Category Archives: Politics

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?

theatre of expertise / expertise of theatre

This one’s been doing the rounds in infrastructure-wonk circles, and deservedly so. I’m usually distrustful of any organisation that includes the term “governance innovation” in its moniker; CIGI is a Canadian thinktank founded by the guy who helmed RIM, none of which serves to fundamentally allay that instinctive suspicion, but this is nonetheless a serious, nuanced and in-depth piece on the tech/policy interface, the likes of which is vanishingly rare in the era of the Hot Take. This is the nut of it:

First, the digitization of public institutions changes the balance of government power, by shifting a number of political issues out of public process and framing them instead as procurement processes. Whereas questions around executive authority were historically defined in legislation, they’re often now defined in platform design — and disputes are raised through customer service. This shift extends executive power and substitutes expert review for public buy-in and legitimacy, in ways that cumulatively result in a public that doesn’t understand or trust what the government does. Importantly, the transition from representative debate to procurement processes significantly changes the structures of engagement for public advocates and non-commercial interests.

The second structural problem results when nuanced conversations about the technical instrumentation of a publicly important governance issue are sensationalized. For example, focusing on COVID-19 contact-tracing apps instead of the large institutional efforts needed to contain infection frames the issues around the technology and not the equities or accountability required to serve public interest mandates. One of the reasons for this is that experts, like everyone else, are funded by someone — and tend to work within their own political, professional and economic perspectives, many of which don’t take responsibility for the moral or justice implications of their participation. Consultants tend to focus on technical solutions instead of political ones, and rarely challenge established limits in the way that the public does.

Said differently, technologies are a way to embed the problem of the political fragility of expertise into, well, nearly everything that we involve technology in. And public institutions’ failure to grapple with the resulting legitimacy issues is destabilizing important parts of our international infrastructure when we need it most.

I don’t agree with all of it, but my disagreements are productive, if that makes any sense: there’s a language here for legitimation via expert discourses (or the lack thereof) which is worth engaging with in more detail. Reading it alongside Jo Guldi’s Roads to Power would be interesting, if time permitted: one of the many things that marvellous book achieves is to explain the (surprisingly early) establishment of the technological expert as not just a political actor, but more particularly an actor in the more formalised theatre of statecraft, thus sowing the seeds of what McDonald is discussing in this piece.

(Damn, I really need to re-read that book… though it seems I loaned it to someone and never got it back. Guess it’s time to hit the requisition system again…)

… but will it scale?

Final ‘graph of the most recent missive from Michael Sacasas, which is worth reading in full:

The deeper critique here may be to recognize that the culture wars, while rooted to some important degree in the genuine moral concerns of ordinary citizens, are themselves the product of the longstanding industrialization of politics and the triumph of technique. In both the case of institutionalization and the capture of politics by technique, the operations of the system become the system’s reason for being. Industrialized politics are politics scaled up to a level that precludes the possibility of genuine and ordinary human action and thus becomes increasingly unresponsive to human well-being. The culture wars are in this analysis a symptom of the breakdown of politics as the context within which fellow citizens navigate the challenges of a common life. In the place of such genuine politics, the culture wars offer us the often destructive illusion of politically significant action.

I’m pulling this out largely due to the reference to “scal[ing] up”, which is among the little catalogue of shibboleths that seem to me constitutive of the vacuum at the heart of the neoliberal condition; Sacasas’s mention of it here is an illustration of its problematic, given that (at least in the dominant discourse) “scaling up” is an unalloyed good. (It is, of course, closely related to the uncritical deification of “efficiency”. “Network effects” are a minor member of the same pantheon—though like many minor deities, they manifest as a simplification and sanitisation of an older, richer and more nuanced idea that once gained prominence in a particular situated discourse, before being reduced first to metaphor and thereafter to meme.)

The matter of scale has become of greater and clearer interest to me recently, thanks to some work done of a project report that sought to explore the dynamics of scaling in sociotechnical transitions; regular readers will be unsurprised to hear that, the more closely the concept was examined, the less substantial and coherent it was revealed to be. One of the big points emerging from that examination was that, while “scaling up” is broadly assumed to be the expression of a successful transition, it is quite possible that an “innovative” process or product or policy or business model can “scale” without any substantive transition occurring. (Horizontal scaling is a somewhat different matter, but suffers from being undertheorised, presumably because horizontal scaling, or “scaling out”, reliant as it is on the duplication of smaller organisational units rather than the consolidation of one huge one, is less amenable to profit and asset-stripping, and also runs counter to the top-down instincts of statist models of institutional change.) “Scaling” is thus neither cause or effect when it comes to “innovation”—which is, of course, another suitcase word, and perhaps also the warrior-beloved heroic thunder-god of the hegemonic B-school pantheon.

But the connection I wanted to note here is the one made by Anna Tsing in The Mushroom at the End of the World. I don’t have my copy to hand, so no quotes, but among the many gems scattered through that book is a pearl-string of critiques of “scaling up” as the peak expression of the modernist/rationalist ideological memeplex; it comes out in capitalism, of course, but also in the epistemologies and ontologies of Big-S Science. Much of Tsing’s book is concerned with practices of forestry (and practices within forests), where both rationalist and reductive over-management and a total withdrawal of disruption (whether by human or more-than-human actors are revealed to be destructive of (bio)diversity, and throws off big echoes of James C Scott—though the unobtrusive citation style (little numbers, references and endnotes collected at the end of the book) means that I have yet to determine if there’s any connection other than the accidental.

As I understand it (based on an as-yet-incomplete reading of the book), Tsing argues that the global supply chain, and the “salvage accumulation” that it enables, is an adaptation of capital to a circumstance in which the consequences of widespread “scalings up” have caused sufficient systemic damage to make “scaling up” impossible, at least in some sectors and/or spaces. I wonder if that point might feed back into Sacasas’s argument about the culture wars: perhaps that condition of total war has rapidly and inevitably given away to partisan 4th-generation forms of combat, due to the battlefield having been so thoroughly and rapidly riven by the effects of industrialised conflict…