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Us vs. Him

The terminally panglossian political thought of Ian Bremmer

Ian Bremmer has a new book out, and reviewers everywhere should rejoice. Bremmer, for those of you unfamiliar with his work, is the political scientist who heads up Eurasia Group, the consultancy best known for mansplaining politics to the world’s business and political leaders in a way that manages to get most of the big calls wrong. He’s the man with his finger just off the pulse. In recent years, Bremmer’s firm has predicted a Remain victory in the Brexit referendum and a Hillary Clinton presidency (“U.S. voters won’t elect a president who will close the country to Muslims,” he asserted in early 2016), while failing to anticipate any of the big one-off convulsions that have rocked the emerging markets—such as Brazil’s Operation Car Wash scandal or the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. Bremmer’s only good predictions are the ones he’s perhaps most fond of: predictions with a 100 percent probability of success. Explaining how a sustainable new global order is likely to emerge, for instance, he once said that individual countries’ governments “will work together, or act separately.”

Banalities such as this have garnered Bremmer a substantial following on social media. Surfing the zeitgeist from news event to news event, Bremmer dispenses wannabe-edgy, meme-ish, made-to-go-viral tweets whose defining feature is that they constitute neither good political analysis nor good satire. (Recent highlights: a “whimsical” cartoon about animals; a tweet saying simply, “I liked liberal democracy while it lasted;” a Barbara Bush tribute composed in the plaintive key of Bush Family Rehabilitation; a jab at Donald Trump for promoting his own work as president; and of course several tweets to promote Bremmer’s new book.) Bremmer appears to suffer from a kind of Brian Williams syndrome—the conviction that even though he’s made his name in one field (mostly inaccurate political forecasting), he has vast reserves of untapped talent in others (comedy, shitposting) that the world must be made to recognize. I picture him sitting in his office with a pair of sunglasses on as he pens these zingers, plotting his nerd’s revenge. “People think political scientists are boring, but just look at these crazy tweets!” Thankfully this new-found social media celebrity has done nothing to affect the quality of Bremmer’s longer-form written work. It remains as vapid as ever.

Us vs. Them is Bremmer’s tenth book, and it would be difficult to find anyone who’s committed so many words to print while varying his message so little.

Written with the breathless verve of a child who’s just memorized an entire issue of The Economist but isn’t quite sure what to make of it yet, Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism presents Bremmer’s solution to the populist politics of exclusion (anti-trade, anti-foreigner, etc.) that has taken over the world in the past few years. Actually, that’s overstating things: 90 percent of the book is filler, a staccato summary of the types of major events in recent global political history that any moderately engaged consumer of the media would already be familiar with. It’s only toward the end that Bremmer gets down to what he thinks can be done to fix this troubling deviation from Third Way centrism. “Survival requires that we invent new ways to live together,” he concludes, and guess what? Apart from a far-from controversial call to increase investment in education, Bremmer offers a grab bag of policy recommendations leading right back to the same political middle ground that helped touch off  this shitstorm in the first place.

The Bremmer plan is to promote free trade, cut the deficit in the United States, and revive our flagging faith in the private sector to do good: the canon of Davos. The failure of globalism calls, in other words, for more globalism. Were it written by a fourteen-year-old who thinks being “fiscally conservative but socially liberal” represents the height of intellectual daring, this might constitute trenchant political analysis. Coming from a trained political scientist, it feels more like professional negligence.

Of course, Bremmer is far from the only CEO-whisperer out there shilling bad takes on politics. A whole industry has emerged since the turn of the century to help big corporations understand what’s tremulously referred to as “political risk.” Flip over to the acknowledgments page of Bremmer’s book and you’ll find a roll call of that industry’s brightest stars. There’s Jared Cohen, the former Condoleezza Rice protege who first got the grayheads of D.C. hip to the early 2000s online vibe and now runs an unprofitable subsidiary of Alphabet while doing crunches at Equinox with Jeff Koons. Neocon-at-all-costs Bob Kagan snuggles up next to Parag Khanna, whose 2011 book How to Run the World included a tip to the leaders of African nations to “make safari, not war.” A little further along you’ll find celebrity collector of plastic vaginas Nouriel Roubini and then, right at the end, sits the godfather of the gang: Fareed Zakaria, the CNN plagiarist-in-residence for whom the answer, no matter the question, is always “Singapore.”

These men share a network (each other), an outlook (a vaguely technocratic, business-friendly centrism), and a vocation: to remain insistently present in public conversations about world politics while avoiding the messy business of actually saying anything. Maximum globospeak, minimum substance. They are business cable’s philosophers for hire; they’re the lazy opinion editor’s idea of an intellectual; they’re talent at Davos and wildcard guests at the IMF’s spring meetings, thought-leadership limpets that cling to the global investment conference circuit with something approaching mortal terror. So it’s little surprise to find them lovingly embalmed in the end notes to Ian Bremmer’s new book, where they’re gushingly described as “deep and provocative thinkers.”  

“Deep and provocative” is the globospeak set’s answer to “fair and balanced”: a fine ambition in theory, but one it would be professionally self-sabotaging to actually pursue in one’s working life. The globospeaker gets by on the airy generalization, the inconclusive conclusion, the background paragraph retooled from Wikipedia. Real depth and actual opinions are the enemy of this strategy. Us vs. Them is Bremmer’s tenth book, and it would be difficult to find anyone who’s committed so many words to print while varying his message so little. Every one of his books follows, roughly, the same structure. Set the scene with a Big Threat to global prosperity (state capitalism, say, or the lack of a hegemon, or populism), and give it a crappy nickname: something like “The New Abnormal.” Run through some poll results, throw in a mention of Zakaria’s idea of the “rise of the rest,” then summarize the last two years of history in the emerging markets. Do a quick recap of the 1930 Smoot-Hawley tariff, chuck in a quote from Aristotle or some other dead smart dude, then wind things up with a handful of half-assed suggestions for reform that largely involve putting things back to the way they used to be before the Big Threat emerged, and bang: congratulations pal, you’re a published author.

In terms of analytic structure, the works are just as formulaic. The thesis of a new Bremmer book is usually indistinguishable from the thesis of his previous one. In his 2006 tome The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall, Bremmer explained that, facing a choice between stability and openness, some nations will rise and others will fall. In 2010’s The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations?, he argued that in the war between states and corporations, some will win and some will lose. Two years later, Bremmer took to the cliché-ridden pages of Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World to argue that in a non-polar world, some nations will win and others will lose. Us vs. Them extends this piquant line of thinking. In the prose of a dentist, Bremmer sets out his case: the world is beset by populist tensions. Which nations will win? Which nations will lose? We don’t know. The only thing we can be sure of is that some nations will win and others will lose. In conclusion: free markets are good.

Bremmer’s signature stylistic moves are the hedge and the false choice: cluttering formulations that appear complex but stand for nothing. For example, after he’s surveyed recent calls for a robot tax to offset the economic effects of automation on the labor force, Bremmer presents both the case for and against the tax, before concluding: “There are strong points on both sides.” The “fears of ordinary people” that drive populism, meanwhile, are “often, if not always, justified.” Elsewhere he asks: “Is the purpose of government to bring about change, to enable others to bring about change, or to protect society against the worst effects of change? Some will say there’s a place for all three of these roles.” Deep and provocative indeed.

There is, of course, an obvious business rationale lurking behind this painful exercise in both sidesism.

Seeing the good and bad in everything while taking a position on nothing is by now a familiar reflex for the neoliberal management class, but Bremmer has honed it into something akin to an art form. Here he is, in Us vs. Them, laying out the apparently nugatory pros and cons of the disruptive influence of technology. As he ponders the digital-age “challenge of protecting democracy,” Bremmer muses at one point: “If governments can’t do it, maybe the private sector can.” A little further along comes the clincher: “One of the most active participants in experiments with private-sector involvement in meeting the evolving needs of private citizens is Facebook chairman Mark Zuckerberg.” Uh, right.

These plodding homilies might just as well have been dropped in, reheated, from the year 2010—a time in which, yes, things weren’t great, but virtuous technocrats could be counted on to set things right. To be fair, there is some concession made to recent complications in this perspective. Bremmer knows—how could he not?— that not everyone today is so hot for Facebook’s signature mix of bad vacation photos and hate speech. But don’t worry; he has an elegant solution to this bind. In Us vs. Them he presents tech as both a threat—the robots are coming for your job—and an opportunity: you could upskill and learn how to program a robot! Get a load of that blue-sky thinking, baby.

There is, of course, an obvious business rationale lurking behind this painful exercise in both sidesism. Bremmer’s firm has clients on both the left and the right; taking up his watch at the dead center of the political spectrum ensures that he pisses neither group off and continues raking in the big bucks. But this position seeks to resurrect a nostalgia for pre-financial crisis technocracy at precisely the moment we should be killing that vision of the good life off for good. Centrist dogma also encourages a kind of political futurism in which electorates are always, in the long run, assumed to be rational and the arc of history bends toward liberal capitalism. And here’s another crucial added value: this terminally whiggish worldview insulates the political and business elites who are the main audience for Bremmer’s writing and consulting work from having to think too searchingly about the on-the-ground realities of public opinion. Eurasia Group is not simply bad at predicting the outcomes of elections; Bremmer himself is a chronic misinterpreter of political behavior. In 2010 he confidently declared that for the Russian government, “zero-sum mercantilist thinking is a thing of the distant past. Russia’s military is in no position to occupy Belarus, much less Berlin.” Four years later, Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea. This isn’t a minor error: it’s evidence of a basic failure to understand the animating rages of political action; to understand politics.

And highlighting this failure is much more than just scoring a debating point in a review piece. When the authors of bad political takes have the ear of the elites, those takes breed bad politics. Globospeaking political scientists beget globospeaking politicians. Bremmer, Khanna, Zakaria and the rest supply the trough where the world’s decider class adjourns to feed its collective brain. The deeper their influence, the longer we’ll have to live with a clueless political elite that parrots centrist shibboleths as cover for its own criminal lack of ideas. If, as Bremmer contends in the acknowledgments section, “nobody reads books anymore,” one might well do a little global trend-spotting of one’s own to suggest that works like Us vs. Them may be a big part of the reason. Toward the end of 2012’s Every Nation for Itself, Bremmer wrote, “Most books should be essays. Most essays, op-eds. Most op-eds, blog posts. Most blog posts, tweets. And most tweets should never have been tweeted.” Follow this chain in reverse, and it’s a plea to every hectically self-branding author to descend into speechlessness instead of churning out another book. Next time Bremmer feels moved to publish, he would do well to follow his own advice.