American magical realism
Bruno Maçães and our society of stories
Portrait by Katia Sobolski
Bruno Maçães is one of these people who very likely (and maddeningly) reads every copy of The Economist and Foreign Policy he receives. Unlike me who lets them sloveningly accumulate on a coffee table or in a Kindle, I imagine he reads them all, and stands ready to opine on everything from the European bond market to American popular film to the future of Chinese economic expansionism (all of which he does effortlessly). Formerly Portugal’s Secretary of State for European Affairs during the European bond crisis, Maçães wrote his doctoral thesis under Harvey Mansfield at Harvard before writing The Dawn of Eurasia and (more recently) History Has Begun. That last work is a brilliant and timely rumination on American fabulism as revealed by such hyper-realities as Trump and COVID-19. I’ll be reviewing his book, but for now, the The Pull Request Q&A.
A European once made a comment to me that every American talks about themselves as if they're the lead character in some epic made-for-TV drama, in a way Europeans simply do not. So I really agreed you touched on something real, that Americans live inside some movie and have been forever. Often, it's not a movie per se, but it's a grand narrative like Manifest Destiny, for example. What's interesting though is that unlike a typical European you're actually kind of, I wouldn't say pro-American, but you you find this to be a feature rather than a bug.
Yeah, I think that's probably also a difference between this book and some older postmodern reflections on America, Baudrillard above everyone else, because I think they regard those features as a kind of psychoanalytical phenomenon, a form of madness of dissociation. And I regard it very seriously as an attempt to deal with important philosophical problems about how to organize society.
So the approach is very different. I also think that this is kind of not so easy to see, because if you're American, it's quite likely that you'll be living inside these fictional structures. But you might not be aware that you are inside fictional structures, you might regard them as reality. On the other hand, Europeans and others will tend to dismiss it as incomprehensible or crazy, or something else. So it’s not so easy to have the kind of both distance but interest at the same time so that you can you can analyze America as it is.
The book is also in a way a return to my initial experiences of living there in my 20s. And that was already then very obvious. To a European I think, in one way or another, that experience happens because the way conversations in America are to some extent scripted. Again. I don't say that as a criticism, but a lot of American life feels scripted. Even the sort of important moments in life, the high-school prom and then retirement in Florida and many other coming of age moments of your life are following these rules about what life should be like but also, in a certain way movie-like way, fictional structures that help give meaning to what happens, rather than being essentially random or traditional as happens in Europe.
But many young Europeans moving to America comment on this: that it feels like you are in an episode of Friends, if you're having a typical bar conversation in America. There's something there that needs to be captured and theorized that I think is very particular about America. And that of course now I think that has become so obvious. In a way that's what Trump does: brings that all to the surface in a way that is very disturbing to many people.
One line that really struck me from your piece, when you touch on COVID in chapter eight: “Things in America felt like a disaster movie. In Europe, they just felt like a disaster.” And the subtlety in those statements, because it's true, right? A disaster movie feels very different than an actual disaster.
I was thinking about what is a disaster movie?. And there's actually a good essay by Susan Sontag about disaster movies. What is a disaster movie? By definition, it's a movie about a disaster. But in the story, in fact, what is celebrated is human action and human life because in every disaster movie, the disaster happens in the background. And in many of the classic ones that Sontag discusses you're not even sure what the disaster really is. There's a famous one called The Day the Earth Stood Still, and it's kind of this vague threat, something to do with magnetic forces of some kind, but no one knows exactly what it is. It doesn't matter, because the disaster is supposed to bring out human passion, human action, human conflict, a kind of intensification of life.
And as I was rewatching many disasters movies back in March and April and reading some of these texts the events just started to resemble them, because what happened, especially when Trump started to have these press conferences, was that the virus became rather irrelevant to the whole thing. Clearly the main actor was not the virus; it was Trump offering a kind of pretext and an occasion for politics or human drama and for these extraordinary narratives that, in fact, were being built on both sides. The Left was also building these incredibly imaginative narratives of what was happening. One of the arguments in the book is that Trump helps us understand these things.
But this is not limited to Trump. For example, Russiagate. I've been, you know, incredibly skeptical from the start about Russiagate for several reasons. Although, I try to keep an open mind, but obviously, Russiagate has been an exercise of feverish imagination. And it's taken very serious people completely on board. It's incredible as the whole thing really resembles a conspiracy theory in the classical mold.
So this is everywhere now in America and even the virus is not able to break through this. If we kind of think about there would be a sort of virus envy because you’re watching a once-in-a-century pandemic, and still American life in many respects goes on. It goes on as before and the virus is taken as a pretext for the same cultural wars. And the cultural wars are more important.
As I was rewatching many disasters movies back in March and April…the events just started to resemble them, because what happened, especially when Trump started to have these press conferences, was that the virus became rather irrelevant to the whole thing. Clearly the main actor was not the virus; it was Trump offering a kind of pretext and an occasion for politics or human drama and for these extraordinary narratives that, in fact, were being built on both sides.
I think many Americans would say it's the same everywhere, but it isn't, particularly back in March or April. Say you opened a Spanish or French Italian newspaper, and it was literally like a medicine or epidemiology journal. Graphs everywhere, news about vaccines, news about the virus and its mutating characteristics and so on, and none of this really happened in America, It was, I think, a very striking difference. And in this case, by the way, I think you see something that I was interested in, in my previous book, you see this kind of substratum of common life between even China and Europe for all the differences at the level of political values. In a way Europe and China dealt with the problem as a question of humanity, control over nature, and natural threat that had to be controlled through technical and scientific means. Of course, the many people in America that would like to react in the same way but the country as a whole didn't quite react to the virus in this way. It's the United States that actually didn't look like an Enlightenment society in terms of how it reacted.
Maybe the subtle difference in your book is that you posited that fabulism entails a rejection of reality and nature, and the creation of an alternative to it. Thus, the subjugation of nature and the imposition of humanity over it is also an Enlightenment ideal. It's not a scientific notion that reads like The Lancet. However, the thought of settling the frontier is as as much an Enlightenment project as anything else.
Yeah, no, you're you're absolutely right about that. So, you know, the Enlightenment wanted to control nature but, but by knowing nature and by knowing its secrets, and reaching to the inner depths of natural forces. Contemporary America, I think wants to take the next step. You know, if we want to control nature, why not get rid of it entirely? I don't think that was an Enlightenment idea, but it's a post-Enlightenment, but it follows naturally from the Enlightenment. So I think Americans take the next leap, the next jump beyond what was the Enlightenment response. And this same argument applies to how we think about freedom. In the Enlightenment, the traditional European way to think about freedom as you wanting to limit or even eliminate all external obstacles, right: tradition, religion, family, and so on. But in the end, you have to deal with reality as it is, but why not take the extra step? If we want to be free, why not be free from reality, as well, so that we can live in a fantasy life, all the time, in our daily lives. And I think that's essentially what contemporary America is trying to build: a society that is pure fantasy life and there's nothing particularly wrong about that. If it's possible to pull off, I think that society might have a claim to be to be the end of history, not liberalism.
This is definitely a theme inside Silicon Valley. A well-known VC whose name you would recognize once said his investment thesis is simply this: anything worth doing, is done better on a screen. The idea of intermediating reality completely via screen. And this person sounds like a joke until you see what they’ve invested in and then it’s, ah, you really believe this (and many of his portfolio companies have made it partly so).
What's interesting, though, is that you think that extends to the rest of the United States. But I guess what varies is how the illusion gets created: in Silicon Valley it would be the Singularity, this sort of nerd Rapture. For others it’s video games or social media.
Or might even be might even be, as I argue in the book, religion, which in America is getting virtualized the same way. So yeah, I think there are different ways to do it. And in fact, I think the best way to do it would probably be a way that would combine all these approaches because, you know, there are problems with with a purely technological solution. A technological solution might run the danger of creating two separate worlds. I see that in a lot of this among Silicon Valley, where now suddenly everyone works remotely. And perhaps we’ll have meetings in virtual or augmented reality, but what to do about the real world? Would it, as you argued in the WIRED essay that I cited, be left to the homeless and the untouchables and drug addicts and so on? There has to be a full replacement of reality by fantasy, not a separation into separate worlds of virtual cloud and real land. I see it everywhere in America right now. And, you know, the process here is to try to push forward with the idea. Everyone is trying to get there their own way.
A technological solution might run the danger of creating two separate worlds. I see that in a lot of this among Silicon Valley, where now suddenly everyone works remotely. And perhaps we’ll have meetings in virtual or augmented reality, but what to do about the real world? Would it, as you argued in the WIRED essay that I cited, be left to the homeless and the untouchables and drug addicts and so on? There has to be a full replacement of reality by fantasy, not a separation into separate worlds of virtual cloud and real land. I see it everywhere in America right now.
The problem with that fantasy society, and the US has always had a fantasy, right? It's essentially: We can get to the moon in less than a decade! All of humanity will virtualize its life via the internet! And all those things actually happened because they had the technical wherewithal to actually do it. But if they don't actually possess the technical skills, if they can't pull off producing the masks or generating the vaccine, the whole music kind of stops on the fantasy.
That’s the problem I'm concerned with. In the last chapter, so I don't think I, you know, I described three possible solutions: you can evade or ignore, which I think happened for a long time, it still happens here and there. Or you could dramatize and transform it into some kind of story, which I think, for the past past few months has been the leading strategy, but I don't think in the end those strategies can work. Because something like a pandemic has the ability to destroy the fantasy. We're not talking about gun violence, for example which in a way is part of the fantasy and has some intensity to it, but it's always controlled, always limited. It’s always something that you can actually escape. People that want to live in a world without gun violence, probably pick a certain neighborhood go live somewhere else. So I think gun violence, which disturbing as it is to Europeans, there's nothing that poses a fundamental existential threat to the fantasy life.
When the political and moral values are at loggerheads with technology then it has to be solved one way or another. The open conflict between Silicon Valley and The New York Times is an example of that in practice. Obviously, there’s still in American society considerable enthusiasm for technology, just that there is a conflict in American society. Whereas in Europe, one could argue that actually, the conflict has been resolved and have collectively decided that liberal values are more important, while among Americans the question is open.
And so I argue that you need another kind of solution, which I think will be technological. One thing that does puzzle me, as I wrote in the last chapter, I make predictions that America would turn to a technological solution. It hasn't really happened. And that's puzzling to me because as I argue in the book, traditionally, this clash between fantasy and reality in America has been solved through surveillance, kind of creating the outer perimeter of the theme park and making sure that no one can enter the fantasy world. I think that's what happened after Pearl Harbor, the creation of the CIA, and all the other intelligence organizations. And then what happened after September 11, with digital surveillance in particular, and the total information awareness idea. But I still think it's unavoidable that’ll happen in America because it's the only solution that makes sense. And eventually it may even be possible to get us to the Singularity idea which in the end may even eliminate reality altogether. Through genetic engineering one can create human beings that are immune to viruses then, then viruses will have disappeared from human history. I think that's essentially the solution that America will have to work towards.
You seem like such a tech optimist! I’m reminded of a common saying here in Silicon Valley: most of the problems that startups actually face, unless you're on the hairy edge of technology such as say SpaceX, most of the problems are actually human problems, not technical problems, right? The stage I see ourselves, in what’s very much still a startup nation, although that's kind of a cliche, is that the technology is all there [for contact tracing]. It's the human problem of getting it going in one direction that I think is almost unbridgeable as a national problem.
There are many ways to look at this problem, but the one I picked in the book is the conflict between liberalism and tech. There is an obvious conflict between between liberalism and tech, in the sense that tech poses many problems to some of the fundamental principles of liberalism. Starting with privacy, but also starting with this Enlightenment idea of public sphere that’s free of myths and rumors, and attempts to be purely rational.
Also, inequality because obviously, some levels of inequality are incompatible with with liberalism control. I mean, if you go back to the liberal tradition, all these were seen as problems and our technology clearly embodies many of them. And so one solution to this sort of standstill that we have would be also for America to become less committed to these liberal principles. In another podcast the other day I suggested that maybe this whole thing of the of the Great Stagnation going back to the 70s, is it a coincidence that it happens exactly at the same time that liberalism becomes completely hegemonic and dominant? It starts to be very difficult to do technology on a grand scale. When the political and moral values are at loggerheads with technology then it has to be solved one way or another. The open conflict between Silicon Valley and The New York Times is an example of that in practice. Obviously, there’s still in American society considerable enthusiasm for technology, just that there is a conflict in American society. Whereas in Europe, one could argue that actually, the conflict has been resolved and have collectively decided that liberal values are more important, while among Americans the question is open.
You have strong opinions on the nature of the overlap and how much culture as medically actually flows, from America to Europe these days.
This I tried to capture in the book, there's something absolutely fascinating about contemporary America and this will attract people everywhere. They will look to it and find it exotic, unusual, strange, extreme, but also very, very interesting. But I think this is similar to interest in exotic Japan or a kind of interest in Indian religion and Indian spirituality. So I think America is going to become more like that sort of fascinating, exotic world, and less the vanguard of a universal civilization, which is how we thought about American culture over the past hundred years. Those two are fundamentally different. Now there may be an effect here that I'm getting older very quickly, and so I don't hang around with the kids anymore. And maybe they are being inspired by all these American ideas but in the world that I live in, let us say in London and in the City and the business world, these American ideas are practically irrelevant.
And yet there were massive protests in London and they almost knocked over the Churchill statue.
Right, a certain interest by a limited number of people, but you immediately see an enormous reaction and you see political leaders such as Johnson or Macron saying there are not going to be statues pulled down under my watch. So the establishment is very much going in the opposite direction. You don't see this being the center of the discussion. And by the way, it's already disappearing after a few weeks. But the UK is to some extent more open to this obviously through cultural links, while in continental Europe I don't really see it. We have our race problems and dealing with them, but I don't find these ideas powerful. And then obviously, I think in India or China, they simply don't register at all, and we can no longer ignore India, China and Russia as well.
You know, Russia, sometimes I get an invitation to go teach at a Russian university for a year or two. And they can't promise me much money, but they promised me absolute freedom when it comes to political correctness. Obviously, I would have to be careful on political issues, but on political correctness, I could say whatever I wanted, and that's the bonus. So obviously, in Russia as well, it’s not that these ideas aren’t powerful, it’s just that they’re sort of unintelligible in most of the world, and it's just not the case anymore.
The kind of 60s-style US liberalism was very powerful all over the world. Everyone was making and trying to learn about it, literally everywhere. And I don't think that's that's the case now with wokeness at all. Yeah, there was a lot of interest a few months ago, but it seems to me to be disappearing.
Yeah, you go back to the 60s and 70s, when Europe was still getting over the disruption of World War Two, and they were still dazzled by John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe, sure. I agree the tone has changed. But when I was first living in Europe in the 90s, nobody looked up to the US. The number of anti-American lectures I'd get the moment I switched to English and mentioned I was American, was just something else. That starry-eyed vision of America hasn't existed in Europe for a very long time.
It's been disappearing since about then. Yes. And in fact, some of the Black Lives Matter protests in Europe, were protests against the United States, not protests inspired by the United States. They were protests against the United States, a powerful country that is consumed by racism. So they might be similar to protests against Russia after Chechnya intervention, as part of it was like this painful as it might be for Americans to recognize.
I always laugh when Europeans criticize Americans for being racist. Europeans are so racist….
I totally agree. I totally agree with that. I do think the race question is very different on both sides. Europeans have a very, very serious problem with race that they haven't even started to address. No, I completely agree with that, and particularly countries like France and Belgium.
Some of these things are very difficult to access. Outside the US, they just seem utterly bizarre. You know, this guy was suspended for pronouncing a Chinese word because the Chinese word sounded like the n-word. This sort of thing, even to me who makes a daily effort to understand America just enters into the realm of trying to understand some very archaic Indian religious practice or something like that, where you would need 20 years, because otherwise it doesn't make any sense. I think American ideas have become very parochial.
But let me finish with China and this question of American intellectual power. My experience in China is if an academic is above the age of about 55, then he’s fundamentally influenced by American ideas. That's either where he studied or where he or she wanted to study. But if you move towards a younger cohort 35-40, say, they have no interest in America fundamentally. They are developing their own ideas and they're quite dismissive of American universities. And so there's been a break here, which you're starting to see a little bit everywhere. It's starting to be conceivable that the younger intelligent students in India will decide not to not to study in the US and 30 years ago, that was very different so what I'm trying to argue with your idea is that clearly the US is now struggling to export its way of life and its ideas in part because they’re not as powerful but also in part because those ideas are no longer as as universal. Some of these things are very difficult to access. Outside the US, they just seem utterly bizarre. You know, this guy was suspended for pronouncing a Chinese word because the Chinese word sounded like the n-word. This sort of thing, even to me who makes a daily effort to understand America just enters into the realm of trying to understand some very archaic Indian religious practices or something like that, where you would need 20 years, because otherwise it doesn't make any sense. I think American ideas have become very parochial. Now, there's a flip side to that because obviously, as they become very parochial, they also become very interesting and fascinating to a limited number of people. I myself get fascinated by this and there will be many young people in Europe that are in fact fascinated by wokeness or perhaps even by Trump, because they are so different and if you're bored with liberalism, this new America is more interesting. But it does not have the ability to be a universal religion like old fashioned liberalism. That's the main point. And there are many people out there in your circles in Silicon Valley that are really worried that wokeness is going to become a universal religion. I just don't think that's even conceivable.