The terrifying uncertainty of our high-tech future

Our new robot overlords:

Are computers taking our jobs?

Our new robot overlords: The terrifying uncertainty of our high-tech future
(Credit: Ociacia, MaraZe via Shutterstock/Salon)
This article was originally published by Scientific American.

Scientific American Last fall economist Carl Benedikt Frey and information engineer Michael A. Osborne, both at the University of Oxford, published a study estimating the probability that 702 occupations would soon be computerized out of existence. Their findings were startling. Advances in data mining, machine vision, artificial intelligence and other technologies could, they argued, put 47 percent of American jobs at high risk of being automated in the years ahead. Loan officers, tax preparers, cashiers, locomotive engineers, paralegals, roofers, taxi drivers and even animal breeders are all in danger of going the way of the switchboard operator.

Whether or not you buy Frey and Osborne’s analysis, it is undeniable that something strange is happening in the U.S. labor market. Since the end of the Great Recession, job creation has not kept up with population growth. Corporate profits have doubled since 2000, yet median household income (adjusted for inflation) dropped from $55,986 to $51,017. At the same time, after-tax corporate profits as a share of gross domestic product increased from around 5 to 11 percent, while compensation of employees as a share of GDP dropped from around 47 to 43 percent. Somehow businesses are making more profit with fewer workers.

Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, both business researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, call this divergence the “great decoupling.” In their view, presented in their recent book “The Second Machine Age,” it is a historic shift.

The conventional economic wisdom has long been that as long as productivity is increasing, all is well. Technological innovations foster higher productivity, which leads to higher incomes and greater well-being for all. And for most of the 20th century productivity and incomes did rise in parallel. But in recent decades the two began to diverge. Productivity kept increasing while incomes—which is to say, the welfare of individual workers—stagnated or dropped.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue that technological advances are destroying jobs, particularly low-skill jobs, faster than they are creating them. They cite research showing that so-called routine jobs (bank teller, machine operator, dressmaker) began to fade in the 1980s, when computers first made their presence known, but that the rate has accelerated: between 2001 and 2011, 11 percent of routine jobs disappeared.



Plenty of economists disagree, but it is hard to referee this debate, in part because of a lack of data. Our understanding of the relation between technological advances and employment is limited by outdated metrics. At a roundtable discussion on technology and work convened this year by the European Union, the IRL School at Cornell University and the Conference Board (a business research association), a roomful of economists and financiers repeatedly emphasized how many basic economic variables are measured either poorly or not at all. Is productivity declining? Or are we simply measuring it wrong? Experts differ. What kinds of workers are being sidelined, and why? Could they get new jobs with the right retraining? Again, we do not know.

In 2013 Brynjolfsson told Scientific American that the first step in reckoning with the impact of automation on employment is to diagnose it correctly—“to understand why the economy is changing and why people aren’t doing as well as they used to.” If productivity is no longer a good proxy for a vigorous economy, then we need a new way to measure economic health. In a 2009 report economists Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University, Amartya Sen of Harvard University and Jean-Paul Fitoussi of the Paris Institute of Political Studies made a similar case, writing that “the time is ripe for our measurement system to shift emphasis from measuring economic production to measuring people’s well-being.” An IRL School report last year called for statistical agencies to capture more and better data on job market churn—data that could help us learn which job losses stem from automation.

Without such data, we will never properly understand how technology is changing the nature of work in the 21st century—and what, if anything, should be done about it. As one participant in this year’s roundtable put it, “Even if this is just another industrial revolution, people underestimate how wrenching that is. If it is, what are the changes to the rules of labor markets and businesses that should be made this time? We made a lot last time. What is the elimination of child labor this time? What is the eight-hour workday this time?”

 

Nearly one quarter of US children in poverty

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By Andre Damon
23 July 2014

Nearly one in four children in the United States lives in a family below the federal poverty line, according to figures presented in a new report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

A total of 16.3 million children live in poverty, and 45 percent of children in the US live in households whose incomes fall below 200 percent of the federal poverty line.

The annual report, titled the Kids Count Data Book, compiles data on children’s economic well-being, education, health, and family support. It concludes that, “inequities among children remain deep and stubbornly persistent.”

The report is an indictment of the state of American society nearly six years after the onset of the financial crisis in 2008. While the Obama administration and the media have proclaimed an economic “recovery,” conditions of life for the vast majority of the population continue to deteriorate.

The report notes that the percentage of children in poverty hit 23 percent in 2012, up sharply from 16 percent in 2000. Some states are much worse. For almost the entire American South, the share of children in poverty is higher than 25 percent.

These conditions are the product of a ruthless class policy pursued at all levels of government. While trillions of dollars have been made available to Wall Street, sending both the stock markets and corporate profits to record highs, economic growth has stagnated, social programs have been slashed, and public services decimated, while prices of many basic items are on the rise. Jobs that have been “created” are overwhelmingly part-time or low-wage.

“We’ve yet to see the recovery from the economic recession,” said Laura Speer, associate director for policy reform and advocacy at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, who helped produce the report. “The child poverty rate is connected to parents’ employment and how much they are getting paid,” added Ms. Speer in a telephone interview Tuesday.

“The jobs that are being created in this economy, including temporary and low-wage jobs, are not good enough to keep children out of poverty,” she added.

The Kids Count report notes, “Declining economic opportunity for parents without a college degree in the context of growing inequality has meant that children’s life chances are increasingly constrained by the socioeconomic status of their parents.” The percentage of children who live in high-poverty communities has likewise increased significantly, with 13 percent of children growing up in communities where more than 30 percent of residents are poor, up from 9 percent in 2000.

Speer added that, given the significant run-up in home prices over the previous two decades, “the housing cost burden has gotten worse.” She noted that the share of children who live in households that spend more than one third of their annual income on housing has hit 38 percent, up from 28 percent in 1990. In states such as California, these figures are significantly higher.

“In many cases families are living doubled up and sleeping on couches to afford very expensive places like New York City,” she added. “Paying such a large share of your income for rent means that parents have to decide between whether or not to pay the rent or to pay the utility bills. It’s not a matter of making choices over things that are luxuries, it’s choosing between necessities.”

The report concludes, “As both poverty and wealth have become more concentrated residentially, evidence suggests that school districts and individual schools are becoming increasingly segregated by socioeconomic status.”

In most of the United States, K-12 education is funded through property taxes, and there are significant differences in education funding based on local income levels. “Kids who grow up in low-income neighborhoods have much less access to education: that’s only been exacerbated over the last 25 years,” Speer said.

The Kids Count survey follows the publication in April of Feeding America’s annual report, which showed that one in five children live in households that do not regularly get enough to eat. The percentage of households that are “food insecure” rose from 11.1 percent in 2007 to 16.0 percent in 2012. Sixteen million children, or 21.6 percent, do not get enough to eat. The rate of food insecurity in the United States is nearly twice that of the European Union.

According to the US government’s supplemental poverty measure, 16.1 percent of the US population—nearly 50 million people—is in poverty, up from 12.2 percent of the population in 2000.

The Kids Count report notes that the ability of single mothers to get a job is particularly sensitive to the state of the economy, and that the employment rate of single mothers with children under 6 years old has fallen from 69 percent in 2000 to 60 percent ten years later. This has taken place even as anti-poverty measures such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) have been made conditional on parents finding work.

The report noted that enrollment in the federal Head Start program, which serves 3- and 4-year-olds dropped off when the “recession decimated state budgets and halted progress.” It added that cutbacks to federal and state anti-poverty programs, as well as health programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, are contributing to the growth of poverty and inequality.

With the “sequester” budget cuts signed by the Obama administration in early 2013, most federal anti-poverty programs are being slashed by five percent each year for a decade. “Programs like head start, LIHEAP [Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program], and other federal programs are really a lifeline in a lot of families,” Speer said.

Since the implementation of the sequester cuts, Congress and the Obama administration have slashed food stamp spending on two separate occasions and put an end to federal extended jobless benefits for more than three million long-term unemployed people and their families. These measures can be expected to throw hundreds of thousands more children into poverty.

The rise of data and the death of politics

Tech pioneers in the US are advocating a new data-based approach to governance – ‘algorithmic regulation’. But if technology provides the answers to society’s problems, what happens to governments?

US president Barack Obama with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg

Government by social network? US president Barack Obama with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

On 24 August 1965 Gloria Placente, a 34-year-old resident of Queens, New York, was driving to Orchard Beach in the Bronx. Clad in shorts and sunglasses, the housewife was looking forward to quiet time at the beach. But the moment she crossed the Willis Avenue bridge in her Chevrolet Corvair, Placente was surrounded by a dozen patrolmen. There were also 125 reporters, eager to witness the launch of New York police department’s Operation Corral – an acronym for Computer Oriented Retrieval of Auto Larcenists.

Fifteen months earlier, Placente had driven through a red light and neglected to answer the summons, an offence that Corral was going to punish with a heavy dose of techno-Kafkaesque. It worked as follows: a police car stationed at one end of the bridge radioed the licence plates of oncoming cars to a teletypist miles away, who fed them to a Univac 490 computer, an expensive $500,000 toy ($3.5m in today’s dollars) on loan from the Sperry Rand Corporation. The computer checked the numbers against a database of 110,000 cars that were either stolen or belonged to known offenders. In case of a match the teletypist would alert a second patrol car at the bridge’s other exit. It took, on average, just seven seconds.

Compared with the impressive police gear of today – automatic number plate recognition, CCTV cameras, GPS trackers – Operation Corral looks quaint. And the possibilities for control will only expand. European officials have considered requiring all cars entering the European market to feature a built-in mechanism that allows the police to stop vehicles remotely. Speaking earlier this year, Jim Farley, a senior Ford executive, acknowledged that “we know everyone who breaks the law, we know when you’re doing it. We have GPS in your car, so we know what you’re doing. By the way, we don’t supply that data to anyone.” That last bit didn’t sound very reassuring and Farley retracted his remarks.

As both cars and roads get “smart,” they promise nearly perfect, real-time law enforcement. Instead of waiting for drivers to break the law, authorities can simply prevent the crime. Thus, a 50-mile stretch of the A14 between Felixstowe and Rugby is to be equipped with numerous sensors that would monitor traffic by sending signals to and from mobile phones in moving vehicles. The telecoms watchdog Ofcom envisions that such smart roads connected to a centrally controlled traffic system could automatically impose variable speed limits to smooth the flow of traffic but also direct the cars “along diverted routes to avoid the congestion and even [manage] their speed”.

Other gadgets – from smartphones to smart glasses – promise even more security and safety. In April, Apple patented technology that deploys sensors inside the smartphone to analyse if the car is moving and if the person using the phone is driving; if both conditions are met, it simply blocks the phone’s texting feature. Intel and Ford are working on Project Mobil – a face recognition system that, should it fail to recognise the face of the driver, would not only prevent the car being started but also send the picture to the car’s owner (bad news for teenagers).

The car is emblematic of transformations in many other domains, from smart environments for “ambient assisted living” where carpets and walls detect that someone has fallen, to various masterplans for the smart city, where municipal services dispatch resources only to those areas that need them. Thanks to sensors and internet connectivity, the most banal everyday objects have acquired tremendous power to regulate behaviour. Even public toilets are ripe for sensor-based optimisation: the Safeguard Germ Alarm, a smart soap dispenser developed by Procter & Gamble and used in some public WCs in the Philippines, has sensors monitoring the doors of each stall. Once you leave the stall, the alarm starts ringing – and can only be stopped by a push of the soap-dispensing button.

In this context, Google’s latest plan to push its Android operating system on to smart watches, smart cars, smart thermostats and, one suspects, smart everything, looks rather ominous. In the near future, Google will be the middleman standing between you and your fridge, you and your car, you and your rubbish bin, allowing the National Security Agency to satisfy its data addiction in bulk and via a single window.

This “smartification” of everyday life follows a familiar pattern: there’s primary data – a list of what’s in your smart fridge and your bin – and metadata – a log of how often you open either of these things or when they communicate with one another. Both produce interesting insights: cue smart mattresses – one recent model promises to track respiration and heart rates and how much you move during the night – and smart utensils that provide nutritional advice.

In addition to making our lives more efficient, this smart world also presents us with an exciting political choice. If so much of our everyday behaviour is already captured, analysed and nudged, why stick with unempirical approaches to regulation? Why rely on laws when one has sensors and feedback mechanisms? If policy interventions are to be – to use the buzzwords of the day – “evidence-based” and “results-oriented,” technology is here to help.

This new type of governance has a name: algorithmic regulation. In as much as Silicon Valley has a political programme, this is it. Tim O’Reilly, an influential technology publisher, venture capitalist and ideas man (he is to blame for popularising the term “web 2.0″) has been its most enthusiastic promoter. In a recent essay that lays out his reasoning, O’Reilly makes an intriguing case for the virtues of algorithmic regulation – a case that deserves close scrutiny both for what it promises policymakers and the simplistic assumptions it makes about politics, democracy and power.

To see algorithmic regulation at work, look no further than the spam filter in your email. Instead of confining itself to a narrow definition of spam, the email filter has its users teach it. Even Google can’t write rules to cover all the ingenious innovations of professional spammers. What it can do, though, is teach the system what makes a good rule and spot when it’s time to find another rule for finding a good rule – and so on. An algorithm can do this, but it’s the constant real-time feedback from its users that allows the system to counter threats never envisioned by its designers. And it’s not just spam: your bank uses similar methods to spot credit-card fraud.

In his essay, O’Reilly draws broader philosophical lessons from such technologies, arguing that they work because they rely on “a deep understanding of the desired outcome” (spam is bad!) and periodically check if the algorithms are actually working as expected (are too many legitimate emails ending up marked as spam?).

O’Reilly presents such technologies as novel and unique – we are living through a digital revolution after all – but the principle behind “algorithmic regulation” would be familiar to the founders of cybernetics – a discipline that, even in its name (it means “the science of governance”) hints at its great regulatory ambitions. This principle, which allows the system to maintain its stability by constantly learning and adapting itself to the changing circumstances, is what the British psychiatrist Ross Ashby, one of the founding fathers of cybernetics, called “ultrastability”.

To illustrate it, Ashby designed the homeostat. This clever device consisted of four interconnected RAF bomb control units – mysterious looking black boxes with lots of knobs and switches – that were sensitive to voltage fluctuations. If one unit stopped working properly – say, because of an unexpected external disturbance – the other three would rewire and regroup themselves, compensating for its malfunction and keeping the system’s overall output stable.

Ashby’s homeostat achieved “ultrastability” by always monitoring its internal state and cleverly redeploying its spare resources.

Like the spam filter, it didn’t have to specify all the possible disturbances – only the conditions for how and when it must be updated and redesigned. This is no trivial departure from how the usual technical systems, with their rigid, if-then rules, operate: suddenly, there’s no need to develop procedures for governing every contingency, for – or so one hopes – algorithms and real-time, immediate feedback can do a better job than inflexible rules out of touch with reality.

Algorithmic regulation could certainly make the administration of existing laws more efficient. If it can fight credit-card fraud, why not tax fraud? Italian bureaucrats have experimented with the redditometro, or income meter, a tool for comparing people’s spending patterns – recorded thanks to an arcane Italian law – with their declared income, so that authorities know when you spend more than you earn. Spain has expressed interest in a similar tool.

Such systems, however, are toothless against the real culprits of tax evasion – the super-rich families who profit from various offshoring schemes or simply write outrageous tax exemptions into the law. Algorithmic regulation is perfect for enforcing the austerity agenda while leaving those responsible for the fiscal crisis off the hook. To understand whether such systems are working as expected, we need to modify O’Reilly’s question: for whom are they working? If it’s just the tax-evading plutocrats, the global financial institutions interested in balanced national budgets and the companies developing income-tracking software, then it’s hardly a democratic success.

With his belief that algorithmic regulation is based on “a deep understanding of the desired outcome”, O’Reilly cunningly disconnects the means of doing politics from its ends. But the how of politics is as important as the what of politics – in fact, the former often shapes the latter. Everybody agrees that education, health, and security are all “desired outcomes”, but how do we achieve them? In the past, when we faced the stark political choice of delivering them through the market or the state, the lines of the ideological debate were clear. Today, when the presumed choice is between the digital and the analog or between the dynamic feedback and the static law, that ideological clarity is gone – as if the very choice of how to achieve those “desired outcomes” was apolitical and didn’t force us to choose between different and often incompatible visions of communal living.

By assuming that the utopian world of infinite feedback loops is so efficient that it transcends politics, the proponents of algorithmic regulation fall into the same trap as the technocrats of the past. Yes, these systems are terrifyingly efficient – in the same way that Singapore is terrifyingly efficient (O’Reilly, unsurprisingly, praises Singapore for its embrace of algorithmic regulation). And while Singapore’s leaders might believe that they, too, have transcended politics, it doesn’t mean that their regime cannot be assessed outside the linguistic swamp of efficiency and innovation – by using political, not economic benchmarks.

As Silicon Valley keeps corrupting our language with its endless glorification of disruption and efficiency – concepts at odds with the vocabulary of democracy – our ability to question the “how” of politics is weakened. Silicon Valley’s default answer to the how of politics is what I call solutionism: problems are to be dealt with via apps, sensors, and feedback loops – all provided by startups. Earlier this year Google’s Eric Schmidt even promised that startups would provide the solution to the problem of economic inequality: the latter, it seems, can also be “disrupted”. And where the innovators and the disruptors lead, the bureaucrats follow.

The intelligence services embraced solutionism before other government agencies. Thus, they reduced the topic of terrorism from a subject that had some connection to history and foreign policy to an informational problem of identifying emerging terrorist threats via constant surveillance. They urged citizens to accept that instability is part of the game, that its root causes are neither traceable nor reparable, that the threat can only be pre-empted by out-innovating and out-surveilling the enemy with better communications.

Speaking in Athens last November, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben discussed an epochal transformation in the idea of government, “whereby the traditional hierarchical relation between causes and effects is inverted, so that, instead of governing the causes – a difficult and expensive undertaking – governments simply try to govern the effects”.

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman

Governments’ current favourite pyschologist, Daniel Kahneman. Photograph: Richard Saker for the Observer
For Agamben, this shift is emblematic of modernity. It also explains why the liberalisation of the economy can co-exist with the growing proliferation of control – by means of soap dispensers and remotely managed cars – into everyday life. “If government aims for the effects and not the causes, it will be obliged to extend and multiply control. Causes demand to be known, while effects can only be checked and controlled.” Algorithmic regulation is an enactment of this political programme in technological form.The true politics of algorithmic regulation become visible once its logic is applied to the social nets of the welfare state. There are no calls to dismantle them, but citizens are nonetheless encouraged to take responsibility for their own health. Consider how Fred Wilson, an influential US venture capitalist, frames the subject. “Health… is the opposite side of healthcare,” he said at a conference in Paris last December. “It’s what keeps you out of the healthcare system in the first place.” Thus, we are invited to start using self-tracking apps and data-sharing platforms and monitor our vital indicators, symptoms and discrepancies on our own.This goes nicely with recent policy proposals to save troubled public services by encouraging healthier lifestyles. Consider a 2013 report by Westminster council and the Local Government Information Unit, a thinktank, calling for the linking of housing and council benefits to claimants’ visits to the gym – with the help of smartcards. They might not be needed: many smartphones are already tracking how many steps we take every day (Google Now, the company’s virtual assistant, keeps score of such data automatically and periodically presents it to users, nudging them to walk more).

The numerous possibilities that tracking devices offer to health and insurance industries are not lost on O’Reilly. “You know the way that advertising turned out to be the native business model for the internet?” he wondered at a recent conference. “I think that insurance is going to be the native business model for the internet of things.” Things do seem to be heading that way: in June, Microsoft struck a deal with American Family Insurance, the eighth-largest home insurer in the US, in which both companies will fund startups that want to put sensors into smart homes and smart cars for the purposes of “proactive protection”.

An insurance company would gladly subsidise the costs of installing yet another sensor in your house – as long as it can automatically alert the fire department or make front porch lights flash in case your smoke detector goes off. For now, accepting such tracking systems is framed as an extra benefit that can save us some money. But when do we reach a point where not using them is seen as a deviation – or, worse, an act of concealment – that ought to be punished with higher premiums?

Or consider a May 2014 report from 2020health, another thinktank, proposing to extend tax rebates to Britons who give up smoking, stay slim or drink less. “We propose ‘payment by results’, a financial reward for people who become active partners in their health, whereby if you, for example, keep your blood sugar levels down, quit smoking, keep weight off, [or] take on more self-care, there will be a tax rebate or an end-of-year bonus,” they state. Smart gadgets are the natural allies of such schemes: they document the results and can even help achieve them – by constantly nagging us to do what’s expected.

The unstated assumption of most such reports is that the unhealthy are not only a burden to society but that they deserve to be punished (fiscally for now) for failing to be responsible. For what else could possibly explain their health problems but their personal failings? It’s certainly not the power of food companies or class-based differences or various political and economic injustices. One can wear a dozen powerful sensors, own a smart mattress and even do a close daily reading of one’s poop – as some self-tracking aficionados are wont to do – but those injustices would still be nowhere to be seen, for they are not the kind of stuff that can be measured with a sensor. The devil doesn’t wear data. Social injustices are much harder to track than the everyday lives of the individuals whose lives they affect.

In shifting the focus of regulation from reining in institutional and corporate malfeasance to perpetual electronic guidance of individuals, algorithmic regulation offers us a good-old technocratic utopia of politics without politics. Disagreement and conflict, under this model, are seen as unfortunate byproducts of the analog era – to be solved through data collection – and not as inevitable results of economic or ideological conflicts.

However, a politics without politics does not mean a politics without control or administration. As O’Reilly writes in his essay: “New technologies make it possible to reduce the amount of regulation while actually increasing the amount of oversight and production of desirable outcomes.” Thus, it’s a mistake to think that Silicon Valley wants to rid us of government institutions. Its dream state is not the small government of libertarians – a small state, after all, needs neither fancy gadgets nor massive servers to process the data – but the data-obsessed and data-obese state of behavioural economists.

The nudging state is enamoured of feedback technology, for its key founding principle is that while we behave irrationally, our irrationality can be corrected – if only the environment acts upon us, nudging us towards the right option. Unsurprisingly, one of the three lonely references at the end of O’Reilly’s essay is to a 2012 speech entitled “Regulation: Looking Backward, Looking Forward” by Cass Sunstein, the prominent American legal scholar who is the chief theorist of the nudging state.

And while the nudgers have already captured the state by making behavioural psychology the favourite idiom of government bureaucracy –Daniel Kahneman is in, Machiavelli is out – the algorithmic regulation lobby advances in more clandestine ways. They create innocuous non-profit organisations like Code for America which then co-opt the state – under the guise of encouraging talented hackers to tackle civic problems.

Airbnb's homepage.

Airbnb: part of the reputation-driven economy.
Such initiatives aim to reprogramme the state and make it feedback-friendly, crowding out other means of doing politics. For all those tracking apps, algorithms and sensors to work, databases need interoperability – which is what such pseudo-humanitarian organisations, with their ardent belief in open data, demand. And when the government is too slow to move at Silicon Valley’s speed, they simply move inside the government. Thus, Jennifer Pahlka, the founder of Code for America and a protege of O’Reilly, became the deputy chief technology officer of the US government – while pursuing a one-year “innovation fellowship” from the White House.Cash-strapped governments welcome such colonisation by technologists – especially if it helps to identify and clean up datasets that can be profitably sold to companies who need such data for advertising purposes. Recent clashes over the sale of student and health data in the UK are just a precursor of battles to come: after all state assets have been privatised, data is the next target. For O’Reilly, open data is “a key enabler of the measurement revolution”.This “measurement revolution” seeks to quantify the efficiency of various social programmes, as if the rationale behind the social nets that some of them provide was to achieve perfection of delivery. The actual rationale, of course, was to enable a fulfilling life by suppressing certain anxieties, so that citizens can pursue their life projects relatively undisturbed. This vision did spawn a vast bureaucratic apparatus and the critics of the welfare state from the left – most prominently Michel Foucault – were right to question its disciplining inclinations. Nonetheless, neither perfection nor efficiency were the “desired outcome” of this system. Thus, to compare the welfare state with the algorithmic state on those grounds is misleading.

But we can compare their respective visions for human fulfilment – and the role they assign to markets and the state. Silicon Valley’s offer is clear: thanks to ubiquitous feedback loops, we can all become entrepreneurs and take care of our own affairs! As Brian Chesky, the chief executive of Airbnb, told the Atlantic last year, “What happens when everybody is a brand? When everybody has a reputation? Every person can become an entrepreneur.”

Under this vision, we will all code (for America!) in the morning, drive Uber cars in the afternoon, and rent out our kitchens as restaurants – courtesy of Airbnb – in the evening. As O’Reilly writes of Uber and similar companies, “these services ask every passenger to rate their driver (and drivers to rate their passenger). Drivers who provide poor service are eliminated. Reputation does a better job of ensuring a superb customer experience than any amount of government regulation.”

The state behind the “sharing economy” does not wither away; it might be needed to ensure that the reputation accumulated on Uber, Airbnb and other platforms of the “sharing economy” is fully liquid and transferable, creating a world where our every social interaction is recorded and assessed, erasing whatever differences exist between social domains. Someone, somewhere will eventually rate you as a passenger, a house guest, a student, a patient, a customer. Whether this ranking infrastructure will be decentralised, provided by a giant like Google or rest with the state is not yet clear but the overarching objective is: to make reputation into a feedback-friendly social net that could protect the truly responsible citizens from the vicissitudes of deregulation.

Admiring the reputation models of Uber and Airbnb, O’Reilly wants governments to be “adopting them where there are no demonstrable ill effects”. But what counts as an “ill effect” and how to demonstrate it is a key question that belongs to the how of politics that algorithmic regulation wants to suppress. It’s easy to demonstrate “ill effects” if the goal of regulation is efficiency but what if it is something else? Surely, there are some benefits – fewer visits to the psychoanalyst, perhaps – in not having your every social interaction ranked?

The imperative to evaluate and demonstrate “results” and “effects” already presupposes that the goal of policy is the optimisation of efficiency. However, as long as democracy is irreducible to a formula, its composite values will always lose this battle: they are much harder to quantify.

For Silicon Valley, though, the reputation-obsessed algorithmic state of the sharing economy is the new welfare state. If you are honest and hardworking, your online reputation would reflect this, producing a highly personalised social net. It is “ultrastable” in Ashby’s sense: while the welfare state assumes the existence of specific social evils it tries to fight, the algorithmic state makes no such assumptions. The future threats can remain fully unknowable and fully addressable – on the individual level.

Silicon Valley, of course, is not alone in touting such ultrastable individual solutions. Nassim Taleb, in his best-selling 2012 book Antifragile, makes a similar, if more philosophical, plea for maximising our individual resourcefulness and resilience: don’t get one job but many, don’t take on debt, count on your own expertise. It’s all about resilience, risk-taking and, as Taleb puts it, “having skin in the game”. As Julian Reid and Brad Evans write in their new book, Resilient Life: The Art of Living Dangerously, this growing cult of resilience masks a tacit acknowledgement that no collective project could even aspire to tame the proliferating threats to human existence – we can only hope to equip ourselves to tackle them individually. “When policy-makers engage in the discourse of resilience,” write Reid and Evans, “they do so in terms which aim explicitly at preventing humans from conceiving of danger as a phenomenon from which they might seek freedom and even, in contrast, as that to which they must now expose themselves.”

What, then, is the progressive alternative? “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” doesn’t work here: just because Silicon Valley is attacking the welfare state doesn’t mean that progressives should defend it to the very last bullet (or tweet). First, even leftist governments have limited space for fiscal manoeuvres, as the kind of discretionary spending required to modernise the welfare state would never be approved by the global financial markets. And it’s the ratings agencies and bond markets – not the voters – who are in charge today.

Second, the leftist critique of the welfare state has become only more relevant today when the exact borderlines between welfare and security are so blurry. When Google’s Android powers so much of our everyday life, the government’s temptation to govern us through remotely controlled cars and alarm-operated soap dispensers will be all too great. This will expand government’s hold over areas of life previously free from regulation.

With so much data, the government’s favourite argument in fighting terror – if only the citizens knew as much as we do, they too would impose all these legal exceptions – easily extends to other domains, from health to climate change. Consider a recent academic paper that used Google search data to study obesity patterns in the US, finding significant correlation between search keywords and body mass index levels. “Results suggest great promise of the idea of obesity monitoring through real-time Google Trends data”, note the authors, which would be “particularly attractive for government health institutions and private businesses such as insurance companies.”

If Google senses a flu epidemic somewhere, it’s hard to challenge its hunch – we simply lack the infrastructure to process so much data at this scale. Google can be proven wrong after the fact – as has recently been the case with its flu trends data, which was shown to overestimate the number of infections, possibly because of its failure to account for the intense media coverage of flu – but so is the case with most terrorist alerts. It’s the immediate, real-time nature of computer systems that makes them perfect allies of an infinitely expanding and pre-emption‑obsessed state.

Perhaps, the case of Gloria Placente and her failed trip to the beach was not just a historical oddity but an early omen of how real-time computing, combined with ubiquitous communication technologies, would transform the state. One of the few people to have heeded that omen was a little-known American advertising executive called Robert MacBride, who pushed the logic behind Operation Corral to its ultimate conclusions in his unjustly neglected 1967 book, The Automated State.

At the time, America was debating the merits of establishing a national data centre to aggregate various national statistics and make it available to government agencies. MacBride attacked his contemporaries’ inability to see how the state would exploit the metadata accrued as everything was being computerised. Instead of “a large scale, up-to-date Austro-Hungarian empire”, modern computer systems would produce “a bureaucracy of almost celestial capacity” that can “discern and define relationships in a manner which no human bureaucracy could ever hope to do”.

“Whether one bowls on a Sunday or visits a library instead is [of] no consequence since no one checks those things,” he wrote. Not so when computer systems can aggregate data from different domains and spot correlations. “Our individual behaviour in buying and selling an automobile, a house, or a security, in paying our debts and acquiring new ones, and in earning money and being paid, will be noted meticulously and studied exhaustively,” warned MacBride. Thus, a citizen will soon discover that “his choice of magazine subscriptions… can be found to indicate accurately the probability of his maintaining his property or his interest in the education of his children.” This sounds eerily similar to the recent case of a hapless father who found that his daughter was pregnant from a coupon that Target, a retailer, sent to their house. Target’s hunch was based on its analysis of products – for example, unscented lotion – usually bought by other pregnant women.

For MacBride the conclusion was obvious. “Political rights won’t be violated but will resemble those of a small stockholder in a giant enterprise,” he wrote. “The mark of sophistication and savoir-faire in this future will be the grace and flexibility with which one accepts one’s role and makes the most of what it offers.” In other words, since we are all entrepreneurs first – and citizens second, we might as well make the most of it.

What, then, is to be done? Technophobia is no solution. Progressives need technologies that would stick with the spirit, if not the institutional form, of the welfare state, preserving its commitment to creating ideal conditions for human flourishing. Even some ultrastability is welcome. Stability was a laudable goal of the welfare state before it had encountered a trap: in specifying the exact protections that the state was to offer against the excesses of capitalism, it could not easily deflect new, previously unspecified forms of exploitation.

How do we build welfarism that is both decentralised and ultrastable? A form of guaranteed basic income – whereby some welfare services are replaced by direct cash transfers to citizens – fits the two criteria.

Creating the right conditions for the emergence of political communities around causes and issues they deem relevant would be another good step. Full compliance with the principle of ultrastability dictates that such issues cannot be anticipated or dictated from above – by political parties or trade unions – and must be left unspecified.

What can be specified is the kind of communications infrastructure needed to abet this cause: it should be free to use, hard to track, and open to new, subversive uses. Silicon Valley’s existing infrastructure is great for fulfilling the needs of the state, not of self-organising citizens. It can, of course, be redeployed for activist causes – and it often is – but there’s no reason to accept the status quo as either ideal or inevitable.

Why, after all, appropriate what should belong to the people in the first place? While many of the creators of the internet bemoan how low their creature has fallen, their anger is misdirected. The fault is not with that amorphous entity but, first of all, with the absence of robust technology policy on the left – a policy that can counter the pro-innovation, pro-disruption, pro-privatisation agenda of Silicon Valley. In its absence, all these emerging political communities will operate with their wings clipped. Whether the next Occupy Wall Street would be able to occupy anything in a truly smart city remains to be seen: most likely, they would be out-censored and out-droned.

To his credit, MacBride understood all of this in 1967. “Given the resources of modern technology and planning techniques,” he warned, “it is really no great trick to transform even a country like ours into a smoothly running corporation where every detail of life is a mechanical function to be taken care of.” MacBride’s fear is O’Reilly’s master plan: the government, he writes, ought to be modelled on the “lean startup” approach of Silicon Valley, which is “using data to constantly revise and tune its approach to the market”. It’s this very approach that Facebook has recently deployed to maximise user engagement on the site: if showing users more happy stories does the trick, so be it.

Algorithmic regulation, whatever its immediate benefits, will give us a political regime where technology corporations and government bureaucrats call all the shots. The Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, in a pointed critique of cybernetics published, as it happens, roughly at the same time as The Automated State, put it best: “Society cannot give up the burden of having to decide about its own fate by sacrificing this freedom for the sake of the cybernetic regulator.”

 

Chomsky: The System We Have Now Is Radically Anti-Democratic


A fascinating, wide-ranging interview on major issues facing the public.

Noam Chomsky
Photo Credit: The Real News Network

CHRIS HEDGES, INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST: Let’s begin with a classic paradigm which is throughout the Industrial Revolution, which has been cited by theorists from Marx to Kropotkin to Proudhon and to yourself, that you build a consciousness among workers within the manufacturing class, and eventually you lead to a kind of autonomous position where workers can control their own production.We now live in a system, a globalized system, where most of the working class in industrial countries like the United States are service workers. We have reverted to a Dickensian system where those who actually produced live in conditions that begin to replicate almost slave labor–and, I think, as you have written, in places like southern China in fact are slave [labor]. What’s the new paradigm for resistance? You know, how do we learn from the old and confront the new?

NOAM CHOMSKY, LINGUIST AND POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think we can draw many very good lessons from the early period of the Industrial Revolution. It was, of course, earlier in England, but let’s take here in the United States. The Industrial Revolution took off right around here, eastern Massachusetts, mid 19th century. This was a period when independent farmers were being driven into the industrial system–men and women, incidentally, women from the farms, so-called factory girls–and they bitterly resented it. It was a period of a very free press, the most in the history of the country. There was a wide variety of journals, ethnic, labor, or others. And when you read them, they’re pretty fascinating.

The people driven into the industrial system regarded it as an attack on their personal dignity, on their rights as human beings. They were free human beings who were being forced into what they called wage slavery, which they regarded as not very different from chattel slavery. In fact, this was such a popular view that it was actually a slogan of the Republican Party, that the only difference between working for a wage and being a slave is that working for a wage is supposedly temporary–pretty soon you’ll be free. Other than that, they’re not different.

And they bitterly resented the fact that the industrial system was even taking away their rich cultural life. And the cultural life was rich. You know, there are by now studies of the British working class and the American working class, and they were part of high culture of the day. Actually, I remembered this as late as the 1930s with my own family, you know, sort of unemployed working-class, and they said, this is being taken away from us, we’re being forced to be something like slaves. They argued that if you’re, say, a journeyman, a craftsman, and you sell your product, you’re selling what you produced. If you’re a wage earner, you’re selling yourself, which is deeply offensive. They condemned what they called the new spirit of the age: gain wealth, forgetting all but self. Sounds familiar.

And it was extremely radical. It was combined with the most radical democratic movement in American history, the early populist movement–radical farmers. It began in Texas, spread into the Midwest–enormous movement of farmers who wanted to free themselves from the domination by the Northeastern bankers and capitalists, guys that ran the markets, you know, sort of forced them to sell what they produced on credit and squeeze them with credit and so on. They went on to develop their own banks, their own cooperatives. They started to link up with the Knights of Labor–major labor movement which held that, as they put it, those who work in the mills ought to own them, that it should be a free, democratic society.

These were very powerful movements. By the 1890s, you know, workers were taking over towns and running them in Western Pennsylvania. Homestead was a famous case. Well, they were crushed by force. It took some time. Sort of the final blow was Woodrow Wilson’s red scare right after the First World War, which virtually crushed the labor movement.

At the same time, in the early 19th century, the business world recognized, both in England and the United States, that sufficient freedom had been won so that they could no longer control people just by violence. They had to turn to new means of control. The obvious ones were control of opinions and attitudes. That’s the origins of the massive public relations industry, which is explicitly dedicated to controlling minds and attitudes.

The first–it partly was government. The first government commission was the British Ministry of Information. This is long before Orwell–he didn’t have to invent it. So the Ministry of Information had as its goal to control the minds of the people of the world, but particularly the minds of American intellectuals, for a very good reason: they knew that if they can delude American intellectuals into supporting British policy, they could be very effective in imposing that on the population of the United States. The British, of course, were desperate to get the Americans into the war with a pacifist population. Woodrow Wilson won the 1916 election with the slogan “Peace without Victory”. And they had to drive a pacifist population into a population that bitterly hated all things German, wanted to tear the Germans apart. The Boston Symphony Orchestra couldn’t play Beethoven. You know. And they succeeded.

Wilson set up a counterpart to the Ministry of Information called the Committee on Public Information. You know, again, you can guess what it was. And they’ve at least felt, probably correctly, that they had succeeded in carrying out this massive change of opinion on the part of the population and driving the pacifist population into, you know, warmongering fanatics.

And the people on the commission learned a lesson. One of them was Edward Bernays, who went on to found–the main guru of the public relations industry. Another one was Walter Lippman, who was the leading progressive intellectual of the 20th century. And they both drew the same lessons, and said so.

The lessons were that we have what Lippmann called a “new art” in democracy, “manufacturing consent”. That’s where Ed Herman and I took the phrase from. For Bernays it was “engineering of consent”. The conception was that the intelligent minority, who of course is us, have to make sure that we can run the affairs of public affairs, affairs of state, the economy, and so on. We’re the only ones capable of doing it, of course. And we have to be–I’m quoting–”free of the trampling and the roar of the bewildered herd”, the “ignorant and meddlesome outsiders”–the general public. They have a role. Their role is to be “spectators”, not participants. And every couple of years they’re permitted to choose among one of the “responsible men”, us.

And the John Dewey circle took the same view. Dewey changed his mind a couple of years later, to his credit, but at that time, Dewey and his circle were writing that–speaking of the First World War, that this was the first war in history that was not organized and manipulated by the military and the political figures and so on, but rather it was carefully planned by rational calculation of “the intelligent men of the community”, namely us, and we thought it through carefully and decided that this is the reasonable thing to do, for all kind of benevolent reasons.

And they were very proud of themselves.

There were people who disagreed. Like, Randolph Bourne disagreed. He was kicked out. He couldn’t write in the Deweyite journals. He wasn’t killed, you know, but he was just excluded.

And if you take a look around the world, it was pretty much the same. The intellectuals on all sides were passionately dedicated to the national cause–all sides, Germans, British, everywhere.

There were a few, a fringe of dissenters, like Bertrand Russell, who was in jail; Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, in jail; Randolph Bourne, marginalized; Eugene Debs, in jail for daring to question the magnificence of the war. In fact, Wilson hated him with such passion that when he finally declared an amnesty, Debs was left out, you know, had to wait for Warren Harding to release him. And he was the leading labor figure in the country. He was a candidate for president, Socialist Party, and so on.

But the lesson that came out is we believe you can and of course ought to control the public, and if we can’t do it by force, we’ll do it by manufacturing consent, by engineering of consent. Out of that comes the huge public relations industry, massive industry dedicated to this.

Incidentally, it’s also dedicated to undermining markets, a fact that’s rarely noticed but is quite obvious. Business hates markets. They don’t want to–and you can see it very clearly. Markets, if you take an economics course, are based on rational, informed consumers making rational choices. Turn on the television set and look at the first ad you see. It’s trying to create uninformed consumers making irrational choices. That’s the whole point of the huge advertising industry. But also to try to control and manipulate thought. And it takes various forms in different institutions. The media do it one way, the academic institutions do it another way, and the educational system is a crucial part of it.

This is not a new observation. There’s actually an interesting essay by–Orwell’s, which is not very well known because it wasn’t published. It’s the introduction to Animal Farm. In the introduction, he addresses himself to the people of England and he says, you shouldn’t feel too self-righteous reading this satire of the totalitarian enemy, because in free England, ideas can be suppressed without the use of force. And he doesn’t say much about it. He actually has two sentences. He says one reason is the press “is owned by wealthy men” who have every reason not to want certain ideas to be expressed.

But the second reason, and the more important one in my view, is a good education, so that if you’ve gone to all the good schools, you know, Oxford, Cambridge, and so on, you have instilled into you the understanding that there are certain things it wouldn’t do to say–and I don’t think he went far enough: wouldn’t do to think. And that’s very broad among the educated classes. That’s why overwhelmingly they tend to support state power and state violence, and maybe with some qualifications, like, say, Obama is regarded as a critic of the invasion of Iraq. Why? Because he thought it was a strategic blunder. That puts him on the same moral level as some Nazi general who thought that the second front was a strategic blunder–you should knock off England first. That’s called criticism.

And sometimes it’s kind of outlandish. For example, there was just a review in The New York Times Book Review of Glenn Greenwald’s new book by Michael Kinsley, and which bitterly condemned him as–mostly character assassination. Didn’t say anything substantive. But Kinsley did say that it’s ridiculous to think that there’s any repression in the media in the United States, ’cause we can write quite clearly and criticize anything. And he can, but then you have to look at what he says, and it’s quite interesting.

In the 1980s, when the major local news story was the massive U.S. atrocities in Central America–they were horrendous; I mean, it wasn’t presented that way, but that’s what was happening–Kinsley was the voice of the left on television. And there were interesting incidents. At one point, the U.S. Southern Command, which ran–you know, it was the overseer of these actions–gave instructions to the terrorist force that they were running in Nicaragua, called the Contras–and they were a terrorist force–they gave them orders to–they said “not to (…) duke it out with the Sandinistas”, meaning avoid the Nicaraguan army, and attack undefended targets like agricultural cooperatives and, you know, health clinics and so on. And they could do it, because they were the first guerrillas in history to have high-level communications equipment, you know, computers and so on. The U.S., the CIA, just controlled the air totally, so they could send instructions to the terrorist forces telling them how to avoid the Nicaraguan army detachments and attack undefended civilian targets.

Well, this was mentioned; you know, it wasn’t publicized, but it was mentioned. And Americas Watch, which later became part of Human Rights Watch, made some protests. And Michael Kinsley responded. He condemned Americas Watch for their emotionalism. He said, we have to recognize that we have to accept a pragmatic criterion. We have to ask–something like this–he said, we have to compare the amount of blood and misery poured in with the success of the outcome in producing democracy–what we’ll call democracy. And if it meets the pragmatic criterion, then terrorist attacks against civilian targets are perfectly legitimate–which is not a surprising view in his case. He’s the editor of The New Republic. The New Republic, supposedly a liberal journal, was arguing that we should support Latin American fascists because there are more important things than human rights in El Salvador, where they were murdering tens of thousands of people.

That’s the liberals. And, yeah, they can get in the media no problem. And they’re praised for it, regarded with praise. All of this is part of the massive system of–you know, it’s not that anybody sits at the top and plans at all; it’s just exactly as Orwell said: it’s instilled into you. It’s part of a deep indoctrination system which leads to a certain way of looking at the world and looking at authority, which says, yes, we have to be subordinate to authority, we have to believe we’re very independent and free and proud of it. As long as we keep within the limits, we are. Try to go beyond those limits, you’re out.

HEDGES: But that system, of course, is constant. But what’s changed is that we don’t produce anything anymore. So what we define as our working class is a service sector class working in places like Walmart. And the effective forms of resistance–the sitdown strikes, you know, going back even further in the middle of the 19th century with the women in Lowell–I think that was–the Wobblies were behind those textile strikes. What are the mechanisms now? And I know you have written, as many anarchists have done, about the importance of the working class controlling the means of production, taking control, and you have a great quote about how, you know, Lenin and the Bolsheviks are right-wing deviants, I think, was the–which is, of course, exactly right, because it was centralized control, destroying the Soviets. Given the fact that production has moved to places like Bangladesh or southern China, what is going to be the paradigm now? And given, as you point out, the powerful forces of propaganda–and you touched upon now the security and surveillance state. We are the most monitored, watched, photographed, eavesdropped population in human history. And you cannot even use the world liberty when you eviscerate privacy. That’s what totalitarian is. What is the road we take now, given the paradigm that we have, which is somewhat different from, you know, what this country was, certainly, in the first half of the 20th century?

NOAM CHOMSKY, LINGUIST AND POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think it’s pretty much the same, frankly. The idea still should be that of the Knights of Labor: those who work in the mills should own them. And there’s plenty of manufacturing going on in the country, and probably there will be more, for unpleasant reasons. One thing that’s happening right now which is quite interesting is that energy prices are going down in the United States because of the massive exploitation of fossil fuels, which is going to destroy our grandchildren, but under the, you know, capitalist morality, the calculus is that profits tomorrow outweigh the existence of your grandchildren. It’s institutionally-based, so, yes, we’re getting lower energy prices. And if you look at the business press, they’re, you know, very enthusiastic about the fact that we can undercut manufacturing in Europe because we’ll have lower energy prices, and therefore manufacturing will come back here, and we can even undermine European efforts at developing sustainable energy because we’ll have this advantage.

Britain is saying the same thing. I was just in England recently. As I left the airport, I read The Daily Telegraph, you know, I mean, newspaper. Big headline: England is going to begin fracking all of the country, even fracking under people’s homes without their permission. And that’ll allow us to destroy the environment even more quickly and will bring manufacturing back here.

The same is true with Asia. Manufacturing is moving back, to an extent, to Mexico, and even here, as wages increase in China, partly because of labor struggles. There’s massive labor struggles in China, huge, all over the place, and since we’re integrated with them, we can be supportive of them.

But manufacturing is coming back here. And both manufacturing and the service industries can move towards having those who do the work take over the management and ownership and control. In fact, it’s happening. In the old Rust Belt–you know, Indiana, Ohio, and so on–there’s a significant–not huge, but significant growth of worker-owned enterprises. They’re not huge, but they’re substantial around Cleveland and other places.

The background is interesting. In 1977, U.S. Steel, the, you know, multinational, decided to close down their mills in Youngstown, Ohio. Youngstown is a steel town, sort of built by the steelworkers, one of the main steel-producing areas. Well, the union tried to buy the plants from U.S. Steel. They objected–in my view, mostly on class lines. They might have even profited from it. But the idea of worker-owned industry doesn’t have much appeal to corporate leaders, which means bankers and so on. It went to the courts. Finally, the union lost in the courts. But with enough popular support, they could have won.

Well, the working class and the community did not give up. They couldn’t get the steel mills, but they began to develop small worker-owned enterprises. They’ve now spread throughout the region. They’re substantial. And it can happen more and more.

And the same thing happened in Walmarts. I mean, there’s massive efforts right now, significant ones, to organize the service workers–what they call associates–in the service industries. And these industries, remember, depend very heavily on taxpayer largess in all kinds of ways. I mean, for example, let’s take, say, Walmarts. They import goods produced in China, which are brought here on container ships which were designed and developed by the U.S. Navy. And point after point where you look, you find that the way the system–the system that we now have is one which is radically anticapitalist, radically so.

I mean, I mentioned one thing, the powerful effort to try to undermine markets for consumers, but there’s something much more striking. I mean, in a capitalist system, the basic principle is that, say, if you invest in something and, say, it’s a risky investment, so you put money into it for a long time, maybe decades, and finally after a long time something comes out that’s marketable for a profit, it’s supposed to go back to you. That’s not the way it works here. Take, say, computers, internet, lasers, microelectronics, containers, GPS, in fact the whole IT revolution. There was taxpayer investment in that for decades, literally decades, doing all the hard, creative, risky work. Does the taxpayer get any of the profit? None, because that’s not the way our system works. It’s radically anti-capitalist, just as it’s radically anti-democratic, opposed to markets, in favor of concentrating wealth and power.

But that doesn’t have to be accepted by the population. These are–all kinds of forms of resistance to this can be developed if people become aware of it.

HEDGES: Well, you could argue that in the election of 2008, Obama wasn’t accepted by the population. But what we see repeatedly is that once elected officials achieve power through, of course, corporate financing, the consent of the governed is a kind of cruel joke. It doesn’t, poll after poll. I mean, I sued Obama over the National Defense Authorization Act, in which you were coplaintiff, and the polling was 97 percent against this section of the NDAA. And yet the courts, which have become wholly owned subsidiaries of the corporate state, the elected officials, the executive branch, and the press, which largely ignored it–the only organ that responsibly covered the case was, ironically, The New York Times. We don’t have–it doesn’t matter what we want. It doesn’t–I mean, and I think, you know, that’s the question: how do we effect change when we have reached a point where we can no longer appeal to the traditional liberal institutions that, as Karl Popper said once, made incremental or piecemeal reform possible, to adjust the system–of course, to save capitalism? But now it can’t even adjust the system. You know, we see cutting welfare.

CHOMSKY: Yeah. I mean, it’s perfectly true that the population is mostly disenfranchised. In fact, that’s a leading theme even of academic political science. You take a look at the mainstream political science, so, for example, a recent paper that was just published out of Princeton by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, two of the leading analysts of these topics, what they point out is they went through a couple of thousand policy decisions and found what has long been known, that there was almost no–that the public attitudes had almost no effect. Public organizations that are–nonprofit organizations that are publicly based, no effect. The outcomes were determined by concentrated private power.

There’s a long record of that going way back. Thomas Ferguson, a political scientist near here, has shown very convincingly that something as simple as campaign spending is a very good predictor of policy. That goes back into the late 19th century, right through the New Deal, you know, right up till the present. And that’s only one element of it. And you take a look at the literature, about 70 percent of the population, what they believe has no effect on policy at all. You get a little more influence as you go up. When you get to the top, which is probably, like, a tenth of one percent, they basically write the legislation.

I mean, you see this all over. I mean, take these huge so-called trade agreements that are being negotiated, Trans-Pacific and Transatlantic–enormous agreements, kind of NAFTA-style agreements. They’re secret–almost. They’re not secret from the hundreds of corporate lawyers and lobbyists who are writing them. They know about it, which means that their bosses know about it. And the Obama administration and the press says, look, this has to be secret, otherwise we can’t defend our interests. Yeah, our interests means the interests of the corporate lawyers and lobbyists who are writing the legislation. Take the few pieces that have been leaked and you see that’s exactly what it is. Same with the others.

But it doesn’t mean you have to accept it. And there have been changes. So take, say–in the 1920s, the labor movement had been practically destroyed. There’s a famous book. One of the leading labor historians, David Montgomery, has a major book called something like The Fall of the House of Labor. He’s talking about the 1920s. It was done. There had been a very militant labor movement, very effective, farmers movement as well. Crushed in the 1920s. Almost nothing left. Well, in the 1930s it changed, and it changed because of popular activism.

HEDGES: But it also changed because of the breakdown of capitalism.

CHOMSKY: There was a circumstance that led to the opportunity to do something, but we’re living with that constantly. I mean, take the last 30 years. For the majority of the population it’s been stagnation or worse. That’s–it’s not exactly the deep Depression, but it’s kind of a permanent semi-depression for most of the population. That’s–there’s plenty of kindling out there which can be lighted.

And what happened in the ’30s is primarily CIO organizing, the militant actions like sit-down strikes. A sit-down strike’s very frightening. It’s a step before taking over the institution and saying, we don’t need the bosses. And that–there was a cooperative administration, Roosevelt administration, so there was some interaction. And significant legislation was passed–not radical, but significant, underestimated. And it happened again in the ’60s. It can happen again today. So I don’t think that one should abandon hope in chipping away at the more oppressive aspects of the society within the electoral system. But it’s only going to happen if there’s massive popular organization, which doesn’t have to stop at that. It can also be building the institutions of the future within the present society.

HEDGES: Would you say that the–you spoke about propaganda earlier and the Creel Commission and the rise of the public relations industry. The capacity to disseminate propaganda is something that now you virtually can’t escape it. I mean, it’s there in some electronic form, even in a hand-held device. Does that make that propaganda more effective?

CHOMSKY: Well, and it’s kind of an interesting question. Like a lot of people, I’ve written a lot about media and intellectual propaganda, but there’s another question which isn’t studied much: how effective is it? And that’s–when you brought up the polls, it’s a striking illustration. The propaganda is–you can see from the poll results that the propaganda has only limited effectiveness. I mean, it can drive a population into terror and fear and war hysteria, like before the Iraq invasion or 1917 and so on, but over time, public attitudes remain quite different. In fact, studies even of what’s called the right-wing, you know, people who say, get the government off my back, that kind of sector, they turn out to be kind of social democratic. They want more spending on health, more spending on education, more spending on, say, women with dependent children, but not welfare, no spending on welfare, because Reagan, who was an extreme racist, succeeded in demonizing the notion of welfare. So in people’s minds welfare means a rich black woman driving in her limousine to the welfare office to steal your money. Well, nobody wants that. But they want what welfare does.

Foreign aid is an interesting case. There’s an enormous propaganda against foreign aid, ’cause we’re giving everything to the undeserving people out there. You take a look at public attitudes. A lot of opposition to foreign aid. Very high. On the other hand, when you ask people, how much do we give in foreign aid? Way beyond what we give. When you ask what we should give in foreign aid, far above what we give.

And this runs across the board. Take, say taxes. There’ve been studies of attitudes towards taxes for 40 years. Overwhelmingly the population says taxes are much too low for the rich and the corporate sector. You’ve got to raise it. What happens? Well, the opposite.

It’s just exactly as Orwell said: it’s instilled into you. It’s part of a deep indoctrination system which leads to a certain way of looking at the world and looking at authority, which says, yes, we have to be subordinate to authority, we have to believe we’re very independent and free and proud of it. As long as we keep within the limits, we are. Try to go beyond those limits, you’re out.

HEDGES: Well, what was fascinating about–I mean, the point, just to buttress this point: when you took the major issues of the Occupy movement, they were a majoritarian movement. When you look back on the Occupy movement, what do you think its failings were, its importance were?

CHOMSKY: Well, I think it’s a little misleading to call it a movement. Occupy was a tactic, in fact a brilliant tactic. I mean, if I’d been asked a couple of months earlier whether they should take over public places, I would have said it’s crazy. But it worked extremely well, and it lit a spark which went all over the place. Hundreds and hundreds of places in the country, there were Occupy events. It was all over the world. I mean, I gave talks in Sydney, Australia, to the Occupy movement there. But it was a tactic, a very effective tactic. Changed public discourse, not policy. It brought issues to the forefront.

I think my own feeling is its most important contribution was just to break through the atomization of the society. I mean, it’s a very atomized society. There’s all sorts of efforts to separate people from one another, as if the ideal social unit is, you know, you and your TV set.

HEDGES: You know, Hannah Arendt raises atomization as one of the key components of totalitarianism.

CHOMSKY: Exactly. And the Occupy actions broke that down for a large part of the population. People could recognize that we can get together and do things for ourselves, we can have a common kitchen, we can have a place for public discourse, we can form our ideas and do something. Now, that’s an important attack on the core of the means by which the public is controlled. So you’re not just an individual trying to maximize your consumption, but there are other concerns in life, and you can do something about them. If those attitudes and associations and bonds can be sustained and move in other directions, that’ll be important.

But going back to Occupy, it’s a tactic. Tactics have a kind of a half-life. You can’t keep doing them, and certainly you can’t keep occupying public places for very long. And was very successful, but it was not in itself a movement. The question is: what happens to the people who were involved in it? Do they go on and develop, do they move into communities, pick up community issues? Do they organize?

Take, say, this business of, say, worker-owned industry. Right here in Massachusetts, not far from here, there was something similar. One of the multinationals decided to close down a fairly profitable small plant, which was producing aerospace equipment. High-skilled workers and so on, but it wasn’t profitable enough, so they were going to close it down. The union wanted to buy it. Company refused–usual class reasons, I think. If the Occupy efforts had been available at the time, they could have provided the public support for it.

This happened when Obama virtually nationalized the auto industry. There were choices. One choice was what he took, of course, was to rescue it, return it to essentially the same owners–different faces, but the same class basis–and send them back to doing what they had been doing in the past–producing automobiles. There were other choices, and if something like the Occupy movement had been around and sufficient, it could have driven the government into other choices, like, for example, turning the auto plants over to the working class and have them produce what the country needs.

I mean, we don’t need more cars. We need mass public transportation. The United States is an absolute scandal in this regard. I just came back from Europe–so you can see it dramatically. You get on a European train, you can go where you want to go in no time. Well, the train from Boston to New York, it may be, I don’t know, 20 minutes faster than when I took it 60 years ago. You go along the Connecticut Turnpike and the trucks are going faster than the train. Recently Japan offered the United States a low-interest loan to build high-speed rail from Washington to New York. It was turned down, of course. But what they were offering was to build the kind of train that I took in Japan 50 years ago. And this was a scandal all over the country.

Well, you know, a reconstituted auto industry could have turned in that direction under worker and community control. I don’t think these things are out of sight. And, incidentally, they even have so-called conservative support, because they’re within a broader what’s called capitalist framework (it’s not really capitalist). And those are directions that should be pressed.

Right now, for example, the Steelworkers union is trying to establish some kind of relations with Mondragon, the huge worker-owned conglomerate in the Basque country in Spain, which is very successful, in fact, and includes industry, manufacturing, banks, hospitals, living quarters. It’s very broad. It’s not impossible that that can be brought here, and it’s potentially radical. It’s creating the basis for quite a different society.

And I think with things like, say, Occupy, the timing wasn’t quite right. But if the timing had been a little better (and this goes on all the time, so it’s always possible), it could have provided a kind of an impetus to move significant parts of the socioeconomic system in a different direction. And once those things begin to take off and people can see the advantages of them, it can become quite significant.

There are kind of islands like that around the country. So take Chattanooga, Tennessee. It happens to have a publicly organized internet system. It’s by far the best in the country. Rapid internet access for broad parts of the population. I suspect the roots of it probably go back to the TVA and the New Deal initiatives. Well, if that can spread throughout the country (why not? it’s very efficient, very cheap, works very well), it could undermine the telecommunications industry and its oligopoly, which would be a very good thing. There are lots of possibilities like this.

HEDGES: I want to ask just two last questions. First, the fact that we have become a militarized society, something all of the predictions of the Anti-Imperialist League at the end of the 19th century, including Carnegie and Jane Addams–hard to think of them both in the same room. But you go back and read what they wrote, and they were right how militarized society has deformed us economically–Seymour Melman wrote about this quite well–and politically. And that is a hurdle that as we attempt to reform or reconfigure our society we have to cope with. And I wondered if you could address this military monstrosity that you have written about quite a bit.

CHOMSKY: Well, for one thing, the public doesn’t like it. What’s called isolationism or one or another bad word, as, you know, pacifism was, is just the public recognition that there’s something deeply wrong with our dedication to military force all over the world.

Now, of course, at the same time, the public is frightened into believing that we have to defend ourselves. And it’s not entirely false. Part of the military system is generating forces which will be harmful to us, say, Obama’s terrorist campaign, drone campaign, the biggest terrorist campaign in history. It’s generating potential terrorists faster than it’s killing suspects.

You can see it. It’s very striking what’s happening right now in Iraq. And the truth of the matter is very evident. Go back to the Nuremberg judgments. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, but in Nuremberg aggression was defined as “the supreme international crime,” differing from other war crimes in that it includes, it encompasses all of the evil that follows. Well, the U.S.-British invasion of Iraq is a textbook case of aggression. By the standards of Nuremberg, they’d all be hanged. And one of the things it did, one of the crimes was to ignite a Sunni-Shiite conflict which hadn’t been going on. I mean, there was, you know, various kinds of tensions, but Iraqis didn’t believe there could ever be a conflict. They were intermarried, they lived in the same places, and so on. But the invasion set it off. Took off on its own. By now it’s inflaming the whole region. Now we’re at the point where Sunni jihadi forces are actually marching on Baghdad.

HEDGES: And the Iraqi army is collapsing.

CHOMSKY: The Iraqi army’s just giving away their arms. There obviously is a lot of collaboration going on.

And all of this is a U.S. crime if we believe in the validity of the judgments against the Nazis.

And it’s kind of interesting. Robert Jackson, the chief prosecutor, a U.S. justice, at the tribunal, addressed the tribunal, and he pointed out, as he put it, that we’re giving these defendants a “poisoned chalice”, and if we ever sip from it, we have to be treated the same way, or else the whole thing is a farce and we should recognize this as just victor’s justice.

HEDGES: But it’s not accidental that our security and surveillance apparatus is militarized. And you’re right, of course, that there is no broad popular support for this expanding military adventurism. And yet the question is if there is a serious effort to curtail their power and their budgets. They have mechanisms. And we even heard Nancy Pelosi echo this in terms of how they play dirty. I mean, they are monitoring all the elected officials as well.

CHOMSKY: Monitoring. But despite everything, it’s still a pretty free society, and the recognition by U.S. and British business back 100 years ago that they can no longer control the population by violence is correct. And control of attitude and opinion is pretty fragile, as is surveillance. It’s very different than sending in the storm troopers. You know, so there’s a lot of latitude, for people of relative privilege, at least, to do all sorts of things. I mean, it’s different if you’re a black kid in the ghetto. Yeah, then you’re subjected to state violence. But for a large part of the population, there’s plenty of opportunities which have not been available in the past.

HEDGES: But those people are essentially passive, virtually.

CHOMSKY: But they don’t have to be.

HEDGES: They don’t have to be, but Hannah Arendt, when she writes about the omnipotent policing were directed against the stateless, including ourself and France, said the problem of building omnipotent policing, which we have done in our marginal neighborhoods in targeting people of color–we can have their doors kicked in and stopped at random and thrown in jail for decades for crimes they didn’t commit–is that when you have a societal upheaval, you already have both a legal and a physical mechanism by which that omnipotent policing can be quickly inflicted.

CHOMSKY: I don’t think that’s true here. I think the time has passed when that can be done for increasing parts of the population, those who have almost any degree of privilege. The state may want to do it, but they don’t have the power to do it. They can carry out extensive surveillance, monitoring, they can be violent against parts of the population that can’t defend themselves–undocumented immigrants, black kids in the ghetto, and so on–but even that can be undercut. For example, one of the major scandals in the United States since Reagan is the huge incarceration program, which is a weapon against–it’s a race war. But it’s based on drugs. And there is finally cutting away at the source of this and the criminalization and the radical distortion of the way criminalization of drug use has worked. That can have an effect.

I mean, I think–look, there’s no doubt that the population is passive. There are lots of ways of keeping them passive. There’s lots of ways of marginalizing and atomizing them. But that’s different from storm troopers. It’s quite different. And it can be overcome, has been overcome in the past. And I think there are lots of initiatives, some of them being undertaken, others developing, which can be used to break down this system. I think it’s a very fragile system, including the militarism.

HEDGES: Let’s just close with climate change. Like, I read climate change reports, which–.

CHOMSKY: Well, unfortunately, that’s–may doom us all, and not in the long-distance future. That just overwhelms everything. It is the first time in human history when we not only–we have the capacity to destroy the conditions for a decent survival. And it’s already happening. I mean, just take a look at species destruction. Species destruction now is estimated to be at about the level of 65 million years ago when an asteroid hit the earth and ended the period of the dinosaurs, wiped out huge numbers of species. Same level today, and we’re the asteroid. And you take a look at what’s happening in the world, I mean, anybody looking at this from outer space would be astonished.

I mean, there are sectors of the global population that are trying to impede the catastrophe. There are other sectors that are trying to accelerate it. And you take a look at who they are. Those who are trying to impede it are the ones we call backward: indigenous populations, the First Nations in Canada, you know, aboriginals from Australia, the tribal people in India, you know, all over the world, are trying to impede it. Who’s accelerating it? The most privileged, advanced–so-called advanced–educated populations in the world, U.S. and Canada right in the lead. And we know why.

There are also–. Here’s an interesting case of manufacture of consent and does it work? You take a look at international polls on global warming, Americans, who are the most propagandized on this–I mean, there’s huge propaganda efforts to make it believe it’s not happening–they’re a little below the norm, so there’s some effect of the propaganda. It’s stratified. If you take a look at Republicans, they’re way below the norm. But what’s happening in the Republican Party all across the spectrum is a very striking. So, for example, about two-thirds of Republicans believe that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and all sorts of other things. You know. So it’s stratified. But there’s some impact of the propaganda, but not overwhelming. Most of the population still regards it as a serious problem.

There’s actually an interesting article about this in the Columbia Journalism Review which just appeared, current issue, the lead critical review of journalism. They attribute this to what they call the doctrine of fairness in the media. Doctrine of fairness says that if you have an opinion piece by 95, 97 percent of the scientists, you have to pair it with an opinion piece by the energy corporations, ’cause that’d be fair and balanced. There isn’t any such doctrine. Like, if you have an opinion piece denouncing Putin as the new Hitler for annexing Crimea, you don’t have to balance it with an opinion piece saying that 100 years ago the United States took over southeastern Cuba at the point of a gun and is still holding it, though it has absolutely no justification other than to try to undermine Cuban development, whereas in contrast, whatever you think of Putin, there’s reasons. You don’t have to have that. And you have to have fair and balanced when it affects the concerns of private power, period. But try to get an article in the Columbia Journalism Review pointing that out, although it’s transparent.

So all those things are there, but they can be overcome, and they’d better be. This isn’t–you know, unless there’s a sharp reversal in policy, unless we here in the so-called advanced societies can gain the consciousness of the indigenous people of the world, we’re in deep trouble. Our grandchildren are going to suffer from it.

HEDGES: And I think you would agree that’s not going to come from the power elite.

CHOMSKY: It’s certainly not.

HEDGES: It’s up to us.

CHOMSKY: Absolutely. And it’s urgent.

HEDGES: It is. Thank you very much.

Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, writes a regular column for Truthdig every Monday. Hedges’ most recent book is “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.”

http://www.alternet.org/media/noam-chomsky-tells-chris-hedges-how-our-ruling-elite-leading-america-catastrophe?akid=12034.265072.WHH2Dd&rd=1&src=newsletter1011911&t=13&paging=off&current_page=1#bookmark

 

Marinaleda: the village where people come before profit

by Jen Wilton on July 15, 2014

Post image for Marinaleda: the village where people come before profit

The thriving Spanish town of Marinaleda runs on the principles of mutual aid and direct action. In a country paralyzed by debt, is this an alternative?

By Liam Barrington-Bush and Jen Wilton

In the south of Spain, the street is the collective living room. Vibrant sidewalk cafes are interspersed between configurations of two to five lawn chairs where neighbors come together to chat over the day’s events late into the night. In mid-June the weather peaks well over 40 degrees Celsius and the smells of fresh seafood waft from kitchens and restaurants as the seasonably-late dining hour begins to approach. The scene is archetypally Spanish, particularly for the Andalusian region to the country’s south, where life is lived more in public than in private, when given half a chance.

Specifically, this imagery above describes Marinaleda. Initially indistinguishable from several of its local counterparts in the Sierra Sur southern mountain range, were it not for a few tell-tale signs. Maybe it’s the street names (Ernesto Che Guevara, Solidarity and Salvador Allende Plaza, to name a few); maybe it’s the graffiti (hand drawn hammers-and-sickles sit happily alongside encircled A’s, oblivious to the differences the two ideologies have shared, even in the country’s recent past); maybe it’s the two-story Che head which emblazons the outer wall of the local sports stadium.

Marinaleda has been called Spain’s ‘communist utopia,’ though the local variation bears little resemblance to the Soviet model most associate with the phrase. Classifications aside, this is a town whose social fabric has been woven from very different economic threads to the rest of the country since the fall of the Franco dictatorship in the mid 1970s. A cooperatively-owned olive oil factory, houses built by and for the community, and a famous looting of a large-scale supermarket, led by the town’s charismatic mayor, in which proceeds were donated to food banks, are amongst the steps that have helped position Marinaleda as a beacon of hope.

The currency of direct action

As the Spanish economy continues its post-2008 nosedive, unemployment sits at 26 percent nationally, while over half of young people can’t find work. Meanwhile, Marinaleda boasts a modest but steady local employment picture in which most people have at least some work and those that don’t have a strong safety net to fall back on.

But more than its cash economy, Marinaleda has a currency rarely found beyond small-scale activist groups or indigenous communities fighting destructive development projects: the currency of direct action. Rather than rely exclusively on cash to get things done, Marinaleños have put their collective blood, sweat and tears into creating a range of alternative systems in their corner of the world.

When money hasn’t been readily available — probably the only consistent feature since the community set out on this path — Marinaleños have turned to one another to do what needs doing. At times that has meant collectively occupying land owned by the Andalusian aristocracy and putting it to work for the town, at others it has simply meant sharing the burden of litter collection.

While still operating with some degree of central authority, the local council has devolved power into the hands of those it serves. General assemblies are convened on a regular basis so that townspeople can be involved in decisions that affect their lives. The assemblies also create spaces where people can come together to organize what the community needs through collective action.

“The best thing they have here in Marinaleda, and you can’t find this in other places, is the [general] assembly,” says long-term civil servant for the Marinaleda council, Manuel Gutierrez Daneri. He continues: “Assembly is a place for people to discuss problems and to find the solutions,” pointing out that even minor crimes are collectively addressed via the assembly, as the town has no police or judicial system since the last local cop retired.

In his time as mayor, Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo has managed to leverage considerable financial support from the state government, a feat which Gutierrez Daneri attributes to the town’s collective track record for direct action. “If you go ahead with all of the people behind you, that is very powerful,” he says.

As a result, the small town boasts extensive sports facilities and a beautifully-maintained botanical garden, as well as a range of more basic necessities. “For a little village like this, with no more than 2,700 people, we have a lot of facilities,” says Gutierrez Daneri.

British ex-pat Chris Burke has lived in Marinaleda for several years, and he explains that access to the public swimming pool only costs €3 for the entire summer. Burke recounts Mayor Sánchez Gordillo saying to him, “The whole idea of the place being somewhere good to live is that anyone can afford to enjoy themselves.” Burke adds pragmatically, “You can’t have a utopia without some loss-making facilities.”

From occupation to cooperation

In 1979, Sánchez Gordillo was first elected as the town’s mayor. He led an extensive campaign to change Marinaleda’s course, which began with hunger strikes and occupying underutilized land.

Manuel Martin Fernandez has been involved in la lucha (the fight) since the beginning. He explains how through the general assembly process the community decided something had to be done to stem the flow of migration from the town. They began a weeks-long occupation of a nearby reservoir to convince the regional government to allocate them enough water to irrigate a tract of land.

After this proved successful, they then went on to occupy 1,200 hectares of the newly irrigated land, which at that time was owned by an aristocratic family. In 1991, the plot of land was officially expropriated and turned over for local use. “It took 12 years to obtain the land,” Martin Fernandez explains, calling their victory “a conquest.”

Today, extensive fields of olives, artichokes, beans and peppers form the backbone of the local cash economy. The land is collectively managed by the cooperative El Humoso and a canning facility has been set up on the edge of town. “Our aim was not to create profits, but jobs,” Sánchez Gordillo told British author Dan Hancox, explaining why the town chose to prioritize labor-intensive crops to create more employment for local people.

Like most agricultural employment, whether in the fields or the factory, work in Marinaleda is both seasonal and varied from year to year. But unlike many small agricultural towns, Marinaleda shares the work amongst those who need it.

Dolores Valderrama Martin has lived in Marinaleda her entire life and she has worked at the Humoso canning factory for the past 14 years. From the upstairs office she explains that if 200 people are looking for work, but they only need 40 workers, they will bring everyone together. “We gather all of these people who are directly affected,” she says. “We make groups of 30 to 40 people and each group works for two days.”

While the cooperative is formed of nine separate entities, Valderrama Martin says they collectively decide on important issues like the allocation of work. They may even take the issue to a general assembly for wider input from the town. But she cautions, “When there is no work they are unemployed, like anywhere else.”

Most of the town decries the relative lack of work, but the wider social security net built on the principles of direct action and mutual aid have meant that unlike other parts of the country, two months’ wages can go a long way to keep you afloat for the year. At the core of this is the town’s approach to housing, which offers one of the clearest examples of how collective effort can fill the void left by a stagnant cash economy.

The houses that community built

When many young people think about making their first foray into the housing market, money is inevitably the biggest obstacle. State of the economy aside, a down payment is always a sizable sum, even in relatively tame markets, and is increasingly unattainable for what has been described as ‘the jilted generation.’

But high on the list of maverick decisions spearheaded by Mayor Sánchez Gordillo, using a combination of state housing subsidy for building materials, free labor for construction and land given by the town, housing has been partly removed from the free market in Marinaleda. Instead, community members come together with architectural plans provided by the council to build a block of houses, with no sense in advance which home will belong to which family.

The houses — some 350 units in total, with twenty new builds underway at the time of our visit — become part of a housing cooperative. Needless to say, when citizens are only left paying €15 per month for mortgages, this has a massive knock-on impact on work requirements.

The direct action economy

While capitalism frames our relationships as a series of self-interested economic transactions, Marinaleda relies on a model of mutual aid, as locals work together to meet shared needs, with far less money circulating. While it can be easy to forget, money is simply a way of facilitating action, which creates an incentive for people to do tasks that they otherwise may not have any interest in doing.

Direct action, on the other hand, is rooted in common interests and explores the practicalities of what needs doing, based on who is there to do it. Direct action eliminates the consumer-provider divide, making cash an unnecessary intermediary in getting things done, as those who want something done, and those doing it become one-in-the-same.

While Marinaleda has its flaws, it reminds us that alternative economic models are not only possible, they already exist. A striking piece of graffiti on Marinaleda’s main road depicts a dream-catcher, super-imposed with a hammer and sickle. The accompanying message implores us, “Catch your dreams — utopia is possible.”

This article was originally published at Contributoria.

Liam Barrington-Bush is an activist, facilitator, and author of Anarchists in the Boardroom. He tweets as @hackofalltrades, blogs at morelikepeople.org and posts stuff on the more like people Facebook page.

Jen Wilton is a freelance journalist, researcher and photographer based in London, UK. Her interests include social movements, sustainable energy, alternative economies and Latin America. She tweets as @guerillagrrl and blogs at Revolution Is Eternal

Let’s nationalize Amazon and Google

Publicly funded technology built Big Tech

They’re huge and ruthless and define our lives. They’re close to monopolies. Let’s make them public utilities

Let's nationalize Amazon and Google: Publicly funded technology built Big Tech
Jeff Bezos (Credit: AP/Reed Saxon/Pakhnyushcha via Shutterstock/Salon)

They’re huge, they’re ruthless, and they touch every aspect of our daily lives. Corporations like Amazon and Google keep expanding their reach and their power. Despite a history of abuses, so far the Justice Department has declined to take antitrust actions against them. But there’s another solution.

Is it time to manage and regulate these companies as public utilities?

That argument’s already been made about broadband access. In her book “Captive Justice,” law professor Susan Crawford argues that “high-speed wired Internet access is as basic to innovation, economic growth, social communication, and the country’s competitiveness as electricity was a century ago.”

Broadband as a public utility? If not for corporate corruption of our political process, that would seem like an obvious solution. Instead, our nation’s wireless access is the slowest and costliest in the world.

But why stop there? Policymakers have traditionally considered three elements when evaluating the need for a public utility: production, transmission, and distribution. Broadband is transmission. What about production and distribution?

The Big Tech mega-corporations have developed what Al Gore calls the “Stalker Economy,” manipulating and monitoring as they go. But consider: They were created with publicly funded technologies, and prospered as the result of indulgent policies and lax oversight. They’ve achieved monopoly or near-monopoly status, are spying on us to an extent that’s unprecedented in human history, and have the potential to alter each and every one of our economic, political, social and cultural transactions.

In fact, they’re already doing it.

Public utilities? It’s a thought experiment worth conducting.

Big Tech was created with publicly developed technology.

No matter how they spin it, these corporations were not created in garages or by inventive entrepreneurs. The core technology behind them is the Internet, a publicly funded platform for which they pay no users’ fee. In fact, they do everything they can to avoid paying their taxes.



Big Tech’s use of public technology means that it operates in a technological “commons,” which they are using solely for its own gain, without regard for the public interest. Meanwhile the United States government devotes considerable taxpayer resource to protecting them – from patent infringement, cyberterrorism and other external threats.

Big Tech’s services have become a necessity in modern society.

Businesses would be unable to participate in modern society without access to the services companies like Amazon, Google and Facebook provide. These services have become public marketplaces.

For individuals, these entities have become the public square where social interactions take place, as well as the marketplace where they purchase goods.

They’re at or near monopoly status – and moving fast.

Google has 80 percent of the search market in the United States, and an even larger share of key overseas markets. Google’s browsers have now surpassed Microsoft’s in usage across all devices. It has monopoly-like influence over online news, as William Baker noted in the Nation. Its YouTube subsidiary dominates the U.S. online-video market, with nearly double the views of its closest competitor. (Roughly 83 percent of the Americans who watched a video online in April went to YouTube.)

Even Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer argued that Google is a “monopoly” whose activities were “worthy of discussion with competition authority.” He should know.

As a social platform, Facebook has no real competitors. Amazon’s book business dominates the market. E-books are now 30 percent of the total book market, and its Kindle e-books account for 65 percent of e-book sales.  Nearly one book in five is an Amazon product – and that’s not counting Amazon’s sales of physical books. It has become such a behemoth that it is able to command discounts of more than 50 percent from major publishers like Random House.

They abuse their power.

The bluntness with which Big Tech firms abuse their monopoly power is striking. Google has said that it will soon begin blocking YouTube videos from popular artists like Radiohead and Adele unless independent record labels sign deals with its upcoming music streaming service (at what are presumably disadvantageous rates).   Amazon’s war on publishers like Hachette is another sign of Big Tech arrogance.

But what is equally striking about these moves is the corporations’ disregard for basic customer service. Because YouTube’s dominance of the video market is so large, Google is confident that even frustrated music fans have nowhere to go. Amazon is so confident of its dominance that it retaliated against Hachette by removing order buttons when a Hachette book came up (which users must find maddening) and lied about the availability of Hachette books when a customer attempts to order one. It also altered its search process for recommendations to freeze out Hachette books and direct users to non-Hachette authors.

Amazon even suggested its customers use other vendors if they’re unhappy, a move that my Salon colleague Andrew Leonard described as “nothing short of amazing – and troubling.”

David Stratfield of the New York Times asked, “When does discouragement become misrepresentation?” One logical answer: When you tell customers a product isn’t available, even though it is, or rig your sales mechanism to prevent customers from choosing the item they want.

And now Amazon’s using some of the same tactics against Warner Home Video.

They got there with our help.

As we’ve already noted, Internet companies are using taxpayer-funded technology to make billions of dollars from the taxpayers – without paying a licensing fee. As we reported earlier, Amazon was the beneficiary of tax exemptions that allowed it to reach its current monopolistic size.

Google and the other technology companies have also benefited from tax policies and other forms of government indulgence. Contrary to popular misconception, Big Tech corporations aren’t solely the products of ingenuity and grit. Each has received, and continues to receive, a lot of government largess.

The real “commodity” is us.

Most of Big Tech’s revenues come from the use of our personal information in its advertising business. Social media entries, Web-surfing patterns, purchases, even our private and personal communications add value to these corporations. They don’t make money by selling us a product. We are the product, and we are sold to third parties for profit.

Public utilities are often created when the resource being consumed isn’t a “commodity” in the traditional sense. “We” aren’t an ordinary resource. Like air and water, the value of our information is something that should be publicly shared – or, at a minimum, publicly managed.

Our privacy is dying … or already dead.

“We know where you are,” says Google CEO Eric Schmidt. “We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.”

Facebook tracks your visits to the website of any corporate Facebook “partner,” stores that information, and uses it to track and manipulate the ads you see. Its mobile app also has a new, “creepy” feature that turns on your phone’s microphone, analyzes what you’re listening to or watching, and is capable of posting updates to your status like “Listening to Albert King” or “Watching ‘Orphan Black.’

Google tracks your search activity, an activity with a number of disturbing implications. (A competing browser that does not track searches called DuckDuckGo offers an illustrated guide to its competitors’ practices.)  If you use its Chrome browser, Google tracks your website visits too (unless you’re in “private” mode.)

Yasha Levine, who is tracking corporate data spying in his “Surveillance Valley” series, notes that “True end-to-end encryption would make our data inaccessible to Google, and grind its intel extraction apparatus to a screeching halt.” As the ACLU’s Christopher Soghoian points out: “It’s very, very difficult to deploy privacy protective policies with the current business model of ad supported services.”

As Levine notes, the widely publicized revelation that Big Data companies track rape victims was just the tip of the iceberg. They also track “anorexia, substance abuse, AIDS and HIV … Bedwetting (Enuresis), Binge Eating Disorder, Depression, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, Genital Herpes, Genital Warts, Gonorrhea, Homelessness, Infertility, Syphilis … the list goes on and on and on and on.”

Given its recent hardball tactics, here’s a little-known development that should concern more people: Amazon also hosts 37 percent of the nation’s cloud computing services, which means it has access to the inner workings of the software that runs all sorts of businesses – including ones that handle your personal data.

For all its protestations, Microsoft is no different when it comes to privacy. The camera and microphone on its Xbox One devices were initially designed to be left on at all times, and it refused to change that policy until purchasers protested.

Privacy, like water or energy, is a public resource. As the Snowden revelations have taught us, all such resources are at constant risk of government abuse.  The Supreme Court just banned warrantless searches of smartphones – by law enforcement. Will we be granted similar protections from Big Tech corporations?

Freedom of information is at risk.

Google tracks your activity and customizes search results, a process that can filter or distort your perception of the world around you.  What’s more, this “personalized search results” feature leads you back to information sources you’ve used before, which potentially narrows our ability to discover new perspectives or resources.  Over time this creates an increasingly narrow view of the world.

What’s more, Google’s shopping tools have begun using “paid inclusion,” a pay-for-play search feature it once condemned as “evil.” Its response is to say it prefers not to call this practice “paid inclusion,” even though its practices appear to meet the Federal Trade Commission’s definition of the term.

As for Amazon, it has even manipulated its recommendation searches in order to retaliate against other businesses, as we’ll see in the next section.

The free market could become even less free.

Could Big Tech and its data be used to set user-specific pricing, based on what is known about an individual’s willingness to pay more for the same product? Benjamin Schiller of Brandeis University wrote a working paper last year that showed how Netflix could do exactly that. Grocery stores and other retailers are already implementing technology that offers different pricing to different shoppers based on their data profile.

For its part, Amazon is introducing a phone that will also tag the items around you, as well as the music and programs you hear, for you to purchase – from Amazon, of course. Who will be purchasing the data those phones collect about you?

They could hijack the future.

The power and knowledge they have accumulated is frightening. But the Big Tech corporations are just getting started. Google has photographically mapped the entire world. It intends to put the world’s books into a privately owned online library. It’s launching balloons around the globe that will bring Internet access to remote areas – on its terms. It’s attempting to create artificial intelligence and extend the human lifespan.

Amazon hopes to deliver its products by drone within the next few years, an idea that would seem preposterous if not for its undeniable lobbying clout. Each of these Big Tech corporations has the ability to filter – and alter – our very perceptions of the world around us. And each of them has already shown a willingness to abuse it for their own ends.

These aren’t just the portraits of futuristic corporations that have become drunk on unchecked power. It’s a sign that things are likely to get worse – perhaps a lot worse – unless something is done. The solution may lie with an old concept. It may be time to declare Big Tech a public utility.

 

Richard (RJ) Eskow is a writer and policy analyst. He is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America’s Future and is host and managing editor of The Zero Hour on We Act Radio.

http://www.salon.com/2014/07/08/lets_nationalize_amazon_and_google_publicly_funded_technology_built_big_tech/?source=newsletter

School shootings, hatred, capitalism run amok: This 4th of July, we are in the midst of a tragic public derangement

We, the people are violent and filled with rage: A nation spinning apart on its Independence Day

We, the people are violent and filled with rage: A nation spinning apart on its Independence Day

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,

Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the world.
–Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Concord Hymn,” 1837

For centuries most Americans have believed that “the shot heard ’round the world” in 1775 from Concord, Massachusetts, heralded the Enlightenment’s entry into history. Early observers of America such as G.W.F. Hegel, Edward Gibbon and Edmund Burke believed that, too. A new kind of republican citizen was rising, amid and against adherents of theocracy, divine-right monarchy, aristocracy and mercantilism. Republican citizens were quickening humanity’s stride toward horizons radiant with promises never before held and shared as widely as they were in America.

The creation of the United States really was a Novus ordo seclorum, a New Order of the Ages, a society’s first self-aware, if fumbling and compromised, effort to live by the liberal expectation that autonomous individuals could govern themselves together without having to impose religious doctrines or mystical narratives of tribal blood or soil. With barely a decorous nod to The Creator, the founders of the American republic conferred on one another the right to have rights, a distinguished group of them constituting the others as “We, the people.”

That revolutionary effort is not just in trouble now, or endangered, or under attack, or reinventing itself. It’s in prison, with no prospect of parole, and many Americans, including me, who wring our hands or wave our arms about this are actually among the jailers, or we’ve sleepwalked ourselves and others into the cage and have locked ourselves in. We haven’t yet understood the shots fired and heard ’round the world from 74 American schools, colleges and military bases since the Sandy Hook School massacre of December 2012.

These shots haven’t been fired by embattled farmers at invading armies. They haven’t been fired by terrorists who’ve penetrated our surveillance and security systems. With few exceptions, they haven’t been fired by aggrieved non-white Americans. They’ve been fired mostly by young, white American citizens at other white citizens, and by American soldiers at other American soldiers, inside the very institutions where republican virtues and beliefs are nurtured and defended.



They’ve been fired from within a body politic so drained of candor and trust that, beneath our continuing lip-service to republican premises and practices, we’ve let a court conflate the free speech of flesh-and-blood citizens with the disembodied wealth of anonymous shareholders. And we’ve let lawmakers, bought or intimidated by gun peddlers and zealots, render us helpless against torrents of marketed fear and vengeance that are dissolving a distinctively American democratic ethos the literary historian Daniel Aaron characterized as “ethical and pragmatic, disciplined and free.”

Many Americans are adapting to living with variants of force and fraud that erupt in road rage; lethal stampedes by shoppers on sale days; security precautions in their homes against the prospect of armed invasion; gladiatorialization and corruption in sports; nihilism in entertainment that fetishizes violence without context and sex without attachment ; the casino-like financing of utterly unproductive economic activities such as the entertainment I’ve just mentioned and the predatory lending that has tricked millions out of their homes; the commercial groping and goosing of private lives and public spaces, even in the marketing of ordinary consumer goods; and the huge, new prison industry that Americans have created to deter or punish broken, violent men, most of them non-white, only to find schools in even the whitest, “safest” neighborhoods imprisoned by fear of white gunmen who’ve often been students themselves.

Abroad, meanwhile, thousands more shots, fiendish and celebratory, are being fired into the corpses of American national-security and nation-building projects by terrorists and fanatics we were told had been decimated. These projects cost trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives, limbs, homes and hopes, including those of American soldiers, contractors and idealists. Their sacrifices can’t justify retroactively what shouldn’t have been undertaken in the first place.

Stressed by all this republican derangement, millions are spending billions on palliatives, medications, addictions and even surveillance designed to protect them from themselves. All those vials, syringes, security systems and shootings reflect the insinuation of what Gibbon called “a slow and secret poison into the vitals of the empire…” until Roman citizens “no longer possessed that public courage which is nourished by the love of independence, the sense of national honour, the presence of danger, and the habit of command. They received laws and governors from the will of their sovereign, and trusted for their defence to a mercenary army.” Only a few late-Roman republicans, recalling their old freedoms, concluded, with Livy, that “We have become too ill to bear our sickness or their cures.”

What went wrong?

You might argue, and quite rightly, that “We, the people” have always subverted the truths we’d held to be self-evident, beginning with slavery and continuing with plutocracy. Yet somehow the republic kept experiencing what Lincoln called “a new birth of freedom,” thanks only partly to the fortuitous confluence of two oceans’ protection, a vast continent’s ever-alluring frontier and unending streams of aspiring immigrants:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame
With conquering limbs astride from land to land,
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates will stand
A mighty woman with a torch
Whose flame is the imprisoned lightning,
And her name: Mother of Exiles

True enough, the republic thus limned by Emma Lazarus in “The New Colossus,” her poem for the Statue of Liberty, needed those exiles for its labor market. And it still had a guiding aristocracy of sorts, but supposedly only “an aristocracy of talent and virtue,” as Jefferson put it, and not one of blood and ill-gotten wealth. True, too, certain lingering Puritan beliefs had nourished in the embattled farmers (and, even long before 1775, in some of the Puritans themselves) a conviction that resistance to tyranny is obedience to God. That injunction to defy worldly power sometimes in the name of a Higher Power legitimated individual conscience and autonomy right up through the nonviolent defiance of the best of the civil-rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s.

But the American emphasis on individual conscience and autonomy also gestated a liberal capitalist republic that has reduced individualism to market exchanges in ways that are now destroying both individuals and the society.

A liberal capitalist republic has to rely on its citizens to uphold voluntarily certain public virtues and beliefs that neither the liberal state nor markets can nourish or defend. The liberal state isn’t supposed to judge between one way of life and another, after all; and markets reward you as a self-interested consumer and investor, not as a citizen who might put such interests aside at times to advance a greater good that self-interest alone can’t achieve.

The moral silence and often bankruptcy of states and markets leaves citizen-leaders to be nourished and trained all the more intensively in institutions that stand somewhat apart from the state and markets. The Puritan founders of America’s oldest colleges understood this, but they expected that those colleges’ graduates would serve a theocratic state that would control markets and everything else. We’re right to dismiss the Puritans’ theocracy because it was repressive and hypocritical. But we’re wrong to have lost a side of its animating spirit that would have kept markets from controlling and devouring republican government and even our bodies and ourselves.

Symptoms and scapegoats hide the disease

Having miscarried republican self-discipline and conviction so badly, we find ourselves scrambling to monitor, measure and control the consequences, such as the proliferation of mental illness and the glorification and marketing of guns, as if these were causing our implosion.

They aren’t. They’re symptoms, not causes — reactions to widespread heartbreak at the breakdown of what Tocqueville called republican habits of the heart that we used to cultivate.

Equally symptomatic, not causal, are self-avowedly “deviant” and “transgressive” gyrations by people who imagine that the sunset of civic-republican order heralds a liberating, Dionysian dawn. Sloughing off our bad old repressions, we’ve been swept up by the swift market currents that turn countercultures into over-the-counter cultures and promote a free-for-all that’s a free-for-none as citizens become customers chasing “freedoms” for sale.

Even our war-makers’ and -mongers’ grand strategies and the growing militarization of our domestic police forces are more symptomatic than causal of the public derangement that’s rising all around us.

But turning the bearers of such frightening symptoms into our primary villains or scapegoats would only deepen our blindness to the disease, which is as old as the biblical worship of the Golden Calf and as new as Goldman Sachs. It runs deeper than anything that anyone but the Puritans and their Old Testament models tried to tackle.

I’m not suggesting we can or should return to Puritanism! Anyone expecting to recover that faith and way of life is stumbling up dry streambeds toward wellsprings that have themselves run dry. But we do need wellsprings that could fortify us to take risks even more daunting than those taken by the embattled farmers. We’d somehow have to reconfigure or abandon empty comforts, escapes and protections that both free-market conservatives and readers of Salon are accustomed to buying and selling, sometimes against our own best hopes and convictions.

Our cure would also require reweaving a fabric of public candor and comity strong enough to resist the rise of ressentiment, a public psychopathology, once associated with the rise of fascism, in which insecurities, envy and hatreds that many have been nursing in private converge in scary public eruptions that diminish their participants even in seeming to make them big. Ressentiment’s “little-big man” seeks easy targets for frustrations borne of exploitation by powers that he’s afraid to face and reckon with head-on. Blaming scapegoats warps his assessment of his hardships and options and drives him to wreak vengeance on them as soon as there are enough little-big men (and women, of course) to do so en masse under a Glenn Beck or a Sarah Palin.

Whether ressentiment erupts in racist violence, sectarian fanaticism, anti-Communist witch hunts, totalitarian show trials, politically correct cultural revolutions or sadistic escapism, its most telling symptoms are paranoia and routinized bursts of hysteria. Under the ministrations of gifted demagogues, its grievances and pain assume a fleeting brilliance that soon collapses, tragi-comically or catastrophically, on its own cowardice and lies.

Its targets often shift. The 9/11 attacks brought a reprieve of sorts to African-Americans, the republic’s most enduring scapegoats, when the burden of white censure pivoted toward Muslims. Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam lost credibility, but so did whites such as the neoconservative Daniel Pipes, who kept on insisting years after 9/11 that the first black president was a Muslim and a friend of terrorists.

The slipperiness of scapegoating became clear to me in 1993, as I wrote about a deranged black gunman, Colin Ferguson, who’d opened fire in a Long Island Rail Road car, killing six passengers. Even while holding him responsible, I saw him bearing symptoms far more widespread than his private demons. Noting Ferguson’s enthusiasm for a politics of rage, paranoia and death threats then prominent on a black radio station and in demagogic street politics, I warned that even deranged loners are sometimes better attuned to our subconscious hatreds and fears than we care to admit. That was true, too, of Jared Loughner, >the white paranoid-schizophrenic and anti-government fantasist who killed a U.S. District Court judge and six other people while trying to kill but severely wounding U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 13 others in 2011.

While apocalyptic religious and racist ranting can provoke emotionally disturbed people, so can journalism and entertainment that massage hatreds too diffuse to be called racist, religious or ideological. Some school shooters nursed the depictions of violence and lust that are pumped incessantly into young Americans’ horizons with the help of new technologies and investment strategies that ride reckless misreadings of the First Amendment. This hasn’t been done with malevolent intent as often as it’s been done in a kind of civic mindlessness by media corporations incentivized and indeed forced by market pressures to bypass our brains and hearts on the way to our lower viscera and wallets by exaggerating fears of armed home invasion, government takeover and vengeful victory by gunplay.

The invisible disease

Even though relatively few young Americans follow these siren songs into acts of destruction, the public fetishizing of sex and violence without context or caring dampens many others’ faith in society during their formative years. You don’t need to know a lot of developmental psychology or anthropology to know that children crave culturally coherent tests of prowess and loyalty in symbolic rites of passage that ratify their communal belonging. When such rites and symbols fail, some flail about, seeking order in private delusions, Dartmouth College fraternities and public orchestrations of ressentiment.

In 1775, most American communities still filtered such basic generational and human needs through traditions that encompassed kinship bonds and seasonal rhythms. In “Common Sense,” Thomas Paine could urge readers to take their recent experiences of monarchy “to the touchstones of nature” and decide whether they would abide the empire’s abuses. Today, those “touchstones of nature” — and with them, republican convictions about selfhood and society — have been torn up by runaway engines and developments in technology, communications and even intimate biology that would terrify Paine, Adam Smith and John Locke, not to mention those who fired the first shot at Concord. This time, we’re all in bed with the enemy. In “The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism” 40 years ago, Daniel Bell — no anti-capitalist, but prophetic enough about the worship of Golden Calves — argued that free markets no longer make free men because “economic liberalism has become… corporate oligopoly, and, in the pursuit of private wants, a hedonism that is destructive of social needs.”

He warned that consumer capitalism displaces the needs that the early republic filtered through nature’s rhythms and kinship traditions. It displaces those needs with ginned-up “wants” that “by their nature, are unlimited and insatiable…. [T]he rational calculation of efficiency and return” displace “the principle of the public household,” strip-mining and selling off fragments of cultural narratives.

Without civic wellsprings and narratives deep and compelling enough to strengthen a society’s adhesives and disciplines in the hearts of its young, neither free-market conservatives nor world-is-flat neoliberal cosmopolitans can reconcile their professed commitments to ordered, republican liberty with their knee-jerk obedience to riptides of destructive investment that are dissolving republican virtue and sovereignty before our eyes.

No wonder we’re losing our vision, in both senses of the word:

▪ Our foreign-policy savants across the ideological spectrum were too blind see that the Soviet Union was so much weaker than American Cold War propaganda and hysteria insisted that it imploded in 1989. The fabled “missile gap” that John F. Kennedy ran on in 1960 was as imaginary as Saddam Hussein’s WMD, but anyone who tried telling either of those truths was charged with a “failure of nerve” or worse by the blind war-mongers in our midst.

▪ Our business press was too blind to see that a tsunami of predatory lending would wreck the national economy and throw millions from their homes.

▪ Our market-addled Congressional committees and blue-ribbon commissions on national intelligence couldn’t discover, until Edward Snowden revealed it, that public surveillance had taken on an all-devouring life of its own.

▪ Neo-conservative and Vulcan conservative advocates of using American military force to spread democracy abroad couldn’t see that their strategy was doomed because democracy isn’t woven that way and because it was destroying democracy at home in ways that, if unchecked, will destroy the republic whose strengths they’ve so badly misconstrued and betrayed.

▪ Our consumer society, addicted to cheap comforts and quick fixes, can’t see its own Orwellian ensnarement by commercial censors, and it couldn’t take Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” about global warming seriously enough to offset the onrushing damage with the serious sacrifices we have yet to make.

▪ Our gilded political consultants, pollsters and campaign donors were too blind to see the boiling undercurrents that have swept away House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Nor can they see that Cantor’s political demise presages an inflammation of ressentiment so wild that the coming, specious, “Who Lost Iraq?” debate will be accompanied by the shot that some military veteran who feels betrayed will fire at a politician who’s been left holding the empty bag of our civic-republican hopes.

So we are flying almost totally blind, punched bloody by a Hand that we keep insisting is Invisible. We can see only the sickness of the gunmen and of the proliferation of their guns. Treatment of those symptoms is urgently needed, but it will be insufficient to curb the wrecking ball that global capitalism has become on our willfully blind watch, and triage won’t renew the civic fabric.

Exemplary defiance has its place

Whenever republican candor and courage have seemed about to succumb like this to tribal and theocratic delusions or to force and fraud in the past, some citizens have roused others to fend off threats to republican premises and practices:

▪ In 1776 a young schoolteacher named Nathan Hale was caught trying to track and expose the military and intelligence operations of the only established, legitimate government of his time. But just before his hanging he said, “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country” and became an incarnation of a nascent republic.

▪ Hale’s dignity in adversity, unfathomable to many of us these days, anticipated that of Martin Luther King, Jr., and black churchgoers who walked unarmed and trembling toward armed men and dogs with nothing but their faith and their long-shot strategy to delegitimate the seemingly impregnable segregationist establishment of their time by appealing to republican principles and an American civil religion whose theology was as vague as that of the founders.

▪ Hale’s dignity also anticipated that of three Yale seniors I came upon one wintry morning in 1968 as they gave university chaplain William Sloane Coffin, Jr., their military draft cards to announce their resistance to the U. S. Government on behalf of the American republic.

“The government says we’re criminals, but we say the government is criminal for waging this war,” said one of the seniors, struggling to find his voice. For all we knew, these guys were about to be arrested on the spot, and some of us felt arrested morally by their example because they were ready to pay the penalty of law in order to affirm their commitment to honest law itself.

Coffin, who held to a Calvinist theology that, like King’s, saw resistance to tyranny as obedience to God, was present to bless a courage that few national-security state conservatives understand, in the idiom of an American civil-religion few neoliberals and post-modern leftists understand. When he quoted Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night; rage, rage, against the dying of the light,” that civil religion seemed to awaken briefly and to walk and talk again, re-moralizing the state and the law, and the silent, wild confusion I was feeling gave way to something like awe. (I described this experience in The Washington Monthly in 2000, during the protracted “election” of George W. Bush.)

▪ Hale’s courage also anticipated Edward Snowden’s. Both young men may have been impetuous and otherwise flawed in some respects, but they showed that resistance to corrupted power requires not only prowess, means, and will, but an elusive, republican sensibility that’s cultivated in civil society and confirmed in little daily interactions long before it emerges in demonstrations of civic courage that startle and move other citizens.

With a wonderment somewhat like Hegel’s, the German political philosopher Jurgen Habermas marveled at this “constitutional patriotism” in American citizens who possessed what Gibbon described as “that public courage which is nourished by the love of independence, the sense of national honor, the presence of danger, and the habit of command.”

When I tell young millennials these stories, though, many of them listen pretty much as they would to tales about knights in shining armor, long ago and far away. Much closer to them are the school shootings and Internet mayhem that make brave citizenship seem archaic, implausible, and irrelevant to self-discovery and social change.

Yet republican expectations do have ways of resurfacing whenever “We, the people” begin to imagine what our lives would be like, singly and together, if we had to live without them. Not everyone can be seduced or intimidated away from them.

Still, so many Americans are generations removed from any easily recoverable religious or ethno-racial identity or other adhesive that we have to ask: Where are the touchstones or narratives strong enough renew public virtues and beliefs that neither markets nor the liberal state do much to nourish or defend?

Nourishing a new liberal order

The question should prompt a quest for a political culture that isn’t too commercial and vapid and that isn’t held together only by demagoguery and delusion. No reconfiguration of today’s capitalism will be possible without something better than that. Yet no think tank, legislature or foundation can carry that quest or that reconfiguration to a just conclusion. Nor can an Occupy Wall Street that isn’t grounded in something deeper than its own noble effort to be the change it wants us all to make.

Nor can our “illness” be cured by champions of a new foreign-policy “realism” such as Robert Kagan, who urge us to face the inevitable challenges of a world where only willpower and force can sustain the liberal order that many Americans take for granted. That’s right as far as it goes, but it begs the question of where willpower comes from and what, within the liberal order itself, is sapping that willpower.

Quoting Michael Ignatieff, Kagan speculates candidly that liberal civilization itself “runs deeply against the human grain and is achieved and sustained only by the most unremitting struggle against human nature.” Perhaps, Kagan adds, “this fragile democratic garden requires the protection of a liberal world order, with constant feeding, watering, weeding, and the fencing off of an ever-encroaching jungle.” But he can’t seem to face the challenge posed by the new shots heard ’round the world from America: The jungle and its encroachments begin not only abroad but within our own garden.

What seems our greatest weakness could be one of our greatest strengths, although it, too, won’t be enough: Even 150 years after the founding, the philosopher George Santayana wrote that Americans still heralded the Enlightenment’s entry into history precisely because they’d “all been uprooted from their several soils and ancestries and plunged together into one vortex, whirling irresistible in a space otherwise quite empty. To be an American is of itself almost a moral condition, an education and a career….”

Although there’s plenty to regret and respect in the traditions we’ve lost, there’s no turning back from the “moral condition” and “career” we face as citizens. We have no choice but to keep faith with the republic and one another. If Americans have a manifest destiny now, it’s to lead in weaving a new republican fabric that markets can serve but not subvert.

In 2008, Barack Obama seemed to incarnate so brilliantly the promise of weaving our diversity into a new republican discipline — he even invoked Puritan and biblical wellsprings in some of his speeches — that many people ’round the world considered him a prophet who would satisfy their hunger for new narratives. Probably no national political leader ever can do that.

The narratives the world needs now will have to come from other prophets and leaders yet unsung. I do think that Americans will be strong among them, if only because we’ve had so much experience generating that hunger by generating the civic-republican-capitalist effort that has failed.

Jim Sleeper is the author of Liberal Racism (1997) and The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York (1990)

Equality and the Fourth of July

http://modernistarchitecture.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/georgetrumbullsigningofthedeclarationofindependencejefferson1817.jpeg?w=583&h=391

4 July 2014

The Fourth of July celebrates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, signed by representatives of the 13 colonies to proclaim their separation from the King of Great Britain on this day, 238 years ago.

The Declaration of Independence marked a major turning point in history, not only for the people of what would become the United States of America, but for the entire world. In announcing their irrevocable break from the British monarchy, the founders sought to realize in practice the great progressive conceptions of the Enlightenment.

Equality was central to the principles proclaimed in the summer of 1776. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” the document sets out in its second paragraph, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Commenting on the radicalism of the American Revolution, historian Gordon Wood has noted, “Equality was in fact the most radical and most powerful ideological force let loose in the Revolution,” which had an appeal “far more potent than any of the revolutionaries realized” and “tore through American society and culture with awesome power.” The notion of equality became deeply embedded in the consciousness of the people, with reverberations that continue to the present day.

That the Revolution in the New World posed a danger to aristocratic privilege and arbitrary power everywhere was understood very clearly by those who led it and by those who opposed it. The War of Independence, Marx would later note, sounded the tocsin for the French Revolution and all the great democratic revolutions of that era.

The American Revolution was a bourgeois democratic revolution. Neither it nor those who led it could transcend the social conditions of the day. As such, the historical event could not live up to the ideals that its greatest proponents laid out. Nevertheless, the American Revolution—and, in particular, the Declaration of Independence—resonated in every subsequent progressive episode in American history. Indeed, it was to “the proposition that all men are created equal” that Abraham Lincoln would refer four score and seven years later when he delivered his famous address on the battlefield at Gettysburg, in the midst of the Civil War to abolish the barbaric institution of slavery—the Second American Revolution.

The social, political and cultural state of present-day America makes a mockery of the principles that are recalled and celebrated on July 4.

Inequality is the defining feature of American life. The aristocratic principle has been reborn. If the current rulers could, they would reestablish titles and ranks of nobility, the official proclamations of privilege—and no doubt there are some who are already conspiring to do so.

The cancer of inequality infects every ruling national institution—the White House, led by a president who has become, solely on the basis of his political career, a multi-millionaire; the Congress, which is populated by scores of multi-millionaires; and the Supreme Court, in which eight of the nine justices are multi-millionaires. In short, all three branches of the federal government are controlled by individuals who are themselves part of the richest 1 percent of American society.

And then there is the media, in which those who dish out the propaganda that serves the interests of the state and the corporate-financial elite are paid millions of dollars annually for their faithful service.

The American aristocracy has grown rich largely through financial fraud. Six years ago, it sparked a global economic crisis through its manic speculation. Yesterday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average surpassed 17,000 for the first time in its 118-year history. The financial traders celebrated the comments of Fed Chairman Janet Yellen, who proclaimed on Wednesday that the spigots funneling cash into the markets would remain open. The orgy of excess comes on top of social devastation and decline for the vast majority of the population. The words used by the great Tom Paine to describe the aristocracy on the eve of the French Revolution of 1789 (which was inspired by the American example) come to mind: “They pity the plumage and forget the dying bird.”

The aristocratic principle is present in every aspect of American policy. Globally, it finds expression in unrelenting militarism, a criminal foreign policy based on plunder and conquest. With increasingly reckless abandon, the American ruling class has launched a series of wars, leaving disaster and chaos in its wake. More than ten years after the invasion of Iraq laid waste to one of the most advanced societies in the Middle East, US troops, drones and military aircraft are once again heading back—even as the Obama administration stokes war with Russia over Ukraine and China over energy-rich regions in the South Pacific.

High levels of social inequality are incompatible with democracy. This is demonstrated in the unprecedented assault on the democratic principles that flowed from the Declaration of Independence and were embodied in the Bill of Rights, such as due process, freedom of speech and the press, the prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures, the separation of church and state.

Whatever remains of democratic institutions are threatened by a colossal military-intelligence-police apparatus. Within the ruling establishment, the most basic democratic conceptions no longer exist. The president proclaims the right to assassinate American citizens without due process, and this does not produce any serious objection from within the state apparatus. Nearly 2 million Americans languish in prisons.

Today, the massive growth of social inequality is the focus of increasing public attention. There are vague, insubstantial and insincere calls for “something” to be done, while some among the wealthy speak nervously of “pitchforks” on the horizon. But these “somethings” amount to nothing. In all the official discussions of social inequality, there is virtually no mention of the fundamental cause of inequality: capitalism.

The fact is that nothing can be or will be done within the framework of the existing political and economic system to reverse the ever-more extreme concentration of wealth in the United States.

 

Joseph Kishore

How Did the Clintons Become So Rich?

The real scandal is not that the former president and first lady are so wealthy, but how they got that wealthy.

NEW YORK – SEPTEMBER 24: Hillary Clinton, Chelsea Clinton and Bill Clinton attend the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting at The Shertaon New York Hotel on September 24, 2013 in New York City.
Photo Credit: JStone / Shutterstock.com

“Is Hillary our Mitt Romney?” asked MSNBC’s Krystal Ball in a recent segment of her TV show. Ball’s statement came on the heels of several comments by Clinton that made her seem completely out of touch with ordinary Americans — that she is not “truly well off,” that she and her husband were compelled to give speeches for six figures apiece because they were “dead broke” upon leaving the White House.

Indeed, considering that Bill and Hillary Clinton have made more than $100 million since leaving the White House in 2000, it’s not surprising that many Americans see the former first couple as hopelessly detached from the problems of ordinary Americans despite presenting themselves as going through the very same struggles as other Americans.

“We had no money when we got there [to the White House],” explained Hillary Clinton in comments to ABC’s Diane Sawyer. “And we struggled to piece together the resources for mortgages for houses, for Chelsea’s education. It was not easy. Bill has worked really hard. And it’s been amazing to me. He’s worked very hard.”

Yet many Americans have also worked very hard, and they have not amassed the same kind of wealth as the Clintons, with multiple homes and over $100 million of earned income in the past decade. But underneath the social distance their wealth creates, there is a much deeper and more troubling truth. The real scandal is not that the Clintons are so wealthy but how they got that wealth.

Poor rascal

In 2009, Bill Clinton addressed the Campus Progress National Summit, a gathering of progressive students in Washington, D.C. “I never made any money until I left the White House,” he told the students. “I had the lowest net worth, adjusted for inflation, of any president elected in the last 100 years, including President [Barack] Obama. I was one poor rascal when I took office. But after I got out, I made a lot of money.”

Clinton didn’t just make “a lot of money” when he left the White House. Together, the Clintonspulled in $111 million from 2000 to 2007 — far more than what most people would consider a lot.

Thanks to the Office of Government Ethics (OGE), which compiles personal financial disclosures from federal public officials, and the ethics laws governing the U.S. Senate, we know a little bit about how the Clintons made their money. Federal disclosure laws require not only officeholders to disclose their finances but also their spouses, since spousal income is shared. Thus Hillary Clinton’s disclosures both as a U.S. senator and as secretary of state are a window into this shared fortune, one that was gleaned from the very same interest groups and corporations over which the Clintons had authority.

In 1999, Bill Clinton made repealing the Depression-era Glass-SteagallAct — which separated commercial and investment banking — a priority. He commanded a bipartisan push in repealing the law, which was primarily advocated for by Wall Street lobbyists. Not long after his pen hit the paper to repeal the law, Citigroup, a top beneficiary of the repeal, recruited Clinton’s Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin to join as an executive at the firm. Rubin went on to be one of Citigroup’s highest-paid officials, pulling in $115 million in pay from 1999 and 2008.

While Rubin was made rich from Wall Street deregulation, his boss went on the lecture circuit. In February of 2001, Clinton had been out of the White House for less than a month when he gave his first paid speech, to none other than Morgan Stanley — another beneficiary of and advocate for Clinton’s Wall Street deregulation — for$125,000. His next address in Manhattan was at Credit Suisse First Boston, which gave him an additional $125,000. His paid speaking arrangements took him around the world, from Canada to Hong Kong, speaking to a variety of interest groups with major public policy interests, including the American Israel Chamber of Commerce and the investment banking giant CLSA. Clinton had also made passing the North American Free Trade Agreement a priority during his presidency, so it is no surprise that major Canadian firms such as the Jim Pattison Group ($150,000) were happy to pay to hear a few remarks from him as well.

The Wall Street payments were significant in that they represented a form of gratitude not only for Bill Clinton’s deregulation of Wall Street. That year Hillary Clinton, now a senator from New York, voted for a bankruptcy bill that made it much harder for people to qualify for Chapter 7 bankruptcy; the bill was backed primarily by banks and credit card issuers.

Bill Clinton in his spree of speeches repeatedly returned to two of the banking giants at the heart of political power in Washington: Citigroup and Goldman Sachs. In 2004 he took home a quarter-million dollars for a Citigroup address in Paris; Goldman Sachs gave him $125,000 for a New York City address. That address must have been a real hit for the former president, because Goldman invited him back for a series of lectures the next year, at Kiawah Island, South Carolina ($125,000); Paris ($250,000); and Greensboro, Georgia ($150,000). The next year, Citigroup Venture Capital invited him for a $150,000 speech, and the Mortgage Bankers Association — representing the folks at the very heart of the financial crisis — gave him $150,000 for a speech in Chicago.

Goldman and Citigroup repeatedly paid Clinton for the next few years, and a number of other major corporate interest groups — such as the National Retail Federation ($150,000) and Merrill Lynch ($175,000) — also joined in the fun.

After Hillary Clinton lost her presidential bid and was appointed to the State Department, she and her husband had brought in more than $100 million from books and speeches. By any measure, they had far more wealth than they needed to pay debts and to take care of their daughter’s future — the reasons Hillary Clinton cited to Diane Sawyer.

Friends and enemies

In June of 2010, months after the Affordable Care Act was signed into law and the regulatory battle over the health overhaul was set into motion, the former president took $175,000 from the main health insurance lobbying organization, America’s Health Insurance Plans. A year after Hillary Clinton called Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and his family “friends” of her family, Bill Clinton was paid $250,000 to speak to the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt, which was closely tied to the Mubarak regime. As Hillary Clinton grappled with foreign policy issues in Pakistan, Turkey and the Middle East, Bill Clinton took home $175,000 from the Middle East Institute, a think tank that does work in those areas. In 2011 she filmed a video congratulating Kuwait on its independence; a few months later, he was paid a $175,000 honorarium from the Kuwait America Foundation.

Shortly after stepping down from her post, the she then embarked on her own spree of paid speeches, which don’t have to be disclosed because neither Clinton is a public official anymore. But from voluntarily disclosures and press reports, we know that she gave at least two paid speeches to Goldman Sachs for $200,000each. Although she has not disclosed her full remarks at these events, a number of attendees talked to Politico about her tone and content. “Clinton offered a message that the collected plutocrats found reassuring, according to accounts offered by several attendees, declaring that the banker-bashing so popular within both political parties was unproductive and indeed foolish,” read the article. We won’t know the full extent of payments for speeches unless Clinton chooses to release them or she officially declares for president and has to release her personal financial documents since 2013.

Common people

What has been laid out here is only a small sample of the vortex of wealth that Hillary and Bill Clinton have received from corporations, foundations, foreign organizations and others with an interest in U.S. public policy. No one with any knowledge of politics believes these payments to be disinterested or impartial; they are part of a larger political system that rewards politicians for fealty and obedience. The Clintons were simply following a path laid by other politicos, such as former U.S. Rep. Billy Tauzin of Louisiana, who raked in millions of dollars as a drug lobbyist after crafting an industry-friendly Medicare overhaul, and former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who has leveraged his experience in government to enrich himself influence-peddling for a variety of corporate clients without ever having to officially register as a lobbyist.

Given their immense wealth and how they got it — politicized kickbacks from the most powerful political forces in Washington, on Wall Street and around the globe — the Clintons would do well to admit that they are unusually wealthy and stop trying to pass themselves off as ordinary folks. If they don’t, their fate may very well resemble Romney’s, as mounting public anger over growing income and wealth inequality could prevent them from returning to the White House in 2016.

 

Zaid Jilani is the investigative blogger and campaigner for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. He is formerly the senior reporter-blogger for ThinkProgress.

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Child labour: A global scourge

By Ashley Tseng
26 June 2014

Children being forced by extreme poverty into wage (as well as slave) labour remains in the second decade of the Twenty-First Century a chilling, global phenomenon.

In its latest report on the issue, “Marking Progress Against Child Labour: Global Estimates and Trends,” the International Labour Organization (ILO) said that in 2012 at least 168 million children were working in conditions that fell under its definition of “unacceptable” or exploitative child labour.

Children, working alongside their mothers, in a brick factory in Bangladesh. (Photo credit: Peter de Ruiter)

Almost half of the child-labourers—73 million—were between the ages of 5 and 11. A further 47.4 million were children 12 to 14 years old. (According to the ILO’s definition, only 12- to 14-year-olds who work at least 14 hours per week or are involved in hazardous work are counted as child-labourers). And in 2012 there were 47.5 million documented cases of 15- to 17-year-olds working in hazardous conditions, or for more than 43 hours per week, as bonded labourers, or in some other form of coerced labour.

The ILO report indicated a gender discrepancy in child labour cases. There were 99 million boys between 5 and 17 years old who fit the ILO’s definition of unacceptable child labourers versus 68 million girls. However, the ILO cautions that its statistics frequently do not include less visible forms of child labour, such as work done in homes—work that is often, and in the case of domestic labour generally, performed by girls.

According to the ILO, there were 78 million fewer child labourers in 2012 than in 2000. While the ILO and others have been quick to laud this “progress,” the decline may have more to do with the world economic crisis that erupted in 2008 than the efforts to enact and enforce laws banning “unacceptable” child labour.

As the ILO report itself concedes, in the period immediately after the 2008 economic meltdown, employers of child labourers cut back, particularly amongst the cohort of early teenagers.

Of those the ILO considers child labourers, about 68 million work in the agricultural sector, 54 million in the service sector (including domestic work), and 12 million in manufacturing. 85 million children (approximately half of the reported number) are engaged in hazardous work, where they are regularly threatened with and fall victim to serious workplace-related injuries and illnesses. In some cases these prove fatal.

While hazardous working conditions—such as working barefoot and without a helmet on a construction site—threaten all workers, children are especially vulnerable. Such conditions compromise their still developing physical and psychological well-being and youth are more vulnerable to accidents because their bodies and minds are not yet fully mature.

The ILO figures on child labour are revealing, but they are far from definitive. Given the moral odour surrounding the practice and its often outright illicit character, employers frequently hide and cover up their use of child labour. Moreover, in many countries bribery of the few officials tasked with auditing workplaces for labour-code breaches is rampant, further diminishing the veracity of official reporting of child labour.

In October 2013, at the third Global Conference on Child Labour, the ILO conceded that its target to eliminate the worst forms of child labour by 2016 would not be met. This is hardly the first time that the UN agency has had to backtrack on its targets and rosy projections.

International law prohibits the use of child labour and 155 countries have signed a United Nations convention banning most types of labour by minors. Nevertheless, this global scourge persists amidst unprecedented wealth and technological progress, because employers and governments find it profitable and because capitalism is continuously driving workers and peasants into dire poverty, making them unable to support and educate their children.

According to the charity Save the Children, to take just one example, as many as 80 million children in India work. Indian law prohibits the hiring of children under the age of 14 for “hazardous” occupations, but even the Indian labour ministry admits that as many as 13 million children work in prohibited manufacturing operations such as glassmaking, domestic work, and embroidery.

Child-rights activists commonly state that the Indian government has no intention of implementing child labour laws and that police frequently tip off factory owners or accept bribes during raids. Moreover, activists have been targeted for assassination by business owners.

In relative terms, the highest incidence of child labour is found in Sub-Saharan Africa, where more than one in five children (21 per cent) between the ages of 5 and 17 are said to be engaged in child labour. In Asia and the Pacific, and Latin America and the Caribbean, the numbers are at 9 per cent, followed by 8 per cent in the Middle East and North Africa.

Many of the more than one thousand workers killed in the April 2013 Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh were children.

In the aftermath of the collapse, Western retailers and governments announced various measures, including “social audits” and inspections, to ensure that garment manufacturers adhere to elementary safety standards. But these measures had much more to do with protecting corporate brand names and profits than improving the lives of garment workers.

Giant Western retailers continue to relentlessly press the garment contractors and subcontractors to lower costs and speed up production, thereby ensuring the unsafe working practices that contributed to the Rana Plaza disaster persist in Bangladesh’s $22-billion-a-year garment industry. Young girls still work for as long as 11 hours a day and are subjected to physical and verbal abuse when they aren’t considered to be working fast enough.

In Peru, where producing gold is a $3 billion industry, children work in mines, often having to wait prolonged periods before getting even meagre wages. While working in these mines children are also exposed to mercury poisoning, life-threatening diseases like malaria, and industrial accidents.

Even in developed countries like the United States , child labour can be found. In California , children are cultivating fruits and vegetables and in North Carolina they are working on tobacco farms. While some of these workers are migrant children, others are US citizens. However, none of this is illegal. According to the US ’s Fair Labor Standards Act, children are allowed to work in agriculture as long as they have parental consent. (See: HYPERLINK “http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2014/05/15/chil-m15.html” Child labor widespread on American tobacco farms )

Corporations, anxious to market their products including amongst liberal-minded middle-class elements, tout slogans of “corporate social responsibility” as a means of sweeping their predatory practices under the rug. Despite occasional corporate campaigns, often in alliance with governments, trade unions and humanitarian organizations, child labour and other brutal forms of exploitation stubbornly persist precisely because all these entities have a vested interest in maintaining the root cause of the very problem they shed their crocodile tears over—capitalism.

Despite signing an agreement to end the use of child labour in its cocoa farms, Nestlé, the world’s biggest food company, still employs child labour in its West African cocoa supply chain. Harvesting cocoa is hard, dangerous work. There are frequent cases of children being injured from machetes slicing into their legs as they harvest the cocoa pods.

A recent addition to the corporate social responsibility bandwagon is cosmetic chain Lush . It has vowed to remove the mineral mica from its cosmetic products in response to news reports that its supply chain contains mica produced by forced labour. However, its “social audit” program to monitor mica production did not manage to reliably document incidences of child labour. This was at least because some of the sites where the mica was being extracted were deemed too dangerous for the auditors to visit!

The continuing prevalence of child labour underscores the failure of all efforts to reform and “humanize” capitalist exploitation. This scourge will not be ended through protest campaigns directed at governments and corporations but only through the independent political mobilization of the working class against the profit system.