Recently in Social Movements Category

(Felix Salmon - The Bitcoin Bubble)

Such people, including Satoshi Nakamoto, are far from unique in their mistrust of all existing financial institutions. What sets Nakamoto apart is that he turned that mistrust into a philosophy, the most important driving force behind the bitcoin project. When he introduced bitcoin to the world in February 2009, Nakamoto boasted that his new currency was "completely decentralized, with no trusted parties". And he explained in some detail what he saw as the problem in need of a solution:

The root problem with conventional currency is all the trust that's required to make it work. The central bank must be trusted not to debase the currency, but the history of fiat currencies is full of breaches of that trust. Banks must be trusted to hold our money and transfer it electronically, but they lend it out in waves of credit bubbles with barely a fraction in reserve. We have to trust them with our privacy, trust them not to let identity thieves drain our accounts.

There are all kinds of amusing ways in which you can poke fun at Bitcoin and the subculture that has grown up around it. But, taken seriously, this is yet another big bet by the privileged techno-libertarian class that those of us who believe in society and a commonwealth and democracy and all that rot are the dumb money in the room. 

You don't fix problems of trust by eliminating trust from the equation. You fix them socially, democratically, empathically. The answer to a failure of trust isn't further atomization (neatly disguised as techno-utopian transcendence). It's justice.

(Which, easier said than done, yeah. People mistrust our institutions because our institutions are profoundly broken. And there has been precious little justice or reckoning with the events of the past decade and more. But the answer sure as hell isn't to run away and hide in the Singularity. Social problems have social solutions. Broken institutions have to be mended, and absent justice has to be created. Put your shoulder to the wheel. Start doing what the online community used to do best: inventing new systems of trust and new ways to connect.)

Tech-Driven Deprofessionalization

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What ultimately has made the criticism of the Chicago strike so odd and irritating is that the critics are so dismissive and arrogant about the chief sticking points in the negotiations, which aren't really about money. There's a seeming inability to understand why poorly designed evaluation systems, particularly those that are tied to test results, threaten the very best and most inspiring teachers as much as anyone. What they threaten is not the loss of job security, but the professional discretion and skill of good teachers. You can't be in favor of clumsy or cookie-cutter evaluations and still claim to be primarily concerned about the quality of teaching in public schools.

What might be happening here is less the rage of privileged elites against anyone they deem to be beneath them, and more the rage of upper middle-class professionals who have found their own lives increasingly hemmed in by forms of deprofessionalizing oversight and dumb operant-conditioning gimmickry sold to organizations by snake-oil consultancies.

The trick in the next decade is going to be: can we get the river to flow the other direction? Rather than give in to every person who insists that whatever outrages and inefficiencies of 21st Century Taylorism have been inflicted on them must be inflicted on everyone else, we should be trying to claw back generative, productive forms of dignity and autonomy to the working lives of every person.

Do Liberals and Elites Hate Teachers? | Easily Distracted

I took a super-interesting Information History class with Dan Schiller my last semester at GSLIS, and one of the main themes of the course was how IT allows capital and management to deprofessionalize and regiment work. This starts at least from the invention of the modern clock, and goes up through the early management techniques of the industrial revolution, to office technology like the typewriter and the adding machine which replaced a whole middling professional class of clerks with pooled labor. Then you get the full monty with Taylorism and all the dehumanizing results that followed from that, which was thankfully somewhat offset by the rise of organized labor by midcentury.

So, then modern computer IT comes along, which of course was initially clearly centralized and controlling (think mainframes and men in gray flannel suits.) But, since I didn't know my history or recognize my privilege I'd always thought of the emergence of the networked personal computer as different somehow, liberatory instead of controlling. And, of course, it can be, for those with the power to control it rather than be controlled. 

What we're seeing now is the rapid shrinking of the proportion of people and professions who have that power. It's happening to teachers, lawyers, writers (think of the methods of HuffPo and Nick Denton and the rise of pageviews as the measure of cultural worth if you don't think that cultural work can be regimented and automated) and lots of other previously autonomous professional occupations.

That call center worker whose every second and every move is monitored and timed and dictated? Well, that may be your future too, unless we fight tooth and nail for power over our working conditions. That's what teachers in Chicago are doing now. It's time for professional classes to realize that they have a lot more in common with those below them on the economic ladder than with the people running things. We're in a place now where solidarity isn't just sentiment, it's survival.

If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals... But it feels like a real fight--as if there was something really wild in the universe which we are needed to redeem - Wm. James

Writing up that last post reminded me of another useful consequence of a Pragmatic worldview. The admission that are all of our ideals and institutions are of human origin, and thus mutable, also implies that we can take nothing for granted. I think taking the accomplishments of the New Deal and the 60's for granted is a big part of what allowed our civil society to deteriorate to the level of the current political situation.

After 1968, or 1972 at the latest, the American Left in many ways declared victory and went home, ceding the field to the forces of the radical Right, who were willing and increasingly able to move heaven and Earth in attempt to roll back those gains. They needed to be fought tooth and nail the whole way, but really we only began to see some real fight and commitment return to the Left with the Clinton impeachment, and we didn't have anything like what was called for until very recently.

A lot was accomplished in the era from FDR to LBJ, and American liberals could be justifiably proud of that legacy, but to make good on it they needed to stay in the trenches and fight for it. No social or political ideal or arrangement can endure unless there are many people who continue to actively value and embody it, and who are willing to make a lifelong commitment to defend it. Positive social change, though plenty difficult in its own right, may well be the easy part of the equation in comparison to the long slog of consolidating the change and vigilantly defending it from reactionary forces.

I hope we've learned that lesson in the wake of what happened from Nixon through Dubya, but I wish that our country and our world didn't have to be put through all of this hell in the first place. If a large portion of the people who made up the mass social and political movements of the 60's had committed themselves to the long and messy political process of defending what they just had worked so hard to accomplish, instead of moving to the suburbs to have kids, or taking up disco and cocaine, or becoming high-rolling investment bankers, or whatever the hell they did after they disappeared from the public stage and let the Silent Majority wreck everything they had just built, we wouldn't be in this mess.

And yes, I'm a little bitter. I've got another post brewing about how the 60's and many of the Boomers went wrong. I think a lot of the problems that led to the dissolution of those movements were inherent to their structure, ideology, and culture from the beginning. If things are indeed turning again, I hope we will do better and be wiser and more committed and practical this time around.

The Once and Future UN

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Time for more from the department of interesting crossovers and coincidences in reading. I find that this is one of the best parts of reading widely and voraciously... you start to see all kinds of serendipitous and productive new connections between different genres, groups of ideas, historical eras, and so on and so forth. The more you read and learn, the more your further reading and learning is enriched, and the more sense it all starts to make, at least internally, and at times externally as well. This is why reference and allusion, when done well, is so great. It's more than just being able to feel really smart whenever you "get" a reference. It goes two ways... modern writers invest their works with meaning through allusion and reference, and this in turn can make musty-seeming older works take on a new, modernized significance and applicability of their own.

This is much of why I tend to defend at least some sort of loose form of the literary canon. There are certain things that you just have to read, or at least certain concepts and ideas that you have to be familiar with, to be able to fully understand and get the most out of just about anything else you read, and vice-versa. Most "important" books are that way for a reason... because many people who came afterward saw fit to write about them. Even if you don't greatly enjoy, say, the Iliad or the Odyssey on their own merits, slogging through them will truly enrich your experience with an innumerable number of later books and authors.

Anyhow, this week, it's been the confluence of TH White's The Once and Future King, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and an article lamenting the possible demise of internationalism, in the latest Mother Jones. These at first don't seem like a terribly likely combination; an Arthurian fantasy novel, a terse historical document, and a despairing commentary on current events, but, they dovetail quite nicely, at least in my addled brain.

King, besides being a delightful and poignant modern update on the Arthurian legend, is also sort of a tradegian look at the ongoing experiments of liberalism, human rights, and civil society. It casts the forming of the Round Table by Arthur as an attempt at replacing the Medieval idea of Might as Right with one of the use of controlled Might to defend Right, with the eventual goal of establishing equality before civil law, and abolishment for the need of violent, warlike power at all. He brings the knights, the most powerful and invulnerable weapons of his time, under his central control, and uses them to prevent the various feudal lords and barons from using them to promote tyranny and anarchy for personal gain.

The United Nations was formed with similar goals in mind. Horrified by the carnage and chaos that typified the first half of the 20th century, the internationalist founders of the UN tried to restrain the use of Might by nations for selfish means, by attempting to set up a global version of concentrated power enforcing civil law. They neglected to attempt in earnest to concentrate true Might behind it(perhaps a mistake in retrospect, perhaps not), relying more on consensus and mutual benefit, but the main idea was the same, to replace the idea of kill or be killed with that of cooperation and the concentration of power for mutual safety and benefit.

There is a dual tragedy operating in White's book, that of Arthur's own personal life, fatal error, and eventual unfulfilled death, paralleled by that of the demise of his grand project. He harnesses Might productively at first, subjugating the warring barons and bringing peace and prosperity to the kingdom. However, with nothing else to occupy and direct it, the controlled violence of the Table soon begins to turn on itself and others. He then tries to direct Might on a cleansing spiritual quest, in the form of the Holy Grail, in the hopes of both occupying and taming it. This also succeeds for a time, and the knights who succeed are indeed cleansed of violence or killed, but this sadly leaves only the more mercenary among them in place with no countervailing force to restrain them. The end of the book documents the slow unravelling of Arthur's dream in internecine warfare and chaos, both in the case of his kingdom and of the fate of himself and the people he loves.

Reading the utopian vision of universal rights that is the Universal Declaration, the defining document and hope of the UN, I couldn't help but think of what I had just read about the failure of Arthur's beautiful dream. Both were incredibly worthy ideas, which society and human nature in the real world are sadly just not ready to practically allow. The UN and internationalism are currently threatened with irrelevance by the same uncontainable forces and human failings that destroyed Arthur's vision, the same streak of irrational violence, fear, hatred, and selfishness that runs through the heart of us all, and by extension all of our aggregations together as nations or societies in greater or lesser degrees. The same failings that have destroyed every attempt at ending war and providing liberty, equality, and justice for all. The eternal bane of all Utopias.

So, does this mean that we should come to our senses already and just stop trying? I'm not so sure. White ends his book on a more hopeful note, having Arthur call in a youthful page named TomFootnote
Sir Thomas Malory, of course. See what I was saying about allusion and references above?
, and ask him to stay out of the coming (and fatal) battle, and instead to make sure that the ideas for which it was being fought would live on.

"Thomas, my idea for those knights was a sort of candle, like these ones here. I have carried it with me for many years with a hand to shield it from the wind. It has flickered often. I am giving you the candle... you won't let it out?"

I think that Arthur finally realized, right there at the edge of death's door, that there would be no winning of a decisive ultimate battle, no magic bullet that would fix everything and lead us to a Utopian world. What matters is slow progress over time, and what allows that is ideas that survive and pervade, that change individual minds, the sentiments and choices of which filter upward to form what we call societies, nations, and the global community. Arthur would die in a futile and foregone battle the next day, but he would not be a failure, because his dream would live on, and others would work towards bringing the world closer to approximating his vision.

Even if the UN meets a similar fate and eventually fails politically, and this incarnation of internationalism goes by the wayside, there's no reason to despair or quit. The world is a better place now than it was looking backward from 1948 by almost every measure. The ideas that the UN and the UDHR made legitimate and important on a global scale are here to stay, enduring in the hearts and minds and actions of millions of people and many governments around the world. The candle may gutter at times, and the ideas may come to manifest themselves in a different form in the future, but I don't think there is any way that particular flame is going to go out anytime soon. Like Arthur, the Once and Future King, they too will return to lead us one day, if we are willing to fight on their side.

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Social Movements category.

Serendipity is the previous category.

Spirituality is the next category.

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