Tag Archives: politics

“Engineers try to do politics by changing infrastructure.”

From an interview with Fred Turner:

What are the “politics of infrastructure”? What does that phrase mean?

It means several different things. First, it involves the recognition that the built environment, whether it’s built out of tarmac or concrete or code, has political effects. I was joking earlier about reshaping the Forum, but I shouldn’t have joked quite so much, because the fact that the Forum was round encouraged one kind of debate.

Think about an auditorium where someone sits onstage and the audience watches, versus a Quaker meeting where everyone sits in a circle. They’re very different.

So, structure matters. Design is absolutely critical. Design is the process by which the politics of one world become the constraints on another. How are those constraints built? What are its effects on political life?

To study the politics of infrastructure is to study the political ideas that get built into the design process, and the infrastructure’s impact on the political possibilities of the communities that engage it.

Cited mostly because it’s something of a relief to hear a big-league talking head starting to come round to the ideas that a lot of my colleagues and friends have been working on for about the last decade or so. (But on the basis of personal experience, good luck trying to convince engineers that infrastructure is political; it’s among the discipline’s Great Unthinkables.)

And on that note, here’s a bonus snip from the same piece, on the (perceived?) libertarianism of the Valley:

… I think that the vision of the Valley as a libertarian space is a combination of actual libertarian beliefs held by people like Peter Thiel and a celebration of libertarian ideals by an East Coast press that wants to elevate inventor types. Steve Jobs is the most famous. East Coast journalists want to rejuvenate the American hero myth—and they’re going to find a world to do it in.

In order to make these heroes, however, they have to cut them off from the context that produced them. They can’t tell a context story. They can’t tell a structure story. They have to tell a hero story. Suddenly the heroes themselves look like solo actors who pushed away the world to become the libertarian ideal of an Ayn Rand novel. So I think it’s a collaboration between actually existing tech leaders and the press around a myth.

I have, for quite some time, been inclined to agree.

Consider the possibility

I’ve spent more time than I’d like to admit hanging around the online communities of the kind of people we are worried about reaching here, and I am here to tell you: They are using their critical thinking skills.

They are fully literate in concepts like bias and in the importance of interrogating sources. They believe very much in the power of persuasion and the dangers in propaganda and a great many of them believe that we are the ones who have been behaving uncritically and who have been duped. They think that we are the unbelieving victims of fraud.

Which is not to set up some kind of false equivalency between sides. But I do want us to consider the possibility that we don’t need to talk across that barrier, and that it might not be possible to talk across it. That we need to consider that if it’s true that vast swaths of the voting populace are unbelieving victims of fraud, that there’s not much we can do for them. That we may need instead to work to invigorate our allies, discourage our enemies, and save the persuasion for people right on the edge.

But, again, I’m saying all of this to you as someone who has not figured this out.

Tim Maly.


Glad to see the debate on UBI is starting to get beyond the surface gosh-wow. From a bit at Teh Graun:

In their incendiary book Inventing the Future, the authors Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek argue for UBI but link it to three other demands: collectively controlled automation, a reduction in the working week, and a diminution of the work ethic. Williams and Srnicek believe that without these other provisions, UBI could essentially act as an excuse to get rid of the welfare state.

W & S are smart to suggest those provisions, but I’d suggest there are a few others necessary to avoid the trap that the aspiring nosferatu of the Adam Smith Institute are so keen to spring.

So, look: the state sets a standard rate of UBI, presumably on the basis of some basic standard of living; perhaps they even put it on an inflationary ramp so it increases over time. Lovely: everyone can afford the basics, and you can work to level up from there is you want to.

However, if housing provision is still predominantly handled by the private sector, rents would rapidly raise to the highest point that the UBI would bear, coz rentiers gonna extract rents. Ditto privatised medicine. Ditto food production. Ditto infrastructural provision. In an unreformed market economy, whatever the set rate of UBI was would be inadequate very quickly — like, a matter of years rather than decades, if not faster. Because when we talk about markets being efficient, that’s what we really mean: their rapid maxing out of all possible rent extraction in any given system. (Yeah, you though efficiency was all about using less, didn’t you? That’s a useful illusion, which is why you’re encouraged to keep it. But no: market efficiency is exactly the opposite, in that the efficient market leaves nothing unused.)  In a nation of legitimised thievery and tollbooth economics, putting money in the poor man’s pocket serves only to enrich the thieves over the long run; hence the poorly-disguised boners around the C-suite table at the ASI, no doubt.

This is not to dismiss UBI, to be clear; it’s a rational and achievable reform of state welfare systems. But in the absence of land reform, significant regulation of businesses, and the partial or total renationalisation of infrastructure and housing, it will fail, and fail fast. If you want to provide the basics to everyone, you’re going to have to intervene in the systems of provision… and you can bet your bottom dollar that the ASI won’t be genuflecting to that idea any time before the heat-death of the universe.

Prometheanism and apocatopia

I’m not sure quite how I discovered the post-nihilist bloggings of Arran James; I think he must have written something about the Neo-Reos or the Accelerationists that someone linked me to a while back. There’s something important in this closing passage from a longer think-piece on the rise of Prometheanism, which James hopes may represent an end to the “depressive” or melancholic politics of the moment:

Have the politics of resistance and the politics of withdrawal really been a kind of stalling gesture? We have demanded infinite demands and finite demands and we have demanded unity and demanded an end to calls for unity. We have demanded ceaselessly. But while we demand we address some Other: I can’t do it, you do it. And this isn’t just a critique of electoral politics but extends to those who would drop-out or disappear, as well as those who “would prefer not to” or who wish not to get their morals dirty. All of these positions amount to the same thing: the absence of a political desire. Perhaps this is how our political cartography should begin to be carved up: those with the desire for revolution; those with the demand for revolution; those whose remain within the imaginary; those who place themselves at the infrastructural. This infrastructure may be the material infrastructure of things, but it could also be considered the psychic infrastructure of illusions. Promethean desire is first and foremost the thirst for new illusions, and a turning away from the ‘withdrawals, secessions and mere interruptions’ (Tosacano) that we’ve grown used to.

I felt like I was having a finger pointed at me. In a good way.

Worth reading alongside this here video of novelist and all-round left-intellectual dreamboat China Mieville talking at this year’s Nelson Institute Earth Day Conference on the limits and necessities of utopia in the context of ecological and social justice: