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Posts Tagged ‘technological society’

“Technology sits at the crossroads of all of the escape routes from ecological crisis that lay open before capitalism. Technology is not a list of inventions. Rather, it is the reproduction of human society as seen through a technical lens: the how of social reproduction. Everything about how humans relate to the rest of the planet and how we structure our internal relations is modulated by our technology. Rather than wading into the typically idiotic framing of the debate—technology, good or whack?—we have to focus on how technology as it exists in global society functions as an all-or-nothing juggernaut. The one debate regarding technology that we cannot lose, and that is left out of the dominant framing, addresses the authoritarian nature of technology as it exists today. It is presented as a consumer choice, but each new advancement becomes obligatory within a matter of years. We are forced to adopt it or become totally excluded. Each new advancement rewrites social relations, progressively robbing us of control over our lives and giving control to the governments that surveil us and the corporations that exploit us. This loss of control is directly related to the destruction of the environment.”

Peter Gelderloos, Diagnostic Of The Future – Between the Crisis of Democracy and the Crisis of Capitalism: A Forecast. Crimethinc, November 5, 2018.

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Fascism and Aesthetics
The rise of fascism in Europe was perhaps the epochal transformation of Benjamin’s era, and had menacing overtones for him as a radical and a Jew. Benjamin offers an original theory of fascism, which situates it within cultural transformations. He rejects both the orthodox Marxist view that fascism is simply a dictatorship of finance capital, and the progressivist view that it is some kind of premodern or anti-modern relapse into barbarism. Instead, he argues that capitalism arises from particular changes in everyday culture, or ‘ideology’ in an Althusserian sense, arising from the development of capitalism.

In the epilogue to ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Benjamin argues that fascism seeks to respond to proletarianisation and massification without altering the property structure. It does this by giving the masses ‘a chance to express themselves’, as a substitute for power. It offers emotional rewards instead of material rewards.

Fascism logically leads to the aestheticising of politics. Politics is turned into the production of beauty, according to a certain aesthetic. This is achieved through an immense apparatus for the ‘production of ritual values’. Benjamin is thinking of the Nazi propaganda-machine, with its choreographed torch-lit marches and rallies, iconic posters and statues, and films such as Triumph of the Will. This machine is widely recognised as a forerunner of the modern PR industry.

Fascism is thus partly a product of spectacle. Benjamin relates it to the spectacular nature of commodities, which are transformed in their presence from simple objects to spectacle or phantasmagoria. Fascism expands the logic of spectacle into the field of politics, with its charismatic leaders, eye-catching posters, movie-like Manichean discourse, torchlit rallies, and powerful logos and symbols.

According to Benjamin, fascism inevitably leads to war. War is the only way to channel mass movements and intense emotions, without challenging the property system. It simultaneously serves, in classic Marxist fashion, to channel the forces of production which are blocked by the property system.

Some Marxists see crises such as those of the 1930s and today as crises of overproduction. This means that capitalism is in crisis because it can’t get people to consume as much as it can produce, usually because people aren’t being paid enough. As a result, people are left unemployed and machines and factories are left idle. People who adhere to this theory see the Second World War as a resolution of the crisis of overproduction. The state artificially inflated demand by producing weapons. It then destroyed a lot of other resources by using them. This got people producing again, and was a way out of the crisis.

Benjamin is unusual in linking this account to the cultural usefulness of war. For Benjamin, war does not only serve capitalism by consuming resources. It also provides a way to channel intense emotions and frustrations which would otherwise destabilise the system.

Benjamin links the fascist aesthetic to the Futurist Marinetti’s claim that ‘war is beautiful’. The Futurists were a mainly Italian art movement whose work celebrated modern technology, speed and power. Initially progressive, some of them went over to fascism. Their aesthetic is often associated by Benjamin with fascism. He viewed them as symptomatic of the aspect of fascism which glorified technology.

The aspect of war which can most easily be aestheticised is the display of technology, and the power of human agents as masters of powerful technology. In order to aestheticise war, it is necessary to edit out human suffering, whether of soldiers or civilians. Benjamin suggests, however, that destruction is integral to the process. Humanity is now so alienated that it can contemplate its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure.

Marinetti expected war to supply sensory and aesthetic enjoyment in a world changed by technology. This is the ultimate in alienation. Humanity observes itself from outside, as an object of contemplation. Benjamin sees this as the culmination of the idea of ‘art for art’s sake’ – or in Marinetti’s slogan, ‘let art be created, let the world perish’. The appropriate response, according to Benjamin, is to politicise art.

War is further aestheticised by inter-war writers such as Ernst Jünger. In his ‘Theories of German Fascism’, engaging with Jünger, Benjamin extends his critique of fascistic trends in art. Jünger extends the idea of ‘art for art’s sake’ to war. (This ‘war for war’s sake’ also appears in Deleuze’s digression on the bad type of war machine, which takes war as its object).

Mass technological warfare is an image of everyday actuality – the destructiveness and meaninglessness of mass alienated technology. But it appears to the likes of Jünger as a magical force of eternal war. This leads to a ‘mystical’ view of war: the state must show itself worthy of the magical forces of war.

For Benjamin, this is not simply a matter of false consciousness. Rather, it is derived from a particular ‘primal experience’, or constitutive trauma. Jünger was a professional soldier for whom warfare is the natural or habitual environment. His literature defends his particular professional habitus, his conventional way of life. He simply celebrates what he is familiar with, without any basis for preferring it. Benjamin asks, ‘Where do you come from? And what do you know of peace?’ The criticism here is that Jünger and those like him can’t extol war as preferable to peace, because they only know war.

The authors of war literature, according to Benjamin, are expressing a particular class perspective. Many of them are specialist soldiers, commandos and engineers – the military equivalent of the managerial class. The ideology of endless war, of a magical power of war, is implicitly portrayed as a kind of class ideology of the elite soldier.

These former soldiers were to become the social basis for fascism, as Benjamin recognised. Many of them graduated from the army to the Freikorps to the Nazi Stormtroopers. Today, this underlines the importance of demobilising and reintegrating former soldiers – many of them economically disadvantaged and war-traumatised – in the aftermath of conflicts. It also underlines the persisting importance of militarised masculinity in the securitisation of civilian spaces.

According to Benjamin, the literature he refers to is an effect of World War 1. Technological warfare has exhibited a disastrous gap between massive destructive effects of technology, and minimal moral illumination arising from such effects. This produces a kind of meaninglessness (a common theme in Frankfurt School work). The main danger today stems from the difficulties in organising human relationships in accord with the relationship to nature and technology, so as to use technology as a key to happiness instead of destruction. In short, people are losing control of their technology because they retain competitive relationships which lead to mass destruction. Benjamin sees his era as having the last chance to overcome this discrepancy. This would be a transition to socialism through the conversion of the world war into a global civil war.

Technological warfare dispenses with the symbols of heroism. War has become akin to sports in that its achievements are not so much personal as ‘record-setting’ – how many are killed. The escalating power to kill in huge numbers associated with gas warfare (and later, nuclear weapons) renders war extremely risky, and predominantly offensive (rather than defensive). The protection of civilians is lost. The winner is now the side which conquers the war, not the adversary, and avoids losing control of its meanings and effects.”

– 

Andrew Robinson, “Walter Benjamin: Fascism and Crisis.Ceasefire, August 14, 2013.

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How did you get started working on poverty and surveillance?

I came up working in the Bay Area’s community technology center movements of the 1990s [which sought to expand access to computers and the early internet]. I was really excited about the possibilities of that work. But I also struggled to reconcile the utopianism of that moment with the reality of San Francisco in the 1990s. Public housing was being knocked down, the city was visibly whitening, and people were being displaced.

So I left San Francisco to escape a sort of personal, political crisis. I moved to a small town in upstate New York called Troy. And, coincidentally, I moved there just as the city decided to put all of their eggs in the basket of high-tech development.

You couldn’t escape it.

Right. And that was the question that I started asking myself. There’s something here I can’t escape. How am I going to make sense of it?

I started doing community technology work in Troy, working primarily with poor and working-class adults out of a YWCA. A lot of people were coming out of the prison system or out of recovery. And they challenged me deeply in the ways I was thinking about technology.

There was this idea at the time that the major inequality issue in tech was the “digital divide” — you know, low-income people aren’t interacting with technology so they’re being left behind. But the people I was working with told me, “No. Listen. Technology is totally ubiquitous in our lives. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” They were seeing tons of technological innovation, just not where I was looking for it. They were seeing it in the criminal justice system, in the welfare office, and in low-wage employment.

I had this conversation with a woman who I called “Dorothy Allen” in my first book. We were talking about her EBT [Electronic Benefit Transfer] card. She told me, “Yeah. It’s more convenient. It’s great to not have to carry around paper [food] stamps anymore. But also, my caseworker uses it to track all of my purchases.” And I had this look on my face, a look of total shock. And Dorothy said, “Oh. You didn’t know that, did you?” I did not. She said, “You all” — meaning middle-class people like me — “You all should be paying attention to what happens to us, because they’re coming for you next.”

That conversation, and others like it, is where my interest in technology in the welfare system came from.

Part of what I enjoyed about your book is how it lays out a continuous history from the poorhouses of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries — where the indigent were incarcerated and forced to work — to the high-tech containment of today. Can you trace that a bit?

I think we tend to talk about these kinds of technological tools as if they arose outside of history. Like they just fell from the sky. One of the major arguments in the book is that these tools were more evolution than revolution. They’re very much in line with the kind of punitive policy, processes, and tools that came before them.

There’s two moments I’ll draw your attention to. First is the scientific charity movement of the 1870s, which was deeply informed by eugenics and the desire to “breed” out the moral inadequacies that produce indigence. It kicks off after the fall of Reconstruction and the violent reassertion of white supremacy that took hold then. You see the rise of Jim Crow, the exclusion of African Americans in public life, immigration restrictions that are based on scientific racism, and the involuntary sterilization of poor whites.

This all comes out of a moment where social service technologies are changing really fast; indiscriminate giving is being replaced by what was called “scientific giving.” The first “big data” set in the United States was the Eugenics Records Office in Cold Spring Harbor. It was the public arm of the eugenics movement. They sent scientists out into the world to collect these very detailed family trees that tried to track how poverty, “imbecility,” “depraved living” — all these words that they used at the time — were genetically carried.

The second moment is the rise of the “digital poorhouse,” which began in the late sixties, early seventies, really, in response to the successes of social movements in opening up public programs.

The welfare rights movement.

That’s right. In the mid to late sixties, into the early seventies, the national welfare rights movement was having extraordinary successes. Particularly legal successes. Supreme Court victories in 1968, ’69, and ’70 made it impossible to discriminate against folks receiving AFDC [Aid to Families with Dependent Children]; they enshrined due process rights for welfare recipients; and they prohibited “man-in-house” rules that allowed caseworkers to raid the homes of poor women to look for evidence of male cohabitants. These victories came toward the end of the sixties, and by 1971 you see these new technological tools implemented. It’s a backlash.

And it’s entwined with the backlash against civil rights in general. Suddenly all these black women are receiving benefits, too. And welfare becomes firmly linked with being black.

There’s this deep, deep, deep connection in the American mind between poverty and being a person of color, specifically being African American. You don’t get a welfare system like the one we have without using race. In each of these systems, race has been deployed as a narrative, as an organizing method.

Meanwhile, technology became a way of smuggling politics into the system without having an actual political conversation. In the 1970s, with the promise of increasing efficiency, you start seeing computerization to detect fraud and tighten eligibility rules. We think the real anti-welfare backlash started with Reagan. But the drop-off really began in the early seventies. That’s when they started culling the rolls — using these technical means. Around 1973, almost 50 percent of people living under the poverty line were receiving some kind of cash assistance. A decade later, it dropped to 30 percent. Now it’s less than ten.

At the same time the government is scrutinizing caseworkers more closely, cutting down on their discretion. As surveillance of recipients increased, so did surveillance of frontline workers. They introduced much more punitive processes, with much less human connection. And that also has continued in the systems we see today.

That’s something that immediately struck me reading the book, how many intimate stories you tell about individuals on both sides of welfare provision. You’re rendering them as these really human characters, who are not just numbers.

That was a really important part of telling the story. My intention in the work that I do is always to start with the folks who are getting the pointiest end of the stick. It’s harder, in many ways, than talking to the administrators or the policymakers. It requires me spending a lot of time with people, developing trust and developing understanding of their situations. But if we’re missing their voices, we’re missing a huge part of what this new regime of data analytics is about.

Another reason for including those stories is that I really see recipients of public services and frontline caseworkers as possible allies. And in fact, there have been a lot of historical moments where that collaboration has been really threatening to the status quo.

For example, one of the things that happens in the 1960s is the New York City welfare caseworkers strike: eight thousand caseworkers strike on behalf of recipients and their own working conditions. They say, “We’re not going back to work until you treat them better.” That’s a terrifying moment for the system.

Do you see prospects for that kind of solidarity today?

I did welfare rights organizing for fifteen-plus years. One of the great challenges of the work is realizing that caseworkers are, indeed, the deliverers of the attitude of the system. And recipients often see them that way.

But many are also just one sickness, one period of bad luck away from being on public assistance themselves. And so there are a lot of horizontal lines there. It’s a difficult relationship, but they’re also natural allies in some important ways.

– Sam Adler-Bell interviews Virginia Eubanks about

Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor, “The High-Tech Poorhouse.” Jacobin. January 29, 2018.

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