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An economy of nothing

Is there anything quite so depressing and deadening as the requirement to be positive and upbeat? Bright-eyed and bushy tailed? Can do? Willing to compromise and find a way “forwards”? How much life do we sacrifice to this small god of keeping things comfortable? To not saying the only thing that really needs to be said?

How much trust does it take to agree with someone that we are fucked? To refuse the “grown-up” level-headed view in favour of allowing ourselves to feel the abyss? To refuse to play the game of allowing proper processes to do their interminable and biased thing?

I have been watching as listening as Google sacks their own diversity researchers. The great liberal Google with its wonderful open culture that cannot deal with any of the above. The great white technology hope that drives the stock markets and flies the American flag around the world. The notion that Google is for the 1%, probably for the 0.1% at the expense of everyone else is too challenging for the poor over-privileged dears.

What might it take to observe practical outcomes becoming fascist? To observe racist bias in technology playing out in the world to further disadvantage the already downtrodden and abused? To think about the messages sent by funding the police federations? Let alone subverting elections.

How many of our day-to-day issues and problems are there because they cannot be talked about in the appropriate forums? That deadening and depressing feeling reflects how our power to act gets sapped. We need to pay attention to those oh-so-unwelcome feelings of being fucked.

“And I speak of spiritual suffering! Of people seeing their talent, their work, their lives wasted. Of good minds submitting to stupid ones. Of strength and courage strangled by envy, greed for power, fear of change. Change is freedom, change is life”

― Ursula K. Le Guin

Boiling frogs

Boiling frogs seems to have become a meme and one with unstable meaning. I want to indicate that the problem with things sliding is that there is no moment when our frog is suddenly cooked rather than pleasantly warm. At what point do we say Brexit was a corrupt mistake from start to finish and needs treating as such? We have had various opportunities to say that what is happening is not what was promised, not what anyone intended, not at all what the pundits predicted. When do we call it cooked?

The dreadful feelings get worse as our delay makes us complicit even if we had no agency. The corrupt politicians and their friends just need time to empty the coffers into their own pockets. Corporate delay is predatory in its very nature.

The stupid economy

If all our best energies are wasted, systematically wasted, what does the official economy consist of? Somehow getting people to do “work” that is against their understandings of how to add value is the only thing that gets counted, while the real work being done is discounted.

We used to have apocryphal stories about the Soviet planned economy. How a factory that made screws and had a target of how many tons they must produce, turned out one gigantic screw that met the target directly. At least those stories had a wry playful element to them, and the stupidity of the party was the point of the story. Now to try and name, like a whistleblower, how all we are making is giant useless screws falls on an abyss of deaf ears.

I watched a video clip of Mike Ryan from the WHO, addressing Trocaire, describing how we are pushing all our systems past their limits, and that future pandemics will make this one look like a picnic. We simply exhaust our support systems (like the soil) in the name of profit. We set a whole world of refugees on the move with changes to climate. And we expect our bodies and our societies to carry on as normal: who thought that could be right?

This is the same story. We account for, give primacy in our accounts to, profit. But the profit we account for comes to have its value evaporate in the face of a reality that it excluded from its understanding of the world. How could it be otherwise? Accounting has always excluded externalities — in the end the externalities overwhelm the supposed central concern. What is the true price of the independent electricity grid in Texas? And don’t say we didn’t know because it was all laid out ten years ago.

The example that is on the turn is oil reserves. Oil is valuable, right? Oil companies make lots of money, right? And they are valued on the stock exchange mostly for the reserves of oil they own. But that oil cannot be burned and therefore cannot all be sold, so the valuation put on the reserves must be wrong. Gradually, slowly but surely, institutional investors are divesting from oil stocks for that reason. Imagine working for a giant corporation that simultaneously tries to develop green credentials and to find new uses for oil: how soul-destroying to know it is all in bad faith and you’re a wrecking the planet to earn a salary.

But McKinsey optimising the amount of opioid addiction in the US or the £22bn contract to track and trace in the UK that will never be useful show what people will do for money that is clearly anti-social and really stupid. It is not that corporations do not know that they are subverting “work”, it is that they insist on accounting that doesn’t capture any of the things that matter.

Google want diversity but the get rid of their existing carefully selected diversity because the diverse people are critical of Google products and culture. That was their purpose, but Google wants the appearance of diversity not the actuality. Which proves that Google are not accounting for the malign effects of not having diversity in the design of AI systems. And they never will because the only people they listen to are senior Google people. QED.

Things that matter

Supposing we looked at any one of these examples and asked ourselves what mattered? It is easier in these blatant cases to say “well that doesn’t matter, and that doesn’t matter — so what does?” We don’t get distracted by the conventional when the conventional is so clearly stupid. Who would hire consultants on over £1K per day and with zero relevant experience to run track and trace? What is the value that an experienced local government person committed to the local population can bring? If we want to measure something then what is it and why? We have always known that the only thing that those sorts of consultants know is how to make themselves appear valuable, and now they can’t even maintain the appearance. Been there.

Why are genuinely expensive useless people not sacked? Well, because it would make some powerful person feel stupid and exposed to criticism. Why does the system not work? Because what matters is not making some powerful idiot feel shame. So, we can’t get away from asking what matters, and what matters to whom. We need to know who the system is for, in that sense, and that takes us back to Google AI and the pretence that for instance a facial recognition system is about recognising faces! It never was and never will be, but the pretence that it is matters hugely. If the police anywhere use a system that is known to result in victimisation of innocent people then the question of why they would want to do that is extremely important. It really, really matters.

Here is Caitlin Johnstone today:

“May what is unseen become seen.

May the hidden dynamics of oligarchy and empire be revealed to all of humanity.

May the depravity of the powerful be exposed before everyone.

May government secrecy end.”

There are powerful people who strut about and there are powerful people who obscure their power. There are people at the top of big corporations who maintain that their power is just business. It is increasingly popular to pretend that power is philanthropy like Bill Gates does. There are unelected political advisors with no morals or scruples at all.

Recently, or so it seems to me, there are interconnected webs of such people forming almost impenetrable walls of power. Like deciding what the people of the world should eat for their own good. Like carving up the vast market for Covid Vaccinations between themselves. These are the modern empires and the modern depravity that Caitlin Johnstone would like to become plain.

The work of starting to make things plain is the subject of this blog. The work of allowing the scales to fall from our eyes. The work of allowing ourselves to see in whose interest things work. Recent research showed that the theory of trickle-down economics, that allowing the rich to enrich themselves would make everyone better off, never worked anywhere at any time. It was always a convenient lie.

The uncomfortable underlying question is whether we are only told convenient lies, whether nothing we are fed as information is any such thing. Classical economics is largely discredited in its theories, but that is not the same as understanding how it came to be wrong and in whose interest that wrongness operated.

Democratic governments are supposed to govern on behalf of their electorates or better, populations. They have found ways to get elected without doing anything for their supposed democratic bases. How could they not, over time when their funding comes from non-democratic lobbying. We get to choose which colour of shyster. Politicians find ways of bending things to keep the show on the road for a raft of contradictory promises.

End games

When people do see clearly that they are being taken for fools, and especially when they organise to demonstrate to others that this is so, then the game tightens. When big corporates are caught red-handed doing sociopathic things to their staff and customers and the environment, they almost always deny, contradict and smear. And since the law does not serve common people well, the only valid response to that is to organise further and to demonstrate more clearly what is going on. That gives a tightening twist to a spiral.

We know about these patterns from guerrilla wars, where global powers have occasionally been humbled. The crass actions of the armies of empire give people little choice but to build resistance. If they are going to be enslaved and massacred then they may as well fight for their lives. The various events of the Arab Spring maybe show the dynamics more clearly: once establishment and empire is actually threatened then the forces of repression are unleashed tenfold, and with much less circumspection. Allies will understand that governments need to defend themselves against their own people.

We might as well have the divine right of kings as the de facto dominance of Facebook. If there is no way to bell the cat, then the mice can only remain prey. We have a public-spirited Real Facebook Oversight Board composed of people who understand the plays that FB make: they have no official standing with FB or with any regulator or indeed with the press. They perform a dramatic service, one that is needed over and over again precisely because we have no recourse.

In the end game there is a strange parity. There is a set of corporate gangsters who are beholden to no-one, and there is a public who can reject them lock stock and barrel. All protection rackets contain the seeds of their own destruction. This is a world explored in The Wire in the rise and fall of drug dealing gangs. When criminality is clear, then it will always be in someone’s interest to break ranks and betray. It takes something beyond naked force to maintain any sort of loyalty.

The pullers of strings will remain in the shadows. It is in no-one’s interest but their own that they do.



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Aidan Ward

Aidan Ward


Smallholder rapidly learning about the way the world works