Trump, the Wild West & Digital Capitalism.
As the world watches on in curious disbelief at the first couple of months of a Donald Trump presidency, we are told that a post truth landscape prevails, one characterised by the rejection of traditional politics and a retreat into our algorithmically constructed social feeds. There has been a proliferation of op-eds in the wake of the presidential election decrying this new supposedly new era.
Yet all this talk of post-truth implies that we somehow lived in a pre-post-truth era. The scurrilous profession of politics has always, is, and will continue to rely on optics, representations and distortions of the truth. Have we then, not always lived in a post-truth landscape? If Donald Trump’s victory was the milestone that heralded in the post-truth age, then what were we to make of Hillary Clinton and her consistent position changes and backtracking on policy issues over the last number of decades?
Focusing on post-truth acts to quell any inclination to apply any material or class based analysis to the recent election results. Post-truth overlooks the day to day suffering that the disempowered feel under the current political system. Post-truth undoubtedly has had an effect on current elections, but to concentrate solely on this lets the current political system off the hook. As Evgeny Morozov argues that “post-truth is to digital capitalism what pollution is to fossil capitalism — a by-product of operations”.
The traditional one-to-many gatekeepers of information are in crisis and today being replaced by the online many-to-many networks as the primary source of information. The secretive algorithms of social media have ensured that the digital world is becoming nothing more than an echo chamber.
Google, founded in 1998, now employs over 46,000 staff globally and has a global profit in 2015 of $75 billion. Facebook, founded in 2004, now employs 20,000 staff for it’s 1.79 billion active users and turned over $18billion in 2015. SnapChat founded in 2011 has over 150 million users is now worth 25billion dollars.
These are the new gatekeepers.
This is the latest gold rush.
Social media, and the commodification of our social action is capitalism’s leading edge, the latest in a long line of frontiers to be appropriated. In this respect, is it so outrageous that America, a country defined by the frontier since its inception has had its election won and lost in the circulation of fake-news and the sphere of social media??
America and the Frontier.
In 1894, Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis wrote of the centrality of the frontier to the American character:
“Thus American development has exhibited not merely advance along a single line, but a return to primitive conditions on a continually advancing frontier line, and a new development for that area. American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character. The true point of view in the history of this nation is not the Atlantic coast, it is the great West”.
In material terms, how can the frontier be described? It is the conquest of the earth, the plunder of the natural world, the expansion Westward was based on the appropriation of “Earth’s free gifts” into the vortex of capital. The appropriation of the obscenely fertile soil of the Great Plains, or the plunder of America’s great natural resources not yet touched by Old World technology.
The Peace Treaty with Britain in 1783 roughly doubled the National Area of the United States. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 brought further expansion and facilitated a capitalism that was dependent on appropriating the nutrient rich land, timber and fur of these new territories. The annexation of British Canada to the North was always a possibility up to the peace treaty of 1814, while Florida was taken soon after this Northern disappointment.
“And now, four centuries from the discovery of America, at the end of a hundred years of life under the Constitution, the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history”.
The Monroe doctrine of 1823 which obligated European powers to respect the Western Hemisphere of the United States’ sphere of interest made explicit their future intentions well before Turner’s seminal text. In truth, the advance of the frontier never stopped once the Pacific Ocean presented itself. The romance of the frontier West laid a solid foundation for an appetite of appropriation.
The initial expansion of territory morphed into the expansion of markets vis-a-vis procurement of de-facto protectorates and satellite States as characterised by the geo-political swagger of the United States in procuring favourable conditions for its commercial interests abroad.
As Jason Moore argues in Capitalism in the Web of Life, the exhaustion of traditional commodity frontiers globally is strongly linked to the “peculiar forms of financialisation that have emerged since the 1970s”. Nixon got rid of the Bretton Woods agreement, which tied the dollar to the gold standard in 1971 which lifted the frontiers on the possibilities of capital and paving the way for futures and derivatives markets.
Yet today we have a problem. As Jason Moore argues, “the frontiers are shrinking at the very moment when capital needs ever greater commodity frontiers to resolve the over-accumulation problem”.
Today, technological advancements have now ensured that capitalism’s leading edge has ended up right back in our homes. Capital has redefined domestic markets and expanded territories, at home and abroad. It has enslaved, killed and massacred those who have stood in its way, it has opened up trading in the future. Today big-tech is an increasingly dominant presence in our lives, it has entered into the immaterial, into our very sociality.
We are now the frontier.
So in this respect is it really that unfathomable and outrageous that the commercially driven and secret algorithms that create, shape and alter our worldview have had an effect on the elections of 2016?
In the last three months up to the US election, the top 20 fake news stories outperformed real news in the number of engagements on Facebook. In this world, the truth holds no currency, the real currency is clicks, likes and shares.
Is Hillary involved in a child-sex ring, did Hillary sell guns to Isis, did Obama found Isis, is Ted Cruz’s father the Zodiac killer? It doesn’t matter if it is true as long as it is shared.
In today’s chaotic world that we can never fully know or understand. Our minuscule place in it is informed by the shadow of our own reflection -one that is cast by an untransparent algorithm.
But if Trump’s campaign was fuelled and energised in this new domain of social commodification, it was also buttressed by the notion that the frontier is but a mirage to be seen in the distance but never reached. Evidenced in Trump’s rolling back on Obama’s measures to combat climate change.
But today there are limits, and they are not so far away. Trump’s denial and skepticism of climate change (except for in the planning for his Irish Golf Course) presumes that the frontier is endless. It is not.
Welcome to the Capitalocene:
“Another wave rolls on. The men of capital and enterprise come. The settler is ready to sell out and take the advantage of the rise in property, push farther into the interior and become, himself, a man of capital and enterprise in turn. The small village rises to a spacious town or city; substantial edifices of brick, extensive fields, orchards, gardens, colleges, and churches are seen. Broadcloths, silks, leghorns, crapes, and all the refinements, luxuries, elegancies, frivolities, and fashions are in vogue. Thus wave after wave is rolling westward; the real Eldorado is still farther on”.
Yet today there is no El Dorado. No amount of financial jiggery pokery or imperialism of any flavour can open up and create new markets and opportunities like have gone before.
Hillary Clinton’s floundering position on Standing Rock offered us up a preview to her stance on the environment if she was elected. Could the Keynesian politics of Sanders really offer up any alternative to the predicament that we find ourselves in?
We are now faced with the unpalatable truth and reality of infinite growth on a finite planet. We are at an ontological impasse. Climate Change is real, yet the more we seem to know about it, the faster we hurtle towards oblivion and uncertainty. Our retreat into the digital ether and descent into an algorithmically constructed reality is a false dawn. This disjuncture between what is lived and what is theorised reveals the limitations of the predominant Enlightenment thought. For until climate change is felt on the actual bodies of those in the Global North, then it will cease to be a serious policy issue, and by then it may be too late.
Scientists tell us that we are now in the age of the Anthropocene. Yet is it fair to attribute the crimes of some to all of humanity? Since 1850, 50% of the Carbon emitted was by the richest 7% of the population, conversely 7% of Carbon was emitted by 45% of the population. In fact, quite a large proportion of the population do not emit any Carbon at all. In this respect, can the epoch that the Earth is now entering be put solely down to our collective species? It is not a Malthusian matter either. Since 1820 the population has increased by a factor of 6.6, yet over the same period carbon emission increased by a factor of 654.8.
Capitalism is the problem, not people.
Technological utopianism is dead. Shielded from the inner workings of the digital behemoth’s algorithms the election of Trump has shattered the technological determinist dream.
Today the future is Orange and it lives in the White House and we’re all fucked.
Currently we have only 60 years of harvests left if soil degradation continues. Species collapse today is now even greater than when a massive asteroid hit the Earth causing the last ice age. The acidification of the oceans and the rise of glyphosate resistant weeds are issues that will need to be addressed in the near future. On December 23rd last, temperatures in the North Pole reached melting point, 30 degrees hotter than normal.
Inequality is rising. Informal work practices and wealth extraction evident by the so called gig-economy is growing. The proliferation of mobile phones in the manufacturing zones throughout the developing world has resulted in more flexible proletariat, another cost for the disempowered to bear.
As Jason Moore argues, “The contradictions of capitalism have always been escapable, until now, because there were escape hatches: peasantries to be proletarianised, new oil fields to exploit, new forests to convert to cash-crop agriculture”.
Today there is nowhere left to expand to. Climate Change and the exhaustion of the commodity frontiers poses a fundamental and epochal crisis to capitalism which cannot be swept away by the invisible hand of the market.
To think any otherwise is the ultimate post-truth.
Kiernan, Victor. 2015, America From White Settlement to World Hegemony, Zed Books.
Jackson Turner, Frederick. 1920 The Frontier in American History, Dover Publications.
Malm Andreas & Hornborg. Alf 2014 The geology of mankind? A critique of the Anthropocene narrative. The Anthropocene Review 2014.
Moore, Jason 2016. Capitalism in the Web of Life Verso.