The Era of Ideological Warlords
Naming A Political Syndrome
In Tribune, historian Anton Jäger argues that we have exited the era of “post-politics” of the mid-1990s, when technocrats were supposed to handle everything and the republic was largely demobilized and returned to a period of widespread political contestation—a “permanent Dreyfus Affair.” But unlike the politics of the 20th century—organized through the forms of mass parties, unions, and various civil society organizations—politics today is intense but highly fragmented:
An era of ‘post-politics’ has clearly ended. Yet instead of a re-emergence of the politics of the twentieth century — complete with a revival of mass parties, unions, and workplace militancy — it is almost as if a step has been skipped. Those that were politicised by the era marked by the Financial Crash will remember when nothing, not even the austerity policies imposed in its wake, could be described as political. Today, everything is politics. And yet, despite people being intensely politicised in all of these dimensions, very few are involved in the kind of organised conflict of interests that we might once have described as politics in the classical, twentieth-century sense.
Jäger identifies this variation on the postmodern condition as “hyperpolitics:”
In many ways we can describe this period as a transition from ‘post’ to ‘hyper-politics’, or the re-entry of politics into society. Yet our new ‘hyper-politics’ is also distinct in its specific focus on interpersonal and personal mores, its incessant moralism and incapacity to think through collective dimensions to struggle. In this sense, ‘hyper-politics’ is what happens when ‘post-politics’ ends, but not on terms familiar to us from the twentieth century — the form political conflict takes in the absence of mass politics. Questions of what people own and control are increasingly replaced by questions of who or what people are, replacing the clash of classes with the collaging of identities.
Ultimately, this fragmentation of politics is determined by the ongoing fragmentation of society, brought about by changes in the structures of employment and association:
An age of changing employment contracts and growing self-employment does not stimulate long and lasting bonds within organisations. In its place comes a curious combination of the horizontal and the hierarchical, with leaders who manage a loose group of zealots without ever subscribing to a clear party framework…Rather than a mobile ‘mass’, today’s QAnon troops and anti-lockdown protests look like ‘swarms’: a group responding to short and powerful stimuli, driven by charismatic influencers and digital demagogues. Anyone can join a Facebook group with QAnon sympathies; as with all online media, the price of membership is very low, the costs of exit even lower.
I think Jäger is onto something here and I would like to propose a complementary concept to “hyperpolitics.” A thought I’ve had since the beginning of the “populist era” is that this is could be called an “ideological warlord era” or “era of ideological warlords.” The Warlord Era was a period in Chinese history from 1916 to 1928 where the entire country fragmented into statelets and different regions were controlled by military cliques. These warlords had very limited conceptions of their interests: they were ideologically incoherent, preferring instead to jealousy guard their own territory and power. No single warlord was able to dominate or lead the system: they would ally with one another briefly to stop a threat and then turn on each other quickly afterwards.
In the contemporary United States, the cultural-political terrain is divided by ideological warlords, that can briefly lead or organize little armies of supporters but can’t accomplish any kind of hegemony. For instance, look at the importance of the Mercers, the Kochs, and the DeVos families on the Right. (Or, the Trumps for that matter.) Or, more controversially, Soros on the left. In the absence of any social consensus, many conflicts involve a prominent figure taking an ideological stance and hoping to rally enough support to make it hefty enough to be effective. Look, for instance at the battle now taking place over Spotify: it is mediated through the high personal profiles and differing cultural cachets of Joe Rogan and Neil Young. Elon Musk practices this form of cultural warlordism as well, attracting a flock of supporters with his particular form of personal brand-politics. We can also see this in its pre-ideological manifestation in rabid fandoms, like those around K-Pop stars. Another sense of “identity politics” is revealed here: the identity of the “warlord” directly embodies a cultural or ideological position.
Although these numerous “warlords” may team up periodically, and may even represent similar ideological and cultural tendencies, no group or individual has been able to achieve hegemony, convincing the society at large that they stand for something greater and more universal than their own limited interests. How would the ideological warlord era end? Obviously, it would require some kind of reunification—but even after Chiang Kai-Shek nominally reunited the country, warlords remained powerful and had to be placated.