"Resistance Is Prior to Power" – Antonio Negri. 13/01/2019

Here is the opening monologue from last week's episode of Radical Democrats Radio, "Resistance Is Prior to Power." You can support the podcast and other projects at our Patreon.
• • •
I want to open with a quote from Antonio Negri in Assembly: “Resistance is prior to power. . . . revolutionary movements and struggles are the source of political innovation.”

What that means, is that new approaches to how we can live together in communities, build links of mutual dependency and aid, always emerge from situations of people trying to create power for themselves. 

Remember, when I talk about people creating their power, I’m not talking about taking control of the state here. This is one point where radical democracy departs from the revolutionary marxist tradition in which it began. 

But that’s with good reason, because there’s something very important about revolutionary marxism’s beginning – you know, back when Karl Marx was actually alive – that has shifted radically. The West is not controlled by autocratic states anymore.

I make this statement with rhetorical reservations, of course.

Let’s be clear about our situation today, though. This show has gone live the week after, in the United States, the Democratic Party has taken over the federal government’s lower legislative chamber. 

The leading activists and candidates in that election openly branded themselves as the capital R Resistance. Many were from marginalized communities and cultures who, as a whole, have suffered from state institutions dominated by social conservatives and oligarchs. 

The state of which Donald Trump is President allowed them to organize, run, and take office. I’m serious about that term ‘allowed.’ 

Because the physical machinery of police, surveillance, and security services in the United States is more than capable of rounding up political agitators and opposition party members to disappear them into the prison system forever. 

Marxist philosophy began in a population living under governments that arrested and executed people for organizing communities of marginalized people – the poor in Germany and Russia, the colonized in Britain, Belgium, and France, the enslaved in the United States. Their revolutions all turned out to be fairly successful over a century or more.

But those revolutions against autocracy, colonization, and dictatorship revealed more complex ways culture itself was a political force – a force that could liberate or oppress people. 

Yes, state laws enforced socially conservative beliefs – Like when homosexual acts and divorce were illegal in Western countries. But the state had no power over a woman’s parents deciding to advocate for her husband in the breakup of a violent marriage. The state had no power in family and friends ostracizing a young person for their sexuality or gender.

Here’s where contemporary radical democracy departs clearly from that marxist tradition. Where there are vectors of oppression, there is politics. That includes, state, economics, morality, and culture. All of that is political.

Oppression is a simple activity, no matter how many big bureaucratic agencies a state might use to oppress people. That just complicates a simple act. The stomp of a boot into the ground. 

The real nature of oppression is why Negri can write that political creativity comes from resistance to power instead of power itself. 

In resistance, you act to escape control from some oppressive institution or cultural practice. Such an escape requires agility – Not just in organizing, but in life. 

Of course, an oppressive practice, morality, or institution will react to people openly organizing against it. But the presence of oppressive networks and relationships also work in a more insidious, if equally simple, way. A pervasive morality or social practice will work to make any resistance appear futile.

Picture the residents of a community that’s been in economic depression for decades, who’ve been so dominated by the power of local oligarchs over their institutions that they see any resistance to this order as bound to fail. That’s how oppression encourages apathy.

Even worse is the oppression of morality – It’s how you convince a person to desire their own slavery, to see their oppression as good. They understand fundamental right and wrong in terms of a morality that justifies the power of oppressive institutions, classes, and people. 

I’m talking about moralities that create figures like Uncle Tom, the Dutiful Wife, the Mimic Man. Such a system of beliefs defines what is morally right as to submit yourself utterly to some figure, institution, or state. You are raised to accept without question, as intuitively true, that you are subservient, that you do not deserve freedom.

All this reactionary activity seems very complex, since it flows across so many planes of human activity: 
Moralities that shape subjectivities and social practices.
Institutions that shape legal, administrative, and police bodies.
Economic relationships that open opportunities for some and erase or block the formation of opportunities for many others.
But it all amounts to a simple movement – the block, the suffocating blanket that drains the energy of your own freedom.

Overcoming that movement requires complexity because of the many paths through which the suffocation of freedom moves. Overcoming moral suffocation requires different concepts and strategies than overcoming institutional suffocation. 

Convincing a woman to understand her “good Christian” marriage as actually incredibly abusive takes utterly different strategies than ending city planning practices that segregate neighbourhoods ethnically to marginalize and impoverish minorities. 

The tools of oppression change by context, but not its actions – suffocate freedom. Resisting and overcoming that suffocation requires actions that are utterly different in each context. 

Unfortunately, that ends up interrupting unity among activists to transform the entire oppressive system on a global basis. People who learned how to resist in one or a few contexts will not understand intuitively what’s in common with resisters in other contexts. 
Example: White union movement activists in Canada oppose environmental and Indigenous movements because they see these activists as roadblocks to their community’s prosperity. 

The solution is unfortunately difficult – outreach and education. People who understand how all oppressions enforce each other have to teach fellow progressives who define their interests too narrowly. 

That education also requires a lot of creativity – New kinds of intervention that can overcome people’s partial perspectives, prejudices, disgusts. Healing an Arab/Muslim activist’s anti-Semitism takes a different educational strategy than healing a Christian human rights activist’s homophobia, and a different strategy than healing a feminist activist’s Islamophobia.

“Resistance is prior to power.”

We Do Need Governance, But Can Do Without Sovereignty

I just finished reading my friend Bernie Wills' book Believing Weird Things. I’m writing a review of it at Social Epistemology, but today’s monologue will work through some of my initial reactions to what he had to say. As well, I’m going to see what can come out of playing Bernie’s ideas off some arguments from Antonio Negri’s latest book Assembly, available in intelligent bookshops and online stores near you.

So the last two essays of the fourteen in Believing Weird Things were published on the open-access side of Social Epistemology early this year. They confront different aspects of the resurgence of nationalist politics in Europe and the Americas. 

I’ll expand a little more on this in my official review, of course. But the last essay, “Conservatism: The End of An Idea” made me think of a curious idea. It wasn’t something he said, but something he never said.

The essay identified and explored the nihilism driving all the most radically destructive forms of extremism. 

Since the show is called Radical Democrats Radio, I thought I’d at least consider the implications for the brand. 

If I can distill the argument to a single sentence – Bernie saw the nihilism of nationalist right and anarchist left ultimately leading to the same ends. The radical nationalist replaces rule of law with fascist kleptocracy. The radical anarchist replaces rule of law with social chaos.

Here’s my problem with this idea. I think it departs from the material situation we’re in, veering a little too conceptual. 

In the actual political situation of Europe and the Americas in 2018, our popular political conflicts are realigning into a new order. 

The general right wing blends two ideologies: 1) economic libertarianism that enables cronyism and kleptocracy, 2) xenophobic nationalism. The particular flavour of xenophobia in a country, is usually cobbled together from what’s available. 

For example, xenophobes in the United States are deepest dedicated to being anti-Hispanic and anti-Black, and Islamophobia is a bold new vector of aggressive racist paranoia. They’ve resurrected their fear-mongering anti-communist messaging to describe anything in favour of a welfare state, environmentalism, or social liberalism in general. The most extreme xenophobes are more marginalized Nazis.

I say more marginalized because you can’t say k-i-k-e on FOX. At least not yet. So I’m speaking relatively.

Bernie’s right about that designation. So what about the left? 

Well, I’ve hung out in some pleasant anarchist communes. But they aren’t exactly networked into the new progressive mainstream. Because the conservative mainstream includes open dedicated racists like US Representative Steve King, FOX News’ Tucker Carlson, Presidential Advisor Stephen Miller, and President Donald Trump.

Today’s new alignment in the progressive left is toward a new social democracy that includes ecological priorities in its economics, and a cosmopolitan ethnic, religious, sex, and gender freedom in its cultural liberalism. 

An essay that seeks to diagnose our times leans too heavily on a concept instead of the real. That’s my main problem with that last essay in the collection. 

Yet. I have to say yet. There is a very subtle kind of opposition to the state that the 21st century social democrats of the West share with the most nitrous-addled anarchist shack-dweller. It’s the opposition to sovereignty.

Sovereignty is a conceptual framework of what governments are for. But a government can be organized according to a lot of different conceptual frameworks. Sovereignty is an ideology that unites two principles – 1) Borders become sanctified; 2) A state’s borders create a united social entity, the nation.

This is what Negri diagnoses. Sovereignty ideology defines the purpose of the state as maintaining the population in order. So the primary institutions of the state are the police and military.

The new social democratic vision defines the purpose of the state real economic and personal freedom. Everyone has the capacity and opportunities to make a decent living and avoid indebtedness. Everyone has the right to live however and wherever they want. 

What are the institutions of a state with those priorities? It’s not keeping order. It’s about preserving the lives and dignity of the population. Those institutions would be public health infrastructure, social security, schools and universities. 

This wouldn’t be a sovereign state that prioritizes social order. It would be a people’s state that prioritizes social dignity. 

Political Strategy Without Leaders, 04/12/2018

When Occupy first blew up, the most tiresome, empty-headed critique was that one question, over and over. “Who are their leaders? What is their concrete agenda?”

Exactly the wrong question, I realized after maybe a week of thinking on it myself. I never participated in an Occupy movement as a member. I was a visitor, happy to see that we still had space for rebellion. And I knew from my experience that the space itself was the point.

It was a movement to bring people together, exchange ideas and philosophies, and make a space where rebellion was possible. The point was to assert the possibility of rebellion in the West.

Never forget what I mean when I talk about the West: the lands and cultures of globalizing colonial empire, that started in the 1500s. It’s an entire set of cultures and institutions that have been shaped by the desire to justify worldwide conquest.

Can you transform a culture so radically in a single generation, a single place, a single organization led by one person? We make statues of individual people – Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King, Ho Chi Minh. We celebrate what they achieved, and how they inspired people. We call them leaders.

They changed laws and governments. But it takes more than the organization of just one social movement to transform the moralities of a population of millions. The 1964 Civil Rights Act did not end racism in America.

Imagine the force you'd need to transform a culture that had been developing for hundreds of years, to have a totally different character. Turning a concept of virtue as conquest and superiority all over the West into mutual inclusion and equality. That task is way beyond the work of one generation, let alone one person. One leader.

That was the ontological point of Antonio Negri’s concept of assembly, which he writes about with Michael Hardt in the book called Assembly. An assembly is a social force that can grow in power and longevity enough to transform the morality of an entire culture.

Even when the institutions of that culture – police, security forces, spy agencies, churches, governments, laws, schools – turn against such a social force, that force has the potential to overthrow and revolutionize those institutions.

Does it always, every time? Oh hell no! Individual political movements are crushed, but the force itself can survive as a story, an idea, a few books that still sell really well. The single biggest corporation in the world sees no need to censor Marx from the online store. They sell everything just shy of the Turner Diaries too.

So ideas continue in all directions, in favour of a lot of different moralities. Moralities of conquest and freedom are always in conflict. An assembly, in its loosest form, is a morality – the concepts that channel our desires into action, action that crafts our desires.

One of Negri and Hardt’s tasks in Assembly was working out how to channel that resilient social power of the mass movement in thought and action. Leaders, it’s said, are needed to formulate strategy. Generals overlooking the map. And the ordinary people of their organizations are the soldiers. Leadership meant plotting from a position detached from the action.

That’s a dualist way of thinking about the nature of political and social movements. It separates action from thought.

Assembly merges them. So when you think about social movements as self-directed, leaders aren’t your generals. They become figureheads, spokespeople who follow the moral directions that are developed among the ordinary people.

Regular activists develop strategies for outreach and conversation (and moral conversion) specific to the needs of their own territories. Who knows a place better than the people who live there?

Certainly not some egomaniac game show host. Certainly not some over-insulated multi-millionaire career political party leader.

I’m talking in that last example about Hillary Clinton. I now have one more Festivus grievance against her as a politician, and that’s her new advocacy for caving to the white nationalist movement on immigration in the hopes that they’ll leave the rest of us alone.

Clinton’s 21st century update of appeasement ran in the Guardian last week. It’s appeasement by focus group. Having identified what message encourages the most enthusiasm from the supporters of nationalist parties, she says that we can win their votes by also becoming nationalist parties.

It’s an absurd, ridiculous, and frankly stupid idea. Do you really think that someone who hates Hillary Clinton as much as a dedicated anti-immigration Republican would vote for her? Even if she personally suffocated a four-year-old Honduran girl with tear gas, he’d call it a false flag. Just like the Sandy Hook massacre and the moon landing.

Even beyond this, the real problem with Clinton’s approach in that Guardian article is that she thinks that her DC focus groups can tell people what to think so that they will vote for who they want to. The ones who pay for the focus groups.

That’s not how you lead a democratic movement. Here’s how.

You don’t. The movement is the leader – ordinary people percolating ideas through society that change our culture’s entire morality, one social network node at a time.

Revolution Is Automatic for the People, 28/11/2018

Hey, everyone. So I'm returning to the blog as a place to store my old monologue scripts for Radical Democrats Radio in a single publicly accessible place. My blog served as a place where I could examine ideas and pass through them again, refining them and better understanding their implications and relationships. 

When I started the podcast, these scripts tended to vanish into the ether. So I'm throwing them up here now, for my reference, and your perusal. 
• • •
Lenin on the Rostrum, by Aleksandr Gerasimov, 1929
From 21/11/2018

I'm doing some interesting philosophy reading at the moment. Downloaded a pdf of Vladimir Lenin’s What Is To Be Done?, and it has me thinking about methods of social change. 

Democratic revolutions are always anti-elitist in some genuine sense. Unfortunately at the moment, Western nationalist messaging has gotten a tight hold on the word. So it’s difficult to talk about “the elites” without people hearing you say “liberals” or “the Jews” anymore.


When I say “elites” and “elitism,” I’m literally talking about the hyper-wealthy class – individuals and families whose personal wealth numbers in the hundreds of millions or billions of dollars, and whose properties and businesses have revenues of billions. Plus the groups of politicians and bureaucrats who govern states and international organizations, who do the bidding of this hyper-wealthy class.

Oligarchy is the word.

Basically, the modern left is about organizing against oligarchy. The open question is how you do it. 

Over the next few episodes of Radical Democrats Radio, I’ll explore a theoretical approach to the practical work of organizing that aligns itself to our contemporary technology and communications media. This will be a walk through some of the concepts in the latest book by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, Assembly.

If this segment is mostly about Negri, why did I bring up Lenin at the beginning? Because What Is To Be Done? is a classic work of radical socialist activism that unites theory and practice in an analysis of what methods work for which goals, and which of those goals are genuinely the best means of ending oligarchy in our economy and society. 

In some ways, Lenin is a productive complement to be reading while I’m writing monologues for the show about Negri. Among many of the traditional communists I’ve interacted with over the years, Lenin’s theoretical works – in particular, What Is To Be Done? – have been important touchstones for their own activism. 

And a lot of that activism has failed.

What Is To Be Done? was written, in part, as an instruction manual – arguing for what to do and what not to do. You can adapt the conceptual arguments about that to the present, very different, world of communication we live in today. But the manual itself is a study in historical irrelevance.

That’s why my turn to Negri as I read Lenin works in a pretty trippy way. Negri and Hardt, in their collaborations, have developed a complex set of concepts to understand how social movements develop without leaders. Assembly tackles the problem of leaderless activism directly.

Lenin makes such a great contrast because, despite his emphasis on empowering and educating the entire population of workers to join the anti-oligarchy movement, he still emphasizes the necessity of leaders. Guerillas. The hardest of the hard core.

An elite within an anti-elitist movement. Can you overcome the viciousness of this paradox? That’s what Assembly tackles.

For a political movement to succeed, it needs to institutionalize itself. It has to change governance and economic institutions, or straight-up destroy them and replace them with new ones. But leaderless movements have a really hard time building institutions. Horizontal organizing creates swarms in protest, mobilizes a population to destroy institutions. 

Horizontal organizing most easily organizes an explosion. When that political explosion is powerful enough to topple a government, a regime, an entire institution, we have a revolution. When it falls short of that energy . . . well, as a Syrian or an Egyptian what happens.

Creating institutions requires channelling the energy of a successful revolution to build new institutions. New ways of running society. Institutions that can encourage, enforce, educate, and accustom people to new norms. New moralities of thinking about and interacting with government, with political leaders, with those very institutions. 

Here’s the paradox of democracy. Pure democracy is a revolution that constantly rebels against established order in the name of more freedom. Yet we need institutions to teach us that if we shout for freedom, we’re shouting for more than its name. Quite often, a shout for freedom is a shout to be enslaved. 

Democracy always stands against sovereignty. It stands against violence and coercion that expects its authority to be accepted universally. But building and maintaining institutions requires leadership – requires authority, coercion, keeping membership in line. Even a virtuous institution is an authority.

Is pure democracy possible if it permits no authorities? If not, then is it best to give up on democracy entirely? 

Resignation or revolution. 

New Project! Radical Democrats Radio

Wow. I totally haven't been here in a while. That's because I've been working on my new project, Radical Democrats Radio, a podcast that combines progressive political activism in the (broadly) autonomist and communitarian tradition, with philosophical reflection and analysis. The main website is still under construction, so while you can go there, you won't see much.

Most episodes will run about 30-40 minutes, and consist of a monologue and an interview. My interviews usually run for 60-90 minutes, and cover a variety of discrete but related topics. So a single sit-down with an interview subject will produce multiple podcasts.

The monologues are rather like my blogs – me talking about different topics. Sometimes, they'll be related to the interviews, sometimes not. Most of the time, I'll contrast the two parts of each show. If the interview leans more philosophical, then the monologue will be more directly political, and the reverse. As for whether the monologue or interview comes first, I'll probably decide that by the tones of both.

I'll also occasionally try out more experimental types of episodes as new ideas occur to me. Best (and only) example so far is my reading + commentary on Jian Ghomeshi's attempted comeback essay in the New York Review of Books. I cut some segments of a few seconds where I stumbled over the occasional word, but I recorded it all in one take.

Here are the most important links for Radical Democrats Radio.

Subscribe! Here's the podcast at iTunes, so you'll get new episodes as I throw them up. This is the best way to access the show, not only because it takes the least effort, but we're still early days, so the publication schedule remains a little sketchy.

We're on SoundCloud too, so you can follow the podcast there.

Support! Here's the Radical Democrats Radio Patreon page, so if you like what you hear after subscribing, you can throw a few dollars (pesos, euros, lira, shekels, rupees, yen) every month. The page's income goals describe key improvements in the production of the show that I'll make as our audience of patrons grows. More rewards will come as patronage grows, and as I think of them.

Finally, here's a transcript from my monologue on the 14 September 2018 show, on the constitutional crisis that Doug Ford's extremist government in Ontario created.
• • •
Notwithstanding Norms

When Doug Ford was elected Premier, I knew he was going to be a jackass, a crap Premier, and probably very destructive and harmful to vulnerable people. I cried on election night for the people I know who are going to suffer from his cuts – efficiencies.

I didn't think he was going to cause a constitutional crisis before Autumn Equinox hit.

What is this constitutional crisis? I’m not going to get into the legal details because I’m not a legal expert. I may have a legal expert on soon, as this mess develops a little more to get some real analysis on what’s going on.

Canada in constitutional crisis, 2018. Brought to you by Deco Labels. Deco! Here at Deco, we make labels.

The notwithstanding clause is the shorthand for Section 33 of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It says that, for situations of incredible danger to the security of the people, a government can overrule particular Charter Rights.

Think of an armed uprising against the government. It’s plausible these days. If Ammon Bundy could occupy an American National Park office for weeks, some fastidious Albertan Three Percenters could set off some organized political violence in Edmonton if the NDP gets re-elected. If there was a clear, present danger, Rachel Notley would be justified in overruling Charter Rights temporarily.

But those suspensions would be rightly temporary – the notwithstanding clause is our constitutional mechanism for emergency rule.

Doug Ford is using this mechanism to pass legislation.

Put to the side Ford’s reasons behind Bill 5, whether you think it would improve or degrade Toronto’s governance. Those aren’t important to the question of Canada’s constitutional nuclear option. What is our nuclear option? The constitutional off-switch on the government’s recognition of its citizens’ basic human rights.

Using the nuclear option to pass legislation makes the suspension of citizens’ basic human rights normal. In this case, the notwithstanding clause suspends the basic human rights of about three million people, with no expiry date.

Even worse than when Pierre Trudeau sent tanks to the streets of Montreal in 1970, Doug Ford’s suspension of Torontonians’ Charter Rights to the exercise of democratic governance has no withdrawal time. Toronto’s electoral districts won’t revert to the map of 47. The change to 25 seats is permanent.

It gets worse. Premier Ford made clear in his initial press conference on Monday that he’d have no problem using the notwithstanding clause whenever there was any substantial opposition to his government’s policies.

That means, he sees the constitutional mechanism that suspends the Charter Rights of Canadian citizens a perfectly ordinary, reasonable thing to do in pursuing a legislative agenda.

I have two fears here. One fear is that Doug Ford legitimately doesn’t know how government works. That’s plausible, and I think true.

As a city councillor, he never appeared at committee meetings. He often said that no work happens in committees. Actually, committee work consists in reading reports, hearing from experts on policy, logistics, and city management, or meeting with community groups about planning city ordinances. Mr Ford has no idea that any of this went on.

In an interview on 11 September, Ford said that he was genuinely shocked that a judge in a constitutional court had the power, on hearing a case regarding some particular laws, to declare laws or legislation unconstitutional.

Ford also often talks as though everything he does while in office is entirely legitimate, proper, and merits no serious opposition. The reason is because he won the election. Winning the election, according to Premier Ford, gives you a mandate.

I think he believes that “having a mandate” means “being able to do whatever you and your core supporters want until the next election.”

Which brings me to my worst fear. That Doug Ford legitimately believes that his job is to use all means required to bring his core supporters’ agenda to fruition as fast as he can. He said on 10 September that he would suspend citizens’ Charter Rights whenever they got in the way of his agenda.

Doug Ford’s core supporters include extremist Christians, extremist misogynists, and extremist white nationalists, especially anti-Muslim extremists. Some of them, like extremist Christian Sam Ooesterhoff, are MPPs in the Ford government.

The power to suspend citizens’ Charter Rights can be invoked at any time. Doug Ford did it to pass a municipal governance bill. What prevents Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms from losing all power to regulate Canadians’ relationships with our state, is how terrifying our officials find the prospect of revoking those rights.

Revoking the basic rights of citizens is a terrifying thing to do. Doug Ford believes that revoking the basic rights of citizens is a totally normal and ordinary way for a government to advance their legislative agenda.

Maybe he’s ignorant. Maybe he’s an extremist. I think it’s something of both. Either way, it’s very dangerous.

Effacing Solidarity II: Propaganda Disguised as Philosophy, Research Time, 09/08/2018

Today, I want to write about what yesterday’s post was supposed to be about. As often happens with my blogging, what was supposed to be a preamble turned out to be long enough to justify its own post. That’s how my two-parters happen.

Understanding common frameworks among very different phenomena* is an essential aspect of any empirical approach to philosophy. In this case, those different phenomena are the propaganda of nationalist mobilization, corporate public relations, journalism, and philosophical thinking.

* And the real differences obscured by superficial common features.

Here’s the conceptual continuum that runs through all four – the relation of language, message, and truth in political movements, how societies constitute themselves.

My hatred of Uber has only grown over the last few years, as its
driving principle seems to be reducing our economic life of taxi
service to a dangerous shit show without rules. For one thing, I know
how poorly paid Uber drivers are. I don't use the app myself, but I have
several friends who do, and I'll ride along with them. I slip a driver
cash after as many rides as I can
Propaganda removes truth from communication, making messaging into the transmission of orders. Corporate PR uses messaging science to shape public perception of actual events, organizations, and people. Done ethically, PR messaging emphasizes some real aspects of a company’s client, de-emphasizes others, and generally puts its subject in the best possible light, given circumstances. Done unethically, PR messaging promotes outright lies.

Journalism and philosophy critique both. That’s not all they do, of course, but it’s what they do relative to propaganda and corporate PR. When done ethically, they both reveal the full truth of a situation that powerful actors would often prefer obscured. Journalism does this through empirical investigation. Philosophy does this through analysis and argument.

This four-sided distinction came to me as I reflected on some later chapters of Raphael Sassower’s The Quest for Prosperity. Unfortunately, I didn’t really have space or context to fit this exploration into the main review. A couple of chapters work through some new economic and business ideas that – ostensibly at least – discourage modern capitalism’s fragmentation of community solidarity into disconnected warring individuals.

Unfortunately for their subjects, these business models are slight of hand moves. You think a new system is correcting some terrible harm, until you’re able to put yourself in the position where you can see all the worse injury that this system is doing.

In these chapters of false solutions, Sassower makes some solid critiques. But I think he tends to give too much quarter. Best example I’d say is Chapter 13 from The Quest for Prosperity. It’s about the sharing economy.

The corporate culture of Uber and pretty much every other sharing
economy and Silicon Valley industry leader encourages
mercenary hostility and paranoid anger more than any kind of
community-building solidarity. The most famous image is of
Travis Kalanick himself losing his temper at a driver who had the
gall to question the company's pricing policy. But when I was
briefly a student affairs manager at a private college, the
students who had the most trouble with their programs were the
part-time Uber drivers. They had to work overnight almost
every day of the week to survive.
Sharing economy companies pitch becoming a service provider with them by promoting the job’s flexibility and your own autonomy from corporate control of how you do the job. Sassower explores the promises of the sharing economy from an even more profound booster than Uber’s PR and recruitment departments, Arun Sundararajan.

Sundararajan himself is a professor of operations management at NYU’s Stern School of Business. The book is the ostentatiously titled The Sharing Economy: The End of Employment and the Rise of Crowd-Based Capitalism.

I can understand how your first instinct on hearing about the “end of employment” is to reach for medication to prevent heart attacks. But Sassower does Sundararajan the benefit of the doubt. Sundararajan describes the sharing economy as having the potential to restore community to capitalism.

Sharing economy companies, he says, give people who would never otherwise have found each other a platform to build a community of mutual support. Platforms take advantage of internet connectivity to return to the informal, decentralized networks of commerce and relationship building as in the medieval market squares.

The industrial revolution, says Sundararajan, brought authoritarianism to markets and production. It’s an authoritarianism of the factory floor’s automation, the demands of oligarchs to beg for the least crumbs of productivity as wages, and government police suppression to maintain those oligarchs’ power.

Heavy industry flattened and crushed the friendly truck and barter of small communities. Sundararajan expects the sharing economy to restore it. As people become linked through networks of sharing goods and services, they come to trust each other. Since the platforms network people without regard to ethnic or cultural boundaries, our networks will become more diverse.

But it gets worse. There are many examples of Uber drivers
assaulting and robbing their customers. This actually happened
to a former partner of mine: a (now former) friend left her in an
Uber after getting her too drunk to speak. The driver physically
threw her out of his car at her destination, cracking the back
of her skull on the parking lot and robbing her phone and cash.
As brutal and unforgivable as acts like these are, I can
understand why people might be driven to that desperation if
this is their only means to live..
Sassower critiques this cheap utopianism as far from inevitable, and in fact quite unlikely.

When the platforms set to work, the result isn’t an end to authority, but the stress of being subject to an app provider’s whims. As any Uber driver knows, drivers shoulder all the risks and costs of daily business – fuel, insurance, upkeep – but with no control over such business essentials as their rates.

TaskRabbit is the sharing economy company that came closest to this model. It began as an auction platform for handyfolk workers – plumbers, carpenters, appliance repair people, renovation workers would bid on jobs, schedule tasks around existing jobs, and build relationships with repeat clients that would get them regular business, referrals, and friendships. Clients and contractors were all happy.

An acquisition in 2014 saw it become an Uber for home repair. The auction forums and ability to schedule were gone. Instead, clients posted a job to be done now, and the nearest available contractors decided in the moment whether they’d take it, then grab the required tools and get to it.

Life for TaskRabbit contractors became hell. They could no longer schedule tasks, but had to have their day free of any work whenever they wanted to log on and look for gigs, which kept them from optimizing their income. It became impossible to build relationships with clients, as there was no guarantee you’d ever connect again. So there goes your repeat business or referrals.

Things only picked up for the company when IKEA bought TaskRabbit last year, and began using its platform to schedule furniture assemblies in the cities where the company was active. After all, it had to restore the scheduling function to do so. Now contractors could plan their other jobs around TaskRabbit assignments.

The sharing economy can only function when its platforms encourage workers to take control of their own working lives, and the platform is a proper communication tool that opens the space needed to build thick relationships.

But the developers and investors in sharing economy companies have no interest in this. Because it’s easier to maximize revenue with a fleet of desperate, under-employed contractors incentivized to tie themselves to the rhythms of the app instead of a working life that would improve their own prosperity.

Effacing Solidarity I: Their Language Is Absurd, Composing, 08/08/2018

Four years ago, when I trained in corporate communications, there was a brief introductory lecture in one class about the history of public relations. One discussion that seemed very anachronistic at the time was distinguishing between public relations and propaganda.

It went over strangely because propaganda seemed quaint, something no longer done. A horror of the past.

I wish that had stayed true.

Anyway, the definitions of propaganda and public relations that we discussed in that lecture were ultimately a little flaccid. It ended up amounting to “You know it when you see it.” Let me illustrate this with a hard case.

When the powerful laugh, they're usually mocking ordinary folks.
When we laugh at the powerful, it's a means of self-defense.
In our Ethics of Public Relations class, one of the main presentations we covered was the contract between the Hill & Knowlton PR agency with the American government to help convince United Nations leaders and other international influencers to go along with the war against Iraq in 1991, after Iraq invaded Kuwait.

The Hill & Knowlton team developed a comprehensive public relations plan. They regularly monitored the American public through opinion surveys to test the strength of their messaging. They helped dress the Kuwaiti ambassador for his public appearances in styles that Americans would find charismatic. Those public relations techniques are ethically reasonable.

Where things get freaky is in the most harrowing message. Testimony from a young Kuwaiti woman, presented to the US Congress as a hospital nurse, that Iraqi soldiers occupied a hospital and killed an entire ward of infants in a maternity ward by throwing them out of their incubators.

None of it was true. Iraqi troops never committed massacres in Kuwaiti hospitals during the occupation. The woman who testified to Congress that they did was actually a daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador. Members of the Hill & Knowlton team had done a great job of training her in acting.

Would you call it propaganda? I’m not sure that’s quite appropriate. I’m looking for a conception of propaganda that’s a little thicker than “public relations actions that I don’t like.” It works fine as a designation, an insult, a way to tell people my own feelings. But it isn’t actually useful to learn anything about the world.

Some speculations. I think I could characterize the stupidity of United
States geopolitical strategy this way: They rely on alliances with
ruthless people, groups, and factions around the world to do their
dirty work for them, so United States leaders can continue to defend
the country's international and domestic image as virtuous guardians
of democracy and freedom. Since the Reagan era and with
increasing frequency, this strategy has backfired, causing spirals
of cascading political violence as ruthlessness compounds on
In that way, I appreciate Trump for his honesty. He never
pretends to be anything other than ruthless.
See, while Hill & Knowlton’s incubator strategy was built on lies, there was still one aspect of respect for truth in their strategy. They wanted you to believe in the truth of what they said. They were trying to convince you to support a military action by convincing you to believe a set of propositions. They maintained respect for the logic of reason.

Doesn’t propaganda try to do this too? Well, it doesn’t if we’re going to make a useful distinction between public relations and propaganda. Why make the distinction? So we can use our new conception of propaganda to understand a real difference

That’s a key part of what philosophical creativity is – developing concepts to understand real differences.

Propaganda looks like public relations but differs because it doesn’t concern truth or whether the content of its propositions and messaging is believed as fact. I’ll offer two quotes from a pair of French thinkers of the last century. First, from Gilles Deleuze, discussing a kind of language he calls “order-words.”
 “Language is made not to be believed but to be obeyed, and to compel obedience.”
Propaganda messaging isn’t about encouraging people to believe what’s said as fact, or truth. It’s about transmitting orders and how to give signs to your leaders that you’re following their orders.

That’s why Trumpists continue to repeat Donald’s blatantly false statements, even when you physically demonstrate their falsity in front of them. They don’t believe and follow Trump because they think what he says is right. They repeat what he tells them to repeat and believe what he tells them to believe because he is their leader.

You know what my problem is with Sartre scholarship in the
university sector? They rarely, if ever, discuss Sartre as a fundamentally
political thinker. I think that would clear away a lot of the confusion
that I see about his own flavour of existentialism.
Now for a longer quote. It’s going to lock down for sure the kind of communications I’m talking about with the term propaganda. It’s from Jean-Paul Sartre, and I’ve seen it floating around my Twitter circles lately.
“Never believe that [propagandists] are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words.
“The [propagandists] have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors.
“They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past.”
He was talking about the anti-Semites of Europe in the days and years laying the conditions for the Shoah. At the time he wrote it, within months of France’s liberation from German occupation, Sartre – as well as most of the everyday population of France – didn’t know that the Shoah had happened.

Today, we call it by the silly, defanged name of trolling. But these words describe the bullying indifference to truth and amusement at others’ pain and confusion that freed people’s minds to create the Shoah.