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.
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.
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?