“The Algorithm” is the only critique of “The Algorithm” that “The Algorithm” can produce

by Kevin Munger on January 29, 2024

As I say in my TED Talk about Vilem Flusser, the most pressing cultural question is: “why are things so weird?” Or as Anna Shechtman describes it:

“that feeling—floating somewhere between mania and motion sickness—that everything has changed.”

It seems like everyone really fucking wants the answer to be “The Algorithm.”

The New Yorker internet and culture columnist Kyle Chayka gives them that answer in his new book Filterworld: How Algorithms Flattened Culture.

I’ve spent years articulating why this a bad answer. “The Algorithm” is the answer that Susan Wojcicki and Mark Zuckerberg desperately want us to give. It feels like critique but it in fact reifies the premises and business models of the tech platforms: it implies that the platforms are in some computer-genius fashion holding the reins of culture and brainwashing their users. Advertisers, famously, would love to hold the reins of culture and brainwash potential customers.

And Senator, Facebook sells ads.

This is an ideological explanation for why “The Algorithm” is a bad answer. Ideological explanations are red meat for the kind of people who read Substacks, tweets, and The New Yorker, which is why I led with that. But the problem is more fundamental.

To answer the question of “why does everything feel so weird?”, it’s helpful to investigate why everyone everyone really fucking wants the answer to be “The Algorithm.”

I tackle this topic in today’s article in Mother Jones:

“The Algorithm” does not exist. Wide use of the phrase implies a false hope that there is a human who understands our dizzying information system. If it was only the algorithm on YouTube radicalizing us, or the algorithm on Facebook weaponizing misinformation, then we would know how to fix these things. We would just need regulators to pressure Mark Zuckerberg into fiddling with the parameters of some code, and things would go back to normal.

Anxieties about “The Algorithm” reveal how our lives are already governed by systems we don’t understand and can’t control. We are living with technology moving at an inhuman speed, operating at scales simultaneously smaller than we can detect and larger than anyone can comprehend.

This inversion is a powerful analytical tool. Consider: anxieties about LLMs taking the place of humans primarily reveal how society has already made humans replaceable. Only human communication which has already become routinized and rationalized is at risk of being replaced—but unfortunately, that’s most of it.

So, what is the answer? Demography doesn’t help — the generation vibe-gap has never been larger, and the institutions that should be helping us make sense of the world are still steeped in Boomer Realism. But the Sage of São Paulo has the beginnings of the answer. Rather than talk about “The Algorithm,”

media theorist Vilém Flusser has proposed we use “The Apparatus,” arguing that the emergence of new media has caused a mutation in how humans relate to each other—and to their environment. From the fullness of our physical being we are reduced to mere “operators,” experiencing primarily through the apparatus, which “programs” both the producers and consumers of media.

When we communicate via social media, we are not communicating with other people. We are communicating with The Apparatus. But it doesn’t listen. It responds—and trains us to respond back. As we accept the content presented to us, we react as if it were the product of humans rather than human-accounts; we accept our role as operators engaged in what Flusser calls “unconscious functioning.”

The content we produce and consume doesn’t mean anything because it’s not supposed to mean anything; it’s supposed to function, to cause the desired response.

The Apparatus reaches far beyond the screens through which we interact with the (powerful! nigh-ubiquitous!) algorithms that route inputs and outputs through online systems like social media. And though Flusser’s critique was developed in the context of television, social media is an intensification of the trends he identified. Social media is much more satisfactory as a proximate cause of the weirdness.

The most important technological component of social media is quantified audience feedbackIndeed, I think this is the correct definition of “social media.” It’s not a binary—media is more social the more the audience is present, the more that the media object facing the consumer is co-created by the original author and their audience. American Idol’s call-in voting thus made it more social than previous television. Twitch livestreaming chat is perhaps the most social media, conducive to connective effervescence.

The effects of quantified audience feedback have been identified in various industries. Art critic Ben Davis notes how we live in an era of “quantitative aesthetics.” Media mogul Ben Smith describes his efforts to accelerate the destruction of online news media through better audience measurement. And theorist Ben Jamin allows us to see how the quantification of attention, accreted to digital objects, creates unique value in the eye of the viewer — the modern aura not through uniqueness but through ubiquity.

The “social media” frame allows us to see how The Apparatus transforms existing communication technologies. Yelp makes restaurants more social, sure. But higher education is more social thanks to the efforts of the U.S. News & World Report. And books are more social thanks to Goodreads, sure, but this is simply an intensification of a trend that includes the New York Times Bestseller List.

Kyle Chayka’s book is still printed on dead trees. But, like, all books today, it is still more social media than books in 1800 were. The audience surrounds you even if you walk down Prince St and pick up a hard copy off the McNally Jackson Bestseller table (itself a form of social media). And one thing that operators have come to understand is that the audience loves to talk about “The Algorithm.”

The reviews of Chayka’s book clearly understand this:

Algorithms rule everything around you

Can We Free Ourselves From Algorithms?

The tyranny of the algorithm: why every coffee shop looks the same

‘Filterworld’ explores how social media algorithms ‘flatten’ our culture

How to Take Back Your Life From Algorithms

Have we all become slaves to algorithms?

This is what Flusser describes as the “circular progress” of The Apparatus. Unlike linear historical progress, which is going somewhere, this progress means an intensification of what already exists. It is the circularity of a whirlpool, tossing us around and dragging us down.

Not all of the reviews take the bait. Michelle Santiago Cortés identifies the precise point where the book goes off the rails: Chayka interviews the anthropologist Nick Seaver, who tells him that ‘the algorithm is metonymic for companies as a whole…The Facebook algorithm doesn’t exist; Facebook exists. The algorithm is a way of talking about Facebook’s decisions.’ Cortés:

However, just one sentence after Seaver’s quote, Chayka loses focus. He adds that the technology itself ‘is not at issue’, and that the cultural flattening he bemoans in the book’s title is because we’ve outgrown these algorithmic recommendations and are now ‘alienated by them.’

The pull of The Apparatus is strong; I otherwise don’t see how you can fuck it up this bad. Nick Seaver is exactly the right person to talk to, an anthropologist who has been studying the role of algorithmic recommendation for over a decade. His article on “recommender systems as traps” is a delight (seriously, read it, it’s quite accessible for an academic paper), and it identifies the crux of the problem: the switch away from metrics of recommendation quality in favor of ‘captivation metrics’ like the famous “time spent on site.” Which is the audience metric that maximizes profits.

Another review, by the incisive Anna Shechtman quoted above, nails the tone in her piece in the Yale Review:

It’s said to be quite powerful. I won’t pretend to know how it works—my understanding is that they don’t know either, which is a clever alibi. I hear that it’s a specter haunting our world. In fact, I hear that it knows that specters haunt worlds (but only at the start of an essay), which could be another way of saying that it has an uncanny grasp of cliché. It’s something like a meta-specter, really, haunting our hauntings…The Algorithm. Never has something—some agent—had such a determining force on human actions and desires, at least since the discovery of the libido or the invention of the printing press or the belief in God.

So, you get the sense that this isn’t going to go well for Chayka, that he will prove to be out of his depth, Leibniz-wise. That sense is correct. This article rules. And her conclusion nails Flusser’s conception of circular progress, though not explicitly, instead calling it “Algorithmic Culture: updating American norms, pho­bias, incentives, and risks—and staying the same.”

But it’s telling that even Shechtman (or her editors) chose Life in the Algorithm as the title of the review.

Cortés notes that “Chayka relies on the metonymic algorithm to step in on behalf of deeper explorations into the myriad actors, motivations and incentives.”

Or: “The Algorithm” is a metonym for The Apparatus. And it’s not an innocuous metonym, if there’s such a thing. This is the kind of linguistic sloppiness which enables analytical mistakes to propagate.

The irony of this critique is that in the book itself, Chayka’s thesis is clearly consistent with Seaver’s point that “The Algorithm” is today used to disguise the larger systems in which social media are embedded. It’s as if it has become impossible to actually read the book, to follow the through-line of the argument, to use the tools of linear conceptual reason that this media technology requires. Instead, everyone already knows what it’s about.

This isn’t a book, in the way we were raised to expect. To an ever-intensifying degree, even books are produced by and for The Apparatus. The current case makes this especially clear: Chayka wrote an essay for The Verge in 2016 about “Airspace” and the sterility of modern aesthtics. It went viral — The Apparatus demanded more. And so this book was produced.

It’s also not a book on the terms it presents itself, as deeply researched, historically-informed technology criticism. There is not a list of citations at the back, or footnotes, or endnotes. Perhaps I’m being snooty, but I have a PhD and I’m a professor who studies exactly this topic, so I’ve got to believe that all the extra work we put in on those dimensions is important. And they are! Books are an incredibly robust medium for storing and cataloguing thought—but they need a technology for pointing outside of themselves, something that has been refined over centuries. Filterworld doesn’t need that technology — because it’s more natural to use the smartphone camera instead. Like Natasha Stagg discussed on New Models, even book writing is meant to be screenshotted and to circulate on social media.

To be fair, Chayka’s website describes the book as a “reported critique,” and I guess you don’t have to cite any sources for those. But it certainly has scholarly pretensions. Chapter 1 starts with like ten pages of the history of algorithms, from Euclid to Ada Lovelace. None of this is “reported,” obviously — except in the sense of a “book report,” a homework assignment done just to check the boxes. By a clever college student, who knows how to use Wikipedia without technically plagiarizing anything.

The Wikipedia article on Algorithm is an incredible resource, both in the content and the way the knowledge is networked: from the past, with citations, and to the present, through hyperlinks to other pages. And there’s no information (that I could find) in the first pages of Chapter 1 of Filterworld that can’t be found within one click of the Wikipedia article on Algorithm.

That’s fine! Again, this is an incredibly comprehensive resource; it’d be hard to actually find something relevant and interesting for your popular nonfiction book about “The Algorithm” that wasn’t already here. But then why have this in the book at all?

Nobody gives a fuck about Robert of Chester, bro. This isn’t written to be read by humans; it’s demanded by The Apparatus, as some kind of “proof of work.” This is the kind of content that gets you from a viral essay to a viral book. But it doesn’t make any sense; it doesn’t mean anything.

Take the first section, “Early Algorithms.” Two dense pages of proper nouns that the reader has no context for, concluded abruptly by a connection to the book’s ostensible thesis: “The long arc of algorithm’s etymology shows that calculations are a product of human art and labor as much as repeatable scientific law.”

Does it show that? What if instead of the the word “algorithm,” the book were about the word “recommender system”—probably a better term for the actual technology of interest here, certainly the one that Seaver uses. Wikipedia tells us that “Elaine Rich created the first recommender system in 1979, called Grundy.”

What does the short arc of recommender systems’ etymology show? That calculations are not a product of human art and labor as much as repeatable scientific law?

Whatever. There’s no meaning here. The effect of two pages on the etymology of “algorithm” is to reify the concept, to insist that we should keep using this term, which is indeed the message of the book, as well as the message of the reviews of the book. It’s the message everyone already wanted to hear.

I’ve got further beef with how Chayka interprets my hero Stafford Beer. As encouraging as it is that the cultural tides are turning so that Beer merits almost two pages in a book like this, to summarize Beer’s critique of the misuse of computers in human organization as “As with the Mechanical Turk, the human persists within the machine” is just insulting. And the summary of the academic debate over the existence of “filter bubbles” is facile. But that’s all missing the point.

So here’s the answer for why “The Algorithm” is a popular answer now—it was a popular answer before, and the gyre of The Apparatus continues. How did this start? The Mother Jones piece explains my reasoning (please go read the whole thing!), but here’s the kicker:

The fact that we see agency in the algorithm reveals our fundamental need for interpersonal connection. It lets us imagine someone like Zuck in control of “the algorithm,” instead of adrift in “the apparatus” like the rest of us. We wish Big Brother was watchingBut we might just be alone with our phones.

The Algorithm is why we’re lonely, and “The Algorithm” is because we’re lonely.

Restated, riffing on the Baudrillard quote about The Matrix:

“The Algorithm” is the only critique of “The Algorithm” that “The Algorithm” can produce.

But I think that Flusser’s answer would be less psychological and more media-theoretic, more communicological. The answer to why we feel the weirdness, that feeling somewhere between mania and motion sickness, is mirrored in the answer to why we want the answer to be “The Algorithm”:

The Apparatus has turned us into algorithms.



greg 01.29.24 at 4:03 pm

Engines(Search engines, eg.) which converge on a person’s preferences and reinforce them at the expense of wider experience are socially divisive. The narrower the variety and the lower the independence of the channels of a person’s input, the greater the likelihood of self reinforcing prejudice and error.

With only one input, with only one channel you are a slave to the sender.


M Caswell 01.29.24 at 4:28 pm

Anton Barba-Kay’s book, ‘Web of Our Own Making,” which I just read, is good on these issues. The function of digital technology, he argues, is to turn machines into pseudo-agents and human agents into pseudo-machines, at the same time and through the same processes.


Casey Ydenberg 01.29.24 at 8:54 pm

‘Anxieties about “The Algorithm” reveal how our lives are already governed by systems we don’t understand and can’t control.’

Yes! So, can you please tell me why I should care whether we call it The Algorithm or The Apparatus? Let’s please just agree on a name so we can decide what to do about it.


Alex SL 01.29.24 at 9:25 pm

This whole discourse would make a lot more sense if a few years after the advent of Facebook was the first time in human history that political polarisation happened. But it wasn’t. Don’t even have to go to the Weimar Republic – people murdered each other in the street over politics during the late Roman Republic. Somehow that happened without social media algorithms, and that means social media are potentially irrelevant as a factor. It is well possible that nothing whatsoever would be different right now if we still only had TVs and talk radio to radicalise people.

An underlying question with the same discourse is the mental model one has of one’s fellow humans. Algorithm or apparatus, the model has ‘sheeple’ passively being shaped by media, social or otherwise, and thus by their executives, who are somehow the only humans with any agency. But that is not how it works. The radicalised people are also adult, sentient humans with their own agency.

The angry man who rants incessantly about how all immigrants should be deported until Germany is ethnically cleansed, the angry woman who complains that P2 masks are at the same time too coarse to catch virus particles and too fine to let much smaller oxygen molecules through, the young guy who obsessively attacks everybody on social media who criticises his hero Elon Musk in any way whatsoever, the global warming denialist who argues there would never be any forest fires without environmentalists committing arson, they all chose to be like this.

They chose to retreat into the bubble, to only ever consume information that confirms their biases. They could just, you know, not. They could, if they felt that made them happier, be kind, composed, rational, intellectually consistent, well informed about the things they opine about, and as respectful of subject matter expertise as they expect others to be of their own professional expertise. Neither Zuckerberg nor Murdoch have a superpower that forces people to become angry and over-confident and to perceive pointing out facts as an attack on their identity. Conversely, even if all we had was still newspapers, I would have no magical power to force an angry, conspiracy theory-spouting family member to read anything they do not want to read, much less accept it as true.


J-D 01.29.24 at 11:26 pm

As far as I can tell, ‘things feel weird’ is something which has been true in every period of history, because ‘things keep changing’ is something which has been true in every period of history. That’s what things do: they change.

Of course this change is different from other changes, because changes are always different from other changes.


nastywoman 01.30.24 at 9:52 am

So we just had these two problems with ‘the Algorithm’
We had to book some flights and rooms and rental cars and as we have learned that if you do it online –
and thusly add to the demand –
which let’s ‘the Algorithm’ believe that there is a higher demand and thusly higher prices can be demanded –
we did it all –
like always now –
by personally contacting all of the ‘helpers’ with the exception of the Hotel in München – as in case of big cities like München ‘the Algorithm’ is very helpful (in OFF season) if you book at the last minute – as then ‘the Algorithm’ thinks there wasn’t/isn’t any demand and ‘sinks’ the price to the lowest possibility even for a 5 star Hotel.

BUT otherwise you couldn’t be right that ‘the Algorithm’ is a ‘a complete asshole ‘
(like the internet) BUT I’m afraid that ‘the Algorithm’ just let’s you believe that someone like Zuck isn’t STILL in control of “the algorithm,”
(instead of US ALL being adrift in “the apparatus”)
There was this problem with these A1 created Fake Nudes of our beloved Taylor Swift and the (asshole) Algorithm’ – of X – which works just as simple as the online booking of planes, trains and automobiles and hotelrooms – let millions of people download these Fakes until
WE -(the Swifties) intercepted and forced the Head of ‘the X Algorithm’ to finally recognise that you just can’t put any Willy Nilly Lie on the internet and then try to correct it with some kind of ‘community note’ – which says(in other words):
(and we even can’t blame ‘the Algorithm’ for it – as it was Elon (or/and some of his moderators) who wasn’t in control of ‘the Algorithm’ at that time –
and now he might get even sued for a few 83 millions?
And see what we mean? – it’s STILL like A1 – where the output -STILL – entirely depends on the input of somebody like Zuck and/or Elon – and if Zuck tells his Algorithm NOT to publish Fake Nudes -(or any other hateful content) and Elon doesn’t –
BE-cause –
They both are still in control of their ‘the Algorithms’
and it is
‘instead of being adrift in “the apparatus”


Mike Huben 01.30.24 at 12:42 pm

Why does this read to me like mystical drivel? Can anyone really follow the overall picture here and somehow tie it to reality? Is it just a word salad Rorschach test for readers to project their own invented meanings? “Whatever. There’s no meaning here.” Sounds like a projected judgement.

Since the beginning of Crooked Timber, I’ve been able to comprehend pretty much everything posted, even if I disagree. But not most Munger articles.


MisterMr 01.30.24 at 12:56 pm

Yeah I think the main problem is just that “the algorythm” just shows me something similar to what I watched before.
This is really a natural human tendency, for example leftish people are more likely to consume leftish media and so find their own points of view validated.
However since this is automatised, people might not realise it, or realise it less, so this creates an increase in cultural tribalism: we don’t anymore have an idea of what the “average guy” thinks, likes etc., so we can’t gauge how much our opinion are standard or non-standard.
When we meet someone who has opinions different from ours, we will perceive those opinion as out of the pale, or perhaps ascribe to this guy a malicious intent (because nobody could really believe THAT, right?).
Finally, social media give to everyone a voice, however normal people do not behave with the self-restraint that an institution (like a newspaper) would, and if someone writes something bad on his/her facebook page that can’t be substantiated, thew judge will rarely make them pay for fefamation the same way that a newspaper would, however when you sum all facebook pages you have an impact that is equal or higer of that of big newspapers, so there is a problem.


Sashas 01.30.24 at 7:08 pm


I’m going to come right out and say I have no idea what you are trying to say here. (That’s on me! It’s fine!) But at the same time I do understand social media. I do understand both The Algorithm and algorithms (very different things). So frankly I’m a little concerned that I can’t at all figure out what you’re trying to say about these things that I know and care about.

Are we talking about how lots of powerful people have raised up The Algorithm as a totem to avoid accountability? (The Algorithm is unknowable! The Algorithm cannot be stopped! The Algorithm defines the content we see and interact with! The Algorithm cannot be changed! The Algorithm is responsible for all the ills that we like to blame on social media!)

Because I don’t think it needs a great statement of mystery to claim that a lot of people in the tech industry are quite invested in not being held accountable and that they’re using indirection through technical systems (either consciously or even unconsciously) to avoid accountability.


Bob 01.30.24 at 8:38 pm

The OP describes an apparently widespread feeling that things are “weird,” a feeling “floating somewhere between mania and motion sickness—that everything has changed.” And then it addresses the question of whether the explanation for this feeling lies with “the Algorithm” or elsewhere. But I wan’t to say, “Whoa! Have things changed so much? Are things weird?” We don’t need any explanation at all for something that hasn’t happened.

I’m sixty-nine and I’ve seen a lot of things come and go, lots of change. I can’t say that things are weider now than they were in the past. But maybe I don’t know what “weird” means in this context. The OP seems fired up and overwrought about some change, something new, powerful, and disturbing–something that cries out for explanation, but not the explanation of “the Algorithm”–but the OP never provides a concrete example of what that something is. It is disturbing certainly, and, yes, weird, I guess, that Donald Trump might be president of the United States again. That’s something I can understand. Is that what is meant by “weird”? Is that what needs explaining by something that is not the “Algorithm”?


Bob 01.30.24 at 11:53 pm

‘Anxieties about “The Algorithm” reveal how our lives are already governed by systems we don’t understand and can’t control.’

Anxieties don’t necessarily reveal anything of the kind. The anxieties could be just plain wrong–there’s nothing to worry about (e.g., Bill Gates injecting people with mind-controlling micro-chips). Or they could be right, there is something to be anxious about, but just not what the anxieties think we should be worried about.


Whirrlaway 01.31.24 at 5:27 am

I’ll tell you life was deeply weird in the 50s, I was there. Before that things were just chaotic as far as I know. End of the Pleistocene blues.


Neville Morley 01.31.24 at 8:45 am

It’s tangential to the main post, but I’d like to pick up on Alex SL’s comment about historical precedent for polarisation. On the one hand, yes, one of the best descriptions of the process appears c.400 BCE in Thucydides’ account of stasis in Corcyra – not just escalating violence between different factions within the political community and families being divided over such issues but a change in cultural discourse and rhetoric, so that morality is based on how far you benefit your faction and damage the other, and reason and moderation are labelled as cowardice.

On the other hand, I think it’s worth keeping in mind that these are struggles focused directly on political control, within very small communities – a major part of the horror is that traditional ties of friendship and kinship are replaced by political ties rather than them all reinforcing one another. The leaders of political violence in Rome didn’t just know their adversaries, they had complex personal and family ties with them. Suggesting that contemporary polarisation, in which people get angry about total strangers or abstract issues, is just the same thing and therefore social media can’t be an issue seems problematic.


TM 01.31.24 at 9:59 am

“our lives are already governed by systems we don’t understand and can’t control”

It’s like nobody (Marx?) ever made that observation before Social Media or the Internet or whatever it is the author is referring to.


Alex SL 01.31.24 at 12:39 pm

Neville Morley,

Not sure I immediately see the difference. Maybe the upper class of Rome or Greek city states were more inbred than our upper class; or maybe not except to the degree that there are today many more people on the planet. It is astonishing, for example, how many British political leaders went to the same two schools, and other countries have similar dynamics even if perhaps not to that extreme degree. More to the point, perhaps, when I read your response my mind immediately went to stories of families torn apart by Trumpism or Brexit or QAnon, of people breaking off contact with their retired parents because they are incapable of having any conversation except shouting about immigrants.

Yes, there is a lot of getting angry not just at strangers but at entirely made up phantoms, imaginary conspiracies to confiscate all guns or imaginary students who supposedly sit around cuddling emotional support dogs, swap pronouns, and plot the downfall of western civilisation instead of learning. But what that does in the end is tear families apart, often along generational lines.


M Caswell 01.31.24 at 2:27 pm

The skeptics claiming that there’s nothing new under the sun must be right, to some degree. On the other hand, does anyone really think there’s nothing at all particular or characteristic about digital/internet technology? (Corporate tech certainly doesn’t think this.) It might be helpful to make the question descriptive, rather than evaluative.


Sashas 01.31.24 at 5:46 pm

@M Caswell (16)

Here’s my take.

New: Scalable rule-mediated systems.

The thing that is new here is not some bullshit like “objectivity” (more on that below). It’s that we now have subordinates that can engage in complex action without anyone in the loop to say “Hey, wait a minute!…”, or to make “human error”. For the first, humans have been saying “I was just following orders” for centuries, but this might be the first time in history that a leader can count on everyone just following orders no matter what. For the second, I make the analogy of raindrops on stone. If I take all of the night’s rain and drop every single one on the same exact spot, I can bore a hole right through the stone. This kind of large scale consistency is nearly unprecedented.

Not New But Notable: Bias and responsibility laundering.

The myth of digital systems’ “objectivity” is really convenient for the blame-somebody-else crowd. There’s nothing at all “new” here per se. People have been laundering bias or responsibility through other people, committees, etc basically forever. But the myth that nobody truly made The Algorithm–it just IS–is a perfect fit for this kind of activity.


J-D 02.01.24 at 5:14 am

Given any two phenomena, it is possible, if you search hard enough, to find both points of similarity (no matter how remote) and points of difference (no matter how fine), and both the points of similarity and the points of difference may be worth investigating for explanation.

If you’re interested in points of difference between the present and the past, one of them is not ‘Now things feel weird whereas before they didn’t’, and it’s pointless trying to explain a difference when in fact there isn’t such a difference.


TM 02.01.24 at 8:22 am

I don’t think there’s “nothing new under the sun”. Technological change matters and should be investigated and grappled with.

But my answer to the question “why are things so weird” (I wouldn’t frame the question like that) is not “social media” or “the algorithm”, it’s “fascism”. The rise of fascism has taken most of us by surprise, it is underlying the feeling that things have changed in a profound way. And while some elements of this fascism are new (*) and its technologies are obviously not the same as a hundred years ago, basically it is or should be familiar to anyone with a minimum of historical consciousness.

(*) As Rick Perlstein quotes Jeff Sharlet in https://prospect.org/politics/2024-01-24-american-fascism-john-ganz/:
“One of the mistakes people make is they say, ‘Well, this doesn’t look like European fascism in 1936.’ Well, because it’s American fascism in 2024.” [By now, I’d add, it’s international fascism.]


Mikhail Shubin 02.01.24 at 2:53 pm

For the first time in a long while I see the word “weird” used with a negative connotation


J, not that one 02.01.24 at 3:48 pm

Has there been a time when “we” understood the systems that governed us? The claim seems, rather, to be that there’s a body of knowledge that represents the pre-postmodern world perfectly accurately, but things have changed, and the people who possess that knowledge find their knowledge less valuable. It would then be unclear what the consequences are for the people who never possessed that knowledge.

Or is the claim that there was a common knowledge about thirty to seventy years ago, that most ordinary people possessed, that also described the system of government and bureaucracy and medicine and so on perfectly well — and the only innovation is that the system has changed?

Neither of them seems to be the truth about things. (For one thing, the change in the first paragraph seems to have already happened thirty to fifty years ago.) I’m all for sympathizing with people who would prefer their knowledge and their world to align better. I don’t see the point of blaming that solely on technologists who won’t believe the same things as we do, no more and no less.


MisterMr 02.01.24 at 6:07 pm

@TM 19
But my answer to the question “why are things so weird” (I wouldn’t frame the question like that) is not “social media” or “the algorithm”, it’s “fascism”. The rise of fascism has taken most of us by surprise, it is underlying the feeling that things have changed in a profound way.

The “rise of fascism” is not really that surprising, it is fueled by increased “middle class” anxiety due to small economic growth and increasing inequality (hollowing in the middle).
For a definition of “middle class” that includes small owners but also workers with decent-to-good wages.

On the other hand, there are some cultural changes that have nothing to do with politics, like an increase of aggressivity in stuff like fandom wars: some time ago in a completely different forum I started speaking bad of, of all things, Pokemon, and in like half an hour there was so much hostility between the pro-pokemon faction and the anti-pokemon faction that I had to close the thread.
YThis has nothing to do with politics but shows, IMHO, certain bad habits that are becoming common in the social media era, that are caused by the eco-chember effect, plus the natural inclination of people to search for confirmation.

But if you sum those non political bad habits to the general aggressivity of political discourse, increased because of the umpleasant economic situation of the last decade(s), that kind of eco-chamber mindset also increase the level of lack of dialogue/aggressivity.


Alex SL 02.01.24 at 11:03 pm

I don’t think anybody is saying that technology doesn’t matter, merely that the effect is fascism, and that fascism does not need a Facebook algorithm as a cause, see fairly recent past when the hot new medium was radio. The question then arises, what does cause fascism?

I am not a sociologists but a biologist, so this isn’t my wheelhouse, but as much as I hate inequality and would like to have an egalitarian society, I am skeptical of the inequality explanation. Should that not make the affected people more left-wing populist? Best I can tell, the main supporters of fascism today are (a) well-off retirees who reject social change in the form of immigration and minority rights, (b) angry young men who are frustrated that young women don’t get into the kitchen and make a sammich, and (c) young and middle aged men who think they should get rich for doing nothing except being white and male or maybe buying bitcoin or doing a side hustle with ChatGPT, and who then get extremely angry when that doesn’t work out. People actually affected worst by inequality, however, like a woman with an immigrant background trying to make ends meet on a term contract, tend left, by and large.

I therefore see the driving factor of fascism not as inequality but as part reaction to social change and part immature entitlement. In fact as regards the latter, there are mental commonalities across the spectrum of all right-wing conspiracy theories and the neo-fascist movement overall: epistemic over-confidence including a rejection of other people’s perspectives, expertise, and legitimate interests; a childish insistence on getting everything that one wants immediately without having to make trade-offs and compromises; and ‘simplism’, i.e., the belief that getting everything one wants immediately without having to care for trade-offs or the interests of others should be simple and is only frustrated because of some liberal/remainer/elite conspiracy, and if a Great Man like Trump, Johnson, or Putin was in charge, that man could just thump the fist on the table and all complexities will evaporate. These are all closely connected, of course.

Based on this, and again with the caveat that I am not a sociologist who can support this with data, my suspicion is that the last great recession that actually led to mass starvation and the last world war are now so long in the past that people have forgotten that politics isn’t a game to be won debate club style but is about making decisions that affect both people individually and our societal cohesion and that you can’t get everything at the cost of others but have to negotiate and compromise and respect their interests too, plus compromise with, well, reality, because you can’t still have your cake after eating it.

Billionaires think they can just take everything and destroy the institutions and constraints that kept the plebs happy enough not to riot or become communist. Journalists think their job is getting clicks, doing horse race reporting, and maintaining access instead of reporting what is happening and how it affects people. Politicians think their job is winning elections by doing the right PR moves and then retiring into speaking tours and cushy advisory contracts instead of making decisions that keep society on a stable path for the next generation. It’s all a game, because nothing really bad has happened in so long! Right-wing voters think they can purge their nation of immigrants AND that this won’t collapse the services and the economy that they rely on themselves AND that the interests and feelings of the immigrants don’t count at all and, oh, of course I didn’t mean my daughter’s pediatrician, she is one of the few good ones, I only meant the ones I have never met in person because those are easier to hate.

None of this needs Facebook or even Fox News. It just needs complacency and immaturity born from never having experienced really bad times and never yet having had to face the consequences one’s decisions have wrought. Surely it isn’t a coincidence that the modern welfare state arose out of the great depression and WW2 and has been dismantled since ca. the late 70s and early 80s, ca. 1.5-2.0 generations of politicians/journalists/voters after those bad times.


J-D 02.01.24 at 11:46 pm

But my answer to the question “why are things so weird” (I wouldn’t frame the question like that) is not “social media” or “the algorithm”, it’s “fascism”.

Obviously there are questions for which ‘fascism’ is the answer, and equally obviously there are questions for which it is not the answer. So what is the question? If some people are saying ‘The answer is X’ and other people are saying ‘The answer is Y’, one obviously plausible explanation is that they’re trying to answer different questions. There is no point in people trying to agree on an answer if they aren’t in agreement about what question they are trying to answer.


John Q 02.02.24 at 8:59 am

As Wikipedia says, in math and compsci, an algorithm is “a finite sequence of rigorous instructions, typically used to solve a class of specific problems or to perform a computation”

But the term as it is now used, is much closer to “a machine—especially one programmable by a computer—capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically” which is Wikipedia’s definition of “robot”. Robots depend on some set of inputs to determine which actions to undertake, and the required series of responses is determined by a model, that is “an informative representation of an object, person or system. ” When the robot is in software form it is more commonly referred to as a “bit”.

We have a vast cultural reservoir of thinking about robots, and what can go wrong which is elided by the term “algorithm”. And most of us have a healthy (or sometimes excessive and unhealthy) suspicion of models.

So, instead of “algorithms” we should talk about “model-driven bots”.


engels 02.02.24 at 10:10 am

The anxieties could be just plain wrong–there’s nothing to worry about (e.g., Bill Gates injecting people with mind-controlling micro-chips).

Wait till you upgrade to Windows 11.


Mitchell Porter 02.02.24 at 11:15 am

“As we accept the content presented to us, we react as if it were the product of humans rather than human-accounts”

Does this apply to blog-posts as well?


MisterMr 02.02.24 at 11:32 am

@Alex SL 23
People actually affected worst by inequality, however, like a woman with an immigrant background trying to make ends meet on a term contract, tend left, by and large.

People most affected by increasing inequality are not the ones at the bottom, but the ones that previously were in the middle and therefore now perceive the change as downward mobility.
If you speak of immigrants, in particular, the difference in the level of income between poor countries and rich ones overall shrunk in the last decades, meanwhile the differences in income/wealth inside the same country increased more or less everywhere in the same time period.

This change is likely linked to the increase in nationalism, that is a big part of “fascism”: the increse in “internal” inequality causes an economic stagnation, countries compete against each other more for exports (or in the case of the USA, there is a perceived excess of imports) etc.

Would it be more rational for people to go to the left? Ideally yes, but only for people who already think in a “leftish” way; someone who thinks in a “rightish” way and therefore assumes that USA businesses should have more profits so they will hire more will vote for Trump and expect him to stick it to the chineses/general foreigners (and of course the same happens in other countries).


engels 02.02.24 at 1:06 pm

The way I see there are two forms of fascism developing today, and neither are very similar to classical fascism, which requires a left antagonist which no longer exists. The weaker kind is Trumpoid petty bourgeois reaction. The stronger kind is PMC/FAANG authoritarianism, which is ushering in a new era of quasi-feudalism with a the full support of the “centre” (artists formerly known as liberals). Both are militarist, irrationalist and anti-democratic in the extreme and the differences between them are smaller than many people here think.


Alex SL 02.02.24 at 1:59 pm


I guess I kind of think that this stretches perception of ‘inequality’ as a problem beyond how I would define it. Certainly there will be people who come at it from the perspective of having lost a factory job to globalisation and thinking that that was somehow the fault of the Indian guy running the corner shop or of a Nigerian nurse as opposed to the fault of the white managers who outsourced production to Taiwan. They would indeed be ‘downward mobile’, and I can reason my way from there to xenophobia and maybe to cryptocurrency and other get-rich-quick cults.

But that doesn’t, IMO, explain Jordan Peterson and Andrew Tate, Trump, the belief that the EU wants to ban bendy bananas and church bells, QAnon, an angry refusal to wear masks during a health crisis, the belief that scientists have invented global warming to destroy society just because, or the vitriolic hatred of transgender people. Yes, some people are pretty illogical, but it seems like a stretch that so many would reason as follows: I am getting poorer while the billionaires get richer, that’s is bad > ???? > the real problem in society today are pronouns, down with pronouns! The starting point has to be a different one to arrive reliably at that destination, I think.

As mentioned before, it also quite simply isn’t the case that the rightwing populist/alt-right/conspiracy-mongers are primarily unemployed former steelworkers et al. An enormous part of it are well-off retirees, and a smaller but very loud part are angry young men who have never had one of those jobs affected by globalisation. For the latter, the charitable interpretation is that they are frustrated because the safe career with a good chance of owning a home by age 30 that their grandparents had isn’t available anymore. But then we are back at the problem that their attempt to fix that isn’t doing something that helps (unionising and voting socialist) but idolising the psychotic billionaires who cause the inequality, promoting obvious financial frauds, and making life miserable for women and minorities.

Is the main difference between our perspectives simply that you see that behaviour as stupid but understandable given ‘inequality’, and I see it as not justifiable and thus evil?


Tm 02.02.24 at 4:34 pm

Alex is right of course. Although I do think that inequality is related to the rise of fascism but it has to be more complex than theories of economic anxiety and fear of social decline have it. Among the most striking features of contemporary right wing politics is how divorced it seems from material reality. If you believe right wingers, and not just the online fringe but the actual leaders of the movement, then among the most pressing problems of our time are
– the proper use of pronouns
– the proper labeling of public bathrooms
– minority characters in school books
… and so on.

When you look at the right wing parties’ actual political demands, they are mostly unrelated to the material situation of the people voting for them (which doesn’t mean that they don’t have material consequences if implemented, but those consequences generally fall on other people). With one exception, the demand for cheap and subsidized fossil fuels, which now animates all these farmers‘ protests. This fascism is definitely fossil fueled.


engels 02.02.24 at 7:40 pm

It takes a special kind of doublethink to refuse to compromise on pronouns etc AND to believe that the focus on these issues is entirely an obsession of the right.


MisterMr 02.02.24 at 11:32 pm

@Alex SL
Is the main difference between our perspectives simply that you see that behaviour as stupid but understandable given ‘inequality’, and I see it as not justifiable and thus evil?

I also see it as morally evil and non justifiable, I think that it is logically understandable, not that it is justifiable. I also think that the feeling of insecurity explains a lot of apparently non related parts of right wing authoritarianism, in the sense that people will just create scapegoats to feel that they are better.


If you believe right wingers, and not just the online fringe but the actual leaders of the movement, then among the most pressing problems of our time are – the proper use of pronouns – the proper labeling of public bathrooms – minority characters in school books … and so on.

This is a shared belief with leftists though!
But more seriously, the problem is that you speak of the “conscious” belief of right wingers, whereas I speak of what I believe is the unconscious drive that make those conscious belief come forward. For example some male dudes who culturally think they should act macho but are socially insecure for economic reasons might feel as if “society” is de-masculating (hope the word is correct) them, but the driver is still economic insecurity.

By the way, Berlusconi was an earlier example of this kind of politics (and Bossi too, though he was less known outside of Italy), and Italy is in economic decline since the early ’90s (though not necessariously due to increased inequality), so another clue toward economic distress.

Putin obviously came to power after the horribly bad economic chaos of the fall of the URSS etc..


MisterMr 02.02.24 at 11:53 pm

An add on to my previous comment (sorry it has nothing to do with algorithms)

When we look at “fascism”, it has some irrational, emotional aspects that come directly from the baboon brain, and are often sexualized or semi-sexualized (so obsession with sexual purity/anti-miscgenation, the party leader that acts like a total alpha male etc.).

In some psychological sense those are the “roots” of fascism. But in a sociological sense, the root is economic insecurity, that then makes those “archetypical [f1]” fantasies come to the fore.
This economic insecurity is then an indirect result of increased inequality, globalisation etc.
Otherwise one would have to conclude that people just started going fascist around 1990 for no reason.

[f1] in the literal sense of Jung. It is difficult to say what constitutes an ideology, but I’d define it as a worldview which includes emotional judgements of value.
So we can describe an ideology from two points of view: if we look towards the psychological aspect, we in the end will reach to some fundamental, baboon brain emotions, thiose are the archetypes, but those will be common to all ideologies; if we look in the other direction we will see that these “archetypes” are attached to different real world objects, and this is what differentiates ideologies one from the other.
So there is no contradiction between claiming that ideologies are based on baboon brain archetypes and claiming that they reflect economic structures, we are just looking from different directions.


Tm 02.03.24 at 9:23 am

„This is a shared belief with leftists though!“

Nonsense. Remember I’m referring not to the online fringe but the leaders of the movement, including heads of government. There is zero leftist equivalent to the DeSantis-type culture war. Absolutely zero. You really need to make an effort to check your claims empirically, and by that I mean all your claims.


Tm 02.03.24 at 11:05 am

Also MisterMr: „For example some male dudes who culturally think they should act macho but are socially insecure for economic reasons might feel…“

Some… might feel … perhaps but this is pure speculation without empirical evidence. To the contrary, we know that many vocal rightwingers are economically well off, even on the winning side of the inequality game. And economic conditions in Europe and the US are not comparably bad, with close to the lowest unemployment in decades, and not remotely comparable to the post-Soviet breakdown, or the Great Depression or similar comparators.

And really, just pointing to economic factors is not actually an explanation. It might be the beginning of an investigation but not the end of it. Because obviously, people do respond differently to external factors. The question why this response and not a different one (an empirical clue: in several countries, young women move left and young men move right – and no, women are not economically more secure than men) doesn’t answer itself.

To be clear, I don’t claim to have a better theory. But your habit of cheap speculation without even trying to provide evidence I find boring.


engels 02.03.24 at 2:00 pm

There is zero leftist equivalent to the DeSantis-type culture war.

How can there be a “war” with only one side?


engels 02.03.24 at 2:16 pm

Quoth TM: You really need to make an effort to check your claims empirically


Compensation, Austerity, and Populism: Social Spending and Voting in 17 Western European Countries

There has been a dramatic rise in voting for populist parties in Europe over the past thirty years. We assess the role of government labor market policy in dampening or provoking populist sentiment. Drawing from a panel of 189 elections from 1990 to 2017 and pooled cross-sectional data from eight waves of the European Social Survey, we find evidence that populist parties fared worse where countries spent more on social support, especially for labor market programs that provide income to workers experiencing unemployment (“passive labor market” policies). We also find that cuts to these programs are strongly associated with increased support for populist parties. The effect was stronger among those individuals who had experienced unemployment and among those facing adverse economic circumstances. This suggests that the welfare and labor-market reforms of the 1990s and early 2000s may have alienated vulnerable segments of the population and driven them toward populist parties.



Richard Melvin 02.04.24 at 7:29 am

A lot of people looking in the wrong place. It’s not the rise of social media, it’s the end of broadcast media.

Political polarization happened in ancient Rome or whatever in a situation of near-complete absence of broadcast media. If the TV series is to be believed, there was one guy in the central marketplace with a loud voice. 99.9% of people must have found out basic facts like who the Emperor is this week, or what he just did, from their social contacts.

During peak TV news, America decided to get involved in Vietnam on a whim, heavily committed, lost, and then withdrew. Thanks to the Overton window, this mostly wasn’t a matter of one faction seizing control from another, but the same people making different decisions over time.

This all made things pretty simple; you would get polarization if and only if you had multiple sources of mass news media. The american colonies first set up newspapers, then rebelled, then shut down all newspapers owned by the losing side. The US civil war split the country in two based mostly on what newspapers people read. Scotland mostly has different news media from England, Wales mostly does not.

How could that go away and not change things?





MisterMr 02.04.24 at 9:33 am

@Tm 36

So for example in Italy we had 0 growth in wages in the last 30 years, even if unemployment is low (but underemployment, that is difficult to judge, IMHO is quite high). In the USA also for many years wage growth was very low relative to overall growth. In eastern Europe growth is much better but AFAIK it is very unequal. This kind of thing is likely to fuel a sense of insecurity, that might fuel authoritarian tendencies.
Can I empirically prove it? No but, if you read Atlemeyer’s book on Right Wing Authoritarianism (he is the one who wrote the RWA scale) insecurity and fear of change are described a main factor of high RWA.
By the way, since you clearly are interested in authoritarianism, if you didn’t read is book “the authoritarians” read it, he posts it free online and at best of my understanding he is quite an authority on the subject (and it isn’t marxian, it is standard social psychology).

Engels at 29 notes that interwar fascism emerged against socialism, but today there is no socialist threat. Well yes, but for example the jingoism of pre WW1 was more similar to present day right wing authoritarianism, and I see no reason to differentiate it from fascism. True, Mussolini and Hitler came later, but they were the most extreme form of the problem, certainly if a mayor power today was ruled by a new Hitler we would be in deep shit. Putin might perhaps be likened to Mussolini, but there are differences because Mussolini was also imperialist, whereas Putin is more like an irredentist (italian fascism and also nazism were also irredentist) but at the time colonialism was much more common by all european powers so it is difficult to make a comparison.


LFC 02.04.24 at 5:05 pm

The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville VA in 2017 featured violent clashes between neo-fascists and counter-protesters, one of whom was killed when one of the neo-fascists drove his car into the crowd. If engels’s argument that contemporary fascism lacks a left-wing antagonist were correct, it would be hard to make sense of events like that, or, e.g., of clashes between BLM protesters and their right-wing opponents. If engels is referring to the absence of mass-based left-wing political parties in the U.S. and some (but not all) other Western countries, that’s roughly accurate, but the phrase “left-wing antagonist” is broader than that.


steven t johnson 02.04.24 at 8:24 pm

“Engels at 29 notes that interwar fascism emerged against socialism, but today there is no socialist threat. Well yes, but for example the jingoism of pre WW1 was more similar to present day right wing authoritarianism, and I see no reason to differentiate it from fascism.”

Of course Engels is wrong that there is no socialist threat, Trump’s tirades against Marxist/Communist/socialist/fascist tyranny are widely publicized by the mass media. In the larger sense of a threat to profit rates and the value of money, and the threat of Chinese competition, which is also perceived at socialism, there is indeed that too. Wasn’t it Jamie Dimon who was whining about the coming debt crisis? The old democratic socialist claim that welfare is socialism hasn’t died. The empirical argument that the Democratic Party and Joe Biden aren’t socialists is entirely irrelevant to fascist politics.

And frankly the conviction that the PRC really is just another capitalist country is not solidly empirical in my view. It’s why the Chinese bourgeoisie in Taiwan hasn’t been putting the finishing touches on the reunification. There is a strong tendency to want to claim capitalism “works” by arbitrarily dubbing the PRC capitalist but the PRC stands for People’s Republic of China, not Public Relations for Capitalism. Buried in official documents I think you can find the occasional discreet concession the PRC is not a free market economy in the same sense as the democracies.

[Engels’ remarks on PMC and FAANG authoritarianism ushering in quasi-feudalism is incomprehensible, unless it’s doubletalk to support Trumpery, to me at least. My ideas about class are Marxist-influenced and incompatible with the PMC amalgamation; my notion of authoritarianism is incompatible with a materialist approach that rules psychology as secondary causes whose existence and relevance are determined by social factors, not to mention “the masses” don’t properly have a psychology, not having collective minds; invoking feudalism should reference some of the things that actually charactized real-world feudalism, such as literal serfdom, armed forces at the disposal of local lords; a landed Church; the relative nonexistence of modern states with their defined national territories, national currencies, national markets but a ruling class with extensive international familial ties and dispersed properties, a relative handful of quasi-independent cities where “Stadt luft macht frei,” etc. etc. Whatever Engels is on about seems to be nonsense.]

Literally MisterMr is correct that the jingoism of pre-WWI regimes is closely related to the hypothetical right-wing authoritarianism that for some reason must be found in lieu of semi-fascism, crypto-fascism, fascistic instead of militantly blatant fascism that insists on using the classic stylings of the Thirties. But that was the root of fascism and the struggle against socialism was a force in causing WWI. Domenico Losurdo is good on how the colonialist strategy and tactics were applied “at home” by fascism. Jacques Pauwels’ The Great Class War is good on the role the struggle against socialism played in the collapse of democracy that began in 1914 I think.

But limiting it to jingoism is untenable. An essential aspect of fascism, in all its varieties are its determination to revamp the constitutional order, including purifying society and coordinating all the powers of the state to this end.

Personally I don’t think a Fuehrer-prinzip with the intensity of Hitler’s regime is required. Japanese fascism was not an orientalist fantasy, the imposition of state shinto and critical role of assassination in Japanese interwar politics I think was enough. Indeed I think that a state which de jure discriminates against whole segments of the population, with de facto illegal violence and constitutionally arbitrary government, constitutes a kind of fascism even if democratic elections are held among the Herrenvolk.

The embarrassment that this means not just the antebellum US but the post-Redemptionist/Jim Crow US, as well as the Zionist enterprise, are at least fascism adjacent is not even an argument.

And by the way, irredentism was characteristic of Garibaldi/Mazzini Italy, not Mussolini Italy. And irredentism was characteristic of the Third Republic in regard to Alsace-Lorraine. The inadvertent concession that Putin is irredentist acknowledges the Ukrainian ***** is trying to impose its exclusivist rule on Russian language/ethnic Russian majority districts. The only defense against the right of self-determination of peoples is to hold old or even not so old boundaries sacred, regardless of national issues.


nastywoman 02.05.24 at 11:19 am

and @elonmusk just told US
‘Critical thinking should be the first thing taught to kids’
and we answered:
‘about ‘critical sinking’ each morning now when we open our timeline on X
the FIRST four to five tweets we see are from Germany’s (or US) Right-Wingers.
Is this done by ‘the Algorithm’ of X or by
persönlich? Could anybody answer?

and why. don’t you ever answer such question
as we are just some ‘kids’.

And if you are too embarrassed to post this comment – could you just send US the answer
via e-mail?


engels 02.05.24 at 12:37 pm

Am I alone in finding about 2/3 of my comments disappear for no apparent reason? It’s very frustrating when people address you and your replies disappear.

I agree #29 was a unclear (and possibly overly provocative). I think contemporary capitalism is heading in an authoritarian direction largely due to technological change and independently of Trump etc. That doesn’t mean I like Trump—I don’t—sorry if that wasn’t clear! Although it’s not really central to the argument I’m making I disagree that the PMC concept is incompatible with Marxism, although from a Marxist perspective it isn’t a class. If this gets through I may try to expand but I’ve already had about three comments vanish that I thought were more careful than the ones that got through.


engels 02.05.24 at 1:31 pm

Of course Engels is wrong that there is no socialist threat, Trump’s tirades against Marxist/Communist/socialist/fascist tyranny are widely publicized by the mass media.

Yes, because if Trump says something it must be true. I trust you’ve taken your Ivernectin today?

The point of the “PMC” was to distinguish a credentialed section of the middle class, which supports the Dem establishment, from a petty capitalist section which supports Trump. Neither are remotely “left” and both are potentially authoritarian for the reasons MrMr rehearses.

Btw LFC is right that “left antagonist” was too broad, I should have said “socialist”.


engels 02.05.24 at 1:54 pm

I don’t understand how anyone can think that pre-WW1 Europe was already “fascist” because of nationalism and empire but Bush-Obama-Biden-era US isn’t.


MisterMr 02.05.24 at 3:58 pm

@steven t johnson 22
“irredentism was characteristic of Garibaldi/Mazzini Italy”

It depends, a lot of the expansion in the balkans was justified by irredentist claims.
The difference is that Garibaldi/Mazzini italian nationalism was more or less “ethnically justified” and apparently quite popular, whereas from WW1 onward at least there was the imposition of “italianity” on populations that clearly didn’t want it.

There is some ambiguity in how much the italian unification pre WW1 was popular among its subjects, however for example Garibaldy started his champaign with an army of 1000 against an army of 300000 of the kingdom of the two sicilies, the only reason he could win is that by and large the locals rebelled to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and went on Garibaldi’s side, otherwise it would have been impossible to win against odds of 300/1; ont the other hand in the Sud Tirol/Alto Adige region most people don’t feel very italian even now, and east of Trieste there were large italian groups but they still were minorities.

That said I don’t think it is possible to put a clear line between italian unification and italian expansionism in the balkans during Mussolini, there are differences but the expansion was a continuation of the unification.


Kevin Munger 02.05.24 at 4:53 pm

Uhhh ok y’all have fun with that. A preview of my next post, this quote seems apropos:

"I have not been able to convince myself that one policy, one party, one class, or one set of tactics, is as fertile as human need. It would be very easy if such a belief were possible. It would save time and energy and no end of grubbing: just to keep on repeating what you've learnt, eloquent, supremely confident, with the issues clean, a good fight and an inevitable triumph: Marx, or Lincoln, or Jefferson with you always as guide, counsellor and friend. All the thinking done by troubled dead men for the cocksure living; no class to consider but your own; no work that counts but yours; every party but your party composed of fools and rascals; only a formula to accept and a simple fight to win,--it would be easy. It might work on the moon."

steven t johnson 02.05.24 at 6:06 pm

Engels@45 & 46 pretends there is no conflict between Trump and the foes he calls socialists, Marxists, fascists, etc. The fact that Trump’s names for the foes are just as imaginary as international Jew banker conspiracy or a Judaeo-Bolshevik subversion of the White race were for Nazis is entirely irrelevant. Fascists don’t need real enemies, they just need targets. Mere empirical arguments against the Democratic Party being socialist etc. I repeat are entirely irrelevant. I can see no merit in obfuscating this, unless meant to indirectly minimize the issues, reducing it all to a senile dementia of Trump personally.

The thing is, Trump is not just Trump but the Republican Party more or less in toto, considerable parts of the Democratic Party (No Labels for an open example, but even more in many suburbs and rural areas across the country,) the large sections of the mass media openly propagandizing for him (Fox, Sinclair et al.,) many of the little rich or enraged wannabes, and a significant fraction of big rich, like the Mercers and even the Kochs, who continue to buy advertising from the pro-Trump mass media, i.e., won’t shut it down like they did the Sanders campaign.

I repeat, democratic socialists have explained for a century or more that social welfare by the government is socialism and have zero credibility when they claim that is not the target. There is an opposition by socialism in this sense. Moving the goalposts on what counts as socialism is not useful except in minimizing the issues. Ultimately the mass of the people are the target, regardless of pretenses of socialism in the Democratic Party. And in the sense the people really are potentially major foes, fascist methods are what may pass for necessities among the owners and their employees and the “middle class” social detritus pulled along in their wake. That’s why all the supposed explanations about how there isn’t really any fascism but it’s all just the nastiness of the authoritarian masses or some such is so wrong-headed, in my best judgment.

As to the proposed justification of PMC not as a class but some new causal force, well, I think the MBA is a credential too and the notion that “credential’ makes Democrats even is nonsense. That’s like saying all MDs are Democrats and/or social liberals I think. And worse, decreeing the very existence of a “Dem establishment” is very Trumpian with the added problem it says Trump is telling the truth! And disappearing the big rich who support Trump is accepting Trump’s claim to stand for the common man. Who’s taking the Ivermectin?

“I don’t understand how anyone can think that pre-WW1 Europe was already ‘fascist’ because of nationalism and empire but Bush-Obama-Biden-era US isn’t.” Isn’t it amazing how the Trumpists manage to disappear Trump’s presidency? There’s a reason why revising the Fourteenth Amendment, for one example, or openly subordinating universities to political control, for another, or abolishing the very concept of asylum, for a third are one agenda but another. Radically revising the constitutional order to mobilize the state for war against the people and the world is I think fascist. You can’t expect fascists to waste time in mass paramilitary outfits, the fascists are already in the police and the military.

As they say, normalizing “Trump” is a political position in itself, and not an opposition to Trump. But that parallels rather closely normalizing US politics in general. Presidents who lose the vote but win the election, presidents who bomb and assassinate at will, Federal Reserve chairmen determined to increase unemployment, there are all manner of such normalizations. But it still seems to me that a program of promising to punish enemy elites is very different politics.

That’s why expecting desperate measures from the ruling classes before the catastrophe of WWI is so foolish. And after it was the losers who needed the fascist package. In that sense the imperialists weren’t fascists before the crack-up. But denying the deep roots of fascism in the past before 1914 is historical falsification in my view.

MisterMr@47 is formally correct that, precisely because the roots of the fascist program(s—varies according to “local” politics,) lie deep in the past. Thus it is inevitable that there can be no indisputably clear line between, for instance, irredentist unification and colonial conquest. That would be like claiming there had to be a clear line between Hitler’s foreign policy and “his” army and the foreign policy of the Second Reich and the imperial army. Hitler offing Roehm alone disproves that. The question, though, what is the usefulness of drawing a clear line? Demanding a clear line in order to explain away the rising popularity of fascist strategy and tactics and systems among the owners I think is misleading.


LFC 02.05.24 at 9:56 pm

It’s easy for engels to natter on about how both the PMC allied with the Dems and the Trumpists are “potentially authoritarian.” engels doesn’t live in the U.S. and won’t directly face the consequences of a Trump victory. Those of us who do live in the U.S., or at least many of us, are keenly aware that there is a real choice in this election. Granted, it’s not socialism vs. capitalism. It’s liberal/constitutional democracy vs. erratic authoritarianism.


steven t johnson 02.06.24 at 2:24 pm

Re the “real choice” alleged above? Peace is not on the ballot. Empire is the death of the republic. War is the enemy of freedom. Yes, there is a sense in which the choice between a quick death and a slow death is “real.”

The astonishing thing is the vehemence and vituperation the shameless attack anyone and everyone outside the real-choice bipartisan system (Ins vs. Outs.) Erik Loomis, somehow still a respected historian, even raged at James Birney of the Liberty Party! That’s holding a grudge, even for Loomis.


SusanC 02.06.24 at 3:52 pm

@Rchard Melvin…

Ok, I think it’s plausible that the cause of our current situation is not so much the rise of Internet media, but the collapse of print newspapers. (Which collapsed because the Internet destroyed their business model).

“Freedom of the press belong to those who own one” — seen on an Apple ad, IIRC. Once you loose the cartel control over print newspapers…


engels 02.06.24 at 4:33 pm

Ok Stephen, I’ve never uttered a word remotely sympathetic to Trump anywhere ever but enjoy your show trial.

LFC, you’re right that as a lowly subject of an outlying province I have no standing to tell the imperial electorate which, if any, senile warmonger to support but perhaps you might listen to your fellow citizens:


steven t johnson 02.06.24 at 11:59 pm

enegels@53 “Ok Stephen, I’ve never uttered a word remotely sympathetic to Trump anywhere ever but enjoy your show trial.”

Unfortunately, engels@46 had written “I don’t understand how anyone can think that pre-WW1 Europe was already ‘fascist’ because of nationalism and empire but Bush-Obama-Biden-era US isn’t.” Not quite sure who identified post-WWI fascism with pre-WWI Europe, but regardless of who engels meant here, there is no doubt that engels found “Bush-Obama-Biden-era US” reprehensible to the same degree. Even if engels thinks equating pre-WWI Europe with post-war fascism was wrong or stupid or malicious, the point is against those who cover up the badness of, once again, “the Bush-Obama-Biden-era.” So although engels didn’t literally write a word in favor of Trump, omitting Trump from the rogue’s gallery, not writing the “Bush-Obama-Trump-Biden-era” is nonetheless blatantly pro-Trump.

Despite engels’ favoritism to Trump, Trump’s call for executing generals not on board with his rule (Milley) implies purging the officer caste, leaving the Pyatts and Flynns who took part in 1/6. (A passive part is still a part, refusing to do their duy is an act.) And yes, there is a real difference in the two candidates. Again, the problem is that Biden’s program is also lethal in the end for “democracy.” That’s one reason why the reluctance to actually prosecute most of the people involved in 1/6. Trump didn’t do it by himself, notwithstanding the pretenses. Section three of the fourteenth amendment applies to representatives and senators and acting secretaries of defense and so on too. And the exigencies of continuing Trump’s foreign policy requires its own assault on the people’s rights too.


engels 02.07.24 at 10:09 am

engels@46 had written “I don’t understand how anyone can think that pre-WW1 Europe was already ‘fascist’ because of nationalism and empire but Bush-Obama-Biden-era US isn’t.” … omitting Trumo from the rogue’s gallery… is… blatantly pro-Trump

Engels was pointing out that the reasoning that Trump is a fascist because nationalism and empire on the level of pre-WW1 Europe are “fascist” might seem to apply to George W. Bush who actually invaded a country and killed a million people and to the bipartisan ultra-nationalism took hold in US the wake of 9/11 and accompanied the so-called “War or Terror”. Engels was not “omitting” or “disappearing” Trump or denying his “fascism” but drawing an implicit comparison with him to probe a claim of uniqueness. Engels actually thought this was bleedingly obvious. Engels was wrong.


engels 02.07.24 at 4:20 pm

I was responding to the (rather odd, to me) argument that Trump is fascist because he resembles pre-WW1 European “jingoism” by suggesting this was also true of George W. Bush and other recent presidents. Therefore I didn’t mention Trump himself by name. Apologies for the misunderstanding and thanks for the discussion.


steven t johnson 02.07.24 at 5:28 pm

Thanks to engels for the clarification. On the point of Trump’s uniqueness, personally I find similarities between Trump and his predecessors, not so much Clinton, Bush or Obama, but such figures as Jackson (incompetence, overreaching, venality in spoils system,) Andrew Johnson (susceptibility to flattery, indifference or practical support of murderous racism, depraved advocacy of hate,) Nixon (conspiracy to undermine political norms and the practical function of the Constitution,) and Reagan (senile dementia and pathological indifference to truth.) So I agree Trump is not wholly unprecedented, for what that’s worth. [Polk by the way is too technically competent in getting his way to usefully compare to Trump, despite his extraordinary duplicity and small-mindedness.]


LFC 02.07.24 at 5:34 pm

Everything has antecedents or precursors, so antecedents of European fascism can be traced to before WW 1 (e.g., Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto), and ideas that were incorporated into fascist ideology were percolating before 1914. But there’s a big difference between saying that and saying that “pre-WW 1 Europe was already fascist because of nationalism and empire.” No: fascism as a distinctive kind of ideological amalgam, and as a political movement and parties that contest for state power, doesn’t appear until after WW 1. I prefer to use the term ‘neo-fascist’ for some of the current political tendencies, reserving the label fascist for European fascism of the 1920s and ’30s.


MisterMr 02.07.24 at 6:30 pm

I don’t think anybody disagrees that Bush the Jounger was a fascist, just that he was not obviously so (at least not from the POW of the USA electorate which was strongly hit by 9/11).

Obama and Biden, not really, at least not inside the USA.


MisterMr 02.07.24 at 6:32 pm

Add on to previous comment: Obama ‘s main sin outside USA was Afghanistan, but Biden rarely is applauded for closing the Afghan campaign.


KT2 02.08.24 at 1:37 am

Apparatus has a pedigree.

Originator of the phrase “the it from bit” physicist John Wheeler, in his “Information, Physics, Quantum: The Search for Links” 1989 used apparatus…

“…every it–every particle, every field of force, even the spacetime continuum itself–derives its function, its meaning, its very existence entirely–even if in some contexts indirectly–from the apparatus-elicited answers to yes-or-no questions, binary choices, bits.”

Physicist John Wheeler and the “It from Bit”
Jun 29 2022
Written By John Horgan


KT2 02.08.24 at 2:32 am

Why I feel weird, and get… “that feeling—floating somewhere between mania and motion sickness—that everything has changed.” (KM)

“To answer the question of “why does everything feel so weird?”, “it’s helpful to investigate why “(KM)… these words qnd concepts appear in comments at the rate of :
– Sociali** – 24, and only in comments not mentioned in the OP
– Capitali** – 8, only in comments
– Fasci** – 69, only in comments
– Special Case! – Trump, – 44x.

“… then we would know how to fix these things.”(KM)

“The Sphere* says:
“You see,” said my Teacher, “how little your words have done. So far as the Monarch understands them at all, he accepts them as his own – for he cannot conceive of any other except himself – and plumes himself upon the variety of Its Thought as an instance of creative Power. Let us leave this god of Pointland to the ignorant fruition of his omnipresence and omniscience: nothing that you or I can do can rescue him from his self-satisfaction.”[5]
—?the Sphere

Off topic.
During the ’90’s it was my role as chief factotum to an expert system dynamics modeler, to introduce system dynamics to people from fortune 500 companies, researchers through to local authorities. We set ourselves a challenge at workshops aimed at local authorites to NOT use ANY jargon, (almost reverted to pidgin on occasion) nor any controversial concepts ala the Mandarin Mussolini, capital… / social…/ fasc… / nor any isms. Very difficult at first but not insurmountable. And yes, I never was able to totally remove direct references and jargon.

An extreme example may be:
* Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions
“… is a satirical novella by the English schoolmaster Edwin Abbott Abbott”. Wikipedia

“A novel of mathematical whimsy, Flatland is set in the peculiar world that provides the book’s name and is home to its putative author, A. Square, a two-dimensional being in a world inhabited by lines, triangles, circles, and polygons. Ingeniously composed as a kind of dystopian memoir, Flatland is a stunning piece of social satire, depicting with great acuity the gender and class distinctions of Victorian Britain. Abbott’s notions about the larger conundrums posed by different dimensions and their relationships to one another were ahead of their time, mathematically speaking, but the enduring fascination of his fable is its depiction of the perils of making the world simpler than it is, no matter how elegantly provable that simplicity may seem.”

A yearly competition? CT Pidgin.
CT Inventive Writing Comp
Speciality topic but written using dimensions, or as per John Wheeler above, who “proposes fusing quantum theory with information theory”? as characters or combined concepts.
Your students may relish the challenge.
I’d love to read such texts.


steven t johnson 02.08.24 at 3:45 pm

Shrub (that’s 43) wasn’t a fascist. A president losing the vote but taking office because of the Electoral College is widely regarded as being democracy in action, because the principle of majority rule is not universally accepted, at least not in the US. Invading Afghanistan was just imperialism, and as England and France proved and even to a certain degree the Second Reich which was not an absolute monarchy (Russia was the template there,) proved it. For that matter the constitutional monarchy of Italy invaded Libya in 1911, long before Mussolini took power. It’s when the colonial war comes home that the fascism begins. Literally in the case of Spain, for a striking example.

Trump attempted to send the army into (“Democrat”/urban—and we know what that means) cities after the wave of BLM disturbances. Restoring order—>fixing the elections by depressing turnout etc. This was reportedly scotched by the senior military but even the symbolic March on Washington by Trump with generals by his side was fascistic style politics of a sort even Shrub eschewed. This preliminary to 1/6 is of course forgotten. But I think Trump remembers, one reason he called for Milley’s execution, another fascist politics kind of thing. Defending the “they will not replace us!” marchers in Charlottesville, or earlier calling for the Russians to hack Clinton, or for that matter “Locker her up! Lock her up!” are all a politics of lawlessness and force unlike Shrub’s.

Biden does get credit for withdrawing from Afghanistan, it’s why all branches of the media turned against him, both liberal and conservative. It’s why crime is publicized as out of control, why immigration is publicized as an invasion (more fascist styling by the way,) why inflation is worse than anything ever, why for that matter it is Biden who is routinely treated as mentally deficient in a country whose media dutifully reported everything from the deranged mouths of Reagan and Trump. The ruling class holds it against him, no matter how sensible a move it was even from a narrowly strategic, much less tactical, sense.

Obama did not invade Afghanistan. Barak “Too tan for the Klan” Obama did cooperate with Cameron and Sarkozy to destroy Libya even though the rebels started by lynching Black sub-Saharan Africans! No wonder he let Susan Rice and Susan Power and Hilary Clinton take the rap for that one. The murder of Anwar al-Awlaki, and even more, his teenage son, give him as strong a claim to fascism as Shrub, if you insist on that kind of atrocity definition. (I don’t think that a useable criterion.) I remember the stories about how Obama bravely wrote up kill lists. The amazing thing was that Obama flinched at expanding the war against Syria.


engels 02.08.24 at 9:05 pm

A president losing the vote but taking office because of the Electoral College is widely regarded as being democracy in action, because the principle of majority rule is not universally accepted, at least not in the US.

Almost as if there was something f-f-f-funny about the US constitution from the get-go…


steven t johnson 02.09.24 at 2:26 pm

Personally I always distinguish between the Founders and the Framers. Long, long ago I read Crane Brinton comparing revolutions. Brinton himself is lost to memory, but in my comparison the Constitutional Convention was homologous to the Directory, except temporarily successful (till 1861.) The total failures of the original Constitution until modified by the revolutionary amendments somehow has never been read as a sign the Framers were not geniuses, much less prophets sent by God.

As to the Electoral College, it is not widely understood that no one really agreed what the Constitution really meant until actual practice revealed its true social and political content. The election of 1800 demonstrated conclusively that the Electoral College was not a genuine indirect election, with the electors making their own choices as plenipotentiary representatives, no matter what some of the people who wrote that clause hoped. The Electoral College was understood by the majority of people to stand proxy for the “popular” vote, such as it was by the standards of the day. As such it is superfluous nonsense that might have been designed to cause problems. It is remarkable how few people wonder why so many lawyers were so bad at drafting legislation. Why would any competent lawyer suddenly discover “high crimes” somehow distinct from felonies but still leave in misdemeanors? Except to fudge the issue, on purpose, hoping it would go their way when wanted later? Perhaps the sudden discovery they needed the Eleventh Amendment is even more embarrassing?

The modern conservative view that a losing candidate taking the White House is the rules and that what democracy is, is more reactionary than the “conservatives” (Federalists) of 1800 who did after all choose Jefferson over Burr. Even when they wrote a reactionary sedition law they put in truth as a defense (won’t help Julian Assange) and a sunset clause (Espionage Act didn’t make that mistake.) Alexander Hamilton himself played footsie with Francisco Miranda, which is like discovering John Foster Dulles had dinners with Che Guevara. (Most commenters on this I remember finding this outrageous and further proof Hamilton was evil, instead of hinting at any saving graces.) But it’s like New Dealers being willing to consort at times with Communists, but the New New Dealers, won’t…but they know they are much more left than the New Dealers.

As to being “f-f-funny” a little bit maybe, but for the real joke there’s the Glorious Revolution. Of course most people prefer William III and Mary II to Cromwell (or worse, Rainey and Lilburne and ilk.) And most people prefer Bonaparte to Robespierre, if not the Bourbons, at least Orleanist not Legitimist. I suppose in the end most people prefer 1848 above all? So yes, most people prefer the Framers to the Founders, who were revolutionary. As I recall, David Andress’ The Terror starts with a useful summary of the unlovely side of the American Revolution that is not celebrated at all. Indeed, there is amazingly little remembered about the Revolution.

But if “funny” means (bourgeois) democracy is not what it’s cracked up to be, that’s true but also genuinely dark humor. Nonetheless, it is nonsense to pretend (bourgeois) democracy wasn’t a great step forward for humanity in general then. And it is pernicious nonsense to pretend now that it was all hypocrisy and sham and folly then, all to support the assumption that we enlightened people of today are getting it right, including none of that nonsense in parentheses, it’s democracy pure and simple.

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