Spook Governments, Networked Movements, Shifting Subjectivities

Mysterious view towards downtown from hilltop above Hunter's Point shipyards; eventually this will be residential housing...

Mysterious view towards downtown from hilltop above Hunter’s Point shipyards; eventually this will be residential housing…

Everyone is chiming in on the Ed Snowden/NSA story. It’s great that Snowden has released all this information, just like it was great that Wikileaks released all those diplomatic cables, and great that Bradley Manning (evidently) leaked it to Wikileaks in the first place. We need to honor and defend these people, who are acting on behalf of a much greater cause than personal gain or fame. They are one important wing of the general delegitimizing of the United States and the neoliberal imperial project that the U.S. has pushed so hard for the past four decades.

But I’ve been surprised that the response to the NSA gathering everyone’s phone calls and emails has been so narrowly focused on the ostensible violation of personal privacy. The real issue is not the privacy of your personal communication. The NSA program is the government’s attempt to get a handle on networked uprisings, not so they can pre-empt them (though of course they’d like to), but to respond them as quickly as possible as they unfold. The goal of gathering all this meta-data is to be able to identify where the “hubs” are, who the people are who sit at key points in networks, helping pass news and messages along, but especially, who the people are who spread ideas and information from one network of people to the next, who help connect small networks into larger ones, and thus facilitate the unpredictable and rapid spread of dissent when it appears.

Sociologist Manuel Castells’ latest book Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age (Polity Press: 2012) reaches for a much less academic and more popular tone than he usually does. He examines the new social movements that erupted since 2011, giving a helpful summary of the course of events in Tunisia, Egypt, Spain, and the U.S., going behind the simplistic claims of a “twitter” or “social media revolution.” He shows how the presence of those technologies was important and indispensable for the development of these movements, but that it was the synergy between social media and actually existing networks, combining in public squares and camps, that took things to a new level. Elsewhere, Rodrigo Nunes wrote last summer on Mute Magazine’s web site a smart analysis of the organizational forms that emerged during 2011 and subsequently, arguing that the generally weak connections that prevail on social media could amalgamate into something greater:

under certain special conditions, the quantity of connections enabled by social media can indeed produce the quality of stronger ones – a marginal effect that weak ties always possess that is intensified by favourable circumstances, and which we could describe as a general lowering of each individual’s participation threshold.

We can see how the NSA spying program is geared to penetrating these new, not-really-spontaneous organizational forms that emerge on an adhoc basis and don’t seem to produce lasting institutional forms (at least not yet). Without the familiar unions or political parties as targets for infiltration and manipulation, the spooks in charge of imperial “peace” have been scrambling to head off the mysterious new ways people are figuring out to radically challenge the way life is shaped. Here’s Nunes again:

If there can be mass movements without mass organisations, it is because social media amplify exponentially the effects of relatively isolated initiatives. But that they do so is not a miraculous phenomenon that can magically bypass quality by producing quantity out of nothing; it requires the relay through hubs and strong tie groups and clusters that can begin to operationally translate ‘chatter’ into action. As that happens, under propitious conditions, the spread of information also aids the development of strong ties down the long tail: once a friend or family member goes to a demo, or you see stirring images of one, you are more likely to go, and so on. So we can only speak of ‘spontaneity’ if we understand the new flows of information and decision making as also being necessarily routed by previously existing networks and organisations and more tightly knit affinities, and thus along the lines of previously given structures that no doubt were transformed in the process; certainly not in the sense of an ideal ‘association of individuals’ who previously existed as individuals only.

Banner hanging at the former Hayes Valley Farm, taken over on June 1 by folks who dubbed it "Gezi Gardens" in solidarity with the Turks... they were evicted by heavy police attack on the night of June 12... other photos from the short-lived occupation appear below.

Banner hanging at the former Hayes Valley Farm, taken over on June 1 by folks who dubbed it “Gezi Gardens” in solidarity with the Turks… they were evicted by heavy police attack on the night of June 12… other photos from the short-lived occupation appear below.

The latest country to see such a sudden emergence of apparently uncoordinated but networked social opposition is Brazil, following closely on the heels of Turkey. Smaller upheavals have occurred in Indonesia and Bulgaria too. The specific reasons why these uprisings have begun are different. In Turkey it was the effort to save a last small park in Taksim Square, the most important public plaza in Istanbul. In Brazil it began with a protest against a small rise in bus fares. Brazil and Turkey are both very large, economically up-and-coming countries with large capitalist enterprises and a strong presence in world markets. In each place a marginal political effort staged by a small group suddenly became much larger and attracted the support of hundreds of thousands of other citizens, rapidly and radically expanding the “issues” that shook the governments of both countries. In both cases, it seems the initial surge has subsided, but the sense that “everything has changed” is palpable among the people in both places too. In this it is remarkably similar to the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, and the so-called Indignados movement in Spain, and the Occupy movement in the U.S.

Writing in an interesting collection called Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory (edited by Trebor Scholz, Routledge:2013), Ned Rossiter and Soenke Zehle offer some useful insights into the serial quality of networked upheavals:

While seriality assumes an element of repetition, the differential work of translation bestows upon network practices a set of social-technical contours specific to the situation, event, and production of desire. When seen in terms of seriality, the uncertain capacity to sustain network politics and culture appears less of an issue. There is a passage of communicating tactics, strategies, and concepts across network settings. In this sense, seriality is best understood as an iterative process over time and space that corresponds loosely with the remix logic of digital culture and the shift toward strategies of a stream-based sharing of serialized content. Both in social and technological terms, it is the work of translation that indicates organized networks are much more robust new institutional forms than their often short-term, even ephemeral, composition suggests. The political and organizational question, therefore, becomes less one of whether Occupy Wall Street can transform into a social movement or whether the Arab Spring can produce state-based forms of governance and more a case of how the techniques and concepts from any particular network instantiation will move in time and across space to another situation. What sort of social-technical transformation and production of new organizational concepts, subjectivities, and desires will define this grammar of iteration, of its constitutive practices and modes of relation?  (“Acts of Translation: Organized Networks as Algorithmic Technologies of the Common”, p. 233)

This is what the government’s spook agencies are most concerned about. The massive spying on the population of the United States by the NSA is only part of it. The NSA is actually trying to spy on the entire planet. The goal of this gargantuan spying program is to try to discern the patterns by which networks are assembling and extending themselves. The appearance of new movements in new places gives the impression that repressive efforts are just a huge (albeit murderous and painful) game of whack-a-mole. As time goes on, the logic of self-organizing at the base of society keeps emerging in new places, with ever greater vigor and always surprising creativity and humor. The deep humanism of the social upheavals in Turkey and Brazil are striking, and if they seem to subside after such a furious and intense appearance on the world stage, the lives of millions have been indelibly changed. They will not be able to forget what they tasted, and the people they communicate these new experiences and insights to will be ready to join them next time if they weren’t out there this time.

Chalked on the sidewalk outside Gezi Gardens/Hayes Valley Farm.

Chalked on the sidewalk outside Gezi Gardens/Hayes Valley Farm.

It’s also true that in most places where these movements have erupted, there’s been a long process of social decay which has led to the breakdown of previous patterns of life, the shattering of traditional stable communities and neighborhoods, the disruption of work patterns and shared workplaces, etc. Much of this could be chalked up to normal capitalist “progress” but the social consequences of this decades-long neoliberal offensive have been devastating to the forms that once helped average people push back against the conditions of their exploitation and immiseration (so unions are weaker than ever, social benefits via state-supported “safety net” programs have been eviscerated etc.). Facing this reality, a lot of what emerged in the public squares and camps from the Arab Spring to the people crowding the streets of Brazil and Turkey now have been tentative efforts to rebuild basic political relationships. Nunes described it well last summer:

[These camps were] attempting to create the political space in which a collectively shared will could be constructed, so that a social force capable of effecting change through ‘contamination’ and/or enforcement of its will, could appear. . . what these later camps did was to act on the conditions of possibility of politics: in the context of profound disempowerment and a severe crisis impacting on highly atomised societies, they functioned as a space where the fabric of relations that one calls ‘the political’ could, at least for those who were there, be partially (re)constituted.

An assembly on Saturday afternoon June 8 during the brief occupation.

An assembly on Saturday afternoon June 8 during the brief occupation.

Tree sits were staged in the old trees that have been growing since the freeway still rushed past on both sides.

Tree sits were staged in the old trees that have been growing since the freeway still rushed past on both sides.

Largely denuded of its recent productive landscape, this is the old Fell Street offramp, which was a wonderful part of Hayes Valley Farm for the past year or two...

Largely denuded of its recent productive landscape, this is the old Fell Street offramp, which was a wonderful part of Hayes Valley Farm for the past year or two…

The Oak Street onramp, still pointing into the void, a void now quickly filling with the new apartment construction booming in the Civic Center area.

The Oak Street onramp, still pointing into the void, a void now quickly filling with the new apartment construction booming in the Civic Center area.


At Gezi gardens

At Gezi gardens

In spite of the NSA gathering so much, it’s nearly impossible to imagine that they can do anything particularly intelligent with it. If we know anything about the CIA, the FBI, the local police, or any organized police bureaucracy, they’re pretty bad at actual police work, but they can carry out programs of assassination, kidnap, blackmail, political attacks, disrupting of social movements, and propaganda on a huge scale. The extensive and intrusive police bureaucracies of East Germany, the Soviet Union, and China (just to cite a few well-known examples) were not able to understand, let alone stop, the social organizing and widespread dissent that finally caused these countries to either disappear or become radically different. I would guess that NSA efforts to understand what’s going on are unlikely to succeed any more than the Stasi in East Germany ultimately did, because the people analyzing the data cannot understand how bankrupt and objectionable the society they’re defending is to the average person living under it.

That said, it’s also true that countless people in the U.S. and elsewhere on the planet do not perceive the limits of their lives in terms of systemic oppression. These days the propaganda apparatus is so embedded in our daily lives that it hardly needs any serious management from outside. It’s not a new idea to argue that people are “brainwashed” or “duped” or “mindless zombies” and that’s not where I’m trying to go with this—in no small part because I don’t believe that people have lost their free will, their ability to engage in acts of solidarity and mutual aid, or to work together to make a world worth living in.

But I have had a growing feeling, gnawing at me for more than a year now, that we’re living through an unprecedented change in consciousness. And I’m not very confident that it’s something to be happy about. I quoted Bifo a couple of months ago on this blog about the decay of social solidarity. I think he’s on to something. Living in San Francisco these days, it’s hard to go anywhere and not see MOST people staring into their phones and tablets. The panicky way people use their devices to keep up with real-time responses on email, Facebook, Twitter, or other social media, is overloading everyone. Who has time to sit and quietly read and take the time to think through complicated arguments?

What if we are living through an analogous process to the deskilling of blue-collar and white-collar work that the introduction of technology caused from the 1970s onward? What if this period we’re living through is producing new kinds of subjectivities that have a reduced capability to engage in the complicated processes of social and democratic self-management? Jodi Dean is a commie writer and blogger who published a book Blog Theory: Feedback and Capture in the Circuits of Drive  (Polity Press: 2010) and I think some of her insights inform this rumination:

We have been produced as subjects unlikely to coalesce, subjects resistant to solidarity and suspicious of collectivity. Central to this production is the cultivation and feeding of a sense of unique and special individuality. . . A body of immediacy and enjoyment [is] driven to move from image to image, intensity to intensity. Lacking discipline, how can it resist, how can it form a will at all? Far from constructing something new, such a body forecloses the possibility and hope of self-governance. . . Petitions, social network groups, blogs—they are the political equivalent of just in time production, quick responses circulating as contributions to the flows of communicative capitalism… in the circuits of communicative capitalism, convenience trumps commitment.

Living in this world of constant real-time messages and news, we all feel overwhelmed by the glut of incoming information. And yet many of us compulsively seek it out hour after hour, adding our “likes” here and there, maybe answering some quick emails, checking out a news site or an article link in a twitter feed, always thinking we might find something “important” after the next click. As we participate in this rushing river of non-sense, we’re actually working for the owners of Facebook, Google, et al, providing them with the raw material they in turn sell to advertisers (our pay? “free” use of their software platforms). Given the predictable ‘so what?’ shrug most of us have for that point, we’re less conscious of the way that basic knowing itself is degraded in this process. Here’s Jodi Dean again:

In the setting of communicative capitalism, another name for the impossibility of expertise, for falsification without limit, is the decline of symbolic efficiency. How do we know whom to believe or trust? Suspicion or even uncertainty toward expertise goes all the way down: skepticism toward politicians and the media, scientists and academics, extends to local knowledges, knowledges rooted in experience, and anything at all appearing on the internet. Not only has amateurism and gut-level or street knowledge supplanted what was previously considered expertise, but even amateur and everyday knowledge is now rejected as nothing more than opinion, and opinion which is necessarily limited, biased, and countered by others. The ability to falsify is unlimited. The lack of a capacity to know is the other side of the abundance of knowledge… Understood reflexively, constant, pervasive communication can be a regime of control in which the people willingly and happily report on their views and activities and stalk their friends. Networked whatever beings don’t need spectacles staged by politicians and the mass media. We can make and be our own spectacles—and this is much more entertaining. . .Our participation does not subvert communicative capitalism. It drives it … the information age is an age wherein we lack the information we need to act. As communicative capitalism incites a continuous search for information, it renders information perpetually out of reach. Outraged, engaged, desperate to do something, we look for evidence, ask questions, and make demands, again contributing to the circuits of drive . . . We are configuring the worlds we inhabit, yet they are ever less what we desire but haven’t reached and ever more what we cannot escape yet still enjoy . . . It’s also difficult to think through the ways our practices and activities are producing new subjectivities, subjectivities that may well be more accustomed to quick satisfaction and bits of enjoyment than to planning, discipline, sacrifice, and delay, subjectivities that may well eschew equality as an end.

A new Gallup Poll just released finds that “seventy percent of full-time Americans working stiffs have either mentally “checked out” at work or purposefully sabotage the company’s productivity.” This is astonishing at first glance, but mostly because work remains our greatest public secret and such honesty about its pointlessness is rarely aired.

Isn’t it likely that the 70 million American workers who are “checked out” are that way because their work is so dull, repetitive, and obviously pointless? Repeated claims since the late 1970s that we are now in an era that requires more education and more skill to get the “good jobs” of the 21st century are belied by the reality that most jobs are a waste of time, organized to prevent creative engagement by the people doing them, and are completely dissociated from any shared social agenda that might address the real predicament we find ourselves in.

Bifo gets at the connection between the social decay at work the general spread of a similar predicament across social life in general:

Since the 1980s, precarity has provoked a process of desolidarization and disaggregation of the social composition of work. Virtualization has been a complementary cause of desolidarization: precarization makes the social body frail at the level of work, while virtualization makes the social body frail at the level of affection.

I tend to think that a vigorous engagement with reclaiming what we do from the logic of capitalism is an avenue to reanimate the frail social body and our affections as much as it is an avenue towards making work a source of meaning, pride, and creative satisfaction. These days the time wasted at stupid work is incalculable. And yet, we have so much to do! The world is falling apart, and in our delusional culture, most people who understand that things are going seriously wrong still labor under the fantasy that they can do their part by shopping responsibly. If we just buy the right products, the market will adjust and eventually thing will get better. This is an impossibly absurd idea, not far from pure denial.

But I’m not interested in berating anyone, nor in trying to scare people with bad facts (too numerous to enumerate anyway!). I’m always more interested in a politics that is invitational, inspiring, visionary, and is situated on what we do, or could do, to make the world we want to live in.

See if you can find all the construction cranes in this June 26 photo of a booming San Francisco!

At the far right the middle finger of SF is getting its twin…  now they’re going to make it a double-wide middle finger! (eewwww)

I took this picture from Twin Peaks while the Castro was beginning to celebrate the Supreme Court decisions regarding gay marriage.

I took this picture from Twin Peaks while the Castro was beginning to celebrate the Supreme Court decisions regarding gay marriage.

I was recently invited into a conversation that is taking place behind the scenes here among some San Franciscan progressives towards establishing a Municipal Bank. My first reaction is predictably skeptical but I decided to give it a bit of thought. I’ll never be a true believer in this kind of reform agenda, but I have to admit, holding out for a total transformation is pretty religious and I’m a very anti-religious guy.

So what could a Municipal Bank do? That’s the question I was asked in the context of what should it invest in—what kinds of economic activities could be engines of local development, in particular, should urban agriculture be part of that program? I had to say no to that, farming is never going to be on a scale in San Francisco that it could justify a big investment that needs to be returned with a profit. But given the horrible housing crisis and the tidal wave of evictions going on just now, I do think a Municipal Bank could finance tenants in existing rent-controlled buildings to convert themselves into permanent land trusts and owner-occupied co-ops, thereby taking properties off the open market forever and preserving affordable housing in perpetuity too.

Going a bit further, the terms of financing such land trust/coops could include rules about retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency (replacing windows, adding solar and insulation, improving heating and cooling), adding gray water plumbing systems, establishing rain catchment systems, putting fiber optic wiring into every block and every building to provide a free municipally-owned internet system, and so on. It could even include requirements to plant fruit-bearing trees, opening yards to urban farming, establishing roof gardens where sensible, and more. So the goal of all this would be to lower the cost of living here, to make it possible for people who live here now to stay, and to create social cohesion among neighbors in buildings, between buildings on a block-to-block basis, and slowly but surely make it possible to live more of one’s life outside the pecuniary and punishing logic of wage-labor and endless work.

When we add to the mix the larger scale issues of climate change, the obsolescence of automobiles, oil, and coal as technologies at the heart of our “economic lives,” and the reconfiguration of daily life we’re going to experience as we adapt and adjust to these realities, we really should be getting on with this now, while we still have resources to start the process with. Why not?

When I saw the corner near my house opened up like this it made me wistful for the possibility of a linear farm along Folsom Street... why not keep digging and then plant an orchard?

When I saw the corner near my house opened up like this it made me wistful for the possibility of a linear farm along Folsom Street… why not keep digging and then plant an orchard?


Gorgeous clear day yesterday... a bit of fog trying to sneak in the Golden Gate.... seen here from Twin Peaks.

Gorgeous clear day yesterday… a bit of fog trying to sneak in the Golden Gate…. seen here from Twin Peaks.

Coming down from Twin Peaks the view opens up to the north and voila! Fog hugging the Marin county coast...

Coming down from Twin Peaks the view opens up to the north and voila! Fog hugging the Marin county coast…

Dreams of a housing boom at Hunter's Point.

Dreams of a housing boom at Hunter’s Point.

Another view from Hunter's Point towards downtown, on what will eventually be a neighborhood full of housing...

Another view from Hunter’s Point towards downtown, on what will eventually be a neighborhood full of housing…

4 comments to Spook Governments, Networked Movements, Shifting Subjectivities

  • Coming back to re-read this post in light of the Cuban “fake Twitter” episode by IS AID.

    Understanding social netowarks was key to that propaganda exercise.

  • Clear, thick, great job… i’m jealous. Reminded of David Graeber’s little talk streamed out of the Global Uprisings conference in Holland last fall — basically riffing on his “bullshit jobs” essay, expanding it to say that that’s how the right/1%ers rope people into resentment of those who can not to work only for money, how working class people can never aspire to get those kind of intellectual and cultural jobs, since they’re locked up by the elite classes. Really kind of a bleak prospect. Sigh… on we go. Way out? Refiguring ideas of leisure to be exactly the kind of making we need to be doing?

  • Martin

    The clarity and command of your writing makes your points that much more vivid – though this cannot be said about the prolix academics/monologuists you cite. How you find the moments of populist understanding in the impenetrable thickets from these folks is a great skill, though I think your work is the one far more to be be emulated.
    James C. Scott seems to have gotten into the mainstream review world with his musings on a fairly Nowtopian-influenced theme, though the book dulls into mere wishful off-handed praise for basically moping as a form of anarchist resistance.
    Also, San Francisco seems to be under techie housing and financial assault, according to alternet http://www.alternet.org/cultur…..-take-over.
    No argument from me on your perceptions – great stuff.

  • Brad

    What is most challenging to understand is the two-sidedness of so-called networked culture: the virtual and the face-to-face. There is something one is tempted to call compensatory in the relation of the decomposing relations of actual public spaces and “real world” culture as it gives way to an economy of attention to screens that goes by the code words “social media.” The practice of slipping from one to the other seems to confuse all distinctions. People project the ontologies of the world onto the virtual and the virtual onto the world. There is something therefor brittle in the resulting formations. The case of Egypt is an important example. We cannot say this is a proof of anything yet. Recomposition of the social might require a time frame we are now unaccustomed to granting activity. Moore’s law cannot apply to the political. And in the US, degree of alienation, spectacularization, and virtualization seem so extreme that the kinds of uprisings of scale bursting forth into the streets of other places appears to be impossible here. We only lamely and impotently mobilize the memes that are circulating elsewhere — maybe out of some compulsive need to “participate.” That cannot be politics really.

    So if the NSA is datamining the networks in order to grock the new sociality, there are multiple reasons for shrugging and for outrage. As you suggest, what the security state does is inevitably tangential to the thrust of real cultural activity. But also, what the security state does is terrorize based on rogue idiot algorithms. Terror, as we know, can as easily find its victims at random, but the elaboration of targets and justifications within trillion dollar machines is a porno-political project with economic consequences and ideological collateral. I half-suspect that all the publicity for the NSA is really a debutant ball for its spectacular coming out — it’s a stealth ad campaign for the agency that is eclipsing the CIA and the FBI in importance, and it naturalizes surveillance. You can’t have all the memes that justify the regularization of ubiquitous intelligence gathering without the revelation of its existence.

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