Silicon Valley’s advertisements aren’t just selling products — they’re selling an ideology

The utopian futures we see in tech ads have a trickle-down effect on how we perceive the role of tech in our lives

Silicon Valley’s advertisements aren’t just selling products — they’re selling an ideology
(Credit: Getty/NelleG)

A man and woman are awakened by the cooing alarm emanating from a massive wall-mounted touchscreen. A wall of floor-to-ceiling photochromic windows gradually brightens to reveal the morning sun kissing a lush estate garden. The scene shifts to the woman brushing her teeth while checking work email from a bathroom mirror screen. Moments later, two girls in school uniforms stand in a gleaming white kitchen; one of them is playing with a touchscreen-covered refrigerator door while the father makes an omelet on a sleek high-tech induction stovetop interacting with yet another touchscreen embedded in the countertop.

Amid the tinkling of an electric keyboard, this five-minute promotional video from Gorilla Glass manufacturer Corning walks us through the day of this fictional wealthy family in an idealized version of a Manhattan-like “smart” city impossibly devoid of traffic. Corning isn’t just selling its durable glass, but its vision of future society.

In Corningland, everyone is happy, wealthy and living out fruitful, productive lives, surrounded by products of benevolent technological disruption. This world has no unhappy Uber drivers, Airbnb-fueled gentrification doesn’t exist and iPads in the classrooms actually help to educate children. When tech marketing underscores social or global problems, it’s used only as a setup to underscore how technology can solve them.

“It’s like you have one class [in tech-focused promotional material] and the class that you have is upper middle,” Chris Birks, associate professor of digital media at Benedictine University, told Salon. “You see a utopian vision, not one necessarily of everyone being super rich, but doing better than they were because of the new technology we have, which is not the case.”

As 18th-century English writer Samuel Johnson famously said: “Promise, large promise, is the soul of an advertisement.” It’s natural for product promotions to either depict the world in utopian terms or to engage in what’s known as “constructive discontent,” in which a problem is highlighted in order to show that a product or service is its solution.

But unlike, say, environmentally unfriendly laundry detergent or sugary carbonated beverages, the underlying assumptions proposed by ads for Google Glass, Amazon Prime, Microsoft Cloud and other innovative products often  go unquestioned.

“Technology advertising is especially interesting because what it’s doing is saying all technological advances are good and all technology is beneficial to the people who will be lucky enough to adopt it,” John Carroll, assistant professor of Mass Communications as Boston University, who specializes in advertising and media criticism, told Salon. “There’s nothing that says an advertisement needs to point out the downside of a product, but one of the issues here is that the counterbalancing argument that not all innovation is beneficial doesn’t get the kind of exposure that might be helpful to the public.”

Indeed, visit any technology-focused media outlet, or the tech sections of many news organizations, and you’ll see that “gadget porn” videos, hagiographic profiles of startup founders or the regurgitation of lofty growth expectations from Wall Street analysts vastly outnumber critical analyses of technological disruption. The criticisms that do exist tend to focus on ancillary issues, such as Silicon Valley’s dismal lack of workplace diversity, or how innovation is upsetting norms in the labor market, or the class-based digital divide; all are no doubt important topics, but they’re ones that don’t question the overall assumptions that innovation and disruption are at worst harmless if not benevolent.

Carroll says that it’s up to the media, schools and even religious institutions to counterbalance the presumptions made in advertising, whose goal, he points out, is often to portray happiness “through acquisition as opposed to achievement.”

This idea of selling innovation as a pathway to universal prosperity isn’t new. In the 1980s, South Korean technology companies LG and Samsung were churning out idealistic portrayals of technology’s role in creating what Su-Ji Lee, a faculty member at Seoul National University who studies design and culture, described in a paper published in November as “technological utopianism.” The idea that technology will save us all emerged in South Korea during the country’s rapid economic development following decades of poverty.

In these ads, Samsung and LG portrayed consumers as happy or bewildered children, innocent and helpless, as technology lorded benevolently over the innocent and helpless, bringing to them (and to Korea itself) a new era of post-war prosperity.

In these advertisements, Lee writes, “the corporations . . . [play] the leading role of progress towards the future and enlightenment of people.” In these advertising campaigns, she continued, “the hero is the corporation rather than the human.”

Birks, who has studied utopian depictions in web advertising, says that while innovation can be off-putting and certainly not always benevolent, it’s always been the case that innovators views themselves as disruptors.

“For better or worse, they are changing the world,” he said.

Like any sector, the tech industry isn’t going to underscore the negative implications of its innovations in its own promotional materials. Helped by more objective and less fawning tech coverage, people can decide how much technology they want in their lives. Perhaps it would help them if they realized that many of the tech industry’s most celebrated heroes, including the late Steve Jobs, are so wary of emerging technologies that they keep their own children away from their own gadgets..

 

http://www.salon.com/2017/06/24/silicon-valleys-advertisements-arent-just-selling-products-they-are-selling-an-ideology/?source=newsletter

How to beat perfectionism

Percussionist Patti Niemi talks about enduring anxiety, rejection and how to handle failure and not fall apart

LISTEN: How to beat perfectionism

When you have lots of conversations with women like I do, a few themes start to emerge. One that comes up again and again is the pursuit of perfection.

Anxiety is the drumbeat to perfection, and according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, women are twice as likely to suffer from an anxiety disorder than men, so perhaps it’s appropriate that I got explore its rhythms with Patti Niemi, a world-class musician and percussionist for the San Francisco Opera Orchestra.

She’s written a memoir about her experiences, called “Sticking It Out: From Juilliard to the Orchestra Pit,” and she spoke to me about how even now, after 25 years with the same orchestra — that’s 25 years without needing to audition, which is a major anxiety trigger for her — that perfectionism is still alive and well.

Niemi had been at Juilliard for two years when she sat down at a rehearsal and suddenly realized she had no control over her hands. She had been playing percussion since the age of ten, had participated in hundreds of rehearsals and countless performances, but had never experienced something like this before.

“Physically, what it feels like is you’re just going off the rails, and about to lose your mind,” she says, looking back on her old panic.

A painful inner monologue kept the engine going. It went like this: “I need to be perfect, I can’t be perfect, therefore what am I going to do?” And then, “Back to, I need to be perfect. It’s a long hard dialogue,” she says.

She says her anxiety got really bad at Juilliard because she suddenly realized how high the stakes were. “I felt like I suddenly had something to lose.”

She ended up using Inderal, a beta blocker, to calm her nerves so she could focus during an auditions and move forward.

During her last year there, an older male professor told Niemi that he had fallen in love with her. She was deeply uncomfortable and says it was “the perfect storm” of imbalanced power dynamics — and a sense of feeling trapped.

Listen to our conversation:
https://embed.radiopublic.com/e?if=inflection-point-with-lauren-schiller-6NkYz8&ge=s1!7a4126191ee956161c1af5eeac2ce277adb68f8c

“Here you have a very powerful mentor an hour a week alone, and they have this power over you,” she says. “A teacher can recommend you for a certain audition if you weren’t able to get in to the audition,” at first. “I mean, they still have a lot of power as far as jobs go.”

Like Anita Hill did with Clarence Thomas, Niemi continued to work with her professor, and even go out to dinner with him. “It didn’t occur to me not to,” she says now. “I need to manage it, “ she thought at the time — and attempted to control the situation by asking her professor lots of questions about percussion and avoiding talking about anything else. “I just thought if I made him mad he would retaliate.”

Niemi says she’s heartened to see that things are different for women in universities now. Back then, in the late ’80s, she says there was no mechanism at the school for her to share what was going on. “It just wasn’t talked about,” she says.

“It still happens but now you’re told very clearly these are the lines you can’t cross. This is what you can’t do. And to be fair to him, he wasn’t told that, how it worked at the time.”

Niemi’s anxiety appeared well before the period her professor told her he was in love with her, but his “confession” did nothing to ease it.

“It had a pretty strong effect on me physically,” she says. Eventually she developed an ulcer. That anxiety came out most of all during her auditions.

In spite of her uncomfortable relationship with her professor, Niemi decided to stay on at Juilliard in their graduate program. “I started a master’s program mostly because living in New York and not having a place to practice for production is very difficult,” she told me. But after a few weeks, being around her teacher became overwhelming.

A few months in she braved another audition and succeeded in landing a position with the then-new New World Symphony, which accomplished two things for her: she was able to get away from her professor and she finally accomplished what she had set out to do from the age of 10 — live and work as a professional musician. But her professional aspirations were not yet complete. The New World Symphony is a training ensemble, and the participants are expected to continue to audition for permanent positions elsewhere.

In spite of the great lengths Niemi went to manage her anxiety and perfectionist standards, after a number of auditions she almost won but didn’t, she finally lost it. “My room got messy,” she writes in her memoir. “I didn’t care enough to clean it. While I was practicing for the Boston audition, it had been filled with instruments. Now the floor space was covered with dirty clothes. I let dishes sit in the sink until the silverware rusted, and a little white mouse appeared from behind my bookcase one day. I had been sitting at my table so immobile he probably assumed I was one of the chairs. He darted away only when I screamed.”

Niemi says it’s important to talk publicly about anxiety so that others don’t have to struggle as much as she did and because she says there is still stigma. “When I was in school it was so painful to me. I thought, I’m the only one doing this. Everybody else manages anxiety no problem.”

Twenty-five years ago she earned a spot with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and has played with them ever since.

During complicated performances, the old feelings return sometimes. Here’s how she described awaiting her moment in the orchestra pit for a cymbal crash: “Sitting there, trying to keep track, watching the singers up on stage, and it’s getting closer and closer. Finally, I’m counting down, I’m listening to the music. I’m waiting for my moment. I stand up I take these big hunks of metal I’m about to fling at one another and I wait for the moment and the conductor lowers the baton.”

Even after two and a half decades, “I know I have to be perfect in this moment and it has to happen.”

Niemi has tempered her anxiety with wisdom. She’s accepted that to do anything in life truly meaningful, failure comes with the territory. “Rejection is a gift,” she says.

“You are going to fail. It’s how you handle the failure to be perfect that you have to manage.”

When I asked Niemi if she has ever had a moment where she asked herself why she stays in a field that makes her feel this anxious, she said, “I always wanted to do it. It was so hard. But I never questioned whether I was going to do it. I worried about that in the book because I put so much emphasis on the hard parts of it that I would that come off sounding like I was ungrateful or I didn’t appreciate this opportunity I had. I’ve never felt ungrateful. I loved music. I love it. And I was really lucky to fall into this opportunity. I wanted to write about what was hard about it.”

Lauren Schiller is the Executive Producer of Audio for Salon.com and the creator and host of Inflection Point, a public radio show and podcast about how women rise up.

Why Is PBS Airing Right-Wing-Sponsored School Privatization Propaganda?

A new documentary aims to drum up public support for Betsy DeVos’ proposed voucher system.

Photo Credit: YouTube Screengrab

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her department have pushed for an expansion of privatized school choice programs in the proposed budget for fiscal year 2018, particularly in the form of private school vouchers. Now a propagandistic three-part documentary series called School Inc. will help DeVos in her efforts to gain public support for expanded private school choice options. The series has already aired on PBS stations in some markets and will be shown on more this month.

majority of people across the partisan spectrum oppose private school vouchers, programs that redirect public education money to pay for private school tuition. Vouchers are problematic for many reasons, including their history of allowing for discrimination against LGBTQ, disabled, and special education students, their impact on reducing public education funding, and their ineffectiveness in boosting academic achievement.

Despite these problems, private school vouchers are a long-standing priority of the corporations and right-wing funders backing the education privatization movement. The late Andrew Coulson, long-time head of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, was the driving force behind School Inc. The Cato Institute is a right-wing, libertarian think-tank that calls for the elimination of public schools in support of greater “educational freedom” to choose from a free market of privately run schools.

In addition to School Inc.’s roots in the radical, libertarian Cato Institute, education historian and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch found that the film was funded by a number of arch-conservative foundations with ties to the “dark money ATM” DonorsTrust and the Ayn Rand Institute. Ravitch has prescreened School Inc. and provided this scathing review to The Washington Post:

This program is paid propaganda. It does not search for the truth. It does not present opposing points of view. It is an advertisement for the demolition of public education and for an unregulated free market in education. PBS might have aired a program that debates these issues, but “School Inc.” does not.

Why would a public broadcast channel air a documentary that is produced by a right-wing think tank and funded by ultra-conservative donors, and that presents a single point of view without meaningful critique, all the while denigrating public education? PBS responded in part with a statement to the Post, saying, “PBS and local member stations aim to offer programs that reflect diverse viewpoints and promote civic dialogue on important topics affecting local communities.”

However, as Ravitch notes, when a documentary fails to objectively present information about a topic that may not be well understood by the general public, the result is unlikely to “promote civic dialogue.” And when major media outlets uncritically provide a platform to right-wing ideologues, they further misinform and polarize the debate around important issues such as public education.

 

http://www.alternet.org/media/why-pbs-airing-right-wing-sponsored-school-privatization-propaganda?akid=15747.265072.VfPhWx&rd=1&src=newsletter1078406&t=16

The techie is the new hipster — but what is tech culture?

The archetype of the “techie” has become commonplace in the past decade in art and in real life. But what is it?

The techie is the new hipster — but what is tech culture even?
(Credit: Getty/Geber86)

If you live in any major city in the world, you probably know the type: they roam the clean parts of town, lattes in hand, wearing American Apparel hoodies emblazoned with logos of vowel-deficient startups. Somehow, in the past decade, a profession turned into a lifestyle and a culture, with its own customs, habits and even lingo. In film, television and literature, the techie archetype is mocked, recycled, reduced to a stereotype (as in Mike Judge’s sitcom “Silicon Valley”), a radical hero (as in “Mr. Robot”), or both (as in “The Circle”).

If, as many claim, the hipster died at the end of the 2000s, the techie seems to have taken its place in the 2010s — not quite an offshoot, but rather a mutation. Consider the similarities: Like hipsters, techies are privy to esoteric knowledge, though of obscure code rather than obscure bands. They both seem to love kale. They tend to rove in packs, are associated with gentrification, and are overwhelmingly male. There are some fashion similarities: the tight jeans, the hoodie fetish, the predilection for modernist Scandinavian furniture. And like “hipster,” the term “techie” is often considered a slur, a pejorative that you lob at someone you want to depict as out of touch, rarefied and elite — not a fellow prole, in other words.

Yet there are differences, too: The techie often brings with him or her a certain worldview and language that attempts to describe the world in computational terms; the transformation of the word “hack” into an everyday verb attests to this. Some techies view their own bodies as merely machines that require food the way computers need electricity, a belief system exemplified by the popularity of powdered foods like Soylent. This happens in exercise, too — the rush to gamify health and wellness by tracking steps, calories and heartbeats turns the body into a spreadsheet.

How does a profession mutate into a culture? David Golumbia, an associate professor of digital studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of “The Cultural Logic of Computation,” suggests that some of the cultural beliefs common to those in the tech industry about the utopian promise of computers trickle down into what we may think of as tech culture at large. Golumbia describes the basic idea, “computationalism,” as “the philosophical idea that the brain is a computer” as well as “a broader worldview according to which people or society are seen as computers, or that we might be living inside of a simulation.”

“You frequently find people who avoid formal education for some reason or another and then educate themselves through reading a variety of online resources that talk about this, and they subscribe to it as quasi-religious truth, that everything is a computer,” Golumbia said. “It’s appealing to people who find the messiness of the social and human world unappealing and difficult to manage. There’s frustration . . . expressed when parts of the world don’t appear to be computational, by which I mean, when their actions can’t be represented by algorithms that can be clearly defined.”

“It’s very reductive,” Golumbia added.

Mapping the social world onto the algorithmic world seems to be where tech culture goes astray. “This is part of my deep worry about it — we are heading in a direction where people who really identify with the computer are those who have a lot of trouble dealing with other people directly. People who find the social world difficult to manage often see the computer as the solution to their problems,” Golumbia said.

But tech culture isn’t confined to screen time anymore. It’s become part of everyday life, argues Jan English-Lueck, a professor of anthropology of San Jose State University and a distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future. English-Lueck wrote an ethnographic account of Silicon Valley culture, “Cultures@SiliconValley,” and studies the people and culture of the region.

“We start to see our civic life in a very technical way. My favorite example of that is people going to a picnic and looking at some food and asking if that’s ‘open source’ [available to all]. So people use those technological metaphors to think about everyday things in life,” she said.

English-Lueck says the rapid pace of the tech field trickles down into tech culture, too. “People are fascinated with speed and efficiency, they’re enthusiastic and optimistic about what technology can accomplish.”

Golumbia saw the aspects of tech culture firsthand: Prior to being a professor, he worked in information technology for a software company on Wall Street. His convictions about computationalism were borne out in his colleagues. “What I saw was that there were at least two kinds of employees — there was a programmer type, who was very rigid but able to do the tasks that you put in front of them, and there were the managerial types who were much more flexible in their thinking.”

“My intuition in talking to [the] programmer types [was that] they had this very black-and-white mindset, that everything was or should be a computer,” he said. “And the managers, who tended to have taken at least a few liberal arts classes in college, and were interested in history of thought, understood you can’t manage people the way you manage machines.”

Yet the former worldview — that everything is a computer — seems to have won out. “When I started, I thought it was this minor small subgroup of society” that believed that, he told Salon. “But nowadays I think many executives in Silicon Valley have some version of this belief.”

For evidence that the metaphor of the human body as a computer has gone mainstream, look no further than our gadgetry. Devices like the Fitbit and the Apple Watch monitor a the wearer’s movement and activity constantly, producing data that they can obsess over or study. “There is a small group of people who become obsessed with quantification,” Golumbia told Salon. “Not just about exercise, but like, about intimate details of their life — how much time spent with one’s kids, how many orgasms you have — most people aren’t like that; they do counting for a while [and] then they get tired of counting. The counting part seems oppressive.”

But this counting obsession, a trickle-down ideology from tech culture, is no longer optional: In many gadgets, it is now imposed from above. My iPhone counts my steps whether I like it or not. And other industries and agencies love the idea that we should willingly be tracked and monitored constantly, including the NSA and social media companies who profit off knowing the intimate details of our lives and selling ads to us based on it. “Insurers are trying to get us to do this all the time as part of wellness programs,” Golumbia said. “It’s a booming top-down control thing that’s being sold to us as the opposite.”

Golumbia marvels at a recent ad for the Apple Watch that features the Beyoncé song “Freedom” blaring in the background. “How did we get to this world where freedom means having a device on your that measures what you do at all times?”

Keith A. Spencer is a cover editor at Salon.

Why are there so many billionaires leading money-losing companies?

Uber lost $708 million in 6 months, but its CEO/founder is worth billions. Is Silicon Valley a pyramid scheme?

Why are there so many billionaires leading money-losing companies?
(Credit: Getty/Ronstik)

In a financial report released last week, ride-hailing app company Uber reported a staggering $708 million loss for the first three months of the year. Since the company was founded eight years ago, it’s burned through almost half of the $15 billion in private venture capital that it has raised.

But despite the mounting losses, the departure of more than a dozen company executives over the past year and a string of controversies that would send the typical company plunging into an irreversible death spiral, Uber CEO and co-founder Travis Kalanick’s net worth is immense.

According to Forbes, Kalanick is worth $6.3 billion, making him the world’s 226th wealthiest billionaire and the 35th richest magnate of the global tech industry. That makes him richer than Wal-Mart heiress Christy Walton and Liu Qiandong, founder and head of Chinese e-commerce and retail giant JD.com, which recently reported $11 billion in quarterly sales and its first profit as a publicly traded company.

Kalanick’s bounty seems largely immune (so far) to Uber’s string of mishaps, including allegations of about its workplace being hostile to women, a bitter legal fight with Google over allegedly stolen self-driving car technology, scrutiny over the company’s attempt to deceive government officials, and other controversies concerning its treatment of drivers.

So how does a 40-year-old computer programmer heading a beleaguered and unprofitable company have a net worth greater than the gross domestic product of Barbados?

The short answer is: hopes, dreams and aspirations. Specifically, those of the Uber’s financial backers, who believe in the gospel that Uber is on its way to killing the global taxi industry.

Under normal startup circumstances, a business faces intense pressure to attain profitability within a short period of time. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, 1 in 5 new businesses goes under in the first year while nearly half fail within the fifth year. According to a 2015 study from Babson and Baruch Colleges, the typical entrepreneur provides nearly 60 percent of the funding needed for his or her business.

But in the world of Silicon Valley, profitability takes a back seat as deep-pocketed investors throw money at long-term aspirations. For years private investors have assigned sky-high valuations to tech industry startups in a bid to find the next Amazon or Google nestled in some Northern California office building or garage. Billionaire investors, private equity firms and sovereign wealth fund managers are willing to take considerable risks that mushroom the wealth of founders and CEOs to astronomical levels.

Kalanick is a billionaire because private investors have assigned a value to Uber based on its future potential; that’s where the hopey-dreamy stuff comes in. The company is currently valued at a sky-high $68 billion according to CBInsights, more than half the value of global aerospace behemoth Boeing. Because Kalanick is a primary shareholder of Uber, his net worth is boosted by this potentially irrational valuation, making him a “paper” billionaire.

Though what he does with his equity is not publicly known, Kalanick can potentially leverage this net worth to grow his personal fortune by using his stake in Uber to engage in other business endeavors, like buying real estate or investing in securities, all based on what private investors think his startup is worth.

In the typical scenario, an executive at private equity firm considering an investment in a private startup might compare the numbers offered in a business plan with those of a comparable publicly traded company and examine operating costs, profit margins and overall capital structure. If the startup has a prospectus with targets that seem viable compared with those of an existing competitor, investors will have some degree of confidence that they’ll wind up with a windfall of profit once the company is acquired or it files an initial public offering.

But because of the strange nature of the tech industry, there often isn’t a comparable company upon which investors can base their assessments. When Amazon was raising money in the early 1990s, there was no existing competitor with a similar business model, so early investors had to make estimates and assumptions to base their hopes on. It is interesting that very few individuals invested in Amazon prior to its initial public offering.

In retrospect, offering seed money to Amazon was a no brainer. Internet commerce was growing by a staggering 2,300 percent a year in 1994, and Jeff Bezos saw that light early and famously drew up a business plan during a road trip to Seattle. Venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers was one of a few private investors that gave Bezos money early on, and it reaped a fortune after Amazon filed its initial public offering in 1997 just as the dot-com bubble peaked.

But the success of tech companies like Amazon.com and Google are few and far between. Often the decision by private investors whether to invest in a technology startup is based on assumptions, best estimates and industrywide averages of publicly traded companies in the same sector.

While private equity firms have special access to review a startup’s books, CEO- founders have much more latitude in selling their plans and manipulating their numbers than the heads of established publicly traded companies, who face more regulatory scrutiny.

Once startups make their way to the public markets through initial public offerings, founder-CEOs can continue to reap billions from their company’s valuations without the companies making a dime in profit. Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who’s worth an estimated $16 billion, the head of Snap, Evan Spiegel ($4.7 billion) and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey ($1.8 billion) are notable examples of rich CEOs who head unprofitable companies.

These founder-CEOs can spend good portions of their lives as billionaire heads of money-losing companies as long as investors keep believing that these companies may someday strike it rich. But there’s always a make-or-break point, and paper billionaire are always at risk of sinking their fortunes with investors losing their shirts. One thing is almost certain: Even if Uber crashes and burns, Kalanick would likely walk away from the wreckage a very wealthy computer programmer.

 

Why Trump Was Inevitable — But Recovery Isn’t

Or, Why the Great Leaders Theory of History is Wrong

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Every weekend, I read countless variations on the same theme. “If only we could remove him from power…things would change.”

It’s what I call the Great Leaders Theory of History. That is, Great Leaders make all the difference, are all that really matters in a society, hence, the trick is removing bad ones, to make room for good ones. It’s wrong — because it’s backwards.

Let’s think very clearly and analytically about society, leadership, and human prosperity for a moment.

Great Leaders are made. They don’t just magically appear. By structural and institutional conditions. Bad leaders are an effect before they are a cause — an effect of people who are ready to self-destruct. They don’t arise in a vacuum. Hitler didn’t come to power ex nihilo, from the void — nor did Trump. Just as a demagogue rising in a collapsing, hyperinflationary Germany was on the cards, so too Trump was inevitable.

Why? Because the American social contract is broken. A social contract is unlike a legal contract in one important way. It can be ripped up. In what way is the American social contract broken? In the truest way of all: Americans do not expect — or get — minimally good lives anymore. Their life expectancy, income, savings, and so on, down to nearly every last indicator of well being, are all falling.

What do people whose lives are getting worse do? They rip up the social contracts that are failing them. That is rational. It is what maximizes their (falling) payoffs, rewards which have become only punishments. Hence it is a truism of history. It is what we usually call “revolution”. It is what the French did in 1789, what the Bolsheviks, Maoists did — and now what the Trumpists have done. They have ripped up the social contract that failed them. Trump is just the tiny hand tearing the paper.

Many so much so that they have turned into the rich world’s extremists, and now reject the idea of society altogether. Like the modern GOP, they do not “believe” in the idea of a government at all. Yet that way lies absolute collapse into anarchy Somalia — or relative collapse into autocracy like Turkey. I put believe in quotes because government is not really a belief, but a process.

When we employ the Great Leaders Theory of History, we fail to see all the above. We ignore the great and simple truth that a society’s historic leaders are made by its structural and institutional conditions. And by ignoring this truth, simply yearning for Great Leaders to save us, we remain paralyzed and blind — and vulnerable to Caesars, whether they are named Julian or Vladimir.

Angry, unhappy people demand bad leaders, who tear up social contracts. Happy, healthy, sane people don’t. Thus we must produce better followers today if we want better leaders tomorrow. What does “better followers” mean? It means people who aren’t ready to self destruct. Who can think beyond hyperrational, narrow self interest, partisan politics, aren’t ruled by greed, anger, and hate, whose lives aren’t one long sequence of disinformation, pain, and reaction. You can hardly blame people with lives like that for turning into Trumpists — and just blaming them is besides the point entirely.

How do we make such followers? It’s pretty simple, isn’t it? A society must give everyone the possibility to live a genuinely good life. Whether it is as mayors or CEOs or investors, or even just brothers and cousins and neighbors and friends. Then organizations, whether they are cities, towns, corporations, families, and so on, are less likely to rip up the social contract, reject the idea of society, and turn to demagogues. But if a society cannot make happy, healthy, sane people, then of course the result will just be the vicious cycle of angry people demanding bad leaders.

Here’s the takeaway. All the above is a way to say: what working societies really need are thousands of tiny genuinely good leaders. Not one “Great Leader”. A good leader is just someone with a powerful positive agenda and vision for a human organization — as big as a society or as small as a family. If we are mayors or CEOs or investors or neighbors and so on who can do the above in small ways, we are good leaders in a little way. And we are doing more than enough.

(If you wanna put it more formally: good leaders produce better followers who prevent society from demanding the wrong Great Leaders. Go ahead and put it in an differential equation if you want.)

A good leader, no matter how small, is worth far more than a great leader, no matter how bigly. Why? Because the former must precede the latter. Without thousands of tiny good leaders, societies don’t ever really go anywhere at all, no matter how many bombastic great leaders they have.

Great Leaders don’t make history. They just make headlines. History is really made by thousands of invisible tiny leaders. People who change organizations, whether families, cities, towns, or corporations, in small and often unremarkable ways. When those invisible leaders are good, people are sane and wise enough to follow paths that lead them to human possibility. When those leaders are bad, people are reduced to following the path of human folly.

It is up to all of us to be tiny but good leaders today. And to forget the Great Leaders Theory of History. That backwards theory is just another entry now in a long catalogue of American intellectual failures, from neoliberalism to segregation. It’s really just another to way say: they did it. The bad people. But they didn’t. Not alone. We did this. In us is the lack of a thousand tiny good leaders.

And only we can undo it.

Umair
June 2017

View story at Medium.com

The Great Unraveling: The crisis of the post-war geopolitical order

2 June 2017

Less than a week after US President Donald Trump returned to the United States from his overseas tour of the Middle East and Europe, it is clear that a shift in world politics with vast implications is underway. Global relationships and institutions that for decades set the framework for international economy and public life are rapidly unraveling.

The rising threat of trade war and the resurgence of the military ambitions of all the imperialist powers are signs of the advanced state of collapse of the international institutions created after the United States emerged from World War II as the dominant imperialist power.

This collapse is the product of processes that have matured over decades. In 1991, when the Stalinist dissolution of the Soviet Union deprived the NATO alliance of a common enemy, tensions between the imperialist powers were already surging. As US strategists declared a “unipolar moment,” in which the disappearance of the Soviet Union eliminated any immediate military rival, they aimed to use this military advantage to counterbalance the declining economic position of the United States.

A 1992 Pentagon strategy paper asserted that Washington had to convince “potential competitors that they need not aspire to a greater role or pursue a more aggressive posture,” and to “discourage them from challenging our leadership or seeking to overturn the established political and economic order.”

A quarter century later, this policy has failed. It led to a series of imperialist wars and interventions by the NATO powers, led by the United States, that shattered Iraq, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Ukraine, and other countries. While costing millions of lives, destroying entire societies, and creating the greatest refugee crisis since World War II, these acts of militarism have produced debacles and failed to reverse US imperialism’s fortunes. Now, a new stage of the crisis has been reached: The United States’ imperialist rivals are preparing direct, far-reaching challenges to US imperialism’s global primacy.

Trump’s attempts at the G7 and NATO summits to secure better economic terms for the United States from Europe have backfired. He had blamed the Europeans for “not paying what they should be paying” for military spending in the NATO alliance, and denounced Germany as “terrible,” adding, “We will stop” German car exports to the US. Europe’s response was not sympathy and financial aid, however, but a series of actions indicating that the continental European powers are preparing for a political and military break with America.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking at a Munich beer tent rally Sunday, referred to both Trump’s performance at the summits and Britain’s vote to exit the European Union (EU): “The times when we could fully rely on others are to some extent over—I experienced that in the last few days. We Europeans must really take our destiny into our own hands.” Going forward, she added, “we have to fight for our own future ourselves.”

Events in Europe over the past week confirmed that Merkel’s statement reflected a deep crisis in the NATO military alliance founded in 1949 between America and Europe. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel declared that under Trump, Washington had cast itself outside the “Western community of values.” He added that this signaled “a shift in global power relations.”

Then newly-elected French President Emmanuel Macron, a close ally of Berlin, invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to a high-profile summit at Versailles. Standing next to Putin in a joint press conference, Macron criticized all the main US-EU foreign interventions in recent years. He called for an end to the conflict in Ukraine provoked by the 2014 US- and German-backed coup in Kiev, called for closer economic and intelligence cooperation with Russia and even floated the possibility of re-opening France’s embassy in Damascus, Syria.

Also this week, a new EU military headquarters in Brussels went into operation. Britain, which had blocked it in line with US fears that the EU would become a rival to NATO, could no longer veto it due to its exit from the EU.

Among US foreign policy strategists, it is widely acknowledged that these events mark a historic setback for Washington. “Every American administration since 1945 has tried to work closely with Germany and NATO,” Jacob Heilbrunn wrote in The National Interest, but America under Trump is “pushing Merkel to create a German superpower.”

Heilbrunn added, “Now that France has elected Emanuel Macron president, Merkel is moving to fashion a Franco-German axis that will pursue a common economic and military path. This will signal a significant diminution in American prestige and influence abroad. Imagine, for example, that Merkel decided to defy Trump’s push for sanctions and isolating Iran by establishing trade ties with North Korea, including selling it weapons.”

These tensions are not simply the product of the extreme nationalist policies of the current occupant of the White House, however. Indeed, as the Democratic Party relentlessly demonizes Russia and accuses it of subverting American democracy, it is ever clearer that a victory of Hillary Clinton in last year’s US presidential election would not have resolved the conflicts with Europe. Rather, the tensions are rooted in deep contradictions between the interests of the major imperialist powers, which twice in the last century led to world war.

This is underscored by the escalating rivalries between the imperialist powers in Asia. Last month, as China inaugurated its so-called Belt and Road Initiative—designed to build a web of energy and transport infrastructure integrating China, the Middle East, and Europe—Washington was reduced to a role on the sidelines, as China and the EU developed their ties. The response of Japan and India, Washington’s allies in its “pivot to Asia” aimed at isolating China, is not, however, fundamentally friendlier to US imperialist interests than that of the EU powers.

Last week, Tokyo and New Delhi released a “vision document” for an “Asia Africa Growth Corridor,” aiming to present an alternative to China’s Belt and Road that would develop India as a production-chain hub and military counterweight to China. The goal of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his supporters in the ultra-nationalist Nippon Kaigi organization is not only to outstrip China, but also to rearm Japan and supplant America as Asia’s dominant power.

Abe, whose government is pushing aggressively for the elimination of the constitutional ban on Japanese overseas wars imposed after its defeat in World War II, has repeatedly declared that an Indo-Japanese alliance has “the most potential” of any “in the world.”

The events surrounding Trump’s trip to Europe reflect a crisis not only of American imperialism, but of the entire world capitalist system. None of Washington’s rivals—neither the EU, despised at home for its austerity policies, nor the economically moribund, right-wing regime in Japan, nor the post-Maoist capitalist oligarchy in China—offer a progressive alternative.

Anyone who asserted that a coalition of these powers will emerge to stabilize world capitalism, and block the emergence of large-scale trade war and military conflict, would be placing heavy bets against history. As Trump demands trade war against Germany, Berlin and Tokyo re-militarize their foreign policy, and a new French president comes to power who supports restoring the draft, everything indicates that the ruling elites are tobogganing eyes closed towards a new global conflagration on the same—or an even greater—scale as the world wars of the last century.

The force that will emerge as the alternative to the collapse of bourgeois politics is the international working class. It is being driven into action by intolerable conditions of life, mass unemployment, and social misery after decades of austerity and war. And as corporations like Amazon and Apple, with vast workforces spread over dozens of countries, predominate in a globalized world economy, the working class is increasingly conscious of its character as an international class, whose interests are fundamentally separate and opposed to those of the financial aristocracies that rule in every country.

The collapse of international capitalist relations goes hand in hand with the discrediting of the various social democratic and liberal parties and trade union bureaucracies that emerged to contain the class struggle in the post-World War II era. The surprise vote for Brexit, the election of Trump and the disintegration of France’s two-party system in the recent presidential election testify to the collapse of the old ruling establishments. A global eruption of the class struggle is being prepared.

The crisis that has emerged has vindicated the International Committee of the Fourth International’s (ICFI) insistence that the Stalinists’ dissolution of the Soviet Union did not signify the end of the struggle of the international working class for socialism. Capitalism had not overcome the fundamental conflicts identified by the great Marxists of the 20th century—the contradictions between global economy and the nation-state system, and between socialized economic production and the private appropriation of profit—that led to war and to social revolution.

The way forward for the working class is revolutionary struggle on an internationalist and socialist program in the tradition of the October Revolution a century ago. Workers cannot support the militarist policies of any of the contending imperialist powers. The necessary response to the deepening crisis of global capitalism is the unification of the working class in struggle against imperialism through the building of a world socialist anti-war movement.

Alex Lantier

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/06/02/pers-j02.html