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  • Mark 11:38 am on September 24, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , bauman, , , , , , , , neal lawson, networked politics, , , , ,   

    Why the left needs to reject the ideology of networked socialism 

    In today’s Guardian, Neal Lawson offers a cautious reading of Corbyn’s Labour, accepting the ascendancy of the left within the party but urging it to look outwards. I’m sympathetic to many of the substantive points Lawson makes in the article but there’s a rich vein of problematic assumption running through their articulation which needs to be challenged. I’m pretty sure that in Lawson’s case, the peculiar style of fin de siècle social theorising once dominant within British sociology, about which I wrote a PhD thesis, played a crucial in consolidating this outlook.

    However, the problem extends beyond those who have taken Giddens, Beck and Bauman’s diagnosis of late modernity a little too seriously. In fact, I’d suggest the popularity of the aforementioned authors was in part due to their reflecting an emerging common sense, rather than being the originators of these influential ideas and motifs. In recent years, we’ve seen this transmute into what I increasingly think of as the ideology of platform capitalism: disruption has become the last refuge of the third way

    I recognise that Lawson is as far on the left of this movement as it is possible to be, though he so uncritically reproduces some of its core axioms that it would be a mistake to identify his core ideological home as anywhere else. The combination of business and activism, profit and principle, found in his own biography is a striking expression of the ethos of New Labour. There are two core assumptions underlying his article which need to be pulled out, analysed in their own right and dispensed with:

    1. Social democracy “lost its power” because “a lack of responsiveness and heavy doses of paternalism made state socialism unpopular” while “the idea of free markets chimed with a more individualistic age”. It is a purely cultural reading of an epochal shift, with one idea ‘losing its power’ while another becomes dominant because it ‘chimes’ with the spirit of an (assumed) new age. The historical variability of how centre-left parties have struggled in recent decades, something which can’t meaningfully be considered in abstraction from the ‘modernising’ strands dominant within so many of them, finds itself reduced by Lawson to the (empirical) decline of a particular phase in the existence of a single welfare state. Explanation of this trend is replaced by a woolly historical narrative, in which one set of ideas loses to another because of a vaguely specified epochal shift. It’s pure Giddens: the collective gives way to the individual, the traditional to the modern, the secure to the flexible. It’s neither explanatory nor descriptive in any straightforward sense.
    2. The spirit of the age is “networked and collaborative” and “21st-century socialism will be participatory”. After all, “things move fast and nowhere is this truer than in politics” where, warns Lawson, we see a “swarm” which “can and will keep shifting”. The conceptual structure of this is analogous to the ‘cult’ accusations made by the Labour right: a nascent movement is reduced into a behavioural compulsion gripping a mass, driven in this case by the affordances of digital media and the susceptibility of millennials to be swept along. It’s a refusal to engage with the reality of the events taking place, reducing them into an epochal schema in order to advance a prior set of axioms about how ‘progressive’ political ends ought to be pursued. It is already decided by the analyst that the actors at what Filip Vostal terms ‘mega-forces’ (globalisation, technology, acceleration, digital media) so the empirical actors are reduced to manifestations of these forces.

    This is only a brief attempt in response to an article I largely agreed with on a practical level. But the hunch I’m increasingly driven by is that ‘networked socialism’ is a re-articulation of ‘social markets’: it’s an ideological vehicle which, though sometimes correct on substantive issues, imports the conceptual structure of the ‘third way’ into debates about the future of the left.

  • Mark 7:58 am on September 5, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , bauman, , , epochal theory, , , sennett, simon susen, , ,   

    Accounting for the distinctiveness of the contemporary age 

    My relationship with the work of Zygmunt Bauman, Anthony Giddens, Richard Sennett and Ulrich Beck has been a complicated one. Discovering their work as an intellectually frustrated philosophy student led me to move sideways into a sociology department rather than starting a PhD in political philosophy. Their approach excited me, opening up the possibility that we could talk about the contemporary age in a way which captures the most intimate aspects of personal experience and connects them to sweeping accounts of historical change. However the further I went into sociology, the more sceptical I became about the capturing and the connecting these accounts claimed to do.

    They have little empirical grounding in their own right, painting complex processes in seductively broad brush strokes, despite their pose of being attuned to the bleeding edge of social change. Much of my eventual PhD was animated by a conviction that the framework of ‘late modernity’ often doesn’t help social analysis, even sometimes hindering it, offering a series of intoxicating motifs for rendering empirical findings in thematic terms rather than offering any practical conceptual instruments for analysing them. This entire body of work has been persuasively diagnosed by Mike Savage as epochal theorising:

    The social sciences, and especially sociology, abound with epochalist thinking (see generally Savage 2009). We are seen to have moved, variously, to a globalised, post-modern, neo-liberal, informationalised, cosmopolitan, (and so forth) world order. Such thinking saturates debates about social change and incites an almost constant agitation for detecting new kinds of epochal change and transformation which makes our contemporary times different from anything that comes before.


    In an earlier article, Savage and Burrows describe this as a “kind of sociology which does not seek to define its expertise in terms of its empirical research skills, but in terms of its ability to provide an overview of a kind that is not intended to be tested by empirical research”.

    The manner in which these accounts capture the intellectual attention space, at least under the peculiar epistemic condition of the accelerated academy, renders them much more problematic than would otherwise be the case. These bodies of work become crucial intellectual reference points which enjoy an influence that vastly exceeds their intellectual merit e.g the relatively recent Liquid Modernity has received 11,000+ citations, over four times more than the much older and vastly superior Legislators and Interpreters. They exercise a gravitational pull over the field of empirical research, even when they’re remarkably ill suited for this purpose.

    But perhaps I’ve been too harsh. In this paper Simon Susen makes a casual remark that “One could hardly think of a more ambitious and timely challenge than the task of accounting for the distinctiveness of the contemporary age“. I realise that I agree with him, even if I continue to take issue with many of the attempts that have been made to do this. We deserve better accounts of the distinctiveness of the contemporary age, even if the conditions within which we work makes it difficult to develop them.

  • Mark 10:19 am on June 17, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , bauman, , , , , taibbi,   

    The relative value of journalism and social philosophy 

    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

  • Mark 9:33 am on January 31, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , bauman, , , , ,   

    What does it mean to be an intellectual in an age of social media? 

    In Zygmunt Bauman’s Legislators and Interpreters, he identifies two different contexts in which the role of the ‘intellectual’ is performed and two different strategies which develop in response to them:

    • The legislator makes “authoritative statements” which “arbitrate in controversies of opinions and which selects those opinions which, having been selected, become correct and binding”.
    • The interpreter work at “translation statements, made within one communally based tradition, so that they can be understood within the system of knowledge based on another tradition”.

    Both inevitably rest on a conception of the intellectual’s authority in performing this role, with the legislator having universalistic ambitions which the interpreter has foresaken. This authority is grounded in access to “superior (objective) knowledge to which intellectuals have a better access than the non-intellectual part of society”. This epistemic privilege is ensured via “procedural rules which assure the attainment of truth, the arrival at valid moral judgement, and the selection of proper artistic taste”. The social place of the intellectual professions is ensured by the universal validity of these procedural rule. It grants the intellectuals a crucial role in the “maintenance and perfection of  the social order”, entailing a right and duty to intervene in society in protection of it. 

    I’m going to write a lot more about this book at a later stage, but I wanted to record the key question it provoked in me: are we entering a new context in which the role of the intellectual is performed and what are the strategies developing in response to it? What Will Davies identifies as a declining efficacy of facts is a crucial part of this picture:

    Facts hold a sacred place in Western liberal democracies. Whenever democracy seems to be going awry, when voters are manipulated or politicians are ducking questions, we turn to facts for salvation.

    But they seem to be losing their ability to support consensus. PolitiFact has found that about 70 percent of Donald Trump’s “factual” statements actually fall into the categories of “mostly false,” “false” and “pants on fire” untruth.

    For the Brexit referendum, Leave argued that European Union membership costs Britain 350 million pounds a week, but failed to account for the money received in return.

    The sense is widespread: We have entered an age of post-truth politics.

    As politics becomes more adversarial and dominated by television performances, the status of facts in public debate rises too high. We place expectations on statistics and expert testimony that strains them to breaking point. Rather than sit coolly outside the fray of political argument, facts are now one of the main rhetorical weapons within it.


    This over-production and weaponisation of facts, driven by the long term change in the intellectual marketplace represented by the emergence of the think tank system, would surely seem to be the final nail in the coffin of the legislator role. However as Susan Halford and Mike Savage point out in an upcoming paper, the most prominent public intellectuals at present are those whose work is profoundly and radically empirical. Are these a hold out of the legislator role? A mutation of it? Or something else entirely?

    What Davies raises points to a broader problem facing the contemporary intellectual: in a fact-saturated environment, how can the authority of the facts offered by intellectuals be underwritten? Without facts, how can academic speech differentiate itself from conjecture, speculation or polemic? This question can be asked at a certain level of abstraction about ‘the intellectual’ as such, but it can also be asked much more mundanely about each and every instance of academic speech on societial matters made on social media. Should it be understood as a professional pronouncement? If so, is it authoritative and what is the basis for this authority?

    I wonder if the prominence of Will’s own analysis of Brexit could be an interesting case study in addressing these questions. Its authority wasn’t grounded on facts but insight. A timely and well-articulated  intervention at a point where received wisdom had been overturned and there was a pervasive sense of “what just happened?”. Can speed, insight and articulacy provide a grounding for the intellectual role under contemporary conditions? 

    What he says about the transition from facts to data is interesting:

    The promise of facts is to settle arguments between warring perspectives and simplify the issues at stake. For instance, politicians might disagree over the right economic policy, but if they can agree that “the economy has grown by 2 percent” and “unemployment is 5 percent,” then there is at least a shared stable reality that they can argue over

    The promise of data, by contrast, is to sense shifts in public sentiment. By analyzing Twitter using algorithms, for example, it is possible to get virtually real-time updates on how a given politician is perceived. This is what’s known as “sentiment analysis.”

    But I find this most plausible as a statement about shifting epistemological  fashions amongst powerful groups. The endemic methodological limitations of these approaches will generate confusion, uncertainty and conflict as they come to be relied upon ever more. It is this resulting mess that provides an opening to intellectuals to, as it were, turn private confusion into public issues.

    Will’s comment in response to this is really worth reading. I’ll blog more about this tomorrow:

    Thanks for your generous comments, Mark. As far as my own Brexit writing was concerned (the wide citation/sharing of which was a shock to me), I think that a kind of interpretive pragmatism has its own useful role during times of upheaval. All I did in blogging about Brexit was to point out some things that were quite clearly the case, and had been clearly the case for some time before the crisis struck. I think part of what people valued about that was it offered reassurance that interpretation and understanding were possible, if we just remain reasonably calm. Obviously that’s not as politically energising as reports of emergency or conflict, but it’s no less so than the presentation of ‘facts’. In that respect it’s an ‘interpreter’ role, but one which partly seeks to remind people of things they already instinctively know, sense or can imagine. At times when the world seems to be changing very rapidly (engulfing methodology and epistemology with it), there is value in narrating the conditions of change, which themselves are likely to be quite long-standing and recognisable to many.

    • willdavies 9:36 am on January 31, 2017 Permalink

      Thanks for your generous comments, Mark. As far as my own Brexit writing was concerned (the wide citation/sharing of which was a shock to me), I think that a kind of interpretive pragmatism has its own useful role during times of upheaval. All I did in blogging about Brexit was to point out some things that were quite clearly the case, and had been clearly the case for some time before the crisis struck. I think part of what people valued about that was it offered reassurance that interpretation and understanding were possible, if we just remain reasonably calm. Obviously that’s not as politically energising as reports of emergency or conflict, but it’s no less so than the presentation of ‘facts’. In that respect it’s an ‘interpreter’ role, but one which partly seeks to remind people of things they already instinctively know, sense or can imagine. At times when the world seems to be changing very rapidly (engulfing methodology and epistemology with it), there is value in narrating the conditions of change, which themselves are likely to be quite long-standing and recognisable to many.

    • lenandlar 12:33 pm on January 31, 2017 Permalink

      A space in the next iteration of social media for academics to get a bit political? Social media is an excellent space for this sort of activism and influencing isn’t it?

    • Mark 11:12 pm on January 31, 2017 Permalink

      Much appreciated, thanks Will. I’ll get back to you properly tomorrow but in the meantime will add this comment into the original blog post to ensure no one misses it.

    • Mark 7:56 pm on February 3, 2017 Permalink

      I try a bit! The publisher talked me out of focusing on it in the way I’d initially planned to though.

    • Aron Adams 5:08 am on July 14, 2018 Permalink

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      Our vision is to make the world more intellectual an creative, we believe that in future we will be doing the intellectual and creative jobs in the automated society, for which we are serving as a platform where people interact with knowledge, information, ideas, feedback and tools designed to cater the intellectual and creative needs of the user to collaboratively nurture and grow the intellection and creativity of the self and the community as a whole.

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  • Mark 10:09 am on June 15, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , bauman, , , , , , ,   

    Digital capitalism and the imperative to be noticed  

    In Ross Perlin’s Intern Nation, he writes of how interns voluntarily subjugate themselves in order to ‘be noticed’, even if they have little expectation that their internship will lead to a permanent job. From loc 1997:

    There is rarely much reason to believe that internships in the public sector or at nonprofits will convert directly to permanent employment—they seldom do—so the best one can hope for is to make an impression, be noticed, position yourself for something down the road.

    This coheres nicely with arguments Bauman has made recently about social media. The imperative to be noticed, the extroverted mirror image of the spectre of uselessness, thrives in an environment when occupational opportunities contract. People find themselves locked in an upward spiral of competitive escalation in their desperation to claim what are correctly felt to be a diminishing number of possibilities to claim the life long security and stability which post war capitalism was able to offer most of their parent’s and grandparent’s generations.

    What I mean by ‘contracting opportunities’ is best conveyed by a U.S. treasury official (and former intern) the author quotes on loc 2063: “There’s so much demand for this kind of career path and such a limited supply, so we’re able to dictate how to get into the process.” Internships can be an escape strategy, a desperate attempt to break out of a cycle of precarious work – with the number of job shifts by young people continuing to increase – into the receding upper echelons of secure and rewarding employment. But internships themselves reflect this precarious work, as hopeful interns are increasingly forced to undertaken chains of unpaid or barely paid internships in the hope of breaking into full time work.

    Part of the problem with internships is they further intensify this problem, making ensuing jobs more glamorous and exciting by allowing the transfer of administrative functions to the interns, as well as contracting the supply of entry level positions as organisations replace permanent staff with interns. Plus, as he succinctly observes on loc 3035, the internship system as a whole allows privileged children access to opportunities denied to others:

    For well-to-do and wealthy families seeking to guarantee their offspring’s future prosperity, internships are a powerful investment vehicle, an instrument of self-preservation in the same category as private tutoring, exclusive schools, and trust funds.

    A comparable strategy to internships and social media self-promotion is discussed on loc 2519:

    Staking everything on a career-launching internship, as sociologist Mark Granovetter points out, is not unlike working unpaid for shares in a Silicon Valley start-up: “There are a surprising number of people willing to work just for 50 or 60 thousand shares of a company that may never see the light of day … Unless they think that what the company is doing is the best thing since sliced bread, then they probably have no better alternative.” Interns at start-ups, such as “Nora,” often work for the possibility of getting an equity share in a company.

  • Mark 8:42 am on April 7, 2016 Permalink
    Tags: , bauman, , , ,   

    Bauman’s weirdly illiquid conception of liquidity, or, what happens when you confuse ontology and epistemology 

    From pg 67 of his Wasted Lives:

    With the passage of time, successive layers of emergent realities come into view, each calling for a deeper and more comprehensive revision of received beliefs and our conceptual net than was required by the one before in order for it to be scanned and its significance revealed. We haven’t reached the bottom layer yet; even if we did, though, we wouldn’t be able to decide for sure that we had.

    I recall other points where he writes like this. This is not liquidity, it’s lamination: successive layers of nested reality which we discover in an accelerating fashion. Liquidity is a feature of our experience, not of reality. Bauman ontologizes a phenomenological concept and then uses it to ground a thematic of modernity. Thoughts? This idea only just occurred to me but I suspect it would be an interesting critique to try and develop.

  • Mark 5:29 pm on April 1, 2016 Permalink
    Tags: , bauman, , , , , waste   

    On Redundancy  

    I’ve become ever more critical of Zygmunt Bauman in recent years. However I continue to see some value in his work and this passage, from his Wasted Lives pg 11-12, illustrates what I shall always like about his writing: 

    How different is the idea of ‘redundancy’ that has shot into prominence during the lifetime of Generation X! Where the prefix ‘un’ in ‘unemployment’ used to suggest a departure from the norm –as in ‘unhealthy’ or ‘unwell’ –there is no such suggestion in the notion of ‘redundancy’. No inkling of abnormality, anomaly, spell of ill-health or a momentary slip. ‘Redundancy’ whispers permanence and hints at the ordinariness of the condition. It names a condition without offering a ready-to-use antonym. It suggests a new shape of current normality and the shape of things that are imminent and bound to stay as they are. 

    To be ‘redundant’ means to be supernumerary, unneeded, of no use –whatever the needs and uses are that set the standard of usefulness and indispensability. The others do not need you; they can do as well, and better, without you. There is no self-evident reason for your being around and no obvious justification for your claim to the right to stay around. To be declared redundant means to have been disposed of because of being disposable –just like the empty and non-refundable plastic bottle or once-used syringe, an unattractive commodity with no buyers, or a substandard or stained product without use thrown off the assembly line by the quality inspectors. ‘Redundancy’ shares its semantic space with ‘rejects’, ‘wastrels’, ‘garbage’, ‘refuse’ –with waste. The destination of the unemployed, of the ‘reserve army of labour’, was to be called back into active service. The destination of waste is the waste-yard, the rubbish heap.

  • Mark 1:23 pm on March 5, 2016 Permalink
    Tags: , bauman, , , , , , , ,   

    The Politics of an Uncertain Future 


    The rise of the robots is a recurrent theme of popular culture. Robots are often seen as a threat, heralding the prospect of human beings being replaced by their creations, perhaps to the extent of being deemed useless by them and attacked. Underlying this fear is the reality of automation: technology being more adept at particular tasks and so replacing human beings for this purpose. But automation isn’t new. All manner of what we now consider mundane automated tasks were once undertaken by hand, representing whole categories of employment which have now wholly or largely vanished. For instance our phone system no longer relies on switchboard operators and withdrawal of money no longer necessitates interaction with a bank clerk. But technological change has often produced new jobs to replace those that have been lost. Human beings are adaptable. As a 1965 NASA report put it, “Man is the lowest-cost, 150-pound, nonlinear, all-purpose computer system which can be mass-produced by unskilled labour”. More often than not, technology has been used alongside human beings to improve their productivity, sometimes as a skilled tool and sometimes as a tool for deskilling, taking a skilled task and breaking it into component elements. In fact, some might argue that the history of scientific management, analysing and dictating workflows to improve economic efficiency, somewhat resembles an attempt to turn human beings into machines: replacing their skilled and situational responses with a pattern imposed by outside experts.

    But many are arguing that we are on the cusp of a turning point in automation. This is not a matter of hyper-intelligent robots replicating human capacities but rather of quite specific technological advances facilitating entirely new kinds of automation: what Jerry Kaplan describes as synthetic intellects and forged labourers. The first relies on advances in machine learning and cloud computing to process unprecedented quantities of data at speed, facilitating the rapid development of accumulated expertise in a particular sphere without strictly speaking ‘understanding’ it: the machine can learn from a much greater amount of data than was previously the case and the computational challenge involved in doing so can be distributed through the cloud. The second relies on developments in sensor technology to facilitate much more sophisticated engagements with the environment than has ever previously been possible, moving beyond highly specified tasks under strictly defined circumstances, allowing for entirely new work place designs built around the needs of the robot rather than the humans working alongside it. Rather than organising warehouses in a manner comprehensible to human packers, Amazon warehouses can now order their stock in a manner that seems chaotic to workers because items are located on the basis of imperceptible connections between them (e.g. sales data for this region shows that A and B are frequently shipped together) but allow the robot packers to work ever more efficiently:

    Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 14.21.18

    One of the most radical developments in the near future is likely to be self-driving cars, such as those currently under development at Google. As Kaplan notes, vehicle accidents cause 4 million injuries and cost over $870 billion annually in the United States alone. Seen in this light, the total switch to self-driving cars looks like common sense. But it will also destroy whole categories of existing jobs upon which millions of people depend, including those such as taxi driver which have traditionally been a reliable open route into the work force for new immigrants in many countries. However this has still up till recently be seen as a matter of automating routine jobs. What has seemingly provoked much of the controversy in recent years is the newfound recognition that what are seen to be skilled jobs will themselves be under threat. The most interesting example of this is Narrative Science’s innovative tools to automatically generate stories from structured datasets. Starting with formulaic business stories, they have since moved into sports stories and make a disturbingly convincing case that with enough sophistication about underlying narrative structures, this process can work for any appropriately structured dataset.


    This might not lead to all journalists losing their jobs but it certainly does suggest the possibility that much of the routine work of journalism might be automated. On the one hand, this could be seen as unproblematic given the financial challenges newspapers and magazines face at present: if it can be done cheaper, couldn’t this help secure journalism’s future? On the other hand, it’s difficult to see how the journalistic environment won’t suffer if routine entry level jobs are eliminated. Where will the stars of the future, those with sufficient individual expertise to resist automation, get their start? How will they become known? These are questions which have been raised across range of fields even prior to automation, as competitive pressures advantage those with sufficient financial resources and willingness to work for free. But the prospect of automation is likely to intensify this, ratcheting up the already endemic sense of uncertainty under which much of the workforce already labours.

    How are people responding to the uncertainty facing occupational futures? Though the basis for his claims is somewhat unclear, I find Zygmunt Bauman’s analysis of this intuitively plausible. He suggests that the spectre of exclusion, the possibility that we won’t make the cut and we will be cast out without hope or prospects, animates a profound need for recognition. We ‘recast ourselves as commodities’ in order to cope under these circumstances, desperately seeking visibility in order to better sell ourselves against a backdrop in which, as the economist Tyler Cowen puts it, average is over. Economic polarisation is becoming the defining feature of the contemporary economy. As Cowen puts it, writing about the United States, “Demand is rising for low-pay, low-skill jobs, and it is rising for high-pay, high-skill jobs, including tech and managerial jobs, but pay is not rising for the jobs in between” (pg 40).

    What Bauman is offering constitutes a speculative social psychology of how people respond to this condition of profound polarisation. If we’re aware that opportunities are contracting and that our future security is uncertain then these fears find FT_15.02.06_europeanMillSuccessexpression in a competitive scramble to ensure we are recognised and valued: as commodities, if not necessarily as persons. He suggests that much social media behaviour can be seen as an expression of this impulse (though many, including myself, would object to generalisations about how people in general behave across social media in general). But I nonetheless think it identifies something interesting about the fame-seeking cultures that can be found across many platforms, even if there’s a tendency to “publicize successful outliers to propagate the illusion” in a way that serves the self-interest of platforms. The growing tendency toFT_15.02.06_europeanMillWork be fascinated with wealthy Vloggers, in virtue of the fact they are wealthy through vlogging, embodies something of this. Does the fact some people have seemingly secured their own future through social media visibility help propagate the sense that this is a viable strategy for many others? By definition there can only be a handful of celebrities on any platform. What we do know is how many young people see their future as determined by forces outside of their control, insusceptible to change through the avenues of work and education that older generations claim is a pathway to success.

    Could fame culture thrive alongside this fatalism? People pray that they will ‘be discovered’ while also despairing about a future that seems beyond their control? What Furlong and Cartmel call the ‘epistemological fallacy of late modernity’ is a recipe for anxiety: the precise way in which opportunities constrain individuals has become more obscure than ever in a culture of competitive individualism which increasingly lacks the cultural resources to make sense of classed experience, while individuals are made to feel responsible for their biographical outcomes as pure expressions of their own talent and exertion.

    Talent becomes fetishised under these circumstances. We can see this when Boris Johnson mocks the 16% ‘of our species’ with an IQ below 85 and praises the 2% with an IQ over 130. We can see it in the way that Donald Trump repeatedly proclaims that “I’m, like, a really smart person”, while condemning his rivals as not smart, without explaining what this really means or how it qualifies him for office. It’s why the popularisation of developmental neuroscience is so sinister: it heralds a social imaginary in which ‘talent’ can be understood as hardwired, while still acknowledging that circumstances plays a role in how these characteristics are inscribed in the human i.e. it justifies present arrangements while licensing punitive interventions against parents who fail to raise their children in a way conducive to the genesis of talent. Looking to the more ridiculous forms this fetishisation of talent takes can help us critique the more insidious and sophisticated variants that are increasingly dominant. This case can be made in particular about the most popular forms of self-help in recent years:

    And this is the most remarkable feat of The Secret: its ability to defend inequality. While the 99 per cent has become a worldwide slogan questioning the concentration of wealth, the author of The Secret offers an alternative view of the situation. ‘Why do you think that 1 percent of the population earns around 97 percent of all the money that’s being earned?’, Bob Proctors is asked rhetorically in the book, answering, ‘People who have drawn wealth into their lived used The Secret, whether consciously or unconsciously. They think thoughts of abundance and wealth, and they do not allow any contradictory thoughts to take root in their mind.

    The Wellness Syndrome, Carl Cederstrom & Andre Spicer, pg 80

    What makes The Secret so interesting is how nakedly metaphysical it is. The affluent do it ‘unconsciously’ and that is why they are affluent. Those who are not nonetheless have the choice to do it. If they do it correctly then they too will become affluent. If they do not then they deserve their fate. This bizarre concept of “The Secret” fascinates me because it’s easy to see how it holds the whole picture together: this latent faculty, to which we all have access, allows us to succeed. Some people are disposed to access it already (inherited privilege) but this places no restriction on others. We can all access this latent ability to be a success if only we choose to do so and then use it in the proper way. Or to put it more mundanely: “there are plenty of good jobs out there for those who want them, it’s just that people don’t try”. The idea that differential outcomes can be explained away in terms of the moral failings of individuals means we take the existing state of society and the economy for granted: there aren’t questions to be asked about social structures, just more failings to be condemned in individuals. This is something

    These are trends we can already see in contemporary society. My depressing question: how might they intensify under circumstances of widespread structural redundancy? What if the low-wage, low-skill jobs into economic polarisation is forcing much of the workforce rapidly begin to vanish? What will happen if 47% of jobs are eventually automated? It’s possible many new categories of job might open up but, as suggested earlier, there are good reasons to be sceptical about the scale and speed of this replacement. Will those who can’t find work be seen as unfortunate victims of unavoidable change or as moral failures placing a burden on the ‘wealth creators’? Will they mobilise themselves to collectively struggle for the transformation of a social order incapable of providing them access to the good life or will they be mobilised by others through potentially surreptitious means to serve the ends of those who are already wealthy and powerful? Popular culture provides us with many dystopian representations of what this might look like. The graphic novel Lazarus paints a bleak picture of a world in which nation states have been superseded by corporations and a small number of families dominate the planet. There are those who serve the families and those who are surplus to their needs, with the former group being composed of those who have been ‘elevated’ from the latter category. The possibility of freedom from insecurity and struggle represents a powerful tool to keep the population in line, coupled with private militaries to enforce this order through violence:


    There are many other dystopian representations of a possible future in which there is little work or security for the majority of the population. However there are also popular representations of worlds in which scarcity has been conquered and everyone’s needs are met: ones in which some people still strive for work and adventure because of the intrinsic rewards that these provide. These are only representations but they are the resources we inevitably draw upon, deliberately or otherwise, when imagining the PRluddites1possibilities ahead of us for how these trends will unfold. Both of these categories however tie utopian or dystopian outcomes to the technology itself: seeing it as either liberating us or rendering us redundant. How does this suppress the role of politics – i.e. the tension and conflict between groups with different interests – in determining the outcome of these processes? Does it also preclude the possibility that our future might see a turn against technology, as something deemed to be responsible for systematic disenfranchisement? Would a neo-luddite movement be possible? Or are people too wedded to their devices? Would powerful interests allow such a movement, given the centrality of technology firms to the contemporary economy and the new possibilities for surveillance and control which the internet opens up? These are all open questions but they’re ones which sociology can help us think through in a systematic way, even if not necessarily answer.

  • Mark 8:57 pm on August 27, 2015 Permalink
    Tags: , bauman, , , publicity, , ,   

    social media and the promise of never again being alone  

    From Liquid Surveillance: a conversation by Zygmunt Bauman and David Lyon, pg 22-23. I heard Bauman make these arguments at re:publica earlier this year and was rather impressed. As ever with him, it’s immensely impressionistic but I think he identifies something important that has been substantiated by other work, most obviously Alice Marwick’s ethnography of the tech scene in Silicon Valley: the fear of exclusion, anxiety in the face of the prospect that we fail to make the cut in occupational structures that increasingly reward only the superstars and doom the rest to a lifetime of precarity, engenders a neurotic embrace of possibility in the hope that we become somebody, rather than being consigned to life as a forgotten nobody.

    On the one hand, the old panoptical stratagem (‘you should never know when you are being watched in the flesh and so never be unwatched in your mind’) is being gradually yet consistently and apparently unstoppably brought to well- nigh universal implementation. On the other, with the old panoptical nightmare (‘I am never on my own’) now recast into the hope of ‘never again being alone’ (abandoned, ignored and neglected, blackballed and excluded), the fear of disclosure has been stifled by the joy of being noticed.

    Having one’s own complete being, warts and all, registered in publicly accessible records seems to be the best prophylactic antidote against the toxicity of exclusion – as well as a potent way to keep the threat of eviction away; indeed, it is a temptation few practitioners of admittedly precarious social existence will feel strong enough to resist. I guess that the story of the recent phenomenal success of ‘social websites’ is a good illustration of the trend.

    And on page 27 Bauman further expands upon the moral psychology of publicity in ‘liquid modernity’: again, it’s rampantly impressionistic and the way he writes obscures a profound empirical variability he seemingly has no interest in recognising, but he offers an important insight into a socio-cultural trend:

    These days, it is not so much the possibility of a betrayal or violation of privacy that frightens us, but the opposite: shutting down the exits. The area of privacy turns into a site of incarceration, the owner of private space being condemned and doomed to stew in his or her own juice; forced into a condition marked by an absence of avid listeners eager to wring out and tear away the secrets from behind the ramparts of privacy, to put them on public display and make them everybody’s shared property and a property everybody wishes to share. We seem to experience no joy in having secrets , unless they are the kinds of secrets likely to enhance our egos by attracting the attention of researchers and editors of TV talk shows, tabloid front pages and the covers of glossy magazines.

    But there are, inevitably, things which bug me immensely about this text. For instance he draws upon a lengthy quotation from a book edited by Nicole Aubert, L’Individu hypermoderne, describing remarks published in 2004 as ‘recent’ observations, implying they tell us things of interest about social media that basically didn’t exist at the time of their writing and intimating they are grounded in substantial empirical consensus which he makes no effort to convey.

    It’s just lazy scholarship and I’m increasingly bothered by the manner in which Bauman gets applauded for it, all the while crowding out other voices through his endless capacity to riff upon a metaphor of liquidity which even on the most charitable interpretation has nothing more than heuristic value. To any critics bridling at this: I’ve probably read more Bauman than you (I’ve read upwards of 15 of these cover to cover) so, if you think I’m being unfair, offer some textual justification of this before you have a go at me. I don’t want to repeat the tedious exchanges about Zizek I got locked into a couple of years ago.

    I take Bauman’s fundamental point to be a familiar one about the necessity of self-marketing under contemporary circumstances. As he writes on page 31 and 32:

    They are simultaneously promoters of commodities and the commodities they promote . They are, at the same time, the merchandise and their marketing agents, the goods and their travelling salespersons (and let me add that any academics who ever applied for a teaching job or research funds will easily recognize their own predicament in that experience). In whatever bracket they may be filed by the composers of statistical tables, they all inhabit the same social space known under the name of the market . Under whatever rubric their preoccupations might be classified by governmental archivists or investigative journalists, the activity in which all of them are engaged (whether by choice or necessity, or most commonly both) is marketing . The test they need to pass in order to be admitted to the social prizes they covet demands them to recast themselves as commodities : that is, as products capable of drawing attention, and attracting demand and customers .

    As with the earlier material, I find the broad brush strokes used by Bauman rather dissatisfying. But I think he offers suggestions about something important: the moral psychological mechanisms underpinning branding and self-promotion. Fear of redundancy drives us to embrace usefulness, embodied in the relentless articulation of our instrumental value in the broader scheme of things.

  • Mark 2:00 pm on October 1, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: bauman, daniel pink, free agent nation,   

    Free Agent Nation OR what precarity looks like for the winners 

    Daniel Pink, author of Free Agent Nation, makes being a ‘free agent’ sound pretty great. But then as a former political insider at the heart of the Democratic machine in the 90s and more latterly a business guru and best selling author, it seems likely that his experiences of being a free agent have been, well, pretty great.

    But my point is not to attack the concept. After a number of years as a self-styled ‘freelance sociologist’, albeit not an enormously well paid one, I have long seen the attraction of the model of work Pink so appealingly describes. However it’s in that self same capacity qua sociologist that I can’t help but recognise the duality of this ‘freedom’ and how emblematic it is of the ambivalent nature of life in late capitalism. As Zygmunt Bauman has argued in his work on globalization, mobility is the condition of those at the very top and the very bottom. The global elite slip free of national constraints, circulating the globe in cosmopolitan splender as they lead their strange dance with similarly mobile global capital. Meanwhile those at the bottom are equally mobile, as the struggle for shelter and sustenance inculcates the frantic mobility of the migrant.

    Likewise the free agent nation might be great for some, as they escape the deadening bonds of sedentary bureaucracy  and fashion a protean occupational self beyond the constraints which bind others. But for most others, it’s a life of insecurity and risk, an increasingly vicious cycle of unemployment, underemployment and fixed term contracts. Perhaps Pink’s book would benefit from a new subtitle? Free Agent Nation: what precarity looks like for the winners.

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