2014 And Limits Of New Romanticism

2014 And The New Romantics

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 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 sentiment. Mass sentiment erupted in Tehran, ignited the Arab Spring, Syria, 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 quickly evaporated. Leaving behind both hangover and unprepared audiences to confront unchanged problems and entrenched interests.

Our Romantic Moment takes on many guises. But its core is remarkably consistent. For some, it’s secular, expressed by nationalism, reactionary impulses, democracy, neo-liberalism or its offshoot, mere process. With others, faith. Because each embraces emotional expression, each disdains empiricism and granular political/social attention.

The antidote? Empirical commitment and cultural engagement equally together. Seeking this combination is a more helpful guide to distinguish the romantic than today’s political labels. How many across political spectrums called for using the “Libyan Model” for regime change during and after Khaddafi’s demise? They share in common sentimental abstraction and lack of detailed cultural understanding.

The Romance Of Technology Isn’t New, But It Is

Americans love technology. It fuels our vulnerability to Romantic Moments. We’re not 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 will amplify digital still more.

For now, though, we must try to distinguish between digital’s manifestations — global scale, speed and empowering new voices — and its effects. 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 coalitions among the new middle class, workers and ideologues. 1848 became a romantic revolutionary era 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 revolutionary agent of change?

We see the template echoes 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 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.

How to grapple with the phenomenon when we ourselves are romantic observers and enmeshed ourselves in domestic examples, ala 2001-2005 or 2008-14? Experience from hard lessons fights for attention, shouting enduring social and political change must be organic to its appropriate society. 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 a 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.


  1. Job Henning says

    I read it. I just think 1848 was a moment in time in a longer evolutionary process–a process driven by Kant and Hegel and 1789. And while 1848 was easily repressed, the events cast a long shadow–echoed in the disintegrative processes that subvert the old order through a variety of popular uprisings, culminating in the conflagration of WWI. I see it as 1789-1848-1880thru1910-1914. This trend is not only ideological; there is a complex interplay of ideas and material realities. And this doesn’t have to be dismissed as absraction/reification; I don’t think one needs to necessarily subscribe to Wallersteinian neomarxist macro-historical typologies to empirically, as you say, recognize recurrent tendencies and propensities in society. And I am not making a moral judgment about the desirability of this trend. I just find it hazardous to deny its existence. but in the end, I think we agree (your attachment to Leo Strauss notwithstanding): can we evolve to more substantively meaningful participatory processes? I think yes. But it’s pretty hard to imagine getting there without a common view of the problem/challenge. This, I think, is the principal task today. For domestic society, international society. Or just global society.

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