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In January 2012, Facebook conducted a psychology experiment on 689,003 unknowing users, modifying the stories they saw in their news feeds to see whether this affected their emotional state. The experiment was automatically performed over one week by randomly selecting users and randomly assigning them to two groups; one had items with positive words like “love” and “nice” filtered out of their news feeds, whereas the other had items with negative words similarly removed; the software then tracked the affect of their status updates to see whether this affected them. The result was that it did: a proportion of those who saw only positive and neutral posts tended to be more cheerful than those who saw only negative and neutral ones. (The experiment, it must be said, was entirely automated, with human researchers never seeing the users' identities or posts.)
Of course, this sort of experiment sounds colossally unethical, not to mention irresponsible. The potential adverse consequences are too easy to imagine, and too hard to comfortably dismiss. If some 345,000 people's feeds were modulated to feed them a week of negativity in the form of what they thought were their friends' updates, what proportion of those were adversely affected beyond feeling bummed out for a week? Out of 345,000, what would be the expected amount of relationship breakups, serious arguments, alcoholic relapses, or even incidents of self-harm that may have been set off by the online social world looking somewhat bleaker and more joyless? And while it may seem that the other cohort, who got a week's worth of sunshine and rainbows, were done a favour, this is not the case; riding the heady rush of good vibes, some of them may have made bad decisions; taking gambles on bad odds because they felt lucky, or dismissing warning signs of problems. And then there's the fact that messages from their friends and family members were deliberately not shown to them if they went against the goals of the experiment. What if someone in the negative cohort was cut off from communications with a loved one far away, for just long enough to introduce a grain of suspicion into their relationship, or someone in the positive cohort didn't learn about a close friend's problems and was unable to offer support?
In academe, this sort of thing would not pass an ethics committee, where informed consent is required. However, Facebook is not an academic operation, but a private entity operating in the mythical wild frontier of the Free Market, where anything both parties consent to (“consent” here being defined in the loosest sense) goes. And when you signed up for a Facebook account, you consented to them doing pretty much whatever they like with your personal information and the relationships mediated through their service. If you don't like it, that's fine; it's a free market, and you're welcome to delete your account go to Google Plus. Or if Google's ad-targeting and data mining don't appeal, to build your own service and persuade everyone you wish to keep in touch with to use it. (Except that you can't; these aren't the wild 1990s, when a student could build LiveJournal in his dorm room; nowadays, the legal liabilities and regulatory compliance requirements would keep anyone other than multinational corporations with deep pockets out of the game.) Or go back to emailing a handful of friends, in the hope that they'll reply to your emails in the spare time left over after keeping up with Facebook. Or only socialising with people who live within walking distance of the same pub as you. Or, for that matter, go full Kaczynski and live in a shack in the woods. And when you've had enough of trapping squirrels for your food and mumbling to yourself as you stare at the corner each night, you can slink back to the bright lights, tail between your legs, reconnect with Mr. Zuckerberg's Magical Social Casino, where all your friends are, and once again find yourself privy to sweet, sweet commercially-mediated social interaction. In the end, we all come back. We know that, in this age, the alternative is self-imposed exile and social death, and so does Facebook, so they can do what they like to us.
As novel as this may seem, this is another instance of the neoliberal settlement, tearing up prior settlements and regulations in favour of a flat, market-based system, rationalised by a wilful refusal to even consider the disparities of power dynamics (“there is no such thing as an unfair deal in a free market, because you can always walk away and take a better offer from one of the ∞ other competitors”, goes the argument taken to its platygæan conclusion). Just as in deregulated economies, classes of participants (students, patients, passengers) all become customers, with their roles and rights replaced by what the Invisible Hand Of The Free Market deals out (i.e., what the providers can get away with them acquiescing to when squeezed hard enough), here those using a means of communication become involuntary guinea pigs in a disruptive, and (for half of them) literally unpleasant experiment. All that Facebook has to provide, in theory, is something marginally better than social isolation, and everything is, by definition, as fair as can be.
Facebook have offered an explanation, saying that the experiment was intended to “make the content people see as relevant and engaging as possible”. Which, given the legendarily opaque Facebook feed algorithm, and how it determines which of your friends' posts get a look into the precious spaces between the ads and sponsored posts, is small comfort. Tell you what, Facebook: why don't you stop trying to make my feed more “relevant” and “engaging” and just give me what my friends, acquaintances and groups post, unfiltered and in chronological order, and let me filter it as I see fit?
The impeccably economically rational minds in Australia's Productivity Commission has denounced artisanal food producers, “international style” bakeries and small winemakers as a drag on Australia's productivity and economic efficiency:
“Bakery product manufacturing is likely to have contributed to lower measures (or productivity),” the commission says ... “Lifestyle considerations, tax arrangements, and alternative sources of income may have reduced the incentive for small wine-makers to leave the industry.”
If one looks at it from a certain perspective, they have a point. Certainly, spending $5 on a loaf of artisanal bread when a $1 loaf of Tip-Top will provide the same amount of calories is an expensive frippery which isn't doing Australia any favours when competing in the Global Race that one keeps hearing about. After all, while we're demanding the money and leisure time to savour a sourdough ciabatta washed down with a nice glass of cab sav, the developing world has billions of people who are willing to work 90-hour weeks on a bowl of gruel a day and be grateful for it. That's to say nothing about the establishments in which these decadent luxuries are consumed. Taking up valuable space all over inner urban areas, these squander resources on quirky décor, and not only neglect but actively sabotage their throughput by encouraging the patrons to linger, rather than quickly getting and consuming their food and going back to productive work. Replace them all with McDonald's-style drive-throughs and not only would Australia's workers be able to get more work done, but, paying less for their lunch, could do so for more competitive wages. Think of all the extra iron ore we could load onto ships, and the higher profits remaining at the end of the day.
But why stop there? While pointing out the grotesque inefficiencies of small-scale foodstuffs and gratuitous luxuries (and, implicitly, wages high enough to create demand for such fripperies) drives a point home, it misses the broader point implied in such economic-rationalist (or, as they call them these days, neoliberal) critiques, that of what Australians should and shouldn't be doing. Australia, it would seem, has one core business: digging Australian ore and coal up and shipping it out; it's the one thing we do better than anyone else in the world, and everything else that doesn't tie into that or its support industries is superfluous, and thus, by definition, a drag on the national economy. (With the exception of cricket, of course; panem et circenses, as they said in Rome.) If you divert resources to baking artisanal bread, or, say, building cars or televisions (which the Chinese can do far more efficiently), those are resources which cannot be used for digging up every lump of coal that can be sold.
Another example: if you go to any of the aforementioned inner-city cafés with their inefficient ciabattas and fairtrade flat whites, you are likely to find several people in their 20s and 30s with fashionable hairstyles and MacBooks; some of them will be working on mobile games or social websites, editing short films, writing novels, mashing up phat beats, or doing other things atypical of the inhabitants of a mining colony. Given the high Australian dollar (due to the world wanting our iron ore and coal, which we can't dig up fast enough), it makes no economic sense for anyone in Australia to be doing these things, given that similarly fashionably attired MacBook owners in Berlin or Brooklyn could do the job for less (that's to say nothing of the DJs and designers of Beijing or Bangalore). Nonetheless, the young and hip in this mining colony maintain the pretense of being part of a “Creative Class”, one of limited economic purpose and often importing its symbols and touchstones, from trucker caps to taco trucks, from bars named after parts of Barcelona to the very idea of using bicycles to get by (itself a pretentious, and un-Australian, affectation according to a significant segment of the population). Meanwhile, tonnes of iron ore remain tragically unmined and unsold.
So the question posed by the critique seems to be: perhaps it's time for us to, as our heroic Prime Minister would put it, stick to our knitting, put aside all these foreign lifestyle pretensions and concentrate on what we do best: digging stuff up and shipping it out. After all, we all want to live in an efficient, dynamic economy, don't we? Those who don't fit in with the country's business, who can't find a job as a minerals engineer or contract lawyer, can try their luck with the US visa system or see if they can wangle a European passport through where their grandparents came from.
Of course, that's one point of view; that from the top of the pyramid, from where everything is a resource to be managed efficiently (which is to say, profitably), and the profits are to make their way to the top of the pyramid, unmolested by the little people's economically irrational desires for artisanal nutrition, or the notion that Australia might be a complex society rather than, as that other metaphor used by the current government goes, a team with a single national focus. But increasingly, this is the point of view which counts.
Alex Proud, who previously wrote about the Shoreditch-modelled gentrification and sanitisation of the down-at-heel parts of London, has a new article about the end state of this process of gentrification and the future of hyper-gentrified London, a homogeneously rich, clean, and dull, place, with all the edginess and excitement of Geneva or central Paris, a city of "joyless Michelin starred restaurants and shops selling £3,000 chandeliers":
Two decades on and you can play a nostalgic little game where you remind yourself what groups London’s inner neighbourhoods were known for 20 years ago. Hampstead: intellectuals; Islington: media trendies; Camden: bohemians, goths and punks; Fulham: thick poshos who couldn’t afford Chelsea; Notting Hill: cool kids; Chelsea: rich people. Now, every single one of these is just rich people. If you want to own a house (or often just a flat) in these places, you need a six figure salary or you can forget it. And, for anyone normal, that means working in finance.
Inner Paris is a fairytale for wealthy people in their fifties (and outer Paris looks like Stalingrad with ethnic strife) while Geneva has dispensed with the poor altogether. As a result, both cities are safe, pretty and rather boring places to live – and soon London will be too.The article is a fine rant, dripping with bons mots like “Bitcoins for oligarchs”, “like Jay-Z as reimagined by someone who works at Goldman Sachs”, and “the bastard offspring of Kirstie Allsopp and Ayn Rand”; the prognosis is not hopeful for London either:
Why? Because the financiers who can afford inner London neighbourhoods are not cool. Visit Canary Wharf at on any weekday lunchtime and watch the braying, pink-shirted bankers disporting themselves. Not cool. Peruse the shops at Canary Wharf. From Gap to Tiffany’s, they’re all chains stores and you could be anywhere wealthy, safe and dull in the world. Rich people like making money and spending it on dull, expensive things. That’s what they do – and they’re very good it. But being a high-end cog in the machine is not cool.
In the short term, our city’s young creative class will continue to move further and further out. Is New Cross the new Peckham? Is Walthamstow the new Dalston? But there are limits to this: there’s not much of a vibe in Ruislip and there never will be; really, the cool inner suburb ship sailed in 2005. So, when you’re stuck out amongst the pebble-dashed semis of Zone 4, miles from a centre that’s mainly chain shops, boutiques for the tacky rich and restaurants you can’t afford or even book, you might start wondering if the World’s Greatest City (TM) really is for you. Then maybe you’ll visit friends, somewhere like Bristol or Newcastle or Leeds or Glasgow. And maybe you’ll discover that there you can buy a house that’s walking distance to a centre full of shops that cater to you, restaurants that want your custom and pubs and clubs whose prices wouldn’t make someone in Gstaad blanch... Perhaps London’s craven fealty to the ghastly rich will finally accomplish what no government policy ever has – it will rejuvenate our provincial cities.Though chances are, the cities with fast links to London will end up hypergentrified as well; Brighton (or “London-by-the-sea”, as some call it) is well on the way to going there, and some speculate that places like Margate (one hour from London along a partly high-speed railway, and already sprouting vintage shops and a modern art gallery amongst the everyday-is-like-Sunday shabbiness) could end up following suit. Birmingham, meanwhile, might jump from never-quite-fashionable to bourgeois luxury for the new-economy elite when HS2 arrives, allowing those who aren't fully-fledged partners to afford somewhere within an easy commute of Canary Wharf.
Proud blames this state of affairs on a system rigged to pander to the beneficiaries of this state of affairs—house-flippers, buy-to-let landlords, ex-Soviet oligarchs looking for somewhere to park their wealth—at the expense of the little people to whom it is made clear that the city does not belong, and who are gradually squeezed further out, towards the periphery and beyond; who still hold onto their shrinking, expensive foothold on the precious land inside the M25, believing that it's stil worth it because of the aura of brilliance surrounding the idea of London; an aura increasingly based in nostalgic delusion, and one which can't last.
Readers of the Guardian or New Statesman will have seen this story numerous times, from different angles and at different points in time, more or less the same, only with the place names moved slightly further out every year. However, part of the message here is in the medium; Proud is writing in the Daily Telegraph, a paper owned by the Barclay Brothers, long associated with the Conservative Party (it's often nicknamed the Torygraph), and one which one might imagine would be perfectly au fait with the ideals of the Thatcherite “property-owning democracy”. When the Torygraph is publishing articles bemoaning how gentrification is hollowing out and sterilising London, then perhaps it is time to be concerned.
I wonder how much this is due to one of the less-often-quited corollaries of the neoliberal/market-oriented mindset of the recent few decades: the idea that anything of value is traded on a market, and everything is a convertible hard currency, this time applied to cultural capital. It used to be that cultural capital and economic capital were separate spheres, and absolutely not interconvertible. There were no cool rich kids, or those who were hid their economic capital. (The word “cool”, in fact, originated with socially and politically disenfranchised African-Americans; in its original meaning, the word didn't mean chic, fashionable or at the top of the status hierarchy, but refered to an unflappability, an unwillingness to let the constant low-level (and not so low-level) insults and aggressions of an institutionally racist and classist system be seen to get you down; as such, it was, by definition, the riches of the poor, the exclusive capital of those excluded from capital.)
Fast forward to the present day; after Milton Friedman declared everything to be convertible goods in a market. Reagan and Thatcher applied this to economic goods, launching the “Big Bang” of deregulation and the 20-year economic bubble that followed. Then the Clinton/Blair era of the “Third Way” coincided with its own Big Bang, this time deregulating the cultural marketplace; starting off with Britpop and going on to Carling-sponsored landfill indie, New Rave, hipster electro (and indeed the recycling of the term “hipster”, originally meaning a habitué of the grimy jazz-and-heroin demimonde of the Beat Generation, now referring to trust fund kids in limited-edition trainers), yacht rock, chillwave and whatever. The old regulatory barriers between the mainstream and the underground were swept away as surely as the barriers between high-street and investment banks had been a decade earlier; the rise of the internet and the cultural globalisation played a part in it, though the mainstreaming of market values once seen as radical would also have had a hand. Soon everything was in a commodity available on the marketplace; 1960s guitar rock and Mod iconography was revived as Britpop, post-punk, stripped of unmarketable references to Marxism, Situationism and existentialist paperbacks and sexed up, as generic NME-cover “indie”, and we were faced with a multifaceted 80s revival that ran for longer than the 80s. Major-label pop producers used ProTools plug-ins to grunge up their protégés, giving them that authentically lo-fi “alternative” sound, while bedroom producers armed with cheap laptops and cracked software made tracks that sounded as expensively polished as anything heard in a Thatcher-era wine bar. Knowing about Joy Division or Black Flag was no longer a badge of being “hip”, as anyone with an internet connection could do the research; the new shibboleths were evanescent memes, like referencing Hall & Oates right down to the facial hair, or reviving New Jack Swing and calling it “PBR&B”, or the whole Seapunk subculture; currents one wouldn't have caught wind of in time without being connected, and whose cultural value became void once the wider world heard of them.
This coincided with the dismantling of free education, the rise in income inequality, and the gentrification of “cool” areas full of the young and creative, and soon it was a good thing that having economic and social capital didn't bar one from cultural capital, because having a trust fund was increasingly a prerequisite. If Mater and Pater bought you a flat near London Fields for your 18th birthday, and if you had a reserve of money to spend while you “found yourself”, and the likelihood of being able to land an internship on a career track in the media once your Southern-fried-hog-jowls-in-katsu-curry food truck failed or you got bored of playing festivals with your respectably rated bass-guitar-and-Microkorg duo, then you had the freedom to explore and develop, and that development could take a number of forms; travelling the world's thrift shops, picking up cool records and playing them at your DJ night, spending the time you don't need to work for money getting good at playing an instrument (and recent UK research shows that people in wealthier areas tend to have better musical aptitude), or just growing a really lush beard. With the rolling back of the welfare state and the "race to the bottom" in wages, these quests for self-actualisation are once again the preserve of the gentry; it's rather hard to develop your creative voice when you're on zero-hour contracts, and spend all your time either working in shitty jobs, looking for work, or commuting from where you can afford to live. And so economic capital has colonised cultural capital, and what passes for “cool” now belongs to those with money. It's not quite like a Gavin McInnes troll-piece about the coke-addicted bankers' scions who form the Brooklyn scene or a Vice_Is_Hip parody tweet about the coolest bar in the Hamptons or the latest sartorial trends from Kuwait's hippest princelings, but those are looking less and less unbelievable.
The question is, what happens in the end? Will cultural capital converge with economic capital, and “cool” be redefined to be a sort of cultural noblesse oblige, a manifestation of wealth and status, or will, as Proud suggest, the whole thing collapse into a cultural low-energy state of tidy tedium?
1. Markets are conversations in much the same way as the school bully picking on the disabled queer kid is friendship.
5. Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy. But NSA wiretapping subverts hyperlinks, so we’ve got that covered.
7. The community of discourse is the market. And if a particular community of discourse doesn’t like being the market, we’ll fucking well make them into a market.
8. We’re all down with conversation and social and community. Until we make enough money that we can delete your wedding photos, get Google stock and fuck off to a private island.
14. The people who invented a service to drive rich people around San Francisco in a Mercedes should be the people who decide on global transport policy.
30. The new growth market in our industry is casual game apps. We’ve built numerous companies on pinching the pocket money of particularly stupid kids. At least apps don’t contain sugar.
Speaking of the past vanquishing the future, today is the 40th anniversary of the Chilean coup which, signed off by Richard Nixon, overthrew the (democratic socialist) Allende government and established the Pinochet dictatorship, a combination of classic Franco-style Iberian fascism and radical free-market ideology (courtesy of Chicago economist Milton Friedman, whom Nixon had parachuted in; Friedman went on to far greater things; advising Ronald Reagan and becoming the father of the neoliberal economic order we live in today). The Pinochet dictatorship ruled for seventeen years and crushed dissent, real and imagined, with stunning brutality, murdering Communists, trade unionists, human-rights activists, nuns and owners of suspicious literature (for example, books of art by Picasso—he was a Communist, you know—were enough) indiscriminately. Other than the big landowners whose near-feudal grip on their vast tracts of land and the lives of the peasants who came with it had been threatened by Allende, the big winners were multinational corporations (Friedman brought in a spree of privatisations, and the regime kept labour costs low and suppressed industrial complaints) and the Catholic Church (which was given a central role in the ultra-conservative society Pinochet built).
The Pinochet regime had its defenders for a long time after it fell; the most infamous was the late Margaret Thatcher, a close friend of Pinochet's who went to her grave proclaiming him to be a champion of freedom. (Either Thatcher's views or her outspokenness in them weren't widely shared at the time.) Other than that, it's mostly trolls and cranks these days, with most respectable conservatives tactfully keeping shtum (the Daily Torygraph's front page, for instance, is conspicuous in its lack of mention of this anniversary). As memory of the dictatorship's atrocities recedes into the past and witnesses die, however, we will undoubtedly see it rehabilitated by the self-styled mavericks of the Right, in the way that Spain's conservatives are rehabilitating the Franco regime, and the cult of Mussolini is enjoying renewed popularity in Italy; perhaps in ten years' time, we'll see a spate of articles by the rising stars of free-market thinktanks about the 50th anniversary of the Liberation Of Chile From Socialism.
The International Monetary Fund has, once again, warned Britain's government to ease back on its austerity policy, or risk driving Britain into a triple-dip recession. The government has replied with a statement defending its approach.
Meanwhile, researchers have found serious flaws in an economics paper used to justify austerity policies and the prioritisation of cutting debt at all costs. The paper, Growth In A Time Of Debt, which argues that high public debt stifles economic growth, and which has been a favourite of neoliberals and small-state libertarians, was found to have flaws including selective inclusion of data, unusual weighting of years studied, and a coding flaw in an Excel spreadsheet; when corrected, the data produced does not yield the same conclusions:
This error is needed to get the results they published, and it would go a long way to explaining why it has been impossible for others to replicate these results. If this error turns out to be an actual mistake Reinhart-Rogoff made, well, all I can hope is that future historians note that one of the core empirical points providing the intellectual foundation for the global move to austerity in the early 2010s was based on someone accidentally not updating a row formula in Excel.So, if it does turn out that austerity policies are based on a spreadsheet error, does that mean that we can expect a contrite George Osborne to quickly change course? Of course not; the revelation that austerity is based on junk economics will have no more effect than what we've already known, such that Britain's current public debt is historically quite modest, because austerity never was purely about economic pragmatism, but rather about principle; the principle being “this money does not belong to you”, with the explanation being “because we say so”. Which is why, for example, the government has £10m to give Margaret Thatcher a state funeral in all but name (“we can afford it”), whilst cutting £11.6 from the arts budget, closing public libraries and slashing benefits. The principle is why the government has introduced a “bedroom tax”, cutting the benefits of those deemed to have a spare bedroom, despite the lack of suitably cramped accommodation they could move to (especially in economically depressed areas in the north). There is no economic benefit from this, but it has the moral benefit in the eyes of the Tories and the Daily Mail-reading public of punishing the unworthy poor. And punishing freeloaders is a good in itself, worth doing even if it costs us to do so.
Even if there was no recession, if government coffers were flush with cash, spending money on the public good would be immoral. In Australia, where the economy escaped the recession and is carried aloft on a mining boom, there still is no money for public infrastructure, to the point where recent secondary education reforms had to be funded by massive cuts to the university sector. There is plenty of money, but it belongs not to the little people, but the mining oligarchs, whose sense of property rights does not extend to them rejecting billions of dollars of diesel fuel subsidies paid for by the taxpayer. Needless to say, there is no money for things like modern internet infrastructure or public transport, to say nothing of things like the high-speed railway line between Melbourne and Sydney (the two endpoints of the second busiest passenger air route in the world) for which studies have recently been published. Where there is money left over, it is handed back as tax rebates to middle-class households in outer suburban electorates, where it can do the most good electorally for the government.
The libertarian myth that the economically prudent state is the minimal “nightwatchman state”–enforcing contract law, punishing freeloaders and otherwise keeping its hands off—doesn't bear out in reality, where prior investment and planning are often more prudent than leaving things to the wisdom of the free market. We have seen this in the United States' health care system, where costs are several times higher than in the supposedly inefficient socialised health care systems of socialist Europe (which is not counting externalities, from lower life expectancies and more chronic illnesses to people staying in less than ideal jobs out of fear of losing their health insurance), and in previous attempts to reduce public spending by cutting welfare (at least when the sainted Margaret Thatcher did so in the 1980s). Anyone who has had to commute in a city organised according to laissez-faire let-them-drive-cars principles, at least once it gets beyond a certain level of density, will know that it doesn't work; which is why even neoliberal London and New York spend billions on public transport facilities, which are used with almost Scandinavian egalitarianism by everybody from beggars to bankers. And, in a decade's time, it's not unlikely that the gutting of Britain's social infrastructure will end up costing more, as more people fall through the cracks; some will be picked up by a swelling prison system, as happens across the Atlantic, while others will subsist in dismal conditions, out of sight and out of mind of the people who matter.
Sociological term of the day: elite panic: basically, the tendency of those who have clambered to the top of an unequal society to take a brutally Hobbesian view of the rest of humanity, and to live in fear that those under their feet might not stay there:
Elites tend to believe in a venal, selfish, and essentially monstrous version of human nature, which I sometimes think is their own human nature. I mean, people don't become incredibly wealthy and powerful by being angelic, necessarily. They believe that only their power keeps the rest of us in line and that when it somehow shrinks away, our seething violence will rise to the surface -- that was very clear in Katrina. Timothy Garton Ash and Maureen Dowd and all these other people immediately jumped on the bandwagon and started writing commentaries based on the assumption that the rumors of mass violence during Katrina were true. A lot of people have never understood that the rumors were dispelled and that those things didn't actually happen; it's tragic.
But there's also an elite fear -- going back to the 19th century -- that there will be urban insurrection. It's a valid fear. I see these moments of crisis as moments of popular power and positive social change. The major example in my book is Mexico City, where the '85 earthquake prompted public disaffection with the one-party system and, therefore, the rebirth of civil society.The relevance of this term is left as an exercise to the reader.
Continuing the Margaret Thatcher Memorial Season on this blog: why the Left gets neoliberalism wrong, by political scientist Corey Robin. It turns out that the thing about rugged individualism is (once one gets beyond the pulp novels of Ayn Rand and Robert Heinlein, not exactly founts of academic rigour) a red herring, and the true atom of the neoliberal world view is traditional, vaguely feudal, hierarchical structures of authority: patriarchial families, and enterprises with owners and chains of fealty:
For all their individualist bluster, libertarians—particularly those market-oriented libertarians who are rightly viewed as the leading theoreticians of neoliberalism—often make the same claim. When these libertarians look out at society, they don’t always see isolated or autonomous individuals; they’re just as likely to see private hierarchies like the family or the workplace, where a father governs his family and an owner his employees. And that, I suspect (though further research is certainly necessary), is what they think of and like about society: that it’s an archipelago of private governments.
What often gets lost in these debates is what I think is the real, or at least a main, thrust of neoliberalism, according to some of its most interesting and important theoreticians (and its actual practice): not to liberate the individual or to deregulate the marketplace, but to shift power from government (or at least those sectors of government like the legislature that make some claim to or pretense of democratic legitimacy; at a later point I plan to talk about Hayek’s brief on behalf of an unelected, unaccountable judiciary, which bears all the trappings of medieval judges applying the common law, similar to the “belated feudalism” of the 19th century American state, so brilliantly analyzed by Karen Orren here) to the private authority of fathers and owners.By this analysis, while neoliberalism may wield the rhetoric of atomised individualism, it is more like a counter-enlightenment of sorts. If civilisation was the process of climbing up from the Hobbesian state of nature, where life is nasty, brutish and short, and establishing structures (such as states, legal systems, and shared infrastructure) that damp some of the wild swings of fortune, neoliberalism would be an attempt to roll back the last few steps of this, the ones that usurped the rightful power of hierarchical structures (be they noble families, private enterprises or churches), spread bits of it to the unworthy serfs, and called that “democracy”.
On a related note, a piece from Lars Trägårdh (a Swedish historian and advisor to Sweden's centre-right—i.e., slightly left of New Labour—government) arguing that an interventionist state is not the opposite of individual freedom but an essential precondition for it:
The linchpin of the Swedish model is an alliance between the state and the individual that contrasts sharply with Anglo-Saxon suspicion of the state and preference for family- and civil society-based solutions to welfare. In Sweden, a high-trust society, the state is viewed more as friend than foe. Indeed, it is welcomed as a liberator from traditional, unequal forms of community, including the family, charities and churches.
At the heart of this social compact lies what I like to call a Swedish theory of love: authentic human relationships are possible only between autonomous and equal individuals. This is, of course, shocking news to many non-Swedes, who believe that interdependency is the very stuff of love.
Be that as it may; in Sweden this ethos informs society as a whole. Despite its traditional image as a collectivist social democracy, comparative data from the World Values Survey suggests that Sweden is the most individualistic society in the world. Individual taxation of spouses has promoted female labour participation; universal daycare makes it possible for all parents – read women – to work; student loans are offered to everyone without means-testing; a strong emphasis on children's rights have given children a more independent status; the elderly do not depend on the goodwill of children.So, by this token, Scandinavian “socialism” would seem to be the most advanced implementation of individual autonomy and human potential yet achieved in the history of civilisation whereas Anglocapitalism, with its ethos of “creative destruction”, is a vaguely Downtonian throwback to feudalism.
Newspapers in France recently published a letter sent by a US tyre company CEO to the Socialist government's industry minister, telling the French where to stick their union-coddled workers:
"Do you think we're stupid?" Taylor wrote to Montebourg in the letter, which was made public on Wednesday. "I've visited this factory several times. The French workers are paid high wages but only work three hours. They have one hour for their lunch, they talk for three hours and they work for three hours. I said this directly to their union leaders; they replied that's the way it is in France.
"Titan is going to buy Chinese or Indian tyres, pay less than €1 an hour to workers and export all the tyres that France needs," Taylor boasted. "In five years, Michelin won't be producing tyres in France. You can keep your so-called workers. Titan is not interested in the factory in North Amiens,"Perhaps the only thing that can save France, from a certain neoliberal point of view, is a General Pinochet of its own, a libertarian strongman who can crush the unions, smash the Left and introduce the radical shock therapy France needs to race China and the US' “right-to-work” states to the oh-so-profitable bottom.
More seriously: if it's that much cheaper to produce tyres in China or India and ship them across the world, does it make sense to pay French workers French wages (or wages which cover French living expenses, anyway) to do the same locally?
The economic difference between London, a global centre of finance, where wealth is conjured into being and every Russian oligarch and Saudi princeling worth his salt has to have a pied à terre, and the rest of Britain is drawn into sharp relief by a recent property value survey:
Research shows that the net value of properties in just 10 London boroughs – Westminster, Kensington & Chelsea, Wandsworth, Barnet, Camden, Richmond, Ealing, Bromley, Hammersmith & Fulham and Lambeth – now outstrips the worth of all the properties in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland combined.
The capital’s richest borough, Westminster, with 121,600 dwellings, is worth £95bn – more than twice the value of Edinburgh (pop 500,000) and three times that of England’s sixth most populous city, Bristol.That's one thing one forgets about living in London: that this isn't normal. The high property values (and rents), the billions of pounds poured into public transport, the presence of everything from world-class art exhibitions to lunch options more interesting than a supermarket sandwich: none of this would be here were London not a global city-state of its stature, alongside the Singapores and Dubais of this world.
Of course, the downside of this is that London is considerably less affordable for those who aren't oligarchs, princelings or otherwise loaded.
The latest front in the War On Piracy: Britain is setting up a national intellectual property crime unit to hunt down illegal downloaders wherever they may hide. The most interesting thing about this news is that the unit, which will operate across the length and breadth of Britain, will be part of the City of London Police; that's right: a national specialist unit that's part of the local constabulary of one square mile of a city.
The reason for this, presumably, has to do with the unique governance of the City of London, a system inherited from the feudal era and adapted seamlessly to the neoliberal age. Being the corporate centre of Britain's finance industry, the City's office bearers are elected by the corporations who have offices in the square mile; each corporation's share of votes is proportional to its global employee count. As such, it is the ideal post-democratic governing model for the New World Order, reflecting the realities of neoliberalism far more efficiently than the alternative of “democracy plus lobbyists plus corporations-are-people plus unlimited campaign expenditure” (as seen in the US) does.
The City of London taking responsibility for enforcing corporate monopolies on cultural exchange (“intellectual property”) across the land could be merely an early step in its ascension to being a branch of Britain's government, and one which wields real power. Perhaps in a few decades' time, we will see the parliaments of Westminster and Holyrood (by then, packed with a motley crew of wild-eyed socialists, foamy-mouthed right-wing populists and Pirate Party types) reduced to student union-style talking shops with no real power, with executive decisions devolved to the City of London's eminently level-headed corporate appointees?
A modest proposal from security commentator Alec Muffett: Could we replace marriage with incorporation of private limited companies?
in the UK the biggest hurdle would be IR35 and certain aspects of expense policy, but you’d have a contract between the directors, clear dissolution clauses; all income could be directed to the corporation – taxed differently and offset against OPEX like nappies and so forth – and salaries paid out, plus it would own and depreciate shared assets like houses and cars. You could avoid much income tax by taking dividends – I know tax avoidance is infra dig at the moment, but I’m thinking of the future here – and you could offshore your marriage for better breaks.
But there would be no gender issues – no incorporation is between a man and woman – plus you could have more than one company director, have corporations that outlast their founders, and in extreme circumstances outsource large chunks of the whole enterprise.
A piece in the Observer looks at the privatisation of public space in Britain, or how many of the "public spaces" created by private developers in neo-Thatcherite Britain are not actually public space, but rather private spaces, where the developers allow the public to use them, with conditions, much like shopping malls. The public who use these spaces do so on the sufferance of the owners, who are legally in their right to prohibit anything from photography to public displays of affection to any sort of democratic unpleasantry:
City Hall – the riverside HQ of London's elected government – stands in a privately owned and managed development called More London. Should anyone wish to protest here against the actions of the mayor, they would not be allowed to do so.
With the Liverpool One development a large part of the city effectively became a shopping mall without a roof. Formerly public streets are now privately managed, and a popular indoor market was closed. Liverpool One is not gated but its architectural style and treatment create what has been called an "invisible wall" around it.
The redevelopment of Paternoster Square, next to St Paul's Cathedral, has in its middle a piazza repeatedly described as a "public space". When its owners feared that Occupy London protesters would move into it, however, a sign went up saying that it is "private land".Whilst a product of St. Margaret's vanquishment of post-WW2 quasi-socialism, the privatisation of public space found its place after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in the zeitgeist of Francis Fukuyama's "End of History". After all, if history is over and we're all happy consumers forever, things like public squares are as anachronistic as castles; there are no more issues of ideology to be thrashed out that could necessitate the unsightly spectacle of public protest, and democracy is best left to professional managers and corporate stakeholders, all watched over by the beneficent invisible hand of the free market.
However, now, two decades later, as it emerges that the seemingly endless boom of consumer capitalism was a product of a middle class with disposable income, which is now being eroded, and increasing numbers of people find themselves facing poorer standards of living than their parents and grandparents did, may be the time that privatisation of public space comes into its own. For protests to go over the tipping point, there has to be collective awareness of a reality: it's not enough for everyone to know that the emperor has no clothes; everyone also has to know that everyone else knows before one can act on this without fear, which is why public spaces (such as, say, Tahrir Square or Tienanmen Square) can breed protest, and consequently trouble for the stakeholders of the status quo. Abolishing such public spaces, and effectively interdicting anybody who looks like starting any sort of protest, may be a necessary move as the squeeze takes hold.
Another horrible example of public transport privatisation gone wrong, this time from Auckland, where the efficiencies of the free market have produced a system that's expensive and inconvenient, and encouraged the public to drive:
City planners impose various pseudo-quantitative performance indicators on the contractors, such as sophisticated GPS systems to monitor on-time performance. But even this minimal nod to public accountability produces unintended consequences. Bus companies fear being fined for missing schedule targets, but are driven by the profit motive to ruthlessly minimize outlays on equipment and staff. The resulting pressure is intense on drivers (some of whom don’t even get paid overtime) to meet unrealistic timetables – a media exposé last year showed this often requires breaking the speed limit. Several times, we’ve watched an awaited bus race by without stopping, the driver shrugging helplessly and pointing at his watch.
Yet Aucklanders still pay for transit – three times over. Once through taxes – subsidies to private transit consume half of all property taxes collected by the regional government. Then again at the fare box. And finally a third time through inconvenience. No wonder Aucklanders take transit one-quarter as often as Torontonians.The article is written by a Canadian journalist resident in Auckland, and is in response to a debate about privatising Toronto's (fairly highly-rated, by all accounts) public transport system.
I'm spending the Easter break in Iceland. I flew in to Keflavík last night. On the Icelandair flight, the attendants handed out copies of a free newspaper named Reykjavík Grapevine. This is a slim English-language weekly, which exists primarily to distribute event listings wrapped in a thin shell of articles and the obligatory ads for restaurants and tours. In the past, when Reykjavík was a capital of cool, it would have undoubtedly been buzzing with events and self-congratulatory pieces on the next big thing on the Reykjavík scene. Now, with the economic crisis, the tone is somewhat more muted and soul-searching; there's an article about the closure of an art space; next to it, in the print edition, is a column titled "Icelandic art makes me feel nothing at all". (On the facing page, meanwhile, is a full-page advertisement from the Ministry of Justice and Ecclesiastical Affairs on how to vote in the upcoming parliamentary elections—which are open only to Icelandic nationals—written, perplexingly, in English and Polish.) Elsewhere, the opinions page contains pieces on anarchism and one titled "I'm Not Stupid!", railing against the torrent of recent blog articles describing Icelanders as "naïve", "immature", "over-confident" and "stupid".
Anyway, the Grapevine's feature article is its own piece on the genesis and collapse of the Icelandic economic crisis. Titled The End Of Neo-Liberal Neverland, it argues that Iceland was a testbed of radical Chicago-school economics, and/or a victim of what Naomi Klein calls the Shock Doctrine:
President Grímsson was not the first to mythologize Iceland's rapid implementation of global capitalism with Viking references. In the late 1970’s and early 80's, a handful of young men, members of the so-called Locomotive group [Eimreiðin], made themselves busy importing Milton Friedman's free market ideology. Davíð Oddsson was a prominent member of this group. He would later implement Friedman’s ideology as the Independence Party leader, Prime Minister (1991-2004) and, since 2005, chairperson of the Central Bank. Milton Friedman’s dogma is now well known: privatize, deregulate, then look away. In The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein has exposed to us how Friedman’s disciples went about doing this, by using the disorientation caused by traumatic events, such as natural catastrophes or economic depression, to push through programmes that otherwise would never have been democratically approved.
A lesser known proponent of ‘more radical capitalism’ is Milton Friedman’s son, the self-professed 'anarcho-capitalist' David Friedman. In 1979, Friedman jr. published an article entitled 'Private Creation and Enforcement of Law: A Historical Case'. The historical case in question is medieval Iceland, when law was not upheld by a state, but by individuals: “Medieval Icelandic institutions […] might almost have been invented by a mad economist to test the lengths to which market systems could supplant government in its most fundamental functions,” wrote the young Friedman. In such a society, he goes on, seats in parliament are a commodity and justice is upheld by the threat of thralldom as punishment for any offence. The Old Norse term ‘thralldom’ is a bit of an obscurity in modern English. Its modern Icelandic variant – Þrældómur – is transparent enough; it just means slavery.
Most of the country’s citizens live in debt but precise statistics are hard to find. Thatcher’s dictum ‘There is no such thing as society’ was taken very seriously by policy makers under Oddsson’s rule, and institutes that had the role of providing social data were disciplined and silenced, or simply shut down. When the National Economic Institute repeatedly published unsuitable information, Oddsson passed law through the Parliament to abolish the institute. That was in the late 1990’s. He then redirected the institute’s role to the Central Bank and years later appointed himself as Central Bank manager. This is why key figures, such as the international Gini index, meant to measure equality of wealth distribution, do not exist for Iceland.The article then asks how deep the rabbit hole goes; whether Iceland wasn't set up from the start:
Neoliberal Iceland was run as a secret conspiracy worthy of a James Bond screenplay: it was exchanged for gambling money in a plot involving Russian oligarchs, offshore accounts in the Caribbean, and luxury yachts no less kitschy than your average dictators’ – not to mention Elton John, Tina Turner and Duran Duran entertaining in private parties, and a lot of cocaine. Or so they say. Rumours abound, but no details, no facts: no single money transaction has been publicly verified. In Iceland, no businessperson, politician or civil servant has been charged with any crime.
The first revolutionary stroke in Iceland’s history re-established the possibility of meaning. Just that. Then everything is left unsaid and undone. How far back do the lies reach? Was Iceland rigged up to feed the US army? It may not be much harder to forge a national identity than decorating a Pizza Hut: one Nobel Prize here, Viking myths there, put a ‘The world’s oldest democracy’-plaque on the wall ….
We have every reason to fear that they and other representatives of global market interests will want to use this opportunity for a full-scale Friedmanite Shock Doctrine. Already in early October, right-wing forces tried to create consensus on the dogmatic “Now nothing can be holy”, i.e. now is the time for environmentalists, feminists and socialists to shut up and let business do its business. Venture capitalists have made bids at the state’s total real estate. It’s Don Corleone’s world, full of ‘offers they can’t refuse’. We know little about the IMF’s agreement with Icelandic authorities, only that they promised each other to suspend the full force of the collapse until 2010. It’s a gluey sort of Apocalypse. 8000 of the country’s 300 thousand inhabitants are currently studying business and finance, acting as if nothing happened. Everyone still acts as if money has a function and basically every trick in the hysteric’s toolbox is currently applied to hide the fact that there is no way back. Tomorrow may be capitalist, but tomorrow’s capitalism would be a dystopian remix of Fukuyama’s universe, without any pretences towards freedom.
The BBC has a piece on how university fees have changed academic culture in Britain, streamlining the fusty old halls of academe into a model of efficient free-market service delivery, with none of the fuss and waste that came before:
Frank Furedi, social commentator and academic at the University of Kent, says that the campus culture is "unrecognisable" from a generation ago. Students now ring lecturers at home at the weekend, he says, seeing this as being part of the service they are buying with their fees.
"The relationship with the student is no longer academic, it's a service provider and customer. The academic relationship is an endangered species."
Students are more careers-focused than ever before, the accumulation of large debts putting pressure on them to get a degree that will help them in the jobs market.
At present, he says, the current level of student debt means that many more students have to take part-time jobs to pay their way.
Here is a tale of two indie bands and their respective negotiations of the contentious issues of commercialism and integrity that arise when an artist is tempted by the siren song of advertisement licensing revenue.
A while ago, Band Of Horses decided to licence one of their songs to Wal-Mart, that scary right-wing bète noire despised by a significant proportion of the sorts of people who buy independent music. After the ad was tested on a limited web release, they started getting bad feedback from fans who heard about it, had a change of heart and pulled the ad, returning Wal-Mart's 30 pieces of silver.
"Some fans, they don't even give a crap," he continued. "They're like, 'Whatever, bands got to get paid.' But at the same time, I was reluctant to do it in the back of my mind, and some fans reminded me there is a reason to feel that way about it. "So once I saw our fans were let down by it, I nixed the TV commercial, and said, 'You know what, this isn't for me. Keep your money.'"Meanwhile, after copping a lot of flack for licensing a song to restaurant chain Outback Steakhouse (itself a major Republican Party donor), Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes digs in and comes out swinging for the moral defense of capitalism, like some kind of indie-hipster John Galt:
The worst kind of person is the one who sucks the dick of the man during the daytime and then draws pictures of themselves slitting his throat at night. Jesus Christ, make up your mind! The thing is, there is a lack of balance. When capitalism is working on a healthy level, everyone gets their dick sucked from time to time and no one gets their throat slit. It's impossible to be a sell out in a capitalist society. You're only a winner or a loser. Either you've found a way to crack the code or you are struggling to do so. To sell out in capitalism is basically to be too accommodating, to not get what you think you deserve. In capitalism, you don't get what you think you deserve though. You get what someone else thinks you deserve. So the trick is to make them think you are worth what you feel you deserve. You deserve a lot, but you'll only get it when you figure out how to manipulate the system.
The thing is, I like capitalism. I think it's an interesting challenge. It's a system that rewards the imaginative and ambitious adults and punishes the lazy adults. Our generation is insanely lazy. We're just as smart as our parents but we are overwhelmed by contradicting ideas that confuse us into paralysis. Maybe the punk rock ethos made sense for the "no future" generation but it doesn't make sense for me. I like producing and purchasing things. I'd much rather go to IKEA than to stand in some bread line. That's because I don't have to stand in a bread line. Most people who throw around terms like "sellout" don't have to stand in one either. They don't have to stand in one because they are gainfully employed. The term "sellout" only exists in the lexicon of the over-privileged. Almost every non-homeless person in America is over-privileged, at least in a global sense.The devil, of course, is in the details. Capitalism doesn't reward those who make good art per se, but those who can find a niche in the market and fill it. Occasionally these two goals line up, but most market niches are for unchallenging populist fare. If one restricts oneself to making significant art, one will find the pickings relatively lean. (Just ask the members of OMD, who started making songs about nuclear war and, once they had mortgages to pay off, went on to manufacture commercial pop groups like Atomic Kitten.) The most successful capitalists in music aren't the most highly critically appraised artists, but rather the likes of 50 Cent and Simon Cowell.
Could the future of employment be job dumping, where prospective employers put jobs up for auction and employ the lowest bidder, harnessing the same market dynamics that give us cheap Wal-Mart clothes?
Apparently, one of the US-imposed laws in Iraq gives multinational agribusiness a monopoly on seeds. It is illegal for Iraqi farmers to save seeds from their crops, and the only seeds they can buy are genetically-engineered ones from Monsanto and such. Which should keep the profits flowing healthily back to Head Office.
Former Swedish anarchist leftist Johan Norberg has penned a progressive defense of global capitalism titled, appropriately, "In Defense of Global Capitalism"; he outlines his arguments here. Norberg's thesis is that globalisation and free trade are precisely the solution the third world needs to escape poverty, and bring with them things like increased wages, reduced pollution (through technological improvements) and greater civil liberties; meanwhile, most opposition to globalisation comes from Westerners, and is founded in protectionist self-interest (i.e., by unions), naïvéte about historical trends, or even an objection to the modern condition and an Arcadian romanticisation of a remote agrarian past.
That's why in a typical developing nation, if you're able to work for an American multinational, you make eight times the average wage. That's why people are lining up to get these jobs. When I was in Vietnam, I interviewed workers about their dreams and aspirations. The most common wish was that Nike, one of the major targets of the anti-globalization movement, would expand so that a workers relatives could get a job with the company.
The best thing that could happen to the Arab world would be for them to run out of oil. Then theyd have to open up to trade, and a small number of people wouldnt be in control all of the wealth, as is the case in Saudi Arabia.
The further you get from the West, the more positive people are toward globalization, toward more business and trade ties with the rest of the world. The most vocal opponents of globalization in poor countries are often funded by critics from wealthier countries. For instance, Vandana Shiva [director of the New Delhi-based Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Ecology] is a very vocal opponent of economic liberalization and biotechnology, and shes funded by a lot of different Western groups.
So, is Norberg's thesis just a rebadged Lexus and the Olive Tree in Starbucks-progressive garb, or is the "anti-globalisation" movement really full of it, or both?
(I wonder what he'd say to Greg Palast's accusations that the World Bank/IMF assistance programmes are designed not to help third-world economies but to starve them into bankrupcy, allowing assets to be bought up cheaply by multinationals and reducing the locals and their descendants to sharecroppers. I suppose that's just an unfortunate implementation detail, and not an indictment on the phenomenon of globalisation as such.)
The World Trade Organization has, one must admit, a bit of an image problem, especially amongst youngsters susceptible to the seductive underground brands of the anti-capitalist movement. So, to combat this, the WTO has commissioned a marketing campaign from yoof marketeers Y Not, to sell their vision of neo-liberal free trade to the kids under the brand of "Positive Anarchy". A leaked report floats a number of strategies, including beating the lefties at the merchandising game (gas masks and bandanas being relatively unexciting brands) and selling trendy teen clothing with the WTO brand, to getting comedians to take the piss out of the anti-capitalists and product-placing fake WTO-brand merchandise on Reality TV shows.
- Recruit model/spokespersons. Polling indicates that "Anti" has benefited significantly from association with high profile musicians/actors. (Note: 43% of teen girls identified U2 singer Bono as related to "Anti" "brand.") Through a third party, Y NOT, Inc. initially approached actresses Sarah Michelle Gellar and Tara Reid about serving as spokespersons for the WTO "brand," but made little headway. We have since been approached by a representative of Kevin Costner, but aren't convinced that he is "brand" appropriate.
Utilizing this strategy, the WTO "brand" would be replaced by a symbol or logo that teens consider more appealing. Note: in focus groups, 59% of teens reported that they would consider purchasing WTO product if associated with friendly talking frog.
As far as I know, this is not a parody, though it looks like one. (via Lev)
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