One of the most pressing issues we confront when analysing the digital economy is a pronounced tendency towards oligopoly which makes a lie of an earlier generation’s utopian embrace of the Internet as a sphere of free competition and a driver of disintermediation. There are important lessons we can learn from platform studies about the reasons for this, concerning the architecture of platforms and the logic of their growth. But it’s important we don’t lose sight of how these dynamics are reliant upon existing legal and economic processes which predate the ‘digital revolution’. As Jonathan Taplin points out in Move Fast and Break Things, their competitive advantage was reliant upon a specific regulatory environment that was far from inevitable. From pg 79:

The economist Dean Baker has estimated that Amazon’s tax-free status amounted to a $ 20 billion tax savings to Bezos’s business. Baker notes, “In a state like New York, where combined state and local sales taxes average over 8.0 percent, Amazon could charge a price that was 1.0 percent below its brick and mortar competition, and still have an additional profit of 7 percent on everything it sold. That is a huge deal in an industry where profits are often just 2–3 percent of revenue.” Bezos, eager to preserve this subsidy, went to work in Washington, DC, and got Republican congressman Christopher Cox and Democratic senator Ron Wyden to author the Internet Tax Freedom Act. The bill passed and was signed by President Bill Clinton on October 21, 1998. Although not barring states from imposing sales taxes on ecommerce, it does prevent any government body from imposing Internet-specific taxes.

This is only one example. An adequate understanding of the digital economy requires that we identify the regulatory environments within which each category of tech firm operates and how this has contributed to their thriving or  struggling. When we combine this institutional analysis with platform dynamics, we can begin to account for the level of market concentration which Taplin summarises on pg 119-120:

In antitrust law, an HHI score —according to the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index, a commonly accepted measure of market concentration —is calculated by squaring the market share of each firm competing in a given market and then adding the resulting numbers. The antitrust agencies generally consider markets in which the HHI is between 1,500 and 2,500 to be moderately concentrated; markets in which the HHI is in excess of 2,500 are highly concentrated. The HHI in the Internet search market is 7,402. Off the charts.

He goes on to argue on pg 121-122 that this situation helps generate a cash glut with serious systemic consequences:

The problem is that the enormous productivity of these companies, coupled with their oligopolistic pricing, generates a huge and growing surplus of cash that goes beyond the capacity of the economy to absorb through the normal channels of consumption and investment. This is why Apple has $ 150 billion in cash on its balance sheet and Google has $ 75 billion. These enterprises cannot find sufficient opportunities to reinvest their cash because there is already overcapacity in many areas and because they are so productive that they are not creating new jobs and finding new consumers who might buy their products. As former treasury secretary Lawrence Summers has put it, “Lack of demand creates lack of supply.” Instead of making investments that could create new jobs, firms are now using their cash to buy back stock, which only increases economic inequality.

In other words: the inequality which digital capitalism generates is only contingently a function of technology.

This is a question which Zeynep Tufekci recalls in her Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, posed to a group of young Turkish activists about 140journos, a crowdsourced citizen journalism project which they started. As she writes on pg 37:

In Turkey, like much of the Mediterranean, there is a tradition of slow, conversational drinking that is the opposite of a loud, hurried bar scene. Such conversational drinking often leads to discussions of politics. The stereotype of these all-night drinking locales in Turkey is that everyone has a plan to “save the nation” after the first glass of raki, a strong aniseed-based drink that is considered the national liquor (it is nearly identical to ouzo, the Greek national drink). In a previous era, an all-night drinking and talking session on the sorry state of news and the extent of censorship might have ended merely in a hangover the next day. Even if it might have gone further—for example, the people might have decided to try to start a journal or a newspaper—a lot of work, resources, and luck would have been required. However, unlike citizens in a previous era for whom frustration with mass-media bias had engendered little more than sour feelings the next day or an uncertain, lengthy, journey, these young men—only four of them—immediately conceived 140journos, a crowdsourced, citizen journalism network on Twitter.

The low costs involved facilitate a particular culture of project work, comfortable with sometimes vague aspirations and working out the details on the fly. But while Tufekci’s interest in this concerns activism, I wonder about the effects in other spheres. What about higher education for instance? What Dave Beer describes as ‘punk sociology’ shares much of the mentality which Tufekci describes. 

Over the next few years, I’ll be working on a collaborative project on trans- and post-humanism, building on the Centre for Social Ontology’s previous Social Morphogenesis series. My main contribution to this will be co-editing a volume, Strangers in a Familiar Land, with Doug Porpora and Colin Wight as well as exploring digital technology and what it means for human agency. 

This project is giving me a reason to read more widely than I have in a while, with a particular focus likely to be Andy Clark’s work in the philosophy of mind, speculative realism and continental philosophy of technology. There’s a lot of value to be found in the latter but one persistent point which frustrates me is what appears, to me at least, to be a fundamental confusion about the category of the human. This issue became clear to me when reading a thought provoking blog on Social Ecologies

Why must everything revolve back to a human relation – for-us? This human exceptionalism resides throughout the gamut of philosophical reflection from Plato to Derrida. One will ask as Bradley does: Why, in other words, can something that believes itself to be a critique of anthropologism still be seen as essentially anthropocentric? Can we step outside this temple of man and create a non-anthropocentric discourse that doesn’t find itself reduced to this human relation by some backdoor slippage of conceptuality? Are we condemned to remain human? What or who is this creature that for so long has created a utopian world against its inhuman core? If we were to be released from this prison of the human who or what would emerge? How alien and alienated am I to what I am? How monstrous am I?

https://socialecologies.wordpress.com/2017/07/17/we-were-never-human/

Unless I’ve entirely misunderstood a literature I’m still relatively new to, ‘technicity’ is an abstraction from material culture. It’s an abstraction which serves a purpose, allowing us to isolate the technical so as to inquire into its character, but the empirical referents of the term are technological artefacts i.e. a domain of material culture. In which case, it should not surprise us that the human constantly resurfaces, nor should we impure this tendency to a mysterious stickiness which ‘humanism’ as a doctrine possesses.

Material culture will always imply questions of the human because we are talking about artefacts built by, for, with and against human beings in social contexts which are similarly human saturated. The value in considering ‘technicity’ lies in opening out a space in which we can inquire into the emergent characteristics of the technical as a domain of material culture, considering the logic that guides it and how it can act back upon creators and the social contexts in which they create. But explaining material culture necessarily entails human-centred accounts, even if these have tended to problematically exclude or marginalise non-human elements. 

To suggest otherwise strikes me as straight-forward mystification, circumscribing large domains of social life as outside analysis, rather than offering a meaningful competing ‘inhuman’ explanation. It seems like a clear example of what Andrew Sayer calls a ‘PoMo flip’: responding to a problematic dichotomy by inverting it, rather than seeking to transcend the conceptual structure that creates the problem. In this case responding to an exclusion of non-human elements by seeking to exclude the human elements instead.

In the last few weeks, I’ve found myself using the term ‘playbook’ in a number of contexts. It’s typically defined as “a book containing a sports team’s strategies and plays, especially in American football” but I’m not quite sure where I picked up the phrase from as someone who hasn’t had much interest in sport for a long time. 

It’s been on my mind since reading Merchants of Doubt, an incisive historical exploration of a dangerous corporate tendency towards the deliberate cultivation of doubt in relation to pressing issues such as nuclear winter, acid rain, DDT and climate change. As I suggested in a post a couple of weeks ago, we can talk meaningfully of a ‘playbook for merchandising doubt’. In fact something akin to this was once explicitly published, as the authors of Merchants of Doubt summarise on pg 144-145:

Bad Science: A Resource Book was a how-to handbook for fact fighters. It contained over two hundred pages of snappy quotes and reprinted editorials, articles, and op-ed pieces that challenged the authority and integrity of science, building to a crescendo in the attack on the EPA’s work on secondhand smoke. It also included a list of experts with scientific credentials available to comment on any issue about which a think tank or corporation needed a negative sound bite. 42 Bad Science was a virtual self-help book for regulated industries, and it began with a set of emphatic sound-bite-sized “MESSAGES”:

1. Too often science is manipulated to fulfill a political agenda.

 2. Government agencies … betray the public trust by violating principles of good science in a desire to achieve a political goal. 

3. No agency is more guilty of adjusting science to support preconceived public policy prescriptions than the Environmental Protection Agency. 

4. Public policy decisions that are based on bad science impose enormous economic costs on all aspects of society. 

5. Like many studies before it, EPA’s recent report concerning environmental tobacco smoke allows political objectives to guide scientific research. 

6. Proposals that seek to improve indoor air quality by singling out tobacco smoke only enable bad science to become a poor excuse for enacting new laws and jeopardizing individual liberties.

Has anyone encountered comparable documents to this? The scale and organisation of doubt merchandising surely means they have been produced. But perhaps there’s a broader category to be explored here: the explicit articulation of surreptitious tactics

It highlights how coordination presupposes communication, suggesting that even the most duplicitous strategies of the powerful will tend to leave a paper trail. Where we see what appears to be organisation, even if the actors involved deny this, do we have reason to believe there may somewhere exist a ‘playbook’ or something akin to it? I would  tentatively define this as the formal articulation of a tactical repertoire that can be drawn upon in informal contests, even if the definition of these elements may be obscured behind a thick veneer of technocratic distance. By ‘informal contests’ I mean those where rules are not defined or a contest actually declared. The existence of a playbook reveals how advantages in organisational capacity might translate to a practical advantage in competition.

I’d be intrigued to know if these ruminations resonate with anyone, particularly those who might be able to furnish further examples 

A couple of months ago, I shared a disturbing extract from John Urry’s final book about what he termed the ‘fortress city scenario‘. There’s a powerful section in Naomi Klein’s recent book, No Is Not Enough, which illustrates the basis of this scenario in actually existing conditions & the manner in which contemporary warfare can act as a laboratory for dystopian futures. From pg 130-132:

I watched another such dystopian window open in 2003 in Baghdad, shortly after the invasion. At that time, the US occupation had carved the city in two. At its heart, behind enormous concrete walls and bomb detectors, there was the Green Zone—a little chunk of the United States rebuilt in Iraq, with bars serving hard liquor, fast-food joints, gyms, and a pool where there seemed to be a party 24/7. And then—beyond those walls—there was a city bombed to rubble, where there was often no electricity for hospitals, and where violence, between Iraqi factions and US occupation forces, was spiraling out of control. That was the Red Zone. The Green Zone at the time was the fiefdom of Paul Bremer, former assistant to Henry Kissinger and director of Kissinger’s consulting firm, whom George W. Bush had named as the chief US envoy to Iraq. Since there was no functioning national government, that essentially made him Iraq’s supreme leader. Bremer’s was an entirely privatized empire. Dressed in combat boots and a sharp business suit, Bremer was always protected by a phalanx of black-clad mercenaries working for the now-defunct company Blackwater, and the Green Zone itself was run by Halliburton—one of the largest oil field companies in the world, previously headed by then vice president Dick Cheney—along with a network of other private contractors. When US officials made forays outside the Green Zone (or the “emerald city,” as some journalists called it), they did so in heavily armored convoys, with soldiers and mercenaries pointing machine guns outward in all directions, guided by an ethic of “shoot first, ask questions later.” Regular Iraqis supposedly being liberated by all this weaponry had no protection, except for the kind provided by religious militias in exchange for loyalty. The message broadcast by the convoys was loud and clear: some lives count a hell of a lot more than others. From deep inside his Green Zone fortress, Bremer issued decree after decree about how Iraq should be remade into a model free-market economy. Come to think of it, it was a lot like Donald Trump’s White House. And the edicts were pretty similar too. Bremer ordered, for instance, that Iraq should have a 15 percent flat tax (quite similar to what Trump has proposed), that its state-owned assets should be rapidly auctioned off (under consideration by Trump), and that government should be

In Naomi Klein’s new book No Is Not Enough, there’s a lucid overview of the intersection between political and environmental crisis. The role of drought in fermenting the conditions for the Syrian civil war was something which Marc Hudson first explained to me last year. From pg 182-183:

The irony is particularly acute because many of the conflicts driving migration today have already been exacerbated by climate change. For instance, before civil war broke out in Syria, the country faced its deepest drought on record—roughly 1.5 million people were internally displaced as a result. A great many displaced farmers moved to the border city of Daraa, which happens to be where the Syrian uprising broke out in 2011. Drought was not the only factor in bringing tensions to a head, but many analysts, including former secretary of state John Kerry, are convinced it was a key contributor.

In fact, if we chart the locations of the most intense conflict spots in the world right now—from the bloodiest battlefields in Afghanistan and Pakistan, to Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and Iraq—what becomes clear is that these also happen to be some of the hottest and driest places on earth. The Israeli architect Eyal Weizman has mapped the targets of Western drone strikes and found an “astounding coincidence.” The strikes are intensely concentrated in regions with an average of just 200 millimeters (7.8 inches) of rainfall per year—so little that even slight climate disruption can push them into drought.

In other words, we are bombing the driest places on the planet, which also happen to be the most destabilized. A frank explanation for this was provided in a US military report published by the Center for Naval Analyses a decade ago: “The Middle East has always been associated with two natural resources, oil (because of its abundance) and water (because of its scarcity).” When it comes to oil, water, and war in the Middle East, certain patterns have become clear over time. First, Western fighter jets follow that abundance of oil in the region, setting off spirals of violence and destabilization. Next come the Western drones, closely tracking water scarcity as drought and conflict mix together. And just as bombs follow oil, and drones follow drought—so, now, boats follow both. Boats filled with refugees fleeing homes ravaged by war and drought in the driest parts of the planet.

Surely these intersections should be at the forefront of how we imagine social processes? I realise there are many reasons why this isn’t the case but the one I’ve been pondering is the sustained hold of the nature/society distinction. If we see nature and society as distinct domains, we’re liable to be blind towards the environmental factors at work in social catastrophe. Only an idiot would deny the relationship in principle but the effects are projected into the future, as an expected horizon in which the natural will impact upon the social. But in doing so, their present entanglement with all the consequences flowing from this, comes to be lost in the analysis of events which are interpreted as narrowly political.

In the last year, I’ve been preoccupied by the relationship between periods of political flux and public intellectualism. These aren’t longer term processes, in which the coordinates of an established consensus begin to disintegrate, but rather short term periods of intense public confusion e.g. the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote or the shock Labour result in the last election. What happens when the established commentators don’t know what’s going on? What happens when large swathes of the population peer beyond the veneer of governance and realise no one is really in charge of the system?

It is inevitably the case that order is soon resumed and an account of these events is established. However those interstitial moments where a dominant frame has broken down, without any successfully coming to take its place, represent a failure of interpretation with potential influence to be accrued by public intellectuals who can step into the picture and provide a clear and plausible explanation of what is happening i.e. why is this situation so rather than otherwise? This contrasts with the descriptions which the emerging model of intellectualism-as-punditry offers, as political scientists compete to see who can offer the most compelling hot take on the issue foremost on the media agenda.

It occurs to me when reading Naomi Klein’s new book, No Is Not Enough, what I’ve been calling ‘political flux’ relates to what she characterises as ‘shock’. These failures of interpretation can be brought about deliberately, creating moments in which resistance is untenable because things are moving too fast. But political flux can also emerge as unintended consequences from deliberate shocks, with the shock-architects themselves being taken aback by the consequences of their actions. On pg 6 she describes some of the shocks we are likely to see in the near future, as the Trump administration pursues it agenda:

it’s also a vision that can be counted on to generate wave after wave of crises and shocks. Economic shocks, as market bubbles—inflated thanks to deregulation—burst; security shocks, as blowback from anti-Islamic policies and foreign aggression comes home; weather shocks, as our climate is further destabilized; and industrial shocks, as oil pipelines spill and rigs collapse, which they tend to do when the safety and environmental regulations that prevent chaos are slashed. All this is dangerous. Even more so is the way the Trump administration can be relied upon to exploit these shocks to push through the more radical planks of its agenda. A large-scale crisis—whether a terrorist attack or a financial crash—would likely provide the pretext to declare some sort of state of exception or emergency, where the usual rules no longer apply.

What role do public intellectuals have here? In alleviating the disorientation shock gives rise to by interpreting the political flux, it’s possible to stake out a new role for public intellectuals which takes advantages of the affordances of social media*. But this also requires linking these moments of flux together, drawing out the connections between the different shocks and articulating a story about how this all fits together. From pg 8:

we have to tell a different story from the one the shock doctors are peddling, a vision of the world compelling enough to compete head-to-head with theirs. This values-based vision must offer a different path, away from serial shocks—one based on coming together across racial, ethnic, religious, and gender divides, rather than being wrenched further apart, and one based on healing the planet rather than unleashing further destabilizing wars and pollution. Most of all, that vision needs to offer those who are hurting—for lack of jobs, lack of health care, lack of peace, lack of hope—a tangibly better life.

*Yes, I realise it’s not as simple as simply getting ideas ‘out there’, but that’s a topic for another post.

What do Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump have in common? On the face of it, two people could not be more dissimilar but I’m curious about what might be their analogous position in relation to mainstream political culture. After all, in a sense Corbyn came from outside party politics, albeit not in the way Trump did, being a life-long back bencher and consummate constituency MP who never sought power in any sense. Both reject the common sense of party politics and have in different ways benefitted from a media which is superficially hostile to them.

Perhaps we can make sense of their commonality in terms of their political brands, both of which have formed quickly in a way that floats free of the manifold pressures which shape self-presentation by those who spent years seeking power through steady ascent of within a political party. Neither learned to walk the walk and talk the talk in the way needed to gain respect and cultivate influence amongst their peers, perhaps avoiding the deformation professionelle to which these colleagues are subject to as a result. They don’t assume that political correspondents are all powerful because they haven’t spent their professional lives seeking coverage from them, as well as being judged by their peers on their success or otherwise in doing so.

This is what Naomi Klein says of Trump’s political brand on pg 33 of her new book No Is Not Enough:

It’s also why no labor scandal is ever going to stick to him. In the world he has created, he’s just acting like a “winner”; if someone gets stepped on, they are obviously a loser. And this doesn’t only apply to labor scandals—virtually every traditional political scandal bounces off Trump. That’s because Trump didn’t just enter politics as a so-called outsider, somebody who doesn’t play by the rules. He entered politics playing by a completely different set of rules—the rules of branding. According to those rules, you don’t need to be objectively good or decent; you only need to be true and consistent to the brand you have created. That’s why brand managers are so obsessed with discipline and repetition: once you have identified what your core brand is, your only job is to embody that brand, project that brand, and repeat its message. If you stay focused, very little can touch you.

This opens up the possibility that what is seen as electabilitystrong leadership and plausibility might actually be little more than weakness in the face of the media. If you’ve built your political brand on performing in a way that wins the media’s favour, you are inevitably subject to their whims. You are constitutively tied to the cluster of journalists, much as they are in turn tied to you through their need for access, leaving politics as a deformed game of intellectual twister taking place on the parliamentary estate. But to be a new brand, emerging quickly in a way external to these dynamics, involves near complete freedom from such influences if you can only ‘stay focused’. Brand Corbyn and Brand Trump couldn’t be more different but there are deep similarities in how and why the media struggle to touch them.

I’m currently reading Merchants of Doubt, a fascinating study of the tobacco industry’s deployment of academic experts to cast doubt on the harm caused by cigarettes. Being in the mood to read the book in an ultra-cynical way, here’s my playbook for merchandising doubt, derived from reading these cases through the lens of critical realism:

  1. Exploit multiple causation to maximum effect: it might be that X reliably brings about harmful outcomes for society but so do A, B and C. Focusing on these alternate pathways to personal and social pathologies helps relativise the harm caused by X, as well as highlighting the uncertain relationship between it and those outcomes which everyone agrees are undesirable.
  2. Attack inferences from populations to individuals: exploit the difficulty of apply population level generalisations to individual cases. Highlight these cases, promote them and promulgate them as emphatically as possible. These cases are your friend! The public don’t think in terms of statistical knowledge, but rather in terms of individuals. The more you can focus on individuals, the easier it will be to discredit statistical claims. Exploiting folk theories of causation and correlation will be key to using this tactic effectively.
  3. You need facts to counter facts: it won’t work to simply dismiss research that harms your interests. It’s necessary to find ‘alternative facts’: claims about reality with enough evidence to make them hard to dismiss, but which encourage alternative framings of an issue that might otherwise be a matter of scientific consensus. Even if experts might question the salience of these facts, journalists will feel the need to report ‘both sides’ in interests of fairness or even highlight the novelty of the new framings your alternative facts open up. Plus the more facts the better, at least in so far as you’re trying to encourage the public to withdraw from intellectual engagement with these debates.
  4. Create a debate and then swamp your enemysuch alternative facts and their playing out in the media can be a powerful way to create a debate out of something which is actually a matter of scientific consensus. Once this happens, it’s important that you outspend your opponents to the greatest possible extent. Scientists are rarely versed in public engagement, lacking both the disposition and expertise. The platforms they have access to in disseminating their facts are dwarfed by the platforms you have access to if you’re willing to spend. Find experts at communicating your message and provide them with all the resources they need. Activist groups are slightly better equipped for this communication, but you’ll always be able to out spend them. It’s even better if you can create your own activist groups!
  5. Always stress the vested interests of your enemies: behind their protestations of disinterested rationality, scientists are people with careers, employers and aspirations. By definition, their interests are served when they do their job in the way they are expected e.g. by producing knowledge. If you stress the way this work serves their interests, it obscures their cognitive commitment to the production of knowledge. This is even easier with activist groups who are vocal about their ideological commitments: in their case, their failure to perform the disinterestedness of scientists can be used to dismiss them as zealots!
  6. Hack science through manipulating the burden of proof: most people don’t understand the way science progresses and uncertainty about peripheral issues can be exploited to cast doubt on what is largely settled. The complications which arise through new studies are your friend! Such a tactic will work even more effectively if you can find scientists prone to scientism, an obsessive commitment to countering claims that are seen to involve ‘over-reaching’, whose zealotry coupled with authority can help make your case.
  7. If all else fails, attack the proposals: once the battle is lost, don’t waste time continuing to defend your case. Move on to the consequences of what your enemy advocates: what is the evidence for their proposals? How much will they cost? Will the cost be worth it? Question the evidence, smear it as non-scientific, fund your own counter studies to discredit it. If their evidence is unimpeachable, invoke the slippery slope and attack the possible consequences of what they are advocating. Invoke democracy: who are they to say what we can or cannot do? Who gave them the right to shape policy? Who is controlling their agenda?

One of the more irritating framings of Donald Trump’s rise to power has been to stress his ‘disruptive’ credentials*. Such accounts often focus on the role of Jared Kushner, who has been granted a dizzying array of responsibilities in the Trump Whitehouse, prompting Gary Sernovitz to observe the overlap with recent events in Saudi Arabia:

When Donald Trump travels to Saudi Arabia later this month, the first country he will visit as President, the attention will be on geopolitics and the complicated friendship between Saudi Arabia and the United States. But the trip also highlights, just off center stage, an unremarked-upon similarity between the current Saudi government and the American White House: in both places, unelected men in their thirties have swiftly amassed power.

In Saudi Arabia, the thirty-one-year-old Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the deputy Crown Prince and son of King Salman, is now in charge of the oil industry, the economy, defense policy, a war in Yemen, and various domestic initiatives. In the United States, the national responsibilities of Jared Kushner, the President’s thirty-six-year-old son-in-law, include, according to the Times, “Middle East peace, the opioid epidemic, relations with China and Mexico, and reorganizing the federal government from top to bottom.” Kushner is technically the President’s senior adviser, but you might also call him America’s crown prince.

http://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/jared-kushner-and-mohammed-bin-salman-princes-of-tech-disruption

Both men are presented as “bringing modern and advanced ideas into stodgy government terrain”, empowered by ageing rulers in virtue of their “being in touch with the latest in finance and technology”. There is little to justify this veneer of being tech-savvy, but it certainly covers up the role of “family ties and court intrigues” in their respective advancement. In the case of Kushner, such a framing can give a superficial plausibility to his leadership of the Office of American Innovation, arguably entrenching, extending and radicalising Obama’s mission to ‘reboot how government works‘.

However I want to argue that Trump is a disrupter. But not in the sense in which the many tech-bros who cautiously applaud his assent are liable to understand the term. As Naomi Klein writes in her new book No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics on pg 3:

As this has been unfolding, it struck me that what’s happening in Washington is not the usual passing of the baton between parties. It’s a naked corporate takeover, one many decades in the making. It seems that the economic interests that have long since paid off both major parties to do their bidding have decided they’re tired of playing the game. Apparently, all that wining and dining of elected officials, all that cajoling and legalized bribery, insulted their sense of divine entitlement. So now they’re cutting out the middlemen—those needy politicians who are supposed to protect the public interest—and doing what all top dogs do when they want something done right: they are doing it themselves.

In this sense, we can see Trump as disintermediating politics. America has long faced a quasi-oligopolic situation in which elites rules through strategic influence, near to unopposed in a situation which the political sociologist Colin Crouch characterises as post-democracy. The disruption of the Trump presidency involves the removal of that mediation, directly empowering the most activist and reactionary tier of this plutocratic elite. As she goes on to write, from pg 3-4:

But the Trumps seem unconcerned. A near-impenetrable sense of impunity—of being above the usual rules and laws—is a defining feature of this administration. Anyone who presents a threat to that impunity is summarily fired—just ask former FBI director James Comey. Up to now in US politics there’s been a mask on the corporate state’s White House proxies: the smiling actor’s face of Ronald Reagan or the faux cowboy persona of George W. Bush (with Dick Cheney/Halliburton scowling in the background). Now the mask is gone. And no one is even bothering to pretend otherwise.

The idea of post-democracy conveys a ‘hollowing out’, rather than a negation. What’s so disturbing about recent events in America is that we may be seeing the early stages of a transition from post-democracy to non-democracy.

*Incidentally, this always reminds me of an Economist interview in which a reluctant conservative supporter of Trump explained how if you have an infestation of vermin, you call in the exterminator but that doesn’t mean you want the exterminator to run your house after the vermin have gone (or words to that effect). The point being that ‘disruption’ of politics is a culturally specific expression of a broader political sentiment.

What does public sociology have to say about sociologists who are ‘merchants of doubt’? This is the question I’m slightly obsessing over after discovering that Peter Berger, famous for his work on social construction and the sociology of religion, worked as a consultant for the tobacco industry. As Source Watch details, he was tasked with establishing that “anti-smoking activists have a special agenda which serves their own purposes, but not necessarily the majority of nonsmokers”:

He served as a Tobacco Institute consultant. While at Boston College, Berger, (as quoted in tobacco industry newsletter “The Tobacco Observer,”) described tobacco control proponents as “fanatical.”[1] Berger attended Philip Morris executive meetings [2] and participated in the multinational tobacco industry’s Social Costs/Social Values Project, created to refute the social costs theory of smoking and to help reverse declining social acceptability of smoking. He was a contributing author to the industry-financed book Smoking and Society, edited by another tobacco industry consultant, Robert Tollison.

http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/Peter_L._Berger

This is critical sociology deployed on behalf of the powerful: pulling back the veil on a group pursuing an ideational agenda and claiming they act out of sectional interests. What other examples are there of prominent sociologists acting in this capacity? How should these cases inform our conception of public sociology?

The self as painting: we become who we are through repetition and representation. Encumbered only by our imagination and the culture in which we find ourselves, we craft ourselves through iterated projects of self-representation. We might find the materials available to us limiting, in which case we might seek out a more diverse palette of cultural ideas through which to express that which we are and wish to be. We might also seek to refine our technique, extending the range of our potential selves by expanding our capacities to represent them. But the process is fundamentally repetitive. We begin within constraints but once we start painting, it’s up to us what we do. The freedom exercised through this is one of redescription, in Richard Rorty’s sense, something which Roy Bhaskar once critiqued as relying on a ‘free-wheeling’ conception of freedom: it doesn’t hook on to the world, to the definitive ways in which things are at any given point in time, with all the constraints and limitations which this entails. 

Its appeal rests on the prospect of everlasting freedom. We can dispense with any one painting once we grow dissatisfied, throwing it away to restart in pursuit of ever richer and more vivid representations of our self. But there is an element of fantasy in this, refining our representation of self potentially at the cost of losing touch with the reality of who we are and where we are at any given moment. To craft the self as painting represents a private project of self-creation. It approaches the challenges of existence in an aesthetic register, one which cuts us off from our selves and from others in an ever-so subtle way, while holding out the (always retreating) promise of endless freedom in inner life, whatever the world out there holds for us and what we care about. 

The self as sculpting: through a sustained engagement with the material we find in our selves and our lives, we gradually produce the person we aim to be through our crafting of self. The process is subtractive, rather than additive. We select, refine and remove in a way that is path-dependent, often finding unexpected limitations which follow from the whole sequence of past choices we have made. The further we go in this process, the less room for manoeuvre we have because our form becomes progressively more concrete with time. To become who we are depends on what was latent with us, but how this comes to take the form it does depends on the world we have found ourselves in and how we have chose to make our way through it. 

We shape the clay but we do not choose it and our understanding of the range of possibilities latent within it will always be constrained by circumstance and experience. When the promise of the protean self is ubiquitous, tempting us with the idea that the only limit on who we can be is our imagination, the limitations of the clay can seem suffocating. But there is a freedom within these constraints. A profound, challenging and subtle freedom which refuses the reduction of existence to aesthetics. 

One of the most interesting issues raised by the rise of data science in party politics is how to untangle corporate rhetoric from social reality. I have much time for the argument that we risk taking the claims of a company like Cambridge Analytica too seriously, accepting at face value what are simply marketing exercises. But the parallel risk is that we fail to take them seriously enough, dismissing important changes in how elections are fought as marketing hype propounded by digital charlatans.

Perhaps we need to focus more on the data scientists themselves. As much as there is something of the Bond villain about Alexander Nix, CEO of Cambridge Analytica, it’s important that we don’t become preoccupied with corporate leaders. Who are the rank-and-file data scientists working on campaigns? What motivates them? How do they conceive of the work they do? There were interesting hints about this in the recent book Shattered, looking at Hilary Clinton’s failed election campaign. Much as was the case with Jeb Bush’s near entirely stalled campaign, there had been much investment in data analytics, with buy-in right from the top of the campaign. From pg 228-229:

These young data warriors, most of whom had grown up in politics during the Obama era, behaved as though the Democratic Party had come up with an inviolable formula for winning presidential elections. It started with the “blue wall”—eighteen states, plus the District of Columbia, that had voted for the Democratic presidential nominee in every election since 1992. They accounted for 242 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency. From there, you expanded the playing field of battleground states to provide as many “paths” as possible to get the remaining 28 electoral votes. Adding to their perceived advantage, Democrats believed they’d demonstrated in Obama’s two elections that they were much more sophisticated in bringing data to bear to get their voters to the polls. For all the talk of models and algorithms, the basic thrust of campaign analytics was pretty straightforward when it came to figuring out how to move voters to the polls. The data team would collect as much information as possible about potential voters, including age, race, ethnicity, voting history, and magazine subscriptions, among other things. Each person was given a score, ranging from zero to one hundred, in each of three categories: probability of voting, probability of voting for Hillary, and probability, if they were undecided, that they could be persuaded to vote for her. These scores determined which voters got contacted by the campaign and in which manner—a television spot, an ad on their favorite website, a knock on their door, or a piece of direct mail. “It’s a grayscale,” said a campaign aide familiar with the operation. “You start with the people who are the best targets and go down until you run out of resources.”

Understanding these ‘data warriors’ and the data practices they engage in is crucial to understanding how data science  is changing party politics. Perhaps it’s even more important than understanding high profile consultancies and the presentations of their corporate leaders.

What do we think of when we imagine elites exercising their power? There are many ways we can approach such a question, with varying degrees of abstraction. But reading The Divide: American Injustice In The Age Of The Wealth Gap, by Matt Taibbi, has left me preoccupied by how they practice revenge. It’s easy to imagine our contemporary plutocrats having an impulse towards revenge, as we trundle ever more inexorably towards what appears to be a dark neo-feudal future. The structural constraints upon vengeance are weakening, reflecting the declining accountability of plutocrats, accompanied by a diminishing sense that such figures are part of the social order and bound by the same rules as those within it:

Such considerations can easily fuel a dystopian imagination, powerfully expressed in Peter Frase’s idea of exterminism. His concern is with the growing tendency of the rich to regard themselves as persecuted and seek to withdraw themselves from wider society. As he writes on loc 1471 of Four Futures:

But the construction of enclaves is not limited to the poorest places. Across the world, the rich are demonstrating their desire to escape from the rest of us. A 2013 article in Forbes magazine reports on the mania, among the rich, for evermore-elaborate home security. 11 An executive for one security company boasts that his Los Angeles house has security “similar to that of the White House.” Others market infrared sensors, facial recognition technologies, and defensive systems that spray noxious smoke or pepper spray. All this for people who, although rich, are largely anonymous and hardly prominent targets for would-be attackers.

Paranoid though they may seem, large numbers of the economic elite appear to regard themselves as a set-upon minority, at war with the rest of society. Silicon Valley is a hotbed of such sentiments, plutocrats talking openly about “secession.” In one widely disseminated speech, Balaji Srinivasan, the cofounder of a San Francisco genetics company, told an audience of start-up entrepreneurs that “we need to build opt-in society, outside the US, run by technology.” 12 For now, that reflects hubris and ignorance of the myriad ways someone like him is supported by the workers who make his life possible. But it demonstrates the impulse to wall off the rich from what are deemed to be surplus populations.

His suggestion is that such defensiveness might over time become offence. Not in the generic sense in which the accumulated privilege of the plutocrats necessarily entails a relationship of offence to wider society. But in the much darker sense of deliberately seeking to eliminate surplus populations. In a speculative but thought-provoking account, he draws together a diverse range of trends which collectively point towards the increasing willingness of elites to sanction intensifying violence against ever greater portions of their populations.

How seriously should we take this? I’m not sure. But I realise my interest in the revenge practices of elites is motivated by a concern to elucidate where our present conjuncture could one day lead. There’s a disturbing story in The Divide which the author summarises on pg 248:

The Fairfax fiasco is a tale of harassment on a grand scale, in which the cream of America’s corporate culture followed executives, burgled information from private bank accounts, researched the Canadians’ sexual preferences for blackmail purposes, broke into hotel rooms and left threatening messages, prank-called a cancer-stricken woman in the middle of the night, and even harassed the pastor of the staid Anglican church where the Canadian CEO worshipped on Sundays. They worked tirelessly to instigate phony criminal investigations in multiple countries, tried relentlessly to scare away investors and convince ratings agencies to denounce the firm, and in general spread so many lies and false rumors to so many people using so many different false names that they needed a spreadsheet to keep track of their aliases.

What’s so grim about this tale is the personal animus which seems to be at work here. As well as their initial financial motivations, they really want to destroy the life of the Fairfax chief for rather indiscernible reasons. The reporting isn’t complete by any means but it’s a fascinating and disturbing account of one of the most extreme examples of revenge by defensive elitists I’ve come across. I’d like to find and study more examples of this to better understand that characteristic defensiveness which I’m beginning to try and theorise, as well as where it might lead us in future.

  • The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbably Path to Power by Alex Nunns
  • How Trump Thinks: His Tweets and the Birth of a New Political Language by Peter Oborne and Tom Roberts
  • Shattered: Inside Hilary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes
  • The Mediated Construction of Reality by Nick Couldry and Andreas Hepp
  • Adults In The Room: My Battle With Europe’s Deep Establishment by Yanis Varoufakis
  • I Hate The Internet by Jarett Kobek
  • Solar by Ian McEwan
  • The Blade Artist by Irvine Welsh

In the last year, Facebook Live has been plagued by occasional headlines reporting on shocking instances of violence being streamed through the platform. The sporadic quality of these reports easily creates an impression that this is exception. There have always been violent crimes, right? Therefore it stands to reason that the spread of the platform would inevitably create occasional incidences in which it featured in such crimes. However as this BuzzFeed analysis makes clear, such incidences have been a regular occurrence on the platform since its inception:

Facebook Live has a violence problem, one far more troubling than national headlines make clear. At least 45 instances of violence — shootings, rapes, murders, child abuse, torture, suicides, and attempted suicides — have been broadcast via Live since its debut in December 2015, a new BuzzFeed News analysis found. That’s an average rate of about two instances per month.

When it launched, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg touted Live as “a great medium for sharing raw and visceral content.” But from its inception and over thee many months that followed that became darkly true — to terrible effect. Videos of shootings, murders, suicides, and rapes began to show up on Facebook with alarming regularity.

https://www.buzzfeed.com/alexkantrowitz/heres-how-bad-facebook-lives-violence-problem-is?utm_term=.ygvMMd55#.pf1kk3nn

What should we make of this? There are important issues raised about the accountability of platforms, as Facebook have refused to comment on this trend and instead simply pointed to past statements by Mark Zuckerberg and their committed to hiring new moderators. But there is enough evidence of a relationship between Facebook Live and violence that we should take seriously the possibility that in some cases the platform might be contributing to crime generation rather than merely reflecting it.

The disturbing possibility invoked in the article is that there is a mimetic dynamic at work, as the possibility for immediate notoriety and a growing list of exemplars incline people towards horrific acts which might have remained embryonic without these two conditions:

Some criminologists worry that broadcasts of violent crimes to Facebook Live might lead perpetrators of violent crime to view the platform as a means of gaining infamy, bypassing the traditional filter of the media. “The most likely impact is that it’s going to be a model of how to distribute and immortalize your act,” Ray Surette, a criminal justice professor at the University of Central Florida, told BuzzFeed News.

Jacqueline Helfgott, chair of the Criminal Justice Department at Seattle University, agreed. “It’s making it easier for people to gain notoriety instantly without gatekeepers,” she told BuzzFeed News. “I definitely think there’s a mimetic effect.”

https://www.buzzfeed.com/alexkantrowitz/heres-how-bad-facebook-lives-violence-problem-is?utm_term=.ygvMMd55#.pf1kk3nn

The mainstream media have previously been gatekeepers to such notoriety. But now it’s possible to achieve it through virality, assuming moderators prove unable to near immediately remove such videos. There’s an incredibly bleak book by Franco Berardi, Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide, which offers useful resources for making sense of this possibility. He argues that mass murderers are “the extreme manifestation of one of the main trends of our age” involving “people who are suffering themselves, and who become criminals because this is their way both to express their psychopathic need for publicity and also to find a suicidal exit from their present hell” (pg 3).

In such crimes we see a “violent acting out, as disconnected from a conscious elaboration: just do it” (pg. 56) but one licensed by a desire for infamy. It is this fame which motivates the act, offering the possibility of transcending one’s own subordination by living on forever, showing them forever:

Like the large majority of the generation that has grown up in the Neoliberal decades, the young Eric Harris is totally persuaded that the strong have the right to win and predate. It is the natural philosophy that he has absorbed in the social environment in which he was educated, and it also the underlying rationale of the video games that he loved to play. But the young man knew very well that he was not going to be a winner in the social game. Instead, he decides that he will be a winner for a moment; I’ll kill and I’ll win; then I’ll die. The murderous action is conceived as revenge for the humiliation that he has suffered in the daily game of competition. (Pg 50)

The infamy is what ensures that victory will live on. It cannot be reversed. Through their actions they achieve the status they were constantly seeking yet could never receive within life. As with much work of this type, it’s speculative social science of a sort that can be critiqued on empirical grounds. But the underlying thesis is one we should take seriously: the promise of infamy coupled with the release of violently acting out is a socially produced temptation in a profoundly unequal society which valorises ‘winners’ while attacking ‘losers’. These exceptional acts need to be understood as extreme responses to social conditions which are pervasive.

If there is any accuracy to these claims, we ought to be extremely concerned about Facebook Live. The barriers to entry for Berardi’s ‘heroes’ are lowering radically: the pathway to infamy can be found in the everyday object of the smartphone, rather than being reliant on recognition from the mass media. What might seem like exceptional cases, inexplicable in terms of wider social forces, could in fact herald the dark future of mediatization.

Practitioners of social philosophy regard what they do as valuable, imbuing it with a sense of importance which is reflected in the often scholastic way in which readers cite and engage with such work. How seriously should we take this judgement? Does social philosophy have intrinsic worth? Or could it be considered a peculiar form of speculative journalism?

Reading a recent book by Matt Taibbi led me to reflect on this question for the first time in a while. After enjoying his account of the Trump election campaign, I’ve been working my way through his previous books. In The Divide he explores how rampant income inequality in America has reshaped the criminal justice system, creating a two-tier system which complicates traditional notions of equality before the rule of law. From pg 207:

In other words, there’s a new class of people whose goal is to become above citizenship. Live in America, conduct your trades in the weaker regulatory arena in London, pay your taxes in Antigua or the Isle of Man. Keep the rights but offshore the responsibilities. The flip side is that there is a growing subset of people, like undocumented immigrants, who live below the level of full citizenship. If the first group is stateless by choice, these people are involuntarily stateless and have virtually no rights at all.

What struck me about this argument was how easily I could imagine it being advanced by someone like Zygmunt Bauman. The terminology would be different, the tone would be different and the context would be different. But the argument Taibbi develops in this book is one which converges with the thesis Bauman developed in books like Globalisation and Wasted Lives. In fact I’m pretty sure I could restate the core argument of Taibbi’s book in persuasively Bauman-esque language.

This is a period of Bauman’s work I really like, something I observe to make clear that this isn’t just another dismissal of the Liquid Modernity cottage industry. But reading Taibbi’s entertaining and informative book, I was left reflecting on whether social philosophy of this sort has intrinsic value over-and-above journalism of the kind Taibbi engages in. What does the abstraction actually contribute? We can easily delude ourselves into thinking that abstraction inevitably brings us closer to the truth beyond appearances, the way things really are. But it can also simply obfuscate, rendering partial judgements with an unclear empirical basis as authoritative statements about epochal change.

This isn’t an argument against social philosophy. It’s an attack on the implicit hierarchies expressed in how we compare it to other ways of telling about society. There’s much we can learn from exploratory investigative journalism that leads to social critique. But doing this requires we have the confidence to laugh in the face of those who might accuse of us of seeking to become “a mere journalist”:

In many academic circles today anyone who tries to write in a widely intelligible way is liable to be condemned as a ‘mere literary man’ or, worse still, ‘a mere journalist.’ Perhaps you have already learned that these phrases, as commonly used, only indicate the spurious inference: superficial because readable. The academic man in America is trying to carry on a serious intellectual life in a context that often seems quite set against it. His prestige must make up for many of the dominant values he has sacrificed by choosing an academic career. His claims for prestige readily become tied to his self-image as a ‘scientist’. To be called a ‘mere journalist’ makes him feel undignified and shallow. It is this situation, I think, that is often at the bottom of the elaborate vocabulary and involved manner of speaking and writing. It is less difficult to learn this manner than not. It has become a convention – those who do not use it are subject to moral disapproval. It may be that it is the result of an academic closing of ranks on the part of the mediocre, who understandably wish to exclude those who win the attention of intelligent people, academic and otherwise.

C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination, Pg 218

In the last few years, I’ve become a little obsessed with speed. It seems this often leaves me coming across like an accelerationist. I occasionally flirt with the idea that I’m a slightly peculiar form of left-accelerationist, but it’s more for rhetorical amusement than genuine conviction. In fact I find much of what’s written about the politics of speed inadequate, with my interest instead being in a political sociology of speed. By the former, I mean a valorisation or condemnation of speed, exploring the emancipatory potential in speed or seeking salvation through slowdown. By the latter, I mean an analysis of how speed is a vector through which power operates in social life. The concerns of the former often obstruct the analytical imperatives of the latter, though of course accelerationists inevitably address these questions as well.

What made me reflect on this was an interesting example I stumbled across in The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap by Matt Taibbi. On pg 127-128 he describes the enforced slowness which results from data-driven policing inspired by a ‘broken windows’ philosophy of crime:

If you’re charged with a crime, and you get notice of a court appearance, you have to show up to a packed room at an appointed time that in reality is only an approximate time. If it says 10: 30 a.m. on the notice, you may end up waiting three, four hours for your case to come before the judge. During that time you are permitted to do exactly one thing: sit in court and watch the action. There is no talking, sleeping, eating, or reading in any of the courtrooms like the one on Schermerhorn Street. You must pay attention to the judge at all times. Some of the judges are insanely touchy about these rules, too. Judge Charles Troia, a glowering dark-haired man who runs a courtroom on the eighth floor, has a particular mania for talkers and readers. He has his court officer bark out instructions on the matter repeatedly throughout the morning. “In case you missed the sign,” the officer yells out, “there’s no reading, eating, or sleeping. Listen up! It’s going to be a long night.” The ban on reading is particularly odd, given that some of the judges have literary ambitions. Judge John Wilson, who by the time this book is published will have moved from the Brooklyn courts to the Bronx, is notorious in this courtroom for having authored a children’s book called Hot House Flowers.

This looks like hyperactive activity when considered at the level of the police, with 22,000 people arrested for loitering in a typical year in New York City. But from the perspective of those regularly subject to such nuisance arrests, it’s profoundly decelerative, with one interviewee describing how “you come to court and you’ll sit there all day waiting for your name to be called” and how he had “probably sat ten hours in the three times” he had come to court (pg 125). This is an example of the chronopolitics of speed, something which manifests itself relationally within an institutional context. It’s hard to theorise if we remain on the level of treating speed as what Filip Vostal calls a ‘mega force’. For this reason our starting point needs to be the political sociology of speed rather than the politics of speed.

Later in the book he recounts the analogous experience of a welfare office. From pg 333-334:

On the morning of October 15, 2011, she shows up at the Seventy-Third Street office at 8: 30 a.m. It’s a giant hall with linoleum floors and plastic chairs—exactly what you’d expect, like a DMV, only even more depressing. There’s already a huge line of people. “People were standing up against the walls, there was people everywhere, all over, it was crazy,” she says. The drill is, you show up, take a number, and wait—and wait. Markisha takes her number and sits down. An hour passes, two hours. She has no idea when anyone is going to see her, and all the people in the packed room are in the same boat. Mothers with children are in the office, and by late morning the children are starting to get antsy because they haven’t eaten, but you can’t leave the place or you lose your spot in line. 

A chill goes through the room in the middle of the day when a woman steps outside the building to get a smoke and returns to find that her number has been called. She has to leave and come back another day. More hours pass. Markisha is squirming in her seat. By the late afternoon the crowd, which not only hasn’t subsided over the course of the day but has just gotten bigger, is turning hostile. At around three in the afternoon there’s a screaming match somewhere in the recesses of the office. Markisha can hear a man yelling at a welfare worker because a glitch in the system has cost him his benefits; something about a wrong address, which they’re telling him they can’t fix. He storms out of the office to oohs and aahs. 

By then the place is a zoo. “The kids is running around, because they hungry,” she says. “They’re running around, snatching stuff off the walls, drinking water, screaming.” The scene gets so intense, Markisha ends up pulling out her cell phone and taking a video panorama of the chaos. Nobody even blinks when they see her standing up filming the nightmare. You see all kinds of stuff in here: Who cares about some girl filming something? More hours pass. It’s after five now. A young Latin man just ahead of Markisha goes in and just as quickly is dragged out by security when he explodes at a worker after finding out he can’t get his food stamp card—Markisha doesn’t know why. “I’ve been here since eight o’clock in the morning and I’m still here after five o’clock!” he shouts. “I’m just coming for my EBT card! I need my EBT card!” Security drags him past Markisha, chucks him out the door. “I was like, dang,” she says. “I didn’t know what to think.” Finally, at 5: 30, after nine hours, Markisha is shown into an office where a bored-looking older black woman stares blankly at her from behind a mass of papers.

From pg 335:

But the kicker is, if you get all the way through the process, and actually get your meeting, and you get approved, they then tell you to go home and sit tight for your P100 search. And they don’t tell you when that will be, except to say that it’s generally within a week and a half. You then have to be at home at all times until they show up—it’s like sitting shivah, except you have to do it for more than a week. “If the investigator shows up and no one’s there,” says Halpern, “they shove a card under your door that says, ‘We could not verify your eligibility,’ and you don’t get your benefits.”

From pg 344:

Two is that there’s an explosion of errors that are infinitely more difficult and more expensive to sort out than they would be if someone with personal knowledge of the case was involved from the jump. Now there’s an endless parade of Annas and Diegos and Markishas filing formal appeals with the state, explaining their whole life stories from the start in each meeting, instead of just calling a caseworker on the phone, reminding them of a fact or two, and having them change a number on a screen. The system therefore clearly doesn’t really work for the state, either. It’s like opening a hospital where no doctor could ever see the same patient twice—the bureaucratic version of Memento, where the characters have to go back in time to re-create a whole universe of facts from the beginning in each new scene.