Some brief comments on political virtualism

A response to John Gray

John Gray’s recent review of my book History Has Begun is not only an excellent review. It is an essay calling for more precision on the crucial concept of political virtualism. I hope to add depth to the concept in future works and thank Gray for forcing me to consider a number of important problems and distinctions.

Gray captures very well what the difference is between political virtualism in America and political technology in Russia: “Like the US, Russia conceals awkward facts behind a media-created veil. Unlike those in the US, Russia’s ruling elites know this virtual world is deceptive. The point is not to create a new reality but to obscure what is actually happening.” The contrast can help us understand what is radical about virtualism. As a program, it does not attempt to obfuscate or manipulate political reality. It replaces reality with fiction.

Gray also compares my work to Baudrillard. This I find difficult to follow and for the same reason. To the extent that I can decipher his far from precise philosophical language, Baudrillard argued that simulations or copies of reality have become our only way to relate to the world. This is the standard Kantian notion that we can only ever perceive phenomena, whose relation to things themselves remains mysterious. In my book, by contrast, I argue that life in America takes place within constructed fantasies or experiences - it is not a coincidence that I never use the word simulation. Social and political reality does not represent an external reality. It builds imaginary worlds. Reality has been gradually abolished and is now impossible to retrieve, except perhaps through the dangerous exercise of imposing one of these imaginary worlds as inescapable.

Gray goes on to ask: “Are virtual worlds deliberately manufactured, or do they emerge – like myths in past times – from the depths of a common form of life? Might not a society produce radically antagonistic virtual worlds?”

These are critical questions, ones that I fail to address to the fullest extent in History Has Begun.

Are virtual worlds deliberately manufactured? No, they are products of intellect and imagination, but their production is slow and often unconscious. Gray is right to suggest that the manufacturers of these imaginary worlds are often convinced they are real and thus their effort may often be instinctive and collective. They arise directly from social life in a way that no work of art could.

As for the second question, we are right in the middle of it. Contemporary America has produced radically antagonistic virtual worlds. The election is very obviously about the dynamics of political virtualism, but these dynamics are subtler than they might look at first. On one side, Trump represents a form of virtual nationalism with continuing support, but he faces two obstacles. On the one hand, the virtual world he represents seems exhausted and repetitive, while threatening to collapse under the weight of the strange visitor from the world of physical reality: the virus. On the other hand, many fear that his virtual nationalism could become too literal or real were Trump elected to a second term.

Biden has emerged as a kind of kill switch, a way to unplug the Trumpian fantasy. That Biden has not come forward to defend an antagonistic virtual world is not entirely surprising. Political virtualism is still relatively new. Perhaps it works better if each imaginary world is independently scrutinized, before a rival fantasy can be entertained. I expect the Biden presidency to become an exercise in world building: the new virtual world one might call wokeness still needs to be developed and perfected. Had Biden made the mistake of embracing it too early, Trump could have emerged as a kill switch himself, the person standing in the way of wokeness as a virtual experiment gone awry.

Finally, Gray asks how political virtualism can translate into a new foreign policy. This question is addressed in the book. By fully internalizing the lessons of virtualism, the United States can develop a new foreign policy that recognizes the fact of civilizational pluralism - there is no single true way to organize a society - while taking seriously the notion that every way of life has to be balanced against its alternatives. These principles are exactly what Washington needs as it tries to think about the best way to contain an expansionist China. As Gray argues, China seems to be copying the homogenising national states constructed in Europe after the French Revolution. Xi Jinping is pursuing a radical Enlightenment project based on supposedly universal truths. “How curious,” he concludes, “if, as the 21st century staggers on, a hyper-authoritarian China emerges as the only major state still governed by an Enlightenment faith in progress.”