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 fail 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 different in advanced economies.

Whereas the developing world is seeing the mass movement of people to the cities what the developing world is primarily experiencing 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. 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 is 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 Kuchner 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.

Raging against the machine

As a consequence of our geographical isolation and preponderance of our country’s power Americans, at least since the Civil War, haven’t paid much attention to what is going on in the rest of the world. One can assume that few of us know or have thought all that much about how a Republic under president Trump isn’t just a sort of primal scream emanating from the failures of US politics and culture that we’ve been storing up for over a generation- though it is that as well- but stands as only one representative of a truly global phenomenon. In addition to Trump, populists strongmen now dominate many of the world’s most important and powerful countries and many lesser ones. There’s Xi Jinping in China, Narendra Modi in India, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, and yes, Vladimir Putin in Russia. Should Marie Le Pen take the French presidency in the upcoming elections a woman will join what for now is an all male club.

This wasn’t supposed to have happened. At the end of the Cold War we were promised an end to history. The world appeared to be inexorably moving in a liberal direction promising an end to the authoritarianism and dictatorship of the past, taking us through the providential telos of history now stripped of any reference to the divine or transcendent towards one world united and free world. The internet that emerged in this same era was thought to be the harbinger of a “global mind” of our finally unified world and would serve as the vector for a new and more democratic form of politics.

Many of us who once believed in this story are nowadays asking where did it all go wrong, whereas Pankaj Mishra in his new book The Age of Anger: a history of the present aims to show us why we were never right in the first place. Somehow we managed to forget, in all our talk about the end of history, the wisdom of markets, or the supposed disappearance of violence, that the inadequacy of the Enlightenment project had been apparent since Rousseau. To build a society on the basis of status seeking where only a tiny minority would ever scale the heights of wealth, meritocracy, and power, all the while proclaiming universal equality was a recipe for individuals being crushed under the weight of an inescapable ressentiment.

To aim for such as society at the same time we were willfully and inadvertently eliminating all the protections individuals had against such competition, whether in the form of the welfare-state built as consequence the disasters of the first age of ressentiment in the 20th century, or through more traditional means of support such as local communities, churches, and the extended and nuclear family- well, this was a recipe for revolution. And as we should have learned from fascism, revolution can just as likely come in a right-wing as a left-wing form.

What Pankaj Mishra sets out to do, and largely succeed in doing, in The Age of Anger is to wake us from our historical amnesia though an intellectual history that traces the roots of our failed enlightenment from its beginnings in the 18th century until today.

Underlying this history is a truth Mishra thinks too few liberals grasps. Ultimately the liberals are right in the sense that we do now live in one world in which every culture is going through a similar process of modernity. What liberals get wrong is ignoring the socially wrenching aspects of this modernity and in believing that the conditions it unleashes are sustainable or indeed even represent the type of society we should hope will be found in the human future.

For Mishra, Voltaire and other philosophes who during the 18th century imagined a commercial society in which the pursuit of wealth was made universal, and the upper echelons of power and status were open to those who rose into its ranks, rather than merely those born into it, were blind to is how this vision would collide with equality and democracy. Voltaire especially was the great fan of “enlightened despots” such as Russia’s Peter the Great. (The great myth of liberalism is that capitalism and democracy go hand in hand.) What was clear to the philosophes of the enlightenment was that you could have a competitive, meritocratic society in an already egalitarian society (US in the 1800s) which was politically democratic, but that you could not have a competitive social order which was both inegalitarian and democratic at the same time.

Intense competition in a society in which political action is either stifled or is no longer effective and which preaches universal equality results in many of those having lost in this competition becoming enraged. Mishra wants us to see a racist killer such as James H. Jackson and the ISIS inspired terrorist Khalid Masood as sown from the same cloth, both personified expressions of collective anger in the face of failure. It’s a very modern type of anger that looks for its resolution in concocting the new social bonds that Mishra claims was pioneered by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Rousseau was the anti-Voltaire who both identified the contradictions with the type of society the Enlightenment tried to create and who imagined solutions- from romantic individualism, to  nationalism to primitivist-environmentalism which have proven even more problematic than the very contradictions they were supposed to solve.

Mishra charts the global course of this conflict between Voltaire and Rousseau. It moves from France in the 18th century, to Germany in the 19th- sowing vile seeds that would later sprout with Nazism. It was a conflict that in the 1800’s made its way to Russia as well, a country that gave this conflict a spiritual and psychological depth it had never seen before or since in the works of the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

In 1862 Dostoyevsky was in London, just one stop along his tour of Western Europe. One place in London in particular made a deep impression upon the young Russian- the massive structure in Hyde park known as the The Crystal Palace. Built in 1851 to house The Great Exhibition, the first exhibition of technologies from all over the globe (the progenitor of the World’s Fairs that run to this day) The Crystal Palace was supposed to serve as a sort of museum of the future, a world suffused with technology and material abundance where the competition between nations was a matter of who produced the best technology and grabbed the most market share. In other words, the future conceived as a shopping mall. It is little wonder that Dostoyevsky found it empty and a just a bit terrifying. As he wrote of his experience, which Mishra quotes.

You become aware of a colossal idea; you sense that here something has been achieved, that there is  victory and triumph. You may even begin vaguely to fear something.  However independent you may be, for some reason you become terrified. ‘For isn’t this the achievement of perfection?’ you think. ‘Isn’t this the ultimate?’ Could this in fact be the ‘one fold?’ Must you accept this as the final truth and forever hold your peace? It is all so solemn, triumphant, and proud that you gasp for breath.

You sense that it would require great and everlasting spiritual denial and fortitude not to submit, not to capitulate before the impression, not to bow to what is, and not to deify Baal, that is, not to accept the material world as your ideal.  (68-69)

Dostoevsky would use The Crystal Palace as a symbol of what he found to be the soul crushing utilitarian materialism of the West in his novella The Notes from the Underground. That book ridiculed not only the new type of society and man born with the The Crystal Palace but the anarchist- utopianism that arose when Russia tried to assimilate these alien ideas. A vision of the world made new found in Nikolai Chernyshevsky utopian novel “What is to be done?”, whose title Lenin would rip as an homage for his now much more well known polemic.     

Indeed, The Crystal Palace is a good jumping off point for anyone who wants to understand what separates the world before the industrial revolution and the post-industrial era that is our own. For The Crystal Palace is where a seemingly already determined future – a future that would be based on material prosperity that was global in scope- came clearly into into view, along with the rebellion against it.

What can  be seen in the protagonist of The Notes from the Underground is just how soul crushing the quest for material goods and petty competition for status can be absent some larger source of meaning. The protagonist lives in the quest of a kind of status he can never achieve while at the same time lacking any source of values and that includes the value that would be bestowed by the esteem of the persons he is so keen to impress. A kind of self and world- destructive cynicism and nihilism lies very close to the competitive materialism unleashed by the modern age.

The kinds of contradictions and psychological distortions classical liberalism unleashed, which Dostoyevsky helped identify, exploded in the early decades of the 20th century and helped give rise to both fascism and state communism. During this same period the conflict between Rousseau and Voltaire found its way into European colonies and beyond to sow seeds only being reaped today.

Mishra largely skips the period of the Cold War- an era in which liberalism deliberately constrained itself, prohibited financialization and boom- and- bust cycles in the economy and adopted worker support and protections. In good measure this tempering of liberalism was a consequence of the existence of a revolutionary alternative in the USSR. Once the idea of a communist alternative began to unravel in the 1970’s, and especially after the Soviet Union and its empire collapsed in the 1980’s and 90’s, a version of liberalism that sought to be free of restraints became truly ascendant and became the project of not just elites in the US and UK, but throughout the world.

It’s here where Mishra’s story enters the contemporary period. The religion of the free market has ruled the world for a generation now, and while it has surely helped millions lift themselves out of poverty and into a global middle and upper class, it has also been the era of middle class erosion in the developed world. Billions have come to aspire to the material comforts of the richest nations and classes- a goal unobtainable in their lifetime, and given a world of finite resources should not be pursued at all.

Mishra states it this way:

In 2014 The Economist said that, on the basis of IMF data, emerging economies- or, most of the human population- might have to wait for three centuries in order to catch up with the West. In this assessment, the last decade of high growth was an ‘aberration’ and ‘billions of people will be poorer for a lot longer than they might have expected just a few years ago’.

The implications are sobering: the non-West not only finds itself replicating the West’s trauma on an infinitely larger scale. While helping inflict the profoundest damage yet on the environment- manifest today in rising sea levels, erratic rainfall, drought, declining harvests and devastating floods – the non-Wet also has no real prospect of catching up with the West.  (48)

So we’ve got a situation where we’re in an increasingly connected world where everyone can see what anyone else is doing- even if that person is on the other side of the world. It’s a situation where inequality within- though not necessarily between- societies is increasing rapidly and in which renewed growth appears unlikely to either restore the middle class to its prior glory in developed societies, or ever establish such middle classes in many developing countries to begin with. In such a world the lower middle and working class in advanced countries feel their way of life eroding even as many people in the developing world feel compelled to move to those countries to achieve opportunities for their families out of reach in their own societies. A vicious cycle of walls and refugee flows are predictable features of these conditions.

Automation will only make this worse as it simultaneously erodes middle class employment in the developing world while precluding developing countries from following the historical path to development which has always begun with leveraging cheap labor in manufacturing.

While Mishra’s Age of Anger offers us no solutions it does leave readers with an invaluable perspective. Understanding why human beings seem driven to embrace anger, populists authoritarianism, and violence at this particular historical juncture he shows us has very little to do with the clash of civilizations. From hillbillies to salafists were all stuck in the same modernity with all the damage it does by crushing humanity through its narrow sieve. Such anger will continue to return in periods and give rise to explosions until we finally stop acting as if we can base society on human greed and vanity.

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.

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.

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.  

Is the internet killing democracy?

feurbach-alcibiades-as-dionysis

Standing as we are with our nose so tightly pressed against the glass, it’s impossible to know what exactly the current, crazy presidential election will mean, not just for American, democracy, but for the future of democracy itself. Of course, much of this depends on the actual outcome of the election, when the American public will either chose to cling to a system full of malware,  corrupted and buggy, yet still functional, or risk everything on a hard reboot. This would include the risk that we might never be able to reset the clock to the time before we had plunged over the abyss and restore an order that while outdated, ill-designed, and running up against the limits of both still managed to do the job.

Then again, even if Americans don’t go for a hard reboot, that we is avoid electing Trump, it might not be the end of the sort of virus, or even Trojan Horse, his near election had represented. Perhaps instead we’re only at the beginning of the process where the internet breaks democracy.

In less than six weeks we’ll learn a number of very important things about the impact of the 21st century communications technologies on democracy, including how such technologies are likely to be used in elections. For one, we’ll learn whether the centralized, data driven and highly targeted type of voter mobilization pioneered by the Obama reelection campaign in 2012- and now being replicated by Hillary Clinton- is more effective than the kind of shoestring budget, crowd-seeding strategy of Trump which has been technological in the sense that it takes advantage of the major weakness of our age of balkanized media, namely its inability to hold our attention, and thus its over reliance on scandalous behavior to capture our eyes and ears. Trump has also deftly used platforms such as Twitter to do an end run around established media and political institutions. His campaign is a kind of tabloid-addicted media, Twitter enabled coup against the dominant elites, first, of the GOP, and ultimately of the country itself. And neither the elites nor the rest of us non-elites praying for a Trump defeat would necessarily be completely out of the woods should Clinton actually win the election.

A few months back, in the small city of Altoona Pennsylvania, not far from where I live, Trump gave a speech in which he said that the only way Clinton could win the election was if it was “rigged”. From the perspective of those located in the post-industrial wasteland that comprises much of Pennsylvania  the idea that a Clinton victory is only possible through some type of conspiracy will make a great deal of sense. On the street I live on, perhaps one out of every four homes sprouts a Trump sign. The rest of the town is like that as are many of the small communities between here and Schuylkill county, where Trump’s usual catchphrase “Make America Great Again”, is often replaced with “Trump digs coal”.

Once while driving home from work my eyes nearly popped out of my head as I thought I had spotted a Hillary sign on a local lawn. It ended up being a poster that read “Hillary for Prison.” In all of my travels throughout the state I have seen only two actual “Vote Hillary” signs, and both of them were in the progressive, prosperous bubble of State College. If I didn’t actually trust in much of what the media tells me, and never traveled beyond the Pennsylvania rust belt, I’d guess Trump would beat Clinton in a landslide. I wonder what many of my neighbors will think when he doesn’t.

A replay of the election fiasco of Bush vs Gore might be very different sixteen years later given the fact that Trump has shown such willingness to step outside political norms, and has at least suggested that he might violate the most deeply held norm, that US elections are essentially fair and therefore should not be contested. Unlike the Bush vs Gore election, Trump vs Clinton occurs in an environment where the mainstream media and the leadership of the major political parties face competition from internet (and radio) enabled alternative media, and political actors are able to connect directly with the base of the party. And none of this takes into account the possibility that the election could be disrupted in such a way as to call into question its actual outcome even among those who appear to have gotten the result they were hoping for.

Such doubts might come from a domestic source bent on disrupting the election for political ends, or even the prospect of financial gain, by, for instance, short selling the markets before the vote takes place. Then again, such interference seems much more likely to come from a foreign source, most notably Russia, which has already, it appears, collaborated with Wikileaks to discredit Hillary Clinton. Russia’s real intention here seems less to help Trump and harm Clinton than to spread a pall of suspicion over American elections themselves. Though, given Trump’s ties and affection for the Kremlin a Trump win would be the sour cream on Putin’s smetannik.

Our digital communications architecture might also play a role in this disruption. As Bruce Schneier has pointed out our electronic voting systems are alarmingly vulnerable to being hacked. And unlike when I order an MTO at Sheetz, my vote doesn’t generate a paper receipt. Even an unfounded rumor that widespread electronic tampering had taken place might give an otherwise fair election the taint of illegitimacy. A belief that would be fostered and inflamed by those in alternative media for whom conspiracy theories and the revolt against elites has become their bread and butter.

None of this is to suggest that civil war would be the outcome of a Clinton victory. Rather, it is to wonder out loud whether the internet, and above the balkanization media and erosion of political parties it brings, might just end up killing democracy, whether through a sudden heart attack, which is what an actual Trump victory (or widespread violence in the face of his defeat, or even such violence as a response to his victory) would mean, or, as seems more likely, the kind of slow terminal cancer a Clinton victory lacking traditional legitimacy might come to represent where one- by- one the necessary components of the system decay and ultimately fail in the face of a constantly mutating and spreading enemy that emerged from our own cells.

A world ruled by networks

Pollock number 7

One of the more confusing characteristics of our age is how it trucks in contradiction. As a prime example: the internet is the most democratizing medium in the history of humankind giving each of us the capability to reach potentially billions with the mere stroke of a key. At the same time this communication landscape is one of unprecedented concentration dominated by a handful of companies such as Facebook ,Google, Twitter, and in China, Baidu.

For quite some time now I’ve been trying to figure out a way to wrap my head around this incongruity. A recent book called The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks by Joshua Cooper Ramo I think has taken me at least part of the way there.

Thinkers who focus on the internet tend to take an either utopian or dystopian track. Sometimes they even managed to combine both of these views by presenting the early history of the internet as a kind of Eden which was lost corporate to greed and the state’s insatiable hunger for power.

What makes Ramo’s argument interesting is that he transcends this division by claiming the internet’s seemingly contradictory tendencies to move towards both the diffusion and the concentration power are built into the nature of the internet as a network itself. Jaron Lanier has done something similar, and I myself, in part,  jumping off of Lanier, have also tried to make the point that the what appear to be rival panoptic or anarchic destinies of the internet are instead merely different sides of the same phenomena. What makes  Ramo’s case in The Seventh Sense different from either Lanier or myself is that he largely openly embraces the new order, connects its development to the science of networks, and tries to foresee the geopolitical implications of power moving in this direction.

We are far too deep into the age of ISIS beheading videos on YouTube and online mobs for the early utopian hopes for the internet continue to be plausible, and unless you are Parag Khanna, we are no longer so naive as to think that connection naturally bring with it understanding and compassion for the other. Ramo is no utopian either. Writing:

The simple, once- appealing idea that connection is liberation is wrong. To connect now is to be encased in a powerful and dynamic tension. (120)

Our current communications architecture makes diffuse networks of individuals who share a common goal possible- it is therefore a tool of enormous empowerment. Such networked powers, however, erode and undermine all established powers that have failed to reorganize themselves for the network age.

This pulling movement, the way that cores and distributions of power mercilessly jerk at certain once- essential structures and objects and people, explains a lot about our age, including the failure of institutions we once relied upon. Connection changes the nature of an object. That’s true for your doctor, your bank account, your army-  and for billions of people whose lives will soon alter irreversibly once they connect to markets to knowledge to the world. We have to ask just how many of the scaffolds humans erected, ones that were essential for Enlightenment- era advances, will now be pulled down. (121)

Though he doesn’t apply it, the case Ramo makes in The Seventh Sense is a good way to understand the rise of Trump and Trumpism. Trump has essentially leveraged Twitter and the media’s weakness for sensationalism to successfully pull off a coup of a major political party. He’s been able to do this because a large part of the American public no longer trusts once venerated institutions and elites, including the fact- checking role of the 4th estate itself.

At the same time networks flatten traditional power structures they are built on power laws that filter communications through only a handful of hyper-concentrated nodes. As Ramo puts it:

…. the massive data centers they built, they realized, are so large that they are nothing less than computers that are the size of massive buildings. Solar fields are their power supply; entire rivers are there cooling tubes. and they enable nothing less than Magic instant knowledge, connection to distant lands, a constant picture of what humanity knows. This is the growing, heroic scale of operations now. (73)

Another way in which Ramo might be said to explain the current Trumpian turn is his argument that we are moving from an era of openness to one of gates. That is, an increasing effort and desire to establish protocols and “walls”, although, not necessarily centered on the nation-state.  Indeed after the era of tearing down walls and globalization that followed the end of the Cold War we appear to be entering the golden age of wall building. Vulnerability in the age of networks leads to a desire not only to surveil, but to tightly control who can enter what Ramo calls a “gateland”  and under what circumstances. Yet the rising prominence of gatelands is less about the “revenge of geography” than a coming age of topology. In topology what matters less is physical proximity than the connection between points. Far-flung cities might be more connected to one another through financial and cultural connections than either are to their more geographically proximate hinterlands.      

In an age of networks it is the plumbing that counts, and those who control the means of connection wield an enormous amount of power. And what makes this situation incredibly dangerous is that neither the public nor the political class understand these systems of connection, nor could they, which is not an argument the for  lack of intelligence of either. Rather, only a very narrow slice among the tech-elite understand these things. Ramo calls them the “New Elite”, and like Plato’s dream of philosopher kings, he sees a real danger that they might seize control, or we might surrender control to them, as our society becomes so increasingly complex to become incomprehensible.  Artificial intelligence is becoming the primary tool to deal with this incomprehensibility, most especially the flood of all types of data brought about by the networked world.

In the short to medium term Ramo sees a battle being waged between the old order and those who have developed the seventh sense, the ability to understand and navigate the world of networks, and those individuals and institutions that either cling to the old order or fail to master networks. These networks Ramo then envisions struggling between themselves with the last battle being one between the human network masters and the AI they have created and deployed to survive the age of networks.

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For all its insight the seventh sense is not without its problems. Pegged as the heir to Henry Kissinger, Ramo argues for a globalist project that is ultimately untenable. He urges the US to use its historical legacy as the primary creator of today’s global networks to seek to create the world’s dominant gatelands.

Yet that ship has already sailed. It’s not only that other large countries, most importantly China, have already decided that they will establish their own gatelands, it is that the very mood of the US itself seems to be moving in the direction of much more circumscribed national gatelands. Ramo also exhibits a degree of technological determinism, and this very determinism blinds him from seeing that the future will be full of surprises, including the surprise of technologies we now believe inevitable never actually arriving.

One alternative future he did not explore is the return to dominance of centralized powers after they have mastered the age of networks, which is just one of the crazy futures that might be seen to exist in embryo in the current technological and social order. Still, even if Ramo failed to inspire me to develop a seventh sense, or even if I remain uncertain as to what such a sense even is, he did help me to see the present more clearly, which is the first step towards understanding the future.