The age of quantum politics

Image: Hieronymus Bosch


Read an excerpt from the newly edited book “The Chaos Engineers”

Ronnie McMiller has dedicated her entire life to cats. For 20 years he has directed the Millwood Cat Rescue of Edwalton, England, an entity whose activity is to offer shelter to abandoned cats in the county. Ronnie rescues them when they are in trouble and provides a roof over their heads while the kittens wait for the opportunity to be adopted by new families. These are not few in the region, in view of the unfailing passion of the British for domestic animals.

But lately, Ronnie has noticed and revealed a strange phenomenon. Among the felines he receives, the proportion of black cats has increased immeasurably. They are more numerous than ever in their shelters, and are proving much more difficult to relocate in families looking for a companion animal.

Ronnie is baffled. It is known that black cats have always had a dubious reputation, because of stories of bad luck and witchcraft, but these ideas seemed definitely outdated. Are the old superstitions back?

Looking closer, however, the phenomenon does not affect only black cats, but, in general, all those with dark fur. For whatever reason, people seem to want to get rid of them more than ever before. And, on the other side of the counter, they don't want to adopt them. “Don't you have any others?” asks a boy to whom he proposed to bring home a pretty black or brown tabby kitten.

For Ronnie, this story remains a mystery, not least because he is over 70 years old, and certain things no longer come naturally to his spirit. But, one day, someone finally gives him a logical explanation, without apparent discomfort, as if it were in fact normal: “You see, in fact, dark cats don't look good in selfies. It's hard to make out their shapes: they appear as an undefined blur. And who wants to show themselves in a portrait with a little black monster in their arms, when white and red cats are so photogenic?

The revelation leaves Ronnie speechless. Then he gets angry: how is it possible that the curse that has hung over black cats since the dark centuries of the Middle Ages is destined to perpetuate itself for such a stupid reason? So he picks up the phone and reports the phenomenon to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the venerable institution that, for nearly two centuries, has watched over the welfare of the fauna that enjoys the privilege of living in the United Kingdom. Then came the second surprise.

Edwalton's case is far from isolated. It was the whole country that turned against the black cats. According to data from the RSPCA, three quarters of cats housed in British refuges are dark in color, a proportion that has steadily grown in recent years. In the whole of the national territory, His Majesty's subjects, busy photographing themselves frantically, like all the inhabitants of the Earth, reject the less photogenic cats en masse. But victims of selfie culture are not just cats.

In the age of mass narcissism, representative democracy is in danger of finding itself more or less in the same situation as the black cats. In fact, its fundamental principle, intermediation, contrasts radically with the spirit of the times and with the new technologies that make disintermediation possible in all domains. Thus, their times – necessarily long as they are based on the requirement to prepare and sign commitments – arouse the indignation of consumers who are used to seeing their demands satisfied in a click. Even in the details, representative democracy comes across as a machine designed to bruise the egos of selfie addicts. What do you mean, secret ballot? The new conventions make it possible, or at least intend, for everyone to be photographed on any occasion, from rock concerts to funerals. But if you try to do it in the voting booth, is everything void? It's not the treatment we've been used to by Amazon and social media!

The new popular and nationalist movements are also born out of this dissatisfaction. It is no coincidence that they place, at the center of their program, the idea of ​​subjecting representative democracy to the same fate as the black cat.

As we have already seen, the establishment of an electronic direct democracy that would replace the old parliamentary system is the raison d'être of the 5 Star Movement, the great idea of ​​Gianroberto Casaleggio, which his son does not seem to have renounced. The government of Mister Conte, incidentally, inaugurated the strange oxymoron of a “minister in charge of relations between parliament and direct democracy”.

But, before the programs, it is necessary to see that the overcoming of representative democracy is already available in the offer of participation that the new populist movements propose to their affiliates. This aspect almost always escapes observers, and yet it is fundamental to understanding the force of attraction of these movements. If the desire to participate almost always comes from accumulated anger, the experience of participating in the 5 Stars, in the Trumpist revolution or in the Yellow Vests turmoil is a very rewarding – and often joyful – experience.

The images of the Yellow Vests that have traveled around the world are those of the violence on the Champs-Elysées and the looting of Parisian shops. But, on social networks, many festive scenes were also seen, with protesters dancing in the roundabouts to the rhythm of folkloric melodies and having fun making fun of each other. For those who live in conditions of real isolation, joining the populist carnival means being part of a community and, in a sense, changing their lives, even if the political objectives of the initiative are not achieved.

In the rhetoric of the 5 Stars, as in Trump's rallies, one finds a kind of personal development lesson intended to release one's long-pent-up energies. “The key to Trump's success,” writes Matt Taibbi, “is the idea that the old rules of decency were made for losers, who lack the heart, courage and 'trumpitude' to simply be themselves. themselves”. It's a liberating, potent message, perfectly in line with the era of mass narcissism.

Beyond the physical dimension, it is in the virtual realm that adherence to national-populist movements finds its most complete realization. There, the algorithms developed and installed by the engineers of chaos give each individual the impression of being at the heart of a historic upheaval, and of finally being an actor in a story that he thought he would be condemned to support passively as an extra.

"Take back control!” – “take back control” –, the Brexit slogan that is the main argument of all national-populist movements, is based on a primitive human instinct. Interrogating survivors of concentration camps, Bruno Bettelheim discovered that those who survived were above all those who managed to establish a zone of control, even an imaginary one, over their daily life in the camps. Psychologists who study older people in nursing homes have found the same process. When the guests of these structures are given the possibility of, at least, choosing a painting or moving a piece of furniture, they will live better and longer than if they had to submit to living conditions totally beyond their control.

This desire for control is so strong that it accompanies us even when we intend to abandon ourselves to our own devices. The guy who plays dice, for example, wants to roll them himself. And in cases where the result is hidden, he is ready to bet much higher sums in the dark than after the roll. The same thing goes for the other games. Anyone who buys a lottery ticket wants to pick the numbers. Whoever decides a coin toss dispute prefers to throw himself. It is all the importance of control, an instinct so anchored in man that it never leaves him, even when he bets on roulette.

In essence, democracy is nothing more than that. A system that allows members of a community to exercise control over their own destiny, not to feel at the mercy of events or some superior force. Ensure the dignity of autonomous individuals, responsible for their choices and their consequences. That is why one cannot close one's eyes to the fact that, a little everywhere, voters demonstrate the feeling of having lost control of their destiny because of forces that threaten their well-being, without the ruling classes move a finger to help them. The chaos engineers understood that this malaise could be transformed into a formidable political resource and they used their magic, more or less black, to multiply it and direct it towards their own ends. In program terms, the response that national-populists bring to loss of control is an old one: closure. Closing borders, abolishing free trade agreements, protecting those in the interior by building a wall, metaphorical or real, against the outside world. But, as we have tried to show so far, in terms of forms and instruments, the Chaos Engineers had a body advantage. To quote Woody Allen: in the age of technological narcissism, "the bad guys have undoubtedly understood something that the good guys don't."

Dominic Cummings' character, played by Benedict Cumberbatch in an excellent fiction about Brexit (Brexit: The Uncivil War), sums up well the way in which contemporary anger can be exploited thanks to new technologies: “It is as if we were on an oil platform where there are all these hidden energy reserves, accumulated over years in the depths of the sea. All we have to do is find where they are, dig and open the valve to release the pressure.”

To achieve this result, chaos engineers sometimes resorted to illegal means. The Brexit campaign is being investigated today for the use of data collected by the company AggregateIQ, data that allowed more than a billion personalized messages to be sent to British voters during the campaign.

These kinds of abuses are in danger of multiplying each time the engineers of chaos come to power. In Great Britain, as soon as he arrived at Downing Street as Boris Johnson's main adviser, Dominic Cummings launched a huge official communication campaign in favor of Brexit, centralizing the data of all the websites of the British administration in order to be able to send tailored messages to each His Majesty's subject. In India, the national populist ruling party, the BJP, went further, offering smartphones to young people and women, supposedly with the aim of reducing inequalities, and then bombarding them with propaganda messages from the party's candidates.

But, apart from the abuses, the strength of the engineers of chaos has been above all that of being able to remember that politics is not just about numbers and interests. It is possible that we have entered a new world, but some fundamentals remain the same. It's not enough to be first in the class to win, you need to know how to chart your path and, above all, awaken passions.

Leadership skills and the strength of a political vision continue to be key. There is no victorious political project that does not bring with it the contagious will to transform reality, even if it means taking several steps backwards, as most national-populists want.

In one generation, progressives have gone from “make your dreams come true” to “make your dreams come true”. During his tenure, even to his approval, Barack Obama transitioned from “yes we can”, the slogan of its beginnings, to “don't do stupid stuff ” – don’t be silly –, his rule of conduct in the White House.

Moderate, progressive and liberal forces will continue to retreat as long as they fail to propose a motivating vision of the future, capable of bringing a convincing response to what Dominique Reynié calls the “patrimonial crisis” – the already widespread fear of losing their material assets at the same time ( their standard of living), and their intangible heritage (their lifestyle).

The purpose of this book, I repeat, is not to deny the importance of concrete responses to this crisis. But history teaches us that the greatest reformer of the 1930th century, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, knew how to combine his political vision with a different way of apprehending political communication – which allowed him to prevent the triumph of the populists of his time. In the early XNUMXs, the New Deal also marks the birth of a New Politics, a new policy that integrates marketing and publicity techniques developed in the private sector to respond to voters' expectations and demands. It is, moreover, at this time that the first spin doctors of which our chaos engineers are distant imitators.

Today, the irruption of the internet and social networks in politics changes, once again, the rules of the game and, paradoxically, while being founded on increasingly sophisticated calculations, it runs the risk of producing increasingly unpredictable and irrational effects. Interpreting this transformation requires a real paradigm shift. A bit like the sages of the last century, who were forced to abandon the certainties, comfortable but misleading, of Newtonian physics to start exploring quantum mechanics – disturbing, but more capable of describing reality –, we must as soon as possible accept the end of the old political logics. In his time, Newtonian physics was based on observation with the naked eye or through a telescope. It described a mechanical universe, governed by immutable laws, in which certain causes produced certain consequences. At the beginning of the XNUMXth century, scholars still thought that the ultimate and indivisible unit of matter was represented by the atom, a particle endowed with stable properties in each of its behaviors. But the discoveries of Max Planck and the other founders of quantum physics subverted this placid view of reality.

Today, we know that atoms can be divided and that they contain particles whose behavior is extremely unpredictable – they move at random and have such a fragile identity that the simple fact of observing them changes their behavior.

Quantum physics is peppered with paradoxes and phenomena that defy the laws of scientific rationality. It reveals to us a world in which nothing is stable and where an objective reality cannot exist – because, inevitably, each observer modifies it from the perspective of his personal point of view. In this dimension, interactions are the most important properties of each object, and several contradictory truths can exist without one invalidating the other.

Analogously, Newtonian politics was adapted to a more or less rational, controllable world, in which an action corresponded to a reaction and where voters could be considered as atoms endowed with ideological, class or territorial belongings, of which derived definite and constant political choices. In a way, liberal democracy is a Newtonian construction, based on the separation of powers and on the idea that it is possible for both rulers and ruled to make rational decisions based on a more or less objective reality. Pushed to its extreme, it is the approach that could lead, the day after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Francis Fukuyama to proclaim the end of History.

With quantum politics, objective reality does not exist. Each thing is provisionally defined in relation to another, and, above all, each observer determines his own reality. In the new world, as the former president of Google, Eric Schmidt, said, it is increasingly rare to have access to content that is not tailor-made. The algorithms of Apple, Facebook or Google itself make each one of us receive information that interests us. And if, as Zuckerberg says, we are more interested in a squirrel clinging to the tree in front of our house than in hunger in Africa, the algorithm will find a way to bombard us with the latest news about rodents in the neighborhood, thus eliminating all reference about what is happening on the other side of the Mediterranean.

Thus, in quantum politics, the version of the world that each of us sees is literally invisible to the eyes of others. This increasingly distances the possibility of a collective understanding. According to popular wisdom, to understand each other it would be necessary to “put yourself in the other's shoes”, but in the reality of algorithms this operation has become impossible. Everyone marches inside their own bubble, inside which certain voices are heard more than others and some facts exist more than others. And we have no possibility of getting out of it, and even less of exchanging it with someone else. “We seem crazy to each other,” says Jaron Lanier, and it's true. It is not our opinions about the facts that divide us, but the facts themselves.

In old Newtonian politics, Daniel Patrick Moynihan's admonition, "Each one is entitled to his own opinions, but not to his own facts," might still have value, but in quantum politics this principle is no longer viable. And all those who strive to rehabilitate him against the Salvinis and the Trumps are destined for failure.

Quantum politics is full of paradoxes: billionaires become standard-bearers for the wrath of the underprivileged; public decision makers make a flag out of ignorance; ministers dispute the data of their own administration. The right to contradict oneself and leave, which Baudelaire invoked for artists, became, for the new politicians, the right to contradict oneself and remain, sustaining everything and its opposite, in a succession of tweets and live broadcasts on Facebook that build, brick after brick, a parallel reality for each of the followers.

Since then, blustering to demand respect for the old game rules of Newtonian politics does little good. “Quantum mechanics”, wrote Antonio Ereditato in his latest book, “is an indigestible physical theory because it conflicts dramatically with our intuition and with the way in which we got used to seeing the world for centuries.” And yet, physicists did not sit idly by. Armed with patience and curiosity, they began to explore the coordinates of the new world into which the discoveries of Max Planck and company had plunged them.

In politics, this attitude coincides exactly with the spirit evoked by another great reformer, John Maynard Keynes, when, after the First War and the Soviet Revolution, he addressed the young liberals gathered at his Summer School:

“Almost all the wisdom of our statesmen was built on assumptions that were true at one time, or partially true, and which are less so every day. We must invent new wisdom for a new age. And at the same time, if we want to rebuild something good, we're going to need to appear heretical, unwelcome, and disobedient in the eyes of all those who came before us.”

It is this spirit, at once creative and subversive, that all democrats will have to appropriate in order to reinvent the forms and contents of politics in the coming years, if they want to be able to defend their values ​​and ideas in the era of quantum politics.

*Giuliano Da Empoli, former Secretary of Culture for the city of Florence, he directs the “Volta” research group.


Giuliano Da Empoli. The Chaos Engineers. São Paulo, Vestigio, 2020, 190 pages.


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