The axis today is not liberal and conservative, the axis is constructive-destructive, and you’ve cast your lot with the destructive people.
-Steve Jobs, talking about Fox News with Robert Murdoch.
Have you been feeling confused about where you stand on the political spectrum lately? There’s a sense among many Americans that the Democrats don’t quite seem as liberal as they used to, while Republicans have no longer come to represent/defend the conservative values that they were sworn-in to do. Even though most people in the U.S. consider themselves to be political moderates, they haven’t quite bought into the idea that both parties are “moving toward the center” either — if that really were the case, there would be more bi-partisanship, more compromise, better reasoned discussions/debates, and things would actually get done up at Capitol Hill. Instead what we see on a day-to-day basis is partisan voting, political stalemates, substance-less debates followed by frivolous squabbles that have nothing to do with solving the issues at hand.
This sense of disenchantment people have of the political process overall had a mobilizing effect on a number of recent movements — most notably, the rise of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street Protests, both of which have managed to capture the hearts and minds of the general public from both sides of the political spectrum. Being fringe groups, the two groups were initially ridiculed by the media when they first started, but were able to become notable political forces due to the diligence and persistence of dedicated individuals toward each cause. These movements can be said to be examples of the do-it-yourself, “grassroots” approach done successfully, and is likely to become organizational models for political activism for years to come.
There is a sense now that the rise of fringe movements have become common enough to call it the new norm of how things will operate in the future. We’ve gotten accustomed to seeing our favorite music, software, companies, celebrity figures, and tv shows rise and fall as part of our daily routine. Politics can be an especially difficult subject to talk about, since in many ways the system has not gone through any significant changes for over a century at this point — even then, it seems pretty clear by now that we’ve moved past the traditional left/right, liberal/conservative spectrum and into something different. (Is Obama/Romney a liberal/conservative? Nobody agrees on either.) And with this, the end of an era is now being declared by the academic community — the end of Modernism as we know it, in all of its forms and legacies of the past.
Some might say it happened with the smartphone, where the decentralization and personification of information was taken to a level never before seen. Others might say it ended because of the global economic crisis, where the trust and reputations that large institutions had enjoyed for more than 50 years had vanished nearly in an instant. Or maybe it was because the erratic, unpredictable demeanor of Lady Gaga had entered the consciousness of mainstream culture, a sign that people finally internalized the idea that change was something to be expected and cherished, rather than reviled. In any case, the reason why this claim can be made without question is because the shift in societal norms has already been done, and it’s only a matter of time before these practices become reflected in our ideas, identity, and the rules that govern our country.
The end of Modernism includes the end of its off-shoot, Postmodernism, a cultural movement that has been slowly eating away at Modernism’s core as early as the 1960s. But Postmodernism really took off as a movement during the 90s — particularly after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and when the Cold War had come to an end. In technology, it was the advent of the internet; in economics, globalization and global trade; culture, the phenomenon of “sampling” and the new potential to create “anything”, all of which have now become woven into the very fabric of what it means to be an American living in the United States. Postmodernism dismantled the “grand narrative” approach of the Modernist aesthetic (a trait that it inherited from its predecessor, Romanticism) making everything more fragmented, individualized, and compartmental.
Scholars and historians haven’t quite come to an agreement on what to call the new movement (it’s too early to attach labels at this point), but it seems to be clear that whatever “it” is, it either happened already, is happening now, or is about to happen very, very, soon. As such, it may be helpful to start conceptualizing better ways of understanding how things might work in the near future — while lacking a definite name, the shift can at least be characterized by its traits and descriptions of its philosophies and actions. And luckily there were enough historical precedents that resembles today’s situation enough that we may be able to make a few educated guesses as to what that might look like.
Joseph Schumpeter first coined the term Creative-Destruction in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1942) as a means of describing the process of new industries destroying old ones in order to generate new wealth and opportunities for the future. Schumpeter’s works have gained renewed attention in recent years because people now see daily parallels to what the technology industry has done to other sectors of the economy at this point in time. The impact that personal computing, the internet, and mobile devices have had on the music and arts industries should be fairly obvious — these inventions had effectively put many existing institutions (record stores, print publications, gaming companies, etc.) into peril, in some cases putting them out of business for good. This is the “destructive” side of technological advancement, often resulting in job losses and the obsolescence/retirement of entire industries and skill-sets as a whole.
Out of this process, however, new ideas and new businesses emerge out of the ashes, replacing old ones in significant, permanent, and irreplaceable ways. The optimist will say that because people’s demands for goods and services are constant and without limit, lost jobs are eventually made-up for in the new economy in one way or another when the situation is looked at from the long-term point of view. Pessimists (like Marx), however, would argue that the overall process trends toward the destructive and would lead to capitalism’s eventual demise. (Especially in cases where the lost jobs are never made up for, which would increase income inequality, and as a result, civil unrest and strife.)
Given the complexity and scale of the issue, it’s impossible to say which point of view ends up being proven right in the long run, especially within “mature” economic systems of developed countries such as the United States. Though Schumpeter himself conceived the term “creative-destruction” as a way to point out the self-destructive nature of capitalism, many of his followers focused on the “renewal” aspect of the process, turning the philosophy into one of optimism and hope. The “destructive” side of the phenomenon is capable of causing chaos, confusion, and disarray both economically and culturally, but Schumpeterians argue that this is a natural part of the process in which a society innovates, renews, and progresses toward higher standards as a whole.
Having been the only sector to maintain growth and productivity during the economic crash of 08-09′, the technology industry now feels justified in its approach and has recently become emboldened to expand their philosophy into other areas of society, particularly in politics and arts/culture. Renewal/rebirth, clarity/directness of style, realism, problem-solving, inventiveness, working ethics — these phrases characterize the spirit of Silicon Valley’s startup community, and what they credit to as being the key to their success. Aside from the quote from Jobs above, many in the tech sector have subscribed to (or at least acknowledged) the concept of “creative destruction” and have been applying its ideas into their respective cultures and communities. (Entrepreneurship can be said to be one of the purest forms of this concept put into real practice, for example.) They’re now ready to spread their story, philosophies, and values into the public sphere, against the ethos of Modernism that had dominated the scene for the majority of the 20th Century.
Culturally, “Neo-Baroque” is probably the closest term that would characterize the changes that are likely to be introduced in the upcoming years of the political and cultural narrative. The cultural output of the Baroque era have striking similarities to what the tech community is trying to accomplish at this point in time, some of which include: 1) An emphasis on rhetoric/discourse as means of formal organization (blogging/wikis/comments/social media), 2) improvisation/innovation as means of solving compositional “problems” (entrepreneurship), and 3) an emphasis of universality over identity-based constructions as means of understanding how the world works and operates (global communication/economy).
During the 20th Century, Neo-Classicism (Igor Stravinsky, Maurice Ravel) and Neo-Romanticism (Samuel Barber, Gustav Holst) were musical styles that were able to carve out some success for themselves during an era where music was heavily dominated by the Modernist aesthetic. But there were no attempts at reinstating Baroque-era values that became mainstream, probably due to the fact that classical music had more or less forgotten about the art of improvisation during the 20th century. As a result, the improvisatory musics of Jazz and “world” musics filled in the void of where classical music was not, effectively becoming the iconic voice of “American” values of multiculturalism, innovation, individuality, and so on.
In a sense, what’s happening now is not completely without precedent, but it will seem “new” to all of us because there was enough of a gap in the historical timeline that there are no examples of this shift happening in living memory. Western culture is now re-inventing itself from its core, and the results will look very different from what had existed for the last several hundred years.
Destruction vs. Construction, The New Political Axis
The image above is a pro-Assange poster that has been floating around as an internet meme during the last few years, which expresses discontent toward Time Magazine’s choice of Zuckerberg as their “Person of the Year” in 2010. Zuckerberg is rich, famous, successful, happily married, and does work that he likes doing for a living — meanwhile, Assange is constantly targeted by government agencies (many of his friends and people he’s worked with are in jail), often moves from apartment to apartment quietly for security reasons, and has been battling allegations of sexual assault in court for several years. Depending on who you talk to, either figure could be considered a hero or villain, depending on where their interests, values, and motivations lie. Despite both being programmers at heart, these two figures have come to represent two sides of an ideal that are in opposition to one another.
The Assange-Zuckerberg poster above is interesting because it highlights the “constructive-destructive” spectrum that Jobs mentions above in a very clear manner. It can be argued that in two-party systems like the U.S., the emergence of such dichotomies are natural, common, and even necessary (Malcom X/Martin Luther King Jr. as one example) to the process of advancing new ideas and standards into society. But there shouldn’t really be any confusion as to why Zuckerberg gets to be “successful” while Assange is constantly on the run — the former created something for people to use (Facebook) — while the latter is simply leaking information that’s already there, mostly in the form of content stolen from government and corporate sources. Regardless if you agree or disagree with either’s means, methods, and justifications, the former is clearly on the creative side of the spectrum, while the latter on the destructive.
The reality of the situation isn’t so cut and dry, however. Zuckerberg got a head start on his programming career when he decided to hack into Harvard’s school newspaper, The Crimson, so it’s clear that one-dimensional portrayals aren’t sufficient for characterizing how these men really are in person. These dichotomies are created by people as means of understanding how society works, allowing them to frame the issues under a narrative where the “good” and “evils” are clearly defined. Like The Social Network, these stories don’t necessarily have to be factual (or even accurately portray its character’s motivations) in order for it to serve a political purpose.
“Destructive” inventions of today might include: hacker collectives, the “Anonymous” movement, identity thieves, and online pornography and piracy rings. “Creative” inventions include: social networks, crowdfunding, new entertainment platforms, interactive/online educational systems , and so on. In the end, most of us have partook in both sides of the spectrum in one way or another — “destruction” may have a negative ring to it on the surface, but if it leads to the replacement or reform of corrupt/unfair practices, then in many cases it’s efforts become justified in the long term. “Creativity” may have a similar positive connotation to it, but difficulties arise when creators run into issues of attracting audiences, competition, having to navigate through the jungle of the legal system — never making the ride a smooth one. Either way, what’s clear is that change and progress is an incredibly messy process where its never quite clear who has the moral upper hand at any given time.
The tech industry’s recent success can be credited to having harnessed the power of “creative-destruction” as a self-contained process, rather than allowing for these ideas to splinter into various factions as it has normally been done in the political arena. This is one of the reason why Silicon Valley was able to remain relatively autonomous from the political process until very recently, where Hollywood’s attempt at introducing the Stop Online Piracy Act prompted the sector to become more politically involved. But they seem to be less interested in winning elections than they are of doing a complete overhaul of the political process itself. It’s unclear at this point if they’ll be successful or not, but given the community’s high-level of motivation, talent, and economic success, there’s a good chance that they’ll at least be able to put a significant dent in how things operate within the political and cultural arenas.
One thing that won’t ever change is that most Americans will be somewhere in the middle of the political spectrum (new or old), and will continue to roll their eyes at the over-simplified, partisan rhetoric that will continue to come from the extremes of both sides of the isle. But in redefining the axis, the movement is trying to define a new “center” where a new focus can be created towards the nation’s ideas of “progress”. (Hence, the “radical” center.) In the case of Assange and Zuckerberg, what they both have in common is the belief in transparency, universal access, and a global social consciousness — values which were largely absent from the Modern era — so many of its changes will likely seem very foreign to the public at large. Both also happens to believe that they’re solving a problem of some sort, even if you don’t happen to agree with their means or methods.
Regardless of what position one takes on these issues, education will always be at the central core of Western politics, because it’s seen as the main antidote to mitigating or minimizing the negative effects of capitalistic systems at any given time. An healthy appetite for learning allows people to adapt to new economies, cultural changes, and job markets that are undergoing constant renewal, and there are no reasonable arguments out there that can justify the opposite in any way, shape, or form. In many ways this has always been the default situation for most people living in Westernized nations, but this phenomenon has now been made more obvious due to the frequency and speed in which its patterns have played itself out in various areas of society. It’s now a race between the changing world and the educational practices that would allow for its inhabitants to keep up with its furious pace.
This is a continuation of The Radical Center: Politics, Culture, Entrepreneurship article that I wrote earlier. Send comments/feedback firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on twitter!