Lévi-Strauss claims that, for the isolated tribe with whom an anthropologist makes first contact -- the tribe who, after being studied, will be decimated by diseases to which they've no resistance, then (if they've survived) converted to Christianity and, eventually, conscripted into semi-bonded labour my mining and logging companies -- for them, civilization represents no less than a cataclysm. This cataclysm, he says, is the true face of our culture -- the one that's turned away, from us at least. The order and harmony of the West, the laboratory in which structures of untold complexity are being cooked up, demand the emission of masses of noxious by-products. What the anthropologist encounters when he ventures beyond civilization's perimeter-fence is no more than its effluvia, its toxic fallout. The first thing we see as we travel round the world is our own filth, thrown into mankind's face.--12.10 from Satin Island (2015) by Tom McCarthy (emphasis in original)
One way to understand the revival of the so-called populist, racialized nationalism today is for a keen wish to restore the appearance of "order and harmony of the West" and to keep the noxious by-products of civilization out of sight behind the "perimeter-fence." While the critics of such populism primarily see it as an immoral (because partial) and even violent project, the populist understands himself in moral terms, part of a process of national purification even if (as is sometimes ruefully acknowledged) the agents that facilitate this purification are (rather) imperfect.
Of course, the populist does not allow himself to acknowledge that what it despises and loathes is itself its own filth or the effects of colonial and ongoing political interventions by the West. And often he conflates his own nostalgia with a historical fiction of once steady order and harmony.
What makes reading Satin Island so interesting is that it allows us to see that populist ideas are, in fact the shadow lives of the purportedly self-critical ideas of the contemporary intelligentsia reflected in a subtly distorted mirror. The novel presents us with a main protagonist, an anthropologist who works for a corporation. The corporation "uses the Future to confer the seal of truth on these scenarios and assertions, making them absolute and objective simply by placing them within this Future: that's how we won contracts." It does so with self-understanding: "Everything, as Peyman [the visionary CEO and networker of the Company] said, may be a fiction--but the Future is the biggest shaggy-dog story of all." (8.7) The satirical echoes of Hegel's secularization of Christianity and contemporary theories of reflexivity are undoubtedly intentional here.
What is notable about the quoted passage (12.10), is that it, in turn, reflects a violent delusion of those intellectuals who take themselves to be self-critical heirs of the Enlightenment.+ These intellectuals understand themselves as self-critical, as tracking the all--too-human-costs of civilization, as recognizing that the scientific enterprise itself may be complicit in the very violence of the West; who speak with moral superiority -- because they take pride in frankly acknowledging the violent facts, as if it shows moral fortitude to acknowledge the facts -- and who recognize their own complicity in a system founded on and maintained by violence. In this self-serving fantasy -- but like other fictions it can be made real -- , the modern intelligentsia are the meritocratic elites who understand themselves as cogs in the research and design centers of a hegemonic, world wide civilization characterized by 'complexity.'
Part of the pedantic point of the novel is to show the ever-present desire to perpetrate a gesture of violence against the system by the boys in the Research & Design centers, and simultaneously a kind of obtuseness on their part toward the very real (patriarchal) violence within the hegemonic order against those that merely wish to register their ritualized dissent from the status quo. The obtuseness is not an accident, but a feature.
Above, I suggested that the populist and the self-critical intellectual share an outlook. One commonality is that they both understand the 'West' as 'civilized' and fail to acknowledge the true barbarism within, violence (see 13:12), that makes possible purported 'order and harmony.' They (that is, the populist and the self-critical-intellectual) both treat 'Western' superiority as an unquestionable given. The populist justifies it because she sees the world in zero-sum terms, if 'we' don't project power 'they' will take advantage to us; the would-be self-critical intellectual, takes it as a regrettable given that, while requiring an originary acts of violence, makes a win-win future possible. What the intellectual does not do is question the very idea of a West.
Satin Island makes us feel the barbarism within without offering either a scenario or a new language for overcoming it. One may say, then, it disowns the very possibility of researching and designing a better product. This very disowning may be a necessary step on the path of a truer liberation or it may be a quietist gesture characteristic of the reactionary mind unwilling to forego the inherited comforts.
+There are, also, of course propagandists of the Enlightenment who do not acknowledge costs of Enlightenment; there is an insatiable demand for their products.