Wednesday, August 24, 2022

"Technocracy cannot be dismissed as a mere specter of the paranoid populist imagination."

Technocrats against technocracy, in the Boston Review 

What exactly are we talking about when we talk about technocracy? Though deployed as a term of criticism today, the idea traces its origins to a utopian proposal for government. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Enlightenment thinkers such as Nicolas de Condorcet and utopian socialists such as St. Simon and Auguste Comte anticipated a predictive science of society that would allow for the perfection of government as a rational system of administration. The idea of surpassing politics with technical-scientific rationality such that the “the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things” is often associated with St. Simon, but the originator of the phrase, in fact, was German philosopher (and frequent coauthor of Karl Marx) Friedrich Engels, who believed that the communist state would be an overseer of production rather than a referee of political conflicts. It is in this context that Engels famously anticipates the “withering away” of the state form itself.

 Quinn Slobodian recommends Hari Kunzru, recommending Quinn Slobodian

On May Day 2000, I participated in a “guerrilla gardening” action in London, digging up Parliament Square to plant crops. It was a utopian gesture—one of many made in those years by people opposed to the so-called Washington consensus—intended to reveal a glimpse of the beach beneath the street....

Deep ecology, localism, and opposition to genetically modified food were and still are sometimes associated with a story about natural order threatened by unnatural forces. As the son of an immigrant, working as a freelance technology journalist, I had little interest in back-to-the-land nativism. I carried no intellectual torch for the “natural,” which seemed to me a marketing word, slippery and prone to misuse. All the same I could feel that the culture around me was shifting, that instead of a citizen nurtured from the cradle to the grave, I was expected to be an entrepreneur of the self, striving to respond to market signals. Orthodox opinion held that anything impeding the efficient transmission and reception of those signals was backward and had to be removed. Forms of life that had profound meanings for their participants were to be sacrificed in the name of a capitalist apotheosis, a global market in which we would all engage, blissfully free of non-economic desires and attachments. This seemed to me a sinister kind of perfection.

Precarity and stress were the visible signs of what we were just learning to call neoliberalism, an ideology that for many years I thought of as purely disintegrative, the acid of financialization eating into the social body. Recently, while reading Globalists, Quinn Slobodian’s history of the subject, I began to appreciate the extent to which neoliberalism has also been an institution-building project. Though it seeks deregulation at a national level, the movement has tried to create regulation at the global level, in the form of an economic framework that insulates the market from what its adherents see as its greatest enemy: democracy.

As first articulated in the middle of the last century by economic philosophers such as Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, the neoliberal agenda never aimed to “unfetter” the market, as if it were some Promethean agent separate from human a"airs. Neoliberals have always understood the market as a global set of relationships that they want to protect by redesigning laws and institutions—and even states—to prevent the “politicization” of economic decisions. The ideal is pure technocracy. The hyper-rationality of the price signals that emerge from a perfectly noiseless market has to be insulated from the irrational clamor of popular sentiment.

“For the liberal,” Mises wrote, “the world does not end at the borders of the state. . . . His political thinking encompasses the whole of mankind.” 

...So is another world possible? Can you be a globalist without being a cuck for the Davos class? Nationalists wrap themselves in flags and warn of a one-world state, but some problems really are unavoidably global: climate change, pollution, pandemics. Under the current dispensation, some priorities are considered technical, walled off from democratic control. Others are political, part of the hubbub outside. There’s no reason those priorities should not be redefined. What if environmental costs were not abstracted away as externalities, if the plumbing of the international financial system were redesigned to circulate money through different channels, if offshore tax havens were shut down, sending billions of dollars toward infrastructure and social programs?

As the design theorist Benjamin Bratton puts it in The Revenge of the Real, a book about global governance during the pandemic, “It is necessary for a society to be able to sense, model, and act back upon itself, and it is necessary for it to plan and provide for the care of its people.” Pace Hayek, networked wisdom does not preclude planning. It does not preclude setting goals or changing them. We just need to remember that this is something we can do.

The rule of the designers, still without any sense of ironic self-awareness. Hari Kunzru is an entrepreneur of the self. Three years after his guerrilla gardening, he got a £1.25 million advance on his first novel, and his blurb—as the author of that novel—appears across the top of his wife's.  Their bios read like characters of a Rushdie novel from the Bono years: jet-setting heroes and heroines negotiating the twists and turns of life from Zurich to Zanzibar. And not white, but not the same ethnicity either, because capitalism knows no race or creed. If it did, as I've said more than once, white people would still rule the world. 

Benjamin Bratton, the preface for The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty (Software Studies)
This book is both technical and theoretical. It is unapologetically interdisciplinary in its perspective and its project; it is a work of political philosophy, and architectural theory, and software studies, and even science fiction. It draws links between technologies, places, processes, and cultures that may exist at different scales but which are also deeply interrelated. In this crisscross, we observe that “computation” does not just denote machinery; it is planetary-scale infrastructure that is changing not only how governments govern, but also what governance even is in the first place. Computation is a logic of culture, and so also a logic of design. It is both how our culture designs and is itself that which we need to design better, but to do that we need to take a step back and view an emerging big picture that is different from what has been predicted. We may glimpse that another model of political geography is cohering before our eyes. What can we do with it? What does it want from us? The answers depend on our theories and tools, on our models and codes.
Series Preface
Software is deeply woven into contemporary life—economically, culturally, creatively, politically—in manners both obvious and nearly invisible. Yet while much is written about how software is used, and the activities that it supports and shapes, thinking about software itself has remained largely technical for much of its history. Increasingly, however, artists, scientists, engineers, hackers, designers, and scholars in the humanities and social sciences are finding that for the questions they face, and the things they need to build, an expanded understanding of software is necessary. For such understanding they can call upon a strand of texts in the history of computing and new media, they can take part in the rich implicit culture of software, and they also can take part in the development of an emerging, fundamentally transdisciplinary, computational literacy. These provide the foundation for software studies.

Software Studies uses and develops cultural, theoretical, and practice-oriented approaches to make critical, historical, and experimental accounts of (and interventions via) the objects and processes of software. The field engages and contributes to the research of computer scientists, the work of software designers and engineers, and the creations of software artists. It tracks how software is substantially integrated into the processes of contemporary culture and society, reformulating processes, ideas, institutions, and cultural objects around their closeness to algorithmic and formal description and action. Software studies proposes histories of computational cultures and works with the intellectual resources of computing to develop reflexive thinking about its entanglements and possibilities. It does this both in the scholarly modes of the humanities and social sciences and in the software creation/research modes of computer science, the arts, and design. 
The Software Studies book series, published by the MIT Press, aims to publish the best new work in a critical and experimental field that is at once culturally and technically literate, reflecting the reality of today's software culture.

The worst of it is the pretense that the technocratic elite wants to defend democracy, when the goal is to manage it. And it's not that they're lying to others but that they're lying to themselves. How can you talk to someone who doesn't know what they are? What's the point of arguing with pathology? How could you expect them to be good managers?

As I wrote in an email today (to an Oxbridge ass pushing the first article in the Boston Review) the difference between a bureaucrat and a technocrat is a sense of irony. No one wants to be a bureaucrat. It's a job. But technocrats are godlike. Irony at its best is humility. If democracy's a sham I'd prefer the rule of bureaucrats. The link's to Weber which makes me laugh.

For Slobodian, start here
Design as Crime, a tag I don't use often enough. And Saint-Simon.

I was bombarded over the past week texts and phone calls telling me to vote for the "socialist" and today the DSA is celebrating the "People's Republic of Astoria." 

The replacement of communities of obligation formed out of necessity, with fantasies of a community of intention, of isolated individualists desperate to belong, with no sense of anything beyond their own idealism. The comparison of Astoria in 2022 to Milwaukee in 1913, by a writer for Politico, is absurd.

Streeck, again, late to the game. 
"In the order that seems to be emerging, social bonds are construed as a matter of taste and choice rather than of obligation, making communities appear as voluntary associations from which one can resign if they require excessive self-denial, rather than as ‘communities of fate’ with which one either rises or goes under."

Bertram and Tooze, on Streeck. Neither come off well.

I few years ago I saw two young men on the subway platform at Queensboro Plaza, wearing matching t-shirts with "Astoria Social" written across the chest, to make up for the fact that they were neither from Astoria nor social. At an Irish cop bar, with white locals, Mexicans, and Bangladeshis—the same bar where I'd gotten trashed with a former finance minister—an earnest kid asked a man at the bar where he lived and after the mumbled reply blurted "I live there too! I just moved in last week." Everyone at the bar turned toward the kid. One of his friends, taller, a little older—they all looked like they'd just gotten off the bus from Portland—understood the mistake and managed a shit-eating grin.

Cobb later deleted the tweet.

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