How we all got trapped in a Skinner Box

Sigmund Freud may be the most famous psychologist of the 20th century, but his legacy has nothing on that of B.F. Skinner. Step into your TARDIS or Delorean, travel back to 1950 and bring the then forty-six year old behaviorist to 2017, and much about our world would not only seem familiar to Skinner, he likely would realized how much his work had helped build it. Put a smartphone in his hand and let him play around for  awhile, then afterwards inform him that not only was the device not a toy, but that we were utterly dependent upon it, and the epiphany would no doubt come to him that all of us were now living in sort of globe-sized Skinner box.

Invented around 1930, an operant conditioning chamber, or a Skinner Box, is a cage in which an animal is trained via regular rewards and punishments to exhibit some targeted behavior. To Skinner it offered empirical demonstration that animals (including humans) lacked free will. For him and many of his fellow behaviorists, our sense of freedom, even consciousness itself, is an elaborate, psychological illusion. All of us are mere puppets of our environment.

Skinner wasn’t one for humility. He thought he had stumbled upon the true and final keys for controlling human behavior. Given this he felt the keys might fall into the wrong hands- communists, fascists, or advertisers for cola or face creams . In 1948 he published his utopian novel Walden Two (Thoreau would not have appreciate the homage). It depicted a “paradise” designed from above where only its architect was what we should recognize as free. It’s perhaps closer to the world we are living in than any of the dystopian-utopias written during the same period, even Orwell’s 1984 (also written in 1948), or Huxley’s Brave New World (1931).

The novel tells the story of a psychology professor Burris and a philosophy professor- Castle who along with a handful of Burris’ students, and their girlfriends, visit a utopian community named Walden Two established over a decade earlier by a colleague of Burris- T. E. Frazier.

The novel is all very 1940’s, filled with cigarettes and sexual innuendo, minus the sex. The book has the feel of Mad Men, and for someone who doesn’t believe in interiority, Skinner is surprisingly good as a novelist, even if predictably didactic.

In Walden Two you can find utopian tropes common since Plato invented the genre- the abolition of the family and at least some degree of equal property. What makes the book distinct and relevant to today is that Skinner’s novel imagines an entire society built around operant conditioning. It’s a society that shares some remarkable resemblances to our own.

Walden Two is a community where its inhabitants, gleefully “never have to go out of doors at all” (20 ). Designed on the basis of the maximally efficient use of space and time,  large-scale universally shared activities have been supplanted by the niche interests of individuals. Lack of mass interest in shared culture also translates into a lack of knowledge or involvement in areas of common responsibility and concern-  that is, politics.  Most people according to Frazier the utopia’s designer “want to be free of the responsibility of planning.” (154)

Walden Two’s efficiency has allowed it to reduce work hours to no more than four-hours per day. Housework has been commodified, and mass education replaced by individualized instruction that focuses on the student’s unique skills and interests. Mid-20th century sexual puritanism, especially for teenagers, has been supplanted by open sexuality and (writing twelve years before the introduction of oral contraceptives), biological parenthood (parenting itself being provided by the community) pushed back into ages ranging from the late teens to the early twenties.

Much of this readers will either find attractive or, seem more familiar to us in 2017 than it would to anyone in 1948. Yet it’s the darker side of Skinner’s vision that should concern us because he was perhaps even more prescient there.

Inhabitants of Walden Two still engage in the electoral politics of the outside world, they just do so at the direction of the community’s planners. The ultimate object is to spread their model from one city to the next- a kind of mondialist revolution.

In Walden Two it’s not merely that individuals have absconded political responsibility to experts out of lack of interest, it’s that they’ve surrendered all control over their environment to those who write and manage what Skinner calls the “Code” under which they live. An individual may lodge an objection to some particular aspect of the Code “…but in no case must he argue about the Code with the members at large.” (152)

Indeed, it’s not so much that the common individual is barred from challenging the Code that renders her essentially powerless in Walden Two it’s that the Code itself is deliberately obscured to those who live under it. As Frazier states it: “We deliberately conceal the planning and managerial machinery to further the same end.” (220)

Although Skinner justifies this opacity on the grounds that it promotes a sense of equality, in combining it with a deliberate inattention to history (justified on the same grounds) he ends up robbing the inhabitants of Walden Two of any alternative to the system under which they live, the very purpose that, as pointed out by the historian Yuval Harari, the study of history serves.

The purpose of Skinner’s Walden Two is to promote human happiness, but its design is one that, as his fictional stand-in Frazier openly admits, will only work if humans are no more free than a clockwork orange.

“My answer is simple enough”, said Frazier, “I deny that freedom exists at all. I must deny it- or my program would be absurd. You can’t have a science about a subject matter which hops capriciously about. Perhaps we can never prove that man isn’t free; it’s an assumption. But the increasing success of the science of behavior makes it more and more plausible. “ (257)

The world of Walden Two presents itself as one which is no longer concerned with the human-all-too-human desire for power. Yet the character who actually wields power in Walden, that is Frazier, is presented as almost manic in his sense of self- believing he has obtained the status of what in reality is an atrophied idea of God.

“Of course, I’m not indifferent to power! Frazier said hotly. “And I like to play God! Who wouldn’t under the circumstances? After all, man, even Jesus Christ thought he was God!” (281)

Perhaps Skinner’s real motive was sheer will to power masked by altruism, as it so often is.  Still, he gives some indication that his actual motivation was that the science his studies of pigeons and rats trapped in boxes, along with the susceptibility of “mass man” to propaganda as evidenced by the Nazis and the Soviets (along with liberal states at war), had proven human freedom a lie. Those in possession of even primitive versions of his science of human behavior were the true puppet masters capable of exercising control.  The future, for Skinner, if not populated by Waldens, would be dominated by totalitarian states or ad men.

Yet the powers offered by behaviorism ended up being much less potent than Skinner imagined, which is not to say, for limited purposes, that they didn’t work. Once totalitarian states passed from the scene the main proponents of behaviorism outside of psychology departments indeed did become ad men along with the politicians who came to copy their methods.

Manufactured behavioral addiction has become the modus operandi of late capitalism. As Natasha Dow Schüll points out in her book Addiction by Design about machine gambling, a huge amount of scientific research goes into designing machines, which optimize user addiction. Whole conferences are held to hawk these sophisticated slot machines while state revenue becomes ever more dependent on such predatory economics.

Now we all carry additive by design machines in our pockets. Software is deliberately designed for the kinds of positive reinforcement Skinner would easily recognize.  It’s a world where everything is being gamified. As Adam Alter writes in his book Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping us Hooked:

A like on Facebook and Instagram strikes one of those notes, as does the reward of completing a World of Warcraft mission, or seeing one of your tweets shared by hundreds of Twitter users. The people who create and refine tech, games, and interactive experiences are very good at what they do. They run hundreds of tests with thousands of users to learn which tweaks works and which don’t- which background colors, fonts, and audio tones maximize engagement and  minimize frustration. As an experience evolves, it becomes an irresistible, weaponized version of what it once was. In 2004, Facebook was fun, in 2016, it’s addictive. (5)

We are the inheritors of a darker version of Skinner’s freedomless world- though by far not the darkest. Yet even should we get the beneficent paternalism contemporary Skinnerites- such as Richard Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein who wish to “nudge” us this -way -and-that, it would harm freedom not so much by proving that our decisions are indeed in large measure determined by our environment as from the fact that the shape of that environment would be in the hands of someone other than ourselves, individually and collectively.

The man who wrote the most powerful work against behaviorism ever written, A clockwork orange, Anthony Burgess wrote this about even behaviorism of  even the best kind:

One may take the principle of evil as applying in areas of conduct where the destruction of an organism is not intended. It is wrong to push drugs among children, but few would deny that it is also evil: the capacity of an organism for self-determination is being impaired. Maiming is evil. Acts of aggression are evil, though we are inclined to find mitigating factors in the hot spirit of revenge (“a kind of wild justice,” said Francis Bacon) or in the desire to protect others from expected, if not always fulfilled, acts of violence. We all hold in our imaginations or memories certain images of evil in which there is no breath of mitigation—four grinning youths torturing an animal, a gang rape, cold-blooded vandalism. It would seem that enforced conditioning of a mind, however good the social intention, has to be evil.

It’s an observation that remains true, and increasingly relevant, today.

The lessons the left should (and shouldn’t) take from the victory of Macron

Anna Berezovskaya, Abduction of Europa (2015)

In 2016 populism burst upon liberal democracies like a whirlwind. Yet, since Trump’s election in November of last year the storm appears to have passed. There was the defeat of the far right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer in Austria (of all places) in December of last year followed by the loss of the boldly pompadoured (which seems to be a thing now on the right) Geert Wilders in parliamentary elections in the Netherlands a few months back, followed by the seeming victory of the Kutcher faction over the Bannon faction in the Trump administration, and now, the loss of Le Pen in France. Whew- glad that’s over.

Of course, it’s not over, for it leaves us with the same unaddressed problems that gave rise to popular discontent in the first place. The one and only danger of the populist fever peaking too soon is that it will feed the very complacency among elites that gave us this wave of destructive popular anger in the first place. The fever will just come back, and perhaps next time in a form much worse should manage to sweep 2016’s craziness under the rug.

As of yet this wave of anger, despite its ugliness or the views of its more vicious fans, hasn’t been so much fascists as populists. This distinction, as distinctions often are, is important. John B. Judis, one of the first to see the populist wave coming in his book The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics.

I’ll get to fascism in a moment, for now, let me note that the distrust of elites driving the populist explosion makes perfect sense given the almost two decades of failure of the power elite from  9-11, to the Iraq war, to the 2008 financial crisis, to the Euro crisis, to the implosion of Syria and the refugee crisis. These acute crises are combined with more structural ones, such as the fact that elites have either twiddled their thumbs, turned the other way, or themselves enabled the erosion of the middle class and the flat-lining of that class’ income growth despite economic gains, in developed countries since the 1970’s. At the same time the political system has grown increasingly sycophantic and corrupt.

As Mark Leibovich pointed out in his book This Town elites in Washington enact the play of hyper-partisanship even as both Republicans and Democrats engage in an incestious government-coporate revolving door. The way the financial sector played the US government that the former head of the IMF compared what happened to a Third World coup. 

Trump twisted his way into the White House on the claim that “he alone” was able to overturn this system. Instead, what his election seems to mean is that the US is now fully and completely free to join other countries such as China where the distinction between the interest of the rich and the common weal do not exist. Wealthy classes in China and elsewhere understand the new American way of politics very well.

Macron who Trump-like staged his own coup against the declining French political parties was himself an investment banker and his candidacy was as much a desperate by the French an EU establishment as any move towards real and democratic reforms.

The fact that Trump’s populism has proven as artificial as the man’s skin tone along with the fact that other populists, most especially the dangerous figure of Marine Le Pen, have lost in recent elections present the left with an unprecedented opportunity. But it’s an opportunity that can be seized only if the left can come to understand that not all, or even most, of the supporters of Trump or Le Pen are fascists- a prospect that would require massive and likely violent political resistance in order to ensure the survival of our political and social freedoms.

It’s here where Judis’ book becomes so helpful. In The Populist Explosion Judis identifies the defining feature of populism as anti-elitism. He explains that the early 21st century populism which grew out of the financial crisis hasn’t just come from the right, but also from the left. The left-wing Podemos in Spain is a populist party, as is Syriza in Greece. Both left-wing and right-wing share a disdain for elites they believe have failed us.

For Judis what distinguished right leaning from left leaning populism is that the former adds the category of an enemy minority – Muslims, Mexicans etc that elites supposedly coddle to the detriment of the larger population. (The first step right-wing populism takes towards becoming fascist.)

To step away from Judis for a moment, one of the ideas now becoming dangerously popular among liberals is that populists’ distrust of experts is equal to ignorance and a disdain for science and even rudimentary facts. What liberals don’t acknowledge is their own role in the growth of such mistrust. Elites have promoted the idea that economics is akin to science when it’s closer to astrology. The scientists perhaps best known to the public are those who have made careers out of attacking widely held beliefs by making claims beyond science’s purview.

The mainstream media, the bane of populists everywhere, has indeed been guilty of colossal failures- such as the run up to the war in Iraq, and continues to have a disturbing fetish for American bombs and power.  The last few years have revealed an intelligence apparatus not only frequently incompetent- having missed 9-11, and the Arab Spring to name just two recent failures, but a bureaucratic machine seemingly uninterested in preserving our constitutionally guaranteed rights. In conditions as they stand, mistrust of elites is no vice.

As Judis explains it populism was invented in the US in the 1890’s in the revolt of mid-western farmers against their economic strangulation by financial powers in the East. The drama even gave America what is perhaps its most outstanding fairy-tale- The Wizard of OZ.  

Since then, the US has had a whole series of populist- most from the right. In the 1930’s there was Huey Long and Father Coughlin, in the 1960’s there was George Wallace, in the 1990’s Ross Perot (perhaps) and Pat Buchanan. Now we have Trump- the first populist to actually break his way into the White House- a fact that is surely a symptom of just how decayed our political system has become. Judis points out how, since the 1970’s this formerly uniquely American form of politics became a global affair. So here we are.

Judis, in my view rightly, is at pains to distinguish right-wing populism from its ugly cousin fascism. What made fascism of the 1930’s variety, which remains our template, distinct from populism and so incredibly dangerous was that it used the full powers of the state to hunt down and destroy its internal enemies- fascism was born in states that were in conditions of revolution and civil war. Fascism, also unlike populism, was characterized by openly expansionist that aimed to overturn the geopolitical order rather than merely withdraw from it. Populism isn’t fascism so much as it points ” to tears in the fabric of accepted political wisdom” as Judis so sharply puts it.

This is not to say that right-wing populism cannot morph into fascism or that left-wing populism can’t evolve into communism (more on that another time) it is that a perhaps greater danger that the system can not be shocked into fundamental change at all- that we seem incapable of freeing ourselves from the ultimate logic of the economic and political artifice in which we are embedded- despite the fact that we are acutely aware of the depth of its unsustainable contradictions.

Judis was among the first to see 2016’s wave of populism coming, yet I think his much needed attempt at drawing a line of historical continuity between populism in the last two centuries and our own perhaps obscures what makes populism in its current manifestation unique. For that we can turn to another recent book on the subject, David Goodhart’s Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics. In that book Goodhart makes the case that what is perhaps today’s primary political cleavage is between those who have thrived in, benefited from, and identify with, globalization and those who define themselves in terms of place. He calls the former group “Anywheres” because they seem to have fully embraced global mobility in the search for success as individuals, which does not mean they have abandoned all collective identities such as culture or religion and especially family only that they see their range of action encompassing the whole earth.

Somewheres by contrast are communitarian rather than individualistic in their identities. They remain deeply connected emotionally to their homeland, their culture, and sometimes, their ethnicity and derive their self worth primarily through this collective identity rather than their own personal accomplishments.

Obviously these are ideal types and all of us in the modern world have some of each about us. Yet Goodhart’s two types does seem to capture something essential about politics not just in the US or the UK but globally. We have these great global cities interconnected with one another and more diverse in their populations than ever before while at the same time possessing neglected hinterlands where the growth engendered by globalization largely does not flow.

It’s quite clear that the Anywheres have the moral high ground over the Somewheres when it comes to their embrace of diversity. What is much less clear is if Anywheres can actually be the basis of a functioning social democracy for they seem to lack the kinds of communitarian virtues a thriving democracy requires as they remain focused on their own material and social advancement. It might be the case that the type of political order that best fits a world of globally mobile self-seeking individuals happens to be something other than a democratic one.

The economists Dani Rodrik actually has a name for this- he calls it the globalization trilemma, which goes like this:

…countries cannot have national sovereignty, hyper-globalisation and democracy; they can only ever choose two out of the three.

Given the huge global economic disparities between regions and cultural differences and disputes we could have hyper-globalization with open markets and the free movement of peoples under either a system of empire and enlightened/liberal despotism or under a democracy that was truly global in scope. From where I sit the former seems much more likely than the latter.

For whereas the latter would require peoples embedded in democracies to willingly surrender their control over their own affairs to other people’s who did not share in their history of priority- a transformation of politics that would probably require something like a global civil war- the former can emerge from mere inertia as the power of democratic and other states is slowly eroded away making global actors and individuals the de-facto if not dejure seat of sovereignty.

If the European Union is our best current, if geographically limited, experiment in what hyper-globalization might ultimately look like, then Macron’s defeat of Le Pen offers us a second chance to test whether such integration can also be made truly democratic in the way we currently have with nation-states. Should the EU not embrace democratic reforms in light of his victory and learn to create a new home for the Somewheres this chance might just be its last.


The Roots of Rage

Perhaps the main problem with the case made by Pankaj Mishra in his Age of Anger is that it gives an outsized place to intellectuals and the ideas that inspire them, people and their works like Mishra and his books, and as consequence fails to bring to light the material forces that are such idea’s true source.

It’s one thing to be aware that today’s neo-liberalism, and the current populist revolt against them have roots stretching back to the Enlightenment and Rousseau’s revolt against it and to be made aware that there’s a contradiction at the heart of the Enlightenment project that has yet to be resolved. It’s quite another thing to puzzle out why even a likely doomed revolt against this project is taking place right now as opposed to a decade or even decades ago. To do that one needs to turn to insights from sociology and political economy, for if the crisis we are in is truly global- how is it so, and is it the same everywhere, or does it vary across regions?

The big trend that defines our age as much as any other is the growing littoralisation of human populations, and capital. In the developing world this means the creation of mega-cities. By 2050, 75  percent of humanity will be urbanized. India alone might have 6 cities with a population of over 10 million.     

What’s driving littoralisation in the developing world? I won’t deny that part of mass migration to the cities can be explained by people seeking more opportunities for themselves and especially for their children. It’s also the case that globalization has compelled regions to specialize in the face of cheap food and goods from elsewhere and thus reduced the opportunities for employment. Yet perhaps one of the biggest, and least discussed, reasons for littoralization in the developing world is that huge tracts of land are being bought by often outside capitalists to set up massive plantations, industrial farms and mines.

It’s a process the urban sociologist Saskia Sassen describes in great detail in her book: Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy where she writes:

A recent report from the Oakland Institute suggest that during 2009 alone, foreign investors acquired nearly 60 million hectares of land in Africa.

Further, Oxfam estimates that between 2008 and 2009, deals by foreign investors for agricultural land increased by 200 percent. (94-95)

I assume the spread of military grade satellite imaging will only make these kinds of massive purchases easier as companies and wealthy individuals are able to spot heretofore obscured investment opportunities in countries whose politicians can easily be bought, where the ability of the public to resist such purchases and minimal, and in an environment where developed world governments no longer administer any oversight on such activities.  

For developing world states strong enough to constrain foreign capital these processes are often more internally than externally driven.  Regardless, much of littoralization is driven the expulsion of the poor as the owning classes use their political influence to chase greater returns on capital often oblivious to the social consequences. In that sense it’s little different than the capitalism we’ve had since that system’s very beginnings, which, after all, began with the conquest of the New World, slavery,  the dissolutions of the monasteries, and the enclosure movement.

What makes this current iteration of capitalism’s perennial features somewhat different is the role played by automation. I’ll get to that in a moment, but first it’s important to see how the same trend towards littoralisation seen in the developing world is playing out much differently in advanced economies.

Whereas the developing world is seeing the mass movement of people to the cities what the developing world is primarily experiencing is the movement of capital. Oddly, this has not meant that percentage of overall wealth has shifted to the coasts because at the same time capital is becoming concentrated in a few major cities those same cities are actually declining in their overall share of the population.

The biggest reason for this discrepancy appears to be the increasing price of real estate on the coast. Here’s what the US would look like if it was mapped by land values rather than area:

US land area by wealth


As in the case with the developing world much of the change in land values appears to be driven by investments by capital not located in the city, and in many instances located abroad.

In the developed world littoralisation has almost all been about capital. Though an increasing amount of wealth is becoming located in a few great cities, structural reasons are preventing people from being able to move there. Foreign money, much of it of nefarious origins has been pouring into global cities such as New York and London and driving up the cost of rent let alone property ownership. Often such properties are left empty while, as Tim Wu has pointed out, inflated property values have turned the most valuable real estate into something resembling ghost towns.

This is a world that in a strange way was anticipated by William Gibson in his novel The Peripheral where Gibson leveraged his knowledge of shady Russian real estate deals in London to imagine a future in which the rich actively interfere in the past of an Appalachian society in a state of collapse.

The evidence I have for this is merely anecdotal, but many of Dominicans who are newly arrived to small Pennsylvania cities such as Bethlehem and Lancaster are recent refugees from the skyrocketing rent of New York. If this observation is correct ethnic communities are being driven from large cities where wealth is increasing to interior regions with declining job prospects, which have not experienced mass immigration since the 1920’s. In other words we’ve set the stage for the rise of political nativist.

I said automation plays a role here that might make our capitalist era distinct from prior ones. The developed world has witnessed the hollowing out of the interior through automation before when farm machinery replaced the number of farmers required as a percentage of the population from 64 percent in 1850, to around 15 percent in 1950, to just two percent today. The difference is the decline of employment in agriculture occurred at the same time manufacturing employment was increasing and this manufacturing was much less concentrated, supporting a plethora of small and mid-sized cities in the nation’s interior, and much less dependent on high skills, than the capitalism built around the global city and high-end services we have today.

Automation in manufacturing has been decimating employment in that sector even after it was initially pummeled by globalization. Indeed, the Washington Post has charted how districts that went for Trump in the last election map almost perfectly where the per capita use of robots has increased.

Again speaking merely anecdotally, a number of the immigrants I know are employed in one of Amazon’s “fulfillment centers” (warehouses) in Pennsylvania. Such warehouses are among the most hyper-automated an AI directed businesses currently running at scale. It’s isn’t hard to see why the native middle class feels it is being crushed in a vice, and it’s been far too easy to mobilize human against human hate and deny- as Steven Mnuchin Trump’s Treasury Secretary recently did- that automation is even a problem.

These conditions are not limited to the US but likely played a role in the Brexit vote in the UK and are even more pronounced in France where a declining industrial interior is the source of the far-right Marine Le Pen’s base of support.  

The decline of industrial employment has meant that employees have been pushed into much less remunerative (on account of being much less unionized) services, that is, if the dislocated are employed at all.  This relocation to non-productive services might be one of the reasons why, despite the thrust of technology, overall labor productivity remains so anemic.

Yet, should the AI revolution live up to the hype we should witness the flood of robots into the services a move that will place yet larger downward pressure on wages in the developed world.

The situation for developing economies is even worse. If the economist Dani Rodrik is right developing economies are already suffering what he calls “premature de-industrialization” . The widespread application of robots threatens to make manufacturing in developed countries- sans workers– as cheap as products made by cheap labor in the developing world. Countries that have yet to industrialize will be barred from the development path followed by all societies since the industrial revolution, though perhaps labor in services will remain so cheap there that service sector automation does not take hold. My fear there is that instead of humans being replaced by robots central direction via directing and monitoring “apps” will turn human beings into something all too robot-like.

A world where employment opportunities are decreasing everywhere, but where population continues to grow in places where wealth has never, and now cannot accumulate, means a world of increased illegal migration and refugee flows- the very forces that enabled Brexit, propelled Trump to the White House, and might just leave Le Pen in charge of France.

The apparent victory of the Kushner over the Bannon faction in the Trump White House luckily saves us from the most vicious ways to respond to these trends. It also means that one of the largest forces behind these dislocations- namely the moguls (like Kushner himself) who run the international real estate market are now in charge of the country. My guess is that their “nationalism” will consist in gaining a level playing field for wealthy US institutions and individuals to invest abroad in the same way foreign players now do here. That, and that the US investors will no longer have their “hands-tied” by ethical standards investors from countries like China do not face, so that weak countries are even further prevented from erecting barriers against capital.

Still, should the Bannon faction really have fallen apart it will present an opportunity for the left to address these problems while avoiding the alt-right’s hyper-nationalistic solutions. Progressive solutions (at least in developed economies) might entail providing affordable housing for our cities, preventing shadow money from buying up real estate, unionizing services, recognizing and offsetting the cost to workers of automation. UBI should be part of that mix.

The situation is much more difficult for developing countries and there they will need to find their own, and quite country specific solutions. Advanced countries will need to help them as much (including helping them restore barriers against ravenous capital) as they can to manage their way into new forms of society, for the model of development that has run nearly two centuries now appears to be irrevocably broken.

Utopia Now!


Given all the chaos and pessimism lately and in light of the fact that with the inauguration of Trump we will be walking into very dangerous times, it’s perhaps a good moment for a little bit of hope, though the progressive rallies over the last few days certainly make me feel hopeful.

As his inauguration speech made clear, Trump’s victory signals the end of the liberal order that has defined the world since the end of the Second World War. An order based on the twin pillars of American hegemony and capitalist economics, a transformation that presents both grave dangers and opportunities to think the world anew.

David Graber managed to articulate what this opportunity means in a recent issue of The Baffler though here he was talking about similar political upheavals in the United Kingdom post-Brexit. According to Graber, what marks the teen years of the 21st century is that we’re starting to finally imagine genuinely radical alternatives to the world we currently live in. He writes:

It’s not just the predictable arrival of the economic luminaries to hold court with the new shadow chancellor—everyone from Joseph Stiglitz and Ann Pettifor, to Yanis Varoufakis and Thomas Piketty. Genuinely radical ideas are being debated and proposed. Should the left be pursuing accelerationism, pushing the contradictions of capitalism forward with rapid growth and development, or should it aim toward a total shift of values and radical de-growth? Or should we be moving toward what Novara, the media initiative that emerged from the 2010 student movement, began cheerfully referring to as FALC—or Fully Automated Luxury Communism—encouraging technologies like 3-D printing to aim for a world of Star Trek–style replicators where everything is free? Should the central bank enact “quantitative easing for the people,” or a universal citizen’s income policy, or should we go the way of Modern Money Theory and universal jobs guarantees?

The question remains of how to give any such new progressive order(s) the light and air they need to survive given the fact that reactionary forces are now in control of all the  suffocating powers of the deep state.

One idea making the rounds, and one potential source of hope, is the federal system of US politics itself, which has previously been the purview of the right.  Instead, of conservative defenders of state’s rights progressives might be able to pursue their agenda and protect their populations at the state and local level. Indeed, a movement advocating secession by greens and the left has been slowly growing for at least a decade.

None of which is a bad idea in so far as such initiatives also have a national, and even global, component which succeeds in establishing alliances across civil society to oppose and thwart any component of the Trump administration’s policies that threaten to unravel political, social, and economic protections. Combined with such alliances small areas could be used as staging grounds for progressive experiments  (such as universal basic income) and examples of truly just and sustainable forms of society.

The danger here is that sovereignty continues to be located in the federal government and the Trump administration may use this power to aggressively pursue, under the concealment of nationalism, the same kinds of neo-liberal deconstruction of state protections the US has pushed on less developed countries since the end of the cold war and strangle such experiments in the crib.

More on that another time. What’s important for my purposes now is how the very loss of national control by the progressive movement, for what may prove a very extended period, offers up an opportunity for experimentation on the level of cities and regions that hasn’t existed since the New Deal.

One place I think we might look for model of how we could approach this period  should be early 19th century utopianism. Like most of us, though for much different reasons, these utopians wanted nothing to do with the violence required by revolution. The reason in their case being that they had just come through the bloodletting of the French Revolution and had no stomach for a repeat of the Terror, which ultimately ended up in the victory of the right (Napoleon) anyway.

Our own squeamishness to violence might have to do with the profound change in norms that has occurred since the 19th century, but it’s just as likely a consequence of the fact that to engage in violence, by which I don’t mean punching neo-Nazis in the face but going toe-to-toe with the power apparatus of the security state, is to oppose the state where it is at its strongest, and therefore merely ends up bolstering what Nietzsche so brilliantly called “that coldest of all cold monsters” along with elites dependent on the power of the state who use revolutionary violence, or even the mere hint of it, as a justification for further oppression.

Violence may have lost it’s effectiveness as a means of propelling political change because, having lost all of its authority, the state rests on little but the threat of even greater levels of violence, a form of power which has now been largely mechanized. The key towards the future is thus not revolution but lies in establishing new sources of real authority assuming, that is, one has given up on saving the Republic itself.

Also like the 19th century utopians we find ourselves at the very beginning of a technological and social transformation which potentially could make real the dream of utopians from time immemorial, that is, the dream of a world free of scarcity, poverty and the necessity that most of adult life be consumed by work.

The fact that automation and resource constraints present both utopian and dystopian possibilities which are matters of political choice and therefore our capacity to ultimately decide the type of society in which we want to live is the subject of another popular book Four Futures: Life After Capitalism by Jacobin editor Peter Frase.

Even when acknowledging the degree of hype around today’s artificial intelligence and its threat to employment along with its often overly optimistic or pessimistic timeline (depending on one’s perspective) it’s clear that the need for human labor to achieve current levels of production and services is either declining or on is the verge of a sharp decline.

While looking to the future is surely among the best thing we can do in our circumstance it is always helpful to explore the space of possibilities open to us by reflecting on the past,   for we have been in quite a similar situation before. As early as 1802, as seen in  James Reynolds’ utopian novel Equality, it was recognized that the application of machine power when combined with new ways to organize labor were going to usher in an unprecedented period of abundance with the question being how the proceeds of such a leap in productivity were to be distributed.

Reynolds was only among the first in what would be a golden age of utopianism much of which tried to establish a balance between the traditional needs and aspirations found in society and the new age of the machine. Because of its status as a frontier and the birthplace of the democratic age in the early 19th century the US became the staging ground for a number of these utopian experiments many of which had originated in Europe. No book is perhaps better at giving us a tour of this utopian landscape than the recent Paradise Now: the story of American Utopianism by Chris Jennings.

In part the upsurge in utopian experiments in the early 19th century was driven by renewed millenarian expectations as seen in groups such as the Mormons and especially the Shakers whose austere aesthetic makes them appear almost modern. Yet experiments in religious utopianism had been tried before. What made the 19th century truly different was that it was the first time utopias based on solely secular ideas were attempted and thus anticipated the way in which the 20th century would be defined in terms of rival secular ideologies rather than religious tensions and conflict.

The most widely known of these early 19th century utopians was of course the British industrialist and reformer, Robert Owen. The son of a saddler, Owen moved to Manchester when he was seventeen- in 1788. It was the equivalent of moving to Silicon Valley in 1970, for Manchester was among the first places on earth to feel the effects of the industrial revolution:

The new textile machines churned out unprecedented profits and material abundance but they did so by eroding traditional economies, squeezing out the artisan class, and forcing everyone into the factories. (89)

Owen respond very differently to the social effects of industrial technologies than his contemporaries the Luddites who chose to smash the machines as a tool of immiseration. Instead, Owen saw in technology the beginnings of a new type of abundance if only human beings could get the political and social questions right.

By 1799, by then a budding industrialist, Owen bought a massive textile mill in New Lanark Scotland. It became his vehicle for social experiments and transformation, a first step in creating what Owen called The New Moral World.  At New Lanark Owen halted the employment of orphans, sold coal and fuel to the workers at cost rather than for profit. He established a worker’s savings bank along with a free medical clinic. He planted community gardens and provided an insurance fund. He also paid wages even during crises when the factory was idle.

The price for all this, for the workers, was a loss of privacy and self-direction. Owen policed worker behavior- and was especially keen on preventing drunkenness and adultery by his employees- with a degree of paternalism only utopians are capable of. Yet in spite of these social obligations Owen’s operation was extremely profitable. This divergence from other factory owners who treated their workers as disposable talking animals employing children, paying subsistence wages and failing to provide any insurance, or other form of social support was just the beginning.

In 1816 Owen established The Institute for the Formation of Character in New Lanark which educated children of the community as young as two, and offered enrichment courses to adults during the evenings. In the school Owen banned religious instruction, rote learning, and corporal punishment, and aimed to foster what the Rousseau inspired Owen believed were the natural virtues of the individual- virtues which he believed had been crushed by the form of civilization his experiments aimed at finding an alternative to. (91- 92)

In 1825 Owen began an even more ambitious project to test his ideas, this time in New Harmony Indiana. His settlement attracted intellectuals and reformers who hoped to realize his dream of a society founded on equality and shared prosperity. Owen a communist reformer who publicly denounced organized religion visited sitting and ex-presidents and spoke before a Congress that was at least politely open-minded in the face of his radical views. Jennings reflects that:

The fact that Owen’s ideas were given a civil hearing suggest that in 1825, American capitalism had not yet secured itself as a sacrosanct national ideology. (110)

In this respect, in  terms of openness to alternative socio-economic models to our own, we’ve only gone backwards since the founding. Though in terms of racial inclusion (New Harmony excluded non-whites), we are light years ahead of the 19th century.

Yet, despite Owen’s renown New Harmony proved extremely short lived, the experiment having ended by 1827 largely due to its failure to attract and retain the kinds of skilled laborers that might have made the community viable.

Fourierism is yet another early 19th century utopian movement Jennings helps uncover. It was a movement based on the ideas of Charles Fourier, the French thinker who was both a genius and very much a loon who famously imagined a “lemonade sea”. Despite, perhaps because of, his weirdness Fourier managed to get much about the future strangely right, such as his idea that individuals should pursue employment in those tasks they believed emotionally resonated with their character, that human sexuality was nothing to be ashamed of, that destructive instincts, rather than be suppressed, should be harnessed for the good of society, and that human happiness and the full expression of human capabilities is the very purpose of society. All these ideas which were radical in the 19th century have become common to the point of being cliches.

Eventually, Fouriest ideas for individual utopian communities which he call phalanxes would spread into prominent groups of American utopians including the artistic and intellectual commune of Brook Farm, which became a sort of temporary home and mecca for Transcendentalists like Nathaniel Hawthorne who even wrote a satire on its utopia’s pleasures and folly.

In addition to these Jennings informs us about the Icarian movement founder by another French philosopher Étienne Cabet. It’s a movement which more than any of the other mention above Jennings thinks did indeed have many of the pro-totalitarian flaws liberals normally associate with the word Utopia. Icarian communities based on Cabet’s novel Voyage et aventures de lord William Carisdall en Icarie were not only among the first stirrings of communism, Cabet even gave the movement its name. Lewis Mumford would find more similarities between Icarians and Soviet communists than anything he found in Marx. (259)

Still, it is how Jennings understands the decline of the utopian movement in America during the latter half of the 19th century that I think has the most relevance for us today. Utopianism declined not so much because the hope for a more just social order declined (indeed, the American Civil War even in light of its carnage became a war for a more just order), but because the locus of reform shifted from the local level to that of the national state. Rising middle class prosperity (created through both rapid growth and the labor movement) likewise diminished the desire for utopian experiments because American society had succeeded in achieving many of its dreams. One should include here the fact that the kinds of sexual equality imagined by many of the utopians was also achieved through the movement for suffrage combined with social change.

For Jennings no utopian moment in America has come close to that of the early 19th century, and he sees the communalism of the 1960’s as an attempt at escape from technological society rather than create a different, better, and more human future.

The alternative to not seeing the human world as something constructed by our choices is to either succumb to fatalism or to misconceive our moral project as the construction of a never existent past. Without any possible knowledge of Trump and his voters Jennings foresaw our year of “Make America Great Again”:

Instead of articulating extravagant dreams about the future, let alone experimenting with those dreams, we have made our past into a sort of utopia: a high white wall onto which we project our collective longings and anxieties. (382)

We’ve been drawing the wrong lessons from the wrong past all along.

Should Facebook Censor the News?


In the era of information wars knowledge of the past is perhaps the only way we can remain anchored to reality. Such collective memory shouldn’t only consist of an accurate record of the facts, but would also include a sense of the history of knowledge and inforwar itself.

When not seen from the point of false omniscience we call the present, history has always been the unwieldy struggle of rival forces, shifting alliances, and enemies that cannot be clearly distinguished along purely ideological or religious lines. There is not, nor has there ever been, a direction to history, it being as Churchill lamented “one damned thing after another”. It’s perhaps the fact that we’ve been forced to re-learn this that makes the present so damned painful. Many of those who thought we were headed towards a brighter future instead find themselves slipping back into nightfall.

At least part of the reason for our shock over the 2016 election wasn’t just the outcome but the fact that it happened when it did at all. Stable, even sclerotic, societies such as ours don’t usually play Russian roulette with their future whatever the imagined benefits that might come if the chamber is found empty. Almost from the start of the 21st century we had experienced shocks none of which gave rise to even minor reforms let alone the kind of political earthquake Trump’s election represents.

As a reminder, since 2000’s we’ve gone through a presidential election whose outcome was decided not by the voters but by the US Supreme Court, the bursting of the 90’s tech bubble, the 9-11 attacks, the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent Great Recession, two failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with nearly a decade of lackluster economic growth despite unprecedented measures being taken by the world’s major central banks. And yet it is now when none of these crises are as acute as they been in the past that their consequent political upheaval has occurred.

What I think such questions regarding timing miss is the fact that not only has the breakdown in trust between elites (especially in the media and the academy) and a large portion of the American (indeed Western) citizenry been occurring across these different crises, but that this erosion has been running in parallel with a transformation of the communications landscape that has upended the ability of elites to as Noam Chomsky characterized it “manufacture consent”.

Since the Second World War, and only starting to unwind the 1980’s ,there was only a marginal difference between Republicans and Democrats (it was Nixon, after all, whom we have to thank for the EPA and Jimmy Carter who started what we now think of as Reagan’s arms buildup). American elites were in overall agreement over the fundamental questions regarding society and possessed means the likes of which had never been seen before to ensure the rest of society also held these assumptions as sacrosanct.

This was perhaps an odd situation give that liberal elites in Western democracies were able to reach such mutual agreement and gain such a degree of public acquiescence absent the types of control over information and speech that had been present both historically and which was so pronounced in the Communist societies that were their penultimate rival. It was the shape of this occluded form of control which political theorists such as Herbert Marcuse among others tried to uncover.

None of these others is more important for my purposes than Noam Chomsky and his book Manufacturing Consent first published in 1981. Ever like the owl of Minerva this revelatory book appeared on the very eve when the conditions it depicted were about to be transformed into something radically different.

In that work Chomsky argues that five features of the 20th century media landscape resulted in a world in which the media, rather than challenge elites, instead helped to consolidate elite control over the public. These five features were:

1) Size and concentrated ownership of media outlets

2) Advertising as the main source of revenue

3) Media reliance on government and corporate “experts”

4) “Flak” individuals experienced when they stepped outside of elite norms.

5) Anti-communism as an inviolable national religion.

By 2016 all of the elements Chomsky had described in Manufacturing Consent had been either been radically transformed or were no longer in existence.

The internet had permitted the rise of alternative or even conspiratorial media of which Breitbart and Infowars were just two prominent right wing examples. While advertising remained a primary source of revenue the cost of producing and distributing media (minus the kinds of editorial constraints of mainstream media) effectively shrank to zero with advertising’s role having shifted to content distributors such as FaceBook that refused to bear any editorial responsibilities.

2016 was also the year of the revolt against experts. The consequence, no doubt, of their repeated failures from the non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to the financial collapse that had not been foreseen by the phony experts and pseudo-scientists into whose hands we had placed our future- we call them economists.

It was also a year in which standard norms regarding political discourse collapsed, and the national religion of anti-communism was such an ancient memory that a former KGB operative could hack the American election in favor of the Republican candidate and very few within the GOP would be upset about it.

In some ways at least this merely returns us to the pre-cold war era before the kinds of media/elite alliance Chomsky describes in Manufacturing Consent had taken hold. We’ve been moving in that direction for quite some time now with the rise of openly partisan cable news in the 1980’s and 90’s.

In order to get our bearing we might have to look back even further to the period of Yellow Journalism when figures like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer battled for readership using the tools of sensationalism and scandal. Indeed, it was Pulitzer’s shame over his abuse of the truth during this period that convinced him to foster professionalism and standards of evidence through instruments such as the Columbia School of Journalism.

Yet we may have to look even further back. For one of the historical conditions that made the manufacturing of consent possible was the fact that in the late 1800’s information production itself had become industrialized. Those who had access to capital could produce such a flood of material that the effect was to drown out anyone who merely had access to the older, much smaller, means of publishing and distribution.

This centralization continued through post-print form of media. Radio was really only democratizing on a local level, which is why up until the 1950’s culture could still emerge from regional diversity- just ask Wolfman Jack.  National, not to mention international, broadcasts required access to limited in number (and therefore expensive) telephone lines. Television production and distribution was even more capital intensive. And then the internet changed everything. We’re now back to something that resembles the pre-industrial type media world with both its possibility for a truly public form of speech and its lack of any editorial bearing or control.

And yet, though media and speech have become decentralized and slipped completely outside the bonds of control in another they are more susceptible to censorship and oversight via centralized mediators than ever. A concerted effort by Google, Twitter, and especially Facebook, could in reality asphyxiate the platforms of the Alt-right should they so choose. The question is, even if it was politically possible at the moment, should we want them to?

My guess, from where we stand today, is that launching on such a course would not only ultimately fail but would come back to haunt us. Preventing the ugliest of sentiments from being spoken openly does not prevent people from having them, and perhaps it’s the opposite. After all, politics in countries with much stricter hate speech laws than the US have not merely gone down the same dark path as ourselves, but one that is perhaps even darker. The kinds of censorship in the name of social stability and elite interest Facebook is flirting with to secure its foothold in China should give us pause. For not only is this the opposite of the technologically enabled democratic future many of us long for, which would entail real democratic control over such editorial decisions and transparency regarding how those decisions were made, we can never be sure such a weapon used against frankly despicable enemies won’t someday be used by the very same elites to define the despicable- as us.

Imagining the Anthropocene

Mining operations near Green Valley, Arizona. (NASA)


Almost a year ago now, while reading an article by the historian Yuval Harari in the British newspaper The Guardian, I had a visceral experience of what it means to live in the Anthropocene. Harari’s piece was about the horrors of industrial meat production, and as evidence of the scale of the monstrosity, he listed a set of facts that I had either not known, or had never taken the time to fully contemplate. Facts such as that the world’s domesticated animals, taken together, weigh not only double that of all the human beings on earth, but are seven times the weight of all of the world’s large land animals combined, or that there are more chickens in Europe than all of that continent’s wild birds taken together.  It struck me while reading Harri’s piece the degree to which we as a species had changed much of nature into something mechanically hellish, and I shuddered at the thought.

If one conducted a kind of moral forensics of the human impact on nature certainly industrial farming would be among its darkest aspects. Luckily for us, such a forensics would also result in some signs of human benevolence, such as the millions of acres many of the world’s nations have set aside for the protection of wildlife, or our growing propensity to establish animal rights.

While a moral forensics would give us an idea of our impact on the natural world right now, the proposed geological epoch known as the Anthropocene is measured in the duration of the geological and atmospheric scars we are leaving behind, for geological epochs are marked off by the differences in the layers that have been put down by planet transforming processes. Collectively we have become just such a process, and hypothetical geologists living in the deep future will be able to read evidence of how we have shaped and changed the earth and the rest of life upon it. Whether that evidence ultimately comes to reflect our uncontrolled and self-destructive avariciousness and shortsightedness, or our benevolence and foresight, remains up to us to decide.

Communicating the idea that the Anthropocene is both the period of greatest danger and a historical opportunity to right our relationship to the planet and to one another isn’t easy in an age of ever sharper ideological divisions and politics performed in 140 characters. Nevertheless, such communication is something Steven Bradshaw’s newly released documentary ANTHROPOCENE does brilliantly introducing viewers to the idea in a way that retains its complexity while at the same time conveying the concept in the visceral way only a well done film can accomplish.

ANTHROPOCENE  conveys the perspective of seven members of the working group on the Anthropocene, along with an environmental expert, on what it means to say we have entered the Anthropocene. Among them are some of the leading figures of twenty-first century environmentalism: Will Steffen, Erle Ellis, Jan Zalasiewicz, Andrew Revkin, John McNeil, Monica Berger Gonzalez, Eric Odada, and Davor Vidas.

The working group was established by the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy, “the only body concerned with stratigraphy on a global scale”. Its task is to establish whether we have truly exited the geological epoch in which humans have lived since our beginnings- the Holocene- and caused the onset of a new epoch the Anthropocene.

It was the Nobel Prize winning atmospheric chemist Paul J. Crutzen who in 2000 helped revive the term “anthropocene” and propel it to its current unprecedented traction. The idea of the Anthropocene may be academic, but such ideas have consequences and conveying them to the larger public, as Bradshaw’s documentary sets out to do, is extremely important in light of these consequences. Only when we have some intuitive sense of the scale of humanity’s impact on the planet since the industrial revolution can we overcome the much older sense of being dwarfed by nature and that anything we are capable of doing pales in comparison to what nature herself does to us.

Bradshaw’s ANTHROPOCENE tells the story of the development of humanity into a force capable of shaping the whole of nature in the form of chapters of a book. While the early chapters set the stage and introduce us to a human species that has always shaped, and, as with the extinction of megafauna, severely disrupted, nature to our own interests, the rising action of the story does not occur until as late as the 1950’s with the “Great Acceleration”, when human population growth and energy use began their exponential rise. And though the developed countries have since fallen off of this exponential curve, the majority of the world’s population is only now undergoing a Great Acceleration of their own.

While human beings prior to the contemporary period that began around the middle of the last century have always had an outsized impact, only after 1950 has our effect been such to both leave behind evidence that will be discoverable millions of years into the future, and which are of a completely different order than the kinds of scars left by non-human natural processes.

Many of these scars will be located in what the documentary calls “sacrifice zones” areas such as islands in the Pacific where countries tested the most powerful nuclear weapons ever built.  Sacrifice zones are also comprised of the vast areas of the earth that have been scared by our resource extraction, whole mountains torn into in the quest for coal or precious metals. In addition there will be the huge swaths of territory where we have disposed the waste of human civilization. Our plastics and toxins will likely far out last us, while those aspects we most identify with the pinnacle of urbanism- being built of concrete and glass- may survive for less time than the stone monuments of prior civilizations.

Still, much of the underbelly of cities along with other structures and artifacts that become subsumed by tectonic plates will form an event layer, which will speak of the strange species who dominated a world only to lose it, that is ourselves.

It will not only be these debris and artifacts which will call out from the geological  strata the sheer fact of our past existence, that is, what is there, but we will also be legible through what is absent. If we succeed in causing what some are calling the sixth great extinction then many the anthropocene strata will be a kind of dead-zone lacking the great diversity of plants and animals found in the strata before it.

The idea of a planet scared for millions of years by our technological civilization is certainly disturbing, yet the ultimate message of Bradshaw’s documentary neither surrenders to the dystopian spirit of the times, nor does  it counsel stoic resignation to our self-destruction. The message I took from the film was much more nuanced: we have spent the last few centuries transforming a nature we believed separate from us only to learn that this distinction was like a child playing pretend. If we can mature quickly enough we can foster a world good for both ourselves and the rest of life. But should we fail to grow up in time the earth will shrug free from our weight, and the life that remains will continue into the deep future without us.

* Bullfrog Films is the distributor the documentary ANTHROPOCENE and holds the license to to public performance rights. The DVD is featured in their catalog: