From Bowling Alone to Posting Alone
Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone chronicled the growing loneliness and isolation of wealthy societies. Twenty years later, the problem is far worse than he could have imagined.
Last year, the Survey Center on American Life published a study tracking friendship patterns in the United States. The report was anything but heartening. Registering a “friendship recession,” the report noted how Americans were increasingly lonely and isolated: 12 percent of them now say they do not have close friendships, compared to 3 percent in 1990, and almost 50 percent said they lost contact with friends during the COVID-19 pandemic. The psychosomatic fallout was dire: heart disease, sleep disruptions, increased risk of Alzheimer’s. The friendship recession has had potentially lethal effects.
The center’s study offered a miniaturized model of a much broader process that has overtaken countries beyond the United States in the last thirty years. As the quintessential voluntary association, friendship circles stand in for other institutions in our collective life — unions, parties, clubs. In his memoirs, French philosopher Jean-Claude Michéa said that one of the most disconcerting moments of his childhood was the day he discovered that there were people in the village who were not members of the Communist Party. “That seemed unimaginable,” he recalled, as if those people “lived outside of society.” Not coincidentally, in May 1968, French students sometimes compared the relationship of workers to the Communist Party with that of Christians to the church. The Christians yearned for God, and the workers for revolution. Instead, “the Christians got the church, and the working class got the party.”
The son of communist parents, Michéa saw the party as an extension of a more primary social unit. Friendship patterns have always served as a useful indicator for broader social trends, and writers at Vox were quick to apply the data to political analysis. The researchers invoked Hannah Arendt’s dictum that friendship was the best antidote for authoritarianism. At the end of 1951’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt postulated that a new form of loneliness had overtaken Westerners in the twentieth century, leading them to join new secular cults to remedy their perdition. “What prepares men for totalitarian domination in the non-totalitarian world,” she claimed, “is the fact that loneliness, once a borderline experience usually suffered in certain marginal social conditions like old age, has become an everyday experience.” The conclusions were clear. As Americans become lonelier and more isolated in the new century, the same totalitarian temptation now lurks.
To social scientists, this refrain must sound tiredly familiar: it is the stock-in-trade of one of the classics of early twenty-first-century political science, Robert Putnam’s 2000 book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. That book noted a curious pattern: more and more Americans took up bowling toward the end of the twentieth century, but they increasingly undertook the activity alone, with the sudden decline of many bowling leagues the clearest explanation. Such a crisis was by no means limited to sports clubs. From churches to trade unions to shooting establishments to Masonic lodges, all experienced a dramatic contraction of membership in the 1980s and 1990s and began to disband. What remained was a wasteland of sociability.
Putnam surveyed a variety of causes for this great disengagement. The luring of the middle class from city centers to exurbs in the 1960s encouraged privacy. Removed from American cities, citizens ended up in suburbs designed mainly for motorists and without footpaths. Consumption was democratized in the postwar boom. People spent more time in their cars, a mobile privatization of public space. Corner stores were bulldozed in favor of shopping malls, and train tracks lost out to highways. With the steady entry of women into the labor market, voluntary associations lost a central base of support. Employees began working longer hours than their parents had and found little time for volunteering. Television locked citizens at home in the evening: the tombstone of postwar loneliness.
Putnam also debunked some powerful misconceptions about the crisis of civil society. The first was that the welfare state was the real culprit. The transfer of social services from the community to the state level, the argument ran, would threaten citizens’ self-reliance. Putnam was skeptical: both strong (Scandinavia) and weak (United States) welfare states had seen a decline in civic capacity. In France and Belgium, a “red” civil society was even allowed to manage part of the social security budget. Battles over integration also proved an insufficient explanation: both black and white Americans withdrew from clubs, while overall distrust between racial groups was declining.
Putnam had no use for panaceas either. Back in 2000, he had already presaged that the internet would offer a poor substitute for those old associations and reinforce antisocial tendencies. In 2020, holed up in his New Hampshire home during the pandemic, the social scientist added an afterword to a new edition of Bowling Alone. Its tone was characteristically melancholic: there was no “correlation between internet usage and civic engagement,” while “cyberbalkanization” and not “digital democracy” was the future. The stock of “social capital” had not been replenished.
The weaknesses in this approach were already plain to see by the early 2000s. For one, Bowling Alone spent too little time investigating the structural transformation of its civil society — the rise of new NGOs as substitutes for mass membership organizations, the ascent of new sporting clubs, the revival of association in evangelical megachurches and schools.
Putnam also deployed a highly dubious notion of social capital. In this aspect, the book spoke to the market-friendly sensibilities of the late 1990s: civic ties were useful as a means for social mobility, not as expressions of collective power. They could adorn college applications or help people land trainee programs, not change nations or make revolutions.
Such economism also explained a glaring gap in Putnam’s book — the aggressive drop in union strength at the close of the century. In a book of more than five hundred pages, there was no index entry for “deindustrialization.” With limited discussions of labor as well, Bowling Alone had little to say about how capital’s offensive contributed to the decline of civil society — and how representative worker power was for civic life as a whole. The dwindling of union membership not only had dramatic consequences on the Left but also disoriented the Right — a side of the story that barely appears in Bowling Alone.
Despite these evident faults, however, Putnam’s book has stood the test of time. Statistics still point to a steady decline for many secular membership organizations. Despite growing public approval for union efforts, the US unionization rate declined by 0.5 percentage points to a mere 10.3 percent in 2021, returning to its 2019 rate. The political developments of the last decade, from COVID-19 lockdowns to the escalating downsizing of classical parties, also validated Putnam’s intuition. More than that, his book has now been used to explain the uncertainty of the Donald Trump years, in which the controlled demolition of the public sphere in the 1980s and 1990s drove a new form of resentment politics.
The hyperpolitics of the 2010s also hardly falsified Putnam’s thesis. While the interactive internet has largely replaced the monological television set, the general crisis of belonging and place that the new media inaugurated has not abated. Even in a society ever more heavily politicized and riven by partisan conflict, the levers for collective action, from states to unions to community groups, remain brittle. Despite surges of militancy in some sectors, the “great resignation” ushered in by COVID’s tight labor markets has not led to a politics of collective voice but rather to one of individual “exit,” as Daniel Zamora put it. European unions have suffered a similar fate, losing members to self-employment. While Putnam noted the upswing in voter turnout in the 2020 election, this was “voting alone,” vastly different from the organized bands that found their way to the ballot box in the nineteenth century.
There are both push and pull factors involved here. Since the 1980s, citizens have been actively ejected from associations through anti-union legislation or globalized labor markets. At the same time, passive alternatives to union and party power — cheap credit, self-help, cryptocurrency, online forums — have multiplied. The result is an increasingly capsular world where, as commentator Matthew Yglesias warned, our home has become an ever-greater source of comfort, allowing citizens to interact without ever leaving their house. “Sitting at home alone has become a lot less boring,” he claims, ushering in a world where we could all “stream alone.” The civic results will be dire.
Putnam From the Left
Here, then, was the rational core of the Putnam thesis: far beyond the bowling alley, social life in the West had indeed become increasingly atomistic over the course of the 1980s and 1990s. The economic rationale for this restructuring was evident, and a Marxist interpretation proved a useful supplement to the Putnamite view: individualization was an imperative for capital, and collective life had to be diminished in order for the market to find new avenues for accumulation. By 1980, states could either cut ties with existing civil society organizations and let go of the inflationary threat or face ballooning public debt.
This heavily conditioned the responses to the 2008 financial crash. Behind the short-term chaos of the credit crisis stood a much longer process: the slow but steady decline of party democracy since the 1973 slump. Parties also remain the paradigmatic victim of Putnam’s disengagement. As fortresses built between individuals and their states, these institutions secured people’s hold on the state throughout the twentieth century. The Austrian social democratic party in the 1930s hosted a theater club, a child welfare committee, a cremation society, a cycling club, workers’ radio and athletic clubs, and even a rabbit breeders’ association.
On the conservative side, this legacy was bemoaned as a dangerous drive toward politicization that would ideologically supervise individuals from cradle to grave. Still, left-wing intellectuals like Gáspár Miklós Tamás saw the new parties as an essential part of not just socialist politics but of modernity itself. They comprised
a counter-power of working-class trade unions and parties, with their own savings banks, health and pension funds, newspapers, extramural popular academies, workingmen’s clubs, libraries, choirs, brass bands, engagé intellectuals, songs, novels, philosophical treatises, learned journals, pamphlets, well-entrenched local governments, temperance societies — all with their own mores, manners and style.
As “total organizations,” Tamás’s parties were predictably described as modern institutions par excellence. Unlike medieval guilds, membership in a party was not obligatory — it was a free association, in which members could join and defend their interests. As Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci had it, the party thereby served as the modern equivalent of the Machiavellian prince, who could manage complex situations with tact and insight; here, parties worked from the top down, but also from the bottom up.
In the past thirty years, these pillars of party democracy have gradually eroded and been hollowed out. Two trends remain symptomatic of this process. The first is the declining membership of parties across the board, coupled with the increasing median ages of their members. On the Left, the German Social Democratic Party went from one million members in 1986 to 660,000 in 2003; the Dutch Socialists went from 90,000 to 57,000. The French Communist Party tumbled from 632,000 members in 1978 to 210,000 in 1998; its Italian sister party went from 1,753,323 to 621,670 in the same period. The British Labour Party counted 675,906 members in 1978, falling to 200,000 in 2005.
While the trend remains more marked for the classical left — which has always relied more squarely on mass mobilization — it is no less striking on the Right. The British Conservatives lost one million members between 1973 and 1994, while the French Gaullists dropped from 760,000 to 80,000. The Tories — the first mass party in European history — now receive more donations from dead members than from living ones, excluding their (now rebuffed) Russian oligarchs.
The United States has often served as a natural outlier to these European cases. Americans never had any true mass parties after 1896, the last major examples being the antislavery agitation of the 1850s and the rise of the original Populist and Socialist movement in the 1880s and 1890s. After the People’s Party’s defeat — in the South with stuffed ballot boxes and guns, in the North by electoral inertia — America’s bipartisan elites constructed a system that essentially neutered any third-party challengers. American parties nonetheless had a variety of bases and roots within society. These organizations effectively made, for example, the New Deal Democratic Party a mass party by proxy, tied to a hinterland of labor, union, and civil organizations that represented popular sectors. On both the Left and the Right, workers, employers, and shop owners have defended their interests in local clubs, committees, trade guilds, and syndicates.
This infrastructure was also a key launching pad for the revolts that detonated the civil rights revolution of the 1960s. Detroit labor leader Walter Reuther marched with Martin Luther King Jr in the early 1960s, while one of the foremost supporters of the 1963 March on Washington was A. Philip Randolph, the union radical who had begun by organizing workers under Jim Crow. The relation of these forces to the Democratic Party was always complicated and stepmotherly. Overall, however, they ensured that the party remained a “party of workers” without ever becoming a workers’ party.
From the 1970s onward, this same landscape began to desiccate, both passively and actively. The Tocquevillian utopia portrayed by generations of European visitors to North America was replaced by the reality of bowling alone. Instead of mass membership organizations, voluntary associations increasingly turned to a nonprofit model to organize advocacy in Washington.
The shift to the nonprofit drastically changed the composition of these advocacy groups. Instead of relying on dues-paying members, they reached out to wealthy donors to fill their coffers. In a United States in which the government was increasingly giving up its redistributive role, this move created a natural constituency from new welfare recipients. The logic was self-evident: associations that practically operated as businesses but did not want to fulfill their tax obligations to the state saw an opportunity in the nonprofit model. The American political scientist Theda Skocpol casts them as “advocates without members”: nonprofit organizations functioning as the lawyers of a mute defendant.
The Populist Moment
The abandonment of mass parties and the growing alienation between politicians and citizens can only be temporarily averted by television commercials and marketing stunts. By 2010, it was clear that both classical PR and protest politics were falling short of their promises. Austerity was decimating pensions and public sectors across the Global South. Public debt, itself channeled by private debt, was rising. In March 2013, a group of leftist academics energized by the Indignados movement began to meet at Madrid’s Complutense University. One year later, they ran for office in the European election as Podemos and won seats. La France Insoumise’s organizers would reach for the same playbook in late 2016, looking at the Spanish example.
For socialists, the transition from mass to cartel parties was shot through with ambiguity. On one hand, it generated real opportunities for radicals to appeal to disaffected voters who could no longer voice discontent within parties. The Left could politicize the prevailing antiestablishment mood, turning anti-politics into politics.
Yet it also heavily constrained the space in which left-wing politics itself could operate. The social landscape sculpted by the neoliberal reforms meant not just an estrangement from traditional parties but a retreat from the public sphere as such, only weakly compensated for by the new medium of the internet. Left populists had to mobilize profoundly demobilized societies.
The first signal of this populist shift was audible in the rhetoric of these forces themselves. From 2012 onwards, the subject of “the people” became a central referent for left-wing parties, both old and new. The adoption of a cross-class language was not a novelty for the Left. The theorists most strongly associated with it — thinkers such as Argentine philosopher Ernesto Laclau and Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe — had drafted their theses decades before. In the world of bowling alone, they finally found an application.
Yet Laclau and Mouffe’s populism also took a highly specific organizational form in the 2010s, both in Europe and the United States, including the coalition of groups it tried to tie together. Instead of the mass parties of the twentieth century, leftists had to face a profoundly disorganized civil society that had driven civilians out of politics altogether and rendered relations between elites and average citizens highly volatile. The crises of the 2010s thus confronted the Left with a twin set of dilemmas: one of substance and one of form.
The first concerned the question of what the natural base for a left-wing program was — where it lay and how it could be assembled. This puzzle always assumed a particular shape for twentieth-century social democrats. As Polish political scientist Adam Przeworski saw it, there was a clear threshold beyond which left-wing parties would trade talk of the working class with that of “the people.”
The famous dilemma ran as follows. On the one hand, social democrats hoped that the expansion of industry would usher in a working-class majority, which would allow them to capture political office and reform their route to socialism. On the other, the continuing stagnation and eventual shrinkage of that class created a quandary. Broadening the base would require concessions to middle-class constituencies, who had to remain the fiscal providers to the welfare state and use the same public services as lower classes. On the other hand, the more benefits were granted to the middle classes in terms of consumption goods, the less breathing room domestic industry would have, and the material bases of proletarian strength and support would wither. Hence the bitter choice laid out by Przeworski.
Przeworski’s dilemma received a shifting set of answers across the history of social democracy. For German Social Democratic Party theorist Karl Kautsky, it implied a promise of land redistribution to appease peasants. For a reformist like Eduard Bernstein, it meant a tactical alliance between the new middle classes and the working classes — a bridge built from office to factory. For Gramsci, it meant reaching out to Italy’s peasantry, held in check by the fascist state and mainly situated in the South. For French thinkers such as Serge Mallet and André Gorz, in turn, it meant a focus on the student class rather than the industrial proletariat of yesterday. All these options already exhibited a populist temptation, trading the working class for the people.
In the 2010s, left parties again had to solder together an older working class and a middle class squeezed by the financial crisis. Most left populists moved to the former by starting with the latter, generating several predicaments along the way. Yet the makeup of those groups was also vastly different from the working and middle classes socialists encountered in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, driven out of not only the factory but the public arena itself. Here, then, was the real result of Putnam’s bowling alone, the second and even more vexing dilemma for the populists. How was the Left to respond to the secular impoverishment of political life since the 1970s, and what opportunities, if any, could it offer?
This in turn acted as a multiplier on the puzzle that had troubled social democracy from the start. While socialists classically had an industrial working class and middle class to rely on, left populists could assume the support of neither of these two groups. Instead, the 1980s’ deindustrialization and ensuing crisis of civil society opened a void between citizens and states, radically decoupling elites from their societies. This void dislocated the boundaries of left-wing politics in an even more disorienting way — in a world in which politics itself was in crisis, the Left’s goals appeared tenuous at best, and actively unrealistic at worst. Hence the resort to a populist strategy from within the Left: to rethink mobilization for an age of demobilization — or how to stop people from bowling alone.
This was no undemanding task, and in the end, such an option put leftists in a crippling double bind. They could go full populist, soliciting the wider base of citizens driven out from traditional politics and disaffected by social democracy. But this approach risked emptying out the Left’s historic commitments, condemning people to “posting alone.” Eschewing this left strategy also meant a heavily digital and top-down approach to coalition building. Moreover, such a strategy might not grant the Left enough organizational heft to face the forces of capital on their own terrain.
On the other hand, falling back on a classical left-wing identity could also scare off voters whose loyalty to the traditional left was now fading. Partly through the latter’s participation in the Third Way and the demands of the post-2008 austerity program, a return to this tradition had become a liability. Once again, the trade-off between the middle and working classes that had troubled social democracy from the beginning now found a new manifestation in the compromise between a populist and a socialist approach. Reshuffling the first, the second dilemma was intimately tied to the crisis of political engagement so specific to the twenty-first century.
As the sociologist Dylan John Riley noted in 2012, “the contemporary politics of the advanced-capitalist world bears scant resemblance to that of the interwar period.” At the time, “populations organized themselves into mass parties of the left and right,” not an era of “a crisis of politics as a form of human activity,” where it was “unlikely that either Bernstein or Lenin can offer lessons directly applicable.”
A view of today’s politics as a direct productof the 2010s thus necessitates an emancipation from a series of frames we have inherited from an older age — and chief among them is a vision that sees our age as one of fascist resurgence. In the six years since Donald Trump’s election, a waspish debate on whether he should be classified as a fascist has overtaken American and European academia. The January 6 riots proved shocking and unsurprising to these observers.
Putnam had already warned that social capital was never an unqualified good, and subsequent writers have regularly spoken about “Bowling for Fascism” as an adequate description of Nazi strength in the 1930s. As Putnam himself noted: “It was social capital, for example, that enabled Timothy McVeigh to bomb the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. McVeigh’s network of friends, bound together by a norm of reciprocity, enabled him to do what he could not have done alone.”
Ever since this warning, readings of Trumpism as heralding a new age of association have multiplied. In a recent paper, three social scientists have claimed that voters in flyover states have gone from bowling alone to “golfing with Trump,” arguing that “the rise in votes for Trump has been the result of long-term economic and population decline in areas with strong social capital.” The conclusion seems inescapable: since Germans and Italians first went bowling for fascism in the 1930s, Trump is now deserving of the same term.
This reading has appeared in both prudent and imprudent versions. For academics such as historian Timothy Snyder or philosopher Jason Stanley, Trump and Jair Bolsonaro appear in perfect continuity with the strongmen of the 1930s, with the former president as “the original sin of American history in the post-slavery era, our closest brush with fascism so far.” This was still “pre-fascism” to Snyder, and “for a coup to work in 2024, the breakers will require something that Trump never quite had: an angry minority, organized for nationwide violence, ready to add intimidation to an election. . . . Four years of amplifying a big lie just might get them this.” Journalists like Paul Mason and Sarah Kendzior have drafted texts instructing us in “how to stop fascism,” while anti-fascist in chief Madeleine Albright published Fascism: A Warning.
More subtle versions of this thesis are available. Writers Gabriel Winant and Alberto Toscano, for instance, have proposed a frame of “racial fascism” to read Trumpism on a broader timeline. In their view, white identity politics and fascism have always been interlinked. As Winant notes, “The primary factor of social cohesion in Tocqueville’s America was nothing other than white supremacy. Given that this structure has endured . . . it makes little sense to imagine our society as formerly rich with association, but now bereft of it.” Although “the gun-waving McCloskeys in St. Louis are presumably not members of the same kind of fraternal organizations that were popular in the 19th century … they are members of a homeowners’ association,” and they rely on “whiteness [as] a kind of inchoate associational gel, out of which a variety of more specific associations may grow in a given historical conjuncture.”
Hence, if Trump looks like a racial fascist, swims like a racial fascist, and quacks like a racial fascist, then he probably is a racial fascist. Voices in high quarters have recently joined Winant on this point. In a September 1 speech, President Joe Biden castigated Trumpist Republicans as a “threat to the republic” and saw them tending toward “semi-fascism.”
This reading now faces its own chorus of critics. To scholars like Riley and Corey Robin, Trumpism is better theorized as a form of Bonapartism that shares little with the “superpoliticized” fascisms of the interwar period. Above all, the two crucial preconditions for any fascist movement remain lacking: a prerevolutionary working class on the verge of power and a population’s shared experience of total war, which would create a mass body. Fascism in power, they claim, has a hegemonic character and is not content to meddle on the margins. Just like pagans in a Christian world, they would have little purchase in the new order.
One of the most recurrent responses to this critique points at asymmetries between Left and Right. While the 1980s and ’90s saw a dramatic decline in left-wing civic life, the Right has weathered Putnam’s era fairly better, with police unions and neighborhood defense clubs surviving the neoliberal onslaught. Fascism, after all, is the mentality of rank-and-file police elevated to state policy, a type of countermobilization for a militant working class. It’s no surprise that Marine Le Pen has received overwhelming support from French policemen.
A similar argument has been made for the British Conservative Party. This outfit has supposedly retained its bastions of strength across society in private schools, Oxbridge, and sporting clubs. As political scientist R. W. Johnson noted in 2015, “the atomisation and dispersal of the Labour vote” has led to “whole chunks falling off the side to the SNP and Ukip,” while “the institutional base of the Tory Party — private schools, the Anglican Church, wealthy housing districts, the expanded private sector and even home ownership in general — is as healthy as ever.” The result was “a one-sided decay of the class cleavage, with the Tories holding onto their old hinterland far better than Labour has.” From Oxford’s Bullingdon Club to the City guilds, conservative parties have managed to preserve their elite incubators and retain deeper pools of personnel.
It is difficult to see how such statements invalidate Putnam’s original hypothesis, however. The metrics for social capital used by anti-Putnamites are, for instance, curiously indeterminate. Collapsing NGOs and homeowner associations into the same category as parties and unions tells us little about the relative strength of civil society institutions. Rather than civic fortresses, NGOs function as heads without bodies — finding it easier to attract donors than members.
Even if Trump and other nationalists did rely on high associational density, this would not detract from the overall context of demobilization in which they operate. As islands in a minoritarian political system, they can only retain power by exploiting the Constitution’s most anti-majoritarian features. This is worlds removed from the anti-constitutionalism of the Nazis, who saw the Weimar Republic as born with socialist birthmarks. Fascist parties were hardly card-playing clubs, and golfing with Trump is a pallid replacement for fascist boot camps.
What about the Right’s other reserve institutions, from “white-ness” to homeownership? It is indeed true that many right-wing institutions have fared better in the neoliberal age. Yet an argument such as Winant’s makes it unclear how we should distinguish between being white and being a member of the Ku Klux Klan, just like being an employer is not the same as paying dues to an employer’s organization. In an age in which legal segregation has been abolished, racial status is not the guarantee of civic inclusion that it used to be under the Jim Crow regime. And a homeowner’s convention is no John Birch Society chapter, much like Bolsonaro’s WhatsApp groups are not Benito Mussolini’s squadristi.
The Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist organizations might well count as the first properly fascist organizations in history. But as institutions, they have been on the wane for decades, and they do not supply the shock troops for white supremacy that they did in the past. Militias like the Proud Boys and the boogaloo movement instead thrive as “individualized commandos,” as Adam Tooze put it, far removed from the veterans that populated the Freikorps or the Black and Tans in the early 1920s. These were highly disciplined formations with direct experience of combat, not lumpen loners who drove out to protect car dealerships.
The same holds true in European cases. Giorgia Meloni’s post-fascist Fratelli d’Italia has grown precipitously in the last year and now presides over one hundred thousand members and leads a governing coalition. Still, it will not equal the 230,000 members that its predecessor MSI had in the early 1960s, leading to a fascism with “no squads, uniforms or baseball bats.” Both numerically and qualitatively, the hard right remains a shadow of its former self — as does the center right.
The Tory Primrose League was disbanded in 2004, and visitors to the British Isles will quickly be struck by the fading colors of the “Conservative Club” placards in thecountry’s rural towns. Like the old Workingmen’s Associations, these clubs scarcely function as mass mobilizers anymore, often appearing more like retirement homes (the median age of the Conservative Party membership is now estimated at seventy-two). As New Left Review’s Tariq Ali has noted, this self-immolation was itself a product of the neoliberal 1980s. Margaret Thatcher’s market reforms led to “the decimation of the Tories’ provincial base of local gentry, bank managers and businessmen through the waves of trans-Atlantic acquisitions and privatizations she unleashed.”
There are exceptions to this rule, of course — the anti-Obama Tea Party activists who met up in basements in the early 2010s, the Hindu youth clubs run by Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), or the anti-immigrant “defense leagues” organized by the Scandinavian far right. In general, however, the civic pattern looks as disarticulated on the Right as it does on the Left.
Why, then, has the Right nonetheless done better than the Left in the age of Putnam? The reasons are unsurprising: the Right has always grown organically out of capitalist society and relies on the default forms of association that capital generates. As Friedrich Engels pointed out in a report to British trade unionists in 1881:
Capitalists are always organized. They need in most cases no formal union, no rules, officers, etc. Their small number, as compared with that of the workman, the fact of their forming a separate class, their constant social and commercial intercourse stand them in lieu of that. . . . On the other hand, the workpeople from the very beginning cannot do without a strong organization, well-defined by rules and delegating its authority to officers and committees.
The crisis of civil society, in the latter sense, poses more of a problem on the Left than on the Right because the benchmarks of any successful socialist politics are always higher. To the Right, the stabilization or preservation of property relations is mostly enough. Inertia and resignation, more than militancy, remain its great assets. Nonetheless, homeowner associations, QAnon groups, and golf clubs are no durable replacement for this older civic infrastructure.
Clear parallels between the current day and the 1930s need not be minimized, of course. Like Adolf Hitler and Mussolini, Trump was an eminently lazy regent, happy to leave his policies to specialists and high-ranking officials, while, like a digital Napoleon Bonaparte, he dabbles with the crowds. And like those leaders, Trump owes his power mainly to that group of compliant conservatives in the Republican Party who seek to deploy the far right as a wedge against rival oligarchs.
After that, the analogies quickly weaken. Trump built on the executive power unbound by presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush. Nor do Republicans owe their power to a mass movement in a tightly organized party. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell regularly complains of slacking parliamentary discipline in the Majorie Taylor Greenes of the party. The Republicans thereby prefer to derive power from preexisting posts in the US state, which always exhibited aggressively elitist traits since the eighteenth century. Corey Robin rightly speaks of “gonzo constitutionalism”: a merciless deployment of the most antidemocratic features of the US political order.
The most unsettling fact about MAGA Republicanism is, as Robin writes, that it does not depend “upon these bogeymen of democracy — not on demagoguery, populism, or the masses — but upon the constitutional mainstays we learned about in high-school civics.” Only in 2004 did the GOP win the presidential election with a popular majority, when Bush Jr took a narrow 50.7 percent of the vote. Otherwise, the Republican Party strengthened its grip on the state apparatus mainly through minority mechanisms: appointing judges to the Supreme Court, gerrymandering, and filibustering.
Rather than a fascist threat, the party offers a pared-down oligarchy — the wielding of the last anti-majoritarian levers in the American ancien régime. “Nationalizing our elections is just a multi-decade Democratic Party goal in constant search of a justification,” McConnell stated in Congress last year, openly admitting that low voter turnout is a boon to his party. “Semi-fascism” might be a rhetorically grateful term for this behavior — but at the end of the day, not everything that is bad is the same.
Online and Offline
In the past ten years, pundits across the political spectrum have scouted for technical fixes for Putnam’s crisis. Undoubtedly the most appealing of these has been the new online world. This is an old story: two decades ago, when Putnam published his book, theorists were already wondering whether the internet’s new global connectivity, conceived in the bosom of the American security state, could remake society. Today, the children of the internet retain little faith in Twitter or TikTok’s capacity for good, much like Putnam doubted that online engagement could replace older civic mores.
This skepticism is mirrored by a confusion about the internet’s supposed political potential. If the Scylla of social media analysis was the naive utopianism of the early 2000s, its Charybdis is our current digital pessimism, which sees so much of the world’s problems — from political polarization to sexual impotence to declining literacy rates — as both the causes and consequences of being “too online.”
Clearly, the internet only becomes comprehensible in the world of the lonely bowler. Online culture thrives on the atomization that the neoliberal offensive has inflicted on society — there is now ample research showing positive correlation between declining civic commitment and broadband access. At the same time, the internet accelerates and entrenches social atomization. The exit and entry costs of this new, simulated civil society are extremely low, and the stigma of leaving a Facebook group or a Twitter subculture is incomparable to being forced to move out of a neighborhood because a worker scabbed during a strike.
The extreme marketization of Putnam’s 1980s and 1990s also made the world vulnerable to the perils of social media. The dissolution of voluntary organizations, the decline of Fordist job stability, the death of religious life, the evaporation of amateur athletic associations, the “dissolution of the masses,” and the rise of a multitudinous crowd of individuals were all forces that generated the demand for social media long before there was a product like Facebook or Instagram. Social media could only grow in a void that was not of its own making.
The internet is thus best read as a Pharmakon — a Greek noun that denotes both a means of remedy and a poison, a supposed antidote that can only exacerbate the disease. This also poses sensitive issues for the Right, particularly as capital itself had become increasingly divided in the preceding decades. As Paul Heideman has noted about the GOP in Catalyst, the assault on working-class organizations of the 1980s removed the external sources of discipline that once grouped capitalists together and imposed a common policy agenda.
Without this opponent, internal fractures are likely to widen. With the compounding “weakening of the parties since the 1970s, and the political disorganization of corporate America since the 1980s,” it is, as the academic Cathie Jo Martin has argued, “much harder for U.S. employers to think about their collective long-term interests.” And rather than a process of realignment in which Republicans have seized working-class votes, it is the ruthless march of “dealignment” that drives our age of political tumult.
Capital’s disorganization provides a much more rewarding frame for the “populist explosion” than ahistorical references to the authoritarianism of the 1930s. The German author Heinrich Geiselberger has noted how, without “the enemies of socialism,” the Right “can only invoke its spectre.” Geiselberger, together with Tamás, prefers to speak of post-fascism: an attempt to make citizenship less universal and confine it to national borders, but without the organizational clout that fascists demonstrated in the twentieth century. The new right is therefore “atomised, volatile, swarm-like, with porous borders between gravity and earnestness, sincerity and irony.”
Above all, the new politics is consistently informal. The mob that expressed unconditional support for Trump on January 6 does not even have membership lists. QAnon and the anti-lockdown movement are a subculture that thrives mostly on blogs, Instagram, and Facebook groups. There are, of course, more and less prominent QAnon figures — influencers, so to speak. Yet their leadership is not official or mandated by votes. Rather than a militarily drilled mass, we see a roving swarm, incited by a clique of self-selected activists.
This informality also manifests itself economically. In the past year, Trump extorted thousands of dollars from his followers and continued to rake in funds, without ever building a clear party structure. As early as 1920, sociologist Max Weber noted how charismatic leaders did not pay their followers and backers with fixed salaries, but rather worked through “donations, booty or bequests.” Unsurprisingly, charismatic leadership was also a thoroughly unstable mode of rule: succession to the throne could not simply be guaranteed for the mob, which would now have to look for its next redeemer.
What would a viable alternative to this fascist frame look like? As Riley suggests, a far more powerful precedent for our situation can be found in Karl Marx’s account of the 1848 revolution. At the revolution’s close, instead of giving in to this unrest, Napoleon III gathered an apathetic peasant population and ordered them to quell the revolution. Marx described these French peasants as a “sack of potatoes” for whom the “identity of their interests fosters no community spirit, no national association and no political organization.” And since the peasants could not represent themselves, “they must be represented” — in this case by a king.
Rather than a politics pitting workers against bosses, structured by the capital-labor opposition, Bonaparte’s was a politics of debtors and creditors — another shared feature with the 2010s, in which private debts transferred onto public accounts fueled the American and European debt crises. Bonaparte’s peasants focused on circulation and taxes rather than on production. Instead of peering aimlessly at the 1930s, we would have to look at a much older, primal age of democracy for suitable parallels with our populist era.
Yet the fascist frame also carries an even graver risk: an overestimation of socialist strength. Fascism implies a popular front and strategic alliances with liberalism, including no-strike pledges. Rather than force focus, the fascist frame will distract and confuse us from the crisis of political engagement so typical of the twenty-first century.
Putnam was right, but for the wrong reasons: associationalism matters for democracy, but it hardly matters to capital — and might even threaten it. For those contemplating a 2024 Bernie Sanders run, the question of the legacy the campaign leaves behind seems of even greater importance than what it accomplishes, let alone whether it will allow Bernie to ascend to the presidency. Only in that case will we see a true test of constitutional loyalty for capital, and only then can we gauge money’s alignment with liberal democracy. In the absence of this threat, both on left and right, we will keep on bowling alone.