Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Billions Like Us

The announcement that Facebook hit 1 billion users in a single day in August could be the happy coincidence of zeitgeisty PR with the summer news drought; or perhaps it's evidence that people were so bored of the holidays that they were checking out online how many other people they knew were also bored. It might even be proof that, in the developed world, curating our online selves is now as common a daily task as working. The media seem in no doubt that this is epochal, hence articles telling us of the many ways in which Facebook has changed the world and pointing out that it is now bigger than almost every country. Eat you heart out, electricity and the common cold. The explanation for this smooching is that traditional media outlets now rely on Facebook and other online channels for the dissemination of tasty stories that attract clickthrus, plus they can always harvest filler from the he-said-she-said mock outrages that social media give rise to (I can name more Taylor Swift spats than songs). Though there is competition between the different media organisations, the last 5 years have seen them develop a symbiosis based on mutual parasitism and back-scratching.

The achievement of Mark Zuckerberg & co isn't that big a deal. We reached 1 billion motor vehicles in 2010, which represents a far greater impact on the planet and its inhabitants, but there was little fanfare at the time, perhaps because of our ambivalence given the environmental downsides. Similarly, when the number of PCs in use passed a billion in 2008, the news prompted a collective "meh" with analysts claiming the device's days were numbered because of smartphones. You could argue that Facebook's achievement is notable for the speed with which they have reached this figure, but it still looks weedy when you consider that mobile phones in use reached the billion mark in 2001, that the number of SIM cards exceeded the world's population (7 billion) in 2014, and that last year also saw smartphones alone reach the billion mark. Facebook actually got to 1 billion monthly users back in 2012 (it now has 1.5 billion). The significance of this announcement is the simultaneous daily use, as if 1/7th of the World's population were engaged in a common endeavour: an implicit network. If Bill Gates had proudly announced that Windows Explorer had been used by a billion people on one day in 2008, he'd have been rightly ridiculed.

What this highlights is the determination to ascribe a cultural significance to social media on a par with railways or penicillin. But social media is old wine in new bottles: traditional modes of sociability turbo-boosted by genuinely significant general-purpose technologies (computers, cell networks). Facebook is very successful, but it's just an application that rubs along with the human grain. It's cultural significance is closer to Coke or Styrofoam. The company's COO, Sheryl Sandberg, inevitably lathered on the guff: "Look closely, and you'll see more than a number. It's moms and little brothers and cousins and cousins of cousins. There's Sam, Dante, Ingrid and Lawrence. It's camping trips, religion ... there's likes, loves and unfortunately still some hate. Look past the number. You'll find friendships". This is the bog-standard categorisation (and thus monetisation) of human relationships. If you look past the number you might also note the assumption of a particular, conservative social ideal: moms, camping trips, religion; which had me thinking of Alan Sherman's Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah.

For all the claims of "Twitter revolutions", the consensus is that social media have mainly boosted "political inactivism", in which the loud denouncing of evils serves as an alternative to change and "liking" becomes a form of free-riding by which solidarity loses out to self-actualisation. This is not to suggest that showing support is without value or always self-indulgent, but that the ease with which that support can now be shown, from retweets to online petitions, lowers the opportunity cost to the individual and thus dilutes the significance of the act as it becomes routinised and commoditised. But we shouldn't jump to the conclusion that this is an unfortunate, accidental byproduct of new technology. We live in an age characterised by managed opinion - customer feedback, performance reviews, opinion polls - while networks are inescapably political because of the choices made in their design. Social applications not only reflect the learned behaviours of opinion giving and taking, they also reflect an underlying paradigm of dispersed knowledge, dynamic routing and negotiation. The "market" is encoded in the Internet.

Social media's bias towards expression has some interesting implications for political organisations, which can be usefully addressed via Albert Hirschman's famous trinity of exit, voice and loyalty. The ideal of mass-membership, to which professionalised parties like Labour pay lip-service but are increasingly wary of, has been channelled into the weak loyalty of "registered supporters" and public "campaigns", an approach intended to keep the mass away from policy formulation and exploit them as social media fodder. This has had two results: it has amplified voice (the expectation that people's opinions matter) and it has cheapened both entry and exit. The first is problematic for party hierarchies committed to being "on message", and implicit in the woolly formulation of "sharing the party's aims and values", which in practice is nothing more than loyalty - i.e. if you ever expressed support for anyone else, yer barred. The second has turned affiliation into a passing fancy. The point of Toby Young's "sabotage" is that no Tory would have bothered to do this in the past because the cost (in terms of time rather than money) was too high. It is only in the age of social media that commitment has become sufficiently throwaway to be the basis of a wind-up.

Resigning your membership of a party was traditionally a high-profile act of protest or disappointment. In reality, most memberships lapsed on the quiet, because disappointment was more often the spur than protest, but even these acts represented a significant choice for the individuals. Now, we see performative exits, in which people dramatise their choice and seek approbation (stylistically, these renunciations are often similar to those of football fans who have decided to give up going to matches: the game has left me etc). A characteristic of cheap entry is that it usually marks the limit of a person's commitment. In years gone by, you knew that joining a party was an implicit agreement to do at least some leafleting and canvassing. Now the expectation is to do little more than follow the party's Twitter account. That constituency Labour parties are having little luck getting the incoming tide of newly-registered supporters to participate beyond the leadership election should come as no surprise. Given that the median monthly charitable donation is about a tenner, £3 looks like a bargain for a premium-class "like" that can be emblazoned across the individual's social media space. The party's problem is not entryist Trots or Tories, but that other T: trivialisation.

As the Urban Dictionary helpfully notes, "Inactivists will often point to the root or cause of a social issue without directing the audience toward a course of action or even a coherent alternative viewpoint". The highlighting of this gap, between the accuracy and insight of the condemnation and the coherence of the proposed solution, is a traditional rhetorical defence of the status quo that goes back to the biblical dichotomy of prophets and kings. It is effective because there may well be substance to the charge - some of Jeremy Corbyn's policy prescriptions are clearly sketchy or unimaginative - but it also serves to support the idea that ruling requires inside knowledge. As that echt insider Tony Blair put it recently, the gap lies between "telling it like it is" and "decision-making in an imperfect world", with the implication that the latter requires an understanding quite different to the former. Inactivism widens the gap because "telling it like it is" becomes easier, due to social media, which paradoxically means that criticism of the gap (i.e. the kingly criticism of the unworldly prophet) becomes more difficult and may even be counterproductive. A vexed Blair described the response as: "Screw you, stop patronising me. I know what I’m doing" (the styling of your critics as self-absorbed teenagers is revealing in itself).

In criticising the "fantasists", the former believer in Iraqi WMD casually lumped Corbyn together with Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and Alexis Tsipras. Blair's politics still bear the Manichean imprint of the early 00s: you are either with us or against us, "I only know what I believe" etc. This lack of discrimination is part of a worldview that sees all species of dissent from the status quo as equally illegitimate. You can criticise the coherence of Corbyn's and Sanders' programmes, essentially to avoid addressing their analysis of our current ills, but Trump has at least the virtue of consistency in that both his analysis and platform are "as sounding brass": there is no gap. Tispras can be criticised for converting from prophet to king under pressure from the Eurogroup, but this very act is an admission of the gap and thus the "imperfect world" of which Blair is an intimate. As for Le Pen, fascists may be driven by irrational manias, such as racism or antisemitism, but their political practice is wholly opportunistic. The challenge they present to democracies is a lack of sincerity, and not even his worst enemy would accuse Corbyn of being insincere. What Blair doesn't get is that the real fantasy is to reduce the complexity and messiness of the world to binary simplicity.

Though it appears optimistic, in its belief that a loud-enough clamour will produce action in the real world, inactivism is actually pessimistic in its acceptance of the limits of human knowledge. The "wisdom of the crowd" rests on the belief that individuals have insufficient wisdom and that we'd be better off leaving policy to the data-aggregation abilities of the market. The problem is that the market can disseminate and amplify both errors and facts, something we've known since at least 1841, when George Mackay published Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. The frustration of the political caste at Corbynmania is not merely the perception that social media has made such "crazes" more common (it hasn't, it's just made life easier for journalists, giving rise to a new structural bias). It also reflects one of the central contradictions of neoliberalism: that the encouragement of political inactivism (and it has been encouraged), and the associated commoditisation of expression, has given rise to a political consumer who is flighty, obstreperous and unpredictable (that bloody teenager again). Consider the recent volte-face by some old media outlets in respect of migrants: from characterising them as benefit scroungers to eulogising them as martyrs, which clearly reflects a swing in social media sentiment.

The end-game of political inactivism is the further constraint of democracy (there are hints aplenty in the establishment response to Corbyn) in the interests of "good order" and "sensible" policy. Much as the Syriza political programme was ruled out of bounds from day one and its representatives publicly delegitimised by the Eurogroup, the medium-term consequences of the Corbyn insurgency - win or lose - may be the further delegitimisation of socialism. This is not pessimism about the possibility of a leftward shift, merely the suspicion that Corbyn lacks both the strategic imagination and the tactical cunning to bring it about. If he wins, the activism of right-wing MPs seeking to undermine him (with wall-to-wall media support) will probably reverse the very modest shift in the Overton Window that occurred under Miliband. If a centrist wins, the appeals to unity and a "broad church" will drown out anything unorthodox.

For example, Yvette Cooper's proposal to rewrite clause IV of the party's constitution to explicitly target inequality, apparently by reviving Sure Start and "empowering parents" rather than by any nonsense to do with taxation, represents a further move away from principle to retail. Her coincidental criticism of David Cameron over Britain's unwillingness to take more Syrian refugees bears all the hallmarks of political inactivism: an insistence that "something must be done" without being specific about what; a self-regarding claim that "the British way of doing things is to provide help", as if our priority should be to avoid embarrassment through negative comparison with the Germans; and a preference for the street-theatre of voluntary action through "communities, churches and councils" rather than the hostage-to-media-fortune that would be an EU-agreed quota. Perhaps she'll ask Sheryl Sandberg to help craft the wording of the new clause IV. Something about mums and school trips.


  1. I suppose one thing about the Corbyn campaign is that it hasn't just been a social media phenomenon, and he has been packing out halls where people have come to see and hear him in the flesh. I think the aspect that disturbs me is that JC has come to be seen as something of a 'saviour' of the party by most of his supporters and, as you suggest, if he wins they will sit back and naively expect him to get on with it, or just fade away again if he loses.

    I know quite a few Corbyn supporters who are active in charity work and community activities, and I suppose this could be a bit of a difficulty in that they have little time left for political agitation and social media provides them with an outlet for their solidarity with others.

  2. Herbie Kills Children10 September 2015 at 19:38

    I detect that Corbyn's supporters are all too aware that even if he wins the entire status quo, basically everyone in the PLP, the media and the Tory party, will go after him, try to undermine him. I really do not detect naivety. I detect the opposite, a heightened sense that Corbyn faces enemies.

    I also don't think Corbyn's supporters see him as a saviour, just as a representative of real opposition to crushing austerity. If anything people see in Corbyn the end of the 'saviour' (which is a very neo liberal tenet) and the beginning of socialisation and participation democracy.

    A fundamental part of Corbyn's belief is that 100 people make better decisions than 1.

    Corbyn represents a real challenge to the neo liberal orthodoxy, and people see that.

    If you are leader of the main opposition then in our 2 party system it isn't fantasy to suggest Corbyn could become PM. And if he does then progessive politics gets a real lift. If he does become PM then the real problems begin!

    I sincerely believe this is a pivotal moment in our history, a defeat for Corbyn will put the final nail in the coffin of Social Democracy and confirm the permanent shift to neo liberalism in the West. More and more temporary and precarious employment, more removal of labour rights, the end of genuine public services, the increase in charges, the further increase in worrying about becoming ill, no longer will the NHS be a comfort blanket. Becoming ill will carry a very high price.

    A victory for Corbyn and they will have to think twice, they will be challenged and Europe will stand up and take notice.

    The stakes are high, I really think some people are underestimating the significance of this.

    It is Corbyn or barbarity!

    1. Social democracy is already dead, and given that organised labour is weak and not likely to increase its strength in the near future there is little point trying to revive it. The challenge is to create a radical alternative that rejects the central importance of 'work' and embraces policies on a basic income and a reduction of working hours. Also, rather than become a part of the political establishment as social democracy has constantly sought to do, there is a need to challenge privilege in all its forms and put a greater stress on equality.

      'Corbynism' is a vast improvement in terms of sentiment, but doesn't do enough to break with the past. The idea of 'reclaiming' the Labour Party is a fantasy, the real need is to move away from what it has stood for historically.

  3. Tomorrow a new day will dawn, will it not?

  4. Herbie,

    I agree that Corbyn represents a challenge to the neoliberal orthodoxy, and deserves praise for putting himself on the line; the question is, what sort of challenge does he represent? Is he offering a way of supseseding neoliberalism (which, let's be clear, is there for the taking), or is he offering us a better yesterday?

    I've seen evidence of both. His emphasis on the fiction of austerity, the indulgence of tax evasion and the need to repair our social fabric is spot on. His contempt for Trident, foreign policy shibboleths and PFI is laudable. However, he does betray naivety in his assumption that we can close the tax-gap by fiat (there is a large industry dedicated to stopping this); that we can solve the housing crisis simply by building houses (leverage is a potentially bigger problem than homelessness, in terms of the numbers impacted, and building will cause this to explode messily); and that renationalising the railways is a sufficient transport policy (this fails to address the key issue, which is that all roads - and railways - lead to London).

    Basically, Corbyn need to be a lot cuter. This includes using his shock value (win or lose) to open the Overton window in respect of issues such as those that Igor mentions, plus offering more imaginative ways or addressing our perennial problems in respect of democracy, education, tax etc. I suspect the lack of whizz-bangery partly reflects the surprise of the Corbyn camp at finding themselves as front-runners, but that in turn tells you that they're coming from a marginal position of (initially) limited ambition. I'm not pessimistic about Corbyn winning the leadership contest, but about his ability to interpret that as a mandate to be bold and innovative.

    The best hope may be that Corbyn is selfless enough to act as a facilitator and sponsor of the "social movement" he has started to talk about (this was why I compared him to George Lansbury a few weeks back), however I worry that this could turn out to be no more substantial than Occupy, hence the focus of this post on the easy attractions of social media. I also worry that he may fall back into the comfort zone of the "good state" - what you refer to as social democracy - which would just be the reassurance of a cargo-cult.

    The "permanent" shift to neoliberalism happened 30 years ago, in the sense that permanence means dominating an entire generation. The difficulty that the Blairites (and even the Brownites) have had producing a credible candidate after 2010 is a testament to the debilitating impact of the "saviour" model you rightly criticise. I think it's obvious that a large part of Corbyn's attraction is simply the belief that he is incapable of being such a complete cunt. However, that is a modest prospectus for government.

  5. Herbie Destroys the Environment14 September 2015 at 18:52

    "The "permanent" shift to neoliberalism happened 30 years ago,"

    Historically speaking capitalist society has balanced out between periods of let us say social democratic policies (though in a restricted sense) and neo liberal ones. Each resolving the contradiction of the other. Though looking at the advanced economies social democracy has been more dominant. Even the USA had a long period of social democratic affects.

    The transnational developments of recent decades (including the EU) has resulted in a new epoch where neo liberalism is dominant, and we are at the pivotal moment where we decide if this will be the future direction of society or not. The great crisis of neo liberalism in 2007 was resolved by an extension of neo liberalism. Neo liberalism was seen as the answer to the contradictions of neo lieralism. The events since then have thrown up a social democratic challenge to this development.

    Corbyn is a representative of that real struggle.

    "I think it's obvious that a large part of Corbyn's attraction is simply the belief that he is incapable of being such a complete cunt."

    This is so not obvious! It is possibly a small part but a very small part. This is more profound than you give credit for. This is a real battle about the future development of humanity.

    "that is a modest prospectus for government."

    Maybe you should do him the courtesy of getting his seat warm before he presents to you the fully worked out vision?

    1. Herbie,

      It is a common assumption that neoliberalism is simply the updating of traditional conservatism or "classical liberalism". In fact, neoliberalism grew out of - and was a response to the relative failure of - social democracy. It's dialetical. The journey of many supposed lefties to the right in the 70s and 80s was less a reflection of age than an appreciation that their first love, state power as the engineer of the human soul, could be better advanced from the right after 1971.

      Though theorists like Hayek and von Mises rejected central planning and eulogised the market in a minimalist state, the political architects of neoliberalism were only too impressed by the exercise of state power in the mid-20th century (from Germany to the US and UK) and determined to use it to construct markets that would in turn "change the soul" (as Thatcher put it, echoing Stalin), thereby embedding the values of the right: respect for private property, privilege and hierarchy.

      Neoliberalism is a product of the democratic, interventionist state, so it is meaningless to talk of it as a political stance prior to 1945. There has only been one period of neoliberalism: 1971 to ??, with its hegemonic phase being 1979-2008 (we're clearly in a transitional phase now). The point to note is that the state has not shrunk over this time and, as the union bill this week shows, remains determined to use its power to advance sectional interests.

      To revive social democracy (the "good state") means a failure to address the circumstances that produced neoliberalism. My scepticism about Corbyn is that he has not (to my knowledge) shown the imagination to supersede neoliberalism, which means advancing the next stage of historical development, not winding the clock back. Where I am hopeful is that Corbyn seems genuinely collegiate enough to allow policy debate and formation to be democratised. Naturally, neoliberals characterise this process as "chaotic" precisely because it deviates from the strong state model.

  6. Herbie Destroys the Environment15 September 2015 at 18:45

    "and was a response to the relative failure of - social democracy. It's dialetical. "

    Which in in itself was a response to the spectacular failure of a neo liberal (private) period. Though I would also argue that the neo liberal period was a ruling class project aimed at grabbing back all the concessions gained after the wall street crash and world wars. If we take the dictum that the ideas of the ruling class are the ideas of society then it can easily been seen that neo liberalism is a default setting for capitalism, whereas social democracy needs to be fought for. So while social democracy (or more specifically Keynesian policies) ran into its own contradictions, the nature of the response had more than a whiff of ideology about it.

    I do not accept that neo liberalism didn't exist before 1971, there are different variations determined by the historical development, and a rise in financialisation (though we have seen finance crises throughout capitalist history). I do accept that due to globalisation neo liberalism has reached a point where only a sustained opposition from below can arrest its damaging progress, but then again this was always the case.

    Corbyn is just one of the signs that something like this is beginning to happen. expecting this movement to have all the answers straight off the bat and in light of the collapse of centralised planning is asking for a lot.

    The first baby steps will naturally use some of the tools previously employed against neo liberal policies. The actual transformation of society to socialism requires a more fundamental change that can only come about via a movement that is capable of delivering the objectives. If Corbynism can achieve anything it is providing this movement with the tools. Just as for example in Bolivia the education system has been transformed to include ideas that were once beyond the reach of most people. As well as the economic transformation which allows people the time, space and energy to engage in such a project.

    While I have some differences with Wolff, I would watch the following (he puts it better than I ever could) to understand how I see the developments (between social democratic and neo liberal):

    Actually if you ever get the time I would watch them all!

    "Neoliberalism is a product of the democratic, interventionist state"

    That didn't exist before 1971??

    "point to note is that the state has not shrunk over this time"

    It is what the state does that marks the difference. It is a question of quality rather than quantity. Or if you want to be dialectical, the aggregate quantities remain similar but the change of quantity distribution causes a qualitative change.

  7. Herbie,

    I wasn't suggesting that neoliberalism as a theory didn't exist before 1971 (note the references to Hayek and von Mises) but that neoliberal practice only comes to the fore with the dismantling of the Bretton Woods system after 1971. There was a long period of intellectual gestation. I'm also making the point that there is a fundamental difference between the classical liberalism of the pre-WW2 years and neoliberalism, and that this difference centres on the role of the state. In this reading, social democracy is a transitional phase between the two liberalisms.

    Social democracy can be seen as a response to the failure of classical liberalism's last hurrah (the period marked by the 1926 return to the gold standard and the mismanagement after 1929), but so can Fascism. More fundamentally, SD arose because of changes in the economy (notably the expansion of manufacturing), the demands on the state as a consequence of democracy, and the transfer of scientific management ideas to the public sector. This would have happened even if the Wall Street crash had never occurred.

    This shift placed an emphasis on the quality of labour (in contrast, Fascism was more concerned with quantity), hence the key achievements of the welfare state and the growth of the professions. Though the classical liberal ideas of liberty and international intervention lived on - notably in libertarianism and neoconservatism - the "neo" in neoliberalism was the acceptance of the state but the repurposing of its role from social democracy's manager of labour to a facilitator of markets, and thus a more overt agent of capital.

    Just as social democracy was driven by fundamental changes, so neoliberalism was driven by the crisis of profits in the 70s, globalisation (and its concomittant deindustrialisation and asset-stripping), and financialisation (facilitated by new digital technology). The phase we are now entering looks like it may be determined largely by third world catch-up (equalisation between states), technological un- and under-employment (growing inequality within states), and the increasing incapability of the traditional state in an inter-connected world.

    The last of these is not the apotheosis of neoliberalism - i.e. the point where the market facilitator privatises itself - but evidence that neoliberalism has painted itself into a corner where the reliance on conservative values (to mitigate the conflict between markets and socio-economic security) leaves it incapable of making the step from the national to the supra-national state. The dynamic of capital will inexorably push for the latter, so the political forces will realign accordingly. Ironically, Corbyn's internationalism may be coming back into fashion. For this reason, he may well be the harbinger of a major political shift, but it won't be a return to social democracy.

  8. Herbie Destroys the Environment15 September 2015 at 21:11

    "so neoliberalism was driven by the crisis of profits in the 70s,"

    That is funny because I take the exact opposite view to this. I generally, on this point, agree with Wolff that the neo liberal period we have just been through (and still enduring) was a product of ever rising 'profits' to the capitalist class. Though technically it was the difference between productivity and real wages. Wolff explains this really well in those lectures and in lecture 3 and 4 really provides a convincing argument (for me) that the current period can be explained by productivity rising while real wages flatten. I think his arguments also brilliantly explain how financialisation took off in the way it did.

    Incidentally, I agree with your point about fascism. As uncomfortable as it sounds on one level you could lump in Hitlers overtly Keynesian policies with being a period 'Social democracy', or at least heavy state involvement with creating jobs and building infrastructure (Keynesian solutions).

    "The phase we are now entering looks like it may be determined largely by third world catch-up (equalisation between states), technological un- and under-employment (growing inequality within states), and the increasing incapability of the traditional state in an inter-connected world."

    Well yes, but why should that world be a negative, why shouldn't that trend be progressive? If we look at things like steel production etc, it isn't like supply isn't meeting demand. For me you are over egging the determinism. If there is pressure from below neo Liberalism is a dead duck and social democracy will get implemented. And then they will spend their energies undermining it.

    1. Herbie, the period of neoliberalism has been marked by a growing share of profits accruing to capital. That isn't in dispute. My point was that neoliberalism came to political dominance in the 70s as a response to a period (1960-80) marked by a fall in returns to capital (specifically the rate of profit), both absolutely and relative to labour.

      There are a variety of explanations for this, ranging from the strength of labour, via over-production (too much capital accumulation in manufacturing), to insufficient global trade. However, these explanations have a common feature in that they point the finger at the social democratic state: indulging organised labour, directing capital investment to established industries, and protecting domestic suppliers through import tariffs.

      Neoliberalism was a conscious attempt to reverse this decline through an emphasis on entrepreneurialism (the formation of new capitals), wage repression (the relative increase in profit accruing to capital at the expense of labour), and deregulated markets (to allow capital to move from manufacturing to services, both domestically and globally).

      I'm not suggesting that the current phase is negative. In fact, I'm suggesting that it is "progressive", in the sense that the word is historically used to describe the advance of capital. My point is that the progressive forces of history are moving on but that neoliberalism is unable to act as a political vehicle for that movement any longer because of its over-investment in the national state.

  9. Herbie Destroys the Environment16 September 2015 at 18:20

    "My point was that neoliberalism came to political dominance in the 70s as a response to a period (1960-80) marked by a fall in returns to capital (specifically the rate of profit), both absolutely and relative to labour. "

    Yep I completely misread what you said and have wasted both our time on that particular point! Sorry about that!

    I still believe the right wing have the balance of public support and that a shift to the centre left will not change the consolidation of neo liberalism. I think we need a resurgent left. I do think we are at a crucial historic point, a point where we need left ideas to infiltrate the minds of the public. If that fails to materialise I dread to think what the consequences of the next crisis will be!