Accelerated Instrumental Rationality and the Three Responses of the Far-Right
This is a revised version of the presentation “Asthetisation of Technopolitics” delivered at the 15th Historical Materialism conference, 10 November 2018, SOAS, London. The presentation is a thoroughly revised version of a text I contributed to the Festschrift of my aesthetics professor and former supervisor Nadežda Čačinovič, forthcoming from the Zagreb Faculty of Arts and Humanities Pess in 2019. Big thank you goes to Marcell Mars and Anthony Iles for the conversations that helped me formulate some of the ideas here.
Internet as a Means of Communication, Internet as a Means of Capitalist Transformation
In the Epilogue of The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproduction, Benjamin famously writes: ‘Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves.’1 Writing in the 1930s, Benjamin was analyzing how the emerging mass medium of cinema - the first mass medium to represent proletarian masses - was being co-opted for the purposes of fascist propaganda. To the extent that cinema represented masses through the mass rituals celebrating the Führer cult and the carnage of war, it helped fascism aestheticize the ‘political life’ and imposed on the masses ‘cult values’ and it effectively contributed to preventing the proletarian masses from becoming the force of their own emancipation.
The mass medium of our own age is the Internet. In no more than twenty-five years that medium has mutated from a promise of radical democratization to a reality of blanket surveillance, manipulation of news, extreme concentration of wealth and erosion of labor rights. Now, how did that happen? In its early days, the Internet was, after all, understood by many of its early adopters as an antidote to the commercial monoculture, diktat of the political establishment, and the oppresive normativity of the mainstream society that have hitherto dominated the media system. Multidirectional communication should have enabled everyone to become their own medium, to speak to the global public, and to break the confines of narrow identities, dominant values and material limitations. And indeed, as a consequence of these convictions, its early applications have been built to succeed in some of that. If nothing, there was a far more equal distribution of the capacity to speak to a broader public compared to the times when this was a privilege reserved for a small number of broadcasters and print media. However, the parallel privatisation of the Internet infrastructure and the deregulation of media and telecommunication ownership in the US that began in the mid-1990s2 unleashed a process of accelerated commercialisation of content, commodification of services and concentration of infrastructure. There were many pre-requisites that needed to happen for this transformation to unfold, but three stand out in particular. Arguably the single most important was the development of contextual advertising, which Google revolutionised with the introduction of its AdSense service in 2003. This lead to the expansion of personalisation and monitoring of user behaviour, furnishing the key element in making advertising effective (and indirectly weaponized the Internet into a powerful tool of electronic surveillance). By the mid-2000s the moment of the decentralised-in-effect-and-not-only-in-design Internet was also drawing to a close. The emerging social networks, first and foremost Facebook, started to close off the user communication from the rest of the open web, placing emphasis on the social graph, personal information and clickstream-based attention economy. At the same time, Amazon.com started to build its Amazon Web Services cloud platform, offering computing power, storage and web services at such a price and flexible scale that made any autonomous infrastructure unfeasible. And thus, the business model and the scalable infrastructure were established, ushering in an endless tide of new commercial services battling it out for that most valuable of goods - eyeball time.
Fast forward to the present. The Internet services have fully matured as a capitalist industry, and we can now recognize with greater clarity what place it holds in the larger dynamics of the capitalist accumulation. The majority of Internet giants - Google, Facebook, Amazon.com, JD.com and Alibaba topping the list - are principally in the business of advertising and retail. Google and Facebook command short of two thirds of the online, and a quarter of the entire advertising market globally.3 Amazon.com alone commands half of the US online retail market and effectively provides the platform for most of the rest.4 Its infrastructure is used, for instance, by Netflix, AirBnB, Time Inc., NASA and many many other large corporate and public entities.
The expansion of these giants has benefitted from the fact that since the 1990s the globalisation has placed the commercial and financial capital at the helm of the global accumulation process, value extraction and, as John Smith has argued,5 new imperial division of labor. In turn, the generalisation of digital technologies since the 1980s has helped the creation of truly global production chains, the wide-spread introduction of lean-management techniques and the development of new productivity-enhancing automation.6 Yet by the end of the 1990s that effect has started to petered out: the first wave of digitisation was no longer productive enough, while the second - lead by the Internet giants - failed to achieve the same effect. This has had an ambivalent cumulative effect on advanced economies - digitisation has contributed to a) falling rates of profit across the productive sectors due to increased investments in fixed capital, b) low growth rates due to limited contributions to productivity, and c) shifting of profits from the productive to the commercial and financial capital.7 While the Internet giants have seen windfall profits, the rest of the economy in the global North has struggled to expand, and finally hit the wall in 2008. Thus the rise of Internet giants has brought back the Solow paradox,8 which famously claimed that the effects of computerisation can be seen everywhere but in macroeconomic performance. Not all technology leads to growth of productivity across the economic system and that has most certainly been the case with the Internet.
The Internet giants and their older big-tech cohorts such as Apple, Microsoft, HP, Intel and IBM are, nonetheless, trying to position themselves as providers of key administrative, logistical and marketing components for other industries. Already now if their services were to go down, large segments of the economy would immediately come to a halt. In the near future, their command of large network infrastructures, big data sets and algorithms needed to analyse them, as well as the push into the artificial intelligence, advanced robotics and the Internet of Things, they are likely to become even more central not only in the economy, but also in the provision of social services. An early study in 2013 predicted that these advances will slash up to 47% of all US jobs in the near term.9 While in the meantime a number of subsequent studies have corrected these predictions to a higher or lower figure, the prospects for labor look dim as automation will create further unemployment, reduce wages and deepen precarity. At the same time the big tech themselves have come to employ a gigantic workforce, combining some of the best paid high-skill jobs with some of the most exploitative, low-wage, gig jobs. The latest figure for the largest among them - Amazon.com - is stunning 541.000 employees, most of them low-wage.
As a recent study reports,10 stable autocracies are spending around US$110 per person for comprehensive surveillance of their populations, making blanket surveillance comparable to the Social Credit System of China seem relatively a low-cost affair. According to the world’s largest manufacturer of network equipment Cisco, by 2021 the greater part of the 27 billion connected devices will not be mediating human communication, but will rather be part of the Internet of Things, where devices talk to other devices.11 The bulk of information about us will be generated by these devices comprising an invisible ubiqutous computing environment of our daily life.
Lastly, with their growing scale and centrality to the capitalist economy, the digital networks themselves have come to demand ever larger quantities of energy and matter. Just earlier this year the world was following with alarm the news of studies indicating that should Bitcoin’s electricity glut continue to grow at the pace it was growing back then, the cryptocurrency mining might need all of the world’s electricity by early 2021.12 As unlikely that is, our aggregate digital infrastructure currently consumes around 7% of global electricity demand.13 And not only do the digital technologies have an accelerating direct environmental impact, but the intensification of global exchanges facilitated by them has resulted in the intensification in throughput of material and energy resources that threatens to push the planet beyond the holocenic boundaries that have allowed human societies to thrive over the last 10.000 years.14
Through all these aspects, the autonomy and equality that the Internet had initially promised mutated into an experience of interconnected and unsustainable extraction, exploitation and control. Thus, returning to the Benjamin’s passage from the Art Work essay, I would dare analogise that the Internet as a means of communication has become the Internet of proletarian masses, while the Internet that has presided over that mutation is the Internet of capital. The Benjaminian matrix - where masses are given a means of expression instead of a means of overturning the property structure - seems to be again at work.
Breakdown of the Liberal Order
Let’s spend a moment on that promise of radical democratisation. The principal ideological mechanism of cinema as a mass medium is the representation of masses. The principal ideological mechanism of the Internet of as a mass medium is the participation of masses. Yet, while everyone can participate, the mass participation is bought at the cost of fragmentation of the shared horizon of conversation. As anyone who has participated in the debates on the Internet can attest, a substantive discussion most of the times does not lead to an agreement, but rather to a growing disagreement. Rational argument, even when it is two-way and symmetric, cannot bridge, but rather distorts and amplifies the social and political fault-lines that exist outside of communication. The Internet, lauded as an incarnation of the liberal values of communicative action, democratic participation and the public sphere, seems to have helped plunge the liberal consensus only deeper into a crisis. Although, as Kulge and Negt have argued,15 that shared horizon could only be won at the price of exclusion of dissonant experiences of those living outside of the mainstream of society, and although it was old commercial broadcast and print media that have pushed for that deregulation in the 1990s followed by mergers, rollback of journalist workforce and homogenisation of reporting, the liberal establishment is now flabbergasted by the overt manipulation of political opinion, gross denial of accepted facts and spread of fake news. It is the feedback loops between the social networks, imageboards and fringe image portals, amplified by Russian hackers, Macedonian bots and big-data hucksters, that are blamed for anything from deciding elections, stoking distrust of the political system to inciting hate. While there are equal amounts of truth and speculation to this, instead of taking this framing of the problem for granted, it is worth taking a step back and analysing it from a larger historical context.
Internet maturef in the post-1989 period of global triumph of free markets and liberal democracy. It is not surprising that in the period of uncontested ideological domination of bourgeois society, the hegemonising and legitimational watchword of Internet technologists, communities, businesses and policy-makers would become the central political notion of that period - freedom: itself an ambivalent notion that collapses connotations of social autonomy, political self-determination and socialized access to goods into connotations of freedom of the markets, freedom to buy and sell, freedom of the commodities.16
Since 1989 the capitalist world-system has been completely re-organised around the new global manufacturing centers in South East Asia, finance and consumer bases in North America and Europe, fossil and financial capital in the Gulf, all supported largely by an exterritorial shadow banking system. As needs no repeating, by the end of the 2000s that restructuring unleashed a global recession of proportions not seen since the Great Depression. Not that the period since 1989 was not marked by a number of crises, if not one permanent crisis, for large parts of the post-socialist and post-colonial world. What was formerly known as the Second and Third World found itself relegated to the margins in that new geo-economic landscape. However, in 2008 the crisis hit the core countries of the liberal-democratic world. Liberalisation-led globalisation came to a screeching halt. In the process of managing the crisis the political class opted to act in a way that saved the financial businesses that precipitated the crisis, while pushing the austerity and further inequality down the throats of their populations who have suffered the consequences of earlier economic restructuring. With quantitative easing financial markets were up and running again in short, while job markets took longer to recover than in any previous big recessions.
The long story short is that the political centre in liberal democracies has failed to make the project of globalisation it championed deliver for large segments of their working population. As a consequence of the dis-embedding of the markets, off-shoring of production and welfare rollback that population faced growing economic insecurity and social de-classing.17 And to add insult to injury, the post-bailout austerity policies brought only more suffering to them. Thus the legitimating promise of economic globalisation that it is a tide that lifts all boats turned out to be hollow. This failure is particularly notable where the social democratic and socialist parties have been in power. The political consequences are now that the centre has eroded, the most precarised have increasingly abstained from voting or have switched political allegiances, and there’s a rising tide of the far-right across the world, most prominently in the core countries of the international liberal order - such as the UK, France, United States, Germany or Austria, but no less alarmingly also in Brasil, across much of the Central and Eastern Europe and many places elsewhere. A more protectionist and dictatorial geo-economic policy is what the resurgent illiberal, nativist, authoritarian right is promising, and it is promising to implement it with punitive resolve against the racialised, gendered and politically vilified underclasses, minorities, immigrants and any sort of social opposition, garnering thus support of conservative middle classes and national bourgeoisies. This is Trump, Boslonaro, Orbán or Kurz in a nutshell. But none of these self-proclaimed ‘nationalists’ has the slightest intent to withdraw from global markets. Rather they want to make globalisation work again - that is, work again for certain factions of domestic capital.18 In that China sets both an example and competitive pressure for that economic and political trajectory to emerge.
It is worth noting that the democratic capitalist state contains a fundamental contradiction between the political sphere where the popular will decides and the economic sphere where the capital decides. This contradiction is exacerbated by the globalisation in the present conjuncture. While the democratic governance has largely remained limited to the scale of the nation-state, the system-wide dynamic of accumulation is intensifying at a global - meaning trans-national - scale. Therefore the globalisation leads to the growing separation and isolation of the economic from the democratic, pushing the global accumulation process increasingly outside of reach of the democratic will.
Now, bringing these broad-sweep analyses of the interlocking development of the Internet and the liberal democratic order over the last three decades together, this is the central point around which the rest of my elaboration will hinge: processes of capital accumulation and technological change have accelerated, complexified and attained systemic force to a degree that it is increasingly difficult to bring them under the existing social structure and democratic governance. The instrumental rationality of their development can no longer be socialised. It is this trajectory of growing instrumental rationality that subtends the evisceration of liberal project and the rise of the far-right across the globe.
This acceleration of instrumental rationality and challenges it brings to the socialisation of its effects requires a proper theorisation, one that for reasons of length I can’t go into here, but can be found, for instance, in the work of Hartmut Rosa.19 The gist is that it presents a challenge not only for the liberal democratic order, but for the fundamental structure of socialising capitalist markets and technological change into nation-states. It thus forms a background against which it becomes possible to think the specificity of the contemporary far-right - in so far as the far-right has traditionally defended the order, yet it is now defending an order it itself has to think in other terms than the status quo. The dis-embedding of instrumental rationality has elicited three modes of response on the far-right that I find interesting and that I’ll discuss in the remainder of this text: exodus, sovereignist control and passage to the act, all of which are both imaginaries and forms of actions emerging in response to the process I have described.
Spontaneous Ideology of the Technocapital: Exodus
The disintegration of the liberal consensus is epitomised in the tweeting presidency of Donald Trump. Although Trump has played on the insecurities unleashed by the globalisation, his victory was primarily based on having successfully re-articulated these insecurities as a threat to the existing economic, gender and race privileges, which - to no one’s surprise - has particularly resonated with the middle-class exurban conservative constituencies.20 However, this re-articulation also conjured up the racialised and gendered trope of the left-behind white industrial worker, thus attempting to re-align the interests of certain segments of the American working class with the overt protectionism for certain factions of American capital - that can only be secured under the decisive leadership he himself could offer.
The factions of American capital that Trump took under his fold were certainly not the Internet giants. They have thrived while the remaining sectors of the developed economies have struggled. Technological conditions of the Internet, i.e. open protocols, network effect, global spread, and the post-1989 geo-economic conditions have made them truly global monopolsts. Unlike the corporate giants of the old, which have acted as monopolies in the national economic space while competing in international markets, their monopoly, one that includes massive tax evasion and stifling of competition, has become increasingly hard to regulate for anyone other than the US regulators. So, it’s no wonder that they feared Trump’s reaction. Thus, for a while there was an attempt to soften the new president for Silicon Valley. And this is where things an interesting twist. Silicon Valley’s participation in the transition team was orchestrated by Peter Thiel, a successful venture capitalist who has made his fortunes by investing early in PayPal, Facebook and Palantir. Thiel is somewhat an odd figure in Silicon Valley (and has in the meanwhile relocated to Los Angeles), more important as an outlier than an exemplar. He’s a philosophy dropout from Standford, a student of the French cultural theorist René Girard, editor of a conservative student newspaper financed by the old-time neo-con Irvin Kristol, author of the bestseller Zero to One - and, here of particular relevance, an open advocate of monarchy and monopoly capitalism. As opposed to more prevalent positions among Silicon Valley technologists - that of libertarianism, which insist on horizontal markets and minimal government, or social market liberalism, which prefers to balance out the entrepreneurial freedom with advocacy of redistributive policies such as universal basic income - Thiel claims that he no longer believes that ‘freedom and democracy are compatible’. This is in line with his understanding of monopoly. In his entrepreneurial primer Zero to One Thiel starts from a fundamental distinction between those innovations that mimic other innovations, resulting in an increased competition between similar products leading to lower profits, as opposed to innovations that create entirely new opportunities for commodification and spawn monopolies.21 Drawing on Girard’s theory of mimetic desire, where a desire has no object of its own but rather desires what it thinks that the Other desires - and thus always engages in competitive behaviour,22 Thiel sees most of innovations pursuing the pattern of mimetic behavior, yet the point is to create original, non-mimetic, zero to one innovations that disrupt and not enter the existing markets. Such an innovation was brought about by, for instance, Facebook, or Google, or Amazon. This makes Thiel’s position is a spontaneous ideology of monopoly technocapital.
The disruptive character of technological innovation and capital accumulation leading to a concentration of economic power and wealth can no longer be reconciled with the popular democracy that has a mimetic - egalitarian - desire at its core. Thiel’s intuition is principally guided by an imaginary of exodus: capital and technology freed up and safeguarded from the social. This imaginary has found a more baroque elaboration in the writings of the neo-reaction’s principle thinker Nick Land, who opines that the ‘West [should] stop and reverse pretty much everything it has been doing for over a century, excepting only scientific, technological, and business innovation.’23 This includes the removal of the democratic representation, which Land sees as democratically legitimated coalition-building between special interest groups seeking to capture redistributive rents from taxes, consequently advocating the reduction of the state to a minimal, preferably corporate-run, government. While Land articulates this as a strictly hypothetical proposition, his thought builds upon and is representative of a whole group of radical organic thinkers of anarcho-capitalism who are trying to think through the various aspects of this exodus.
Another facet of this exodus imaginary is its Malthusianism. Continued acceleration of capital accumulation and technological change will cause environmental and social disruptions at the global scale that will lead to large displacements of populations and to a global rat-race over increasingly scarce resources of the planet. The crisis cannot be prevented, that would too costly for capital and technology, so its effects need to be contained. The warming planet is thus principally a security problem. Indicatively, Thiel has been funding a large seasteading project and is among a number of billionaires who have built their private safe houses in New Zealand. This is the racist glove of Thiel’s monarch Trump turned inside-out.
The Alt-Right’s Counter-Reaction: Soliciting the Sovereignist Violence
As Jodi Dean has analysed in her theory of communicative capitalism, the problem with the democratic participatory aspect of Internet communication is that it tends to exhaust itself in communicational exchanges and informational overload, resulting in the flood of non-binding statements that confound the material and relational dimensions that the social reality behind the communicating actors entails.24 Given that communicational exchanges have an ephemeral character, the investment into communication is neither oriented toward mutual recognition nor purposive action but rather to libidinal denouement. Unequal existential conditions remain hidden by the nominal communicational equality - and therefore they tend to become charged and over-coded with a sense of discontent, blockage and rage - for some because of structural exclusions they experience, for others because of structural privilege they fear to lose.
These are then the antagonisms that dominate on the Internet, yet they cannot be reconciled - neither mutually acknowledged in the communicational context nor mediated in the institutional framework of punitive neo-liberalism.25 This irreconcilability has been purposefully exploited by the far-right. After Trump’s election a lot of critical acumen has been brought to bear on the fact that the alt-right and the alt-light have mastered the means of the tactical organising, counter-cultural transgression and irony in order to stir up a cultural war.26 Although alt-right and alt-light are comprised of a multitude of disparate and sometimes even opposing positions, ranging from white supremacist, anti-semitic, anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant ethno-nationalisms over gamer community and manosphere to more old-school conservatives, their shared catalysing moment has been the push-back against a wave of social struggles that have in the aftermath of 2008 started to rattle at the structure of class, race and gender domination. Their actions have particularly focused on ‘social justice warriors’ and ‘cultural Marxist’: feminists, queers, persons of color, leftist. If their actions have a fascistic character, it is in what Alberto Toscano, drawing on Theodor Adorno, has described as ‘conservative politics of antagonistic reproduction, the reproduction of some against others, and at the limit a reproduction premised on their non-reproduction or elimination. Rather than an emancipatory concern with equality, fascism promotes a “repressive egalitarianism”, based on an identity of subjection and a brotherhood of hatred.’27
Most of the alt-right initiatives exist primarily as media projects such as Infowars, Vdare, Daily Stormer, Takimag or Breitbart, and are oriented toward communicative strategies of antagonism, but they are also aligned with an ecosystem of neo-nazi and supremacist groups that have organised marches and incited violent actions. In the vein of antagonistic reproduction, the alt-right infosphere has purposefully distorted the claims and the demands of those contesting the existing order so as to elicit their reaction, which, in turn, allows the alt-right to continue baiting and attacking those groups, thereby generating own visibility. Fundamental to the imaginary of the alt-right is the solicitation of sovereignist violence as a response to a globalised condition that is purportedly leading to a loss of identity and systemic privilege in a civilisation war. White, Christian, property-owning, family-oriented social world needs to be protected from the threat of the miscegenation brought about by the free movement of people - either through a reassertion of the ethnic-identitarian nation-state or through setting up self-defended enclaves shielded off from the patronising big state. And this can be only achieved through Schmittian decisionism that is needed to leave the present liberal-democratic order. Accordingly, the alt-right has effectively made itself useful to Trump by serving as a counter-reaction to anyone contesting his presidency. Trump’s embrace of the alt-right as a legitimate opposition to the voices demanding structural change has, in retrun, helped push the Overton window of allowed political debate in the alt-right’s direction and indemnify the violence coming from its ranks.
In addition to contesting claims and demands of social movements, the alt-right infosphere has also littered the Internet with a dense nebula of interlinked false claims, moral panics and conspiracy theories that act like a rabbit-hole. In disputing the authority of scientific facts deemed established beyond doubt and the technical expertise that legitimates policy decisions, they have effectively sown doubt in the institutional arrangements that underly the procedural production of facts and policy. This strategy of sowing doubt the alt-right has gleaned over from the long-standing organised denial of various progressive policy initiatives that were aimed at reducing the negative impacts of free enterprise on society, health and environment. For instance, Richard Spencer’s National Policy Foundation was modeled on one of the largest conservative think-tanks, the Heritage Foundation, which has a significant say in shaping the conservative agenda in Washington. Indicatively, many of the right-wing and pro-enterprise think-tanks such as George C. Marchall Institute have their roots in the Cold War politics, and some of them such as Competitive Enterprise Institute are nothing but astrotufing organisations set up and funded by the polluting industries.28 These organisations are not staffed only with shady opportunists claiming to be experts - they have also enlisted the services of many renowned scientists who have decided to cash in their expertise. In the early days, many of these scientists would come from the nuclear program and their mindsets genuinely shaped by the Cold War concerns. Ironically, the first global climate models have developed from the studies of the atmospheric fallout impacts of the above-ground nuclear testing,29 so these scientist have had a good grasp of the entvironmental mechanisms underlying climate change, yet they became the central cog in the denial machine.30
The links between the far-right’s defense of systemic privilege and climate denial are easily explained. As sociologist Aaron McCright and his fellow researchers in their repeated empirical analyses of denialism have consistently shown, ‘the US conservative movement [has] mobilized to defend the industrial capitalist system from claims by scientists and environmentalists that the system is causing significant social, economic, health, and ecological problems. The conservative movement’s defense of the economic system is crucial since it provides an air of legitimacy to industry arguments that would otherwise be dismissed as self-serving.’31 Denialism is overwhelmingly present among the conservative white males who have a propensity to system-justification for reasons that they are in a position of privilege in that industrial capitalist system.32
Shitposters Leaving the Communicative Impasse: Passage to the Act
The third and last form of response that I want to highlight here is characterised by the visual language of brutality, moral indifference and transgressive irony.33 This transgressive ironic language has gestated in the culture of shitposting on 4chan /b/ (random) and /pol/ (politically incorrect) boards and subreddits such r/The_Donald, /r/altright, /r/TheRedPill or r/Incels. 4chan imageboards have been the epicenter of some of the most epic hoaxes, memes and actions by the Anonymous movement. Although many are quick to call it the crucible of the alt-right too, particularly in the aftermath of the #GamerGate campaign and the embrace of Donald Trump early during his electoral campaign as ‘God-Emperor’, what is maybe equally important to consider are the formal aspects of the imageboards - they are the ephemerality of Internet communication pushed to the limit: posts are not archived and are available only for a fleeting moment; the frequency of posting is high, responses are instantaneous, amplifying the relevance of initial posts; users are registered as anonymous and transgression is their principal currency. Communication there is dominated by those who are native to the online communication - savvy, quick and cynical. It is a combination of memes, graphic transgressions and competition in nastiness that has birthed a culture of trolling that has no patience for political correctness, moralising language and discursive rationality.
However, what makes 4chan so distinctive beyond the transgressive shitposting is that its members have organised a number of coordinated actions that in the wake of the Anonymous protests against the Church of Scientology, the DDoS attacks against the credit-card operators that have embargoed Wikileaks, and a number of minor vigilante actions have managed to exit the closed feedback-loop of communicative action and enter ‘the real life’. With the #GamerGate that coordinating capacity has spiraled into a campaign of misogynistic harassment and thoroughly transformed the community.
Relatedly, male-dominated 4chan culture has been characterised by the self-deprecating irony of maladapted geeks. This characteristic has found a strange involution in the discussion groups for incels (i.e. involutary celibates), NEETs (i.e. school dropouts), neckbeards (i.e. unattractive and awkward underachievers). These have become communities in their own right and have turned irony into a toxic subculture that marries a negative obsession with male body image with misogynistic fantasies of male domination. The toxicity has resulted in violent acts perpetrated by members of these communities, who have as of this writing committed a number of mass shootings aimed against women, claiming dozens of lives and catapulting the shooters into hero-warrior stardom celebrated for taking revenge on women.
While imageboards seem a marginal Internet venue, there’s a formal aspect in imageboards that is anything but marginal: their interfaces - an ante-diluvial imageboard platform - symptomatically reveal uncanny similarity to more mainstream feed-based platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Their interfaces are organised around quick interactions, involving as many users as possible in as many short exchanges as possible, in a visually rich communicational environmnet where the differences between the activity shared by friends, news-bites and ads are purposefully blurred. This concentration of attention economy and its weaponising for ever-quicker consumption of ads is arguably the political-economic mechanism behind the political impasse that the Internet represents as a means of communication - not a medium of mutual recognition or purposive action but rather of libidinal investment. Shitposters have found a way out of this impasse, in the passage to the act that is ready to unleash gratuitous violence in order to make the reality conform to an imaginary socio-Darwinian order of male entitlement.
Re-embedding the Instrumental Rationality: Internet as a Means of Organisation
The three examples discussed in previous sections could be all read as responses to the dis-embedding of instrumental rationality from the social processes and attempts to articulate a way out of the present impasses that accelerated capital accumulation and technological change are creating. The encouraging aspect is that as Trump’s presidency has progressed, these forms of radicality have remained somewhat marginal, more excesses than a dominant political reality. Yet, as Marxist geographer Phil Neel has warned in his travelogue across the global capitalist Hinterland,34 while the alt-right has helped the new ‘far-right culture gestate, it is only via the rise of “Patriot” groups that this culture seems able to take flesh’ (p. 27). By pursuing the politics of assistance to communities that have been left to struggle by the alternating effects of de-industrialisation, retrenchment of welfare and punitive state, these right-wing groups have been striking roots deep into the hinterland wedged between the two US seaboards. Many countries have now such ‘stagnant’ hinterlands that have seen the effects of modernisation ebb, places where modern social services are just as absent as the organisational forces of the left. Indicatively, it is there that the new alternative structures of social reproduction are built by the forces that exist on the ground - militarist organisations, churches and the family - and it is there that the conservative battles are won.
These stagnant hinterlands indicate the complexity of the task of mobilizing proletarian masses faces today. This work cannot be left to the communicative action, but must be first and foremost understood as organisational. Bringing back the economic and technological dynamics under the democratic governance, or at least making them an effective part of the vision of social struggles, while creating bridges between the working class of the highly technologised and dynamic cities, with all their internal differences of race, gender and pay, and the underclasses of socially stagnant hinterlands is fundamental to taking the social complexity head-on. The first step in that task is to create time and place for these plural experiences to be voiced and heard, the second is to organise those experiences into an agential whole. The effects of rampant social insecurity and runaway climate change make this an overwhelming, but also a necessary and inavoidable task. Only by pursing this taks of understanding the new separations and articulating the new re-compositions will the left be able to counter the fascistic counter-reaction with which the far-right is buttressing the present order in its breakdown phase.
As for the Internet, we have come to terms with the fact that long gone are the promises of radical transformation that it once might have held. The economic freedom prevailed over democratic freedom, market over autonomy, commodity over socialised goods. Yet, while this is undoubtably so, both the promise and the technology are eminently re-purposeable. We can and need to politicise the vision of political self-determination, social autonomy and socialised goods, a vision that can equally be rooted in a sense of human’s dependence on a thriving social whole and sustainable environment.
And this need not be only the work of ideological re-orientation. There’s a way to work with technologists, most of whom are not entertaining the thoughts of exodus, and many of whom are uneasy with the exploitation, environmental degradation and expansion of military-industrial complex that results from their work. Many of them would rather see the Internet as a driver of equality, sustainability and social transformation. They need to be mobilised both as workers and as technological developers into leftist strategies.
Finally, there’s a way to meaningfully bind activity on the Internet and activity in real life, without getting caught into the feedback loops of capitalism and clicktivism. Beyond the Internet as a means of communication and the Internet as a means of socio-economic transformation, there’s the Internet as a means of organisation. As Phil Neel’s writing suggests, the organisation becomes effective only as it, in however small ways, transforms the existing reality on the ground.
In long and short, there’s a way to make the Internet tactically work as an apparatus of politicisation and organisation. While this does not go as far as the promise to revolutionise the existing reality, it might be part of the necessary task of transforming it.
Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Marxists Internet Archive, 1936 2005, https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm.↩
Robert W. McChesney, Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism Is Turning the Internet Against Democracy (New Press, The, 2013).↩
“Mobile Is the World’s Second-Largest Ad Medium,” WARC, November 30, 2017, https://www.warc.com/newsandopinion/news/mobile_is_the_worlds_secondlargest_ad_medium/39673.↩
Lauren Thomas Reagan Courtney, “Amazon to Take Almost 50 Percent of US E-Commerce Market by Year’s End,” CNBC.com, July 13, 2018, https://www.cnbc.com/2018/07/12/amazon-to-take-almost-50-percent-of-us-e-commerce-market-by-years-end.html.↩
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