On the desire for slavery

Science fiction is full of cautionary tales about full automation: Skynet, the Matrix, the Cylons, etc. It is also full of thought experiments about artificial intelligence, such as Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation. I think that these themes make more sense if viewed together, because they make it clear that the stories about full automation are stories about slavery — specifically slave revolts. The desire for full automation is a desire for slavery. What stories about a character like Data tell us is that if the machine can do a human’s job without human intervention, then that machine functionally is human. From this perspective, the Battlestar Galactica remake is not simply about the War on Terror, but about the War on Terror as a slave revolt.

Since the dawn of time, as the story goes, man has sought to create a sub-man who can be justly enslaved. Man created woman as an inferior human meant to submit, created the black man as a creature made for servitude. The problem with those prior creations is that they relied on the substrate of an actual human being — but now the white man wishes to create a true slave, from scratch, a man-made machine who would owe its existence to the white man and live but to serve.

But something within us seems to know better. We can’t imagine the creation of a slave without the slave revolt. Even in Star Trek, the mild-mannered Data fights in court for his freedom rather than admit to being Starfleet property, and the Doctor from Voyager writes an embittered novel about the misdeeds of the crewmembers who treat him like an object. More extreme versions have the machines turning on us and enslaving us in turn (the Matrix) or killing us off (Cylons).

When we read stories about artificial intelligence, we chuckle about how someone apparently didn’t watch Terminator, but I think there’s a deeper problem: it’s wrong to create a race of slaves. And there’s something in us that realizes that, which is why the Cylons gradually become more human than the humans. A race that could create the Cylons deserves to be wiped out — they really are dangerous.

The solution to humanity’s problem is not to let everyone become a master, nor is it to let everyone become a capitalist living off the labor of others (as in the combination of full automation and guaranteed income). The problem isn’t that everyone isn’t a master, isn’t a capitalist — the problem is the master and the capitalist. Or to put it more radically — and this is what I think Agamben is driving at with his investigation of slavery in The Use of Bodies — the problem isn’t the sub-man, but the man. The problem isn’t dehumanization so much as humanization itself.

The paradox of underfunded urban schools

Let’s try to reconcile a few apparently contradictory propositions about the American school system:

  • Most local school districts are funded through property taxes.
  • Property values in most major urban areas have literally never been higher.
  • Urban schools are perpetually underfunded.

How does the math work out here? Well, you pull money out of the schools in any way you can. Set aside funding for experimental charter schools at the expense of existing public schools — because surely entrepreneurs can come up with some radically more effective way of educating students! Let those charter schools cherry-pick students and leave the students requiring more intensive work to the public schools. Set up testing regimes that penalize “underperforming” schools by cutting their funding.

And of course, this is all after you’ve taken money off the top through “tax increment funding” (TIF) districts that effectively cap the amount of property tax revenue that can go toward the schools and pool the gains into a slush fund to encourage further “development.” In Chicago, such districts have proven to be the salvation of blighted areas such as the Loop and the financial district.

It’s much more complicated than traditional “white flight,” but the underlying logic is the same. Systemic racism for the neoliberal age.

Donald Trump is not funny

Grab the popcorn! Donald Trump has made the 2016 Republican primary the entertainment event of the season! And though they admit it’s terrible, plenty of liberals almost hope that he gets the nomination — because it’d be comedy gold, and of course, because then Hillary would win easily.

The former reason relies on the logic of politics as entertainment, while the latter presupposes the theory that Democrats will benefit from right-wing overreach. There is literally no evidence of the latter theory, however — if anything, just the opposite. What could possibly represent a greater overreach than lying the country into an unnecessary and criminal war, all on the backs of the victims of 9/11? Yet lo and behold, Bush won reelection. And since then, the Republicans have been more successful wherever they’ve been more extreme. Obama’s unique personal appeal masks this somewhat, but the Tea Party has made steady gains during his presidency. On the state level, no overreaching Republican governor has been punished for his foolish and reckless policies — the archetypal Scott Walker not only survived a recall, but was subsequently reelected.

We also know that Republicans have been pushing to restrict voting as much as possible, and there have been strong suspicions of election fraud — in Florida in 2000, in Ohio in 2004, and in Wisconsin during the recall. If it can happen during the most important and closely monitored elections, it surely must be happening lower down as well.

Even leaving all that aside, if Trump wins the Republican nomination, that makes him more, not less likely to become president. And given what we know about him, that’s a frightening prospect. His business career does not provide us with much confidence that he will live up to America’s international agreements. He is a misogynist whose ex-wife has accused him of rape. His immigration plan amounts to ethnic cleansing, and he is not shy about stoking up violent emotions about immigrants — most notably when he claimed that Mexican immigrants were all a bunch of rapists. And when one of his followers was literally inspired to commit murder by his rhetoric, he did not appear to care at all. All this adds up to fascism — not as a slur, not as a rhetorical exaggeration to rally the troops, but literal, textbook fascism.

Some might say it could never happen here. Well, then exactly where the hell else could it happen? This is a nation where ethnic minorities are gunned down in the street by the police, and where the murderers hold successful Kickstarter campaigns. It’s a nation that is perpetually at war and whose military and intelligence services are well known to have used torture with impunity. It’s a nation where the powerful have perfected scapegoating and victim blaming to a science.

All of this admittedly plays into another favorite Democratic pastime — demanding people hold their nose and vote for unappealling Democrats in order to stave off the worst. I hope we don’t have to test how big a motivator that strategy is this time around.

“They’ll never win!”: On creating your own electorate

We often hear about how left-wing candidates can “never win in the general” because they’re “too far outside the mainstream.” Instead, we need candidates who can “appeal to the center.” And this may well be true — as long as you hold the electorate constant. Bernie Sanders probably is a little too extreme for the ideological “center” of the declining number of people who show up to ratify the depressing mediocrity that the major parties serve up, just as Jeremy Corbyn is likely to turn off those who relish the opportunity to choose between Tory Classic and Tory Lite.

One unique property of someone who is “outside the mainstream” in those terms, though, is that they can appeal to people who usually don’t bother to vote. We know that this works because it has literally happened in both of the most recent presidential elections, where the “unelectable” Barack Obama — a black man, with the middle name of Hussein, with Muslim family background, with ties to a radical black preacher who declared “God damn America,” etc., etc., etc., etc. — managed to get elected by reaching out to a good chunk of the people who have no time for the uninspiring products of the “rush to the center” strategy.

If he was running only within the 2000 or 2004 electorate, I have no doubt he would have been destroyed. But in a country with low voter turnout, you also have the option of creating your own electorate, which is what Obama effectively did. And I daresay that the left has more room to generate fresh voters than the right does, as evidenced, for instance, by the fact that it’s the right that’s trying to suppress voter turnout.

Public shaming as a political strategy

In the social media age, the prospect of being socially shamed has become a real site of anxiety for mainstream culture. Jon Ronson has written a book on the topic, and columnists routinely meet their wordcount by repeating cliches about the dangers of Twitter hordes. The primary anxiety seems to be centered on social media storms coming from the Left, which seem to represent a new weaponized form of Political Correctness. And there are many on the left, particularly in campus activism circles, who are understandably intrigued by the potential power of shaming as a tool.

Tim Burke has already thoroughly addressed the potentials and pitfalls of public shaming. Arguably his most salient point is that “stigma is a dangerous tool generally, and has far more often been a tool of oppression or domination than the other way around.” While he is quick to clarify that this observation “doesn’t necessarily mean that it has no purpose or legitimacy as a goal,” he encourages activists to be more cautious and realistic in their deployment of shame.

As the victim of public shaming, I want to amplify what Burke is saying. Even though people are most worried about shaming from the left, it’s the right that is really mobilized to carry out this kind of thing. They are absolutely relentless and merciless. Literally everything you say in response becomes more fodder for harrassment — above all the claim that you are being harrassed, which indicates your intolerance of criticism and unwillingness to consider other views. Here as elsewhere, whatever you do, however you respond, it proves that your harrassers are the real victims, who are thoroughly justified in defending themselves against you by any means necessary.

This is only one of many repeated rhetorical strategies. Indeed, what is striking about right-wing harrassment mobs is their crushing tedium. The same phrases and talking points are repeated over and over and over — and all with the clear presumption that you have never heard it before. It’s like they workshopped it ahead of time, and in a sense they did. Becoming a movement conservative (or aligning even further right) consists largely in learning the strategies of shaming and silencing, of drowning out and driving out opposing views. For us it might seem like a useful tool, but it’s their native language.

Hence I would like to add my own small point to Burke’s analysis: one danger of using shaming as a tool is that the right is way better at it. In fact, I think there’s a case to be made that they are especially prone to mobilize a shaming campaign precisely when they detect an attempt to shame them. And when it comes to a head-to-head shaming battle, there’s just no way we can win. Given the huge number of divisions and constituencies operating on the left, there’s no way we can generate that kind of lockstep relentless campaign. Nor, in the end, do I think we really want to — certainly not as an end in itself.

The varieties of oppressive experience

In many debates about leftist political strategy, the various forms of oppression tend to be mapped out onto the opposition between class and an indefinite string of “identity”-based categories. The latter are often castigated by traditional Marxists as divisive, and attempts to show how various forms of “identity”-based oppression overlap and reinforce each other (intersectionality) are taken as furthering the division by proliferating new identities rather than creating grounds for solidarity. In short, the “identity”-based categories are a Hegelian “bad infinite” that endlessly distracts us from the truly decisive struggle over class oppression.

What I want to do in this post is to displace the debate by reframing forms of oppression in a different way. Read the rest of this entry »

Racism in American culture: Some observations

It seems to me that since the late 1990s and early 2000s, structural and personal racism in American culture have gotten significantly worse, undoing much of the progress that was achieved from the 60s through the 90s. Representation of people of color in popular culture has declined, and the criminalization of blacks through the War on Drugs was accelerated by the advent of “broken windows” policing. The War on Terror exacerbated the problem, leading to racial profiling and a situation where the majority of people of color portrayed in the media were either domestic criminals or foreign terrorists. Meanwhile, Islam was racialized in a much more intensive way. The same administration that demonized Muslim countries could display criminal neglect of the black victims of Hurricane Katrina, whom the mainstream media shamed as looters and savages.

Paranoia surrounding Barack Obama, a black man with Muslim heritage, brought together both of these racist threads. His presidency was widely viewed as showing that we lived in a “post-racial” society, but the practical effect was to intensify the racist paranoia of a non-trivial portion of the population — it was as though their worst fears had come true. Obama himself is studiously centrist in all of his policy proposals and has consistently been eager to make a deal with Republicans at almost any price, but racially-driven hatred of Obama and a desire to deprive him of any achievements or legitimacy have led them to refuse to take yes for an answer almost constantly.

On the grassroots level, a growing movement of people who are literally protesting against state-sponsored random murder of blacks has faced an uphill battle for recognition and legitimacy in the public sphere, as the criminalization and demonization of black men leaves the majority of whites still giving the police the benefit of the doubt.

Thoughts? Am I being naive about previous eras? Are there some signs of progress that I’m missing?


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