It is said that the Trump electorate wanted to blow up the status quo. And so it did. The passed-over truth, however, is that the most destabilizing force in our politics wasn’t Donald Trump. It was that political status quo.The belief that Hillary Clinton would have produced a more reliable presidency is wrong. Mrs. Clinton represented an extension of the administrative state, the century-old idea that elites can devise public policies, administered by centralized public bureaucracies, that deliver the greatest good to the greatest number. […]Today, that administrative state, like an old dying star, is in destructive decay. Government failures are causing global political instability. This is the real legitimacy problem and is the reason many national populations are in revolt. Some call that populism. Others would call it a democratic awakening. […]The idea of placing national purpose in the hands of these elites lasted because it suited the needs of elected politicians. They used the administrative state’s goods to mollify myriad constituencies. So they gave them more. And then more.The state’s carrying capacity has been reached.
Last week I met with a group of ten interns at a magazine. The magazine runs periodic seminars where interns get to meet with a journalist, writer, intellectual, academic of their choosing. We talked about politics, writing, and so on. But in the course of our conversation, one startling social fact became plain. Although all of these young men and women had some combination of writerly dreams, none of them—not one—had any plan for, even an ambition of, a career. Not just in the economic sense but in the existential sense of a lifelong vocation or pursuit that might find some practical expression or social validation in the form of paid work. Not because they didn’t want a career but because there was no career to be wanted. And not just in journalism but in a great many industries.
It would be interesting to know, if one could quantify such things, what proportion of all the communications one receives (or better, perhaps, the stimuli one experiences) in an average day are some form of advertising or marketing. I’d guess a large majority. In which case, a hypothesis presents itself: the nature and function of human communication has altered. Through most of history, the default reaction to any communication was “this is what the speaker believes.” One needed only to judge the credibility of the speaker in order to know how to act. In the 21st century, after generations of saturation advertising, much or most of it deceptive or at least manipulative, the default reaction is “this is what the speaker, for some purpose of his/her own, wants me to believe.” Virtually all public communication may safely be presumed to be aiming at some effect, rather than simply at conveying information or conviction. Finding out what the speaker actually believes, much less what’s actually true or false, is the hearer’s responsibility: caveat auditor. Universal mistrust is the moral foundation of this stage, at least, of capitalist society. Hence, honesty is no longer the best policy.
I’ve got a new post up at 3 Quarks Daily, Free-Floating Anxiety, Teens, and Security Theatre. It continues with the same theme I explored in my previous 3QD post, American Craziness: Where it Came from and Why It Won’t Work Anymore. That isn’t what I was planning when I began thinking about the post in the middle of last week, but that’s what popped up Sunday morning when I started working on it.
Over the previous week I’d been blogging about danah boyd’s study of teens and the internet, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens (Yale UP 2014). It seemed to me that she was developing an argument that intersected with the argument about displaced aggression and anxiety that I have derived from Talcott Parsons (“Certain Primary Sources and Patterns of Aggression in the Social Structure of the Western World,” 1947). On the one hand, teens have more or less been “forced” online by irrational restrictions placed on their movements on the physical world (and over-scheduling, a different phenomenon) and that adult fears about sexual predation online were exaggerated at the same time people weren’t sufficiently attentive to the real sources of sexual predation.
So, I decided to write a post that links boyd’s observations to mine on nationalist aggression and racism. In the current post I refine my statement of Parsons’ argument and use the American response to 9/11 as an example. On the one hand the nation has undertaken two destructive and expensive wars, that have failed to achieve their announced object, the elimination of terrorism, and at the same time we’ve created the Transportation Security Agency to conduct largely pointless searches of passengers boarding aircraft.
Vacuum Activity and Scapegoating
These actions strike me as being akin to what ethologists call vacuum activity: “innate, fixed action patterns of animal behaviour that are performed in the absence of the external stimuli (releaser) that normally elicit them. This type of abnormal behaviour shows that a key stimulus is not always needed to produce an activity.” In this case the issue isn’t so much the lack of an appropriate stimulus but the inability, for some reason, to identify the source of one’s aggressive impulses while at the same time feeling the need to act on them. So one chooses a convenient or culturally targeted object whether or not it is causally appropriate.
My point of course is that the possibility of such irrational action has a basis in our biology. In a sense that’s just a specific version of the truism that all behavior has some kind of biological basis; we are, after all, biological beings. But the behavioral patterns I’m examining aren’t widely appreciated, perhaps because we would prefer to continue our irrational behavior rather than dealing with real issues. In the context of such denial it is useful to point out that, really, this is how animals (can) behave. It’s not at all farfetched. Continue reading
The adoption by journalist to the phrase “EIT” is the clearest evidence of bullshit objectivity.
— Ta-Nehisi Coates (@tanehisicoates) December 11, 2014
Is it true that George W. Bush became President through Enhanced Vote Counting Techniques?
And I suppose that Enron was using Enhanced Accounting Techniques to keep its books.
In general, when you’re with the 1% you can Enhance your way to fame and fortune. Occupy the Enhancers!
And, you guessed it, BP was using Enhanced Drilling Techniques in the Gulf and they just got out of control.
The persistent use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” newspeak says it all to me. — Matt Yglesias (@mattyglesias) December 11, 2014
And then there’s the Enhanced Recovery Techniques that FEMA perfected after Katrina.
The Bush Administration: Enhancement you can count on!
What? You say it’s not rape, but Enhanced Sexual Congress?
Fox News, Enhanced Truthiness is our business.
Seriously, fellow members of the press: do NOT go along with this Orwell newspeak formulation of “EITs.” They can say it. We don’t have to.
— James Fallows (@JamesFallows) December 11, 2014
But that’s not what I titled this month’s article at 3 Quarks Daily. I gave it a somewhat more provocative title, American Craziness: Where it Came from and Why It Won’t Work Anymore. The craziness is why America has to reinvent itself.
The core of my argument somes from an article I read in my freshman year at Johns Hopkins, “Certain Primary Sources and Patterns of Aggression in the Social Structure of the Western World” (full text online HERE). Parsons argues that life in Western nations generates a lot of aggressive impulses that cannot, however, be satisfied in any direct way. Why not? Because Western society is highly hierarchal and there is a great deal of aggression from superiors against inferiors, who cannot, however, respond in kind because to do so would be dangerous.
What, then, can those social inferiors do with their aggression? Well, they can let it rot their spirit and, eventually, their bodies as well. And that does happen. But they can also direct their aggression at external enemies. That happens as well.
This has certainly been the case in America. The Cold War was more of a psychic release mechanism for the nations involved – America included – than it was a collision of rational foreign policies East and West. But, as I point out in the 3QD piece, American had developed a sophisticated variation on the mechanism that was organized around slavery.
The institution of slavery in effect gave America an internal colony against which white Americans could direct their aggressive impulses. And when slavery was banished, institutionalized racism kept that colony in place. While the Civil Rights movement certainly changed the legal parameters of that social mechanism, and had real and beneficial effects in the world, the mechanism is still alive.
But, really, as I argue in the 3QD piece, this baroque contraption is ready to fall apart, hence the deadlock in America’s national politics.
I do something else in that piece, however, something of a more theoretical nature. I push Parsons’ argument a bit further than he did. As his title notes, he was arguing about Western nations, not nations in general. Yet anyone who finds his argument convincing can see that the mechanisms he describes are not confined to the West. They’re ubiquitous. Continue reading
As a form of territorial governance, the nation-state emerged in Western Europe some time during the last 1000 years. Just when and where depends, of course, on just what you think qualifies as a nation-state. I note, for example that at the time of the French Revolution, most of the people in that territory did not speak French. Was it a nation-state?
The question of Palestine has made the issue an acute one, but:
The Montevideo Convention on the rights and duties of states, signed by 20 countries in North and South America in 1933, sets four criteria for becoming a state: a permanent population, a government, defined borders and the capacity to enter into relations with other states. But these are little more than guidelines. Many places recognised as states do not comply. Libya has more than one government. Many states emerged after national movements declared independence and then sought recognition by other states and admission into the United Nations. Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), declared Palestine a state in 1988 in Algiers, and has subsequently secured recognition from over 130 states, or over two-thirds of the UN.
How can Germany be both afraid of and in love with technology, and the companies that make it? The key is to look beyond those things, to the corporate model they represent.The true origin of the conflict lies in the economic culture innate to those former Silicon Valley start-ups — now giants — that are taking the European markets by storm. To create and grow an enterprise like Amazon or Uber takes a certain libertarian cowboy mind-set that ignores obstacles and rules.Silicon Valley fears neither fines nor political reprimand. It invests millions in lobbying in Brussels and Berlin, but since it finds the democratic political process too slow, it keeps following its own rules in the meantime. Uber simply declared that it would keep operating in Germany, no matter what the courts ruled. Amazon is pushing German publishers to offer their books on its platform at a lower price — ignoring that, in Germany, publishers are legally required to offer their books at the same price everywhere.It is this anarchical spirit that makes Germans so neurotic. On one hand, we’d love to be more like that: more daring, more aggressive. On the other hand, the force of anarchy makes Germans (and many other Europeans) shudder, and rightfully so. It’s a challenge to our deeply ingrained faith in the state.
Lincoln talked of government “for the people, of the people, and by the people.” He didn’t say anything about too-big-to-fail banks.
Starr contends that the government could have spent less money on A.I.G. — and therefore imposed less onerous terms on the company — had the bailout’s architects directed some of their tough love at the Goldmans and Deutsche Banks of the world. And Starr is hardly alone in making these claims. Ever since the details of the A.I.G. rescue entered the popular consciousness, everyone from members of Congress to financial commentators to Occupy Wall Street protesters and Tea Party activists have fulminated against the “backdoor bailout” of Goldman et al. By fully litigating the issue, the Starr trial may finally help heal this festering wound.
At the heart of the controversy is the fact that the government has never provided a plausible explanation for why the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, which had enormous leverage over banks like Goldman thanks to its role as their regulator, didn’t lean on them to accept less than 100 cents on the dollar in their payouts from A.I.G.
Over at Crooked Timber they’re having a discussion of the software SNAFU that’s occurred in the rollout of Obamacare. As anyone in the software biz knows, that’s just how it is with large software projects. The thread title suggests something more interesting and far more sinister: Neo-Liberalism as Feudalism.
That title reminded me of the work of Abbe Mowshowitz, whom I met when I was on the faculty at The Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute back in the previous century. He was interested in how the deployment of computer technology was creating virtual organizations that, he believed, would lead to a virtual feudalism:
Absent a sense of loyalty to persons or places, virtual organizations distance themselves—both geographically and psychologically—from the regions and countries in which they operate. This process is undermining the nation-state, which cannot continue indefinitely to control virtual organizations. A new feudal system is in the making, in which power and authority are vested in private hands but which is based on globally distributed resources rather than on possession of land. The evolution of this new political economy will determine how we do business in the future.
Here’s an essay I ghosted in Abbe’s name back in ’97 but which, alas, never got published. The ideas are his, the prose mine.
* * * * *
The New World Order of Virtual Feudalism
One might imagine that, in 2020 a person could be brought to trial on criminal charges in a court convened by a private corporation under provisions granted by the United Nations. What is perhaps more difficult to imagine is a world in which such an institutional arrangement is the solution to a pressing problem, and that a wide range of individual and corporate actors would agree to such an arrangement. At the moment we live in a world where criminal prosecution is primarily a power of nation-state authorities, with the United Nations being an organization created by states and having no direct power in the private sector. This imaginary trial thus violates fundamental distinctions governing our political life.
Yet I believe that such arrangements are not only possible, they are inevitable. New actors — most noticeably, large multinational corporations — have come to dominate the world’s advanced economies. Increasingly these organizations are operating in a seamless global marketplace. Ironically, as the marketplace becomes global, the great nation states and empires are fragmenting into smaller and smaller units. Large companies have more wealth and power than small states. These developments conjure up visions of the brave old world of medieval feudalism, in which the role of the nobility will be played by corporate executives assisted by employee-vassals who rule over legions of latter day serfs.
Day by day the emerging new world order looks like a virtual feudalism. In thus talking of feudalism I am not, however, asserting that our immediate future holds a regression to the distant past, though there may well be regressive elements. Rather, I think that we are increasingly living in a world which exhibits patterns of social organization and action characteristic of feudal societies, such as fragmented authority, private security arrangements, and a highly permeable boundary between private and public activity. This feudalism is “virtual” because these patterns reflect non-territorial organizational arrangements made possible by information technology rather than being rooted in the customs of land ownership and tenancy which existed in medieval Europe.
To get a feel for this future let us consider the life of three different individuals who are born in the current world and move into middle-age as virtual feudalism unfolds. Continue reading
Sounds like animal husbandry:
Slave owners were able to collect data on their workforce in ways that other business owners couldn’t because they had complete control over their workers. They didn’t have to worry about turnover or recruiting new workers, and they could experiment with different tactics—moving workers around and demanding higher levels of output, even monitoring what they ate and how long new mothers breastfed their babies. And the slaves had no recourse.
“If you tried to do this with a northern laborer,” Rosenthal says, “they’d just quit.
”The widespread adoption of these accounting techniques is partly due to a Mississippi planter and accountant named Thomas Affleck, who developed account books for plantation owners that allowed them to make sophisticated calculations and measure productivity in a standardized way.