Inside Russia’s Social Media War on America

Updated: May 18, 2017 3:48 PM ET

On March 2, a disturbing report hit the desks of U.S. counterintelligence officials in Washington. For months, American spy hunters had scrambled to uncover details of Russia’s influence operation against the 2016 presidential election. In offices in both D.C. and suburban Virginia, they had created massive wall charts to track the different players in Russia’s multipronged scheme. But the report in early March was something new.

It described how Russia had already moved on from the rudimentary email hacks against politicians it had used in 2016. Now the Russians were running a more sophisticated hack on Twitter. The report said the Russians had sent expertly tailored messages carrying malware to more than 10,000 Twitter users in the Defense Department. Depending on the interests of the targets, the messages offered links to stories on recent sporting events or the Oscars, which had taken place the previous weekend. When clicked, the links took users to a Russian-controlled server that downloaded a program allowing Moscow’s hackers to take control of the victim’s phone or computer–and Twitter account.

As they scrambled to contain the damage from the hack and regain control of any compromised devices, the spy hunters realized they faced a new kind of threat. In 2016, Russia had used thousands of covert human agents and robot computer programs to spread disinformation referencing the stolen campaign emails of Hillary Clinton, amplifying their effect. Now counterintelligence officials wondered: What chaos could Moscow unleash with thousands of Twitter handles that spoke in real time with the authority of the armed forces of the United States? At any given moment, perhaps during a natural disaster or a terrorist attack, Pentagon Twitter accounts might send out false information. As each tweet corroborated another, and covert Russian agents amplified the messages even further afield, the result could be panic and confusion.

Russia Red Square White House Time Magazine Cover
Illustration by Brobel Design for TIME 

For many Americans, Russian hacking remains a story about the 2016 election. But there is another story taking shape. Marrying a hundred years of expertise in influence operations to the new world of social media, Russia may finally have gained the ability it long sought but never fully achieved in the Cold War: to alter the course of events in the U.S. by manipulating public opinion. The vast openness and anonymity of social media has cleared a dangerous new route for antidemocratic forces. “Using these technologies, it is possible to undermine democratic government, and it’s becoming easier every day,” says Rand Waltzman of the Rand Corp., who ran a major Pentagon research program to understand the propaganda threats posed by social media technology.

Current and former officials at the FBI, at the CIA and in Congress now believe the 2016 Russian operation was just the most visible battle in an ongoing information war against global democracy. And they’ve become more vocal about their concern. “If there has ever been a clarion call for vigilance and action against a threat to the very foundation of our democratic political system, this episode is it,” former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified before Congress on May 8.

If that sounds alarming, it helps to understand the battlescape of this new information war. As they tweet and like and upvote their way through social media, Americans generate a vast trove of data on what they think and how they respond to ideas and arguments–literally thousands of expressions of belief every second on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and Google. All of those digitized convictions are collected and stored, and much of that data is available commercially to anyone with sufficient computing power to take advantage of it.

That’s where the algorithms come in. American researchers have found they can use mathematical formulas to segment huge populations into thousands of subgroups according to defining characteristics like religion and political beliefs or taste in TV shows and music. Other algorithms can determine those groups’ hot-button issues and identify “followers” among them, pinpointing those most susceptible to suggestion. Propagandists can then manually craft messages to influence them, deploying covert provocateurs, either humans or automated computer programs known as bots, in hopes of altering their behavior.

That is what Moscow is doing, more than a dozen senior intelligence officials and others investigating Russia’s influence operations tell TIME. The Russians “target you and see what you like, what you click on, and see if you’re sympathetic or not sympathetic,” says a senior intelligence official. Whether and how much they have actually been able to change Americans’ behavior is hard to say. But as they have investigated the Russian 2016 operation, intelligence and other officials have found that Moscow has developed sophisticated tactics.

In one case last year, senior intelligence officials tell TIME, a Russian soldier based in Ukraine successfully infiltrated a U.S. social media group by pretending to be a 42-year-old American housewife and weighing in on political debates with specially tailored messages. In another case, officials say, Russia created a fake Facebook account to spread stories on political issues like refugee resettlement to targeted reporters they believed were susceptible to influence.

As Russia expands its cyberpropaganda efforts, the U.S. and its allies are only just beginning to figure out how to fight back. One problem: the fear of Russian influence operations can be more damaging than the operations themselves. Eager to appear more powerful than they are, the Russians would consider it a success if you questioned the truth of your news sources, knowing that Moscow might be lurking in your Facebook or Twitter feed. But figuring out if they are is hard. Uncovering “signals that indicate a particular handle is a state-sponsored account is really, really difficult,” says Jared Cohen, CEO of Jigsaw, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, which tackles global security challenges.

Like many a good spy tale, the story of how the U.S. learned its democracy could be hacked started with loose lips. In May 2016, a Russian military intelligence officer bragged to a colleague that his organization, known as the GRU, was getting ready to pay Clinton back for what President Vladimir Putin believed was an influence operation she had run against him five years earlier as Secretary of State. The GRU, he said, was going to cause chaos in the upcoming U.S. election.

What the officer didn’t know, senior intelligence officials tell TIME, was that U.S. spies were listening. They wrote up the conversation and sent it back to analysts at headquarters, who turned it from raw intelligence into an official report and circulated it. But if the officer’s boast seems like a red flag now, at the time U.S. officials didn’t know what to make of it. “We didn’t really understand the context of it until much later,” says the senior intelligence official. Investigators now realize that the officer’s boast was the first indication U.S. spies had from their sources that Russia wasn’t just hacking email accounts to collect intelligence but was also considering interfering in the vote. Like much of America, many in the U.S. government hadn’t imagined the kind of influence operation that Russia was preparing to unleash on the 2016 election. Fewer still realized it had been five years in the making.

In 2011, protests in more than 70 cities across Russia had threatened Putin’s control of the Kremlin. The uprising was organized on social media by a popular blogger named Alexei Navalny, who used his blog as well as Twitter and Facebook to get crowds in the streets. Putin’s forces broke out their own social media technique to strike back. When bloggers tried to organize nationwide protests on Twitter using #Triumfalnaya, pro-Kremlin botnets bombarded the hashtag with anti-protester messages and nonsense tweets, making it impossible for Putin’s opponents to coalesce.

Putin publicly accused then Secretary of State Clinton of running a massive influence operation against his country, saying she had sent “a signal” to protesters and that the State Department had actively worked to fuel the protests. The State Department said it had just funded pro-democracy organizations. Former officials say any such operations–in Russia or elsewhere–would require a special intelligence finding by the President and that Barack Obama was not likely to have issued one.

After his re-election the following year, Putin dispatched his newly installed head of military intelligence, Igor Sergun, to begin repurposing cyberweapons previously used for psychological operations in war zones for use in electioneering. Russian intelligence agencies funded “troll farms,” botnet spamming operations and fake news outlets as part of an expanding focus on psychological operations in cyberspace.

It turns out Putin had outside help. One particularly talented Russian programmer who had worked with social media researchers in the U.S. for 10 years had returned to Moscow and brought with him a trove of algorithms that could be used in influence operations. He was promptly hired by those working for Russian intelligence services, senior intelligence officials tell TIME. “The engineer who built them the algorithms is U.S.-trained,” says the senior intelligence official.

Soon, Putin was aiming his new weapons at the U.S. Following Moscow’s April 2014 invasion of Ukraine, the U.S. considered sanctions that would block the export of drilling and fracking technologies to Russia, putting out of reach some $8.2 trillion in oil reserves that could not be tapped without U.S. technology. As they watched Moscow’s intelligence operations in the U.S., American spy hunters saw Russian agents applying their new social media tactics on key aides to members of Congress. Moscow’s agents broadcast material on social media and watched how targets responded in an attempt to find those who might support their cause, the senior intelligence official tells TIME. “The Russians started using it on the Hill with staffers,” the official says, “to see who is more susceptible to continue this program [and] to see who would be more favorable to what they want to do.”

On Aug. 7, 2016, the infamous pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli declared that Hillary Clinton had Parkinson’s. That story went viral in late August, then took on a life of its own after Clinton fainted from pneumonia and dehydration at a Sept. 11 event in New York City. Elsewhere people invented stories saying Pope Francis had endorsed Trump and Clinton had murdered a DNC staffer. Just before Election Day, a story took off alleging that Clinton and her aides ran a pedophile ring in the basement of a D.C. pizza parlor.

Congressional investigators are looking at how Russia helped stories like these spread to specific audiences. Counterintelligence officials, meanwhile, have picked up evidence that Russia tried to target particular influencers during the election season who they reasoned would help spread the damaging stories. These officials have seen evidence of Russia using its algorithmic techniques to target the social media accounts of particular reporters, senior intelligence officials tell TIME. “It’s not necessarily the journal or the newspaper or the TV show,” says the senior intelligence official. “It’s the specific reporter that they find who might be a little bit slanted toward believing things, and they’ll hit him” with a flood of fake news stories.

Russia plays in every social media space. The intelligence officials have found that Moscow’s agents bought ads on Facebook to target specific populations with propaganda. “They buy the ads, where it says sponsored by–they do that just as much as anybody else does,” says the senior intelligence official. (A Facebook official says the company has no evidence of that occurring.) The ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mark Warner of Virginia, has said he is looking into why, for example, four of the top five Google search results the day the U.S. released a report on the 2016 operation were links to Russia’s TV propaganda arm, RT. (Google says it saw no meddling in this case.) Researchers at the University of Southern California, meanwhile, found that nearly 20% of political tweets in 2016 between Sept. 16 and Oct. 21 were generated by bots of unknown origin; investigators are trying to figure out how many were Russian.

As they dig into the viralizing of such stories, congressional investigations are probing not just Russia’s role but whether Moscow had help from the Trump campaign. Sources familiar with the investigations say they are probing two Trump-linked organizations: Cambridge Analytica, a data-analytics company hired by the campaign that is partly owned by deep-pocketed Trump backer Robert Mercer; and Breitbart News, the right-wing website formerly run by Trump’s top political adviser Stephen Bannon.

The congressional investigators are looking at ties between those companies and right-wing web personalities based in Eastern Europe who the U.S. believes are Russian fronts, a source familiar with the investigations tells TIME. “Nobody can prove it yet,” the source says. In March, McClatchy newspapers reported that FBI counterintelligence investigators were probing whether far-right sites like Breitbart News and Infowars had coordinated with Russian botnets to blitz social media with anti-Clinton stories, mixing fact and fiction when Trump was doing poorly in the campaign.

There are plenty of people who are skeptical of such a conspiracy, if one existed. Cambridge Analytica touts its ability to use algorithms to microtarget voters, but veteran political operatives have found them ineffective political influencers. Ted Cruz first used their methods during the primary, and his staff ended up concluding they had wasted their money. Mercer, Bannon, Breitbart News and the White House did not answer questions about the congressional probes. A spokesperson for Cambridge Analytica says the company has no ties to Russia or individuals acting as fronts for Moscow and that it is unaware of the probe.

Democratic operatives searching for explanations for Clinton’s loss after the election investigated social media trends in the three states that tipped the vote for Trump: Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. In each they found what they believe is evidence that key swing voters were being drawn to fake news stories and anti-Clinton stories online. Google searches for the fake pedophilia story circulating under the hashtag #pizzagate, for example, were disproportionately higher in swing districts and not in districts likely to vote for Trump.

The Democratic operatives created a package of background materials on what they had found, suggesting the search behavior might indicate that someone had successfully altered the behavior in key voting districts in key states. They circulated it to fellow party members who are up for a vote in 2018.

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Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper calls Russian cyber­ influence operations a threat to democracy Brendan Smialowski—AFP/Getty Images 

Even as investigators try to piece together what happened in 2016, they are worrying about what comes next. Russia claims to be able to alter events using cyberpropaganda and is doing what it can to tout its power. In February 2016, a Putin adviser named Andrey Krutskikh compared Russia’s information-warfare strategies to the Soviet Union’s obtaining a nuclear weapon in the 1940s, David Ignatius of the Washington Post reported. “We are at the verge of having something in the information arena which will allow us to talk to the Americans as equals,” Krutskikh said.

But if Russia is clearly moving forward, it’s less clear how active the U.S. has been. Documents released by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden and published by the Intercept suggested that the British were pursuing social media propaganda and had shared their tactics with the U.S. Chris Inglis, the former No. 2 at the National Security Agency, says the U.S. has not pursued this capability. “The Russians are 10 years ahead of us in being willing to make use of” social media to influence public opinion, he says.

There are signs that the U.S. may be playing in this field, however. From 2010 to 2012, the U.S. Agency for International Development established and ran a “Cuban Twitter” network designed to undermine communist control on the island. At the same time, according to the Associated Press, which discovered the program, the U.S. government hired a contractor to profile Cuban cell phone users, categorizing them as “pro-revolution,” “apolitical” or “antirevolutionary.”

Much of what is publicly known about the mechanics and techniques of social media propaganda comes from a program at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) that the Rand researcher, Waltzman, ran to study how propagandists might manipulate social media in the future. In the Cold War, operatives might distribute disinformation-laden newspapers to targeted political groups or insinuate an agent provocateur into a group of influential intellectuals. By harnessing computing power to segment and target literally millions of people in real time online, Waltzman concluded, you could potentially change behavior “on the scale of democratic governments.”

In the U.S., public scrutiny of such programs is usually enough to shut them down. In 2014, news articles appeared about the DARPA program and the “Cuban Twitter” project. It was only a year after Snowden had revealed widespread monitoring programs by the government. The DARPA program, already under a cloud, was allowed to expire quietly when its funding ran out in 2015.

In the wake of Russia’s 2016 election hack, the question is how to research social media propaganda without violating civil liberties. The need is all the more urgent because the technology continues to advance. While today humans are still required to tailor and distribute messages to specially targeted “susceptibles,” in the future crafting and transmitting emotionally powerful messages will be automated.

The U.S. government is constrained in what kind of research it can fund by various laws protecting citizens from domestic propaganda, government electioneering and intrusions on their privacy. Waltzman has started a group called Information Professionals Association with several former information operations officers from the U.S. military to develop defenses against social media influence operations.

Social media companies are beginning to realize that they need to take action. Facebook issued a report in April 2017 acknowledging that much disinformation had been spread on its pages and saying it had expanded its security. Google says it has seen no evidence of Russian manipulation of its search results but has updated its algorithms just in case. Twitter claims it has diminished cyberpropaganda by tweaking its algorithms to block cleverly designed bots. “Our algorithms currently work to detect when Twitter accounts are attempting to manipulate Twitter’s Trends through inorganic activity, and then automatically adjust,” the company said in a statement.

In the meantime, America’s best option to protect upcoming votes may be to make it harder for Russia and other bad actors to hide their election-related information operations. When it comes to defeating Russian influence operations, the answer is “transparency, transparency, transparency,” says Rhode Island Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. He has written legislation that would curb the massive, anonymous campaign contributions known as dark money and the widespread use of shell corporations that he says make Russian cyberpropaganda harder to trace and expose.

But much damage has already been done. “The ultimate impact of [the 2016 Russian operation] is we’re never going to look at another election without wondering, you know, Is this happening, can we see it happening?” says Jigsaw’s Jared Cohen. By raising doubts about the validity of the 2016 vote and the vulnerability of future elections, Russia has achieved its most important objective: undermining the credibility of American democracy.

For now, investigators have added the names of specific trolls and botnets to their wall charts in the offices of intelligence and law-enforcement agencies. They say the best way to compete with the Russian model is by having a better message. “It requires critical thinkers and people who have a more powerful vision” than the cynical Russian view, says former NSA deputy Inglis. And what message is powerful enough to take on the firehose of falsehoods that Russia is deploying in targeted, effective ways across a range of new media? One good place to start: telling the truth.

–With reporting by PRATHEEK REBALA/WASHINGTON

Correction: The original version of this story misstated Jared Cohen’s title. He is CEO, not president.

http://time.com/4783932/inside-russia-social-media-war-america/

Facebook and Twitter ‘harm young people’s mental health’

Poll of 14- to 24-year-olds shows Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter increased feelings of inadequacy and anxiety

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Young people scored Instagram the worst social medium for sleep, body image and fear of missing out. Photograph: Mark Mawson/Getty Images

Four of the five most popular forms of social media harm young people’s mental health, with Instagram the most damaging, according to research by two health organisations.

Instagram has the most negative impact on young people’s mental wellbeing, a survey of almost 1,500 14- to 24-year-olds found, and the health groups accused it of deepening young people’s feelings of inadequacy and anxiety.

The survey, published on Friday, concluded that Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter are also harmful. Among the five only YouTube was judged to have a positive impact.

The four platforms have a negative effect because they can exacerbate children’s and young people’s body image worries, and worsen bullying, sleep problems and feelings of anxiety, depression and loneliness, the participants said.

The findings follow growing concern among politicians, health bodies, doctors, charities and parents about young people suffering harm as a result of sexting, cyberbullying and social media reinforcing feelings of self-loathing and even the risk of them committing suicide.

“It’s interesting to see Instagram and Snapchat ranking as the worst for mental health and wellbeing. Both platforms are very image-focused and it appears that they may be driving feelings of inadequacy and anxiety in young people,” said Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health, which undertook the survey with the Young Health Movement.

She demanded tough measures “to make social media less of a wild west when it comes to young people’s mental health and wellbeing”. Social media firms should bring in a pop-up image to warn young people that they have been using it a lot, while Instagram and similar platforms should alert users when photographs of people have been digitally manipulated, Cramer said.

The 1,479 young people surveyed were asked to rate the impact of the five forms of social media on 14 different criteria of health and wellbeing, including their effect on sleep, anxiety, depression, loneliness, self-identity, bullying, body image and the fear of missing out.

Instagram emerged with the most negative score. It rated badly for seven of the 14 measures, particularly its impact on sleep, body image and fear of missing out – and also for bullying and feelings of anxiety, depression and loneliness. However, young people cited its upsides too, including self-expression, self-identity and emotional support.

YouTube scored very badly for its impact on sleep but positively in nine of the 14 categories, notably awareness and understanding of other people’s health experience, self-expression, loneliness, depression and emotional support.

However, the leader of the UK’s psychiatrists said the findings were too simplistic and unfairly blamed social media for the complex reasons why the mental health of so many young people is suffering.

Prof Sir Simon Wessely, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “I am sure that social media plays a role in unhappiness, but it has as many benefits as it does negatives.. We need to teach children how to cope with all aspects of social media – good and bad – to prepare them for an increasingly digitised world. There is real danger in blaming the medium for the message.”

Young Minds, the charity which Theresa May visited last week on a campaign stop, backed the call for Instagram and other platforms to take further steps to protect young users.

Tom Madders, its director of campaigns and communications, said: “Prompting young people about heavy usage and signposting to support they may need, on a platform that they identify with, could help many young people.”

However, he also urged caution in how content accessed by young people on social media is perceived. “It’s also important to recognise that simply ‘protecting’ young people from particular content types can never be the whole solution. We need to support young people so they understand the risks of how they behave online, and are empowered to make sense of and know how to respond to harmful content that slips through filters.”

Parents and mental health experts fear that platforms such as Instagram can make young users feel worried and inadequate by facilitating hostile comments about their appearance or reminding them that they have not been invited to, for example, a party many of their peers are attending.

May, who has made children’s mental health one of her priorities, highlighted social media’s damaging effects in her “shared society” speech in January, saying: “We know that the use of social media brings additional concerns and challenges. In 2014, just over one in 10 young people said that they had experienced cyberbullying by phone or over the internet.”

In February, Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, warned social media and technology firms that they could face sanctions, including through legislation, unless they did more to tackle sexting, cyberbullying and the trolling of young users.

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/may/19/popular-social-media-sites-harm-young-peoples-mental-health

Confronting the Great Mass Addiction of Our Era

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This examination of today’s tech-zombie epidemic is worth putting your phone down for – at least for a while.

Photo Credit: Federico Morando / Flickr

Are you addicted to technology? I’m certainly not. In my first sitting reading Adam Alter’s Irresistible, an investigation into why we can’t stop scrolling and clicking and surfing online, I only paused to check my phone four times. Because someone might have emailed me. Or texted me. One time I stopped to download an app Alter mentioned (research) and the final time I had to check the shares on my play brokerage app, Best Brokers (let’s call this one “business”).

Half the developed world is addicted to something, and Alter, a professor at New York University, informs us that, increasingly, that something isn’t drugs or alcohol, but behaviour. Recent studies suggest the most compulsive behaviour we engage in has to do with cyber connectivity; 40% of us have some sort of internet-based addiction – whether it’s checking your email (on average workers check it 36 times an hour), mindlessly scrolling through other people’s breakfasts on Instagram or gambling online.

Facebook was fun three years ago, Alter warns. Now it’s addictive. This tech zombie epidemic is not entirely our fault. Technology is designed to hook us, and to keep us locked in a refresh/reload cycle so that we don’t miss any news, cat memes or status updates from our friends. Tristan Harris, a “design ethicist” (whatever that is) tells the author that it’s not a question of willpower when “there are a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job it is to break down the self-regulation you have”. After all, Steve Jobs gave the world the iPad, but made very sure his kids never got near one. Brain patterns of heroin users just after a hit and World of Warcraft addicts starting up a new game are nearly identical. The tech innovators behind our favourite products and apps understood that they were offering us endless portals to addiction. We’re the only ones late to the party.

Addiction isn’t inherent or genetic incertain people, as was previously thought. Rather, it is largely a function of environment and circumstance. Everyone is vulnerable; we’re all just a product or substance away from an uncomfortable attachment of some kind. And the internet, Alter writes, with its unpredictable but continuous loop of positive feedback, simulation of connectivity and culture of comparison, is “ripe for abuse”.

For one thing, it’s impossible to avoid; a recovering alcoholic can re-enter the slipstream of his life with more ease than someone addicted to online gaming – the alcoholic can avoid bars while the gaming addict still has to use a computer at work, to stay in touch with family, to be included in his micro-society.

Secondly, it’s bottomless. Everything is possible in the ideology of the internet – need a car in the middle of the night? Here you go. Want to borrow a stranger’s dog to play with for an hour, with no long-term responsibility for the animal? Sure, there’s an app for that. Want to send someone a message and see when it reaches their phone, when they read it and whether they like it? Even BlackBerry could do that.

Thirdly, it’s immersive – and even worse, it’s mobile. You can carry your addiction around with you. Everywhere. You don’t need to be locked in an airless room or unemployed in order to spend hours online. Moment, an app designed to track how often you pick up and look at your phone, estimates that the average smartphone user spends two to three hours on his or her mobile daily.

I downloaded Moment (the research I mentioned earlier) and uninstalled it after it informed me that, by noon, I had already fiddled away an hour of my time on the phone.

Though the age of mobile tech has only just begun, Alter believes that signs point to a crisis. In 2000, Microsoft Canada found that our average attention span was 12 seconds long. By 2013, it was eight seconds long. Goldfish, by comparison, can go nine seconds. Our ability to empathise, a slow-burning skill that requires immediate feedback on how our actions affect others, suffers the more we disconnect from real-life interaction in favour of virtual interfacing. Recent studies found that this decline in compassion was more pronounced among young girls. One in three teenage girls say their peers are cruel online (only one in 11 boys agree).

Sure, communication technology has its positives. It’s efficient and cheap, and has the ability to teach creatively, raise money for worldwide philanthropic causes and to disseminate news under and over the reach of censors, but the corrosive culture of online celebrity, fake news and trolling must have a downside, too – namely that we can’t seem to get away from it.

There is a tinge of first world problems in Irresistible. World of Warcraft support groups; a product Alter writes about called Realism (a plastic frame resembling a screenless smartphone, which you can hold to temper your raging internet addiction, but can’t actually use); a spike in girl gaming addicts fuelled by Kim Kardashian’s Hollywood app – it’s difficult to see why these things should elicit much sympathy while one in 10 people worldwide still lack access to clean drinking water. This very western focus on desire and goal orientation is one that eastern thinkers might consider a wrong view of the world and its material attachments, but Alter’s pop-scientific approach still makes for an entertaining break away from one’s phone.

Irresistible is published by Bodley Head.

Homeless and Unemployed in an Economy We’re Supposed to Think Is Liberating

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In Ilana Gershon’s new book “Down and Out in the New Economy,” the employer power dynamic is called into question.

Beggar and a rich young woman with shopping bags
Photo Credit: Lisa S.

The following is an adapted excerpt from the new book Down and Out in the New Economy: How People Find (or Don’t Find) Work Today by Ilana Gershon (University of Chicago Press, April 2017):

Chris, an independent contractor in his midfifties, knows a lot about what it means to deal with an unstable job market, especially during those moments when you are between gigs and don’t know when you are going to get the next one. There was a period in 2012 where he hadn’t had a contracting job for a while, and he had no idea how he was going to pay his rent. He realized he might be able to make his rent for another month, but if he didn’t get a job soon, he might be homeless. He decided that he needed to get his body ready for this very likely possibility. “I started to sleep on the floor a few hours each night, as long as I could take it, so I could get used to sleeping on a sidewalk or on the dirt. That’s how bad it looked. It just seemed hopeless,” Chris said. Out of the blue, a staffing agency based in India contacted him and offered him a contract in the Midwest, giving him enough money to make it through this bad patch. But this stark moment, in which he saw homelessness around the corner, is part and parcel of the downside of careers made up of temporary jobs. Chris responded to this possibility in the way that you are supposed to if you are constantly enhancing yourself. He began to train his body for living on the streets, realizing that he needed to learn how to sleep without a bed. He was determined to be flexible and to adapt to potential new circumstances. Seeing the self as a bundle of skills, in practice, means that for some people enhancing your skills involves training yourself to survive being homeless. This too is a logical outcome of our contemporary employment model.

I have studied how people are responding to this new way of thinking about work and what it means to be a worker. In the United States, people are moving away from thinking that when they enter into an employment contract, they are metaphorically renting their capacities to an employer for a bounded period of time. Many people are no longer using a notion of the self-as-rented-property as an underlying metaphor and are starting to think of themselves as though they are a business, although not everyone likes this new metaphor or accepts all its implications. When you switch to thinking about the employment contract as a business-to-business relationship, much changes—how you present yourself as a desirable employee, what it means to be a good employer, what your relationships with your coworkers should be like, the relationship between a job and a career, and how you prepare yourself for the future.

The self-as-business metaphor makes a virtue of flexibility as well as the practical ways people might respond in their daily lives to conditions of instability and insecurity. As Gina Neff points out in Venture Labor, the model encourages people to embrace risk as a positive, even sought-out, element of how they individually should craft a career. Each time you switch jobs, you risk. You don’t know the amount of time you will have at a job before having to find a new one, and you risk how lucky you will be at getting that job and the next job. And with every job transition, you risk the salary that you might make. If there is a gap between jobs, then some people will find that they no longer experience a reliable, steady, upward trajectory in their salaries as they navigate the contemporary job market. Yet this is what you are now supposed to embrace as liberating.

Chris’s experiences cycling between employment and increasing periods of unemployment was a familiar story for me. I interviewed so many people in their late forties to early sixties who had a few permanent jobs early in their careers. But as companies increasingly focused on having a more transient workforce, these white-collar workers found their career trajectories veering from what they first thought their working life would look like. They thought that they might climb the organizational ladder in one or maybe even three companies over the course of their lifetime. Instead, they found that at some point in their mid to late forties, they started having shorter and shorter stints at different companies. The jobs, some would say, would last as long as a project. And as they grew older, the gaps between permanent jobs could start growing longer and longer. They struggled to make do, often using up their savings or selling their homes as they hoped to get the next job. Some started to find consulting jobs in order to make ends meet before landing the hoped-for permanent job, and then found themselves trapped on the consulting track—living only in the gig economy. True, not everyone felt like contracting was plan B, the option they had to take because of bad luck. In their book about contractors, Steve Barley and Gideon Kunda talk about the people they interviewed who actively chose this life. I met these people too, but they weren’t the majority of the job seekers I interviewed. Because I was studying people looking for a wide range of types of jobs, instead of studying people who already had good relationships with staffing agencies that provided consultants, I tended to meet people who felt their bad luck had backed them into becoming permanent freelancers. These were people who encountered the self-as-business metaphor as a relatively new model, one they felt they actively had to learn in order to survive in today’s workplace, as opposed to the younger people I interviewed, many of whom had grown up with the self-as-business model as their primary way to understand employment.

When you think of the employment contract in a new way, you often have to revisit what counts as moral behavior, since older frameworks offer substantively different answers to questions of moral business practice. People have to decide what it means for a company to behave well under this new framework. Consider the self-as-business model. What does a good company do to help its workers enhance themselves as allied businesses? What are the limits in what a company should do? What counts as exploitation under this new model? Can businesses do things that count as exploitation or bad practices now that might not have been considered problems earlier, or not considered problems for the same reasons (and thus are regulated or resolved differently)? Businesses are certainly deeply concerned that workers’ actions both at work and outside of work could threaten the company’s brand, a new worry—but this is the tip of the iceberg. And the moral behavior of companies isn’t the only issue. Can workers exploit the companies they align with now or behave badly toward them in new ways?

Yet while these two metaphors—the self-as-property and the self-as-business—encourage people to think about employment in different ways, there are still similarities in how the metaphors ask people to think about getting hired. In both cases, the metaphors are focusing on market choices and asking people to operate by a market logic. Deciding whether to rent your capacities is a slightly different question than deciding whether to enter into a business alliance with someone, but in both instances you are expected to make a decision based on the costs and benefits involved in the decision. In addition, both metaphorical contracts presume that people enter into these contracts as equals, and yet this equality doesn’t last in practice once you are hired. In most jobs, the moment you are hired, you are in a hierarchical relationship; you are taking orders from a boss. Some aspects of working have changed because of this shift in frameworks, but many aspects have stayed the same.

Avoiding Corporate Nostalgia

I talked to people who were thoughtfully ambivalent about this transition in the metaphors underlying employment. They didn’t like their current insecurity, but they pointed out that earlier workplaces weren’t ideal either. Before, people often felt trapped in jobs they disliked and confronted with office politics that were alienating and demoralizing. Like many people today, they dealt with companies in which they were constantly encountering sexism and racism. Not everyone had equal opportunities to move into the jobs they wanted or to be promoted or acknowledged for the work that they did well.

However, as anthropologist Karen Ho points out, when you have a corporate ladder that excludes certain groups of people, you also have a structure that you can potentially reform so that these groups will in the future have equal opportunities. When you have no corporate ladder—when all you have is the uncertainty of moving between companies or between freelance jobs—you no longer have a clear structure to target if you want to make a workplace a fairer environment. If there is more gender equality in the US workplace these days than there was thirty years ago, it is in part because corporate structures were stable enough and reformers stayed at companies long enough that specific business practices could be effectively targeted and reformed. Part of what has changed about workplaces today is that there has been a transformation in the kinds of solutions available to solve workplace problems.

I see what people said to me about their preference for the kinds of guarantees and rights people used to have at work as a form of critique, not a form of nostalgia. People didn’t necessarily want to return to the way things used to be. When people talked to me nostalgically about how workplaces used to function, it was often because they valued the protections they used to be able to rely on and a system they knew well enough to be able to imagine how to change it for the better.

Many people I spoke to were very unhappy with the contemporary workplace’s increasing instability. They worried a great deal about making it financially through the longer and longer dry spells of unemployment between jobs. I talked to a man who was doing reasonably well that year as a consultant, and he began reflecting on what the future would hold for his children. He didn’t want them to follow in his footsteps and become a computer programmer, because too many people like him were contingent workers. He wanted them to have their own families and reasoned: “If everybody thinks they can be laid-off in two weeks, how would they feel confident enough to be a parent and know that they’ve got twenty-one years of consistent investment?”

It is not that the people I spoke to necessarily wanted older forms of work. What many wanted was stability. No matter how many times people are told to embrace being flexible, to embrace risk, in practice many of the people I spoke to did not actually want to live with the downsides of this riskier life. The United States does not have enough safety nets in place to protect you during the moments when life doesn’t work out. Because you are supposed to be looking for a new job regularly over the course of a lifetime, the opportunities when you might become dramatically downwardly mobile increase. There are more possible moments in which you have to enhance your skills at surviving on much less money or even living rough.

Changing Notions of What Counts as a Good Employment Relationship

When people are thought of as businesses, significant aspects of the employment relationship change. The genre repertoire you use to get a job alters to reflect this understanding as you use resumes, interview answers, and other genres to represent yourself as a bundle of business solutions that can address the hiring company’s market-specific temporary needs. Networking has changed—what it means to manage your social relationships so that you can stay employed has shifted. Some people I met are now arguing that you treat the companies you are considering joining in the same way you would treat any other business investment: in terms of the financial and career risk involved in being allied with this company.

It is not just that you evaluate jobs differently when you know that your job is temporary—deciding you can put up with some kinds of inconveniences but not others. Instead, you see the job as a short-term investment of time and labor, and the job had better pay off—perhaps by providing you with new skills, new networks, or a new way of framing your work experiences that makes you potentially more desirable for the next job. What if this new framework allows workers to have new expectations of their employers, or can safeguard workers’ interests in new ways? If you have this perspective, what are the new kinds of demands that employees could potentially make of employers?

For Tom, this new vision of self-as-business was definitely guiding how he was judging the ways companies treated him and what was appropriate behavior. I first contacted Tom because I heard through the grapevine that he refused to use LinkedIn. I was curious, as I had been doing research for seven months by that point and only came across one other person who was not using LinkedIn (and has since rejoined). We talked about his refusal, and he explained to me that LinkedIn didn’t seem to offer enough in return for his data. He clearly saw himself in an exchange relationship with LinkedIn, providing data for it to use and in return having access to the platform. Fair enough, I thought: as far as I can tell, the data scientists at LinkedIn and Facebook whom I have met see the exchange relationship in similar ways. Yet Tom decided that what LinkedIn offered wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t worth providing the company with his personal data. So I asked him about various other sites that he might use in which the exchange might be more equitable, and he lit up talking about these other sites. For Tom, because he saw himself as a business, and viewed his data as part of his assets, he was ready to see LinkedIn as offering a bad business arrangement, one he didn’t want to accept. The self-as-business framework allowed him to see the use of certain platforms as instances of participating in business alliances. Some alliances he was willing to enter into, but not all.

This wasn’t his only encounter with a potentially exploitative business arrangement. He typically worked as an independent contractor, and a company asked him to come in for a job interview. When he got there, his interviewer explained that the position was a sweat equity job—Tom wouldn’t get a salary, but rather he would get equity in the company in exchange for his labor. “Okay” he replied. “So what is your business model?” His interviewer was surprised and discomforted to be asked this. He refused to answer; employees don’t need to know the details of the company’s business model, he said. Tom felt that this was wrong; because he was being asked to be an investor in the company—admittedly with his labor instead of with money—he felt should be given the same financial details that any other investor in a company would expect before signing on. It sounded to me like Tom’s interviewer was caught between two models: wanting the possible labor arrangements now available but unwilling to adjust whom he told what. The interviewer was not willing to follow through on the implications of this new model of employment, and as a result, Tom wasn’t willing to take the job. This is one way in which the self-as-business model offers a new way to talk about what counts as exploitation and as inappropriate behavior—behavior that might not have been an issue decades ago, or would have been a problem for different reasons (perhaps because a couple of decades ago, few people found sweat equity an acceptable arrangement).

But this new model also opens up the possibility that companies can have obligations to their employees that they did not have in the same way before. Since companies often don’t offer stable employment, they now provide a temporary venue for people to express their passion and to enhance themselves. Can this look like an obligation that businesses have to their workers? Perhaps—businesses could take seriously what it means to provide workers with the opportunities to enhance themselves. Michael Feher argues that if people are now supposed to see themselves as human capital, there should be a renewed focus on what good investment in people looks like—regardless of whether workers stay at a single company.

Should companies now help provide training for an employee’s next job? Throughout the twentieth century, companies understood that they had to provide their workers training in order for them to do their job at the company to their best of their ability. Internal training made sense both for the company’s immediate interests and for the company’s ability to retain a supply of properly trained workers over the life of the company. Now that jobs are so temporary, who is responsible for training workers is a bit more up in the air. Yet some companies are beginning to offer support for workers to train, not for the benefit of the company, but so that workers can pursue their passion, should they discover that working at that company is not their passion. Amazon, for example, in 2012 began to provide training for employees who potentially want radically different jobs. Jeff Bezos explained in his 2014 letter to shareholders: “We pre-pay 95% of tuition for our employees to take courses for in-demand fields, such as airplane mechanic or nursing, regardless of whether the skills are relevant to a career at Amazon. The goal is to enable choice.” It makes sense for a company to support its workers learning skills for a completely different career only under the contemporary perspective that people are businesses following their passions in temporary alliances with companies.

This model of self-as-business might give workers some new language to protest business practices that keep them from enhancing themselves or entering into as many business alliances as they would like. For example, just-in-time scheduling in practice is currently preventing retail workers from getting enough hours so that they can earn as much as they would like to in a week. This type of scheduling means that workers only find out that week how many hours they are working and when. They can’t expect to have certain hours reliably free, and they need to be available whenever their employer would like them to work. Marc Doussard has found that good workers are rewarded with more hours at work. While white-collar workers might get better pay in end-of-the-year bonuses for seeming passionate, retail workers get more hours in the week. If workers make special requests to have certain hours, Doussard discovered, their managers will often punish them in response, by either giving them fewer hours to work or only assigning them to shifts they find undesirable. In practice, this means that workers have trouble holding two jobs or taking classes to improve themselves, as unpredictable shifts will inevitably conflict with each other or class times. Predictable work hours, in short, are essential for being able to plan for the future—either to make sure you are working enough hours in the week to support yourself or to educate yourself for other types of jobs. Since companies are now insisting that people imagine themselves as businesses, what would happen if workers protested when companies don’t allow them to “invest” in themselves or when they are thwarted from having as many business partnerships (that is, jobs) as possible? Perhaps employees should now be able to criticize and change employers’ practices when they are prevented from being the best businesses they can be because of their employers’ workplace strategies.

This has been an adapted excerpt from the new book Down and Out in the New Economy: How People Find (or Don’t Find) Work Today by Ilana Gershon (University of Chicago Press, April 2017).

Months After Calling the Prospect ‘Crazy,’ Facebook Brags About Its Ability to Swing Elections

Posted on Mar 4, 2017

Facebook, whose founder Mark Zuckerberg called arguments that the tech giant helped swing the presidential election toward Donald Trump “crazy” and “extremely unlikely,” is now boasting of its ability to influence elections for pay.

Adam Peck reports at ThinkProgress:

Facebook’s marketing department has a web page set up to document success stories. Most of them are examples of businesses that leveraged Facebook’s advertising network into higher sales, larger audiences, and better customer reviews. But nestled somewhere between the pages for Panera Bread and Cheetos are pages for politicians like Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and former Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson.

On each page, Facebook’s business team breaks down some metrics about how these political campaigns leveraged the platform to boost donations and turnout on election day. On Johnson’s page, Facebook boasts of a 6.8-point bump in the candidate’s favorability numbers among moderate voters.

But it is wording on Sen. Toomey’s “success story” that has struck a troubling chord. After noting that Toomey was facing a tough re-election in 2016, Facebook touted it’s ability to “significantly shift voter intent and increase favorability,” and that the campaign’s “made-for-Facebook creative strategy was an essential component to Senator Pat Toomey’s re-election, as the senator won by less than 100,000 votes (of nearly 6 million votes cast).”

The Philadelphia Business Journal noted that Toomey’s campaign outspent Democratic rival Katie McGinty by more than a two to one margin on digital content, most of that directed towards Facebook. In return, the campaign was able to create more content specifically tailored to Facebook’s platform rather than recycling things like television ads.

Read more here.

Opposition to Trump’s anti-Muslim travel ban mounts on eve of court deadline

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By Patrick Martin
7 February 2017

A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, based in San Francisco, will hear oral arguments Tuesday on the travel ban on visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries imposed by the Trump administration January 27 by executive order.

The hearing was announced Monday evening, shortly after the administration filed legal briefs with the appeals court seeking to overturn the decision by Judge James Robart, a federal district judge in Seattle, who issued a temporary restraining order blocking enforcement of the Muslim ban.

The three judges include William Canby Jr., appointed by Jimmy Carter; Richard Clifton, appointed by George W. Bush; and Michelle T. Friedland, appointed by Barack Obama.

The hour-long hearing, with 30 minutes for each side, will take place at 6 pm Tuesday, Eastern Time, or 3 pm Pacific Time, with a recording of the hearing released to the public after the conclusion of the arguments.

The states of Washington and Minnesota brought the suit charging that the executive order issued by Trump is unconstitutional because of its brazenly religious character. They also argued that it damages the interests of citizens of those states as well as institutions such as universities and corporations whose students and employees are affected by the ban.

Fifteen more states, with a combined population of more than 100 million people, filed an amicus brief Monday supporting the position of Washington and Minnesota. The brief was drafted by attorneys for California, New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.

Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia and the District of Columbia joined in supporting the brief. The state of Hawaii filed a separate motion in support of Washington and Minnesota.  Nearly all these states are governed by Democrats.

The 15-state brief detailed the impact of the ban on the educational and health care systems in many of the states. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said that medical school programs would “risk being without a sufficient number of medical residents to meet staffing needs,” and that more than 2,000 students set to enroll in the state’s college and university system would be affected.

The main argument presented by the Trump administration was the claim that the states have no legal standing to challenge the executive order, and that the president’s power to control immigration is conferred both by the Constitution and federal law and is absolute and unreviewable by any court.

“Judicial second-guessing of the president’s national security determination in itself imposes substantial harm on the federal government and the nation at large,” Justice Department lawyers wrote in legal papers defending the executive order.

At the court hearing last Friday, Washington state Solicitor-General Noah Purcell responded by saying, “They’re basically saying that you can’t review anything about what the president does or says, as long as he says it’s for national security reasons. And that just can’t be the law.’’

Aside from the obviously authoritarian character of the administration’s claim, this is the diametric opposite of the position taken by Republican state attorneys general in 2015 when they argued—successfully—before the Fifth Circuit Court (based in New Orleans) that they had standing to challenge President Obama’s executive order exempting several million long-settled undocumented immigrants from deportation.

The Trump brief also urged the Ninth Circuit to reject out of hand any arguments based on religious discrimination, since the text of the executive order does not explicitly call for a ban on Muslims. Trump’s numerous statements declaring that he wished to impose a Muslim ban, and his seeking advice on how to word such a ban so that it would pass legal muster, could not be considered by the court, the brief argued, because this would involve investigating the motives of the executive branch, and would thus breach the separation of powers. The contrast between this argument and Trump’s own conduct, tweeting imprecations against Judge James Robart and all but branding him a terrorist sympathizer, is stark.

The brief filed by Washington and Minnesota replied that “courts have both the right and the duty to examine defendants’ true motives,” and cited precedents linked to previous Supreme Court decisions in relation to discrimination against gays and other disfavored minorities.

The states’ brief pointed out that the claims of urgent national security dangers were undermined by the sheer breadth of the order: “For several months it bans all travelers from the listed countries and all refugees, whether they be infants, schoolchildren or grandparents. And though it cites the attacks of September 11, 2001 as a rationale, it imposes no restrictions on people from the countries whose nationals carried out those attacks. It is at once too narrow and too broad… and cannot withstand any level of scrutiny.”

The issues of imperialist foreign policy underlying the legal recriminations were spelled out in an affidavit filed Monday by ten former top figures in the national security establishment, mostly from Democratic administrations. The document was signed by two former secretaries of state, John Kerry and Madeleine Albright, former defense secretary and CIA director Leon Panetta, former national security adviser Susan Rice, her former deputy Lisa Monaco, former homeland security secretary Janet Napolitano, and four former CIA directors or deputy directors: Michael Hayden, Michael Morrell, John McLaughlin and Avril Haines.

Noting that four of these officials “were current on active intelligence regarding all credible terrorist threat streams directed against the US” as late as January 20, 2017, the statement declared: “We all are nevertheless unaware of any specific threat that would justify the travel ban established by the Executive Order issued on January 27, 2017.”

Trump’s executive order will “disrupt key counterterrorism, foreign policy and national security partnerships that are critical to our obtaining” intelligence necessary to combat terrorist groups like the Islamic State, the statement declared. It went on to warn that individuals in the seven targeted countries who cooperated with US intelligence and military operations would now be endangered.

Newly installed Pentagon chief James Mattis reportedly ordered emergency measures for the protection of Iraqis who collaborated with the US military occupation by acting as translators or providing intelligence. The entry of these Iraqis into the United States under a special visa program was halted by the Trump order.

A separate amicus brief was filed by 97 giant corporations, including a who’s who of Silicon Valley: Facebook, Microsoft, Intel, Uber, eBay, Apple, Google, Twitter, Airbnb and Snap. The corporations argued that the order “inflicts significant harm on American business, innovation, and growth,” and by disrupting the movement of employees and potential customers “is inflicting substantial harm on US companies.”

Legal commentators expect the Ninth Circuit, which is the most liberal of the circuit courts in the US, to endorse Robart’s decision in some fashion, followed by an appeal by the Trump administration to the Supreme Court. In the event of a 4-4 split, which was the result of the previous immigration enforcement lawsuit by Republican-controlled states in 2015, the circuit court’s decision would stand.

Whatever the long-term result of the legal conflict, however, the temporary restraining order remains in effect this week, with as many as 100,000 people holding visas for entry into the United States from the seven countries targeted by the White House.

Meanwhile, more evidence has emerged of the racist and bigoted character of both the executive order itself and its enforcement by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. A report in Newsweek quoted Los Angeles immigration lawyer Stacy Tolchin, who describes how ICE agents separated Muslims from non-Muslims during detention proceedings at the airports in the period before the court order halting the travel ban was issued.

“They are segregating Muslims from the non-Muslims when they’re being detained, holding them in separate rooms,” Tolchin told Newsweek. “I think it shows what the real intent of the travel ban is.” The magazine reported that several other lawyers “corroborated Tolchin’s account, saying those who identified themselves as Christian or Jewish did not seem subject to the same treatment at the border.”

Eight billionaires control as much wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population

Oxfam issues report on eve of Davos conference

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17 January 2016

Eight billionaires, six of them from the United States, own as much combined wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population, some 3.6 billion people, according to the latest report on global inequality from the British-based advocacy group Oxfam.

The report was released Monday, on the eve of the annual World Economic Forum in the mountain resort of Davos, Switzerland, at which many of the ultra-rich will converge this week. The Oxfam document contains a range of figures that highlight the staggering growth of social inequality, showing that the income and wealth gap between a tiny financial elite and the rest of the world’s people is widening at an accelerating rate.

New data made available to Oxfam reveals that wealth is even more concentrated than the organization had previously believed. Last year, Oxfam reported that 62 people controlled as much wealth as the bottom half of humanity. In its latest report, the charity notes that “had this new data been available last year, it would have shown that nine billionaires owned the same wealth as the poorest half of the planet.”

Oxfam writes that since 2015, the richest 1 percent of the world’s population has owned more than the rest of the world put together, and that over the past quarter century, the top 1 percent has gained more income than the bottom 50 percent combined.

“Far from trickling down, income and wealth are being sucked upwards at an alarming rate,” the report states. It notes that the 1,810 dollar billionaires on the Forbes 2016 rich list own $6.5 trillion, “as much wealth as the bottom 70 percent of humanity.”

Over the next 20 years, some 500 people will hand over to their heirs more than $2.1 trillion, an amount larger than the gross domestic product of India, a country of 1.3 billion people.

Oxfam cites recent research by the economist Thomas Piketty and others showing that in the United States, over the past 30 years the growth in incomes of the bottom 50 percent has been zero, while the incomes of the top 1 percent have risen by 300 percent.

The same process is taking place in the world’s poorest countries. Oxfam notes that Vietnam’s richest man earns more in a day than the country’s poorest person earns in 10 years.

The report points to the systematic character of the siphoning of global wealth to the heights of society. The business sector is focused on delivering “ever higher returns to wealthy owners and top executives,” with companies “structured to dodge taxes, drive down workers’ wages and squeeze producers.”

This involves the most barbaric and criminal practices. Oxfam cites a report by the International Labour Organisation estimating that 21 million people are forced labourers, generating $150 billion in profits every year. The world’s largest garment companies all have links to cotton-spinning mills in India that routinely use the forced labour of girls.

Small farmers are also being driven into poverty: in the 1980s, cocoa farmers received 18 percent of the value of a chocolate bar, compared to just 6 percent today.

The extent of corporate power is highlighted in a number of telling statistics. In terms of revenue, 69 of the world’s largest economic entities are now corporations, not countries. The world’s 10 largest companies, including firms such as Wal-Mart, Shell and Apple, have combined revenue greater than the total government revenue of 180 countries.

Although the authors avoid any condemnation of the profit system per se, the information provided in their report amounts to a stunning verdict on the capitalist system. It highlights in facts and figures two central processes delineated by Karl Marx, the founder of modern socialism.

In Capital, Marx explains that the objective logic of the capitalist system, based on the drive for profit, is to produce ever greater wealth at one pole and poverty, misery and degradation at the other. In the Communist Manifesto, he explains that all governments are but the executive committee for managing the affairs of the capitalist class.

This is exemplified in the tax policies and other “business-friendly” measures undertaken by governments around the world. The Oxfam report notes that technology giant Apple is alleged to have paid a tax of just 0.005 percent on its European profits.

Developing countries lose around $100 billion a year as a result of outright tax dodging and the exemptions granted to companies. In Kenya, $1.1 billion is lost to government revenue every year because of exemptions, an amount nearly twice the country’s annual health budget.

Government tax policies work hand in hand with tax dodging and criminality. The report cites economist Gabriel Zucman’s estimate that $7.6 trillion of global wealth is hidden in offshore tax havens. Africa alone loses $14 billion in annual revenues because of the use of tax havens: enough to pay for health care that would save the lives of four million children and employ enough teachers to ensure that every African child went to school.

There is one significant omission from Oxfam’s discussion of accelerating inequality. It makes no mention of the critical role of the policies of the world’s major governments and central banks in handing over trillions of dollars to the banks, major corporations and financial elites through bank bailouts and the policies of “quantitative easing” since the eruption of the global financial crisis in 2008.

A discussion of these facts would raise uncomfortable political issues. The report opens by favourably citing remarks by US President Barack Obama to the UN General Assembly in 2016 that a world in which 1 percent of the population owns as much as the other 99 percent can never be stable.

But the very policies of the Obama administration have played a key role in creating this world. After rescuing the financial oligarchs from the results of their own criminal actions with massive bank bailouts, the Obama administration and the US central bank ensured their further enrichment by providing a supply of ultra-cheap money that boosted the value of their assets.

Under Obama, the decades-long growth of inequality accelerated, along with the descent of the ruling class into parasitism and criminality. He paved the way for the financial oligarchy to directly seize the reins of power, embodied in the imminent presidency of casino and real estate billionaire Donald Trump, to whom Obama will hand over the keys to the White House on Friday.

The overriding motivation behind the Oxfam report is fear of the political consequences of ever-rising inequality and a desire to deflect mounting anger over its consequences into harmless channels. It advances the perspective of a “human economy,” but maintains that this can be achieved on the basis of the capitalist market, provided corporations and governments change their mindsets.

The absurdity of this perspective, based on the long-discredited outlook of British Fabianism, which has dominated the thinking of the English middle classes for well over a century, can be seen from the fact that the report is directed to the global financial elites gathered at the Davos summit this week, with a call for them to change their ways.

The bankruptcy of this outlook is demonstrated not only by present-day facts and figures, but by historical experience. A quarter century ago, following the liquidation of the Soviet Union, the air was filled with capitalist triumphalism. Freed from the encumbrance of the USSR, and able to dominate the globe, liberal capitalist democracy was going to show humanity what it could do.

And it certainly has, creating a world marked by ever-rising inequality, the accumulation of wealth to truly obscene levels, oppression and anti-democratic forms of rule, criminality at the very heights of society, and the increasingly ominous prospect of a third world war.

This history brings into focus another anniversary: the centenary of the Russian Revolution. Despite its subsequent betrayal at the hands of the Stalinist bureaucracy, the Russian Revolution demonstrated imperishably, and for all time, that a world beyond capitalism and all its social ills and malignancies is both possible and necessary. Its lessons must inform the guiding perspective for the immense social struggles that are going to erupt out of the social conditions detailed in the Oxfam report.

Nick Beams

WSWS