Do You Have A Living Doppelgänger?

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Folk wisdom has it that everyone has a doppelganger; somewhere out there there’s a perfect duplicate of you, with your mother’s eyes, your father’s nose and that annoying mole you’ve always meant to have removed. Now BBC reports that last year Teghan Lucas set out to test the hypothesis that everyone has a living double. Armed with a public collection of photographs of U.S. military personnel and the help of colleagues from the University of Adelaide, Lucas painstakingly analyzed the faces of nearly four thousand individuals, measuring the distances between key features such as the eyes and ears. Next she calculated the probability that two peoples’ faces would match. What she found was good news for the criminal justice system, but likely to disappoint anyone pining for their long-lost double: the chances of sharing just eight dimensions with someone else are less than one in a trillion. Even with 7.4 billion people on the planet, that’s only a one in 135 chance that there’s a single pair of doppelgangers.

Lucas says this study has provided much-needed evidence that facial anthropometric measurements are as accurate as fingerprints and DNA when it comes to identifying a criminal. “The use of video surveillance systems for security purposes is increasing and as a result, there are more and more instances of criminals leaving their ‘faces’ at a scene of a crime,” says Ms Lucas. “At the same time, criminals are getting smarter and are avoiding leaving DNA or fingerprint traces at a crime scene.” But that’s not the whole story. The study relied on exact measurements; if your doppelganger’s ears are 59mm but yours are 60mm, your likeness wouldn’t count. “It depends whether we mean ‘lookalike to a human’ or ‘lookalike to facial recognition software,'” says David Aldous. If fine details aren’t important, suddenly the possibility of having a lookalike looks a lot more realistic. It depends on the way faces are stored in the brain: more like a map than an image. To ensure that friends and acquaintances can be recognized in any context, the brain employs an area known as the fusiform gyrus to tie all the pieces together.

This holistic ‘sum of the parts’ perception is thought to make recognizing friends a lot more accurate than it would be if their features were assessed in isolation. Using this type of analysis, and judging by the number of celebrity look-alikes out there, unless you have particularly rare features, you may have literally thousands of doppelgangers. “I think most people have somebody who is a facial lookalike unless they have a truly exceptional and unusual face,” says Francois Brunelle has photographed more than 200 pairs of doppelgangers for his I’m Not a Look-Alike project. “I think in the digital age which we are entering, at some point we will know because there will be pictures of almost everyone online.

 

https://science.slashdot.org/story/16/07/15/2039233/do-you-have-a-living-doppelgnger

America’s a Super Power — But What Does That Mean If the Entire World Is Falling Apart?

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The United States is the default superpower in an ever more recalcitrant world.

Photo Credit: Gianna Stadelmyer / Shutterstock

Vladimir Putin recently manned up and admitted it. The United States remains the planet’s sole superpower, as it has been since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. “America,” the Russian president said, “is a great power. Today, probably, the only superpower. We accept that.”

Think of us, in fact, as the default superpower in an ever more recalcitrant world.

Seventy-five years ago, at the edge of a global conflagration among rival great powers and empires, Henry Luce first suggested that the next century could be ours.  In February 1941, in his magazine LIFE, he wrote a famous essay entitled “The American Century.”  In it, he proclaimed that if only Americans would think internationally, surge into the world, and accept that they were already at war, the next hundred years would be theirs.  Just over nine months later, the Japanese attacked the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, plunging the country into World War II.  At the time, however, Americans were still riven and confused about how to deal with spreading regional conflicts in Europe and Asia, as well as the rise of fascism and the Nazis.

That moment was indeed a horrific one, and yet it was also just a heightened version of what had gone before.  For the previous half-millennium, there had seldom been a moment when at least two (and often three or more) European powers had not been in contention, often armed and violent, for domination and for control of significant parts of the planet.  In those many centuries, great powers rose and fell and new ones, including Germany and Japan, came on the scene girded for imperial battle. In the process, a modern global arms race was launched to create ever more advanced and devastating weaponry based on the latest breakthroughs in the science of war.  By August 1945, this had led to the release of an awesome form of primal energy in the first (and thus far only) use of nuclear weapons in wartime.

In the years that followed, the United States and the Soviet Union grew ever more “super” and took possession of destructive capabilities once left, at least in the human imagination, to the gods: the power to annihilate not just one enemy on one battlefield or one armada on one sea but everything.  In the nearly half-century of the Cold War, the rivalry between them became apocalyptic in nature as their nuclear arsenals grew to monstrous proportions.  As a result, with the exception of the Cuban Missile Crisis, they faced off against each other indirectly in “limited” proxy wars that, especially in Korea and Indochina, were of unparalleled technological ferocity.

Then, in 1991, the Soviet Union imploded and, for the first time in historical memory, there was only one power that mattered.  This was a reality even Henry Luce might have found farfetched.  Previously, the idea of a single power so mighty that it alone loomed over the planet was essentially relegated to fictional fantasies about extraordinary evil.  And yet so it was — or at least so it seemed, especially to the leadership that took power in Washington in the year 2000 and soon enough were dreaming of a planetary Pax Americana.

In a strange way, something similarly unimaginable happened in Europe.  On that continent laid waste by two devastating twentieth-century wars, a single “union” was formed, something that not so long before would have been categorized as a madly utopian project. The idea that centuries of national rivalries and the rabid nationalism that often went with it could somehow be tamed and that former great powers and imperial contenders could be subsumed in a single peaceful organization (even if under the aegis of American global power) would once have seemed like the most absurd of fictions.  And yet so it would be — or so it seemed, at least until recently.

A Planetary Brexit?

We seldom take in the strangeness of what’s happened on this curious planet of ours.  In the years after 1991, we became so inured to the idea of a single superpower globe and a single European economic and political union that both, once utterly inconceivable, came to seem too mundane to spend a lot of time thinking about.  And yet who would have believed that 75 years after Luce urged his country into that American Century, there would, in military terms, be no genuine rivals, no other truly great powers (only regional ones) on Planet Earth?

So many taken-for-granted things about our world were considered utterly improbable before they happened.  Take China.  I recall well the day in 1972 when, after decades of non-contact and raging hostility, we learned that President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, were in Beijing meeting congenially with Communist leader Mao Zedong.  A friend called to tell me the news.  I thought he was joking and it struck me as a ridiculously lame joke at that.

There’s almost no way now to capture how improbable this seemed at the time — the leading communist revolutionary on the planet chatting cheerily with the prime representative of anti-communism.  If, however, you had told me then that, in the decades to come, China would undergo a full-scale capitalist revolution and become the economic powerhouse of the planet, and that this would be done under the leadership of Mao’s still regnant communist party, I would have considered you mad.

And mind you, that’s just to begin to mention the improbabilities of the present moment.  After all, in what fantasies — ever — about a globe with a single dominant power, would anyone have imagined that it might fail so utterly to bring the world to anything approximating heel? If you had told Henry Luce, or me, or anyone else, including the masters of the universe in Washington in 1991, that the only superpower left on Earth, with the best-funded, mightiest, most technologically destructive and advanced military imaginable, would, on September 11, 2001, be goaded by a group so modest in size and power as to be barely noticeable into a series of never-ending wars across the Greater Middle East and Africa, we would have found that beyond improbable.

Who would have believed a movie or novel in which that same power, without national enemies of any significance in any of the regions where the fighting was taking place, would struggle unsuccessfully, year after year, to subdue scattered, lightly armed insurgents (aka “terrorists”) across a disintegrating region?  Who could have imagined that every measure Washington took to assert its might only seemed to blow back (or blow somewhere, anyway)?  Who would have believed that its full-scale invasion of one weak Middle Eastern country, its “mission accomplished” moment, would in the end prove a trip through “the gates of hell”?  Who would have imagined that such an invasion could punch a hole in the oil heartlands of the region that, 13 years later, is still a bleeding wound, now seemingly beyond repair, or that it would set loose a principle of chaos and disintegration that seems to be spreading like a planetary Brexit?

And what if I told you that, after 15 years of such behavior, the only thing the leaders of that superpower can now imagine doing in the increasingly wrecked lands where they carry on their struggles is yet more of everything that hasn’t worked in all that time?  Meanwhile — how improbable is this? — in its “homeland,” there is essentially no one, neither a movement in the streets, nor critical voices in the corridors of power protesting what’s happening or even exploring or suggesting other paths into the future.

Imagine that, wherever you looked, except in the borderlands of (and waters off) Russia and China, that single superpower was essentially unopposed and yet its ability to apply its unique status effectively in these years has been in eternal free-fall — even in perfectly peaceable areas to which it was closely allied.  As an example, consider this: the president of that sole superpower flies to London and, in an England that (like much of Europe) hasn’t said no to Washington about anything of genuine significance in decades, strongly urges the British not to exit (or “Brexit”) the European Union (EU).  He backs up his suggestion with a clearly stated threat.  If they do so, he says, our closest trans-Atlantic partner will find itself at “the back of the queue” when it comes to future trade deals with Washington.

Remember, we’re talking about a country that has, in these years, seconded the U.S. endlessly.  As David Sanger of the New York Times recently (and delicately) put it:

“No country shares Washington’s worldview quite the way Britain does, [American officials] say; it has long been the United States’ most willing security ally, most effective intelligence partner and greatest enthusiast of the free-trade mantras that have been a keystone of America’s internationalist approach. And few nations were as willing to put a thumb as firmly on the scales of European debates in ways that benefit the United States.”

By now, of course, we all know how the populace of our most loyal ally, the other side of that “special relationship,” reacted — with anger at the president’s intervention and with a vote to exit the European Union not long after.  In its wake, fears are rising of further Frexits and Nexits that might crack the EU open and usher in a new era of nationalist feeling in Europe.

Failed World?

As goes Britain, so, it seems, goes the world.  Give Washington real credit for much of this.  Those post-9/11 dreams of global domination shared by the top leadership of the Bush administration proved wildly destructive and it’s gotten no better since.  Consider the vast swath of the planet where the devastation is most obvious: the Greater Middle East and North Africa.  Then ask yourself: Are we still in the American Century?  And if not, whose (or what) century are we in?

If you had told me in 1975, when the Vietnam War finally ended some 34 years after Luce wrote that essay and 28 years before the U.S. invaded Iraq that, in 1979, Washington would become involved in a decade-long war in Afghanistan, I would have been stunned.  If you had told me in 1975 that, in 2001, it would invade that same country and launch a second Afghan War, still underway 15 years later with no end in sight, I wouldn’t have believed you.  A quarter-century of American wars and still counting in a country that, in 1975, most Americans might not have been able to locate on a map.  If you had added that, starting in 1990, the U.S. would be involved in three successive wars in Iraq, the third of which is still ongoing, I might have been speechless.  And that’s not to mention interventions of various sorts, also ongoing, in Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, and Syria — none, by the way, by any normal standards successful.

If you were to do a little tabulation of the results of these years of American Century-ism across the Greater Middle East, you would discover a signature kind of chaos.  In the early years of this century, officials of the Bush administration often referred to the region from China’s western border to northern Africa as an “arc of instability.”  That phrase was meant to embody their explanation for letting the U.S. military loose there: to bring order and, of course, democracy to those lands.  And with modest exceptions, it was indeed true that most of the Greater Middle East was then ruled by repressive, autocratic, or regressive regimes of various sorts.  It was, however, still a reasonably orderly region.  Now, it actually is an arc of instability filled with states that are collapsing left and right, cities and towns that are being leveled, and terror outfits, each worse than the last, that are spreading in the regional rubble.  Religious and ethnic divisions of every sort are sharpening and conflicts within countries, or what’s left of them, are on the rise.

Most of the places where the U.S. has let its military and its air power loose — Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Syria – are now either failed or failing states.  Under the circumstances, it might be reasonable to suggest that the very term “failed state” is outdated, and not just because it places all the blame for what’s happened on the indigenous people of a country.  After all, if the arc of instability is now in any way “united,” it’s mainly thanks to spreading terror groups and perhaps the Islamic State brand.

Moreover, in the stunted imagination of present-day Washington, the only policies imaginable in response to all this are highly militarized and call for more of the same: more air power in the skies over distant battlefields, more boots on the ground, more private contractors and hired guns, more munitions and weaponry (surprising amounts of which have, in these years, ended up in the hands not of allied forces, but of Washington’s enemies), more special operations raids, more drone assassination campaigns, and at home, more surveillance, more powers for the national security state, more… well, you know the story.

For such a world, a new term is needed.  Perhaps something like failed region.  This, it seems, is one thing that the American Century has come to mean 75 years after Henry Luce urged it into existence.  And perhaps lurking in the undergrowth as well is another phrase, one not quite yet imaginable but thoroughly chilling: failed world.

With this in mind, imagine what the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia could mean in the long run, or the recent U.S.-NATO pivot to the Baltics and Eastern Europe.  If huge swaths of the planet have begun to disintegrate in an era when the worst the U.S. faced in the way of opponents has been minority insurgencies and terror outfits, or more recently a terror caliphate, consider for a moment what kinds of chaos could come to regions where a potentially hostile power remains.  And by the way, don’t for a second think that, even if the Islamic State is finally defeated, worse can’t emerge from the chaos and rubble of the failed region that it will leave behind.  It can and, odds on, it will.

All of this gives the very idea of an American Century new meaning.  Can there be any question that this is not the century of Henry Luce, nor the one that American political and military leaders dreamed of when the Soviet Union collapsed?  What comes to mind instead is the sentiment the Roman historian Tacitus put in the mouth of Calgacus, a chieftain in what is now Scotland, speaking of the Roman conquests of his time: “They make a desert and call it peace.”

Perhaps this is no longer really the American century at all, despite the continuing status of the U.S. as the planet’s sole superpower.  A recent U.N. report estimates that, in 2015, a record 65 million people were uprooted, mainly in the Greater Middle East. Tens of millions of them crossed borders and became refugees, including staggering numbers of children, many separated from their parents.  So perhaps this really is the century of the lost child.

What could be sadder?

THE RISE OF FACEBOOK AND ‘THE OPERATING SYSTEM OF OUR LIVES’

Siva Vaidhyanathan, UVA’s Robertson Professor of Media Studies, is the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Media and Citizenship.Siva Vaidhyanathan, UVA’s Robertson Professor of Media Studies, is the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Media and Citizenship. (Photo by Dan Addison)

Recent changes announced by social media giant Facebook have roiled the media community and raised questions about privacy. The company’s updates include a higher level of news feed priority for posts made by friends and family and testing for new end-to-end encryption software inside its messenger service.

As Facebook now boasts more than a billion users worldwide, both of these updates are likely to impact the way the world communicates. Prior to the company’s news-feed algorithm change, a 2016 study from the Pew Research Center found that approximately 44 percent of American adults regularly read news content through Facebook.

UVA Today sat down with Siva Vaidhyanathan, the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Media and Citizenship and Robertson Professor of Media Studies, to discuss the impact of these changes and the evolving role of Facebook in the world. Naturally, the conversation first aired on Facebook Live.

Excerpts from the conversation and the full video are available below.

Q. What is the change to Facebook’s News Feed?

A. Facebook has announced a different emphasis within its news feed. Now of course, your news feed is much more than news. It’s all of those links and photos and videos that your friends are posting and all of the sites that you’re following. So that could be an interesting combination of your cousin, your coworker, the New York Times and Fox News all streaming through.

A couple of years ago, the folks that run Facebook recognized that Facebook was quickly becoming the leading news source for many millions of Americans, and considering that they have 1.6 billion users around the world, and it’s growing fast, there was a real concern that Facebook should take that responsibility seriously. So one of the things that Facebook did was cut a deal with a number of publishers to be able to load up their content directly from Facebook servers, rather than just link to an original content server. That provided more dependable loading, especially of video, but also faster loading, especially through mobile.

But in recent weeks, Facebook has sort of rolled back on that. They haven’t removed the partnership program that serves up all that content in a quick form, but they’ve made it very clear that their algorithms that generate your news feed will be weighted much more heavily to what your friends are linking to, liking and commenting on, and what you’ve told Facebook over the years you’re interested in.

This has a couple of ramifications. One, it sort of downgrades the project of bringing legitimate news into the forefront by default, but it also makes sure that we are more likely to be rewarded with materials that we’ve already expressed an interest in. We’re much more likely to see material from publications and our friends we reward with links and likes. We’re much more likely to see material linked by friends with whom we have had comment conversations.

This can generate something that we call a “filter bubble.” A gentlemen named Eli Pariser wrote a book called “The Filter Bubble.” It came out in 2011, and the problem he identified has only gotten worse since it came out. Facebook is a prime example of that because Facebook is in the business of giving you reasons to feel good about being on Facebook. Facebook’s incentives are designed to keep you engaged.

Q. How will this change the experience for publishers?

A. The change or the announcement of the change came about because a number of former Facebook employees told stories about how Facebook had guided their decisions to privilege certain things in news feeds that seemed to diminish the content and arguments of conservative media.

Well, Facebook didn’t want that reputation, obviously. Facebook would rather not be mixed up or labeled as a champion of liberal causes over conservative causes in the U.S. That means that Facebook is still going to privilege certain producers of media – those producers of media that have signed contracts with Facebook. The Guardian is one, the New York Times is another. There are dozens of others. Those are still going to be privileged in Facebook’s algorithm, and among the news sources you encounter, you’re more likely to see those news sources than those that have not engaged in a explicit contract with Facebook. So Facebook is making editorial decisions based on their self-interest more than anything, and not necessarily on any sort of political ideology.

Q. You wrote “The Googlization of Everything” in 2011. Since then, have we progressed to the “Facebookization” of everything?

A. I wouldn’t say that it’s the Facebookization of everything – and that’s pretty clumsy anyway. I would make an argument that if you look at five companies that don’t even seem to do the same thing – Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon – they’re actually competing in a long game, and it has nothing to do with social media. It has nothing to do with your phone, nothing to do with your computer and nothing to do with the Internet as we know it.

They’re all competing to earn our trust and manage the data flows that they think will soon run through every aspect of our lives – through our watches, through our eyeglasses, through our cars, through our refrigerators, our toasters and our thermostats. So you see companies – all five of these companies from Amazon to Google to Microsoft to Facebook to Apple – are all putting out products and services meant to establish ubiquitous data connections, whether it’s the Apple Watch or the Google self-driving car or whether it’s that weird obelisk that Amazon’s selling us [the Echo] that you can talk to or use to play music and things. These are all part of what I call the “operating system of our lives.”

Facebook is interesting because it’s part of that race. Facebook, like those other companies, is trying to be the company that ultimately manages our lives, in every possible way.

We often hear a phrase called the “Internet of things.” I think that’s a misnomer because what we’re talking about, first of all, is not like the Internet at all. It’s going to be a closed system, not an open system. Secondly, it’s not about things. It’s actually about our bodies. The reason that watches and glasses and cars are important is that they lie on and carry human bodies. What we’re really seeing is the full embeddedness of human bodies and human motion in these data streams and the full connectivity of these data streams to the human body.

So the fact that Facebook is constantly tracking your location, is constantly encouraging you to be in conversation with your friends through it – at every bus stop and subway stop, at every traffic light, even though you’re not supposed to – is a sign that they are doing their best to plug you in constantly. That phenomenon, and it’s not just about Facebook alone, is something that’s really interesting.

Q. What are the implications of that for society?

A. The implications of the emergence of an operating system of our lives are pretty severe. First of all, consider that we will consistently be outsourcing decision-making like “Turn left or turn right?,” “What kind of orange juice to buy?” and “What kind of washing detergent to buy?” All of these decisions will be guided by, if not determined by, contracts that these data companies will be signing with consumer companies.

… We’re accepting short-term convenience, a rather trivial reward, and deferring long-term harms. Those harms include a loss of autonomy, a loss of privacy and perhaps even a loss of dignity at some point. … Right now, what I am concerned about is the notion that we’re all plugging into these data streams and deciding to allow other companies to manage our decisions. We’re letting Facebook manage what we get to see and which friends we get to interact with.

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The Alternative to Fervent Nationalism Isn’t Corporate Liberalism—It’s Social Democracy

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Barack Obama and Senator Hillary Clinton. (Photo: Jim Bourg/Reuters)

In his 1946 essay reviewing former Trotskyist-turned-reactionary James Burnham’s book The Managerial Revolution, George Orwell made several observations that resonate just as powerfully today as they did when they were first published.

“The real question,” he wrote, “is not whether the people who wipe their boots on us during the next fifty years are to be called managers, bureaucrats, or politicians: the question is whether capitalism, now obviously doomed, is to give way to oligarchy or to true democracy.”

Orwell recognized what many today fail to perceive: That free market capitalism is, in the words of Karl Polanyi, a “stark Utopia,” a system that does not exist, and one that would not survive for long if it ever came into existence.

But for Orwell, the question was not how (or whether) the crises of capitalism that rocked both Europe and the United States in the 20th century would be solved — the question was: what would take the place of an economic order that was clearly on its way out?

Read today, his prediction of the world to come emanates prescience.

“For quite fifty years past the general drift has almost certainly been towards oligarchy,” Orwell argued. “The ever-increasing concentration of industrial and financial power; the diminishing importance of the individual capitalist or shareholder, and the growth of the new ‘managerial’ class of scientists, technicians, and bureaucrats; the weakness of the proletariat against the centralised state; the increasing helplessness of small countries against big ones; the decay of representative institutions and the appearance of one-party regimes based on police terrorism, faked plebiscites, etc.: all these things seem to point in the same direction.”

This year has in some ways marked the peak of these trends — trends that are currently being exploited (as they always have been) by both genuine nationalists and political opportunists looking to capitalize on the destabilizing effects of the international economic order.

Globally, the concentration of income at the very top is obscene: As a widely cited Oxfam report notes, 62 people own the same amount of wealth as half of the world’s population. The report also found that as the wealth of the global elite continues to soar, “the wealth of the poorest half of the world’s population has fallen by a trillion dollars since 2010, a drop of 38 percent.”

And such trends have not just inflicted the poorest. The middle class in the United States, for instance, has been steadily eroding over the past several decades in the face of slow growth and stagnant wages. Meanwhile, top CEOs have seen their incomes rise by over 900 percent.

People are reacting. From the rise of Donald Trump and right-wing nationalists throughout Europe to the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, people are using the influence they still have to express their contempt for a system that has failed them and their families.

Some of the discontent is undoubtedly motivated by racial animus and anti-immigrant sentiment, both of which have been preyed upon by charlatans across the globe. But it has also been motivated by class antagonism, by a general feeling that economic and political elites are making out like bandits while the public is forced to scramble for an ever-dwindling piece of the pie.

Responses to these developments by apologists for elites and by elites themselves have been varied, but all have had a common core: The United States and Europe are, contrary to popular perception, suffering from too much democracy.

The leash restraining the people, the argument goes, has been excessively loosened, and, consequently, the “ignorant masses” have wreaked havoc. More or less, the proposed solution has been to tighten the leash.

In a recent piece for Foreign Policy, James Traub calls on “elites to rise up against the ignorant masses.” They must put the people in their place with facts and reason, with the decent sense that “the mob” lacks by definition.

Traub’s was perhaps the most explicit and aggressive call to action, and, as he notes in his latest work for the same outlet, he has reaped a storm of criticism.

With a hint of regret, Traub insists that his point was misunderstood. The notion, Traub explains, that “people who take issue with the forces of globalization, whether from the left or the right, should defer to elites” is “repellent.”

This latest piece was, when it was first published, provocatively titled “Liberalism Isn’t Working.” The title has since been altered, but the core point remains: Europe and the United States, Traub argues, are experiencing “the breakdown of the liberal order.”

In Traub’s view, irrationality is prevailing over reason — noticeable in, for instance, popular disdain for “experts” — and illiberal democracy is taking the place of what was previously liberal democracy. Intolerance is replacing tolerance. Those who “can’t stand the way the world is going and want to return to a mythical golden age where women and Mexicans and refugees and gays and atheists didn’t disturb the public with their demands” are defeating those who favor diversity and free thought.

It is heartening to see Traub walk back his elitist war cry, and he is correct that liberalism in its current form — that is to say, corporate liberalism, or neoliberalism — has failed to muster an adequate response to the various crises facing global society.

But this is not because liberals have no desire to do so; it is because their ideological system is utterly bankrupt, divorced from the needs of the masses and subservient to the needs of organized wealth.

Traub notes, perhaps correctly, that President Obama’s “remote, cerebral manner has…whetted the public’s appetite for a snake-oil salesman like Trump.”

More than his “manner,” though, Obama’s ideological bent — largely shared by Hillary Clinton and other corporate Democrats — has left a vacuum into which phony populists like Trump have emerged.

And this is what Traub fails to consider: The alternative to Trumpism is not more smug, corporate liberalism that manages the decline and tempers the expectations of the masses; it is, rather, an ambitious social agenda that utilizes mass politics to create an economic and political order that is responsive to the material needs of the population.

Contrary to the urgent warnings that we are suffering from an excess of democracy, the United States and Europe have for too long been gripped by a democratic deficit.

“If we want to avert the sense of powerlessness among voters that fuels demagogy,” writes Michael Lind, “the answer is not less democracy in America, but more.”

Traub and others like him have succeeded in putting forward critiques of the movements responding to the discontent of the masses, but they have failed to criticize the economic order whose failures have sparked this discontent. As a result, they have failed to offer a compelling alternative to the surging nationalism they profess to fear.

And as Luke Savage notes in a recent piece for Jacobin, the self-styled experts have often done much worse than that.

He points to the fact that “beyond a few largely anecdotal comments about globalization, Traub offers no real analysis of the causes driving the polarization he so detests. In familiar tones, he conflates the populist right and the populist left, and characterizes anti-establishment sentiment as the product of sheer, mindless democratic stupidity.”

In effect, the expert class has — predictably — erased from view the agendas of figures like Bernie Sanders, figures who represent an alternative to both fervent nationalism and neoliberalism.

And far from putting forward radical and unworkable proposals, the ideas on which the Sanders campaign has been based have far-reaching appeal.

Ultimately, Savage concludes, “the real political schism of our time” is “not one between ‘the sane and the mindlessly angry,’ but between democrats and technocratic elites.”

It is, for instance, elite opinion, not public opinion, that stands in the way of the implementation of single-payer healthcare.

Most of the public, furthermore, believes that “major donors sway Congress more than constituents,” but it is elites — including self-styled progressives — who stand in the way of campaign finance reform.

The so-called “ignorant masses” understand that “there is too much power concentrated in the hands of a few big companies,” and that “the government doesn’t do enough for older people, poor people or children.” But it is elites whose entrenched interests undercut any attempt to remedy these trends.

There is, in short, an appetite for social democracy in the United States, but it is elites — economic and political — who stand in the way and insist that such an appetite is the result of excessive imagination.

Conservatives — including Trump — continue to fight unabashedly for the needs of corporate America, while neoliberals like President Obama and Hillary Clinton insist that progressive initiatives must be curbed in the interest of “getting things done.”

But such a commitment to “pragmatism” is, in reality, a lack of commitment to the systemic change necessary in the midst of unprecedented inequality, horrific levels of child poverty, an intolerably high rate of infant mortality, neglected communities, and other crises that require radical action.

Interestingly, in his essay James Traub cites George Orwell as one of the “great exponents” of liberalism and anti-totalitarianism.

But he fails to mention what Orwell, himself, wrote about his own political motivations, which he expressed in his 1946 essay “Why I Write.”

“Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936,” Orwell notes, “has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it.”

Needless to say, Orwell’s vision was not a hierarchical one that placed technocratic elites and self-proclaimed experts at the helm; it was one that warned of totalitarianism of all forms and proposed a more egalitarian alternative.

By ignoring this — deliberately or otherwise — and by establishing a status quo of austerity, intolerable inequality, environmental degradation, and endless war, elites have fostered the reaction they are now attempting to beat back.

But their proposed alternative is, effectively, more of the same. That, as much of the world’s population recognizes, is not enough.

“It’s not about the EU,” notes Mark Blyth in an assessment of the European economy that applies just as well to the United States. “It’s about the elites. It’s about the 1%. It’s about the fact that your parties that were meant to serve your interests have sold you down the river.”

“We are in a revolutionary moment”: Chris Hedges explains why an uprising is coming

The status quo is doomed but whether the future will be progressive or reactionary is uncertain

"We are in a revolutionary moment": Chris Hedges explains why an uprising is coming — and soon
(Credit: Nation Books)

In recent years, there’s been a small genre of left-of-center journalism that, followingPresident Obama’s lead, endeavors to prove that things on Planet Earth are not just going well, but have, in fact, never been better. This is an inherently subjective claim, of course; it requires that one buy into the idea of human progress, for one thing. But no matter how it was framed, there’s at least one celebrated leftist activist, author and journalist who’d disagree: Chris Hedges.

In fact, in his latest book, “Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt,” Hedges argues that the world is currently at a crisis point the likes of which we’ve never really seen. There are similarities between our time and the era of the 1848 revolutions throughout Europe — or the French Revolutionary era that preceded them — he says. But in many ways, climate change least among them, the stakes this time are much higher. According to Hedges, a revolution is coming; we just don’t yet know when, where, how — or on whose behalf.

Recently, Salon spoke over the phone with Hedges to discuss his book, why he thinks our world is in for some massive disruptions, and why we need revolutionaries now more than ever. A transcript of our conversation which has been edited for clarity and length can be found below.

Do you think we are in a revolutionary era now? Or is it more something on the horizon?

It’s with us already, but with this caveat: it is what Gramsci calls interregnum, this period where the ideas that buttress the old ruling elite no longer hold sway, but we haven’t articulated something to take its place.

That’s what that essay I quote by Alexander Berkman, “The Invisible Revolution,” talks about. He likens it to a pot that’s beginning to boil. So it’s already taking place, although it’s subterranean. And the facade of power — both the physical facade of power and the ideological facade of power — appears to remain intact. But it has less and less credibility.

There are all sorts of neutral indicators that show that. Low voter turnout, the fact that Congress has an approval rating of 7 percent, that polls continually reflect a kind of pessimism about where we are going, that many of the major systems that have been set in place — especially in terms of internal security — have no popularity at all.

All of these are indicators that something is seriously wrong, that the government is no longer responding to the most basic concerns, needs, and rights of the citizenry. That is [true for the] left and right. But what’s going to take it’s place, that has not been articulated. Yes, we are in a revolutionary moment; but maybe it’s a better way to describe it as a revolutionary process.

Is there a revolutionary consciousness building in America?

Well, it is definitely building. But until there is an ideological framework that large numbers of people embrace to challenge the old ideological framework, nothing is going to happen. Some things can happen; you can have sporadic uprisings as you had in Ferguson or you had in Baltimore. But until they are infused with that kind of political vision, they are reactive, in essence.

So you have, every 28 hours, a person of color, usually a poor person of color, being killed with lethal force — and, of course, in most of these cases they are unarmed. So people march in the streets and people protest; and yet the killings don’t stop. Even when they are captured on video. I mean we have videos of people being murdered by the police and the police walk away. This is symptomatic of a state that is ossified and can no longer respond rationally to what is happening to the citizenry, because it exclusively serves the interest of corporate power.

We have, to quote John Ralston Saul, “undergone a corporate coup d’état in slow motion” and it’s over. The normal mechanisms by which we carry out incremental and piecemeal reform through liberal institutions no longer function. They have been seized by corporate power — including the press. That sets the stage for inevitable blowback, because these corporations have no internal constraints, and now they have no external constraints. So they will exploit, because, as Marx understood, that’s their nature, until exhaustion or collapse.

What do you think is the most likely way that the people will respond to living in these conditions?

That is the big unknown. When it will come is unknown. What is it that will trigger it is unknown. You could go back and look at past uprisings, some of which I covered — I covered all the revolutions in Eastern Europe; I covered the two Palestinian uprisings; I covered the street demonstrations that eventually brought down Slobodan Milosevic — and it’s usually something banal.

As a reporter, you know that it’s there; but you never know what will ignite it. So you have Lenin, six weeks before the revolution, in exile in Switzerland, getting up and saying, We who are old will never live to see the revolution. Even the purported leaders of the opposition never know when it’s coming. Nor do they know what will trigger it.

What kind of person engages in revolutionary activity? Is there a specific type?

There are different types, but they have certain characteristics in common. That’s why I quote theologian Reinhold Niebuhr when he talks about “sublime madness.”

I think that sublime madness — James Baldwin writes it’s not so much that [revolutionaries] have a vision, it’s that they are possessed by it. I think that’s right. They are often difficult, eccentric personalities by nature, because they are stepping out front to confront a system of power [in a way that is] almost a kind of a form of suicide. But in moments of extremity, these rebels are absolutely key; and that you can’t pull off seismic change without them.

You’ve said that we don’t know where the change will come from, and that it could just as easily take a right-wing, reactionary form as a leftist one. Is there anything lefties can do to influence the outcome? Or is it out of anyone’s control?

There’s so many events as societies disintegrate that you can’t predict. They play such a large part in shaping how a society goes that there is a lot of it that is not in your control.

For example, if you compare the breakdown of Yugoslavia with the breakdown of Czechoslovakia — and I covered both of those stories — Yugoslavia was actually the Eastern European country best-equipped to integrate itself into Europe. But Yugoslavia went bad. When the economy broke down and Yugoslavia was hit with horrific hyperinflation, it vomited up these terrifying figures in the same way that Weimar vomited up the Nazi party. Yugoslavia tore itself to pieces.

If things unravel [in the U.S.], our backlash may very well be a rightwing backlash — a very frightening rightwing backlash. We who care about populist movements [on the left] are very weak, because in the name of anti-communism these movements have been destroyed; we are almost trying to rebuild them from scratch. We don’t even have the language to describe the class warfare that is being unleashed upon us by this tiny, rapacious, oligarchic elite. But we on the left are very disorganized, unfocused, and without resources.

In terms of  a left-wing populism having to build itself back up from scratch, do you see the broad coalition against the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as a hint of what that might look like? Or would you not go that far?

No, I would.

I think that if you look at what’s happened after Occupy, it’s either spawned or built alliances with a series of movements; whether it’s #BlackLivesMatter, whether it’s the Fight for $15 campaign, whether it’s challenging the TPP. I think they are all interconnected and, often times — at least when I’m with those activists — there is a political consciousness that I find quite mature.

Are you optimistic about the future?

I covered war for 20 years; we didn’t use terms like pessimist or optimist, because if you were overly optimistic, it could get you killed. You really tried to read the landscape as astutely as you could and then take calculated risks based on the reality around you, or at least on the reality insofar as you could interpret it. I kind of bring that mentality out of war zones.

If we are not brutal about diagnosing what we are up against, then all of our resistance is futile. If we think that voting for Hillary Clinton … is really going to make a difference, then I would argue we don’t understand corporate power and how it works. If you read the writings of anthropologists, there are studies about how civilizations break down; and we are certainly following that pattern. Unfortunately, there’s nothing within human nature to argue that we won’t go down the ways other civilizations have gone down. The difference is now, of course, that when we go down, the whole planet is going to go with us.

Yet you rebel not only for what you can achieve, but for who you become. In the end, those who rebel require faith — not a formal or necessarily Christian, Jewish or Muslim orthodoxy, but a faith that the good draws to it the good. That we are called to carry out the good insofar as we can determine what the good is; and then we let it go. The Buddhists call it karma, but faith is the belief that it goes somewhere. By standing up, you keep alive another narrative. It’s one of the ironic points of life. That, for me, is what provides hope; and if you are not there, there is no hope at all.

 

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer

10 Takeaways About the Gig Economy That Has Pushed Europe to Say No to These Predatory Capitalists

ECONOMY
Europe knows what undermines economic stability, says author Steven Hill.

Photo Credit: rmnoa357 / Shutterstock.com

The gig economy, exemplified by ride-service companies like Uber, housing rental companies like Airbnb and freelance brokers like Upwork, is not a harbinger of an empowering new tech-driven economy. These are predatory corporations using age-old practices to exploit workers, dodge government oversight and evade taxes.

Those are the takeaways from the new book Raw Deal: How The Uber Economy and Runaway Capitalism are Screwing American Workers, by Steven Hill, a fellow at New America Foundation. Hill, who splits his time between California and Europe, intriguingly notes that unlike the states, the continent has not embraced the gig economy mainstays in its midst.

AlterNet talked with Hill about how Europe—particularly Germany, where he has lived for most of 2016—has not bought into the sector’s claims that it is somehow futuristic, different and above government regulation and public accountability.

“I first started looking at this myself because I live in San Francisco and I’ve been watching the impact of technology on jobs, and specific companies like Uber, TaskRabbit, and Upwork, which I think in some ways is the most alarming of these companies,” he said, referring to a firm that farms out freelance work to the lowest global bidders. “Having studied that here, and these companies are now operating in other countries as well, I wanted to see how other countries are reacting to the pressures that they’re getting from these companies.”

What follows are 10 of Hill’s observations about the burgeoning gig economy.

1. Not following the laws, anywhere. “The first thing for Americans to realize is that a lot of these companies aren’t following the laws, aren’t paying taxes. Uber comes in and just doesn’t follow local laws for taxis. Not only in terms of background checks, insurance laws, qualifications for drivers, but even in terms of paying livery taxes. Airbnb, same thing. Upwork and TaskRabbit, these companies aren’t following minimum wage laws.”

2. Europeans are not okay with that. “Americans sort of accept some of this. But the first thing you notice when you go to France or Germany, they say, ‘No, this is a taxi service. I don’t care that you are using technology to connect a driver to a passenger.’ In fact, Uber changed its name to Uber Technologies just so they could say they were a technology company, not a taxi company. Across Europe, people say, So what? We don’t care that you’re a technology company. It is the same service you offer, therefore we expect you to follow the same laws that we have for taxis. We expect you to follow the same laws that we have for hotels or any of these other services and platforms.

“So there is this interesting and I would say refreshing perspective: Of course, you’re going to follow the laws. You don’t get out of following laws just because you think you are something new and different.”

3. Anything but a new business model. “Airbnb, for example, will tell you, ‘Look, we want to pay taxes—the hotel and occupancy tax that hotels pay—and we want to follow local laws, but we’re in 34,000 cities and we just haven’t had time to research all of these cities and their laws, and we’re going to get to it.’

The thing that’s rather remarkable is they are asserting this new corporate right that you can set up operations first and figure out the local laws and taxes later on. If Boeing, for example, were to set up an airplane assembly plant here, and said we’ll figure out the taxes and local laws later on, we’d live in a very different world. Corporations don’t get to set up where they want and figure out the laws later on. But that’s what these companies are insisting on being able to do.”

4. Europeans are trying to reel this in. “In Berlin, where I was living for the last five months, they passed a law two years ago saying, ‘There’s going to be the new rules we are going to insist on [for Airbnb rentals]. We are not going to have it take effect for two years so everyone can have a chance to get ready.’

Well, the law just went into effect on May 1, and it basically says that you cannot own multiple properties, you can’t rent out your whole house—you can only rent out a spare room in your house or apartment; they put a percentage on it, and you have to register with the city. They are not looking to shut it down completely. Most people realize that the core idea of Airbnb, that you can allow people to rent out a spare room and make some extra money, is okay. But the problem is a lot of it has been completely taken over by professional real estate operatives, some of whom have dozens of properties. So cities like Berlin and Copenhagen are trying to return it to that earlier core business, where you can still have someone rent out a spare room, but you’re not going to create an opportunity for professionals to circumvent local laws or use Airbnb as a massive loophole.”

5. Pushback in U.S. lags far behind. “San Francisco just passed a law for tougher Airbnb rules. They already have a law that folks have to register, which has been in effect for almost a year and a half. This new law is going to put the burden on Airbnb and says you can’t list folks who haven’t registered. If you do list folks who have not registered, you are going to be fined… Other cities are looking at it.

“The problem, in terms of Airbnb, is that many of these laws have turned out to be unenforceable. Unless you have the data from Airbnb, it’s hard to know how many nights they’re renting out, how much they’re charging, these sorts of things. Airbnb is the only one that has that data, and has refused to give it up, despite requests. So this is a big problem in terms of enforcing any of these laws.”

6. Europe is increasing enforcement. “In Berlin, in contrast, they’re ramping up enforcement. They are actually going to have people go door to door. They are encouraging neighbors to start reporting on neighbors who are illegally operating as Airbnb hotels. That’s interesting, as it taps into a whole history of Germany reporting on neighbors, going back to the Stasi [secret police] and everything else. It’s just a lot of different approaches that are happening. We’ll see if any of them are effective.”

7. Europeans are more concerned. “The public in Europe, in general, expect corporations to be better citizens. There is more of social dimension to the economy there. So when companies like Uber come in and say, Hey, we’re going to give you a new service, people take a second look.

First of all, in Europe, taxi service is pretty good, whereas here in the U.S. taxi service is not. There aren’t enough taxis on the road because of medallions and those sorts of things. But in Europe, there is not as big a need. There’s good public transit. That makes Europeans react by saying, If you want to operate here, that’s fine, but you have to follow the law. You can’t do it on the backs of your drivers, cutting their pay, and those sorts of things.”

8. The gig economy hasn’t exploded there. “It hasn’t hit there like it has here, partly because they insist that you follow the law. So Uber and Lyft and TaskRabbit and these other companies say it is a bigger uphill battle for them. They haven’t tried to push into there as much as in India or China. Europeans are aware of the gig economy. Some call it the digital economy. Some just call it the Internet economy. They’re aware that some of the ways that these companies operate really strike at the core of their social model.

“When you talk to business people in Germany and say, This is what these companies are; this is how they operate; they want a labor force they can turn on and off like a garden hose, they understand what that means for the economy. They have good labor relations and it’s part of their economic successes… So that is a barrier to entry for these kinds of companies.”

9. But European business people are worried. “The companies that are most concerning to them are a company like Upwork. It is based in San Francisco, in Silicon Valley, and has 250 employees who use technology to oversee 10 million freelancers from around the world. If you go on that platform, you see workers from Germany saying, I want 60 euros an hour for this job. And you can see a worker from Thailand or India saying, I’ll take two euros an hour. Some of those workers in Thailand or India are very skilled, have access to technology and can do the job.

“So, if you’re a business person in Germany, you feel torn because you can get someone for a lot less, but understand it undermines something crucial about the German economy, and the relationship between employer and employee, and the basis for their economic success. That’s the dilemma.”

10. American workers are less protected. “A lot of Americans who are working in these jobs just need the work. They know the jobs are not very good. If you look at Uber’s own numbers, it shows that 50 percent of their drivers last a year on their platform and then move on. So it’s a temporary job. It’s something they do because they can’t find anything better.”

The biggest takeaway 

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from listening to Hill is that the gig economy flourishes when the public faces a mix of economic anxieties and an absense of government oversight. On both those counts, the U.S. sits between Europe, which has resisted these exploitive firms, and Asia, where they are able to rapidly expand. Indeed, if Americans didn’t have as many economic anxieties at home, there would be less of a need to work longer hours and wrest more income from one’s assets.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America’s retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of “Count My Vote: A Citizen’s Guide to Voting” (AlterNet Books, 2008).

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