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Biden: neither friend nor foe to big tech

Obama’s presidency was paradise for big tech. After that, Trump was a gift from the gods, tax-wise, but caused some rocky and restless years in Silicon Valley nonetheless. Biden will partly restore peace in the Valley, but we shouldn’t expect a return to the heyday of the Obama administration. During Biden’s first term, we will see a relationship with big tech that is less than clear-cut in terms of amity or enmity. Big tech and Biden need each other and don’t appear to want to make life difficult for each other, but the tension between big tech and society and Silicon Valley and Europe won’t be easily resolved.

Our observations

  • For tech companies, there will be a large contrast between Trump’s fiscal policy and that of his successor Biden. Trump’s tax reforms were a present to big tech, which was able to withdraw money from abroad at low cost and drive up its own share price by buying back shares with this money. Biden wants to tax large companies more heavily by raising corporate taxes to 28%. In addition, he may want to make it more difficult to deposit money on offshore accounts untaxed or to transfer it to tax havens.
  • As a consequence of Trump’s immigration policy, tech companies struggled to attract foreign talent. Biden is a proponent of a friendlier immigration policy and has promised that, during his presidency, it will become easier to apply for a permanent visa again.
  • Under Biden, we can also expect a reintroduction of net neutrality. He has repeatedly expressed approval of net neutrality, which was instated by Obama but subsequently repealed by Trump. Without net neutrality, telecom providers are able to discriminate between content providers and slow down access to certain websites or platforms or charge differentiated fees.
  • Trump and Biden are different in many respects but both of them want big tech to take more responsibility for content moderation. The debate centers around Section 230. In the early years of the internet, Section 230 was devised to give digital platforms legal immunity regarding the content posted on the platform. The law is widely criticized now, though it’s helpful to understand it in the context of the rise of the internet as a free public space.
  • The left flanks of the Democrats have long advocated the forced sale of business units to tackle market concentration and big tech monopolies. Biden is less eager to break up tech companies and has indicated that it’s still too early to discuss this.

Connecting the dots

During the Obama presidency, big tech companies were given a free hand regarding growth and the president frequently sang the sector’s praises. Obama was (too) friendly with big tech. Under Trump, things became a bit more ambivalent, leaning towards hostility. Trump often expressed criticism of tech platforms. Moreover, he became the key player and catalyst in the societal problems that currently characterize the industry (e.g. misinformation, polarization, foreign interference, etc.). At the same time, it’s mostly tech companies who seem to have reaped the benefits of Trump’s fiscal policy (e.g. cheap repatriation of foreign cash and lower taxes). Societal criticism became immensely widespread, but the share price rose with it. With Biden, we’re starting a new chapter that’s more difficult to define in terms of amity or enmity towards big tech. The consensus is (see observations) that Biden will implement stricter regulation of big tech and higher taxes, so it would appear as though there’s some hostility. But in other respects, Biden and big tech are completely on the same page and mutually dependent.

First, to expect that big tech has some rough years ahead because of the extra regulation would be misguided.  After all the (internal) unrest and increasing societal criticism, more regulation, even if it affects companies’ profitability, may even be desirable within the sector. The fact that big tech, despite Biden’s campaign promises of fiscal reform, made prodigious donations to the Biden campaign, supports this theory. Moreover, Biden and Harris have close ties with the tech sector, so there might be an assumption that in (a divided) Congress, the lobby will have enough room to water down propositions. And perhaps regulation might benefit big tech anyway: the GDPR is widely held to serve the big players, who are far better able than their smaller competitors to build the necessary infrastructure. For smaller companies, this is likely to be very expensive and time-consuming.

Big tech welcomes Biden but the reverse is true as well. Among other things, Biden plans to rejoin the Paris climate deal and seems to be of a mind to revive multilateral institutions. But in other domains, he will want to continue Trump’s protectionism and protect big tech. Commentators all agree that stricter regulation of big tech will play into the hands of Chinese competitors, and this will certainly be taken into consideration by the Biden administration. It looks like Biden is aiming for a softer, more differentiated version of Trump’s America First policy, so the trade-off between protective industry policy and restrictive competition policy could work in big tech’s favor.

There is, then, enough amity and/or mutual dependence in the relationship between big tech and Biden, but under the surface, hostility and tension remain. Breaking up big tech is one of the most radical plans of the Democrats and was a spearhead in the campaign of other candidates, such as Elizabeth Warren. Because Biden has never made any such extreme statements and there was no “blue wave”, this plan doesn’t seem to be a priority. Nonetheless, CEOs will not rest easily after their recent hearings with the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee. In a lengthy report, the latter considers the monopolies or market forces of big tech proven and urges the forced sale of business units or subsidiaries. It will be difficult to get this through Congress, but the battle for the Senate is not over yet, as a new voting round in Georgia will decide who gets the last two seats in the Senate. It should be noted here that not all big tech companies are the same. Especially Mark Zuckerberg will have sleepless nights, because Biden and his tweeting deputy communications director seem to have set their sights on Facebook in particular.

Ultimately, we shouldn’t set too much store by Biden’s current intentions and campaign promises and stay attuned to what happens societally and ideologically. Societally, in his close-to-victory speech, Biden presented himself to the world as the president of reconciliation. But in the unfortunate case that the power concentration, misinformation, polarization and societal tensions in the digital realm continue to increase, so will the pressure to act on this. Finally, we are in the midst of an ideological reappraisal of the internet itself. Among academics, politicians, organizations and platforms, there’s a growing push for an overhaul of the digital economy, with the foundation of a decentral and open infrastructure of the internet. At its core, this ideology criticizes the way tech companies have been able to privatize the open space of the internet in the past decades and seeks technological alternatives. The strength of this new ideology could have more severe consequences for the revenue model of big tech than Biden’s policy.

At this point, it’s not easy to draw any straightforward conclusion about the consequences of Biden’s first term for big tech. Despite stricter regulation, big tech seems to be headed for a period of amity under Biden, but with subterranean long-term insecurities that could result in some heavy blows for companies.

Implications

  • Compared to Trump, Biden will undoubtedly be more eager to cooperate with Europe, but this doesn’t pertain to tech policy. In this regard, the EU and U.S. have drifted apart in the past years, among other issues because of privacy and data regulation, and Biden apparently doesn’t intend to change much about that.

  • In addition, though at first glance Biden seems tougher on big tech fiscally and appears to comply with Europe’s desire to tax American tech companies more fairly abroad, when we look closely, it’s clear that he plans to give big tech free rein in certain fiscal areas to remain a strong competitor of foreign counterparts. European countries, for instance, have been pressing for years for a tax on digital services that would affect mainly American tech companies, but Biden – like his predecessors – isn’t likely to respond to this call. Biden, it seems, wants to limit the power of big tech somewhat, without inordinately weakening Silicon Valley economically.

  • Nevertheless, there is still agreement and room for mutual inspiration. Europe is able to indirectly exert influence with its own tech policy. The European model of internet and the local legislation that’s derived from it could inspire other democratic countries (e.g. GDPR, Digital Services Act, etc.), including the U.S. In 2018 the GDPR, for example, led to similar privacy legislation in California, which, in one fell swoop, gave forty million Americans the right to request their data, correct it if necessary and prohibit its sale to third parties.

The future of Trumpism

After four years, it seems Donald Trump will be leaving the White House. But his influence on American politics and society will remain undiminished, even after his electoral defeat. When we distinguish between Donald Trump as a person and reflect on “Trumpism” as a movement, a number of important sociocultural developments and tensions come to light.

Our observations

  • Trump was invaluable to the memeconomy with his utterances, facial expressions, narcissistic personality, and the occasional mysterious post. Memes played an important part in the Trump campaigns of both 2016 and 2020, and Trump was even proclaimed “meme God” for proving that the power of memes is real.
  • In the nearly four years of Trump’s presidency, many structural wrongs have come to light and specific interest groups have explicitly spoken out on behalf of their cause. Examples are #MeToo, since October 2017 (sexual abuse), Extinction Rebellion and Friday for Future (climate change), both initiated in 2018, Black Lives Matter (racial inequality) since 2018 and gaining growing support, feminist groups against “toxic masculinity” (gender equality), but also conspiracy theorists such as QAnon and increasingly popular militias and anti-government groups such as Proud Boys and Boogaloo, and the Oath Keepers and American Contingency.
  • Our values, norms and customs, traditions and historical consciousness, as well as our technology are changing increasingly fast because of the information revolution and digitalization. On the one hand, this has given our modern societies and economies more cultural freedom than ever before, but on the other, the relatively stable sociocultural equilibrium of our society is disrupted by it. On a societal level, this results in movements that resist this (e.g. populism, escapism), while on a phenomenological level, more and more people suffer from psychological problems, because the natural “rhythm” of their experience of reality is disrupted. This manifests itself in an altered “structure of feeling” characteristic of our time, which is expressed, for example, in new forms of art and the cultural evolution of film genres (e.g. horror or humor), video games and
  • Lawrence Grossberg opens his recent book Under the Cover of Chaos (2019) with “The most obvious and pervasive feature of Trump’s highly visible and almost entertaining … if also terrifying performance, is the normalization of a frenetic chaos and hyperactivism” (p.3). The consequence of this, according to Grossberg, is that support for anti-reactionary (i.e. the New Right) groups with an authoritarian, conservative agenda, is growing amidst this chaos and confusion. In the past years, there have been more books of this kind that posit that Trump actively creates chaos and disorder around him, such as with his daily working method regarding political files, his staff choices at the State Department, the strategic deployment of fake news and misinformation, and the history of his own business empire.
  • Three years ago, we wrote about the historical repetition of periods of “crisis” and that we’re in the midst of a twenty-year crisis period that began with the financial crisis of 2007 and would change into a wider socio-political crisis in the coming years. The book The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy – What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny (1997) by William Strauss and Neil Howe shows that the history of the U.S. knows several periods of crisis in which social and political systems were criticized, followed by a “high” period of growing trust in public institutions and a feeling of collective consciousness and recognition of the value of societal goals. In a recent book, George Friedman writes that the U.S. will experience both a transition of the socio-economic as well as the institutional cycle in the coming decade. The title of the book is The Storm Before the Calm: America’s Discord, the Coming Crisis of the 2020s, and the Triumph Beyond (2020), because the transition from such a cycle to another is always accompanied by enormous social and political disruption, followed by a new period of stability.

Connecting the dots

In the coming months, Donald Trump will be leaving the White House (or not?) and it appears as though the U.S. will change direction under Joe Biden. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen whether and if so, how, the U.S. will rid itself of Trump’s legacy. Because when we set aside the person Donald Trump and reflect on the underlying Trumpism, if we consider Donald Trump a junction at which underlying trends meet that form the Trumpian paradigm, we are better able to see the fundamental forcefield that led to the rise of Trump. Here, we reflect on the sociocultural domain so as to better understand what Trumpism represents.

First, Trumpism definitively ushered in a post-truth era. From the perspective of cultural history, we’ve seen strong criticism since the 1960s of the idea of an objective, universal truth, as propagated by modern philosophy with an emphasis on deconstruction, perspectivism and relativism. Trumpism builds on this by giving this epistemological transition a concrete, political reality. On the one hand, this is happening because Trumpism effectively uses new modes of expression and epistemic strategies made possible by the internet and social media, such as fake news, filter bubbles, zone flooding and information overload. Due to fragmentation, our shared, collective reality with set standards is increasingly declining, and it’s becoming less and less clear how to act in it, what we should believe and how to position ourselves, though the number of perspectives on this has multiplied. As a consequence, a lot of people have become more critical of the process of arriving at the truth and acquiring knowledge, and the postmodern, critical mind has now become a social and political reality and the previously purely theoretical epistemological issues have gained societal relevance since the sixties.

On the other hand, Trumpism is also part of the ocular democracy of the past years that is facilitated by social media, where the performance or “spectacle” is deemed more important than the substance of whatever claim is made. Trump himself is a showman, who cares more about his own performance than the truth of his claims and has caused the fragmentation of truth to now also be a societal and political phenomenon. But in addition to undermining the modern idea of truth with postmodern irony and deconstruction, Trumpism also brings a new perspective on knowledge and our experience of the truth: Trumpism can be understood as a complex, metamodern phenomenon. We’ve written before that this applies to the coronavirus as well: the coronavirus is a complex phenomenon that we can understand and view from different perspectives, analyses and solutions have a high degree of moral ambivalence, and it’s a constitutive element of the Earth or the world population as a superorganism because all means and attention are directed towards it. This also applies to Trumpism: the rise and attraction of Trumpism should be understood from different perspectives (e.g. economy, media, geopolitics), debates concerning Trumpism inspire spirited moral discussions, and, far more so than with other American presidents, everyone has an opinion about Trump and what he stands for. So, underneath Trumpism, we see the tension between ideology and irony, and with that, the tension between modernism and postmodernism in political manifestation. That’s why “authenticity” is such an important value of Trumpism, meaning that politicians should be concerned with concrete problems people have, so as not to become alienated from citizens, and leaders should embody and convey a truly experienced sense of life.

But what is this sense of life? We’ve now known for more than a hundred years that God is dead, but we’re still burdened by a nihilistic base mood and there are no Grand Narratives anymore. Trumpism is the nihilistic wrecking ball or “sledgehammer” pur sang, killing all sacred cows and challenging everyone and everything. With this, it also activates all interest groups to participate and raise their voice in the societal debate: from sustainability advocates to those that address structural wrongs to groups previously living on the fringe of society. This is how Trump facilitates an enormous memeplex of groups with certain narratives in search of meaning and recognition of their ideas and interests. It’s no coincidence then, that Black Lives Matter, climate movements, feminist groups, but also the far-left and far-right have reared their heads in the past four years under Trump. Precisely because Trump has such aggressive and provoking methods, everyone is forced to relate to this somehow, which brings up for discussion more and more social and cultural themes. Now that this critical societal genie is out of the bottle, it won’t be easy to put it back. This begs the important question how we can still organize a substantial, societal discourse in which we seek common ground.

Finally, Trumpism also represents a forcefield that feeds and thrives on chaos and disruption. On the one hand, this is a reaction to the disruptive impact of globalization and digitalization on our daily lives and societies. In a state of flux and immense transition, it’s appealing to resort to the familiar (e.g. Trump’s nostalgic Make America Great Again) as well as cling to strong, authoritarian leaders in these times of great change. On the other hand, Trumpism in fact responds to this by actively propagating and exacerbating chaos and confusion. We’ve written before that in our late-modern society, there’s a deep, latent desire for collapse. This stems from the belief that the current social, economic and political systems are so stuck or corrupt that it’s better if they perish entirely than for us to improve them incrementally. This makes Trumpism a manifestation of accelerationism, that would have us accelerate societal, economic and technological changes to ensure creative social destruction. This theme has always played a role in American history, as the work of Friedman and that of Strauss and Howe shows.

In the context of these four trends, Trumpism is the necessary negative force that wants to alert us to the shortcomings and structural flaws of social and cultural systems but is unable to formulate an answer to this itself. At the same time, completely ignoring Trumpism is not the answer either, neither is concealing, outlawing or criticizing it as a whole. In the ongoing dialectic of historical and cultural development, new paradigms and solutions will therefore relate positively to it. Only when the positive aspects of Trumpism are erased (e.g. cultivating a critical mind regarding knowledge and truth, complexity thinking, the search for authenticity in the midst of accelerating and systemic change) can a robust and politically innovative socio-cultural narrative for the future be formulated.

Implications

  • In this note, we focus on the sociocultural domain of Trumpism, but there are other domains where Trumpism has arisen as a coherent paradigm. Geopolitically, Trumpism represents a retreating movement of countries from the world, with a stronger emphasis on national and global interests. In Trump’s own words: “The future does not belong to globalists. The future belongs to patriots”. Trumpism is therefore compatible with a shifting world order and new hegemonic cycle, and facilitates international “communicative action”, with which other, non-Western countries can highlight their own “narratives” (e.g. political-economic ideas, ideas about ethics, nature and being human).

  • Economically, since the financial crisis of 2008, we’ve been seeing fewer signs of the process of globalization. Trump both accelerates the process of de-globalization, with his protectionist measures and the trade war with China, for instance, but he also represents a new phase in the continuous historical evolution of globalization in which geopolitical, demographic and economic relations can change to such an extent that countries can no longer determine the rules of play of globalization and international economy. Trumpism is thus also a form of selfishness, as countries no longer seek win-win situations, but view the world as a Hobbesian state of nature with a zero-sum battle of all against all.

Carbon border tax

What do semiconductors and artificial intelligence have in common? Both have great impact on the economy as well as national security. Historically, such “strategic technologies” trigger a predictable pattern of politics, as shown by Jade Leung. The pattern pertains to the role of the state, firms and researchers, whose roles change in each phase of technological development. During the first phase of emergence, there is primarily synergy between them as the state supports its firms.

However, in the second phase of commercialization, fearful images arise as the impact on security gains more attention, and in the third phase of maturation, a big shift occurs as the state attempts to take back control to prevent foreign actors from gaining access to its strategic technology. We have seen this happening in the semiconductor industry and it is likely to happen in AI as well. Part of the pattern is that some firms will cooperate with the state (e.g. Palantir), whereas others publicly distance themselves from the state (e.g. Google). Overall, the politics of strategic technology will shape the future of semiconductors and AI.

Trump is making opposition media great (the platform becomes the bubble)

On November 5th, CNN interrupted a speech by President Trump because he was making unfounded claims about electoral fraud. Twitter and Facebook have also repeatedly labeled statements by Trump as misinformation. Moreover, Twitter has announced that it will not grant him anymore special treatment when he is no longer president and will delete his account if necessary. Supporters of Trump and his ideas have long sought alternative news sources and platforms where they can freely express their views.

When Trump began retweeting Newsmax, a conservative American news and opinion website that refuses to acknowledge Biden winner of the elections, it saw its visitor numbers soar (from an average 500,000 to 7.3 million a week). Conservative Twitter alternative Parler is currently even the most downloaded app in the U.S. Trump may start his own media outlet, but in any case, his departure from the White House will considerably boost these existing “opposition media”. Slowly but surely, completely separate universes will arise, even more so than now, with different groups each inhabiting their own platforms.

The not-so United States of America

Short Insight written by Pim Korsten
October 7, 2020

In the run-up to the U.S. elections, a lot of attention is paid to partisan, generational, ethnic and socio-economic dividing lines. These differences, however, are transcended by the various American “nations” with their distinct geography and economic systems and unique history and culture. For example, the East and West Coast share a “Yankee” mentality of individualism, combined with belief in reform and social engineering by the state. In Yankeedom and the Left Coast, support for egalitarian and liberal policies is highest.

Washington, around Tidewater, on the other hand, was founded by English gentry who created an aristocratic and very unequal society. The central regions of Greater Appalachia and the Midlands were founded by Irish and Scots with a fierce warrior ethic. These nations have suffered from deindustrialization, and still support Trump against Yankee domination, while also opposing southern nations they see as “El Norte”. Within these southern nations, large differences also loom, such as the difference between Texas and California, which hold different views about the future of the U.S. In fact, the United States might be even less united than we think.

Who do we trust in the stack war?

Short Insight written by Arief Hühn
October 7, 2020

After threats from Trump to ban TikTok on security grounds, Oracle, Walmart and TikTok’s mother company Bytedance have proposed a deal in which the U.S. will have a 20% stake in TikTok Global. Furthermore, Oracle will host the service for the U.S. as a ‘trusted technology provider’, in order to guarantee the safety of U.S. citizens’ data. However, the deal will not involve the transfer of the service’s algorithms.

The fight over services and underlying algorithms and user data seems to be a progression of the tech war that mostly has been focusing on lower layers of the stack, whether it be rare-earth metals, hard infrastructure (Huawei) or soft infrastructure (new IP). Even though the deal still has to be approved by the U.S. and China, we can already expect that the dependency on trusted providers and tech could become a future template for popular services that aim to operate across adversarial national stacks. In fact, Apple and Amazon are already subjected to a similar treatment for their services in China.

American soft power is under pressure

Written by Sjoerd Bakker, september 9 2020

The American Dream is showing severe cracks and the U.S. has long ceased to be the country the rest of the world looks up to. The increasing unrest in the United States will inevitably lead to a loss of American soft power. As a result, U.S. hegemony is becoming more dependent on military and economic power display. The Trump presidency seems to be largely responsible for this loss of soft power and a reelection of Trump could have serious consequences for the U.S.’ place in the world order.

Our observations

  • A soft power index from early this year (pre-corona, pre-George Floyd) still put the U.S. in first place, but also indicated that this was mostly owing to the entertainment industry, sports and science and that matters such as (failing) public administration, reliability and international cooperation (on which the U.S. ranks 44th worldwide) are in fact weakening American soft power.
  • Historically, Hollywood and the American music industry have always contributed to American soft power. At the same time, American (pop) culture also expresses frequent criticism of the state of the nation and this denunciation seems to be growing more forceful and more widely shared, e.g. in films such as The Florida Project, American Honey and series like House of Cards. Movies that disparage the American Dream and the utopian image of the suburbs have been around for some time; consider American Beauty (1999) and Blue Velvet (1986).
  • Asian countries now also successfully wield soft power worldwide through their cultural sector. We’ve written before about the role of (Korean) K-Pop and the Chinese TikTok. Moreover, Hollywood is no longer able to make movies solely from an American point of view, simply because it has become too economically dependent on the Chinese market (and censorship).
  • Fukuyama’s thesis of the end of history contained (implicitly at least) the thought that deep down, there is an “American” in each world citizen, who would prefer to live in a democratic, free and economically liberal society. Presently it’s becoming clear that this prototypical American doesn’t exist and that there is a lot of discontent among Americans.
  • The current degree of polarization and corresponding political rhetoric in the U.S. are not associated with a modern and civilized democracy. A president who publicly refers to a conspiracy theory such as the Deep State or congressmen adhering to a conspiracy theory of the likes of QAnon further degrade the country’s reputation.
  • The Black Lives Matter protests, and the responses to them, have painfully revealed how divided America still is. Moreover, the footage of riots and the strongly militarized police forces don’t give the appearance of a civilized state, but rather of an authoritarian-led developing country.

Connecting the dots

Countries’ soft power consists of their ability to persuade or entice other countries to follow a certain course. This as opposed to “hard power”: military and economic means of exerting pressure. In most cases, the degree of soft power is determined by the question to what extent a country is perceived as alluring; act as we do, and experience the same freedom and prosperity.

*Besides this, there is a more explicitly moral aspect; act as we do, and you will be doing what’s Right. The U.S.’ soft power of roughly the past century coincided with its military and economic hard power and was largely generated by the globally visible, often predominant, American (pop) culture that reflected the American consumer lifestyle and “way of life”. Additionally, American brands such as Coca-Cola and Nike, and later big tech corporations and platforms like Apple, have always been important vectors of soft power. Alongside sporting achievements (Team USA), they comprised the most important building blocks of the American Dream; the country where everyone has equal opportunity to become successful and happy.

Today, the rest of the world has gained more insight into the less pleasant aspects of American society. This has gone hand in hand with the decline of American soft power, which rapidly accelerated with the election of Trump, and especially with his battle against Obamacare and his inadequate handling of the coronavirus crisis (and before that, of the hurricane in Puerto Rico).

In addition, and most importantly at present, the world is witnessing the collapse of American society along racial, economic and ideological dividing lines. The antagonizing language of both political camps and the footage of American cities are strengthening this image. Where the anti-racism protests (and earlier, the #metoo protests) are concerned, this could also be explained as a positive step, and “enhancement” of the American project. From its founding on, the U.S. has always presented itself as an “unfinished project”. In that sense, the Black Lives Matter movement could also positively affect the international reputation of America (“the country is working towards equality for all its citizens”). In practice, however, it seems closer to the truth that the BLM movement is showing the world how much structural inequality there still is in society, something we don’t associate with a highly developed and “civilized” country. After all, Fukuyama also posited that equality and freedom are the most important qualities of “post-historic” countries; values that America formally appears to uphold but fails to put into practice.

The decline of American soft power cannot be separated from the relative loss of military and (based on the dominant dollar) economic power since the nineties. First, this loss of hard power means that the rest of the world looks up to America less and the country is losing some of its natural appeal (“when you win, you have friends”). Second, the division in American society can also be understood to derive from the loss of American dominance and, linked to that, a loss of self-confidence. Since the 9/11 attacks and the ensuing protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of course the rise of China, the average American doesn’t feel as if they’re living in an unassailable country anymore. The idea of “American decline” has thus become more widespread and forms, along with considerable socioeconomic inequality, a breeding ground for (right-wing and left-wing) populism and is causing a high degree of polarization and societal unrest. The fierce counterreaction of part of (white, male) America to the BLM movement (and before that, to #metoo) could possibly also be understood from this loss of American self-confidence; both abroad and within the U.S., the old image of America is under pressure and people feel as if their culture and values have become unimportant (or even banned in the perceived “cancel culture”). It seems in President Trump’s best interest to stir up these tensions, and to deepen the fear and uncertainty among his voters. Although this might increase his chances of being reelected, it won’t help the U.S. to once again become a paragon to the rest of the world.

Implications

  • The (relative) waning of American soft power is enabling the worldwide emergence of other ideas about the Good Life, citizenship, public administration and international relations. Europe now has the opportunity to take on moral leadership, but there will also be more room for “the Chinese story” and Chinese ideas about democracy.

  • A victory for Biden would likely benefit the U.S.’ reputation in the liberal and multilateral world order and may lead to less domestic unrest due to Biden’s more conciliatory tone. However, it will not change the fact that American society is under pressure and “culture wars” between progressive and conservative Americans will endure.

  • In a world where multiple nuclear powers compete, but “mutually assured destruction” makes armed conflict unlikely, the U.S. will have to continue to actively advertise the American Dream. To do this credibly, enormous domestic investments may be necessary to reinforce the social-moral infrastructure and make the U.S. alluring to other countries again. It can also be expected that the entertainment industry and big tech will be heavily involved in such a project.

The long hegemony of currency

Written by Alexander van Wijnen, september 9 2020

What happened?

As the U.S. dollar has fallen to a two-year low against the euro, there is more and more speculation about the future of the dollar as the global reserve currency. Currently, the discussion is largely based on financial and economic calculations. However, when taking a historical perspective, a clearer picture emerges. The history of hegemony points to the likely future dominance of the U.S. dollar, but leaves room for the emergence of alternative financial ecosystems.

What does this mean?

Financial dominance is the final phase of hegemony, but it lasts for decades. By comparing several elements of hegemony (e.g. military, trade, innovation), Ray Dalio has shown that the power of the global reserve currency is something that outlasts all the other elements of hegemony by a multitude of decades. We have also noted how the Hegemonic Cycle has repeatedly shifted from a phase of “material expansion” to a phase of “financial expansion” of the global economy. Hegemony ends when the hegemonic currency loses its status as the global reserve currency, but such a shift takes a very long time.

What’s next?

Although the dollar is highly likely to remain the global reserve currency for the foreseeable future, other countries, led by China, will build an alternative financial ecosystem. For instance, China’s alternative to SWIFT (the dominant interbank system controlled by the U.S.) is gaining significant momentum. Meanwhile, Chinese financial ecosystems are going global by spreading across Asia and Africa and the Chinese central bank is experimenting with a digital currency. In the long-term, the emerging Chinese financial ecosystem may undermine the position of the dollar in global trade and flows.

QAnon and knowledge

QAnon is a well-known conspiracy theory. It’s also a phenomenon of an era beyond the era of post-truth, in which we uphold the value of truth we are not able to obtain anymore: an era in which there is no truth. More and more people adhere to QAnon, but how should we understand this as a sociopolitical phenomenon?

Our observations

  • QAnon first appeared in October 2017 on 4chan, an online forum popular among alt-right and far-right adherents (it later moved to 8kun, a similar website that used to be called 8chan). The identity of the founder is unknown – all messages on 4chan are anonymous – but this person, who calls himself “Q Clearance Patriot” or just “Q”, claims to be a high-ranking official in the Trump administration with information about a conspiracy to overthrow the president originating from deep within the state. Since October 2017, the anonymous person or group known as “Q” is responsible for 4,600 posts, or “Q drops” indicating that the world, but especially the U.S., is controlled by a “deep state” that Trump is attempting to fight.
  • QAnon originated in a discussion on several platforms on social media and has become something of an “omnispiracy”, encompassing different conspiracy theories. The problem is that its belief systems are intertwined systems of different beliefs that are codependent, so that the many conspiracy theories and beliefs within QAnon can mutually reinforce each other, which is how others can be persuaded to accept new beliefs. As such, QAnon offers an integrated whole of correlated conspiracy theories and “fake news” notions. To deal with QAnon, the whole information ecosystem should be dealt with. Otherwise, any solution will remain local and QAnon will keep cropping up. This could be done by attacking the distribution system of misinformation by informing users about manipulation and fake news, combating echo chambers and tunnels for algorithmic recommendations and actively highlighting contradictions and opposing perspectives, and breaking trust in conspiracy theorists and theories by demonstrating how wrong they are.
  • Though it’s unclear whether QAnon has attracted more adherents than other conspiracy theories, the difference is that with QAnon, those in power spread the theory and thus confirm that its adherents aren’t crazy or outlaws. The community formed by QAnon has helped it to linger longer than other conspiracy theories, while the community works together to ascertain the real truth. Moreover, it plays into the desire for apocalypse and the complete collapse of society and its institutions. At the moment, there are over 35 politicians in the American Congress that have in some form or other proclaimed themselves adherents of QAnon.

Connecting the dots

For a number of years, especially since the election of Trump, we’ve had to deal with fake news. This is, however, only a phase we’ll have to go through. We’ve always relied on certain authorities that brought us truth, such as religious leaders, politicians or other persons whose knowledge we took as gospel. This led to a concentration of power, which also resulted in corruption or tunnel vision (whether consciously or subconsciously). QAnon has emerged from this and shows us a glimpse of the dynamic between media and a “post-truth” era. How can we now understand the rise of QAnon as an exponent of this?

First of all, digital technology now gives people the means to investigate for themselves and to share their insights at low cost and high scalability. This is visible in the stories and decodings of Q drops. Furthermore, the filter bubbles and echo chambers of digital media provide people who have extreme ideas with a platform and the means to broadcast their ideas. As such, QAnon and its narrative belong to the postmodern condition of deconstruction, debunking and false consciousness. Think, for example, of the critical theory of Marx, Nietzsche and Freud – the “masters of suspicion”, according to Ricœur – and this discourse is where QAnon fits in, with its alleged criticism of elites and the technocratic system (i.e. the deep state). QAnon thus appeals to a group that suffers existentially-economically, feels wronged by the leading elite and political systems, and therefore criticize these powers, which takes the form of accusations of corruption or running illustrious networks and systems (e.g. a pedophilia ring).

We’re also living in a time of latent desire for apocalypse and collapse: a preference for chaos in the system over the maintaining of the status quo. That is also the proud message of QAnon’s Awakening and Calm before the storm. Furthermore, QAnon is a meta-conspiracy theory, feeding into all kinds of anti-government sentiment and aversion to centralization of power. This matches the libertarian, anarchist movements in American culture. Corona has had a radicalizing effect on all this anti-government sentiment. Lastly, QAnon is mobilizing the strength of anonymous movements without a leader (e.g. Anonymous and Guy Fawkes, Bitcoin by Nakamoto).

But we shouldn’t just dismiss QAnon as an unnecessary conspiracy theory that wants to criticize, or as an absurd religion. In a broader sense, we’re living in systems in which we mainly take for granted knowledge and convictions handed down to us, or which we’re unable to verify. This isn’t necessarily a problem, as long as we have faith in these systems, instruments and knowledge production. Not every person has to verify for herself whether the earth is in fact round, and we don’t have to continuously engage in philosophical reflection on the knowledge instruments of a hospital to assess a form of treatment. And that means that we’re living in a time of “conspiracy” of interrelated propositions and intertwined ways of knowledge production. And it isn’t just in periods of great change and internal criticism that conditions for truth become apparent and clear. That makes QAnon a metamodern phenomenon; it constructs a narrative with an entire meta-narrative and idea of the Good Life, the political system and truth. At the same time, it’s an undesirable outgrowth, because it’s not committed to the epistemological conditions of falsifiable and coherent theory. Metamodernism is specifically supposed to guard us against that.

Implications

  • Effectively combating QAnon requires a broader view of our “ecology of knowledge production”, in which we include more aspects than a merely theoretical-discursive approach to knowledge production would (i.e. knowledge production as the formulation of true propositions and convictions). An increasing amount of research focuses on the way truth and our beliefs come into existence (e.g. the importance of feelings, the broader knowledge system of propositions and mutual coherence between them, or the way digital media manipulate our rational capacities).

  • Besides the strong focus on how knowledge arises “in ourselves”, we must take a broader view and consider the structural factors that contribute to the belief in conspiracy theories. We’ve written before about the significant demographic and political variables that influence the belief in conspiracy theories. But we should also reflect on the way we achieve ignorance instead of knowledge. The study of “agnotology”, the construction of ignorance and its manifestations, can also be helpful in understanding how conspiracy theories play into this.

Trump faces opposition from his own party for upcoming election

What happened?

The Trump campaign for the 2020 presidential election has not started yet, as we recently explained. However, campaigning against Trump already began months ago. Many forces are trying to keep Trump from winning the elections in 2020, but one of the most striking attempts to do so stem from representatives of the Republican Party itself. Examples are the Republican Voters Against Trump and The Lincoln Project, which were both founded with the explicit goal of preventing the reelection of Donald Trump. Founders of the Lincoln project even ran successful campaigns for Republican candidates before (like Bush senior and junior). The Lincoln Project has created a set of ads that have had a large number of views on social media (its founders are each reaching hundreds of thousands of social media followers with their own accounts) and are aired on conservative news channels such as Fox. For instance, its commercial called “Mourning in America,” riffing off Ronald Reagan’s 1984 “Morning in America” campaign, was aired in May during Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show.

What does this mean?

The main reason why Trump faces this unprecedented opposition from his own party is that multiple famous Republicans consider him a danger – a threat to the Republican party, to the constitution, to the country. One of the arguments the campaign brings up is that Trump has proved to be unqualified to deal with the COVID-19 crisis and the resulting economic downturn. The goal is thus to convince just enough disaffected Republican voters that it is in the best interest of the nation – even of Republican voters – to support the Democratic candidate Joe Biden. The Lincoln Project aims to win over 3-5% of Republicans in certain states, to assure them that it is OK to change their mind. The Republican Voters Against Trump group has a different strategy. Instead of flashy and funny ads, it has collected hundreds of testimonials from 2016 Trump voters who are planning to vote for Biden in 2020 and airs them in swing states, trying to persuade with real, uncut voices. Interestingly, endorsements from individuals were also part of Obama’s strategy, and seem effective in persuading voters during a time when trust in conservative institutions or notable politicians is low – especially among Republican voters.

What’s next?

It remains to be seen whether these ads and testimonials are persuasive enough to get inside the heads of voters to affect the election. However, the Hillary Clinton defeat taught us how even small gains can mean the difference between a Republican and Democratic win. Furthermore, Lincoln Project co-founder Reed Galen has explained that the ads have already been successful at getting inside Trump’s head. The Lincoln Project ads garnered so much attention that Trump personally responded by tweeting and addressing the matter to reporters, which in turn has helped the campaign to gain attention and donations. As a result, the group has sufficient funds to better target Trump’s supporters in tight Senate races.