We’re witnessing another New Romantic historical moment end. We see it wind down in domestic American politics, including L’Affaire Snowden. And in Kiev’s Streets. We turn our gaze from Syrian killing fields. Spontaneous, unorganized mass sentiment failed to create real lasting change anywhere.
1848 Europe’s revolutionary, democratic moment and its lessons come to mind. Europe saw its widest ever democratic revolutionary wave quickly collapse into a Continental reactionary resurgence. Historical analogies should always be suspect, especially here. Yet, we can’t help but ask, “What comes next, now?”
The New Romantics Aren’t A Pop Group
Our last 15 years constitute a Romantic Moment. First it flourished with the Colored Revolutions’ early promise. Even elements of Americans’ manipulated arc in Iraq and Afghanistan floated on misguided mass sentiment. Mass sentiment also erupted in Tehran, ushered in the Arab Spring, Syria, and rock both Thailand and now Ukraine, again. Obama’s improbable 2008 presidency and aftermath are part of the tableau, too.
Mass sentiment’s ascendancy defines the era. And how quickly it evaporated. Left behind? Both hangovers and unprepared audiences to confront often unchanged problems and exacerbated, entrenched interests.
Our Romantic Moment takes on many external guises. But its core is remarkably consistent. For some manifestations, it’s secular, expressed by nationalism, reactionary impulses, democracy, neo-liberalism or its offshoot, mere process as innovation. Other instances explicitly invoke faith. Each embrace relies at its foundation emotional expression which disdains empiricism and granular political/social attention.
The antidote which can deliver actual sustainable trajectories? Empirical commitment and cultural engagement equally together. This combination is a more helpful guide to distinguish the romantic from constructive policy than today’s political labels. Skeptical? How many across the political spectrum called for using the “Libyan Model” for regime change during and after Khaddafi’s demise? Behind political labels – Responsibility to Protect on the Left, neoconservatism on the Right [sic] they share in common sentimental abstraction and rejection of detailed cultural understanding.
The Romance Of Technology Isn’t New, But It Is
Americans love technology. Technology offers a painless alternative to the hard, often tedious work of learning languages, history, and engaging with the world. It is a prominent theme in the entire American post-1945 global era.
Tech also fuels US vulnerability to Romantic Moments. We’re not completely alone. Across history mass sentiment by definition required scale beyond word of mouth. Technology, where print, steam, combustion engine or spectrum played handmaiden. Today’s digital can be seen as much an extension as a disruption of the past. Oncoming biological and other innovations in turn likely will amplify digital still more.
The digital era’s manifestations — global scale, speed and empowering new voices — and its effects deserve analytical segregation. Digital creates false intimacies and the illusion of participatory inclusion. Forwarding e-mail, Liking or Re-Tweeting creates the simulacra of being ‘engaged’, part of something greater with utterly no real actual investment. New digital tribes form around a mass sentiment Romantic Moment and then quickly disperse in search of new emotional experiences.
Tribalism connotes belonging and defining “us” through exclusion of ‘them”. Digital tribalism enables transitory global mass sentiment spectacles. And we see that they change political environments and government action. One undeniably new thing? Not the scale. It’s the close integration of business models and financial engineering to perpetuate the bubble process. We still don’t know how plebiscitary, demotic societies successfully operate in this new permanent ambient state.
Human Nature Doesn’t Really Change
Earlier, we referenced Europe’s 1848 revolutionary moment. We recognize that each European revolution arose from fact-specific circumstances. (Just as do today’s mass spectacle bubbles).
Still, one European revolutionary commonality is worth noting: the central role played by on-the-fly, ad hoc national and international coalitions among the new middle class, workers and ideologues. 1848 became a romantic revolutionary moment because such hastily arranged alliances crossed borders on sentiment. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t last. Almost all crumbled when reactionary forces tested them. They lacked organic connection, common integrated vision or plan. Coalition political management is always tricky in stable societies. As a domestic let alone international revolutionary agent of change?
We see similar patterns in our modern 2000-2014 Romantic Moment. For many of the same reasons. (One reason that 20th century revolutionaries, brown or red shirt, emphasized the organizational).
Political organization and vision is hard work even when not brutally suppressed. Today’s spontaneous mass sentiment tribalism’s success by its nature often demands its ultimate disappointment. Their mass scale is possible only by avoiding political and organizational work. Specific political programs create clarity. Clarity creates distinctions. Distinctions are about subtraction when the goal of a mass sentiment spectacle is all about addition. (This is also true in U.S. domestic politics as anywhere else around the world).
For some societies undergoing political and cultural transformation, mass sentiment spectacles may be the only means available to initiate political opportunity. Even if evidence indicates both sentiment and spectacle will not last. How we react through digital tribalism and sentiment is another question.
It’s harder than it looks even here. How to grapple with the phenomenon when we ourselves are enmeshed ourselves in domestic mass sentiment, ala 2001-2005 or 2008-14? Experience from hard lessons still fights for attention, reminding enduring social and political change must be organic to its appropriate society and transcend the bubble. As noted above, the antidote – or extension into concrete, lasting change – is application of the granular, empirical with the culturally and linguistically informed. Will we listen?
So Where Do We Go, And When?
Our Romantic Moment’s failure doesn’t mean that Reaction (however defined) is winning. Cynicism needn’t be the new black. Although cynicism’s one natural emotional reaction.
Can we find a way to engage with the world more meaningfully than transitory emotional bubbles? Can our plebiscitary, demotic societies find the self-awareness to ask?
If you answer “yes”, perhaps, like us, you, too, are a secret romantic.