Friday, September 7, 2012

Google's future of the map

A really nice Atlantic article on how Google is putting massive effort into using Google Maps to organize all the information in the real world. They can extract images of street signs from the photos taken by their street view cars, and the GPS track of the cars is more accurate than most of the basic data from US agencies.

It's a massive leap in the concept of the information contained in a map.


Madonna at Yankee Stadium: Rancid

"So we paid a lot of money to be frightened, bored and alienated", says G to me this morning. "it was disgusting." And that from a long-time Madonna fan.

We went to the concert at Yankee stadium last night, after booking it months ago. We wanted to do it partially because we couldn't afford to back in the 80s or early 90s. Her music has been a background soundtrack for much of our lives, and who knows if she'd tour again. So we happily found ourselves having a beer in our seats and enjoying a perfect late summer evening before the show started.

The opening act, a Swedish DJ, was fun. Then there was an endless boring interval, delay, a void that sucked all the atmosphere out of the stadium.

The crowd grew restless. People behind us started yelling at any sign of activity. We wondered if the show had been cancelled for some reason. There's going to be trouble if this is off, G said to me. A lot of people have had a lot to drink, and they are not going to be happy.

Then, at 10.15 (the ticket said show starts at 8) Madonna finally deigned to take the stage. People were bored and irritated by this time, but relieved something was happening. The first act was visually stunning, with a video of a cathedral as backdrop.


Then the whole thing turned crude and repulsive. An appalling "I shot my lover in the head" segment repeatedly sprayed blood and brains across the screen, as she brandished a gun. The stadium thundered with the crack of gunshots. Shock and splatter. Violent. Sick.

G was visibly upset. It utterly destroyed the mood. Madonna followed it with a segment dominated by death and graveyards. Her new material fell flat, and there were too few of the older big hits.

At one point she shouted out from the stage, "let me hear you New York! Is this what 40,000 people sound like?" Well, no, it isn't. There was no electricity in the air. People stayed firmly in their seats, apart from the few big hits like Cherish or Vogue, where they rose and swayed a bit, willing themselves to want to dance and enjoy themselves. The spirit never took flight, though.

If it was supposed to be art, it's in its baroque, decadent phase. There's no new ideas. She still obsessively tweaks the Catholic Church, and thinks the gay agenda has something to do with free speech. I'm all for tweaking powerful institutions. But free expression isn't under threat for gays or liberals when most of the mainstream media and Hollywood is firmly committed to their agenda. They are the powerful establishment institutions. The hypocrisy was breathtaking, as she complained about her self-expression to a packed Yankee Stadium.

Instead, I was thinking of the 12-year old Christian girl who is under threat of execution for blasphemy against Islam in Pakistan. Much of her community was so frightened they fled into the surrounding forest. Madonna offered a baffling backdrop of an Indian train in one long segment. She's a trainspotter but can't spot the real political problems.

Coptic Christians in Egypt are under threat from the mob, now the Muslim Brotherhood is in power. Christians are being killed in Nigeria.

These are not fashionable victims for Madonna. I've just grown tired of that.

She's done it for years, of course, and I'm not Catholic. But she's behaving like a stalker on this. She actually benefits from the tolerance of Catholics and others who let her mock their symbols. If one of them dared to mock gay martyrs or causes, she'd be the first to shriek "bigot" if her taboos were violated, and want them jailed. It would be like the Salem witch trials.

She's a parasite on tolerance. If she wants to be edgy, let her put a crescent up there to be mocked as well.

The whole thing was dark, and claustrophobic, and full of resentment and hate and violence. She is a sick puppy.

It just feels as if is a sign that something has ended, that something in the culture is just self-destructively collapsing under its own weight. We own the DVD of her last tour, which is great. This is very different. You go to a big stadium concert to be swept up in huge collective emotion, to feel elation and joy. Instead, we felt, with a few exceptions, bored, baffed or nauseated.

There was something rancid and rotten about the whole thing. It ended at 12.15 am. She's past closing time.


Thursday, September 6, 2012

Venture Capital boom and bust

We've looked at limitations of the venture capital industry before. Here's another interesting take by a Harvard Business School Professor in the MIT Technology Review.

The industry, he says tends to chase the latest fashionable area, which is often concentrated very narrowly.

I believe several essential constraints limit venture capitalists’ ability to promote true innovation. The first is that venture investors have financed a progressively narrower range of technologies. Recently, a few hot areas—most notably Web and social media—have dominated an increasingly large share of the venture landscape.

The industry is now overexposed to troubled companies like Groupon and Facebook.

A second critical limitation is that the venture market is extraordinarily uneven, moving from feast to famine and back again. Consider the tremendous surge in funding for biofuels, peaking in 2006, and again in social-media companies during the last two years. During booms, unjustified exuberance rules.


In other words, the industry behaves more like "dumb money" retail investors, driven by investment inflows in booms - supply - rather than opportunities. And it has been more successful in areas where development cycles are short, a year or three, than funding longer-term opportunities.

So when do booms turn to busts? Venture capitalists depend critically on acquisitions and the public stock markets to help them exit their investments and return capital to their investors. But the public markets are fickle. During the past decade, soaring enthusiasm—for clean tech in 2006–07 and social media in 2010-12—each time abruptly subsided, leaving the portfolios of venture capitalists, and stock investors, in shambles.

Ironically, busts may promote innovation precisely because they frustrate venture capitalists’ efforts to exit their investments.

That is because public companies, or those seeking a near-term IPO, are much more likely to slash R&D to satisfy Wall Street's shorter -term priorities.

Society depends on innovation, but venture capital is much less successful at delivering it than we had hoped.


Wednesday, September 5, 2012

"The Unending Battle for the Upper West Side"

Here's fascinating article in City Journal about the recent history of the Upper West Side. Social services agencies have moved mentally ill people into the area, to the dismay of local residents.

A “fair share” law in the city charter requires social-services facilities to be evenly distributed through all neighborhoods, but West 94th and 95th Streets alone have seen half a dozen similar institutions proposed in recent years, from homeless shelters to drug-treatment centers to halfway houses. In 2008, Neighborhood in the Nineties released a study of data from the Supportive Housing Network confirming what the residents of the Upper West Side had long suspected: a full 21 percent of the supportive-housing units in Manhattan—1,978 units—were located on the Upper West Side. On the Upper East Side, by comparison, there were 93 units.

G and I had a long walk around the area last weekend. It is very attractive on a late summer day, and visibly more prosperous than it was ten years ago.


Means of Production

We're talking about the fashionable neo-Marxist book Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. I was fiercely critical in the last post. But there a few glimmers through the fog that do seem potentially illuminating.

New means of production

The most interesting thing, at least in terms of my interests on this blog, is they do recognize that the production process has fundamentally changed, and this has to have theoretical implications:

In postmodernity, the social wealth accumulated is increasingly immaterial; it involves social relations, communication systems, information and affective networks. (p259)

The Soviet Union failed, they say, because its Fordist and Taylorist model of disciplinary government could not adapt to the change in the nature of labor power.

It could not compete... because advanced technologies of communication and cybernetics are efficient only when rooted in subjectivity, or better, when they are animated by productive subjectivities. p272

The Soviet machine turned in on itself and ground to a halt, without the fuel that only new productive subjectivities can produce. The sectors of intellectual and immaterial labor withdrew their consensus from the regime, and their exodus condemned the system to death. p279

This is a broader story of a transition to a more service-oriented economy, where..

The jobs for the most part are highly mobile and involve flexible skills. More important, they are characterized in general by the central role played by knowledge, information, affect and communication. p285.

More and more labor is the "affective labor" of human contact and interaction, such as in healthcare and entertainment.

This labor is immaterial, even if it is corporeal, in the sense that its products are intangible, a feeling of ease, well-being, satisfaction, excitement or passion. p292-293

The network has replaced the assembly line.

Our economic and social reality is defined less by the material objects that are made and consumed than by co-produced services and relationships. Producing increasingly means constructing cooperation and communicative commonalities...

The concept of private property itself, understood as the exclusive right to use a good and dispose of all wealth that derives from the possession of it, becomes increasingly nonsensical in this new situation. There are ever fewer goods that can be possessed and used exclusively in this framework; it is the community that produces and, that while producing, is reproduced and redefined. The foundation of the classic modern conception of private property is thus to a certain extent dissolved in the postmodern mode of production. ..

Private property, despite its juridical powers, cannot help becoming an ever more abstract and transcendental concept and thus ever more detached from reality. p302

This is much more interesting and I like it. Of course, in many ways it is recognizing the obvious, but often that is both difficult and essential. Our economy is no longer just a matter of producing stuff. And the property rights attached to non-stuff - like patents, risk contingencies, relationships and intangibles - are much less intuitive and easy to handle effectively

Apple has been fighting again over essentially the "look and feel" of innovations, for example. Half the tech industry is besieged with patent trolls. Music DRM has proved unworkable.


And I've discussed before how economics is having to deal with non-rival and non-excludable goods. Much as I often complain about mainstream economics, it is grappling with these issues in a much more substantive way than Hardt and Negri, however.

Primitive accumulation (again)

Hardt and Negri also say that there has been a continuous movement in the modern period to privatize public property, from enclosures in England to privatizations.

Capitalism sets in motion a continuous cycle of private reappropriation of public goods: the expropriation of what is common. p301

This is their new version of Marxist primitive accummulation. It is possible it happens like this sometimes - like Russian oligarchs in the post-Soviet turmoil, for example.

But it's also in many cases just a silly argument. Indeed, the problem is often narrow producer groups and leftist unions appropriate public resources and run services for their own convenience. Teachers' unions appear not to care about kids (or even young teachers) , but focus on tenure and pensions which will bankrupt cities and ultimately destroy services. Margaret Thatcher privatized British state-owned industries partly because the union bosses cared more about socialist agitation than mundane things like providing phone service or reliable cars or coal supply. The unions' winter of discontent shattered public support and brought Thatcher to power.

And probably the most grotesque and hypocritical appropriation in recent years, given how Hardt and Negri stress the primacy of communications, is left-leaning Hollywood's gratuitous extension of copyright to seventy years or more. Expropriation doesn't come in a top hat and chomp cigars any more. It parades on Oscar night and holds big fundraisers for Obama.


Obliterating distinctions

Hardt and Negri emphasize how capitalism, and money, level all distinctions:

.. capital brings all forms of value together on one common plane and links them all through money, their general equivalent. Capital tends to reduce all previously established forms of status, title, and privilege to the level of the cash nexus, that is, to quantitative and commensurable cash terms. p326

This is true, even if it is not a new observation, and it can have negative social consequences. In their tortured way, they stress how all distinctions disappear:

Capital tends toward a smooth space defined by uncoded flows, flexibility, continual modulation and tendential equalization. p327

It thus also obliterates previous Marxist concepts of imperalism. On the other hand, it destroys the segmentation of the multitude as well, which, they claim, has been the traditional means of public administration, a version of divide and rule. So, they argue, there is more chance of unifying the multitude to overthrow capitalism.

In the end, a new notion of "commons" is the way forward, although they are not very specific.

The commons is the incarnation, the production and the liberation of the multitude. (p303).

They apparently have a recent book, Commonwealth, which deals with this, which I might actually read. I do think there is something to a broader need to evolve property rights, and what economists call public goods - although I now doubt what Hardt and Negri have to say is sensible.


SO what is left? Empire is "corrupt" against the "generative" power of the multitude, they claim.

Here is where things go a little off-key.

Corruption, contrary to desire, is not an ontological motor but simply the lack of ontological foundation of the biopolitical practices of being. p389.. It is command directed toward the destruction of the singularity of the multitude thorugh its coercive unification and/or cruel segmentation. p391

Huh? The problem with Empire is ultimately a lack of ontological foundation?

The reason for the crisis of European civilization and its imperial practices consists in the fact that European virtue - or really its aristocratic morality organized in the institutions of modern sovereignty - cannot manage to keep pace with the vital powers of mass democracy. p375

The "pallid and parasitic European ruling class" is obsolete, they say. This is probably true. Possibly including neo-Marxist professors, who have cultural and communicative power? Although the "aristocratic morality" is potentially interesting. Europe is still fighting the ghost of the past.

Empire takes form when language and communication, or really when immaterial labor and cooperation, become the dominant productive force. .. Exploitation is the expropriation of cooperation and the nullification of the meanings of linguistic production. p385

Um? What?

" Nullification of the meanings of linguistic production" seems like an ironically self-referential phrase, like the Epimenides Paradox. It deconstructs itself, so to speak. The book certainly seems like an expropriation of clarity of language and communication.

What does the future look like?

When we look closer at how the constitutive process of subjectivity operates, we can see that the new spaces are described by unusual topologies , by subterranean and uncontainable rhizomes - by gegraphical mythologies that mark the new path of destiny. p397 ..

This task for the multitude, however, although it is clear at a conceptual level, remains rather abstract. What specific and concrete practices will animate this project? We cannot say at this point. p 399-400.

And this is the basic problem. They just can't say anything specific. The multitude will experiment, they believe. It is just the same as all the other Marxist gods-in-history and teleological inevitabilities which never came to pass. Ontological myths replace engaging with current arguments.

Mainstream economics and management and politics need plenty of critique, But please, guys, put Spinoza down once in a while. Look around you. The point of philosophy is to make us look afresh, not entrench us in ideological systems.

They do have three concrete suggestions for demands: the right for the multitude to control its own movement with global citizenship; a social wage and guaranteed income for all; the right to reappropriation of the means of production, which now means " free access to and control over knowledge, information, communication and affects". And they say cooperation will change the economy..

Cooperation annuls the title of property. p410

.. which in some form Is probably true. I read Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything recently. I haven't blogged about it yet, but really enjoyed it. And we looked at Clay Shirky's Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age some time ago. Both have more substantive and interesting things about cooperation and property rights than the glimmers in this fashionable leftist book.


Orwellian Advice

So in the end, I'm principally alienated by the atrocious prose. Leftist academics ought to be tied down and forced to read Orwell's famous Politics and the English language essay before being allowed anywhere near a laptop or source of public funding. Orwell could have been writing about this book:

As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.

Competing ideas are a good thing. Rotten pompous prose helps no one.

I think there is a lot of potential in seeing production as now largely about cooperation and effect, even if they don't develop it much in this book. And we need to think much more carefully about how a shift to intangibles affects property rights and incentives.

But in the end, the book is a colossal distraction and failure. At best, it drops some previous leftist myths, but does its best to construct free-floating nebulous new ones, like "the multitude." It isn't capitalism or "empire" that lacks ontological foundation. It's the holy multitude.

If this is the best the left can do, no wonder they are an irrelevant rump confined to college campuses. I'll still read some other things - Zizek, Deleuze & Guitari, original Marx - but I don't see much in this stream of leftist thought so far that offers a helpful perspective on what has gone wrong with the economy.



Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Spanish bank trot continues

The NYT has a very vivid piece on deepeing anxiety in Spain. Spaniards continue to pull their cash out of banks at a "trot", even if it is not a full bank run for now. Deposits equivalent to 7% of GDP were withdrawn in July. And the educated classes are starting to look abroad. They are opening accounts in London and even moving there.

According to official statistics, 30,000 Spaniards registered to work in Britain in the last year, and analysts say that this figure would be many multiples higher if workers without documents were counted. That is a 25 percent increase from a year earlier.

One fascinating reason is there is a fear of what happened in Argentina:

The corralito, or corral, as the Argentine action is known, has become part of the public conversation in Spain. The million-plus Argentines who have since immigrated to Spain have provided ample and gory stories of desperate legal battles and wiped-out savings.

That's remarkable. Many people will personally know someone who lost everything in a currency crisis.

Even ECB bond purchases may now only buy time. They would not solve the growth problem, and after the initial relief wore off problems of inflation fears and fiscal resistance would be much worse. And if Germany does get more EU control over member budgets , what happens when Paris is blocked by strike action or roads get blocked in Italy? Local sovereignty, accountability and legitimacy will be gone. If you think the EU s unpopular now, just wait.

The European elites so desperately need something this September I suspect they'll get another deal whih will rally markets. For a while. But there is no obvious way out.

Empire of the Left

I felt an obligation to read the fashionable neo-Marxist book Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, and finished it yesterday. It has been celebrated, or at least actively discussed, by much of the left since it was published in 2000.

The main motivation for me was intellectual honesty. My general feeling about the far left tends to be repulsion and disdain. But sometimes you have to try to engage with what people you don't necessarily like are saying, to put your own ideas and instincts to the test.

I felt I had to read it because people on the left who I argued with mentioned it. You can't win arguments, or even appear credible, if you also appear to be ignorant of some of the points on the other side.

The book even cropped up in comments on posts on this blog. And Marxism is rising again, says the press (well, at least the Guardian, which may be wishful thinking.)

So what did I think? It was like walking through a thick fog. Every so often you see the outlines of a shape that might be interesting, or at least have some connection to the world outside. But then the viscous haze of prose closes in again, and you wonder if what you thought you saw as a genuine point was even real.

The prose style is often almost self-parodic. Here's an example:

The ontological terrain of Empire, completely plowed and irrigated by a powerful, self-valorizing, and constituent labor, is thus planted with a virtuality that seeks to be real. The keys of possibility, or really of the modalities of being that transform the virtual into reality, reside in this realm beyond measure. (p359)

In the margin beside this, I scrawled "what does this mean?" And much of the four hundred pages are just like this. It is nebulous and cloudy and vague. Every so often a glimmer of light breaks through the murk, and you want it to illuminate something. But then the cloudiness returns.

There are almost no examples. There is, in contrast to classic Marxism, almost no tangible economics, apart from occasional references to the IMF or Bretton Woods. I would be the last to complain about philosophical influence, but there are many more vague references to Spinoza than anything resembling tangible reality. Nothing seems concrete. Everything is discussed at the level of "ontology." Everything is passive voice. Actors are vague. The mists close in.

But it is interesting, despite being badly written. So here are the glimmers in the fog that I can connect. Their basic argument is that capital has now become a universal "Empire", which justifies itself by appeals to keep the peace, and manages police actions in obscure parts of the world.

Empire is formed not on the basis of force itself but on the basis of the capacity to present force as being in the service of right and peace. .. Empire is not born of its own will but rather it is called into being and constituted on the basis of its capacity to resolve conflict. p15

The United States has a privileged part in this Empire, but it is not the center. There is no center. There is no single authority or command or capital.

Murdering Marx

In fact, they overthrow many of the analytical elements of traditional Marxism. Use value is now meaningless, because value is "beyond measure." It is now communicative, cooperative and about affect.

The inside defined by use value and the outside of exchange value are nowhere to be found, and hence any politics of use value, which was always based on an illusion of separability, is now definitely inconceivable. (p209)

Dialectic is dead, because everything is "inside" Empire. Old Marxist ideas about imperalism are also outmoded, because there is no center and periphery, no inside and out. The nation-state is dead, and post-colonial aspirations for their own nation-states risk merely repeating repressive regimes at home. Empire is everywhere.

In effect, one might say the sovereignty of Empire itself is realized at the margins, where borders are fleible and identities are hybrid and fluid. It would be difficult to say which is more important to Empire, the center or the margins. In fact, center and margin seem continually to be shifting positions, fleeing any determinate locations. p39

Crises and conflicts are not a sign of the end of capitalism. If anything, police interventions help validate the system as keeping the peace with its moral instruments. Ethnic conflicts just create new identities and make the system more malleable.

The modern is dead. So is "postmodernism" as a project of the left:

The postmodernist epistemological challenge to "the Enlightenment" - its attack on master narratives and its critique of truth - also loses its liberatory aura when transposed outside the elite intellectual strata of Europe and North America. p 155

Indeed, "Postmodernism is indeed the logic by which global capital operates." (p151). Marketing thinking in many ways predates it, they say.

The ideology of the world market has always been the anti-foundationalist and anti-essentialist discourse par excellence. Circulation, mobility, diversity and mixture are its very conditons of possibility. (p150)

Leftist postmodernists are focusing on old forms of power, as they oppose hierarchies, essential identities and stable oppositions. But Empire has none of these things.

This new enemy not only is resistant to the old weapons but actually thrives on them, and thus joins its would-be antagonists in applying them to the fullest. Long live difference! Down with essentialist binaries. (p138)

And it is certainly true that big corporations are all for affirmative action. diversity and, in many cases, gay marriage and other leftist objectives.

As for "struggles" like Berkeley or Paris in the 1960s or the LA Riots , "we are hampered by the nagging impression that these struggles are already old, outdated, and anachronistic." (p56.)

Marx, they say, thought of proletarian struggle as a "mole" which would surface sometimes and then borrow underground to its next emergence in history. That is over too.

Well, we suspect that Marx's old mole has finally died. It seems to us, that in the contemporary transition to Empire, the structured tunnels of the mole have been replaced by the infinite undulations of the snake.p 56

Everything is superficial. There is no center to revolt against. The class struggle is over. Indeed, even big government is not necessarily a useful tool for socialists.

It is our turn to cry "Big government is Over!" Why should that slogan be the exclusive property of conservatives?... In imperial postmodernity big government has merely become the despotic means of domination and the totalitarian production of subjectivity. p349

Maybe this is why the book has had such an impact on the left. It is transgressive within its own intellectual community. It seems like a major advance because, in the wake of the 1990s which seemed to see socialist projects crash and burn beyond redemption, it dumped many aspects of Marxist analysis. But it offers a new way forward within the same general approach. Behavioral economics serves much the same function in mainstream Economics - transgressive enough to provide a thrill, but not overthrowing things too much either. It is exciting within the terms of a particular tradition which was reeling in the 1990s.

The Multitude and Desertion

So what do they have to say on their own account? Instead of the proletariat or "the people", there is now "the multitude", a broader term. The multitude is "the real productive force of our social world, whereas Empire is a mere apparatus of capture that lives only off of the vitality of the multitude." (p62)

The multitude is a multiplicity, a plane of singularities, an open set of relations, which is not homogenous or identical with itself and bears an indistinct, inclusive relation to those outside of it. The people, in contrast, tend toward identity and homogeneity internally while posing its difference from and excluding what remains outside of it. p103

Despite appearances (the collapse of much union power, the abandonment of communist experiments), economic change is always driven by resistance by the multitude, they say.

This insistence on the fundamental role of labor resistance seems more a desperate act of faith on their part, a claim to lingering relevance for the left, more than persuasive or convincing argument.

Mass migration, "nomadism", desertion are the modern face of resistance.

The deterritorializing desire of the multitude is the motor that drives the entire process of capitalist development, and capital must constantly attempt to contain it. (p124)

A specter haunts the world and it is the specter of migration (p213)

All boundaries and mechanisms of discipline have faded, they say - family, state, factory, prison. Power has seeped out of those localities and is now everywhere, but it is now internalized. Empire embraces hybridity and diversity.

That means traditional resistance will not work.

Whereas in the disciplinary era sabotage was the fundamental notion of resistance, in the era of imperial control it may be desertion. Whereas being-against in modernity often meant a direct and/or dialectical opposition of forces, in postmodernity being-against might be the most effective in an oblique or diagonal stance. Battles against the Empire may be won through subtraction and defection. p212

It is hard to even identify the enemy, however.

The first moment is the magnanimous, liberal face of Empire. All are welcome within its boundaries, regardless of race , creed, color, gender, sexual orientation and so forth. In its inclusionary moment Empire is blind to differences; it is absolutely indifferent in its acceptance. It achieves universal inclusion by setting aside differences that are inflexible or unmanageable and thus might give rise to social conflict. p198

There is no "Other", in other words. Empire is cunningly open and tolerant.

Contingency, mobility and flexibility are Empire's real power. (p200)

Indeed, ironically, they praise the US Constitution as one of the first historical signs of this new sensiblility.

.. a new principle of sovereignty is affirmed, different from the European one: liberty is made sovereign and sovereignty is affirmed, different from the European one: liberty is made sovereign and sovereignty is defined as radically democratic within an open and continuous process of expansion. .. The very idea of scarcity that - like the idea of war - had been at the center of the European concept of modern sovereignty is a priori stripped away from the constitutive processes of the American experience. p169
The US Constitution is open and mixes and changes, and it is designed to resist corruption. (p163)

In fact, I was left wondering what the problem is with Empire, even within their own terms - tolerant, flexible, largely pacific, with little overt control or oppression. This is not the dark satanic mills or overseer's whip. It is not conservative, far from it.

Ah, but, they say, Empire is ultimately all held together with "spectacle" , i.e. images and ideas which shape public opinion and replaces genuine politics; and, ultimately, fear.

There is no single locus of control that dictates the spectacle. The spectacle, however, functions as if there was such a point of central control. (p323).
(That, ironically, seems to echo Milton Friedman's "as if " methodology.)

Although the spectacle seems to function through desire and pleasure (desire for commodities and pleasure of consumption), it really works through the communication of fear - or rather, the spectacle creates forms of desire and pleasure that are intimately wedded to fear. In the vernacular of early modern European philosophy, the communication of fear was called superstition. p323

So Empire is really about fear, unlike the record of leftist projects like stalinism, or your local screaming political correctness lefties who are not into intimidation or crushing dissent. OK.

Where does it lead? Following Spinoza, they argue we need to act on the plane of immanence (ie no religious or overarching transcental ideas), and that means becoming more "machinic". A new human will be created:

Once we recognize our posthuman bodies and minds, once we see ourselves for the siminas and cyborgs we are, we then need to explore the vis viva, the creative powers that animate us as they do all of nature, and actualize our potentialities. (p92)


Abstraction and Evaporation

It all seems abstract. In essence, stripped of the cloudy verbosity, they are conceding most of traditional Marxism is outmoded, and much contemporary or recent leftism - postcolonial theory, dependency theory, postmodernism and trade unionism - is a mistake. Empire does not actually sound that bad, in their own terms, and their objections to it are highly abstract. Their theory of the resistance of the "multitude" pairs a thin ontological novelty with an unfounded and unproven grandiose claim it is in reality the true power underlying all social life.

So far, so bad for the left. To this point it seems like largely a Nero-style aesthetic response to the contemporary world, rather than genuine politics. It's not so much an argument as itself an affect, largely a juvenile pose, in the same way as some fourteen year olds become goths and talk about how horrible life is. They think "struggle" is where the cool kids are at.

It is theatrical, a way to maintain a subculture much like the cults who keep expecting the end of the world and always being disappointed.

It is an admission that much of traditional leftist analysis has no relevance, and what is left is the style of rhetoric. All the metaphysics is much like a turned-up trench coat collar or gang tattoos or spiffy jackboots - for show, rather than for substance. It is all surface and how things look, image and affect. Meanwhile the content has evaporated into steam and clouds. The subject, ahem, has become ontologically problematic.

And it's worse than that. That Goth-like affect can have real world consequences, just like the shooters at Columbine. Negri was in jail for involvement with the Red Brigades when he wrote the book, linked to murder. The leftist tendency to reduce politics to aesthetics and metaphysics produced the worst crimes in human history - purges, dekulakization, famine, the Great Leap Forward. Hundreds of millions died in the Twentieth Century as a result. But somehow hard leftists still believe they have some moral credibility.

So the opaque prose-style is more than just bad writing. When rhetoric is more important than reality, catastrophe awaits. The left is suffused with this attitude.

In their own terms, when communication is at the core of modern production and power, such bad communication is also self-defeating.

Still, we'll look at what they have to say about means of production in the next post. That's more interesting.



Monday, September 3, 2012

Low public ratings for Romney's speech

So says Gallup.

Romney's acceptance speech this year scored low by comparison to previous convention speeches going back to 1996. Thirty-eight percent of Americans rated the speech as excellent or good, while 16% rated it as poor or terrible. The 38% who rated the speech as excellent or good is the lowest rating of any of the eight speeches Gallup has tested since Bob Dole's GOP acceptance speech in 1996.

I didn't like it. No fire, no direction, vague "I will create jobs" talk. Poll-tested formulas often don't go down well in the polls.


America's campaigns and Europe's catastrophe

Here's two superb essays in quick succession by Walter Russell Mead, in the space of a day or two. First, a condemnation of lazy media overage of American politics. Political strategy has become far more sophisticated and data driven in the last ten years, he says:

The legacy media is too stupid and too lazy to understand the event on which it expends more resources than any other — and as long as enough eyeballs are attracted by the show, it doesn’t really care.

This is not a conspiracy and it is not the result of bias; it’s not clear whether reporting the real plans and calculations of the strategist would make either or both sides look better or worse. But it should underline the point that what the “news” industry labors to produce during presidential campaigns is infotainment pure and simple. There is no competitive pressure to unearth the actual dynamics of the campaign strategies of either side, only a pressure to score with gotcha and gaffe scoops or otherwise to present the reality of entertainment clothed in the appearance of actual news.

And he follows up with a very good essay on the Eurozone:

Have we all been underestimating the gravity of the European crisis? That deeply unsettling question threatens to wreck the world’s peace of mind in what could just be a much more turbulent fall than people expect. The American election and much else could be wrenched out of shape by new and much more dangerous developments in the world’s worst man-made policy disaster of the last generation.

Europe is in a bind:

Most leaders agree that Europe’s problems can’t be solved without some big institutional changes, but that will require some referendums. Nobody wants to take European questions to the voters right now because fed up voters in many countries are itching for a chance to say no.

In other words, Europe can’t work without changes it can’t make.

Just superb stuff, albeit unsettling. The man is just off a plane from India and produces more insight than whole journalistic and academic armies put together.



Interaction, not isolation

Here is a wonderful example of cultural mixing and mash-up, not to mention creativity and originality: major movies portrayed in Persian miniature style.

Incidentally, the Met has some of the finest examples of original Persian miniatures in existence. The Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp , leaves from a fabulous illuminated book of the Iranian national epic, are tucked into a far corner of the new Islamic Wing.

As the Met description says,

The artistic importance of this manuscript cannot be overestimated. It is considered one of the highest achievements in the arts of the book for its superb calligraphy, painting, and illumination. From a pictorial point of view, it also marks the synthesis of the two most important phases of the Persian tradition—the Turkman style, which developed in Tabriz and Shiraz, and the Timurid style, associated with Herat.

They usually have six leaves of the books on display. It is one of the great cultural treasures of New York city, and absolutely worth seeing.

(h/t G!)


Truth and Debate

This is a very nice op-Ed in the NYT about the value of a culture of debate. A Professor of Philosophy and Jewish Studies, now at McGill in Montreal, says a culture of debate is preferable to simply "celebrating differences" or ignoring convictions.

But while I certainly didn't want to get into a shouting match about God's existence in the doctor's office, or wait for treatment until everyone had agreed on how to live, I see no reason why we should ignore our differences altogether. Some advocates of multiculturalism ask us to celebrate, rather than just tolerate, diversity, as if our differences weren't a reason for disagreement in the first place, but something good and beautiful - a multicultural "mosaic"! Others argue that our moral, religious, and philosophical convictions shouldn't leave the private sphere. A good example is French laïcité: you are a citoyen in public and a Jew, Christian, or Muslim at home. Both models try to remove our reasons for objecting to beliefs and values we don't share - one tries to remove them altogether, the other tries at least to keep them out of sight. A culture of debate, on the other hand, allows us to engage our differences in a way that is serious, yet respectful and mutually beneficial.

The major religions have more resources for productive debate than multiculturalism.

The rich philosophical literatures we find in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as well as in the Eastern religious traditions offer plenty of resources for a culture of debate. The privatization of moral, religious, and philosophical views in liberal democracies and the cultural relativism that often underlies Western multicultural agendas are a much greater obstacle to a culture of debate than religion.

Clearly this is right. I've talked before about how some elements of liberalism stress a kind of minimal coexistence, a stance that could sap the life and vitality out of any kind of human flourishing or society.

Instead, the point is to conduct debates in a certain way, with certain virtues of open-mindedness. But also some respect for truth and a willingness to think some cultures and views are mistaken.

Quebec is interesting in this respect, with deep controversies over accommodation of immigrants and language. The "mosaic" view the author refers to is actually absolute orthodoxy in English-speaking Canada, which likes to contrast itself to the US "melting pot" model. That doesn't fly in Quebec. Sensitivity about the maintenance of Francophone culture and the French language means the province is much more skeptical of multiculturalism than Anglophone Canada."Interculturalism" is preferred. French speakers think of themselves as a tiny minority in a vast ocean of English-speaking North America. Multiculturalism was invented by Pierre Trudeau in 1971 largely as a way to minimize and displace differences between English and French- speaking Canada.

The issue remains controversial, so much so there was a major commission report in 2008, partly led by famous multicultural philosopher Charles Taylor. And the current Quebec election campaign is marked by continuing argument about whether to have a crucifix in the provincial assembly.

Ironically, the main reason social attitude surveys differ between the US and Canada is Quebec tends to be far more left-wing on most issues than the rest of Canada, and skews the averages.