Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Retrofuturist Dupes; Or, Why Ron Paul Is Nothin New

This post is upgraded and adapted from Comments, in which I responded to a response about my Ron Paul post just below. I recommend that folks read that post and response first. Still, the formulations here seem to be of a sufficiently general character to merit attention on their own, whatever one thinks of Ron Paul and other "anti-war" libertopians.

I am informed that the technodevelopmental forces afoot upon the Land lead us to a New World, and that Ron Paul is the face of a "New 21st Century Democracy." Permit me a few quick reactions.

First quick point: Intransigently nonmobile facts of geography, vulnerable human bodies and ecosystems, indispensable physical infrastructures in need of maintenance all have a stubborn reality endlessly underestimated in worldviews that foreground intellectual factors (from Kantian cosmopolitanism to neoliberal free marketeers to the various digital utopianisms -- not to mention their many hybrids).

Second quick point: It is not the case that the State is the State is the State is the State is the State, and that one can indifferently attribute the crimes of one institutionalization of government to every other. The conflict that counts as far as I'm concerned is between more versus less democratic institutionalizations of the State. That is to say, between:

Democrats versus Aristocrats.

Third quick point: Just because self-appointed neoliberal corporate-militarist aristocrats like to think they are a "meritocracy" rather than a hereditary aristocracy doesn't mean they are right, or that this constitutes a difference that makes much of a difference from a vantage like my own that takes the key conflict to be one between democracy and aristocracy.

Fourth quick point (A few axioms that constitute a point of departure for thinking politically in the first place): Humanity is ineradicably plural in its capacities, accomplishments, aspirations; some of this plurality yields unearned structural advantages to minorities; the advantaged will usually struggle to retain and consolidate their advantage, come what may; from the perspective of advantage, the advantaged are always capable of retroactively clothing any conduct at all in the language of moral righteousness.

Institutions claiming a legitimate monopoly on the use of force to "maintain order" arise from these facts and however "different" one thinks the 21st century is, where these foundational matters are concerned things are exactly the Same As It Ever Was.

The fight that matters, then, once again, is between those who would democratize government as opposed to those who would use government to maintain incumbent privileges and elites.

A quick conclusion: The world right now is perishing from the waste, ignorance, and eager aggression of a minute fraction of the population (most of whom seem to like to think they represent the "force of civilization" even as they proceed interminably to loot, kill, rape, despoil, and destroy everything in sight). If things look "new" to you, it may be that you just aren't looking very hard, since all this looks to me like a very old and ugly story... and if you aren't looking very hard this may be because you are or imagine yourself to be (for now) a beneficiary of the bloodbath.

Don't take offense, I'm a beneficiary of the War Machine, too, and I am to this day still too much a dupe and an ignoramus to fully resist the murderous machineries that support me. But everybody, including me, including you, can gain ever more insight and gumption and so fight ever more against the tide of incumbent aggression and for the tide of democratization.

And I do happen agree with you that some things are different right about now. Peer to peer formations like the critical blogosphere, like small campaign donation aggregation, like rapid response online organization have momentarily stalled the last half-century of corporate mass-mediation and discomfited its manufacture of "consent" and now threaten the corporate party machines (of both parties in the United States and elsewhere), thus creating a key opening for democratization and popular government.

But this is an inkling not an accomplishment. And it is the farthest imaginable thing from a Destiny. Its vulnerability is breathtaking.

Ron Paul looks to me like the oldest story in the 20th Century American playbook: yet another market fundamentalist libertopian who believes civil libertarianism is compatible with corporate capitalism. If that is the new "21st Century Democracy" then the facile "friendly fascism" peddled to earnest saucer-eyed privileged Americans by Ayn Rand ("America's Persecuted Minority: Big Business"), Ronald Reagan ("Government Is the Problem"), Bush I ("The New World Order"), Clinton ("The Era of Big Government Is Over," NAFTA, workfare, deregulation), Bush II ("Our MBA President," PNAC, the Unitary Executive) then the new 21st Century democracy looks an awful lot like the old Robber Baron "democracy" to me, but this time with the tools at its disposal to render the planet an uninhabitable radioactive, Greenhouse, pandemic sewer of goo.

All hail the technophiliac retrofuturists!

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

All hail the technophiliac retrofuturists!

Why, thank you.

Kyle Parry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dale Carrico said...

"What forms of resistance does the less duped Dale undertake?"

It's sadly inadequate, I fear. My teaching is acquiring a sharper, more critical edge of engagement with each passing term, I discover. I write when I can, I offer up time and money (of which I have a little more these days since I earned the Ph.D.) to worthy causes and organizations and so on.

The role of the racist/sexist and their related melancholic/maniacal economies seem a huge aspect of the dementia.

Quite so. I recommend recent works by Judith Butler and Paul Gilroy on these urgent connections. They are the ones to whom I turn myself for sanity and sense in these matters (popular works by Mike Davis and Naomi Klein are also key for me these days).

Americans will discover, soon enough and to their cost, I fear, that their ongoing "mania" costs what amounts to a check their asses can't cash, and I daresay we will all (including Americans ourselves) be the better for it over the longer term.

It's a stupid shame though, inasmuch as America's squandered resources and energies could have been -- and might yet still be -- directed instead to conscious democratization, multicultural celebration, general welfare, consensus science, renewable energy and remediative technologies, and the bolstering of a planetary scene of informed, nonduressed consent.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I get it. Your the bizarro version of Declan McCullagh.

Dale Carrico said...

You don't get it, then. Try again.

G said...

1) There is nothing at all utopian about free-market philosophies or libertarianism. Indeed, the free market by definition needs failure so it can be replaced by innovation. The closest the world has ever come to a free market, to my knowledge, is Hong Kong, which has seen a meteroic rise in its standard of living in the past 50 years, though the number of immigrants from China mean there are still many poor.

If you ment utopian in their ideas of limiting government, then I don't think that is true. America's Constitution was hamstrung by its vagueness and lack of inforcement (it always surprised me how I could go to jail for breaking a state law, but if a politician violates the supreme law of the land, nothing happens). It was a good first effort at it, and it worked for a while, but the idea of limited government was more or less done when stupid Federal Reserve monitary policies turned a recession into the Great Depression.

2) States are force. Direct democracies by definition are supported by >50% of the population. However, we have a constitutional republic, where a good portion of the population does not even vote. The number of "viable" candidates being much smaller in number than our population, its not likely the force of government will be used in a way most people like. I think the history of our government supports this argument well enough.

Aristocracy is clearly worse, I'll agree. But I'd rather not have mob rule either.

Business, on the other hand, if prevented from the use of force and fraud, is by definition supported by 100% of its customers (assuming all of their customers are not under any coercion themselves).

Just like our representative govenment, there are more goods and services in the US than there are people. So people will rarely choose a product which they are 100% happy with.

However, customers are far more likely to understand what they are buying than a voter might. A voter votes based on what he knows of the candidates. While a business is generally (or at least should be) punished for fraud, a politician is not. While a customer generally knows a good deal about the product he is buying, all he knows about what he is voting on is the surface truths to it. The long-term real-world effects of most legislation are never considered. Politicians have no reason to consider it - such things do not effect their re-election campaigns at all. How many voters today know one of the reasons American's pay so much for health insurance and have such crappy insurance selection is because of government subsidization (in the form of tax breaks) of employer-provided care? Not many.

Economies are far too complex for most voters to spend time understanding, so the politicians have no reason to understand them themselves.

3) Aristrocrats have the force of law behind them, businessmen do not; that is quite a difference. I don't like pushy adds or telemarketers, but none of them have ever fined me for not buying their products, or showed up at my house with guns if I did not.

The difference is massive. To suggest that society can eliminate powerful people (economically, socially, or otherwise) sounds a bit absurd to me. It can, as we have seen in America and other countries, stop the powerful from using force against us little folk. The powerful will surely always be with us, since men are not born at all equal with respect to talents.

4) Thats a very simplified explaination. Force is needed to raise the cost of an individual breaking the law. If this cost is too low, an individual might see the benifits of breaking the law to outway the costs, like people do due to the enormous profits of illegial drug trade.

Yes, these forces end up protecting the rich from the poor. The poor man obviously has much to want from the rich. But they also protect the poor from each other. And law and order, no matter how oppressive, always has economic advantages over its opposite.

But if we want it to protect the poor from the rich as well, a more limited form of government is nearly required. For a politician, the cost of violating our current constitution is zero. So he does, allowing the powerful to dip their hand into the taxpayer's pocket, or alter the rules of competition in their favor. The powerful, after all, present a rich reward, and it comes at a near-zero cost. All they must do is convince the masses of its goodness, which usually isn't hard because the candidate the politician ends up running against is probably pushing his own power-backed agenda. With no one to speak the truth, the opportunity cost of voting for either candidate is low. Thus the powerful (whether because of money or charisma) will always have undo power.

-I would say the world is far better off than its ever been, with the exception of our current Commander-in-Chief. People live longer, and are freer all around the world. I would say the internet is one of mankind's greatest inventions, and it is spreading rapidly.

Of course the powerful still use their influence to further their own greed. Ron Paul is the only person, with a record to prove it, who might do something about it. The huge economic benifits to freedom usually spur change (often violent) in and of themselves, but if he can correct the mistakes before the 60-trillion dollar entitlement liabilities hit us in a few decades, the transition process should be smoother.

Dale Carrico said...

There is nothing at all utopian about free-market philosophies or libertarianism. Indeed, the free market by definition needs…

Do you guys even hear yourselves? Stipulate away, but "free market ideology" yields an ugly slaughterhouse in practice. That's what I mean by "utopian."

States are force…

This is a fundamental libertarian mistake: Force inheres in the facts that (a) humans are different, (b) humans are ineradicably prone to dispute, (c) humans are interdependent, and (d) humans are capable of retroactively rationalizing much of the conduct from which they benefit even when it contradicts their express convictions. Force is prior to the state, and so dreams of "smashing the state" (in whatever variation) will never be adequate the problem of force. States, it is true, have traditionally functioned to impose the will of established minorities on oppressed or otherwise exploited majorities (libertarians, liberals, anarchists, democrats in their many permutations all grasp this in their fashion), but those who would seek to democratize rather than to smash the state do so to yoke the "legitimacy" of state violence to the project of creating and maintaining nonviolent alternatives for the adjudication of disputes and to protect the scene of informed, nonduressed consent for all citizens. Market libertarians, again, by stipulating "market outcomes" (whatever their context or concrete characterizations) as noncoercive by fiat, simply handwave the problem away. Both market and socialist libertarians alike often seem to share the faith that order is or at any rate can be "spontaneous" and hence that governance invested with legitimate recourse to force always-only impedes this order rather than facilitating it. Given (a) through (d) above, you will guess that I consider this libertopian faith extraordinarily misplaced. I understand the appeal of the libertopian faith (I once held a version of it), but the facts don't look to me to support the faith and so I choose to cope instead with the facts.

I'd rather not have mob rule either.

To identify democracy with mob rule is as ridiculous as claiming to be able to square the circle. This is a tired slogan, and beloved of plutocrats. Don't be that guy.

Aristrocrats have the force of law behind them, businessmen do not; that is quite a difference.

What world do you live in? We live in a corporate-militarist plutocracy with vestigial institutional traces of relatively representative governance struggling desperately to protect us all from straightforward tyranny mouthing Christian fundamentalist pieties one minute and market fundamentalist pieties the next minute. Businesspeople are functionally aristocratic (and having no taste, no manners, and no nobility to speak of they even look and act like traditional aristocrats), and, of course, they do have the force of law behind them. Neoliberal ("free market") policy from Volcker-Reagan-Bush-Greenspan-Clinton-Rubin-Bush II… has been a three decade drumbeat for deregulation and privatization without end, for corporate-military secrecies (proprietary secrets, Defense secrets) over accountability, and all exactly coinciding with falling standards of living on nearly every metric for all but a diminishing few of the rich. Neoliberal ("free market") globalization has imposed austerity regimes on developing countries while endlessly subsidizing North Atlantic defense contractors and consolidating corporatist intellectual property regimes, literally displacing a billion human beings into vast dangerous dense unregulated, unsupported megaslums ("free market" paradises, all -- just ask free marketeer Hernando de Soto) where they die, as surely as they would by direct genocidal design, of water-borne diseases cheaply treatable for over a century, unregulated toxic wastes, environmental disasters all the while the businesspeople you champion "restructure" the countryside via agribusiness model incentives to overurbanization and turn a blind eye to complementary warlord/druglord "incentives" to mass migration and complacently retreat instead to the "luxury" -- the gold plated toilet seats, the refried bean franchises, the botox injections, and palmfrond-shaped artificial islands stuffed with cheap pastel-hued McMansions -- of their gated private cities, a global archipelago of shitty Las Vegas clones for the brainless soulless profiteering pigs of the New World Order. But, but, but the "free market" by definition… Uh huh.

To suggest that society can eliminate powerful people (economically, socially, or otherwise) sounds a bit absurd to me.

Of course, what democrats say is: YOU have the power. Everybody has the power. Democracy is the idea that people should have a say in the public decisions that affect them, and then seeks to implement that idea. It isn't an effort to eliminate power, eliminate diversity, eliminate enterprise, or anything of the kind. But, scratch a libertarian, find an authoritarian, I always say. Warlords are still warlords, even when they wear a suit. I think democracies can and should protect people from warlords.

But if we want it to protect the poor from the rich as well, a more limited form of government is nearly required.

What is wanted is good government. "Limited" tells me nothing. Everything is limited in a finite universe. What are the criteria on the basis of which one presumably determines when government is limited enough? Libertopians always only say "more!" "Limited" usually ends up meaning "none." (Or, more concretely, it ends up meaning "make money by any means necessary -- including making recourse to exploitable opportunities for personal profit from constituted "government" -- and screw everybody else.") Why not admit it?

[T]he world is far better off than its ever been, with the exception of our current Commander-in-Chief. People live longer, and are freer all around the world. I would say the internet is one of mankind's greatest inventions, and it is spreading rapidly.

I share your enthusiasm for the democratizing potential of online education, agitation, organizing, collaboration, and communication. The fact that incumbent interests (Establishment partisan machineries, Big Media, etc.) are struggling to stifle these democratizing energies has a lesson in it for you if you care to pay attention to it. As for your claim that the world is better off, I would be flabbergasted if I didn't hear the same dangerous delusions from bright earnest well-meaning people literally every day. I'm sorry to say that your confidence here, attractive though it is, is an expression of privilege rather than perception. Read Mike Davis's Planet of Slums and David Harvey's Neoliberalism: A Brief History, from cover to cover, and then get back to me. Your convictions should be strong enough surely to cope with a little intelligent opposition.

Ron Paul is the only person, with a record to prove it, who might do something about it.

Ron Paul is yesterday's news, and even for the brief moment when he was news due to the catastrophic weakness of the Republican Presidential field for 2008 he was utterly wrong for America in more ways than I can count. There's no reason to rehearse them. In the immortal words of Homer Simpson: "Welcome to Dumpsville. Population: You." (I mean, Ron Paul, not "G.")

G said...

Do you guys even hear yourselves? Stipulate away, but "free market ideology" yields an ugly slaughterhouse in practice.
I don't see that it does. Granted there have been precious few truely free markets in history, but there have been some. The poverty and cruelty of the industrial revolution was less than the poverty and cruelty which preceeded the industrial revolution (otherwise people would have never migrated to the cities in the first place). The industrial revolution just made it more visible. In almost all cases where you have free or nearly-free markets combined with strong property rights for all classes, you have poor people flocking to the area for work. The poor flocked to cities during the industrial revolution (where the law still did not treat them fairly, but it beat growing up on the farm, evidentally) just as you have immigrants from China and Mexico flocking to Hong Kong and the United States, respectively.

Now, I can see why capitalists (as in the people who own capital, not the people who are pro-capitalism) dislike a free market. Capital is a significant investment, and one which can be lost by upstart entrepreneurs inventing some new gizmo in their garage. Customers can switch products easily, and workers can switch jobs less easily, but most difficult of all is the capitalist who finds his investments useless because of a new innovation. A good example of this is the laws against cannabis, which were lobbied for by people who didn't want hemp paper competing with their wood pulp methods.

This is a fundamental libertarian mistake: Force inheres in the facts that (a) humans are different, (b) humans are ineradicably prone to dispute, (c) humans are interdependent, and (d) humans are capable of retroactively rationalizing much of the conduct from which they benefit even when it contradicts their express convictions.
While all that is true, I don't think it explains why force is used. I'd say force is used because 1) The scarcity problem, and 2) Humans are not always rational actors.

I'm not a "libertopian" in the sense that I believe all physical force can be eliminated. In cases where the scarcity problem places lives directly at risk (i.e. not enough food, or the "two men, one lifeboat" problem) I see the force being initiated by the environment, not the human "aggressor". Rand's philosophy said something similar, though some libertarians take a more extreme, and IMO logically incorrect, stance.

To identify democracy with mob rule is as ridiculous as claiming to be able to square the circle. This is a tired slogan, and beloved of plutocrats. Don't be that guy.
I don't mean to insult the average Joe, but take your average American. Would you trust him to run your life? If not, why would you trust him to vote on something impacting your life or job? Your average man is concerned with his own life, his own family, friends, and so forth. He cannot be expected to know enough of the world to vote intelligently on all, or even most, issues. Nor, I think, should he be forced to in order to protect his way of life from intrusion by the government. I don't consider myself dumb, but I don't think I could rule intelligently on most of the issues which are presented before congress.

What world do you live in?
The world which I've seen is one where the vast majority of businessmen are not dishonest, or even powerful enough to get the law on their side. Yes there are some that do have the ability to use force, but when is this anything but the result of their involvement with government? And when businesses are permited to polute and destroy the public environment it is a failure of government to stop them. Its no different than if an individual poluted; businesses are after all just people. They are no more evil or cruel, just more powerful because they represent the organized efforts of a great many people.

You won't hear me say what the politicians ask for is a real free market, or that they really ever seek to truely privatize anything. Their idea of a "free market" is a free market for their contributors, and less free for everyone else. As long as politics has power over money, money will have power over politics. Its no different from the collusion between church and state. No we've never gotten away from it entirely... But we've done a lot better than in the past.

Of course, what democrats say is: YOU have the power. Everybody has the power. Democracy is the idea that people should have a say in the public decisions that affect them, and then seeks to implement that idea. It isn't an effort to eliminate power, eliminate diversity, eliminate enterprise, or anything of the kind. But, scratch a libertarian, find an authoritarian, I always say. Warlords are still warlords, even when they wear a suit. I think democracies can and should protect people from warlords.
I mostly agree... People should have a say in the things which effect them. But in an unchecked democracy, as America more or less has now, people have a say in decisions which do NOT effect them. The entire idea of libertarianism is that the power of the state is restricted to the issues which have some force on them or their property (usually, of course, the result of this power is decided through democratic means). At the local level, this would include things like preventing one's neighbor from holding a rock concert in his back yard at 3am without permission. At the federal level there really wouldn't be such concerns, so the government would obviously be much weaker and broader (more like our constitution originally defined).

Take the War on Drugs. Democraticly it is popular. Yet, why should everyone at large have to suffer for the choices of individuals which do not effect them? Why should innocents have to endure gang violence and higher taxes to prohibit individual choice? Without drug prohibition, drug users would be able to poison themselves, in peace, without needing to rob others to pay the inflated prices caused by the drug war. While a drug addict's actions can effect those around him, it effects them in a strictly voluntary way (unlike the rock concert scenario).

Under a libertarian form of federal government, people with socialist, communist, or even fascist ideals are free to associate with each other and live in whatever sort of society they wish. Freedom, by definition, includes the freeom to enter into societies which are not completely free. But under those other forms of government, libertarians are taken by men with guns and thrown into bared cells.

A good example of this are the somewhat-socialist (and I think very democratic) employee-owned companies. I've never been sure why there aren't more of them (probably silly legal reasons), but I believe their popularity is growing.

G said...

Also, I can't think of a single instance where a government's actions were not based on force. Otherwise we wouldn't call them "laws", we'd call them "strong suggestions". Force certainly exists outside of government, but that does not mean government is not force, and politics is not a means to control that force.