In defense of the administrative state

brazil-poster-2

A few weeks back Steve Bannon, Trump’s Rasputin-like chief strategists, while in a panel discussion at CPAC laid out the agenda for the new administration. According to Bannon that agenda consisted of three parts re- establishing national security and sovereignty, economic nationalism, and what he called “the deconstruction of the administrative state.” It was the latter which Bannon’s comments suggested was behind Trump’s otherwise Bizzaro cabinet appointments where, for instance, a raging opponent of environmental protections- Scott Pruitt, could be named head of the EPA, and promoter of the privatization of education, or Betty Davos, could be put in charge of the Department of Education. You only put the fox in charge of watching the hen house if you want the hens dead.

Back in 2016 Newt Gingrich had gleefully predicted something like this, arguing that the first term of the Trump administration would be years of vicious conflict between the new administration and the federal bureaucracy.  The first month of the administration appear to be proving correct as Trump’s rage over leaks shows an administration unprecedentedly at war with its own intelligence agencies.

A person brought from say the 1930’s into 2017 might find it unfathomable to see the political right which at that time worshiped the power of the state to today be so obsessed with the state’s deconstruction. It would seem as if fascist confused themselves with anarchist, one of the groups the police state of fascism set out to crush.

This move by the right from being the party representing the power of the state to being its most vociferous opponent has been a long time in coming, and one can see it developing by looking at the history of the best film on the dystopian aspects of bureaucracy ever made, Terry Gilliam’s dark comedy Brazil. When Gilliam directed Brazil he was tapping into a long tradition in the left of rebellion against the soulless machine of government, 19th century anarchists yes, but especially the individualistic left of the 1960’s who protested wearing mock computer punch cards mocking the bureaucratic society in which they were trapped that read “do not fold spindle or mutilate.”

Brazil depicts a world suffocating in tubes, the plumbing of a bizarre, ubiquitous air-conditioning system but also pneumatic cords of surveillance and control run by incompetent bureaucrats whose only job seems to be to prevent the independent action of everyone locked in the system’s iron cage. (Strangely we ourselves live precisely in such a world, though ours tubes are ones we cannot see.) It’s a word so drowning in paperwork that people can be intimidated by pointing out that they need to fill out a form.

In the film a typing error caused by a fly leads to the accidental arrest, and death under interrogation of Archibald Buttle instead of a renegade air-conditioning repair man Archibald Tuttle- played by Robert De Niro.  The core of the story is a romance between Jill Layton who is struggling against the labyrinthine bureaucracy to gain restitution for the widowed Mrs Buttle and Sam Lowry a low level bureaucrat sent to rectify the error that led to Buttle’s death. After Sam destroys government records in order to prevent Jill’s arrest, he himself is arrested by the Ministry of Information. He is about to be tortured into confession by a man who is his friend when it appears Sam is rescued by Tuttle and the resistance who blow up the Ministry of Defense and allow him to reunite with Jill. It is only an appearance, for in reality he has been tortured to the point of insanity.

Gilliam had set out to make a film critical of bureaucracy in the tradition of the romantic strain of the left. Yet the movie’s most notorious fan turned out to be Timothy McVeigh who was known at the gun-shows he frequented as Tuttle or Buttle and like the film’s characters of the resistance who blew up the Ministry of Information set off a truck full of explosives that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. An act which killed 168 people including children. The unstable characters perfected by De Niro seem to have an uncanny ability to inspire unstable people in real life.

Of course, hatred of government bureaucracy and the attempt to unwind it was a large component of the neo-liberal agenda. Ronald Reagan with his gift for memorable quips expressed the sentiment best when he said: “The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

Yet even if the anti-government hysteria of the far-right has been used as a tool by neo-liberals to try to mantle regulatory protections and redistributive taxation which threaten their interests, the far-right remains different.

Driven by the conspiracy theories that center around the fear of a world government, the far-right sees not only the instruments of hard-power which the progressive right correctly rails against as well, but any facility of state power as uniquely aimed at crushing the “real” citizenry and their way of life.

The far-right’s perspective is, for all its ugliness, not completely irrational. From the very beginning of its settlement wealthy elites had considered the interior of the American continent a dumping ground for what they considered the refuse of Europe- the origins of the phrase “white trash”. The American west was settled as an imperial project by a federal government newly empowered after the Civil War and continues to this day to have land ownership patterns that reflect that fact and which might make an easterner flinch-  84 percent of the land in Nevada– the site of the recent Bundy Standoff is owned by the federal government, 61 percent of Idaho– where the deadly Ruby Ridge confrontation of the early 90’s occurred is likewise owned by the federal government.

The costs of desegregation was largely born by lower class whites rather than their richer compatriots, as was the cost in blood (if not treasure) of the poor and lower middle class of all races who died in the failed wars- Vietnam, Afghanistan and The Second Gulf War,  initiated and supported by elites until their costs became unbearable and their stupidity impossible to deny. As many left- wing writers willingly admit, the boogie man of the far-right- globalism- is not a mere fantasy. Globalism began the process of eroding the the livelihood of the working class, which automation now promises to kill.

Still, if the nightmare of the libertarian far-right is the all powerful state that crushes all opposition with an iron heel, what they now have in the form of the Trump is an administration that makes these fears far more likely. Impregnable borders can be used just as much to lock people in than to keep people out. Extensive government powers to hunt down “Islamic terrorist”, criminals, or illegal immigrants can just as easily be turned on any political enemy. An even larger military and engorged police forces are but more of precisely the kind of “standing army” the Founders warned threatened the survival of the Republic.

In addition to all of this, the right lives under the delusion that by deconstructing the state they will be restoring freedom rather than, what actually will happen, which is that public bureaucracies will be replaced by private ones, for bureaucracy, rather than being a consequence of government interference, is simply the way modern organizations in complex societies are run.

The deconstruction of state bureaucracies would leave us in a bifurcated world of private entities where the rich will be able to shop in a competitive marketplace for services while the poor and middle class are locked into labyrinthine organizations now impossible to influence through democratic means, and whose primary purpose will be the extraction of rents. Exchanging public bureaucracies for private ones will have meant giving up the public control that comes from politics for the rule of money only the very few have.

Yet it’s not the right alone that lives in the fantasy that we can live in a world where the administrative state is no more, many on the left share a similar dream. The key for the left is to find a way to restore freedom, which the bureaucratic tubes of the state certainly strangle, with the needs of complex societies for precisely such entities in order to function at all.

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On the use and misuse of 1984 in the reign of Trump

1984-film

Events have taken such a dark turn in the United States with the election of Trump that many have felt the need to go back to the dystopian classics to get their bearings. These were novels written in the first half of the prior century when totalitarianism wasn’t just something relegated to gray photos in our history books while we lived our days in the bright neo-liberal sunlight of the post- Cold War era, but actually roamed alive and deadly in the real world.

Among the most well know of these novels, along with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is, of course, George Orwell’s 1984. Many of us had thought the bleak dystopia Orwell depicted had, by  the early 21st century, been relegated to isolated hermit kingdoms such as North Korea. Huxley, we all knew, with his mind altering drugs, free love, and mind-numbing consumerism had been more prescient regarding how authoritarian power would operate-  strangling our freedom not with an iron but with a velvet glove. Yet Trump seems to be proving the majority of us eggheads wrong. As Adam Gopnik so bluntly puts it in reference to what we’ve see of the Trump presidency so far:

Because the single most striking thing about his matchlessly strange first week is how primitive, atavistic, and uncomplicatedly brutal Trump’s brand of authoritarianism is turning out to be. We have to go back to “1984” because, in effect, we have to go back to 1948 to get the flavor.

Of course, Gopnik isn’t alone in suggesting 1984 has something especially important to tell regarding 2017. Since Trump’s election sales of the novel have soared by 9,500 percent.  And still, trying to use 1984 as a map through the Trump presidency might pose just as many distortions as insights, and not just because other dystopian novels might offer better depictions of the actual type of dystopia we are in danger of falling into, but because our efforts and attention might be drawn into an ineffectual resistance against an enemy unlikely to arrive, while the real villain slips in unnoticed in his place.   What’s required, then, is a close reading of 1984 to see where it fits and diverges from what’s happened so far, so here it goes:

1984 is the story of, Winston Smith, a “middle-class” member of the Outer Party of Oceania that works in the Ministry of Truth. His job is to doctor and destroy documents based upon the constantly shifting whims of what the Party which rules Oceania declares to be the “truth”.

Oceania is a totalitarian state that would make even monsters like Stalin and Hitler green with envy.  Oceania which includes what was formerly Great Britain (now called Air-Strip One, on which Winston lives), the United States, Canada and Australasia is covered with telescreens which are a kind of two-way television that projects propaganda in, and can also watch for subversive activities, and microphones that monitor citizens almost anywhere 24/7.

Whereas the mass of citizens, the “proles” are left unmolested by the Party largely because of their ignorance and inability to organize, the Outer Party, especially, is constantly monitored for “thought-crime” (even having a thought that challenges the orthodoxy of the Party) by the Thought Police who are housed in the Ministry of Love.

Orwell has a genius for playing with words, and his Oceania is a dystopia in a literal sense of being a world where everything is really its dark opposite: the Ministry of Truth is really an organization for creating lies, the Ministry of Love a hell-house of torture, the Ministry of Plenty a bureaucracy that administers privation, or the Ministry of Peace an institution of war.

One of the ultimate goals of the Party is to destroy the meaning of language itself- to fully institute the use of “Newspeak” so that all reference with the past and the truth has been destroyed. The Party then becomes the sole arbiter of what is real and what is fiction. Thus, the defiant act against the Party that would ultimately lead to Winston’s doom was when he started a diary. It was an act that declared what the Party found totally unacceptable- that a person could think for himself. Later, under the most brutal forms of torture, Winston would find himself compelled to deny the very sanity of trying to think outside of the iron grip of the Party:

He could not fight against the Party any longer. Besides, the Party was in the right. It must be so: how could the immortal, collective brain be mistaken? By what external standards could you check its judgments? Sanity was statistical. It was merely a question of learning to think as they thought. (290)

The Party of Oceania takes relativism, social construction, and collective solipsism to their logical extremes. It does not merely reflect a certain view of the world- it is the world- and can create and destroy the “truth” as it sees fit. Facts and the past are nothing but memory, so by controlling memory both individual and collective facts and history become whatever the Party wants them to be. Even logical, self-evident truths are capable of being overthrown- ideas such as 2 + 2 = 4. Under the proper pressure and manipulation even mathematics and science bend before the will of the Party.

Winston’s second crime against the Party is to engage in a secret love-affair with his co-worker Julia.  Orwell’s Oceania will not countenance divided loyalties and passions, especially the kinds of loyalties and passions that grow out of love and sex. Unlike in Plato’s Republic, the Party has not ended the family, but has turned it into a nest of spies, where children betray their parents at any hint of unorthodox thought or behavior. The sexual instinct, especially for women, is channeled into the love of Big-Brother and hatred of the traitorous Goldstein, both of whose no doubt imaginary images are plastered everywhere.

The emotions of the masses are constantly kept at a fever-pitch of hate against Oceania’s  geo-political enemies: Eurasia and East Asia. These two other great powers live under similar totalitarian systems as that in Oceania. Eurasia combines essentially the former Soviet Union and Europe, East Asia, China, Japan, the Koreas and nearby territories. The three great powers struggle with one another for what is left of the globe- essentially the Middle East and India. They fight not so much over resources or markets- all three are in essence self-contained, autarchic systems- as they do for labor power, with the peoples of these up-for-grabs regions being enslaved by one region and then the other into making weapons. Yet weapons, which because world wars have become a thing of the past, are essentially useless. The international environment in which Oceania exists is one of constant low-level or outright phony war between the big powers. Orwell in the mouth of the imaginary Goldstein muses that “war by becoming continuous has fundamentally changed its character” (205).

Winston’s third crime is to join the ranks of the secret revolutionary organization- The Brotherhood.   Like Big Brother, who serves as the face of the Party, or Goldstein who serves as the face of the revolution, The Brotherhood itself is a fiction created by the Party. In its name both Winston and Julia, in a act completely out of character, pledge themselves to crimes even against innocents.

The Orwellian state imagined in 1984 is a sadistic-state the likes of which have never been seen. What makes it so horrendous even in light of its very real world rivals in this regard is its concept of power as a self-justifying force.  As Orwell puts in the mouth of Winston’s torturer O’Brien:

Progress in our civilization will be progress towards more pain. The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love and justice. Our is founded on hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement.

Everything else we shall destroy- everything. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stomping on a human face-forever. (279)

The scenes Orwell depicts of Winston’s imprisonment and torture are gut wrenching and horrifying. They starve him until he becomes skeletal and loses his hair, break most of his bones, smash his teeth, burn his insides with electrical shocks. We are forced to watch a once dignified man reduced to groveling, bargaining and betrayal. But it is not the physical abuse that so much reduces Winston as the psychological:

These other questioners saw to it that he was in constant slight pain, but it was not the pain that they chiefly relied on. They slapped his face, wrung his ear, pulled his hair, made him stand on one leg, refused to leave him urinate, shown glaring lights in his face until his eyes ran with water; but the aim of this was simply to humiliate him and destroy his power of arguing and reasoning. Their real weapon was their relentless questioning that went on hour after hour, tripping him up, laying traps for him, convicting him at every step of lies and contradiction, until he began weeping as much from shame as from nervous fatigue. (253)

The ultimate psychological torture comes at the end of the novel when Winston, whose greatest fear is rats, has a cage of starved rats attached to his face. Under the extremest of fear he betrays Julia not in the sense of turning her in, but in asking that she be put in his place. It is a real rather than a feigned request, and with it Winston has lost both his mind and his soul to the evil of the Party.

What then might we learn from such a dark tale written only a few years after the Second World War as the Cold War between the US and Soviet Union was just coming into being? One quite disturbing similarity is that the kind of surveillance apparatus Orwell imagined hasn’t just become possible, but is now ubiquitous. The vast majority of us carry the watchful eyes of a potential Big Brother in our pockets, he is capable of staring back at us from our smart TVs, or listening to us through our Echos.

Thankfully for us, a major difference between Oceania and ourselves is that for us this capacity to surveil is located in the private sphere, not the state. After the Snowden revelations the extent to which the security state leveraged these capacities was somewhat reduced, but more importantly, private companies, especially Apple, have become much more focused on protecting their customers from government snooping.

One can see the direction the Orwellian direction the Trump administration pursue when looking at the attendees to the president elect s meet and greet with Silicon Valley giants. In addition to the heads of Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon there was Alex Karp the CEO of the security company Palantir. A seat at the big table for a relatively minor company, which might not so much represent payment for the company’s founder, Peter Thiel’s, nearly solitary support for Trump among the Silicon Valley elite, but the fact that Palantir  is the premier private sector  surveillance company and an open partner with the NSA.

A much less sexy, but perhaps, even more disturbing Orwellian trend in the Trump administration is their openness to merging federal law enforcement with that of state and local governments.

Again the differences between Oceania and Trump’s America are just as important. So far we’ve seen resistance to Trump’s authoritarian overreach at the level of major cities and majority liberal states. The judiciary appears to be doing its job of acting as a check on executive power- even if Trump doesn’t understand what checks and balances mean. Above all, citizens are coming to the defense of fellow citizens in the streets.

Perhaps the most striking similarity between Orwell’s fictional 1984 and our oh-too-real 2017 is the replacement of genuine political debate with Newspeak. That Orwell would provide insight into our world of internet filter-bubbles and fake-news when he was writing it what was still the golden age of radio makes sense once one recalls that 1984 was conceived and written while Orwell was working as a propagandist for the BBC during World War II. Yet while the enemy he was working in the 1940s was frighteningly real, the enemies of Oceania could, for all the reader knows, have been pure products a propaganda meant to organize society around the dark emotions of hatred and fear.

It’s at the very least possible that the longer the Trump administration experiences its own impotence the more tempted it will become to transform its agenda into one of inflaming public fear and anger alone, from which it will extract the kinds of extra-constitutional  powers it would need to achieve the agenda of its more radical members, most notably Steve Bannon. A major terrorist attack might Reichstag fire– like enable that, as would a war with a major power- China. If not, the authoritarian maelstrom Trump stands in the center of would be unlikely, whatever its wishes, to replicate, marching armies and all, in the United States the kinds of mass totalitarian state Orwell depicted in 1984, that Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and PRC were the penultimate examples of and which survives today alone in the dark kingdom of North Korea.

Only a truly massive crisis such as an attack on a major US city with WMDs, or a world war could resurrect the age of the mass men, because we live in an era of fractured media and politics. Under these conditions, disinformatzya as a tool to cause even further fracturing among political opponents is much more potent than any sort of propaganda that attempts to transform society into a single-willed blob. As Ethan Zuckerman describes it:

A third category of “fake news,” relatively new to the scene in most countries, is disinformatzya. This is news that’s not trying to persuade you that Trump is good and Hillary bad (or vice versa). Instead, it’s trying to pollute the news ecosystem, to make it difficult or impossible to trust anything.

Yet there’s another resemblance the Trump regime’s attitude to truth has with the dictatorship in 1984 that’s just as important, namely, their apparent proclivity to deny, or even delete, information that stands in the way of their agenda. As Winston the protagonist reflects in the novel:

If the party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened- that surely was more frightening than mere torture and death?  (37)

In terms of its willingness to openly lie, conceal or distort the truth to suit its own ends we might have to go back before the Nixon administration was felled by an independent press. Every president since Nixon, though they lied and were caught lying anyway, were fearful enough of the power of the press to expose them that they tended not to waste their dissimulation capital on petty disputes where lies could easily be exposed by journalists.

Shockingly, Trump has grabbed this mantle of truth-teller for himself, dismisses even objective evidence against his often outrageous claims as a mere fabrication by his enemies. Yet, with that said, and unlike in 1984, it’s not at all the case that the state has managed to become the sole arbiter of truth, but that everyone, whether actually capable of it or not, claims such a capacity as his own, and in like vein denies the reality of anyone who fails to agree with the facts as he understands them. Another difference: it’s not any Party which causes rival facts to disappear but the filter bubbles created by the algorithmic systems- such as FaceBook- through which the vast majority of the  information we absorb is brought to us.

These are problems that will long outlast Trump, though it’s unlikely we’ll see a more brazen liar, braggart, and conspiracy minded dolt anytime soon.

Putting aside the very real fear that policy within the Trump administration might actually be being made on the basis of a paranoid Manichean fantasy, what’s more immediately 1984 style frightening are efforts by his administration to hunt down and delete information that contradicts its agenda and worldview. Winston wrestled with the question of what truth could even mean in a society dedicated to its destruction over and above its transformation into lies:

The Party said that Oceania had never been in alliance with Eurasia. He, Winston Smith, knew that Oceania had been in alliance with Eurasia as short a time as four years ago. But where did that knowledge exist? Only in his own consciousness, which in any case, must soon be annihilated. And if all others accepted the lie which the party imposed- if all records told the same tale- then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’  (37)

The totally legitimate fear that Trump intends to sweep up and destroy government research that contradicts his denial it policy towards human caused climate change has resulted in an unprecedented collaboration between universities and other groups to copy and save government research findings before they are deliberately erased.

All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. ‘Reality control’ they called it. In Newspeak, ‘doublethink’. (37)

It is the very chaos of Trump’s style of communication that seems to upend the weight of our shared reality. He deliberately blurs the distinction between the insiders game and Protocols of Zion like  nut- job conspiracy. As Julia Ioffe has pointed out whomever Trump convinces to publicly lie for him he thereafter owns.

Rather than attempt to control absorb every aspect of private life as was done to the educated classes in 1984 or the entire society in actual totalitarian regimes Trump seems to give a rat’s ass when it comes to the private lives of Americans, unless it serves as a way to placate his restless culturally conservative base. Instead, Trumpism wants to confine us to our private lives except Trump rallies and performance politics indistinguishable from a reality TV show. All of us are to be like the proles (lower classes) of 1984:

“…where propaganda permeates the lives of people too distracted by rubbishy tabloids (“containing almost nothing except sport, crime and astrology”) and sex-filled movies to care much about politics or history.”  (46)

Yet another similarity Trumpism shares with 1984- though to be honest it’s something that stretches back not merely to 9-11, but back to the beginning of last century’s cold war, is the idea of continuous war in which the enemy is more a tool of those in power than an actual threat. And it’s this very absence of an actual existential threat that allows society to become unmoored from reality and mobilize against shadows.

What follows is a long quote from 1984, in which Orwell captured something essential regarding our current predicament:

All rulers in all ages have tried to impose a false sense of the world upon their followers, but they could not afford to encourage any illusion that tended to impair military efficiency. So long as defeat meant the loss of independence, or some other result generally held to be undesirable, the precautions against defeat had to be serious. Physical facts could not be ignored.  In philosophy, or religion, or ethics, or politics two and two might make five, but when one was designing a gun or an aeroplane they had to make four. Inefficient nations were always conquered sooner or later, and the struggle for efficiency was inimical to illusions. Moreover,  to be efficient it was necessary to be able to learn from the past which meant having a fairly accurate idea of what had happened in the past. Newspapers and history books were, of course, always colored and biased, but falsification of the kind that is practiced today would have been impossible… (205)

But when war becomes literally continuous, it also ceases to be dangerous. When war is continuous there is no such thing as military necessity. Technical progress can cease and the most palpable of facts can be discarded. As we have seen, researchers that could be called scientific are still carried out for the purposes of war, but they are essentially a type of daydreaming, and their failure to show results is not important. Efficiency, even military efficiency, is no longer needed. Nothing is efficient in Oceania except the Thought Police. (206)

It’s just possible that it is the very absence of current (which is not to say that these risks don’t exist over a longer time frame) existential threats to our society that has helped engender Trumpism in both the US and beyond. Whatever hour the Doomsday Clock is pointing to, the  danger we are in from the current mad assortment of nihilist loose in the world from ISIS to Al Qaeda to neo-Nazis, none of them pose capability of destroying society itself as was the case from the conflict between the big powers during the Cold War. Global nuclear war has receded into the background, climate change will unfold on the scale of centuries. Artificial intelligence remains science fiction. Our safety has given us the luxury to slip back into stupidity from which only painful errors can bring us back to our senses. Let’s hope they are not catastrophic.

Likewise, only a bourgeois in which revolution had become imaginatively impossible, and whose position in the global order was felt to be permanent would go all in for the dismantling of the welfare-state that was built as an alternative to revolution. Trump might be the culmination of this sense among the owning classes of having been granted by history eternal over lordship of the proles, but it began with Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980s. It’s Trump who gets to fulfill their dream of king raging against his own kingdom even if the project now comes wrapped in the language of protectionism rather than free trade.

Even the large number of citizens who seemed willing to risk it all by voting for Trump did so without realizing how far they were from actual crisis given all the protections against economic insecurity put in place when social democracy was accepted as the most humane and just way to run a society. Trump voters had no idea how ugly the world would be if capitalism were truly to run free red in tooth and claw.

Perhaps even something of Orwell’s deeper pessimism regarding human nature has proven right, that the very lack of struggle has led to the atrophy of our capacity for growth and innovation. It might even be the case that the very act of not having to defend our freedoms led to us being unable to recognize their importance and therefore unprepared to defend these freedoms when they were threatened, as they now certainly are.

The main reason Orwell saw for the new authoritarian revolutionaries was that machine based civilization had, for the first time in human history, made actual material equality possible. New groups wanting to seize power saw equality as no longer a bait for the masses, but as a threat to their own claims on power.

The earthly paradise had been discredited at exactly the moment when it became realizable. Every new political theory, by whatever name it called itself, led back to hierarchy and regimentation. (213)

Their totalitarian order, he thought, would likely be enabled by new technologies of surveillance and control. Technologies such as the aforementioned ubiquitous telescreens and microphones, but also neuropharmacology, and mechanisms such as novel writing machines. Indeed, because it aimed to destroy independent thought and empirical science, Orwell’s dystopia is a world of technological decline and endemic scarcity; the only areas in which it excels being that of manipulation and control.

It might be the case that one of the reasons we are finding 1984 so relevant today is that we never managed to permanently solve the problems of mass industrial society Orwell could see way back in 1948. The solution we thought we had come up with, solutions to the problem of inequality and exploitation, along with controls on the perpetual boom and bust of markets, proved a mere interregnum, and that we’ve slipped back to a world more like the one Orwell was writing in, where the dystopian nightmare he imagined was sadly a plausible version of tomorrow.

  • Part of the essay above uses large parts of a prior essay on 1984 from my blog.

https://utopiaordystopia.com/2012/09/15/1984/

 

A Reformation of Truth and Trust

ouroboros

“Fake realities will create fake humans. Or, fake humans will generate fake realities and then sell them to other humans, turning them, eventually, into forgeries of themselves. So we wind up with fake humans inventing fake realities and then peddling them to other fake humans. It is just a very large version of Disneyland. You can have the Pirate Ride or the Lincoln Simulacrum or Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride – you can have all of them, but none is true.”

Philip K. Dick  

“The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

Groucho Marx

When Vladislav Surkov invented the post-internet politics of  infowar back in the first decade of the 21st century he was openly drawing on Western postmodernism whose philosophers had been the first to articulate the nature of our “post-truth” age.  Surkov was especially influenced by the philosophy of Jean Baudrillard who in works such as Simulacra and Simulation had tried to put his finger on exactly what the West had lost when its belief in Truth- like God and morality before it-  first fell from the horizon, and then became inarticulable, only to finally become altogether untenable.

Yet Baudrillard’s ideas regarding the merely symbolic nature of the real, and the non-existence of the truth didn’t just appear like a rabbit out of a hat. They were the dividend of a centuries long process by which our notions regarding the true and the real had been lost under the relentless inquisition of both philosophy and science, and emerged as blowback from the catastrophic barbarity of scientism during the 20th century.

To start, some quick and dirty history: We had known since Plato how far our idea of the real likely diverged from the real itself with the tasks of philosophy being to uncover this hidden truth from its occlusion by human biology and historical prejudice. And yet philosophers never quite managed to pin down what this supposedly real world behind the world of appearances actually consisted of, though the pythagorean progenitors of Plato, along with the genius himself,  believed we caught our clearest glimpse of it when exploring truths related to numbers. Or, as it read over the entrance to the Academy: “Let no-one ignorant of geometry enter here”

Yet Plato, it should be remembered, wasn’t just motivated to discover a basis for the truth as a philosophical quest, but also as part of a political project that would form the basis for a non-democratic order. Athenian democracy which had proven fickle and a failure at war, and which, above all, had executed Plato’s teacher and friend Socrates could be proven unsustainable if the majority could be shown to be incapable of discovering, understanding, and living in conformity with the true and the good.

When well over a millennia after Plato a new science, based on mathematics and tested through observation, emerged in the modern era it was widely known how fragile a philosophical foundation such a project rested upon given what was either the loss an earlier prisca sapientia (ancient wisdom) based upon numbers (a loss that would have precluded the establishment of real science in the medieval period) or, and for the inventors of the new science the more troubling prospect, that such a foundation had proved impossible to establish in the first place.

In response to this foundational anxiety Descartes tried to ground mathematical truth within consciousness itself, the one thing whose reality he found impossible to dismiss. The problem here being that the “real” world, the one outside of our models, had now become trapped behind our eyeballs and was thus perhaps even less graspable than before. It took Kant in the 18th century to more or less prove that the ground of truth, mathematical or otherwise, which philosophers had long sought after was ultimately unreachable due to the limitations of the human mind. And yet, Kant still retained the faith that the real was actually there.

Nietzsche amplified Kant’s received recognition that the truth was unknowable into an explosion and concluded that what we called the truth was a mere weapon of power.  Much of 20th century philosophy- the linguistic turn begun by Wittgenstein, the critique of the media articulated by the Frankfurt School – has been footnotes to Nietzsche s conclusion that the will to truth is inseparable from the will to power. This then is the historical perch from which Baudrillard writes in Simulacra and Simulation where he lays out his own lament on the death of truth.

The stages Baudrillard lays out for the image through which we communicate the truth run this way with us believing that the image:

is the reflection of a profound reality;

masks and denatures a profound reality;

masks the absence of a profound reality;

has no relation to any reality whatsoever;

is its own pure simulacrum.

Our loss of faith in the religious truth revealed by the image parallels our the similar loss of the truth by philosophy and although Baudrillard doesn’t really delve deeply into the historical content of his meaning, I don’t think it’s all that difficult to draw such connections.

Images at first are believed to ways to connect with or echoes of a profound, transcendent world beyond our own. What perhaps the caves paintings of Lascaux were to those who made them and what Christian iconography was up until the Reformation, and especially in the Orthodox tradition.

Protestant iconoclasts broke violently with Catholic iconography at the very least because they saw it as a form of idolatry whose very purpose was to occlude the truth as it was given in the Bible. Atheists materialists saw in icons an attempt to plug the gaping holes which any attempt to actually believe the stories presented in the Bible or any other religious text required. They saw in idealist philosophy a childish attempt to escape the atheistic implications of the new science.

Perhaps it was a mistake to not see the entire thing as a fraud meant to keep the majority of human beings oppressed and confused. Or maybe all of our projections are merely a reflection of our own collective madness. Even insanity, however, is predicated on there being a reality one has deviated from. But if there is no reality, if all that exists are our representations of this non- existent thing we call reality, then all we are left with are our own images and models.

There is an economic and technological aspect to this loss as well. Technology, first in the form of industrial production, but now even more so as media and digital representation, has increased our capacities to make copies of things (simulacra) or such copies in motion (simulations). It is as our simulations have become ever more detailed and “lifelike “that they have managed to supplant what we once considered the truly real. Above all there has been the move towards financialization, the process by which all the world is being transformed into capital and code.  

At this point you many feel a little dizzy (I am a little dizzy), so to sum up, at our current historical juncture- the juncture which Baudrillard is addressing- Western culture (or at least a large and the most educated portion of it) has lost its belief both in some capital “T” truth lying behind our representations and models, along with our faith in any transcendent world where such truth might be grounded beyond our own, which might have to be accepted merely on faith. We’re thus left without the comforts of either realism or religion, and it’s into this vacuum that the flood of commodified and infinitely replicable simulations and simulacra will pour.

For Baudrillard this proliferation has resulted in the reign of the hyperreal, where our representations have swamped and often appear more authentic than reality itself. Given he was writing in 1981 we have moved far more deeply into the realm of the hyperreal than Baudrillard could have foreseen. Today a naturalists and author such Diane Ackerman can be seriously concerned that experiencing nature through the lens of the hyperreal- via video and virtual reality- is leading to the atrophy of our capacity to experience nature as the creatures who evolved within it which we undoubtedly are. In a similar vein astronomer and author Pippa Goldschmidt can lament how astronomers need never view the sky with their own eyes.

Far more worrisome is what has been alluded to by the novelists William Gibson; namely, that this kind narrowing of the distinction between the virtual worlds and persons and ones that actually exist can end up turning real flesh-and-blood human beings into mere playthings of our imagination. The fact that so much of this election cycle’s political speech has been the product of bots adds yet another level of hyperreal vertigo.

I am perhaps just as worried about the reign of the hyperreal resulting in a widespread incapacity to engage with the real world.  For Baudrillard as well the reign of the hyperreal results in what he calls the “implosion” of our social and political capacities. Politics becomes a game of symbolic impact rather than the pursuit of actual goals. It’s not a far step from here that every event that occurs dissolves into some sort of conspiracy or as Baudrillard puts it:

Is any given bombing in Italy the work of leftist extremists, or extreme-right provocation, or a centrist mise-en-scène to dis-credit all extreme terrorists and to shore up its own failing power, or again, is it a police-inspired scenario and a form of blackmail to public security? All of this is simultaneously true, and the search for proof, indeed the objectivity of the facts does not put an end to this vertigo of interpretation.

And:

The facts no longer have a specific trajectory, they are born at the intersection of models, a single fact can be engendered by all the models at once.

If one of the primary reasons for speaking is so that we can come to consensus regarding the true and the good, the basis upon which Aristotle defined humanity as zoon politikon, then the reason for such communication disappears once the true and the good are no longer believed to exist. Language is then all about the issuing of commands, or, because in losing our belief in the truth and transcendence we’ve also lost any notion of authority that might be based upon them. If we want someone to do something our only options are coercion through violence- real and threatened- or seduction, which in a societal context means advertising. Writing in the late 1970’s Baudrillard could witness whole cities- Las Vegas- disappear under billboards of neon, a potent symbol of what was happening to society itself:

Today what we are experiencing is the absorption of all virtual modes of expression into that of advertising. All original cultural forms, all determined languages are absorbed in advertising because it has no depth, it is instantaneous and instantaneously forgotten.

Since Baudrillard wrote Simulacra and Simulation the situation has become incredibly worse. A pessimistic read of the current reproducibility problem in science, where seemingly evermore experiments are reported as breakthroughs only to never be replicated again, is that it arises in part from a lack of belief that the task of a scientist (or scholar) is to discover the truth, rather than pursue publication itself or attempt to bolster the bottom line of one’s client.

Science and scholarship has become sucked up in the optimization game where the goal is no longer to patiently build out structures of knowledge generations, but to make the biggest splash in the immediate present-science as advertising. None of that is nearly as bad as the deliberate manufacturing of ignorance, which can be done in the name of “gathering more evidence” as much as deliberate lying. Such agnotology was mastered by the tobacco and fossil fuel industries and seems to be a deeply ingrained political tactic of Donald Trump.

One might be forgiven for thinking Baudrillard would have gotten along with Silicon Valley types. After all, it’s among coders that the belief seems to be rife that we are already living in a simulation. The very same kind of world made out of 1’s and 0’s Stephen Wolfram think we’re on the verge of creating, which he calls “a box of a trillion souls”.  Yet Baudrillard supposedly hated when people compared his ideas to the movie The Matrix, the problem for him being those who thought we are living in a simulation, weren’t being radical enough. For Baudrillard there is no base level- just a snake made of code eating its own tail .

Baudrillard published Simulacra and Simulation in 1981 and we’ve fall much, much further down the rabbit hole since. On the political level- Ronald Reagan may have been an actor but he had also been the governor of the country’s richest and most populous state- California. Trump, by contrast, is a mere media construction, either that or something eerily similar to the tyrannical character Plato claimed democracies always create. Partly it was the sheer lack of trust that the media was telling the truth about his inadequacies that helped get Trump elected, but almost all institutions appear to be crumbling under this loss of public trust. ISIS. the most successful terrorist organization of our generation has been as much a media production company as anything else.

Every year advertising becomes more and more intimate with our bodies and our senses are quietly subsumed by those whose interests advertising serves, just as the fakes we create- our images and automatons- become ever more confusable with the real.

Where Baudrillard goes wrong, I think, is in believing that there wouldn’t be constant rebellions against this state of floating in thin air. What this means is that although elites and the educated may have lost their belief that truth and goodness could ever be satisfactorily defined most human beings were going to continue to sort themselves along these lines, and the new forms of media were going to vastly increase their capacity to do so free from any guidance or input by elites.

Yet a society composed of such warring collectives lacking some notion of the common good or means of permanently settling disputes isn’t sustainable either, which is why we’ll need to somehow recreate the kinds of buffers and editorial features of the older communications landscape without replicating its elite capture and control. The kinds of answers to the problem of post-truth whereby the internet giants are asked to police what is true or false or contract this role to some other organization is not a democratic solution to our problem.

The metaphysical claim that the truth outside of our social constructions does not exist has been adopted without understanding that we can not live absent these social constructions in the first place. We need a wholesale reformation of the institutions of truth in order to restore the trust without which any society will not long survive. It’s a tall order, happy New Year.

Should Facebook Censor the News?

book-burning-1492

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.

The Fake-News Head Fake

eris-apple-painting

It will be a long time into the future before we will know just what this election ultimately meant. What is perhaps more clear, even if we avoid donning the rose colored glasses of hindsight, is that the seeds that sprouted in 2016 were a long time- a- growing. They might even have been anticipated as far back as the culture wars that exploded onto the scene in the late 1960’s. More on that in a moment.

What would have certainly shocked someone brought here in a time machine from, say, 1981, was the role, even if less a prominent a role than some have suggested, that the Russians played in getting the Republican candidate elected president. We might never know if this bromance between Trump and Putin had to do with the former’s financial ties with figures in the Kremlin as the far from radical Francis Fukuyama recently suggested,  if it was a dog-whistle for white supremacists Trump has disgustingly courted over the course of the election, or if it was merely a reflection of Trump’s stance of being soft on Russia compared to the much more hawkish views of Putin’s nemesis Hillary Clinton.

Yet it’s probably just as likely that Putin and his cronies were as surprised by the election outcome as most of the rest of us. That the Kremlin had no expectation of influencing the election in Trump’s favor so much as to give the United States pay back for our interference in Russian politics and elections in their backyard, most notably Ukraine.

In some sense,though, the election of 2016 wasn’t so much influenced by what the Russians did, as the entire political technology and theory that not only won Trump the election, but might end up be the best way of understanding the political universe that will emerge from his victory. This political technology was one of the many ill fated consequences of the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was here, in the former USSR, so behind the West in everything else, that truly post-modern, 21st century form of politics was created.

This politics as infowar was born when Western style, television- centric, political campaigning was adopted by a social order in a state of  utter collapse. That is, when what is the worst of American politics was embraced by the disillusioned, perhaps nihilistic, former apparatchiks of the fallen Soviet Union absent the kinds of constraints of traditions and institutions that has, up until this moment at least, informed American politics.

The title of Peter Pomerantsev’ excellent book on this era Nothing is True and Everything is Possible says it all. Pomerantsev gives us an searing view into a society where all norms have collapsed. As a television producer he is most informative when it comes to revealing how the Kremlin has used the power of mass media to cling to power in the face of this collapse. It did so not (as in the era of totalitarianism) by uniting the people around an all embracing ideology, but by mastering the art of distracting and confusing the public in such a way as to shield those in power from political accountability and control by the people they rule.

The figure who is credited with pioneering this new form of politics is the Russian businessmen and “political technologist” (his term) Vladislav Surkov who has found himself in, then out, then in again, of Putin’s inner circle. Architect of the brilliant  “infowar” aspects of the Russian annexation of Crimea, Surkov is also a novelist writing under pseudonyms such as Natan Dubovitsky.

In Everything is true and nothing is possible Pomerantsev discusses Without Sky a revealing short- story Surkov published on the eve the invasion of Crimea that gives us insight into his world view. It is a tale of the first “non-linear war”, the philosophy behind which Pomerantsev describes this way:

There is no holy war in Sarkov’ vision, none of the cabaret, meant to tease and confuse the West. But there is a darkling version of globalization in which instead of everyone rising together, interconnection means multiple competitions between corporations and movements and city-states. Where old alliances, NATO and the EU and the “West” are all worn out, and the Kremlin can play the new, fluctuating lines of loyalty and interest, oil and money splitting the Europe from America pitting one Western company against another and against their governments so no one knows whose interest is what and where they’re headed. (231)

Of course, Surkov did not invent such an idea of nonlinear politics and war whole cloth, but according to Pomerantsev:

… inherited… tsarists practices of co-opting anti-government forces (anarchists in the 19th century, neo-Nazis and religious fanatics now), all fused with the latest thinking in television advertising and black PR. (64)

What Surkov and his ilk managed to do was birth a new form of authoritarianism that was adapted to 21st century conditions, which:

…instead of simply oppressing opposition, as has been the case with twentieth century strains, it climbs inside all ideologies and movements, exploiting and rendering them absurd. One moment Surkov would fund civic forums and human rights NGOS, the next he would quietly support nationalist movements that accuse the NGOS of being tools of the West. (65)

This phenomenon on the American scene has been labeled post-truth politics/media an appellation that captures something, but at the same time misses what is even more important. When Trump recently tweeted that individuals who burn the American flag should be imprisoned or stripped of citizenship the statement itself was neither true or false, but rather, (conscious or not) was a form of infowar the consequence of which was to separate even further a nationalist public and an elite media, to bait liberals into flag burning and thus “revealing” themselves as people who hate and therefore, in the eyes of arch-nationalists, hope for the destruction of the country. Every moment we were caught up in this artificial drama was one not spent in paying attention to what Trump is actually doing such as appointing the same sorts of Wall Street insiders he attacked during his campaign to major positions within his administration.

Better algorithmic filters for fake news deployed by FaceBook or any of the other major players in tech wouldn’t solve the problem that arises when one significant portion of the a country’s population thinks its founding document permits imprisonment, or worse, over burning the national symbol while another thinks that very same document protects such an act. We are in a crisis of values and meaning as much as we are in a crisis of truth, which doesn’t mean that this crisis bears no relationship with current communications technologies and their political economy or that this crisis isn’t being gamed by those with their own agendas- quite the opposite. Perhaps even more importantly, the more essential question of the day seems to be less about truth and falsehood than the increasingly fierce competition over whose ideas will be heard at all through the flood of information and misinformation under which all of us are drowning.  But more on all those points another time…   

Trumponomics

XIR164723 Pantagruel's meal, from 'Pantagruel' by Francois Rabelais (1494-1553) engraved by Paul Jonnard-Pacel (d.1902) (engraving) (b/w photo)  by Dore, Gustave (1832-83) (after); Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, France; Giraudon; French, out of copyright

So, literally overnight, we entered the stage of the great normalization. We’ve gone from the almost universal belief among the elites, media and a large number of the American public that electing Trump would be a disaster for the country, the economy, our liberty to an apparent shrug of the shoulders and sycophantic search for advantage in the new order.

We’ve gone from a candidate whose last act of his active campaign was to release a two minute ad that pledged resistance against a global financial elite that supposedly holds the white working class in its squid like death grip to a dizzying stock market rally upon his actual election.

What that tells me is that those so-called financial elites whose fortress Trump portrayed himself as storming at the head of an army of the forgotten aren’t all that scared and believe they will do just fine in the new order.

Perhaps that signals that Trump was merely play acting all along. His pulsating crowds shaking their fist at journalists or threatening minorities, and to imprison or even execute a former first lady, senator and secretary of state no more than a sideshow as unreal as Trump as in the ring of a WWE match.

Given his unreality, whatever emerges from the age of Trump is unpredictable and perhaps the man himself doesn’t know with the exception that he hopes to play the type of Moses leading Americans back to the promised land which would make Charlton Heston proud.

Apparently, the US stock market is rallying like Pavlov’ dog at the sound of coming tax cuts which will only exacerbate soaring inequality. On a more positive note they are also anxiously awaiting the kinds of infrastructure spending liberals like Paul Krugman have been arguing in favour of for years.

As the Steve Bannon the head of the alt-right media organization Breitbart, and the true genius behind Trump’s successful campaign strategy has laid out:

It’s everything related to jobs. The conservatives are going to go crazy. I’m the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. With negative interest rates throughout the world, it’s the greatest opportunity to rebuild everything. Shipyards, iron works, get them all jacked up. We’re just going to throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks. It will be as exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan revolution — conservatives, plus populists, in an economic nationalist movement.

This might mark an end to austerity and over reliance on central banks to keep the economy afloat, and though sorely needed it is not the same as support of social infrastructure which is maintained by many of the government  programs Trump and the GOP will aim to gut. Given how tight labor markets have become, it also might cause hyper-inflation or soaring interest rates as bond holder exit from the market and into an atavism like gold.

For now though the markets are far removed from the kind of crash that many thought a Trump victory would bring with the only group to have sunk with the election results being tech stocks. More on that in a bit.

What exactly Trump himself thinks about economics is something of a mystery. Other than seeing it as the ultimate game that creates the world’s winners and losers, where the most disreputable aren’t those obsessed by money or fame but those too stupid or lazy to play along with those who manipulate the rules so they can win.

Aside from that, Trump is like something out of another era- a kind of nationalist who thinks of the economy as almost synonymous with heavy industry. Inspired by his anti-globalism and the suffering of the rust belt men who launched him into office, Trump may be able to improve trade agreements at the margins and may even accelerate already apparent moves towards the “reshoring” of manufacturing. What he will not be able to do is restore manufacturing employment, which like agriculture before it, is seeing humans replaced with machines- and not just in the US.

I suppose even greater investment in manufacturing resulting in even further automation may improve US productivity, but not in the area where the majority of people work- that is services- where productivity gains are needed most- but where they’re needed least because those of us in rich countries are already drowning in stuff.

Perhaps Trump will try to a second great trust buster. That is, he will make an attempt to break up large banks and other multinational companies and especially the big 5 that dominate technology- Apple, Amazon, Alphabet, (Google) Facebook and Microsoft. At a minimum, Amazon appears to be in his sights.

Such a solution might go some way towards solving the fundamental economic problem of the age- namely the ever increasing accumulation of capital by only a handful of global companies and individuals. Yet it’s almost inconceivable that even a congress terrified of further populist revolt would go along with this. And even if they would, unless trust busting was truly global, such breakups would amount to the unilateral surrender of most of the world’s markets to the large multinationals based in other countries. Baidu and Taobao would fill the void left by a shattered Google or Amazon.

Trumponmics as of now is merely a set of assumptions and aspirations that are unlikely to survive their impact with reality because they reject or ignore the last several decades of economic change, namely, the move towards services and the rise of truly global companies. We’ll thus have to look elsewhere if we want to see how Trump will try to shape the current economic order while actually recognizing the economic order as it exists today.

I think one of the best places to look for this shape of Trumponomics would be in the thoughts of one of his smartest and richest advisers Peter Thiel (under any other administration I would say notorious) who lucky for us just wrote a book on the subject right on the eve of the election.

In an interview Theil rightly pointed out how the financial bubbles of the last generation have been catastrophic- that the system doesn’t work- and that what separated Trump from Clinton was his open acknowledgement of that fact. Theil also thought Trump’s move away from regulation would shift the balance back towards small business because large firms were not only able to better absorb the costs of regulation but often actively encouraged regulation to thwart upstart competitors.  In his book Zero to One Theil lays out a somewhat different and much deeper view of the current economy, what he sees as its problems, and his proposed solutions to them.

The big problem, as Theil sees it and explains in  Zero to One is that the present has failed to live up to its potential. We are living in the future that was imagined in the 1950’s and 60’s that was full of flying cars, space cities, and house robots, and though the technologies we possess are indeed wonders, we’ve certainly fallen short of those original dreams.

Part of the origin of this failure to reach our technological potential Theil lays at the feet of globalization. It’s not only that he thinks technology is a far more important driver for progress than globalization, he seems to think that globalization has slowed the pace of progress down- as cheap humans fill the role that should have been that of advanced machines or augmented, hyper-productive individuals.

That globalization is an unalloyed good is just one of a whole set of false assumptions Thiel believes is holding us back from our potential. Others include our belief that capitalism and competition are the same thing. In fact they are opposites, the whole goal of capitalism is to establish monopolies (zero to one) that then become the engines of progress.

Another would be that the shape of the future should not (or cannot) be defined in advance. The belief that the future will be better than the present but we have no idea what it will look like Theil calls the “curse of indefinite optimism”. The ultimate consequence of this is the move towards the financialization of the economy:

Finance epitomizes indefinite thinking because it is the only way to make money when you have no idea how to create wealth. (70)

In an indefinite world:

money is more valuable than anything you do with it. (71)

Thiel thinks this absence of an definite future we are trying to build means that the government spends its revenue on transfer programs rather than solving complex problem like “atomic weaponry and lunar exploration.” Such lack of a definite future also infects political philosophy both in its dominant egalitarian (Rawls) and libertarian (Nozick) forms where the goal is the adherence to a principle rather than the achievement of any particular form of society.

Darwinian probabilistic theory has also replaced intelligent design in the biological sciences (I’ve heard this before) the consequence of which is that we’ve lost sight of goals such as indefinite life extension. Yet wouldn’t the shift away from globalization and financialization to domestic production and the real economy not only promote accelerated automation (which Theil wants) but also demand even larger government transfer programs (such as a guaranteed income) which he derides as the application of advanced machines results in Marx’s “army of the unemployed”?

Thiel doesn’t think so but rather sees machines as a way to augment rather than replace human labor and thus better for domestic workers than globalization which truly does replace one worker with another (lower paid) one.

And he doesn’t just think the choices we make are mere political ones about what type of society we want to live in over the next century, but existential questions that will decide our very survival. Theil uses Nick Bostrom’s idea of 4 general futures for humanity- cycles of rise and fall, plateau, extinction, and take off, and argues that only road to human survival is to accelerate our pace towards take off because cycles of rise and fall have become unlikely now that knowledge is global, and plateau in a world of resource competition would likely result in extinction level conflicts.

Who knows how much, if any, of Theil’s views will inform the eventual economic policies of the Trump administration. And while there is certainly some truth to Theil’s diagnoses of our current malaise, what his vision of the future deeply lacks is any vision of justice, global responsibility, sustainability, or concept of the good life. His future is all about building an ever more powerful machine. I can see it in neon floating in space now: The Singularity: brought to you by the “God Emperor” Donald J. Trump.      

Trump and the Iron Heel

The Iron Heel

Like many others, I am still absorbing the shock of Trump’s victory in the presidential election. For the last month I had been on a holding pattern on the blog in the remote chance the pundits and pollsters had gotten this election terribly wrong. They have. Rather than having elected Hillary Clinton who would have preserved the status quo with all its flaws, but also its protections, a large portion of the electorate has chosen to blow up the system and take a dangerous, potentially dystopian turn.

It’s perhaps a good time then to reacquaint ourselves with depictions of American dystopia. Indeed what is perhaps the very first example we have of a dystopia in literature was written by an American and depicted the US under the rule of a right wing dictatorship. Way back during the last presidential election I wrote about Jack London’s now largely forgotten novel, The Iron Heel. I think my analysis of how that novel applies to our own time still holds, and frighteningly, appears on the verge of becoming our reality.

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The Iron Heel is a 1908 novel by Jack London. It’s a novel which I think is safe to say is not read much today, which is a shame especially for an Americans, for the setting for what was the world’s first modern political dystopia, a novel written when Orwell and Huxley were just babes in the cradle was the United States itself.

Reading the novel as an American gives puts one in a kind of temporal vertigo. It’s not only like finding a long forgotten photograph of oneself and being stuck with the question “is that really me?”, it as if when one turned the photo over one found a note from scribbled n from yourself to yourself a kind of time capsule rich with the assumption that the past “you” knew who the “you” reading the note would be. It makes you start asking questions like “am I the person who I thought I would be?” and set to pondering on all the choices and events which have put you on, or diverted you from, your self-predicted path.

The Iron Heel tells the story of the rise of , “The Oligarchy”, a fascist state deftly laid in almost all of its details before fascism had even been invented. The fact that London pictures the rise of not only the world’s first fascist regime, but what might be considered the world’s first communist revolution not “out there” in the Old World, but on the familiar grounds of the United States where places like California, Idaho, “Indian Territory”, Chicago and Washington D.C. are the setting for events that are hauntingly similar to ones that would indeed happen in Europe decades later, turn the novel into a kind of alternative history.

The story itself is presented in the form of a kind of time capsule, a buried manuscript that has been discovered by a scholar, Anthony Meredith,  in the year 2,600 AD. Footnotes throughout the book are written from this very long view of the future when, after centuries of repression and false starts, a true Brotherhood of Man has been obtained.

The manuscript,  footnoted by Meredith,  contains the story of, Avis Everhard, the wife and fellow revolutionary of seminal figure in London’s fictional history, Ernest Everhard. Avis tells the tale of an early 20th century America racked by inequality, class divisions, and the most brutal forms of labor exploitation. These conditions set the stage for a looming socialist revolution, a political alliance between industrial labor in the form of a Socialist Party, and American farmers in the Grange Movement, that is preempted by the forces of capital. Ernest Everhard is elected as a socialist US Senator, one of many members of the Socialists and Grange Movement who have been swept into national and state office by the groundswell of support for revolutionary change.

The chance to change American  society through constitutional means does not last long. The Oligarchs use a feigned terrorist incident in the US Capitol to turn the American Constitution into a mere facade. Members of the Grange Movement are barred from taking their seats in state legislatures. Socialists are hounded from office pursued as potential terrorists and arrested. The Oligarchs create new mechanisms of social control.  London, writing before the US had a true and permanent standing Army, describes how The Oligarchs turn the state militias into a national army “The Mercenaries” with their own secret service tied to the police that will act against any perceived challenges to the social order.

Writing a generation before corporatism was even conceived, London describes how this oligarchic coup would manage to divide and conquer the forces of labor by essentially buying off and vesting in the system vital workers such as those in steel or railroads so that crippling general strikes became impossible, and all other unskilled labor was pushed into what we would understand as Third World conditions of bare survival.

These wage slaves would be compelled to build the glittering new cities of the Oligarchs such as Ardis and Asgard. The lower classes are robbed of that singularly American right- the right to bare arms, and only allowed to travel using an internal passport system similar to the one used in Czarist Russia.

Under these conditions, actual revolution brews, and the Oligarchs and the revolutionary forces engage in a protracted struggle of espionage and counter-espionage that for the revolutionaries is to culminate in a planned revolution- essentially a set of coordinated terrorists attacks on US communications and military infrastructure that the revolutionaries hope will spark a genuine revolution against the Oligarchs.

The Oligarchs again set out to short- circuit revolution, this time by staging a massive military assault on the heart of American labor, Chicago. The assault unleashes violent clashes between the well-armed Mercenaries and police forces and howling crowds of the poor armed only with household tools: knives, clubs, axes. In scenes far more gripping than those in Collin’s Catching Fire, London depicts urban warfare between security forces fighting raging crowds and bomb throwing insurgents who attack their targets from the heights of skyscrapers, in a way surely reminiscent of Fallujah, or even more so, what is going on right now in Syria.

Eventually, the oligarchic forces burn the poor sections of Chicago to the ground, and end all chance of successful revolution within the lifetime of the Everhard’s. In such conditions the effort at revolution becomes pure terrorism, the names of the terrorists groups no doubt reflective of the limited geographical area in which they operate and America’s history of resistance to the powers of the federal government such as the Mormon group the Danites or the Comanches. The Oligarch’s suppression of revolutionary forces eventually reaches the Everhard’s. The novel ends abruptly with Avis’s narration stopping in mid-sentence.

The Iron Heel is a kind of warning, and the strange thing about this warning is that London, who was labeled a gloom obsessed pessimists by many of his fellow socialists, got so much of what would happen over the next 50 or so years eerily right, with the marked exception of where they were to occur.

Such prescience is hard to achieve even for someone as brilliant as the fellow novelist Anatole France the author of the introduction to the 1924 edition of the The Iron Heel I hold in my hand. France, who was 80 at the time and would die the same year, thinks London was right, that the Iron Heel was coming, but doesn’t think it will arrive for quite some time. “In France, as in Italy and Spain, Socialism, is for the moment, too feeble to have anything to fear from the Iron Heel., for extreme feebleness is the one safety of the feeble. No Heel of Iron will trouble itself to tread down this dust of a party”. (xiv)

1924 is the same year that the murder of socialist Giacomo Matteotti truly began the fascist dictatorship in Italy- a kind of corporate state that was certainly anticipated by London in The Iron Heel. Within 6 years “feeble” Spanish socialism would be locked in a civil war with fascism, within 9 years, the Nazis would rise to power on the backs of the same sort of fears of revolution, and using the same kinds of political machinations described in The Iron Heel. The bombing of the Reichstag became the justification for an anti-revolutionary crackdown and the transformation of German democracy into a sham. It makes one wonder if Hitler himself had read The Iron Heel!

The Iron Heel throws up all sorts of historical questions and useful analogies for the current day. Why did neither revolutionary socialism or outright fascism emerge in the US in the 1930’s as it did elsewhere?

The Iron Heel should perhaps be read as part of a trilogy with Sinclair Lewis’ 1936 It can’t happen here! Which describes the transformation of America into a Nazi-like totalitarian state, or Philip Roth’s 2004 The Plot Against America which describes a similar fascists regime which comes about when the Nazi sympathizer and isolationist, Charles Lindberg, win the presidential race against Franklin Roosevelt. Full reviews of both will be found here at some point in the future the point for now being that there were figures and sentiments in American politics that might have added up to something quite different than American exceptionalism during this period. That what we ended up with was as much the consequence of historical luck as it was of any particularly American virtue.

Some, on both the right and the left would argue that what we have now is just a softer version of the tyranny portrayed by London, Lewis, and Roth, and they do indeed have something, but I do not as of now want to go there. The reason, I think, the kind of socialist revolution found in other countries never got legs in the United States the way it did elsewhere was that the US, which had been a hotbed of labor unrest and socialist sentiment and anticipation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, willingly adopted a whole series of reforms that made worker grievances against capitalism less acute.

  • Unemployment benefits- 1935
  • Eight-hour workday- 1936
  • Worker’s compensation in event of injury (widespread by 1949).
  • Government funded support for the poor that preserved a minimum standard of living- 1935
  • Minimum wage- 1938
  • Right to unionize and the adoption of a formal system to hold strikes- 1935

In addition controls were placed on financial markets so that the kinds of wild swings, financial panics, that periodically brought the nation’s economy to its knees would no longer occur.

Even when derided on the right as moves towards socialism or on the left as delusional reformism, these changes followed by an unprecedented era of prosperity for the middle class from the 1940s through the 1970s, essentially ended the vicious circle presented in the Iron Heel of a political system unresponsive to worker grievances and exploitation that gave rise to forces of social revolution that in turn  engendered a move towards state violence and tyranny by the wealthy elites, which resulted in widespread terrorism by continually frustrated revolutionaries.

As a system for producing widespread prosperity faltered in the 1970s the American right, followed by increasingly centrist Democrats diagnosed the economic malaise as having originated from both the choke hold American unions had over the economy and the stifling effects of too much government interference.  Through the 1980’s and 90’s labor union power was dismantled, economic production globalized, capital markets freed up from earlier constraints, welfare “re-formed”.

Support for the lower classes was now to come not primarily through government programs, but through tax policy, such as the Earned Income Tax, that would free individuals to make their own choices and vest them in the capitalist economic system rather than view them as an opposition. Such reforms with their explicit claim that they would lead to universal prosperity collapsed with the 2008 financial crisis and neither the American right nor the American left has any clear understanding of where we go from here. And while it’s true that programs to support the poor and working class, such as food stamps and health care, expanded the most since LBJ under President Obama, they did so in light of the deepest financial crisis since the Great Depression.

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With the 2016 election the Republic may have entered its deepest and most dangerous challenge to its legitimacy since the Civil War. What fills me with trepidation is that the only way to stop the Trumpian turn and preserve the rights and protections built up since the founding may be to engage in the very kinds of resistance and civil disobedience that will feed Trump’s open authoritarianism and disregard for the constitution. If that proves the case Jack London’s dystopia will have arrived, though a century late, and empowered by technologies of surveillance and control he could never have foreseen.