A little over a century ago, a young man died of tuberculosis while in prison, just three months before his twenty-fifth birthday. According to various sources, he had etched a bit of free verse into a wall of his cell:
Our shadows will walk through Vienna wander the court, frighten the lords.
Gavrilo Princip had landed in prison as a result of his 1914 assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, the Duchess Sophie Chotek, as they were motorcading through Sarajevo. The event is widely regarded as the trigger of the first world war, which in turn brought about the fall of four empires (Russian, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and German) and set the stage for an even more devastating reprise of world war.
Princip’s act didn’t actually start the “Great War” that began in August 1914; it was just the spark that lit the gasoline-soaked kindling piled high and wide all over the continent. The case could be (and has been) made that the first world war was an inevitability decades in the making: that the elaborate web of treaties and agreements binding the various empires and great powers into an uneasy peace were always destined for a calamitous undoing.
For example, in World Order (2014), Henry Kissinger writes:
It took a genius like [German Chancellor Otto von] Bismarck to sustain the web of counterbalancing commitments keeping the equilibrium in place by a virtuoso performance that forestalled general conflict during his tenure. But a country whose security depends on producing a genius in each generation sets itself a task no society has ever met.
It’s doubtful that even a whole busload of Bismarcks could have prevented a continental conflagration once the presumptive heir to the Austrian empire had been shot to death by a Serb on the streets of Sarajevo. By August 1914, Bismarck had been dead for 16 years. Shadows had been walking the European capitals for decades, wandering the courts and frightening the lords. The shadows took many forms: nationalism, communism, socialism, technological change, new philosophies, scientific advances, changing religious currents. The war that broke out in August 1914 was the death throes of the old order.
Two books by Austrian-American historian and author Frederic Morton bookend the twilight of that order: A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888-1889 and Thunder at Twilight: Vienna 1913/1914.
The first is a haunting “year in the life” of imperial Vienna, following the lives of some of the city’s most historically notable citizens (among them Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler, Theodor Herzl, and Arthur Schnitzler), and concluding with the suicide of Crown Prince Rudolf and the birth of a baby boy to Clara Hitler.
The second covers the gloom of the year leading up to the first world war, and is nicely summarized by this capsule from GoodReads:
It was during the carnival of 1913 that a young Stalin arrived on a mission that would launch him into the upper echelon of Russian revolutionaries, and it was here that he first collided with Trotsky. It was in Vienna that the failed artist Adolf Hitler kept daubing watercolors and spouting tirades at fellow drifters in a flophouse. Here Archduke Franz Ferdinand had a troubled audience with Emperor Franz Joseph—and soon the bullet that killed the archduke would set off the Great War that would kill ten million more. With luminous prose… Morton evokes the opulent, elegant, incomparable sunset metropolis—Vienna on the brink of cataclysm.
I read both books in the early 1990s, when the Iron Curtain was being torn down and there was chatter about “the end of history.” I no longer remember many details from either book, but I remember the flavor of both: the sense of people still dancing after the music has stopped in A Nervous Splendor, and the claustrophobic dread of Thunder at Twilight.
Another book whose specifics I barely remember is a Russian collection of short stories (and short-short stories, and sometimes the barest of anecdotes) called Nervous People and Other Satires by Mikhail Zoshchenko, first published in 1927. I had to look it up online just to get the title and author right, and found someone’s online translation of the title story (which you can read here if you want).
The book’s stories and anecdotes are set in another the twilight world: this one between the Russian Civil War and the maturation of the Soviet Union. I read it when I was about 16 and understood almost exactly nothing about anything of the larger world I was just starting to notice around me. But the flavor of this book, too, has always stayed with me: the irrational behavior of people in a society whose rules have been changing, and continue changing, much too rapidly for them to keep up.
I’m reminded of all three books right now, having read a piece published on Substack just the other day:
The Great Unraveling, Bari Weiss, Common Sense with Bari Weiss, 12 January
Weiss is best know these days as the editor and writer who last July resigned from the New York Times in protest of its capitulation to the “woke” mob. Prior to joining the Times in 2017, she’d been an editor and writer at the Wall Street Journal.
Weiss does a good job, I think, of articulating the shadows that are haunting us right now.
For a while now I have thought of this period as a great unraveling — the unraveling of the old truths, the old political consensus, the old order, the old conventions, the old guardrails, the old principles, the old shared stories, the old common identity.
The metaphor of the unraveling is true enough, but it fails to capture the takeover and the unimaginable strength of the new powers that have superseded the old ones. My friend David Samuels has dubbed it the age of the machines and I think that gets it right.
She then cites a Tablet article of his from December:
The machines ate us. We are all sick with the same disease, which is being pumped through our veins by the agents of a monopolistic oligarchy — whether they present themselves as the owners of large technology companies, or as the professional classes that are dependent on those companies for their declining wealth and status, or as identity politics campaigners, or security bureaucrats. The places where these vectors converge make up the new ideology, which is regulated by machines; the places outside this discourse are figured as threats, and made to disappear from screens and search results, using the same technologies that they use in China.
Weiss then resumes:
The machines ate Ashli Babbitt, the 35-year-old Air Force veteran and Obama voter who slid into the gutter corners of the MAGA web and followed the siren song of Q to the capitol before bleeding out for the president in the people’s house.
The machines ate the former Jeopardy! champion and left-wing Twitter pundit Arthur Chu, who wrote that Babbit was “a pile of meat that moved and spoke and acted like a person, was made to stop moving, and thus could no longer fool people into thinking it was one of them.” He said of her death: “You should feel less bad than you do about putting down a rabid animal.”
When a person with a blue check mark openly calls another human being, a fellow citizen, a “pile of meat” you should be very worried about what comes next.
You can log off. You can get into psychedelics or reading the stars or overpaying for bath oils. And maybe those are the wise things to do. But all the #selfcare in the world won’t save you from living in the time you and I were born into.
Weiss’s entire article, or post, or whatever, should be read in its entirety. So should Samuels’s. Both of them brought the haunting flavors of Morton’s and Zoshchenko’s books back to me, with the uncomfortable difference of being set in the present day, in the world we all live in right now.
Another selection from Samuels (not cited by Weiss) is worth noting here:
The American system has its own special characteristics, of course. The Karens who are sick of working 70-hour weeks while raising gender nonbinary children via Zoom, have transformed the bleakness of their inner lives and the absence of healthy social connectedness into fuel for political movements that are funded by billionaires and manipulated by the Silicon Valley monopoly platforms whose consumer-end strategies involve a form of social fracking, which is how these unfortunate women wind up screaming racially charged epithets at birders in the middle of Central Park. Because politics can only provide the answer to personal problems in a healthy, functioning democratic society, which is not something that we have right now in America, it seems fair to imagine that the problems of these women and other people like them, of whatever gender, or sex, or whichever word the machines allow you to write in the grammatical spaces reserved for pronouns, will get worse instead of better. The only way out, as the older comrades have noted, is through accelerating the process of revolutionary change. Yet even then, there may be cracks that will threaten to bring the entire structure crashing down around our heads, comrades, which is why vigilance is necessary, and must be redoubled, until the utopian promise is made real here on earth, which history tells us never happens.
I don’t believe in revolutions. I live here now, with the cows and goats. What I see out there, where you live, when my iPhone reception is good, is a kind of cosplay, which shows us that the wishful divide between “online” and “real life” is no longer real. The machines ate us, whether in the form of massive multi-player-role playing games that advertise themselves as a form of politics, or online platforms that stole everyone’s family pictures under the guise of greater social connectedness. The next phase is simple: to find someplace safe, healthy, and reasonably inaccessible and watch the tech monopolies, security bureaucracies, and billionaire organizing networks assemble themselves like Voltron into the exoskeleton of the emerging American techno-surveillance state.
Not so long ago, writing like this was the stuff of dystopian sci-fi, cyber punk, or chat threads in the paranoid rabbit holes at the bottom of the internet.
A friend and were talking a few years ago about a general sense of foreboding we had both been feeling for a while. He’s a Dane, very thoroughly a Dane, the kind who traces his ancestors not across the vast geography of oceans or continents but by when this or that side of the family moved from Jylland to Sjælland or vice-versa, and when this branch of the family ended up on Fyn. We disagree on politics, but very little else.
“It’s weird,” I told him, “I’ve been buying extra bottled water and canned goods and stuff lately. Rice. Non-perishables. Extra toilet paper and paper towels and stuff. I can’t say why, I just feel like we need to have some reserves. You know?”
Not only did he know, but he’d been doing the same thing. Also instinctively.
We probed each other to try and understand what could be driving a couple of grown men without a trace of “prepper” mentality to do such a thing. We went over all the obvious societal fault-lines without being able to put our finger on anything. We got nowhere. We agreed that we were just uneasy. We decided the zeitgeist had gotten to us and that we were probably just hedging our bets against a zombie apocalypse.
A few weeks after that conversation he called to tell me he’d found a course we could take to get hunting licenses.
“Hunting?” I asked.
(Herself and I had flirted with the idea of taking up hunting when we got our golden retriever back in 2014 and people kept telling us what a great hunting dog she’d be; in the end we decided it would be too time-consuming and expensive a hobby.)
He said he kind of wanted to learn how to hunt, but mainly he thought it wouldn’t be a bad to idea to have a shotgun on hand when the zombie apocalypse began. You have to have a hunting license to get a gun in Denmark.
So we took the course, got our licenses, and toward the end of 2019 we got our shotguns. We enjoy shooting clay pigeons down at the range every couple of weeks. We’re still not good enough to pass the shooting test required to go out and actually hunt, but we’re just a little more ready for the zombie apocalypse.
We were already in the habit of shooting at the range last January when word of that weird virus in Wuhan, China, started popping up in the news.
It hadn’t escaped either of us that the images and videos coming out of Wuhan weren’t very different from what one would expect from the opening act of a zombie apocalypse. So that’s what we’d been preparing for!
We had no way of knowing it wasn’t the first act. It wasn’t even the prelude. It was at most the warming up of the orchestra.
As bad as things are, they’re going to get worse.
They’re going to get worse because, as Weiss wrote, “When a person with a blue check mark openly calls another human being, a fellow citizen, a ‘pile of meat’ you should be very worried about what comes next.” (The link on “blue check mark” is my addition; it’s not in the original text.)
“What comes next” is always an interesting question, especially because everyone’s best guesses are always so hilariously wrong in hindsight.
I read George Gilder’s Life After Television back shortly after it first came out in 1990. It was a little monograph that imagined the exciting new world about to be ushered in by converging technologies. He envisioned a transition from top-down to bottom-up or peer-to-peer structures in virtually everything: politics, entertainment, media, education. Dumb television boxes would be transformed into “teleputers” that would enable two-way communication between consumers and providers. I’d be able to choose my own camera angles while watching sports on my teleputer! We’d take a great stride forward toward an ever-more representative democracy! And the porn, well…!
(Just kidding. He didn’t have any predictions for porn. Which was shortsighted of him, given that it accounts for more than a third of all bandwidth consumption worldwide.)
It’s a bittersweet experience to look at this 1995 review of the book:
Gilder’s contagious enthusiasm regarding great leaps in the fields of computers and telecommunications springs not from the base appeal of couch potatoes passively surfing across 500 channels or of video games available to numb our children’s minds. Instead, Gilder declares that individualism will win out over mass culture. The top-down structure of television, whereby a few executives appeal to the widest, and therefore lowest, common denominator possible, will be overthrown by a bottom-up, consumer- and entrepreneurial-driven revolution.
Interestingly, while Gilder predicts the death of television under this wave of creative destruction, he makes a compelling case for newspapers spearheading the information revolution. Production and transmission costs will collapse for newspapers as computers and fiber optics replace printing presses. Gilder explains: “The ultimate reason that the newspapers will prevail in the information age is that they are better than anyone else at collecting, editing, filtering, and presenting real information and they are allying with this computer juggernaut to do it. The newspapers are pursuing the fastest-expanding current markets rather than rearview markets. They are targeting adults with real interests and ambitions that generate buying power rather than distracting children from more edifying pursuits.”
In the end, the fundamental difference between the television and the personal computer—or soon to be teleputer—can be explained in economic terms. It is the difference between reacting and creating; the difference between demand and supply. As Gilder states: “While TV watchers use their machines to lull themselves and their children into a stupor, PC users exploit their machines to become yet richer and smarter and more productive—and still better to exploit future computer advances. . . . The TV is a consumption product. The PC is a supply-side investment in the coming restoration of the home to a central role in the productive dynamics of capitalism, and the transformation of capitalism into a healing force in the present crisis of home and family, culture and community.”
If I’ve got my memes right, the appropriate response can only be, “Oh, honey.”
The world in which “a few executives appeal to the widest, and therefore lowest, common denominator possible,” was indeed “overthrown by a bottom-up, consumer- and entrepreneurial-driven revolution.”
Now instead of a few executives at a handful of broadcast and print media corporations calling the shots in the American flow of information, it’s a few executives at a handful of corporations—the largest in the history of the world—calling the shots in the global flow of information.
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss—but worse: the public square is now privately owned. Not just privately owned, but owned by vindictive ideologues who just also happen to be the wealthiest human beings ever.
(As an aside, I do wonder how anyone who’s ever taken the time to read a history book could imagine combining “collecting, editing, filtering, and presenting real information” with “this computer juggernaut” and envision only rosy outcomes.)
Alongside this awful monopolization of communication and commerce, we have the mainstreaming of a toxic ideology that had been brewing on college campuses for decades: identity politics. It’s the idea that the color of your skin and your sex and sexuality are more important than anything you do or say—unless you have anything negative to say about identity politics under any of its many names, in which case you are simply unpersoned. Dehumanized. A pile of meat.
Meanwhile, the oppressive force of those two phenomena has inevitably produced a backlash, the most violent expression of which we saw play out at the Capitol on January 6. To say a backlash is understandable, and probably even necessary, is not to excuse its excesses. The French Revolution was necessary: that doesn’t diminish or mitigate the Terror.
You can agitate against racism without casting guilt on all white people; you can agitate against the consolidation of big tech and the American political class without mounting an armed incursion of the Capitol. You can protest police brutality without burning down whole city blocks; you can protest the violence of mobs without engaging in street brawls.
Until you can’t.
If present trends continue, the Glorious Revolution of a one-party surveillance state will become a Leviathan the likes of which Hobbes couldn’t have imagined. Peaceful opposition will lose all viability, drawing increasing numbers into the ranks of the opposition extremists. That’s what’s already swelling their numbers: the fear that peaceful opposition has already lost its viability. It hasn’t, yet, I don’t think, but as the Magic 8-Ball might say: “Outlook not so good.“
I haven’t lost faith in America, but I’m losing faith in Americans. All the mobbing and bullying and rioting and violence, people turning on friends and family over differences of opinion, ratting each other out over violations of arbitrary orders, excusing violence on their side while condemning it on the other—all of that “othering,” the dehumanization: it’s not the work of any system. That’s individual Americans being lousy people.
Weiss’s “unraveling” and Samuels’s “age of the machines” offer useful frameworks for understanding this moment. So do Morton’s tales of old Vienna and Zoshchenko’s satires of early Soviet Russia. But none of them offer any possible solutions. Possibly because there simply aren’t any: maybe we really are on the brink of a cataclysm that can be postponed but not avoided.
But I haven’t lost faith in the “old order.” I haven’t lost faith in the foundation we’re still standing on.
The music may have stopped, but if we keep dancing to the old familiar tunes that we know by heart, maybe the band will resume playing.
Or maybe the band will be replaced by a firing squad and those on the dance floor will be sitting ducks.
I don’t think it’s too late to turn this thing around, but it’s not going to turn around until people want to turn it around. Unfortunately, as Weiss and Samuels both point out, it doesn’t look like that’s the case right now. Too many people are having too much fun soaking in their outrage, indignation, and contempt, at least in part because the “machine” rewards those things. We couldn’t have built a more insidiously destructive feedback loop if we’d tried.
Speaking of the current purge of Trump specifically and conservatives generally, Weiss says: “That almost every credentialed journalist and liberal public intellectual appears to be cheering on this development because it’s happening to the Bad People is grotesque. They will look like fools much faster than they realize.”
I agree that the cheering is grotesque. I agree those people will most likely be revealed as fools sooner rather than later. But any credentialed journalist or public intellectual cheering on a textbook political purge has either already made their peace with looking like a fool, or simply doesn’t understand what’s going on.
There’s one final point that needs to be made related to all this, and I think it’s an important one.
None of the foregoing should be interpreted to suggest that I don’t believe there are things worth fighting for. There are. And people are always going to disagree on what those things are (obviously, or there’d be nothing to fight over). But there are ways not to fight.
I’ll never stop arguing for individual liberty, rule of law, equality before the law, free enterprise, and freedom of thought, speech, and assembly. And for serial commas and the orderly loading of cutlery into dishwashers, for that matter. I’ll always advocate for my beliefs, but I can do so without having to silence anyone, or unfriend them, or dox them, or disown them, or threaten them, or harass them in public, or physically assault them. I don’t need to get anyone fired, banned, de-platformed, or arrested to make my case.
If you can’t win an argument without doing any of those things, then you’ve already lost.