Tag Archives: #postcapitalism

The poverty of technology and the technology of poverty

14. IV 2018

Charles-Avery two dogs

It was one of those rainy and damp days, I was finding my way out of the F-train subway on Bergen St. in Brooklyn. On the mezzanine level, in the corner of the stairwell, I noticed a young man, couldn’t have been much older than 30. Rain was slowly cascading into the subway, small puddles forming everywhere forcing him into an uncomfortable squat instead of a sitting position. His appearance was modest; he looked tired and lonely, but not destitute. There were none of the signs of physical neglect usually seen in homeless people – he looked like someone who had access to a bed and sanitary facilities. There was a money tray with a few coins in front of him indicating that he had been there for some time. The man seemed relaxed and disinterested in making eye contact with passersby. He appeared preoccupied with what was happening on his iPhone, most likely Instagram or the traffic on the social networks.

Panhandlers with smartphones are unusual sight – it is not just the price of the accessory that is at odds with their social status, but the entire protocol: the price of connectivity, how they pays their bills, which assumes a checking account; purchases of apps, which requires possession of a credit card suggesting some king of credit history… Things just don’t add up. However, as much as the two were an odd combination, it was difficult to dismiss the thought that, on some level, they shared the same causal connector, and they stand as two representations of the same underlying cause of social degradation. While poverty is a consequence of the system’s inherent urge to cannibalize itself, tech, on the other hand, has become the other face of resistance to change.

The panhandler and the smartphone together unify the worlds of thrift store shoppers and the high tech of Silicon Valley. The following chart brings us closer to the origin of this unstrange connection. It shows three price histories representing roughly three different social segments of the stock market. Dollar Tree is a chain of discount variety stores in the US. It sells an assortment of everyday general merchandise; it is a lower end version of Walmart, with most goods priced at or below $1. It is the place where poor folks buy their stuff. Since 2001 (the perception of) the value of Dollar Tree has increased by 11 times, while during the same time Apple, which needs no introduction, has had a 140-fold rise. For comparison, S&P or other benchmark stock indices have grown “only” 2 times.

The coordination between two histories is not a story of correlations in the sense normally used in statistics, but of a different type of commonality, the most interesting point being not their mutual causation, but the timing they share. Between 2008 and 2009, S&P index –the “social median” of the stock market– lost 50% of its value. It took four years for it to recover. In contrast, Dollar Tree, the poor man’s outlet, starts its big takeoff in 2008 with the stock price practically quadrupling during the subsequent four years. This timing and trend are in synch with all other measures of rise in poverty[1]. This is also the moment when Apple’s explosive rise begins.

DLT

The poverty of digital nations: Silicon Valley meets thrift shop

While the middle of the affluent sector of society (S&P world) advanced in “moderate” steps, the wings on both sides have outpaced it by a wide margin. Two seemingly different entities on opposite sides of the social spectrum – the beneficiaries of growing poverty and of the technological boom — register a common inflection point around the time of the deepest financial and social crises in modern history.

Dollar Tree’s success in the last ten years has been a function of demand created by an explosive supply of poverty; Apple’s rise has been an indirect beneficiary of its side effects. As social reality was disintegrating, the void it created was filled by its virtual surrogate with Apple acting as the main subcontractor in the process of digitalization of social relations. This ties the panhandler and the iPhone together as a result of centrifugal forces of social fragmentation and the disappearance of the middle into the extremes.

The poverty of technology: Rent economy cannibalizes itself

As the economy transitions from material to immaterial, innovations become its main focus. If one can come up with a technological innovation that enables him or her to manufacture a product for 10 cents and sell it for over $200 on a sustained basis, all subsequent profits will be reinvested in that direction. In markets with strict intellectual property laws prices are no longer commensurate with production costs, but contain a scarcity premium. In this way, innovation becomes a source of Rent.

Rent is the most irresistible source of income. At the same, time it is economically and socially intolerable. If someone somewhere is paid without doing any work, then someone somewhere works without getting paid. Rent economy is a voluntary slavery. Employment becomes the right to be exploited and unemployment is denial of that right. However, when there is no need for labor, and freedom is a constitutional right of every citizen, there are slaves without masters roaming around without anything to do. They become the excess of population.

Irresistible resistance to change

In the past, technology always generated new demand and forced people to reinvent their skills to accommodate for the new needs. This is no longer the case. Modern technology destroys more jobs than it creates. As such, it has become the main destabilizing force. Its basic commodity is immaterial – it costs nothing to produce an idea. If labor is the main cost of production, relocating the production centers to regions with the cheapest labor becomes the dominant mode of profit maximization. In this way, low production costs abroad create precariat at home.

Profit chasing leads to geographic displacement and social and cultural dislocations. Through their deterritorialization the elites lose their social footing. Their riches decouple from the well-being of society. The Keynesian bond, which used to tie the profits of the rich to the wages of the poor is severed, cutting the fate of economic elites loose from that of the masses. The possibility, provided by a global capital market, of rescuing themselves and their families by exiting together with their possessions offers the strongest possible temptation for the rich not to be interested in the social impact of their actions[2].

This is not sustainable in the long run. Once the exploitation becomes global and all alternatives are exhausted, the system has to collapse. The main question is: Who can act as an agent of change? Who represents the new social archetype of post-capitalism — a descendent of the medieval knight in feudalism or bourgeoisie in industrial capitalism?

Paul Mason has argued that a composite picture of that type would correspond to a Universal Educated Person. Their skill set is a fusion of managerial and intellectual abilities. Such a person needs to be a bearer of the new social relations inside the old, interested in engaging in political discourse with the intention of triggering change on the social level, and appear in large numbers. Currently, the “T-shirted bourgeoisie”, although fitting the description of a universal educated person with the right skills, does not want to reconfigure the system – rather, they favor a monopolistic structure and extraction of Rent[3], without much regard for the long-term consequences. Instead of being guardians of the future and sustainability, Silicon Valley billionaires prefer to invest in doomsday bunkers and property in New Zealand.

The technology of poverty and society of tiredness

When production is immaterial, everyone already owns the means of production. This is the main difference with respect to industrial age when material production defined the tensions between capital and labor. In cognitive capitalism, we are talking about, what B. C. Han calls the Achievement society, where everyone is entrepreneur of themselves, the exploiter and the exploited, the master and the slave, at the same time. Everyone is trapped in the auto-exploitation out of which there is no escape through resistance or uprising, but through internalizing his or her discontent through withdrawal and depression[4]. Zygmunt Bauman sees this as a social death spiral: The uncertainty of the Achievement society is a powerful individualizing force. It divides instead of uniting, and since there is no telling who will wake up the next day in what division, the idea of ‘common interests’ grows ever more nebulous and loses all pragmatic value. Contemporary fears, anxieties and grievances are made to be suffered alone[5].

The society of achievement is generating tiredness and exhaustion. This is a solitary and divisive tiredness with separating effect[6]. Digitalization of social relations is a response to this state of affairs. It fills the vacuum created by achievement society by providing a virtual supplement that makes isolation bearable by satisfying our ontological resistance to isolation. Social digitalization creates contours of a community; it transposes, to use Peter Handke’s terminology, I-tiredness into We-tiredness[7] while, at the same time, reinforcing isolation by creating a phantasmatic layer and illusion of self-sufficiency. Infinite plasticity of the digital society – ability to be shaped at our will — is intrusive and invasive: One can be anything one desires by creating an avatar and digital persona of any shape, form, and ability. This is virtual doping: It makes possible to achieve without achieving[8].

Social digitalization makes it possible to conceive of a community that requires neither belonging nor relation. The existence of a community, albeit virtual, results in an immanent religion of tiredness, one that needs no kinship. This is where smartphones come in. Here is Frankfurt School and B. C. Han, one more time:

Every technology or technique of domination brings forth characteristic devotional objects that are employed in order to subjugate. Such objects naturalize and stabilize domination. Devotion means submission to obedience. Smartphones represent devotion – indeed, they are the devotional objects of the Digital. They work like a rosary, which, because of its ready availability, represents a handheld device too. Both (the smartphones and rosary) serve the purpose of self-monitoring and control. The smartphone is not just an effective surveillance apparatus; it is also a mobile confessional. Facebook is the church – the global synagogue of the Digital. “Like” is the digital “Amen”[9].

 

[1]Since 2008, the number of people on food stamps has almost doubled – there is currently around 50 million people on food stamps in the US. During the same period, the fraction of the population living below poverty level has increased from 12% to 15%. These are just continuation of the long term secular trends underscoring the social fragmentation of the late 20th century. For the bottom 90% of Americans, living standards have not changed since 1970s. In contrast, for the top 1% they have risen 5 times and for the top 0.01% by 10 times in the last 50 years.

[2] Wolfgang Streeck, How Will Capitalism End?: Essays on a Failing System, Verso (2016)

[3] Paul Mason, Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2016)

[4] B. C. Han, Psychopolitik: Müdigkeitsgesellschaft Burnoutgesellschaft Hoch-Zeit, Matthes & Seitz Berlin (2016)

[5] Zygmunt Bauman, Wasted Lives: Modernity and Its Outcasts, Polity (2003)

[6] Peter Handke, Versuch über die Müdigkeit (in Die drei Versuche), Suhrkamp (1998)

[7] Peter Handke, ibid.

[8] B. C. Han, Psychopolitik: Neoliberalismus und die neuen Machttechniken, Fischer (2015)

[9] B. C. Han, ibid.

 

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Modern times: The scandal of sleep  

23. IX 2017

  

Insomnia
                                                                  Vertigo FlyWriter

Man has always sought to find new ways of time saving. The most important technological discoveries (horse, ships, cars, trains, plains, assembly line), although addressing efficiency of transportation and production, were really about efficient usage of time. The most recent technological innovations were the key to the question of how to fuse different times, productivity, leisure, consumption and family — Television, TV dinners, microwave, fast food, Las Vegas wedding, smart phones, the internet, and virtual reality all enhance possibilities of multitasking and, as such, affect directly the way we manage our time, so that one can both work and consume away from the workplace or the shopping mall. These inventions blurred the boundaries between work and private life and outlined a new age of biopolitics and bioderegulation with novel narrative frameworks.

From rational perspective life is simple. Work is a paid activity performed on behalf of a third person, to achieve goals we have not chosen for ourselves, according to the procedures and schedules laid down by the persons paying our wages*. Labor time is unfree time, imposed upon the individual (originally even by force) to the benefit of alien (tautological) end. Since the first days of industrial age, the compromise according to which workers allocate some of their time to work in order to enjoy their free time, is perfectly rational. Seen by the capital, on the other hand, free time is empty and useless time. Economic rationality demands that any constraint which presents an obstacle to capital accumulation be removed. The end result is austerity of free time – free time should be minimized or austerely rationed. As a result of rationality of both sides, the employer and the employee (capital and labor) stand in direct opposition to each other when it comes to time and this defines their basic antagonism whose unfolding is seeing a new chapter in the tech era.

The most powerful technological forces have profoundly changed our experience of time and transformed the way we spend it. They have established a new normative model in the culture of the entrepreneurship of the self, which has become standard in the western world, where there is pressure to be constantly present and engaged. Not being switched on means falling behind, being out of step and thus losing a competitive edge. “In that paradigm, sleeping is for losers.”

Bioderegulation and the scandal of sleep: The Brave New World recomposed

Unlike other irreducible activities, which have been successfully commoditized, sleep has stood as the last frontier resisting the colonization by engine of profitability. “The troubling reality is that nothing of value can be extracted from it. Sleep sticks out as an irrational and intolerable affirmation that there might be limits to the compatibility of living beings with the allegedly irresistible forces of modernization, whose credo is that there are no unalterable givens of nature.’’ [1]

As Jonathan Crary points out, this discontent with sleep, and its resistance to colonization, is condensed in the concept of the sleep mode of electronic devices, which defines a state of low-power readiness implying really not sleep as an extended disengagement, but a deferred or diminished condition of operationality. It supersedes an off/on logic because nothing should ever be fundamentally off.

“Sleep cannot be eliminated, but it can be wrecked”, and efforts to accomplish this wreckage are fully in place. Scientific research on sleep is an unusually active playground, attracting considerable attention and funding. One example is the study of white crowned sparrows which during their migration along the West coast show unusual capacity for staying awake for as long as seven days[1]. This ability makes them a particularly interesting subject for the army — despite considerable technological progress, the need for human solders will never go away and a benefit of engineering a sleepless solder, who could engage in combat for unspecified duration of time while maintaining alertness, is obvious.

As with other inventions that spread from military to civilian life—for instance penicillin, microwaves, nylon—the next logical step would be to produce sleepless workers and sleepless consumers. And while this transformation from crown sparrow to sleepless soldiers to sleepless workers and consumers might not have immediate dystopian repercussions, it outlines a trend which enhances the idea of human disposability. After all upgrading someone to a more efficient version is an implicit recognition that their earlier version was less valuable. The images of a society where these trends are fully developed, however, are deeply unsettling.

We live surprise results of the old plans

This is just another illustration of general dialectics of progress — one cannot innovate without creating some damage – expressed most eloquently in the writings of Paul Virilio, theorist of accidents and the grand maître of cultural theory. In his own words: “Progress and disaster are the two sides of the same coin. Invention of a ship is invention of a shipwreck, invention of a plane is invention of a plane crash, invention of nuclear energy is invention of a nuclear meltdown. And, the more powerful the invention, the more dramatic are its consequences. So, it is inevitable to reach a point when progress and knowledge become unbearable. ”[2]

It is difficult to find a flaw in Virilio’s concise explanation of causality. Its power lies in the fact that it can be applied to almost any context. When it comes to the tyranny of work, it exposes the ultimate dialectics of rationality and its logical transformation path (from sublime to excremental). Rationality, when set free and unchecked, demands removal of any obstacle to profit maximization. Coupled with efficiency, which is raised to the level of exact science, and pushed to the extremes, it mutates into systematic devastation of everything that does not submit to the profit of the strongest. In the final stage of transformation of the post-Fordist (attention) economy workers no longer behave rationally. Instead of working for living, they live for work – their work no longer serves to subsidize the enjoyment of their free time, but they use their free time to become more productive workers.

In other words — and this is the corollary Virilio draws — excess rationality leads to irrational outcomes and a culture that is based on rationality must experience a deep crisis when it becomes irrational.

Diachronic extension of the progress/disaster counterpoint places our present at an uncomfortable historical point: If the 20th century was the century of great inventions, then the 21st century has to be the century of disasters [2]. This is the predicament of the new century — we are living surprise results of the old plans.

This historical inflection point of the present reality is eloquently illustrated by the contrast between the futuristic dystopian fiction of the early 20th century and the current new wave of dystopian non-fiction. For 20th century futurists, dystopia was placed in a distant future (the shipwreck is the futurist invention of the ship [2]). In contrast, the new wave of dystopian literature is not a fiction. The topic is no longer the visions of a distant future, but rather a dystopian present without a future: We are shipwrecked in the endless deteriorating present.

And inability to produce a convincing image of the future causes an implosion of the present. So, behind the current economic crisis lies a crisis of time. Time no longer flows freely. It has come to a stop. If this trend continues, it is not difficult to imagine a future where sleep will have to be bought like bottled water.

 

* Andre Görz

[1] Jonathan Crary, 24/7 — Terminal Capitalism and the End of Sleep, London: Verso 2014, pp 10-11.

[2] Paul Virilio, The original accident, London: Polity 2007, pp 21-33.

Pregnant widow: A brief history of the next 30 years

5.I 2017

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

(W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming)

Capitalism is disintegrating, but it is not giving way to a better alternative, it is collapsing under its own weight[1]. In the last 40 years, economic progress has been financed largely by social deficits. At the end, we found ourselves trapped in the stalemate of status quo because we agreed to let the market set prices and all other values. Things and services were sold for less than it cost to make them. The actual costs were externalized, their burden not bore by the profit centers, but by the state and increasingly more by the citizens.  However, these are actual costs somebody had to pay. So, at the end, things could not add up. Everyone was running some kind of deficit, and the game had to come to an end. Occasional hiccups during the transfer of those deficits from one side to the other were interpreted as market failures. But, in reality, there were actually no market failures per se; the market itself is the failure[2]. Eventually, this had to be recognized, and we have now come to the point where this realization can no longer be ignored: Capitalism no longer works for capitalists.

From the current standpoint, future looks anything but unambiguous. No decision has been made about the direction the future is taking. This moment of history represents what Alexander Herzen had identified as the Pregnant Widow: The old system has given way and the new one hasn’t been born yet. Does the future bring a normal infant or a Rosemarie’s baby?

We are approaching the final stages of unwind of the 500 years of history. During the 2016 Presidential campaign, we had a glimpse of the future — the three main candidates represented three distinct economic, political and social paths: Status quo (Clinton), regressive populism (Trump), and emancipatory transformation (Sanders). In the past, we had rarely had an opportunity to see such radically different visions getting such a large-scale representation and response — elections had always been about two “infinitesimally” different interpretations of a single path.

The preview of the three paths into the future might very well be a prelude to the most radical and, at the same time, the most significant transformation of capitalism after the industrial revolution. It is an announcement of the socioeconomic blowback, the arrival of times where social deficits will have to be reconciled and managed. The three paths should be seen as the three attraction centers which will define the dynamics of socio-economic developments in the next decades[3]: Democratic fascism, Decentralized egalitarian “utopia”, and Neo Feudalism. The figure shows the three futures in the context of social and political changes after 1968.

cascading-bifurcations

Democratic fascism

A semi-inclusive, cast-like division into two strata: Top 20% with highly egalitarian distribution & 80% of totally disarmed working “precariat”. The key is the balance in size (in the past, similar projects failed because the top was too small).

Legitimation: The dogma of progress & neo-liberal ideology.

Alliances: Military force, Think tanks, Semi-progressive corporate conglomerates, Educational institutions.

Means: Pseudo-progressive politics, Immigration policy, Advanced media and technology, Control of food and water, military technology. To the western mind this mode is the most palatable alternative for the existing system. Favored by Neo liberals.

Decentralized egalitarian “utopia”

Inclusive, achievable through political sophistication and technology; requires accepting certain real limitations in consumption expenditures. Does not mean merely a socialization of poverty. Needs to reconcile with adverse effects of progress, e.g. creation of wealth causes destruction of value.

Legitimation: Evidence that short-termism leads to undesirable long-term outcomes

Alliances: Think tanks, Influential individuals, Technological and networking wealth, New industrial sector based on the commons.

Means: Progressive emancipatory politics, Technological and political innovations and networking. Favored by Western intellectuals (and Hipsters).

Neo Feudalism

An exclusive, highly inegalitarian world of parcelized sovereignties (an equilibrated form of the current “times of trouble”). Consolidation of fractionalized structures into bigger entities with highly vertical structure, e.g. multinational corporations, global crime syndicates…, but without endless capital accumulation as the mainspring.

Legitimation: return to a belief in natural hierarchies.

Alliances: Right wing militias, religious and other fringe elements.

Means: Paramilitary Force, Populism, Regressive non-emancipatory politics, Drugs, Authoritarian propaganda. A glimpse of this mode is seen in post socialist oligarchic systems (China, Russia, Myanmar, Mexico). Favored by Western right wing political organizations. 

We are nowhere near the new equilibrium; the developments of the last decade present just an announcement of a lengthy transformation process ahead of us, expected to take the center stage in the next 30-40 years.

The next 30 years

2016: Baby has six toes

The enthusiastic support enjoyed so far by the non-centrist parties in the developed world outline the unconscious desire for destruction of the system that has imprisoned almost everyone. More than anything, populist victories reflect a defeat of the centrist politics, a departure from what has been looking more and more like the path of democratic fascism. Trump’s victory pointed out the lines of fracture in the centrist narrative and capitalized on its symbolic insolvency. About 17% of those who voted for Donald Trump believe that he is not qualified to perform the duty of the President of the United States. It is difficult to imagine a more eloquent expression of unconditional discontent with status quo than this. Trump’s movement is de-facto a rise of the neo- feudal America. The core of its platform represents the unbundling of the neoliberalism and rebranding it as an anti-global movement. It sees the future as highly inegalitarian world of parcelized sovereignties with highly vertical structure.

By no means does this represent the end of the transformation. It is just the beginning of a troubling unwind. Pregnant widow is only in the second trimester of her complicated pregnancy.

Beyond 2016: Times of Trouble

In the next 2-3 decades, social disorder could take new dimension as demographic transformations continue to weaken state structures further. This could be expressed through two different modes. Either the discontent of ethnically excluded spreads to absorb and articulate the sentiments of other exclusions or, alternatively, discontent of the permanently excluded provokes a reaction of the redundant natives and trigger their uprising and backlash. Civil warfare, initially misdiagnosed as increase in crime, would escalate[4].

The scramble for protection (which has already begun) assumes a new form as the states cannot provide it due to lack of funding and legitimation. The state’s monopoly on violence is breached and reorganized through the expansion of private protection armies and police structure. This process had already been accomplished in the post-socialist countries about 25 years ago and is likely to serve as a blueprint for a similar transformation in the western world.

Western democratic states where these transformations take place will gradually converge towards failed states. Contours of this program are already inscribed in the Trump’s cabinet nominations. Combined with the other side-effects of globalization and the underlying social fragmentation, these developments will lead to further criminalization of societies and polarization of distribution with escalation of corruption and dismantling of the institutions of the democratic state as a natural consequence, implying further instabilities. Organized crime will blossom and reinforce its legitimacy, while developed countries will converge closer towards criminal oligarchies or other authoritarian structures.

The fourth future: A lullaby for Rosemary’s baby

Symbolically dead (from an overdose of itself) while still very much physically alive, unable to either transform by replacing itself with something else or adapt and restore itself to equilibrium, capitalism is exiting the historical scene. However, before it disappears, capitalism will continue to inhabit the world of undead. It will remain inscribed into the system in the guise of a wound which makes the social subject undead, depriving it of the capacity to die — only when this wound is healed, can the capitalist society die in peace and transform itself into something else.

As an economic system, capitalism (at this point) is showing an advanced decline in capacity to underwrite a stable society. What follows after such a disintegration of a system is a prolonged period of social entropy and disorder. For a significant length of time, a society would slip into less than a society – a society-lite — until it may or may not recover and again become a society in the full meaning of the term[5].

Out of all possible paths, this is the most radical outcome, one that is without a historical precedent and one we seem to be least prepared for. It corresponds to what Wolfgang Streeck calls the Interregnum, disintegration of society as such, a perpetual anotherhood – pregnancy without childbirth — a trajectory where the times of trouble continue indefinitely.

Neoliberal narrative which identifies the absence of structure as an ultimate expression of freedom will find new legs in the post-social phase. This is the phase of undead capitalism, the times when the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity

[1] Wolfgang Streeck, How will capitalism end?, Verso 2016

[2] Kim Stanley Robinson, in An American Utopia (S. Zizek ed.), Verso 2016

[3] I. Wallerstine, Historical Capitalism, Verso 2011

[4] I. Wallerstine, ibid.

[5] Wolfgang Streeck, How will capitalism end?, Verso 2016