The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear
Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks
Everything is Noise
Goaded into action by the Fast Food President – a man as full of empty calories as empty rhetoric, hundreds of disparate factions of his supporters breached the defences of the very heart of American Democracy. As rioters erected a mock-gallows to ‘hang Mike Pence’ for daring to suggest that President-Elect Joe Biden’s legitimate election victory was in fact legitimate, hundreds of others stormed the building whilst lawmakers from both sides of the aisle cowered under desks and hid in offices in scenes that most citizens of America and other ‘functioning’ democracies would associate with ‘somewhere else’; somewhere hot, despotic and lawless. Both Press Corps and protesters beamed us live images of bearded Incels waving Confederate flags inside the heart of the Union while a horn-helmeted self-professed Shaman tried to remove the Speaker’s lectern, we were watching something unfold that was almost impossible to understand.
The question it made me ask was ‘How will historians judge this time?’
Not the 2020 US Elections or even the reign of Trump, but the last decade and a half.
News cycles are fast, but time moves slowly. And it’s almost impossible to understand an era until it has almost passed. As Elon Musk moves markets and Swedish teens move hearts and minds and the status quo convulses as it fails to hold back the inevitability of demography, I can’t help wondering, what the hell was that?
We are witnessing the final act of a period play defined by its volatile lack of plot.
Whilst Britain veered from the coalition’s romance in the rose garden and the era of the centrist Dad to Remoaners and Brexit; From ‘Ooooohhhh! Jeremy Corbyn’ to Oh…..Dominic Cummings, the US managed to elect a mixed-race man twice and a sex offender once, whilst we saw the stellar rise of AOC, BLM and GME. One could talk about Macron and Gillet Jaunes, or jump to the Middle East and the two faces of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Saud; the moderniser who let women in the Kingdom drive and who is planning a utopian eco-city in the desert and the butcher who sent assassins on to foreign soil to murder and dismember one dissenting voice. Meanwhile in China, the optimism of the PRCs coming out party, the 2008 Beijing Olympics, has given way to a technological panopticon, powered by an integrated surveillance apparatus, which unlike Covid-19 (See; SARS, MERS, Ebola) is truly unprecedented, a comprehensive monitoring system first piloted as a tool for Genocide-Lite in Xinjiang, and now being primed to bring Hong Kong to heel.
At the centre of this, the pivot around which all these disjointed arms seem to whirl is the Great Financial Crash, the moment when the late 20th century, like Wile E. Coyote finally looking down and seeing that bridge has gone, fell to earth with a puff of dirt.
What was the future?
This was not what we were promised.
When the West ‘won’ the Cold War, the implicit economic consensus brought us the promise of prosperity and democracy for all. Former darling of the Neoconservative right, Francis Fukuyama declared the ‘end of history’ in 1992, but by 2004, whilst Dick Cheyney was declaring a ‘American Unipolar Moment’ at a speech to the American Enterprise Institute, Fukuyama had already decided that “All of my friends had taken leave of reality.”
But perhaps reality had taken leave of them. The bipolarity of the cold war hadn’t given way to uni-polarity, but to schizophrenia. Washington hawks had taken a Cold War mindset into fighting postmodern non-state actors and wading into the middle of fractionalized tribal grudges masquerading as international conflicts. The War on Terror would reveal the naivety of their confidence.
At the same time, during the early Noughties, we confidently looked East assuming that prosperity meant democracy. The ‘Chinese Spring’ of that era would prove to be an Indian Summer of opening up.
By universalising a very particular and very peculiar Western World view, we were able to paint a picture of a future that never came to be.
The Vodka-Handbag Curve
At home, this created a confidence that was converted into consumer credit.
On both sides of the Atlantic, we were all living ‘on tick’.
Masstige brands multiplied, creating an increasingly infinite asymptote of new shit to buy – the ‘vodka-handbag curve’ that stretched from Absolute and Coach to Birkin Bags and Diva Vodka, starting at $450k for a bottle of clear, flavourless alcohol dosed with diamonds. Vodka was the ultimate empty cipher; A drink whose quality is assessed by it’s purity and lack of taste. Distilled to 96% alcohol, the ethanol mix is then diluted down to 40-50% and bottled without any ageing. A placeless, tasteless, ahistorical creation that’s cheap to make, easy to drink and a tabula rasa for marketing myths. And from Smirnoff up there was fantasy for every budget.
But like Vodka, this economy was built on nothing.
Artists rarely create culture, but they do condense the miasma of the present into a tangible action and form. The night Lehman Brothers went down, Damien Hirst was holding an unprecedented auction of new works, including a platinum cast of an 18th century skull encrusted in nearly nine thousand flawless diamonds. Alongside that work, titled ‘For the Love of God’, Hirst held a fire sale of countless Spot paintings and vitrines, commenting that “you start thinking you’re going to need something else. Something more personal and quieter and darker.”
The bridge had disappeared, but we still didn’t look down.
Stranger, Unhappier, Less Productive
Despite ‘Build Back Better’ becoming the ruling elite’s platitude of choice on both sides of the Atlantic, the real chance to do so was in the immediate aftermath of the GFC. With the global economy of the 90s and 00s in pieces, there was a window of opportunity to reshape a capitalism that was about creating value and not just wealth. The cataclysmic derailment, as the runaway train of the financial sector collided with the buffer of reality was the moment to reassess; a chance to return to an economy that was at the service of politics, rather than a politics of serving the economy. But instead of foreclosing the banks and bailing out the citizens we chose the opposite, mounting the engine back on the tracks, reversing it out of it’s subprime siding and sending it on it’s way back down the main line, allowing the winners the past decades to still win, even when they lost.
In return, we saw quantitative easing dump petrol onto a dumpster fire, which while raising the flames of GDP did little to improve real lives. Underemployment, the gig economy and permanent departure from the labour force, alongside first Oxycontin then eventually Carfentanyl masked the pain in the US while Southern Europeans elected comedians and fascists to name just one sort of new politician that crawled from the wreckage.
Productivity stuttered and those leaving education came to find themselves stuck in service economy jobs which were never part of the deal when they elected to take on thousands in student debt.
Once again we were chasing the financialised dream of mass affluence rather than mass happiness. Where some time ago, money was a tool, an input to get to a goal, it was again the output itself.
Once again the runaway train came down the track, the whistle wide and the throttle back…
La Cage aux Fou
At the same time as the financial tragedy of the noughties was being rebuilt as farce, the internet began to metastasise into something altogether very different.
What was once a niche divergence, an amusement with an off switch increasingly came to swallow up everyday life, first through broadband and then through three, four and now five G mobile networks. And in the process of turning experiments in college popularity contests into viable businesses we gave birth to the attention economy.
From early banner ads served up via Microsoft in 2006, over time Facebook developed into the subtlest knife for keeping people engaged so that they can serve them more adverts. The problem is that keeping people engaged to sell ads is not the same as “making the world more open and connected” as they claim their mission is. In fact it’s the opposite. Keeping hold of eyeballs to sell ads means giving people whatever they need to keep coming back. Content becomes an all-you-can eat breakfast buffet where no-one will stop you coming down for bourbon and ice cream every morning. But keep doing that and eventually you get sick.
But this wasn’t even the Buffet. We got to eat like no-one was watching.
The need to harvest attention turned the internet from a tool for mass connection to one for mass abstraction. We all inhabited our own internet. Served a version of whatever the data science models deemed most likely to keep us engaged. The algorithms created wealth, but they began to erode reality.
This is my truth, tell me yours.
Schism and Ism
And then the internet decided to get into politics.
The internet combined with democracies and evolved towards ochlocracy. The problem being that as Paul Collier’s seminal work on failing states that voting is the least important part of democracy. Truth is the most. Without transparency, truth, fact checkers, all the things that might put a dampener on your scrolling we got a highly mobile vulgus.
The distraction had become the main event.
From the Monks of Myanmar taking to Facebook to whip up violence and hatred to Orban, Trump or Le Pen(s), the internet allowed politics to become detached from reality, while at the same time years of doomscrolling had left us primed only to believe what we liked rather than what was true.
In many respects, Isis was the greatest achievement so far of the internet ‘doing politics’. A transnational online community whipped into a frenzy and physically mobilised to found a state. Huge earned media through smart targeting and a great engaging content strategy, this was high-stakes LARP-ing for the age of unreality.
Xi’s frequently Kind and Suddenly Cruel
As the Caliphate’s experiment in Jihadi self-determination was fizzling out, we entered the era of America falling asleep at the wheel of the international order.
Centrifugal forces were already spinning the world in multiple directions, with affluence no predictor of freedom and repression proving to rarely be met with dissent let alone revolt, the post-Crash political order was rapidly moving towards Gangster Geopolitics. Increasing nationalism in response to – or perhaps directly precipitated by a fragmenting and increasingly transnational world brought a (re)surgence of strongmen such a Putin and summit for North Korea’s own Little Rocket Man.
Suddenly everyone was playing by their own rules, no one more so than Xi Jinping.
Xi represents the ultimate manifestation of this rejection of ‘the way things are done’; the proverbial game of chess against the pigeon who knocks down the pieces, shits everywhere and declares victory. Except now it’s looking like the West is the Pigeon and China is the Grandmaster.
China’s luxury automated authoritarianism is a technologically advanced, thoroughly modern and highly bounded form of freedom. Which is fine as long as you never venture beyond the bounds. With a fully surveilled – and fully controlled – internet, the only untruths are shared and close monitoring at scale creates a digital panopticon where it is increasingly futile to think dissenting thoughts if there are no spaces left to express dissenting views.
This is not to say there is nothing going for it; crossing from Shenzhen, the CCP’s showpiece of what this future could be, to Hong Kong, the place that represents what the future once was, is like stepping back into something dirtier, poorer and more tawdry. Which is their point. As the national security law is brought to bear on more and more elements of life in the old British Colony, it will increasingly become just a suburb of it’s brighter, brutal neighbour.
Of course, it won’t just be China’s future that China decides; it’s marketing the model and the tools of control to capitals from Brasilia to Brazzaville. And the action they decide to take on the climate crisis will be a choice that affects us all. The only silver lining is that on the last of these they seem to be paying attention, even as they continue to operate half of the world’s coal-fired power plants.
Dance into the fire
Late in 2019, I was living in Shenzhen, the poster child for undemocratic utopia. A vision of the potential of capitalism unencumbered by democracy to save us all from ourselves. Social Credit Scores and facial recognition could make us fitter, happier, more productive. The digital panopticon that is contemporary China is the first truly compelling alternative version of modernity since the industrial revolution. But even this would be exposed as lacking by one particularly truculent strand of RNA. By the start of the year, my WeChat feed was full of still shots, quotes and ‘reviews’ of popular HBO show Chernobyl, a miniseries recounting the eponymous 1986 disaster depicting a climate of fear where no-one dares speak truth to power. With collaborative tech giants, heavy censorship and a vast enforcement infrastructure this is as deep as dissent gets in China.
Whilst crises have smouldered all around us for the last few decades, we entered into a collective misdirection since the the start of the 21st Century that ‘This is Fine’; But ‘Sars-CoV-2: Judgement Day’ has acted as a refiners fire, burning away the impurities of our self-deception. We are in a fragile world that we are currently urging on towards ecological implosion whilst our societies become more unequal, more imbalanced and more uncertain. As transnational capital supersedes the nation state, nativism has become a refuge for the threatened evoking the rhetoric and too often violence that is as explainable as it remains inexcusable.
Yet months of confinement and millions of excess deaths so far continue to whip up a great variety of morbid symptoms. Art that doesn’t exist is bought for millions by Crypto-Bros rewarded for ‘HODL-ing’ for their Beeples and the Vox Populi takes collective action to make itself rich on penny stocks. We desperately need solutions to fix the planet yet the Billionaires who have mined us and it for their wealth are obsessed with leaving it.
The pandemic has forced a decision on us that we have put off for too long.
Looking Beyond the Wired Favela
Some time late in the first decade of this century, I watched a speech by Bruce Sterling. As I now possess the collective knowledge of the world at my fingertips through the computer I am writing on (there is an ‘evil twin’ essay to this which essentially outlines why this whole analysis is itself noise and everything actually is fine…), I can tell you it was from June 2009, given at Reboot, a conference exploring technology and public policy. In it, he outlines the cultural temperament of the Era:
What is the cultural temperament of this era? Well, I think it’s got a good two-word summary: “Dark Euphoria.” Dark Euphoria is what the twenty-teens feel like. Things are just falling apart, you can’t believe the possibilities, it’s like anything is possible, but you never realized you’re going to have to dread it so much. It’s like a leap into the unknown. You’re falling toward earth at nine hundred kilometres an hour and then you realize there’s no earth there…
… It comes in two flavours. Top end and low end. Everybody in this room is sort of schismed between top end and low end. Because that’s the nature of your particular demographic. The top end we can describe as “Gothic High-Tech”. Let me explain to you what Gothic High-Tech is like. In Gothic High-Tech, you’re Steve Jobs. You’ve built an iPhone which is a brilliant technical innovation, but you also had to sneak off to Tennessee to get a liver transplant because you’re dying of something secret and horrible. And you’re a captain of American industry. You’re not some General Motors kinda guy. On the contrary, you’re a guy who’s got both hands on the steering wheel of a functional car. But you’re still Gothic High-Tech because death is waiting. And not a kindly death either, but a sinister, creeping, tainted wells of Silicon Valley kind of Superfund thing that steals upon you month by month, and that you have to hide from the public and from the bloggers and from the shareholders…
…What is the downside, what’s the other side of this? The flip-side of Gothic High-Tech? The flip-side of Gothic High-Tech is downmarket, and it’s called “Favela Chic.” Favela Chic. What is Favela Chic? Favela Chic is when you have lost everything material, everything you built and everything you had, but you’re still wired to the gills! And really big on Facebook. That’s Favela Chic. You lost everything, you have no money, you have no career, you have no health insurance, you’re not even sure where you live, you don’t have children, and you have no steady relationship or any set of dependable friends. And it’s hot. It’s a really cool place to be.
Myspace is a favela. You’ve ever been to a Brazilian favela? It basically, politically, represents the structure of Myspace. You’ve got this remote, distant, old-school Brazilian tyrant. Anti-democratic, wicked mogul, pays no attention to you, supposedly owns the whole show, but the whole shebang is going south in a hurry.
It’s been out-competed by some other economy, there’s nothing happening there. You have no civil rights in Myspace. You can’t go anywhere in Myspace, you can’t organize in Myspace, you can’t make money in Myspace. You can have a hut in Myspace. And you live in the hut until they pull the plug. That’s a favela.
MySpace references aside, it’s disturbing to read this Science Fiction writer play back our ‘fact’ back in 2009. His analysis is what happens if we continue to project this present forward into the future a ‘Futurism’ rather than a ‘Utopia’ as discriminated between by American Ecologist Murray Bookchin that points us towards a ‘Ready Player One’ future.
But what more is there? Automation and Machine Learning promise leisure and infinite resources. But projected along our current vector, they continue Sterling’s bifurcated world. Rather than undermining inequality with a lack of scarcity, they offer infinite capture by an infinitesimally small group. Smug top ten-percenters or one-percenters, too late to speak up get pushed below the line. Or are we headed for the techno-gnosticism of the singularity, where we may end up mined by machines? Perhaps the Matrix was a documentary sent back in time to soften the hammer blow of our future?
The point is that the long interregnum is coming to an end and we must decide what future will be born.
Looking out from the 31st floor balcony, it doesn’t seem high until you look down. Shenzhen stretches 80 kilometres east to west, but is only 10 deep, North-South. The city snakes laterally, littorally, between the hills of the Hong Kong border, along Shenzhen Bay to the Pearl River delta, like a badly kept concrete lawn, with clumps of seventy and eighty story towers sprouting like steel weeds. The 115 story Ping An Tower, the worlds 4th largest, the town’s own tall poppy. When night falls, the entire town lights up like a circuit board, streaming with steel and light. The immaculately kept, perpetually swept, cycle path along the Dasha river is filled with office workers on dockless rental bikes, hired by the half hour, headed to one of the city’s many tech clusters, downstream, deeper into Nanshan district. They’ve phased out almost all the old taxis, replaced with a fully electric fleet. The same for the buses. Pretty much every transaction, from street-corner noodles to legal fees are carried out with QR codes and digital wallets. Cashless, silent, sleek.
This is not ‘The Future’, but it is ‘A Future’. Two days a week I commute from Shenzhen to Hong Kong. The journey takes around an hour and a half, but the time travelled is greater than the distance covered. After getting stamped out of Mainland China and into Hong Kong at the vast Shenzhen Bay checkpoint, coaches and cars spiral up onto the five-and-a-half-kilometre bay bridge to cross over to the New Territories. As we roll up the overpass onto the bridge, the plaiting of concrete weaves carriageways from right-to-left and left-to-right. The first sign that they do things differently here. At least for now.
Hong Kong, like Tokyo, represents a certain obsolete near-future in the collective imagination. Having had its image and form repeatedly appropriated by Hollywood as a stand-in for numerous dystopias, the familiarity can make it seem almost underwhelming. Hong Kong looks exactly like ‘Hong Kong’ – a trait it shares with New York. It also feels like yesterday’s vision of tomorrow. The stuttering neon signs and diesel-streaked streets, PoMo towers and marble-lined lobbies are a particularly sharp contrast with Shenzhen’s unironic modernity. From its peak in 1993, Hong Kong has declined from twenty-seven to less than three percent of China’s GDP. But beyond the numbers, it feels like a city in decline. Slowly, megaprojects such as the Hong Kong-Macao-Zhuhai bridge and the China High-speed Rail Link are stitching the territory together with the mainland, bringing Hong Kong’s greatest fear ever-closer, becoming just another mid-sized Chinese city. With the perceived erosion of its Rule of law, the Special Administrative Region has become a contested space. The acute confrontation over the ‘two systems’ principle, is also representative of a bigger conflict between two ideas. Two visions of what the future could be.
Words can be problematic; they are both the obstacle to articulating a thought and the best way to try. This clash of ideas, in which Hong Kong is just one front, isn’t easily reduced to opposing pairs as the Cold War once was. Capitalism’s ‘victory’ over Communism was always an artificial, lexigraphic binary that pitted an economic system against a total political, social and economic order. ‘Capitalism’ is synecdochic, an easy shorthand for ‘democratic capitalism’ and the free and limited, markets, open societies and shared small-L liberal consensus regarding the primacy of the individual. Democratic Capitalism is Limited Capitalism. And it was ‘Limited Capitalism’ that ‘won’. The front line crossed by the arcing span of the Shenzhen Bay Bridge is not the battle between capitalism and communism. Socialism with Chinese characteristics is Capitalism unencumbered by Democracy. It is the front line between Total and Limited Capitalism.
Limited Capitalism was never an outright winner, but in its rhetoric, it strived to achieve the illusion of permanence. The rights of the individual – the societal sidekick to the economic superhero – has never been inevitable and maybe not even natural. Increasingly this relic of our post-Enlightenment experiments feels like a humanistic blip. In the face of Brexit and Trump, Bolsanaro and Orban, I have found myself increasingly having to defend the ‘pragmatism of the primacy of the individual’ to friends not just in Singapore and Shanghai, but Boston and Berlin. Yes, it is the freedom to screw up, but it is also the freedom not to be screwed with.
When measured in terms of human development Limited Capitalism has been a great success. But ‘Capitalist Democracy’ is a productive tension, not a synonymic pair. Capitalism privileges results, Democracy, the process. One is fast, the other is slow. The market is majoritarian, while the democratic enshrines the individual, not merely responsible to a simple majority. This makes elections, perversely, the least important aspect of a democracy. Limited Capitalism is an uneasy hybrid. You are free to consume, you are free to participate, but the between the two there is no equivalence. The human flourishing this has propagated cannot be measured by statistics alone. It is this tension that universalised the franchise, enshrined judicial independent and – aspirationally -declared Universal Human Rights. Less tangibly and more significantly it gives each of us a hope of genuine human dignity and all of us some faith in a societal-level trust. Maybe it was easier to win hearts and minds in the late 20th century with Right to Buy than the Rights of Man, but failing to promote the civil alongside the economic conflates consumption with participation, creating the opportunity for Total Capitalism.
Shenzhen’s subway tunnels are lined with motion-synced LED screens that animate adverts outside the carriage windows selling pizza and pet food station to station. My connected TV won’t switch on without first showing me a short film promoting the latest toilet paper or plastic surgery procedure. Pop-up ads and promotions are a pervasive part of every single product or service, physical or virtual that I use. Upsell, cross-sell, resell. The imperative to consume is everywhere, the Chinese Dream constantly reinforced as the route to individualisation and self-actualisation. Judged by the old Communist clichés of a “decadent West,” focussed on temerarious consumption, contemporary China is the most “western” place I have ever lived or been. One where I am no more and no less than the sum of my purchases. I buy therefore I am.
At the same time deep integration of seamless technology has evolved a new species of human as consumer, Homo Emptus. The local branch of KFC lets me buy a Family Bucket with nothing more than my face, using cameras linked directly to my virtual wallet which holds my credit cards and fictive cash. Recently I was walking through the precinct by my block, when a young woman ran up to me, apologising. Her cleaner’s phone had stopped receiving transfers and she didn’t have the cash to pay. Did I have any? Pulling a handful of 100 yuan notes out of my pocket, she pulled out her phone, scanned my wallet and transferred me the 300 kuai which I had in cash. In less than a minute I had become a human ATM. It was demeaning and thrilling at the same time, I imagine not dissimilar to the excitement felt by the freshly humiliated submissive.
Sometimes living here can feel like magic. But if you only immerse in the wonder, you miss the cost. Recently, a group of cyclists in Shanghai rode past a police officer, stopped by the side of the road, deep in an animated discussion with the driver they had just pulled over. The group, aware the policeman was otherwise occupied, slowly rolled through the red signal ahead, traffic light on a quiet Saturday morning. Fifteen minutes later by the time they had reached their café stop and pulled out their phones to pay, they had all been fined. Facial recognition cameras mounted on top of the police car had ID-ed them and then allowed the officer digitally ensure justice was done. When we are defined only by our consumption, this make complete sense, our economic life is simply ‘life’, giving the state unprecedented control in return for our convenience. Seamlessness may be fast, but to protect Limited Capitalism, we need seams.
The reality is though that our willingness to conflate commercial choice with civil freedoms has makes it easy for us to walk backwards into Total Capitalism. Using ‘Capitalism’ as a shorthand for so long has meant a lack of focus on the social and political dimensions that has allowing the market to perform as a poor stand-in for the whole. This has led to declining trust in the very institutions that underpin both our societal freedom and our consumer choice. The recent World Values Survey shows a minority in both Europe and the US of people born after 1970 believe it is ‘essential to live in a democracy.’ If this is the case then we have collectively failed to remind ourselves what ‘democracy’ really entails. It has also led to the bizarre inversion for many on the neoliberal right who see any democratic limit placed on the market as ‘undemocratic’
The rising indifference to the democratic can be seen in part as a consequence of Limited Capitalism’s success. Just as a fish does not know that it is wet, we take for granted the protections afforded the individual. We have collectively and systemically failed to remind ourselves of the importance of the water we all swim in. Political leaders and populist demagogues who owe their very existence to the small L liberalism that underpins Limited Capitalism have failed to give credit, choosing instead to pee in the pond for short term gain. Taking our collective socio-political foundations for granted has led to their erosion. Ignoring them has also reduced the success of a state to its economy alone. Whilst freedom of speech won’t feed my children, GDP won’t make them happier or more morally rich. This tyranny of the economic means that states which favour the fast and the outcome will be judged the best performing, outshining those that optimise for the slow, the process, the individual. By judging a state by its economy rather than their humanity, we set up a framework in which the Total Capitalism is not only increasingly easy to admire, but objectively ‘better’, with no way to quantify its glaring qualitative flaws. The fallacy that our economic lives are an adequate stand-in for our civic ones provides the ideological misdirection to pull the trick off. Only what is counted is valued.
Total Capitalism, by succeeding on these terms, promotes a worrying model of growth and unfreedom, chipping away at the old liberal consensus. As pervasive technologies allow ever-greater accumulation of information, we are reaching an inflection point, two divergent versions of how this data is used and its implications for how we live. Progress marches an there is a decision to be made, inaction is not possible. A battle that is waged by only one side, even one of ideas, is not without bloodshed; it is a massacre.
Unencumbered by the limits that the state apparatus of Limited Capitalism places on it, technology can quickly become dystopian. The Limited Capitalist model is not just a check on economic entities – as the EU has proved with its fines on Google and Microsoft – but also on governments. And it adds an implicit societal dimension to the economic role. When Apple refused to provide a back door to iPhone for the FBI, it was asserting its social responsibility, not just its economic function. It helped that these two impulses were congruent here, but the difference between that and the case of the Shanghai cyclists is stark. Tencent, makers of the ubiquitous WeChat Wallet in question, were doing nothing wrong by allowing the state to pick pockets; they were fulfilling their duty, legally obliged to do so in the People’s Republic. The FBI’s response to Apple’s refusal was that American lives might be lost, but people died enshrining the rights Apple was upholding. Do we still believe the defence of the individual is worth dying for?
It would be worth asking that question to the millions of minority Muslims constantly surveilled, or interred in camps in Xinjiang. Advanced monitoring technologies, sharpened to scalpel-like precision, have created an unprecedented digital panopticon. The whole region is monitored at a level of detail that previously would have taken vast armies of watchers and handlers. Now instead, the state has the ability to micromanage human life at a macroscale; facial recognition, device tracking and digital monitoring turn an entire country-sized region into a prison colony. Xinjiang is not just a tragedy though; it is a testbed. China has rolled the same systems across the entirety of its domestic train network as well as at every airport, port and major public area. More disturbingly, it is a showroom for the implementation of its own particular strain of Total Capitalism. A sinister demonstration of how to unshackle the market from democracy, providing economic liberation whilst maintaining total control. For parts of the world that were previously faced with the choice between an all-inclusive version of modernity, open society and all, China offers an alluring alternative, a cake-and-eat-it model powered by pervasive technologies and financed by Belt and Road loans. And it is one that has succeeded by our own ‘Capitalist’ yardstick.
Total Capitalism is by no means inevitable, and its vision of the future not the only one. Technology is neutral and can be used co-opted for community as well as commerciality. The liberal limits within Liberal, Democratic, Limited Capitalism have allowed it to do both. But our willingness to collapse the social, political and economic into one big flat now have left us at a critical juncture. Hong Kong’s fight is an imperfect allegory for the decision that we need to make about what we should measure and what really matters, particularly in the developed world. We cannot take for granted what we already have. An era is only named after it has long passed. It is up to us to decide if we are to witness the end of this one.
“Among the declarations of faith in the future is the act of buying. Each time we go out and buy a new car or decide to purchase a new suit, a pair of shoes, a house, we base our decision on a philosophy of a life, a Weltanschauung. Buying is more than a commercial function…The real salesmen of prosperity and therefore democracy, are the individual who defend the right to buy a new car, a new home, a new radio.”
Ernst Dichter – The Strategy of Desire (1960)
Dichter’s muscular defense of the right, and rightness of consumption is understandable given the man, the time and the context. Fleeing Vienna in 1939, he was part of the wave of emigre’s shaped by experience of the old world that went on in the years after the Second World War to shape the new. He was to advertising what Bernay’s was to PR. ‘Motivational Research’ as he called it provided the foundation for much of the second-rate persuasion I have spent the last ten years of my career working on, as well as theoretical framework of sorts to sit behind it. This, however, is not the place to dive deep into that.
Having recently been working with a number of large tech firms, consulting on product development and marketing strategy before (perhaps rashly?) joining one, I have been reading Dichter in the light of that work. Above, he essentially describes purchase as a political act. An ‘vote’ with your chequebook for a particular version of the future cast by checkbook rather than ballot box. What he describes above as democracy is in truth a very specific strand – consumer-capitalist democracy – which however you feel about it has created the environment in which we are now living. What we see around us is a ‘world according to Dichter et al’, whether you believe in the Congruence of Consumer Capitalism and Democracy or not. Again, for another time. But his work is of a particular time – of a bipolar world of Sputniks and Studebakers, of H-bombs and the Berlin Wall. It was a time when you were truly ‘with us, or against us’. However, in it’s early 21st Century incarnation, it has, like so many things become far more fragmented, much more multiple, and considerably more complex. Where buying was once a blunt instrument, a first past the post race for the line, it is now plurality of purchase. If buying is an ideological statement, whether intentionally or otherwise, there are far more ideas for sale.
These competing visions of the future – for an ideology is a just a grandiose way of explaining how you see ‘what could be’ – range in scope and implication from the petty to the profound. And how conscious we are of their implications is mostly inversely correlated with their profundity. Choosing organic milk or washable nappies are some those that lie at the obvious and small end of the graph. Chromebook or Macbook may be at the more profound for the second and third order future visions that you are unknowingly choosing between.
Before I am accused of creating my own forced binary between Apple and Google, I am aware that I am exaggerating to make a point here, but this is caricature to contrast, rather than a fabrication. In these two corporate citizens we are offered an implicit choice between two competing visions of what could be.
Apple, for all it’s relentless, glossy shining modernity is offering what could be described as a conservative ideology. For all it’s brushed aluminium minimalism, sleek lines and the Kubrick-futurism of their stores, they are selling the past. That the references are mid-century modern, whether cinematic or aesthetic is telling. They use a well-spoken vernacular of ‘visions of futures past’ to make you feel a comfortable part of a certain future; bleeding edge contemporaneity forged from deja vu. It is little wonder that buying their computers or phones is a bulletproof decision, one where no-one questions why. There is nothing futuristic about being taken for granted.
The bigger point about Apple though is not the ‘how’ of their execution, but their focus on the execution itself. They are a ‘Temple to the Thing’. Discussing my thoughts here, a good friend pointed out the strength of their ecosystem, of iTunes, App Store and iCloud; this is where I exaggerate for effect. Of course they are not just about the thing, the artefact, but they fetishises the artefact, beatifying objects with the faux-modesty of the lowercase ‘i’. The ecosystem is in service of the object. They are a makers of things. Ideologically speaking they are a highly polished 21th Century incarnation of a comforting, nostalgic 20th Century thought – the reassuring comfort of the possessed object.
Apple’s product design is very intentionally designed to evoke feelings of the numinous. They are meant to be worshipped rather than understood. Curved, clean construction and their own crisp glyphs make them feel like artefacts from another civilisation. Increasingly the physical product itself is seamless, with no access to change a battery, upgrade memory or view its workings. As technology regulates more and more of our world and the imperative to understand how it does this increases, Apple urges us not to look behind the curtain. The sacred cues continue into the packaging itself – jewel cut crystal-like plastic boxes, common on their smaller devices evoke modernist reliquaries. Phones and Laptops come sitting on their own altars – you lift the lid to reveal the device sitting like sacrement on it’s matte white ‘cloth’. The theme runs onto the stores themselves, mentioned already which have more than a whiff of the Reform Church or the Rothko chapel. The influences are multi-denominational, but unmistakably meant to make the object an article of faith, a crux of belief. It is at it’s heart a conservative faith that continues to celebrate modes of consumption that tie us all the way back to Ford.
For Google, the ‘thing’ is not the thing. The thing is simply a means. Google’s benevolent supra-statist ‘taxes’ our every activity in return for free stuff. But the stuff they focus on is digital rather than physical. Though they do produce some of their own physical products, they are not a ‘maker of things’ in that sense. In fact the stuff they do produce that exists virtually, digitally is as they would have us say ‘surface agnostic’. That means it doesn’t care what it happens to be residing in or displayed through at the time – that is just a temporary physical ‘host’ (apologies, the spillover of the religious language is not intentional, but it is the best explanation). Google’s version of ‘what could be’ is indifferent to the physical world, and as such, indifferent to the object. Ideologically it represents, whether knowingly or not, a vision of a new, thoroughly 21st century worldview. More so than the ‘gig economy’ or the ‘uberfication’, Google’s mass cloud applications offer a new kind of (non)consumption.
Once you place the Data above the thing, there are a raft of ramification. When every app and every photo on your phone is automatically backed up, down to background and settings and that identity can be switched from one handset to another in minutes, or reloaded to a new one if the first is broken – is that original phone even your phone? When the docs you work and collaborate on exist neither on one person’s machine or another, when they no longer need to be sent place to place but are simply able to ‘be’ on their own corporeal plane, indifferent to how you access that plane, why do you need ‘your laptop’? Why need a possessive when the thing that matters is not the terminal, but where you are using it to access. The emotional centre moves from the tangible to the intangible, with the emotional value and irrational significance placed on the tangible thing steadily decreasing. Why be careful with your phone, when the phone is ‘a phone’ – and ‘your phone’ is a set of configurations and information that resides nowhere and can be anywhere. Suddenly the thing becomes a commodity, a functional rather than emotional good. A good far more easily shared, even provided as a public good or given away as a loss leader. Handed person to person when needed. I can check “my computer” – a collection of information independent of the physical through any terminal. I could edit a file from a street corner touchscreen, then notify clients via a strangers iPad. Ideologically, this is profound stuff; purchase of the thing is optional, rather than essential for participation.
In Dichters world, the choice was really, what to buy; it was that or being accused of being a ‘red’ or dropping out of the mainstream. Not to buy was not an option in a binary world. However, a glimpse of a ‘post-object’ version of consumer capitalism gives just a hint of world where buying at all is a choice, and a world that is object agnostic. And it has profound implications for anyone who is betting on the old world of ‘things’.
Where are you from?” It’s a simple question, one of the first phrases you are taught when we learn a foreign language. It’s one of the first questions we acquire because it lets us create a connection while at the same time helping us to understand difference. However, it is becoming ever-more loaded, and layered with implicits that cast long shadows over the question itself.
I remember being asked it recently, standing on one of those impressive but featureless blocks of Midtown that Manhattan does so well; imposing slabs of concrete made generic by the global duplication of these New York originals. An office worker, in shirtsleeves, outside, smoking a cigarette, approached me as I stood half intimidated by, half bored with the city around me.
“Where are you from?”
“No, where are you from?”
“I’m from London…You know, London. In England”
“But where exactly are you from?”
“Streatham. I don’t know how well you know London, but it’s in the South”
“No, where are you from?”
The emphasis this final time made the unsaid question inescapable, despite my best evasions. The unspoken question here was ‘what are my ethnic origins’? Who was this pale-skinned, afro-haired, British accent loitering by my office fire escape? Not that you can hold this kind of question against the US. A young country, founded on a settler myth that revels in its ‘many’ that they melded into a ‘one’. It is a place where you struggle to find someone who will introduce themselves as ‘American’ rather than ‘-American’. It is a land obsessed with prefixes.
The answer that I didn’t give him puts me in an awkward situation in current political climes. I am a Londoner, born in Florida, to a Mother born in Jamaica and a British-Celtic father, whom I do not know and who’s mix includes, but is not limited to Jamaican Afro-Caribbean, Native Jamaican Tribes, Scottish, Puerto-Rican, Costa Rican and other assorted bits of South-and Central America; currently Living in Singapore and right this minute standing in New York. In all honesty, I don’t know how this answer would have helped him. My own background is a varied, but by no means an unusual or extreme mix. “Londoner,” with all its urban-liberality and cosmopolitan aspirations is a much easier ,and more accurate, handle. Even the answer ‘London in England’ could have been contentious for those who would see ‘English’ as an ethnic identity ( and there are plenty out there) who would argue that I don’t have “The Blood.” One wonders if this ‘Happie Fewe’ can claim this by being 45th generation Roman or 31st Norman or whether they need to trace back to 83rd generation Celt to be a true Brit.
This anecdote echoes of one of the most interesting sub-plots of the Scottish Independence referendum: who got to vote. Who got a say in the referendum raised contentious questions regarding statehood, nationality and identity, questions that are being played out in many different ways and in many different territories around the world.
Scots living south of the border were incensed at votes given to ‘non-Scots’ earning their living and paying their rates within Scotland. ‘Angus’ working for RBS in the City of London would have no say in how the homeland, (which he has not called home since he came down to ‘go up’ to ‘Another College, Oxbridge’) would be configured. This meant many who felt resolutely Scottish would not have any say on the future of Scotland, whilst English, Italians and Poles from Dumfries to Durness would decide. Did who got the franchise signal a proxy for future citizenship? Did that mean ‘Angus’ would never carry a Scottish passport? Would the Junior Doctor educated in the Thames estuary be offered this privilege? And why were they voting anyway if they are due to leave in 2 years time? Should they be made to ‘sign-up’ for Scotland? Who would be granted Scottish Citizenship? As history played out in the summer of 2014, these are specific hypotheticals that do not need an answer, but the broader questions they raise are in want of one. How do we define the composition of, and membership criteria for, out States? Do they need ‘national’ identities, and to what extent do or should) these identities align with ethnic ones?
Nationalism has not been as influential a force in politics since between the World Wars. Since blood was shed in the middle of the 20th century to defend the liberal-enlightenment experiment that started in the late 18th, the liberal-democratic ideal has dominated discourse. But this consensus is crumbling. With forces as varied as Scottish Nationalism and France’s Front Nationale, from UKIP to the Tea Party, we are seeing a new flourishing of anti-liberal politics that is obsessed with preserving its particular, mythical definition of the nation.
The sharp irony of this in our contemporary world should not be lost. There is a strong inverse correlation between the rhetoric and the reality. We are seeing a flourishing of the politics of nationhood at a time when the nation has never been less relevant. Immigration quotas are as a feather on a tiger in the face of multi-lateral trade agreements that let foreign companies sue sovereign countries. Why worry about giving away benefits to ‘foreigners’ when you can’t get the your biggest retailers to pay a penny in tax. The ‘Nation-State’ is an anachronism in danger of becoming a redundancy. Sovereignty is undermined by Supra-, Post- and Transnational entities. The ultimate power for many branches of government lies with these overarching bodies, some elected, some not.
Elements are positive- the Kyoto treaty, the European Parliament and Courts, but others cripple nations- the strings attached to IMF loans, the loaded terms of bi- and multi-lateral trade agreements, political handcuffs on developing world aid. At the same time multinational companies put governments into a Dutch auction on corporate tax, re-domiciling at will to find the most ‘tax-efficient’ regimes, shelling out on shell companies and creative accounting, dividing and conquering along tired out ‘national’ boundaries.
Traditional states are ill equipped to deal with this reality. Rather than adapting, what we are seeing politically is a rearranging of the deckchairs whilst the ship sinks. When you are committed to a free trade agreements that means you can’t stop factories and their jobs from moving around the world, how can it possibly make sense on an international level to stop labour from following? These kind of policies are trying to define and ‘fix’ a porous and pliable thing. Simply put, what the nation-state can do is far less important than what a supranational entity does.
There are some ‘nations’ doing better than others. One such example is Russia, which may be the last true nation-state left. Russia’s actions in the Ukraine embody the persistence of the Ancien Regime, or if not resilience, then at least the last 19th Century National act. Many argue that this move comes from a position of weakness. In some respects, this is true, Russia is weak by 21st Century measures. Reliant on its vast hydrocarbon deposits, maintaining a huge standing army and lacking in any real ‘soft power’, it is an isolated belligerent. But by 19th Century measures it is today the greatest of great powers. Strong, self-sufficient and heavily armed- exactly what a Nation-State was meant to be. This may explain the disconnect between how the world sees Russia and Vladimir Putin and how Russia and Vladimir Putin see themselves. That sanctions are leaving them cut off from the global economy merely serves to underline their splendid isolation, and despite weakness by modern metrics, such as the price of the Ruble, Putin’s strong leader ‘routine’ is real, and this sabre-rattling (and sabre-wielding) is both a bizarre and comical throwback to a previous age and a genuine threat to contemporary Weltpolitiks.
Within this context, China is a unique case-study. On one hand, Capitalism, unhampered by Democracy is driving unfettered and uneven growth, whilst a highly centralised and all-encompassing state remains firmly in control. Yet for all China’s brinkmanship in the South China Sea, it is also tied to the supranational. Reliance on exports, huge foreign currency surplus and the major role of international business in driving their national growth means that they are in a strong negotiating position, but they are still reliant on the same transnational networks and bodies, making them unlikely to ‘do a Putin’.
In sharp contrast, the contemporary Poleis that are currently enjoying the most success are those configured to compete in this 21st Century landscape; global oddities such as Singapore, Dubai or Qatar. In an era when companies and treaties and markets subsume and subdue ‘national’ sovereignty, it is these ‘Corporate States’ that are proving the most competitive.
The past success of the Capitalist-Democratic Enlightenment experiment was contingent on the tension between the Capitalistic and the Democratic playing out primarily intra-state. The state could negotiate that tension between man as citizen and man as producer/consumer, holding it in a kind of dynamic equilibrium through tariffs and taxes, incentives and fiscal policy that could harness business for greater goods. Regulation and incentivisation could be used to trim and tweak and capital was ultimately answerable to the state where the sovereign power lay and its freedom to do business was derived from. In the late 20th century, two things happen to reverse this arrangement, leaving most governments ultimately answerable to the Market and its actors.
Firstly, the vast mountains of government debt that modern states carry need maintaining. These loans are like an open wound meaning that, even as the rate of flow is slowed, you still need to transfuse more blood. For governments, this means increasing the tax take. There are two solutions for that; either an election-losing tax hike, or ever-increasing economic growth to increase the take without changing the rate. Either take a bigger slice of pie, or make the pie bigger. One of the flaws in democracy is that with 5-years terms and a strong self-preservation instinct amongst the ruling class, the latter was really the only option. That means pushing consumerism over citizenship. Liberalisation of debt (lets not call it ‘credit’, lets call it what it is), propping up of property bubbles and low interest rates all encourage spending over saving and help drive this agenda. Secondly, the rapid globalisation of production and trade meant that companies are increasingly untied from their national moorings. Don’t like the Tax in the UK? Lets nominally HQ in Ireland. Run up debts in countries with high tax regimes and funnel your profits through friendly regimes engaged in this race to the bottom to encourage companies to domicile as part of the revenue transfusion they are chasing. The net effect is that Capitalist Democracies are both in hoc and in thrall to groups that are more powerful, more transient and less accountable. They are failing to hold capital to account on behalf of its citizens because it is too dependent on it. And unlike a Nation-State, these transnational actors are neither tied nor answerable to a given territory.
Singapore, Qatar or Dubai ( and arguably to a lesser extent, tax havens like Monaco, the Cayman Islands or Amazon’s favourite, Luxembourg) are not the most successful states by many Enlightenment metrics. Lack of transparency, accountability and, very often, individual rights leave these places with a (rightly) questionable global image in liberal circles. Yet they succeed by competing on equal terms with these supranational actors by functioning like a corporation. Lack of accountability is the shadow cast by taking a 20 year view (often through an absence of any real democracy). It is no coincidence that some of the most ambitious future-facing plans are being carried out in these countries- the transformation of Dubai to a global business & leisure hub pre-empting the brevity of their oil windfall, or Singapore’s ambitious and Orwellian plans to create a fully wired nation, offering “anticipatory government” or Qatar’s museum building binge as part of its play for regional hub status. Rather than thinking of mandate, they think about brand. They are Marketeer-States. They use their airlines and tourist boards, infrastructure and diplomacy to project a very specific image, engaging in global charm offensives to assert their soft power. They proletyze for free labour as much as they do for free trade, though for the unskilled it is often akin to slave labour. They are engaged in battles that are about ideas rather than islands or territory. Most interestingly though, they wrap these 21st Century modes of government in heavily modified modern variants of Nationalism, designed to bind together their citizens as shareholders, employees and shared-custodians of their joint projects. Singapore’s upcoming 50th birthday celebrations, or the sharply defined exclusivity of the Emirati class in the UAE are all variants of this. It is also often accompanied by a healthy dose of paternalism- or perhaps rather ‘dividend’ through charity, social housing, public services and open immigration being counterbalanced with closed ‘citizen-shareholder’ status. In many respects Nationalism is hugely important to these states in order to succeed in a Post-Nation age. It is interesting to note the similarities of approach taken despite a clearly tribal-ethnic dimension in the UAE compared with the explicitly Multi-ethnic, Multi-religious element to Singaporean ‘corporate culture’.
It is not just amongst the corporate-dictator state where new experiments in governance are occurring. The growing primacy of cosmopolitan Alpha cities at the expense of their ‘host’ nation (most notably in my hometown of London vs the rest of the UK) reflects the problematic nature of the 19th Century nation state as a 21st century form of governance. As a unit it is both too big and too small. Too big to have the dynamism of the city, too small to have the power of the supranational. The emerging possibilities of ‘bigger than’ are starting to be demonstrated by the EU’s balls in making a legal challenge against Google. No single country could have managed this, yet the federated European polis might stand a chance.
The most interesting experiment in Post-Nation nationalism is currently happening in the desert of Syria and Iraq. Turbocharged by cheap connectivity and a sadistic talent for publicity, ISIS has rapidly emerged as ‘the strangest flashmob in history’. Rather than being a state in the most formal sense, it is a dynamic, sinister banding together of disgruntled young men from around the world with a loose set of shared values, moving like a heavily armed swarm across the Middle East. Rather than being a state operating without Nationalism, it is a Post-Nation without a state, able to fluidly transpose itself from place to place deriving an identity from a sense of affiliation derived and bastardised from one of the great world religions. It is a wholly 21st century invention; the weirdest corners of the internet made flesh. And it has proved to be a roaring success.
Perhaps this is where the staunchest Nationalists could learn the most and develop their own tactics to take control of a failing territory to shape in their image. Of course the real worry is that these political groups that want to fight the reality of 21st century geo-politics and protect the myth of the self-contained Sovereign Nation-State will succeed. In the face of a lack of arguments for embracing a post-Nation world, we may see the final failure of the great Enlightenment Experiment.