is more likely to break out in Gaza or Switzerland.  

In any case, there is something patently inadequate about measuring catastrophe in terms of mortality figures and QALYs (quality-adjusted life years), as though the only thing we have in common is a desire to live for as long as possible. Not once is the destruction of culture or ways of life mentioned in the book, despite the fact that throughout history these forms of loss have loomed large in people’s sense of catastrophe. Ferguson even mentions several times that the most prolific causes of mortality are often not recognised as catastrophes – but does not seem to grasp the corollary that catastrophe is about something more than large numbers of deaths. 

Indeed, maybe the best thing that can be said about Doom is that its shortcomings help us to realise what does need to be included in an understanding of catastrophe. Throughout the book, we see such missing dimensions flicker briefly into view. In his discussion of the flu pandemic of the late 1950s, Ferguson notes in passing that the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite in October 1957 “may help to explain why the memory of the Asian flu has faded” in the United States. This chimes with various other hints that this pandemic was not really perceived as a catastrophe. But why? And it what sense was it competing with the Cold War in the popular imagination? Likewise, Ferguson mentions that during the 1930s the lawyer Basil O’Connor used “the latest techniques in advertising and fundraising” to turn the “horrific but relatively rare disease” of polio into “the most feared affliction of the age.” This episode is briefly contrasted to the virtual silence of the American media and political class over AIDS during the 1980s. 

In fact, unacknowledged catastrophes are an unacknowledged theme of the book. It re-emerges in several intriguing mentions of the opioid epidemic in the United States, with its associated “deaths of despair.” At the same time as there was “obsessive discussion” of global warming among the American elite, Ferguson points out, “the chance of dying from an overdose was two hundred times greater than the chance of being killed by a cataclysmic storm.” He also describes the opioid crisis as “the biggest disaster of the Obama presidency,” and suggests that although “the media assigned almost no blame to Obama” for it, “such social trends did much to explain Donald J. Trump’s success.” Finally, Ferguson notes that during the current Covid crisis, the relative importance of protecting the vulnerable from the disease versus maintaining economic activity became an active front in the American culture war. 

The obvious implication of all this is that, while Ferguson does not really engage with “the politics of catastrophe,” the concept and reality of catastrophe is inherently political. There isn’t really an objective measure of catastrophe: the concept implies judging the nature and consequences of an event to be tragic. Whether or not something meets this standard often depends on who it affects and whether it fits into the emotionally compelling narratives of the day. The AIDS and opioid epidemics initially went unrecognized because their victims were homosexuals and working class people respectively. To take another example, the 1921 pogrom against the affluent African American community in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was for the longest time barely known about, let alone mourned (except of course by African Americans themselves); yet a hundred years later it is being widely recognised as a travesty. Last week’s volcanic eruption in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which may have left 20,000 people homeless, would probably be acknowledged as catastrophic by a Westerner who happened to read about it in the news. But we are much more likely to be aware of, and emotionally invested in, the disastrous Israeli-Palestinian conflict of recent weeks. 

Catastrophe, in other words, is inextricably bound up with popular perception and imagination. It is rooted in the emotions of fear, anger, sadness, horror and titillation with which certain events are experienced, remembered or anticipated. This is how we can make sense of apathy to the late-1950s flu pandemic: such hazards, as Ferguson mentions, were still considered a normal part of life rather than an exceptional danger, and people’s minds were focused on the potential escalation of the Cold War. Hence also the importance of the media in determining whether and how disasters become embedded in public discourse. While every culture has its religious and mythical visions of catastrophe (a few are mentioned in a typically fleeting discussion near the start of Doom), today Netflix and the news media have turned us into disaster junkies, giving form and content to our apocalyptic impulses. The Covid pandemic has been a fully mediated experience, an epic rollercoaster of the imagination, its personal and social significance shaped by a constant drumbeat of new information. It is because climate change cannot be made to fit this urgent tempo that is has been cast in stead as a source of fatalism and dread, always looming on the horizon and inspiring millions with a sense of terrified helplessness.  

Overlooking the central role of such cultural and political narratives probably meant that Ferguson’s Doom was doomed from the start. For one thing, this missing perspective immediately shows the problem with trying to compare catastrophes across all human history. Yes, there are fascinating patterns even at this scale, like the tendency of extreme ideological movements to emerge in the midst of disasters – whether the flagellant orders that sprang from the 14th century Black Death, or the spread of Bolshevism in the latter part of the First World War. But to really understand any catastrophe, we have to know what it meant to the people living through it, and this means looking at the particulars of culture, politics and religion which vary enormously between epochs. This, I would argue, is why Ferguson’s attempt to compare the Athenian plague of the late 5th century BC to the Black Death in medieval England feels rather superficial. 

And whatever the historical scope, statistics simply don’t get close to the imaginative essence of catastrophe. Whether or not a disaster actually happens is incidental to its significance in our lives; many go unnoticed, others transform culture through mere anticipation. Nor do we experience catastrophes as an aggregate of death-fearing individuals. We do so as social beings whose concerns are much more elaborate and interesting than mere life and death.

How the Celebs Rule Us

Who should we call the first “Instagram billionaire”? It’s a mark of the new Gilded Age we’ve entered that both women vying for that title belong to the same family, the illustrious Kardashian-Jenner clan. In 2019, it looked like Kylie Jenner had passed the ten-figure mark, only for Forbes to revise its estimates, declaring that Jenner had juiced her net worth with “white lies, omissions and outright fabrications.” (Her real wealth, the magazine thought, was a paltry $900 million). So, as of April this year, the accolade belongs to Jenner’s no less enterprising sister, Kim Kardashian West.

Social media has ushered in a new fusion of celebrity worship and celebrity entrepreneurship, giving rise to an elite class of “influencers” like Jenner and Kardashian West. Reality TV stars who were, in that wonderful phrase, “famous for being famous,” they now rely on their vast social media followings to market advertising space and fashion and beauty products. As such, they are closely entwined with another freshly minted elite, the tech oligarchs whose platforms are the crucial instruments of celebrity today. Word has it the good people at Instagram are all too happy to offer special treatment to the likes of the Kardashians, Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga – not to mention His Holiness the Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church (that’s @franciscus to you and me). And there’s every reason for social media companies to accommodate their glamorous accomplices: in 2018, Jenner managed to wipe $1.3 billion off the market value of Snapchat with a single tweet questioning the platform’s popularity. 

It’s perfectly obvious, of course, what hides behind the embarrassingly thin figleaf of “influence,” and that is power. Not just financial power but social status, cultural clout and, on the tech companies’ side of the bargain, access to the eyeballs and data of huge audiences. The interesting question is where this power ultimately stems from. The form of capital being harvested is human attention; but how does the tech/influencer elite monopolise this attention? One well-known answer is through the addictive algorithms and user interfaces that turn us into slaves of our own brain chemistry; another invokes those dynamics of social rivalry, identified by the philosopher René Girard, whereby we look to others to tell us what we should want. 

But I think there’s a further factor here which needs to be explored, and it begins with the idea of charisma. In a recent piece for Tablet magazine, I argued that social media had given rise to a new kind of charismatic political leader, examples of which include Donald Trump, Jeremy Corbyn, Jordan Peterson and Greta Thunberg. My contention was that the charisma of these individuals, so evident in the intense devotion of their followers, does not stem from any innate quality of their personalities. In stead, charisma is assigned to them by online communities which, in the process of rallying around a leader, galvanise themselves into political movements.

Here I was drawing on the great German sociologist Max Weber, whose concept of “charismatic authority” describes how groups of people find coherence and structure by recognising certain individuals as special. And yet, the political leaders I discussed in the Tablet piece are far from the only examples showing the relevance of Weber’s ideas today. If anything, they are interlopers: accidental beneficiaries of a media system that is calibrated for a different type of charismatic figure, pursuing a different kind of power. I’m referring, of course, to the Kardashians, Biebers, and countless lesser “influencers” of this world. It is the twin elite of celebrities and tech giants, not the leaders of political movements, who have designed the template of charismatic authority in the social media age. 


When Weber talks about charismatic authority, he is talking about the emotional and ideological inspiration we find in other people. We are compelled to emulate or follow those individuals who issue us with a “calling” – a desire to lead our lives a certain way or aspire towards a certain ideal. To take an obvious example, think about the way members of a cult are often transfixed by a leader, dropping everything in their lives to enter his or her service; some of you will recall the scarlet-clad followers of the guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in the 2018 Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country. Weber’s key observation is that this intensely subjective experience is always part of a wider social process: the “calling” of charisma, though it feels like an intimate connection with an exceptional person, is really the calling of our own urge to fit in, to grasp an identity, to find purpose and belonging. There’s a reason charismatic figures attract followers, plural. They are charismatic because they represent a social phenomenon we want to be a part of, or an aspiration our social context has made appealing. Whatever Rajneesh’s personal qualities, his cult was only possible thanks to the appeal of New Age philosophy and collectivist ways of life to a certain kind of disillusioned Westerner during the 1960s and ’70s. 

Today there’s no shortage of Rajneesh-like figures preaching homespun doctrines to enraptured audiences on Youtube. But in modern societies, charismatic authority really belongs to the domain of celebrity culture; the domain, that is, of the passionate, irrational, mass-scale worship of stars. Since the youth movements of the 1950s and 60s, when burgeoning media industries gave the baby-boomers icons like James Dean and The Beatles, the charismatic figures who inspire entire subcultures and generations have mostly come from cinema and television screens, from sports leagues, music videos and fashion magazines. Cast your mind back to your own teenage years – the time when our need for role models is most pressing – and recall where you and your chums turned for your wardrobe choices, haircuts and values. To the worlds of politics and business, perhaps? Not likely. We may not be so easily star-struck as adults, but I’d vouch most of your transformative encounters with charisma still come, if not from Hollywood and Vogue, then from figures projected into your imagination via the media apparatus of mass culture. It’s no coincidence that when a politician does gain a following through personality and image, we borrow clichés from the entertainment industry, whether hailing Barack Obama’s “movie star charisma” or dubbing Yanis Varoufakis “Greece’s rock-star finance minister.”

Celebrity charisma relies on a peculiar suspension of disbelief. We can take profound inspiration from characters in films, and on some level we know that the stars presented to us in the media (or now presenting themselves through social media) are barely less fictional. They are personae designed to harness the binding force of charismatic authority – to embody movements and cultural trends that people want to be part of. In the context of the media and entertainment business, their role is essentially to commodify the uncommodifiable, to turn our search for meaning and identity into a source of profit. Indeed, the celebrity culture of recent decades grew from the bosom of huge media conglomerates, who found that the saturation of culture by new media technologies allowed them to turn a small number of stars into prodigious brands.

In the 1980s performers like Michael Jackson and Madonna, along with sports icons like Michael Jordan, joined Hollywood actors in a class of mega celebrities. By the ’90s, such ubiquitous figures were flanked by stars catering to all kinds of specific audiences: in the UK, for instance, lad culture had premiership footballers, popular feminism had Sex and the City, Britpoppers had the Gallagher brothers and grungers had Kurt Cobain. For their corporate handlers, high-profile celebrities ensured revenues from merchandise, management rights and advertising deals, as well as reliable consumer audiences that offset the risks of more speculative ventures.

Long before social media, in other words, celebrity culture had become a thoroughly commercialised form of charismatic authority. It still relied on the ability of stars to issue their followers with a “calling” – to embody popular ideals and galvanise movements – but these roles and relationships were reflected in various economic transactions. Most obviously, where a celebrity became a figurehead for a particular subculture, people might express their membership of that subculture by buying stuff the celebrity advertised. But no less important, in hindsight, was the commodification of celebrities’ private lives, as audiences were bonded to their stars through an endless stream of “just like us” paparazzi shots, advertising campaigns, exclusive interviews and documentaries, and so on. As show-business sought to the maximise the value of star power, the personae of celebrities were increasingly constructed in the mould of “real” people with human, all-too-human lives.

Which brings us back to our influencer friends. For all its claims to have opened up arts and entertainment to the masses, social media really represents another step towards a celebrity culture dominated by an elite cluster of stars. Digital tech, as we know, has annihilated older business models in media-related industries. This has concentrated even more success in the hands of the few who can command attention and drive cultural trends – who can be “influencers” – through the commodification of their personal lives. And that, of course, is exactly what platforms like Instagram are designed for. A Bloomberg report describes how the Kardashians took over and ramped-up the trends of earlier decades:

Back in the 1990s, when the paparazzi were in their pomp, pictures of celebrities going about their daily lives… could fetch $15,000 a pop from tabloids and magazines… The publications would in turn sell advertising space alongside those images and rake in a hefty profit.

Thanks to social media, the Kardashians were able to cut out the middle man. Instagram let the family post images that they controlled and allowed them to essentially sell their own advertising space to brands… The upshot is that Kardashian West can make $1 million per sponsored post, while paparazzi now earn just $5 to $10 apiece for “Just Like Us” snaps.

Obviously, Instagram does not “let” the Kardashians do this out of the kindness of its heart: as platforms compete for users, it’s in their interests to accommodate the individuals who secure the largest audiences. In fact, through their efforts to identify and promote such celebrities, the social media companies are increasingly important in actually making them celebrities, effectively deciding who among the aspiring masses gets a shot at fame. Thus another report details how TikTok “assigned individual managers to thousands of stars to help with everything, whether tech support or college tuition,” while carefully coordinating with said stars to make their content go viral.

But recall, again, that the power of celebrities ultimately rests on their followers’ feeling that they’re part of something – that is the essence of their charisma. And it’s here that social media really has been revolutionary. It has allowed followers to become active communities, fused by constant communication with each other and with the stars themselves. Instagram posts revealing what some celeb had for breakfast fuel a vast web of interactions, through which their fans sustain a lively sense of group identity. Naturally, this being social media, the clearest sign of such bonding is the willingness of fans to group together like a swarm of hornets and attack anyone who criticises their idols. Hence the notorious aggression of the “Beleibers,” or fanatical Justin Bieber fans (apparently not even controllable by the pop star himself); and hence Instagram rewriting an algorithm to protect Taylor Swift from a wave of snake emojis launched by Kim Kardashian followers. This, surely, is the sinister meaning behind an e-commerce executive bragging to Forbes magazine about Kylie Jenner’s following, “No other influencer has ever gotten to the volume or had the rabid fans” that she does. 

In other words, the celebrity/tech elite’s power is rooted in new forms of association and identification made possible by the internet. It’s worth taking a closer look at one act which has revealed this in an especially vivid way: the K-Pop boy band BTS (the name stands for Bangtan Sonyeodan, or Beyond the Scene in English). Preppy outfits and feline good looks notwithstanding, these guys are no lightweights. Never mind the chart-topping singles, the stadium concerts and the collaborations with Ed Sheeran; their success registers on a macroeconomic scale. According to 2018 estimates from the Hyundai Research Institute, BTS contributes $3.6 billion annually to the South Korean economy, and is responsible for around 7% of tourism to the country. No less impressive are the band’s figures for online consumption: it has racked up the most YouTube views in a 24-hour period, and an unprecedented 750,000 paying viewers for a live-streamed concert. 

Those last stats are the most suggestive, because BTS’s popularity rests on a fanatical online community of followers, the “Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth” (ARMY), literally numbering in the tens of millions. In certain respects, the ARMY doesn’t resemble a fan club so much as an uncontacted tribe in the rainforest: it has its own aesthetics, norms and rituals centred around worship of BTS. All that’s missing, perhaps, is a cosmology, but the band’s management is working on that. It orchestrates something called the “Bangtan Universe”: an ongoing fictional metanarrative about BTS, unfolding across multiple forms of media, which essentially encourages the ARMY to inhabit its own alternate reality. 

Consequently, such is the ARMY’s commitment that its members take personal responsibility for BTS’s commercial success. They are obsessive about boosting the band’s chart performance, streaming new content as frequently and on as many devices as possible. The Wall Street Journal describes one fan’s devotion:  

When [the BTS song] “Dynamite” launched, Michelle Tack, 47, a cosmetics stores manager from Chicopee, Massachusetts, requested a day off work to stream the music video on YouTube. “I streamed all day,” Tack says. She made sure to watch other clips on the platform in between her streaming so that her views would count toward the grand total of views. […]

“It feels like I’m part of this family that wants BTS to succeed, and we want to do everything we can do to help them,” says Tack. She says BTS has made her life “more fulfilled” and brought her closer to her two daughters, 12 and 14. 

The pay-off came last October, when the band’s management company, Big Hit Entertainment, went public, making one of the most successful debuts in the history of the South Korean stock market. And so the sense of belonging which captivated that retail manager from Massachussetts now underpins the value of financial assets traded by banks, insurance companies and investment funds. Needless to say, members of the ARMY were clamouring to buy the band’s shares too. 


It is this paradigm of charismatic authority – the virtual community bound by devotion to a celebrity figurehead – which has been echoed in politics in recent years. Most conspicuously, Donald Trump’s political project shared many features with the new celebrity culture. The parallels between Trump and a figure like Kylie Jenner are obvious, from building a personal brand off the back of reality TV fame to exaggerating his wealth and recognising the innovative potential of social media. Meanwhile, the immersive fiction of the Bangtan Universe looks like a striking precedent for the wacky world of Deep State conspiracy theories inhabited by diehard Trump supporters, which spilled dramatically into view with the Washington Capitol invasion of January 6th.

As I argued in my Tablet essay – and as the chaos and inefficacy of the Trump presidency demonstrates – this social media-based form of charismatic politics is not very well suited to wielding formal power. In part, this is because the model is better suited to the kinds of power sought by celebrities: financial enrichment and cultural influence. The immersive character of online communities, which tend to develop their own private languages and preoccupations, carries no real downside for the celebrity: it just means more strongly identified fans. It is, however, a major liability in politics. The leaders elevated by such movements aren’t necessarily effective politicians to begin with, and they struggle to broaden their appeal due to the uncompromising agendas their supporters foist on them. We saw these problems not just with Trump movement but also with the Jeremy Corbyn phenomenon in the UK, and, to an extent, with the younger college-educated liberals who influenced Bernie Sanders after 2016. 

But this doesn’t mean online celebrity culture has had no political impact. Even if virtual communities aren’t much good at practical politics, they are extremely good at producing new narratives and norms, whether rightwing conspiracy theories in the QAnon mould, or the progressive ideas about gender and identity which Angela Nagle has aptly dubbed “Tumblr liberalism.” Celebrities are key to the process whereby such innovations are exported into the wider discourse as politically-charged memes. Thus Moya Lothian Mclean has described how influencers popularise feminist narratives – first taking ideas from academics and activists, then simplifying them for mass consumption and “regurgitat[ing] them via an aesthetically pleasing Instagram tile.” Once such memes reach a certain level of popularity, the really big celebrities will pick them up as part of their efforts to present a compelling personality to their followers (which is not to say, of course, that they don’t also believe in them). The line from Tumblr liberalism through Instagram feminism eventually arrives at the various celebrities who have revealed non-binary gender identities to their followers in recent years. Celebs also play an important role in legitimising grassroots political movements: last year BTS joined countless other famous figures in publicly giving money to Black Lives Matter, their $1 million donation being matched by their fans in little more than a day.

No celebrity can single-handedly move the needle of public opinion, but discourse is increasingly shaped by activists borrowing the tools of the influencer, and by influencers borrowing the language of the activist. Such charismatic figures are the most important nodes in the sprawling network of online communities that constitutes popular culture today; and through their attempts to foster an intimate connection with their followers, they provide a channel through which the political can be made to feel personal. This doesn’t quite amount to a “celebocracy,” but nor can we fully understand the nature of power today without acknowledging the authority of stars.

The Charismatic Politics of Social Media

This essay was originally published by Tablet Magazine on 21st April 2021.

In the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency, the tone of politics has become much quieter, and not just in the United States. It’s amazing how much room this man’s personality took up in the public conversation. But we should remember that what silenced Trump was not losing an election in November 2020. It was being kicked off social media after his supporters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.

The decision to take away Trump’s megaphone was the natural outcome of a phenomenon that emerged around 2015, when politics was transformed by a new type of charismatic leader, unique to our own era, who emerged from a culture increasingly centered around social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. But Trump is just one example, albeit a dramatic one. On the left there is also Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as well as Jeremy Corbyn, the former leader of the Opposition in the United Kingdom. There is the teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg and the cult philosopher Jordan Peterson. These men and women “went viral,” their individual charisma spread by a new, decentralized media system, and they galvanized movements that defined themselves as fighting against the established order.

Some of these figures’ time in the limelight is already over. But others will take their place, because the forces that gave rise to them are still here. To understand their appeal, we only have to turn to the influential German sociologist of the early 20th century, Max Weber. It was Weber who popularized “charisma” as a political term. And it is Weber’s concept of charismatic leadership that seems more relevant now than ever before.

Born 157 years ago tomorrow, Weber lived at a time when Western societies, and Germany especially, were being transformed by industrialization at a frantic pace. The central aim of his work was to understand how modern societies evolved and functioned in contrast to those of the past. Hailed as a brilliant young intellectual, Weber suffered a nervous breakdown around the turn of the 20th century, and subsequently produced a gloomy account of the modern world that was to be his greatest legacy. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, published in 1905, he argued that the foundation of modernity was an ultrarational approach to organizing our lives and institutions, especially in pursuit of profit—a culture he compared to an “iron cage.”

It is against this backdrop that we find Weber’s most famous ideas about charismatic leadership. There was, he observed, a weak point in the iron cage of rationality. The modern principle that the right to govern comes from the people created an opening for charismatic politicians to gain immense power by winning the adoration of the masses. In his influential 1919 lecture Politics as a Vocation, Weber suggested the best example of this was the 19th-century British politician William Gladstone. But after Weber’s death in 1920, his theory of charismatic leadership achieved new renown, as it seemed to predict the dictatorships of Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin.

A century later, Weber’s vision of “dictatorship resting on the exploitation of mass emotionality” fits nicely into the current moment, and may even have fed the reflexive portrayal of Trump as some sort of proto-fascist ruler. But in fact, this understanding of political charisma as purely a tool of modern demagogues is a misreading of Weber’s ideas.

Weber believed that charismatic individuals shape the politics of every era. A charismatic leader, he wrote in the posthumously published Economy and Society, has “a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.” For Weber, the crucial element is to understand that charisma has a social function. He didn’t see charisma merely as a character trait belonging solely to the leader. He saw the desire to follow charismatic individuals as a necessary ingredient that binds groups of people together. Hence, when he laid out the three forms of authority that organize all societies, he included “charismatic authority” alongside legal structures and tradition.

What’s more, this mutually binding power of charisma doesn’t only sustain societies, according to Weber—it also transforms them. He actually thought the purest example of charismatic authority came from religious movements led by prophets, of the kind that shaped the history of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Here Weber describes charisma as a “revolutionary force,” because of the way prophets unite their followers with a sense of confidence and conviction that can shatter existing structures of authority. Charisma is like a spark that ignites sweeping social and cultural change.

This is the Weberian insight that opens the door to understanding the charismatic leaders of our own time. To grasp what makes an individual charismatic, we shouldn’t just focus on their personality: We should look at the people who are brought together by their mutual recognition of a leader.

Today, the social basis for much political ideology and activism comes from online subcultures, where people develop common worldviews based on spontaneous and widely shared feelings, like the sense of being betrayed by corrupt elites. It is from these virtual communities that political movements emerge, often by discovering and adopting a charismatic figure that galvanizes them. Through the rapid circulation of video clips and social media posts, an individual can be turned into a leader almost overnight.

What is remarkable about this paradigm is how much the standard relationship between leaders and followers has been reversed: These new movements are not created by their leaders, even though the leaders may command tremendous devotion. The followers “choose” their leader. The movements exist first in an unrealized form, and conjure up leaders that allow them to fully manifest and mobilize themselves.

Weber spoke of charisma being “recognized,” emphasizing the way leaders inspire their followers with a sense of purpose or spiritual “calling.” People gravitate toward individuals who give them a language to express their shared feelings and an example to follow. But what matters most is that, through this collective recognition of a figurehead, the followers cement their own social bond.

When we look at the charismatic leaders who have emerged in recent years, we don’t in fact see authoritarian figures who control their movements and bend their followers to their own distinct political visions. What we see are leaders who rise suddenly and unexpectedly, and whose actual beliefs are less important than their ability to embody the emotions that unite their devotees. Today it is the leaders who are shaped by the attitudes of their movements rather than the other way around.

Thus, Trump’s followers were never all that interested in how effectively he turned campaign slogans into reality. What held the MAGA movement together was not the content of Trump’s rather inconsistent and half-hearted declarations about policy, but the irreverent drama of rebellion that he enacted through the political theater of his rallies and Twitter posts. His leadership gave birth to intense internet communities, where diehard supporters cooked up their own narratives about his struggle against the establishment.

The point isn’t that Trump had no real power over his followers, which of course he did. The point is that his power depended on—and was limited to—the role of culture war icon that his movement created for him. Trump was effective in this role because he had no apparent strategy apart from giving his audience what it wanted, whether photo-ops brandishing a Bible, or nods and winks at online conspiracy theories.

Likewise, Sanders and Corbyn were both old men who unexpectedly found themselves riding tidal waves of youthful support. But their sudden rise from relative obscurity led to some awkward moments when some of their more strongly held views did not align with the wishes of their followers. Sanders’ campaign for president changed significantly from 2016 to 2020, as the mass movement that chose him as its leader molded him into a champion of their immigration preferences, which he had previously opposed. Similarly, in his time as leader of the British Labour Party from 2015 to 2020, Corbyn had to abandon his lifelong opposition to the European Union because he was now leading a movement that cherished EU membership as one of its core values.

Finally, consider two cases from outside the realm of official politics. Greta Thunberg is treated as a modern saint who has inspired millions to march through the world’s cities demanding action against climate change. But Thunberg’s enormous presence in the environmental movement is not matched by a unique philosophy or any organizational power. She went viral on social media during her 2018 strike outside the Swedish parliament, and her fame now rests on being invited by political and religious leaders to shout at them on camera about how her generation has been betrayed. “I understand that people are impressed by this movement,” Thunberg told the Times in 2019, “and I am also very impressed with the young people, but I haven’t really done anything. I have just sat down.”

Then there’s Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson. Thanks to a few viral videos about free speech in 2016 and a series of controversial media engagements thereafter, Peterson went from teaching Christological interpretations of Disney films to being hailed as the messiah of the anti-woke movement. Peterson has continually stressed that he’s interested in psychology, not politics, yet what followers find captivating are his filmed broadsides against social justice ideology, which have been viewed millions of times on YouTube.

All these figures have been imbued with a certain magical status, which deepens the shared identity of their followers. Movements have gathered around them as totems embodying a fight against injustice and a spirit of revolt. Consequently, they command strong emotional attachments, though their followers are only interested in them insofar as they stay within the limits of the movement they were chosen to lead. The power of their charisma depends, therefore, on conforming to parameters set by the imagination of their followers.

Obviously, individual personality is not irrelevant here. Charismatic figures are generally regarded as authentic, based on the perception that they are not trying to meet social expectations or simply advance their careers. Seen in this way, it makes sense that a generation accustomed to the shifting trends and constant self-promotion of social media would warm to old-timers like Sanders and Corbyn, who had been stoically banging the same drum for decades.

Interestingly, both Trump and Thunberg have often had their personalities pathologized by critics: Trump on account of his “narcissistic personality disorder,” Thunberg on account of her autism and single-minded commitment to her cause. But supporters see these same qualities as refreshingly direct. This kind of appeal is necessary for leaders who want to offer their followers the personal “calling” which Weber saw as key to charisma. No one is inspired to take on the establishment by people who look and sound like they belong to it.

Nonetheless, following Weber’s lead, we don’t need to think about charisma as something that’s simply inherent to these influential personalities. In the sudden explosion of hype surrounding certain figures on social media, we see how the conviction that an individual is special can be created through collective affirmation. This is the virtual equivalent of the electrifying rallies and demonstrations where followers have gathered to see figures like Trump, Corbyn, and Thunberg: The energy is focused on the leader, but it comes from the crowd.

So what does all this tell us about the future of the new charismatic movement politics? Weber insisted that to exercise real power, charismatic authority cannot keep relying on the spiritual calling of committed followers. It must establish its own structures of bureaucracy and tradition. According to Weber, this is how prophetic religious movements of the past created lasting regimes.

But the way that today’s charismatic leaders are chosen for their expressive qualities means they usually aren’t suited to consolidating power in this way. There is a remarkable contrast between the sweeping legislative program being enacted by the uncharismatic Biden presidency and Trump’s failure to deliver on most of his signature proposals.

This does not mean that the movements inspired by charismatic figures are irrelevant—far from it. They will continue to influence politics by reshaping the social and cultural context in which it unfolds. In fact, the potential for these movements is all the more dramatic because, as recent years have shown, they can appear almost out of thin air. We do not know who the next charismatic leaders will be until after they have been chosen.

Europe’s vaccine cooperation isn’t federalist dogma

This week, Douglas Murray argued that the on-going shambles of the European Union’s vaccination effort should be chalked up to federalist dogma. “There is no logical reason why EU countries could not have been allowed to pursue independent vaccine development, procurement and roll-out,” wrote Murray, except that “it has already been decided that an EU-wide approach is always the only approach.”

In fact, there are two rather large reasons that richer EU nations, who would have been better off going it alone on vaccines, chose not to: Russia and China. As Jens Spahn, the German health minister, told the Bundestag in January: “If our Eastern and Southern European partners had not received a vaccine through the EU, who would likely have stepped in? China? Russia? Would we have preferred that?”

Yes, the European Commission under Ursula von der Leyen surely saw vaccines as an opportunity to grab more powers for Brussels, but the member states still had to be persuaded. Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands had already formed their own “Vaccine Alliance.” No doubt what made them acquiesce to von der Leyen was the nightmare scenario of returning to the dynamics which took shape during the first phase of the pandemic. Then, as European countries were squabbling over protective equipment, Russia and China had swooped in with offers of support in the Balkans and in Eastern and Central Europe, areas where they have long been trying to boost their influence. 

Even in the heart of the EU, an Italian ambassador complained last March that “not a single EU country” had responded to his nation’s pleas for assistance – only China had. In the event, Europe’s failings appeared less drastic when much of the equipment delivered by China proved faulty.   

But if last year’s “mask diplomacy” was fraught, vaccine diplomacy on the continent would have been explosive. Western Europe would have fared much better procuring vaccines for itself than under the Commission’s inept strategy. But as peripheral states fell behind they would have proclaimed European solidarity dead, while using the prospect of increased Russian and Chinese influence in their countries to blackmail the richer states for vaccines. Even with its collective approach, the EU has not been able to prevent Eastern Europe from using or threatening to use Sputnik and Sinopharm vaccines from Russia and China.

Von der Leyen’s Commission must carry the blame for its dire performance on vaccines. But Murray’s assertion that “the federalists” are responsible for the EU agreeing to a common strategy reflects a very British obsession with European integration. This was more understandable when we were still part of the EU, but it now risks clouding our judgment regarding the trade-offs our neighbours on the continent face. Under German and French leadership, Europe is trying to maintain a precarious balance of competition and trade with Russia and China, and the allegiance of Europe’s eastern periphery is crucial to that balance. This dilemma would continue to exist even if the EU did not. 

We Brits need to develop a more nuanced understanding of what motivates cooperation in Europe. It is more than the sentimental solidarity imagined by Remainers or the ideology of ever closer union feared by Eurosceptics. It is just as often the need to balance competing interests and ambitions in what remains a fractious continent.

Europe’s empty moral gestures

The story of the Opium Wars in mid-19th century China has been told in many ways, but the account which has always stayed with me is the short one given by W.G. Sebald in The Rings of Saturn. In just a few pages, and with his novelist’s eye for arresting detail, Sebald portrays the European incursion into the Celestial Empire as a tragic meeting of two hubristic and uncomprehending civilisations. 

The Opium Wars unfolded amid efforts to keep China open to European commercial interests, after the Chinese had tried to limit the British opium trade through Canton. In the Second Opium War of the 1850s, the British, soon to be joined by the French, sent an expeditionary force to make the ailing Qing Emperor Hsien-feng come to terms. The Europeans, Sebald notes, saw themselves as the righteous bearers of those necessary conditions for progress, “Christian evangelism and free trade.” Having marched inland from Canton, however, they were baffled when the Emperor’s delegates demanded they pay homage, in order to fulfil “the immemorial obligations toward the Son of Heaven of envoys from satellite powers.” 

If the Europeans felt any sense of superiority, they were disabused of it when they came across the glorious Yuan Ming Yuan gardens near Peking; Sebald speculates that the horrific looting and destruction they carried out there may have been driven by shame at the achievements of the Chinese. But a steeper fall from grace awaited the decaying Qing court, where although “the ritualisation of imperial power was at its most elaborate: at the same time, that power itself was by now almost completely hollowed out.” Sebald portrays the decline of the Qing as an increasingly empty and deluded going-through-the-motions of imperial splendour – a fate illustrated by the magnificent yet miserable funeral cortege of Hsien-feng, which bore the Emperor’s body on foot for three weeks through a rugged, rain-lashed autumn countryside. 

I often think of these scenes when there are debates over the European stance towards China, as in December when the EU concluded its investment deal, and again this week with the publication of the UK’s new foreign policy review (which also acknowledged the importance of economic relations with China). The question, we like to think, is whether we ought to be trading with an authoritarian state which has just crushed democracy in Hong Kong, and is carrying out a vast and brutal persecution of its Muslim Uighur minority. Sadly though, the real question is not whether we ought to, but given the increasing dominance of China in the global economy, whether we have any choice. 

I don’t have a clear-cut answer, but the predicament itself reveals how radical the shift in global power towards the east really is. Western nations may no longer see themselves as agents of Christian evangelism, but their sense of their role in the world is defined by a post-1945 liberalism which has much the same effect. As Europeans, we conceive of morality in universal terms, such that atrocities taking place in other nations cannot simply be ignored. Only, we no longer have either the means or the desire to launch crusades. Likewise with free trade: whereas this apparent boon to humanity long justified westerners, and especially the British and Americans, in their global supremacy, now Chinese investment and access to Chinese markets is desperately sought as a means of reviving stagnant economies. 

“Jesus Christ is Free Trade, and Free Trade is Jesus Christ” – so said Dr John Bowring, British Governor of Hong Kong at the time of the Second Opium War. Some 150 years later, the same supposed inseparability of economic liberalism and moral salvation was used by the United States in support of China’s entry to the World Trade Organisation, the argument being that Chinese political liberalisation would inevitably follow. That the imperatives of trade and moral conscience can no longer be rhetorically aligned in the east testifies to the world historical shift we are living through.

Meanwhile, the events described by Sebald were the beginning of what is known among Chinese elites as “the century of national humiliation” – a century that ended, of course, with Mao Zedong’s establishment of a Communist regime in 1949. References to that century of humiliation are apparently much in use to legitimise the current regime of Xi Jinping, since they offer a salutary contrast to his assertive use of China’s superpower status on the world stage.

Thanks to changes in technology and statecraft, it is unlikely that depredations like those of the Opium Wars will be visited on Europe by China. Perhaps there will be lesser humiliations: perhaps European states will be brought to heel by crippling Chinese economic sanctions or cyber attacks; perhaps the Elgin Marbles, having finally been returned from London to Greece, will in due course be sent on to Beijing as security against loans. 

But it does look as though, in its various declarations and debates on human rights abuses in China, Europe will increasingly resemble the late Qing court described by Sebald, with its ritualised fulfillments of an increasingly empty power. Imposing sanctions on individuals and companies profiting from the nightmare in Xinjiang, as the EU’s foreign ministers did this week, is certainly morally justifiable, but seems somewhat perfunctory given the investment deal so eagerly concluded just a few months ago. The euphemisms, equivocations and parliamentary protests about human rights which accompanied that deal – like the sheepish use of the term “values” in UK’s foreign policy review – point to a future in which western nations’ concern for universal justice is increasingly ceremonial and toothless. 

Of course, as Sebald’s account of the Opium Wars suggests, the west’s universal moral mission was always inconsistent and self-serving – something Chinese officials remind us of when they cynically justify the atrocities in Xinjiang as promoting the emancipation of women. But now Europeans will be increasingly guilty of a different kind of hypocrisy: directing moral criticism at other states safe in the knowledge that no one expects them to do anything about it.

“Euro-English”: A thought experiment

There was an interesting story in Politico last weekend about “Euro-English,” and a Swedish academic who wants to make it an official language. Marko Modiano, a professor at the University of Gävle, says the European Union should stop using British English for its documents and communications, and replace it with the bastardised English which is actually spoken in Brussels and on the continent more generally.

Politico offers this example of how Euro-English might sound, as spoken by someone at the European Commission: “Hello, I am coming from the EU. Since 3 years I have competences for language policy and today I will eventually assist at a trilogue on comitology.”

Although the EU likes to maintain the pretence of linguistic equality, English is in practice the lingua franca of its bureaucrats, the language in which most laws are drafted, and increasingly default language of translation for foreign missions. It is also the most common second language across the continent. But according to Modiano, this isn’t the same English used by native speakers, and it’s silly that the EU’s style guides try to make it conform to the latter. (Spare a thought for Ireland and Malta, who under Modiano’s plans would presumably have to conduct EU business in a slightly different form of English).

It’s a wonderful provocation, but could it also be a veiled political strategy? A distinctively continental English might be a way for the EU to cultivate a stronger pan-European identity, thus increasing its authority both in absolute terms and relative to national governments. The way Modiano presents his proposal certainly makes it sound like that: “Someone is going to have to step forward and say, ‘OK, let’s break our ties with the tyranny of British English and the tyranny of American English.’ And instead say… ‘This is our language.’” (My emphasis).

The EU has forever been struggling with the question of whether it can transcend the appeal of nation states and achieve a truly European consciousness. Adopting Euro-English as an official lingua franca might be a good start. After all, a similar process of linguistic standardisation was essential to the creation of the modern nation state itself.   

As Eric Hobsbawm writes in his classic survey of the late-19th and early-20th century, The Age of Empire, the invention of national languages was a deliberate ideological project, part of the effort to forge national identities out of culturally heterogeneous regions. Hobsbawm explains:

Linguistic nationalism was the creation of people who wrote and read, not of people who spoke. And the ‘national languages’ in which they discovered the essential character of their nations were, more often than not, artefacts, since they had to be compiled, standardized, homogenized and modernized for contemporary and literary use, out of the jigsaw puzzle of local or regional dialects which constituted non-literary languages as actually spoken. 

Perhaps the most remarkable example was the Zionist movement’s promotion of Hebrew, “a language which no Jews had used for ordinary purposes since the days of the Babylonian captivity, if then.”

Where this linguistic engineering succeeded, it was thanks to the expansion of state education and the white-collar professions. A codified national language, used in schools, the civil service and public communications like street signs, was an ideal tool for governments to instil a measure of unity and loyalty in their diverse and fragmented populations. This in turn created incentives for the emerging middle class to prefer an official language to their own vernaculars, since it gave access to careers and social status. 

Could the EU not pursue a similar strategy with Euro-English? There could a special department in Brussels tracking the way English is used by EU citizens on social media, and each year issuing an updated compendium on Euro-English. This emergent language, growing ever more distinctly European, could be mandated in schools, promoted through culture and in the media, and of course used for official EU business. Eventually the language would be different enough to be rebranded simply as “European.”

You’ll notice I’m being facetious now; obviously this would never work. Privileging one language over others would instantly galvanise the patriotism of EU member states, and give politicians a new terrain on which to defend national identity against Brussels. This is pretty much how things played out in multinational 19th century states such as Austria-Hungary, where linguistic hierarchies enflamed the nationalism of minority cultures. One can already see something like this in the longstanding French resentment against the informal dominance of English on the continent.

Conversely, Euro-English wouldn’t work because for Europe’s middle-classes and elites, the English language is a gateway not to Europe, but to the world. English is the language of global business and of American cultural output, and so is a prerequisite for membership of any affluent cosmopolitan milieu. 

And this, I think, is the valuable insight to be gained from thought experiments like the one suggested by Modiano. Whenever we try to imagine what the path to a truly European demos might look like, we always encounter these two quite different, almost contradictory obstacles. On the one hand, the structure of the EU seems to have frozen in place the role of the nation state as the rightful locus of imagined community and symbolic attachment. At the same time, among those who identify most strongly with the European project, many are ultimately universalist in their outlook, and unlikely to warm to anything that implies a distinctively European identity. 

Gamestop: A Classic Robin Hood Tale

This article was first published by Unherd on 27th January 2021

During the past year, the chaotic forces of the digital revolution have broken into the world of finance, in the form of trading apps that allow ordinary punters free access to the stock market. These tools have given rise to social media communities where amateur traders exchange advice and, it now seems, organise to stick a finger in the eye of Wall Street.

The case of GameStop is the latest — and most stunning — example of this trend. Late last year, a confrontation developed between small traders and major Wall Street investors like Melvin Capital Management. As the former rushed in to buy what they viewed as undervalued GameStop shares, the latter saw it as a chance to adopt a short position, which means betting that GameStop’s share price would crash. But shorting is a risky strategy, since if the share price were in fact to keep rising, those betting against it would have to pay the difference.

And so the small investors, led by firebrands on the subreddit WallStreetBets, smelled blood. They continued driving up the price of GameStop shares in the hope of bankrupting the institutional investors. At the time of writing, the shares were hovering around the $300 mark — an increase of 1,400 per cent since January 12th. This week they have near-doubled on a daily basis.

According to Bloomberg, one in five stock trades are now made by such “retail investors,” as opposed to institutional investors such as hedge funds and insurance companies. As this army of new investors has gathered en masse in online chatrooms, notably Reddit and Stocktwits, it has produced strange effects in the markets. It’s no longer unusual to see the market value of small, obscure companies suddenly going through the roof thanks to co-ordinated speculation by amateur traders.

The WallStreetBets subreddit has become the centre of an intoxicating underdog narrative, a classic American romance of the little guy standing up to the corrupt and complacent system. “Hedge fund managers live in the past, and continue to look down upon the retail investors,” writes one influential user, “We can think and make decisions for ourselves, which scares the FUCK out of old school institutions and hedge funds.” Another posted a now-viral message to CNN, complaining that the news network was in cahoots with the institutional investors.

Of course, this is clearly a bubble of some kind, but it is also an a Hollywoodesque tale of plucky outsiders taking on the establishment — indeed, the guerrilla investors turned their attention to GameStop after learning that Michael Bury, the maverick trader immortalised in The Big Short, had invested in the company.

Whatever the outcome though, this episode has provided another striking illustration of how social media empowers the anti-establishment strain in American culture, and turns defiance of the powers-that-be into a source of shared purpose.

America has entered a new era in which narratives generated on social media have become a profoundly destabilising force, as we witnessed when Donald Trump’s elaborately outfitted supporters stormed the Washington Capitol at the start of this year. The GameStop saga isn’t an exact parallel, but is also a force for disruption.

A deep-seated suspicion of authority combined with technology that empowers self-proclaimed rebels against the system is proving to be a potent cocktail.

Gambling on technocrats

The likely appointment of Mario Draghi as Italy’s prime minister has been widely, if nervously, greeted as a necessary step. Draghi, an esteemed economist and central banker, will be the fourth unelected technocrat to fill the post in Italy in the last 30 years. As the Guardian concedes by way of welcoming Draghi’s appointment, a ready embrace of unelected leaders is “not a good look for any self-respecting democracy.” 

Italy’s resort to temporary “technical governments” reflects the fact that its fractious political system, with its multitude of parties and short-lived coalitions, is vulnerable to paralysis at moments of crisis. Such has been the price for a constitution designed to prevent the rise of another Mussolini. Ironically though, the convention of installing technocrats recalls the constitutional role of Dictator in the ancient Roman Republic: a trusted leader who, by consensus among the political class, takes charge for a limited term during emergencies.

During the 1990s, it was the crisis of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, the vast Mani pulite corruption scandal, and Silvio Berlusconi’s first chaotic administration which formed the backdrop for the technocratic governments of Carlo Ciampi and Lamberto Dini. Now in the midst of a pandemic and a gathering economic storm, the immediate pretext comes from the collapse of a government led by Giuseppe Conte of the Five Star Movement, amid machinations by Conte’s rivals and accusations of EU emergency funds being deployed for political patronage

Yet despite its distinctively Italian flavour, this tradition of the technocratic dictator has a much wider European resonance. It reflects the economic and political strains of European integration. And ultimately, the Italian case merely offers a pronounced example of the precarious interplay between depoliticised technocratic governance and democracy which haunts the European Union at large.

The agendas of the Ciampi and Dini cabinets included politically sensitive reforms to state benefits and the public sector, with the purpose of rendering Italy fit for a European economy where Germany set the tune. This pattern was repeated much more emphatically when the next technocratic prime minister, the economist Mario Monti, served from 2011-13. Monti’s mission on behalf of Berlin and Brussels was to temper Italy’s sovereign debt crisis by overseeing harsh austerity measures. 

The legacy of that strategy was the rise of the Italian populism in the form of the Five Star Movement and, on the right, Matteo Salvini’s Lega Nord. Which brings us to another crucial piece of background for Draghi’s appointment this week. With Italian Euroscepticism making further advances during the disastrous first phase of the pandemic, it seems likely that were an election called now a rightwing coalition led by Salvini would take power.

For Italy’s financial and administrative class, that prospect is especially scary given how much the country’s stability now depends on support from the EU. It can be hoped that Draghi will calm the nerves of Italy’s northern creditors, and Germany especially, to pave the way for a much needed second instalment of the coronavirus relief fund. But while all the talk now is of spending and investment, Italy has a public debt worth 160% of GDP and rising, which is only sustainable thanks to the European Central Bank (ECB) continuing to buy its government bonds. It is surely a matter of time before further “structural reforms” are demanded of Italy. 

In other words, when the political parties aren’t up to it, technical governments do the dirty work of squeezing the Italy into the ever-tightening corset of the EU’s economic model. So this is not simply a pathology of Italian politics, but nor can it be characterised as an imposition. Figures like Monti and Draghi have long been invested in this arrangement: they cut their teeth during the 1990s hammering Italian finances into shape for entry to the Euro, and subsequently held important posts in EU institutions. 

Indeed, the basic logic at work here, whereby tasks considered too difficult for democratic politics are handed over to the realm of technocratic expertise, has become a deeply European one. We see it most clearly in the EU’s increasing reliance on the monetary instruments of the ECB as the only acceptable tool with which to respond to economic crises. This goes back to the original political failure of not achieving fiscal integration in the Eurozone, which would have allowed wealth transfers to ailing economies no longer able to negotiate debt reductions or devalue their currencies. But during the Eurozone crisis and its aftermath, politicians avoided confronting their electorates with the need to provide funds for the stricken Club Med states. In stead they relied on the ECB to keep national governments solvent through sovereign bond purchases.

And lest we forget, it was these same bond purchases that made the name of Italy’s incoming prime minister, Mario Draghi. In 2012, when Draghi was ECB president, he appeared to almost magically calm the debt markets by announcing he would do “whatever it takes” to keep the Eurozone afloat. This statement, revealing that Draghi had been empowered to step outside the bounds of rule and precedent, is again suggestive of a kind of constitutionally-mandated technocratic dictator, but at a Europe-wide level. 

Of course to focus on monetary policy is also to highlight that these tensions between technocracy and democracy go far beyond the EU. It is certainly not just in Europe that central bankers have accrued vast power through their ability to provide back-door stimulus and keep huge debt burdens sustainable. The growing importance of central banks points back to an earlier moment of depoliticisation at the dawn of neoliberalism in the early 1980s, when control of interest rates was removed from the realm of democratic politics. More fundamentally, it points to the limitations imposed on democracy by the power of financial markets. 

Still, it is no accident that this tension has appeared in such acute form in the EU. As with Italy’s ready supply of emergency prime ministers, the EU’s dense canopy of technocratic institutions provides an irresistible way for politicians to pass the buck on issues they would otherwise have to subject to democratic conflict. This is all well and good if the technocrats succeed, but as we have seen recently with the EU’s vaccine program, it also raises the stakes of failure. Handing difficult and sensitive matters over to unaccountable administrators means that blame and resentment will be directed against the system as whole.