Techno-pessimism in the early 1990s

There seems to have been something about the early 1990s that lent itself to intensely pessimistic ideas about the direction of an increasingly technological society.  At least that’s the impression I’m getting from reading two different and highly influential pieces of literature: a 1995 leftist polemic against Silicon Valley, “The Californian Ideology”, and a 1992 cyberpunk sci-fi novel, Snow Crash.

“The Californian Ideology” had a huge impact on discourse about Silicon Valley and its politics, enough to make the editor of Wired issue a very angry and snarky rebuttal.  It analyzed the way the ideology of Silicon Valley — a combination of techno-utopianism with a hostility to any kind of government regulation — is historically rooted in the merging of two previously antagonistic classes in the San Francisco Bay Area, counter-culture hippies and money-grubbing yuppies.  When the various social movements of the ’60s were defeated, a significant faction broke off to try to continue their project in developing new technologies and new ways to mediate social life free of states and corporations, but in the process accepted the boundaries of the free market and slowly mutated into the anti-regulation libertarians that define the stereotypical Silicon Valley techie.  The essay predicts a future of intense economic inequality, environmental collapse, and renewed forms of apartheid in the US.

Snow Crash seemingly builds its dystopian cyberpunk vision directly from the arguments of “The Californian Ideology”, despite being written three years earlier.  Its world is one where techno-libertarianism has been taken to absurd lengths: the government has completely collapsed and private corporations run the entirety of society while also competing with each other, the military has fragmented into rival security firms, the Central Intelligence Agency is now the Central Intelligence Corporation, the mafia has risen to the heights of political economy via innovations in the pizza business, some nations-turned-corporations use fully automated robotic security systems, the global biosphere has totally degraded, tends of millions of refugees from the Third World are fleeing to the First, while California suburbanites construct explicitly white supremacist and segregationist suburbs.  But perhaps the most stunning aspect of the world of Snow Crash is the vision of a labor market that has been fully fragmented via digital platforms, where each worker is a pure individual who must compete with other works to fulfill discrete tasks — indeed, the main characters are a freelance hacker (and ex-pizza delivery guy) and a delivery girl, both of whom work through automated digital platforms.  Somehow, despite being written in 1992, Stephenson predicted the rise of the gig economy and platform companies like Uber, Deliveroo, and Task Rabbit.

Off the top of my head, I’m not sure what about this time period would have produced this kind of techno-pessimism.  After all, the Soviet Union had just collapsed, all the “end of history” chumps were cheering loudly, and US politics was turning sharply toward the right with the Democratic Party going all-in with “Third Way” neoliberalism.  I guess you can chalk one up for left-wing media studies scholars and cyberpunk novelists.

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Rise of the “Tech Left”

There was a pretty good piece recently published about a month ago in The Guardian about left-wing organizing and activism in the tech industry, titled “Coders of the world, unite: can Silicon Valley workers curb the power of Big Tech?”  The article touches on much of what I talked about here, and extends it to look at what is called the “Tech Left”, a movement within the tech industry that focuses on tech workers as a potentially radical agent of change:

Their insight is as compelling as it is counterintuitive: the best people to confront the power of the tech giants may be their own employees. First, they want to teach their colleagues to see that tech work is work, even though it doesn’t take place in a factory. Then, they want to organise them, so that rank-and-file workers can begin to bring political transparency and democratic accountability to the platforms they have worked to build. Call them the Tech Left…

…The Tech Left believes it must urgently transform the industry in order to stop it from serving nefarious ends. It is not focused on getting Democratic politicians elected. On the contrary, much of the Tech Left distrusts mainstream Democrats. It does not believe that more engagement with digital tools necessarily means more democracy, or that the tech industry will necessarily lead the way to social progress. It is sceptical that people who became billionaires under the current system will transform that system. Instead of venture capital, the Tech Left talks about worker power, believing that the best chance to reform these companies will come from people who work there.

The article looks at two organizations, the Tech Workers Coalition (TWC) and Tech Solidarity, both of which are organizing tech workers for left-wing and progressive ends.  The TWC is organizing to both raise class consciousness among engineers and programmers and other techies, and to unite these white-collar workers with their blue-collar counterparts who work in food and janitorial services in the same buildings and campuses.  Tech Solidarity is working along similar lines, to build labor-oriented networks among tech workers and empower them to resist a reactionary Trump administration.  Other organizations and networks are observed as well, such as the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and their Tech Action committee, and the Never Again pledge that was passed around among thousands of techies.

The article is long, and good.  Check it out.  Also related is a more recent op-ed, published last week, on basically the same topic, titled “Tech capitalists won’t fix the world’s problems – their unionized workforce might”.  The op-ed notes the TWC’s activities in the US, as well as parallel activities in India and Brazil among radicalizing tech workers.

Hopefully, this is all just the beginning of a wave of organizing and mobilizing in an industry that is the engine of contemporary capitalism.

The “triple selection” of Indian America

Caravan Magazine recently published an excellent review/essay of two books on the history of South Asian immigration to the United States: The Other One Percent: Indians in America (2016), and Desis Divided: The Political Lives of South Asian Americans (2016).  It seems that a key theme of both books is to examine and unpack differences with respect to the South Asian diaspora in the US, specifically around the issue of the “model minority” stereotype.  Indian Americans today appear to be the single most socio-economically successful ethnic group in the country.  Why?

The authors of The Other One Percent argue that Indian America is largely shaped by processes of a “triple selection”, that has created a population that “does not resemble any other population anywhere: not the Indian population in India, nor the native population in the United States, nor any other immigrant group from any other nation.”  This “triple selection” consists of 1) the caste system selecting upper-caste men for education, 2) limited access to higher education selecting for an elite strata within the first group, and 3) the post-1965 US immigration system, designed around importing skilled techno-scientific workers, selecting the cream of the second group.

What really caught my eye, however, was the commentary around the nature of education systems in post-Independence India, which echoes what I’ve been attempting to study and write about, about the relationship between Asian America, mid-century anti-imperialist politics, and the production of skilled technical workers:

The Indian government had invested heavily in English-medium public higher education in science and technology—in places such as the Indian Institutes of Technology, which were mostly fed by urban English-medium private schools—even while grossly neglecting public primary education. This system soon produced tens and later hundreds of thousands of engineers amid a sea of functionally illiterate people. This talent pool was composed almost wholly of men from elite castes and classes, who were only too eager to escape from a country that could not offer them enough opportunity to apply their skills. And so the demands of the US labour market were met with a ready supply.

This gets at the central irony of the efforts of postcolonial nation-states, that they attempted to modernize a supposedly free and independent country, but did so in a manner that was easily and rapidly recuperated by global capitalism.

So what then are today’s organizing opportunities in Indian America?  I still think there is a lot of potential in merging efforts around radical tech worker organizing with parallel efforts in India America, given the disproportionate number of Indian techno-scientific workers.  Between upholding and spreading radical philosophies and histories around science and technology, organizing against contemporary racial oppression, and merging these efforts into class struggles, there are good avenues to stoke rebelliousness among workers who may otherwise happily continue petite-bourgeoisie and yuppie lifestyles.

Notes on the revolutionary potential in housing campaigns

There are some real swell comrades in the area who are kicking off some serious work around housing, so its a good time for me to dive back into some of my earlier musings on revolutionary communism and housing struggles.  The following is a summary of the argument I was trying to make across three essays I wrote several years ago: Biopolitics, Dual Power, and the Revolutionary Characteristics of “Serve the People” ProgramsThe Political Economy of Revolutionary Struggle: Lessons From the Black Panthers, and Serve the People, Seize the Land: Prospects for Revolutionary Struggle Around Affordable Housing.

Revolutionary movements are all based on particular local conditions and histories, but they do have important similarities that can be universalized and applied generally.

  • Revolutionary movements deliver immediate and concrete benefits to people.  They are not based in abstract demands for a better world, or promises of societal improvements at some point in the future—they improve things now.  Hence why workplace action has often been at the center of Marxist praxis—it is an area where people can force immediate changes, and in the process, develop into revolutionary subjects.  The creation of concrete benefits makes it clear to people that participating in the revolutionary struggle will improve their lives, even if they may disagree ideologically, or don’t understand the more complex theoretical underpinnings of communism.  The Black Panther Party applied this practice in the US outside the traditional site of class struggle (the workplace), in the neighborhoods, with their service and protection programs.
  • Revolutionary movements develop autonomous institutions of the working class, outside of state and capital. This is a requirement for the revolutionary creation of material benefits to the masses; what makes these benefits revolutionary is that they are created and distributed by and for the masses.  This requires proper coordination, planning, and discipline, as well as the ability to scale up and out, and to continually reproduce itself—hence the term “institutions”.  They are also independent from capital and its fetters, outside the control of the state, wealthy donors, non-profit foundations, and so on.  Thus the establishment of popular institutions of the class, which govern and coordinate the creation and distribution of tangible goods and services, develops proletarian “dual power”.  The Black Panther Party developed such institutions to organize their diverse spectrum of survival programs such as breakfasts, clothing drives, etc., although they failed to ensure that these efforts were properly independent from state and capital.
  • The economic foundations of the revolutionary movement are key to its survival, and is heavily related to the way dual power institutions are structured. The Black Panther Party, while at its core was made up of dedicated volunteer cadres, also became dependent on donations from petite-bourgeoisie classes like local business owners and white professionals.  This worked while there was a material basis for an alliance (local business owners were locked in the ghetto due to segregation and thus subject to Panther governance; the children of white professionals faced the draft), but once the foundation of this alliance crumbled (desegregation, end of the war), the Panthers were split between a social-democratic tendency that chased after donations from an increasingly conservative base (thus steadily absorbed by liberal institutions) and an insurrectionary tendency attempting to be true to its revolutionary principles without any material base at all (thus easily crushed militarily).  For modern revolutionaries it is clear that we must take seriously the question of how we sustain and reproduce ourselves and our organizations financially.
  • Revolutionary movements tap into feedback loops. The creation of immediate concrete benefits isn’t just a way to attract new recruits and impress observers, it is to help break the biopolitical control of capital over our lives and free up time and energy to further engage in revolutionary organizing — thus allowing for even more benefits to be created, and so on, in a positive feedback loop.  Militant unionism increases wages and decreases workplace stress and working hours, thus increasing the amount of money, time, and energy available to organize, which should lead to even more wage increases and stress/workday reductions.  The Black Panther Party’s armed interventions against police brutality made the streets safer for people to walk around and organize, and also kept money in people’s pockets, making more available to help fund more survival programs.
  • Land struggles in particular have a lot of potential to generate revolutionary feedback loops. It is precisely for this reason why pretty much all modern revolutions have had at least some basis in land struggles, and why some of the most interesting movements today are based in land struggles (EZLN in Mexico, MST in Brazil, Maoist guerrillas in Asia).  The monopolization of land in agricultural societies presents a very obviously zero-sum game for the masses of landless peasants.  When even a small group of revolutionaries begin to upend this monopolization and start to seize control of and distribute land, it is obvious to all landless people that it would be most excellent if this revolutionary movement was to expand.  The more land gets expropriated and redistributed, the more stable and prosperous and popular the revolutionaries are, and the weaker the old landed class is, and the more land that can be expropriated and redistributed.  (Obviously things are more complicated than this, i.e. unresolved ethno-linguistic conflicts between landless people, less black-and-white statistics around land ownership and inequality, but in general the trend seems to emerges).
  • The situation of housing in the US today has many parallels to unequal feudal/agricultural societies. After 2008 the rates of property ownership for different income/class groups was completely upended in favor of the bourgeoisie and their institutions.  The number and proportion of tenants has skyrocketed, as has the amount and proportion of workers’ income going into the pockets of the landlords.  Pushing back against this trend and organizing to put money into people’s pockets is a simple, common-sense idea with broad popularity, but at the same time is a radical attack on capitalist property rights, even if it does not immediately turn into a campaign of expropriating and collectivizing housing (it won’t!).  Organizing around simple and straightforward demands (i.e. repairs/maintenance, freezes on rent increases) would be popular, and also pave the way for increasingly revolutionary actions, like rent strikes and outright expropriation.  But key to all this, as comrades on the ground in housing struggles have emphasized, is overcoming the incredibly high level of risk present in acting against your landlord — and by extension, the state’s security apparatus.  This is not just a question of tactics, but a question of overall revolutionary strategy, and one that should be the focus of investigation and experimentation for all of us interested in exploring the revolutionary potential in urban land struggles.

Paramilitary groups and economic blockades in Ukraine

There was a very interesting article published recently in War on the Rocks about right-wing paramilitary groups in Ukraine, and their destabilizing effects on governance.  Of note is the series of tit-for-tat seizures and blockades of various supply lines that occurred in the first few months of 2017.

In late January, militia members engaged in a very well-coordinated blockade of coal shipments from eastern separatist regions, which soon sparked an energy crisis.  In response, separatist militias began seizing control of factories in the east that were owned by pro-Kiev oligarchs.  In mid-March the fed-up authorities cracked down on the blockades and arrested the unruly nationalist militants — only to provoke mass protests, occupations of government buildings in four different regions, and a new blockade against the president’s candy factories.

Two days after the protests and occupations began, the Kiev government abruptly reversed its position and declared an official ban on all goods from separatist regions until the separatists handed back control of the pro-Kiev oligarch’s factories.  That didn’t happen, and now it seems that Ukraine is making up its coal import deficit with supply from Pennsylvania, with additional talk about cutting down imports from Russia.

What’s interesting in all this is the intersection of militant protest tactics (albeit by armed right-wing nationalist groups), a strategy built around disrupting very specific parts of the economy, and fossil-fuel supply chains.  Perhaps environmentalists can take a cue out of this book for the battle against carbon oligarchs and climate change.  For example, there has been an ongoing fight in the San Francisco Bay Area over a potential coal export terminal at the Port of Oakland.  If the terminal does end up getting built, how feasible might it be for people to blockade the coal shipments coming in from Utah?

Communist strategy, international coordination, and the pillar of the Gulf monarchies

Around a year ago Angry Workers of the World published an excellent document around the question of a workers’ insurrection, that looks at the matter in a very concrete and material way.

There is a huge amount in the document that can be discussed, but one thing in particular that stood out was this comment about how to tackle questions of international integration (emphasis added):

Maybe because of the generalisation of the ‘proletarian condition’ of being wage dependent and of the generalisation of ‘parliamentary democracy’ across the globe it now seems obsolete to talk about the impact of uneven development. Everything appears at the same time so similar (global village) and so different, once we look into details. The problem is that we clearly see the effect of regional differences on global class struggle, but:

a) we tend to explain these differences geopolitically or out of ‘national economies’ or even ethnically (oil producing nations, BRIC states, Arab Spring);
b) we celebrate a crude pluralism (‘patchwork of free and unfree labour; all sorts of proletarian income etc.);
c) we don’t develop revolutionary strategies of how regional struggles or struggles within certain stages of development relate to others.

That last bit is key.  This question of how struggles in one part of the world affect other parts of the world is a fascinating and important area of study, and something that I personally started thinking about an awful lot during and after writing an analysis of Saudi Arabia and its historical roots in imperialism.  It turned out that Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf petro-monarchies have played a major and pivotal role in the functioning of global capitalism, particularly in the restructuring toward neoliberalism after the 1970s, as described in detail in Adam Hanieh’s Capitalism and Class in the Gulf Arab States (2011).  If the left-wing movements in the area had been successful in the ’50s and ’60s, it would have changed the course of world history.

Today the Gulf states’ massive oil resources are tightly integrated with global finance capital, as well as with a regional market of precarious migrant labor.  A resurgence in communist struggle in this area would almost certainly destabilize global markets, and such a resurgence would almost certainly be embedded in either struggles by migrant workers from India/Pakistan/Bangladesh/Philippines, or in the struggles of the marginalized Shia populations of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain (who have historically been the backbone of leftist movements in the area).

In the case of migrant worker organizing, this would mean that radicals in South Asia and the Philippines have a critical role to play.  Revolutionary organizing among the migrant workers of the Gulf will require deep connections with the homelands, and the establishment of some kind of “home bases” away from the ruthless police states of the Gulf.

The supply lines of the Gulf’s repressive apparatus are also a key target for disruption, and arguably a necessary condition for successful communist resurgence.  Much of this apparatus is underwritten by the Western military-industrial complex and related surveillance and security organizations and companies.  In the modern era, many of these surveillance/security companies are integrated with the tech industry.  This gives another front on which radical tech workers can fight on.

And speaking of the tech industry, we can “close the loop” on the above analysis by looking at how many Indians migrate to the US to work in the tech industry (especially its core nexus in the San Francisco Bay Area), including in and around security firms.  Perhaps a connection can be made between these migrants, and the lower-skilled migrants in the Gulf; after all both categories tend to hail from the southern Indian states of Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu.  The material and social terrain exists here for a triangle of revolutionary class struggle to be developed between south India, the SF Bay Area, and the Persian Gulf.

This is all of course just one thread in the kind of analysis and strategizing needed to develop an international vision for class struggle.

Institutional murders at Uber and University of Hyderabad

In August 2017, a senior engineer at Uber — a 34-year old black man — committed suicide, after months of working under extreme stress.  According to his wife, he was working long hours, had uneasy relations with his boss, was fearful of losing his new job, and was generally suffering extreme stress and anxiety.  The question of racism in the workplace was also raised, given Uber’s repeated controversies around diversity, discrimination, and workplace culture.

In January 2017, a PhD student at University of Hyderabad — a 26-year old Dalit man — committed suicide, shortly after the administration suspended him and several other Dalit students in the aftermath of a lengthy period of controversy and unrest between a Dalit students’ organization and a rival Hindu nationalist students’ organization.  His suicide note sparked a new surge in protests against the caste system and against discriminatory policies, practices, and attitudes at the university.

During the protests in Hyderabad, the idea of “institutional murder” was raised — the argument that these kinds of suicides cannot be looked at as merely individuals “lapsing” into suicide, but as the consequence of oppressive and alienating systems that deteriorate the mental health of individuals of marginalized backgrounds at a disproportionate rate.

This framework of institutional murder could be brought back to understand the case of the suicide of the Uber engineer.  As a comrade put it recently, it is striking that this man felt like there was no escaping his situation other than to kill himself, despite seemingly being extremely intelligent and hard-working, with access to many alternative jobs and career prospects.  The combination of alienation, racism, over-work, and a culture saturated with yuppie ambition, makes for a hell of a prison, where death slowly becomes preferably to failure.