Political Virtualism Requires Sacrifice
For a while now, politics has at once been apocalyptic and mundane.
I once heard the following story:
“My friend’s father believes that Obama is a communist who is coming to steal our guns”
“Wow, how has his behavior changed?”
“Well, he’s playing a lot of golf”
This conversation mirrors one I once had – details amended:
“Biden is bringing on the woke totalitarian state”
“How do you spend your time today?
“Playing tennis, Twitter, and the markets”
Another example is the following two ideas some, a former coworker for one, hold in their head:
- Climate change will end the world in 12 years.
- We should help people save for their retirement.
When pushed, most people will drop the apocalyptic tale. The world isn’t ending, but things are getting seriously worse.
What’s remarkable is that the disasters of the world usually have nothing to do with people’s personal lives.
For that reason, we shouldn’t take these kinds of political beliefs literally. We’re not incentivized to get macroeconomic trends, culture wars, or foreign policy correct. Instead, we’re driven to have fun and fit in. So, political beliefs take on a social role. Ordinary microeconomics predicts that people will be objectively irrational about politics. Political beliefs won’t be well reasoned, but they’ll be instrumentally rational. The lack of political reason is a rational response to the incentives we’re given. That’s why people are irrational about politics. It once was quipped,
It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.
For politics today, we may say:
It is difficult to get someone to understand something, when nothing whatsoever depends on understanding it.
This view of politics resembles the philosophy of political virtualism. On this view, political behavior isn’t about reality – instead, it’s about imaginary worlds and experience.
Bruno Maçães describes political virtualism as:
Life in America takes place within constructed fantasies or experiences... Social and political reality does not represent an external reality. It builds imaginary worlds. Reality has been gradually abolished and is now impossible to retrieve, except perhaps through the dangerous exercise of imposing one of these imaginary worlds as inescapable.
As an example, consider social justice activism. Social justice is primarily about experience, symbolism, and acknowledgment. Maçães again:
Racial equality, for example: understood as a political and social principle, it would reach its goal by dropping out of our consciousness. It would become part of the world around us.
Wokeness begins from the realization that there would be some loss in this. If racial equality is a valuable principle, it seems that we should be vividly aware of it. According to the logic of experience, the goal should be intensity, not naturalness.
It’s not enough to achieve equality, one must acknowledge it and become immersed in it. A pleasant example of this is the acknowledgment that kicked off Microsoft Ignite:
Consider the story of the pandemic. It emerged as a catastrophe. But the summer of 2020 brought about the more interesting and captivating story of BLM. Now in 2021, the pandemic, though it’s not over, feels like it’s now at the stage where it only has weekly showings in select theaters. Though a larger rerun effort may kick off soon.
Or consider events of January 6th, 2021. That was not the actions of an uprising proletariat. Instead, they’re a play of streamers, grifters, and conspiracy theorists, most of whom got too carried away. It was dangerous and embarrassing. It was as unorganized as an Occupy protest.
When our cases above speak of the communist state, woke totalitarianism, or the climate apocalypse, they’re living particular stories. These stories are amplified in the virtual world via social networks. They spread, take on a life on their own. Their omnipresence provides a backdrop on which the politically immersed can make sense of their lives.
Not everyone relates to politics in this way.
Virtualism emerges in a relatively affluent world, with sufficient leisure time, where an individual’s political decisions do not shape political reality.
In other words, places like America today.
Virtualism is enhanced through technology. At first, newspapers brought descriptions of the world to our doorsteps. The radio carried voices to share information. Television brought images of reality into our homes. The relative monopoly on these services initially caused them to be shaped by the dominant elite and political interests.
With economic growth and technological progress, media forms forking paths. Politics becomes a matter of choosing one’s own adventure. It’s a fictional and social enterprise. By tuning the channels of one’s personal media stream, one changes the story of one’s life.
Virtualism is peaceful.
As a theory, it predicts that violence will largely fall. Which is what we’ve seen.
Stories about violence, political war, and social punishment act as substitutes against physical violence.
In a way, virtualism solves the problem of making a home for exclusive ideologies. How can the conflicting religious Christian and atheist liberal live in the same state when their diet, entertainment, lifestyles, and values are in direct opposition? Let them live out their idealogy in their own world. Fill it with the necessary villains. But push everything toward the symbolic and away from the material.
Bruno Maçães links religion in particular to television and entertainment in History Has Begun:
On television there are commercials, promos for popular shows, there are all the other shows one flick of the switch away, so that the main message of the screen itself is a continual promise of entertainment. Religion makes life more interesting, and most Americans, I think, turn to it in that spirit.
The conservative Christians, now a threatened species, do not need to instantiate an American theocracy. Instead, they can simulate the experience of being strangers in their own countries. Of pursuing the good life against their political enemies. Even though they only interact with political enemies through the highways of the internet and television. It’s usually a passive interaction.
As additional evidence of this picture, consider how violence has fallen in states like America. Not just ordinary criminal violence, but the violence of protests and riots. The Black Lives Matter riots were tame in comparison with the LA riots of 1992 where 1,100 builds were burnt and 64 people died. Physical politics exists today, but perhaps not as much.
Yet even though these worlds are virtual, they require substrates. The Stories cannot be completely imaginary.
Coronavirus is real. Black lives matter began with a death and continued with violence from rioters and police. The narrative of climate apocalypse is in one sense overrated, the chance of existential catastrophe over the next one hundred years is low. But even low chances of existential catastrophe are too high. Most people waddling through the white house on January 6th were LARPing, but it doesn’t take much for a mob of LARPers to mutate into violence. This justifies the fear at the event.
Myths require contact with reality for legitimacy. Narratives require sacrifice.
There is no risk of a woke totalitarian state. But there are enough egregious cases of illiberal cancellation to feed the story. Institutions are drifting left.
The state is not communist. But there are enough similarities to feed a storyline. And enough storylines to nourish an identity.
The world will not end in ten years due to climate change. But extreme change over the next century is far too risky. That alone can spur panic.
And on and on. These beliefs, and their believers, have mostly limited contact with the real world. But not none.
Some of these political stories are even true, most of them are not – at least as descriptions of reality. Yet even these possess shreds of truth. That lends legitimacy to the possibility of myth becoming a metaphysical reality. Indeed, it’s all that is needed to make it a virtual reality.
Without incentives constraining stories, political spheres, and bubbles ideological theme parks will continue to proliferate.
But as long as they stay in the virtual world and the amount of required sacrifice decreases, this is good news. If that comes with a looser grip on reality, well, that’s the bad news.