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

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Reactionary Futurology In the Democratic Party

As I declared a couple of days ago in what I thought was a throwaway tweet, I personally worry much Much MUCH more about Democratic credulity and seduction with Silicon Valley ideology than with Wall Street ideology.

For the reasons why I say so, you might like to re-visit a post from five years ago: Against the Seduction of the Left by Reactionary Futurology. In a nutshell, the vulnerability of leaders in the Democratic Party, the only party that really can matter to progressives in the United States, to reactionary futurological formulations -- whether of "artificial intelligence" as rationalization for unaccountability,  of "accelerating change" as rationalization for status-quo amplification, of "culture fit" as rationalization for discriminatory practices, of "global development" as rationalization for corporate-military exploitation, of "digitization" as rationalization for fraud, of "disruption" as rationalization for deregulation, of "efficiency" as rationalization for looting public goods, of "enhancement" as rationalization for eugenics, of "flexibility" as rationalization for precarity, of "geo-engineering" as rationalization for pollution, of "innovation" as rationalization for plutocratic upward failure, of "resilience" as rationalization for insecurity, of "sharing" as rationalization for feudalism, of "technocracy" as rationalization for plutocracy -- derives I think from recent partisan polarization on questions of science-based policy (Republican repudiations of climate science, Keynesian macroeconomics, harm-reduction policy models on questions of sex education, gun safety regulation, drug prohibition, healthcare access, benefits of basic research funding, coming on the heels of longstanding anti-evolutionary dogmatism and christianist nationalism, and so on) in which the Democrats come to think themselves the "fact-based" party even if their grasp on the relevant facts is not always that much better than that of Republicans and come to associate progressive politics with the long-prevalent techno-reductionist understanding of progress as an accumulating pile of toys rather than an ongoing social struggle over the equitable distribution of costs, risks, and benefits of technoscientific change to the diversity of its stakeholders.

Given America's longstanding self-congratulatory anti-intellectualism and the bubble of privilege and insulation from consequence that nurtures it... given our susceptibility to instrumental over political rationality in our parochially preferred narratives of progress and freedom... given our history of eager willingness to treat native Americans, enslaved African-Americans, waves of American immigrants and undocumented workers as if they were robots existing to enable our own robotic conspicuous consumption... given our toxic masculinist rugged individualism and the cyborg shells of guns and cars and snake-oil we apply to keep that dream alive until we die... given our postwar dependency on an economy fluffed by military industrialism and stealthily planned (despite an ideology committed to market spontaneity) under the exception of "Defense"... given our widespread technoscientific illiteracy and our media devoted to wish-fulfillment fantasies, disasterbatory drama, and advertorial content over education... given all this and so much more it is little wonder that even well-meaning Democrats would be vulnerable in their progressivism and pragmatism to the facile scientisms, reductionisms, determinisms, triumphalisms, and techno-transcendentalisms of futurological discourse, however reactionary in substance their aspirations and assumptions turn out to be upon even the least critical scrutiny. That so many leaders in the Democratic Party -- also true, and if anything more so, of leaders of other parties -- occupy social and cultural positions of privilege that ally them to the conspicuous beneficiaries of plutocratic futurological frames is also, obviously, an important part of this story.

Those I have enraged for more than a year by now with my strong support of Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders (and certainly over the utterly execrable Donald Trump, and useless also-rans like the embarrassing Jill Stein and warmed-over Republican doofus Gary Johnson) may be surprised to see the specific application of my "futurology as reactionary point of entry for partisan Democratic neoliberalism" thesis in this brief excoriation of Clintonian futurological formulations. Never forget, Al Gore has actually written at least one book that is unquestionably a work of outright futurism (arguably more than one). Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both make recourse to futurological tech-talk nonsense, peddling accelerationalism and ed-tech pieties, uncritically crowing about innovation and efficiencies and change in ways which conduce to the dismantling of public goods they would and do, mostly, otherwise rightly decry.

(WARNING: Sanders supporters may want to skip the rest of this post) I didn't forget or change my mind about any of that stuff in choosing to support Hillary Clinton, of course. As a democratic eco-socialist feminist multiculturalist queer vegetarian atheist aesthete supporting a candidate for president is always, in part, a matter of choosing which sociopath to my right I will be protesting for the next four years.

Partisan politics are utterly inadequate but absolutely indispensable to making and maintaining progress -- education, agitation, organization, imagination, expression, protest around ideal outcomes outside of, in spite of, in conversation with partisan stakeholder politics is also absolutely indispensable (and also utterly inadequate) to change the terrain of the possible and the important in which reform plays out in its compromised heartbreaking way.

Politics requires no small amount of walking and chewing gum at the same time. In choosing to support Hillary Clinton I simply chose -- as I always have done and always will do -- the best and most electable Democratic candidate among those actually on offer, the one with the best published policy positions and what seemed to me the greatest intelligence, competence, and character both to take make ongoing decisions to solve urgent shared problems in real time and to mobilize  constituencies and coalitions to implement reforms that protect and make further progressive accomplishments in the direction of sustainable equity-in-diversity. As I have repeatedly insisted, such accomplishments seem to me much more a matter of doing relentless thankless work than agreeing with me about ideal outcomes. Election campaigns, properly so-called, are job interviews for real jobs, not occasions for indulging in escapist fantasies about dream-dates or dream-parents.

If anything, the suffusion of public discourse with the deceptive and hyperbolic norms and forms of advertising discourse that I decry when I declare futurology the quintessential discourse of neoliberal/neoconservative corporate-militarism seems to me quite as palpable in the insistent anti-pragmatism and insubstantial celebrity fandom and symbolic political indulgences and Purity Cabaret of both Sanders and Trump movements, and as a student of revolutionary history and champion for Revolutions of Conscience advocated by the best and most radical democratic trajectory of nonviolent politics I am pretty much equally disgusted by fauxvolutionary appropriations of radicalism on the part of tech-talkers peddling status quo amplification and consumer acquiescence as "revolution" and on the part of those who would treat a party primary contest for a minor candidate or the subsequent creation by that loser of a dysfunctional PAC as "revolution."

Whatever you think of revolution, those aren't.


jimf said...

> . . .and come to associate progressive politics with the
> long-prevalent techno-reductionist understanding of progress
> as an accumulating pile of toys rather than an ongoing
> social struggle over the equitable distribution of costs,
> risks, and benefits of technoscientific change to the diversity
> of its stakeholders. . .

Progress as an accumulating pile of razors:
Letter of Recommendation: Safety Razors
AUG. 26, 2016

. . .

King Camp Gillette introduced his safety razor, with disposable
double-edge blades, around the turn of the 20th century. But before
he was an inventor, Gillette was a starry-eyed utopian socialist.
In 1894, he published “The Human Drift,” a book that, among
other things, envisioned most of the population of North America
living in a huge metropolis powered by Niagara Falls. Production
would be fully centralized, making for the greatest efficiency,
while all goods would be free to everyone. That’s the only
way Gillette saw to ensure that the benefits of technological
development would be shared. “No system can ever be a perfect system,
and free from incentive for crime,” he wrote, employing a
prescient metaphor, “until money and all representative value
of material is swept from the face of the earth.” His blade
was a model socialist innovation: Gillette replaced toilsome
sharpening labor with the smallest, most easily produced
part imaginable.

King Camp imagined a modern world where each innovation would
yield more luxury and freedom for everyone. Instead, his name
represents a company that sells us increasingly absurd instruments
as though they’re the exclusive option for personal grooming.
Advertisers pulled off an incredible coup by convincing us that the
manliest choice is one that shields us from sharp objects. . .

jimf said...

> [T]he vulnerability of leaders in the Democratic Party. . .
> to reactionary futurological formulations -- . . .
> "enhancement" as rationalization for eugenics. . . --
> derives I think from recent partisan polarization on questions
> of science-based policy (Republican. . . longstanding
> anti-evolutionary dogmatism. . . and so on) in which
> the Democrats come to think themselves the "fact-based" party
> even if their grasp on the relevant facts is not always that
> much better. . . and come to associate progressive politics
> with the long-prevalent techno-reductionist understanding
> of progress. . .
Pragmatism, Law, and Morality - Susan Haack
Copernicus Center for Interdisciplinary Studies
Sep 21, 2015


The idea of eugenics is very old. . . You remember, from Plato's
_Republic_, there's going to be a lottery -- only it's fixed --
and the best men will get to marry the best women and produce
the best children, the "golden souls"? . . . But the word
[from Greek "well-born"] was coined in 1883 by Darwin's cousin,
Francis Galton -- a very strange person, I have to say, a very
odd man. . . I suspect part of Galton's motivation was -- his
first book was called _Hereditary Genius_. He came from this
extraordinary family where a great many people did a great
many interesting intellectual things, and he thought that
feeble-mindedness as well as intelligence was inherited, entirely,
so that it was all about genetics. He was also, by the way,
one of the pioneers of fingerprinting as a means of identifying
the perpetrators of crimes. As I said, he was a very curious

You find the idea of eugenics also in Darwin's second book, _The
Descent of Man_ (1871). . . This, by the way, was part of the
reason that in the 1920s, many progressives in the U.S. **objected**
to the teaching of evolution in public high schools, because
they were aware of this eugenicist strand in Darwin's second book,
and afraid of it. In fact, the textbook that John Scopes used
in Tennessee, the one that got him arrested and tried for the
crime of teaching evolution, in the Scopes "Monkey Trial", actually
included among other things a photograph of the notorious Jukes
family -- this terrible family of retarded people. . .
And it was in the standard biology text, which was Darwinian.

Early decades of the 20th century this idea was taking root around
the world. Everywhere, really, everywhere. Asia, Latin America,
the U.S., across Europe. One of the worst places was Scandinavia,
believe it or not. . . And in Britain, where the most remarkable
people endorsed it. Sir William Beveridge, who was the author
of the welfare state. Winston Churchill. And in the States,
various states introduced compulsory sterilization laws. . .

jimf said...


Early 20th century, people thought eugenics was scientific, and
they thought it was progressive. No doubt about that. So arguably,
this ruling in Buck [v. Bell, 1927, 8-1 Supreme Court ruling in
favor of compulsory sterilization, majority opinion written by
Oliver Wendell Holmes] conforms to the idea judges should
look to science for what's for the good of society. Uh, I would
add, but better make sure the science is any **good**. Don't just
swallow it whole because a few people tell you this. There **were**
medical scientists who disagreed with this, even in 1927. But
the Supreme Court didn't seem to know anything about that. If
they had, they would've known that the science was very weak --
it was oversimplified, perhaps out of date. We now know there are
other causes of retardation, and not all retarded parents will
have retarded children. To us, now, I think -- certainly to me --
[Holmes'] ruling seems scientifically naive, politically naive,
morally blind. But I think to him and his colleagues, it looked
like a reasonable sacrifice to ask of an individual for the
sake of the good of the community. That's why the one precedent
cited is about vaccination. . .

Well, I wish Holmes and his colleagues had had half the imagination
that [Clarence] Darrow did or [G. K.] Chesterton did -- their ability
to see the dangers. But I also wish they'd realized **other**
people might disagree with their intuition that this was a morally
good thing. Hence my conclusion. Holmes was very Olympian.
I showed you that particular picture, specifically because, you know,
he's. . . he's **so** smart, and so good-looking, and so tall,
and comes from **such** a good family, that he's not terribly
sympathetic with, you know, the concerns of humbler people.
He can't really **get** humble people, not the way [William] James
could, for example. But he was only human. And he was actually
right to say, as he did very clearly, 'It's a misfortune if a judge
reads his sympathy with one side, or his own moral convictions,
into the law.' The law is not about **your** sympathy with one
side, it's not about **your** moral convictions, it's about --
the law. He was right about that, and the fact that this ruling
is so ugly illustrates that he was right about that. . . The
fact that he failed to practice what he preached in "The Path of
the Law" doesn't mean he was wrong in "The Path of the Law". . .
he just didn't practice it in this ruling. . .