Why Tech Hires Its Enemies

September 16, 2017

 

It all started the 25th of February, 1956. That day, Nikita Khrushchev gave a speech denouncing Stalin for the cult of personality he had cultivated, the horrible crimes he had ordered, the failures of his economic decisions, and the mass terror which turned the Soviet Union into an unlivable hell. Then came the 4th of November, 1956, when Hungarians, hopeful that Khrushchev's speech would signal an ease of the Soviet yoke on their shoulders, got, instead, a swarm of IS-3 Soviet tanks rolling over Budapest and dragging the corpses of protestors as a warning for anyone still holding dreams of freedom. The Czech people got a taste of the same brutality in 1968. And all this cruelty would then be crowned by the publishing in 1973 of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago, which, coupled with the failure of Marx's "historical laws", finally brought down the communist utopia in 1991.

 

While these events caused a lot of heartbreak among honest believers throughout factories and shop floors the world over, the saltiest tears emanated from bespectacled champagne socialists scattered across university departments. Communism had made two claims, i.e. (a) that capitalism would collapse due to its dynamic of exploitation and alienation, while communal forms of production would triumph, and (b) that the selfless sacrifice and sharing proper of communism made it morally superior to the self-interest, dog-eats-dog nature of capitalism. The growing inefficiencies, unproductive waste, corruption and starvation in the USSR, paired with the murderous brutality, wiped out these claims in one go.

 

While Marx (as a theorist of capitalism that he was) got some things spot on, the core prophecy of a revolution simply did not: the proletariat didn't produce the torches and pitchforks; the middle class boomed, internationalist class solidarity wasn't raising against the oppressor, and, in general, everyone seemed to be getting quite comfy as socialist-paraded gestures were seamlessly incorporated into the capitalist machinery. Departing from basic Marxist tenets, for example dropping the faith in grassroots for an "aristocracy", was one thing (as Russians, Chinese and fascists discovered), but 110 million deaths for the glory of the motherland? Card-carrying communist party members (like Foucault and Derrida) were brokenhearted and left orphaned. Their fellow collectivists of the right, the Nazis, had been defeated on the battlefield. Their common enemy, liberalism, was emerging triumphant in solitary.

 

Standing right in front of the Rubicon, Marxists had a decision to make. Cross it or go back. And cross it they did, morphing as much as they had to in order not to lose face. The first order of the day was poverty and the satisfaction of needs. Since poverty was being alleviated in liberal societies, the Godesberg Program signaled the switch into another (real) capitalist pathology, i.e. inequality, thus the switch from absolute to relative in the measurement of poverty. The physical oppression caused by hunger was no longer a socialist battlecry, but instead it was the psychological oppression of living next door to someone who had much, much more. The second order of the day was universal class consciousness. This prediction failed miserably and now, with more and more workers climbing the ladder or seeing their children becoming middle class, it was simply impossible that the internationalist solidarity of the proletariat would come to be. Thus, Marxist obsession with conflict and oppression morphed from haves vs. have nots into atomized groups, again making it all about yet another (real) pathology, i.e. yes, ethnic, racial and sexual minorities had their needs covered, but, were they treated as equal? Other changes took place in this phase, more bombastic ones yet not less relevant. The champagne socialists of the Frankfurt School played a key role here. One sleight of hand was to stop spouting that capitalism couldn't produce wealth (which it did), but to criticize that it was creating too much and, thus, the proletariat was getting oppressed/numbed by too much comfort, entertainment, and consumerism. The other drastic turn to defy capitalism from elsewhere but the defeated socialism was the environment, highlighting the (real) damage caused by the productive forces of the Western world. Since in the Marxist ethos the stronger exploit and harm the weak, the environment was the new weak party in this uneven fight.

 

As a good positivist and champion of reason, Marx was all for technological mastery of nature, placing human values at the center of its value tree. However, because now the paradigm was equality instead of need, the whole framework turned into males oppressing women, whites subjugating other races, humans crushing other species, and, in general, the solution was equality all across the board. And this is where the postmodernists came into play. Not only they were heartbroken communists, but if they insisted on the rationalistic, logical and deterministic emphases of Marxism they would be relegated to the history departments or, worse, to actually having to work to earn a living. Fear not, though, for the Frankfurt School was there to help, and the help meant abandoning the strength of reason needed to abstract the universality of human interests and, instead, started looking inwards. Brushing aside the feeling that we are all brothers and sisters, the red "ideological aristocracy" plucked a flower from the Nazi garden and started to talk to the masses in terms they understood and which appealed to their most brutish instincts: their sexual, ethnic, racial, and religious identity. And that is how multiculturalism was born. As good Heideggerians who doubted the sheer power of reason to apprehend the objective world, they ditched the writings of their Enlightenment archenemies and embraced psychoanalytic theories to conclude that humans are aggressive, conflictive apes hungry for immediate satisfaction of their urges. Western society, their thinking went, with its corporate machines and artificial bourgeoisie order, is a social construct which represses such urges and eventually channels into neurosis. And, by art of magic, the formerly orphan Marxists had a new toolbox to diagnose the pathologies of capitalism, namely it ability to numb the masses with comfort and cynically co-opt all dissent and criticism with the mantle of free speech and progress, conveniently packaged for consumption.

 

It is no wonder that the young radicals of the 60s and 70s loved the pragmatic oomph of Maoist Marxism, appealed not to rationality but to basic passions, and just the U.S.A. alone saw over thousand bombs planted by groups peppered with posh, white, university educated, and fervently Marxist brats like the Weather Underground, Symbionese Liberation Army, Black Panthers, and the like. Marcuse himself said in those days that what was called the "New Left" wasn't dead but would resurrect in university campuses. Enter the climate we live today, with former red terrorists teaching kids and these same kids picketing and rioting whenever a dissenting voice which threatens their little tribe shows up in campuses to deliver a damn harmless speech. This is where the charlatanry of the Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, Rorty, Dworkin, et.al. fits in perfectly. Remember that postmodernism is the archenemy of modernism, the belief in reason, empiricism, objective truth, and progress. By swinging themselves away from the Enlightenment but keeping the power games alive and well, the postmodernists are anti-realists and relativists. Their endless language games are so inert because there is no cognition at the end of interpretation, no objectivity, but a plethora of socio-linguistic constructions which boil down to the tribal core of every individual and are connected to a subjectivist game of gladiatorial oppression. Their core is empty rhetoric divorced from cognition. It is no surprise that, epistemologically, the postmodernists are heavy into ad hominem, straw men, and silencing of dissenters. It all fits if you think a bit about it. With the dismal track record of Marxism and since everything is about power, there is no better lifesaver to avoid defeat in a debate than to say "it's all a matter of opinion and all opinions are valid." Moreover, postmodernism, with its amorality, is outright nihilistic, but nihilism leads nowhere but to suicide... or to resentment and, thus, murderousness. If one cannot win at a game, one possible response is to declare everything meaningless, burn the whole playground to ashes, and with it the winners as well.

 

How were these people, then, able to mushroom and take over the tech giants which run our lives today? It all starts in the techno-utopian fertile ground of Silicon Valley and the belief that society is like a computer network which, if left to its own devices, will stabilize and make hierarchical political control obsolete. In a way, this is like a joke which has taken way too long to fizzle out. When machine-based ideas marry the fallacy of stable ecosystems which self-corrected, it all becomes a petri dish for manipulation of Freudian theories --just as the Frankfurt School crazies did when Marxism was moribund. If people could be accurately measured, their thinking went, when plugged into the network as nodes it could all be seen and regulated by itself in a harmonious way, making politics unnecessary. It aches to say it, and it complicates it even further, but in the core of it all there is the notion of the Randian hero. Just look at the hippie communes which mounted their geodesic domes all over the world. They all ended up in bullying, aggression, and chaos because humans.

 

What we see nowadays, then, is a true hodgepodge. On one side, you have leviathan business conglomerates like Facebook and Google that started with hippie dreams emblazoned in their mottos (e.g. Don't Be Evil) and ended up having to play the game when they turned too powerful and forced to worship the vicissitudes of the stock price, e.g. making pacts with the devil in order to censor, hand over data, enter juicy but dictatorial markets, and crush competition. On the other, you have an army of brats who either still dream of disrupting the system to bring about good to the world and turn it into a techno-utopia, and sharks who pretend to play that game but are all about climbing to the top by any means necessary. A new proletariat has been born in the form of garage dwelling youngsters with the title of CEO but subject to the cold, laser focused whims of venture capitalists; petit bourgeoisie coders crammed like hamsters under the water dispenser of funding.

 

Tech entrepreneurship and capital markets are nowadays a darkish, Rembrandt portrait of a true Caligulesque orgy, i.e. Don Quixote, Gordon Gekko, Alan Watts, Ayn Rand, Karl Marx, Michel Foucault, and Mao; all of them naked and oiled up, frantically porking and blowing each other in a dark room without knowing what the hell they are doing there or why. Just going at it. This is a phase in which they are all searching for an identity without clearly knowing what the end result will be. While markets are good at telling how things should be done, they are awful at telling people what should they want. And the current landscape of business and society is learning precisely that in the most painful way possible. Weirdly enough, it all makes sense. These companies are, after all, not science driven. They are technology driven. And they stumbled upon a juicy business when discovering a tool to offer the same crap to the same people but through a new channel. So, they are learning the ropes of how to be a business, but their ideology (and their workforce) is rooted into a relativist and anti-rationalist ethos which conflicts with the machinery they depend upon.

 

This is the perfect moment to bring Thorstein Veblen. The Norwegian-American had a knack for Marxist structure/super structure analysis, but he was convinced that the German had failed in injecting his theories with evolutionary dynamics. He is best known in economics as the paradigmatic institutionalist. For Veblen the two prime movers of modern culture are business enterprise and the machine process. The latter is the leisure class, driven by pecuniary gain through investment for profit, while the latter is the class of efficiency engineers whose drive is mechanical efficiency based on the value of workmanship. At this point, Veblen could have gone the Marxist way and explain the clash between businesspeople and engineers in terms of conscious class conflict. He did not, though. Instead, he develop the concept of habits of thought. While the business class is rooted in the invention of ownership and thus is moved by conspicuous consumption and emulation, the engineer class is moved by making tools, curiosity about how the external world works, and the instinct to care for others. To add a evolutionary twist, Veblen capped it off by saying that these habits of thought are partly innate and partly culturally defined, and become fluid as technological advances unfold.

 

If (and only if) we use the Veblenian framework of analysis, this era of humanity is one of painful, harsh adjustments. The former engineer class is coming to terms with its newly minted status as the business enterprise class, though this metamorphosis is taking place through the prism of the Marxist reinvention in line with the anti-rationalist, inward looking relativism of the Frankfurt School. Can they keep making money while dynamiting its guts with an anti-capitalist workforce? They certainly think so, because they subscribe to the hippie belief of a self-balancing ecosystem where we are all machines. These tech monsters are hiring the enemy because they don't know better. And, in the process, they are boycotting themselves. The outcome will be either tyranny or chaos.

 

Welcome to the machine.

 

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