Issue 1/2018 - Asoziale Medien?

Truth and Disavowal

New Media Realities and the Liberal Trauma

Olivier Jutel

The election of Donald Trump has exacted a severe psychic wound upon American liberalism. This was the essential promise of candidate Trump and his Republican base will trade away everything simply for the wages of jouissance in “triggering the liberals.” A uniquely grotesque white supremacist and serial sexual assaulter now occupies the seat of power belching obscenities and petty personal grievances via Twitter. After a chaotic and incompetent first year in office Trump has achieved a major class war and policy victory with the latest tax bill. Yet in the terms of the liberal political crisis he is being tried primarily for crimes of decorum and procedure. It is telling that on the same day as the Republican senate enacted the Koch-tax fantasy, liberal media and political elites were busy celebrating Michael Flynn’s guilty plea and cooperation as part of Robert Mueller’s Russia probe. Cold War patriotism and conspiracies of Russian subterfuge have been deployed by liberals in the place of the class politics and broad-based material appeals that would be capable of defeating Trump’s libidinal and ethno-nationalist paeans to American greatness. Through this combination of delusion and political procedure American liberals are attempting to salvage a regime of truth based on a habitus of post-politics.

Technocratic Habitus

In the current conflagration it makes more sense to think of American liberalism as a cultural habitus or affect than a consistent ethico-political project. The cultural mourning of Barack Obama’s absence from the White House does not come from a sense of a great ideological project thwarted but the loss of how it made liberals “feel” to have Barack and Michelle at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The dignity of the office was never greater for liberals with the tempered, professorial and historic figure of Obama appealing to our better selves. This habitus eschews ideology for process, compromise and the promise of meritocracy. It is this transcendent virtue, which is held to ennoble political institutions and realize America’s promise. This uniquely American and deluded optimism is mixed with a biting cynicism towards those that would use politics to transform society. The socialism of Sanders and the fascism of Trump are seen as twin evils. Wielding this cynical knowingness marks one as a member of a technocratic, managerial or cultural elite that gets how things “really work.” This self-satisfied enlightened class is the rational “fact-based community” staring down Yeats’ impassioned worst. The domain of politics does not require antagonistic ideological struggle but simply the intervention of the enlightened drawing upon their critical faculties to solve problems.

This tired end of history politics has found its apogee and perhaps last iteration in the exaltation of Silicon Valley as the hegemonic ideal work and play in late capitalism. The promise of what Evgeny Morozov calls “techno-solutionism” imagines programmers, engineers and thought leaders utilizing data to solve all manner of social problems. The reality is rather the enclosure of the social commons, rent-seeking, the cannibalization of other sectors, mass unprofitability and a bubble inflated only by Gulf money and capital’s ideological investment. This rotten edifice was a fitting avatar for the zombie politics of Clinton that would wield data and innovation in the battle against Trump’s fascism.

Clinton’s tortured Pokémon Go pun has become an iconic moment of internet humor but did in fact contain a sincere techno-solutionist enquiry; “What if there was an app that could gamify democracy and mobilize an atomized techno-polity?” As observed by Žižek the possibilities of technology are seemingly endless in an inverse proportion to the diminution of the political realm to effect social change. For the challenge of neoliberal precarity STEM, apps and learning to code are the panacea. Even Clinton’s appropriation of radical intersectional discourse manages to stuff racial justice into the rubric of techno-solutionism. A Clinton campaign graphic highlighted “complex intersectional challenges” facing the African-American community. The graphic displayed an interconnected network of key terms including “Investments in Communities of Color,” “Accountable Leadership” and “Access to Nutritional Food.” In this appeal to Ted Talk-style social science there is a vulgar conflation of intersectionality with networks. Intersectionality no longer represents an ethico-political demand for justice but the call for “solutions and real plans” as if enlightened technocrats have yet to devote their brilliance to the task.

Where this Silicon Valley fetishism extended beyond rhetoric was in the algorithmic campaign management of Robby Mook. Mook boasted to Politico in September 2016 that the campaign “relied almost entirely” on the beautiful mind of data chief Elan Kriegel. Data was the key to replacing a clunky press-the-flesh style of politics with economical micro-targeted ad spends and a small footprint campaign in places like Michigan and Wisconsin. The campaign very self-consciously presented itself as comprised of “engineers and developers who left lucrative careers at places like Google, Facebook, and Twitter to help code Clinton’s way to more votes.” This was both the engine of the Clinton campaign and a cultural marker of liberal habitus. Clinton’s message of experience and technocratic competency, “a progressive who gets things done,” was evidenced by this reliance upon the best and brightest. The appeal to liberal habitus and competency would transcend the retrograde politics antagonism wielded by the chaotic and blundering campaign of Trump.

The trauma of the Trump victory for American liberals is not simply a political defeat, liberals have found ways to “enjoy” defeat through a ubiquitous Daily Show-style humor that cements a righteous cultural superiority. The material consequences of Trump’s victory are ghastly however liberal distress centers around the collapse of post-political regimes of truth. The meritocracy has spat up Trump as the obscene face of power and the internet, once a mechanism of the end of history, is now the dominion of post-truth, conspiracy and jouissance. Where liberals imagine online as a space of collaboration, innovation and precious data Trump embodies the economic and libidinal logics of affective media production. The Trump campaign was not carefully amassing data and email addresses for electoral models, volunteer engagement and donations but tapped online as a space of seething antagonism and jouissance. Where social media companies utilize free labor to extract data Trump’s brand of ruthless opportunism and vulgar transgression secured a loyal following performing free labor in sharing affective testimony, performing the spectacle of raucous rallies and filling the signifier #MAGA with meaning.

The disruptive potential of the internet and online social networks, once synonymous with Occupy Wall Street and Tahrir Square, has been realized in the distributed white supremacy of Trump. There has been a great deal of intellectual resources from cyber-enthusiasts such as Yochai Benkler devoted to theorizing online connectivity as reinvigorating public and democratic values. On the academic left Deleuzian affect theory, the rhizome and the multitude have become means to optimistically interpret fleeting and emotionally driven online interactions as coalescing into a human becoming. However, the superfluous-ness of online spaces, the universal affect of critical knowingness and the traumatic encounter with “the other” has meant the collapse of meaning or what Jodi Dean describes as “the decline of symbolic efficiency.”

It is Trump’s politics of obscene transgression, victimization and ethno-nationalism that is able to short-circuit the failures of discourse. Online subcultures have taken to Trump as a super-ego agent of jouissance. He indulges in the same conspiracy, victimization-complex and bombast as your average shit-poster while wielding immense power. That he has eclipsed so-called “moderate Republicans” speaks to the libidinal truth of American conservatism; a desire to wield unrestrained power as an exceptional group besieged by innumerable enemies. The logic of trolling is exemplary of the jouissance and the libidinal charge Trump followers enjoy. The conspiracy, obsession and ruthless dehumanization of the liberal enemy has become the de-facto logic of the right-wing from alt-right millennials to septuagenarian Fox News viewers alike. Trump followers enjoy the ceaseless conspiracy, as with the recent “November 4th Antifa Civil War” panic, with self-expressive modes of discourse like YouTube vlogs used to construct whole-cloth an omnipotent Antifa enemy that users can righteously threaten to kill.

These contours of a “post-truth” polity are not the signs of distortion in communication networks needing a techno-fix or the invasion of a foreign pathological body, they are the essential conditions necessary for harnessing affective digital labor. These economies of online are built around celebrities and megabrands such as Trump, affluent users sold on as commodities and a global proletariat of content moderators, click-farm and digital piece-meal workers. Fake news fulfills both the libidinal incentives of Trump followers and the economic motivations of Macedonian teenagers for whom the fractions of a penny per click are valued. That American liberalism could imagine its habitus as universal and transcendent of this material politics is pure ideology. This past year in response to Facebook’s role in American malaise, and its own brand crisis, Mark Zuckerberg announced a 50-state “listening tour.” This self-presentation as the earnest philanthropist motivated by the desire to solve problems and bring people together through technology is as soothing to liberals as it is myopic. While Zuckerberg feigns social responsibility this fraction of class power is best embodied by “Übermenschen” such as Thiel, Musk or Kalanick brazenly accelerating the demise, or “disrupting,” collective and public notions of the social.

Reconstituting Truth

The ascendance of Donald Trump should represent the end of post-politics, which has failed dramatically by its own terms. A liberal regime of truth based on the cultural authority of experts, discourses of rationalism and the ability of political institutions to represent these values cannot be said to exist. Where the crucial task for this moment would appear to be forging a left mass politics of justice and solidarity in fighting Trump’s fascism, American liberals are determined to reconstitute their regime of truth. Trump is not seen as a manifestation of particular American political pathologies but is an agent of subversion able to benefit from the collapse of truth at the hands of foreign interference. It has become the dominant narrative in American liberal circles that Vladimir Putin has master-minded what Hillary Clinton calls a “political 9-11” in “hacking” the electoral process and broader polity. Post-2016 the intellectual resources of liberal institutions from media, think-tanks, the democratic party and the voice of Morgan Freeman have all been devoted with a focus towards uncovering this plot. Leaving aside the hysteria that this framing has elicited1 it is instructive to consider what this new infrastructure for truth looks like.

The notion of election hacking reveals how techno-metaphors of the social are being used to both salvage technocratic authority and to designate unruly actors that fall outside normative bounds as the social equivalent of malware. Hacking of course has a specific meaning, the penetration of networks to gain data or information for either malicious, political, economic or public interest purposes. Despite the salience of the hacking metaphor very little in this story involves actual hacking. Scare headlines alleging the penetration of voting systems and the electrical grid have been thoroughly discredited. The exposure of DNC emails revealing the broadly suspected cynicism and corruption of the party are not considered hacking of a journalistic variety but a grave matter of national security. The attribution of these emails to Russian hacking has relied upon the work of for-profit national security contractors such as CrowdStrike whose analysis has been marked with errors and naked self-interest.2 Even if one accepts Russian hacking this fact does not approach anything like the scientific certainty that cyber-security consultants ascribe. Rendering the indeterminacy of cyber-espionage and online politics in these terms requires a great deal of ideological work and the reliance upon the national security state as the arbiter of truth, or the Lacanian big Other of symbolic authority. As Octave Mannoni’s formulation of disavowal goes, we may very well know that the National Security state is corrupt and manipulative “but nevertheless Russian active measures!”

In the hands of the national security state discourses of hacking reproduce cold war and Red Scare tropes of an infection in the body-politic. This was evident in the laughable pronouncements of the Office for the Director of National Intelligence, head of all seventeen US intelligence agencies. In assessing Russian interference, a January 2017 report centered almost entirely on Abby Martin’s RT program, defunct since 2015, that described “the current US political system as corrupt and dominated by corporations.” Former Obama official and Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein recently surmised Russia’s interference as the use of timeless “Marxist Strategies” with pawns like Trump and Sanders dividing the polity, in Sanders’ case against the “supposedly evil” banks. The angst and uncertainty that comes with the demise of post-politics can be ascribed to a Russian infection of social networks through weaponized memes and troll farms with the intent to make you doubt American institutions. Here the claim to truth is simply an affective sense that something is wrong which allows one to disavow critique and reinvest in the liberal habitus of cynical knowingness.

There is a bizarre inversion of Alt-Right notions of “Meme Magic,” the idea that trolling and “triggering” your enemies is building a real movement, as the political establishment seeks to classify and codify its existential dread. And so Pokémon Go, once a symbol of the power of connectivity, has been in the words of CNN used to “exploit racial tensions and sow discord among Americans.” The austere confines of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee have been used to discuss memes, $100,000 worth of Facebook ads and an apolitical animal lovers Facebook page the New York Times speculate attempted to “build a large following before gradually introducing political content.” Facebook and other tech companies have been happy to ban ads and inflate the threat of Russian meme warfare with the claim that up to 126 million American users may have seen Russian-linked posts. Their monopolies have been built upon a regulatory light-touch secured by peddling a tech-utopianism useful to American global soft power projection. They are happy to trade-in fallacious digital liberty bona fides for a natural alliance with the state and continued regulatory exemptions.

From this political landscape entrepreneurs have emerged inhabiting this regime of truth and building careers in service of its interests. Robby Mook has found his way to Harvard as a Senior Fellow for the “Defending Digital Democracy Project” which, in partnership with moderate Republicans, Facebook and Google, will secure democracy against future nebulous cyber threats. Seemingly progressive political players have provided a patina of intellectual and journalistic seriousness to this narrative. The Center for American Progress has launched “The Moscow Project” and the magazine, which bears the name of the legendary socialist Mother Jones has partnered with “” whose logo arranges the “P” and “T” to look like a hammer & sickle. Twitter has given rise to freelance Russia “experts” and a critical mass of followers waging a war for truth against Putin-bots and unwitting Russian assets. The key policy entrepreneur, and in the words of Slate “star,” in this battle for truth is Clint Watts.3 Watts’ McCarthy-ite testimony to congress described a Russian “playbook” to foment disunity and civil war through social media. The remedy to “silence the guns” of Russian cyber war would be a system of government veracity ratings, what Watts calls “nutrition labels.” We have seen lawmakers call for the banning of RT and shadowy groups like PropOrNot producing lists smearing left-wing journalists approvingly published in the Washington Post.

The cliché “Orwellian,” to be avoided at all costs, is inescapable as this regime of experts looks to wield a notion of truth that exceeds reaction and evacuates liberalism of any of its last principles.



1 See Olivier Jutel, Paranoia and Delusion: Liberalism’s Descent Into Cold War Fantasies, in: in: Overland, Nr. 228 (Spring 2017);
2 See Yasha Levine, From Russia, with Panic, in: The Baffler, No. 34 (March 2017);
3 Watts and his work for the far-right Foreign Policy Research Institute is brilliantly assessed by Max Blumenthal for Alternet’s “Grayzone Project”,