Tag Archives: #Technology

Adventures in integral reality: Amusement parks for angry citizens

31. VIII 2019

There is no longer anything on which there is nothing to say. (Jean Baudrillard)

Back in the day, long before flat screens, in the times of cathode tubes, watching news was a compulsory ritual, like a shower or shave, which took place once every day at 6:30 pm. The news was a basic reflection of reality — people watched them to get informed. From 6:30 to 7:00, a solemn cloud would descend on the households – during that time, activities would slow down and the kids had to get quiet while adults (mostly fathers) would tune in to hear what really happened on that day. The news were dry, boring, and unremarkable, delivered without embellishment; they had to be endured. Those 30 minutes felt different than any other 30 minutes of the day. As if the clocks slowed down, the flow of time changed, becaming thicker and slower. It felt like there was nothing that couldn’t fit inside that half hour.

The arrival of the 24/7 news cycle changed everything. By occupying the entire program, the news became both news and entertainment. Suddenly, there was always something going on somewhere, or so it seemed, something one was supposed to be afraid to miss. The news became less news and more opinions, and they provoked counter opinions and set the stage for the contest between different opinions. And the public started taking sides. There were winners and losers and everyone liked the winners, so the newscasters and political commentators became new inadvertent media stars. By then, people were watching news all the time, in the morning, during the day, before dinner, during dinner, and after dinner, between shows and during commercial breaks, before going to bed or if they couldn’t sleep at night. In order to fill the time, news channels had to expand beyond basic reflections of reality; they became a production of reality and the source of its excess. There was hardly anything left for us to imagine anymore. It spelled a slow death of the Real by suffocation of the imaginary.

Consider the following example of 1970s Italy from the perspective of modern media and 24/7 news. Those were the times when bombs were going off regularly in its cities as a result of the activity of the Brigade Rose and their likes.

Is any given bombing in Italy the work of leftist extremists; or of extreme right-wing provocation; or staged by centrists to bring every terrorist extreme into disrepute and to shore up its own failing power; or again, is it a police-inspired scenario in order to appeal to calls for public security? All this is equally true, and the search for proof, indeed the objectivity of the facts, does not check this vertigo of interpretation. We are in a logic of simulation which no longer has anything to do with a logic of facts and an order of reason. Simulation is characterized by a precession of the model, of all models based on the merest fact — the models come first, and their orbital circulation constitutes the genuine “magnetic field” of events. The facts no longer have any trajectory of their own, they arise at the intersection of the models; a single fact may even be engendered by all the models at once. This anticipation, this precession, this short-circuit, this confusion of the fact with its model (no more divergence of meaning, no more dialectical polarity) is what allows each time for all the possible interpretations, even the most contradictory – all are true, in the sense that their truth is exchangeable, in the image of the models from which they proceed, in a generalized cycle[1].

The politics of Simulacra

The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth — it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true. (Ecclesiastes)

These developments opened the door for alternative modes of reproduction of reality to enter the mainstream. According to Baudrillard, besides basic reflection of reality employed in traditional news casting, there are three additional stages of reproduction[2]: perversion of reality (e.g. William Barr’s summary of Mueller’s report); pretense of reality (Larry Kudlow’s statemet: “President doesn’t make things up”); and simulacrum, which bears no relation to any reality whatsoever (e.g. Fox News).

Simulacrum is the map without a territory, a copy without an original, the avenue by which accepted ideals or privileged position could be challenged and overturned. Pinocchio is an example of simulacrum, and so is Frankenstein’s monster, and TV evangelists, hipsters, The Picture of Dorian Grey, Pygmalion, painting of a photograph, or Disney World.

Simulacrum contains a certain aspect of creation ex-nihilo. The intrinsic circularity between the real and imaginary is essential for its sustainability. For example, Disney World exists, it is permanent, undeniable; it constantly serves as a benchmark against which the Real is compared and measured. In contrast, Pretense and Perversion of reality are transient; they cannot take root and must be followed by another pretense or perversion in order to have any consequence.

However, the most important practical dimension of simulacrum, one which defines its appeal and longevity, is its intrusion into the value system. As Umberto Eco pointed out, when visiting Disney parks, we not only enjoy the perfect imitation, but the conviction that imitation has reached its apex, in comparison to which reality will always be inferior. This is the same motif found in Frankenstein (intention to produce a superior human from superior parts, Pygmalion, or Pinocchio. All these examples capture the desire to achieve perfection by design, improve reality by creating its copy, elevating it to the level of the real, and using it as a surrogate[3].

Very early on, the 24/7 news concept inevitably began to deviate from basic reflection of reality, although in varying degree, depending on the network. However, no one has gone further in that journey than the Fox News. Their accelerated departure from the rest of the news media coincides with the arrival of Roger Ailes who was the first to realize the endless financial potential of manufactured reality, long before anyone else, and adopted it as the network’s business model — We deceive, you believe — to create a simulacrum as a perfect surrogate, more appealing and in many ways superior and more desirable than actual reality itself.

Once reality gets passed through the cognitive sausage making processing plant of Fox News, it emerges transformed and utterly unrecognizable, immunized against facts. In that process, Fox has created a fictional world of arbitrariness that has no reality corrective, but one that resonates with a growing segment of the American society.

The real and the imaginary: From fusion to confusion

Integral reality has no imaginary. Everything becomes real, everything has a meaning, whereas it is in the nature of meaning that not everything has it. (Jean Baudrillard)

As much as the sociopolitical developments catalyzed the evolution of the media, changes in political climate and a general shift in sentiment were largely shaped by the media, so much so that in the last decade it has become impossible to see the beginning and the end of their causal connection.

At the core of this all reside the deep social changes of the post-industrial West. Technology, globalization, tighter environmental regulations, and decline in manufacturing have resulted in accelerated deplition in demand for unskilled white labor, a similar social configuration experienced by the black sub proletariat in the early postindustrial decades.

Such developments, whenever they take place, produce insecure, fear-driven masses that can be coopted by ethno-nationalist forces. While for a shrinking minority, money can buy security and act as a replacement for identity, for a growing majority without money, there is nothing left – neither identity nor security. They are forced into the imaginary. Fear for oneself unconsciously fosters a longing for the enemy. They invent an enemy for themselves. The enemy, even in imaginary form, is a fast supplier of identity[4].

For a significant (and rapidly growing) segment of the American population, reality has become a nightmare without an escape path. The surrogate offering of Fox presented itself as a far more attractive alternative than the one that governed their lives – a copy had becomes superior to the original. The underlying rage of the white underclass was abundant, it presented itself as the new political capital ready to be deployed and invested. Its emergence as a portal to power and influence defined the political inflection point, and was seized by Roger Ailes when he joined the Fox. His version of right wing populism became ventriloquism of the excluded, a well-tried and bankrupt political maneuver of the right, a regressive anti-globalist surrogate for the general identity loss.

This was a novel, ingenious shot at the old and probably the most acute problem faced by the developed world: the problem of excess population. The number of people that fall through the cracks and are unable to get reintegrated into the normal functioning of society has been growing unstoppably, their size exceeding the managerial capability of the planet. Their discontent has reached toxic levels and their presence inside the enclosure of prosperity has been making the “normal” segment of the population uncomfortable and nervous. So far, attempts at draining of the excess population have been centered on either their incarceration or outright physical elimination via opioids. The newest proposal, championed by the right-wing populist outlets, is to open amusement parks for angry citizens and keep the excess population sequestered inside those parks, not merely as spectators, but as interactive extras; create attractions and make them angrier so they never want to leave.

For the excess population, the reality created by Fox is the only thing to cling to. Rage is their political currency, an asset and investment, which Fox and the right-wing media promise to reinvest and manage. It is the source of dividends, their 401K, and bitcoin at the same time; their present and their future, and the last chance of reclaiming their social identity.

The arrival of Trump was an extension of Fox’s vision beyond media. His election was perceived as a rebellion against the Real. However, Trump was not a novelty here. The script had already been written well before he was even in the picture. Fox News is the theme park; Trump is just a character in it, the Fox’s Pinocchio, there merely to entertain the visitors.

And with the strange twist of fate, as one political idea gets recycled after a century of hibernation, and ideology undergoes a face lift from National Socialism to National Capitalism, the Nazi wet dream of harnessing the power of media for political gains comes to life again, only this time as a perversion of itself: It is not the media that are in the service of politics, but politics in the service of media.

Semiotic insolvency and the great flood of arbitrariness

Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth[5]. And as lies continue and become bigger, our deficit to the truth grows. And this debt will have to be paid one day – that day will inevitably come. By inventing new lies in order to diffuse the old ones, we finance the old (semiotic) debt by issuing a new one – we borrow more in order to pay old debts. This is a semiotic pyramid scheme.

Being allowed to lie without consequences is like having an unlimited credit line; it feels like free money. And when free money is readily available, we don’t need a rationale, we take it, although we know all too well how it will end. And despite all that wisdom of hindsight, we fall repeatedly into the trap of pyramid schemes because we always see ourselves not as victims but as perpetrators.

In the culture where money is elevated to a supreme metrics and profit to the highest principle, it is no wonder that non-financial liabilities, like deficit to the truth, have been perceived as secondary and allowed to grow without a bound as long as they continue to bring profits.

What we are facing, in the not so distant future, is the bursting of the semiotic subprime bubble, ignited and carried out by Fox News and accelerated and brought to unsustainable levels by the current administration. The conditionally insolvent are allowed to borrow until they become unconditionally illiquid: People with no credibility or qualifications are appointed to positions of high responsibility and are allowed to cover up the consequences of their incompetence with further lies and distractions until their lies are no longer transactable — when no one believes in them any longer. This is when the system will clear. However, when the criminal incompetence of the current administration can no longer be covered up, its toxic debris will have already affected a significant part of the planet. It will be the political equivalent of the 2008 crash, a global Chernobyl, a chain reaction of defaults with huge casualties and unforeseeable long-term effects. This will be a generalized meltdown of credibility of trust, a default of the magnitude never seen in human history, an analogue of the 2008 financial crisis extended beyond financial markets, a meltdown of all frames of reference. There won’t be a firm spot to put a foot on. This is the great flood of arbitrariness.

[1] Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings, ed. Mark Poster (Stanford University Press, 1988), pp. 166-184

[2] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, University of Michigan Press; 14th Printing edition (1994)

[3] Simulacrum comes to life in three stages. In the initial stage, a faithful copy of the original emerges as an object is replicated, but the image is recognized as a counterfeit of the original. In the second stage, the distinction between the original and its replica begin to break down as a mass production of copies emerge. In the final stage, the replica precedes the original; there is no longer distinction between the reality and representation. Simulacrum anesthetizes the imagination numbing it against reality. It is ultimately a replacement of substance with symbols.

[4] B. C. Han, Die Austreibung des Anderen, S. FISCHER; Auflage: 4. (2016)

[5] Valery Legasov in Chernobyl

Complexity curse: From low productivity to social fragmentation

3. IX 2018

Sooner or later, everything turns into shit (2nd law of thermodynamics)

Economic productivity is one of the most important indicator of the wellbeing of a society and a fundamental determinant of its standard of living. It determines how prosperity is metabolized and how quality of life improves with time. Productivity is defined as the quantity of output produced by one unit of an input within one unit of time. An increase in physical productivity causes a corresponding increase in the value of labor, which raises wages. This is why having an education or on-the-job training is sought after by employers; it increases the productivity of workers and makes them more valuable assets to the firm.

Here is an example of how it works in practice. An employer offers you $15 to dig a 25 square-foot hole in his backyard. Suppose that you have insufficient capital goods (your bare hands or a spoon), and it takes you three hours to dig a hole to his specifications. Your labor output is worth $5 per hour. If you had a shovel instead, it may have only taken you 30 minutes to dig the hole; your labor output just rose to $30 per hour. With a big enough crane, you may have been able to dig it in five minutes with a labor productivity of $180 per hour. It is clear how the quality of life of a crane owner, which is a direct consequence of his high productivity, differs from the rest of the crowd.

Economic productivity is the source of libidinal forces, the alpha and omega of economic potency, and the ability to better the human conditions. It regulates social entropy, defines the arrow of time, shapes our expectations of the future, and provides mechanisms that sustain our capacity to desire. Abundant productivity enables future generations to live better than the previous ones. Low productivity, in contrast, means both short- and long-term hardship and erosion of the quality of life.

For almost half a century, productivity growth in developed world has been showing a troubling secular trend. In the last decade, developed economies all have entered a stagnation trap from which they seem to be unable to find a way out. This is illustrated in the chart, which shows the history of productivity growth in the US. The bold red lines indicate long-term averages across different regimes. Except for a relatively short period of two successive transient bubbles (internet and housing), there is a clear decline of the average from 3%, in the post-war decades, to 1% in the last ten years.

Productivity Anotated

US productivity growth (5Y moving average)

The decline in productivity growth has profound social implications. A 3% productivity growth, as seen in the two post-war decades, means that the standard of living doubles for every new generation[1]. In contrast, a productivity growth of 1% requires three generations to double the standard of living. However, if we take into account the rise of living costs, in an economy with 1% productivity growth each subsequent generation will have less of everything than its predecessor. It is particularly interesting that productivity growth has been descending to a near all-time low in the last five years, to below 1%, just as it was declared that the economy was recovering from the post-2008 recession. This point in itself deserves special attention.

The death spiral of productivity growth is an example of Tainter’s law, a general pattern whereby investing in complexity inevitably generates decreasing marginal returns for the systems that uses it. Insisting on the same methods, even when they have ceased to work, sets a civilization on track for collapse[2].

This is the essence of Tainter’s argument[3]. A civilization forms when some benefit accrues from greater complexity[4]. Benefits of complexity are realized through cooperation – the proverbial “whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. However, in the initial stage, although benefits of increasing complexity rise, during their evolution, complex systems spontaneously generate endogenous mechanisms of self-sabotage.

Tainters Law

Tainter’s Law

The primary source of self-obstruction is the new protagonist that emerges on the scene: the coordinator[5]. He is the guardian of the new paradigm, which champions complexity as the main and, ultimately, only strategy. The marginal benefits of complexity eventually begin to decline. Beyond a certain point, their intensification produces less additional benefit, putting its beneficiaries to more and more stress. But, as the community/organization now only knows how to use a single strategy, a superstructure is in place that cannot be gracefully abandoned. In the last phase, as benefits of additional complexity taper off, vast resources need to be invested in entirely unproductive ways, such as desperate attempts at regime legitimization: The competitive monument building, or the lavish parades held for each new, short-lived emperor. Eventually, the burden of civilization becomes greater than any benefit it provides and the society collapses[6].

Destruction of cooperation and self-sabotage in corporate organizations

Yves Morieux, offers an illustration of how the last phase of complexity is realized in the current context of developed corporate structures[7]. Behind persistent declining trend in productivity are the three basic tenets of corporate management that act as the main pillars of self-sabotage: Performance, Transparency, and Accountability.

Transparency implies audits and compliance — where does my role start and end. Accountability creates conditions for failure (in a compliant way): Who is accountable? Instead of creating conditions to succeed, we obsess on knowing who is to blame in case of failure. Performance: People put energy and effort in what can be measured, i.e. their individual performance, but not in cooperation.

However, cooperation is how you allocate your effort. Cooperation means taking a risk by giving up the ultimate protection, your own performance, to enhance the performance of those to whom you are being compared, for the sake of cooperation, in order to achieve the optimal result[8]. People are continuously being discouraged and disincentivized to cooperate. If when they cooperate, people were worse off, why would they cooperate? The three basic tenets of corporate management are doing injustice to effectiveness. The more complex the system becomes, the more structures we add that emphasize the three tenets. They trigger a counterproductive multiplication of interfaces that not only add people (non-productive ones), but also create obstacles. The more complicated the system, the more difficult to see what is happening. So we need meetings, reports, conference calls, etc.: people spend 40-80% of time wasting their time[9]. This is the politics of deliberate sub-optimality.

MBA nation or cannibalization of the social landscape

The false premise, which has become the defining characteristics of American politics and, to some extent, the culture as well, has been that a society is essentially the same object as a corporation, just a bigger one, that skills you learn in an MBA program are the same skills you need to manage a society, and that successful corporate managers are, by default, also good national leaders. However, this is not the only social damage of this fallacy. When applying the lessons from corporate culture to society, one inevitably also imports the underlying mistakes of that culture. And so, in the same way a rising complexity creates its own mechanisms of self-sabotage, the essence of the neoliberal approach to social organization is inhibiting the mechanisms of social cooperation. Social atomization, the cult of individuality, the creation of homo economicus as a model citizen, competition as the only and ultimate criterion for everything, the obliteration of welfare, the destruction of empathy, and the entire conservative system of values, all of these structures are instruments of social fragmentation and annihilation of the tissue that makes society different from a collection of individuals. All this leads to barbarization of the social landscape with the degree of polarization that has reached the point where political consensus is no longer possible and democracy no longer works. Politics has become a problem instead of a solution. The net result? The quality of life is already deteriorating and this trend will be reinforced with each subsequent generation as the whole continues to shrink smaller than the sum of its parts.

Under the crush of social entropy, with its ever-increasing complexity as the only strategy, we are facing the same destiny as many civilizations have in the past. The future has already become impossible and without the clear picture of the future, the present cannot take off. Like the boy in Kafka’s story, A Country Doctor, our social and economic system already inhibits the world of undead. Rising complexity is the fatal wound depriving it from the capacity to die. Only when that wound heals, will the system be able to collapse.

 

[1] If one generation is about 20 years, then (1.03)20 ≈ 2

[2] Yves Morieux and Peter Tollman: Smart Simplicity: Six règles pour gérer la complexité sans devenir compliqué, Manitoba (2016)

[3] Joseph A. Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies, Cambridge University Press (1990)

[4] The term complexity is generally used to characterize something with many parts where those parts interact with each other in multiple ways, culminating in a higher order of emergence greater than the sum of its parts.

[5] Akshay Ahuja in Dark Mountain Project (19, March 2012)

[6] Akshay Ahuja, ibid.

[7] Yves Moreieux, ibid.

[8] Yves Moreieux, ibid.

[9] Yves Moreieux, ibid.

 

 

Scandal and power: Pornographication of politics and social life

23. V 2018

There is a species of man who is always one step ahead of his own excrement (René Char)

Scandal is emerging as possibly the most significant technological innovation of the new century so far. It makes social barriers porous, it uncovers human flaws behind the sheltered Public, humanizes the dehumanized, and contaminates the sterilized Symbolic. Current political reality reveals itself through scandal. Scandal gives an illusion of political engagement – it is political activism in consumer mode.

Perfection is sterile – we are attracted to people’s weaknesses and imperfections and not to their strengths. If personal flaws and idiosyncrasies harmonize with repressed collective traumas, desires and nostalgia for the ancestral terrain, they can have a great mobilizing power capable of defining new identity politics and shaping entire political movements. A leader who is able to strike the ancestral chord of his people will make those people dance to his grooves and fall in love with him. For several decades now, the new breed of post-Reagan politicians has been doubling down on their flaws in a bid for deeper access to wider political audiences and a chance to reinvest considerable rage capital that has accumulated over time. Their idiosyncrasies make them human, and the more they err, the more human and appealing they become. They diffuse one scandal with another (always) bigger one — spectacle is addictive, it has to grow to satiate the boundless appetite of the publics. Since Reagan days, scandal has morphed from a free form to a precise game theoretical strategy.

The main problem with scandal as a public communication tool is its integration into political life. After all, scandal in public life has always been synonymous with professional suicide, the end of political career (Nixon was the last tragic victim of that equation). It took almost two decades after Reagan to figure out how to bypass this obstacle. The breakthrough came with a realization that the troubling equation, Scandal = Suicide, is intimately linked with the second one, Suicide = Power.

It wasn’t very long after 9/11 that the West managed to grasp the idea that suicide is a statement of power. A man on a suicide mission is not to be messed with: Irrespective of how much stronger you are, he will manage to hurt you, or at best, his guts will splatter all over you leaving the stains (physical and mental) you will never be able to remove. The impactfullness of suicide as the ultimate symbolic gesture can only be understood and argued after reconciling it with the symbolism of afterlife. The duality of suicide — physical and symbolic (the collateral and the reward) – defines the first layer of its rationalization within the existing cultural paradigm.

Suicide is the most private act. Its intent and execution are done without the consent of anyone but the self. The suicide through martyrdom is an externalization of that personal pact; it is a radical privatization of the public space – a violent erasure of the gap between private and public.

Physical suicide as subordination to a higher goal that transcends the value of human life represents a symbolic act that has no counterpart in the Western culture. For Westerners, this is potentially the most frightening confrontation. But, the West has emancipated itself from this nonsense of higher goals a long time ago: We no longer give our lives for higher goals; we take risks in exchange for adequate compensation.

With real (fundamentalist) martyrs loss of life is real and afterlife is symbolic. For pragmatic Westerners rationalization of suicide consists in transposing its coordinates: suicide becomes symbolic and afterlife real. This is the key step.

Over the last two decades, the public spectacle of symbolic suicide has become a ticket to a lucrative material “afterlife” for numerous public figures. Through scandal, current populist politics, (the concluding chapter of neoliberalism) has been transformed into a perpetual ritual of watered down acts of reversible self-annihilation — political suicide followed by subsequent symbolic resurrection. The ongoing parody of self-destruction comes with an embedded option on resurrection (political and/or commercial) or an implicit promise of a lucrative “afterlife” with “70 virgins” in the form of book deals, high-commission speech opportunities, TV appearances, Fox News correspondent, or consultant positions.

These rituals are repeated over and over again as an essential part of an ever-growing public spectacle. The high-stakes game, the ultimate gamble, where one puts his life on the line for his beliefs (what if my belief is wrong and my life was lost for nothing?) is transposed into its parody, a tactical low-stakes gambit consisting of making minor short-term concessions in return for a potentially large future upside. There is an emancipatory ring to this parody: While “traditional” martyrdom has been strictly a male thing, symbolic suicide has been very much a gender-neutral thing, which has only helped its acceptance and integration.

As potential upside grew, the spectacle of symbolic self-annihilation became more competitive and more elaborate. At the top of this theatre of cruelty sits Donald Trump, always (and without a single exception) on the wrong side of every argument, political, social, ethical, ecological or rational, with consistency that can only be deliberate or programmatic, definitely not accidental. And this is just an appetizer; his distaste for truth, deep in the territory of pathological, is an amuse-bouche (it comes free of charge) before the main course, his passion for scandal of any kind, political, sexual, financial, or legal, none too small or too trivial not to be embraced, defines his habitat. He insults war heroes, war heroes’ widows and parents, handicapped, women, homosexuals, transgender, minorities, judges, FBI, CIA, media, religions, domestic and foreign dignitaries, chiefs of states, anyone that exists on this planet and beyond. And when it looks like he has sunk as low as one can sink, he manages to define new lows. His ability to survive the consequences defies laws of probability, gravity and logic; it can be only compared to surviving a plane crash (something his buddy Nigel Farage actually experienced).

Trump’s administration appointees and surrogates are all symbolic martyrs, selected volunteers on a suicide mission, trying to keep up with their boss. This commitment has become all but an explicit prerequisite for any political office appointment — we continue to be reminded of Comey’s (or Tillerson’s) ritualized dismissal as a consequence of their reluctance to commit to the parody of martyrdom.

The list of Trump’s symbolic suicide volunteers has been growing at an exploding rate. Various transient surrogates and talking heads are too insignificant and numerous to mention. But, who can forget the tragicomic figure of Sean Spicer, a bona fide moron, who went too far too soon and, in that process, blew his chances for afterlife; or premature ejaculator Scaramucci who kamikazeed on runway before his “plane” could take off; the undead duo, Conway & HakaSan; Jeffrey Lord who just couldn’t take the pressure anymore and (for no good reason and out of the blue) blasted a Sieg Heil on twitter, and subsequently lost his CNN (and any other) gig; Garry Cohn, a rational man who did and said irrational things and ruined his reputation in a futile mission, but as a government employee, managed to cash in his vested Goldman Sachs stocks without paying capital gains tax; the list goes on and on.

But, when it comes to the spectacle of public self-annihilation, no one comes close to Sean Hannity, the whirling dervish, performance artist, and Swiss army knife of populist tricks. People of all persuasions and political leanings tune in every night to watch the greatest show on TV, where this postmodern-day Lazarus of the far right sets himself on fire and incinerates his symbolic body every business day of the week at precisely 9 p.m. and within the subsequent 60 minutes violates every professional, journalistic, legal, ethical, and esthetical boundary there is to violate, only to magically resurrect the next day and repeat the same ritual during the exact same time slot.

However, away from the spectacle, one faces sobering reality: Porous boundaries, atonal politics, and populist plan for its rescue reveal the troubling truth about the human condition of the depressive-narcissistic neoliberal subject. It is at the edge of depression where neoliberalism meets its fundamentalist twin. The inability to arrive at a decision or finish anything constitutes a symptom of depression[1]  — our spirit has become so compromised that even suicide cannot be accepted as a conclusive act, but just another chapter – what can be more narcissistic than that? This is the social Möbius strip where the real becomes symbolic and the symbolic turns into real. In this process of social pornografication, the paradigm of the reality show converts martyrdom into a precisely structured symbolic ritual, mythology of afterlife into business opportunities, and transforms America, and the West in general, into a culture of second acts. Everything is explicit and nothing is believable.

[1] B. C. Han

Digital panopticon and the triumph of the unfree will

22. IV 2018

The smart phone is not just a surveillance apparatus, it is also a mobile confessional. Facebook is the church – the global synagogue of the Digital. “Like” is the digital “Amen” (B. C. Han)

Digital society is a big congregation, over two billion Facebook users worldwide, about a third of the planet’s population, and over 250 million in the US alone, the entire voting age and twice the 2016 turnout. Their digital soul, the complement of the real one, is there on display for anyone to mess with, if that can serve some purpose — commercial, political or otherwise. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Smartphones are digital windows into the innermost corners of the psyche of this enormous congregation. They provide access to their unfulfilled desires and frustrated egos, fears, tastes, and political leanings.

Smartphones have become a tool for governing — they enable one to shape opinions, diffuse dissent, streamline emotions, manufacture consensus, assassinate opponents, stage revolutions, and declare wars and victories, imaginary and real, all alike. In the configuration of total transparency and social pornographication everything is subject to influence and on disposal to anyone who has the attention or who wins the ratings war. Transparency is a curse. It suppresses deviation, abhors individual opinion, and extinguishes free will. Everyone is watching everyone else; invisible moderators smooth out communication and calibrate it to what is generally understood and accepted[1]. There is no room for and no language to express disagreement – there is only “Like”.

However, as B. C. Han points out, something is alive only to the extent that it contains contradiction within itself, its force consists in an ability to hold and endure contradictions within[2]. Whatever is merely positive is lifeless. In a society of outsiders idiosyncrasy has a great appeal and mobilizing power. But, superfluidity of the social media transforms idiosyncratic into collective. Individual instabilities become part of the collective Eros and destabilizing on a systemic level. The collective absorbs all libidinal forces through persistent self-reinforcement and, in that process, acquires enormous coercive potential, until there is only one opinion, one emotion and one voice. The digital panopticon becomes a communism of affects and democracy a polite dictatorship.

[1] B. C. Han, Fröhliche Wissenschaft: Agonie des Eros, Matthes & Seitz Berlin (2012)

[2] ibid.

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.

 

American corrida and the reconstitution of the state

24. III 2018

No one really ever liked the state, but the great majority permitted its powers to grow ever greater because they saw the state as the mediator of reform. But if it cannot play this function, then why suffer the state? But if we don’t have a strong state, who will provide daily security? (I. Wallerstein)

Social and economic cycles used to move together. This was many years ago. For over 40 years now, the two have fallen out of synch. After each recession, recovery had to be won by making social concessions — this was always considered acceptable expecting the economic advantages to feed back into society. With time, economic progress has decoupled from the well-being of society. Social deficits have grown so large that, unlike the economy, society can no longer recover. The last crisis has taken the form of an autoimmune reaction. We have reached the point of self-intoxication when inner contradictions of the system, which previously could be temporarily ignored, are taking over. The system has exhausted itself – it has collapsed under its own weight.

Overcoming the accumulated social deficit requires deeper social changes. At the root of this quest lies the breakdown of traditional social contract, which started more than four decades ago. In its original form it can no longer be used even as a rough outline.

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As divergence between productivity and income has increased, so has the distributional asymmetry of profits resulting in growing inequality, which after decades have evolved into the main destabilizing force. The problem with inequality is not the skew in wealth distribution between those who have some and those who have more (or much more), but extreme fragmentation of society into a rapidly shrinking minority of those who have everything and an exploding majority of those who have nothing. A shrinking middle class in developed economies has grown increasingly vulnerable to poverty while, at the same time, poverty has become a risky and unstable state. This led to new forms of precarity, social marginality, and stratification at the expanding bottom.

As a consequence, the cultural divide has reached such high levels that disputes can no longer be resolved through democratic process. Western societies are at the juncture where they need to develop alternative modes of social organizing and define a new social contract.

Craig Calhoun gives possibly the best summary of the singularity of the present political configuration: Western societies are at the intersection of economic and political crises, which presents the most dangerous development that could emerge from this situation. Erosion of implicit bargain by which people accept damages to society or environment in the pursuit of progress results in recurrent political unrest. Faltering growth brings disappointment to those with rising expectation and elected leaders seek to diminish public freedoms and quash dissent.[1]

There is an urgent need to reconfigure the capitalist state in such a way that harmonizes with the needs of both the economy and the society. This is a painful and politically risky maneuver that requires undoing centuries of institutional baggage. Reconfiguration of the state is the main event of this political moment; everything else is just a distraction.

The main objective of current populist politics is to decouple the two crises by any means. In its current iteration the strategy consists of preventing the lethal mix to be realized, by creating a distraction (economic, social, media, political, as much controversy as necessary…), while the state is being rapidly dismantled. But this cannot be a stable solution, only a way of buying some time. It is just the beginning of a long process of social transformation likely to take center stage in the next decades.

State and social insecurity: From welfare to penal pornography

The transformation that the state has undergone in the last 40-50 years can be characterized at best as inadequate or incomplete, lagging behind, and not adapting to, much deeper technological and economic changes.

The substance of capitalism is the meeting of capital and labor. Capital must be able to buy labor and labor must be attractive enough to be saleable. In that context, the main task (and legitimation) of the capitalist state is to broker this exchange — to see that both of these conditions are met. It must subsidize capital and ensure that labor is worth purchasing (it is healthy, properly trained in the skills and behavioral habits, and is able to ensure the strains of the factory floor). Legitimation crisis of capitalist state lies in transition from society of producers to society of consumers – the prime source of capital accumulation has moved from industry to consumer markets. State subsidies now render capital able to sell commodities and consumers able to buy them. Credit was perceived as a magic contraption in that context. Capitalist state now must assure the continuous availability of credit and the continuous ability of consumers to obtain it. The welfare state is now underfunded because the principal source of capital accumulation has been relocated from exploitation of labor to exploitation of consumer[2].

As the state was withdrawing from the welfare arena, the existing forces were pushing it to the punitive mode of its functioning. The poverty of the social state against the backdrop of deregulation elicits and necessitates the grandeur of the penal state[3]. This is neoliberalism in action: Subordinate all human activities to the laws of the market.

The unwanted byproduct of economic Neo-Darwinism, unwind of the welfare state, and the rising precarity has been the excess population — the surplus of humanity that is unwanted, inconvenient, and ultimately displaced[4]. There are more people who fall through the cracks than those who succeed — a growing segment of the population that can no longer be reintegrated into a normal functioning of society. These people are neither producers nor consumers.

The response of the state has been to segregate the nonproductive, non-consuming, social element either through their permanent exclusion (e.g. opioids, or other forms of social marginalization) or turn them into profit centers through incarceration (e.g. private prisons). The state has effectively switched from its welfare to the punitive mode of functioning signaling the emergence of carceral state as one of the defining characteristics of the late-stage neoliberalism.

However, no solution has emerged from these, essentially ideological, maneuvers, which have only exacerbated the problem of excess population: The volume of humans made redundant by capitalism’s global triumph grows unstoppably and comes close now to exceeding the managerial capacity of the planet; there is a plausible prospect of capitalist modernity choking on its own waste products which it can neither reassimilate or annihilate, nor detoxify[5]. This has resurfaced as the main problem of neoliberalism that does not have a solution inside the existing paradigm.

The rising social antagonisms and tensions are rapidly becoming a cause of additional loss of social cohesion with precarity and hopelessness on one side against discomfort and entrenchment of the privileged on the other. Growing rage capital is being harvested by right wing populism. Growing discontent is used as the lever arm to reconfigure the sate to a more radical form of carceral, militarized entity with enhanced punitive mandate and further dismantle the vestiges of the welfare state. At the same time, under the pretext of economic and fiscal reform, there is a concerted effort to shake up the constitution and push the system towards a more efficient structure that fosters easier oligarchic repositioning.

The matador enters the rink

In the final stage of corrida, the tercio de muerte (part of death), the matador re-enters the ring alone with a small red cape (muleta) in one hand and a sword in the other. The faena (job) consists of the entire performance with the muleta, in which he uses his cape to attract the bull in a series of passes, both demonstrating his control over it and risking his life by getting especially close to it. Faena ends with a final series of passes in which the matador with a muleta attempts to maneuver the bull into a position to stab it between the shoulder blades and through the aorta or heart (estocada).

Inside the existing neoliberal paradigm, we have already reached the dead end when there is nothing else that could be done. The only thing that remains is to reinvent the status quo through distraction. This brings us to the present moment. Like traditional Spanish corrida, dismantling of the state has assumed a highly ritualized process. In the words of Sylvère Lotringer, it is ritual without the sacred, the tragic without the tragedy. While populist campaigns have masked themselves as de-oligarchification movements centered on their anti-global sentiment, the American version has acquired a distinct flavor. The most recent attempt at transformation is nothing else but an oligarchic repositioning, an attempt to avoid a change by diversion. Trump’s right-wing populism, in fact, is a rearrangement of the oligarchic modes of economic and social functioning.

This is precisely the transformation that took place in the post-communist world in the 1990s. Trump’s cabinet nominations, selection of his advisors and his appointees reflect a desire to engineer a collapse of the state institutions — create new initial conditions resembling a failed state – and rebuild new structures on its rubble. As such, 2016 represents a regressive move towards a more primitive oligarchic structure.

This is the final stage of the American corrida — after wearing the bull down, the matador has entered the arena in 2016. Presidential tweets, the penchant for scandal, controversies, pathological lies, being consistently on the wrong side of every dispute and argument, flirting with constitutional crisis, everything…. All this is the red cape (the matador’s muleta). His job, (the faena), is at the same time to distract public attention, test the system’s resilience, wear down the public and bring state institutions to their breaking point before delivering the final blow (estocada) to the constitution, democracy and the American state.

Contrary to the naïve and misguided belief that Good always triumphs over Evil, history is on no one’s side. The outcome is ultimately binary. Who will be taken out on a stretcher, the matador or the bull? And whom will be the crowd cheering for?

[1] Craig Calhoun, in Does Capitalism Have a Future? Ed. I Wallerstein et al., Oxford University Press (2013)

[2] Zygmund Bauman, Liquid Times, Living in the Age of Uncertainty, Polity (2007)

[3] Loïc Wacquant, Punishing the Poor, Duke University Press (2009)

[4] Zygmund Bauman, Wasted Lives, Polity (2012)

[5] Zygmund Bauman, ibid.

 

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.

The divided subject of labor market

17. IX 2017

It’s a shame that the only thing a man can do for eight hours a day is work. He can’t eat for eight hours; he can’t drink for eight hours; he can’t make love for eight hours. The only thing a man can do for eight hours is work (William Faulkner)

For the first time since the advent of industrial age, new technology is destroying more jobs than it is able to remobilize. Productivity and employment have begun to diverge from each other since the last years of the 20th century – productivity accelerates while employment decelerates. This is the new reality. While good for profits, this is becoming a major setback for labor, a source of positive feedback in the system and a destabilizing force for the entire economy and society. The profit maximization equation can no longer be satisfied: The recipient of wages (and social benefits) is expected to perform an impossible task of supporting increasing consumption, which accounts for an ever growing fraction of GDP, while being paid less in an environment of rising living costs. Credit, which had been conceived as the magic bullet aimed at bridging this imbalance, has turned to be another source of positive feedback leading to unsustainable borrowing and balance sheet crisis from which it is difficult to engineer economic and social recovery.

Work is at a crossing point of history, going through a significant transformation, second since industrial age, with profound economic and social implications. Both new technology and credit, together with dismantling of the welfare state, have been the drivers of surplus labor and erosion of demand. It is becoming clear that we need less labor to produce the same output and that further rise in growth is conceivable without a rise in employment and wages. Work has become the biggest bubble which is about to burst. This is the limit where economic and social rationalities collide. Disappearance of work in work based societies is no longer only an economic issue, but a wider social and political problem and a crisis of the entire system of values.

Work alone

A priori, there is nothing appealing about wage work. It is all about the employers; they set the rules, workers comply[1]. Work is generally an unpleasant task, something we rather would not do. It goes against our nature and conflicts with our free will. Unlike work for subsistence, which we (most of the times reluctantly) do, wage work is an outcome of a voluntary optimization process. Workers effectively agree to surrender a portion of their free time in exchange for salaries.

When seen from the modern perspective, work defines our social identity. It is a gift to society and our contribution to the project “better future”, a sacrifice we are willing to make for collective wellbeing. Work is viewed as our moral duty, social obligation and the road to personal success. However, work as we know it today is a relatively recent phenomenon. For example, in Ancient Greece freedom was exclusively located in the political realm and necessity was a prepolitical phenomenon. Those who had to work were slaves to necessity considered incapable of making ethical decisions, and therefore, not part of political life[2].

The modern notion of labor appeared with the advent of manufacturing capitalism. From the modern perspective, production was not governed by economic rationality. The objective was to work as much as it takes to earn a wage necessary for subsistence rather than earn beyond that by working as much as possible. The economic rationalization of labor was a major novelty at the time. It presented a radical subversion of the way of life. In order to overcome workers’ unwillingness to work long hours, factory owners had to pay them meager wages, which forced the former to put in long hours every day of the week in order to earn enough to survive. Labor became part of reality distinct form everyday life. However, in the course of time, with development of industrial society, work became the Siamese twin of life.

Technology and labor in postindustrial age

While in pre-industrial societies innovation and competition were strictly prohibited, postindustrial age, in contrast, is characterized by its addiction to innovation.

Innovation has turned out as a major trigger of a reinforcing mechanism of economic exhaustion. The primary reason is that innovation is a source of rent — prices are no longer commensurate with production costs, but contain a scarcity premium. Profit centers always compete in terms of their capacity to innovate. Higher output leads to more investment in innovations which lead to new technologies, which means higher output and even more innovations. However, technology reduces need for labor and so the workers have to work for lower wages, which reduces labor costs of production and increases output, which means more investment into new technologies, which further reduces the need for labor and lowers wages further. This process continues until it exhausts itself and there is no more room for labor.

When labor is scarce, workers have some bargaining power – they could refuse to work and the producers are willing to make concessions to workers. As long as profit margins are high, there will be money for everyone. Problems begin when margins begin to compress. Cost cutting eliminates jobs either through automation or relocation to regions with cheap labor or forces the workers to accept lower wages. As a consequence of innovation, work ceases to be the main productive force and wages the main production cost. Output is produced more by capital than by labor, and labor gradually loses bargaining power as its choices become reducible to dilemma between poorer working conditions and unemployment.

As a consequence of these developments we have had tree major trends that emerged in the past decades: Decline of wages, reduction of government spending (a.k.a. dismantling of the welfare state), and continued rise of consumption as a fraction of GDP (currently near 70%). Over time they have created cumulative imbalances and dead-end conditions, which have resulted in the 2008 crisis and conditions where further recovery from the crisis is becoming increasingly more difficult to engineer. These trends define the current landscape. Any attempt at change becomes a source of positive feedback that only destabilizes things further.

Devalorization of labor and the new standard of subsistence

Credit is another source of positive feedback. Low wages force more reliance on credit which causes higher living costs (more liabilities and less money for subsistence), so more people have to work (e.g. not just the head of the household, but their partners, kids….), and they have to work longer hours which further increases labor surplus and forces lower wages and amplify reliance on credit which increases living costs further. Servicing debt becomes the main liability, which further undermines bargaining power of the workers. This continues until debt becomes a burden than can no longer be born.

In some sense, we are being pulled back towards early industrial age. In those days, the unwillingness to work beyond subsistence had caused employers to pay lower wages to force workers to work long hours in order to earn for their basic needs. Labor market was inefficient: Demand for labor was high, but workers were reluctant to work. Early industrial era worker had a limited capacity to desire and the opportunity of earning more was less attractive than that of working less. Salaries had to be low to force people to work hard in order to earn for subsistence.

Although, the end result (low wages) coincides with the current predicament, the causality chain is different. Late 20th century economies grow only if people consume beyond their needs. The ability to desire – the consumer libido — has to be maintained systematically and that mechanism has to be incorporated into ideology as work ethics and wage work to become closely associated with social status. With pressure to maximize profits, and therefore limit wages, this program could only be achieved if wage recipients continued to borrow more and more, especially if their liabilities continue to grow. For that, they need jobs, but jobs do not pay. So, they have to work harder, put in longer hours, to be able to survive. Unlike early industrial age when scarcity of labor was the dominant factor, in post-industrial economies, supply of labor continue to climb together with costs of living high.

Preindustrial concept of “enough”, which in the early days defied economic rationality, gained new life in the light of postindustrial developments. Its meaning is now being redefined by credit. The problem is no longer the individual attitude towards work, but the collective response to the cumulative effects of excess rationality. Credit redefines what subsistence means. It is a conversion factor from desires to needs. As seen from the workers’ side, the effect of increased efficiency of production, brought about by technology, is offset by credit. It naturally extends what our needs are and sets a new standard of subsistence and determines how much we have to earn for survival. Contrary to the economic dogma and cults of free market ideology, competition has led to suboptimal outcome for labor. Despite all technological advances, there has not been a commensurate decrease in working hours.

Work won’t be revolutionized, it will be auctioned

The objective of profit centers is to make money and, if they happen to create jobs, that is good, but not necessary if it negatively affects their profitability. Keeping this as priority for the future, changes of the labor force would have to be made accordingly. Some contours of the fragmented labor force are already beginning to show along these lines of adjustment. The assembly line has colonized a wide range of jobs. With the rise of cognitive economy and de-emphasis of material production, workers are divided into four main categories: Inventors of ideas and desires, educators (responsible for reproduction of labor), salesmen of products and producers of desires, and routine laborers[3]. We could refer to them metaphorically as over the counter or OTC (first three) and exchange jobs (the last one). OTC jobs can never be made generic; they always carry some unique component of personal skills that cannot be fully automated. Routine laborers, on the other hand, require no particular social skills. They are an extension of assembly line workers, but in a wider context that includes technical and intellectual skills. They are always replaceable and therefore treated as expandable.

Extrapolation of the current trends leads to a limit where workers become a shadow category. They no longer exist, only their time does, always ready to engage in exchange for a temporary salary. In that environment, the next step towards improving the efficiency of transaction between capital and labor are job auctions. A finite term, e.g. 2000-hour or zero-hour, job would be offered in an auction and given to the lowest bidder. Profit centers would face high flexibility at expense of labor force whose bargaining power could decrease further. The labor force would be self-trained and offer high-level skills on an increasingly precarious landscape. Those with superior skills could demand additional accommodation that could smooth their consumption across periods without jobs, which could create a need for intermediaries, job brokers who have stables of workers with standardized skills on whose behalf they bid for part time jobs.

Added flexibility of employers eliminates pressure to have a long-term view and strategy. Instead, there is a sequence of short-term tactical positions with an ability to quickly adjust labor costs to different market conditions. If this is indeed the case, it could create a reinforcing mechanism where their output trails the economy and never completely recovers or rebounds. Disappearance of permanent jobs would have a dramatic impact on credit market. It would increase urge to save more and would affect ability of long-term borrowing, with direct impact on housing market, education, consumption, etc. and, therefore, adverse effects on economic growth.

In the extreme, demand for labor completely disappears — everyone works for himself. This is the most radical social transformation from society of workers to society of employers. The ultimate irony is people employ themselves but end up working long hours and paying themselves poorly.

Coda

Work is gradually emerging as the biggest hoax in the history of humankind. We have come a long way from the early days of capitalism where its basic antagonism was defined by the dynamics of capital and labor. It is reduction of life to work, and not capitalist exploitation, what makes work alienating. This particular aspect is what has led to the rapid dead end. In taking work as a given, we have depoliticized it, or removed it from the realm of political critique. Wage work continues to be accepted as the primary mechanism for income distribution, as an ethical obligation, and as a means of defining others and ourselves as social and political subjects[4]. There is an urgency to emancipate ourselves form work. Crisis of work is signaling also a crisis of imagination. We cannot imagine postwork society. This is the biggest problem.

[1] “Work is a paid activity, performed on behalf of a third party, to achieve goals we have not set for ourselves, according to procedures and schedules laid by the persons paying our wages.” (Andre Görz, Critique of Economic Reason, Verso 1989)

[2] ibid.

[3] Richard Sennett, The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1998 )

[4] Kathi Weeks, The Problem with Work, Duke University Press (2011)

Adventures in heterotopia: The things we left behind

25. IX 2016

Invention of a ship is invention of a shipwreck, invention of a plane is invention of a plane crash, and invention of nuclear energy is invention of a nuclear meltdown. (Paul Virilio)

Galileo’s real heresy was not so much his rediscovery that the Earth revolved around the sun, but his constitution of an infinitely open space. His findings dissolved the idea of the medieval concept of emplacement*. The space suddenly opened and disrupted the existing order of things. Localization gave way to trajectory and emplacement to extension. A thing’s place was no longer anything but a point on its trajectory, the stability of a thing was only its movement indefinitely slowed down. There was no up & down anymore, no celestial hierarchy. Instead of the universe resting on the back of a giant turtle, suddenly, everything was moving and out of place. Nobody was in charge anymore, and that was OK. The heavens were in a state of celestial anarchy. This was the emancipatory core of Galileo’s revolution. To a medieval mind, this was a picture of utter chaos. The idea of creation and design was seriously undermined and with it what was believed to be the Big Guy’s mandate (and authority). The Church, as His shopkeeper and interpreter of His will, saw this as bad for business and a problem for the franchise. Understandably, they had an issue with it, pronounced Galileo an evildoer and threatened him with violence. Galileo recanted, but it didn’t matter – religion’s golden days were over.

Four centuries later our experience of space is undergoing the second revolution, this time far more disruptive. With information technology and infinite connectivity, time is contracting, distances are shrinking and space compactifying. The space of trajectories is giving way to networks & sites. Different geographies are becoming nodes on the global grid, equidistant from each other. The outside is gradually disappearing, absorbed by the expanding and elastic inside. The world has become smaller, but within that world, things no longer have a fixed place; they are displaced and delocalized. Permanently and irreversibly.

The Network is a subversion of all terrestrial hierarchies. The concepts of center and periphery have lost their traditional meaning. All things are both equally important and irrelevant. Everything is now everywhere and nowhere — compactification and delocalization at the same time. An absolute rule of equivalence. The tyranny of transparency. The source of both claustrophobia and agoraphobia. The ultimate triumph of dialectics, simultaneously both oppressive and liberating.

Things are no longer constrained by physical separation, seasons of the year, time zone, weather, climate… Companies can relocate to countries with cheap labor and real estate, lower taxes and accommodative political climate. As long as the place is on the grid, and eventually all geographies will be, it doesn’t matter where one is. The Network is everywhere and so are the factories and companies and everything else. People are no longer bound to a particular locale; they don’t even have to leave their homes to perform work. Everyone is gradually losing their identity in the face of persistent deterritorialization and uprootedness.

Unprecedented wealth accumulation afforded by the Network gives rise to a new, ungovernable, global overclass which now makes all major political decisions. States are powerless to interfere and effectively become their extended arm. As a rising tide lifts all boats, crime becomes more prosperous, organized and powerful – increasing fraction of global wealth comes from and is destined to criminal sources. Gradually, everything becomes subordinated to the interests of global oligarchies and their prosperity comes at high social costs.

The pressure of equivalence is crushing everything in sight, histories, cultures, identities, futures, and symbolic meaning.

The same way Galileo wreaked havoc in outer space and disrupted celestial order, post-modern creation of the Network has been a disruption of terrestrial order with the dissolution of historically rigid social structures. New technology has revealed every segment of society as an instrument of production, a human resource to be arranged, rearranged and disposed of. It has created major economic advantages and unprecedented opportunities for profit making. But this embrace of convenience doesn’t come free of charge. Removal of market frictions, economic rigidities, and erasure of borders, resulted in physical and cultural displacement, loss of identity, corruption, omnipresence of crime, rise in violence, dismantling of the welfare state and a rise of carceral state, populism, regressive policies and political chaos.

The very same technology that has proven to create the main economic advantage has also reduced the system’s ability to change. The system has lost the ability to adapt and with it, its main advantage, its vitality. It has suffered an autoimmune failure and is no longer able to recover from crises. This is the shipwreck, the plain crash and the nuclear meltdown.

*Michel Foucault, Of Other Spaces, Heterotopias (1967)