DIVIDE, CONQUER, DISORIENT
By Alan Minsky, Executive Director – Progressive Democrats of America
“I wake up in the morning, fold my hands and pray for rain
I’ve got a headful of ideas that are driving me insane“
It’s certainly a time of disorientation. This was the week that the world woke up to the very real possibility of Trump’s re-election; and the reality of 17 year-old murderous armed white supremacist vigilantes and their mainstream apologists; and how a devastating superstorm that shatters the gulf coast can pass as an afterthought, which says all-too-much about humanity’s capacity to look the other way while we burn ourselves off the planet. All of this against the backdrop of the new normal: a global pandemic and economic catastrophe.
A second lyric comes to mind; as I try to get a grip on things, and find some glimmer of hope:
“If your memory serves you well
we were going to meet again and wait
so I’m going to unpack all my things
and sit before it gets too late“
To me, as a political radical and activist, there are times for action and times when I need to reflect and re-orient. This moment is both urgent, and unhinged. It’s a moment when we have “to unpack” everything, somehow calmly assess it all – while knowing the hour is almost nigh.
Algorithms of Capitalism; Capitalism as Algorithm
What was so terrifying for liberal America about the RNC was that it “forced” them to witness what Silicon Valley has kept hidden from them – the other side of The Algorithm.
Already, with this observation, we’ve entered a maze of funhouse mirrors because…
… it is the moderate wing of the Democratic Party that is effectively a funded subsidiary of the liberal wing of American capital, based primarily on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley (with summer mansions and offshore accounts around the globe).
Financialized capital operates on one primary rule: companies and money managers are contractually obliged to maximize return for their investors. The implications of this reality are simple: no amount of environmental degradation, global warming, racist redlining, or New Jim Crow policing – or any other social or planetary abomination – is going to stand in the way of rich people’s rate of return. (My fellow Democrats, please don’t turn a blind eye to this truth, however inconvenient – after all, our adherence to truth is supposed to define us.)
Now let’s assess our BFF’s at Silicon Valley, who give us so much for the mere price of our souls. Lest we wholly misconstrue things, we cannot lose sight of the fact that tech companies themselves are capitalist enterprises. In the era of financialization, successful publicly-traded companies need to do what?…Turn a profit? Come on, don’t be silly. What is this, the 19th century? Look, profitability is nice, but what’s essential, and mandatory by law, is maximizing return for investors. That means no amount of moralizing could ever shift a Google or a Facebook away from what the research shows has everyone stuck to them like glue: confirmation bias.*
“You like Billie Eilish? Well, my super-cool friend, look what I have for you. More Billie with a few from Finneas for dessert.”
“You like Richard Spencer? Well, brave race warrior, you’ve come to the right place. Here’s some Klan with a choice of alt-right and neo-Nazi chasers.”
“Damn right free thinker, vaccines are evil. Have you heard the latest from Q?…”
Think I’m exaggerating? Try breaking out of your rabbit-hole. To do so – i.e. to break the pattern of being spoon-fed what the internet’s algorithms reveal you love most – you’ll have to run counter to your desires.
If you want to take things even further and witness the world-view of “the political opposition,” you’d have to stop using Facebook, Youtube, Google, Instagram, etc for any purposes other than political “oppo” research.
In either case, you’d basically sacrifice using the communication system that all of contemporary society runs on – for the good of a social or political experiment. Good luck with that.
So, where does this all lead? Two places, IMHO.
First, we really need to “sit (and unpack) before it gets too late.” We need a far better understanding of the social and political hole that we’re in. Nobody on the left is talking about the need to bridge the algorithmic divide – and yet it’s absolutely essential if we’re going to make any progress on any front anytime soon. These computer codes – and their old media analogs Fox News and MSNBC – are major factors in keeping the working class divided; and forcing the left into alliance (as the weaker partner) with two unapologetically rapacious branches of global capitalism; one of which writes, and owns, the algorithms themselves. We need to get serious about understanding how the world actually operates in the 21st Century (that’s a precondition for the 2nd half of the 11th thesis, my fellow comrades).
Second, even amidst these fragmented, distraught reflections, one thing remains clear – there’s only one contemporary instrument powerful enough to combat the forces driving us to our annihilation, and that is a democratic state that makes society’s rules and enforces them.
In the case of human society in late 2020, we need to move aggressively to regulate – and ultimately make illegal – the burning of fossil fuels; taking them off the table as a way to maximize profit.
Also, we need to recognize that the dominant social media internet platforms are essential utilities in the 21st century. Thus, we need to either regulate them to such a degree that we oversee their algorithms, or we outright appropriate them and turn them into publicly owned utilities. Either way we must re-program their algorithms to eliminate confirmation bias.
Then, if you want to find a Billie Eilish video, you’ll have to ask for it directly. It’ll take all of two seconds; and help you reclaim your desire as your own. Maybe, just maybe, people will find that appealing.
Following from that note of hope, let’s return to the maze of funhouse mirrors.
Have you ever wondered whether it would be fun to live in a Borges-like riddle/Twilight Zone episode – because I think that’s where we’re at now.
Is it possible that the remainder of the 21st century will be as disrupted as 2020? The answer, of course, is yes – basic knowledge of history and logic says that’s very possible; and the pending climate conflagration makes it more likely with each passing second.
Given that, what comes to my mind is the final scene – one of the greatest in cinema history – in Orson Welles’ Lady from Shanghai: the notorious shoot-out inside the funhouse.
Only, let’s change the tragic/positive resolution in which the hero survives (Welles, alas, felt compelled to compromise w/ Hollywood). Instead, imagine an eternity of shooting in vain at phantasmagoric feints. I think that’s a fine allegory for where we’re headed.
Think I’m exaggerating? Try shooting a computer code.
Better yet, try slaying a computer code that you and everyone you know is addicted to. At best, you’ll end up in a Kafkaesque labyrinth of lawyers and intellectual property rights. More likely, you’ll give up, log on and ride your algorithm to the cozy land of comfort food.
Have no illusions, mere survival is going to take a lot of courage and even more political organizing.
* As a point of reference for this sentence:
“….no amount of moralizing could ever shift a Google or a Facebook away from what the research shows has everyone stuck to them like glue: confirmation bias.”
Please watch Adam Curtis’ brilliant film Hypernormalisation from 1:22:30 to 1:27:10