The United States is a superpower that never entirely sought empire’s glory. It has sometimes looked like an empire—but a clumsy, awkward one; sometimes too heavy-handed, at other times too quick on the draw. Imperialistic, yes, but often of necessity, as when no one else was left to confront the Nazis. Since its emergence as a world power, it has not engaged in wars of conquest for the sake of territorial expansion, such as Persia, Sparta, Macedonia, Rome, or Babylon. So it cannot be ruled out that with its present retreat, America is returning to a state that, on balance, it finds more natural than the position of world policeman it has occupied for a little less than a century.
Some may find this retreat reassuring. Others, heartbreaking. Yet others might say: Aren’t you crying over yesterday’s American empire? The real empire is busy exerting its global domination through GAFA—Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple—which were born on the West Coast of the United States and have become states within a state, empires within the empire. This America that you are not the first to say is in decline, isn’t it the center of a revolution that has changed the face of humanity and made America more dominant than ever?
Yes and no. Yes, because these companies—though they are so completely unrooted as to be almost governed by no law, not even that of the United States—are in their culture and language unmistakably American. At the same time: No, because the new empire with a digital face has no interest in spreading or maintaining what were once called American values.
It took only a short amount of time for a band of young people, working in their garages and dorm rooms, to dream up and put into practice the equations and protocols that underpin this electronic empire, a system of influence and control whose strength is gradually coming to be seen as greater than that of the old empire and its heavy equipment.
The story began like a fairy tale offered up to the rest of the planet: the giddy opening of infinite spaces and labyrinths of intelligence; the vertiginous feeling of having all the known world within one’s grasp; the joy, for those living at the edges in remote villages or peripheral nations, of gaining access to globalized methods of socialization and personal growth.
For people who previously had no collective importance, who were forbidden to speak or even to possess a narrative and a story of their own, the fairy tale promised new possibilities for expression and freedom.
Then things began to go wrong. A torrent of previously dammed-up speech washed over the internet. The web became a throng, a free-for-all, a venue for the headlong pursuit of the self, where everyone shows up with his opinion, his conviction, his complaint, and his “personal truth.” The point of departure was the equal right of all to express their beliefs; but, somehow, that conviction gave way to the idea that all of those expressions of belief are of equal value.
And here it is necessary to bring up the name of someone who is not a GAFA head but rather an 18th-century English philosopher: Jeremy Bentham.
Bentham invented a model prison that he dubbed the “panopticon,” the chief feature of which is a central watchtower that allows the guards to observe the prisoners detained in chambers radiating like spokes from the tower hub, without the prisoners being able to observe the observers. He conceived the simple idea that it is enough for a person to believe that he is being observed to get that person, without force and even without words, to bend and submit.
What is the internet if not a modern panopticon? But it is a two-sided one, a panopticon that can be turned around. Operated from the top down, it gives GAFA, governments, and other actual or would-be major players full power to observe, monitor, and control those under their dominion. But the tools wielded by those at the top are not much better than those available to the people at the bottom; and provided they are a little geeky or at least use the right websites, they can be just as powerful as the people at the top.
Instead of passively allowing themselves to be watched, the lowly eyes take the initiative; they turn their leaders into objects of insatiable and unforgiving curiosity, with the result that the watchers come to be watched, the informers informed on, and the inspectors inspected.
This reversal has its good side. The laying bare of kings, the possibility of seeing them, as in the tale, without clothes, this new right delivered to the disenfranchised, to nobodies, to those who were called the sans-culottes in the French Revolution for their lack of proper breeches—this power to expose princes, officials, prestigious people, and, of course, tyrants is central to the democratic idea and to democratic resistance.
But still, the machine cannot distinguish between potentates and ordinary politicians. Or between good and bad causes. Should we not worry about the parity in the energy it can bring to bear to topple a tyrant or to smear a democrat? And are we so sure that the risk of being observed always has the effect of discouraging, let alone blocking, abuses of power? The nudity imposed on the powerful may serve less as an incentive to appear virtuous (I know they can see me naked, so I’m going to restrain myself) than as an inducement to let oneself go (How wonderful to be seen naked; why hold back?). Isn’t that right, President Donald Trump?
It is not only kings and their subjects who carry the little spy satellite around in their pocket. You, I, and nearly everyone else—billions of human beings living on every continent and connected by GAFA—have the personal and portable panopticon at our disposal. Everybody is gazing at everybody. It is a corrupt bargain in which the parties agree to share the right to spy on one another and, ipso facto, to denounce one another.
But in this world, the world of the web, which is fast becoming the world itself, there is no authority charged with receiving and adjudicating denunciations—no one in the policeman’s position that the America of old played in the world of old. GAFA gave everyone on the planet the means to make one another speak, sing, and reveal themselves on equal terms.
As an example—the most terrible example, and for that very reason the most eloquent—I cite the relish shown by the radical Islamists since the torture and execution of Daniel Pearl for filming, editing, and (until the world finally rose up in protest) posting their decapitations on YouTube.
It is impossible not to also see in this exhibitionism a measure of mimicry of the West, whose influence on the Islamic radicals is, on this score, obvious from the fierceness with which they deny it. My hypothesis is that there is, here, a dark fascination with the telling all, the seeing all, and the showing all, and that these are the new laws of the empire. ISIS, in a way, carried into the Muslim world our own thirst for transparency.
How can we best describe an empire that limits itself to spreading its vapors, plumes, and waves over the world’s surface? And what are we to make of an imperial form that is so indifferent to its content that for so long and without too many qualms or scruples it consented to carry over its waves the filth that ISIS produced?
One is reminded of Edom, which is, in the Jewish tradition, the name applied to the last empire. Edom is “drunk on Nothingness,” says the Maharal of Prague, but reigns over the nations with a strictness that is all the more implacable. In other words, it is simultaneously all and nothing. It has nothing special to say, because nothing opposes it any longer and it extends over all the ancient kingdoms. It no longer has to be this, that, or anything else, because it no longer has any particular message and has become another name for the world.
That is where America is in its new imperial form. Vigorous and silent. Preeminent but mum.
This essay was adapted from Bernard-Henri Lévy’s book The Empire and the Five Kings: America’s Abdication and the Fate of the World, which will be published on February 12, 2019.