Zack Friedman

The Barbarians Are Coming


ISSUE 70 | SAFE | DEC 2016

Politics is a system for allocating fear. It plays on old fears and summons new ones, distributing individual and collective anxieties that function both intentionally, to manipulate people and groups, and inadvertently, to trigger spasms of action that spur unexpected events. It is not hard to see this in right-wing politics. Republicans have stoked fears—of terrorists, foreigners, crime, conspiracy, racial and sexual catastrophe—and now they have been swept up in those fears, as if every demon had at once possessed the improbable body of Donald Trump.

Liberals also have their methods of managing fear. The Democratic dream is the disenchantment of politics. They depict a world in which the political is no longer mysterious; perhaps not everything has been solved yet, but everything is soluble. Even the irrational can be managed. Democrats and Republicans both present themselves as bulwarks against chaos, but their versions of disorder differ. The conservative’s chaos is the instability of hierarchy, from the border to the workplace to the home. Liberals warn of what happens when we are not ruled by experts with professional norms, according to set rules and in accordance with knowable facts—when the ideological, the incompetent, and the venal are in charge. In some horror-movie pop-psychoanalytic sense, the election represents an outpouring of everything that was repressed in the resort to purportedly rationalized, managerial, politics built on forms of expertise. The professionals are the first ones the monster gets.

A major part of election consumption was its mediation through polls and stats: serious toys, which provided confidence in the outcome. Building on Nate Silver’s success aggregating and averaging polls, several sites gave Clinton high probabilities of winning throughout the election season. You could not read an article on the New York Times site without being reminded that she had a 75%-85% chance of victory. They promised a degree of rigor without having to acquire much specialized knowledge. As their parent publications surely noticed, they were highly addictive. Polling and prediction let us experience the election as if it had already been decided. Because of the importance of demographics and political science’s findings about voter behavior, we could enter a space in which the outcome of a future event was sufficiently probable that we could start explaining it even when it hadn’t happened yet. Many of us posed as critics of the boom in quantitative pop social science and called sites like Vox and 538 blithe and glib. But if I am honest with myself, it’s clear that I bought into many of the assumptions of the discourse I purported to critique. Even if what they presented was a reductive version of more complex arguments whose makers would balk at calling them truth, they had models. Really, they allowed us to present ourselves as those who had it all figured out. There was a sufficient air of facticity, a sense of knowingness, to tamp down fear of uncertainty.

For as long as I can remember, Democrats and their defenders have argued that their flaws are just what it takes to win elections in a center-right country. A bit of calculation is what keeps the wolves at bay—so some hawkishness, being “tough on crime,” guaranteeing that the poor aren’t too cushy, Making Sure They Don’t Get Away With It—it might bother your liberal sensibilities, but this is what Americans want. Whatever the content of these statements, their purpose was to say, “We’re pragmatists. We’re professionals.” The Democrats from Hillary Clinton on down are an army of consultants and experts, masters of the craft of managed politics, in which microdemographics and issues are parceled out by importance and elevated or diminished based on strategic significance. Professionalism is also a sort of theater, in which Democrats assure their anxious voters that they know what they’re doing because of their managerial credentials. It would be even scarier, the experts say, without our knowledge of what to give in on. Alongside this, the Democrats use the rhetoric of policy. They have specific proposals, they say—if only the media would talk about “the issues.” There is a danger in being overly dismissive of white papers, since they do in fact have ideas that would improve people’s lives. Still, the brandishing of policy for its own sake is another way in which Democrats say, “trust us.” There is comfort in thinking there are people who have mastered politics as techne, which again, many of us who doubted centrist liberalism likely implicitly believed. Even if you suspected “electability” was a bullshit word for a bogus concept, maybe they had a handle on it. You might have thought that Sanders’ views about healthcare and free college were better policy and better politics—but the sense that there’s a guy with a computer in a room somewhere saying that this plays poorly with 12% of suburbanites in Ohio dies hard. After the Clinton campaign, it should be very difficult to believe that there are people out there who know what they’re doing. The myth of the competent centrist has been put to rest. We should have no confidence in them; hell, maybe we should boo them whenever they appear in public. Yet the Democratic establishment will linger, lurching from crisis to crisis like some unkillable creature.

Politics occurs in the time before the barbarians arrive. In Cavafy’s poem “Waiting for the Barbarians,” the ruling class sits idle because of the horde whose onslaught is imminent.

Why isn’t anything going on in the senate?
Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?

          Because the barbarians are coming today.
          What’s the point of senators making laws now?
          Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

In the end, the barbarians do not arrive:

Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.

It could refer to any place filled with stagnation and inertia, where order and legitimacy are kept by fearmongering, where capitulation occurs before actual defeat—but Cavafy has been on my mind since the election for a few reasons. Why is the poem written in a question-and-answer dialogue? Who, in such a place, could not know that the barbarians are coming—and who would get their kicks from explaining? Like all stories of self-delusion, there is something both comic and tragic in Cavafy’s catechism, something that, perhaps, we hear echoed in our pundits. Many people are going to tell us what the barbarians are and what they are going to do. It might be worth catching our breath to ask what the barbarians are a solution to. I suspect that for no small number they are a solution to the obligation to imagine a better society—so, now what’s going to happen to us?