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

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Cradle to Cradle as Conventional Right-Wing Anti-Government Ideology

To denigrate the "cradle to grave" tyranny of social democracy and public welfare has, of course, been a staple of reactionary right-wing political invective for generations. But I want to direct attention to a variation of this same polemic at the heart of what is often peddled as a progressive, environmentalist discourse -- the so-called "cradle to cradle" design ethos.

Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart has come to be a sort of bible (together with Janine Benyus' Biomimicry and Bruce Sterling's periodic papal-imperial declarations about blobjects and spimes and whatnot) for the so-called "Bright Greens" and the whole green design crowd more generally that more or less arose out of or together with Stewart Brand's California libertopian retro-futurology-qua-ecology.

In a characteristic passage (pp. 59-61) from Cradle to Cradle, McDonough and Braungart summarize a formulation from the great Jane Jacobs that they take up and divert to their own ends, describing "two syndromes of human civilzations: what [Jacobs] calls guardian and commerce":
The guardian is the government, the agency whose primary purpose is to preserve and protect the public. This syndrome is slow and serious. It reserves the right to kill -- that is, it will go to war. It represents the public interest, and it is meant to shun commerce (witness conflicts over campaign contributions from vested interests).

Commerce, on the other hand, is day-to-day, instant exchange of value. The name of its primary tool, currency, denotes its urgency. Commerce is quick, highly creative, inventive, constantly seeking short- and long-term advantage, and inherently honest: you can't do business with people if they aren't trustworthy.

Notice that the attribution of slowness and violence as definitive of government, and then of efficiency and creativity to commerce are very straightforward Anglo-American right-wing Movement Conservative pieties (an assimilation to neoliberal discourse I think Jacobs herself resists better herself, if not enough).

One need not pretend that all representative politics and social administration are transparent, efficient, fleet-footed, and fair to feel hesitant about declaring governance as inevitably and exhaustively and quintessentially bloated and jackbooted as conservatives nowadays are so often keen to do, usually all the while singing arias to celebrity CEOs and commercial culture as though corporations and salesmen are gloriously immune to bureaucracy, dysfunction, conformism, cronyism, fraud, aggression, and waste.

Although it might seem the authors are somewhat evenhanded in a characterization noting the indispensability of government to the "public interest," they undermine this apparent balance when they go on thereupon to depict government action exclusively in terms of war-making and then stealthfully re-attribute public interestedness to the commercial sphere declaring commerce, astonishingly, as inherently concerned with long-term interests and trustworthiness.

Notice, by the way, the authors' rather typical handwaving away of the well-known critique that a focus on short-term profit-taking tends to happen at the expense of thinking about longer term consequences with their chirpy collapse of this conflict into a seamless "seeking [of] short- and long-term advantage," a phrasing that refuses to concede such a problem even exists. Also, notice that the authors seem to consider trustworthiness logically entailed by the structure of enterprise and that the endless empirical instances to the contrary anybody can effortlessly call upon are apparently irrelevant to their abstract celebratory point. It is also intriguing to say the least to note that fairly widespread concerns about the impact of corporate money in the United States' flabbergastingly corrupt and wasteful campaign finance system are regarded by the authors as straightforward expressions of hostility to free enterprise, as if innovation and fair trade somehow require a "democracy" controlled by millionaires instead of majorities.

McDonough and Braungart continue:
Any hybrid of these two syndromes Jacobs characterizes as so riddled with problems as to be "monstrous." Money, the tool of commerce, will corrupt the guardian. Regulation, the tool of the guardian will slow down commerce.

What we seem to need around here is the metaphor of hybrid vigor to enrich this bestiary of monsters! Of course, it is a commonplace in contemporary conservative polemic to decry public investment, social programs, regulations as a "mixed economy," however sensible and pragmatic and democratically responsive they may be on their face, as in some deeper sense presumably weighting down the "spontaneous order" of wholesome, natural, tidal forces of supply and demand and a human-defining propensity to barter and trade with eerie ineluctably creeping socialism. It pays to recall, however, that marketplaces and commercial practices have taken many forms historically, geographically, culturally, and that far from being hindered by regulation what passes for market outcomes in the world are always in fact enabled, constituted in their substance, by an articulating tissue of regulations, laws, treaties, ordinances, customs, enforced expectations, infrastructural affordances, and the like. My point is not to deny that a particular regulation might well be experienced as a particular frustration to a particular participant in trade as it is constituted in her own moment and place in the world, anymore than it would be to deny the equally obvious commonplace that the creation or enforcement of particular regulations are vulnerable to corruption by opportune flows of cash -- my point is that these instances do not justify the delineation of what is finally the profoundly obfuscatory, almost always reactionary right-wing, distinction of the government against the economy, when in fact government always activity shapes and enables what passes for the economic just as economic activity shapes and enables what passes for the governmental no less intimately and interminably. To propose the contrary proposition that some one particular configuration of economy is natural, rather than enabled by the normative artifice of government, is always simply to indulge in the politics of treating that particular configuration as beyond politics when it is not, always to the preferential political benefit of those incumbent elites who are beneficiaries of the status quo so protected.
An example: a manufacturer might spend more money to provide an improved product under regulations, but its commercial customers, who want products quickly and cheaply, may be unwilling to absorb the extra costs. They may then find what they need elsewhere, perhaps offshore, where regulations are less stringent. In an unfortunate turnaround, the unregulated and potentially dangerous product is given a competitive edge.

Although the book Cradle to Cradle -- like most right-wing paeans to the breathtaking "innovation" and "enterprise" of our presumably meritocratically-selected "creative class" or "investor class" or designer-elite -- endlessly celebrates the gorgeous creative and ferocious problem-solving genius unleashed by competition, it is intriguing to notice that it is presumably the lust of everyday consumers for quick cheap thrills above all else that drives a competitive race to the bottom toward a worldwide wasteland of unsafe, toxic, wasteful crap.

There is no need to dwell on instance after instance in which captains of industry would fund vast mis-information and elaborate public relations distractions to cling as long as possible to profit margins presumably threatened by regulations demanding life-saving seat-belts in their cars or accurate health warnings on the packaging of their "safe cigarettes," no need to recall the regularity with which apocalyptic industry predictions about economic devastation following from regulations demanding the production of electric cars or banning smoking in restaurants were proved completely unfounded, no need to contemplate just how often the safety and efficiency features about which manufacturers crow in their television commercials, testifying in nearly religious ecstasies of self-congratulation to their superior standards and commitment to excellence, were forced upon them by regulations fought tooth and nail every step of the way at enormous financial cost to themselves not to mention the cost of delayed health and safety measures in the human lives of the customers they claim above all else to serve with such dedication.

To say the least, the "paradox" of the more dangerous product competitively advantaged and prevailing precisely due to the foolish and clumsy efforts of no doubt well-meaning regulators to compel greater safety, about which the authors chuckle so superciliously here is a facile fantasy, however commonplace it may be among conservative pundits who have made a cottage industry out of peddling such parodies of consumer advocacy.
For regulators who are attempting to safeguard whole industries, the readiest solutions are often those that can be applied on a very large scale, such as so-called end-of-pipe solutions, in which regulations are applied to the waste and polluting streams of a process or system. Or regulators may try to dilute or distill emissions to a more acceptable level, requiring businesses to increase ventilation or to pump more fresh air into a building because of poor indoor air quality due to off-gassing materials or processes. But this "solution" to pollution -- dilution -- is an outdated and ineffective response that does not examine the design that caused the pollution in the first place. The essential flaw remains: badly designed materials and systems that are unsuitable for indoor use.

There is no question that regulation will sometimes (maybe even, as the authors insist, "often") direct its energies to the amelioration of problems at what turns out to be its superficial manifestation rather than to deeper, more structural causes. What is curious, however, is the authors' seeming suggestion that this is a tendency toward the superficial that inheres especially in the regulatory. Do we not regularly observe energetic debates among policymakers, and directed to policymakers by experts and interested members of the effected public, devoted to precisely such considerations, arguments to determine at what level and in what manner regulatory interventions will be most effective and least costly? Is it really the case that designers of commercial products are comparatively less likely to address problems in ways that also turn out to be superficial -- or comparatively less likely to introduce new problems or exacerbate them altogether unnecessarily -- in their pursuit of short-term profits or the aesthetic considerations of passing fashion?

My aim in so saying is not to endorse a contrary prejudice in favor of regulators over commercial designers as problem-solvers (although no doubt such a case could be made), but simply to propose that McDonough and Braungart are indeed airing a conspicuous prejudice here, a prejudice the intuitive force of which derives not from the environmentalist concerns in the name of which it is offered but reactionary anti-governmental Movement Conservative ideology.

McDonough and Braungart fail to justify their apparent assumption that designers are more likely than regulators to address problems in non-superficial ways just because government regulators can be shown to do so -- "often," the authors assure us, though not always and therefore not definitively, and without providing any actual comparison with presumably antithetical commercial designers who might do the same just as or even more "often," no more nor less definitively.

But notice as well that their own formulation seems to regard as a failure a regulatory solution (they scare-quote the word "solution" to highlight this failure) which presumably does indeed succeed in addressing an actual health problem in a way that might well improve health and save lives, even if it "fails" to address what they regard as the deeper "essential" problem of outgassing of toxic materials. Even if the authors happened to be right to insist that this particular problem might be better addressed at a different level which they identify with "design," it actually matters, surely, that the regulatory "failure" nonetheless accomplishes its desired end to the benefit of actual people even in their own example, while they leave open what are surely the key questions of why actual designers would presumably be motivated actually to solve better what the authors describe as the deeper design problem at hand (presumably designers designed the toxic environment under discussion in the first place after all) or why regulators might not address this deeper level just as well, or, even more to the point, why regulators might not provide incentives for or even enable better design in ways that suggest an indispensable inter-dependency of regulators and designers as problem-solvers rather than an irreconcilable difference between the two driven by a prior invidious, ideological prejudice against government (imagined as the site of regulation) and for commerce (imagined as the site of design).
Jacobs sees other problems with "monstrous hybrids." Regulations force companies to comply under threat of punishment, but they seldom reward commerce for taking initiatives. Since regulations often require one-size-fits-all end-of-pipe solutions rather than a deeper design response, they do not directly encourage creative problem-solving.

By now the nonsense is quite obvious I daresay. That regulatory policy very regularly consists of incentives and subsidies for desired outcomes is factually undeniable, however eager the authors are, for whatever reasons, to paint instead the fanciful cartoon of a regulatory jackboot on the throat of poor put-upon poetical and public-spirited entrepreneurs.

And, as we have seen, there is no reason to deny regulators their measure of creativity and intelligence nor to deny commerce its record of plentiful insipidity and stupidity, however commonplace such prejudicial constructions have become among Movement Conservatives advocating for their pet elite-incumbent interests. While it is easy to agree with the authors that solutions to problems lodged in their specificity and directed to their root causes are often preferable to solutions that are over-general and superficial, they provide little evidence or justification to support their prejudice that regulatory rationality is more likely than commercial design rationality, on their terms, to prefer such over-general and superficial solutions.

No reader of Arendt, Fanon, or Foucault would find uncongenial the suggestion that modern social and post-colonial administrative rationalities tended throughout the post-war epoch to enforce a stifling conformity and devastating precarity in the name of "general welfare" or "development" while in the service in fact of short-term benefits for incumbent elites at the expense of majorities. But it is hard to take the least bit seriously the proposal that commercial rationality of all things might provide a check on such disciplinary social administration when its public justification turns so incessantly on precisely the assumptions and aspirations of national and economic competitiveness, in the context of a social and cultural world shaped almost exclusively by the commercial urgencies of extractive-industrial-petrochemical mass-reproduction, mass-mediation, mass-consumption at every level.
And regulation can pit environmentalists and industries against each other.

Needless to say, environmentalists concerned with protecting the biosphere and sustaining indispensable resources are already pitted against industries that threaten the biosphere and deplete indispensable resources. Environmental regulation is one way to protect the biosphere and sustain indispensable resources, and no doubt better design of consumer products and manufacturing methods is another way. And as I have said, regulation is a likely spur to such design as often as not, and so there is no reason to treat these domains as antithetical in the first place unless prior anti-governmental ideological commitments prompt the distinction. Indeed, setting such ideological blinders aside, there is little reason not to treat regulation as a modality of design itself.
Because regulations seem like a chastisement, industrialists find them annoying and burdensome.

To grasp just how flabbergasting, how farcically ideological this protest is, imagine if you will the proposal that we turn our attention to the hurt feelings of rapists, thieves, and murderers castigated by laws against rape, theft, and murder rather than to the objective harms these laws work to police.
Since environmental goals are typically forced upon business by the guardian -- or are simply perceived as an added dimension outside crucial operating methods and goals -- industrialists see environmental initiatives as inherently uneconomic.

Since businessmen are also human beings who depend for their survival and flourishing on the protection of the biosphere and the sustenance of indispensable resources, and since businessmen are also citizens with a stake in the legitimacy and justice of the polities of which they are members, they would be quite simply straightforwardly wrong to believe or to pretend that environmental concerns or questions of social justice are somehow "added" or "outside" their sphere of operation or concern. Since economic activities take place on earth and could scarcely proceed were the earth no longer a fit habitation for the commerce of humanity it would again be quite simply straightforwardly wrong for businessmen to believe or pretend that environmental initiatives to maintain in existence the setting in which all economic activity takes place are somehow "uneconomic." I find it curious that McDonough and Braungart seem to fancy they are defending and celebrating entrepreneurs by proposing that all entrepreneurs are apparently dangerously stupid and criminally insane.
We do not mean to lambaste those who are working with good intentions to create and enforce laws meant to protect the public good.

It is a familiar conservative conceit to paint advocates of demonstrably useful regulation in the service of public welfare and public investment as well-intentioned but in fact sentimental, infantile, or foolish. The smiles with which such compliments are offered up rarely fail to hide their fangs. In saying this, of course, I do not mean to lambaste all those who are working with good intentions to celebrate the work of commercial designers who are usually quite happy when their profit-making efforts also happen to co-incide accidentally with the public good.
In a world where designs are unintelligent and destructive, regulations can reduce immediate deleterious effects.

And when this happens, even when the result is the demonstrable amelioration of human harm, we do well to remember that McDonough and Braungart regard this result not as a solution, but as a, you know, "solution."
But ultimately a regulation is a signal of design failure.

This may well be the single most revealing sentence in the entire book, Cradle to Cradle. In this line stands revealed the ethos of an already influential still-emerging techno-utopian design discourse and subculture that seeks to prevail over all alternate conceptions and practices of environmentalist activism and concern.

Do think carefully if you will about what it means to declare any regulation to be nothing but a signal (to whom exactly?) of design failure? Consider just what such an identification of regulation with design failure implies about the guiding ideal of a techno-fixated design subculture whose utopia would be one in which the collective intelligence and effort of everyday citizens that is reflected in the legislative and regulative acts of a state of, by, and for the people is effaced, replaced with the vision of a "successfully" designed world provided by the better-intelligence of that privileged coterie of elite designers, elected by no-one, whose parochial, positional assumptions about utility and beauty and whose aspirations to profit, celebrity, and competitive advantage are, so it would seem, all that really matters to these "Bright Greens."
In fact, it [every regulation] is what we call a license to harm: a permit issued by a government to an industry so that it may dispense sickness, destruction, and death at an "acceptable" rate.

On McDonough and Braungart's assumptions it would appear that only those who would decry health and safety regulations can improve health, only those who would reject laws to limit destruction can "in fact" limit it, only those who oppose legislation to save lives truly find avoidable deaths "unacceptable." The perverse implausibility of these acts of defiance against sense is far from a testament to the maverick insights of thinkers full of the holy spirit of entrepreneurial innovation, but seems to me fairly typical of the logical circumlocutions of Movement Conservative ideologues.

In the final sentence of the passage I am reading here, the authors make a promise:
But as we shall see, good design can require no regulation at all.

This promise is a familiar one. The libertopian dream of a well-ordered but de-regulated world inspired a neoliberal/neoconservative generation of corporate-militarist bright boys with bright toys to cheerlead the fall of the Berlin Wall as the End of History and the triumph of capitalism, to prophesy the unleashing of "efficient" "innovative" market forces across the former Soviet Republics and the arising out of their gray sclerotic authoritarian ashes of spontaneous emancipatory market orders.

And as the market fundamentalists and technno-boosters began to sense that the hands of the liberated post-historical millions were not waving but drowning at a creative destruction that seemed to yield little but destruction, dislocation, triumphal organized criminality, environmental disaster, catastrophic wealth concentration, and general misery, they turned undaunted and rededicated to the laboratory of US occupied Iraq to re-write yet another precarious population in the image of their libertopian pieties to general ruin. One might be forgiven the cynical belief that at least some of those who declare to be motivated to these acts of serial recklessness by market fundamentalist idealism are more proximately inspired by the prospects of incredible profit inevitably to be had for a lucky small few in the midst of the general chaos, catastrophe, looting, and destruction of these militarized orgies of market deregulation. But among the cynical opportunists and war profiteers, true market idealists do indeed persist, in defiance of the evidence, usually far removed from the ruins, in armchairs, in online chatrooms thronged with fans of Ayn Rand and pop futurology, in anti-government anti-tax protest demonstrations thronged with white retired beneficiaries of Medicare and Social Security...

In his important book Code, Lawrence Lessig recounted this very story a couple of years before the deceptive salesmen of the second Bush Administration began to peddle the fraudulent case for its re-enactment in a new war and occupation:
[I]n the spring of 1989, communism in Europe died... Eastern and Central Europe were filled with Americans telling former Communists how they should govern. The advice was endless. And silly... Those first moments after communism’s collapse were filled with antigovernmental passion -- a surge of anger directed against the state and against state regulation. Leave us alone, the people seemed to say. Let the market and nongovernmental organizations -- a new society -- take government’s place. After generations of communism, this reaction was completely understandable. Government was the oppressor. What compromise could there be with the instrument of your repression?

A certain kind of libertarianism seemed to many to support much in this reaction. If the market were to reign, and the government were kept out of the way, freedom and prosperity would inevitably grow. Things would take care of themselves. There was no need, and could be no place, for extensive regulation by the state.

But things didn’t take care of themselves. Markets didn’t flourish. Governments were crippled, and crippled governments are no elixir of freedom. Power didn’t disappear -- it shifted from the state to mafiosi, themselves often created by the state. The need for traditional state functions -- police, courts, schools, health care -- didn’t go away, and private interests didn’t emerge to fill that need. Instead, the needs were simply unmet. Security evaporated. A modern if plodding anarchy replaced the bland communism of the previous three generations: neon lights flashed advertisements for Nike; pensioners were swindled out of their life savings by fraudulent stock deals; bankers were murdered in broad daylight on Moscow streets. One system of control had been replaced by another. Neither was what Western libertarians would call “freedom.”

But what is especially interesting in Lessig's account -- and relevant to the specific libertopian anti-governmentality of McDonough and Braungart's Cradle to Cradle environmentalist qua elite-design ethos -- is that Lessig's account proposes a different sequel than "Baghdad Year Zero" for the market fundamentalist ideologues in the dawning realization amidst neoliberalized corporate-military ruins of post-Soviet republics of the End of the "End of History":
[I]n the mid-1990s, just about the time when this post-communist euphoria was beginning to wane, there emerged in the West another “new society,” to many just as exciting as the new societies promised in post-communist Europe. This was the Internet, or as I ’ll define a bit later, “cyberspace.” First in universities and centers of research, and then throughout society in general, cyberspace became a new target for libertarian utopianism. Here freedom from the state would reign. If not in Moscow or Tblisi, then in cyberspace would we find the ideal libertarian society.

It is to this conspicuously techno-utopian variation of libertopian market fundamentalist ideology that I would connect the techno-fixated anti-governmental design ethos of "Bright Green" environmentalist discourses and the fandoms of Stewart Brand, Janine Benyus, William McDonough, Michael Braungart, Bruce Sterling, and the like. It is easy to deride (and Lessig does) the facile immaterialism of libertopian techno-utopian John Perry Barlow's "Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace," purporting to "come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind," and in so doing condensing into a now all too familiar digital-utopian frame the disavowal all at once of the incarnation of all information on a material carrier, the disavowal of the residence of all internet-surfers in the material geography and legality and history of nation-states wherein their asses access "cyberspace," the disavowal of the incarnation of intelligence in the materiality of both biological brains and material cultures scarcely reducible to the terms of mind qua "spirit" or "computation" or some "spiritualized computation."

No less conspicuous in this assertive techno-utopian immaterialism in the digital fetish is the specific disavowal of the materiality proper to environmental concern: it is well to consider the spirit-realm of the digital and the cyberspatial as fueled by the death-dealing smoke of mountains of burning coal and accessed via desktop and hand-held devices built of unspeakably toxic materials consigned after an eye-blink of use to poisonous eternity as landfill.

The Bright Green disdain of environmentalist education, agitation, and organization for an embrace of for-profit elite-incumbent design norms and forms is perfectly continuous with the insistent immaterialism of prevailing corporate-military neoliberal/neoconservative "progressive" developmentalism more generally, as well as with the more extreme techno-utopian futurological discourses and subcultures from which that developmentalism derives so much of its justificatory rationality and activist energy, from digital utopianism, liberal eugenicism, to the greenwashing geo-engineering fantasias of futurologists presenting TED talks and GBN pep-rallies at corporate retreats.

From the political alienation of crypto-anarchists and cypherpunks who expected spontaneous market orders to arise from networks coded by elite-designers with utopian maths to smash the state... To the bodily alienation of the post-humanist eugenicists pining after the arrival via medical "enhancement" and robotic or digital immortalism of a homo superior with which they already identify in the present at the cost of dis-identification with the living diversity of their peers on earth... To the profound earth alienation of geo-engineers whose pseudo-environmentalism hopes to "terraform the earth" as though we are literally alienated, visitors on an alien world rather than earthlings evolved for fitness in this world...:

In variation after variation, techno-utopian futurisms disdain and disavow the bodies-socialities-historicities in which materiality as anything more than minerality, as a stage for meaning-making and freedom-making, are substantiated in open-ing presents, peer-to-peer.

In a bid for transcendence clothed, paradoxically enough, as an amplification beyond the bounds of sense of the terms of the vulgar materialism of commercial acquisition, consumption, and competition, and the marketing and promotional norms of commercial culture in the service of elite-incumbency, at once reductive and hyperbolic techno-utopian discourses peddle future as the retro-future of amplified status quo, emancipation as the brute-force amplification of given-capacity, liberty as universal reductive roboticization, and as environmentalist concern for saving the earth the final machine alienation in which the difference between our earthly home and any lifeless extraterrestrial hunk of planetary rock is a matter of ultimate indifference as compared to their identity as blank canvasses ripe for exploitation and techno-transformation in the service of parochial profit-taking and fashionable satisfactions.

1 comment:

jollyspaniard said...

We already have a perfectly workable design ethos in the developing world which is to do what we once did and repair and/or salvage our waste. We've already produced a vast amount of stuff which can be reprocessed through the use of elbow grease into useful things. This produces the same effect, you get a new useable item without having to extract anything out of the earth.