Keen

The ever-prescient Christopher Lash on the deleterious effects of “modern technology”:

Modern technology has the same effect on culture that it has on production, where it serves to assert managerial control over the labor force. The study of mass culture thus leads to the same conclusion prompted by a study of the mechanization of the workplace: that much advanced technology embodies by design (in both senses of the word) a one-way system of management and communication. It concentrates economic and political control – and, increasingly, cultural control as well – in a small elite of corporate planners, market analysts, and social engineers. It invites popular “input” or “feedback” only in the form of suggestion boxes, market surveys, and public opinion polls. Technology thus comes to serve as an effective instrument of social control (The Minimal Self, 26).

Replace “advance technology” with “Google,” or “input” with selecting Facebook’s “Like” button, and you have a fitting analysis of our contemporary internet culture.

It’s too bad that Lasch passed before the rise of the internet. He would have no doubt destroyed the faux populism of tech elites.

Although Lash is no longer with us, we do have Andrew Keen, often described as the “antichrist of Silicon Valley.” Keen offers a Laschian-type thrashing of today’s internet culture. And like Lasch, Keen has no patience for corporate speak or facile ‘conservative’ rhetoric about ‘values’ abstracted from economic realities.

In his latest book, The Internet Is Not The Answer, Keen argues that the development of the web and rise of Silicon Valley social technologies has not ushered in the utopia we were once promised. Rather than delivering more democracy, more access to the good life, and more political transparency, the internet has birthed the near opposite: robber baron-style plutocracy, rising levels of economic pain for the masses, and an unprecedented level of corporate and government surveillance that would make the Nazi Secret Police blush.

Similar to Lasch, Keen sees that the rise of social technologies does not just happen at the level of use or consumption, but is driven by the modern division of labor. We once were forced to work in factories; we now give our labor away for free, by uploading “content” to Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. Writing about our “data factory economy,” Keen states,

the internet is destroying our old industrial economy – transforming what was once a relatively egalitarian system into a winner-take-all economy of what Tyler Cowen calls “billionaires and beggars.” Rather than just a city, it’s a whole economy that is losing its center. For all Silicon Valley’s claims that the Internet has created more equal opportunity and distribution of wealth, the new economy actually resembles a donut – with a gaping hole in the middle where, in the old industrial system, millions of workers were once paid to manufacture valuable products (110.)

I’m not sure if Keen offers much by way of solution. But as Cornel West pointed out to Keen (around the 33 minute mark), a big part of fixing this massive imbalance of wealth will be to cultivate “soul craft.” A good a place as any to start, I suppose.

Fred Block stands as one of the most important contemporary expositors of Karl Polanyi. This is not to say, however, that Block is without his fair share of critics. As Gareth Dale argues in Karl Polanyi: The Limits of the Market, Block overemphasizes Polanyi’s understanding of the embedded economy, and thereby downplays Polanyi’s grasp on the uniqueness of the modern market society. The great Polanyian insight, according to Block, is that capitalism and democracy can coexist, provided robust political structures are in place.

Block may be wrong about his reformist interpretation of Polanyi, but I think he might be onto something here with his understanding of how capitalism actually operates:

I once had a conversation with the late Paul Sweezy where I was talking about some visions of reforming capitalism, and he said, “well, you can’t get the capitalist leopard to change its spots…” Capitalism was very powerfully being described as a beast and its seems to me that that natural imagery, which is there very deeply in Marx’s work, and he used it, I think, very self-consciously as a way to protect Marxism from reformism. From the threat that workers would accept half a loaf rather than radical transformation. And so he always talked about that you had to transform capitalism root and branch; you had to pull the whole thing out. You couldn’t just change a little bit. So he used the image of capitalism as a natural system that had to be completely destroyed. And I think that natural imagery is part of what has gotten us into deep trouble. And the kind of alternative metaphor that I have been trying to work with is to think rather of market societies and the contemporary global economy as not as a natural entity at all, but rather as a kind of jerry-built structure; a bunch of elements put together at different times that fit together very uneasily which are constantly having to be patched and readjusted. And so the notion is that it’s a system which is always under construction because the parts of it don’t fit together very well. It’s riven by contradictions, tension, lack of fit. And it’s precisely that always-under-construction quality which it what gives the political openings, because that which is recognized to be under construction can be reconstructed in different ways, better ways, to promote different kinds of values.

Fred Block, “Towards a Polanyian Theory of Contemporary Capitalism,” transcribed from David Cayley’s “Markets and Society” podcast, episode V.

Christ know that Society was necessary, so that we might help each other, and hold together. And so the past seventy years we have made much of the Holy Communion, the service that tells of brotherhood, solidarity, co-operation. Social religion has become as necessary as personal religion… It is not for nothing that in the best language of our race “the State” is called “a Commonwealth”: it is not for nothing that our Prayer-book is called the Book of Common Prayer: alike in material as in spiritual matters we are still to be communists – sharers.

-Stewart Headlam, The Meaning of the Mass, 29.

040712.EasterVigil1

God doesn’t just die, he goes to hell: a far more radical proposition. He descends to the underworld to liberate the anawim, the dispossessed and the forgotten. “The anawim will not always be forgotten, nor the hope of the afflicted perish forever” (Psalm 9:18).

Good Friday, shorn of the Triduum, is nothing but death. That’s the point. But however much we fix our gaze on the theologia crucis, the story goes on. Christ doesn’t just die, he descends and harrows hell. Good Friday is radicalized by the passage of liturgical time, culminating in the Great Vigil of Easter.

Easter without the horror of Good Friday; Good Friday without the hope of Easter. Both are products of anemic protestant theology and in both cases the poor are forgotten. A dead god presents no hope for the poor; a god who is characterized by triumph alone presents no hope for the poor. But a god who died to join and liberate the poor in hell is a god of solidarity.

Good Friday without Holy Saturday is the veneration of death. In a culture that denies death, we can understand the allure of Good Friday; in a culture that denies mysterion, we can understand the rejection of Holy Saturday. It’s too pagan, too mystical. Better to have death and resurrection alone, and nothing in between.

Writing about Christ’s descent into hell, Terry Eagleton says that God,

dies in an act of solidarity with what the Bible calls the anawim, meaning the destitute and dispossessed. Crucifixion was reserved by the Roman for political offenses alone. The anawim, in Pauline phrase, are the shit of the earth – scum and refuse of society who constitute the cornerstone of the new form of human life known as the kingdom of God. Jesus himself is consistently presented as their representative. His death and descent into hell is a voyage into madness, terror, absurdity, and self-dispossession, since only a revolution that cuts that deep can answer to our dismal condition (Reason, Faith, and Revolution, 23).

Perhaps we in the West have forgotten Holy Saturday because it is a day of solidarity with the anawim and a day of revolutionary fervor. As the thinking goes, better to pass over this day in silence lest any seditions thoughts begin to take hold.

I feel you, Karl.

The market acts like an invisible boundary isolating all individuals in their day-to-day activities, as producers and consumers. They produce for the market, they are supplied by the market. Beyond it they cannot reach, however eagerly they may wish to serve their fellows. Any attempt to be helpful on their part is instantly frustrated by the market mechanism. Giving your goods away at less than the market price will benefit somebody for a short time, but it would also drive your neighbor out of business, and finally ruin your own, with consequent losses of employment for those dependent on your factory or enterprise. Doing more than your due as a working man will make the conditions of work for your comrades worse. Be refusing to spend on luxuries you will be throwing some people out of work, by refusing to save you will be doing the same to others. As long as you follow the rules of the market, buying at the lowest and selling at the highest price whatever you happen to be dealing in, you are comparatively safe. The damage you are doing to your fellows in order to serve your own interest is, then, unavoidable. The more completely, therefore, one discards the idea of serving one’s fellows, the more successfully one can reduce one’s responsibility for harm done to others. Under such a system, human beings are not allowed to be good, even though they may wish to be so.

Quoted in Gareth Dale, Karl Polanyi: The Limits of the Market, 10-11.

Valley

Remember David Bentley Hart’s 2003 essay, “Christ and Nothing”?

Like most first year theology graduate students, the article was a breath of fresh air – something to actually rival the long undergraduate trend of “postmodern a/theology.” After reading Hart, my Caputo and Taylor books were quickly tossed to the wayside and tagged for the return pile.

Like most things in life, the initial allure of Hart’s work began to wane. Years have passed since my graduate school days and it’s now Hart’s books that are collecting dust on the bookshelf, looming as relics of a bygone age.

But a recent article from The Baffler prompted me to return to Hart’s ruminations on the modern worship of the nothing. In  “Silicon Valley’s Cult of Nothing,” Dale Lately traces the rise of the Valley’s cult of immaterialism and the obsessive drive for pure nothingness. The Valley heralds a new world order no more waste, no more tangible money transactions, and of course, no more paper. All that is solid melts into pure cloud computing.

Lately right labels this order of things as the “cult of immaterialism,” made up of an unholy mixture of bloated marketing departments and adulterated Platonism. “Whereas the Industrial Revolution turned ideas into things,” writes Lately, “the Information Revolution turns things into ideas—from coins to Bitcoins, from songs to strings of ones and zeroes.”

Lately’s prognosis mirrors Hart’s thesis from over ten years ago. At the heart of modernity, Hart says, is the worship of nothingness, a god “more elusive, protean, and indomitable than Apollo or Dionysus” (4). As Hart explains,

As modern men and women – to the degree that we are modern – we believe in nothing. This is not to say, I should add, that we do not believe in anything; I mean, rather, that we hold an unshakable, if often unconscious, faith in the nothing, or in nothingness as such. It is this in which we place our trust, upon which we venture our souls, and onto which we project the values by which we measure the meaningfulness of our lives.

Appearing to pull a page directly out of Hart, Lately opens his essay with the following observation: “If Silicon Valley worships anything, it worships nothing.” Let that sink in for a bit, as you’re likely reading this on Google’s web browser.

It’s doubtful whether Lately would agree with Hart’s end game, and surely the notoriously verbose theologian’s genealogy of voluntarism and postmodern nihilism can be called into question. The cult of immaterialism or the worship of nothing may not be ensconced in the will to power, as Hart sees it. But with Lately’s essay in mind, maybe it’s simply the case that the worship of nothing has a more objective abode than the vacuous human will. Maybe the shrine of the nothing is located among the prime real estate holdings of San Jose, Palo Alto, Sunnyvale, Cupertino, Los Gatos, and Menlo Park.

Dore

Whatever the case may be, Lately and Hart both agree that the marketing or worship of nothingness has severe material consequences. States Lately,

Like so much Silicon Valley newspeak, the myth of the immaterial is actually a cult of the very, very material… a single Google search (among the billions executed every day) releases half the carbon of a boiling kettle; the company as a whole produces as much CO2 as Laos. Beware the calming ease of the click…

The digital economy uses 10 percent of the world’s total electricity generation, while data centers alone have overtaken aviation as a source of global CO2 emissions (a single data center is thought to guzzle as much electricityas a medium sized American town). Just as Silicon Valley isn’t really in the business of silicon, there’s nothing white-and-fluffy about the Cloud, which is mostly powered by coal.

Polanyi

Throughout The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi insists on the “reality of society,” and how economic liberalism systematically operates to undermine this reality. In the final chapter of his great work, Polanyi observes,

No society is possible in which power and compulsion are absent, nor a world in which force has no function. It was an illusion to assume a society shaped by man’s will and wish alone. Yet this was the result of a market view of society which equated economics with contractual relationships, and contractual relations with freedom. The radical illusion was fostered that there is nothing in human society that is not derived from the volition of individuals and that could not, therefore, be removed again by their volition. Vision was was limited by the market which ‘fragmented’ life into the producers’ sector that ended when his product reached the market. The one derived his income ‘freely’ from the market, the other spent it ‘freely’ there. Society as a whole remained invisible” (266).

Polanyi develops two interesting ideas here. First, he rejects the notion that society is nothing more than the sum of its parts. Not only is this a “radical illusion,” it is a “stark utopia,” a dangerous invention of nineteenth-century society. Second, by way of Marx’s analysis of the commodity fetish, Polanyi exposes the nominalistic fallacy at the heart of economic liberalism.

Polanyi was no metaphysician, but the fact that he regarded Marx as an invaluable resource for expressing philosophical – if not sacramental – realism, is something worth considering.

“Capital” and “Labour” confront each other independent of the will of individual capitalists and laborers… Again and again it is the case that despite available machinery and natural resources, employable work forces and pressing, unsatisfied needs the production apparatus stands still as if lamed and no earthly power would be able to set it once again in motion. Not human will, but prices decide which direction labour must go. Not human will, but interest rates command capital… Capitalists, like laborers, like people in general appear as a mere accessory on the business stage.

-Karl Polanyi, “Über die Freiheit”

Every form of socialism is based on the hope of mankind to attain to a form of social being in which people could normally in their every day existence actualize their responsibilities to their fellows because they would know how their commissions and omissions affect them, and they would be able to act accordingly… Life in society is not free. We influence, burden, harm, and disturb the lives of our fellows whether we will it or not. We do it by inactivity, as by activity… We must abide by the truth that we humans are condemned to live upon the freedom of our fellows, that we are condemned to live upon the work and toil, upon the health and life, of others…

But with the help of our faith we must make life out of these facts as faith builds life out of death.

Karl Polanyi, “Letter to a friend,” 1929

snowplough

Forbes contributor Tim Worstall is always a joy to read. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Worstall’s columns offer steady defense after steady defense of the free market system – he’s even smarter than Pope Francis. It is, of course, his job – or shtick – to defend the failing system. And to his credit, I’m amazed at how quickly one can get sucked into his vortex of moral platitudes.

One of his latest rhetorical tactics is to argue that the market is always right, even when it isn’t. According to Worstall, the free market is always best, even when it requires government intervention, because, hey, no system is perfect. Typically, market liberals don’t know what to do with things like patents, limited liability laws, freeways; that is, all the stuff that is a precondition for the market’s existence. Worstall, however, brilliantly sidesteps this issue, writing:

As we all know there’s enough people out there who tell us that markets don’t work very well, free markets especially don’t work all that well and so, well, we should all be dragooned into doing whatever it is that these people have planned for us. One answer to this is simply to start shouting that free markets do to work so there. A slightly more sophisticated approach would be to agree that yes, markets (whether free or freeish) sometimes they don’t work well. But that markets don’t work well, or even at all, in one or another set of circumstances is not actually proof either that they won’t work well elsewhere or that they’re not working elsewhere. For example, the observation that a monopolised market is not working could well be true but that isn’t proof that non-monopolised markets don’t work.

In other words, the free market is working, it just experiences bumps in the road from time to time. It’s not so much that there is evidence to the contrary, it’s just that there are aberrations, or a lack of will to see the free market through. Worstall blithely concedes, writing, “ free markets aren’t perfect. Yes, we know that, the very existence of the idea of IP is proof of that. The public goods problems of creation and innovation are such that too little will be produced in an entirely free market environment. Therefore we intervene in markets to make them better.”

Several years ago, Karl Polanyi spotted this common tendency among market liberals in The Great Transformation. Their first step is to claim that markets and governments are two separate entities, whereby the latter is often forced to intervene into the autonomous domain of the former (would that it were not so!). When government intervention is required, as with patents for example, market liberals will insist that the source of the problem is “the incomplete application” of the market’s principles. This, writes Polanyi,

is the last remaining argument of economic liberalism today. Its apologists are repeating in endless variations that but for the policies advocated by its critics, liberalism would have delivered the goods; that not the competitive system and the self-regulating market, but the interference with that system and interventions with that market are responsible for our ills. And this argument does not find support in innumerable recent infringements of economic freedom only, but also in the indubitable fact that the movement to spread the system of self-regulating markets was met in the second half of the nineteenth century by a persistent countermove obstructing the free working of such an economy (149-150).

What Worstall and his ilk fail to see is that markets and governments are not two distinct entities in competition with each other. “Laissez-faire was planned,” as Polanyi famously stated. The genesis of the so-called free market system is this: “the road to the free market was opened and kept open by an enormous increase in continuous, centrally organized and controlled interventionism” (146ff.).

Archives

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 57 other followers