Looking-Glass Politics

With the collapse of the private sphere, potent private emotions collide with public affairs

Picture credit: John Tenniel, English (1871)/Wikimedia Commons

An unconquerable anger has gripped the democratic world. The public seethes with feelings of grievance and seems ready to wreak havoc at any provocation. The spasm of fury that swept the United States after the death of George Floyd cost 19 additional lives and $400 million in property damage. Last year’s frenzy in Chile was even more disproportionate: 29 persons were killed, property worth $1.4 billion was destroyed, and a constitutional plebiscite was called, all in response to a 4 percent increase in mass transit fares. As far back as 2011, hundreds of thousands of protesters streamed into the streets of Madrid, Spain, without a discernible triggering event. They called themselves indignados: “the outraged.”

Many books and articles have tried to explain this surge in anger. I am presently reading Angrynomics, which, in the way of causes, blames economic crisis and inequality. Another recent read, National Populism, proposes cultural decline and inequality. Christophe Guilluy’s Twilight of the Elites holds neoliberalism and globalization responsible—along with inequality, of course. For obvious reasons, the current American fixation is with racial injustice. The Harvard Gazette’s recent “Why America Can’t Escape Its Racist Roots” can stand in for an Amazonian stream of similar articles.

Anger is a huge story and thus a fat analytical target. Most of these explanations have some merit to them. However, all take it for granted that the anger is justified—the analyst’s job is simply to discover a cause commensurate with its enormity. I think that assumption begs a lot of questions. All the incidents I mentioned took place in relatively free and prosperous nations. The actual persons venting anger tended to be articulate, well educated, and highly mobile. I doubt a single one hit the streets without a smartphone.

It would make sense for protesters in, say, Hong Kong to feel anger. They confront a brutal and despotic regime. Yet the insurgents in Hong Kong are famously tidy and polite—it has never occurred to them to burn banks or vandalize monuments in the style of the Yellow Vests of democratic France.

Arnold Kling, to my knowledge, stands virtually alone in suggesting that the tide of political anger need not have matching political causes. He has wondered, instead, whether extreme private emotions have been diverted by the web into the public sphere. Kling brings up an interesting number: 150. Roughly speaking, that is how many persons you can remember before names, faces, and situations begin to get fuzzy. It’s often called the “Dunbar number,” after British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who first identified this cognitive boundary in a 1992 paper, and it probably represents the hard-wiring in our minds of some maximum hunter-gatherer band size.

Each of us carries along, in our everyday activities, a band of 150 people whom we can identify with fair accuracy. This humble Dunbar world provides the stage for the drama of most human lives and is the source of the most authentic human emotions. From ancestral times, the pursuit of happiness has played out almost entirely within this domain.

Kling has noted a strange development: the shock of the digital has brought the Dunbar world to the verge of collapse. Historically, he writes, the “sub-Dunbar” public concerned itself mostly with “family, friends, and co-workers.” Elites in the “super-Dunbar” world ran the “government and large organizations.” He goes on:

But new media have caused the two spheres to collide. The public feels itself on the same playing field as the elites. Anyone can comment on Twitter. So people who never used to think much about the super-Dunbar world are now trying to take part in it.

Ultimately, Kling concludes, “you feel a lot more sense of ownership of what’s going on in public life, and you care about it a lot more.” Strong personal feelings have been torn loose from the private sphere and become attached to the distant world of events.

The Floyd protests fit into this pattern. The terrible events in Powderhorn Park, Minneapolis, were local and fleeting but took place before a battery of cell phone cameras—and at once became global and searchable. The public experienced a digital murder. Because it was visual, it felt personal. Because it felt personal, the most violent emotions were aroused. Floyd seemed like a member of one’s private circle: an idealized friend. Because his death was searchable, it turned into a recurring nightmare, a wound that could not heal.

Social media rage, which feeds on itself, soon forgot the actual events and demanded cosmic and abstract judgments. This was not about George Floyd after all. This was about a monstrous injustice called “systemic racism.” The thin film between virtual and real was crossed, and the public took to the streets. Yet, as always today, these were digital protests, and the attendant violence was digital as well. Numbers were limited, but the noise and the sense of participation were immense. Police departments everywhere were condemned as the shock troops of the elites. The public aimed to play in Kling’s “super-Dunbar” world—and, through sheer power of negation, succeeded.

No less a figure than Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York, waved the white flag. “You don’t need to protest,” he said. “You won. You won. You accomplished your goal.” Then, plainly baffled, Cuomo added, “What do you want?”

Looking-Glass Delusions in the Age of Greta Thunberg

People escape the Dunbar world for obvious reasons: life there appears prosaic and uninspiring. They find a digital interface and, like Alice in Through the Looking-Glass, enter a new realm that glitters with infinite possibilities. Suddenly, you can flicker like a spark between the digital and the real. The exhilarating sensation is that you have been taken to a high place and shown all the kingdoms of the world: “These can be yours, if. . . .” If your video goes viral. If you gain millions of followers. If you compose that devastating tweet that will drive Donald Trump from the White House. There is, however, an entrance fee. Personal identity must be discarded.

Identities in the smallish Dunbar world are relatively simple and given to you by history: you are “dad,” “school buddy,” “boss,” “rabbi,” or maybe “Miriam at the pharmacy cash register.” For thousands of years, happiness has consisted in turning in a reasonably successful performance in these roles. But the great delusion of the looking-glass world is that you can be anything you want. That’s why you are there, after all: to leave yourself behind.

You crave identities that seem monumental since you expect to be cavorting digitally with presidents and billionaires. You choose your form of address from among 78 exotic pronouns, the looking-glass equivalent of the 99 names of God. And you insist on possessing a string of magnificent titles: “Latinx,” “nonbinary,” “plant-based eater,” “able-bodied,” “person of color.” Under the burden of so many categories, the pursuit of happiness approaches the complexity of quantum physics.

In the end, the promise of self-importance delivers mostly chaos and confusion. An estimated 4.5 billion persons are online in 2020—around 60 percent of the human race. Within this colossal throng, attention is highly skewed. A few individuals and sites monopolize all of our interest, while the rest are relegated to the inane babble of the comments section. In essence, you are buried alive in digital noise.

For a species that evolved to interact within the Dunbar number, this can be tremendously disorienting. Soon you, too, find yourself shrieking in attitudes of rage and repudiation at targets selected by the hive mind of the web. Although this comes about largely from imitation and conformism, it can feel perfectly sincere.

The looking-glass world, it would appear, is haunted by despair—and the younger you are, the deeper your unhappiness. An older generation migrated to “cyberspace” as to a promised land. Those under 25 today have known no other condition. To be young is to find yourself from earliest memory on a darkling plain, full of threats and alarms, in perpetual dread of triggering the “cancel culture,” or the “rape culture,” or some “microagression.” The future predicted by the young inevitably ends in catastrophe: a school shooting, possibly, or a climate holocaust. Anger and depression alternate as dominant emotions.

We live in the age of Greta Thunberg. By her own admission, Thunberg led a wretched existence in the Dunbar world and took to environmental activism as a form of personal therapy. In leading school strikes to protest climate change, she “found a meaning, in a world that sometimes seems shallow and meaningless to so many people.” But meaning, to the young mind of Greta Thunberg, consists of preaching the destruction of the hateful society that produced her.

Thunberg’s is the kind of story that seduces people into the looking glass. Once a troubled but unknown preteen, she has become a digital star, with 4 million Twitter followers. She now embodies every teenager’s fantasy life, traveling around the world to universal applause while chiding adults about the many things they have done wrong.

At the United Nations, Thunberg was literally taken to a high place and asked to address all the kingdoms of the world. It would have been unreasonable to expect a few words of gratitude or inspiration. Instead, the assembled rulers in the audience got the usual fury and despair: “How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. . . . People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are at the beginning of mass extinction, and all you talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”

Here we return to the perplexing question of the causes of anger. Thunberg, born into a well-to-do family in placid Sweden, was all of 16 when she delivered this tirade.

The Failure of Causation and the Politics of Digital Despair

Anger now poisons democratic politics, but the causes often seem remote from the speculations of analysts and scholars. The revolt of the public has never been an uprising of the poor or marginalized. At the moment, the crowds affirming their rage over George Floyd’s death look predominantly white and middle class. “Seriously,” Yascha Mounk mused about one such group in New York City, “the audience at the Metropolitan Opera is way more diverse than this.” Videos of Black Lives Matter marchers near Seattle’s “Capitol Hill Occupied Protest” show a sea of white faces—and black organizers have complained about the “sincerity” of white protesters. Even among the rebels, motives for anger can be openly doubted.

I believe the anger is potent and real because it is fed by a personal experience of the looking-glass world—a place consumed with rage and despair. The causes are obscure because they are so viscerally subjective. Digital culture’s faith that it has transcended material necessity has only deepened the dive into subjectivity. Anything is possible online. That is the siren song, the great delusion. From one perspective, this looks like simple escapism. For many who have taken this path, however, it has felt like a radical liberation of the human spirit.

In the fullness of time, the logic of this premise has been worked out to its fatal conclusions. If causation has failed, political action is futile. You might be Greta Thunberg with an audience of millions and the opportunity to shout at the movers and shakers of the earth, but what have you changed? Or you might join a march of a million angry persons in Washington, DC, or Santiago or Paris, and what did you achieve?

Revolt is driven by a wrenching sense of loss and the certainty that someone is to blame: “You have stolen my dreams.” But nothing can be done to fix that. In the 4.5-billion-human grind of the looking-glass world, effects have fractured into dust, and the public has been squeezed into ever tighter cycles of utter hopelessness and rage.

There is one exception to the failure of causation. If you choose to destroy, the effects will be immediate and observable.

It is with this lesson in mind that the public abruptly materializes on the political stage. The pretext is often trivial, but the impulse to negation is genuine and brings in train the extraordinary logic of the looking glass. Police departments should be abolished until systemic racism is wiped out. Schools should be shut down by strikes until global warming is solved. Statues of false heroes should be toppled, and the tainted past lobotomized out of existence, until the utopian future arrives.

There’s little interest in putting forward positive alternatives to the status quo. There’s no thought given to what the protesters would do differently if they won power. A desperate Andrew Cuomo can keep asking, “What do you want?” But that is not a coherent question if causation has been repealed—and there are as many answers as people in the crowd.

To the extent that current street insurgencies are more than an accumulation of personal grievance, they represent a politics of destruction and despair. The psychological space traditionally integrated with shared customs and institutions, from neighborhood to religion, has shattered into solitary quests to overcome the paradoxes of the looking-glass world. Every statue knocked down in anger offers proof, to someone, that change is possible. As for what remains behind, I imagine it’s exemplified by the empty pedestal: we are looking at nothing—a political void.

A movement organized around ferocious personal anger at the social and political establishment must necessarily conclude in sterile gestures and unintended consequences. The indignados, who leaned left, helped to defeat Spain’s socialist government and usher in eight years of conservative rule. The Tea Partiers, who leaned right, became an argument for the reelection of Barack Obama.

With the current spate of protests bumping into the presidential campaign season, the two parties and their candidates are certain to turn them to advantage. Joe Biden, crusty icon of reaction, will wrap himself in the mantle of revolt—he has already walked the streets alongside the protesters. Donald Trump, who personifies disruption, will pose as the champion of order and tranquility. He has stood in front of the cameras clutching a Bible and using Mount Rushmore as a backdrop.

Somebody, I have no doubt, is going to answer Cuomo’s question.

Meanwhile, the multitudes teeming in the looking-glass world will rage on, sowing toil and trouble in the “super-Dunbar” sphere and reaping the sum of their specific demands, which comes close to zero. A politics of despair, it seems to me, is self-fulfilling, and the repudiation of everything has no choice but to negate the repudiators.

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