The State and its detractors – plutocrats, insurgents, and algorithms

Two important (IMHO) reads from the past week…

Evgeny Morozov, who tends to really grate on me with his overly-generalized, ad hominen attacks, reminds us of his brilliance in spite of himself in this Guardian article: The rise of data and the death of politics

Such [algorithmic] systems, however, are toothless against the real culprits of tax evasion – the super-rich families who profit from various offshoring schemes or simply write outrageous tax exemptions into the law. Algorithmic regulation is perfect for enforcing the austerity agenda while leaving those responsible for the fiscal crisis off the hook. To understand whether such systems are working as expected, we need to modify [Tim] O’Reilly’s question: for whom are they working? If it’s just the tax-evading plutocrats, the global financial institutions interested in balanced national budgets and the companies developing income-tracking software, then it’s hardly a democratic success.

Nils Gilman has honed his study of the ongoing deconstruction of the state by the engines of plutocracy and deviant globalization into a masterful treatise, The Twin Insurgency

During the 1990s, it became a fashionable form of irony to declare that, in the new post-Marxist era, the state (the dirigiste state, at least) was destined to wither away. In truth, something more subtle was going on: the double collapse of social modernist state’s capacity and legitimacy was giving birth not to the post-historical utopia of a universal consensus in favor of liberal democratic capitalism, but rather to a two-headed monster in the form of plutocratic secession and deviant globalization. Instead of projects of collective emancipation, what both plutocratic and criminal insurgents desire is for the social modernist state to remain intact except insofar as it impinges on them. Neither criminal nor plutocratic insurgents are revolutionaries in the classic modernist sense of political actors who seek to take over the state.

…What both insurgencies represent is the replacement of the liberal ideal of uniform authority and rights within national spaces by a kaleidoscopic array of de facto and even de jure microsovereignties. Rather than a single national space in which power is exercised and all residents enjoy rights in a consistent and homogeneous way, the cartography of the dual insurgency consists of diverse enclaves of heterogeneous political authority and of non-standardized social-service provisioning arrangements.

Returning to Morozov, again with the casual simplification and lazy stereotyping but, nevertheless, an important kernel:

As Silicon Valley keeps corrupting our language with its endless glorification of disruption and efficiency – concepts at odds with the vocabulary of democracy – our ability to question the “how” of politics is weakened.

The “what” is cybernetic, the “how” is human. Interests below and above the game will always circumvent the algorithmic measurement, control, and containment that the rest of us are corralled into.

Gilman concludes:

The ultimate losers in all of this, of course, are the middle classes—the people who “play by the rules” by going to school and getting traditional middle-class jobs whose chief virtue is stability. These sorts of people, who lack the ruthlessness to act as criminal insurgents or the resources to act as plutocratic insurgents, can only watch as institutions built over the course of the 20th century to ensure a high quality of life for a broad majority of citizens are progressively eroded.

In a sense, both speak to a progressive fragmentation of the social and economic order as the system becomes too complex and unwieldy to effectively manage. Morozov would likely see this as a failure of will, an abdication of agency. Gilman might regard it as both a cause and effect of the dismantling of statehood. Only algorithms can tangle such huge volumes of information spooling off the maelstrom. And only humans can ensure that our institutions survive and prosper enough to keep the common good at the center.

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