This morning’s Observer column:
For my sins, I get invited to give a few public lectures every year. Mostly, the topic on which I’m asked to speak is the implications for democracy of digital technology as it has been exploited by a number of giant US corporations. My general argument is that those implications are not good, and I try to explain why I think this is the case. When I’ve finished, there is usually some polite applause before the Q&A begins. And always one particular question comes up. “Why are you so pessimistic?”
The interesting thing about that is the way it reveals as much about the questioner as it does about the lecturer. All I have done in my talk, after all, is to lay out the grounds for concern about what networked technology is doing to our democracies. Mostly, my audiences recognise those grounds as genuine – indeed as things about which they themselves have been fretting. So if someone regards a critical examination of these issues as “pessimistic” then it suggests that they have subconsciously imbibed the positive narrative of tech evangelism.
An ideology is what determines how you think even when you don’t know you’re thinking. Tech evangelism is an example. And one of the functions of an ideology is to stop us asking awkward questions…
I’m at Ireland’s Edge, consistently the most interesting event I go to every year. It’s held in Dingle, which is on the westernmost edge of Europe and a place I’ve loved ever since I was a student. And what conference Centre anywhere has a backdrop like the one shown in the pic?
Yesterday, one of the sessions was on “A New Era of Investigative Journalism: Political Polarisation and Surveillance Capitalism”. It was moderated by Muireann Kelliher, co-inventor of Ireland’s Edge, and had a terrific panel: my Observer colleague Carole Cadwalladr, Peter Geoghegan of openDemocracy and Donie O’Sullivan of CNN. There was a spirited discussion of the way in which journalistic exposés of the blatant flouting of electoral and other laws in the Brexit referendum and the 2016 US presidential election by political parties, foreign and domestic actors and social media companies have not resulted in any meaningful penalties for the wrongdoers. The audience came away having been stirred by the manifest injustices and institutional dysfunctionality described by the journalists, but also (I think) deeply pessimistic that anything will be done about the problematique (to use the French term for a real mess) portrayed in the discussion.
On reflection, it occurs to me that the fundamental problem underpinning all this is impunity — i.e. the discovery that there are agents in liberal democracies which are able to behave badly without having to worry about the consequences. We saw this with the banks in the 2008 crisis, and we’re seeing it now with political activists, foreign actors and tech companies. And the reason this is so poisonous is that impunity goes to the heart of the matter. Democracy depends on the rule of law (not, as the Chinese regime maintains, rule by law). Its fundamental requirement is that no one or no institution is above the law, and what we’re discovering now is that that no longer holds in many democracies — and most shockingly in two supposedly mature democracies: the UK and the US.
How did we get here? One of the reasons is that since the 1970s governments and ruling elites have drunk the neoliberal Kool Aid which privileges markets — and the corporations that dominate them. One of the reasons the 2008 banking crisis happened is that in preceding decades the regulations under which banks operated were loosened (using the hoary old “red tape” trope) to create a legal environment in which they were able to screw the world economy with impunity. And our failure to anticipate the growth of tech power led to a failure to create a regulatory environment which would punish monopolistic and irresponsible business models. And now we’re living with the consequences.
The proprietor of N-gate is an engineer who grew up in Palo Alto and now lives in the Pacific Northwest, where he works in high-performance computing. He agreed to exchange e-mails on condition of anonymity. “Almost every post deals with the same topics: these are people who spend their lives trying to identify all the ways they can extract money from others without quite going to jail,” he wrote. “They’re people who are convinced that they are too special for rules, and too smart for education. They don’t regard themselves as inhabiting the world the way other people do; they’re secret royalty, detached from society’s expectations and unfailingly outraged when faced with normal consequences for bad decisions. Society, and especially economics, is a logic puzzle where you just have to find the right set of loopholes to win the game. Rules are made to be slipped past, never stopping to consider why someone might have made those rules to start with. Silicon Valley has an ethics problem, and ‘Hacker’ ‘News’ is where it’s easiest to see.”
From a terrific New Yorker essay on the task of moderating Hacker News.
My Observer review of Kai Strittmatter’s remarkable new book.
Kai Strittmatter is a German journalist who writes for Süddeutsche Zeitung and is currently based in Copenhagen. From 1997 until recently, he had been a foreign correspondent in Beijing. Prior to those postings, he had studied sinology and journalism in Munich, Xi’an and Taipei. So he knows China rather well. Having read his remarkable book, it’s reasonable to assume that he will not be passing through any Chinese airport in the foreseeable future. Doing so would not be good for his health, not to mention his freedom.
We Have Been Harmonised is the most accessible and best informed account we have had to date of China’s transition from what scholars such as Rebecca MacKinnon used to call “networked authoritarianism” to what is now a form of networked totalitarianism. The difference is not merely semantic. An authoritarian regime is relatively limited in its objectives: there may be elections, but they are generally carefully managed; individual freedoms are subordinate to the state; there is no constitutional accountability and no rule of law in any meaningful sense.
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Totalitarianism, in contrast, prohibits opposition parties, restricts opposition to the state and exercises an extremely high degree of control over public and private life…
Andrew Marr made an interesting speech at a business conference in Dublin the other day. His argument: the prevailing liberal view of the philosophy underpinning enthusiasm for Brexit as imperial nostalgia is wrong. There is, he maintained, an “underlying logic” to wanting to leave the EU in order to pursue an alternative economic model – something Brexiteers referred to as Thatcherism 2.0 – which is under-appreciated in the liberal media and in Ireland. And it was not much discussed in public because of the (accurate) perception that it would “frighten the horses”.
Marr’s summary of this neo-Thatcherite ideology didn’t seem particularly original: it’s the Singapore-on-Thames fantasy — deep cuts to corporation tax and a wholesale jettisoning of regulations to attract inward investment. etc. etc. “You slash corporation tax right down, way below where it is right now, you slash regulations, you tear up your environmental and worker protections and you go for broke, you go for bust.” This is a transcript of Liam Fox talking in his sleep. It may be what some of these crazies believe, but a rational plan for the future it ain’t. And that’s apart altogether from the fact that Singapore is a tiny statelet, not a nation of 60m+ people.
Still, there is one thing that Marr’s conjecture might explain: the volume of dark overseas money that flooded in to fund the Leave campaign. If there’s one thing that the Mercers, the Koch brothers and others are unlikely to finance it’s imperial delusions.
This morning’s Observer column:
What the Chinese have discovered, in other words, is that digital technology – which we once naively believed would be a force for democratisation – is also a perfect tool for social control. It’s the operating system for networked authoritarianism. Last month, James O’Malley, a British journalist, was travelling on the Beijing-Shanghai bullet train when his reverie was interrupted by this announcement: “Dear passengers, people who travel without a ticket, or behave disorderly, or smoke in public areas, will be punished according to regulations and the behaviour will be recorded in individual credit information system. To avoid a negative record of personal credit please follow the relevant regulations and help with the orders on the train and at the station.” Makes you nostalgic for those announcements about “arriving at King’s Cross, where this train terminates”, doesn’t it?
This from a very perceptive essay by Daniel Rodgers:
More realistically, liberals must find ways to win back some of those who swung to Donald Trump’s camp. Populists, the press routinely calls them. But aside from their distrust of distant experts and cosmopolitan elites, Trump’s core voters have little in common politically with the People’s Party of the American 1890s. The 1890s Populists, like today’s Trump supporters, sometimes fell for terribly oversimplified answers. But the Populists hurled their political fury at the forces of organized money: the bankers, the monopolists, the railroad magnates, and the politicians who wrote the back-room deals of the money-men into law. The conviction that powers Trump voters’ imaginations is just the reverse. Theirs is a world in which not capitalist institutions but the political establishment hogs the seats of power. In their minds, government rigs the game for its own advantages, tying up the potential expansive force of business with rules that only serve to keep the regulators in jobs and the poor as their clients. Only through this story is it possible to redirect anger at plant closings from the corporations who order them to the liberal establishment that is said to be covertly responsible.
Adam Tooze has an amazingly informative and thoughtful review in the LRB of Geoff Mann’s book on Keynes and Keynesianism.
If you were seeking an example of Keynesian government today you wouldn’t look first to the West, but to China, where a Communist Party that brooks no opposition presides over a technocratic regime par excellence. Not only are China’s economic managers hard-headedly pragmatic in their approach to the politics of the market, but the deeper impetus for the policy-makers in Beijing is, in Mann’s sense, truly Keynesian. What is at stake is the post-Tiananmen compromise: accept and support the regime in exchange for growth and social transformation. Much has been made of the role of neoliberal thinkers in launching Deng’s market revolution in the 1980s. But when the going gets rough, the Chinese turn Keynesian. Beijing’s response to the 2008 crisis was the most dramatic work-creation stimulus in history. When in 2009 the governor of the People’s Bank of China proposed a new global currency system, he explicitly invoked Keynes’s proposals at Bretton Woods. Beijing’s successful management of China’s growth involves exchange controls, guidance of the exchange rate and direct regulation of bank lending – techniques reminiscent of 1950s Keynesian fine-tuning. And President Xi’s current personal priority is the elimination of the final residuum of absolute poverty by means of large-scale resettlement and investment.
Tooze is very good on the intrinsic pragmatic ad-hocery of a Keynesian approach to policy. “It isn’t by accident”, he writes,
that ‘when liberal government comes face to face with necessity, it “goes Keynesian”’; in other words it ‘acknowledges uncertainty and disarticulation, recognises imperfection and indeterminacy, and turns away from the long run to the immediacy of the moment’. The crisis of 2008 was a classic demonstration of this. What central bankers like Bernanke were asking politicians to do in September and October 2008 had been unthinkable only weeks before.
But the Chinese regime isn’t in the business of ad-hocery. And they are — like all of us, but perhaps in a more extreme way — faced with the problem of climate change. “Xi’s ‘Chinese dream’”, says Tooze, “is the most spectacular Keynesian promise ever made”.
The underlying fear of domestic unrest is palpable, the scale of repression is astonishing, but so is the gamble on growth. There is no counterpart in Western experience to the astonishing transformation in the fortunes of a population of more than a billion people in a matter of thirty years. But like any instance of rapid capitalist growth, China’s boom is fraught with danger. The country’s finances are highly unstable. The boom generates deep inequality at home, while abroad it incurs the envy of the United States, a declining hegemon with erratic politics and a track record of aggression. Added to which few places on earth experience the environmental costs of growth more acutely than China. Large parts of the country are at risk of becoming uninhabitable. The promise of growth is more real and more life-altering than ever. But so too is the possibility of catastrophe. Keynesians insist that we resist the blandishment of future calm to focus on the turmoil of the present. But on a rapidly warming planet, the waters are calmer now than they will be later. Just decades from now, a large part of humanity may count itself lucky if it is only in the long run that we are all dead.
Fabulous essay, well worth reading in full.