In the early 1980s, Jean Baudrillard was prattling on, in that mostly incoherent way any decent French postmodernist does, about how humanity would disappear into a loud, stupid, dazzling, lurid, ad-sponsored maze of digital mirrors. Genuine meaning would be obliterated, he insisted, by a multimedia flood of display and hyper-spectacle. People would be mesmerized and narcoticized and mentally pulverized by the play of signals and symbols—simulacra that aren’t real and don’t resemble anything that is. Concrete reality—you know, stuff that exists—would languish, forgotten and disregarded, offscreen and outside.
Baudrillard was above all else a performer and a provocateur. He was a bit of a clown. But perhaps he understood, in line with his view of where things were headed, that under the conditions of modernity only a jester can be a prophet. And sure enough, somewhere along the path we forked into the Baudrillardian future.
In that future, Very Online politicians mistake light shows for “powerful” messages (“#WeStandWithUkraine,” tweets a diplomat, standing a thousand miles away). Self-professed “thought leaders” compare real-world global adversaries to Star Wars characters (“Putin is Emperor Palpatine,” in case you were wondering). Television coverage of air-raid sirens in Kyiv cuts to a jingle for Applebee’s Grill + Bar (“add a liiittle bit of chicken fried . . . some cold beer on a Friiiday night!”). Civilians in Mariupol and Kharkiv and Kyiv are being shelled and shot and crushed by tanks, while far to the west, keystroke samurai wield memes, emojis, disses, and dunks, ever loyal to their master animosities in a great cyber Sengoku period. It’s a shame that Baudrillard, who died in 2007, is not around to see the circus.
Not all of this is new. There are precedents going back at least to the Gulf War (which Baudrillard flamboyantly declared “did not take place”) and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. There have been several conflicts overseas since the rise of social media. This time, however, we seem intent on completing our long journey from the desert of the real to the realm of signs. We have submitted, by slow degrees, to the reign of the flashing pixels, a feast of misrule where nothing is solid or stable. Not even our ideas or ideologies. “What we are living through,” Freddie deBoer observes, “is definitional collapse. Our moment is one in which anything is possible because nothing means anything.”
Baudrillard saw that in the era we now inhabit, “sign value” would displace “use value.” Better to have a hundred-thousand Instagram followers than to know how to fix a toilet or raise a child. But there’s more to it than that. We’re losing touch with truth itself. The internet spreads information, information begets uncertainty, and uncertainty breeds suspicion. “Uncertainty is an acid, corrosive to authority,” writes Martin Gurri. “Once the monopoly on information is lost,” therefore, “so too is our trust.” Ruling classes have understood (and lamented) this dynamic since at least the Reformation. Today, though, the process is accelerating.
Call it liquid modernity. The death of taboo. The culture of inversion. The suicide of the West. It’s hard to pin down, but it’s something to do with the demise of shared myths, the splintering of cultural narratives, the questioning of authority, the denigration of sincerity, and the disappearance of the sacred.
Whatever it is that we’re losing, it’s not coming back. We can’t order it to return. We can’t legislate it back to life. Most of all, the powerful can’t just demand that regular people behave as though it were still there. The cynicism, the nihilism, and the Pepe memes are spreading, and we’re not sure what to do.
And yet: Reality exists, whether we act like it or not. It’s not the virtual carnival. It’s not a game. That dead six-year-old on the screen really is dead. Putin really is a maniacal warlord. Some commentators on the American right really do, at this point, see Putin’s Russia and the “decadent” West as moral equals. Donald Trump really is a massive Putin stan. Following Putin’s lead, Trump really is building a thuggish cult of personality. And Trump really is the favorite to be president of the United States in three years.
That’s the thing about the “end of history”—one of the most misunderstood concepts in our glib, shallow, Twitter-driven discourse. When he coined the phrase near the end of the Cold War, Francis Fukuyama wasn’t promising that we’d live happily ever after. Some people, Fukuyama warned in the neglected final part of his famous book, will always “want to risk their lives in a violent battle, and thereby prove beyond any shadow of a doubt to themselves and to their fellows that they are free.”
What Fukuyama was arguing is that in stumbling upon liberalism, a political theory that stands for civil rights, pluralism, tolerance, accountable leadership, and human dignity, we found a pretty great system of governance, and that we’d do well not to screw it up. We can easily regress, by Fukuyama’s lights, into, say, a system of gang rivalry and warrior aristocracy. What we can’t do is advance to some utopian system that provides what most of us want—peace and prosperity—better than liberal democracy does.
You can accept that modernity is leaving us deracinated, in some vague but palpable way, and that we should begin to fumble toward new stories and rituals, yet still acknowledge how good we have it. Indeed, it’s crucial that we appreciate where we stand.
Across the West, free speech, due process, and the rule of law are alive, if not altogether well. They remain worth fighting for. Let’s feel some gratitude. More than that, let’s revive the tale—most of it true!—of the stunning success of liberalism. Then let’s reject the false equivalences, drawn by liberalism’s disillusioned detractors, between fallible liberal governments and malign authoritarian ones. And let’s not get carried away romanticizing a more coherent, more meaningful past that may not in fact have existed.
We might even put in a word for the internet, which, in its brief existence, has spread immeasurable knowledge, connected billions, and even helped slay a dictator or two.
Thus begins the road back to reality.