James Poulos, whom the Bookman interviewed in 2009 about “postmodern conservatism,” recently wrote a series of pieces for the Federalist on what he describes as the “pink police state,” a kind of totalitarian regime that neither contemporary liberalism nor conservatism quite captures. We invited Jordan Bloom and Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry to comment on Poulos’s analysis.
One thing that came to mind reading James Poulos’ series on the pink police state is an incident, in eighth grade I believe, in which a friend, with his permission, was dressed up in several layers of old sweatshirts, a smiley face painted in kerosene on his back, and lit on fire. We took pictures, of course, but this being the days before YouTube, we weren’t aiming for a viral video. Call it youthful nihilism, or the establishment of what Poulos calls a “zone of transgression,” at any rate he is fine now and has gone on to a promising career in multimedia. But he damn well could have died.
Poulos has gotten very close to a diagnosis most of us can agree on, and that’s a fine thing. The Tocquevillian notion that things are getting better and worse is something that much of the right could probably do with hearing more often. But it’s hard to read Poulos’s essays and not conclude that the worseness is accelerating. Moreover, despite the distributed nature of the new regime, it is possible to observe a certain logic to it. For this reason I’m somewhat ambivalent to the concept of “anthropological reform” and the societal therapy of immanent freedom he proposes: “face-to-face conversations—where the topic of conversation is why we pretend we can’t choose how to be.”
Between the release of his series and this symposium, the story broke in the U.K. of the systematic rape of 1,400 girls, some as young as twelve, mainly by Pakistani men. Complaints were brushed off by authorities as racist, and in some cases parents were arrested for trying to rescue their children.
In America this was overshadowed by a wrenching journalistic freak-out over some movie stars’ nude selfies being stolen and leaked on the Internet. It seems the pink police state would sooner police Reddit than actual sexual violence that is inconvenient to other progressive priorities.
Moreover, Poulos mentions the fact of NSA bulk data collection as a sign that officialdom knows it can’t police every area of transgressive space, but I daresay it means the opposite—an assertion that they could try someday. And these government bulk data collection efforts, in the hands of a dutiful party informant like Lois Lerner, can break laws in ways that are quite damaging to open political dialogue, to say nothing of Strauss’s imperiled philosophers. She leaked millions of pages’ worth of 501(c)4 data to the FBI.
So it’s worth being clear about the context any attempt at “anthropological reform” takes place within. It’s not hard to conceive of the pink police state as the thing that holds you down while barbarism gets its licks in. The president and the CPC were both against Scottish secession. Poulos writes that the pink police state sees the “work of republican democracy is awkward, clumsy, messy, risky, perhaps even dangerous.” That’s why it works to preclude alternatives. A “new kind of community organizer” doesn’t do much good if he or the ones he’s organized end up like Vicki Weaver.
But even in the absence of these clumsy, hopelessly unmodern institutions, since the Battle in Seattle other much more dangerous and profound challenges to democratic capitalism have arisen. The world’s largest democracy, under a right-wing populist party, is building ties with China out of admiration of the success of state capitalism. European ethnonationalism is on the rise, but so are movements for sub-national devolution. Having more, smaller states would strengthen the EU, which is a possible reason for the technocratic sympathy for Catalonian secession. Ethnonationalism, whether of the Eurasianist or Western European kind, grows in proportion to the control by supranational institutions.
Well-deployed anarchy, on the other hand, is useful to those in power. The model here is the Egyptian government opening the prisons during the revolution, then withdrawing police protection. Or, I suppose you could say, the American government withdrawing support for Mubarak and backing the Arab Spring.
Poulos draws from Tocqueville the insight that one of America’s unique—some might say exceptional—qualities is whatever it is in our national character that has delayed the otherwise universal decline from democracy to tyranny. At present no such harsh measures are necessary, though our prisons could benefit from letting off a little pressure. The pink police state itself is a manifestation of this, which came about to “postpone political revolution indefinitely.”
That the ruling class has a stake in heading off revolution, with the help of the pink police state, does not necessarilypreclude us noting the essentially revolutionary, or at least teleocratic character of the regime. Historically speaking, it’s unmistakable; the United States seceded from a monarchy. Observationally, it’s hard to listen to, say, Valerie Jarrett without getting the distinct impression that the dark ages are upon us.
How did this happen? The old right’s answer, Garet Garrett’s specifically, was that the revolution “passed by in the Night of Depression, singing songs to freedom.”
The debate over whether we are a pre- or post-revolutionary society could be endlessly belabored. Some on the conservative right are at pains to define our current president’s upbringing as a cradle leftist, but his Indonesian stepfather worked for the Suharto regime and his mother was a democracy-promoter. With that kind of pedigree he could get an internship at the Weekly Standard. Our regimeshares characteristics of both.
But Poulos has correctly identified the essentially distributed character of the pink police state. It doesn’t appear to be coordinated, but the various excoriations of heretics seem to be moving us in one direction: to the left. It’s almost like there’s a purpose to it.
“Perhaps one of the priest Gods defected and organized a workers’ revolution,” Burroughs speculated in his far too neglected study of word-as-virus, noting how many revolutionaries come from the ruling classes. De Sade himself, who Poulos says recognized the perversion in his writing to be the consummation of revolutionary order rather than a means to undermine it, was imprisoned in the Bastille just before it was stormed.
All the same, it seems to me that the “oscillation between reactionary re-enchantment and revolutionary disenchantment,” rather than a feature of the “European soul,” comes from political antagonisms inherent to a technocratic liberal state. Read this creepy essay on neo-folk and “metapolitically fascist” music from a European researcher of the radical right. Some of his substantive points aside, it seems bizarre to warn of the dangers of music described as apoliteic—overtly without politics. It is in no way unrelated that his Twitter bio currently contains the hashtag #armukraine.
So, it is possible that Poulos is asking the wrong question when he wonders how “political liberty, and not just some personal freedom, [can] fruitfully capture the human imagination.” Pitchfork happens to think pretty highly of one of these bands. You might say apoliteia is all the rage with the kids these days. What if political liberty isn’t what they’re after?
Why would it be, when news websites are now so political as to have a “global and national social injustices” reporter to report on the Twitter feed of some ghoulish former GOP operative with a sexting problem.
Personal freedom in exchange for political liberty isn’t a bad deal in a society that respects the public-private divide. A regime in which “all politics is identity politics,” however, requires participation in what Solzhenitsyn called the “the general, conscious lie,” which Burroughs pinned down: “The IS ofidentity always carries the assignment of permanent condition.”
What if it were the case, dear reader, the beast that stalks the age of boutique sexual identities is a “kavvannot to deaden, control, and crush conviviality,” as a blog colleague put it? Or worse, an attempt to reduce us to fixities, like entries in the databases thousands of beltway postgrads push around all day.
Burroughs again: “If anybody can be tape recorder 3 then tape recorder 3 loses power. God must be THE GOD. … For example, a death virus could be created that carries the coded message of death. A death tape, in fact.”
The question is whether you think our pink cop is a bystander or an accomplice in getting these tapes out. In the latter case it may not be so stable as Poulos seems to think it is.
First of two reflections on the “Pink Police State” thesis of James Poulos. Bloom looks with some concern at the context in which Poulos’s “anthropological reform” must necessarily occur.