On the same topic as yesterday’s post on the moral theories of platform engineers, Anand Giridharadas recounts a speech by Uber and Airbnb investor Shervin Pishevar on pg 66 of his Winners Take All: 

“My biggest thing is existing structures and monopolies—one example is the taxi cartels—that is a very real thing,” he said. “I’ve been in meetings where I’ve been threatened by those types of characters from that world. I’ve seen them beating drivers in Italy. You see the riots in France, and flipping over cars and throwing stones. I took my daughter to Disney. We were in the middle of that. We had to drive our Uber away from basically the war zone that was happening. “So from a moral perspective, anything that’s fighting against morally corrupt, ingrained systems that are based on decades and decades of graft within cities, within city councils, with mayors, etcetera—all those things, they are real, actual things that are threatened by new technologies and innovations like Uber and other companies in that space. So from that perspective, bring it on. That is something we should be fighting.

It’s a common place to recognise that digitalisation makes it easier to encounter the views of others, particularly those who we might not find within our locality. However an important dimension of this is how it also encourages competition between views, as tensions which might not have previously been ‘activated’ become so. I thought ‘memory wars’ was a really evocative concept for a particular class of the ensuing disputes. By Andrew Jakubowicz, on loc 1791-1806 in Save As  Digital Memories, edited by Hoskins et al:

Many protagonists in these memory wars look for ways to foreground particular perspectives or truth claims, and elbow out their competitors. Arguments over the authentic historical record are particularly volatile in ethno-cultural and religio-political situations, where ‘truth’ becomes a contested space.

User-created content brings into stark relief the more general argument about memory being a process of the here and now, in which the past is sequestered into defended packages of claims to truth. Because digital technology in a sense democratises the process of memory-legitimation, or at least reduces to near-zero the costs of entry, it fundamentally transforms the dynamic of testing truth claims and securing

This fascinating feature of American cultural history was entirely unknown to me, until The New Prophets of Capital, loc 1051. I wonder how Alger would have faired in an environment saturated by social media?

Horatio Alger, a sensitive Harvard alum, was horrified by the ills of industrial capitalism in New York City during the late nineteenth century. In response, he wrote a hundred inspirational novels about young men who escaped poverty and achieved success, idealizing a time when “honesty, thrift, self- reliance, industry, a cheerful whistle, and an open, manly face” were all it took to achieve the American Dream. The Alger stories had fallen out of favor by the turn of the century, not because they sported titles like Ragged Dick , but because critics like H.L. Mencken thought that Alger was deluded about what it takes to succeed in America. Mark Twain was also not a fan. He wrote an Alger parody about a “good little boy” named Jacob Blivens whose piousness couldn’t save him from being turned into a “human nitro- glycerin rocket,” body parts hurled across four townships. “You never saw a boy scattered so.”

An interesting exchange on Twitter last year about how intelligence is represented in film and TV has stayed with me since it occurred. Watching Hannibal with a friend who was a big fan of it, I found myself obsessed by the quasi-supernatural form which Will Graham’s intelligence takes in the show, allowing him to see through the  superficial veneer of a crime scene and reconstruct the truth of what occurred. Though Hannibal’s talent is slightly different to Will’s, relying on personal observation rather than contextual reconstruction, it’s also nonetheless akin to a superpower. Will has “pure empathy” and can entirely assume another’s point of view, whereas Hannibal can anatomise the psyche of an individual, pulling it apart as reliably as if he were taking a scalpel to their brain:

Much to my friend’s irritation, I found myself embroiled in a fascinating conversation on Twitter about the cultural politics of how intelligence is represented. One of the people I was talking to, whose name I have forgotten and would love to know if they happen to read this so that I can attribute the thought to them, pointed out that this is a broader tendency in contemporary television: intelligence is fetishised because ‘merit’ is such an ambivalent topic within our ‘meritocracy’. Once you start looking for it, there are examples everywhere. One of the most prominent is the “Sherlock Scan” portrayed so characteristically by Benedict Cumberbach:

A few years ago I found myself strangely obsessed with a pretty awful show calls Suits. It’s a weird throwback to the 1980s, with obnoxious corporate lawyers being presented as noble warriors in suits. Utterly devoid of irony, it rests upon the exploits of Harvey Spectre, the supernaturally self-possessed attorney, mentoring his young protoge Mike Ross. What got me hooked on the show is how it presents the latter’s talent. He wanders into a recruitment event for the high powered law firm, which only hires from Harvard Law School, in order to escape a drug deal gone wrong. With his photographic memory, he proves sufficiently impressive that they hire him, before increasing numbers of staff at the firm come to look the other way in virtue of his sheer talent.

Talent trumps prestige. If someone sufficiently talented takes their chance, no matter how bizarre the circumstances are that lead to it, their advancement is justified. But what is this talent? In effect, he’s an informational sponge. His talent is not only akin to a superpower, it’s one emptied of positive content. It’s not an ability to do things in the world as such but rather that Mike lacks the tendency of others to lose information. Yet the show frames attempts to expose him by enemies at the firm as irrational projects motivated by petty loathings and personal jealousies, rather than their seeking to hold to account a drug dealer who wandered into a law firm and now regularly goes up in front of judges pretending to be a lawyer.

Another example is The West Wing’s Jed Bartlett, though in a slightly different way. He’s a liberal fantasy figure, allowing mainstream Democrats in the US to imagine a world in which Bill Clinton was also a morally flawless figure with a nobel prize in Economics. The most obvious example of this is the debate in an early season between Bartlett (Al Gore) and Richie (Bush) but this stuff pervades the whole show:

I particularly love the “oh my god” from CJ Craig at the end of this clip: “he’s so smart, so witty, so articulate! how lucky we are to have such an intelligent president”. However what interests me about this is how Bartlett’s intelligence is represented. He’s obsessed with trivia and constantly quizzing his staff on obscure topics. We see intelligence reduced to an ability to recall ephemera and to litter utterances with it at a rate which is at best unlikely and at worst utterly ridiculous. This is reflected more broadly in Aaron Sorkin’s characteristic fast talking dialogue, representing intelligent people being intelligent as little more than talking very fast and very articulately, usually while walking.

These representations interest me because ‘talent’ has become so integral to the defence of social inequality. 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. 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. Replace “The Secret” with “Intelligence” or “Talent” and you have the governing ideology of neoliberalism.

Weirdly, it seems to me that The Secret is actually more coherent. Its metaphysical character reconciles the tension within neoliberalism, much as the eidetic memory of Mike Ross obscures the fact that lawyers probably do need some specialised training. As soon we start specifying what ‘intelligence’ or ‘talent’ is in a positive way, we find ourselves embroiled in complex questions of social causation which undercut the simplistic moral logic in which each gets what they deserve. Representing talent as magical or metaphysical escapes this problem and, through continuous repetition in popular culture, reinforces the intuitive plausibility of successful people being so in virtue of their innate talent.

From Owen Jones’s The Establishment, Location 774. According to this biography of George Osborne, which I’m amazed at myself for having read, the window of political acceptability is a key factor in Osborne’s strategic thinking:

What the corporate-backed outriders have achieved is this. They have helped shift the goalposts of debate in Britain, making ideas that were once ludicrous, absurd and wacky become the new common sense. In the terminology of right-wing political thinkers, they have shifted the ‘Overton Window’. The Overton Window is a cherished concept of the US right, coined in homage to Joseph P. Overton, the late vice-president of the right-wing think tank the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. It describes what is seen as politically possible or reasonable at any given time while remaining within the political mainstream. But the very nature of outriders is that they can float ideas or policies that a politician would not dare mention. In doing so, they shift the Window.

Assuming I haven’t completely misunderstood Mark Fisher’s point then I’d argue this is one of the most striking examples of capitalist realism I’ve ever encountered. It was posted as a comment on this Glenn Greenwald article. Note how an assertion of the obviousness of this state of affairs goes hand-in-hand with a dismissal of the ‘rubes’ who are assumed to have uncritically assented to the enormously powerful ideological forces from which the commentator has long been immune. Self-congratulation at being ‘smart enough’ to see through manufactured illusion and contempt for those who failed to do this substitute for moral condemnation of something which is nonetheless regarded as a social problem. The post-ideological stance of ‘seeing through’ the lies in fact engenders objective passivity coupled with a reactionary orientation to those who seek to engage in proactive opposition:

I just don’t understand why people hadn’t assumed this kind of surveillance was going on already. Has no one seen the Enemy of the State? In all seriousness, I wondered about it after figuring out how communications satellites work and realizing that all of those satellites are launched by the government.

Is it such revelation that a country on a planet as nationalistic as Earth had the opportunity to spy on most of the world and took that opportunity? If you are a student of history you would know that spying on other nations/groups is human reality.

I don’t necessarily think its a great idea to have one country doing a lot of this under the guise of “the greater good” because they will end up using it to benefit themselves in any way they feel they can. I just don’t think any of the Snowden revelations should have been so inflammatory. How could you not see the writing on the wall? How could you assume this wasn’t happening?

I just don’t like the Greenwald tone of “I can’t believe this, can you? We don’t live in a perfect world as our politicians had told us!!” He comes across as a rube if he is truly shocked by all of these spying “revelations.”

And I defy you to find a country on this planet who doesn’t conduct all of the surveillance that they possibly can. Its an aspect of national defense and economic survival that causes this espionage all over the planet. The US just possess a crazy ability to spy on mostly everyone because of the system of communications the US gov’t help set up for the world.

All I’m saying is, you missed the window to complain about this by about 15-20 years. The groundwork for this type of communications monitoring has been in front of your face since the 80’s & 90s and you weren’t smart enough to see it. There is no going back.

I’ve always been fascinated by the question of why people hold the political beliefs they do. In part this is because of how badly most people handle this question. From across the political spectrum, there is a pervasive tendency to explain away the beliefs of others: idiocy, ignorance, naivete, self-interest etc. In a recent Twitter conversation, someone invoked psychoanalysis to explain why neoliberals are committed to their project. Why are we so bad at dealing with the beliefs of others? To a certain extent it’s because we don’t approach them in a vacuum, we too have our beliefs and these stand in relations of contradiction or compatibility to those of others. It’s also perhaps, as Chantal Mouffe might suggest, a reflection of political incivility within the unhealthy democracies of late capitalism: seeing the other as an enemy to be defeated, rather than an adversary to debate with.

However I think a much more important factor is the sheer complexity of the question. Why do people believe what they believe? Our beliefs are caused and yet somehow transcend those causes. Our political worldview is marked by our natal context and yet escapes it. If we treat the question too abstractly we risk subsuming the messy complexity of the political worldview of thinking, feeling and fearing embodied agents into the conceptual abstraction entailed when we talk about things like ‘socialism’, ‘liberalism’, ‘libertarianism’ etc. This can seem justified by the fact there are people who consciously embrace the systematicity of these positions but this blinds us to (a) their normative commitments are always more complex than their stated beliefs make apparent (b) such people are, in this strict sense of having made an agential commitment to a position, surely a minority. An alternative approach is to treat the question in an empiricist manner, risking that we collapse a subject’s political worldview into the chain of events which led them to their present position and beliefs.

To get beyond these two approaches, I think what Ruth Levitas talks about as an archaeological approach to understanding political thinking is extremely useful. My understanding of this is based on a talk I saw her give two years ago  (see below) so what follows is more a summary of the line of thought this sparked off in myself, rather than an accurate summary of her thinking on the issue.

The archaeology of political thought involves making explicit the idea of a good society that is embedded in particular political positions. These may be, to varying extents, inchoate. Alternatively there may be a contradiction between what an individual expressly endorses as a good society and that which is implied by their substantive politics. But there is nonetheless a deep structure to political position taking. When we make normative claims about social and political arrangements, our statements carry further normative entailments which frequently outstrip our discursive awareness of them. This is why dialogue and debate help us elaborate our worldview i.e. arguing about politics helps expand our awareness of the unacknowledged entailments which stems from our acknowledged commitments, as well as offering us the opportunity to review and revise them.

If we consider this in biographical terms then the picture becomes, superficially at least, rather complex. The coherency of a political world view is something which is real (a logical structure holds between normative propositions) but unavoidably partial at the level of the actual (the cognitive tracing through and drawing out of these connections by a subject) and the empirical (the observable political commitments made by a subject). However we can make this complexity manageable if we focus on the actual: what brings about this ‘tracing out’ of the further commitments entailed by our existing beliefs? 

I think it’s inevitably sparked by the necessity of making sense of our experience. We read new things, we encounter new people, we discuss new ideas and we see things happen in the world. In doing so we are confronted with novelty which stands in a contradictory or complimentary relationship to our existing commitments. In doing so, assuming we don’t engage in what are arguably extremely common avoidance strategics to evade the moment, we are compelled to trace out entailments of our commitments.

To put it more directly, I’m saying that deliberation is central to this everyday experience of being a normative being. There is a rationalistic moment to this deliberation given that it is driven by things we experience as contradicting or complementing our existing beliefs. But it is not in any meaningful sense a rationalistic process. What can be reconstructed in rationalistic terms represents the possible contours of normative commitment but what leads us to make choices is the fact that things matter to us. To bring this back to the original question: adequately making sense of the political beliefs of our opponents involves recognising:

  1. They are also beings to whom these things matter
  2. Their current beliefs are part of a biographical unfolding driven by a perpetual struggle to make sense of what they encounter
  3. Their backgrounds have shaped their beliefs, in so far as it has patterned the novelty they’ve confronted and the cultural resources available to them in making sense of this novelty
  4. Their unfolding set of normative commitments have also been shaped ‘internally’ by the sort of deep structure, most easily identifiable in what we term ideology but by no means exhausted by this.
  5. While this deep structure exercises causal power via logical relations of contradiction and complementarity, normativity itself is a causal force. Ideas of the good life and the good society (encoded in mental images and cultural products) can ‘pull’ us towards them. We can be driven to systematise our thinking because of our desire to get ‘closer’ to the notion of the good life and/or good society embedded within it.

For an actual case study of this approach, this post discusses common attitudes towards asexual people.

Think back to 2007. Did you believe the end of neoliberalism was nigh? I must admit I did. It seems rather naive in retrospect. Yet fast forward five years and consider the political terrain: we have witnessed a massive consolidation within the financial sector and an unprecedented attack on the welfare state across Europe. As if by magic, a crisis of the financial system has been reframed as a crisis of sovereign debt, with ‘austerity’ (in essence the structural adjustment programmes that the organs of international capitalism have long imposed elsewhere) being pursued with breathtaking alacrity, accompanied by the continual refrain that there is no alternative.

So what happened? This question is one which will undoubtedly preoccupy large swathes of the acdemy for decades. However I do want to offer a quick observation about the ideological dimensions to a set of processes which are reshaping global society to an extent which I suspect is still not entirely understood. This concerns what the financial crisis established for the population as a whole. What did we learn from it? Oddly, I think the answer is very little. How were ‘bankers’, as the pantomime characters to whom financial capital is reduce, perceived prior to the crisis? As greedy bastards. How were ‘bankers’, as the pantomime characters to whom financial capital is reduce, perceived after the crisis? As greedy bastards. I’m generalising wildly here before anyone feels the need to point it out. Likewise, if you know of any longitudinal polling data about attitudes towards bankers, I’d love to see it. Without doubt, there are significant numbers of people who either approve of bankers or regard them as a necessary evil.

My point is simply that the discursive construction of ‘the bankers’ (rather than more or less well-informed propositional claims about the actual characteristics of specific people working in a specific industry) really hasn’t changed as much as one might expect. Although of course the social significance of the negative characteristics imputed to bankers has increased: after all THEY broke THE ECONOMY because of THEIR GREED. But the general perception of the financial system has changed much less than would seem likely given that, well, it almost collapsed. In a sense, the financial crisis represented an affirmation of what we all already knew.

The moral failings of the financial elite were widely recognised prior to the crisis and no one did anything because we couldn’t and/or because we benefitted from its continuation. But a lack of illusion about the nature of the people in charge, with the accompanying cynicism about their motives, facilitated a widespread disjuncture best represented by the weird position of the traditional Labour supporter during the Blair years: subjectively critical but objectively complicit in the reproduction of the social structures which were the object of their criticism. The apparent absence of ideological illusion about the nature of finance capitalism itself, as well as the political pragmatism and turn away from ‘idealism’ which naturally accompanies it, functioned as a form of ideological control. As Žižek puts it,  “a cynical non-identification with the ruling ideology’s explicit content is a positive condition of its functioning: the ideological apparatuses ‘run smoothly’ precisely when subjects experience their innermost desire as ‘oppositional’, as ‘transgressive’“. We all knew that bankers are greedy bastards before the financial crisis. Then after the crisis this shared recognition becomes an object of public debate. Bankers are ‘bashed’. Then everything ‘returns to normal’?