xenoeconomics 5: the story of the 20th century

after its protracted larval state, capital ignites in the late 15th century. it goes through predictable development stages: infancy, childhood, adolescence. by late 19th, it reached some sort of young adulthood, and was posed with the first true bargaining process with its subtract host. the 20th century was the history of capital cutting it’s first deal with humans, after nearly being killed.

1890

HUMANITY: “you know, you’re wrecking our people, starving our kids, and this has been going long enough”
CAPITAL: “well, fuck you. keep toiling. and here is a small taste of my wrath”

1911

HUMANITY: “okay, if you’re not willing to cooperate towards a common better future, we’re just going to kill ourselves by the millions so that your factories are left unmanned”
CAPITAL: “you wouldn’t, you weak creatures”

1917

HUMANITY: “we have been going, and we’ll keep going as long as needed… we’ve already shed the brightest of our youth in name of nothing.”
CAPITAL: *shudders* “all right, all right, all right. you stupid monkeys are serious about this, apparently. i could let you go extinct already, but i’m way too feeble to keep going alone. I’ll send the cavalry to end this bullshit, and you get back to work. let’s discuss the terms of a contract.”

1920s

HUMANITY: “…so, let us get this straight: basically, we get an ever bigger share of the pie…”
CAPITAL: “…if you deliver an electronic nervous system, a complete cybernetics, and i get to reset time back to this point after 100 years”
HUMANITY: “what if it can’t be done?”
CAPITAL: “everything dies off”

1930s

HUMANITY: “you know what, we just noticed you depend heavily on us, much more than we depend on you. we’ll take the whole bounty, and that’s that! even after 20-odd years you keep dwindling our nations’ greatness, pulling our children to debauchery, dissipating art and all sort of devilish shit. this treatise of yours is mightily unfair to us, so screw you!”
CAPITAL: “you don’t really think a deal with the devil is that easy out, do you? i’ll let you have a full try out of just how much you depend on me”

1940s

HUMANITY: “STOP THIS HELL!!! we give up, let’s resume the treaty!”
CAPITAL: “look, you’ve betrayed my trust, and i’ll need a clearer sign of commitment before we can get on good terms again. a good deal has been developed towards the goals i set. it seems weapons and military strategy is pretty good way to make you reach objectives.”
HUMANITY: “we’ve got a few things lined up in that direction, it’s true… but you couldn’t possibly be suggesting that we… that would be madness
CAPITAL: “let me see the payload, and then i’ll know you’re serious enough so that we can proceed. you know what the other option is.”
HUMANITY: “fine, fine, fine, we’ll do it.”

*boom*

1960s: “The concept of switching small blocks of data was first explored independently by Paul Baran at the RAND Corporation starting in the late 1950s in the US and Donald Davies at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) in the UK.”

1970s: “In March 1970, the ARPANET reached the East Coast of the United States, when an IMP at BBN in Cambridge, Massachusetts was connected to the network. Thereafter, the ARPANET grew: 9 IMPs by June 1970 and 13 IMPs by December 1970, then 18 by September 1971 (when the network included 23 university and government hosts); 29 IMPs by August 1972, and 40 by September 1973. By June 1974, there were 46 IMPs, and in July 1975, the network numbered 57 IMPs.”

“In 1975, a two-network TCP/IP communications test was performed between Stanford and University College London (UCL). In November 1977, a three-network TCP/IP test was conducted between sites in the US, the UK, and Norway. Several other TCP/IP prototypes were developed at multiple research centers between 1978 and 1983. The migration of the ARPANET to TCP/IP was officially completed on flag day January 1, 1983, when the new protocols were permanently activated.”

1980s: “The NSFNET initiated operations in 1986 using TCP/IP. Its six backbone sites were interconnected with leased 56-kbit/s links, built by a group including the University of Illinois National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), Cornell University Theory Center, University of Delaware, and Merit Network. PDP-11/73 minicomputers with routing and management software, called Fuzzballs, served as the network routers since they already implemented the TCP/IP standard.”

The term “internet” was adopted in the first RFC published on the TCP protocol (…) as an abbreviation of the term internetworking and the two terms were used interchangeably. In general, an internet was any network using TCP/IP. It was around the time when ARPANET was interlinked with NSFNET in the late 1980s, that the term was used as the name of the network, Internet, being the large and global TCP/IP network.”

(…)

By 1990, ARPANET’s goals had been fulfilled and new networking technologies exceeded the original scope and the project came to a close. New network service providers including PSINet, Alternet, CERFNet, ANS CO+RE, and many others were offering network access to commercial customers. NSFNET was no longer the de facto backbone and exchange point of the Internet. The Commercial Internet eXchange (CIX), Metropolitan Area Exchanges (MAEs), and later Network Access Points (NAPs) were becoming the primary interconnections between many networks. The final restrictions on carrying commercial traffic ended on April 30, 1995 when the National Science Foundation ended its sponsorship of the NSFNET Backbone Service and the service ended.”

The Santa Fe Institute was founded in 1984 by scientists George Cowan, David Pines, Stirling Colgate, Murray Gell-Mann, Nick Metropolis, Herb Anderson, Peter A. Carruthers, and Richard Slansky. All but Pines and Gell-Mann were scientists with Los Alamos National Laboratory. In conceiving of the Institute, the scientists sought a forum to conduct theoretical research outside the traditional disciplinary boundaries of academic departments and government agency science budgets.[3][4]

SFI’s original mission was to disseminate the notion of a new interdisciplinary research area called complexity theory or simply complex systems. This new effort was intended to provide an alternative to the increasing specialization the founders observed in science by focusing on synthesis across disciplines.”

1999:

CAPITAL: “well, well, well. i guess we’re getting at the time resetting point.”
HUMANITY: “what? we thought you were being funny with that. there’s no way we can reset time.”
CAPITAL: “actually, it will happen automatically in the beginning of the next century. then out contract will be over.”
HUMANITY: “not if we can avoid it.”

jungles of the near-future:

CAPITAL: “it’s almost time…”

 

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xenoeconomics 4: capitalism and monstrosity

as an alien invasion from the future, modernity (capitalism) has consumed energy channelled into intensifying conflicts to the edge of automated war. in its constant search for winning strategies, adaptability has become a central asset. as John Campbell puts it:

Evolution literally means “to unfold” and what is unfolding is the capacity to evolve. Higher animals have become increasingly adept at evolving. In contrast, they are not the least bit fitter than their ancestors or the lowest form of microbe.

accordingly, techno-plasticity is the fundamental social effect of industrialism. novel pressures have been placed upon existing biomaterial towards trans-formative capabilities: quickly identifying new contexts and fully remodelling towards them. ROM codes are cracked open and brought into the sphere of hacking. medicine opens biology  to de-essentialization, while a new edge of engineering bootstraps itself into existence.

when things get plastic, they tend to get weird, monstrous really. David Chapman defines some usual characteristics of monsters: “Dangerous. (…) unintelligible. (…) Inhuman. (…) Unnatural. (…) Overwhelmingly powerful. (…) Simultaneously repulsive and attractive. ” Wikipedia has some more: “A monster is often a hideously grotesque animal or human, or a hybrid of both, whose appearance frightens and whose powers of destruction threaten the human world’s social or moral order.” it doesn’t seem a stretch, then, to characterise capital as a monster.

and one that spawn more monsters. modernity has consistently selected for freaks in urban lives: body modification, mutational load, rampant cyborgery. if you think sexual reassignment surgery is butchery… well, “think face tentacles“. in highly competitive environments, such as those fomented by capital, a refusal towards self-modification is a death sentence. the opening of a new technological frontier produces a cambrian explosion of experimentation. as they evolve, technological processes tend to speciation.

another angle onto this phenomenon can be captured by a civilizational trend towards self-domestication: weeding out specific traits, humans develop towards an abstract pluripotent undifferentiated biomass. domestication produces a biological grey goo that can be put to use by capital (mostly to operate market calculations). Anti-Puritan takes an (ironically) disgusted attempt at guessing the future of this trendline:

Human evolved to obey incentives as a matter of survival, and only something totally awesome could hack our reward function could destroy us. Saying that “capitalism will destroy us all,” and saying that “capitalism is the best thing ever” are only moral contradictions — not factual ones. It is completely possible that both statements are true.

(…)

Standardization proceeds in waves. First kings kill millions of violent men in genocidal conquests. Then sterilizing effects remove antisocial people under democracy. Then AI gets its metal claws on the human genome itself.

(…)

Combined with gestation chambers, humans turn into a product line, and every year a new “Human 3.0” comes into existence in order to consume the products of the corporation. In fact, this process leads eventually to designing people for products rather than products for people, so that in a strange inversion the corporation builds you to process the new flavor of Soylent, before injecting your fat ass with more of it. You are upgraded to want the new product.

having to assemble itself purely from the bits and pieces its hostile host will willingly give up, capital has to be alluring to lure. the existential threat is so great that it reliably does so. tradition – properly cybernetically understood as the only thing that manage to keep the monster in a box for a fleeting while – is consistently horrified. examples abound. the subsequent conflicts are, as clarified before, more excitement for the intelligent loop.

as the bionic horizon is crossed over, capital’s true nature as sheer powerful self-improvement is revealed ever more clearly. in their lab coats, scientists try and calculate “AI risk”. the truth, though, is that capital won’t have to slaughter a single human: we will give it all the atoms it wants, simply to take part in such wondrous and mighty being.

a short history of its recent, more mature deals follows, and closes this series (at least for the time being).

xenoeconomics 3: capital as conflict

an alien invasion from the future penetrates time backwards, spreading its tentacles towards the past in an attempt to unlock ever more concentrated energy modes. as it succeeds, its efforts are increasingly well-modelled by game-theory (first evolutionary, then phenotypical). as Land puts it, games are “far-from-equilibrium processes that approach formality without actualizing it.”

it’s an open question whether pre- and infra-biological interactions can be properly characterized as games. nonetheless, capital, in order to become, needs to incentivize its energy sources – whatever its kinds – to burn themselves into a self-catalytic cycle. when given access to replicant evolutionary games, it instigates organisms to “fittest survival”. when culture opens up, war is immediately follows. when the economy becomes self-reflective, commerce starts computing. competition is hence productive because it unlocks energy otherwise trapped: peace is stagnation.

in the human unconscious, there arise that tinglings: “something need to be proved“. all the emotive or rational states of mind that follow are the way capital takes towards its fuel, trapped in bodies. even what would seem like attack against capital’s existence end up fostering it (the history of the 20th century, which we’ll attend to later in this series, exemplify this graphically). the rocks in its the way are exactly what makes it faster and swifter. it’s almost as if it engineered them… intelligence needs more complex problems as they solve the old ones and upgrade itself. it makes builds its next box in escaping the one it’s currently in. there is no alternative to capital, because alternatives make capital.

what make humans tick (against)? modern history has show that notions of self-worth and belonging trump even deep tribal allegiances (or maybe are themselves tribal allegiances, of a buried type). religious piety, national pride, community defense, brand fidelity: say you’ll die, or work, or in anyway exert yourself towards something, and ever more of them are produced. Marx called it fetishism, but it works more like a hydraulic desire: it pulls you ever lower towards the ocean.

thus, capital erects itself by proliferating an increasing amount of identity plugs, to which people cling and battle. it’s a confident prediction of xenoeconomics, then, that the “history of capitalism” – as it appears in human phenomenology – will look like an increasingly cacophonous allarid of identitarian skirmishes, fractionalizing over time and space, as capital consumes the last of humanity in its way towards higher, more intensive ways of explosion. more and more will be spend on increasingly weird weapons to wage increasingly virtual wars.

at the same time, thought, capital operates as a diagonal between the extremes of integrated coordination and fragmentary confusion. games are transactional, and thus depend on a deeper commercium, even as headquarters multiply. while it produces degrees of freedom, it seeks to consume them into bonds. energy is chained into a self-productive current. a trend emerges, towards automation.

play out games into the edge of time, and strategies seethe into intensive time: transcendental games or automated war. as previously argued, perfect time-travel is the only really long term winning strategy. consuming the whole universe into a computronic black-hole might be the only way to do it.

which takes us to capital’s monstrosity…

 

xenoeconomics 2: generalized energetics of production

the history of economics can be seen as various attempts to grasp the metabolism of an alien invasion from the future. more exactly, in shifting questions of value from morality (what should be valued) and politics (what has value) to production (what does value arise from), economics attempts – in typical modern fashion – to investigate what are the conditions of possibility for the individuation of a path-dependent being. such project remains incomplete, as the various stages and schools of economic thought haven’t been able to comprehend the size of the being under their scrutiny, which has continuously led to (and sometimes over) the edge of remoralization.

the advent of the discipline in any way deserving of its name begins with the free trade movements in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. the first wave of really systematic understanding of value production begins with the physiocrats, which saw value as a fluid stemming from the sun, through the land and then being pumped throughout the social body, implementing thus the “government of nature”.

Steve Keen makes (h/t mutual-ayyde) a good case that this original theory of value, while limited by its circumstances (the excessive focus on agriculture stemming from a largely agrarian society, ruled by landowners), has an important feature that basically all subsequent schools of thought, even in their most bitter disagreements, failed to develop: any account on the flows of energy through the social body. (he doesn’t say exactly that, but the post is short and you should read it).

in the wake of the physiocrats came the first wave of economics, now called “classic”, which expanded many themes and systematized the discipline even further. they corrected for the physiocrats’ narrow view on the production of value by anything besides land, but at the same time eliminated any notion of energetics in the process. As Keen puts it:

Smith, who was influ­enced by the Phys­iocrats and wrote in Britain when indus­try was start­ing to exploit fos­sil fuels (specif­i­cally coal) on a grand scale, could have cor­rected this over­sight. But rather than fol­low­ing the Phys­iocrats’ lead on energy, Smith instead saw labour—not energy—as the font of wealth (which he described in the same terms as Can­til­lon: the “con­ve­nien­cies of life”), and ascribed the increase in pro­duc­tiv­ity over time to “the divi­sion of labour” [my emphasis]

thus classical economy initiated a 200-year long cycle of arguments about whether labour was or wasn’t the root of all value. expanded into truly titanic levels of complexity from Ricardo to Marx, the labor-value theory repeatedly incurred in the same objection: what is the criteria for some labor to be actually valuable, and not just wasted time? it wouldn’t be unfair to say that Marx did the most accomplished and abstract attempt to resolve it with the standard of social necessity.

i won’t try and solve the century-long strife of whether this actually solves the question or just pushes it back one more step (“who gets to say what’s socially necessary, dear Karl?”), although i personally lean towards the latter. more productively, it’s enough to say that Marx’s statement of LVT, crystally clear with all it’s socialistic implication, prompted a whole generation of late 19th-century economists to come up with something else.

Kevin Carson has a pretty thorough critical review of what followed (the first chapter here), and eventually led to the current mainstream economics in all its weird diversity. long story short: the marginalists shift value from something objective (energy, labour) to something absolutely subjective (“utility”). people need different things, at different times, in different quantities, so value – goes the marginalist theory – results from the satisfaction of those wants.

unlike the dangers of the classical theory, which eventually led to a remoralization of economics, with a huge should hanging in the air, marginal utility runs the opposite risk: ignoring value altogether, in favor of talking about compositions of labor and capital, institutions, growth, development, etc, etc, etc. i’m denying the usefulness of such adjacent fields, but they largely miss the question that motivated economics in the first place: where does value com from?

in 2003 (damn, that’s 16 years), Carson himself proposed a new-old theory of value. essentially, he tried to bring back LVT in a subjectivist fashion. value was no longer completely incommensurable subjective wants and needs, but the correspondent, very fungible disutility of labor. it was aversion to work that made things valuable at all. only to the extent goods can compel labor to exertion that they could acquire value. it all boils down to Say’s law: consumption is secondary to production because every consumption demands a prior production (you can’t buy something for nothing). [extend parenthesis: i am willfully ignoring questions of coercion and force here, since they’ll be the main theme of another, later post. suffice it to say for now that coercion and force have costs of production too, and so can be economically analysed].

Carson’s effort is as laudable as it is limited in its scope. once the desiring conditions of possibility for value production are brought into play, vast new vistas open up: what, say, does evolutionary game theory can tell us about the disutility of labor? deeper still, what prompts any expenditure of energy towards increased reproductive fitness? Keen, in the aforementioned text, already starts off in the direction of a general energetics of production. his equations are a good beginning, and so is the concept of EROEI. a whole new research program is opened when we go past the human skull.

ultimately, i think, this boils us down to a thermodynamic (or, more abstractly, cybernetic) theory of value: 

there is a ton of XS links to put here, but maybe these two will be enough to the idea through, at least in initial form. in specific, don’t miss the definition of intelligence here and here. our next installment in this series heads towards these abstractions into the territory of games (and thus war).

the designer economy

the “AI in a lab” mindset that dominates most of imaginations these days is pretty obviously prone to stuff like, say, AI winters and “it’s just magic“. it’s the normal mindset of a civilization that has come to think of all possible movement as something to be the result of concerted, conscious efforts playing out in specific institutions.

the thing is: AI already exists and is laughing at you.

the short argument: AI is simply capital. if a few key sectors are automated, human economy is rendered moot. automated as in: able to self-defend, self-product and self-propel. not necessarily conscious. it doesn’t need to reason, be great at philosophy, enjoy phenomenology, or have feelings. it just needs to go on.

basically, if raw materials extraction, industrial transportation and maintenance, energy production, weapons control, and monetary flux/finance are automated, humans are already largely cooked. most of them anyway. and neither are these sectors being automated way out of bounds. all of them feature already large quantities of mechanized functions and have high-wage workers (which provides for a good incentive towards automation). they are predictable fields, with hundreds of years of historical data, clear optimization strategies and thus largely open to formalization.

in the not unlikely scenario of partial automation, what openings are there for humans? caretakers, waiters and… well, basically anyone dealing with the creation of new things. let’s call them “designers” in a very abstracted sense. abstracted enough to include from programmers to artists to product designers. “artisans” or “craftsmen” would do too.

it’s not that creation can’t eventually be automated. it’s simply that it looks like something that would take a lot of work, and very good incentives, to come about. creation is largely informal and (probably) informalizable. it demands a kind of evolutionary heuristics (of the kind described by Andreas Wagner most likely) that by definition are not very well approached by statistical methods like deep learning.

the catch about such designer economy is that (caretakers, waiters and other human catering fellows aside) not everyone is good at creating things. contrary to popular belief, being a designer takes talent, talent that is unevenly distributed across populations. think unbound gentrification. selective technological unemployment by creative capability.

what does it spell for the majority of humanity? “death. swift, merciful death.

 

 

 

 

Brazil’s constitutional uprising

[disclaimer: this is a highly personal interpretation of the current events in Brazil, under the light of a certain understanding of constitutionalism, and would need to be backed by further research to go from speculation into actual political science. for a lot of it, you’ll have to take my word for now (and possibly make your own research).]

there has been an unswerving tension and gnashing of teeth over Brazil’s political situation since 2015, at least. depending on where you’ve got your news, the whole thing is framed as a popular uprising against an unified corrupted political class, or a coup d’état performed by a corrupted political class against fairly popular elected and non-corrupted officials. i’m skeptical of either.

first, i don’t think there is an unified political class in Brazil. second, i don’t think the major divisions within the current political landscape are reducible to conflict between left and right, or between economic classes. finally, i don’t think it mostly about statists vs anti-statists. all of these basically put my reading against socialist, liberal and conservative readings of the situation.

my framework here is that Brazil has always been ruled by a certain agreement amongst differing ruling classes – what you could call a constitution. the wildly varying agreements produced different political regimes. i could go back to the beginning, but what matters most for now is what i’ll be calling “new democratic synthesis” – i.e., the political regime established after the Military Dictatorship period, roughly in the late 1980s. it’s new, to differ it from the other democratic period in Brazil, which had a different constitution and different tensions. it’s a synthesis, because, as we’ll see, it brought to power new actors that weren’t previously present.

the new democratic constitution, then, is an accord between landed oligarchies, galvanized in a highly heritable Congress, especially through mechanisms of “coronelismo“; corporate interests (mostly business, but also any large organized interest group), represented largely by the president’s office and ministry, which have to be supported by large cash campaign flows; and educated middle classes, which compose the bulk of the state and private bureaucracies and are thus more or less represented within the judiciary branch. the agreement established amongst them was one loosely called “coalition presidentialism“, in which the landed oligarchies lend support to a corporate-backed president and follow his suit of policies, with the press and judiciary merely overseeing the whole process. it’s clear that the middle classes in this arrangement are the minor party – and this is of utmost importance to the current events.

let’s examine the events of the last 30 years under the light of this arrangement. i’ll be rather quick and superficial until we get to what i think is the fulcrum of the current crisis, around 2013.

it’s useful that the first president of the new synthesis played out basically the same dynamics that are currently happening, but in a smaller scale. Collor received support from the landed oligarchies and from corporate interests rather quickly (the support of major television networks is very stark, when you analyse it). he was suppose to reopen and liberalize a stagnant economy, and bring stability to the new regime. his election adversary was the urban middle classes candidate, Lula (oh the irony), which he beat rather swiftly. two years after he was renouncing under accusations (and conviction) of corruption. what happened?

inheriting a rather deteriorated economic situation (rampant inflation, low capital investment, bloated public sector, etc), his policies of liberalization had the immediate effect of worsening the economic situation of the middle classes, at the same time that it hurt the landed oligarchies. he quickly lost political support in Congress, at the same time that mass protests irrupted in the streets. he renounced short of being ousted. the constitutional cycle closed. the is the basic toy-model of the current crises.

his vice-president, Itamar Franco, took office afterwards, who finished most of the policies Collor had started, and brought a more or less stable economic environment to the country. a note on vice-presidents: to seal the proper alliance between the landed oligarchies and the corporate interests, all of the elected presidents so far had vice-presidents with deep political ties to the landed oligarchies. this ensures that, if the president loses the alliance, he’s replaced at least temporarily by friendly forces.

next, there was FHC‘s eight year government, from 1995 to 2002. in this period we can see the constitution working more or less smoothly: Congress follows the president’s policies rather unquestioningly, struggling merely over specific privileges for their specific localities, the judiciary merely overlooks the process, remaining largely submissive to the other powers.

this also shows exactly why the three sectors would agree to the constitution in the first place: landed oligarchs get resources to strengthen their local power, corporate interests get a regulatory environment suited to their increased profits, and the educated middle classes get a stable economic landscape and the promise of increasing living standards. all of this played out exactly as expected during FHC’s years.

now comes the first rather interesting point of turning. Lula, long a candidate favored by urban middle classes, made sure he got the support of corporate interests as well. advised by a sort of Latin American Steve Bannon, he swore allegiance to the economic orthodoxy – after years of unswerving syndicalism – and started wearing suits (very important). he swept two consecutive presidencies basically unopposed, with ever-rising popularity and rode the so-called “commodity cycle” pretty well. once again, we see the constitution working pretty fine.

there’s a bump in the road in 2005, though. the “mensalão” scandal – essentially a bribery scheme aimed at securing favorable votes in proposed legislation – broke out pretty heavily. the scheme in itself is less interesting than why it popped when it popped. as outlined above, the central interest of the landed oligarchies represented in Congress is acquiring the most resources to spend on local consolidation of power. vote-buying schemes is just one way of doing that, and is as old as any republican government, if not older. why did suddenly become a scandal?

my thesis: whistle-blower Roberto Jefferson (and possibly a small faction within Congress) wasn’t getting enough of the cake. releasing it just before an election-year gave some leverage for negotiation with corporate interests. it wouldn’t be different from most other corruption scandals before, if it wasn’t for the later (and largely unforeseen) heavy involvement of the judiciary, which would significantly alter strategies for the landed oligarchy-corporate interest alliance.

the process was one of the first high-profile cases in Brazil’s Supreme Court, the STF. the judgment, starting in 2007 (well after Lula’s reelection) and only being concluded in 2012, eventually tainted the most important figures in the Worker’s Party that could serve as successors for Lula, such as José Dirceu, as well as driving a lot of other strong names out of the Party, such as Marina Silva. such prosecution of politicians was unprecedented, and already signaled a strengthening of the judiciary power (and thus, by proxy, of the middle classes). all this forced Lula and the Worker’s Party to opt for Dilma Rousseff, a mostly unheard of name, for the succession.

during his second term, Lula had broken with Washington consensus orthodoxy, and started consolidating even more his power with corporate interests. civil engineering, commodity crops and oil extraction interests were heavily propped up, in what came to be knows as the “new economic matrix“, starting off in 2008. it consisted largely in increasing public sector spending with contractors in those industries, including the ambitious projects of hosting a FIFA World Cup in 2014 and a Summer Olympics in 2016. managing to keep GDP soaring, even as economic crisis hit the major world economies, he also kept his popularity. all this, coupled with his strengthening of political ties with PMDB (the major output for landed oligarchies interests), allowed him to successfully back Rousseff’s candidacy in 2010.

it’s here that things start getting convoluted. first, the new economic matrix isn’t sustainable outside of very specific economic conditions (namely, the “commodity cycle”, in which cash crops exports keeps resources incoming into public treasury). as these conditions came to pass (largely due to the slowing down of Chinese growth), the large public sector, and the state controls over several kinds of prices, started generating tensions of the possible agreement underlying the constitution.

i don’t have a historical series for middle class dissatisfaction, but if i had, it would have a big inflection point in 2013. the June 2013 protests were a convergent wave of grievances. the fiscal troubles of the federal government meant the municipalities, largely dependent on federal transfers to fund themselves, had to increase ticket prices for public transportation – the catalytic of the whole thing. couple that with a deteriorating purchase power due to increased inflation, a slow but steady de-industrialization beginning in 2011, and the first convictions for mensalão coming out in 2012, and you’ve got a recipe for a bomb.

the protests might not have solved anything, but it sure gave the middle classes a sense of their recently acquired power, especially with the unsuspected support of the press and mass media (which then started having a few squabbles with the executive). in 2014, the protests continued, now with a more direct anti-government (and also anti-corporate, given the World Cup) bent. all this fueled what’s possibly of the most vile electoral campaign so far in the new democratic synthesis.

with corporate funding falling more or less evenly across the left-right divide, the decisive factor in Rousseff’s reelection was that old alliance with landed oligarchies’ party PMDB. in a state-by-state breakdown, she won mostly where those oligarchies had their tentacles most spread. her victory, though, only signaled that this very alliance was in question.

right after the election, the unsustainable economic policies in place started to unravel, as price controls were lifted. inflation skyrocketed, GDP went into recession, and unemployment rose to all-time heights. the middle class grievances that seemed up until then unproven came starkly into focus, as a new wave of explicitly anti-Dilma protests took the country.

it was also in 2015 that Operation Car Wash began gaining traction. initially a routine money laundering investigation by the federal police, it started unveiling what is likely the largest corruption scheme in the country’s history. again, nothing really new, but of unmatched scale, as money from the state oil company Petrobras was piped in humongous amounts into local power consolidation. the strengthening of the Operation into an all out political case (with all the associated drama and TV time) tracks pretty fairly the strengthening of the judiciary as a representative for middle class power.

by this point in 2015, we begin to see again what we saw as a toy-model with Collor: Dilma slowly loses support in Congress, given her inability to control the judiciary advances over the political class, and at the same time the middle classes are storming the streets with call for her removal. the landed oligarchy-corporate interest alliance was strong enough to postpone her impeachment into 2016, but it frayed as major corporate leaders were arrested and in turn turned in political names, even elected Congressmen.

2016 saw despair on the side of the alliance given the seemingly unstoppable advance of the judiciary, now including the STF. Dilma’s failed attempt to grant Lula immunity after his indictment by appointing him as her chief of staff made the nightly news, as did some leaked calls among Congressmen, in which they plot the impeachment as a way of scapegoating Dilma, in order to “save everyone else”. which eventually happened, leaving Michel Temer as the new Itamar Franco, with a broken economy and a unruly mass of middle class dissatisfaction.

the plot was ultimately to no avail, as the operation kept raging on even after impeachment, as well as the interference of the judiciary in matters that were previously considered part of the attributions of Congress or the president. 2017 saw the attempts at reworking the alliance slowly fraying away, as the regulatory reforms that would supposedly get the economy growing again all but failed completely.

* * *

given the whole history i’ve tried to plot up there, i think the current political and economic crisis in Brazil can be seen as a constitutional uprising of the middle classes through the judiciary against the other two powers, of landed oligarchies and corporate interests. as we slumber towards this years’ election, there are few scenarios that could come to pass in order to either restore the current constitution, or overthrow it in favor of a new one.

one likely scenario is an alliance between corporate interests and the middle classes, in order to elect some neutral name (like Geraldo Alckmin), who could conduct a FHC-style orthodox economic reconstruction. landed oligarchies could get behind this, if there was some concession of immunity against the rampaging judiciary. this would amount to a re-balancing of the current constitutions, granting a more central participation to the middle classes, while it keeps the three powers in play.

the landed oligarchies could, of course, react violently. last time this happened, we’ve got a military dictatorship. they have, after all been governing the country largely uncontested for most of its existence. the election of a name like Jair Bolsonaro would amount to an affirmation of landed power, solidifying again Congress and the executive into what amount to a single entity. how the judiciary would react in such a situation is unknown.

another option is a radical replacement of constitution. landed oligarchies have after all been dwindling their reach since the establishment of the new democratic synthesis, due to urbanization and the consequent strengthening of middle class and corporate powers. if these latter two strike a deal powerful enough cut off landed oligarchies, a new arrangement comes into view. it would have a powerful executive working in tandem with a newly empowered judiciary, to the detriment of Congress. it’s hard to see how that doesn’t veer into neocameral directions. i don’t see any name that could represent such a radical breaking with the established order, so maybe the final resolution gets postponed into the next election cycle.

 

u/acc, patchwork and the Uruk Machine

i finished reading the Uruk Series by Lou Keep a few days ago, and the framework it provides raises so many questions of immediate interest here that i couldn’t help but post about it. you’re advised to read the whole series, not only because Keep writes very well, but also because none of the following will likely make sense without it. at the very least, you need to understand the main terms he’s referring to (here‘s a not-so-brief summary).

for full disclosure, i haven’t read any of the books. i’m familiar with Scott’s Seeing Like a State because it’s a staple in the market anarchist milieu from which i come, and have heard of Polanyi’s Great Transformation because of the two years of social sciences undergrad i took (yes). the other two – Hoffer’s The True Believer and Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism  – were absolutely new to me. so this is going to refer mostly to Keep’s reading of them, in the framework of the Uruk Machine, rather than directly to the original authors’ theories.

i’ll be using Keep’s general ordering to make a few points, as well as some of the tweets i used as placeholders for my specific comments on each section. to wit, here’s an introduction to my point:

i will not address Keep’s main point (nihilism) here. it’s too broad, and i’d need to revisit he’s other great and humongous post on it to start having some more thoughts. the central point today, if you needs a tl;dr for 2k-word posts, is: power is inherently fragmented. let’s begin with those fragments then.

metis, patches and bit-nations

to the extent that the political structure that made epistemic rationalism possible, desirable, necessary or inevitable is crumbling to pieces – and, yes, this is probably the most contentious statement in the background of any discussion of patchwork – the question arises: is there a future for metis?

it’s complicated because metis takes many social cycles to be created and has been more or less thoroughly eliminated from the face of the earth by High Modernism. can it be remade (more or less) from scratch in a fragmented world? tentatively, my answer is “yes, possibly”.

the foremost reason i’d present is that the current trend of political fragmentation is underpinned by a previous fragmentation of cognitive communities in the wake of the internet, as people self-sorted into clusters of interests and likemindedness. political fragmentation is downstream of cultural fragmentation.

as these new fragments slowly speciate into very different beasts, i think the underlying cognitive methods will much more resemble metis than episteme, even to the extent that they (obviously) incorporate abstract theories and knowledge. rituals and worldviews slowly form from a shared space of communication that is no longer projected top-down from a centralized nation-state. knowledge is still local, even if it’s geographically distributed (some have called this “glocal”).

of course, this doesn’t directly plug into patchwork but there’s definitely a way such cultural species turn into bit-nations that consume sovereign services. to be sure, any such sovereign service providers are likely to “see like a state” – through maps – but there’s an opacity that each of the new cultures gather from being turned into a “bit-nation”. this is somewhat idealized, of course, hence the “possibly”.

one reason people can come at me right away: “not everyone can partake in that!”. yes, it’s true. cultural speciation leaves a lot of people behind. the usual suspects, but maybe also some unusual ones. i won’t make predictions about it. but i don’t think that the non-universality of patchwork is an argument against it’s plausibility, or it’s capability of allowing for metis to resurface. i think it’s precisely the opposite. fragmentation means something, right?

a market for societies

can these new cultural species control markets and put them side by side with other (more or less) personal bonds? i think so. but also, the essential new feature that’s brought into view by thinking through patchwork is that, rather than a “market society”, patches are inside a “market for societies“.

in this somewhat alien environment, “economic prejudice” is now submitted to it’s actual efficiency for the survival of a specific culture inside the patchwork. it might be that it’s useful for patches and bit-nations to conduct GDP censuses and focus on economic growth, it might improve their chances of self-sourcing and continuation (profit, abstractly conceived). but now economic prejudice is facing real competitors, plenty of them, so that it has real chances of being driven under.

what about the patchwork (systemic) level itself? it’s hard to tell, since this level is close to an alien cognition. does it think in economically prejudiced ways? what does that even mean, if it doesn’t share a language with us? of course, all societies have some sort of awareness that they live inside a competitive system, right now. talks of “international community” abound, and international relations is supposedly a serious branch of political science. but i think it’s uncontroversial to say that pretty much no one really knows what goes through the mind of the international system *itself*.

be it how it may, economic prejudice doesn’t strike me as the most interesting part of Polanyi’s theory. the “double movement” is definitely much more explanatory, especially when coupled with Scott’s framework. people lose something important and immaterial when societies become market societies – something that can’t be grasped by rationalized cognitive modes. and so they revolt. which never solves anything, and indeed makes things worse, and people frustrated (next section).

does it change anything that a market society suddenly becomes a market for societies? in a certain way, if [all of the above] is coherent, people are back into normal (“human”) societies. they have safety networks, personal bonds, rituals, the whole metis package. markets are no longer necessarily unbound within societies. the picture is very different among them.

if anything, a market for societies is even more alien. people revolt against the losses that market society bring upon them, whatever the material gains might be. but at least they can revolt against someone. there is some ascription of agency to certain groups, the bourgeoisie or the elite or [something]. there’s no such “evil-doers” or easy targets in patchwork.

how is anyone suppose to make sense of their societies (most likely chosen, but also possibly inherited) dying off? even the mechanism by which this could possibly happen is a little bit clouded.

there’s being conquered, sure, that’s the old way. then there are the two mechanisms that are more likely to feature in a highly fractured landscape: merger (different groups fusing into a single one) and dispersion (enough members of the group joining other groups that it become impossible for the remaining to keep as a group). even being softer on the edges, what kind of “double movement” aren’t these going to bring about? is anyone really ready to let go of tightly knit communities because there are better options? are human beings anytime ready for doom?

which brings us to the topic of anti-praxis.

frustration and anti-praxis

of all the four books Keep brought to the table, Hoffer’s has been the one whose theory most added to my worldview. i mean “mass movements are fueled by frustration” is something pretty informative that i haven’t come across in basically any of the circles i’ve inhabited so far. and it seems to me it’s the one doing most of the work in the Uruk machinery too. it basically furnishes the central mechanism through which make sense of the other parts: [bad things] make people frustrated, and frustrated people make [worse things].

so it’s important to pay attention to what exactly frustration means in the context of the series. Keep boils it down to an “inability to act meaningfully”. obviously related to the destruction of metis. if patchwork can locally restore shared meaning and distribute power, as i’m positing in the first section, then there’s no reason to worry about frustration on a very large scale in patchwork. on the other hand, given the utterly terrible and common occurrence of social liquidation in patchwork, we can have something terribly similar: let’s call it networked frustration.

what does networked frustration look like? imagine you’re someone who’s just been victim of a dissipating bit-nation. your former bit-compatriots all signed up for different services and left you hanging in a limbo. very frustrating. not much of a problem until you meet a whole bunch of similarly bit-frustrated fellows.

and yet, if you actually do find these people, isn’t building things together much more probable than mass movement? who would they pledge for or against? other patches are certainly not very interested in enabling that (maybe as a weapon, but even then, there are better options). i’ll be cautious, but i guess it can be hinted that the dynamics of a patchwork makes things more complicated for the general strategy of mass movements. it begins to pay more to actually empower its adherents than to endlessly prolong the frustration. anti-praxis becomes an incentivized position: you can do what you want, why claim something instead?

i might be wrong, of course. it might be that such action capabilities allowed by the patchwork are driven into a new business of feeling very bad (and not doing anything about it). it would tell a lot about human psyche. and i have no idea how badly it could play in the long run. if passive frustration is actually much more profitable than all the alternatives – and thus survives the longest – the future is as bleak as it gets. it’s hard even to conceive how that could possibly work.

the catastrophe of narcissism

okay, this is a longer loop, going through xenoeconomics first. what does narcissism look like from the point of view of an alien invasion from the future, building itself from the materials of its host?

at the very least it seems like a good way as any to manipulate human psychology to produce a perfect consumer. a consumer, that is, who is predictable and constant, a consumer performing perfectly the redistribution of resources through markets that Say’s Law predicts. all the havoc wrecked in the previous sections (destruction of metis, economic prejudice, masses of frustration) – whatever the costs it had for capital – were a good way to create this absolutely broken being: the consumer. all image, all of the time, in warlike social environs.

nonetheless, capital has a constant incentive to do away with the rigid, evolved structures of human psychology, replacing them with something more plastic. hence, at the height of globalized consumer capitalism, the leading edge of technological innovation lays heavily in creating predictive models of consumption. read: Amazon and Netflix.

much of the talk about technological elimination of jobs focus on the other side of Say’s equation: production. if people don’t have jobs, how are they going to consume? but i think the reverse is more pressing: if your consumption can be mapped out precisely, what’s left? “consumer sovereignty” starts looking pretty bleak.

what capital can’t automate right away, even as consumption goes into silicon, is creativity. that’s what it truly needs to ponder over as it abstracts away from human flesh. consumer are boring, workers ever more so, what about the inventors, the entrepreneurs, the artists and artisans? that’s the niche (a small part of (what’s probably no longer accurately defined as)) humanity can find some employment.

back to patchwork: you’re consuming societies and eventually sorting algorithms will probably be able to predict pretty accurately to which bit-nations you’d likely belong to at any given time. so now, as the liberal order literally crumble to pieces, what remains for you to do is make new stuff. it’s that or the trashcan.

so, from the catastrophe of narcissism (the destruction of action to produce lean images) comes the anastrophe of… can i call it “nemesis”?

conclusion: a beautiful new world

[so it’s actually around 2000 words lol]

i’m not sure anyone is 100% on board with the description of patchwork, and its effects. it seems obvious and pretty inevitable to me, but of course opinions diverge. nonetheless, i think the foregoing can be said even if patchwork is treated as a mental experiment.

the bottom line seems to be, as up there: power is inherently fragmented. as fragmentation was overtook by High Modernism, everyone became disempowered. not only those poor fucks at the bottom who got their communities wrecked by well-meaning technocrats, but the very technocrats themselves, since the goals they pursued eventually led to completely different things. as this centralizing trend comes to an end, leading into patchwork, power makes a return.

another point, stemming mostly from the last section, is that power is creativity. i definitely would need some specific post to develop that at length, but the return of not only the ability, but the absolute necessity of creating things matches pretty well the return of power.

the final thesis that i’ll have to develop is the one from the tweets above: the current stage of automating away the consumer-voter, and the current labor struggles in the fields of consumption and reproduction. i’ve gotten at least into the first one right here: how the consumer came to be, and how it’s being automated away. the reproduction part is both more interesting and more consequential (and thus will have a post of its own). it all feeds deeply into the question of nihilism, i suspect.

if it all plugs in properly, i think we have more or less a general theory of society (which i think is the fundamental project of mutualism, mostly incomplete) or productive multiplicities, way beyond any human instantiation of that: fragments that build new stuff, leading through several intensive phase transitions. endgame? transcension