As already mentioned, European history “between the wars”. I did a very interesting compulsory module in my final year of undergraduate on the interwar period, with a lot of focus on the cultural side of it, and I chose an MA in the ‘history of modernity’ done by one of the same lecturers. More specifically though, the history of Communism in Europe in that period, beginning with the rise of the threat of fascism and continuing on through the Second World War; it’s a little grandiose, but once 2008 came around (I started my MA in 2009) the parallels became increasingly apparent; the complacent liberal world shattered, not just by the First World War, but by economic and political crisis. And then there are these massive ideologies which suck people in, until some of them, earlier than others (Victor Serge, Arthur Koestler, George Orwell) notice the contradictions in their preferred idea, but are trapped by the need to fight against the worst enemy; throughout all this, there’s a nostalgia for the pre-WWI world and the idea of constant progress and/or comfortable stasis it represented (I have Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday to read about that idea). In general, it’s close enough to be accessible but distant enough to really feel like ‘history’; the post-war world, particularly up until ‘68, is heavily shaped by it (and not just the war itself), so the connections to current politics are not too difficult to find.
16. Do you own some historical item? (coin, clothing, weapons, books, ect) If yes which one is your favourite?
I have an inherited coin collection with a few relatively old and odd coins - which I should actually dig out again to identify with the help of the internet now - but my favourite item is, connected with the above, an original 1937 cloth-backed orange copy of Koestler’s Spanish Testamentas published by the Gollancz Left Book Club. Actually the book’s not great, I’ll probably never read the first half again and the second half is with some changes in my more modern copy of Dialogue with Death; but I guess what I like is having the actual object connected with the period, more so than the text (although for research purposes that helped).
'We look into the core of you as a technical digital entity'
Reading this lengthy Evgeny Morozov piece via @hautepop, about ‘algorithmic regulation’, was reminded of an article I saw recently in the Irish Times business section (I was reading the physical paper at home, otherwise I probably wouldn’t have clicked on it) describing a new system to counter online credit card fraud. On the one hand it does sound ingenious, on the other it fits very much with the self as a probability construct:
"We actually use about 80 different data sources instead of these rules. We actually look at the human in the transaction. And we make a decision in about a quarter of a second,” he says.
The retailer must first allow Trustev access to its systems and for the first few weeks Trustev just watches transactions on the site in order to establish a profile for a “normal” customer.
“So what we do is we sit in there, we look at you, we look at your device, we look at your IP address. We look at your behaviour. We look at your location. We look at your email address. And we do a lot of mix and matching with that and a lot of algorithmic work, and we make a decision,” he says before adding : “We look into the core of you as a technical digital entity.”
I am not quite sure what that means but, in these post-Snowden days, it sounds a little Orwellian.
“We create a digital footprint of you at that time,” he explains. The amplification does not reassure to be honest. Nor does what comes next.
“We’ve gone through the payment. How you browse the site. How you interact with links. The machine you’re on. The IP address you’re on. Does the IP you’re on match the shipping address? If you enter your mobile, we pull back mobile location. Does the IP address match the mobile location, match the address you put in?
“And now you’re starting to run through multiple different, completely independent, pieces of data confirming identity and location,” he adds.
It’s a lot of information and Trustev retains it and uses it across its “platform”. However, it is all erased after 90 days as required by law.
“After 90 days it is useless information anyway,” he explains, which in its own way is quite unsettling.
My new phone has a ‘music square’ which appears to automatically categorize your music by mood, with two axes. Results:
Exciting: Ramones, ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ - excellent
Calm: Vampire Weekend, ‘A-Punk’ - okaaay
Joyful: Ramones, again, ‘53rd & 3rd’ - hmm, “Standing on the street/I’m tryin’ to turn a trick”, “Then I took out my razor blade/Then I did what God forbade”; to be fair, it sort of excludes ‘passion’ (see next), but it’s hardly full of joy either, except in a twisted sense of jouissance
Passionate: Mclusky, ‘Alan is a Cowboy Killer’ - it’s intense, I’ll admit, but beyond that (and accepting that the music is being analysed rather than the lyrics) it’s still very wrong
I don’t think it’s covered all my library (Regulator Watts features heavily as well) although the above is fairly represenative of what it has to work with (and why I’m not great at putting music on at parties). Mind you, my first definition of punk - based on the pop-punk of Green Day, Rancid, the Bouncing Souls - was music in which the content of the lyrics were largely antithetical to the mood of the songs, so maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised.
That’s a tough one, actually. For a start, I’m not much a film buff, although I have recently realised I will watch anything from the 1970s, particularly with the involvement of Scorsese, De Niro, New York, poorly paved streets, etc. But when it comes to history, I think I prefer engaging with it on the grand, or at least political/’intellectual’, scale that doesn’t really translate into cinematic representation very easily. Unless it’s a character study posed in an historical epoch I like, I suppose - but I don’t even read much historical fiction, as opposed to fiction written in (or near to) historical periods. As a depiction of social history, I rather liked Jimmy’s Hall this year, although it’s probably good rather than great as a film. Really, I’d have to include TV drama series: Carnivale, Band of Brothers, and Mad Men. Or for a film based on a really good book, the 1967 version of Ulysses.
23. Favourite historical song
Certainly in terms of how often the chorus gets stuck in my head, the Clash’s ‘Spanish Bombs’, although untangling the references can get pretty complicated.
10. Pieces of art (paintings, sculpures, lithographies, etc.) related to history you like most (post an image of them)
Francis Bacon, from ‘Man in Blue V’ (1954) on the cover of Darkness at Noon, illustrating the self-effacing nature of totalitarianism:
Felix Nussbaum, ‘Self-Portrait in a Surreal Landscape’ (1939), adorning the cover of a volume of autobiography by Koestler’s more level-headed friend and fellow ex-Communist, Jew and refugee from a collapsing Mitteleuropa, Manes Sperber:
I’m kinda giving away the answer to another of the questions when I say that the mid-20th century period in European history is my ‘favourite’, but I do particularly like a lot of the art surrounding it.
Closer to home, I was really taken with seeing Seán Keating’s ‘Tipperary Hurler’ (1928) up close in the Hugh Lane recently. The painting is wonderfully intense, with the subject being both sportsman and patriot (what I read was that it bears a strong resemblance to a well-known IRA volunteer). Although obviously I have some mixed feelings about, ahem, ‘muscular nationalism’.
“I need to negotiate who I am with others for the idea to even matter. Alone, I am no one, no matter how much information I may consume.”—Also, this (does it say something about me that this registers as profound, if not revelatory? Probably)
“Because excess information is “pushed” at us rather than something we have to seek out, we are always being reminded that there is more to know than we can assimilate, and that what we know is a partial representation, a construct. Like a despairing dissertation writer, we cannot help but know that we can’t assimilate all the knowledge it’s possible to collect. Each new piece of information raises further questions, or invites more research to properly contextualize it.”—
Really interesting Rob Horning piece about data surveillance, population control, the construction of the self, truth and probability (and profit). Although this line is actually a plot point from The Matrix: Reloaded*
"A margin of noncompliance has already been factored in and may in fact be integral to the containment of the broader social dynamics being modeled at the population level."
(*you know, the scene with all the tv screens, and the long expository speech - that I couldn’t really follow when I saw it first, but just happened to be watching a few nights ago)
"So there are two approaches: the revolutionary approach, basically structured around traditional positions of public law, and the radical approach, basically structured around the new economy of governmental reason. These two approaches imply two conceptions of the law. In the revolutionary, axiomatic approach, the law will be seen as the expression of a will. So there will be a system of will-law. The problem of the will is, of course, at the heart of the problems of right, which again confirms that the fact that this is a fundamentally juridical problematic. The law is therefore conceived as the expression of a collective will indicating the part of right individuals have agreed to cede, and the part they wish to hold on to. In the other problematic, the radical utilitarian approach, the law is conceived as the effect of a transaction that separates the sphere of intervention of public authorities from that of the individual’s independence. This leads to another distinction which is also very important. On one side you have a juridical conception of freedom: every individual originally has in his possession a certain freedom, a part of which he will or will not cede. On the other side, freedom is not conceived as the exercise of some basic rights, but simply as the independence of the governed with regard to government. We have therefore two absolutely heterogeneous conceptions of freedom, one based on the rights of man, and the other starting from the independence of the governed. I am not saying that the two systems of the rights of man and the independence of the governed do not intertwine, but they have different historical origins and I think they are essentially heterogeneous or disparate. With regard to the problem of what are currently called human rights, we would only need to look at where, in what countries, how, and in what form these rights are claimed to see that at times the question is actually the juridical question of rights, and at others it is a question of this assertion or claim of the independence of the governed vis-à-vis governmentality."
The Birth of Biopolitics, 41-2
"Governing properly will mean that one is able to govern by utilising two resources. First phobōs (fear). Those who govern must make fear reign over those who are governed, and they will do this by demonstrating their strength (bia, the text says). This material strength must be effectively present and visible, and this fear will ensure good government. But at the same time, and this will be the second means of governing, the governors must show aidōs (that is to say, a sense of decency and respect). This aidōs is not directly the respect that the governed owe to those who govern them, but this aidōs (respect) must be, as it were, an internal relationship of the governors to themselves, their respect for their obligations, for the city, and for the laws of the city. Aidōs will mean that one is able to submit to the laws like a slave (he uses the term douleuein). Being a slave of the law, wanting to constitute oneself as a slave of the law will characterise the aidōs (respect) of the governors with regard to themselves, the city, and its laws. And this respect will then bring about the respect that others – the governed – may have for them. So “aidōs” should be understood as a virtue which characterizes the relationship of the governed to the governors, but which also and especially characterizes the attitude of the governors towards themselves.”
This post about Ireland’s appearance before the UN Human Rights Committee - the monitoring body for the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) - focuses on an aspect of the state’s justification of our extremely restrictive recent abortion law that caught my attention as well: its compliance with “citizens’ right to vote”.
“Mary Jackson, principal officer at the Department of Health, responding to Ireland rapporteur Yuval Shany’s questioning about how Ireland’s current regime could be reconciled with Articles 6 and 7 of the ICCPR, which guarantee the right to life and prohibit torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, said that ‘Ireland’s approach to legislating for abortion complied with Article 25 of the Covenant which guaranteed all citizens’ right to vote and self-determination.’
Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 2 and without unreasonable restrictions: (a) To take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives;
(b) To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors;
(c) To have access, on general terms of equality, to public service in his country.
Ireland’s position, then, was that torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment could be administered provided that it arose from the free expression of the will of electors.
Or perhaps it could not be torture, or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, given that voters had freely chosen to administer it.”
Without having looked too deeply at the proceedings, I can spot one flaw in the argument here: the reference to Art. 25 was not meant to justify a violation of Art. 7, because, as the rapporteur stated and any student of human rights knows, the prohibition of torture is absolute and therefore admitting of no justification or, in the legal term, ‘derogation’. More to the point, ascribing the status of non-derogable “mental torture” to the theoretical operation of the abortion legislation – where a woman who requests a termination because of the threat of suicide faces interviews by multiple psychiatrists before the procedure may, possibly, be allowed – is an extreme position legally, even if it doubtless has moral force.
The use of Art. 25 seems to be more of a weak figleaf of protection for Ireland’s abortion regime from outside criticism by reference to the inherent difficulty of passing controversial social (i.e., ‘religious’) legislation in Ireland. The appeal is made both to the constitutional majoritarianism underlying the pro-life 8th Amendment, and – at least implicitly – to the principle of sovereignty and the ability of democratic polities to decide, or self-determine, the implementation of ‘human rights’. The latter is a common refrain in these interactions between states and international bodies, to which the usual response is to point out the formal supremacy of international law while allowing a sensible (and politically efficacious) measure of discretion.
However, the specific (and unsuccessful) articulation of the Irish citizens’ “right to vote” also highlights one of the key aspects of human rights law: its “counter-majoritarian” quality, or the principle that formally defined ‘rights’ trump any attempt to counter them by passing legislation. It’s similar to the constitutional principles or ‘checks and balances’ within countries, except here democratic governments are bound by the international treaties they sign up to. As well as countering the ‘tyranny of the majority’, it also expresses the broader meaning of democracy as being about the protection of rights as well as just voting. Yet it equally highlights a certain contradiction of liberalism, the idea of being ‘forced to be free’, that true freedom cannot rest on free choice.
Of course, in theory (and, at times, in practice) constitutions and treaties can be amended through democratic means – usually indirectly, by governments, occasionally more-or-less directly, as in the case of the Irish plebiscites, or often obliquely, through the ‘guardians of the constitution’, the courts, national, regional or international. Nevertheless the idea persists that these worthy documents take on a solid form, constraining ‘democratic’ government action – in the post above, “such things as human rights enshrined in international law”, “fundamental human rights” – for the most part because they do express ideas that we wish our governments to be held accountable to. If they don’t – well tough.
"And the United Nations has spoken. Fitzgerald listened and she heard them. Of course, “the will of the majority cannot derogate from the State’s human rights obligations”, she said. That’s new. That’s significant."
The criticism of the Irish abortion regime in effect places the Irish government in between two counter-majoritarian movements, although one perhaps admits it more readily than the other: human rights, and Catholic doctrine. The opponents of abortion in all circumstances, while making up between 10-15% of the population in repeated polling, continue to hold on to the idea that there really is a majority opposed to liberalisation of abortion – the last referendum in 2002, further constraining the constitutional position, was after all only very narrowly defeated – but ultimately their argument, along with all other pro-life movements, rests on a ‘rights claim’ for the unborn that cannot be alienated by any democratic majority (in practice, other European Catholic countries have more liberal abortion laws where the position of the Church is one of criticism rather than blocking). On the other side, while not enshrining freedom of choice as a right in itself, the international human rights movement insists that legislation be undertaken in accordance with other inalienable rights of the person.
To pass such adequate legislation the Irish government would need to face down a very vocal minority, both within parliament (and its own parties) and outside, as well as a broad reluctance to pursue ‘liberal’ goals, better than it has done already; and ultimately to address the constitutional issue by engaging on yet another bitter referendum campaign. Yet to do so - which is only what Irish women deserve - in favour of one counter-majoritarian project, even with the supposed authoritative force of international law, over another, deeply culturally embedded, is to pursue a stalemate of ‘rights’ that only highlights their limitations in the face of politics. (My own position with regards to abortion is that since the two claims are irreconcilable, the validity goes to the one compatible with a secular, pluralist state - but that is still a political stance) .
“However, the reasoning is not at all out of joint with Ireland’s dominant political culture. Attending to the demands of ‘the markets’, the general will of money, first and foremost, is the self-evident necessity, and the basic logic to political life according to conventional wisdom is that only once these things are attended to can the general public have access to the services it requires. Among the general public, those with property and money come first.”
What I’ve been working on of late is the legal basis of this, in Europe particularly, in the idea of an “economic constitution” that establishes an order of market freedoms protected from (majority) democratic interference. These are the ‘fundamental freedoms’ of the EU (of movement of goods, people, services and capital) to be balanced, judicially, against ‘fundamental rights’ that are supposed to protect social and democratic interests. Yet the latter are not, in formal terms anyway, necessarily more ‘democratic’ – and the opposition of such rights underlies the “structural bias” (Koskenniemi) of the legal and judicial system towards particular economic and social ends, away from the debate and discourse of democratic politics. Challenging the use of rights might be as ‘revolutionary’ as calling for the implementation of some of them.
a) the essay discusses Foucault’s writings and public statements in 1976-77, a few years before the Birth of Biopolitics lectures, but it illustrates the same ‘turn’ towards considering issues of power and the subject in a more explicitly (or conventionally) political setting; translating that early Foucault which is so integral to modern critical theory into something which actually intersects with political and economic science. Or at least that’s how I’ve experienced it; I was first exposed to Foucault as part of an undergrad political theory course which covered him alongside (or against) Habermas, and then later encountering aspects of his work in settings mostly (or at least strictly) outside the academic, reading Madness and Civilisation, all the ideas which have influenced critical sociology, and so on, but it’s only now that I’ve realised he produced what is arguably one of the foundational critiques of neoliberalism as a political and economic (as well as legal) project that he feels properly relevant, and perhaps understandable, to me.
b) there’s an interesting criticism of that approach in an article by Michael Behrent, ‘Liberalism without Humanism’, which basically argues for Foucault as a closet neoliberal. There are a few articles and academic pieces I’ve come across online in my readings that are open-access – that isn’t one of them, but as well as putting up some of the more accessible links sometime I think I want to try my hand at discussing this one. Mirowski in his book quotes him approvingly, as part of the idea that leftists shouldn’t be too enthused by Foucault’s critique of neoliberalism and see it more of a cloaked approbation: that as a famed anti-humanist (that is, roughly, rejecting the woolly, sentimental and plain ideological trappings of bien-pensant Western public philosophy in favour of his far more cynical views about power and domination) the technocratic form of neoliberalism actually allowed him to approach a ‘liberal’ stance without compromising his anti-humanist one. I agree there is certainly an ambiguity in Foucault’s opinion on his subject, but I think other aspects of his arguments as they apply to the political history are a little more dubious, or at least open to other interpretations
c) the topic in the quote, and in the article more generally, is to a large extent that perennial issue of the purposes of philosophy and philosophising. Likewise there is this quote about the ‘work of the intellectual’ from which The Knife took their album title Shaking the Habitual and which is reproduced inside the sleeve. I also just reached an interesting section of the Government of Self and Others lectures where he discusses Plato and his definition of philosophy, wherein it has not only an external dimension, to ‘others’, of truth-telling or parrhesia, but an internal one regarding the apprehension of philosophical truth. One of the conditions of which is not writing – for mostly elitist, Pythagorean (i.e. hidden, esoteric truths) reasons but also to emphasise (in a quasi-Buddhist way, perhaps) the centrality of practice, “of self on self” (which if it sounds masturbatory, there is a whole discussion revolving around, as the translator notes, the French verb frotter). He suggests that Plato’s actual writings on The Laws and The Republic were perhaps not really “serious”, as prescriptions of political theory, but like a “game” or “myth” – something similar to how Machiavelli’s The Prince is often understood, as an ironic reflection on amoral politics – which may be worth thinking about with regard to his often rather sarcastic (as with pretty much everything) treatment of neoliberalism. So I guess write, think, but don’t forget to laugh…
“One emerges stronger, more intelligent, more joyous after reading Foucault and yet he only complicates everything further. How is this possible? My intuition tells me this: joy in thinking has nothing to do with how comfortable the conclusions you reach are, but rather with the fact that we discover we are capable of reaching a place by ourselves. It is an experience that leaves a lasting imprint: if we have proven capable of thinking something (whatever it is) for ourselves, we can do so again.”—'Michael Foucault: a new political imagination' - translation by Hired Knave
Ireland is currently split between people who are mortally embarrassed by the cancellation farrago and those who declare it to be of the utmost importance. What is it with the Irish and country music?
Country & Irish, its local variation, is a legacy of the showband era of the 1960s where the soundtrack to Ireland’s tentative social modernisation was provided by covers bands playing brightly-lit, alcohol-free halls and marquees, overseen by anxious parish priests, desperately battling the zeitgeist. The showbands played a mixture of contemporary rock n’roll and country, the latter probably because of its ancestral affinity with Irish traditional music (one of the roots of Country & Western lies in the music imported by early Ulster Scots immigrants to the Appalachians and further south in the US).
I started writing a post about this earlier in the week, but after explaining the situation in a half-dozen paragraphs I was too depressed to continue. The important point to include I think is that initially two shows were announced for the 80,000 capacity Croke Park GAA stadium, which then became three and then five (all sold out) to meet demand, or put another way, to speculate on the demand. The local controversy about the number of night-time music concerts at the sports stadium led to the refusal of the formal licence application for the last two gigs, at which point Brooks demanded to play “five shows or none at all” (who actually ‘cancelled’ them is somewhat opaque).
This is a good, if early, take on the rapidly farcical goings-on and their illustration of the “sure, it’ll be grand”, nod-and-a-wink attitude to the interface between business and legislative regulation in Ireland. It’s also important, I think, to point out that it’s a two-sided practice, both entrepreneurial and governmental - the promoter sells tickets ‘subject to licence’ on the assumption that the planners won’t realistically refuse them. Furthermore, the promoter waited several months after selling the tickets to make the application, effectively maximising the disruption and controversy of the refusal - with ticket-holders (90,000 supposedly from outside of Ireland) likely to have booked flights and accomodation.
While on the one hand this is an unfortunate conflict between the expectations and desires of two groups of (relatively) ordinary individuals, the 400,000 Garth Brooks fans and those of the local Croke Park residents with serious and reasonable objections to a run of five night-time concerts (having already had three nights of One Direction this year, the baseline number of concerts agreed with the GAA), on the other this has predictably become about something bigger: money, and power. The disocurse is a not-so-ironic reflection of the Celtic Tiger obsession with valuing speculative business practices over bureaucratic regulation; decisions which run counter to economic interests must be ‘changed’, even - especially - if that means undoing the legal framework, and eroding the political authority, that offers communities some protection from exploitation.
These justifications are not even cohesive on a national level, as noted above: “that €50m [€250m in the Taoiseach’s telling], which presumably would otherwise be kept stuffed in mattresses, is being lost to the economy” - that is, money spent in Dublin at a concert is money otherwise saved or spent elsewhere in Ireland, for the majority of fans; and in any case a considerable fraction will be repatriated back to the good ol’ USA with Brooks. Conceivably, it will be a boost to the economic activity of Dublin, with money circulating between pubs, taxi drivers and hotels, to the benefit of the owners of city businesses. The junior minister for trade, and local Labour Party TD, Joe Costello is a reliable source for these clueless statements, comparing the money “generated” by the gigs to international trade missions as a way of justifying the Taoiseach’s possible intervention in the situation. As if to emphasise the biopolitical dimension of this, he said “he believed it was appropriate for the Taoiseach to get involved because the issue was not just a matter of dealing with 400,000 fans, but also a matter of dealing with the economy of the country”.
Ireland: the best small country in which to have business interests represented as an existential issue. After all, it’s our (global) reputation.
“There was an enormous bit of blanket bog, beautiful and desolate, and I was just following a wire fence across it. The Border is almost always attached to something; it rarely just goes across a field. There’s usually a wall, or a hedge, or a stream, or a fence. But this time I felt as far from other people as you can possibly be.”—
This reminded me of seeing Terence Flanagan’s ‘Bogwater and Bullwire’ in the Hugh Lane, a 1975 painting prompted by the Troubles (isn’t it strange how many elements of irish history are described only by definite articles?)
Earlier this week EMA tweeted “whoa just found out my weird vocal improv noise tape is up on @Spotify”, something I’d known for a while, and pointed out that ‘Red Star’ from Past Life Martyred Saints began as ‘Mouth Like The Sun’, which I’d also noticed, but I hadn’t realised that 'Cthulu' started as 'Perfection'. In fact, when I first wrote at length about The Future’s Void, I speculated on a connection between ‘Cthulu’ and ‘Red Star’, as mystical blues songs about ‘redemption’ and ‘revelation’. In turn, the first time I talked about Little Sketches on Tape was in connection with 'Red Star', although I also used it later as a way of getting at the vocal form of 'California' and the nature of recording itself. Point is, there’s a lot in these minimalist experiments to hear (and not just for me to write about*).
(*next up, whenever I get down to it, ‘Solace’ and sonic geography)
“And although, as Knoll is quick to point out, photos were being altered long ago in Soviet Russia, it was only Photoshop that democratised that ability. In a way Jennifer was the last person to sit on solid ground, gazing out into an infinitely fluid sea of zeros and ones, the last woman to inhabit a world where the camera never lied.”—Jennifer in paradise: the first photoshopped image (via)
“In this alignment, capitalism moves beyond the “intrinsically sad” affects of industrial capitalism and the “extrinsically joyful” affects of Fordist consumerism; “the sting of the idea that ‘real life is elsewhere’” has been removed from the well-aligned worker. Joyful life is life spent working at the call center, at the Google campus, and so on. Capital today profits on humans’ capacities for affective survival, on our abilities to convert the bleakness of any situation into conditions for a different kind of flourishing. The desire to work becomes the last achievable desire available for those who have to work all the time anyhow; we desire it so we can keep desiring.”—
“I made raspberry Jello the color of rubies in the setting sun. Mad raging sunsets poured in sea-foams of cloud through unimaginable crags, with every rose tint of hope beyond, I felt just like it, brilliant and bleak beyond words.”—
“The park trees were heavy with rain; and rain fell still and ever in the lake, lying grey like a shield. A game of swans flew there and the water and the shore beneath were fouled with their green-white slime.”—
James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Nearly finished (re)reading. (I don’t think I properly appreciated it before, although I still find it dragging at times - in contrast to Ulysses, which is meant to be near-incomprehensible). Also learnt a new collective noun, it seems.
“It is the core task of liberalism and social democracy to tame and restrain data capitalism gone wild, without robbing it of its innovative power and its individual and social advantages, and to retain the dignity and freedom of humanity while creating equal opportunities for all to share and participate in social processes.”—
As mentioned below, this article by the leader of the German social democrats and national vice-chancellor (in the ‘grand coalition’ with Angela Merkel’s Christian democrats) is an intriguing mixture of the radical and the mundane, albeit perfectly in keeping with the position of the SPD in German society. And, more importantly, European society - which is, somewhat snootily and inflatedly, held to be morally superior to exploitative ‘data capitalism’ (and, implicitly, the values of American neoliberalism):
"Europe symbolises just the opposite of the totalitarian idea of turning every detail of human behaviour, human emotion and human thought into an object of capitalistic marketing strategies. The dignity of a human being includes, above all, his or her right of self-determination, also and especially in respect of personal data. Europe’s idea of a market economy is not “cut-throat competition” in which the unlimited market power of one dominant party is able to prescribe the terms and conditions for everyone else wishing to participate in the markets."
However, Europe and Germany have their own form of neoliberalism, indeed one which - to perpetuate the Old World arrogance - the Chicago School is arguably just a more economistic derivation of: ordoliberalism. The distinction is perhaps more cultural than anything else, since the aims are more or less the same, just expressed differently - the German variant more explicitly in favour of legal constitutionalism, and the dignity of economic rights, rather than absolutely valorising the freedom of businesses (even if in both cases that is somewhat illusory). The argument here hinges, somewhat contradictorily, on competition - the chief neoliberal/ordoliberal aim - since monopoly power or dominance is not really “cut-throat competition” (save for some mistranslation) but rather its opposite: yet the point of the rules of the ‘ordo’ is to ensure that competition in the ‘free market’ occurs, as it were, properly.
It is an anti-trust battle, familiar to those who know America’s early-20th century history:
"Europe can use the sheer size of its market to defy what Mathias Döpfner calls brutal “information capitalism” and whose structure is dominated by a handful of American Internet corporations which, in the form of global trusts, might soon control not only the economic activities of the 21st century"
But underlying this opposition to the modern robber barons (who take our data more so than our money) is a conception of the relationship between personal and economic value which is rather more conservative, or neoliberal; to borrow from an earlier post, it is “both a liberal challenge to a creeping monopoly and a re-substitution of a core neoliberal value of enterprise”. That is part of my concern about the ECJ judgement against Google Spain (establishing a ‘right to be forgotten’ in relation to ‘outdated or irrelevant’ search results), to which Gabriel is responding here: while I agree with the concerns over privacy and that there should be limits on the power of information, it is worrying that it is based on the essentially economic value of reputation (which suggests that this ‘right’, like many others connected with property, will be more easily exercised by those with greater wealth).
The value of neoliberal enterprise is contained within the self, as an economic and market actor, who is encouraged to take risks and face the world with courage under the illusion that this represents ‘choice’ and freedom, rather than the structural requirements of the market economy. The ordoliberal framework, especially viewed from the social democratic side, offers more security - social and otherwise - as a compensatory part of the liberal constitutional state which guarantees the freedom, and indeed the imperative, to be free:
"The precept of democracy that everyone must be free to decide his own fate, the fundamental standard of any liberal constitution, must also apply in the digital age, where everyone should be able to decide for himself how much personal information he wishes to put into circulation. Wherever this freedom needs to be restricted, for example to uphold registration obligations or aid criminal prosecution, this must only be possible by virtue of law and in keeping with the constitution."
The crucial point of ordoliberalism, however, is that the market is a constructed entity - one which can be corrupted by social factors (greed, power, even innovation) yet similary corrected by a socially-minded economic policy:
"Economic policies are currently facing the vital challenge of “updating” the social market system to meet the requirements of the digital age. Fundamental elements of this system are at stake: the doctrines of freedom of contract and free competition threaten to become an illusion where the disparity between the economic objects takes on absurd dimensions, when monopolists with new kind of feudal arrogance try to evade the rule of law and refuse to provide important information. The classical concept of ownership starts to crumble when free offers destroy markets firmly based on the payment of goods or when unlawful copying and unauthorised access to content expropriate the copyright holder. Regulatory processes are therefore needed when unregulated markets and self-indulgent market actors threaten to cause considerable damage yet a second time in the wake of the financial market crisis."
Again, it is a classic neoliberal contradiction that “self-indulgent market actors” threaten the stability of a system which itself exists to indulge and further market actors’ self-interest. And, rather more explicitly in ordoliberalism, the system also exists to regulate their behaviour; hence
"The Ministry of Economic Affairs and the Federal Cartel Office are examining whether a company such as Google is not abusing its dominant market position by systematically driving out its competitors and dominating an “essential facility”.
(The latter being this exciting-looking building - in English its name sounds like the German for potato, Kartoffel, but of course in German its name is different). Those actions aren’t necessarily to be criticised - rather the opposite - but they do emphasise the shared focus of ‘liberals and social democrats’ in, naturally, protecting capitalism from itself, and by extension, also protecting a particular vision of society. This concluding part may just be rhetoric, but what rhetoric!
"The innocent, “fun” phase of the Internet is over. We see things more clearly now. The perils of the digital revolution loom, on the one hand, in authoritarian or even totalitarian tendencies which are inherent to the opportunities offered by this technology and, on the other hand, in the threat posed by new monopoly powers undermining laws and regulations. It is the future of democracy in the digital age, and nothing less, that is at stake here, and with it, the freedom, emancipation, participation and self-determination of 500 million people in Europe. Once again it is the job of committed democrats to reconcile technical and economic progress with political and social progress. If the source of the danger of digital totalitarianism lies in the loss of human autonomy, then our political answer must start right there. The fight for democracy in the digital age is a fight for human self-determination."
The neoliberal or ordoliberal view is of course opposed to totalitarianism, as its greatest fear, insofar as it threatens the individual rights crucial for free economic activity. At some level too, perhaps, it is afraid of all revolutions; the digital age becomes a battle for the soul of the citizen, between Silicon Valley utopia and a stable social order, between disruptive freedoms and market freedoms; not between left and right, but with not being left behind. Understanding this anxiety of the centre is thus essential to understanding our society today and any possibility of change.
We have to formulate a new set of rules for work if we are to prevent “click workers” from becoming day labourers void of all rights in the digital world. We see how employees are exposed to unprecedented surveillance stress when their PC monitor, a camera or even sensors carried on their bodies constantly monitor and report their productivity. We see how work is losing its fixed base, how the boundary between work and leisure is becoming blurred, how long-lasting contractual relationships to a single employer are becoming a thing of the past and how permanent jobs are being replaced by “projects” advertised or even auctioned on the web so that the fastest and cheapest tenderer gets the contract, i. e. all do the work but only the winner gets paid. The technical possibilities of destroying decent work can be extended indefinitely. The critical question is whether we want to allow this to happen and whether we want to live in this kind of world. We need to encourage further debate on this issue hand in hand with the trade unions.
Looking back on Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial spirit, we can draw new confidence that the digital age which started in humble circumstances but with a grand idea will remain open for innovative ideas that can positively change people’s work and lives. To achieve this aim, we need entrepreneurs with the same qualities as could once be found in utopia-driven California, namely a keen sense of the human desire to be liberated from undignified dependence. It is up to European politics to re-formulate the democratically legitimised regulatory and market conditions of the digital age and to establish relevant regulations, even if this involves a struggle, with the force of a crystal-clear analysis along with the interventionary power of a vast economic region.
This article by the German vice chancellor and leader of the centre-left SPD is interesting in a lot of ways, and I’ll do another post on it shortly, but I just wanted to pick out this section. I’m usually conflicted these days between cynicism (or perhaps realism) regarding social democrats and their ability or willingness to effect change, and optimism (or again, perhaps wishful thinking) that some combination of radical aims and moderate means can be effective. The above in a way echoes some of the radical left concerns with digital alienation, though (and note the emphasis on fitting the solution within the ‘fairness’ of economic exchange) the social democratic raison d’etre is, or should be, concern for labour.
The language, particularly in the second paragraph, is what I find most interesting - it’s translated from German (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, or FAZ, the NYT-equivalent), presumably, so some stylistic affectations may be peculiar to their discourse - and continues throughout the piece. There is a very particular notion of freedom - fitting in with the ordoliberal schema - and its place as a balance between social and economic forces. Totalitarianism is evoked, and servitude - “undignified dependence” - yet the rallying cry is far from libertarian, and instead more Hegelian and world-historical: “a struggle, with the force of a crystal-clear analysis along with the interventionary power of a vast economic region”.
“Total Strife Forever has also been praised for making computer music sound full-blooded. Doyle ponders this for a minute. “I don’t buy into the suggestion that electronic music, even if you make it on a computer, is sterile anyway,” he says. “Compared to genres that rely on, say, the dynamics of heartbroken lyrics, you can actually express a lot more emotion with electronic music; you’ve got the whole spectrum of frequency to play with.””—
I don’t normally get my music recommendations from the Guardian and I’m probably far behind the hype on this (the article above is from January - I also apparently missed him on Other Voices) but I really enjoyed my first listen to this. Semi-ambient, like Chequerboard, “seethes with serene noise” à la Hecker, but with dancier beats.
So far, our debate about distraction has hinged on the assumption that the feelings of anxiety and personal insecurity that we experience when interacting with social media are the natural price we pay for living in what some technology pundits call “the attention economy.”
But what if this economy is not as autonomous and self-regulating as we are lead to believe? Twitter, for instance, nudges us to check how many people have interacted with our tweets. That nagging temptation to trace the destiny of our every tweet, in perpetuity and with the most comprehensive analytics, is anything but self-evident. The business agenda is obvious: The more data we can surrender—by endlessly clicking around—the more appealing Twitter looks to advertisers. But what is in Twitter’s business interest is not necessarily in our communicative interest.
Interesting short piece by Evgeny Morozov (h/t tomewing). I’ve read the Zizek chapter he quotes (“As the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek once quipped, “If Max Weber were alive today, he would definitely write a second, supplementary, volume to his Protestant Ethic, entitled The Taoist Ethic and the Spirit of Global Capitalism.”) and while one might quibble with his understanding or interpretation of Buddhism and Eastern spirituality, it’s a forceful critique of an issue also raised here: how to reconcile ‘mindfulness’ with political action. In the historical context, I think it was done in a rather particular way - Taoist ethics were for withdrawal, at the age of ‘retirement’, from a society otherwise ruled by Confucian ethics. Today, perhaps those are neoliberal, market-based ethics, and it’s true that the solace of mindfulness or Buddhism does not automatically negate them. But maybe it doesn’t preclude their usefulness either, if they were to be layered atop a radical social program derived from compatible ideas of solidarity, sustainability, etc:
We can continue in today’s mode of treating disconnection as a way to recharge and regain productivity, or we can view it as a way to sabotage the addiction tactics of the acceleration-distraction complex that is Silicon Valley. The former approach is reactionary but the latter can lead to emancipation, especially if such acts of refusal give rise to genuine social movements that will make problems of time and attention part of their political agendas—and not just the subject of hand-wringing by the Davos-based spirituality brigades.
Downloadable! By running an experiment among Germans collecting their passports or ID cards in the citizen centers of Berlin, we find that individuals with an East German family background cheat significantly more on an abstract task than those with a West German family background. The longer individuals were exposed to socialism, the more likely they were to cheat on our task. While it was recently argued that markets decay morals (Falk and Szech, 2013), we provide evidence that other political and economic regimes such as socialism might have an even more detrimental effect on individuals’ behavior.
This is a study by Dan Ariely - who is pretty well known - and some other people which attempts to prove that socialism decays morals. I post it not because I agree with its conclusions, but as a heads up since I have a feeling it’ll be cited a lot.
I’m happy to assume the experiment ran as described and the results are all above board, and that the conclusion - that people who grew up in the East German regime are more likely to cheat than people who grew up in the West German regime - is fair. People with better local knowledge than me - i.e. any given German - might see flaws in the methodology and conclusions drawn, but I’m going to accept them for this post.
This is just a pre-emptive rubbishing of the implications derived from those conclusions, and likely to be derived by commentators. Those implications rest on an assumption that the word “socialism” has a fixed meaning not just in theory but in terms of describing the real operations of particular political systems, i.e. that “socialist” as a descriptor of the East German state in the mid 70s is identical to “socialist” as a descriptor of, say, the UK in the mid 70s under Labour (at that point a ‘socialist’ party), let alone “socialist” as a descriptor of “politicians businessmen don’t like much”.
It’s possible that some of the harder-left people I know would advocate DDR style economic policies or something along similar lines, but I’m pretty sure that they wouldn’t be advocating the ultra-repressive panopticon-style security state that operated under the STASI, and whose psychological effects go completely unmentioned in the paper, wrapped up under the overall banner of “socialism”. (You can’t have one without the other, the authors might say. Fortunately, we seem to be at the beginning of a grand experiment in combining mass state and inter-personal surveillance with a market economy, so we should have an answer to this question in a decade or two.)
To state the obvious, while the East German regime was awful and corrupting, the ‘winning’ political system in this study - West Germany’s “social market” of the period - would also be decried as unacceptably “socialist’” by most of the people likely to embrace its results. The conclusion from this - that perhaps people are more honest the better the state is able to deliver a high-functioning welfare system - goes unexplored by Ariely & co.
I went and read this article*, because I’m currently interested in the political foundations of markets in Germany and elsewhere, via Ordoliberalismus or rule-based (neo)liberalism. I agree with your points about the likely interpretation of ‘socialism’, but even on its own merits there are problems defining it, as the authors do, as “a political and economic regime”.
Foucault’s own analysis was that socialism was “not the alternative to liberalism”, in that it didn’t really have a different way of governing from liberalism, aside from its exclusion of the open market. The authors rely on the fact that scarcity led to corruption in the planned economy, which was both inefficient and insufficient at producing consumer goods (for some fairly broad-reaching reasons) as well as the repressive state apparatus, which together require some complex untangling if not also contextualisation. Furthermore, abundance and scarcity in a market economy is precisely the mechanism by which some actors make what can be perceived as ‘immoral’ gains, while others are deprived by lack - or scarcity - of income and employment.The unequal access to wealth, information and influence also produces corruption (in Foucault’s reading of the ordoliberal theory, this is a societal condition imposed on capitalism and thus not an inherent flaw in capitalism or markets themselves). As you point out above, we are now increasingly combining intrusive surveillance with free market rules, a further perversion of liberalism.
In the study itself, there’s a dice game (with a really convoluted explanation that I had to read a few times to make any sense of) in which the participants can ‘cheat’ the experimenters out of money by falsely reporting the outcomes (it’s convoluted, but not so subtle - I’d say it’d be pretty obvious to the participants that the cheating could be established on the basis of the expected probabilities, but maybe that’s with hindsight/insight). The question I have is, though, to what extent it is an ‘immoral’ act or simply a game-playing one? As noted, it’s an ‘abstract’ test - so there’s no moral offence except against the rules of the game, and the experimenter’s research budget. The results are that the participants with East German backgrounds ‘cheat’ to 20% of the level possible (100% being completely false reporting) compared to 10% for their West German counterparts.
It appears former East Germans are more willing and/or adept at ‘gaming’ a system, but to ascribe to that the moral character of cheating and, as a next step, lack of social trust, is based itself on a set of moral assumptions. Their conclusion, that greater exposure to ‘socialism’ is associated with greater cheating, does at least result in a qualified intepretation that if “socialism indeed promotes individual dishonesty, the specific features of this socio-political system that lead to this outcome remain to be determined”. Their suggestions, however, are illuminating:
"The East German socialist regime differed from the West German capitalist regime in several important ways. First, the system did not reward work based to merit, and made it difficult to accumulate wealth or pass anything on to one’s family. This may have resulted in a lack of meaning leading to demoralization (Ariely et al., 2008), and perhaps less concern for upholding standards of honesty. Furthermore, while the government claimed to exist in service of the people, it failed to provide functional public systems or economic security. Observing this moral hypocrisy in government may have eroded the value citizens placed on honesty. Finally, and perhaps most straightforwardly, the political and economic system pressured people to work around official laws and cheat to game the system."
The explanation which provides perhaps the least distinctness is last, while the others rely on the assumption that capitalism serves both the private and public good, while socialism failed both**. I would venture a further explanation, based on a contradiction in the article’s title, “The (True) Legacy of Two Really Existing Economic Systems” - clearly a play on ‘really existing socialism’, but isn’t the point that one, and only one, has ceased to exist (if indeed it ever did, in a constructive and methodologically useful form)? Therefore, another factor might be not just ‘the impact of socialism’ but of the delegitimisation of it, as a “political-economic system” of governance, of morals and of everyday life - meaning that the propensity to ‘game’ a corrupt and dysfunctional system carried on even into a supposedly fairer capitalist one. That is, it’s not a study of the legacy of two systems, but the legacy of the subsumption of one into another. Which maybe doesn’t change anything, or maybe not…
* I also read the Falk and Szech article, which is rather interesting (even if it involves killing mice), but since this is already a long post I thought I’d leave a discussion of it for another time.
** The former assumption is perhaps stronger in Germany than in Anglophone countries, given its commitment to the Sozialmarktwirkschaft or ‘social market economy’ which provides both good public services and social insurance, but as a deliberate compensation for other market liberalisations.
The UAE taskforce is being run by the management consultancy Strategy&, formerly Booz and Co, now part of PricewaterhouseCoopers, to attract investment to Egypt’s crisis-ridden economy at a forthcoming Egypt donors’ conference sponsored by oil-rich UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
Blair and Sisi - both came to power (albeit one democratically, the other not) after moral conservatives demonstrated their incompetence at governing, through sleaze and not respecting basic liberal pluralism. Blair however infamously continued and even accelerated the neoliberal reform of the British state and economy, under the guise of the ‘third way’; the equivalent in Egypt of the Thatcherite shock doctrine against nationalised industry and employment is, or will be, I suspect the issue offood subsidies (always be suspicious of ‘reforms’).
It gets better:
"But it is understood that correspondence from Blair’s office in support of Egypt’s economic reform and investment programme confirms that lucrative "business opportunities", in both Egypt and the Gulf, are expected for those taking part. Blair’s spokeswoman said: "We are not looking at any business opportunities in Egypt."
The former political associate said that a bargain had been struck and added: “Tony Blair has become Sisi’s éminence grise and is working on the economic plan that the UAE is paying for. For him, it combines both an existential battle against Islamism and mouth-watering business opportunities in return for the kind of persuasive advocacy he provided George Bush over Iraq.
"It’s a very lucrative business model," the associate added, "but he shouldn’t be doing it. He’s putting himself in hock to a regime that imprisons journalists. He’s digging a deeper and deeper hole for himself and everyone associated with him."
Alastair Campbell, Blair’s former press secretary who resigned in 2003 over the Iraq war “dodgy dossier” scandal, is also advising the Sisi government on its public image and being paid for it – though on Wednesday he refused to say if he had been working with Strategy&.”
"On the face of it, it thus seems somewhat ironic that Hayek would be touted as the premier theorist of the New Knowledge Economy. But the irony dissolves once we realize that central to neoliberalism is a core conviction that the market really does know better than any one of us what s good for ourselves and for society, and that includes the optimal allocation of ignorance within the population.
[….] True organic solidarity can obtain only when everyone believes (correctly or not) they are just following their own selfish idiosyncratic ends, or perhaps don’t have any clear idea whatsoever of what they are doing, when in fact they are busily (re)producing beneficent evolutionary regularities beyond their ken and imagination. Thus, ignorance helps produce social order, or as he said, “knowledge and ignorance are relative concepts”.
The major point to be savoured here is that individual ignorance fostered and manufactured by corporations, think tanks and other market actors is suitably subservient to market rationality, in the sense that it “profits from the knowledge that the agent does not possess”.
Philip Mirowski, Never Let A Serious Crisis Go To Waste, 79-81
“It’s a positive reinforcement system: one that, over time, seems doomed to subtly mould the personality the user projects online, like a stream gradually sculpting a pebble. And it’s not just about social approval. Aside from humour, the best way to guarantee a reaction is to provoke others – either in agreement or disagreement. Rather than bringing us together, it seems almost perfectly designed to encourage polarisation. The end result: diametrically opposed networks of nudged and prodded pebble people gently rattling together in agreement, clashing loudly when they encounter dissent.”—
Charlie Brooker slips from absurd satirising into something quite insightful. Although, to reinforce a point from the previous post, was it not ever thus? - and is there not an element of ‘digital dualism’ in assuming that algorithmic mediation is distinct from the way we relate in the ‘real world’? I mean, this is really fuzzy in my head largely because I’ve plenty of non-internet distractions (largely pleasant, it has to be said) right now, and it’s probably covered all in the writings themselves, but it seems like it’s a point worth teasing out.
(Actually, I’m making good headway reading Foucault’s lectures on ‘Tthe Government of Self and Others’, which kinda covers issues like this, but in terms of freedom of speech and political dialogue in Ancient Greece…)
With algorithmic culture, computers and algorithms are allowing a new level of real-time personalization and content selection on an individual basis that just wasn’t possible before. But rather than use these tools to serve our authentic interests, we have built a system that often serves a commercial interest that is often at odds with our interests – that’s corrupt personalization.
If I use the dominant forms of communication online today (Facebook, Google, Twitter, YouTube, etc.) I can expect content customized for others to use my name and my words without my consent, in ways I wouldn’t approve of. Content “personalized” for me includes material I don’t want, and obscures material that I do want. And it does so in a way that I may not be aware of.
This concept of ‘algorithmic culture’ seems really important. Tom Ewing has a good post about why the reaction to this Facebook scandal has been so strong that elucidates a couple of further issues: trust, on an emotional and even, as it were, epistemological level - “this is about the basic reality of the Facebook experience: it’s implying that your experience might at any point be an inauthentic one, and there’s nothing you can do about it” - as well as a low level of familiarity amongst the general public with what algorithms actually do. Christian Sandvig, the author of the above piece, seems well aware of those problems and that’s why it’s interesting to read his earlier posts on ‘algorithmic culture’, such as this one which attempts to explain and reveal its influence in very basic ways, including the Facebook news feed (a lot of the issues about filtering I’m familiar with through the controversy over the NSFW Tumblr rule changes, which are covered insightfully in this post byTarleton Gillespie).
At first I began thinking that I;m not as personally exercised by notions of privacy online (although that’s always a bubble ready to burst) as much as by the manipulation and distortion of what I see online: I like Tumblr and Twitter because they offer more-or-less direct control over my ‘stream’, and while I never liked Facebook anyway its manipulativeness is even more of a turnoff. On the other hand, while I don’t mind using Gmail and even logging-in on Chrome (to operate a shared history across devices), there is also the extent to which I rely on, benefit from but also am perhaps misled or cosseted by its search algorithms (I can’t say I ever really pay conscious attention to its advertising, but - aside from clicking on it, which I never do - isn’t that kinda the point?). ‘Algorithmic culture’ isn’t all bad, and though it’d be facile to try to say that was what was claimed for it, it’s not entirely novel either. As I understand the argument, it is the next evolution in the way communication and information is mediated - albeit with a drastic shift in how manipulation can occur, away from direct human agency and even observation or awareness. The imperative is then, it seems: first, to be aware of it and what it does, and second, to question whether we want it to do that.
Weird, I’m just back from Sweden and Black-Headed Gulls are all over the place there, but you hardly ever see them in Dublin. Are they common in Galway?
There are a lot of them in Galway, or at least around the mouth of the river. I started seeing them regularly in my local park in Dublin a few years ago, thinking they were terns at first (of which, incidentally, there a lot in Galway, but more difficult to photograph). Birdwatch Ireland says the Irish breeding population is concentrated in the lakes of western Ireland, so that might be the reason.
Also, the Latin name Larus ridibundus apparently translates to “laughing gull” - it does have quite a lively call…