Pete Buttigieg is out and about in Silicon Valley raising a large seed-round for the Democratic presidential primary election. As the Guardian reported, the 37 year-old hopeful is perforating deep into wealthy venture capitalist networks to finance his run. With his custom-tailored background that spans a Harvard specialization, consulting experience, army experience, command of 7 languages and no command of concrete political convictions, Buttigieg has become a fixture amongst the young, wealthy and technocratic elite in Silicon Valley.
The venture partners and wealthy entrepreneurs who have opened their checkbooks and Rolodexes for Buttigieg fancy themselves as intrepid world-makers. They have fully internalized our neoclassical economic order and the axiom that is capitalism. Yes, these creative, free-thinking pioneers somehow all converge to the same position — that all sorts of industries require disruption; but the system that governs it all, built on rank privatization, deregulation, and an oligarchic politics, is somehow optimal. No disruption tolerated here. Despite this myopic model of the world, one shaped by their hyper-specializations and a privatized media, they consider themselves to be astute learners out to create the world of tomorrow. A herd of independent minds, very good at remembering the future.
Pete Buttigieg fits right in with this herd, and the term sheets have been signed.
In true Silicon Valley style, a veil of disruption conceals Buttigieg’s stale ideas. On the surface, Buttigieg is fresh — he’s young and gay. He is adept in data-driven leadership for the 21st century. It is between these superficial details and assumptions about his politics that a leap of faith is made. Buttigieg practices the old tabula rasa approach to politics. He likes to produce vacuous soundbites that listeners autotune to their favorite songs, and generate ostensible policy commitments out of thin air. As he has explained, there is not a sufficient focus on “values,” and too much focus on policy.
Now, any entrepreneur who has done the Sand Hill Shuffle to raise venture capital in Silicon Valley will tell you that tabula rasa pitches usually do not go well. You don’t get meetings for nothingness. You don’t get callbacks for meandering and amorphous claims. Yet, Buttigieg is welcomed with open arms amongst those who loathe entrepreneurs that waste their time with vacuity. Unless of course, such vacuity is only public-facing, and concrete promises are being made in these meetings — promises that may revolve around running the country as he did South Bend, Indiana as mayor. As Current Affairs reported on his autobiography Shortest Way Home,
As mayor, he says, he was “tech-oriented.” He was “fresh from a job in management consulting and eager to unlock whatever efficiencies could be found.” He wanted to “follow the data where it leads.” What does that mean? Buttigieg cites “app for pothole detection” and his “smart sewers” that used wi-fi-enabled sensors to more efficiently control wastewater flow. He was even willing to “follow the data” toward layoffs. He found that it would save money to put robotic arms on city garbage trucks and fire human trash collectors. Buttigieg was “prepared to eliminate the jobs,” in part because the robots “led to lower injury rates” (fewer injuries being the predictable consequence of fewer jobs). Buttigieg’s ruthlessly quantitative approach to municipal government leads an acquaintance to compare him to Robert McNamara, which leads to another musing on the folly of well-intentioned planners.
Buttigieg speaks of turning Indiana into a “Silicon Prairie,” filling the “once-moribund Studebaker corridor with data centers and start-ups.” He is giddy about the prospect of using “machine learning,” “big data,” and “artificial intelligence” in city government. Buttigieg talks about changing the town-gown dynamic between Notre Dame and South Bend. Usually when people talk about “town and gown” they refer to a class divide between the professional university and its working-class environs. To Buttigieg, however, it means creating “College Town 2.0,” a situation in which the college would share its talents with the city. He cites examples of Notre Dame students creating a micro-lending nonprofit for the community, and a student group presenting a slideshow on neuroplasticity to a group of recently-released ex-offenders.“This could be the future of what it means to be a college town,” he says.
Alright, so Buttigieg sounds like a bit of a Silicon Valley “growth is everything,” “we can make an app for that” kind of guy. So what? Well, so, I didn’t realize the whole way through Shortest Way Home that South Bend actually has a serious poverty problem! Over ¼ of its residents are poor. It’s not just that Buttigieg is interested in hooking the sewers up to wi-fi. (I’m a “sewer socialist,” I like progressive wastewater management.) It’s that he spends zero time in the book discussing the economic struggles of the residents of his city!
The resume obsessing, Linkedin profile manicuring, career-boosting, self-enriching techno-class in Silicon Valley feels comfortable, even ecstatic about the possibility of a Buttigieg presidency. However, for all his unique credentials, his worldview is mundane. The seven languages he speaks do not open up new modes of thought in his mind. Instead, he holds on tight to the dominant doctrines of neoliberal politics and the “end of history.” His army experience does not make him question endless wars. Instead, it spurs him to propose an unpopular national service program.
His comprehensive Harvard education restricts him from probing deeper into systemic questions about state capitalism. His consulting experience limits his concerns about wealth concentration and it’s corrosive effects on democratic politics. Instead, predictably, he believes an enlightened reconfiguration of the same problematic elements based on data and machine learning by better men and women will somehow spontaneously combust to yield a more just and functional system.
The various tools and techniques of machine learning and big data also operate under state-capitalist logic. They have been harnessed only to accelerate wealth concentration, surveillance, racial profiling and media abuse. Much work has been done on the matter; for instance, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff and Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil.
Examples of a proto-fascist world enabled by these technologies abound. Palantir enables Trump’s racist anti-immigrant policies. Microsoft and Amazon compete for a Pentagon cloud services and computing contract. Google contracts its computer vision software for the imperial drone program that may be used to detect targets.
As Zuboff explains, data is the quantification of human experience. Privately owned, it is exploited by companies for profits, manipulating consumer preferences and exposing people to ravenous corporate and political propaganda campaigns. Under state capitalism, private tyrannies own a public good — data generated by people — for personal gain.
Indeed, this is par for the course. As I have covered in The Free-Market Fraud: Tech Innovation and Alternatives, the basis of our technology economy lies in the state. Subsequent technology transfers to the private sector ensure the privatization of profits and socialization of risks and costs. Public data undergoes a congruent process of exploitation by a few at the expense of the many.
Yet, at the same time, today’s data and computation systems open new answers for old questions about a socialist construction of our economy. The opportunity is ripe to not only oppose these state and corporate structures, but offer an alternate design.
And it begins with data.
Market Signals and Alternatives
Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci coined the phrase ‘hegemonic common sense’ to describe the water we swim in daily, without pondering over the very nature of the water. An example of such hegemonic common sense today is Friedrich Hayek’s neoclassical economics that guides our politics and economy. In broad strokes, the model features price as a container of information that is instantly available for decision-making and commerce. Other information such as reputation also contributes to the daily workings of the market — a hypothesized efficient construct that naturally reveals optimal outcomes based on these signals.
It is a herculean act of will to ignore the shortcomings of this logic in practice. A salesman withholding information, an e-commerce company spreading misinformation with online bot armies (also available for purchase in the market) are examples of how the market allows for, and even encourages new products that undermine the market. The mere existence of a $13B public relations industry (a polite term for propaganda) that dedicates itself to creating “the uninformed consumer making irrational choices,” as described by Noam Chomsky, is enough evidence against Hayekian optimality.
These facts, combined with the emergence of promising technologies open the door for socialists to formulate new modes of operation for the following:
- Discovery: the process by which routine experimentation and development can proceed to find solutions to human problems
- Labor organization and coordination
- Information exchange to facilitate resource, intelligence and labor networks.
Discovery and Development
Today’s profit and rent maximization engines prohibit efficient discovery of problems and corresponding solutions. Capital is only directed to extract short-term profits. Problems that require immediate attention — climate change, healthcare, impoverished research divisions — are neglected and even exacerbated for profits.
With modern information systems and data acquisition, it is conceivable to create public repositories of large datasets extracted from deployed services (remember, it belong to us all anyway). Based on these sets, state and federal project councils can publicly fund and operate periodic communal engineering events.
The goal would be to isolate a few problems and pursue proposed solutions starting at the end of each given event. While algorithm design and software engineering only form one part of the labor, technicians, mechanics, construction engineers, artists and other specialists would also be recruited for the publicly or cooperatively-funded projects.
Example projects may include a live worldwide resource tracker that quantifies all known and potential reserves of various resources on the planet in raw and processed forms. This could include ore, oil, freshwater and so on.
Another system that could be built is a simulator that estimates required resources for a given project at scale. Models are already built for such purposes. Countless open-source projects and Wikipedia also demonstrate the utility of creative and intellectual incentives.
Discovery signals can be enhanced by combining public use of our datasets with ranking systems. For instance, a community can recommend a power system installation to other communities. A recommendation can be made for a biotechnology research team with a proven record on a given project.
Hence, information about performance and reputation can also be distributed efficiently. We already do this today in some forms with restaurant reviews or company ratings on Glassdoor. Hayekian market signals are reconstructed for a socialist mode of discovery by eliminating privatized control of data for the control and gain of a few.
Labor Organization and Coordination
Literature on labor organization and coordination is extensive in socialist theory. Modern technology developments do not shift the salient features of Marxist ideas of surplus value extraction, alienation, and workplace democracy. Indeed, they only bolster the arguments. As I have covered in The Free-Market Fraud: Tech Innovation and Alternatives,
[…]Many products and services can take entirely new forms if society wields them communally. The basic research to enable these technologies is already largely communal, as taxpayer funding amalgamates with labor. However, the ownership of further development is then concentrated into a few hands, which breeds highly distorted and damaging versions of otherwise promising products and technologies. If the engineers, designers, planners, supply-chain managers and other employees collectively owned the outputs of their work through co-operatives, decision-making would reflect that accordingly. According to Democracy at Work Institute, there are two defining features of a worker co-operative:
a. Workers own the business and they participate in its financial success on the basis of their labor contribution to the cooperative.
b. Workers have representation on and vote for the board of directors, adhering to the principle of one worker, one vote.
Worker cooperatives create a significant overlap between stakeholders and shareholders. As decisions are made democratically within the organization, it has been shown in practice that members of the co-op price outputs often at cost. This is because members often purchase the same outputs and do not want to pay high prices, nor do they want their communities to do the same. Contrast this with a few owners and managers physically and mentally removed from local communities — those who control millions of lives under oligarchic control of the means of production and distribution. Hence, price here becomes another democratic signal in the market.
Information Exchange to Facilitate Networks
Given the new modes of discovery, development and labor organization under a socialist economics, an information system that passes the aforementioned signals of price, performance information, reputation and so on would be required. Many of these capabilities, built under neoliberal rules, have already been demonstrated. However, they operate under private tyranny.
Socialists must embrace these new developments in machine learning and AI for they provide the keys to building alternatives to neoclassical modes. Sophistry by uninformed priests like Elon Musk should be countered with new approaches to organize wealth, AI, data and its ownership.
The 77 yr-old is the future, 37 yr-old is the past
Pete Buttigieg’s popularity amongst the Silicon Valley elite telegraphs the simple fact that he will only serve power. Institutionally and intellectually, his analysis and ambitions are tailored to serve Hayekian doctrines, a task for which he is admittedly a consummate professional.
So how do socialists begin to reconstruct? Firstly, by realizing that this work transcends Presidents and that it is a generational project. Reclaiming local communal wealth for municipal and council control furthers the capacity of citizens to establish structures discussed herein.
Nevertheless, federal representation of the underlying principles would go a long way in facilitating this work.
Bernie Sanders is running on a social-democratic platform. While the changes he offers are not directly constructionist, his policy proposals only aid in the effort. Strengthening unions and raising the minimum wage liberates labor from crushing powerlessness and destitution, increasing activation. A single-payer healthcare system removes the disciplinary effect of employer-sponsored healthcare, making it a little easier to do a sit-down strike for other demands — such as greater company ownership, or even data liberation in degrees.
As I have covered in Memo: Why and How to Stop Bernie Sanders, Buttigieg’s constituency is well aware of these disruptive effects. Reconstruction aside, there is a mountain to climb just to implement moderate social-democratic policies in the US. Those who prohibit this progress beyond our destitute and destructive human condition have Harvard specializations with McKinsey experiences, speak seven languages, and have been reduced to amoral automatons by the water that they swim in.
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