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Article Jonas Guigonnat TRANSFORMATIVE TECHNOCRATS - December 2018

Freedom: The Digital Leash of Neoliberalism

Written by Jonas Guigonnat

Believing the (online) news, the changes we are witnessing are unseen in history. The digital revolution created new ways to interact with each other and with society. Some say that this process will bring humanity to a higher level of civilization, while others insist on the dangers, and see the possibility of new dystopian futures arising (as some Pandemic writers did in this issue). Another fear concerns the way politicians are using those technological innovations and putting the world order at risk. Some of its guardians are ringing the alarm. Others have already transformed themselves, and thus the political system itself.

Old World vs New Political Claims

Even in the short period of the past 200 years, the political arena gave birth to many concepts that we nowadays take for granted. Liberalism, socialism, representative democracy, or the idea of national identity itself, for example, are born out of historical earthquakes that touched the old continent in the nineteenth century. At the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, the old European monarchic network tried to reestablish the sphere of influence they had before the French Revolution. Economic instability, famines and new revolutions in the 1840s ended their ambition. Technological developments, industrialization, neo-imperialism and population growth were forcing the hand of all political actors. They were adapting to the circumstances.

In the twentieth century, things changed as radically as a century earlier. At the end of WWII, only two types of political organization survived the ideological battle that began in the 1920s. On one side, the democratic world was represented by one of the real “winners” of the war, the United States. On the other winning side, looking toward the “east,” Russia created the Soviet Union, incorporating countries which it had claimed after the war in Eastern Europe and imposing the communist political regime.

Unstoppable Changes

But even in those two political and ideological entities, things continued to change, and the political realm saw many movements rise and fall since the 1960s. Marxist ideas have been ostracized since the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, but in the 1960s and 70s, they were often used by feminists and civil rights movements. Representative democracies had to adapt to permanent migration movements from Asian and African countries since the beginning of the decolonization process in the late 1940s. New technological innovations also changed the way populations in the western world saw their life, with most Europeans and North-Americans beginning to experience a welfare unknown thus far in history. Out of those changes, neoliberalism developed itself using the ever-growing mass consumption culture to its advantage.

The technological revolution, which began in the 80s, turned bureaucrats into technocrats. For the last 40 years, this new kind of politics learned not only how to govern and keep its influence, but also how to use welfare and technology as a warranty for its own existence. Neoliberalism seems to be using the tools of the digital age to swallow the possibility of significant democratic changes.

The Technological Spring

At first, it is tempting to see the internet as an objective platform for expression. The only problem is that its algorithms are built by humans, who cannot really be seen as objective beings, to say the least. Google or Facebook, for example, are built with a purpose, and that is simply to keep making profits. It may seem irrelevant in the political realm, but some recent events show that such a simple purpose is able to instigate large-scale political crises.

The most discussed example in the debate about the influence of tech companies on international politics is the Arab Spring in 2010. We know now that Facebook’s algorithm used politically loaded publications from the student movement in Egypt to literally set things on fire. It was automatically sent to groups with radically opposite political opinions. But why? The algorithm didn’t try to create hate on purpose, it was just built with the scientific knowledge that negativity is a powerful vector of communication. In other words, it was the simplest way to reach the goal of the company: create more adhesion to the medium, whatever the cost, to optimize profit.

But we are free to choose. At least that is what we are told continuously, for neoliberalism is based on individual responsibility. Freedom itself needs to be taken into perspective, considering it never really exists on its own. The way we interact with the society in which we live defines the essence of our freedom, to the point that we are allowed to claim it.

Photo by Ali Tareq

Online Freedom, Political Serfdom

Neoliberalism is particularly effective because it changed the way values are communicated. The old top-down type of interaction has been abandoned to such an extent, that the exchange of ideas and claims between power structures and the population now happen from below. It doesn’t mean that politicians are listening directly to “the people” – we would be aware of it – but that they give different communities enough attention to understand their whereabouts. How that flow of information is transmitted, and what happens to it afterward, shows how the freedom we are granted is defined.

Do you have the feeling that politicians really do listen to what you have to say? Considering the underlying assumption of this question (that answers it already), is it possible to believe that politicians are even interested in what interests us? For insofar they need us to legitimate them, they obviously need to know what we want to hear, if they want to be elected at least. Let’s imagine a system, like neoliberalism, within which politicians choose to stimulate the use of new technologies that give them access to a considerable amount of the information they require. Without regulation, for example, private companies would be able to create virtual databanks about the personal life of anyone using one of their products. Let’s imagine again what politicians will be able to accomplish with such insights.

To Consume Or To Be Consumed?

There again a wise mind would say that we are free to be a part of this new reality or not. But there again one may underestimate how well prepared the digital tsunami is. The boys of Palo Alto weren’t only successful because their products eased the way we interact with the world on itself. The advertising industry had, since the 1920s and the beginning of the mass consumption society, developed an expertise in the art of subliminality. Influenced by the entertainment industry, every effect of advertising on the public has been analyzed. From colors, shapes and shadows, to sounds, silences and musical breaks. One of their greatest achievements is to have created desires that seem instinctive and recognizable for most, although it is the results of a century of innovation in advertising techniques. When tech companies made their entrance, this knowledge was just ready to be grasped.

The scale on which the #humanity is expanding shows how successful mass consumption techniques are, particularly when they are used in the digital realm. Without a political leash to control it, we are exposed permanently, every day less able to escape. Our time becomes occupied to such an extent that it seems difficult to take a look at the world around us from a distance. Technology is used again and again to that end, always stimulating the active participation of the consumer. Given a free pass, tech companies were even able to reinforce the traditional way of consuming – using our time and energy to purchase a projection of what we really desire – with a new activity: ourselves being the product and the buyer at the same time. Long live the digital realm!

Photo by Jerin J

The Ghosts Of Our Time

And then what? Shouldn’t we just accept that things worked out that way? Aren’t we “lucky” to live in such an insouciance? We are, after all, living in a time where freedom has been expanded more than ever before. The #humanity is seeking peace, so why would we put it into question? Considering that things around us are not naturally themselves, but the result of a human construction, we should be cautious to believe those statements. Yes, life is a lot more livable for most peoples in Europe or in the US than it was even 60 years ago. But at what costs? We are to believe, then, that our society is the result of progress. It is however obvious that, without the period of colonization and both world wars, this civilization of progress would never have existed. Blood and oppression were the price still being paid.

Without entering the debate about the political and economic independence of African and Asiatic states, it is obvious that the oil coming from the Middle-East and minerals from the whole African continents are a crucial piece of the welfare puzzle. Without low-cost workers of many ages, making shoes, clothes or computers in Asia for American and European companies, our material world would be quite different. In their discourse, developed countries affirmed that their aim is a worldwide prosperity. The facts are telling another story and show how the richness of a few is built on the misery of many others. But still, we are free to choose. At least that’s what we are told, still.

Alternative Scenarios?

Out of this quite pessimistic scenario, the fact that individuals and small groups are still thinking about how to use these new technologies remains, too. Yes, it seems that Big Brother is watching us, and has been for quite a while already, still, not everyone is following the leader blindly. The digital realm is now a fact. Let us take advantage of it then, little by little, influencing the choices that are made. Patiently, with distance, almost stoically, but actively at the same time. If we refuse the world vision as it is presented to us and dare to think out of the screen, neoliberalism might be beaten at its own game and be forced to change and adapt to survive.

Then again, the question of what to believe will be asked and some claims will have more impact than others. Our freedom would be defined quite differently and would open up possibilities that are not understandable for the #humanity. The time of the ?humanity will finally have come.

Contributing Writers POLITICAL UTOPIAS - March 2018

Interrogating Utopia

Written by Christian Cail

Capitalism is “the astonishing belief that the nastiest motives of the nastiest men somehow or other work for the best results in the best of all possible worlds.” – often attributed to John Maynard Keynes

Utopian thinking, at its best, requires the meeting of both a firm foundation in the material factors of our moment and history – how we reproduce ourselves and how we got to this point – and an imagination unbound by the very conditions under which we currently exist. Utopian thinking is a lost art. Most people know that the end of everything is becoming inevitable. The rise in sea levels, drought, crop failure, etc. will eventually create a mass refugee crisis which will make the Syrian Civil War (sparked by drought) almost cute in comparison. The positivists among us think there is still time and hope that neoliberalism will create a savior; but no savior will come. We cannot expect the greediest among us, through the individual drive of profit, to save humanity. Theodor Adorno once said that ideology is only exposed during violence. Likewise, the structure of our economy, a now globalized totality, will be laid bare when the cracks in its logic – the exceptions – become the cannibalistic whole. We are slouching toward Ouroboros.

There was once a time, within the golden age of Keynesian social-democracy, that the future was an option. Science fiction, modernist architecture, the space race, and the designs of Buckminster Fuller all pointed to a bright future. John Maynard Keynes himself believed that by the 1970s labor would be reduced to near utopian terms through automation. Now, in pop-culture, the future is always dystopian. It brings only barren destruction and inequality whether it be Mad Max, The Hunger Games, Elysium, Children of Men, or even WALL-E. It is in this moment that we should strap utopia to a chair and beat it until it gives us answers. In order to do this, we have to look into history. History itself has been ruined by the sclerotic rot of positivism and technocratic sycophantism, but in the large shifts of the past – between the cracks – one can see a sliver of the future; not the future we have, but one which is still waiting for us.

For a majority of human history, we have lived under some form of communism. This may come as a shock to the reader for we, as a whole, suffer from extreme historical amnesia. Marx dubbed this mode of production “primitive communism”:  a system whereby labor is equally performed and production is universally consumed. Within this historical space there is no private property, aka productive means which are held privately for others to use (to be fiercely distinguished from personal property). Marshall Sahlins’ Stone Age Economics is a good resource for understanding this era of human history. The goal of the modern communist is to look at history from the largest vantage point possible, collect the most liberatory and egalitarian features of each phase, and understand how each can be synthesized today.

Our amnesia has even caused us to forget capitalism’s uniqueness. Capitalism has not always just been there, nor was it lurking in the shadow of every exchange within the feudal mode of production. Capitalism was and is one of many possibilities of human organization. Capitalism is a relatively young phenomenon which originated in England, whereby the desire for increased productivity by landowners forcibly pushed peasants off the land. Whereas formerly the wealthy mercantile drive was of buying low and selling high, the new impulse was of productiveness, increased output, property, and enclosure. This has not changed. The peasants who once made for themselves, paid tax, and owned their tools were now forced into abject poverty in the countryside and often moved into cities where the first factories were sprouting. This was the very beginning of the industrial age. Ellen Meiksins Wood’s The Origin of Capitalism details this moment well. With capitalism came increased colonialism, slavery, and robust defenses thereof. The laws conformed to this new trend, bringing property rights for the wealthy and slavery for the dispossessed. Freedom became the foremost value of the bourgeoisie, but only for the bourgeoisie. Karl Marx outlines this in the first section of The Communist Manifesto.

Photo by Pawel Janiak

Wherever capitalism went, reaction was sure to follow. Not only were there intense peasant revolts in England, there were also proto-communists – aggrieved by the trend of private property and wage slavery. Historian Christopher Hill  writes thusly of the early communist Gerrard Winstanley and the “Diggers” movement:

An important aspect of the battle of ideas (was) the abolition of wage labour…Winstanley wanted to organise a national strike of wage labour so that the rich wouldn’t be able to get their lands cultivated, wouldn’t be able to sell the proceeds and so would be reduced to the level of everybody else. If they chose to turn their land into the common stock they might get some compensation, but this would be a voluntary cession of their land.

Winstanley himself writes in his 1649 tract The True Levellers Standard Advanced: Or, The State of Community Opened, and Presented to the Sons of Men:

In the beginning of Time, the great Creator Reason, made the Earth to be a Common Treasury, to preserve Beasts, Birds, Fishes, and Man, the lord that was to govern this Creation; for Man had Domination given to him, over the Beasts, Birds, and Fishes; but not one word was spoken in the beginning, that one branch of mankind should rule over another.

The French Revolution also gave way to dissenting proto-communists. The most famous is Gracchus Babeuf who masterminded the “Conspiracy of Equals”, a failed coup in 1796. Babeuf, disgusted by the bourgeois plutocrats, wanted to remake the republic in the people’s image. His programme remains extraordinarily radical and is not unlike Engels’ programme in The Principles of Communism:

Economic decree:

  1. There shall be established a great national common wealth.
  2. It will take ownership of the nation’s unsold goods, the assets of enemies of the revolution, public buildings, commonly-owned goods, almshouses, and assets abandoned by their owners or usurped by those who have used their posts to enrich themselves.
  3. The right of inheritance is abolished. All goods will return to the common wealth.

On work for the common wealth:

  1. Every member must work…
  2. The administration will promote the use of machines and the procedures necessary to reduce the burden of work…
  3. Workers will be deployed by the administration according to their understanding of necessary tasks.

After the industrial revolution proper, wherein peasant universally became proletarian, there was an even greater appearance of socialist ideals in the face of capitalism’s ravages. Robert Owen was a former capitalist who, after taking possession of cotton mills in Scotland, was so horrified by the conditions and lives of his workers that he decided to make a more just society with capitalism. Children were habitually orphaned, women worked to death while pregnant, and the men were abject drunkards. Owen initially cut their hours, increased their wages, and educated their children. Unfortunately, these early Utopian Socialist (as Marx would call them) projects were doomed to eventual failure. Though Marx greatly respected these socialists, he dreamt of something larger. This eventually led to his scientific diagnosis of capital in Das Kapital.

Photo by Jayphen Simpson

Where does this put us? Though the West no longer lives in total wretched misery like the average Victorian wage laborer, the general structure of capitalism is still present. The most horrid conditions capitalism brings have been outsourced to the Global South through centuries of extractionary imperialism and brute force. Neoliberal hegemony is for the subaltern a diseased gifter; and the third world is blessed to win its favor. An economic offer no one can refuse, as to do so brings sanctions, embargoes, and discipline. At any time the skeleton holding up our society could be made bare and those with will become distinct from those without. The Gilded Age only feels over. We still have our Carnegies and Fords, but they are now called Bezos and Musk. This social relation has been palliated, pacified, and smoothed out by false consciousness, gaudy luxury, increasingly decadent entertainment, and all-consuming advertisement – but it remains the same. America is a high budget third-world country and when the destruction is reaped from the crop currently sown, the ideology of the system – its violence and irrationality – will be naked. Class society is still the structure under which our lives are led and the need for a truly democratic and equal global society is not forfeit.

Almost all of us feel cheated, because we are. Even in America, where socialism is perhaps the only worst thing next to atheism, class consciousness is ever-present. The irony is, the bourgeoisie have managed to use the language of class to obfuscate it. Republican leaders talk incessantly about the “elites” and “globalists”, but have tied those terms strictly to the Democratic Party, a party for which this is true. Gore Vidal once said, “There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party… and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat.” For the Republican solutions are in further neoliberal privatization: class preservation through working class extraction. American conservative ideology is sadomasochistic: they want freedom and maybe equality, but they listen to their slavemaster’s solutions. Therefore, Wayne LaPierre, executive of the NRA, can gleefully chastise “the elites” and weave them into denunciations of socialists while precisely being the “elites” he criticizes. The latest GOP tax bill, Citizens United, constant privatization – all to benefit whom exactly? False consciousness is the “American Dream”.

Utopian thinking is not a luxury, it is a necessity. With global eco-holocaust threatening the existence of most living creatures on earth, it is our responsibility to think of alternatives past capitalism. We must take heed Winstanley’s ancient words: to be true stewards of our earth – taking care not to poison it for profit – and live absent of the unnecessary hierarchies which place power, wealth, and choice in the hands of those most willing to commit evil. Mark Fisher quotes Slavoj Žižek and Fredric Jameson in Capitalist Realism, “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”. Jameson himself recently published his own answer to utopia in his work An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army. Within it he lays out a programme involving universal conscription into the army, a transformation in class relationship, the subversion of the political as such. It is this sort of imagination we need for a post-capitalist society. Soon, though, we won’t have to merely imagine, and when that moment comes, we should be prepared to fight those who control our world and create the impossible: utopia.

True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth with righteous indignation. It will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.”

-Martin Luther King Jr.