Authenticity   /   Fall 2021   /    Book Reviews

The House Always Wins

Holding and Folding in the Contemporary Age.

Malloy Owen

Vegas Vickie at Glitter Gulch; Gavin Hellier/Alamy Stock Photo.

Like Alexis de Tocqueville, Bruno Maçães is an aristocratic European traveler in search of the meaning of the New World. Having come over from Portugal to study political theory at Harvard, where he worked under the conservative lion Harvey Mansfield, Maçães returned to occupy an important post in his country’s foreign ministry and is now attached to a center-right Washington think tank. History Has Begun, his recent book about the future of American civilization, addresses its subject with an ambivalent awe that recalls the closing chapters of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.

Maçães sees in America the origin of a new mode of politics: the fantastical or virtual, pioneered in the age of mass media and now perhaps nearing its perfection with the advent of immersive digital simulations. He argues that virtual politics first arose as a distinctively American solution to one of the great problems of modernity: the horrors of the iron cage, the vast, faceless, and uniform system of administration constructed by the modern state and business corporation. Europeans, he says, responded to this problem by trying to build a more humane politics. Americans, by contrast, “despaired of the task—which seemed to them to sink the individual into deeper and deeper forms of social control—and opted to look for ways in which one might simply escape from reality rather than embark on the risky venture to change it.”

Maçães proceeds to examine how Americans go about escaping from reality, living lives that follow scripts: “the prom dance, retirement in Florida.” It was television that supplied these scripts for decades, permitting Americans to imagine themselves as characters living out great events rather than as rusting cogs in an indifferent machine. Now social media is taking its place, offering us far more immersive and convincing—but equally fictive—narrative experiences. Another source of unreality is the vast inequality of American society, which allows the professional classes to live out a utopian fantasy while ignoring desperate poverty a few blocks over. And late-modern American racism, as James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison held, is not so much hatred as a dreamlike oblivion in which black people appear as phantoms, not entirely real.

American authorities, Maçães thinks, are just as averse to reality as the American public. Beyond our borders, military hegemony allows us to “create our own reality”—a memorable phrase he borrows from George W. Bush administration postmodernist Karl Rove. Even our intelligence agencies’ notorious Big Data surveillance systems generate not a true representation of the world but a “simplified and abstract model” in which individuals appear not as themselves but as virtual characters in a grand narrative about national security. “One could plausibly argue that the real individual is left alone,” Maçães suggests hopefully.

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