From based to cringe: Tabarnia and badly waged memetic guerrilla

The Spanish War of Succession was a pan-European conflict ignited by the death of Charles II in 1700. Charles II was the last of the Spanish Habsburgs, a product of several generations of endogamic marriage, and is thus popularly seen as the archetype of decadent inbred monarchy. He was called “the Bewitched”, and suffered of many physical illnesses, probably related to some hormone deficiency. The genetic causes of his ailments can only be speculated about, and if his mental capabilities were preserved or not is an object of discussion. What is definitely clear is that he was practically incapable to rule and that died childless, with Philip V of House Bourbon as his heir. Having claims to both the throne of France and the totality of Spanish possessions all over the world, the concentration of power on Philip’s hands was problematic to the European balance of power. The subsequent war, which lasted until 1714, involved almost all European powers and their respective colonial possessions, and changed the political landscape of the continent forever. The war also served as proof of concept for the Westphalian system established in 1648. The collective security of the different nation-states it had engendered was raised as the main concern and immediate cause of the conflict.

The victorious Philip V finally accepted the Spanish throne in exchange for renouncing the throne of France. The main beneficiary of the war, however, was the British Empire, which gained the Mediterranean ports of Gibraltar and Menorca and commercial access to the Spanish Americas, including its lucrative slave trade. During their rule from 1500 onwards, the Spanish Habsburgs had generally been reluctant to unite all of their possessions into a single, monolithic political entity. All of their estates preserved their structure, institutions, language and legal codes. They held all of their many titles separately: King of Castile, King of Aragon and Sicily, King of Naples, King of the Romans, Duke of Burgundy, Duke of Brabant, Count of Barcelona, and so on. The practical government of every region often fell on the shoulders of specially appointed Viceroys. For instance: Columbus’ voyage to America was funded by the Crown of Castile, so all of the rewards derived from it were tied to said title in exclusivity. This means Habsburg subjects from Aragon or Naples, for example, could not settle the American territories; a fact which explains the special influence in the Americas of Castilian culture.

The Bourbons, however, imported the concept of centralization which had turned their native France into one of the main power players of Europe. Philip V of Bourbon issued the Nueva Planta Decrees from 1714 to 1716, ending the heterogeneous structure of his kingdoms. He established Castilian Spanish as the official language and eliminated local privileges, constitutions and laws. One side effect of these legal measures was the ascension of a new Bourgeois class, the general characteristics of which we have discussed before. Aragonese subjects, which had been precluded from trading with Americas, suddenly were able to seize the lucrative opportunities offered by trans-Atlantic trade. Bourbon centralization was a key condition for the Golden Age of cities in the Mediterranean coast, such as Barcelona, Valencia and Cartagena; all of them cities which had sided with the Habsburgs during the war. Textiles, rum, sugar and slaves flowed to and from the Caribbean. Industrialists got rich, while traditional aristocracy saw the privileges local law had granted them greatly diminished.

Ironically, and somewhat incongruously, 1714, the year the Catalan capital of Barcelona fell to the Bourbon army, is nowadays deplored in Catalan Separatist circles as the beginning of Castilian oppression and colonization of Catalonia. It signals the end of the privileges and laws established there in the Middle Ages, so it’s melodramatically described by Catalan Nationalists as a sort of ethnocide. In spite of this myth, Catalonia was never conceived as a colony by the Spanish throne. If something, Bourbon rule signaled the beginning of the special economic protection it received from then on by the successive regimes at the Kingdom’s capital, Madrid. Since the bourgeois revolutions of the 19th century, Catalan Nationalist movements of various shapes and colors have come and go, trying to find a fit within the wider political narratives of the moment: Traditionalism, Spring of Nations-Liberalism, Fascism, 1930s Anarcho-Communism, Social Democracy…

The last iteration of the Catalonia as Oppressed People meme reached its peak in the mid 2010s. The Bourgeois-conservative social base of Catalan Separatism had been brokering deals with the Spanish government for decades, helping them achieve majorities in exchange for relinquishing some of the State’s powers in the region. With the threat of pushing for independence always at hand, Catalan regional governments had wrestled many concessions from Madrid, and had control of the education, judiciary and health systems. After the 2008 economic crisis, however, they overplayed their hand by rallying the people for secession too seriously. Protests and initiatives coming from the Catalan institutions (still formally dependent on Madrid) were openly and routinely calling for revolt against the government. Every year, the crowds in Separatist rallies grew larger and larger.

The non-separatist fraction of the Catalan population, more than half of the population, had been playing dumb for a while. Terribly apathetic, they pretended the disappearance of the Spanish state from their region was not happening. Being too vocal about one’s Spanish loyalties was definitely uncool in polite society: Catalans were democratic, sophisticated, modern, “European”. The rest of Spain was considered authoritarian, primitive, backwards, “African”. There was a similar dynamic to the one established by the Italian Lega Nord regions and the South of that country. The obvious racist connotations in this were mostly not addressed in public discourse, for complicated reasons of Spanish politics which may be addressed in future posts.

The main meme the weak anti-separatist factions were brandishing was that of the oppressed, silent majority: people are afraid to speak up against Catalanist establishment for fear of social reprisals. Catalan Nationalists were portrayed as racist snobs, while those loyal to Spain where normal people having to put up with their prejudice. Unsurprisingly, playing the victim card didn’t work, and continuous appeals for the Spanish State to protect this silent majority did not advance in any way the loyalist cause.

Our top-notch memetic forensics lab analysis, here at the Outpost, has found out the silent majority meme suffered an interesting mutation sometime around 2013. The new meme was codified as the existence of a region within Catalonia: Tabarnia. This region, which roughly comprised the provinces of Tarragona and Barcelona, happened to concentrate most wealth and, at the same time, most of anti-Separatist sentiment. Tabarnian counties were urban, multicultural, cosmopolitan and with deep ties to the rest of Spain and Europe. The separatist counties, in contrast, were rural, identity-obsessed, xenophobic and narrow-minded. So the narrative was not anymore about a fearful, silent majority oppressed by Catalan supremacists. It was about a vibrant society trying to leave behind identitarian regionalism. The idea was played as a kind of satirization of Catalan Secessionism: if Catalonia separates from Spain, then Tabarnia will separate from Catalonia, leaving it impoverished and isolated.

The meme was highly successful. It was based to be Spanish. Calling oneself a Tabarninar even carried a certain element of rebellion. The most important adaptation of the idea, though, was its inoculation route. It seemed to be organic, spontaneous, rhizomic. Lacking any institutional support from the Catalanist establishment, the concept had started appearing semi-ironically in message boards, blogs and social networks. It was not a political initiative, tied to any particular party, but a cultural phenomenon. It was impervious to the Catalanist propaganda machine, which had been using schools and the media to promote its message for years. The Tabarnia meme swarmed Separatist talking points. The real life fiascos of late 2017, in which the Separatist leaders declared independence and then inmediately backed down, only reinforced the idea of Catalanism being the product of weak and retrograde minds.

This success did not last long. The Spanish State, which had lacked a coherent PR strategy during the whole affair, tried to latch into Tabarnia’s success. Anti-separatist institutions started organizing meetings and protests, naming journalist Jaume Vives as official spokesman to the media. Vives gave frequent interviews to the media, defining the concept of Tabarnia further. Spanish playwright and actor Albert Boadella was named president of Tabarnia, even giving a satirical inaugural speech; many famous personalities also joined the mock Tabarnian government. It was narrowed down, made explicit, solid. Tabarnia now had a structure, a face, defined activities, a certain corporeality. When you told people about it, they knew exactly what you were talking about. By giving it a platform in media, even if said media were favorable to it, the whole memetic operation was blown. Tabarnia had been a shadow, a cultural guerrilla; now, it was very easy to identify and counter. Having turned into a tree, it was easily plucked; the meme lost fuel and disappeared as a talking point. It is somewhat cringe to unironically invoke the concept now. When a joke has been explained, it suddenly becomes not funny.

Luckily (?) for the Kingdom of Spain, the fleeing or imprisonment of Separatist leaders, the metastatization of political malaise all over the country and the Coronavirus pandemic have all contributed to putting Catalan Separatism decidedly on the background. The beast, however is neither dead nor alone. And, elsewhere in the world, in different places, a feeling of changing winds and uncertainty has risen. Storms are brewing. Aspiring provocateurs, activists and statesmen would do well to learn a little about how to appropriately wage a meme war.

The deconstruction of conventional warfare and cultural banditry

The word guerrilla means “small war” in Spanish. It was first used with its current connotations in the Spanish War of Independence (1808-1814). The conflict is called the Peninsular War in English language historiography, as it started when Spain and France attacked Portugal and its British allies in 1807. With the Spanish crown’s unknowing collaboration, Napoleon surreptitiously invaded Spain while advancing towards Portugal. He took over all the major cities, imprisoned king Ferdinand VII, and sat his brother Joseph in the Spanish throne. The French Army’s excesses inspired an uprising in Madrid, with the local population attacking the world’s most powerful army. Mass shootings were performed the following day as retaliation: a scene famously depicted by Goya. The Spanish population proceeded to ally themselves with their former English allies, assaulting and killing French troops, assets and allies (the progressive afrancesados”) wherever they could find them. As the French lacked any control of the territory outside of the main strongholds, the campaign turned into a logistical and strategic nightmare for Napoleon, who tasted defeat for the first time. The Spanish freedom fighters employed tactics which crossed the line into banditry constantly. Indeed, cutthroat highwaymen (“bandoleros”) hiding in the woods and trying to make a buck out of French couriers were turned into national heroes, all in the benefit of the war effort.

Guerrilla tactics are obviously much older than the Spanish Independence War. They have been employed for millenia by various tribes, notably nomads from the Central Asian steppes and the deserts of the Arab Peninsula and the Sahel. In modern history, Lawrence of Arabia became the icon of the romantic guerrilla fighter, leading the Arabs against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. Lawrence would be asked in 1929 to write the entry for “Guerrilla” in the Encyclopedia Britannica, a milestone in the formalization of such a doctrine in Western military thought.

The same concepts employed by Lawrence and countless other leaders in the past saw a mechanical iteration in what foreign observers deemed the “Toyota wars” of the 1980s, which occurred in the context of the Chad War (no pun intended) and featured mobile units covering hundreds of kilometers in a few hours to raid Libyan territory, only to later disappear into the sand. In the same decade Guattari and Deleuze were publishing A Thousand Plateaus and establishing a new school of Post-Modern thought. One prediction made by the French authors was that Post-Industrial Societies would see an increase of the competition posed by new, rhizomic social systems against “arboreal” organizations and institutions. Rhizomic systems, working as distributed networks, would lack centralized leadership and tigh-knit hierarchies, relying instead on interconnected nodes.

Practical military applications of these ideas started to appear after the Gulf War. Strategists like John Arquille and David Ronfeldt, analyzing the lessons learned from the conflict, concluded that a mobile and connected force, using smart equipment and procedures, would be able to swarm and destroy a bigger and less technologically enhanced enemy. This justified an increased focus in the integrated capacity known as ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance), as the competitors the US Armed Forces were preparing against were already utilizing, instinctively, these very principles. The term Netwar was coined to describe this type of conflict, which basically amounted to a technologically enhanced guerrilla benefiting of constant, precise and multi-directional communication. The concept proved to be strategically successful in the Afghanistan offensive a decade later, pushing the bulk of Al-Qaeda militants into the mountains and towards Pakistan.

Roughly at the same time, a group of Israeli military thinkers were developing their own ideas based on Deleuze and Guattari’s work. Organized around the Operational Theory Research Institute and figures such as generals Shimon Naveh and Aviv Kochavi, these unorthodox thinkers aimed to “deconstruct” urban warfare. They got a chance to do it in the Al-Aqsa Intifada (2000-2005). When charged with taking over the West Bank city of Nablus in 2002, instead of a slow advance through the city streets, Israeli forces came up with a different plan. They knew that Palestinian militants had meticulously prepared for the assault, fortifying every crossing and booby-trapping every door and window. The assailants decided to develop a “negative geometry” and to ignore the “urban syntax” of Nablus. They saw streets, blocks and walls as a mental construct, and thus came from all directions, drilling holes into houses and other obstacles, as if “digging” a straight, over-the-surface tunnel. Despite the obvious material damage done to the city, they managed to capture it with minimal casualties among civilians and their own soldiers.

With America’s strategic focus shifting of theatre, there has been a lot of talk in military and defense circles about applying netwar concepts to confront conventional enemies aswell. The new doctrine might include drone swarms and small teams capable of coordinating flash amphibious assaults from small vessels; a very different image from the one provided by the materiel warfare conducted in the South Pacific during the 1940s. There has been less discussion, however, on the cultural-ideological netwar being waged within the West. The presumption of veracity of formal, establishment institutions, such as the mainstream media and the universities, has been diluted. What Moldbug referred to as the Cathedral is now garrisoned in their well protected sanctuaries, hiding from the outlaws lurking in the roads. Whether the rovers are only in it for the money, or whether they will help expel the invaders remains to be seen. Free spirits as we are, here at the Outpost we declare ourselves loyal to only one cause: the liberation of the intellectual Motherland.

Parrhesia, subversion and piracy: the rise of the cyber-optimists

Parrhesia, from the Greek παρρησία, means literally “to say everything”, to “not hold anything back”. It is used to describe a manner of speaking frankly or boldly, to the point of bringing danger to oneself. The concept was central to the Cynical school of thought, a Greek philosophical movement from around the 4th century BC. The name of this school comes from κύων – kyon (“dog”), in allusion to the frugal and, in a sense, animalistic lifestyle of its followers. The cynics interpreted socratic doctrine as condemning of civilization; the righteous life was the one lived according to nature, because Man naturally carried within all the elements necessary for Freedom, Happy and Good life.

Diogenes the Cynic was probably the most famous example of this thought. From what we know about him, he had been exiled from his native Sinope along with his father for counterfeiting coins. Living in Athens as a homeless man, he dedicated his life to speaking truth to power in the rawest terms possible. He protagonized numerous and provocative shenanigans, a habit he referred to as “defacing the currency” of social customs – the fake currency of morality. This metaphor doubled as a reference to the causes of his expatriation, of which he claimed to be proud. Carrying a lamp in broad daylight, he claimed to be “looking for a [honest] man”. He laughed at Socrates’ definition of humans as “featherless bipeds” by presenting him with a chicken stripped of feathers and calling it a man. The Cynic’s philosophical statements also included public defecation and masturbating in the agora. When granted a wish by Alexander the Great, he told the Conqueror to move out of the way so as to not block the sun, earning the King’s respect with his insolence. All of these anecdotes were transmitted by others, as he left no written works.

The term Diogenes Syndrome, nowadays, designates a mental condition defined by the patient’s tendency to accumulate garbage and useless items in their home, often leading to extremely unsanitary situations. However, the cynical philosopher’s life was one in pursuit of integrity as supreme virtue. Integrity comes from the Latin word integer, used in mathematics to refer to numbers which are whole, intact. To have integrity is to be simple, without parts: to think, speak and act in a unified way. Animals are naturally like this, so according to Diogenes a virtuous Man should embody his animal, “doggish” nature, forfeiting everything else. He had to embrace his visceral, filthy reality, and get rid of all social conventions, masks and chains. Cynics like Diogenes made shamelessness their banner.

Deleuze, when describing control societies and comparing to Foucault’s disciplinary societies, remarked the former’s vulnerability to “jamming, piracy and viruses”. Justin Murphy has pointed to the connection of these ideas with Diogenes’ point of view. In one of his lectures, he argues that a parrhesiastic performance of sufficient gravity is what makes these three subversive elements possible. The danger inherent to “not holding anything back”, like Diogenes’ provocation of Alexander, generates a force capable of forging strong communities and movements. The disposition to die in the name of Truth has unparalleled transformative potential; a phenomenon which Christian apologist Tertullian summarized as “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church“.

The loose constellation of debaters and propagandists around which the alt-right was built tried to play this game. They used their memes about freedom of speech and overt critique of Political Correctness to gain enormous cultural momentum, something the conventional right had never managed to do. Trump’s 2016 campaign brutalized every sacred cow of acceptable discourse. For anyone who had been paying attention, this was a winner strategy. The future President’s announcement to supporters,we’re gonna win so much you may even get tired of winning”, though, turned out to be a grim prediction. As the Overton Window moved right, the parodies of Woke/PC culture became so trite they lost the shocking value they once had. Trump may win 2020, but the cultural momentum of 2016 is gone forever. The alt-right is old news. Those kids turned out to be just another brand of socialists trying to avoid being left behind by the wheel of Acceleration.

The 2016 Meme War, however, was fought under the influence of a dark elixir. During the early 2010’s, neoreactionary, accelerationist, and other fringe-right blogs had sown the seeds of a new Zeitgeist. The bloggers of that corner of the Internet, mostly anonymous, were not exactly martyr material. Many of them had families and careers. Some of the key figures seemed to be on it mainly for the intellectual stimulation, and certainly not down for any political activism; just look up Moldbug’s Steel Rule of Passivism. The scene lacked cohesion, internal coherence, and drive. It was, however, a fantastic machine for the production of parrhesiastic discourse. And on the receiving end of that discourse was a different generation, mostly born during the late 80’s and 90’s.

Not quite native to the Internet, raised during the hangover of the Cold War, and coming of age around the 2008 financial crisis, they got used to the intellectual promiscuity and the provocative tone of the online culture the Dark Enlightenment writers had contributed to generate. While the Dark Enlightenment quietly faded away, a new specimen, better suited for the fast-paced, abrasive exchanges of message boards and Twitter hot takes, was being born: the edgelord. His occasional banality and vulgarity, his directionless trolling, was just the lowest common denominator of a future intellectual culture. A culture of cyber-optimists, like Philosopher-King Kantbot and Bronze Age Pervert, the Prophet of Pirates. Rhizomic, marginal, non-ideological and somewhat esoteric, it has adapted to thrive in the market of attention. It runs on infinite lines of code and biological metaphors. Proliferating under the surface of the Internet’s primaeval soup, shapeless and unnamed, it is now ready to unleash a new era of jamming, piracy, and viral infection on the establishment.

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