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.

Change Is Why We Exist, Composing a History, 06/08/2018

You may have noticed that I haven’t been posting quite as frequently lately. This is because I’m in the process of amping my philosophical social media beyond a new threshold. Can’t say anything at the moment because all the infrastructure isn’t yet in place, but it’ll be a pretty radical project.

The blog itself will keep going. I’m not sure if I’ll port all the entries over to the new main home of my online philosophy and activism. For one thing, I kind of like the retro feel of continuing to publish first-draft versions of some content that will appear in a more high profile place.

For another thing, there are nearly 1300 posts in the entire history of this blog and I suspect porting all that content to the new site will be fucking hard.

Yes, I know. Even lower overhead than this. Have you seen my apartment?
I started this blog with a specific purpose of simply motivating me to write something creative every day. At the time, I really needed that motivation. The conventional paths of a university career were shutting down for me, and what I thought was decent preparation to find decent work outside that sector turned out to be incredibly inadequate. I had no idea what to do.

Short version – I was mad depressed. There was a period of three days in May 2013 where I literally didn’t leave my bed except to go to the bathroom. I hardly ate. All I knew was that I still loved creative work, I still loved philosophy. Philosophical thinking, writing. Same with narrative storytelling. So I needed something to focus my mind and keep me feeling like I was doing something more than treading water.

Since then, Adam Writes Everything has been an essential centre of gravity that my creative life could orbit. It was a machine that kept me thinking, that kept my brain active. It became a tool that helped transform my own thinking and research process, and make it a lot better.

Blogging introduced a kind of recursiveness to my thinking, encouraging me to experiment with how concepts and techniques could fit together. It helped me refine my writing style into something less burdened by academicians’ conventions. It helped me figure out what kind of writing I could do that I hadn’t tried before. It helped me learn how to write for the internet.

It’s taken a long time, and there have been a lot of setbacks along the way. But I’m now at last in a situation where I can centre myself, feel confident in what I’m doing, and have enough financial security that I can put a small investment into a business like the media project you’re about to see by – I hope – Labour Day weekend.

I’m not the first with an idea like this, and I won’t be the last. But it’ll be good listening, and a strong model. My overhead is lower than my predecessors, and we can reach more people than ever before.

Playing Games in the Street – Free Rider! Jamming, 01/08/2018

Funny little things crop up in the small margins of a book worth reading. Distilling the core arguments of a 300-page book and juxtaposing some critical perspectives in about 3000 words, you lose some details.

Which is why I like to revisit some of those discarded but interesting points on the blog.

One of those casual moments is Sassower’s critique of the free-rider problem, which amounts to a flippant rebuke. At that moment, I cackled.

As someone who was educated for the academy in a philosophy department, such a thing is blasphemy. The Free-Rider Problem is a central example in Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy, and has gone on to become a standard model for pumping intuitions to understand moral truths.

Now that's a fare inspector who takes his job to heart.
Okay, after writing that paragraph, I’m cackling again.

See, the method of pumping hypothetical or artificial scenarios to intuit universal moral principles or foundations is utterly barmy. It presumes that every person is going to think morally in the same way you do. And that’s just not the case.

Maybe Kantian morality conforms to the intuitions of a lot of people raised in an Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture. Maybe Kant derived the principles that his philosophical reasoning justified from the mainstream culture of his time. Maybe Kant’s work was so influential that it affected the popular moral development of European and broader Western culture.

It was probably a combination of all three. But the problem with the Free Rider Problem is that it just isn’t necessarily true that it describes a problem, just because some folks who uncritically absorb individualist Christian-influenced morality or work as Kantian moral philosophers say it is.

So what is it? Someone rides a public bus without paying for a ticket.

Dear God, the terror!

Seriously, though. Analysis of the Free Rider Problem takes up a lot of space in Western moral philosophy, especially in the academy. Conceptual problems like this are a gold mine for academic philosophers – you can change your take only slightly to generate a new article for the paywalled journals with little effort, but great reward. See also, the Trolley Problem, the Gettier Case, and the Hard Problem of Consciousness.

The best buses are the ones for freedom.
The intuitive outrage at the centre of the Free Rider Problem is what you should do with the cheater on the system. As someone who benefits from a common good without directly contributing to it, he’s conceived as a cheater of the system.

A common conclusion to the Free Rider Problem is that only those who can themselves directly contribute to public goods have the right to make use of them. That sounds very fair in the abstract, but in real life, that results in actions that sound morally upright, but are in fact terribly destructive.

So if someone is too destitute to contribute directly to the upkeep of the public good, the typical conclusion to the Free Rider Problem is to deny them the right to use the system. Throw the homeless woman off the bus, even if she’s on his way to an interview about a housing opportunity. She didn’t pay her $3.25.

There’s a mainstream approach to morality that puts all evaluation of praise and blame on the isolated act of an isolated individual. Did you steal that food? Did he skip that line? Did she kill that man?

As for the approach to communitarian moral thinking that Sassower articulates when he wonders if Free Riding is even a problem? It’s empirical – you examine the situation, history, and network of causes that constitute that entire situation. It’s dynamic – you take account of how wider situations and institutions constrain and liberate potential actions.

You were hungry. Everyone was skipping the line. She was 14 years old and that man was sexually assaulting her in their house. Culpability never rests with one.

Not every $3.25 is worth a life.