This is a guest post from the nice people at Radlett Wire, a local blog that, having spent ten years providing, let’s face it, mostly quite boring information about the small Hertfordshire town in its name, is now doing something a bit more political and keeping an eye on the public life and shifting fortunes of local MP (and Sunak sidekick) Oliver Dowden. This post caught our eye because it’s about the decline of shame in politics.
Media training for Ministers of the Crown must now include excusing the indiscretions of people you probably think are beneath contempt
In the past, when ministers broke the rules, made egregious errors or just royally embarrassed themselves, the routine was fairly simple. You resigned sharpish and – depending on the severity of your offence – were cast into outer darkness (the House of Lords), left politics all together or, in the fullness of time were rehabilitated and reinserted to the cabinet as if nothing had happened (sometimes more than once).
More recently, in the period, roughly speaking, between the beginning of the coalition government in 2010 and the chaos of Brexit, the routine changed. Something about the rise of populism, the bracing free-for-all of the new politics, means the norms have been rewritten. Now, when disgraced, a politician can be expected to cling to power – sometimes for months on end, sometimes indefinitely – with the petulance of a haughty toddler. The honourable resignation, the dignified retreat from public life – these are now thought to be signs of political weakness, hopelessly outdated remnants of a prissier political era. Only wimps resign.
For the muscular populists of the post-political era, the polite traditions of 20th Century politics are not just an inconvenience, they’re part of the problem. Decorum, sobriety, propriety – all are no longer sources of legitimacy but evidence of establishment paralysis. Trashing political norms is not incidental to the project – it’s fundamental. And it’s a self-reproducing behaviour. Once a majority of pols are responding to crises in this way it becomes essentially impossible to do so in the old way. When politics shifts and everyone around you is shameless, resigning when found out becomes essentially unpolitical, unstrategic. You’d look like a mug so you hang on until the storm passes (or you’re literally forced onto a plane home to be publicly fired).
So a necessary part of the new routine is the ritual interrogation of the miscreant’s colleagues. It’s an accepted part of the job. Whoever shows up in the studio to answer questions about that day’s big story will, as a matter of routine, be asked to justify the errant minister’s continued presence in the cabinet. There’s a fairly static repertoire of responses – “it would be wrong to pre-judge the official inquiry”, “the minister has apologised and is now 100% focused on delivery of the government’s ambitious programme”, “the minister has the full support of the Prime Minister.”
Given the size of a modern cabinet – (31 ministers attend Rishi Sunak’s cabinet) – there’s always at least one minister in disgrace. In recent times it’s regularly been two or three and, in the remarkable period that came to a close in August, it was often the Prime Minister himself. So the likelihood you’ll be grilled about a colleague’s indiscretions is high. You need to be across the story. In the official car on the way to the studio the minister is reading papers about their own brief, about wider policy and about the antisocial behaviour of a fellow minister. It’s all in a day’s work.
Williamson’s texts to the Chief Whip, of course, are probably a blessed relief for the government, keeping the Home Secretary’s more consequential string of cock-ups off the front page for a day or two. The clock is ticking.
Italo Svevo and Adam Tooze (and Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng)
So, in his book about the real hero of modern literature, historian Franco Moretti put me on to Italo Svevo’s 1922 novel Zeno’s Conscience. It’s a brilliant and prophetic book. With our hero, businessman Zeno Cosini, we walk the streets of Trieste, a port city at the edge of a collapsing empire and at the edge of the unfortunate 20th century, the most annoying and loveable (and most unreliable) unreliable narrator you’ll ever meet.
This narrator is a very up-to-date Austro-Hungarian. He’s an enthusiast for the latest Viennese fad psychoanalysis—we learn that he’s writing all this down for his analyst in Vienna (Doctor S, probably Sigmund Freud, who actually treated Svevo’s brother). He’s a hypochondriac who knows all the latest ailments and treatments, a chemist who knows the composition of all the new remedies, apparently in robust health but surrounded by sick people. An egomaniac – but only in the sense that you would be too, if you were writing everything down for your analyst.
And, in the text, Zeno’s right there, on the cusp of the modern, at the beginning of the long 20th century; all that revolution, industrialisation, despoilation, globalisation—and war after war—just over the horizon.
He’s a modern man, a complicated subject like you or me, a secular bourgeois. He’s superstitious but not religious, a terrible businessman who prospers by accident. In the book he becomes a kind of comic avatar of the emerging scientific capitalism of the late 19th Century. The whole petty theatre of modern business is here: the awkwardness of foreign trade, company law, buying and selling shares (in Rio Tinto, supplier of copper to the hypermodern boom industries of electricity and telegraphy – he’s at the bleeding edge), fiddling the books (and worrying about getting caught fiddling the books), surplus stationery purchased in error, shipping and warehousing, HR dilemmas…
There’s a huge stock market loss (and an unlikely recovery), a catastrophic purchase of 60 metric tons of Copper Sulphate from a company in England, a sequence of terrible deals made from Zeno and his brother-in-law’s comically badly-run office (apparently staffed by the cast of the Carry On films—Carmen is Joan Sims, Luciano Jim Dale and Guido Kenneth Williams—change my mind).
The story ends with an intriguing perspective on the catastrophe of the Great War, from the other end of Europe—from the complicated, multi-party territorial war over Svevo’s beloved Trieste. I won’t spoil the ending but it brings the story to a grand and moving conclusion.
Tooze starts with a fairly close-up view of events in Westminster and the City but his essay quickly spirals out through British and world markets and winds up in a very big (and quite bleak) picture indeed:
Does it really make sense to perpetuate a system in which disastrous financial risks are built into the profit-driven provision of basic financial products like pensions and mortgages? Yes the central bank can act as the fire brigade, but why do we such a dangerous situation as normality. Why do the smoke detectors fail again and again? And why is the house not more fire proof? It is time to ask who benefits and who pays the cost for continuing with this dangerously inflammable system.
‘The bond market massacre of September 2022’, Adam Tooze
I feel like every time Tooze sits down to document a new human catastrophe these days he can’t help observing that whatever the latest planet-scale fuck-up is, it’s actually also a symptom of something bigger and more final. His last two books documented the financial crisis (Crashed) and the pandemic (Shutdown). The next one will be about the global collapse triggered by Kwasi and Liz’s sixth-form science experiment in the UK economy. It’ll be called ‘Spavined’ or ‘Wrecked’ or ‘Knackered’ and it’ll have a big picture of the pair of them gurning in hard hats on the cover.
Svevo, who was a pal of James Joyce, documented Europe’s entry into modernity. Tooze is documenting the way out.
Is everyone on the British left anti-monarchist? Does anyone even care?
What does the left think about monarchy? Seems obvious, right? Off with their heads! But no, there’s some complexity here and it connects closely with the weird (almost unique on planet earth) constitutional arrangements that persist here in the archipelago.
On the left there are basically two positions on the monarchy. Not on monarchy in general — only one there really — but on Britain’s actually existing monarchy, the Crown-Constitutional Parliamentary state that’s been locked in here since the 17th Century.
In position one, the monarchy is an unequivocally, catastrophically bad thing—a major impediment to meaningful popular sovereignty and an aspect of Britain’s backward machinery of state. Britain’s monarchy, in this view, is a vital contributor to the country’s long-term decline, solidified in the retreat from empire and the disastrous deindustrialisation of the post-war period.
In this perspective, identified with the British ‘New Left’ since the 1950s and developed in great detail in the pages of New Left Review by brilliant writers like Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn, the settlement that secured the monarchy in 1688 locked in the dominance of sclerotic aristocracy, land-owning elite and the compliant institutions that sustain them. The result is a country that, paradoxically, became a nation-state first and industrialised first but failed fully to make the transition from ancien régime to modernity, whose progress from feudalism to capitalism is still incomplete. In the New Left worldview ceremony, deference and acceptance of hierarchy have naturalised and hardened aristocratic dominance and neutralised the popular radicalism that has expanded democracy elsewhere in the capitalist world.
The other left anti-monarchist perspective, embodied these days by lefties belonging to populist or ‘realist’ strands of the tradition, is much less bothered. These anti-monarchists oppose the unelected power of the monarchy (obvs) but would probably be quite happy to leave the Windsors where they are and get on with the class war. In fact, for left-populists, the fervent opposition to the crown and its institutions embodied by that earlier generation of left-wingers is actually damaging to the cause. For them, the critics and theorists who developed the declinist narrative of the New Left—whose animating idea was that Britain is stuck in a deferential mire and can aspire only to a steady loss of status, relevance and prosperity—are a bit FBPE, a bit ‘metropolitan liberal elite’ and not least because opposing the monarchy puts them at odds these days with a clear majority of the British working class.
It’s not just the left who oppose the monarchy, of course. There’s an indignant centrist/liberal republican movement too – in fact they’ve been at it for longer and they’re more organised than the left. In the Crown’s 19th century slump it was largely Whig/Liberal radicals like Charles Dilkes who opposed the monarchy and, in the present day, the Liberal party itself still has a robust republican strand. The young Liz Truss was not alone in her vituperative opposition to the royals.
The rehabilitation of the monarchy that’s taken place since the end of the 19th Century, described by Tom Nairn in his brilliant and thoroughly New Left book The Enchanted Glass, has, to put it bluntly, worked. The Crown-Parliamentary state won. In the middle ages, monarchs cowered in their palaces, derided publicly. When they ventured into the streets kings and queens were often booed, some were so often away crusading (or hunting, or carousing) they might not be known to their subjects at all.
Working people who, until the early 19th Century, were suspicious of or even hostile towards royalty are, especially in the most recent decades of the Queen’s reign, mostly in favour (the numbers might be a bit different among fans of The Crown and the young, of course). Principled opposition to monarchy will just put the left in conflict with the working class and leave lefties in a very familiar position—thrashing about trying to explain why ordinary people don’t agree with them. It all begins to look a bit Remoaner/People’s Vote/Russian money.
So now, a left wing party or movement that put much energy into opposing the monarchy, that set out policies aiming at an elected head of state or even a slightly less anti-democratic settlement—one that, for instance, removed the monarch’s powers of consent to new laws—could only damage its prospects with working people. Leave the monarchs alone, lefties, they’re not worth it.
I’d go so far as to say that this is a beautiful book. Funny, angry, imaginative – an unforgiving demolition of the fantasies and self-deceptions of Britain’s backward, complacent, destructive tolerance of the invented rituals of modern royalty – the damage done to our democracy, the permanent strangulation of popular sovereignty, the narrowing of our national potential, the bleak prospect of unstoppable decline made inevitable by our unthinking acceptance of the Crown-constitutional status quo.
Published in 1988, there is absolutely nothing dated or irrelevant about this book – in fact one of the most fascinating aspects of the book is the constant, startling correspondences we find between Britain towards the end of the Thatcher revolution and Britain after the Brexit revolt.
The scope of the book is not limited in any way to a critique 0f monarchy or monarchism. My understanding of Britain’s constitutional weirdness (Nairn’s wonderful name for Crown-constitutional Britain is ‘Ukania’) and the powerful parasitic grip of Britain’s social and economic elites has been so enhanced by his excoriating, wide-ranging critique of City, Crown, complacent Parliament, self-interested administrative class, complicit media elite (and so on). I feel I have a new super-power.
Nairn is a brilliant writer, his language sparkles and surprises – you’ll find yourself stopping to look up words you’ve never heard that always turn out to be perfect for the job. It’s an absolute joy – and it took me a long time to read, mainly because I couldn’t help myself from highlighting brilliant passage after brilliant passage on the Kindle (it’s a cause of immense Bezos-directed resentment that I can’t share my highlights with you because I read the book in a non-Amazon format! Sort it out Jeff!).
Nairn, who as of this review, is still with us, developed his powerful argument for the backwardness of Britain’s constitutional arrangements and for the inevitable decline of the state and the polity across his many decades as writer (and editor) at New Left Review. If you have a subscription you can read the entire archive of his writing (and of his pal Perry Anderson – also still with us – another brilliant writer with whom he worked closely) online.
I’ve been bingeing on texts about monarchy lately, for obvious reasons. I also recently reviewed David Cannadine’s influential paper ‘The Context, Performance and Meaning of Ritual : The British Monarchy and the ‘Invention of Tradition’ c. 1820–1977’ which is in a terrific book of essays edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger. The essay, published in 1977, explains how the rituals and customs invented or updated in the 19th Century rescued Britain’s Crown from irrelevence or even obliteration in a revolution like those that wiped out the monarchies of Europe one after the other (Hobsbawm’s essay in the same book, a wider-ranging survey of the twilight of monarchy across Europe, is also worth a read).
Another good read in this context is a David Edgerton’s 20th Century history The rise and fall of the British nation, which aims to dismantle the whole declinist New Left narrative. Perry Anderson, owner but not quite sole proprietor of the declinist story, predictably enough dismantled Edgerton’s dismantling in the pages of New Left Review (you might need a subscription to read that one).
The story is that Labour is the only major socialist party in the world that emerged directly from organised labour—every other important party—from the DSA to the SPD to the PS and the JSP—was the product of an actual revolution or of a popular socialist movement. Labour founders Keir Hardie and Arthur Henderson had both been union leaders and many early Labour parliamentarians were well-known workplace leaders or campaigners for workers’ rights.
(note labour and Labour are used throughout, for obvious reasons).
It turns out, though, that the will of those early Labour leaders – and of their comrades at the top of the union movement for that matter – was not to win a victory for workers, to challenge or overthrow the parties of power at the time, to replace or diminish the landowner and business elites, or even to offer a pro-worker counterweight in the Commons. The will of those leaders—as of the current generation—was always to gain access, to join the club, to get their bums on the green benches and to form a polite left-hand hump to the Crown-Parliamentary camel, supplanting the previous occupants of the less-favoured benches and becoming ‘His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition’.
This sounds cynical. I don’t mean for a moment to discount the contribution of those pioneer socialists to the pushing back of the multi-century stasis of Tory (and Whig) domination, the epochal introduction into an ancient elite legislature of working people. And, of course, individual Labour members have provided the backbone to countless labour disputes over the years—but it is vital to be clear-eyed about this. Labour in Parliament, from its very beginnings, was not a workers’ party. In the present day it’s a progressive party, a party of the Parliamentary centre-left, but it is not a workers’ party.
So there’s nothing new or surprising in the Labour party distancing itself from the interests of working people—do you remember the grim spectacle of Neil Kinnock making a flying visit to a miners’ strike picket, right at the end of the strike and at 5 a.m. so as to miss the reporters? (See if you can find a photo. There are none). During the long strike Kinnock the miner’s son repeatedly called for a national ballot and didn’t once ask workers to respect NUM picket lines. In retrospect, the strike was perhaps the greatest challenge that a modernising Labour leader could possibly face—and we know that Kinnock was conflicted and unhappy about the position he had to take. It became the most iconic—and relevant—statement of Labour’s labour ambivalence of the post-Thatcher era.
Going back further, almost to the origins of the party, during the First World War, Labour and the unions agreed an ‘industrial truce‘ in the national interest (Labour ministers joined the coalition government). After the war, Labour continued to oppose all instances of labour militancy and, in the build-up to the 1926 general strike, as the climate worsened and employers tried to force through wage cuts, the Labour leadership mediated ineffectively. When the strike came, though, they opposed it.
Leave it to the Rotary Club
When the Jarrow crusaders marched to London ten years later they had to depend on a strange alliance of Quakers, rogue trade unionists and the Rotary Club for food and support along the way—the Labour party didn’t turn up (local MP Ellen Wilkinson was a charismatic exception). 20th Century history is studded with examples like this. Even earlier, when Churchill moored a battleship in the Mersey to bring a little jeopardy to the 1911 Liverpool dockers’ strike, the Labour party, already a force in Parliament, was nowhere to be seen.
In the rough years between the wars there was an explosion of labour activism and confidence—in the face of the great depression, active government repression, blacklisting and a hostile judiciary. Wal Hannington’s National Unemployed Workers Movement moved mountains—organising big marches and actions all over the country. Its leadership was convicted under ancient mutiny laws and imprisoned—right at the sharp end of the workers’ struggle—but for Labour it was a bit too Communist. The party stood back. Likewise, the local councils who defied ancient, repressive laws to hold down the rates and to protect the poor did so without Labour support. In 1921 dozens of Poplar councillors—mostly Labour of course, including future leader George Lansbury—were imprisoned for their defiance. The Parliamentary Party leadership opposed their action (in the nineties, you won’t be surprised to learn, Neil Kinnock scolded Labour councillors prosecuted and surcharged for not paying the poll tax).
You’re on your own, ladies
Even when in government the party failed to support strikers. The Grunwick workers were defeated and humiliated while the party withheld support, although in scenes familiar to us now, individual MPs, including cabinet ministers, showed up at the picket line (the record shows that Shirley Williams et al waited until the strike was 40 weeks old and essentially already crushed to offer their calculated solidarity, though). The underpaid women at Ford’s Dagenham plant were left high and dry by a serving Labour government, winning only partial parity, with the half-hearted support of then Secretary of State Barbara Castle.
One of the biggest strikes of the entire period, taking place right at the heart of the state—in its very guts you might say—the now mostly-forgotten 1971 postal workers’ strike, lasted for seven weeks, had overwhelming support from Post Office workers who had been almost uniquely badly-treated in the post-war period. The strike became a template for Tory government opposition to industrial action—Royal Mail’s monopoly on delivering letters was suspended in an effort to circumvent the strike’s enormous impact. The strike ended without agreement—a dispiriting defeat. The workers were awarded a backdated 9% pay increase and some changes to working patterns after an inquiry but this didn’t even match what they’d been offered before the strike. No one was happy. Individual Labour MPs, including Tony Benn, who’d been Postmaster General under Harold Wilson in the sixties but by this point was on the back benches, supported the strike. Wilson himself, from the opposition front bench, walked a familiar line, saying that the union’s demands were not unreasonable but advocating independent arbitration by a court of inquiry. He opposed the strike.
The one big win
The extraordinary sequence of slow-downs and strikes that brought about the three-day week and the infamous powercuts in the early seventies is still the only industrial action that has ever brought down a UK government. Heath’s battle with miners and power workers was surely the high-water mark for labour activism in Britain—bringing together workers, party members and movement in a way not seen before or since. It was a highly-effective action, using modern communications to coordinate the strikes and winning significant public support for the cause. The workers won and so did Labour. The Parliamentary Labour Party, while in opposition under Harold Wilson, actually supported the pay claims of the miners (often in House of Commons debates) and, once in office, agreed two 35% pay rises for the miners in the space of two years. In the 1974 election Labour ran on a manifesto that promised to “bring about a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of wealth and power in favour of working people and their families” but did the party support the strikes that brought about their victory? What do you think?
The series of strikes we now know as the Winter of Discontent was triggered by a Labour government’s imposition of wage control—a 5% cap on pay increases. The subsequent industrial action took the form of a battle between state and workers. Fascinating, of course, that the present round of disputes is, at least in principle, more diffuse, pitting workers against dozens of individual employers—many in categories that did not even exist in the last era of union militancy—but that, even in the absence of a government-imposed wage cap, the state is still profoundly present.
The next generation
In the era of apps and zero-hour contracts, the strikes, walkouts and protests by gig workers, outsourced workforces and workers resisting ‘fire and rehire’ policies might seem to offer a useful opportunity for Labour to reconnect with labour, by making an association with a new generation of workers and with an updated labour activism for the social media era—with vivid new causes that have revived support for workers in Britain, especially amongst the young. No chance.
I’m not a historian (no shit, Steve) but it’s been an instructive exercise this, searching for Labour support for striking workers over the years of its existence. For me a fascinating and quite urgent reminder that Labour’s role across the modern period has been much more about achieving and sustaining a position in the Westminster constitutional fabric—holding on to what still feels like a wobbly foothold in the institutions at all cost—than about actually transferring power to working people, or even improving their conditions of work or their pay. The choice was pretty simple: take a polite role in the ancient theatre of the Parliamentary system or work for emancipation, popular sovereignty and worker control. You know the rest.
(Can you think of a time that Labour officially supported an industrial action, in or out of office, in the party’s entire history? Leave acomment).
And my scan of the party’s history suggests that it would really be wrong to expect more from the current leadership while in opposition or in government. For Starmer to even acknowledge what looks to many like an important shift in the terms of the national argument in favour of working people and organised labour would be not only to risk a monstering from the Tory press but would also defy literally the entire institutional history of his party. He leads an establishment party that must, almost as a condition of its existence, retain an even and unsupportive distance from its own organised labour wing.
So it seems obvious that Starmer, Reeves et al will not have any difficulty finding good, sensible, tactically-savvy reasons for withholding support from organised labour once they’re in power too. The difficult truth for the leadership of a progressive party in Britain is that there is literally no circumstance in which it is tactically correct to support a strike.
Let’s face it, if the Tolpuddle Martyrs were to come back to life and join the party tomorrow morning, Starmer would have issued a statement, suspended their memberships, conducted a disciplinary and kicked them out by lunchtime.
It’s easy to check if a proposed tech solution to the climate crisis is legit or not.
Examine the solution; if it looks like it might have been designed to cleverly carry forward the capital structures and shareholder value of fossil industries to the post-transition economy then that’s all you need to know. It’s a wealth preservation device and building it will waste time we don’t have, push zero emissions further out, and risk further warming.
Hydrogen is a good example: we’re going to need it and we’re going to need a lot of it but only for some pretty specific applications – for very long-distance transport (boats basically) or for running plant that’s a long way from the grid, that kind of thing.
Used in other applications it’ll bring with it all the costs of a new industrial process and a new distribution fabric. Hydrogen at the scale proposed by capital is a way to reproduce existing ownership structures, to protect investments – and the absurd, distorting overhead of doing that – building and maintaining networks, developing and selling a whole new ecology of devices, growing new markets and so on – all for the single purpose of protecting the value of the corporations that got us here in the first place – will cancel all the benefits.
And don’t get me started on the demented logic of using electricity (green or otherwise) to extract hydrogen and then burning hydrogen to generate electricity (and all the crazy variations on that model). Used in this way Hydrogen is a dirty fuel.
The more frantic we become about the wickedness and power of the platforms, the more we confirm that power. The more action we demand of police and legislators, the more we confirm their exceptional status, their untouchability
(some updates in this text to reflect recent news stories)
The standard position now is that the social media platforms ‘wield too much power’, that they operate vital infrastructure recklessly, endangering democracy, threatening free speech, exposing our kids to harm, silencing the righteous and platforming the wicked.
The premise is that the platforms are so very, very important, that they’ve come to fill a vital, irreplacable public role. That they’re ‘the new public square’—our agora—but also that they’ve evolved into a hideous, out-of-control threat to liberty, happiness and democracy.
As a result, the argument goes, we must act—hold the platforms to account, require them to operate their sprawling businesses differently. It’s urgent. Influential people write leader articles about the platforms’ power and venality, we discuss them in our legislatures, watch their CEOs sweat in committee rooms.
We demand the impossible—and it makes us look stupid
So the heat is on for the platforms. They must delete posts we object to and remove users who upset and bully others (oh, and they must simultaneously protect freedom of expression, leaving up inflammatory posts because of ‘the right to offend’). Everywhere, demands are made and sanctions proposed—vast fines, forced break-ups, exclusion from markets, mandated payments to publishers.
Legislators and columnists require the platforms to perform implausibly complex tasks—reading billions of posts to find content that offends, for instance, or policing membership lists to weed out the hateful or the banned. Some of these measures would be, if enacted, brutally intrusive, requiring a scary level of cross-matching and de-anonymisation, but we overlook the obvious damage our most extreme instincts would produce.
More recently, we make ridiculous demands of a magical AI that doesn’t exist yet. We’ve convinced ourselves that software whose primary function is targeting adverts should also easily be able to preemptively locate child abuse, automatically dob in terrorists and take down offensive videos before they’ve offended anyone.
Of course the grim truth is that all this public bluster about the massive, overbearing power of social media is actually in the interests of the platforms. It suits them that we believe all this nonsense. We must continue to believe that Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are both vital and evil.
Our dark fantasies make them stronger
The absurdity of the demands we make is paradoxically necessary to the platforms’ survival. They’ll ritually push back against our naive demands but they know that while influencers and legislators are busy hand-wringing about their untramelled power, their continued economic dominance is assured.
If Nick Clegg were to let on that it’s literally impossible for Facebook to read and filter everything posted—take down offensive or illegal content before it goes live, identify malfeasance as it happens, if Elon Musk could admit to the contradictions in his Quixotic mission at Twitter—the mystique might begin to fade. These enormous web sites may be exploitive ethical voids but they have no magical powers. They’re cleverly-engineered advertising platforms, built for scale, but they are not inevitable, not essential, not even necessary.
We rage that the social media giants are not just ugly, hyper-efficient, profit machines but much worse—they’re futuristic, mind-reading robber barons, destroying our democracies, eviscerating our noble, centuries-old print media, stealing our children’s lives and happiness.
Shoshana Zuboff, in her 2019 hit, goes further, asserting that Dorsey, Zuckerberg et al have invented not only hyper-efficient classified ads but a new kind of capitalism—a virulent and predatory one that’s somehow more expolitive, more alienating than the old one.
Our epic displacement activities
Legislatures everywhere are confused and paralysed by the apparent omnipotence of the platfoms. Their response is not to find practical ways to diminish their influence (and maybe tax their profits) but to panic and invent whole new categories of offense. In Britain an Online Harms Bill is on its way through Parliament. It’s a complex and well-meaning misplacement of energy—a blend of the undeliverable and the undesirable—that makes actually tackling the platforms harder, by further mystifying their operations, by redefining them as slippery, dystopian, essentially impossible to deal with.
But here’s the thing: they’re not untouchable, they’re not essential to our lives and they’re certainly not omnipotent. To say they are is to misrecognise them. Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, YouTube and their satellites are ugly, exploitive, alienating places and they’ve hoovered up an intimidatory share of our attention, our advertising budgets and our waking lives but they’re definitely not important.
(there are places where the platforms are important: where Internet access is provided or subsidised by Facebook, for instance, where Meta has suffocated the net entirely).
And acting like they are important—in some way inevitable—is paralysing us, leaving us stranded on their arid plateux, over-invested and over-committed. We’re so impressed by the scale and inscrutability of these hypermodern systems, their vast, deliberately-obfuscated structures and codebases. We’re so absorbed by the sleight-of-hand that made us all entirely dependent before we noticed they were just bullshitters (pyramid schemes, junk mail shysters) that we’ve become incapable of recognising our own agency, our own perfectly intact ability to dump these nobodies and move on.
They’re not impossible to deal with but they are unreformable. Waiting for the platforms to fall into line and conform to social and commercial norms, agitating for compliance and limits and sanctions just produces the most uncomfortable contortions, but instead of acknowleding this and figuring out how to push them into the sea we twist our legal codes into knots, trying somehow to fit the most exploitive businesses since the East India Company into our economies, our cultures, our polities.
Unwinding our dependence on the platforms will not be easy. Reducing their share of our attention, limiting the corosive, hollowing-out effect they have on our businesses, institutions, democratic systems and public discourse will not be trivial. Their epic access to cash and the institutional cover they’re able to tap into gives them access to essentially unlimited resources.
Giving up the platforms
We’ve convinced ourselves that dealing with the platforms requires an epic, multi-decade war, an existential struggle, fought through every national legislature, every institution, every school and media company. But we’ve got it wrong. We need to rediscover our agency, our confidence in ourselves and the courage to get on with flushing them out of our lives.
There’s an analogy with drug addiction. We know a lot about how to limit the malign effects of drugs on our lives and communities but instead of acting, rationally and humanely, to limit harm, we’ve spent decades fighting a pointless and cruel ‘war on drugs’ that consumes resources and lives to no effect but meets the cynical needs of politicians and elites. Boom.
Likewise, we know perfectly well how to dump the social networks (Jaron Lanier explained all this years ago). We know what they’re doing to us and to our communities and institutions. Quitting will be hard but it is possible and it will produce a kind of self-reinforcing collective joy. Doing so will empower us, free our minds and might make a new generation of real online communities possible.
In his book The Twittering Machine, Richard Seymour develops the drug additiction idea. It’s not a hopeful book but he does believe we can break our social media addictions, that quitting our platform habit is both desirable and feasible— to get there he says we need an ‘escapology’, ‘a theory of how to get out before it’s too late’. And Seymour’s escapology isn’t just for you and me, it’s for our communities, companies, institutions and nations.
How to do it
And what’s clear is that our escapology won’t involve agitating for compliance with social and commercial norms, twisting our legal codes into knots, requiring ever more complex responses from the platforms. It’ll involve giving them up.
For businesses and organisations this means investing in their own platforms—neglected for a decade now—and winding down their sad dependence on social media. For people and communities it’ll involve getting organised and working out how to communicate and collaborate without the platforms. And don’t forget, all the tools for doing this still exist, all are still in use, some are still thriving.
Publishers (the mugs who provide the content that animates these sterile landscapes): write a new strategy that reduces your dependence on social media and moves you back onto a platform you control, over time. In the meantime, retrain your social media teams, tighten up your publishing tools to support the media types that work for you and not the platforms. Invest in community management, moderation and tools for deliberation and debate.
Government departments, NGOs, instititutions: do it now, don’t wait around. You have less of an incentive to stay on the platforms, you’re not so wired into their economics. Close and mothball your accounts, invest in your own web sites (some of which are already excellent). Use all the energy you’ve been pouring into social media to rebuild and spread your web skills, reintegrate your content assets and your social strategy. Trust me, if you’ve been investing in social for years it’ll seem weird to begin with, but once you’re recovered your momentum it’ll feel amazing to be putting all your effort into your own stuff.
Brands: tricky. You’ve moved your entire digital presence onto the platforms, you’ve tied your Facebook strategy into your launch regime and your ad budget, your brandter is fundamental to your identity. And, tbh, if this works out, if the rest of us can slowly reduce our dependence on the platforms and rebuild our autonomous presence on the internet, you might find yourself out there, just you and all the other brands, chatting to each other.
Individuals: okay, I know, there are endless tools and therapies intended to help you give up or dial down your social media—from radical abstention to carefully-measured social media diets (often administered by the tech firms that produced the febrile behaviour in the first place). I could not possibly add anything useful to the list, but please try not to buy into the trauma narrative that says the platforms make us miserable but we have to stick around on the platforms in order to work through our misery. If you do nothing else, find the log-in for your old blog and make a couple of trial posts.
Escaping the platform economy is possible, but to diminish its hold on us we must first recognise that we might actually want to.
Everybody knows now, we built the wrong internet. Instead of a democratic, participatory playground we seem to have built something predatory and exploitive. The solution—bear with me—is more awkwardness, more friction—Bluetooth!
(Listen, do not @ me about this. I know everything evil about the current internet could ultimately be reproduced in a more constrained environment, I know Bluetooth is probably not the actual model for a post-predatory internet (are there other models? Name them in a comment) and I know Bluetooth sucks in all sorts of ways. Humour me).
Here’s the problem, back then (I’m talking about the late 80s and early 90s—but the period of intenet hopefulness is much longer than that and really started at the end of the 60s), when we had the choice, we (techies, utopians, stupid dreamers) wanted the net to be flat, open and democratic. We wanted no hierarchies of access or quality. We didn’t want to recreate the phone network or a pre-Internet computer system—with dumb terminals dependent on powerful central machines.
We wanted proper Internet nodes everywhere—machines with IP addresses for everyone—not isolated clients hooked onto highly-connected servers concentrating bandwidth, CPU and data. We scorned centralised networks like X500, Minitel, the dial-up communities like Compuserve and Prodigy.
So we (the hopeful internet people) excitedly pushed full-service hardware out to the fringes of the network—into people’s offices, homes, pockets and cars. We wanted everyone to be properly on the net—with IP addresses, a real peer-to-peer set-up. It’s clear now, of course, that the effect of creating this ultra-flat network wasn’t the democratic one we hoped for.
The effect (and this is a very long and contested story that I won’t get into here) was to put, alongside that gorgeous, rich, full-service IP stack, a full-service exploitation stack, right there on the computer in your spare room and then later in your laptop and your mobile, then in your TV and your car and your bike and your toaster…
We lit up most of the homes on the planet, every smartphone in every settlement on earth and a trillion other devices and—let’s face it, while we weren’t really paying attention—permitted the corporations building the thing to load these devices with hardware and code optimised to own and monetise our behaviours. A happy social experiment that’s now a grim, spiralling disaster.
So, here’s the thesis: It’s much too late to re-engineer our beloved full-IP internet in a less predatory way. The die is cast, the chipsets and protocols and architectures are too deeply embedded, the miserable, exploitive business models are baked in to the hardware irreversibly. The Internet has been subtly converted from utopian playground to dystopian data mill.
But, alongside the complex, integrated, end-to-end Internet—the one we now know to be broken, salted with surveillance and exploitation—there was another architecture, another arrangement of resources and access permissions, a humble standard called Bluetooth.
You’re going to have to bear with me here: Bluetooth—funny, dysfunctional, bleeping and disconnecting Bluetooth—the tech you use to connect your phone to the speaker in the kitchen—should be our model for the next, non-predatory internet.
Why? Because it’s in almost every respect less evil than those other ways of connecting devices. It’s a thinner, less ambitious protocol than, say, wifi, which wants to be transparent, frictionless, complete.
Bluetooth was designed to solve a smaller set of problems (allowing you to shout stock market trades into your phone while driving your Audi Quattro around Lower Manhattan to begin with). And Bluetooth’s lower status and more limited goals mean that devices have, even now, never acquired the status of full network nodes. They hang off of full network nodes, servicing them, adding features (they’re like those Pilot Fish servicing sharks).
Bluetooth devices are not peers—they’re secondary nodes, symbionts—they even have a ‘master-slave’ relationship with actual network nodes. Hierarchy is visible, explicit, in the Bluetooth world.
So here’s the idea: let’s swallow our pride and rebuild the Internet on the Bluetooth model—at least the user end of it, the edges—moving users from the full-service internet out there to a more limited, less predatory platform. Let’s retain the fast backbone and the full-service bridges and switches and hubs and servers and cabinets and massive, stupid, monolithic platform applications but let’s strip out the perfect, end-to-end functionality that turns your PC into a data collection node, a surveillance device.
Let’s be clear: Bluetooth’s not ideal, not risk-free (there’s a history of exploits and there are major limitations to the architecture) but its weaknesses actually make it a good model for the next, non-predatory Internet. It’s simpler and definitely less inherently exploitable, nodes don’t automatically connect, don’t fire identifying date out to web sites and apps in the background, usually don’t have file system access, don’t share personal information and don’t expose basic hardware services to others. Apps running over Bluetooth can’t crawl freely up the stack into your address book or your social graph. They’re sandboxed, contained (I know, I know—there are big exceptions to all this).
Bluetooth is, by design, a gloriously limited technology. A Bluetooth Internet would be 50% more awkward, 50% less end-to-end, 50% less frictionless. But it wouldn’t automatically share your location, it wouldn’t pass through cookies and tokens without asking. It would make fingerprinting and triangulation harder. And it wouldn’t require the surrender of your fragile subjectivity in exchange for allowing you to share photos with your friends.
But the risks that flow from the exploitable Internet—predatory apps and platforms, ad networks that trade in user intentions and desires, your permanent absorption into corporate data trees, exploitation, ownership, control—none of these would go away, but moving the user internet to a simpler, more awkward, more constrained technology would slow it all down, make it all much harder. We’ll fix the net by embracing the old evils—friction, awkwardness, latency.
How to achieve this? How to actually flip the architecture, throw sand in the gears of surveillance capitalism? Sorry, no idea. Maybe another post.
I learn that Photoshop is thirty. The small revelation that goes with this information is that I’ve been using Photoshop for thirty years.
That’s more than half of my life so far. I began using it in my twenties, at the other end of the 1990s, under Margaret Thatcher, under George H.W. Bush, before the first Gulf War, before the Internet had escaped from the Universities (before the web had escaped from that cave under Geneva).
The other revelation, the bigger one tbh, is that it’s possible for a person to spend three decades using a tool fairly regularly without ever acquiring more than the most elementary competence. I’m still a total amateur. I have no idea how to do any but the most basic tasks. Most of the tools and functions are mysterious to me. It’s a huge, deep, layered artefact — like one of those infinitely recursive mind-toys in Borges (or maybe one of Tim Morton’s hyperobjects).
But there follows another revelation. That maybe there’s nothing wrong with this. That using an important tool—a vital set of practices, a complex cultural gadget—without actually mastering it, is okay. Or at least okay for me. That the constant, low-grade anxiety produced by not being very good at things—or being okay at lots of things—might be wrong, self-destructive, stupid.
Even that, for me, this might be the right way to do things: a workable strategy, an appropriate response to the complexity of the tool-world, the contemporary mess of shit that I’m supposed to learn. Maybe I should just leave perfection, competence and mastery to the deep-but-narrow types. It obviously makes some people happy to know what all the modes on this sodding thing do. Good for them. I’ll be over here, fiddling ineffectively.
It’s a disaster. There’s no point messing around. Let’s kill it now
Bitcoin (and its many mutations and outgrowths) is a planetary-scale mistake, a whiny tech-bro fantasy and an environmental catastrophe that’s already happening. A sane world would pass a UN resolution, add a Bitcoin annexe to the Paris agreement, reclassify the Blockchain as an illegal weapon and pull the plug on the whole cryptocurrency disaster.
The problem is Proof of Work, the ingenious technology that underlies Bitcoin and substitutes the deliberate expenditure of energy for old-fashioned, fiduciary trust in verifying financial transactions. Proof of Work allows users of Bitcoin to trust transactions even when they have no idea who originated them and in the absence of a trusted issuer?—?like a Central Bank.
To be clear, Proof of Work is clever (it was originally invented to make it harder to send spam email)?—?an intriguing thought experiment. It’s also a terrible idea. Proof of Work literally burns the planet in order not to have to rely on a central banker. Consequently it’s become the ultimate libertarian ‘fuck you’ to normies and communists and eco-freaks. It’s financial fracking.
Bitcoin is already out of control. Like a laboratory experiment in a movie that looked kind of interesting but by the time the scientists realised what it could do it was already too late because it had been released from the lab by a disgruntled technician and is now eating the world.
Meanwhile, out there in the world, many otherwise sensible people are apparently hypnotised by Bitcoin and the Blockchain (which, terrifyingly, generalises Proof of Work to the whole world economy) much as they were by the web and computers (and coal-fired power stations and asbestos and radon and the mercury they used to cure the felt for top hats…).
And the consequences are already obvious. Proof of Work, by design, uses fantastic quantities of electricity and mountains of special-purpose computing kit. Worse, the algorithm makes the task more difficult as times passes, specifically to prevent Moore’s Law from reducing the cost of participation.
So, as Bitcoin is issued, the miners who do the work of verifying transactions and creating new coins?—?often in locations that are already under environmental stress or where electricity is subsidised or easily stolen?—?use more and more power.
The economics of Bitcoin mining is obscure (and contested?—?see the comments from crypto fans at the bottom of this post, too) and the arbitrary difficulty of verifying blocks can go down as well as up but the bottom line is that issuing all of the possible Bitcoins will cost the planet a staggering, possibly unsupportably large amount of energy, cancelling environmental gains made elsewhere and pushing energy sustainability further into the future, even in the best case for mining efficiency. We definitely can’t afford this.
And that’s just Bitcoin. There are dozens (hundreds) of other Proof of Work-based currencies and hundreds of other products and technologies and services based on the Blockchain either live or in the pipeline. An investment boom is under way. And as international governance breaks down?—?you know: Trump, Brexit, nationalism, climate-driven conflict and migration, civil war and cyberwar?—?acting collectively to control or shut down Bitcoin looks less and less likely.
Is this how it will actually end? With the hum of a billion mining rigs ultimately drowned out by the gurgling inrush of the sea?
The problem is compounded now by the fact that Bitcoin is effectively impossible to kill. You can’t unmine bitcoins?—?and even if you could it would probably cost as much power as mining them (intriguingly, we might be able to burn them, though). You can’t stop a transnational, decentralised mining effort that has the organisational logic of a cult and is already accustomed to operating in secret, at the end of country lanes in poor regions (and pretty soon under the sodding sea).
As Bitcoin grows, the only effective way to stop the miners and the evangelists from taking the planet down with them?—?while they continue to fantasise applications for the Blockchain and gloss over its unarguably disastrous cost?—?is to keep the value of the currency below the cost of mining the coins, making it pointless to run a mining rig. Doing this will be hard, though. Satoshi’s algorithm provides clever incentives to keep miners mining and hordes of deranged HODLERS are already committed to keeping Bitcoin’s value up, way beyond any rational ceiling. Dark new libertarian-nationalist alliances will see Bitcoin as part of their fight-back against globalism and the hated, money-printing central banks. This shit could get real.
But it might be possible to slow the juggernaut down enough to allow it to quietly die, to become an authentic anthropocene fossil. If governments were to collectively outlaw cryptocurrencies, for instance, if utilities refused to supply power to miners (and, hey, if responsible citizens resolved to spend their weekends locating and smashing up the rigs. Go Luddites!), we might just add enough cost to make operating the network pointless. Once the economics of mining turns negative there’ll be no reason for the miners to get up in the morning. They’ll power down their rigs and go back to synthesising ketamine or coding botnets or whatever they were doing before. The network will fade away. The value of Bitcoin will collapse, the cryptocurrency experiment will end.