Category Archives: Facebook

The Reality Brokers (or the rise of the Automagicians)

In the case of both Big Tech and governmental surveillance agencies, undergirding a commitment to the inevitable and imminent time after-Earth is the appeal of science fiction aesthetics, concepts and projects, all aimed toward the new goal of having new places and opportunities to conquer, colonize and dominate post-Earth.
— Sarah T. Roberts, b-20, August 2019

We live in a society where capital is highly concentrated, with most commodity production carried out by companies whose fates are largely shaped by financial investors. The commodities they produce, whether material or immaterial, are made available to us in a global marketplace, delivered through complex value chains in whose operation our own unpaid labor as consumers is increasingly implicated. Information and communications technologies have so affected the spatial and temporal division of labor that for many of us the boundaries between “work and private life are inextricably muddled and few relationships are unmediated by them.
— Ursula Huws, Labor in the Global Digital Economy, December 5, 2014

It’s popular to refer to digital platforms as town squares, but the shopping mall is a more apt metaphor: they are built to approximate the participatory feel of an open market, while their corridors are ruthlessly designed for the purposes of encouraging consumption and maximizing profit. Depression, anxiety, hate-mongering, fear, and conspiratorial untruths are all acceptable outcomes so long as they are expressed, consciously or otherwise, in the service of growth.
— Evan Malmgren, The Baffler, 2018

Your whole life will be searchable.
— Larry Page (quoted in Douglas Edwards’ I’m Feeling Lucky), 2011

At its core, surveillance capitalism is parasitic and self-referential. It revives Karl Marx’s old image of capitalism as a vampire that feeds on labor, but with an unexpected turn. Instead of labor, surveillance capitalism feeds on every aspect of every human’s experience.
— Shoshana Zuboff, Surveillance Capitalism, January 15, 2019

The endless public appetite for apocalyptic film and TV is tied into the fantasies of reconstruction. Even the various zombie franchises are really just reconstruction stories (albeit with a huge real estate porn appeal). I want to quote Sarah T. Roberts article again, because she covers several factors that seem increasingly embedded in contemporary thinking.

In the billionaire kingmaker class, Musk is not alone in his post-Earth predilection. Indeed, he is one of several of his echelon looking cynically to science fiction and the après-apocalypse, fantasizing about outlandish ways to spend–and make–profits via projects that deepen long-standing commitments to Western supremacy and colonization, albeit with a futuristic bent. At the 2016 Republican National Convention that heralded the political ascendency of Donald Trump, PayPal billionaire and Gawker/journalism foe Peter Thiel (Thompson 2018) hailed the conquest of Mars as a worthier endeavor than wars in the Middle East. In doing so, Thiel inadvertently showed his ideological hand by invoking both as equivalent games of conquest (Daily Beast 2016). Other projects in this vein include Biosphere 2 (once the province of former Trump advisor and professional propagandist Steve Bannon), HI-SEAS, Apple’s new “Spaceship” headquarters, and the NSA’s Star Trek-inspired control room, all of which posit various offworld-oriented technological solutions to a dying future. It is a future in which capitalism has already played out the dissolution of democracy and social equalities, favoring a libertarian fend-for-yourself approach for those who remain– and those who remain, according to these projects, are overwhelmingly White, wealthy able-bodied people of the Global North.
— Sarah T. Roberts (Ibid.)

Roberts also touches on Apple’s new *campus*, which is shaped like a flying saucer and seems designed mostly to keep undesirables out as much as employees in.

Roberts again…

The spaceship aesthetic and panoptic/open floor work spaces reinstate order and hierarchy through structural and embedded surveillance while suggesting freedom of movement and action. Ample amenities are designed to keep workers on-site and productive, ideally for longer than an eight-hour workday, recalling the company towns of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Not to be outdone, both Google and Facebook have announced employee housing near their expansive campuses (Stangel 2017), in partial response to extraordinary housing costs in Silicon Valley (created by the demand from their own workers).

There is also the new NSA control room, which merges sci-fi aesthetics with Benthamesque practicality and Biosphere 2 which borrows directly from science fiction. This is a long sort of introduction to what I see as an increasing anger and frustration in western white populations that is born of the unshakable sense that white modernity is coming to an end. There is an increasing global awareness that U.S. (and EU..but the EU is hugely divided in this respect) hegemony is unravelling. The global ruling class share the same goals but have mostly allowed or been served by U.S. leadership in terms of international financial institutions and the U.N. and just by U.S. military dominance. But today there are growing areas of the planet that are openly rejecting the white supremacist capitalism/imperialism of the U.S. (and its proxies, Saudi Arabia and Israel primarily. Yes I know there are huge contradictions in that, but I will get to those). The effects of Hollywood in all this are almost incalculable. The future is built with Hollywood image and narrative, and increasingly so is the present. Narrative thinking today is tied in with Hollywood screenwriting in a near total manner.

And the effects of the internet, social media, and in general screen addictions and indoctrination have yet to be fully calculated. And this segues into the realities of content moderation. And, again, a crash course on this is to listen to a lecture of Roberts here or watch here.

And remember, too, what Andre Damon at WSWS wrote in 2018:

Social media is monopolized by a few gigantic corporations. And that concentration of control is going to obviously be exploited for more profit.

…let’s start with a shocking fact: bad behavior happens on the internet. It occurs in real life, too, of course. But there is a special quality to the depravity exhibited on social media that is particular to that domain. On the one hand, it is unthinking, and in the case of Twitter, this goes along with the character limit. But it also demonstrates a psychopathic character contradiction: an obsession with self-perception by others in combination with a disturbing lack of empathy toward many of those same others from whom one is seeking, implicitly or explicitly, validation. For many researchers, this behavior is not merely expressed on but actively shaped by social media. In a meta-analysis of seventy-two studies, the psychologist Sara Konrath and her research team found that empathy levels among college students are 40 percent lower today than they were twenty years ago — a development they attribute to, amongst other things, the “rising prominence” of “media use in everyday life”: “With so much time spent interacting with others online rather than in reality, interpersonal dynamics such as empathy might certainly be altered.
— Benjamin Y. Fong, Jacobin, 2018

There is a correlate here, found in that same Sarah Konrath study:

One especially relevant program of research finds increasing levels of narcissism in American college students from the mid-1980s until late into the first decade of the new millennium, using similar cross-temporal methods as in the current study (Twenge et al., 2008; Twenge & Foster, 2008,2010).Dispositional narcissists have inflated self-views, especially on agentic traits such as power and intelligence (e.g., Campbell, Rudich, & Sedikides, 2002). Although narcissists are extraverted, they think of others primarily in terms of their utility rather than as interdependent relationship partners (Campbell, 1999). When narcissists’ egos are threatened by rejection or an insult, they tend to aggress against the source of the threat (e.g., Bushman & Baumeister, 1998; Konrath, Bushman, & Campbell, 2006).
— Sarah Konrath, et.al., Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Students Over Time: A Meta Analysis, Personality and Social Psychology Review 2011

Whether it’s Twitter or Snapchat or whatever, the overriding quality associated with each platform is limited space for expression and impermanence. Snapchat is designed to literally disappear before your eyes. Twitter is particularly pathological in that it is all but impossible to have discussions, or debates there, but excels at individual declarations of fact — the users own sense of ‘fact’, that is. It has been noted by several studies about social media that those who engage in prolonged use tend to increasingly feel real life face to face interaction as persecutory. My own experience of Twitter and Facebook is that it directly breeds paranoia. And for dissident or radical left voices that paranoia is already well established, usually. It’s hard to be a socialist in America and not feel paranoia.

The first configuration is what I came to call the Vampires’ Castle. The Vampires’ Castle specialises in propagating guilt. It is driven by a priest’s desire to excommunicate and condemn, an academic-pedant’s desire to be the first to be seen to spot a mistake, and a hipster’s desire to be one of the in-crowd.
— Mark Fisher, Vampire’s Castle, 2013

Now Fisher is a contested figure, and with good reason (for all this insight he remained a strangely reactionary voice, and that contradiction may have been impossible for him to live with). But what he describes in Vampire’s Castle is very much to the point here. And one of the tactics of social media attacks is to stigmatize in isolation (a sort of form of essentialism). And this is akin to the bullying that high school students suffer from, too, a bullying that has led to spikes in suicide and self harm. It is ridicule that borders on arbitrary. One is tried and convicted on social media for crimes of the past, often, and, of course, often for crimes that never took place, and often for non-crimes. Mischaracterizing one’s opponent is the classic technique of the fascist right, but today it is cropping up more and more often on the left. But the new essentialism is also perilously close to conspiracy theory at its very worst. I know people, very smart people, in fact, who literally believe that entire outlets or groups or institutions — having hundreds of members — are in the grip of secret cabals of fascists. A thought mechanism that mirrors classic antisemitism. And speaking of antisemitism, the rising and continuing anti-semitism on the left is meeting with less and less resistance from the left who feel encouraged to conflate zionism and Jewishness.

Now the new aesthetics of the new doomsday scenarioists of online polemics, and in real life (the doomsayers who are billionaires) are the aesthetics of 1970s science fiction, if not 1950s science fiction. It is remarkable how durable the style and codes are of stuff like The Day the Earth Stood StillRed Planet Mars, or the original War of the Worlds. And more, 70s films like Andromeda Strain or Dark Star. Even very good and rather un-Hollywood films such as Man Who Fell to Earth have shaped the current sense of what the future means, and more, what apocalypse looks like. Just look at the art/design layouts and images used in stories about global warming or the fear mongering of the overpopulationers. Tell me it’s not nearly always from science fiction and/or is not racist. That a global environmental crisis is being packaged by media as if it were an early John Carpenter film should cause concern.

So three things I sense are related here. One is the damage of screen addictions, and, perhaps more specifically, social media. And the manner of expression that is wed to the alarmist’s sense of environmental crises. To deal with the real and material crisis would require a capacity to think in ways that social media and screen habituation have discouraged if not erased. The psychological affect of decades (now) of internet coercions and indoctrination — overt and incidental — and the very damages of just over-exposure to the technology itself are huge and perhaps nearly irreversible. Internet societies are more rigidly hierarchical than society itself. It is just masked better. The second issue is the issues of synthesizing time, narration, and loss of literacy. And the third is the dying death throws of global capital and its desire to perpetuate itself even if it means mass death, and the fantasies of this capitalist ruling class, expressed in regressive tropes of kitsch science fiction and space colonialism.

There is also a strange inversion, one that is nearly dialectical, actually. On the one hand the so called advanced West, the hyper capitalist neo-liberal West and its major telecom and digital corporations, are at work 24/7 in surveillance and data gathering. And both of these activities are usually illegal. Those same mega corporations (with intimate ties to western governments) are in the business of *hiding* the production processes that build those smart phones and lap tops on which, and with which, the bourgeoisie of the west amuse themselves. The devices that these corporations spy on and steal from — these devices are not the product of immaculate technological conception. The mythology of the information age has, as one huge factor, maybe THE hugest factor, the presumption that all of this digital technology was just divinely created and fell to earth. The invisibility of the draconian assembly lines and factories of the global south that produce and assemble these mythic devices is both an intentional practice and one those firms know is deceitful. They hide it because it would be offensive to the consumers of these products. A consumer base increasingly exhibiting a green awareness (sic). Not to mention the even more draconian waste sites where disposal of these devices take place, in countries such as Philippines, Bangladesh, Ghana, and Indonesia.

This does not even touch on the mining and earth extraction of rare earth minerals such as coltan (from which niobium and tantalum are taken), yttrium, lanthanum, and terbium.

According to the Minerals Education Coalition, a baby born in the US today will use up 539 lbs of zinc, 903 lbs of lead and 985 lbs of copper during his or her lifetime, not just in phones but in other gadgets and appliances too. In terms of environmental drain from every smartphone that’s made, you can add the oil used to produce plastics, the sand used to produce glass, and so on. ( ) Of the 83 stable and non-radioactive elements in the periodic table, at least 70 can be found in smartphones. According to the best available figures, a total of 62 different types of metals go into the average mobile handset, with what are known as the rare Earth metals playing a particularly important role. Of the 17 rare Earth metals, 16 are included in phones.
— David Nield, Tech Radar, 2015

My sense is that most Americans could be convinced to give up nearly everything to ensure a livable safe future…everything except their screen gadgets.

Larry Page of Google has used (and coined) the word *automagical*. It’s the perfect word for contemporary thought. The west thinks automagically. But that sounds benign, and nothing about the trends in contemporary behavior or thinking is benign. Zuboff quotes John Searle about the nature of *declarations*. Searle wrote:“A declaration is a particular way of speaking and acting that establishes facts out of thin air, creating a new reality where there was nothing.” This is highly relevant to the social media user. This is, in fact, that on which Twitter is based. It is the speech of Kings and overlords, of pharaohs. It is also how cops talk to suspects (i.e., everyone not a cop). Most importantly it is the speech of institutions. It assumes authority.

Zuboff also notes that this sort of authoritarian speech and grammar is the province of Google, and of Google’s unprecedented power. That said, it is power of a unique and perhaps unprecedented kind. For if conquistadors issued declarations that indigenous peoples were to be vassals…WERE already so…the threats behind such declarations were made clear. Google doesn’t have to do that. No giant information and telecom giant has to do that. The threat is assumed. The threat is implanted.

Google’s stores of behavioral surplus now embrace everything in the online milieu: searches, e-mails, texts, photos, songs, messages, videos, locations, communication patterns, attitudes, preferences, interests, faces, emotions, illnesses, social networks, purchases, and so on. A new continent of behavioral surplus is spun each moment from the many virtual threads of our everyday lives as they collide with Google, Facebook, and, more generally, every aspect of the internet’s computer-mediated architecture. Indeed, under the direction of surveillance capitalism the global reach of computer mediation is repurposed as an extraction architecture.
— Shoshana Zuboff, Surveillance Capitalism

Everything one does is turned into code. And that code is returned to the user (as Zubhoff writes) through the filter of *intelligent algorithms*. And if that sounds like *smart bombs*, it’s because it is, and that is, to put it mildly, disquieting. Anytime intelligent or smart are used in titles or branding, the opposite is usually true. Much as the use of *freedom* in any NGO title signals State Department front group. But the issue that runs alongside the literal monitoring of everything one does is the now third generation effects of the information age on the young. The bullying of social media is only one symptom. Mental illness is now almost expected of teenagers. In the U.S. and U.K., in particular, the anxiety, paranoia, and feelings of hopelessness are endemic. And, of course, this cannot be treated by the institutions that have caused it. At best the establishment simply finds new warehousing drugs to give them. The burden to conform is enormous for teenagers and made worse by the pathologies of social media and internet habituation.

Deleuze and Guattari saw schizophrenia as the presentation of capitalist illness as it approached the 1980s, and later Christian Marazzi suggested bi-polar disorder as the new inner logic of financialized capitalism. Then today the post post modern new feudalism presents as autism, a condition first brought to awareness by a Nazi doctor. If teenagers today suffer debilitating anxiety, and a generalized fear of ‘doing’ anything lest it appear in Snapchat later in the afternoon, the result is an increasing cognitive paralysis. One teacher I know said several different high school students have confessed their inability to act or speak, answering questions etc, that even that inability and low grades is better than internet shaming and stigmatizing. Older twenty somethings, out of school and usually unemployed, wander their American neighborhoods in what amount to semi conscious trance states. Another teacher, in suburban LA, said his small college has decided to let student homeless sleep in their cars at one end of the school parking lot. After the school board passed this measure they were startled to learn that over 20% of the student body were, in fact, living out of their cars and sleeping in the school lot.

The western economies, and this is certainly true of the U.S., are propped up by militarism, stock market manipulation, and the ongoing theft of public funds and social services.

Cutting across this are the pathologies and social violence of social media.

Social media is designed for comparisons and coupled to the narrowed limits for written expression, the function of image becomes disproportionately important. But the interpretation of image is equally or more important. The idea of popularity is implanted in the system by the owners and operators of that system. The capture of eyeballs is also the capture of consensus. This is particularly true for the young.

The empty debate on the spectacle – that is, on the activities of the world’s owners – is thus organised by the spectacle itself: everything is said about the exten­sive means at its disposal, to ensure that nothing is said about their extensive deployment. Rather than talk of the spectacle, people often prefer to use the term ‘media’. And by this they mean to describe a mere instrument, a kind of public service which with impartial ‘professionalism’ would facilitate the new wealth of mass communication through mass media – a form of communication which has at last attained a unilateral purity, whereby decisions already taken are presented for passive admiration. For what is commu­nicated are orders; and with perfect harmony, those who give them are also those who tell us what they think of them.
— Guy Debord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, 1967

Orders, declarations. The desire to punish, the desire to be right. The isolation and atomization of social media users contributes to this sense of priesthood and specialness — by which I mean that when one writes, for publication or just as a diarist, the activity is hugely different than writing for social media. The isolation and contemplation of the writer at his keyboard becomes a manic anxious isolation, a cruel imposed isolation that sits in stark contrast to contemplative creation. The rapidity and constant reinforcements that are built into social media are there to keep the attention of the user, for such attention is money, is profit.

What is interesting is how so much of the opinion expressed by the left today is expressed in terms of masculine power or just a replication of militarism’s scorched earth policies. Carpet bombing — from what is now North Korea, terror bombing Belgrade, shock and awe, or bunker busters in Tora Bora, or the war crimes of Fallujah, the endless atrocities inflicted on the global south — the war zone sensibility of racist domestic police forces in the U.S., this is all mirrored and reproduced on social media. Social media has become a laboratory for aggression. But in tiny ever shrinking platforms. Carpet bombing in 280 characters. The sense of shrinkage and enclosure, of foreclosure and agitation, these are design elements. (Why do Silicon Valley CEOs not allow their children to use smart phones? Why do those children go to device free schools?)

The only way that socialist and radical political voices can engage on social media — it seems to me — is to find ways to disrupt the hegemonic orders of the Spectacle. Social media is designed to create a craving for attention. At any cost. Unconscious cravings. This is why the tribalism of likes and blocking and *friends* is so constantly reinforced.

In one sense the mega corporate owners have insured that class is replaced by individualism, identitarian relations and presentation.

When Twitter began the limit for a tweet was 140 characters. The average tweet at that point was 34 characters. Twitter increased the tweet count to 280 characters but the average tweet is now only 33 characters. I suspect this reflects the trend toward inarticulate semi-languages. The trend toward quick scans rather than patient reading.

Critical theory’s effort to restore subjectivity and resist domination rightly leads to the search for and rejection of all tendencies that cause the subject to introject and reproduce his own domination.
— Amy Buzby, Subterranean Politics and Freud’s Legacy, August 14, 2013

Social media, perhaps above all else, encourages obsessive repetitions. Obsessive compulsive disorder is expressed in pure form as Twitter or Snapchat or Facebook. The repetitive behavioral action of keystrokes mimics something industrial, something also nearly manic. And in this sense the bi-polar metaphor remains rather apt. But the emptiness of the screen, the temporal limits, the erasure of lasting meaning, all feel autistic. The social media addiction eventually neutralizes meaning altogether. Trump is oddly the perfect Twitter user. Lies, contradictions, more lies, repeating the lies, and on and on. All without meaning.

All social media rage is reproducing personal pain — at one level. It is also, on another level, reflecting the trauma and violence of the society in which the users live. The compulsive Twitter user, or Facebook troll — and in a sense perhaps everyone shares troll like characteristics simply by virtue of using these platforms — are caught in a habituation cycle of need and pseudo gratification. But addiction metaphors miss the broader point here. Internet use is often likely compulsive, and perhaps constitutes a habituation, but rarely reaches the level of addiction (addictions must produce serious real world consequences for the addict). What is the most disturbing aspect of social media and internet use overall is ideological and educational. The internet, and in particular social media, have damaged cognitive abilities, and have incrementally created two (now) generations (if not three) of people who cannot think outside very narrow cyber structures. Ideologically because the internet is in the business of constantly grabbing your attention and trying to keep it; and information is dispensed via attention grabbing mechanisms and strategies. No internet platform is free of the profit motive, remember. And cyber profit is based on an attention economy. The click bait model can be expanded to anything. And the repetitive nature of social media usage reinforces a tendency already present in western capitalist societies. And, of course, class enters in this discussion exactly here. The loss of employment opportunity and social mobility encourages a recourse to social media and the internet to replace community.

It is also important to distinguish between the attention economy and newer participatory attention economy or what Boutgang labeled Cognitive Capitalism. (see Mackenzie Wark’s analysis here

Cognitive workers are in a sense entrepreneurs, are in a sense people who invest their knowledge, who invest their singular ability and in this sense the relationship, the integration between work, cognitive work and enterprise; and enterprise has a materialistic foundation. But at the same time this kind of integration has produced an ideological effect and a kind of psycho-pathogenic effect on the social forces of cognitive labor. ( ) The Prozac economy and the Prozac crash. The integration of cognitive work and recombinant capital has produced a kind of euphoria, of hyper-excitation and has produced a demotion, an erasing, a forgetting of the physical, the erotic and the social body of the cognitive worker. We have been taken in this kind of irrational exuberance and we have forgotten that we have a body – that we are a body. So the cognitive worker in this kind of hyper-excitation completely or partially has been forgetting the relationship to the society and the relationship to the physical body.
— Frano Berardi, Market Ideology, Semiocapitalism, and the Digital Congitariat,

Berardi’s (Bifo) article is worth reading in its entirety here.

In 1995, 10 years into the history of mobile phones, penetration in the UK was just 7%,” according to Professor Nigel Linge, of the University of Salford’s Computer Networking and Telecommunications Research Centre. “In 1998 it was about 25%, but by 1999 it was 46%, that was the ‘tipping point’. In 1999 one mobile phone was sold in the UK every 4 seconds.” By 2004, there were more mobile phones in the UK than people – a penetration level of more than 100%. ( ) The way that handsets themselves were marketed was also changing and it was Finland’s Nokia, which had been fighting hard with Motorola and Ericsson for dominance of the market, who made the leap from phones as technology to phones as fashion items with the Nokia 3210 device.

“The Nokia 3210 is iconic because it is the first phone that deliberately did not display any sort of external aerial,” explains Linge. “Nokia in the late 1990s cottoned on to the fact that the mobile phone was a fashion item: so it allowed interchangeable covers, you could customise and personalise your handset.”

In 1999, the film The Matrix was released, which featured Nokia’s 8110 handset prominently. Nokia followed it up with the 7110, which was also the first device to fully exploit the new WAP mobile data service, the fore-runner of the 3G services of today.
— Richard Wray, Guardian, 2010

Hollywood again. The future again. One might argue The Matrix is the most influential film in history — not because it’s any good, it’s not, but because it consolidated several threads of style and futuristic fantasy and presented them in an appealing package, one that also appealed to the new automagical thinking. The reality today is that global capital can draw upon a reserve of global labour regardless of national borders. As Ursula Huws notes in Labour in Contemporary Capitalism, 2019:

Even when casualised labour is not carried out by their direct employees, it is carried out within the scope of the increasingly elaborated value chains which these companies control.

And this casualization and global context has generated enormous resentment against migrant workers, especially in areas of industrial decline (per Huws). Hence the rise of the far right parties across Europe today. And the theft of social benefits, stuff like unemployment payments, are increasingly hard to actually receive and when received are provincial and conditional. The point is that the internet has transformed human life in its entirety. And often, maybe nearly always, for the worse. Shoshana Zuboff (Ibid.) has the final word here, for this is what all of this discussion is trending toward:

The prospect of guaranteed outcomes alerts us to the force of the prediction imperative, which demands that surveillance capitalists make the future for the sake of predicting it. Under this regime, ubiquitous computing is not just a knowing machine; it is an actuating machine designed to produce more certainty about us and for them.

This is largely what Debord saw happening too. The profit from reliable forecasting and prediction means that creating the future is the best strategy — if you make the future you can predict it with some certainty. People need to realize, I think, that EVERYTHING online is manufactured reality — it’s not real, it’s pseudo real. And marketings job is to convince you that pseudo real is REAL REAL. And if the result of this is increased mental illness and pathological degrees of aggression, and industrial levels of anti-depressant use, well, so what? Global servitude is the dream of the new reality brokers. The ruling class believes in their own fantasies (courtesy, it seems, of science fiction movies) but they are determined to control our dreams and aspirations. And unless one starts to examine all of this in terms of class, there is little hope to stop this dream of global hegemony. The mantra must be, *question everything*.

Questioning the Extremely Online

This essay is in regard to a crime that too often goes unmentioned when the conversations turn towards political analysis, the contemporary journalistic scene, and broader social critique: the crime of being extremely online.

What does it mean to be extremely online? It mostly is as straightforward as it sounds. Generally, activities such as spending too much time on the web, scrolling through social media feeds out of habit, checking email or notifications dozens of times a day, all are symptoms of the extremely online person. Particularly, too much smartphone use is a devastating problem.

There is also a more specific version, which both mainstream journalists and alternative media commentators employ on both the right and left: constantly posting every news update; sharing a gazillion times every day each and every version and opinion on a current event/post/tweet about the lead news stories of the day, whether it is something interesting about global warming or something as ignorant and banal as the president’s tweets; prognosticating about the presidential election a year and a half before it happens;  using dubious polls or statistics to bolster weak arguments; and basically reacting to every media spectacle with behavior including, but not limited to, juvenile tantrums, posturing, faux outrage, jaded cynicism, pompous virtue-signalling, ironic detachment, and narcissistic self-aggrandizement.

Quite a few alternative media commentators tend to replicate and mimic the 24/7 spectacle that is mainstream news. That is to say, many have internalized the messaging style; the hyper-fast response time to current events…generally speaking, the norms of mainstream commentary and thus bourgeois values are being internalized. The more time spent posting for an online following on social media, the stronger the pull of an affinity to a certain type of power. Digital hierarchies become hardened, and the bourgeoisification of the web intensifies. As we shall see below, even those who identify as anti-capitalist or socialist are not immune.

The types of online behaviors regarding political debate exhibited above may be the exception, but with the expansion of social media along with its hyper-stratified tendencies, it may soon become the norm.

What research has shown is that digital literacy creates a path towards more open attitudes towards digital technology, which can be called Technophilia.1 This research points towards entertainment as one of the key drivers in promoting positive emotions and behavior when using digital technology, which results in a positive feedback loop leading to more intense and rewarding use.

If you extrapolate from this a bit, I’d suggest that the top online influencers in various political schools of thought will be more predisposed towards promoting digital technology, simply because they are benefitting from it financially. We have a situation where the most popular commentators are economically tied to social media, but there are plenty of reasons to believe that their naïve optimism regarding the power of digital media will not stop there, but rather, the naivety extends to industrial society as a whole.

The social media environment creates a logic of its own, just as most modern technology does. One obvious materialist analogy is to the medical industry. As long as for-profit companies are allowed to dominate pharmaceutical and research endeavors, the logic of the system will mean that more people are made sick, anxious, depressed, etc., to make more money for corporations. With social media, the logic of its internal dynamics precludes nuanced, informed, lengthy public deliberation in favor of sound-bite quotes, sloganeering, and focusing on personalities, along with the most shallow forms of identity politicking. Its logic depends on divisive, sensational, hateful, and ultimately fascistic rhetoric dominating political discourse.

Since the scope of Technophilia broadens and intensifies with continued use of labor-saving devices made under exploitative conditions, it ultimately results in many self-proclaimed anti-capitalists falling under the sway of propaganda emanating from mainstream technological society, as we shall see below.

Class is never taken seriously in our society. In many rural areas around the USA broadband internet access is still out of reach, and is expensive for many poor urban Americans as well, creating a digital divide. Thus it is no wonder that the rich and middle-classes are more “open” towards the web and smart-phone use. They derive more pleasure from them in terms of entertainment, increased digital literacy, and monetary success. The flip side of being more open is being more immature and blind to dangers, however. In contrast the poor and working classes respond to the digital life-world with more skepticism, as the above study indicates.

My contention here is that this digital literacy creates a new form of “digital spectacle” for technophilic Westerners on both the political right and left, especially for the middle classes. The elite implicitly understand that in a society based on artificial scarcity, only a certain amount of online influencers can vie for position in digital media. The professional and managerial classes, and their children ensconced in privilege, all too easily fall under the sway of the competitive forces in online media as well.

The poor and working class understand that in regarding to digital media, they are getting crushed under the weight of start-up costs, social capital which is either unobtainable or sleazy to get, and various online fees and hurdles to make it in a new rigged game of digital society. The digital divide is becoming a chasm, because it too it based on market forces.

As alluded to above, election cycle mania, the fascination with polling data, as well as fixation of GDP, job growth, and many other factors which the mainstream media focuses on are now internalized across the political spectrum, included much of Western Left analysis. This isn’t to say that socialists overly reliant on statistics and polling are wrong; simply that it’s mostly ineffective, as the tone is technocratic, academic, and is filled with the jargon that turns off the average citizen, even some of what is written here. I am not immune, this is a self-criticism as well, as the lack of engagement and overly analytical framework extends throughout journalism and academia across the entire social body.

Most of this behavior has been internalized and learned from mainstream media, which creates a market and manufactured interest in nonsensical statistics and banal news trivia, as Neil Postman points out:

Statistics create an enormous amount of completely useless information, which compounds the always difficult task of location that which is useful to a culture. This is more than a case of ‘information-overload.’ It is a matter of information-trivia, which has the effect of placing all information on an equal level.2

Once data becomes transmuted into a sort of holy substance, it is wielded by both the political Right and Left as a weapon: statistics back their cause and any deviation from the issue is irrational and illogical. This sets the table for false binaries and political polarization across the spectrum of political thought.

What being extremely online has done is given the very few big “influencers” in mainstream media as well as alternative spaces huge egos and warped their ability to think critically. This is most clearly seen in our “troll in chief”, Donald Trump. Time, space, and perception are distorted and it has led to a predictable and unimaginative online discourse.

When a post appears on social media, often if you know the contributor and some of the followers/friends, you can glean and predict what the reaction is going to be and who is going to say what. Depending on the news of the day, I can guestimate what the “takes” will be of my various friends and those I follow. I admit this can be sometimes comforting given the horrendous news we deal with daily. However, it also kind of implies that real people are reacting, thinking, and forming commentary algorithmically, as if our thoughts now mimic apps like Spotify and Pandora which play tracks from one’s favorite musicians; or at least similar artists which won’t offend the listener’s taste. How banal and horrifying all at once.

With podcasts or Youtube videos, as well as message boards, one can see political commentary forming a script, where individuals rattle off reels of their “greatest hits” of points, observations, and reflections, rather than engaging with the subject matter. No matter how hard we try, social media can never replicate oral traditions and real-life conversations. Dysfunction is baked into modern capitalist-based digital communication.

How being extremely online works to the advantage of the few at the expense of the many is easy to ascertain. We are told we are living in an “attention economy” and the extremely online predicate their behavior on this premise, even those who ostensibly identify as anti-capitalist. The extremely online mimic the 24/7 blather of mainstream media discourse, because nothing is too insignificant not to post, nothing too small not to get out in the lead as being “on top of” any given issue or current event. This is the sort of competitive striving absolutely essential to capitalism.

Outrage, shock, compassion, repulsion, empathy, and even “rational, objective” sober media analysis vie for our attention spans, and the extremely online prey upon those among their followers who due to loneliness, emotional issues, or escapism already spend too much time online, and are thus more vulnerable to screen addiction, sensationalist appeals, fear-mongering, gossip, consumer trends, etc.

Of course, the mainstream outlets have been deeply complicit, as it suits their financial interests. As seen by the CNN executive during the 2016 election gloating that the insane coverage of Trump was horrible for the country, but good for their bottom line, or something to that effect.

As for the reaction time of news sources, and thus political commentary, it may strain one’s memory to recall, but only twenty years ago any major news stories that broke after the evening news broadcast did not appear until the next morning, nearly an eight to twelve hour delay

Now, every media outlet is constantly bombarding us with every update and crisis in real time. The main reaction to this (notwithstanding the many sincere alternative media, community-level, and individual critiques) in the collective consciousness is shock and numbness, and it only compounds daily.

Now, many leftists tend to unconsciously mimic the same tendencies of mainstream media. This is done by copying the tactics of mainstream online influencers who use marketing, PR, and advertising firms to get ahead. This is done by pandering to the crowd and reacting to every Trump and establishment faux pas, whether Democrat or Republican. This is done by opportunistic virtue signaling and online activism viewed as a substitute for in person organizing. The virtual becomes more real than the real. Egos become more tied to the digital social environs, a derivative of a derivative.

Apparently the twisted logic is that if the extremely online use social media as a way for exposure and fame, it’s worth it. Social media becomes a tool, a means to an end to uproot the system. The downside tends to be that we become instruments of social media itself, not a new phenomenon in Western Civilization.

Posting dozens of times a day on social media simply is not in anyone’s best interest. It is in the best interest of capital, however. Why else would one post 30, 50, a hundred times a day if not to create an attention economy around oneself, to gain digital “followers” whose gaze will be diverted from possibly more important issues closer and dearer to their hearts…as well as to one’s family and friends, one’s material reality and ability to help the vulnerable and those in need close to them.

What should be obvious is every moment spent online is time away from the natural world and thus a huge time-suck where we exist as zombified, trance-induced crazy people for more information, useless updates, more drivel-data and bits of trivialities that do not change a thing.

Being online means being on the grid and the computing power needed to keep our information superhighway running is increasing like a runaway train. Despite the relatively low cost of powering one’s individual smartphone and computer/laptop/tablet etc., the internet via server farms, cell towers, etc. uses approximately 10% of the world’s total electricity consumption and the total energy use for the web increases by about 20% each year. The rollout of harmful 5G technology and internet of things only will accelerate the technological dystopia we’re enmeshed in.

Regardless of what technophiles and delusional people want to think, modern industrial civilization is a fad. We are going to have to go through an extended period of degrowth and lowering our power consumption and that will have to include less internet use. Most especially, too much smartphone use must be addressed head-on. Smartphones need to go away, for good, and it’s not too hard to imagine a workable society without them. It existed twenty years ago.

This should be simple enough to understand, but again, chronic habitual internet use and social media creates a form of addiction which leads to denialism. For those that do partake in nuanced forms of online discussion, in message boards or even in comment sections, yet limit, self-reflect, and moderate your use, congratulations. This is not directed at you. This is written is response to the serial social media addicts. For those in this group, I’ll posit that one of the root reasons for this malady is that our addict-Left comrades unconsciously identify with the system.

This isn’t meant to sound callous, these people are suffering to different degrees, and I do empathize. Boredom, loneliness, and lack of in-person human connection are endemic to our culture and these factors shouldn’t be minimized when understanding addictive behavior.

Part of the problem is the speed of society now. It’s understandable, people want to keep up with events and chime in with their two cents. It’s a human reaction. Part of the problem is also that the people who have convinced themselves they are part of the solution remain part of the problem. Mainly, because they are unable or unwilling to critically examine the technophilic ideology at the heart of the capitalist-based internet.

The “Left-opinion makers”, as the Situationists were wont to call them, thus fall hopelessly further into the spectacle.

Caveat

Social media use is not a horrible thing in and of itself. Although much of its use tends to replicate competitive and hierarchical relations, there are alternative visions of what the web could be like. Internet and social media companies could have been, and should be now, directed through public funding and non-profit models decades ago to engage and educate working class people, to provide jobs and new opportunities, and to raise the consciousness of the public sphere. This could easily be done even within the confines of a social-democratic system.

What we have now is a web and social media landscape that is largely, but not completely, irredeemable. Again, this does not mean one should completely ignore it, only that social media should be seen as a vessel to get people out of their homes and into the streets: like we saw in Tunisia, in Egypt and many other nations during the Arab Spring.

I don’t know if this metaphor is useful at all, but social media could be used as a sort of liberatory portals or gateways, networks to awaken the masses from their slumber, to take them out of the virtual and into the “natural” world. Web and social media technology can be used to “tune in” people to serious movement-building, to Marx, to environmental protests, to issues like climate change and nuclear war, through digital communication; but eventually there has to be a period when citizens step through to the other side and “drop out” to take the struggle onto the public squares. The thing is, many of those involved in just such struggles seem hopelessly “addicted” or too enamored with the power of internet technology itself, much like what has happened with the fetishization of the internal combustion engine, the printing press, the personal computer, and many other examples.

The Professional Bloviators

Sadly, quite a few self-professed anti-capitalist public intellectuals seem to be ensnared by bourgeois ideology today. Many rightly view our political and economic systems as hopelessly corrupt, yet still cling to the privilege, perks, and soapboxes offered by their academic positions (tied to student and faculty exploitation, which is either conveniently unmentioned or under-emphasized), viewing their own credentials as somehow a basis for a true and fair meritocracy, as if academia is somehow above the vagaries of blind chance, sheer luck, white privilege, and jockeying for power.

Any academic worth their salt should be either heavily insinuating, or outright stating to their students, that college is a huge waste of time and money, depending on how much “free speech” they can actually afford to say without getting canned. Universities function today as huge indoctrination camps to train the next generation of good “liberals” (or good Germans, it might be more appropriate to say) who will never question or threaten to overturn the system: the professional-managerial upper-middle class technocrats, financiers, doctors, lawyers, etc.

Thus, even some dissident academics manage to paint themselves into a corner with ineffectual arguments backing the college system, turf wars, theatrical posturing, lack of engagement with the working class, etc. This has all been said before, but again, it may be worth repeating. For instance, in 2011 in the US there were some “socialists” and “anarchists” supporting the US/UK/French bombing of Libya, and a few who equivocated and vacillated, citing the responsibility to protect civilians, parroting State Department propaganda. Oy vey.

The internet and social media has accelerated this trend, making things worse among the wider population, as even those with core anti-capitalist ideas fall into internecine bickering. This is peak aspersionary politics, or passive-aggressiveness if you prefer, which apes wider bourgeois culture. To recast Allen Ginsberg’s opening line of Howl for today, and I only mean this half-jokingly, we can think of something like: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by social media.” Some Left twitterati self-identify as being “extremely online”: brazenly, unashamedly, and unreflectively revealing the depths of their own screen addictions.

Aldous Huxley described the brain as a “reducing valve”, yet I’ve not heard a fully-encompassing phrase for the situation created by a digital milieu where web algorithms which reinforce harmful beliefs and behavior, prey on our addictions, amplify hatred, sow discord, polarize media and community; by devices that seize and sustain our attention long after we realize it no longer serves our interests; by neurotransmitter hijacking, empathy-deadening, critical-thinking atrophying smartphones and media built explicitly to mine us for money, use our thoughts/photos/creativity/etc. as free content while social media companies and those who advertise on the platforms make billions, and generally to simultaneously distract, outrage, and numb us. “Limbic capitalism3 is the closest term I’ve come across, but perhaps the more brutal, if less artful, phrase is more apt: mind control.

There is less and less nuance and space for radical dissent as many left-leaning alternative media and social media influencers close ranks and offer only very mild criticism of social democratic policies. Again, the striving is self-evident, is it not?

These are symptoms of unhealthy minds, formatted/manipulated/brainwashed to choose between false binaries no matter what contradictions follow from the starting premises of whatever topic is at hand. For instance, take the so-called socialist opportunists who offer very mild public criticism of the Green New Deal, or those who don’t mention the huge cuts in military spending needed to give the deal teeth, so as not to seem confrontational or radical, or perhaps to save what’s left of their perceived (yet, worthless) reputations. In other words, their take is: we don’t have time to build real socialism. Let’s form a coalition with the new social democrats, as if that didn’t end in complete disaster over 100 years ago.

Paths Forward

Now, of course it’s true that reform can indeed broaden and deepen the prospects for revolution, and it is not an either/or proposition, as Rosa Luxembourg explained so well. Yet, we cannot let the crass opportunism and striving for attention on digital media to enact important reforms derail us from steeping workers, students, minorities, and women in the rich intellectual tradition woven by the anti-capitalist Left.

Right in the introduction to the Social Reform or Revolution, Luxemburg states: “The entire strength of the modern labor movement rests on theoretic knowledge.” Despite big advances in the last three years, clearly there is a need for the deep type of work involving the framework for constructing and advancing a truly emancipatory Green New Deal, as well as fighting for open borders, the abolition of prisons and police, and the military-industrial complex.

Anything less than a systematic and intersectional approach will do a huge disservice to the movement and will replicate the cloistered, privileged milieu which unduly benefits the extremely online and their techno-utopian backers.

Reform is welcome because it can lead to tolerance, and its eventual byproduct, solidarity. Solidarity is a radiating emotional, behavioral, and intellectual stance from which flow social bonding and necessary healing mechanisms for our culture. The main ideals of environmental, social, and economic justice revolve around solidarity. Which gives us space to breathe, and here I’m reminded of Eric Garner’s last words. The minorities and the poor in this country have been suffocating for centuries. With no mass base, even the good intentions of those in Congress, such as the “Squad” who advocate for redistributive measures, will be for naught.

If some of today’s US socialist “thought leaders” are so spineless to feign from even mentioning how the prospect of renewable energy corporations left in the hands of private control will end in utter disaster, or to simply pretend it won’t, there’s not much left to say to these people. Then there are US socialists who advocate insanely for nuclear power. Forget theoretical knowledge.  This is basic common sense.  Nuclear energy is dangerous and should be avoided at all costs. If there is intimidation by peers, or simply self-censorship, or to maintain a lifestyle by promoting such anti-life policies on the Left, well, it’s entirely understandable, predictable, and wretched. It’s also an abdication of responsibility: clearly these are bourgeois stances.

To sum up, pointing fingers at the ruling classes’ blatantly obvious sociopathic tendencies provides the convenient scapegoats and diversionary tactics from confronting the holes in many of our own thinking

Back to theoretic knowledge for a minute. First, we have to take into account the anti-intellectual climate here in the US. One encounters quite a few semi-influential figures, especially on the right but increasingly in anti-capitalist outlets, which are quick to criticize French postmodernists, or the Frankfurt School, or various strains of thought which are deemed too obscure or weighty.

There’s no time for theory is one of their complaints, because it is too time-consuming or turns off too many people. So whatever is too complicated for the gate-keeping digital left-liberal editors is thrown by the wayside, but it ain’t clear where this process is headed other than an even more dumbed-down society. What is clear is we are dealing with lightweights.  It’s pretty paternalistic too, because the subtext seems to be that regular people are just too dumb to be introduced to “Theory” and serious academic work.

The other side to this is that many of the same people who are wonderful at explaining theory or offering political critique, many of the “the Left opinion makers”, have absolutely no environmental or ecological knowledge base. You wouldn’t trust them with a shovel; never mind on a factory floor, a communal farm, starting an activist movement or union, or organizing a cooperative. The materialism part of the equation never kicked in. It’s a function of middle-class squeamishness that needs to be squashed.

Another point I want to mention is the US and UK analytic preference for social critique and philosophical investigation, in contrast to the continental style. And I cannot emphasize enough that the dominant Anglophone trend is to turn socialism into an equation, a formula. Put another way, to offer models of governance and even to organize in the technocratic style. Not only that, but to uncritically accept a model for the future based on unrestrained use of technology, with very little understanding of environmental impacts,  conservation, or basic ecology in general.

We see this techno-fetishism in some of the ideas floating around such as “Fully Automated Luxury Communism”, notably Aaron Bastani’s recent work of the same title. Bastani is close to Jeremy Corbyn and Labour. And look who gives a plug for the book, Bhaskar Sunkara. And if you follow these connections down the rabbit hole you’ll see Sunkara’s most recent work gets a plug from Ezra Klein of Vox. So there are all these ties from UK socialists to US democratic socialists to elitist technocratic liberals. And what is in common is a shared naivety regarding technology.

Again, ideas around degrowth are never discussed by the automation admirers. It’s clearly a total dismissal of the idea to preserve their own affluence. Total energy use in the West will have to decrease immensely. The economy, which is inexorably tied to energy use, will have to contract. Nearly all large buildings will have to be retrofitted to remain cooler in the summer and warmer in winter using natural insulation methods. Many large office buildings, skyscrapers, malls, etc. will simply have to be abandoned because there is no way to heat/cool them even remotely efficiently. Modern agriculture will have to be dismantled and converted to decentralized permaculture community-worked gardens.

None of this is even mentioned by the automators. This is because their thinking, their ways of being online, have already started to slip into the manner of the automaton. Which many people acknowledged, where Brzezinski dispassionately saw it as an inevitability of modern life, and famously Marcuse saw it as a downright horror in his One Dimensional Man.

The majority of the world can see through all of this talk of AI, robot, quantum computer, 5G drivel. Most people understand, even if they cannot quite communicate their ideas as coldly or eloquently as the technophiles, that the mind cannot be reduced to a mechanical device or a computer processor. As below, so above, society cannot be viewed or treated as a factory floor for renewable energy powered robots to bring us to some Jetsons or Star Trek lifestyle.

The opportunities for control and manipulation of minds have already grown at a frightening pace in the past fifty years. Even further automation would simply open up more avenues for alienation and exploitation. Here’s how. A pro-automation society would be more open to new hierarchies created by divides among the digitally literate, could empower the pharmaceutical companies to create dangerous new drugs to control moods and perception, could open up more geo-engineering of the planet, to more spying and tracking of individuals, and generally more of the full-spectrum digitization of our lives.

This isn’t to suggest that those among the extremely online don’t have any good ideas, or that the FALCers don’t either. It’s simply a reminder that some of these people are being very naïve in regard to the future of technology, some are materially benefitting from the current toxic social media environment and are therefore biased, and others do not realize the internal logic of the system which engenders some of the very barriers they wish to destroy. In most cases high technology acts as a drug, with an intelligence of its own, and once you’re on the ride you don’t control where you’re going to get off.

  1. Ronit, Purian, “Technophilia: A New Model For Technology Adoption” (2011), UK Academy for Information Systems Conference Proceedings 2011, Paper 41.
  2. Postman, Neil. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. Vintage Books, New York, 1992.
  3. Courtwright, David. “How ‘Limbic Capitalism’ Preys on our Addicted Brains”, Quillette, May 31, 2019.

Permissible Deviance: Facebook’s FTC Fine

It was something of a shrug moment.  One of the world’s largest digital platforms had been fined $5 billion for privacy violations by the Federal Trade Commission, claiming it had violated its 2012 order.  The FTC order also requires the company “to restructure its approach to privacy from the corporate board-level down, establishing strong new mechanisms to ensure that Facebook executives are accountable for the decisions they make about privacy, and that those decisions are subject to meaningful oversight.”

On a certain level, being fined $5 billion seems astonishing.  It is two hundred times more than next ranked fine ever imposed on a technology company.  In many an instance, it could sink a company.  Not Facebook, an entity that raked in just under $56 billion last year in profits. Call it an economy of permitted wrong doing, a regime of tolerable violation.  As the sociologist Émile Durkheim posited, the phenomenon of deviance is far from pathological and aberrant: it is, rather “an integral part of all healthy societies”.

Leaving the matter of health to one side, the continuing casualty in this entire affair remains privacy, ignored, abused and held in a kind of formalised contempt.  As The Washington Post editorialised, “The problem is that the nation lacks a strong privacy law, and Congress is sitting on its hands.”

With each wave or cycle of criticism, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, in his ineffably asocial manner, promises his own variation of a grand strategic pivot to that rather withered concept of privacy.   In March, he wrote about his “privacy-focused vision for social networking”.  Various anodyne observations make the meat of the announcement. “Privacy gives people the freedom to be themselves and connect more naturally, which is why we build social networks.”  He also noted the caution people had shown towards having a permanent record of online engagement.  “Many people prefer the intimacy of communicating one-on-one or with just a few friends.”

Significant to Zuckerberg’s message is that everything can become a commodity for regulation, because business makes it so. It’s not that he himself cares much for privacy; he knows, however, that people and institutions do, which means he can deliver a service, treating it as part of the marketable armoury of the enterprise.  He acknowledged “that many people don’t think Facebook can or would even want to build this kind of privacy-focused platform – because frankly we don’t currently have a strong reputation for building privacy protective services, and we’ve historically focused on tools for more open sharing.”  Never fear: “we’ve shown that we can evolve to build the services that people really want, including in private messaging and stories.”

Digital pundits attempting to understand Facebook’s marketing strategy are generally of one mind on this: the market incentive gallops through first; principles limp on later.  Bhaskar Chakravorti of the Fletcher School at Tufts University finds little to commend the Facebook packaging in all of this, a vain attempt to deem the change as a “revolutionary solution to his company’s widespread problems with privacy, facilitating fake news and understand deals to share user data.”  Furthermore, changes promise to be slow.

The company’s optimism for change did not sway the FTC, unconvinced by the lack of tempo in the Zuckerberg reform agenda.  The Commission insists that it is bringing in a structural dimension to the changes, an externally mandated one that propels necessary reform.  “Unprecedented new restrictions” are being imposed on Facebook’s business operations.  The entity must create “an independent privacy committee within the company’s board of directors”.

The perennially slippery Zuckerberg is supposedly brought within the chain of accountability.  “He must certify Facebook’s compliance with [the] FTC order – exposing him, personally, to civil and criminal penalties.”  Each quarter would see him “review material privacy risks”.  Nor can he dabble with the membership of the independent privacy committee or assessor.

The confident language of the FTC order belies an assortment of problems that marred their effort to right Facebook’s data breaches.  Even the FTC itself was, to some extent, tainted, given that the investigation was assisted by Chris Hughes, himself a former dorm mate of Zuckberberg from Harvard days and Facebook worthy.  Hughes has his own suggestion for government regulators which have their own compromising flavour of market-before-principle: break up the company, reverse the acquisitions of WhatsApp and Instagram and any future acquisitions. “Mark Zuckerberg cannot fix Facebook but our government can.”  The sense that Hughes is sporting his own agenda is hard to suppress.

The devil lurking in the omitted detail here is that of any stinging enforcement: lawyers representing Facebook had threatened the FTC that it would “cease settlement talks and send the matter to court”, something the Commission has little appetite for.  Yet another jot for Durkheim’s theory of permissible deviance.

The lawmakers have done little to suggest that changes on the statute books are coming any time soon, leaving states such as California to take the lead in an untidy field.  “We’ve been talking for what, two years about a privacy bill?” put Senator John Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana, earlier this month.  “Haven’t seen one, don’t know if we’ll ever see one.”

Most prefer indignation as a substitute.  Massachusetts Democratic Senator Edward Markey, for one, was not impressed by the FTC formula.  “The settlement is also notably deficient in its lack of new safeguards that would effectively prohibit similar privacy violations in the future.”

Missouri Republican Senator Josh Hawley was of similar mind.  “This settlement,” he lamented, “does nothing to change Facebook’s creepy surveillance and its own users & the misuse of user data.”  Even more critically, the issue of accountability was not put forcefully enough.  “It utterly fails to penalize Facebook in any effective way.”  Business as usual, and just to make the point, Zuckerberg made money on the day news of the fine broke.  Privacy breaches do pay.

Libra: Facebook’s Audacious Bid for Global Monetary Control

Payments can happen cheaply and easily without banks or credit card companies. This has now been demonstrated – not in the United States but in China. Unlike in the US, where numerous firms feast on fees from handling and processing payments, in China most money flows through mobile phones nearly for free. In 2018 these cashless payments totaled a whopping $41.5 trillion; and 90% were through Alipay and WeChat Pay, a pair of digital ecosystems that blend social media, commerce and banking. According to a May 2018 article in Bloomberg titled “Why China’s Payment Apps Give U.S. Bankers Nightmares”:

The nightmare for the U.S. financial industry is that a technology company—whether from China or a homegrown juggernaut such as Amazon.com Inc. or Facebook Inc.—replicates the success of Alipay and WeChat in America. The stakes are enormous, potentially carving away billions of dollars in annual revenue from major banks and other firms.

That threat may now be materializing. On June 18, Facebook unveiled a white paper outlining ambitious plans to create a new global cryptocurrency called Libra, to be launched in 2020. The New York Times says Facebook has high hopes that Libra will become the foundation for a new financial system free of control by Wall Street power brokers and central banks.

But apparently Libra will not be competing with Visa or Mastercard. In fact, the Libra Association lists those two giants among its 28 soon-to-be founding members. Others include Paypal, Stripe, Uber, Lyft and eBay. Facebook has reportedly courted dozens of financial institutions and other tech companies to join the Libra Association, an independent foundation that will contribute capital and help govern the digital currency. Entry barriers are high, with each founding member paying a minimum of $10 million to join. This gives them one vote  (or 1% of the total vote, whichever is larger)  in the Libra Association council. Members are also entitled to a share proportionate to their investment of the dividends earned from  interest on the Libra reserve – the money that users will pay to acquire the Libra currency.

All of which has raised some eyebrows, both among financial analysts and crypto activists. A Zero Hedge commentator calls Libra “Facebook’s Crypto Trojan Rabbit.” An article in FT’s Alphaville calls it “Blockchain, but Without the Blocks or Chain.” Economist Noriel Roubini concurs, tweeting:

It will start as a private, permissioned, not-trustless, centralized oligopolistic members-only club. So much for calling it “blockchain”. … [I]t is blockchain in name only and a monopoly to extract massive seignorage from billions of users. A monopoly scam.

Another Zero Hedge writer calls Libra “The Dollar’s Killer App,” which threatens “not only the power of central banks but also the government’s money monopoly itself.”

From Frying Pan to Fire?

To the crypto-anarchist community, usurping the power of central banks and governments may sound like a good thing. But handing global power to the corporate-controlled Libra Association could be a greater nightmare. So argues Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, who writes in The Financial Times:

This currency would insert a powerful new corporate layer of monetary control between central banks and individuals. Inevitably, these companies will put their private interests — profits and influence — ahead of public ones. . . .

The Libra Association’s goals specifically say that [they] will encourage “decentralised forms of governance”. In other words, Libra will disrupt and weaken nation states by enabling people to move out of unstable local currencies and into a currency denominated in dollars and euros and managed by corporations. . . .

What Libra backers are calling “decentralisation” is in truth a shift of power from developing world central banks toward multinational corporations and the US Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank.

Power will shift to the Fed and ECB because the dollar and the euro will squeeze out weaker currencies in developing countries. As seen recently in Greece, the result will be to cause their governments to lose control of their currencies and their economies.

Pros and Cons

In a June 9 review in Forbes, Caitlin Long, co-founder of the Wyoming Blockchain Coalition, agreed that Libra was a Trojan horse but predicted that it would have some beneficial effects. For one, she thought it would impose discipline on the US banking system by leading to populist calls to repeal their corporate subsidies. The Fed is now paying its member banks 2.35% in risk-free interest on their excess reserves, which this year is projected to total $36 billion of corporate welfare to US banks – about half the sum spent on the US food stamp program. If Facebook parks its entire US dollar balance at the Federal Reserve through one of its bank partners, it could earn the same rate. But Long predicted that Facebook would have to pay interest to Libra users to avoid a chorus of critics, who would loudly publicize how much money Facebook and its partners were pocketing from the interest on the money users traded for their Libra currency.

But that was before the Libra white paper came out. It reveals that the profits will indeed be divvied among Facebook’s Libra partners rather than shared with users. At one time, we earned interest on our deposits in government-insured banks. With Libra, we will get no interest on our money, which will be entrusted to uninsured crypto exchanges, which are coming under increasing regulatory pressure due to lack of transparency and operational irregularities.

UK economics professor Alistair Milne points to another problem with the Libra cryptocurrency: unlike Bitcoin, it will be a “stablecoin,” whose value will be tied to a basket of fiat currencies and short-term government securities. That means it will need the backing of real money to maintain its fixed price. If reserves do not cover withdrawals, who will be responsible for compensating Libra holders? Ideally, Milne writes, reserves would be held with the central bank; but central banks will be reluctant to support a private currency.

Caitlin Long also predicts that Facebook’s cryptocurrency will be a huge honeypot of data for government officials, since every transaction will be traceable. But other reviewers see this as Libra’s most fatal flaw. Facebook has been called Big Brother, the ultimate government surveillance tool. Conspiracy theorists link it to the CIA and the US Department of Defense. Facebook has already demonstrated that it is an untrustworthy manager of personal data. How then can we trust it with our money?

Why Use a Cryptocurrency at All?

A June 20th CoinDesk article asks why Facebook has chosen to use a cryptocurrency rather than following WeChat and AliPay in doing a global payments network in the traditional way. The article quotes Yan Meng, vice president of the Chinese Software Developer Network, who says Facebook’s fragmented user base across the world leaves it with no better choice than to borrow ideas from blockchain and cryptocurrency.

“Facebook just can’t do a global payments network via traditional methods, which require applying for a license and preparing foreign exchange reserves with local banking, one market after another,” said Meng. “The advantage of WeChat and AliPay is they have already gained a significant number of users from just one giant economy that accounts for 20 percent of the world’s population.” They have no need to establish their own digital currencies, which they still regard as too risky.

Meng suspects that Facebook’s long-term ambition is to become a stateless central bank that uses Libra as a base currency. He wrote in a June 16 article, “With sufficient incentives, nodes of Facebook’s Libra network would represent Facebook to push for utility in various countries for its 2.7 billion users in business, investment, trade and financial services,” which “would help complete a full digital economy empire.”

The question is whether regulators will allow that sort of competition with the central banking system. Immediately after Facebook released its Libra cryptocurrency plan, financial regulators in Europe voiced concerns over the potential danger of Facebook running a “shadow bank.” Maxine Waters, who heads the Financial Services Committee for the US House of Representatives, asked Facebook to halt its development of Libra until hearings could be held. She said:

This is like starting a bank without having to go through any steps to do it. . . . We can’t allow Facebook to go to Switzerland and begin to compete with the dollar without having any regulatory regime that’s dealing with them. 

A Stateless Private Central Bank or a Publicly Accountable One?

Facebook may be competing with more than the dollar. Jennifer Grygiel, Assistant Professor of Communications at Syracuse University, writes:

. . . [It] seems that the company is not seeking to compete with Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies. Rather, Facebook is looking to replace the existing global financial system with an all-new setup, with Libra at its center.

At least at the moment, the Libra is being designed as a form of electronic money linked to many national currencies. That has raised fears that Libra might someday be recognized as a sovereign currency, with Facebook acting as a “shadow bank” that could compete with the central banks of countries around the world.

Caitlin Long thinks Bitcoin rather than Libra will come out the winner in all this; but Bitcoin’s blockchain model is too slow, expensive and energy-intensive to replace fiat currency as a medium of exchange on a national scale. As Josh Constine writes on Techcrunch.com:

[E]xisting cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum weren’t properly engineered to scale to be a medium of exchange. Their unanchored price was susceptible to huge and unpredictable swings, making it tough for merchants to accept as payment. And cryptocurrencies miss out on much of their potential beyond speculation unless there are enough places that will take them instead of dollars . . . . But with Facebook’s relationship with 7 million advertisers and 90 million small businesses plus its user experience prowess, it was well-poised to tackle this juggernaut of a problem.

For Libra to scale as a national medium of exchange, its governance had to be centralized rather than “distributed.” But Libra’s governing body is not the sort of global controller we want. Jennifer Grygiel writes:

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg . . . is declaring that he wants Facebook to become a virtual nation, populated by users, powered by a self-contained economy, and headed by a CEO – Zuckerberg himself – who is not even accountable to his shareholders. . . .

In many ways the company that Mark Zuckerberg is building is beginning to look more like a Roman Empire, now with its own central bank and currency, than a corporation. The only problem is that this new nation-like platform is a controlled company and is run more like a dictatorship than a sovereign country with democratically elected leaders.

A currency intended for trade on a national—let alone international—scale needs to be not only centralized but democratized, responding to the will of the people and their elected leaders. Rather than bypassing the existing central banking structure as Facebook plans to do, several groups of economists are proposing a more egalitarian solution: nationalizing and democratizing the central bank by opening its deposit window to everyone. As explored in my latest book, “Banking on the People: Democratizing Money in the Digital Age,” these proposals could allow us all to get 2.35% on our deposits, while eliminating bank runs and banking crises, since the central bank cannot run out of funds. Profits from the public medium of exchange need to return to the public, rather than enriching an unaccountable, corporate-controlled Facebook Trojan horse.

• This article was first posted under a different title on Truthdig.org.

Venezuela Diary: January 24 to February 23, 2019

Below is a diary, edited slightly for style and clarity, directly from Facebook posts of mine from January 24, 2019 through the culminating day — for now — of Saturday, February 23, 2019 when the US propaganda whirlwind and concerted campaign caught up with the political realities on the ground. Although I have not been a regular user of Facebook, resisting the entreaties of friends, in this period I found it a compelling vehicle to follow, speak out, and get feedback on the Trump Administration-led drive for a military coup and the accompanying propaganda build-up.

Trump and bipartisan Washington have been forced into a political climb-down for now, leaving the Duque and Bolsonaro governments, not to speak of Juan Guaidó, twisting in the wind. Unfortunately, this only slows down Washington’s efforts at regime change. These are fueled by the Venezuelan capitalist economic and financial crisis which is set to deepen considerably with new US sanctions and US seizures of Venezuela’s significant assets in the United States. Venezuela and the United States have broken off diplomatic relations, with Washington recognizing its client Guaidó as the sovereign Venezuelan government.

The month chronicled here is nevertheless a marker not only for Venezuela, but also for the coming period of intensifying social and class polarization and struggles across the Americas, including inside the United States.

*****

January 24

The Donald Trump White House, amid all its other domestic and international crises, is mounting a concerted effort to overthrow the Venezuelan sovereign government. This is Washington’s greatest regime-change effort since the 2002-04 failed coup and the oil bosses and bureaucrats “strike” period.

This takes place amid a devastating economic crisis in Venezuela stemming from a collapse in oil and raw-materials commodity prices in world capitalist markets and US-backed economic sabotage by Venezuela’s capitalist class and large landowners. Trump, Vice-President Pence, and National Security Advisor John Bolton are working with the rightist regime of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and other conservative governments in Latin America to delegitimize and overturn the Nicolas Maduro government. The mass generation of migrants and refugees are disrupting and deepening social and political crises in a number of Latin American governments already reeling from mounting economic and financial crises and political polarization.

These anti-Venezuela policies, despite the otherwise highly contentious polarization of US electoral politics, have broad bipartisan support in both big-business parties in the US. The big-business press in the US has painted a broad canvas of half-truths and disinformation that distorts Venezuelan reality, hoping to create favorable conditions for stepped-up Washington subversion and direct intervention. This effort aims to draft Latin American governments as servile covers and lackeys for Yankee intervention.

Who says there’s never any “bipartisan” agreement in Washington! They all agree on trying to overturn the sovereign Venezuelan government. How to do it, however, is another question. Let’s see how “radical” and courageous Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is when and if she takes a position on the bipartisan assault on Venezuelan sovereignty. Pretty disgusting segment about Venezuela on Chris Hayes’s MSNBC cable show tonight. Towing the Washington line. No mention of any of the massive mobilizations in defense of the Venezuelan government. Some anxiety was expressed about the consequences of US escalation. Barely repressed anger at Mexico for not joining the lynch mob!

January 27, 2019

Any overt US aggression against Venezuela will open up a Hemispheric Pandoras Box of incalculable, unintended consequences for Trump-Bolton-Abrams-Pompeo-Pence, backed, with some anxiety, by 90% of the Democrats in Congress.

The Trump White House and State Department are overplaying a weak political hand. I suspect we will soon see fissures and splits within the bullshit united front of conservative and reactionary LA governments that are lining up as shameless lackeys of Washington.

January 29, 2019

In Venezuela we are seeing the unfolding of a “virtual coup,” that is, Washington – and, so far, it is solidly bipartisan –  is working hard, with full RAH-RAH-RAH from the media oligopolies, to flood the zone with full-throttle propaganda and hope and pray that it becomes the reality. Do they actually believe their bullshit? Some do, some don’t. But the actual reality on the ground is that counter-mobilizations are mounting and there is no dynamic that is about to put Guaidó in power. There is no path right now for Trump and his forward team of Pence, Pompeo, Bolton, and Abrams to carry out military aggression against Venezuela (or Cuba) through either the UN or the OAS. They have the political cover, for now, of an eclectic gang of elected reactionary and conservative governments, but how solid will that be through an actual, overt Yankee aggression, which you can be certain will lead to fierce Venezuelan resistance and a political explosion across the Americas, including in the United States.

12:12 PM

From CNN:

Guaidó also said he had spoken with Donald Trump a number of times…when asked about a possible military option in Venezuela, Guaidó said the US president had told him all options were on the table.

So here you have this guy coordinating with Trump and, you can be sure, all the others (Pence-Pompeo-Bolton-Abrams) on the mechanics, tactics, political viability, etc. for a direct Yankee aggression. And he held up a picture of Simon Bolivar at his “inauguration”!!

5:06 PM

It’s not helpful to view events unfolding in Venezuela and Washington through the subjective prism of one’s “optimism” or “pessimism,” regarding the capacities or limits of the Maduro-PSUV government. Rather we must try to be objective and grasp the class relationship of forces – from within and between both sides. Clearly Washington is openly moving to create the political conditions for an overt act of military aggression, that is, some sort of strike or assault. Can this be avoided through organizing a successful military coup from inside the country? But, if not, and the Venezuelan military and top officer corps and soldiers defend the Maduro government, then any direct US military strike (in coordination with the Colombian military at least logistically) means a clash with the Venezuelan military. It is necessary to try and think through what the political consequences of that will be – in the Americas and in the world.

Morally this a first-class imperialist monstrosity, but as someone who lived through and struggled against the Reagan-era bipartisan US government crimes and lies…What else is new?

January 30

When controlled forces are set in motion, uncontrolled forces are also unleashed.

— Frederick Engels

Because the Trump White House, Bolsonaro’s already-off-to-a-difficult-start government in Brazil, the Duque regime in Colombia (already trying to distance itself from Bolton’s “note-pad” provocation about US troops in the country) and their lackeys in the Canadian and EU governments have not created the political (or logistical) conditions for a US-led invasion or a US-organized direct military assault, they are striving hard to do so through a ubiquitous, but IMO, pretty crude and non-resonating, propaganda and even psychological warfare effort.

Canadian imperialism and the EU capitalist bloc have put aside for the moment their fierce trade and tariff battles and wide-ranging “geopolitical” clashes (Iran, climate change) to present a touching display of advanced capitalist unity for “democracy” and “human rights” in Venezuela, that is, in Marxist translation: a campaign to bring into power a reliable and pliable neocolonial dependency in Venezuela (which BTW has a lot of oil!). Of course, within them and between them, they have large tactical and political differences on what to do next in Venezuela or what comes after they do what they don’t yet agree to do.

It seems as if the Maduro government is taking some serious steps to politically burst the Guaidó balloon. Every day shows Guaidó to be a stooge and front for Trump and his four little piggies  (Pence-Bolton-Pompeo-Abrams) in particular and Washington in general. He is openly coordinating with them as he doesn’t even bother to hide. The situation is demanding radical economic, financial, social, and political measures to defend the nation’s sovereignty and the rights and space for the working class.

February 3

Just finished a very “party-line” article in today’s New York Times which painted an egregiously one-sided account of yesterday’s mass mobilizations of the opposition in Venezuela, while relegating to an afterthought or footnote the mass counter-mobilizations in defense of national sovereignty  and against Yankee intervention. Guaidó has openly sided with Trump’s offensive and the Times interviews at the opposition mobilization (which remain confined to affluent neighborhoods) portray a clamoring for deliverance by the US government and military by any means necessary, preferably a military coup. No one should doubt for a nanosecond that this would not lead to massacres of workers and socialists. Very democratically carried out, of course!

I maintain that the class-political relationship of forces remains far short of what is needed to carry out a military coup (although you can be sure US agents are seriously on the ground in Venezuela, Colombia, and Brazil working overtime on logistics, bribery, and every means of subversion in their considerable arsenal to facilitate a coup) let alone a direct US-Colombian-Brazilian military strike or assault.

The reports and videos I’m reading and seeing point to growing mobilizations on the side of the Maduro government and a definite diplomatic muddle, especially in the Americas and the UN, that has slowed down and created political obstacles to a Trump-Bolton war drive, which Trump is fulminating over with a weak political hand in the US and internationally.

I think the most likely scenario is a short-term political semi-debacle for Washington. But again this poses sharply the need for radical financial, economic, and social measures to stop and reverse the economic depression in Venezuela.

February 4

Reading the New York Times page 1 long article by Ernesto Londono (whose articles and editorials in the Times several years ago were influential in the shift and retreat, under Obama, to freeing the remaining Cuban 5 revolutionaries, restoring Washington-Havana diplomatic relations, and removing Cuba from the bullshit terrorism list) on Juan Guaidó, it struck me that if propaganda alone could change the course of events and history, then this article would do the trick.

For all the shilling and pumping and polishing, Londono cannot simply write Guaidó into the Miraflores Palace.

The operative part of the fawning piece – a day-in-the-life of the dashing young “democratic” “anti-authoritarian” “right-man-for-the-right-moment” who is about to take a call from none other than…wait for the drum role…Justin Trudeau…how thrilling! – is this more sobering passage:

Oil sanctions imposed by the United States last week will soon strangle the country’s already-devastated economy, which will likely cause shortages of fuel and make food and medicine even more scarce.

Bracing for the destabilizing effects of the sanctions, Mr. Guaidó and his allies in the international community said they intended to start pumping humanitarian aid into the country this week. Doing so would undermine Mr. Maduro, who recently scoffed at the prospect by saying ‘We’re not a nation of beggars.”

Mr. Guaidó and his allies see the coming week, and the arrival of aid, as a potential make-or-break moment for a movement that has stirred hope for millions of Venezuelans, but has yet to take steps that meaningfully improve their lives.

Like I said, if spin and propaganda alone were enough to catapult Guaidó into power, then articles like this would suffice.

There is a particularly ominous paragraph in Londono’s dispatch that points to the extremely high stakes at hand for the workers’ movement and socialist-minded Venezuelans – consciously many, many millions of people – if Washington and its Venezuelan lackeys drive through a military coup or, through a US-led invasion, install a pro-Washington regime:

Even if the armed forces were to throw their weight behind Mr. Guaidó, which would almost certainly spell the end of Mr. Maduro’s reign, Mr. Guaidó said he was worried about the actions of the paramilitary forces that would likely to stay loyal to Mr. Maduro.

‘We cannot allow that to proliferate,’ he said, drawing a parallel with the struggle neighboring Colombia has faced from guerrilla and paramilitary groups over the years. ‘It could portend very serious consequences, even in the short term.’

Clearly Washington and Guaidó anticipate that a serious bloodletting will be necessary. The social and class forces that would post-coup hold unfettered “executive” power in Venezuela have been thirsting for revenge for the limits placed on their class prerogatives by the hated Chavistas for 20 years. And once these things get rolling the dynamic is unstoppable for a definite period while the blood of the workers and the oppressed flows freely; e.g., China 1927, Spain 1938, Indonesia 1964, Chile 1973 and so on.

February 6

As push comes to shove in Venezuela, the inability of Trump and his team on point – Pence, Pompeo, Bolton, and Abrams – to force the collapse of the Maduro government through propaganda and the forging of a (very shaky) united front of the most developed capitalist states (the former lords of a once-colonized world) is apparent.

A military coup greased with copious amounts of Yankee cash has not materialized so far. Recent pro-Yankee, pro-military coup mobilizations in Venezuela have been smaller and more confined to affluent neighborhoods. Counter-mobilizations are growing and appeals to national sovereignty are resonating.

The exposure of open coordination between Guaidó and the Trump White House is shaking up Latin American politics and class polarization in Venezuela.

Of course, the point now for Washington is to “turn the screws” and “make the economy howl” (as Nixon and Kissinger put it in the period leading to the 1973 coup in Chile). And to dangle “humanitarian aid” as a cover for military intervention in the service of a military coup that would necessarily be exceedingly bloody and brutal.

The Maduro government has inconveniently refused to capitulate and even accurately pointed out that direct US (with or without Colombian partnership) military intervention will meet military and popular resistance and a potential “Vietnam in Latin America.”

Therefore, we are starting to see a shift in the tone in leading bourgeois mouthpieces such as the New York Times towards the “negotiations” track as a way to achieve their goal of replacing Maduro with a more reliable and pliable government in place in Venezuela. They seem to think this can clear the obstacles to profitable investments and ramping up production in a privatized and capitalized oil industry there. And be a new base, with Brazil, Colombia (and Argentina if Macri holds on) to carry out a continental neoliberal anti-working class austerity assault and bury the “Left Keynesian” legacy of the so-called “pink tide.” Military threats are always “on the table” as a permanent factor in bipartisan Washington’s political goal of consolidating its political and economic position in Latin America, Central America, and the Caribbean after a period of political retreat.

Anyway…that is what Trump and almost all Democratic elected officials want. What they will get is class struggle, the rise of continental national liberation consciousness, and social revolution.

More and more Washington and the big-business media lapdogs are trying to frame the situation in terms of “geopolitical” lineups and intrigue and the narrative of the benevolent “democratic West” against demonic Russia, authoritarian China, Iran, Turkey, and, let’s never forget the “source of the problem” (as Reagan’s Pompeo-Bolton, one Alexander Haig, put in in the 1980s when Washington grappled with a revolutionary upsurge in Central America) revolutionary and socialist Cuba. This is a cover, a framing they are more comfortable with. They are, as Ho Chi Minh put it, “throwing dust in your eyes.”

February 10

I have to say that this anti-Venezuela operation is one of the most poorly rolled out and tactically inept coup attempts in memory. Guaidó has (rather stupidly on his part I think) brazenly identified himself with Trump and is openly coordinating with Yankee power. He even says he is considering “authorizing” US military intervention. This does not help him inside Venezuela or in Latin America.

Already one unintended consequence seems to be giving a boost to militant workers and Chavista cadres in economically devastated barrios to defend national sovereignty and counter-mobilize. Pompeo, Bolton, and Abrams evidently thought that by now they would have split the Venezuelan army and won decisive elements to commit to the violent movement of troops to seize Miraflores and arrest or kill Maduro. That didn’t happen. Perhaps they thought the barrage of sophistry and one-sided propaganda would cause the Maduro government to melt down and surrender. That also hasn’t happened.

It seems apparent that whatever momentum Washington was manufacturing has now slowed down, although they did put together a shaky front of Latin American conservative governments, Trudeau in Canada,, and some European governments together to endorse helicoptering Guaidó, a protégé of the violent, coup veteran Leopoldo Lopez, into power. They are left with tightening sanctions to the point of forcing real hunger and starvation or an actual invasion. The first would be a political disaster and I don’t think they are ready for the second.

The Venezuelan working class must now use this time to get production and distribution going. Food production must be increased. Real land reform would point to this imperative.

February 13

I understand Trump and Colombian President Duque are meeting today. I imagine accompanying meetings with Pence, Pompeo, Bolton, and Abrams will take place. I’d sure like to be a bug on those walls.

Their discussions will undoubtedly lead to some public bombast against Venezuela and Cuba, but in reality they have to manage a shift and retreat flowing from facts such as Maduro’s survival, the strength of working-class counter-mobilizations, the fiasco of their “humanitarian aid” campaign which is viewed disdainfully by UN bodies, and the growing jitteriness of their NATO allies who voluntarily were strong-armed all aboard the Yankee Intervention Express against sovereign Venezuela. I would also add the modest but growing protests in the US and worldwide. These would mushroom if there were an overt move of US aggression with a coup attempt.

February 14

Today’s New York Times has a piece on what is shaping up as an unfolding US political debacle around the so-called “humanitarian aid” supposedly waiting “delivery” at a Colombian-Venezuelan border. Despite the Times  reporter’s best effort to spin around the obvious, it’s clear that this was not working  politically for Washington, Guaidó, or the right-wing Duque government in Colombia. They can’t seem to find any reputable NGO-charity to collaborate with them. The International Red Cross, the UN, and the Catholic Church charity Caritas are all declining to be identified with the US political campaign under the State Department’s Agency for International Development. Actually they all feel rather insulted by it. “We will not be participating in what is, for us, not humanitarian aid,” stated Colombia’s International Red Cross spokesperson.

The Times reports:

[The opposition’s] goal was to bring the supplies into Venezuela, forcing a confrontation with Mr. Maduro, who has refused to help. This would cast Mr. Maduro in a bad light, opposition leaders said, and display their ability to set up a government-like relief system in a nation where the crumbling economy has left many starving, sick, and without access to medicine.

But there was no dramatic confrontation.

Instead Mr. Maduro’s administration erected a crude, but effective blockade across the border bridge with Colombia. The move brought the relief effort to a halt, and left the opposition and its leader, Juan Guaidó, at a standstill, aware that each passing day dampens its considerable momentum toward winning the trust of Venezuelans and the recognition of other governments. A delay could also mean reverting back to the status quo, in which Mr. Maduro retains control.

Every day it becomes clearer that Trump’s Washington gang, with Pelosi’s backing, has run into political and logistical obstacles that is creating – only some, and only for now!) time and space for the Maduro government and Venezuelan working-class fighters to begin to take the offensive politically against coup supporters and, more importantly, to implement the radical measures to contain and reverse the economic, food, and medicine crises.

Imperialism will be unrelenting even as it is forced to reel itself back some.

February 17

When it comes to Venezuela coverage in the New York Times and the entirety of the national media oligopolies, one must develop skills of “reading between the lines.” Whatever useful facts that are there have to be extracted carefully like gold from river sand.

Today’s Times piece is put on page 13 and is focused on the “humanitarian aid” scheme that is, as the author Ernesto Londono puts it, the “cornerstone of the quest to oust President Nicolas Maduro.” The article registers, in its smarmy way, the mounting political crisis of US policy under Trump (backed by Nancy Pelosi).

It seems evident that this “cornerstone,” actually the spearhead to create the political and logistical conditions for direct military aggression as a necessary lever for a military coup, is not working out so well so far. In fact, it has the makings of a political debacle. (That is BTW why the article is on page 13; you can be certain it would be front page if the overall campaign were advancing more smoothly.)

So the Times now has to rationalize this deteriorating political reality on the ground, that is: 1. The Maduro government has not surrendered to the US-led campaign to murder it and put in a pro-US neocolonial regime headed by Guaidó; 2. The Venezuelan army in general, and the officer corps in particular, have not moved to coordinate with Washington and Bogota to take power in a coup (a coup that would necessarily be an exceedingly bloody affair, that would immediately have to carry out massive repression). In fact, the Venezuelan army is on high alert and mobilizing at key crossings along the Colombian border to counter US-Colombian provocations.

Anyone who thinks this Keystone Cops effort at violent regime change can be successfully implemented in Venezuela relying on psychological warfare; over-the-top propaganda overflowing with world-class hypocrisy; or photo ops and unctuous words of concern from a US government that humiliates and brutalizes refugees and children fleeing US-propped up gangster regimes in Honduras and Guatemala, has no grip on the realities of Venezuelan and Latin American politics for the last 20 years.

So how does the Times explain this self-made unfolding political crisis facing the Trump Administration and the foolish lackeys they have dragged behind them – from the Lima Group to the shameful posture of Trudeau and Freeland in Canada, the hanging-on-by-its-fingernails Tory government in the UK, the hated Macron government in France, and other EU governments and NATO allies who have touchingly put aside their clashes over trade and tariffs, climate change, and relations with Iran to “unite” and gang up on Venezuela.

I don’t think this is going to end well politically for any of them.

The “chief reason” Londono reports for the failure to oust Maduro in a military coup “is the enormous amount of money the country’s more than 2,000 generals stand to lose in a post-Maduro era,’ Adm. Craig S. Faller, the head of the United States Southern Command, said in an interview.”

Faller is in Rio de Janiero in Brazil meeting and coordinating regime-change efforts with his “counterparts” from the Jair Bolsonaro regime.

The Times then allows Faller to assert and repeat old US slanders that predate Trump that, “There are a lot of generals and a lot of leaders on Maduro’s illicit payroll through illicit drug trafficking, money laundering, and any number of businesses in the oil industry. Maduro has bought their loyalty.”

Furthermore, “The United States military has concluded that more than 1,000 Cuban military and intelligence advisers, working with the Russian government, have been instrumental in keeping the top echelons of the Venezuelan military loyal to Maduro,” Faller pulls out of his hat.

Now we know for sure that Washington and its agents on the ground have endless amounts of cash, privileges, condos in Miami, and all manner of blandishments to buy off and corrupt these generals that are supposedly already mired in drug trafficking, money laundering, and private profit-taking from oil and other businesses. Does the Maduro government, dealing with economic depression, have deeper pockets to buy “loyalty” than the US government, its vast intelligence apparatus flush with cash, or private US capital drooling at the prospect of the good-old-days before Chavez, especially in oil.

These obvious rationalizations are really pathetic. If Washington and its regional lackeys make the decision to provoke some incident at the border under the pretext of delivering aid to “starving” Venezuelan people, then I hope at least some “advisers” are telling the Trump “team” that the Venezuelan army and working people will fight and fight hard. Washington will learn again that it is easier to start a war than to escape its political consequences and get out of it.

February 18

February 23 is set up as the day Guaidó has promised to “deliver” the phony “humanitarian aid” across Venezuela’s sovereign borders by land and sea. We also know from Cuban and other reports that the US government is moving military forces around the region and, in any case, Washington already has military bases inside Colombia. So we will see on Saturday, February 23 how much of the “line” between provocation and actual military aggression will be crossed….

February 19

Trump gave an extremely bellicose and threatening speech in Miami yesterday as part of the propaganda buildup to this Saturday’s Yankee-Guaidó promise to “deliver” the “humanitarian aid” that is the cover and spearhead for military provocation aimed at setting in motion a dynamic leading to the collapse of the Maduro-PSUV government. The speech ratcheted up considerably direct threats against revolutionary Cuba.

The speech doubled down on the Trump-Bolton “strategy” that seems to think it can just huff-and-puff and scare the Venezuelan government and working people into surrender. But today’s New York Times article makes clear that for all the threats and bluster, particularly aimed at the Venezuelan military officer corps, the political obstacles to translating this stunt into actual regime change and a military coup, are, if anything, deepening.

The Times piece sums up the Trump gang’s “logic:”

If Mr. Maduro’s stranglehold on the food and medicine supply can be broken, and he can be shown to have lost control of the border, his legitimacy as the country’s president will weaken, the reasoning goes. If the military can be convinced to not stand between the Venezuelan population and the humanitarian aid, he may fall.

Trump has no partners for this border stunt among legitimate humanitarian aid organizations such as the International Red Cross or UN bodies.

The Times piece continues:

On the Venezuelan side, the government has amassed soldiers, militiamen, armored vehicles, and even missiles. On the Colombian side sit news camera crews and trucks full of supplies. Richard Branson, the British billionaire, has invited a lineup of Latin American musicians to perform an aid concert on Friday night.

The Trump-led “strategy” has boxed Washington into a political corner where they must either push forward and carry out reckless military adventurism or manage a climb-down and retreat that gives the Maduro-PSUV government time and space to organize genuine international aid and supplies (which is already happening); further isolate Washington politically in Latin America where anti-Yankee intervention actions are starting. Political pressure is bound to increase on the “Lima Group” governments collaborating with Washington.

At any rate, bloodcurdling speeches against “socialism” and promises to create a Hemisphere “free of socialism” to the Gusano International in Miami will not do the trick!

February 21

Important piece in today’s Financial Times. Propaganda slant and buzzwords aside, it shows that military and popular resistance to Yankee-led provocations on the border is being organized, mobilized, and deployed on the ground (and on the seas).

On this 54th Anniversary of his assassination:

Long Live the Memory, Ideas, and Example of Brother Malcolm X!

February 22 9:00 AM

The countdown is beginning for the Saturday weekend political confrontation between Washington and its allies, including the pro-imperialist opposition inside Venezuela, and the Venezuelan government and its allies. Events are unfolding concretely in real time. What is shaping up is bound to be a turning point not only in Venezuela but across the Caribbean, Central America, and Latin America. The direction and dynamics of bipartisan US policy – and its suppressed fissure lines within and between Democrats and Republicans – is being posed sharply with these events and what happens this weekend on the ground.

From today’s Washington Post:

Maduro on Thursday ordered the closure of the border with Brazil and weighed sealing the border with Colombia…as his government scrambled to respond to the planned Saturday operation. Venezuela’s National Institute of Civil Aviation issued an order grounding private jet traffic nationwide. Commercial flights were still operating, though Air France said it would cancel flights to Caracas through Monday, given the heightened tensions.

US bellicose threats are mounting. Admiral Craig Faller, head of the US Southern Command blustered, “This message is for the Venezuelan military: You will ultimately be responsible for your actions. Do the right thing. Save your country and your people.”

Faller was just repeating Trump’s arrogant threats to the Venezuelan officer corps and did so after meeting with the leader of Colombia’s armed forces. Meanwhile, the conservative Colombian government appears to be trying to distance themselves from US military intervention to facilitate a military coup. And there is just no way Washington can carry such a scheme off without the intimate coordination of Colombia and Brazil. This is a big problem for Trump and Pelosi’s Washington.

Another big problem politically is the opposition of credible large-scale international humanitarian aid organizations to the US State Department’s shameful provocation obviously tied to regime change.

From the Washington Post:

“In an apparent bid to counter international criticism of turning away the aid – provided by the United States and other countries advocating for Maduro’s ouster – Maduro’s vice president Delcy Rodriguez, said the government on Thursday a list of medicines the country needed for ‘humanitarian assistance.’ Maduro also announced that 7.5 tons of medical supplies had arrived Thursday from Russia and the Pan American Health Organization.”

Additionally, I’ve read that China is also part of the real humanitarian aid effort with many more tons in the pipelines. Cuba is, of course, strongly involved in the overall effort. All of this aid will be handled by legitimate aid organizations who are on the ground inside Venezuela.

10:51 AM

Just saw a hopelessly one-sided report on CNN shamelessly parroting the US propaganda line on Venezuela under the cover of crocodile tears over the reality that the Maduro government seems to have effectively countered the Yankee moves over the “delivery” of the State Department’s “humanitarian aid.”

These mouthpieces of US imperialism would have us believe that the US government that expedited mass murder, starvation, and cholera for civilians in Yemen; that brutalizes refugees from Central America that are seeking humanitarian and political asylum as they flee US-backed and sustained gangster neocolonial states; that has supported every blood-soaked tyranny in the Americas since before I was born (and I’m an old man!)…that THIS TIME they really care.

11:17 AM

The Trump State Department’s bogus humanitarian aid of supposedly “$20 million” contrasts with the devastating effects of the latest US sanctions and seizures of Venezuelan assets that will dwarf many times over the alleged $20 million. It reminds me of a recurrent tactic of Cocaine King Pablo Escobar who would dedicate a hospital somewhere out of his huge drug trafficking profits to show what a great humanitarian and philanthropist he was! I wonder if he had a wing or two set aside for drug addicts.

10:53 PM

The Trump State Department has dispatched veteran war criminal Elliot Abrams to the Colombian border to “support the delivery of humanitarian aid to some of the most vulnerable people in Venezuela in response to Interim President Guaido’s request.” The Washington Post writes: “Abrams spoke to a crowd near the border Friday, promising that the Maduro government would eventually fall.” (my emphasis)

The Post also quoted a veteran US Latin American diplomat who worried about the Trump gangs “impatience.” She said, “It isn’t happening fast enough for them, there aren’t enough defections…”

“Eventually” sounds like Abrams is conceding that it will not be anytime soon. Abrams may end up as Wile E. Coyote (for those too young to remember the Road Runner cartoon reference look it up on YouTube).

Here we go!

Saturday, February 23

First conclusions from Saturday’s clashes:

The Colombian army did not accompany the US State Department “humanitarian aid” across the border and thereby avoided clashes with the Venezuelan army. Of course, they have allowed the whole Yankee circus to be staged from their territory. The same for the Brazilian army.

The political failure of the US border exercise supervised by “commanders” Rubio and Abrams on the ground was deepened by their inability to get backing or collaboration from any reputable international aid groups. They got denounced instead.

From the February 23 New York Times: “Getting the aid in would be a symbolic victory and signal Mr. Maduro’s loosening grip on power.” They expected Maduro to surrender. Now they will settle for a “loosening grip.”

“Despite a handful of defections, the country’s National Guard has so far not deserted Mr. Maduro en masse as the opposition had hoped.” They hoped?!

In an online update the Times later reported:

As the day progressed, some of the humanitarian aid pierced Mr. Maduro’s blockade – one truck got through on a remote section of the border with Brazil – but most of it did not. And although a few members of the security forces defected, Mr. Guaido’s hope [there’s that eternally springing hope again] that the armed forces would step aside and even join his flag-waving supporters did not come to pass.

How utterly pathetic! One truck got through on a remote section of the border with Brazil!! That should become very interesting when the vehicle runs low on gas.

This is political humiliation and logistical fiasco. Clearly the Duque and Bolsonaro governments are nowhere near ready to use their armies to accompany Guaidó’s US-backed staged adventurism on the borders.

And, leaving this debacle in the hands of Rubio and Abrams, Trump is heading off to the beautiful city of Hanoi, capital of a unified, independent Vietnam, for a much anticipated meeting with North Korean (DPRK) leader Kim Jong Un. The only way he can bring anything – in terms of actual nuclear weapons dismantling – that he can present-spin as a personal “victory” from the DPRK would be to ease US sanctions (and maybe sign a formal peace treaty to great fanfare legally ending the Korean War). Trump is being pressured to do so by both Koreas as well as China. It is what the North has said all along must happen for them to “denuclearize.” But the idea that while all of this is going on, with huge international stakes, he is going to be able to rely on Colombia, Brazil, and Juan Guaidó to go to WAR against a mobilizing Venezuelan army and popular militia forces just does not compute at this point.

This particular imperialist campaign to put in power a neocolonial government that will crush the Chavistas, break with revolutionary, socialist Cuba, and open up the oil industry to US and private capital – the most serious effort since 2002-04 – has failed and if you read this morning’s Times clearly the momentum and dynamics has shifted away from Trump and his agents and lackeys. For now.

Guaido is now stewing in Colombia. Trump is headed to Hanoi. Pence is meeting with Duque to assess the debacle. Rubio and Abrams are in command of a few truck parks. And Maduro is addressing mass anti-coup mobilizations and is likely to be politically rewarded.

Time and space have been gained by the PSUV government to get genuine humanitarian aid flowing on a mass scale – which has begun – and, concurrently, to carry out radical and decisive social and economic measures to stem and reverse the economic crisis and the deepening effects of US sanctions and seizures of Venezuelan state assets in the United States.

The Attack on Facebook is not for our Benefit

It’s some achievement to get me sympathising with Mark Zuckerberg. But denunciations from a powerful combination of a parliamentary committee in the UK and self-appointed watchdogs of the new media like the Guardian almost managed it.

The digital, culture, media and sport select committee finally published a damning report into Facebook after an 18-month investigation, as reported today by the Guardian.

The solutions demanded by the committee, however, are intended not to make Facebook and new media more accountable, as the report claims, but to reassert the dominance of the British state in surveilling the public and revive the declining fortunes of the more trusted old media corporations, the Guardian very much included.

And lurking behind it all is the terror of the political-media class at the spread of a new kind of political insurgency – a rejection of the current status quo for war and neoliberal pillage – given voice on new media platforms that is readily dismissed, by both the committee and the Guardian, as “fake news”.

What is really at issue becomes clear the moment one starts to unpick the report. It intentionally conflates three entirely different problems, muddling them together to win support for all three.

The aim is to hammer Facebook into submission, not for our benefit – as is desperately needed – but so that the state and media establishment can “take back control”.

Let’s look at the report’s conclusions.

First, it rightly accuses Facebook of being “digital gangsters”, harvesting private information so that it can be sold. Facebook, the committee warns, has been monetising our private lives.

“Facebook continues to choose profit over data security, taking risks in order to prioritise their aim of making money from user data,” the report states.

It hardly needs pointing out that Facebook is a for-profit company that specialises in accumulating information, the details of our lives we willingly hand over.

It was inevitable that a global company providing a digital platform for sharing information between friends would get greedy and share that same information privately with those who wish to exploit us, whether commercially or politically.

Until data-sharing companies arose, the state and its security services had a near-monopoly on such covert surveillance. Think of all those CCTV cameras dotted along the high street. Or watch an episode of TV show The Hunted, where former police officers quickly hunt down members of the public on the run.

The parliamentary report sounds much less like a clarion call for our privacy to be respected than a threat to Facebook from the establishment over such information being spread around too much.

Because when this kind of data becomes too accessible, you risk unpredictable outcomes, like a Dominic Cummings using it to engineer victory in the Brexit referendum. And who knows, if this carries on, one day the Scottish nationalists might find a way to win independence from London rule.

Second, the committee is exercised by the fact that Facebook has created “market dominance” for itself to “crush rivals” and is “shutting them out of its systems to prevent them from competing with Facebook or its subsidiaries”.

Hmm, doesn’t that sound exactly like what companies are supposed to do in our neoliberal capitalist societies? After all, if we turn our attention to the old media for a moment, hasn’t Rupert Murdoch been allowed to create “market dominance”? Doesn’t he seek to “crush rivals”? Don’t all large companies try to “shut out” competitors? Why is it so bad only when Zuckerberg, does it?

Or is this not really about “market dominance”, but about a young upstart social media corporation replicating the economic models of the old media giants and nudging them into the long grass?

The problem is not that Facebook has market dominance, but that our economies are nowadays premised solely on the idea that a tiny number of corporations gain market dominance. Let’s challenge that idea, not single out Facebook.

Third, we get to the nub of what this is all about. The giveaway is in the report’s remit, as explained by the Guardian: it was set up in response to concerns “about the influence of false information and its ability to spread unscrutinised on social media”. Or as the paper describes it more pithily elsewhere, the committee was investigating “disinformation and fake news”.

The goal here is not just to ensure that the state regains control over our private information and that the old media regain their commercial  advantage.

More importantly still, the goal is that both get to control the political agenda, the ideological narrative. All that fearmongering about “Kremlin bots” and “fake news” on social media is designed to curtail dissidents voices, those who demur from the centrist – warmongering, planet-destroying, neoliberal – consensus.

The critical left – anything to the left of the Blairites, including Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn – are being presented as politically toxic as the white-supremacist right. Both are viewed as equally a threat, as evidence of a dangerous populism, as the wild weeds sown by “fake news”.

The committee report is simply the latest hammer blow against the new media, with Facebook most prominent, to bring it into line, to fully subordinate it to the traditional political and media class.

Tom Watson, the Labour party’s deputy leader, and the man best placed to stab Corbyn in the back should the right moment arrive, is not even shy of making that clear: “If one thing is uniting politicians of all colours during this difficult time for our country, it is our determination to bring him [Zuckerberg] and his company into line.”

Facebook, of course, has no ideological objections to complying. It does not care about freedom of speech, or pluralism, only about its image and market position.

Karim Palant, the company’s UK public policy manager, happily responded: “We are open to meaningful regulation and support the committee’s recommendation for electoral law reform.”

What holds it back from full compliance is not the damage that will be inflicted on our political freedoms from a crackdown on dissident views, or “fake news”, but the the economic pain it will incur if it hands back control of the digital data it has amassed.

Losing Users: Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook Problems

His detractors and enemies have been waiting some time for this, but it must have given them moments of mild cheer.  Facebook, the all-gazing, accumulating system of personal profiles and information, poster child, in fact, of surveillance capitalism, is losing users. At the very least, it is falling to that mild phenomenon in business speak called “flat-lining”, a deceptively benign term suggesting that the fizz is going out of the product.

This week, Mark Zuckerberg has been more humble than usual.  The latest figures show that 1.49 billion users hop on the platform daily; monthly active users come in at 2.27 billion.  While both figures are increases from previous metrics, these fall shy of those bubbly estimates Facebook loves forecasting: 1.51 billion in the former; 2.29 billion in the latter.  “We’re well behind YouTube”, he observed; in “developed countries”, Zuckerberg conceded that his company was probably reaching saturation.  While security features of Facebook had improved, there was at least another twelve months before the standard was, in his view, up to scratch.

The user market in North America is flat, while in Europe, FB has experienced a loss of 3 million daily active users.  The process was already underway after 2015.  The moment your grandparents start using a communications product with teenage enthusiasm, it’s time for a swift, contrarian change. But social media, as with other forms of communication, is a matter of demographics and class.

YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat have been beating down doors and making off with users.  A May study from the Pew Research Centre found that half of US teens between the ages of 13 and 17 claim to use Facebook.  But YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat are bullishly ahead with usage figures of 85, 72 and 69 percent respectively. To locus of this move is as much in the type of technology being used as behavioural change, with 95 percent of teens claiming to have access to a smartphone. A mind slushing statistic stands out: of those, 45 percent are online constantly in numb inducing ecstasy.

The company, in an effort to plug various deficiencies in the operating systems, has been busy hiring content moderators, a point that has not gone unnoticed by users.  This, in and of itself, is a flawed exercise, and one imposed upon the company in an effort of moralised policing.  Various legislatures and parliaments have gotten itchy in passing legislation obligating Facebook and similar content sharers to remove hate speech, extremist subject matter and state-sponsored propaganda.  (Where, pray, is that line ever drawn?).

This raises a jurisdictional tangle suggesting that local parliaments and courts are getting ahead of themselves in gnawing away at the extra-territorial nature of tech giants.  This year, a German law was passed requiring social media companies to remove illegal, racist or slanderous content within 24 hours after being flagged by users or face fines to the tune of $57 million.  Such legislation, while localised in terms of jurisdiction, has international consequences.  Content otherwise permitted by the US First Amendment will have to be removed for offending regulations in another country.

This is a far from academic speculation.  Canada’s Supreme Court in June last year ruled that Google had to remove search results pertaining to certain pirated products.  The natural consequence of this was a universal one.  “The internet has no borders – its natural habitat is global,” claimed the trite observation from the majority.  “The only way to ensure that the interlocutory injunction attained its objective was to have it apply where Google operates – globally.”

This precipitated a legal spat that proceeded to involve a Californian decision handed down by Judge Edward J. Davila, who turned his nose up at the Canadian judiciary’s grant of the interlocutory injunction.  To expect companies such as Google to remove links to third-party material menaced “free speech on the global internet.”  The emergence of a “splinternet” – one where online content is permissible in one country and not another – has been given a dramatic shove.  Police, in other words, or be damned.

By the end of September, an army of some 33,000 labouring souls were retained by Facebook for the onerous task of sifting, assessing and removing errant content.  But this whole task has come with its own pitfalls, a preoccupation of danger and emotional disturbance.  Those recruited have become content warriors with a need for a strong constitution, a point that has presented Zuckerberg with yet another problem.

Former moderator Selena Scola, who worked at Facebook from June 2017 till March this year, has gone so far as to sue the company for post-traumatic stress disorder after witnessing content depicting graphic violence “from her cubicle in Facebook’s Silicon Valley offices”.  Scola, through her legal counsel, claims that the company did not create a safe environment, instead working upon the practice of having a “revolving door of contractors”.  Moderators, according to the legal suit, are “bombarded” with “thousands of videos, images and livestreamed broadcasts of child sexual abuse, rape, torture, bestiality, beheadings, suicide and murder.”

Facebook ushered in a remarkable form of dysfunction between users, and the actual platform of communication.  This is very much in the spirit of a concept that lends itself to a hollowed variant of friendship, one based on appropriation, marketing and a somewhat voyeuristic format.  If you can’t make friends in the flesh, as Zuckerberg struggled to do, create facsimiles of friendship, their ersatz equivalents.  And most of all, place the incentive of generating revenue and profiles upon them.  Facebook is not merely there for those who use it but for those who feel free to be used.  This point is all too readily missed by the political classes.

Facebook makes everyone a practitioner, and creator, of surveillance, and anybody with a rudimentary understanding of totalitarian societies would know what that does to trust.  Split personalities and hived forms of conduct manifest themselves.  Unhealthily, then, the number of users globally is still increasing, even if it is dropping in specific parts of the world.  Much like the Catholic Church, reliance is placed upon the developing world to supply new pools of converts.

Zuckerberg’s company faces investigations from the European Union, the FBI, the FTC, the SEC and the US Department of Justice.  Such moves are not necessarily initiated out of altruism; there is the prevailing fear that such a platform is all too readily susceptible to manipulation (the horror, it seems, of misinformation, as if this was ever a new issue).  Fake ads can still be readily purchased; campaigns economic with the facts can still be run and organised on its pages.  But to attribute blame to Facebook for a tendency as ancient as politics is another distortion.  Not even Zuckerberg can be blamed for that.

The Root of the Internet’s Disrepute

In all the mounting media coverage of problems with the Internet, such as invasion of privacy, vulnerability to hacking, political manipulation, and user addiction, there is one constant: online advertising. Online advertising is the lifeblood of Google, Facebook, and many other Internet enterprises that profit by providing personal data to various vendors. Moreover, the move of tens of billions of dollars from conventional print and broadcast media continues, with devastating impacts, especially on print newspapers and magazines.

But does online advertising work for consumers? The Internet was once considered a less commercial medium. But today consumers are inundated with targeted ads, reviews, comments, friends’ reactions, and other digital data.  Unfortunately for advertisers, consumers are not intentionally clicking on online ads in big numbers.

Google’s search ads tackle people when they search for a product or service. A controlled study by eBay research labs in 2014 concluded that Google was greatly exaggerating the effectiveness of such ads—at least those bought by eBay. eBay’s researchers concluded that “More frequent users whose purchasing behavior is not influenced by ads account for most of the advertising expenses, resulting in average returns that are negative.” This is the “I-was-gonna-buy-it-anyway problem,” says an article in the Atlantic.

The Atlantic notes:

Whether all advertising—online and off—is losing its persuasive punch…Think about how much you can learn about products today before seeing an ad. Comments, user reviews, friends’ opinions, price-comparison tools…they’re much more powerful than advertising because we consider them information rather than marketing. The difference is enormous: We seek information, so we’re more likely to trust it; marketing seeks us, so we’re more likely to distrust it.

Some companies like Coca-Cola have cooled on using online advertising. But advertising revenues keep growing for Google, Facebook, and the other giants of the Internet. These companies are racing to innovate, connecting ads to more tailored audiences, which tantalize and keeps hope springing eternal for the advertisers. The Internet ad sellers also provide detailed data to advertise themselves to the advertisers staying one step ahead of growing skepticism. This is especially a problem when there is inadequate government regulation of deceptive advertising. It is the Wild West! Online advertising revenues are the Achilles’ heel of these big Internet companies. Any decline will deflate them immensely; more than public and Congressional criticism of their intrusiveness, their massive allowed fakeries, their broken promises to reform, and their openings to unsavory political and commercial users. If they lose advertising revenue, a major revenue bubble will burst and there goes their business model, along with their funding for ventures from video hosting to global mapping.

After reviewing the many major negatives attributed to the Internet, the New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo writes, “So who is the central villain in this story, the driving force behind much of the chaos and disrepute online?… It’s the advertising business, stupid.” He adds, perhaps optimistically, “If you want to fix much of what ails the internet right now, the ad business would be the perfect perp to handcuff and restrain.”

Randall Rothenberg, who heads a trade association of companies in the digital ad business, urges advertisers “to take civic responsibility for our effect on the world.” Then he shows his frustration by saying that, “Technology has largely been outpacing the ability of individual companies to understand what is actually going on.”  All of this even before artificial intelligence (AI) takes root. Meanwhile, Facebook, Google, and Twitter keep announcing new tools to make their ads “safe and civil” (Facebook), open and protective of privacy. At the same time matters keep getting worse for consumers. The backers and abusers keep getting more skilled too (see Youtube Kids ).

In a recent report titled “Digital Deceit,” authors Dipayan Ghosh and Ben Scott wrote:

The Central problem of disinformation corrupting American political culture is not Russian spies or a particular media platform. The central problem is that the entire industry is built to leverage sophisticated technology to aggregate user attention and sell advertising.

If so, why isn’t more public attention being paid to this root cause? Not by the mass media which is obviously too compromised by the Congress, by academia, or by more of US before “We the People” become the conditioned responders that Ivan Pavlov warned about so many years ago.

Big Brother Facebook: Drawing Down The Iron Curtain on Yankeedom

Leading a double life

When my partner, Barbara, first opened an account on Facebook, she used it in a way that most people in Yankeedom use it. Her network was an eclectic assortment of family, current and former workmates, new and old friends, neighbors and relatives living in other parts of the country. Most of what was posted on this account were pictures of kids, dogs and kitty cats, vacations, dinner outings, jokes – nothing too controversial. Like most members of Yankeedom, religion and politics were off limits. However, there was a kind of politically unconscious assumption operating that liberal values prevailed and that somehow the Democratic Party embodied those values. I nicknamed her Facebook account the “Suzy Cream Cheese” account after the Mothers of Invention’s album because it only dealt with surface preoccupations.

As the most recent US presidential primaries heated up and people took sides about Hillary, Bernie and Jill Stein, the Suzy Cream Cheese page started to be “not nice”. The political unconscious became conscious. The assumption was that all women – in the name of feminism – should vote for Hillary. My partner thought this was a very shallow understanding of feminism and posted an article she wrote that was published in a number of online radical newsletters titled, “Feminism is Bigger Than Gender: Why I’ll Be Happy in Hell Without Hillary.” Oh dear. After she posted that article on Facebook, she got the cold shoulder and lost a couple of friends. Around that time she opened up a second “political” Facebook account and started adding to it a whole new group of far-left friends and acquaintances. She continued posting “suitable for family viewing” comments with her Suzy Cream Cheese account while posting and responding to socialist and communist posts on her political account.

The Two Faces of Facebook

Neither Barbara nor I are sociologists of social media or specifically of Facebook, so what follows is experiential. However, we do know a thing or two about how capitalist institutions operate in general and Facebook is no exception.

The primary purpose of Facebook is to sell ad space to marketers. But how do you reach the Yankee public? You make it easy for Yankees to set up individual accounts so that Yankees can do what we do best—talk about the micro world of family, dogs and friends. In the process, hopefully people will purchase some of the products or services touted in the ads. Facebook has also made it possible for individuals to join groups and set up pages that then allow them to place ads to publicize their group or organization. For Facebook, reading groups, hobbies and support groups are fine.

But Facebook has encountered a problem that many other capitalist institutions have. The problem is that you can set up the conditions for selling your products, but you can’t control people’s motivation for buying the product, (joining a group or setting up a political page) or what they will do with the product (what kind of group they will form). Facebook could even tolerate political groups. But the political imagination of Facebook consists of Republicans and Democrats. What Facebook had not counted on is the proliferation of political groups that exist outside both parties. As most of you know, there are many anarchist groups, Leninist groups, social democrats and even council communist groups. On the right there are all sorts of nationalist and fascists groups. It is safe to say that Facebook, as a capitalist institution, does not want to host these groups but until recently has not been able to do anything about it.

Planning Beyond Capitalism Meets Suzy Cream Cheese Facebook

Six years ago Barbara and I co-founded an organization called Planning Beyond Capitalism. The name pretty much says what we are up to. As an anti-establishment organization our main problem was, and still is, outreach. We stumbled and bumbled our way with the help of some anti-establishment social media whizzes who convinced us we could reach a lot more people through placing ads on Facebook. Facebook calls it “boosting”. At first, we were skeptical because the language used in placing an ad on Facebook seemed to have nothing to do with politics. They were ads for businesses. They encouraged us to “pick the right brand” and “target our audience” for best “market return”. We weren’t a business and we weren’t a non-profit. The best category we could find was “community organization”.

One of the things we do on Planning Beyond Capitalism is to select one article from a left-wing news source and write one post and commentary each day. We call this “Capitalist News Interpreted”. We publish these posts daily on Facebook, but don’t “boost” them. But every couple of months or so we write a longer article, in which we make an analysis of world events, mostly in the United States, from the perspective of our organization. We put these in the category of Perspectives. Over the course of two or three years we found four or five political newsletters in which to publish our perspectives. In addition, we decided to “boost” those perspectives on Facebook.

Our pattern was to boost our perspective for one week for the cost of $30.00 to run for one week. This money came out of our own pockets. We were able to select our demographics – age, gender, interests – and we could post it to almost any country in the world. In selecting our audiences when we first started boosting our posts, the choices of “anarchism” and “socialism” were available for us to select. Typically, in a single week we reached about ten thousand people – with a ratio of people in that audience of people who “liked” our perspective from about 20% to 33%. The number of “shares” in a week ranged from 75 to about 250 depending on the article. In the process of doing this, we began hearing from people in other parts of the world. Some of those people then began to write for us.

We were pretty amazed that Facebook approved of virtually all our perspectives in 2016 and 2017 despite our anti Democratic Party, anti-capitalist slant. Here are some of our titles:

No Pink Wooly Caps for Me

Open Letter to the Sandernistas: The Political Revolution Continues – Hearts, Bodies and Souls

Planning Beyond Capitalism meets Big Brother Facebook

Things began to change for us on Facebook when I published an article on April 1st of this year claiming the Democratic Party was worse than the Republican Party for 90% of the population. After we posted a link to it on our Facebook page we tried to boost it.

Greater of Two Evils: Why the Democratic Party is Worse than the Republican Party for 85% of the U.S. Population

Facebook rejected our ad and we contested that rejection. They said it was sensationalistic, involved hate speech and promoted violence. We contested this rejection and after two arguments from us, won our appeal. We ran the ad for two weeks because of its popularity. It reached 38,000 people, had many hundreds of shares and we gained about 100 new followers.

The next article we published was written by an Iraqi comrade of ours living as a citizen in Russia. The article was about why Russians are upset with Americans.

Why Russians are Upset With Americans – Seen Through the Eyes of an Iraqi

This ad was again disapproved by Facebook but for different reasons: it was “political”. We contested this as well. Below is our argument:

We have been boosting posts on FB for 2 years. Every single one of them has political content. Why is this particular one being singled out? However, this is the first article that we’ve published about Russia, written by someone living in Russia. We believe that you are not authorizing this ad because it is a favorable account of the Russian people, which does not conform to the Democratic Party’s anti-Russian ideology. This article was written by a Russian citizen and is written from his own observations and viewpoint. Furthermore, his sources are documented and it is neither sensationalistic nor violent. We are not advocating for Russian foreign policy. We are talking about average Russian citizens. If you read the article, you would see that your response is exactly the reasons Russians are upset with Americans. Their experiences are suppressed, while we maintain the stereotypes of them as in the cartoon image that leads the article. This, to us, constitutes blatant discrimination. 

Facebook’s response was a boilerplate line about what constitutes a political post. Their policy about political ads had changed as of May 7th, 2018. It implied that their disapproval had nothing to do with its content. It was because the category was “political”. We were told that in order to consider having our ad approved, we had to register as a political organization. In order to do this we needed to:

  1. Be citizens of the United States
  2. Provide proof of citizenship
  3. Provide a residential address
  4. Provide a drivers license number
  5. Provide a Social Security number

All this – simply to place a political ad. Doesn’t this sound like we are registering to be investigated by the FBI or CIA? Oh, no that’s just left wing paranoia.

Further, they said it would take up to six weeks to verify this and to approve our ad. But not to worry, they would delete all our information once it checked out.

As the author of the article on Russia, Jamal pointed out his other two articles that had been accepted by Facebook were far more political than the one they just rejected. But that was before their change of policy. Jamal rightfully pointed out that the rejected article was more historical, sociological and cultural than political. However, the upper middle class honchos of Facebook, having taken one class in political science in the United States, cannot tell the difference between sociology, political economy, and culture. Their formula is:

Russia = political = bad

America = Democratic Party = good

To paraphrase an old country tune, “Take this job and shove it”, we told Facebook to “take your political registration and shove it”.

No, there is no “Iron Curtain” in the US. That is for Russians.

Our Analysis of Facebook

We think it is reasonable to suspect that Facebook wants to get rid of its “political underground”, the groups that exist beyond the two party system. Why? For one thing people at both extremes of the political spectrum are likely to buy the products that are advertised on their pages. The second reason is that our ads are chump change for them. Getting rid of us will cost them close to nothing in revenue. The third reason is political. Facebook, like most media institutions, is committed to the Democratic Party. Cleaning its house of “Fake News” (the news and opinions of the socialist or fascist sides of the spectrum) will steer people back to reasonable choices like the Democratic Party. It is our belief that this change in policy requiring organizations like ours to register as political groups has occurred in 2018, in part, because this is an election year.

There are other indicators Facebook is closing ranks. In selecting an audience for our article, we noticed the choices given under political interests on the left, the furthest left available to choose was “very liberal”. There was no socialist choice even though a self-proclaimed socialist ran as a Democratic in the 2016 primaries.

If anyone reading this has recommendations for alternatives to Facebook that would allow us to place political ads to broaden our reach, please contact us. It’s time for those of us on the far left to find an alternative to Big Brother Facebook.

• First published at Planning Beyond Capitalism

Social Networks as Dead Ends for Activists

There was a time when the internet was an experiment in anarchy, but it is increasingly becoming an experiment in “stateness”, meaning police-order. Social networks are in crisis. Our governments are losing patience with them, grilling geek after geek to demand they be more loyal to the nation-state and take a more active role suppressing apparently foreign points of view.

The unplugging of the entire internet by NATO countries to stop vaguely defined “Russian trolls” – a nationalistic smear for rebellious social media users living not in Russia but our own countries – cannot be ruled out. As laughable as this possibility may seem to internet users, Western leaders are dead serious about the issue. They consider users who mock them online as existential threats. That they may eventually give up and unplug everything will be touched on here, but it also needs more consideration at a later date.

For now, the focus must be on what might happen to the major social networks. If they are profoundly reshaped by geopolitical tension and paranoia, will they be of any continued use for publishing anti-establishment slogans and views? How will the new Cold War affect the freedom of writers and independent creators to express themselves through social networks?

Lawmakers in the US, the UK, the EU, and other NATO-aligned political structures are wrathful towards social networks due to the influence they indiscriminately offer anyone who signs up to them. Since the US election of 2016, we have watched staff from Twitter, Facebook and Google get grilled by screaming American and British lawmakers. The ageing lawmakers, not willing to take any chances in the “neuland” of the internet (so described by Angela Merkel) treat social networks with the utmost disdain and hostility. For them, the internet is a war-fighting domain, a battlefield of states with fixed front lines, a red zone where insurgents snipe at them. For them, the objective must be to silence anyone who disagrees with them and glorify anyone who does agree with them.

According to the traditional paranoid geopolitical mindset, social networks have to even be regarded as unwitting hostile actors. By offering people the chance to choose their own sources of information and even reproduce those sources and share those sources to others, social networks undermine loyalty to the nation-state, making it harder to spread Nineteenth Century ideas of loyalty and incite new petty wars with other nation-states. Our fossilized politicians, longing for the day when every young man had to complete mandatory military service and longed to die for the flag, seek to lobotomize the youth and restore nation-state loyalty to execute warlike aims against geopolitical foes Russia and China.

While hostility of ageing politicians towards social networks may be worrying, their complete intellectual failure and lack of understanding of what they are dealing with is encouraging. Their obsession with the current major social networks – Twitter and Facebook – suggests that they regard social media in the same way that they view news media. In their view, social networks are just some other big companies that need to be reined in. Just one or two big actors need to be forced to conform to the regime’s ideology, like the well-behaved top news journalists broadcasters, and the politicians’ authority will be restored. The “trolls” will be defeated. The youth will start to respect the bleary-eyed generals and politicians who were kept awake at night by them.

Unfortunately for every internet creator, the reactions of Twitter, Facebook and Google have been cowed. All are eager to prove their nationalist loyalty, particularly to the US state, because their websites’ physical infrastructure is based on the territory of the US state. They have the American regime’s gun to their heads, just like the television stations. Google serves the Pentagon loyally, but may be incapable of preventing its platform’s exploitation by the Pentagon’s enemies and critics due to the sheer number of targets flooding their scopes.

It is possible that the frail politicians so concerned about “trolls” will be able to cower in safety very soon behind a wall of new media enforcement, but it will not last forever. If the power of individuals to express themselves freely at major social networks, chiefly Twitter and Facebook, is sabotaged, communities will move gradually to other social networks and continue their activity there. The centre of media attention will shift away from dullness and conformity to somewhere more interesting once again.

A major consideration for alternate media when selecting social networks has likely been the presence of third party applications that can amplify one’s views across social media by providing automated posting services. These upset the traditional dominance of the wealthy and the powerful over the press. Very low overhead is required to establish a publication using various automation and aggregation tools to create feeds that offer a wide different spectrum of news and commentary than the mainstream. Attacks against automation under the guise of fighting “fake news” and “bots” are therefore an excuse to hamper small and independent media projects that lack the staff to manually post every item of content to the social networks. This assumes that the social networks are really going to fight automation.  The BBC and its supporters are mindless bots, if we look seriously at Twitter’s rules, and yet the people whose accounts get suppressed by Twitter are not bots but real people targeted by the British regime for holding dissident views.

Perhaps the flight of dissenting users to some future alternative social network should settle the battle between politicians and trolls. But it would probably only anger Western politicians even more, as they regard all alternative media as extremist, so the counterinsurgency would rage on. Not able to pressure the alternate social networks, politicians may resort to the brute force of the law, seeking court orders to block every app or social network being used to hurt political egos or express disloyalty to the state. But websites can be cloned and mirrored, and insurgent networks would be continuously made available again, as is the case with the various “putlockers” endlessly springing up to avoid the court orders that are always too slow and ineffective to counter free streaming.

There is every reason to think that many of the most effective anti-government critics would still be able to thrive even on the mainstream social networks, merely by altering their choice of language and modifying aspects of their behavior to evade the automated tools being used to remove them. Resistance can vary between passive and active forms, and rejection of national loyalty and lack of support for war will always be possible in any forum even if everyone else is a bloodthirsty and rabid nationalist. Advocacy for the removal of censorship and the destruction of the yokes used to enforce conformity and faith on a social network would always be considered a moderate and neutral view, making it possible to support more rebellious creators without joining them.

The inevitable failures of an online counterinsurgency described above could eventually prove too much for some governments to bear, and the result would be the complete destruction of the internet – something states will always be able to do. They might first attempt “balkanization”, forcing users to only register for accounts at social networks if they reside in the country where the social network is based. If that occurs, websites like Twitter and Facebook would fall into the geopolitical space of NATO, and support of NATO war aims and propaganda would become a compulsory requirement of all users, with everyone lobotomized to be docile supporters.

Balkanization would fail to achieve anything. As recent hunts for “trolls” have demonstrated, they are not actually foreign, nor are they automated. The alleged Russian enemies, “trolls” and “bots” are real people. They are not hackers from Russian spy agencies, but independent authors, journalists and creative people – civilians located inside our own countries who hold anti-war and anti-colonial views on foreign policy. Such innocent people look like they will be the new targets in the next “accidental” rampage by our incompetent regimes against perceived anti-state threats.

If they pursue and yet fail to achieve anything against trolls through political pressure, court orders, and geopolitical militarization of the social networks, politicians who view trolls as a true threat to the state will inevitably advocate a total ban on the internet. It is for this final contingency that independent writers and serious activists must prepare themselves.

It is not enough to have a collection of friends and followers on some top social networks, and even a robust email list may not be enough to sustain one’s writing. Real contacts and a real publishing history outside the social networks, even in print, are a requirement to sustain anti-establishment momentum and the propagation of balanced views. Anything less, and the paranoid regime can delete you and all its other critics with the push of a button. The conservation of social media-based activists on lists and their transformation into published authors is one way for them to save themselves from simple bans, at the same time amplifying their voices ever more.

The development of the Mont Order society to connect and preserve dissenting influencers on social networks can only help. It may be that teaming up to use a variety of applications, technologies and email clients based under different geopolitical poles of influence (the US, the EU, Russia and China) may be the only route towards independent political writing and advocacy under the suffocating conditions of the new Cold War. Such a strategy, pursued early on before it is even necessary, would allow dissident gatherings on social networks to survive purges, hostility, court orders, balkanization and even the plug being pulled completely by these paranoid regimes we have tolerated.

Much of what is forecasted here is dark, and perhaps too dark. Perhaps the internet isn’t really doomed to die at the hands of paranoid and vain politicians trying to defoliate it to fight their critics. Perhaps police-order is not achievable across the internet. It could be that many of the stages of counter-insurgency would require so much legal reform and such a high budget that most of the politicians concerned will die of old age and be replaced by a more tech-savvy and relaxed generation before their aims are even close to being achieved. Nevertheless, it is prudent to seek out and imagine counter-strategies to survive even the most heavy-handed actions by politicians against critics.