Category Archives: Politics

failure / retrieval

Strange vibes in me at the moment. Part of that is adjusting to the sudden (albeit welcome) structure of a full-time job, and with it the sudden proliferation of deadlines for projects in which a significant number of the moving parts are people, and hence priorities and possibilities shift suddenly in ways you weren’t necessarily planning or preparing for. No tiny violin, to be clear; just noting the novelty of this for someone who spent a real long time operating as a box-room annex to almost every organisation they were involved with. There’s a lot of logistical levelling-up to be learned, here, and it’s taking a lot out of me, despite my efforts to take time off and get good rest.

The ineffectiveness of the latter in particular leads me to suspect I’m under the weather in some physical way. There’s a lot of anxious talk at the moment about Long Covid, which—without meaning to demean that experience for anyone going through it—comes across a lot like heretofore fortunate people facing the prospect that maybe illnesses have a long tail. Post-viral fatigue syndrome never got much press before now, beyond a vague insinuation that its sufferers should maybe get their shit together, or take care of themselves better, or maybe both… and hey, remember the “yuppie flu”, now better known as chronic fatigue syndrome? It’s as if even the stories we tell around illness need some sort of identifiable (and, crucially, nameable) black-hat bad-guy, a clear linear causality, before we’ll start to take them seriously.

I had viral pneumonia back in 2016, and it took me literally months (and a mental breakdown, and an epochal fight with my mother) to realise that maybe it was something more than just a cold that would’t shift. The antibiotics I was given cleared it out, but also napalmed my intestinal biome in a fairly indiscriminate way—perhaps because I’d not taken antibiotics in, I don’t know, probably decades. So the pneumonia went, but for a year or more I was prone to every passing lurgy that I encountered, and would find that for months at a time I was tired in a way that sleeping couldn’t cure, hungry in a way that eating couldn’t sate, low for no concrete reason, fogged in the brain and frustrated by it. It comes back from time to time, too—just as it has at the moment.

Which is to say: I recognise the symptoms of Long Covid, and believe them to be both genuine and (likely) under-reported. But I don’t believe them to be unique to Covid. So perhaps one silver lining to the thunderhead weather-front of the pandemic is the prospect that we’ll start taking seriously the notion that the line between acute and chronic malaise is not so clear-cut as has tended heretofore to be assumed. We still understand so little about viruses—the ones outside of us, and the ones inside of us. Hopefully we still have time to learn. In the meantime, I’m trying to get over the self-accusatory sense of my being a lazy malingerer, and do the best I’m able to do given my current capacities. Comparisons are invidious, of course—but they’re also fundamental to a system in which the calculation of value is the unacknowledged starting point for almost every action we undertake. Something something material relations between people something.

At the same time, remembering that the mental and emotional can affect the physical just as much as the other way around is something I’ve literally made notes-to-self about, because it’s easy to forget that the world has its ways of laying you low. Not without a certain sense of guilt, I’ve largely cut myself off from UK-based media, but still the stories seep through nonetheless—and they in turn unlock echoing chests of memory, both recent and distant, and with them feelings of loss, regret, failure… and of lost opportunity, both individual and collective. So there’s a weird sort of comfort in seeing that someone else is having a similar experience.

Then also there’s the gifts of synchronicity, my watchfulness for which—yes, a form of magical thinking; so sue me—has become something of a lifeline, intellectually and emotionally. After my recent (and hugely gratifying) encounter with Kelly Pendergrast’s writings, I remembered that I’d stashed some earlier pieces of hers away to read when I had more time. And so I made the time this morning on my commute, and found…

Famously, the start-up world lives and dies on its storytelling. Pitch decks paint a picture to potential funders. Product websites disclose and obfuscate in equal measure. Most crucially, start-up founders need to be able to craft a personal narrative and backstory that will win over investors and early hires alike. These story formats tend to follow the contours of the Hero’s Journey as described by Joseph Campbell. In this narrative format, success cannot come easy: a trial by fire — a period staring into the abyss — is required before the hero returns victorious, killer app idea in hand. And so, founders learn to frame their stories in a way that highlights and valorizes their moments of past “failure” (a startup that fizzled, an acquisition that fell through, a co-founder that flounced).

… well, OK, first I found something self-aggrandizing, namely someone making an argument I’ve been making for quite some time—though the originary credit in my case (and perhaps also in Pendergrast’s?) is very much due to Saint Donna and the Starbear. But this piece soon goes off somewhere else, somewhere strange and (strangely) timely:

… a very different kind of “pro failure” theory and rhetoric emerged in the ’90s and 2000s. Queer writers, activists, and artists (often excluded from mainstream institutions and success for reasons listed above) have embraced and reclaimed failure, theorizing a specific modality of “queer failure” as art form and as survival tactic. In opposition to tech failure (narrativized as a painful-but-necessary station of the cross that fosters wisdom and tenacity), queer failure is deviant, risky, and oppositional, shaped by those who’ve found their future always-already nullified by capitalism’s normative demands. Queer failure is also utopian and visionary. Without the option to slot back into the mainstream, failure becomes a point of departure, a rupture, a sideways trajectory into something new. There are futures beyond no future.

I’m no scholar of queer theory, let alone queer failure; nor am I one of Black utopias (to the extent that I may be mislabelling an entire school of thought in my ignorance, here, though with what I believe to be good intentions). But I nonetheless leapt instantly from this riff to Ryan Oakley’s retrospections, which seem to be a lament for the loss of a science fiction informed by (or perhaps just parallel to) the Black utopias of early Detroit techno, and perhaps also by the unruly chaos of what Simon Reynolds and others refer to as the hardcore continuum of 90s (post-)rave music:

I wanted and expected some SF publisher to release a series of cheap-ass pulp paperbacks set in the Deltron universe. Another series for Kool Keith. Like everyone kept talking about science fiction dying and I was like — the fuck? There’s plenty of drugged up kids who love the shit and are listening to sci-fi music all the time. Get in on that.

[…]

Like, I just kind of took it for granted that written sci-fi would be part of that. Took it for granted that sci-fi was some weird counter-cultural drug product. Like, there was the straight and square nerd shit, your hard sci-fi and space operas, which was like exotica or whatever and okay in their own right, but you had your hippie sci-fi, then your glam and punk and goth sci-fi. Sci-fi was dime store surrealism. Just vulgarized high art and I like that.

I just really thought there was just going to be some sort of punky-rave, hip-hop sci-fi. Abrasive and social and shit but with some funk, you know? It just seemed natural. Seemed inevitable. There were even some indications that it might even be incoming. Coyote Kings by Minister Faust, Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson. They kinda had the sensibility and perspective. It was about people, outsiders, the city, and it felt modern.

It bears noting that I was way behind this curve in two senses: the closest I came to that sort of sf in the 90s was Jeff Noon, and maybe that’s as close as the publishing world got to it back then, too; furthermore, while I was splashing around enthusiastically in the more downtempo end of breakbeat electronica at the time, I was and still am (and likely always will be) a hoary old rocker at the core. But I nonetheless recognise (by its absence in sf) that sense of outsiderdom Ryan’s talking about; the early cyberpunk stuff had some of that, and even some of the later stuff (like Paul McAuley’s late-Nineties novels, f’rex), but—like any subgeneric style—it soon became reduced to an aesthetic, reproducible, bought from the rack. (And I’m reminded now of perhaps the most scathing book review I’ve ever had published, whose tone I still regret somewhat, but whose take I stand by to this day.)

That said, there are signs that, much as the musical aesthetics of the 90s are being revisited and retooled by younger generations, cyberpunk is being dusted off and re-punked by writers dissatisfied with both its past and the present alternatives; and I know a lot of scholars in the field are going through a process of radically reassessing the established readings of the genre and its canonical texts. Tim Maughan’s work wouldn’t exist without cyberpunk as a problematic precursor, nor M T Hill’s, nor Carl Neville’s, nor Annalee Newitz’s, nor Charlie Jane Anders’s, nor nor nor… and that most or all of these writers wouldn’t self-describe as cyberpunk rather illustrates the point. The aesthetic is brittle enough to be re-decomposed into its constituent tropes once again, which means that the underlying structures can be built in new shapes.

The outsider status of many of these authors—whether in terms of class, gender, race, sexual orientation, or some intersectional mix-up thereof—is thus perhaps no mere coincidence. Pendergrast again:

For those stuck outside of the normal, queer failure offers instead to explode the normal and to explore modes of being beyond capitalism, in ecstatic temporalities or alternative kinships or in refusing to work. To embrace failure is a vulnerable act that demonstrates solidarity with other “failed” people — from radical crips to refugees — and builds space to imagine an identity, and a life, outside the structures that would punish you for your transgressions. Maybe, suggests Halberstam, “in losing we will find another way of making meaning,” one in which “no one gets left behind.” Queer failure imagines a future beyond the current regime, and a life where failure can be ecstatic, collective, and radical.

And what is that current regime? Oakley:

I can kind of picture the world where sci-fi went the way I wanted it to go and the way I thought it would go. About now, we’d be getting shows in Deltronverse or at least totally infused with that sensibility instead of more Trek, more Star Wars, George fucking Martin, and the rest of it, sound-tracked by David Bowie’s 1970s musings about Mars. And I’m not even really against these things. But, holy shit, it would be nice to be able to see these people and their works as respected ancestors. We can’t even do that. We have to labor forever under their senile rule. I mean, I feel like Del and others showed us the way. The way was squandered. Just totally fucking squandered.

I’d be the first to say that generational theory is, if not utterly useless, then for the most part a marketeer’s way of thinking about demography that causes as many problems (or more) than it solves. But when I catch those stories leaking across the North Sea from the UK, and the ones from the US, and then I read a sentence like “labor forever under their senile rule”, I’m like, yeah. That’s where we’re at. We’re still dreaming those futures beyond The Future, but for so many people there’s so little space for dreaming, so little slack in the capitalist-realist circumstance. Hauntology is thus less a failing or a mode of nostalgia than it is the only game in town. What else can you do with the ruins of The Future than populate them with ghosts of other futures foreclosed upon?

Of course, such a circumstance cannot persist forever, in the truly eternal sense. Demography is destiny, and the Boomer hegemony—in sf, as in the world more broadly—will eventually fade away for the most obvious of reasons (though not without a fight, I fear). In both cases, however—though surely more pressingly in the latter—the question is what will remain to the rest of us once we finally slip the reins.

in the belly of the chronophage

Offered without further comment.

In these concern trolls and reply guys, Seymour’s chronophage was literalized. The social industry doesn’t just eat our time with endless stimulus and algorithmic scrolling; it eats our time by creating and promoting people who exist only to be explained to, people to whom the world has been created anew every morning, people for whom every settled sociological, scientific, and political argument of modernity must be rehashed, rewritten, and re-accounted, this time with their participation.

These people, with their just-asking questions and vapid open letters, are dullards and bores, pettifoggers and casuists, cowards and dissemblers, time-wasters of the worst sort. But Seymour’s book suggests something worse about us, their Twitter and Facebook interlocutors: That we want to waste our time. That, however much we might complain, we find satisfaction in endless, circular argument. That we get some kind of fulfillment from tedious debates about “free speech” and “cancel culture.” That we seek oblivion in discourse. In the machine-flow atemporality of social media, this seems like no great crime. If time is an infinite resource, why not spend a few decades of it with a couple New York Times op-ed columnists, rebuilding all of Western thought from first principles? But political and economic and immunological crises pile on one another in succession, over the background roar of ecological collapse. Time is not infinite. None of us can afford to spend what is left of it dallying with the stupid and bland.

an end in itself

As I remarked to a friend last night, the defining feature of middle age seems to be that it’s the period when you start losing friends, family, heroes and teachers at a distressingly regular rate. The latest to go—and to go far too early—is David Graeber.

I never knew the guy, and I’ve never read as much of his work as I meant to, but I feel fairly safe in saying he’d probably rather be celebrated than mourned—celebrated not for himself, but for his work, and for his work’s unapologetic yet cheery defiance.

To exercise one’s capacities to their fullest extent is to take pleasure in one’s own existence, and with sociable creatures, such pleasures are proportionally magnified when performed in company. From the Russian perspective, this does not need to be explained. It is simply what life is. We don’t have to explain why creatures desire to be alive. Life is an end in itself. And if what being alive actually consists of is having powers—to run, jump, fight, fly through the air—then surely the exercise of such powers as an end in itself does not have to be explained either. It’s just an extension of the same principle.

His work was also his play. Ironically, perhaps, that’s a tough example to live up to—but only because we’ve been atomised into a system of relentless competition that sets us one against the other. What I’ll take with me going forward is this bit, which Graeber wrote with Andrej Grubačić as part of an introduction to a new edition of Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid:

In Capital, the only real attention to cooperation is an examination of cooperative activities as forms and consequences of factory production, where workers “merely form a particular mode of existence of capital.” It would seem that two projects complement each other very well. Kropotkin aimed to understand precisely what it was that an alienated worker had lost. But to integrate the two would mean to understand how even capitalism is ultimately founded on communism (“mutual aid”), even if it’s a communism it does not acknowledge; how communism is not an abstract, distant ideal, impossible to maintain, but a lived practical reality we all engage in daily, to different degrees, and that even factories could not operate without it—even if much of it operates on the sly, between the cracks, or shifts, or informally, or in what’s not said, or entirely subversively. It’s become fashionable lately to say that capitalism has entered a new phase in which it has become parasitical of forms of creative cooperation, largely on the internet. This is nonsense. It has always been so.

This is a worthy intellectual project. For some reason, almost no one is interested in carrying it out. Instead of examining how the relations of hierarchy and exploitation are reproduced, refused, and entangled with relations of mutual aid, how relations of care become continuous with relations of violence, but nonetheless hold together systems of violence so that they don’t entirely fall apart, both traditional Marxism and contemporary social theory have stubbornly dismissed pretty much anything suggestive of generosity, cooperation, or altruism as some kind of bourgeois illusion. Conflict and egoistic calculation proved to be more interesting than “union.” (Similarly, it is fairly common for academic leftists to write about Carl Schmidt or Turgot, while is almost impossible to find those who write about Bakunin and Kondiaronk.) As Marx himself complained, under the capitalist mode of production, to exist is to accumulate[. F]or the last few decades we have heard little else than relentless exhortations on cynical strategies used to increase our respective (social, cultural, or material) capital. These are framed as critiques. But if all you’re willing to talk about is that which you claim to stand against, if all you can imagine is what you claim to stand against, then in what sense do you actually stand against it?

That last line there chimes bright and clear with Matt Colquhoun’s statement from a few days back, and with much of my own experience in the last decade or so. Positive projects… the hacienda must be built.

Rest in power, man.

hauntological metasystemics

I’m cited* in this piece by Kelly Pendergrast at Real Life, but that’s not the (only) reason I’m clipping from it; I’m citing from it because it’s really good, and because it takes ideas from my heretofore most completely ignored journal paper and takes them exactly in the direction I hoped people would take them. So yeah, self-aggrandizement, sure; guilty as charged. But Pendergrast’s point, and mine, is that we’re all in this together—not because some ham-faced PPE graduate thinks saying so might make it so, but because we sprung the trap of cyborg collectivity on ourselves long ago, and are only now really starting to realise it. Therefore, anyone advancing that same understanding should get some signal boost. (Not that I’m much of an amplifier these days, but hey; I had my time.)

And if they come at that understanding through a haunted-house metaphor, well, so much the better:

In the real world of the cyborg collective and its composite parts, the horrors of the house are entirely non-metaphoric. Turn a tap in some parts of Flint, Michigan, and poisoned water still flows out, years after the city’s water crisis became a national disgrace. Plug in a power cord anywhere, and the electricity that flows your way might be fed by atrocities carried out in your name at the other end of the tubes: black lung, denuded environments, death. Unlike the privatized horrors of storybook hauntings, the spirits that animate my house exist on the same timeline, as part of the same networked system as I do (hello sanitation engineer, hello bird flying splat into the wind turbine, hello coal miner), at the other end of the tubes, feeding my housebody or failing it.

I love haunted house stories. Their capaciousness holds whole histories of private trauma and Freudian neurosis, and reflects myriad social concerns about the function of the nuclear family and the horrors at its heart. But the ghost story has limited utility in reconnecting the animate house to its material grounding and political economy. No house is private. It may be purchased, and thus legally private property, but it doesn’t stand alone. Through its extending wires, pipes, inputs and outputs, the house (with few off-grid exceptions) is tied up in the cyborg systems of the city and the supply chains and logistical inputs that extend around the globe. Inside the house, the comfort and nurturing care I feel is a product of the infrastructural and sociotechnical systems that rely on the work of many others.

That riff about house-as-property is one that I’ve wanted to follow for a while, but theory work has necessarily taken a backburner while I concentrate on the work I’m actually funded to do… but there’s an interesting counterconceptualisation via the Haraway/LeGuin complex (in that LeGuin suggested the house might be seen as another of her “carrier bags”), and from my mentor and friend Zoe Sofoulis, who has written on container technologies from a feminist standpoint.

Containers and other infrastructures of storage are an interesting wrinkle for my theory, because they seem to break the rule that infrastructures either transport or transmute–but if we consider transportation as a four-dimensional phenomenon, then the container (and particularly reefers, and other forms of storage which preserve as well as protect) does indeed enact a transportation, albeit one with a velocity of zero: storage moves things through time without moving them through space.

(Preserving forms of storage are thus actually decelerative: they slow down the effects of time on that which is stored. When the container itself is then accelerated through timespace, you get an extension of the distance that the stored thing can travel before decaying. This all plugs in nicely to that Marx-via-Harvey thing about infrastructure warping timespace… and, now I think about it, will come in handy as part of a paper I’m currently co-writing on packaging and plastics. Turns out there’s a use to this thinking-out-loud business after all!)

Anyway, enough of my waffle—back to Pendergrast, who is more interested in the increasingly concrete (pun not entirely unintended) political ramifications of that dawning realisation of cyborg collectivity, and also shares some concerns about what Tim Carmody neatly popularised as the systemic sublime:

Wallowing in the logistical sublime can lead to what Matthew Gandy describes as “epistemological myopia that privileges issues of quantification and scale over the everyday practices that actually enable these networks to function.” But I get it. And I’ve felt it: the uncanny mystique of larger-than-life steel and concrete power plants, or the gut-drop of standing on the edge of a dam spillway, imagining yourself slipping over and sluicing into the deep canyon of water below. In part, these fantasies of the sublime are a symptom of our alienation from infrastructural systems and the powers that animate them. If it’s not clear whose interests infrastructure serves, and how our own lives and housebodies are enmeshed in the macro systems, the only thing left to do is spectacularize, fetishize, or destroy.

That passage really resonated, perhaps because I’d only yesterday seen the press blurb for a new book by Michael Truscello, in which…

… he calls for “brisantic politics,” a culture of unmaking that is capable of slowing the advance of capitalist suicide. “Brisance” refers to the shattering effect of an explosive, but Truscello uses the term to signal a variety of practices for defeating infrastructural power. Brisantic politics, he warns, would require a reorientation of radical politics toward infrastructure, sabotage, and cascading destruction in an interconnected world.

And part of me is all like “yay, someone’s taking this stuff seriously!”, but the other part is like “uh, I’m really not sure advocating sabotage and destruction of the metasystem is a good move”; I’ll wait until I’ve read the thing before calling it either way, but given the very clear illegibility of infrastructure to the majority of citizens, this is a bit like telling an astronaut to stick it to his boss by poking holes in his spacesuit.

Pendergrast, however, is taking a rather more nuanced look at the same issue:

I want more for us than to spend every precious moment scrambling to arrange childcare or make sure our friends don’t get evicted. Collective care without the collective assemblage of infrastructure is near impossible, so we need to figure out how to maintain the systems that still function, and how to fix the ones that are broken or working against us.

In some cases, pieces of the existing collective cyborg will need to be dismantled. The pipelines that cut across Native land and spill oil onto the prairie: those can go. The highways that slice through neighborhoods, benefiting those on one side of the divide while immiserating those on the other: those can go too, ripped up for barricades and projectiles, “the use of the city against the city, in the name of the city.” Other parts can stay but must be redistributed, brought into collective ownership so the waters and warmth and phone lines are shared equitably and wrested away from the profit motive. Infrastructure is a massive investment, and much of that investment has already been made. To maintain it, to take care of the far-reaching tendrils of the homes that sustain every day, is the best way to respect what we’ve already created, already ruined.

Far from the spirit world of the haunted family house, the housebody and its appendages are earthed and rooted in material space. If the house must be imagined as a womb, perhaps that’s OK: the parent/fetus relationship was never a private relationship either. The parent eats, drinks, connects to the appendages of the collective cyborg, in order to nourish and nurture the creature within.

No surprises with the shout-outs to maintenance; Shannon Mattern has a posse. (And there might be something that could be done with Clute’s notion of Bondage, which is of course a concept from his critical theory of horror… ) But that haunted-house/parent-fetus figuration in Pendergrast’s piece, damn, that’s a work of art. It’s an amazing and humbling thing to see your ideas reflected back at you, but made better.

( Disclaimer: yeah, I know I’m being very loose by putting “hauntology” in the title of this post, even if we think about the post-Fisher understanding of the term… but nonetheless, I think there’s a sense in which the now-betrayed promise of infrastructures as utilities—available to everyone, well-maintained and fairly priced, etc etc—could be argued to be the unacknowledged base layer of all those foreclosed-upon futures. Or, more simply: I can probably make a case for it if pressed, and no one is likely to press for me to do so anyway, so, yeah, it’s staying. )

[ * – I owe not just my awareness of that citation, but the citation itself, to Deb Chachra, whose fastidiousness at attributing her sources is exemplary–particularly in the context of an academia in which, as one has slowly come to realise, such fastidiousness is often the first thing to go overboard in the race for recognition. So thanks, Deb, and thanks, Kelly Pendergrast. You’ve made a marginal theorist feel momentarily good about his work. Thanks also to Jay Springett for sending me the link as well. Something something power of networks something. ]

platforms make markets

Rob Horning again, on the hustle economy the gig economy the ubiquity of platforms as obligatory labour intermediaries:

The “hustle” platform seems like a mere means of distribution for the “creators” or “entrepreneurs” who own the means of production (their own bodies). But in fact the “hustle economy” scenario is not so different from working in a factory. The creators have labor power, which they effectively sell to the platforms, which control the means of producing the “things” that matter here: reaching potential customers at scale, sustaining a means of limiting access to goods, maintaining the business infrastructure that facilitates exchange, aggregating the supply of “creators” to create a sort of network effect that subordinates the value of individual creators to that of the entire catalog that a platform owns. Maybe the simpler way of saying that is platforms make markets. That is their product. They serve neoliberalism’s tendency to marketize any aspect of existence that has hitherto resisted it in the name of bringing the market’s “discipline” to wayward aspects of sociability.  In submitting to a platform, whatever “existing skills” a creator has are reformatted, warped to fit the scheme devised to exploit them for profit. I think Marx calls that “formal subsumption,” when a capitalist organization of production appropriates pre-existing skills and reshapes them so as to primarily valorize capital. Then, when the existence of Patreon, etc., is taken for granted, the new skills that can be acquired take the shape demanded or anticipated by those platforms, on their terms and to their benefit and for their continued survival (“real subsumption”). The platforms begin to produce the sorts of creators they need to profit.

It’s not at all different to working in a factory—in fact, it’s basically piecework, but piecework done for factories that have given up any pretense of producing a specific product or type of product to the end of capital accumulation; they’ll flog whatever the pieceworkers are able to produce. Or rather, they’ll provide a system whereby the pieceworker can flog that thing—and flog themselves—and cream off whatever the market will bear.

Work itself, when organized through platforms, is no longer “skilled,” but just abstract spare capacity that capital can take or leave when it needs it, dipping into the pool of reserve labor on its own terms. Patreon et al. bring that model to forms of work that otherwise seem resistant — the kinds of things contingent on one’s reputation or personal brand. “Anyone with noncommoditized skills can do this,” venture capitalist Li Jin tells Dewey — anyone can sell themselves on/to a platform. It’s no accident that VC types champion these models with deceptive rhetoric about inclusion and empowerment; the models are designed to line their pockets while impoverishing the world, and they work better when every possible person is exploited. That’s the beauty of scale.

Oooh, look: it’s our friend scale again! Which is, I think, the fundamental feature of platforms as a business model… and that’s related to the natural-monopoly tendency of infrastructures of distribution.

In short, all platforms are labor platforms. They turn “life” into “work” wherever possible, for “creators” and consumers alike, tracking and redistributing user behavior on the platforms’ terms. Commodification makes inroads in more and more aspects of everyday life and comes to dictate more and more of social relations. Why make friends when you can have followers? Why speak from outside a company’s paywall? The platforms are not offering a way to survive in a crisis; they are exploiting a crisis to introduce a regime that makes immiseration a permanent condition. The tides rise but never recede.

To return to a point I keep drifting away from (because easily distracted), the platform model is not the inevitable outcome of the natural-monopoly tendency in distributive systems—or at least it doesn’t have to be. (Capitalism’s incentive structures make it effectively inevitable, as Horning is pointing out above: “platforms make markets”.) However, the protocol model could achieve the same opportunities for the pieceworker, but without the proprietary capture and rake-off associated with a successfully scaled monopoly platform; the platform model in this case would look like a suite of open-source tools for website building and online payments, a fairly-priced postal service, and a search function that wasn’t massively biased in favour of platforms already within the search engine operator’s own value chains (for both uses of the term “value”). Protocols also make markets—but they make markets with freedoms-from as well as freedoms-to.

With the hopefully assumed caveat that it’s far from being a silver-bullet solution to this or any other socioeconomic challenge, we could really do with remembering what the rail barons were, and why so many states eventually decided to nationalise those early systems of distribution (which, you may recall, also included telegraphy, the forerunner of the communications infrastructures which we still erroneously refer to as “the internet”).

The natural-monopoly tendency of distribution networks can be a problem, but it’s also the source of their usefulness—their utility, you might say. Nationalisation, or some other form of common ownership, gives you the horizontality of the platform without the verticality of the associated value extraction chain; open protocols provide a level playing field that still permits for innovation at the producer level with regard to products and services, and for middle-men operators who have genuine value to add to the process.

But: you have to regulate the system in such a way that the middle-men can’t make themselves into an obligatory passage point—which is to say, you have to keep the infrastructure layer free from commercial interference, at minimum. Well-designed and constantly revised standards and regulations at that level can, in theory, make sure that the interface layer doesn’t ossify into a platform model.

(For an example of this sort of set-up, think of the road network, at least in the UK. It’s not without its flaws, certainly; nor has it avoided becoming a site of ideological economic interference. But in terms of being a transportation protocol which is effectively open to all users, provided they stay within the standards and regulations, it’s so exemplary as to be almost invisible. Admittedly, the neoliberal era has seen the assembly of de facto platform business models upon the road network, but that was achieved more through stock-market malarkey than actual competition. Effective and reliable distribution requires detailed knowledge of the last mile as well as the system as a whole; a national-scale firm can’t really do that, unless making a good job of the last mile is an imperative of its reason for existing. And because the last mile is the expensive bit, as well as the difficult bit, no national-scale distribution firm oriented toward shareholder returns will ever do it well, because it’s the easiest place to shave off your overheads. Effective and reliable networks of distribution, when seen as entire systems, are almost inevitably loss-making; if there is any point at all to the existence of the state, then providing that fundamental infrastructure for economic and informational exchange, and underwriting those losses as the unavoidable cost of having an economy, is surely it. I might even go so far as to say that the state is its infrastructure; all the other stuff is just platforms and protocols running on that network.)

We learned all this once before, in the era of the rail barons, but we allowed ourselves to forget it—because, as a friend put it earlier today, history never actually ended, per Fukuyama, but everyone nonetheless stopped paying it any heed. But it feels like we’re starting to remember it again, collectively, and to find ways of narrating this systemic causality that might help build the grass-roots political will for busting up the platform barons of the Valley, and the ideological scaffolding that they stand upon. The struggle will be long, and victory is far from assured—but nothing worth doing is ever easy, right?