How did we get to a point where facts gave way to feelings, where reason gave way to instincts? It's a question asked repeatedly over the past two or three years in western politics – and one that accompanies almost every serious discussion of the rise of populism. You cannot understand the nationalist wave of Trump, or Brexit, or Victor Orban in Hungary, or Marine Le Pen in France, runs the logic, without exploring the emotions they ignite.
Populism is defined by what it is against, as much as what it is for, and draws its energy from gathering together disparate groups – the people – in opposition to a common enemy, usually one or other version of "the elite". In the case of right-wing populism, racist anger and resentment is often directed against migrants and ethnic minorities, who are said to be aided by such an elite, making a kind of tag-team of enemies.
Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World
In Nervous States, British academic and writer William Davies draws deeply on a range of political, philosophical, scientific and economic history to understand the tectonic shifts in what Raymond Williams called the "structure of feeling" of our age – how it turned against the technocrats, and in favour of the likes of Trump.
“Hurling more facts at these disturbances” is not an effective riposte, he observes drily in the book’s introduction: we need to look at the causes, not merely treat the symptoms. Davies is approaching a subject that is already being covered extensively, such is the general atmosphere of intellectual panic at developments the journalistic and academic establishment failed to predict, and is grappling to try and parse in real time.
'The capacity to inject pauses'
Part of the problem is the speed at which the status quo ante seems to be unravelling – there is almost a sense of vertigo to the way the media and academia has tried to cover its own bruising by the new populists. Davies implores us that the way to strike back is not with panicked focus on the present, but by taking the long view – and taking it slowly. In London recently, he spoke of the importance of retaining "the capacity to inject pauses, to slow things down" – and in Nervous States, he does so by drawing on history, civil and military, as well as looking to the future, as mapped out by the often wild prophesies and ambitions of the "platform capitalists" in Silicon Valley.
It is intellectually liberating to be reminded that we should strive to think outside the current crisis, especially in the age of Twitter news cycles, and the dystopian sitcom playing out from the White House, where each new scandal seems only to last for a matter of days, before being replaced by the next one.
Social media and emotion-driven politics
The role of social media and internet news in accelerating the rise of emotion-driven politics and a kind of generalised attention deficit disorder is hard to deny. In a perfect encapsulation of that spirit of reckless digital entrepreneurialism, Mark Zuckerberg’s mantra was “move fast and break things”.
Things often felt somewhat broken – or at least meddled with – by Facebook in recent elections in the US and UK.
The company's development of technology for micro-targeted political advertisements is highly controversial, leading some politicians, and newspapers such as The Guardian, to ask whether Facebook has "become a threat to democracy". Such adverts are a concern not just because of the opacity of how they are used – as with the Cambridge Analytica saga, where personal data was obtained and sold without users' knowledge – but because the very micro nature of these adverts makes them hard to monitor, and thereby more liable to resort to wild-eyed propaganda and falsehoods, to sway someone based on what the algorithm says are their most heartfelt concerns.
Many of these persuasive micro-targeted posts were in the form of photo-memes or short videos, which is significant in that, arguably, the image is taking over from the written word in many modern political communications.
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Perhaps there is danger there in that such images present a stronger veneer of truth than words, but are of course highly prone to distortion and manipulation all the same. It is also a consequence of the non-hierarchical way social media allows people to communicate, Davies reminds us: whereas for centuries publishers and newspapers (and later, radio and TV channels) operated a “one to many” form of communication, social media provides a “‘many to many’ style ... in which information moves like a virus through a network, in far more erratic ways”.
The internet may seem culpable for breaking the norms of political campaigning with its frantic, messy and inscrutable clamour of voices. And yet, there is a counter force to the inherently reactive, emotion-driven world of memes and online trolling: witness the thriving status of long-form journalism online. Even as printed matter becomes less popular, so-called deep dive podcast series like the American series Slow Burn or Serial take a subject and explore it at incredible length. The desire for slow thinking survives, even in a scatter-brained world.
Across the disciplines
To help us think more deeply, Davies' book crosses disciplines: delving into the history of the 17th-century Scientific Revolution to explore the relationship between groundbreaking mathematicians working in the new coffee houses in London then, and the ideals of their coding-savvy equivalents in Silicon Valley today. He also looks at how philosophers understood distinctions between mind and body; and at the historic meaning of the balance between war and peace – long the chief determinant of all politics and relations between states, now confusingly blurred and disguised; we live in a world where cyber war is ever-present and drone strikes are carried out by nations who are officially at peace.
Nervous States is full of intriguing citations and sharp observations on how long-standing human desires, tensions and power imbalances manifest themselves in the social media age – for example, that internet trolling is "a civilian form of guerilla warfare, whereby those without any formally recognised power or status use the one power they have, namely of sabotage".
It is refreshing to hear from an expert about the origins of the much-vaunted enlightenment values thought to be under threat today. Certainly, recent history has borne out the increasingly hardened orthodoxy that facts and figures do not win elections – that (as with successful advertising campaigns) it is a story that speaks to someone's emotions that can best cut through the fog of conflicting arguments. When Britain's high-profile Brexit advocate Nigel Farage said in 2014 there were more important things in politics than GDP growth, "he was treated as deluded", Davies says. "Within a couple of years, this was accepted across the political spectrum." These orthodoxies are crumbling everywhere, as politicians who speak to the heart, not the head, continue to upset the odds.
The technocrats of the world would do well to try to understand how that came to be, rather than merely bewailing the consequences.