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28 October 2020

American unreality

In breaking the link between politics and objective truth, the United States seeks to fashion a new world – but it is one built on shifting sands.

By John Gray

The unmasking of the bourgeois belief in objective reality has been so fully accomplished in America that any meaningful struggle against reality has become absurd.” Anyone reading this might think it a criticism of America. The lack of a sense of reality is a dangerous weakness in any country. Before the revolutions of 1917, Tsarist Russia was ruled by a class oblivious to existential threats within its own society. An atmosphere of unreality surrounded the rise of Nazism in Germany – a deadly threat that Britain and other countries failed to perceive until it was almost too late.

For the Portuguese former diplomat Bruno Maçães, however, the decoupling of American culture from the objective world is a portent of great things to come. Finally shedding its European inheritance, America is creating a truly new world, “a new, indigenous American society, separate from modern Western civilisation, rooted in new feelings and thoughts”. The result, Maçães suggests, is that American politics has become a reality show. The country of Roosevelt and Eisenhower was one in which, however lofty the aspiration, there  was always a sense that reality could prove refractory. The new America is built on the premise that the world can be transformed by reimagining it. Liberals and wokeists, conservatives and Trumpists are at one in treating media confabulations as more real than any facts that may lie beyond them.

Maçães welcomes this situation, since it shows that American history has finally begun. As he puts it at the end of this refreshingly bold and deeply thought-stirring book, “For America the age of nation-building is over. The age of world-building has begun.”

The truth is America cannot help thinking of itself as a world apart. At an academic meeting in the US years ago, I smiled when a speaker declared that the cause of America’s declining power and influence was its deplorable system of campaign financing. As heads nodded sagely around the table, no one seemed to have considered the possibility that, say, the rise of China might have something to do with events originating in China.

Many influential American thinkers are similarly introverted. Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order (1996) became celebrated for its assertion that in the future global conflict would be between civilisations not ideologies. Yet the book was only superficially concerned with world order. The civilisations between which conflict would occur were never clearly enumerated, and on closer inspection turned out to be indistinguishable from American minorities. For example, Huntington referred to “African civilisation”. But surely the indigenous peoples of that continent created many civilisations. Plainly, Huntington was not talking about civilisations at all. His real subject was American multiculturalism.

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Not discussed by Maçães, Francis Fukuyama’s claim that history ends with “democratic capitalism” was a flattering résumé of American society as it appeared to the country’s elites at the end of the Eighties. There was no reason, even then, to suppose that Soviet communism would be replaced by liberal democracy. Given Russia’s almost unbroken history of authoritarian and totalitarian rule, any such development was inherently unlikely. It was not Russian history that informed Fukuyama’s storyline, but a highly idealised reading of American history projected throughout the world.

[see also: Claudia Rankine and the construction of whiteness]

American thought has always tended to a certain solipsism, a trait that has become more prominent in recent times. If Fukuyama and his neoconservative allies believed the world was yearning to be remade on an imaginary American model, the woke movement believes “whiteness” accounts for all the evils of modern societies. America’s record of slavery and racism is all too real. Even so, passing over in silence the repression and enslavement of peoples outside the West – Tibetans, Uighurs and now Mongols in China, for example – because they cannot be condemned as crimes of white supremacy reveals a wilfully parochial and self-absorbed outlook.

Wokery is the successor ideology of neo-conservatism, a singularly American world-view. That may be why it has become a powerful force only in countries (such as Britain) heavily exposed to American culture wars. In much of the world – Asian and Islamic societies and large parts of Europe, for example – the woke movement is marginal, and its American prototype viewed with bemused indifference or contempt.

While Maçães welcomes the morphing of American politics into a never-ending reality show, he is fully aware of the perils that come with basing foreign policy on virtual worlds. He cites Karl Rove, the White House deputy chief of staff in the George W Bush administration, as telling a journalist in the summer of 2002: “We are an empire now and when we act, we create our own reality.” Maçães comments:

Many of us will shudder thinking how the most powerful country on Earth could have been organised around the deliberate denial of objective reality and acted accordingly in its foreign relations, where every issue raises powerful passions and deadly risks, where prudence and moderation have a particular urgency.

As he goes on to point out, the invasion of Iraq provided some hard lessons on the limits of American world-building. He writes:

The point of the enterprise was to act decisively against an old foe and bring him down. What might happen after that was never considered. The connections linking the invasion to the surrounding context, the parallel plot lines, the vast network of unpredictable consequences the war would inevitably bring about, or the new possibilities it would open up – all these elements were ritually ignored.         


Reflected in varying degrees throughout the west, America’s immersion  in self-invented worlds contrasts starkly with Russian practice. 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. When Vladimir Putin asserted that Russian forces had not entered Ukraine, no one apart from a handful of anti-western ultra-leftists believed him. When the Kremlin denies Russian pilots are targeting schools and hospitals in Syria, there is well-founded disbelief. When officials deny that the Russian state had any hand in the 2018 Novichok attack in Salisbury and the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, hardly anyone believes this is true. Nonetheless, the continuous repetition of these falsehoods has succeeded in clouding perception of the behaviour of Putin’s regime.

There can be no doubt that Maçães is on to something important when he claims American politics has decoupled from objective reality. The proposition that human beings create fictional worlds is not new. The German philosopher Hans Vaihinger – deploying some of Nietzsche’s ideas on the conscious cultivation of illusions – argued in The Philosophy of “As If”: a system of the theoretical, religious and practical fictions of mankind (1911) that ideas known to be defective or false are indispensable in human life. Before Vaihinger, a theory of the social role of fictions had been developed in the early 19th century by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the English founder of utilitarianism. The idea of fictional worlds has been around for much longer than the technologies that now daily create them.

What these early theories could not foresee is the role of mass media. This was the theme of Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), in which he coined the expression “the medium is the message”. In The Society of the Spectacle (1967), the neo-Marxian Guy Debord argued that capitalism had come to depend on an all-pervading image of society that erases the past and any alternative future. The cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard (cited critically by Maçães) suggested in The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (1991) that reality had been overtaken and replaced by what he called “hyper-reality”.

One of the problems of Maçães’s account is that it does not clearly distinguish between different ways in which human consciousness can be detached from the real world. For those who construct it, a fiction is not an illusion but a tool for shaping the perceptions of others. A virtual world is not a fantasy, which may be personal and private, but an alternate reality that is necessarily collective. Lying behind these conceptual slippages are deeper ambiguities. 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? American society is polarised between a view in which the country is a flawed but basically benign experiment and a vision in which it has been irredeemably racist from its foundation. Will one of these virtual worlds triumph in the up-coming presidential election? Or will the division in America persist regardless of who wins?

Under what conditions do virtual worlds disintegrate? Some – such as the one Karl Rove inhabited – are self-destroying and essentially ephemeral. Others – such as the Trumpian view that the virulence of coronavirus has been nefariously exaggerated – may suffer a shock from reality, only to subsequently grow stronger in the minds of tens of millions of conspiracy theorists.

Above all, is there a realm of discoverable fact behind these virtual realities, or are we left with divergent world-views that cannot be rationally assessed? Maçães wavers on all these questions. Throughout the book, he oscillates between a buoyant relativism and a peculiarly European scepticism – detached, ironic, and darkly playful – about America’s future.


Maçães recognises that the US is not the only country reinventing itself. Much of the world no longer aims to emulate any liberal model of society or government. Like many, however, he conflates a rejection of liberalism with rejection of the West. Russia has repudiated both, and for that reason is most feared by western liberals. For the Bolsheviks Soviet communism was an avowedly westernising project, a combination of French Jacobinism with American Taylorism – the ideology of “scientific labour management” which Lenin admired and Trotsky tried to implement. Nothing could be further from the future Western liberals imagined for post-communist Russia than Putin’s blend of autocracy, anarchy and Orthodoxy. Despite being much more repressive and vastly more costly in human lives, the former Soviet Union is far less alien.

[see also: Would Biden or Trump end America’s forever wars?]

A similar attitude can be discerned towards Xi Jinping’s China. Regime-friendly Chinese intellectuals are fond of telling western visitors that China is not a nation state but a “civilisation state”, and there has been a shift towards touting the merits of Confucian governance. Yet in many ways Xi’s regime is copying the homogenising national states constructed in Europe after the French Revolution. Like them, it aims to impose a monoculture where different ways of life existed before. In Revolutionary France, which under the ancien régime contained many languages and peoples, this was achieved through military conscription and a national education system. Another, more violent process of nation-building by ethnic cleansing occurred in central and eastern Europe after the collapse of the Hapsburg empire.

Following these precedents, Xi is using the state machine to fabricate an immemorial Chinese nation and obliterate minority cultures. As in its pursuit of maximal economic growth, China is building a future imported from the Western past.

This may be why one can detect a sneaking admiration for Xi’s tyranny among Western progressives. Rightly, they perceive that he is promoting an Enlightenment project; although not the liberal project of John Locke or John Stuart Mill, or the communist utopia of Marx, to be sure. Xi’s dictatorship is more like the enlightened despotism of the early Bentham, who aimed to reconstruct society on the model of a Panopticon – an ideal prison designed to enable total surveillance of the inmates. How curious 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.

Much of the last quarter of the book concerns geopolitics. Yet Maçães says little of how this connects with his overall argument. How does the EU’s hallucinatory self-image as a developing super-state square with the fact that Germany – its leading power – has a growing dependency on Russia for a crucial part of its energy supply? More importantly, Maçães devotes little space to the impact on politics of the increasingly unstable biosphere. At a time of rapidly accelerating climate change and pandemic, it is a telling omission. Most of his analysis focuses on shifts in human consciousness, but it is changes in the material world that will be decisive in shaping the next stage in history.

It may be true that America is drifting away from what used to be called Western civilisation. That does not mean it can fashion a new world disconnected from the past. In America as in other countries, history does not begin, any more than it ever ends. 

History Has Begun: The Birth of a New America 
Bruno Maçães
Hurst, 208pp, £16.99

[see also: How Lawrence Osborne subverts the crime genre]

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This article appears in the 28 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Reckoning