There’s a fascinating mea culpa in Jaron Lanier’s new book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. On loc 411 he describes how early design decisions, inspired by the libertarian ethos taking hold within the tech community, created the openings for the global monopolies we now see emerging:

Originally, many of us who worked on scaling the internet hoped that the thing that would bring people together—that would gain network efect and lock-in—would be the internet itself. But there was a libertarian wind blowing, so we left out many key functions. The internet in itself didn’t include a mechanism for personal identity, for instance. Each computer has its own code number, but people aren’t represented at all. Similarly, the internet in itself doesn’t give you any place to store even a small amount of persistent information, any way to make or receive payments, or any way to find other people you might have something in common with. Everyone knew that these functions and many others would be needed. We figured it would be wiser to let entrepreneurs fill in the blanks than to leave that task to government. What we didn’t consider was that fundamental digital needs like the ones I just listed would lead to new kinds of massive monopolies because of network efects and lock-in. We foolishly laid the foundations for global monopolies. We did their hardest work for them. More precisely, since you’re the product, not the customer of social media, the proper word is “monopsonies.” Our early libertarian idealism resulted in gargantuan, global data monopsonies.

If I understand him correctly, he is suggesting that these functions could have been built into the infrastructure of the internet itself rather than becoming services fulfilled by corporate providers. This passage reminded me of a recent keynote by danah boyd, reflecting on how utopian dreams concerning digital technology have come to seem untenable with time:

A decade ago, academics that I adore were celebrating participatory culture as emancipatory, noting that technology allowed people to engage with culture in unprecedented ways. Radical leftists were celebrating the possibilities of decentralized technologies as a form of resisting corporate power. Smart mobs were being touted as the mechanism by which authoritarian regimes could come crashing down.

Now, even the most hardened tech geek is quietly asking:

What hath we wrought?

This intellectual utopianism concerned the products of the original digital utopians themselves, innovators who sought to “disrupt the status quo, but weren’t at all prepared for what it would mean when they controlled the infrastructure underlying democracy, the economy, the media, and communication”. Recognising the role of dreams in shaping technology isn’t just a matter of how they inspire people to create but also recognising what happens when they go wrong. These aren’t just a froth of naiveté on the surface of a dark materiality lurking beneath. They are rather a force in their own right, changing the world they sought to improve as the ambitions underlying them curdle in the darkening reality they have contributed to.

I’ve been reflecting on a dark but plausible prediction by Edwards Snowden in his forward to The Assination Complex by Jeremy Scahill and the team from the intercept. On loc 195 he argues that the technological barriers to ubiquitous drone surveillance are now minimal:

Inevitably that conceptual subversion finds its way home, along with the technology that enables officials to promote comfortable illusions about surgical killing and nonintrusive surveillance. Take, for instance, the Holy Grail of drone persistence, a capability that the United States has been pursuing forever. The goal is to deploy solar-powered drones that can loiter in the air for weeks without coming down. Once you can do that, and you put any typical signals-collection device on the bottom of it to monitor, unblinkingly, the emanations of, for example, the different network addresses of every laptop, smartphone, and iPod, you know not just where a particular device is in what city, but you know what apartment each device lives in, where it goes at any particular time, and by what route. Once you know the devices, you know their owners. When you start doing this over several cities, you’re tracking the movements not just of individuals but of whole populations. By preying on the modern necessity to stay connected, governments can reduce our dignity to something like that of tagged animals, the primary difference being that we paid for the tags and they’re in our pockets. It sounds like fantasist paranoia, but on the technical level it’s so trivial to implement that I cannot imagine a future in which it won’t be attempted. It will be limited to the war zones at first, in accordance with our customs, but surveillance technology has a tendency to follow us home.

The basic claim here is one we should take seriously: if technically feasible means of surveillance aren’t challenged, we face an inevitable slide towards their introduction. What currently exists within states of exception (a category that can range from war zones to mega-events) risks expanding into the everyday. How the introduction of techniques to areas outside normality is responded to will prove crucial for determining the contours of the new normal.

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.

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.

A disturbing scenario from John Urry’s What is the Future? From loc 2996-3045:

The final scenario involves the development of the Fortress City. Rich societies break away from the poorer into fortified enclaves. Those able to live in gated and armed encampments would do so, with much privatizing of what were, in many societies, public or collective functions (Davis 2000; Graham 2011; Leichenko, Thomas, Baines 2010: 142). Outside the enclaves would be ‘wild zones’ which the powerful would pass through as fast as possible. Systems of long-range mobility would only be available for the super-rich. Bauman maintains that one key technique of power is: ‘escape, slippage, elision and avoidance, the effective rejection of any territorial confinement’ –to have the power to avoid being trapped by others, to escape into ‘sheer inaccessibility’ (2000: 11). There are many examples of such elites exiting from where obligations would be extracted. The elite, we can suggest, are increasingly ‘absentee landlords’ with potential for exit mobility, if and when the ‘going gets tough’ (Bauman 2000: 13; Urry 2014a).

This future involves ‘fortressed’ walled cities and an extensive ‘security-ization’ of populations, similar in some ways to cities in the medieval period which provided protection against raiders, invaders and diseases. Those outside the enclaves would be unable or unwilling to travel far. Long-distance travel would be risky and probably only undertaken if people or machines were armed. The rich would mainly travel in the air in armed helicopters or light aircraft, a pattern already prefigured in contemporary Sao Paulo, as noted above (Budd 2013; Cwerner 2009). Futurists Gallopin, Hammond, Raskin and Swart thus argued: ‘the elite retreat to protected enclaves, mostly in historically rich nations, but in favoured enclaves in poor nations, as well …Pollution is also exported outside the enclaves, contributing to the extreme environmental deterioration induced by the unsustainable practices of the desperately poor and by the extraction of resources for the wealthy’ (1997: 34). 

Such an energy-and knowledge-starved city would entail falling standards of living, a greater focus upon the ‘products’ of the increasingly privatized security industry, probable re-localization of mobility patterns, towns and cities built for visitors deteriorating into ghost towns, and an increasing frequency of resource-related ‘new wars’ (Kaldor, Karl, Said 2007). These would involve private mercenaries as well as statist military forces; de-professionalized armies (sometimes made up of ‘boys’); the use of cheap weapons bought through the market/ internet; an asymmetry of military force with no fixed ‘fronts’ or treaties and peace processes; the military targeting of civilians through, inter alia, suicide bombing and drone attacks; the role of warlords combining entrepreneurial and military skills; and the tendency for such wars to last interminable periods of time. Lives in the Fortress City would be conducted with the continuous spectre of warfare, the militarization of young men and the raping of women and girls as constant threats to a decent life. 

This is a ‘neo-Mediaevalist’ vision of cities of the future. As in the Middle Ages, there would be little democracy, limited state power to govern legitimately, many non-state bodies with a mix of military and ideological powers, much illegal movement of peoples across borders, various empires, many new wars and intense conflict over scarce resources. City lives would be as in Hobbes’ Leviathan: ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’. Lovelock points to the ‘peaking’ of oil, gas and water, as well as ‘western life’ more generally. Shortages will make economic production and social lives more local than appeared likely during the increasingly mobile twentieth century (see Chapter 3 above).

An admirably concise definition by Trebor Scholz on loc 432 of Uberworked and Underpaid:

This term can be briefly described as follows:

First, it is about cloning the technological heart of Uber, Task Rabbit, Airbnb, or UpWork. Platform cooperativism creatively embraces, adapts, or reshapes technologies of the sharing economy, putting them to work with different ownership models. It is in this sense that platform cooperativism is about structural change, a transformation of ownership models.

Second, platform cooperativism is about solidarity, sorely missing in an economy driven by a distributed and mostly anonymous workforce: the interns, freelancers, temps, project-based workers, and independent contractors. Platforms can be owned and operated by inventive unions, cities, and various other forms of cooperatives such as worker-owned, produser-owned (producer-user –produser), multi-stakeholder, co-ops.

Third, platform cooperativism is built on reframing concepts like innovation and efficiency with an eye toward benefiting all, not just sucking up profits for the few. I propose ten principles of platform cooperativism that are sensitive to the critical problems facing the digital economy right now. Platform capitalism is amazingly ineffective in watching out for people.

The emerging ideology of the tech-lords:

A subculture within the industry that brought you Angry Birds is forming: the techlord. Techlords are the special subset of the nouveau riche who see themselves above the petty restrictions that apply to lesser people. They might feel that they possess an identity which is singled out for hate crimes by virtue of existing, or that government regulation is stifling innovation by their superior minds. These are the start-up monarchs/dictators-for-life who become disillusioned with democracy and, like Thiel, find it incompatible with their work. When discussing capitalistic liberalism’s inherent dilemma of balancing freedom and equality, they will solve it by doing away with equality altogether. The most accessible individualistic ideology for techlords, then, is libertarianism. Their brand of  “cyberlibertarianism” is a pervasive ideology which is flexible enough to influence even the Democratic voters of Silicon Valley. Rather than serving as an ideological end, this libertarianism opens the door to more extreme far-right thought, with which it frequently aligns strategically and fundamentally.

A status grounded in hagiography: celebrating these visionary leaders, able to transcend the limits which bind the rest of us, offering us access to transcendence through our participation in the great disruptive project:

Thiel and his circle in Silicon Valley may be able to imagine a future that would never occur to other people precisely because they’ve refused to leave that stage of youthful wonder which life forces most human beings to outgrow. Everyone finds justification for his or her views in logic and analysis, but a personal philosophy often emerges from some archaic part of the mind, an early idea of how the world should be. Thiel is no different. He wants to live forever, have the option to escape to outer space or an oceanic city-state, and play chess against a robot that can discuss Tolkien, because these were the fantasies that filled his childhood imagination.

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/11/28/no-death-no-taxes

I came across the notion of Travis’s law in The Upstarts, by Brad Stone, loc 2950:

Kalanick had broken every rule in the advocacy handbook. Nevertheless, Uber’s lawyers and lobbyists, who had begged him, unsuccessfully, to seek compromise and testify with humility, began to whisper in reverent tones about a new political dictate that contravened all their old assumptions. Travis’s Law. It went something like this: Our product is so superior to the status quo that if we give people the opportunity to see it or try it, in any place in the world where government has to be at least somewhat responsive to the people, they will demand it and defend its right to exist.

In the last few weeks, I’ve written a few times about the epistemological questions posed by post-democracy. This notion put forward by Colin Crouch sees transitions within mature democracies as involving a hollowing out of democratic  structures rather than a dramatic shift to non-democracy. As he described it in a recent interview I did with him:

I defined post-democracy as a situation where all the institutions of democracy – elections, changes of government, free debate, rule of law – continue, but they become a charade, because democratic institutions have been surpassed as major decision-making entities by small groups of financial and political elites. I argued, not that we had reached such a situation in most western countries – there is far too much lively politics for that – but that we were on the road towards it.

This runs contrary to many folk theories of democracy’s death, tending as they do to associate the end of democracy with a sudden seizure of power. It would be foolish to deny this as a possibility, not least of all because political scientists have ably theorised this as ‘authoritarian reversion’:

We think that comparative experience demonstrates that there are two distinct forms of backsliding, each with its own mechanisms and modal end-states. We call these authoritarian reversion and constitutional retrogression. The basic difference between reversion and retrogression as we use the terms is how fast and how far backsliding goes. Authoritarian reversion is a wholesale, rapid collapse into authoritarianism. Such a wholesale movement away from democracy most often occurs through the mechanism of a military coup d’état or via the use of emergency powers.

https://balkin.blogspot.co.uk/2017/01/what-is-shadow-on-democracy.html?m=1

One of the reasons conversations about post-democracy have entered the mainstream is the number of unfolding cases we can see at present. The authors of the aforementioned blog post cite Hungary and Poland but we could just as easily point to Brazil or Turkey:

Examples of retrogression abound. In both Hungary and Poland, for example, elected governments have recently hastened to enact a suite of legal and institutional changes that simultaneously squeeze out electoral competition, undermine liberal rights of democratic participation, and emasculate legal stability and predictability. In Venezuela between 1999 and 2013, the regime established by Hugo Chávez has aggregated executive power, limited political opposition, attacked academia, and stifled independent media. Crucially, across these examples and others, democratic decay is catalyzed incrementally and under the “mask of law”: It is a death by a thousand cuts, rather than the clean slice of the coup maker.

https://balkin.blogspot.co.uk/2017/01/what-is-shadow-on-democracy.html?m=1

The extent to which our democratic imaginary is dominated by examples of such authoritarian reversion works to squeeze out constitutional regression. This is further compounded by what I’ve argued are pronounced tendencies in how we conceive of social continuity:

  1. We tend towards a generic assumption of the durability of social structures.
  2. We tend even more strongly towards a generic assumption of the durability of social formations (i.e. assemblages of social structures)
  3. We tend to miss the origins of social formations in the intended and unintended consequences of deliberate action, as well as the interactions between them.
  4. We tend to reason inductively and, in doing so, miss the possibility that the future will be radically distinct from the past.
  5. Even if we deny it intellectually, we tend towards exceptionalism in how we see social formations which are deeply familiar to us.

What capacity we have to recognise the possibility of large scale change reduces it epochal transitions. We have one social formation then we have another, with a detailed conception of the process of change being subsumed into the (inflated sense of the) agency of some macro-actor  whose machinations account for the real or imagined transition. This is why a gradual process of retrogression struggles to register at the level of political experience:

Retrogression, on the other hand, is a more subtle and insidious process. It involves a more incremental, but still ultimately substantial, decay in the three basic predicates of democracy, namely competitive elections, liberal rights to speech and association, and the rule of law necessary for democratic choice to thrive.

One of our core claims is that scholars have largely focused on the possibility of swift autocratic reversions such as a coup d’etat (as in Thailand, Mali, and Mauritania) or via the use of emergency powers (most famously, in Weimar Germany). But we think that threat of constitutional retrogression—a more insidious form of institutional erosion—is more substantial.

https://balkin.blogspot.co.uk/2017/01/what-is-shadow-on-democracy.html?m=1

The threat is indeed more substantial and our awareness of it is limited by many factors. But some of these, I wish argue, should be understood as epistemological. A process of this sort is harder to conceive of because many of the ways in which we tend to think of social change militate against it.

What I have written so far is prospective, concerning how we imaginatively orientate ourselves to a future possibility. But the same issue confronts attempts to conceive of what is ongoing because such a retrogression is, as these authors describe it, “a death by a thousand cuts, rather than the clean slice of the coup maker”:

Each of the individual changes may be innocuous (or even) defensible in isolation. But a sufficient quantity of even incremental derogations from the democratic baseline, in our view, can precipitate a qualitative change that merits a shift in regime classification. Understanding where, how, and whether that happens in the United States, we think, is furthered by a close study of experience of other countries.

A sufficient quantity of isolated occurrences across the system can cumulatively constitute a qualitative change in the system itself. Democracy can unravel around us, without any grand announcements of its death. Recognising the epistemological obstacles to acknowledging this unraveling can help us appreciate the urgency of the situation we are beginning to face.

There are two issues which have long fascinated me that seem more salient with each passing day. Our struggle to conceptualise long term social change from within (particularly the possibility of civilisational collapse) and the transition away from democratic government. Cinematic spectacle dominates the imaginary through we conceive of either, whether this is our imagery of what a collapsed social order would look like or our bleak authoritarian dystopias. As Thomas Pepinsky observes in this excellent article:

The mental image that most Americans harbor of what actual authoritarianism looks like is fantastical and cartoonish. This vision has jackbooted thugs, all-powerful elites acting with impunity, poverty and desperate hardship for everyone else, strict controls on political expression and mobilization, and a dictator who spends his time ordering the murder or disappearance of his opponents using an effective and wholly compliant security apparatus. This image of authoritarianism comes from the popular media (dictators in movies are never constrained by anything but open insurrection), from American mythmaking about the Founding (free men throwing off the yoke of British tyranny), and from a kind of “imaginary othering” in which the opposite of democracy is the absence of everything that characterizes the one democracy that one knows.

http://www.vox.com/the-big-idea/2017/1/9/14207302/authoritarian-states-boring-tolerable-fascism-trump

Our images of collapse are perhaps no more veridical. We imagine post-apocalyptic scenarios where we entirely descend into chaos while stuck on an earth we have ruined. Or finding salvation through technology in an escape to space. But as Peter Frase argues in Four Futures, the substantive questions posed by crises of this severity are much more complex. From loc 1103:

The real question is not whether human civilization can survive ecological crises, but whether all of us can survive it together, in some reasonably egalitarian way. Although the extinction of humanity as a result of climate change is possible, it is highly unlikely. Only somewhat more plausible is the collapse of society and a return to some kind of premodern new Dark Ages. Maintaining a complex, technologically advanced society no doubt requires a large number of people. But it does not necessarily require all 7 billion of us, and the premise of this book is that the number of people required is on the decline because of the technical developments outlined in Chapter 1 .

Our social imaginaries of crisis and collapse are depoliticising. They obscure questions of distribution, interest and power. They embody what the late Mark Fisher called capitalist realism: a putatively gritty look at the ‘reality’ of a situation, real or imagined, which in actual fact mythologises the system within which this representation is constructed. This is perhaps not surprising because much of the explosion of social representation has taken place roughly alongside the onset of post-democracy. We’re now seeing a deepening of the post-democratic tendency at a time of social crisis. This is why it’s crucial that we begin to think more deeply about how we represent crisis and the implications this has for our politics.

One way of doing this is to look at examples of systemic change that are presently taking place. Owen Jones has an excellent (in a depressing way) report from time he’s spent in Turkey recently:

Turkey’s regime is fast degenerating into outright dictatorship, emboldened by the imminent ascent of Donald Trump to the most powerful position on Earth. I spent last week with Turkey’s beleaguered opposition parties, newspapers and activists. Their courage is inspiring, their plight distressing.

Last July an attempted military coup failed to dislodge the autocratic president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The backlash was swift. As Human Rights Watch reported, the regime took advantage of the moment “to crack down on human rights and dismantle basic democratic safeguards”. More than 120,000 Turks have been sacked, nearly 90,000 detained, and more than 40,000 have been arrested, 144 of them journalists. Turkey is a world leader in jailing media workers, with some 160 outlets closed.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jan/18/turkey-democracy-erdogan-trump-authoritarians

The human rights situation is appalling. Those journalists and opposition activists not arrested are harassed en masse. The opposition is accused of terrorist links and subject to furious marginalisation. It’s becoming a crime to ‘insult’ the President. And something akin to an enabling act is on its way. As Jones goes on to argue, there are obvious affinities to other national contexts:

The west is largely silent. And Erdoğan is triumphalist. Last July Trump praised Erdoğan for “turning it around” after the attempted coup. And Erdoğan cheered Trump’s car-crash press conference last week: Trump, who told a CNN reporter that the organisation he worked for produced fake news, had – according to Erdoğan – put the reporter “in his place” because media organisations such as CNN “undermine national unity”.

Turkey’s fragile democracy is being bled to death. It is dusk for democracy in Poland and Hungary too, as populist rightwing governments keep the superficial trappings of democracy for appearance’s sake but hollow it out in practice. Now that the demagogue Trump is about to become the world’s most powerful man, the authoritarians believe history is on their side.

Turkey is a warning: democracy is precious but fragile. It underlines how rights and freedoms are often won at great cost and sacrifice but can be stripped away by regimes exploiting national crises. The danger is that Turkey won’t be an exception, but a template of how to rid countries of democracy. That is reason enough to stand by Turkey. Who knows which country could be next?

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jan/18/turkey-democracy-erdogan-trump-authoritarians

But how seriously do we take that possibility? We need to be careful of what Cory Robin describes as the ‘politics of fear’ reaching the left: “a politics that is grounded on fear, that takes inspiration and meaning from fear, that sees in fear a wealth of experience and a layer of profundity that cannot be found in other experience”. Such a politics of fear denies agency as well. The point is not that these changes are inexorable but that the window of opportunity, given the prevailing balance of forces, might be contracting precipitously as darkness looms on the horizon. If we conflate non-democracy with totalitarianism, we’re liable to entrench this lack of sensitivity to the possibilities now ahead of us. The reality of Democracy’s death would be banal for the majority, at least most of the time:

The reality is that everyday life under the kinds of authoritarianism that exist today is very familiar to most Americans. You go to work, you eat your lunch, you go home to your family. There are schools and businesses, and some people “make it” through hard work and luck. Most people worry about making sure their kids get into good schools. The military is in the barracks, and the police mostly investigate crimes and solve cases. There is political dissent, if rarely open protest, but in general people are free to complain to one another. There are even elections. This is Malaysia, and many countries like it.

Everyday life in the modern authoritarian regime is, in this sense, boring and tolerable. It is not outrageous. Most critics, even vocal ones, are not going to be murdered, as Anna Politkovskaya was in Russia; they are going to be frustrated. Most not-very-vocal critics will live their lives completely unmolested by the security forces. They will enjoy it when the trains run on time, blame the government when they do not, gripe about their taxes, and save for vacation. Elections, when they happen, will serve the “anesthetic function” that Philippe Schmitter attributed — in the greatly underappreciated 1978 volume Elections without Choice to elections in Portugal under Salazar.

http://www.vox.com/the-big-idea/2017/1/9/14207302/authoritarian-states-boring-tolerable-fascism-trump

The point is that, as Pepinsky puts it, “Life under authoritarian rule in such situations looks a lot like life in a democracy”. The sooner we realise that, the easier it is to acknowledge that people can tolerate non-democracy because democratic governance can become a low priority. This has important implications for our political orientation to the apparent fragility of democratic structures, as Pepinsky argues in the culmination of his essay:

It is possible to read what I’ve written here as a defense of authoritarianism, or as a dismissal of democracy. But my message is the exact opposite. The fantasy of authoritarianism distracts Americans from the mundane ways in which the mechanisms of political competition and checks and balances can erode. Democracy has not survived because the alternatives are acutely horrible, and if it ends, it will not end in a bang.

It is more likely that democracy ends with a whimper, when the case for supporting it — the case, that is, for everyday democracy — is no longer compelling.

http://www.vox.com/the-big-idea/2017/1/9/14207302/authoritarian-states-boring-tolerable-fascism-trump

A fascinating essay exploring the possible relationship between Nick Land’s right-accelerationism and possible future techno-reactionary movements:

Nick Land, like Moldbug and many other neoreactionaries, typically shuns the term “fascist.” Admittedly, they have some good reasons to do so: despite NRx racism and authoritarianism, its political economy is closer to Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore than Hitler’s Reich. Yet there’s a problem. Land is an elitist, more loyal to IQ than ethnicity, and with a marked contempt for the “inarticulate proles” of neoreaction’s white nationalist wing. But Land himself notes that it’s precisely these “proles” that make up most of the actual “reactosphere,” and that “if reaction ever became a popular movement, its few slender threads of bourgeois (or perhaps dreamily ‘aristocratic’) civility wouldn’t hold back the beast for long.” It’s entirely possible that reaction never does become a popular movement — a new economic boom, for one, would do a lot to soothe the disaffection on which it feeds — yet if it were to grow, the proposed alliance of convenience between the tech elite and an intransigent white identity politics begins to look a lot like the Nazi coalition of German industrialists and a downwardly-mobile middle class. That doesn’t mean it’s “fascism,” a term both so broad and so particular as to be all but meaningless these days, per se. But in the twenty-first century, it may be that the Dark Enlightenment is what we get instead.

https://theawl.com/the-darkness-before-the-right-84e97225ac19#.172o7v5ku

I just came across this remarkable estimate in an Economist feature on surveillance. I knew digitalisation made surveillance cheaper but I didn’t realise quite how much cheaper. How much of the creeping authoritarianism which characterises the contemporary national security apparatus in the UK and US is driven by a familiar impulse towards efficiency?

The agencies not only do more, they also spend less. According to Mr Schneier, to deploy agents on a tail costs $175,000 a month because it takes a lot of manpower. To put a GPS receiver in someone’s car takes $150 a month. But to tag a target’s mobile phone, with the help of a phone company, costs only $30 a month. And whereas paper records soon become unmanageable, electronic storage is so cheap that the agencies can afford to hang on to a lot of data that may one day come in useful.

http://www.economist.com/news/special-report/21709773-who-benefiting-more-cyberisation-intelligence-spooks-or-their

In reality, it is of course anything but, instead heralding a potentially open ended project to capture the world and achieve the utopia of total social legibility. An ambition which always makes me think of this short story:

The story deals with the development of universe-scale computers called Multivacs and their relationships with humanity through the courses of seven historic settings, beginning in 2061. In each of the first six scenes a different character presents the computer with the same question; namely, how the threat to human existence posed by the heat death of the universe can be averted. The question was: “How can the net amount of entropy of the universe be massively decreased?” This is equivalent to asking: “Can the workings of the second law of thermodynamics (used in the story as the increase of the entropy of the universe) be reversed?” Multivac’s only response after much “thinking” is: “INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER.”

The story jumps forward in time into later eras of human and scientific development. In each of these eras someone decides to ask the ultimate “last question” regarding the reversal and decrease of entropy. Each time, in each new era, Multivac’s descendant is asked this question, and finds itself unable to solve the problem. Each time all it can answer is an (increasingly sophisticated, linguistically): “THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER.”

In the last scene, the god-like descendant of humanity (the unified mental process of over a trillion, trillion, trillion humans that have spread throughout the universe) watches the stars flicker out, one by one, as matter and energy ends, and with it, space and time. Humanity asks AC, Multivac’s ultimate descendant, which exists in hyperspace beyond the bounds of gravity or time, the entropy question one last time, before the last of humanity merges with AC and disappears. AC is still unable to answer, but continues to ponder the question even after space and time cease to exist. Eventually AC discovers the answer, but has nobody to report it to; the universe is already dead. It therefore decides to answer by demonstration. The story ends with AC’s pronouncement,

And AC said: “LET THERE BE LIGHT!” And there was light

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_Question

In an old essay about Heidegger’s conception of language, the philosopher Charles Taylor invokes the notion of ‘words of power’ to explain the power of Hitler’s rhetoric. Once we move away from a sense of language as an expression of individual meanings and purposes, we find ourselves somewhere entirely differently:

The silence is where there are not yet (the right) words but where we are interpellated by entities to disclose them as things. Of course this does not happen before language; it can only happen in its midst. Bu within a language and because of its telos, we are pushed to find unprecedented words, which we draw out of silence. This stillness contrasts with the noisy Gerede in which we fill the world with expressions of our selves and our purposes. (pg 124)

What Taylor calls ‘words of power’ are words which retrieve the inchoate from this silence, imbuing them with power because they so sharply contrast with the dull forgetfulness of our everyday use of language. To use a term Taylor adopts much later in his career, they resonate. Longings, fears, aspirations and resentments retrieved in this way have a charge because they’ve existed beneath the surface. Words of power give voice to them and, though simply words, they’re qualitative distinct from the words we use in everyday life. They give reality and shape to something which has been latent within and between us, contrary to the relative superficiality and vacuity of much of our everyday use of language.

This is a power of words which standard theories of language struggle to make sense of. However Heidegger’s theory is oblivious to their dangerous uses because, as Taylor puts it, “Heidegger has no place for the retrieval of evil in his system”. Whereas as Taylor uses this concept to make sense of Hitler’s words of power:

The danger comes from the fact that so much can be retrieved from the gray zone of repression and forgetfulness. There are also resentments and hatreds and dreams of omnipotence and revenge, and they can be released by their own appropriate words of power. Hitler was a world-historical genius in only one respect, but that was in finding dark words of power, sayings that could capture and elevate the fears, longings and hatreds of a people into something demonic. (pg 125)

The inability of liberal commentators to make sense of Trump’s rise necessitates that we take him seriously on a philosophical level. The implausibility of President Trump, I still splutter when I say or type this, reveal the faded frames within which we assess him and with which we must necessarily now dispense. He’s created a new frame and those faculties which render him obscene (the cruelty, the vulgarity and the absurdity) are both an obstacle to understanding him but also the necessary condition. What are Trump’s words of power?

We are led by very very stupid people. We cannot let it continue …. we lose everything, we lose military, we cannot beat ISIS, give me a break … we can’t beat anybody … it will change. We will have so much winning, if I get elected, that you may get bored with winning … We are going to turn this country around. We are going to start winning big league … We are going to have such a strong military that no one is going to mess with us.

Trump speaks the language of individualism and meritocracy so familiar from the last few decades. But he does so in a way that gives voice to latent grievance, as opposed to the dull(ing) language of self-described progressives. There are ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, there are ‘smart’ people and ‘stupid’ people. The culture of meritocracy became manichean over time, while failing to offer the moral resources to interpret the position of the ‘losers’ and the ‘stupid’. This has happened in the UK as well, as I discuss with Will Davies in this podcast:

The idea that there are those ‘left behind’ who feel ‘ignored’ isn’t new. But as Steve Hall, Simon Winlow and co have pointed out in their work on the far right, a left captured by liberal professionals (a case also made powerfully by Thomas Frank about the Democratic party) has proven systematically unable to give voice to these experiences. The closest that the centre-left has come, in the guise of a Clinton or Blair, has been to offer more of the same: a reinforcement of the prevailing culture of meritocracy and a sterile language of opportunity. There is no necessity about how this injuries are expressed, though there is a path-dependency to how they have been articulated..

The darkness we can see emerging in the US and Europe has been growing throughout the seeming moderation, presaged by its easy and partial articulation into a preoccupation with borders or the radical Islamic threat which threatens to destroy us. To put it as straight forwardly as possible: resentments have been accumulating across large swathes of the population, without any cultural framework within which they could be meaningfully articulated. The cultural horizons of our political culture have narrowed precipitously while structural consequences have been germinating.

However it’s important not to reproduce the facile notion of the ‘left behind’ which is now entering into elite discourse. The claim that the ‘losers’ of globalisation have been ignored and now must be attended to is a crucial component in the rise of what Malcolm James calls popularist post-welfare capitalism. It imputes a homogeneity to experience, it naturalises the rightist articulation of that experience and it fails to address the underlying foreclosure which has been the creeping post-democratisation of the recent years. It also fails to recognise the role of the relatively affluent, those who do not look like losers, whose experience at the very least needs to be understood.

Rather than a construct like ‘left behind’, we should accept the descriptive and explanatory void that currently exists while looking to ethnographic and qualitative studies (existing and otherwise) in order to fill it. There are factors in play here which need to be attended to extremely closely, such as the rural character of Trump’s working class support.

Meanwhile we need to find leftist words of power. Urgently.

I’ve long been fascinated by the question of what the descent into fascism feels like for those living through such a transition, how daily life changes (or fails to do so) as the fabric of the old order begins to unweave. There’s an insightful essay in the LA Review of Books which addresses precisely this question as it takes issue with a prevalent misunderstanding of Nazism:

POPULAR CULTURE IS REPLETE with cartoonish depictions of Nazism. Hitler seems to emerge suddenly, as if he had been waiting in the wings as a fait accompli. One moment it’s Weimar decadence, really good art, and Stormtroopers and communists fighting in the streets. The next, Hindenburg is handing Adolf the keys to the kingdom and it’s all torchlight parades, Triumph of the Will, and plaintive Itzhak Perlman violins. Hitler rises above a reborn Reich as a kind of totalitarian god. All aspects of life come under his control through the Nazi party’s complete domination of German life. Of course, this is not really how it worked.

Before Hitler achieved his genocidal powers, there were years of what we would now call “intense partisan bickering,” decreasing prosperity, and violence in the streets. In the end, Hitler cobbled together a rickety coalition of business-minded technocrats, traditional conservatives, military interests, and his own radical ethno-nationalists into a plausible government. As the new government consolidated its power, thousands of communists and trade unionists were subjected to harsh suppression and were among the first to be shipped away to what would eventually become the concentration camps. And yet for a time, life for the overwhelming majority of Germans — even briefly for German Jews — went on largely as it had in the Weimar era. There was clearly a new regime in town, but most Germans got up in the mornings in the mid-to-late 1930s and went to work, just as they had in the 1920s. January through March of 1933 was not 1776, 1789, 1791, 1917, or even 1979. Far from the world turning upside down, things were strangely continuous for many Germans as though nothing much had happened at all. For a few Germans, things were astoundingly better.

https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/the-supermanagerial-reich/#!

A similar liminal reality can be seen in the Norwegian drama Occupied. A green-left government’s declaration that the ‘era of oil is over’ leads to a surreptitious occupation of Norway by Russian forces. For many reasons, not least of all the narratological demands of being a ten issue drama series, dramatic changes eventually come to Norway. But what fascinates me is what comes prior to this, as the everyday life of those in Oslo is strikingly unchanged despite the mammoth geopolitical upheavals underneath the surface.

These depictions interest me because they point to an aporia in how we see social change. Our experience of ‘social change’ is by definition retrospective. We may experience social changes in the present but what we grasp as ‘social change’ is something we look back upon from the reality born through such transformation. We tell stories and sing songs about the most dramatic of these transformations, as collective recognition imbues that-which-has-unfolded with the appearance of inevitability. As Graham Crow puts it:

2.8 Proposition 7: Accounts of change after the event are vulnerable to post-hoc rationalizations in which the confusion and indeterminacy of events as they unfolded is played down and inevitability emphasised. Aron’s remark about how the language of ‘apparent necessity… creates an illusion of fatality’ (1961:178) is pertinent here. Burgoyne and Clarke’s respondents’ accounts of why their previous marriages ended contain a number of such rationalisations that reflected the ‘careful scripting’ (1984: 76) that had gone into their construction. It is instructive that Game and Metcalfe also use the process of becoming divorced to illustrate their point that the beginning of a story ‘can only be seen in retrospect; when it was beginning people were unaware of its full significance… Beginnings are always written from hindsight’ (1996: 70). The sense of predictability that such narratives convey often stands in stark contrast to the lack of certainty that people have while changes are unfolding about the direction in which they are heading.

2.9 Proposition 8: The popular metaphors through which ideas about endings are expressed have a bearing on how people respond to them.The ideas of reaching ‘the end of the line’, ‘the bitter end’, or a ‘point of no return’, ‘flogging a dead horse’, ‘giving something up as a bad job’, being on a ‘sinking ship’, ‘fighting a losing battle’, ‘throwing good money after bad’, ‘cutting one’s losses’, ‘writing something off’, and the proverbial ‘straw that breaks the camel’s back’ have different implications from the ideas of a ‘turning of the tide’, ‘calling it a day’, ‘the darkest hour coming before the dawn’, or ‘one door closing and another opening’ which also mark end points but are less linear and more rhythmic in their understanding of time (Young 1988). Modernity’s linear conceptions of time produce more final understandings of endings than the conceptions of ‘cycles of renewal and regeneration’ (Adam 2004: 14) that characterise ancient perspectives on temporal processes.

The individual and collective stock of experiences of change which we draw upon when we imagine our future leave us systematically ill-equipped to elucidate the many potentialities latent with out present circumstances. The tendency of fiction, particularly when it considers the macro-social, to explore the social change itself rather than the process through which the change unfolded aggravates this. I want to read stories and watch dramas about liminal transitions because this can sensitise us to the not-so-determined realities latently subsumed into what we call ‘present times’.

There are many reasons not to take Trump seriously. But given the real possibility he might win the election, we need to think through the stated consequence of his policies, particularly given the evident inability of the Republican establishment to restrain him before he holds political office, let alone when he has it.

To take one example: a former head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement cautions that Trump’s stated plan to deport all illegal immigrants is foolish but not impossible. What would it look like in practice?

Julie Myers Wood, who headed Immigration and Customs Enforcement during the Bush Administration, told me that she is appalled by parts of Trump’s immigration plan and cautioned critics not to assume that it is impossible. “It’s not as binary as some people suggest,” she said. “You could think of some very outside-the-box options.” A President Trump could permit ice officers to get access to I.R.S. files that contain home addresses. (Undocumented immigrants who pay taxes often list real addresses, in order to receive tax-refund checks.) He could invoke provision 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, in order to detail thousands of local and state agents and police officers to the deportation effort. “You’d put people on a train,” she said. “Again, I’m not recommending this. You could have a cruise ship.”

The American Action Forum, a conservative Washington think tank, ran budget projections of Trump’s plan: raids on farms, restaurants, factories, and construction sites would require more than ninety thousand “apprehension personnel”—six times the number of special agents in the F.B.I. Beds for captured men, women, and children would reach 348,831, nearly triple the detention space required for the internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War. Thousands of chartered buses (fifty-four seats on average) and planes (which can accommodate a hundred and thirty-five) would carry deportees to the border or to their home countries. The report estimated the total cost at six hundred billion dollars, which it judged financially imprudent.

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/09/26/president-trumps-first-term

What would this do to America? A logistical exercise of this scale and cost could perhaps be seen as a dark and fascistic stimulus plan, bringing together vast numbers of Americans into an (evil though nonetheless) collective project. The discord this would sow at all levels of American society would lead to further polarisation, inviting ‘tough measures’ to crack down on opposition to this ‘necessary policy’ of the Trump administration and ‘protect our brave law enforcement’ officers.

Even if Trump’s alleged fascism is opportunistic rather than ideological, I find it very easy to see how this policy alone – let alone the other stuff – could lead to an unprecedented militarisation of America and a very rapid descent into actually existing fascism.

If we consider the second-order and third-order effects, high profile injustices and protests against them and reactions to those protests, it’s worth asking how the structures of repression (digital or otherwise) built up in America over recent years might be leveraged against those seen as hostile to the executive? Furthermore, if American troops and law enforcement are widely perceived by the right to be under threat, could this unite currently anti-Trump figures in the security establishment against him?

From Riots and Political Protest, by Simon Winlow, Steve Hall, Daniels Briggs and James Treadwell. From pg 101:

The hope of the majority of those on the left these days is to see the return of genuine social democracy, but to us this drive to return to the past seems both naïve and strangely defeatist. This defeatism reflects the triumph of liberalism and the absolute, unquestioned acceptance that liberal democracy is the best of all available systems. It reflects a deep faith in capitalism’s ability to bestow upon us consumer items that, before their arrival, we didn’t even know that we wanted. All other economic systems seem irredeemably tarnished and unable to deliver to us the forms of material excess that we now believe to be absolutely essential to civilised social life.

What I find particularly provocative is their argument that there’s fetishistic  disavowal at work in at least some advocacy of social democracy. Do intellectuals advocating past-capitalism do so because on some level they really don’t desire post-capitalism, without being able to admit this to themselves?