Saturday, 27 August 2016

Jeremy Corbyn to Visit Stoke

It's a bit pointless asking you to guess who's visiting the Potteries next week because, well, the title says it all.

The bandwagon will be rolling into Stoke-on-Trent next Thursday. 

Here are the details.

 

 Speakers include:

Maxine Penkethman (CWU and Stoke South CLP)
Andrew Fox-Hewitt (FBU and Newcastle-u-Lyme CLP)
Shakira Rosenau (Young Labour and Stoke South CLP)
Clare White (WEA and Stoke North CLP)

WHEN

September 03, 2016 at 1pm - 2:30pm

WHERE

Blue Clock Tower (outside Intu Potteries Centre)
2 Town Rd
Stoke-on-Trent ST1 2JE
United Kingdom

Your intrepid scribe will be on hand to provide reportage and critical comment, as I did for Derby. If you can, why not come and see what Jeremy has to say to the good people of Stoke?

Friday, 26 August 2016

Local Council By-Elections August 2016

Party
Number of Candidates
Total Vote
%
+/- 
July
Average/
contest
+/-  
July
+/-
Seats
Conservative
   21
10,739
  28.8%
 +3.5%
    511
   +271
    -1
Labour
   16
11,160
  29.9%
  -0.1%
    698
   +246
     0
LibDem
   16
  3,265
    8.7%
-13.6%
    204
    -170
   +1
UKIP
   13
  3,842
  10.3%
 +4.2%
    296
    +121
     0
Green
    8
     819
    2.2%
  -4.2%
    102
    -132
     0
SNP*
    3
  3,552
    9.5%
 +6.3%
  1,184
   +129
     0
PC**
    0
   
  
  
     0
TUSC
    0
     
   
 
     
    
     0
Ind***
    8
  2,017
    5.4%
  -0.4%
    252
   +108
    -2
Other****
    9
  1,931
    5.2%
 +4.1%
    215
   +125
   +2

* There were three by-elections in Scotland
** There were no by-elections in Wales
*** This month saw no Independent clashes
**** Others this month consisted of the Socialist Labour Party (131), SDP (15), United Thanet (44), North East Party (15), Farnham Residents' Assoc (754) (386) (356), English Democrats (24), and the Communist Party of Britain (86)

Overall, 37,325 votes were cast over 21 local authority (tier one and tier two) contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. The Conservatives won seven contests, Labour six (one of which was a safe hold with a 500+ majority), LibDems two, UKIP three, and Others two, while eight council seats changed hands in total. For comparison with May's results, see here.

Another month, and another close result between the Conservatives and Labour. Noteworthy moments are the Tories taking a seat off Labour, and Labour winning something in Scotland the second month on the trot! Though what concerns me about Labour's performance is despite dwarfing all the other parties combined in membership size, somehow the Tories make a showing in the lion share of vacancies, regardless of how awful their prospects. I do have a story about the hook and crookery they employ to ensure this is done, but I'm saving it up. Still, the point remains: there is no reason why Labour shouldn't contest every seat that comes up and the party needs to encourage its branches to be more pro-active.

In other news, stone me! UKIP have out-polled the LibDems. Admittedly, while the yellows scooped up an extra seat, which is better than the purples' showing, they fielded more candidates and got a poorer vote. As one sunny day doesn't make a summer, especially in Britain, I'll put this down as a blip in UKIP's decline. But if the facts change, to indulge a celebrated phrase, my mind will too.

Also, some interesting far left challenges tucked away. Both were Scottish, and both slightly perplexing. The Morning Star's Communist Party of Britain was contesting a seat with a history of communist support, so I suppose it makes sense. Which, given their sporadic and light-minded approach to contesting elections, is something of a strategic advance for them. As for the SLP, long-term Stalinoid watchers know it seldom contests, and when it does it's usually to spoil another far left candidate's chances. Some folk set their political ambitions so very low.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

After Neoliberalism

It was with some interest I approached Martin Jacques's piece in The Graun, not least because he made his name in the 1980s describing the contours of the 'New Times' then being fashioned from the collapse of the post-war consensus and the broken bodies of the British and American labour movements. Much of what he and his comrades wrote in Marxism Today back in the day was spot on. The rise of flexible labour markets, inescapable consumer cultures, a displacement of class politics, deindustrialisation and the shift - at least in metropolitan countries like Britain - from the production of tangible commodities to service industries and knowledge/information production (of which more another time). They also advocated that the left in the shape of the jolly old Communist Party draw on the work of Antonio Gramsci and wage a cultural struggle as opposed to the trusty 'n' rusty industrial-focused strategy favoured by the left. In practice it meant embracing the "new" struggles around environmentalism, gender, anti-racism, and sexuality and placing less stress on class as traditionally conceived. Accused at the time of abandoning the field of class politics, Marxism Today was later held responsible for providing the intellectual heft of Blairism and New Labour.

That's by-the-by as far as this post is concerned. What Martin does in his article is catalogue the breakdown of neoliberalism but, despite the banner advertisement, he does not address what comes or is likely to happen after neoliberalism. And who can blame him? Forecasting in politics is a notoriously fraught business, as pundits and pollsters have found to their cost this last couple of years. Yet thinking about what might come after neoliberalism isn't click-attracting speculation and idle musing. Just as Martin and his comrades did in the 1980s, it's about understanding what's coming so it can be politically pre-empted.

Before we consider what's coming next, it's worth thinking about what neoliberalism is *now*. Traditionally, and understandably, it's seen as a matter of economics. After all, in terms of economic policy the kinds of measures it favours are easily distinguishable from the post-war consensus that came before it. To apply broad brush strokes, in the advanced countries it meant active intervention by the state in economic affairs to, above all, maintain full employment. Markets were strictly regulated, capital controls enforced, workers representatives (via unions or some other consultative mechanism) integrated into the management of the system, and the state itself had a considerable economic footprint in the shape of nationalised industries. Again, broadly and ideal-typically, neoliberal policy is about withdrawing the state and leaving the market to its own devices. Based on the idea that the anarchy of market relationships nevertheless produce the most efficient economic outcomes, evacuating the state from the market via privatisations of state-owned industries, the deregulation of finance, and the curbing of union power creates, Bentham-stylee, the greatest good for the greatest number. The objective now is not the maintenance of full employment. Key indicators of economic health are quarterly GDP growth, low inflation, low public spending, and low tax rates. In Britain, Nicola Sturgeon and Ed Miliband were the first mainstream political leaders to suggest neoliberal policies fuelled inequality and social dysfunction, and hence had broken from the neoliberal consensus. Ditto Theresa May and her wholesale pinching of the 2015 Labour Manifesto's economic policy.

That, however, is a very superficial understanding of what neoliberalism is. Yes, it's fundamentally about the market, but it's more than a macroeconomic policy preference: it is a mode of governance. Or, to put it plainly, a series of strategies deployed by institutions for managing populations and cultivating them as types of people, or subjects, conducive to capitalism in its neoliberal phase. What neoliberalism isn't is a conspiracy thought through in advance by various elites and implemented against an unwitting populace. As Dardot and Laval note in their The New Way of the World: On Neoliberal Society, neoliberalism didn't emerge as a coherent alternative to the crisis of the post-war Keynesian order. It came into the world bit by bit, as (apparently) pragmatic policy responses to pressing economic and political problems. Denis Healey didn't submit Britain to structural adjustment in return for an IMF loan because he was philosophically committed to the Mont Pelerin Society. At the time, it seemed like the loan could get the economy out of the toilet. Thatcher's government went after the trade unions because they represented a challenge and threatened the interests of British business, not because Hayek and Friedman were opposed to the "distortions" collectivised labour exercised over labour markets. In the process of struggle, governments introduced policies we now consider neoliberal and, especially in the case of Reaganomics and Thatcher, increasingly identified their economic and governance strategies with the intellectual spadework of the Chicago School and other cabals of neoliberal thinkers. As Thatcher herself admitted in The Downing Street Years, she didn't enter Number 10 with an intellectually rounded-out programme. It took on coherence largely after the fact. Before that point, what came to be neoliberalism was, in Dardot and Laval's words, effectively a set of strategies without a strategist.

To properly get to grips with neoliberalism, we should think about it on three levels. The first is economic policy, which we've already talked about. The other two, that interest us here, is the intertwining of government and subjectivity. Condensing Dardot and Laval's arguments, the incremental adoption of neoliberal strategies have resulted in what they call the 'entrepreneurial state'. Take Britain for example. As society has become more complex, so has the state. The classical Marxist conception of the state as a repressive body that defends and prosecutes capital's interests is right on a basic level, but doesn't capture the complexity of the body as it exists today. Rather than a unitary institution with an executive, a bureaucracy, and its repressive arms the state has developed into a more dispersed and diffuse gaggle of semi-autonomous institutions. In the British example, from Thatcher onwards the physicality of the state is distributed among a number of bureaucracies with areas of competence, each under a particular minister and therefore responsible to the government of the day. Think the DWP and its previous iterations, the MOD, the Education Dept, and so on. Each are operationally autonomous from one another but are united under a relationship of command to the executive. As well as this, we have the devolved administrations and local government, and any number of Quangos with areas of competence and specialism. On top of this there are subdivisions in each of these institutions, and various non-governmental organisations like charities, community groups, and so on can be incorporated into the mix. What they all have in common is the sharing of governance functions. Or, rather, they specialise in a particular kind of population management.

With the emergence of neoliberal policy in the 80s, so public spending cuts inculcated particular behaviours on the part of institutions funded by central government. Namely, to get by public bodies had to make cuts and think about ways to replace lost revenue. As night follows day, necessity was transformed into a virtue. Standards of measurement and evaluation were put into place to justify spending and act as 'performance indicators' aiming to demonstrate that 'the taxpayer' is getting value for money. Under these conditions, the management of the public sector underwent a profound transformation. Civil servants and other employees are performance managed in terms of specified targets they have to reach (waiting times and patient turnover in the NHS, grades in schools, bums on seats in universities), the efficient management of budgets, caseload churn, and income generation. In a lot of cases there is competition between state institutions in markets that have only recently come into being. As the bottom line is the relentless focus, so the state, its institutions, and its employees are positioned and forced to act entrepreneurial. Commercial enterprise is the model, to be applied to all institutions under all circumstances, and the penetration of market relationships and private capital into the public sector is the effect. In sum, government power was used to bring about this state of affairs and maintain it. It wasn't a retreat of the state but a rejigging of its configuration according to market fundamentals.

Yet neoliberalism is even more pernicious than this. These same strategies, impositions, and policy consequences have inculcated a particular way of being, a type of individual. Just as the state and its institutions are entrepreneurial in theory and practice, so the expectation is that we as human beings act in the same way. I've argued previously that the inculcation of the entrepreneurial, or neoliberal subject can be read as an attempt by the state and its institutions to step in and provide a particular kind of work ethic after the collapse of the labour movement. These working class communities themselves provided an ethics of wage labour, and in some cases where community and solidarity went hand in hand, this included collective action against employers to secure their immediate interests. But neoliberal governance became the norm across Western Europe even in countries that don't immediately appear to follow the Anglo-American model of capitalism, such as Germany. The features of this sensibility is treating oneself as a bearer of different kinds of capital that, regardless of your situation and personal outlooks on life, you're expected to deploy. In a work setting, you're performance-managed as an individual in terms of how you mobilise your capitals to get the tasks done and further the objectives of the employer. In leisure time, many practices revolve around looking after one's self. Health and wellbeing employ similar techniques exhorting you to motivate yourself and perform fitness regimens, abide by diets, take exercise. Package holidays with their itineraries are designed to maximise your limited 'time capital' with things you Must Simply See and Do, and if you're going to be a good neoliberal tourist you mobilise your time accordingly. It spills over into all endeavours of life. How big your collections of whatevers are. The cramming of free time with Interesting Things. The accumulation of friends/followers/likes on social media. The number of liaisons on the trendy dating app. The good life is defined in terms of the accumulation of things and experiences, and this behaviour is a mere extension of one's habits in "professional" life.

One is therefore positioned as an entrepreneur. As such, like businesses, you're in competition. The inculcation of competition among classes of employees is as old as capitalism, but it has undergone a qualitative transformation in the neoliberal era. Performance management benchmarks in the workplace are always constructed with an eye to your conduct vis a vis everyone else. Being a "team player" is not a question of being good in a team, but performing as someone who competes with others, consciously or otherwise, to fulfill the objectives set them by the boss. Being "helpful" or "supportive" is a measure always read off against others. Competition is bound up with recognition, and being seen and being noticed is culturally privileged in and out of work and bound up with affirmation and self-worth. It is, as such, a source of much anxiety as most of us know we're doomed to pass through life with nary a ripple beyond our immediate social circles. And undergirding the neoliberal subject is the principle of self-reliance and self-responsibility. You are solely responsible for your successes and your failures. The state will actively intervene to ensure you participate on a level playing field, but it and the rest of society owes you no favours, least of all a living, so make of the world what you will.

This form of subjection is and isn't imposed. Human beings aren't brain washed dopes. We all have agency, the capacity to think and the capacity to act. We may not know what we do half the time, but nevertheless our life is a ceaseless set of decisions. Being a neoliberal subject isn't an imposition in the sense of domination in dictatorships, where you either go along with things or get banged up or worse. It is a subjection of choice. To borrow Althusser's and Poulantzas's notion of interpellation, institutions in neoliberal society hail (or greet) you as entrepreneurial, neoliberal subjects. You have the choice of engaging with them, you're not forced to, but all choices have consequences. If you're unemployed, you don't have to sign on for Jobseekers Allowance. You don't have to put yourself through the regimen of compulsory job searches, interviews, CV workshops, "training", and forced labour in return for the dole, but the alternative is no money. You don't have to be the good entrepreneurial subject at work, but if you choose not to give it 110% your position is at risk. You don't have to choose a healthy lifestyle, but if your beer, fags, and takeaway-fed body is the butt of jokes and opprobrium, that's your fault. As a mode of subjection, neoliberalism is successful because it supports a particular socio-economic system founded on the private expropriation of socially generated wealth while completely depoliticising these relations and making capitalism appear the spontaneously natural way of doing things. The fact it is a class system in a permanent state of crisis because of its ensemble of contradictions is effaced and rendered invisible from the standpoint of neoliberal subjectivity. The politics appropriate to this situation where, effectively, there is no such thing as society, only individuals and their families is technocratic, managerial politics. Perhaps the most pristine example is this pamphlet issued by Scottish Labour in 2008, which defined the aspirations of its constituents as "second home ownership, two cars in the driveway, a nice garden, two foreign holidays a year, and leisure systems in the home such as sound, cinema, and gym equipment". Forget "tribalism" and other irrationalities: vote according to your individual interest.

Martin Jacques's piece therefore falls on two counts. He does not consider neoliberalism in its totality, as interlinked economic policies, a panoply of population management strategies, nor as a mode of subjectivity, an actively promoted standard way of being. Which is peculiar considering that the end of her time in power, Thatcher noted in a 1988 Times interview that "Economics are the method. The object is to change the soul". Nor does Martin consider what might come after neoliberalism.

We can see beginnings of what a world after neoliberalism might look like, but there's a key point worth remembering before we go there. First and foremost, governmental and governance techniques only appear to be active agents. As Foucault notes, power isn't repressive, it is productive and when set in train can, at particular historical intervals, produce subjects of certain kinds. However, what tends to be missed in discussions of Foucault's approach is that power is always reactive too. Scholars often note that he believed power always begat resistance, but an elaboration of what 'resistance' is went untheorised in his work. And, if you'll permit me this aside, that's not surprising. Foucault was interested in the genealogies of the technologies of power, of governmentality as revealed and developed in old texts, out of which he sketched lines of descent for disciplinary practices commonplace in the West. He was foremost a philosopher masquerading as a historian and philologist, not a sociologist. Anyway, the point is that from the very moment the state emerged in antiquity as an institution apart from and above society, its common purpose has been the defence of class and property. Sometimes in relation to other states, in relation to sections of its own class, and always with regard and against uprisings of peasants, slaves, subject peoples, and barbarian invaders. With regard to the latter, states have historically pursued all kinds of ways of seeing off sedition and rebellion among subject populations. These strategies, which for most of human history were episodic, crude, and violent, were about meeting resistance instead of forestalling it.

To a large degree, this remains the case now. Remember the 1970s. Capitalism underwent a period of crisis beset with all sorts of economic problems, but its freehand was everywhere challenged by the surging power of organised labour. France came the closest an advanced capitalist nation has ever done to a socialist revolution in 1968. Italy, Germany, and Britain were beset with industrial struggles, rebellion, and terrorism. The dictatorships of Spain, Portugal, and Greece collapsed with the left insurgent. Neoliberalism as an economics, a mode of governance, and an apparatus of subjection was not a technocratic response. It was shaped in a confrontation between classes, between authorities and rebellious populations. It proved efficacious in the heat of battle - in Britain its economics broke up concentrations of heavy industry that employed the backbone of the labour movement. Its governmentality disciplined and homogenised that state while its institutions and functions were dispersed, which in turn disciplined and homogenised other organisations with no formal connection to the state. And it inculcated a form of individuality in which collectivism of any sort, let alone collective action, is alien. And part of the success and persistence of neoliberalism is precisely because it has incorporated a number of things the 1960s and 1970s left were fighting for. It was Blairism's achievement to formally marry neoliberal equality of opportunity discourse and policy with the goals of anti-racist, feminist, and LGBT movements. The rebellious zeitgeist of the 1960s eventually found a home in the celebrated autonomy of the neoliberal subject. And so, through struggle, pacification, and consent, neoliberalism remade the world. That however is not the same as saying everyone is a happy little subject.

Neoliberalism is smooth, but it is neither indestructible nor for forever. Like other modes of population management it will pass from the scene, and it will, as before, be the result of resistance from below. As a socialist that can't come soon enough, but routing neoliberalism is a difficult task. Martin Jacques implies that it's quite a simple process. The economics have been found wanting, intellectuals are attacking it, and political outbursts from Trump and Sanders, to UKIP, the SNP, and Corbynism are rebellions against the prevailing order. If it was that easy.

Turning back to Dardot and Laval, they argue the 2008 crash didn't kill neoliberalism. In the years since, despite a reluctant move by governments to a more "managed" capitalism neoliberalism is alive and well. Nor would the crisis deposit the doctrine into the receptacle of history. There is no reason why governments adopting Keynesian-inflected industrial activism, of stepping in to promote their businesses, of enforcing tougher regulations, and building new institutions for the benefit of capital-in-general wouldn't be compatible with neoliberal governmentality and subjection. It underlines the point that while neoliberal economics are exhausted, that is far from the case where it comes to population management.

And so we're back to the question of resistance. Without it, what comes after neoliberalism could be an unholy marriage of Keynes and Hayek, or, in plain English, more neoliberalism. However, the political economy of capitalism and contradictions within governance and subjection point toward other possible futures. Despite the official promotion and constant hailing of neoliberal subjects, capitalism remains capitalism. The basics teased out and critiqued by Marx are still there, be it stagnant Japanese or Italian capitalism, authoritarian Russian capitalism, capitalism with "Chinese characteristics", Greek austerity capitalism, or British post-neoliberal neoliberal capitalism. The antagonism of interests, the struggle between class relationships at its heart defines capitalism and disfigures societies. It concentrates wealth at the top and leaves the rest of us to make do. And the basic contradiction between capital's ceaseless drive to pump more surplus (and, ultimately, profit) from labour power and labour power's defence of its wages, work conditions, and autonomy continues to find expression in struggle. From vast strikes and factory occupations in China to Californian Uber and London Deliveroo drivers, neoliberal smoothness meets resistance to its individualist logics.

Quite apart from the inescapable dynamics of capitalism, neoliberal subjectivity has its own contradictions. As we have seen, choice and agency is core to this mode of subjection. One cannot be a passive entrepreneur - action and performance is demanded of us. We cannot be dopes or sheeple, we have to strive to create our own opportunities. Neoliberalism inculcates a mindset that is sceptical of tradition for tradition's sake, hierarchy, and alive to opportunity. Therefore self-motivated action is necessarily analytical and critical. It mostly realises itself in choices ratified by neoliberal convention and mores, but can easily turn against the social relationships it is meant to serve. Entrepreneurship can find outlets in collective action, in the ceaseless mutation of mobilisation technique and the staking out of spaces for counter-neoliberal activity. The seeking of economic opportunities for oneself isn't a million miles away from identifying political opportunities for a collective. At the cognitive level, neoliberal subjectivity inculcates the sensibility that makes its overthrow possible. The problem for neoliberal capital is to ensure the rewards of entrepreneurial activity are readily available, and looking at persistent inequality, rocketing house prices, stagnant wages, precarious working, and jobs that fall far short of the promise of self-realisation, it's failing.

The other big challenge of neoliberalism and capital more generally is what to make of the opportunities and challenges posed by an increasingly networked world. For instance, Facebook makes its money by providing space for and targeting adverts at people using their platform to create content. It depends on the creativity of others to turn a buck. This rentier model is the dominant business model for social media and, well, virtually anyone who tries to make money off the internet without paywalls. From capital's point of view it is potentially dangerous because previous regimes of capitalist production depended on capital having the whip hand over labour - it foisted a relation of dependence on it with the back up of the state. Now, as digital capitalisms and the work practices associated with it become symbols of its modernity and dynamism, the terms of the dependence are reversed. It requires labour to be creative, free, and autonomous so capital can ponce off its product. Overt attempts at control stymies the new opportunities for profit, and so it has no choice but to double down on neoliberal subjectivity as a way of "disciplining" creativity within its tried and tested limits, even as it threatens it. The further spread of neoliberal governmentality in Britain after the alleged death of neoliberalism - the full marketisation of the NHS and Higher Education, toughened sanctions in welfare regimes, austerity - are not unconnected to the free, collectivist challenge a networked world poses.

What comes after neoliberalism? That depends on what happens to the resistances now being called into being. Assuming capitalism continues and nuclear war nor decades of dictatorship are avoided, the contours of post-neoliberal capitalism would, like other previous modes of governance, be concerned with containing the energy and aspirations of the mass. After all, capital as a relationship is an exercise of certain interests and their primary concern is a perpetuation of that relationship. Given what has already been said about the trends and challenges besetting capitalism now, by way of idle forecasting post-neoliberal management would likely see a more industrially active state, with and without nationalisation. It would probably continue to centralise the powers of surveillance and be less amenable to liberal democratic pressure. That much is apparent already. But this would be at odds with the most likely forms of governance and subject generation, it is possible the the basic income could be conceded as precarity and the attendant anxiety and anger is a potent axis future struggles can and are emerging along. The emerging hegemony of the network might see renewed attempts at popular capitalism. This is something Thatcher tried and was only partially successful in, and her legacy was a dysfunctional housing market and the usurpation of "popular" privatisations by institutional investors. The harnessing of the power of networks might see the state sponsor cooperative business, or the cooperatisation of existing public services and/or private utilities. And the subject appropriate to this? One concerned with partnership, the pooling of talents, and of mutual aid on top of the agent-centered, creative, and entrepreneurialism of the existing neoliberal subject.

And so the new post-neoliberal managerialism is born with an obvious contradiction. A popular participatory capitalism overseen by a surveilling, authoritarian state: an institution that acts as guarantor for capital's continuation in the face of its partial socialisation. Especially as the governance and subjection associated with this possible mutation in capitalism takes us much closer to socialism than the post-war settlement and the Soviet nightmare. And as capitalism becomes increasingly superfluous to the organisation of things, its dynamism exhausted as the new emerges from the chrysalis of old, it can then finally take its rightful place in the museum of social systems past.

Monday, 22 August 2016

Ants in the Coffee

I'm working on what the trendies and hipsters call a 'long read'. It's about Neoliberalism - what it is and what's likely to come after. I'm about 2,000 words in and not sure if the mid-point has been reached. Yikes.

You're here looking for a bit of blogging red meat to play with, and so ...

I've been making cups of coffee since I was a little kid, mostly for myself and mum. And I followed the standard prep format. Coffee and sugar in first, followed by the milk and then topped up with boiling water. Seeing the half/semi-dissolved granules swimming about the surface was, in my book, the sign of a drink well made.

Then, over 20 years ago, I went to university. In the second year our house was in a street about two minutes walk from the main entrance to the ivory tower, so all the folks we knew would pile round inbetween lectures. Many hours of Neighbours and Home and Away were spent with cakes from Wright's Pies and beverages from, well, me. And I recall one of my housemates (hello, Liv!) moaning about my "ants in the coffee". Imagine my horror that, apparently, the trusty and tried Cartledge way of doing things was wrong. The water goes in first and the "ants", my beloved melting coffee sands, were unworthy. Sad to say, I capitulated and adopted the "proper" method and have added the milk last ever since.

The important questions then are:

a) How do you make your (instant) coffee?

b) Is it a region thing?

c) Is it a class thing?

This has puzzled me for the best part of 15 minutes, so can you shed some light on the situation?

Saturday, 20 August 2016

The Annoying Necessity of Facebook

In the recent past, Facebook has advertised Britain First to me. It has dangled anti-semitic conspiracy sites before my eyes. I've had adverts for Nazi memorabilia and militaria. On occasion, it has even alerted me to Gary Barlow products. Imagine my surprise when, on Wednesday, I found this peddler of dodgy politics and suspect pastimes had banned me from posting links to this here blog. That's right, because - apparently - someone had made a complaint about my content, the site was on the naughty step before the ban was lifted this evening. Perhaps the fashions in the previous musical posting were too offensive for someone's snowflakish disposition.

Unfortunately, Facebook has come to matter. Social media-wise, I've always been into Twitter more, even though micro-blogging has tended to displace proper blogging, effectively leaving the field of extended political comment the preserve of professional journos. For me, Facebook has always been for snarky comments away from the public eye, sharing cat and retro game photos, and the things not entirely suitable for here. Only slowly have I woken up to the potential of Facebook as a platform for driving a larger audience this way. Probably because I'm a rubbish accelerationist and, well, you don't know despair until you've seen a Facebook group. Anyway, despite knowing for a while that a punter is more likely to follow a link from Facebook than practically any other social media platform, including Twitter, it was only last year I started taking it semi-seriously by setting up a dedicated page for the blog (give it a like if you haven't already!). And as you can see from the side bar, 223 likes isn't much to shout about. Yet in the last few months it has started paying dividends.

Blog traffic has shot up to just over 100,000 page views these last couple of months, and August is all set to be busier still. Chicken feed for the big boys, but a big deal for what is essentially a hobbyist's obsession. Obviously, recent events have suddenly made my wares more compelling to larger numbers, but the analytics show the sharing on Facebook is driving a not insignificant audience in this direction. And lo, for the four days it had banned links to here, readers dropped by about a quarter. This internet and social media lark is a funny old game.

Naturally, as a private network owned and operated for profit, Facebook can do what it likes. It is no more obliged to carry my content than I am the sundry ravings of assorted conspiracy theorists. Well, that is if you subscribe to an archaic notion of property completely unsuited to the internet age. There are two dimensions to Facebook that demand there be proper accountability and democratic say over what it can and can't do. In the 21st century, the platform is part of the global infrastructure. Business opportunities are scoped out and realised. Friendships are won and lost. Ideas are shared and debated. Had Facebook not emerged when it did, something very similar would have had to have been invented. Therefore to have such a key piece of infrastructure not only in private ownership, but ultimately under the sole, virtually unaccountable command of Mark Zuckerberg and his senior management team is not very zeitgeisty, at the very least.

Second, I've been on Facebook a long time. I got my account sorted in 2007 when it was a plaything for postgrad students looking for new procrastination opportunities. Instead of moaning about Facebook inconveniencing me, some might suggest I should be grateful for them providing me bandwidth for nine years' worth of status updates. Huh, pity the fools. Facebook's core business is data, masses of it. Every time they "do me a favour" by moaning about my age or a night out with the comrades, each utterance is mined for tiny packets of data about where I am and what I'm doing. Aggregated together, this data builds up a digital doppleganger about my preferences, behaviours, and so on. They do this with me. They do this with their 1.7bn active monthly users. All their big data is chopped and changed in any number of ways, and allows Facebook to sell targeted advertising to folks who want to flog their wares to particular demographics. The Tories, for example, used this to good effect in their social media campaign last year by funneling messages to key mosaic groups in key marginals. I don't know how much my data is worth, but as Facebook's profits were $1bn last year, they make more money from me, you, and everyone else on the site than the funds expended maintaining the network. There's an argument that all social media users should be paid directly for their data, but until such a time there is a relationship of unequal reciprocity, and this applies to Facebook and its users. Like the formal equality of employer and employee in a job contract, the relationship is mutually dependent but one profits more from it than the other, usually without the latter's knowledge. Therefore, as they profit from my data we should feel perfectly entitled to moan, gripe, and demand they be transparent and responsive.

As the networks continue to proliferate and social media becomes even more fundamental to the infrastructure of our globalising civilisation, so the democratic pressure on the tech giants and their business models will build. Until then, this small corner of the internet relies on those networks for making its mark on the world, much to my annoyance.