Tag Archives: government

The soft discipline of neoliberalism.

The hallmark of the neoliberal thought collective was that they more or less accepted the inherited image of an addled and befuddled populace, but thoroughly rejected any appeals to a scientific technocracy to instill some discipline in the masses. For them, the discombobulation of the masses was not a reason for despair, but rather the necessary compost out of which a spontaneous order might blossom. The primary way this would come to pass was through acknowledgement that “the market” was an information processor more powerful and more efficacious than any human being was or could ever be. The cretinous and nescient would propose; the market would dispose. In effect, the NTC believed if only the masses could learn to subordinate their ambitions and desires to market dictates, then their deficient understandings and flawed syllogisms could be regarded as convenient expedients smoothing the path to order, rather than as political obstacles to be overcome, as in the technocratic orientation of postwar social sciences. And, conveniently, the neoliberals would mobilize numerous institutional structures to nudge the people down that path.

Hence, when it came to the simple matter of bamboozling the masses with ripping tales of government as the very embodiment of evil, as Friedman did, there were never any qualms expressed about their simultaneous drive to take over the Republican Party, and then the U.S. government, in order to impose a strong state and an even stronger set of state-instituted novel markets. The neoliberals often had to disguise their true allegiances from the masses: as Friedman once claimed, “the two groups that threaten the free market the most are businessmen and intellectuals.” Yet Friedman promoted the destruction of state education and the privatization of universities to put the intellectuals out of business; he never attacked the businessmen to any equivalent degree. Indeed, he openly preached the doctrine that corporations had no responsibilities to society other than to maximize their profits; if corporations were persons, they were of the purest strain of self-interested creatures, free from all surly bonds of obligation. The demonization of the state relative to the corporation was the epitome of the short-term tactic; the usurpation of power to the extent of reregulation (not deregulation) and extension of state power both at home and abroad were the long-term goals. No matter what Grover Norquist might rabbit on about, no neoliberal in government has ever actually shrunk the size of the state, much less drowned it in a bathtub. That was merely red meat for the groundlings. While in power, neoliberals may have subcontracted out parts of government, but that rarely makes a dent in bureaucracy. The coercive power of government inexorably grows.

–Philip Mirowski, “Neoliberalism: The Movement That Dare Not Speak Its Name”


From “The Mark Manifesto”

With a community of almost two billion people, it is less feasible to have a single set of standards to govern the entire community so we need to evolve towards a system of more local governance.

–Mark Zuckerberg, Building Global Community [via Recode]

There’s so much in the manifesto that smarter people than me will hash over, but this stood out to me, appearing as it does about three-quarters of the way through a polemic advocating for Facebook’s centrality to the building of a truly global community. I’ve no idea how this claim will be translated into algorithmic practice. The general tenor of that section of the manifesto gives the impression that what Zuckerberg means is that individuals will still (sort of) control what they see, but those settings will be refined by Facebook’s programmers to set regional norms for community standards. But in a global community, how are locality and region going to be defined? In a digital space where people choose their associations, how will Facebook determine boundaries? To what extent will cookies, likes, and reposts determine new forms of subcommunity identity? If Facebook is successful in its global agenda, will nation-states morph into digitally-facilitated forms of groupthink? Zuckerberg seems determined not to contribute to the atomization of society via his particular social media platform (and it’s clear that he’s wrestled with this issue pretty extensively), but what checks and balances do Zuckerberg and his army of programmers intend to build into the code? Zuckerberg also intends to grow the Facebook community; if 2 billion makes it “less feasible to have a single set of standards,” what happens when Facebook hits 3 billion? Zuckerberg claims at the outset of the manifesto that the goal is “building the long term social infrastructure to bring humanity together.” I feel like there’s a lot of slippage between terms like “community,” “government,” “standards,” and “infrastructure” throughout–as there tends to be in any extended political conversation–but very little acknowledgement of who or what comprises this infrastructure. It’s fine and dandy to insist that the sociability of people is the nucleus of Facebook. And that’s sort of true. But it’s also true that Facebook remains a private company whose product is a patented digital system whose language is known only to Zuckerberg and his employees. Facebook is infrastructure, even social infrastructure in a capacious sense of the word. But Zuckerberg seems to entertain seriously the idea that it’s the users who are driving the formation of the community even as he promotes the role of the Facebook corporate entity in giving it shape and function. What does locality look like in a global village whose infrastructure is house in Silicon Valley, yet whose fiberoptic materials and electronic signals remain almost literally invisible to the eye of the people who “live” there?


The federal talent farm

Across his eight years in office, President Obama has overseen an enormous amount of consequential policy change. He’s also presided over a broad and deep collapse of the Democratic Party at lower levels that simply can’t be reversed in 2016 because far too many state and local offices aren’t on the ballot this fall.

Turning that around ought to be one of Hillary Clinton’s major goals in office. The transition provides a great opportunity to get started by tapping young, talented, ambitious people whose elevation to federal jobs can set them up for later runs for federal office.

–Matthew Yglesias, Hillary Clinton should use her appointments to build up her party

I don’t feel as though I should have to to burnish my anti-Trump credentials before making my remarks, but bear them in mind anyway. When populists on the Right and the Left curse the Establishment for its incestuousness and slimy power politics, this is exactly the thing they’re talking about. (Even if they don’t know it.)

Patronage has been a cornerstone tool of partisan politics for a long, long time. Everybody does it. Romans called it the cursus honorum. Yglesias cites Daniel J. Galvin’s 2009 book, Presidential Party Building, which argues that Republican presidents since the mid-twentieth century have done more to secure the future interests of their party than the Democrat presidents have, because the GOP presidents wanted to convert their “minority” party into the majority (taking into account all downballot elected offices), whereas Democrats were able to rely on fairly stable majorities (again, downballot). The Republicans have enjoyed a lot of power in state and local offices (and the House of Representatives) for nearly a decade, putting the Democrats in the overall minority role. Yglesias’s logic, as far as I can figure, seems to be that the Republicans were able to abuse the system for their own partisan gain, so the Democrats should do it, too.

I don’t think “abuse” is too strong a word. What Yglesias recommends is that President Clinton treat the federal government as the Democrats’ very own personal grooming machine for future electoral candidates. He calls that a “major goal.”

Well. Okay then.

To be “Machiavellian” need not be a bad thing. I think Clinton’s generally pragmatic approach to politics is, on the whole, a good thing. Her willingness to be different things to different interest groups is extremely pragmatic, as is her relationship to Wall Street. RuPaul basically nailed what makes Clinton an effective politician. That said, I do think there’s a distinction we ought to make between appreciating what makes a politician effective and what a politician’s priorities ought to be.

Political critics must always hedge against being either too idealist or too cynical. Treating the federal apparatus as a farm for up-and-coming Democrat talent, with that explicit purpose in mind, is extraordinarily cynical. There’s a cold calculus involved in all political interactions, but Yglesias doesn’t even give lip service to the notion that perhaps those appointments ought to be filled by the best people for the job, regardless of partisan affiliation.

I don’t think it’s incurably starry-eyed to expect that the president, who’s supposed to govern all Americans, not just the ones who voted for her, with restraint and a semblance of parity, should try to hire the best people for the job whether or not they’re Democrats. Nor is it untoward to expect that writers who have spent the better part of a year snarking at Trump’s authoritarianism be a bit more reflective about how nakedly partisan they want their government to be. “Major goals,” indeed.

When a Trump supporter reads someone like Yglesias (yes, yes, I know how unlikely it is that the average Drumpfkin has even heard of Vox), he sees a representation of all that is wrong with Clinton-style governance, and perhaps the so-called Establishment as a whole. He sees a Hillary booster who wants to see the United States turned into a machine dedicated to the perpetuation of Democratic (read: left-wing) political power. And that’s not an entirely inaccurate impression. Bernie supporters may feel similarly, though less viscerally. Imagine if Yglesias replaced every mention of Democrats with “lobbyists”–also known as “those special-interest puppets politicians become when they fail their re-election bids.”

The view that the government should be nonpartisan is not incompatible with the view that sometimes it simply can’t be nonpartisan. Reality is hardmode. Really, I do get it. But what makes a republic work is a commonly-held faith that, on balance, our government does not work primarily, as a “major goal,” for the prospects of a single political party. It is supposed to work for all of us most the time, regardless of which party has the upper hand at a given moment. Not even to pretend that that’s the case is the privilege of the elite and the prerogative of those for whom government is ideological war conducted by other means.


People of the (Face)book

A few juxtapositions. First, Michael Case in a recent Verge article:

Imagine a single, central website that could answer any question you had about government and whether it can help you. One portal where you could log in, and with a tool as familiar as Google search, ask: “how can I apply for a passport?” “is it illegal to fish without a license in Washington, DC?” “where do I vote?” “what do I do if my disability claim is taking too long?” “what forms do I need to establish my business?” No matter your query, you are met with an actionable answer, or a way to contact a human being who can help you with your request.

[…]

Now imagine you’ve gotten a useful answer from that website, but you need to sign some forms, have a photo taken, or take a test. For one reason or another, you need to interact with a human being face to face. What if there was one place in every community that could deliver all government services? Post offices are ubiquitous across America — what if they could be retrofitted to also be Social Security offices and DMVs and passport offices and polling locations? What if folks who aren’t comfortable with fancy, modern websites could walk into their post office and have any question about government answered for them? Yeah.

— Michael Case, “Our future government will work more like Amazon”

Étienne Balibar, from 2003:

Surely freedom of movement is a basic claim that must be incorporated within the citizenship of all people (and not only for representatives of the ‘powerful nations,’ for whom this is largely a given). But the droit de cité (rights to full citizenship) includes everything from residential rights as part of having a ‘normal’ place in society to the exercise of political rights in those locations and groupings into which individuals and groups have been ‘thrown’ by history and the economy. Let’s not be afraid of saying it: these citizenship rights include the manner of their belonging in state communities, even, and indeed especially, if they belong to more than one such community. Given the above, the right to full citizenship is indissolubly linked to freedom of movement.

— Étienne Balibar (trans. Frank Collins), “Europe, an ‘Unimagined’ Frontier of Democracy,” Diacritics 33.3/4 (Autumn/Winter 2003): 36-44

Via an io9 article on governments of the future, a review of Zach Weinersmith’s “thought experiment in distributed government”:

“Polystate” represents Weinersmith’s attempt to work out one possible solution to this question. His hypothetical society consists of a collection of “anthrostates,” governments that proscribe laws and support institutions but have no geographical boundaries. Each citizen of a polystate would choose allegiance to an anthrostate, agreeing to be bound by its regulations and gaining the advantages of its services. Citizens of multiple anthrostates would coexist in the same region, with next-door neighbors possibly choosing to live under completely different systems. One family, for example, might pledge its loyalty to a collectivist society where taxes are distributed equally, while another on the same block might join a theocracy where tithes go to the building of churches and the attendance of religious services is mandatory.

Importantly, citizens would be able to change anthrostate on a regular basis, allowing them to experiment with different types of governance. He contrasts this situation to that of the current geopolitical climate, where people are born into “geostates” (traditional nations such as Mexico and Canada) and can only change their government with great difficulty, if at all. This sort of “permanent revolution,” the author contends, would swiftly remove support from unjust rulers and help eliminate corrupt systems. As he writes regarding the growth of North Korea, “It is hard to imagine that he [Kim Jong-un] would have this larger population if any of his citizens could have freely switched to any other government.”

Weinersmith argues that advances in technology would remove many of the obstacles associated with this sort of society. Digital currency and computerized money markets, for example, could alleviate the headaches caused by the unique financial systems of coexisting anthrostates, while improved artificial intelligence could help arbitrators navigate conflicting legal codes in now-common “international incidents.” Numerous benefits, such as the difficulty of waging war between nations with distributed populations, would also arise organically from the system. Yet the author does not shy from offering a realistic view of the problems facing a polystate, from international trade to the possibilities of tax evasion and cheating.

— Sword of Science, “Book Review – Polystate: A Thought Experiment in Distributed Government”

John Gall’s quasi-panarchist polemic from 1975:

“Under Free Choice of Territory, a citizen of any country is free to live in any part of the world he chooses. He remains a citizen of the government he prefers, to which he pays taxes and for whose officers he votes. However, as the term Free Choice of Government implies, he may at any time change his citizenship and his allegiance from his present government to another government that offers more attractive tax rates, better pensions, more interesting public officials, or simply an invigorating change of pace (Common courtesy would seem to require two weeks’ advance notice; the standard notice any employer would give an employee.)

With these two new Freedoms in effect, one would expect that after a short period of equilibration, citizens of any nation would be distributed amongst the citizens of all other nations – not necessarily at random, but sufficiently so for our purpose, which is to remove them effectively from the grip of their own government. A government can hardly put any large number of its own citizens in jail if it has to send halfway around the world for them, one by one, and persuade other governments of the justice of the proceedings. Raising armies would become administratively impossible. Furthermore, wars of any government against another would become impractical, since large numbers of the “enemy” would be distributed all over the world, including the territory of the home government.

The net result of the two new Freedoms would be to break up the Concentration of the Governed, to divide and distribute them throughout other governments, a principle which we shall call the Comminution of Hegemony. If practiced on a world-wide scale it could lead to revolutionary changes in the relationship of citizens to their governments, reversing the traditional polarity and making governments fearfully dependent upon the favor or even the whims of their citizenry rather than vice versa.”

— John Gall, “Systematics: How Systems Work and Especially How They Fail” (1975)

Leonidas Donskis on the relation of the Facebook “community” to the Jewish diaspora:

“The diaspora was once the unique fate and curse of the Jews, but now we are all living in the diaspora. So that we might recognize ourselves as exiles and emigrants or, alternatively, reject these descriptions, there must exist a territorial nation along with the territory that collects and defines that nation and gives it meaning. But the nations of today are, increasingly, extraterritorial and global formations, collecting themselves in the distribution zone of virtual reality and information (of that of symbolic power and social prestige, which nowadays coincides with the attention gained and the number of ‘likes’ earned). All of us have more or less become people of the global diaspora. Nowadays we are all global exiles. Thus, the diaspora becomes a normal, legitimized, recognized, and practically routinized form of life. Who is abnormal? Only someone who pines after a territorial or local past.

[…]

There was a time when secret services and the political police worked hard to extract secrets and get people to reveal the details of their private and even intimately personal lives. Today, these intelligence services should feel simultaneously exhilarated and unnecessary. What can they bring to the table when everyone is telling everything about their own business themselves? Even if people don’t disclose what they’re doing, whom they dislike, and how they got rich, they still reveal with whom they communicate and whom they know. And it’s impossible not to participate in this orgy of sharing and disclosing. If you don’t participate or if you withdraw, you lose your sense of past and present; you sever contact with your classmates and your colleagues; you get separated from your community. In virtual reality and on Facebook, what vanishes is a fundamental aspect of real freedom: self-determination and a free choice of association. You have entered this new realm of friendships, of cyberconnectedness, because technology — and its hard-to-discern masters — have convinced you that you cannot live a civilized life otherwise. Or elsewhere.” — Leonidas Donskis, “Facebook Nation,” The Hedgehog Review 16.2 (Summer 2014): 94-101