My notes on Hashemi, M. (2019). Bedouins of Silicon Valley: A neo-Khaldunian approach to sociology of technology. The Sociological Review. 

This hugely original paper seeks to counteract what Morteza Hashemi sees as an excessive focus on technological development in accounts of Silicon Valley, looking beyond this macro-social (often Schumpeterian) approach to “the evolution of Silicon Valley as a technological, economic and institutional phenomenon” to the micro-social questions which are implicit within it (pg 2). This is undertaken through a contemporary rereading of Ibn Khaldun’s theory, originally applied to the “Bedouin tribes of his day” whose members Would “learn to face daily crises without fear” because “[f]ailure to do this would put at stake their very survival” (pg 2). This was part of a hugely complex theory of social change, produced in the fourteenth centre, until recently confined to historical work which sought to place it in context but increasingly being taken up by sociologists exploring its contemporary relevance and capacity to be applied to issues like modern technology and technological innovation.

Ibn Khaldun developed an empirically-orientated social theory which sought to “distinguish between the series of events and their deep meanings, trajectories and recurring patterns” (pg 3) through a rational mentality, a rejection of rhetoric and an empirical examination of events. An important concept was asabiyya (group feeling), which Hashemi notes is often misdefined merely as solidarity. It refers to the “mutual emotional commitment, moral obligation and unity”, arising from sustained interaction under harsh conditions, “transform a simple interdependency into something more than that”: it is a “social mechanism able to create a powerful and functional unit which can survive and flourish under inhospitable conditions” (pg 4). He outlines on pg 4 the contrast Khaldun drew between the Bedouins and city dwellers, as well as the social dynamics which flowed from it:

The Bedouins, living in the harsh conditions of the desert, had become both skilled and trained, and their religion magnified their strong asabiyya/group feeling. The city-dwellers, on the other hand, with their secure life inside the city walls were mostly inclined towards a luxurious lifestyle and the delights of civilization. This left their society fragile in the face of the attacks of the hardier Bedouins. The point is that once the Bedouins had conquered the cities and built their own empire they were soon themselves absorbed into the life of the civilized world, thereby losing their outstanding merits and qualities, including the essential element of asabiyya. Hence, they would in their turn be replaced by new tribes of Bedouin conquerors. His estimate was that each dynasty of Bedouin conquerors could survive up to four generations. After the fourth generation of rulers, the former Bedouins would have become so accustomed to the safe, sedentary life as to be in danger of a new invasion by another group of Bedouins.

Over time inherited tradition (which I assume encompasses institutions, as well as beliefs) comes be relied upon more than the achieved qualities of the group, leaving them ill-equipped to deal with emerging challenges. Hashemi strips away the underlying environmental determinism and retains this core “notion of a cycle in which risk-takers replace risk-avoiders” (pg 4). Training is central to this because it cultivates a certain kind of group with certain kinds of orientations towards risk. It involves the accumulation of aptitudes which Hashemi notes has affinities with Bourdieu’s concept of habits. Their difference is in moments of crisis and rupture where Bourdieu understood the habitus would fail in its action guiding capacity. In contrast Khaldun saw crisis as crucial for the development of the aptitudes. As Hashemi elegantly puts it on pg 6, “for Bourdieu the game almost stops when it comes to crisis, for Ibn Khaldun crisis is the very game”: it is the norm rather than the exception.

It is a conception with a collective focus, orientated towards how the group weathers the crisis and how they are changed in the process. If I understand correctly, it’s crucial to note this does not imply unity; some of these effects happen individually, forming group characteristics through aggregation, while remaining a collective process. Drawing on Sloterdijk’s work, Hashemi reads Khaldun as having identified two anthropotechnic systems, corresponding to the latter’s distinction between city-dwellers (relying on the institutions) and Bedouins (relying on themselves):

The one is the luxurious way of shaping life that entails externalization and outsourcing of some vital skills. The other system is about cultivating those skills and relying on one’s inner abilities. (pg 9)

As he goes on to write on pg 10, Khaldun’s social theory is deeply relevant to a world characterised by risk, ‘disruption’, uncertainty and change:

For Ibn Khaldun, hazard, destruction and catastrophe are not the only results of a crisis. Crises are human-made, but they also make human beings. Crises are training camps. They are the source of construction as well as destruction. In the words of Nietzsche, that which does not kill us, makes us stronger.

He analyses the rise of the geeks in these terms, originally “an underground network of college students, university students and computer scientists who cared about the internet as an open and powerful infrastructure which can fundamentally transform aspects of our life” bound together by a shared marginalisation and a faith in the transformative possibilities offered by technology (pg 11). There are four elements to Khaldun’s conception of training which we can see in the ascendency of the geeks: “step-by-step training under conditions of hardship” (toiling in obscurity, in co-working spaces or incubators, without any guarantee of respite), “the power arising from the combination of Bedouin training and a charismatic leader who is an authority behind external law” (the role of the VCs or investors in transforming their fortunes), risk-taking (the constant necessary to avoid being superseded, the source of organisational renewal). I felt it was a shame the paper stopped here because the real force of this line of argument would be subsequent cycle of decline and challenge likely to be faced by the now ascended geeks. But it’s a fantastically original and thought-provoking paper which has left me eagerly anticipating a sequel.

After nine days of strike action, I’ve begun to realise how formative I have found this experience and how frequently I will think back to it in coming months and years. In part, this is a reflection of the novelty of the action itself for me but also the novelty of the context in which this action is being taken. When I finished a three year part-time postdoc at the University of Warwick in January 2017, I was ready to be outside of the university for some time as a department I had previously felt at home in had become unrecognisable to me and the university itself unwelcoming. After a year spent consulting while continuing to work in my role as Digital Engagement Fellow at The Sociological Review Foundation, in late January I joined the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge as a part-time postdoc in the new Culture, Politics and Global Justice.

I found it a strange experience being part of a new university for the first time in a long time, with the partial exception of nine months at LSE when the experience was mediated by being part of a tightly organised group. This is compounded by the peculiarities of Cambridge, as I tried to get my head around the mundane operations of a university quite unlike any other I had been part of. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I had mastered it as of February 22nd. I still hadn’t managed to log into my office computer or discovered how to access one of the many libraries. Irritatingly, I can’t get Edu Roam to work, in spite of this being the one thing I really missed when not attached to a university. But it was nonetheless the case that I had started to learn my way around the place. I had begun to form routines and a certain Cambridge-inflected rhythm was beginning to enter into my day to day life, even on the three days a week where I was working elsewhere. Then the strike began.

I think of myself as someone who is politically active. At different points in my life I’ve campaigned for the Labour Party, the Green Party, Campaign Against the Arms Trade, Stop The War and various others which failed to lodge themselves in my memory to the same extent. I’ve stood as a local councillor and organised fund raisers for multiple charities. I helped setup Campaign for the Public University and a local anti-arms trade campaign. I’ve run a speaker series with a political purpose and written political articles for blogs and zines. I’m currently running the digital engagement for the Imagine 2027 project and volunteering at a homeless shelter. But if I’m honest, it has always been tangential to my everyday existence. It has always been easily boxed, in spite of the significance I have accorded it in my own self-understanding at various points in my life. It has been something to put down and pick up. It has been something I do on my own terms or don’t do at all. The strike has left me reflecting on why this is the case, as well as how this might express a broader academic condition. A wonderful essay in the Varsity by a politics student at Cambridge captured at least part of this wider malaise. Describing the strikes which have engulfed the university, Alice Hawkins identifies the agency this demands from those involved or even just impacted by them:

The impacts of these strikes are extraordinary because they are intimate. They are forcing engagement with the real political issues that have a direct impact upon us – right now, standing outside our lecture halls, and for a long time into the future. They are forcing a new level of cognizance of the institutional power structures within which we exist, yet so often fail to recognise. They are forcing a recognition of the political agency which we all possess. And from my experience, the best kind of political agents that we can strive to be – the best kind of people – are those who are thoughtful. Those who can reflect on their own context, experiences, and values to challenge their own assumptions about the way the world works, and evaluate their role within it.

Does this pose a particular challenge for those whose occupations revolve around discussing such action? The evidence would suggest it does:

Yet, from my experience, there exists in this institution a bizarre cognitive dissonance between people’s willingness to engage in political theory and their willingness to engage in political reality. I know firsthand which place is the more comfortable place to be. I know the temptation that exists to retreat from the latter into the safe confines of intellectualised debate and armchair philosophising in the former. But if I’m not prepared to at least attempt to overcome this, I’m really going to have to start asking myself what kind of student of politics I think I am.

A similar question is often asked of those university leaders whose avowed radicalism is belied by the actions they undertake at their universities. As many have pointed out the University of Sussex Vice Chancellor Adam Tickell once wrote of his ambition to “slay the neoliberal dragon” yet now presides over an aggressively marketised institution in which students attempting to do precisely that have found themselves objects of police violence. However my favourite example is the radical geographer Nigel Thrift, something which is perhaps unsurprising given I spent over a decade at the University of Warwick. But this still positions the cognitive dissonance as something out there rather than a feature of oneself and the last few weeks have left me thinking about how it exists within me rather than merely being a feature of self-seeking university leaders who it is easy (and fun) to pick apart at a distance. Defining myself as someone who regularly engages in political action has, it seems to me, propped up a version of this cognitive dissonance: externalising my own limitations about politics on to others.

In parallel to this, the strike has forced me to confront the role of work in my life, recognising how I rely on it to provide order to the everyday flow of my experience. I find it much more unsettling than I expected to suspend routine in this way. It’s compounded by the weird environment created when those you co-exist with have similarly suspended their routines. This collective suspension of routine reveals how open are shared lives really are, in spite of the false necessity which our language and customs imbue them with. The real constraints on doing things differently are elaborate rather than powerful, multifaceted and woven into the fabric of our daily lives rather than being external forces pressing down upon us. But our autonomy leaves us organising our existence in a way which accentuates their power, isolating us from the creative possibilities which emerge from gathering together with a shared commitment and an open agenda, as we have been doing every day on a picket line.

Most of all it has left me thinking about action and the cognitive, emotional and financial costs associated with it. It is tiring to be an agent, working with others to express and enact collective purposes rather than being carried along by the tides of habit which underpin social order. It also involves recognising how small your own life is, in spite of the significance which the quotidian terms of your existence accord to it. We are dependent on others, shaped by others, dominated by others. The hilarity of the Universities UK Twitter meltdown is coupled with a terrifying realisation of how incompetent these people who shape our lives really are. How similarly mired they are in their own smallness, with all the particularly toxic qualities which flow from their status, commitments and projects. The whole thing has left me newly aware of how alienated I am and have been for a long time. I run up against limitations I was only dimly aware of having when I struggle to participate in the way I want, withdrawing into myself when I want to be out there and longing for a routine which I know would isolate me from current events. It’s also left me newly aware how this capacity to withdraw is a function of my own privilege, one that has shaped me in all sorts of ways I’m only now beginning to understand. Ways I want to try and transcend.

A brief but unpleasant experience on the picket line took place earlier this week. A college officer aggressively interrogated my presence outside my place of work and asked for my name so it could be reported to my head of department. The principal of the college then emerged to demand we leave the picket line, shouting at me to “leave now” without any attempt to explain the legal or moral justification for this request (beyond the college officer’s repeated and bewildering assertion that it wasn’t my place of work because it was rented by my employer rather than owned by it). After contemplating whether to walk away, we stayed and were faced with another interrogation during which the officer in question denied any threat had been made and ridiculed the idea his behaviour had been anything other than polite.

The subsequent intervention of the union was reassuring and we made it a point of principle to sustain the picket the following day, preparing ourselves to explain firmly but politely that they had no basis for their request and should please stop harassing our picket. As empowering as the return was, it was a catharsis predicated upon a feeling of shame provoked by my initial acquiescence to a request that was neither legitimate nor justified. It’s frustrating to realise how easily authority you deny intellectually can nonetheless exercise a power over you in practice. There’s a particular poignancy with which l’esprit de l’escalier occurs under such circumstances, as rumination about how you might have reacted becomes a way to avoid the unpleasant feelings which your failure to act had provoked within you. But my initial acquiescence to this, my lack of preparation for others trying to exercise power over me in problematic ways, underscored my own privilege even further in a much deeper manner than the usually intellectualised way in which I had reflected on it previously.

Three weeks of the strike have left me aware of my own moulding with an immediacy I had never had before. What I can do, what I can’t do. What I can be, what I can’t be. The gap between my self-concept and my self, the creative tension that can arise from this but the capacity for illusion which is its unspoken corollary. It’s also left me with a sense of collective efficacy I don’t think I’d ever experienced before. A sense of how we can realise other possibilities and transcend the smallness which actuality leaves us mired within, but only if we do so collectively. There’s no personal routine, no writing project, no transition and no promotion which can accomplish the same effect if undertaken in an individualised way. The whole experience has left me newly aware of my own alienation while also showing me how to transcend it. The world feels unsettling but profoundly open to me at the moment. It’s going to be strange going back to work.

In an early essay on post-war Algeria, Pierre Bourdieu reflected on the existential experience of the urban sub-proletariat and its political significance. This is reproduced on pg 16 of Political Interventions: Social Science and Political Action:

Habituation to prolonged unemployment and the most casual and poorly paid work, along with the lack of any regular employment, prevent the development of a coherent organisation either now or in future of a system of expectations towards which all activity and existence can be orientated. For want of possessing this minimum grasp on the present that is the precondition for a deliberate and rational effort to grasp the future, all these people are prey to incoherent resentment, rather than inspired by a genuine revolutionary consciousness; the lack of work, or its instability, go together with the absence of perspective on hopes and opinions, the absence of a system of rational projects and forecasts of which the will to revolution is an aspect. Enclosed in a condition marked by insecurity and incoherence, their own vision is generally itself uncertain and incoherent.

I’m immediately struck by the parallel between the experience he describes and what I write about as distraction in digital capitalism. As he puts it on pg 17, “Everyday life is experienced as the result of a kind of systematic plan dreamed up by a malign will”. People become objects to which things happen. Life becomes episodic, lacking in continuity. What narrative unity people experience is one of frustration, recurrent attempts to exercise agency being denied by forces that are simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. The tempo of life undermines the capacity to gain purchase upon the conditions of existence, impeding any capacity to reliably pursue a change in them, let alone overcome the obstacles inevitably encountered in such a pursuit. From pg 17:

With steady work and a regular age, with the appearance of real perspectives of social advance, an open and rational awareness of temporality can develop. At that point, the contradictions between over-ambitious expectation  and available possibilities, between opinions offered on an imaginary level and real attitudes, disappear. Action, judgements and aspirations arrange themselves as a function of a plan of life. it is then, and then only, that the revolutionary attitude takes the place of escape into dreams, fatalist resignation, or a raging resentment.

Could anyone recommend material I could read which explores this issue in greater depth? I’m immediately struck by how Archerian this Bourdieu seems. Or perhaps how much Archer was influenced by the Bourdieu of this period. But my broader interest is in how “disintegration and disarray supply a favourable soil for ideologies of passion, and possibly retrograde ones” (pg 19). How can distracted people be mobilised?

What I take Bourdieu to be saying is that collective action, if it is to be sustainable, necessitates a grounding in a degree of regularity within everyday life. The existential conditions of individual life, in a way shaped by but irreducible to the material conditions, provide a basis upon which different forms of collective action become more or less feasible.