And Yet, We Go On

Difficult to sit down and begin writing. Not so much a writer’s block. I just find everything that I might write a bit distant and empty in light of living in a country that is actively supporting the ongoing genocide in Gaza. Waking up to the daily reality of tens of thousands of murdered civilians, ongoing bombing, and aggressive belligerence by Israel in the region, all with the unqualified backing of Biden and his minions, is unacceptable. And yet, we go on.

To be sure, Gaza is only what gets everyone’s attention. The endless war in Ukraine, the unseen civil war in Tigray/Ethiopia/Eritrea, the millions dead in eastern Congo… it’s exhausting. And then the governmental rush to send even more armaments, lubricating domestic war industries, to the wrong people in the wrong places: living in the USA is shameful by definition. And when weapons become obsolete and surplus? Give “grants” so local police departments can buy the excess and become increasingly militarized in their violent assaults on black and brown people, especially on the border. And yet, we go on.

I appreciate my friends and neighbors who have maintained protest camps on campuses, blocked the Golden Gate Bridge and the Nimitz Freeway, and kept the weekly pulse of protest alive during these dark days. I don’t very often show up for demonstrations anymore. I want to believe that they are having an effect. But Bush/Cheney ignored 12 million people marching against war in 2003 before attacking Iraq, and I don’t think the ruling class failed to register that there were no consequences for simply ignoring popular mobilizations. It’s become standard operating procedure. And yet, we go on.

On a more personal note, my daughter just turned 40—a strange sensation in itself—and is off to visit a European friend who has only weeks to live, dying of terminal cancer. A pal I play with every week is going through chemo and radiation for his two cancers. Who doesn’t know someone who has either died, or recently been diagnosed with cancer? We live in a world saturated with countless toxic chemicals, food additives, drugs, radiation, and yet we continue to allow corporations to manufacture and distribute them. The cancer epidemic is not a mystery. Petrochemical plastics are choking waterways and waste systems everywhere. Turning a blind eye, the U.S. government authorized the building of new plastics factories, one of which is slated to produce 2/3 as much plastic in one year as has been produced since WWII! Gotta do something with all that fracked natural gas. Export as much as possible and use the rest to make plastic. And of course keep drilling for oil and building pipelines, as though we were still in the early 20th century. What kind of madness is this? And yet, we go on.

Certainly there have been steady protests against many of these things. Not everyone complacently accepts the trajectory we’re on. In fact, according to Vince Bevins’ book If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution the 2010s saw more people protesting in the streets than in any prior decade in recorded history! His book is a fascinating study of history as it unfolded in the past decade. He looks at many social movements that erupted across the planet in the 2010s, from Egypt to Turkey to Brazil to Hong Kong and he draws some difficult conclusions for those committed to horizontalist politics. Touching on a perspective I found earlier in Rodrigo Nunes’ book during the pandemic, Bevins carefully dissects how illegible horizontalist movements have been, and how authoritarians standing in the wings have been able to take advantage of the vacuum created by successful insurgencies that started with a deep commitment to radical democracy.

I believe that a preexisting set of ideological currents, developed in moments of anti-Soviet and neo-anarchist thinking, gained particular momentum in the era of the “end of history” (the 1990s) and then found elective affinity with technological and corporate developments made in the 2000s. Social media firms made it much easier to scale up the size of horizontal mass gatherings, and their services also made it very likely that citizens would see disturbing imagery of states abusing their power. Given that representative government and perhaps even representation itself is in crisis, and that many human beings appear to be more individualistic than we have ever been, all of this proved to be a dynamite combination. (p. 268)

He quotes an Italian sociologist Paulo Gerbaudo who showed up at many protests: “At the end of the day, horizontalism is a reflection of individualism.” And later Bevins offers this cautionary note:

… I have come to the conclusion that horizontally structured, digitally coordinated, leaderless mass protest is fundamentally illegible… This means that the significance of these events will be imposed upon them from the outside. In order to understand what might happen after any given protest explosion, you must not only pay attention to who is waiting in the wings to fill a power vacuum. You have to pay attention to who has the power to define the uprising itself. (p. 276)

It has to be noted that Bevins was a working journalist during most of his engagement with the various movements he describes. His focus on how mass protest gets defined from outside is a quintessentially journalistic concern, though not unfounded when a movement fails to engage in its own self-definition in a way that can be heard. He also concludes that representation and organization are fundamental necessities for doing politics. Thousands of people lived through Occupy, or the 2003 anti-war movement, or the anti-globalization movement(s) that ended the last century and began this one, and saw the remarkable energy and enthusiasm and creativity get sidelined and flushed down the memory hole as quickly as possible. It’s hardly surprising that more and more people are returning to electoral fantasies or neo-Leninist party building projects. But returning to failed models because attempts to invent a new way of changing the world hasn’t yet worked is hardly a recipe for success.

In Brazil Bevins found himself among the half dozen activists who set out to launch protests against a fare increase on public transit and then weeks later were surprised by their own “success.” Eventually millions of Brazilians went to the streets in 2013, expressing a wide range of complaints about their everyday lives, often far beyond the original protest against fare increases. After jersey-wearing nationalists joined the protests and began to divert them toward their own well-financed goals, the ultimate result, years later, was the corrupt semi-coup that deposed President Dilma Rousseff, put former (and current) president Lula in jail, and led to Bolsonaro getting elected.

For my purposes in this essay, though, I’m interested in how we keep going on, reproducing this insane world, even when millions try to block the most barbaric policies and push things in new directions. Sometimes it seems the protests themselves, paradoxically, are reinforcing the world as it is—a world that accommodates mass protest as long as it doesn’t actually gain power.

Another book I read recently is called The Handover: How We Gave Control of Our Lives to Corporations, States, and AIs by David Runciman. Echoing the apparent impotence that Bevins’ analysis reveals—and a glance at the current status quo only reconfirms—Runciman begins his curious volume by asserting,

We are going to be living in a world of human-like machines, built by machine-like versions of human beings. To fixate on the human would be a mistake, because the merely human will be relatively powerless to impact on this future. It’s not a question of us versus them. It’s a question of which of them gives us the best chance of still being us. (p. 10)

What he means by “them” here is elucidated throughout the book. He offers an odd history that describes states and corporations as artificial agents, precursors to the promise (or threat) of AIs, which are just software programs that have nothing to do with “intelligence,” but do seem to be a harbinger of a new type of power (well concealed so far by the mouseketeers of AI). Human societies created states and corporations as entities that could persist over time, and importantly Runciman declares unambiguously that “in the history of market innovation, the state comes first.” He confirms Karl Polanyi’s important 1940s work The Great Transformation that lays out the impossibility of so-called “free markets” without a state to define and maintain the conditions for any kind of market, however unfree or free it may be deemed. Here’s Runciman:

States and corporations reflect two different sides of our contemporary fear of machines that have escaped human control. One is that we will build machines that we don’t know how to switch off, either because we have become too dependent on them or because we can’t find the off switch. That’s states. The other is that we build machines that self-replicate in ways that we can no longer regulate. They start spewing out versions of themselves to the point where we are swamped by them. That’s corporations. (p. 94) … It was not that our imagination became mechanized. Rather, we began to imagine what it would be like to organize collective enterprises as though they had the durability of machines. (p. 110) … … modern states and corporations spur each other on, endlessly, iteratively. … the many of us who live in this artificial version of wonderland may soon have to face a question that was never likely to arise before: what if there is no escape from the relentless drive for growth? And what happens if we need to find one? (p. 128)

Living in San Francisco we are inundated with marketing for Artificial Intelligence. Billboards line the freeway from the Bay Bridge into the center of the city, nearly all pitching one AI product or another. Bizarre when you consider how few people are actually involved in this still small niche, and that actually there are very few useful products yet. There’s an awful lot of smoke, so most people succumb to that marketing trick and assume that therefore there must be fire. But AI is already bumping into its own death spiral because of the rise of “Hapsburg AI” (h/t to Jathan Sadowski on This Machine Kills podcast) where the algorithms are now turning to AI-generated content because they can’t get enough “real data” to feed their voracious engines. And the burgeoning cost of AI in terms of energy use is a serious physical impediment (potentially far worse than what was already seen in the crypto-boom-and-bust) that hasn’t been addressed by anyone. And by the accounts of folks like Ed Zitron of the Better Offline podcast, there simply aren’t any profitable AI uses for either large companies or average consumersat least not yet. And yet, we go on…

Tried selling books at Dolores Park recently… not much interest!

The deeply racist eugenics project that inspires so many tech billionaires and their followers is embedded in the technology of the various AIs that have been rushed to market to pre-empt any meaningful social contemplation of their use. Perhaps more to the point, AI is merely the latest version of an ideological campaign that centers technology as inevitable progress and that is an ideology with deep roots in the 19th century, and interestingly it’s geographically rooted in Palo Alto and Stanford University, the frozen heart of Silicon Valley. More on that next time…

And still, we go on…

2 comments to And Yet, We Go On

  • Martin

    What happens when we (humanity as a collective) need to find an escape when there isn’t one, and there will not be one?
    There can only be one, obvious, “inescapable” answer to that essential conundrum, but that’s the answer that dare not speak its name. And if anyone tries to write with that answer front-and-center, they will get a readership of lower than zero, and be happy with it – pointing to myself, of course.
    So forget the “escape” notion, then, and enjoy the bounty of the spring!
    Pundits and academicians like Runciman may intone about “a new understanding of the immense challenges we now face,” but “we” get the world as it comes – not as “we” want it to be, but as atomized, death-bound individuals who are fated to ride the amazing ride until it ends spectacularly.

  • always happy to see a new post big tree was and is epicenter of tech bros revolution mal Harris Palo alto is good history of cappy right wing extremism extraction dominated way of life till next time

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