The new state

We’ve looked at a couple of themes in this post-post-modern condition – the new truth and the new morality. The third theme – the new state – flows from and enforces the previous two themes. In a nutshell, the new state tends towards populist totalitarianism.


An important caveat

Before going on though it is important to remember that, as I mentioned in the first article, post-post-modernity is not a monolithic, total, evenly distributed thing. No nation or society will be entirely post-post-modern and it is unlikely that any government would ever be completely post-post-modern either. There will always be a competing mixture of lingering elements and features from the pre-modern, modern, and post-modern. A neighbourhood or a political party will include people of various different persuasions and worldviews. In fact we are all so contradictory (at least I am) that the line will run through us as people; we will embody in ourselves different tendencies, postures and outlooks in different situations and on different days of the week. So I don’t want to be alarmist or exaggerate the situation in this post. Pure, total post-post-modernity will probably never (God forbid) be a reality. The following is not so much a description of how things are on the ground as a description of how they are within the logic of post-post-modernity.

The return of big government and patriotism

In the immediate wake of 9/11, in fact standing in the very rubble of the World Trade Centre, a new (or resurgent) political rhetoric was heard.

“It was, of course, 9/11 that provided the impetus to break with the dissolute ways of the 1990s. It provided the political opening not only to assert a national purpose and to proclaim national solidarity, but also to impose order and stability on civil society at home. It was the war on terror, swiftly followed by the prospect of war with Iraq, which allowed the state to accumulate more power. The engagement with Iraq was far more than a mere diversion from difficulties at home; it was a grand opportunity to impose a new sense of social order at home and bring the commonwealth to heel. Criticism was silenced as unpatriotic. The evil enemy without became the prime force through which to exorcise or tame the devils lurking within.” (David Harvey, The New Imperialism, 2003, p.17).

Compare this paragraph (and the actual George Bush Jnr. speeches of 2001) with the inaugural address of President Trump in 2017 and with the UK calls for ‘strong and stable government’ in the face of ‘the terror threat.’ A new rhetoric has emerged which is unashamedly nationalistic, militaristic and speaks of the triumph of ‘our values’ over the barbarian terrorist hordes.

As has always been the case, the presence of a terrible enemy is a very powerful force for national unity and solidarity. The metanarrative of the ‘war against terror’ is of absolutely central importance in post-post-modernity. Its significance cannot be over-estimated. This is where truth, morality and state converge. This is the power, the energy, the emotional fire, the engine behind post-post-modernity.

But that doesn’t mean it is all about ‘iron fist’ speeches. There is a warmer, velvet side to the strengthening of the state. David Harvey pointed out that another function of 9/11 was to redeem the public profile of the state:

“An abrasive and divisive mayor [of New York] was transformed into a ministering angel of the streets… Government, which had been castigated for the preceding 20 years as all bad, except when it reduced taxes and crime, was suddenly looked to as a source of comfort and good.” (Harvey, ‘The city as a body politic,’ 2003, p.39)

Government was now useful again. Big government was back.

The enforcement of the new truth and the new morality

Because the new truth and the new morality are so tied in to the narrative of the ‘war against terror’ it was natural that the state would see a key front of the battle against terrorism in the realm of education and public discussion of truth and morality. It was intolerant, radical, extremist, untrue, immoral views that led people to fly planes into buildings. It was radicalisation which led British men to blow up tube trains and a bus on 7/7 2005 in London.

In 2003 the UK government launched (initially covertly) an anti-radicalisation programme called Prevent. In 2015 it became a statutory duty for all schools and early years providers to have ‘due concern’ for countering extremism and protecting children from being drawn into terrorism. This is all well and good but it is the definition (or lack of it) of ‘extremism’ that has caused concern. Clearly the strategy began as a response to Islamist terrorism but there is a studious avoidance of any reference to this particular brand of religious terrorism in any of the laws or guidance that has come in through the last decade. Instead there has been an increasing emphasis on “the fundamental British values [from whence these fundamental values came is not explained] of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.” And among these British values the most important are the second and last, with the subtext being individual sexual liberty and tolerance of different lifestyles and beliefs. These values trump all the rest and if UK schools fail to uphold and teach them (even at primary level) they risk being failed by the government inspectors.

The thought police

As someone pointed out (it may have been Al Mohler but I can’t find the reference), in the past there was freedom of conscience (you could think whatever you want and you could not be forced to act or speak against your conscience) but not freedom of action (much sexual immorality was prohibited by law). Now there is freedom of action (you can do whatever you want sexually with consenting adults) but there is not freedom of conscience (you are not allowed to think whatever you want and you cannot take refuge in conscience clauses). Even in post-modernity there was freedom to think whatever you want. Now it is imperative that everyone ‘gets with the programme.’ It is a conformity culture similar to the pre-modern but now not a conformity of behaviour but a conformity of thought. It is not aberrant behaviour that is subversive but aberrant thinking.

Alan Kirby noted (in 2006):

“It is [now] deeply implausible for academics to tell their students they inhabit a postmodern world where a multiplicity of ideologies, world-views and voices can be heard…The world has narrowed intellectually, not broadened, in the last ten years… Pseudo-modernism [Kirby’s name for post-post-modernity] is of course… conformist.”

Kirby was referring to an intellectual slavery to consumerist market capitalism but he could have easily been talking about the shutting down of debate about climate change or evolution or theology in the public square. In 2016 the British Humanist Society was dismayed that only 14 out of 91 schools found to be teaching creationism had had public funding withdrawn (presumably this leaves over 24,000 schools that were not teaching creation anyway). Dawkins, in The God Delusion, railed against the ‘brainwashing’ and ‘indoctrination’ of children with this sort of theistic nonsense as a form of abuse.

Not only in education but in society more generally there has been a narrowing of debate. There are few remaining behaviours that are taboo but there are not certain subjects of thought that are taboo and simply cannot be discussed. For example the BBC would never run a programme questioning homosexuality as good, abortion as a right or Islam as a religion of peace. Similarly, if you are a member of the British parliament you could easily find that questioning these things will lose you your position in your party.

And it is not sufficient to stay silent. It is essential that everyone gets with the programme. You must think rightly and express rightly. So for example, in 2014, a Northern Irish cake maker was not allowed to refuse to make a cake expressing a view he disagreed with. And in the run up to the June 2017 UK general election, the then leader of the Liberal Democrat party was not allowed to not express the view that homosexuality is not a sin (notice the number of nots in that sentence). The new morality must be believed and preached by us all. Even the genuinely liberal post-modern LGBT rights activists find this too much (e.g. Peter Tatchell) – because it is not post-modern liberalism, it is post-post-modern moralism; it is worryingly reminiscent of a totalitarianism last seen in Europe in the middle of the twentieth century.

One of the most chilling passages in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (written in 1949 and echoing Stalinism and Nazism) is where the protagonist Winston Smith is caught by the thought police and made, under torture, to believe that the four fingers being held up to him are actually five. The truth is what the party says it is. Common sense is dangerous. If we say black is white then you will believe black is white and it was never anything else.

The technology of the new state

The telescreens and surveillance technology that George Orwell wrote of was hardly possible in 1984. But by 2004 and certainly by 2014 it was possible. The Web 2.0 (or perhaps it is now 3.0) is often discussed in terms of the user-side interactivity and content production but they are just as much about the capability of corporations, state, para-state, intelligence and criminal actors to monitor us, the users of the web, while also manipulating and curating the reality we view. This is the age of the tracking cookie and big data and algorithms. The telescreen has arrived.

After a recent terrorist attack in London security experts were explaining that the anti-terror authorities would now be scanning CCTV with face recognition technology, searching the transaction records of everyone who had entered the London underground the day of the attack (whose bank details they have through the contactless payment entry system) for purchases of the chemicals necessary to make the bomb, piecing together movements through mobile phone records. This sort of thing looked far-fetched when we saw in in movies in the 90s and early 2000s but now it is standard practice.

I’m not suggesting that this is a bad thing – it is very possible to argue that this is exactly what is needed in the terror age – where we are not fighting conventional armies but cells and lone radicals. But that is precisely the point – this hi-tech surveillance state is largely a post-9/11 phenomenon. And the logic of the war against terror is to drive forward ever more invasive monitoring of the population and to tip the balance of privacy/freedom and security/surveillance ever more in favour of the latter.

And this is not simply a Western phenomenon. In many countries in Africa, the state has rolled out, in the last few years, public technology systems with even higher monitoring capabilities than in Western countries. ID cards are linked to all government and parastatal records. Traffic cameras track not only number plates but, through face recognition, their drivers. The ubiquity of smart phones and mobile money allow individuals to be tapped, tracked, logged and profiled. India is currently rolling out the world’s biggest compulsory biometric ID system.

Social media is also a hugely important part of the post-post-modern technological infrastructure. The surveillance state is not simply a top down thing; it is also bottom up. We happily give away our data. We want surveillance. We do it ourselves.

1984 now

The new morality is a social project. It is community/society that defines and enforces its taboos and truth. Whenever someone transgresses it is the Facebook mob which can shame the rebel back into conformity. This is popular totalitarianism where the majority is largely on-side with the reigning paradigm, where everyone is watching everyone else.

Different colours of totalitarianism

We should not expect post-post-modern quasi-totalitarianism to look the same all over the world. Depending on the country, its leadership, the elite and the social consensus, the agenda that is likely to be enforced in each place will be quite different. In the West it might be rainbow coloured (pushing an ‘inclusive’ agenda) while in some non-Western countries (which increasingly want to define themselves against the West’s neo-colonialism) the agenda might be socially conservative or a ruthless crusade against the drug barons or the pursuit of a particular energy programme or ethnic cleansing or the enforcing of a theocracy or simply the survival of the ruling party or president.

Also, the history of a country and the extent to which institutions of law and free speech and common sense and checks-and-balances are embedded in the fabric of the state and culture will make a difference to how far and how fast the post-post-modern state can invade every area of life, family and thought world. So, as I mentioned in the caveat at the beginning, there will be variation in the extent to which a nation state becomes post-post-modern.

What the variegated expressions of the post-post-modern state do have in common is a tendency towards populism, towards a politics of fear, the expansion of the reach of the state and a technology of social surveillance and conformity.

The church in a post-post-modern state

This is going to be an increasingly uncomfortable place for Christians who insist on thinking and speaking in a way that does not fit with the new truth and the new morality. Larry Hurtado’s recent description of the position of the early church in the pagan Roman Empire (Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, 2016) sounds quite similar to the present. There was little severe physical persecution in the early years of the church but what was very common was a serious social cost – scorn and exclusion.

How do we respond?

  1. We are the most loyal, respectful citizens. We don’t speak evil of our leaders. We don’t mock them. We flee cynicism and love them through fervent prayer for their souls and for heavenly wisdom in the slippery high places they inhabit. We avoid separatism and love the city where we are, work hard, engage with the culture and seek to be at peace with everyone. And we obey the laws, even the ones that seem nonsensical, only drawing the line at the prohibition of gospel preaching or complicity with oppression. Drawing that line will need a huge amount of wisdom but the default position is that we are the most submissive citizens.
  2. We do not succumb to fear. Kirby has commented on the fear at the heart of the new society: “fatalistic anxiety extends far beyond geopolitics, into every aspect of contemporary life; from a general fear of social breakdown and identity loss, to a deep unease about diet and health; from anguish about the destructiveness of climate change, to the effects of a new personal ineptitude and helplessness.” We could add the fear of terrorism, the fear of nuclear war, the fear of immigration and the fear of the surveillance state itself. It is remarkable the number of action films in the last few years where the main plot line is that the state is rolling out a total surveillance system and there is a malevolent agenda behind that which the hero must defeat before the country/world is locked into a totalitarian nightmare. As God’s people we must not fear what they fear (Isaiah 8:12). We must not fear the conspiracy theories or the rumour of war. We must not fear the terror which drives the expansion of the post-post-modern state. We must not fear social scorn. And we must not fear the state itself which at its very worst can only kill the body. Such fearlessness (which is only possible by the Spirit of God) will be a very striking, refreshing, beautiful, subversive thing amidst a fearful society.
  3. We trust the missionary God who can do the impossible thing and save men. Perhaps post-post-modernism is a greater mission challenge than post-modernism. In post-modernity we were seeking to reach people in a fog and many knew they were in a fog. But in post-post-modernity many people think that they see clearly, and that is an even greater blindness. In post-modernity you were free to think and say whatever you wanted. Now there are taboo subjects and there big social and state pressure to keep you ‘on message.’ So the barriers to evangelism and conversion seem great. But in fact, salvation has always been impossible (Mark 10:27). Praise God that with Him it is possible. Praise God we don’t need to read our culture perfectly or present the gospel in the most culturally tuned way to bring people to Jesus. In love and wisdom we want to be as careful and thoughtful as possible so we are not misunderstood but ultimately it is the mighty Spirit of God who raises the dead, opens eyes and ears and unites people with the living reigning Saviour.

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